Sunday, December 14, 2014

Breaking the Ice on Netrunner

A genetically modified teen girl who has tricked out her computer - that looks like a lovable little toy dinosaur - with her own personal hacking code has broken into a remote computer server of a massive corporation that has a station on the moon called Heinlein. But it turns out that they were expecting her and the trap waiting for her scrambles a massive chunk of data on her computer and she's barely able to unplug her neural connection before her brain is entirely fried.

That's a sample turn in the game called Android: Netrunner. I'm going to make this post brief, but I really need to explain to you all why this game has changed my life.

First, I've been playing games since I was a wee one. I learned chess at six. I moved on quickly to Dungeons & Dragons, Axis & Allies and plenty of others. I got in early on the Collectible Card Game (CCG) movement. As the years rolled on, I hopped on board the euro train with games like Settlers of Catan, Carcassonne and Ticket To Ride. But it wasn't until May of this year that I began working at a Friendly Local Gaming Store (or FLGS for those of you not in the know), and a customer introduced me to Android: Netrunner. It was love at first play.

Android: Netrunner, by Fantasy Flight Games is the re-imagining of the Richard Garfield designed, late 90s CCG, called Netrunner. Garfield created Magic the Gathering and after he'd moved on, he wanted to create something that was a little deeper, a little heavier, a little brainier. His vision of Netrunner never quite caught on and the game stalled more than a decade ago. Fantasy Flight licensed the game and, took many of the core mechanics, put it into the universe they'd created for a board game called Android, and created a masterpiece.

But enough history. I said this would be a short post and I'm already getting long winded. The skinny! The game is a two player only card game that lasts ~30-45 minutes. The game isn't difficult *but* it is complex. It really helps if your first go through you have someone who knows how to play who can guide you.

So, what is the game? One player plays one of multiple ruthless mega corporations while the other player plays a 'runner', a hacker attempting to break into the corporation and steal information. It's a card game, but it's not a collectible one. There are no 'rares' or 'booster packs'. There are expansions, to be sure, but everyone gets the same cards. No guessing involved.

The game is asymmetrical, meaning each side plays differently. This isn't like chess where the only thing differentiating the players are the color of the pieces. Each side can only play cards that are designed for their side. Each side has it's own format, rules, card titles and more. The core concept is that there are cards in the corporate deck called 'Agendas'. These are the corporation's plans. Scoring seven points worth of these will win the game for either side. But the runner has none of them in his deck. Which means the hacker player has to break in or 'make runs' on the corporate player's computers. This leads to a great mix of bluffing, resource management and brinkmanship that I haven't seen the likes of in any other game.

I'll end the description there because quite frankly, it's like an alien asking what Christmas is about and trying to sum it up by saying, "Well, people get together once a year and give each other presents." It just doesn't really give you the flavor at all.

But this isn't just a game review here. This is a post about how much this game has had an effect on my thinking and on my life. I currently administrate the league here in West Seattle. I play twice a week outside of the house and I play my girlfriend as often as she'll indulge me. It's gone from being a game to a hobby.

That's not all though. I wanted to share a few links to other articles that for me, really put into focus why the game has had such a profound impact on me.

First is an article called 'Why Netrunner Matters':   This great piece dives into this history of hacking, back to Allen Turing and others and explains why hacking is an important cultural touchstone for us.

Second is an article titled, 'Breaking Gender and Racial Barriers in Netrunner'.  You can guess what this one covers. It's really gratifying to see so few 'average white guys' portrayed in this game.

Third is one called 'The politics of Netrunner'.  This one nails the intelligent humor and insight that Netrunner slips into the game. It's rare that a game in our modern era can make smart commentary without sounding like it's preaching.

So yeah, it's not just that I love the game. It's that it is a great game. It's smart, well thought out, fun to play, constantly changing and evolving.

If you've read through this and I've piqued your interest, Fantasy Flight put together a very slick video on how to play the game. It's made for folks who have already purchased the 'core set' (which runs about $40). Feel free to take a look though:
The game isn't easy to pick up if you've never played anything beyond Monopoly. Nevertheless, I truly believe that this game elevates the tabletop experience on every level. It's setting a new standard. And I'm having a hell of a lot of fun.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Brett Henry

If someone approached me and asked me to provide a single human being to represent our species in a first contact situation with alien beings, I would choose Brett Henry without thinking twice. It's not that Brett was perfect. He had flaws, plenty of them. To say that life had knocked Brett down into the dirt and kicked him in the teeth a few times would be an understatement. He might have even walked into a few of those ass kickings.

Brett was the best man I knew because of those hard times. They were the chisels that sculpted out his character and his moral compass, which was unerringly true. They weren't qualities he bragged about. He never saw himself as better than anyone. But if you were to stand him in with a group of his friends and loved ones and asked them all to simultaneously pick out a leader, there wouldn't be a vote or a debate. Brett would be the only one not pointing at Brett. He was kind without being soft. He was smart without being high-handed. He was funny without being goofy.

He gravitated toward grizzled, underdog heroes because that's what he was. He was the Aragorn in our Fellowship. He was the Hicks of our Colonial Marines. And when those aliens made first contact and asked Brett about humanity, he wouldn't have sugar coated it. He wouldn't have painted a Norman Rockwell portrait of life on Earth. But he wouldn't have shit on humanity either. He could see the best in the worst, whether it was a situation or a person. He could you make you feel like it was okay to look at yourself in the mirror. Without even trying, Brett made it easier to get up the next day and face the world again, even when he was struggling to do the same.

I don't want to rehash a bunch of personal memories of my friend here. Those are mine to keep close. My friend is dead. I loved him. While I want answers about the circumstances around his death, those answers won't change the most important thing: Brett Henry lived. And his life made mine a better one. I plan on spending the rest of my days trying to be half as good a human being as Brett Henry.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Biographical Body

As I hit my 40s, I really began to become comfortable with not just my personality, but my body, my history, my entire identity. I'm actually a pretty fascinating person and I really do like myself. In celebration of my 44th birthday a couple of weeks ago, I decided to take three pictures of myself (with Jen's help). Specifically, I wanted to show aspects of my body that tell a tiny story about me. Things people look at and see every day on my body but don't know the story they are looking at. It's my biographical body.

This picture is titled 199619751990 because the three images above relate to those three years, 1996, 1975 and 1990, respectively. Along with this photo, I thought I'd write the very short version of each story.

1996: Although the inspiration for this tattoo behind my left ear came from the Brujah clan of vampires in the White Wolf game, Vampire: The Masquerade, I didn't get it to signify them. Nor did I mean it to advertise that I followed any kind of stereotypical anarchist political agenda. Instead, I liked the symbol as a personal statement of liberation and individuality. I was smart enough at the time to realize I might not have a mohawk style haircut forever. I could cover the ink by simply growing my hair out. But I remember saying that even if I changed my thinking over the years, I wanted 25 year old me to occassionally tap future me on the shoulder and say, 'Hey, don't forget this ink up here. Whatever you're doing in life, do it your own way for your own reasons.' Thanks past self. Good job.

1975: That line down my left eye isn't a laugh line or a really big crows foot. It's a scar. One I got in in 1975. I wasn't supposed to be standing on our dining room chairs. I was  four, going on five and I was just excited to sit at the big table with the adults. I slipped though and I hit my face on the edge of the adjacent chair. Blood went everywhere. It was possible I was blind in that eye. My mother scooped me up and ran me to the hospital. I was screaming and crying and the more the doctors tried to hold me down to suture me up the more I flailed. I wanted nothing to do with that needle near my eyeball. But inspiration struck my mother. She knew that I was a fan of the then hugely popular show The Six Million Dollar Man. She said, "Son, hold still. They're going to give you a bionic eye. Just like Steve Austin." That was all it took. I held still and took those stitches like a champ. For weeks after, I would close my right eye, convinced I could see much farther with my new left one.

1990: I was an unhappy kid in the military and my saving grace was my friend Eric. He and I and my friends Scot, Dave and Bryan often drove into L.A. to hit various clubs. We were cash poor, dorky and totally not cool. But what we lacked in style, we made up for in enthusiasm. One night at the Kontrol Factory, the song Burning Inside by Ministry came on. I ran to the dance floor for an impromptu mosh pit with my friend Bryan. He didn't see me barreling toward him at full speed and Bryan is not a small man. He just happened to swing an elbow up as I came flying at him, literally airborne. His elbow caught me right in the mouth. My canine tooth chipped, my lip split, blood went everywhere. In the bathroom, people were horrified as I washed my mouth out in the giant circular communal sink and the water turned red. I can still feel that ding in my canine and it always reminds me of Bryan and Ministry.

My body is full of stories.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Stupid, Costly and Unnecessary: Lessons I learned While Buying A Car

I've always been a mobile person. When I was 16 I bought my first car, a 1978 Datsun b210. Since then, I've rarely been without a vehicle. They've almost all been used, most of them purchased through dealers with a smattering of private owners. I've done it enough times that I know most of the hoops and what to expect.

My experience with Honda of Seattle was an entirely different level of hell that I didn't see coming. The worst part is, there were multiple times where either my bank or Honda of Seattle could have made things so much easier on everyone. Instead, there was yelling, frustration, hours spent on the phone, much of it on hold and one less customer that Honda of Seattle will see repeat business from.

Let's start at the beginning. I'd sold my last car awhile back. Since my partner and I were sharing a car, working at my new job had become a bit of a juggling act with our schedule. After a few months though, I'd saved up a decent chunk of money and I felt I had enough to afford a car payment on something reasonable.

I decided to contact my bank, BECU (Boeing Employees Credit Union) and apply for a car loan. I got a "pre-approval" for a loan for a much larger amount than I really needed. There was an attached list of stipulations for the pre-approval which I only glanced over, because I didn't even know what car I wanted yet. (NOTE - This was where problem number one occurred. I'll come back to it.)

I found a decent little Honda at Honda of Seattle that met one of the primary loan conditions - that the car be under 150K miles. It was a 1999 Honda Civic. After a little more shopping around and a brief mental cool down, I decided to make the leap.

My partner and I drove down and took the car for a test drive. My last car had been a 96 Civic, so I was familiar with the model and new what to look for. Having said that, I also expected a dealership to be upfront about any potential issues or problems. They were not. The salesman told me that the AC 'ran cool, not cold' and that they 'didn't want to do a Freon charge because it would jack up the sticker price significantly'. Okay, not a big deal. Upon test driving, we found that the AC wasn't 'cool' it was just a fan. That's alright. This is Seattle, I can survive without cold air.

Next, I told them that I had a pre-approved loan from my bank. They said they had a 'easy' service where they would handle talking to the bank and make all of the arrangements. I provided them with my info and waited. When he returned with the paperwork, he did something that set off my sleazy alarm. There was a large piece of paper with numbers on it that was mostly covered up by a brochure of some sort. I immediately felt like the brochure was hiding something. He went over numbers in the far right column, talking about services, taxes, fees, insurances, blah blah. Total cost came to $8660. Now, that might not seem like much until you consider that the sticker price on the car was $4990.

He casually said there were other 'packages' available. All of which were laid out underneath the brochure. The most well-hidden column came to $5600. I gave him an un-amused look and took the cheapest package.

Not long after, I drove away in my new Honda. They'd been a little on the sleazy end, but things had gone pretty smoothly all things considered and I left happy with my new purchase. This however was where the dealership had royally screwed me.

A day passed.

I got a call from Honda of Seattle asking if I'd enjoyed my experience with them and if I was satisfied with my car. I said I was. Although, I'd also discovered that the alarm system and locks were wonky. I'm still not sure if anything will actually set the car alarm off. They could have mentioned that to me.

Another day passed.

Off from work, I decided to take a trip out and buy a new phone. Yay, new phone to replace my barely working Galaxy S2! I got everything changed over and it was all good.

I got a call from Honda of Seattle, but I was working. They didn't leave a voice mail. The next day they called while I was still in bed but again didn't leave a voice mail. It was later that day I realized that I hadn't set up my new voice mail. I did so.

The next morning I had an email from my salesman saying that my loan had not been approved. I had to provide proof of a $2500 charge off. Or I could refinance through Wells Fargo and pay a higher monthly rate and forget the whole thing.

WHAT? I already signed all of the agreements. They'd told me that they would handle communicating with the bank. Why would you give someone a car if you hadn't approved their loan?

I called my salesman - got voice mail. Called him again later. He explained that BECU had declined my loan because I had an unpaid credit cards from a few years back. Okay, great, but why was I finding out about this days after I'd driven away with the car? He didn't have answers and told me I'd have to talk to the bank. So much for the dealership handling the situation.

My bank was only slightly better. They pointed out that one of the things on the list of conditions for my loan approval was 'proof of charge offs', which, to be honest, in the context of a loan application, I had no clue as to the meaning of. But ...okay. My next question to him was "Instead of telling me that I'm pre-approved for a loan with a bunch of asterisks on it, why not tell me that you're NOT approved for a loan UNTIL these conditions are met?"

Silence. "But it says on there ...."

Yes, I know what it says on there. It's misleading. So I asked him, if the charge off was cleared, I'd be approved for the loan? Yes, he says. Especially since it was for so much less than the $9000 they'd originally approved me for. He also mentioned something briefly about having qualified for $4300 once I was cleared of the charge off. But honestly, I wasn't listening at that point because I was thinking about my credit score and the charge off.

Now, my credit card debt was something I could write an entirely different blog post about. It's the only outstanding debt I currently have and it's been sold to a third party collector. After contacting them, I was told that I could pay off the debt of $2500 for a single $805 dollar payment. I considered it. It would severely deplete all the savings I'd worked on, but it would get me my car and clear my debt in one swoop.

The problem? The debt collector would 'post my payment immediately and send me a letter that it was paid.' Wait...Will my bank and the dealership have access to this information immediately? She didn't know. I called my bank. It was fuzzy. They weren't sure when they would learn that it was charged off. 'As soon as we get confirmation.'

I was not falling for that.

I called the dealership and spoke with someone in the finance department. I hoped  for supportive and friendly from him. I expected courteous and professional. What I got was rude and accusatory. This man basically took the stance that I was trying to put one over on him and that the situation wasn't his problem. All I had to do was take the Wells Fargo financing at a mere $10 more a month and this problem would be solved. Never mind the fact that I didn't want to bank with Wells Fargo because I hate big banks and that $10 over 48 months is an extra $480 dollars. I'm sure that's pocket change to that man, but to me, it's a lot of money.

I asked him repeatedly, why they'd given me the car if my loan hadn't been approved. Things escalated back and forth to yelling. He accused me of giving him a bad phone number because he couldn't leave a voice mail. Like I was ducking him. I couldn't get a straight answer. It was always things like 'I've been doing business this way for 25 years!' Well, it's a dumb ass way of doing business.

In the course of the yelling he revealed that the bank had only approved me for $2900, regardless of the charge off. It was the first time that number had been mentioned to me. I tried to get him to answer me where all of the rest of the money was supposed to come from if I'd only been approved for $2900. I also realized that my bank had mentioned something about a $4300, which also wasn't enough for the price of the car. It was all just a choreographed shit show.

My bank messed up. If they'd been just a little more helpful and a little more straight forward, I wouldn't have even gone out shopping for a car.

The dealership messed up. They gave me a car, had me sign paperwork that they KNEW wasn't valid. Then they acted like it was my fault when things didn't go they way they'd told me. Of course they didn't! Everyone was bullshitting everyone else.

I messed up. I should have read and understood the fine print on my pre-approval and understood that nothing is as it seems when dealing with banks or car dealerships.

There was only one winner in this whole scenario and it's easy to spot who it is. The finance guy at Honda of Seattle spelled it out perfectly. 'I contacted them when you're loan didn't go through because we do millions of dollars in business with them every year. They don't usually help with loans this small but they did you a favor.'

Wells Fucking Fargo.  Guest surprise villain!

The salesman droned on at me for a good five minutes about how wrong I was and how this was all my fault and if I'd just come in and sign the paperwork it would all be over.

"Fine. Enough. I'll be there soon." I hung up, went in and signed the new loan. They won. The alternative was to give the car back and start the process over, which would have been something I could have handled if I'd not already put a tank of gas in the car, paid for insurance, dealt with registration (a service that Honda of Seattle actually handled for me at the point of sale, which is darkly hilarious) and adjusted my schedule with Jen so that we no longer had to rely on one car.

All of it - and I mean all of it - would have been at least vaguely okay, if the jack ass at Honda of Seattle hadn't been such a self righteous, arrogant prick.

My bank lost out on a loan, I'm thoroughly pissed at everyone involved, Honda of Seattle got their sale but certainly lost a customer. Wells Fargo on the other hand gets the money. And that's today's lesson.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

The Macabre Tale Of Daniel and Isabel

The Macabre Tale of Daniel and Isabel


Connor Alexander

He was sure that his father had kissed his sister's forehead. Daniel awoke from the dream. It was the same dream he'd had every night since the Terrible Things had happened. The dream wasn't really something from Daniel's imagination though. Instead, it was more like a replay of the events of that fateful night. It was no less surreal or disjointed than a regular dream, however. It played back in his mind the same way it had played out in real life for Daniel. A series of foggy scenes and still images that made no sense to the poor boy no matter how he rearranged them in his mind, which he often did over the years.

But the tangled story in Daniel's mind only reinforced the evidence left in the wake of the Terrible Things. Something horrible had happened in the Hoster's study that night. Daniel's father, Oswald, was never seen from again, nor was there a trace of his passing. Daniel's last image of him was his face contorted and squeezed tight in a grimace. Had there been a stranger in the room as well? Maybe. Daniel's mother was found on the couch, her forearm across her brow, her eyes wide open. The only mark on her was a large bump on the back of her head where it rested against the wooden arm of the couch. She was wearing a silky black nightgown.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Jelly (A Short Story)


A Short Story By

Connor Alexander

Henry emerged from the Jelly. He wasn't sure how long he'd been in it. It ran from his nose, his mouth, his ears, his anus. He blinked slowly as the pine green substance sloughed off of his corneas. He looked around the vat he was standing in and saw that three other people were still submerged. For a solid minute he just stood there and stared. A large glob of Jelly slid from the end of his penis.

After two rapid blinks and a quick shake of his head, he stepped out of the vat and walked down a long hall. On either side of him were more vats. Some were empty, some were partially full, but most had five people completely submerged in waist deep green Jelly. Above him, the warehouse had a combination of industrial fans mounted into the roof and solar panels which provided the small amount of power necessary for the place.

Henry strode past the other sleepers with idle curiosity. Where were they? What lives were they living? The air was cool and there was a slightly fragrant steam coming off of all of the vats. The only sound was the soft whir of the fans thirty feet above. The sleepers neither moved nor made a sound in their jellied wombs.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Hey Monogamous People - Mind Your Own Fucking Business

Listen folks, I get that my belief that I can love more than one person at a time is novel and quirky (and possibly even offensive) to you and that you're very invested in your serial monogamy. It's important to you, I know. You've pushed all of your chips in on that hand. So when someone else comes along with a different take on things, you're threatened.

But let me be very blunt here: Unless my penis is inside you, my relationship style and status are none of your fucking business. None. Zero. Not one goddamn iota. So keep your fucking noise tube shut.

Why are my hackles up? Well, I met someone the other night at a party. I felt like we had some chemistry even though we didn't get to chat much. I wasn't anything more than cordial though because I was djing at the party and there wasn't much of a chance to flirt or even really get much of a conversation going.
Instead, I asked a couple of people if they knew her and could I get an introduction. Just a chance to say, "Hi, we met briefly at the party the other night. I'm Connor."

If you are asked to make the introduction and you are friends with both parties, you do it and without comment. You don't approach the other person and say, 'Hey, my friend John wanted to meet you. Oh and he has two kids, he's late on his mortgage and he's really into toe sucking.' You know why? Because it's not your fucking business. If that's a problem than just tell John you don't feel comfortable making an introduction so John can ask you about your bigotry.

I want to be introduced as Connor, not The Non-monogamous Guy. You know why? Because it doesn't matter for an introduction. I wasn't asking you for permission to fuck your friend, to marry your friend, or even to date your friend. I was asking for an introduction.

Guess what, geniuses? Most folks are monogamous. I know that because I'm not an idiot. If you think monogamous folks should only hang out with other monogamous folks and non-monogamous folks should hang out with other non-monogamous folks, maybe you should propose shipping us all off to an island where you won't have to be reminded of us.

Also, next time, why stop with my relationship beliefs? Just ask and I can provide my credit report, my dick size, a full breakdown of my ethnicity and a schedule of my bowel movements. That way whomever I'd like to be introduced to can really take stock before they chose to speak to me.

Monday, January 6, 2014

How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love Television

Once upon a time, cinema was the grand adventure. It was where the pinnacle of storytelling, technology, acting, cinematography, music and craftsmanship all collided to provide an experience unlike any other. Cinema has a rich and glorious history around the world and in my opinion is one of the best lenses into any culture. I grew up with a deeply ingrained appreciation for film and as I got older, my palette widened and I found myself finding excellent films in genres that I never would have considered as a younger man. Cinema truly has something for everyone. Or at least, it used to.

Conversely, television was born as a medium for advertising. It was built to circumvent everything that was good about cinema. It lacked deep narrative, its characters were intentionally milquetoast, its sensibilities as broad and as flat as possible so as to reach a maximum number of viewers. It was small snippets of storytelling broken up by commercial breaks and overlaid with laugh tracks. Television was designed to pacify and mollify. Television truly was made for everyone. Or at least, it used to be.