Gaming Divergence

So my current dilemma is this: Many of my gaming friends seem to be focusing more on playing poker, whereas I’m more interested in playing Magic, especially doing booster drafts. Both activities require a critical mass of 6 or more people, which means our gaming groups – which overlap considerably between these two – are fragmenting.

Moreover, we’re starting to have unrelated scheduling conflicts: Subrata and I tend to put aside Wednesdays for board gaming and/or comic books, Subrata plays in a constructed-deck Magic group on Mondays, one fellow is busy Tuesday and Thursdays, another has given up Magic entirely, other people are just plain busy at random intervals… which makes it difficult (and therefore frustrating) to organize a game, even with several days’ (or a week’s) notice.

I’m not desperate enough to play Magic to consider Magic Online, especially since MO only supports Windows, and I think my basic aversion to paying for (and even using) Windows will dissuade me from going that route. (Though if they ever came out with a Mac client I would sign up in a minute. No, really.) But I am thinking of investigating the organized draft events at local stores such as Superstars or Game Kastle. I’m a little reluctant since I’m always kind of nervous to jumping into a brand-new social environment like that, and I have no idea what it would be like. Worrying that I’d be a fish among sharks also has something to do with it, but more viscerally I wonder if the people who would attend would be “not my kind of people” for whatever reason (not geeky enough, too geeky about Magic, a lot younger than me, or whatever).

I enjoy poker, but I don’t want to play it to the exclusion of Magic. Whereas I’d consider playing Magic to the exclusion of poker. Of course, board gaming is the most consistently-available gaming venue among my friends, but I’ve been gradually getting burned out on board games.

What to do, what to do?

The Bourne Ultimatum

Review of the film The Bourne Ultimatum.

Yesterday morning we went to see The Bourne Ultimatum, the third film in the series based on Robert Ludlum’s novels. All three movies are a lot of fun, although I think they go steadily downhill from the first one, The Bourne Identity.

This one starts near the end of the second film, The Bourne Supremacy, with Jason Bourne (Matt Damon) leaving Moscow and returning to western Europe. On the way he learns about a reporter, Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), who’s been collecting information about him. Ross has also learned about a project called Operation: Blackbriar, which has set the US government on his trail, headed by Noah Vosen (David Strathairn) and Pamela Landy (Joan Allen, back from the second film). Bourne contacts Ross, leading to confusion on all sides, as Vosen thinks Bourne was Ross’ contact, while Bourne isn’t sure what Ross had. The information he gets from Ross leads Bourne to Spain, Morocco, and then New York as he untangles the story of his origins as a government assassin.

The films are all marked by decent acting, a decent plot, excellent action sequences, and not much characterization. The visual look of the films are distinctive, with washed-out color palettes and special effects which don’t look like they rely much on CGI (I have no idea whether they do), which makes the films feel like a throwback to good old action-adventure films that aren’t trying to wow you with their technical prowess.

The thing I liked least about the direction was the tendency to cut rapidly between various angles during the action sequences. I think this technique worked especially poorly in this film, because the longer shots were so effective: Panoramic views of a whole scene, or a lingering shot of someone’s face, or a careful framing of part of a fight sequence. Considering many camera shots were done with “shaky-cams” (the notional opposite of a Steadicam), there’s already plenty of movement for dramatic tension, and the rapid cuts just make the action harder to follow, which doesn’t help anyone.

The most fun element of the films are Bourne staying one step ahead of his adversaries – who inevitably have far more resources than he does – simply by being alert and playing the game better. The scene in Waterloo Station here is just brilliant. Unfortunately the story is marred somewhat by some characters behaving rather stupidly. While the characters are only human, it just feels shoddy when characters seem to be acting like idiots for no good reason, while other characters seem uncannily smart.

Overall a good film, but not as good as the first two.

A few further comments – of a spoilery nature – behind the cut.

Continue reading “The Bourne Ultimatum”

Jumping Into The Abyss

By 1997 I was on the Web with a home page hosted at my ISP, Fullfeed Madison, in Madison WI. I tinkered with it from time to time, archiving some of my old posts from USENET, and writing the occasional essay. I was never that good in the computer graphics department, so it was (and is) pretty basic in its appearance. On the other hand, ever since I launched it, the front page has had the following quote from C.J. Silverio‘s “Rant On Why The Web Sucks”:

It’s the content

The rest of it is window-dressing. You can make your pages look absolutely fabulous but if they don’t say anything, nobody’s going to care. Don’t give the world another glorified multimedia dot-finger file. Give the world your art, your music, your poetry, your political rants, your short stories, your first grade photos, your shareware and freeware, your archives of hobby stuff, your hints about how to make great tie-dye, your really handy Perl script, your list of the ten best bookstores in the Greater Podunk area. You know something that nobody else knows. You can do something that nobody else can do quite the same way. You’ve made something that the rest of the world has never seen.

Share it. Put it in your web page.

(Sadly, the whole essay is no longer up.)

Ceej was a fellow netizen whom I’d encountered back around 1992 on the talk.bizarre newsgroup (which she frequented and I occasionally poked my head into). For some reason long forgotten, I kept track of her over the ensuring few years, and she had the first web page I really paid attention to, and put in my bookmarks. And then forgot about.

In the summer of 1997, two things happened: First, I decided to check in on her web page again, and found that she’d launched an on-line journal. Second, CJ attended the Clarion West writers workshop. And wrote about it every day, starting here.

And oh my god was it riveting stuff. I read through all her archives, and then read each new entry as it was published. And in pretty short order I started thinking seriously of starting my own journal.

I’ve never had great facility for doing graphic design on a computer. Once upon a time I was a fair artist with pencil and paper, but that’s really a completely different medium. But I had some sort of graphic program that I noodled around with to come up with a color scheme and some simple graphics, and I worked out a simple layout for the entries. It wasn’t much, but it was servicible. And, frankly, most journals of the day weren’t much in the graphic design department (some of them were pretty snazzy, but not many people bring both writing and graphic design skills to the table; it’s sort of like being a pitcher who can also hit).

The other thing I’ve never been much good at is coming up with titles. I have no idea today what else I might have come up with as a name for my journal, but eventually I decided that “Gazing Into The Abyss” was the one to go with. I was never very happy with it (one friend remarked years later that my journal couldn’t have been much less like an abyss), but it could have been worse, I suppose.

Coincidentally, I launched my journal on August 6, 1997, which was the same day Ceej wrapped up her Clarion trip.

I was very self-conscious at first, and I wrote the first week or two without telling anyone about it (or even linking to it from my home page). These were in the days before software like WordPress that would automagically notify Technorati of new posts; you either had to go tell people you had a journal, or you had to submit your page to a search engine (AltaVista was the state of the art at the time – Google hadn’t launched yet) so you’d get indexed. So keeping it quiet was pretty easy.

Eventually I took it “live” and did things like signing up with the Open Pages webring, webrings being the main way to publicize your journal at the time. At some point I added an e-mail notification service too (later supplanted by a home-spun RSS feed).

Obviously I got over that self-conscious feeling. You have to have a certain egotism to write an on-line journal, I think: A belief not so much that other people want to read what you’ve written, but that what you’re writing is worth writing in the first place, entry after entry.

Or maybe it’s enough just to have fun writing it.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 8 August 2007.

  • Countdown #38 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray & Jesus Saiz (DC)
  • Fables #64, by Bill Willingham & Aaron Alexovich (DC/Vertigo)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Wraith #2 of 4, by Javier Grillo-Marxuach & Kyle Holz (Marvel)
  • The Incredible Hulk #109, by Greg Pak, Carlo Pagulayan & Jeffrey Huet (Marvel)
  • Nova #5, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Sean Chen, Scott Hanna & Brian Denham (Marvel)
  • The Clockwork Girl #0, by Sean O’Reilly, Kevin Hanna & Grant Bond (Arcana)
  • B.P.R.D.: Killing Ground #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Invincible: Ultimate Collection HC vol 3, by Robert Kirkman, Ryan Ottley & Cliff Rathburn (Image)

Fables_64.jpgAaron Alexovich’s art on the latest Fables is interesting: it’s reminiscent of Sam Keith‘s: Very expressive, somewhat cartoony. I like it in many ways, but I don’t think it works very well for Fables, which even when it’s being lighthearted is pretty weighty. Otherwise this is a pretty fun issue, focusing on Snow and Bigby and the cubs’ fifth birthday. (Wow, 5 years old already?) Alexovich’s strength is drawing the rather dynamic children, which surely is why he was picked for this issue.

Both Annihiliation Conquest issues this week (Wraith and Nova) ratchet up the tension pretty nicely. This is a fun crossover series. Would that all corners of the Marvel universe tried to be fun.

Clockwork_Girl_0.jpgThe Clockwork Girl looks promising: #0 is a preview issue costing 25ยข. It looks like this will be a series about two inventors, one who creates biological wonders, and one who creates mechanical ones. There isn’t enough story in this preview to judge how it’s going to work, but it’s a good start. Grant Bond’s artwork is quite strong: Very expressive faces, solid layouts, inventive designs. The production values are quite high for a small press, too. I’m looking forward to the regular series.

But don’t take my word for it: you can read this issue on-line (PDF).

Invincible_Ultimate_Collection_3.jpgI’m debating whether I want to start buying Invincible monthly. It’s handy to be able to read 12 issues at a pop whenever the hardcover collections come out (and on a cost basis they’re about as expensive as the paperbacks, only more durable and with larger pages). I’m very impressed with how Ryan Ottley is developing as an artist: He’s incorporating some Frank Cho-like form and detail, but he’s much better at action sequences and emotions than Cho (not to mention that his women don’t all look alike). His web page is cool, too.

It might not be “the best superhero comic book in the universe”, but it is fun stuff.

Bonds

Yes, we were watching the game last night when Barry Bonds broke the career home run record, hitting his 756th home run off of Mike Bacsik of the Washington Nationals! And a lot of fun it was!

As anyone who saw it knows, there was no doubt about it: As soon as he hit it, I thought, “That’s going a long way.” Bonds is one of the few hitters who can clear the center field wall at spacious Pacific Bell Park, and he knocked it a few rows deep, where it skimmed off some fans’ hands a few rows further back.

For those of us who have been following the Giants for years, the elation was accompanied with a great release: We’ve been waiting for this for a long time for him to pass Hank Aaron‘s 33-year-old record. It’s seemed inevitable since Bonds hit 73 home runs in 2001 (putting him at 567 at the age of 36), winning his first of four consecutive Most Valuable Player awards that year. When I moved out here in 1999, Bonds had only 411 home runs – a large total, and he was already a sure Hall-of-Famer – but at that point I don’t think anyone really expected that the 33-year-old would break the record. Ken Griffey Jr., who at age 29 had 350 home runs, was considered the best bet to break the record, but injuries derailed his career in his early 30s, and now the big question is whether he’ll pass Willie Mays‘ 660 for 4th on the all-time list (and whether he’ll do it before Alex Rodriguez – the youngest player to reach 500 home runs – catches him).

Regarding whether Bonds “cheated”: I think performance-enhancing drugs have been in widespread use in the Major Leagues since at least the 1950s, but they were not outside of baseball’s rules until very recently. (Many of them are illegal under US law, but until and unless Bonds is taken to court over their use, I think that’s a non-issue.) I also have yet to see evidence that anything Bonds might have taken gave him a leg up over other players, since muscle mass is only one of many components that go into a great home run hitter. Ultimately, I think we can attribute Bonds’ record primarily to his fanatic approach to conditioning, and his superhuman eyesight and hand-eye coordination. The fact that he’s still outperforming most current players (even the ones who are under 40) today, after PED testing has gone into effect, is evidence of this.

I was pleasantly surprised that Hank Aaron recorded a congratulating message to Bonds which was played on the big screen during the game’s intermission. I personally find Aaron to be a bit of a cipher – not unlike Bonds, really – but this was neat to see.

I was equally surprised and glad not to see Commissioner Bud Selig at the festivities. Selig has the uncanny ability to suck the joy out of the most momentous baseball event, as he did when Bonds tied the record over the weekend. I think Joe Sheehan had it exactly right when he said that Selig is “an old man determined to protect the interests of other old men, even if it means degrading the game of baseball.” Selig is the Ford Frick of his era.

Ultimately, the game’s 20-minute time out was terrific to watch: Bonds was as happy as I’ve ever seen him, hugging his family, friends, and his godfather Mays. He gave a short speech in which he thanked the Nationals for their understanding (I’m sure no National would have wanted to be anywhere else, since only two teams got to see this moment in person; even Bacisk was good-natured about it after the game), and choked up when he thanked his father Bobby, who passed away a few years ago.

Bonds came out for a curtain call in the top of the next inning, jogging to left field and waving to fans with his glove, before being given the rest of the night off.

But everyone got a show that was a long time coming, and the payoff was worth it.

Congratulations, Mr. Bonds!

The State of the Blogophere, 1997

Raise your hand if you remember what the World Wide Web was like in 1997.

Here’s what I remember, and what I can dig up with a little research. Certainly my memories may be faulty, but this is my best stab at it.

The Web itself – in the form we know it today – was only about 5 years old. (I created a Web page in graduate school, circa 1993 or early 1994. It no longer exists. My current home page dates from 1996.) Amazon.com had been launched only two years earlier! And went public in May of 1997! eBay wouldn’t go public for another year! Netscape had just released Netscape Communicator, and the “browser wars” with Internet Explorer were in full swing.

But in the large I think the Web was much as it is today, only smaller, and with people still figuring out how best to use it. HTML was basically the same, JavaScript was around but a little more primitive, people still wrote Java applets embedded in their Web pages, but pages felt less “live” than they do today with stuff like Ajax in them.

Online diaries had been around since at least 1995. By 1997 there were hundreds of diaries – but only hundreds (my guess is about three hundred), compared to the thousands – maybe millions – around today. There was a webring, Open Pages, which would list any diary that wanted to be included. The community had grown large enough for there to be space for specialized webrings, such as Often or Archipelago, but still small enough to have a community-wide mailing list.

People differed over whether they kept “diaries” or “journals”, but it wasn’t a big deal. The term “weblog” had been coined but not yet popularized, and the term “blog” was still in the future. (To my mind, although “weblog” was originally applied to sites which focused mainly on linking to other sites and commenting on them, the terms “diary”, “journal” and “blog” are interchangeable today. Trying to draw a distinction between them is splitting hairs.)

There was no blogging software. People mostly hand-coded their HTML, and often used server side includes to automate some tasks. Assuming their ISP allowed them to write such things – many did not, due to paranoia about security breaches (mostly couched in terms of protecting the users from themselves). RSS was far in the future; people notified readers of new entries via mailing lists.

(There were surely exceptions to all this, but for most journallers, this was how it was.)

Individuals mostly didn’t worry about who would read their journal, or what they might be revealing to current or future employers or family or friends, or whether what they wrote would be archived forever by someone, somewhere. Indeed, people tended to assume the web was ephemeral: A site would be up today, gone tomorrow (possibly because someone freaked out about something and decided to withdraw from everyone). You learned not to rely on the existence of a web page. This is exactly the opposite of what we know to be true today!

So this was the state of affairs in the summer of 1997 when I discovered Ceej’s journal and soon thereafter started reading a half-dozen other journals, and soon considered publishing my own.

More next time.

Ten Years!

As of today I’ve been keeping an on-line journal (which is the same as what the kids call “blogging”) for ten years!

You can still read my first entry. Heck, all my old archives are still available.

While I’ve had periods or greater and lesser prolificacy, I’ve never actually gone on hiatus (planned or unplanned); I’ve been posting away at least a few times a month for that whole time. (I think my low-water marks were September 2003 and April 2006, each with only 3 entries, hardly enough to qualify for the Often Webring.)

I’ve been blogging since before the term “Weblog” was coined!

Over the next week or two I’ll be posting reminiscences about the whole journalling experience. I hope you’ll find them of interest.

I don’t plan to close up shop anytime soon, and I hope you’ll keep reading. As much as I say I keep journalling because it’s something I want to do, it doesn’t mean as much without readers, and I appreciate everyone who checks in to see what I’ve got to say.

Thanks for reading!

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 1 August 2007.

  • Countdown #39 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Jim Calafiore & Jay Leisten (DC)
  • Justice Society of America #8, by Geoff Johns, Fernando Pasarin & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Metal Men #1 of 8, by Duncan Rouleau (DC)
  • Welcome to Tranqulity #9, by Gail Simone, Neil Googe, Leandro Fernandez & Francisco Paronzini (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Ms. Marvel #18, by Brian Reed, Aaron Lopresti & Matt Ryan (Marvel)
  • Thor #2, by J. Michael Stracyznki, Oliver Coipel & Mark Morales (Marvel)
  • World War Hulk #3 of 5, by Greg Pak, John Romita Jr., & Klaus Janson (Marvel)
  • Elephantmen: Wounded Animals HC, by Richard Starkings, Moritat, and others (Image)


Justice_Society_8.jpgUsually I find “special character spotlight” issues to be tedious: exposition and incidental adventure which mostly feels just-plain-obvious. But this month’s JSA is better-than-usual: Although nominally spotlighting Liberty Belle (the former Jesse Quick), it’s more interesting for its handling of Damage, one of the more tragic characters in recent memory, whose face is so badly scarred that he wears a mask like the original Atom’s to hide his appearance. After the predictable flashbacks to Belle’s early life, Damage confronts Zoom, a recent Flash villain who’s responsible for his disfigurement, in which we get to learn both something about both his character and Belle’s. Pretty good stuff.

Except for the cover. The Alex Ross “pose” covers got boring a long time ago.


Metal_Men_1.jpgSo who exactly is Duncan Rouleau and where has he been hiding? I picked up Metal Men #1 because I liked his clean, dynamic artwork when I thumbed through it, but it’s an all-around fun comic: A mix of action and adventure (the Metal Men take on a nanotechnological menace), danger (then they’re confiscated by the government), drama (a flashback to Will Magnus first unveiling the Metal Men and what it meant to his career), and mystery (a familiar-looking figure apparently ready to wipe the Metal Men from the timestream). That’s a lot of stuff for a first issue, but it should be plenty to keep the series busy and enjoyable for 8 issues. If it delivers on even half its promise, then it should be lots of fun.

Oh, and Rouleau’s art is just as good as it looked at first glance.


Ms. Marvel introduces a couple of new superhumans to her S.H.I.E.L.D. unit, including the current revision of Machine Man who both (1) looks really boring, and (2) is a stuck-up, obnoxious prig. Which is really annoying since Machine Man’s hallmark has always been that inside he’s as human as any of us. He’s a lot like Brainiac 5 from the current Legion of Super-Heroes, except that Brainy’s always been a little annoying that way, while for Machine Man it goes completely against character. Gah, what a waste.

Thor #2 is mostly a lengthy sequence with Thor returning to Asgard (sort of), and talking with the locals in the middle of nowhere. Nothing happens, really. Didn’t I mention that Straczynski’s comic books drive me up the wall? Get on with the story already!


World_War_Hulk_3.jpgMan, World War Hulk sure is fun, and #3 has about four times as much story in it as I’d expect: Doctor Strange’s plan comes to fruition, the Hulk fights the US army, Hulk’s warbound comrades take down a while slew of Marvel heroes, and the last page promises some serious ass-kicking next issue. And there are still two issues left!

It takes a lot to make a big slugfest worth reading. Admittedly “Planet Hulk” tried a little too hard to give the Hulk’s fury a sense of righteousness, but plopping it on top of Civil War made it just effective enough.

(Comics Should Be Good thinks World War Hulk is the second part of a Hulk trilogy, which raises the question: What the heck would part three be?)


I have no idea what Elephantmen is going to be like. It’s gotten good word-of-mouth and the art style has always intrigued me in the previews. I wonder if I’ll miss a lot because I haven’t read the earlier Hip Flask material?

The Creation Museum on Science Talk

Some of you may know that John Scalzi went to the Creation Museum and plans to post about his trip real soon now.

However, Scientific American‘s weekly podcast Science Talk ran an interview in their July 25 episode interviewing Stephen Asma of Columbia College, who also visited the Creation Museum and wrote about it for Skeptic magazine. It’s frightening stuff (albeit predictably frightening for anyone familiar with the religious right), describing how the Creation Museum’s proprietors see modern science as a direct cause of many of the perceived (by them) ills of western culture.

You can listen to the episode in MP3 format.

Ye Olde Town Faire

Many weeks Debbi and I go to the Mountain View Farmer’s Market for fruit and cinnamon bread and flowers (it might surprise you to learn that I enjoy arranging flowers at home; we even have two hang-on-the-wall vases to keep them away from our flower-eating cats).

We learned recently about Thursday Night Live, a new weeknight fair they’re doing in downtown Mountain View four times this summer, so last night we walked down to check it out.

Although my impression is that advertising for the event has been poor (having not heard about it until earlier this week), apparently everyone else knows about it, because traffic and parking downtown were both pretty well slammed. (No wonder they keep wanting to build new parking garages!) I happened to notice an on-street spot as we were in the queue to get into a garage, and I moved quickly and grabbed it.

The fair itself was pretty small: Four or five performers, a small slice of the farmer’s market, a few craft vendors, and several events for children. On the other hand, the performers were all good, and they closed way more of Castro Street than they had to, so there was plenty of space for all the people to walk around. And the restaurants and local businesses were staying open and apparently doing great business. In other circumstances I would have judged this to be an event having a hard time getting off the ground, but the attendance suggests otherwise.

The performers who stood out most for me were a band called Circumsax, who when we arrived had just started playing a Herbie Hancock song, “Chameleon” I think it was, which works really well for a large sax group. (They ought to consider some of the tracks from J.J. Johnson’s J.J. Inc., too; I think “Mohawk” or “Fatback” would work well with their style.)

So we had dinner, looked around, stopped into BookBuyers (where I found a hardcover copy of Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), and enjoyed the lovely evening. Can’t beat that. We’ll probably go back next time – assuming we can find parking!