San Francisco diary – Day 3: 3 Feb 2014

28 March, 2014

(written a day later)

On Monday morning we woke at 7:30 again, although I didn’t get very much sleep. We had cereal and milk for breakfast in the hotel room. I left to get to the Hilton by 8:50 for the first talk in my conference track, while M. stayed in the room a bit longer before venturing out to check out Macy’s, which wouldn’t open until 10:00. She actually went out earlier to get some coffee from one of the many Starbucks scattered around the streets.

The digital photography conference track started with a mix of papers on hardware and algorithms for various things, in particular some focused on mobile imaging (i.e. with a phone), and there were papers on image quality measurement, glass and polymer microlens designs, and other things. I had an apple from the hotel lobby fruit bowl during the morning tea break, then went out at lunch to meet M. at the front of the Macy’s building on Union Square.

We walked down Market St to a Noah’s Bagels place like the one we went to yesterday, and had some bagels again for lunch. This time M. had a nine grain bagel with cream cheese, and then picked a potato and peppercorn bagel to try, curious about the potato, but not realising the peppercorns would make it very spicy. I had smoked salmon, cream cheese, and salad on my poppy seed bagel, which came with potato salad again.

Cable Car
Cablecar on Powell Street.

Done with lunch, I still had an hour to kill before the afternoon conference session, so we popped in at Jeffrey’s Toys and Comics to look around. It was mostly children’s toys, with a small comic section and a small section of more advanced games. They had Magic the Gathering cards, but only single booster packs. I asked if they knew where I could get boxes, and the guy didn’t really seem to know, pointing me at Walgreens or Target.

I left M. at Macy’s again and went back to the conference for the afternoon session. After the tea break, I switched conference tracks since the digital photography track wasn’t so interesting, and went to the human vision track, where they had talks about the interaction of sound and vision in 3D cinema, a statistical analysis of how movie genre affects the perception of the balance between audio and video quality, and a talk by Harry Mathias, a movie maker who was nominated for an Academy Award in the 1980s, talking about modern digital technology and why almost none of it was of any use to “real” movie makers. He came across as a bit of an old fogey who hated newfangled stuff, but he made some interesting and valid points about the intersections of artistic vision and technical requirements.

At the end of the talks, I went to the Hilton lobby, where M. was, and we went together into the conference 3D cinema event, which was two hours of 3D shorts from around the world. We only stayed for the first hour, before leaving to go to La Fusion restaurant for the arranged dinner with several other people from Canon. We got the wrong street and found the restaurant a few minutes late, when most of the others were already there. There was Geoff and Quan from Sydney, Francisco (with his wife and young daughter), Su-Kei, and Sandra from Canon USA, a Japanese guy who had been with them for six months and his wife Keiko, and a few other people from Canon Japan who I didn’t know.

The food was Peruvian fusion stuff, and very good. It started with two different ceviches, a prawn one and a fish one, and a rocket and beetroot salad. Then came empanadas: beef, fish, and corn and cheese. And for the mains were a fish pot pie (deconstructed onto a plate for sharing), rotisserie chicken (deliciously moist) with a bread salad, and lomo soltado. They made M. a special vegetarian pie with spinach and mushrooms. It was all delicious. Then we had a three layer chocolate mousse cake for dessert, which was presented to Francisco for his birthday, with candles on. Apparently Sandra had bought it earlier and brought it along.

We left the restaurant just before 22:30 and walked back to our hotel, where we showered and read for a bit before going to sleep.

San Francisco diary – Day 2: 2 Feb 2014

27 March, 2014

21:11

The alarm woke us this morning at 07:30. M. slept well, but I had a very restless night. Nevertheless, we ate some Grape Nuts for breakfast and then rugged up for a bleak and wet day outside. It was cold and grey and rainy, so we put on all our layers. Despite this, it was very chilly and miserably damp as we walked down to Market St and then the Ferry Building to get a Blue Bottle coffee for M. The wind howled through the streets and made it very uncomfortable, but thankfully the rain was not too heavy.

At the Ferry Building we sheltered inside for a while as M. drank her morning coffee. She also got me a hot chocolate, which was nice and warming. We sat looking through the windows out to a windswept bay, with whitecaps spraying foam in the middle distance. I’ve never seen it look so miserable out there. We also saw some enormous seagulls, at least twice as big as the ones back home. After finishing our drinks we browsed in the book shop there for a few minutes before leaving.

We’d originally planned to take a ferry to Sausalito today, but the weather made us switch to an indoor plan, and we walked up the Embarcadero to the new Exploratorium at Pier 15. We got there just before opening time at 10:00, hoping to get in out of the rain quickly. But when we arrived, we were stunned to see a queue of people about 60 or 70 metres long snaking out across the exposed waterfront to the adjacent pier, then out along that pier a distance. We hurried out to the end of the queue, which was thankfully in the shelter of an overhanging roof, so we could close our umbrellas. But we didn’t relish the thought of the queue advancing slowly, leaving us in the exposed section for several minutes.

Queuing in the rain
The queue to get into the Exploratorium. The queue runs right across the middle of the photo (all the people with umbrellas), then towards the camera.

At 10:00 the doors opened and the queue moved into the museum fairly quickly. We advanced in steps to the end of the covered area and braced ourselves for the crossing of the unsheltered part. But we were fortunate as the queue moved very quickly after that. We almost didn’t stop in the open, moving quickly into the building and thankfully putting down our umbrellas again. Inside the building the queue was still about 20 metres to the ticket sale counters, but this moved fairly rapidly too. We only discovered the reason when we went to pay and the guy at the counter just gave us two tickets and said it was free entry today!

We dropped our outer layers and umbrellas in a locker then went inside to explore. The place was already busy with people, with lots of kids running around and trying all of the interactive exhibits. It was a little tricky getting a go at some of them, but with a little patience we managed to have a look at most things. Highlights included a giant virtual image mirror, which made it look as though you could touch a copy of yourself floating upside down, projected a few metres in front of the mirror. This was very popular, with several people constantly standing in front of it and gawking. There were also numerous other optical devices and illusions, perceptual illusions, magnetic and electric demos, fluid dynamics, chaotic pendulums, things that made noise or played with your hearing, and a section full of biological displays including lots of microscopes aimed at interesting micro-organisms or cells or other things. There was so much to see and do that even with hundreds of other people crowding the place we could always find an unattended exhibit to play with, or one we could have a go at with just a short wait. I think we managed to try more than half of them – trying them all would require a full day and some very good luck with some of the most popular ones.

Eye dissection
Exploratorium staff dissect a cow’s eyeball in front of curious kids.

As it was, we didn’t notice the time passing until it was almost 14:00, at which point we suddenly got hungry for our overdue lunch. We quickly walked past a section or two of exhibits we hadn’t seen yet, stopping at a few to try them out along the way. Then we looked in the museum shop quickly, and by about 14:30 we headed out and back down towards the Ferry Building, where we turned on to Market St and the Noah’s New York Bagels place we’d seen earlier, to get some lunch. Fortunately the rain had stopped by now and the cloud was breaking up a little, but it was still chilly and a little windy.

M. had a pumpernickel bagel with cream cheese and a blueberry bagel, while I had a pumpernickel bagel sandwich with pastrami, salad, and mustard. It was good and satisfying after the long time since breakfast. Then we walked back down Market St again and past Union Square and Macy’s to find the Hilton Hotel, where the conference will be this week. On the way we stopped in at the San Francisco Giants Dugout merchandise shop on Geary St, where M. bought a long sleeved Giants T-shirt. There was also one I wanted, but they didn’t have my size, so the guy phoned the baseball park store and is getting one sent over, which we can pick up on Tuesday afternoon.

Heading from there to the Hilton we got a bit confused until we finally located it, then got turned around inside the maze inside as I sought the conference rooms to find the registration desk. Having received my registration package, we left again and returned to our hotel. We rested for a while until it was time to go out for dinner.

We decided to try Italian tonight, and walked through Chinatown to North Beach. We found a place called Calzone’s on Columbus Avenue, which had been packed yesterday as we walked past and which M. liked the look of. We got a table inside, at a booth, and ordered some garlic bread and a calzone each, Mediterranean for M., which had eggplant, spinach, and cheese, while I had a Philly cheesesteak one. We also got a glass of wine each, Chianti for M. and a Zinfandel for me. The food was reasonably good, but the decor was very cool, with lots of bottles and strings of garlic hanging up everywhere over red painted walls. They had a liquorice cheesecake for dessert, which I had to try, and that was very good, with a strong liquorice flavour. It came with a minted mascarpone cream, which added a good element, and dripped with raspberry sauce, which was a bit discordant. But overall a good meal.

Calzones at Calzone's Liquorice cheesecake
Calzones and liquorice cheesecake at Calzone’s, North Beach.

We walked back with a very light sprinkle of rain which eased off quickly. The Golden Gate Bakery in Chinatown which we’d passed yesterday with a queue of about forty people outside it was still open, and had no queue, although there were three or four customers inside. Seeing how popular this place was, I decided I had to try a moon cake from there for the recent Chinese New Year. I got a lotus seed cake, which I will probably eat tomorrow.

Back at the hotel we showered and then turned in for the night. I need to be bright and early tomorrow for the start of the conference!

San Francisco diary – Day 1: 1 Feb 2014

26 March, 2014

01:15. (San Francisco time)

We are on board flight UA870 from Sydney to San Francisco. We left on time at 16:20 on Saturday, and it’s now a few hours into the flight, but at our destination it has just passed midnight on the same day. We are scheduled to arrive at 10:30 in the morning.

It’s been a fairly eventless day so far. We got up, finished packing, then took a taxi to the airport around 13:00. Check in was quick, and we’d paid in advance for exit row seats for the extra leg room, which is serving us well right now as we relax into the long haul. Through customs and into the departure lounge we headed first to the Chinese restaurant where we had some steamed buns and dumplings for lunch. Then we browsed the shops a bit, buying an eye mask for M. and a toothbrush for me (that’s the item I accidentally left behind this time).

We saw Quan from my work briefly near the gate, and arranged to meet at the baggage claim at San Francisco airport so we can catch BART together to our hotel. We boarded the plane and settled into our seats. They started showing the first movie almost immediately. M.’s vege meal came early and she said it was good – rice with a spicy lentil dhal. I had a choice of chicken or pasta with “red sauce”. I chose the chicken, which had a teriyaki style sauce with rice and vegetables. It was okay.

After the meal service had cleaned up, a group of three fairly loud Americans came and stood in the area in front of our seats, nursing drinks and obviously settling in for a long flight of consuming alcohol. One older woman was carrying a little bottle of scotch or something, and they were all swapping stories about how drunk they’d got on other flights or something. Thankfully after a while a flight attendant came and told them to go back to their seats.

10:22

We’re sitting on the tarmac at San Francisco airport,waiting for a gate to become vacant. We arrived 20 minutes early and should still be at the gate early. The sun is shining brightly and it looks like a beautiful day outside.

The flight passed with only a bit of turbulence to break it up. Breakfast was an egg dish with corn kernels in it, or a plate of fruit.

18:20

Chancellor view with fire escape
View from the Chancellor Hotel towards Union Square.

We are resting for a little after returning to our hotel and having a shower after a full afternoon out and about.

The plane eventually made it into the gate and we disembarked, then walked the long corridor to the customs hall. The queues were not long and we passed through fairly quickly, then waited a few minutes to gather our bags. We had them before we spotted Quan arriving a few minutes later. He grabbed his bag quickly too and then we walked out to the arrivals area and to the BART station to catch a train into the centre of the city. There was a train waiting there as we arrived, but we weren’t fast enough buying tickets to get on. Thankfully the next train was only a six minute wait and we piled on and grabbed seats.

We chatted a bit about the conference and our previous visits to San Francisco with Quan as the train took us to Powell St, where we got off. Quan had a reservation at the Hilton, where the conference is, while we are staying in the Chancellor Hotel, a couple of blocks away. We separated and went to our hotels.

We checked into a room on the fifth floor, looking out on to Powell St. We simply dropped our things, washed our faces, and then headed out for a brisk walk to keep ourselves awake. We left the hotel about 12:30 and headed over to Grant Avenue and walked north through Chinatown and North Beach towards Fisherman’s Wharf. It took us about an hour to get there, then we looked around the seafood eateries there and strolled along the Embarcadero towards Pier 39.

The first stop there was the Boudin Bakery for some late lunch. We had the soup in sourdough bowls: M. having the tomato while I had the clam chowder. As usual, the first meal off the plane was delicious.

21:20

We are back at the hotel after dinner and going to retire for the night soon.

Earlier, after lunch we browsed the shops at Pier 39, checking out the various touristy goodness, including such marvels as Magnetron (a fridge magnet shop), a couple of chocolate and taffy shops, and the San Francisco 49ers sports gear shop (which also had Giants stuff and lots of other teams too). In the shop signing autographs was the retired 49ers player Bubba Paris, though we didn’t get anything signed.

Then we hopped on a streetcar to take us down the Embarcadero to the Ferry Building. The open air craft market on Market St was still open with a couple of dozen stalls showing off various wares, so we had a look at that. M. bought a cool floppy hat from a woman with a stall full of hand crafted hats. We looked for the fridge magnet woman who sold me the broccoli magnet three years ago, but she wasn’t there.

After that we crossed the road to go into the Ferry Building, where M. had a coffee from Peet’s. Next we explored the various cool food shops in the building, spotting a funky looking wine bar which we might try for a lunch snack one day.

It was about 17:00 by this time and the sun was setting, so we walked up Market St back to our hotel, where we showered and changed to freshen up. About 18:30 we left to find dinner. I mentioned the Thai place I’d been to three years ago, and M. said she felt like Thai food. So I found the name and address: King of Thai Noodle House on O’Farrell St, just a short walk from our hotel. On the way out of the hotel we asked the receptionist about nearby supermarkets, and she said there was a Walgreens two blocks down on Powell St, also right near the Thai place.

So we walked down, located the Walgreens, then went into the Noodle House. There was a queue of people waiting for a table, but the first group quickly got a table and then the group in front of us was three people but the next table they had was for two, so we got in next. Our table was upstairs, in a room painted entirely purple. M. ordered a vegetarian rice dish, pad gra praw, while I got the deep fried salmon with red curry that I’d enjoyed so much last time I was there. We also got a serve of vegetable egg rolls for a starter. The food was awesomely good, and very satisfying after a long, tiring day.

Deep fried salmon curry
Deep fried salmon curry from King of Thai Noodle House.

On the way back, M. was keen to take a look at the Levi’s store on Market St, so we walked around the block past that. We went in since it was still open, and they were having a huge sale. M. bought a pair of jeans for $30 and I got a shirt for $20. We were in different change rooms at the same time and when I came out with the shirt on I had no idea where M. was. A lady on the staff asked if I needed help and I said, “I don’t know where my wife is… She’s in one of these rooms.” She asked me her name, and I told her, and she started calling out! M. responded, so then we had it sorted.

After Levi’s, we went into another Walgreens next door, different to the one we’d located before dinner. We bought some Grape Nuts and milk for breakfast in our hotel room, and some of the Old Spice deodorants for Andrew, who wanted some of the fragrances not available in Australia. Then we came back to our hotel, took care of some catching up on the Internet, and turned in for the night. We have an alarm set to wake us up at 07:30, if we’re not awake by then.

Major League Baseball opening game, Sydney

23 March, 2014

Opening DayI attended the 2014 Major League Baseball season opening game at the Sydney Cricket Ground last night, and it was a fantastic experience. To see not just a major league baseball game, but the opening game of the 2014 season, and on the special occasion of the game being played at such an historic venue as the Sydney Cricket Ground, was really awe-inspiring.

The weather here in Sydney has been warm, humid, and unsettled the past couple of weeks, with afternoon and evening thunderstorms flitting about the city. Last night was no exception, and I feared there might be a rain interruption. As it turned out, there was a light sprinkle from the edge of a passing storm about an hour before game time, but after that it was fine. That did cause the start of the game to be delayed by 45 minutes, which was disappointing mainly for the fact that the gorgeous sunset sky over the picturesque cricket ground had gone by the time the players appeared on the field.

I had expected the sell-out crowd to be largely travelling Americans, figuring not many people in Sydney would be interested enough in baseball to fork out the expensive ticket prices. But surveying the crowd near my seat in the Brewongle Stand, about 80% of them appeared to be locals, with only a smattering of obvious American visitors.

Before the game were the national anthems of both the USA (sung by Australian household name, US-born ex-pat Marcia Hines) and Australia. It was interesting that for the Star Spangled Banner, the stadium was pin-drop silent – I heard one guy behind me quietly singing along with the words – but for Advance Australia Fair there were 30,000+ people belting out all the words at the top of their lungs.

Then the game was on, and as I find with all sports events, it’s much more gripping and fun being there than watching on TV. I had to explain a lot of the rules to my wife, as she didn’t even know the basics, but she got into it quickly. As a San Francisco Giants fan, I had to cheer for the Arizona Diamondbacks, as having the L.A. Dodgers win would be unconscionable. Alas the Dodgers took an early lead and never really looked back, but there were some fine moments of sporting play and athleticism to admire in the game. My highlight was probably the leaping catch by Martin Prado to snatch a fast line drive by Andre Ethier out of the air.

I expected the crowd overall to be a bit more vocal, but they were a bit subdued compared to a cricket match. I think part of it must have been that a lot of local people had come for the occasion and weren’t really baseball aficionados. I noticed in a couple of the post-game stories on mlb.com that a few of the players/coaches had commented on the crowd apparently “loving foul balls” – people got excited when a ball went into the crowd and they got to see if someone would catch it. I think some of the crowd missed some of the finer points of what was actually crucial to the game.

Nevertheless, it was a great night and an unrepeatably fantastic experience. I’m very glad I went.

Facebook makes change that everyone likes

11 January, 2014

Social media giant Facebook has rolled out a change to how its newsfeed and sharing system works and, in a surprising development, users actually seem to like it. Several “share this if you like the Facebook changes” memes have popped up and spread widely across the social network. Bloggers are generally very positive in their comments about the change, and it’s hard to find anyone saying anything negative.

“I really like it,” says tech blogger Howard Freeman. “The UI change is clean and intuitive, it’s easier to find the stuff you want to see, and it just plain looks nicer. I’m seeing exactly what I want in the newsfeed, and my posts are being shared with exactly who I want to see them. I was skeptical at first, but they’ve really nailed it this time.”

Privacy groups went over the changes with a fine tooth comb. “We expected to see ridiculous opt-out changes that seriously impacted your ability to control who sees information about you,” says EFF spokesperson Wendy Smith. “Instead they made changes that even the most casual users were well-informed about and realised were exactly what they wanted. More control, more options, and it’s trivially easy to adjust the settings – although honestly, they’ve automatically changed to a setting which is exactly what every user wanted. It’s a big win for everyone who uses Facebook.”

Facebook programmer Cody Williams was taken aback by the response when the changes were rolled out this week. “We expected people to rant against these changes, start boycotts, and all that sort of stuff. I like the changes myself, but I can see that changing what people are comfortable with can cause some difficulties. I thought users would complain about the way all the controls moved around, the completely different menu system, the comment system, and the new graphic design. However, reaction seems to be good – everyone I’ve heard from appreciates the same improvements that I do.”

Even hard-core tech critic Samantha Bourne struggled to find anything to criticise in the changes. “Look, I think that thin line under the new menu bar is just a shade too blue. That’s all I have to say. Excuse me, I need to share something with my Facebook contacts.”

Book roundup

28 December, 2013

I’ve just finished reading The Music Instinct by Philip Ball. This is one of those books that immediately makes me think that it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read. I learnt more about music by reading this one book than I probably knew just before I began.

I’ve never known much about music theory. I learnt to read music at school, but never became competent at playing any instrument, or gained any of the theoretical underpinnings of how music works. I have basically just been an uneducated listener. I never really understood why scales work the way they do; why there are tones and semitones. I didn’t understand chords or chord progressions or the principles of accompaniment, or of tension and resolution in musical composition. After reading The Music Instinct, for the first time in my life I feel as though a veil has been lifted from my eyes and I can, for the first time ever, see some of the underlying structure and theory behind music.

It’s more than just music theory too. There are chapters on how music elicits emotions, the psychology and cultural biases of how we interpret what we hear, and what, if anything, music might mean in some sense. It cites many psychological studies which reveal astounding and surprising things about how we perceive music. Every chapter and paragraph was full of fascinating information. I am going to keep a copy of this book handy in the future, and will no doubt refer to it again and again. I highly recommend it.

And speaking of book recommendations, I want to share some other books which I have enjoyed reading recently – and ask any of you reading this to recommend some to me. I will pre-empt some of this by saying that for this purpose I am really only interested in non-fiction. I’m interested in most subjects: history, geography, science, sport, music, travel…

My list:

  • Venice: Pure City, Peter Ackroyd. A wonderful picture of Venice and its history, which made my trip there last year immeasurably richer and more enjoyable.
  • The History of England, Volume 1: Foundation, Peter Ackroyd. I bought this after enjoying the above book by the same author, and found it a fascinating telling of the history of England up to the rise of the Tudor dynasty. I recently got the second volume and it’s next on my to-read list.
  • Leviathan, or The Whale, Philip Hoare. Everything you ever wanted to know about whales and more, told in a compelling style. We all love these creatures, and this book explores that fascination.
  • On the Map, Simon Garfield. A series of vignettes about various maps through history, interspersed with information about how maps are made, what they tell us, and what makes them so fascinating.
  • Ingenious Pursuits, Lisa Jardine. The story of the scientific revolution – basically a history of science around the 17th century, covering names like Newton, Halley, Hooke, Boyle, Cassini, Huygens, Leeuwenhoek.
  • Atlantic, Simon Winchester. Tales of the first ocean that western civilisation encountered, how it was explored, crossed, yet remained untamed, including its roles in commerce, migration, and war.

Theros is epic

19 December, 2013

353/365 Epic Magic gameI played the most epic game of Magic: The Gathering of my life today. We are playing a draft tournament with the latest set, Theros, which is based on Greek mythology. One of the design goals for the set ( as explained by Mark Rosewater in one of his excellent game design articles) was to capture the feel of epic conflicts between mighty heroes and powerful monsters. I think they succeeded.

The draft has seven players, and we play a full round-robin of 3-game matches, scoring one point per game win (we play the full 3 games, even if one player is up 2-0 after 2 games). Currently three of us are tied on 11 points, with two others on 10 points. Only a few games are left to play, and it’s possible for all 5 of us to end on 11 points. Prior to today, I had two games to play, and so the most opportunities to break away from the pack.

I began my second last game of the tournament against Loki, who I had beaten in our first game. He tossed out a few cheap creatures early on and attacked until I was down to 13 life, at which point I had accumulated enough land to play some slightly larger creatures and shut down his attack. I had a Nessian Asp in hand, and had drawn a Fleecemane Lion, which is a potential game winner once it activates its Monstrous ability. But before I played the Lion Loki put out a Triad of Fates, which was capable of removing the Lion before it could become Monstrous. So I bided my time and hoped to draw enough land to put it into play and make it Monstrous on the same turn, thus activating its Hexproof and Indestructible abilities and making it safe.

I also had out Triton, Fortune Hunter, and was targeting it with stuff to draw extra cards as often as I could. Unfortunately, as well as the Triad, Loki played a Fabled Hero, and buffed it up with auras, creating a large double striking creature, as well as a regenerating creature and one or two other small creatures. I also had a few other creatures. The result was a massive stand-off, with neither of us able to attack effectively, and if we did we would leave a hole in our own defences, so we played several turns in a row with no attacks.

I played Spear of Heliod, giving all my creatures +1/+1, and giving me a weapon to destroy any creature of Loki’s that managed to do damage to me, making it even less likely that he would want to attack me. I drew what I thought would break the game open, Medomai the Ageless. Loki had no flying blockers, so I attacked with Medomai the next turn and gained an extra turn…. but with the extra turn I had nothing effective to do, so simply untapped and drew a card, then passed the turn to Loki. By this time he had put a Triad of Fates counter on Medomai, and then exiled it, allowing me to draw two more cards, but removing the threat.

His Fabled Hero has grown quite large by now, being 6/6 double strike, almost enough to kill me in a single unblocked attack. What’s worse, it was enchanted with Erebos’s Emissary, allowing it to get +2/+2 every time Loki discarded a creature from his hand, so I couldn’t afford to let it go unblocked. Fortunately, I had more than enough blockers to deal with it, and the Spear of Heliod meant that if he did damage me without killing me I could destroy the Hero, so he didn’t attack. At some point I had enough mana spare to make my Nessian Asp Monstrous, making it 9/10 with the Spear bonus, which just increased the stand-off to truly epic proportions. Loki used his Triad of Fates on his own smaller creatures a few times to draw more cards, but I was drawing faster thanks to several spell effects combined with the Triton.

I got out a Prescient Chimera and managed to get Loki down to 13 life also before he exiled it with his Triad. At this point I started to think the game might possibly go down to who ran out of cards first, as neither of us looked like making a combat breakthrough. But I knew I had an Aqueous Form in my deck, so I was burning through it as fast as I could to find it. That would make my Lion or Asp unblockable and be able to kill Loki within two turns. I didn’t know at this stage, but Loki informed me afterwards, that he was trying to draw cards as fast as he could too, seeking a card that would break the deadlock from his side.

I cast Hopeful Eidolon, bestowing it on my Triton, triggering another card draw for myself and hoping the turn the Triton into a 4/4 creature with Lifelink. Gaining 4 life whenever it did damage would have been very helpful, and (in hindsight) probably would have won the game for me, but unfortunately for me Loki had an Annul in his hand and countered the spell, putting the Eidolon straight into my graveyard, meaning its life gain ability was out of my reach. A turn or two later Loki cast a Nimbus Naiad, bestowing it on his Fabled Hero. This would make the Hero 11/11 flying, double strike, which was enough to kill my Nessian Asp – the only large creature I had that could block flyers (it has Reach). Fortunately I also had an Annul, and sent the Naiad straight to the graveyard.

We stalled for a few more turns. Loki bestowed another Nimbus Naiad on his Fabled Hero, and this time I had no Annul to counter it. I was in trouble – it was 11/11 flying double strike, big enough to kill my Nessian Asp without dying. Without an answer I would be dead in probably 2 more turns. On my turn I drew Sea God’s Revenge. This was a card that could not only save me from the Fabled Hero, it could win the game for me that turn! By removing three of Loki’s creatures, I would leave him with not enough blockers to stop a fatal attack from all my creatures. I cast it, targeting his Triad, his Fabled Hero, and another smaller creature. But Loki had a Gods Willing, and cast it to give his Fabled Hero protection from blue, making it an invalid target for the Sea God’s Revenge. However, this had the side effect of also making it an invalid target for the Nimbus Naiad, and it fell off, becoming a creature (after a rapid check of the rulings to see if it actually became a creature or went straight to the graveyard as a result of falling off due to colour protection effect) and leaving the Hero as 9/9 double strike, no longer with flying – making it again easy for me to block if it attacked. This gave Loki two more blockers than I had reckoned when I cast the Revenge, so I could no longer attack for the kill. Attacking would have left me vulnerable to a potentially game-losing counter-attack, so I declined to attack. And so the game continued.

Loki recast the Triad soon after, but kept the other small creature in his hand. He used the Triad again to exile another of his small and unnecessary creatures (his large ones were holding down the fort and making it impossible for me to attack him usefully) to draw two more cards. Eventually, with my library down to just 6 cards, I drew the Aqueous Form I had been waiting for. My Asp was not big enough to kill Loki in a single blow, so I placed it on the Fleecemane Lion, lest Loki destroy the Asp before it could finish the job. The Lion was much, much harder to deal with. (Loki informed me after the game that I had made a very good decision here, because he had in his hand Voyage’s End, which returns a target creature to its owner’s hand – it would return the Asp to my hand and the Aqueous Form would have been destroyed. If I’d enchanted the Asp, I would have lost the game because of that decision.) I attacked, and got Loki to within a single strike of my now unblockable Lion. I would win on my next turn. Loki had no responses that could deal with it.

He took his turn, drew his card, hoping it would be something that could get hi out of this desperate situation. It was Thassa’s Bounty. He could draw three more cards! The other effect of the spell was to mill three cards off my library into my graveyard, leaving me with just three cards in my library.

(Aside: If Thassa’s Bounty had let you target any player with the “draw 3 cards” effect, Loki could have targeted me, forcing me to draw three cards and leaving my library empty, which would make me lose the game at the start of my next turn! Mark Rosewater has argued in his game design columns that card drawing effects nowadays tend very strongly to just say “draw cards” rather than “target player draws cards”, because you virtually never want to target anyone but yourself, and the extra complexity of allowing you to target an opponent isn’t worth it for the ridiculously rare occasions when you’d actually want to do it. That game design decision basically lost Loki the chance to win the game right there and then.)

One of the cards Loki drew into was Prowler’s Helm. He cast it, and equipped it onto his Fabled Hero, making it unblockable, since I had no Walls. It was 9/9 double strike, and I was on 13 life. I was dead.

But then I remembered the Spear of Heliod! After the first strike damage of 9 was assigned to me, I could activate the Spear to destroy the creature that had damaged me, the Fabled Hero, before it could deal the extra 9 points of regular damage! I would survive the turn, then hit Loki with my unblockable Lion for the win!

But Loki saw this. He discarded a creature from his hand to activate the Erebos’s Emissary (the very creature I had made him return to his hand several turns earlier with Sea God’s Revenge! If I hadn’t done that, he would not have been able to make this play) giving the Hero +2/+2, making it 11/11. If he could just discard another creature, he could make it 13/13, and kill me with the first strike damage alone, before the Spear could kill the Hero. But he had no other creature in his hand of three cards! But then he saw that he had that Voyage’s End. “Return target creature to its owner’s hand.” This spell is almost always used to remove an opponent’s creature temporarily. But he cast it on one of his own creatures (using the last two mana he had available – he had tapped most of his land already casting the other spells to get him to this point), returned the creature to his hand, then discarded it to activate Erebos’s Emissary again, giving the Hero another +2/+2, making it 13/13… enough to kill me with first striking damage.

Loki has exhausted his entire set of resources – all his mana, all his card drawing effects, every useful card in his hand – to get to this point where he had an unblockable creature exactly large enough to kill me in one blow, immediately before that strike gave me the opportunity to kill it with one of my open threats on the table. If anything had gone wrong, if I had any response whatsoever that could deal with this creature, prevent a single point of damage, or gain me just one point of life, I would have survived, and then swung back with my massive unblockable Lion for the win. But I had exhausted my deck and my hand.

So I lost the game. I would have won on my very next turn, with just 2 cards left in my library… but Loki’s amazing last turn spun the whole game on its head and pulled out an incredible win. We both agreed (along with Steven who was watching the final stages of the game) that it was the most epic game of Magic ever played. It was like a wrestling match, in which both wrestlers are flexing and bulging muscles, looking for any vulnerability or moment of weakness, probing for that single slip that they can exploit to full advantage, but every time something appeared to give, the other person propped it up again, reinforcing the unbreakable resolve. Several times not just once, twice, three times, but many times, we played spells that seemed destined to crack the standoff and provide a winning advantage, and every time the opponent had an answer that rose to the occasions and reset the deadlock at an even mightier level of power.

In the end it took a truly epic turn to combine the effects of four separate cards to construct a winning scenario for Loki, in the face of losing the very next turn. The whole game felt like an altered state of awareness in which it was just us locked in this gargantuan tussle. I never at any stage felt confident that I would win, but likewise never felt like I was doomed to lose or even battling uphill. It was an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

Loki and I are now locked at one game each in our match of three. It is possible that whoever wins that game will win the entire tournament. It should be a suitable finale for a fantastic tournament.

Band Practice

18 December, 2013

I was at my last drum lesson for the year last night, and I mentioned that I was trying to get the guys together for some more band practice over the Christmas/New Year period. In a year and a half we’ve so far only managed to actually get together as a group and play songs twice, which is pretty miserable – though understandable given most of them are busy parents with young kids and so on.

My teacher suggested that I could try joining the music school’s adult band program. They actually have two different programs: they match you up with other people who play different instruments according to your tastes in music, then they either give you a set list of about ten songs to learn, or they let you pick your own songs. You attend a roughly 2-hour practice session at the school once a week for some number of weeks, which is attended by a teacher who helps everyone with the songs. And then at the end they book you into a pub to play an actual gig!

My teacher said at the stage I am at with my drumming, I am definitely ready for this, and it will improve my drumming enormously. He says I really need to start playing with other people to develop that part of my experience. I’m going to consider it for a while and try to get my friends organised enough to do some more regular practice together. If that turns out to be too difficult, then I may go for the music school program…

Stay tuned.

North Sydney walking project

1 December, 2013

North Sydney walksI mentioned in this post back in June that my wife and I were doing a walking project: walking the full length of every street and walking path in the North Sydney council area. The area is roughly 4km by 4km, so that’s a fair bit of walking. Every trip has to start and end at our home as well – no driving to and from places on the other side of the area to walk there.

We started this project in (I think) March of 2011. I thought at the time we might be able to finish it within a year. But it turned out to take more than two and a half years.

Today we finished the last few streets remaining. Whew! This map shows everywhere we have walked, marked in orange. (I may have missed a few small details – it was very fiddly marking these off in Photoshop.)

It feels good to complete such an ambitious and long-running project. We’ve thought about starting a new one… walking every street and path in the Sydney City council area. For that one we’ll probably have to allow ourselves to catch a train or bus to and from the walking locations.

The Penny Drops

19 November, 2013

I was sitting at lunch with my group of friends at work, talking about various nerdy stuff as we are wont to do. There’s no doubt that we are a group of nerds, in the modern non-pejorative sense of “people who enjoy certain types of intellectual recreational activities”. We play regular Magic: The Gathering tournaments, we play Dungeons & Dragons and other roleplaying games, we play the latest European style board games, we run a popular Internet puzzle competition, we collectively write a webcomic based on the concept of Star Wars as a roleplaying game.

We share lots of interests in common and have incredibly nerdy conversations about them. But on this day I was struck by the fact that I didn’t follow what anyone else was talking about. They were discussing some sort of special mode in some computer game, which I only learnt right near the end of the conversation was actually Diablo. Throughout the whole conversation I just sat silently, not understanding most of what was being said.

I remarked that, even though we are all clearly nerds, there are still some significant differences between us. I, for example, don’t play video/computer games. I just don’t. I used to, as a kid – I had an Atari 2600 console and spent hours absorbed in playing various classic games like Pac-Man, Missile Command, Pitfall, and so on. A bit later I played an awful lot of Tetris, and really enjoyed SimCity. But… I haven’t really played any game more modern than SimCity. I’ve had a few brief goes at these newfangled first-person perspective games like Doom, but I just couldn’t get into them. And the video games of today are essentially a complete mystery to me.

So in a conversation about video games, I have nothing to add. I made a comment to this effect, pointing out how video games were one “nerd” thing that I just didn’t do. Knowing how none of these friends are really into sport of any sort (while I am), I commented that given the choice I would much rather sit down and watch a game of football than play a video game. They said, “What sort of football?” I replied, “Well, any, really.”

Then I said, “You know how on The Big Bang Theory the guys are all nerds and they all basically enjoy doing the same stuff? They all like comic books, they all play video games. That’s not a realistic portrayal of nerd culture. There’s variation. Not all nerds like all nerdy things. They should have someone in their group who doesn’t like video games.”

“Like Penny,” one of my friends said.

“Oh my god,” said another, “You’re the Penny of our group!”