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Twenty Years!

How appropriate given my relative quiet here that I missed my 20th anniversary of starting my web journal (which was yesterday). Since I still haven’t gotten around to importing my old entries into WordPress on this site, you can still read it from the beginning in all its hand-rolled 1997 glory starting here. (shudder)

Or you can read my entry on “Ten Years!” Or my long winded reminiscences on the early days of my blog.

The big difference between 10 years ago and today is the advent of social media platforms. Twitter was only a year and a half old a decade ago, and Facebook was a little older, but neither one had anywhere near the penetration they have today. I didn’t join Facebook until 2009, and Twitter maybe slightly later, so in 2007 I was still doing almost all of my online writing here.

Today, it’s much easier to make pithy comments (and a few pissy ones) on those two sites where the opportunity for dialogue and interaction is much greater. (Twitter is a pretty lousy platform for saying anything with any nuance, to be sure, but it has its uses.) Heck, I post links to my entries here on those sites since that’s where most people follow me.

I keep wanting to spend a little more time writing here – an entry a week – but it’s hard. Always so many other things I want to do, around the things that I need to do. It’s a different tension than in the old days; back then if I was busy doing stuff I didn’t have time to write, and if I had time to write I hadn’t been doing stuff to write about. Now I do stuff, take pictures of it, and post it on Facebook for my personal friends.

Anyway, cheers to 20 years of blogging. Or web journalling. 20 years ago I was still living in Madison and was over a year away from moving to California. 20 years from now I’ll be… geez, who knows? But hopefully still writing at least the occasional piece in whatever blog I have when August 2037 rolls around.

Obduction

This past weekend I finished playing Obduction, the latest game from Cyan, the folks who made the MYST series of games. I backed it on Kickstarter and played it on the Mac through Steam, starting with some of the, well, I guess post-beta but pre-final releases.

Not to bury the lede: It’s a fine game which I enjoyed thoroughly! But I wanted to write a little historical perspective about my experience with Cyan’s games.

A friend of mine introduced me to the original MYST back in the mid-90s, and I powered my way through half of it, got stuck, put it away for a few months, then came back and finished it. While I enjoyed the puzzles, to me it was primarily an experiential game, the first game I ever played where I had genuine moments of feeling like I was really there – in hindsight an amazing accomplishment since the rough edges due to the technology of the day (texture mapping, animations, etc.) were quite apparent.

I played the sequel, Riven, when it came out, and while the technology was considerably improved (the renderings were gorgeous), the story felt less expansive and a little more awkward than the first game. (I wrote a little about it at the time.) A few years later I picked up the third game, MYST III Exile (which was not made by Cyan), and felt that it shored up the deficiencies of the previous games, and despite the thrill of the new of the original game, I think Exile is the best of the MYST series. (A bit more here.) I was also a big enough of the fan of the series that I read the three novels they published (which were okay).

I thought things went off the rails a bit with MYST IV: Revelation (also not by Cyan), which, despite having a good story, had some puzzles that were very unintuitive and frustrating to try to get through without a help from a story guide. And then I only barely cracked MYST V: End of Ages (which was by Cyan), in part due to some serious problems it exhibited with a lot of Mac technology at the time (some graphics cards would cause it to freeze the whole machine regularly), and also due to a disenchantment with the rendered animated people, which felt like a big step down from the interleaved live action footage from other games. (Sadly, I bet it doesn’t run on newer Mac hardware, and it looks like the Steam version is Windows-only, so I may never return to it.)

Despite that finish, ten years later I was pretty stoked for Obduction!

It took me a little while to get into it, partly because the early releases seemed to have some bad performance problems on Mac hardware, requiring me to ramp down the resolution quite a bit to get decent performance, so I played a few hours of the game late last year and then put it away for a while. I picked it up again a few weeks ago and played a couple of hours per week before finishing it. The final version has much better performance and I was able to get pretty nice resolution out of it with only a couple of moments of stuttering (some of which I suspect involved loading resources from disk). For reference, I played it on a late 2013 model MacBook Pro, so it might play better on a newer Mac. (I did find that the “seed swap” devices were often tediously slow, though.)

Obduction has a premise similar to MYST but arguably a little more grounded: Rather than mysteriously arriving on an island, you-the-player are one of many people who have been plucked from your time period and dropped into a bubble of Earth in the middle of another world. The game’s title plays on the sounds-like word “abduction” as well as the dictionary definition of obduction (“an act or instance of drawing or laying something (as a covering) over”) and the tectonic definition (in which layers are flowing above or below each other), all of which are appropriate in the story. You find yourself in a nearly-abandoned town called Hunrath, with chunks of Earth from different time periods lying around, messages from the former inhabitants, and signs of a battle from the recent past.

As in the MYST games, you need to find clues to what happened and solve puzzles to get things working in the village again, until you eventually unlock the secret as to what’s been going on and how to get beyond Hunrath to start fixing things. There are a lot of clever bits, including ones that make you feel clever when you figure them out.

The game’s biggest problem is that some of the puzzles are still too hard, in the sense of being basically unintuitive: You need to stumble on the right thing, or put together pieces which don’t logically go together. I relied on the player’s guide which came with the Kickstarter reward for some pieces, because I just wasn’t interested in endlessly wandering around some parts of the world to look for something I’d missed. I also found the puzzles involving the alien number system a little too annoying. But, your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, the final puzzle of the game I found utterly unintuitive and ended up going onto the web to find out what I had to do to solve it the “right” way (as it leads to multiple endings). They do need to walk a fine line between making the puzzles challenging and making them understandable, and I think Obduction is just a tad over the line to not understandable, though better than MYST IV. The first three MYST games all nailed the balance, I think, but maybe they just made it look easier than it is.

Experientially, though, Obduction is a pretty amazing piece of work: Wonderfully envisioned and executed, with only a couple of spots that feel a little glossed over (in some cases by necessity, since you still can’t really interact with the few characters you meet in the game). The sense of history and tragedy conveyed in Hunrath is extremely well done, particularly the bits in Farley’s house.

So, while slightly flawed, I found it perfectly enjoyable and rewarding, and while I might not run through it a second time for a few years, many bits have stuck in my memory, as with any good story.

I hope that Obduction isn’t Cyan’s swan song with this genre of game (which has fallen out of favor since its heyday around the turn of the millennium), but if it is, then they’ve gone out on a high note.

(image from the Obduction web site)

Busy Vacation

We recently got back from a trip back east to visit our families – and quite a busy trip it was, too. We were there June 16-26, since we were trying to balance seeing Debbi’s family as well as my sister and nephew, all of whom had various plans in the works from mid-June through July. So this was in some ways an awkward time to go, but it was better than the alternatives, and I personally wanted to avoid the awful heat and humidity of our trip last year, if we could.

We arrived Friday morning and spent the day and night visiting with my father (and taking a nap in the middle, too, since the red-eye flight always wipes us out). Saturday we drove down to Debbi’s family’s house where we spent the day and took them out to dinner at a Mexican restaurant which had pretty good drinks and very good guacamole which they make table-side. This was, unfortunately, the only day I’d see my brother-in-law Shawn or their middle kid Rachel, since the two of them were driving out-of-town for a concert the following weekend.

I actually took my Dad’s car on Saturday, because I drove home to spend Father’s Day with him on Sunday. We didn’t do a whole lot on Sunday, just hung out, watched Doctor Who from the night before, and I took him out to dinner in the evening (at a place he wanted to try, which, unfortunately, both of us were kind of disappointed in).

A big part of this trip for us was to spend some time at – and doing some work on – the family beach house. Debbi and I each had a different “most important thing”: Debbi wanted to replace some of the mattresses, while I wanted to replace the curtains. Debbi went out on Sunday to pick out mattresses and set up delivery for Friday. I bought some tools, and on Monday we went to Target and bought a bunch of stuff for the house, including new rods and curtains. We spent a bunch of time on Monday and Tuesday replacing the curtains and doing some other chores: Drano’ing the shower, cleaning up the silverware drawer, and vacuuming under the beds. Since this is a beach house, sand gets everywhere constantly, and that lifting mattresses isn’t a high priority for our family when they stay there – but with new mattresses coming in it seemed worth doing.

We also checked out a new sandwich place in the area, and had dinner at the local restaurant. Plus, in order to make progress tying up a loose end on the property, I contacted the local Coastal Commission with some questions, and three of them came out to check things out and talk with us on Tuesday. They were very friendly, and I have this sneaking suspicion that a lot of local owners don’t reach out to them to do this work very much.

Debbi drove me back to Dad’s on Wednesday, and my sister Katy and nephew Ivan came in that afternoon. Thursday we went over to Mount Auburn Cemetery to see Mom’s marker, which Katy commissioned and helped design, but she hadn’t seen it in person yet. Now, with the grass grown in around it, it looks really nice:

We also went in to Harvard Square to look around. I haven’t been in quite a few years, and honestly there’s not much there to attract me any more, as the place is a shadow of its former glory: Most of its bookstores closed (the loss of the venerable WordsWorth was the final straw), the comics shops not stocking many back issues anymore, browsing music stores isn’t really a thing anymore, etc. (I did find something at the Harvard Book Store, though.)

Friday, Katy and Ivan and I went down and spent the day at the beach house. The mattresses got delivered in the morning, so Debbi went over there with her nephew Josh to receive them. We mostly hung out for the day, and went down to the beach to kick around at the water’s edge (it’s not quite warm enough to go swimming) and throw a frisbee around. Katy and Ivan decided to head back to Dad’s for the night, while I stayed down with Debbi.

Saturday, Debbi’s family – her sisters, and her nephew and her other niece – came over to hang out with us. It had been warm and kind of muggy for much of the week, and it started clearing out on Saturday, at least a bit. We played bocce ball on the beach, Yahtzee in the house, and everyone tested out the new mattresses. Three of them left before dinner, and we took the fourth out to the local restaurant. (Said restaurant has good drinks and a lot of food I like, but 4 visits in one week was probably my limit.)

Sunday we had a lazy morning before Debbi drove me back to my Dad’s and went back to spend one more night with her family. On Monday Katy and Ivan headed home in the morning, and Debbi came up for lunch and then we drove to the airport, dropped off the rental car, and made the long flight home, finally getting back, unpacking, and falling into bed around 11 pm.

This was a more hectic trip than we’d hoped, and while we did get some downtime to just relax and enjoy, we also were very productive and got a lot done. It was satisfying, but not always very restful. Next year maybe we can take a longer trip and not have to schedule around so much going on. I think this year was just unusual in that way.

Jackson’s Home

After a long and stressful week, Jackson is finally home!

Wednesday the vet called to say that Jackson still hadn’t passed whatever it was, and recommended we take him to another, more expensive, vet – a.k.a., the hospital – since they had both an ultrasound machine and the capability to do surgery if necessary. So I picked up the little troublemaker – who had an IV needle in one paw and a cone over his head and drove him over.

Despite the cone and hating the car, Jackson loves the vet – at least, he loves checking out the exam room and the people who come to see him:

At least, he was very excited until it was time to say goodbye so he could go in the back. And I could go to work.

Thursday they called to say that they’d given him an enema (which I bet he loved!) and that he successfully pooped out – a hair tie. Which is kind of what we thought it might have been, although there was a chance it might have been a Lego-like brick. They suggested they keep him for one more night to make sure he was fully recovered.

So Friday I left work early to go pick him up. It was, like, 95°F outside, and he meowed the whole way home. He came right out and checked out the house when we opened his carrying case, and then he spent the next hour or so grooming himself all over (the details of which I’ll leave to your imagination).

Since then he’s been, well, I’d call it subdued. Not lethargic, but not completely back to normal. But he’s been eating, not throwing up, and mostly acting like his normal self. And very happy to be home – probably even happier than we are to have him home! He may be a little bundle of trouble, but he’s an important part of our household, and we missed him.

The Trouble With Jackson

I’m heads-down at work this month making the annual push for our upcoming conference, while Debbi is preparing for an off-site for her team at work later this week. Besides that we’ve been doing some deferred maintenance on our home (perhaps worth a post of its own), we’re planning a vacation this summer, I’m juggling discussions with other family members about things they’ve got going on, and I’ve been sifting through some bills which need attention (almost missed the due date for our homeowners insurance – whoops!).

So with all of that we did not need to have Jackson start throwing up repeatedly on Sunday night, waking us up twice, and requiring repeated spot-cleanings of the upstairs carpet over a 12-hour period. (Speaking of home maintenance, we should really get them steam-cleaned, too!)

By the time I came back from my run Monday morning he seemed to have stopped, but he was definitely a little out-of-sorts, possibly from not having slept enough himself the night before.

So Debbi made an appointment yesterday and took him to the vet. I’d hoped to make time to join her, but even for this time of year yesterday was an especially busy day, so I wasn’t able to make it. The vet took X-rays and – as we’d guessed – he apparently ate something, apparently a small rectangle maybe a half an inch by an inch or two, which the vet thinks was irritating his stomach. We’d learned a few weeks ago that someone – probably him – had eaten and thrown up one of Debbi’s hair ties – which you’d think would be very common, but Jackson is the first cat we’ve owned who’s gone after them. So apparently he got something else and swallowed it.

Debbi left him at the vet overnight, and the vet called to say that the object has apparently passed into his colon already, so there’s some chance that it might just come out the other end, which would certainly be the best case. (The worst case would be surgery to remove it.) So hopefully she’ll call and give us some good news today.

So we spent the night without Jackson, which was certainly a little quieter, since he’s our big troublemaker, often pawing at our venetian blinds at 4 am and forcing us to kick him out of the bedroom. But we’ve been missing him, and his sister Sadie has been especially snuggly; as our herding cat, I think she’s upset when members of her household are unexpectedly missing.

But this is stress we really did not need this week!

Forging Onward

I know, I know: Things have been awfully quiet around here.  This is my first entry of 2017, and it’s not like I haven’t been doing anything.

For those keeping score at home, later this year I’ll hit the 20-year mark of journalling, or blogging, or whatever you want to call it.  That’s a long time to be doing this, and we can’t all be John Scalzi, writing multiple entries per day. I know I’ve even written entries before about not writing entries – I’m not sure if that’s self-referential or the absence of referential.  But it has gotten harder to keep writing regularly as the years have past.

Well, that’s not entirely true: In fact a lot of my writing, the day-to-day “here’s what I’ve been up to” stuff, has just moved over to Twitter and Facebook. Both of them offer more immediate feedback, and of course lower overhead in writing very short pieces. There’s also the “mental overhead” of feeling like I should have a topic worthy of spending a whole post about it.  I also often have some amount of worry about whether I’m doing the topic justice, like I need to cover it from every angle and build a bullet-proof case, rather than just exploring the subject to the extent I’m able (and interested in) at the moment.

And so, I don’t write.

So, I want to write more. And we’ll see if I do – no promises, though.

So what has been going on this year with me?

The biggest news was that we had Debbi’s niece R and nephew J visit us for a week in February, which was a lot of fun for all of us (aside from Debbi and I each having a bout of food poisoning, from two different restaurants).  We went to Alcatraz, the Winchester Mystery House, and Half Moon Bay and Santa Cruz, and had a couple of great afternoons visiting with our friends and their kids.  We even managed to get a couple of teenagers tired enough to go to bed by 9 pm most nights. Debbi thinks they had more fun on their visit than they’d expected to, and apparently they’re hoping to come back next year.

In January I went to Grand Prix San Jose, a big Magic tournament held just down the highway from me.  I played in a Mini Masters event the first day, which was perhaps the high point of the event for me, as I ran the table with a remarkably good deck for only 3 packs.  I played a “last chance” event to get some byes in the main event and washed out in the first round.  And then in the main event itself, I went 1-3-1 before dropping, with a pretty mediocre deck.  (A 6-3 record or better was needed to advance to day 2.) I think I played okay, but didn’t have the results.  It did remind me how frustrating sealed deck can be due to its variance. I also played a few side drafts, one of which went well, the other two of which didn’t.  It was a fun time – but exhausting! I can’t imagine playing the 24 hours out of 36 it would take to win the main event, even if I were remotely good enough to do so.

Anyway, I’ve done a few other drafts at a nearby store, with better results, even going 3-0 in my most recent Aether Revolt draft with a fast and fun red-green deck. I’m going back for another draft tomorrow night.

We’ve also had a nice home development in that our 13-year-old kitty Roulette has been getting very snuggly, and has finally discovered the joys of sitting on laps, which has been fun for everyone.  We think Roulette spent a long time feeling depressed and traumatized since she lost all of her brothers between 2010 and 2013, and we got the kittens in 2012, with Jackson being a bully towards her. But I think she’s figured out how to stand up to Jackson, and has worked through her sadness and realized that she would like to get more love and attention from her humans.  She’s become more active and has even been running around the house with Sadie from time to time.

There’s been plenty more going on, but that’s enough catch-up for now.  I’ll try to write again soon.

Ranking the Star Wars Films

Okay, a little more Star Wars for this year. Here’s how I would order the films, and rate them on a scale of 1 to 10:

  1. Star Wars (9/10): Engaging, evocative setting, enjoyable characters. Despite its derivative roots and difficult gestation, the novelty and exuberance of what made it to the screen is still admirable almost 40 years later.
  2. The Empire Strikes Back (8/10): Better written, better dialogue, better-delineated characters, better special effects. Doesn’t really have an ending (since it’s the first half of a two-film story) and doesn’t have the gosh-wow factor of the first film.
  3. Rogue One (8/10): Extremely well produced, satisfying (if a bit depressing) story, effective backstory to the first film.
  4. Return of the Jedi (6/10): The opening sequence is excellent, Luke’s story arc comes to a satisfying conclusion. However, the Ewoks are somewhat annoying, the revelation about Luke’s family is utterly ridiculous, and geez, didn’t we already see a Death Star?
  5. The Force Awakens (6/10): Too self-consciously a rehash of the plot of the first film, too much of the setting that doesn’t make sense (is the Resistance part of the new Republic? Why are they operating like the Rebellion was?). Still, Finn is a great down-to-earth (or wherever) protagonist, the dialogue and action sequences are great, and seeing the original cast is fun.
  6. Revenge of the Sith (2/10): The only actor who gets out of the prequels not having his acting skills obliterated by Lucas’ direction is Ewan McGregor. Which arguably qualifies him as one of the greatest actors of all time, even before considering his uncanny embodiment of Alec Guinness.
  7. Attack of the Clones (2/10): This film is better than the next one on this list, and that’s all I have to say about it.
  8. The Phantom Menace (1/10): This film was completely unnecessary. Even the title is unnecessary. You have to work really hard to be a film with any production values at all and still earn a 1/10.

I started to write a piece about where the Star Wars franchise collapsed under its own weight, but it turns out I wrote such a piece two years ago. I think at this point one must come to Star Wars expecting action, special effects, and witty dialogue, and anything more is gravy. That’s mostly what Return of the Jedi was, and the later films, including the new Disney ones, are in that vein as well. I definitely do not come to them expecting deep philosophical themes or interesting world-building, since the franchise gave up on any hope of coherently working out its timeline, universe, or fantastic phenomena decades ago.

But that’s okay; there are worse sources of mindless entertainment. After all, this formula has worked for James Bond for over 50 years.

Rogue One

We saw Rogue One on Wednesday, and I thought I didn’t have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review (certainly not as much to say as John Scalzi had), but after a little discussion on Facebook I think I do have a few things to say. But after the jump, as there are spoilers.

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Nine

Doctor Who didn’t have a lot farther to sink after last season, so season nine was almost by definition something of a rebound. With Jenna Coleman having announced beforehand that she’d be leaving the series, many stories seemed to tease her departure by putting Clara in positions where she could be plausibly killed off.

(Much) more – with spoilers – after the jump.

Read on, Macduff! »

Beyond Belief

The biggest revelation for me from the election has come from pieces like this:

The revelation is this: People can be told something, understand what they’re being told, be presented with evidence of it, even have the speaker say that this is something they want to and are going to do, and just flat-out not believe it. In this case, Trump saying that the Affordable Care Act needed to be repealed (and replaced, but with no suggestions as to what it would be replaced with), which is entirely plausible considering repealing the ACA has been a cornerstone of Republican priorities in Congress for the last 4 years. There’s no good reason to think the Congress and Trump wouldn’t repeal it, yet people voted for him despite feeling the ACA is valuable and important.

Maybe this characteristic of voters has been obvious to everyone else, but it was a surprise to me. (And, frankly, I haven’t generally observed politicians, analysts, pundits or other voters acting as if they realized this.)

Most voters I think vote for a candidate expecting they will renege on – or may be flat-out lying – about some of their campaign statements, since that is, unfortunately, part and parcel of politics (and political reality) for most candidates. But it seems remarkable to me to vote for someone expecting that one of their key statements, about something which is important to one’s life and health (literally), is something they’d go back on.

(It’s easy to feel schadenfreude for people in the articles, but I think we should have more empathy than that; I think things are going to get pretty rough for a lot of Trump voters in the next few years, and no one should take joy in that.)

To my mind, this puts a stake through the heart of any “best interests” argument about voters (most of which I’ve found pretty weak anyway): Clearly large numbers of voters either don’t vote in their best interests, and one reason is that some of them simply don’t believe that a candidate will act against those interests even when the candidate flat-out says that they will.

I don’t know what this means for candidates’ campaigns, elections, political organizations, analysis, punditry, or just plain watching all of those. But I find it unnervingly weird that many people voted to delete Obamacare (much as they voted for racism) even when that’s not what they wanted. I know that choosing a candidate is a matter of compromise, but geez.