Sunday, February 27, 2011


I almost never do product endorsements or whatever on this blog, and I guess I'm technically still not, but I did want to share my rather positive experience with using TaxACT.

I fondly recall the days when I could do my own taxes. I had a W-2, a 1099-INT, and that was it. I was renting in a low-tax state, so I just took the standard deduction and filled out the 1040-EZ. Bliss.

It's been a few years since I could do that. Back in 2005 I had a really complicated tax situation: I'd lived in three states, and worked for companies in three states, and so had to reconcile what I'd paid all of them; I also wanted to claim a tax credit for my final cross-country move. It all seemed complicated, and I was nervous about getting it wrong, so I went hunting for tax software.

The cheapest then was TaxACT; I think that at the time the deal was that you could do a free federal return if your income was below a certain threshhold, and state returns were, like, six bucks each or something. There were a bunch of other pseudo-free options out there, and I think I picked a winner; not only have I been consistently happy with them over the years, but most of the older free options have since faded away.

Every year since then, my tax situation has changed, generally getting more complicated. One year I had to deal with stock options; another year I accidentally started a small business; this past year I bought a home. One of the great things about TaxACT is that it's just one flat fee that covers pretty much everything, no matter how simple or complicated your tax situation. This past year my return included a Schedule C (business income), with a home office deduction; a Roth IRA conversion; a bunch of investment stuff (dividends, foreign income and tax, capital gains); and, of course, that ever-popular home mortgage interest deduction. All that work just meant that it took me more time to complete my return, unlike, say, using an accountant, where it would have been way more expensive than in previous years.

Overall, my experience with TaxACT is that it can be time-consuming, but is easy. I've gotten in the habit of keeping a file folder marked something like "Taxes 2010". Throughout the year, I'll toss anything that is tax-relevant in there: charitable contribution receipts, investment forms, my closing statement, etc. Once I think I've gotten all my forms (typically mid-February), I take a weekend afternoon and set it aside for taxes. TaxACT is a web-based program, and it's structured as an interview. It asks a series of questions like, "Did you inherit any money this year?" or "Did you buy or sell a home?" Based on your answers, it will either skip ahead, or dig in to ask more details. It will eventually prompt you to enter actual figures, and has a great interface where you can directly copy stuff from your forms into on-screen boxes.

I think the program also has an option to skip the interview and just complete the return directly, but I prefer the interview; it makes me much more confident that I'm not overlooking something.  It does let you skip around a bit, and you can double back and edit old information. I usually need to do that at least once during any given return; either a form comes in late, or I realize later on that I'd earlier made a mistake.

Speaking of mistakes, they have a great "alerts" system. As you're filling out the return, and again at the end, they will scan your return for any potential issues. Green alerts are strictly informative: for example, it might point out that you've saved money due to the lower capital gains tax rate. Yellow alerts warn you about areas where the IRS may be especially inquisitive; in my Roth IRA conversion, they had me triple-check the figures I was using for my distributions. A yellow alert may prompt you to change the information you'd previously entered; or you might just dismiss it. A red alert flags a clear error that you've made, such as when the numbers you've entered from a form are internally inconsistent. Red errors must be corrected before you can submit your return.

IF you feel like nerding out, at any point in the interview you can check out some of the help links that they have, which often links into IRS-authored descriptions of the forms. This is the sort of stuff that makes even an engineer's head swim after a few sentences, but still, it's cool to be able to connect the friendly English questions you're answering with the legalistic structure behind it. It reminds me a little of dropping into a bash prompt from KDE or OS X.

Their help actually is pretty helpful, too. I was pretty happy with this year's experience, but I was having trouble with the Roth IRA conversion; I'd gone all the way through the interview, and had never been prompted to enter those details. I hunted around a little and couldn't find it, so I emailed their tech support. About a day later, I got an email back that described the exact steps I needed to take to complete this part of my return, along with links that provided more context for the conversion process. As someone who generally loathes contacting tech support, I was really pleased.

I have just a few tiny niggles with the software, some of which have been around for a few years now. First of all, each year I enter my student loan information; and, each year, I'm told that my income makes me ineligible to claim a deduction for student loan interest. Um, okay, I'm glad you told me, but you really should have already known that BEFORE you asked me to input my student loan interest. It seems silly that they only check for eligibility at the end instead of the beginning. Also, they have a worksheet system that generally works quite well: for example, you can sum up your charitable contributions in a pseudo-Excel sheet, entering dates, amounts, and descriptions for each. The software will automatically add it up, insert the total into the correct field, and then append your worksheet to your return. Which is all well and good, but if you end up not using that part of the return, they still append the worksheet. For example, this year I started off doing my home office calculations in the wrong part of the return. I realized that I was doing it wrong (they have a separate section just for that), and deleted out the stuff I'd previously entered; but, since some of my data was buried in the worksheet, that stuff still gets printed in my return. It probably isn't a big deal, and I doubt the IRS cares, but still, it kind of bugs me. Finally, I've learned that while the program is generally fine with you jumping around a bit in the federal return portion (e.g., you can easily go back and add a new W-2 later), it gets very unhappy if you try to change anything later. If you go back and alter something, it will make you re-do everything else in your return. Most of the time you can just click "Next" and accept the values you'd previously entered, but it's a bit aggravating... I wish they could detect which parts of your future return were affected by your change, and only have you update those parts.

Over the years, TaxACT has tweaked their pricing. I think that they used to be free for filers under a certain income level, plus more for states. They've always retained the free federal filing hook, but most of the time, it makes sense to pay for the "deluxe" version, which offers slightly more features and a significant discount on the state return. For example, at the moment a free federal return requires you to pay about $15 for a state return; buying the $10 deluxe version means the state return is just $8 extra. Of course, if you live in a state without an income tax, the free federal option is a no-brainer.

Like almost all tax software out there, they reward you for starting early: this year I paid for mine early, and got federal and state for just $14. That's a savings of four bucks! That's huge! I can buy a burrito with that money!

Aaaanyways. Taxes are never fun, but if you've been doing them yourself or paying someone else to do them for you, I recommend checking out an electronic tax preparation version. To be honest, since I haven't used any other ones I can't really compare TaxACT to, say, TurboTax or TaxSlayer; but, my experience with TaxACT has been really positive, and they're definitely priced well.

Well, I'll get off my soapbox or whatever now. Everyone has another month and a half left to go, so no rush and no worries. Happy tax season!

Here's what happened

I recently finished watching "Monk." Um... all of it. I completely missed the show when it was first running; I was vaguely aware of the basic idea (a detective with OCD), but, for example, I had no idea that it was set in San Francisco. My parents fell in love with it, I decided I had to check it out, and, eight seasons later, here I am!

It's a little unusual for me to do this for this kind of show... well, catching up with a whole series after the fact is my favorite way to watch good, modern TV, but I think all the previous examples of mine have been for serialized drama. Watching them late is fine, but they demand to be watched in order to really understand what's happening and get the most out of it.

In contrast, Monk is highly episodic, not serial. There is a sort of over-arching plot, but it's only important at the very beginning of the series and towards the very end. They do try to maintain continuity, but it's much more in the style of, say, "The Simpsons" than "Arrested Development": some characters come and go, but each episode ends with things pretty much where they were at the beginning.

That isn't a criticism, of course, and Monk succeeds in being a terrific show. A lot of this is thanks to Tony Shalhoub, the phenomenal lead role; he nailed Monk early on, and kept up an excellent portrayal throughout. It's a very challenging situation: not only to depict an extreme introvert with a laundry list of personal failings, but to depict a character who fundamentally resists change of any sort, and yet keep him interesting throughout four years. I think that latter bit is what's most impressive: we basically understand everything we need to know about Monk after the first four episodes, and yet we continue to enjoy seeing him time after time.

Shalhoub doesn't hog the spotlight; the show features a small core of dedicated supporting characters. I'll treat these more at length below, but for now, I'll just note that Shalhoub (who was also a producer of the show) is extremely generous. Even though his character is the star, he gives some great moments to all the people around him.

The show is EXTREMELY formulaic. There is always, always, always a murder. Most of the time it occurs before the opening credits, although occasionally the murder comes later. Most of the time Monk is brought on as a consultant to help the San Francisco Police Department solve the crime. The neat twist for this show is that, despite being a murder mystery, it's rarely a whodunit: often they'll show us the murderer before the opening credits, and if not, Monk usually figures it out early on. Rather, the show is a HOWdunit: Monk needs to prove just how the suspect managed to commit the crime.

This leads to a lot of great scripts. One of Monk's many trademark lines is "[S]He's the guy... I don't know how [s]he did it, but [s]he's the guy." Similarly, the suspect often knows that Monk suspects them, and they'll taunt him to prove it. They often have a "perfect" alibi, that seems to make it impossible for them to have committed the crime; Monk's job is to disprove that alibi, and place them at the crime.

There are a couple of instances where this formula gets to be a little repetitive; they rely just a little too heavily on making crimes seem to have occurred at a different time than they actually did. Still, it's a solid angle, and I can't fault them for running with it.

The set design and scenery are gorgeous. After all, this is the Bay Area! I absolutely love all their exterior shots. Some of these are the requisite big-impact shots, like the Golden Gate Bridge or the Transamerica Pyramid. Some of my favorites, though, are the street-level shots: I look at them, and I can't place the exact block, but I know that it's San Francisco. The 20-degree grade, the Victorians with Bay windows, those parking meters... there's no other place where it can be.

The music is quite good. They switch around the opening song fairly early on in the show, and I much prefer the latter, Randy Newman version to the earlier Caribbean-esque tune. The incidental music is fine, not too memorable but well-done.

Hm, let's move on to some


Was it just me, or did they get much less reliant on guest stars as the show went on? I remember seeing Jason Alexander and Kevin Nealon and Willie Nelson and some other kinda-famous folks early on, but that seemed to drop off after the first few seasons. I'm curious if this was mostly a financial decision, or an aesthetic one.

For the most part, I approved of the changes that did happen in the show. As noted above, I like the new theme song way more than the old one. (Sorry, Sarah Silverman!) Also, once I got used to the change, I liked Natalie more than Sharona. Both were good characters, and I did really appreciate how the writers kept them quite distinct; even though they're superficially similar (both are single parents who act as Monk's personal assistant), their personalities are extremely different, and I don't think you could have Natalie fill any of Sharona's scripts or vice versa. That said, Natalie was perkier, cuter, and more empathic, and I really enjoyed the tone she brought to the show.

This was a shorter thing, and I might need to re-watch the beginning to be sure, but I feel like Randy's character shifted the most over the opening episodes. For most of the show he was the clown, comic relief, pure incompetency behind a badge; I think that in the pilot and first few episodes, though, he was a fairly straight supporting man.

Stottlemeyer was fantastic; next to Monk, he was my favorite character. He was world-weary, but in a wry kind of way; he had a great quiet sense of humor, almost never laughing, but you could tell when he was amused. Actually, he probably had the broadest range of emotion of anyone on the show. Unlike Monk, who only emotes within an extremely narrow range, Stottlemeyer can fly into a rage, throw things around, get in peoples' faces... and cuddle with a lover, bond with a son, blow a whistle at a chimpanzee, even cry. I usually felt kind of bad for him; the show put him through a lot, and he lost a lot over the run.

I think that this may be the only television show I've seen, and one of very few pieces of media, to really focus in on the subject of grief. I forget now which episode it was, but there's one show that ends with Monk holding a picture of his dead wife and sobbing uncontrollably. That isn't the sort of thing one sees often, especially on prime-time television. The show also seems to be making an unusually large space available for grief. In much of our media culture, the general message regarding grief tends to be, "It's a natural process, and you should take time to express your emotions at your loss. However, grief is something to be gotten over. You should put it behind you and move on to newer thing in your life." "Monk" explicitly treats this topic, and allows Adrian to defend why, in his particular case, there is no moving on, there is no comfort, there really is no future, just a shadow that lies ahead of him.

I've been lucky enough to have not lost the most important people in my life, but I have lost people I've loved, and I have to say that the "Monk" experience rings true for me. Not that that's how I handle loss, but grief is a very big emotion, a very real emotion, and one can expect it to take years or more to address. And one never really "gets over" it - it may be less crippling and debilitating, but the loss permanently becomes a part of your own life, and in some way it continues to shape the future actions you take and choices you make.


I did appreciate how the show wrapped things up at the end. They seemed to be making a conscious decision to try and provide happy endings for the people we cared about. Randy finally connected with Sharona (and, once again, I'm glad that the writers didn't try to rekindle the Randy/Sharona love/hate dynamic with Natalie). Leland, after a lot of really awful letdowns, met, wooed, and married a good woman. Natalie's situation is left a bit more open, but she saw her daughter accepted to UC Berkeley, and seems to be interested in picking up romance again.

And Monk? That seemed like the trickiest thing of all, finding a way to give him some kind of comfort while still honoring the character's integrity and devotion to Trudy. They find a great way to do this, along the way nicely tying together a bunch of small moments from throughout the show's run (the six-fingered man, Trudy's last present to Adrian, etc.). The transformation the Monk goes through in the last few minutes of the finale is just amazing; throughout the entire show, we've almost never seen him laugh, and now... he's happy! He's laughing! He's changing! He's still an odd guy, still noticeably Monk, but it's so cheering to see him reach his peace.

The daughter makes this all possible, of course. It's the only time that Monk has found a way to let his love for Trudy escape the past. By re-investing that love into her daughter, he can carry her memory forward into the future, remaining devoted to Trudy while finally escaping the rut he's been in.

And, man, what a rut... they didn't dwell on this too much, but it's incredibly dark to think that Adrian wasted so many years with that box under the Christmas tree. At any point, he could have opened it up and solved the case. Even worse, we learn from the video that he was inadvertently thwarting Trudy's wishes the whole time: all along, she had assumed that if she died, he would simply open it and learn what happened. His devotion to her memory was the thing that kept him from solving her murder.

Like I said, they don't dwell on that, and I'm glad for it. Finding an appropriate ending for a long-running TV show is an incredible challenge, and I'm always extremely grateful when the creators find a good way to end it.


That was that! Monk isn't the kind of show I typically watch, but obviously, I liked it plenty enough to watch every single episode. The character-driven quality of the show, and the quality of the characters, make it surprisingly addictive; even though you know the outlines of each episode before you start watching, the level of execution is incredibly high. It's an excellent show. Unless I'm wrong... which, you know, I'm not.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011


Ghostwritten is a really, really cool book. It belongs to that elusive category of exciting literature, a well-written story that moves well and provides a lot of meat. My ideal book is something that can be read quickly, but that provides a lot of opportunity for reflection and unpacking.

Structurally, Ghostwritten is a series of interlinked short stories, each tied to a particular perspective. Each story/chapter is named after a geographic location, and the main character spends most of their time there. These locations move gradually west throughout the book, eventually covering most of the northern hemisphere. Each chapter connects in some ways with the other stories; the meaning behind these connections isn't immediately obvious, and the characters never grasp the significance of what they encounter, but over the course of the book you can gradually build up an idea of the larger story.

The author, David Mitchell,  is a Westerner - I'm not sure whether he's American, British, or something else - who lives and teaches in Hiroshima, Japan. You can see a Japanese influence on the book, and not just in some of its settings. One of the things I enjoy most about popular forms of modern Japanese culture (anime, manga, video games) is their comfort with ambiguity and their faith in the viewer/reader/player. There's a strong compulsion in American works to explain what's going on: at the end of the story, someone neatly summarizes what has happened, for the benefit of those who haven't been paying attention. You rarely get that in Japanese works, and one of the side-effects of that is that the art sticks with you longer: your brain reviews the clues, replays the major scenes, teases out the dangling plot threads and tries to understand how they fit together. I'm still going through that process with Ghostwritten, which is a good sign.


Most of the book is set in the Orient, and from those chapters, most characters are natives. The first chapter is a fairly shocking one: the narrator is a member of a doomsday cult that is not-too-subtly modeled after Aum Shinrikyo. His story begins shortly after he has released a lethal toxin onto a crowded Tokyo subway. He has fled to a remote Japanese island to lie low while the authorities pursue the cult.

The chapter is really stunning. You have the unreliable narrator thing going on, of course. This guy really, deeply believes what he's been told - really, brainwashed into believing. He has a fully-formed worldview that totally devalues all human life that isn't a part of the cult, and a fanatical devotion to his leader and superiors. As he encounters news (from the evil media) about the crackdown, his faith is tested; watching his mental contortions as he tries to justify what he knows with what he learns is just stunning.

I found myself thinking of Murakami's "Underground" while reading the first chapter. Murakami's book focuses more on the victims of the attack, while giving some voice to the cult; Mitchell presents a fully engaged view of the perpetrators. I also found myself thinking of Murakami during the next story, which is set in Tokyo: here, a young Japanese man tends a record store. As with many of Murakami's stories, the young man is a little bit aimless, but very appreciative of Western culture and music, particularly jazz and classic rock. This story is much quieter than the first one.

The first link between stories happens a ways into this second chapter. The clerk is locking up the shop for the night and walking out the door when he hears the phone ring. He tries to decide whether or not to answer it, and ends up picking it up. It was, he informs us in the narration, the call that changed the course of his life: specifically, we learn (although he doesn't know), it is a call from the cultist of the first chapter, who believes that he is reaching a safe line that will cause the leader to levitate emergency cash over to him. Of course, the clerk has no idea who is calling, and so he stays quiet, and, after neither man says anything, hangs up.

Now, as readers, our assumption is that the clerk's life has changed by being swept up into the currents of the cultist: the other cult members will track him down, or he will make a call back to this man and so fall under suspicion, or otherwise follow the first story's plot trajectory. Nope. The reason why it changed his life was by making him stay at the store for two minutes longer than he otherwise would have; because of that extra time, he is able to meet the love of his life, a young lady visiting from Hong Kong. They fall madly in love, and eventually both travel to Hong Kong together. Neither has any further direct contact with the cultist.

This is the sort of connection that keeps happening throughout the book. Events happen that seem inconsequential to particular characters; only we, with access to the larger picture, can see the true importance of apparently random choices.


It gets REALLY literary and interesting at around the midpoint of the book. For a while, you think that the narrator is an alien. It's definitely a non-corporeal being of some sort, and he directly addresses the reader, describing how he can transmigrate from mind to mind. He can peer into the memories of the hosts he inhabits, but does not know anything about himself. He can exercise some control over the thoughts and actions of his hosts, but has to be careful, because they may grow suspicious (perhaps thinking themselves possessed), and eventually crazy if he starts talking to them. He can move from one body to another if they touch skin, and so he spends several decades on a quest that takes him all over eastern Asia, particularly China and Mongolia.

It's a really cool story in itself, due to the suspense and the mystery, but it also is one of the best metaphors I've read yet of, well, reading. After all, each time we move from one book to another, we're experiencing another author's mind; we can plumb the depths of what they have to share; we can only read one book at a time, but one book often brings us to another, and so we undergo journeys through mental space and actual time. I'm probably reading too much into this, but I think Mitchell's a genius.

That particular story ends beautifully, too. It ties in very well with the previous narration, one of the least-western minds in the whole book and probably the kindest, a lady who spends her entire life tending a tea shack at the foothills of a Holy Mountain in China. Anyways, we learn that this entity had taken refuge in her mind for many years, which belatedly explains what she meant when she described "her tree" talking to her and telling her what to do to survive. That woman is far more in touch with spirituality than any other character, and is kindly rewarded for it. The entity, too, eventually gets his reward in the form of learning his origin. Now, I'm still not absolutely clear on this, but I THINK that he was born in the instant that a Buddhist monk died; the monk passed his consciousness on to a nearby witness, as he was being shot by a death squad; the transmigration was incomplete, and so this... well, yes, let's just call it a "spirit", has roamed through the mental ether, unwittingly searching for the other part of his former self's mind. It's strange, and beautiful, and amazing.


I think my overall favorite narrator is probably the manic Englishman of the third story, which is set in Hong Kong. He just has an amazing, hilarious voice.

The overall progression goes:
* Cultist on a Japanese island
* Record store clerk in Tokyo
* English financial trader in Hong Kong
* Tea Shack lady in Holy Mountain
* Spirit everywhere but mainly in Mongolia
* Sadly washed-up Russian female survivor in St. Petersburg
* Ghostwriter (and musician, and wanderer, and wastrel) in London
* Physicist in Ireland
* Late night rock radio DJ in New York
* Cultist

There's some cool stylistic play here that's vaguely reminiscent of Melville or Joyce. The early chapters are done with fairly traditional narration, but with pretty extreme shifts between voice and perspective. Looking back, Mitchell does an amazing job of capturing differences between Western and Eastern minds. The Hong Kong trader's brain is constantly buzzing - his thoughts constantly jump around, he's always flashing back to a previous event or wondering what's happening somewhere else, constantly evaluating and judging what happens around him, most of all himself. In contrast, the tea shack lady, who lives virtually her whole life on a single plot of land, has a very calm, measured, accepting narrative voice that's fully in keeping with her deeply-held Buddhist principles. Even when amazing stuff (mostly bad) happens to her, she takes it in stride, offers it up to Lord Buddha, and continues living her life. (This chapter alone would make an amazing novella, as it captures the stunning sweep of 20th century China, from warlords through revolution through Japanese invasion through the nationalists' bully friends through the glorious rise of Mao through the Great Leap Forward through the Cultural Revolution through the rise of capitalism, all through the eyes of one small woman on the edge of the empire.)

Other chapters have play in form, not just content and style. The most impressive is the New York chapter, which is done entirely in dialog: there isn't a single sentence in the whole chapter that isn't between quotation marks. It's incredibly effective, and we get to know all the characters very well through their own words. Of course, this is entirely appropriate for the chapter's main character, a DJ who makes his living through words. The physicist is interesting too, as her narration seems unmoored in time. We get a series of scenes, but it's difficult to piece together the chronology. Of course, this is entirely appropriate for the physicist, who deals with quantum uncertainty and is well acquainted with the difficulty of knowing anything.


This was an amazing book, and I can't wait to check out more from him. It's such a treat to discover another modern author who writes interesting, involving stories and isn't afraid of treating topics that others might view as science fiction or worse. I've heard that all his books are pretty different from one another, but talent like this deserves to be followed.

Hiking in a Winter Wonderland

Once again, a three-day weekend managed to sneak up on me unawares. The Tuesday before President's day I frantically began casting about, trying to find a new backpacking destination that would transform a surplus holiday into an adventure. I'd previously thought of going to Point Reyes, both because it sounds cool and as potential training for a theoretical trip along the Lost Coast. However, I was much too late, as the sites in Point Reyes had already filled up.

Henry Coe is always a wonderful option, but now that I've moved farther north, I wanted to take advantage of places farther away from San Jose. I noodled around a bit on some Peninsula park sites; they had some intriguing-looking camping opportunities, particularly in Pescadero Creek, but nothing that looked like it would give me enough trail mileage for a satisfying outing.

After some more browsing, I settled on the Ohlone Wilderness Trail. People generally hike this as a 28-mile one-way trip. It can be hiked in either direction; the terminals are at Mission Peak east of Fremont, and Lake Del Valle, south of Livermore. I've spent a LOT of time on Mission Peak; I've probably climbed it twenty times by now, and I still love doing it. I wasn't really equipped to through-hike the trail, so I worked out an out-and-back that would let me maximize my time in the hitherto-unexplored middle section.

The East Bay Regional Park District has a good web site with good information, so a bit of research let me piece together the logistics. I settled on a camp site called Maggie's Half Acre, which is almost exactly midway between the Sunol park entrance and the Del Valle entrance. I decided that I'd spend both nights there. This is a system that has worked great for me in Coe: I do my heavy backpacking on the first day in, then do wider-ranging hikes on the middle day with my day pack, and then finish off with a mostly-downhill backpack out. (In theory, at least. In practice, Poverty Flat Road ensures lots of climbing in Coe trips originating from headquarters.) Looking at the mileage, it appeared that I'd have plenty of extra time for side trips and ranging around. I typically make about 2 miles per hour when backpacking through rugged terrain, so I expected to have ample time after making the 10-mile trek to camp.

It's interesting how every park system seems to handle reservations differently. Yosemite has a great online site that lets you see which trailheads have openings; but, you need to fax in your permit request. Henry Coe sites in the Western Zone are all first-come first-served, so if you really want, say, a particular Los Cruceros site, you should plan on getting to headquarters early in the morning. For EBPD, you can make reservations by calling in. It's a pretty good system; they do standard business hours, but someone picked up after the first ring, and knew exactly what they were doing. I requested Maggie's Half Acre; she recognized it as a backpacking site, and offered me Camp 3. I thought that sounded just fine, having never been there before. She took my payment via credit card over the phone. Their fees are extremely reasonable: $5 per person per night, plus a flat $8 reservation fee for the total trip. Three days in paradise would set me back less than twenty bucks. And, as an extra bonus, overnight parking for your car is included in the backpacking fee! Since day-use parking is $5, I was getting free parking with the backpacking trip... or a free backpacking trip for the cost of parking, however you want to see it.

I'd called on Wednesday, and was pleasantly surprised to get the order confirmation on Friday. I was a little nonplussed to see that the last page had a line for my signature and a fax number to return it; I don't have access to a fax machine, so I just brought the whole envelope with me.

By now, I have backpacking down to a science, even on such short notice. I have a little Google Docs spreadsheet that acts as a checklist; each row is an item that I need to bring, and each column is a trip I've taken. I fill out each cell as I pack: "X" means I'm taking it, "Pass" means that I'm deliberately omitting it. (When I first started these trips, I'd listed a few things that I never ended up using, like a paperback book and a notebook. Eventually I'll get around to just removing those rows.) I was really happy to realize that my gear expenditure for Yosemite is continuing to pay off. My backpack has always felt really full before, but on this trip it seemed downright light. I'd traded in my old sleeping bag from the Coe trips with an awesome Marmot light bag for Yosemite; so, instead of my sleeping bag occupying the bottom half of my pack, it just scrunched down into the very bottom. And, unlike the Yosemite trip, I didn't have to bring along a bear can and six days' worth of food. I could even cheap out and revert to TJ's Indian Fare instead of pricey freeze-dried dinners. Yay!

I kept my alarm set for my standard 6:30AM wakeup, and was on the road a little after 7. I got to the park a little before 8:30. I told the guy at the entrance booth that I would be backpacking until Monday. "What's your name?" he asked me. "Chris King," I replied. "Ah, yes, I've got you here," he said, and pulled out some paperwork. He filled out my camp site ticket, asked me if I needed a wilderness permit (I did), asked me if it was my first time there (I said "yes", although I think I've probably done a day trip in Sunol at some point), asked if I'd seen the snow on the way up (I had!), and cheerfully sent me on my way.

Two tangents:

The wilderness permit is an interesting and mostly-cool thing. As is the case with many regional parks that were established after areas were developed (see also Castle Rock and Skyline-to-the-Sea), the Ohlone Wilderness Trail crosses some sections that aren't in park land. Fortunately, the foreign lands are owned by the San Francisco Water District, which is way cooler in the Diablo Range than they are around San Andreas Reservoir. (Yeah, I said it. Open up the land, please!) They allow hikers to travel through, so long as you stick to the trail. The wilderness permit provides the nominal permission to go through there, thus keeping SFWD's territorial integrity intact. And the permit itself? Well, it's a really nice big map of the trail, along with the date the "permit" was issued, and a lot of text that covers regulations, descriptions of the trails, wildlife, etc.

Second tangent: snow! My friends and family from the rest of the country probably don't think this is a big deal, but for those of us in the Bay Area, snow is a rare and news-worthy occurrence. I've spent several years here when there hasn't been any snow. Even in the coldest winters, there's never any snow in the valley itself; at most, the tops of some nearby mountains (typically Hamilton and Diablo) will get some.

This was all just fortunate circumstance on my part, of course. I'd been checking the weather earlier in the week when deciding whether to make the trip or not. The forecast had called for some rain on Saturday, a sunny Sunday, and possibly more rain on Monday. Nobody said anything about snow. This was already becoming an adventure!

I'll be posting pictures that cover the details of the hike itself. In broad strokes: the first day started out nice and sunny, then turned to rain. I had a poncho ready and was well equipped. On that first day, I only saw a total of two hikers; however, I met something like 6-8 runners! These psychotic people RAN the 10 miles up to the top of Rose Peak, elevation 3817 feet, the last bit of it through the snow, then turned around and ran back. Unreal. And they all seemed cheerful, too! I don't think I'll ever understand runners.

Once I got high enough, my rain turned to snow. It was a really cool approach, with the enticement of white peaks eventually leading to patchy snow, and finally a nice thick coat. I wasn't making as great of time as I'd hoped, but was stopping to take lots of pictures. I stopped a bit before 1 to eat my lunch, peanut butter spread on a piece of naan. (Hey, I'm mixing it up!)

I trudged through the last few miles. Earlier on I'd toyed with a few ideas for stretching out the day, like a side loop to see the bluffs; I'd also considered hitting Rose Peak proper either before or after setting up camp. I was starting to fade, though. While most of my body was staying nicely warm, my hands had been chilly for a few hours; my hiking shoes were starting to pack in snow, and I knew that wouldn't end well. So, I made a dash for Maggie's Half Acre, and set to work.

I've gotten quite good at pitching my tent, but this time I had extra prep work to do, like clearing out the six inches of snow covering my site. By the time I had everything set up and my gear stashed inside, it was four o'clock, and I was freezing. The activity had kept me warm on my strenuous hike up, but I'd been much less ambulatory while preparing camp, which was letting the elements settle in. So, I took off my boots, took off my hat, dove into the tent, burrowed into my sleeping bag, cinched it up, and started willing myself to warmth and to sleep.

And, it worked! I woke up around six, as it was starting to get dark. I briefly thought of making dinner. "Nah," I thought, "This is pretty nice," and went back to sleep. All told, I slept for fourteen hours, until dawn got me up the next day.

By Sunday morning, the snow had ceased, and a pleasant sun was cheerily marching over the horizon. I quickly realized that the climate would still pose obstacles, though. Those shoes that I'd left outside? Frozen solid. As in, cased in ice. My hat? Ditto. Ew. With a lot of hard work, I eventually managed to cram my shoes onto my feet, and then set about making a quick but highly appreciated breakfast: TJ's instant oatmeal with cinnamon and apples, with a mix-in of TJ's ABC trail mix (almonds, dried blueberries, cranberries, and golden raisins). I knew that swift action would be my salvation, so I hoisted my day pack and struck out.

Back in the planning stages, I'd toyed with the idea of spending Sunday going to Del Valle and then back to Rose Peak. While challenging, this is doable; it's about 20 miles of terrain, which I can cover when I'm carrying a light pack. However, since I was striking out across unbroken snow, I knew that I wouldn't be able to make that kind of time. Instead, I opted for another outing, to Murietta Falls, the highest waterfall in the Bay Area. With the precipitation of the last few days, I was hoping for something impressive.

After a few miles of hiking, my poor toes began to warm up, and eventually I got back to feeling okay. The stretch between Rose Peak and Murietta Falls was totally deserted. In many areas I was the only visible traveler; in others, some other tracks left evidence of earlier visitors.

Murietta Falls unexpectedly proved to be snow-free. It was sunny and calm, so I perched on a rock near the waterfall and munched my lunch while I watched the falls. It's a pleasant site, though not spectacular... more a series of little waterfalls than a single enormous spout. Still, the realization that I was watching the start of a water system from waaaaay up in the hills was cool.

I had a bit more time, so I elected to continue walking towards Del Valle until 1pm, then turn around and return to camp. Oddly enough, I ran into quite a few people coming up to the falls, but after I turned around, I didn't pass any of them again. Maybe people enjoy spending hours by the falls?

The sun ducked away on my return trip, and my toes started getting cold again. I had fun retracing my steps, literally following my own footsteps. Once I made it back to camp, I felt like a little timer started running in my head: "It has been X minutes since you stopped heavy exercising and your toes started freezing." I raced to boil water (hooray for MSR!), cook my Indian Fare (Madras Lentil), steep my tea, eat my warm and spicy and utterly delicious meal with a large and soft and completely delicious piece of naan, drink the tea, clean up, then bound back into the tent and zip myself back in.

Now, I'd had a few cold nights in Yosemite, and was grateful for the marmot then, but this trip is the first time that I've used the bag to its ultimate warming potential. It's a mummy sack, with a collapsible face opening: from inside the bag, you can pull on a drawstring near your head, which shrinks down the fabric around your face. You end up with an opening for your eyes and mouth, with everything else covered in warm, goose-downy comfort. When I read the description, it had sounded a little creepy, but now, it was the most comfortable thing in the world.

I only slept about twelve hours that night. In the morning, I did everything that I could to get ready before leaving my tent. While my legs were still in my sleeping bag, I opened the tent door and cooked breakfast outside. (Using a gas stove inside a tent is a big no-no.) I rolled up my sleeping pad, organized all of my gear, and consolidated my food. Finally, I was ready to put on my pants (shiver) and force my feet back into my shoes (double shiver).

The shoes were even worse this day. There was visible ice all around them. The laces splayed out perpendicularly, freakishly held aloft by the frosted dew. I grimly worked the material back and forth, back and forth, watching as the ice chipped away. I eventually got my feet in after undoing the first two rows of laces. Of course, this started the timer again: "You have spent X minutes in these shoes without engaging in strenuous physical activity." Fortunately, I'm faster at taking down a tent than putting it up. I was also pleased to note that for once the snow was helping me work faster: usually, I'm a bit paranoid about where I stash my gear when I'm striking camp. The logical place to put it is in my pack, but I need to put the tent and tarp in there before the rest of the gear, so I have a hard time finding a spot to temporarily store all the stuff that used to be in my tent until my tent is in my pack. However! When you have pristine snow all around you, which has frosted over during the night to an icy sheen? You can just toss your gear wherever. It'll be clean, it won't even get wet.

Finally, I was done repacking. After a brief stop at the World's Grossest Toilet, I began my descent.

Monday started out cloudy, but around the time I descended below the snow line, the sun came out. I was glad that I could more fully appreciate the really gorgeous terrain there (again, pictures coming soon). The rolling hills are remarkably beautiful, and the rocky outcroppings add interest to the terrain.

Weirdly enough, on Monday I didn't pass any other runners, but did meet many other hikers. It looked like some people had spent the night at the Sunol Backpacking Camp; I still think that this site is too close to the Sunol entrance, but I have to admit that some of those sites look amazing. Closer in to the park headquarters, I ran into many more of the park's itinerant visitors: young families, dogs, shutterbugs.

I did end up slightly switching up my return to make a little more of a loop: instead of returning along the McClatchy Loop Trail as I had on my way out, I swung south to a road that ran along the boundary of the park. This included a swing by an area named Little Yosemite, which really is quite pretty.

Finally, I made it back to my car, intact and happy. It didn't even bear any evidence of the water of the last few days. Oh, and it was warm when I got inside! So very warm! Smiling contentedly, I pointed my car westward and headed home.

UPDATE 2/27/2011: Pictures now available. Far too many of them. Please accept my most profound apologies.

Saturday, February 05, 2011


I thought that this would happen long before now, but I'm finally rid of AT&T!

I've been out of contract with them for nearly two years, and could have switched long before, but the forces of inertia and indecision kept me from doing so. This is largely an occupational hazard. Much of my job these days involves writing pre-loaded apps for mobile phones. That means we get to see and play with phones long before they go on sale to the general public; we often first get it six months before it ships, and several months before it's even announced. Particularly buggy phones can last even longer and may not ship at all, but that isn't the problem; no matter how cool any phone on the market is, odds are that I've worked on a cooler phone that I can't buy yet. Once that phone does come out, I've received the next generation, and can't bear to part with hard-earned money to get something that I know will soon be surpassed.

The end result: I'm probably the last person in San Francisco who's still rocking the original iPhone. (8GB, baby! Top of the line!)

Still, I've gotten increasingly fed up with AT&T, to the point where I was ready to pull the trigger even without having identified a suitable replacement phone. The service was OK back when I lived and worked in the South Bay, but now that I spend much of my time in the City, I just can't deal with it.

For a long time I'd been planning to switch to T-Mobile. In my humble personal and professional opinion, they're the overall best choice amount mobile carriers. Here's how it generally breaks down.
AT&T: Best devices. (This was even more true when they were the exclusive iPhone provider; even now, though, they tend to get first crack at the coolest new devices.)
Verizon: Best network and call quality.
T-Mobile: Best calling plans and most customer-friendly policies.

T-Mobile is the perennial underdog, and so they have to try harder, which they do. There's a bunch of stuff about them that appeals to me.
  • They're a GSM provider, which, among other things, means that it's trivial to switch phones. Now, granted, I haven't switched my phone in four years... but I like the idea of being able to do so whenever I want. 
  • Alone among major US carriers, they offer an unsubsidized phone rate that's cheaper than the normal rate. In other words, if you skip the free or discounted phone, you can pay less each month for service.
  • Along with the above point, they also make it easy to avoid getting a 2-year contract. As long as you provide your own phone, you can continue month-to-month. (You can do this on most carriers with a pre-paid plan, but that generally doesn't work well for heavy data-users like me.)
  • They have an unlimited data plan, which includes a 4G network that's available here in San Francisco.
So, late last year, I was all ready to switch to T-Mobile; I'd just grab an old phone for now, and then take the first dual-core Android phone that came out. But then, they pulled the rug out from under me. Their "Even More Plus" plan, which would let me bring my own phone and get a cheaper plan with no contract, was rescinded from their web site. Apparently, it's still available, but you need to go into a T-Mobile store to sign up for it. I know, I know, it shouldn't be that hard, but it was just enough of a hassle that I put off doing it for several months.

In the end, I landed with someone else: a small carrier called Simple Mobile. Simple Mobile is an MVNO, which means that they're run as an independent mobile company but use another company's wireless infrastructure. The most famous MVNO in America is probably Virgin Mobile, a prepaid carrier that runs on Sprint's network. Sprint phones and Virgin Mobile phones will get the same service whenever you make a call, but use different billing models.

Some Wikipedia research and a few Google searches revealed that Simple Mobile was:
  1. A GSM carrier
  2. An MVNO that uses T-Mobile's network
  3. A 4G carrier (again, using T-Mobile's HSPA+ network)
  4. Surprisingly cheap
All Simple Mobile's plans feature unlimited minutes, which seemed absurdly unnecessary to me. I'm currently on a 450-minute AT&T plan, and in any given month, I'll use about 40-50 "anytime" minutes, with another hour or two of nights and weekends. And yet, even with the unlimited minutes, the Simple Mobile plan cost just as much as the 500-minute T-Mobile plan that I'd been looking at. I'd bring my own phone, and pay $60 a month in return for infinite minutes, messages, and data. In contrast, today I pay $60 a month for AT&T-quality voice service with 200 messages (more than enough) and data that's technically unlimited but only on craptastic 2G EDGE.

I hate to waste food, and I hate to feel like I'm wasting minutes, but still, the math totally penciled out for me. And, again, Simple Mobile doesn't require a long-term contract, so if I found a better deal elsewhere, I could always switch again. So, away I went!

If you're getting a new number, you can do everything you want online. Fill in your details and they'll send you a SIM card in the mail. Once it arrives, punch some numbers into a web page, and you'll be set. Since I was porting my old number, I had to contact customer service. The wait was relatively long (maybe about 10-15 minutes when I called in the middle of a weekday), but once I got through, the process was painless: just provided my old AT&T account information, my new SIM number information, and I was all set. My service was available on my new phone after just a few minutes; incoming calls continued to be directed to my old iPhone for a while longer.

My next step is getting rid of this old phone. There's a website called that looks pretty promising: you select an item to sell, answer some questions about its quality, and get a quote for its value. Ship it off and they send you money. I'm pleasantly surprised to see that there's still some demand out there for first-generation iPhones, so I'll be happy to make the sale.

It is pretty funny to reflect back on how T-Mobile messed this situation up... they were super-close to gaining me as a devoted customer, and would have collected a lot of money over the years from a customer who kept their voice lines almost totally free. Instead, by making it hard for me to buy a product that they sell, they drove me to a pseudo-competitor. Granted, I'm sure there's some kickback to T-Mobile since I'm using their network, but they're only making a fraction of the profit that they would if they still made it easy to buy Even More Plus plans.

As a final bonus: at long last, I can finally actually write apps for my phone. It's pretty absurd that for years I've been able to write apps for just about every mobile platform out there except the iPhone - I can write Java ME, BREW, Android, Windows Mobile... I can even do Symbian if you hold a gun to my head. Android is my favorite platform, and finally I can make stuff that I'll actually be able to use in my daily life.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

Red Rider

Phew! My first PS3 game on my new HDTV and new home theater system was a doozy. Not just a graphical and audio tour de force, but an incredibly involving, complex, and gripping story as well. I know, I know, as usual I'm behind the gaming curve, but I'll add my voice to the chorus of praise and acknowledge that Red Dead Redemption is one of the best games that I've played in a long while.

It comes from a great lineage. It's a Rockstar game, the same outfit that won me over with Grand Theft Auto III had kept exceeding my expectations with each subsequent entry in the GTA franchise. In the abstract, there's a ton here that feels familiar: an enormous free-roaming environment, with bridges that start out closed but gradually open up as the plot progresses; a series of safehouses containing ammunition that you can find or purchase; a combination of "main" story-driven missions and a seemingly endless variety of unofficial mini missions; a ludicrously enormous arsenal that you carry around with you at all times; a variety of steeds that vary in speed and handling; and on and on.

And yet, in all the ways that matter, it feels completely different from the GTA series. The setting is a big first impact, of course: the wild West is filled with scrubby desert, wide open prairies, imposing mesas, and other such settings; the settlements are almost all tiny shacks, and even the largest city doesn't have any building taller than two stories, in start contrast to the skyscrapers that fill the horizon in GTA. Beyond that, though, the attitudes and characters are a radical departure from what we've seen before in GTA.


Most of what's great about RDR comes from its protagonist, John Marston. Rockstar does an incredibly job at storytelling here, and I think they make a great case for the narrative possibilities of gaming here: more so than any other medium I can think of, games have the potential for "showing, not telling" a character's personality, thoughts, and feelings. At the beginning of the game we know only the barest facts about Marston: he used to run with a gang, and has been forcibly recruited by US government agents to track down and apprehend some former members of that gang. That's it; not because he's inherently mysterious, but because that's all that's happened so far.

We learn more and more about Marston as the game progresses. Often, the most important and surprising revelations come out in the quiet spaces within missions, when Marton's riding with someone else to a faraway destination, filling the time by chatting with one another and trying to suss out the other person.

Marton is unlike any protagonist in the GTA series. (Sidebar: the media consistently gets GTA wrong, as each protagonist [I cannot say "hero'] has their own personality and motivations, and they're impossible to generalize. I think most people stopped paying attention after Vice City and assumed that every game is about Tommy Vercetti. In fact, CJ was a deeply loyal and passionate striver who sought to pull up a community around him; Tommy was a nihilist; the Silent Dude from GTA3 was a cold man whose thoughts bent towards revenge; and Mr. Sad-eyed Niko from GTA4 was a man who had been through the darkest experiences of Tommy and emerged on the other side, convinced that nothing of value could be found in a life of violence but unsure whether it could be found on the outside.) Marston is married, and had been raising a son on his ranch prior to the start of the game. Now, like the GTA games, there are still more than a few prostitutes to be found wandering the major population centers; unlike those games, though, Marston responds to their come-ons with quiet demurrals. "Thank you, but I'm a married man," he'll say; or, "I bet, but my wife would kill me." There's a constant, abiding moral presence that's unusual and compelling in this framework.

I am very curious, incidentally, about if and how the game changes if you skew evil. The game has a traditional one-dimensional honor system, where good deeds (capturing criminals, safely ending duels, rescuing hostages, etc.) will earn you positive honor, while evil deeds (robberies, shooting your own horse, bribing eyewitnesses) will lower your honor. I stubbornly stuck to the good path, and so I have an elevated opinion of John's morality, which seemed to be born out in the cut scenes. I do wonder if and how my opinion would have changed if I had tried to become an evil man. Would John's lines have changed at all to match my actions? Or would I have just interpreted them in a different context, and so come up with a different idea of the man? All that to say, the following generalizations may not hold water, depending on how you play the game.

John seems to be a world-wise and yet fundamentally decent man. He's done horrible things in his life; growing up as an orphan in a gang, he murdered people, robbed banks, and made a mess of things. He thought at the time that he was doing good; under the charismatic influence of Dutch, the gang leader, he believed that they were fighting the evil oppressive system and helping the poor underclass. Still, now that he's free of the gang, he recognizes the futility and wrongness of what he's done. He knows that he can never be forgiven for it, and can't make up for it, but he CAN try to control his future actions to make a better, more honest life for himself and for his family.

Before I get too far into the plot, let's talk about gameplay a bit.

Guns are fun. The auto-aiming works well: not so easy that you can pull off free shots, but as long as you're aiming in the approximately right direction, locking on will almost always grab a valid target in range. One complaint: I would have really appreciated some indication that I was about to shoot an innocent or, um, my horse. It didn't happen often, but there were a few times that I blasted away, only to discover that I had the wrong guy in my sights.

Horses are AWESOME. While I love GTA, by the time I played GTAIV I was starting to get a bit sick of the automobile. You can only go through the trading-up experience so many times before it begins to lose its luster. In GTAIII I had a bunch of fun trying out crazy jumps, figuring out how to drive along the elevated train lines, doing mid-air aerials, and the like; by the end of GTAIV, I was taking the taxi everywhere, grateful to escape another lengthy commute.

Horses restore the sense of wide-open exploration and possibility. This is aided by the landscape: instead of navigating paved streets and parking garages between buildings, almost all of RDR is one big open space for you to ride around in. There's a huge sense of freedom when you race through a prairie, or dodge trees in a forest. There are paths, yes, and you'll spend much of your time on them because they speed your travel, but few physical barriers will dictate where you CAN travel.

Horses are also a new experience because they present another mind that you work in cooperation with. A horse will refuse to be "driven" over the edge of a cliff: it will pull up short and whinny, or take the reins from you and plot a course parallel to the drop. Over time, you learn to trust and rely on your horse. When it whinnies, you know something is freaking it out; it might be scared from gunfire, or because it hears a rattlesnake nearby.

I also love how you acquire horses. The early GTA games basically forced you to be a hoodlum, since you needed a car to get around and you could only get one by carjacking or stealing. (Hence the name of the game, of course.) In RDR, it's possible to steal a horse - "jacking" it by pulling off a passing rider, or stealing it from a hitching post - but it's never necessary. At any given time you typically "own" a horse, and you can summon it to you, no matter where you are, by simply pressing the up button, which whistles for it; the horse will come galloping over to you. If your horse dies, then after a short period you can whistle for a new horse.

And, how do you get new horses? Horse-breaking! The Wild West is filled with wild horses. Fairly early on in the game you get a lasso, and learn how you can chase down and rope a wild horse; after this, you can mount it, play a mini game of bucking bronco, and after acquainting it with your body, it settles down and accepts you. Once you do this, you can purchase a deed for that horse breed from a general store; then, switching horses is simply a matter of selecting the deed and whistling for it. Different horses have their own characteristics; generally, more expensive horses are faster, and I think they may have different amounts of stamina (how long you can make them gallop) and health (how much damage they can take before dying). Horses also have different personalities, although I'm not sure whether this is determined by breed or by individual. Some horses are affectionate, and will follow you around when you're exploring on foot; others are stoic and will generally stay put; still others are restless and will wander off quickly. Some are very nervous and will rear up at the sound of gunfire, while others are braver and stay put. All these little actions do wonders for the believability of the game.

Speaking of the lasso... another excellent character note in the game is the different way you can choose to fulfill your objectives. Namely, in most conflicts with other people, there will be both a lethal and a non-lethal solution. The lethal one is obvious: shoot them until they're dead. The non-lethal one is a bit trickier. In a duel, you can often (not always) target the character's hand or weapon; this will disarm them, making you win the duel and sparing their life. In other situations like bounty hunting, you can capture the prisoner and bring them back to justice. This is a little tricky at first: it took me a while to get the hang of roping the enemy while he's shooting at me, then hogtying him, sticking him behind the saddle, then riding him back. After the first few times, though, I got totally hooked. Hogtying turns out to be incredibly fun! I would always take on the dinky little random missions (chasing down thieves, retrieving stolen horses, etc.) just for the pleasure of hogtying someone.

Ooooh... this isn't gameplay, but I gotta talk about the music. It's pretty incredible. I'm accustomed to the GTA setting, where you have a car with a radio, and can pick your tunes whenever you're driving; on the rare occasions when you're on foot, you only hear the ambient noises around you. In this game, there's ambient music in most places. It tends to be pretty subtle and low-key, in keeping with the character of the area. But, once you get to West Elizabeth... wow! In most respects, West Elizabeth seems much nicer than Nuevo Paraiso and New Austin; it's more civilized, has more people, far more green grasses and plants. But, the music you hear here is absolutely chilling. It's jarring, slightly dissonant, very menacing. It seems wholly out of character from the gorgeous surroundings. As you continue the plot in West Elizabeth, though, it begins to make more sense. The music is reflecting the subtle evil of the place, the institutionalized wrongness that it represents.

Okay, this is a good place for some


I just recently beat the game, so that's what's foremost on my mind now. It seems pretty clear that there are two places where they could have ended the game before they did. The obvious dramatic peak is with the death of Dutch. Now, Dutch is a pretty ambiguous figure: he's crazy, a murderer, and homicidal; and yet, he's the closest thing to a father that John Marston ever had, and Dutch's charismatic talk about power and struggle seem proven true by later events. Still, when he dies and Marston gains his freedom, that's a great emotional note to get out on.

I did really appreciate the extended set of missions on the ranch, and kind of wish that the game had ended with these. It's a return to the superior experience of mundane life; Cincinnatus returning to the farm after his battles have ended. It's fascinating to finally meet Abigail and Jack after gradually learning about them second-hand throughout the course of the game. You actually see them, and get to know them better. Not saints, not perfection, but decent people who are struggling to do their best with the situation they've inherited.

As a side note, the whole subplot with Bonnie MacFarlane was beautifully well done. I mean... well, she's on the back of the map for gosh sake, and we all know what kind of women are usually on the back of Rockstar maps. Bonnie is really easy to like, and even admire, and in the early part of my game part of me was secretly wondering if Abby would die and John would "get" to marry Bonnie. Bonnie clearly seems to want this; she lightly flirts with John early on, then backs off once he tells her that he's spoken for. Her reuniting with John, and subsequent meeting of Abby, really pulls things together agonizingly well. Again, this game is all about showing, not telling. That last scene where she looks down and scuffs the dirt with her boot says more than pages of exposition.

(Tangent: I got a kick out of reading the newspaper. It just had this great, crazy tone. Anyways, I liked the story after you rescue Bonnie, where the paper refers to her as a woman in her 20s, and thus no longer marriageable and far past child-bearing age.)

Of course, the game doesn't actually end with Dutch dying, nor with John working on his ranch and bonding with his son. A hail of bullets comes. On the one hand, the motivations seem really unclear - why on earth is the US army chasing after John? What threat does he hold for them? But Dutch already answered that question. They're coming after him because they have to, because it's the purpose of the government and the law to fight enemies, and when they don't have enemies they'll create them. John, who has a credibly violent past and may have seen and heard too much about the work of the federal government, makes for a convenient villain.

I really love this game, but there are moments where I have to pause and wonder whether it's a paen to Tea Partiers.

Even John dying bloodied on the dirt, his weeping wife over him, isn't really the end. Again, this is a Rockstar game, and that means that after you "beat" it, you still can keep playing for as long as you like. And so they make a radical change and let you keep playing... as your son. From a gameplay perspective, you pick up where you left off; Jack has all your money and items and safehouses, and even your fame and honor. In terms of character and tone, though, it's quite different, and I haven't gotten used to it yet. Jack's a different person, more eager, less world-weary, with a mixture of cockiness and self-doubt. I'm still getting to know him. Sometimes he'll say something like his father used to say, but in his own voice, and it gets me.

No: the real, real end is when Jack tracks down his father's killer, and kills him. I'm tempted to say "murders him," but it isn't really murder, it's a duel. Still, it's the distilled, institutionalized violence of the West at work. As far as I can tell, there's no other path you can take: Jack demands vengeance.

So, just what is the "Redemption" in the title "Red Dead Redemption"? I think that John redeems himself. He gets at this during his conversations with Abby after he comes home; he recognizes that he can't ever make up for his past, but he (and she) can try to change for the future. Change is hard, and the forces of inertia and history keep pulling them back; but, I think that by striving to change, he redeems his life of violence.

The game doesn't end on that note, though. John sacrifices his life in order to save his wife and his son. We know what he wants for Jack: a stable life, a healthy life on the ranch, a peaceful life. Jack throws that away; he turns the wheel, and resumes the life of killing and revenge that his father had tried to shield him from. It's a bit tragic. Jack is playing out the role dictated to him by his culture, where insults must be answered in kind; for a brief moment, though, there had been hope that their family could move beyond that and forge a new path.

Random note: I think that the dates on John's gravestone are marked 1873-1911. That would make him 38 years old when he died. That puts him close to the life expectancy for someone of his time, place, and profession. I think it also makes him the most mature protagonist in any Rockstar game.


I was pleasantly surprised when I beat the game to discover that I was at around 98% completion; I haven't been that complete since I first played GTA3. That says a lot for the quality of the game, including the main thru-line, the environment, and the side missions; so much is so entertaining, that I wanted to fill up as much of my time as I could playing with all the cool stuff Rockstar had put in the game.

In GTA, I have a habit: as soon as I finish the first few orienting missions, I borrow (that is, steal) a taxicab, and then start driving around passengers. I can keep this up for a very, very long time... hours, or days. I do this for several reasons. First, it's fun; Rockstar has managed to make a very entertaining version of Crazy Taxi as a totally optional side-mission in their games. Second, it's a great way to earn cash early in the game, when you actually do need money to buy things. Finally and most importantly, though, those speedy, convoluted passenger routes do wonders for orienting me to the city. After I finish driving around a hundred or so people, I know the city streets like the back of my hand, and on any mission can drive quickly and safely where I need to go, because I've covered that route many times before.

My friend Brad was wondering how I'd adapt to RDR: without any taxis, how would I handle entering a new area? Well, the beat changes, but the song stays the same. Between the stranger missions, and the random encounters in the wilderness, and especially the ambient challenges, I had plenty to keep myself occupied. You range all over the terrain to find the right flowers; you engage in ludicrous challenges to prove your hunting prowess (kill a cougar with a stick of dynamite! kill three bears with your bare hands!); you keep your eye to the horizon while traveling, watching for the landmark that will match what's printed on your treasure chest. No, it isn't taxi-driving, but it's just as intense, lucrative, and educational.

RDR has several pieces of downloadable content, and I'll probably check them out at some point. I mean, "Undead Nightmare"? That's gotta be fascinating! In the meantime, though, I'll probably chase down a few more bounties, explore some more land, and try to wrap up that 100% completion. I almost never obsess over a game to that degree - once I "beat" it, it's over - but I can't bring myself to leave West Austin just yet.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Best Fiends

After an aborted start at You Suck, I backtracked and read Bloodsucking Fiends. This is the third Christopher Moore book that I've read; I think it's something around the third or so book that he wrote chronologically, and kinda the first in this particular series, although there is a loose tie back to Practical Demonkeeping, his debut novel.


It's a thoroughly enjoyable book. Moore is a breeze to read, witty, and has great subject matter for his books. For example, while PD was focused around the awesome Big Sur coastline, BF takes place entirely within the City of San Francisco. Its protagonist is a transplant from the Midwest. While I can hardly claim to identify with Tommy, I did really appreciate his, "gee, whiz!" reaction to the splendors of the West Coast.


My favorite element of this book is something that Moore stole outright: The Emperor. That's right, Norton's legend lives on! He's never named here, but Moore borrows everything else about the man: his title (Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico), his dogs (Bummer and Lazarus, each of whom is remarkably well fleshed out, and Bummer in particular ending up as one of my favorite supporting characters), his attitude of benign lordship over the City, and so on. I think that "Safety first!" is Moore's own invention. Norton adapts remarkably well to the 20th century setting, integrates beautifully with the plot, and provides great character.

A close second: The Animals. This wild group of late-night stockboys at the Marina Safeway provide pure, unbridled id that makes everyone else seem straight-laced in comparison. Because there are so many of them, the individuals aren't too thoroughly sketched, but the collective impact is one of outright mayhem.

Tommy himself is thoroughly likeable: a dreamer, an innocent, but someone who isn't at all self-righteous. His worldview is constantly getting challenged, and his habitual reaction is, "Wow, that's neat!"

Jody is also fun, more for her situation than for her actual personality. Moore pulls off an impressive feat in making vampirism seem important without being too melodramatic, and funny without seeming trivial. I liked Jody's gradual dawning apprehension of what's going on. There's a growing eagerness within her to embrace these changes; simultaneously, she recognizes that eagerness, and mulls over whether or not to indulge it.

Finally, Rivera and Caruso are intentionally stock figures, but do a good job of moving the plot along. I'm pretty sure that at least one of them (maybe Rivera?) was a minor character in Practical Demonkeeping; at one point in this book, he makes an offhand statement about seeing an event from that previous book. Which is cool. I did authors who create cohesive mythologies, and if they're set in the "real world," so much the better.

The plot is fun, well-edited, and moves along at a good clip while mainly serving the primary goal of letting these great characters interact. It starts with Jody turning into a vampire, and the rest of the novel revolves around her struggles to deal with that transformation, and the actions of others who she affects. There's a parallel story about a series of murders. I hesitate to call this a "mystery," since it's really clear from the very beginning what's going on there, but it still bears all the hallmarks of a mystery: the investigations, the clues, the dogged detectives, the informants, and so on.


Oh, but as with all great books set here, The City is a character in its own right. I wasn't living here in the early 90's when this book was written, but I think Moore nailed it. He gets the faux trendiness of loft space in "scenic" SOMA; the nightclub scene (striving to seem like a mix of folks, but inevitably skewing towards yuppie scum as the inevitable effect of expensive drinks); the gotta-always-be-on-your-watch minor terrors of the Tenderloin; the relative refuge of Cow Hollow; the stark barrenness of the Financial District after 5pm; the overwhelming cacaphony of Stockton Street in Chinatown; the crushing worlds of commerce and history in North Beach; and on and on. I think it's awesome that someone can "get" The City after a relatively short time here, and yet still have enough explorations to fill a lifetime.

BF is fun and colorful. It would be well worth reading for The Emperor alone, but the Emperor has plenty of company that elevates the book still more. Moore brings things to a clever conclusion, and while the book ends on a satisfying resolution, I'm also not at all surprised that he brought out sequels to it. I'm looking forward to seeing how the story continues.