Category Archives: personal

Three Things I’m Enjoying

I have been enjoying 3 things over the last few days, and each one takes a different form of media.

1. Re-reading The Waste Lands by Stephen King. I have been re-reading King’s Dark Tower books. The first time around I listening to them on audiobook. This time, I am reading the trade paper editions (and making lots of marginal notes along the way). It’s been a lot of fun.

2. Listening to Danse Macabre by Stephen King. I really enjoyed the book the first time around, and I’m enjoying it even more this time. I’m listening to the book while I am walking, or in the car, or doing chores, and it is a great way to make the time fly by.

3. Watching Ken Burns’ Baseball documentary. This is my second time around on this one as well, and I am enjoying every minute of this series.

What has been interesting is that one isn’t calling out any more than the other. I am doing each of these things when and where they feel natural. It relaxes me, and it provides some nice changes of pace along the way.

I Forgot to Go to My Classes!

For the first time in more than 15 years, I had a dream last night in which I had gone back to school–the University of California, Riverside, where I got my undergraduate degree–and I forgot to go to my classes.

I was wandering around a campus that was very different than the one I remembered. But recall walking into the library. There polished marble floors. Tall pillars holding up domed and arched ceilings. It was quiet and virtually empty–nothing like how I remember the Tomás Rivera library at UC Riverside. I knew the books were “downstairs” but I couldn’t find my way down. I ended up going outside, and getting lost. But as I walked the campus, I remember this serene feeling that I was doing the right thing, going back to school. I was at peace with it.

That peace did not last long.

I found my way to a group of people. Among them was Scott Edelman, who pointed out that the way to get back to the library was to follow the metro tracks across a small grassy area. At this point, I had two large suitcases with me, and had to race along the tracks a la the gang in Stephen King’s “The Body1” before the train knocked me off. I made it.

It was only while I was searching for the doors to the lower entrance of the library (no longer with suitcases–apparently, my imagination conjured them only to make that track crossing more exciting) that I realized that while I had been at the school for nearly a full quarter, I had only attended the very first day of classes.

I was sort of bewildered by this. Hadn’t I had dreams about forgetting to go to classes for years after graduating. And now, here I was back in school and I had actually forgotten to go to my classes.

I woke up at this point, relieved that it had all been a dream. But also troubled. I hadn’t had an anxiety dream of this particular sort in 15 years at least. I’ve had others, most commonly, one where I am getting current with my pilot’s license, and take off, only to realize that I have forgotten to contact air traffic control. But it has been a very, very long time since I had the dream about forgetting to go to class.

  1. Or, if you prefer, the movie version, Stand By Me.

A Walk in the Woods

For the last couple of Sundays, we’ve taken the kids for short hikes in the woods. Last Sunday we took them to Scott’s Run, along the Potomac. Yesterday, we went to a favorite place of ours, Burke Lake. Kelly and I have walked around the lake several times over the years. It’s a 4.5 mile walk. Yesterday, we all walked but at the 1.5 mile mark, the Little Miss and I turned around, while Kelly and the Little Man continued all the way around the lake. I took this shot from the northwest corner of the lake yesterday.

Burke Lake, November 2015

There is something about walking in the woods (“No, Daddy, it’s called the ‘Wilderness’,” the Little Miss insisted when we talked yesterday.) that is relaxing and invigorating. Yesterday, especially. We are in the heart of autumn and the woods surrounding the lake were carpeted in leaves, and the smell of the those leaves, and the rich oxygen of the woods managed to wake me up, after an unusually sluggish start to the day yesterday.

There are benches on the lake front here and there, and every time I walk around the lake, I think, It would be great to take a book and sit on the bench for an hour or two, reading, surrounding by lake sounds. But the lake is a little too far from the house to make that practical.

We enjoy our walks in the woods. And the kids did a great job yesterday. The Little Miss managed a total of 3 miles with her short little legs. The Little Man did 4.5 miles. But then again, they’ve always been walkers.

Playing Shroud of the Avatar and Thoughts on MMORPGs

One of the things I’ve been doing while I take a break from writing is playing early releases of Shroud of the Avatar. For those who don’t know, SotA is a crowdfunded MMORPG run by Richard Garriott (a.k.a Lord British) and Starr Long. It is a direct descendant of the Ultima games of my teens. I was an early supporter of the game and so I have access to the monthly releases that they do. They are currently on R23, but until now, I haven’t played much because my free time was consumed by writing.

I think I was in 7th or 8th grade when I first encountered an Ultima game. It was probably Ultima IV: The Quest of the Avatar. The game came out in 1985, and I remember being fascinated by it. For one thing, it was very much like a Dungeons & Dragons game. For another, it was the first game I ever encountered where your moral and ethical behavior within the game mattered, and had an impact on the outcome. I loved playing the game, and when I finally completed it, it felt like a real triumph. I went on to play Ultima V, and Ultima VI. Year later, after college, I played Ultima IX, which by then, had become a first-person perspective game.

Part of what fascinates me about games like Ultima, and Shroud of the Avatar is the complexity of the game. Part of it is the mechanics. As a software developer, I have a keen interest in knowing how things work. Car enthusiasts know about engines. I am fascinated by the internal mechanics of a game as complex as Shroud of the Avatar. That is a big part of why I am so impressed by the open development they are doing. The game is still in pre-Alpha, but backers get monthly updates like clockwork. Backers become the QA for the game. The community appears to be strong, and opinionated, but that gets the job done. The folks at Portalarium–Richard Garriott’s company that is making the game–are just opinionated and just as quick at providing fixes and patches to issues as the community is to report them.

The forums and posts made my the development team provide a fascinating insight into the process of how the game is made. In one forum, the notes from the daily standing meetings are posted. You can see who is working on what part of the game, what, if anything, is blocking them. The video chats they do are insightful, and provide a glimpse of just how complex the game is under the hood. For someone like me, this is like candy on Halloween.

Playing the game has been fun, too. While I really like the top-down game view of the old Ultima IV and Ultima V, the sense of immersion you get from the dazzling graphics and animation of Shroud of the Avatar makes it seem more real than any game I’ve played before it. The conscientiousness that has gone into each aspect of the look and feel of the game comes through strongly. Things like the way water behaves in the game–a seemingly small detail–adds an exponential level of realism to the game.

Shroud of the Avatar

The quality of light that is used, the reflection of light in water, even the textures of the mountains in the distance make it appears as through you really there in the imagined world:

Shroud of the Avatar 2

My playing partner

I’ve been playing Shroud of the Avatar with the Little Man. I remember how much I loved Ultima when I was younger, and I thought he might enjoy it, too. Of course, he is younger than I was when I played, but I didn’t have a guide to help explain things. So we have been playing together and it has been fun. What’s fascinating to me is how much he gets into the game, and how much he understands of the mechanics of the game. And he remembers everything, although sometimes, incorrectly. For instance, at one point we were attached by thugs–they were called thugs in the game, anyway. A day or two later, we were talking about the game and the Little Man proposed a strategy.

“Daddy,” he said, “next time we encounter the snugs, I think we should…”

Snugs? He meant “thugs” of course, but now we both call them snugs, because it was too funny not to.

After completing one of the early quests over the weekend, we had enough gold to improve some of our skills. So we began developing skills in the “Subterfuge” skill tree. I explained to the Little Man what “subterfuge” meant, and he understood. For the rest of the day, it seemed, I’d hear him say to Kelly, “Mom, do you know subterfuge is? Well, we have a skill that will allow us to…”

He will no doubt impress his friends, and quite possibly his teacher, with his new-found vocabulary.

One thing that is great about the Ultima games, and Shroud of the Avatar is no exception, is that the avatars moral character is a big part of the game. In the original game, there were three principles–truth, love, and courage–that are made up of eight virtues: honesty, compassion, valor, justice, honor, sacrifice, spirituality, and humility. These virtues carry through to Shroud of the Avatar. That means that game isn’t just about fighting monsters and getting gold. There are moral situations in which the decisions you make affect your (moral) character and that in turn affects the outcome of the game. It provides a very large gray area where it isn’t always clear what the right thing to do is, and in those situations (only one or two of which we have encountered so far) I’ll turn to the Little Man and we’ll discuss what we think the best option is, and why.

The first beta versions of the game aren’t scheduled to be released until sometime next year. For now, we are just trying to learn the intricacies of the game. Combat, magic, skill sets, crafting, property ownership, interacting with NPCs and other players, weather, experience, the maps of the world, and much more.

I have a glimmer of where games like these are going. Looking at the graphics and visual effects, it is not hard to see that the game is looking more and more like a deeply interactive movie. I imagine that the ultimate effect is for the game not to feel game-like at all, but instead, to be immersed in a virtual world that looks like a real world. There have been places where we paused to watch, for instance, and amazing sunrise over the ocean. It looked just as real as any sunrise I’ve ever seen. Walking through the woods at night with mist hanging low in the trees, you can almost feel the cold air, despite the comfortable temperatures within the house.

Interactive fiction is nothing new, but the folks at Portalarium are taking it to new heights. Shroud of the Avatar has a strong story backbone, to say nothing of the legacy of all of the games that came before it. I am looking forward to continuing to follow its development.

Driving home from a hike in the woods yesterday, the Little Man asked, “Daddy, when the game comes out, do we have to buy it or do we already have it.”

I explained, “Well, as early backers, we’ve already paid for the game, so when the final release comes out, we’ll get it and be able to play it together.”

He seemed very happy about this.


No Writing for the Last 2 Days

I voluntarily ended my 825-consecutive-day writing streak 2 days ago, and for the last two days, I have taken a break from writing. When I have a few more minutes I’ll post more details about why I decided to end the streak.

So if I haven’t been writing, what have I been doing? Well, in addition to re-reading A Man on the Moon by Andrew Chaikin, I’ve been playing video games–specifically, R22 of Shroud of the AvatarAnd I’m having a blast!

Back From Vacation

I have been mostly off the radar for the last week, attending a family reunion in New York, which was a lot of fun. I got to see people and places that I haven’t seen in a very long time. One of those places was Bear Mountain. It was a great time of year to visit, too, with the fall colors just starting to spread over the hills.

Bear Mountain

It was relaxing, and fun, and now, I am back. Here are a few things I wanted to mention:

  1. I am behind in reading email. If you send me email over the last week, I will be catching up over the next few days, but expect a delayed response.
  2. Part 3 of my Building a Writer’s Toolkit series on Medium is also delayed. I was hoping to get it out last Thursday, but vacation had priority. I’m hoping to have it out before the end of the week, although I don’t know exactly when yet.
  3. I am slowly making my way through Neal Stephenson’s Seveneves and enjoying it. First new SF book that I have read in quite some time.
  4. On the recommendation of a friend, I started watching Gotham while on vacation. It’s pretty good.
  5. I will likely be offline much of this weekend. I am scheduled to participate in a writers retreat, although there is a possibility that schedule will change.

Also, it is fall! It’s starting to cool off here. I can’t believe how quickly the summer passed.

Earlier Tonight on Twitter I Revealed My Secret to Drafts

I was overcome, earlier today, with the sudden desire to reveal my closely held secret, as a writer, to what I really mean when I talk about draft.

So there you have it. When I talk about drafts and writer, know you know what I really mean.

James Michener on Forming Opinions About the Arts

While reading Michener’s memoir, The World Is My Home, I came across this passage where Michener describes his feelings about the arts, criticism, and how he formed his opinions:

I had always had the habit, which I adhered to in my response to the arts, of trying to look or listen with an unprejudiced intellect. For example, whenever I entered a museum I would walk to the center of each room, from where I could see no labels, and ask myself: What is worth noting here? By taking this approach I note only discovered some excellent art but also gained confidence in my artistic judgement so that I have never had any hesitancy in relying upon my own taste. I have consistently fortified it with the opinions of others–I read a great deal of criticism–but I have never allowed critics to dissuade me from making my own evaluations. As a result my appreciation of the arts has been nothing but positive, and it has been one of the best parts of my life. I doubt I would have felt this way had I been overawed by the opinions of others.

This resonated with me because my approach to reading has been similar for many years. A quick scan through the list of books I’ve read over the last 20 years will show something of a diversity of subject matter, fiction and nonfiction. Some of the books that I have read have been panned by critics, but I only considered the criticism after first plowing through the book out of some curiosity on my part. I read P. G. Wodehouse for this reason, and while I found his writing amusing, I didn’t think it was anything extraordinary. On the other hand, I found odd books like Philip Caputo’s The Longest Road to be an unexpected joy.

With two young children, it has made me consider how they will appreciate art. Art, for them, may very well be in terms of video games. I can go on and on about what joy Richard Garriott’s Ultima IV was for me, but ultimately, I want to instill in them the idea that they need to walk to the center of the room, so that they they can’t read the labels, ask themselves, “What is worth noting here?”

Summer Wanes and Fall Approaches

This morning we took a walk to local farmer’s market. The air was cool and freshened by breeze. All traces of summer’s humidity had vanished. Just last weekend, we were sitting lakeside, enjoying the sun. Today was the first day of 2015 that felt like fall. I snapped this photo as we approached our destination. Fall might not be here quite yet, but it is approach with alarming speed.

Feels Like Fall

14 Years Later…

And I still can’t watch the news footage of the World Trade Center smoking, and eventually collapsing. It still seems profoundly surreal. A new building has risen from the ashes, but I still see the ghosts of the old twins when I catch a glimpse of the Manhattan skyline. I think those ghosts live in my eyes, like floaters. And like floaters, they are here to stay.

Two Days in West Virginia

We have been doing more short, mini-trips lately. Often, these are one day jaunts, like our recent trip to Monticello, or our trip into the mountains of Maryland last weekend. I like these mini-trips. A good experience on such a trip can be completely revitalizing.

For Labor Day weekend, we decided at the last minute to head out of town. We wanted to avoid crowds and traffic, so we settled on Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, which we have visited on several occasions in the past.

Driving there, we avoided the highways and took backroads, passing through some beautiful farm country. We did the same on the drive home this afternoon, making even drives pleasant (to say nothing of traffic-free).

On Saturday, we arrived in Berkeley Springs, and headed over to Tari’s for lunch. We’d eaten there a couple of times before, but what stuck out most in my mind was their French Dip sandwich. I ordered it again this time, not having had it in years, and nervously wondering if it would live up to my memory of it.

It did.

French Dip at Tari's

We wandered around the springs with the kids, pointing out the George Washington’s bathtub (much to their disbelief).

George Washington's Bathtub

Back at the hotel, the kids had a chance to spend an hour in the pool, cooling off, as well as burning off excess energy accumulated by sitting in the car for a few hours earlier in the day. For dinner, we made our way up to Panorama at the Peak, where we had eaten with friends exactly six years earlier. It was a little overcast when we arrived, but we still had a rather striking view of the confluence of Maryland, Virginia, and Pennsylvania below us.

Panorama at the Peak

This morning, after an early breakfast, we set off for Cacapon State Park. We took the kids on an early hike on the Piney Ridge Trail. We nearly walked into a deer on that trail. Both kids were pretty excited about that.

We arrived at the lake at about 10:30 am, right when it was opening. We found a shady spot on the beach, and for the next three hours, the kids played in the sand and water, while Kelly and I relaxed. The shade and breeze kept us cool. It was, for me, the most relaxing part of the trip.

Lakeside Beach

We were back home around 4 o’clock this afternoon, and I think we all considered the trip a success. We liked the beach so much that we are considering going back next season and staying at the lodge for a few days, or perhaps getting a cabin. The trip took my mind off work, and allowed us all to spend quality time together. The fact that it is a long weekend helps. We got back this afternoon knowing that there is no school tomorrow, nor is there work for Kelly and I. Instead, we’ll be doing more relaxing, and visiting friends.

August Was a Busy Month – Just Look at the Numbers

It certainly felt busy, what with the projects I am juggling at the day job taking up so much of my time. But I didn’t realize just how busy August was until I looked at the numbers.

RescueTime tells me that I spent nearly 300 hours in August on the computer:

RescueTime - August 2015

More than a third of that time was spent on various software development projects. A mere 7% was spent on social networking, which is low for me overall, and which probably helps explain how quite I’ve been online recently. Oh, and that spike you see on August 14? That was an 18 hour and 40 minute day. Put another way: there were 744 hours in the month of August. Nearly half of them, I was working on the computer.

That much work has its affect on other parts of my life. I wrote a total of about 13,000 words in the month of August, and so far as I can tell, for the first time since February 2013, I did not crack more than 1,000 words in a day for the entire month1.

Writing in August 2015

I spent a total of 9.5 hours writing in August. Meaning that of those 300 hours I spent on the computer, only about 3% of the time was spent writing. Still my writing streak remains intact, and with my writing finished for today, I have 772 consecutive days of writing under my belt.

My stress level increased tremendously in the month of August. I can tell this because my shoulders and neck are tight to the point that they are painful when I wake up in the morning. Part of my stress relief used to be getting out for a walk a few times a day to clear my head. But I’ve been so busy that I’ve neglected those walks. Last August, I managed to walk nearly 300,000 steps (135 miles). This August–wait for it–191,000 steps (87 miles).

I also managed to read only 2 books in August. Again, my time was taken up by work.

I find myself in a crunch that I’ve never experienced before, with three major projects converging at the same time. Hopefully, things will lighten up a bit at the end of this month, as two of the three projects wrap up. In the meantime, I am looking to get back into my regular walking routine. That walking was a great way to relieve tension and stress throughout the day, and the way I’ve been feeling lately, I could use that kind of relief.

  1. Compare this to June, when I wrote nearly 30,000 words in the month.