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.

Mississippi River Delta

While we were enjoying dinner on the last night of our cruise, our ship was preparing to enter the Mississippi River Delta. Night fell we as silently glided by the offshore oil rigs, and soon a well-light Pilot boat appeared from the distance. Hurrying to the front of the Carnival Dream, I stood on the 6th deck overlook that wrapped around the bow of the boat. The deck was devoid of light, and the navigation bridge two decks directly above me was shrouded in darkness with only the faint glow of navigation systems to pierce through the night.

A multitude of blinking lights beckoned in the distance as we neared the delta entrance. Some Buoys warned ships of hidden dangers, while others showed the safe channel into the Mississippi. Flames from the oil rigs illuminated our approach, and soon the faint moaning of the buoys could be heard. A laser blinked from the bridge, perhaps searching for navigation markers or gaining more precise information than the radar could provide.

We glided past the first barrier island, and the water gradually turned from an inky blackness to a distinctly muddy grey color. Although the water was smooth, the sound of the ocean waves crashing against the islands could be heard just a few hundred feet of either side of the ship.

Peering forward, the red and green lights marking the channel could be seen beckoning the ship forward. Along with the buoys were the orange glows of industrial operations just outside the river delta, and with them, civilization.

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4X Straight Outta the 90s: Alpha Centauri

Okay, fine, so this game is from the late 90s, has an interface designed by an engineer, and mechanics that only really make sense if you read the hulking manual. Whatever. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri features 7 distinctive civs each with artisanally crafted stories and personalities. The gameplay is superb in every sense of the word. You can raise sea levels and turn your cities into sea colonies! You can watch awesome videos when your projects are complete! You can create awesome tile improvements that will cause the local aliens to go apeshit and kill everyone! Alpha Centauri manages to pull off a 4X game that has a storyline behind it while retaining dynamic gameplay and world. It’s an achievement that hasn’t been replicated since.

Picking a Civ

The seven factions are extremely distinctive, and they intertwine well with the general storyline of exploring a very foreign world that’s populated with very different kinds of settlers. Each faction has at least one “enemy” that is diametrically opposed to all that they do: you’ll usually be warring with this faction. The Lord’s Believers, for instance, have a strong distaste for the University of Planet. The research is another high point, as most of the quotes and completion videos are drawn from the various fictional leaders. Finish researching a technology that gives you a new weapon? The Spartan Federation will give you a quote for that. Diplomacy is largely well-implemented. Each of the Civs has a very different way of speaking and acting while in the diplomacy screen, and it’s an interesting exercise in exploring how each reacts.

Alien Life is the 8th civilization in the game, although they play as a foil for most gameplay styles. As you explore and build, you are constantly attacked by the alien lifeform who are reacting to your new presence on their world. What makes the game fairly unique is that you can choose to build improvements that will cause ecological damage in return for increased resources. And I bet you know what that means: more aliens, and more of them. Planet reacts when you abuse it: you’ll pay for that borehole pressure mine.

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Alpha Centauri has a world that can be bent to your will. You can build mountains by raising tile height, or create lakes by lowering them. Cities can be founded in the ocean, and if the World Council votes to raise the sea level, you better build a pressure module for your coastal cities before they flood!

Alpha Centauri isn’t all wonderful. The unit system allows you to build an awe-inspiring number of unit options, as you can custom-design the unit’s armor, speed, weapon, and special abilities. It can be difficult and overwhelming to have to be constantly designing and upgrading new units as technologies are developed. The interface is informative, but it can bury critical (yet technically optional) gameplay elements deep within menus. Finally, Alpha Centauri suffers from the curse of unlimited unit stacking. Is that one unit coming towards you, or an army of 20?

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Technically speaking, Alpha Centauri has aged well. It plays on Windows 7 without fuss, and lets you install all content on your HDD so you can play without the CD. The resolution is 1024×768, but you don’t notice too much. The HUD can get cramped, but the graphics look fairly good.

Pick it up if you get a chance: you’ll quickly realize why Civilization: Beyond Earth is largely a disappointment to anyone who has played Alpha Centauri.

Site Funkiness

If you can read this, congratulations! After maintaining my own Linux webserver since 2006, I’ve decided to move my blog over to WordPress.com for hosting. Lots of reasons went into this decision, mostly involving time spent maintaining an application stack (PHP + MySQL) that I’m not actively working on any longer.