Tuesday, October 30, 2007

A Californian am I!

Boy oh boy! I've been waiting two and a half years for this, and now, at last, it has arrived: I've felt my first earthquake!

It was pretty cool. I was actually blowing off steam by playing some Guitar Hero 2. I was playing "Carry On My Wayward Son," had reached about the three-quarters mark, and for the first time ever, had not missed a single note. I was intently focusing on the screen, had tilted my guitar for Star Power, and then... well, more power than I planned on was unleashed.

I felt a low rumbling. It was weird... it really doesn't feel like anything I've felt before, but it was as if the whole building (I'm on the second floor) was shaking from side to side. I heard some noises, as things were slapping against the wall. "Wow," I thought. "This must be an earthquake."

As experts can tell you, when you feel an earthquake, you're supposed to stand under a doorframe or other stable structure to avoid being struck by anything. So what did I do?

I kept on rocking, of course! I mean, when was I going to have another shot at reaching 100%?

It lasted several seconds... I'll need to check to see exactly how long, but I'll guess between 5 and 10. After it stopped, I felt like I was still shaking. Probably just nervous. Totally worth it, though... I nailed the last segment and was rewarded with a new high score.

Damage appears to be minimal so far. I didn't lose power or Internet access, and it looks like the neighborhood is fine as well. My diploma rattled in its frame, but didn't fall off. My bike got knocked down from the wall, and some water bottles I've stored on top of my cabinets have fallen off. Everything else seems stable, though.

So, you know: hooray! It's a twofer... well, actually a threefer: I have felt my first earthquake, and so feel like a real Californian; I survived without any damage to my self or property; and I have a cool story and a high score to remember it by.

Rock on!

Update 8:38: According to early news reports, the quake was magnitude 5.6. That's interesting and maybe a little worrying... it was remarkable enough, and now I'm extra curious what a magnitude 7 or 8 quake would feel like. However, the epicenter was at Alum Rock in San Jose, so it was pretty close to me anyways. I'm guessing that has an impact on how strongly I felt it.

UPDATE 10/31: After feeding through some news sources, I have some more tidbits of useless information: first, apparently, the quake went on for a minute, which is a little surprising to me; either I didn't feel most of it, or I was way more engrossed in the game than I had thought. Second, the 5.6 factor makes this the largest earthquake in the Bay area since the 1989 Loma Prieta one, which is cool and exciting. Finally, it took place on the Calaveras fault, which means that both the Hayward and San Andreas are still primed to go any minute. Something to look forward to!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

The Brief and Terrifying Stories of George Saunders

This isn't exactly a review, but I feel compelled to give an extended shout-out to George Saunders. I've been seriously digging his writing for a few years now, and he's one of those rare authors I enjoy so much that I try NOT to immediately read everything by them - I think it would be depressing to not have any more Saunders left to look forward to. Unlike most of my favorite authors, though, Saunders has the advantage of being alive and still writing, so I can delight in what should be many more years of great stories to come.

I first stumbled across Saunders while sitting in an airport. As I often do, I'd brought along my most recent issue of the New Yorker - they're meaty enough that I can get a lot of reading out of them, and the magazine form factor is very appealing when you're camping out by a gate. Anyways, if I hadn't been traveling that week, I might not have read that story. I tend to enjoy fiction in the New Yorker, but only in a distant way, and it's usually at the bottom of my list for things I'll read from an issue. The stories tend to be more moody or character-driven than I personally prefer, so unless I recognize the author, see that the story is very short, or am waiting in an airport with very little else to do, I'll usually keep on flipping.

Boy, am I glad that I read it, though. It grabbed me within the first paragraph. At first I was just kind of amused - "Heh, what an interesting voice." I rapidly became engrossed - "Whoa, this is getting intense." Ultimately, I was simply amazed. "Wow. This is incredibly good." I simply sat there after I was finished, staring into space, while the bustle of the airport around me receded in the distance.

I tend to not be much of a short fiction guy. I like novels, I like worlds, I like elaborate constructions, I like self-supporting visions and systems. Don't get me wrong, there are individual short stories that I dearly love, but most of them were gems I was exposed to in one of my many English classes; given the chance for independent reading, I'll almost always seek out a good novel instead. Just to give you a better standing of what I consider "good," here are some of my favorite pre-Saunders stories, in no particular order:
1. "Araby" by Joyce
2. "Orientation" by Daniel Orozco. (I can't find the text online, but it's well worth seeking out. When searching for the text, I found that This American Life had a piece with it a while back - click on "Full Episode" and start listening around 50:30.)
3. "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" by Borges.
4. "In the Penal Colony" by Kafka.
5. "The Vane Sisters" by Nabokov.

Oooh, the New Yorker has CommComm online. Good for them!

Didn't I mention that before? The story that so captivated me was called CommComm. I eventually realized that, in fact, it had NOT been the first Saunders work I'd read. He is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and there were a few Shouts & Murmurs pieces that I had greatly enjoyed, without recognizing the author's name. After reading CommComm, though, I became Saunders-primed, and every time I receive a new New Yorker issue I'll scan the Table of Contents, hoping to see his name or Malcolm Gladwell's by an item.

How to best describe Saunders' writing? It's really hard - I'm very tempted to say "indescribable" and hope that you'll try it for yourself. If pressed, I'll use adjectives like "funny," "dark," "smart," and "sinister." More than anything, though, it's just really good. The stories are always fresh and surprising, and he does amazing things with his narrators and points of view. Thematically, he is solidly rooted in the American experience, and he regularly returns to the themes that have the greatest impact over our daily lives: our consumerist culture, the breakdown of the family, facile politics, and unrewarding careers. Obviously, I love him, but he definitely isn't for everyone. Most people will be able to decide quickly whether to follow his career or not. (The one exception I'll make: it's probably possible to like his fiction while disliking his essays, or vice-versa. I love them both, but there is some difference there.)

My brother Pat started getting into Saunder at almost exactly the same point that I did: unbeknownst to each other for several months, we had both read the same CommComm story, in both cases while we were at airports. Needless to say, this is freaky and I don't like thinking about it much. We'd tossed some Saunders pointers back and forth, and then he surprised me with two excellent gifts: the only two story collections he then had in print, Pastoralia and Civilwarland in Bad Decline. These books did a few things for me. First, they reaffirmed that Saunders is an excellent writer, and has been so for some time. I hadn't realized how long he's been turning out excellent work. Second, they reminded me why it's probably good that I'm not reading all of his work at once: too much Saunders in too short a space can make someone feel depressed about humanity and life in general. Saunders is stylistically very different from Vonnegut, but they're both satirists, and both have that special skill for inflicting pain when they make you laugh.

Over the last couple of years, the Saunders "scene" has expanded, as he has gradually become more and more well known. This is fine by me - as much as I enjoy being among the elite group who knows of this totally awesome author, I think it's better for the world to spread his gift as far as possible. Probably the single biggest boost he got was winning the MacArthur "Genius Grant" in 2006.

As you might be able to guess, only a handful of writers in America are able to make full-time careers out of it, and as a short story writer, Saunders wasn't one of them, and he has somehow made time for writing while maintaining a day job. Upon hearing the wonderful, surprising news, I was optimistic that the fellowship money would help free him up and give him more time to write... including, just maybe, someday, a novel.

We haven't gotten the novel yet, but the grant has already proved its value, as his output has recently accelerated. The Braindead Megaphone has brought Saunders' extremely sharp essay-writing skills to the fore, establishing him as a thinker and commentator in his own right.

As a side note: George Saunders has also written a children's book. It's called "The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp," and is illustrated by the same person who drew The Stinky Cheese Man and James and the Giant Peach. Not being a child, I'm probably not authorized to comment on how good it is, but I will say that it has what may be the best final sentence in the English language.

The reason why I'm writing this post today is because I recently started reading through In Persuasion Nation, and fell in love all over again when I read "Jon." This pulls off the jazz technique of producing bad writing and making it sound good: the whole story is a series of mistakes, but they're purposeful mistakes, and the story as a whole is even better and more effective than it would be if it was written "correctly".

As in most of Saunders' stories, there is a first-person narrator. In this case, the narrator is a teenage boy, a trend-setter in the future. Saunders breaks all the rules you can think of even within the permissive realm of short fiction: he uses passive voice, poor grammar, and violates my Creative Writing teacher's one absolute rule: he uses brand names. Copiously and constantly. And you know what? It all WORKS. The semi-literate run-on sentences talking about KFC and Pfizer and MetLife become oddly beautiful by the story's end.

Just wanted to share. If you're ever in the market for some mind-blowing fiction that you can finish in a quick read, you could do much, much worse than picking up Saunders. Enjoy!

Monday, October 15, 2007


So I just found out (courtesy the Google Blog) that today is Blog Action Day. I immediately flashed back to 1996, the day that the Internet went dark, and reasoned that this must be some sort of similar, social activism thing. Sort of... unlike the previous mass movement, this is using technology in one medium (the Internet) to draw attention to an issue in another area (the environment). There really aren't any rules - anyone can post about anything - so I figured, why not? I'll warn you ahead of time that I'm not coming into this post with any real thesis, so be prepared for a fuzzy and very possibly pointless post.

I'll be honest with you: the environment tends to land really low on my personal list of political priorities, below issues such as censorship, civil liberties and social justice. In my personal life, it's something that I try to be sensitive to when it's convenient... I'm really good about recycling (fortunately, San Jose goes out of its way to make this easy for me), I use very little energy and gasoline (these are arguably byproducts of my tendency to be cheap), and I buy local, organic food. Still, I just don't spend much time thinking about it. I don't get teary about the rainforests, I can't get worked up about China's coal industry, and I'm more interested in the science of fuel cells than their impact on emissions.

That said, I recognize that my life today is far better than it would have been if we hadn't had an environmental movement. As a resident of the San Francisco Bay Area, I benefit greatly from the foresight and hard work of my predecessors. A while ago I saw a side-by-side photo contrasting the view from downtown San Jose in 1976 with that of 2006. Those thirty years made an incredible difference: in the 1970's, you couldn't even see the mountains, and the landscape faded away into a sickly haze. These days, though, you can see for miles and miles around, and I can attest that from the mountains in the South Bay you can see all the way up to San Francisco, or even east to the Sierra Nevadas on a clear day.

So why was there a change? It was the result of political will, individual sacrifice, hard work, and much enforcement and expense. At a national level, we removed leaded fuels from our cars and started installing catalytic converters. California, which is hurt by smog more than most areas due to its large populations in confined valleys, went even further. They demanded even higher standards of fuel efficiency from autos, required a special blend of clean-burning gasoline be sold during the smog-intense summer months, and most radically of all, require every vehicle in the state to receive a smog certification every two years before a license will be issued or renewed. Why go to all this expense and effort? Everything is done for the specific purpose of eliminating smog from our air, and that means tracking down the so-called "Gross Polluters" - the 10% of vehicles that produce over 50% of the smog in our state.

As you can imagine, there has been plenty of grumbling about all this. Some are upset at the expense, others at the inconvenience, still others at the idea of living in a nanny state. It has produced a specific and valuable benefit, though. I can see the mountains, I can deeply breathe the fresh air, I can spend hours cycling or hiking without getting short of breath, and I don't cringe when it rains. This past year, the Bay Area had only a single day when it exceeded the federal clean air guidelines. That value goes up and down from year to year, but the past decade has been quite good compared to the pre-environmental-activism era.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that these problems aren't intractable. Global warming is a huge issue, and one that could potentially have catastrophic long-term effects on our way of life, but that does not mean it is hopeless. We've seen in the past that by carefully passing laws, examining the science and sociology of human behavior, incenting different behaviors, and enforcing standards, we can deal with changes in our environment, and even roll back the clock and undo some of the damage we've done.

I'm not saying that this will be an easy thing to do. We've been dumping carbon into the air since the dawn of the industrial revolution, and we won't be able to change our societies overnight, nor turn some magic spigot and drain all the offending gases from our atmosphere. But I think this is a solvable problem, and we won't know how hard it will be until we start trying to do something about it.

For myself, I'll continue doing the little things in my own life to act as a better global citizen, and will listen with interest to any big ideas about how we can best deal with this situation. It may be a technologically-driven change; I'm intrigued by Richard Branson's challenge, and encouraged by some work being done here in Silicon Valley to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. It may be a politically-driven change; greater regulation of industry and better support of mass transit could have a big, positive impact on the environment and our nation. My feeling is that it will be some combination, with technology pointing us towards a less painful solution and laws encouraging people to take advantage of it. We'll see what happens. There will probably be bumps ahead, but a century from now, we'll be glad we started when we did.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Age of Frustration

I continue my inexorable march through Civilization IV, and return to tell the tale.

This is the first time I've said this, but: I give up. Despite my best efforts, and some really good and specific warnings from Andrew, I have played myself into a corner in Age of Ice. I think I've learned from my mistakes, and would have a good shot at a second game, but right now I just don't have the energy to play all the way back to where I am now.

What went wrong? I think much of my problems can be traced to a single, colossally foolish decision I made. Keep in mind that the landscape of Age of Ice is incredibly bleak; most of the map is utterly barren, regularly pounded by vicious blizzards, with only a handful of locations that have promise. One of these is the sheltered mountain vale in which you start; another, held by Mulcarn, is next to a lake and protected by a magical orb that shields against the icy wind. The third is a location far to the north, within a mountain range and protected by exotic barbarian units.

I eventually penetrated this stronghold once I had sufficiently advanced units, and I almost salivated at what I found: a powerful barbarian city in the richest location I had seen yet, with access to gems (the only gems on the map), plentiful fresh water, and absolutely no tundra in sight. I captured the city, and gleefully added it to my empire.

The problem? Keep in mind, this city was as far north as you can get. And your capital (which cannot be relocated) is in the very southeast corner of the map. Overnight, my maintenance more than doubled. Adding insult to injury, the city had no culture, and so I could not even work the gems. Still worse than that, the city was a good thirty tiles or more distant from the rest of my empire, with hundreds of miles of inhospitable, icy forest and hills standing between us. It would take hundreds of years to bind it into my network, and in the meantime, I would need to guard against the hordes of frostlings ravaging the land between.

I grimly held on to my prize, but I fear it was my undoing. My research rate, which had started at 100% and was holding steady around 70%, plummeted to 30% or lower. My reserves ran low. I was doing fine militarily, but fielding a large army is expensive, and I could not cut back on defense while facing the barbarians and Mulcarn's forces.

For a while, though, I seemed to be making good progress. I fought a pitched city-by-city battle against Mulcarn's allies, causing them to sue for peace after I captured their capital city and took their part of the Godslayer. From there I regrouped for a time, upgrading my army and organizing my forces. The Doviello's last city fell to marauding Ice Giants, and I fought hard to repel the invaders, eventually recapturing and destroying the city.

Next, I started my first organized campaign against Mulcarn. Up to this point I had only been facing barbarians and the Doviello, and he had been putting his time to good use, investing in infrastructure and expanding his reign. Once again I carried out a city-by-city battle, tackling his more advanced technology with my primitive-but-highly-promoted veterans. It was painful, but eventually I took his capital, that magical land by the lake. This was by far the best city site I had taken yet, and it was the one city of his that I did not raze.

By this point I had exterminated the Doviello, crippled Mulcarn (or so I thought), and finally taken all three parts of the Godslayer. It seemed like I was in a good shape to finish the game. And yet, more than half the map was still unexplored; I did not know where the rest of Mulcarn's cities lay; and I was painfully aware of the repercussions of my slip in science. Things were turning around, though: in a stroke of luck, barbarians captured my far-northern city. I had a unit in the area who recaptured it, and this time I gladly selected the "Burn, Baby, Burn!" option. Overnight, my economy recovered, and I was ready to continue.

I eventually found Mulcarn, who was sequestered in a very remote spot on the far western side of the map. I also located the last of his cities, this one in the far northwest. I began making plans for the endgame.

It was all for naught. Whenever I created Kylorin, the one character who can slay Mulcarn, the dragon would spawn. Now, the good news is that the dragon is by far the most amazing unit I've seen yet... it's even more impressive than the already cool Red Dragon from the vanilla Fall from Heaven 2 mod. The bad news: it has an incredible range, a Sentry promotion, around 80 strength, and it is determined to kill Kylorin. I tried a variety of strategies - racing him along roads, taking him carefully through the undeveloped southern route, spawning plenty of fodder units to guard his path - but no matter what I tried, the dragon would find and kill him long before he approached Mulcarn.

In parallel with all of this, that northwestern city was dispatching a fearsome stack of doom against my empire. While he did not have horses, he did have everything else, including longbows, crossbows, pikemen and macemen. All I had standing against him were swordsmen, cavalry, a few catapults, and a single woolly mammoth. After a few attempts, I found a way to break his advance with acceptable casualties; however, just as I was rejoicing, the first wave of barbarian Mammoth Riders appeared from the frozen west, and my empire fell before them.

At this point, of course, I was completely stuck. The only way I could realistically hope to take down Mulcarn in advance of the dragon was to build out roads towards his stronghold, or possibly get on the order of thirty fodder units that could keep a human shield between the dragon and Kylorin. However, there was no way I could survive long enough to prepare those measures before I fell to the barbarian invaders. And I was so far behind in the tech tree that I simply did not have the forces to stop my opponents. After expending myself against Mulcarn, I didn't even have the raw units to slow them down while my research caught up. And until my cultural borders expanded, I would not have access to iron, and so even once my tech did catch up I would be stuck with my older, copper-based units.

So, I say it again: I give up. At least for this game. Here are the lessons I will take to my next attempt.
  1. Try a different starting hero. I went with the hunter, who was cool and useful. One of his best characteristics is a 50% withdraw rate, which makes him invaluable when softening up units. However, over the long haul, I think the sorceress (I think her name is something like Epona) would be more useful; she's the one magical unit, and can create a fireball that sounds very useful, and would also serve a similar softening-up purpose.
  2. Most important: control my number of cities! I'm convinced I would have had a shot at winning the game if I hadn't held onto that northern barbarian city. Now, there is at least one advantage to a larger empire: more cities means more free units supported, and the size of the military you need means that you'll generally be spending at least as much on your army as you will on city upkeep. However, many cities end up being a net liability for you. Even if a city looks tempting when you capture it, carefully examine the surrounding terrain and try to imagine what it will look like after the blizzards come through. In retrospect, I think you probably want to only hold on to five cities:
    1. Your starting capital. It's well-protected, can grow thanks to the terrain and fresh water, and has a few resources.
    2. The barbarian city to your immediate west. It isn't a great location, but it will give you access to gold, as well as allow you to keep building military units when your capital is focusing on something else.
    3. You'll probably want to build a city south of that barbarian city so you can access the horses. It's probably possible to win the game without cavalry, but they can be invaluable for scouting and softening up units in the field.
    4. Most Doviello cities are rotten, but the capital is one of the best in the game. It has a mammoth camp, is protected against ice, comes with copper, and should end up being one of the most productive cities you have.
    5. Mulcarn's capital. Even after you remove the orb, it's hard to argue against the plentiful resources, not least among them some tempting iron nearby.
  3. Be VERY careful with your research order. Don't bother researching techs unless you gain an immediate benefit from them.
  4. Keep enough cash on hand to upgrade units when you get the chance. This is key to getting highly promoted advanced units.

So, that's that. I still need to go back and finish the FfH2 game I put on hold for this. After that, maybe I'll give this another shot.

In the meantime, though, I'm still working my way through the scenarios. Over the weekend I started on Afterworld. Without giving too much away, I wanted to share some thoughts.

Much like Fall from Heaven 2 and Rhye's of Civilization, the most impressive thing about this mod is how DIFFERENT it is from the core Civ experience. In this case, it doesn't just change the rules, it changes the genre. Playing Afterworld feels almost exactly like playing a tactical turn-based shooter, like X-COM. Everything is upended, and you need to relearn how to play a different style of game.

To give just one example: in this game, line of sight is critical. In addition to a location, each of your units is also facing in a particular direction, and can only see things that are in front of them. This adds a lot to the paranoid atmosphere of the game; you can turn around, and suddenly discover a Bleeder who's been slavering behind your back. There are big tactical considerations as well, of course, and as you move through the structure you'll be sweeping your gaze left and right, trying to scout out as much as you can so you or another of your units can take necessary action.

More than anything, I was reminded of the movie Aliens. I doubt this is a coincidence; the bantering between the hero units and the overall atmosphere of the game seems to directly derive from that seminal movie, and the overall atmosphere is more horror than sci-fi. I'm not complaining, of course, I just think it's interesting.

My one complaint so far is that it gets a little tedious. So far I've only discovered 2.5 enemies (there's also a Rabid Bleeder that's just a bit stronger, along with a security droid), and the progress through the game feels very rote: advance, sweep, shoot, repeat. Hopefully there will be more variety as I get further into the mission.

I guess one other thing I will add is that, while I enjoy the colorful dialog that pops up as you play, it is a bit frustrating that you can't interact with it. Sometimes messages will flash by while you're focusing on something else, and as far as I can tell there isn't any way to rewind or review what's already been said. This doesn't seem to impact gameplay, but it is a big part of the game's character and something I'd like to see more of.

That's it for now. It's kind of funny that I'm playing through three games right now, and all of them are Civ IV. It's a great testament to Firaxis's stellar work on the engine, and to the community that's grown up around modifying it.