Monday, January 29, 2007

Momapalooza 2007

After an incredibly busy week at work, it was a real joy to have my mom visit for the weekend. This is her second solo trip out here and fourth in total. Her goal is to eventually visit me once for every month of the year, and so she is now one-third of the way there. To September, November, and March she can now add January. (Everything has been on the cool side of the year, but still generally warmer than it is in Chicago.)

I was running on very little sleep and a lot of stress through the middle of the week, but on Friday morning I cleared my last hurdle and was able to wrap everything up in advance of the day's end. Even the interviewing I was involved in didn't make the day feel rushed. As a result, I was feeling relieved and relaxed when I picked up Mom from the airport.

She got in at night (a little ahead of schedule), and we had a simple dinner... some focaccia I had made the day before, hummus and fruit, to which I added some leftover tuna pasta. The rest of the night was spent just talking. We chat nearly every week on the phone, but it's still nice to reconnect in a personal way on the same room.

We both had some trouble sleeping that night. My mom is still on Central Time, so her normal 6am wakeup got translated to 4am. I was still so wired from the work week that I popped awake a little after 4 and wasn't able to fall back asleep, so I ended up just lying on the couch and reading "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" for several hours.

After the sun rose and we were both ambulatory, we headed out to one of my favorite spots in the world, Southern Kitchen. I think it was my mom's third time visiting, though this may have been our first weekend visit. We lucked out perfectly, grabbing the last open table. She ordered a spinach and mushroom omelette with feta cheese while I ordered off the daily specials and got Banana Pecan Buckwheat Pancakes. As always, everything was delicious. My favorite waitress waited on us, and it was just a really pleasant experience... the bustle within the place and cheerful energy can really help a day get started right.

They were predicting some rain that day, so we decided to opt for a more indoorsy experience. One item which has been on my list for a while but that I haven't done yet is visiting the Monterey Bay Aquarium. It's a little out my way at about 80 minutes from my apartment, but the trip down there is great, and it doesn't take much of an excuse for me to try something new. We finished driving south on 17 over the mountains, then picked up Highway 1 and did the coastal drive south. Mom and Dad had taken that route before, but it was the first time I've driven that far south, and it was really pleasant to see the scenery down there. I'm regularly impressed at how little development there is along Highway 1.

The aquarium is extremely well signed, and we got there with very little problem (except for a little confusion at one spot on the walk). While we'd had some rain on the way down there, the skies had cleared up by the time we got there, so we took advantage of the sun and first hit the outdoor exhibits. They have a flood pool, an exhibit on the tides, and some other fun things to look at. In addition, since the aquarium sits directly on the bay, it's fun to just look out at the water. There are kayakers who come right up to the side of the aquarium, plenty of birds, and we even saw a sea lion who came up to the rocks nearby.

The indoor exhibits were excellent as well. Just about any kind of marine life you can think of was represented there: there were tanks filled with sharks, schools of fishes swimming en masse, more kinds of jellies than I knew existed, a pair of octopi, all sorts of stuff. The building is divided into two broad sections, one for the ocean and one for the bay, and each one in turn has a great deal of information in addition to the animals to watch.

Their collection of marine life is definitely the best I've seen anywhere. There were also a lot of other fun items in there. Besides a lot of environmental information, there were exhibits on sea food safety (what kind of fish to eat, wild versus farmed, etc.), contemporary artwork, an exhibit of marine birds and another one of penguins. There's a whole "zone" which is especially for kids and includes a splash pool, lots of hands-on activities, a little tunnel to crawl through. As Mom pointed out, it would be the perfect place to bring a family with little children.

One quick side note: I hadn't known this before, but according to a video there, the octopus is one of the most intelligent sea creatures, and might be the smartest invertebrate. Yet another sign that mankind is meant to be ruled by the octopus overlords, perhaps? Watching two octopi in their tanks was one of the most fascinating moments in what was already a really interesting trip.

We finished all the exhibits in around three hours and then headed home, after a little unintentional detour to find the highway. Once again, it felt like we had timed everything right: got to breakfast before we needed to wait, got to the aquarium when the sun was still out, finished visiting just as it was started to get really crowded, and were back on the road shortly before it started to rain.

On the way back home, we made a stop in what I've decided I'll start referring to as "The Big-Box District". This is an area by the intersection of Highway 17 and Hamilton Avenue. When I moved here there was a Fry's Electronics, Home Depot, and Staples store all in the area; in the last year, a Kohl's and a Bed Bath & Beyond have been added. Mom very generously wanted to buy me a new comforter, so we spent some time in the latter two stores looking at what they had available. I ended up getting a nice, modern-looking black and grey unit with a microsuede top.

One of the many things I enjoy doing with visitors is going to restaurants. I actually very rarely eat out; I'm cooking almost all my meals these days, and it feels awkward for me to eat at a restaurant by myself. At the same time, I love trying new things and especially experiencing different types of cuisine that I can't really prepare for myself. I'd given Mom a short list of places I wanted to try, and we decided on Twist Bistro, a very highly reviewed French restaurant in downtown Campbell.

It seemed like a step up from my standard haunts, so I traded my jeans up to slacks and called to see if I needed a reservation. There was no answer, so we decided to take the chance and went down. The French woman who co-owns the restaurant with her husband greeted us at the door and showed us to our table, which was nicely located towards the rear of the restaurant.

I really liked the ambiance of the place. It wasn't super-elaborate or anything - no candles on the table or stuff like that - but at the same time it was consciously classy and high-service. Our waiter was extremely pleasant, and he was assisted by two other people through the evening who handled all the beverages, clearing the plates, and so on. Soon after we sat down they brought to the table a loaf of warm and crusty bread and a small plate of really tasty marinated carrot slices.

It looked like they had a good wine menu, but we both opted for other beverages - my mom had some sparkling water and I chose some nice hot green tea. For entrees, she had the butternut squash soup and I had the estargot provencal en cocette. (Why? Because I hadn't eaten snails before, and I was curious.) (How were they? Quite good, actually! Very interesting texture, and the sauce they were served in tasted amazing.)

I had been telling Mom earlier in the day that I hardly ever eat red meat any more, so of course I reneged on that for dinner and ordered the Hanging Steak with French Fries. Steak is a very rare treat for me, and I was extremely pleased with what was provided. The fries were delicious as well; extremely crispy with lots of flavor. By the end of the meal some of the fries had soaked up the juices from the steak and that was delicious as well. Mom got a pork chop with mashed potatoes which was evidently quite tasty as well.

As with a lot of restaurants in the area, the physical presentation of the food was nearly as great as the taste. Everything just looks so elegantly and thoughtfully put together, with nice little details that distinguished the dishes.

I hadn't been able to finish my fries, but still really wanted to try their dessert. Making a choice was incredibly hard, not just because so much sounded good, but because I didn't know what a lot of the things on the menu were. I eventually ordered a warm chocolate cake with sauces and grapes. An utterly delicious way to end a meal.

(As great an indulgence as it was, I still don't think it was all that much food. There have been times in the past when I've felt overstuffed when I leave a restaurant; this time around, I was completely satiated without feeling annoyed that they'd given me too much food. Granted, the fact we'd skipped lunch might have helped in that regard.)

We were both feeling pretty tired after the early start to the day, so soon after arriving home we turned in. The next day got started with overnight oatmeal, a fun recipe I found in the Mercury News for cooking Irish steel-cut oats in a slow cooker overnight. It comes out really gummy and tasty.

We next went to Grace Presbyterian Church in Palo Alto, one of the recommendations passed along by Geoff, a College Church connection. It was a good service... they're meeting in a high-school auditorium, and had really wonderful music with good hymn singing and some really talented musicians. The sharing of the peace was awkward, as it always is for me, but the actual sermon (on money, with specific references to Silicon Valley culture and values) was quite good.

On the way home, I did my standard Sunday morning thing and got fruit and veggies for the week from the Campbell farmer's market. We also stopped by Whole Foods to pick up the ingredients for the rest of the day. First on the menu was broiled cod - a really quick and tasty method that's a favorite standby of mine. I rubbed the fishes in a paste of olive oil and basil, and served with strawberries and still more focaccia.

The weather was looking decent in the afternoon, so we went north to the Guadalupe River Park and Gardens. There'd been a lot of publicity when this opened... last summer, I believe. I've been curious about it for a while, but just never got around to trying it.

I had the bright idea of parking by the Heritage Rose Garden and then picking up the trail. Unfortunately, I had trouble finding it, but we found another spot near an access point and got on pretty easily.

The trail is... well, it has its ups and downs. Parts of it are really nice; it runs through downtown and has some great views up-close of the major buildings there, and there are some landscaped areas which look really pretty. There is also a lot of trash on parts of the trail, though, and ongoing construction is causing some annoying detours. Even once everything is "done", I don't think it'll be as convenient as the Los Gatos Creek Trail... there are multiple points on the trail where you need to cross a street or otherwise break up the flow.

That said, though, I could still see myself doing it again. I'd probably stick more on the southern section that runs through downtown, where the trail links together several other points of interest. And I will probably spend a lot more time on the trail if and when it becomes linked to the Los Gatos Creek Trail; it would be a fun way to ride my bike down to the Bay.

There were a couple of drops of water when we started walking, though those disappeared quickly. Soon we saw a rainbow. Throughout the afternoon clouds kept threatening rain, but then the sun would come back out again. After we finished our walk and got back in the car, I had some fun trying to figure out how to get back on the freeway, and some conversation with Mom reminded me of just how confusing the roads here can be to someone who isn't used to them. She'd wondered why I was getting on 280 North since my apartment was south of there; after we got home, I showed her how on that part of the freeway, 280 "North" actually runs south and west.

We called Dad and chatted for a while. He'd spent part of the week visiting his mom in Michigan before attending a conference. I got started on the dinner meal, Pizza Margherita. I can see this becoming a staple of mine - it's pretty easy, I keep most of the ingredients on hand, and it still feels kind of "special" and unique. My very first attempt had been a disaster, but now that I have the proper tools (including a fun SuperPeel (tm) and Pat's Pizza Stone), it's a breeze to make and looks decent. We had the pizza with some wine and, among other things, talked about my parents' experiences eating pizza in Italy when they visited Kathryn.

We finished up the evening with a fun game of Scrabble. Neither my mom or I are all that great at it, at least in comparison to the rest of the greater King family, but we do enjoy the game. Somehow we were both on fire that night, racking up some amazing scores. For a significant stretch of the game we stayed within one or two points of eat other, as each amazing play was followed by an equally impressive one. Towards the end I lucked out with some great plays (playing "Quit" across a triple-word score definitely helped), and pulled out the victory in the end.

And that's more or less it! Monday morning was a pleasant, more leisurely experience than my normal up-wash-eat-out sequence. Good food, good conversation, and good companionship... a great end to another great visit.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fall from Heaven 2: Electric Boogaloo

I bet you thought you were done reading posts about Civilization IV, weren't you? Dream on!

I can confidently say that Civ IV has been my favorite PC game for a while. The replayability, the polish, the sterling design all combine to make an addictive package. I think one of the things I like best about the game is that it is so big that you can only focus on a handful of aspects in any given game. The first several times I played, religion was sort of an afterthought; I would try to found one if I could, but never found much use for it. Then I had a game where I deliberately set out to found as many religions as I could, and spread my state religion throughout the world, and found that I was suddenly playing what felt like a very different game. Not only was the way religion worked itself interesting, it also impacted other aspects of the game in unexpected ways - for the first time, I was able to have good relations with a majority of my opponents before Free Religion, and could keep an eye on what was happening across the world without needing to maintain an expeditionary force or expensive colonies.

While all this has been entertaining, Civ IV has gone the cycle of other games with longer and longer intervals between plays. Warlords was a great expansion and brought me back into the fold for a while, but it just wasn't grabbing me as much as it it did a year and a half ago.

That has changed.

I have rekindled my love of Civ IV, and my destruction will be the result.

It all started innocently enough, when I decided to finally try one of the user-created mods. I downloaded and installed a mod called "Fall from Heaven 2", which is regularly mentioned on Civ Fanatics. I started playing and, well, let's just say that I didn't really have a weekend.

I really want to geek out on this, but part of the joy I've had with this mod has been exploring it and figuring stuff out. So, weird though it is, I'm going to be using the "spoilers" tag in this post... first some general talk about what I think of the mod, then specific information about what playing it has been like.

So, first, for the general: the highest praise that I can give for this mod is that it feels professionally done. The quality is so high that I can imagine it being sold for $30 and people snapping it up. Not only is the game itself amazingly fun (more on that later), but it has the same level of polish that you would expect from Firaxis: gorgeous custom art, custom music, a revamped UI, all the bells and whistles you could hope for. I loved playing user scenarios in Civ II, but could never forget that I was playing a user mod because of all the artifacts from the "real" game that would keep cropping up. I don't get that in Fall from Heaven, and can easily lose myself in the world they've created.

This isn't a scenario, but a mod. What's the difference? A scenario is more focused, usually dropping you in the middle of the action with cities and units on a specialized map, and featuring a constrained set of goals. A mod is a conversion of the whole game, and is played out in a more open-ended fashion. In a scenario, there are only a few viable paths for any given civ to pursue, and your success depends on how well you execute your pursuit; in a mod, all doors are open to you, and your success depends on the path you choose.

The mod contains some of the things you would expect to find in any user-created mod. They've modified the tech tree, added new units, added new civics, and in other ways tinkered with the contents of "vanilla" civ. Fall from Heaven sets itself apart from the pack in the way they execute on these things. The units are gorgeous, wholly original, fitting perfectly into the terrain, and are animated! It's pretty amazing to see a giant spider scuttling through a forest. Everything is very well thought through as well. There are new promotions and new units and new unit classes, and everything fits together well... units have the sorts of promotions you expect they ought to have, and their new special abilities are offset with new promotions designed to counter them.

If all that Fall from Heaven offered was these enhancements, it would still be a darn entertaining diversion. What puts it on another level, though are the ways they've modified the game itself. I'm sticking this below the "mini spoilers" section below. If what you've read so far has gotten you to the point where you're ready to play, here are the links for you.
First of all, download the mod. This is the latest patched version. Note that you only need Civilization IV to play, not Warlords.
You can also check out the forums. This mod doesn't really have its own website, but the forum has a great collection of FAQs, design information, and other useful information. You don't need to start reading before you play, but it's a great resource if you run into questions.
Finally, there's also a wiki. The information in it isn't complete, but what is there is generally easier to find than searching through the forums.

Two final tips before I go spoilery. First of all, while the Civilopedia has been updated for FfH, there are still some gaps. If you can't find the information you need in the civilopedia entry, try hovering over the option and reading "Sid's Tips", which will sometimes include what you need. If that fails, try the wiki or the forum, or just research/build/promote it and find out! Secondly, realize before you start that playing this will be like your first game of Civ IV, when you didn't understand how everything worked. Expect some confusion, surprises, and occasional frustration, followed by moments of pure bliss and excitement. Your first game probably won't be very successful, but try to learn as much as you can, and your next try will be that much better.

Now, on with the

One way to think of Civ IV is as a game of systems. There's a combat system, a religious system, a trade system, a diplomacy system. One of the most impressive parts of Fall from Heaven 2 is actually introducing a new system: the magic system.

Magic is one of the most confusing aspects of the mod, but once you start to get your head around it, it opens up an entire new game. It is an independent system that also impacts other areas, like resource management, trade, and combat. First of all, you gain access to magical sources, including Fire, Light, Chaos, Nature, and other good stuff. Then you can create special magical units (like Adepts) who tap those sources to learn spells. For example, if you have access to Fire, they can cast a Fireball; if you have Spirit, they can cast Courage.

It's the spells themselves that are the main point of the magic system, and they break apart from the normal civ game. Examples might be better than trying to explain it. If you have an adept with Nature, he can cast Treetop Defense. This gives all units in the same square the Treetop Defense promotion. As long as they stay within forests, they gain an extra 2 first strikes. If they ever leave the forests, they lose the promotion. On the other hand, the Fireball spell will spawn a Fireball unit, which strikes enemies and causes collateral damage.

So, how do Adepts learn spells? There are two ways that I know of. First of all, if you have access to 2 or more sources of a particular type of magic, they get those spells for free. If you have access to just 1 source of that magic, they can use a promotion to learn it.

Those of you who have played D&D are probably asking by now, "But how can Adepts gain enough levels to get the powerful spells? A Level 1 mage is incredibly weak." Yes, it is. But one of the brilliant parts of the mod is that Adepts will gradually gain XP without doing anything! This means that, for example, a healer will eventually be able to get the most powerful healing spells even without entering into combat.

Magic has been one of the most striking things I've run across so far in the game. The awesome thing is, I've barely scratched the surface. You can't train adepts until you're a decent portion into the game, and it takes time to level them up. From what I've seen, there are even more options available for magic. Adepts are generalists who can gradually learn and cast any type of magic. By contrast, there are cleric-type units who have access to fairly powerful spells associated with their religion. A player could eschew the time-consuming and complex process of training Adepts and instead field an army of mid-power magic wielders right off the bat, trading in long-term potential for immediate effect.

No only that, down the line, I'll be trading up my Adepts at some point. One option available to me will be creating Summoners, who can create summoned creatures who will fight for me for a time before disappearing. Best of all, some of those creatures (like Ifrit) can cast spells of their own! The possibilities are almost endless.

OK, I shouldn't let this post only be about magic. Let's move on and discuss some of the other cool things in the game.

One of the first things you'll notice when you start the game is that this game has now developed morality. Your very first choice will be whether to choose a leader who is Good, Neutral, or Evil. This has a big effect on diplomacy - two Good leaders are much more likely to develop close ties, while a Good and Evil player will edge towards conflict. Additionally, there are some options later in the game, like Civics, which can only be chosen by players of the appropriate alignment.

Fall from Heaven modifies some existing leader traits, and creates new ones. Some of these specifically fit new elements of the game; some leaders are Magic Resistant, and have a better chance of standing against magical enemies. Some are really interesting ideas that could fit into the main game as well. One of these is "Flexible", and allows you to actually modify your other traits every 100 years. (Think of how useful this could be. Early in the game you could be Creative and start building your borders immediately; later on you might switch to Philosophical while you try to get your Great Prophet and Academy, and in the end game you could switch to Financial and have an amazing economy.)

As a gamer, I really enjoy playing this mod because it's so much fun. As a programmer, I am repeatedly impressed at the skill of the modders in crafting this. One of the coolest things is the Sprawling trait. The big thing that this trait does is allow your cities to work the third ring of their cities. That means that, instead of 20 potentially workable city tiles, each city can work up to 36. To balance this, you can only build three cities. Any time you found a city, you have a choice: make it a "real" city, or make a "settlement". Settlements produce culture and can allow you to access special resources, but they can't build anything.

Anyways. My civ (the Kuriorates) are Sprawling, and it has been an amazing experience. Again, the coolest thing about Fall from Heaven is the ways in which it feels totally different from normal Civ. I'm finding that a bunch of my existing strategies just can't work with this trait, while at the same time it generates more possibilities than I ever had before. Best of all, the particular problems I need to resolve are unique to civs with this trait; my next game will probably be with someone else, and I'll be figuring things out again (though I'll have better insight in how to deal with the Kuriorates should I happen to run into them).

Another thing the Kuriorates have is access to a unique religion. Well, almost unique, but I'm one of only two civs who can found it. It's called Cult of the Dragon. Unlike a normal religion, there are no temples or priests. Instead, it spreads through cities like a disease. New units who are built in Cult-aligned cities have a slight chance of defecting to join my empire if they ever enter my cultural borders. And very late in the game, I'll be able to build a unique Dragon hero which looks like one of the most powerful units in the game.

Oh, I haven't talked about heroes yet? Let us rectify that.

You know how in Civ IV, you have buildings, and then you have wonders? You can build any building provided you have the prerequisites, but only one World Wonder can exist, and each country can only have one National Wonder. Well, Fall from Heaven extends the same idea to units. These special units are called Heroes, they are unique, and they are extremely powerful. Some of them are simply unique by technology... my favorite example so far is Typhoid Mary, who is buildable after you discover Alchemy. Others are unique by religion; only someone who follows Fellowship of Leaves can build Yvain the Wood Elf. Still others are unique by civilization; as the Kuriorates, I am the only civilization who can build Eurabatres the Gold Dragon.

So that describes the uniqueness. Where does the power come in? First of all, many of these units have special abilities that are rare or unavailable in other places. Typhoid Mary is a great example here - she can spread the Plague, a devastating negative effect that can kill a unit many turns after she attacked. Even the units without really cool abilities are still awesome, though. That's because, much like Adepts, Heroes automatically gain XP. Unlike Adepts, they gain it much more quickly - 1 point for every turn! If you've played vanilla Civ IV, you're probably salivating by now. These units will have the chance to become extraordinarily powerful and give you the chance to play with all the fun, interesting promotions that are extremely hard to come by. Best of all, your units can get those fun, interesting promotions BEFORE they need to be risked in battle.

(Side note: This fixes something I considered to be broken in vanilla Civ IV. I generally loved the siege warfare system, but units didn't gain XP from bombarding cities. As a result they couldn't level up and get the more powerful bombardment promotions unless they attacked units outright, which they were poorly suited for and almost always died. Doesn't it seems little bizarre that an army could shell city walls for thousands of years and never get any better at it?)

Despite all that gushing, the fact is I only have one Hero so far and haven't done much with it yet... I'm currently leveling it up to challenge a red dragon. Still, I love the idea. In some ways, I think that the Hero feature inverts the combat system of Civ IV. As I commented in an earlier blog post, to succeed at war in Civ IV, you need to build large armies and lose a lot of units in order to get the promotions for more powerful fighters. (This is in contrast to Civ II, etc., where you could be a generation ahead of your opponents, build one or two powerful units, and use them to conquer a continent.) Fall from Heaven moves the pendulum back towards focusing on a few powerful units. I think that in any war, your heroes will be the ones leading attacks against enemy cities, and only another hero or an awful lot of defenders will have a shot at slowing them down. The catch, of course, is that your opponents will have heroes of their own. I get the feeling that wars will be a lot more about supporting your most powerful units (with the help of sorcery, healers, etc.).

There's one more major thing I want to talk about before going into the specifics of my current game. That is the revamp of religion. I already briefly talked about Cult of the Dragon above, which is an interesting religion. There are also some other religions which operate more closely to the Civ IV model, but with special aspects of their own. Like Civ IV, they are founded by researching a particular technology. However, Civ IV went out of its way to avoid any religious controversy by making all the religions identical. Other than the name and music, there was absolutely no difference between Christianity, Taoism, and Hinduism; each was a means towards more gold and happiness. In Fall from Heaven, though, the religions are radically different from one another, and the choice you make will affect your entire strategy.

Once again, it's probably more helpful if I describe an example than if I try to talk about this generally. I founded the religion Octopus Overlords, which is awesome... it deliberately evokes the Cthulhu mythos. Right off the bat, switching to the religion turned my alignment from Good to Neutral; apparently it isn't very Good to send your citizens nightmare visions of Ancient Old Ones who rend their flesh in their sleep. The dominant themes of the Octopus Overlords are surrender of the will and oppression. I can sacrifice my warriors and turn them into The Drown, who are undead units that can walk on the water(!). Only those who follow Octopus Overlords can build Asylums, which in turn allow you to train Lunatics and boost your science. Similarly, only those who follow the Octopus can research Mind Stapling (hooray for the reference to Alpha Centauri!), which lets you adopt the Slavery civic. But wait! It's not quite the same as the Civ IV. Sure, you can still whip your population to finish production, but you can also capture actual slaves in your battles, and put them to work furthering your empire.

Hopefully that gives you the idea. The point is, Octopus Overlords has its own traits that makes it very different from other religions, and will have a decided impact on how you can pursue your goals. If you were interested in building up a powerful economy, you might choose Runes of Kilmorth instead. If you were interested in a religion that greatly helped your defense and would help you play a more isolationist game, Fellowship of Leaves would be the logical choice. I'm not too familiar with the later religions of The Order and The Ashen Veil, but I feel confident they provide similar choices and offsets.

Before jumping into actual spoilers, here's a quick rundown of complaints I have so far with the mod:
1. As mentioned above, it's sometimes hard to find help text, which is scattered between the Civilopedia, the item description, and Sid's Tips.
2. More of a wish-list thing, but I'd love it if they could do animated leaderheads and wonder videos. (It's pretty impressive that they've modified the religion videos.) The downside, of course, as that these would further increase an already-large 250-MB-ish download.
3. Better spawning of starting civs would be nice. I've figured out that in my current game of 6 civs, 4 were Good and another 2 were Neutral. I don't know if the mod authors can affect this, but it would be interesting to have more balance.

Those are really more quibbles than complaints. As it stands, the mod already feels more complete and polished than, say, Desert War did. Count me impressed. This mod will be giving me several more months of enjoyment out of Civ. I get the feeling it's probably even more impressive in multiplayer; I'm curious how well the AI knows to deal with the new features that have been added in the game.

Okay, now for a brief talk through some

I've already talked about a lot of specific things up above; hopefully they didn't spoil anything too severely. The balance I'm trying to strike in this post is between stuff they've done in the game system, versus specific cool things. That said, let's go on, and examine some of the things I love about this mod.

Ancient Temples are awesome. I couldn't figure out what they did, but went ahead and founded a city near one anyways. Now I know: after you discover Sanitation, you can have a Hunter explore the temple, which then generates an extra 7 gold per turn. Score!

Watchtowers. When I first stepped onto one, I just sort of stopped and went, "Wow". That's an amazingly cool feature. (It's a terrain feature which gives any unit that steps on it an amazing view radius of, like, six squares.)

The coming of the Red Dragon was really cool. At first I freaked out, because that city was really close by one of mine, and I was worried that it would destroy my empire. Fortunately it stayed put. I've had units fortified near it for, like, forever. Right now Saverous is levelling up to attack it. I can't wait to find out what the treasure trove is.

There's a surprising amount of humor, considering the subject matter of the mod. Some of it is pretty scattershot, but that adds to the charm... I appreciate the non-sequitor appeal of Guybrush Threepwood and Sir Not Appearing In This Game. And in a sick way, I love the screaming noises you keep hearing when the Octopus Overlords do something.

I'm curious how many more special events there will be, like the coming of the Red Dragon or the Axe. Too many could make it too scenario-ish, but at the same time, I love the special aspect of them. Yet another thing that pulls the game out of Civ IV-dom and into its own thing. Either way, the desire to find out is yet one more thing that'll keep me glued to the keyboard for hours more.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Beware the Vengeful Ghost of Doctor King!

Oddly enough, for a fairly liberal company in a quite liberal region in a generally liberal state, we don't observe Martin Luther King Day at my office. Instead we observe the holiday next month for dead white Presidents.

I came into work today a little before my standard 7AM starting time. I did my normal Monday tasks: submitting last week's timesheet, previewing my calendar, going through my email. I figured today would probably be a pretty quiet day - a major client does take the day off, and most of my own projects are well on schedule.

I quickly found out that our bug-tracking database was down. That provided a slight hiccup; we use this to track a lot of assignments, so until it came back up I wouldn't be receiving additional bugs to fix. Later on I found out that our version control repository was down as well. This was an even bigger hiccup, since it meant I couldn't check out or commit any code.

Other people began trickling in around 9AM. While I have other things to keep myself productive, some of them don't, so they put out the distress call for repairing these two crucial pieces of software. One received a recommendation for the standard Microsoft fix: turn the router off and then back on again. They dutifully followed orders, then "poof"! The entire network connection went down.

It was around this point that I started to think that maybe someone was sending us a message. Maybe we'd be wise to heed it and take off MLK day next year.

It's also pretty surprising just how much of our work is dependent on our networked tools. On the surface, the bulk of what I do should be possible without any network connection: all the code is locally on my hard drive, and writing code is the core of my job. But there are many unexpected ways in which I run into roadblocks. I can't simulate certain events, because they require receiving data from the network. I can't check the design for certain components, because they're stored on our wiki. I can't ask a question of our guy in Chicago, because he's only reachable on AIM.

It's not all bad, though. Situations like this are a perfect excuse to do the stuff I always want to do but never seem to have time for: clear out my inbox. Delete unwanted files. Sort my desk drawers. All sorts of things that will provide a little extra efficiency down the road.

The network finally came back up around noon. All in all, not bad... it was a good way to break up the day and force myself to get to some stuff, while still giving me enough time to feel like everything that needed to be done, got done.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Decisions, Decisions!

This February, my 2-year contract with Sprint will expire. I've been looking forward to this for a while. I originally signed up with Sprint because my previous company was paying the monthly bill; now that they're gone, I've been handling it myself. It isn't backbreaking or anything, but still, I've been looking forward to grabbing a new plan that fits me better. For the past 18 months or so, I've pretty much taken it for granted that I'd switch to Verizon when this day comes.

Now that the moment of reckoning is drawing closer, though, I'm finding the decision more complicated than I'd thought. This post is an opportunity for me to get all my thoughts down, as well as to gently solicit input from my intelligent and attractive readers.

Here, as I see it, is my situation.

  • A BREW-enabled phone would be nice. I'd enjoy playing with and showing off my company's applications, plus having a non-work phone that I can do personal development for.
  • Good local coverage. Almost all of my calls are made from my apartment, but occasionally I'll use my phone at work or on the go.
  • Good national coverage. I rely extensively on my phone when I'm traveling, and use it far more often than I do when I'm at home.
  • A 408 area code. I'm still dragging around the 913, well after I've left the Kansas City area. It's a status thing, but one I'd like to have.
  • Cheap plan. When you multiply any voice plan by 12, you're left with a hefty annual fee. I'd like to keep that as small as possible.
  • Data access. Although I very rarely use them, I do appreciate the ability to access the mobile web, Google Maps, Google Mail, and other applications on my phone.

  • I very rarely use my "anytime" minutes. I currently have the lowest Sprint plan, at 300 minutes, which I have never exceeded. I average less than 100 minutes a month.
  • Very occasionally, I will download a game (two in the two years I've had the phone). It's nice to have to kill time, but I very rarely play them.
  • I don't have a landline phone at home. I am overjoyed as this keeps me from needing to deal with my hated archnemesis, SBC/ATT, but this also means good home coverage is very important.
  • I don't use my phone for email, just the very occasional text message.
  • I'm not interested in using a phone for music. That's what my new ipod nano is for.
  • I'm not all that attracted to the PDA/Smartphone segment. Well, as a technology I think they're cool, but I don't see myself using those features much at all.

Now, let's break this down, carrier by carrier.
First up is Verizon, who I've been assuming for a while I'd use.
  • Top customer satisfaction in latest Consumer Reports survey.
  • The major BREW carrier in the US.
  • Excellent coverage at work.
  • My company will pay for the phone (handset only) if I switch.
So far, so good. Why am I hesitating?
  • Cheapest individual plan is $40/month, for 450 minutes. That feels like a waste, since it's 150 more minutes than my current plan and 350 more minutes than I need. Also, this plan includes free weekends but not free nights.
  • Data usage counts against voice minutes. That means that if I spend 30 minutes playing around online, that's 30 minutes off my monthly total. This may cancel out the first negative, but I don't want to risk going over since VZW is less forgiving about overages than, say, Sprint.
  • VZW really locks down their phones. It's impossible to get third-party apps like the Google things on there... anytime there's something cool to do, VZW wants to make sure you pay them. This extends to difficulty in finding good peripherals.

Once I started digging, I began to think about looking elsewhere. Verizon makes an awful lot of sense given my current job, but if I ever switched jobs, I knew I'd dislike them. So, in contrast to VZW, what's the most open network that's out there? It'd be a tossup between T-Mobile and Cingular. Let's consider T-Mobile.
  • High customer satisfaction in latest CR survey.
  • Open, GSM-based architecture.
  • Basic plan is $30 a month for 300 minutes. (Free nights and weekends.)
  • Just about $5 a month for unlimited data access.
  • According to their excellent coverage map, there's almost no coverage at my apartment. They get big points for honesty, but this is a deal-breaker for me.
  • The EDGE, their data network, is legendarily awful.
  • They've locked users out of Google Maps, one of my favorite phone apps.

So it came to pass that, much to my surprise, I was looking at Sprint again. There's plenty that has annoyed me about them, but assuming I could pick my plan from scratch, the only real complaint I have with them is bad coverage at work. Even there, I can make calls outside just fine, and have a landline inside, so while annoying it isn't a dealbreaker.
  • Good coverage at home.
  • They offer a 200-minute plan for $30/month. (Free nights and weekends.)
  • Unlimited data for $15/month.
  • Sprint locks down their network but not their phones; free access to J2ME applications.
  • They'll give me a $150 credit towards a new phone if I stick with them.
  • Poor reception at work.
  • Poor customer satisfaction ratings in latest CR survey.
  • Not sure if it'll be inconvenient to change my number and downgrade my plan when extending my contract.

For completeness's sake, let's consider Cingular.
  • Decent coverage at home and work, according to their coverage map.
  • Possibly the most open network of any major carrier.
  • Cheapest plan is $40/month for 450 minutes. Nights and weekends aren't unlimited, but DO include 5000 minutes, way more than I could use if I tried.
  • Cingular charges for data by the kilobyte, arguably the dumbest pricing structure on the planet.

Most other carriers (Alltell, MetroPCS, etc.) are regional in nature and either not available out here or would be too limiting when I travel.

So, that's that. I'd better hurry up and post this before Steve Jobs announces the Apple cell phone and throws the universe into chaos.

UPDATE 1/9/07: Like any good geek, I'm salivating after Steve Jobs' presentation at the expo this morning. There's a lot to say, but I'm sure all of it is being said better by people other than me, so I'll focus on the point relevant to this post. The iPhone is an amazingly attractive piece of hardware and one I'd love to have. That being said, it doesn't really enter into the analysis above. (1) I can't justify dropping $500 on a phone that I hardly ever use. (2) The monthly charge thing is what I'm focusing on, and the data plan for that thing isn't going to be cheap. (3) I just don't think I'm going to use the cool features on it all that much. (4) It won't come out until this summer, and I need to make a decision in the next month or so. (5) It's a Cingular exclusive, and I'm ambivalent towards them as a carrier. (Far from the worst, but not sure if I want to be locked in with them because of an expensive phone.)

Also, it turns out that my company is no longer paying for Verizon phones, which is a shame, albeit an understandable one. So that knocks Verizon down a little bit more.