Hello friends! The good news is I had a sudden opportunity to spend some time with my parents in Alaska, so I’m currently on the ground in the greater Fairbanks area doing all manner of snow and ice-related activities. The bad news for you is I will not be watching Erin Brockovich today. Might get around to it early next week before I watch The Cider House Rules (which will be happening on schedule). Figured I would get in this little update to say that I’ve done an update once every week, and to let you know why you won’t have to read one of these little screeds today. Rock!
My friend and associate Kevin Knodell just published a piece on the closure of Comic Book Inc. in Tacoma. I will confess to never having gone to the shop in question, mostly from my lack of interest in comic books. However, I look at the closing of any independent business with a pain in my gut.
At one point during my time in Parkland, I went out shopping with a new group of Dungeons & Dragons players to my favorite local business, The Game Matrix in Lakewood. It’s a one-stop shop for everything from Warhammer miniatures pants and LARPing supplies, to family board games and copies of The Dead Gentlemen’s hit film The Gamers II: Dorkness Rising. Their selection is astounding, and they’re willing to order anything they don’t have. I’ve not once had a bad customer experience there, and the folks who come in to play war games and run D&D sessions are polite and informative. They’ve even got a soda machine that sells cans of Mountain Dew for fifty cents. Regardless, one of these new players was looking for a fairly specific miniature, pre-painted if possible. They had a pewter, unpainted version of a tiefling druid-ish mini, but they wanted something like a reasonable price for it. The player’s response to the clerk was, “Well, that’s a little expensive. I think I’ll just order this on Amazon instead.”
This was the moment, friends, where I started to think very seriously about Amazon. It also made me wonder about my friendship with the person in question, but that’s for my therapist.
For starters, I can think of no worse of an insult to a person than to say, in effect, that your livelihood is not worthy enough of a thing for me to spend money in your shop. This is not far removed from wishing them deprivation and hunger, for it is the suggestion that their shop is not a worthwhile place. Without their shop, they’ve lost their job. Granted, one person’s business on a ten dollar item might not be enough to bring down an institution. It would take a spectacular amount of lost sales, by a competitor who could compete at such a volume that they could undercut the meager margins on a ten dollar miniature to make that sale. It would also take a generation or two to become more or less indoctrinated and addicted to the experience provided by this competition, to the point where they begin to base most of their purchasing patterns around the outlet. And that, friends, is why Amazon is terrifying to me.
Buying the Pathfinder Core Rulebook is a $50 proposition, plus sales tax. It’s not a cheap book, but then again it is the only book you’d really need to play the game (past a Monster Manual for the DM; and no YOU DON’T NEED THOSE SPLATBOOKS AAAHHHH). That $50 purchase is a commitment to some, perhaps even more to a cash-strapped high school or college student, but its purchase should be seen as something of a rite of passage. The new gamer is taken to their local Mecca, the gaming shop, walked through the halls of endless supplements and Salvatore novels, and handed their new tome. They learn the shopkeeper’s name, and check the nearby corkboard of index cards for any games starting in the area. It can be this great experience, interacting with people and interfacing with tactile items.
Amazon.com cheapens the experience, literally, by offering the same book for $31.50. They’ll go a step further and ship it to your door in two days if you’re a college student. Imagine the convenience of never having to deal with another human being while you get into a hobby whose main conceit is that you must deal with other human beings. Think of the time you could save not being exposed to other games that you might be more inclined to pick up. Add that to the gas you’ll save when your book shows up in an over-large cardboard box, wrapped in plastic bubble wrap or filled with styrofoam, and you’ve got one hell of a deal.
The gloves are off. I see Amazon as one of the most damaging forces arrayed against small, independently owned business. One could counter-claim that the recession is the real killer of businesses, but I would propose that it only fuels the fire beneath them. When I was in college and my income was significantly less, I would look at a $20 savings as the simplest of choices. And that was for admittedly frivolous things; for absolute needs like my textbooks, the choice was even more obvious. Why spend money that I need not spend, I would reason. Me first, I would reason. These guys would give me free deliveries, occasionally next day, on the same item I would pay significantly more for at the local bookstore. I was not the only undergraduate student of modest means in 2008. I feel I can safely say that there are millions of people who look at the value proposition of Amazon (and other online retailers) versus their neighbors, and shrift their neighbors.
The real exception I made to the standing Amazon policy was in used books, which I pursued voraciously at a few fine local shops (Tacoma Book Center and Park Avenue Books mostly, with some trips to Half Price Books after I learned of its existence). I applied the same spendthrift logic to these used shop excursions, but there was also the notion that local businesses were worth the effort to sustain. Over time, I fell deeply in love with the Tacoma Book Center in particular. Their selection is astounding, and they will hunt down and order materials that they don’t have in stock. I would bring in stacks of old books, willing to accept that I would be able to trade them all for maybe one or two “new” titles, and accepted this on the notion that this is a business that lives on selling books for more than what they spent to buy them. I, in turn, clear their inventory space for new books and more sales. It all started to feel very organic, like I was cleaning the teeth of a whale or something. Symbiotic relationships and whathaveyou. Furthermore, I could actually find better deals there than I could from private sellers through Amazon. I wasn’t having to cut my own throat to keep them in business, which was fine by me.
When I think about CBI closing, I think about my own local comic book store, The Dreaming. I chose the apartment I did based in part on the fact that I can basically crawl to The Dreaming in under a minute. It’s an extension of my apartment to me, a library full of Lovecraft statues and New World of Darkness core books (plus those mysterious comic book things). They host tabletop gaming sessions several nights a week, and are now doing Magic twice a week (borrowing space from the Scum of the Earth Church next door). On Free Comic Book Day, the owners placed out a dozen boxes full of used comics (most in plastic) for anybody to grab. They’re providing an outlet and a creative space for a host of nerd folk like myself, and to keep that space in existence I make a conscious decision to purchase what I can from them. When they didn’t have a copy of The Killing Joke, I ordered it through them. Did it take longer than three days? Yes. Did I spend more money than if I had ordered it on Amazon? Yes. Did I help put food in the mouth of the awesome owner? Yes. To me, that will forevermore be the difference.
I’ve had the argument thrown at me that Seattle residents should not be so concerned with giving money to Amazon, as it is in fact a local business. That’s right, jerkoff. It’s a local corporation with branch offices, warehouses in multiple states, and international outlets. Buying your Janet Evanovich novel of the month from them is the moral equivalent of buying it from a human being with a name and a family, who runs a shop a few blocks from where you work. Amazon needs the money, you see. The economy’s in a bad way, and Amazon’s not quite sure how it’s going to pay its medical bills next month. It would love to have enough financial stability to someday take the whole Amazon family on a vacation to Vancouver, but right now it is having enough trouble paying off its student loans and providing for its kids, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.cn. It wouldn’t be having such a hard time if those smug, caviar-drinking small business owners weren’t cutting into their profit margins. #occupymainstreet
Stop buying things from Amazon. Find a local business that will sell you the same item, pay a little extra, and form a relationship with another person. Keep your local storefronts occupied, and keep your neighbors fed. Live in a world where a person can own a small business and make a living, and not be ground into poverty by an impossibly big competitor. If nothing else about this article struck you at all, I would hope this does: be aware of the relationship between your spending habits and their effect on your neighborhood.
A lot of my close and not-so-close liberal friends seem pretty flabbergasted today. Turns out the state of North Carolina has voted on an amendment to its state constitution that would define the only valid marriages in the state as those between one man and one woman. This vote has passed by a fairly large majority, 61% to 39% as of this post.
The outrage! The shock! It’s pretty incredible how something like this could actually exist. But never fear, friends! Jeff is here to help ease the shock, and to make sense of these things for you in light of other fairly shocking things. I’ve prepared a short list of other tough topics that we’re all going to have to accept as reality before we can actually get shit done. Without further ado, here’s Jeff’s List of Five Very Surprising Things.
1. Fucking Heliocentrism: Posited as early as the third century BCE, this theory would later be reinforced by the findings of Nicolaus Copernicus and Johannes Kepler. It holds that the sun, not the Earth, is the center of the goddamn solar system (which was probably named thus in light of these shocking discoveries).
2. Fucking Gravity: Allegorically discovered when Sir Isaac Newton observed an apple falling from a tree, this insanity posits that objects are attracted by a force proportionate to their masses. Some would go so far as to posit that there exists a relationship between electro-magnetism and gravity. Shocking!
3. Fucking Subatomic Particles: Turns out, based on decades of exhaustive research spent bent over microscopes, that we are in fact random associations of matter arranged just so that we’ve got hearts and brains. Those individual components have observable individual components, the atoms, are composed of subatomic particles. Hell, those subatomic particles are theoretically composed of all manner of component pieces that folks at the LHC would like to understand better.
4. Fucking Pringles: Originally proposed in 1968, Pringles are food-like bent discs made of something like potatoes, salt, and grease from old women and cats. Scientists who ate the first Pringles made two startling conclusions: firstly, that once you popped open the large dolphin in which they were formed originally, it was hard to stop the Pringles from bleeding out; and secondly, that it would be better to store these “chips” in a large cylindrical tube to prevent people from eating them. The tube idea, and the first unofficial motto of Pringles, LLC, have stuck around to this day.
5. The Fucking Constitution: Go ahead and cry, Washington. Really, go ahead. It solves nothing. On the other hand, go ahead and gloat. We deserve some gloating. We passed our gay marriage legalization bill, and are on the right site of history. Just be sure that when you’re out gloating, you say thanks to my Constitutionalist brother. You see, friends, the same piece of the Constitution that enabled us to do the right thing has just been used in North Carolina to do the wrong thing. And the best part? It doesn’t care. The Constitution is concerned only with the forms and procedures, and could give a shit about you. No really, it doesn’t care about you. The first Americans who read the Constitution noticed this fairly large hole, and the result was the Bill of Rights. Until there is an amendment added to the Constitution of the United States that makes a final and legally binding decision on fifty states and 300 million plus citizens, the status quo of individual states deciding for themselves how to handle domestic partnerships and marriage will stand.
“So let’s change the Constitution!” I’m with you, but I must ask a question. Given the population of this country and how close the last elections have been, do you think a majority of voting citizens would vote in support of “gay marriage” amendment (I use quotes because the wording of this amendment would need to be fairly broad so as to include a more nuanced understanding of gender and provide wholesale the same rights and privileges afforded to heterosexual married couples)? I have my doubts. That might be skepticism, but it’s also realistic. Do you know how long it takes to get the wheels of a Constitutional plebiscite going in this country? If brought to bare, and then this amendment fails to gain a popular majority, do you know how long it will take to get another one up? There is no precedent for this, but my guess is “a long fucking time.”
The current arrangement allows some of my friends to be lawfully wed in the very near future. We did this as Washingtonians and should be proud of it. We stand with Iowa, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Washington D.C. on the right side of history. As for the rest of the country? Let them make awful decisions and be dicks. Let them live in the stone age. They are entitled to do so right now, and I see that as a good thing. I believe firmly in democracy, even when the results are off. A majority of North Carolinian voters have made an adult decision, and it should be respected as such. However, it is a shit decision. If the end product of that decision is that Washington State will become a new home to a few lovely queer couples, I welcome them with open arms.
Forget academic posts. Let’s write about our feelings and use initials to protect the innocent, like we’re in high school.
Fuck it. This last fortnight has been Shakespeare’s story told by an idiot. I am sad about B. having left me, but angry only about the circumstances. Here was a person to whom I could open myself and talk about my feelings, and now that’s gone again. I hadn’t been able to feel that sort of emotional support and security for about two years, and having it suddenly snatched away has been as shitty as I could have imagined it being. I feel like I’ve been duped, and don’t know if it is more worth my time to either work on not getting duped, or to avoid situations where it could happen. Either way, though it is actually impossible for me to know right now as B. isn’t talking to me.
My assumption right now, and I would love to be corrected, is that the whole thing is over and dead. It would be nice if I could find out, because as much as I actually care about this person, I am not going to sit around for months waiting for somebody else to enjoy life with again. I can do well enough on my own. In all likelihood I won’t be on another two year hiatus with a year of celibacy built in for fun. I will move on eventually. Where I’m hung up is that I didn’t want to be in this position in the first place, and I know that I’ll be moving on from the person in my homestate for the last five years to whom I’ve felt the closest. The one who has disappeared from my life as quickly as she appeared.
She even left a goddamn amazing book or two with me, and they stare at me now with little shit-eating grins. Fuck and shit.
There have been…so many thoughts in my head for the last several weeks. Are they all academic? No. Are most of them even worthwhile? No. The only merit they have as they pertain to this site is, at present, I have nobody with whom to share and “self edit” these thoughts. I want to write about things as they occur to me, in long form. Twitter does not suffice for some of the things I have to say. And the Facebook, well, that’s just a generally disappointing platform. I also have a tech podcast with a blog that could host some of this writing, but I want to veer around in realms of abstract thought that would seem a little out of place in something called The Onboard NIC Crew. So, I’m back. Welcome back Jeff. I’ll try to write something worthwhile in the next few days.
I’ve been really getting back into photography on this trip, and took about 450 pictures while I was in Tibet for eight days. I primarily host them on my deviantART page, but I figured I’d cross-post a few of the better ones here for all of you fine people who are doubtlessly pissing your pants in anticipation of everything I write.
The last post I did in this series concluded with something of a rant, the point of which was that you can learn from video games if you give it a shot. Yes, these things are crafted first and foremost to be enjoyable, but you can take away quite a bit from some of the more ingenious ones.
Ask most of the people in the know and they’ll agree that if you aren’t gaming on a PC, you’re getting some sort of watered down experience. Games developed for a personal computer are generally more complex as the range of input options is vastly increased over that of a two-handed controller tethered to what amounts to an underpowered computer wired to your television (i.e. a console). A mouse and keyboard are tools near universally understood by now, given that you’re reading this on a computer and your grandmother probably emailed you this morning. Furthermore, the gaming culture stereotype persists that PC gamers are generally more intelligent than console users, who tend to fall into the frat boy, dorm room demographic.
In short, the PC is where it is at, particularly if you’re trying to learn something. I’ll provide two examples, bearing in mind that I’m an East Asian historian.
SHOGUN: TOTAL WAR
(Creative Assembly, 2000)
What a game! I struggle to write objectively about this one as it was probably, more than anything else, the one thing that got me interested in history. To think the game is ten years old now makes me feel pretty old as well. Sigh
Shogun is set during Sengoku Jidai, Japan’s medieval counterpart to the Chinese Warring States period. In the game’s main campaign mode, you select one of several clans vying for control of Japan. You are then left to manage this state, from the ground up. Manage the economy, send diplomatic envoys to rival daimyo, use spies and geishas to gather intelligence, deploy ninjas to conduct assassinations of generals, curb the influence of Portuguese traders spreading Christianity with their guns, conscript armies, and conquer lands through capture of key enemy fortifications. All of this is in your hands.
Two separate interfaces are used to interact with the game’s representation of medieval Japan. The one you’ll spend a lot of time staring at is a beautiful hand-painted map of Japan.
Soldiers are represented in a style vaguely reminiscent of Risk; each is given a token on the board, and armies are assembled by combining units of foot soldiers, archers and horse-mounted warriors into one unit. Spies and watchtowers enable you to see into neighboring territory, so you’ll be aware enough if your neighbor is amassing troops at your doorstep. And inevitably, you will be fighting in this game. Bismarck would have been a big fan of this one, as a lot of blood and iron were involved in my dozens of conquests of Japan.
In spite of notoriously bad strategic AI since the series’ inception, each entry has shined for its continuously improving battle interface. When armies square off, all comparisons with Risk are cast aside in favor of giving you real-time control of your army. Hundreds (thousands, if you had the system to handle it!) of individual soldiers facing off with arrows flying, cavalry seeking to outflank your lines, and a multitude of other tactical decisions to be made on the fly. INTENSE.
As if that weren’t enough, the introductory video contains footage taken from the 1985 Akira Kurosawa masterpiece “Ran,” ninja assassination attempts rewarded you with cinematics that were either kickass (if the attempt succeeded) or hilarious (if it failed), and you could get advice from an old samurai in your own personal frickin’ throneroom. This game had everything. It’s dated to the point of probably having problems with 64bit operating systems, looks like a joke compared to the most modest flash game these days, and is fairly difficult to find (outside of this excellent bundle deal!), but this one still looks great through the rose-tinted shades of memory.
“That’s all great, but what can we learn from this?” Well, how about the frustrations of managing an agricultural-based economy at a period where you constantly need to pool manpower to defend territory from your primary agricultural labor force? Perhaps something about allocating limited resources for development of a small state while ensuring that your army is well fed? The role of subterfuge in statecraft, perhaps in the creation of a dominant historical narrative? Maybe even something about Japanese xenophobia against western nations, via your interactions with Dutch and Portuguese traders? Hell, even in the screenshot above you can learn some geography for free.
“But surely you’re among the minority. I mean, this is just a piece of software, right?” Tell that to the good people at Total War Center, where hundreds of PC nerds work tirelessly researching period histories to craft mods for Shogun and its successors. I’ve been involved in one or two mods for Rome that never came to fruition, and half the reason I left was I couldn’t foot the bill of being a designer/historian. These guys often do both, and they do both exceptionally well, doing a lot to repair buggy AI and otherwise extend the life of these incredible games.
And speaking of incredible games with fanatical fan bases…
(Firaxis Games, 2005)
This is an absolute Jesus of a game. I was a latecomer to the Civilization franchise (which has been around since 1990), jumping in at the point when Civilization III was available for about $20 and Civ IV hadn’t been released yet. Even compared to the relatively cerebral fare of the Total War series, there was a fairly steep barrier to entry to Civ III that took me a month or two to overcome. Then I moved to Texas and turned into a rock star blah blah blah and didn’t game that much for a little while.
Civilization IV, which became the game it is today after two large expansions and litany of game balancing patches, refines many of the experiences found in its predecessor and does so with unparalleled panache. Starting a new campaign of Civ IV is like starting a cocaine habit, only you’ve already paid for a lifetime supply of the junk and there’s no nasty nosebleeds (just insomnia-induced headaches). Long-time fans of the series will tell you best that this game is an absolute time sink; I personally had a hard time balancing the second semester of junior year with a particularly engaging game as the Vikings. Days pass by like mere seconds during this game’s high points, and if you don’t believe me, try playing it on a trans-Pacific flight.
“What do you actually do in this game?” You begin as the leader of one of several dozen civilizations (ranging from the Americans to the Koreans, from the Mali Empire to the Aztecs) and are challenged by His Holiness, Sid Meier to build an empire to withstand the tests of time. Your civilization builds cities, gathers scarce resources, researches new technologies (from The Wheel to The Internet and everything in between), conducts diplomacy and trade with neighbors, fields armies to capture resources and crush Montezuma (let’s face it, it’s kill or be killed with that bastard), spread culture, founds religions, and adopts the State Property civic as soon as possible (best civic IMHO). Factor in population control of individual cities, the occasional barbarian invasion, and the prospect of Gandhi with nukes, and you’ve got yourself a real winner here.
Where does learning come? In a word, everywhere. For all practical purposes, every single element of Civ IV is explained in great detail in the Civilopedia, an in-game Wiki that describes everything from the differences between sailing ships to the origins of religions. And that’s only the deliberately-crafted informative portion of the game. This game hammers home lessons about the role of inflation in bringing down governments (as often the most effective means of combating is a revolution and the subsequent turn or two of anarchy), the means by which Europeans came to dominate so much of the last two-hundred years of history (research gunpowder first and you will be in position to steamroll your feudal adversaries), and the extent to which history is built upon control of resources like land, food and (recently) fossil fuels.
I was playing a game using the “Rhys and Fall of Civilization” mod (excellent and distributed with the final build of the game) as Japan a few months ago. After clearing the islands of barbarians and more or less maximizing the use of available land, I began to explore the rest of Asia.
Japan, as you can see (and probably already knew) is not exactly huge, and you eventually will reach a limit of horizontal and vertical growth (i.e. no more food can be milked from the land, no more land to conquer). There are also few natural resources on the island that cannot be obtained elsewhere, and (upon researching the requisite technologies), it becomes apparent that Japan lacks any fossil fuels.
Next door, however, the Korean peninsula is only a stone’s throw away and provides land, resources and (eventually) desperately-needed coal. From there, China’s riches beacon.
I’ve studied World War II in Asia for a few years, done a dearth of reading on the topic, and yet it was Civilization IV, a video game, that helped me more than years of study to understand the motives of the Japanese in their expansion. In a word, economics. The only way to “win” this particular game (beyond peace-mongering means like culture or science) was to expand into China. Here I sat with Japan in the 17th century, building up an invasion force to seize cities on the Chinese coast before they could build up enough strength to counterattack, when suddenly it clicked. “OH,” I said aloud.
“Oh,” indeed. This is only the most profound example on hand; there have been dozens of instances like this one where I’ve come to understand history a little better through this incredible game. I would go so far as to posit the following: you could, with minimal difficulty, incorporate Civilization IV into the classroom as an instructor to demonstrate a few things. Hell, I don’t think it’s that much of a stretch to say that this could easily be made into homework for a social studies course. Go ahead and challenge me on this.
“Alright, so there are a few examples of fairly dense, historically-based games that might have some didactic merit to them. So what? Most people are just going to play Call of Duty anyway, and how are they supposed to learn from that?“. Well, I’ll tell you how. Next time.