What I’m Up To

Well, most of my free time is going towards preparing for the fantasy baseball draft. Which has mostly involved remembering how to use the software I wrote for last year, and trying to fix the things which didn’t work so well for me last year (which is a lot of things, since I finished 10th out of 16 teams). It’s going, but it’s not going very quickly.

Keeper rosters were due yesterday at noon. These are the list of players each team is keeping from last year to this year. Our league has a budget based years of service in the Majors, and each team typically keeps 4-to-8 players. I kept 8. I was fortunate to be able to make a couple of last-minute trades which sent some players I didn’t plan to keep to other owners for some draft picks. Consequently, I have 5 extra draft picks, which is kinda nice.

Now I just have to figure out who I want to draft!

I had planned to spend this evening playing the pick-up Ultimate game, but I got to the field (a different one from our usual field) and there was no one I recognized, and no one with a frisbee – just lots and lots of soccer players. I stayed there for 15 minutes and then bagged it. In any event it was cold and very windy so it wasn’t a great evening for frisbee. But still, I would have been happy to play for a bit.

Debbi’s doing well, by the way. She’s back at work this week. Her mouth is still a bit sore, but she’s taking fewer painkillers and is eating a few foods she can chew – just nothing crunchy yet.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 21 March 2007.

  • Aquaman #50 (DC)
  • The Brave and the Bold #2 (DC)
  • 52 #46 of 52 (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #4 (DC)
  • Red Menace #5 of 6 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #13 (Marvel)
  • Hero by Night #1 of 4 (Platinum Studios)
  • Athena Voltaire: Flight of the Falcon #4 of 4 (Ape)

I’m quite disappointed in Aquaman #50. Not because Tad Williams does such a ham-handed job of tying off Kurt Busiek’s dangling storylines – that’s only to be expected, really – but because of Shawn McManus’ artwork. I’ve been a fan of McManus’ art for years, dating back to his terrific work on The Omega Men (20 years ago!): His quirky figures and lush textures have always seemed like a great accompaniment to some of the strange stories he’s been asked to illustrate. I’d have thought he’d be a shoo-in to do some great Aquaman work. But he’s completely changed his style since last I saw him: The textures and use of blacks are gone, and he’s got a more cartoony style employing simple linework, making extensive use of outlines without filling in all the details of the figure, and more dramatic layouts. It’s almost the exact opposite of what I’d been looking forward to.

Williams’ story has some potential, but there’s a lot of thrashing about in this extra-long issue without a lot of progress, so he’s going to have to kick it into gear to keep me interested. Especially since he apparently isn’t going to have my natural enjoyment of McManus’ art as an additiona incentive. What a bummer.

By contrast, The second issue of The Brave and the Bold pairs Green Lantern with Supergirl, and while Mark Waid maybe overwrites Kara’s teenage exuberance, he completely nails Hal Jordan’s reactions to her flirting with him. Waid also pulls out all the stops in envisioning a planet based around gambling and what it would take to keep it going given all the technology available in the DC universe, and of course George Perez goes for broke on the illustrations. After just two issues, this may be the best superhero comic being published right now.

JSA wraps up its first story arc with another Vandal Savage yarn, and it feels just like any number of first-JSA-story-arcs from the last 30 years. Geoff Johns can do better, but it seems like he just wants to write a straightforward JSA series. And y’know, there have already been plenty of those, and at this point they all feel like they’re past their expiration date.

Ms. Marvel #13 takes the interesting tack of showing how our heroine can disagree with Iron Man’s point of view regarding the Civil War, yet still buy into the basic premise of the Superhero Registration Act. Unfortunately it feels like writer Brian Reed feeling uncomfortable with Ms. Marvel buying into the Act, but being unable to do much about it, so it feels overwritten and contrived – despite it being a lot of fun to see Marvel paste Iron Man one. However, after a year of drifting around, the issue does grapple with that fact head-on and thus shows some signs that the series might gain some focus. It needs nothing more, not even new artist Aaron Lopresti’s polished artwork.

Hero By Night is a mini-series about a young man who finds the headquarters of a long-dead hero, and who will supposedly learn the dangers of taking up his mantle. It’s got potential, but the lead character isn’t very interesting. The cartoony artwork isn’t to my taste, either.

I hope to write a slightly longer entry on the first Athena Voltaire series in the next few days.

Old Computer Junk

While procrastinating working on my fantasy baseball prep, I figured I could kick off some tasks which have been waiting to be taken care of for a while, and which mostly involve being started, then running in the background while I do other things.

So, for instance, I’m wiping the hard drive of my first G4 Powerbook (“TiBook”), which I bought back in 2001. It’s now been replaced twice and is not used at all. I’m being 7 times more paranoid than bbum and doing a 7-pass zeroing erase on the drive. Once that’s done, I’m just going to chuck it (by which I mean “dispose of it in an appropriate manner for computer hardware”, but which to me just means “get it the hell out of my house so it stops taking up space”).

After I do that, I’m probably going to do the same to Debbi’s old iMac, which is nearly as old as the TiBook and then we might ship it out to her sister who has wanted a Mac to play around with, since she sometimes encounters them but only owns a Windoze machine. That will free up a bunch of space in the closet.

A couple of years ago I chucked a bunch of old cables and stuff sitting in the closet. Among them was my last IOmega Zip Drive. This was a cool technology of the early-to-mid 1990s which I used mostly to back up my main computer’s hard drive, but it was essentially obsoleted around 2000 (if not earlier) thanks to high-bandwidth personal networking and extremely cheap “real” hard drives (all of which is a wordy way to say “FireWire hard drives”). However, I still have about a dozen Zip disks in my computer junk drawer (alongside my floppy disk copy of HyperCard), and it’s time to get rid of those. Since I no longer have the hardware to erase them, I guess I will either run a magnet over them, or take them apart and cut up whatever’s inside (if possible). Maybe both.

(Unlike bbum I have little anticipation that anything inside the plastic disk sleeves will ever be of any use to me, so out it all will go.)

After that, maybe I’ll audit some of the old software still lying around and start chucking some of that.

Either that, or I’ll actually get back to preparing for the draft.

Magic TTP Draft: Red/Blue

My friends have been playing Magic from time to time lately, but I’ve been too busy to join in, due to my extremely busy March. But last night we got five people together for a Time Spiral/Planar Chaos booster draft (TTP), and I made the time to join in.

Last time I played I had wanted to end up playing Red/Blue, but blew it completely and ended up drafting a mediocre Black/White deck. Tonight I resolved to stick to my plan. Well, sticking to two colors from the outset isn’t so much a plan as a desire, but I definitely wanted to give it a try.

Fortunately, my first pack made it easy for me to jump into Red, as it contained Jaya Ballard, Task Mage. I’ve drafted Jaya before, and she’s a terrific card: She’s relatively inexpensive, is absolutely brutal against Blue decks, is a good general-purpose card against other decks, can wipe the board clean later in the game if things have gone against you, and she’s a 2/2, which makes her harder to kill and a semi-useful creature all by herself.

Another early pick was Ib Halfheart, Goblin Tactician, which made me think I might be able to assemble a decent goblin deck, maybe picking up one or two Empty the Warrens. Alas, I never saw a single ETW, and although many Time Spiral goblins are decent low-level creatures, it’s hard to assemble a deck around them. So I ended up never using Ib, or some of the goblins I drafted.

At the end of the first round of drafting, I was feeling pretty bummed about my deck. I had some Red and Blue cards, but my last five picks were from packs which no longer contained any such colors. I ended up drafting some White cards due to lack of choice, and getting Momentary Blink and Gustcloak Cavalier made me think I may need to go Red/White, or even three colors, but I wasn’t very enthused about it.

As it turned out, the second round ended up providing me with the backbone of my draft: A pair of Keldon Halberdiers. These are very nifty creatures who can do a lot of damage, and since they have first strike (i.e., they deal their damage before their opponents do), they’re very hard to kill through mere combat. They’re also suspendable, which means they can come out quite early in the game without worrying about ramping up your mana supply. I also ended up with a variety of creature-removal spells (Lightning Axe, Grapeshot, Disintegrate), which (as Subrata pointed out) by taking them out of the draft pool helped ensure that my Halberdiers would survive. (Had I thought about that further ahead I would have taken some Black creature removal too, just to get it out of the hands of my opponents.) Fortunately no one ended up with Sulfurous Blast, which would have been devastating to my deck.

The final round of draft was from Planar Chaos, and it netted me some very useful supporting creatures: A pair of Prodigal Pyromancers (i.e., Red Tims), a Brute Force (a Red Giant Growth, one of my favorite cards, due to its efficiency), and a Body Double (which could potentially be a third Halberdier, among other interesting things).

I also ended up with Timecrafting, and Keldon Marauders (to go with my earlier-drafted Clockspinning) which gave me some nifty tricks to play with the Suspend and Vanishing mechanics. I think WotC did a good job designing these mechanics, and they yield some powerful combinations in Limited drafts.

I also ended up with a pair of Reality Acids. I’m torn about this card: Anything you really need to spend it on is going to do you a lot of damage in the three turns it takes to play out, unless you speed it up with Timecrafting or Clockspinning, or you have a card to bounce it back to your hand (of which I had none), and it’s kind of expensive to cast on its own. I think it’s just not very useful without some cards to speed it up, although it is a useful card to discard to power Jaya Ballard.

So I ended up with a deck that was 2/3 Red and 1/3 Blue, which isn’t bad. One advantage of a lopsided deck like this is that when you have cards which take two Red to cast, you’re more likely to end up with that two red when you need it. I assembled a 40-card deck with 10 Mountains and 7 Islands and started playing.

My first game was against Adam, who was playing a Black-with-some-Blue deck, designed around the Madness mechanic with some cards to search for other cards. He was surprised that it worked so well, but he had more than enough creature removal to take care of my Halberdiers, which left me stuck in neutral, and eventually he accumulated enough creatures to run me down. He did have to burn through quite a few cards to do so, though.

I then moved on to playing Daniel, who was playing a Blue-with-some-Black deck. Daniel has a tendency to draft control decks which I think of as puzzles: They’re challenging to figure out both for himself and for his opponent. Since my deck contained a lot of creature removal, this meant we played a couple of long games. The first game I ended up mana-screwed (only two land), but Daniel inadvertantly helped me out by playing Braids, Conjurer Adept. This allowed me to play Jaya Ballard on my next upkeep. No one else had known I had her, which resulted in a round of “ooooh, aaahhh” from the room. That’s always good to hear! I managed to plunk down a Halberdier as well as some of my supporting creatures, and Jaya and Lightning Axe picked off some of his big creatures. I Grapeshotted one of his morphed creatures, which turned out to be a Slipstream Serpent, which probably saved my bacon. At that point it was only a matter of time.

The second game was similar to this, although I got a Halberdier suspended on the first turn, and spent several turns Clockspinning the Keldon Marauders to keep them around smacking him for 3 – a terrific cheap combo early in the game. The game went on for a while when he killed some of my creatures, but I built up too big a lead to overcome, especially when I brought Jaya out again and between her and the Pyromancers was able to finish him off. (Disintegrate, by the way, is a very useful card to kill the Weatherseed Totem, since it removes the Totem from the game when it’s a creature, this preventing it from returning to its owner’s hand. This probably ensured my victory in the second game, since a 5/3 trampling creature might have let Daniel come back against me.)

Next I played Subrata. I’m still not sure exactly what his draft strategy was, but he ended up playing me against his reworked deck, which was either 4- or 5-color, and contained Slivers and at least one Ivory Giant. I played Subrata in two games, and basically Halberdier’ed him to death. The first game we both got out quite a few creatures, and I happened to get both of my Halberdiers out by the time my Veiling Oddity came in from being Suspended to render my creatures unblockable for a turn, which allowed me to hit him for 12 points. He retaliated, but I had two untapped creatures (a Pyromancer and a Crookclaw Transmuter that I’d flashed in during my attack to do one more point of damage to him), so he only did 6 points to me, and then I could swing again and it was over. I think the second game was similar, and Subrata was mana-screwed as well, which made it shorter.

By this time it was 10:30 and I was getting ready to leave, but my final opponent, Andrew, convinced me to play one more game. Unfortunately it wasn’t much of a game, as we both mulliganed out hands, and then both got mana-screwed. I ended up with five 3-cost cards in my hand and only 2 lands when he got his third land and just ran me over. That’s the way it goes sometimes. But by then I really did need to leave, so no rematch.

Overall I was both surprised and happy with how well my deck worked. I probably could have drafted even a little bit better, but I’m still trying to get into the mindset of thinking ahead and thinking more broadly when doing the draft. But really it’s hard to go wrong with powerful creatures and lots of creature removal, as well as two or three cards which can finish off the game (and Jaya is powerful enough that she’s useful both early and late).

Now I have to knuckle down to prep for my fantasy baseball draft (on April 1, heh-heh), but next month I should be ready to try to build on my success last night!

Larry Niven: World of Ptavvs

Review of the novel World of Ptavvs by Larry Niven.

  • World of Ptavvs

    • by Larry Niven
    • PB, © 1966, 188 pp, Del Rey, ISBN 0-345-34508-8

Astonishingly, I’ve read very little by Larry Niven in the past: A couple of his story collections, and I tried reading Ringworld, but was not able to finish it at the time This was 20 years ago, but it’s a mystery to me. But I’ve collected his early novels over the last few years, and figured my recent trip to Florida was a good time to get through a few of them. In particular, his Known Space novels.

World of Ptavvs is the chronologically earliest-occurring of the novels in Known Space, taking place in the early 22nd century (and is one of the earliest written, as well). The alien Kzanol is a Thrint, a race which, millions of years ago, controlled most of Known Space and enslaved all other races it found. (This Thrintun are referred to as the “Slavers” in other stories.) A mishap while travelling forced Kzanol to put himself into stasis, and he landed on Earth and remained there until the present day, until he was dredged from the ocean and dubbed the “Sea Statue”.

Larry Greenberg is a low-level telepath who specializes in communicating with other species, notably dolphins. A scientist develops a stasis field and reasons that the Sea Statue might also be a creature in such a field, and recruits Greenberg to telepathically connect with the Statue when he frees it from stasis. However, it goes horribly wrong: The Thrint are true telepaths, able to control other creatures mentally. Kzanol imprints his mind on Greenberg’s, and Kzanol/Greenberg escape with a Thrint disintegrator weapon. The real Kzanol revives and steals a spaceship, and Kzanol/Greenberg follows him, the group heading for the outer solar system where Kzanol believes some of his equipment should also be stored in stasis, which could allow either incarnation of Kzanol to take over the world. A member of Earth’s police force, ARM, follows, as do a number of ships from the asteroid belt, as Earth is in an uneasy cold war with the Belters.

The novel is primarily an action/adventure yarn with some interesting underpinnings. Unfortunately it never quite rises above its basic structure of the “good guys” chasing the “bad guys” after the McGuffin of Kzanol’s device. Although this proves to be an interesting little travelogue, showing us the state of Earth writ large, and its tense relationship with the Belters, it’s still pedestrian stuff.

What engaged me in the book were the supporting ideas, especially the long-dead Thrintun, their slave races, and the remnants of their era which have survived into the present day. I’m a sucker for stories involving bits of the past coming to impact the present (which may be why I continue to read Jack McDevitt’s SF mysteries such as Seeker), and besides Kzanol himself qualifying (and ending up as a man-… er… thing-out-of-time) there are a few other leftovers which rear their heads here as well. While they’re not integral to the plot so much as a portent of what humanity will have to deal with as they head into the stars, they’re still pretty neat.

The story also includes two pieces of showstopping technology. Well, Kzanol’s mind control abilities aren’t really technology as such, but they’re so powerful (if limited in the number of people he can control at a time) that it’s easy to see why the Thrint were able to control Known Space in their day with ease. Niven is clever in introducing a Thrint as a single creature isolated from everything he knows, turning Earth into a little cauldron to see how it reacts to Kzanol (and vice-versa). The second element is the stasis field, which naturally is tremendously powerful, and apparently plays into the later Known Space stories to a large degree. Being able to stop time around some area, and consequently rendering that area indestructible, has many applications, which are explored pretty widely in the introduction. (Vernor Vinge of course explored these issues in his later pair of novels The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime, but it’s interesting to see Niven working with a slice of the implications here, almost 20 years earlier.)

World of Ptavvs is a little disappointing and isn’t essential reading, but there’s some good stuff in here. There’s better stuff in the later books, though.

Related Links:


I should expand a little on that last entry:

Debbi learned recently that she should have her remaining wisdom teeth extracted. Moreover, she has a baby tooth which never fell out and which has cracked, and also needed to be pulled. So she scheduled an appointment for this morning to have all this done, as well as to put in a post for a future implant to replace the baby tooth. It was rather clever of her to schedule it for now, since she’s had our trip to DisneyWorld and then Karen’s visit to distract her, and she didn’t really start getting nervous (or didn’t talk about it) until last night.

The appointment was for 8 this morning, so I drove her in and then came home for breakfast. Then I drove back an hour later to pick her up. The extractions went fine, but she needs to get two bone grafts in her jaw for the post, so she got one this morning, and will get the next in a couple of months, and then will get the post probably a couple of months after that. And then the full implant probably six months after that, if I remember all the details. Quite a pain, but what can you do? (The implant, by the way, is much more expensive than the extractions were. Amazing how these tiny little things are so pricy to care for.)

Debbi’s home now. She sat on the couch and read this morning, and then the numbness started wearing off. She got some drugs from the doctor, took some, had some lunch, and has mostly been sleeping since then. She says she was more alert when she came out of the anaesthesia than she’d expected, and has not been as uncomfortable as she’d expected. And since I still have all of my teeth (and will probably have them until I die, if I take care of them), I had no idea what she should expect. But it’s gone pretty well, I think.

She’s taken the whole week off for this, and she’ll surely need at least the first three days for her body to recover. The trauma alone has probably got her laid low for today and maybe tomorrow. I’m home today to take care of her (company policy allows me to take time off to care for sick family members – which makes sense, since otherwise how would parents cope?), but it’s back to work for me tomorrow!

Debbi really, really, reallyreallyreally hates the dentist. She’s been a real trooper through this whole thing.

My Insane Month

A summary of why March is being so stressful for me.

So here’s how March shapes up:

  1. March 1-2: Prepare my income tax information and mail to my CPA.
  2. March 3-10: Fly to Florida, go to DisneyWorld with Debbi’s family, fly back.
  3. March 11: Clean the house, try to relax.
  4. March 12: Karen arrives to stay with us while she’s here on business.
  5. March 13: Frisbee.
  6. March 16-18: A weekend of eating many foods.
  7. March 19 (that’s today!): Karen leaves. Debbi has surgery to remove her wisdom teeth. I take the day off to take care of her. Debbi has the week off to recover.
  8. March 20: Frisbee.
  9. March 31: Final frisbee tournament of the year.
  10. April 1: Fantasy baseball draft.

Many of these things are fun. But all of them require some attention. And for the next two weeks, I’ll be spending most of my spare time preparing for that fantasy baseball draft. Which I enjoy, but it does tend to take my focus away from all of my other hobbies during that time.

And none of this includes work, which is plenty lively these days. (Did I mention that e-mail was down at work on Friday? It bothered me well enough, and I can only imagine that it drove managers and others who simply live in e-mail nuts.)

On the plus side, we didn’t get hit with a snowstorm which cancelled all of our plans. I knew that I heart living in California for some reason.

I’m looking forward to April.

Beach Day

When talking about the shaky housing market these days, people in the Bay Area are naturally wondering how the market will shake out here. But we do have an intrinsic advantage that goes beyond the employment and cultural opportunities here: On a Saturday in the middle of March you can go over to the ocean and walk along the beach wearing just a light jacket.

My friend Karen has been visiting this week, staying with us but mostly here for business. She finished up the bulk of her work on Thursday, so Friday we went out and gorged ourselves on food, and then Saturday we headed over the hills to Half Moon Bay. We had brunch at one of my favorite breakfast places, the Main Street Grill downtown. We were initially surprised because we went by their storefront and it was empty – cleaned out down to the booths and stools! But it turns out they just moved a block down the street into a large venue which had been the home of the competing diner. Whew! The people and food are just the same, so overall I’d say it’s a win, and they’re still busy enough that a few people who came in after us had to wait for seats.

We spent over an hour shopping downtown; for whatever reason Karen happens to have great success finding things in the little shops and bookstores in downtown. In particular we spent quite a while in the Moon News Bookstore, which is one of those rare independent bookstores which pulls out all the stops in presentation and recommendation of the books it carries – a quantity over quality approach.

Downtown is actually experiencing a lot of turnover: Other than the second diner that went under, a travel clothing store is moving out-of-state, and several boutiques have turned over since our last visit (which must have been late last year). Some turnover is a good thing for consumers I think, but of course it’s a good thing only up until one of your favorites stores goes out of business. But at least new stores keep springing up, which means that Half Moon Bay isn’t moribund and is still in some demand.

After that we drove over to the beaches south of Pillar Point Harbor where we walked along the beach for a while. I was chilly and overcast, but not really so bad if you had a jacket on. Try that in New England this month, people! We walked north towards the harbor before turning around to walk along the trail which runs above the beaches to head back to the car. (I had thought there used to be a bookstore in that vicinity, but either I was mistaken or else it’s gone under. Ah, well!)

So after a view of the ocean, of the various coastside plants that are flowering at this time of year, and a brief encounter with a kitty-cat, we piled back into the car, picked up some coffee, and drove back home.

A great outing. I don’t know why we don’t do this more often.

Jeff Dunham

Last year Debbi came across comedian/ventriloquist Jeff Dunham on Comedy Central, and he became a favorite of hers. She bought his DVD, Arguing With Myself. I can’t remember seeing Debbi laugh so hard as when she saw his special, and then his DVD! So, of course, we’ve gone twice to see him at the Improv in San Jose.

At first glance, Dunham is this unassuming-looking guy who looks like he could be your next-door neighbor. In fact, his humor is extremely irreverent. He opens his act as a straightforward stand-up act, usually talking about his family (wife, three kids, and many dogs), and then brings out his puppets, who include crotchety-old-guy Walter, and manic-verbal-abuser Peanut. It’s sort of a good-cop-bad-cop routine, with Dunham trying to keep the characters in line, while they’re abusing him, the audience, their hypothetical relatives, and anyone else who comes to mind.

And really, he’s hilarious! Many of his gags deliberately break the illusion of his puppets’ reality, as they comment on his reactions to him, and suggest some novel uses for his ventriloquism.

I think my favorite joke of the evening involved his chihuahuas, which (he says) were entirely his wife’s idea. Little yappy dogs, he’s greatly amused at some of the tortures they undergo due to their small stature and smaller brains. This gag involved his youngest daughter taking one of them for a walk using a retractable leash, and the devious trick the played on the poor beast.

Have I mentioned that my sense of humor is a little irreverent, too?

The one thing that makes me a little uncomfortable are his gay jokes. They aren’t really gay-bashing jokes, but rather using “gay” to mean “effiminate”, as in “driving a powder-blue Prius while holding your wife’s chihuahua is gay.” The web comic strip PvP often makes exactly the same sort of jokes, for instance in the sequence starting here (though Dunham is funnier than PvP). Is this funny, or is it a little too tactless? I’m not sure.

(Note that I have no problem at all with him making fun of people who drive Priuses. Or, for that matter, abusing chihuahuas. We each have our own boundaries, I guess.)

He’s even edgy enough that one of his new puppets is Ahmed the Dead Terrorist. Which is, uh, really weird. (This wasn’t his A-list material, but I think it was also some new material he’s still shaking out.) Then again, is anyone else taking on the terrorists in quite this way?

Overall, we had a terrific time at the show, and assuming you’ve got an equally irreverent sense of humor, or are willing to shove aside your sensitivities for 90 minutes, I’d wholeheartedly recommend going to see Jeff Dunham.