February 2014
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Draft Dodging

I ended Tuesday’s entry wondering how to keep my hand in playing Magic as I’ve wound down playing our weekly casual game.

Back in 2006 when I got back into Magic (having previously played from 1995-1998) I was also getting into poker, and my friends seemed to split into playing one game or the other. I decided to go the Magic route (though I still play poker from time to time – honestly I might have lost less money sticking with poker!). But while I enjoy casual constructed, I also really enjoy doing booster drafts.

The problem with booster drafts is that they’re hard to arrange:

  • They require you set aside a chunk of time, usually 2-3 hours, to do the draft and then play up to 3 best-of-3-games matches.
  • Gathering enough people in person (at least 4, usually 6-to-8) is difficult in casual games.
  • Playing at a store involves playing on the store’s schedule, and driving to and from the store.
  • Playing at either a store or on Magic Online usually means playing against a more serious, and often more skilled, class of player.

The most convenient way to draft is on Magic Online (MTGO), where there are usually drafts starting up every few minutes. Unfortunately, the MTGO client runs only under Windows, and I just find the Windows interface to be dreary (I’m a Mac guy). I do have a Windows partition on my Mac which I use using VMWare Fusion, so that helps a little. On top of that, though, MTGO’s own user interface is pretty terrible (I won’t go into details, but anything involving the stack tends to be presenting in a perplexing manner at best).

I think the real barrier for me, though, is that playing online is just such a solitary activity: It requires all of my attention for most of the time I’m playing, and while I haven’t had any bad experiences with other players online, it’s fair to say that I don’t really connect with anyone either. So telling myself that I’m going to spend 2-3 hours sitting in front of the computer playing a game by myself has been a difficult barrier to overcome. Throw in my feeling that I’m not really that good at drafting (after all, most of my competition has a lot more practice than I do) and it’s hard to convince myself to spend an hour or more doing a draft that might end up being crappy.

Since I always seem to have plenty of chores to do around the house, or things I feel I “ought to” be doing (like reading a book, or playing with the cats), I just never set aside the time.

One thing I do is listen to the excellent podcast on drafting and other “limited” Magic formats, Limited Resources. Listening to them talking about the theory and practice of drafting, and how much time they put into honing their draft skills, I sometimes think it would be cool to draft enough to become a genuinely skilled player. But then I think what else I could be spending that time doing.

I don’t know. I’d like to do more drafts, at least to the point where I’m good enough that I don’t feel intimidated by it. But it’s been a hard barrier to overcome.

Frogs & Flowers

Debbi and I took Tuesday off for a fun day in San Francisco. We spent the morning at California Academy of Sciences, where we renewed our memberships for the year. Sadly, their planetarium was closed for the day, and it’s one of the highlights of a visit there. But we had a good time otherwise. It was really quiet there, relatively speaking; I guess the end of February is not the busy season for SF museums! One nice benefit of this was we got some lengthy quality time with the penguins, who were happily swimming in their pond, and one of whom followed me back and forth through the window.

I took another panorama from the rooftop:

View from the Cal Academy rooftop

Debbi took a bunch of pictures and posted a few to Facebook having made collages out of them with Pic Stitch. I liked this one with the many small frogs we saw in the tropical rainforest:

Frogs

After five trips in the last year, I think the Academy needs to refresh some of their exhibits. The earthquake exhibit feels very stale at this point, and they haven’t had a good exhibit on the second floor in a while – they really need something like their Extreme Mammals exhibit from a few years ago.

Afterward we went to the Conservatory of Flowers, which I always think is one of the best-kept secrets in Golden Gate Park. We were pleased to see they had their butterfly exhibit in their rotating exhibit room, but I always enjoy seeing all their rooms. I got a panorama of the room with the large pond:

Conservatory of Flowers pond room

And Debbi made a collage of some pictures from our visit:

Flowers

Finally we went to Ghirardelli Square for sundaes, and then drove home.

We had a quiet rest of the day, but sadly we were both strangely wiped out by it all; Debbi took a nap in the afternoon, and I developed a headache later in the evening (though not the debilitating kind I occasionally get), so we went to bed early. A disappointing end to an otherwise fun day.

On the bright side, we’ve gotten some rain since then, which the state badly needs and which I always enjoy. And more coming in the next few days!

The Magic Goes Away

(Note: This post has nothing to do with the book of the same name. In fact, it will probably be of little interest except to players of the Magic trading card game.)

Since I got back into Magic: The Gathering back in 2006, I’ve been playing in a weekly casual game. But a little over a year ago our regular host decided to move out of state, and we moved to a rotating hosting system. Our metagame had also been getting (to my mind) a bit stale, with people often playing the same types of decks (not quite the same exact decks, but the same basic frameworks used to trigger slightly different win conditions). And I’d been struggling to come up with interesting new decks of my own, which could work within our metagame.

Late in the summer my heart had gone out of it, so I decided to take a month or two off (conveniently timed around our trip back east in September). When I got back, I learned that the weekly game had been moved from Mondays to Wednesdays, which reduced my likelihood of attending to near-zero, as Wednesday is of course comic book night. Consequently, I haven’t attended since last summer.

Since then I’ve been gradually filing my cards and generally tidying up my card collection. Perhaps I needed the time off from the game. For some years I’ve been buying boxes of the new expansions and opening them, but that was getting pretty old, too – a lot of bookkeeping. Not to mention that all the cards take up a lot of space. If I want to keep up with the new sets, maybe I’ll just buy some singles; heck, I could probably buy playlets (4 each) of the best new cards that come out and spend less than I have been on the boxes.

(In theory I guess the total value of cards on the aftermarket end up equalling the cost of buying the unopened product, with commons as a whole being worth close to nothing, while the valuable cards account for most of the cost. The market is probably not quite that efficient, but except for a few outliers it’s probably pretty close. And acquiring more commons gets less and less interesting over time, as the design philosophy of New World Order has generally made commons less interesting to collect for people who own many of the older cards.)

Anyway, I still enjoy Magic and would like to keep my hand in it, but I don’t know when (or if) I’ll want to spend the time on casual constructed games in the future. And I know I don’t have much interest in serious competitive Magic. So what’s left?

Little Kids Love Me

Last week one of my cow-orkers had his wife and daughter meet him at work for lunch. I ran into them in the cafeteria and said hi. His daughter is a little over a year old, and she promptly took her pacifier out of her mouth and handed it to me. He later told me he hadn’t seen her do that before. I joked that she thought I was talking to much and wanted to shut me up.

This is just the latest example of how little kids seem to love me. We have many friends with kids aged 5 or less. Two of them decided at one point that Debbi and I are their friends, but they allow their parents to socialize with us, too. Some other friends Debbi goes to visit every week, and I joined her a few weeks ago. The next week when Debbi was going over, apparently the younger child asked if “Uncle Michael” was coming too. And a few years ago whenever we’d fly back east to visit our families, we’d take a red-eye and I’d crash in late morning (since I can’t really sleep on planes), only to wake up covered in couch cushions courtesy of her nieces and nephew.

I’ve never really wanted kids, but I don’t dislike them (I think I feel compelled to say that because it seems many people perceive that people who don’t want kids also don’t like kids). I sometimes feel a little uneasy around them, like I’m going to say the wrong thing or accidentally hurt one of them. Debbi thinks kids like me because I’m willing to get down on the ground and play with them, or carry them around, or get chased by them. I bet the fact that I rarely fill the roll of the disciplinarian helps, too. (That is, I’m rarely the guy who has to say ‘no’, though I am sometimes the guy who tries to steer them away from things they shouldn’t be getting into.)

None of this really explains how a toddler can take one look at me and decide to share her pacifier with me, though!

Lingering Leaves

By request, here’s a photo of the sycamore tree that overlooks our house that I wrote about yesterday:

The darned tree

(As you can see, our weather out here lately is just awful!)

That Darned Tree

Our house has a big ol’ sycamore tree hanging over the front yard. For the most part this is a good thing, as it keeps the yard (and the front porch) shady for most of the day in the summer.

The winter is another story: The tree starts dropping leaves in October, and sometimes it seems like it never stops. Last weekend I was out filling our yard waste bin again, and it’s mid-February! And the tree still has plenty of leaves left on it! It’s not even particularly attractive in the fall, as the leave turn brown rather than turning bright colors. Also, our neighborhood has a couple of dozen such trees around, but our tree seems to have more leaves left on it than the other do. Geez!

I think what’s happening is the warm weather and California’s drought that’s on right now: Normally we get plenty of rain in the fall and early winter, along with colder temperatures and occasional gusts of wind. I think the warm weather is tricking the tree a little, but more importantly the rain and wind are important to knock all those leaves off. Most of the leaves I raked last weekend fell during the rain showers the previous weekend.

Now we’re heading into spring, and I bet the leaves will start falling faster as the tree starts sprouting some buds. Most of the flowering trees in the area are in bloom right now, and the deciduous trees are probably not far behind. So I expect more raking in the month ahead.

Plus, there’s a forecast of more showers in the middle of next week, so maybe that will finally knock the last of those leaves off that darned tree.

Val Days

Some years ago (maybe even our first year together) Debbi and I stopped celebrating Valentine’s Day on the day itself. I think at first it had to do with me having ultimate frisbee scheduled for that night or something (which would have been a Tuesday or a Thursday, so it’s not like it was a weekend night). What we started doing was celebrating it (more or less) the day after.

One great thing about that is that restaurants aren’t nearly as crowded, and flowers are a lot cheaper!

This year I decided to cook dinner on the night itself. Specifically I knew Debbi had been craving “my” rice pilaf recipe (which is actually from Cook’s Illustrated), and I decided to try making chicken breasts with a grape-and-tarragon sauce. I had tried making this combination when visiting my Dad a number of years ago and I knew it was a lot to juggle, so this time I tried to make it less stressful by making the rice pilaf first, and letting it sit while I made the chicken.

It worked to the extent that it all went smoothly and mostly stress-free. It didn’t quite work optimally in that we didn’t eat until after 8 o’clock! But at least it was yummy.

After dinner we watched Lilo and Stitch, because I had a yen to see it again after hearing “Burning Love” at the end of a Storycorps story in the morning.

True to our tradition, we went out to dinner last night, going to our favorite Indian restaurant, Amber India, where we ate too much, as we usually do.

The day ended with a short rain shower, which we really need because of the drought we’re having. We could really use a lot more rain, though!

Neil Gaiman: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

Despite being one of his shortest novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is in some ways the quintessential Neil Gaiman novel. An unnamed narrator in England returns to his childhood neighborhood following a funeral, visits the house of a girl he knew, and recalls the events of four decades earlier, the adventures the two of them shared over the course of a few days when he was a boy of seven and she a girl of eleven. The girl, Lettie Hempstead, and her mother and grandmother (Mrs. Hempstead and Old Mrs. Hempstead) have a pond in the back yard of their farm, which is at the end of the lane where the narrator lived. Lettie calls it her ocean, and says that the three of them travelled across it when she was much younger. The narrator is a bookish, lonely lad who has had several degrees of tragedy visited upon him shortly before he meets her, but after a man dies near the Hempstead farm, he learns that the Hempsteads have connections to exotic, impossible lands. A moment’s lapse in judgment (or perhaps bravery) causes our narrator to become the focus for a dark entity which bedevils his neighborhood and which he and the Hempsteads have to get rid of.

There’s no doubt that the narrative is powerful: The pitfalls and tragedies which befall our hero in the first few chapters are keenly felt – so much so that the book is at times a hard read, because it’s really not pleasant. The book after that is a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. Gaiman’s storytelling is always arresting, and this short book is crisply paced and pulls you along. It’s the first book in a while that I’ve read in a single day.

Still, Ocean also has many elements which frustrate me about Gaiman’s work, and they largely come down to the vagueness of the setting and communication of the ideas. The narrator is nameless, his background murky. He’s not a total cipher, but it’s very difficult to connect to him; rather, he’s a vessel for event around him, rarely acting, and if anything his actions are often bad decisions which sometimes work out and sometimes go wrong.

Likewise, the Hempsteads and their larger world are left vague, with hints dropped about who they are (I infer they’re an incarnation of the Moirai, whom Gaiman has used in The Sandman), but with connections to other lands, their own apparently no longer existing. But what it all means, and what they can do, is only hinted at. Gaiman’s stories are often trying to evoke myth, legend and folklore, and while I don’t expect every last thing to be explained, Ocean leaves too much to the imagination for my satisfaction.

The story is a fun read, but the ending feels empty. The narrator doesn’t seem to have substantially changed – because the story isn’t about him. It’s not about anyone, really; it’s about moods, and settings, and a series of events, but the emotional impact of the resolution doesn’t come close to matching that of the set-up.

Gaiman is a consistently enjoyable novelist, but American Gods remains his only novel I’d call “great”. I have no doubt that books like Ocean are exactly the books he wants to write, but I always feel like they need more development to feel really satisfying. Perhaps it’s the short length of Ocean drives that home particularly well. To be sure I enjoyed reading it, but after finishing it I was surprised at how slight it felt in hindsight.

Vegas Long Weekend

Last weekend we went to Las Vegas for the first time in several years. (For those following along at home, due to the frail condition of our two cats Newton and Blackjack, we didn’t go away on vacation for several years. Both of them have since passed away, so we’ve been travelling again.)

Something about this trip didn’t feel quite right to me from the time we booked it. This isn’t foreshadowing, nothing bad happened on the trip; it just felt slightly off, like I couldn’t quite figure out why we were going. Vegas can be a bit of an odd trip for us, trying to figure out what we want to spend time doing, especially since we’ve seen most of the spectacle before several times. But walking around aimlessly is tiring and kind of pointless.

What we did do was book tickets to go see Cirque du Soleil’s “O”, which we saw the first time we went to Vegas about ten years ago. (We had wanted to see their new show, Zarkana, but it was dark during January.) We flew in Saturday afternoon and went to the show in the evening. It’s quite a spectacle, of course; it seemed like they’d changed it up a bit (in particular the closing piece was different from what I remembered).

We stayed at the MGM Grand, where we’ve stayed several times before. We liked them partly because they had a branch of Fat Tuesday in them, but also because they had a killer poker room, a large room with a variety of games. Sadly, their great room is no more, the space largely unused, and the remaining poker tables shoved into an alcove to one side of the casino. And they only seem to have 1/2 no-limit games anymore. Disappointing. Also, the room where they used to bring in lions from a nearby preserve has been remodeled into a night club. And it turns out that Fat Tuesday now has something like eight locations on the strip, so we could find daiquiris all kinds of places.

Anyway, I went to the site All Vegas Poker to check out rooms, and it seems that the collapse of on-line poker has hit poker rooms on the strip hard, with many of the downsizing or closing.

I struggle to have the courage to play no-limit poker; all my poker playing friends seem to play no-limit when they come to Vegas, and that’s what we play in our nickel-dime home games, at which I hold my own (and our home games are tough). But I feel more comfortable playing limit when I play for real money, so we went to the Flamingo, which still has a 2/4 game and I’ve enjoyed playing at before. It was a good choice: We visited several other poker rooms over the weekend and they were pretty consistently quiet, while the Flamingo’s room was active during the day and busy at night. I talked to several people I played with during the trip and they said the Flamingo was one of the better rooms on the strip for finding a game at all hours.

While I play poker Debbi usually goes to play a mix of pai-gow poker and video poker. I often feel guilty for separating from her for hours at a time to play poker, but she seems okay with it. This trip I tried to embrace her giving me the time to sit at the table for a lengthy session.

Well, the first couple of days it didn’t work out so well. Sunday in particular I spent the afternoon being dreadfully card-dead. Honestly the best I can say from the session was that I didn’t lose much more than I was going to lose, and I actually made some pretty good folds when I did have good (but losing) hands. Monday afternoon was more of the same, except I had the sense to order some coffee with Bailey’s to warm things up (or “add some variance to my game” as I joked).

Coffee and Chips

Monday night my luck finally changed and I was able to recoup most of my losses from the rest of the trip, winning some big hands and losing a few through bad luck. Overall I was pretty happy with how I played, which I guess means I need to figure out what the next step is to become a better player.

Monday night we also went to our usual dinner at Bally’s Steakhouse (Bally’s – another casino which has shoved its poker room into a corner of the casino). I was pleased to see they haven’t changed much – if anything they’ve improved a bit with the addition of a mixed drink menu (their Old Fashioned was well worth the price). Afterwards we went to the top of the Eiffel Tower replica at Paris, which was a bit over-priced but fun anyway. I got a couple of good pictures of the strip from up there, too:

Strip facing south
Strip facing north

We had a quiet morning Tuesday before flying out. It was, overall, a fun trip, but it felt slightly dreamlike at times. I’m not sure if I wasn’t quite mentally into it, or if the place has changed just enough in five years that I was thrown off. I do want to go back, though, and perhaps we’ll figure things out ahead of time a little better, now that we’re familiar with what’s changed.