Outliers, a book about successful people like Malcolm Gladwell, by Malcolm Gladwell

I spent a large portion of my day today reading through Malcolm Gladwell’s newest book, Outliers. In it, Gladwell takes a look at the underlying factors that contribute to the rise of what we typically call a “successful” individual. The book looks at the stories of several prominent people in todays world, among the Bill Gates, Bill Joy, the creator of UNIX, and The Beatles. Also critiqued are the Asians and their math skills, youths in Canadian hockey leagues, and the entrepreneurial tycoons of the late eighteen-hundreds like Rockefeller. Mr. Gladwell asserts, through these stories and others, that the rags-to-riches stories that we Americans love to hear are far and away simply untrue. Successful people, no matter how much innate ability or genius they have, are still the product of their times, their heritage, their circumstances, and a lot (Gladwell estimates at least ten-thousand hours) of work. Sometimes dumb luck helps, too. Outliers is essentially a collection of stories that reinforce this point.

While the book is certainly well done and thought provoking, it does little to assist the reader in thinking about his or her future. The book is a look at history, and since we can’t know the effects of the present on the future, it does little to comfort those who are struggling to be successful. Main points to take away from it are:

1. Hope you were born at the right time
2. Hope you network with the right people
3. Know your history
4. Work really, really hard

These points apply to almost everyone I consider successful. Take guitar god Yngwie Malmsteen, for example. He was born in 1963, making him ten years old when Jimi Hendrix died. He watched the funeral on TV, and after seeing a clip of Hendrix performing, took up guitar. He practiced incessantly all through his teen years, aided by his mother who let him drop out of school after she recognized his talent. He took up an apprenticeship with a luthier which allowed him to get some practice in even while at work. He wasn’t a rich kid whose parents paid for expensive guitar teachers and equipment (not that that would have necessarily mattered). He got good because practically all he did every day for ten years was play guitar. He easily had his ten-thousand hours in by the time he was 21, at which time he moved to L.A. at the prime of the metal scene. Eddie Van Halen had come on the scene just five years before, and now every kid in Southern California was trying to shred like Eddie did. And then arrived Mr. Malmsteen, who had been doing just that for the past ten years. Of course he was going to be successful!

The thing that most struck me about Outliers, though, was the point Gladwell pushed to people like me who haven’t put ten-thousand hours into anything yet. That point? Identify what you are good at. Figure out what you’ve had success doing in the past, and pour more coal onto that. To that I would add, “Make sure that’s what God wants you to do, or otherwise it will be futile regardless of your effort,” but the point is still the same. To be successful, you need to know what you’re good at. Maybe it’s cabinet-making, maybe it’s computer programming, maybe it’s being a jack-of-all-trades that is useful to a degree in just about anything. Regardless, isolate that, and full steam ahead!


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Recapping Christmas of last year and being thankful

I have a lot to be thankful for this Christmas. I suppose I had a lot to be thankful last Christmas though, too. I guess the underlying lesson is that Christmas helps me realize things I am thankful for.

Last Christmas started with me posting this early in the morning. I was alone, as the family I lived with was away in the southwest United States visiting relatives and my own family was enjoying a mild-weathered Christmas in Japan. I had an entire house to myself, and I was planning a rather laid-back Christmas day. I had opened presents with my family via iChat video conference the night before (Christmas morning their time), and with no presents to open or parties to go to on actual Christmas Day, I had a lot of free time.

The day started with the usual breakfast and dressing, and then I decided to take a nice long Christmas drive in my sports car. (I probably am still one of the few who drives alone for the sole pleasure of driving.) I walked out to my car only to find that I had left the headlights on for the past day or so (I didn’t have to work on Christmas Eve, so I stayed in) and my battery was dead. Undaunted I pulled out keys to one of the family cars and pulled it near to jump-start my Nissan. A successful jump later and I was on my way, cruising merrily along the Pennsylvania countryside. Then my car started choking. And bucking. And coughing. And flashing the dash lights. and then it died. I sighed. I had no idea where I was.

I got out of my car and walked around, trying to find the nearest intersection so I could phone my friend Shanan who was still in town and tell her where I was. I couldn’t find an intersection, so I decided to hang out outside my car and read a book until someone drove past whom I could hail. I kept a collapsable chair in my trunk (the colored kind that you get at Wal-mart), so I set that up, took out my copy of David Bowie’s biography by David Buckley, and started reading.

I hadn’t gotten far when a white Silverado crew cab pulled up next to me and asked me if everything was OK. I motioned to my open hood and asked if they had jumper cables. They did, and soon I was jumped and running. I drove maybe a block, however, before my car exhibited the same symptoms and promptly died once again. What a great Christmas so far!

Undaunted, I decided to call my friend Kirah, who I thought lived somewhere nearby. After a brief conversation during which I attempted to describe my whereabouts, she told me that she and her dad would be willing to drive out and find me. Yay for generous friends!

They arrived in their white GMC Sierra sooner than they thought they would (apparently I really had no idea where I was and described somewhere much farther away) and I was jumped once again. We let both cars run for awhile to make sure my car charged sufficiently this time, and soon I was driving, with Kirah riding shotgun, to her house. Her dad thought that my alternator had gone, but since no garage was open on Christmas, was going to allow me to park my car at their house.

Once at their house, they decided that it would be only proper to have me join them for their Christmas dinner. I was taken aback, self-conscious, and incredibly grateful all at the same time. Taken aback at the sudden change in my afternoon plans, grateful for their generosity, and incredibly self-conscious because I had dressed for a morning drive, not for a family Christmas dinner. I was wearing ratty jeans, sneakers, and a threadbare sweatshirt with the sleeves cut off. The sweatshirt was blue with cows on it, and it was worn over a white long-sleeve pajama shirt. I could not possibly have been any more underdressed.

I ended up staying at their house for the rest of the day, enjoying a incredibly tasty meal, fellowship over games afterwards, and meeting many engaging people related to Kirah in one way or another. I’m sure I apologized for my appearance on the hour, but Kirah kept assuring me that it was OK, even though I didn’t believe her. She was even willing to drive me home (a ten minute drive away) very late at night after the party was all over. It was indeed a Christmas that I did not expect.

As I sat in my room and reflected on the day, I listed things that I was thankful for. I was thankful that my car only needed a new alternator. I was thankful that I had broken down near Kirah’s house instead of somewhere far away. I was thankful for mild weather that I could sit outside in. For good food. For fellowship. For warmth indoors as the temperature outside dropped. For friends. All the things that I usually took for granted were suddenly brought to light. Heck, that in itself was enough to be thankful for.


Narrative of this years Christmas experience coming soon!


The Common Fallacy That Technology Can Replace Effort

Part of my daily Internet routine involves hopping on Craigslist.com and browsing the listings of all the Apple Macintosh-related items for sale or trade. It is definitely more out of habit and curiosity than of need, but it does afford me some interesting insights into the second-hand Mac market. I find that, in view of the overall number of Macs for sale, a disproportionately large number of them are being sold by the amateur creative types: the aspiring graphic designers, music producers, and videographers. Their typical listing includes a high-end MacBook or Mac Pro (computers in the $2500+ range) and usually some expensive software like Photoshop, Logic Pro, or Final Cut Pro. The system, deducing from the hardware specifications, is usually less than six months old - which begs the question, “Why are so many people dumping high-end systems so soon after purchase?” The answer, I think, can be found by considering the availability and raw power of such systems and software and their corresponding position as status symbols. People are trying to use powerful technology as a short-cut to avoid effort, and it doesn’t work.

Moore’s Law dictates that computer hardware capabilities double every 18 months, effectively rendering older technology obsolete rather quickly. In this extremely fast-paced technology environment, software has a heck of a time keeping up. More often than not in the rush to make new programs available for the newest system, developers aren’t able to fully harness the hardware’s capabilities. In addition to this rush, new system architecture sometimes requires programs to be re-written to prevent from being rendered obsolete. The result is that programs never become more usable per sé, rather they are sold as the same program as before with more features added in each new release.

Because of this feature creation-fest we have extremely powerful software that requires users to read thick volumes of literature in order to learn how to use it. A guide to Adobe Photoshop Elements (the really stripped-down version of normal Photoshop), for example, tops out at over 400 pages. Imagine the guide to the full Photoshop experience!

Amateur professionals simply do not have time to read 700+ page manuals or guide books to software that will be obsolete in 18 months. These days, to really know how to use a powerful piece of software, you have to either go to school and learn it or have a job that trains you in it. Preferably both.

Regardless, the software and hardware makers still tout their products to hobbyists as “powerful tools for the amateur professional” or some other equally catchy tag line. Just because a product is available, however, doesn’t mean that it is for everyone, as evidenced by the number of people who buy high-end Macs only to find out that learning Final Cut Pro takes a lot of time. They paid for their $5000 setup with a credit card, and now they have to offload it before the bills start to pile up on a piece of incredibly powerful technology that they cannot harness. My own PowerMac G4, for example, I bought from a guy in his late twenties who admitted that he “bought it for music production before [he] realized that [he] had no idea how to use Pro Tools.” Expensive technology, surprisingly, didn’t help him become a better musician.

Buying expensive tools does not make up for lack of talent or drive. Technology cannot solve those problems. If I aspire to be a professional photographer, buying a $1500 SLR camera might make my color look a little better or my pictures more in-focus, but it cannot improve my framing, lighting, or ability to be in the right spot at the right time to nab that action shot. If I don’t have the motivation and humility to take a bazillion pictures and study them relentlessly, owning a $1500 camera will only make me feel bad about having another expensive toy that I don’t use. I would probably sell it and use the money to buy something I actually need, like food.

We can see this over-reliance on technology in other media as well. The popular day-time T.V. show “The Doctors” recently aired an episode in which a panel of doctors fielded questions from the audience related to sexual performance and other topics of that nature. It was billed as a kind of “we’ll answer those questions that you are to embarrassed to ask your partner” type of episode. Really, society at large? Really?

Never mind actually communicating with your partner. Never mind having an open channel in which you can broach such topics as these. No, please take those questions and ask them in front of a TV audience, because that makes for good entertainment. You will get your answer, thanks to the technology of daytime T.V., and your partner will be none the wiser!

If you still don’t think this is a problem, consider the 12/15/08 Dear Abby column.

DEAR ABBY: My adult daughter, "Marsha," lives at home and will walk in and start a conversation or tell me something while I'm watching the news or some other show I'm interested in. Marsha never seems to arrive during commercials, which I'd gladly skip.

If I don't stop what I'm doing and pay full attention to her, she becomes offended. I feel she is interrupting. Who's right?

DEAR JAMES: You are. However, a compromise might be to invest in a digital video recorder. That way you can "pause" whatever you're watching and return to it when interrupted.

Talking this issue through with his daughter is apparently too much to ask. Buying a TiVo is an easy solution, and hey!, it only costs some money. Apparently if you throw enough money at a problem or use technology creatively, it will go away? I wish that were true.

The truth is that investing effort in something is usually the only way to make it truly valuable. This is the same whether you’re talking about relationships, social problems, or even making a good movie or record album. Technology can be a great tool in helping you such things, but when reliance on technology becomes thought of as a shortcut to success, the result can only be disappointment.

Allow me to wrap up with a personal story. When I was in 9th grade, I discovered file sharing networks. This was during the "golden age" of file sharing before it was all deemed a legal threat. Immediately I was granted access to a huge library of “free” powerful software applications used by professional studios all over the world. My cable modem spent untold hours as my faithful slave, bringing me Adobe Photoshop 6, 3D Studio Max, FruityLoops, and AutoCAD, among others. I eagerly installed them, but then I hit a wall. What was I going to do with them? I wasn’t particularly creative, either artistically or musically. I had no interest in industrial design or 3D rendering. Professionals used this software because it allowed them to do what they loved to do - they used it out of necessity. I was a 15 year-old kid who wanted to say he had experience with expensive software applications. I fiddled around with the programs for a bit, but then when I found out that they were incredibly complicated, I lost interest. I had no time to read thick books. I had no real drive to learn Photoshop. I just liked it because I could put weird warping effects on peoples’ faces. I used maybe 1% of the total features available to me.

I currently use Photoshop 5.5 and Illustrator 9 on my PowerMac G4, mainly to produce the three-panel comics that I post on this site. These are old versions, but I don’t care. I use Photoshop for resizing, adjusting color, and very light editing. Version 5.5 helps me accomplish that. I chose Photoshop over free editing programs like GIMP because, though GIMP may be advanced, it would require me to learn a new user interface. I don’t want to do that. Learning Photoshop for my Yearbook class took me long enough as it did, and if I have to settle for a cheap, outdated copy of Photoshop because of my refusal to re-learn a new program, so be it. At least I know how to use it for what I want it to do, which I think is certainly more than can be said for the guy trying to pawn off his quad-core Mac Pro on Craigslist.


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The Explanation of "1+1=田 "

I suppose it is high time I explained the former header of this website. The title is just one of many elements that reinforce the an overarching theme of things not being as they initially appear - not as they seem on the surface. As a missionary kid, I often feel that people I meet label me for their own convenience. It is there way of interpreting me - by sticking me in a neat “third-culture kid” box. I feel that this is a gross oversimplification, and in doing so actively work to defy such labels. I work to stay unclassifiable, and an innocent, seemingly nonsensical equation, 1+1=田, exemplifies this in a multicultural context.

At first glance the equation just looks like a simple first-grade math problem with a Japanese kanji character tacked on the end. This problem, though, not only makes sense to every Japanese elementary schoolchild, but it also makes them laugh. The equation, once explained, is trivially simple and is a practical joke that is played on any unsuspecting first-grade classmate. All it really is is just smashing the 1+1 together and then splitting the equals sign so it rests above and below it, resulting in the Japanese character for rice paddy, read “ta”. This character, easily identified because it actually looks like a real rice paddy, is one of the very first kanji that Japanese children learn in school. In practice, the riddle looks something like this:

“What’s 1+1?” one child will ask another.
“Two,” the second dutifully replies.
“Wrong!” the riddler gleefully announces, “It’s actually 田!”

The victim is left to solemnly ponder his stupidity and newfound knowledge. Should the victim already be wise to the “田” answer, the riddler can still outsmart him or her my claiming that the correct answer is found by smashing the two numbers together, or 11. In extreme cases, the riddler resorts to using the “correct” answer, two, as the right response to the riddle. This results in much laughter and spreading of rumors among the class that Little Jimmy doesn’t even know that 1+1=2. How stupid is HE!?

Yes, kids can be cruel, but by the second semester any joker still stupid enough to pop the question is met with a scornful look and a bored, rapid-fire answer of “2, 11, or 田.” Something simple becomes annoyingly complex.

Growing up in Japan as a white, blond, foreigner, I was the subject of many such pranks, and usually the last one in the class to catch on to the tricks and gimmicks going around. Allow me to give another example.

The game of rock-paper-scissors is universally accepted by the Japanese kids as the de facto way to settle disputes. Since most elementary school disputes involve people not getting what they want, in order for one to get what they want it is essential to master the psychological aspect behind the game. Jan-ken, as it is called in Japanese, is used in everything from playground games to serious rug-rat judicial processes.

When it is played as a game is when the kids are free to be the most creative with it. Normal jan-ken involves three hand positions - fist, palm, or two fingers out. This gets boring rather quickly when played repetitively, causing the initiator of the match to use some creative juices to turn a simple game into a complex question-and-answer exercise. Consider the following:

Kid 1: “Hey, let’s jan-ken.
Kid 2: “Ok.”
Kid 1: “Jan, ken, poi!”

This is standard procedure, equal to the American “rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”

Kid 1: ”I win! Let’s play again.”
Kid 2: ”Ok. No prisoners this time!”
Kid 3: "Go for broke!"
Kid 1: “Jan, ken, how-many-hairs-do-you-have-on-your-head?” (said in Japanese, of course)

Kid 2, in a grievous effort, has extended a closed fist.

Kid 1 and 3: “Haha! You’re saying you have no hair! What are you, BALD? Baldy baldy baldy ha-ha-haha-ha!”

Kid 2 walks away, sullenly, dejected.

The appropriate response in this situation would have been to vigorously shake both hands and have your fingers simulate a considerable amount of hair. A display of an open palm, paper, would also be acceptable, but only barely. In this way, school-kids keep adding questions that require specialized hand gesture to answer. This can lead to some amusing but incredibly demoralizing mistakes, such as when one gives the hair-on-the-head response to the newly conceived how-many-porno-mags-do-you-own question. This might indeed be the playground jungle at its cruelest.

All that to say that not everything is a s simple as it appears to be - not everything can fit neatly into a box. To extend that personally, not every missionary kid grew up in an alien land ignorant of cable T.V. or pogs. “1+1= 田” goes to show that every person is much more complicated then first impressions make them out to be. Not only might they not be normal, but they might even defy your “normal” expectations of someone radically different. Just because I grew up in a different culture doesn’t mean that I will look normal through everyone’s kid-raised-in-Japan lens. I can recognize this about myself, and I hope to make it a lifelong ambition to recognize it in others as well.



Military Bases: A Caricature of This American Life

The United States is very proud of its military. They of course boasts the largest and most advanced one in the world, but I feel as though they often misrepresent it to the American people. Being a soldier is oft seen as a glamorous servant lifestyle - one that is elevated to a high level in the public consciousness. Billboards, TV campaigns, and other advertisements that the military creates and targets at young men and women portray the American soldier as selfless, heroic, and unashamedly patriotic. There is nothing wrong with these qualities, of course, but I think that the ads work more towards stroking the egos of American teens than actually being informative about the US military. Practically all of my experience with the military comes from my interactions with military kids through extracurricular school activities such as wrestling, track, soccer. Participating in sports and other activities at an international school in Japan, a country with significant US military presence, gave me the opportunity to not only compete against the high schools on base, but also allowed me to get a glimpse into the lives and lifestyles of those living on a military base.

US Military bases often hosted sporting events, so it was not uncommon for me to visit a base five of more times a year. Japan has several of them, all with their own high schools. Yokota Air Force Base is home to the Yokota High School Panthers, Camp Zama (Army) is home to the Zama Trojans, and Commander Fleet Activities Yokosuka hosts the Nile C. Kinnick Red Devils. These three were the main competitors in the Kanto region, of which my school, CAJ, was a part. There were other base high schools teams, of course - including the Kadena Panthers, Kubasaki Dragons, Edgren Eagles, E.J. King Cobras, and Seoul American HS Falcons, but we usually only saw them at large regional events.

Getting on a base is a chore in itself. A list including the names of athletes, drivers, any parents or fans who are attending, and the license plates of all vehicles wishing to get on must be faxed to the main gate ahead of time. Even with this list, it usually takes about 30 minutes to clear the gate, after which we drive past the guard house patrolled by servicemen with M-16s. Raisable spike strips lie on either side of the gatehouse in conjunction with large concrete barriers. The entire perimeter of the base, often more than ten miles, is lined with razor wire-topped fencing.

The actual base itself is a crude caricature of American suburbia. The streets are wide - a direct contrast to Japan - there is lots of green lawn, and American flags fly from poles in front of houses. Driving down the street feels much like down an American street, only of the wrong side of the road. Almost every car you pass on the street is an old beater - not many soldiers invest in cars when they could be shipped out to anywhere else in the world with two weeks notice. Most bases still boast a small dealership, however, should a few soldiers decide that they want an American car like a Mustang. Every single building on a base is painted the same color, cream. I assume that this is because a) it is easier to order just one color of paint, b)the American taxpayers aren’t paying for different color paint, c) it is somewhat confusing to potential terrorists, and d) it makes it really hard to tell one building from another in an aerial photograph.

Commerce on base is always a big attraction to American visitors. Most shopping on base is done at the commissary, the military (and oddly enough, prison) term for a store equivalent to something like a SuperTarget that stocks everything from American foods to computer systems to clothes and CDs. Military personnel are of course allowed off base, and I’m sure many did grocery shopping off-base as well. The commissary boasts tax-free merchandise and is normally off-limits to civilians. Only if you were very lucky and knew people could you get into the commissary.

For the rest of us, the restaurants were usually good enough. Most bases have a food court that is home to several different American fast food joints like Taco Bell, Burger King, Sbarro, or Popeye’s. The four that I just mentioned have no franchises in Japan, so on base is the only place you can enjoy them. All of these restaurants, and indeed, most base commerce in general, is run by native people, in this case Japanese. I assume this is because the turnover rate is so high that in order to not be constantly retraining people the shops and restaurants hire locally. Ironically, ordering a Whopper from a person who speaks broken English no doubt aids in reminding the service men and women of their American homeland.

When it comes to dining off-base for American servicemen and women, though, there can be some hiccups. Unless they have been stationed there for a long time, most soldiers don’t bother to learn the local language. Bases of course offer Japanese classes that teach you how to interact on a very basic social level, how to order food, and some phrases that are useful should you choose to travel. Despite these allowances and opportunities, there are still some restrictions for soldiers even when they travel off-base. There is a strip of bars, called Bar Row, near Yokota Air Force Base that soldiers are forbidden to frequent between 2 a.m. and 8 a.m. Local customs, language barriers, and base restrictions discourage many soldiers from interacting with the Japanese community around them, leaving them only the entertainment found on base.

Of which there is very little. Most bases do have at least one theater that may show three or four different movies, a community center, an Officers Club, and maybe a bowling alley, but for the most part are devoid of the usual American hotspots that one usually associates with nightlife.

All of this melds to create a singly depressing on-base experience once one gets over the initial excitement. There is really not much to do, and since freedoms are rather restricted on-base (such as a civilian dress-code), unless one learns the local language, activities become severely restricted. I’m sure that this is not the type of lifestyle that the Army recruiters like to highlight.

There are of course perks to military life such as free medical, dental, and almost zero living expenses. But based on the people I have talked to, this does not make up for the strictly regimented lifestyle pervasive on many military bases. Based on the experiences I’ve had, I would not want to join the military, nor would I advise anyone else to. Living abroad in a caricature of the American life is not an experience that I would like to have.


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The curry bowl is crashing onto my poor stomach

Right now I am sitting at my laptop nearly doubled over in agony.

Two-and-a-half hours ago I made curry rice for the first time in my life. It is a dish that I grew up eating, and in fact is one that I often requested for my birthday dinner. I like it a lot. That being said, there are limits to how much I can like it.

Tonight I made two go of rice, or two uncooked cups. This amounts to about five cups once cooked. In addition to that I made a large frying pan full of curry, filled with two chicken breasts, a cut-up potato, and a large chopped carrot. This resulted in a good amount of truly delicious food, which I subsequently ate while watching two episodes of House, MD. Each episode takes forty-five minutes to watch, which tells you about how long I was eating. I also had a large glass of milk.

I am now suffering the consequences of my actions. I can’t even take a deep breath.

To say I have a stomachache would be a gross understatement. Indeed, I can only describe the state of discomfort I am in by defaulting to the Japanese phrase for stomachache - onakawo kowashita (おなか壊した). Translated literally, this means “I broke my stomach”. The word “broke” here, though, is not just describing any breaking. This is different from a car breaking down or a relationship breaking apart. It is accidental, though not analogous to breaking a drinking glass. The closest description I can think of for it is the accidental toppling of a Jenga tower by pulling out the wrong block. You broke the tower. There is a very distinct difference in state from before you pulled the block as opposed to after. There is a tipping point. I passed that Jenga point in my bowl of curry with 6 spoonfuls yet to go.

I am going to bed. If I can walk that far...

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Elvis Presley Really Dead At 73

Elvis Presley, known to many as the hip-gyrating rock and roller of their parents’ generation and also that guy in Forrest Gump, passed away in his sleep on Thursday at the Deep Lakes Nursing Home in Hugoton, Kansas. He was 73.

The rock music legend and idol of impersonators everywhere had dropped out of the public eye in the late seventies due to his doctors advice regarding a malignant tumor they found in his left lung. Mr. Presley received treatment at eh University of Minnesota Medical Center for four years, eventually kicking the cancer. By this time, however, Van Halen and other heavy metal groups had taken over the commercial music scene and Elvis decided to let his legacy live on rather then be like Michael Jordan and keep coming back into the unforgiving public eye. He was reported to have watched his own funeral in amusement, glad that so many people cared about his movies and musical performances, and often cited that his disappearance would likely go down in history as” the greatest act of show-business since Jimi Hendrix played the Star-Spangled Banner live with that bitchin’ white Mexican Fender copy.”

Presley was perhaps best known for stealing black music such as soul and R&B and turning it into something a white guy could jig to. His hip-wiggling performances, it is said, “reddened many a mother’s face and captured many a teenage girl’s heart.” While Elvis was certainly a heart-throb at the time, he did have trouble with alcoholism and in his later performing years gave concerts that were, according to Elvis historian Adrianne Gentling, “basically indecipherable gobblygook. He would do weird stuff like call down aliens from the stars and promote various baby formulas. It got pretty crazy when he was drunk on stage.”

Elvis’ music touched lives worldwide and can still be purchased at many music retailers such as Wal-Mart, iTunes, and your local used record store. Says music critic Damien Stoll of www.cheaptunereviews.com, “You listen to the music of Elvis and you get taken to a whole other world. For a rock musician, a lot of things considered ‘staples’ of the rock genre are absent. There’s no electric guitars, no double-bass work, no dazzling two-hand-tapping solos - none of that. It’s just a guy playing a mediocre acoustic guitar and making us picture him moving his hips. But despite all this, his influence is no doubt very evident in the work of the Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, Buddy Holly, and Black Sabbath. Well, maybe not Sabbath.”

The famous entertainer moved into Deep Lakes Homes in 1990, after years of drug and alcohol use started taking their toll and dementia set it. He seemed to enjoy the retirement home a great deal, and most of the other old folks at the home agreed that Elvis was “a bit forgetful, but generally very pleasant and cracking jokes.” “He also really like to play Scrabble on Mondays, “ says long-time resident Elma Ponzani. The funeral will take place at First Memorial Funeral Home at 145 Marshall Ave. at 5:30 pm on Tuesday.

[If you're from The Onion and you liked this, I need a job. Call me]


Rethinking Good Games and Avoiding DRM

Two things I want to talk about today that stuck in my mind as I browsed the Internet.

The first comes from this article at TechRadar that talks about 3D graphics in video games and how they have not been a universally good thing for the gaming industry. While games like first-person shooters and racing simulations have of course benefitted, other genres like platforming games and, my favorite genre, the 2D vertical shooter, were, and still are, better in a 2D environment. The move to 3D, as the article argues, took the charm out of SEGA's Sonic series, and I would add to that the Castlevania series, Kirby series Metriod series and fighting games in general. Some of these, games, thankfully, now have found a more suitable gaming platform in the arena of portable gaming, as the DS and PSP are more suited to 2D gaming due to their technical limitations.

Granted, some game franchises really are better in 3D, such as the Zelda series. But I think Zelda is an example of a series that made the jump to 3D just to keep up with the technology. There was nothing wrong with Zelda in the early 2D games that were made. The jump to 3D enabled some cool things, sure, but Zelda was OK in 2D. Much like there is nothing wrong with the 2D fighting game genre. Sure, the graphics have switched over, but most games like Tekken and Virtua Fighter are still, for the most part, 3D fighters set on a 2D plane. Indeed, I think that most games wouldn't be significantly hurt if made in a 2D form. Devil May Cry 2D? God of War 2D? I don't see where these games would inherntly fail when placed in a 2D environment. They would be different, sure, but they would still contain the essence, if you will, of the series'.

In some cases, 3D has contributed to some horrible gaming experiences. Most of these failures are in the form of poorly implemented camera views. Every 3D game has to have a dynamic camera, and some games allow the gamer to have some control over the camera. Every game from the hugely popular Mario 64 and Tomb Raider series to games like Rainbow Cotton and Soul Fighter (both for the Sega Dreamcast) had serious camera issues that led to many a frustrated gamer. Camera issues are something that games like Starcraft, Gran Turismo, and Guitar Hero don't have to worry about.

All of the above example were given just to say that new technology does not necessarily make a better gaming experience. The PS3 and Xbox 360 can have the fastest processors in the world, but if a game developer can't write a good camera for a game, the flashiest graphics in the world will sit on the shelf. Game developers have to actually create good games, even if it means sacrificing eye candy for substance.


The second thing I wanted to talk about is downloading music. As of today, I will no longer download music from the iTunes store (gift cards being the only exception). I have also converted every single DRM-laden song I have into a open format, save for a few singles that are still protected. I did this mostly out of principle - I believe that there is no excuse anymore to support DRM-controlled content. Once I buy something, I do not want any corporation telling me what I can or cannot do with their product. This applies to hardware as well. (I'm looking at you again, Apple, with your new DRM-chipped Macbooks and limiting iPhone App Store.)

The iTunes decision also stems from my preference of the Amazon MP3 service (mentioned in this post) and also my love for the physical product. I like having CDs around that I can look and and browse the liner notes of. Another reason I prefer CDs is that, if I ever decide to sell it, I can actually get 4 or 5 dollars for a disc, lowering the net cost of owning the CD. Sure, it's cheaper in the short run if I download the music, but the tradeoff is that a) I can't look at the physical product and b) I can never resell it. I don't download music very often, and from now on, I'm only going to use Amazon.


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So says Arucard

え? ア、ごめん。





"You don't look Asian!" "I'm not." ...Am I?

Whenever I meet someone new at a party or other social function beside church, the conversation inevitably turns to where I'm from. For simplicity's sake I usually say Illinois or, more recently, Pennsylvania. At churches I usually say that I am from Japan, just because that's what they expect to hear from a missionary kid like me. But it always boils down to just one place, because the truth is really much more complicated. If I tell non-church people that I am from Tokyo I have to suffer their reaction of, “But you don't look Japanese!” If I answer Pennsylvania, they ask what I was doing there, and I say college, which was true. But really, I don't know where I'm from. I'm most comfortable in between places; I'm most comfortable being perpetually on the move - being a traveller. But that is not a good answer for someone who's expecting geographical coordinates.

Now that I've been in the States for the past three years, I don't get the question as often, but sometimes someone will still tell me, knowingly, “Japan must be really different from America, huh?” I usually just smile and nod and chuckle, because the truth is much more complicated. The truth is that Japan is nothing and everything like America at the same time. How can I explain that in a single-serving conversation? How can I explain that it's the minute differences in the culture that make living in Japan totally different? How can I sort my experiences out in my head objectively to see that some things I take for granted, take for 'normal,' are really everything but? If someone asks me what a typical day as a high-schooler in Japan was like, here is how I would answer:

“Well, I wake up in the morning about 7:00, because school starts at 8:25. I usually hit the snooze button until 7:15, at which time I wake up and get dressed. I reach into my closet and throw on a pair of faded jeans and a Weezer t-shirt. I tromp downstairs to the breakfast table, pour myself a bowl of Raisin Bran and some orange juice, and eat breakfast while listening to a morning show on the radio. After breakfast I quickly get my chores done, after which I put on my Adidas tennis shoes, grab my backpack filled with English, History, and Math textbooks, and go to the train station to catch a train for school. I listen to Guns 'n Roses on my iPod during my 20 minute commute. I get to school, say 'Hi” to a few friends, and go to my locker to put my books away. My girlfriend runs up and gives me a hug and a kiss, and I am off to first period Bible class.

The day progresses, taking me through English, Global Issues, Advanced Algebra, and Yearbook class, after which I have lunch in the school cafeteria, spaghetti. After lunch is Home Economics, Spanish, and Biology classes. School ends at 3:25, after which I have wrestling practice 'til 6pm. Practice ends, and I go to the local convenient store to buy a quick snack. I meet a friend there, and we go to a local McDonalds for a burger before I take the train home again, this time choosing the Goo Goo Dolls as my soundtrack for the train ride. I get home, play some Unreal Tournament 2004 online, and then eat cold dinner. Tonight my family had a pork roast. After dinner I play some more online, and then do some homework while IM'ing with five of my classmates about plans for our school's winter formal. I watch an episode of LOST that I downloaded, and around 11:30pm I go to bed, a full day having passed.”

How does that sound different form a day that any American teen would have? Sure maybe the “train commute” would be replaced by “car ride”, but that's really about it. Is that what people who expect me to delve into details about crazy Asians doing kung-fu in the streets and dodging dodge mental taxi drivers and punks on motorcycles want to hear? No. But it's the details, the boring details, that make life in Japan so vibrantly different from life in America. My story, with the details, would be really different.

I wake up at 7:15 and roll off a futon. My alarm clock has a Japanese character for the day of the week. My closet has two sliding paper doors and holds futon on the bottom shelf. The milk and OJ that I have for breakfast are packaged in liter cartons made from recycled paper. The DJs on the Armed Forces Network morning show are named Staff Sargent Peters and Airman First Class Rodriguez. My chores include things like separating colored glass bottles from clear glass bottles, because Japan recycles them differently. I have to sort aluminum and steel cans, and cut up milk cartons for recycling. I bike to the train station, and have to park my bike in an underground bicycle parking lot that has a monthly fee. Commuter trains arrive every two minutes or so, on the dot. While on the train I have to lower my backpack from my shoulders to the floor in order to accommodate more people in the jam-packed train car. As I swipe my train pass to get through the ticket wicket I see other kids who attend my school try to avoid paying, and then pretend they don't speak Japanese when they are caught. My Bible class includes Christian responses to other world religions such as Mormonism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and Shintoism. More than half of my classmates in any and all of my classes are Asian. In Spanish class I sit next to a girl who already speaks English, Japanese, and Korean fluently.

At lunch, which was served to me by Japanese lunch ladies, I sit with a bunch of guys and the conversation turns to whether 'halfs' (usually half-Asian half-white) girls are more attractive than pure Asian girls, with the final consensus split right down the middle. My girlfriend is pure Japanese so, of course, I am biased. My snack after wrestling practice is not Snickers and soda, but rather green tea and riceballs. The store sold Snickers, sure, but I wasn't interested. My friend and I walked to the local McDonalds (which has free WiFi), because it was within walking distance, much like every other business we frequent. There my friend asked my advice concerning a mutual friend who has started drinking – something easily started when alcohol is available in vending machines. The Japanese businessman sitting next to me on the train during the ride home reads a pornographic magazine. I play online games at speeds double that of what most gamers in the States are used to. Because of the nature of being in the city (Tokyo) and the density of the population, cable companies can afford to provide much better service to more people at a lower cost. MSN Messenger is the client of choice for my buddies, something nearly unheard of in AOL and AIM-dominated America. I fall asleep to the hum of a kerosene space-heater, because Japanese homes do not have central heating.

These are the details that make my life unique, but these are not the details in which I feel that the person opposite me is interested. So what do I do? I water my life down to something he or she can relate to, at the risk of he or she being disappointed. This makes these conversations easier for me because I can have a canned speech that I give to everyone. They wouldn't understand even if I told them, would they?


Netbooks are not Apple's design

Several weeks ago Apple, Inc. unveiled its hot new line of laptop computers to much rejoicing and hullabaloo. These were gorgeous machines with respectable spec sheets and for the first time the entire Apple notebook line had sturdy all-aluminum casing. Not all was well in the Mac community, however. There were some who had wanted Apple to release a notebook in the emerging 'netbook' market, and they were sorely disappointed.

Netbooks are an emerging market, a market so new in fact that my copy of OpenOffice still throws a red squiggle under the word. They are essentially a bare-bones laptop with a very small footprint - usually a 8 or 10 inch screen. They are meant for browsing the Internet and word processing and not much else. They aren't for gaming, storing your entire media library, or multi-tasking between seven different applications. They usually don't have webcams, CD drives, or other fancy-shmancy add-ons. They are also really cheap -usually under $500 - which is their main draw. Some would say that they have a low price point, but those people are idiots. A word of advice to them – there is no need to use the word 'price point' when 'price' conveys the exact same idea. You are not going to ask your friend what the price point of the new toaster he purchased was. No, you're going to ask him how much it cost, or how much he paid for it.

So these netbooks are really cheap and are apparently selling like hotcakes. Well, hotcakes with screens. And some “loyal” – I use that word lightly here – Apple fans think that Apple should produce a laptop for this market. (One could I suppose argue that they just wanted the Mac Air for cheaper.) They think that by releasing a sub-$800 laptop, that Apple would make a lot of money and gain new customers. This is a misguided wish for several reasons.

Reason 1: Apple is a respected brand that has always made higher-end consumer products. Their laptops typically are released at a price of around $1200 going all the way up to their Pro line of $3500 or so. Historically they make products for the artistic professionals – movie makers, photographers, designers, etc. The business world uses Windows and all the art is made on Macs. (This accounts the disproportionate amount of Macs you see in movies and TV shows.)

Reason 2: Apple puts a lot of work into designing their products, and it shows. People don't realize that making good design is usually expensive and requires a lot of hard work. Somebody has to pay for all of that gorgeous design that sets apart Macs from the rest of the computer world.

Reason 3: Most Mac users are extremely loyal. (Since 2002 I have owned five different Macs, and that was not because I needed them. I just liked having them around.) What this translates to is a very active second-hand Mac market. Macs have famously high resale value, which happened to be one of my considerations when buying my MacBook the weekend it was released. I bought my Mac for around $1500 three years ago and WILL be able to resell it for 700-800 dollars if I choose to sell it even now, almost three years later. When my mom needed a new laptop, I advised her to buy a used Aluminum PowerBook rather than a new MacBook because it was essentially the same machine, only $300 cheaper. Mac fans who whined about no $500 notebook failed to see that they already had one – the 12' G4 PowerBook. Sure it doesn't have the newest Mac OS or other nice features, but hey, it has a wireless and can run OS X, right? That's really all the average netbook user would need. For even cheaper you could buy a used iBook and still have OS X.

By releasing a netbook Apple would not only risk jeopardizing their respected professional brand, but they would also risk sabotaging their second-hand market that keeps enthusiasts abated until they decide to buy another new Apple machine. They would also risk having to release a machine that was not iconic in its design, like nearly every Apple machine has been. Way to go Apple, for continuously sticking to your guns and releasing great computers at reasonable prices.


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Not all roses who wander are lost

So last night's episode of House, M.D., a series I watch rather passionately, was a major character-developing episode for Thirteen, an attractive doctor in her late twenties/early thirties. She has Huntington's disease, a degenerative condition that will end her life in ten to fifteen years, which she inherited from her mother, whom she watched die slowly and painfully.

The program focused on the choices she had made recently as a result of news that her disease was progressing faster than had been expected - lifestyle choices involving late-night partying, drugs, and casual sex with strangers (she's bisexual). Dr. Foreman, her colleague, cautions her against such behaviors, instead advising that she should use the time to exercise, stay healthy, and try to prolong her life as long as possible. Thirteen retorts that what she's doing is making her happy, and isn't life all about being happy?

Though I am fascinated with the human condition to strive to be happy, this article is not about that. Basing a lifestyle around making the whole point of life in striving to make oneself happy is of course incredibly misguided and doomed to fail, much like one mistake in the opening of a chess game means the game is already lost.

Thirteen is doing this, but at an accelerated pace, one that will cause misery much sooner than her disease will end her life.

My interest here is not what Thirteen is doing (the self-destructive behavior seeking to find control in her otherwise-uncontrollable situation), but rather the bigger picture of the hidden implications behind her behavior. Thirteen is, as she sees it, "sucking the marrow out of life", or living life to the fullest. She is getting all the fun in that she can before she returns to the dust. She is trying to get her money's worth out of life.

This situation then brings her worldview into light. Clearly, for her, her life is her own, and she sees it as being unfairly terminated. After all, she spent all those years in medical school to prepare for a high-paying career so that she could live a life of luxury, right? Now all that time she could have spent partying she has to make up for. She invested in a future that she now will not be able to cash in on. This is maddening for her. Now if her life is her own, and she does what she wants with it, she must feel cheated. Fate is out to get her, to ruin all her plans and make her existence worthless. She clearly has to get all the fun she can in before her Huntington's kills her, whether that fun is cheap sex or incredible hour-long drug highs. It's a sad situation, really.

Now how would a Christian respond to this. Several verses come to mind, including 1 Cor.6:19-20, "Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own; you were bought at a price. Therefore honor God with your body.", Jer. 29:11, "For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.", and Matt. 6:34 "Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own." As Christians we can have courage, and even take delight, in knowing that God has plans for us. I even find it incredibly comforting to know that I do not have to bear the sole responsibility for my life's course - that God knows what's going on and he can use any and every situation for good (Rom 8:28).

God created the universe, including, of course, human beings, and he owes us nothing. NOTHING. This sovereignty of God I think even proves that the universe is working the way it should. It doesn't mean I understand why bad things happen to good people, but I do think that it means that even if bad things DO happen, God will be glorified. In our life, or even in our death, it is our duty to let other people see that. Hopefully Thirteen will start to do a better job.


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The Three Dragons

I sighed as I walked into my bathroom. It had been a long day at the mahjong tables. I had spent all afternoon pon-ing, kan-ing, chii-ing and ron-ing, and had returned home with five dollars less than I had upon departure. But I didn't mind. On the contrary, I had walked home with a beaming smile on my face, ecstatic that eight hours of continuously fantastic competition had only cost me five dollars. Mahjong was such a joy to play. The four of us with our green polo shirts and jeans, chain smoking cheap cigarettes while busy strategically arranging out hands, yelping at victory and groaning at defeat. Such was the game that united blue and white-collar workers alike under one roof at the local YMCA. Yes, it had been a good day indeed!

I stripped off my clothes and stepped into the shower. The steam engulfed me as the hot water streamed over my body. I quickly rubbed myself down and reached for the shampoo. A red dot suddenly appeared on my forearm, and another on my foot. Another burst forth onto my hand, and one more came after that. They kept appearing; another and then another and another, following one anther in a regimented sequence. I smiled and turned my face into the shower stream. My nose was bleeding. I poured shampoo into my hand and went about washing my hair. I let my hands down after a good lather and let the fluffy foam coating them absorb the rogue blood droplets. The crimson soon calmed to a rosy pink and was washed away, its anger assuaged. As I soaped up, more droplets, their impish aura about them, rocketed past my ankles onto the tile, where upon impact they burst into ghosts and chased each other down the drain, their solace to be found in perpetual gridlock with one another amid the copper labyrinth of the underground. I continued my routine. They were no threat to me. These beads of blood, these excited erythrocytes, had long since become something of a neighbor rather than a distant visitor. They came and went as they pleased. And just as one with a visitor must be chained to the entertain in the living room, so I had to be wary of my guests until they left. They bothered me for but a little while, and then, just as abruptly as they came, they were gone. I turned off the water and stepped out of the tub. I dried, dressed, and traipsed off to bed.

All this socializing had tired me out, and it was time to climb into my clean white sheets and dream of rounds in which I could collect nine or more Dragon tiles.


10/7/08 with Joe Satriani in Minneapolis at the State Theater

UPDATED: With pictures and links and extra content!

10/7/08 Joe Satriani arrives in Minneapolis on his new album tour.

6:08PM - Arrive at the State Theater via bicycle. I drove to a spot about 13 blocks out, parked for free, and biked downtown.

6:30 - Doors opened. The show has assigned seating, so there was no rush to get in. I walked into the theater to the sound of David Bowie singing "I'm Afraid of Americans"
over the PA system.

6:40- I spot a guy who I saw at a Buckethead show a couple weeks ago. I recognize him by his Steve Vai t-shirt. I go over to him, talk to him for a bit, and leave after giving him a pound. Good deed done for the day!

6:45 - My blood sugar is at 50. Nowhere near my record low, but still enough to warrant me chowing down on the two glucose tablets I brought with me.

6:47 - The theater is still barely full.

6:48 - Van Halens "The Full Bug" off of their Diver Down album comes over the PA system.

6:51 - The music takes a negative turn when the Foo Fighters come on. Man, I hate "Monkey Wrench."

6:56 - That retarded, "What can I do~~? All I want is to get next to you~~" song comes on the PA.

6:58 - I leave my seat to go find some soda, just in case those tablets don't hold me over. I end up outside, where I take a picture of the marquee. I settle with convincing a bartender to give me some sugar packets when I can't find a single vending machine.

7:03 - Back in my seat. Nearly everyone I see around me is over age 35.

7:08 - I might have the best seat in the house. I am eleven rows back on the isle on house left. Facing the front, the entire stage fits just neatly in my whole field of vision. Satch usually plays on stage right of his band, so I will get an excellent view.

7:21 - The couple who rented the seats next to me for the evening have arrived. They comment on how close the seats are to the stage and pull out earplugs.

7:22 - I feel like I'm the only person at the show who does not own a Satriani or Vai t-shirt.

7:24 - As if to prove my point, a family of five arrives a few rows away from me, all wearing identical Professor Satchafunkalis t-thirts.

7:29 - Light dim as Mountain takes the stage. The lead guy makes a lame comment questioning why the twins cities are named so when they don't look anything like each other.

7:32 - Latecomers arrive, blocking my view.

7:35 - Mountain's bassist is already swinging his dreads around in circles.

7:36 - "Theme for an Imaginary Western"

7:46 - "Nantucket Sleigh Ride"

8:06 - "Mississippi Queen." It's about time, Mountain.

8:13 - Mountain leaves the stage.

8:15 - I learn how to use my friend Kyle's digital camera. I also throw down a packet of sugar.

8:18 - I leave my seat to pee. The line for the men's room extends about forty guys outside the door. Women are giggling at us.

8:24 - I return to my seat to hear "Swlabr" by Cream over the PA. Finally, something good.

8:28 -Another couple has appeared and claims that their tickets entitle them to my seat. I disagree and produce my ticket. A nearby usher clarifies that they are in the wrong section of the theater. They smile and apologize. All is well.

8:30 A guitar tech is testing an acoustic on stage. I remember that Satch's new album has some acoustic stuff on it. Maybe I will get to hear some live?

8:31 - The sheet is pulled off the drum set. Man, Mr. Campetelli has quite the set-up.

8:33 - "Purple Haze" is now playing in the theater. Good for Hendrix.

8:39PM - Satch is on!


I Just Want to Rock
Satch Boogie
Ice Nine
Flying in Blue Dream
(No clue)
One Big Rush
Cool #9
(No clue)
Stu's bass solo
Always With Me, Always With You
Surfing With The Alien
Summer Song (encore)

10:38PM - After a two-hour set including an encore and then three more songs with the Mountain dude, the show is over. Joe has used five different guitars, four of his signature axes and one Les Paul. I exit the theater and hop on my bike.

11:13 - I arrive home, a little less than six hours after I left.

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Ketsui and the Cult of Shmups

ケツイ ー 絆地獄たち ー

ケツイ ー 絆地獄たち ー

The man in the picture above is playing Ketsui, a scrolling shooter game that, in my opinion, is the best video game in existence.  Ketsui is a very simple game that uses three buttons and a joystick and with practice, can be beaten in less than half an hour. It should be noted that in this case, "practice" means probably over 200 hours of gameplay, because Ketsui is very, very hard. Judging by the positioning of the man's hands, he does not have much practice with the game or even the genre.

Ketsui is part of the genre of games known as scrolling shoot'em ups, or "shmups" for short. These games are generally 2D games, are most often sprite-based, and are very short and very hard. They have been around since the early 80s, and, despite being 2D in a graphics-obsessed gaming culture, retain a loyal fanbase, of which I am a part.

It's hard to pinpoint exactly when I started playing shmups. My first real memory of one was when I played Raiden DX for Super Famicon in 3rd or 4th grade at a friend's house. From then until my senior year of high school, I didn't give the genre much thought. Sometime during my senior year, though, I became hooked.

I wonder what about these games attracts me to them? Perhaps the fact that they are very personal? They are almost always hand-animated, with bullet patterns comprised of gorgeous colors; most developing teams are less than 15 people. The games are extremely well-crafted. This is a genre that caters to the extremely hardcore gamer crowd - a group of people who would not think it unreasonable to pay $1500 for an arcade machine and then shell out upwards of $1800 for a single game to play on it. Ketsui alone can go for over $2000. This is a fanbase that keeps count of frame data in games, memorizes every enemy wave pattern, and breaks down a chaining mechanic to maximize high scores. These are people who put in 300+ hours into a single game and can tell you that a it moves at 36 frames per second and that you will earn 412 points for every frame you stay alive, meaning that you earn almost 15,000 for every second you can evade a bullet pattern comprised of 46 bullets.

Game companies don’t keep these kind of fans happy by releasing half-assed games. These days, there just is no such thing as a buggy shmup. There will be no need to release updates or patches. A revision means almost a total overhaul of the entire game. Take, for example, a scene I witnessed a few years ago.

I was at a testing release for a game called Mushihimesama Futari at the Hey! Arcade in Akihabara, Tokyo. There were four machines lined up against a wall, each running a copy of the latest beta. There was a line of at least ten middle aged men behind each machine, patiently waiting their turn while at the same time watching the players in front to learn how the game played. All of a sudden, the entire roon erupted in deafening cheers.

Someone had counter-stopped their copy of the game!

To put it simply, they had mastered the scoring and chaining system so well that they had maxed out the score counter. The score couldn’t go any higher, meaning the guy had essentially broken the game. In a genre where high score is everything, a game able to be counter-stopped would sell next to zero copies. Clearly, the developers had a lot of work ahead of them.

This kind of dedication is something I really admire. In a industry where the latest and greatest 3D game is lucky to be a best-seller for a week, here hides a genre that still thrives, mainly because of developer dedication and a highly knowledgeable fanbase. I don’t claim to be a leader in this fanbase, but I do enjoy the games - they are probably the only video games I still play.

Why would I continue this masochistic hobby of playing games that continually beat me down? Because there is a goal. A seemingly unachievable goal that I know I can reach if I try hard enough. And once I reach that goal, the results will be supremely impressive. All I have to put in is the time...


New town, new awesome faces, and new issues to deal with

So I guess a lot has been going on lately, even though I don’t particularly feel that my life has been moving at any quicker a pace. Moving to a new place always makes time go by more quickly in retrospect, but the juxtaposition of being unemployed and having a lot of time on my hands evens out the two extremes.

So, yes, World, it is true. I have moved. I now reside in a house with five other guys my age in St. Paul, Minnesota. Why, you ask, did I move? Well, there are a few reasons. The first is that I felt that God was calling me to become part of the Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. This church is pastored by John Piper, a rather famous Baptist preacher who has written many books - of which I have read regrettably few - about many religious topics. He is a man I respect very much. The second reason is that while visiting Bethlehem Baptist on my roadtrip, I found a wanted ad for a roommate. The price was right, so I called the guy, toured the house, and told him that I would show up to sign a September 1st lease. Yes, I literally changed the course of the next year (at least) of my life in one afternoon. No, I don’t really consider myself impulsive.

Ok, that is completely not true.

Impulsive or not, I came through on my promise and moved into the house in September. I arrived with the entire contents on my van, and moved into a completely empty room with no furniture whatsoever. Not even a closet rod was to be found. I clearly had a lot of work to do.

Craigslist.com, here I come!
Three days later, my room looks like this.

Desk - $40, chair - $2.99, CD/book rack - $20, closet rod - $9. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. Thank goodness I have a huge van. That desk wieghed close to 200lbs. And this is one of my two kitchens.

Now I have to find a job.


Conclusion of My Roadtrip, '08!

I guess now that I have settled down somewhere, my summer roadtrip can be considered complete - in both eventful terms and successful terms! That's right, boys and girls, I made it through thirteen different states in a little less that a month, picked up a hitchhiker, had my car overheat, and got questioned by police and lived to tell about it. More about my current situation later, but for now, here is a list of things I learned:

Things I learned

-How to change my own oil. It’s actually rather easy.

-Arkansas is littered with armadillos. This is because (a) they are slow, and (b) when startled by a car they jump straight up in the air.

-You are never too old for animal crackers.

-There still are towns in the US that practically close down on Sunday.

-Playing Guitar Hero is much harder when you have no strap.

-TED videos are super informative.

-Minneapolis is a fantastic city for bicycling. Memphis is not.

-Oklahoma City is a really cheap place to live.

-Police in rural Arkansas will notice a shadily-parked van rather quickly, no matter how late at
night it is.

-I indeed own one of the largest non-commercial vehicles money can buy.

-Watching a video of sprint cars wrecking is entertaining.

-Marijuana can and indeed does grow in closets.

-I really enjoy hearing the phrase, “Would you like your balance in large bills, sir?”

-Nerdfighters are awesome and awkward.

-The Jesse James Farm Homestead is 4 (out of the advertised 3) miles off the highway, closes
gates at 4PM, and was not worth seeing anyway.

-Gas in the US doesn’t get much cheaper than $3.43/gallon.

-LOLcats are awesome.

-Trackstanding on a fixie is a lot of fun, especially when you can do it for twenty seconds at a

-I have a secret affection for cast-iron skillets.

-The Bean in Chicago is possibly the best public sculpture in the USA.

-Nacho cheese flavored sunflower seeds are tasty.

-Joe Satriani really is a brilliant guitarist.

-The best used CD/record store in the world (so far) is in downtown Normal, Illinois.

-The Memphis Public Library sucks.

-Though Route 61 and Route 96 both go south through Kansas, they are different kinds of

-McEwans, 1554, Two-Hearted Ale, and 2XX are all quite good beers.

-Prolonged exposure to chlorine bleach gives me a headache.

-Navigating the American highway system is not as hard as I thought.

Hooray! Now, off to get my new life organized!


Arkansas and a Memphis breakdown, '08!

So there I was, going 55 down I-40, rocking out to Buckethead and eating animal crackers. I had left OKC a few hours previous and was now speeding, under the speed limit, through Arkansas.
“Another dead armadillo!” I yelled as I passed Number Five. Dead armadillos were everywhere along I-40. It was quite peculiar. At around 9:45 I had the opportunity to pick up a hitchhiker, which I took. His name was Billy, and he was 32 and an ex-heroin and crank addict. He had to travel about 60 miles for a court appearance, and needed a ride in the Little Rock direction. Though he sounds shady, he turned out to be a really nice guy. He was a roofer by trade, didn't have a GED, and wanted to work at a recovery home for addicts. he rode with me for about 45 minutes, chattering away and making good conversation. I let him off where I-40 meets 65 North, and drove on. I drove until I was almost out of gas, which proved to be an hour outside of Memphis at 12:30 AM, Tuesday. I pulled off the interstate into a residential district and quickly found a spot off the road where i parked for the night. Arkansas nights are pretty hot, so I vented as many windows as I could and lay shirtless on my couch. Sleep came quickly, but was soon interrupted by some well-meaning police officers just doing there job and investigating a shadily-parked huge van with an out-of-state license plate. They wanted to see my drivers license, which I promptly gave them, and they asked what I was doing parked there.
“Just trying to get a couple hours of sleep before I hit the road again, sir,” I answered. “Is it illegal to park on the street here in Arkansas?”
“No, no you’re fine. We just had to check. We don’t see many vans around here, y’know,” he answered with a heavy southern drawl.
“Of course, sir. I understand.”
“Have a good night, now.”
“Thank you sir.”

And that was the end of that exchange. I was asleep soon after. The next day found me driving into Memphis looking for a garage. My van had been sporadically overheating throughout out the Arkansas drive, and I wanted to see what could be done about it. It didn’t take me long to find a garage, and after leaving my contact information I dropped my van off with some friendly-looking technicians. I proceeded to hop on my Pista and explore Memphis by bicycle. Memphis, for those who are wondering, is not a very bicycle-friendly city AT ALL. The roads are bad, there’s traffic everywhere, and the whole city just seems very narrow. I did manage to find the Memphis Public Library, located on the waterfront, but to my dismay they did not have wireless internet. What they did have were a bunch of homeless people hanging out and, more importantly, air conditioning. I stayed at the library for quite a few hours, in the meantime watching videos on my laptop and answering phone calls from the garage. As it turns out, my fan clutch had failed quite a while ago, and had just now become a real issue while driving through the summer heat. I told the technician to go ahead and fix that. I was planning to see Graceland in Memphis, but time got the upper hand and I had to be in Chicago in two days. So, on Wednesday evening, I started the journey north towards Illinois.


Quest Complete! Dann +6 XP get!

For those of you who have never seen The Man Who Knew Too Little, starring Bill Murray, this post will seem silly. To those who have, read on. On my way through Iowa I made it a point of stopping in Des Moines purely to get a photograph. Murray's character in the film, Wallace Ritchie, allegedly works at a Blockbuster Video in Des Moines, and states so rather emphatically and humorously. Hence, I had to get a picture at Blockbuster Video, Des Moines, Iowa. And here it is.
And here is business card proof.


Life in OKC, '08

Yesterday I drove from Hutchinson, Kansas, down to Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. In total I think I drove about 4 hours or so. Not bad. The main reason I decided on Oklahoma City was to see the memorial for the 1995 bombing. In addition to that memorial, it turns out OKC has a fantastic downtown public library, from which I am now posting. I can get a 2.5MB/sec Wifi connection here. Here we see the city skyline.The memorial. This pond is maybe a quarter inch deep. The arch at the far end reads 9:01 and the arch directly behind the camera read 9:03, the minutes before and after the 9:02 blast.
Metal chairs are erected across the pool, one for each of the 168 victims. The chairs rest on transparent cubes...
...which are illuminated at night, giving the chairs a floating, ethereal feel.
Unrelated to the memorial is this rather clever piece of advertising.
Oklahoma City marks the first time that I actually used the couch in my van for sleeping. Every other night I've been indoors on someone's couch or another comfortable horizontal piece of furniture. I'd like to report that my couch can be described as "suitable for sleeping on". Also experienced in my van was something that scientists are calling "too damn hot with too few windows".

More on this at 10.


Waterloo, IA, '08

The highlight of hanging out in Waterloo was spending all of Wednesday participating in flood cleanup with Samaritans Purse Disaster Relief. We set out at 7:30 am and were home by 6pm. The majority of the day (all but about an hour) was spent at this little house. I cut and removed drywall from the first floor until lunch, and the entire afternoon was spent washing and bleaching the walls of the basement, upon which quite a bit of sediment had built. The day ended with myself and two others removing soaked insulation and cleaning mica and gravel sediment out of a cubby hole.
The view of most of the appliances removed.
The sediment and insulation we removed.
My buddy Steve and I after a hard days work.
Another highlight of my stop was rediscovering Lite-Brite. Originally selling for $6.99 (without lightbulb), this is one of those toys that always seemed a staple at any host family's house at which I stayed while traveling during my early elementary years.
This is apparently supposed to look like Mr. Potatohead, the policeman.

I also went put-putting at 9pm one evening with Steve, who trounced me.

On to Des Moines!


Wrapping up Minnesota, '08

As any tourist should, I visited the Mall of America in Minneapolis. I didn't buy anything, but I did snap some sweet shots of LEGO dinosaurs. Made entirely of LEGOS. I played with LEGOS to no end as a child, and seeing this was, well, almost unreal. LEGOS combined with dinosaurs made me feel like I was three again.

Also I went to one of Minnesota's many lakes and went canoeing. Yay!

These next two shots were snapped at a store which I can only refer to as Tabletop Gaming Central for Minnesota and probably also Wisconsin as well as Iowa and North and South Dakota.

Bookcases full of Dungeon Master's Guides, bins filled with of dice of all sizes, colors and shapes, as well as kits for just about any game you can imagine. The first picture is just a wall full of WWII miniatures. In addition to that wall they had miniatures for the Civil War, Napoleonic Wars, and just about any other historical combat situation you can imagine. They even had non-historical sets for tabletop games of Starcraft and World of Warcraft. They also had plenty of Steve Jackson games, which I adore. And that was only half the store. They also had action figures, comic books, and a whole room full of translated manga.


Hanging out at Science Museum of Minnesota, '08

One day last week, I think it was Friday, I went with three friends to the SMM. It was a pretty cool place with lots of hand-on exhibits and dinosaur bones (though no Velociraptor skeleton - boo! One less dead Velociraptor).

The main reason we went, however, was to see the traveling Star Wars exhibit, priced at almost as much as general admission. It was entirely worth it. In addition to learning cool things about real science as seen in the Star Wars Universe, I got to see tons of models and props that were actually used in the films.

The highlight for me was seeing an actual thermal detonator, which I admit sounds kinda dumb if you have not played Star Wars Mafia (you probably haven't, but it is not dumb).
This is an actual Yoda puppet. He's posed next to a Jedi training device
Original R2-D2 and C-3P0, and half of Leia's dress.
An ominous-looking Imperial Interrogation Droid, just waiting to pwn you and your kids.
Darth Vader's helmet and also Lord Vader.

That abominable snowman dude from Hoth. Originally he was just a hand puppet, but for the remake they had an actual stuffed one. This guy is maybe three feet tall.
A Jawa, who appears to have more eyes thanks to the glass case he's in.

All in all it was a pretty sweet exhibit, and well worth going to if you're in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area.