Monday, September 29, 2008

Back in the World

I'm home after an exhausting and exhilarating week at Viable Paradise XII. I spent all day Saturday traveling, was pretty much useless on Sunday, and only regained the mental capacity to make actual decisions late this afternoon. (Speaking of which, my wife is a saint for putting up with me.)

Today, we stopped at the Portland Ikea (again) to pick up a dresser for our bedroom closet. We also ordered a bed for our office/guest room, to be delivered tomorrow, and got me a Vancouver library card. The unpacking goes slowly but surely.

After spending an entire week writing, talking about writing, thinking about writing, and hearing about writing, it's a little disorienting to be back in a place where other things seem more important and immediate. But at least I know I'm not alone. I met a lot of amazing people last week, and I hope to keep in touch with them for many years to come.


Thursday, September 25, 2008

A Surprise to No One

C'mon, I read Making Light. What did you expect?

You are a
Social Liberal
(78% permissive)

and an...

Economic Liberal
(25% permissive)

You are best described as a:

Strong Democrat

Link: The Politics Test on Ok Cupid


Sunday, September 21, 2008

Jumping on the Memewagon

Take a picture of yourself right now.
don't change your clothes, don't fix your hair...just take a picture.
post that picture with NO editing.
post these instructions with your picture.


I call this one "Scenes From an Earthquake."


Viable Paradise XII Daily Schedule

If you're interested in that sort of thing:



I Miss Aaron Sorkin

But at least we still have Sorkin parodies, like this West Wing homage from Maureen Dowd:
OBAMA I appreciate your sense of humor, sir, but I really could use your advice.

BARTLET Well, it seems to me your problem is a lot like the problem I had twice.

OBAMA Which was?

BARTLET A huge number of Americans thought I thought I was superior to them.



OBAMA I mean, how did you overcome that?

BARTLET I won’t lie to you, being fictional was a big advantage.

-- "Seeking a President Who Gives Goose Bumps? So’s Obama," New York Times, September 21, 2008

(Thanks to my friend Mike for the link.)


Friday, September 19, 2008

I'll Fly Away

I'm headed back east today, crossing the country again for a writing workshop on Martha's Vineyard:

Viable Paradise: The workshop you've been searching for.

So I probably won't be blogging too much for the next week or so. But I'm sure you can find some other way to amuse yourself. Hey, what's this?


Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Gamer Syndrome

This past Sunday, the Seattle Times ran a story titled, simply, "The Game." It's about those weekend-long puzzle hunts that I often discuss here; in particular, it's about one which took place in Las Vegas in 2002 and resulted in one participant, Bob Lord, being paralyzed from the neck down.

Lawsuits followed, of course, and the dust has mostly settled now. There's still a devoted Seattle Game community, mostly Microsofties, but they've only attempted one large-scale event since 2002--most of their energy has been focused on smaller and often Microsoft-centric activities (e.g., intern puzzle hunts). Which is fine; Microsoft casts a long shadow, but I always thought one of the strengths of the San Francisco bay area Game scene was the more, shall we say, open-source nature of it.

Not to reinforce stereotypes or anything. What happened in 2002 was tragic, and I don't doubt that if it had happened to a bay area GC, we'd all have been gun-shy for the last six years, too. The silver lining is that more and more Seattle teams have been traveling to bay area Games, and in doing so proven that Google and Microsoft (or, at least, their employees) actually can play nice.

But let's get back to Bob Lord. Here's how the Seattle Times described his thought process as he headed into the wrong mine shaft, where he would fall and break his neck:
The clue also had an unusual message: "1306 is clearly marked. Enter ONLY 1306. Do NOT enter others." To Lord, this was just another clue, perhaps a head-fake from Game Control. Enter 1306? What could there be 1306 of in the desert, he wondered. Parking stalls? Telephone poles?

Lord led the way until his recalculated bearings pointed directly into an opening. He flashed back to the video dropped from the helicopter: This must be the right place, he thought.

The "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!" spray-painted in fluorescent orange was no deterrent. Again, Lord flashed back to an earlier point in The Game: "NO!" had been part of a previous clue. Absorbed in his own musings, Lord missed one other salient clue: the number 1296 spray-painted in blue next to the opening.

Followed closely by other team members, Lord walked into the opening nearly 100 feet, until the only light was the LED screen on his GPS.

His team members heard him slip. Bob? they called. Bob?


Now, one could make an argument for personal responsibility. One could say that the warnings not to enter that mine shaft were obvious and explicit, and any reasonable person would have heeded them. But, without assigning any blame, it's important to remember that The Game is intended to remove its participants from reality.

The goal of every Game Control is (or should be, IMHO) to create a fantastic experience which would be impossible in their players' normal lives--as one Gamer described it, "like being the star of your own action movie." The Game challenges you to do things you never thought you could, take risks you might not even imagine otherwise. Nowadays, this is the stuff of reality TV, but when I started playing in the mid-1990s, you couldn't get it anywhere else.

And behind the scenes, pulling all the strings, making the impossible into an alternate reality, is Game Control. Especially on your first Game, it's easy to fool yourself into thinking that they're all-powerful. How did they hide that clue in a cash register receipt? How did they build this amazing electronic device? It seems plausible that they could anticipate and plan for every contingency.

(The truth is that it's an awful lot of work. The two most important qualities for a successful GC are adaptability and resourcefulness. You can never anticipate everything, but when things go sideways, you have to deal with it. If The Game is an action movie for the players, it's an entire season of 24 for GC.)

And all that willing suspension of disbelief can lead to what certain theme park employees call "Disneyland Syndrome." As the wonderful Teresa Nielsen Hayden (kayn aynhoreh) describes in Making Book:
Disneyland Syndrome is simply forgetting that you can get hurt; that walking hatless in the sun for ten hours, not eating or drinking except at whim, can hospitalize you. That if you lean over the boat railing you can fall in, that water over your head will drown you if you can't swim just like in the real world, and that if the paddlewheel of the Mark Twain runs over you your chances do not improve.

She goes on to cite other places where Disneyland Syndrome occurs, including Las Vegas, giant suburban shopping malls, and Yellowstone Park, where the introductory pamphlet includes the admonition "Don't seat your four-year-old on the bear's back in order to take pictures" (paraphrased, I'm sure).

I would add The Game to that list. Despite the fact that you're locked in a weekend-long battle of wits with GC (they present clues, you solve them, repeat for 30 hours), you're still under their wing, following their lead, protected by their power. At least, that's how you feel. Except it's not real. You just want to believe. But wishing does not make it so.


Sunday, September 14, 2008

Ticket Master of the House

A couple of days ago, our friend Karl tipped us to the fact that Neal Stephenson would be in Portland next week, at a ticketed author event promoting his new book, Anathem. I, of course, immediately went to buy tickets for D and myself. The venue very helpfully* offered a link to buy tickets online through Ticketmaster, which I did.

HOWEVER. Can you tell me what's wrong with this picture?

Let me break it down for you. The actual tickets were only $5 each. For each ticket, there was an additional $3.90 "convenience charge," and on top of that, a $3.60 "order processing fee." Grand total: $21.40 for $10 worth of tickets. That seem right to you?

The good news is, I was able to exchange some of my American Express Membership Rewards points for these tickets, so I didn't actually have to part with any real money.

And now, for no particular reason, I will quote some lyrics from the hit musical show Les Miserables:
When it comes to fixing prices
There are lots of tricks he knows
How it all increases, all them bits and pieces
Jesus! It's amazing how it grows!


* They also kindly informed me that the ticket purchase "does not include [a] copy of the book."

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sitcom Room, etc.

Today, I registered for Ken Levine's Sitcom Room, wherein I will spend 33 hours in a hotel with 19 other TV writer wannabes, working in a team of 5 to rewrite and improve a comedy scene.

That happens one week after Ghost Patrol, during which I will spend 30 hours in a van, competing against 21 other teams, working with my team of 6 to complete a marathon puzzle hunt.

Of course, this all takes place in the month of November, also known as National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), when I'll be pounding out 50,000 words of a first draft.

Before then--just over a week from now, in fact--I'm flying back east for Viable Paradise. I'm stocking up on sleep now. Starting tonight. Really.

And, on October 3rd, something wonderful will happen. (It will continue happening for at least the next year, but that's another story.)

My point is this: Break's over.


Tuesday, September 09, 2008


Twenty-two is probably about the total number of hours (so far) that I've spent playing Spore or fiddling with the Creature Creator. I also felt like I was living a Catch-22 paradox this afternoon, when I ran into a crash-to-desktop bug several times. D and I have played our first creature up to the Space stage, but now every time our homeworld gets attacked (which is way too much--a different gripe, see below), after we fend off the invaders and try to save the game, CRASH.

Now there's probably bad code there, but there are also two big design flaws: no auto-save option anywhere in the game, and no way to save the game while you're in a planet's atmosphere. You have to go into orbit before you can save, which means switching view modes, and that's when the crash occurs. You can't save without going into orbit, you can't go into orbit without crashing the game. Grr. Arg.

The debugger in me is curious about what's actually causing this problem--one forum poster thought it might be a bloated graphics cache file, but further experiments disproved that hypothesis. Other suggested workarounds include turning all the graphics quality settings to LOW, or performing a very specific sequence of actions after an attack. None of them seems reliably successful.

The gamer in me is annoyed that EA might have rushed this thing to market and forced its biggest fans to become beta testers. I know it's a complex simulation and all, but Half-Life 2 and Portal never crashed on me once. Not once. Maybe I should just stick to waiting two or three years before trying a game, so I know my hardware will exceed the system requirements. Nuke the site from orbit, it's the only way to be sure.

All that said, Spore really is a remarkable achievement. D and I still have problems with the twitchy camera and movement controls, and the Space stage requires way too much micro-management, but overall, it's amazing how much fun the game is. When it's not crashing.


Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Understanding Google Chrome

Can't wait to download the new web browser from the big G? Pass the time by reading the Google Chrome comic book by Scott McCloud (author of the seminal Understanding Comics), which summarizes a lot of technical detail very well. I also know a few of the people featured in the comic, and it's a kick to see their line-art alter egos.

I'm a big believer in using comics to communicate difficult concepts. I love Larry Gonick's Cartoon Guide series, and I even used his Cartoon Guide to Statistics as a reference for one of my first projects at Google. Hey, I'm an engineer, not a mathematician.

In my last year at Google, I started an internal company blog called "Googley Comics," featuring humorous illustrations which employees would often email around--fake propaganda posters, Google-centric parodies of other art, etc. Most of the stuff was pretty esoteric or inside baseball, as you might expect, but they were fascinating cultural documents, and I thought it would be nice to have a central archive collected and annotated somewhere. I wonder if anyone's still maintaining that blog.

Here's one of my own Dinosaur Comics knock-offs:


Monday, September 01, 2008


Jonathan Coulton is a fine musician and showman...

...a gentleman, who will share the stage with a lady...

...and, sometimes, a bit of a dick.