Week 161: Christening, Reminising, and Consolation

As you can see from the pictures this week, one big event this week was Mandy’s christening. Which she slept through. And not being a Catholic, I’m kind of with her on this one and I’m still not exactly sure what the deal is. I was raised Southern Baptist, where baptism was something you volunteered for once you were old enough to fully and rationally comprehend the wickedness of dancing, gaming with dice, and the new Def Leppard album. I spend a lot of time with Mandy and it doesn’t seem to me that she’s sinful to the point where she would need to be washed clean, but I have to admit I can’t watch her all the time.

Still, like many ceremonies it’s symbolic and as much for us and the other members of her family as it is for her –even more so in this case. And I’m sure that my little girl will have plenty of future opportunities to tell the general public what she’s done wrong. Her first Senate Special Investigative Hearing, for example.

Sam is still cruising along just fine. The weather is still uncooperative, but last weekend we did find a big enough warm patch to go out to the back yard and play on the swing set. When we do this, I often like to engage Sam in conversation, just to see what she’s capable of and what goes on in her head. For some reason she started talking about our house in San Diego, California.

“And we had a changing table upstairs in our house, Daddy,” she said as she swung on the tire swing. “You changed my diapers there.”

“Yeah,” I said, giving her another push. “That’s right. What else do you remember about California?”

“There were parks and playground and Risa.”

I looked around the yard. It was certainly bigger and better furnished than the one around our house in San Diego, but we were both wearing coats and there were still patches of snow hiding in the shady spots. Like Sam, I missed my friends from Cali and I missed all the comforts I had taken for granted there. “Yeah,” I repeated, and in a burst of melancholy I slumped a little and added “I miss California, Sammy.”

Sam locked eyes with me, frowned a little, and tilted her head in sympathy. And then she said, in perhaps the most adult, mature tone I’ve yet to hear her use, “I know you do, Daddy. I know you do. But we live here now.”

I had to laugh, and after a second Sam joined me. Both what she said and the way she had said it caught me totally off guard, but I agreed with the sentiment. Life is full of choices, and sometimes none of them are perfect. And sometimes you do what’s right for others in order to do right by yourself. Sam and Mandy get to grow up around their family and Geralyn is happier even though she sometimes waxes nostalgic for sunny California as well. And I guess I get a big finished basement with a HDTV, a wet bar, and a mini fridge.

Sometimes it takes the example of a three year old lead by example and teach you how to just shrug and roll with it. She’s a good kid.

Book Review: Play Money

Play Money

This book obviously isn’t for everyone. In it Julian Dibbell describes a long-term project where he set out to make tens of thousands of real dollars by selling and trading virtual possessions in massively multiplayer online games like World of Warcraft, EverQuest, or his own specialty, Ultima Online.

The concept is pretty simple: there’s a magic sword in the game that you want for your character, but you aren’t lucky enough or skillful enough or patient enough to get it. So you go eo eBay or any other countless websites and you fork over $50 or $125 or $300 or whatever in real money to another player so that he meets up with you in the game and gives you the sword. Now consider that many of these games have crafting systems where players can collect raw materials and money that can be used to create the magic sword, and suddenly that simple business transaction blooms into something more. You have low-level suppliers gathering up raw materials. You have craftsmen taking them, organizing them, and creating magic swords. You have logistics managers keeping track of inventory and relaying requests to suppliers for more raw materials based on what’s in demand. You have a sales force posting eBay auctions. You have delivery boys fulfilling the orders and handing over the imaginary swords to characters played by real consumers.

You have, in essence, a supply chain. And just like with real-life supply chains, people are profiting along the way, with the people running things are making thousands of dollars. Hundreds of thousands of dollars. Millions of dollars. No, seriously.

The author of Play Money: How I Quit My Day Job and Struck it Rich in Virtual Loot Farming is actually pretty small potatoes in that he only makes $47,000 over a year’s worth of selling his pixilated wares. But Dibbell makes it an interesting read if you can overlook a few overly metaphysical chapters on the nature of play and a few too many droppings of names like Adam Smith or some guy who wrote a paper on all this. The author basically takes us from beginning to end in his attempts at striking it rich in the Ultima Online virtual loot market, giving us insight into how he and some of the major players in the scene made their fortunes. There’s some appropriately geeky explanations of the mechanics of gold “farming” and associated profiteering, and we see how people do it both through honest play/work and through exploiting bugs in the game’s code. We see how hackers devise a way to spontaneously create BILLIONS of gold pieces –enough to completely obliterate the in-game economy if they wanted to– and then lose it all in the face of infighting and blackmail. We even get a glimpse at a Chinese sweat shop where low wage workers are stacked on top of each other and paid to play video games for 12+ hours per day so that they can generate both virtual and real wealth for their overlords. It’s fascinating stuff.

I really only have two chief complaints about the book. The first is that it focusses primarily on Ultima Online, which is an older game I never played. A more current examination of the subject would undeniably center on World of Warcraft, which is the most successful MMOG ever. Still, Diddell’s experiences are what they are, and the mechanics he describes in Ultima Online are no doubt largely applicable to other games in the same vein.

My second complaint, however, is more substantial. The author blatantly ignores the implications that his enterprises have on players who aren’t in it to make money. The unintended effects of gold farmers are not insubstantial. They may cause inflation of the in-game economies. They may try to dominate certain tracts of the game world and make them unfriendly to casual players through harassment, hogging of resources, or outright warfare. And, of course, one gets sick of them spamming “WTB RUNECLOTH X40 STACKS!!!!!!!!” in the chat channels all day and night. Yet Dibbel glosses over all this.

Still, it’s a good read if you’re interested in the topic. I really like how Dibbell makes it a very personal story so that over the course of his efforts I started to feel for the guy –especially at the end when we see it all laid out in hindsight. And Dibbell obviously loves the game and the whole scene. This wasn’t just a book about the ins and outs of gold farming and selling virtual loot. It’s a book about one gamer trying to make a fortune by doing those things in a game that he loves. It’s both entertaining and informative, which is a rare combination.

Week 160: Speeches, cooperating, and playmates

I’d have to go back and check the archives to be sure, but I’m pretty sure that Mandy is more talkative than Sam was at this age. She’ll babble and coo at you for minutes on end if you don’t glace at your watch and tell her that you really need to be going now. The other day Ger and I were lying on our bed with Mandy between us, and the little gal was turning frantically between us and burbling at us like a madwoman. Just “Goooorr uuh!” this and “”Mmmmbbblluuaah Guh!” that while frantically flailing her tiny limbs and opening her eyes as wide as she could. I like to think of her doing it in her best Jack Baur voice, trying to say “No, listen! Listen to me OR THOUSANDS OF PEOPLE WILL DIE!”

She’s still an amazingly easy baby, ready to comply with any written order we bring her, such as the ones pertaining to going to sleep when we tell her to and staying that way for the next six to seven hours. Last night we put Mandy down in her crib while her eyes were still open and she just lay there until she went to sleep on her own. Of course, if my knowledge of cosmic karma is correct this means that I’ll pay for it by being eaten by angry beavers one day, but you know what? Deal.

Sam, on the other hand, is still hosing everything down with sparkling water drawn from her newfound well of independance. She’s still insisting on freaking out insto spastic hijinks whenever we’re trying to put her down to bed, though we did have an earnest discussion the other night about how if she didn’t want Daddy to grab her by the ankle, pull her out from under the bed, and carry her upside down back to her bedroom to finish brushing her teeth she’d just have to learn to cooperate.

Still, I feel bad for her. With the weather lately we haven’t been able to get out of the house much. This weekend we actually went to the mall just to get out and let her climb over things that we wouldn’t have to replace if they got broken. They had one of those big kiddie play areas near the food court, so we just dumped her in there and watched over her while she and about five thousand other toddlers swarmed over the playground and each other like some kind of roiling hive mind.

Watching Sam in this kind of situation was actually pretty interesting. When we first put her in there she immediately sought out another little girl who was about her size. This was her new bestest friend in the world, as evidenced by the way Sam glommed onto her and followed her everywhere she went, jabbering at her about who knows what. When the girl’s parents retrieved her from the undulating sea of toddlers, Sam would immediately look around for a replacement. This actually worked out pretty well, as most of the time the other girl would jabber back and appear to appreciate the company. Occasionally, though, one of Sam’s new partners would get a panicked look on her face and try to move away, only to become more stricken when Sam would follow after her, shouting something about Curious George or Grumpy Bear.

And then we went to the Mrs. Field’s Cookies stand and got Sam a chocolate chip cookie the size of her head, so all in all it was a pretty good outing.

Week 159: quiet, imagination, and monsters

(It’s going to be a brief post this week. I let myself get run down catching up with things at work and then getting an awful head cold. But at least there’s pictures.)

They say that things really change when you have multiple kids, and I now believe it. As just one small example, when Sam was a baby we would walk around on tip-toes when she slept, fearful of disturbing her delicate slumber if we breathed or thought too loudly. By the time Mandy came along, on the other hand, this idea went right out the window and now conversations like this are commonplace:

“Hi. Where’s Mandy?”

“She’s right here, asleep.”

“Cool. Hey, look, I got a new fog horn.”

“Awesome! Let’s hear it!”

And the funny thing is, of course, that Mandy is completely oblivious to the noise around her, and when she decides to sleep nothing on God’s green earth will disturb her. I wish we had known this sooner.

And while loud noises don’t really bother Sam either, one thing that is starting to turn against her a bit is her imagination. Lately, the flip side of her overactive and inventive mind seems to be that it is contriving things to be scared about. It started with her accusing us of being “monsters,” and to this day I wonder where she learned that term.

From there, things have moved into asking that we stay with her when we put her down to bed so that she stays safe. And then last weekend when we tried to leave Sam at her grandparents for the night she insisted that there was “a scary ball monster on the ceiling” of her room, and that she had to sleep in Grandma’s bed.

But wait, wait. Here’s the best part: Ger recently took some funds from Sam’s birthday bounty and bought her a new movie. Guess which one. Give up? She bought Monsters, Inc.. The movie about monsters. Who live in your closet. And under your bed. Who eat your face. I think. It’s been a while.

At any rate, we haven’t shown her the movie yet. We need a bigger bed first.

Book review: World War Z

You may remember author Max Brooks (son of famous comedian Mel Brooks, by the way) as the author of another book called The Complete Zombie Survival Guide. I once called that book as “non fiction set in a world where zombies exist.” Brooks described in excruciating detail and complete seriousness all kinds of tips for surviving an assault by an army of the living dead. In the sequel, World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie Wars, Brooks takes it a bit further and gives us a documentary-style retelling of a zombie outbreak that nearly wiped out the human race.

World War Z’s hook is also it’s greatest weakness. Instead of a structured narrative about the zombie wars involving a cast of normal characters in the literary sense, Brooks peppers the reader with one short vignette after another, all of them with different survivors ostensibly being interviewed by the author for the book. The characters all describe their role in the war, ranging from refugee to war profiteer to military general to post-war bureaucrat.

In a way, this is the book’s greatest strength. Brooks has obviously thought this whole zombie thing way through, and his imagination shines in the variety of situations the vignettes describe. Here’s just a short sample:

  1. A suburban housewife ignores the threat, clinging to her ideal middle class life until zombies come crashing through her sliding glass doors
  2. Panicked drivers clog up a freeway so that most can’t even open the car doors, and are then trapped in their automobiles by a wave of living dead
  3. An overconfident military fails to plug the outpouring of millions of zombies from New York City when they rely on weapons and tactics that turn out to be ineffective against this new kind of enemy
  4. After giving up on everything east of the Rocky Mountains and establishing a safe zone in what’s left of the West, a government official creates a jobs retraining program where lawyers, middle managers, film directors, and others with now worthless skills learn how to be carpenters, gunsmiths, and chimney sweeps.

I could go on, but you get it. Each of these scenarios could easily be expanded into a short story or even a short novel, but Brooks eschews that in favor of just jumping to the punchline and giving you all the good parts at once.

At the same time, though, this approach also eliminates a lot of things that are kind of necessary for good drama. There are no character arcs, since we only stick with a character for five to ten pages and then never see him/her again. All the people telling their stories obviously survived, so there’s no tension over whether or not they’ll make it. There’s no real plot or overarching story beyond what you, the reader, can piece together from the disjointed vignettes.

I think a better author could have taken the best of the book and created an epic story that cuts back and forth between several storylines, possibly weaving them together by the end of the book. A lot of the same ground could have been covered, but with a more unified structure.

Still, the rapid fire burst of vignettes does expose us to a lot of imaginative stuff, and it has its charms. If you’re a fan of the walking dead, you’ll probably be entertained.

Week 158: Intermission, reunion, and torment

When Sam was born, I learned to be a lot more efficient in my utilization of free time. Since Mandy was born, I’ve been almost fanatical about it. Like most sane people, I believe that a balance between work, family, and alone time is critical to maintaining health and happiness. Between a full day’s work and commute, working out (if I’m lucky), spending time with the other people that live with me, and helping get Sam down to sleep, I’m left with just about an hour of recreation time per weekday –maybe up to two hours if I’m willing to cannibalize my sleep time.

As a result, I’ve learned to zero in on my recreation like it were anything else that just had to be done. I have an hour, I’m going to watch one episode of Battlestar Galactica tonight, watch two episodes of Arrested Development on DVD, play Neverwinter Nights 2 for a while, catch up on Quarter to Three forum posts, read for a while, whatever. I don’t screw around. Once that kid is down and Ger is nursing the other one, I’m focusing like a laser on my recreation.

That’s probably why I got kind of freaked out when I traveled to Savannah, Georgia this last week for training and was presented with the stupefying prospect of five to six hours of free time per night. With my kids (and Ger for that matter) taken out of the picture, I almost panicked over what to do with myself. Here’s a list of what I packed on my trip:

  1. Three paper books
  2. One audiobook
  3. Five DVDs
  4. The entire run of the Transmetropolitan comic
  5. Nintendo DS plus four games
  6. Laptop (with Internet access, of course)
  7. Even a couple of older PC games that would run on my laptop

I almost didn’t have room for my shoes. In the end, I made it through 3 of the DVDs, two of the books, and half of the Transmetropolitan run. Plus I did some web surfing and took two long walks through downtown Savannah, for which I wish i had brought my camera.

This, apparently, is what life without kids or a wife was like. It was thrilling for the first day or so, but then I have to admit I got bored, bored, bored, plus I missed my girls –all three of them. When Ger took me to the airport and I said goodbye to Sam, she burst into tears. I’m kind of ashamed to admit this, but that made me feel good. Not that she was crying, but that she didn’t want me to go. Mandy, on the other hand, appeared to not give a crap.

So while I was eating my fancy take-out meal from Outback Steakhouse in my hotel room and watching Family Guy on DVD, I always felt bad in the back of my mind for leaving Sam and for leaving Geralyn to wrestle with two kids by herself.

(And let us pause here to note that “take out” is apparently the only accepted term in Savannah. The first time I went into the restaurant and asked to place a “to go order” the guy just looked at me and repeated “Toooooo goooo oooorrrrrrr duuuuurrr…?” while cocking his head slightly and staring into space. “Yes,” I said, thinking that the emphasis should be on the “duuuuurrr” part.”)

So I’m glad that I have a job that only requires overnight travel once or twice a year, if that. It turns out that Geralyn did fine, even when Sam decided to kick things up a notch by getting sick the day after I left. But regardless, I brought back Sam a Lightning McQueen lunch box and Ger some various things that had been dipped in chocolate and then sprinkled with more chocolate. Mandy I didn’t bring anything, because I honestly forgot that she existed.

Ha ha, just kidding. It’s really because she didn’t ask for anything specific.

And speaking of Mandy, we hit a very important milestone just this weekend. I said, for the very first time, these words: “Sammy, stop tormenting your sister.” I’m sure it won’t be the last.

On choosing

“Okay, Sam, which one do you want to ride on?”

“This one!”

“Sam, this is a merry go round. They have all kinds of animals to ride on. There’s a tiger, a zeba, a rabbit, even a giant sea horse. Don’t you want to ride on one of those?”

“No. I wanna ride on this.”

“This… This is a bench, Sammy. I think it’s only here because the law requires it for all the little crippled children.”

“I wanna ride on the bench!”

“It’s lame Sam.”


“Okay, people staring now. Fine, whatever, scoot over.”

“Yaaay! I’m riding a bench!”

Book Review: Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid

Thunderbolt Kid

One thing I like about Bill Bryson is that he operates under a variety of nonfiction genres. He’s done books on linguistics, history, science, and travel. In The Life and Times of The Thunderbolt Kid he tackles a memoir, which is a word I can never reliably spell. Bryson (or his editors) can, however, and he uses that ability to write about the childhood and adolescence he spent in Des Moines, Iowa during the 1950s and 60s.

There’s a lot of peering through rose colored glasses here, as you’d expect. Bryson gets nostalgic about old fashioned movie theater matinées , classic radio and television shows, and a grocery store with a giant pit full of comic books where care free moms could dump their kids while they selected from the bounty that the post-war economy presented. But, this being Bryson, her periodically swaps the rose-colored specs with those with more cynical filters. I laughed at the dark humor of his first revelation that adults couldn’t always relied upon, during which he lay at the foot of a jungle gym with a broken leg while the adult world pretty much ignored him other than to say “You sure like to play down there, don’t you?”

And so it’s also pretty funny throughout, but not quite as funny as some of his best stuff. I get the feeling that I’d have appreciated the nostalgia and some of the humor better if I had been a product of the same generation as the author, but having grown up in the 80s I had to rely on a lot of indirect knowledge and stereotypes to appreciate his stories about childhood in the 50s. It does make me wish, however, that someone would write a book like this for my generation. Or that if someone has, they’d tell me about it and not disappoint me once I read it. Or, failing that, that I had the talent to write such a memoir. But then, saying that I’m going to write a memoir sounds so pompous that it stops me in my tracks. Maybe Bryson’s son will get to it.