Monday, December 31, 2007

Meet the New Egg, Same as the Old Egg

For a long time I've been claiming that I wouldn't upgrade my PC until Spore came out. When I made that claim, though I was thinking it would be coming out in early 2006. I've managed to keep going for a surprisingly long time, in large part because I rarely use my PC for gaming, and even an old machine is perfectly adequate for the surfing and Linux administration I generally do. In the last few months, though, I've been increasingly working on more challenging development projects at home, and as a result I've decided it's time for a face list. Eclipse is a phenomenal IDE, but it is becoming clear that its developers have more powerful machines than I do. It still runs fine, but I've had to endure patient waits for all its time-consuming global searches, refactoring, and similar operations.

This being the end of the year and all, I decided it was time to bite the bullet and do the upgrade. In this case, "upgrade" really means "build a whole new computer". I knew this at the time of my last revision - my current setup is stretched about as far as I can go with the previous generation of technology, using IDE hard drives, AGP video cards, DDR ram, etc. Everything but the case would need to be replaced, and as long as I was changing the guts, it only seemed fair to give it a face lift as well.

It didn't take too much deliberation for me to decide to build another system. It's fun, keeps me in practice, forces me to become intimately familiar with consumer technologies, and provides a relatively smooth upgrade path for the next generation. I had a few tempting alternatives. I've seriously considered buying a Mac for about a year now; OS X looks like a great operating system, and I've been impressed by what I've seen of the internals of my iPhone. I also liked the idea of getting a high-performance, ultra-compact laptop. In the end, I found it impossible to justify either alternative. Macs are great, but pricey and hard to upgrade, plus as cool as they are, they don't offer me anything I can't have on Linux and Windows (excepting xcode). The laptops look really sweet, but there too, I couldn't justify the price premium. I have a solid laptop workstation from the office, and my iPhone is more compact than any laptop... I didn't see myself doing development on a tiny keyboard, so why bother?

I next embarked on a remedial reeducation course. I've been out of the hardware game for a long time now - I remember when Andrew was making his computer, and I hadn't even heard of PCI-e slots (in my defense, this was several years ago). I compared the current generation of processors, the competing RAM standards, hard drive manufacturers, and so on. At each point, I was making a value-for-money analysis as well. This tends to be most obvious when looking at video cards, where a top of the line will set you back some $700, while a solid choice can be had for around $200. I tended to shoot for mid-range options - I'm not willing to pay twice the cost to win a 10% performance increase, and would rather keep that money for an upgrade a year or two down the line when prices have dropped further. I'm convinced that buying a PC at the top of the tech curve is a game for suckers and the obscenely wealthy.

I was pleased to discover that my old stand-bys for hardware info, namely Tom's Hardware and Ars Technica, seem to both still be healthy and thriving. And, of course, there are the phenomenal user reviews at NewEgg. I am a strong believer in the wisdom of crowds, and would always at least check NewEgg even if I wasn't going to buy from them. Between these three sources, I felt able to suss out both the general categories I wanted to shoot for (DDR2 vs DDR3, PCI-E 1 vs PCI-E 2, etc.), along with specific makes and models that people have had success with.

After making my selections, I hunted around online to find the best prices. I was stunned to discover that, here as well, NewEgg remains on top of the heap. I had a hard time even finding some items elsewhere, and when it was, the prices would not be better than what NewEgg had. This was even true after considering that I now have to pay sales tax on NewEgg purchases - something I never needed to worry about in Kansas City. The one exception was my case, which after paying for tax and $15.99 shipping was about two dollars more expensive than it would be at Fry's, but in the end I slapped that into the order as well. Hey, I'm not sure if Fry's even carries it now.

Here's a quick rundown on what I ended up selecting, along with my rationale.


Previously: AMD Athlon 2200+
New: Intel Core 2 Duo E6750 (2.66 GHz)
Rationale: I've been a partisan AMD user since the late 90's, so this was a painful decision for me to make - I don't particularly like the way Intel does business, am suspicious of their ties with the software industry, and have a tendency to root for the underdog. If I'd held off for another six months I probably could have gone with AMD's upcoming quad core solution, but for today's technology, AMD doesn't have anything to match the Core 2 Duo. Its performance is excellent, plus it runs cooler and uses less power than the equivalent AMD chips. On the other end, a year ago I would have been tempted to stick with a 32 bit architecture - you can get phenomenal prices if you can find the chips - but 64 is the way of the future, even if a lot of software currently performs worse on it. As a developer, I need to be able to write native 64-bit apps, so that choice was easy to make. Finally, the rated speed here just seems like a sweet spot. 3.0 GHz chips are available, but cost notably more. I can park on this for a year or two, then switch to a quad core when they come down in price.


Previously: 768 MB DDR Ram
New: 4 GB DDR2 800 Ram
Rationale: DDR3 is the way of the future, but based on all the reports I can see, current versions actually under-perform DDR2. Specifically, bandwidth increases, but latency increases as well. Down the line they will eventually win, but in the current generation only 1600-speed DDR3 beats the performance of DDR2, and that RAM is DARN expensive, as are boards that can take it. The only affordable DDR3 is 1066 or lower, which, again, is worse than the corresponding DDR2. So I went with DDR2. My board (see below) can take up to 1066-speed RAM, but there aren't many offerings at that level, so I opted to go with the 800 instead. I was going to get 2GB, but NewEgg had a phenomenal price on a 4GB pack, so I went with that. Between my desired OS and the fact I'll be doing development on it, I'm sure I'll never be able to have too much ram. (Incidentally, the fact that I'm using this much RAM also means that, for the first time in my life, I NEED a 64-bit processor.)


Previously: Asus something-or-other.
New: Gigabyte GA-P35-DS3L 775
Rationale: This was another tough choice between brand loyalty and performance. I've been using Asus ever since I started building computers, and have never once regretted it. Their boards are stable, feature-rich, and best of all, they have excellent manuals. Still, I couldn't find an Asus that matched the features I wanted. The most advanced boards have DDR3, which I'm not interested in, and the older boards had too slow a FSB speed. A handful looked promising except for disappointing reviews on NewEgg - I hope Asus isn't slipping. I haven't used Gigabyte before, but this particular model was well-reviewed and met all my needs.

Hard Drive

Current: Seagate 120GB.
New: Western Digital Caviar SE16 750 GB 7200 RPM SATA 3.0 GB/s transfer
Rationale: Back in the day, Seagate was the only sufficiently quiet hard drive for me. WD was really clackety, and IBM (yes, they used to make hard drives!) were whiny. That seems to have changed, and WD now are rated about as quiet as the Seagates. I'm tempted by some of the ultra-fast drives - you can now get 10k or 15k RPMs - and my first upgrade may be a small, fast drive to load my OS on. That wasn't feasible for an out-of-the-box system setup, though, so I opted for a solid midline performer. I vacillated between the 500GB and the 750GB, but the price was good enough that I went for the larger drive. It's far more space than I can use, but it also will allow me to relieve stress on my 300GB drive in my media PC, which has been bumping against the limit for several months now.

Video Card

Current: PNY GeForce 6600 AGP 8x.
New: MSI GeForce 8600 GT 256MB RAM 128 bit PCI-E.
This is the one component where I went super-cheap. I was tempted by the 8800's, which can be had for around $200-$250 and offer snappy performance. This is a budget card in comparison, but I have a hard time justifying spending any significant cash here when I have a lot of PS2 games that I haven't played yet. And, with a possible PS3 purchase ahead for me in 2008, it's just dumb to dump a lot into the card. This will still be a notable update of my current card, which in turn is the newest component in my PC - I picked it up specifically for Civilization IV over two years ago. Anyways, this card will be fine, it should let me play the games I've been wanting - Oblivion and HalfLife 2 - and, if need be, I can have this be my upgrade when Spore comes out.

Optical Drive

Current: DVD-ROM and CD RW
New: DVD+R
Rationale: Wow, I've been carrying around that DVD drive for about a decade now. It's never failed me. The CD drive has served me nearly as long. I don't burn discs, but it makes sense to move up to a DVD burner, just in case. The Samsung is well-reviewed, plus this way I can collapse both features into a single drive.

Network Adapter

Current: Netgear WG111 wireless + integrated 10/100 Ethernet
New: Netgear WG311 wireless + integrated gigabit Ethernet
Rationale: Gigabit ethernet is just stock with motherboards these days, and for my humble home network it doesn't make any difference, especially since this particular computer is not even plugged in. I love the form factor of my current WG111, but its Linux support is only middling... I had to wrestle with ndiswrapper for a while to make it work at all, and it still periodically poops out on me, requiring me to physically unplug it and put it back in. The WG311, by contrast, takes up a whole PCI slot, but it sounds like its Linux support is better, and it may have a better range.


Curent: Antec something-from-the-stone-age
New: Antec Solo
Rationale: Are you familiar with the idea of "Grandfather's axe"? "This is my grandfather's axe. Its head has been replaced two times, and the handle three times, but it's still my grandfather's axe." That's sort of the way I feel about "Aule," my current computer. Literally every component inside it has changed since I first built it in 2001: new motherboard, new CPU, new RAM, new video card, etc., etc. The one constant through all that has been the case. It's been a fine case, but it's an ugly beige, and the USB ports are hard to get to, so I've decided to make a switch. I love the Antec brand, so I wanted to stick with it. I'm not a LAN gamer, so I don't need a lightweight aluminum case. I'm not much of a gamer, period, so I didn't particularly want a flashy case. This won't be a server, so I wanted to go with a mid-tower instead of the much bulkier full tower. With all those requirements in mind, the Solo offered the most reasonable price and had good reviews.

Power Supply

Current: Some non-brand 350W
New: Thermaltake Purepower 500W

Rationale: The power supply is the noisiest component in my current system, so I knew I wanted to replace it. The "silent" power supplies are all really expensive, though, so I reluctantly compromised on a quiet supply instead. 500W is probably overkill, especially with my video card and single hard drive. Still, better safe than sorry.

Not Upgraded

Logitech Optical Mouse and IBM Keyboard
Rationale: If it ain't broke... I've been happy with both components, and there really isn't much innovation in either field. Both are very simple without extra features, just the way I like them. As an aside, I think the optical mouse was probably the best investment I ever made. I bought it after two consecutive Logitech MouseMan mice died in the space of about six months. This one has now been with me for eight years with nary a complaint.

Operating System

Current: Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and Microsoft Windows XP
New: Ubuntu Gutsy Gibbon and Microsoft Windows Vista Premium

Rationale: I love Ubuntu, so that was a no-brainer. I hope I'll be able to boot into it more often now - the aforementioned network problems I had were annoying and made me turn to XP more often. The XP-versus-Vista is one of the great debates of 2007, and my selection proves that what's good for the goose is not, in fact, good for the gander. I've recommended to everyone who's asked to stick with Windows XP. XP has better driver support, runs faster, and has fewer networking problems and more supported software. So why go with Vista? Mainly because I'm a masochist. I want to see for myself just how bad it gets. Also, though, Vista is long-term going to take over, and I figure I'd better get used to it sooner rather than later. I'm not a Windows developer, but if I need to use a new Visual Studio in the future I'll probably be wishing I was in Vista. Now, if I had to pay full price for these I'd probably still have stuck with XP for now, but NewEgg sells system builder (nee OEM) versions of Vista at a substantial discount. You can upgrade to a higher version of Windows after you install it through Microsoft's upgrade tool, so I didn't feel compelled to hit Ultimate out of the gate. Since I was getting Vista anyways, it would have seemed pointless if I didn't have Aero, so I opted for Premium.

Summary: About $960 total, including Vista but exclusive of tax and shipping.

And that's that! All components have been ordered, and I'm hopeful that they will get here before the weekend. I'm looking forward to putting this puppy together. It never goes smoothly, of course - this is the story of my life. Still, if all goes well, I'll be able to spend the next week migrating data over and reinstalling, and may get in a few levels of HalfLife 2 before I get back to work in Eclipse. 2008, here I come!

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Hey, Hey, Human Sucker

I enjoy anime, but usually am reluctant to say so. This isn't because of people who dislike anime - I'm very used to enjoying unusual things, and actually take a sort of perverse pride in finding something that most people don't like. No, my reluctance comes from my knowledge of how little I know about the genre, a neurotic kind of shame that when my tastes are lined up against those of the true anime connoisseur, they will be found lacking.

I guess you could call me a codependent anime fan. I have friends who are much more into anime than I am, and so I can use them as a kind of screening team... they watch all the mediocre shows for me so that I don't have to. After enough people enthusiastically recommend a particular series to me, I'll take the plunge, and I am invariably pleased with what I find. This means that I have an inflated view of the quality of anime, since I only watch the best. It also means that I have a limited view, and will never be the first person to watch something. (*)

Whenever I meet a new anime fan, and admit to being the same, one of the perks is catching up with their favorite genre shows. Justin is a fan of shoujo anime, so a lot of the shows I saw from him have very bright colors, upbeat songs, and silly, humorous plots. Kate's tastes run more towards adventure, so through her I got to learn more about the darker, more violent animes. And so on.

All that to say, I've now gotten to watch a whole new series, and wow, is it ever good. Levon has been infecting the office with a passion for Death Note, an extremely new series that ran this year. (I'm used to at least a five-year gap before watching a good anime series.) Death Note is a far cry from the first anime I watched, but it is fully enjoyable.

So what is Death Note? Before getting into spoilers, I'd describe it as a psychological horror series. There is very little gore and virtually no fighting, but there is a deep and sinister sense of violence that permeates almost every minute of the show. It contains elements of other genres, including fantasy, mystery, and even school comedies and romance, but all of these are steadily consumed into the bleak yet compelling force that drives the action.

Who will like this? Any anime fan who isn't turned off by violence will probably enjoy it. People who enjoy smart horror movies (think more "Silence of the Lambs" than slasher) will also appreciate it... the series does adhere to some standard anime tropes, but fewer than most such shows, so it should be watchable even by those who usually don't enjoy anime. (Some of the remaining tropes are done so well that I think it'll make watching other shows more difficult... for example, the "put one character in a static frame for several seconds while they prepare to take an action" tendency is here, but I never once found myself thinking, "Come ON, just do it already!")

What's so good about it? It is an incredibly intelligent series, tightly plotted and dense with story, but it does not have the Lain-esque tendency to make you feel dumb. It is also a beautifully designed show. Most of it looks hand-drawn, with a fine attention to detail and gorgeous backgrounds; the cityscape in particular is very compelling. There are a few computer-animated sequences, most notably vehicle shots, and these are very cool - there's a neat effect where a car will blur and stretch as it speeds up, sort of like the Enterprise before it enters warp speed. More than anything, though, it is a surprising show. Hopefully I am not giving much away by just saying that, but I received the same information before I started, and I was still unprepared for the twists the story took. The show inverts archetypes and storytelling conventions, making everything that happens feel fresh and new.

There is also a real moral ambiguity that runs through the show. This is far more common in Japanese fiction than American, but even for that, this show is unusually unclear about its message. You can sit back and enjoy the show, but the more you think about the action taking place and its implications, the more disturbing it can become. The effect is not unlike what I often feel watching the new Battlestar Galactica. As I've mentioned before, that show puts me in the uncomfortable position of making me feel sympathetic towards a fascist point of view in a fictional world that is opposite of the liberal perspective I take in real life.

Okay, that was all pretty spoiler-free, right? Now for the meat. The next section should be safe to read if you're a few episodes in and don't mind hearing about characters and events you haven't encountered yet, though I'll try to be vague about those. The mega spoiler section should only be read after you've finished the series. Got it? Okay, now let's start the


My favorite character is Light. In any other series it would be Ryuuzaki - I love his eccentricity, piercing intelligence, vulnerability in the real world. But Light is so unusual and complex and compelling that he seizes first place. (As you know he would want to do.) Even though Light's physical posturing is always reserved and mild-mannered, while Ryuuzaki's is attention-grabbing, Light dominates any scene he is in. He comes across as a charismatic psychopath, but one that I can't help cheering for.

My favorite scene contains almost no action at all - just Light and a woman walking down a sidewalk together. And yet, the drama and tension caused by this conversation were so intense that I could feel my heart beating. The show maneuvers you into an ecstatic and probably unhealthy emotional place, so that by the conclusion of the scene, I wanted to cheer and felt ashamed at myself for it. Not coincidentally, this scene also embodies everything I find compelling about Light: his intelligence, ambition, and ruthlessness are all on display, bubbling below the surface of his public facade.

The overall rhythm of the show is phenomenal, at least for the first half of the series. The game of cat and mouse has been done before, but probably never done to this level, and it's hard to think of two adversaries more capable and completely matched than these. The intricate back and forth between L and Kira is a kind of dance, a violent dance.

In an odd way, I found myself thinking of "Cryptonomicon" while watching these early episodes. In that historical novel, the codebreakers at Bletchley Park are hard at work trying to break Enigma and other German ciphers. Neal Stephenson creates a wonderful visual image of the geographical situation: information is flowing into Bletchley Park, in the form of intercepted coded messages; and yet, at the same time, information is also flowing out of the park and back to the Germans, in the form of actions taken by the English in response to decoded message. There are really two problems that need to be managed during the war. The first is a largely technical one: breaking the codes on the incoming flow. The second one, though, is far more nuanced, and more psychological and strategic: managing the flow of information out of the park, in order to keep the Germans from realizing that their cipher has been compromised. That often means making the difficult choice of allowing the Germans to win a battle - for example, not protecting a convoy after learning that it will be the target of U-boats - in the service of winning the larger war.

That same sort of tension is on constant display in this series. Both Kira and L are highly intelligent, but intelligence alone won't win the day. Kira can easily take actions to hide his tracks, yet any time he does so, he is creating more evidence. Who could know about this threat? Who had the time to take action? By asking these questions, L can draw closer to Kira with astonishing quickness. Thus, Kira often needs to deny himself the best action, and deliberately make mistakes in the hopes of throwing off L.

The music throughout the show is wonderful. My favorite song is probably the opening theme from the first half of the series. And, wow, I couldn't help but jump when they switched songs halfway through. That may be the first time I've ever heard J-metal. Fascinating stuff. Anyways, the music within the show is great as well... Kira's theme is probably my favorite (the one with the bells), but it's solid throughout, always well-matched to the action.

I don't really have a favorite minor character, but as a class, I'd say it's the policemen. Matsuda is sweet and fun, I love Mogi's turn as the manager, and Aizawa is just cool - the 'fro is awesome.

I was struck by the portrayal of America in the movie, and especially their depiction of the President. It kind of reminded me of the President in "Read or Die." In both cases the President is cowardly, weak-willed, overly confident in his military strength but craven once he realizes how little good it does him. I... I can't say that I'm offended, exactly, but it is very interesting. I'm used to generic American Presidents being portrayed in a positive or neutral light, and it's just kind of funny that that's never been the case in any anime that I've seen. To be honest, though, I can't remember any Japanese prime minister receiving positive treatment in an American movie. This might be a kind of jingoism at work, or perhaps I'm making too big a deal of it.


I think you could divide the show into rough fifths. The first section deals with Light's transformation into Kira, as he learns his powers and flexes his strength. The second section is the Light/Ryuuzaki dance, starting on the first day of college. This is where everything moves into the open, and at the same time becomes more concealed. The net grows tighter and tighter with every episode, even as Kira's standing rises. The third arc is what I think of as "Good Light," when he surrenders ownership and fights for the team. The fourth, short arc is the restoration of Kira and his vengeance. The final arc is the Near/Mello competition.

Of all this, I thought the middle third was probably the weakest... not bad, but I really missed having Kira around. Every minute in that arc, though, added to the big payoff when Light retrieves the notebook. I already admired his cunning; seeing the entire elaborate plan and how it came to fruition, though, nearly took my breath away. It would have been far less impressive without that more hum-drum intermission.

Boy, the show sure has guts in killing off L. It's kind of surprising how rarely main characters die in these shows - at least, without being reincarnated or cloned or otherwise restored. Anything less than a full victory one way or the other would have been a disappointment, but I was still prepared for it. And they totally made the right decision on who should win.

I'd alluded to moral ambiguity above. Obviously, the problem is this: is what Kira is doing "right"? It's essentially a return to a more powerful, but more primal, form of justice. The rule of law is swept away, and Kira becomes the embodiment of justice, judge and executioner wrapped into one. What's hard to argue with (at least in the context of the story) are the results of this approach. Crime IS down, and people are generally happy with Kira's actions. So what's the big deal? Is it really a sin to murder the guilty?

The first warning sign is that Kira's motives are not pure. He is not carrying out this work as a servant to humanity's wishes. He wishes to become a living god. Wow, talk about primal justice! And, on further examination, we may need to reconsider how much better the world is. People are committing fewer crimes, but the change is due to a fear of punishment, not because people are getting better... one gets the sense that evil is hiding, not defeated.

To pick a more extreme analogy: I have no idea what the crime rates were like in Nazi Germany or Communist Russia, but let's suppose that they fell compared to those in the Wiemar Republic and under the Czars. Nobody would say that the Gestapo and KGB were acting for good, even if the level of crime dropped.

But, to choose a counter-example, it sounds like many Iraqis were more happy living under the cruel Republican Guards than they are in the lawless chaos of today.

So, it's a complex situation. And that's what makes this show so great. The characters are compelling, and the problems make you uncomfortable.

Also, I was fascinated by the relentless, ruthless push of Light's personality and intelligence. This was most striking to me in the scenes where he is seducing Takada. I suddenly realized that he no longer had any notebooks, did not have the eyes, could not kill... and yet, he still WAS Kira. His minions worshiped and followed him even when he had passed all of his power to them. That is, Light is still Kira even when he does not have the Death Note. It was a powerful revelation.

I felt only slightly let down at the very end of the series. I was kind of expecting it - I'm usually not fully satisfied by the way animes end, and I had the feeling they wouldn't give me the ending I really wanted (Kira ushering in a new world). I found myself still hoping for another layer of reversals (ending in a Kira victory) or two (ending in a Near victory). Two fake-outs felt a bit anticlimactic, three or four would have sold me.

Ever since the first episode, I've thought I had a good read on Kira's ultimate fate. Ryuuk says something like, "Do not think that anyone who uses this note will be able to enter heaven or hell." My theory has been that those who use the Death Note will become Shinigami themselves: immortal and otherworldly, but with all humanity stripped away from them. From what we see in the final episode, I'm guessing I was wrong about that, but it's ambiguous enough that I could still pretend it happens.


All in all, it's been a fascinating ride. I'll need to re-watch it in order to pick up on all the foreshadowing and allusions. My shoot-from-the-hip analysis is that this will wind up as one of my top three animes. Its genre isn't one I particularly enjoy, but the incredible intelligence of the script and the unmatched technical excellence more than make up for that. The deep amorality of the show makes me hesitate to recommend it unreservedly, yet for people who enjoy quality fiction, it's hard to resist.

Update 12/29/07: I forgot to mention: there are multiple iterations of Death Note floating around. If you want to get into it, I'd strongly recommend starting with episode 1 of the anime. There is also a "Director's Cut" that is floating around. It is basically a highlights reel of the whole anime run; it's kind of interesting, but shouldn't be viewed until after you finish the anime. There are also some live-action movies out there, a concept that fascinates me. I've heard that they aren't as good as the series, but are still decent. They may be a viable option if you want a more compressed version of the story.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

In the News

California is great. It's the rest of the world that's going crazy.

First, my contribution to the whole EPA thing: What a load of bunk. This really ticks me off. The decision as a whole bothers me, but what I find infuriating is the EPA director's obfuscated and misleading justification that he needed to prevent a "patchwork" of state solutions. This is the standard industry-backed talking point, and is simply false... it implies that every state could set its own standards, which would indeed be hard to follow. That is not the case, though. Ever since the EPA was first created in the '70's, California has had the right to set its own pollution standards. Other states can choose to follow either the more strict California rules, or the lax federal ones. Regardless of what the EPA had chosen, there would be exactly two standards, and never any more or less.

Random bit of history: California has very good reasons for special controls. The geography of the state means that pollution's effects are felt much more severely here. For example, the majority of the population lives in valleys that trap smog, so air quality is generally poor. In the specific case of global warming, San Francisco and San Diego will be among the first cities affected by rising sea levels, so people here are highly motivated to try and fix (or at least mitigate) the problem.

And, really, the whole thing bothers me because it makes clear that the administration is really driven by greed more than ideology. I thought conservatives were supposed to be federalists who supported states' rights, as opposed to letting the federal government dictate policy. And yet, given the chance to let a state take a daring approach to a problem, the Bush administration bows to industry pressure and denies that state its rights.

I think that this sort of thing is one of the best possible examples of federalism. Admittedly, California is pretty out there, coming up with some weird stuff that doesn't quite work out. And yet, the populist/progressive heritage of the state also means that it's brave enough to try things that are eventually proven to be right, and eventually do spread throughout the country. Think of things like the seat belt law, mandatory catalytic converters, and emergency statewide communication systems. I think the country as a whole would gain enormously by letting California try its regulatory plan. If it succeeds, it can be adopted nationally with more confidence; if it fails, well, only California and a few other states will have suffered. (Oh, and fewer high-polluting SUVs will have been sold. Boo-hoo!)

I wasn't that big a fan of Schwarzenegger when I moved here, but he increasingly endears himself. I love the latest threat to "sue, sue, and sue again." My state's cause is just, and I have faith that we will eventually prevail... if not under this political hack, then in the next administration.

Secondly, and on a more positive note: Hooray! We are moving closer towards getting high-speed rail! After my trip to Japan, I've wanted more than ever before to get this system in the U.S. Now, as a whole, U.S. rail is way behind that in other countries, primarily due to the way we subsidize the automobile/highway system. But I think this particular plan could be a huge success. The distance is perfect - it's too far to comfortably drive, yet short enough that flying feels like a waste - you spend almost as much time in the airport as you do on the plane.

Anyways. The idea has been kicking around for a while, and unfortunately, the state's finances are in poor enough shape that we may not be able to kick it off soon. Even the $10 billion in upcoming ballot referendums would only start the process. Still, I think we need to do what we can to allow the railway to be built in the future: secure rights of way, work out zoning issues, figure out how to placate the environmentalists. After construction starts, it will take more than a decade to finish. Well, unless we hire C. C. Myers again.

And when it's done? Expect to see less traffic on the 5, which can only be a good thing. I think this would be a big boost for tourism as well, much in the same way the J-Rail pass really opened up that country for me; visitors would no longer need to choose between Hollywood and the Golden Gate. The more people we get off the roads and onto mass transit, the better everyone will be.... well, except for Detroit.

I apologize for my crankiness. Hope everyone has a happy holiday!

Update 12/21: Whoa, I really should have read more before posting. Check out this Washington Post article on the story. Two other wrinkles in this: first, the EPA administrator ignored the UNANIMOUS recommendation of his technical and legal staff in issuing this denial. Second, he was specifically advised that if California sues, it will win. This is even deeper hackery than I had originally thought. Argh.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007


(Nerdy note: if I was counting my blog posts using an 8-bit integer, this would be the last post before I rolled over to 0.)

After my recent post, I feel the need to tell people, "Hey, I don't just care about television, movies, and video games! I like culture, too!" Fortunately, I have a good excuse on hand: last weekend, I had the privilege of seeing Frank Galati's adaptation of "After the Quake," a Haruki Murakami novel. As you may know, I am a big fan of Murakami, and I was determined to see the play as soon as I heard that it was coming to Berkeley. For a while it seemed like fate was determined to thwart me, as my plans for making the trip were repeatedly postponed. It was worth the wait, though: I got to see it on its closing weekend, along with a couple of friends who appreciated it as well.

As the brother of a theater major, I'm well aware of my limited exposure to the world of drama. For what it's worth, though, I thought the play was amazing. It succeeded on each technical aspect. The acting was wonderful, without any weak spots, but I thought that Paul Juhn, who played Katagiri and Takatsuki, was just phenomenal. The music was another stand-out strength: there are only two instruments, a cello and a koto, but they are both played live, and their effect on the play was incredible... some scenes that would have felt moving anyways became heart-clenching under their inspired music. The music led the action, commenting on it, or accenting certain visual beats. There was a lot that shouldn't have worked, but somehow did, like when they melted into an eerily sparse and beautiful cover of "Norwegian Wood."

Beyond the artists' technical mastery, the play succeeds wonderfully as an artwork. I am not familiar with Frank Galati's other work, but I'm so impressed by what he's done here that I want to seek it out. He has taken two short stories from "After the Quake" and intertwined them. I had initially assumed that he would do this in a Hollywood type of way, by combining characters and events, but he didn't go down that road. Instead, he keeps the stories' plots separate while uniting their storyTELLING. The play lives in a fluid space where the narrators of one story become characters in the next, with indirect comments and themes shared between the two but never quite lining up. It is a fascinating structure, at once complex and beautiful, engaging without being deliberately obtuse. The transitions themselves seem to melt as the play goes on. Early in the play, characters walk offstage to change costumes, but as the stories reach towards their climax, they begin to shed identities in full view of the audience. It's a beautiful and moving metaphor.

In combination with all this, the two stories are themselves about stories: Frog, the protagonist of one, is a great lover of literature who uses examples from classics like Anna Karenina to explain his strange life. Junpei, the protagonist of another, is a struggling young author who writes fiction to come to grips with the real world and bring people together. So there are scenes where you have the Frog actor narrating Junpei's narration of a bedtime story to Sala. It is an intricate structure, one that comments on the creative power of fiction, how each of us can be creators of our own worlds. Thinking about this afterwards, it seems like one of those profound truths which is so simple I have not thought of it before. We live our lives as characters in other people's plays, but at the same time, each of us is the author of our own narrative in which we seek to make sense of the world and our place in it, and the roles of everyone we meet, who are in turn writing us as characters... I think that Murakami may have been getting at this idea in "Honey Pie," but Galati has exploded that idea out of the text and made it a part of the performance.

Speaking of which, after watching the play, I'm more motivated than ever to go and read "After the Quake." Murakami wrote this upon his return to Japan following the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Although sometimes described as a novel, it is actually a collection of short stories that, in one way or another, are meditations on the earthquake and, more importantly the reactions and fears it stoked in the Japanese psyche. Although my favorite Murakami pieces to date have been his long-form novels, I love his short fiction as well, and look forward to going through a unified collection such as this. Besides which, the idea of living with the threat of earthquakes has a particular (please pardon the pun) resonance among people in Northern California. There was a point during the play which flashes back to the 1995 earthquake, and as lights flash and characters scream, the audience could FEEL the rumbling and shaking of the earth. This brought back immediate memories of my first experience with an earthquake. At that time, it was a new and strange enough sensation that I did not have time to feel scared. Oddly enough, I felt more frightened sitting in a theater experiencing a simulated quake than I did on the second floor of a building while a real one was going on. I think this is another thing Murakami is getting at: the damage an earthquake (or any disaster - think of the September 11th attacks) deals goes beyond the initial toll in buildings, dollars, and lives. Such disasters can creep into our psyche, making us frightened, and diminishing our hopes and our ambitions. In the play, Sala has a dream where she is put into a box by the Earthquake Man. Murakami wants to show us that box, recognize that we put ourselves inside it, and tell us that we have the freedom to leave.

Monday, December 03, 2007

How reading shaped my programming

Inspired by my dad's recent blog post, Pat and I figured we'd take a swing at the same topic. It would be fascinating to see this done for every profession: a codification of which works have been particularly influential in a person's development.

To be honest, books are just a component of my development. I've arguably learned more from professors, mentors, and co-workers than from books, and in my day-to-day struggles, I'll more often turn to online sources. Still, books do form a crucial foundation for software development. I can break the good ones down into two categories. First, there are books that teach a technology. These are valuable because they can take you from 0 to 60: by focusing on a single source, you can methodically learn the syntax, structure, and best practices for a new language or technique. A good book won't be impatient or have the blind spots that a more experienced in-person mentor might exhibit. The second class of books are those that teach a way of thinking. These become increasingly important as you grapple with larger projects and organizations. In programming, doing development by yourself is orders of magnitude easier than working in a team, but all of the interesting projects left are sufficiently complex to be beyond any individual's reach. And so, we need to learn how to design and structure our code and our work practices such that someone other than us can interact with the code. This has been, and remains, one of the industry's greatest challenges.

To this, I should probably add the third category of cultural books. I'll never be able to point to a line of code and say, "This book is what inspired me to write that," but there's a definite body of literature out there that has helped me define what it means to be a software developer, helped clarify my sense of mission, and helped me to enjoy my career even more.

Anyways! Without further ado, let's take a look.

Hackers, Heroes of the Computer Revolution, by Stephen Levy. I checked this book out from the Burnhaven Library in Burnsville, Minnesota, and it had an enormous influence on my understanding of programming. No longer was it just a fun thing that one did in front of a computer; for the first time, I started to see myself as part of a long tradition of innovation that started long before I was born and was spread throughout the world. This book also helped steep me in the myth and folklore of computing; I can chat with old hands about the PDP-1, the Game of Life, the TMRC, and the Altair. The book was divided into rough thirds, and the middle section was grounded in the birth of the consumer computing industry in Silicon Valley, and so has a particular resonance for me today.

Core Java, volumes I and II. These tomes were crucial tools in my Computer Science 101 class, which was single-handedly responsible for my transformation from a procedural, self-taught, idiosyncratic, not-very-good programmer into the object-oriented, thoughtful developer I am today. These books did a great job at the very difficult task of teaching both Java syntax and the more abstract concepts behind object-oriented programming. The way I approach programming underwent a sea-change as a result, and I've never looked back. (Some day I need to pick up one of the more recent incarnations of these books - Java has changed a lot since I was a freshman.)

The Cathedral and the Bazaar. This is the seminal tome on the ethos behind the Open Source Software movement. If you're reading this post on Firefox, you should thank Erik Raymond; this essay planted the seeds that led to the open-sourcing of Netscape and the eventually rebirth of Firefox. For me, it helped me understand the moral and ethical dimensions involved in distributing software. At the same time, the book diverges from the purely ethical foundation of the earlier Free Software movement, and is instead based on empirical considerations. Raymond examined real-live cases, and convinced me that open source not only felt good, it also produced superior software. The conditions of corporate employment keep me from honoring this book as much as I would like, but it has given me a strong position from which to make my case.

Programming Perl, 3rd Edition. Also known as The Camel Book, this is the authoritative book on Perl development, and may be the best-written programming book ever. Larry Wall, the creator of Perl and one of the most interesting characters in a pantheon of interesting people, is also a linguist, and his his particular skill with words elevates this book far above the competition. It may be the only book out there that can be all things to all people: it is a useful primer on the language, an exhaustive reference book, an overview of Perl culture and history, a guide to design, and more. This book taught me how to write Perl, and makes me a better programmer every time I crack it open. His rich use of interesting examples and clever language make it a pleasure to read.

Effective C++ by Scott Meyers. Another entry from the disturbingly small class of well-written programming guides. I first "learned" C++ back around 1998, but didn't really grok it until after I picked up Java. Scott Meyers' book, which I picked up on the advice of Raviant people from my wonderful summer internship, helped me take my skills to the next level. Meyers breaks out of the convention of describing how things work, and instead focuses on specific solutions to particular problems. This book is to coding what Design Patterns is to architecture. As with Larry Wall, I can gladly read chapters of this book at a time for the pure pleasure of his authorial voice, even if I'm not immediately facing the problems he describes.

Design Patterns by the Gang of Four. I think this is the book that separates the programmers from the software engineers. The former class can make something work; the latter class will make something that will work for twenty years, under a variety of maintenance programmers, as it responds to evolving requirements. This was the one book I read in academia that most impressed on me the need to future-proof my designs. As soon as I reached the real world, I realized that this may be the most important skill of all.

Tag, you're it! If you are a professional and have a blog, I hope you'll take some time to think about the books which have shaped your understanding of your chosen career. Please shoot me a link, I'd love to read about it.

More Obama

I've been trying to avoid putting much political stuff on this blog - I'm fairly passionate about politics, but don't feel that I'm very articulate at expressing my beliefs. Plus, if 2004 is any indication, I'm going to be unbearably involved in the election the closer it gets, so for my own sake and yours I don't want to front-load a lot of political content.

That being said, I want to weight in real quick on the Obama campaign. I've been very encouraged by the recent news out of Iowa, and while it's far from a sure thing, I'm feeling more hopeful than I have in months that he can actually win this thing. I don't seem to be alone in this, either, judging from the increasing mudslinging from the Hillary campaign.

There are some great clips of Obama making an appearance at the Apollo Theater in Harlem out there. The first one I saw was a crowd-perspective video taken with a handheld camera; there are better quality shots on YouTube, but I kind of like the DIY aspect of this one, partly because it reproduces what the San Francisco rally felt like. One of the coolest things about this video is that it confirms my suspicions about Obama's consistent message. His audience is different - the one at the Apollo seems more African-American, while that at Bill Graham was mainly white and Asian - and the issue leanings seem to be a bit different, but while the reactions are different his message is the same. Talking about the environment doesn't give him as big of applause as it did out here, but he still stresses it. The lines about civil rights that cause the Apollo to thunder received only polite clapping in California, but I don't doubt his heartfelt devotion to that cause.

Anyways, that's encouraging. Granted, New York City and San Francisco are both pretty liberal, and I suppose the true acid test would compare those speeches to ones he gives in Iowa and Nevada. But, you know what? I'm increasingly confident that he really is saying what he believes. That has actually become one of the cornerstones of his campaign. In an odd way, he is differentiating himself from Hillary by saying that she will say anything to get elected, while he will take positions even if they may hurt his chances. That may not be good strategy, but it is great policy.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Literary (And Other) Review

I've been woefully deficient in reporting on my reading. Here's hoping that late and inadequate is better than never.

Watchmen by Alan Moore. This title seems to pop up on all the lists with titles like "Comic books for people who don't read comics" or "Best comic books of all time." I'm not a big comics guy myself, but ever since reading, and being blown away by, Neil Gaiman's Sandman, I've been on the lookout for similarly impressive work. Watchmen has been recommended by several people, and nearly a year ago I requested it from the San Jose library. It seems to be in high demand - two of the three issues are missing, and I joined a patient queue of people waiting for the last copy. It arrived shortly before Thanksgiving, and I tore through it before and after my trip to Chicago.

I wasn't disappointed. The quality of Watchmen is every bit as strong as Sandman, but the tone and thrust is very different. Sandman soared in its fantasy, becoming stronger the further it embraced myth, dream and legend. In contrast, Watchmen is firmly grounded in the world, and is most poignant in its depictions of the struggles and limitations of human beings. I don't say "the real world" - Watchmen is set in a slightly alternate reality, one where "costumed heroes", inspired by early comic books, became a crime-fighting force in the 1940's. The US won the Vietnam War, Richard Nixon is still President in 1985, and the US holds a decided military advantage over the USSR. Nonetheless, I keep returning to the word "reality" when I think about this book. Even the "superheroes" have limitations and crushed dreams that make them feel like us.

I think of Sandman and Watchmen as being "adult" comic books. I don't mean "adult" in the sense of having sex or violence; from what I can tell, most comic books have those quantities in spades. Rather, they are adult in their worldview: they embrace complexity and messy relationships, refusing to neatly divide individuals into good or evil, heroes or villains. Watchmen is additionally adult in its characters: most of the protagonists are middle-aged, semi-retired "superheroes." Although we can admire some of them, they certainly don't fit the stylized image of comic book heroes: the man have slight paunches, the women's looks are fading, and much of their skills have fallen into disuse. The few heroes who have stayed active are the more disturbing ones.

Early on, I found myself thinking of "The Incredibles," specifically the early scenes with Mr. Incredible working in an insurance office. I'm a little curious if Brad Bird was aware of this book, as it seems to have had a big influence on comics over the last 20 years. The ultimate aims of these two works differ, though. The Incredibles, while excellent, ultimately has a very Disney-ish moral, one about believing in yourself and fulfilling your potential. Watchmen, on the other hand, ends on a very morally ambiguous note. It suggests that compromise is sometimes necessary, that one must occasionally choose between different bad choices, and that pursuing a small good may result in a large harm.

I'm far from an expert, but I thought the art in this book was really good. Unlike Sandman, which rotated through a large number of artists, Watchmen was a collaboration between Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, and so it has a very consistent look throughout. As I noted above, the characters are realistically portrayed, and I'm especially impressed with the grimy vision of New York City that is delivered.

This isn't meant to be a full review, but before I cut off, I need to give a particular shout-out to the wonderful literary aspects of this book. It is far from a straight-up adventure story, and I think the depths of the writing can only be fully explored on subsequent readings. One especially wonderful technique Moore uses is that of layered narratives. A young black man reads a comic book; the words of that comic book comment on the action taking place around him on the streets of New York; and those streets, in turn, are filled with people trying to come to grips with the results of the actions taken by the main protagonists. You can read through one page multiple times, interpreting the words different ways, and come up with wholly distinct, yet complementary, story lines. It's a wonderful achievement.

In other news:

I continue to tear through Terry Pratchett's Discworld books. I recently finished "Jingo". It is a Guards book, which means it is great. I think this book has some good similarities to Thud!, especially in the subtext; the treatment of nationality in Jingo is similar to that of race in Thud! I really enjoy pulling through these books; it does feel like reuniting with old friends.

On the television front:

"The War" was well-done. It's the first Ken Burns documentary I've seen, and I was pretty impressed. To be honest, I was a little leery of the "through the eyes of four American towns" angle, thinking that it would lose the larger scope of the war. I was wrong, though... in an immediate sense, because there were plenty of tools Burns used (propaganda films, stock footage, etc.) that showed both the war action and the larger political movements; and also because the device helped me better absorb the sheer enormity of the war effort. When I saw the transformation of a city like Birmingham, I was stunned. Then, I realized that Birmingham really is not that big of a city, and that events of similar scope were happening all across the nation... that's when the nation-changing aspect of the war really became real to me. Or, when you learn of a young soldier's death, and hear his family's grief, you are at first touched by that one loss. Then, you multiple that by the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans, or the sixteen million who wore the uniform, and you can get some hint of the psychological and social stress the war had.

I kind of doubt I'll watch it again, just because I can think of better things to do with ten hours of my time, but I have absolutely no regrets about seeing it.

Oh, and one final note: I really appreciate the distinction a person in the documentary makes between a "good" war and a "necessary" war. It very eloquently said much of what I've thought about World War 2.

The first half of "House" wrapped up last week. I think it may be the strongest section yet of the series. They've pulled off a great balance between an overarching narrative and an episodic mystery-of-the-week. I won't say any more lest I spoil the fun, but it's been very enjoyable.

House has an advantage over Lost and other serials in that new viewers can approach it without having previously viewed every other episode in the series. That being said, if you're thinking of starting on House, I'd recommend starting a few episodes before the end of the third season. Well, or halfway through the first, depending on how much you want to see.

For the first time since "Ratatoille," I got to see an actual movie! In a theater! It was "No Country for Old Men," and while I love the Coen brothers, I have to admit that this one stays below the level of masterworks like "Fargo". That being said, it's still heads and shoulders above most movies out there. There's a quiet bleakness in the movie that permeates everything, from the landscape to the dialog to the deaths to the sets. It's far from an "up" movie, and it continues the Coen brothers' allergic reaction to complete endings, but is well worth checking out.

If you haven't hacked your iPhone yet, do it now. The apps out there are good and getting better. For my recent cross-country trip, I left my PSP at home and spent a good chunk of my plane ride playing Dragon Warrior 2 on the NES emulator. It was a fun blast from the past; I played the first game way back in the day, but never did any of the sequels, and am enjoying the old-school gameplay. That being said, I have to take it in chunks. One nice thing about modern RPGs is that they no longer require you to battle hundreds of random monsters to level-up before doing something fun.

Man... how long HAS it been since I wrote about books? I was just checking to see if I had reviewed "What is the What," and it doesn't look like I have. Shame on me. It's an amazing, powerful book. I'm ashamed to admit that I've gotten pretty desensitized to the horrors of far-away conflicts; after you read enough stories about child warriors, mass famine, and religiously motivated slaughter, you start getting pretty numb. Dave Eggers has done a great job of slapping us across the face with this engaging book that reveals and humanizes some of the awful things happening in Africa now. It isn't a pleasant topic, but the method he uses makes this a very readable and often gripping story, one that keeps you reading for pleasure while letting grim reality sink in.

I recently bought my first-ever artbook, Lain Illustration by Yoshitoshi Abe. It includes concept and character art from Serial Experiments Lain, which the more I think about it is probably my favorite anime. The book is absolutely gorgeous, and is evocative of the surreal, slightly sinister tone that characterizes the anime.

My massive Civilization IV scenario game is currently on hiatus. One of the fan-submitted scenarios for Beyond the Sword was a World War II scenario. It comes in three versions: Europe 1936, Asia 1936, and Europe 1939. I decided to play the last version, taking on the role of Germany. In what is no doubt a very smart move, Firaxis removed all references to Hitler and Nazi paraphernalia from the game; I am playing as "Vice-Chancellor Papen" (or something like that). It's a little odd and not totally accurate, but at the same time, I actually appreciate it a little bit... I can enjoy playing as Germany a bit more if I'm not under that banner.

The map is huge and detailed, and so is the scenario itself. I loved the old Civ II WW2 scenario, which was also centered around Europe. That one had just 6 civilizations: Allies (UK+US), France, Axis (Germany+Italy), Russia, Spain, and the Neutrals. The scenario started on the eve of the invasion of France: on its very first turn, Germany would send bombers pouring into French cities, paratrooping in and capturing a lot of territory before France had its first chance to move. As with most WW2 games, Germany's strategy is to roll up as much territory as it can before resistance gets too strong. There were several things I enjoyed about this scenario. First, the scope was broad: you started the game with a ton of units to play with, and would operate in multiple theaters; U-Boats would hunt down Allied transports in the Atlantic, while Panzers roar across northern Africa and bombers pound London. Second, the scenario lent itself well to alternate history. The designers recommended you play as the Allies, Axis, or Russia, but some of the most fun I ever had was playing a game as Spain: you can't hope to win, but you can seriously mess up the historical flow of events if you play at it hard enough.

The Civ IV incarnation is quite different. The map is much larger and more detailed; I'd estimate there are at least four times as many cities as in the old one. And the civilization count blows the stack: it uses the full 16 allowed by the engine, which means that it can disentangle the alliances: Germany and Italy are separate nations, and so are American and Great Britain. Also, seemingly ever minor civilization has its own leader, all of whom seem to be minor modifications of FDR. There are three cities in the Netherlands, there is Poland, both West Balkans and East Balkans. Norway, Sweden, and Finland are each their own nation.

The realism becomes almost maddening when it comes to units. Each civilization has its own separate military tree, with historical abilities reflected: German Infantry is top-notch, while that of Poland is a joke. Science also plays a key role in the game. The far-out goal is Nuclear Fission, of course, but there are a ton of intermediate technologies that allow you to make incremental upgrades of your units. I've managed to upgrade my fighters and bombers to the second generation, and have reaped the benefits thereof.

So, why did I play as Germany? It's just a lot of fun, frankly. Leaving aside actual history, from a gameplay perspective, you start out with a relatively small geographical area, but an impressive industrial base and the most powerful units in the world. You are surrounded by weak targets. So you are constantly on the attack, always taking territory, and whenever you need to rest and heal a unit, you'll have three more rolling in behind them.

You have three options in this game: historical events, random events, and free play. In the first, you have no control over diplomacy: Germany will always declare war on France on a certain day, the UK and the US will sign a military alliance on a certain day, and so on. This style probably puts the strongest emphasis on tactics, as your job is to do the best you can with the cards you have been dealt. Random events will follow the same sequence as in history, but events occur within a window rather than on a specific data. Thus, while you know that Germany will declare war on France early, you can't know which turn it will happen on. This style demands greater flexibility from the player, and probably is a more accurate representation of how history FELT, where some actions seemed inevitable but nobody was sure when they would happen.

The final mode, which I chose, leaves diplomacy entirely up to you, which leads well to alternate historical situations. I've been having a lot of fun with this. I'll declare war on my neighbors, one at a time, usually with one active campaign and two mopping-up ones active at any time. Initial attitudes seem fairly accurate, and are achieved by replacing religion with economic philosophy: Stalin is Communist; Papen, Mussolini, and Franco are Fascist; and everyone else follows the Free Market. One interesting, probably accurate side-effect of this is that Stalin and Germany are far from friends; in fact, their antagonism is greater than that initially felt between Germany and France. Again, this is probably accurate, but it also means that a secret Polish pact was not in the offing. I'd initially thought that my alternate history would be to turn back Hitler's greatest blunder, and not invade Russia until the western front was secure. Breaking a treaty would not even be an option if I did not have a treaty to begin with, and he was clearly not interested in signing one. So, as my panzers swept through eastern Europe and into Scandinavia, I came up with another, arguably better vision: postpone the conquest of France until my empire reached Asia. There was certain risk in this - the allies' industrial output is mighty, and will only grow the longer I delay - but that still seemed a better option than fighting a two-front war - and the eastern front would be opened by Stalin eventually, whether I wanted one or not.

I bided my time, however. Russia was inferior to me, but everyone in between us was more inferior still, and Russia at least had a nominal air force and decent infantry. Plus, Russia is a vast territory, and I was nervous about getting bogged down in that conquest. One cool thing about this scenario is that it simulates the bitter winters of 1939-1941. When winter falls, tiles in eastern and northern Europe are transformed by frost. The movement cost increases dramatically, slowing your advancement to a crawl. Russian and Finnish troops start with free "winter" promotions that allow them to ignore bitter winter, but anyone else will need to plan their campaigns with an eye on the calendar.

So, I did not invade Russia in 1939; instead, I fully (albeit slowly) took Poland, Norway, Sweden, the Low Countries, the East Balkans, the West Balkans, and Finland... basically, all the minor players except for Turkey, which lay on the other side of Russia's southern expanse. However, I was getting antsy. Because this was a Beyond the Sword scenario, it includes the new Espionage system. I had dumped all my spy points against Russia, France, and the UK (that is, my most immediate threats), and had a big enough advantage that I had infiltrated the USSR's science labs. I could see that Russia was a few turns away from discovering an advanced aerospace technology that, while it would not bring their planes up to par with mine, would make bombing their cities more difficult. So, even though the bitter winter still held, in early March 1940 I struck at Russia.

It was one of the most enjoyable campaigns I've played in any version of Civ. The sheer scope of the offense was vast: the troops that had spent months fighting up Scandinavia were now pushing south through the permafrost; a landing craft dumped veteran soldiers onto the shores of St. Petersburg; and all up and down the eastern front, my highly-promoted Panzers, many of them led by Great Generals, struck. It wasn't exactly a blitzkrieg, because the front did not advance all that quickly. The front was the breadth of a continent, though, and so every mile advanced brought vast new territories into the German sphere.

Stalin did discover his new technology, but had foolishly kept the bulk of his air force stationed in St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, whatever it was called then). I fought hard to take it before he could upgrade, making the first major sacrifices of my war, but secure in the decision. A few fortnights later, the winter ended, and my units raced southward to meet the firmly established German occupation. From then on it was a mopping up operation in Asia as my tanks rumbled through desert, seeking out the sparse, desperate last cities.

And that's where I am now. It's where I've been for over a month - I'm enjoying the game, but at the same time, every since turn I take now takes about twenty minutes.

I still need to decide on my short-term and long-term strategies. It seems logical to take Turkey next, but where do I go from there? Entering the Middle East will butt me up against French and British interests there, but if there is a way to go after France while somehow sidelining the UK for now, I'd prefer to go that route. A more worrying question is what to do about Italy. They're friendly with me, but have politely refused all requests of alliance, and I don't think you can "win" the scenario if there is a non-ally left standing. I don't relish attacking Italy - their holdings are spread on both sides of the Mediterranean, and all jokes to the contrary, they actually have a decent army - but if it needs to happen, it seems to make sense to hit them as I stab westward.

Over the long haul, the picture becomes clearer: finish taking Europe and northern Africa, then direct all my might against England. The game will end in a massive naval battle in the Atlantic that culminates in marine landings along the eastern seaboard of the US. It's that naval battle that currently worries me. Unlike that old Civ II scenario, Germany starts this game with a miniscule navy: I had only a single submarine at the start of the game, and my naval facilities have been slow in coming online. Right now I have nothing at all in the Mediterranean, nothing in the North Sea, and nothing in the Atlantic; just a small pack that was containing minor threats in the Baltic Sea. That will need to change, and I just hope it will grow in time.

Don't you love it when a game hijacks everything? I'd better stop typing before I get off on a tangent about the proper role of air support when conducting a far-flung campaign. I'm out of here!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

America's Best Test Cook

I was in unique fanboy mode last night when I made the pilgrimage to Books Inc. in Mountain View to hear Christopher Kimball. Mr. Kimball may be the single greatest influence in my culinary transformation, although I am equally indebted to the great food resources in the area. As I've documented before, an unsolicited copy of his Cook's Illustrated magazine helped turn me on to cooking, and turned me into the enthusiastic and less-untalented chef that I am today.

He was scheduled to start at 7:30, so I had time to eat dinner before going down. It was leftovers, but what leftovers they were! I had a slice of Cook's Illustrated's lasagna bolognese, a very rich and satisfying meat-centric lasagna; on the side was a sweet butternut squash puree from Joy and two handfuls of grapes. I decided to save the slice of pumpkin pie for my return, and hit the road. Immediately after arriving in the store, I realized that I would need to learn the opposite rule for book signings as I had learned for political events: get there early. I walked in the door at 7:25, by which time all the seats were filled, and the standing crowd extended most of the way to the door. I found a perch partly behind a standing display case, and stood my ground while still more people filed in behind me. We really packed the place. The store, which is off Castro street in downtown Mountain View, has a relatively small footprint but is two stories tall with a cafe on the second floor, and a good number of the visitors were perched up their with their coffee and books.

Scattered applause broke out when Christopher appeared. He is a pretty easily recognizable figure; a sketched portrait appears in every issue of Cook's Illustrated beside his editorial, which reads like a mildly demented version of Garrison Keillor's monologue in A Prairie Home Companion. Perhaps more importantly, he is the host of America's Test Kitchen on PBS, which is consistently judged as the best cooking show on television. He is tall, thin, bespectacled, and always wears a bow tie. It was actually that final detail that seemed a little off; he was wearing a full overcoat, and so had no visible tie. One of the bookstore employees escorted him into a back room, and we realized that the program wasn't actually ready to begin yet.

The audience waited patiently for another fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, I struggled mightily to get my iPhone to join Google's free wifi network. No dice. By the time the owner took the microphone, dark conspiracy theories were dancing in my mind about Google's hostile salvos against Apple's flagship product.

After a very short introduction, Christopher took the stage again. This time he had stripped down to his ATK clothing. Throughout his talk, he was every bit as animated, intelligent, and witty as he is on his show, which was kind of cool to see... I have the impression of him being a very bright person, and it was nice to have that confirmed. He also had a good sense of humor and a wryness that was very attractive.

As usual, I think I'll give a semi-random recounting of what I remember from his talk.

He loves coming out to California because of how nice the weather is. However, he thinks we Bay Area people are slightly spoiled for great food choices, and so we have unrealistic expectations for what food people will have access too. For example, eating locally in the Bay Area is great, but in Vermont, that would mean eating potatoes for six months of the year. He (good-naturedly) blamed Alice Waters for this.

They've finished shooting the first season of Cook's Country, a companion series to America's Test Kitchen that focuses on the home-cooking style of their Cook's Country magazine. The series wasn't shot in their Boston labs; instead, they bought and converted a Vermont farmhouse, and moved the staff up there. Kimball says that they will eventually move everyone up there permanently, "although they don't know that yet." The series should start airing in January.

He has had some interesting encounters with people on his tours. You would tend to think of Vermont as being a conservative place, but that isn't always the case. A lady in a black coat came to a book-signing and asked if she could take a picture with him. He said yes, and looked down to sign the book. When he looked back up, he saw that she had taken off the coat, and underneath she was wearing an apron... and not much else. They took the picture from the front, though, so it turned out all right. Another time, a young woman of about 28 came, which is about half the age of his typical fan. She was very nervous, and at one point blurted out, "It's just like meeting Brad Pitt!" Everyone at the test kitchen laughed out loud when he told that story. He took a video of the audience (that is, those of us there at Books Inc.) yelling "It's just like meeting Brad Pitt!" After he put away the camera, a woman in the audience yelled, "It's BETTER than meeting Brad Pitt!"

He's gotten a lot of letters over the years; most are positive, but the negative ones tend to be funny. When a Cook's Illustrated recipe goes "wrong", it's always because the cook deviated from the recipe. He can understand this impulse - most recipes have problems, and so cooks form the habit of trying to anticipate where the disaster is going to be so they can head it off. However, the whole purpose of CI/ATK is to find and fix all potential problems, so you really should follow their instructions to the letter, at least for the first time that you try a recipe.

He told a few anecdotes of "bad" recipes. One person complained about a spicy chicken recipe, which was awful - it was really tough. Did he follow the recipe? Well, he didn't have any chicken, so he used shrimp instead. Yep... he roasted shrimp for 40 minutes. And complained about how tough it was.

Another time, there was a CI recipe for cooking a $60 prime rib steak. It involved using a Weber grill, and was fairly time-consuming but with guaranteed results. A person wrote and said that he hated the recipe. It was 17 degrees outside, so he didn't want to use his grill, and instead he stuck that $60 steak under the broiler. (With this story, and all the others, the crowd groaned and laughed at the appropriate moments. It's a little humbling to think that, just two years ago, I would have wondered what the difference between broiling and grilling was.)

CI focuses on making foolproof recipes, and a part of this is that after the test kitchen has come up with a recipe, it sends it out to a group of volunteers. You can sign up on their web site if you want to join the pool. They don't pay you, but you're expected to make the recipe and answer a few questions, the most important one being, "Would you make this again?" Unless at least 80% answer "Yes," the recipe goes back into the test kitchen so they can fix it.

Kimball's staff likes playing tricks on him. The best one was a few years ago, when they did a butter tasting with different kinds of butter on slices of bread. He didn't realize until too late that there was chili powder hidden under the butter. Fortunately, there was a big glass of water handy. He didn't realize until too late that the "water" was actually vodka.

He asked how many of us watch ATK. A majority raised their hands. "Good, that's what I love to see." He asked how many people watch Rachel Ray. "Ah, I got five of you!" He wants to know what the deal is with her neckline. A few years ago, she was very modestly dressed; now, she has this swooping neckline. He has brought this up with Bridget and Julia - he thinks it's important for ATK to follow suit to keep up in the ratings. Someone shouted out, "Keep the bow tie!"

He hates selling things - that's why there's no advertising in his magazines. Also, he isn't very good at it. But, he gave a ninety-second plug for the book he was promoting, "America's Best Lost Recipes." This is a contest that they started over a year ago, and that was promoted in newspapers across the country, to find the handed-down recipes that were worth saving. As part of his research for this book, he learned that, in the 19th century, there were hundreds of thousands of recipes. Recipes were local, not just by country or region or even city, but by family, and there was incredible variety in the kinds of food people ate. That started to change during the 20th century, and especially with the rise of food magazines in the 1960's; most recipes fell out of fashion, and people estimate that today, there are about 5000 recipes in America. (I may not have those numbers exactly right, but regardless, it's a big drop.)

Now, most lost recipes deserve to stay lost. He knows that those of us in California get really excited about "heirloom this" and "heritage that," but the truth is that a lot of those older things just aren't very good. Most heirloom apples taste really bitter, and most heritage turkeys are really tough. However, there are gems out there, and the purpose of this book was to unearth those recipes which aren't common today but are worth holding on to.

His favorite recipe name in the book is "Naked ladies with their legs crossed" - I think that was included in the first issue of Cook's Country that I got, and I agree that it's a very memorable name. He also likes the stories that go with the recipes, like Grandpa's Angry Deviled Eggs, about which the submitter wrote, "Grandpa was a mean, unpleasant man, but he sure knew how to cook."

He opened up for questions. It was hard to hear most of them, but he did a good job of repeating them before answering.

Someone asked about the difference between CI and CC. He affirmed my understanding, which is that CC is focused on regional cooking - the sort of food he grew up eating. Those recipes tend to be a bit easier to make, and they don't go into as much detail about how they tested them.

There were a lot of questions about Thanksgiving and specifically roasting turkeys. The first one was his opinion on brining turkeys. He said that when he dies, brining turkeys will be on his tombstone. That was something they figured out a while ago - when you soak a turkey in water, it absorbs moisture, but that moisture escapes when the bird is roasted. However, if the water is salted, it breaks down the cellular structure, with the result that the flesh stays moist even if the turkey is cooked at 400 degrees. You shouldn't brine frozen Butterball turkeys, which are already injected with a brining solution, nor kosher turkeys, which are already salted. However, any fresh turkey should be brined. This is especially important for wild or heritage breeds, which have a tendency to be tough.

Someone else asked whether you could cook a turkey in a slow cooker. People started giggling, and Kimball was obviously caught off guard. He asked what size the turkey was, and what cooker the man was thinking of. He concluded, "Don't do it" and "Good luck trying to fit it in there... unless it's a two-pound turkey, it isn't going in." Even if it did work, he thought it would taste awful - it would be a braise, not a roast. The man complained, "But there's no room in the oven!" Kimball said, "Then do what everyone else does: deep-fry it and burn your house down." People laughed, but as Kimball explained, this really is a problem: every year, people try to deep-fry turkeys in their garage or lawn, and flaming grease causes fires, which sometimes kills people. In some towns, fire marshals drive around with loudspeakers warning people not to try it.

An earnest liberal college student talked about the suffering of animals in factory farms, and asked if Kimball would consider promoting vegetarian alternatives like tofu. Kimball said that he agreed about how appalling conditions are for mass-produced meat. He lives on a farm and can raise his own livestock, so he knows that they are treated humanely. He told a funny anecdote about their neighbor who raises three turkeys each year, which are named Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas. This year, they're eating Easter for Thanksgiving, because a weasel killed Thanksgiving and Christmas. Kimball is making sure that his children understand where food comes from. The first year they raised pigs, the kids named the pigs, which "did not end well." Later, he thought his son was getting a little too hardened, when he would walk past the pig stys and whisper, "Bacon!" Getting back to the question, Kimball was a vegetarian for about six months. In Vermont, "meat and potatoes" really is all that you can eat during the winter, so it's very natural for people in that region to eat meat. He respects people who choose vegetarian lifestyles, but he disapproves of meat alternatives like seitan - in his opinion, if you're going to be vegetarian, you shouldn't try to fake meat; instead, just find and enjoy really good vegetable dishes.

Someone asked if he would do a book or program on recipes with fresh California produce, like figs and persimmons. Kimball said no, because it is too regional. He needs to pick recipes with ingredients that anyone in the country can get. Again, he thinks that eating fresh local produce is wonderful, but most of the country can't do it, or at least not with the good results that we can in the Bay Area.

Someone asked if they could make a strudel the day before Thanksgiving. He said no; it wouldn't stay crisp for that long.

There was a little chatter about pie crusts. Pie crusts can be very finicky. Last year, they had a group of Newsweek reporters out for Thanksgiving, and he wasn't satisfied with the way the pies they cooked turned out. So he gave this problem to one of their newest test cooks, a really bright MIT graduate, who spent several weeks on it. They ended up with a new recipe, published in the November/December issue of CI, for foolproof pie dough. The secret is adding vodka: vodka adds moisture, but it doesn't promote gluten formation, due to the alcohol. Of course, the alcohol burns off during baking, and so you're left with a stable, tasty pie crust. (With this comment and others, Kimball amazed me with his encyclopedic memory - he could remember the quantities of flour, water, and vodka, as well as the temperature and time to use in baking.)

"What was your worst kitchen disaster?" "Oh, wow... we don't have time for that." He mulled over it a bit, then settled on a time that he was going to cook a peach and blueberry cobbler for the national press. When he went to pull it out of the oven, he let the pan slip, and the whole mess fell down to the bottom. Since it's a gas oven, it immediately started smoking. His staff shoo'ed the reporters out of the room. In ten minutes, he mixed and rolled out another set of dough, tossed it together, and began baking again. He didn't have any more peaches, so it was just blueberries this time. The second version turned out great, but the reporters asked him, "Wasn't this supposed to be a PEACH and blueberry cobbler?" He said, "No, just blueberries."

An older man wanted to know if CI would make a recipe for fudge. Christopher would love to, but they won't do a recipe unless it's foolproof, and they haven't found a foolproof recipe yet. They put one of their cooks on it, who spent months trying hundreds of versions, and in the course of all the stirring he did, actually dislocated his shoulder. And, they never published the recipe... they just couldn't get something that would work every time. Afterwards, Kimball wondered, "Well, what does Martha do?" So he looked at a Martha Stewart recipe for fudge. At the end of the recipe, she says, "If the fudge doesn't turn out, then pour it over ice cream." She has an answer for everything!

Someone praised their web site feature Cooking for Two, and asked if there were any plans to do a "for two" book. Kimball said that no web site feature has ever had as positive a response as the "for two" one has, and so they're definitely going to be doing something with it. He joked that it was so popular, he was considering adding a new feature, Cooking for One. "How sad is that?" he asked. There was actually some applause when he first mentioned For One, though, and I have to admit that I was among them. He laughed, and said, "What's the next step? Cooking for None?" His overall feeling is that cooking for two means, cook for six and freeze the rest. That said, they'll probably be doing a book on it, sooner rather than later.

A young lady asked how to join the test kitchen. He says "the good news is, you won't have to work for me." They're fairly large now; the organization employs around 90 people, and they even have a full-time human resources employee. As a test cook, they'll bring you in and give you a few recipes to make. They'll watch you do it, but won't talk with you, since that can make people nervous. At the end of the day, they'll give you a recipe to fix at home. Everyone gets the same recipe. You come up with the best version you can, then you write about how you did it. The qualities they look for are patience, skill, and good writing ability.

After the questions, he started signing books. I headed to the front of the store to buy one - seeing the crowd when I first arrived, I grabbed a position without first buying one. I grabbed the one he was promoting, America's Best Lost Recipes. I would probably get more mileage out of the other books they had, like the family cookbook or best international recipe; the Lost Recipe "only" has about 150 recipes, and a good half of those are for desserts. Still, it's a fun book, and I really was buying it for the signature more than the content anyways... it's not like I've ever run out of dishes to make.

It took about an hour to reach the front of the line; he was being really kind and spending some time chatting with everyone who went through, posing for pictures, and so on. I had one of those weird shearing sensations when I finally got close to him... from a distance, he had looked and sounded much like he does on his show, but when you're right in front of him, you can realize just how old he is. That isn't meant as an insult or anything, it just surprised me a little, though I gather it's a very common reaction upon meeting someone from television or the movies. Regardless, he was really pleasant, and I happily walked out of the store clutching my precious book. I can't read what he wrote, but that's all right. It's another brick in the wall of Chris Getting Way Too Interested In Cooking.

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Just finished a fun and bizarre evening - 30 minutes of awesomeness surrounded by eight hours of waiting and anticipation. As you may be able to guess from the post title, I have finally managed to fulfill my long-stated goal to meet Barack himself. I have also maintained my long streak of... Exceptional luck with MADD transit, and so I have 90 minutes to kill in Millbrae while I wait for Caltrain. So, you get a blog post that I'm tapping out on my iPhone while listening to Sigur Ros. Please excuse the inevitable typos - I am tired and while this interface is good for a cell phone, it's still very limited.

The event was held at Bill Graham auditorium, and was insane. The invite said that doors opened at 6:30, so I arrived there around then. Should. Have known better - both of the Kerry rallies I attended in KC were very late. Anyways, on my way over on BART, I started worrying as usual about the event - what if it was poorly attended? Would it only be die-hard supporters?

I need not have worried. The line was amazingly long. Bill Graham fills a full city block, and the line (which was several people abreast) stretched all the way around, overlapped itself, then crossed the street to continue. I was amazed.

The crowd was good; in addition to its size, it was broadly diverse, which is always encouraging to see at political events. I had a nice long chat with a grandma from The Avenues, saw plenty of students and professionals, and quite a few young kids. The crowd was predominantly white, but not overwhelmingly so, and a good number of black, Asian and Hispanic people showed up.

The line finally started moving after 7. I didn't get inside until after 8. Once in, I saw why it had taken so long - everyone had to go through metal detectors, of which they had only two.

The mood was festive and upbeat. I opted for a standing spot near the stage rather than a seat in the balcony. The music was actually good, and interesting, more modern that you tend to hear at these kinds of events. People moved around, and folks in the balcony even started doing the wave.

One interesting thing - the music wasn't painfully loud, but it was loud enough that you couldn't hear people on the stage who were not miked up. Some tried to start chants, but we couldn't hear the words, so it really didn't work. That seemed a shame.

Obama was introduced by Alice Walker, who gave a very short but good and well-received greeting. Then the man arrived.

He really does electrify a crowd. The only thing he said for the first minute was "hey," yet the response was overwhelming. He has an undeniable charisma and presence that can fill a room.

The talk itself was solid. Some of it was jockeying clearly aimed at Clinton, though he never named her. The bulk, though, dealt with his vision of America's potential, and his priorities as President.

A lot of what he said would be familiar to people who read the Times; a few things were new to me, though. His specific pledges included:
Withdrawal from Iraq in 16 months
Closing Guantanamo

He also called out the importance of equal rights for gays and lesbians, which of course got a huge reaction. My immediate thought was, "heh, I bet he doesn't use that line in the South." as I reflect on it, though, he probably does. Among the many things I love about Obama, he is very open about his positions, and doesnt shift his message to fit the audience. He'll tell labor groups that global trade is a good thing, and AIPAC that Israel needs to deal more fairly with the Palestinians. So I don't think we were getting the San Francisco edition of his stump speech.

I was struck by his utter hold over the audience (not excluding me). After most statements, wild cheering and clapping would rise in response. But, when he started talking about his mother's death from cancer, the whole auditorium fell silent, thousands waiting, hushed, for the story's end. It was a touching and slightly eerie feeling.

The night ended simply, with him thanking everyone from coming and waving goodbye. Instead of the mad rush for the exits that I expected, people lingered, perhaps hoping for an encore of some sort. Sadly, he will not return to the West Coast until after the primaries start. I hope that when he next arrives, it is as the head of a flush and confident majority, rolling into the general election and a brighter future for our country.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

I'm famous!

Just saw that my quote made the lead for Dice's analysis of the Bay Area IT tech market. I was surprised and pleased to see it... they had contacted me a few months ago for local information, but they hadn't told me that they'd actually be including my submission.

I'm actually a little embarrassed... my quote reveals my ignorance. I talked about how "J2ME" is the most requested mobile technology. Actually, it's now known as Java ME, and has been for over a year. You can tell I've been out of that game for a while. I suppose that's the downside to being accurately quoted.

The rest of the report is interesting as well. I'm really glad to see Dice giving statistic information in addition to the anecdotal stuff. The overall consensus seems to be that the Bay Area is continuing to see steady demand - not a return to the roaring days of the dot-com boom, but good growth nonetheless.

Oh, and in case anyone is curious - the "over a dozen interviews" are all more than two years in the past. I still use Dice to keep abreast of the market, but have been very fortunate in my work situation since coming out here. In a way, it's very ironic that they peg me as someone who knows their way around the valley, seeing as how recently I've arrived here.

Because I am shameless, I will close this post with the same quote that closes the report. I believe this to be completely true.

As the optimistic Chris King points out, there are always ways to find that next great gig. "If someone has an area of expertise, there is almost certainly a gathering of similar people in place who can help point them in the right direction," he says. "Make sure your skill set is polished and up to date. Attend conferences, read journals, browse technical articles and do whatever you can to keep abreast of the latest research so you will be able to intelligently discuss and select appropriate technologies." In Silicon Valley, you have to keep up if you want to get ahead.