October 31, 2011

Last Call For NaNoWriMo

Yes, today is the last day of October- Halloween, or Reformation Day, or maybe Christmas if you're a programmer, or-

The eve of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) 2011.
This looks deceptively pleasant.

Plots have been outlined, characters sketched, worlds built, brains wracked. Starting tomorrow, I'll be attempting to put down 1,667 words per day into a more or less coherent storyline. By the end of the month I should have at least 50,000 words of an epic fantasy novel: [Working Title] The Sword of the Sentinel. You can follow my progress or my mental deterioration, but I'll not be blogging in the meantime.

It's not too late to join in the madness. Otherwise, I'll see you on the other side. With a novel.

October 12, 2011

For Those About To Write

November is coming.

Two years ago I dedicated the month to growing a beard of epic proportions. This time around I'll be writing a novel of epic proportions.

That's right, NaNoWriMo. It's an annual challenge for would-be authors to write a 50,000-word novel in 30 days. And this year, I'm doing it. I am going to write 1,667 words per day, every day, for one month. And by the end I will have a fairly significant portion of a book.

I've already posted a few excerpts from the epic pseudo-fantasy story that I'm putting together. This is a project that I've been working on slowly for several years now, but I'm finally ready to do some serious writing. I've been using TiddlyWiki to keep notes on everything, following discussions on Writers.SE, and I've run lots of ideas past a few privileged friends. There are several more pages of unpublished excerpts lying around, and many more fragments floating around in my head. It's time to start merging everything into a solid storyline.

The working title of my novel is The Sword of the Sentinel. You've already met the main character:
Rael was just an ordinary young man from the borderlands who longed for an adventure. He never suspected when he fell in with a traveling band of traders that he would take his place among the Sentinels, the legendary guardians of the free lands. Now, with the threat of a terrible war looming, Rael finds himself in the midst of a desperate quest to unite the people of the world against the coming darkness.
You can follow along on my NaNoWriMo page as I race towards 50,000 words starting Tuesday, November 1.

October 4, 2011

Read My Lips: More Blog Posts

John Stewart recently surmised on his most respected Daily Show, in reference to Sarah Palin's ongoing flirtatious antics, that "you can have a colorful bus, and drive to early primary states, or you can go around telling people what you would do if you were President, but when you put those two together there's really only two possibilities. You are either running for President of the United States, or you are a crazy person."

That got me thinking again about one potential use for this blog. Given that I have no intentions of taking a bus tour or any other form of road trip, it follows that I could safely annotate my hypothetical Presidential bid and/or administration without the risk of coming across as a crazy person. In theory, anyway.

It seems, then, that I may begin writing as if I were in fact running for or holding office to prime the discussion ahead of an entirely not real political gambit. Much like the cunning Locke and Demosthenes of Ender's Game, enlightening the world with my intellectual prowess in order to eventually dominate. Because we all know that's how politics on the Internet works.

September 26, 2011

A Shot in the Dark

An Excerpt from [Untitled Work of Fiction]

Rael was suddenly aware that he was being followed. He turned to look over his shoulder and barely ducked out of the way of a large object swinging toward his head. The blow caught his shoulder and sent him sprawling. He tucked his head and rolled, grabbing at his belt for the hunting knife as he sprung back to his feet. He could barely make out the shapes of his attackers lunging at him. Before he could unsheathe the small weapon he received another blow to the stomach, doubling him over. Fighting to maintain his balance, he threw a punch in the direction of one attacker, missing completely. A torch was lit, and Rael saw that he was surrounded.

Two men grabbed Rael by the arms and held them outstretched despite his desperate struggling. A third, armed with the torch and a wooden club, stepped in front of him, eying him like a stray dog. One of the others spat and muttered "We got him good and tight, boss. Give him the treatment!"

Rael shot back defiantly, "Let me loose and I'll show you a treatment, man to man! Then we'll see who's got who!"

Their leader brandished his club and scowled. "Stow your tongue, you snot-nosed whelp. This will not be a pleasant-"

The assailant barely had time to look down at the white-feathered arrow protruding from his neck before slumping to the ground in a lifeless heap. Raels' other two captors loosened their grasp momentarily as they spun towards the direction of the attack, giving Rael the chance to lash out at one with a strong kick to the knee, sending him down howling. The other faltered, caught between predator and prey. An instant later he too sprouted an arrow and fell with a grunt. Rael turned back to the first wounded man who was struggling back to his feet and delivered another vicious kick to the head, knocking him out cold. The whole struggle had lasted only seconds.

Rael turned in the direction of the arrows' origin, aware that there was little he could do if the invisible marksman chose him next. Warily, he called out. "Who's there?" For a moment nothing happened, then he made out a smallish shadowy form strolling silently towards him. The figure stopped just outside the dying glow of the embers from the torch, which lay nearly snuffed out on the ground. A low, hushed voice  accompanied the silhouette. It was rough but devoid of emotion and gave Rael the impression that it was disguised. "You picked a dangerous town to go wandering about in the dark, Sentinel."

Rael blinked, unsure how to respond. The stranger either was still shooting in the dark, or somehow knew more than Rael was comfortable admitting. He decided to ignore the accusation, hoping it was a bluff. "Who are you? Who were they?" he demanded, gesturing at his dead and wounded assailants sprawled at his feet.

The figure tensed, and the voice took on a slightly mocking tone. "I'd expect fewer questions and more gratitude from someone who was just saved from certain... unpleasant treatment."

Rael checked his attitude and bowed his head in respect. "I'm sorry. Thank you. It seems I owe you my life, and that I will not forget."

The stranger returned the bow, and though Rael could not make out the face he was sure it was grinning at him. "Consider it a debt repaid. My comrade told me of how you **SPOILERS** sprung him from prison in Zendar. He will not forget that, either."
Rael gasped. "Borcha! You're a friend of Borcha! But what do you mean- comrade? Who is he, really?" **SPOILERS**

The stranger nodded, but looked around before responding. "It's not safe to talk here. That much you must know. Follow me, and I'll answer all of your questions when and where we're safe." With that, the figure spun around and nearly disappeared into the night before Rael could set his feet into motion. Quickly the two wound their way noiselessly through the darkened city, leaving no sign of their passing.

After several minutes, just when Rael was sure they were both lost, the stranger stopped short in front of a rough wooden door set in a nondescript stone wall. From somewhere on the other side, Rael could hear conversation and mild revelry. It was some kind of inn or tavern. His new companion rapped sharply several times on the door, which opened to reveal another shadowy figure- this one large and imposing. The two nodded in greeting to each other, and Rael's guide whispered something and motioned at him. The doorman nodded again and stepped out of the way, allowing them both to pass.

The door was closed and bolted behind Rael, leaving him fumbling in almost complete darkness. The sounds of business were louder in here, but he could see no sign of their origin. He then heard the strike of flint on steel as the doorman lit a candle. As the flame cast out its feeble light, Rael took in his new surroundings.

The three stood in a small back room, a storage closet by the looks of it. Sacks and boxes were piled around on the floor, and the walls were covered in shelves containing all sorts of items. A stack of wine barrels rested in a corner.

The doorman was a tall, muscular man with a shaved head. Rael guessed his job was to keep trouble away, but he looked friendly enough towards the two visitors. Rael looked back to his new companion, hoping for some answers. Besides a bow and quiver, the mysterious marksman wore a simple leather jerkin and arm wrappings under a light cloak. The face was still hidden in shadows beneath a deep hood. Then the stranger drew back the hood, and Rael gasped. The marksman was no man at all- it was a young woman!

September 11, 2011

10 Years Later

Woke up to a brand new skyline
We licked our wounds and mourned the dead
Swallowed the story, hook and sinker
Is this what we meant, when we said
That we never would forget?
Those are the opening lines to "Broken Lungs" by Thrice, a mournful song reflecting on the damage inflicted on September 11, 2001 and our collective reaction. I've been thinking a lot lately about that day, but more about the days since.

I don't want to politicize tragedy, but as we commemorate the tenth anniversary of that terrible event we must consider why it happened and what we have done in response. On 9/11 we learned that America was not invulnerable. That we had enemies who could and would do us harm. That the reality of mass violence was not limited to third-world countries that we read about in the news. It happened here, and it happened to us. And we swore we'd never forget.

Now, a decade later, I have to wonder if we have forgotten. Not the attack itself, of course. We still recall where we were when we heard the news. The images of the collapsing towers and billowing smoke are forever etched in our memories. We remember the chaos. The shock. The terror. But have we forgotten what it meant?

Did we ever really know?

We were told that they hated us for our freedom. Are we more free?

We were told that we must must make the world safe for democracy. Are we safer?

That day shattered our innocence, but are we still naive? That day opened our eyes, but do we really see? A decade later, are we wiser than we were on September 10, 2001? Have we asked ourselves the hard questions about why this happened and what we can do- must do- to make things right?

Or are we fools and cowards all?

September 3, 2011

The Ascent: Part 1

An Excerpt from [Untitled Work of Fiction]

Rael woke before dawn to a strong hand gripping his shoulder. He opened his eyes and squinted, barely making out the stony face of Durran in the gloom. Durran motioned for him to rise, then turned and left the room without a word. Rael sat up, stretched, and rubbed his eyes. It had been a short night, but he slept soundly, more comfortable in a proper bed than he had been for weeks of travel. Now, after only a day in Camlin, he faced more traveling.

He quickly dressed and gathered up his small pack, pausing only to splash some water on his face from a bowl that had been left by the door. Before leaving he placed his unstrung bow and quiver into the long drawer beneath the mattress, but strapped his hunting knife to his belt and pocketed his sling. Both were small enough to carry without any burden, and it was better to have them on hand. Durran's insistence that they must slip out of the city before dawn had put Rael on edge, though he did not understand why.

Just as Rael made his way out of the room and into the dimly lit hallway, old Thanis appeared with the plump innkeeper in tow. Master Veer carried a candlestick in one hand and gestured with the other, halfway through an apology for breakfast not being ready at such an hour. Thanis cut him off, stating that the trio would eat on the road. As if to illustrate his point, he tossed an apple to the bleary-eyed Rael, who nearly dropped it. Rael fumbled with the fruit and tucked it into his shirt pocket. Thanis had turned back to the fussy innkeeper, assuring him that all was well and sending him off to attend to more demanding guests. Master Veer, seeing that his customers were content, nodded a quick farewell to both men and shuffled off in the direction of the kitchens.

Thanis motioned for Rael to follow as he turned down a side corridor and stepped outside into the pale pre-dawn. They stood in a narrow alleyway behind the inn, where Durran was waiting for them. The dirt-floored passage separated the back of the inn from another stout building, running from a road to the inn's storehouse where goods could be brought in out of the way of guests. The air was crisp and cool, and the ground was covered in dew. A slight sea breeze carried the smell of hay from the stables and the bustling sounds of morning preparations from the kitchens. The first sliver of sunlight already colored the eastern sky, providing enough light for them to find their way. The city would soon be coming to life as a new day dawned, and Durran had made it clear that they should be on their way without drawing attention to themselves.

The Sentinel was clad in his usual garb, but wore his cloak rolled into a small pack on his shoulder. None of the three men carried much with them, only what they would need for a day's march; additionally Durran carried his sword on his back, mostly concealed by the bundled cloak. Rael considered again their plan. They would spend the day hiking to the top of Mount Gibbeth, avoiding notice, and presumably come back down before nightfall if their sparse supplies were any indication. After a moment's thought he spoke up softly. "I don't understand, why are we going to such trouble just to climb this mountain? I'm eager to see the countryside, but what does it matter if anyone knows we're out for a walk?"

Durran and Thanis exchanged an impassive glance. Thanis grunted, then murmured, "Mind yourself, lad. All will be told in time. We'll talk on the trail, once we're clear of uninvited company." Without further explanation the eccentric Freelander gave Rael a gentle slap on the back and turned down the alleyway.

Durran had already set off toward the road, where he paused momentarily as the others caught up. His cold gray eyes swept briefly up and down the stone-paved street, watching for any who might notice their departure. Without another word they set off, moving quickly towards the northern city gate as the Sentinel led the way. They kept to side streets whenever possible, winding around major thoroughfares and squares where already early risers would be gathering, but never stopping to avoid detection. Their quick footsteps echoed down the cobblestone streets in the still quiet of the early morning, but Durran was more interested in haste than stealth. None of the few strangers they passed afforded them more than a passing glance. He seemed more wary of his surroundings than usual, but content that they would soon be forgotten by anyone who might have noticed them.

Dawn had fully broken when they turned onto the main road leading out of the city, just short of the north gateway. The gates were open and a cart or two were already making their way into Camlin. Pedestrians strode through the street, going about their early morning business. Without a pause, Durran led the small company out through the thick arched gateway. The two guards leaning on their spears at each side of the great wooden doors barely paid them any notice.

The Sentinel glanced cautiously back over his shoulder several times as the men departed from Camlin, checking for anyone who might be following. It was not until they were more than a league outside of the walls, and out of sight of any watchers, that Durran relaxed and slowed their pace. As if to indicate that they were now safe, he spoke for the first time since leaving the inn. "This road will take us north, along the foot of the mountain. From there we will turn to the west, and skirt the southern slope to the High Road. We should begin the ascent by midday."

Thanis nodded in approval and produced an apple from his pack, which he polished on his shirt and bit into. Rael counted the hours in his head. If they would not begin to climb the mountain until midday, it must be much farther away than it appeared- which meant, in turn, that it must be truly enormous. It dominated the skyline from Camlin, already seeming to dwarf any mountain that Rael had climbed back home in the borderland. He shook his head. Whatever secrets Mount Gibbeth held, he would just have to wait and see for himself. In the meantime, he had a long walk ahead of him.

August 28, 2011

On the Virtues of Civilization, Part IV

Pictured: best game ever.
 Or rather: Civilization III is the best game ever

I'm continuing this series, which I began over 2 years ago, from my previous blog. We last saw me in Part III enjoying the Activision spin-off Call to Power prior to the release of the "best game ever made."

I acquired Sid Meier's Civilization III around Christmas of 2001, shortly after its release. Thanks to this newfangled Internet that had made its way into my life, it was the first upcoming game that I had specifically followed pre-release. It was also my first limited edition purchase. Pretty exciting stuff for a 14-year-old budding gamer.

Incidentally I was on vacation in Texas when I bought it (with the help of some Christmas money) from the now-defunct Electronics Boutique at the Rivercenter Mall in San Antonio, and so I wasn't able to play it for a while. When I got back home the CD drive of the family computer had failed and I wasn't able to play it for a while longer. Needless to say, by the time I actually installed the thing I was giddy with excitement. Okay, maybe not giddy. But I was very eager to start playing this latest and greatest Civilization installment. As it turned out, I was not to be disappointed.

Civilization III, like Call to Power before it, brought an isometric map view and animations into the main series. (edit: Civ2 also used an isometric view, but its graphics were static and fairly simple) It also introduced civilization traits and unique units that made selecting your civilization a strategic rather than aesthetic decision. New concepts like tradeable resources, air missions, ranged bombardment, and Great Leaders added strategic depth to the war machine. Small wonders and expanding cultural borders enhanced the peaceful-builder side. While previous installments looked and played more like a board game, the world really started to come to life in Civ3. Its game mechanics were sophisticated but balanced. Empire management was more comprehensive, combat more strategic, and diplomacy more immersive.

Best of all, Civ3 featured a powerful and accessible scenario editor, which was vastly improved with the Conquests expansion- an add-on which was all about custom scenarios. If modding Civ3 was popular before Conquests, it really took off afterwards. The new features unlocked by the improved editor sparked a second "Golden Age" for Civ3 in 2004-2005, well beyond the typical shelf life of a game these days. Many veteran players to this day- I among them- insist that its well-balanced gameplay combined with its robust modding interface makes Conquests the greatest accomplishment of the series, if not all of strategy gaming. I'll talk more about modding in a later post. For now, suffice it to say that Civ3, and especially Conquests, got me into modding and kept me playing for the next decade. In fact it's the last game I played before writing this post, and the limited edition tin box is proudly on display on the bookshelf behind me. It is indeed the best game ever made.

Speaking of a decade, the "Civilization III Creation & Customization" (ie, modding) community at CivFanatics is hosting a modding awards competition in celebration of 10 years of Civ3 and in recognition of all the great contributions fans have made over the years. I'm actually in the running for "User Interface of the Decade" for a set of screen graphics I created for Lord of the Mods, which I'll cover later. If you've ever enjoyed user-made Civ3 content, come on over and join in the fun.

Next up, I'll talk more about CivFanatics and how I got hooked into the player community.

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part III

Reposted from WildWeazel

In Part II I described my introduction to the Civilization series. At this point, I've been playing Civ1 for a few years and have a serious case of "(Just) One More Turn Syndrome".

Since I didn't start playing Civ until around the time Civilization II was released, I missed the sequel. Instead, my next Civilization game was Civilization: Call to Power, a spin-off by Activision. In 7th grade I received CtP as a reward for making it to the oral rounds of the regional spelling bee. This time I got the whole product, including the large tech tree and statistics poster, and the official strategy guide, both of which were put to good use. CtP immediately became my new favorite game, and although I occasionally went back to Civ for the sake of nostalgia I enjoyed CtP much more.

Call to Power introduced many new concepts, especially to a Civ1 player. Public works improvements, unconventional warfare including slavery and propaganda, undersea and space cities and improvements, and combined arms combat all added depth to the game. A wide variety of civilizations, units, and buildings rounded out the options, ensuring that no two games could ever be the same.

I only vividly remember one game, playing as Germany on a large and populated map. I had built Berlin into the greatest city in the world, probably to the detriment of the rest of my nation. I owned a large portion of a major continent, but was locked into a stalemate with Canada on a peninsula to my southeast. For some reason I never rebuilt a major invasion force after my initial land grab, but resorted to extended stealth-bombing and ground skirmishes. Meanwhile, Brazil owned most or all of another continent in the north, and after establishing itself as a world power had continued to strengthen until none dared oppose it. It seemed content to peacefully enjoy an exponential increase in power, until I finally got frustrated at the near-impossibility of actually winning the game and decided to attack. I built several nukes and launched them adjacent to several Brazilian cities (to avoid being intercepted by the overpowered War Walkers who automatically shot down incoming air units), only to be put into my place a few turns later as hordes of Hovertanks skimmed across the ocean onto my lawn.

Speaking of War Walkers and Hovertanks, CtP had some crazy mixed in with its ingenuity. I was all for the extended future eras and expanded gameplay, but units like Eco Rangers and Televangelists were a bit on the eccentric side, and the deep-future technologies felt tack-ed on just for the cool value. Overall though, it was a well-designed and attractive product. It easily kept me entertained and addicted for the next year and a half, until the best game ever made was released.

Continued in Part IV

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part II

Reposted from WildWeazel

In Part I I explained the reason for this topic and briefly described the Civilization franchise. Let's continue.

I started playing computer games not long after my family got our first computer, when I was about 6 or 7. First it was the simple Windows 3.1 games like Mosaic and Minesweeper, then commercial games. SimTower was the first game I (and by "I", I mean "my parents, on my behalf") bought, and I quickly became a fan of Will Wright's games.

When I bought SimCity a few years later, which by then had already been around for a while, it came packaged with another game, just a CD case laminated on the front of the box, which I had never heard of. I set this one aside, eager to play the venerable SimCity. To my dismay, I could not get the game to run despite my best efforts at playing around with different system and game settings (my hacking started early), so I reluctantly turned to this free copy of "Civilization" (Civ1 DOS, for those interested) to ease my frustration.

It worked, and I spent much of the following months forgetting that I ever wanted to play Sim City. I don't remember the details of my first game, but I have plenty of memories of learning how to play- deciding that I should build additional cities before being surrounded by rivals; experimenting with diplomacy, which was then done via Diplomat units; discovering that a Trireme is a boat, and that I could now explore other landmasses; my first victory as Russia on the Earth map in which I city-spammed my way to dominance and then conquered the world; and saving all of my progress on a growing stack of floppy disks. To this day, the (now extremely rare) sound of a floppy disk writing makes me think of Civilization.

And so it came to pass that I developed a serious case of what we civvers affectionately call "One More Turn Syndrome" at such a young age. The arrival of Civilization: Call to Power did little to ease my affliction.

Continued in Part III

Repost: On the Virtues of Civilization, Part I

Reposted from WildWeazel

Yeah, it sounds like a lofty essay compilation on world history and anthropology. Don't worry, it's about the games.

I know I've casually mentioned "Civ" quite a few times, and even posted a few previews of stuff I'd been working on for mods. I even have a tag for the subject. But the whole obsession preoccupation with the game(s) has never been directly addressed. I shall fill this void in installments.

For the, ahem... uncivilized, I should at this point explain what exactly it is that I speak of. Civilization is a series of "4X" (explore, expand, exploit, exterminate) turn-based strategy games that follow the course of recorded human history, from the stone age to the space age. The player assumes high-level control of a civilization and develops it through building cities, improving terrain, raising a military, researching technologies, and interacting with other civilizations. The original Civilization ("Civ1") was designed by the legendary Sid Meier and published in 1991 for MS-DOS. Sid's company Firaxis Games has since created 3 additional incarnations, expansions of each, and a number of spin-off titles. The franchise has sold over 8 million copies and is now one of the most popular names in strategy gaming.

My first encounter with Civ was an accident.

Continued in Part 2

August 13, 2011

Rick Perry Isn't The Only One Running Today

I got to check off a 43 Things goal today: Run a 10K.

The Blue Crab Bolt was a tough 6.6-mile trail run through a very hilly park in nearby Clarksburg. The course was longer and much more difficult than I expected, but I nonetheless managed to keep a decent pace and finish strong. The weather helped, with overcast skies and a brief rain shower in the final mile.

It was my first race longer than 5 miles, and a milestone in my preparation for this year's Army 10 Miler in October. My company is sending 3 teams to compete among 30,000 runners. I've been working up to it for a few months now after not running for most of the past year.

I'm obviously not a very disciplined runner, or a particularly good one at long distances, but I do enjoy pushing myself sometimes. I'd like to try a half marathon next year, which is only another 3 miles or so. I don't have any particular long-distance plans beyond that.

I did sign up for one other related event though. Run For Your Lives is a 5k obstacle course race with zombies. Yes, that kind of zombie. You have to keep away from the undead horde in order to finish the course. It seems like a fun way to round out the season. If anyone in the MD/PA/DE region or beyond is interested in joining me, let me know.

August 4, 2011

An Ill-Fated Voyage

The US Government is like the sinking Titanic. Republicans are compulsively rearranging deck chairs while Democrats want to take another pass at that iceberg. Ron Paul and a few friends are standing off to the side with some life boats trying to get people's attention, but nobody is listening because they're all threatening to kill each other over whether the captain should have hit the iceberg head-on.

I posted that little quip to Google+ yesterday and got several approvals, so I broke my recent taboo and posted it to Facebook and got several more. Those who liked it varied across the political spectrum. I think that shows that it's a fitting analogy, and that people are aware of just how bad the situation is.

To anyone who is paying attention, it should be mostly self-explanatory. The iceberg is the massive economic disaster that we've been flirting with for several years now. The proverbial deck chairs represent the few billion dollars here and there that the populist Republicans have fought so hard for while the Democrats want to dump more money into the hole. Only an ideological few, mostly libertarian leaning leaders are willing to call out the political games for what they are and demand fundamental changes to our way of doing things.

That last part about fighting over past decisions seems like a silly hyperbole, but it's actually the part of the analogy that I find most true. You see, Titanic was built with a compartmental design to withstand a collision with an iceberg. But when the captain saw the ice at the last moment, either out of panic and lack of trust in the ship's cunning design, or for confidence in his own skill and wanting to minimize the impact, he chose to divert, resulting in more damage. It is likely that this maneuver actually doomed the ship.

Likewise, when facing a mounting economic disaster likely spurred on by decades of political maneuvering, our government chose to take drastic and short-sighted action rather than let the free market take its course, meet the crisis head on, and come out leaner and healthier on the other side. By pushing our already enormous national debt to completely unsustainable levels (now outweighing our GPD and putting us into the same category as the heavily indebted European nations that are now facing economic collapse) they have likely doomed our economy in the long run.

Unfortunately, what's done is done. Whether it was tax cuts, multiple wars, bailouts, stimulus funding, massive healthcare overhaul, or a fundamentally broken system, the money was spent and now it is owed. They have borrowed over $14.5 trillion from both American and foreign creditors, while piling spending on top of irresponsible spending. But much of the political rhetoric being tossed around is about how bad those decisions were, how it should have been done differently, how things might have ended up if only, how many puppies Obamacare has kicked. The fact is, those things did happen, we do have a national debt greater than our GDP, we are borrowing and spending at unsustainable rates, and the US Dollar is in decline. Nothing we say now, and little that we try to undo, is going to change that.

That's where the lifeboats come in. A few prescient leaders have been warning us about the reality of the situation for a while now, but most of us have been too caught up in mudslinging to take notice. The "spending cut" that supposedly solved the debt crisis merely says that the government will spend a few trillion less than it had otherwise planned to over the next ten years, much of which will be borrowed. This ~$2.4 trillion, a number unfathomable to most people, is still only pocket change to the $15 trillion debt that is still rising- and, per the same legislation, authorized to rise- bounded only by the continued wrangling of Congress. This massive number is in turn dwarfed by the $114.5 trillion unfunded liabilities, the money which the government is already planning to spend but can't afford. Yes, that is one hundred trillion dollars greater than what we already owe.

Ron Paul, who has been warning of this for years, and his son Rand are two who have been pushing hard for a balanced budget amendment that would ban deficit spending altogether. A requirement for a vote on such an amendment made its way into the law, which may prove to be its greatest victory. Ron has also long been a vocal advocate of returning to the gold standard, which would effectively prevent the government from monetizing debt by simply printing more fiat currency and devaluing the money supply. At this point even such revolutionary actions may not be enough. We may be in for an economic collapse, and abandoning a doomed ship may be our only recourse. We're already past the oft-quoted 200 year average lifespan of great civilizations, and it looks like the "American Century" may be cut short.

It's time for a paradigm shift. The federal government got us into this mess, but left to its own devices it's not going to get us out. Our lifeboats are state and local governments committed to financial responsibility and personal freedom; election of leaders who will take courageous and unpopular action to bring our debt and spending under control and reign in the unconstitutional expansion of the federal government; and a firm reliance on God, not the State, as our provider and protector. Are you going to climb in, or will you listen to the band play until the ship goes down?

July 26, 2011

Metalcore Monday



That most dreadful of days.

I've always hated Mondays. I still do. After only 2 short days of weekend - staying up late, sleeping even later, and generally doing whatever you want (nothing, if so inclined) - dragging yourself out of bed on a Monday morning to face another full week is nothing short of dismal.

That's why I created Metalcore Monday.

Let's break that down:
  • Metalcore. That most rocking of music. Part metal, part hardcore. 100% awesome. Listen to it.
  • Monday. Is it Monday? Listen to metalcore.

The idea is that simple. Monday sucks. Metalcore makes it suck less.

After promoting this weekly event for a few months now I find that listening to metalcore makes Mondays entirely more bearable.  There's something about loud, aggressive, barely coherent music that gives you the resolve to man up, press on, and rock out.

Not familiar with metalcore? No problem! Lately I've been offering suggestions each week for those less enlightened. I even maintain a Grooveshark Playlist to help you out.

I hope to see more people rocking out with me every Metalcore Monday. Share your latest favorites on Google+, Facebook, and Twitter with the #MetalcoreMonday hashtag.

July 1, 2011

The Facebook Killer?

Allow me to be a Google fanboy for a moment. As much as I'd been hoping that Google would do something awesome and come out with a Facebook killer, I was taken completely by surprise when they announced Google+ on Tuesday.

Google's latest beta product is all about sharing- bookmarks, photos, group video chats, and more- all with a focus on easily managing who sees what through the social circle metaphor, a helpful layer of control that Facebook is clearly lacking.

The premiere of Google+ was such a runaway success that within the first 48 hours invites had been temporarily suspended due to "insane demand". By then I was already in, probably thanks to a friend at Google who shared a message with me, thus extending an implied invitation.

A site like this can only succeed with plenty of users, and while the field is still a bit sparse it has already taken off much faster than the ill-fated Google Wave (anyone remember that?). Google+ seems somewhat minimalist compared to Facebook- its obvious counterpart, though Google doesn't seem eager to label it as such- but that's where it shines. Everything is simple, clean, and just works. There aren't (yet) third-party apps and games to clutter your stream. Interaction is snappy and intuitive.

If you're a Google user, your existing Chat contacts, Picasa albums, Buzz feed, Google profile, and +1's are all already integrated into your Google+ page. Friend connections combine the asynchronous following of Twitter and Buzz with a simplified versions of Facebook's friend lists to create customizable Circles, which form the audience of everything you post. Like all other Google services, and in stark contrast to Facebook's draconian policies, Google+ lets you easily check out and take all of your data with you using Google Takeout.

There are of course some improvements I would like to see. While Buzz is displayed in your profile, it's still an independent service on its own tab. There doesn't seem to be any integration of Buzz followers, Google Reader sharing, and Google+ Circles yet. I don't see a connection to the new Music Beta, which has obvious social network potential. This week Google has been rolling out new, unified interfaces across Google apps, so I'm hoping functional integration is coming soon.

The real question though, is what does this mean for Facebook? Will Google be able to unseat the king of social networking and grab a significant market share with its cleaner, more user-friendly, and all around more enjoyable alternative?

I can only hope.

May 29, 2011

Wherein I Learn To Read

Lately I've been doing something that I haven't done much of for a long time.

No, not dating. I'm reading books for fun.

As a kid- pretty much from the time I learned my ABC's- I was a bookworm. I always had a book nearby, and went through them at an unbelievable pace for my age. I was the kid who would walk out of the library with an armful of books and one already in my face. Even into high school I did quite a bit of voluntary reading, although the garbage that I had to read for school started to put a damper on my enthusiasm.

Then, I went to college. Between my engineering course load and this newly discovered high-speed internet, I had little time for reading anything that wasn't either electronic or vital to my academic survival. I stopped reading books.

Now that I'm out of school and have my time to myself for all but a modest 40 hours per week, I've started to get back into reading. In the meantime I've spent quite a bit of my free time online in various ways, so it's not like I'm unused to reading, but there's a big difference between browsing the web and sitting down with a big fat paper book.

A few months ago, as I was starting to compile a list of books I'd been wanting to read, I was directed to Goodreads - a social web app for book readers. I populated my to-read "bookshelf" with the books I had thought of, then browsed some of the user-created lists and recommended titles and before I knew it I had well over 100 books to read! The site offers a 2011 Reading Challenge in which you commit to reading a number of books for the year and track your progress. I challenged myself to a book per month, which for you non-math folks means 12 for the year. So far I've finished 3 and I'm about 2/3 through another. That puts me more than a full book behind, but I intend to catch up.

Goodreads isn't the only place where I've been browsing shelves. My local library (like many, I suspect) has an ongoing used book sale where you can buy donated books for 50 cents to help support the library. I don't know how many dollars I've spent there in the last several months, but I've already run out of room on my bookshelf. Just today I hit the jackpot:

Pictured: $4 well spent.

Those are 8 well-known sci-fi and fantasy titles that I found all at once. I couldn't believe it. The first four books of The Wheel of Time. The third and fourth books of the Dune series. The first of the Heritage of Shannara. And for the first time, my very own copy of The Hobbit. What's more, I had already picked up the second Dune book to complement my copy of the original, and two thirds of the Shannara trilogy. Not to mention several other unrelated titles from Tom Clancy to CS Lewis. I'm building a fairly complete library just from 50 cent used books!

Of course, I'm also reviewing the occasional book for Thomas Nelson's BookSneeze program. (I'll say it again: I really dislike the new name.) I may post updates as I finish ones from my personal list, but for the most part I'm just reading for my own enjoyment. And also to practice for my own epic fantasy novel. But that's another topic.

May 17, 2011

'Why Did Police Kill My Dad?'

Jose Guerena was a 26-year-old Marine veteran with two tours of duty under his belt, but he wasn't killed in battle in Iraq. He was murdered while heroically defending his own home and family from armed intruders looking for drugs.

But here's the catch: the men who burst into the house without warning and fired 71 shots weren't part of a gang. They were an Arizona SWAT team.

Just days before the Indiana Supreme Court would rule to deny citizens their Fourth Amendment right to resist unlawful entry of their homes, overturning common law dating back to the Magna Carta, in another part of the country the Pima County, Arizona sheriff's office sent its heavily armed deputies to invade homes unannounced to search for evidence of drugs.

Despite no criminal records or history of drug use, the Guerena family was one of those targeted. After hiding his wife and young child in a closet, Jose bravely grabbed his rifle and prepared to protect them against who he rightly thought were criminal invaders. Seconds later he was dying. The police initially defended themselves with propaganda claiming that Guerena opened fire on them, but it was later revealed that he did not shoot and even had his safety on when he was shot. His injuries may have been survivable, had the SWAT team not then prevented paramedics from reaching him for over an hour.

Now, thanks to an increasingly out of control "war on drugs", a blatant disregard for civil rights, and a trend of government-issued violence that has gone on far too long, a young boy is left with the question "Why Did Police Kill My Dad?"

We should not take this as an unfortunate but isolated event. This kind of senseless violence has claimed tens of thousands of lives in Mexico in recent years, and now it is spreading to this side of the border. This is the kind of authoritarian terrorism that we have to look forward to unless we reign in our emerging police state.

Update: Another example, this time the victim was a 14-year-old boy.

April 29, 2011

Oh look, I'm kind of famous

This has been a little while ago now, but I'm just realizing that I never wrote about my interview with fellow blogger extraordinaire guitargirl. There isn't much of a purpose to it besides being fun and pointing out that I have a new blog, but you may learn something or other about me.

A brief excerpt for your browsing pleasure:
Would you choose to get the want do for because some can’t any for when the people does haven’t?
Contrariwise, if it was so, it might be; and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's logic.

April 5, 2011

Tell Me Why I'm Wrong: A Geometric "Proof"

This little geometric riddle is something that I have thought about way too much, and it's driving me crazy. I know this is incorrect but I can't figure out why:
The diagonal of a square is twice the length of its sides.
Crazy, right? We all know it's not true. The Pythagorean Theorem states that for a triangle with sides a, b, and hypotenuse c,
a2 + b2 = c2
 which means that for triangles formed by a diagonally bisected square with sides of length n,
n2 + n2 = c2
where c is the length of the diagonal. Simple algebra gives us
c = √2n
That's what we all learned in geometry, right? The length of the diagonal of a square is √2 times the length of its sides. Physical reality backs up this fact. Grab a ruler and see for yourself. Now then, why does the following "proof" make sense?

Assuming a square with sides of length a, the distance between opposite corners of the square traveling along the border of the square is 2a.

By dividing both sides into two equal segments and alternating directions, we create a new path of the same distance 2a.
2(a/2) + 2(a/2) = a + a = 2a

By continually dividing each side into n equal segments of length a/n and rearranging them in this manner, we create a path that is arbitrarily close to the diagonal without changing the total length of the path:
n(a/n) + n(a/n) = a + a = 2a

As the number of segments n approaches infinity, the total length remains unchanged.
lim(n → ∞) 2an/n = lim(n → ∞) 2a = 2a

Thus the length of the diagonal is 2a or twice the length of a side.

Please, someone tell me why I'm wrong.

March 22, 2011

Book Review: Everyday Greatness

A couple of years ago I started reviewing books for Thomas Nelson Book Review Bloggers (now the awkwardly named BookSneeze), the grassroots marketing arm of the Christian publishing giant. The program sends free copies of their new books to bloggers in exchange for an honest review published to both a personal website and a retail product page. I posted a few reviews to my previous blog before going off to grad school and denouncing all non-required reading, leaving me a with a couple of books that never got read and reviewed. More than a year and a half later, I'm finally catching up.

Everyday Greatness: Inspiration for the Meaningful Life
by Stephen R. Covey and David K. Hatch

My rating: 2/5. Meh.

I wasn't really sure what to expect from this book, which seemed to promise inspiration to achieve greatness in everyday life. In reality, it is basically a compilation of short stories and quotations from Reader's Digest grouped into topical chapters. The book makes no central thesis or theme, but presents several categories of thought, each further divided into three principles for better living. Each principle includes a few short stories followed by some reflective questions, and a set of inspirational quotations from such various sources as celebrities, journalists, politicians, and ancient proverbs.

The content is nothing special really. It is full of happy endings and anecdotes with no real morals or lessons beyond the individual stories. Many of the quotations are so vague or lacking in context that it would be hard to analyze them, much less disagree with them.  I found it most disappointing that this book on living a "meaningful life" would carry no explicitly Christian meaning-rather, it is the sort of bland, feel-good philosophy that you would expect from a generic, secular self-help book. There are references to God and quotes from spiritual leaders, but the book as a whole seems to be devoid of any ultimate meaning. Everyday greatness, it seems, is just an everyday sort of thing.

The book is perfectly adequate for what it is- a coffee table artifact for those days when you may need an uplifting word and don't really care where it comes from as long as it is positive. But it is really nothing more than that. I can't say I would recommend this book for anyone seriously hoping to improving their life in any tangible way. If you're looking for greatness, pick up a Bible instead.

March 12, 2011

What Then Shall We Blog

It seems I'm off to a bad start. Two posts in the first week and then... 4 months? Ouch.
I haven't forgotten about the blog. I've been meaning to post since December, I just couldn't decide what to post. The longer it went, the more I felt I had to write to make up for it. Yeah, that didn't work out so well. And it's not that I don't have anything to write about, but I've been trying to make up my mind exactly what this blog is to be about. A bit of professional reflection and journaling, some personal stories, maybe some spiritual or political writing. Possibly some technical discussion. Minimal link-sharing and anecdotes. Ok, that's all well and good, as long as I'm actually posting something.
There are a few topics that I want to carry over from my old blog and wrap up, so that at least is somewhere to start. I'll be continuing my Civilization series, for one. Until then, if you want to know what I'm up to, I've added the About page with links to all of my other online activities.
And by the way: if you're looking for any of my older posts, I have published the blog back to the original Blogspot address. The domain name has since been reclaimed.