Thursday, August 25, 2011

Be Like the Water

I have a list of two topics, the likelihood of which i will talk to you about them is directly proportional to how well i know you, multiplied by how likely i am to ever see you again.

Or something like that.

You see, i really don't like discussing religion or politics with people. It's not that i don't have anything to say on the subjects, either, (although i am far from passionate about them) it's just that i have found that such conversations are very rarely worthwhile, for various reasons of varying importance. Here are a couple of them:

In general, people don't know how to have a civil exchange of ideas without becoming offended. Whether this is due to the inherent personal nature of the topics, the relatively thin skin of modern arguers, or the average lack of formal rhetorical training, i have no idea, but the fact remains that when you start giving reasons for why you don't believe that which your buddy does, they often take it personally. This is unfortunate and i am often just as guilty as anyone else, but i don't let it linger; people have different opinions and if i know the person cares about me, i'm not gonna think less of them for having a *gasp* different view. It makes sense, when you think about it.

The second - and in my mind, far more influential - reason is called the Illusion of Asymmetric Insight. Put simply, everyone (EVERYONE) believes that they are smarter and more insightful than their opposition. See what that means, though? It means that everyone (EVERYONE) is also wrong.

Even you.

Evolution vs. Creationism. Liberals vs. Conservatives. Keynes vs. Hayek. I really don't care, it's all the same when it comes down to it: you think you're well-informed and supremely logical in your opinion and think your opposition is a naive simpleton. Both sides are equally close-minded and arrogant in their beliefs.

It's not really anyone's fault, though; it's human nature. We're social creatures and it is beneficial to the continued existence of the group to ostracize and vilify members of any group we see as outsiders. (those familiar with the concept of the Monkey Sphere should already recognize this phenomenon) This incredibly powerful instinct is currently at odds with the popular opinion that all of humanity should just drop their disagreements and hug it out. We all want to get along and believe that everybody's equal and beautiful and all that, but it goes against a fundamental engine of self-preservation.

Religion and politics are volatile, but they're not empirical facts. No one is ever going to be able to prove that one view point is more valid than another. Hell, even the things we do consider empirical facts get turned on their heads sometimes. That's just the nature of this thing called Life.

So until the next big headline comes out, let's all just follow Wheaton's Law, huh?

Friday, August 5, 2011


A good scout notices everything. A great one also notices the absences, but even a novice would have quickly realized that a forest at night should never, ever be silent. The steady decrease in the chirrups, buzzes, rustles, and croaks took up a lot of the scout's attention and was part of the reason why the simultaneous rise of the staccato beat was nigh-imperceptible. For a while, the sound didn't register as a physical noise, but a mere unease on the edge of his perception. It tickled his thoughts, put such a subtle pall over them that it was unrecognizable until it was too late. He was within earshot of a hand drum, he froze.

The pace was measured, determined, powerful. The tempo seemed to change at random. It was unsettling. It was disorienting. It was distracting, and that angered the scout. A watcher could not lose focus, a hunter could not narrow his view, failure was death. His self-rebuke was harsh and swift when he realized that he had passed the first check point and there had been no sign of a man at his post.

He continued on, the tattoo coming from almost directly in front of him, the unnatural silence of the forest dwellers slowing his otherwise-sure footing. The first body did not surprise him, gaping slit under his jaw indicating an ignorance of the propinquity of his assassin. The second did not either, although he logged away the fact that the fallen had been slain with his own sword. The third and fourth were entangled, the former's teeth sunk firmly into the neck of the latter, whose knife was in the former's gut. The damage to the surrounding brush was extensive. The struggle must have been immense and silent to have not alerted the far perimeter guards. The drum echoed on, louder and louder, encroaching on his mind, impeding his ability to recall the names of the deceased.

Face pock-marked with shaving scars, a fiancee back home, swallowed his food half-chewed. What did we call him?

The first umbras on the trees told the scout the exact position of the main camp, the very edge of the firelight just before him. The bodies were thicker off to his left a ways, the pattern of their falls telling a tale of panicked, frightful exodus, dragged down or shot down as they fled. The growing light revealed carnage in equal measure, the increased clarity tormenting the scout with ever grislier tableaux of mauled comrades.

Edges and fringes twitched, shadows danced across the corpses, branches seemed to reach for him as the trees thinned out in proximity to the clearing. Occasionally, much of the light would be eclipsed, a lone figure interposing itself between the scout and the fire. It moved around the fire, it's undulations indistinguishable from the shadows caused by the flames themselves, its form at times nebulous for the haze and the noise and the light and the dark and the drums, oh, the drums!

The figure struck at the drum slung from its neck. The beat was inside the scout's head, his mind forced think in step with the spasmodic rhythm. Feathers and bones swished and clacked. The body of the dancer seemed to have as little structure as the roll of his vile instrument. His feet were those of a drunkard, his footing somehow remaining sure as his dance took him over dozens of corpses and corpse parts. Paint and blood dripped in parallel lines and complex designs. Were they moving? His eyes were white and spittle occasionally flew from the corners of the drummer's slack and sparsely-toothed maw.

His feelings were muddled and soporific when the first hand grasped his leg and began tugging him down toward the writhing, clutching jaws of his former friends.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Tragedy + Time = Comedy

I've been walking this earth for a quarter of a century now and i'm always happy to pass the year feeling that i've learned how to walk it a little better than the previous year. In particular, i am always trying to find new ways to increase my average level of day-to-day happiness. Depression is something i've touched on a few times in this 'blog and is, i'm sure you've all gathered, a subject near and dear to me. Defense mechanisms, life hacking, non-invasive neuro-reprogramming, lifestyle changes, psychopharmacology; there are hundreds of ways to improve one's quality of life and all of them are intriguing on some level, academically and/or personally, practically.

A few years back i was in a relationship that had taken a very hard turn, stress-wise. The demands on my energies and attentions were so strong that their grasping, needy claws began to have an opposite effect: instead of ensuring my devotion to their resolution, all they succeeded in doing was pulling away my ability to care. The constant high-pressure situation completely numbed me to all but the most severe "emergencies." I distinctly remember sitting on my front porch with my good buddy Matt and saying, "i'm sorry, but nothing's a crisis."

Over the next few years, i have stood by this assertion, turning it into a bit of a personal mantra. Whenever something negative occurs, unless it is a life-threatening event that actually requires fast decision-making, i simply do not categorize the occurrence as a crisis. At worst, it is an unfortunate obstacle or change that will be looked back upon with relief that the situation eventually resolved. The only difference between a God-awful scene you find yourself in and a funny story is time. Stand back, take a deep breath, and figure out the best way to get yourself and your loved ones out the other side. Let Time do his thing.

Assess the situation, analyze it to determine the most beneficial course of action, act. This little subroutine occurs probably thousands of times a day without you realizing it, often completely subconsciously. I simply and humbly suggest that during periods of emotional or psychological distress, that you might find it useful to realize that you're doing it and do it to the best of your abilities then let Time do the rest.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

That's How We Did It in the Navy

Today is an age of vague gender roles and a very high value placed on equality. This post, however, is a dedication to a certain aspect of manliness from an almost-forgotten age.

Over ten years ago, a neighbor across the street passed away. His name was Tom and he was a great guy. He was handy, loving, a great father. He provided for his family and shoveled the sidewalk for his elderly next-door neighbor ever winter. Everyone who knew him loved and respected who he was and what he stood for.

When Tom's cancer had finally put him on his death bed, his family all gathered around to say goodbye. His daughters and faithful wife kept vigil for hours as he laboriously clung to the last vestiges of life. Finally, a nurse pulled the wife aside and gave her an observation: the nurse had seen such situations before and predicted that Tom would not give up while those he had devoted his life to being strong for remained in the room. Surprised and at a loss for what else to do, Sharon shepherded her children from the room and they collected themselves in the waiting area. A few minutes later, the nurse brought them the news of Tom's peaceful passing.

This was a man who firmly believed that it was his duty to protect and provide for his blood. To his last breath, he needed to be strong for them, even during the one time when he couldn't be.

The second story happened just last weekend. The the father-in-law of a lifelong family friend finally, too, succumbed to his cancer. The doctors recognized that John's time was very near and, again, his wife and daughters all came to bid the man farewell. Words were said, tears shed, and the daughters went home to get some rest. No sooner had they left than John stopped breathing. His heart, however, continued to beat. The nurse quickly grabbed his wife and told her to call her daughters and bring them back.

John's heart continued to beat until the second and last daughter walked in the door, then stopped.

On the opposite side of the coin from Tom's strength, John needed to have his family near him. He hung on beyond all reason and strength for purposes that cannot be fathomed, but hang on he did until the very last person he loved beyond all measure was safely by his side.

My last story is the closest to home. It's about my grandpa.

A long, long time ago - i think i was about eight or ten - my grandfather was up visiting from Florida. Keep in mind, that at that point, i could probably count the number of times i had seen the man on one hand. I knew some stories and how much my mother loved and respected him, - he essentially raised her and her sister by himself, his bipolar wife not being of a particularly nurturing nature - but really had no concept of him as anything more than "Grandpa". I remember lying on the floor in the living room, just hanging out with the rest of my family. For some reason, i decided to put my feet up on this old desk we have - maybe i started kicking it, i don't recall the details. Grandpa yelled at me.

I never forgave him. In that formative stage, i was incensed that anyone other than my parents could DARE chastise me in such a bald and public fashion. The shame and embarrassment stuck with me and i found out after his death that he had, in fact, noticed the schism it caused in our relationship, although i was always very polite and kind to him.

Fast forward to March of 2004. Parkinson's had slowly eaten away at his faculties and the doctors predicted that there wasn't much time left. My mom flew down to Florida to spend a couple weeks there and eventually sent for the rest of the family to come down to say goodbye. My brother went first, solo. My dad and i flew down shortly after my mom and brother returned. We only stayed the one night because i had a competition that i had to leave for the following day.

I remember the warmth of the room, the (at the time) peculiarly comfortable nature of his palliative room. My father had his moment alone with his father-in-law and then it was my turn. My dad left and it was just me and my grandfather's slack-jawed stare, only the sounds of ventilators and pulse monitors to keep me company. I took his hand and told him about everything i knew about him, of my mother's love and how she had tried to raise us the way he raised her. Drool began to drip from his chin and i wiped it away as i finally apologized for the grudge that i held for so long and for no good reason. I remember his eyes glistening with tears and how i told myself that it was my imagination, that the nurses had told me that he probably couldn't hear anything we were saying.

My mom had the presence of mind to wait until i got home to tell me that my grandfather had died the night we had seen him, not more than a few hours after i had said my last goodbye.

Doug was a navy man, a good man, and a great father. He had lived a long, happy life and was ready to die. Nevertheless, he would not give up until all loose ends had been neatly tied up.

One day, if i ever have a family of my own, i'll count myself lucky if i can leave behind half the legacy of these men.


Sunday, April 24, 2011

On Warcraft, pt. II

The fall of 2007 found me moving in with one of my best friends from high school, Matt Grajcar, and some of the guys he'd been living with for their last few years at RIT. I had been out of school for the two years prior due to my at-the-time girlfriend's parents forbidding me to go to the same school that she attended. Having done nothing but sling coffee for over a year, i felt like i needed a change of scenery, so up my stuff got packed, out to my job got transferred, and away i went.

Amidst these new surroundings and rowdy new roommates, i did leave behind another of my best friends from high school, Nate, who was basically the only friend i had had for that preceding year. And so, in an effort to keep up with him while away, he convinced me to start playing World of Warcraft and join the guild he had found, the Hammer of Go'el.

I should point out - with apologies to the girl in question - that Warcraft also fulfilled another need in my life at that point. You see, dear reader, i had been dating a girl at the time who, in her immaturity of that age, wanted me to spend all waking, non-working hours on the computer, talking to her. Myself, also immature and trying desperately to make the long distance relationship work, usually agreed. This unfortunate interaction ensured that i was spending more hours a day on the computer than i really care to reveal, and i desperately needed something to DO while "talking" to my girlfriend. Enter, Warcraft.

Now, in this reflective state in which i find myself, it would be appropriate to comment, for a moment, on the game play that Warcraft demonstrated - some could argue "pioneered" - but such musings are not for me and mine. For me, the important part of my time in WoW is almost entirely the Hammer.

I particularly remember one terrible time in Shattrath, the major city of that expansion, during prime time hours. My computer - which i had built myself with some help from various friends - was currently ROCKING out on half a gig of RAM, which up until that point, hadn't been more of a problem than my considerable patience could handle. But that night... that night it took me over an hour to get from one end of Shatt to the other. I was trying to hold a conversation in Guild chat, sending messages as if by carrier pigeon, the rest of the Guild carrying on in between my sporadic missives. Finally relating the reason behind my perforated existence in Azeroth, one of the officers - whom i only knew as Tuula, the female troll hunter - offered to send me some spare RAM he had lying around.

For free.

I tried to pay him, i did, but he refused. Maybe a week later, a manila envelope arrived in the mail for me containing two gigs of ram and a short, hand-written note signed, "Tuula and Sylvaina". I could barely believe the freely bestowed generosity and trust, but that was the norm in the Hammer of Go'el: genuine, human attention and good-will. It was there, piloting my undead warlock avatar across the non-existent hell-scape of Hellfire Peninsula, that i bumped into a community that i never knew existed and - even more inexplicably - in which i was welcomed with open arms.

The following summer, Nate and i did something that leaves the average person rather disconcerted: we made the journey into Massachusetts to attend the Guild's annual barbecue at our Guildmaster's house. There, we put faces on people's voices and characters. Elves, orcs, trolls, zombies, and cows all suddenly became real people with real names and real jobs and real lives. I met Todd and Ethan and Duane and Jenn and Joe and so many others that it was honestly a little overwhelming, but i guess that's why our Guildmaster makes sure that there's alcohol at these things.

Today, the Massachusetts branch of the Hammer are some of my best friends. I have more shared history with them than i do most coworkers. With them, i've crafted legendary sets magical robes (which took me weeks and a fairly epic string of quests), invaded fortresses of demon princes, fought for control over important resources and staging grounds, led the first wave of a continent-wide incursion into enemy territory, trained a team of highly organized and efficient assassins, and eventually toppled the terrible Lich King - the same Arthas Menethil from Warcraft 3.

I see the Mass. folks once a month now as we embark on a new set of adventures in the tabletop realm of Dungeons and Dragons. Together, we represented the Hammer at PAX East '11. Joe and i recently romped our way through Portal 2 and have plans to record some future gaming sessions for the entertainment of the Internets at Large.

I left Warcraft earlier this year not for any social reasons, but because of a terrible plague that sometimes effects regular MMO players. Currently unnamed, this affliction makes a change in the gamer's conception of the value of game time. Before infection, a player may feel that any time spent enjoying a game is inherently worthwhile. After a certain period of festering, however, it becomes difficult to justify playing any game EXCEPT the MMO because we are faced with a terrible choice: spend X time working on the next goal in the MMO, which yields permanent - albeit intangible - rewards, or fritter away the same time in a different game with nothing to show for it afterward. This scourge, combined with the very real argument that i'd already accomplished everything there was to accomplish in the game, led to my eventual decision to cut the cord and ditch WoW.

Yes, it would be difficult for me to argue against the idea that i had "wasted" a great many hours playing a video game, but it would be impossible for me to assert that i left the game having gained nothing. I gained friends, insight, a community, new skills, and, while it is definitely a story for another post, a new lease on life and will to keep living. WoW, and the people i played it with, got me through a very difficult time in my life and i have nothing but gratitude for my time spent in Azeroth.

Monday, March 7, 2011

On Warcraft, pt. I

I don't remember exactly when or how it entered our lives, but a certain computer game popped up on my family's computer some time when i was nine. I know its appearance was due to my brother, but the circumstances beyond that have evaporated with the mists of time. A quick Wikipedia search tells me that it must have been either late 1994 or early '95. It was called Warcraft: Orcs & Humans and it required a whopping 4 MB of RAM.

My first introduction into Real Time Strategy games, Warcraft was actually the second RTS game ever released for home computers, the first being Dune II. Interestingly enough, Blizzard pumped out their debut RTS game as fast as they could simply to take advantage of the warm reception that Dune II had garnished, hoping to take advantage of a perceived void in the market. Because of this rush, the saga of orcs vs. humans began with little script to speak of, their bloody conflict existing as a vehicle for the game more than anything else. My brother and i didn't care, of course, reveling - as any Tolkien geek would - in the gory spectacle of orcish combat.

My first experience with Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness was at a friend's house. All i remember from that tiny campaign was the excitement over the new, shiny graphics; the faster pace; the driving, awesome music. Then a small mob of enormous, fat, naked men with two heads waddled into my village and punched the entire settlement into the dirt. Surprisingly enough, this traumatic first experience did not deter me at all and i whiled away many hours with WCII, deepening my love for all things orc. I vividly recall the first time i met Zul'jin and badass teal scarf. Truth be told, i can trace back my love for scarves and unsymmetrical ear piercings to this troll axe-thrower.

While Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos probably didn't get as much play time from me as Starcraft did, i definitely owe it more. Warcraft added a slew of additional features in its third incarnation, including a third playable race, heroes and 3D graphics. More importantly for me, however, was the incredibly dynamic storytelling made through the vehicle of in-game cut scenes. The characters came alive, then, and i found myself truly sympathizing with Thrall, Cairne, Jaina, and the rest of the characters i would come to see so much of in the coming years. It was halfway through the Undead campaign that i first saw the fall of Sylvanas Windrunner, Ranger-General of Silvermoon, the soon-to-be Dark Lady who would steal my WoW-heart.

At this point, i'd be in Azeroth for the better part of a decade. I was intimately familiar with orcish culture and magicks, the role of gnomes in human society, and the fear of an undead scourge. My formative gaming years had been heavily marinated in war paint, battle cries, honor contests, glorious deaths.

To me, orcs will always be hulking and green-skinned.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Burn Phase, or, Things I've Learned as a Geek, Part 2

In any game involving conflict, the player is given an array of options of varying potency and efficiency. This is done to add dynamics to the game, lest it end up as simplistic as tic-tac-toe. In combat-based games, these options are usually limited by certain conditions or qualities in order to balance the system. If one were allowed to use your most powerful tactic whenever one pleased, the game would quickly become one-dimensional and boring.

In World of Warcraft (for example), each character class is given certain powerful abilities which can only be used every so often. These abilities are categorically referred to as "cooldowns" due to the fact that after each use, the ability has to "cool down" before being used again. This core mechanic to the game means that, at any specified point, the combat potency of an individual or group can increase drastically for a short period of time, followed by a equally balanced cool down.

I have learned something about myself in my observations of how i use cooldowns. If the cooldown was short - say, two minutes or less - i would usually have no trouble using it as it was available since i knew that it would most likely be available again when i needed it next. If the cooldown was long, however, - which is anywhere from five minutes to thirty - i found myself stingily hoarding the ability, terrified to use it for fear that it wouldn't be available to me when i truly needed it.

I almost never use any ability with a cooldown of five minutes or more. My fear of misusing my most powerful abilities prevents me from utilizing them at all.

In my life, i know there are many instances of the same fearful behavior. For example, i'd much rather do nothing than fail spectacularly. I'd rather say nothing than cause pain. I'd rather bide my time in hopeful observation than risk getting hurt again and losing what little i had.

Such behavior is based off of a fallacy; it gains you nothing to wait for the perfect moment and so lose any advantage you might have had. Now, i am by no means saying to cast strategy and logical thinking to the wind and act recklessly. I firmly believe that a clear head and a comprehensive array of data is key to discovering the most advantageous move in almost all scenarios. Sometimes, though, fortune truly does favor the bold. Use the advantage when you have it or risk losing it completely.

Sometimes, you should just go all in.