Beating the Staycation

(This post was written 2 weekends ago and edited more recently)

I’m watching baseball from my bed while writing in my journal. After dinner, I’ll probably play some StarCraft against the computer, then get ready for bed around 11-ish to get plenty of rest before early morning of work. This is a solid evening

Incidentally, I’m also in Anaheim for a library conference, though I may as well be at home. Other than not having ESPN, what I described sounds like a perfectly achievable & relaxing evening after work. This evening, however, is very atypical. In a whole week, I might catch at most 1 baseball game while preparing dinner. I don’t play much StarCraft anymore and haven’t written in my journal for weeks, and even then, it was sporadic. Somehow, it takes almost 400 miles and a hard bed to get me to where I should normally be.

I have heard a lot about “staycations” as a cheap, travel-free vacation. We all have those local attractions that we never get around to because we could do it at any time (but never do). And travel always involves away-toilet situations and added exhaustion from moving around. The staycation seems like an ideal way to take time off and enjoy the world around you. I, however, can’t imagine that working out. With a day off, I would likely read more reddit, find something on netflix to watch, and maybe watch some StarCraft before going to sleep. In fact, that sounds exactly like my regular 2 day vacations: weekends.

I always imagined the way to beat the staycation funk would be to add constraints. Here are a few I’ve considered:

  • eat out for every meal. As much as I love cooking, it actually can be a lot of work, and there’s a long list of recommendations I have yet to follow up on
  • no internet allowed. That’s the world I need to get away from
  • don’t look at the time for an entire week. Do things roughly by the sun and my own body clock, eating and sleeping as necessary
  • try to do everything outdoors

It would be interesting to see how I would adapt to the different circumstances. The changes aren’t necessarily to discovery new experiences I couldn’t have imagined before, but more to force myself into something different. Without some change in my environment, I’m likely to fall back onto the same habits as usual, without the refreshing vacation feel.

But why stop there? A hallmark Kevin move I’ve mentioned is planning significantly ahead of time to trap myself into doing something that I would otherwise lose motivation for. Maybe I just need to plan to do more planning of things like trips to the city or zombie movie marathons. Although I’m attracted to the life of whimsy where I remain open-minded and stumble across an array of different experiences, the truth is that those are the moments where I am most likely to fall back on my old ways.

In the end, a vacation is a break, no facebook pictures required. A coworker mentioned that on a recent weekend cruise, she spent a significant time in her cabin watching TV. I thought that was odd, except that on a family vacation, the “kids” generation ended up playing cards a lot. Could we have done this at home? Absolutely. But we wouldn’t have.

So like usual, my blog is filled with more stories of life as usual. I played about 4 to 6 hours of StarCraft instead of galavanting around Disneyland with Mickey Mouse. My refreshing experience was crushing a Zealot-Immortal push I’ve been losing to for a long time by scouting and making Roaches instead of defending with only Queens and Zerglings. I might have gone on months without figuring that out without a break.

Checking In

“It was a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Kevin,” he said with a thick Middle Eastern accent while shaking my head. I smiled back and turned to face the front of the hotel. Fashion 26 Hotel. My driver had told me it was located in midtown Manhattan, but that didn’t mean much to me. He had indulged me and given me a rough idea about the layout of the boroughs of New York and districts of Manhattan. He had also rattled off a list of the famous people he had driven, from Bill Gates to Chris Rock. That thought was probably a comfort to him while he drove a college kid in jeans and freshmen dorm hoodie who didn’t even work for Microsoft, but was just there to “cover a press conference.”

I nodded at the doormen as I dragged my suitcase through the automatic doors, then stood momentarily in the lobby. The wall was covered with mirrors, the lights were turned down, and all of the staff looked very sharp.

“Hello.” She paused for me to look as I awkwardly tried to orient myself. “Are you checking in? I can help you here.” I shuffled over to the counter. “Do you have a last name for your reservation?” “Leung. L-E-U-N-G. Maybe. I’m not sure.” I reached around for my backpack for some sort of paper in the itinerary I was given. “Kevin. I have you. No need for confirmation.” She tapped a few keys on the computer, situated slightly back and facing perpendicular to me on the other side of the L of the counter. “It appears we have a package here for you in the backroom. Let me get that for you. Feel free to have a cupcake from Crumbs.” She gestured to the little display in front of me. Oooh, Crumbs! My friend Stephanie, who I consider an expert in desserts, had mentioned it.

“Is Crumbs a thing around here?” I think I have this problem where I talk too much when I’m nervous or don’t know what to say. “Definitely.” She disappeared into the backroom, and by the time she had come back with a black notebook labeled “Kevin Leung” with a sticky note, I had overcome my fear to touch anything in the hotel and grabbed one of the two-bite cupcakes. My hands were occupied with the notebook and cupcake when she asked me for my credit card for incidentals. I nodded off her explanation for the credit card as I had no intention of using the mini-bar in the room or any other service.

“Oh, that’s cool. It’s like a cassette,” she said, looking at my card before swiping it. “Oh really?” “Yeah, you can see the 2 spools here,” gesturing and showing me my own credit card. “Huh. I guess I never noticed.” I half unwrapped the cupcake when she pushed some paperwork towards me.

“Initial here and here,” she said pointing with the pen. “And fill out your email and phone number here, just in case you forget something.” She looked at me expectingly for a second, probably just for confirmation that I knew what to do. I wanted to eat the cupcake, but I became self-conscious. I tried to imagine that situation: she’s behind the desk, talking to a clearly overwhelming kid, and is watching as he stares right back, lifting a cupcake to his mouth while he’s supposed to be filling out paperwork. Instead, I picked up the pen and began to write, using the side of my cupcake-holding hand to keep the paper still.

I initialized twice to unknown agreements and filled in my contact information. By then, she was back at her computer punching in more important information. I signed at the bottom while there were still a few blanks for the mailing address. She was still at her computer. Do I fill in the rest, or eat the cupcake? She didn’t mention the mailing address, but the blanks were there. I didn’t want her to turn back and wait for me to do something I had ostensibly already been told to do. She had more information about the room, asked me if I would have guests (“I don’t think so”), how many keys I needed (“Uh, one should be just fine”), whether I needed wifi (“Definitely”), and a few other simple questions. She went back to the computer for my key, and I sprung the cupcake to my face, takin gout a bite. Tasty red velvet. I tossed the other bite in and had to muster together some fast chewing and a tough swallow as she asked, “Will you need help getting your bags up?” “No, I think I can handle it.”

As she finished the last details, I noticed the Crumbs crumbs I left on the floor. It turns out those napkins weren’t just promotional material. A few pleasantries later, I was off and standing in the elevator, trying to figure out how to get me to my floor.

My Childhood Home

On a whirlwind of a trip, I spent two nights and one day in Toronto last weekend, though that only begins to describe how strange of a trip it was for me. I can’t remember having ever flown into Toronto before. My family always drives because our trip across the border is actually just a shopping trip for Canadian apparel and food. I have never declined the chance to see a Jays game either and did so this time only because I had seen them a week before. Strangest of all, though, was entering Canadian not as a citizen but instead with an American passport.

As far as logistics go, that doesn’t change much. Instead of filling out how long I was out of the country (3 years, I think?), I wrote in how long I would be visiting for. Instead of the immigration officer asking me what I was doing out of the country, I was asked what I was doing in the country. And maybe one might guess that I was born in Toronto because my reason for visiting was “family,” but that really doesn’t come up in idle conversation either. For all intents and purposes, I traveled as an American.

Many of my classmates and friends are likely offended by this portrayal. You say “bathroom,” I say “washroom.” You lost at hockey in the last Olympics, I won. By now, however, I know far more about being American than being Canadian. When I went to dinner with my cousins, they asked me a variety of questions about American life, like “Is marching band really like the movie ‘Drumline’?” or “How do you like the imperial system?”. A daily email with headlines from the Toronto Star remains my last connection to Canadian culture, which I generally don’t understand. As a case in point, when I was at Chapters, I was looking around for a quick book on Canadian history. If it hasn’t happened already, someone needs to write a book for emigrated Canadians who want to reclaim some heritage without really putting any effort into it.

I have accepted the fact that I’m more American at this point than Canadian. The label “Texan” doesn’t seem as offensive as it one did, and although I maintain that Houston is not an exciting place, I don’t think I would be honest to myself or fair to reject that bit. Country music is not intrinsically bad, “y’all” is actually a useful phrase, and conservative values actually do have some basis in thought. And although I’ll still listen to Ben Folds while working, point out that “you guys are dumb,” and remain the equally stubborn liberal I am, the stereotypical Texan has grown on me, which is a great lead-in for all the cultures in-between, both ideologically and geographically.

My memory of Toronto is somewhat foggy. I remember a few landmarks here and there, but renovations mean that even most of those are gone. As I was riding around in the car looking eagerly out the window for any remnants of what I knew, I concluded that I pretty much don’t know my hometown anymore. Driven around for a minute, I probably couldn’t tell you whether I was in Toronto or Vancouver, knowing the city to be Canadian only because of the French under all of the English. One truly doesn’t pay attention to directions or locations until driving, but I would hope to at least recognize what I call home a little better.

That afternoon, I walked the 5 minutes down to Hollywood Public School where I went to school for junior kindergarten and 3rd grade. I couldn’t wait to see the vast fields I ran around on, the towering walls for huge wallball games, and the hill we would sled down. As you might expect from any visit to a childhood memory, however, it wasn’t that. The field might have stretched 2 soccer fields. I was amazed that we ever crowded 15 people around that wall. And I bounded the hill in 4 steps. Sledding backwards perhaps wasn’t as hazardous as I had thought.

The obvious change is that I’m physically bigger than I was, surprised as you might be from my last post. To be less prosaic, though, the world was a lot bigger back then than it is now. When I had only lived in one city and only gone on a few, isolated road trips, my world was only a few suburbs in the Toronto metropolitan area, and my playground was that around the school, which possessed a disproportionate amount of my mental map and even more of my memories.

I agonized awhile ago about where I would tell people I’m from, and the answer is far trickier than it would seem. To add to the confusion, when I have been traveling away from school, the Bay Area is my default response since that is where I spend most of my time nowadays. And to layer on the difficulty now is what nationality I am. It frankly doesn’t seem fair to say “Canadian” anymore as I whip out my American passport and clearly have dated memories about what Canada is. And the stickers on my computer and preference for sports teams don’t quite scream red, white, and blue with bald eagles soaring through the sky, either. It frankly doesn’t matter, though, as those sorts of questions are no more than conversation starters anyways. I can’t answer any of those sorts of questions entirely honestly, but come story time on that, at least I have it all straight in my head.

PS: Hey drawmates, I’m not full of crap when I say “washroom.” Here’s my proof that I actually went to Toronto

Amidst It All

This past weekend, my dorm took a 3-day trip to Tassajara Hot Springs, not a one of the 12 of us were disappointed. Coming off of week 6, better known as “exactly half-way through the quarter when it makes sense to have midterms and papers”, we were all looking forward to the chance to relax in the remote Buddhist monastery, with hot springs instead of electricity, meditation instead of problem sets, and pure relaxation instead of stress.

My car left Friday early afternoon and reached the edge of civilization around 4:30. From there, we drove along 14 miles of dirt paths. Out one side was a cliff wall, out the other was a straight drop, and ahead was a mass of bumpy rocks. Thanks to our intrepid drivers and 4-wheel drive, we arrived shortly before the dinner we were very anxious to have. As part of the guest practice program, we spent our mornings meditating and working with the residents and the evenings as guests. What that boils down to is that we ate a very tasty meal, then headed to the hot springs for some clothing-optional co-ed bathing before an early bedtime.

A few of us woke up at 5:20 the next morning to go to the morning zazen. The morning zazen is an hour of meditation followed by chanting. I myself was just glad to have not majorly offended anyone by desecrating any rituals or fallen asleep, though I later found out in training all of the things I had done wrong. That first morning, I worked in the kitchen, mostly cleaning and chopping vegetables. After lunch, I spent the day lounging around, writing and reading and enjoying the weather while cursing the bugs.

I found the entire experience very relaxing, though I remain deeply conflicted about the whole experience. Although I enjoyed the spirit of the community, I found the rituals unnecessary, like working in “noble silence” and walking into the zendo with the left foot first. That likely reflects my status as a guest who doesn’t understand the significance of much of what they do, but I imagine it would go from stifling to tiring fairly quickly. Beyond that, Tassajara has all of the features of an ideal life, which makes it all the more bothersome. Consider the following list of characteristics and practices:

  • constantly available tea and coffee
  • apparently rigid moral standards while not judging at all (as we were told, “We’re not moralists”)
  • meditation
  • organic, vegetarian food of very high quality
  • sustainable use of biodegradable soaps
  • no electricity in cabins
  • overuse of the word “zen”
  • yoga and tai chi sessions, even as time filler

So yes, in this context, that sounds an awful lot like the description of a Buddhist monastery in the United States. On second take, though, that sounds like the upper-middle class dream. For comparison, here are a couple things I found on the list of “Stuff White People Like.”

I certainly don’t mean to disparage Tassajara. In fact, it’s a credit to them that the American upper-middle class has borrowed so much from them. What it has made me realize, though, is that a lot of these things are luxuries by both common definitions. As incomes rise into the upper-middle class range, demand goes up, and they’re certainly not necessities.

All of these lifestyle choices, though, reflect what I see as socially-aware self-cultivation with a touch of snobbery. Combine the stereotypical meditating ascetic lifestyle with the pride of consuming more sustainable (but without sacrificing quality) goods, and out comes refined and thoughtful taste. It’s an attractive lifestyle, but I can’t help but to feel tinged with guilt about it. Perhaps it is more sustainable, but that’s something that most people can’t afford and can’t even afford to care about. In that sense, maybe the upper-middle class is just paying for peace of mind.

By the end of trip, I was certainly ready to go. The car ride back was filled with silly car games, radio scanning, and even a stop at a fast-food/dessert place. Although I was certainly happy for the experience, I ended up feeling somewhat ridiculous for having been at Tassajara and lived their lifestyle. When I was lying in bed Friday night after having used my bike light to find and use the toilet, I could only think about how strange my situation was. One choice different, and I would’ve spent the day hanging out on campus and been lying in my top bunk in my own sheets in my room. Instead, I got to get away, eat lentil cakes, dip in sulfur water, and learn how to meditate. What a luxury.

Day Trip to SF with the Family (Int’l edition)

I wasn’t planning on writing about this, but I ended up writing it for an oral report for my Chinese class. Characters first, Pinyin second, English last, hilariously disjointed and contrived language all around.

上个周末,我父母(parents)来斯坦福大学看我。因为他们来,我舅父(uncle)和他家也来了。星期六,我们打算在旧金山(San Francisco)玩儿。

我们觉得天气会下雨,所以我们要在房子里面开始。十一点,我们去 Golden Gate Park 的 De Young 博物馆(museum)。现在,博物馆有 Tut 国王的陈列(exhibit),可是我听说不太好。因为票很贵,我们没有去看 Tut 国王的陈列。我们只看了被子(quilt)和画。

在博物馆,我差不多跟着我表弟(male cousin) Owen 看。他九岁,有活力(energetic)。他妈妈 Berkeley 毕业,可是他真聪明。我表妹(female cousin) Maddy 十三岁,也很开朗。他们都是戏迷,也表演(act),所以他们唱歌唱得很好。

然后,我们去唐人街(San Francisco Chinatown)看春节游行(Chinese New Year Parade)。五点半游行开始。我们在 Union Square 看很多孩子跳舞,有名人,和漂亮的车,可是我最喜欢的东西是龙。别的人对龙投爆竹(firecrackers),龙在爆竹上走。

晚上八点,我们去唐人街吃晚饭。来斯坦福大学以来,我不常吃中餐,所以去旧金山的时候,我一定吃中餐。我觉得 Sam Wo 饭馆是最好吃的饭馆之一。这个饭馆在 Washington 路,很小,可是菜不贵。如果你要炒面(fried noodles),你应该去那儿。如果你知道在唐人街有很好的点心,你应该告诉我因为我正在找。

吃晚饭以后,我父母,姐姐去 Oakland 飞机场,可是我舅父来 Peninsula,所以我跟他回来。十一点我回校园,很高兴我跟我家人过了一天。

问题

1)为什么我们不看 Tut 国王的陈列?

2)为什么我喜欢 Sam Wo 饭馆?

shànggè zhōumò, wǒ fùmǔ (parents) lái sītǎnfú dàxué kàn wǒ. yīnwèi tāmen lái, wǒ jiùfù hé tā jiā yě lái le. xīngqīliù, wǒmen dǎsuàn zài jiùjīnshān (San Francisco) wánr.

wǒmen juéde tiānqì huì xiàyǔ, suǒyǐ wǒmen yào zài fángzi lǐmiàn kāishǐ. shí yīdiǎn, wǒmen qù Golden Gate Park de De Young bówùguǎn (museum). xiànzài, bówùguǎn yǒu Tut guówáng de chénliè (exhibit), kěshì wǒ tīngshuō bútài hǎo. yīnwèi piào hěn guì, wǒmen méiyǒu qù kàn Tut guówáng de chénliè . wǒmen zhǐ kàn le bèizi (quilt) hé huà.

zài bówùguǎn, wǒ chàbuduō gēn zhe wǒ biǎodì (male cousin) Owen kàn. tā jiǔ suì, yǒu huólì (energetic). tā māma Berkeley bìyè, kěshì tā zhēn cōngming. wǒ biǎomèi (female cousin) Maddy shísān suì, yě hěn kāilǎng. tāmen dōu shì xìmí, yě biǎoyǎn (act), suǒyǐ tāmen chànggē chàng de hěn hǎo.

rán hòu, wǒmen qù tángrénjiē (San Francisco Chinatown) kàn chūnjié yóuxíng (Chinese New Year Parade). wúdiǎn bàn yóuxíng kāishǐ. wǒmen zài Union Square kàn hěn duō háizi tiàowǔ, yǒumíngrén, hé piàoliang de chē, kěshì wǒ zuì xǐhuan de dōngxi shì lóng. biéde rén duì Lóng Tóu bàozhú (firecracker), lóng zài bàozhú shàng zǒu.

wǎnshang bā diǎn, wǒmen qù tángrénjiē chī wǎnfàn. lái sītǎnfú dàxué yǐlái, wǒ bù cháng chī zhōngcān, suǒyǐ qù jiùjīnshān de shíhou, wǒ yídìng chī zhōngcān. wǒ juéde Sam Wo fànguǎn shì zuì hǎochī de fànguǎn zhīyī. zhège fànguǎn zài Washington lù, hěn xiǎo, kěshì cài bú guì. rúguǒ nǐ yào chǎomiàn (fried noodles), nǐ yīnggāi qù nàr. rúguǒ nǐ zhīdào zài tángrénjiē yǒu hěn hǎo de diǎnxīn, nǐ yīnggāi gàosu wǒ yīnwèi wǒ zhèngzài zhǎo.

chī wǎnfàn yǐhòu, wǒ fùmǔ, jiějie qù Oakland fēijīchǎng, kěshì wǒ jiùfù lái Peninsula, suǒyǐ wǒ gēn tā huí lái. shí yīdiǎn wǒ huí xiàoyuán, hěn gāoxìng wǒ gēn wǒ jiārén guò le yì tiān.

wèntí

1)    wèishénme wǒmen bù kàn Tut guówáng de chénliè?

2)    wèishénme wǒ xǐhuān Sam Wo fànguǎn?

This past weekend, my parents came to Stanford to visit me. Because they came, my uncle and his family also came to the Bay Area. On Saturday, we met in San Francisco to see what to do.

We were worried that it would rain, so we decided to start indoors. At 11:00AM, we met at the De Young Museum in Golden Gate Park. Right now, they have an exhibit on King Tut, but I heard that it wasn’t very good. Because the tickets were also expensive, we didn’t look at the King Tut museum. We just looked at the quilts and paintings instead.

In the museum, I mostly followed my younger cousin Owen around. He’s 9 years old and has a lot of energy. Even though his mom, my aunt, went to Cal, he’s smart. My other cousin Maddy is 13 years old, and she’s also outgoing. They both act and are musical fans, so they both sing well.

After that, we went to Chinatown for the parade and dinner. The parade started at 5:30, and we stood at Union Square to watch. I saw many dancing elementary school kids, famous people, and nice cars, but my favorite were the dragons. Peopole threw firecrackers at the dragons, and the dragons walked over them.

At 8:00, we went into Chinatown to eat. Since coming to Stanford, I rarely eat Chinese food, so when I go to San Francisco, I have to eat Chinese food. I think Sam Wo Restaurant is one of the best restaurants. It’s on Washington, and it’s small, but it’s cheap. If you want good fried noodles, you should go there. If you know of a good Dim Sum restaurant in Chinatown, please tell me because I have been looking for one.

After that, my sister and parents had to go to Oakland airport, but my uncle was driving back to the Peninsula, so I got a ride with him. I came back to campus at 11:30PM. I was very happy to spend the day with my family.

Thoughts on the Walt Disney Family Museum

A few months ago, I saw an article in the Times about a Disney museum. I read it only out of interest in Disney stuff, but when I saw that the museum was in San Francisco, I knew I had to go. Over Thanksgiving break, I made my way into the city and got to spend a few hours looking around.

The museum is located in the Presidio, one of the few urban national parks around, according to a sign I saw there. It covers the northwest part of San Francisco just below the Golden Gate Bridge and has large fields and neatly laid out buildings. We arrived at a relatively small, but well-labeled building just before noon. Although most of the Presidio was quiet, many people buzzed around and in and about this one.

The Walt Disney Company has been making dreams for kids for decades, and the museum tries to capture the process that led to its cartoons, movies, TV shows, theme parks, and more. Instead of focusing on the company, however, it focused on the man Walt Disney. As I mentioned, the building wasn’t huge, but the designers used all of the space effectively. The exhibits span 9 rooms, starting with Disney’s family and childhood and ending with his death in 1966. Much of Disney’s work since then, including the movies of my childhood, weren’t addressed, but we did get to see more into Disney’s personal interests, such as the vision of the Epcot center and Disney TV shows.

The museum goes through all of these topics in a completely controlled manner. My sister once took a college course where they talked about how museum’s present items to generate a certain response from patrons, and I got the sense that everything in this museum was carefully displayed. Traditional museums can get away with less cohesion: a natural science museum might put dinosaurs and the room next to the Amazon, and an archaeological museum is somewhat constrained by what a particular collection might contain. Those sorts of museums allow patrons to jump around, but in this one, each room leads directly into the next, forcing you to view exhibits in a particular order. I was struck by how well everything fit together and how they built a picture of Disney’s life and who he was.

Given that the building is small, that they packed a lot of content, and that everything is sequential, some areas in the museum felt more crowded than they should have been. Especially towards the beginning when everyone still wants to read all of the panels, I had to squeeze myself into awkward angles to read how Disney drew for his high school paper or how he served in WW1. To avoid crowding, the tickets are marked for timed entry, though they weren’t enforcing it when we came in.

The reading did make me think that the museum wasn’t necessarily designed for children. I thought for a second that it might have been meant for people my age who had grown up with Disney productions and were now old enough to appreciate how it happened, but kids have been growing up with Disney forever. I would put myself at the lower end of patience to read this, so the museum is meant for adults. 7 year old Kevin would never have put up with all of the reading, though he might have liked all of the TVs everywhere.

In fact, the integration of technology was one of the most impressive parts of the museum. TVs were everywhere. Some were just monitors playing clips of movies interspersed with commentary, but many were more cleverly added, such as embedded inside a frame on a wall of other pictures. The museum was mostly looking, not touching, but there were just enough activities to liven slow sections. For example, patrons got a chance to watch footage from “Steamboat Willie” and play instruments to synchronize the sound with the cartoon (also known as “Disney Rock Band”). Many other touchscreens and projections were spread across, but none were too time-consuming to develop lines or keep you from moving along.

Although I would have liked to see more detail on how the animation and filming process happened, I was too engrossed with all of the imagination I saw laid out before me. We finished in just about 3 hours, which should be fairly consistent across all visitors given how the museum is designed. The museum is likely a one-time deal, but anyone with any interest or familiarity with anything Disney should find it an eye-opening and fascinating experience.

Blizzcon 2009

It’s not often that one inadvertently ends up at an Ozzy Osbourne concert.

This past weekend, I roadtripped with 3 of my friends down to LA to go to Blizzcon and visit the area. Consistently making the best PC games, Blizzard has a huge fanbase, and those fanatics can buy up 20,000 tickets in less than a minute. It’s actually tragic to think that I’m one of them.

Until now, I don’t think I’ve ever been on a roadtrip or to a convention before. Perhaps the closest I came was going to a TubaChristmas with my section, but that’s a half-day event to play a tuba less than an hour’s drive away. This time, we drove 6 hours to spend 2 days at a convention center full of costumes, raffles, goody bags, panels, demos, and more. Because I can’t think of a better way to organize this, though, we’ll start with the drive.

To get from the Bay Area to LA, you can either take 101 or I-5. 101 follows the coast in a curve, so while you get the scenic view of the ocean, you also lose about an hour compared to the beeline of I-5. Since we left around 7 in the evening, we were much more anxious to arrive than to squint out to see the complete darkness of the ocean at night, so we took the very barren I-5.

That really didn’t matter, though, since we were more interested in talking to one another than looking out the window. All four of us–George, Ben, Jordan, and me–live fairly close together, but we see each once maybe once a week. With a variety of details to catch up on, we went back and forth on bizarre details, anecdotes, observation, and gossip. And like all good friends, we know each others’ feats and faults, boasts and buttons, stylings and stupidity, so 6 hours turns into a blur of mindless banter.

Oh, and if a town smells like cow dung, don’t stop for food.

We arrived at Tom’s house in east LA sometime past midnight and got the tour. It was a comfy enough spot, though we immediately fell into our old ways and began playing Magic and Super Smash Bros. At first, it seemed a little cheesy that we should do the same thing as we did in the dorm, but smash is what we do when we live together. So when we’re all sleeping over at Tom’s, it’s only fair that we should play more Smash.

About 4 hours of sleep later, we drove the 20 minutes down to Anaheim for Blizzcon 2009. We arrived around 8, and after parking and getting our badges and goody bags, we decided to get in line around 9 for a 10 am opening. We saw the line down the side of the building and followed it. As it led into park-like area, we were amazed by the snake-like shape the line had taken in and around a hill and some walkways. Walking around the outside of that, we ended up behind the convention center and finally got in at the end of the line 12 minutes later. And we were fortunate; we were only in the third row in the parking lot, which filled up and had the line come back out of it almost back to the front of the building.

We scoped out the floor first, which might have been a mistake. When we got to the hall for the opening ceremonies, we couldn’t find any seats and instead had to stand on the side. It was absolutely worth being, there, though. I guess it’s similar to the keynote presentation for most other conferences/conventions, as that’s when Blizzard unveils all of the new content for their games. Currently, Blizzard is working on 3 major titles: Diablo 3 (D3), Starcraft 2 (SC2), and World of Warcraft (WoW). WoW is their biggest cash cow with over 10 million players, each paying a monthly fee to explore Azeroth. As such, the room went ballistic when they announced the newest expansion for that.

The reaction to that announcement felt somewhat crazy to me. Although I’m familiar with the game, I, unlike the majority of people there, have never actually played WoW. A fan of Blizzard’s other games, I missed out on a lot of jokes and excitement, which many attendees got very excited about. I couldn’t immediately relate to their mania, but I can somewhat relate to their passion. Seeing as WoW is coming up on its fifth-year anniversary, I bet quite a few of them have spent more than a fifth of their life playing this game, so when they announce that attack power no longer exists, that probably affects them quite a bit. And Magic: the Gathering actually just went through the biggest rule change in 10 years, to which I freaked out about for the first minute or so. I guess I can’t ridicule them too much about their dedication.

During that first day, I went to a couple panels about the new games to see what content they were putting out. In-between those, I got to play demo versions of D3 and SC2. I won’t get too much into the details, since I’m sure many of you don’t care, but it suffices to say that I had a lot of fun with both of them. Like everything else at Blizzcon, there was quite a line, but with projections of the panels and events above all of the lines, the 20 minute wait to play for 20 minutes didn’t seem so long. Even though it took awhile, the system was surprisingly efficient with a large number of computers set up just to play on.

That first night, the headline event was the costume, sound-alike, and dance competition, MC-ed by Jay Mohr. I’m not sure how applicable this is to other conventions, but at just about all geeky conventions, cosplay is a big thing. Whether it’s  as Mario, Link, Goku, or just a generic dragon, people will show up to GenCon (a gaming convention), Comic-Con, and E3 is some very, very impressive costume of characters from the lore. At Blizzcon, everything was from the Starcraft, Diablo, or Warcraft universe, mostly from Warcraft. Combined with some shtick, the costume contest was very entertaining and impressive to watch. The sound-alike contest: not so much. I don’t find it particularly impressive that people are able to mimic the voice of a voice actor. And the dance contest was all WoW content, so nothing to speak of there.

We left around 10-1030 and went back to Tom’s. Since we were unwilling to pay for convention food, we only had dinner then, going to a Tommy’s a few blocks from his house. If you happen to like chili burgers or dogs, I recommend it.

Day 2 was mostly filled with playing games. That afternoon, though, I did get to watch the Blizzcon Starcraft Invitational finals, which was something of a big deal. Here in the United States, everyone crowds around the TV for the SuperBowl because football is the big American sport. In South Korea, Starcraft is probably the national sport. Both guys and girls will go to tournaments, where 2 players will be on-stage, and the audience will be watching live matches with 6 digits on the line. George happens to pay attention to the professional Starcraft scene, and he insisted that I watch the finals for it. It’s a little silly to think that a huge crowd started cheering when one of the players moved their mouse hand a millimeter and clicked, but that’s how the sport is played.

And to cap off the closing ceremonies, Blizzard brought in Ozzy Osbourne for a show. Although he might sound like a  random pick, there’s apparently an inside joke with him and WoW. Ozzy is known as the “Prince of Darkness”, which also happens to be attributed to the villain, the Lich King. To be honest, his appearance doesn’t mean much to me, so I watched most of his performance on a screen while in line to play D3 again. I did go over to that hall for about 3 minutes just so I couldn’t be faulted for not having taken the chance to see him live. He was surprisingly coherent and lively during the performance, so I’m betting he takes stimulants to get through his acts. That doesn’t change the fact that spraying the mosh pit with a foam hose is kind of weird, but it seemed like he gave them all a decent show.

Having pretty much experienced all of Blizzcon, we left around 9 and this time headed towards Ben’s house on the other side of LA. We geeked out for the evening playing Magic until about 3 in the morning and woke up around 11. We went on a walk and saw a Trump golf course right by the water. It’s a little ridiculous, but I guess the money has to go somewhere. After that, we went back to Ben’s and played board games with some of his friends. After dinner, we left to drive back. Some good signage let us dodge a 2-hour delay along I-5, and we ended up taking the 101 back up. We were pretty tired, but the radio was good bonding. We were constantly scanning the stations as we passed through different towns and got a good dose of 90s pop. While I’ve snubbed 90s music for awhile now, I guess there’s no point in pretending not to like fun music, so we shared a couple sing-alongs between naps all the way back to campus.

Sorry if that ended up sounding like a play-by-play, but maybe I’ll try to be more insightful next time. Instead of leaving you with a thought, I’ll instead give some details on SC2 and D3, if you care. Most of you probably don’t, but I can’t do a Blizzcon report without talking about the games.

So, Diablo 3 first. Diablo 3 is good. They gave us something like level 12 characters put in the middle of a desert (very much like act 2 of D2). The playable classes were the barbarian, witch doctor, sorcerer, and monk. The gameplay was pretty close to D2, which is probably a good thing. Now that I think about it, I didn’t feel like things have changed a lot. They eliminated potion spamming by putting a cooldown on that, but it’s compensated for by monsters dropping healing orbs. Playing each of the classes felt pretty simplistic. The caster classes were somewhat dissatisfying for me, since it was mostly just spamming ranged attacks. Although the barbarian is also just a click-fest, there was something a lot more satisfying about going toe-to-toe. The monk was probably the most fun to play. He chains together attacks, not unlike the assassin from D2. Instead of it being charges for a finisher, though, each of the 3 strikes has a unique effect. It was definitely the most interactive of the 4 classes. And the game is much better multi-player than single-player. It’s actually a little depressing to play by yourself.

Starcraft 2 was amazing. I got to play 2 campaign missions, including the on-ship briefing stuff. They weren’t that hard, but the action is varied enough that the objectives aren’t quite as trivial as in the first game. The main heft of the game, though, is in the multi-player. It’s going to take awhile to adjust to all the new units, but I promise they’re a lot of fun. There’s probably going to be some more balancing before it comes out; as it was, the colossus (think strider from hl2 or the walkers from war of the worlds) was pretty devastating. I’ll definitely be playing zerg, but I thought the protoss was a lot of fun to play. Lots of new abilities are probably going to be overload for awhile, but I think it’ll be easy to get used to. Things like queens pumping out larva and warpgates add fun mechanics without a lot more cognitive load, so the game remains fun. I was worried that additional complexity in SC2 would make it less fun for casual players who don’t practice their micro, but they’ve made lots of changes to simplify those as well. For example, you can rally workers to mineral patches automtically command-groups have icons on the bottom, you can control up to (I want to say) 32 at a time, and you can select multiple buildings at once to build. So more strategies, less fuss.

So overall, I’m a lot more excited about SC2, and a little less excited about D3. My concerns about SC2 were dealt with, but D3 didn’t show me anything special about the new classes. In the end, while they’re certainly doing a lot to add more to these games, they both very much retain the feel of their predecessors. As such, I played D3 and found it not as fun as I thought it would be. At the same time, I couldn’t think of any way that it was worse than D2. I realized that it just wasn’t as much fun because I’m not so pumped about playing more D2. I’ve pretty much exhausted that game, so while I’ll certainly buy D3 immediately and play it, it’s not something I need. As it is, I actually do want to play more SC, though. I just wish it had better graphics, ran more smoothly, and had more interesting mechanics, all of which SC2 provides.

So the bottom line: both SC2 and D3 follow their predecessors heavily. Be as excited as you are about playing those games.

(Edit) I was reminded by a FB comment about one of the big things that I forgot. If you remember, an important part about SC was the “Use Map Settings” maps. In this originated Tower Defense games, and in the Warcraft 3 custom games came DotA. Blizzard is smart, and they realized that people were extending their editor far beyond its original intentions, so at a gameplay panel, they demoed what you can do with the new map editor. And I have to say, it’s insane. It’s not just a SC2 editor; it’s a game development platform. They showed 3 clips, all of which are absolutely amazing. You have to watch it as you won’t believe it until you see it.


The Experience of the Exploratorium

This past Friday, I went to the Exploratorium on a field trip with other students in my major, symsys. We aren’t known for being particularly cohesive, so whenever an opportunity to meet and hang out with other students with similar interests, I usually try to make it. And though I had been to the Exploratorium this past summer with family friends already, it seemed like a place worth going again and again.

The Exploratorium is primarily oriented towards little kids, but it certainly has universal appeal. The museum is covered with a bunch of mini-exhibits, each showing off one or two scientific concepts. For example, a ring rolling around in a dish was supposed to represent chaos theory, and a drinking water fountain over a toilet bowl demonstrated our developed aversions. The advising fellows for symsys had justified the trip with the “Mind” area in the back, which was mostly a series of optical illusions. I had wandered around with Te, a senior who had taken a class on these exact topics. He would look at an exhibit, see the trick, then say something like, “Oh… that’s just lateral inhibition.”

While not all of us have had the same coursework, I think we all recognized some of the phenomenon at least from our high school education. But we were just as excited as the little kids running around, amazed by these things they had never seen. Reading about something in a textbook and accepting that it’s true just isn’t quite the same as being able reach out and touch it or feel yourself falling for a mental trick.

Just before I had left for the field trip, I had been in section for a class, “Mind, Matter, and Meaning.” In the class, we basically just talk about consciousness. Most of our reading is from David Chalmers’ “The Conscious Mind,” and our early discussion was focused around the difference between what he calls the psychological and phenomenological aspects of consciousness. Psychological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states do and the sort of functions associated with that. Phenomenological aspects are primarily focused on what mental states feel like and why something feels like it does. And when we’re trying to figure out if our brain and our mind are the same thing, this is where the phenomenological part gets messy.

Because it’s a hard question to say why something “feels” like it does. What does an apple taste like? What it is like to see the “redness” of an apple? What’s interesting about these questions to me is that they are absolutely subjective. We’re trying to boil down all these sciences into a disembodied, objective explanation, but what we feel seems linked to who we are. I’m certain many people have come to the questions about whether everyone else is conscious or what the nature of others’ consciousness is. I mean, even if I assume all of you fine readers are conscious (in the sense used above, not the awakeness sense; I know the latter to be false), how do I know what you see to be red is the same red I see? Maybe my red is your blue.

And I think it’s amazing to probe the differences in how we experience things. One of the most unforgettable experiences I’ve had here at Stanford was helping one particular student with a program in the computer cluster. She was a little slow in finding her mistakes, but she was entirely capable of using her computer and thinking through and fixing her mistakes. It probably would’ve been otherwise insignificant if not for the fact that she’s also blind and deaf in one ear. Thanks to Microsoft Sam, she could navigate her code line-by-line, jump between windows, and very quickly fix even syntax errors with her code.

I can’t even imagine how she could do something like that. For one, she was able to navigate her file system very quickly and without error based on snippets of words. I kind of have a sense about how my file system is structured, but I have to look things up everytime, and I know I’m constantly depending on context cues to go to the right place. So being able to have a mental representation for that is amazing. But moreover, I just can’t even imagine what code would look like if I had never seen a letter of the alphabet before. On a psychological level, I understand that in such cases, it’s common that areas of the brain responsible for processing visual input can be retooled to enhance capabilities with the other senses. On a phenomenological level, that’s just baffling. What does a block of code “sound” like?

But I guess if I believe the distinction here, it’s all kind of peripheral. Walking around the Exploratorium, I don’t have to feel to learn. It’s just the psychological process of learning where I have a new experience that creates a different representation and new pathways to understand something. And my joy is just a trained response to learning that causes my eyes to widen and my body to get jittery. Maybe a zombie version of me, which has the exact same psychological processes but no phenomenological experience, would have done the exact same things that I had. But I don’t think that makes the sensation any less valuable. I’d still say the Exploratorium is worth going to because you can actually see and touch everything.

What happens in Vegas stays in my blog archive

We have a lot of fun dorm events, like ski trip, laser tag, and broomball. These events are largely planned by the RAs in the dorm, and hopefully, they carefully consider the budget in picking activities. I cannot imagine how our most recent event occurred other than with the justification, “Screw it! Let’s blow the rest of the dorm fund on a trip to Las Vegas.”

So a part of the dorm got a heavily subsidized trip to Vegas this past weekend under the guise of an educational experience. While some might hope that we could be considering probability, doing cost-benefit analysis, and observing the effects of various substances on behavior, we actually learned about the importance of science in the arts. We listened to several presentations on sports medicine and the behind-the-scenes for Cirque de Soleil and saw two Cirque performances in Vegas.

Arriving Friday afternoon, we first watched KÀ. The show fitted around the story of two royal twins trying to reunite after an attack by another clan, though the plot wasn’t so important. The costumes and theme, however, made the experience much more complete and provided some context for the various acts. The show began with an impressive wushu demonstration and quickly moved onto more original acrobatic acts. I was most impressed with the wheel of death, which I have since wikipedia-ed and learned is a common circus act. You can probably youtube it, though the actual thrill of a live performance probably far exceeds that of a taped version.

Saturday morning, several dormmates came to our room asking if we wanted to join them for a buffet breakfast at the Wynn. Several showers later, our room left to catch up and arrived maybe 15 minutes later and many spots behind in line. Some strategic cutting got us back together, though the wait was still almost an hour. And brunch costed about 1/8th of a Nintendo Wii. Our party could’ve bought just over 1 Nintendo Wii.

They seated us almost immediately, which surprised me until I saw that the staff had left many tables open. While perhaps not optimal for quickening the line, the certainly intentionally slow seating meant that the table area wasn’t loud or crowded. In fact, we were so comfortable, we stayed for about 3 hours. The buffet offered sucker foods like oatmeal, eggs, cereal, and bagels, but it also had sushi, fruit salads, authentic Chinese food, Italian, and the most amazing dessert area in existence. Being a buffet, that meant an entire plate was dedicated to just desserts, and I think we averaged about 4 plates of food per person. We had one champ who downed something more like 10, but the rest of us were mostly done in the first hour. I’m fairly certain we didn’t beat the buffet, but $30 is a lot of food.

That evening, we went to our second Cirque performance of Mystère. This was a much more traditional circus performance, including a clown, trampolines, and trapeze. The music was great, and the show maintained a good pace jumping back and forth between shocking physical displays and comedic acts. Just like the previous performance, everyone came out amazed, and while they were both Cirque shows demonstrating amazing, artistic, physical acts, I can’t really compare them. Just see them all.

Late that evening, a group of us went to see the Blue Man Group perform as a surprise birthday celebration for a member of our delegation. They’re somewhat hard to describe, but the show is mostly 3 men covered in blue paint who never make any facial expressions. And they play a bunch of different percussion instruments and have short, funny moments. They’re surprisingly expressive for never moving their lips or eyebrows, just by looking around at each other. Their act is somewhat hard to explain, but it was absolutely fantastic, and I highly recommend seeing them as well.

So Vegas was good. Honestly, a lot of its attractions aren’t attractive to me. And I’m unhappy that some of my clothes now smells like cancer. But it’s an exciting place that really tries to appeal to everyone, and I was absolutely satisfied just to look at the hotels and see the shows. Any time a place makes you forget that’s there real life to deal with, that’s a good vacation.

Old Friends

(Quick aside: kevinleung.com is coming along nicely. I just threw up a cheap little demo app called shoutbox, where you can type in whatever you want and see another random thing someone else has put in there. If you wouldn’t mind taking a second to write something so that my debug entries will pop up less frequently, that would be greatly appreciated)

I’ve been on break this entire week and will be headed back to Stanford tomorrow night. Since my next return isn’t set, and might not be for a long time, I made a particular effort to see people on this break.

Tuesday afternoon, I headed up to Austin to visit my sister and friends, and meet my Stanford friend Ben who was visiting his sister. Trips to Austin are always fun, because it’s the first “distant” sphere. I previously wrote about the spheres of places, roughly broken into local, car trip, and plane ride. Austin is close enough that it isn’t a major obstacle to drive, but far enough that it actually requires packing and planning.

More significant to me, the trip was also the intersection of almost two different lives that I have. After I graduated from high school and was waiting to leave for Stanford, it seemed shocking that there were still kids going to high school. Since my class had moved on, I somewhat figured that the rest of that world has frozen and that no one else should be going to high school either. Similarly, when I’m at college, it’s somewhat shocking to think there are people living in real houses, eating non-dining hall food, going to Wal-Mart. Since my dormmates and I are all in dorms, I figured the rest of the world must be in a similar situation as well.

So Ben is very much a part of my college life, with Super Smash Bros. and communal baths. When I did the bad thing of hanging out with both him and high school friends simultaneously in Austin, I was in some sense surprised that the universe didn’t explode. The amiability of Ben with people like Grant and Michael reassured me that I hadn’t created two completely separate lives with radically different friends with radically different expectations of me.

In addition to seeing UT friends, I met up with my high school tuba section last weekend at the Houston Rodeo. And just yesterday, I went up to Rice to visit my friends there. Thinking about these encounters, I realize that a common topic that came up was the status of other friends. And perhaps the most important moment in visiting was seeing the other person and getting the hug. Although I absolutely enjoy talking to them and catching up, that really isn’t the most important point to me. If it was, I would actually talk to them, or at least Facebook stalk, during the school year and not just during breaks. It’s most important to me to just see people and see that they’re doing okay. That actually sounds dumb, since great disasters of health or state would certainly be filtered through to me by some manner. Maybe Facebook can make us more connected, and maybe skype can give us the fidelity of a real person’s speech and gesture. And maybe someday in the future, we’ll have the fantastic iTouch to add that sense as well (as speculated by my phil prof, who accompanied it with a poking gesture). But I still haven’t found anything as reassuring as seeing friends and family in the flesh and getting a good hug out of it.