Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Silicon Valley Musings

You know how, when you read an article on a topic you know well, you get excited at first, and then get progressively more frustrated at the things it gets wrong or fails to address? Well, that's how I felt when reading an article in the current New Yorker magazine titled "Can Silicon Valley Embrace Politics?" (Weirdly enough, even though it's a current article, it's already gone behind a paywall. Usually the New Yorker is good about keeping them up for two weeks after an issue comes out. I don't know if this is an exception for this article, or a new policy. Anyways, you'll need to be a subscriber to read the whole thing, but you'll get the gist from the intro at the link.)

First of all, I need to make the standard disclaimers: I can only write about my own personal experience, which I'll cheerful admit may not be representative of the industry as a whole. I've worked in tech for over a decade (wow!) and in the Bay Area since 2005. I've worked from the south end (Los Gatos) to the north (San Francisco), but have exclusively worked for smaller companies with anywhere from 3 to 50 employees. I don't have first-hand experience of working for the titans like Apple, Google, or Facebook, which George Packer focuses on in his article. I do have friends at those companies, and have visited their campuses, so I have some familiarity even if I don't have much direct knowledge.

And actually, that's a great place for me to start. Packer writes that "Though tech companies promote an open and connected world, they are extremely secretive, preventing outsiders from learning the most basic facts about their internal workings." Well... I don't think that's true. Just last week, I and about two hundred other random engineers dropped by Twitter's headquarters for a series of lightning tech talks. It was held in their commons, and we could see the literal blueprints on the walls showing the next several months of construction on their new mid-Market home. The Twitter engineers talked about their testing process, the risk/reward evaluation they have to make for supporting new features, how they decide whether to open-source something like their AFNetworking modifications for iOS. And this was hardly an isolated case. I've wandered on Google's campus, walked through eBay's parking lots, sat in on Mobile Monday events hosted at dozens of the Valley's largest and smallest companies. Granted, I have the advantage of actually living here, but companies like Google are actually surprisingly open about many of their activities, such as writing blog posts detailing how they operate their data centers.

So, yeah, I was pretty surprised to read Packer describe them as "secretive." I think that Silicon Valley tech companies are far more open and collaborative than their counterparts elsewhere in the country, and would go so far as to say that it's probably the single most important factor in explaining the Valley's global dominance. The atmosphere out here is incredibly exciting and collegial: workers at various companies are constantly meeting one another socially, chatting with each other over drinks or coffee, coming up with new ideas tangentially related to their day jobs. That's what gives the Valley its energy and dynamism: the constant cross-pollination between companies as people collaborate, leave their old companies to start new ones, hire new people, and then those new hires start the cycle again.

Granted, Google isn't going to divulge details on its search algorithms (though it gives more information than you would think), and Facebook won't reveal an upcoming acquisition, but the industry out here is far more open and less secretive than what you'll find in New York City, the Massachusetts Route 128 corridor, the Research Triangle, or any of the other tech hubs in the country (or, I think, the world). (In Overland Park near Kansas City, Sprint's headquarters resemble a fortress, complete with walls and guard towers. The first job I had in that city, with a small company of fewer than 50 people, required a magnetized keycard to enter our office. In contrast, most Silicon Valley headquarters are laid out like college campuses, and it's easy to visit a friend during the day.) The tech industry as a whole doesn't strike me as especially secretive... granted, they're more secretive than the entertainment industry or academia, but much less so than defense contractors or banking.

I should backtrack here and admit that, for the most part, I agree with Packer's overall thesis: that the Valley is insufficiently politically engaged, and that the local tech boom has created a highly stratified society of the super-rich and the very poor. In both cases, though, I think the piece suffers by failing to make comparisons to other locales or industries that would help show just how far behind the Valley is. In the former case, he paints a picture of tech workers as being isolated and apolitical. He quotes one person as saying that people out here "Don't read The Economist." Well... yeah, we do. And The Atlantic, and the New Yorker, and McSweeney's. Again, I can only speak to my personal experience, but the people I've met here (both in the tech industry and outside of it) are smart and politically aware. I'll grant that there is a large amount of cynicism, that "politicians can't get good things done," but that's hardly unique to Silicon Valley. Compared to the communities I've been part of in Minnesota, Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City, I'd say that the Bay Area tech community is more politically engaged. It's certainly possible that we're less politically active than the tech community in New York City or Washington, D. C. Again, I would have appreciated some point of comparison in the article.

Having lived most of my life in the Midwest, I have noticed a significant difference in the political atmosphere out here, but it's a difference in kind and not degree. Compared to much of the country, there's a remarkably high level of consensus on many issues that otherwise divide communities. Pretty much everyone out here supports same-sex marriage, even the few Republicans I know. There's broad support for progressive tax policy, even though this area benefited hugely from George W. Bush-style tax cuts. There's no local disbelief in global warming. All local politicians are pro-choice. And so, there just aren't very high local stakes for these kinds of issues. If someone is very committed to a cause, they're likely to support a national candidate, or someone in a more competitive state (I've gotten in the habit of backing some Minnesotan candidates and causes), but there isn't much outlet for those emotional political issues here.

When there are issues that affect people locally, of course, they get very engaged. Everyone I know (in tech or out) has an opinion on San Francisco's sit/lie ordinance. (For the record, my circle is roughly 75% in favor, 25% opposed.) There's regular tension between anti-growth and smart-growth forces. (Should we build more high-rise developments to support dense urban living?) Everyone cares about high-speed rail. (Almost every tech worker I know supports it; non-tech people are roughly evenly split.)

I can't quite tell if Packer is arguing that the rank-and-file is politically disengaged, or that the big companies themselves aren't politically active, or both. I don't see the evidence of individual disengagement... tech people here write checks, and quit their jobs to join the Obama campaign, and drive to Sacramento to support marriage equality. I suppose a stronger case could be made for the big companies' not being involved in politics, but again, I have to wonder who Packer is comparing them to. The oil companies? Koch Industries? Unilever? I certainly agree that Silicon Valley could do more than it does, but so could everyone. I do wonder what other industries might be good to emulate... the entertainment industry obviously is very engaged in politics, but I feel like there must be some other ones that may also be fairly positively engaged, like retail and housing. I would have loved to see some numbers around the portion of Silicon Valley's wealth that goes to charity and politics, compared with numbers from other industries.

Speaking of wealth, the aspect of Packer's article that I was most on board with was the bifurcated local economy. San Francisco is one of the best places in the world to live if you're young and have money: you can eat amazing fourteen-dollar sandwiches from Tartine Bakery, and live in a ten-million-dollar condo with 1500 square feet and views of the Golden Gate and Bay Bridges, and use TaskRabbit to hire someone to pick up a pair of twenty-sided dice in time for tonight's Dungeons & Dragons game. It's also one of the less painful places to live if you're destitute: the weather is temperate year-round, the city provides a lot of services, and many local groups advocate for the homeless. For people in the middle, though, the city can seem impossible. Rent prices are insane and housing prices even worse. The cost of living is nearly the highest in the country, and non-tech jobs just don't pay enough to cover it. The trend is continuing, too. San Francisco is becoming even more attractive for young tech workers, thanks to relatively new additions like the Valley shuttle buses, so the median income keeps creeping up, and lower incomes keep getting squeezed out.

Ever since moving out here, I've actively promulgated a fantasy: I want everyone who I like to move out here, so they can enjoy the beautiful weather, the awesome culture, and, more importantly, I won't need to fly east to visit them. I've since come to realize that this is an even more selfish fantasy than I had first thought. Visiting the Bay Area can be a dream. Living here can be a hardship, unless you're fortunate enough to land a good job.

So, what should we do about this? It's really the same old problem of gentrification, just written even larger with more money. San Francisco already does a lot with tools like rent control, without which I'm sure there would be even fewer lower-middle-class families living in the city. And like any example of gentrification, it can be really hard to untangle the positive benefits of increasing wealth with the negative impacts on the neighborhood's existing diversity and character.

At one point in the article, Packer describes a coffee meeting he had in Four Barrel, sipping single-origin coffee while surrounded by the casually hip. I immediately perked up at that: my office is just two doors away from Four Barrel, and I think it's a fascinating focal point for what's going on in the Mission, both good and bad. Packer does a great job at briefly and accurately conveying the atmosphere of the Valencia Street corridor: young tech workers with Apple devices, shopping at boutique stores and gourmet restaurants. While he was waiting in line for half an hour to get a coffee, Packer may have glanced at the buildings across the street from Four Barrel. He doesn't write about them, and there's no particular reason why he would have: they look like the kind of new mid-rise condo development that would house these young elites. He may have been surprised to learn that this is actually a public housing development: these nice-looking, well-kept buildings on one of the hottest blocks in the city are reserved for the use of the city's poorest and least enfranchised residents.

And... I'm not sure what to do with that fascinating nugget. The reason San Francisco has so much money to spend on its virtuous social programs is because so many wealthy people live here and help fund their budget. This block of Valencia in particular has benefited in very substantial ways from the changing demographics: I've chatted with people who have lived here for decades, and remember when this was considered a bad part of town. But then places like Four Barrel moved in, and trendy spenders started hanging out, and then more shops started opening up to cater to those people, and the city rebuilt the old projects, and it's now a fun, comfortable, safe space to wander. And yet, Packer is definitely right when he writes about how the Latino population in the neighborhood is shrinking, and families who have lived here for a long time are increasingly finding it hard to find affordable rent, or even shops that provide useful services. Again, it's the same old story of gentrification, and I wish I knew how to "solve" it such that everyone could get what they want and nobody has to leave.

While on the subject of Latinos, Packer quotes Mitch Kapor (of Lotus Notes) saying that "asking questions about the lack of racial and gender diversity in tech companies leaves people in Silicon Valley intensely uncomfortable." I think he's definitely right about the lack of racial diversity: it's absolutely shameful how few African-Americans and Latinos are employed in high-tech positions. It's something we need to do much better on. However, I have (again, in my own limited personal experience) noticed a huge improvement in the last few years on addressing gender diversity. It's definitely a problem: at my previous company, we had hired over twenty (!!) men before hiring our first woman. Companies now openly talk about combating the "Dave ratio" (the ratio of men named "Dave" to women in a company; a 1:1 or worse ratio is shockingly common) and are explicitly describing their need to improve representation. Larger companies are addressing every stage of the pipeline: getting more school-age girls interested in science and math, encouraging college women to pursue STEM careers, setting up internship programs specifically for female programmers, and proactively recruiting woman developers. Smaller companies like my own make greater efforts to seek out female developers, and even use terms like "affirmative action" that would have been anathema a few years ago. While there is still a very long way to go in improving the situation, it feels great to see more traction now that companies are discussing it. I was delighted when my own sister enrolled in the fantastic Hackbright program, and landed a great programming job within a few weeks of graduation.

But, the point still stands that we have a long way to go to even begin to approach parity, and we need to start taking similar initiatives to improve racial and cultural diversity. The tech industry in general, and Silicon Valley in particular, lags far behind most other American industries on both counts.

Um. I think that's all I had to say. I worry a little that I'm just a sensitive San Franciscan getting defensive when a writer from New York criticizes my town and my career, but I do have to admit that he's right about at least a few things. My biggest complaint is that he doesn't offer much perspective in how San Francisco compares to other cities in America, or how the tech industry compares to other industries; some objective figures on our miserliness or apathy would have impressed me much more than scattered anecdotes and interviews. Then again, I am a privileged tech guy, so that's exactly what you would expect me to say.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Unending Sensation

I've realized that I often start my book-related blog posts with some explanation as to why I started reading some particular book. I really don't know why I do this. It might be a subtle form of deflection, to justify why I'm implicitly not reading another one of the many titles that have been recommended to me. Or perhaps it's just a crutch writing mechanism, a boring but reliable technique that lets me ramp up to writing about a story, instead of abruptly commenting on the text.

One unexpected but appreciated aspect of this habit, though, is that it also provides some minor documentation on my own life. These days almost all my blog posts are about books or video games, but the original intention was to just be a public journal, and while I've certainly drifted from that in recent years I do enjoy that semi-autobiographical aspect. What I like even more is re-reading some of my older blog posts. Some of them really surprise me: they'll reference experiences that I'd forgotten I'd had, or, even more disconcertingly, contradict my own recollections. It's fun to re-read my early posts after moving to California and suddenly remember all the weird things I fixated on (incredibly narrow right-turn lanes!). It's stranger to look up my old write-ups of Planescape: Torment, which I remember as having a particularly dark sense of humor; upon reading it, though, I can't ignore that I specifically call out the game's lack of humor, dark or otherwise. Attempting to reconcile my memories with the written record leads to a certain sense of vertigo.

All of this is very much on my mind thanks to the phenomenal book Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes. I picked it up more or less on a whim, after reading a very brief comment from Rahul that led me to some positive and intriguing reviews. The book is relatively slight, and maintains an admirable focus on the reliability of memory: the stories we create and tell and improve about ourselves, our friends, and our relationships. It was a fairly brief and easy read, but the kind of book that deserves to be lingered over.


Sense of an Ending is narrated by a character named Tony, and encompasses most of the span of his life, from his school years through his late fifties. It isn't a comprehensive novel, though, and focuses on a core group of friends he had at school, and one or two romantic relationships. What's interesting is to read the narrator's own musings over what to include in this story and what to discard as irrelevant; there are many novels that he could make from his life, and he tries to focus in on this particular story that he's telling.

There's a strong through-line of memory and history that starts in the book's very earliest pages, when the boys share a history class and are challenged by their professors to think about what exactly constitutes history. Is it just the lies written down by the winners? The sorrows of the aggrieved? The boys reminded me a lot of myself in high school, particularly as they consider philosophical implications. When a classmate commits suicide, they begin wondering if and when this raw, shocking, emotional act will transmute into the dry, clinical fact of history.

Throughout the book, the narrator is constantly second-guessing his own grasp of this personal history. He's pretty sure that Finn said something, but acknowledges that it could have been someone else, or perhaps Finn said something else entirely. He's particularly aware of how later events color his recollection of earlier moments: he might remember feeling jealous when two people hit it off, but then will wonder whether he actually felt jealous in that moment, or if he's just remembering the sense of jealousy that he felt when replaying that moment in following years. Interestingly, this is at least as pronounced when there's something more tangible than his own memory available. He has a photo of a day that he spent with his friends and girlfriend, and will stare at that photo, forty years later, trying to understand what it means. Is he smiling in that photo, or grimacing? Is his girlfriend standing far away from another friend because she's attracted to him? He recognizes that it's impossible to fully recover the past, but he can't help examining it and trying to get it right.


The most amazing part of the novel, though, comes near the end, when Tony finally makes contact with Veronica again. Even though he had written so much about his uncertain recollections (particularly the devastating and fascinating way in which he considers their level of intimacy, along with the requisite second-guessing as to how she remembers it), I was still treating him as basically a reliable narrator: sure, he wasn't perfect, but he was the most dependable source we had.

Well! The bombshell comes when, after a long and acrimonious (if occasionally amusing) set of exchanges, he receives one of his own old letters from Veronica. It is absolutely devastating. It covers an incident that we thought we already knew, when she started dating Adrian; Tony had already described how annoyed he was at receiving a formal letter from Adrian informing him of what was going on, and had described the overly casual postcard he had sent in return, after which time they never spoke before Adrian's suicide. But now, what we had thought was a closed incident safely in the past comes rushing open. Tony had written a second letter, a damning letter, full of bile and hatred, writing the most awful things imaginable, all of which are painfully reprinted in their entirety. And, somehow, he had completely forgotten that he had done this.

It shocks him, and shocks us. It seems impossible for something this monumental, which preceded such tragedy, to be forgotten. And yet, the more I think about it, the more I begin to accept that it could have happened. Most charitably, Tony could have been drunk and/or reeling in emotional grief, and lost his memory of this epistle when he recovered himself. It's also very possible, though, that he deliberately put it from his mind: it clearly doesn't at all match the image of himself that he portrays in this book, and on some level, conscious or subconsciously, he may have tried to excise it from his history. (Which raises another interesting, and even less answerable question: if this is something he forgot along the way, when did he forget it? Before or after the suicide? If after, it seems like his sense of guilt must have been enormous.)

So... that seems like the big twist of the novel, which left me unprepared when the big one exploded in the last few pages. We learn that, no, Tony really just did not get it after all. And I for one feel pretty stupid for not having figured it out - it nicely explains everything about the bequest and the new characters that seemed strange. It's sad, and embarrassing, and horrifying, but also carries the instant application of decades of separation between the deed and the discovery. What does one do in that situation? Apologize for the bad man you were in your youth? So he did, but it can't begin to address the permanent consequences of his transient meanness.

"Sense of an Ending" is a perfect title in many ways, but to address the ending in particular, "a sense" is exactly what we get. There isn't a dramatic climax, no final emotional confrontation between Tony and Mary, but the crushing realization of what has happened arrives with such force and suddenness that it provides, well, a sense of an ending.


I don't always identify with characters in books that I enjoy, but I do feel a particular resonance when I encounter protagonists who remind me of myself. Tony's life is very different from my own, but I immediately recognized the process of self-reflection, of teasing out the story of your own life, and curiously trying to reconstruct how you became the person you are. I have a strong tendency (and reading this book makes me think this may be a human tendency) to interpret my past in ways that align with my present. For example, for many years I thought that I had always enjoyed school, before I was gently reminded that I actually hated the early grades of elementary school. I probably didn't spend as much time programming as a kid as I think I did, but it's a strong story that helps explain why I'm in my current career and so I tend to focus on those memories.

I also empathize with the cringe-worthy experience of recalling things I did or said in the past that I now regret. These days I try really hard to be kind to people, and I shrivel up inside when I remember the very unkind things I did when I was a kid. The narrator includes an illuminating digression on the etymology of the word "remorse", which literally means to chew again. I had never considered it before, but it's a perfect explanation of that word: when we feel remorseful for past actions, we chew over those scenes in our mind, worrying over them like a dog worries a bone, inflicting fresh sympathetic pain on ourselves with each bite. We can never truly atone for our past sins, precisely because we are no longer the same person who committed them, but we still feel an attenuated responsibility for them that we can't let go.

That all sounds melancholy, and there is a melancholic and elegiac character to much of the book, but for the most part it's an interesting, fascinating tale. It deals very explicitly with a few fundamental concepts that underlie every day of our lives and every work of fiction we encounter. I can definitely understand why it's received so much praise.

Thursday, May 09, 2013

To Say Nothing of the Blog

I've been a big reader for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I used to walk out of our public library balancing a stack of over a dozen books. I read fairly indiscriminately at first, happily devouring high-quality fantasy, low-quality fantasy, science, science fiction, children's books, young adult books, and adult books, all in a gloriously messy melange of experiences. As I grew older, I started to focus in on particular genres and authors who I enjoyed. I would decide that I liked, for example, Isaac Asimov, and then would devour every Asimov book I could get my hands on, then feel sad when there weren't any left. As such, I had a particular fondness for prolific authors, who I could rely on to sustain me through dozens of library trips.

While in junior high, one of my favorite authors was P. G. Wodehouse. That was a rare case where I started reading a book after viewing the TV show based on it. The "Jeeves & Wooster" program that aired on PBS introduced me to Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and Wodehouse, all of whom I adore to this day. It was a far cry from the speculative fiction that otherwise filled up most of my reading: set in the first decades of 20th century Britain, the stories shone a light on the bizarre world of the British aristocracy, filled with attractive, vapid young men and women with inherited income and absolutely no purpose for existence, leading them to spend their time on comically pointless social entanglements. It was an incredibly witty farce, with twisty plots, clever dialogue, and affectionately-drawn but utterly mockable protagonists.

After working my way through all of the Jeeves books, I spent time reading through some other great Wodehouse books, like the Psmith books and The Swoop! Both were great, but in retrospect, I can see why they haven't lingered in the collective conscience the way Jeeves has. Those books were written in the more innocent pre-WWII days, and dealt with subjects that at the time seemed ripe for parody, but have since accumulated somber overtones. Psmith nominally a socialist who refers to friends as "comrade"; he's a fun foil to British society in the books (even I, as an ignorant American, got a huge kick out of the cricket plot), but after Stalin and the Red Scare, it's easy to see Psmith as an overly sympathetic reference to communism. Similarly, The Swoop! was a comedy about the invasion of England by, well, practically everyone; I imagine it was a bit harder to laugh at it after the Blitz.

In the years since then, I've continued to explore every aspect of British humor I can acquire, but nothing else has provided a similar experience to Wodehouse. Modern British humor tends more towards the surreal or the ironic, which I do enjoy immensely, and is a decidedly different feel from the more innocent, goofy sensibilities of Wodehouse.

Fortunately, at long last I've found a worthy counterpart to Wodehouse. As could be expected, I'd been doing it wrong, looking for more recent authors who could reliably imitate the master. Instead, I should have been looking into the past, to Wodehouse's likely antecedents. And so, at long last, we come to the euphoniously named Jerome K. Jerome, and his lovely book "Three Men in a Boat."

I'm not precisely sure when I first became aware of the book. The subtitle of this book was borrowed as the title for a pretty good science-fiction novel I read a few years back, "To Say Nothing of the Dog," and I was vaguely aware that a scene from within that book was taken from this earlier novel. I'm pretty sure that it has been mentioned a few times since then, always in a very positive context; but, it's certainly not part of the literary canon on this side of the pond, and isn't very well-known or all that easy to acquire.

It's totally worth it, though. The book is quite old, having been written in 1880s, but holds up astonishingly well for its age: the language is clear, and the voice is extremely engaging and wry, very modern in its sensibility even if some references are a trifle dated. The book's subject matter will be fairly familiar to Wodehouse fans: three foolish unmarried young men with no useful life skills embark on an adventure, falling into one minor catastrophe after another, generally bumbling through while losing the respect of everyone they meet. That might not sound very funny, but trust me: it's hilarious.

I don't want to over-sell the Wodehouse comparisons. Wodehouse's characters tend to all be upper-class; I think that the Three Men may be middle-class, though (they definitely don't have servants, and seem a bit more cognizant of money than people like Bertie are). The book also has more observational humor and insights into the psychology of its characters, at the expense of the comparatively tight plotting of Wodehouse.

I absolutely love the book's narration. It's a bit hard to pin down exactly how self-aware Jerome is: he often goes into long digressions about disagreements he's had in the past, where it's perfectly clear that he was being ridiculous and in the wrong, so I tend to assign a self-mocking or facetious tone to those passages, even though nothing in the content will directly betray any self-awareness. It's a bit tricky, since this book, like a ton of other 19th century British (and, for that matter, many American) novels, presents itself as a work of fact, with the author presenting us with a true accounting of events. I imagine that Jerome did draw some sort of inspiration from a similar trip or the tales of his friends, but since this book doesn't have any Frankensteinian monsters or Transylvanian vampires running around, you can't write the whole thing off as fiction.

As I noted before, the sense of humor translates extremely well to modern audiences. (Well, at least this modern man.) I generally shy away from quoting, but I really can't do justice to his humor otherwise. Here are a few of the shorter passages I particularly enjoyed.

The selfishness of the riparian proprietor grows with every year. They drive posts into the bed of the stream, and draw chains across from bank to bank, and nail huge notice-boards on every tree. The sight of those notice-boards rouses every evil instinct in my nature. I feel I want to tear each one down, and hammer it over the head of the man who put it up, until I have killed him, and then I would bury him, and put the board up over the grave as a tombstone.

Fox-terriers are born with about four times as much original sin in them as other dogs are, and it will take years and years of patient effort on the part of us Christians to bring about any appreciable reformation in the rowdiness of the fox-terrier nature.

The hotels at Shiplake and Henley would be crammed; and we could not go round, knocking up cottagers and householders in the middle of the night, to know if they let apartments! George suggested walking back to Henley and assaulting a policeman, and so getting a night's lodging in the station-house. But then there was the thought, "Suppose he only hits us back and refuses to lock us up!" We could not pass the whole night fighting policemen. Besides, we did not want to overdo the thing and get six months.

 In later years, Reading seems to have been regarded as a handy place to run down to, when matters were becoming unpleasant in London. Parliament generally rushed off to Reading whenever there was a plague on at Westminster; and in 1625, the Law followed suit, and all the courts were held at Reading. It must have been worth while having a mere ordinary plague now and then in London to get rid of both the lawyers and the Parliament.

Little mishaps, that you would hardly notice on dry land, drive you nearly frantic with rage, when they occur on the water. When Harris or George makes an ass of himself on dry land, I smile indulgently; when they behave in a chuckle-head way on the river, I use the most blood-curdling language to them. When another boat gets in my way, I feel I want to take an oar and kill all the people in it.

That should give at least a taste, though it's not truly representative - the funniest parts in the novel tend to be when he goes off on a tangent for several pages, digging deeper and deeper into some absurd situation. That does seem to be a particular gift for British comedians through the ages, whether Wodehouse was showing Bertie accidentally accepting more and more marriage proposals, or John Cleese digging himself ever deeper into a hole at Fawlty Towers. I definitely don't know enough to say that Jerome was the first author to write in this style, but I'm pretty sure he's the oldest one I've read.

Some aspects of the book still seem odd. While much of it is comic, or at least wry, there are one or two passages that seem sombre or sentimental. I mean, it's possible that I'm missing a reference that would have been hilarious to 1880's readers, but a late section that describes them discovering the corpse of a tragically downed young lady shows a more serious side of Jerome that is otherwise missing from the novel. It's certainly not bad, but seems a bit out of place given the rest of the book.

The book also has some passages that, while not laugh-out-loud funny, are wry and thought-provoking. Early on he writes an extended riff on how one generation's junk become a later generation's treasures. He writes about the Georgian knick-knacks and crockery that any family would have had in the 1700s, and how those same objects are today (that is, in 1889) valuable and venerated. He then extends that thought to the present day, wondering whether the "blue porcelain" that can be so cheaply had in London will be fawned over by his grandchildren. It's an amusing thought, but with more than a century's perspective, we can actually answer his rhetorical question: yes, in fact, those tea cups that to you seen so workaday will, to future generations, be treasured heirlooms. And, of course, that makes me think about today (that is, in 2013), and wonder which of my charmless, practical accoutrements will somehow acquire meaning to people still further in the future.

All in all, Three Men in a Boat is one of the funniest books I've read, and a fantastic example of how some humor can be truly timeless. It's not just a collection of jokes, though; over the course of the book you gradually come to know and love George, Harris, and most of all Montmorency, and I'll continue to treasure their memory for years to come. The next time I'm struggling to put up a tent, I'll remember their trials at doing the same; the next time I return from a long and rainy backpacking trip, I'll recall their blissful final meal. It's a great book, and I can certainly see why people continue to hold it up as an example of terrific comic writing.

Yet More Shameless Self-Promotion

For today only, my latest book, Android in Action, can be bought for 50% off from Manning. Use the code dotd0509au at checkout.

Also on sale today is another book of potential interest to Android developers: 50 Android Hacks. I wrote the chapter on creating nice-looking, iOS-style sectioned lists. So, if you've ever wanted to build those, now you can! I think the same code works for that book too. (A more generalized class that supports sectioned grids can be found on GitHub, and is explained in some blog posts.)

Wednesday, May 08, 2013

Hold a Candle To

Two games have presented me with very different multiplayer combat in the last few weeks. First up, Fallen London. Back when I joined about a year ago, I saw a few references to a game-within-the-game known as Knife & Candle. It was already defunct, so I never experienced it myself, but it sounded interesting: a gentlemanly game of polite murder, pitting one person against another, with the winners stealing money from the losers and gaining prizes, including some otherwise-unobtainable items and lodgings.

In all honesty, I felt quite happy to not have the game as an option. I tend to dislike multiplayer games in general, and competitive multiplayer games in particular. One of the things I love most about Fallen London is that it can be very rewardingly played entirely solo: having friends makes certain aspects of the game easier, but nothing requires you to recruit new players to advance or other awful things that most "social" games require. I actually only started engaging in the social aspects of the game after I had reached the level cap, and I'm now at the point where I occasionally visit the forums, help out other players, and participate in in-game holidays like the Feast of the Exceptional Rose.

Speaking of which, it was at the Feast that I acquired a unique item, a Mirrorcatch Box. These were very rare, and required players to solve a very oblique puzzle in order to obtain. That made me happy - it was a fun process that involved a lot of speculation and collaboration - but also wary, since the game clearly warned players of the risk of Box Theft. Up until now, I'd been happily ensconced in a purely reciprocal social model. Any time one person wished to take an action (like give a gift), the other party would need to approve it (like accept that gift). Even theoretically competitive actions like the Tournament of Lilies require both the attacker and defender to approve of a bout. The idea that someone, somewhere, could snatch my box out of my hands without me being able to defend it... well, it was dispiriting, and seemed a notable departure from the friendly atmosphere among players that pervades Fallen London.

It turns out that this was a quite deliberate departure: the introduction of the Mirrorcatch Box was the first step in a planned rebirth of the Game of Knife & Candle. We box owners all received invitations to join the so-called Underground League. In the fiction of Fallen London, Mr. Irons runs Knife & Candle, and officially disapproves of this unsanctioned sport; however, he seems to be actually orchestrating it from behind the scenes, to some unknown purpose.

I dislike competitive games, but love Fallen London and particularly new Fallen London content, so I joined the Iron Leagues and started to play. It was an interesting system, a bit like paper-rock-scissors, where people choosing certain Forms were more likely to defeat others, and some Forms were better at defending themselves.

Torn between a desire to participate and a distaste of stabbing, I decided to compromise: I would be the Reciprocal Murderer, and only attack players after they had attacked me. Attacks were rare, just one or two a day. I held attacks in reserve, and would savagely retaliate. I don't know whether it's necessarily fair, but it seemed like a vaguely moral position.

After moving up to the Bronze Leagues, though, it got much more intense. Failbetter published a list of all the players in the leagues, and suddenly I was inundated with attacks. Which, again, felt unfair; some players would attack unprovoked multiple times, and I would often receive many attacks in a short amount of time. I later learned that, due to a quirk of the notification system, I was actually defending myself successfully a fair amount of the time; but just judging from my email, it felt like I was drowning under a wave of assaults.

Fortunately, the game does offer several means of respite: one can escape in their boat to Zee, or retreat to Flute Street, or purchase a safe stay in a cottage on Watchmaker's Hill. In my case, I simply abandoned my Form, which made me ineligible to make or suffer attacks. I figured I'd spend some time away from the game and see if things calmed down before deciding whether to take back up a Form or not.

While examining my options for safety, though, I had stopped by Wolfstack Docks to check on my options for traveling the Unterzee. There, I noticed a gold-bordered plot that I hadn't yet played, a Spider Council's lair. I thought that it might be a new addition, or else something I had skipped in my rush to reach the Labyrinth of Tigers. In any case, I thought, "Oh, this will be fun! I like stories!"

The storylet described entering the lair and meeting the spider, who purrs some words about the Correspondence and your lovely eyes. I had three options: attack, or run, or talk my way out of it. Well, given that my character is entirely oriented around the Persuasive and Watchful abilities, I barely hesitated before selecting the final option.

Big mistake! The spiders attacked. The next thing I knew, I was waking up on the slow boat. Noooooooooooo! I have very carefully kept my Wounds below 8 for the entire year-plus that I've played Fallen London, specifically because I want to be sure that I can return to the Surface with no ill effects. I hadn't even known that it was possible to be killed with fewer than 8 wounds; granted, I'd received some wounds from the attack, but they were still only at about 3 or 4. I felt devastated, and a little betrayed (appropriately enough for one who had only just escaped Knife & Candle): in every other case in the game where something bad can happen to your character, Failbetter is very good at putting warnings by those options: "Don't do this. That would be unhinged." or "Turn back now. This is a very bad idea." Being a reasonable person, I always heed such warnings. And now I'd been murdered!

Being in Knife & Candle was a mixed blessing. I had to surrender all of my Tokens to the Boatman, but he was willing to heal my wounds in exchange. I hope that this means that I didn't actually die, and I'll continue to believe that until proven otherwise.

Then, to add grievous insult to mortal injury, someone stole my Mirrorcatch box. Bah! Perdition upon all their houses!

Safely back in London, having only spent a few minutes away but feeling profoundly shaken as a result, I decided to swear off the Game altogether. I'm glad that it exists, and people seem to be delighted to play it, but it's entirely too rambunctious and harrowing for an upstanding citizen such as myself.

No, what I enjoy is: cooperative multiplayer! Specifically, Mass Effect 3 cooperative multiplayer! I actually started playing this around the same time as Fallen London, and I wouldn't have thought that I would still be playing and enjoying it so much more than a year later. It comes in waves for me - I'll happily ignore it for several months, then the itch to set Reapers ablaze will return, and before long I'm running around on Firebase London cackling maniacally. Good times!

When Bioware announced back in March that they were ending support for multiplayer, I had feared that the game would swiftly fade. That hasn't been the case, though. At least on the PC, at the times I tend to play, I never have trouble finding a game. I can usually quickly find an enemy/difficulty combo that I want (like Reapers/Silver or Geth/Bronze) in less than a minute. If I don't, I just start a new public game and solo the first wave or two. By the time we reach the first objective wave, I always have a full group of four. Players seem to be really good, too... I don't see much stupidity or selfishness these days, and people are good at cooperating to achieve objectives.

It's really interesting to look back over the past year and see how the game has evolved. It's definitely gotten much more feature-rich, thanks to the multiple free DLC packs that Bioware released that added an astonishing number of new character kits, weapons, mods, and gear, as well as a half-dozen new maps. But beyond that, player habits have changed too, and I love seeing how the community has slowly evolved and shifted, spontaneously developing new mores, standards, and habits. In the early days, most successful teams would hunker down in defensible positions, protecting each others' flanks and surviving the series of waves. People generally despised players who "ran off on their own." Today, teams are almost always mobile, and constantly roam around the map. It's a more challenging playstyle, but actually more successful: if you're constantly roaming, you'll never get swarmed by bad guys, since you'll always be able to retreat to the area that you just cleared. I think it's something that people started picking up on when they spent more time in the more challenging difficulties, and it's slowly filtered down to the easier levels, to the point where it's now frowned upon to camp in a single spot. There are other, subtler social changes as well. Microphone usage, never very common on the PC, has become virtually extinct. Players now often greet one another by performing a heavy melee at the start of a wave or match. Players automatically un-ready and re-ready to give teammates more time to adjust consumables between matches. And so on.

As for myself, I'm still definitely not an expert player, but it's been very encouraging to track my progress and see how I've improved over time. I have some big news to share: I've beaten my first-ever Gold match! It was extremely challenging, and I felt like I had about a dozen heart attacks during the match, but I pulled through, and even ended up in the #2 position on the score chart at the end. I played it with my most comfortable character, my Vorcha Soldier, against Reapers. I used all of the high-level consumables that I've been saving forever: Level III Explosive Rounds, Assault Rifle Rail Amp III, and Power Amplifier Module IV. I'd equipped them because I wanted to be ready if the game dropped me into a match; I ended up in a lobby with a much more experienced player who had queued up Reapers on Firebase Ghost. He immediately readied. I gulped: I'd have no trouble duo-ing or even soloing on Silver, but for a first Gold match, I was nervous. I waited as long as seemed socially acceptable for other players to join in. Nobody did. So, heart in my throat, I readied up, and we began.

The first two waves were embarrassing. I tend to play my Vorcha as a highly mobile incendiary tank: I generally lead charges, focus on early kills to get my Bloodlust rising, and set up fire explosions that my teammates or I can detonate. Since it was just the two of us, though, I trailed my teammate and followed his lead. I'd known intellectually that enemies hit for more damage on Gold, but there's a difference between knowing something and truly grokking it. I waded into a few situations that I should have been able to coast through - like facing four Cannibals - only to end up bleeding on the ground. In the first few waves. How embarassing!

Fortunately, things got better. Two more players joined us in Wave 2, and I think I only died once or twice more in the waves after that. There were tons of time when it was close, though! Gold is insane. Brutes start appearing in Wave 2, and Banshees in Wave 3. Cannibals disappear entirely by Wave 6, so the weakest enemies you'll face are Marauders. In the last few waves, the field is entirely dominated by heavy enemies, with multiple Banshees, Brutes, and Ravagers threatening everything.

For as awful as it felt, though, it also felt awesome. The team was rock-solid, everyone coming together to complete a challenging escort mission in Wave 6. I contributed rockets to our assassination efforts on Wave 10. Everyone helped revive everyone else as the need arose. Perhaps most encouraging of all, not a single person got sync-killed over the entire half-hour duration of the match. These were all clearly bright, experienced, talented players, and I felt super-lucky to have my first Gold experience with them.

Gold is financially rewarding, too. I think we earned something like 80k credits for the match. Considering it lasted just about ten minutes longer than a Silver match, and earned close to three times as much, that's a fantastic return. (The counter-part, of course, is that I probably took a year off of my life due to stress.) I won't be making Gold a habit any time soon, but it felt great for my first outing to be a success, and I hope to return in the future.

At the moment, I'm actually switching between all three difficulties quite often, and having a blast. I'm working on my N7 Mastery challenge, which requires promoting characters. For a while, I had left all of my classes at Level 20, since that's the strongest build and let me more reliably earn more credits. Now, I play on Bronze until around level 12-15, then on Silver until level 20, then I either play a Gold match or promote the class and start over again. This also has the benefit of increasing the value of the character promotion cards I get in packs: unlocking new appearances doesn't really help you mechanically, but being able to take advantage of the bonus XP can help me reach those promotions more quickly. I'm doing this with a variety of characters. Other challenges often require either extracting with a kit 10 times or completing 200 waves with them, so I'll play a kit for 10 games, promoting as possible along the way, and then switch to another kit for the next challenge. I'm making good progress: I have beaten the Earth challenge, am almost done with Rebellion, and decently close to finishing Resurgence.

Switching between so many characters and difficulties has given me a great incentive to try out still more combinations and techniques that I otherwise would never have tried, being content to stick with my more familiar tools of Salarian Engineer and Vorcha Soldier. In the past I've almost exclusively played power-based classes, focusing on light weapon loadouts and keeping cooldowns low so I can focus on tech or biotic damage. Recently, though, I've been able to play with characters who can completely ignore cooldowns, like the N7 Demolisher, N7 Destroyer, and Batarian Soldier. That has let me try out some heavy shotguns and assault rifles, and an entirely new playstyle. It's a lot of fun!

Just before I started playing my Batarian Soldier, I finally unlocked the Cerberus Harrier assault rifle. I'd read some of the glowing accolades players have lauded this gun with, gushing over its superior damage and high accuracy. So, I loaded up my Batarian Soldier with the Harrier and my Reegar Carbine, another often-beloved but hefty gun that I've eschewed on my cooldown-dependent kits. All I have to say is: holy cow, everyone is right, that is an awesome gun. It kills things so quickly, even on Silver! As people have noted, ammunition can be a problem; but with my play style, it's actually not bad, since I tend to move around the map a lot, and can easily drop by ammo boxes en route.

I've been generally pleased at my comfort level on Silver in general. I remember when the thought of bringing anyone other than my beloved Vorcha soldier into Silver filled me with terror. Now, after I've played at least a match or two on Bronze to get comfortable with the character, and have reached a decently high level, I don't really hesitate to take it up to Silver, and generally do well there. The exact level varies depending on the kit; my Batarian Soldier was topping charts in Silver at Level 10, but my Geth Engineer waited until he was 18 to make the jump.

Possibly the most fun character I've had, if not technically the most successful, was my Geth Infiltrator. One of the very first YouTube videos I'd seen of Mass Effect 3 Multiplayer gameplay gave an arresting view of a semi-exploitative (but perfectly legal!) way to play this guy by cleverly combining several game mechanics. The Geth Infiltrator, like a few other Geth, has the Hunter Mode power. This murders your shields, and makes your screen hard to see, but gives you a lot of nice perks (faster movement, more weapon damage) and, most importantly for this built, allows you to see enemies through walls. Well, that's good, for starters: situational awareness is a really good thing. Now, for the second part of this build, we equip the Javelin. This is a very heavy sniper rifle, which is doubly challenging: I very rarely use sniper rifles, and its weight will make Tactical Cloak slower. So, why do we take it? Simple: it is able to shoot through walls, at a distance of up to 1 meter. Pretty good. Next, we attach a Piercing Mod to the rifle. This lets bullets penetrate through up to 1.35 meters. It is cumulative with the Javelin's innate piercing, so combined, we can fire through nearly 2.5 meters of solid metal or rock. (If you wanted to go truly crazy with this build, slap on some Drill Rounds as well, which can get you up to 2.5 additional meters, letting you fire through pretty much anything.)

So, what does this mean? Basically, you can kill enemies long before they see you. Hang out in another room, watching their heat signatures. Then, bam! Even firing through walls, a single shot can take down any Cannibal or Trooper, and a headshot can down a Marauder or Centurion. It's especially comical on Firebase Dagger, where you can shoot through the floor and take out enemies far below you. The whole experience is surreal, and entirely unlike any other kit I've played. Which, of course, is part of why I love ME3 MP so much, and keep coming back to it. Playing a Vorcha is nothing like a Human Engineer, and a Batarian Soldier is nothing like a Geth Infiltrator. Your strategies change, your techniques change, your basic attitude shifts between aggression and caution, leading and supporting, close-distance and long-range, diversion and accomplishment. And, of course, every single game will change depending on your other teammates, their kits, their styles of play and skills, not to mention the map and enemy you face. It seems like there are multiple aspects of the game to master - your specific kit, each individual enemy, each map - but there's enough variety in the game that it never feels repetitive. Or at least, I have yet to experience any repetition.

Anyways! I did love the infiltrator, but couldn't take as much advantage of him as others have; I'm not great at aiming for head-shots, so I generally went for the center of mass, which was pretty effective but kept me from maximizing the kit's potential. I've since moved on to other kits, but I might dust that guy off again after I have some more sniping experience under my belt.

So, yeah... hooray for cooperative multiplayer! It's great to see the community still going so strong, and it feels like there's been a steady influx of new players over the past month or two, which makes me think that ME3 is enjoying a decently stable shelf life. I hope that this continues to bode well for whatever Bioware Montreal does with the franchise in the future - they're the ones who created the multiplayer game, and its staying power makes me feel more optimistic for the post-Shepard world of Mass Effect.

EDIT: Wow!  In the brief time since I started writing the post, I've had a few more awesome experiences. I completed another Gold match, this time as a Krogan Vanguard. It was even less smooth than my Vorcha, but I held my own all right... I personally delivered both of the objects on Wave 10, before stupidly getting sync-killed by a Banshee while running to revive a teammate. After promoting that guy, I've started playing with the Batarian Sentinel. I'm actually getting a ton of utility out of his Submission Net, which is pairing quite nicely with the Kishock Harpoon Gun. The net will freeze unarmored targets in place for a brief time, which gives me the half-second I need to line up a headshot with my sniper rifle. Sure, it's a bit of a crutch, but a great one that opens up some gameplay that previously had been too difficult for me to attempt. Man, this game keeps on getting better!