I think I want to take Sushu's last name instead of vice-versa.
I really hate the last name DiCarlo (which is shared by no-one in my family except my maternal grandmother, long story) and have been looking for a replacement. I also kind of want to change my first name to officially Jono, since that's what everyone calls me anyway. But I only want to go through name-change paperwork once, so I want to make sure I change to a name that I like being stuck with for the rest of my life.
Sushu's last name is 夏. It is pronounced Xia ("shia"), falling tone, and means Summer. If I take that as my name I could be officially "Jono X".
Jono X! I like the sound of that!
Slight drawback: Sushu's brother's name is John Xia, so there would be a lot of potential confusion there.
Neither of us is religious, so we're not going to do this in a church. We want something simple. It's going to be here in California for two reasons: First, because Sushu's family and friends are all here; and second, because the weather in the summer is much tamer around here than it is in Chicago, so we can do stuff outside without having anybody die of heatstroke.
Afternoon of Friday June 26th: city hall wedding, with just immediate nuke-you-lar families
Saturday June 27th: Everybody has afternoon picnic in the park, then dinner at a nice Chinese restaurant, then karaoke!
Do not buy us presents! We already have all the kitchen gadgets we could possibly use, and I know y'all need to conserve money. Instead of presents, we'd really like it if the people who come could contribute a service of some kind, like taking the pictures, or playing the music, or telling stories, or organizing games, or serving food, or whatever. (We already have two offers to bake the cake.) That way we'll save money too, and instead of random strangers-for-hire doing all this stuff at our wedding we'll have friends and family doing it. Win!
Aza says people are more likely to read articles if they're in the form of a top-ten list, whether that fits the subject matter or not. Maybe I can make up for barely blogging at all in 2008, now that the year is over, by turning it into a top-ten list.
9. Turtwig and Pokemon trainer
One of my long-term goals is to make sure my sister Aleksa grows up to be a gamer, by exposing her to nerdly board games, role-playing games, and video games. We've even worked on creating our own video games together.
Christmas 2007 Mom got us both Nintendo DSs, so I suggested picking up the latest version of Pokemon; Aleksa was hooked instantaneously, and like a human sponge rapidly soaked up the vast corpus of Pokemon lore required to be a successful Pokemon trainer.
That leads us to Halloween 2008:
She's a Turtwig, I'm the generic male Pokemon trainer character from the Diamond/Pearl edition. (As every kid, and not a single grown-up, in the neighborhood could have told you.)
Group costumes are exponentially more fun than individual costumes. And for 2009? We're talking about maybe "Mega Man and Rush".
Sadly I don't have pictures handy of this one (I'll post some if I can find my misplaced CD) but in August I jumped out of a perfectly good prop-plane some 15,000 feet above Hollister, CA, strapped to a parachute and a 200 pound surfer dude named Mako. (They always make you go tandem diving if it's your first time.)
After a couple seconds you hit terminal velocity, and then it doesn't feel like you're falling anymore; you're just weightless, swimming in the air, with what looks like a very large flat photograph of a landscape somewhere below you, and a very dry 300 mph wind blowing up into your mouth and nose. You know when you're having a flying dream, the way you can steer yourself just by tilting your arms? It turns out that it actually works that way in real life, to my surprise.
Then the parachute comes out and you're violently hoisted up by your femoral arteries, and suddenly the wind is gone and everything is perfectly quiet and still. You can steer the parachute by pulling on two straps, and the idea then is to aim for a flat patch of grass and avoid power lines, highways, and people's backyard fences.
On our way down, Mako and I spotted a balloon that some child had let go, on its way up. We tried to steer towards it and grab it; we missed by about 18 inches.
Imagine if we'd caught it and brought it back to the kid? "Be more careful next time, son." How cool would that have been?
7. Learning Mandarin
I am now working on my third language (not counting those I just did for a couple years in high school), under the expert tutelage of a native speaker (Sushu). Actually her family's from Shanghai, so sometimes she's all "In Mandarin you say "kai shuei", but in Shanghainese it's "ka si" and then I'm like "Whoa, whoa, one at a time!".
Yes, to say that Chinese has dialects is like saying that "Romance language" has dialects called French, Spanish, Italian, etc. It's really different languages.
Since the Chinese writing system was absorbed wholesale by Japan in the 800s, many of the characters are at least partially familiar from Japanese. Often the usage of a character has drifted apart in that time, so the usage will be slightly different, or the modern Chinese one will have been simplified while the Japanese one remains the same, like a fly trapped in amber since the Tang dynasty.
On the other hand, knowing how the character is pronounced in Japanese usually does me more harm than good, since the 8-bit compression algorithm that is Japanese phonetics produces a rendition of the Chinese sound that's about as accurate as "ROKKETTO PANCHI" is as a rendering of the English.
So, learning the meanings of characters is not so bad, but the pronunciation is killing me. I'm having to rewire my brain around the idea that "DZUO?" (rising tone) and "DZUO!" (falling tone) are two different words. Also there are consonant distinctions that don't exist in English, like the difference in tongue position between "shang" and "xiang".
Sushu has been coaching me very patiently, and I'm now getting to the point where I can have the rudiments of a conversation with her family. Huzzah!
6. Learning to Drive
It took me long enough. Due to a combination of eye problems, living in areas with good mass transportation, and sheer laziness, I never got around to learning to drive until 2008, when I was 28 years old.
But once I applied myself, it wasn't too hard. I got some lessons from my mom and my aunt Robin, and passed the driver's test in Illinois in February.
Switching this over to a California license was harder, thanks to a real Modron of a DMV clerk who thought that because my last name (DiCarlo) is spelled "DI CARLO" on my birth certificate, but "DICARLO" in the social security database, that I was some kind of terrorist impostor. I contemplated changing my name to something that's not StudlyCaps, but a simpler solution was just to go to a different DMV office. And now I can legally operate a motor vehicle once more.
5. Cross-country road trip
In March, I packed up everything from my apartment into a Budget rental truck and, like so many before me in the story of America, headed west to seek my fortune.
My sister Kristin and I took turns driving. And picking music. She introduced me to some pretty righteous techno beats.
The Budget truck had horrible gas milage, cost eighty dollars to fill up, and when fully loaded had barely enough engine oomph to get itself up the Rocky Mountains. You can't see out the back of it, it's very difficult to park, and it's so top-heavy that I kept feeling like it would blow over in a strong prairie wind.
It's a long, long way from Chicago to California. It took us three days, going through Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, and Nevada.
Above: Utah. The Great Salt Lake, the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, and the Bonneville Salt Flats, respectively.
Dude, Utah is weird.
The cross-country road trip is a quintessential American experience. It's quiet, lonely, and meditative, yet adventurous. You drive through so much nothing, yet there's always something to discover. And when you get to the West Coast this way, you feel really cool, like you've earned something.
It's also pretty cool that we were able to spend that long in a truck together without wanting to kill each other.
4. Finding an RPG group
When people complain that they can't find an RPG group in their area, Ben likes to point out how he started an RPG group out of the English-speaking expatriate community in Shanghai, and if he can do that, then nobody who lives in the USA has a right to complain.
Inspired by that, I started hitting NearbyGamers heavily, and after a couple of false starts, I finally managed to get together four people in the South Bay / Santa Cruz area who could all meet on the same day and were all willing to play the same game.
We did a Primetime Adventures game about a secret organization that covers up extraterrestrial activity on Earth. I started out thinking it would be more X-files, but it quickly turned out to be more Men In Black. (Except with no memory-erasing devices, because we all agreed that would be a lame cop-out.) But I loved Men in Black, so this was fine with me. I created a character with personal issues that were interesting to me, and played them through a multi-session campaign to a satisfying conclusion, for what I think was the first time ever. (Isn't it a bit sad that that seems like such an achievement? But it is.) Next we're going to be starting up a Spirit of the Century game, which I'll be GMing.
Above: Dave's epic win in his spotlight episode of PTA. (The conflict was whether Agent Phil would be able to protect Gertrude's speedboat from the submarine battle without halting the launch of the satellite-interceptor rocket from the undersea base. It was a huge budget spectacular of a season finale action scene. Red cards are success, black cards are failure. Odds of getting six reds are less than 1 in 64.)
The Mozilla thing took me by surprise. It all happened so fast! One day I was thinking only of adding features to the next version of Enso and how Humanized could be successful, then the next day I was flying to Mountain View to interview for Mozilla Labs.
During the interviews (ten of them over three days), many people asked me "Why do you want to work for Mozilla?". In truth, I hadn't even thought about it before. I started trying to BS an answer; but as I said it, I realized that it was the truth.
It took me a few months to adjust and find my bearings. At first I had a bad case of Silicon Valley Culture Shock, isolation, whiplash, and a lingering sense of incompleteness about the Enso project.
But it also seems weirdly inevitable that I would end up here. I don't just like the Web, I believe in the Web. It has already done more to democratize the flow of information than any other invention since the printing press, and it has yet to fulfill its true potential. I believe that it has to be kept free, open, and participatory, and not decay into a one-way corporate-controlled television analogue. I don't think I'm exaggerating when I say the future of humanity could depend on it. Keeping the web free is Mozilla's reason for being.
There are other companies fully committed to open-source principles, and there are other companies that make humane user interfaces, but Mozilla is one of very very few that does both.
I have a lot of free Mozilla swag. Anywhere I go wearing it, random strangers ask me if I work on Firefox. Then they either tell me how much they love it, or they complain to me about specific bugs that I have no idea how to fix, or both. It's an interesting change to be an unofficial public spokesman for a well-known company. I should maybe start carrying business cards.
Above: the IE team sent us a cake to celebrate the release of Firefox 3. Before you ask, no, it was not poisoned. It was a very good reminder that Microsoft is made of human beings, most of them decent. We may be competitors to the IE team, but we're also colleagues.
Back in March, on that road trip, I found a random magazine in a hotel room in Des Moines, an old issue from before the primaries had started, introducing all the candidates.
It predicted that the general election would be Guliani vs. Clinton, or if the democrats were really smart, Guliani vs. Jon Edwards. It dismissed Obama as a "vanity candidate" who "will not win a single primary".
If Obama seems kind of inevitable in retrospect, it's important to remember that he was an extreme longshot when this thing started.
The Obama campaign for me was more about the movement than about the man himself.
The man himself has a lot of good qualities, or I wouldn't have supported him in the first place, of course. But the movement he inspired was about a lot more than just getting him elected. It was and is about reawakening the dormant spirit of public activism and citizen control of government -- especially among my generation, the most apathetic and cynical one in modern history. The damage that Bush was able to do in just eight years to the fabric of our democracy taught us the high price of being politically apathetic. But we felt frustrated, powerless, angry but with seemingly nowhere constructive to direct that anger.
Obama was like a seed crystal dropped into a super-saturated solution. A wave of spontaneous organization formed around him. This was the first time in my life I had ever done anything like this. This was the first time I'd even considered doing anything like this. I was not alone. He was propelled to victory by a highly motivated and disciplined volunteer army, of a size and scope that has not been seen in living memory. Many of them were first-timers, like me.
The situation that has been left to the new president is grim. My friends are already starting to refer to the 1930s as " the first Great Depression". Obama may well fail, or he may turn his back on his promises. But the first and biggest obstacle has already been overcome, because we've rediscovered the power of citizens organizing to change the direction of government.
Above: the headquarters of the "Silicon Valley For Obama" team. I did a lot of coding and database/systems admin for them, to run the integrated voters/donors/volunteers database. Which means I spent a lot of time writing debugging dirty PHP and cursing at Drupal.
Above: I went canvassing door-to-door in rural Indiana along with Stephen. I take it as a personal victory that Indiana went blue for the first time since 1964.
On Election Day, I took off my Obama volunteer hat, and became an officially neutral polling place volunteer.
This was a great educational experience. I got to find out how the system works, meet lots of people from my neighborhood who I would otherwise never interact with, etc. I'm going to do a full blog post about it sometime.
We had to keep working until the polls closed at 7PM California time, long after the election was effectively decided, and then work until 10 cleaning up, so we didn't see any of the news coverage. But one guy had an iPhone with internet access, and Sushu sent me text message updates, so I made a tiny map on a scrap of paper and colored in states as they were called.
Above: the precise moment when we knew that Obama had won.
Usually, if you screw up an opportunity, it's simply gone. But once in a while, life does offer a second chance -- four years later and a thousand miles away.
I really hate dating. I wished that I could skip the dating part and go straight into the steady relationship part, preferably with someone I already knew well and was good friends with. That's what I wanted, but I thought it was an unrealistic thing to want.
But it turns out there's no harm in asking. The worst that happens is that the answer is no. And sometimes the answer is yes.
She's asleep and snoring gently next to me right now, while I type this in the dark. She has to get up early in the morning to go teach classes. She's a high school history teacher, and I admire her so much for it. I look at her face in the blue glow of my laptop and right now, I think I would be happiest if I could spend the rest of my life with her.
That was 2008. I didn't know life could be this good.
I've got a small portion of my late cousin Bobby's ashes in a little plastic shampoo bottle.
I was originally going to find a cool place to scatter them to the elements, but then I thought... why blow it all in one place? Why not take the bottle with me on my world travels indefinitely? I can take pictures of it at interesting landmarks.
The Gateway Arch in St. Louis
The banks of the mighty Mississippi. That's a Lewis-and-Clark-expedition memorial statue in the front, and a casino riverboat barely visible on the far bank of the river to the right of my hand.
More to come, once I figure out how to liberate my cell phone camera pics from Verizon's Digital Restrictions Management.
I used to be a hard-core video-gamer but starting in the early 2000s (when I was in Japan, ironically) I played less and less, until in recent years I dropped out of the hobby completely.
Who would have thought that Aleksa, of all the unlikely people, would be the one to get me back into it? But we both got Game Boy DSs for Christmas, and we've been having a great time racing in Mario Kart over a wireless connection, sharing tips and discoveries, and generally bonding over an activity we can both enjoy equally despite a 20-year age difference.
I just finished Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, which is controlled entirely with the stylus using the equivalent of mouse gestures. It feels surprisingly natural after just a few minutes, and even though it's a radically different control scheme from any other game in the series, all the classic gameplay elements translate well. I ought to do a Humanized weblog post about Phantom Hourglass as an example of innovative UI done well. Even though "walk to point X" and "throw the boulder you're carrying to point X" are nearly identical gestures, the game very rarely gets confused about which one you mean.
Weekend before last we got Pokemon: Diamond and Pokemon: Pearl respectively. I didn't actually start playing my copy until last Friday (just after Stephen's concert) but Aleksa apparently logged 21+ hours on it in her first week; Mom complains that she has to physically take Aleksa's Game Boy away to get her to stop playing. So last weekend when I went home to visit, Aleksa was way ahead of me. We did a battle and her level 35 Torterra totally demolished my level 17 Monferno (despite grass being weak to fire). This is the first time she's been ahead of me in a video game, so I'm the one asking her for tips for a change; she's getting a big kick out of that.
Most of Sunday was trading and battling and collecting and swapping tips about where to catch a Machop to trade it to the girl in Oreburg for an Abra, and how you can't get the bicycle until after you beat the Eterna city Gym Leader so you can use Cut to get past the trees to the Team Galactic headquarters... "It's like you two are speaking a different language" is what Mom said after overhearing some of our Pokemon shop talk. I gotta say, I love the social aspects of the game design, like how much you get rewarded for trading Pokemon with other players. I'd like it even more if they took those aspects even farther and had like team missions you could do or something (but then I guess it would be verging on MMORPG territory... hmmm...)
"Why do you give all your Pokemon such weird names?" Aleksa asked me. I think at that point my party contained, let's see: "Shen Long II", "King Louie", "Speak", "Sora Aoi", "Grand Admiral Thrawn", and "Edward Tufte". I started out the game by naming my rival trainer "Ron Paul" and it all just kind of went downhill from there. I've got a Henry Kissinger and a Joseph Conrad and once I run out of Supreme Court justices I'll start naming Pokemon after my co-workers.
Sunday evening we had a massive snowstorm. An astonishing volume of snowflakes was dropping per second.
The weather site that Mom looks at was giving warnings about "Thunder snow", apparently a rare but possible combination of weather conditions. (I didn't think I'd be encountering new forms of weather this late in life.) Anyway, the snowstorm was so bad that I was stranded in the suburbs for the night.
In the morning I got up at 6 AM and helped Dad shovel the driveway before taking the Metra express back to Chicago. Shoveling snow builds Character, don't you know, and this might be my last chance before going to California, where everyone is soft and weak due to insufficient snow-shoveling-derived Character.
January 18th was my cousin Bobby's birthday. He died in 2004, when he was 19. He was playing tennis, apparently in perfect health, and he suddenly had a heart attack and died. The whole family was devastated, especially his mother and sister. It's only recently that they've gotten back to (relatively) normal.
When I say "cousin", some people think of a relative they see only once a year at a family reunion or something. Not the case in my family. My relationship with my cousins was something between siblings and best friends.
His mother gave fragments of his ashes to all his friends, with instructions to scatter them in interesting places that we travel to. Bobby said that the one thing he would always enjoy, even if all other pleasures became boring, was travel. Apparently one of his friends brought some of his ashes to Mt. Everest. Damn, that's gonna be hard to beat. I'll be looking for interesting places to sprinkle some. Maybe off the Golden Gate Bridge, since I'm going to SF tomorrow. (Note to self: Make sure to be on the downwind side of the bridge. Don't want to pull a Big Lebowski.)
Tonight I'm going to go sing karaoke with Cat and Jeremy and Sushu. I'll look for some of Bobby's favorite songs to do (XTC, Beatles, They Might Be Giants... I know he was really into metal his last couple of years too...). Pour a bottle of something-or-other on the ground like they do for dead bikers. Tell my friends stories about him. The dead have passed into the realm of myth; myths must be told and retold. It keeps the Dust circulating.
In light of my recent epiphany that most people don't want computers, I decided to try to understand why people like TXT MSGing. Over Thanksgiving break I spent some time with my aunt Robin, cousin Samantha, and sister Kristin. They all use text messaging on their cell phones extensively.
Up until now, the very existence of text messaging baffled and annoyed me. Why would anyone choose this obviously inferior form of communication? Entering text with a cell phone numeric keypad has to be about the worst user interface in existence. It's incredibly slow, painful, and error-prone. And if you're doing it, you're holding a TELEPHONE, which means that you have the ability to simply TALK INTO IT and have someone else hear you. Why would someone choose to mess around with those tiny buttons instead of just speaking their message?
Kristin and Robin were ready to set me straight on this point. I may have been a bit annoyed with them at the time, but I really do want to understand what's going on here rather than just being a naysayer. So, here are the key advantages that I extracted from what they said.
Advantages of TXT MSG over talking into a phone:
Txt msg is silent, so you don't annoy others by doing it in a public place.
Txt msg is silent, so you can send private information without worrying about being overheard.
Txt msg is asynchronous, so the other person doesn't need to be around to answer their phone. (Voice works the same way if the recipient has an answering machine set up, but on most cell phones the interface for browsing through received txt msgs is much less annoying than the interface for listening to answering machine messages.)
Txt msg doesn't make the recipient's phone ring, so you can do it in the middle of the night without waking someone up. (Not always true; some phones make an obnoxious noise when receiving a txt msg.)
Txt msg does not carry the social expectation that you'll have a conversation. It would be rude to call someone, transmit a bare fact, and hang up, but you can do the equivalent of this as a txt msg in a situation where you don't have the time or inclination to chitchat.
Txt msg is low bandwidth. It doesn't carry the extra emotional information that your tone of voice carries when talking face-to-face or over a phone. This is a counterintuitive and very subtle advantage, but there are some times when you want to be able to ask someone something without letting your voice betray your emotional state. For instance, if you're an awkard teenager asking for a date.
Advantages of TXT MSG over email:
It's a lot easier for most people to carry a cell phone around with them than to carry a laptop around with them.
Even if you do carry a laptop everywhere you go, a network connection is not always available.
The recipient is also more likely to be carrying a phone than to be at a computer (especially if the people you communicate work jobs that are not desk jobs) and so you might get an answer faster.
Txt msg does not carry the social expectation of formality or eloquence that email does. If your grammar and spelling are not so great, or you're just more comfortable communicating in a plain, direct, informal style, then you're better off with txt msging than with email, because in a txt msg it is the only style of communication possible, and you'll be judged less harshly for it.
I still prefer e-mail; I'm at a computer most of the time, so it satisfies my communication needs very well. When I need to talk to someone immediately or when I'm traveling and I've gotten into an emergency or my plans have changed, that's when I'll use my cell phone. Txt msging doesn't fill a need for me the way it obviously does for some people.
One reason I find email so much more usable than txt msg is that with email, I can type on a real keyboard with all ten of my fingers. But something I realized is that a lot of people never learned to touch-type on a QWERTY keyboard, or never learned to do it very fast; for them, learning to email efficiently will be just as hard as learning to txt msg efficiently, and getting proficient with the cell phone keypad might even be faster for them, even if the top speed is not as high as what's possible with a QWERTY keyboard.
Now that I'm a bit less antagonistic towards txg msging, I can use it as an example of a point I tried to make in my previous post. When people choose to use an inferior technology, it doesn't always mean they're stupid or crazy; sometimes they just have different priorities.
I skipped the thanksgiving aikido seminar this year. It's expensive, the mat is always so crowded that you can't move around properly, and Saotome sensei always spends too much time talking and not enough time letting us practice. (Yeah, I'm criticizing the grandmaster. So what?) Instead I spent four whole days with my family YEAAH. Robin and Samantha even drove all the way out from Connecticut to join us for dinner.
Of course this meant Aleksa demanding my constant attention for most of the four days. It's getting easier and more fun to babysit now that she's old enough that I can teach her video games and more interesting board games. So all weekend it was like "Jono will you teach me to play Super Bomberman?" and "Jono can we play Settlers of Catan?" and "Jono you be Mega Man and I'll be Rush!"
Here's Samantha (left) and Aleksa (right) playing Super Mario Kart:
So I said "Hey Aleksa, do you want to make OUR OWN video game?" and of course she was very excited. I told her to draw some artwork for the characters and bad guys in the game, and so she drew these pictures with magic marker while I quickly hacked together a very basic side-scroller engine:
The first player is Aleksa's favorite Nintendo character, Princess Toadstool (the pink didn't scan so well):
Princess toadstool's pet turkey (that's what I get for asking a kid to make something up on Thanksgiving) is the second player character:
The first boss is this terrifying dragon:
I used Python on my Ubuntu laptop to make the game. We scanned all Aleksa's drawings in and I edited them (using GIMP, but that's a rant for another time) into sprite artwork.
I tried out a Python module called Pyglet which I had just learned about at a ChiPy (Chicago Python user's group) meeting a couple of days before. Based on this brief experiment I would recommend Pyglet pretty highly to anyone wanting to prototype a game idea or get started with programming -- it's even easier to get started with than PyGame which is what I used previously. Pyglet handles all of the windowing and image-loading and screen-refreshing and keyboard-input nonsense so you can get straight to the good stuff.
Here's a screenshot of the game as it looked after just a couple hours of work. The collision detection is still glitchy , it's missing a bunch of features, and the code is a mess, but whatever.
Making video games with kids is great! Aleksa got so excited about the idea that we could make our own game. I think it's important to make kids understand that the entertainment products they consume do not just magically appear at the store, but are the result of creativity and effort by regular human beings like them. Professional efforts of course have lots of money and time put into them, resulting in orders of magnitude more polish, but are no different in their basic principles from what we can make ourselves. If children don't learn this fact, I'm afraid their creativity will be discouraged by the seeming inaccessibility of our modern artifacts.
Oh yeah, making a side-scroller also happens to be a great way to introduce lessons about physics. We could experiment with what it felt like to play the game with different values set for gravity and friction and momentum, and talk about what these things mean in real life. Hooray for science!
The only not cool thing about this thanksgiving vacation was that I broke one of my molars (I wasn't even biting something hard -- I was chewing a soggy piece of leftover pizza on Wednesday night -- I'm not sure how that happened.) So it's time to figure out how my dental insurance is supposed to work and make a dentist appointment.
This is the company that my cousin Jacob started in order to publish his board game design, The Massive Vs. The Masses. (I tried to talk him out of that name, which I think is trying a little too hard to be clever, but he stuck to it. We'll see what people think.)
Anyway, this is quite an achievement! I'm very proud. He's put years of work into getting to this point. I helped out a bit with playtesting and feedback, and with setting up the e-commerce part of that site. I also made a Java version of the game which we originally intended to put online somewhere as an advertisement, but that never went anywhere. It did help us playtest and "debug" the game and helped me learn Java, so it wasn't a waste.
It's taken a long time for all of the pieces he ordered to come back from the various manufacturers that he contracted them out to. Here's the whole story of what was involved in self-publishing a board game, and why he missed his first couple of projected release dates (gee, it's just like software). But now everything is finally assembled and he's shipping out shrink-wrapped copies to people who've ordered it from the website.
So as you can guess, I was quite excited to open my copy. The contents of the box are an odd mixture. Some, like the detailed metal piece for the Atomic Monster and the impressively solid board, are extremely high quality. The cards are slick and the artwork on them, which Jacob got his internet artist friend Silkenray to do, is excellent. On the other hand, the Army pieces other than the planes are a little bit disappointing, being just stickers on oddly-shaped plastic stands. And the instruction sheets are rather unattractive black-and-white paper printouts. But what the heck, I'm just nitpicking. Really it's an achievement that this game exists at all.
Besides, what matters more than the quality of the bits is whether the game is fun or not. I've played it hundreds of times using virtual pieces or paper cutouts, so I'm so close to it that it's hard for me to be at all objective about it. I can tell you that the two sides are quite well balanced against each other although they play completely differently. There are a couple of different viable strategies for each side, and every turn gives you some tricky tactical decisions to think about. The playing time is conveniently short. Although there's a luck factor in the cards, it's nearly impossible to get a hand that will screw you over completely.
Most importantly, I think the game really nails its gleefully trashy monster movie theme. One one side you get to go stomping through buildings breathing fire, eating humans whole, swatting helicopters out of the sky, and drop-kicking tanks into each other. On the other side you get to send your troops and vehicles to their certain deaths in order to hold the defensive line while you get the civilians to safety and your scientist thinks up one hare-brained scheme after another to stop the monster. So, if either of those sounds fun to you, then check out the link above. I'm looking forward to trying the game out on some newbies to see what they think.
(I also had an ulterior motive for going to the suburbs, which was to visit Fry's Electronics in order to get a power transistor for a gadget that I'm building in order to demo at one of said conferences. More about this later.)
Mom said she'd get my old video games out of the attic and asked if I could hook them up. "Wait a minute", I said, "If they haven't been hooked up, how did Aleksa "discover" Zelda?"
"She's been playing it online."
Hmmm, interesting. Playing Zelda "online"? Aleksa and Mom wouldn't have the patience to seek out emulators or ROMS. It had to be something that played in a web browser or they wouldn't have found it. Had some fan converted the original game, or one of its sequels, into a Flash applet? If so, why hadn't I heard of it, and why hadn't Nintendo shut them down?
"There's a lot of different Zelda games. Which one did you play?" I asked Aleksa, trying to get more info.
"It's the one with Tarsis as the end bad guy."
WTF? I've never heard of Tarsis. What was she playing? Was this adapted from one of the Game Boy games I'd never played? Or, (a horrible thought occured to me) was Aleksa maybe playing some kind of cheesy promo/demo mini-game provided for free on Nintendo's site?
"She's also been playing Super Mario Brothers".
"Yeah!" said Aleksa, "I played Halloween Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario Bros. Star Catcher and..." she listed off a bunch of titles which did not sound real. Exactly what was going on here?
The "Zelda" one is even weirder. As far as I can tell, it's got nothing to do with Zelda other than the swiped artwork of Link used for the main character. Somebody made up an unrelated RPG in Flash, called it "The Curse of Waterdeep: Fellowship of Kings", and used artwork from Zelda. And artwork from Shining Force. And the name "Waterdeep" comes from the Forgotten Realms D&D campaign setting. The word "Zelda" doesn't even appear in the Flash file, only on the surrounding page. To make things even weirder, the page hosting it appears to belong to a church or religious group of some kind. I don't know why they're hosting video games at all. The people hosting the game probably weren't the ones who made it; they may not even know who originated it. The instructions on the page are wrong, too.
Yet, this bizzare bricolage creation is on the first page of hits when you Google "play zelda online". Mom just remembered that I had wasted many hours of my youth playing something called "Zelda", but being unfamiliar with the details, she had no way of knowing this flash game apart from the real thing, and of course neither did Aleksa. I wonder how many other people have been fooled?
Anyway, this was clearly unacceptable, so I went digging through the box of old video games from the attic to find the real Super Mario Bros. and Zelda. Being asked to hook up the NES brought back memories. The only people in my family who ever learned how to hook up a video game system to a TV were me and my cousins Jacob and Bobby; everybody else seemed to think of it as some difficult feat of engineering, so various people were always asking me to hook up the Genesis or hook up the Super Nintendo or whatever. Even though I explained again and again that all I was doing was plugging one end of a wire into the TV and the other end of the wire into the console, it seemed like everybody would rather get me to do it than take five seconds to learn how to do it themselves. It was excellent preparation for a future in tech support.
I found the "Super Mario Bros. 3" cartridge and put it in, offering as I did prayers to the spirit of Shigeru Miyamoto for creating this, one of the pinnacles of human achievement, a profound and life-enriching experience I was about to pass on to the next generation. If you ever had a Nintendo Entertainment System, you know exactly what's coming up next. I knew the cartridge was in right because I could see the curtains that make up the opening screen, but the damn power light wouldn't stop blinking on and off.
I performed the time-honored ritual of taking out the cartridge and "blowing the dust off the contacts", but I knew that this never actually worked; it was always just a superstition that we kids had come up with because we couldn't understand the random cruelty of the blinky power light. Like prehistoric farmers trying to summon the rain, we had to believe there was something we could do to influence our fate.
Back then, I always thought the infamous fritziness of the NES (besides the blinky power light, there was also the Blank Grey Screen of Death; it felt like we spent more time getting the game to work than playing it) was the fault of its weird front-loading cartridge design; every other console in the universe had top-loading cartridges and they never seemed to have problems to the same extent. The re-designed NES2 with the top-loading cartridge slot didn't have these problems, and neither did the Super NES.
But a recent Wikipedia search turned up a horrifying truth: the blinky power light was a side-effect of the 10NES lockout chip. In order to enforce their absurdly restrictive licensing agreements, Nintendo put a lockout chip in the NES to prevent unlicensed third-party cartridges from working. If you wanted to make a cartridge for the NES, you had to sign a contract with Nintendo which said, among other things, that you would not produce the same game for any other video game console; that Nintendo would have the sole right to manufacture the cartridges, and would be the one to decide their sale price and how many to produce. This is how Nintendo enforced their near-monopoly. Maybe this even has something to do with why third-party developers are so reluctant to make games for Nintendo's more recent consoles. Worse, the 10NES lockout chip was flaky and would often incorrectly try to lock out a legitimate cartridge, resulting in the blinky power light. It's an earlier version of what would later happen with copy protection schemes on CD games that can backfire and prevent legitimate copies from working.
I knew most of this story beore, but I didn't know that the lockout chip was responsible for the blinky power light of doom! Dang yo! The bane of my childhood was the fault of a badly-implemented DRM chip put in to protect a Nintendo monopoly? I don't think even Microsoft ever did anything that bad. The Free Software guys are right: DRM is evil!
There are instructions on the net for disabling the lockout chip (cut pin 4). Not only will this solve the blinky power light problem, it also allows you to play European game cartridges, which are otherwise locked out. Because it's a form of copy-protection-breaking, cutting this pin may technically be illegal under the DMCA. BOO! I bought an NES, I own it, it's my property, I can cut all the pins I want, and down with any stupid unenforceable law that says otherwise.
...Although, now that I've seen those crummy bootleggy Flash "Zelda" and "Mario" games, I understand exactly the kind of stuff that Nintendo was trying to lock out with that chip. This is just one of those cases where the cure is worse than the disease.
The happy ending to this story is that I hooked up the SNES and "Mario All-Stars", so I got to teach Aleksa how to play Super Mario Brothers on the better-graphics, non-glitchy version. She's about the same age now as I was when I first played it, and she's equally enchanted by exploring the colorful landscapes of the Mushroom Kingdom and learning how to overcome its obstacles. Super Mario Brothers stands the test of time surprisingly well; even though I'd rather play number 2 or 3, the first game has remarkably ingenious level design, a nice smooth learning curve, and plenty of challenge in the later levels. I'm watching Aleksa retrace my own steps in learning how to play; for now she's just trying to walk and jump her way to the end of each level. It takes a while to master tricks like holding down the B button while running in order to get more distance on a jump, or checking every brick for hidden power-ups, or kicking a turtle shell into a row of enemies. But in alternating 2-player mode, I can go through each level before she does and show her how to do things: "So if you stand on top of the pipe and push down, sometimes it leads to a secret coin room!" I also continue to surprise myself with just how much I remember. "How did you know there was a mushroom in that block?" Aleksa often asks me. "I just... um... I guess I remember it from when I played before."
I'm so happy that Aleksa is at the age where I can share this experience with her. This must be the kind of pleasure traditionally felt by the stereotypical dad when he takes his son fishing for the first time.
Epilogue: Two days later, I was back at the family home again, and Aleksa ran up to me excited, to tell me that she had found the Warp Zone and gone to world 4-1 where the guy riding the flying tooth (she thinks the clouds look more like teeth) is throwing eggs at her that turn into spiky things. I was so proud. Also, she had played it with her father, and done much better than him. "Don't feel bad, Dad" she said. "I had a really good teacher."
Back in May, as you may recall, was when the 17-year cicadas emerged from the ground in Illinois to metamorphose, buzz around, mate, lay eggs, and die. My parents' neighborhood in LaGrange was the epicenter of the Brood 13 emergence. A while ago I linked to a picture of me eating a couple of larval cicadas that I had roasted on the barbecue.
Well, the whole time this was going on, there was a film crew from NHK (Japanese national television) camped out in my parents' yard and in the yard of the neighbors across the street, getting footage for a nature program.
Just this last weekend, I finally got to see the finished program, as they had sent a copy of the episode to my family on DVD. It's a family-oriented nature show called "Darwin ga kita: Ikimono no Shindensetsu" or "Here Comes Darwin: New Legend of Living Things". I really want to rip this video and put the whole thing on YouTube, because the show is suprisingly well done. It is both informative and entertaining. And it's not everyday your family and neighbors get to appear in a video alongside 100,000s of cicadas and -- this being an NHK show -- an oyaji-speaking CGI furball character who draws haiku on the screen. Also I am highly amused to hear people I know dubbed over with the voices of Japanese interpreters.
My cousin Samantha is in the psychiatric ward as a result of an ongoing manic spell.
I'm not going to go into the details of it in this public space, because she should decide for herself, once she's done being manic, how much of it she wants to share. Apparently she's been saying and doing some pretty wild things.
I called her up in the hospital and we had a very interesting conversation. She sounded very lucid and optimistic. This is what mania does: it's the opposite of depression: it makes you think every idea you have is an absolutely fabulous idea, so you decide to just try to do all this crazy stuff because you think it will work great.
If that's insanity, it's insanity that I could use a little bit of, you know? In controlled doses.
Update: I checked her MySpace page. It seems she's out of the hospital, finally. But reading some of the stuff on that page has made me more worried about her.
I knew Samantha pretty well until about 1997 when I moved away to Chicago. She was the cute little baby girl of the family. But it's been ten years, half her life, since then, so now she's this wild person I barely know. In 2004 her brother Bobby, my cousin and close friend, died, and I don't think she's been the same since. I offered to buy her tickets to Chicago sometime so she can meet some new people, see some new places, and she and I can get re-aquainted.
For my third convention weekend in a row (after NonCon and PyCon), I went to this little convention called NonCon at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. Jake and some of my other Connecticut friends have been going to this for a couple years, Jake has been demoing his game designs there, and it sounded like a good time, so I went. It's a real small, local thing, just a little bigger than our Uchicon, so it was real friendly and intimate-like, and it was a whole weekend of random nerdy wackiness and tabletop gaming goodness. People there thought I was crazy when I told them I came from Chicago just for NonCon, but who cares? I had a great time.
Well, getting there was kind of a chore. Train down to Midway aiport, flight into Providence arriving at midnight, then an interminable wait for a man named "T-Ray" who I didn't know. My aunt sent out to pick me up at the airport because she couldn't go herself. He turned out to be a pretty cool guy. He plays guitar and sings, he's done a bunch of martial arts, and he used to be in the Army, so we had a bunch to talk about on the ride back. I forgot how deserted New England roads can be: a lot of the highway between Providence and Niantic doesn't even have streetlights.
And then I spent Thursday night at Rachel and Jake's house. It was 3 AM by the time I got there so I just wanted to sleep but they were so excited I was there that they wanted to keep me up showing me things. Look I got a Wii wanna play it? Here try these crab-cakes I made aren't they great? Check out these 60,000 plastic pieces that came in the mail from the piece factory that are going into my board game! I made a MySpace page isn't it cool? Yes that's nice but please let me sleeeeeep!! And yeah, my aunt made a MySpace page, she's just like a teenager. Watch out, if you click on that link it starts playing "American Pie" and showing a slideshow that's timed up to the lyrics (she's very proud of this). Stuff like this is why MySpace makes web designers cry.
Jake kept calling this the "Hitler Building" for some reason.
Friday morning, many of the roads in the area were actually flooded, so we didn't get started until Friday afternoon when they had mostly drained. Some random guy named Dave who Jake knows from the internet (specifically, from an online game called RetroMud) was nice enough to drive miles out of his way to pick us up and bring us to Poughkeepsie. Dave was only able to stay at NonCon for a few hours himself before he had to drive back that same night to go to his job at Stop&Shop in the morning.
By the time we got to the tiny town of Poughkeepsie, after about a four-hour drive, a thick fog had settled in, reducing visibility to about three feet in front of the car. We knew the college had to be close by, but we drove up and down, up and down the same stretch of road again and again, looking for the turn-off to the campus, which would have been painfully obvious if not for the fog.
It struck us that Poughkeepsie at night in the fog would make an excellent setting for an H.P.Lovecraft pastiche kind of story, and "The Fog over Poughkeepsie" would be the perfect title.
Prepare to meet your maker in the stygian haunts of hell, barbarian!
Welcome to NonCon!
A hilight of Friday night was a group read-aloud session of "The Eye of Argon". This is a yearly tradition at NonCon and many other sci-fi/fantasy type conventions. "The Eye of Argon" is an unbelievably, hilariously, stupefyingly bad short story about a barbarian named Grignr the Ecordion, published in 1970 in some forgotten fanzine. The fun of a group reading is that each person tries to read as much of the story out loud as he can before he can't read anymore because he's laughing too hard. Then he passes the printout to the next person in the circle, and so on until the whole thing is finished. It's kind of an MST3K kind of activity except that everyone's trying (and failing) to keep a straight face.
No description could do justice to the very special quality of the writing in this very special story, so here are a couple of choice excerpts:
Consciousness returned to Grignr in stygmatic pools as his mind gradually cleared of the cobwebs cluttering its inner recesses, yet the stygian cloud of charcoal ebony remained.
"Aye! The ways of our civilization are in many ways warped and distorted, but what is your calling," she queried, bustily?
Vassar used to be an all-girls' school (much like Connecticut College). It's not anymore, but there's still a female majority (I think?) and therefore women are well-represented in the NSO ("No Such Organization", formerly "Non-Human Students' Organization"), the club for general nerdliness on campus and the organization that runs NonCon. So there were plenty of gamer nerds of the female persuasion. That makes me happy.
Erica plays songs from Final Fantasy and Chrono Trigger
One of them was a Vassar alumn named Erica. She was one of the NonCon organizing staff. She beat everybody in the anime trivia contest, played scores from old video games on the piano, and dressed up in this crazy costume with eye makeup "inspired by Kefka from FF6". And agreed with me about how much Asha Greyjoy kicks ass. So yeah, I was a little bit in love.
This is actually making me think it may be time to thaw out my moratorium on dating (it's been a year now). There have to be a couple single female gamer geeks in Chicago, right? I think I can pass a very strict rule that for me to go out with a woman she has to consider playing board games and role playing games to be spending quality time together. Otherwise, we just ain't gonna get along. I think I will write up a Requirements Document.
Playin' PR in the dealer's room
I hung out in the dealer's room a bunch playing Puerto Rico and Citadels with this middle-aged couple who are in the SCA (Society for Creative Anachronism). The husband runs a game store, the wife plays the Irish harp and 12-string guitar and practices Viking longsword dances. (In my experience, the backwoods of New England and upstate New York is full of cool weirdo hippies like these two.) They said I'd be a natural for the SCA (I was wearing one of my homemade kimonos most of the day) and you know, it is tempting (there was another SCA guy there who showed off a chainmail bracelet he made) but dude, I have way too many hobbies already. Let's see...
Role playing games
Writin' stuff for this web page
Readin' books and manga and stuff
Taiko drumming I hope?
Electronic tinkering (not for a while though)
Open source software development (if I had a little more time)
And probably more I'm forgetting about. Yeah. In my copious free time. That list doesn't count work or household chores or anything.
The "vicious cycle of unemployment".
A guy named Oliver who was playing Puerto Rico with us made a paper circle to hold the role tiles and rotate them easily towards the active player. He labeled the circle "vicious cyle of unemployment".
When you play the Game of Thrones, you win or you die!
Aftermath of the Wildling invasion
The best way to play Game of Thrones is with five players who have all read the books, because then you can communicate your moves entirely in quotes from the book and everybody can talk in character. We didn't quite achieve that, since there were two non-Game-of-Thrones-reading newbs in this game, but it was still hella lotta fun. I randomly picked Lannister. In a five-player game, Lannister starts with Greyjoy breathing down their neck, in a position where they really need to make alliances to survive. But if everybody is playing in character, Greyjoy isn't likely to ally with anybody, and everybody else has a perception of Lannister warped by, shall we say, "emotional baggage" related to certain things that the Lannister family did in the books, and may not want to ally with them because of that. Anyway, it's cool, I'm happy to play Lannister, they've got Tyrion and he's the man. Or rather, he's the HALFMAN! Chant it with me now! HALF-MAN! HALF-MAN! HALF-MAN! Hodor hodor?
So anyway, I was dealing with an agressive Greyjoy player right off the bat. "The Kingslayer" held off their first attack, but they kept pushing me back, and then "The Hound" lost to Asha Greyjoy a decisive battle that I could have won because I forgot to call in my support. D'oh! Meanwhile, I've got a tentative alliance going with Tyrell, and at some point I throw away Joffrey as a chump-blocker ("Hey Joffrey! Here's a crossbow that shoots three arrows at once! Go kill rabbits!").
Theon Turncloak, I name you!
It got really bad in the first wildling invasion. I had used up all my power tokens bidding in the Clash of Kings. Stark had one left, Tyrell had two, and nobody else had any. We needed all three to be bid to stop the wildlings. (I think it would be cool for everyone to recite the oath of the Night's Watch during this bidding -- I am the horn that wakes the sleepers! I am the shield that guards the realms of men! etc.) Everybody's hands opened and Tyrell had only bid one. They let the wildlings south of the Wall on purpose! So everybody's getting ransacked, Tyrell is laughing because he's got so many troops down in the fertile southlands that he doesn't really care, and then it comes time for Baratheon to pick a scapegoat. (Whoever bids least gets hit hardest by the wildlings; there was a three-way tie; holder of the Iron Throne breaks ties). He picked me, who had the least troops before the invasion. After being chosen as the scapegoat I had one pawn left. I think I was a pretty good sport about it; I was laughing because it was so ridiculous.
DO NOT WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAANNNNNNNNNNNNNNT !!!!
I got the pawn back inside Lannisport in a hurry, and used a one-time order to muster up some more troops for my one territory. Then I saw Riverrun was only defended by one Greyjoy pawn, so I planned an attack using Tyrion's special power to block any troops from supporting. Would have gone great except that Theon Greyjoy has some silly bonus when holding a city (perhaps he threatens to hang hostages?) and between him and the Valyrian Steel Blade, that one pawn got up to freakin' 8 strength. My army broke and fled back to Lannisport, and then the Greyjoys came in from the other side and slaughtered my exhausted defenders, wiping me entirely off the map. It was turn four. OH MAN do I love Game of Thrones. Even losing horribly is fun!
On the plus side, this meant that I was out of the game in time to join in a new game -- a one-shot role playing session of a game called Unknown Armies that was just getting started.
Caylus features tiny pink cubes of ham as a resource.
I'd never played Unknown Armies but I'd heard vaguely good things about it. As an "urban fantasy" type of game, it's got a lot of similarities to "World of Darkness" but doesn't come with quite so much baggage attatched. Maybe "Call of Ctulhu" is a good comparison too because there are mechanisms for flipping out and going crazy after too much exposure to weird scary stuff. Anyway, we were playing in mixed-up New York City where all kinds of weird magical stuff was going on under the radar. The leader of our party was the True King of Central Park. Within his domain, he could command the elements and sense anything going wrong and stuff. He was on a quest to defeat the other pretenders to the throne and become True King of Manhattan. The rest of us were his entourage -- an nerdy occult expert kind of like Egon from Ghostbusters, a "plutomancer" who could do magical things with money, an "urbanomancer" who could command the city itself to attack people (and make it look like an accident), and then me, playing Reggie Wilson, a regular NYC beat cop with no special powers.
Normally, if I was designing a game, I would have avoided the possibility of a dramatic imbalance of power within the party -- one guy is the True King and can bend reality to his will, another guy is a regular muggle-type human? Doesn't sound fun, right? -- but I gave it a try and it worked out fine, actually. I think the real issue is not power balance per se, but rather making sure that everyone in the party has something to do at all times, which is easier if each player has a defined niche (this is the real reason for the D&D class system, I am now convinced). And so the King had one role, which was making the big decisions about what to do next and interpreting mythological challenges, and I had another role, which was watching out for everyone's safety, shooting things, and interacting with normal humans. I think there's a lesson here for RPG design.
It's one of those games where you can invent your own skills just by naming them and putting points in them, rather than choosing from a fixed list. This can be a surprisingly good tool for defining your character concept. I wrote down "forensics: 25" on my sheet, then thought about it for a second, erased "forensics", and wrote in "That CSI Shit: 25". And sudenly I knew exactly who my character was. He was the kind of guy who would refer to forensics as "that CSI shit".
Heroscape: cool minis AND hexagons? I am tempted.
Another thing I liked about this game was that you must pick an Obsession for your character, as well as something that inspires you to be heroic, something that makes you furious, and something you're scared of. When any of these things comes up in play you get bonus dice to do an action that's appropriate to your character and the situation. It's a nice simple mechanism that helps tie characterization to game mechanics, so I liked it.
I won't go into detail about what happened in the scenario (I didn't understand half of it myself -- the other players had some previous experience with this setting and some of the NPCs, but I didn't have a clue, so I was a very good match for the "muggle" character I was playing!) but we got stuck in a subway car full of zombies, fought a graffiti elemental, followed a trail of clues that lead to an enchanted artifact in the form of an "I(heart)NY" pin, watched a homeless man disintegrate into a windblown pile of trash before our eyes, and eventually used a suitcase nuclear weapon to disrupt a cultish ceremony that was opening a portal to some kind of nether realm of chaos. Also a demon posessed me after we drove him out of the body of the lead cultist.
The adventure was kind of a railroad (I'm talking RPG theory now, not subway system) but I didn't mind too much, as the party was pretty much in agreement about what to do most of the time anyway, and there was lots of cool scenery and chance for role-playing along the way. (Reggie Wilson upon seeing the suitcase nuclear device: "I told the sarge those Homeland Security boys are useless! Look at the kind of shit they're lettin in to the country!")
A creepy guy named CJ Henderson wouldn't let me leave until I bought his book and took a free "Ctulhu Sex" magazine along with it. The scariest thing about this is that it seems to be issue 24, meaning somebody came up with enough material for at least 24 issues. Ummm... I don't want to read this even a little bit.
Why doesn't WoTC publish cool settings like this anymore?
I scored a copy of the vintage 2nd edition AD&D "Dark Sun" campaign setting for just $18. It's been used but it's in good shape and nothing is missing. 2nd edition AD&D had the absolute worst ruleset of any RPG I've ever attempted to play, but it had some really cool setting material. I've had a lot of fun the last couple of years playing in the "Planescape" setting with a more modern set of rules, so maybe some day I'll get a chance to do the same with this.
Stupid WoTC discontinuing everything except stupid Forgotten Realms and stupid Eberron. Instead of cool new setting material or adventure ideas, all they publish for 3rd edition is "Yet Even More Feats/Spells/Prestige Classes/Monsters Volume 17" for $40. Blahh.
This room could be a setting from Berubara!
Let's see, what else... I helped Jake playtest and show off two new games he invented: "Collision" which is like a turn-based "Lightcycles-from-Tron" using Robo-Rally-esque preplanned movement; I never got to try this out, but I did spend several hours Friday morning cutting out hundreds of tiny colored line segments to be used for it. And then "Red Shirt" which is a kind of Star Trek parody card game where you assemble a crew by using prestige points to bid on face-down crew members, then go on missions with them. As long as a crew member is face-down, he's a "red shirt": unknown, unloved, easily sent to his death in order to get past the perils of the mission. You can flip him or her up, revealing a name and rank and skills; the skills will help you solve missions without anybody dying, but now that people care about the character he or she can no longer be sacrificed as a red shirt. The game needs some more development work but the basic idea is very strong, I think.
I also sang, briefly, in a Karaoke Revolution tournament. This is like any other rythm game except you play it by singing instead of hitting things or dancing. I found this somewhat unsatisfying, since all the game cares about is that you put the right frequency into the microphone at the right time for the right duration. So it will give full points to a precise but lackluster performance (it doesn't care if you mumble the words, or even if you get the words right) but punish you for adding your own style. Screw you, Karaoke Revolution! A mere machine cannot judge Jono's karaoke skills! Jono's karaoke is about guts and passion and funk and things that cannot be analyzed with a fast Fourier transform! (If you can't tell, I lost pretty bad.)
I left the con about 1:30 pm on Sunday. There was much left undone-- I wanted to spend more time just chatting with interesting people, and I regretted not being able to get in on Paranoia or Toon or Diplomacy. But I had to try to make it to a 6:30 flight out from La Guardia.
I failed. It took me an hour to walk to the train station (Poughkeepsie is bigger than I thought -- should have asked somebody for a ride). Then the next train to New York City was at 3:30, arriving at 5, and by the time the bus had gotten me from the train station to the airport it was 6. And when I looked for my Southwest flight to Midway, I noticed two things:
There were no flights to Midway on the "departing" screens.
There is no Southwest counter at La Guardia
Turns out that my flight was "operated by" another airline "on behalf of" Southwest. They gave me a ticket for the next flight, which was at 6 am next morning. So I slept for a few hours in a sleazy motel near the airport, got a 4:15 wakeup call, went back to the airport again in the predawn chill... and got chosen for the full baggage search. Curse you airport security! After my flight back to Midway, an hour and a half on the El got me to work right on time. Yay sleep deprivation!
As I mentioned in a previous post, when my Humanized homies gave me Twilight Imperium, they told me the guy at the game store said, "Call me up when you're going to play this, I want in."
So I did.
I called up Gamer's Paradise at 2800-somethin North Clark and told them what my friends had told me. "Oh, you want Jon", said the guy on the phone. "Here."
"Hello, Jon, are you working tomorrow?"
"That's too bad, because I was gonna play Twilight Imperium"
"I can get out of work."
So Jon came over to my place, along with Andrew, and I made some curry rice and miso soup and taro buns. A guy I know from a Warhammer forum was also going to come but he had to cancel due to computer troubles and responsibilities. So we just did 3 player: Andrew was the space pirates of the Mentak Coalition, I was the insectoid warriors of Hive Queen Sardakk, and Jon was the Federation of Sol. (It should be noted that Earth is not called Earth or Terra or Gaia in this game, it's called "Jord", so apparently the Swedes took over the world at some point.)
We started about 1pm; when we were done, it was after dinner and dark out, so I was thinking it must be 7 or 8 -- nope. 2 AM. The time just flew by. That's a good game! And there's virtually no down-time, there's lots of different paths to victory, and you get to debate in the Galactic Council and do sneak-attacks through wormholes to virus-bomb enemy planets and all sorts of other suitably epic space-opera-ish things. This is why Jon says it's his favorite game (after playing every one in his game store presumably). He beat both of us even though we ganged up on him, using all sorts of dirty political and diplomatic trickery and covert operations.
Anyway, since I gave him food and a good day of gaming, Jon gave me a discount on anything in the store, so I got some Warhammer bits and Carcassone: Hunters and Gatherers. I wanted the original but they were all out of it, and Jon suggested that this stone-age spin-off version was just as good and better in some ways.
My fiendish long-term plan is to make sure Aleksa grows up to be a gamer by exposing her to lots of cool board games. When she visited my apartment she was totally enchanted with the D&D miniatures and immediately wanted to be the mountain lion. But anyway, I'm always looking for something that's right for her age but also a well-designed game with enough depth to keep me from being bored (i.e. NOT CANDYLAND). I thought Hunters and Gatherers might work, so I brought it to La Grange yesterday and told her about it. We got Mom to play too. Here's a picture of us:
I think it worked out pretty well! Aleksa loves the theme, the prehistoric animals, the feeling of growing a map and the gold nugget tiles, and the basics of the game are simple enough to explain, but it has a lot of depth and replay value for adults. One of the few games I've ever found to actually fulfill the promise of "fun for all ages"!
What caught me by surprise was how much Mom got into it. She got really competitive and picked up on the tactics of using a tile to screw over somebody else's big-scoring area. When we were done she wanted to play again right away. Also she picked up on the fact that my OCD tendencies make me desperately want to fill in any holes in the map, and she kept trying to use this to her advantage.
Aleksa's attention span started running out towards the end -- if playing this with young children I might recommend using only about 2/3 of the tiles so the game will be over quicker. On her turns she would sometimes stare at her tile for minutes on end, making up songs about whatever animals were on there and what they were doing, and she'd just keep singing and singing while we told her to take her turn, already.
Also, Aleksa is getting very good at writing words now, although she needs a spell checker. Also I'm happy to find out she has a lot more appetite than before.
One last game-related picture: I got in a shipment of tiny (1/8 inch diameter) rare-earth magnets and glued them onto all my Warhammer 40k battlesuits and vehicles and weapons, so they cling on sturdily but are easily swapped around (or removed as a result of battle damage!) Here's the weapons decorating my fridge:
Unrelated: last night I had a birthday party (even though it was Kristin's birthday, and not mine). Mom made an "Enso" cake. It said "HAPPY BIRTHDAY is not a command" and had green leaves and an enso circle. My coworkers all chipped in and surprised me with Twilight Imperium, which is prety much the ultimate in mostrously complicated sci-fi board games -- it's got over 300 plastic spaceships, ten playable races with different powers, a modular board, zillions of cards and tokens, a 40 page rulebook, hidden victory conditions, and a tech tree. It honestly makes Dune look simple. My coworkers know me well, don't they? I was touched. I can't wait to try it out, but it's probably going to require setting aside a whole weekend and recruiting five other people willing to do the same. Then again, that might not be so hard -- they told me that when they bought it, the guy at the game store said, "When you're going to play this, call me up, I want in". In all seriousness apparently.
So me and my coworkers and anime club friends and Phil and Kristin and her friends played charades (we made our own cards so of course we ended up with lots of impossible ones like "Ozone" and "Communism". Just try to think about how you would pantomime that.) And then we played Illuminati (the original non-collectable version) with six players, none of whom had ever played that version before; it got off to a slow start with all the rules questions but it was a riot. Even the most basic statement of what you're doing on your turn in that game can't help but be hilarious. (The international communist conspiracy is funding the underground newspapers' attempt to destroy the Republican party in order to further the agenda of the Servants of Cthulhu!)
Good times, good times. My friends and family are pretty great.
I decided to cut off the topknot. (Gasp! Shock! Yes, I'm afraid so.) I was constantly being annoyed by stray hairs, it got in the way when I put my bike helmet on, it made showering take longer, and if I got knocked around enough in Aikido it would sometimes get loose and I would have to time-out to fix it. Ironically, for something samurai-inspired, that topknot was an obstacle to my training; therefore, it had to go. I decided on Wednesday night that with the seminar coming up this wekeend, it was a good time to give myself a haircut. So I got out the electric razor with the head-shaving attatchment and went all over my skull like a lawnmower.
(This means that my commenter picture on this site is now inaccurate! So is my bio on Humanized.)
When I went home for Thanksgiving, Mom's keen eye zeroed in on one patch which I had missed and another patch where I had cut too close. "It looks like you've got mange", she said. So she made me sit down and fixed it herself.
Speaking of parents fixing things: when I got home the living room looked like this. It seems that the previous occupants of our house must have hated space or something, because they moved the ceilings down and moved the walls inward in most rooms. Al has been smashing stuff up and making cool discoveries. He's been gaining whole feet of living space by going back to the original walls and ceiling, and also modernizing the insulation and stuff. The coolest discovery is that the living room used to have three windows on the south wall. The middle one was walled over and hidden for some reason. But the frame is still there so it'll be easy to put a window in again.
I helped Al with a few things, like cleaning leaves out of the gutters, sawing up lath for firewood, and vacuuming up the thick nasty plaster dust from every object in the room. We actually had Thanksgiving dinner in there, next to the bare studs. It was kind of a log-cabin look.
Thanksgiving is nice because there's not a lot of pressure on it like there is on Christmas. I'm very anti-Christmas these days because there's so much of it. It would be nice if it lasted for maybe one week, instead of a month and a half as it does. Already it's christmas songs on every radio station. I do not need to be hearing those same old lame obnoxious songs over and over again for a full month out of the year. That's 1/12 of the time that Christmas is attacking your senses in every public space. But with Thanksgiving there's no buildup, there's no shopping, there's no pressure to buy stuff, no forced cheerfulness. You just hang out with family you haven't seen in a while, cook stuff, eat it, talk, and have lots of leftovers. It's just a mellow good time.
I don't allow myself to overeat because I know I'm in for three days of solid Aikido practice starting the day after Thanksgiving. This is the Saotome seminar, when Mitsugi Saotome (head of the ASU, disciple of the founder of Aikido, guy who brought the art to the continental US, etc) visits the Chicago Aikikai. About a hundred people cram themselves into the dojo, coming from as far away as Colorado and Ohio, to take part in these classes. So, it's usually too crowded to actually throw anybody, sadly.
Saotome is a riot, though. He wears weird homemade clothing when he's not in a dogi, he smokes like three packs a day, and his English is so bad he sounds exactly like a bad movie stereotype of a Japanese man.
Here's a couple of choice quotes as I remember them from his speeches this weekend. I'm not trying to make fun of anybody here; I realize English is hard, and he's getting his point across, and his ideas are good, and that's what's important, but dang, the way he talks is really funny so I'm trying to reproduce it here for you:
Now there so many Aikido style in America, this style, that style. No! Style is limitation youa mind! Undaastand? In sengokujidai, war time in Japan history, there no martial arts style! Only one style! Is surbibal! Edojidai, peace time, style grow up like mushroom after rain, you undaastand mushroom?
Too many time you practicing, you only think about technique, you forget defense youaself! Leave opening! Bam, you die!
If you thinking only youa own technique, no thinking about partonar, you are only -- how you say -- mastaabation! You undaastand, mastaabation? Why train with partonar if you thinking only youaself?
Why you have five sense if only you looking? Use other sense like Zatoichi! Especially touching is sense bery important infomation! In English you have good saying, "keep touch", you say "good-bye, I keep touch you" [note: he means "keep in touch"]. You not say "I keep look you", no! Keep touch! You practice Aikido you keep touch partonar!
You no undaastand my joke? You no undaastand my English? FUCK YOU! Ha! Now you undaastand! Now you undaastanding me!
The other thing that happens at this seminar is testing for advanced ranks, which can only happen in the presence of very high-ranking senseis. So there were 6 tests for shodan and 5 for nidan. I watched Dwight test for nidan; he did great -- he was really nervous beforehand but he looked flawless as far as I can tell.
I've decided I want to go for my own nidan test Thanksgiving 2007. I have a long way to go but I think I can do it if I practice five times a week between now and then. I still feel like a beginner with weapons techniques, and I have no confidence in my suwariwaza, so I have to improve those areas a lot. My core bare-handed techniques are inconsistently good. By that I mean that when I'm at my best I feel like I might be nidan-worthy with those techniques, but I can't perform consistently at that level -- I lose my concentration and get sloppy.
OK, there's my goals for the next year: achieve nidan, and update my comic every week. This is on top of hacking Enso for Humanized, so I'm probably not going to have much time left over. Might have to sacrifice things like anime and warhammer. We shall see.
I'm at my parents' house (which I just realized is precisely "Space Wolves Grey", heh heh, little WH40K humor there), and Aleksa is upstairs getting read a bedtime story by Mom, so I finally have a break and I can write some website stuff. (Must... not... use... the b-word!)
One of the things Aleksa has been very much into lately is a computer game called Zoo Tycoon 2 (she always corrects me if I leave off the number). This is supposed to be a Sim-City style strategy game, in that the basic mechanic is:
Attract people by building cool stuff.
Afford cool stuff by getting money.
Get money by attracting people.
Repeat until bored.
But Aleksa has decided that attracting zoo visitors cramps her style. She figured out how to put the game into "infinite money" mode, and since she doesn't need guests' money, she doesn't let any guests in. Sometimes she doesn't even put the animals in cages. She just uses all the zoo-construction tools to build a huge and wondrous playground for her animals to roam around freely, and ignores the game's warnings about how there's no way for guests to view the animals and how her zoo has a zero popularity rating. Then she figured out how to put the game camera into zookeeper's-eye-view mode, and explores her zoo that way, going across bridges and down over waterfalls and through swamps full of crocodiles.
It's a pretty good example of how games can be played in a way completely different from what the designers intended, if you just set your own goals. I hear that since the success of Grand Theft Auto, "sandbox" play has become a buzzword in the computer games industry. But it's not really anything new, since it existed in SimCity and even long before that.
I guess this Zoo Tycoon game is pretty educational, too, since Aleksa has been using words like "biome" and "scenario" and telling me about animals I've never heard of like the Okapi and the Spectacled Bear. Also she says things like "Look! See those hearts above the hippos' heads? That means they're in love! That means the female hippo is going to get pregnant and they'll have babies!!" Like I said. Educational.
She also can't wait for the next expansion pack to come out (it's going to be "Sea World" themed). She sounds a lot like a World of Warcraft player when she talks about the expansion pack. I told her about how some people love computer games so much that they wait in line outside a store for the store to open on the day when a new expansion pack for their favorite game is going to be released. She looked at me and said, real seriously, "But Jono, I can't do that! I don't have any money!"
Aleksa was also messing around in Google Sketchup (see earlier post) and looking at a contextual menu, and I idly said "Try clicking 'Walk', see what that does." And she clicked "Walk". So I know that she is for sure reading at least simple words by herself. But she seems to be one of those "stealth reader" type of kids who pretends not to be able to read because she likes to have people read to her.
Lately she especially likes to have people read her the comics. When we're done she laughs. Even if the comic is not funny, or I know that she didn't get it, she laughs anyway. You can tell that it's a pretty fake laugh. I guess she's just decided that laughing is part of the game so she's going to do it no matter what.
Her favorite newspaper comic is "Prickly City". This is a relatively new one about a girl and some kind of fox-creature(?) wandering around in a desert which I guess is supposed to be Arizona or something. It's very lame. Which should go without saying since with a very few exceptions, all newspaper comics in history have been very lame.
(Oh, this is a good point to drop in a link to The Comics Curmudgeon, who posts lame newspaper comics and then vivisects them and mocks them with merciless deadpan humor, kind of like MST3K or something. I read it every day.)
Worst part about "Prickly City" is that it sometimes tries to be political, in that the author has obvious conservative leanings which he sometimes just can't keep from putting in the mouths of his characters, even though it doesn't make any sense for little girls and foxes to have any political views at all.
There have been several great or at least good liberal-leaning newspaper comics, but there have been very few conservative-leaning ones and they have been uniformly lame and boring. It's kind of a shame, really, because it would be better to have both sides of an issue, and I think it would be quite stimulating to read a comic which puts forth ideas I disagree with in a witty and intelligent way. (When I say the good liberal ones, I am thinking of Doonesbury, Boondocks, and Bloom County; your milage may vary... although I suppose the only reason they are recognized as "liberal" is because they got most of their jokes out of making fun of conservative politicians, and in the braindead with-us-or-against-us atmosphere of modern American politics you are defined by who you attack... then again, Doonesbury made fun of Clinton constantly when he was in office (they drew him as a floating, talking waffle for crying out loud) so I'm not sure it's fair to say that Doonesbury is all that biased one way or the other.)
Prickly City is sadly no exception to the dismal pattern. Its political "wit" is usually limited to having one of the characters randomly say something about Hillary Clinton being an extremist or that Iraq isn't doing as badly as people say. Boring and predictable.
But it's Aleksa's "favorite comic" and she always laughs at it. And I say "Wait a minute, Aleksa, you don't even know who Hillary Clinton is! You're just laughing because you arbitrarily decided that this is your favorite comic and so you're going to laugh at it no matter what!" She denies this.
Sadly, I think that also describes the way in which some people end up with their political affiliation: pick a side based on some superficial quality and then defend it to the death.
My grandmother Harriet died the week before last. (If you want to be technical, she was my stepfather's mother, and her real name was Jadvyga, but everybody knew her as Harriet.) I never knew her very well, and we were never very close, so this didn't hit me very hard, but it certainly hit my stepfather Al. He is holding up stoically.
Most of my stories about Harriet revolve around her unorthodox use of the English language and her bizzare sayings. For one thing, she always called me "Justin"... we kept telling her that's not my name; finally she switched to calling me "Donald". Like I said, I never knew her very well. But I give her some slack because English was not her first language. It was like her sixth language, after Lithuanian, Russian, German, French, and Spanish. She might have spoken more, too, I don't know. That's way impressive.
She was the kind of person who would be rude to you in words -- she never hesitated to tell you exactly what she thought -- but make up for it in actions. Every time we went to visit her she would give us fresh-squeezed orange juice and french toast. This was no ordinary french toast; it was deep fried to near blackness and then smothered in canned strawberry pie filling and whipped cream. It was heart-attack on a plate.
Harriet spent most of her life working at the Holy Cross Catholic church on the south side of Chicago. So the funeral was a Catholic affair with all the clergy in attendance. It was a strange and exotic cultural experience for this atheist. There were mutliple priests dressed in full-blown priesty regalia, flinging holy water and incense all over the place. These guys were hardcore. They looked like they probably turn the undead on a regular basis.
Alright, enough of my joking. I know that I can't do justice to Harriet's memory myself, so with my mom's permission, I'm posting two emails that she sent me about Harriet's life and times. You think you've had it rough? Just wait till you read what Harriet went through.
First Email: Ancient History
I have been going through all the old papers and
photos that I inherited along with Harriet. Some of
them are very cool and I'm sure the answers to many of
my questions are staring right at me, but many of the
letters and photo captions are written in Lithuanian
and I lack a translator.
Here is what I have learned so far...
-Harriet was born Jadvyga Ana Silinis (or possibly a
different spelling of the last name) near Palanga,
Lithuania, on May 26, in or around 1920 (some papers
say 1918, but Harriet told me 1920).
-She fled her country during WWII, after witnessing
one or more of her siblings (and parents?) being shot
down by soldiers who were taking over her village.
-Jadvyga made her way to Germany, where she ended up
in a Displaced Person's camp with other Lithuanians.
She claims to have worked as a nurse in the camp.
-Algimantas was born in the DP camp on 11/20/49.
-Jadvyga and little Al crossed the ocean from Germany
into NY in 02/51 with their few possessions and
limited English. They were made "Permanent US
Residents" under a new act signed by Truman.
-J & A headed for Chicago, where they heard other
Lithuanians could be found. Jadvyga got a job working
for the church, scrubbing floors and cleaning with
little Al beside her.
-At some point, people began calling Jadvyga
-She met a Lithuanian man named Antanas ("Tony")
Garliauskas and married him in 04/53 "to give Al a
-Vytautas "Vyto" Garliauskas was born to Tony and
Harriet in 07/53.
-Harriet told me that Tony was a good-for-nothing
womanizer and drunk who stole her things, but Al
remembers him as hard-working (50 years at the Cracker
Jack factory). He died in 03/91.
-Harriet blames Tony for Vyto's problems with drugs
and alcohol, which contributed to his death in 07/84
(age 30) after a motorcycle accident. Al remembers
Vyto as an excellent guitarist and car mechanic.
-Vyto was married for about two years before he died
to Debbie, a rumored drug addict who bullied Harriet
into supporting her and paying her bills until I cut
off her support in 2003. If Debbie shows up at the
funeral, she may cause trouble since she lost her
house last year.
-Harriet was officially employed by the Archdiocese of
Chicago as Sacristian from 06/62 to 09/03, but she
really worked for them for 10 years before that. She
cleaned the entire church, set up for weddings and
funerals and masses, did the priest's laundry,
polished candles, and did a million other jobs
including taking communion to neighbors who were too
sick to come to church. In exchange, they gave her
family a rent-free place to live and a paycheck.
-As far as we know, the only other living blood
relatives are Harriet's niece, Dalya, and her children
who live somewhere in the Ukraine. I recieved a letter
from Dalya a couple of years ago, then lost contact.
Second Email: Recent History
My friend, Kreshaune, said recently that even though
Al and his Mom were not very close, this will still be
hard on Al. To that, I replied...
(caution... a long one!)
Actually, Al and Harriet were VERY close before she
went into the nursing home. He lived with her until we
got married, when he was 47. Yes, technically they had
separate front doors and keys to their "apartments",
but it was really one house, smaller than mine, which
had been turned into 4 units. Harriet and Al lived on
the first floor, a(n illegal) Mexican family lived
upstairs, and another lived in the basement.
Al's "apartment" had no kitchen because the kitchen
was on Harriet's side, so he went over there for
breakfast every morning, which she prepared. She
couldn't cook to save her life, but she loved to
squeeze fresh orange juice every morning, to which she
added aloe to make his hair grow. (ha!)
Harriet would go into Al's apartment every day when he
was at work and tidy up, change the towels and sheets,
remove the dirty clothes (which she brought to the
church laundry), snoop, etc. That is why, for the 48
years before I married him, Al never once had to cook
or clean and he still doesn't. Before Al's brother,
Vyto, got married, he shared Al's apartment and also
had maid service.
When we got married, Harriet was not so happy. She had
lost her first and only surviving son after all those
years of being together. That was in July, 1998. She
went around crying to everyone about how I had taken
away her son. Every Saturday after that, with few
exceptions, we would drive over to go to church with
Harriet. Even when Aleksa was a baby, we would go to
the 8am Sat Mass (there were never more than 10 people
at that one), just to please Harriet.
When she was learning to walk, Aleksa would toddle
around in the church and help Gramma set up the
altar or whatever she was doing. Then we would have a
meal with Harriet, usually at Bobak's or Old Country
Buffet or one of her other favorite restaurants
(gag!). In addition, I would drive out there with
Aleksa 3-4 times a month to take Harriet to
appointments or shopping because she never learned to
In the fall of 2003, when she got sick with the "flu"
(I actually believe it was a combination of CO2
poisoning from her old, leaky gas stove and heater
plus an overdose of self-prescribed "natural" products
added to the heart meds her Back-of-the-Yards doctor
had her on for 10 years despite her healthy heart!), I
brought Harriet over to
stay with us so I wouldn't have to run out there every
day (and to get her into some fresher air). It was
supposed to be a temporary stay, as in about 2 weeks
tops. But then we got a call from the church asking if
we could keep her. They wanted to tear down her
building and felt it was a good time to retire her.
Now she was totally devastated! Being forced out of
her home and church was too much to bear! At least she
would be reunited with her son, but Harriet had every
intention of working until her last breath at that
church, as she had done for over 40 years.
So I spent September, 2003, single-handedly moving
Harriet's stuff to our house with a 3-year old in a
little tiny car (we still had the Saturn then).
Usually, I left Harriet at my house and took Aleksa
over to the apartment with me, in a city I still
barely knew and was afraid of. The building really did
need to be torn down. It was full of cockroaches and
really gross. There was no hot water, the old sink was
constantly dripping, the place reeked of gas. I
wouldn't even go into the teeny, disgusting bathroom.
I left everything that was in that room behind along
with all of the furniture. The strangers who peeked
into the door while I was cleaning up spoke little
English and seemed to want stuff, so I gave them
whatever they wanted.
Al was busy at work on an important project so he was
no help. Aleksa was still nursing and didn't sleep
much at night and I was beginning to get really run
down, frustrated and anemic. I made a room for
Harriet where our office used to be. We had 6 people
in our house with only one bathroom... ahh!!!
I had to take Harriet to Mass every morning after she
came here (I took her to St. Francis over on Ogden),
Aleksa to Children's Memorial every week for speech
therapy and Harriet to her new doctor at Loyola every
week, too. She hated the little car and insisted we
buy a van (after the moving was done!), which we did
in time for her retirement party, though she was
disappointed that it was not a green one.
That winter was a tough one on all of us. Harriet was
a lot of extra work for me and Al was not much help.
I was really sick that winter and Harriet's
arthritis got worse by the day so I had to do more and
more for her, including bathing her, wiping her,
dressing her. It was too much for me, but my big break
finally came in April.
Harriet had a really bad reaction to the Vioxx her
doctor put her on and 8 days into it, I had to rush
her to the emergency room at Loyola. I spent 12 hours
there with her while Al stayed home with Aleksa.
Harriet spent a week in the hospital and had a lot of
tests done, but other than arthritis, there was
nothing wrong with her. Yet she was never able to walk
again. Why? No one knows. Maybe she just gave up.
When I was with her in the hospital that week, I made
the decision to move her to the nursing home, which
was not what Al and Harriet had in mind. Although Al
has never said anything about it, I know that he was
deeply disappointed that I could not take care of his
mother any longer, but I also don't think he has any
idea of how much I have done for her in the 7 years we
have been married.
Before the nursing home, I had to be in charge of all
of her medical and financial issues, and getting that
paperwork straightened out was a major task,
especially since she is not a citizen and lacks the
proper paperwork for just about everything she needed
it for. I even had to deal with all the BS about
Vyto's widow and her crack-shack, which I finally gave
up on and ignored, but not until I had severed
Debbie's financial dependency on Harriet. (Debbie and
her gang will probably shoot me at the funeral!)
Meanwhile, I was trying to get my little Cling-On
Aleksa weaned, potty-trained and settled into a
preschool she liked. Creative World was our 3rd try at
preschool and she started in February, 2004. She had
started the school year at a morning preschool in the
building where the Science Center is located and I
used to drive her over there with Harriet in the car,
then take Harriet to church. (Sounds easy, but that
car had 2 doors and bucket seats and it took me 10
minutes to get Harriet in or out of the car!) That
school was a nightmare and Aleksa and I both hated it.
I finally broke down and forked out the money for
Creative World, which was wonderful. We met you and
Mayahuel on our very first day there, when we came to
April was full of running back and forth to Lemont as
Harriet got settled into her new room upstairs with
the Loonies. It was the only room they had at first
and her roommate kept trying to kill herself between
May brought a 4th birthday for Aleksa (with no party)
and Harriet's first birthday in the nursing home. She
was very depressed because she finally began to
realize that she wasn't going to be coming back home
I guess the point of this rambling email
is this... Al and his Mom were very close. They were
together for 47 years before I came along and ruined
everything. From the time he was born in the
concentration camp in Germany during the war that
killed Harriet's entire family, many in front of her,
to the time I stepped out of Al's computer and took
him away, they were together every single day of their
lives. And since Harriet went into the nursing home in
April, 2004, well... Al has not felt good about it.
I think Harriet felt good knowing that I was there to
take care of her son. She bragged about her two
instant grandchildren, "Justin" (Jono) and "Crystal
Beauty" (Kristin... crystals were her favorite!), and
when Aleksa came along, after the initial shock, her
grandchildren were all she talked about to everyone
They are beginning Hospice care because the doctor
feels she has less than 6 months to live. So now we
begin the task of writing the obituary and
getting the funeral arrangements set. Harriet will
join her late husband and their son Vyto, who died in
1984, in the 3rd of 4 connected plots under one large
headstone in the St Casimir cemetery. The 4th plot is
meant for Al because she didn't count on him getting
married. Maybe they can stick me under a tree nearby
or something. Actually, the thought of my ashes being
thrown out to sea sounds good, but then the kids won't
have a place to visit me.
I've decided I want to change my name. I want to make "Jono" my official first name, since that's what everybody calls me. While I'm at it I want to think of a good middle name (I currently have none) and a good last name (the name "DiCarlo" means nothing to me). I figure it's best to change it now, because if I change it after I get famous, lots of people will be confused.
My friends suggested many possible names for me. The front-runners so far are:
Jono J. O'Noj (it's a palindrome!)
Jono E. Brain (duh)
Jono Dot Org (need to buy the domain name too)
Jono G. Placebo (doesn't mean anything, I just really like how it sounds. Try saying it out loud!)
If you have a good idea, write it in a comment! Somebody suggested that I auction off naming rights -- whoever pays me the most gets to pick my name. I bet I could make a whole bunch of money that way. But I might end up being named like "Mordekai" or something. Also I would probably get Slashdotted. My poor little server can't handle that. So forget it.
On Tuesday we went to visit the graves of Sushu's three late grandparents.
Here Sushu, hold these flowers... Sushu? Where'd you go?
Chinese gravesites hold the cremated ashes and have little spots for offerings in front. I was surprised to see that most of the stones have embedded in them photographs of the deceased, engraved into porcelain for durability. Instead of seeing only names, you're seeing row after row of faces. I found it infinitely sadder and more personal than an American graveyard. I couldn't help but imagine the stories of each individual life that used to exist, and the people who used to love them and still miss them.
Sushu's father's father. The family did a simple, touching ceremony of laying flowers, burning incense, bowing three times, and telling grandfather about how the family is doing. I think they introduced me to him too.
Next we went to a different graveyard where Sushu's mom's parents are.
They are in a much fancier graveyard. Above is the entry plaza, with statues of a giant dragon turtle and two tomb guardians.
I thought this statue of an old couple comforting each other was very sweet and somehow appropriate.
Sushu's mother's parents. We did the same ceremony here.
The fancy graveyard is full of famous people and bigwigs of the Communist party. The graves had more space and many had color photos. Plus...
A lot of them had really cool sculptures related to what they were famous for doing in their lives. This guy was a famous animator, for instance.
Special graves for wizened scholars...
Military types and heroes of the revolution...
It was like walking through an eerie sculpture garden. (This one is just a rock. But a cool rock!)
Later that evening, I asked Sushu's parents to tell me about the lives of the people we just visited. They shared some very personal stories with me, and I was grateful to hear them. Sushu's grandparents' generation lived through some horrible, horrible times, and their stories were full of fear and tragedy, but also courage and heroism. I don't think they're appropriate to post on the internet, but ask me and Sushu in person and we can tell you about them.
We had a long talk about whether I should go home without her, and finally agreed that I should. (She's got friends and family in Beijing who can help her out.) So I had a lonely airplane flight home, in the middle seat squeezed between two strange men, with a 4-hour stopover in Narita.
The immigration officer at the airport who checked my passport gave me a lot of grief. She asked what I was going in China, and I said it was my honeymoon, and she said Oh yeah? Where's your wife? and I told her the whole story, and then she was like "You liar! You got sick of her so you left her behind on purpose!". She was just teasing me but I already felt bad about it and having her rub it in didn't help.
Sushu's dad and brother picked me up at the aiport, and her mom gave me a bag of fresh tomatoes from her garden and cranberry bread that she made. My new family is so cool!
So I'm home now, alone and sick. I seem to have caught a cold on the airplane, which is now in full swing, with my nose doing the faucet thing.
I finally took the plunge and learned how to use Skype, so I've been talking to Sushu by videophone every night. (I still can't believe it's free.)
But I miss my Sushu! |:-(
I'm very jetlagged right now, too. Tried to get a good night's sleep to help kick the cold, but I could barely sleep at all last night, so I stayed up reading Tick comics, then I fell asleep on the couch in the middle of the afternoon. This is Eastward-traveling jet lag, so it's going to be bad for a while.
All told, I feel pretty miserable today. Blarrrrrrrggggghhh.
I have a lot of blog posts coming up about the Beijing section of the trip, with picture of the Forbidden City and the Great Wall and stuff, to be posted as soon as I can finish writing them up.
When me and Sushu have kids, they're going to have two cultural/linguistic backgrounds. We agree that we want them to raise them bilingual (easier to learn languages when you're a kid and all that). They should learn the customs and the values of both Chinese and American cultures so they can figure out how to combine the best of each for themselves.
The kids are also going to be mixed-race. What's that going to be like for them?
Their identities are going to be complicated. I don't want anybody to put them in a box, or make them feel bad about who they are, or make them feel like they have to act a certain way because of who their parents are.
I don't want them to learn that mixed-race people are freaks, or learn that China is an enemy land full of scary communist bad guys, both of which are poisonous ideas floating freely throughout American society.
I want to make sure we give them the tools to define who they are for themselves. I hope they can navigate these waters, and be proud of themselves, and go far with their lives. Like this kid here:
That's baby Barack Obama with his grandfather. What I love about this picture is the obvious family resemblance (especially if you compare the grandfather's face to the adult Barack's face). The obvious family resemblance between somebody we see as "black" and somebody we see as "white" really highlights the fact that race is a social construction.
Anyway. We're not in any hurry to have babies yet. But it's not so far away anymore. So I've been thinking about this stuff lately.
My aunt needs $10,000 of dental surgery to fix a bone infection in her upper jaw resulting from a botched root canal years ago.
Insurance would pay for fixing the bone infection, but it would not pay for replacing her top front tooth, which would need to be removed. She'd be walking around with a giant gap in her smile.
Missing your front teeth is no fun: it makes you a bit of a social outcast, and makes it hard to eat a lot of things, but the insurance company can't afford to think about those things. Their job is to keep prices down for their customer base as a whole. I'm not just being snarky here: if we want health insurance to be able to keep medical prices down (and what other purpose is there for health insurance?) then we should want insurance companies look at things with a "needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few" mentality. Using that cold, Spock-like logic, it makes sense to pay to fix the bone infection, which could be life-threatening in the long term, but not to pay for the front-tooth replacement.
In other words, to ration their payments.
We keep hearing objections to any form of government intervention in the healthcare industry on the grounds that it would lead to rationing, i.e. some government bureaucrat is deciding whether you deserve to have your treatment paid for or not.
And you know what? It's true. There is a finite amount of resources out there that can be used for medical treatments. Government-provided health care (public option or single payer) will involve bureaucrats making decisions about rationing of care. Yes.
But, uh... This is different from private insurance companies how? Bureaucrats employed by private insurance companies are making these same sorts of rationing decisions right now, about my aunt's teeth and a million other things.
There is perhaps an argument to be made that private insurance company bureaucrats have incentives to be more accountable to individual needs than government ones do, because it's easier to switch insurance companies than to switch governments. But you try actually switching insurance companies, or try bargaining with them on rates or coverage, or for that matter try getting a human being to answer the phone, and see how much the insurance company cares about keeping one person's business.
It's pure wishful thinking to believe that any system will be able to give free unlimited medical care to everyone. There are a finite amount of resources to be used to pay for treatments. Whoever is doing the paying is going to have to say "no" to some requests. If you want treatment above and beyond that level you're going to have to pay for it yourself. This is true under any system. Thinking that public-option, or single-payer, care will end all need for rationing, as some reform supporters do, is daydreaming. But to claim we don't already have rationing in the current private market, as some reform opponents do, is to be oblivious to reality.
To follow up on last year when we went as a Pokemon and a Pokemon Trainer, me and Aleksa wanted to do another group costume.
I suggested being Mario and the Princess, since I didn't have a lot of time to work on a costume this year, and I already had overalls and a fake mustache.
Here we are!
I wore my Mario outfit to work on Friday and guess what? I couldn't believe it - there were two other people also dressed as Mario. Yes, three Marios. What are the odds? John Lily was like "I'm very disappointed. Not one person wanted to be Luigi?"
Some people joked that there were 3 Marios because Mario has 3 lives. This gave me an idea for an anime convention skit: You have three Marios off stage; one of them runs on, does some stuff, gets killed. Play sad Mario-dying music. First Mario lies on the stage pretending to be dead. Second Mario runs on, does some stuff, gets a little further, gets killed... you get the idea. Maybe you could have a person representing the "player", holding a controller and cursing every time Mario dies. Then maybe the third Mario doesn't want to die so he goes over to the player, smacks him around a bit, and grabs the controller away. Discuss.
Aleksa just got Smash Brothers for the Wii. I have always hated Smash Brothers games; my friends always used to play it on the N64 and the Game Cube (holy moly, did you realize we've been playing Smash Brothers for ten years now? Discuss.) and I felt left out of the fun because I couldn't figure out how to really play (half the time I can't tell where on the screen my character is, let alone understand anything else that was going on).
So I resigned myself to randomly mashing buttons just to make Aleksa feel like I was playing with her. But this time, something finally clicked, and I finally figured out how to play and enjoy Smash Brothers. Huzzah, a personal breakthrough!
I think it was because we started out with two-player fights, on simple levels, with no items, which simplifies things down to the point where I could finally grok the basics. Then when we ramped up to more complicated fights, I was still able to follow along. Before, with N64 Smash and Game Cube Smash, I always got thrown into the deep end with huge crazy free-for-alls so I could never cope with the learning curve. I wish I had thought to start with stripped-down two-player matches ten years ago.
(Interface gripe: Smash displays damage as percentages, which is wrong because it's not actually a percentage of anything. Nothing particularly happens at 100%; it's just another number. Thus the percent sign is misleading and makes the game harder to learn.)
Aleksa is disturbingly adept at Smash Brothers, and usually beats me. She plays as Peach, Lucario, or R.O.B. We invited Googleshng to join us in a networked game (the wonders of modern technology!) and did some three-player fights. Aleksa won most of those, too. She's hardcore.
Real-life Smash! Of course we had to act it out. Me and Aleksa, we act out everything cool.
It occurs to me that there's a connection between why kids love acting out their favorite cartoons and games, and the reason kids love holiday rituals like trick-or-treating or decorating a tree. It's this sense of enactment, where you already know how everything is supposed to happen, and you're bringing it to life through some kind of bodily motion. To adults, this kind of activity is boring because there's no challenge or surprises, but kids seem to need to go through these motions as part of learning how to do things.
On Halloween, I made this question block, which I used to hold candy, and this jack-o-lanter, which was made to look like Wario.
A close-up of the Wario jack-o-lantern. I was trying to do that cool thing where you carve away different thicknesses so the light shines through with different colors, but it didn't work out the way I hoped - getting the pumpkin shell thin enough without having the thin areas fall apart completely is really hard!
The camera got moved while it was taking this picture of the decorations on our front porch. The result is unexpectedly awesome.
My cousin Samantha, who is going to school in New York City, has been in a couple of videos lately. She's in a Microsoft X-Box commercial, and she's also in the music video for a song called 'hot mess' by some trashy disco band I'd never heard of called "Cobra Starship". (She's only in it for a couple seconds and you can't really see her face.)
It's kind of a horrible song. It's about, like, taking advantage of drunk women. Not cool.
But hey, with the economy the way it is I'm happy when anybody in my family finds any kind of paying work they can do. So, Go Samantha!
Raph Koster, the head honcho behind Metaplace and also author of the book A Theory of Fun for Game Design, wrote about the closure on his blog. He doesn't go into the reasons, but I assume it's the same reasons most startups fail: they run out of investor money and haven't started making enough to cover their costs yet.
They only went into public beta in May, IIRC, so it's only been, what, seven months that they've been in operation? That seems really short.
Aleksa is very, very sad about this. She was really into exploring Metaplace, building her world, and hanging out there with me. Now she's grieving the loss of all the plans she had that won't get to be.
I find myself sadder about the closure than I would have expected. It's not like I ever did all that much with the service, and I was pretty critical of their interface and some of their priorities. But I can't deny it makes me sad, just because I think it had so much potential that will never get realized. There's also something amazingly sad in thinking about a virtual universe that now has less than one week to live before it shuts down for good.
I guess I'll go in to Aleksa's world one last time to preserve as much of it as I can in screenshot form. And I'll probably sign on for the Jan 1 farewell party.
This means I'm shopping for a new online activity of some kind that I can do with Aleksa. Something child-appropriate, that lets us chat but also gives us things to do beside chat, and that isn't going to turn into a huge time-suck (i.e. NOT World of Warcraft!). Any suggestions?
When I was in Seattle, Alexis teased me mercilessly about my abandoned comic. She teased me so much that I actually started drawing again. It's something that has been back-burnered for much too long (I only wrote two strips in 2009) and I've been wanting to get back to it anyway; I just needed a kick in the pants. So doing my comic is going to be my top personal goal for this year. To have a measurable goal, I'm going to aim to finish the first story arc by the next Hackers conference.
My other goals are to...
Finish the five presents I promised to make. Two are done, one is mostly done, one is like half done, and the last is barely started. Hmm.
Get good at the accordion! My plan is to practice playing some anime theme songs, then bring the accordion to ACen and play a show for my friends there.
Become conversationally fluent in Chinese, enough to participate properly in a dinner table conversation with Sushu's family.
Get back in shape. I joined a group from Moz that's been doing exercise classes. I went to one Wednesday and another one Friday. My whole body aches now, especially my abs and my lateral muscles. They were even more out of shape than I realized. Well, the first couple classes are the worst. It should get better from here. These exercise classes will make it easier to...
Start Aikido again, which I haven't done since summer 2008 when the Obama campaign took over all my free time. After that I got married, went to china, moved... my life turned upside down and hasn't gone back to normal since. But things should be calmer in 2010.
In order to have any chance of doing all this stuff, I'm going to have to fundamentally reorganize how I spend my free time. I'm going to have to make some sacrifices and cut out some stuff.
So, sadly, no painting miniatures or making terrain for me in 2010. (Or reading about them on the internet). You would be shocked at how much time and creative energy I spend on tiny army men for a game that I don't even play. There's just something about painting miniatures and painting terrain that I find very addictive and I can easily blow hours of free time a week on it. If I put all my miniature painting time since 2004 into comics instead, I would have a lot of comics done now, and I would be much prouder of the end product.
Even more sadly, I'm quitting my saturday role-playing group. It's been fun, but it's going to have to end so I can have my saturday afternoons back for creative projects. (Dave sent me an email with six sad-faces in it when I told him this news.)
Not sure how much I'm going to travel this year, but traveling is really time consuming (especially when it means flying between California and anywhere back East) so I want to keep it to a minimum. I got a webcam for my family so I'm going to try to do video chat or something with Aleksa so I can keep in touch with my family more without traveling so much.
Am I going to care about politics in 2010? It is an election year. But on the other hand, caring about politics is a time-consuming hobby, and mostly it makes me angry and depressed. Is it really worth it to me personally to spend energy reading, thinking, or arguing about?
Finally, I have to try to cut way back on internet stuff too. As for this blog, I think I'm going to try writing MUCH shorter posts. Like, one sentence posts. Both to practice brevity in writing, and to burn through the backlog of post topics I have built up while spending less total time on blogging.
This illdoctrine video pretty much sums up how I feel about the Christmas season. This year, I mailed off some cards and presents but I didn't do anything Christmasy, and I didn't miss it. Just hung out in Seattle play-testing the Jiang Hu game and playing the accordion and talking, did a little karaoke, had dinner at Chinese restaurants (the only places open.)
Most of my family had really crappy Christmases. Not surprising when the economy is as bad as it was in 2009. I kind of wish I could just opt out of Christmas without feeling like I'm letting people down; I'm not a Christian, so why should I celebrate it, anyway?
So my brother-in-law John is the captain of his high school robotics club, Paly Robotics. I'm way jealous! I wish my high school had had a robotics club!
They compete in a yearly tournament called FIRST, which announces a different challenge each year. The one for this year was just announced last Saturday. Here's a video explaining the rules of the game, called "Breakaway". As you can see it's quite a complex game, involving numerous engineering challenges and different possible strategies.
It's even more complicated because the game isn't robot-vs-robot, it's alliance-vs-alliance: each alliance is three robots built and operated by three different teams. The alliances are formed after some qualifying rounds determine an initial ranking: The top eight teams get to pick from the remaining teams in a certain order. From the way John describes it, there's apparently a lot of scheming and diplomacy involved in trying to get on an alliance with a good chance of winning. You can build a generalist robot and try to get a high enough ranking in the qualifiers to be one of the teams that does the picking, or you can build a robot that's really good at some specialty and then lay low in the qualifiers and hope to get picked by the top team, or...
On Saturday I went to visit the Paly Robotics HQ, a garage/warehouse type workspace stuffed full of old video arcade cabinets, metalworking tools, salvage, and scruffy couches. It was a bustling hive of activity as nerdy high school boys badly in need of haircuts brainstormed possible strategies.
John introduced me as his brother-in-law who works at Mozilla and I offered to act as a programming mentor if they need one. The robots operate autonomously for part of the match, but even during the radio-controlled period there is benefit in automating some robot functions to make the operator's job easier. Turns out they had a lot of hardware mentors already but no programming mentor. The robot's brain will be a PowerPC chip and there are APIs to control everything from a C++ program, so it will be fairly standard stuff, not any kind of exotic embedded-chip cross-compilation.
So I might be on call to help teenagers program robots at some point this month. I've always wanted to do something like this!
P.S. To my surprise I see that XKCD just did a comic about the FIRST competition! You can even recognize the field layout in the second panel if you look closely.
It would have been Bobby's 25th birthday if he was alive today.
I miss him a lot!
His mother gave me some of his ashes. She said that he wanted to travel more than anything, so please take those ashes with me on all my travels and think of him.
I've been carrying those ashes around in a little shampoo bottle for the last six years. (Hope you don't think that's creepy.)
Here are a few of the places we've been to.
Pacific coastline, Big Sur state park, California
Beach just below the south end of the Golden Gate Bridge
Near the top of the Bright Angel trail, Grand Canyon, Arizona
Tar Pits at La Brea, California
Gateway Arch, St. Louis
Mississippi river, Louis and Clark expedition monument, St. Louis
Rock formation in Laramie, Wyoming
Great Salt Lake, Utah
Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah
Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah
Top of a mountain near Whistler, British Columbia: Future site of the 2010 Winter Olympics
Riverboat on the flooded canal streets of Zhujiajiao, China
Wooden Buddha at Kezhiyuan estate, Zhujiajiao, China
Great Wall of China, at Badaling
Lotus-covered lake in Yuenmingyuen park, Beijing
Tomb of Mao Tse-tung, Beijing
Tienanmen Square, Beijing
Forbidden City, Beijing
Throne room of the last Qing emperors, Forbidden City
The "Birthday Party" we had with all Bobby's friends last year.
And not only that, Sushu did another China comic tonight too! She posted it while I was scanning. We are like some kind of productive comic collective over here.
P.S. I should add that Sushu has taken charge of doing postproduction (i.e. photoshop) duties for Yuki Hoshigawa. She has mad photoshop skills and can do things that I could never do in Graphic Converter which is what I was using before.
Video from the first round of the regional qualifiers of this year's FIRST robotics competition. John's team, team 8, is kicking butt! You can see from the video that most of the other teams are still having a lot of trouble getting their robots to work at all; I would guess this is pretty common in the first match of the season, the first time they're playing under real conditions and not in a lab. So Team 8's robot is running around the field almost unopposed scoring goal after goal. I especially like the bit where it folds up its flag to fit through the tunnel.
I blogged before about how I wanted to help the team out by mentoring them with software development. Well, I went in there for a few hours one Saturday and chatted with the software team about what they were doing; and it turned out they really didn't need any help. Two weeks after the game rules were announced they already had a camera on a mount that could scan for the concentric circles marking the goal, automatically swivel itself around to keep facing it, and even judge distance based on the angle of the target above the ground. These kids are smart! Hella smart. They know exactly what they're doing. (I hope some of them will apply for Mozilla internships after they get to college).
Here's Aleksa showing two boys, ages 8 & 10... boys who do not allow ANY other girls in their space... how to win at some sort of game. She is a game Goddess, thanks to you! :)
I had to share this, cuz Aleksa is so cool. |;-D
Now, while I'm on the topic of gamer girls, a rant:
Dear Video Game Industry: Girls play your games. This should not be news to you but apparently it is, so please see above for photographic evidence. Aleksa loves having imaginary adventures and, although she'll be Mario if that's the only choice, she not surprisingly will almost always pick a female or non-gender-specific character if one is available. It would sure be nice if I could introduce her to more games with female protagonists who 1. have adventures (Cooking Mama don't count) and 2. don't dress like freakin' strippers.
The 8-bit era had Alis (Phantasy Star) and Samus (Metroid), and Super Mario bros. 2 at least let you play as Peach. New Super Mario Wii has Mario, Luigi, and... 2 toads? Why the heck is Peach not a playable character in this game? Are we actually moving backwards?
The new Mario Kart has what, like 24 unlockable characters but only 2 girls, and both of them are "help! rescue me!" characters from 25 years ago. Is it that hard to think of new heroines, Nintendo?
The really mind-boggling part is that companies are losing money every year by ignoring half their potential audience. Look at how much money Final Fantasy has made. This is a game series with multiple interesting heroines per game (even if some of them do dress like strippers, sigh). I know lots of women who play and love Final Fantasy games. Also high on the best-sellers-of-all-time chart are The Sims and Pokemon, both of which let you create your own heroines. I don't think this is all a coincidence.
One would think that cold, ruthless greed would compel game companies to pay more attention to Aleksa's demographic, but apparently perpetuating sexism is more important than making money, which for a capitalist society is pretty amazing.
Suggestions are welcome for games that buck the trend, especially for anything that Aleksa and me could play together.
John (Sushu's brother) got accepted to U of C during early admissions, but he held out to see if he would get into MIT or Stanford. Well, they didn't accept him (boo!) so that means he's going to U of C (yay!).
University of Chicago as you safety school. How about that, huh? He's one smart kid.
At ten years old, Aleksa is already a serious gamer. She discovered an MMORPG for kids called Wizard 101 and asked if I would play it with her. I don't normally like MMORPGs, and Wizard101 looked like a total Harry Potter knock-off, but I thought it would at least be fun to have something we can play together when she's in Illinois and I'm in California.
It turns out that not only is it a great way to play together long-distance, but Wizard101 is actually quite a fun and well-designed game in its own right. The more I discover about it, the more respect I have for the game designers (a small Austin, TX company called Kingsisle, with about 100 employees).
They have over 10 million players - in other words, Wizard 101 is only slightly smaller than World of Warcraft! Given that, I don't know why we don't hear more about it. I suspect it flies under the radar due to the fact that it's "freemium" rather than subscription and the fact that it's aimed at 6-14 year olds.
But under the bright, cartoony exterior, Kingisle have made a pretty serious game, with hundreds of hours of content and surprising tactical depth for obsessive optimizers to explore. Years of polish have gone into this thing.
This is going to be another lengthy post, since I think Wizard 101 has interesting things to say about game design and I want to delve into them.
1. The designers learned the right lessons from Magic: the Gathering.
First of all, the core game system is a turn-based collectible card game; all combat is done by playing spell cards, which makes it feel quite different from the typical aggro-based MMORPG combat system.
There are seven schools of magic: Fire, Ice, Storm, Life, Death, Myth, and Balance. You can pick one, or you can take a Sorting Hat -esque personality test, but either way you are then locked into your choice. (I took the test and got Death School. Awesome, I'm Slytherin!)
You'll be able to learn every spell from your main school if you reach the right levels and do the right quests. But you also get Training Points as you level up which can be used to learn spells from other schools. Training Points are rare, and better spells have prerequisites, so the decisions are tricky. Focus on a single secondary school, or pick and choose cheap utility spells from all over? What will combo well with the big spells from your main school? The possibility for customization means that no two wizards will play exactly the same, even in the same school.
Since everybody is wizards, obviously there isn't the typical set of character classes. Each school has its own specialties -- Death loves life-draining effects, Myth loves summoning minions, Storm has mega-damage with low accuracy, etc. etc. But every character gets enough damage and self-healing spells to be soloable. You don't NEED to form a party of tank/healer/nuker; everybody's a generalist.
Between battles, you can customize your deck. You can put in up to three copies of any spell that you know; you start each battle with a random hand of seven cards. Like Magic: the Gathering, each school has color hosers against its enemy schools, and monsters are often resistant against one school, so there's good reason to tweak your deck based on the enemies you're facing. Unlike Magic, you can discard freely and you always draw up to 7 each turn, so there's little penalty for including very situational cards as you can always cycle them.
Each spell has a "pip" cost equal to its mana cost. You build up pips one per round. That means you can cast a 1-mana spell every round; or you can pass three times and then cast a 4-mana spell, for instance. There are also 0-cost spells, which typically don't do damage but instead buff and debuff, cause or remove conditions, etc. So you can cast 0-mana spells for three rounds and then cast your 4-mana spell. Much of the fun lies in choosing 0-cost spells that will set up effective combos for your big spells, so that you can do something useful while charging up.
The pip system accomplishes something similar to the land system in M:tG (but without mana screw): gives you a reason to include a mixture of low-cost and high-cost spells in your deck, and ensures that the basic cheap spells you learned at the beginning of the game always remain useful and are not eclipsed by the bigger, costlier spells you learn as you level up.
(PvP is allowed, but only by mutual consent within a special PvP arena. I haven't tried it out yet.)
2. Grouping is low-cost, low-committment
Battles take place in a magic circle, clearly visible to others; if you enter it, you join the battle. That means that if you're running by and somebody calls for help, it's very simple to pop in and help them out; if you don't want to fight, you just avoid the circle. Joining the circle generally causes another monster to join the circle as well, keeping the encounter balanced at about the same difficulty level no matter how many players are working together. If you're collecting monster drops for a quest, *every* player who participated in the battle gets the item; that means there's no fighting over loot. Finally, everybody's a wizard -- in the absence of the usual healer/tank/nuker paradigm, anybody can make a useful contribution to any group.
All of these design choices add up to an environment where helping out a stranger is a very casual, low-cost decision. Nobody ever has to wait around town spamming "L32 rogue LFG"; you don't have to stop playing when your healer signs off for the night. You just start soloing your quest, and while you're battling maybe you run into someone else on the same quest and help each other out; when the quest is done you might friend each other or just say thanks and go your separate ways. Easy breezy.
3. No Death Penalty
When you reach 0 hp, you can't fight anymore. You have the choice of fleeing, or waiting around in the battle for a friend to heal you (any healing spell will put you back in the fight). If you click Flee, or if you die alone, you instantly respawn in a safe location with 1 hp. You lose nothing but the time it takes to recharge your health. Health regenerates while you're in safe areas, so you can do some quick run-around-talk-to-NPC town quests and earn XP while you're waiting. Or you can drink a potion for an instant refill; potion bottles are a tightly limited resource, but you can refill a bottle by paying gold or playing minigames. The minigames aren't bad (they're mostly re-themed versions of old arcade classics), they're a nice change of pace, and they give you mana and gold too.
You can always teleport to anyone on your friends list, so if you have a friend in the dungeon, you can heal up and then rejoin the quest instantly. Sometimes you can even rejoin the very same battle that killed you! "Hey, I'm back, what did I miss?"
So the worst you ever suffer from dying is having to play a round of Dig Dug or Tetris Attack. Think about how not frustrating that is compared to typical MMORPG design: No corpse runs, no equipment damage, no XP penalty. Obviously, when you're aiming at kids it's important not to be frustrating. But ask yourself: why do we think "serious" games need harsh death penalties? Wizard101 proves that treating death lightly does not, in fact, ruin the rest of the game. So why do game designers feel the need to punish players?
4. Cool Setting
The game's multiverse, called "The Spiral", is pretty cool. The spiral is a collection of floating-island worlds which reflect different mythologies. The first world is Wizard City, built among the roots of the World Tree, and serving as this game's Hogwarts / Diagon Alley; I've also unlocked Krokotopia, an ancient-Egyptian world of talking reptiles, and Grizzleheim, a Norse world of bears and wolves. I hear rumors of Marleybone, a steampunk Victorian London of cats and dogs, and other worlds like Dragonspire and Celestia. It's almost like a cartoonier version of the Planescape multiverse or something.
The initial "wizard school" setup is extremely Harry Potter-ish, true, but as the story goes on it draws on a wider range of fantasy tropes and inspirations. It's not exactly the most original thing, but so what? Some of it may be old hat to us jaded oldsters, but the implementation is pretty good. And for the target audience, it may be the first time they've seen some of these tropes in action.
5. Seamless First-Run Experience
The technical implementation is amazingly well done (aside from only running on Windows, cough). They made the path to start playing as seamless as possible. You can start playing without paying anything. You can start making your character using a flash app on the website. While you're doing that, the game installer starts downloading in the background and installing the absolute minimal data to start playing. By the time you're done making your character, the game client has your information and is ready to go. It dynamically downloads the rest of the game content while you're playing around in the starting areas. Mad props to the programmers who pulled this off; it's the kind of achievement that sadly most people won't even notice or think about -- except when they play another game and wonder why it takes so long to start.
The slickness continues once in the game. The tutorial quests do a really smooth job of teaching you the interface and basic mechanics while introducing you to the main mentor and villain NPCs (aka "Definitely Not Dumbledore" and "Definitely Not Voldemort") and the main storyline. You can break off and explore at your own at any time, but if you just follow the dotted line of the starting quest chains, they'll take you through the first few levels while teaching you everything you need to know. This is pretty important for getting new players into such an open-ended game.
6. No Subscription Needed
The pricing model is "freemium", i.e. you can start playing free, but certain features cost real money. Payment is in "crowns", i.e. you pay (or get your parents to pay) like $10 on the website for 5000 crowns or whatever, then you spend them in-game to unlock stuff. Certain areas of each game world cost like 1000 crowns each to unlock, but once you buy them they're unlocked forever. This ties the cost to the progress you've made rather than to the raw number of hours you've spent.
It works really well, as parents can control the total spending while allowing the kid to make the decisions about what they want. You can sample the gameplay before committing to anything, and there's no feeling of a time limit -- it's not like you're "wasting" money if you don't play for a couple weeks.
Or, if you prefer, you can pay a monthly fee to unlock everything. Whichever makes more sense for you. Kingsisle is happy to take your money whichever way you want to give it to them.
You can also spend crowns on vanity items like flying broomsticks, rare pets, fancy hats, etc., and to "respec" your character (i.e. buy back all training points).
7. Focused Like A Laser
If you read interviews with the designers, it's obvious that they had a very clear vision for Wizard 101. Most of them had just come off of working on a very dark, violent, M-rated, hard-core MMO called Shadowbane (which died in 2009), and they wanted to do something different. They saw that there was an unmet demand for an online game that families could play together, i.e. something kids could play, but with enough depth not to bore adults to death. So they focused like a laser on that concept, and threw out everything that didn't fit.
I think this is one of the most important things for a designer to do; there's so much temptation to put in everything you can think of and try to please everybody, but it doesn't work. In Wizrd101, every decision they made supports their vision of something that the family can play together. Everything from the art style to the interface design to the combat system to the chat filter, like it or not, exists to reinforce this concept. The final product has a level of coherence and consistent feel that you wouldn't get any other way.
Stuff I don't like:
Not everything is roses, of course. Aside from the standard MMORPG gameplay flaws ("Oh how exciting: another kill-ten-rats quest. Sigh...") there are a few "features" that I could really do without.
1. Long attack animations
Every non-trivial attack spell in the game uses a Final Fantasy-esque summoning animation. These animations take.
They're fun the first or second time you see them, but by the tenth time I played a Ghoul I wished there was a way to fast-forward it. And your enemies are also attacking with summoning animations. So the battles move quite slowly. It's good to have someone to chat with while you're fighting.
2. No item trading
With the exception of Treasure Cards, items can't be given to or exchanged with other players, which is lame. You can give items to alt characters on the same account, so I don't think it's a technological limitation; it seems to be a conscious design decision. Maybe they didn't want to worry about kids getting ripped off in unfair trades and then complaining? I find a lot of item drops that I can't use, and it would be more fun to give them to players who could use them rather than just selling them to the auction house.
3. Inaccurate magic names
This is a really minor pet peeve, but the names some of the magical specializations are just wrong. Necromancers and Pyromancers are exactly what you'd expect, but then they go and call Storm wizards "Diviners". What? They're not diviners! Diviners use magic to predict the future and learn secrets beyond mortal ken! Storm wizards don't see the future, they just summon lightning sharks!
And Ice wizards are called "Thaumaturges"? What the heck? "Thaumaturge" is Greek for "Miracle worker", and it's been used for a lot of different kinds of magic in various fantasy fiction, but I've never heard of it being associated with ice or cold in any way.
You're abusing my obscure fantasy vocabulary! NERD RAGE!
4. Severly restricted text input
You can't name your character freely, for instance; you have to mix-and-match morphemes from a list. That's why my character has such a twee name (um... "Corwin Lotusweaver". Ahem.) On the plus side, this does mean nobody's named things like XxX_N00B_sLaYeR_XxX... but it is kind of boring how many Stormcallers and Dragonfires there are running around.
Chat is primarily menu-based. (Thankfully, the menus contain names of items and quests you might be looking for help with...) It's nice for kids who haven't learned to type yet. There's also text chat if it's enabled in the parental controls, but even there, any word not on their whitelist is blocked. That's right, they don't use a blacklist, they use a whitelist.
I understand why they did it that way, but it's still unpleasantly draconian. (I bypass the whole thing by running Skype in the background so I can talk to Aleksa with my actual voice.)
Aleksa: "Let's dress up as our Wizard 101 characters for Halloween!"
Me: "Um... OK!"
That's right, my ten-year-old sister got me to do something I would normally consider too hardcore-gamer-nerdy even for me: LARPing as our MMORPG characters!
We're wizards! We're gonna save the Spiral from Malistaire!
Thanks to Sushu for doing all the sewing on my elaborate robes.
She's pretty amazing - she managed to do all that AND then make her own costume, in just two nights:
It's a variant costume for Toph from Avatar - I think she only wore it one episode. But it's based on real Tang dynasty clothing so she thought it was pretty cool.
She painted the floral pattern on there, too.
Aleksa's friend Evan, when he heard what we were doing, decided to dress up as Lord Nightshade - the "end boss" of the first world.
You can't see it here, but we spraypainted the grass to make a big magic duel circle in the backyard, and then Mom videotaped me and Aleksa battling Lord Nightshade. I'll post the video once it's edited.
I'm a necromancer! Watch me animate skeletons!
This was my favorite house that we saw while trick-or-treating: this family really went all-out.
You can't see it but they've got smoke machines and weird-colored lights, too, and all sorts of fake body-parts-in-jars up on the porch.
Close-up of two of the skeletons.
My favorite costume that we saw while trick-or-treating was this kid, who dressed up as a YouTube video.
Actually, it's even crazier than that: He's dressed as a YouTube video of himself winning a costume contest while dressed as a YouTube video. It's recursive!
We've been feeling for a while like it's about time to move out of our current apartment. It's got a lot of drawbacks - the water from the faucets is yellowish and metallic, the dishwasher has never worked, the landlord won't fix anything, and the tiny concrete slab they call a "patio" is too drippy to be usable.
Sushu's parents happen to have a spare house in Palo Alto, so they asked us if we'd like to live there and pay rent to them.
(This is how badass Sushu's parents are: When they came to this country, they owned nothing but $30 and some pans. They were smart and worked hard and started a successful business and now they have "spare" houses in Palo Alto. It's a real "American Dream" kind of success story.)
The only drawback of the new place is that it triples the length of my bike ride to and from work - from 15 minutes to 45 minutes. A 45-minute bike ride is just barely still doable. For days when it's raining, there's a bus. The bus takes just as long, if not longer, than biking, since it takes a circuitous route and stops every ten yards.
December in the bay area is very rainy and dark; just about the worst time to be trying out new long-distance bike rides. I spent last week figuring out biking routes and bus stops by trial and error, getting to work late, wet, and tired, and getting home later, wetter, and tireder. It put me in a bit of a grouchy mood, but I think I've figured it out now.
The advantages are many. There's free oranges. There's more space. Washer and dryer are inside the house and don't cost quarters. There's a jacuzzi, which seems to be broken right now, but will be nice if we can figure out how to get it working. I am already salivating at the prospect of turning the garage into my own private workshop for various mischief. There are no longer neighbors right on the other side of the wall, so I can play accordion after 9pm and not worry about the noise. The kitchen has miles and miles of counter space. All this and we'll actually be paying less in rent.
And Sushu has a much shorter drive to work; short enough that she could start biking, which is a fair trade-off for my longer ride.
Palo Alto (Spanish for "Tall Pole" or "Tall Tree") is the site of Stanford university, which makes it essentially the dark heart from which the evil blood of Silicon Valley flows. I didn't think it was possible, but Palo Alto is even more frou-frou than Mountain View. It's, like, full of "old money", or as old as money gets in California anyway. Living here will give me lots of opportunities to write snarky blog posts making fun of the snobs and yuppies.
For my friends in the area, I'd like to have a housewarming / board-game party once we're fully set up (sometime in January probably) so you can all come and enjoy the space. Stay tuned!
I hate Christmas music. Or rather, I hate that everywhere I go in December (and sometimes the last week of November as well) I get assaulted by the same small, infinitely looping playlist. They have to really scrape the bottom of the barrel to fill up a radio station with nothing but Christmas songs. So there's no quality control, and nothing goes together musically, and a lot of it sounds like Hallmark advertising jingles, cloying children's songs from the 50s, and generally cloying schmaltz. And you run a much higher risk of exposure to Alvin and the Chipmunks than at any other time of year. Yesterday at the airport I swear they played two different cover versions of "Old St. Nick" in a row. I'm not much fun to be around during December since I bitch about this constantly.
Anyway, today I was at the parents' house in Illinois today and found the Wee Sing Christmas Songs booklet from when we were kids. I started playing some - the Jesus ones, not the Santa ones - and discovered that they were 1. easy and 2. didn't sound half bad. Mom was shocked, shocked! to find me playing Christmas music instead of hating on it.
So yeah, even though it's not my religion, the religious music is not bad. "The First Noel" and "Oh Little Town of Bethlehem" have some nice chord progressions in them, and I've always liked the mysterious sound of "We Three Kings", Victorian Orientalist pastiche though it may be. (I laughed out loud when I realized "Joy to the World" is just a glorified descending C scale.)
I wouldn't really want to be subjected to "Come All Ye Faithful" all December long, but it would be marginally better than Frosty-the-Snowman and (shudder) All-I-Want-For-Chwifmaf-if-my-Two-Fwont-Teef.
The other Christmas activity I really object to is the whole elaborate pretense with the cookies and the presents "from Santa".
I don't care if it's traditional, lying to children is wrong. I keep overhearing parents talking about the lengths they go to, when their kids almost figure it out and they have to come up with a cover story. All that effort! Why not just tell them? Kids can enjoy fiction without having to believe that it's literally true. Is keeping up the ruse really for the kids' benefit, or because like Calvin's dad we think it's cute to watch kids believing arbitrary lies?
I dunno, I think I'm just gonna tell my kids straight-up: "Santa is just a story".
Mom had an infection on her computer that would hijack Firefox when she clicked certain links. It would run a bogus "security scan" in a web page that was made to look like a Windows XP system dialog box, and then try to make her download something to "fix" the many scary problems it "detected". She was too smart to do that (good for her!) but when she tried to navigate away from the page it would throw up a defensive screen of modal dialog boxes with misleading options and she would have to force-quit Firefox.
We looked it up and found out it was a well-known piece of malware "Personal Security", a scam that tries to get your money by generating bogus security threats and then demanding you upgrade to the paid version in order to fix them.
The software equivalent of a scam that involves criminals dressing up as police officers, in other words. Pure evil!
MacAfee, as usual, did absolutely nothing. Mom was able to get rid of the infection with a free program called Panda Cloud Antivirus.
Just throwing this out there as a warning, so y'all have some idea of how to recognize this Personal Security malware and know at least one way to get rid of it.
Still not sure how she got infected in the first place. I need to talk to the Firefox security guys about it and see if there's more we could be doing to block this kind of attack.
I keep missing their shows - Samantha and I kept missing each other's calls when I was in New York, and then they came out here and played San Francisco but of course it was when I was out of the country.
Anyway, I'll make it to their show someday, I promise. Congratulations, Samantha! Break a leg!
My mom is trying to think of a good name for the garden design business she's starting up. She sent me a long list of name ideas, many of which were pretty terrible ("Atlas Shrubbed"). She said most of the good ones were taken already.
You readers of my blog are a creative bunch. Anybody got any suggestions for her?
(The name of her town is La Grange, if anybody wants to try incorporating that.)
I flew to Chicago yesterday. I'm staying at my parents' house and working remotely (mostly from coffee shops) this whole week.
The anime convention is this coming weekend. I was going to go to that anyway, I just figured I'd make a longer trip out of it, get some time to visit with my family, play with Aleksa, etc.
I came down with a cold on Thursday. Thursday and Friday were the miserable days, and I worked from home. Saturday, after much waffling, I went to Taiko class despite still being sick. I'm glad I did, since I started feeling better immediately. Light exercise to get my blood flowing, plus yelling and hitting things and striking cool poses; I felt alive again. (I especially love playing the O-Daiko. Makes me feel like a god of thunder.)
So my cold was in a tolerable place by the time I got on the airplane. A mere 4 hour flight, it seemed so mercifully brief compared to the Brazil trip.
Last week in Chicago was oppressively hot and humid, the weekend was frigid and rainy, but today it's quite nice out, my cold is on the mend, and I quite enjoyed my walk to the coffee shop to camp out at a power outlet and leech wi-fi. It's true that in the Bay Area days like this (sunny, moderate temperature) make up 3/4 of the year. Which makes them easy to take for granted. In Chicago they're rare so everybody appreciates them more. Much like how recovering from a cold makes me appreciate my health. Feels good man.
Last Sunday was the two-year anniversary of our wedding.
Now if TV commercials and sitcoms have taught me anything it's that men are thoughtless slobs who forget anniversaries, and women are matrimony-obsessed harpies who crush mens' balls for forgetting anniversaries.
My actual real-life marriage once again fails to live down to pop-culturally mandated expectations. I was like "Hey our anniversary is coming up" and Sushu was like "Yeah I guess, why, do you want to do something special?"
It was also the second weekend in a row of attending wedding receptions and getting seated at the "miscellaneous people the couple barely know" table. It's like June is some kind of wedding season or something, right?
The first one was the wedding reception for my Moz Labs coworker Ed and his new wife Sue-ting; the second was for Sushu's high-school friend Mary and her new husband John. The former was OK since I knew a few people there, but the second was three hours of nearly unbearable social awkwardness that made me want to crawl under the table and hide.
Amusingly, both receptions were at Chinese seafood restaurants and the banquet menus were nearly identical. First the plate of seaweed/jellyfish/baby octopus/roast pork appetizers, then the plate of deep-fried shrimp paste balls with crab claws inside, then the egg-drop soup, the mushroom and bok choy stir-fry, the fried rice, the steamed fish, and finally the lobster at the end. It's like both restaurants were following the exact same master plan.
So anyway I was really glad to be done with the boring wedding party and I wanted to spend a nice Sunday with Sushu.
For breakfast I made some crepes and we filled them with some of this amazing peach jam that Sushu's mom made from the peach tree in her backyard.
I played a little Minecraft with Aleksa as I usually do on Sunday mornings. When I logged on, here's what I found in front of my house:
We got some sandwiches from Safeway and had a picnic on a sunny park bench in a public flower garden in Palo Alto, talking about what we want to do with the next few years of our lives.
I proposed going to the beach. It's pretty awful that I've lived in coastal California for three years now and I've barely ever been to the beach. It's because we live on the marshy south end of the bay; to get to anything like a real beach you have to drive across the mountains. We briefly considered Half-Moon Bay but then decided to call up Jeremy in Santa Cruz and see if he wanted to hang out with us. (He did!)
Jeremy's roommate advised me to jump straight into the ocean. I knew it was a trap -- the current coming down from Alaska keeps the Pacific quite chilly off the central California coast, much to the surprise of many tourists -- but I didn't care; it's about the same as the north Atlantic waters of my youth, cold but refreshingly cold, not unbearably cold. Sushu and Jeremy kind of gingerly tested the waters while I rode some breakers and got completely draped in floating mats of kelp. Sushu got suplexed by a big wave and was still picking sand out of her hair hours later.
I want to learn to surf!
We had some yummy seafood burritos for dinner and gossiped about grad students, interns, old friends, etc.
Jeremy is learning to play guitar! He's still at the phase of strumming basic chords but it's pretty cool that he's decided to learn. He played "Burn the land/ boil the sea/ you can't take the sky from me" as well as some girly pop-country songs. It sounded good! His singing skills are coming along too. I hope we can jam out together sometime soon!
We played a game of Agricola which came out to a tie between Jeremy and me with Sushu close behind. (Note to self - building a 4th room in the hopes of using the regular Family Growth space on the last round doesn't work when you already have more people than rooms thanks to "Family Growth even without room".)
It was pretty much a perfect day. We said "screw it" to the many niggling responsibilities that usually occupy us and spent the whole day rejoicing in each other's company.
The next day, Monday, was when Sushu left for her European vacation. As a teacher, she gets the whole summer off, so she can travel for several weeks whereas I have to ration my twenty days off each year. So she flew to Rome with plans to make her way through Croatia and Slovenia with her friend Joanne, and rendezvous with me a week later in Istanbul.
Her flight left at 6am so we got up at 3:30 am and I drove her to the airport. (She was going to take a taxi but I volunteered since it would be the last time I'd get to see her for a week.) I was in a weird headspace from waking up in the middle of the night, kind of manic and giggly. I got back and tried to sleep more, with little success.
I started this post by touching on the dismal stereotypes about married life in our culture (stereotypes that manage simultaneously to be sexist against men and against women, and no, two wrongs don't make a right). I want to deconstruct those a little more.
I keep seeing dudes here and there with the shirt that's got the silhouette of the married couple and it says "GAME OVER". (There are a lot of variants.) I just can't understand that mindset. I'm like: "Game Over, you... won?" What, you want to pursue relationships with women... but oh no, you might succeed with one of them, and that would be bad because it precludes... further pursuing relationships with women? Make up your mind sir: do you want a serious exclusive long-term relationship or not? If you do, be happy when you achieve one! If not, then find women who have a compatible attitude and are open to a casual fling or a poly relationship; those women exist and there's nothing wrong with such an arrangement if it makes you both happy. Just, don't be in such a rush to marry someone you don't get along with, only to immediately start complaining about it. Geez.
I feel I've only gained, not given anything up, by getting married. I always found flirting and dating entirely stressful and unpleasant and I'm happy to be done with them. It's not like bachelorhood was some kind of glorious Bacchanalia. In my experience it consisted mainly of working late, reheating something for dinner, reading a lot of web pages, and then masturbating myself to sleep. (I can admit that on the internet, right?) The dudebro conception of monogamy -- as some kind of unjust, boner-killing imprisonment of the male's inherent bonobo-like promiscuity -- is in its way just as unrealistic as the happily-ever-after Disney Princess version.
What's being married really like, in real life? I can describe only the experience of being married to Sushu (I highly recommend it to anyone ;-P )
Lao Zi said that the most virtuous people are simple. (I think? I can't find the quote right now. Or maybe it was Confucius? Sounds more like Lao Zi's style though.) Anyway I feel the same applies to relationships. What I've got with Sushu is delightfully uncomplicated. She's my best friend. There are no hidden meanings or mind games. We say what we want and then we negotiate from there, like adults, from a place of respect, openness, and trust.
Being able to share everything with her has added an incredible depth and richness to the fabric of my existence. Every experience of these past few years, large and small, has been far more satisfying because Sushu has been a part of it. They've been the best two years of my life by far, despite the fact that I dislike the area I'm living in.
When we're apart for more than a day I start missing her terribly.
The rest of our lives is far too short a time to spend with someone as compassionate, creative, adventurous, honest, trustworthy, hard-working, fun-loving, and sexy as Sushu. I hope for many, many more years.
Monday: get up, regret leaving my bike at work on Friday so I have to take the bus. Get in just in time for my first meeting of the day, have meetings non-stop one after another until 4 or 5 pm. Too exhausted and irritated to get any coding done after that. Regret not having done more coding last week.
Meet Sushu for dinner, eat out because there's no time to go home before my accordion lesson. Drive to accordion lesson. Regret not having practiced accordion more last week. Apologize, make excuses.
Tuesday: put clothes on, notice "University of Chicago Aikido Club" t-shirt in closet, regret dropping out of Aikido in 2008 and never finding the time to go back to it.
Try to catch up on my never-ending flood of email, or at least flag the most critical ones to respond to and delete the rest. Regret not responding to old e-mails or instituting some better kind of e-mail sorting system. Think about all the people who offered to work with me on cool ideas, regret never having had the time to write back to them.
Read about the Japan tsunami, regret never finding the time to keep in touch with the people in Kamaishi.
Go to the game store on Tuesday night to make my toy soldiers fight other people's toy soldiers. Regret all the time I spent painting them instead of doing something more useful.
Wednesday: deal all day with interviews, write-ups, debriefs, random people asking me questions on IRC, random people stopping by my desk to interrupt me with questions, random people with test pilot data requests. Regret not having written more code on Tuesday. By the afternoon I've almost caught up to where I was when I left work the previous Friday. Right when I'm on the verge of starting to be productive, it's time to go.
Go to Chinese family dinner, regret not having studied Chinese at all during the last week and not being able to follow the conversation any better than I could a week ago. Apologize, make excuses.
Thursday: look at the newly filed Test Pilot bugs, try to remove the duplicates, close ones that need closing, test and accept patches where they've been uploaded, requrest code review where something I wrote needs code review, and correctly sort the rest. Regret not having a better unit test suite. Regret not having written more code on Wednesday. Feel like the bug list never gets any shorter.
Come home, think about what to do on my one night of the week with nothing scheduled, think about all the creative projects I've started, regret not finishing any of them.
Friday: It's a nice day out. Look at the mountains in the distance and regret not spending more time outside enjoying nature.
Look at emails about upcoming all-hands Mozilla meeting, regret not having had the time to pay attention and plan a session for it.
Leave work just when I'm starting to be productive, once again. Time to go to my Smallville role-playing session. Role-playing is supposed to be fun, so why does this feel like an obligation? Have to take the car since it's too far to bike and not near public tranist. While driving, notice expanding waistline, regret not biking more, regret eating out at restaurants so much and not cooking at home with Sushu more.
Smallville role-playing session is mediocre because I'm not putting in the time and effort to make it good. Regret not having read the rulebook during the last week. Regret not having made characters who gel better together.
Saturday: go to taiko. Upon leaving taiko think of how little I know any of the other members and regret not spending time to get to know other them better. Rush to roleplaying sessiona fterwards (Mouse Guard this time); regret not having finished reading Mouse Guard book and not having prepared better. Eat out again.
Sunday: think of all the creative projects I've started, wonder which one to work on today. Play Wizards online with Aleksa, regret not being able to see my family more than a handful of times a year. Do laundry for the week and regret never having time to fix all my pants with holes in them. Buy groceries and regret not eating healthier or cooking more often. Write a blog post, think about all the other things I meant to write about, regret not blogging in the last week. Whoops, the day and then the evening slipped by without any work done on any of my other projects.
Where does the time go? How can I always be rushing from one activity to another and never feel prepared for anything or feel like I'm geting anything done?
Even at work, it seems like I never have time to get any work done, because I always have a full plate of all this... I don't even know what to call it... these trivial tasks that never stop multiplying, and somehow each one is too important to skip, but they never add up to anything either.
It's like I never do anything properly because I'm always too busy with all the other things, that I'm also not doing properly?
How is it that I've trapped myself in obligatory activities six out of seven days of the week, and although they're all things I chose to do, none of them is what I really want to be doing? Have I sliced my time up into chunks too small to be useful?
It seems every few weeks I'm getting on an airplane to somewhere, and when I get back I'm even farther behind on everything. That's not helping.
I keep telling myself "I'm really busy right now, but I just gotta get through this busy chunk and then I'll have time to do all the things I wanna do". But I've been saying that for years now. I think it's a lie. It feels true, but that's just because the future always seems free. Problem is, the wide-open future keeps turning into the cluttered present.
Ultimately if I want to do more of some things I'm just going to have to do less of other things.
The worst part is all the creative projects I've started and can't finish.
Sushu asked me recently, "Have you ever... finished a project?"
I was quiet for a long time. I can name some small projects I've finished (making a costume, learning a song, making a present for someone, making a comic page), and some projects for work, but I've never finished a big, personal project. I just kind of work on them until I get distracted by a newer, shinier idea. I'm always starting and not finishing so the list of projects just gets longer.
Another day, Sushu got very frustrated that I haven't followed through with any of the projects I said I would do with her. Jiang Hu and learning Chinese, especially. I'm always busy either with work stuff or with self-imposed obligatory social activities and when I'm not doing one of those things, I'm getting absorbed in yet another solo project I've invented for myself to do. It's like, when I do finally get some free time, I want to use it on something that doesn't take a lot of mental energy, and that usually means a solo activity.
Now, Sushu is talking about wanting to "form babby" (or, as people who have not had their language corrupted by internet memes call it, "have a baby") sometime within the next few years. This thought kind of terrifies me because if I am feeling the time crunch now, imagine the time crunch when I am one half of the team responsible for foiling a human larva's attempts to kill itself 24/7. I keep thinking about how my mom said she didn't get one solid night's sleep for the first six or seven years of Aleksa's life. It sounds like a safe bet that work and family duties will be all I get to do.
So basically any idea for a creative project I have, I either need to get it done in the next let's say two years; or I will have to postpone it until like 2025 when the baby is old enough to ignore for a few hours. (Longer, if there is more than one baby)...
Damn. Two years. It's like finding out I have two years left to live. I need to seriously rethink my priorities. I need to start saying "no" to a whole bunch of things and just eliminating them from my schedule entirely.
She was interested in the question of why American kids score so much lower on math than Chinese kids do, despite American math teachers having more years of college and formal training. So she went out and did original research, interviewing American and Chinese teachers of elementary-school math to compare their methods.
Again and again, what she found out is that the difference was not in the children, nor in the teaching methods, but in how deep the teacher's understanding was of the material. The Chinese teachers had "a profound understanding of elementary mathematics"; they knew arithmetic backwards and forwards and were able to demonstrate lots of alternate methods of reaching the same answer, to invent lots of real-world examples, and to prove mathematically why a certain procedure worked.
The American teachers had only a shallow understanding focused on rote procedure. E.g. they could tell a kid what to write down in order to multiply two three-digit numbers, but they couldn't explain why executing those steps produces a correct answer. So no wonder they would run into trouble as soon as students started asking questions or showing signs of misunderstanding. No wonder so many kids grow up dreading e.g. long division -- they experience it as an arbitrary algorithm they are made to execute, without rhyme or reason or internal logic.
The most head-slappingly awful bit was when Liping asked teachers to demonstrate how they would teach division of one fraction by another fraction. (One and three quarters divided by one half = ?)
Only 9 out of 21 American math teachers could even do the problem correctly themselves! And only one out of those 21 was able to come up with a story or real-world example that correctly demonstrated the meaning of dividing by one-half. The rest of the teachers were hopelessly confused and started talking about dividing one-and-three-quarters pizzas between two people or something similar. That's not division by 1/2, that's division by 2 or multiplication by 1/2.
Twenty out of twenty-one American elementary school teachers didn't know the difference between dividing by 1/2 and dividing by 2! This was just one of several places in this book that made my jaw drop.
TL;DR: American kids suck at math because their teachers suck at math.
Last week there was a lunch at work, and after some discussion it turned out every single person at the table was married to somebody from a different culture than them.
For example, Jinghua's Chinese, she's married to Oscar, who's Venezualean, but the two of them met in Denmark; Oscar's parents live in Canada and his brother is married to a Romanian.
And that's not as unusual as it used to be. Everyone at the table had a story about negotiating a compromise between their family's marriage customs and those of their husband's family or wife's family.
This is the future! International families are on the rise, and may even eventually become the norm. We're just a little ahead of the curve, here in immigrant-heavy, majority-minority Silicon Valley.
I hope that in the future, this trend will make people less eager to go to war, because more of us will stop and say "Wait a minute, I have relatives over there in [Iran/China/Russia/Israel/America]. They're not as bad as you're saying."
(Then again, maybe I'm too optimistic: lots of North Koreans have relatives in South Korea and they're still technically at war.)
While we were in China, Sushu's mom planted green peppers and eggplants in our backyard vegetable garden.
She didn't plant those tomatoes. They just grew there all on their own.
I grew a lot of tomatoes there last summer; they all died in the fall, but I guess some seeds found their way into the soil.
Sushu's mom told me a Chinese saying about how the flower carefully tended does not bloom, while the willow branch carelessly dropped grows to provide much shade.
I don't know if it's the soil quality, the climate, or what, but our backyard is amazingly fertile.
So we've got all these eggplants, tomatoes, and peppers from the backyard. What do to with them all?
Tomatoes and peppers are easy to use in salads and pasta, but eggplants are a little trickier. I've made way too many curries where the rest of the vegetables were done but the eggplant was still tough and spongy. You can't just throw eggplant into a dish - you gotta have a plan for it.
The best eggplant I ever had was in Turkey. They do amazing things with eggplant, lamb, olives, and sheep cheese. I brought back a Turkish cookbook but I had never used it. Seems like a good time to try out some eggplant recipies!
One thing they do in Turkish cooking is to smoke the eggplant. We have a small charcoal grill in our backyard so I decided to give it a try.
First problem: We had a sack of coals in the garage, but no lighter fluid. I used junk mail as kindling, but the coals wouldn't catch. Finally Sushu offered me a bottle of baijou (Chinese sorghum alcohol). I poured some of that on the coals, threw in a match...
... and just barely yanked my arm back fast enough to save my arm hairs from getting set alight by the ensuing fireball.
Still, it's the best use I've found so far for baijou. That stuff is naaaaas-ty.
Anyway, you close the lid and leave the eggplant in there for like 20 minutes, then turn it over with some tongs and let it cook on the other side for another 20 minutes.
It'll get black and crispy on the outside, and you will think you have ruined it, but scrape the peel off (throw it away) and the inside will be a tender mush with the most amazing delicate smoky flavor. Seriously, it's the bomb.
Mix some milk and a few sprinkles of flour in a frying pan to make a sauce base, then mash the eggplant up with a fork and stir it in with the milk mixture. Add some feta cheese and salt and stir it until it all melts together.
Eat it with pita bread, or combine it with the meat dish I'm about to describe...
My mom hates lamb, so we never had it when I was growing up. But once I tried lamb, I loved it. Especially with the right blend of spices, it's delicious.
So for this one, chop up a whole onion and a few cloves of garlic and sautee them in oil. Then throw in a package of ground lamb.
The Turkish cookbook didn't list any spices (perhaps the spice blend is a Turkish trade secret). I tried it without spices and it was really bland. Through some trial and error, I settled on the following spices:
Salt, black pepper, garlic powder, cayenne pepper, sage, and cumin. LOTS of cumin. Don't be shy. Cumin is lamb's best friend.
While the meat is browning, chop up a bell pepper and a large tomato and throw those in. Keep tasting it and adjusting the spice mix. Stir-fry until all the vegetables are soft and the meat is well-done.
You can eat this stuff straight with a fork, or have it with pita and the smoked eggplant mush, or you can make it into a moussaka.
For the moussaka, take a couple of large eggplants and peel them. Chop them into half-inch-thick slices. Soak the slices in salt water for half an hour. This step is important as it tenderizes them and leeches out the water, leaving the eggplant ready to absorb oil and meat juices!
After half an hour, wring out the eggplant pieces by hand, and then fry them in oil until they turn dark, silky, and translucent. They will absorb a LOT of oil - you may need to keep adding more. I used canola oil but olive oil would be even better.
Once that's done, layer the eggplant slices with the meat mixture in a pan (like you're making a lasagna with eggplant slices instead of noodles) and bake it for 20-30 minutes.
The day after Hurricane Sandy I called my relatives in Connecticut. They're all OK, though they've lost power and they report major chunks of what used to be the beach are now missing. My family lives on Long Island Sound, meaning they were sheltered from the worst of the storm, but even so it ripped up reinforced concrete and threw boulders up the road. Here's a picture Googleshng sent me from his neighborhood:
I have seen some amazing/horrifying pictures from New York City like this one and this one showing the blacked-out part of Manhattan.
There were a lot of fake pictures (either Photoshopped, or real-but-not-actually-from-Hurricane-Sandy) circulating. The Atlantic ran a guide to telling real pictures from fake ones. The one with the shark swimming down the street, and the one with the scuba diver int he subway, were 'shopped. It's not like the real ones aren't bad enough!
I've heard estimates of 20-50 billion dollars worth of damages, or about ten billion per day. (That's still less than Katrina!)
The thought that came to me as I watched the destruction unfold: Is this the new normal? With ocean levels rising and ocean temperatures increasing and extreme weather getting more common, are we going to look back on this decade as the start of the era of continuous, massive flooding of coastal cities and a never-ending refugee crisis?
Three-quarters of the Arctic ocean melted this summer. We had a massive crop-destroying drought throughout the central USA. It's really hard to keep denying that the earth is warming, though some still argue that it's a natural process and not caused by humans. However, even a "natural process" can still kill us.
"We have a 100-year flood every two years now," said New York Governer Cuomo. "We have a new reality when it comes to these weather patterns. We have an old infrastructure and we have old systems and that is not a good combination."
Yeah, I know, I should feel dirty even to be thinking "how will this hurricane affect the election" -- but look: responding to, and preventing, tragedies is one of the important functions of the federal government and the candidates have very different ideas about this function. Disasters are already political, whether we "politicize" them or not. Disaster preparedness/response is relevant to the election and vice versa. Far more relevant than, say, how many horses Romney's family has or whether Obama is going to show Donald Trump his college transcripts or any of the other stupid, stupid stuff that the media used as News-Like Filler Product all year.
The longtime predictions of climate scientists are coming true, and if Manhattan being underwater is the new normal, I would really like to have a government that's not in denial about it.
Just got back from 2 weeks in Illinois. Since I'm unemployed "in a pre-revenue startup", I can't afford to fly home for every holiday like I did in past years, so I went for a longer visit at Thanksgiving in exchange for not visiting at Halloween or Christmas. Mom is disappointed, of course, and so am I. The underlying unhappiness here is the unavoidable result of marrying someone from the other side of the country, so there may be no good answer, but I promised to do weekly video chat and to come visit again in June.
Fun stuff I did in Chicago:
Hiking in the autumn woods at the Morton Arboretum and at Starved Rock with Mom & Dad
Cooking with the family! After a trip to the Korean grocery store I made tom yum, green Thai curry, miso soup, and braised daikon/lotus root. Of course we made Thanksgiving dinner together too; they did a brined/smoked turkey on the grill, and I hand-braided a pumpkin pie crust
Meeting Cat, Kent, and Jonathan in Hyde Park for board games
Learning to play "Always" (the song from Robot Unicorn Attack) as a guitar-accordion duet with Stephen, and meeting his gonzo Homestuck-fan roommates
Hanging out with Atul again at our old favorite tea-house, talking Mozilla Foundation and having great Russian food with him his dad
Passing the Wiimote back&forth with Aleksa to beat Zelda: Twilight Princess together. (After a year of Minecraft being our main game, it feels weird to play a game that's always telling us where to go and what to do! What is this, a job?)
Helping Aleksa figure out how record screencasts and how to get started modding Minecraft, which might just be the thing that gets her into programming