September 2007 Archives

So as sort of a follow up to the article I wrote Wednesday, I've been thinking about what my perfect place to live would be.  This isn't really an easy one for me, because I fluctuate between wanting something in the middle of nowhere and something in the middle of things, something huge and something intimate, something new and shiny and something old and lived-in.  It's hard to pull together all the things about those different ideas and distill them down to one single set of ideas.

I think the most important thing for any place I would want to live in though is that it has a distinct character.  That you can be inside it and feel that the space you are in is special, somehow.  When I think about the ultimate place for me to live, what I think of is movie sets actually.  Why?  I think because movie sets -- especially in the kinds of movies where the setting is exotic or key to creating the right atmosphere -- are built with the idea of creating a mood, a theme.  Everything is carefully chosen and designed to make you feel a certain way, or show something about the people who live there or the history of the space.  And for me, having a space like that, one that seems to evoke a certain mood or express something about me, is what I most want about a place I live in.

I don't think having a big place is that important, really.  What is important is an open place; I think I'd rather have an open loft than a sprawling manor.  I don't want so much space I can't really take stock of the place in short order.  I've come to the conclusion I like windows, lots of windows that show big panoramic vistas.  And I'd rather live in the middle of a city, I think, than in the middle of nowhere.  Having lived here, in a small town, for most of my life, in neighborhoods more like tiny suburbs than city neighborhoods, I am jealous of people who have grown up in cities, where you can easily go between all sorts of different parts of the city, each with a different kind of character, than the kind of homogenized place I've lived in for all my life.  And scenery -- every time I visit somewhere like Seattle, or Boston, or Denver, or even Chicago or St. Louis, there's more to the place than just corn and soybeans as far as the eye can see.  For once, I'd like to look out the window and see mountains, or an ocean, or a Great Lake, or a river, or something that just dominates a skyline, even if it's just the lights of a big city.

Inside...it's strange, I love things like dark wood paneling and deep colors, but I also like the shiny ultra-modern look, with stainless steel and glass.  I think I'd be hard pressed to pick just one style and want to stick with it.  I think I'd have to try to find some sort of fusion between the two that would give me what I was looking for.  Maybe with a little bit of retrofuturism thrown in, art deco Fallout-style.  I lament how sterile everything seems to have become, so many hard lines and cold surfaces.  I dunno.  The things in the space don't really seem to be as important to me as the space itself.

Well, I'm getting to the point where I'm rambling, so I think I'll cut this off now, but it may bear some revisiting if I find something that tickles my fancy.
I like to cook, even though I'm not the most imaginative cook there is really.  Thanks to my dad, I have a love of grilling, and I'm passably decent at most other stuff (though I admit I can go a little heavy on the spices sometimes).  Unfortunately, my kitchen isn't the greatest, and cooking for one is a bit disappointing.  I don't mind having the leftovers, but spending an hour or two cooking when it's just me seems a little silly, so most of the time I am eating out for lunch and then just having a snack of some sort when I get home.  There's a lot of reasons for me not to do that, of course -- it's more expensive and it's probably worse for me (I know I don't get as many veggies as I should), for example -- but I just can't seem to muster up the resolve not to do it.

I've been cooking on the weekends pretty sporadically lately, especially because my folks have been coming over for dinner, but I think I need to start trying to make sure I cook for myself at least one day a week (which should give me leftovers for a few more days on top of that).  I could use the practice at the very least, and I suspect if I ever move somewhere else more expensive it's going to be my best plan.  Plus, it'll save me some money now and I'll probably feel better.  I think the only downside of it is that if I skip going out to lunch, I miss out on one of my few social outlets and a break from work.

Well, I'll have to see how it shakes out.  Tonight I made myself some flank steak (disappointing -- I don't think the meat was that great, even for flank steak -- really needs a marinade), grilled potatoes and onions, and a salad, which seemed to work out pretty well (and I managed to whip it out in a surprisingly short amount of time).  Definitely need to think further ahead next weekend, and hopefully get something a little more interesting.
...and I kind of wish I was going too.

I've never been a real big fan of watching sports, and honestly, since I stopped playing hockey when I was in high school, I haven't been that big a fan of playing them, either.  I don't watch baseball or football or whatever on TV, I am annoyed by the waste of University resources blown on the DIA that could be going to other departments on campus that are actual academic institutions, and I think I can count on one hand the number of college or professional-level sports events I've been to in my life -- with the exception of Cubs games.

My dad comes from Chicago, and his dad comes from Chicago, and of course, he's a Cubs fan.  I can remember when my grandfather lived in Chicago on Ashland Avenue, not that far from Wrigley, and my dad and I would go up there pretty frequently and we'd go watch games.  I can remember my mom waking me up for the last game of that 1984 playoff series (because my dad was on a business trip) and how crappy it was when they lost.  After my grandfather moved out to Montana, we didn't do it as much, but the whole family goes up there for a game every couple years even now.  And I still go, even though I'm not really into baseball and honestly, I can think of better things to blow a whole day on for the trip up there and back.  Why?

There's a kind of emotional energy when I go to Cubs games that's just really hard to describe.  I know it's not just me either; I've seen documentaries (like Wait Till Next Year) where they talk to Cubs fans and they feel the same way.  When you are up there at Wrigley, you feel part of a strange collective, even if you're just on the fringe of Cubs fandom.  Add to that the fact that it's one of those few things that I really keep close to my heart from my childhood, that really bonds me to my dad, and it's not just a game.  The Cubs could win or lose, and it really wouldn't matter.  It's really most pronounced at Wrigley, but you can feel it even on the road.

I'm sure it's not restricted to the Cubs either, but I definitely think the fact that they are one of the oldest teams in the game, in a park that hasn't lost any of the charm it had when it was first built in the early 1900s, and that you can't really just be a fair-weather fan really intensifies things.  Even I get pretty excited when the Cubs are doing as well as they are this year.  I'm not a baseball expert by any sense of the word, and I admit I don't really know much about the subtleties of the game, but I check to see how they're doing, I listen to games on the radio or watch them on TV (usually only when I'm visiting my folks, I admit, but doing it at all is more than I usually do), and I have the same getting my hopes up that happens to a lot of (less embittered) Cubs fans when they're doing well this close to the end of the year.  It's a very strange feeling for me.

I don't know that I'll be watching the Cubs' games when they go into the playoffs (as I was writing this, the Brewers lost to the Padres and the Cubs clinched the pennant), but I will be paying attention to what happens, and wishing I could be there, at the park, for those games.  I'll never be a big sports fan, but thanks to my dad, I think I'm always going to be a Cubs fan.
It's Thursday night and we have the season premieres of CSI and the Office, and as with Tuesday, I'm going to stick most of this "behind the cut" to keep folks from being spoiled.
When I was in 6th grade, we had a project for some class or another to design your "dream house."  Mine was a sprawling compound the size of a Boeing factory with pretty much every amenity you could ever imagine, an underground tram line that ran all over the grounds, and was built to survive a limited nuclear exchange (it was 1987 -- I had a lot of angst about the end of the world back then).  Eventually, my teacher made me turn it in even though it wasn't "finished," because I had taken about a month and a half to do it and I had about forty pages of drawings on graph paper and other notes for it.

My parents have always owned a house, as far back as I can remember.  They have always been big on the whole remodeling thing and my dad is pretty good with most everything you can do around the house.  They have always made their house a real home within a year or two of moving in.  I can remember moving into the house on Stratford, and I can remember how it definitely did not feel like home.  It smelled wrong, it felt weird...but I can remember not long after when it seemed like I had never lived anywhere else.

I bought a house five years ago and I've done almost nothing with it, aside from some repairs, and putting a new floor in the kitchen.  My house has never really felt like a home -- just a place I'm living until I move on.  It's too small, it's a mess, and it's just not....home.  I've been working on remodeling my brother's old room, now that he moved out, with my dad's help (and a lot of it, and I really couldn't have done any of it without him -- thanks, Dad).  Even so....I don't think it will ever change the fact that this just doesn't seem like home.  My apartment that I had before this never felt like home, though I admit when my mom surprised me by hanging up a bunch of my grandfather's old stuff when I was at LISA one year, it felt....better.  Still not like home though.

I don't know what it is.  What makes a house a home?  When is that change from the house that smells weird and feels wrong to it seeming like you've never lived anywhere else?  Hell, my parents' new house, that I've never lived in ever, still feels like more of a home to me than my house ever has.  Part of it, I know, is because of all the time and effort my folks have invested in it, and I've done almost nothing here.  But I haven't done anything here because...I just don't know where to start, or what will make that change, or what the point is when I really don't want to live here anymore.  I'm tired of cramped spaces and a place where there's nothing really to do at home but be at home.  I'm tired of thinking about how much it costs to change anything about the place I live and thinking about all the other money I'm spending on everything else.  It's a vicious cycle.  Maybe if I had built my house, but I know from my parents' experience that that is only half the story -- it's not the house itself but what's in it that makes that change.  The smell of dad's cinnamon rolls on Christmas morning, mom's silly potpourri things and candles everywhere, the warmth of the fire in the winter, dinner cooking on the grill out back, knowing that when you come home you're not going to be sitting there talking to yourself all night before you go to bed, the actual decorating style so that everything in the room is pulled together instead of looking like it came from nine different places and you just threw it all together so that you'd have something functional; that's home, and I'm worried I'll never get to have something like that.

I want to be able to sit in the place where I live and look out the window and just be happy to be where I am.  At my parents' house, when I can look out the window into the back yard on a cold winter day, snow covering the ground and a fire burning nearby, sipping some hot chocolate...that's home.  When I do that here...all I can think about is how much I don't want to be here really.  I want to be out, somewhere else, anywhere else.  I just don't have anywhere else to go, at least not that I can just hop out to.  I don't want to live with my folks, I know that -- but I do want that same experience.  I want to come home and feel relaxed, not trapped.  I just don't know if I'll ever be able to do that.

Possibly more on this tomorrow, but I think this is quite enough for today.
Tonight we had the season premieres of House and the Unit -- which unfortunately meant that I couldn't get the premiere of Reaper, which I had also heard good things about.  However, both these shows were consistently excellent last season and I really can't sacrifice either one for an untested new show.

Yesterday, when I went over Heroes and How I Met Your Mother, I feel like I didn't really give them a good review because I was going out of my way to avoid spoilers.  So I'm going to be completely spoileriffic today, and just put them behind the cut.  So....

Morrie, don't look at the whole post here! ,)
So the first week of the new season has begun, and I think this week I'll be blogging on the premieres of the returning series; next week I'll hit up the new series that look promising.  I figure giving them two episodes to hook me should be sufficient.

First off for tonight we have the premiere of How I Met Your Mother, a show I started watching last season on Seth's recommendation and generally good press on RPGnet.  This season's premiere did not disappoint.  Despite not achieving the lofty heights of the slap bet (more on that shortly) or Robin Sparkles (which was so spot on it was unbelievable), I have no doubt that Ted's tramp stamp will live on in the annals of history.  The big question will be how long it remains as a running gag, which has been the strength of the show so far in my mind.

The outro at the end of the show was an excellent call back to the slap bet of the Robin Sparkles episode, and shed...okay, absolutely no light on the Slap Countdown that showed up this summer, but the look on Barney's face after he got Marshall's call was most excellent.  I just wonder if the anticipated slap will be as good as the unexpected one at the end of Barney's one-man show last year, which was great specifically because you didn't see it coming (and because it was so perfect).

Next up for Monday was my favorite new show of last season, Heroes.  A lot of people thought the finale last season was a letdown; I thought so too at the time, but rewatching it over the summer on DVD, I thought it was a good episode (though not as good as "Company Man" or "Five Years Later").  This season's premiere was an adequate start, but I will definitely have to see the first few before I can make any real decision on it.  The one thing I noticed watching on DVD was that the show doesn't really develop too slow, there's just so much going on in so many different places in every episode that it feels slow.  This episode was no different, and now I remember how frustrating it could be.

Lots of things surprised me this episode though, which I think was good.  There's some definite work being done to set up this season's conflicts; the only thing I'm worried about is that many of them seem similar to last season's, and I don't want to see them rehashing things again.  However, most of the main characters have been changed significantly, which will hopefully keep things fresh; Hiro's adventures in 17th century Japan are being set up to be a lot of fun, in the same way that his journey last season was.  Considering they didn't mention anything about half the main characters, I suspect the first two episodes of this season are going to be essentially a two-part premiere the same way things were last year.  It does look like they've split up the terminally cute couple of Micah and Molly, which is a bit of a shame, but I guess we'll find out more next week.

Tomorrow -- House and The Unit (which I thought had been cancelled -- guess not!).

20 Minutes Into The Future

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So for some reason -- perhaps it was the Art of Noise cover of the Peter Gunn theme on Radio Nigel, or the fact that this week is premiere week for TV's fall season, or just leftover nostalgia from last night, but I was reminiscing about probably my favorite show to ever air, Max Headroom.  While I never got to see the show when it was originally on (I was only 10, and it was on past my bedtime, you see), when Bravo started showing the episodes when I was in high school I would watch them all when they aired at some ungodly hour.  Coincidentally, that was also when I was getting into cyberpunk something fierce (especially Shadowrun), so the show managed to pretty much hit me at exactly the right time.  I do remember media saturation with the title character during the mid-'80s though, thanks to the Coke ads and other appearances (like the homages to Max in Back to the Future II).

It was probably the best -- if not the only good -- depiction of a cyberpunk future I've seen on TV, even to this day.  It had everything -- giant megacorporations that controlled the fate of nations, a populace lulled into ignorance and complacency by mass media, people living on the edge, trying to maintain an existence free from government and corporate intrusion, police more subservient to corporate law than the people, a massive, all-encompassing computer network, and almost every other cyberpunk trope you can think of, short of actual cyberware.  It was treated like a serious subject (Max's witty banter aside) and brought up issues that have sadly become closer and closer to reality as time has worn on (as pointed out in the Wikipedia article on the show).

I suspect Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Jeffery Tambor, W. Morgan Sheppard, and Chris Young will always be Edison, Theora, Murray, Blank Reg, and Bryce Lynch to me, and I wonder when they are going to finally release this show on DVD -- I, and I suspect many others, would pick it up in a heartbeat.   Sadly, I don't think there's any plans to do so, nor does there seem like much chance of any sort of revival project; let's face it, Max is and always will be a part of the '80s, even if it feels like we're rapidly becoming the world that was depicted there.  Ironically, Bryce Lynch was supposedly born in 1988, which means that Max Headroom takes place somewhere around 2004 or 2005, placing the show that was once 20 minutes into the future into the box full of retrofutures that includes flying cars, moon bases, and sentient computers.

I miss playing RPGs.

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I've been a gamer -- a pen and paper, books and dice gamer -- since I played my first game of AD&D back when I was in grade school.  I've played or run everything from the aforementioned variations of D&D to Shadowrun to Heavy Gear.  I have an RPG collection that takes up the better part of half a bookshelf, I love writing setting material for the RPGs I have played, I've gone to GenCon 4 out of the last 5 years, and I'm an active member of RPGnet.  Almost all my friends in high school and college played RPGs to some extent or another.

But here's the problem -- I haven't played an RPG in ages.  The last game I played in was a PbP Twilight 2000 game, which was awesome, but it sort of died out due to players losing interest, although the fact that it lasted almost three years is no small feat either.  I haven't played in a real, face-to-face game for almost three or four years now though.  I have tons of ideas for something to run (even though I'd much rather play, since I always seem to run games), but I only really know one or two people locally who are interested in the same sorts of games I am.  Sadly, gritty low-power games do not seem to be the flavor of the month.

To some extent I blame this on the fact that D&D and d20 have bottled up 90% of the RPG market, giving a lot of new gamers the idea that that's the only thing out there.  It's not the late '80s, early '90s heyday of RPGs when you could go into a gaming store (a real, brick-and-mortar gaming store like the old Sword and Crown here in Champaign) and see dozens of different systems and settings represented on the shelves.  Even those non-d20 companies out there like DP9 and Catalyst Game Labs (the new publishers of Shadowrun) seem to only be publishing a trickle of books every year (and even fewer I'm actually interested in).  The demise of the FLGS, in particular the good FLGS, means there's really no place to meet other people interested in various games casually, and that sets you up for making posts on various boards and possibly ending up with one of these with no forewarning.

For someone who is trying to do semi-serious writing in the field, it makes it hard for me to playtest ideas I have as well.  This is part of why my SilCore conversion of Shadowrun remains in a half-completed state; sadly, the game I tried to run on IRC with them just didn't work out.  Dan and other people on #rpgnet are trying to convince me to give it another try, and I may end up doing that, but I don't have high hopes.  I just want to bring back those days when I was in high school and college, when a bunch of friends would get around a table and have fun playing out a story and being far cooler than we actually were for a few hours every week.  I miss being excited about the weekend because it meant I was going to get to see something I had worked on get enjoyed by someone else right there in front of me.  I miss having discussions with people about what worked and what didn't and how I can make it better -- something I only really get to do once a year now at GenCon with NSDM folks.

*sigh*  I know this comes dangerous close to violating the no-whining policy I set for myself, but I can't help but be filled with a bit of nostalgia these days when I pick up one of the books I have lying around, or when I read actual play threads on RPGnet or the Cthulhu Rising boards.  One of these days, I am going to have a game group again, and I can use all the ideas bubbling around in my brain.  Until then, I'll have to be satisfied with writing down what I want to do once I get one, and helping other people have material they can use with their own gaming groups.

Eve TV is free this week!

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For those of you who are vaguely interested in Eve, or who are wondering exactly what a TV show about a computer game is exactly about, here's your chance to check out Eve TV for free this week:

http://link.brightcove.com/services/link/bcpid1184614584/bctid1184470710

Kind of a short episode, but at least you get a feel for what it offers.  They're thinking about making it a free-to-view service in the future as well, which is good news, even though I think it's been well worth the buck-fifty or so it cost to view ever since the second episode.
A few weeks ago, I got a pair of books from Morrie, my friend from Israel, as sort of a belated birthday present.  The first was The Eyre Affair, the first Thursday Next novel.  I enjoyed it immensely, despite the fact that it takes place in quite possibly the most crazy, out-there alternate history-type setting I've ever read.  I burned through it in a few days of reading on the bus as I usually do with "fun" reading.  It wasn't particular heavy reading and the plot was very fast paced.

The other book she sent me was The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon.  I have been trying to get through this book for the last two weeks and it has been slow going.  Not because the book is bad, by any means -- frankly, it's one of the best things I've read in a long time.  No, the bad part of this book is that every page is soaked in metaphor and subtext, the characters are so well painted, the plot has so many twists it feels like some sort of MC Escher drawing, and the locations are so detailed that you can almost smell the musty tomes in the Cemetery of Forgotten Books.  It takes me much longer than usual to read and digest every page, and I still find myself wondering if I missed something.  This is a style of writing that I absolutely love, where everything is slowly coming together, and you just kind of drink it in, and feel the climax creeping up your spine, something that is best with this sort of novel.  I'm not sure how to classify the book, but I suppose right now I would have to say it is sort of magic realism, or gothic horror, or something sort of combination of both.

Zafon does such a perfect job of making you feel the setting of postwar Barcelona that, even though I've never been to Spain or even anywhere with Spanish architecture really, I can imagine what it looks, sounds, feels, and smells like.  Daniel's father's bookstore, the aforementioned Cemetery of Forgotten Books, Mr. Fortuny's abandoned apartment, the streetside cafes, everything seems to come alive.  The emotional content of the book just pours out and you're whipped along with the story.

Here's the problem though -- it all just seems so effortless.  The way everything just sort of flows together, it's like Zafon was divinely inspired and it just poured out onto the page.  It's hard to believe that something so deep and complex could possibly be written in any sort of conventional way.  Now, in my head, I know that can't possibly be the case, and I'm sure he spent many nights just wracking his brain for the right metaphor, writing and rewriting, but it just doesn't feel like it at all.  The book is, so far, just a masterful work of literature.

Reading books like this just seems to set such a high bar for myself, when I try to do my own writing, that it feels like everything I write is pale and lifeless, and just doesn't even come close to comparing something like that.  Part of it, I know, is just that not everyone has that same style.  Part of it is that I just haven't practiced enough, especially the last few years.  Part of it is that I'm still uncomfortable with the idea of putting that much emotion into the page, because it makes you vulnerable.  I just wonder though if I'd even notice if I wrote something with anything close to that kind of resonance though, because I pick everything apart in my mind.  Does Zafon look at the book he wrote and marvel at what he managed to put on the page, or does he just look at it and wonder what he could have done better, or what other people see in what he wrote?

It's really hard for me to take compliments about my writing, partly because I know my friends and family probably are not going to tell me to my face "this is the worst piece of crap I've ever read" but also because I think a lot of them just haven't had the exposure to really amazing works of literature that I've been lucky enough to have.  Reading even things I didn't think I would like, like Paul Auster's City of Glass, which I read only because it was required for a class, or things I didn't like at all, like Toni Morrison's Beloved, which I thought was a pretentious effort at making a completely unreadable "artsy" book (and yet still had to read three times for various classes in high school and college) exposes me to many more different types of writing that most people ever get exposed to in this day and age.  It's hard to feel happy with a compliment from someone whose library consists of Harlequin romances and Dungeons and Dragons tie-in novels -- you almost wish they would say they didn't like it.  Of course, no one I know has a reading list that is that bad, but I don't talk to too many people who have read everything from medieval literature to postmodernist novels these days.  Even when I was in school, when you are in a writing seminar and everyone there is writing another "slice of life" story about drunk or stoned college kids with crappy love lives, where you just wish everyone involved would drop dead and shut the hell up, it's hard to take them seriously when they talk about how they like what you wrote (or, on the upside, when they say they didn't like what you wrote).

I'm not going to stop reading things like The Shadow of the Wind anytime soon, but I have a real love-hate relationship with them.
So it's about that time when I need to actually polish up my resume again so I don't totally forget what I've done since the last time I've done it, and I came to the realization that I think a ton of the things I've learned and done over the last year that would help me in an interview aren't related to my actual job at all.  The only problem is, I don't think putting any of them on my resume would exactly be a smart move.

Over the last 20 months, I've helped to rejuvenate my corporation on Eve and take it from having twenty or so members, loosely affiliated and without a real cohesive strategy, to where we're now a corporation of 50 or so well-motivated people able to work well together, fight against corporations and alliances much larger and much better funded than ourselves, with a profile that makes us one of the better known small corps in the game.  During most of that time, I've been the person in charge of recruitment and publicity, and I've had a fairly large role in shaping our corporate policy.  The only problem is, I don't think putting that on my resume is such a good idea, at least for most jobs.  Maybe if I was applying for a job at CCP, but I don't think I'm doing that real soon.

Being involved in NSDM, even in the peripheral way I have been so far -- let's face it, even among players have a long way to go before I'm a standout -- has helped too.  Facilitating the few times I have and going out afterwards and taking part in the discussion with Dan, Mark, and everyone else about what went right, what went wrong, and how it could be better has really given me a lot of insight into how you can manage activities like that with that many people and how changes in the game can affect how it is played.  Admittedly, NSDM could probably go in my resume if I was more deeply involved, but I definitely don't feel like I do enough with it to actually put it on there -- but it has been something that has really changed how I see things like group dynamics.

The worst part is, those are the sorts of things I find interesting, considerably more than the system administration I do on a daily basis, but when you look at my resume, you'd never know it.  Even in my job here, what I like is taking various pieces and fitting them together, trying to find the best way to meet the needs of the service managers I support (without sacrificing the integrity of our infrastructure and procedure).  It's not so much how cool a new technology is for its own sake, but how that can be used with other things or in new ways.  Unfortunately, I think that whole process is hard to sum up and describe in a good way in a cover letter, and it's really hard to get that across in a resume.

Some days, I wish I was a lot more of a techie, because it's easy to put a list of the 10 languages you know on a resume and then impress people with how knowledgeable you are or how complex the programs are you wrote.  It's not so easy to demonstrate understanding of "soft" topics, especially when you don't really deal with them on a daily basis in your current position -- and you will have a hard time getting a job in that kind of a field when you don't have any experience in it.  The worst part is that you can hardly blame someone for hiring someone with 5 years of proven experience and a professional track record over someone with no obvious skill in the area.

I've resolved not to get upset about this anymore though.  If I keep working on the things I like, eventually I'll be able to parlay that into aspects of any job I have, even this one.  More experience and knowledge is never a bad thing.  And if I can have a good time collecting it, so much the better.
I've been vaguely aware of Bioware's next RPG, Mass Effect, for a quite a while -- there's been plenty of chat about it on RPGnet and elsewhere, but since it's a console title (at least for now...stupid Xbox) I wasn't really following it as closely as I have been following other gaming news.  Tycho's blog post Monday on Penny Arcade mentioned that there was a character creation/opening cutscene trailer out, so I figured I'd have a look to see what it was like, at the very least.

Well, as I've come to expect from Bioware, it was quite impressive.  I did notice that the character creation was very similar to Eve's facial morphing, and the eponymous mass effect gates look very similar in appearance and operation to Eve's stargates, which was somewhat amusing -- especially in light of the similarity the game's plot has to that of Volition's Descent: Freespace franchise (created right here in Champaign, by the way).  Two of the voices in the opening cutscene were pretty familiar; Seth Green voices the ship's helmsman and Keith David is the voice of the ship's captain (you might not recognize the name, but you'll recognize his face and voice probably).  The animation looked very smooth (but that's what you'd expect from something released for publicity purposes) and now I'm definitely interested in seeing some of the gameplay.  Bioware has shown with the KotOR franchise that they can make a console RPG that does not feel "dumbed down" compared to a computer RPG, and that a simpler interface doesn't have to mean sacrificing options.  The only reason I haven't bought Jade Empire through Steam is because I balk a little at paying 40 bucks for a game that's been out for 2 years (and I have plenty of other things to spend that money on at the moment).

Sadly, Bioware has no plans to make a PC version at the moment (though they originally didn't have any plans to make a PC version of Jade Empire either, as far as I know), so I suspect I won't be playing Mass Effect anytime soon; unlike Guitar Hero, it doesn't really offer a play experience I can't really get any other way (nor does it have the social aspect) so I'm not going to go out and buy an Xbox just to play it.  Ah well.
This morning, benoc happened to mention that he had never seen Mystery Men on IRC, which frankly is a crying shame.  Okay, maybe it's not the best superhero movie ever (I think that's a title held by Batman Begins at the moment), but for a movie I got for seven bucks, it's pretty dang good.  I know Ben Stiller and Janeane Garofalo can rub some people the wrong way, but the humor in the movie strikes a good balance by making it funny without making it too over the top.  And really, if you look at it, there's a ton of talent in it that almost seems out of place.  Aside from the two above, you've got William H. Macy, Paul Reubens, Geoffery Rush, Greg Kinnear, Hank Azaria, as well as consummate "hey, it's that guy" character actor Wes Studi as the Sphinx and Tom Waits as the mad scientist Heller.  I noticed Dane Cook as the Waffler as well this time.

But really, the best part of the movie is that it is so eminently quotable.  Obviously, the best of them are the Sphinx's bizarre sayings, but Heller's technobabble, the Shoveler's monologue, and the Blue Rajah's interaction with his mother are all excellent -- and then add in the one liners, like "Disco is not dead!" and "Ahhhh, dang..." and you get a fun time.  It's an underrated movie, though I think the problem may have been that it was a little overhyped when it came out, and the budget was maybe a little over the top.

The biggest problem I have with the movie is the soundtrack, I think.  The score isn't bad, but the pop songs stuck in every once in a while (except for the disco in Casanova's mansion) are really annoying -- you can definitely tell that the director was a commercial director before he did the movie (and from the looks of IMDB, he hasn't done much else since then).

Anyway, if you haven't seen it, it's supercheap on DVD still I'm sure, or just give it a rental.  Don't expect a cinematic masterpiece, but it's a fun two hours or so.

MMO Security: How Serious Is It?

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So today was the first day of work for my former coworker benoc at Linden Labs, the makers of the complete waste of time known as Second Life, and he mentioned that of the many perks he gets there is some sort of crazy god mode powers on the production servers.  This highlighted a concern I've had since the t20 incident in Eve last year.  Why is it that game developers, sysadmins, database admins, etc. seem to have "superuser" privileges on MMO production servers?  Shouldn't these sorts of things be compartmentalized?

At work, we have a security policy that basically dictates that people need to have as restricted of privileges as possible.  We don't put development tools on production machines, we separate the duties of service developer and service manager, and we don't let developers have access to production boxes, among other things.  While this is unfortunately not as common in the IT industry as maybe it should be, I think it is generally accepted that this is the best practice.  And yet it seems like incidents like the t20 affair could have been avoided if similar measures had been implemented and safeguards acted upon.

Second Life and Eve are two very different games (if Second Life can even be called a game), and I don't think a developer giving a certain item in Second Life would do as much to tilt things in someone's favor as t20's misconduct in Eve did.  On the other hand, the linden-to-dollar direct conversion makes the stakes for some sort of misconduct quite a bit higher as well.  Now, I'm sure Linden Labs has an extensive system of auditing (and unlike Eve, it sounds like they have outside auditors keeping an eye on things), but an ounce of prevention is still worth a pound of cure.

Surprisingly, in all the game development books I've read, even those focusing on MMO development, security  and transparency doesn't really seem to have a central focus in the development process.  While security in IT has become more and more of a concern since the late 1980s, it seems like MMO development hasn't adopted many of the basic concepts.  Some of this, I think, is because the MMO industry is still somewhat immature and the mentality among some development houses is still that of MUD implementors years ago, when games were run for free on a college server on the QT.  Everyone does everything and friends get privileges they don't really need just because they are friends.

But compartmentalization is only part of the solution -- companies need to treat tampering with the game seriously and make it clear to their customer base (or at the very least, their investors) that they do so.  The big problem with the t20 affair and the other issues that have come up with Eve is that to many people, it seems like the only response from CCP has been a slap on the wrist -- and the revelation that the company knew of the issue months before it became public and apparently did nothing only compounded the problem.  The "scandal" that came up earlier this year with regard to alleged intervention against GoonSwarm and ISD misconduct after the t20 affair became public actually turned out to largely be less of an issue than many people were claiming.  However, the perceptions that the t20 affair was horribly mishandled eroded the trust of many players for CCP, and allowed others (most notably GoonSwarm) to make more of it than it actually was, because now people were all too willing to believe that cheating had been institutionalized within the halls of CCP.

Frankly, I'm a huge fan of Eve and I think the game is overall a well-designed product with some very standout differences from the normal MMO crowd, and I hate to see the game suffer because the company doesn't want to treat the game like a business and a product whose integrity must be preserved.  Unfortunately, I suspect CCP's problems are hardly unique, but I wonder how much misconduct is either caught and quietly dealt with by other companies before it can become public, swept under the rug and ignored as acceptable, or simply not caught.  As the industry matures, and more and more real monetary value is traded in these game economies (a trend I don't really endorse, as I don't like the idea of RMT, but a reality that will always exist I'm afraid), MMO companies are going to have to start taking more and more measures to secure their economies against tampering.  When I briefly dated a law professor last year, one of the things we talked about was how this is a rapidly emerging field of law -- if real value is being created, and can be destroyed (or severely disrupted) almost at a whim, the number of lawsuits that could be filed if one of these companies goes under or sufffers some sort of unrecoverable data loss could be staggering, regardless of what safeguards they try to put in their EULAs.

Moved by Music

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Well, continuing on the theme of music from last night, I have always noticed that there are certain songs that for one reason or another seem to bring out a really strong emotional response from me -- strangely enough, usually not because I associate them with a particular event or person, but really just from the lyrics or the music alone.  The song that is triggering this lately (and was on the radio today when this came to mind) is the Arctic Monkeys' "Fluorescent Adolescent" and it's all about the first verse.  Nothing like being reminded of the fact that my life is inordinately boring and time just seems to be passing me by.

There's a ton of other songs that do this to me though -- "Mad World," for instance (both the Tears for Fears and Gary Jules versions), and a host of VNV Nation songs (probably the reason they are one of my favorite acts, really).  The reaction usually isn't what I would call positive either; I'm sure depression has something to do with it, but the songs that really seem to connect the most are the despondent ones.  Strangely though, it doesn't really make me feel depressed, just....emotional.  The same feeling you get in a crowd that's emotionally charged in some way, and you can't help but be swept along, even if you don't really have a stake in what they are doing.  Genuine moments of emotion are all too rare for me these days.

Anyway, I'm pretty sure no one out there really cares, but I had to make a post before I went to bed and that was what was on my mind.  Now you know.
For a long time (read: pretty much as long as I've been playing video games), I've not been a huge fan of console games.  It's not that they are necessarily bad games, they just aren't really the kind of games I like to play for the most part.  I find console RPGs kind of railroady and shallow, and I much prefer the Fallout-style genre to the Final Fantasy-style genre.  I hate, hate, hate jumping puzzles (to the extent that after trying to beat the computer brain thing at the end of the second to last level in Oni for the 900th time I about threw my monitor out the window), so platformers are not really my thing (Psychonauts was the rare exception).  Driving games, sports games?  Eh.  I like a good game of Mario Kart, I guess, but not to the extent that I feel like I want to play it more than once in a while when I go over to CK and Mel's.  I think it's fair to say I have been a computer gaming snob for a long time, even if I know there's really nothing wrong with most console games.

A month or so ago though, CK introduced me to Guitar Hero, and that pretty much spelled the end of that snobbery.  I'm not sure what it is about the game really that does it for me, but the week after I got introduced I went out and bought a used PS2 and Guitar Hero 1 & 2 (and preordered the 80s game that came out the following week).  There's something about it that just latched onto me and pulled me in, to the extent that not many games do.  Maybe it is that I have no actual musical talent, and this is the closest I'm ever going to get to actually playing an instrument, maybe it's the fact that Guitar Hero is a social game (something that Wil Wheaton talked about in his PAX keynote this year) and I've been starved for social activities lately, or maybe it's because the difficulties are tuned in such a way that you can rock pretty hard on a lower difficulty level, but whatever it is, I'm hooked.

It has a similar effect on my dad and my brother too -- shortly after I introduced my brother to it, I went to GenCon and he borrowed the PS2 while I was there.  And then he asked to borrow it again.  And so on.  My dad loves to play it when he comes over here (or when I bring it over there).  It really is something that you can have a lot of fun doing with friends and family, and it's almost as much fun to watch people play as it is to actually play it yourself -- it's no wonder there's a lot of bars around here that are having Guitar Hero nights now, that GenCon had a Guitar Hero tournament this year, and that I hear DJs on the radio talking about how Matthew Sweet's "Girlfriend" is a fun song to play in Guitar Hero (it is).

But here's the problem -- I suck, and I know I suck.  Right now, I'm trying to go through and five-star all of the original Guitar Hero on medium.  I've had the game for six weeks now, and I have coworkers who are now beating the game on expert, who started playing it after I bought it.  I've tried playing on hard and....well, I really suck.  I can't get the hang of moving up and down the neck of the guitar for the fifth note (I lose my place) and I still haven't quite got the hang of hammer-ons and pull-offs (I do it too fast or too slow), and double-strumming continues to elude me (screw you, Pantera).  All of this means I have a hard time getting out of the first bracket of songs on hard.  Meanwhile, I'm pretty sure my brother is to the point where he can start cruising through songs on hard, CK is playing "Freebird" on expert for kicks, and benoc and Pat are trying to five-star everything on expert.  While I sit there and wonder my my fingers are apparently going crazy on their own and curling like an arthritic old woman.  Not exactly the best feeling.

For a while, I've been stuck on "Fat Lip" -- I just couldn't seem to get the few extra points to push it from a good four-star performance to a five-star.  This morning, I finally did it, and I realized that I don't really care if I suck at it.  It's still a boatload of fun, and I like it when I play with other people more anyway, so who cares if I'm horrible at it.  I'm sure I'll have another white whale come up before I inch my way ever closer to a five-star performance of "Bark At The Moon," but for now, I have conquered the one peak that has eluded me for so long.  I'm sure I'll finally make it to that stupid Viking guitar someday, but until then, I'm okay with only presenting a challenge to small children who haven't yet memorized every single note so they can do this.

But I am a little jealous.
(Posted because CK threatened to put a comment to this effect in every post I make for all time if I didn't...)

"Let's all go to Walgreens and get tattoos!" -- from some possibly drunk students outside the Potbelly while we were on the way to having some tasty Indian.

I'm not quite sure what this is supposed to mean, or if this was two discrete suggestions as CK suggested about halfway back to work, but it seems bizarre no matter how you take it.  And no, I have no proof that they were drunk other than the fact that they were very giddy and making strange statements like the above.

I want to live somewhere where the pedestrian demographic is tilted more towards my age level, I think.

The Anti-Whining Effort

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So the whole process that got me to finally put this up began the week after GenCon, when (as I said in my entry a couple days ago) I was feeling depressed and sorry for myself, and when I saw my therapist the Saturday afterwards, I'm pretty sure what he said could be distilled down to "stop whining and do something about it."  That's probably me taking things a bit harder than I should, but frankly, that's been what my conscience has been screaming at me pretty much constantly for years now.  Admittedly, in most cases, starting a blog doesn't seem like it would do much in the "stop whining" department, considering that LiveJournal has built a business on marketing to thousands of emo suburban teenagers looking for attention.

However, I think for me, this will hopefully give me an outlet for something I've been doing far too little of lately -- writing.  For far too long now, I think I've felt a kind of paralysis about writing, feeling like I am never going to finish anything -- so why bother starting?  It's time to break that block down and at least write about something every day, and hopefully making it visible to at least a small number of other people will give me some degree of accountability -- even if, as the title of the blog indicates, no one actually cares about what I'm writing.  So, the challenge to myself now is to keep this up.

However, this isn't going to be the only thing I want to make sure I have consistent progress on.  Some other things I want to keep up in addition to my daily posts here:

  • One idea a week for the Game Design forum either on Scrapheap Challenge or on the Eve Online boards.  For far too long I have wanted to get into game design, but I haven't done a goddamn thing about it other than read books and think about it.  I realize that this is not really that big of a step up from that, but at least it's getting something written out, put out for criticism, and keeping me thinking about a game I'm involved with.  Maybe it won't go anywhere, but it's a good exercise nevertheless.  That's one idea per week too -- if I post something on SHC I'll probably repost it on the Eve Online forums after it's been put through the wringer, but that's still the same idea, so it doesn't count as a new one.
  • One new article every two weeks for Cthulhu Rising.  That's John Ossoway's awesome Aliens-meets-Call of Cthulhu setting, which I did some work for this spring but sort of let slide this summer. No more.  This is going to either be a major revision of a previous article (like the one on Phobos and Deimos I need to rewrite) or something totally new.  Time to get myself writing some background material or short fiction for this, if I am really that interested.  Not sure this will work out, but it's probably my best chance for some good author credits, which would be something nice to put on the resume for the future.
Hopefully I'll come up with some other new projects to work on too.  And yeah, I know, no one reading this blog probably cares about either of those two things, but this post is more of a reminder to me of a promise I'm making to myself, so indulge me.  Most of the stuff above isn't going to get posted here (the wrong audience, really), but I may throw some links out if anyone gets curious.  And if I do start whining here (or anywhere else), feel free to tell me to suck it up -- it's not doing me any good anyway.
"...is that you're on the bus, surrounded by the sort of people who take the bus."

I take the bus.  Champaign's bus system is pretty decent, I get to ride for free thanks to the University, and it stops right across the street from my house and drops me off a block from work, so really, there's no logical reason not to take the bus.  Especially when the University has decided that the way to take care of the parking problem on campus is to charge up the wazoo for it, and a parking space on campus now costs only slightly less than just paying the 75 cent an hour meters.  Yes, it takes about a half hour to get to work and more like 45 minutes to get home, but I can read or whatever and don't have to pay attention to driving.

On the other hand, there are many days when I realize why the American car culture exists, or at least, why it is self-perpetuating.  The bus I take is usually pretty full and drives from way out on the ass-end of town where I live, through campus and then back out on the ass-end of Urbana on the other side.  This gives you an interesting cross-section of humanity.  Maybe I'm just a giant jerk, but sharing my morning commute with people who find it necessary to have conversations with their friends at the top of their lungs, complete with raucous laughter, the borderline crazy people who sit there and talk to themselves or hum constantly at a volume that is slightly too loud to ignore, and the high school and college students who find it necessary to have loud conversations on the cell phone (yes, I know I sound like an old woman, but for crying out loud, no one wants to hear about how completely drunk you were and what you did that you just can't believe), along with people who haven't been introduced to the wonders of modern hygiene and smell like the men's room in a gas station, do not make the experience pleasant on many occasions.  To be fair, I'm sure I just remember the bad days more than the normal ones, but....

Now, here's the big question for me.  Why is it that the bus is like this, while the subway seems to be a transit system that has a much wider cross-section of people?  Whenever I take the bus, it never seems to have too many "professionals" -- doctors, lawyers, businessmen, etc -- but when I visit Boston or Washington DC, everyone rides the T or the Metro.  I get the feeling it's that way in New York and a lot of other cities as well.  Now, to be fair, I would do anything I could to avoid driving in Boston too, but is it just that driving is far less convenient?  That the parking is impossible to come by?  The subway doesn't seem to be as easy to catch -- buses, at least in Champaign, seem to be a lot more accessible.  I sort of wish I had taken the bus in Seattle when I was there, since it's a large city without a subway or commuter rail (no, the Monorail doesn't really count) to see if it was the same.

Am I a bad person because people on the bus drive me nuts?
Well, in my first sojourn into political commentary, last night's Daily Show rubbed me the wrong way a bit and I've been trying to figure out why -- usually my feelings aren't too far off the ones that Jon Stewart is vocalizing.  I think I've figured it out; while I've got no problem savaging the usual politicians and talking heads, everything I've read about Petraeus makes him look to me like the best kind of person you want in charge of an operation like this, and someone that should be able to give a straight answer about what is going on, and Jon was treating him as just another member of the Bush administration.

On the other hand, a lot of Jon's points made perfect sense -- Petraeus has towed the party line about the progress in the region, even when the situation on the ground has been dubious at best.  I just have a hard time thinking he's being another yes-man, and I think part of that is my tendency to look upon military officers with a certain reverence, at least when I don't have reason to think otherwise.  Even those I disagree with on some issues (like some of the NSDM folks) usually have well-thought out opinions, and I have to admit they have more experience and probably a better perspective on the matters than I do.  And Petraeus is hardly an idiot -- the man has a PhD in International Relations from Princeton, for crying out loud.  On the other hand, his report does seem to conflict with the recent GAO report, and seems a little rose-colored when we hear about that violence every day.

I think the root of the problem comes down to the fact that there is so much ill-will towards this whole mess that it doesn't matter what happens now, the pooch has been well and truly screwed.  The war was a bad move in the first place, and it sounds like decisions were made during the initial phase of the occupation that doomed this project, and they continue to be made on the political side at the very least.  And now, even the best progress that Petraeus can wring out of the situation is cold comfort, and while it may be true that he's made great strides, the man's been hobbled by three years of the war being run as a giant game of whack-a-mole and testbed for whacky neocon political ideas.

I honestly don't know if the situation would be salvageable even if we had 20 more years to spend trying to get the place in a state of semi-normalcy.  The strategy that fighting an insurgency requires is not something that can be won in a few years, really -- it's a long, difficult mess, and one I don't know if the US military is really the best instrument for.  I have sympathy for Petraeus being stuck in a situation with no good answers, and being forced to give an answer that is not going to be well-received no matter what it is, whether it is completely accurate or not.  For his own sake, I hope that he is not acting as an agent of the administration -- that he is his own man, and giving an interpretation of the facts that is as honest as possible.  For all the cynicism I have about the American political process, I want to believe that the military still serves the best interests of the United States, and not the best interests of the Bush administration.

Down goes BoB...

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...or the Eve Online 4th PvP Tournament.  The latest round of this perhaps most celebrated of events in Eve Online took place over the last two weekends, with a new man in charge (GM Nova, taking over from LeMonde) and a ton of new rules, among them:

  • No set teams -- anyone from the alliance could participate during any of the matches.
  • A point system that allowed up to ten ships of various sizes to be used during any match.
  • The addition of ECM modules (and drones) as allowed items for the first time.
  • Disallowing of faction and deadspace modules.
What were the results?  Well, in my opinion, quite possibly the best tournament yet.  There were a lot of new faces in the tournament, and many of them were relatively small.  Several teams did extraordinarily well without insanely expensive setups; many of the biggest and most decisive victories, including the defeat of three-time champions Band of Brothers, were achieved with only the innovative use of tech 1 cruisers.  The winners of the tournament ended up being the little-known Hungarian alliance HUN Reloaded, who I think it is fair to say were dark horses when competition began.

With the addition of ECM, battles became much more tactical -- BoB's "unbeatable" setup, that they were arrogant enough to play unchanged in five matches, was eventually taken down by Star Fraction's innovative ten Thorax fleet loaded to the gills with ECM drones, which jammed BoB's logistics cruiser and ECM support long enough to strike a killing blow that broke the delicate balance crafted by BoB's master tactician TWD.  While the overwhelming prevalence of sensor dampers and the strength of the two-logistics cruiser combo seems to be a bit of a cause for concern, I still think the new rules made battles much more interesting than the previous tournaments, which tended to be focused on expensive gear and insanely difficult to break tanks, rather than innovative tactics and balls-to-the-wall dogfighting.  I'm definitely looking forward to the next tournament in six or eight months to see if someone can come up with a counter to HUN Reloaded's logistics/bomber fleet.

The PvP Tournament also highlights one more thing that separates Eve from the other MMOs out there -- EveTV.  The last three tournaments have been viewable through a streaming video feed, complete with "expert" commentary.  I don't think any other MMO has anything like it, and its a tribute to the developers and the fan community that something like this has sprung up and manages to sustain itself -- so much so that there's now a weekly half-hour show that offers news about the week's events in game and various other fan activities (though unfortunately they didn't visit GenCon or PAX this year, which I think is a shame -- but also evidence of Eve's mostly-European player base).  Despite the fact that EveTV is still a little rough around the edges, and is mostly run by student interns from what I understand, they manage to put out a pretty decent product, usually worth the buck or buck-fifty it costs to watch an episode.  I highly recommend checking it out at least once if you're a big Eve fan -- you may not need the various "ship highlight" segments, but the weekly updates on ingame events and interviews with devs and players can be pretty interesting, and player meets are fun to watch.

Good fun -- if you haven't checked out Eve before, it's worth a look if you enjoyed the old BBS door game Tradewars or Elite, imagine Eve to be the same thing, only with 200000 players in a single persistent shared universe (something else that separates it from every other MMO out there as far as I know).  There's a 14-day free trial -- first one's free, kid....
....and it came from freaking cracked.com:

http://www.cracked.com/index.php?name=News&sid=2370

I got pointed to that from a thread on RPGnet, and frankly, I have to agree with almost every single point.  I don't want to get all emo about it, but dealing with depression myself I know that a lot of the points they bring up are the exact things that make things worse for me.  As great as the internet has been, the fact that social interaction has taken a drastic turn for the worse for a great many people can't be a good thing.

The thing that crystallizes this for me is the experience I had after going to GenCon this year; I had a great time, as usual, hanging out with the NSDM folks, going to the RPGnet meet, and talking to some of the ISD people at the CCP/White Wolf booth.  I was out almost every night till crazy hours (still pissed I missed the White Wolf party, but my own fault for not talking to the Eve folks earlier) and had great, challenging conversations with tons of people on a huge range of topics.  For a few days, I actually got excited about something again -- which doesn't happen nearly enough anymore.

But the week after I came back, it was like crashing after a high -- the fact that I don't have that kind of social engagement here was just all the more apparent.  Despite the fact that most of the people I met up with at GenCon are people I talk to pretty regularly online, it wasn't even close to the same.  The worst part was sitting there and knowing that a good part of it was just my own damn fault for not getting out and doing something about it.  Now, I know I have other reasons for social maladjustment, but I can't help but think the fact that I have been knee-deep in the internet in a variety of ways since I was in my early teens hasn't been a good chunk of the problem too.

Anyway, I don't want to get all emo here -- I don't want to have that kind of a blog -- but that article definitely put into words some things I've been feeling for a while.

Well, here it is.

After years of resisting, I've finally decided to start a blog if for no other reason than to get myself writing again.  I suspect that the vast majority of my entries will be of no interest to....well, anyone really, but who knows.  There are still some kinks to work out, and I have the feeling I may have to restart this thanks to some MT annoyances (or rather, running MT on a webserver that I don't entirely control), but so far, so good.  Thanks to Andy for providing the hosting.

We'll see what I find to post about -- the Eve Online 4th PvP Championships (where Star Fraction just utterly humiliated the winner of the previous three tournaments, Band of Brothers) will probably be the subject of my first post once they wrap up today.

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