Monday, July 31, 2006


At 9:10AM in the office today, chaos and pandemonium reigns. The reason? There is no coffee. We've had some false alarms in the past week, staved off at the last moment by the discovery of some grounds tucked away in a corner of the kitchen. Today, though, no such relief comes. Angry mutterings and uncharacteristically violent phrases now waft through the halls. Some people are demanding vengeance, others are focused on finding a solution to the problem, and still others combine the two impulses.

"Go beat up Sheila. Tell Sheila she needs to drive over to Starbucks."

I'm not really a part of this. I don't drink coffee... well, I have drunk it occasionally in the past, but never more than a cup a week, and I haven't had any in over a year. I'm not really opposed to it, but behavior like this makes me somewhat hesitant to start drinking it now.

For a long time I deliberately held off drinking coffee. In high school I had this idea that at college I would need tons of caffeine to stay awake for the inevitable all-nighters. I knew from school that the effect of a drug diminishes as your body becomes accustomed to it, so I wanted to hold back on it for as long as possible so I would get the maximum kick when I finally tapped it.

When I got to college, though, I never did turn to coffee. Massive quantities of Sprite kept me well caffeinated, and were much tastier. I always sort of mentally kept it in reserve, kind of a neutron bomb of energy that I knew was available but hoped I wouldn't need to use.

"We're taking a helicopter to pick up some coffee."

The one time I did use it - wow. I had to drive from St. Louis to Kansas City to tour some apartments after I accepted the Cerner position. To get there in time I needed to leave at 5AM; since this was when I was at college, that meant I had about 3 hours of sleep the night before. Planning ahead, I bought some of those little cold coffee drink things, and chugged one right before getting in the car. One was enough. I drove wide-eyed the five hours on I-70, feeling more awake than I had all week.

Other than that one experience, I largely abstained. At Rainbow Mennonite I would typically take a small styrofoam cup of coffee and a donut during the fellowship time, but that was really more out of a desire to socialize than anything. Not being experienced with hot coffee, it took me several months to realize it wasn't normal for people to burn their tongues so badly, and I learned how to actually sip coffee instead of gulp it down.

These days I'm actually more or less caffeine-free... I rarely drink soda any more either, and while I enjoy it with the odd fast food meal, I don't really miss it that much. Really, this is all just evidence of how boring my life has become, I guess. I no longer stay up super-late doing crazy things with friends, so I go to bed at a normal hour, fall asleep soon, and wake up essentially refreshed and ready to go. I'd gladly turn to coffee if I needed it, but since I don't, I'll just sit here in my cube and smile quietly while the flagellation continues outside.

Sunday, July 30, 2006


The first nickname I ever acquired outside my family was "Bookworm." This was a nickname I loved and embraced; in middle and late elementary school, I don't think anything was as important to me as reading. I was a voracious reader, devouring all sorts of books, fiction and nonfiction; often I would find an author I liked, then plow through as many of his or her books as I could stand before moving on to the next one.

Apparently, I moved on to the young adult genre more quickly than my parents would have preferred. I loved being read to when I was little, but was still pretty young when I saw a production of "The Hobbit" at the Children's Theater and asked my mom to read that to me. I loved it so much that I would read ahead after she was finished. Once I'd tasted fantasy, I didn't really look back, and focused almost exclusively on more "grown-up" books.

My trips to the library were like my mom's trips to the grocery store. I would emerge with two armfuls of books, carefully balanced. Something old and something new; I enjoyed revisiting past successes, but was always on the lookout for the next great book on the horizon.

I didn't buy many books; I did buy Lone Wolf books, which the library didn't carry, and received others as gifts. Sometimes I would buy some paperbacks from Scholastic, the book catalog offered by my school. I did have the fortune, though, to have two strong readers as parents. Everything was just out in the open, on bookshelves located throughout the house. I found plenty of books that I enjoyed and read on my own, like Danny Mole and others; I treated my home as a big browsing library, making my first judgment based on the look of the book itself, secondly by the dust jacket description and the first few pages of the story. I didn't necessarily prefer the books at home to ones I got from the library, but I read through a good portion of them over the years.

There was one particular set of books that I was fascinated by. They were in a white box, with "Charles Williams" written on the side. Each book had an interesting title, like "All Hallow's Eve", and a weird cover, featuring disembodied faces or other oddities. I remember pulling them out and looking at them, but for whatever reason I never started to read them. Maybe they felt too "grown-up" for me, or maybe I was afraid they would give me nightmares. Still, the names stuck with me, along with this vague impression of something sinister or foreboding.

Later on, I learned much more about Charles Williams. Most exciting for me, he was a member of The Inklings, an informal circle of Oxford writers including J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and Dorothy Sayers. What I read about his novels matched my impressions based on the book covers: they were supernatural, unsettling books that generally dealt with intrusions of the spiritual realm into the everyday world. Lewis was a great admirer of his work, and "That Hideous Strength" was strongly influenced by Williams. Tolkien was much less enthused, and felt some jealousy at Williams' presence during their meetings. Williams died in 1945, and afterwards Tolkien (and the others) greatly mourned his passing.

In recent years, I've also learned that I was not alone in thinking that the books were creepy. My mom and dad were both reading them around the time I was born, and both would get incredibly strange or frightening dreams about the books. My mom eventually requested that they stop reading them, and so they did.

Well, after hearing a story like that, how could I resist? The name has been kicking around the back of my mind for a while, and especially after reading The Third Policemen and H. P. Lovecraft, I felt the time was ripe to plunge into some supernatural thrillers. Lacking any better plan, I resolved to read through the books in the order in which they were published, starting with War in Heaven and Many Dimensions.

Super-condensed summary: they are amazing. I'm not sure what genre to put them in; it's sort of a blend of thriller, fantasy, science-fiction, and social comedy. They're not genre works, though, but literature. I'm pretty surprised that they aren't better-known, since it seems like they have so much to offer: exciting stories, vivid imaginings, and top-notch writing. It seems like one of the few authors that could be embraced by both the public and the critics has instead been largely ignored.

Delving into the plot of the books, let's consider these MINOR SPOILERS.

War in Heaven was a good, though shocking, read. Shocking because I had this sort of vague idea that Williams was a Christian, and yet I was reading page after page on demonology, the occult, human sacrifice, possession, and other topics I associate more with Crowly than with Anglicanism. The plot of the book deals with the Holy Graal (Williams is a genius at selecting and using nontraditional spellings), which is discovered in a rural English church and pursued by a number of figures, some of whom have extremely dark ambitions for the cup.

The characters are incredibly well-drawn and realized. The books are short, but you get to know everyone rather quickly and fully, and so are invested in the trials they undertake. Probably the central heroic figure of this book is the vicar of the Graal's church, though when we first meet him he seems destined to be a fully minor character: he doesn't possess great faith, he's a bit of a dissembler, and while quite decent does not seem virtuous. Other protagonists included a wealthy aristocrat and an employee at a publishing firm.

It's the villains, though, who really make an impression. A reclusive retired gentleman gets the most pages; he has built a publishing company on a legacy of occult books, and is incredibly driven to commune with evil and gain satanic powers. He's far from the most powerful, though. A Greek owner of a curiosity shop, seemingly without any affect, despises the world and seeks to annihilate it... and may be close to the means to do so. Perhaps the most interesting figure, though one only peripherally involved with the story, is Sir Giles Tumulty, who aids and abets the others in their pursuits, but shows no interest in benefiting from anything they do.

The plot starts out with a bang, when a murdered body is discovered on the very first page. The reaction to this body initiates the unsettling tone that will persist throughout the book: people are not horrified, or angry, but instead peeved. One person after another remarks at the inconvenience of this corpse and complains about the complications it creates. While funny, it's not precisely comedy; it points towards a disconnect in thoughts and feelings that afflicts most characters in the book.

This sort of sinister light-heartedness permeates the rest of the book as well. It's kind of built-in comic relief, except the fact that people are laughing makes it seem worse. Everyone is wrapped up in their own narrow concerns and are only interested in the benefit or harm to themselves.

In a way, that's what makes the book really work. I mean, it's the Holy Graal: one would think that it would inspire speeches on its legacy and virtuous quests to claim it for the glory of the world. But, no. People want it to perform dark rituals; or to make some money by selling it to wealthy Americans; or to help Catholics score points off Anglicans. You just feel sort of stunned at how narrowly people view and treat this powerful artifact, and that's exactly what Williams intends. The object is greater and larger than the people; it has a purity of purpose that none of them begin to approach.

It's impossible for me to avoid comparing this with Lovecraft, but I'll try to be brief. Right off the bat, I think that Williams is a far superior writer. His language is controlled (and varied!), he shows a mastery over the working of the plot and the revelations to come. Lovecraft's characters feel like mouthpieces or caricatures, while Williams' are fully realized. Lovecraft's work is very self-contained, referencing its own mythos but little without; Williams' work feels more open, fully a part of this world. All that said, there is one important similarity between the two authors: both of them (at least in the few works I've read so far) are extremely interested in secretive, forbidden knowledge and power. Both of them show ordinary humans stumbling on or tapping such power, and not being prepared to handle the consequences. The difference seems to be that, for Lovecraft, such power is entirely negative; there is never any possibility that, if someone knew what would happen, they would have begun their investigations. With Williams, though, such power is primarily dangerous, not necessarily wrong. Evil things can come from it, but so can good. I guess you can think about it like this: In Lovecraft, people seek after hidden powers and then regret it; in Williams, people have hidden powers thrust upon them, and while they're not too happy about it they deal with it.

I'm tempted to describe these books as champions of English virtue, in that the most heroic characters are those who do what is required of them, while wryly commenting on the situation but without making a big production out of it. Dryness and subtlety are far more important here than bravery or compassion.

The second book I read, "Many Dimensions," has many similarities to the first. Both revolve around an artifact (here, the Stone of Suleiman), both feature Sir Giles Tumulty as the instigator of evil actions, both feature largely agnostic protagonists that must deal with forces they do not entirely believe in. That said, my emotional reaction to the second book was very different. Its content felt less offensive: there are no satanists, but instead a loose alliance of unethical scientists and corrupt bureaucrats who stand opposed to the heroes. I also found the protagonists more likeable. Chief among them are the Chief Justice, a high figure in the British legal system, and his secretary, who is the only character in the two books who professes a belief in and sincere love for God.

The trappings of this book were occasionally reminiscent of an Indiana Jones story: you had an ancient Biblical artifact, the secret society of Muslims tasked with guarding it, corrupt adventurers, and midnight assassination attempts. Still, the majority of the action takes place in private offices and embassies. It feels like an odd inversion to have the most curious and explorative character, Sir Giles, be so wicked, and the most boring and home-bound characters be so virtuous. Inversions are good, though... they're what make books interesting.

The Stone is the kind of item that most authors would dismiss out of hand, because it's just too powerful. How do you write about an item that can do anything, include go anywhere, alter the flow of time, stop death and even replicate itself? Such power threatens to make a story unworkable. But Williams makes it work perfectly here by balancing several forces against one another. You have the tension between the reckless users (Sir Giles) and the cautious users (everyone else, including the embassies and the American magnate). You have a tension between those who respect its religious significance (the secretary and the Persians) and those who do not (everyone else). There's a tension between those who want to use it for the good of all, and those who want to minimize its disruption upon the world. All of these conflicts feel like squabbling over nuclear weapons, and it's a bit of a relief that as a result they don't actually use it that often.

I was interested by the portrayal of Muslims in this book, which was generally quite positive; there's one character who does something bad, but for the most part they come off better than their English counterparts. That made me curious whether Williams was progressive for his time in respecting that culture, or if that was the norm half a century ago and our culture has slipped backwards.

There were parts of these books where I thought they would make perfect subjects for a movie adaptation. The stories are so tight, the dialog so great, and the visual spectacle so unique that they seem to beg for treatment on the big screen. At the same time, they're the sort of things that would inevitably feel inferior to the book. Many of the most intense parts of the book are purely internal struggles, as characters wrestle with deciding what to do, and that would be quite difficult to pull off without resorting to a cheesy monologue. I think what remains would still be solid, something Williams neophytes would enjoy while the elect would smugly say, "If you think that's great you should read the book."

I also was reminded of a comment my dad made over a decade ago when I was reading Frank Peretti's Christian thrillers - "Everything Peretti does, Williams did over fifty years ago, and did much better." It's true that both deal with the intrusion of a spiritual aspect onto the everyday world, and that people's faith is tested and probed as they grapple with that incursion. It's odd, though. If I didn't already know that Williams was a Christian (and he was - specifically, an Anglican like Lewis), these books wouldn't have made me think that he was one. These books were written by a Christian, but aren't "Christian novels" by any contemporary definition. At the same time, though, God feels a lot more potent in Williams' novels than in Peretti's. In order to create tension, Peretti must match his angels and demons, and there must be some doubt as to how effective the forces of good can be against powerful evil - they'll win the Last Battle, but how well will they do in this one? Williams gives his evil much freer reign, but the resolution of his books tends to leave no doubt as to who is ultimately in charge. You don't exactly get the idea of a Christian God from the books, but there is a sort of final comfort in a grand universal actor who has overseen and controlled all these events. I dunno, it's hard to describe, but I feel like Williams treats God much more vaguely but also gives him more respect and authority.

Where do I go from here? I'm taking a break now, because I seriously need to buckle down if I'm ever going to get close to finishing Gravity's Rainbow, but I've loved what I've read so far and will be back for more. Williams wrote quite a few more novels before his death and I look forward to reading them. It may also be interesting to try some of his other writings; he was quite prolific, producing criticism, poetry and plays, and hopefully his genius shows in those other works as well.

UPDATE 7/31/06: This is sort of random, but Andrew picked up on my throwaway reference to Lone Wolf, and actually found a great site online that has archived, HTML versions of all the books. It's all 100% legal, and you can check it out at Project Aon, starting with Book 1. For those of you who read/played these before, you might enjoy a walk down memory lane. I only read up through book 12 or so, and would like to see what I missed out on. For those of you who haven't, they're worth checking out as a curious artifact of publishing history; they're about halfway between the Choose Your Own Adventure series (and if you don't know what THOSE are, you probably shouldn't be reading this blog) and pencil-and-paper roleplaying games. You play through a fantasy world by following a CYOA-style decision tree, but you also have health points and skills, need to manage an inventory, and fight through an innovative combat system which doesn't require the use of dice. Basically, it was a way for me to play decent solo RPGs. I get the feeling I've been spoiled over the past 15 years by high-quality computer RPGs, but it'll probably still be a nostalgic trip.

Friday, July 28, 2006

Act Locally

I'm never on top of the latest breaking news, but at least a few of you also didn't know about this yet, so I figured I'd pass it on.

Google has released an updated version of its Google Maps application for mobile phones. If you haven't seen the previous version, you're in for a treat. Google has done a phenomenal job of converting its excellent mapping software to the mobile phone. They got everything right: it's feature-rich with items taken from the web version (including searching, getting driving directions, zooms, satellite imagery), and is well adapted to the constraints of a mobile device (easy and clear step-by-step driving directions, jumping between search results on the small screen). The number of cool use cases is pretty impressive. I open the phone, and it remembers where I was using it last, bringing up the Los Gatos area map. I type in "burger" to search and get back a bunch of results. I find Main Street Burger, and then press the "Call" button and instantly initiate a phone call to them.

I've been geeking out on this application for a while now; the new version adds even more to amaze. The single coolest addition is real-time traffic information. Just press # on your keypad, and your local highways receive another overlay: green for running on time, yellow for running slow, and red for backed up. Even more amazing, this is integrated into the routing algorithm: your driving directions now include up-to-the-minute traffic estimates.

So that's incredibly cool, although it isn't something I'll use that often (seeing as how I rarely drive to work and, when I do, it's almost always a smooth commute). Traffic info has a high wow factor, but I'll get the most mileage out of an improved favorites feature: the previous version had the standard "recent searches", which was nice, but this one lets you bookmark and name common addresses. Then, it's just 1 touch to center on that bookmark. It's not just locations, though: you can also bookmark routes! I could see myself, for example, bookmarking the route from home to SFO, then checking it to see whether I'm better off going up on 280 or 101 on a given day.

Anyhoo, cool stuff. It's available on Sprint and Cingular; if you have a data plan, it's totally free to download and use.

Some inside-the-beltway-commentary: obviously I'm a BREW guy, do or die, but I'll really miss things like this when I switch over to Verizon. The carriers who don't offer this generally have one of two reasons: either their technology doesn't support it (that is, they use BREW phones instead of J2ME), or their network doesn't support it (that is, T-Mobile has awful awful data channels).

The argument about technology not supporting it is a bit facetious, though. Yes, Verizon sells BREW phones, but the reason why is because they want to have total control over the programs run on their phones. This all goes down to the bottom line: Verizon would rather sell 1000 copies of Verizon Navigator for a monthly fee than have 1000000 copies of Google Maps running for free. I shouldn't complain, since that business model supports my salary, but it can feel frustrating to operate in a nickel and dime economy. Sprint takes the broader view, hoping that people will like the free stuff so much that they'll shell out $15 a month for the data plans. (And some people will pay even more for the premium games and applications.) Time will tell which strategy ultimately wins out. Personally, I'd be delighted to see a future world where free J2ME programs run on the BREW platform. The technology is already there to do it; it's a question of courage on Verizon's part, and I think it would be a shrewd move as well. Few people who haven't previously experienced mobile applications will shell out money for them; free high-quality applications like Google Maps are a great way to get people used to using their phones like computers, and once they make that transition, far more of them will convert to data users who want Verizon's BREW content.

And what does Google get out of all this? First off, remember that Google has never been reluctant to offer free services while experimenting with new products and technology. In the long run, it will probably support this through advertising. It'll be interesting to see how that happens - obviously, you won't have as much screen space to support ads as you do in a web browser, but then again this could be a place where Google's text-only ads really shine. I can imagine me typing in "burger", and along with my results having a tiny crawl at the bottom calling out a local burger restaurant I haven't been to yet. It's a brave new world out there.

Download the application by opening your phone's web browser and going to If you'd like, you can take a tour of the application online - keep in mind, the interface is much nicer in the palm of your hand than the end of a mouse.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Week End Notes

Things have been fairly busy at work, which has kept a writeup of my Charles Williams reading languishing for nearly a week. I'll post it once it's done, but figured I'd touch base since it's been a little while.

We're finally coming off the little heat wave that has wrapped up the Bay Area for the past week or so. During this time we have experienced some historic highs. Er, high temperatures, that is. Historic highs have been around for a while. Anyways, San Jose set a new all-time record over the weekend of 104 degrees, beating the previous record of 99 degrees, set all the way back in 1917.

What I think is more amazing, though, is San Francisco. It also set a new temperature record of - drum roll please - 87 degrees! The previous record, also set in 1917, was 84 degrees. That just blows my mind... never before in modern history, even in the hottest days of summer, did San Francisco's temperature ever rise above the low 80s.

(Yeah, yeah... San Francisco is a city filled with microclimates, different parts of the city experience wildly varying temperatures, some parts of the city may have been warmer or chillier. The basic point still stands. This is one cool town.)

I'm not complaining or anything - it could be far worse. Close to home, temperatures in the Central Valley climbed above 110, and some older people died because of the heat. And, of course, the rest of the country has been fighting this for the last few weeks as well.

Fortunately, I missed the worst of the heat, as I was in Chicago for Jeff's wedding during much of the weekend. As it was I still took some steps to cope. As previously noted in this space I turned on the AC for the first time (and was curious whether it would actually work or not). I came to rely on it earlier in this week, and actually slept in the living room on Sunday and Monday night because my wall unit couldn't cool down my bedroom. Fortunately, as of yesterday I am once again AC-free.

I also had to give up riding Monday and Tuesday. It was cool enough in the morning to ride, but would have been pure torture coming home. Normalcy has been restored there as well.

So far we've had six "Spare the Air" days, which offer free rides on transit. It's a great program, and also has spawned some interesting side-effects. For one thing, a lot of people took advantage of free BART trips to go into San Francisco and do shopping and sightseeing. Local merchants and politicians were delighted; regular commuters were not. There were also a lot more teens taking transit, and more fights and thefts. As a result, some people are talking about the feasibility of making all transit in the region free all the time, while others are talking about eliminating free rides altogether. It'll be interesting to see how it all pans out. Personally, I'd love to see more transit, but think at least a nominal fee is important... make it cheaper than driving, but not cheaper than doing nothing. That should keep the crowds down somewhat while still spurring transit as a viable alternative to private vehicles.

This weekend is the Gilroy Garlic Festival and I'm extremely excited about it. I first heard about the festival about a year ago, when I was sitting in a hotel room at the Los Gatos Lodge and preparing for the next day's interview at Rocket Mobile. Since then I've seen a year's worth of cultural and civic festivals, so the GGF doesn't seem quite as unique, but I still am filled with anticipation. The food lineup is just amazing: garlic ice cream, garlic fries, pepper steak, barbecue (including Famous Dave's!), every ethnic variation you can imagine... mmm, my mouth's already watering. Plus tons of merchandise, of course. I'll almost certainly pick up a garlic braid, and who knows? I may be inspired by something.

I've had Steam installed on my computer for... probably over a year now, and I just now finally bought something on it. Specifically, I picked up Jagged Alliance 2, an old old game. I'd thought about getting a Linux version back in the day, and it was old then. It's a pretty fun tactical combat and RPG, sort of like X-COM or Fallout. You assemble a mercenary squad and fight in an eastern European country. I'm just a few missions in but it's pretty fun so far. The mercenaries have fun personalities. Unfortunately, my guys aren't so good at combat, and they're already close to death. I'll need to figure out if I'm doing something wrong and if I should just start over.

Finally saw Dazed and Confused, thanks to Pat. It's a phenomenal movie... really fun, and more importantly, it features what may well be the Best Soundtrack Ever. Although made in the 90s the movie is set in the 70s, which as we all know is when rock achieved perfection. There's a lot I like about it, but a big part is the kaleidescopic affect it achieves: it's "about" high school, but rather than try to define one particular high school experience, it shows the broad diversity of attitudes people have and gives each their own weight. I loved watching the scenes with the three nerds (including a hilarious Adam Goldberg) who pontificate on the deeper meaning of the universe while the football players are out paddling freshmen. Anyways, Linklater is great at giving a wide angle and making it feel real and not contrived - he did the same thing for Slacker and Waking Life. I need to see A Scanner Darkly and am looking forward to Fast Food Nation.

Also saw Do the Right Thing with Pat while at home. Yet another excellent movie. I need to watch more Spike Lee. It's one of those movies that feels so huge that I don't know how to respond to it... admiration? Horror? Delight? In any case, it's good to check another thing off my Essential checklist. Fight the Power!

Thursday, July 20, 2006

Try to get myself, but myself can't figure it out

For most of my life, I talked about cooking only in the context of making a joke. "Yeah, I'm good at doing cereal, but toast is a little too advanced for me." In middle school (or junior high, as it's called in Minnesota), everyone (both boys and girls) were required to take a Home Economics class that, among other things, included several weeks on cooking.

I didn't set myself on fire or anything, and I enjoyed the food I made. The one part I really remember was making souffles, which in retrospect seems a little advanced for 7th graders. Anyways, it was kind of neat, and was sort of interesting too.

Apart from school, my role in the kitchen, if any, was always as an assistant. I would occasionally peel potatoes or wash fruit or otherwise assist my mom, who always carried the bulk of the work. Christmas was the best time, of course, and everyone wanted to be involved in stamping out and frosting her delicious sugar cookies.

I think it was also around junior high that I started on my quest to learn how to make one of my favorite desserts, Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars. If you're reading this blog, odds are close to 100% that you've eaten them at some point. Your reaction to the word will reveal a lot about our relationship. If it's something like, "Those are really good!", you're probably a fairly recent acquaintance. If it's "I was really surprised that they actually tasted fine," we probably met in high school or college. If you have humorous anecdotes about the cookies, you're an old pal from Minnesota.

This is something I wanted really badly to be good at, and it took my a long time to get to that point. I would lose track of how much flour I'd already added and end up with too little or too much; I remember one party where I served the "cookies" in bowls and we ate them with spoons. I would confuse teaspoons with tablespoons and baking soda with baking powder. I would forget to set the timer. Pretty much any problem you can imagine, I encountered. Fortunately, since this was literally the only thing I would bake, I had plenty of practice, and eventually got to be pretty good at it. I no longer need a recipe to make it, and it's always the first thing I bake on moving to a new apartment.

In a weird way, my hard-won skill at making Chocolate Chip Cookie Bars made me feel like I'd earned an exemption from all other cooking duties. I never felt guilty or weird about not being a good cook, or even trying... I knew that I COULD produce edible food, and that was enough for me.

I guess you could divide my culinary life into the following broad categories:
Age 0-18: At home, eating what Mom has prepared. Assemble my own cold lunch for school.
Age 19-21: At college, eating whatever is offered by the various on-campus dining facilities. Supplemented occasionally by restaurants, Pizza Lunch, snacks in the dorm, and unbelievable quantities of Sprite.
Age 22-23: The years of Regular Eating: cereal for breakfast, sandwich for lunch, frozen entrees and packaged sides for dinner. Supplemented by occasional trips to restaurants, Bear's Den or Cerner cafe. Will occasionally fix an entree (such as lasagna) and eat it for a week.
Age 24-Present: Increasing tendency to prepare own food; greater integration of fruits and vegetables into diet. Supplemented by occasional restaurant trips; decreasing consumption of snack foods.

When I graduated from college I received a pair of cookbooks: a Better Homes and Gardens one from my parents, and The Joy of Cooking from my Aunt Fran. Both are fine books. For the first several years, I almost exclusively used the BH&G one - it's very easy to navigate, has simple and clear directions, features color photos (quite helpful to clueless people like me), and contained most of the things I could think of making. If I felt like, say, trying a poached egg, it would be less than a minute until I had started making it.

Since moving to California, I have shifted over almost entirely to the Joy of Cooking, and now use it almost exclusively. It is harder to find things, but that's largely a function of how incredibly dense it is - far more recipes, and a great deal of information on tons of topics that used to feel irrelevant but now matter to me a great deal: how to select produce, how to store different foods, different methods of cooking, and more. I'm now generally forced to study a recipe carefully before starting on it, and often find I don't have all the ingredients it calls for. I've gotten pretty good at figuring out when and what I can substitute, and when to move on to something else.

After my first year in KC, my grocery buying settled into a routine: I would stock up on a lot of raw ingredients (beef, chicken, noodles, rice, etc.) and some prepared foods (soups, Chicken Helper, etc.), then gradually eat my way through the store. I liked having some flexibility in deciding what I'd be eating, and also the freedom to just grab, say, some Clam Chowder and have a meal of that.

Since reading Fast Food Nation, I've started thinking a lot more about what I eat and how I eat. Not just the obvious scary questions of "Will I get mad cow disease if I make my own hamburgers?" As more time passes I think in broader terms... where did this food come from? What will it do to (or for) my body? Who am I supporting with my food dollars?

The way I shop and cook now feels much different from earlier in the year. For the past month I've been going to the local farmer's market once a week; here I stock up on fresh berries, fruits and vegetables, along with bread, fresh fish from Monterey Bay and a breakfast pastry (an homage to my previous Sunday tradition). Outside these broad categories, I don't have any particular plan in mind; I just wander around and see what looks good, making secondary decisions based on the vendor (trading off between cost, organic labeling and personality).

Then, later in the week, I decide what to make. Instead of selecting a dish and seeing if I have the ingredients, I look up an item I picked out from the market and browse through Joy of Cooking until I find something I can make with it. One nice thing about such a big book is that I'm almost guaranteed to find something that meets my time and ingredient constraints; there are things in there that start with instructions like "soak for 12 hours", but plenty more that I can get through in a half-hour or less. Along the way I'll read the two or three pages on the particular vegetable (garlic, squash, peppers), and in the process get a much better idea of what stuff I can do with it, either as part of a dish or to prepare as a side.

(One of the big appeals of farmer's markets is the personal interaction between producer and consumer; people are encouraged to ask questions, find out how to prepare things, what goes well together, and so on. Being extremely introverted, and doubly so in new situations, I don't take advantage of this. I sort of lurk around, scoping out from a distance what's available, then once I make up my mind I pounce, fill up one or more bags and purchase, with a minimum of chatter but a friendly smile. Then I return home and do homework to figure out what I could have learned in less than a minute of conversation. Yeah... I prefer books to people.)

So far, I've been incredibly pleased with the results. One thing that feels great is the variety; because I'm looking from ingredients, I'm looking up dishes I've never heard of before, or wouldn't have thought of making. One of the first I did was extremely simple but also way tasty: a garlic and egg noodle dish, quite flavorful. I've also made pecadillo, chile relleno, and four different fish dishes. Oh, that's another big plus: cooking fish. I've been picking up half a pound, preparing half of it Sunday night and the rest Monday night, which gives me fresh, warm fish both days. Sauteeing is much easier than I thought it would be, and tastes sooo good.

What's kind of funny is, I'm still eating off the food I picked up in my last run to FoodMaxx. I still have about a pound each of beef and chicken, in addition to all the crackers, cereal, and other staples. So even though it has been a long time since I decided to start making changes in the way I eat, I'm still largely feeding off my previous lifestyle. Ah, that's fine though. Anyways, part of what this means is I still have lots of canned fruits and vegetables which I now plan to save for the case of an earthquake instead of eating through normally.

Once I'm ready for another grocery run, I think I'll finally check out Trader Joe's. There's a TJs just a few minutes from my house (by car) that I've been meaning to check out for a while, but I want to go in there in the mood to browse and stock up instead of, say, just grabbing more milk and eggs. Speaking of which, those two items are now things I pick up from Whole Foods, who I will probably also tap for beef and poultry. In some ways it seems like this will be more complicated than before, but probably not by too much... instead of stocking up at FoodMaxx and replenishing at Albertson's, I'll be getting fish and produce from the farmer's market; eggs, milk and cheese from Whole Foods; and everything else from Trader Joe's. (Maybe! Keep in mind that, despite my enthusiasm, I technically have not actually BEEN there yet. Still, everything I've heard about that place encourages me.)

Tuesday, July 18, 2006


It has been about 11 months since I moved to California, and today was the first day I turned on the air conditioning in my apartment. Not too bad, I guess. I felt bad doing it on a day when they are encouraging people to cut back on power consumption, but I figure that since I rode my bike to work today (and on the four previous Space the Air days), I shouldn't feel too guilty.

It isn't horrible here - it's below 90, and not as humid as, say, North Carolina - but I wanted to focus on some stuff and that's easier to do now.

In other news: tonight I baked a chile relleno stuffed with picadillo. This is the proudest I've been all week.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Golden Horde

Civ IV: Warlords has gone gold and will ship a week from now on July 24th. You can check out a preview at IGN.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

From now on, we soar. Like eagles. Yeah. LIKE EAGLES... ON... POGO STICKS.

Back in the day, adventure gaming was more or less synonymous with computer gaming to me. The first games I ever played were text adventures, pulled off an old 5 1/4" floppy with a title like "GREAT ADVENTURES II." These weren't the big-name Infocom adventures, but were of a similar mode. One cast you as a crew member on a submarine immediately prior to a massive explosion; another stranded you on a desert island; another was a James Bond-style adventure set in the frozen tundra. Embarrassingly, I never beat any of them, but I still spent hours playing and falling in love with the vivid words they evoked through their text.

A little later on, I was introduced to the most cutting-edge games of my life, the glorious Sierra adventure games. I started with the original Hero Quest, sort of a hybrid adventure/RPG game, and the first installment in Quest for Glory, the favorite series of my childhood. All of the Sierra games I played were pure gold, though. Space Quest III remains possibly the funniest game I've ever played. King's Quest didn't wow me quite as much, but King's Quest IV was a phenomenal pure adventure game, and KQ III was incredibly satisfying. Later on I played with the earlier Police Quest games (pre-Daryl Gates), which injected a relatively realistic level of grime and tension into the genre. Don't get me wrong, I would play the occasional RPG or action game, but adventure gaming was my first love and I was a loyal customer to Sierra.

Meanwhile, in a parallel universe, there was another company called Lucas Arts. I had minimal contact with them, confined only to the NES version of Maniac Mansion and occasional shoulder-surfing of Justin playing Monkey Island. Both Sierra and Lucas Arts basically had a core engine that they built different games around, and which evolved over time. One major difference was that it was almost impossible to die in Lucas Arts games, while death was omnipresent in Sierra's games, which proudly bore the motto "Save Early and Save Often." Lucas Arts also entirely sidestepped the typing phase, which I have mixed feelings about. I love the early Sierra games (pre-KQV) which allow you to move the character with the arrow keys and enter commands by typing; it was a nice bridge between my classic text adventures and the new world of graphic gaming. The advantage of the textual interface is that it allows a lot more creativity, more easter eggs and more humor - you're basically sparring with the text parser, which becomes a kind of intermediate narrator in the story you create. The downside of the text interface is that it can become a game of "Guess What The Programmer Was Thinking" or "Find The Exact Right Word" - you can't say "end table" or "table", you need to say "nightstand" for the game to understand what you mean. This led to endless frustration that, in the days before the Web, could mean being permanently stuck on a new $50 game.

Even the earliest Lucas Arts games had a very different interface. Near the bottom of the screen was a list of all the valid verbs you could use - "Talk", "Take", "Use", and so on. You would move your cursor over a verb, then click on the object, and - poof! - instant interaction. It was a very different flavor than the Sierra games, one I didn't care for as much because of my background, but for people first introduced to Lucas Arts games, old Sierra games seemed like pointless exercises in masochism.

At some point Sierra went off the rails. You can point to a lot of moments as where it all started to go wrong: the abandoning of the text interface (KQ5), the adoption of a Myst-inspired "there's only one type of cursor" (KQ7), trying to imitate Hollywood (KQ7 again and Phantasmagoria), Ken and Roberta selling the company to Cendant, Ken and Roberta leaving the company. Regardless, most people seem to agree that the company was still great in the early 90's and almost totally irrelevant as a developer by the end of the century.

At this point I declared the adventure game dead, mourned, and moved on with an increasing focus on RPGs. But my skewed, Sierra-centric version of history didn't fully appreciate that Lucas Arts had continued to thrive after Sierra had begun to decline. Today the company has pretty thoroughly transformed itself into a creator of Star Wars action games, but for a lonely time they carried the banner of the graphical adventure in proud solitude.

I periodically dipped back into their repertoire when I got the chance. Escape from Monkey Island (TM) was one of my first games for the PS2, and while not one of my favorite adventure games it is still of high quality, marrying a delightfully absurdist sensibility to reasonable puzzles.

Tangent: adventure games live or die on the strength of their puzzles. Almost every other game can be played or replayed on a sliding scale of difficulty: your level of talent determines how often you beat your opponent in Quake, how high a score you get in Civilization, how many side quests you complete in an RPG. More than any other genre, though, adventure games have a very binary structure: either you solve the puzzle, or you don't. If you do, you get some more story and gameplay; if not, that's it. You just can't go any further or see any more of the game. Contrast this with, say, a FPS, where even if you can't get past one particular section you can still replay earlier parts of the game, have some fun at it, increase your skills and your stats, and later be able to tackle that section again. In an adventure game, if you can't figure out how to open up the locked door, you're just stuck.

The best adventure games provide wonderful puzzles. In my opinion, the ideal adventure puzzle has the following characteristics:
1. Unique. One nice thing about adventure games is they are the least repetitive type of game; each puzzle should have its own solution.
2. Integrated with the story. I hate games where you play for a while, then suddenly need to open a treasure chest by putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Puzzles should arise organically from the game's plot ("How do I get past the security guard without being recognized?") rather than simply added to make things more difficult.
3. Be logical. The absolute worst kinds of puzzles are the ones where you have no way of knowing in advance that a solution will work. "Oh, so I had to put the toothpaste on the chandelier so a mouse would come and chew it down? Huh." Poor design forces the gamer to try every possible combination of actions and items to find the one magic solution that will work, which inflates the length of the game without providing any more pleasure. By contrast, a logical puzzle will allow the player to think, arrive at the proper solution, and then use it.
4. Have help available. This is difficult to do well, but the ideal puzzle will be solvable on its own, and have extra guidance available if you need it. Perhaps a character in the game will offer suggestions, or carefully examining other items in the room will provide clues for what needs to be done. This sort of help provides a nice solution between just knowing the answer and looking for it online.

Puzzles make or break the game, but each game is distinguished by its tone, setting, and story. Even though Space Quest, King's Quest and Police Quest used the exact same engine, each series felt very different because Sierra was so successful at creating an atmosphere in the game. The games weren't just a series of puzzles; they were puzzles that existed in an alternate world, one you would come to know quite well over the hours you spent in the game.

While Sierra was successful in this, in retrospect, their settings are very derivative and genre-based. King's Quest is a typical generic fantasy setting, Space Quest offers a sci-fi environment with a heavy debt to Hitchhiker's Guide, Police Quest is a standard police procedural cum revenge story, Gabriel Knight is gothic horror. Their creativity comes in the way the designers subvert the genre, such as having a female protagonist in King's Quest IV or the self-referential story of Space Quest. Still, the formula is basically the same: take a setting that the player is already familiar with, then tweak it.

I think this is what impresses me most about Grim Fandango: its utter originality. I cannot think of a single other game with a setting remotely like the one it has, nor a movie or book. There are some pastiches of elements that may be familiar, but the broad impression is totally and delightfully strange. This isn't to say that it's inaccessible; after several hours of gameplay, this bizarre world felt more real to me than the more familiar settings of Daventry.

And the puzzles? Those are rock solid as well. There were exactly two times over the course of the game when I needed to look online for guidance; one of those turned out to be a bug caused by Windows XP with a relatively simple solution. They were still challenging - it wasn't unusual for me to spend over ten minutes trying to figure out a particular encounter - but much of the game was structured in such a way that I could pursue something else if one particular avenue was giving me trouble.

The overall structure of the puzzles surprised me, in a good way. I guess I'm used to each game having its own types of puzzles. Sierra and early Lucas Arts games tend to focus a lot on inventory, getting the right items and figuring out where and how to use them. Myst features mechanical puzzles where you interact with your environment. School Simulator 1000 requires you to accomplish tasks in a particular order to succeed. Anyways, what's different about Grim Fandango is it really switches up the presentation of the puzzles, which in turn provides very different gameplay experiences. In the first major section of the game, you have a handful of locations and a lot of potential inventory items. In the third major section, you have almost no inventory at all; the puzzles there depend more on careful observation and reaction than on figuring out what to use where. This kept things feeling fresh throughout the game, and probably helps ensure each player will have opportunities to excel and be challenged.

I tend to not be a fan of voice acting in adventure games; if you're lucky the leads are decent, but the bulk of characters tend to be annoyingly voiced and/or feature bad accents. Here, I was regularly impressed by the talent they had on display. What helped wow me, though, were the characters themselves. There are about five major characters and several dozen minor ones, each of whom evolves over time, presents a unique attitude and set of goals, and who interact in remarkably dramatic ways. I tend to only remember a few remarkable characters from an adventure game (the hermit in Hero Quest, the wizard in King's Quest III, the witch in King's Quest IV, etc.), but the ones here were so vivid that even the minor ones are still sticking with me over a week later.

Bottom line: it's been a long time since my last adventure game, but I think this is easily one of the best I've ever played. It holds up remarkably well for its age, and should be valued both for its incredible originality and the strength of its gameplay. It may not make a believer out of you if you didn't already enjoy adventure games, but even hostile players may get a kick out of the fascinating world it presents.

One final note on the status of the genre. There are occasional gasps out of the adventure game - I've heard rumors of a new "Sam and Max" game coming - but for the most part these only serve to bury the hopes of a recovery. (See: the new Leisure Suit Larry "game".) There is still good work being done, mainly on two fronts.

The first front is the fan community. A surprisingly large number of devoted enthusiasts are actually writing games to replace those the companies are no longer releasing. Often they are unauthorized sequels to beloved franchises, like Space Quest and King's Quest, that failed to satisfy before they went away. Others are breaking free and starting new worlds from scratch. While these games lack some professional polish, they look at least as good as the classic adventure games did, thanks to the better tools people have today to program with. On the opposite extreme, even in the 21st century, many people are still writing new text adventures (now generally referred to as "Interactive Fiction"). Some of these are incredibly good, and provide an encouraging indication of the literacy of the gamer community.

The second front is the mainstream development community. While the adventure game as a genre is all but gone, elements from the genre have found purchase elsewhere and continue to thrive. Many games now offer a hybrid: Action/Adventure (like Onimusha or Prince of Persia), RPG/Adventure, Stealth/Adventure (Metal Gear), and so on. This tends to translate as a genre game that contains puzzles; in Onimusha, you'll fight a bunch of demons to enter a room, then need to figure out a mechanical puzzle to get back out. I'm still somewhat divided on what to make of these: sometimes it's a good way to deepen the experience and provide a change of pace in gameplay, other times this element just becomes a frustrating chore to get through before you can jump back into the real game. Ultimately I think it goes back to the strength of the puzzles: if they follow my four principles above, they enhance the game; otherwise, they're just a way of artificially extending the length of the game without providing more entertainment.

I want to talk about this game some more. Let's go into some

The game starts several decades after you die. Your character, Manuel "Manny" Calavera, is a travel agent in the Land of the Dead. He reaps souls, then sells them travel packages to cross the Land of the Dead. Good clients are eligible for a ticket on the Number Nine Express, a train which shoots them across in no time; bad clients need to make do with freight shipment in a coffin, or walking. But Manny hasn't had any good clients lately.

Every day of the game is El Dia de Los Muertos, and the visual design of the game borrows liberally from this Mexican influence. I think it's amazing that almost all the characters in the games are skeletons, and at the same time are so incredibly different; you know in an instant whether you are looking at Manny or Domino or Hector or Meche. Men have blocky cylindrical skulls while women have petite globes, and each character's holes in their skulls not only differentiates them, but also convey some of their personality. Domino's markings seem to communicate his utter self-confidence, while Manny's hint at a more complex mind.

Beyond character design, all of the architecture seems influenced by Mayan and Aztec heritage, but carried forward into the modern age. Large skyscrapers carry friezes of classic Aztec tableaus, a cat-racing stadium is shaped like a pyramid, and the color scheme everywhere is a desert mixture of browns, yellows and grays, shot through in the cities by festive splashes of bright primary colors. The neon you see near the end of the game is an anomaly, and correctly sends an impression of corruption.

The world operates with a fully-constructed mythology, about souls being judged for their conduct in life, each on a short or long journey to the far end of the Land of the Dead. A few details are vague (I'm still not clear on how the dead "buy" their travel packages), but the game deserves kudos for laying out the system, and then sharing in your outrage when the system doesn't work right.

Oh, and while I'm thinking about it, I LOVE the "land of the living." I'm a bit upset that we don't get to see more of it; it's so wholly alien from everything else in the game that I would have really enjoyed more than one opportunity to poke around in there.

The characters, like I said above, are excellent. I think that Domino is one of the most interesting adversaries I've ever come up against in a game. He's basically your business rival, which isn't something you see much of at all in any type of video game, but the combination of jealousy and distaste he conjures feel far more familiar to me than most villains' psychoses or violence.

I stand by my statement that no other work of media is similar to this, but if I had to pick one thing that FELT most like this, I would have to go with Casablanca. This is particularly evident in the second year, which contains some deliberate homages, but the arc of the game as a whole fits as well. Both convey the sense of observers in a foreign land, both have complex non-romances at their core, both praise friendship and feature villains who are a core of society rather than an external threat. The north African city of Casablanca looks quite different from the quasi Mexico of Grim Fandango, but neither are really intended to be permanent homes; both are filled with tourists and adventurers, people running away or running towards their desires, caught up with others like themselves. I dig it.

The language is excellent as well. I don't know whether I can describe the dialog as spanglish; it certainly features a mixture of English and Spanish, most of it with a Mexican accent, but the bulk of the words are English and even where they aren't you can pick up the meaning from the context. Again, it just adds to the atmosphere and the uniqueness of the game.


The best and most interesting games have multiple villains; can you imagine Final Fantasy VI if Kefka was the only villain, fully visible from the start? Grim Fandango sort of has one ultimate villain that you confront at the end of the game, in the form of Hector, but it also has a fantastic side-villain (Domino) and some good pseudo-villains (Nick the lawyer, Chief Bogen).

Domino is just fantastic. I really enjoy how you come into the game already having this complex relationship with him, and as indignity piles on indignity he gradually evolves from annoying co-worker to evil overlord. That's the great thing, though: if he, say, tossed YOU in the cell, it would just be a classic villain situation. By making you his employee, the anger and tension boil up even further; it's way more distasteful to think that you work for him than that he stuck you in a dungeon. I love his whole attitude, too... the whole "way to go, champ" dry sarcasm mixed with team-spirit, organizationally focused mindset are worlds apart from the megalomania and insanity that you see in most game villains.

Hector is more traditional in this respect - he is motivated by greed, and is traditionally callous about killing people who displease him - but he does everything with so much style that I don't really mind. I appreciated the unconventional way you kill him, too. Poetic justice is always the best.

The love story worked for me, which was surprising; I generally don't get much out of game romances. Again, I think the fact that it was a non-romance helps... since the game didn't really push it on you, you can get used to the idea before it actually blossoms into anything.

I would have liked to have learned more about Manny... he seems like a good guy, so I'm curious why he was stuck in his position. Still, none of the characters really talk much about their time among the living (with a few exceptions: the florist, and Meche's interview), so it may have seemed out of place. Still. It'll never happen, but it would be fun to play a prequel that covers Manny's experiences, from immediately after death until his appointment as a reaper.

Whoa, have I really gotten this far in the post without talking about Glottis? He's awesome. Lucas Arts has always been great at comic relief, and he had it in spades. Just an incredibly funny guy, and it's neat to see yourself get attached to him over time. Towards the end of the game, I actually started to feel a little guilty at all the ways I abused him.

That's all I can think about for now. Just a really solid game. The quality of adventure games had been declining for a while; it's nice to see there was a game out there that reversed the trend with something original and well-built.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Just 'Cuz You Feel It Doesn't Mean It's There

Yesterday I heard a good interview with Thom Yorke on Fresh Air. It's aimed more at Radiohead neophytes than fans, but is still well-done. They cover topics like Thom's depression, the musical history of the band, their influences and their increasing use of electronic music. The interview runs about 40 minutes.