Tuesday, May 18, 2004

Car Talk

Who said traveling isn't an adventure? When I travel for work, the company will generally refuse to pick up the tab on anything larger than a compact. This is fine, if slightly stingy, most of the time. But on this trip, I'm taking an extra day (not paid for by the company) to visit my grandmother, whom I don't want to cram into a compact car. A colleague of mine ("Bill") recently discovered that the company was happy if you got a bigger car, but paid the difference yourself. As it turned out the difference for an intermediate car was $1/day. And as long as I was going through the hassle of paying something extra myself, why not spring for $3/day for the full-size. And if I've gone that far, what's $6/day for the premium? I mean, it seemed like fun to play around with XM radio, and I get $50/day food per diem whether I spend it or not. (I just had dinner at Taco Bell.)

Well, I got to the rental car facility, and instead of the promised go-right-to-my-car, there was a note that I was to go to the counter. Well, I managed to deduce that from "GRANTHAM J CTR" on their big board. Turns out either they were out of the premium, or as a frequent renter, I got an upgrade, because he gave me directions to a luxury car.

So I've spent today tooling around town in my Caddy, going through the Taco Bell drive through, and listening to the BBC on my XM radio. Who said traveling isn't an adventure?


Monday, May 17, 2004

Board Gaming

I went over to Paul's on Saturday for some board gaming. Since Ben and George were running late, Paul, Doug and I played a couple of shorter card-based games first.

High Society

High Society is played with a special deck of cards. Most of the cards represent luxuries you bid on; some represent fortunes or misfortunes (which you also bid on). The winner is the person with the most valuable luxuries (after you eliminate the player with the least money). Before we started playing, we discussed whether there had to be a winner. We concluded that the only way the game could end without a winner was if everybody had the same amount of money, but that was unlikely.

There are some interesting strategic aspects to the game. Aside from the ordinary risks of bidding up one item only to have someone else get another, more valuable item more cheaply (after your cash is depleted), you can't be too aggressive in bidding -- or you'll end up with the least amount of money. Furthermore, the game ends when the fourth "multiplier" card (multiply the value of all luxuries by 2 or 1/2) is drawn -- so you don't know in advance when the game will be over. There's a review of the game here. (By the way, I recommend that reviewer's other reviews, if you're interested in reading well-written game reviews.)

You've probably guessed the punch line -- after much frenzied bidding, the game ended, and we each were left with $25 million dollars. So nobody won.


I had played Ivanhoe before and enjoyed it. The goal of Ivanhoe is to win a certain number of different types (or colors) of "jousts". You draw cards, which have different point values on them, and you can "spend" the cards to try to win a tournament. Whoever spends the most points wins the tournament. There are lots of complicating factors here -- you can only spend cards of the same color of the tournament (except for "supporter" cards, which are colorless), there are "action" cards which can, among other things, change the color of the tournament, etc. The colors actually represent different kinds of weapons, but we never really referred to them by the weapons themselves.

Empire Builder

It turns out that "Empire Builder" is the name of an actual train, too. Huh. It's also the name for a train board game, which is what we played when Ben and George showed up.

Empire Builder has a map of North America with various cities labeled. You connect the cities with tracks, represented by colored crayon markings. I assume the crayon wipes off after the game; I didn't stick around to find out. You spend money to build track, which you use to pick up and deliver goods, which make you money, which you use to build more track. The winner is the first to connect six of the seven "major" cities and accumulate $250 million.

We spent most of the game connecting the cities. Only in the last hour or so were people focused on collecting the $250 million. I ended up with $206, good for third place, but I felt like it was close enough that I hadn't seriously misestimated how to play the game. It was a lot of fun connecting up the different cities, and the map-drawing gave the game a different and interesting feel.

It turns out there are other versions of this game with other settings. To give a few examples, India Rails has "special rules regarding pilgrims," Lunar Rails takes place on the moon (I don't entirely see the point), and the forthcoming Russian Rails "begins in the post WWII era, with players drawing rail lines and delivering loads wary of the inevitable fall of the Soviet Union."

Those might be fun, although I'm also intrigued by Ticket to Ride, not in the same series of games. After the 8 hours we spent playing Empire Builder, the 1-2 hour playing time might be a nice change of pace.

Sunday, May 16, 2004

Books I Read on the Switzerland Trip

Travel is always a good time for me to catch up on my reading, especially with long transatlantic flights. I read the better part of the following three book on our recent trip to Switzerland.

The Speed of Dark

The Speed of Dark is part of my new Nebula reading project. It's the most recent winner, and the 12th Nebula I've read.

It's a near-future story about an Lou, an autistic man, who, with the help of modern therapies, has found a functioning role in society. His new boss, however, wants to start him on a new therapy to "cure" him of his autism.

That's the source of some of the conflict in the book. The interesting part, for me, however, was the point-of-view. Most of it is told from the standpoint of Lou, through all of his lack of understanding of "normal" human nuances of emotion and behavior. It's thought-provoking about what really is "normal" or "correct" behavior.

The Diamond Age

I had started The Diamond Age during my now-defunct Hugo project. I knew I needed to grab another book before taking to the air, so I picked this one up. It was mostly enjoyable, although it did get a little bit weird during the end. The political/scientific mumbo-jumbo towards the end got laid on a little thick, but some of the characters were very compelling. I'm generally not a fan of "nanotech" fiction, so this is probably as much as I could be expected to enjoy this book.

Fear of Wine

I picked up Fear of Wine on the same having-something-to-read principle. It wouldn't be my first choice in wine books (indeed, Christina got me a wine book that I've been enjoying). But it's nice to pick up a few tips (like the difference between the Wine Spectator and the Wine Advocate) from different sources. This book went into a little bit too much detail about the different regions (in that way, it might work better as a reference work), but it had a lot of stuff I was glad to read.