Power Grid: Why You Must Play This Game

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I know what you’re thinking. A game about building and maintaining a power grid? That’s it?

You: Does it include bribing officials for permits?
Me: No.
You: Then assassination of said off-
Me: No.
You: Is it during a war?
Me: No.
You: On Mars?
Me: No.
You: Is Gojira, zombies, a plague or an imminent asteroid impact involved in any way?
Me: No.
You: Then this sounds dumb. Let’s just play Ken’s Job: The Board Game. (Yes, I have a friend Ken who works for PSE.)

Yes, Power Grid sounds dumb. But for all you board game players out there, Power Grid is like Ticket To Ride and Puerto Rico had an illegitimate baby who was raised on Wall Street by his wacky uncle Small World.

Granted, I have played the game only three times. And each time we have discovered major rules we didn’t use or screwed up in previous plays. But each game got better and more fun.

Power Grid is a game for 2-6 players and takes about two hours. The players pick connected regions of the US equal to the number of players (forcing interaction between players a la Small World) and bid on the power plants in the marketplace. Players buy coal, natural gas, oil or uranium based on what runs their power plants (and what is cheapest) and build generators in cities to form a power grid. Then they spend the resources they bought and earn money for how many cities they can power. The winner is the first player to power a certain number of cities.

This game is all about money and resource management, bidding up opponents for power plants they want while getting yours on the cheap, nabbing cheap resources, blocking opponents by connecting strategic cities, and manipulating the turn order to be first to bid, buy resources or place generators as your needs demand. There is a load of strategery at each stage.

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Yes, Smithers, we’ve taken over every Springfield in the heart of America!

The best thing about this game for me, beyond the abundant ways to strategize, is there are no dice. The only randomness is the beginning turn order and the generators in the market. It mixes the best parts of so many games that I can’t help but love it.

With the deluxe edition, you also get the Europe map on the other side of the board and nice wooden pieces. We have also had players as young as ten play and do just fine.

At first, the game may seem daunting with its complexity. But after you get the hang of it, it moves really fast and is super fun. I highly recommend it for your next game night!

Refine Your Prose: Don’t Let English Get In the Way

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Read other writing advice blogs on my writing page!

Refine Your Prose 5: Don’t Let English Get in the Way

This tip may be the most crucial for breathing life in your narrative and making it your own. But using it without the utmost care can destroy the readability of your prose.

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When James Ellroy sent his novel L.A Confidential to his editors, they told him he needed to cut the length. Not wishing to remove any of the scenes or plot of his story, Ellroy went through and removed every verb, adverb and adjective he deemed unnecessary.

I feel you recoil. Sentences need these words! Verbs in particular are one of the two pieces of every complete sentence. How can you publish a novel that ignores major structural underpinnings of the English language?

Ellroy did. And his prose full of sentence fragments and verbless narrative –which he uses to accentuate the speed and rhythm of his story – created a unique writing style, called Ellrovian prose, that redefined the genre. He would later refine the style with White Jazz and his proceeding works.

Prose is rife with examples of broken English rules. Forgoing rules when necessary can lift your prose to an unforgettable level. But forgoing those rules too liberally, too grossly or without care can ensure no one will read your work.

I wrote a story in college without punctuation or capitalization. It was new! It was fresh! No one wrote this way! (Except every other college creative writing student in existence.) And it was unreadable.  I broke the rules of punctuation and capitalization just to break them, not for any reason that added to my voice or the work.

Even writers that break rules with purpose can be difficult to read. It took me several chapters to grok Ellroy’s style in White Jazz. Cormac McCarthy routinely dispenses with apostrophes, commas and quotation marks. Though McCarthy’s prose is beautiful, I can’t get through many of his books because the lack of punctuation plain bugs me.

This post does not advocate breaking the rules of basic English just to break them. A writer needs to know how to correctly use a semicolon, when to use less versus fewer, where in a sentence a comma belongs, and what the difference is between its and it’s. This comes well before a writer should even have an inkling to consider suspecting that she might want to examine investigating the development of a style that might occasionally contemplate breaking rules. You need to know the rules before you break them. And even after you have a great handle on English, you can develop a memorable style without breaking a goddamn thing. Hemingway, Twain, Faulkner and Vonnegut have styles all their own and don’t go out of their way to mess with English rules.

English rules are rules for a reason. They allow people to understand the writing of others. Our job as writers is not just to communicate with our readers, but to connect with them. When done with skill and forethought, breaking an occasional rule can connect more fully and make prose more beautiful without sacrificing communication. But when those things distract your readers, your work will be relegated to the reject pile.

 

My Star Wars trailer takeaway: Han Solo is a grumpy old codger

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Everybody has seen the latest trailer for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In case you are that one person who didn’t see it (or not, in which case it’s likely you want to see it again), here it is:

I admit it, I loved it. It’s already better than the prequels. (And yes, despite popular opinion about Revenge of the Sith, I think they’re all terrible movies.) But I found myself ruminating afterward not on all the awesome in the trailer, but on the end, specifically the moment when the one and only Han Solo says, “Chewie… we’re home.”

Before you jump to share my excitement, I focused on it not in the way that most of the fan boys and girls do. Han Solo is… old. It’s been close to forty years, man. And it’s not the years, it’s the mileage. He’s wearing an outfit almost identical to the one he wore four decades before. Hell, it might be the same ol’ trusty duds that saw him through that unfortunate carbonite incident back on Bespin. He’s still driving the same jalopy that was a piece of junk forty years before, when he still had the edge to keep it in top form with his special modifications. To put it in terms of a time right now, in a galaxy we’re in right here, he’s driving and wearing this, today.

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Sell old blue? They don’t make ’em like her these days! Let’s see you play my 8-tracks over your Blueteeth thingamawhatsit or whatever the hell you kids are using.

In short, Han Solo is my grandpa. The old codger on his porch with his blaster pistol screaming “Get off my lawn!” at the rascally Ewoks that have moved in to his neighborhood.

I may be wrong. Along with Captain Kirk and James Bond, Han Solo defined manhood and cool for me growing up. The first two examples have aged quite well. I can only hope Han will do the same.

But until I see Han once again shooting first in the cantinas of The Force Awakens, the image of the grumpy old smuggler that time has passed by won’t leave me. Let’s just hope Lando Calrissian doesn’t show up in the next trailer, kicking back a Colt 45 and playing holographic cribbage with his buddies Han and Chewie in the Falcon’s assisted living compartment.

A Remodel Ain’t A Remodel Without Pestilence

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You may remember from a previous blog that our house is trying to kill us. We found this out before our remodel. Now, the offending vinyl (shown below… two flavors!) has been removed and we’re down to the sub-floor. The cabinets have been demolished and our kitchen now looks like the photo at the top of the article.

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Who needs new floors with classy 60s asbestos death vinyl like this?

So we are now kitchenless. And furniture-less. We pulled up all the carpet and molding to get to the hardwoods underneath and will be painting while the furniture is in the garage. There are nails, staples, tack strips and dust on every surface except in the bedrooms and bathrooms. Hence the dining on PB&J using boxes in the garage as a table. Today the electricians and plumbers are doing further destruction in the name of making the house less of a forbidden zone. Oh, did I mention the guest bathroom toilet has been plugged for the past few weeks? Good times.

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It’s like camping! In our own garage! Eating on a box!

However, Life decided living in a gutted house wasn’t quite enough of a challenge. During the asbestos removal, the abatement company cut a hot water pipe and we had no hot water for a couple days. Keep in mind everything was dusty during demolition, with now no ability to shower. Then on Thursday, my two year old Sebby came down with pink eye. This quickly moved to a chest cold, which he proceeded to spread to his sister and mother. Then, to top it all off, I had an MS flare up kick in Thursday night. This means that, for a brief period of time, my MS symptoms are cranked up to 11. I could barely get out of bed Friday morning.

So in addition to a house with no furniture, no kitchen, no hot water and no laundry room, four of the five family members were put out of commission due to illness. Remodeling FTW.

The silver lining is that treatment for an MS flare up is a three-day course of steroid infusions. Which means that 1) I feel much better than normal afterward, and 2) I don’t sleep for three days. Saturday night I used our shop vac to clean up the insulation, paint chips and nails in the kitchen and laundry/utility rooms. Last night I swept the living room, dining room and hallway starting at ten, and still had energy to pick up molding and watch the Game of Thrones premiere. So I guess having a day of MS suck was probably worth it in the end, after all.

It’s Baseball time!

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Seattle is a sports city.

I know Seattle gets some national backlash for the recent popularity and success of the Seahawks. But I don’t know of any team that has such a diversity of personality and talent. “Go Hawks” is synonymous with goodbye or have a nice day in the Pacific Northwest. And not to take anything away from the Patriots, but Seattle should have a second Lombardi trophy. Keep telling yourself Russell Wilson isn’t good, people. We don’t care. He’ll just keep beating you.

Even MLS is enormous in Seattle. I compare Sounders fans to drama kids in High School. They aren’t as ubiquitous as Hawks fans, but those that are in the club are WAY in the club.

(There are people still furious we lost the Sonics, too. I haven’t been into the NBA since the days of Michael Jordan. But it feels like a legitimate sports town needs basketball as well as the other major sports.)

But in my heart, I’ve always been a Mariners fan.

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When I moved to Seattle, I went to my first Mariners game in 2000. And that game? A nineteen-inning monstrosity against the Boston Red Sox. They had a second seventh-inning stretch in the 14th. They wheeled out the coffee urns at the top of the concourse steps and gave out free coffee to those of us still there. I didn’t get home until 2 AM.

And I loved it.

I lived through 114-win and 100-loss seasons. I watched Ichiro explode and Felix still exploding. Who won the Cy Young last year again?

Safeco Field is one of the finest MLB stadiums in the country, and I’ve been to over a dozen. I cannot confirm or deny that the baseball home game schedule might have affected my scheduling plans for events I organized.

We have Felix and Iwakuma. We have Robinson Cano, Kyle Seger and now Nelson Cruz. Last year, we were a game out of the playoffs. This year, I believe.

I think in October Seattle will meet New England in another championship. And trust me, Felix’s curveball is nastier than a slant pass.

Atheists are better Christians

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Admittedly, this blog title is inflammatory. The idea is not as simple, consistent or universal as implied. But this is a subject I feel needs attention.

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I am a Christian. I believe in a divine creator. Jesus was His son who taught that we should be kind to each other. I also believe in the Big Bang (though science can always convince me otherwise) and evolution. I support sex education, higher taxes, the right to choose, universal health care and LGBT rights. I oppose the death penalty, unrestricted gun rights, voting restrictions and attempts to undo social programs like welfare and unemployment. I say this not to proselytize about any of these subjects, but to illustrate that I am not the mainstream image of a believer.

It’s the conservative, largely Republican “Christian” image that drives me to write this blog. This image, a weird Frankenstein’s Monster combination of Jesus and Ayn Rand, holds many beliefs that I feel are contrary to Christianity. As such, I feel that many moral atheists act more Christian (IE are better people) than many Christians. And the two biggest reasons for this are the Bible itself, and forgiveness.

The Bible Justifies All

The Bible is a necessity for Christianity. It’s a combination of law, historical record, parable, allegory and general advice on how to live life in a moral way. The Bible is the backbone of Christianity and preserves the teachings, lessons and history of our faith.

The first problem arises due to the combination of goals. Like any work of literature, scripture has to be looked at in the context of the time it was written. The Bible’s goals, by nature, are affected by the time period. Genesis describes creation in terms the people of that time could understand, rather than opening up with a BCE-era crash course in physics. It wasn’t meant to supplant our human curiosity to find answers (what did let there be light actually mean?) or remain constant through the ages. We don’t stone adulterers or make slaves of people (atrocities notwithstanding), yet we hold sacrosanct other missives scattered throughout the Bible.The Bible doesn’t replace science, explain how the universe operates, or override our God-given curiosity.

Which brings up the second problem. With a book that spans millenia and has so many goals, one can find justification for nearly any belief if one looks hard enough, and find reasons to refute any contrary argument. These beliefs often don’t take morality into consideration and default instead to “the Bible says so.” The Bible has been used to justify genocide, slavery, segregation, sexism and racism, just to name a few evils done with claimed biblical backing. Today it’s used to demonize the poor and refuse rights to other humans who think, act or look differently. The Bible can be used, willingly or not, as moral armor for just about anything. The Bible never says God helps those who help themselves, or that we should shoot first so that He could sort them out for us.

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Moral atheists don’t have this problem. Morality is seen and identified by the individual, not through a book or sermon that can be gamed for one’s own interests. If you’re greedy, you can’t just say “God has blessed me.” You can’t bash away at homosexuality and conveniently ignore everything the Bible says about other sins. An atheist has to own his actions without a religious justification. A moral atheist decides if something is right or wrong based on morally, not on what they interpret the Bible to say (which may objectively be anything but moral). And an atheist never sees a conflict between the Bible and science. Belief in God is based on faith, and by definition is unprovable. But belief does not change, replace or trump scientific proof about our universe.

Forgiveness

This is perhaps the greatest gift God ever gave humanity. He made us with free will. We have the ability to not even believe in Him, for crying out loud. Knowing we have free will, He also knows we are going to fuck up from time to time. And if we see the error of our actions and ask forgiveness, He will grant it.

Damn, that’s an awesome Creator, IMHO.

But this isn’t meant to be a get out of jail free card. This doesn’t give a Christian license to act as they wish, knowing they can be forgiven later. Intent matters in forgiveness. We can’t be forgiven for actions we have every intention of repeating, or are insincere in our regret.

I don’t think most Christians actively think of forgiveness this way. But I do think it’s present at least subconsciously in our daily lives. And it makes us more flexible morally when confronted with a difficult moral dilemma. But when a moral atheist comes against such a dilemma, he has no escape hatch. He doesn’t believe there’s a Heaven he’s trying to earn or a savior he’s trying to emulate. He only sees what’s morally right or wrong, and he chooses with the belief that he has no do-overs or take-backsies.

Christians also have the promise of Heaven (and, implicitly, the threat of Hell) to keep them on the straight and narrow. I have trouble squaring my perception of Jesus, God and grace with the idea of Hell. It’s clearly referenced in the Bible (and not like the spurious interpretations that give us ideas like the Rapture), so I have no good way to reconcile. But my point is that being good for an eternal reward seems like a less pure justification than being good just to be good. This is another topic way over my pay grade to try to argue in detail (let’s leave that to a later blog), but I’ve decided to be good just to be good, not because it will get me into paradise or avoid an eternity in a lake of fire. That way, I don’t need to understand whatever God has planned. I’ll hopefully have lived a good life because it’s the right thing to do.

So Atheists have it right, then?

To put it simply: No.

I think the mainstream image of the conservative(R) Christian is wrong. I think Jesus wouldn’t like many things they support, and I don’t think they would like Jesus if He were to return tomorrow. But atheists, even moral ones, are missing the biggest, most important piece of existence.

God is Lord. He created everything, and the science and natural laws that run everything are a testament to his greatness. He made physics and biology and evolution in all their beautiful complexity to arrive at the exact beings He planned. (And the other beings I’m sure He planned in that infinite universe around us.) He can’t be proven, and depends on our faith to lead us to Him. The unprovable part is a huge hang-up for many atheists, but hey, that’s what faith is for.

I think God is way smarter than me, or anybody else. (Yes, including that moderately douchey guy on Scorpion.) And I don’t pretend to know what His plans are for moral atheists who, even though they don’t believe in Him, still live lives that are in many ways more moral than those who do believe. But judging people is not my job, thank goodness, or anyone else’s. Our job is to be kind to everybody. And if you’re not doing that, whether Christian or atheist or anything else, then you’re not a good person. EOD.

Ideas: Give a guy a break here

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Ideas beget ideas.

That’s probably the best reason to write all the time. When your mind is engaged and in writing mode, it doesn’t stop with what you’re working on. But this idea churn can be annoying, especially for writers like me.

I’m working on my novel, which is slow-going anyway being a stay-at-home dad with three kids. But when my muse (a mix of caffeine and insomnia) speaks up, she doesn’t contend herself with one topic. In fact, sometime the bitch needs Ritalin. During my time writing my novel, I have also written short pieces about demonic pirates, time dilation, colonization and jealousy via time travel.

A more disciplined writer would stick to her novel and file the new ideas under future projects. Unfortunately, I do not. Whether I’m right or not (usually not), I am convinced the new idea is amazing and world-changing and I must work on it immediately.

Take my latest story idea, which has nothing to do with the demonic urban fantasy I’m currently writing. I read the books Guns, Germs and Steel and 1491, which point out (in terms much more detailed than my description here) that a more worldly or advanced society tends to kill off one less so upon first encounter due to disease. Because of this, I’ve always held that War of the Worlds had it backward. I also believe that if time travel does exist, it can’t change history because history is already written and incorporates the results of the trip. (Sorry, that does mean every attempt on Hitler’s life has failed.) I combined these two ideas and realized that future time travelers could have sparked every extinction and pandemic in world history.

That idea at this point isn’t close to being a story. For starters, it lacks characters, situation or plot, which any idea needs before it can become a story. But I thought the idea was great. So great that, well, now I’m outlining it to get all the things that make an idea into a story. And temporarily derailing my work on my novel once again.

In the end, however, I think this subconscious idea factory is a good thing. It allows me to get a breath of fresh air from a longer work, which at least in my case is a good thing. I can experiment with different characters and different voices. Also, it keeps your creative muscles engaged. Either you’re working on multiple projects or you have a writing hopper to dig into when you finish your current project.

I wish I were a writer that could consign new ideas to the future. Meanwhile, muse, stay off the pharmaceuticals. Brew up another cup of joe. I’d rather have too many ideas, even crappy ones, than too few.