Tuesday, May 22, 2007

That tire is on fire!

This is about two weeks out of date, but I've been meaning to blog about it for a while, so I shall do so now!

I love cycling to work, but I'm not fanatical about it. If I need to run errands after work or otherwise have need of an automobile, I'll cheerfully switch to four wheels for the day.

Two Tuesdays ago, I drove to work because I was planning on going directly to G'Day Google afterwards. Those plans were sadly destroyed in the afternoon. Rice, my cubicle neighbor (and fellow before-9-am-arrival-person), walked into my cube and asked, "Mr. King, you drive a black Saturn, right?" "Yes," I said. "I think you have a flat tire," he responded.

Big sigh.

This is pretty much the first time I've had any problems with my ION. More than that, it was just a shock. I kind of imagined that getting a flat tire would involve some loud popping noise, some thumping on the payment, some sort of immediate feedback. I hadn't noticed anything unusual on my way to work, though, and was just finding out about this about seven hours later.

I went outside to take a look, and sure enough, he was right... there was still a good chunk of air left, but it was visibly lower than the other. I went back inside under a cloud, stared at my computer, and opened my web browser.

I remembered specifically not joining AAA because I had some other roadside assistance. I was trying to remember what that was. If I was still under warranty I would have been able to call Saturn; the warranty has been out for almost a year now, though. I was pretty sure I had some special service through one of my credit cards, but it took a little digging to find it out. Eventually I located the number, was connected with their travel service people, and after a little discussion (and a fifty-dollar charge), a truck was on its way.

In retrospect, I probably could have fixed it for cheaper. Rice suggested using a bicycle pump to put back some air and then driving to a regular service station. I technically could have changed to the spare, but I haven't done it before and don't have a lot of confidence in my abilities. All things considered, I sort of cringed at the cost, but it seems sort of worthwhile for someone else to handle it.

There was a bit of a wait before the guy arrived, so I spent a bit of time looking into the situation. I googled "flat tire" and "how to change a tire" and was stunned to see that almost every response had to deal with bicycle tires. "That's bizarre," I thought. "There must be way more people interested in car tires than bicycle tires." After a while, though, I realized what was happening: for a while now, I've participated in Google's personalized search feature, which keeps track of the history of your searches and returns responses that are more relevant to you. So, for example, someone who searches for a lot of video games and then searches for "Diablo" might have their first link be to the Blizzard Diablo 2 web site, while someone who searches a lot for landmarks in the San Francisco Bay Area and then runs the same search will instead have their first link be to Mount Diablo.

All that to say, I can't decide whether to be impressed or disturbed that Google has been observant enough of my interests to realize that I am interested in bicycles, and make the decision to focus on bicycles when I was actually interested in something else. No harm was done, though... I just started searching for "car flat tire" and "how to change a car tire" and started getting the results I wanted.

The guy showed up, along with someone who may have been his wife. It was interesting... they were real friendly and we had some nice conversation, but at the same time, it was just obvious that we were coming from totally different worlds. I haven't met people like that since coming to the Bay Area... I think "down to earth" is the polite phrase.

I'd originally requested help changing my tire, but once he saw my spare (it's a puny little thing, not a full tire), he offered to patch it instead for a few more bucks. I agreed, then stood around as he tried to find the puncture. I was kind of surprised at all the junk which was in the tire, but none of it was the culprit... and then, at last, he found a tiny hole. The way to determine if something is actually a puncture, incidentally, is to pour a little water on top; if it's leaking, the air will cause bubbles to come up through the fluid. See, you learn something new every day!

After that, he proceeded with the patch, which actually looked a little scary. He got out a knife and cut to make the hole bigger, then took a... tube or something, which may have been made out of rubber, and threaded it through. Then he doused the patch with a fluid, pulled out a cigarette lighter, and set it on fire. He let it burn for a few seconds while the rubber melted, then put it out, and went about returning the tire to my car. An extremely noisy pump was soon at work refilling the tire pressure.

Needless to say, I was thoroughly impressed.

So, all's well that ends well, and while this definitely wasn't a pleasant experience, it sure could have been a whole lot worse... I'm glad it was discovered at work during the day, and not when cruising down the 880 at night. I missed the Google event, but again, it could have been much worse.

I was really nervous for the next few days after that - I'd check on my car at least twice a day (if I wasn't driving) or every few hours (if I was), just to make sure that the patch really was holding. Good news, though: the seemingly low-tech solution appears to be a winner, and I'm now two weeks out without any further troubles.

So, that's that. A big thanks to my observant co-worker Rice who spared me a potential world of pain, and the nice man from White Trash Auto (no, I'm not making that up!) who saved the day, and taught me that it's ok to set your tire on fire.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

I'm good enough, I'm smart enough, and doggone it, people will elect me in 2008!

Last year I went to hear Al Franken on his Midwest Values Tour. It was kind of an odd event, a combination of a comedy show and a partisan screed; it was also a fundraiser for his Midwest Values PAC, and when I bought tickets I had to report the contribution to the FEC. I've gotten on his mailing list. For those of you who don't track it that closely, Franken has been making noises for about four years now that he might be interested in retaking Paul Wellstone's old Senate seat from Norm Coleman. He finally declared his campaign earlier this year, and now is slightly leading the field of DFL candidates for the primary.

Anyways! In theory I wholeheartedly approve. Al is incredibly bright and articulate, has solid positions on the issues, and has been involved in politics for most of his career. At the same time, I have some hesitation. He can come across as very arrogant, and while he has worked well with Republicans in the past (including, oddly Gary Bauer), his recent rhetoric has been kind of poisonous. It's hard to imagine him building coalitions in the Senate. Also, Minnesota had a turbulent experience with its last celebrity candidate when Jesse Ventura won the governor's seat. I wouldn't blame them if they wanted to take a pass on this exciting candidate.

So, when I got my first fundraising letter from him, I was pleased but didn't act on it. My current thinking has been, I'll let the Minnesotans decide whether they're prepared for Senator Franken, and if he wins the DFL nomination, I'll support him in the general election against Coleman. Today I got another letter from him, though, and from the very first words I've been tempted to renege on that decision. The letter opens with "Dear Person I'm Asking for Money." Haha! There's a remarkable honesty there that I haven't seen in any of the (many) fundraising letters I've gotten before, and I think I'll need to donate just to reward his candor.

The letter as a whole is quite good - he covers the expected territory (how hard he's working on his campaign, the progress they're making, and the need for support), but everything is done with a wry, good-natured touch. I won't retype the whole thing here, but I do want to include the very end.

P. S. FEC regulations require that all fundraising letters have post-scripts so that the author can make one last pitch for your hard-earned money. [Boy, he isn't kidding - has it always been that way, or just since I started getting them? -ed.] But I think I've kind of made the point about needing your money pretty effectively in the body of this letter, so I thought I'd fill the space with a plug for barbecue sauce. It's made by the kids at Westbrook Walnut Grove High School in Fulda, Minnesota. I was at a DFL dinner there (it's in the southwestern corner of the state) one night, and they had this amazing pulled pork with "Prairie Smoke" barbecue sauce. That was also the night I learned it's tough to do the whole handshaking thing when you're also trying to eat a pulled pork sandwich.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Hamilton Shmamilton

I figure fanatical devotees of Alexander Hamilton are more likely to be reading this blog than anything else, so this is a quick note to let you all know that you missed the two-hour American Experience special on my favorite founding father.

However, not to worry! This being a PBS program, it will be replayed constantly in the near future on your local station. Even cooler, though, is that starting tomorrow (May 16th), it will also be available for free online. It isn't very clear to me whether it's ONLY available on the 16th or any time after that, hence my posting this.

If you're a fan of Hamilton, this should be a good opportunity to dig deeper into his story. If you don't know much about him, tune in and prepare to be surprised by his amazing life story and the enormous impact he had on shaping our country. If you belong to the vast ranks of Hamilton-haters, I beg of you to be open-minded. Hamilton has been slandered for over 200 years, and much received wisdom about the man is simply false. Try to take a fresh look at the man and his actions, and you may be pleasantly pleased at what you find.

Update 5/19/07: It looks like the program is still available via the link above, which is good news. It'd be cool if they kept it up there for a while. And fair, too. After all, our taxpayer dollars paid for those wigs!

My quickie review: this is a good gloss on Hamilton's life. It's a testament to the man's prolific (though tragically short) career that I'm tempted to call it "too short" at two hours, but there you go. If I had my druthers, it would have focused a bit less on his private life and a bit more on his role in founding crucial national institutions: the program barely mentions the National Bank, the creation of the tax and tariff system, the abolition movement, or his role in creating an American industrial sector.

Those are the complaints of a Hamilton loyalist, though. The fact is, anyone who sits through two hours of public television is going to feel disappointed if they don't get a story out of it, and PBS was wise in making the choices they did. The program isn't dumbed down, just a limited view at an extraordinary man. Hopefully people will see this, be impressed, and then pick up Chernow's biography of Hamilton to learn more.

Tuesday, May 01, 2007

I get knocked down! But I get up again! Ain't ever gonna keep me down!

In the latest episode of Chris Tries to Distract Himself From Buying Oblivion And Therefore Spending Thousands of Dollars, I returned to the beautiful land of Civilization 4. My last attempt at playing a Civ IV scenario turned out so well that I figured I'd return to the well.

I frequent Civ Fanatics semi-frequently; my blog posts notwithstanding, I'm actually not THAT much of a fanatic. Still, I'm regularly impressed by all the effort people put into the community, making models and maps and whatnot, and keep more or less up to date with the major movements out there.

All that being said, Fall from Heaven 2 is definitely the top modpack for Civ IV, and Rhye's and Fall of Civilization holds a strong second place. I had been somewhat intrigued by what I'd previously read about Rhye's, so it made a logical next step.

Rhye's is a mod that attempts to fix a "problem" that has plagued Civilization since the very first version: it is not an accurate game. This is most obvious when you play on an Earth map, and are confronted with the comedy of Lincoln founding Washington in 4000 BC, or the Russians invading France in 2000 BC. Even if you don't strictly follow Earth history, I think everyone understands that real history is much more complex: empires rise and fall, great nations are split apart by internal strife, and overall things are just much more fluid than "7 nations attempt to survive for 6000 years".

Rhye's is very different from FfH. FfH had a great dynamic map generator; Rhye's is always played on a phenomenally detailed Earth map. FfH eschews Civ's historical trappings while retaining some of its rhythms; Rhye's embraces the history but completely uproots the flow of the game.

You start Rhye's by choosing a civ. All of the Civ IV options are there, but leader traits are gone. Instead there are special powers that are truly unique to each Civ - Japan gets 100% city defense, Vikings get five times the plunder when sacking a city, and so on. In what might be the coolest change for this game, each civ also has unique Historical Goals in addition to the standard ways of winning the game. By accomplishing three tasks, you win the game, regardless of the state of your empire. The Indians, with their Spiritual bent, can win by (1) founding Hinduism and Buddhism; (2) found five religions total; and (3) be 1st in population in 1200 AD. On the other hand, the Aztecs must fend off European encroachment by (1) enslaving 5 European units; (2) Not allowing any European colonies in Central America and the Southern United States by 1700 AD; and (3) Entering the Industrial Age by 1820.

As with FfH, these historical goals help each civ feel totally unique. If you're a warmonger, you should go with someone like the Romans or the Vikings, who not only give you bonuses to your fighting but actively reward you for doing so. And, much as I like options like the Cultural Victory in the main game, it's great to see that you can win the game with a small and/or inaggressive civ... but only if you pick the right one and play it well.

After you choose your civ, you wait! And wait! Remember, this is an accurate historical simulation. The only civs who get to start playing immediately are the Egyptians, the Chinese, and the Babylon; otherwise, you must wait as the AI plays the game up until the point where your civ enters the stage. If you're Greece or Persia or Japan, you won't have that long to wait; if you're America, you might as well go and run some errands.

The actual mechanics of the game are fairly similar to vanilla Civ - you research technology, found cities, build units and improvements, declare war and fight battles as normal. However, Rhye has added a ton of extra stuff to the main game. I think it comes down to this: whenever there was a choice between historical accuracy or fun, the Civ IV design team always chose fun, and Rhye always chooses accuracy.

What does this mean? Well, for example, let's consider the Plague. The Plague is a devastating illness that periodically sweeps across the world, spread by trade routes and roads. It gives a tremendous kick to your cities, adding an extra 6 or so Unhealthiness markers, which can easily arrest the growth of your cities and even plunge you into a famine. That's not all, though! The Plague also affects your units, causing them to drop health every turn. And yes, they can actually DIE as a result of this! Your entire army can be destroyed as you helplessly watch!

The game also tends to be much more historically accurate. The AI is programmed to build cities at their correct historical location, with the proper name. Religions will automatically be founded in the proper time at the right city if nobody discovers them before then. The AI also seems to be very good at pursuing their historical goals, and thus behaving accurately, whether it means strong territorial aggression or single-minded research.

One of the most radical aspects of the game is the founding of empires. Not only is this scattered, as described above, but it's also very disruptive. Once an empire is founded, cities in nearby civilizations will often revolt and try to join the new civ.

Overall, I was extremely impressed by this game - it is technically brilliant, has a high level of polish, and is undeniably more realistic than the main game of Civ. Ultimately, though, I'm not playing Civ because I want to run a historical civilization; I'm playing it because I want to have fun. There are so many aspects of Rhye's which seem really cool until they happen to you, at which point it's easy to get frustrated. Even when you do everything right, you can get blindsided by something you have no control over, and you may find it impossible to recover. It's true that life isn't fair, but that doesn't mean unfairness makes games fun.

All that being said, I did enjoy the one game I played, but it felt like a lot of work; I'll probably return to FfH before I return to this game. Here I played a game as Greece; I did it on the easiest possible setting, and still had to do a lot of save-and-loads to keep from getting utterly wiped out. In one case I restored all the way back to Turn 1; one of their goals is to build four wonders (Oracle, Parthenon, Colossus, and Temple of Artemis) by 50 AD, and by the turn of the millennium I only had one wonder and one city. Oops!

The second attempt went better - I founded my second city pretty rapidly, and a third a bit after that, and set all three to work churning out Wonders. It was tough, but I was making good progress... until Rome was founded. Promptly, my second city revolted, then Rome invaded and I got the plague and died. Oops!

I went back to the founding of Rome and changed tacks, declaring war on them immediately, trying to hold them off at the sea as long as I could, then giving them lots of technology as I sued for peace. One really nice thing about this game is that a lot of bad situations don't seem as bad as they would in the main game - I ordinarily hate giving up research, but if I'm planning to beat the game in a few hundred years, it won't necessarily make that great of a difference.

Things went better in this pass, but I still just barely squeaked the Temple of Artemis in under 50 AD with a single turn to spare. That goal proved to be the hardest. The next - being the first civ to discover Philosophy - was actually pretty easy, albeit time-consuming. The third and most interesting was being the first to circumnavigate the globe.

Once again, I needed to confront a powerful Mediterranean power; this time it was Carthage. They didn't like me, and wouldn't let my ships go through their territory to the Atlantic. I broke the treaty and moved ships through. They promptly sent over an invasion force and seized Athena. Oops.

Restore. This time I made them my bestest friends in the whole world, gifting Carthage all my spare resources and some free techs. They came to like me, and after a few decades of patient waiting, they agreed to Open Borders. With a "Yippee!" I sent out some Triremes, followed a century later by my first Caravel. From here on out, it was just a matter of juggling Carthage, Rome and Persia as I waited for those fragile ships to complete their all-important quest.

It all turned out well in the end, despite a terrifying outbreak of the plague that would have left me completely defenseless if Rome had decided to invade again.

Oh, one thing I should note - another cool feature of the game is that, if you don't like the way your civ is going (say you failed to hit a Historical Goal in time), you can have the option to take over another Civ when it's born. So even failure doesn't have to be permanent; I just got a little fixated on winning a game as Greece.

So: I would definitely recommend this mod to anyone who wants to squeeze some more fun out of Civ IV; even if it isn't your cup of tea, it's worth playing at least one game just to get an appreciation for the amazing flexibility of the Civ IV engine. Hard-core players are most likely to appreciate this mod, while more casual gamers may find it frustrating after the initial cool factor wears off.

And now, I just need to wait a few more months until Beyond the Sword comes out. Gaming goodness never ends!