Saturday, October 30, 2010


It's been a while since I've posted, and while there aren't a whole lot of good reasons, there are some reasons.

The main one was that my laptop, Bookley, appeared to have given up the ghost one Saturday morning. I awoke, preparing to do a few last-minute tweaks before heading off to Saturday gaming, but Bookley's video output seemed dead. Undeterred, I tried hooking him up to an external monitor, but still no luck. I didn't have the time to spend troubleshooting, so I resolved to work on it once I got home.

The more I tried to figure out what was wrong with Bookley, the more I became depressed. This just seemed the latest in a whole series of minor disappointments with the laptop and, by extension, the company that made it. For starters, I'd paid over $3000 for the machine when new, and included in that price was a three-year AppleCare plan, deciding that such a large investment in a computer was worth protecting. But while I registered the computer, I didn't realize that the AppleCare had to be registered seperately, and thus after about 18 months or so, my AppleCare ID had been retired as being 'unused' and assigned to a different machine. By that time, Apple was in the habit of registering all AppleCare plans at the store (probably to specifically avoid this problem); I later ended up purchasing my own replacement battery, when the battery replacement would otherwise have been under warranty, because while I could prove I'd purchased the plan, I didn't have an account against which the store could charge the warranty repair, and I couldn't get an account unless I found the original AppleCare registration card that came with my computer.

So, for nearly two months, I wrote Bookley off as a lost cause and tried to decide what my next computer would be. I'd since purchased both an iPhone and iPad, so I didn't really need a machine for basic e-mail and Internet tasks; instead, after inventorying the actual computer applications I was going to be using, I came to the conclusion that an inexpensive Windows machine would actually meet my needs and my budget, so I started looking at building my own.

Then, finally, seemingly on a whim, I took Bookley into the Apple Store where I'd bought it so that they could tell me, officially, what was wrong. It turned out that my MacBook Pro was one of the ones with faulty NVidia graphics processors, and that the repair would be free of charge, even though I didn't officially have a warranty. I settled in to wait for the repair to come back.

While I was waiting, a leaking brake line turned into a full-on brake failure, which necessitated my taking in the Intrepid for service as well. This one I had to pay out of my own pocket for, though it was also a good excuse to get some needed work done on the front tie rod; all that appears to be left is to replace a leaky gasket on the gas tank (it leaks slightly when the tank is filled, but not otherwise) and replace the shocks and the car will seem nearly good as new.

Lastly, the week before all this happened, I celebrated a personal holiday I called My John Candy Day -- it was the day I was exactly as old as the comedian and actor John Candy when he died in his sleep on the set of the movie "Wagons East".

The combination of renewal represented by the return of Bookley and the refreshment of my car, plus the reminder of my own mortality produced by My John Candy Day has given me a much-needed opportunity to consider what I'm doing with my life.

It's funny, in both the humorous and strange senses; many people who've known me have seemed to assume that I'd do great things. From my own perspective, though, while I've been able to make some things that people assume are difficult look very easy, I've always understood that doing anything of significance and doing it well would require more work, dedication, and downright stick-to-it-ive-ness than I generally figured I had in me. As such, my life to date has been a string of brilliant ideas, hung on a line like glistening pearls, with long stretches of nothing but string between them.

I wish I could say this reflection has given me the inspiration to get up -- or buckle down -- and so something worthy of the gifts that have been bestowed upon me. One problem, though, is that I realize that people often say things, not because they believe them to be true, but because they believe you'd like them to be true; knowing that, I could never entirely trust any praise coming from someone I knew, and I never found myself impressed enough with my own abilities to try to argue the point with my own poorer self.

But, as the month ends, opportunities are knocking. National Novel Writing Month is about to begin, and while my last two attempts have been meager--or perhaps 'meager' is being too kind--there's a vague sense that this year could be different. I'm not considering doing it to impress someone or to insert myself into a social scene; I actually have a few ideas that, if I can choose one, might blossom into, well, not genius or probably even success, but at least a worthier effort than I've put together before.

Bookley's return also opens up the opportunity to record my third 'hobbyist audiobook'; I recorded David Foster Wallace's "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again" as a Christmas present for an overseas friend, then followed up with Raymond Chandler's "The Simple Art of Murder" as more of a project I could 'show around'. C.S. Lewis's "The Screwtape Letters" are calling me next -- it would be the longest such project I've attempted, but is also the most interesting from a personal perspective.

Perhaps the key is simply realizing that these things are doable; that I control much more of the outcome than, say, trying to find a girlfriend or looking for a new job. Start with the things you can do. Go from there.

Let's see if I follow through.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Gen Con 2010 - Day One

The first item on the agenda for the first day of the convention was the dealer's room.

I'd 'invested' in a VIG badge again for 2010, fueled in large part by the feeling of awesomeness I'd had in 2009 by being a VIG and taking advantage of all the perks of the program. Some of the options were better than the previous year, as the VIG organizers took the lessons of 2009 and applied them to improve the VIG experience (best example: there was no drink shortage in 2010 as there had been in 2009, and there was also more non-carbonated juice options, which I took full advantage of). Other options weren't as impressive as in 2009 (best example: though there were technically two swag bags in 2010, even both combined failed to be as impressive as the single 2009 swag bag, including the bag itself).

One of the big reasons to do VIG, however, is that on Thursday, with the rest of the con-goers waiting around until the official 10am opening time, VIGs (along with a few other limited classes of individuals, like press) got to enter the hall an hour early. Though there was a long line to get into the hall, the hall itself was so huge that by the time Chip and I had managed to navigate the line and get into the hall, the cluster of VIGs before us had been reduced to a vague mist of consumers that clustered just a bit around the larger vendors in the hall. I ended up picking up more magnets for my Alea Tools kit, stopped off at the Paizo booth to grab a couple of copies of the Pathfinder Advanced Player's Guide for two friends back home who'd requested it, and helped Chip go through the list of Reaper miniatures he'd brought to collect at this year's con (though in honesty, it was more like Chip was going through the list while I stood back and flirted with the woman in costume). After our tour through the hall, which ended shortly after the general admission started at 10am, we waded through the now crammed exhibitor's hall to escape back to our hotel room, dropped off our various bits of swag, and headed off to D&D HQ - a.k.a. the Sagamore Ballroom.

The first thing we did at Sagamore was participate in a convention delve -- a delve is a short (in this case, hour long) D&D adventure in which you participate with pregenerated characters and try to complete as much of the adventure as possible without dying or running out of time. This year's main delve (the Lair of the Dread Witch) featured pregenerated characters using the new D&D Essentials toolkit, and not only were the characters far simpler than the 4E characters we'd gotten used to, the adventure they were participating in was viciously difficult, a seeming continuation of the ethic of the Dark Sun D&D Encounters series in which someone designing the encounters simply decided to prove to people that 4E isn't the candy-strewn cakewalk that its detractors claim it is. One brutal hour later, I decided to skip the delve for the rest of the con, though Chip gave it another try and, if anything, had an even worse experience in his second attempt.

After delving, I headed up to grab lunch in the room (the first of many PB&Js) while waiting for what I expected to be the highlight of the convention: True Dungeon. True Dungeon is a 'live action' D&D experience, where a group of up to eight players takes on the roles of traditional D&D classes, but acts out the adventure by walking through a constructed 'dungeon', physically interacting with puzzles and traps (and occasionally even monsters!) and generally enjoying the hell out of the experience. Even better, I'd managed to secure an entire block of eight tickets, and all of our group was in for the run -- the first time I was set to do a True Dungeon run entirely with people I knew.

The start of the adventure was fine -- we motored through puzzles and mowed down monsters (including a very attractive ice demon in a neat optical illusion room) before finally reaching the final challenge -- Smoke the red dragon! Sadly, we were a horribly under-geared party (at least three of us were playing for the first time ever) and we ended up being unable to slay Smoke before his fiery breath killed us all -- the first time I'd ever failed to successfully complete a True Dungeon run. The disappointment was short-lived, though, as it became clear that most parties were unable to defeat Smoke (though a tweet from celebrity Wil Wheaton bragged that not only had he defeated the dragon, but he did so with a critical hit at just the right moment -- more on this later).

After True Dungeon, there was a bit of time to rest up before my annual GenCon LARP experience. This year, I'd chosen a scenario entitled 'Nyarlathotep and Miss Jones', set in a mansion where a 70s-era porn film was being shot. One reason I enjoy doing LARPs in general is that the male-female gender ratio is a lot better balanced at LARP games than at nearly any other game, and this year certainly disappoint -- a few of the women were even glamorous enough in their costumes so that they seemed as though they could have pulled off being actual porn starlets. (And, as is the case with much of 70s porn, the men were, well, not quite up to the same standard.)

My friend Michael accompanied me for his first-even LARP experience, and his character was Hymen Schtupwell, the world's oldest living porn star. He took to the role with aplomb, turning it into an almost Mr. Magoo-like experience, where he was nearly constantly in the center of the great plots unfolding during the adventure without any conscious realization or physical impact on those plots, but managed to survive anyway due to exquisite timing plus a bit of dumb luck. My own character, the plastic surgeon Dr. Benson, was not so fortunate, falling victim to his own obsession with female beauty with led directly to his demise at the hands of the tentacled horror summoned at the climax of the adventure.

It was nearly 11 by the time the porn LARP and its post-mortem ended, so Michael and I went our separate ways and headed back to our hotel rooms to crash and prepare for the next day, which would include the beginning of our LFR Mini-Campaign experience for 2010.

GenCon 2010 - Day Zero

Another GenCon has come and gone, and I'm hoping to capture as much of what happened here as possible.

Day Zero, as mentioned in previous sets of GenCon posts, is the travel day, and like last year, Chip and I were traveling to GenCon by air. Unlike last year, we were making a stop-over in Milwaukee rather than flying non-stop, and we were also planning to arrive in the mid-afternoon rather than late at night (as I'd managed to get the travel day off from work, which I didn't do last year).

Of course, I couldn't easily fall asleep the night before GenCon; I did finally drift off somewhere between 4:30am and 7:15am, when I got back up again, and started to prepare for the journey to Chip's. I was about a half-hour behind our agreed-upon schedule by the time I picked him up in front of his condo, but we serendipitously caught the shuttle from the off-site airport parking location we stopped at just as we arrived and made up a good chunk of time that way.

Going through the TSA checkpoint in Minneapolis-St. Paul International is always a trial for me somehow. Either I get bogged down with all the crap I have with me and hold up the line for dozens of others (as happened two years ago) or end up losing my pants while sending my suspenders through the scanner (as happened last year). This year I actually lost my boarding pass somewhere between the point where I had to show the pass and my ID to the initial guard, and the point where I collect my stuff at the far end of the conveyor after the X-ray machine. Fortunately, I was able to request and get replacement boarding passes at the gate, but it was still embarassing and frustrating. Count me in with Patrick Smith and others in the crowd that believes that the giant checkpoints and the mind-set they inspire is really little more than 'security kabuki', meant to provide a reassuring show rather than actually make air travel significantly safer.

The flight to Milwaukee was on a small Embraer 135 or 145 with one seat on the left of the aisle and two on the right, with carry-on bins only on the right aisle. Chip ended up having to leave his bag in the jetway to be loaded into the plane, then picked it up on the tarmac in Milwaukee after we arrived. I'd checked a bag, and paid $20 for the privilege, so I didn't have to do this bag juggling.

Milwaukee was notable for two things -- there was a Johnny Rocket's located just across from where we were waiting for our connecting flight, with just enough time to enjoy a hearty lunch, and I kept noticing a woman in a tan jacket and blue shirt who'd sat across from us on the flight from Minneapolis. She'd gone into the Johnny Rocket's before us, then stopped in the bathroom next to the Johhny Rockets, and my fevered and lonely brain quickly concocted a tale by which she was curious about us (specifically me) but was too shy to actually approach, and so she hoped that by hanging about, I'd eventually get up the courage to approach her.

As I explained this to Chip, he uttered the first in a long series of exasperated "Oh, Dave"s for the weekend.

The flight into Indy was uneventful, and once we arrived, got our baggage assembled, and caught a cab into town, we pondered stopping by a grocery store to pick up perishables that our friends Aaron and Justin weren't able to bring in their car from the Twin Cities. The cabbie informed us that there wasn't any grocery store easily en route from the airport to downtown Indy, so we abandoned that scheme, and just as well as it turned out.

Last year, we'd been bumped up to the Presidential Suite, complete with player piano, kitchenette with toaster and refrigerator, and other perks. I'd requested 'a' suite from GenCon VIG housing, and didn't realize until I arrived and checked in that there's more than one kind of suite in the Indianapolis Downtown Marriott -- instead of the Presidential Suite, we were staying in an Executive Suite. It was still a suite, and had a writing desk and pull-out table, but didn't have nearly the space or amenities of the room we'd stayed in last year: there was a space with a coffee maker but no kitchenette with ice maker and refrigerator (so we ended up filling one of the two sinks with ice and keeping the few 'refrigerate after opening' things we'd brought in that), there was a bathroom but it was a normal-sized hotel bathroom, not the luxurious space with the separate granite shower and the 'water closet' to hold the commode. The room we got wasn't at all disappointing except in comparison to the room we'd expected to get, and this was one of the handful of minor disappointments that haunted us all weekend.

We still ended up inviting everyone over to visit after they all arrived in town, but rather than spend the evening in the room (which was decently roomy for four, but cramped for the eight we'd expected to entertain), we went to Shula's steakhouse for dinner. The temperature in Indy that day was about 100 degrees, and the air conditioning in the restaurant seemed only sporadically able to handle both the heat from the outside and the warmth of the bodies in the dining area, but the dinner was outstanding -- I had a Kansas City cut with sides of grilled asparagus and hash browns (I embarrassed myself a bit by forgetting that in a place as fancy as Shula's, the side dishes were all a la carte) -- and I settled in for a game of Betrayal at the House on the Hill with Chip, Aaron, and Justin feeling a slow descent into food coma. The combination of the hearty meal and the busy day allowed me to collapse easily into bed at about 11pm local time and drift off almost immediately to sleep.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

And came to LIFE!

I write like
Stephen King

I Write Like by Mémoires, Mac journal software. Analyze your writing!

If by "write like Stephen King" you mean "should have a lot more output, since I clearly don't think very much while I'm spilling this stuff out of my brain," then yes. Guilty as charged.

Hat tip to traladeda for the link.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Failure of 'Branding'

A brand is the personality that identifies a product, service or company (name, term, sign, symbol, or design, or combination of them) and how it relates to key constituencies: Customers, Staff, Partners, Investors etc.
- "Brand",

If I may say so, the above definition is bullshit, and people (as in the unwashed mass of people) are finally starting to recognize that.

During the first decade of the 21st century, the concept of 'branding' as a way of distinguishing one product or service from another went from being a useful exercise to being something of an obsession or religion. This change grew hand-in-hand with the number of high-level managers in various corporations who decided that 'brand management' was the key to making a marketplace statement and created entire divisions of people who dutifully cranked out ideas, not for improving or widening the appeal of the company's products or services, but somehow improving the 'brand'. The afore-linked Wikipedia page is nearly a copy-paste of what might be found in a 'brand management' textbook, trying not just to explain the benefits of branding, but also attempting to persuade you that branding has benefits, and that those benefits are of significant and irreplaceable value to an organization.

A number of things have come up in the world recently, though, that convince me that this trend toward greater and greater emphasis on 'branding' is ultimately self-defeating, and that process of self-defeat is already well underway.

First up was discovering The Manifesto -- a call to action for freelance and beginning writers to avoid treating oneself and the audience as a matrix to be navigated using the principles of 'brand management;. You should really read the whole thing, but here's the specific point that applies to the thesis of this blog article:

I am not saying that it is a bad or dishonest thing to try to sell your work. It is not. What I am saying is that I am tired of the rush to commodify everything, to turn everything into products, including people. I don't want a brand, because a brand limits me. A brand says I will churn out the same thing over and over. Which I won't, because I am weird.

Now, one could say that such an attitude is self-defeating; after all, the author of The Manifesto, Maureen Johnson, notes in an earlier paragraph a number of well-known writers who ostensibly are brands, along with their brand identities. One could argue, likely with some success, that recognition as a commercial writer (that is, a writer who sells her writing rather the one writing, say, for posterity) is closely tied to the degree to which your writing identity is easily identified.

But do you really want to be a successful commercial writer, or do you want to be a Writer? There isn't any secret formula for breaking into the 'pantheon' of so-called 'great writers', but a fairly consistent characteristic of such writers is that they defied brand recognition: David Foster Wallace wrote fiction, non-fiction, and essays that straddled the line. Isaac Asimov wrote about damned near everything. Shakespeare was both a playwright (writing tragedy, comedy, and dubious history) and a poet. Being 'put in a box' doesn't necessarily help you achieve these things.

The larger point, however, came later, when I discovered something odd about the game company that defines my life as much as any other: Wizards of the Coast. WotC is a subsidiary of Hasbro, Inc., itself a huge game and toy company, but even ignoring that connection, WotC is without doubt the largest manufacturer of role-playing games and RPG material in the U.S. and probably the world. They also produce the trading-card-game Magic: the Gathering, the most popular game of its type in the world. These guys are Big Wheels in gaming.

So how come they're slowly being recognized less and less for that?

There are two major sets of awards given out in the games industry: the Origins Awards, assembled and voted on by the Academy of Gaming Arts and Design (an industry group composed of game publishers and creators) and named after the major gaming convention where the awards are given out, and the ENnies, a fan-based set of awards given out at GenCon each year.

As recently as 2008, Wizards of the Coast was well-represented in each set of awards. The 2008 Origins Awards saw WotC win two awards (Best Miniature Figure or Line of Miniature Figures and Best Collectible Card Game), and have influence on a third (Best Fiction, for a work based off the Dungeons & Dragons game and edited by at least one former TSR/WotC employee in James Lowder). In the 2008 ENnies, WotC was nominated in eight different categories (though in fairness, four of those nominations were for a single product, the Star Wars SAGA Edition RPG), winning silver in three categories and gold in four.

Fast forward to 2010 - WotC continues to churn out product at a rate commensurate to a publisher of their size, yet for some reason they can't get the same recognition for it. Though WotC is still a member of GAMA (they presented plans for both their Magic: the Gathering and D&D product lines at the 2010 GAMA trade show), WotC failed to garner even a single nomination for the 2010 Origins Awards. They did a bit better for the 2010 ENnies, garnering three nominations, but I have to see this as something of a slap in the face to WotC given that Paiso Publishing received ten nominations for a product -- the Pathfinder Role Playing Game and its associated regalia and adventures -- that's simply an extension of the Dungeons & Dragons "v3.5" rules that WotC abandoned with their move to D&D Fourth Edition. Even more to the point, Hero Games received three nominations for Hero 6th Edition, a game that's little more than a copy-paste of the 5th Edition game (though it was divided into two different books after complaints about the quality of the 592-page (!) Fifth Edition Revised book).

One would think at the very least that WotC would have been nominated under the category of Best Website: the official Dungeons & Dragons home page is updated regularly with news and product information, and while some of the gaming material released there is available only to those with a "D&D Insider" subscription, a fair amount of free material is made available to those who are just visiting, including the entire contents of the Keep on the Shadowfell adventure, including digital maps and Quick-Start rules.

Perhaps people don't like the emphasis on the D&D Insider subscription. Perhaps they're disappointed with a re-design that is ostensibly geared toward making it easier to find material useful for you based on game role (player, DM, reader of fiction, etc.) but in reality just making the entire navigation more convoluted and confusing.

Or maybe they just can't find the thing. After all, the D&D home page isn't the main Wizards of the Coast page -- going there allows you to see that the main company portal is divided into 'brands'. Though there's a handy list of 'brands' below the main splash art, clicking on the D&D image there doesn't actually take you to the D&D home page linked above -- but rather to the D&D 'brand' page where you can download the D&D fansite kit, read an explanation of just what D&D is, connect to the D&D presence on Facebook or Twitter, and, oh yeah, find a small box on the right-hand side of the page that invites you to 'Visit Official Site', which is where all the real info about D&D happens to live.

So if you don't already know where the official D&D home page is, you'll have to click twice through two different pages that are, for all practical purposes, useless to you to find out anything but the most generic information about the game. ("Dungeons & Dragons is the game that started the entire roleplaying game category. And D&D remains at the pinnacle of fantasy RPGs, offering the excitement of imaginative, shared storytelling and lots of social interaction—both in the game and around the table." Yawn.)

OK, now we know why WotC wasn't nominated for best website.

I've met a number of people who work in brand management for WotC, usually at conventions like GenCon and D&D Experience, and they're good people. More to the point, they seem to be fairly humble people who recognize that the work they do isn't as important to the survival of the game as the work of the writers and artists who bring D&D to life. But I have to wonder how much influence these guys have behind-the-scenes, because the web presence all but celebrates them to people who don't know any better, and the games themselves seem bent around a premise of 'branding' that diminishes both the games themselves and their value as a brand.

Contrast this with a company that branding people love to use as an example: Apple. Apple is one of the most recognizable and admired brands in the world, with an identity that most corporations would break international law to acquire. That identity includes some iconic advertising, from the legendary '1984' ad that introduced the Macintosh personal computer to the 'Think Different' campaign that signalled Steve Jobs's return to Apple, to the 'I'm a Mac, I'm a PC' campaign that made Windows fanboys everywhere despise Justin Long.

But if you go to, you don't see a vague piece of artwork suggesting Apple's 'brand', you see the current hot product (in today's case, the iPhone 4). You don't see a navigation menu that invites you to sample Apple's 'brands'; you see a list of things that people going to Apple would want to know more about -- a link for each product line, a link to the store to buy things, and link to Support to find out why the thing they just bought isn't working the way they think it should be.

Steve Jobs doesn't stand on stage at his keynotes and wax poetic about the direction the Apple brand is heading -- he introduces the new product and explains why it kicks ass.

There's no doubt that Apple uses branding techniques. But Apple uses those techniques in the service of selling products; it's the products that take center stage and, in the end, truly define the value of the brand. Allowing branding to overshadow the product, and to pretend that the branding itself is what provides value, as WotC seems to be doing, is ultimately a failure of branding -- the ultimate failure of branding, in fact.

Monday, May 03, 2010

iJinx - Apple vs Adobe

As recently as six months ago some technology experts thought Flash was would dominate Web multimedia. Now some are saying the technology is doomed.
-, All Things Considered, "What's Behind Apple's Clash With Flash?"

Ah, yes, the wonderful world of overly reductive thinking. Flash will dominate the Web! No, Flash is doomed! Wait, what's all the hi-jinx about?

NPR is, as is its wont, getting in late on a story that most of the tech press has already covered to death: the disagreement between Apple and Adobe about the need (or lack of same) for Adobe's web video and animation software, Flash, to run on the various Apple iDevices, particularly the recently released iPad. I'm not blaming NPR for this, particularly -- they're not tech press, and in coming to the story late, they have at least a chance of catching the story after much of the hype has given way and can get at the actual issues involved.

But if you listen to the audio of the story, as it played on NPR's weekend 'All Things Considered', you might think that NPR is reporting on a personal grudge between Apple CEO Steve Jobs and, well, anything he doesn't like. Sadly, the NPR folks really dropped the ball on this one, missing a chance to cover a really interesting development in consumer technology and instead treating it as tabloid pablum, yet another 'celebrity man in charge pouts to try and get his way' story.

Apple's unwillingness to let Flash run on its mobile devices, the iPhone, iPod Touch, and now iPad, has been known for some time. For years, when Apple engineers or PR people have been asked about Flash on the iPhone, the response has been pretty consistently that Apple has no plans to implement Flash there, and that policy has formally been extended to the iPad. Two things, though, really made the tech press blow up about this over the past few weeks:

1) In early April, just before the announcement of the iPhone 4.0 operating system and the subsequent release of the iPhone Software Development Kit (SDK) version 3.2 which would allow non-privileged developers the chance to start developing apps for the recently released iPad, Apple announced a change to their Developer Agreement -- the licensing agreement that developers have to agree to before they can download or use the SDK.

The change greatly expanded the definition of 'using Documented APIs in the manner prescribed by Apple' to specifically forbid not just private Application Programming Interfaces (or APIs) (as was already specified in the prior version of the agreement), but also any compiled code executing against Apple's Documented APIs in anything but a handful of core computer languages.

Mac tech press writer John Gruber (in the article noted above) suggested that the move wasn't made to specifically target any given cross-compiler. Other writers, however, noting that the timing of Apple's announcement was only one day prior to the planned release of Creative Suite 5 by Adobe, in which one of the key selling points would be the ability to compile applications written in Flash as native iPhone and iPad apps, becan writing of how Apple was 'targetting' Adobe and Flash, and that this change was nothing less than the initial salvo in a 'war' between Apple and Adobe in which Apple's intention was nothing less than the death of Flash as a web platform.

Kinda silly, sure, but hey -- maybe it was just a slow news day. Regardless, it got the usual suspects' dander all up about freedom and choice and apple pie (although, ironically, the specific BoingBoing post I linked to above is actually remarkably level-headed about the whole thing).

However, fuel was thrown onto the fire when...

2) Last Thursday, Steve Jobs himself (or at least an uncredited ghost writer) published an essay on Apple's public web site explaining the decision not to allow Flash on Apple's mobile devices.

Right off the bad, Jobs takes time to address those who've seen fit to criticize Apple's decision (which has largely been reported not so much as Apple's decision, but as Jobs's own), and in a way that points out how ludicrous it is to consider Apple and Adobe 'at war' over anything -- Jobs reminds people who might not be old enough to remember that Apple was Adobe's first major customer, and that combining Adobe's PostScript technology with Apple's LaserWriter printers created the desktop publishing industry. If anything, Jobs's first paragraph sounds more like the admissions of a lovelorn former beau disappointed that his sweetheart has left him for a perceived faster lifestyle in the 'big city'.

Jobs then proceeds to list six specific points attempting to refute the idea that Apple's decision not to allow Flash on Apple's mobile devices is a 'business decision':

1) Though Apple's own iPhone OS is closed (i.e. 'proprietary'), the technologies Apple uses to allow its iPhone OS products (specifically the iPhone and iPad) to connect to and render the Internet are open standards. Flash, meanwhile, is a closed, proprietary Internet standard.

2) When Adobe says that 75% of video is encoded in Flash and that devices that don't support Flash cannot therefore access the 'full web', Adobe is being disingenuous; much of the video encoded in Flash is also available as open H.264-encoded video, which the iDevices can play just fine.

3) Enabling Flash on Apple's iDevices would expose them to security issues, as well as cause performance and reliability issues that users would blame on the devices, not on Flash.

4) Enabling Flash would reduce battery life on Apple's iDevices.

5) Flash isn't designed as a multi-touch interface language.

6) Adobe wants to convince developers to use Flash as an intermediary language to enable programs originally written in Flash to run on Apple's iDevices.

Point 6, as you probably can tell, speaks directly to the change in Apple's developer agreements (see 1 above), and Jobs spends a few paragraphs unpacking just what that means.

Adobe's immediate response came via its own CEO, Shantanu Narayen, who put together a hasty and probably ill-advised attempt to rebut Jobs's claims in an interview with the Wall Street Journal. Though Mr. Narayen's comments don't come down to a point-by-point refutation of Mr. Jobs's own article, the Adobe CEO basically argues that Apple's decision is more about control, both of the platform and the developer community that serves the platform, and that it's Adobe, not Apple, that is thinking in terms of openness and 'cross-platform' capability.

That's pretty much a load of hogwash, unfortunately.

My own feeling is that each of Mr. Jobs's points is accurate, though some are more relevant to the argument than others. For instance, the 'openness' argument doesn't really hold a lot of water with me, even if Jobs's characterization of the difference between Adobe's and Apple's approach to web standards is basically accurate. Nevertheless, it's clear that Adobe wants this 'fight' characterized as 'big bad Apple versus humble Adobe', which, sadly, also won't wash for people who know the backstory.

For instance, when Jobs says this:

We know from painful experience that letting a third party layer of software come between the platform and the developer ultimately results in sub-standard apps and hinders the enhancement and progress of the platform.

...he's talking right to Adobe and Adobe's Mac user base. From intransigence over PostScript to a long delay in implementing changes required by MacOS X into their Mac professional applications, Adobe has long been exactly that third-party holding back needed advancement in the Mac platform for their own business purposes. If Apple was trying to 'kill' Adobe, or just 'kill' Flash, the notoriously vindictive Jobs would have more than enough justification in doing so right there.

But a curious thing happened on the same day that Jobs's and Narayen's comments hit the web like a couple of tons of bricks: the blog of one of Adobe's Flash player engineers announced that Adobe was releasing a beta version of Flash Player for MacOS X that uses Apple's MacOS X video acceleration APIs that allow the OS to pass video decoding to a dedicated Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) rather than being done in software as it currently the case. The change was done with Apple's assistance, and works for most Apple hardware shipped in the past year running the current version of MacOS X Snow Leopard.

If Apple was trying to kill Adobe, or even to kill Flash on the desktop, then why bother helping Adobe implement this feature? Interestingly enough, this feature in MacOS X is precisely one of the things that, if also implemented in iPhone OS, would make one of Mr. Jobs's points about Flash all but disappear -- hardware decoding would virtually eliminate the battery life penalty Mr. Jobs says Flash would impose on Apple's iDevices.

What Steve Jobs (or Apple's engineers, whichever was truly responsible for the decision) is trying to do is make sure that the user experience on iPhone and particularly iPad when interacting with the web is as 'magical' as Apple's marketing materials say it is. As an iPhone owner for nearly two years, and a recent purchaser of an iPad 3G, I appreciate this attention to my experience, and if not being able to access Dungeons & Dragons Tiny Adventures on my iPad is the price I pay for owning the most intuitive web device I've ever owned, then I pay that price willingly.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Interlude - The iPad Conundrum

“Computers make it easier to do a lot of things, but most of the things they make it easier to do don't need to be done.
- Andy Rooney

So you may have heard about this new tech device that's out there called the iPad. It's been described by its creator as “magical and revolutionary”, and as all kinds of other things by other reviewers. Based on my own analysis, including a 20-minute session in my local Apple Store taking the thing for a test-drive, it's not really something I need, but it is something I want.

That's not strictly the conundrum referenced in the title, but it's on the way there.

One of the most clear-headed analyses of 'do you need an iPad' that I've read was put together by Ted Landau, a long-time Mac technology writer. He has this to say about my specific situation:

Suppose you own both a MacBook Pro and an iPhone, do you also need an iPad? No. If you also own an iMac,even more emphatically no. In these cases, the only real extra that the iPad provides is the ability to run iPad-optimized apps that you cannot run on any of your other hardware. This is not a big extra at this point. With the hardware you already own, you can already do just about everything else.

That makes perfect sense to me. I don't need an iPad. So why do I still want one?

Blame the devil Andy Ihnatko, particularly this description of his iPad, not from any of his excellent Sun-Times reviews of the device, but from his personal blog:

The iPad was a superstar on my first day at the conference. Not for the attention it got; for its performance. It underscored every positive impression it made upon me during the week when I wasn’t allowed to use it in public.

1) The battery life is spot-on. I was using my iPad from the moment I awoke at 8 AM to just before I sloped into a car to go backto my house at 8:30 PM. In between, if I ever had the slightest notion to do something with the iPad, I did it without any thought as to the need to “keep some battery in reserve for emergencies....”

2) The iPad shone through in the “I need to write and publish something straight away, even though I didn’t plan ahead and bring a real keyboard” scenario....

While sitting in the back listening to a panel, I checked my email and found an invitation to an Apple event on Thursday. I wrote about 500 words about it using the virtual keyboard, edited it, and published it to my blog. As I’d expected, I couldn’t type as quickly or as accurately as I can on my MacBook keyboard, but even with this little slate balanced between my knees I was typing fast and naturally. It’s a perfectly usable keyboard. With the added advantage that when I don’t need a keyboard, it goes away completely. Big, big win all around.

3) The iPad is the perfect choice when discretion is important.... At the CoWA (and many other conferences) I don’t use a computer for slides. I just use it for reference. The screen keeps a rundown of the points I want to make, in their order, as well of a list of any names or data that I need to mention. I might also want to open a browser window and check on a fact or two. Good stuff. But I don’t like using a full notebook up there. To the audience, it looks like I’m dividing my time between my participation on the panel and my Twittering about how awesome last night’s “Amazing Race” was.

The iPad is the first computer that scored tens all the way across the board. The screen is viewable from any angle; I can just keep it lying flat on the table and still read the screen perfectly. It has a big screen, so I don’t need to squint and hunt to find my place in my notes. And it’s fast and it’s powerful and has a big, typeable keyboard.

4) Carrying it around isn’t a hassle. Not in the least. Yup, you’re going to want to have a bag of some kind with you. I refer back to my earlier comment about the inconvenience of carrying books and magazines. I normally have a smaller version of my Indiana Jones satchel with me at conferences. The difference is that I’ve just deleted about four or five pounds from my normal load: My 1.5 pound iPad takes the place of a 5.5 pound MacBook plus its charger.

The most important point is that the iPad does a better job in this environment than a MacBook or any other notebook. I slide it out of the newspaper pocket of my bag, click the Home button, and it’s awake and ready to assist. When I’m done, I click the Power button and slide it back; no need to wait for the machine to Sleep or the hard drive to spin down. And I don’t even think about battery life. So I use it all the time.

Herein we begin to approach the conundrum itself. Ihnatko, in this essay, implicitly addresses the primary complaint about the iPad I consider legitimate: Why would you need an iPad when you have an iPhone?

I purchased and downloaded the iBlogger app for iPhone a long time ago; you can even see evidence where I used the app to update this blog. You may also notice that I haven't used iBlogger to update this blog for, oh, about half a year now. (There are a couple of entries from November that have the 'posted with iBlogger' footer on them, but those entries were, in actuality, originally posted using MarsEdit and only edited with iBlogger later.)

Twitter is awesome on iPhone – you type out your 140 characters or less and away you go. It's a pithy, quick-hitting format that doesn't punish you for using a small virtual keyboard. And the iPhone virtual keyboard, while fine for Twittering, text messaging, or other quick-format posting, really doesn't lend itself to the long-form, rambling kinds of things I like to do in blog posts, and especially doesn't lend itself well to sprinkling hyperlinks in among all that rambling text. MarsEdit is my tool of choice for that kind of work.

But an iPad would be significantly better than an iPhone at this task. Enough to make me give up MarsEdit on my MacBook Pro? No, but probably enough so that I'd actually consider blogging rather than Twittering when I see something I want to comment about.

Also, there is video. I have nearly half the space on my 8 GB iPhone devoted to video files, including (currently) two episodes of the Canadian series “Slings and Arrows”, two episodes of “Star Trek: Enterprise” (the mirror-universe episodes, natch), the Season 2 finale of “Leverage”, the Pixar animated short “Presto”, and two full-length films, “WALL-E” and “Sky High”. That's over six hours of video, more than enough to get me through any long stretch of otherwise soul-crushing boredom, assuming I have access to external power. (I highly doubt my nearly two-year old iPhone's battery would last through a video marathon of all the content I have on it.)

But this isn't all the video I have in iTunes. Thanks to the wonder that is Handbrake, I have the entire run of the Connections series, all the remaining episodes in seasons 1 and 2 of S&A, at least one episode each of the original series and Next Gen “Star Trek” series, and a couple more movies. While I could fit all that content on an iPad, I still couldn't watch all of it, but I could watch everything I currently pack on my iPhone, plus have about another three-to-four hours of battery left, based on estimates provided by reviewers.

Oh, and then there's the Netflix iPad app, and I am a paying subscriber to Netflix (it's how I watched much of Leverage over the past two seasons).

Watching video on iPhone isn't horrible– I've done it more than once while laying in bed, either at home or in a hotel room, and it's a decent experience. But the larger iPad screen opens up the possibility of a much better video experience, which while not necessary, is tempting and desirable. So again, clear upgrade over the existing technology.

Oh, yeah, iBooks. I've downloaded a number of e-book readers for iPhone (I have Stanza, eReader, and Kindle for iPhone all on my phone currently), and they all seem fine for what they do. The option of reading those books at a larger format size is interesting, but not compelling all by itself. What is compelling, though, is combining the iPad reader with the possibilities that an application like Calibre allows.

Calibre is to e-books what Handbrake is to digital video: a universal converter and translator. I have much of my D&D 3.5 gaming library in PDF format, thanks to a good friend, and the possibility of converting those PDFs to ePub format and being able to access them during a game on an iPad is compelling. Add in the iPhone Dicenomicon and SpellbookMaster apps, and I'm very close to being able to play an entire session of D&D using one piece of hardware, which is smaller and thus less obtrusive than the hulking Windows laptops other players bring to the table. That goes beyond compelling to 'wicked awesome' territory.

So yeah, I'd like to think I'd do a fair amount with an iPad.

Here's another facet of the conundrum: What would you do for network connectivity?

Part of the reason that the iPhone has been such a ludicrously useful device for me is that it allows me to stay connected to things in a way I hadn't imagined possible. It's a phone, so I can call people and they can call me. But it also allows me to connect to Twitter, and Facebook, and e-mail, and with a combination of e-mail polling (set to check my accounts every hour) and push notifications (for Facebook), I don't fear missing out on important communications, regardless of the format. And, in a real win, the integrated contact information that the Apple Contacts app provides means that I can track all of that information for each person I need to keep in touch with, and the iPhone can even help me by providing that information depending on which app I'm using (by, for instance, giving me Chip's e-mail address when I need to forward a GenCon hotel housing request to him).

Moving from an iPhone to an iPad would force me to lose some of that connectivity.

I could, as originally planned, wait for the 3G iPad, then sign up for the unlimited AT&T iPad contract-free data plan. Here I lose just the phone, along with the convenience of being able to dial the phone based on my stored contact information. Though my iPhone makes me a 3G superman, I have friends who still prefer more traditional technological communications, and so I'd miss not having the ability to call them.

More to the point, my iPhone is currently my only phone, so I'd have to either continue to use it, but mainly as a phone rather than a communications hub, or replace it with a less expensive phone.

Ihnatko's solution is Mi-Fi, the personal cellular modem that serves as a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot where ever you are. I'm not sure which provider he uses, but there are at least three providers in my area, which means I wouldn't necessarily be tied to AT&T (though the AT&T service has actually been pretty good, thanks to AT&T adding a cell tower in my neighborhood shortly after I bought the iPhone); I could go with Verizon (the provider for my original pre-paid cell, whose signal may still suck in my apartment) or Sprint (which I've never tried, and which also has announced that they're close to rolling out their new 4G network in the Twin Cities, so there'd be that) instead.

The bad news is that Mi-Fi, for me, would be a $60/month plus tax two-year commitment, and the Mi-Fi plans from Verizon and Sprint are not unlimited data plans.

Complicating the issue is that my employer has an arrangement with AT&T which allows me a discount on my iPhone plan; I'm currently paying less than $70 a month (including tax) for my iPhone service with unlimited data. Adding even an inexpensive phone to a Sprint Mi-Fi plan would cost more than the existing iPhone plan, and would provide me with less service.

If I had Mi-Fi, could I get rid of my $65 a month cable modem package? Maybe, if I was willing also to give up online gaming – the MiFi bandwidth limit would probably keep me from playing Magic: the Gathering Online or Star Trek Online to any appreciable degree (or run the risk of paying huge overage charges) – and also restrict myself from going nuts with the Netflix iPad app (which sort of defeats the purpose of getting excited about that app). So I'd be paying less per month under this paradigm, but getting way less satisfaction – part of the fun of having things set up the way they are now is being able to do things without worrying if I'm hitting bandwidth caps or download limits.

However, if I don't go with Mi-Fi, then I face a different problem. My employer will help me defray the cost of my iPhone plan, but won't allow me to connect my phone to their wireless network (and in all honesty, I probably don't want my phone on their network anyway, since the cellular network is far less restricted). But a 3G-less iPad, at work, would be a very nice looking piece of metal and glass that can only do things that already exist on the device, and that don't require any network connectivity. It wouldn't be a 'brick', per se, but it'd be way less useful than my current iPhone in the same environment. This wouldn't be a problem at home, or at the friend's place where I play D&D, but plenty of other places would become exercises in 'how much is it going to cost me, either financially, spiritually, or both, to get hooked into a Wi-Fi network here?' Again, that makes the iPad experience a far more conditional one than the one I have with my iPhone; the non-3G iPad is only 'insanely great' where I can get a Wi-Fi signal, whereas my iPhone is almost always awesome.

I'm not really worried about portability. See Ihnatko's article that describes the iPad as being about as obtrusive as a book or magazine, and though I'd want a bag to carry it in (I tend to drop books or magazines that I carry for long stretches at a time), I have just such a bag – the Israeli paratrooper bag I received as VIG swag at last year's GenCon.

And note Ihnatko's comments about accessibility – even with a laptop/netbook in sleep mode, you have to wait a bit for it to 'spin up', and then either spin it back down or wait for it to go back to sleep on its own, the latter of which tends to eat up precious minutes of battery life on non-useful functions. With the iPad, when you want it, zing! It's ready for you. When you're done, zoop! Away it goes without losing any extra juice. When you need it, you just use it, which is exactly the experience I expect after having owned an iPhone for nearly two years now.

The iPad handles basically everything I find good-but-not-awesome about my iPhone and makes it awesome. The challenge will be to find a way to get that without having to take half-a-step backward and turn something that's currently awesome on my iPhone back into good-but-not-awesome.

Paintball, Part the Fourth - Standing My Ground

Nothing in life is so exhilarating as to be shot at without result.
- Winston Churchill

Game Three: Civil War
Venue: some open field

After completing the VIP games, we moved to an open field next to the field where we played VIP and started a game that the referees refer to as 'Civil War'. The game consists of dividing into two teams. Each team then lines up on one side of the field, with the two lines anywhere from 100 to 150 feet apart, and each player in each line standing at least arm's length apart from the next player in line.

Each player on one line then fires a single shot at any player they choose in the other line. Anyone hit is eliminated, and any survivors get to return fire, again firing only a single shot. Any survivors after the exchange of fire take two large steps toward each other, then the process repeats until one team is entirely eliminated.

I discovered that the game isn't called 'Civil War' because the actual American Civil War was fought this way; this Napoleonic-era 'let's all stand in long lines and shoot each other' was used early, as part of the 'state of the art' in warfare, but was slowly abandoned after Gettysburg. The game is called Civil War because playing it reminds you of reading Civil War-era diaries and letters written by men describing what it felt like to have iron balls whizzing past their heads, and feeling as if you understand their sentiment.

Also, because both you and your target are stationary, Civil War is an ideal game to observe the aiming characteristics of your air-powered gun -- or, to be more accurate, the lack of aiming characteristics of most paintball guns. Begin with the ammunition: a small, hard pellet filled with liquid paint. There seem to be many ways for a paintball pellet to be unbalanced or lopsided in some way, even as the surface of the pellet is a uniform spheroid. For starters, the paint may not completely fill the interior of the pellet, resulting in an air pocket that leaves the pellet not of uniform density and weight. Or even if pellets without air pockets, tiny cracks can form that allow small amounts of air into the liquid center and cause some of the paint near the crack to congeal into semi-hard latex, also resulting in a lopsided interior. (Cracks don't appear to be terribly common, but are common enough that severe cracks can even cause a ball to break in its storage bag during shipping; the experienced paint-ballers among us warned that if we noticed a broken ball among our ammo, to simply throw out the ammo from that bag, as it would be difficult to determine which balls had been adulterated by having paint from the broken ball leak on them and thus become lopsided externally rather than internally. The guys running the paintball field took that opportunity to remind us that they didn't take exchanges on ammo.)

To the vagaries of the ammunition, then add the characteristics of the weapon. The standard rental paintball gun, as noted above, was something of the size of a submachinegun, having a barrel about two feet long or perhaps slightly longer. Unlike the barrels of actual guns, paintball gun barrels are not 'rifled'; that is, almost all guns made today have grooves cut into the barrels in a helical manner, so that the bullet traveling along the barrel is induced to spin, which provides something of a gyroscopic stability during flight and allows the bullet to stay on a true line longer, making it more accurate. I suspect paintball gun barrels are not rifled for two main reasons: first, since the ammunition is round, like a Civil War-era Minie ball, the rifling would have far less impact on the paintball than it would on a projectile shaped more like a bullet. (You can apparently purchase both rifled paintball gun barrels and vaguely bullet-shaped ammo to go with them, but these things are described as 'ridiculously expensive' even by the guys so much into paintball that they have their own guns, ammo with different colored paint, and camouflage clothing; i.e.: the guys who've clearly already invested hundreds and perhaps thousands of dollars into this hobby.) Second, on the rare occasion that a paintball pellet does burst in the barrel, having a rifled barrel would make the gun far more difficult to clean, and refusing to clean your own gun is tantamount to throwing it away; even a fairly tiny imperfection in the barrel can make it so that instead of firing high-velocity balls of paint at your enemies, you are instead firing a vague pink mist with virtually no effective range.

All this is a long-winded way of explaining why, when I fire a round during this game, I can watch it curve and curl off the path I intend for it to take. I am on a team that is eliminated once and is victorious once (though I am 'killed' in both games), and I can't be certain that any of the shots I fired in this game actually hit a target. The good news is that I fire barely over half a dozen rounds myself, and thus have still barely scratched my allotment of ammunition for the day.

Before moving on to the next game, I should also point out that this is the game that features the strangest of all injuries that happens today. Ed, an older fellow who is something of the designated 'sad sack' in any group he happens to be in, is hit in the throat by a ball during this game (which also points out the relative inadequacy of the safety equipment being used; everyone, including the veterans, is surprised at the location of the injury, as if nobody noticed that the facemasks provided by the paintball groundskeepers barely cover our jaws much less our throats). The injury provokes some concern at first -- I myself have visions of being hit in the Adam's apple, which then fractures and strangles me from within my own throat, slowly and horribly -- but once it's clear that only Ed's pride is seriously hurt, his wound, which has produced an angry red welt which, once cleared of paint, strangely resembles a livid vagina, is mockingly commented upon for the remainder of the day.

After the Civil War game, we pack up again and once more take the looooong hike back to the picnic tables, the compressor, and our stored gear. We are the only customers on the range today, so we're taking very casual care of our snacks and spare ammunition and other stuff, just leaving it all setting out at the tables while we're gone at one battleground or another. It makes us almost feel as though we own the place, which in a sense, we sort of do, at least for the next hour and a half.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Paintball, Part the Third - Game Time!

I probably should have seen this and certain other signs of impending humiliation...
- David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

Game One: Elimination
Venue: Artillery Hill

There are a number of playing fields at the paintball grounds, though they generally break down into two types -- smaller, contained battlefields, and larger, more open battlefields. The open battlefields are more varied -- one is just an open field, while another is peppered with trees and the occasional foxhole or improvised embankment to hide in/behind -- while the closed fields tend toward relative sameness, measuring about 100 feet wide by anywhere from 150 to 200 feet long, and being littered with objects to use as cover, though the particular objects vary from field to field. (One field, which we don't play on all day, is being worked on by the people who aren't busy serving as our judges; they're inflating what look like seven-foot tall plastic-and-canvas cones, then filling the bases with water to create something like giant Weebles all over the field.)

Artillery Hill is the smallest fields we'll see today; it's called Artillery Hill because it's also one of the few fields with a pronounced slope.

The game is Elimination, and it's the simplest of all the games offered - divide into two teams, with each team taking one side of the field, then try to kill everybody on the other team.

We divide into two teams, and thus begin a trend that will last for most of the games we play that day -- the younger, more experienced players team up together, while the groom-to-be and his wedding party tend to team up on the other side. It doesn't take long until this is an official age-segregated division of sides, which the judges quickly simplify into 'Young Bucks' versus 'Elders'. I am chagrinned to note that there's no interpretation of my birthday that will allow me to finagle my way onto the Young Bucks, so I man-up and join the Elders. As the guest of honor (as well as probably the oldest person on the field), Senior is given the option of which side of the field to start on, and he, seemingly sensibly, chooses the higher ground, thinking to make the younger players have to come up the hill to engage us.

The judges call out the order to don our protective masks, then to remove the barrel bags from our weapons. Finally, they announce the game: "Starting a game of Elimination in 3...2...1..." Then a whistle is blown and the game officially begins.

Within what seems like 60 seconds, the whistle blows again and the Elders team is declared defeated. A brief post-mortem shows that we were unable to inflict even one casualty on our opponents.

It turns out that, on the upper slope, there is very little to hide behind, and almost nothing that a post-40-year old with a jumbo-sized ass and very little athleticism can hide behind, no matter how much he tries. Within a few seconds of the start of the game, I can hear the distinctive 'thump, thump' of the compressed air guns being fired. As I head toward a tree to hide behind, I hear a sharp crack and feel a jolt of pain on my right leg. When I look down, there's a blotch of orange paint there, and a judge who sees me immediately calls out, "Player is eliminated!" I haven't fired a single shot from my own weapon yet.

Once eliminated, you're supposed to raise your hand or make some other gesture to indicate to the other team that they shouldn't waste ammunition shooting at you while you make your way to the 'dead box', the imaginary zone in each battlefield where eliminated players wait for the game to end. It's not long before the game is called.

We decide to play another round, and this time the Elders are given the lower slope to defend. On the lower slope, there are barrels, a couple of concrete dividers like those used for highway construction, and even a half-buried sheet of plyboard that can be used as a makeshift fort.

In the second game, I also experience my first embarrassing moment of the day.

When the game begins, I quickly find my way to one of the concrete barriers, relieved that the sheer size of it is large enough to hide me from enemy fire. Peeking up over the top and around one side of the barrier (to avoid being a predictable target for enemies), I note that the Young Bucks are finding the upper slope as cover-bereft as we did in the first game, and that they're aggressively moving downslope trying to reach the better cover closer to us. I see someone trying to move in my direction, so I raise my weapon and fire.

The paintball ammunition provided to us is colored blaze orange, and thus it's not too difficult to pick up the ball as it leaves the barrel of the gun. The ball quickly passes out of sight, however, and it's impossible to see if my ball strikes home or not; I assume it doesn't, since the player doesn't stop moving until another volley of shots provokes a nearby judge into declaring him eliminated, and he walks toward the dead box to await the end of the game.

We seem to have an advantage, and I note that, if I can reach the other concrete barrier located closer to the center of the field, I can deny the other team access to a lot of cover they might otherwise try to occupy from upslope -- the angle of fire I can achieve from that barrier basically makes the other cover untenable, and though it would make my position untenable as well, at least I'd have the advantage of already being in position and being able, hopefully, to get off the first shots.

I fire off a few more rounds in the direction of what Young Bucks I can see, then lumber toward the next concrete barrier. As noted, I weigh over 300 pounds and am not athletic or 'in shape' by even a generously friendly definition, so perhaps it shouldn't be surprising that my speed isn't overwhelmingly quick. I do reach the barrier without being shot, however, but at that point find myself trying desperately to stop my lumbering advance, with the only object clearly available for the task being the concrete barrier in front of me. I hit it, and for a short, agonizing instant, it looks as though I'm about to knock it over, rendering my entire move pointless.

As it turns out, the thing that saves me is that my teammates have eviscerated the Young Bucks, and only one Buck remains on the field. He sees my predicament and sights his weapon to try to take me out, but the barrier mercifully rights itself and protects me from his fire. I sit behind the barrier, breathing heavily and not even venturing as much as a glance past the now-secure barrier until the judge blows the whistle and ends the game with our team of Elders victorious.

Though I've managed just a handful of shots, others have been firing much more freely, so we take a trip back to the compressor to recharge and allow people to access their stored supply of paintball ammo. One of the things I'd requested from the menu and wasn't denied was a belt containing three plastic containers in which ammo could be stored, in theory allowing for an empty weapon to be reloaded in the midst of battle. Sadly the belt is far too small for my Brobdingnagian frame, so the rental office gives me two belts which I snap together to make one gigantic belt, which is now just a bit too large to fit comfortably. I continue to try to wear it, though, since it has my spare ammo.

After reloading and recharging, we begin a long hike to the next field and the next game.

Game Two: VIP
Venue: ??

I don't actually catch the name of the next field, which we reach after an almost agonizingly long walk, but it's one of the more open fields, large and not obviously bounded, with a makeshift castle constructed of painted plyboard situated on one side. The castle gets some excited chatter going about possible siege games, but it turns out that only the judges end up using the castle while we're out here.

Senior is named the VIP, and is asked to name two bodyguards before having the rules of the game explained. Senior decides to choose his best man, Bruce, and the goatee-sporting younger guy whose name I never did catch but who's clearly the most experienced paintballer present.

The object of the game, it turns out, is for the VIP's team to get him safely from one side of the field to the other; even a single hit on the VIP kills him. The bodyguards are nigh-invulnerable (only a head-shot will kill them; the only explicit suggestion all day that aiming at the head is allowable much less encouraged), but can't go too far from the VIP, lest someone sneaky get past them and assassinate their charge.

The castle is about mid-way between the two ends of the field where the VIP must travel, but the area around the castle is pretty clear of cover save for the castle itself, which isn't the VIP's destination. Instead, the VIP and his team, once the game begins, head up the more forested side of the field, the bodyguards fanning out ahead of the VIP to flush anyone trying to wait in ambush. That's what I attempt to do, angling my way over to find a tree to hide behind where I might get a long-distance shot on the VIP, but it ends up that I don't need to worry -- Victor has managed to sneak around the bodyguards and blows Senior away from point-blank range, giving the first game to the attackers.

Senior is allowed to choose two additional bodyguards and we start again.

I try the same tactic, this time joined by Brandon, a guy I know from playing 4th edition D&D at his place a few times. When the larger party of bodyguards arrives, following the same forested path as before, they quickly mass their fire to eliminate Brandon. Seeing the effect of their massed fire, I turn to find a better hiding place, and am again betrayed by my lack of physical condition -- I just fall over in mid-stride, my gun pinwheeling off into space to land about 15 feet away from me as I go down on my back. Realizing I'm alone and unarmed and not wanting to get savaged by massed volleys of paintball fire, I raise my hand and a nearby judge pronounces me out of the game.

Two fields, two embarrassments. Total number of shots fired in two games of VIP: zero.

As we head to a nearby field for the next game, I begin to wonder if I made a wise decision coming along for this.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Paintball, Part the Second - Safety First!

'"Ah," said Arthur, "this is obviously some strange usage of the word safe that I wasn't previously aware of."'
- Douglas Adams, "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy"

It turns out that this particular paintball field requires only two pieces of safety equipment: a face mask, and something called a 'barrel bag'. The latter is a small bag made of some heavy canvas-like material, and that is attached to some sort of bungee cord which allows the bag to be put over the barrel of the paintball gun and then held there by pulling the bungee cord over the top of the gun and wrapping around the back of the gun. While this doesn't prevent the gun from being fired, it does cause the paintball expelled from a 'live' gun to break in the bag, which does two things:

  • prevents the ball from sailing out and hitting anybody who's not expecting to be shot, and
  • really irritates whoever is going to be responsible for cleaning the gun you just fired.

Along with the safety briefing comes a review of the 'menu' options available to those of us who need to rent equipment. The good news is that there are plenty of options, including upgrades to the standard gun and goggles, as well as options to buy extra paintballs, a kelly green set of plastic coveralls, and a set of white cotton mesh gloves.

Although I mark all of these options, by the time I get to the ordering desk I'm informed that a) the rental shop doesn't have any of the gun upgrades, and b) the coveralls and gloves, which otherwise seem really useful for someone who doesn't have his own apparel, come only in sizes that are apparently meant for children -- one of the other older participants, name of Dan, picks up the largest 'XL' size of coverall, and it's a near-perfect fit for his 5-foot, 6-inch, 160-pound frame.

We're also introduced to the air compressor while we're assembling our gear; the compressor is what's used to provide the accelerant for the paintballs to be fired from the gun.

At this point, it'll be worthwhile to describe the actual rental guns. They look what I, in a lifetime of playing modern-era and near-future role-playing-games like Top Secret and Twilight 2000 imagine a submachine gun would look like if, instead of a standard gun stock, the butt of the gun consisted of a small propane bottle. The bottle allows air to be stored at pressures of up to 3000 psi, and it's a little intimidating to realize that, once the pressure drops as low as 1500 psi (which is still 100 times normal atmospheric pressure), the performance of the paintball gun will likely be 'impaired' enough so that I'll want to come back and recharge the air bottle (at least, according to the guys running the intro lecture). It's also a little intimidating to hear JR ask if the compressor can pump up to 4500 psi, since that's what his custom weapon's bottle can handle; it turns out that 4500 psi isn't supported at this site, to JR"s disappointment (and much relief from the rest of us).

The weirdest thing about safety on the paintball field, though, is that there's no admonition about places not to shoot -- you're not told to avoid aiming at somebody's facemask or groin, and in fact it turns out that, of the different scenarios we play that day, there's one where there's an implicit suggestion that aiming for the face is not just kosher, but good tactics, and a different one where the head is explicitly the only place on the target where a valid hit can be scored. (This seems particularly bizarre to folks I talk to later who've played paintball in an era where aiming for the head could get you expelled from the site, especially given that helmets are not required. I can only assume the 3000 psi restriction has something to do with it, or perhaps 'modern' paintball is more of a bloodsport than previous generations were comfortable with.)

We are informed that we can be expelled for not obeying the orders of a paintball judge -- there are four such guys dressed in the zebra-striped shirts of American football referees -- and that the judges will tell us when we can remove our barrel bags and when we must don our facemasks. They do their best to seem stern with these warnings, though unfortunately all the judges labor under the handicap of being the youngest men present on the field, and certainly less than half the age of the guest of honor.

As we prepare to head to 'Artillery Hill' for the first game, I get an odd feeling not unlike the feeling I often get while setting up a game of Talisman, a fantasy-themed board game that I've seldom finished with an equal or greater number of friends than I started.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Paintball, Part the First - With Apologies to David Foster Wallace, Wherever He is

Striking thing (b) turns out to be an illusion, one not unlike the illusion I'd had about the comparative easiness of golf from watching golf on TV before I'd actually ever tried to play golf.
- David Foster Wallace, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again"

Right now it's Sunday, 11:08 PM Central Daylight Time, and I'm sitting at my computer keyboard trying to summon up all the moments of triumph, pain (often literal), and embarrassment that accompanied my foray, the afternoon prior, into the world of amateur paintball. (1)

I was invited to participate in this gathering of paintball enthusiasts because it was being held as part of an all-day bachelor party for a friend, whom I generally refer to as Senior. (2) And so, just before 11am on Saturday morning, I drove my car onto Highway 77 headed south toward Lakeville, MN (3), and the MN Pro Paintball Grounds.

After a brief hiccup with directions, I find myself turning onto a dirt road that advertises the patch to MN Pro Paintball, and am almost immediately presented with a sign containing a stern warning that, if I do not have business along this road, I may be considered a trespasser and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. (4) Undaunted, I drive down the bumpy dirt road, eventually finding my way to the parking lot and the group of men waiting for their chance to play paintball.

The group of guys standing around the parking lot can be roughly divided into two groups; those who know Senior himself and are friends with him, who tend to be older, and those who know Senior mainly through his son JR, and who tend to be closer to JR's age. As I get out of the car and join the growing scrum of weekend warriors, it's clear that there's another broad division that can be made: those who've played paintball before, all of whom have their own camouflage apparel and some of whom have their own compressed-air paintball guns, and those who haven't, who are dressed in various grungy-looking outfits ranging from jeans and a leather jacket to sweatpants. (5)

The invitation asked us to arrive between 11:00 and 11:30 AM, and since it is almost exactly 11:30 AM, I fear I am holding up the party. It turns out, though, that neither the best man nor the groom-to-be himself have arrived yet, so we all stand around in the late morning chill and shoot the shit.

One young man in particular catches my attention quickly. He's not someone I've met before, and ends up being a friend of JR's. What attracts my attention is that he's already dressed head-to-toe in the traditional forest camouflage colors of the Army Rangers, and while we wait he opens the trunk of his car to reveal his own paintball gun as well as an entire case of extra paintball pellets, purchased at the 'pro shop' run by the same guys who run the grounds -- apparently it is cheaper to purchase your ammunition in the 'pro shop' than to wait until buying extra rounds at the site. This guy (whose name I never do get straignt) encourages the rest of us to get together in groups of four to purchase an additional case and split the 2000 balls between us; apparently the rental package covers only 200 rounds of ammunition, which this guy warns us probably won't last very long.

Eventually the best man, named Bruce, and Senior himself arrive, and the group of us head down to a convenient group of picnic tables to hear the safety briefing and complete our rental packages.

(1) - Anyone reading this who is quite well-read may recognize this as an homage, of sorts, to the opening of David Foster Wallace's essay, "A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again," which begins in the Fort Lauderdale coffee shop while he's waiting for a flight to take him home to Chicago after having just completed a seven-night Caribbean Luxury Cruise on which he was sent by the editors of Harper's magazine. Wallace's essay is one of my favorite pieces of writing, ever, and while I'm certain there's no chance I can match it for length (it runs over 100 pages in his book of published essays, the book taking its title from the title of this particular essay, and when I recently decided to record it as an amateur audiobook as a gift for a friend, the audio ran nearly four full hours) and little chance I can match it for clarity and insight (you'll have to read it for yourself, as there's no chance I can do the thing justice in any kind of summary that would fit between parenthesis on a blog), I couldn't help but be reminded of it time and again in the past day-and-a-half or so since leaving the paintball grounds. If Wallace's consciousness survives in some afterlife that's aware of events on Earth (Wallace committed suicide just over a year-and-a-half ago), I hope he's at least a bit tickled by the homage.

(2) - The friend's actual name is John Corbett, Senior, which distinguishes him from his son, John Corbett, Junior, the latter whom organized and sent out the invitations to the paintball extravaganza. Those of us who refer to Senior as 'Senior' are generally those who've met him through one of his gaming hobbies, either D&D Miniatures or something similar; his family and 'older' friends call him 'Jack', since Senior doesn't like to be called 'John'. Senior's son also doesn't like to be called 'John', nor does he like to be called 'Junior', so we refer to him as 'JR'.

(3) - Lakeville is one of the well-to-do exurbs of the Twin Cities, built up by developers to accommodate upper-middle class white people fleeing as far away from the urban center as they can get while still being able to commute to their jobs within the inner ring of Twin Cities suburbs, or possibly downtown Minneapolis or St. Paul itself. The paintball ground is not the most apposite symbol of the odd combinatorial sense of privilege and fear that drives people to live here (at least, those who haven't lived here their entire lives), for reasons that will become clear later; the best symbol of the kind of people who choose to live out here would be the Celebration Church, a mega-church affiliated with the World Assemblies of God Fellowship and thus Pentecostal. The church building faces Interstate 35 and has a huge, ornate facade, looking oddly like a casino as I drive past looking for my exit.

(4) - It turns out that it's not the paintball guys who are responsible for the signage; they lease the grounds from the owners, who run a tree farm on the site, and the large quantity of pine trees on the site leads me to believe (though I never actually get confirmation) that the signage is meant to deter those people who'd poach Christmas trees from the site.

(5) - The latter outfit is part of my own apparel; JR noted in his e-mail invitation that one shouldn't wear anything one thought highly of, so I'm decked out in an old pair of black sweatpants and a grey cotton sweatshirt that boldly reads "U.S. Polo Association" along the chest, the much quieter label behind the collar, however, shows that the shirt itself was made in Pakistan. My only concession to camouflage is the forest-green shirt by Faded Glory (a Wal-Mart imprint, purchased a few years earlier in Kansas City and no longer really fitting) that mostly covers the sweatshirt. As it turns out, sweatpants were not a terribly intelligent choice of apparel for playing paintball on damp fields covered in dead grass exposed by melted winter snow, of which more later.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

I Am Not Metal

Frost giants are extraordinarily metal, and being metal is always good.

Interestingly, slaying frost giants is also metal--even more metal than being a frost giant. And therein lies a great insight into the nature of metal.

- Zak S., "Playing D&D With Porn Stars"

If there's anything metal about playing Dungeons and Dragons, it would have to be running a home-brew campaign for a table consisting almost entirely of female porn stars. So for starters, bravo to you, Zak S.

I, on the other hand, play a lot of D&D with people who aren't porn stars, though one of the groups I play with is a group I've been gaming with for nearly 20 years now. That's still probably not metal, but I suspect in some circles it has to at least be praiseworthy.

The thing that convinced me of my non-metalness, though, wasn't that I don't look up from my character sheet and see Justine Joli on the other side of the table, but rather because my D&D character has changed over the past year-and-a-half since I told you all about him last.

Yes, it's another post about my D&D character: run for your lives.

A brief recap: Rennal is an elf whose childhood and adolescence** was spent as the psychic plaything of alien intelligences, who, when they finally tired of him, broke him to the point where he killed his father. The elf community who tried him for this crime did not believe him when he claimed to have been manipulated by these aliens, and they forced him to take the surname Maiavar as a sign of his outcast state.

** - If the 3.5 Player's Handbook is to be believed, elves become adults just as humans are reaching their maximum possible 'venerable' age.

At the time I wrote about Rennal, he had just learned how to cast fireball. A being who'd been manipulated by soulless alien intelligence for as long as a human lifetime, and as a result had been cut off from his family and culture, has just learned how to cast an explosive ball of flame.

That, I'd think, has the potential to be extremely metal.

As it turned out, the composition of the party aided him in this. The party also contained a druid who, at that time, was focusing on summoning magic. Another character was a beguiler -- a sort of illusionist/trickster who focuses on mind-manipulation, but who also has a reasonably large stock of utility magic. With summoning, illusions, and utility magic all handled by other party members, Rennal was thus free to focus on being a pure 'blaster mage'; throwing fire around like it was...well...water. In one particular adventure, when the party was ambushed by a group of frost giants who started tossing down rocks from a snowy overhang, Rennal responded by effectively re-enacting the 'napalm in the morning' scene from Apocolypse Now, lighting up the entire ridgeline with fire, then following up with specific-target fire spells to drive the giants into submission. Given the quote at the intro, if Rennal had a Crowning Moment of Metal, that probably would have been it.

Time passed, though, as it always does, and the party changed.

The beguiler left the party, specifically because the beguiler's player finally got tired of having to deal with another player whose playstyle he didn't appreciate, so he left the campaign. The druid slowly changed over from summoning magic to his own category of blaster magic, focusing on the two spells he remembered from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons as being 'awesome' damaging spells.

Rennal has also continued to grow in power since that time. Now, however, he uses his vast arcane might to serve as the team's hypersonic transport and magical item identifier. Oh, and he throws the occasional buff spell on the party fighters to keep the pressure off the 'back ranks'.

If I were metal, I wouldn't care that the party has specific needs that aren't being met and that another character is horning in on my 'schtick' as the bringer of nuclear fire; I'd just go on as before, proving again and again that Rennal has the biggest balls of fire on the planet. But I'm not. I'm giving up the spotlight, letting others have their moments in the sun, and only occasionally showing hints of the unbridled might I could have had, had I been as selfish as the other players at my table.

No, I am not metal. And that's part of the problem.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Favorite Movies of the Past Nine Years - #1

I don't think there will be a return journey, Mr. Frodo.
- Sam Gamgee (Sean Astin)

#1 - The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2004)

One way to tell whether I liked a movie, and I think this is probably true of most people, is to ask how many times I saw the movie in the theater. It's not a perfect measure -- two of my all-time favorites, "The Princess Bride" and "Casablanca" were not seen in the theater (though at least in the latter case, I have an excuse, since I was born about 25 years after the initial theatrical run), but for movies of recent vintage especially, when I have ample opportunity to just wait until the DVD comes out, even if it's a movie I'd otherwise be interested in, it's a mark of some merit that I'm convinced to see the thing more than once in the theater.

Interestingly enough, four of the movies on this list were not seen in the theater at all. Four others were seen once. Only two were seen more than once:

  • WALL-E, which I saw three times, and

  • this movie, which I saw at least four times in its opening week.

By this measure, it's arguable whether WALL-E or daylight finishes second.

Why I liked it

I could recap the things I said in the capsule reviews of the other two LotR movies on this list, but rather than do that, I'll stick with just the things about this movie that struck home for me.

- Bernard Hill as King Theoden of Rohan really comes into his own in this movie, from his question to Aragorn near the start of the movie ("Tell me, why should we ride to the aid of those who did not come to ours?"), his reversal of his own question when Gondor does finally call for aid (through Merry's climbing skill and trickery), and his speech before his troops before their charge into battle on the Pellennor Fields. The best moment, though, the moment where it's clear that he's chosen a warrior's fate and will bring all under his command to that fate or they will not be warriors, is his comment to his lieutenant shortly after Aragorn leaves to try to recruit the spirits of the mountain to join his ranks:

Gamling: Too few have come. We cannot defeat the armies of Mordor.
Theoden: No, we cannot. But we will meet them in battle nonetheless.

It is my belief that the truest test of honor is the willingness to spend oneself in a necessary cause, even if that expenditure might not bring about success. Only cowards seek battle merely because they're sure they can win.

- David Wenham as Faramir also gets a great turn in this movie. Short-changed a bit in the screenplay for Two Towers (as noted in that recap, in the books, Faramir does resist the lure of the Ring when it's presented to him, making him Aragorn's equal in this; in the movie, Faramir has to have the consequences of claiming the Ring demonstrated to him at Osgiliath before he comes to his senses and lets the hobbits go), he makes up for it here by showing both honor and ultimate loyalty, taking his men on a suicidal charge against the orcs occupying Osgiliath simply because his father orders him to do so, and knowing that his father seems to want him dead.

Where does my allegiance lie if not here?

I'd like to think that the 'reunited at the foot of the cliffs leading to the Fireswamp' scene between Buttercup and Westley in The Princess Bride is a call-out to the burgeoning romance between Faramir and Eowyn, which is given short shrift in the books, but is clear given their behavior when Aragorn, after being made King, puts the two of them together in lordship over Rohan. The movies, sadly, don't treat this any better, but on the other hand, since they were already cutting vast stretches of the books, adding in new material would have been profoundly difficult, I understand.

- The 'big themes' are more visible at the end of the tale.

Way back in the initial recap, when discussing the critical backlash against the trilogy of late, I quoted a fellow who claimed that the LotR series didn't really have anything to say about larger themes, but was just a story about elves and hobbits. I pointed out a couple of items there to try to refute his point, but it's here, at the end of the tale, where you can really see some of the bigger themes, such as...

Ambition, while not evil in itself, can make one into a tool of evil

We, the children of the Reagan era and the internet bubble, have been told pretty much all our lives that if we want something, we need to strive and strive hard for it, and never let anybody get in the way of your goals. The difference between a champion and a loser is that the champion wants it more. Blah, blah, blah.

This trilogy teaches something very different: every character whose ambition extends beyond himself fails to achieve that ambition, and most come to a bad end:

  • Saruman, though it's clearer in the books than in the films, joins with Sauron to gain knowledge as well as power; he ends up dead at the start of the third film, impaled on his own water wheel. (He survives in the books, but goes on to orchestrate the Scouring of the Shire -- the movies are able to skip that (save for a few harrowing insights that Frodo gleans from Galadriel) by killing him off instead.)
  • Wormtongue's ambition is to gain influence, power, and comfort by serving Saruman, specifically in subverting Rohan; he wants Eowyn's hand as payment for his labors. He ends up alive, but utterly friendless; Eowyn forever lost to him.

  • Denethor's ambition is to rule the lands of Men in the absence of a king; Sauron uses Aragorn's very existence as a poison pill, not to get Denethor to join, but rather to leave Gondor weak and unable to resist Mordor. Denethor also believes that bringing the Ring to Gondor will turn the tide in Gondor's favor, but he refuses to see (as Faramir does at Osgiliath) that the Ring will doom rather than save Gondor. He ends up having sent both sons to their deaths, though one survives, barely, and goes mad realizing that he nearly burned that survivor on a pyre. He flings himself from the highest point of Minas Tirith, presumably to his death.
  • Boromir's ambition is the only one that can truly be described as noble; he wants to preserve Gondor from darkness, and believes that fulfilling his father's mission and bringing the Ring to Gondor will accomplish that. The Ring still uses that ambition to corrupt him, to the point where he nearly kills Frodo and takes the Ring from him. In the end, Boromir realizes his error, but still pays the ultimate price; he dies trying to save Merry and Pippin, and fails, yet his distraction allows Frodo and Sam to slip away with the Ring, keeping it out of the hands of Saruman's Uruk-Hai.

Nearly every other character begins with a simple ambition, if any. Sam wants only to serve Frodo, at least until the end of the quest, when his chief ambition becomes to marry Rosie (he does)**. Merry and Pippin join on a lark, participate in mighty events, and return to the Shire as heroes. Aragorn resists the draw of the kingship of Gondor again and again until finally forced to stand up against Sauron and fight; he, of course, ends up with everything at the end. Theoden, after his rescue from the grip of Saruman, wants only to find a good death; he does, in the arms of the person he loves best in the world.

** - The role of rejection of overweening ambition in resisting the lure of the Ring is even clearer in the books -- in the movie, when Sam rescues Frodo from the tower at the edge of Mordor, he hesitates when handing the Ring back to Frodo. In the books, it's made clear that Sam is having a vision -- the Ring is attempting to seduce Sam with a vision of Samwise the Great, mightly hero. Sam, of course, knowing he's not a mighty hero, finally shakes off the vision and is able to give the Ring back to Frodo.

Frodo's case is interesting, though -- at first, he merely wants to be of service to Gandalf, carrying the Ring to Bree where he is to meet Gandalf in secret. When Gandalf doesn't show, he carries the Ring onward to Rivendell at Aragorn's behest, then volunteers to carry the Ring further to Mordor once it's clear that no one else will carry out the task at hand. Yet in the end, the Ring seduces him, and he succumbs to his ambition to own the Ring right on the doorstep of its destruction; only a greater ambition to own the Ring than Frodo's own can take the Ring from him, resulting in its destruction anyway. But both Frodo and Bilbo have been tainted by their association with the Ring, and both end up traveling with the elves and Gandalf away from Middle-Earth, though the departure is portrayed as positive for both hobbits.

Even the very wise cannot see all ends

Gandalf even has a line to this effect in the first film, and the obvious pay-off for this line comes once Frodo has succumbed to the lure of the Ring; only Gollum, who could have been killed many times before if rasher heads had their way, ends up ensuring the Ring's destruction, though not in any way he intends.

The same theme echoes throughout the series, though. Theoden thinks Rohan is alone when resisting Saruman's forces at Helm's Deep, only to be shocked by the arrival of elvish archers to honor the ancient alliance between elves and men. Aragorn, Gimli, and Legolas think they are about to face Saruman in Fangorn Forest, but discover that instead, this White Wizard is Gandalf, returned from certain death. Eowyn, finding while in camp that she will neither achieve glory (as her uncle Theoden orders her to remain behind to rule Rohan after his death) nor Aragorn's love (who still carries a torch -- and a necklace -- for Arwen), steals away with the army to find her own death; she ends up finding both glory (in slaying the Witch-King) and love (with Faramir), as well as being able to comfort her uncle in his last moments of life.

There is a lot going on in this trilogy, and anyone who can't see it is willfully refusing to see it. I may not be any kind of film expert, but Jackson's (and his collaborators') achievement is amazing, and the trilogy as a whole and this final chapter in it in particular is my favorite since the turn of the calendar in 2001.