Little Life Updates: June 2015 Edition

guess I didn’t publish anything for two months. Once it gets warm my creativity juices dry up and my motivation levels quickly drop to near-zero levels. There’s also the weird thing with blogging that it mostly fills up a niche where the 140-characters of twitter doesn’t cut it, but you need to have enough content to make writing something worthwhile.

So here’s an attempt to make something cohesive.

Hikes

We’ve been trying to fit in hikes whenever our schedule allows it. This doesn’t happen often enough, sadly, but we’ve been on an alpine lakes theme this year. Lake Twenty Two was a short jaunt to a pristine lake.

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Lake Serene, well, it was very serene. And also aggressively cloudy.

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I think there’s a lake somewhere there.

Ham Radio

Recently got my Technician-class Ham radio license. Not entirely sure what I’m going to use it for yet, but it seems like a fun hobby and a useful thing to have.

Camera

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about my camera setup lately, especially inspired by Ken Rockwell and his articles on how to carry less, and decided to start transitioning to full frame due to the increased dynamic range and low-light performance of the bigger sensors. The Canon 6D is aging quickly, and I decided to hold off until the much-rumored Canon 6D MkII is released in the first half of next year. In the interim, I know I needed an ultrawide to replace the APS-C only 11-16.

That replacement was the Canon 17-40 f/4L. Although an ultrawide on full frame, it’s also a very useful midrange zoom for APS-C, and I plan to take only this lens to Europe this fall. It should be a fun experiment.

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Alpine Europe

Speaking of Europe, Tracey and I are doing the Rick Steves’ My Way Alpine trip this year. It’s a trip where the transportation and hotel is paid for, and the rest is up to us. The Alps aren’t a region we’ve been before, so it should be a super interesting experience with lots of hiking! After the trip, we’re spending a few days in London.

Reading

I got an unread copy of the History of United States Naval Operations in World War II by Samuel Eliot Morison, and it’s a fascinating read. I specifically targeted the 1984 printing, and I’m reminded that we were really good at printing books in the 80s before slowly forgetting this art in the face of digital technology. The  print quality is outstanding.

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Music

I’ve been listening to a lot of Power Glove, Florence + The Machine, and The Long Winters the past few months.

Gardening

Tracey and I have been cultivating a small p-patch garden on our apartment building roof. It’s been a somewhat rough time as a few of our crops quickly bolted, but we have high hopes for our pepper and basil plants.

Canadian Adventure

While in the middle of a company Christmas cruise last holiday season, Brian texted a fairly sloshy Nikky and asked if I was up for a week-long trip that started in Montreal and ended in Toronto. Never really one to shy away from a new adventure, I said “sure!” and let the logistics handle themselves.

Come May, we set off to visit the central core of our northerly neighbors.

Montreal 

Aggressively French, Montreal feels like someone took Paris and smooshed it together with the Portlandia stereotype of oppressive hipsters. The first day the forecast was to fairly moderate in temperature and not terribly rainy, so we decided to go on a walkabout the city first and then explore the hill park (Mont Royal) that the city is named after before capping off the day by visiting a few brewpubs and scarfing down Montreal-style bagles by the dozen.

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The next day was planned to be the museum day! Yay! Except it was Monday. And on Monday in Montreal, everything is closed. Everything. Even the cat cafe. After much consternation, we found a small natural history museum on the campus of McGill university to visit. It had dinosaurs and fossils, so things work out.

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Montreal featured a well-ran and convenient public transit and metro system, and we were able to use it to quickly and cheaply get ourselves around this rather sprawling city.

Ottawa

On Tuesday (my birthday!), we took the train to the capital of Canada. Ottawa felt a lot like if you took a the rather backwater capital of Washington, Olympia, and bolted on a federal government of a much smaller United States onto it. There was a university that we stayed near, and the entire town was very walkable.

The night of my birthday, we went to a wood-fired pizza place and then enjoyed some different kinds of Scotch at an Highlander pub. It was fairly low-key, but we needed to retire early for the big day we had planned in Ottawa. Why was it a big day? Because we only had one full day in the city, and had a lot to cover!

After checking out the big public market and grabbing some pastries, Brian was ambushed by a local news crew.

We checked out the parliament and library, including a short guided tour through the building.

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At the Canadian War Museum we saw lots of exhibits that were very proud of the fact that the Canadians beat the tar out of the Americans whenever we tried to invade. But the real cool part of the museum is that they had Weather Station Kurt, which was a WWII-era automated weather station landed on Canadian soil by a U-boat and discovered decades later.

Ottawa also had lots of spiders and sculptures.

That night, we signed up for one of the “escape room”-type adventures all the cool kids are doing these days. Brian, Andy, and I met up at the place with the three other people we were assigned to, and spent the next 45 minutes barely failing the room. We had all of the clues figured out, but the coordination wasn’t perfect and we ultimately didn’t put them all together for the final box that would have had the solution.

And then we were done with Ottawa.

Toronto

On the train to Toronto, the three of us had facing seats, with a fourth person sitting with us who was randomly assigned. He was a very interesting fourth person, who had a locked suitcase with him that he would occasionally open to grab documents with the Canadian government seal marked “Secret,” and then use his Blackberry(!) to talk to people about trade deals. Otherwise the trip was largely uneventful and we arrived in Toronto.

Or as we soon called it, the “more Canadian version of New York City.” As in, if you removed all of the smell, interesting people, and cool things of NYC, you had a rather sterile metropolis. Toronto was largely a disappointment, although we did see the Hockey Hall of Fame, which featured aggressively hipster sweaters.

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We toured Fort York, which was an interesting oasis of historical property smack dab in the middle of town. Once again, they made sure to point out that the Americans ultimately lost to the Canadians. It was a common refrain.

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Toronto has a large island park right next to the downtown core, which we went and visited for an evening. It’s a fairly unique feature of the city.

And that’s it really about Canada.

The Trip Back

Our flight plans both ways involved flying from our Canadian city to Seattle through Chicago. The flights over went well, but on the flight back we were on a smallish regional jet getting ready to take off when the flight attendants thought they smelled chemical burning. The pilot came back and checked, and he got a big ‘ole wiff of something smelly. Thinking it was the chemical oxygen generators (which are a big issue if they just go off on their own), we pulled back into the gate, deplaned everyone, and had to figure out what was going on. We got in a big line to find alternate flights that processed about 2 people every half hour, so after an hour of standing around doing nothing, they announce the flight is back on and we all get back on.

The pilot reported that the smelly smell had been identified, and we just had to wait for security clear us. Since even though it wasn’t a security incident, they still had to have security clear us. Because of reasons. Eventually we take off and I overheard the flight attendants talking about the source of the smell. What was it?

Verdict

Montreal was fairly accurately billed beforehand, and we had a lot of fun in the city despite all of the attractions being closed one of the days we were there. It was mostly our fault for planning the outside day when the attractions were open, and planning an inside day when the attractions were closed. I’d definitely go back.

Ottawa was a city we wish we spent an extra day there. It had lots of museums and government buildings to see and do, and turned out to be a fun time.

Toronto was ultimately disappointing: it was a rather generic large city without a lot of unique things to see and do. It could be a rather sterile alternative to NYC if you dislike smelling hot garbage all the time and don’t mind a crappier metro. We could have easily shifted the second full day in Toronto to Ottawa and had a much better time.

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Creative Commons, Photos, and Me

Back in High School, I briefly flirted with the idea of trying to do something professional with photography. Luckily, I quickly realized this was a fairly terrible idea and decided to focus on cultivating it as a fun hobby that let me pretend I was creative while wielding massive pieces of glass and metal around like a modern-day warlord.

Eventually the whole concept of Flickr and publishing photos online appeared, and I was like woah now here’s how I can publish photos super easily! This is great! And soon the sticky issue of licensing my works appeared. Did I want them to be locked down and deny everyone the chance to reuse my photographs on the off chance some Generic Megacorp wanted to use it and pay me enough money to buy an abandoned missile silo deep in Eastern Washington? Turns out the answer was “YES” while in college. And that plan didn’t work out so well.

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Instead I decided to license everything under Creative Commons Attribution 2 (CC BY 2.0). It’s a swell way to share your work with everyone (including businesses!) and try to make the world a better place. Or at least one that’s slightly more free (as in speech. And beer too, I guess). A side benefit of this is that you can see all of the odd places online where your photos were used by googling your Flickr handle. Crosscut liked a picture of some Ghost Highways. NPR in Northern Colorado thought some library pictures were swell.

If you’re into seeing your work show up in new and exciting places, Geotagging, manual tags, and full-resolution uploads are the way to go. Let’s be real here: this is how everyone searches for photos on Flickr.

So if you have a surplus of images that you ain’t doin’ nothing with and want to maybe have it be useful to others, license it with some form of Creative Commons! Flickr makes it super easy to do, and you have plenty of different licenses to choose from, including options as to how derivatives are handled and if commercial enterprises can use the photos.

Vancouver BC

Although Seattle is the best city of all time forever, our neighbors are a fun way to experience how other urban areas live the Pacific Northwest life. Tracey and I decided to visit our Northerly neighbor Vancouver for the weekend.

After fueling up at Uwajimaya, we caught the last Amtrak Cascades train of the day Northbound on Friday. As it is with trains, we were in a car with nine very loud people going to celebrate a bachelorette party. So they were annoying. And our train was quickly delayed for around 90 minutes because a couple of freight trains decided to start swapping cars in the middle of nowhere. I don’t know much about the logistics of freight trains, but shuffling cars certainly isn’t a quick operation. Arriving at midnight, we took the SkyTrain to our hotel, checked in, and promptly passed out.

But then the morning arrived! And we had a yummy juice and organic breakfast before wandering off to Granville Island. Vancouver has a lot of water and not a lot of bridges, so they rely on networks of water taxis to get people around.

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(You can see one here)

Granville is basically what would happen if someone decided to throw Capitol Hill and Pike Place Market in a blender. Not really an island, it’s more of a former industrial area that has plenty of rad as hell shops bolted on. Chomping on some Fish ‘n Chips, we took another Aquabus down near Stanley Park.

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Stanley Park is quite the thing, and the best way to experience it is by bike!

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It’s a nice easy 8km loop around the park, and you’re along the water the entire time. A small lighthouse, views of the lovely port, and a few beaches pass you by while leisurely peddling. Returning the bikes, we eventually found a place to eat with a few bits of angst. Vancouver ain’t so into vegetarian food. They love locally sourced food, but mostly of the red meat variety.

The next morning we went to Gastown and checked out their version of Pioneer Square. After the first gosling sighting of the year, we were off to a highly recommended used bookstore. Owned by an extremely bookish individual, the store had a loose organization scheme that was largely defeated by haphazard piles of books everywhere.

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Still, I found a fairly interesting book I ain’t never heard of before.

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Books purchased, we stopped by the Chinese Gardens in Chinatown. It was a much more modern (and smaller) garden than the similar one in Portland, but offered some quiet isolation in the city along with a chance to hang out with some chill-as-hell turtles.

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Grabbing a quick lunch on our way back to the train station, we left Sunday evening and spent the ride home enjoying the view, our new books, and the fun extras CBP does when you enter the country. When we arrived in Canada, we only had to go through immigrations, who spent a good 30 seconds with us before allowing us in. Arriving back in the states, we had to go through customs prior to even boarding the train, they X-rayed our bags, and they made the train stop on the border and checked everyone again.

Go us.

Talkin’ About Travel Bags

The classic idea of “backpacking through Europe” ultimately misleads you for the vast majority of the trips we actually take abroad. Unless you plan to spend a few months literally hiking through forests and trees across the continent, it’s likely you aren’t going to be wearing your back for any long period of time. As rough as some trains can get, you’re not hauling around a sleeping pad, cook stove, and a tent.

Choosing your travel bags is a personal decision: there’s no right or wrong way. These are the bags and methods that work well for me and my style of travel. I encourage you to find your own!

Main Bag: Deep Storage

Your main bag is the nexus of your stuff during the trip. It’s your deep storage, your reservoir of layers, and everything needed to live out of your bag for an indefinite time. The main criteria I look for when selecting a main bag are:

  • Can hold 5 days worth of clothing without requiring any wash, but maybe not more than that
  • Easy to carry by hand
  • Fits in all airlines while minimizing wasted space
  • Isn’t prone to being overpacked by stuffing things on the exterior
  • Can be used as a backpack for up to an hour a day while still being comfortable
  • All items are easily accessible in the bag, and packing/unpacking can be done quickly.
  • Looking for a random object search shouldn’t necessitate unpacking everything above the entire length of the bag in order to find it.

Of course, when I started going on trips to Europe I immediately went and purchased a nice swell hiking backpack. 70L of capacity, a detachable bag, lots of straps, and plenty of pockets! It was instantly stuffed with things I didn’t need and I became a one-person wrecking ball that hit everything I saw with a bag that was ill-suited for the task at hand. Instead of being nimble and lightweight, I was carrying around dead weight just in case I needed that third sweater.

And then that large bag got stolen. Lesson learned? Well…

Next up was a 62L hiking pack. It lost a little bit of weight in the process, but there were still tons of exterior straps and loops and pockets that were easily caught on things that cities have. Not to mention the bag still encouraged overpacking, and was frequently damaged by baggage screening machines. And, being a hiking backpack, it was a top loader. Good luck finding anything useful in your bag in under 10 minutes.

Because that’s a thing. You don’t want to be the person with a huge backpack and carry it on a plane. Sure, the front desk people at the airport might let you through, they’ll sure as shit gate check it if they see how large and stuffed your bag is. And that’s a serious downer.

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REI Flash 62. Great for hiking in nature. Not so great for being a urban traveller and living out of your bag for three weeks.

Then I decided to experiment with a smaller bag. Maybe a hiking pack, but instead of one built for a cross-country hike, one that’s just for a night or two?

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REI Lookout 40. Same problems, smaller size.

Getting a 40L hiking pack was certainly an improvement. Clothing choices were necessarily forced to be light, and gear had to be considered carefully. Still, the bag has a lot of overhead due to its design to be carried for 8-10 hours a day with gear strapped on the outside. It’s a great bag, and I use it camping quite a bit. But it was still prone to the same issues that the larger hiking backpacks encountered when being used in a city.

My current choice is a Tortuga Travel Backpack. It doesn’t have many exterior pockets, has front loading for the main compartment, fits within all airline carry-on requirements, and the back/waist straps can be concealed to turn the pack into a handheld bag without anything for security machines to snag on.

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Day Bags: Where Expensive Crap Goes

Nice! You have a main bag that you like! Now it’s time to figure out what your day bag will be. This is the thing that will hold your water bottle, a camera, guidebook, and maybe some passports. You’ll also stuff it a bit while flying to put it under the seat with all of the things you need for the 8 hours of hell ahead. What I look for in a day bag are:

  • Light and compressible enough to be stuffed in the main bag, if required
  • Can be easily carried in addition to the main bag when on a travel day. This can be either as a light backpack worn on the front of the chest, or a messenger bag on the side.
  • Can securely hold the things I need for a typical day exploring.

Initially, I used my Mountain Hardware Fluid 26 lightweight backpack. Back when I was lugging around 70L+ bags to Europe, I could put this backpack inside my main bag and then pull it out when I needed it. It was pretty great if you ignore the fact I was carrying around far too much weight in the first place.

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Then I went with a Timbuk2 Classic Messenger Bag, X-tra Small.

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This wee lil’ bag can fit a jacket and book. And that’s about it.

I eventually went a custom-designed Timbuk2 Small messenger bag with lots of reflective strips and fabric built-in. It can hold the things you need for a day without encouraging you to overpack and end up with a severely pissed back.

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I’m still experimenting! For my next trip, I’m planning on bringing the Tortuga bag as my main, and bringing the Fluid 26 as a day bag.

Packing Thoughts

Hand Wash your clothes

If you’re going on a 3 week odyssey through Europe. Do not bring 21 pair underwear, 21 pair of socks, and 10 shirts. Bring enough supplies for 5 days and hand-wash your clothing every day or two. Every 10 days or so, go to a laundromat and give everything a nice scrub. Sure, you’ll be wearing the same shirt every third day or so, but who cares?

Figure out your favorite compression and organization scheme

I like compression bags, but other people like packing cubes. Figure out whatever you like and go with it.

Argument as a Conversation Element

I was listening to my second favorite podcast the other day, Roderick on the Line, when John started talking about his way of communicating with the people around him, primarily his friends. It struck a chord with me and I had to spend a few moments to reflect on what it meant.

I’m feeling the loneliness. I’m feeling the estrangement from having my primary way of engagement with people, traditionally being ‘hey, that thing that you just did, you fucked up, and here’s why.’ And that’s my primary way of talking to people, and nobody wants to hear it anymore.

– Episode 16: Cotton Candy Pink Poofy La-La. Starting around 28:00

Midway through college, I began to realize that my entire concept of social interactions was flawed:  well-socialized members of society didn’t troll internet forums and IRC because it was fun. They didn’t purposely rile up people that had the potential to be friends simply because it was much easier to make them irrationally angry rather than attempt to forge actual constructive bonds. I love arguing contrarian viewpoints with like-minded people just to test my theories, and I tend to overuse sarcasm when making obtuse points about social issues, but that just causes a life full of brief skirmishes and lots of grudges.

Making friendships into something more meaningful than just arguments and saying “well, actually” has always been a challenge for me, and I like to claim that I’ve mellowed in my mid-20s. Every day I try to be a better person than I was the day before, and it isn’t always easy.

It’s not about being right, it’s about being around the right people. Thanks for sticking with me.

Homeworld

It’s no surprise that I consider Homeworld one of the best games of all time, as I’ve posted about it multiple  times  already over the past few years. But what makes it so goddamn amazing? Everything. Everything is the answer to that question.

For what it’s worth, this post is based on the original version of Homeworld, not the remastered edition. However, the graphics are from Homeworld:Remastered. Why? Because they look better, that’s why.

I also consider this somewhat of a spiritual successor to my original post about homeworld made a few years ago. I’d give that a read if you haven’t yet. That’s right, I like Homeworld so much I write about it every few years to remind people of how amazing it is. But the Remastered version came out, so it felt apropos to write a new version.

Gameplay

Let’s get technical for a moment: Homeworld is a 3D RTS set in space, with persistent units and resourcing between missions.

Got it? Good. Because there’s a lot more to it than just the bland categorization. Homeworld allows you to build a persistent fleet over a span of over a dozen missions, which becomes a core gameplay element when resources are scarce and every ship counts. When you have to balance building a frigate or a few fighters, suddenly the game becomes much more than just slamming disposable units against each other. That frigate you captured in mission 2? It’ll stick with you until the end, or until you are forced to send it on a desperate run to save your resourcing units.2015-02-26_00006

The missions aren’t just some bland “oh gee there are some bad dudes over here. Kill them. KILL THEM” instead you get pitted against very different factions. The Imperials are all about overwhelming force. The pirates have tough corvettes and battle-hardened carriers. And the garden dwellers? Well, they’ll overwhelm you with fighters. Most missions have a catch that requires you to plan around, but they don’t become forced and trite as the Starcraft II catches often do. They flow naturally from your foes, and that’s a big distinction.

Your units, well, they’re wonderful. The balance is perfect: your fighters will distract and harass larger units, while your corvettes will maneuver in for the kill. Frigates provide the backbone of your fleet while your larger destroyers give you the big guns necessary to take down the very largest of opponents. Each ship (and class of ships!) have weaknesses and strengths, and Homeworld is masterful at letting you balance your fleet exactly to your gameplay style.

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Battle gameplay is purposeful. There are few chances for one-shot kills. Damage is meted out over minutes, and it evolves into a situation that you can control at a pace that allows strategic decisions rather than encouraging frantic clicking.

RTS with a Purpose

Homeworld is a game with purpose. As your ships slowly lumber towards their next encounter, you’ll have time to reflect on your storyline. Perhaps what makes Homeworld unique is not that the gameplay is amazingly good, but that you become invested in the story of the exiles fighting their way across the galaxy to reclaim their Home. Each step along the way seems inevitable, yet you never feel like it’s a chore.

The ships are the story. But they represent the hopes and dreams of your people.

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Soundtrack

I wrote a lot of papers in college listening to the Homeworld soundtrack. It’s award winning, and for a good reason. From the heart wrenching chorale rendition of Adagio for Strings, to the vaguely middle-eastern strains of the Imperial Battle motif, the music provides the right tension at the right time. When navigating through a irradiated solar system from a nearby star, the music provides a brooding backdrop as a constant reminder of the danger that lurks just beyond the protective dust fields.

Story and Manual

The Homeworld manual is one of my most cherished objects. A lot of love and care went into crafting the backstory and ship designs, and the manual is a detailed story of the protagonists, their background, and their history. The manual turns an otherwise good game into an excellent one through the smart use of backstory that so many games ignore. The Mothership is the core of your existence, but through the manual you learn that it has taken all of the resources of your planet to construct it on a journey home. For over 80 years, it was the only satellite the planet had ever known, and were the literal embodiment of the purpose of a civilization.

Remastering, Cataclysm, and Homeworld 2

There’s a remastered version of Homeworld out. It looks very pretty, but the gameplay is fairly atrocious. Delicately-crafted balances honed in the original game were hammered into an improved Homeworld 2 engine to create a game that is optically amazing yet with hollow mechanics. I’d encourage you to purchase the remastered version, only because it includes the original version of Homeworld designed to work on modern Windows.

Homeworld: Cataclysm is a very worthy followup to Homeworld, and plays as a 3D Horror RTS set in space. It has some interesting ship ideas, cleans up pain points in the original Homeworld, and has lots of fun mechanics. Although it hasn’t been remastered and sometimes dislikes Windows 7, Cataclysm is a fine choice if you can get your hands on it.

There’s also Homeworld 2, which is pretty okay. It ain’t bad, but ain’t great either.