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.