Master of Reality

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[Trying to type on an Apple bluetooth keyboard for the first time - man, this little thing is weird.  There seems to be a whole cult of people that like this thing more than any other keyboard in the world, but I'll be damned if I can't stop hitting the caps lock key by mistake every other word, making the entire paragraph look like some kind of Tea Party protest sign.]

Okay, so I was out on Saturday and after dinner at a somewhat forgettable Indian place on Piedmont, we were walking back to the car and saw this little newsstand store.  And it was an actual newsstand – a store about as big as a bedroom off of a side street, two walls filled with racks of magazines and newspapers.  The other wall had t-shirts, moleskine notebooks, zines, and other paraphernalia.  (Fourth wall: glass, mostly.)  It had some pithy, punny name, like “Issues” or something, but I forgot what.  Anyway, we went in and I looked for something to buy to support this guy, since there’s no way in hell he’s making loads of cash selling the occasional copy of High Times and operating a subsidized reading room for hipster doofuses.  I also wanted some proof that I wasn’t teleported back to the mid-90s, because it’s been forever since I’ve seen an independent newsstand that actually stocked non-Hearst, non-Conde Nast, non-News Corp, non-Time Warner publications.

I grabbed a zine (I forget what – I’ll look it up later) and headed to the cash register, but found a small pile of those 33 1/3 books on a shelf.  I may have mentioned these before, but Continuum publishes them, and they are a small pocket-sized book (maybe 4.5″x6.5″) and they are each numbered as part of a series, which gives them the same hoarder appeal as records.  Each title is about a particular album, and most of them are a small critical analysis or history of that particular record.  But the first one I got (Meat is Murder by Joe Pernice) was not about the Smiths album of the same name, but was instead this hundred-page fiction story about a miserable kid in high school, a sort of punk wannabe guy who goes to this crappy high school where there was a suicide, and his infatuation with this girl.  It reminded me a lot of John Sheppard’s Small Town Punk (the real first edition, not the rereleased cassette single version) and how it captured the angst of growing up in Reagan America and how punk was not a brand of hair dye you bought at the mall, but a type of disaffection you suffered when you weren’t a jock in high school.

Based on that book, I went to Amazon and clicked away and bought a bunch of the books, but then found out that most of them were just these stupid record collector/music critic wankers going on about how important a particular Led Zeppelin album was to the world, as if I gave a shit.  But Colin Meloy wrote one for the Replacements’ Let It Be that was about a kid from Montana that finds this album and it becomes a huge corner-turning event for him, and I really dug that book.  (And from the Amazon reviews, which I should have read in the first place, I guess a ton of people had the opposite reaction as me, and loved the musicophile books and had a serious WTF moment over the Meloy and Pernice books.)

So I got the Master of Reality book about the Black Sabbath album, written by John Darnielle.  This was written in two parts, the first as the journal of a kid who was locked up in a rehab psych ward, and the second as an extended letter to his old shrink, ten-odd years later.  The whole thing was interesting and touching and the hundred pages flew past pretty quick.  And there were two basic reverberations or takeaways from this.  The first is this urge for me to wrap up a 30-40000 word novella or short story or whatever from my various writing about either high school or college, and publish a really kick-ass small pocket book like this.  And the issue with this is the constant struggle I have right now with what to write, because I’m still stuck at this fork in the road with “straight” fiction like Summer Rain on one side, and “weird” fiction like Rumored on the other side.  It’s easier in some senses to write the “straight” stuff, but I feel like creatively, I have a lot more depth and ability with the other stuff.  So there’s a part of me that reads something like these 33 1/3 books, or Joe Meno’s Hairstyles of the Damned and recognizes a great need to cut the shit and not try to write some high school angst book and get back to reading Leyner and Federman and Burroughs and whatever else.

The other thing that this book hit was my childhood friendship with Jim Manges.  I’ve talked about Manges before, but this story reminded me so much of his backstory.  Manges did some time in Oaklawn, the local rehab place, and a lot of the long conversations I had with him in high school formed my opinion of the whole system.  Probably once or twice a semester, a kid would vanish from classes, and the rumor mill would start churning with the various stories about how he tried to kill himself or got hooked on whatever drug, and got sent off to dry out.  A heavy fundamentalist christian base in Elkhart was either the cart or the horse in the situation; a lot of kids with Jesus freak parents would rebel heavily, get into serious trouble with drugs or sex or crime or a combination of the three, and would end up either in juvie or rehab.  Or was it that the heavily religious would send their kids up the river over the slightest issue?  It’s hard to tell, but Manges was a little bit of both.

Jim’s parents used to pull the usual totalitarian stuff, like random room searches.  Like I remember one time he told me not to bring over a Van Halen record because his mom would throw a fit, due to that smoking angel album cover, “Running with the devil”, and the local televangelist’s regular special on what records of your kids’ to burn always mentioning Van Halen.  I mean, this was the particular record that contained keyboard parts at a time when keyboards were sacrilege to any hard rock/heavy metal fan, and now half of the songs on that album are played in elevators and dentist’s offices.  I also don’t need to go into too much detail about how his mom thought D&D was a gateway to hell, and we had to smuggle in our D20s and modules and lead figures if we ever wanted to play a few rounds of The Keep on the Borderlands. But, Jim also smoked when smoking was as off-limits as shooting heroin is now, and he used to always have porn, drugs, music, firecrackers, knives, and whatever else hidden in his room, so his mom’s searches were not completely unfounded.

But a big part of Jim – and this book – that I identified with was that rudderless drift through the unknown, being knocked around on all sides, from parents, other kids, teachers, crappy part-time jobs, and everything else in life.  From my point of view, everyone else around me had it together.  If they needed anything, from an Izod shirt to a 5.0 Mustang, they just asked their parents and they magically got it.  I assumed all of them would drift right through college with no effort, then come back and work for their family’s businesses or climb the corporate ladder that seemed to stretch up forever to unlimited wealth back in the pre-crash 80s.  I didn’t know what I wanted to do, or what I was supposed to do, and got fed nothing but contradictory messages from the authority figures at the top.  None of it made sense to me, and people like Jim – the misfits that clashed with authority – gave me some assurance that I wasn’t the only one screwed up.

I think Jim gave me the best piece of advice I ever got when I was maybe 16 or 17, and the “we need to talk” talks were mounting.  He told me “all I ever do is find some fixed point on a far wall, like the clock on the microwave, and just focus on that and let them talk until they feel like they’re done talking.  They’re like sharks looking for blood if you try to talk your way out of anything.”  That advice didn’t do much for him; I think he’s been in and out of prison three or four times now.  But I survived, so that’s something.

I gave up on the Apple keyboard a bit ago, though.  I think it will be nice for on the road, when I’ve only got the iPad.  But at home, the ergo keyboard rules supreme.  And speaking of being on the road, I have to go pack up and get ready to head back to New York tomorrow morning, for the first time since I left in 2007.  Should be interesting…

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Nuke ‘Em

Strategy games have been a real albatross around my neck, partly because they push the right buttons in my head that make me obsessively play them until I win, and when I win, it’s too boring and I have to play again at another difficulty level or play another game.  The latest incarnation of this is Catan HD on the iPad, which is a version of the insanely popular German board game Settlers of Catan.  I would love to play that game, but it involves getting together three or four people, so forget it.  (Unless you’re in the Bay Area and want to play.  I would even host games at my house, but nobody’s going to come to West Oakland to play a board game, even if I FedEx over kevlar vests and free gas cards.)  I have wasted a small amount of effort on Catan so far, and it kicks my ass every single time.  I am sure I will spend hours of my precious time trying to google out some strategies and beat the thing, and I am sure once I figure out the secret, I will get bored of it and consider it a waste of five dollars.

But a bigger obsession is trying to write one of these games.  And that all started when I was a freshman in college.  My friend and later roommate Kirk Sluder started a game called Nuke ‘Em on the VAX computers.  It was done entirely by email, and basically, you emailed in your changes, and then Kirk tabulated all of the stuff and emailed back updates.

From what I remember, the rules were something like this:

  1. A player started with X factories (I think it was 4 or 5)
  2. A factory could create a nuke, an ABM, or 25% of a new factory per turn.
  3. In a given turn, you could state your new production and/or decide to nuke another player.  You could also email in some pithy commentary about how you were going to kick everyone’s asses and it would go into the email that was sent out with the turn’s results.
  4. When you nuked someone, each ABM would cancel out one nuke.  I don’t remember if it took just one nuke or four to knock out a factory.  When all of the factories were gone, you were done.  (And now that I think about it, Kirk may have called them cities and not factories.)
  5. There may have been some rules about collusion or inter-country trading, but I don’t remember.

So that was the basic deal.  It was a very low-tech game, and I think we only played one of two rounds before the whole thing got sidetracked by the usual college concerns of getting laid, getting drunk, and occasionally going to classes.  There was also a much more popular and immersive game called Monster that a few people brought over to the VAX – it was sort of a precursor to what later became MUDs, and wasted a lot more time, but offered more immediate gratification.

(I don’t entirely remember how the Nuke ‘Em game went, except everyone else got immediately involved in these skirmishes, while I just stayed isolationist and stockpiled a shit-ton of ABMs.)

Anyway, I think Kirk piddled around for a bit trying to write a more mechanized version of the game in VAX BASIC.  And the next year, when I started learning Pascal, that was my first major goal: to write this entirely automated version of the game, where you logged in and made your changes in some form, and then maybe saw a map or some tally of what was going down.  This was long before the days of the web, like in the fall of 1990, so everything was VAX-based.  This was the first time I really started screwing with the Starlet libraries on the VAX, which were these awesome runtime libraries for doing all kinds of crazy stuff, like drawing menus on the screen.  There were header files (or whatever the hell Pascal used) for every VAX language, so you could use them in Fortran or COBOL or whatever you used.  So I clunked away on that for a long time, but didn’t get anywhere, and gave it up.

I think there have been at least four or five times I have tried to reinvent this game.  I have a bunch of C source code I was apparently working on in the summer of 99, along with some decent notes on the thing.  It was web-based, and had a bunch of CGI pages that were C binaries, which is about the least portable way of doing things. I should probably try to recompile this crap and see if it works, but ten-year-old source code written for linux has a way of not working because every other week, someone decides on making their own free curses library the standard or whatever the hell.  Looking at the code I have, it uses ndbm for its database, and a slightly more complicated system of different terrains on a map, and I wasted a lot of time writing my own libraries to do crap like parse URLs for arguments.  But I didn’t get much working, and gave it up quick.  (Given the timing of this, it was probably an attempt at making something I could use as a sample for finding a job, although at the time, Silicon Alley was giving HTML production jobs to anyone with a pulse.  Except me, of course.)

I also have notes from a 2004 attempt at the same thing, but no source code.  And in 1998, I did an end-run on the whole thing and spent a few all-nighters trying to write a framework for simulator/strategy type games where someone could use that and write a game like Nuke ‘Em in some convoluted scripting language.  The C++ code I have for this is absolutely horrid and does nothing.

And in 2008, when I was trying to learn Ruby on Rails, I started this new version of the game, although it was much more involved.  It was map-based, and the map had little squares with technology levels. Just for kicks, I’ll paste the rules at the end of this post.

Anyway, there is a part of me that really wants to fire up eclipse and start working on this again.  Or maybe learn how to use some iOS framework like GameSalad to make a game that way.  And if I had infinite time and patience, I would.  But given that the rails stuff I wrote in 2008 fantastically crashes when I try to run it because there have been like 19 major revisions to rails since then, it probably won’t happen soon.

Anyway, here’s my rules from 2008.  I think I got the game to the point where I needed to figure out how to implement the AI for robot players before I gave up.

Rules

Here’s the rundown on how the game works, but note: everything is
under construction. Everything can be changed. In fact, until things
solidify, entire games could drop off the face of the earth. I will do
everything I can to avoid that, but there’s no guarantee on the
stability of the data at this point.

Also, anything marked with TODO is either something that isn’t implemented,
or something where a decision hasn’t been made yet on how it will work.

Four basic entities are used in the game: Worlds, Cells, Nations, and Forces, as described below.

Worlds

If Nuke ‘Em was a board game, a World would be the board. Each World contains basic meta-data defining
its structure and behavior, as given by its creator. There can be multiple worlds run by multiple admins, each
with a few or a lot of players. As far as those attributes, here’s a quick list:

Name

The name of the world. It can be simple, stupid, or silly, depending on the admin.
This doesn’t affect play, except maybe that a really hardcore name will scare away the n00bs. And maybe worlds
with really cool names will attract more players.

Cells Across and Cells High

This defines how big the world will be. Worlds are rectangular
grids of squares (sorry, no cool hex graphs like those old-school Avalon Hill games), with each square being a
Cell, which we’ll get to in a second. Obviously, a 1000 x 1000 map is going to be able to host a bigger
game than a 100 x 100, but if you put four players in a 1000-square map, it could take them forever to find each
other.

(There’s also an upward limit on the number of players in a world that can vary. Since players are randomly granted
a 3×3 plot of land, and those grants can’t overlap, you’ll eventually get to a point where a new player can’t find
a clear group of nine cells to start playing. And your mileage may vary when new players are added mid-game, since
current players may have carved up the map by then. TODO: two features that could be added to control this would be
a configurable hard cap on players, and a boolean that can be toggled to prohibit mid-game player addition.)

Turn Length

Nuke ‘Em is turn-based, meaning the world is updated and advanced each period, although players are welcome to mess
around with and adjust their entities as much as they want, to a limit. The length of a turn is measured in minutes.
You could set the turn length to 1440 and have things change each day over the course of months, or set it to 5
for a fairly interactive game that might be over in an evening.

The following are affected by turn updates:

  • Nations’ production is updated on a per-turn basis. Add up the civ of every cell you control and multiply by ten, and that
    revenue is generated each turn. High civ cells mean higher tech factories; more cells mean colony plantations bringing in cash.
  • TODO: Any Forces created by a Nation aren’t available until the next turn. (TODO: maybe this should vary – Rome wasn’t built in a day.)
  • Forces can only move a given distance in a turn.

Anything else happens in realtime, and happens simultaneously between all players.

TODO: At the end of each turn, each player gets an email with a verbose summary of their activities that turn,
and a public summary of everyone’s turn. Private events won’t be in that update (details of troop buildups, etc.)
but very big things will be (two countries nuke each other, Britney Spears shaves her head, etc.) There will also
be a facility for players to enter their own diatribes into the public news, so you can go Hugo Chavez on someone’s, ass.
And the public news is also viewable on the home page.

Nuclear

You’d think the use of nuclear weapons in a game called Nuke ‘Em would be a given, but you can set this to false
and make your world wars Greenpeace-compliant. This is sort of like the designated hitter rule in baseball, and people
will argue a more intimate game on a level playing field, versus giving people instant gratification with the
big guns. Either way, the feature can be toggled on and off by an admin.

World Defaults

A world defaults with a 100 across by 25 high map, a one-minute turn, and is nuclear-capable. Note that a one
minute turn is really damn short.

Cells

A Cell is a single unit of land. As for the basic properties, it has an x/y location (0,0 being the upper
left corner), and an ID of the world to which it belongs. It also has the following properties.

Occupant

When a player moves their forces on an otherwise empty cell, they plant their flag into the ground and its theirs.
If you’re the second person crossing into that cell, if it has no military presence, it is theirs. If it does
have occupying forces, skip forward to the combat section to see how that works out. (TODO: There is no facility
for allied troops to let each other move through their respective lands.) (TODO: there is an issue with being
able to “look” at neighboring cells, and/or cells you once owned.)

Terrain

Each cell has a type of terrain which, with one exception, is assigned when a World is created. Cell terrain can be
“plains”, “water”, “city”, “desert”, “mountain”, and “nuked”. To a limited extent, terrain dictates how Forces can move.
TODO: Currently terrain is completely random. In the future,
maybe the ability to either load in new maps or use a map constructor would be nice.

Civ

A cell’s civ is the level of civilization in that terrain. By default, that equals 1, which is probably the level
of an agrarian community. At the end of each turn, a cell produces resources based on its civ level. (TODO: what
is the rate?) A higher civ also means the forces built in that cell have a higher civ. (TODO: what happens to
civ when a cell changes hands?) (TODO: A nuked cell has a civ of 0.)

If you’re an occupant, you can spend resources to improve a cell’s civ, at the rate
of one civ point per $10,000 spent.

Nations

A nation basically is a player, and consists of their controlled cells and their forces. It also contains the
gnarly name you chose as the moniker for your country, your email address (for those end-of-turn updates), the
world in which you belong, and any other personal preferences that might come up in the future. There’s one other
all-important property:

Resources

Resources are basically money. It’s hard for me to call them anything other than dollars, but you’ll see the $$$ sign
when this is discussed. Not only could it have had some hokey fake monetary unit (gold pieces, Euros, whatever), but
it also refers to the general production ability of your nation, and not just piles of metal or paper. Anyway, cells
make money every turn. And you can spend money to build forces or improve cells. (TODO: a feature to send money
to another nation to pay them off so they won’t nuke you. Or a way to steal money from a nation you destroyed.)

Forces

Forces refer to any type of army, navy, or other military unit. Actually, there are exactly three branches
to choose from: “army”, “navy”, or “air force”. (Sorry Marines, I had to stick to the basics.)

TODO: There are also two additional forces that can be created. When a cell is civ 50 or higher, it can create ABM forces.
And there are ICBM forces, which can be created by nuclear superpowers. (More on that in a bit.)

Combat

TODO: Not done yet. These are the basics.

When you move forces to a cell that contains another nation’s forces,
a battle is automatically started. The basic version of this: your
forces and their forces cancel out. For example, you have an army of 100
with a civ of 10, and you march into a cell containing an army of 50
with a civ level of 10. You now occupy the cell, and your army now
contains 50.

This is calculated by lining up each side’s forces, from lowest civ to highest, and when civ is the same, by smallest
to biggest.

Nuclear War

TODO: Nukes have not been implemented at all yet, so everything here is speculation.

My thought on how a nation can go nuclear is this: once a cell reaches a certain civ level, it can now create forces
that have nuclear capabilities. And/or you might have to pay a one-time fee for the first time you ever go nuclear.
So for example, if civ level 100 is nuke, you pay $1,000,000 in improvements on one cell, then you get a “go nuke” link
appears. When you pony up an additional $1,000,000 payment (i.e. the research costs of a nuclear program) that
one cell and any others with a civ level of 100 can now create nuke-capable forces.

This is the easy version of the rules: your nuke-capable cells can create ICBM forces. To make this easier, an ICBM force
has exactly one troop in it, and costs $100,000 to build. It also has infinite range, so it can hit any cell from
anywhere on the map. When you “launch”, you choose a destination cell and press the button. You’ll get a report
that will tell you if the cell you hit was occupied or empty. (And if it was empty, tough shit – you don’t get a refund.)

There is one defense to the ICBM, and that’s the ABM. If a cell is civ 50 or higher, you can build one. (You
don’t need to be nuclear-capable, these are conventional explosives.) It costs
$50,000 and is a similar one-troop setup like an ICBM. You can’t move an ABM; it just sits there until something
bad happens. But when a missile attacks a cell with an ABM in it, one ABM takes out one ICBM. If you build
50 ABMs in one cell, it will take 51 nuke strikes to take it out. TODO: how these fare when a cell is conventionally
attacked.

If a cell is nuked, everything in it and in the 9×9 surrounding it is instantly killed, even ICBMs and ABMs. Not only that, but for the
rest of the game, the center cell is completely uninhabitable and impassable by anything (except airplanes?)

TODO: I am thinking of making a rule that when a cell falls to an enemy, they take possession of the ICBMs
and ABMs in a cell. They can’t build more, but they can use the ones there.

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After Forever

So the failed run at NaNoWriMo has put a major crimp in any journal activity here, and it’s been hard to get back to work.  After I don’t write here for a while, I enter this weird limbo where I don’t know what to write, and I overthink things, and I start giant essays that I later kill because they become too half-assed or whatever.  If I spend too much time thinking what this is supposed to be, I never write.  The truth is, this isn’t supposed to be anything except writing, and when I obsessively think about what I should be doing here, it’s a lot like staying up late at night with insomnia, and trying to have a focused, quantitative analysis about why you aren’t sleeping; you will just make it way worse.

So I’m here and it’s cold and it’s 49.  But I ran out of the regular aftershave lotion I usually use, and realized I have this face sunscreen Neutrogena junk that is SPF 20 suntan lotion, but it’s also aftershave lotion, so I used that.  And of course the smell is an immediate reminder of the summer, and specifically the only time in the summer when I am outside, i.e. baseball games.  It makes me wish that instead of a cold almost-December day, it was a blistering June day, and I was dragging a ton of photo gear to a 100-level seat to swelter and smell fresh-cut grass and obsess about the best pitch to follow a fast ball-inside,curve ball-outside sequence.  But there are four months until opening day, and there’s a lot of bad trade decisions by the O’Dowds to wring hands over between then and now.

I’m also wondering what will happen to the Oakland A’s.  Right now, it looks like they will move to San Jose, but there are some last ditch plans to throw together a stadium proposal for Oakland to keep the team.  The current plan is down to a location near Jack London square, which is just a couple of miles from our house, and would be a major win.  The bad news is they are just starting to talk about it, which means they are years behind the San Jose proposal.  And I don’t know much about Oakland city planning, but the one thing I am learning is that it’s horribly conflicted, and it’s impossible to get anything done.

One example of this is the grocery store situation in West Oakland, which is considered a “food desert”, because there are no grocery stores except for a few dozen liquor stores, and if you don’t have a car to go drive a neighborhood over to shop at Safeway, you’re eating ring-dings and pork rinds for dinner, which is probably why like 98% of the West Oakland population has adult onset diabetes.  Kroger has been trying to build a store on Grand Street maybe a mile east of here an it has been a clusterfuck of red tape and argument.  A lot of West Oakland is abandoned warehouse property, where it’s cheaper for the owners to do nothing with it and hope for a giant project like this to buy them out, but it started this huge argument about eminent domain because nobody wants to sell out and hopes that if Kroger today asks for a million an acre, maybe if they wait a year, Wal-Mart will offer a million ten an acre.  And all of the pro-protestor groups come out to argue about Kroger sucking money out of a poor community, and the lack of local produce, and the lack of local jobs, and demanding that they have full unions and composting toilets and be LEED certified and have the Dalai Lama design the Feng Shui layout for the vegan organic produce section.

It’s a fucking Kroger, and the neighborhood should be happy they want to build there.  And if they keep up with it, Kroger will eventually come to the conclusion it’s much easier to clear-cut some land in East Oakland or San Leandro or whatever else and go there.  And as far as the “money being siphoned away” argument, it’s not like diabetes medication is locally sourced, and if you don’t come up for a solution other than people eating at McDonald’s ten times a week, that’s where all of the money will go.

[Disclaimer: I know nothing about public planning.  And I was probably exaggerating about 98% of the neighborhood having diabetes.  It's probably in the low-80s.]

We had Thanksgiving dinner here, which was awesome.  It’s probably the first time we’ve hosted any kind of dinner since New York, mostly because we’ve been living out of boxes since then.  But we got the place cleaned up and cooked a turkey breast and stuffing and gravy and salad and a fruit crisp.  A came over with two pies, and Jason and Al came over with lamb, broccoli, and an awesome curry soup.  I need to have dinner here more often.  The only downside is I’m going to be eating turkey leftovers for a while.

We went to the Chabot Space Center last night, which was pretty awesome.  First we went for dinner at this Indian restaurant on Piedmont which was pretty blah.  On the way back to the car though, we found this newsstand – an actual, real newsstand store – not a book store with a magazine rack, but a store that was just magazines.  They even had print zines, which was pretty amazing and nostalgic, so I had to pick up a few things just to show support and as proof that I had not fallen into some kind of wormhole to the mid-1990s.  The guy working there was pretty cool, and I also got one of those 33 1/3 books, the one by John Darnielle about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality.  (And why can’t I get a copy of that album on iTunes?)

Anyway, Chabot – first, we plug it into the GPS, and it takes us through all of these winding roads way the hell up into the hills of Oakland.  The place is only a couple of miles from us, straight-line, but after a while, I thought we were in Montana by now.  The view was pretty cool, a lot of these cool little houses in the sides of the hills, some with christmas lights already, all of them these cute little single-family bungalows, the places where you’d expect professors from the university to live.  But the GPS’s idea on what constitutes a turn was completely off – like we’d go through some 270 degree Gran Turismo hairpin turn, and it would be robotically saying “keep going straight”.  And then there would be like an 8 degree bear-right, where it would start saying “turn left.  turn left.”, announcing some turn that was a mile ahead.  And then we passed by the actual Chabot sign, with the GPS saying “your destination is 1/4 mile ahead”.

But we got there.  The place is really amazing – it’s way up on the tops of the hills, in an area of old forest, with almost no light pollution and an amazing view of the whole east bay below, with the lights of San Francisco in the distance.  The building itself reminds me of any high-end astronomy equipment, like when you’re in some area of Hawaii where it’s just the desolation of pineapple farms, and all of a sudden there’s this giant steel and concrete structure that looks like a crashed UFO or some part of the Dharma Project.

The whole visit was a constant “how can this be only five miles from our house?”, walking through these giant-ceilinged halls and looking at Soviet spacesuits and giant space capsules with CCCP painted on the side.  I was worried that the place would be overrun with screaming kids, which is always the case when I try to go to a museum like Science and Industry in Chicago, but the place was pretty desolate.  For $15 you get free reign of the exhibits, plus admission to two shows.  So we wandered around the space suits and space toilets and space food (all cool stuff), and then went to two shows.

The first show was in an IMAX-type theater, where you have the dome above you and they project the 270-degree image from 70MM film.  They showed a movie about the sun, which was pretty interesting, and covered everything from how ancient civilizations tracked the sun with Stonehenge-type temples to how the SOHO craft is probing the interior of the sun from its halo orbit between the Earth and moon.  The one thing I liked about the movie was they took great pains to not use any computer imagery for the sun, and did everything with actual footage.  I don’t like when you go to one of these things and it’s a bunch of CGI that looks like a bad PBS program.

We also went to this show called Tales of the Maya Skies in the main planetarium.  I was impressed with the video quality of the screen there, given that in the old days, planetariums were just a bunch of light dots on the ceiling and maybe a dude with a laser pointer, but this was a full-on video.  It was this whole story of Mayan mythology, how the Mayan civilization used astronomy in their culture and calendar.  I found it a little bit cheesy, and sort of disappointing.  I mean, they did a good job of providing this alternate viewpoint, and that’s cool.  But I would rather have a center like this pumping kids with propaganda about how we need to look forward to the future and get our asses to Mars instead of talking about old mythology.  I guess it’s good to have context, but the whole thing was a little too politically correct for me, I guess.  Also, how can you have a 30-minute movie about Mayan astronomy without a single mention of human sacrifice or the theory that aliens gave them the technology?

The last movie got out and we had exactly five minutes to go to the actual observatory, so we sprinted up there and got to the roof just in time for them to close it.  So we absolutely need to go back to check it out.  We did get a glimpse of one of their three telescopes, though.  And while we were on the deck outside, we had a stellar view of the stars, which was pretty damn amazing seeing as we’re only miles from so much light pollution.  It was something to look up and see the big dipper and Orion’s belt, even if I was freezing my ass off.

Going to New York next week, by the way, which will be weird.  More on that later – I will probably just bring the work laptop and the iPad and try to keep writing that way.

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Not engine oil solidifying cold

It’s getting cold here, which is not cold in the sense of North Dakota cold where if you don’t plug in your car, the engine oil will turn solid until April, or New York cold where the wind whips through every seam and zipper of your clothes and freezes every hair in your nose on that short sprint to the subway station that seems to take forever. Here, a winter cold means the low 50 or maybe the high 40s, but when your entire wardrobe is summer clothes and your apartment doesn’t have a huge winter furnace designed to run like a kiln in December, this seems colder than freezing.

It means winter coat season, the time when I finally get out my time machine of a leather jacket and teleport back to 1993 when I got my first “real” leather jacket at the Wilson’s Leather in the Bloomington Mall. I know I write about this every year, but every fall when the time comes to slip on that heavy biker jacket and zip up its thick zipper and smell the smell of leather and feel the almost bulletproof heft, it always makes me feel good. Does it outweigh the feeling of a cold house, especially now that I have to pay for my own heat during the work day? Well, at least I feel good that I won’t be stuck in a broken building whose HVAC system insists on running the air conditioner full blast in December, or even worse, that superheats the offices to a hundred degrees and no humidity during the cold and flu season.  And I don’t spend two hours a day in a tiny coffin of a car with a heater that only works at full blast or off, requiring me to constantly jockey the little knobs between the various settings to approximate the control of a climate.

Oh, here’s a weird journey back: yesterday, Attachmate bought Novell.  First, Attachmate.  I used to work for a company in Seattle called WRQ, and Attachmate was their biggest rival.  I remember Attachmate most not because of the Pepsi versus Coke culture between the two (like various vague “beat Attachmate” propaganda at product kickoff meetings) but because they had this huge Star Wars-looking building on the horizon of Factoria. When I worked for Spry, I had this view of a blighty little strip-mall suburb, a Safeway and a QFC and a Keg restaurant and an Allstate agent and a muffler shop with a too-big sign, but it was all contrasted by a giant office building hanging off the top of this hill that looked like the background scenery in a Quake game.

About five years ago, a VC firm (or group, I don’t know the details) bought both Attachmate and WRQ and fused them into one company with a stupid joint name that was eventually just changed to Attachmate.  It’s the perfect example of how things in my past change and make it impossible to go back, like imploding the Kingdome, or replacing the coolest videogame arcade of my college years with an Urban Outfitters.  Many of my memories from 1996 to 1999 involve my time at WRQ, from the times I’d stay late and work on AITPL’s first issues, to when I’d come in blindingly early after a night of insomnia, so I could leave early on a Friday.  I’d mope through Seattle’s winters and hide in my office, when the sun would be down when I left in the morning and down when I drove home, and the entire day would be the 50 degree, dark grey, misting cold rain weather that made you want to hang yourself.  I spent the bulk of my time in an office that overlooked Dexter Ave, in this huge terraced building sitting in the hill that wrapped around the west bank of Lake Union.  I’d walk to Dexter Deli almost every day and get a BLT, then go back to my desk, put on a CD, close the door, and hack away at this very journal.  This was long before the days of the iPod, and I used to drag in this rectangular nylon case that held a dozen CDs in their jewel cases.  Later, I’d graduate to the MiniDisc player, and haul a much smaller case that held 20% more music, but still required me to spend twenty minutes a morning pondering what I wanted to listen to that day.

I remember my job there, but the job had so little to do with any of it.  I mean, I worked on Java stuff, and we were in the middle of this giant war where Microsoft wanted the world to keep on plunking away at Win32 apps, while a smaller group wanted everything to be delivered on the web through applets.  Our company had a lot of Windows-centric people, those that believed the shrink-wrapped, channel-sold application with a high profit margin reigned supreme, and that any CPU cycle wasted on a VM or a windowing system was pure bunk.  These were the people who worked on writing terminal emulation software for DOS boxes, so they could talk across twisted-pair networks to big iron mainframes.  Things like DLL loading conflicts and command-line switches made their blood pump.  The terms “master” and “slave” applied themselves in many forms to their control flow paradigms.  They all carried leatherman multi-tools just in case they were out on the town and there was an emergency that required the stripping of insulation from some wires.  To them, online help was for pussies, and real products shipped with a thousand page printed manual.  I worked on online help for a Java product and used a Mac, so there were three strikes against me.

But I spent those years trying to define myself as a writer, trying to write these two books that hung around my neck like albatrosses.  I hacked at short stories and tried to run the zine and tried to find other writers to talk to.  I spent every penny I made on used books or CDs that I would play obsessively in my little studio apartment while I wrote.  I took High Fidelity too seriously and assumed I could define myself by owning every Miles Davis album Columbia ever released.  Thinking about the late 90s always brings back all of this, but it also brings back practically living in that weird office in the side of a hill on Dexter Avenue.  And Attachmate is still there, and there’s still a part of me that wonders what it would be like to go there and walk through the giant lobby and up to the 10th floor and see if it still felt like 1997 to me.

And they bought Novell, which is another throwback, to those days of Bloomington when networking was taking over the campus, and the dummy islands of uncommunicative PCs were all wired together with coax cable and things started talking to each other.  I did not fully understand Netware, and I still don’t; but I remember the hardcore DOS gearheads talking about it all the time, discussions of TSRs and NETBEUI and mapping X drives to shares.  I was more of a Mac person, and preferred to just telnet in to some unix machine and have everything located there.  But there definitely was this subculture that was all high on Novell stuff back then, especially with the hardcore business users who religiously used WordPerfect and Lotus 1-2-3 for everything.  Later, Novell bought WordPerfect from Borland, probably right around the time I was using the Mac version of WordPerfect for everything.  Then, I switched to using Word and a PC, and I think Windows NT made all of the Netware stuff obsolete, and Novell just became an annoying little company that insisted that everyone spell unix in all caps.

So you’ve got the leather jacket and the old WordPerfect pulling me back to Bloomington.  And you’ve got the struggles as a writer and the current San Francisco weather (53, raining, dark) pulling me back to Seattle.  And I’ve been hacking at a short story that takes place in Florida in 2001, so there’s a lot going on right now.

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I’m a baseball photographer and didn’t know it

I did not realize this until today (when I was googling my own name), but a bunch of the baseball pictures I have posted on flickr (i.e. over here) are being used by a bunch of wikipedia articles.  In fact, several of them are the main image used in the article, which I think is pretty damn cool.  And I was not the person who did this – I just posted them to flickr, set the license to Creative Commons, and forgot all about it; other people found the pictures, cropped them, uploaded them, and put them on wikipedia.

If you go here, you can see all of them that have been uploaded.

Not all of them uploaded are used in articles.  Here are articles that use my images:

With the exception of the first three, all of the pictures I took were used as the top image for the page.  Most of these were taken with my DSLR.  But the Josh Fogg picture was from my old Fuji, and was taken at the very first Rockies game I ever went to, in 2007.  (They won against the Astros.)  And the Tomo Ohka picture, which is pretty horrible, was taken at my first baseball game ever.  (Astros at Brewers in 2006, with the Brewers winning.)

Anyway, these will probably all get edited and replaced at some point, probably in the near future.  But it’s great and a bit humbling to see my work show up somewhere else.

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Cat attack

We went to a pet store on Piedmont last night, and got this cat sitter DVD, which is a loop of various stuff meant for feline viewing: video of rats, birds, squirrels, and fish, with a ton of critter sound and super-saturated colors.  The cats went nuts.  Earlier in the day, we were watching some documentary about Nick Drake, and in a street scene, a pigeon flew across the screen, and Loca woke up from a dead sleep, ran into the room, and jumped up in front of the TV.  So I thought she’s get the biggest kick out of it.  But Squeak (pictured) went completely feral over it.  She immediately ran up and sat in front of the TV and stared at the screen, then jumped up and started swatting at the various food groups in action.  And the built-in speakers on our TV are on the back, so she then jumped behind the TV and started looking all around, tangling through the wires and sniffing the back of the set.

Loca had her own new toy, this little ball that’s a replacement for the same exact one, which is probably under an appliance right now.  She loves playing a soccer-like game, running back and forth across the huge expanse of the new place.  She will also carry the ball around in her mouth like a dog, but she will start meowing with it in her mouth, making this weird “MMMWWMMHH” sound, and she only does that about 20 minutes after I go to bed, or at about 4 in the morning.  So she was crazy with the new ball and ignored the TV for a while, but then she got into the act too, and was baffled by the strange sounds.  She got bored of it after a bit, and went to play by herself again.

Squeak though, was completely possessed.  She was a feral rescue and we think spent some time on her own at a very early age, so she’s more hard-wired for hunting, since she probably had to do it to survive.  Loca, we don’t know if she was a stray or a rescue or what – she was fostered for a while, and is much more adjusted to living with humans.  When Loca plays, she’s crazy, hence her name, but she knows she’s playing, and won’t use her claws.  Squeak goes into this blind rage, forgets she’s playing, and gets into this PTSD flashback mode and will fight like her life depends on it.  Her claws are always out, and she’s always way too serious about it.

So we stopped the DVD and went on to watch Real Time on the DVR, but Squeak still sat there at the foot of the TV, staring at Bill Maher’s head like it was a rabid chipmunk.

Anyway, if you have a cat, check out the DVD at http://petsittervideos.com/.  They have ones for dogs and birds too.  Given the number of birds that fly into mirrored windows, that might not be the safest thing for your TV or your bird, but the dog one would probably be entertaining, too.

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