Welcome to November!
On Friday night, we received one moderately-sized batch of Trick-or-Treaters around 6 PM before we escaped to our friends' home in Fairfax, where there were more children running around than in a mall playground. We ate stew, played Gloom, and ate a majority share of the remaining candy once the flow of tiny panhandlers had subsided.
Saturday was a lazy day that opened with a Costco run and entailed zero productive activities. Rebecca's parents stopped by briefly on their way to other errands, and after their departure, we ate dinner at Taste of Burma just before the dinner rush. That night, we watched the movie, Neighbors, to take a break from all of our TV shows.
On Sunday, we squandered our extra hour of daylight by sleeping and not going outside into the windy maelstrom. In the afternoon, we did winter preparation activities like draining the hoses and murdering the tomato plants. Dinner was Asian fusion pork with a side of Hearthstone and Person of Interest.
How was your weekend?
The area around Lake Crescent was a bit more rainy than Seattle, probably by virtue of it being a temperate rain forest. Luckily, the bulk of the rain usually occurred in the morning or overnight, minimizing the impact on our outdoor times.
We woke up early on Wednesday and did a short 1/2 mile hike to Marymere falls, across bridges and up switchbacks staged for maximum spectacularity when we finally reached the overlook. We then returned to the Lodge for a hearty breakfast of breakfast meats for me and oatmeal for Rebecca. The ending of the rain storm was timed perfectly with our meal, so we hurried from breakfast to our first big hike, Mount Storm King.
After an ominous sign warning about angry wasps at the foot, we branched off the flat family trail into the hills. Mount Storm King was only 2.2 miles one-way, but its peak was at 4,500 ft -- this meant that we were continuously going up on the way, and continuously destroying our calf muscles on the way down.
We arrived at a peak with a spectacular view, and saw that someone had left a sketchy rope out to go further up the mountain. We had decided to deem our location the end of the hike, until another young couple from Florida appeared on our back trail. They had been told by a Lodge employee that the ropes were an official part of the trail and were hell-bent on reaching the true top.
After some cajoling, we went up the rest of the way with them, relieved to find that the first sketchy rope was actually securely knotted, providing reliable support on an otherwise narrow, crumbly precipice. The picture on the right does a much better job showing the narrowness and scale of the location than the one I posted two weeks ago. Three more rope lines later (none of which were as daunting as the first) took us to the tippy-top of the mountain, where we startled more deer who took off sprinting down a 50 degree slope.
The way down sucked.
In the afternoon, the weather was still mostly sunny, so we took the hour long trip up into Olympic National Park to see the views at Hurricane Ridge. Unfortunately, it had reached 37 degrees with whipping rains and snow by the time we got to the top. We were the only ones there, besides a shifty fellow parked next to us by himself. We did a quick sprint to the overlook but couldn't see anything, least of all the wild attack goats from all of the warning signs.
After a drive home and a scalding shower, we finished the night off with another dinner in the Lodge.
On Thursday, we left Lake Crescent and took a road trip to our next lodging. We visited Salmon Cascades, which was definitely oversold -- the signs essentially said "you'd see salmon jumping here if people hadn't caught them all while fishing", so they should probably just rename it "Cascades". We then drove through the town of Forks (and saw no Twilight-themed attractions) to the Pacific coast.
Once again, the sporadic rain stopped as we got ready for outdoor time. The most impressive thing about the beaches of Washington was the colour palette -- after days of millions of shades of green and brown, the blue tint reflected off the water was a refreshing change. Many of our pictures actually look like oil paintings, or the background of a Smithsonian diorama on the Pacific Ocean.
We hit three separate beaches on the coast: Ruby Beach, Beach #4 (name probably inspired by Mambo No. 4), and Kalaloch Beach. We walked several miles along the last one, and even spotted a bald eagle nesting on the cliffs.
In the late afternoon, we finally made it to Lake Quinault Lodge, which was much more commercial than Lake Crescent, with more options and nicer rooms. With the rain held at bay, we walked along the lake at sunset and took some great pictures.
To be concluded tomorrow...
Our last full day in Washington had us exploring the environs of Lake Quinault. We started at Fletcher's Canyon, where we pulled into an eerie, secluded parking area reminiscent of all of the hiking dead ends on Kauai. The trail here was unmaintained, but passable enough for avid hikers, according to the sign-in sheet at the entrance. One group from Miami wrote that they didn't hike very far because they were worried about their car getting stolen, but nothing like that happened to us.
This trail had a more pleasant mix of ups and downs that Mount Storm King, although areas near the beginning had turned into rushing streams from recent rains -- we spent the first half hour hopping from rock to rock trying not to get our feet wet. When the excitement finally calmed the eff down, we reached a pleasant woodsy trail full of weird mushrooms and mossy rocks.
The trail was well-marked, but we ultimately got to a point were we couldn't reach the "final" waterfall without wading or burrowing through a coyote den in the giant mossed-over root systems of the trees. We got close enough for government work and then headed back out.
From there, we drove around Lake Quinault in search of Roosevelt Elk, testing the suspension of our rental car in a completed Minesweeper map of potholes. We never did see any elk, so we decided to drive to Higley Peak next.
We didn't find Higley Peak either -- the guides said to drive straight up a country road until we saw the turn-off, but the road entered Quinault Indian territory and a seedy-looking logging area with multiple intersections. Rather than get lost on a reservation, we came back to the Lodge instead.
In the evening, we built up an appetite on the Quinault Loop trail, full of waterfalls and a cedar bog that looked just like any other bog, and then had a big dinner in the Lodge Restaurant (fish and chips for me, a burger for Rebecca).
Saturday was our returning home day. We woke up early and drove through several decaying small towns, and got back to the airport around 10 AM. Since our flight didn't leave until 1, we spent a good deal of time browsing SEA-TAC airport shops and freeing ourselves of duty. We then waited in line with all of the indignant ladies who yelled at the airport workers because their carry-ons were bigger than me, and had an uneventful trip back to Dulles.
At home, we fed Booty, immediately unpacked, and did what we could to get back on Eastern time.
Final Grade: A+
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Alpha House, Season Two:
The second season of this Garry Trudeau comedy about Republican senators is a little tighter than the first, plot-wise. However, there's still not much in the way of grand schemes or resolution -- it remains a funny, pleasant satire that probably won't age well. The show occasionally takes the easy route of low-blow one-liners that come across as more mean-spirited than lightly mocking, but can still be enjoyed at a character development level, ignoring the politics. Free on Amazon Prime.
Final Grade: B+
This is a throwaway comedy about a fraternity that moves in next door to a married couple, with escalating tactics towards eviction. It features fun bit parts with Lisa Kudrow and Hannibal Burress, although Rose Byrne feels completely out of place as Seth Rogen's wife.
Final Grade: B-
IRIS Neat 'n Dry Floor Protection and Training Pads for Puppies and Dogs:
These pads are perfect for Booty's pee issues. They come in boxes of 100, and she's even learned to pee completely within the borders of the mat and to fold it over so there's no clean-up required on my part. By the time I clean the litter box daily, the pads have chemically solidified and I can just toss them out and replace with a fresh one. The only way they could be improved is if they could eliminate odors as well -- Puppy pee's got nothing on cat pee.
Final Grade: B+
BISSELL DeepClean Essential Full Sized Carpet Cleaner, 8852:
Steam cleaners never last particularly long, but they're essential when your pets vomit as often as ours do. This cleaner is reasonably inexpensive and portable, and has lasted six months so far. I dislike that the soap receptacle has been removed from this model -- you now mix the soap directly in the fresh water, which means that you can't save the unused portion after cleaning.
Final Grade: B-
Mike (of Mike and Ghost Chompy) flew into town this weekend, looking not a day older than his last visit in November 2012. On Thursday night, we had dinner at Jackson's, overloaded to be both a welcome-Mike and a happy-birthday-Annie occasion. After that, I taught him to play Hearthstone, which he proceeded to play for the next 24 contiguous hours, pausing only briefly on Friday morning for brunch at Eggspectation.
On Friday afternoon, Evil Mike stopped by to continue the fake LAN Hearthstone party, and we were later joined by Rebecca, fresh out of work and yoga, Taje, driving separately from Evil Mike to reduce her exposure to Hearthstone, and the Ahlbins, kids left with grandma and ready to party. We devoured a dinner of steak (3.75 pounds for 7 people) and potatoes, and then played our first game of poker since 2011, while trying to convince the Ahlbins to name their next child and first son, White Fang.
Mike ultimately won in poker, taking home the top prize of $40. I came in second, winning $20, and Evil Mike took 3rd, breaking even on his entrance fee. We also tried a game of Taboo which petered out after the clue for "snob" was "door", as in "doorsnob".
On Saturday, we went on a winery tour for Annie's birthday, starting at Quattro Goomba, and ending at Pearmund Cellars. The first had a few good, yet pricey wines, while the last had too many sweet whites and not enough peppery reds. From the winery, I returned home to introvert while Rebecca and Mike joined the party bus back to Ballston for more socialization. Rebecca also took her first trip on the Silver Line to get home, finding the ride to be on time and fast, with a slightly confusing Kiss and Ride location at Wiehle.
Sunday was a lazy day, during which we finished the third season of Person of Interest, did some laundry, and grilled some glazed salmon for dinner.
How was your weekend?
Happy Veterans Day! Thankfully, we have gotten past the milestone where the date can be written with neverending strings of 1s, greatly suppressing the number of date-related posts you can expect on Facebook today. In fact, today's date string, 111114 (or 141111 if you prefer order-of-magnitude sorting like me, or 11112014 if you're one of those pansy programmers already worried about a Y3K bug) has absolutely no significance in the natural or man-made world. The only time you will ever see 111114 in other contexts is if you do really, really poorly on a binary math exam.
I am working today, but using the holiday as an excuse to take the day off from new website content, since the intern who transcribes my posts is on federal leave (and he was the only candidate who could correctly spell HREF when I said it out loud during the interview process).
To pass the time in your quiet office, free of governmental distractions, enjoy this Newsday Tuesday feature I wrote six years ago about Autotune.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
Edge of Tomorrow:
A movie about Tom Cruise fighting aliens would never be at the top of my viewing queue, but I watched it during treadmill time one day (when the latest Sons of Anarchy episode kept featuring long, pensive reaction shots that didn't move the plot anywhere) and liked it a surprising amount. It can essentially be treated as a modern remake of Groundhog Day with tentacles and Emily Blunt, but somehow manages to miss all of the pitfalls of scene repetition that normally plague these affairs (see also, Source Code and Arrested Development, Season Four). Definitely worth a viewing.
Final Grade: A
Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag:
I have never played any games in this series, but bought this on sale because being a pirate in an open-world game sounded fun. Strike one was that it, like Far Cry 3, required me to install the useless gaming service, UPlay, when I was already using Steam. I then spent the next two hours in an "on rails" tutorial sequence running around an island, skinning pigs. The movement animations are flexibly fluid, but so fluid that you'll get stuck on scenery and switch into unskippable climbing animations where there's obviously nothing to climb. The whole first section felt over-polished and triple-A sanitized (like Starcraft II), and I got bored quickly. Maybe it gets amazing just a few minutes later, but I'll never know!
Final Grade: Not Graded
Person of Interest, Season Three:
More people should be watching this show, as it's probably the best non-cable show on TV. It hasn't been a procedural since Season One, and deftly juggles a great cast of characters with a fresh set of guest stars that never outstay their welcome. In order to manage this complexity, one of the major storylines from Season One and Two is finally wrapped up early on, which may disappoint fans of that plot. However, it gives one character well-deserved closure, and allows the writers to really dig into the broader privacy and surveillance storylines that sometimes feel almost prescient. The season ends with yet another board-flipping change-up, hinting that the next season will be nothing like the last one, similar in intent to The 4400 cliffhanger where half the population developed super powers.
Final Grade: A
I resubscribed to this magazine because I missed the tactile feeling of monthly mailings and reading away from the Internet. Besides Consumer Reports, the last magazine I subscribed to was PC Gamer, back in the early 2000s. The content in Wired is always timely and relevant to my interests, but its presentation often gets in the way. The typography and page design often feel like some graphic designer's Senior Project, with poorly-spaced columns or random coloured letters that interfere with reading. It's like a high school kid trying to show that he's intrinsically edgy by being SUPER EDGY while also being unable to retain his nonchalance. It also doesn't help that there's an ad on every other page, often with scratch'n'sniff scents that smell like a bro on the subway. Sadly, Consumer Reports must have recently hired alumni from Wired, as their magazine just got remade in the "Design for Design's Sake" mentality too.
Final Grade: B-
How much you know about me? Hover your mouse over the right column to see the correct answers.
How do I calculate restaurant tips?
What item have I not held on to since primary school?
How many Florida State friends have I seen in person in 2014?
Which musical group have I not seen live?
What do I value most about my job?
How many different dorms did I live in at Virginia Tech?
Which game have I played the most (out of these choices)?
What do I hate most about stand-up comedians?
How are the movies on my shelf organized?
What am I most likely to have on my person?
On Friday night, we trekked out to Manassas to visit Anna and Ben and play Dungeons and Dragons. Although it's the type of game one would expect me to have played many times over the course of my role-playing game-soaked youth, this was our first game ever and it went surprisingly well (more on that tomorrow).
On Saturday, we drove out to Hagerstown for the birthday party of Rebecca's 11-year-old cousin, who was obsessed with some variety of toy involving the children of famous monsters attending high school. We stopped back in Leesburg on the way home and did a beer tasting at Crooked Run Brewery followed by dinner across the street at MacDowell's, which was full of loud drunk girls.
Sunday was a house chore day -- I replaced the cartridge in a faucet whose water was starting to taste like a landslide, unearthed the humidifier for the winter, and did some file cabinet cleanup. We briefly considered an Alamo trip for a movie and a burger, but then decided that it would be more relaxing to stay in with free popcorn and cats. We watched Wolf of Wall Street and also qualified for Medicare somewhere around the two and a half hour mark. For dinner, I ordered a supremely unhealthy Domino's pizza while Rebecca made a giant salad.
How was your weekend?
Our first DUNGEONS AND DRAGONS experience last weekend spawned from Anna's offhand remark that she'd never played before, and thought it'd be fun to try once just to say that she'd tried it. Up until then, my exposure to D&D had been limited to the two Community episodes (one of which involved Breaking Bad's Jonathan Banks repeating "I punch him in the heart!") and the classic skit about the pungent scent of mildew emanating from the wet dungeon walls.
As much as I was obsessed with computer role-playing games in the 80s and 90s, to the point where I preordered Savage Empire on the day it was announced because "it combined dinosaurs and Ultima and, thus, had to be awesome", I had always stayed away from tabletop gaming. I was a Dungeon Master in spirit if not in name in fourth grade, when I used to draw mazes and let my friends fight through them during lunch, but intentionally stayed away from anything more formalized.
Before the Internet, people did not celebrate geekdom, and the perceived stigma around something like D&D put those kids on the social rung even lower than me, as the kid who was two years younger than everyone in his grade and played video games all day long. Even at boy scout camp, where I had the chance to try playing without anyone from school knowing, I declined because the Dungeon Master looked exactly like Screech from Saved By the Bell.
Thankfully, we have all aged to the point where it's okay to do "non-cool" things in the name of fun, even if there are still varying rungs to the ladder of geekdom (apparently, men that like My Little Pony, or "bronies", are still far down that ladder). With this in mind, I picked up the starter D&D materials with the hopes of figuring it all out and playing a game or two. I chose the most recent release, the 5th edition, because it supposedly had less emphasis on numbers and rules, and more on storytelling.
The first thing you should know if you want to learn D&D is that the available books are awful for teaching or engaging. There are pages and pages of rules, charts, and tables (over 200 pages in the Player Handbook alone) with but a few pages devoted to actually learning the game. If you don't have much background in similar ventures, you'll have to really want to learn to get through it -- the books reminded me very much of poorly-written technical manuals that show you exactly HOW to click on a button in a UI without ever telling you WHY you would want to click that button.
Luckily, my background in being a nerd, combined with that Design of Information class I slept through in undergrad, and the Music Pedagogy classes I took as a grad student (ignoring the Music part) allowed me to learn the system well enough to teach it. With the help of online blogs and other fan-made materials, I came up with a tailored set of instructions specific to the players (Anna, Ben, and Rebecca) that allowed us to skip ahead to the engaging, fun parts fairly rapidly.
Although games can be played with just the stuff in the Starter Set, I augmented with extra sets of dice, a vinyl mat with graphing squares for drawing maps, generic tokens representing the players and monsters, and various game soundtracks on YouTube. Although imagination is the number one requirement for a successful game, the visual and aural stimuli didn't hurt as a gentle introduction for neophytes. I also used Zim Wiki on my laptop to set up a searchable archive of statistics and lore so I could spend less time flipping pages to look stuff up and more time weaving the story.
It took a couple weeks of preparation on my part, but resulted in a first adventure that went as well as could be expected. I avoided a slow, boring starting session by doing character creation in advance (shielding the players from the boring calculations) and streamlining the rules down to a 20 minute tutorial covering the most common scenarios. The party of Bjornson, Rynn, and Nit survived a goblin ambush, convinced a shopkeeper to pay for a wagon full of supplies that didn't belong to them, and kicked a goblin in the crotch during an interrogation and rescue operation. Enough fun was had that we will play again soon!
Have you played? Do you want to play? Share your stories in the comments section!
Twenty years ago today, in 1994, I came home from Indoor Track practice (which occurred unironically outdoors at the Masonic Temple) and got a new pair of BAGs (big-assed glasses). In the evening I worked as the foreman of the stage crew for the Alexandria Symphony, racking and stacking orchestra chairs and playing soccer in the band room during the concert.
Nineteen years ago today, in 1995, I printed out the score to Sonorous Sonata, a brain-dead piece I'd written in a single night to satisfy a high-school theory teacher that wanted me to write for something other than a brass ensemble. Later on, I played Doom II with Jack.
Fifteen years ago today, in 1999, I drove Jen Graves and her cat home from Blacksburg for Thanksgiving Break. She did not yet know that her roommate, Rosie, was moving in with me the following year (nor did I tell her), and spent much of the trip talking about all the fights they had in their apartment. That evening, Liz, Shac, Kelley, and Melody arrived at my parents' house for a mild, parent-proximity overnighter before our road trip to the Temple game in Philly the next day.
Fourteen years ago today, in 2000, Shac was staying in my apartment at Foxridge because he didn't want to go home for Thanksgiving Break. It was also the day before I took the GRE to get into grad school, and the day before my sister and I drove through a snowstorm to celebrate Thanksgiving with my grandpa in Michigan.
Twelve years ago today, in 2002, the FSU Music Theory basketball team formally incorporated, with the worst name in the league.
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
The Wolf of Wall Street (R):
Though well-acted, this movie is self-indulgently long. Many scenes stretch beyond their obvious ending points, as if the director just gave his actors general cues and filmed until they ran out of invented dialogue. After a while, all of the drugs, boobs, and rousing speeches start to run together, culminating in an ending that doesn't add up to much.
Final Grade: C
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein:
Rebecca picked up this book in the Seattle airport. It's a very well-written fiction about a family, told from the perspective of the dog. I enjoyed the sentimentality, although the story itself is unrelentingly maudlin, emphasizing the unfairness of life. However, it's a brief, enjoyable read, suitable for a plane trip or a beach trip. You can read Rebecca's less-capsule-like review in her blog, linked on the sidebar.
Final Grade: B
Brooklyn 99, Season One:
This show is sporadically funny, but not nearly as good as the collective Internet says it is. Your appreciation for the show will be directly proportional to how long you can tolerate Andy Samberg mugging for the camera. Sometimes, it can't decide whether it's a smart, post-modern take on cop shows or a Saturday Night Live skit outstaying its welcome.
Final Grade: C
A short list of my absolute favorite albums from the past decade, in the order of the year I listened to them religiously. Branch out today!
On Friday evening, we went to dinner at Mellow Mushroom in Herndon, where I ate a delicious Mushroom Club sandwich paired with a smoked oatmeal porter. We have yet to eat something bad here, and would go a lot more often if driving there didn't involve every single side street and stoplight between Herndon and Sterling.
The only other event of note this weekend was early Thanksgiving with the Wilmers and the Cranes!
There are no major spoilers in these reviews.
According to Steam, I have 217 hours invested in Borderlands 2, the second longest playtime after Skyrim. Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel is a standalone game made with the BL 2 engine. It's gotten mixed reviews online, although the basic theme seems to be that people who loved BL 2, will also love this one.
The core gameplay of shooting things and getting better guns is intact -- the array of available guns, shields, and mods are similar to the previous game, with new, fun additions that complement well (like laser guns and freezing effects). The biggest shift from the last game is a change in gravity. Since this story takes place on a moon, gravity is greatly reduced and jumps are very floaty.
Floaty jumping gives more freedom in combat, but is particular frustrating in the many jumping puzzles scattered throughout the game. Jupming puzzles weren't fun in Ultima 8, and still aren't fun on the moon. You will often just-miss a long jump, sometimes falling all the way down a tall structure, Super Mario style. Explanations of the new features are poor (especially the new Stingray vehicle which can apparently jump long distances), but can be figured out through trial and error.
BL: TPS retains the biggest flaw I found in BL 2: the world is too vast and empty, with minimal reward for completionist exploration, and far too much backtracking to do all of the quests. The first two hours are incredibly boring, with humour that felt way too forced, and mostly just made me want to play the original game again. Quests are of the "one-off" variety, where the original goal is very simple, but you continue to get sidetracked by unexpected obstacles, to pad the length of the game out.
The game does improve once you pass the tutorial phase, and the characters and skill trees are fun to play. However, I doubt I'll end up replaying this as much as BL 2 after completion. Overall, it's good enough to provide a little more Borderlands action if you really liked the earlier games, but doesn't include enough improvements to stand on its own as a great game -- it would have been a perfect fit for DLC.
Final Grade: C at full price, B in a Steam sale
This picture was taken 3 years ago today, at Jason and Becca's wedding. Rebecca was asked to dance by one of the Spellerberg cousins, Joseph, and they tore up the dance floor.
New photos have been added to the Life, 2014 album.
November's Final Grade: B
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