Monday, March 31, 2008

things to do in Palm Desert when you're nearly dead


Spend an hour driving five miles

Ignore punctuation

Wish like he'll I'd gone to gamestom instead

Wait forty minutes for web pages to load because the network here is so sl..

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Bush's War

If you haven't had a chance to see the excellent two part Frontline report on "Bush's War", I highly recommend it. While the delivery is a bit over the top, the basic gist of the report lays out not only that invading Iraq was a bad idea in many ways, but that the administration was determined to do it regardless of the events leading up to the actual invasion. The section on Bush pressuring Tony Blair to go to war even if the UN didn't approve was quite a shock to see. Equally astonishing, although perhaps not such a surprise, was the unprecedented control and power invested in the office of the Vice President. Given Cheney's recent comments regarding how unpopular a war Iraq has become (Q: Do you have concerns given that nearly 70% of the people of the United States think it was a bad idea to invade Iraq? A: So?), we now have the perspective to see that we've allowed a bunch of crazies to run things simply because we were afraid that another terrorist attack would be perpetrated on American soil. Somewhere else, we're apparently not so concerned about.

It would be quite funny were it not for the sad fact that we see it happen again and again over the course of history. While comparing Bush to Hitler is, at best, hyperbola, at the same time it is easy to see the various similarities - corporatism in the name of nationalism, drumbeat to war (and when that goes well, again), singling out a small and powerless segment of the population to blame things on, shutting down dissent - these are tactics that those who want power use over and over and over and over again to exert it over us. Even with the internet allowing us to go back and find the hundreds of contradictions we are told over time, many clearly outright lies (watch Bush taking questions - when he starts blinking a lot he is almost certainly lying - he'd be the worst poker player ever) are never called out.

Were I elected President, and there is just about no way in hell I'd ever want that job inflicted on my worst enemy, I would start by undoing all of the horrific things Bush/Cheney have done to the Constitution. I would outlaw "signing statements" on my first day. I would outlaw torture under any circumstances - the justice system already takes mitigating circumstances into account, so in the unlikely event that torture was the *only* way we could stop a 24-like nuclear attack, the perpetrators would have the chance to be absolved. Global warming would be the first priority of the administration, along with major effort towards energy independence. I don't pretend to know how hard it would be to actually get us out of the Middle East, but I'd be working toward it. I would also immediately work to pay down our foreign debt and move toward making the dollar once again a currency that the world can depend on.

I don't think most Americans have the foggiest notion of just what a complete fiasco the Bush presidency has been to our position in the world. While he's tried to be the anti-Chamberlain, the British PM who famously declared Peace In Our Time less than a year before Hitler invaded Poland and precipitated a war that would claim well over ten million lives (and that's just the Russians and the Jews), screaming for war at every chance, he's had the same effect - reducing a country that stood for every positive advance that Western civilization has gained since Athens to a second rate power.

I sometimes wonder if the entire Neo-Con strategy was simply to destroy the federal government for every function it provides other than national security and policing of interstate crime. Because that's where we are heading, regardless of who sits in the Oval Office next January. At some point the hole becomes so deep that you will never get out of it, much as Britain will never again rule the waves. If that is true, we all let it happen because we were terrified that a loosely organized bunch of fanatics would once again kill as many people in an attack on US soil as die from cigarette smoking worldwide in week.

I had hoped, back in 1992, that Bill Clinton would be a different kind of President, and he was for a time. I am crazy enough to hope that Obama will be that much different as well. He sure seems to be a better thinker and a better orator, and almost certainly a better leader (when have we ever had a president in modern times who picked his audience as much as Bush has?) even before he's had a chance to show us what he's got. And mark my words, he's going to win - the superdelegates and the loss of the Michigan and Florida primary delegates will kill Hillary. McCain looks good now, but as in 2006, the electorate will find him tarred with the Republican brush and elect Democrats in a landslide nationwide. There's too many people wanting a break from the past 16 years and our rapid descent into third-world parliamentary shenanigans for us to elect a Clinton *or* a Republican that thinks invading Iran is an excellent idea (because that would mean a draft - we can't police Iraq effectively with a volunteer army).

The real point, however, is to suggest that you take a look at the Frontline report on Regardless of which side of the fence you sit on, and it's getting crowded on my side, you will have to be amazed that anyone would try to get away with what the Bush administration did, and even more amazed that we've allowed him to stay in office.

This country breaks my heart.

Cuba - Again

In a burst of activity, the Tuesday night session at Mike's had five, count 'em, five attendees - HazMatt, Jeff, George, Mike, and myself. I had been hoping to give Brass a shot, but seeing as Mike was supposed to teach Cuba at the upcoming Gamestorm con (which I am missing to go to, wait for it, Palm Desert), and we had five, Cuba seemed like the right choice.

I don't mind Cuba, although I have to say it doesn't really grab me as it might have, say, five years ago. I like that you can take several paths to winning, as shown by Matt beating me despite me having an early and effective cigar strategy (helped by a nearly endless stream of cigar-ready shipping). I ran out of money fairly quickly, and with generally high taxes for points (and few chances to grab citrus), most of my points were coming from loading cigars on the 3 boat, usually for 9 points a turn. So clearly you can win this game without having a machine working for you. Of course, the thing that won for Matt was generating VP from a couple of buildings and a Subsidy that let him play the Mayor for an extra five points at the end of each turn, generating somewhere between 8 and 13 points every turn. It was a pretty sweet deal, and no one else was spending money to change that law because of the Corruption Act.

I like the game, as I like Caylus and Pillars of the Earth, although there do seem to be a lot of fussy little rules - ties go to the last person to play the fourth card after the start player, but to the first player after the start player after the second voting round. The whole turning water into mangoes thing is very confusing, and I believe this is the first game I've played where I understood it correctly (out of three games). And, seeing as I've actually *been* to Cuba (legally, for any Bush data miners out there), you'd think I'd have a particular interest. Where the game starts to fall down is that I am pretty good at planning what my move for the turn will be, taking into account what others may or may not do. In this game, no one else was making cigars, so I could ship them whenever I wished - the holds were always available, and in any case I could convert them to VP anyway. As such, I knew exactly what I needed to do in any given turn.

However, Cuba tends to be a fairly tactical game, so if you are in a competitive area (as rum was in our game), you stop and spend a lot of time thinking about what you need to do when the person in front of you does something you did not expect. As such, I spent about a tenth of the game actually thinking about what I needed to do, another tenth doing it, and the remaining 80% waiting for others to decide on their action. That may be a little atypical, but five may be one too many for this game from a downtime perspective.

We finished up with a rousing game of Foppen, which I did pretty well at but never well enough to get all cards out of my hand (my max was, I think, -11, with an average of less than -5 for the entire game). Matt, who went out at least twice, won handily while I tied with George for second (and quite a ways back). This is a game I need to get next time it's in print, as I do love trick taking games and general play them pretty well (all of that Bridge training, you know).

Not sure where we're at next time, as Chris will just be back from Europe and his family will, in all likelihood, be sleeping starting around 6pm that night. ;-)

Sunday, March 23, 2008

The Joy Of Clipping

Mike recently commented on the need for clipped counters in his blog, mostly in reaction to playing a high-counter-density game of DAK2. As a public service (and because the language can easily be mistaken for topics that require proof of adulthood), here is my take on clipping counters for wargames.

The most obvious issue is, of course, why anyone would do this. I freely admit that I used to mock those who clipped their wargame counters, even back in the days when I separated my counters using a razor. Then I played Ted Raicer's copy of Paths of Glory at WBC (the real one), and I realized why. Even in a low density game, the tactile experience is considerably better than with unclipped counters. All of those pointy little corners - gone. Picking up stacks of counters, even small ones, was suddenly a much more pleasant experience. I'd never really noticed before, but after one game I was hooked. I clipped my brand new copy of Wilderness War before I'd gotten on the plane to go home, and since then almost every game in my collection has been clipped.

Does it take time? Of course. If you're working with counters that were poorly diecut or have a lot of "dust" associated with them, it does take longer, but that's because I will trim the sides of the counters with a pair of sewing scissors, the small ones with blades that are only a few inches long. This gets rid of the excess rather nicely and makes for a more uniform counter edge. Fortunately, very few counter sheets made in the past several years have this problem, and you may not mind all of that detrius. Me, I like a clean counter.

And make no mistake, it is all about the absence of the corner, not about having uniform corner clips. Your fingers go to the long side of each counter, so you are rarely if ever handling the corner itself. It is the dogears and square corners that interrupt that motion, leading to counter spillage. In a dense game, that can be lethal, or at least extremely annoying. In a sparse game, it simply makes the counters more pleasant to handle. However, having exact corners is really not an issue and more a matter of taste. Some players I know like to have the corner as square as possible, but unless there is data on the counter (be sure to check the reverse side!), there is no real functional reason I'm aware of to be concerned with this.

I will also freely admit that my rather large wargame collection has been completely clipped, with a very few exceptions. The reason the whole thing got clipped was because I *really* needed something to occupy my brain when my singing voice wigged out in 2003 for around three months. I don't believe I'm exaggerating when I say that clipping counters kept me from a complete mental breakdown. That almost certainly sounds like a joke, but I think it's true. They say our neuroses mask our psychoses, and this was a handy neuroses for me at the time. All of those magazine games and ASL counters took a long time to clip, and it let me *not* think about my singing voice being gone (and no idea if it would come back).

Mike used the word "violate" for how he felt about such an activity. I would suggest that even removing the counter from the sprue constitutes a violation. If you are trimming a negative effect of removal by hand, how does that make things worse? I'm sure it's more of an emotional response. Does it lower the value of the game? Perhaps if you overclip, making the counters more circular than square, but that's easily rectified by using some of the tips I give below. Like with most things, it's a matter of simply changing your perspective. I know it made a big difference for me, and I don't consider a game playable until it's been clipped nowadays. I've been mocked for trimming the excess on circular counters as well, but I do it for exactly the same reason - they are easier and more pleasant to manipulate, so if someone thinks I'm silly, that's fine with me. I don't do it for them. If keeping the game to sell later is an issue, you don't want to take the counters out of the sprues in any event.

Put another way, would you consider the painting of miniatures, assuming competent skills, to be a violation? Trimming the production excess, such as mold lines? It's more or less the same thing.

The other issue for some is that of time. I've found that I prefer clipping while I watch television, which seems like a bit of a contradiction. Perhaps my favorite show to clip to is The Daily Show, Jon Stewart's masterful news satire. There are a few sight gags, but mostly I can just listen. I find a sheet of 1/2" counters takes me about 40 minutes to work through, roughly two TDS episodes once you fast forward through the commercials. While it will take you some time to get through a large collection, you can pick the games you expect to play, as well as new games that arrive. How you prioritize really isn't a big deal as long as it makes sense for you. I also will clip a new game if I've bought it at a con and I'm playing another game that doesn't require my full attention. I got through Band of Heroes this way while playing Brittania at WBC-West last year, a game with a lot of downtime.

Some tips for those who are considering this as a way to enhance your cardboard counter wargames:

1) Use a good quality clipper. There are, apparently jigs out there for this very thing. My attitude is that something like this takes unnecessary time and cost for strictly aesthetic value. I use an excellent heavy clipper from Bed Bath and Beyond that costs around $10. It has a straight edge rather than curved, but it also tends to collect the corners nicely and I get very few strays. Also, it has a very big lever for your thumb, making clipping fairly effortless and callus free. A good company will also sharpen the clipper blades for you, although this shouldn't be an issue unless you are clipping very large numbers of counters (like me).

2) Start with a game that is of low value, whether to you or to the market if resale is important. Magazine games are an excellent choice, as these are rarely intended to be played but as study aides to historical conflicts. Start with generic markers if you're really nervous. Clip a few counters, stack them on the table and move them around. Make sure you aren't clipping out information on the counter itself, although I've seen very few counters for which this is an issue (usually reinforcement information, such as turn of entry, is in the corners). Try different depths for the clip, starting with a minimal clip and moving up from there. Once you find a clip you like, you'll find that it's not terribly difficult to keep it consistent enough for general usage.

3) Clip in some sort of container to keep the corners from flying around too much. A sharp clipper will allow the corner to drop into the container rather than fly around the room. Many people use the box lid for this, and I'll do this at a con or gaming table if I don't have my gear handy. I prefer using a metal mixing bowl for a few reasons. For one thing, I can keep the clipper and other materials in it when not in use. For another, the corners come out of a metal bowl much quicker than a cardboard lid for some reason. I also keep a small paper bowl and a bunch of 3"x3" baggies with the mixing bowl, as well as the sewing scissors (even new counters occasionally need a little extra trimming).

4) I generally trim counters as I will group them. With many games, that means you trim a couple of rows at a time. With others, you might have to pick and choose from the sprue as you go. The important thing is that, so long as the counter sheet is of decent quality, you don't have to worry so much about separating out the counters - you're going to be getting rid of the excess when you trim, so punching them out isn't nearly as critical. Of course, if the die cut didn't go all of the way through the counter, that's different - you don't want to tear the paper. All of the counters that will go in a bag or tray bin go into the bowl at one time. I then clip these, putting the finished counters into the small paper bowl as I go to separate them out, and then the finished counters go into the baggie. It moves along surprisingly quickly once you get a groove on.

5) If you decide to clip the whole shooting match, I suggest that you start by keeping up with new games, then going after games that will see table time, and work your way down from there. By keeping up with the new stuff, you will be spending time with the components and (to my mind) getting more interested in the game as a result. New stuff is also less likely to go OOP right away, so the financial incentive to keep a game intact is lower. Also, since you're more likely to play the new stuff, you'll realize the improvement clipped counters make right away.

I mentioned that there were a few games I hadn't clipped yet. To show you just how much I value counter clipping, here is the list and the reasons each hasn't been clipped yet:

1) Case Blue. Reason: Very new game. Also, I am on the fence as to whether or not I will actually play this and am considering leaving it in mint condition to improve it's value should I decide to sell it once they are OOP.

2) A Frozen Hell. Reason: Fairly new game. I've heard rumors that MMP considers this a bit of a flawed gem, and may redo the design. If that's the case, I'd rather keep it intact for sale, even at a relatively low price, and clip the newer version. I'm also not sure that TCS is for me.

3) Flight Leader. Reason: Fairly new game (for me, got it used from Mike). Older AH game, so it will require a lot more work than newer games with trimming the dust off the sides.

4) Empire of the Rising Sun. Reason: Wasn't certain this would ever see playing time, plus it's 90's AH so will require a bit of trimming. Now that A World At War is OOP, I may decide to keep this one, and thus it will get trimmed.

5) Imperium Romanum II. Reason: Weird West End Games counters that are very thin, almost like clipping paper. Not sure this will ever see play - it's more a study than a game, albeit a very good one.

Wow. Five games out of at least 100 that use cardboard counters. Almost certainly something over 50,000 counters clipped, perhaps up to 100,000. Of course, that's over several years - I didn't do them all over a weekend! And I'm guessing that most of you don't have collections that are nearly as large.

Am I crazy? You tell me. To my mind, I'm improving my enjoyment of a hobby that many of you share and that I've had for my entire adult life. It feeds that compulsive part of my psyche that wants to instill order on a chaotic world. It hurts no one, and costs nothing extra for me to do other than time. About the only negative is that on occasion I find myself wishing I had some counters to clip, which may explain why I own so many Panzer Grenadier games.

Do I think you should clip your counters? If I'm going to play with your copy of the game, perhaps a little. But in the long run, as with so many other things, it's all about whether you consider it a good use of your time. Me, I've got a lot of time and the payoff is well worth it, especially considering that if I were watching Daily Show and *not* clipping, I'd still have spent the same amount of time. So if you want to buy a jig and have perfectly clipped counters, go right ahead. I just don't see it as necessary if what you want are easily manipulated counters in a high density game. Hopefully these tips will give you some of the benefit of the years of experimentation I've done with counter modification without the experimentation, although I'm sure you'll want to do a little yourself to find the sweet spot.

Happy clipping.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

I Need More Wargaming

I was parched enough for wargaming that I went over to Mike's today to watch he and Eric play about half a turn of DAK2. While I was there he mentioned again that it would be nice to get good discussion going about WBC West now so that we'd all have time to play and get into our heads the games we were talking about playing so that we had less brain leakage by the end of the week. Which I'm totally in agreement with.

And which, based on my year so far, I'm unlikely to accomplish.

I'll be clear about this - I am not trying to badger anyone into playing more wargames with me. I'd just like to have more opportunities to play wargames than I do at present. My bookkeeping gig, taking up a whopping two days a week when things are busy, and only a couple of hours each day at that, will be transferred to my nephew Alex in about a month, probably less. My choir will be done with it's annual cycle in about a month as well. And then, slowly, I will go crazy. Because I live at the South Pole.

Here I am, with a good library of wargames, a nice space to play them in, and all the time anyone could care to have. And I'm simply not playing them. Oh, I set them up. I push the cardboard around a bit. I go over the rules. But the simple fact remains that I'm in a position that I'm guessing the vast majority of you would kill to be in, with good friends who enjoy this sort of thing, and I'm simply not playing wargames as I'd like to.

I'm going to put a classified ad in the Charbonneau paper looking for wargamers. Because these people are, for the most part, retired. You should see the events they put on at the clubhouse here, it's like USO day 1945. Not that I expect much - if it doesn't involve cards, golf, or drinking, I'm likely out of luck.

I'll say this again - I'm not trying to get a single one of you to play wargames more often than you do. I understand that everyone has work and family commitments, that while you'd like to play more often it just isn't possible. That's fine, it really is. I'm not even that sure that were we still in Multnomah Village that I'd have any better luck (although I suspect at least one or two of you I'd see more often), although there at least I lived somewhere that driving into town didn't involve an hour in rush hour and $10 in gas.

So here I sit, with this strange feeling that somehow I've fallen into some weird Twilight Zone episode where I'm the last man on Earth with all the books one could read and my glasses break. And I'm ready to look for people who have the time and interest to wargame, even if they're from (God help me) Canby. Because I have this nagging feeling that the wargamer from Canby will make little machine gun noises, or else want to "build" his Combat Commander deck, or wear a steel helmet with a spike on it. Maybe they aren't, but I still feel like I'm seriously considering a dating service out of desperation.

Part of the problem is that there are so many games and so little time. I'd love to play some of the Gamer's SCS series (Stalingrad Pocket II, for example), Roads to Leningrad, The Burning Blue, Red Star Rising, Downtown, Starcraft, Dust, Combat Commander, Simple Great Battles of History, FAB: The Bulge, Manoeuver, Barbarossa to Berlin, the list just gets longer and longer every month. And many of these games aren't even on my list for WBC West. I take it back - I have the time. I have too much time.

I know there are options like VASSAL for semi-real-time gaming, although I've learned to avoid the month-long pbem sessions (I wake up at 3am with the game running in my head). It's not the same, especially if you require a lot of interactivity. There's something about the social interaction that comes with ftf gaming that I'm just dying for.

Enough of my pity party. It's pretty clear that if I want to have regular wargaming opponents while I'm in exile out here in the hinterlands of Portland, I'm going to have to go find them. Of course, that assumes that there are any out there. And that we could stand each other. RCG has spoiled me.

God Help Me Pt II

For those of you wondering exactly what $176 of wargame (at discount) buys you, aside from a nagging feeling that perhaps your priorities are way out of whack, is shown here.

The table requirements are listed at around 8.5' x 6.5'. As a reference, the television behind the game is a 42" LCD projection set. There are actually three sets of maps, one from the old Enemy at the Gates game (the intellectual parent of this game) that comprise four maps at the top of the picture including one half map of the area east of Stalingrad. These overlap the four "Case Blue" maps in the SE corner that encompass the Caucasus from Rostov to Baku. The Crimea map is in the SW corner. Were I to have purchased Guderian's Blitzkrieg II (almost certain to see a reprint should this game sell well), I would have another four maps at the northern end of the floor. I do not know if I have a room big enough that I would not have to clear of furniture. As it was, the dogs had to go into the bedroom for me to take this picture. Were I to set this entire game up to play a full campaign, it would completely take over my game room for a period measured in years. On the other hand, I could devote only my main gaming table (a rather smallish dining table with butterfly leaves on the ends) to either the EatS or CB sets, perhaps without the Crimea map, although the play time would still be epic.

There are six, count 'em, six rules/scenario/info books (booklets only really applies to a few of them) weighing in at a bit less than 250 pages, although only around 60 pages are actually rules (considerably less than, say, ASL, and most rulesets are between 24 and 48 pages, although type density varies greatly - this game has fairly dense type with relatively few graphics). One of the two scenario books is 80 pages long. Two of the books are side-specific and contain most of the tables and reference information - these are each 24 pages.

There are twelve full countersheets and one half countersheet, although to be fair one countersheet is to replace Guderian's Blitzkrieg counters were you to combine the two games, and three are there solely to supply markers. That still leaves eight and a half countersheets of actual combat counters, at 1/2" size (the small ones). Frighteningly, I could probably clip this entire countersheet set, assuming I wasn't worried too much about organization (which would be astonishingly foolish of me) in about 30 minutes per sheet.

For now, the game will remain unpunched. Really. I rarely buy games on speculation, but given the length and space requirements of this bad boy, even the "short" scenarios, I expect that I would be very wise to hang onto it for a few years and then put it up on eBay or similar. Were a reprint of Guderian's Blitzkrieg II to see the light of day once this had run out of stock, I can imagine prices above $400 for collectors with even less self control and more resources than I. Wishful thinking perhaps, but I have to say there is something comforting (and simultaneously disturbing) about having a game of this heft in my collection, even if it remains unpunched.

Now you know what I'll be talking with my therapist about for the next month. And I may need to get one after this decision.

Friday, March 21, 2008

God Help Me

My previous high water mark I've paid for a game (retail, admittedly) was Triumph of Chaos, and that mostly because I wanted to support my friend Dave Doktor, the designer. The amount, $90.

Today, I nearly doubled that record in one purchase ($178), and that at 20% off. Case Blue, of course, the Gamers' OCS Monster Monster with 10, count 'em, 10 maps and enough counters to keep me clipping for about two days solid. The box is 13 pounds.

And I'm going to pick up Devil's Cauldron at a good $150 just to drive the spike into my head.

As I told the store owner, I believe I've crossed a line I wish I had not crossed.

Damn this house I live in and its perspective-destroying expenses!

City of Heroes, First Impressions

OK, I've played something like four or five hours of CoH, and I have some initial impressions:

1) Faster Downloads. Perhaps this was because I'd bought a later edition of the game (up through Chapter 7, they are now at 11), but the updating took *much* less time than with even the Burning Crusade expansion. My one complaint is that the splash screen doesn't do a very good job of letting you know that the updates are done - it looks pretty much the same, just with 0's to let you know that the updates were completed. Of course, with WoW, you had to quit, start the game again, then find out you needed more updates. Multiply by, oh, fifteen for the base game.

2) Weaker graphics. I have *not* ratcheted up the resolution yet (it required a restart that I didn't want to sit through), but I suspect that even with more pixels the cars will still look a little like something from Duke Nukem. Even the original WoW areas looked much more polished, and the new ones completely blow CoH away. I understand it's difficult to differentiate urban areas as much as natural ones, and even WoW starts to look a bit samey after awhile (oh look, another ogre camp).

3) Character creation. As advertised, this was a very cool process. I ended up with a magic scrapper, Spellweaver (although she has very few spells at this point). Breasts at the lower setting - plenty. Waist at the highest setting - pretty skinny. This cracks me up, but I do understand that we're talking superhero comic book standards. She's pretty short, around 5'6", very dark costume with a hood. Actually, it was the hood that inspired almost the entire rest of the character. I'm looking forward to trying this out with a variety of characters.

4) Friendly players. I've been asked by around 10 people to join groups in four or five hours of play on a server with light activity. This *is* in the newb zone, but I consider that to be pretty good for a start. I haven't joined anyone yet, mostly because I prefer to get a grasp of the environment on my own so that I can try things. I expect I'll avoid people who spell their name "warrier" though.

5) Interface. A little clunky. Not really enough slots for powers, at least in the long run (WoW gave me more than double, if you include the extra slots that you have to activate). Close buttons are *tiny*, fortunately most are closable by clicking on the button you used to open it. Otherwise things are very similar to WoW in terms of what you have to do to use powers, etc.

6) Environment. I like the general enhancement idea, although to be honest I ended up discarding a bunch of low level enhancements early before I figured out I could sell them. Duh. Because they aren't physical things like potions or fuzzy bunny tails or gnarled teeth, I didn't think of them as "stuff". I suppose I could sell Inspirations too, although I like hanging on to those if I can (especially health buffs). I haven't figured out inventions at all yet, but they strike me as being very similar to alchemy or engineering in WoW, just differentiated out from enhancements (in WoW, everything "looks" the same until you realize what you can and can't use). The fact that I can't loot the corpses of the generic gang members I've beaten up is annoying! And yes, the quests all feel pretty much the same, and the buildings are mostly forced march linear affairs with few choices to be made. But it's early yet.

7) Gameplay. I love the idea of calling your contact. I hate that you can't seem to get nearly as many quests early on like in WoW - you could get quests that piggybacked nicely. At most, I've had two missions going at once, and most of the time a contact gave me a choice of quests. It's that management of quests that I've generally liked in WoW, this "do one thing, run back across the zone to the contact to get another, run to another part of the zone" that I haven't, although the Call mechanism seems to be making that easier once you have enough cred with said contact. Of course, I'm only on level five or six at this point (I can get a starting character out of the newb zone (level 6) in about an hour, up to level 10 in about three in WoW, for comparison), but who knows how well these things track.

8) Overall Impression. It's very early yet, and I've only played for a couple of days. I have a feeling, though, that this may not be the game for me. I'll definitely give it the full month, and try both heroes and villains, but I don't have that feeling of magic and the excitement of finding out what will be around the next corner. Maybe the world is too close to what I live in, with people and streets and buildings and only the caped crusaders stick out. A real test will be going back to WoW and seeing how much I prefer (or don't) playing in that world.

Again, all of the above are initial impressions. I haven't even started to make up my mind yet about how much I like the game, but I'm certainly getting my $14.99 for the disk and one month of gameplay out of it. I am very tempted to give GW: Nightfall a try as well, although I think I'm better off sticking with a single MMORPG at a time. When does Conan come out again?

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

City of Heroes, Here I Come

With my WoW main, Leonadril, about halfway to level 67, and me starting to get the impression that level 70 in WoW means Multi-Player and nothing but, it's time to start shifting to another MMORPG. I still have my Horde main, Chanya, but she's way back at 39 and while I'd love to start doing more guild activity with her the simple fact is that I would prefer to play with people I know. And can play regularly.

So, it's off to the City of Heroes for me. My copy of XP Pro SP2 showed up today, and after a quick reinstall (about 45 minutes - the version I had before that I couldn't activate was an OEM version, so I guess I had to go through the hoops to allow the activation to work correctly), I was up and running. I've installed CoH/CoV, but had spent a few hours running around Nagrand (those Nesingwary hunting grinds are, well, a grind), so I decided to actually start playing a little CoH on Thursday.

One of the issues Greg and Dave had mentioned was the brick walls that some levels seemed to have. In looking through the update notes, it seems that I'm picking a good time to start playing - they drastically revised the level curve with Chapter 11 (their term for updates), much like was done in WoW. Man, the 40's were the *worst* for the Alliance in WoW, it felt like all I did was, well, run around Stranglethorn Vale doing hunting grinds for Nesingwary. Hey, that's what I'm doing *now*...

Anyway, I'm not sure when Jesse will start playing with me, but I'm just planning to go through a few character creations on both CoH and CoV to get a sense of what sort of feel I'll get from each one. One thing I learned in WoW was that I really enjoyed my very first character, but I'd spent some time doing research to see what sort of character, race, and tradeskills I wanted. I was quite surprised that I didn't enjoy the "pet" classes as much as I thought I would. Being an engineer, Engineering was obvious, as was Mining to go with it. That led me to Gnomes, and of those I felt the Rogue would be easiest to start. What I didn't know was how much I'd dig Stealth. And Backstab. And Garrote. And Distract. And Kick. And combo points. I will miss Leo once I take a break from Wow, that's for certain.

Of course, CoH/CoV may not do it for me, but I do know that I plan to take around a year or so off before coming back and trying out Northrend, because if there's one thing I love about WoW, it's exploring. More on my initial impressions of CoH/CoV in a few days.

BTW, this time I think I'm ready for massive download times - even the latest store copy is four major updates behind. I'll bring a book...


Mike came over last night for our group's regular game night. I use the word "group" in the sense that in the past six game nights, we've had three people show up *once* and the rest of the time it's been two people. Not that there's anything wrong with that - as Chris said, he'll have fun so long as one other person shows up, and so Mike and I played a few turns of FAB: Bulge again, this time with the correct rules.

I once again played the Forces of Darkness while Mike attempted to stave me off. Rather than going for Bastogne, which seems to be the focus of many players (mostly, I think, because of historical drama rather than an actual reason), I concentrated my forces in the north. One of the things I really enjoy about this game is that the Germans are forced to keep their army organization more or less intact - the plan called for 6th Panzer Army to push through the northern portion of the operation to the Meuse and cross into Liege, while the 5th Panzer Army was to make a push in what became the center, but only to protect 6th from the south. Bastogne was a valuable target solely because it was a junction of local road nets in the area. In our game, I more or less ignored it.

As such, my 6th units did an excellent job of pushing into Malmedy and some rather difficult terrain, largely by taking advantage of a rather nice hole I opened up further south, allowing a reserve unit from 5th to penetrate about halfway into US territory. The resulting US response forced Mike to make tough decisions about where to send his few strong units, and he ended up forced to retreat from many of the difficult terrain areas in the north. By the end of turn three, I had taken two of the six yellow star spaces on the map, was two spaces at most from the remainder, and had taken Luxembourg city in the south, which by now was barely garrisoned at all. Could I but take two more in turn 4, I would be one point from an auto victory.

One of the things that Rick Young has done with this game is accurately show what the German goals were. Yes, they were trying to get across the Meuse and threaten Antwerp, the only real port the Allies had that could lift in the sort of materiel they needed to cross the Rhine into Germany. But to do that, they had to push in a certain direction, largely because fuel was such a huge problem for them. When the attack bogged down in the north, they tried to make an end run in the south and ran right into the jaws of Patton's 3rd Army. As such, I was trying to slide 6th along the operational boundary with 5th, where the terrain was easier, but I had enough success with 6th Mike rarely had the chance to set up fieldworks - he had to resort to using his engineers on turn three to get anything going at all in that regard), but the pinning attacks I made on my flank were successful enough to push him back there as well.

Success in this game hinges on two things - concentration of forces and smart use of assets. For the Germans, what assets you get are fairly important, and most of mine ended up being for 5th and 6th. In a particularly key encounter where a one-step Peiper Kampfgruppe had penetrated into a key area but couldn't bring up the additional unit I thought I could because of the rule saying only one unit may cross a river into a newly contested area, I brought up two battle assets that preserved the KG's sole strength point, and indeed forced the US to retreat! A much better use of the von der Heydte paratroops than just dropping them and hoping something came from it. I also ignored the south (other than 7th Army, which really has no choice but to threaten a couple of map edge VP spaces), despite Mike giving me about as clear a path to Bastogne as one could hope for. At the end of turn 3, I even managed to use my special action to encircle Trois Ponts by exploiting Lehr into 6th army territory.

Have I said I love this system? We had a few rules questions here and there, but in all it is the perfect storm of wargaming - relatively clean and elegant rules that provide a rich strategic and tactical situation that rewards the use of effective tactics. Even better, it puts you in a very specific role - that of mid-level commander, able to control certain aspects of the battle while others (such as what assets you receive) are at the mercy of your higher-ups. Even the fact that the opening fighting is scripted, as would have happened in any planned battle, works toward placing you in this role - you don't have any say in how the initial assault would begin, but you do once the situation becomes more fluid. The fact that the block aspect adds fog of war in a very simple and effective way just makes the design better.

This, along with Combat Commander, is the New Age of wargaming, much as the card-driven designs of 10 years ago did. FAB breaks the Bulge mold in many ways, but Young (standing on the shoulders of giants - Simonitch, Heller, Sinigaglio, Freeman) does it in a way that lets us concentrate on the war instead of the rules, just like Combat Commander did, and does it in a historically accurate way. In FAB, you have little control over what resources you get. In CC:E, you have relatively little control over how your troops will operate. Both designs put the lie to the omnipotent/omniscient view that most wargaming falls prey to and instead gives us a true sense of history without a two-inch binder of rules to cover every possible situation. To be fair, A Victory Lost does the same thing, although using an even more retro basic hex and counter system tied with a few effective twists to breathe new life into an old concept. Starkweather, Young, and Hansen are on the forefront of what keeps wargaming great, and with any luck these types of designs will draw more smart and curious younger gamers into the hobby.

Five Years On

Over 4,000 US dead, no one seems able or willing to count Iraqi casualties. $600 billion spent, with a price tag that appears to be headed into the trillions. As someone recently pointed out, that's a million million. To put that in perspective, my net worth is $4 million, more or less. With that kind of resources I never need to work again if I don't want to (and I don't). That means that the money we spent on the Iraq fiasco would allow the population of Portland, OR, my hometown, to retire. The whole thing.

We aren't even counting the number of Iraqi's whose lives have been uprooted entirely, who have fled to other countries. The number of American families whose lives will never be the same because of death or disfigurement to one of the parents or children. And, as far as I can tell, the *only* reason that America (not the architects of this fiasco - we may never know the calculus that led to this war, but we can be reasonably certain it was for personal gain in large measure) has supported this war at all (and those who know me know that I have *never* supported this war - I take no pride in having nearly every single argument against it borne out) is that we wanted our pound of flesh for 9/11.

I think we've gotten it. If revenge doesn't have the sweetness we thought it would, it's because it never does. Christianity, something many supporters of Bush and therefore the Iraq War profess to follow, teaches us to turn the other cheek. We, on the other hand, have responded to a disagreement with our neighbor by bulldozing his house and all of his friend's homes as well. And anyone he may have said hello to. And anyone who looks like him. Especially people who looked like him.

And that is the scariest thing of all, because Iraq had nothing, *nothing* to do with 9/11 other than that the people who lived there are the same general culture as those who flew the planes into the buildings. And we let a bunch of cretins with no honor use our inability to distinguish the acts of 20 people from the lives of 20 million bulldoze their homes. And let them torture people - a friend of my mother's that I've stopped having *any* political discourse said, and I quote, "Well, how else are we going to get information from these people?" How can you have an intelligent conversation with someone who can't grasp the idea that we are only as noble and good as our actions?

I just wish I knew what to do so that I could ensure it would never happen again. Whether it's slavery in the South, internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII, extermination of the European Jews, Communist pogroms against intellectuals and dissidents, organized discrimination of homosexuality, or a thousand other examples from history, it's quite clear to me that humanity is nothing special and that the universe as a whole would be better off without us.

Remarkably, that's what supporters of the Iraq War were saying about Saddam just about the time it became clear that we were not going to find weapons of mass destruction, that the oil revenues would not pay for the war, and that democracy wasn't going to flourish (as if that was *ever* an actual goal). But hey, we have a really cool bunch of rather permanent looking military bases.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Morality Play

Warning: This entry contains material of an adult nature. You know, things like mentioning body parts and recreational activities that Americans like to pretend don't exist.

So Spitzer, the governor of the great state of New York, is the latest to get caught in an act he publicly acted against, in this case soliciting a prostitute. Like Larry Craig before him, "victim" of having a wide stance, he trots out his wife in a press conference, although I suppose that at some level he is to be admired for not putting us through any 60 Minutes interview where he claims he was doing research or some other bullsh*t answer. Not that this excuses his hypocrisy, only that it saves us from him being in the media spotlight any longer than necessary.

What I really don't get, however, is why prostitution is even a crime.

To my knowledge, the only culture that has done anything close to an effective job of stamping out prostitution (and that's assuming they ever had their heart in it in the first place) are fundamentalist Islamic cultures. There's a role model for you. People who are willing to kill women for the crime of being gang raped. And from what I hear from friends who were stationed in Saudi Arabia, that doesn't stop prostitution, at least by women, it just moves it over to young boys.

Let's take the argument from two directions. First, the futility of trying to modify the genetic imperative (we will assume that prostitution demand is driven by men for this argument, although obviously there are women who hire sexual partners). Second, the social costs of criminalizing prostitution. Not surprisingly this latter argument is very similar to why the War On Some Drugs fails miserably, although that has more to do with the continued financial success of the Legal Drugs over the Not-So-Legal drugs. But that's a different entry.

Regardless of your world view, it should be pretty clear to everyone that men want to have orgasms. I suspect there is a rather good argument to be made that evangelical Christianity owes much of it's success to this fact - it provides a framework to channel sexual energy into the fervor of worship and a pretty big stick to whop you upside the head if you don't. Porn aimed at men is a huge business, generating over $10 billion a year. Yes, that's a b in front of illion. Clearly, there is a demand. I'm not sure what the rate of marital infidelity is, but I suspect it is well over 50%, probably closer to something like 75 or 80% were you to get honest numbers.

This is not to say that women aren't interested in sex, or that they are doing something wrong if these are truly the numbers. Instead, I believe that there is a fundamental disconnect between biology and the concept of monogamy for life. While choosing a quote from a science fiction book is probably not the most scholarly of sources, I have not seen as concise or as accurate an argument against long-term monogamy anywhere else. Here's the passage, from Jack McDevitt's Polaris:

"So what happened to your marriage, Dr. Boland? If you don't mind my asking."

"I think Jennifer and I got bored. That's inevitable in any long term relationship."

"You don't really believe that?"

"I'm a psychiatrist. I see it all the time."

"I read somewhere that sixty percent of marriages endure. That they stay together."

"They tolerate each other, usually from a sense of duty. To the kids, generally. To their vows. To an inability to inflict pain on someone they think loves them."

"You're pretty pessimistic about the institution."

"I'm a realist. Long-term marriage is a trap that has survived from our beginnings in the forest, when it was the only way to guarantee species survival. That is no longer the case."

"They why has it survived?"

"Because we've invested it with so much mythology. It's the sanctum sanctorum of adolescent giddiness. It is the sentence we impose on our lives because we watch too much romantic drama. And maybe because people are too scared of being alone."

That's the passage, with a few framing sentences left out. For those of you who have been married less than ten years, this is your future. You may or may not survive it with your soul in one piece, but coming from a 20+ year marriage, I will tell you that this is spot on. But enough about me.

It should be obvious to even the casual observer that men want to have as many children as possible. Maybe not actively, but the act of orgasm in *any* form is, I believe, enough for us. It is why men in prison rape other men but do not consider themselves homosexual (there is a certain amount of alpha-male behavior, found throughout any social mammal species, going on there as well, but in most cases there is no orgasm involved). Orgasm is something we *need* to do, at the deepest possible level of our being. We are *made* this way - it is far too universal to be explained by talk of corruption or Satan or dysfunction.

The other component of the equation is boredom. This applies to pretty much any aspect of human life - we experience something often enough, we lose interest. When you drive to work every day, how much of what happens around you do you notice? Probably the radio or another source that changes from day to day (although I am not sure how you could apply that to commercial radio, largely playing 25 year old music). You probably don't notice the route, or that you've turned where you needed to. You do notice things that require your attention such as a car cutting in front of you, or braking suddenly, but those are *new* things. We are wired to react to newness.

Sex is no different. That is why pornography is so incredibly popular. In a recent Grey's Anatomy episode (again, here I quote popular culture to make a point, but the point is still valid), a patient insisted on watching porn in his room (hilariously, it involved hot nurses). Turned out that the porn raised his endorphin level such that it blocked out his constant and intense pain. Taking away the porn resulted in his pain levels returning to a point where he required medication. Which would you choose - potentially addictive pain medication like Oxycontin, or porn?

I'll take both, please. ;-)

The point is that men (I do not presume to speak for women here) want Different. New. Which equals exciting. And there is no orgasm without exciting. While I will concede that there is a certain amount of sameness to porn, as there are only so many different ways to put tab A in slot B, at the same time our DNA sees a New Partner with the improved chance of New Conception which, from the perspective of DNA, means propagation and therefore immortality.

It is the Conception part that I believe women take issue with. Because no one wants to raise someone else's child unless there are other issues involved (infertility, a desire to avoid the wear and tear of childbearing, wanting to improve a child's lot in life). Women seem to want stability, which is to say protection, and it's clear that the older they get the less chance they have of attracting a mate because said mate is, after all, looking for Conception. Were I to have sex with another woman, even though I've been clipped, my wife's DNA screams, "You will get her pregnant, and then I get the choice of you supporting her child (which lowers my ability to provide stability), or us raising the child (which means I get to do more work with no benefit to myself), or he leaves me for her (massive loss of stability).

The end result, sadly, is an insistence on monogamy and boredom for both parties. The truth, sadly, is that you would be very hard pressed to find a man who only has orgasms in the presence of his wife. And if you are, my guess is that you pray for strength on a regular basis. Even if you believe this is God's Plan and that infidelity is the work of Satan, you have to admit that it sure seems like Satan, who was by all accounts created by God, is vastly more successful in warping God's Plan than God is in implementing it, which speaks poorly for omnipotence. If you want to get truly creative and suggest that all of this is *intentionally* a part of God's Plan, that's where I opt out. I'm really not interested in being a strand of rope in a tug of war for beings that don't seem to mind screwing with my biology for purposes I am completely unable to discern, thank you very much.

So where does prostitution fit into this argument? Simple. It's a job, a way to make money to support oneself. Compare it to any other job where you use part of your physical body, including your mind. The only real difference here is the risk of conception, and I have a strong suspicion that we've got that covered with current technology. The same goes for STDs. There will be some of you who will say that contraception is a Bad Thing, to which I will point you to the previous sentence. From our DNA's perspective, it certainly is. Me, I have no argument with contraception - I underwent surgery to ensure it. By fundamentalist argument, I should never have sex again. To which I suggest that you go f*ck yourself. Seriously. Your religion stops at my waistband, friend. What you do and believe is your business, but if I'm not breaking anyone's arm or picking their pocket, I can do what I wish.

But I digress. Prostitution lets you leverage your physical body in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, whatever. In and of itself it is the same as playing professional football, or dig ditches, or write code, or pretty much any other profession. It is supply and demand. And, to be blunt, not much has stopped it. Even Saudi Arabia, were it to remove religious proscription against it, would see a booming business. It is the second oldest profession for a reason. If you want to be even *more* blunt, one could argue that marriage is a long term prostitution contract when you remove the hearts and flowers.

Now comes the second part of my argument. But Doug, you say, what about all of the bad things that surround prostitution? Drugs, pimps, STDs, broken women, social stigmatization. As if any of those things go away if we eradicate prostitution. However, if you *legalize* prostitution, many of things *do* go away, at least to a greater extent than by keeping it a black market occupation. Nevada tries to have it both ways, but it's still a largely impotent (ha!) exercise because it is painted as a necessary evil - most brothels aren't allowed to operate in the larger cities but out in the boondocks, there are no unions, and many of the women who gravitate to the profession consider it a job of last resort because the social stigma is not removed at all.

So is that social stigma caused by prostitution, or vice versa? Consider the Hummer. Not the sexual act, the vehicle. Ten years ago Hummers were an icon of social status - you could afford one and afford the gas, so it was a sign of success. Today, with oil on the wane and concern about carbon footprints, Hummers are becoming something that demonstrates greed and selfishness. Cigarettes are another product that has undergone tremendous acceptance change in the last 50 years, to the point where they are being legislated out of existence. There is some difference, as both of these products are in some way harmful to those who choose not to use them. Prostitution, properly managed, only threatens monogamy, and I've already argued that that isn't really something that I feel is going to matter, or even be a desirable state in a global sense. It is the environment that dictates whether prostitution is valuable or detrimental.

And it's clearly more valuable all the time, at least if controlled. If every woman who is a prostitute is required to use birth control, a requirement not much different from requiring truck drivers to perform unimpaired when behind the wheel, they actually perform a rather valuable service to humanity as we approach eight billion people on the planet in our lifetimes. China already limits couples to one child each, having seen what happens when you let humanity breed like rabbits. Wouldn't it be better if we could just channel the rampant (and uncontrollable) need for orgasm into a place where it doesn't result in more babies? Because unless you think that a population of more than 10 billion people is *good* for the planet, presumably because it will trigger Armageddon, we're rapidly approaching a point where we won't be able to feed ourselves. It's math. We will need to learn to find ways not to procreate or face massive famine, species die-off, climate change, all sorts of things that look pretty bad for the way things are right now. And I, for one, am pretty happy with the way *my* life is going, thank you very much. If you'd like to trigger the End Times, we have a problem, you and I.

If you want a really good argument for why prostitution should be legal, you have no further to look than Prohibition. Legislation of morality, combined with actual enforcement (and in most jurisdictions, prostitution is enforced selectively to placate the area in which it is operating, mostly because it's illegality spawns more illegality) causes a lot more problems than it solves. And, as everyday experience suggests, it's not being eradicated at all. It's just underground, where the women involved can be treated like chattel. Pimps beat them up, drugs are encouraged to take their money and keep them in the business. Can it get *worse*?

And if you think that social mores won't change, spend a few nights watching the excellent AMC series "Mad Men" about advertising executives in 1960. If you think that the marginalization of African Americans and objectification of women hasn't changed much (and, let's be honest, in some parts of the US it hasn't), and that said change hasn't been for the better, then you're not really someone I can have a rational conversation with.

Do I think that legalization of prostitution would really be a good thing? If it's done like Nevada has done it, with marginal concern for the women involved and keeping it stigmatized, then it would *still* be an improvement over the current situation. Were it to come out of the closet and legalized as it's done in the Netherlands, that's several more steps forward, although the retention of red light districts still keeps it stigmatized to some extent, mostly to keep the more moralistic elements of society happy. To be honest, the complete legalization and attitude change required to make prostitutes as valued in society as, say, truck drivers, will require a more basic shift in attitudes, one that will need us to rethink what monogamy really requires. This is not to say that monogamy as currently idealized actually *works* that way, in fact I think that in practice it won't change much at all. It is the *attitude* toward monogamy that would require change, and that is always the most difficult change of all.

Did Spitzer blow it by doing enough business with prostitutes to rate being Client 9? Given his push to make the profession illegal, then I'd say he fails the test of hypocrisy, and that is a far worse sin than paying someone to have sex with him. The damage he did to his wife and children is far worse because there was an expectation that he would not engage in such activities. In no sense do I wish to suggest that people should not make such promises if they wish to. Marriage is, as far as I can tell, a completely voluntary activity, although we are encouraged to do it at the precise point when perhaps we are least able to make an informed decision. But to prohibit it to the general population? It's absurd, it's damaging, and it's completely ineffective.

I've saved the most damning statement for last - How would I feel about my daughter becoming a prostitute?

That is an excellent question. Today, I'd be unhappy about it. If we were living in a much different world, I'd probably still be unhappy about it, albeit less worried about her safety and health. In the end, she's an adult and has to make those choices for herself, and in the end I would still love her and do what I could to support her and *that* is what is most important. If there is one thing I've learned about becoming a parent, even one that became one a little later than usual in the process, it is that people are going to do what they are going to do. That's about as good an argument for legalization and legitimization as I can make.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Tag, Mozart, You're It!

I love my iPod. And iTunes. And my iPhone. The iPod literally changed the way I store and listen to music in a way that CDs never did. When I decided to retire at the start of 2002, I took a road trip down I-5 from Portland to San Diego to deliver and install an iMac for my early grade-school age nephew. Being on my own, I was able to listen to whatever I wanted to, and I took along a lot of CDs and talking books (most on cassette - remember them?). Were I to proportionalize that media today, it would be the size of a 1/2" LMG counter, back then it took up as much space as both Combat Commander boxes, perhaps a little more.

The problem I have had is that iTunes is really not oriented around multi-movement works, as is found commonly in classical music (although progressive rock has it's share). I guess they took their cue from early CD players, which often included an "index" number that was to subdivide tracks on a CD. Of course, back then CDs seemed to be a major improvement in sound quality (partially true), while the iPod has been until recently a step *back* from CDs in that the music is compressed.

That's interesting to me, and actually a lucky accident, as the one genre of music that suffers most from compression (at least to my abused ears) is classical music with it's wide dynamic range, which is to say the differential between the loudest and softest sounds. Most popular music rarely requires such a wide range, although to be fair the difference in compression schemes tends to focus on compression speed which relates to how quickly the music is recorded rather than the bit rate, which directly affects dynamic range. 16 bits seemed like a lot back in 1982, now most music is recorded using 24-bit technology (although there are few players that take advantage of it - SACD and DVD Audio have never caught on with the buying public other than audiophiles who listen to - wait for it - classical music).

Which is a long and convoluted way of saying that I've not ripped my sizable classical collection of CDs, but it's been because of time issues rather than sonic issues. Because of the improved compression schemes (I'm using 256kbs AAC formatting these days when I do rip a CD, which is very rare), this is the time to start. However, the root problem remains - CDDB, the user-generated CD database that allows you to bring in song data based on the usually unique track signature of a given CD, is horribly inconsistent in how it captures that data.

For example, let us say I am ripping a recording of Beethoven's setting of the Missa solemnis, which is a five movement work, and the discs I'm ripping it from also contains a Mozart Mass as well. The first four movements, located on one disc, might look like this:

Name: Beethoven; Missa solemnis in D, Op. 320 - I Kyrie
Artist: Robert Shaw; Atlanta Symphony & Chorus
Album: Beethoven; Missa solemnis in D, Op. 320 - Mozart; Mass in C minor, Op 36
Composer: Ludwig von Beethoven

The second CD, which contains the Agnus Dei movement, might look like this:

Name: 5. Agnus dei - Beethoven; Missa solemnis, Op. 320
Artist: Robert Shaw; Atlanta Symphony
Album: Mozart; Mass in C minor, Op 36
Composer: Beethoven, Ludwig v. (1775-1825)

I am typing from memory, so some of the Opus numbers and dates may be a little off, but this is for illustrative purposes so bear with me.

As you can tell, there's a lot of difference between the two discs. Worse, some of the fields (the first example's Album field) are so long as to be virtually useless on an iPod, where you only can see around 15 characters at a time.

Now picture this happening with every single album that is out there. Some will use Roman numerals for the movements, which often are named after the tempi they are in, and thus produce an interesting alphanumeric sort, some include the composer's name (iTunes does have a Composer field, but it's useless for popular music and I'd rather not have to remember that I need to think differently when browsing classical material), so data is repeated ad infinitum. In other words, the usefulness of the CDDB is largely negated when you're ripping classical material. Worse, you have to come up with a naming convention that will work in most situations for consistency. When you have several hundred classical CDs, as I do (advanced music degrees will do that to your collection), you want to be consistent from the start or do the work over and over and over.

As the choir I am in is performing the Missa solemnis along with Beethoven's "Choral Fantasy" Fantasia in C (sounds dirty, is actually pretty dull for the choir but a great piano work), I wanted to have these works on my iPod so I can listen to them in the car. That means I have to rip them, which means I'm thinking about a consistent naming convention. I've come up with this, please comment as I suspect I'm getting close to a ripping run in the near future.

Name - Will contain *only* the movement number and title. In single movement works, this will repeat the title of the work itself (e.g.; "Toccata") without any catalog data. I will include key information if appropriate.

Composer - Last name, First name (DOB-DOD). This one is pretty easy, and having the lifespan included is nice to have if you're trying to win a bar bet.

Album - This is the biggest departure: it will contain the *work* rather than the physical *album*. The format will include the last name of the composer (with initials if there are multiple composers with the same last name, such as JS Bach and his progeny). Format is Composer: Work. I will include catalog information in this field. This allows me to scan quickly for a given work, and even though there are multiple recordings of several works in my collection, in general I can differentiate by including that information after the work if necessary. I rarely have multiple recordings by the same artist/ensemble, if any.

Artist - Possibly the most useless information, although I know a lot of classical music lovers consider this the most important. Once I've gotten a good recording/interpretation of a given work, I really don't care who has done it unless someone wants to know who it is. In many cases, the recording label is a better differentiator (Naxos, for example, a pretty good line of budget CDs that I highly recommend). Oddly, this is the best recommendation for ignoring the album a recording is from, as often a different set of artists will be involved with one work and not another (especially vocalists, or if an additional recording is a soloist rather than an ensemble).

The fly in the ointment is, of course, what to do when you have a compilation of works on an album. These are usually "vanity" productions to showcase an ensemble or artist, sometimes from less-well-known organizations. Technically, the Missa solemnis recording mentioned above is one of these, as it includes another work, even if that work is also "major". In general, if the works are multi-movement, they will generally be separated out (which requires me to edit the number of discs as well as the track numbers as well as all of the other data). In the case of particularly well organized discs such as one I own that has Vaughn Williams' "Fantasy on a theme of Thomas Tallis" as well as Barbur's"Adagio for Strings", I still have to decide if I wish to break up each work individually or not. I guess I could keep such a group together as a playlist, although I prefer to save those for albums I've recently purchased so that they don't get lost in the shuffle (no pun intended). Because I buy something like four to eight albums a month, and it's easy to forget you've bought something in the 60 Gb of data sitting on my iPod.

Anyway, every album becomes a lot of work, and even though I suspect most people will not be terribly interested in classical music who read this blog, it is an interesting database problem. If I've learned one thing about gamers, we like puzzles and we are technically minded, and this is exactly the sort of thing that I would (and am) taking to gamers to get their take on.

That, and I figure if nothing else I'll drive off anyone who's still reading after my diatribe on evangelical Christianity, at least the flavor that my daughter has latched onto (no new information on that front, btw).

If you've made it this far, feel free to add a comment if you think that you can help me out here. I really want to start getting this music into the database, as I rarely listen to classical anymore because it's in a format I rarely use. Thanks!

Friday, March 07, 2008

Anyone Know A Bass Player?

The band I'm in just parted ways with the rather weak bass player that joined a few weeks ago. He couldn't seem to find time to rehearse, either with us *or* on his own, based on the number of notes he continually missed.

Anyway, we're looking for a replacement, and it's hard to find bass players in the area. If you know anyone interested in a rock band that meets every two weeks but has some good players in it, please drop me a line in the comments. Thanks. I *really* don't want to end up playing key bass...

Thursday, March 06, 2008


I certainly complain when people don't live up their promises, but I also like to take the time to thank those who make my life easier. In this case, the kudos go out to Vais Technology, who make the SoundLinQ iPod adaptor I have in my '05 Lexus ES330. You'd think that a car of that vintage would have an easy way to incorporate an iPod, but no. Regardless, the cable that connects from the iPod to the adaptor started behaving erratically recently, with sound cutting out unless the cable was aligned just so. I thought for a while it was my nearly three year old iPod losing it's tightness around the data port, but when I used it in my wife's RAV (which has a Griffin adaptor that plugs into the same port), it was very tight and I had no problems at all.

Looking at the warranty for the SL1 unit I have, it told me to contact the manufacturer, which I did by e-mail (I like having a record of these sorts of conversations). I expected never to hear back from them again, as seems to be SOP for most companies, but they actually sent me a return mail, saying they didn't have me on record as having purchased from them, but that they were sending out a new cable per my request anyway.

I figure the cable probably costs them $10 max, plus the time and cost to package and ship, plus reading and responding. All in all, something a bit less than $50. All to make sure I was happy with my purchase. Well done, Vais Tech.

Finally, A Great War

I used to subscribe to Command Magazine back in the day. I was a grad student and the price seemed a bit high considering that this was well before the days of GMT's P500, but it was fun to get a completely new game in every issue, even if you occasionally got a game like Chaco that was more logistics exercise than combat. After being a subscriber for four years, I let my sub expire after issue 28, just in time to miss the high water mark in their publishing history, Ted Raicer's The Great War in Europe. Command went downhill soon after that, the nadir being a chess variant that caused many to pull their subs and the magazine to fold, but had my timing been just a little better I would have gotten one of the great magazine games of all time.

Fast forward to 2007, when GMT finally publishes the reprint of GWiE (along with it's sister game, also published in Command, The Great War in the Near East, in the box). What would seem to be a relatively easy task, republishing a game, became a nightmare for GMT when the developer disappeared (which also happened with their game Zero!), no electronic versions (or, apparently, unpunched) versions of the game were available, resulting in what seemed to be an inexcusable number of mistakes.

Ted himself exacerbated the situation by going on ConSimWorld and chastising the wargaming community by sounding remarkably like my father - "In my day, we didn't have Living Rules. You made replacement counters and got on with it. If the rules didn't work, you made up your own. You walked to the gaming store in a blizzard, 15 miles uphill each direction." Note - Not an actual quote from Ted, but he did say pretty much everything but the last sentence in one form or another. To his credit, with a game with this many counters you would expect a certain number of errors - it happens all the time. What made the errors so unpalatable was that GMT had delayed the game to add in a countersheet of corrected counters for the ones spread out all over the original countersheets. Many of the unfixed errors were cosmetic - few of us care much that the 3rd Greek Corps was actually the 36th, although I recall a certain Bill Ramsay complaining early and often that Paths of Glory was ruined for him and his friends because the aerial map Mark Simonitch used for that game had post-land reclamation coastline for Holland, a country that did not participate in WWI. I think he also called PoG "Candyland" at some point.

Anyway, one can hardly blame GMT for being embarrassed as well as really wanting to get this one right. And earlier this week, they more or less did it. They sent out a countersheet and a page of instructions (a very wise move) along with their P500 orders for their most recent games (and, I'm guessing, to everyone else who asked or had P500'd GWiE). The countersheet contained something like 80 replacement counters. That's right, 80. I have not done the math, but by my reckoning about 60% of those counters had actual game-related issues - incorrect values on the counters, starting codes, theater restrictions, or unit types. These were big issues in a game with no OOB sheets (there is a counter appearance manifest in the rules, but it is several pages long), and in some cases (like where the Provisional Government sides of Russian counters were missing) the problem became much more complicated.

So did GMT get it right? Almost completely. I have two *very* minor nits about what they did, although I also understand to some extent one of them. Perhaps the more confusing is that there was a Russian unit, SV, that had a different Russian unit, POV, printed on it's back originally. The new unit had the correct back, but the instructions were very confusing as to what to do with the old counter. Apparently, the old counter is still supposed to be used under some circumstances, at least the POV side. What I don't get is why they didn't just print a new POV counter on the countersheet - it's not like they had something like 60 blanks. Oh, they did. I may have misunderstood this issue, and admit to not having researched it, but it seems like this particular issue was one of those "we'll figure it out later' things that got kludged at the last minute.

The nit that I do to some extent understand is why they didn't take the time to add in old counter fixes for other GMT games. You have 50 slots for extra counters, why not put any errata counters for games published in the past two years on there as well? GMT usually provides these counters with their in-house magazine, C3i, but not everyone who buys GMT games buys C3i. Many, but not everyone. I could see GMT having to ship twice as many of these countersheets to customers who hadn't bought GWiE but wanted the corrected counters. I can also see that GMT just wanted this whole mess behind them. Here they have a very highly anticipated reprint coming out more than 10 years after the original, and it suffers from production issues that make the company look like it's run by the Bush administration. I'd want to be very sure that every problem I knew of was resolved, even the dumb "we used a black circle around the starting code instead of a blue one" issue resolved too, and I'd probably be so focused on that that it wouldn't occur to me that there could be some added value to the customer.

But really, both of those issues are so teeny as to only warrant a brief grumbling from this retired engineer who is always looking for ways to improve processes, so none of this should be taken so much as criticism as much as lessons learned. Despite Ted "Old Man" Raicer's grumblings about we as a hobby should shut up and buy the games as published, I for one am delighted that GMT *does* have such a strong commitment to customer satisfaction. While this game got bobbled pretty badly (and repeatedly, looking a bit like Reggie Bush having trouble holding onto the ball as he ran down the field with no one around him), they've done right by their customers. It is no surprise that my collection of wargames dating from 1990 contains as many GMT games as everything else combined (only the pre-1998 AH stock is bigger), and a very big part of that is the dedication to the hobby shown by every single member of that company, from Gene's constant presence at WBC asking me about how I liked their games and what they should publish next, to efforts like this.

Gentlefolk of GMT, there is a reason that I have more than 20 games on your P500 list preordered, and it isn't because I'm interested in convoy operations in the North Atlantic during WW2. It's because I trust you to, almost always and certainly more often than your competition, to deliver the game by hook or by crook, and - perhaps most importantly - to take responsibility for your work in a way that personal experience has shown is increasingly rare in our short-term and profit driven world.

Gentlefolk of GMT, I salute you.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Gary Gygax, Demigod

Just learned that Gary Gygax, the guy who pretty much defined role-playing games in the 70's, died today after a long illness. He, more than perhaps anyone, is responsible for Convention Funk, but also for giving those of us with underdeveloped social skills in high school something to do on weekends. A very big part of my personality and ability to think on my feet comes from being a Dungeon Master, and despite the droll comments above I sincerely hope that there is a heaven and he gets to DM for the Big Guy.

Thank you, Gary. You'll be missed.

Neuroshima Hex, or The Return of Roopert

Chris hosted our weekly Tuesday night gaming session. The sessions have been spottily attended recently, with this being the best attended in four weeks (with three of us, Mike included). Still, as Chris said, it doesn't matter who shows up, we'll have fun anyway. Well, everyone but Mike.

Chris had set up Neuroshima Hex, a tile placement game somewhat reminiscent (to me, anyway) of the Vortex collectible tile game that Fantasy Flight put out some years ago. Vortex was very popular with our group, with several of us collecting the tiles. I still have all of my sets, enough to field decent decks in all eight factions, and it was a favorite lunchtime game for Laurent and I before I foolishly retired from full time work at the end of 2001. As such, I was very interested in seeing how well NH played, and if it would be a good game for three. I'll note that Chris had *not* set the game up for us, but to play with his sons. Not that that stopped us.

In NH, you play one of four factions in a post-apocolyptic world - who am I kidding, this could be anything. It could be Killer Bunnies, but with an actual game attached. The point is that you have a deck of hexagonal tiles that you place on a five-hex-wide hexagonal map (hmm, could there be a reason the word "Hex" is in the title?), plus some extra tiles that allow you to perform various actions, the most important of which is to Battle. Each player has an HQ on the board that has 20 hit points, and when your HQ goes down, so do you. The various units can attack in different directions, or give extra mutant abilities to units in specific adjacent spaces. Each faction is tuned to a different strategy, so there are six different combinations of factions that you could face off against each other in a two player game.

Since I can't be bothered with a random back story, I took the red faction (Mordred? Morpheus? More More More?) which focuses on just being badass. They tend to have a lot of units that can take hits and do damage, but with only a single move token and four battle tokens you really want to be sure that what you put down is going to stay there. Most importantly, I had the Air Strike, which gives a single hit to every tile in a one hex radius of the target hex (including your own). Since it ignores HQs, I used it at a critical juncture to save my sorry red ass. Mike had the Blue faction, and Chris the Yellow.

Gameplay is pretty simple - you draw enough tiles from your original deck of 36 to end up with three face up tiles in front of you (no hidden info in this game other than the draw order). You must then ditch one of these three tiles out of the game, which I frankly think is one of the two brilliant elements. The other two tiles you can then play to the board, or if it's an action, as that action. Or, you can hang onto them. There may be a point to hanging onto tiles, but seeing as the game is probably about getting the most tiles in play over the course of the game, I suspect that in most cases it's better to play 'em when you got 'em. The exceptions would be things like an Air Burst or a Battle action, which can be key.

The other brilliant element is the Battle. Battles happen when someone plays a (wait for it...) Battle action, or else when someone fills the last space on the board. Believe me, you want to take a few seconds and figure out how the battle will play out, because if you don't you can end up hurting yourself much more than anyone else if you play these at the wrong time. I think all of us made at least one dumb play during the game, but none more than Chris filling that last space and taking more damage than anyone else.

During the battle, you look at every combat unit on the board and figure it's initiative, expressed as a number between 1 and 3. Some non-combat units on the board will improve your initiative if you are next to them and they have an arrow pointing to it. Mike's HQ also gave adjacent units extra initiative, so that at some points he had units with initiative of 4 or 5! That's important, because like the Old West Gunfights, it's the person who votes early and often who wins. Various units have things like the ability to absorb multiple hits, or to even shrug off the first point of damage. What's interesting is that each hexside of a unit has different abilities. For example, I might have a unit that attacks with strength two facing north, one facing NW and NE, and has armor on all three sides, but has no protection or attack on the other three sides. Some units can also fire ranged, hitting the first enemy unit in that direction. Again, some non-com units will boost these values, or sometimes allow you to treat melee strengths as ranged strengths (or vice versa).

From there the battle is simple. All of the units with the highest initiative fire simultaneously. Once units are hit and/or removed, you do the same with the next level down. Battles tend to be fairly bloody, which is good because there are only 19 spaces on the board and everyone has 36 tiles to get through. Once someone runs out of tiles, everyone else gets a chance to play one more turn (with no battles allowed), then you do one last battle. Whoever's HQ has the most hits remaining, if any, wins.

I had borrowed Jesse's copy of the game a couple of weeks ago, and was looking forward to giving it a try. While I've already stated why I'm not convinced that strategic thinking helps out much here, I *do* think that despite the luck of the draw being a huge part of the game it's still a fun exercise in figuring out how to best use the resources you do have. In one sense, you are choosing which third of the deck you *won't* use as you go through the discard mechanism, and you are also getting to decide if you are ready to have a battle or not, at least when it's your turn. It's not ASL, but it's a fun little game that I would be playing at lunchtime were I crazy enough to have kept working for the Man. With three there was a small amount of downtime, but with four it might have become too much. Not to mention that it took us about 85 minutes to play the game, and it does *not* scale - you just get more hexes with four and another 36 tiles that will get played. Chris said he'd heard it shines with two players, and I suspect that's true.

One last note: the board is much larger than the area you'd need even for four players, with the apparent and optimistic intent of adding expansions. Hey, I'd buy one. Of course, I ended up winning - did I mention that the Air Burst I played happened to take out two units threatening my HQ? Oh yeah. Boosh. Boosh boosh. Thakka thakka thakka. Fwoom. BOOM. Good fun. I ended up scooping up a one point win over Chris at the end, with Mike not far behind. Oh, if you don't like foul language the flavor story at the beginning of the rulebook is perhaps more appropriate for adults than the 10 year olds the box mentions, although I'm pretty sure your kids are aware of those words by the time they're eight. Good luck with that.

With it almost 9pm, we decided on a light card game as I needed to get up early the next morning (if you're looking at the time stamp, you'll notice that "early" came about seven hours ahead of time for me), so we pulled out Sieben Siegel, AKA Zing!, still one of my favorite trick taking games. Out of three hands, I managed to go perfect in two, marred only by having a hand from hell (all 9's in balanced suits with mid-level cards below them, a sure recipe for disaster). Fortunately, I took Roopert to minimize the damage and ended up with the four points I took in that hand as the only points I had all game. In the third hand, Mike ended up with one extra token he couldn't redeem and I nosed past him in the score to win the game by a point. Sweep!

BTW, we call the Grim Reaper "Roopert" (I'm sure they spell it Rupert, but it's my story and my joke so I'll spell it however the hell I want to) thanks to a particularly dim drummer I used to know. Dim, as I'll call him, was the kind of guy who didn't want to go into a bookstore when we were in high school because, and I quote, "someone might see us." Ack. Anyway, when he got an NES system and the Paperboy game, which features the Grim Reaper, he didn't know who that was. The Reaper, I mean. Really. Worse, he thought I said "Rooper" and called it that for the rest of the night. Some people deserve to be allowed to continue to embarrass themselves for hours, and Dim was one of those people. When RCG first played SS at Sunriver years ago, I introduced the name, but it was quickly converted to Roopert to get my goat, and Roopert he shall remain. I dunno, the Grim Rooper still has a certain something, but I know when to shut up. Occasionally.

Just in case you are worried that Dim might stumble across this blog and become angry with me for mocking him, don't worry. I don't, and even then I doubt he knows how to spell Google. Or could figure out that this was about him. He probably still thinks it's the Grim Rooper. Dumb as a post.

Anyway, that's it for this week. Next week we're up north at Matt's, where I actually plan to attend. Stop the presses.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

WoW Update

It's been quite a while since i've updated you on my World of Warcraft activities.

First of all, the move in October pretty much killed any play for a good month, and even then it's rare that I get more than about 10 hours of play in any given week. That may seem like quite a bit, but it's less than 2 hours a day. Considering that WoW is pretty much the *only* computer/video game I play at all anymore (other than a few social things on the Wii and Guitar Hero), that's not a huge surprise.

However, my numbers went way up in February, mostly because I finally have the office together, along with a new Mac Pro tower (just four cores, though), and thus a place to use a computer. The laptop has become my keyboard of choice for the band I'm in (more on that later), and it's nice to have a big screen and decent horsepower (and a passable graphics card, although the ATI 2600XT has some problems - wish I'd sprung for the NVidia 8800GT now).

The other big difference is that I haven't touched any of my alt characters since the move. Not once, not even my orc shammy Chanya (languishing, I believe, around level 40). Part of that is the faster leveling that characters do under an update from Blizzard, but mostly it's just that once I got my ride it's very hard to just walk anywhere. That, and I really wanted to see what Outland was like. It's like everything else, only on drugs.

OK, not exactly. I will say one thing - the gear totally rocks compared to what's in the original game. I doubled my armor value in about three days. After struggling to get to 100 gold for my mount, with not much better luck up to around level 58, I have gone through something like 700 gold in the last six levels, much of it spent on getting my rogue's Darkshadow armor set. There's a gnome rogue in the CCG who has this kit on, and it looks *really* cool. Hard to believe that I'm doing quests just to look good. The thing is that you spend a lot more time running around in the "old" world getting this stuff, and it's kind of a drag to have to come back from Outland, run to Gadgetzan on one end of one continent, then run to three different places all over the world to kill 24 mobs, then come back to Gadgetzan, just to find that you're heading back to Winterspring to spend 40 gold on a reagent, then back to Gadgetzan, then back to Ironforge.

That's a lot of running around. Makes me consider getting that extra 40% speed boost for an epic mount, although that costs around 500 gold. It won't take more than a level or two for me to get that much, but I suspect I'll be spending it just as fast. The other bummer is that I have to do group quests and raids for some of the stuff for my armor set, something I've never really enjoyed as much. I have friends trying to get me to try out EvE, but it's clear that you don't get very far in that game unless you are part of a large group, something that I don't want to have to deal with.

Anyway, Leonadril is at level 64 (just dinged today), and is doing a ton of questing in Zagaramarsh and Terokkar Forest in Outlands, along with the low-XP/gold armor set quests. Even though you get the swamp critters on acid effect of Zagramarsh, in fact you're still dealing with ogres and naga, plus a few other things. The graphics *are* very cool, and the quest design is pretty good, but so far the long quest chains that feel like you're roleplaying aren't there so much. I've skipped almost all of the dungeons in the game so far, just a couple that went to completion, and so far haven't done Hellfire Citadel. Here's hoping that I can get the Shadow armor from Blackrock Mountain without having to actually enter the instance, as rogues can usually get a lot further into heavily-mobbed areas through use of stealth, and can generally slide in, knock someone out, blind the other, shrink your target, throw a few other tricks their way, get him killed, get the loot, and vanish before dying.

I know a lot of people say that the best thing about MMORPGs is the fact that you *are* playing with others, but in WoW (at least) my experience has been that most people act like complete assh*les when they're in groups. I've had some luck with single players I've teamed up with for quick group quests, but the instances have, bar none, been complete failures other than the one I did in NW Tanaris (troll city), and even that we had to bail and wait for a few more players when three people decided it was taking too long after a whopping 15 minutes.

I can see that the luster is coming off of WoW, but at the same time I'm starting to consider what other MMORPG I'll pick up after. I would *love* a Lovecraftian horror MMORPG, but I don't think one is out there. I know there's a Conan RPG coming out soon, but I'm not sure I want to be in at the beginning of something like that. The one that looks good right now is Guild Wars, which doesn't require a monthly fee. It's PC only, but the Mac Pro can boot into XP (once I finally get an activated copy - I just don't think that $300 for an OS is a fair price, and the Mac-based emulators that don't require Windows itself don't support the level of graphics I'll need). Regardless, I'm a good two months away from dinging level 70 with Leonadril (he's a rogue gnome engineer/miner on the Drenden server, if anyone cares), and then the raid play doesn't really appeal to me, at least not at this point. By then I'll probably shift to GW and see how I like it, although I may try out a bunch of different "trial" acccounts at that point just to see what I'm missing.

At the same time, I consider WoW to have been by huge leaps and bound the most bang for the buck that I have ever gotten from a video/computer game. There are problems, sure, but in general the experience has been exactly the sort of thing that I enjoy/obsess over. I love the exploration element, the mission-based play, the ability to go in a variety of paths, the variety of areas and mobs, the way your character gains abilities and how that changes the way you play. It's really been a blast, and I'm remembering with great fondness and nostalgia for just one year ago when I spent three hours (!) loading the elebenty-hundred patchs for WoW, all of which was mostly forgotten when I stepped into Dun Mordan and heard the snow crunch under my feet. There are still some challenges left for Leonadril, and I'm sure I'll come back to Chanya at some point, but I'm feeling a little like I'm at the last 15 minutes of what has been a really good movie, one that I've been an active participant in, and the last bits will hopefully be the best ones.