Los Angeles, Day Five

I’m in LA for a week. I’m going to try to write something about my trip every day. I hope you enjoy it.

The first thing I did on my fifth day in LA was watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, because I am not an animal.

My Craigslist call for a tour buddy yielded no real results. The person living near the airport basically just wanted a free meal, and the student and sex-box never responded again. Instead, I decided to head back to the Pacific Ocean, so I could see it during the day. True, I saw it while driving along Pacific Coast Highway, but this time I would be able to devote my full attention to it.

Before that, though, I needed to refuel my rental car. The gas station I went to strangely had pumps that lacked the locking mechanism that lets you fill up your tank without holding the handle. It also only took cash and debit. The station was easily twenty cents cheaper than anywhere else, though, so I dealt with the odd nature of the place and went on my way. Gas in LA is way more expensive than gas in Chicago, by the way. By more then fifty cents per gallon.

The Pacific Ocean is amazing. Seeing it in daylight only made its scale more astonishing. Gazing across its expanse was mind-opening. After more than thirty years living deep in the center of the country, I was standing on the end of it. I’d travelled just over two thousand miles from my home and stood at a point where there was no more land I could cross. It was like I’d reached the end of the world.

I sat on some rocks near the shore and watched the beach. I marveled at surfers who rode waves that could swallow a person in an instant. I saw a crow fighting the wind and finally landing on the beach to pick out carrion from the sand. I saw families relaxing in the sun and people walking their dogs. People for whom the ocean may have become an everyday thing, no more surprising than a McDonald’s. Or, perhaps they woke every day and felt overcome by the grandeur. I could not say.

After watching the tides for several minutes, I took off my shoes and strode to the shore. Small waves lapped at my feet before a large one burst forth and was immediately upon me. It tugged at my legs, climbed quickly up to my knees and threatened to knock me down entirely. The pull of the ocean is hypnotic and deceptive, but also beautiful. At first, the ocean water felt cold and uncomfortable, but after a few waves I found it inviting. Refreshing. I felt alive for the first time in months, if not longer. I was excited. Inspired. I felt like I was a part of something.

The ocean is alive in a way that Lake Michigan is not, and can never be. It wasn’t all pretty. There were dead things, far too decomposed for me to make out, in the line of junk deposited on the beach during high tide. It marred the serenity of the shore, but it also made the ocean seem more alive. I could see the entirety of an ecosystem in play. Chicago and its suburbs seem insular and manufactured compared to the coast.

After spending time in the waves, I headed back to the rocks and began to write in my notebook as I waited for my my legs and the bottom of my shorts to dry. I watched the waves roll in and out gave the ink in my notebook time to dry. When the sheen on my words finally faded, I headed back to my car and returned to my hotel.

On the recommendation of a friend, I decided to visit The Bourgeois Pig, a cafe in the Franklin area of Hollywood. It was quite a place. Most of the cafe was dimly-lit and moody. I enjoyed the ambiance, though. It helped keep distractions at bay. It felt almost like opulence that had fallen into disrepair. Quiet music played in the background, and nearly everyone in the place had their eyes firmly glued to laptops. It at once felt like home and intimidating. One of my biggest concerns regarding writing is that I know how many people out there want to do it, and here was a cafe full of them.

Thinking “if they succeed, it’s one less chance for me” is a foolish way to go about living. I enjoy talking to writers a great deal. Talking out beats and dialogue help make a story better. Creativity begets creativity. Still, those sorts of thoughts crop up in my mind: if I miss a single opportunity, another one will never arise.

I ordered a sandwich and an iced chai and looked for a place to sit. There was an incredibly dark side room lit more by laptop screens than anything else, and it looked quite full. I found a sunken-in chair near the back of the cafe with a small table next to it and claimed it for myself. I checked into my flight home, ate my sandwich, and got to writing the post you’re reading now.

If it were possible, I would have stayed at the Bourgeois Pig for hours, but parking time limits prevented me from sitting there indefinitely. I reluctantly bussed my plate and headed back to my hotel. When I arrived home, I was surprised to discover that another friend in the Los Angeles area had time to spare. I headed to Pasadena to meet her for dinner.

She took me to a restaurant called SushiStop. I am not at all a fan of sea food, but she promised they had other food, as well. Indeed, they did. We split an edamame appetizer and while she dined on sushi I had mixed greens and chicken with udon noodles. It was good, but I was not very hungry. From there, we headed to Real Food Daily, where she got a slice of vegan cheesecake and I got a vegan double-chocolate cookie.

We returned to her place with our baked goods, and ate dessert while discussing the industries of books, films, and video games. We talked late into the night before I returned to my hotel to finish packing and prepared for my return home.

I’m not ready to leave. I still feel like I have so much more to do here.

Los Angeles, Day Four

I’m in LA for a week. I’m going to try to write something about my trip every day. I hope you enjoy it.

Day four in Los Angeles began with taking my friend Dmitry back to the airport. Neither of us slept well the night before; the party or parties raging across the hotel did not stop, and well past one am our entire room was still shaking. Calls to the front desk produced no results.

Things were quiet in the morning. Dmitry packed up his stuff and I dropped him off at LAX. On the way home, craving something simple and predictable, I grabbed a customized submarine sandwich from a chain that has made its way across the nation. I’m not going to say where, but you should probably be able to figure it out.

I brought the sandwich back to my room and mulled about for a bit. One of the reasons I wanted another person with me in LA is because I am very much a homebody. It’s not that I don’t enjoy going out, or than I can’t stand being around other people. It’s just that when I am by myself, I am not motivated to go out. I placed an ad on the strictly platonic section of LA’s Craigslist page and headed out the door.

My first stop was Meltdown Comics, both because it is somewhere I’ve always wanted to shop and because I had a ticket to see Harmontown that night, and wanted to scope the place out. I parked nearby and walked the neighborhood. Meltdown Comics is on Sunset, near Fairfax. I walked along Sunset from Crescent Height Boulevard to La Brea. It was cool to see in person places I’d heard referenced in podcasts. Had I walked a little further west, I would have happened upon the legendary Chateau Marmont.

I headed south at La Brea, following it to Fountain. This took me into a more residential area that was loaded with apartments. I continued west on Fountain until I hit Vista, the street my car was parked on. I headed back to my car so I could check the time remaining on my parking meter. An hour.

I walked back to Meltdown Comics and perused their wide selection, picking up three trade paperbacks — Sharknife, One Small Voice, and The Waiting Place, and a zine, Devastator. With the exception of Sharknife, which was recommended to me at some point, I had never heard of any of them. This trip is about trying new things, after all.

When I brought the books to the register, I drummed up a conversation with the cashier. We spoke for a few minutes about where I should park that evening, when I should really arrive. I mentioned that I was visiting from Chicago and he noted that he had a friend who had just moved to LA from the midwest.

At this point, I had about forty minutes left on the meter, so I headed into an establishment that looked like it might have been a cafe. Had I looked at the sign, I would have known better: it was Vintage Enoteca, a wine bar. This is the moment I got really daring: I had a drink, on my own, just because that’s the place I’d walked into. A waitress left me a brunch menu and a wine menu. I ordered a meatball panini and a glass of blackberry sangria. I was so excited to try it that I started eating before realizing I should have taken a picture.

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The second half of my sandwich, along with sangria.The second half of my sandwich, along with sangria.

The second half of my sandwich, along with sangria.

The sandwich and the sangria were both delicious, and the greens served alongside them were also quite good. All the meals I have eaten in LA has been fantastic, save Saturday’s sad breakfast. I find myself wondering how much of that is because things are fresher and how much of that is because I have been trying to visit local establishments. Maybe it’s a combination of both; In-N-Out is a pretty big chain, but their burgers blow away pretty much any other fast food burger I can recall.

As I ate, I checked my email to see if anyone had responded to my ad. I got one solicitation for sex, which was probably auto-sent by a bot scouring Craigslist, and two actual replies. One was from a woman who lived near the airport, the other a student in West LA. I asked each of them what they’d like to do, neither one responded. For fun, I told the probably fake sex-bot that I would love to take her up on the offer after we’d taken in some of the sites and talked over a nice lunch.

After settling the bill for my lunch, I walked back to my car. I had eight minutes left on the meter.  I drove back to my hotel in order to pack up the books I’d bought, do some writing, and grab the ticket for Harmontown I’d foolishly left on my nightstand.

Two hours later, I drove back out to Meltdown and found a parking spot very close to the store. I joined an already large group of people waiting to get into the show and alternated between checking my email and browsing the store’s collectibles. The sex-bot sent me a photo of “herself,” and I responded by asking what from MY ad she wanted to do. I flipped through a few independent comics, but didn’t really feel like spending any more money, so I just bided my time until the show began. Among the tumult I thought I heard someone shouting my name, which was weird. I walked around the store, but saw no one I recognized.

Although I was standing close to the door before the show began, I was not in the first group let in. I was in the second, but I quickly discovered most of the seats near the stage were reserved, and the open seats were filling up fast. After missing a few opportunities to some surprisingly fast showgoers, I found my way to a chair along the aisle and quickly claimed it. The seat beside me remained empty for a while, until a man asked if it was taken and promptly sat down when I said it was not.

The man introduced himself as Paul, and he, too was interested in writing. He’d moved to the area just a month prior, and was still learning his way around town. We exchanged numbers and agreed to talk more soon. It was time for the show to begin.

Harmontown, for the uninitiated, is a live performance by Community creator Dan Harmon, comedian Jeff Davis, and other random guests. These guests often include his fiancé, actors he has worked with, and regular viewers of the show. The show also features Dan, Jeff, and others playing Dungeons and Dragons.

I was incredibly lucky to get the ticket that I did. Not only had the show just returned from touring, it was the hundredth episode. It was a fun show. For me, the standout moments were Dan’s ranting about his obsession with what strangers think of him and a trivia game created by a regular audience member.

I gave Paul a ride to the nearby Metro station on Highland, then headed back to the hotel to write and sleep.

Los Angeles, Day Three

I’m in LA for a week. I’m going to try to write something about my trip every day. I hope you enjoy it.

Day two ended with the upstairs neighbors from hell. As Dmitry and I tried to sleep, what sounded like the footsteps of every child ever pounded the ceiling above us. He wound up complaining to the front desk at 1 am, to no avail. We woke to the same rhythmic pounding we attempted to sleep through.

Our breakfast was a joke. The restaurant in the hotel was apparently planning for a big event later in the day, as the tables and chairs were ornately wrapped and decorated. The host allowed us to partake in their breakfast buffet all the same, but it was not worth writing about. Calling it lackluster would be too kind. It would have been an upgrade.

Following this, Dmitry and I started driving to the Getty Villa, where we were to meet up with an old friend. Despite the traffic, the drive was wonderful. Pacific Coast Highway is pretty amazing. The homes are gorgeous and the vistas are stunning. I can absolutely understand why people pay unbelievable amounts of money to live along the cost. There are trees flowering in some of the most vibrant colors I’d ever seen in nature, and the hillsides are unlike anything found in the midwest.

The natural beauty of California continues to amaze me. The Pacific Ocean appears endless, and the coastline stretches as far as the eye can see. The scale of it never seems to lose its glory. The tall, lush trees tower over most buildings, and hills seem like mountains compared to the flat plains I am accustomed to. Nature and civilization coexist in an almost magical way. You can’t turn around without finding another stunning vista.

The Getty Villa was designed to emulate a Roman villa. One of its inspirations was the Villa of the Papyri. It is a beautiful piece of architecture that houses a museum focused on Greek, Roman, and Etruscan antiquities. It is humbling to gaze upon ancient history. So often we look at modern life as something so new and unfathomable to previous generations. Outside of technology, though, the many facets of society were present thousands of years ago. Money, art, jewelry, traditions both functional and strange… they have been around forever, and much of it can be traced back to the cradles of civilization.

Like the art I mentioned yesterday, the intricate sculpture on display continued to amaze me. The time, effort, and talent involved in creating such pieces must have been astonishing. The Getty Villa is special because it combines the art of the period with the stunning architecture. Each of the gardens at the villa is beautiful, and the building itself breathes a bit of life into its exhibits. Walking the gardens is a little like walking back in time.

I realize that saying “education is fun!” is horribly cliche, but I learned a great deal on my tour of the Getty Villa, and I feel like I became just a bit deeper of a person. Some of that may have been due to the company. Mara, the friend we met up with, is one of the kindest, sweetest people I have ever had the privilege of knowing. Dmitry and I have corresponded with her for well over a decade via the internet, but this is the first time we have actually met in person. Her interest and appreciation of the subject matter made it all the more exciting.

After the Villa, the three of us headed to In-N-Out Burger, often regarded as one of the best fast food burgers anywhere. I was not disappointed. I went with their staple “Double-Double,” which is a double cheeseburger with two slices of cheese. Normally I don’t eat raw tomatoes, but I decided to live dangerously and leave them on the burger. It was delicious. I don’t know if it’s just my mood or a rash of bad luck, but the tomatoes I’ve had in California actually seem better than the ones I’ve had in Chicago. Are they fresher? Laced with crack? Who knows?

The meal was a long one; Dmitry and I talked Mara’s ears off (they had to be surgically reattached) for well over an hour. She was incredibly polite, and seemed entertained, but she barely got a word in edgewise; when we meet up again, I’ll have to make sure she gets more time to speak. That’s when, not if, because our meet-up was fantastic, and I’d love to do it again.

Following lunch, we hit the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. This event began with a tram ride that climbs up the hill the museum stands upon.

(Again, a hill in LA is a mountain to a Chicagoan.)

The climb up the hill provides another awe-inspiring view of the city. There are also several vantage points on the museum campus that allow more of the same. We walked exhibits covering photography during the age of Queen Victoria and crosshatching. We took in the massive Mural, by Jackson Pollack, and the photography of Ansel Adams and Hiroshi Sugimoto. There was a wing dedicated to more ancient art, as well as stained glass. Of particular interest to me was the museum’s collection of illuminated manuscripts. As I writer, I of course have an affinity for books, and the handwritten tomes on display were fascinating. It is daunting to imagine the libraries full of hand-written volumes. The amount of work that went into ancient books is staggering. The exquisite calligraphy, usually in a language I cannot fathom, is astonishing, The art, complex, constant, and often accented with gold leaf, sometimes seems unreal.

Following that, we walked the gardens at the museum and found a pair of pokemon hidden in the environment. I kept my eyes peeled for more after spotting them, but did not find any.

After parting ways with Mara at the museum, Dmitry and I returned to the hotel to find a hotel-wide party in full swing. Nearly five hours later — well past midnight — the party is still going. Tomorrow, Dmitry returns to Chicago. I have two days on my own, and a vague plan of what I will do.

Los Angeles, Day Two

I’m in LA for a week. I’m going to try to write something about my trip every day. I hope you enjoy it.

I may have written about day one a bit prematurely. I had a few hours to kill before my friend Dmitry arrived, and I figured that would be a good time to get something down. So let me continue with day one, part two:

We grabbed lunch at a restaurant called Hummus House, and it was delicious. They served their beef shawarma in a pita as if it was a wrap, which I wasn’t super-keen on, from the standpoint of eating utility. I like wraps, but I always make a mess with them. I’d have preferred it served IN the pita. All the same, it was a fantastic meal. The decor was fun, as well. It was very middle eastern: textiles were hung across the ceilings and walls, and many seats were benches accented with pillows. It had a very inviting feel. I’d go back.

This dinner adventure was followed by a trip to the beach at sunset so we could try to capture some good photos. Dmitry made a point of telling me that visiting the ocean is nothing like the beach at Lake Michigan, and he was right. I’d assumed that, because one could not see the end of the beach in either case, the feeling would be similar. But the waves along the Pacific Ocean carry enormous weight. The tide’s roll is slow and heavy, their size dwarfing anything I’ve seen in Chicago. And I’ve seen some heavy stuff in Chicago. I’d like to see the beach during the day. I’ll be visiting the Getty Villa tomorrow, and it’s right along the coast, so I will at least see the ocean in daylight.

As we left the beach, we ran into a woman walking her dog and had a nice quick conversation. It was incredibly dark, and if it weren’t for her dog running up to us, I don’t think it would have happened. I would never approach a woman walking through an alley in the dark of night — it just seems like the last thing they’d want. Her little Westie made for the perfect close to a wonderful evening.

One thing that’s taken some getting used to is driving up and down hills. I’ve only driven once outside the midwest. I was sixteen or seventeen, visiting family in Colorado. My uncle let me drive a bit, teaching me some tips that I still use to this day. Most of my driving then was confined to simple roads, though, so it was still a new experience for me. The steep inclines of California roads are unlike anything in The Windy City.

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Always the game master.Always the game master.

Always the game master.

So that was last night. Today started with a walk to Denny’s, because that’s the closest restaurant besides the one in the hotel. I haven’t had breakfast food since my friend Christina made me some several months ago, so I still enjoyed it. While we waited for the meal, I solved the crossword puzzle on the placemat.

We followed that with a trip to LACMA, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We foolishly missed out on a great deal of art there; we only explored single building on the campus: the Ahmanson Building. It’s an interesting space filled with several types of art. Their Art of the Pacific gallery was small but engaging. There wasn’t much in the way of information about the art, which was disappointing.

The second floor featured Modern Art and German Expressionism, and presented some gorgeous works. I took a few photos, but I didn’t take down the names of the artists, and I wish I had. From there, I headed to the fourth floor to see Islamic art and South/Southeastern Asian Art. It was interesting to see art from cultures that don’t normally get highlighted in the US, and I especially liked learning that calligraphy is regarded as a fundamental part of Islamic art. I have always thought that Arabic script was beautiful. The South and Southeast Asian Art exhibit was also interesting; it featured some very ornate weaponry, and awe-inspiring sculptures of Hindu gods.

From there, I met back up with Dmitry and we checked out the third floor’s exhibitions: European art and Art of the Ancient World. It was amazing to see art that had made it through centuries surviving war, political and social upheaval, and just time itself. The religious aspect of it held little interest to me, but it was still enthralling. Dmitry and I compared the poses and heavy emotions of many of the paintings to the artwork seen in comic books today.

We finished up our tour around one-thirty, and both of us were quite hungry. At first, we were going to hit one of the cafes on-site, but then Dmitry suggested a local pub. As we walked to the pub, we happened upon a fleet of food trucks, and decided to try those out instead. We grabbed sliders from Street Kings, which were fantastic.

Our next stop was the Griffith Observatory. The drive alone was interesting; we passed beautiful homes and headed up a winding path up Mount Hollywood. We hadn’t realized the observatory was right across from the Hollywood sign, so we took some pictures and the landscape before heading in.

We looked at the observatory’s exhibits while waiting for a showing of Light of the Valkyries, a presentation about the Northern Lights. It was probably the least exciting part of the day. I was interested in seeing it because I have always wanted to see the aurorae in person, and thought this would cool. While exciting from a technical standpoint, I found the presentation itself to be lacking. The presenter herself was wonderful, but the content was bland. When the show finally got to displaying aurorae, they were hastily presented and interrupted with silly CG warriors. It felt like a presentation aimed solely at children. Maybe it was.

Following that, Dmitry and I stopped at the Arclight to see Chef, which is a wonderful film that I highly recommend. The theatre itself was nice. The crowd there was small, perhaps because we missed the Friday night rush. I wasn’t impressed with the concessions, but that wasn’t why I was there. The presentation of the film was excellent, and there wasn’t a single moment of interruption from the crowd. It was a great moviegoing experience.

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Sunset from my hotel window.Sunset from my hotel window.

Sunset from my hotel window.

The sun began to set as we drove back to our hotel, and upon arrival I started writing as Dmitry took a FaceTime call from his wife and ordered a pizza. All in all, a good day.

Los Angeles, Day One

I’m in LA for a week. I’m going to try to write something about my trip every day. I hope you enjoy it.

This is my first vacation in six years, and the first time since 2002 I’ve travelled entirely on my own. True, I am meeting friends here, but the arrangements, the cash to get here — it’s all been me. Part of me wonders why I’m doing this, and why I am here. Part of my inspiration for traveling here is gone. There are still things that I am looking forward to, but I don’t think the bittersweet feelings I have at the moment are going anywhere.

There was a part of me that didn’t want to go on this trip. A part of me that wanted to just stay home and lay in bed all day. My friend Jay drove me to the airport, and told me that sort of thing was normal. Maybe it is. I don’t travel much, and although when I first thought of coming here I had some sort of agenda, things have changed. Still, I paid for the trip, and arrangements to meet old friends have been made. I wouldn’t have backed out.

I don’t think I like flying. Hours after getting off the plane, my ears are still hurting a little. It’s possible I ruptured an ear drum. If I yawn it hurts, and my hearing is kind of muted. I like flying in theory, and the view from the window is majestic. I like watching the world slowly move under me, tiny and abstract. I didn’t get to sit next to a window on this flight, though. Instead, an incredibly skinny guy who may or may not have been a heroin addict curled up in the window seat and slept most of the trip. When he wasn’t sleeping, he was doing that weird scratch-thing that you stereotypically think of a crackhead doing, and jamming his face into the half-closed window.

On the other side of me — yes, I was in the coveted economy middle seat — a very big dude practically spilled out of his chair. It made me consider the possibility of airlines selling seats by passenger size more seriously. I would have been plenty comfortable in my seat if this guy wasn’t so large that he had no choice but to invade my personal space for four hours. He wasn’t rude or anything. In fact, I think he was kind of a bumbling nerd. He almost dropped his coffee several times, and he was watching La Femme Nikita and Doctor Who on his laptop for the majority of the flight.

I feel a little bad for judging both my seatmates. It’s human nature, I know, but still sad. I could have drummed up a conversation with either of them, but all three of us came prepared with ways to keep ourselves busy during the flight, so maybe it was for the best that I didn’t.

I stood in line at the LAX Hertz for about an hour. The place was packed, with a line that ran around the building. I would have grabbed something to eat before heading to the hotel, but I was so anxious to take a break and write that I skipped the meal and had some crackers I’d stuffed in my carry-on instead. The guy at the counter told me I was getting a Yaris and gave me a Sentra. Not a bad car, but lacking in Bluetooth. I think all cars should come with Bluetooth these days. The drive was pleasant, though I missed my turn several times before finally finding my way to the hotel.

The entrance was neither labelled nor obvious and sits between two highway on-ramps. I flashed to that scene from Clueless where the kids accidentally get on the expressway and freak out, but it honestly wasn’t that bad. Of course, it was also around 2:30 pm, so probably not the heaviest of traffic.

My hotel room is… well, it’s a mixed bag. I can see why this place has so many negative reviews on Yelp. It’s not falling apart or anything, but the furniture has been damaged by humidity, and the inside of the drawers are warped and gross. It’s about as Spartan as these things get. It has an LCD TV, but it’s fed analog cable, which I find hilarious. I didn’t come here for the television, of course, and my Plex server at home is ready to stream whatever I want anyway. It’s mostly a non-issue. There’s also a very sad vending room on my floor, with a single machine that dispenses 12-ounce cans of soda for a dollar.

There is an awkward empty space in the corner of my room that probably held a reading chair at some point. A lamp sits in the corner, five feet from the second bed, looking lonely. The WiFi here isn’t bad, but I am not trying to tax it. My room is right outside the pool. Maybe there will be eye candy. I feel kind of gross saying that, but whatever. Newsflash: single straight guy likes pretty girls. More as it develops.

The palm trees in Los Angeles are kind of awesome. Some have grown to massive proportions, towering so high over everything else that they almost seem like beacons in the sky. There is a relatively tall one just outside my window; gently swaying in the breeze. It’s hypnotic. I’m actually kind of mad at myself for being so excited by palm trees. It’s so stereotypically tourist. I’m not here to see movie stars or the walk of fame.

So: Los Angeles, Day One: a place with possibilities that I’ll explore with my feet firmly planted on the ground.

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The view from my window of my hotel room. Yes, it’s dirty.The view from my window of my hotel room. Yes, it’s dirty.

The view from my window of my hotel room. Yes, it’s dirty.

Impoverished Geek Review: Nvidia Shield

Earlier this month, I did something some might find a little crazy: I sold several of my game consoles. Having already made the decision to cut back on tv-watching, I then decided to cut my video game time down. In truth, I’d done that some time ago; I have cut back on the amount of gaming I do on a regular basis since October or November. Despite my reduction in game-playing, however, I still purchased every game I had the intention of playing, whether I wound up doing that or not.

So, what did I get rid of? The first two to go were the Ouya (hasn’t been turned on much since I got it) and the Wii U (fun, but nothing that held my interest for long). The next two consoles I sold were my 3DS XL and PlayStation Vita. I was more hesitant to sell these. However, I haven’t bought or played a 3DS or VIta game since the release of Weapon Shop de Omasse — a game I didn’t play once. Not due to lack of interest, mind you, but because I could not find the time. It dawned on me one day that the only thing I used the Vita for was Wake Up Club, a social alarm clock app that I don’t think anyone else uses. Sure, I owned Lumines and Persona 4, but I wasn’t playing them.

I was never a huge fan of either device in practice. I found the ergonomics on both of them to be a bit of a nightmare, leaving my hands cramped in a relatively short period of time. The Vita in particular just never felt “right” to me, and the touch panel on the back of the device was more of a hassle than anything else. I longed for a portable device with a contoller more in line with that found on consoles.

Enter the Nvidia Shield.

I’d actually reserved an Nvidia Shield last year, but cancelled at the last minute and put the money toward a PS4 instead. The device was getting middling reviews, and I didn’t have a PC powerful enough to use one of its main selling points: game streaming. Furthermore, gaming on Android, like iOS, is a mixed bag: lots of games, most of them not great. This is further complicated by the fact that while the Shield has a touch screen, it’s not particularly easy to use. There’s a controller in the way. My main reason for considering the Shield was playing retro games via emulation, and since I have a laptop I carry with me everywhere, I already have a decent emulation machine. My opinion changed when I got a bunch of cash for selling my old portables. I decided to take a chance and give the Shield a whirl. 

The first thing you notice about the Nvidia Shield is that it’s heavy. Weighing in at a little over one-and-a-quarter pounds, it’s as heavy as a tablet. The Shield is solid and well-built, but there is no denying it is also bulky. It’s not the type of device you can stash quickly in a pocket. It’s much larger than most modern portables; I’d say is compares more to a device from the late nineties or early aughts. There is a plus size to that bulk, though: the Shield is much easier to grip than its competition. While the ergonomics still aren’t perfect, they are much better than those of the PlayStation Vita or 3DS.

In terms of technology, the Shield is pretty powerful. The 5-inch 720p display is bright and sharp. The speakers actually sound quite good, going toe-to-toe with the likes of the iPad and Surface. Games and videos sound great, though music is less than stellar. Of course, the Shield has a headphone jack, HDMI out, and Miracast streaming, so you can get better audio or video from an external device if you choose.

The Shield doesn’t disappoint from a spec standpoint, either. It runs the latest version of Android, KitKat. Its Tegra 4 processor chews through high definition video and produces stunning game graphics. It has 2 GB of RAM, and 16 GB of onboard storage that can be supplemented with a MicroSD card. Some games and apps refuse to run on anything but the built-in memory, but that’s an Android issue, not a flaw in the design of the Shield.

So far, the Shield has tackled every task I threw at it. I’ve used it to watch Netflix, YouTube, and Plex videos. I’ve played some Android games: Aquaria, Rochard, Jet Set Radio, and Need for Speed: Most Wanted. Each one ran brilliantly. I don’t know of any Android games ported to or from the Vita, so it is hard to compare the graphics directly, but games on the Shield looked great and appeared to be as impressive as on rival portables.

Sadly, Android’s app market still lags behind the one on iOS, and mobile games aren’t usually designed with core gamers in mind. There’s another reason I picked up the Shield, and that’s emulators. The more open nature of Android means a multitude of emulators have been ported to the platform, and the powerful processors found in modern mobile devices are capable of emulating all sorts of classic hardware. The Shield handily emulates hardware as recent as the PlayStation Portable.
This is where my biggest issue with the Shield rears its head, though: the controller hardware is just far enough from great to present the occasional hiccup. The directional pad shifts in place, leading it to read adjacent directions to the one you’re pressing at the worst possible moment. The face buttons lack springiness, making them feel unresponsive. I’ve also had buttons occasionally double-tap from a single pressing. In addition, some games just refuse to recognize the analog triggers on the back of the device. There’s nothing more frustrating than a controller that doesn’t do what you want, and the Shield sometimes has that problem. It’s not as bad as the downright unacceptable controller that comes with the Ouya, but it is still surprising to see these issues on an otherwise well-designed product.

The most recent Shield update also give beta access to The Grid, a cloud streaming service for games. I’m not the ideal candidate for the beta test, but I was allowed to try it out anyway. I found the service to be quite good, all things considered. In fact, I think the video quality is better than the PS4’s remote play service, despite streaming from California instead of via a local network. There was an occasional hiccup while playing, but considering Grid’s beta status, I was pleasantly surprised. I don’t have a PC with a graphics card capable of streaming to the Shield, but if the Grid is any indication, Shield’s home streaming feature is a useful one.

Nvidia’s Shield is a pretty impressive piece of hardware with a few issues that will hopefully be ironed out if a new version is released. If you like emulators or have a PC that can stream to the device, it might be worth the asking price. It won’t replace a tablet or outperform a mid-range laptop, and the Android game library can’t hold a candle to what you’ll find on other devices, though. If you already have a decent laptop and carry it with you, it might be more prudent to save $150 and buy a nice controller instead.


impgeek_BR_2.jpgimpgeek_BR_2.jpg

The Nvidia shield rates a 2/5 on the Impoverished Geek Scale of Buyer’s Remorse. It’s worth checking out, but it’s not going to be for everyone.

Musings on Exploration

My favorite video games are all about exploration. No matter what the genre, if I am really getting into a game, it has to feature a world for me to navigate. To me, nothing beats the feeling of discovering a new location or forging a path where I could not before. This isn’t just a joy I find in video games; I sometimes lament that fact that the majority of the world has been thoroughly explored.  Although it’s certainly true that the first time I go anywhere it’s new to me, there is a sort of magic in finding something new — something no one has seen before.

I spent several formative summer vacations going to a day camp in rural Illinois. Although the first few years largely consisted of dodgeball and soccer, my third or fourth year put me in a group that spent a great deal of time trailblazing. I loved it. The camp had a number of out-of-the-way places that we found by foraging through the woods or following winding trails around lakes. I have never been one for camping — the convenience of a warm bed, temperature control, and indoor plumbing will always reign over seeing stars above me as I sleep — but I do enjoy spending time in nature.

While most of the kids spent their time playing sports or crafting art, I became obsessed with the campgrounds themselves. The camp had a number of out-of-the-way locations that never seemed to be populated. Among my favorites were a pair of ruined or unfinished buildings we dubbed forts, a giant hill far off on the border of the grounds, and, in the center of the woods, a twisted dead tree my friends and I called “the snake tree.”

In subsequent years, I grew bold and began to sneak away from my group while they played sports. Sometimes, my friends would join me. We would hurriedly trek to our favorite locales and try to make it back before anyone noticed we were gone. We took, long, winding routes through the woods, avoiding main paths in order to keep from being noticed. We made up stories about the camp as we travelled, many of them involving a made-up murder named “The Axe Man.”

The camp grounds were expansive, but I was also a child when I was there. When I look at images of it now, they don’t seem quite so big. The grounds are public property now, maintained by the McHenry County Conservation District. I think about going back and taking another look at the place with the eyes of a grown man. I yearn to recapture that same wondrous feeling of discovery and adventure. When I fire up games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Fallout 3, Super Metroid, or Skyrim, that’s the feeling I am trying to recreate: that of a world undiscovered, of new places to explore.

There is unimaginable art, culture, and convenience in the city. I would never want to live too far from a major metropolitan area. There are moments, though, where I think being alone in the woods wouldn’t be all bad. Not forever, of course, but for a little while.

Eight Great Comic Artists, Part Two

There are, in my mind, two schools of comic book art. The first, the more technical and accurate style, is covered in my previous article. As much as I respect the work those artists do, the work that stands out to me most is more cartoony in nature. Although I can certainly tell the difference between famous comic book artists like Jim Lee and John Byrne, I have a slight preference for artists who step away from tradition in order to create a style that is unmistakably theirs. While realistic comic book art is technically more impressive, cartoon-style art seems to stick with me in a way that the former does not. Perhaps it is because this style of illustration more readily presents expression and individuality. Here are four more artists whose work deserve your attention.

 

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Faith Erin Hicks and Community. An awesome combination.Faith Erin Hicks and Community. An awesome combination.

Faith Erin Hicks and Community. An awesome combination.

Faith Erin Hicks

Likely to skyrocket to fame after her work on The Last of Us: American Dreams, Faith Erin Hicks has a cartoony style that is instantly recognizable. I like to refer to it as “frumpy chic,” because of the interesting way she adds little details to her work. You can almost see the sketches beneath the ink. Two of her books, Friends with Boys, which she wrote and illustrated, and Nothing Can Possibly Go Wrong, which she illustrated, have been serialized and are available for free on the web, so you really have no excuse not to check out her work.

 

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From  The Kindly Ones .From  The Kindly Ones .

From The Kindly Ones.

Marc Hempel

Marc Hempel has a way with madness. For me, his two most notable works are the Gregory series and The Sandman: The Kindly Ones, both of which have a heavy focus on characters who have, at best, a tenuous grip on reality. Hempel has a knack for drawing out emotion and perspective from deceptively simple art. The Kindly Ones focuses on Lyta Hall’s descent into madness and Morpheus’ inability or unwillingness to grow. Gregory tells the sad-but-funny tale of a child who lives in a straightjacket and  a padded cell, with only bugs and rodents for playmates. Hempel’s bold, simple lines belie the complex emotions they convey.

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From Hope Larson's  Mercury .From Hope Larson's  Mercury .

From Hope Larson’s Mercury.

Hope Larson

I’d describe Eisner Award-winning Hope Larson’s art style as Daniel Clowes(Ghost World) meets Michael Allred(Madman). Books like Chiggers and Mercury, which she both wrote and illustrated, perfectly capture their coming-of-age feeling with her clean, understated art. She has also created a wonderful adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time. When she works with color, her technique is even more impressive. In addition to her art, Hope is the writer and director of a short film, Bitter Orange

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One of Jim Mahfood's Tank Girl coversOne of Jim Mahfood's Tank Girl covers

One of Jim Mahfood’s Tank Girl covers

Jim Mahfood (NSFW WARNING!)

Jim Mahfood’s style is something I would refer to as hyper-kinetic. He’s a pop culture fanatic, and outside of drawing comics he is a very accomplished creator of fine art. Mahfood’s art is energetic and bold. He’s worked on a number of comic series, the most well-known of which are probably Clerks, Generation X, The Simpsons, and Tank Girl. He also made a Kickpuncher mini-comic that was included with Community’s season one DVD set. In addition to those major works, he’s the creator of Comic Toast and Grrl Scouts. Everything about his work says “fucking cool.” You have to swear. It’s that awesome.

Eight Great Comic Artists, Part One

There are lots of big names in comic book art. Almost everyone’s heard of Steve Ditko, Jim Lee, and Todd McFarlane. Many of them are deserving of their praise. There are smaller names, though, known only in the particular niches they serve. As someone who enjoys comics but wouldn’t call themselves a diehard fan, I thought I’d share a few of my favorite artists and why I think they deserve recognition.

 

PART ONE: THE CLASSICAL STYLE

These four artists epitomize what I like to consider the traditional comic book art style: characters have fairly realistic proportions that are maintained throughout the story. Their work is about directly presenting the story rather than interpreting it or presenting intangibles through their imagery.

 

Amy Reeder

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From  Rocket GirlFrom  Rocket Girl

From Rocket Girl

Amy Reeder keeps old-school comic book art alive, and I mean that as a great compliment. As much as I enjoy the unique style of every artist on this list, what I appreciate about Reeder is her modern take on the traditional form. Reeder captures the explosive style of classical comic art — extreme poses, bold interpretation of movement, and nontraditional angles — and makes them her own. She’s probably best known for her work on Batwoman and Halloween Eve.

Also, this may be the oddest thing I ever say on this blog, but I absolutely love the way she draws lips. Look at them! There is something about the way she captures her character’s emotions with their mouths alone. I’m not being the least bit silly here. I don’t think she’s drawn the same set twice. It’s uncanny.

 

Michael Zulli

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From  The Sandman: The WakeFrom  The Sandman: The Wake

From The Sandman: The Wake

Although his work appears at several times in the series, the best example of Michael Zulli’s skills appears in The Sandman: The Wake. His work with colored pencils can best be describes as ethereal. His delicate and detailed art was the perfect fit for The Sandman’s final stories. Comic book art is often the work of three artists: a penciller, and inker, and a colorist. Sometimes, the same artist fills all those roles, but in order to keep up with the hectic pace of comic publishing, this is rarely the case. Zulli’s work in The Wake eschews inking altogether, and the result is astonishing. His subtle pencilling, brought to life with Daniel Vozzo’s colors, is otherworldly.

Michael Zulli’s work is still wonderful when inked. Hob’s Leviathan, a story which appears in The Sandman: World’s End, is marvelous to look at. It does not have that same dream-like quality of his pencils alone, however.

Jill Thompson

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From  Beasts of BurdenFrom  Beasts of Burden

From Beasts of Burden

The first time I saw Jill Thompson’s art, I wasn’t impressed. In fact, I’m still not impressed by her work on The Sandman: Brief Lives. It’s not bad, but it isn’t something that would merit making this list. Some of her later work, like The Dead Boy Detectives and At Death’s Door are Sandman offshoots with lackluster manga-inspired art. You’d be forgiven for writing her off, not as incompetent, because she’s plenty competent, but as great. Then she goes and works on Beasts of Burden with Evan Dorkin, and I’m utterly taken aback. Every single panel is beautiful. Her haunting watercolors capture the series’ strange combination of macabre whimsy perfectly. It leads me to wonder how much of her style was dictated by editors, and it may also serve as an example of how much an artist can grow, given the opportunity.

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From  Death: The Time of Your LifeFrom  Death: The Time of Your Life

From Death: The Time of Your Life

Chris Bachalo

It’s the swirls for knuckles. That’s the first thing I noticed about Chris Bachalo’s style. He’s a great artist, who draws in a fairly classical comic style, but the swirls-for-knuckles thing stood out to me when I read the first issue of Generation X in 1997. Generation X was the first comic series I really got into. The new X-Men it introduced were interesting, and co-creator’s Chris Bachalo’s art served to draw me deeper into the story. 

Chris Bachalo also did some work on The Sandman, and was the sole artist to draw the two fantastic Death side stories, The Time of Your Life and The High Cost of Living.

 

Part two delves into the more cartoony and expressionist comic book artists I enjoy. You can read it here.

Five Challenges You Will Face When Dieting

I’ve been dieting for almost a year and a half, slowly dropping down to my target weight. The first few months were easy, but since then progress has been maddeningly slow. I’m still slimming down — this month I dropped another waist size and am now within ten pounds of my second of three goal weights. However, it’s taking more and more work to drop this weight, and maintaining self-control remains as difficult as ever. I have come to terms with not being able to have a burger and fries for lunch every day, but there are still other things in my life that make dieting difficult. If dieting is stressing you out, take solace in the fact that you aren’t alone in these frustrations. Or, if someone you know is dieting, try to keep these things in mind when talking to them about eating.

 

5. Everyone else will tell you what to eat. They will be wrong.

For some reason, even after you have figured out what sort of diet/exercise plan works for you, people will still insist on telling you what you are doing wrong. People will think they have some sort of magical insight that you could never have come to on your own, because they are somehow more adept at surfing the web or talking to other people than you. They will tell you silly things like “Carbs are actually triple the number of calories on the label,” or “nuts are very low in calories!” Invariably, these people will not be as in shape as they seem to think they are. Don’t listen to them, even if they have had some success in weight loss or weight management. The truth is that there are no shortcuts or secrets to quick, safe, constant weight loss. Limit calories. Get exercise. That’s it. Long-term, sustained weight loss requires discipline, not tricks.

 

4. Every day, someone will tell you to “Just make today your cheat day!”

This is perhaps the most challenging thing about dieting around people who aren’t: they all want you to join in their desserts, big meals, buffets, and snacks. They will bring slices of birthday cake unbidden. They will beg you to join them at a chain restaurant. When you refuse, and explain that you are on a diet, they will immediately say “just make today your cheat day,” as if you didn’t already have a cheat day lined up. Everyone around you will assume that their craving is the same one you have, and won’t realize you have been dreaming about the giant pizza you’ll be ordering for your cheat day — assuming you even take one!

 

3. You will be so hungry you will want to eat everything in sight.

The bad eating habits you formed while gaining weight will not disappear overnight — if ever. I was used to eating all through the day, and the urge to snack when I am at my desk has never abated. The only time my stomach doesn’t feel like it is eating itself is when I am incredibly busy. I have been dieting for over a year now, and the urge to constantly eat has never left. I am still always hungry. I’ve tried drinking more water. I sometimes go through over thirty two ounces between breakfast and lunch. It doesn’t help. The only thing that silences my raging hunger pangs is eating.

I have taken to rationing out M&M’s in tiny tins and stashing rice cakes in my desk in order to fight the between-meal cravings that overtake me. Portion control is always important when dieting, and portion controlling snacks is incredibly difficult. Although some snacks come in 100-calorie packs, many don’t, and on a strict diet, even that may be too much. Small packs are also much more expensive than buying in bulk. Find a snack you like, pack lots of tiny portions, and ration them out. Try to make said snack a filling one.

 

2. People will tell you that you can stop — you look fine.

This is among the most frustrating thing people say to me. I know that I carry my weight pretty well, and I know that while I am no longer obese, I am not within my target weight range. My plan to lose weight was as much about being healthy as it was about my appearance, and being told “you don’t look fat” is not really a compliment. I know what I weigh. I get on a scale every morning. I’ll decide when I’m done. I didn’t go around asking people if I should be on a diet, and I won’t ask anyone else when I should stop. I also didn’t start dieting to impress a bunch of overweight married forty-somethings. I set a goal, and I’ll stop when I reach it.

 

1. Every meal at every restaurant is at least 1,000 calories

No, seriously. Check the calorie counts at “healthy” restaurants, too. Outside of Chiptole and Subway — who still have some high calorie stuff — pretty much any meal is going to net you over two-thirds of your daily intake. A single tiny White Castle Slider is over 100 calories. Even many salads are over 800 calories.  Looking at the nutrition info for a restaurant will make you never want to eat out again. You expect high calorie counts at fast food restaurants, but McDonald’s and Burger King value meals are actually lower in calories than comparable meals at T.G.I. Friday’s and Chili’s.

There is no way around this fact. If you are on a real diet, you aren’t going to eat out much. Get used to it. The people that eat with you are going to have to get used to it, too. It took six months to get my coworkers to stop asking me to eat out, and they still bug me several times a week.

 

I don’t think anyone who starts taking care of themselves ever regrets it. As difficult as it can be, diet progress is easy to track and any reasonable goal can be met. Remember that in the end, making the choice to live a healthier lifestyle is about improving yourself. It’s worth it.