Inheriting Plunder

“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.”

–Frederic Bastiat

During my Christmas visit to my family, this quote came up in conversation.  The member of my family in question identifies as having a particularly conservative political perspective, but I must confess that I have never heard a coherent point of view from him, and most of his arguments seem motivated by a general and non-specific hatred of government and by anger for all those he has personally declared to be lazy.  This, of course, makes direct conversation with him difficult and is a motivating reason why I’m writing about it here, on my blog, where there is time and space to form my thoughts.  In due course of the conversation, I simply thanked him to not try to talk about politics with me again.

Having lofted out this Bastiat quote, he in short order declared that people who draw unemployment benefits beyond some arbitrary period of time (I think he said “three weeks”) are plunderers.  From a relative point of view, I suppose it’s an argument which one could make.  Unemployment benefits are paid out by the government, and the government does collect funds by force, and so you could, in a roundabout way, make the argument that the unemployed are living on the spoils collected by government thugs.  Of course, from this particular person’s point of view, it works this way– work makes value, but theft is generally easier, especially if it can be done without direct confrontation of one’s quarry.  Of course, the lazy don’t want to work and want to keep collecting their plunder, so over time, politicians seeking power learn how to offer the lazy people their plunder, and so form a society which enables and glorifies them.  Collectively, these parasites have formed the American welfare society and continue to steal from honest and hard-working productive members of society through the efforts of left-wing politicians.

The amazing thing here is that there is one thing I do agree with him over– there are lazy people in this world who don’t live from the sweat of their brows, and those people are parasites and they should be thrown out on their asses so that they have to work like the rest of us.  It’s just that, in the general continuum of parasites, someone who’s been long laid off doesn’t really rouse my attention.  I’m concerned with real plunderers.

Who are they?  The ownership class.  They’re those who do not work for their money but have instead live on the capital they have amassed.  They’re the landlords, the speculators, the heirs, and the investors.  They have absolutely had the power to structure a society to glorify their behavior, and they have, for they not only lead attractive lives but they are seen as right to do so.  They have even succeeded in inculcating a morality which glorifies them to the point that most people don’t even know how to speak about their lives with moral clarity.  We say they live on the profits of their investments and owned capital, and this sounds quite reasonable; however, it’s a platitude that hides the reality of the situation.  What they live on is plunder, and it’s a plunder that morality and the state defends.

Conventional capital-labor relationships make this perfectly clear.  You hire someone to make you widgets.  You sell the widgets for $X, you pay the laborer $Y, such that Y < X, and then you keep $X-Y for yourself as profit.  Of course, in a real modern widget-making business, you get someone to do the selling for you.  The goal of an owner is to, ultimately, maximize profit and minimize unwanted involvement in getting that profit.  This reaches its ultimate point in a corporation, where the owners of the company do little more than vote for people to hire the people who hire and manage the other laborers.  Ultimately, this means that owning a share of profits means getting money for, effectively, not doing anything.  But where does this money come from?  Well, barring artificial shortage (such as those produced via regulation or monopoly), the price of a good reflects the value of the labor used to produce it.  Goods that can be produced more cheaply, will, because consumers want to maximize utility/price ratios.  So, a good that costs $X had, from a consumer’s perspective, $X worth of labor in it.  Since the laborers were paid $Y instead, however, they have not received full compensation for their production of the product.  That skim off the top is the province of the owner(s), which they receive for doing as little as possible (and often nothing at all).  Anyone who works knows this is true and tries not to think about it.  The only reason it is accepted is because those who work don’t have the means to do otherwise, and the major arguments workers give themselves are part of a mythology of the social necessity of their work.  The latter is a plea to oneself to ignore the fact that, from the perspective of owners, virtually all workers are replaceable.

The system itself is self-feeding.  The primary argument why investors are needed is because they have the means to take risks on paying for labor which isn’t economically valuable.  Yet the primary reason this is so is because the majority of wealth is collected in the hands of relatively few people, to the point that no endeavor of any consequence can happen without the involvement of the ownership class in some fashion or another.  Once they are involved, they claim a cut of the equity of that endeavor, thus ensuring the continued concentration of that wealth, thus making their participation in society necessary.

Plunder and its inheritors, though, continue down to even smaller things in life, like the plot of land my family owns.  Land doesn’t just appear out of nowhere.  My parents bought their house from someone, who was the tail of a long chain of prior owners.  The first in that chain bought the land from the local government (the city or the county, depending on incorporation lines).  Those local governments formed as the native peoples of Florida were wiped out and deported and Europeans moved in.  In America, virtually all land was the province of one group of native people or another, and prior generations were quite happy to treat them as pests, wipe them out, and make the land suitable for re-use.  And since then, this land has been resold to others over and over and over again.  My family lives on a plot of plunder.  If you own land, you own plunder.

And that is, for better or for worse, the reality.  The heritage of America is one of plunder.  Our land was plundered from nations of people who already lived here, and they were “dealt with” so that we could bring in our own capitalistic society, one which begins with a plundering class exploiting the laboring masses and which effortlessly perpetuates itself.  Plunder is inevitable in our society, and a lazy few live well on that plunder.  And, frankly, I’m at least a little guilty myself.  I’ve owned stocks since I was eight years old, and I may well sell my portfolio to buy a house.  And like most Americans, that’s important to me…my little slice of plunder is also my ticket to having a patch of society that’s mine.

That’s the reality of plunder.

ArcanOS FOOL Feature Complete

I am pleased to announce that the current push of ArcanOS represents a completion of features for release FOOL.  The feature list won’t look very big, but remember that this is a labor of love being done in my (not very ample) spare time, and that most homebrew OS projects never even make it this far.  The list of features slated for the FOOL release are:

  • Bootloader which reads the kernel from disk
  • Protected mode operation
  • Flat memory model achieved through segmentation only
  • Identification of the major kernel’s binary sections in memory
  • Scratch space memory allocator
  • Debugging output via a console print
  • Hardware exception handlers
  • Keyboard interrupt handler

I’m opting to call feature complete at this point because ArcanOS FOOL represents a small laundry list of features necessary to build the next set of kernel features.  That is…FOOL is a kernel that doesn’t just fall completely on its face.  Issues of booting have been worked out, the memory model is understood (if primitive), the exception handlers are in place so errors don’t cause a spontaneous reset, and the keyboard interrupt handler demonstrates that the PIC is remapped and that code for creating and registering interrupt service routines works.  I don’t want to go any further on feature development at this point because I want to enable paging and use it to enforce the flat memory model, and switching to paging will mean having to deal with memory-mapped hardware (like the console) differently.  A smaller codebase is easier to convert than a larger one.

ArcanOS is going to go through a cleanup and documentation phase now.  I want to thoroughly scrub all unnecessary code from the codebase and to fully get ArcanOS off its JOS heritage so that it’ll be a consistent project moving forward.  I’ll then carve off a release and post a build so people can play with it using Bochs, and then I’ll write Wiki pages to help document my major headaches.  Then, it’ll be time to start looking forward to release MAGUS.

Final Fantasy XIV November Update (and what I really want in an MMORPG)

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, Square Enix released their first major patch for Final Fantasy XIV.  As I have mentioned in a previous post, FFXIV is a pretty broken game.  I keep playing it for various mysterious reasons…mostly, it remains a simple morsel of fun to log into every couple of days, and WoW won’t be taking too much of my attention until Cataclysm comes out.  On top of that, SE has yet to actually charge me a monthly fee, so it’s still essentially free to me, even if it’s clear that the game was rushed and the PC release has been a form of testing for the PS3 release.  Eh…things happen.  Anyway, given how broken FFXIV is, any patch is likely to improve things, and the November patch has brought the game up a few notches.  The UI is indeed less laggy.  They’ve improved the inventory/gear screens a bit.  Everything does feel a little bit tighter in general, and so on that front, it’s great.

The biggest improvement, though, has been the way that experience points and skill points are awarded.  XP are points that affect your base stats; SP affect your advancement in your current main job.  Recall that FFXIV lets you change classes (or “jobs,” as they call them) simply by equipping the appropriate weapon.  Your particular blend of skills available is a mix-and-match of everything you’ve learned to date, meaning you can use magic even if you’re currently wielding a Gladiator’s sword.  Anyway, before the patch, SP was awarded in a semi-random fashion each time you successfully damaged or debuffed an enemy.  This system had two very chilling effects on play.  The first is that it encouraged advancement-focused players to spam their weakest attacks since weak attacks mean more attacks performed and thus more chances for SP.  Play was absolutely mind-numbing.  Why should I do DoT attacks when it robs me of SP?  Why should I use a nuke spell or AoE multiple foes?  So, the old SP system encouraged a single tactical style that was pretty boring.  The other chilling effect is that it significantly slowed the job progression for Conjurers (and I suspect for Thaumaturges, too).  Conjurers are squishy by nature, but are supposed to make up for this with great DPS spells.  Well…those spells, one of which is a great DoT counterattack, robbed Conjurers of SP opportunities.  When you also consider that Conjurer is the base class for a pure-healer build and that healing and buffing were really bad ways to build SP, the game effectively punished leveling Conjurers and especially healing-focused ones.  This was a gaping hole in job balance, and I suspect that, had it gone on long enough, you’d have seen these classes wither on the vine at the upper levels.

But, SE changed that, giving a base SP award plus some random bonus on each mob killed.  While they were at it, they made the SP gains at levels up to 20 much more generous.  Running six guildleves (quests, for you non-FFXIV players), I was able to pull myself through nearly two job levels in one night.  More importantly, though, the play was now finally fun.  Understanding why I now found it fun was also a really great view into what I want out of an MMORPG, and it’s, sadly, not something any MMORPG is prepared to offer in the long run.  No, not even WoW.

The new SP mechanics meant I no longer had to lock myself into one set of tactics to maximize SP.  It used to be that I’d do this– cast Protect, cast Stoneskin, spam Spirit Dart, occasionally hit Radiance to bleed off TP, cast Cure as necessary.  I’d either die or win.  That’s it.   My attack rotation was beyond rote and deeply boring.  Suddenly, though, I had new choices.  I could start a fight against paired foes (Amateur Footpad and Amateur Raider, for example) by doing an AoE DoT focused on one mob, then directly assault the other.  I could close distance on everyone and AoE nuke.  Or if there was too much of a crowd, I could switch AoE off and use a different set of tactics to knock down one mob quickly while holding the other at bay.  Shock Spikes, which stun and DoT against melee attacks, was now my friend again.  In short, every spell and ability I equipped was now a tool I could use to bring down my enemies.  Now everything was a fun challenge and not just a grind to do so I could level.

This paired up against a conversation I had with Agnieszka, the resident WoW expert in my life.  I have always had this vague impression in WoW that I would eventually get geared up sufficiently that I could give raiding a try.  After a few drinks, she rather kindly and bluntly told me I needed to just let it go…I’m not going to raid.  It takes more investment than I’ll give.  It’s a bit disheartening to know, but I think it’s likely true.  The reason it’s disheartening, though, is because I keep looking for moments in WoW that parallel what I was just given in FFXIV, and I’ve imagined…incorrectly…that raiding will give me those moments.  I remember back when I was leveling in WoW, there was a time when every other level gave me a new shot to try out.  Basically, there were two carrots moving me forward–  increasingly badass looking armor and knowing that, soon, I’d have to rethink my tactics.  That new shot was going to be something completely different and I’d have new ways to think about things.

Ultimately, that’s what I’m looking for in an MMORPG– an environment where I’m constantly having to make new tactical decisions to be effective.  That’s my flow and my sense of engagement, and it’s also why I don’t find myself being all that drawn back to a lot of the games out there, and it’s why I go in and out of engagement with WoW.  WoW, particularly as a hunter, is all about getting your stats up, getting and working your rotation to maximize your output, and following an objective “best play” for the situation you’re in.  It’s not an unreasonable idea to follow in game design, but it also doesn’t do a lot for me.  It’s not far off from why I’m not a competitive runner or cyclist– I just don’t get a kick out of working hard to get a single stat up.  I play sports because I want to make quick and interesting decisions and get in a state of flow with others who do, too, and that’s also why I game.  Now, I know WoW raiding does involve quick decisions, but as Agnieszka would point out to me, there’s almost always a right thing to do for any scenario.  Compare this with a game like Eve Online, where your fleet can use a vast variety of different ships as long as the players and fleet know how to use them to their best tactical advantages.  Unfortunately, Eve has its own issues that keep me from getting fully immersed in it, but its concept of tactics is one of the best things going for it.

Unfortunately, there isn’t currently a game with super-flexible character building, an excellent focus on tactics and co-developing character and play style, a clean UI that’s easy on the eyes, and a variety of player activity.  FFXIV had all sorts of promise to be that, but SE has a broken game on their hands that they’re still fixing (and will be for a while, though I’ll keep playing).  I really wish WoW had a less objective play style, but that’s just what it is.  I guess I’ll just have to keep crossing my fingers on The Secret World.

Bad Religion After 30 Years

Saturday night was an evening which I thought might never come.  After years of near-misses, I finally got to see the band that, for me, started it all.  I got to see Bad Religion.  The truth is that good things really do come to those who wait, because I didn’t just see Bad Religion.  I saw Bad Religion on their 30th anniversary tour, on the last show of the tour, on the exact day they were celebrating their anniversary, in the first city they every played outside of Southern California.  It was absolutely the night to see them, particularly for the sentimental value I place on their music and their career.

When I say that Bad Religion “started it all,” what, exactly, do I mean?  Well, it’s true that most of my musical and cultural awakening happened in the context of “alternative” music, as you could still safely call it.  In the days before grunge had sufficiently taken off and the mainstream had co-opted the “alternative” ethos, the general melange of not-very-top-40 music got put under that broad label.  I learned about bands like REM, Depeche Mode, Microchip League, Concrete Blonde, and The Shamen from radio shows playing late on Sunday night on a radio station in Orlando, FL.  I did not, however, really internalize an idea of embracing that music as a part of cultural expression, and the idea of being the willful outsider was never on my mind.  It was just music that was weird and interesting, and I thus spent most of my teenage years completely disengaged with pop culture but also still believing that I was somehow going to eventually achieve the acceptance of my peers.  Of course, the music industry made mincemeat of the alternative big tent, to the point that even that aspect of my identity had lost much meaning, and I honestly stopped really caring about music for a couple of years as a result, and I just became yet another faceless reject in the zoo that was my school and home.  I always carried with me that feeling of being an outsider yet not understanding why I couldn’t just be a little more “normal” and be happy and maybe have some friends.  My sense of disaffection extended into my relationship with my family, for reasons which I will not detail here.  In general, I was socially alone, detached from my family, politically aware and confused by the world, and in general wondering what was so wrong with me that everything around me seemed made for someone else.

The question was always “Am I nuts, or is the world a lot crappier than my teachers and parents promised me when I was younger?”  For a long time, I’d concluded the problem was me.  The first time in my life that I ever considered the other possibility was when I bought a copy of Stranger Than Fiction.  For the first time ever, there were my feelings being spat out at a fevered pitch over driving guitars: “Mother, father / look at your little monster / I’m a hero; I’m a zero / I’m the butt of the worst joke in history.”  I still remember my first reaction to the lead-off song on that album.  Wait…you mean other people feel like this, too? The topics covered a gamut of emotions, all collectively driving home a message I was relieved beyond belief to finally hear– “Nope.  You’re not nuts.  The world is hard.  You have been lied to by your authorities, and they’re still lying to you now.”  I suddenly felt like maybe the place I was in was okay.  Sure, I was the outsider.  That’s because I wasn’t buying into the way things worked.  I’d be an outsider, but I’d have myself, and it wouldn’t last forever, because I’d be leaving that town and most of those people behind.

This was about as seminal a moment in the development of my personality as discovering Paganism.  In the months following my purchase of Stranger than Fiction and The Grey Race, which was released that summer, I stopped seeking the approval of my peers.  I stopped completely being the Good Kid.  I started challenging my authority figures, especially my teachers, when I felt they were doing something wrong.  I became a bit more outrageous, discovering that I was willfully sacrificing acceptance for respect.  I found other punk kids to hang out with, one of which eventually became my girlfriend for much of my senior year of high school.  I found, among them, a common thread with myself.  Most of them were bright but unfocused.  We all had the same rocky feelings about our families.  We all felt the same cold shoulder from our peers.  We all felt frustrated by what we perceived as hypocrisy from our authority figures.  We also all discovered we had each other.  We spent a lot of our time engaged in fairly petty forms of mayhem, punctuated by frequent trips to neighboring towns to see a lot of garage bands.  I really wish I’d stayed in touch with some of those people after I left for college.  I wonder about some of them and worry about others.  They were all good people, and I hope that, wherever they are, they are happy.

To some varying degree or another, I’ve always carried “punk Rhett” with me in my heart.  As I’ve gotten older, I’ve actually realized that that aspect of myself really deserves to come out more.  I’ve often been far to ready to scoff at youthful idealism, but that’s to say nothing of cynical adult passivity.  And so, every couple of years, there’s been a Bad Religion album to remind me.  They’ve always offered an intellectual’s rebellion, challenging the flavor of truth offered by our political, religious, and cultural institutions.  In another life, Greg Graffin would have been a beat poet, tapping his drum as he reminded us that the television news is “only entertainment.”  That has always appealed to me, even if, after 15 albums, they’ve explored most of the musical space available to them.  It’s not really about that.  It’s about remembering what it was like the first time you could admit to yourself that the world around you didn’t make any sense.  That’s why I’ve kept listening, and that’s why I’ve kept wanting to see them live.

For a while, my missing Bad Religion was a yearly event.  There was always a broken-down car, or someone moving, or whatever.  I kept putting it off, and I kept hoping that they’d still be around in a few years.  Then, ultimately, I filed it away in my mind as something I’d just missed, and I actually felt a bit sad about that.  I don’t have a lot of worship for the musicians I support, but that teenage punk in me still wanted to…just once…see the people that had given him a blueprint for a life as an atheist, an anarchist, and a free thinker.  Just one show to see what they look like in person.  Just one time to sing along with a crowd like we used to sing along to Recipe For Hate in the back of my friend’s car.  And then it happened– a coworker stopped by my desk last month and asked if I wanted to get in on a ticket purchase.  Fast forward to last Saturday night, and there I was, right on the edge of the mosh pit, listening to “1000 More Fools” being played live.

What I think I loved most about this show was being there on the band’s 30th birthday.  Bad Religion’s age reflects my own (I’m 31), and as the themes in their music have changed with the years, I’ve also changed and matured and carried that punk seed with me through life.  Hearing each song in the set made me think about who I was and where I was when that song first meant something to me, and as such, it was a moment of feeling very grounded in my own history.  Listening to Bad Religion live was two hours of taking a walk with myself.  What’s more, though, was seeing that I wasn’t the only one who felt this way.  With every song they played, you could hear the voices in the audience singing along to.  Every song.  Every word.  Even the wild ones in the mosh pit were singing as they spread mayhem.  I’ve often called Bad Religion “a bunch of protest singers turned punks.”  For those of us there, this was a chance to connect with the soundtrack of our own personal protest, whatever it was, and it felt good to, for a moment in my life, stand in a crowd of people with whom I could share that experience.  I think it represents a moment of communitas I’d yearned for when I was younger and which I glimpsed when I did finally have some friends who were like me.

And now, I’m rambling while I’m at the office.  I’m wearing a tour t-shirt.  It’s a moment of letting punk Rhett be a little more at the surface.  When I was younger, I always wanted a Bad Religion t-shirt, but the band’s name and logo made my father suspicious.  I once inked the band’s logo in my backpack with white-out pen and was forced to remove it.  I promised myself I’d finally own a Bad Religion t-shirt when I saw them live, and I’ve put off owning one for years.  Now I’ve seen them, and I have the t-shirt, and punk Rhett is pleased, and I feel quite happy to let the young rebel in me have his t-shirt.  He’s kept me going all these years, and he’s likely to keep at it for many more.

Bascom Pachinko Find

After several posts of talking about matters athletic, I’m far beyond due for letting my nerd show.  I have a ridiculous fascination with coin-operated amusements.  In the past, I have worked on restoring arcade machines, most notable being Mr. Do! and Asteroids, but I don’t have any good space in my home or life for things that size right now.  Maybe one day I’ll build a MAME machine and be done with it.  Like, when I have a garage.

This also extends to pachinko games.  I’ve actually had pachinko around me most of my life.  When I was little, back in the days when you could buy a personal computer that had a cassette deck, parents would shut their children up by getting them to play little hand-held games that used motors and little ball-bearings.  You’d play something that vaguely resembled “pocket baseball” or “pocket football.”  I had a miniature pachinko machine long before I knew what pachinko was.

Fast-forward to yesterday.  Driving between a very lovely brunch and a planned walk at the Rosicrucian campus, I happened to cruise through a section of Bascom Ave in San Jose which I call “junk row.”  I don’t know how this has happened, but there is basically a strip mall there of junk shops, ranging from the “piles of crap” variety to the shops where they’ve found great bits of cultural history and restored them for sale.  Sitting out on the sidewalk, in what appears to be nearly perfect condition, was a bright pink pachinko machine.  I just knew it had to be mine.  After a little play-testing, it came home with me.

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Can you blame me?  I mean, who can say no to something this completely ridiculous?  It’s bright pink and covered with ridiculous anime characters.  I think it’s supposed to have a caveman theme, but I can’t be perfectly sure about that.  It looks fairly modern, though video screens are not all that modern for pachinko and the resolution is a touch low.  One of the inspection stickers appears to have a date of August 2011.  Everything on the playing field looks very clean and new, so maybe it is fairly new.

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Here’s a shot of the video screen.  P-KAN KINGDOM!  The styling on the graphics and the resolution have a very early 1990s feel to them, as if I’m looking at an old Neo Geo game.  This makes me want to suspect the machine is older than it seems to be (based on labeling, cleanliness, and lack of wear).  It’s amazing what an art style or screen resolution will do to cue your thinking to a certain time or place.

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Art from the upper left corner of the playing field.  There’s a decided caveman theme to the whole thing.  Lots of Tarzan clothes, mammoths and other animals, and roasted meat on the bone.  If you ever played the Bonk’s Adventure series of games, you’d recognize it on the spot.

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Art from the bottom of the playing field.  Again…cutesy pink anime cavemen.  You can see the roasted meat on the bone in the lower left of this picture.  In the lower right…hell if I know.  It looks like someone cut a cactuar in half.

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And now…the art in the upper-right.  It’s an alien in a UFO.  Yep.  An alien in a UFO.  Looking kinda surprised by all the anime caveman pachinko action.  So…maybe the theme here is “Chariot of the Gods”?  Who knows?  It’s ridiculous and weird and I love it.

And frankly, with my wife, Amy, being a tikiphile, I’m starting to wonder if the things we nerd-squee over aren’t cross-breeding.  For some reason, this seems like exactly the sort of thing that goes with a tiki mug and a fez hat.  Or, possibly, I’m insane.

Surfing Manresa and Cowell’s

When I was last out at Pleasure Point, a seemingly nice local had talked to me about my board, my skill level, and had suggested a location that I hadn’t heard of (since it’s not on Surfline).  The beach he’d suggested is a shore break called Manresa State Beach, and he seemed to suggest it would give me a regular production of waves with less demand on my paddle out.  “You could easily do 20 waves in a session,” he said.  Manresa was at the top of my list of places to check out.

I got to Manresa this morning to find it mostly deserted.  Two surfers were packing up when I got there.  No lineup.  No crowd.  LOTS of waves, just as advertised.  This was going to be EPIC!

It certainly was epic.  It was an epic beatdown.  The beach is very steep beyond the water line.  The waves were coming in constant and fast and, thanks to the steep bottom, each wave was its own wall of water.  I am still learning the skills I need to paddle and to fight waves on the trip out, and practically every wave that hit me threw me from the board.  After only a few minutes (and maybe 30 yards from the shore), a wave hit me so hard that it dragged me under and held me there for a bit longer than my breath found comfortable.  I’m very grateful that I’ve got years of experience in rough water to keep me calm in situations like that.  I dragged myself to shore and rested and watched the water for a channel.  There wasn’t really one, and it was then that I noticed the rather shocking frequency and strength of the rip currents at this beach.  They were frequent, sudden, and obviously powerful.  Despite this, I headed out again, sure I just needed some time to regroup.  Another complete pounding ensued, and I again dragged myself to shore.  Again, I rested and looked for a clue where the channel might be.  I tried another spot, and yet another pummeling ensued.  On the way back to shore, I was actually caught in the turbulence behind the wave, sucked into the curl, and dragged on the bottom on my face.

That was enough, and I started to pack up to head back to the car.  A local stopped to tell me he’d been walking by and actually hung around to make sure I was okay because he’d watched me struggling.  I asked him if the surf was typical, and he said it was actually big for Manresa but that Manresa is an intense beach in general and always has strong currents.  He could not explain why anyone would send a beginner there.  Now, Pleasure Point is known for its localism, but I always figured that would be dickish elitism, especially since I may be a beginner but I’m incredibly polite, respect right of way, and in general stay safe, act humble, and listen.  Clearly, localism also comes in the “kindly advice that can kill you” format, too.

For the record, I was so battered that my ears were full of sand.

With no other major plans for the day, I bopped over to Santa Cruz to hang out for a while.  Surprise…Volcom was hosting a tournament, so I watched some top talent deliver mad science to the water.  There’s only so long you can stare at strangers surfing, though, so I decided to head down to the pier for some retail therapy.  After some purchases and some refreshment, I noticed that the falling tide at Cowell’s was starting to bring out some swells.  I’d been planning to go home, eat an indulgent dinner, and maybe go see the Sharks play, but that quickly gave way to the desire to suit up and try putting a more positive experience in the day.  Cowell’s is the go-to break for beginners, and I really wanted to actually try some surfing in my day, so I got out for the second time in the day.

The crowd is huge, but I really love the vibe and conditions at Cowell’s.  Everything is relaxed and recreational.  The swells are much easier, and thus the paddling is easier.  There aren’t any hard waves to face, so it’s more forgiving as you learn techniques for fighting surf.  On top of that, it’s pretty shallow throughout, so it’s easy to rest.  All of that is quite wonderful.  Unfortunately, there’s a downside, too.  My board, at 7’6″, is on the short side of beginner boards.  It’s got a pretty sharp rocker, and it’s not all that thick.  All of these things make it more work to paddle, and I lose the race against 8=10′ thick funboards and longboards.  Longboard riders barely have to even paddle to catch a wave.  I need to start sooner and work harder, especially at Cowell’s where the waves have very little energy in them.  At bigger breaks like Pleasure Point, I can use the higher amplitude of the waves to drop down, giving me the speed to ride.  At Cowell’s, even if I got on a wave, I’d lose it, which I’m guessing is a result of my board’s drag.

Ultimately, I love just being in the water, but I can recognize being in an in-between place.  I need to be a LOT stronger to paddle competitively with the more floaty boards, but if I had that level of strength and skill, I’d go to a different break.  At the same time, though, my board isn’t well-suited for effortless surfing.  So, I have to get better about taking my lumps or investigate a different board.  No rush.  I’ll likely rent something at Cowell’s next time, though, to see if it’s me or my gear.

Either way, it feels great being in the ocean again.

AIDS/Lifecycle Part 2a: Endurance Training, Your Eternal Companion

So, you’ve been out riding your bike and building up good experience, yes?  Well, let’s start talking about putting some structure to your training.  Hopefully, this post is going to be pretty short because it turns out that endurance training isn’t all that hard.

So, I’m riding.  How do I do the kind of riding that gets me ready for AIDS/Lifecycle?

AIDS/Lifecycle is an event that rewards persistence more than anything else.  You need to be able to prosecute 60-110 mile rides every day for a week.  In order to do this, you’re going to focus most of your training on being able to make these long, persistent hauls.  While this is going to also make you a faster rider, the bulk of your training is not going to focus on your speed.  What’s far more important is that you focus on your ability to consistently execute your rides day after day.  Fortunately for you, your body is likely going to be able to handle this, because it turns out that our bodies are built for persistence.  Every metabolic aspect of our bodies, right down to the fact that we sweat, is designed around our ability to maintain specific paces for very, very long periods of time.

There’s an old adage from boxing — “Train as you intend to fight.”  AIDS/Lifecycle is about the day-over-day challenge of putting out consistent efforts.  Your training plan is going to be the same.  You’re going to ride at fixed paces for long periods of time.  This is often referred to as “base building” or “aerobic training” or, as I prefer to call it, “endurance training.”

I’m going out every day already and I’m pushing myself to ride as fast as I can and I make myself sore.  Surely, I’m going to be ready.

Well, maybe, but you may actually be training the wrong thing and you may be making things harder on yourself.  Let’s pull back a little bit and talk about what’s going on in cycling.  Cycling, as a sport, is something very different from running or swimming or weight lifting.  A bicycle is a vehicle without an engine.  The pedals are basically points where you attach a two-piston engine– you.  All of your training, therefore, is about turning your body into a highly effective engine suitable for the task ahead.  In the case of AIDS/Lifecycle, you need to be something like a big rig’s diesel engine rather than a sports car’s.  You want to be able to be reliable and consistent over many miles and changing conditions, even if it means you don’t have the greatest acceleration curve in the world.  This isn’t to say you can’t train both of these aspects, but your time is going to be limited and AIDS/Lifecycle isn’t a race, so training for bursts of speed and quick acceleration is training skills that you won’t necessarily need to depend on.

So, what’s going on in that engine block of a body?  Basically, your body has two different motors available, expressed in terms of the metabolic chemistry going on in them.  You have the stable-running diesel motor of aerobic metabolism, which converts oxygen and fat into a pretty stable and constant supply of energy, and you have the sprint car motor of anaerobic metabolism, which converts sugars quickly into a large supply of energy…but which also produces waste products that make it unsuitable as an energy supply in the long run.  This is a vast generalization, but it suffices for practical purposes.  Also, while I’m talking about “energy,” I am not talking about your own sense of vigor.  I’m talking about it the way it’s used in physics– pushing at a certain force through a certain distance in a certain amount of time.  This is purely mechanical energy.

Anyway, if you’ve ever lifted a heavy weight or tried to sprint or to chase someone on your bike, you know that burning feeling in your muscles.  That’s your anaerobic metabolism.  It gives you bursts of speed, but it won’t last long.  It’s very important to train this if you want to race.  It’s of modest help when you want to tour, however.  It may help get you up a hill sooner, or it may mean you don’t have to slow down in gusts of wind, but that’s about it.

So, stop training to go fast, if that’s what you’re doing.  Focus on persistent riding and on extending your distance.

Okay, then, smart guy.  How do I do endurance training?

Endurance training is actually very easy to do.  The muscle fibers which do most of your aerobic work have a very strong blood supply to ensure they have enough oxygen to do their job.  There will be some aspect of developing your muscles in this process (and, as I’ll discuss in a future article, your anaerobic metabolism is a necessary support of your aerobic metabolism), but most of what you will be doing is training your heart and lungs to improve your supply of oxygen to these muscles.  As simple as the “train as you intend to fight” maxim is, that’s what we’ll be doing here.

I highly, highly recommend a stationary bike to get started.  If you don’t have access to one, then at least try to get your bike out somewhere where you can ride long distances without stopping.  Also, try to find flat terrain.  Now, spin the pedals free and easy for the first five minutes.  Ride how you want.  Don’t push yourself at all…in fact, consider doing the opposite of pushing yourself.  You’re just warming up.  Aerobic metabolism actually takes time to kick in fully as your body responds to the increased demand and gets the blood flowing.  Once you have warmed yourself up, what you do next is going to depend on the tools at your disposal.

If you have a tool for measuring your pedal rpm, as is common on most stationary bikes and on bicycle computers, then drop into a low gear or drop the resistance way down.  Spin the pedals at 90-110 rpm.  Find a cadence that’s comfortable for you.  Once you have done this, gradually start bringing the resistance or gearing back up.  Add a little bit of resistance and then give your body a few minutes to adjust.  Add a little more in a few more minutes.  If, at any point, you find yourself panting or feel like your legs are burning, back the resistance off a little.  The goal here is to find a sweet spot where you’re holding solid at your comfortable fast cadence, where your legs are not progressively wearing down in a few minutes, and where your breathing is elevated but still so relaxed that you could easily sing or hold a conversation with someone.  You are not trying to make yourself into a panting wreck.  Think about that reliable diesel engine…you’re trying to be one of those.  With a little work and tuning, you’ll find your sweet spot.  Once you do, keep that level of output for the course of your workout.  Get your music out, flip on the game, play your PSP…whatever you’ve got to do, but settle in for the long haul.  In my estimation, “the long haul” is a minimum of 30 minutes.  I generally do an hour at a time and I sometimes do much longer.

If you don’t have a tool for measuring rpm, then drop to your lowest gear and find a cadence that’s fast but not uncomfortably so.  Gradually add in resistance as above.  You should keep the pedal strokes quick and you should try to avoid a tension level where you really feel the pedals pushing back.  Get to a pace where your breathing is slightly elevated but where you could hold a conversation without obviously panting.

If you’re not used to this sort of training, you’ll find upper caps on how long you can do this.  The goal is to reach a point where you could practically do it indefinitely.  Also, try to do this fairly often.  Three times a week seems to work well for many people, particularly if they’re doing other activities on top of that.  I generally make sure I have an hour in the saddle five days out of the week, either through my commute or through the gym.  It may take a while for you to really get the persistence to go for long periods of time, but this is the single most important aspect of your training.

But I’m not going fast.

Yes, but for AIDS/Lifecycle, you need to go all day, regardless of how fast you go.  You’re still early in the training, too.  Don’t look at your speed.  Look at your cadence.

What is this achieving?

A number of things.  First off, there’s some pretty good science to show that 90-110 rpm is an optimal cadence for cyclists.  This is teaching you to have muscle memory for that cadence, which will be VERY handy to you in the future.  It’ll give your mind a sense for when something’s holding you back.  You’ll know your cadence is dropping before you start panting or getting sore legs.  The second thing is that this is giving you practice for the long days in the saddle ahead of you.  With time, you’ll develop your riding mentality, which will help with boredom and anxiety.  Third, this is training your body for the ride ahead of you.  Remember…you’re riding all day for seven days.  Starting now on riding as long as your schedule allows and as many days as possible is going to get your body into adapting to this as your way of life.  Finally, this is a great way to burn off excess calories in your diet.  In an hour of aerobic training, I burn 700 calories, which is 33% of the daily caloric intake for someone of my size.  This really helps resolve out the fluctuations and indulgences in my diet.

Anything else?

Yeah.  Be persistent and try to fit as much in your schedule as you and your body can, but don’t push it.  You need your recovery days to allow your body to adapt and improve.  Do not just do this every day forever.  Also, remember to stay hydrated while you’re doing your training and don’t treat time on the stationary bike as a complete replacement for real rides.  You still need to build experience.

Final Fantasy XIV: An Initial Review

I guess it’s confession time.  I’m a gamer.  Well, sorta.  I should say that I like playing some kinds of games.  I’m not a big fan of first-person shooters or real-time strategy games.  I’m also not particularly interested in sports games, as the only sports I like that get video games made of them are soccer and hockey, and neither translates well to video games (in my opinion).  I also tend to shy away from a lot of the major franchise games because I have no incentive to finish them…finishing them means I’m done with them, unless they contain some stupid “go back and collect stuff” element to them, which I surely won’t play anyway.  So, this basically leaves me playing massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs or MMOs).  I enjoy having a character which I can develop over time and grow with, getting to do cooler things as I learn to play.  I don’t mind a monthly cost, because the truth is that, if things are going right, it’s a bit of a new game for me as time goes by, and I’m thus investing in an experience of ongoing entertainment.  I’ve seriously played Final Fantasy XI Online (FFXI), City of Heroes (CoH), Eve Online, and World of Warcraft (WoW), out of which the only one to last in the long run has been WoW.  It’s currently the 500-pound gorilla of MMOs, anyway, so I will likely end up using some comparisons as I go.

Anyway, I almost didn’t get started with Final Fantasy XIV because I did, at one point, play FFXI fairly seriously.  You might ask why I wouldn’t play the sequel of something that I played seriously, and the answer is very simple– FFXI was terrible.  Building a large, persistent world is a different exercise from building a stand-alone game, and it was clear that Square Enix (SE) hadn’t thought a few things through clearly.  The world was too large to travel in an efficient manner on foot.  Monsters could pursue a player across a long distance, attacking endlessly, meaning that there really was no running away from a fight gone bad.  Dying cost experience points and levels, which was made worse by the focus on social play above a certain level, since you could lose experience points for the mistakes of other people.  The quest tracking system was utterly useless at helping you complete quests.  There were some nice things about it…not the least of which was that, as a poor grad student, playing FFXI on my Playstation 2 was cheaper than upgrading my computer.  But that couldn’t make up for a game that was nothing but painful grind, running across endless terrain, and lacking the UI needed for its quest system.  It pretty much looked like someone had taken a Final Fantasy and simply did the minimum necessary to make it an MMO without further thought.

It almost turned me off to the entire genre, in fact, though CoH ultimately kept me trying out MMOs.

You can tell I love long intros because I’m just now getting warmed up.

So, here we go.  Executive summary: FFXIV is actually a pretty good MMO, provided that you already know how to play an MMO.

Okay.  Now, let’s get down to the tale of the tape.

User Interface (UI): Most people would start with character creation.  That’s bass-ackward.  You’ll deal with the overall UI far more than you’ll deal with anything else.  If it’s a crap UI, even a great game will be dragged down.  That’s the problem with Eve Online, for example.  To be frank, I’m ambivalent about the FFXIV UI.  SE is trying very hard to produce one common UI that will be everything to everyone, regardless of what platform and controller set they use.  It needs to play well on a gamepad but also work for the keyboard and mouse crowd.  The result is a UI that doesn’t feel quite right at first.  For example, it at first feels awkward to not have the camera follow your player from behind most of the time.  Interacting with NPCs and interactive objects feels overly simplified and even clumsy.  Eventually, once you accept that SE considers the keyboard to essentially be like a gamepad, you get used to the controls, at which point things seem easy and normal.  This lasts until you try to change your gear (which you will do frequently) or change your action bar (which you will also do frequently), and find that everything takes four or five steps to do, that two of those steps are needless confirmations, and that you’ll have to wait a few seconds somewhere in there, likely due to incredibly pointless amounts of client-server interaction.  I’m sorry, but it should not take several seconds to get the price list from an NPC vendor or for an equipped action to appear on my action bar.  Those things should happen quickly and smoothly.  The crafting UI is a great example of a pointless series of steps.  First, you put the ingredients in the ingredient slots and pick the tool with which you’ll craft.  This will give you a list of products you can make.  You choose one from the list, and then you get a separate window showing you how many elemental crystals/shards that recipe will consume and asking you if you’re sure you want to make it.  Jumping through that many hoops to make a batch of materials is uselessly wearing, especially given that you have no book of your recipes.  Compare this with WoW, where you first look up the recipe you wish to make, check and see that you have enough raw materials, and then simply click “create” to get started.  SE has done a lot of interesting things with crafting (more on that below), but I feel like they must have never actually stopped and though about what a real human being might want to know at any moment and whether or not having that information up front would be useful.

I have a lingering suspicion as to why more information isn’t available at a glance.  Basically, since SE is planning on this game including consoles, and these consoles can display on standard definition televisions, SE has to design the UI to the lowest resolution.  Less information per window; more windows.  They really, really need a dedicated designer to consider this issue in light of the complexities of the game, though.  If you’re going to fight with one hand tied behind your back, you should do yourself a favor and at least find a kung fu master wise in the ways of single arm tactics.  Otherwise, you’re going to lose and you’re going to make a mess.

This brings me up to the in-game UI rather than just the windowing system.  I promise I won’t make too many comparisons to WoW, but there are just some cases where it’s a really damned good idea to.  You see, until you reach the endgame material, WoW is a quest-centric game.  You spend a lot of time doing errands for the various NPCs…most of which break down to killing a certain number of monsters for them.  Blizzard (WoW’s creators) recognized the quest-based nature of this and gave the player a hand– anyone who could issue you a quest has a visible question-mark over their heads, and anyone for whom you’ve completed a quest has a visible exclamation-point over their heads.  FFXIV has tried to be vaguely helpful in this regard, as well.  It’s easy to find “guildleves,” as they’re called, and you always start one at a clearly marked location, and your active one highlights an area on your map where you should go, and when you’re done…you get a free teleport back to the camp where you started the quest.  Wonderful!  This works quite well, except for the fact that…that’s only true of quests where you kill monsters.  The ones where you make items and deliver them?  With those, you’re completely on your own to find the NPC responsible for giving you the raw materials and you’re likewise on your own to find the NPC who takes the delivery.  So much effort was put into streamlining one type of quest and none into the other.  This smacks of rushed design.

Character Creation and First Use: There’s a saying that you’ve got 5 minutes to hook a player.  I actually think that’s why most games have a somewhat limited character creation process.  You want to get the player in game and having fun, not shopping through a million avatar options and navigating statistics they’re too green to understand.  FFXIV, in this regard, is pretty bog standard– pick a race, pick a few physical features, pick a little biographical detail, and get in the game.  That’s when SE completely fails on their job hooking players.  If I wasn’t already a seasoned MMO player, I would have had no idea what to do with myself.  FFXIV makes a vague attempt at running you through a small plot arc, but it does nothing to indicate that you’re in one or what you should do next.  It turns out the plot is motivated by talking to the right NPC, but I certainly didn’t know that and spent several minutes figuring that out.  If that was my experience, as someone who plays a lot of these games, what is a first-time player going to think?  Things do get a bit easier, as you’re introduced to an initial quest-giver and directed to some hoops to jump through, but there are several irritating breaks in the process.  At one point, I was supposed to meet an NPC at the city gate.  I go to the gate…no NPC.  Turns out you need to leave the city yourself and then the NPC appears.  There was also a point in the plot arc where I had to go visit one of the guild halls without being prompted to.  A “first use” plot arc needs to be explicit and clear at all points.  It’s hard enough learning the new controls, let alone the game mechanics.  On this front, I have to say that SE has delivered a failure.

Combat: I haven’t played a Final Fantasy since FFXI, but I’m suspecting SE had intended FFXIV’s combat to reflect FFXII and FFXIII, and so I’m almost willing to give it a slight waiver.  That said, I am having a hard time calling the combat experience a good one.  The first problem is the lack of an auto attack.  That’s not so bad, since you can spam your primary attack to similar effect.  Where this becomes a problem, though, is in more complex scenarios where you might need to switch targets.  Doing so quickly and elegantly doesn’t seem to be in the design, and I can’t count the number of times that I switched targets only to be informed that I wasn’t facing my new target.  Not only does my character turn to address new targets…THERE IS NO “TURN” BUTTON!  Where the “turn the character buttons” of A and D should be, you get “strafe” motion…the same as on the Q and E buttons.  Let’s not forget that targeting a new enemy is done with the TAB key, and it doesn’t always auto-select from the current group attacking you or from the closest group.  If you press the Esc key and lose your target, pressing TAB will first target yourself, not an enemy.  The result is you can lose a few “turns” of combat just trying to get your bearings again.  This painfully, painfully requires work.  There seem to be great options for “Battle Regimens,” or coordinated group attacks, and I hope to see more of them in the future.  Finding a party is pretty ad hoc right now, though, and my focus is on healing, so I wouldn’t know.

Character Development: This is, honestly, the big place where FFXIV is getting it right, and it’s the major reason I’m ignoring every other problem for a while.  This is the only character development system that’s close to what I really want.  FFXIV does away with the usual system of locking yourself into a single class and into a single role in groups.  Instead, it allows you to change your class by changing your primary weapon, and you can mix and match the skills you learn from all of your different classes.  This, ultimately, gives me what I’m looking for in an MMO– a career I can manage at my whims.  In WoW, I played a hunter for a year, and when I finished the process of reaching level 80, I felt a little bored with the hunter player style and I got tired of long waits for dungeon groups.  I was curious about, say, being a healer.  Well, to do that, I start a new character as a priest and I start again at the bottom, and when I finally do pull myself up, hopefully, I won’t be bored with that, too.  In FFXIV, you still need the “tank,” “damage-dealer,” and “healer” roles, but there are various ways to achieve characters that do that, and growing into a new role means learning the skills, but you get the benefit of already having a good skill base to start with.  On top of that, if you’re really into crafting, you’re given a major leg up in FFXIV– crafting objects grants crafting skill points AND experience points, which means you can “craft your way to the top,” if that’s what you like.  For the rest of us, it’s an incentive to craft at all.  A shortcoming of WoW is that I don’t really see the crafting skills as universally handy…I really couldn’t make gear for my hunter that was as good as I’d receive from running dungeons.

Crafting: The crafting system is pretty large and it’s pretty rich.  It looks like SE had planned for a lot of important gear to be crafted gear.  I really like that.  I’m not predisposed to crafting, but WoW generally made me feel like crafting, for most crafting disciplines, was an afterthought.  On top of that, I believe SE has tried to make a bit of a game out of crafting, because there are ways to influence the results of your crafting in-process and there is some element of strategy to succeeding at new recipes.  I give them a lot of points for good effort there.  Unfortunately, I am really disappointed at a number of other aspects related to crafting.  I think the worst of these is that there is no recipe book for players.  A number of crafting quests end with you learning a new recipe.  How is this recipe delivered to you?  Through the freaking chat log!  I didn’t even realize it was happening until I saw it in the corner of my eye in a quest.  The implication seems to be that players are going to write these down themselves.  The same logic should be applied to the map, then.  Wasn’t making maps part of the fun of playing an RPG?  No?  Right.  That’s why games have maps now.

Commerce: Sadly, this is more fail.  I have no idea what SE was even thinking here.  NPC market stalls don’t generally have a good indication of what they sell.  There is no auction house, either, and instead there’s a player-to-player market bazaar that, after playing for several days, I still don’t really understand.  It takes a “retainer” to do, but I don’t really understand the first thing about what’s going on there.  I, therefore, have no idea how to buy better gear for my character.  You’d think that was something I’d have figured out within 10 levels, but this is absolutely not the case.  SE has a lot to answer for in their utter failure to enable an easy economy among the players, and they need to fix this soon.  I have heard some people suggest an auction house early on leads to bad price fluctuations.  That’s an absolute lie, though, because SE can manipulate auction house prices by injecting objects in the auction house at the price points they want.  There is no clear thought there.

Bugs and Uptime: The uptime seems pretty good.  The bugs?  They’re not so good right now.  Nothing’s crashing or anything, but it’s the little things that kill.  One of them is, again, something SE could have learned from Blizzard.  They decided they needed doors that automatically open when you walk up to them.  There’s a bug, and sometimes you can run up to a door and it won’t open.  In fact, it’ll stay stuck until you log out.  There was no meaningful need for those doors at all, and they could have simply done like WoW did and designed buildings without doors.  Why go the hard route when there’s no benefit?  SE has also been exploring various gameplay exploits that have already come up.  This is going to be a critical time for them to show that they can stay on top of their game, especially when it’s clear that it has some serious design problems to overcome.

Online Community: The FFXIV online community is actually pretty well developed for such a young game.  Wikis are cropping up rich in information germane to getting started, running quests, crafting, etc.  Recipe databases are quite rich.  Player engagement is pretty good, all things considered.  The problem, however, is that many of the things players are engaged over are making up for shortcomings in the game.  We need encyclopedias of NPC locations because SE has made the NPCs difficult to locate.  We need encyclopedias of crafting recipes because there’s no in-game recipe book.  These things are covering up failings of design, not enhancing play.  SE would, therefore, be really wise to look at what the communities are doing and using it as a guide to see what to fix.  I do wonder if they have anyone skimming communities for that.

In Conclusion: Like I said…all I can say is that I’m ambivalent.  I’m currently having fun logging in and getting my skills up.  It’s neat trying to mix and match from the Conjurer and Thaumaturge classes to build a strong healer.  I’d love to try the in-party experience, where I can actually try supporting teams as a healer, but party formation seems to not be happening much.  There’s a whole lot wrong– the economy is terrible, there are bugs that need clear and immediate fixes, and the first use system needs a complete overhaul.  If you’re a veteran MMO player, you know the general things you need, so it’s easier to look for them.  As such, an experienced player who enjoys the Final Fantasy “universe” will probably get a kick out of it.  It’s a scrappy little game with promise, and I especially am enjoying being on in the first few weeks of play because I don’t feel like a latecomer in a world of endgame players.  Being “out of the gate” means suffering bugs and game tuning/design issues.  The real question is whether or not SE is going to step up and make FFXIV the game it could be rather than the game it is.