Three years…

Dang…it’s amazing what can change in three little years. I’m not going to recap it here now, but it’s been pretty mind-blowing. Some wonderful things have happened, some terrible things have happened. The amplitude has been high. And the nice thing is that I’m a better person for it, and in many ways, I’m in a better place. I’ve learned a lot about myself, and it’s helped to make my family closer, my relationships better, and life more authentic. I’ve always tried to live to work hard and play hard, and that’s only become more true. There’s been a lot of joy. I appreciate my friends more deeply and look on the word with new eyes.

Lifehack: the bathroom mirror

Like most people, I do my best thinking in the restroom.  Quality time in the shower, meditating on a shave, reflecting on my day while brushing my teeth, or just relaxing, it’s a place where my mind has the opportunity to meander peacefully.  Some of my most creative ideas have come to me while showering, and while taking my junior qualifying exam at Reed I figured out the path for two of the problems I was stuck on during restroom breaks.

So I recently stuck a dry erase marker on the counter by the sink, and now have a way to quickly jot an idea down after washing my hands, but before I’ve found a pad of paper or iPhone, or the thought just slips away.  My wife can toss the honey-do tasks or other reminders on there for me as well, to assess while I’m polishing my pearly whites.

Shrine of Taliera – Sessions 1 and 2

Introduction: this is a campaign set loosely in The Forgotten Realms following on the heels of The Lost Mines of Phandelver.  We are using D&D 5e.  For the most part I’m just using maps from Forgotten Realms, some locations, and pivoting off some interesting parts that I’ve come across.  This is a summary of the first two sessions that we had.

Having vanquished the baddies of Wave Echo Cave, the party returns to Phandalin.  As they return, the sky has turned, ash is falling to the ground, and refugees are making their way west to Phandalin from the east.  There are murmurings of a war brewing between northern and southern factions, in which undead are sacking farms and marching on the south, and rumors of dragons being called to face them from the south.  A cleric named Chandra Cleareye is among the refugees.  She has escaped from the Shrine of Taliera, where she had been among other clerics and magic users whose powers were being channeled by the northern powers.

In Phandalin, the refugees have grown the town dramatically, and are beginning to become unruly.  A ranger named Fennel Dyer appears to be something of the ringleader of the refugees, and is making some trouble for the local constabulary.  He chides the players, especially the local aspiring knight, Biff, calling him a “little lordling.”

To redirect some of those energies, Sildar Hallwinter arranges an archery contest, and ask the players to participate.  Mostana steps up to the challenge.

In the meantime, a great power has awakened inside Helder.  With great power comes great responsibility, so he wields it with care, introducing the flavor of plums to the townspeople.  Starting trouble?  Taste plums.  Selling good?  Have some plum.  You have a message for my buddy?  Sure, here’s some plum-flavor for your troubles.  Drawing a bow?  Plum in your mouth.  But wait…there’s no plum there, just the sweet-sour nectar enticing your tastebuds.

Mostana draws, shoots, and strikes with aplomb.  Pyr embeds himself with Fennel Dyer, and uses his proximity to set crosswinds in his arrows’ paths.  Despite those efforts, Fennel qualifies for the final round, and stands alongside Mostana, chiding him.  They face off, Fennel’s tastebuds glowing with the mysterious taste of plums.  Arrows fire, strike, strike, strike, strike.  Rounds pass.  When the bows are set aside, close measurement show that Mostana has hit closer to the center, and he is declared the winner.

Sildar breaks his conversation with Chandra to award Mostana his 50gp purse, and discuss the challenges of the Shine of Taliera with the players.  He asks them to investigate, and provides steeds for the journey to the Star Mounts, where the shrine lies at the southern end of the High Forest.

The party rests one more night in Phandalin prior to embarking, then hits the road.  They reach the ruins of Conyberry, where they make camp among sparse refugee camps.  They approach the largest group of refugees and ask of the war.  One peasant woman is grieving her children and husband lost to the army of undead that raided her farmhouse.  She is aware of a southern power, The Plurality, and the northen leaders, Lord Daureen and King Phau, but does not know much other than Lord Daureen’s rise to power was through cruelty and betrayal.  These travelers have been on the road for quite awhile, hailing from east of the High Forest.

Randy offers up his healing abilities to any of the refugees who may need it.  Among them is Tremen Bailham, who had been attacked by bandits near The Trade Way, and relieved of an important document detailing information about North’s plans for The Shrine of Taliera.  He joins the party, and they continue east along The Triboar Trail in the morning, making camp somewhat off the path near The Trade Way.

With the rising sun, a cabin in the distance throws a long shadow near a lone tree.  The party investigates, sending Pyr and Mostana as scouts.  They hear some rumblings inside, and the greater party is discovered as one of the bandits exits for a constitutional.  He hastily runs inside, then is joined by a number of other bandits.

A fight ensues while Tremen Bailham watches the horses.  Pyr makes his way onto the roof.  Bandits engage the party, and a larger, wilder man faces off with Mostana.  Biff, Randy, and Helder battle their foes, Biff being double-teamed against initially flaccid attacks, exchanging blows.  While they exchange blows, a sixth bandit enters the fray from the cabin.  Pyr leaps from the roof with a deadly blow, but whiffs it.  The sixth bandit, Senna turns to face him, slashing twice with her scimitar, and strikes with her dagger on the third blow.  Helder with his magic missiles and ray of frost dispatches a bandit, while Biff does the same with one of his, then turns to assist Pyr with his.  The ruckus continues, Helder takes care of the bandit attacking Biff, while Mostana battles his.  Randy assists with the wild one, which is putting up quite a fight, forcing Pyr to retreat.  Helder frosts his mustache, Mostana battles, and Biff struggles against the leader Senna.  Injured and outnumbered, Senna calls for the wild one to run, but seeing red he does not hear, or does not obey.  Eventually, the berserker falls in battle, and Senna throws down her weapon, yielding.

The party secures Senna and questions her.  She indicates the location of their ill-gotten horde, but has little information of use, being mere opportunists.  Inside the sparse cabin, they find the stash under the lone piece of furniture, a table.  Inside is 50gp and a scroll.

The scroll shows the mountains with a webbing pattern over them, and a date 20 days in the future indicating an event.  Tremen Bailham confirms that this was the scroll in his care.

They rest, guarding Senna, and have some philosophical discussions regarding the treatment of prisoners, as well as musings on the two factions they’ve become aware of.  They really aren’t sure if this Plurality is good, or evil, though the forces of Daureen sound pretty clearly bad.  “Well, more good for us then,” closed Helder.  They decided to leave Senna secured at the cabin, as she assured them that she would be able to free herself eventually, and that this was over for her, and they didn’t feel good executing a prisoner who had yielded (at least who they had invaded first).

After resting, they continued south, until arriving at a fork.  Tremen suggested heading south, as the two options would skirt the High Forest, one south, the other on the northern side.  They make camp, then ride south in the morning.  Later in the day, they notice a camp on a hill off the road to the east.  Mostana and Pyr move to investigate, but Mostana stumbles and makes a clattering noise.  At first nothing appears, but as they continue, a group of skeletons stands at arms atop the rise, and then more skeletons appear, perhaps a dozen.  They beat a hasty retreat, as four wolves are released on them.  At a dead run, the wolves are nearly upon them when Helder directs his spider staff to web the pursuers, entangling two of them.  They hear a whistle at the top of the hill, and looking up see a man in tan robes with a staff, his robe flapping in the wind, and the wolves halt their pursuit.

Collecting themselves after fleeing, Tremen suggests that perhaps the northern route would be the safer option, and they turn back, heading north.  Returning to the fork, they veer east.  Arriving at a river, the bridge is out.  Tremen is aware of The Stone Bridge, of dwarven construction to the south, and suggests that there may be fording to the north.  They opt for the bridge route, and head south after camp.  Making their way south, they see a half dozen skeletons guarding either side of the bridge, and approach under fire from the nearer skeletons.

As they battle the six skeletons on the near side of the bridge, the other six mount the top of the bridge, with only two skeletons remaining, in the melee, then another falls, as they are fired upon from the top of the bridge.  Biff dispatches the last one, and instructs the injured party members to retreat out of firing range.  He charges up the bridge under fire, and is joined by Pyr, who catches an arrow as he is struck by another.  Making their way up the bridge, they each engage three skeletons, as Helder works his way into casting range, firing magic missiles and rays of frost.  With some effort they clear the bridge, then make camp at the base on the eastern side of the river.


Mathematica Data Visualization: book review

2999OT_Mathematica Data Visualization_cov_0It’s not one of the topics I cover here much, but I enjoy hobbying in computational analysis.  Mathematica is one of my favorite tools for this, and I’ve used it for a number of projects, including building a pretty nifty game with the goal of making the world a better place.  Related to that, I was given the opportunity to review a pretty cool book about Data Visualization in Mathematica, aptly titled Mathematica Data Visualization by Nazmus Saquib.  It a fantastic lightweight introduction to creating a variety of visualizations using.  It starts off with a general introduction to the topic, along with some of the ways of thinking about data, and then moves on to the practice and art of looking at data and sharing data.  The authors definitely channel Tufte and other greats in the field, sharing useful guidance for selecting color schemes, simplifying, and creating interactive visualizations.   They are not limited in focus, analyzing social graphs, maps and paths, economic data, lists, and the physical form of currencies in their examples that are drawn from real-world applications.  Overall, if this is a topic of interest I highly recommend Mathematica as a tool, and Mathematica Data Visualization as a guide.  Disclosure: while I was not compensated, I did receive an electronic copy of the book for review.  The book can be found here:

Chess Opening Principles

Up front, I am far from being a chess master.  If you’re experienced enough to know that you’re not very good, we’d probably have a decent game.  But, I’ve done some research on chess openings, and played quite a few games, and would like to put together a quick, accessible summary of some sound opening principles.

These opening principles are guidelines: you will find plenty of exceptions as you play.  But faced with so many options, this should help to narrow them down.

What is the opening for?

In general, the opening is for:

  • developing pieces
  • protecting the king
  • controlling the center

One of the first things you’ll find as your game improves is that you are not trying to win in the opening.  You are just laying the foundations for a sound middle game.  As we learn in life, a strong opening is the key to creating your own luck.

The opening challenge

Almost all openings begin with either e4 or e5 for white.  This is a play for the center.  Black often responds in kind.  The key here is that white plays first.  That 1/2 move advantage is large for white, enough so that white and black typically have different goals in the opening: white’s goal is to secure an advantage, whereas black’s goal is to achieve equality.

The chess narrative

A chess match has three components: the opening, the middlegame, and the endgame.  Not so unlike a book.  And similar to a book, it can be a bit unclear as to when one ends and the next one begins.  So think of the opening as the part of the book where the story is established.  The characters get introduced, the major themes may be outlined, the world is described.  But more subtly, the pacing of the story may be set, the writing style and intentions laid out.

Similarly in chess, the opening gives players a chance to horse trade to achieve their desired narrative, which takes shape in the middle game.  In the opening, characters are introduced in the form of pieces being played to key squares.  Subtle differences can lead to a majestic and sweeping middlegame with valiant piece exchanges, or it can lead to a calculatingly tactical set of skirmishes for control of a single key square.

As you advance, you’ll discover ways to guide a game to become the type of game that you would like to play, which includes guiding a game to become the type of game that your opponent does not want to play.

The tactics

Here are some rules of thumb that I have found useful:

  • Don’t move a piece twice (this includes pawns) – it’s all about rapid development at this point.  Moving a piece twice is often a waste of time because the narrative has not yet unfolded.
  • Only move the King and Queen pawns eatly
  • Knights then Bishops – in the quest for efficient development, knights are often the easiest to deploy.  There are really only two squares where you’d want to move a knight: the bishop file, or the next one towards the center.  The Bishop has several more to choose from, so you may like to let the narrative unfold a bit before introducing this character.
  • Knights and Bishops then Rooks – the rook is very powerful, but takes time to unleash correctly.  Leave it home until you see where it will unleash maximum firepower.
  • Castle, please Castle – This protects the king, connects the rooks, and develops a rook, all in one move!  Just do it, do it early, and do it kingside.
  • When in doubt, castle – I like to get my development on as quickly as possible.  Usually at some point I’m not sure where I want to go next, so Bam!  Castle, done.  Castling when your opponent castles can help too.
  • Develop your side of the board – it’s dangerous across the border.  Your pieces will be subject to attack by lowly pawns, which will force them to move twice.
  • Play for the center – The four squares in the middle are the most strategic positions to own early in the game.  Play to them, support them, own them

The principles

Fast, solid development is the key to a strong middle game.  To think about the speed of a game, the notion of tempo was introduced.  While it is roughly the same as a move, there is a critical difference: you can gain and lose tempo over your opponent.  To gain tempo, you make moves that cause your opponent to waste moves.  An easy example of this is attacking while developing.  You make a move towards the middlegame, while forcing your opponent to react to you.  To give an idea of the importance of tempo in chess, black starts the game down one tempo, and overcoming that is one of black’s primary goals.

Controlling the center of the board allows you the most freedom while restricting your opponent.

A strong pawn structure is crucial.  Moving  just one pawn wrong can expose your king and cause you to waste tempi in protecting your line.  Try to leave the kingside pawns home to protect the king for castling, and delay moving the queenside pawns until you have a goal for them.

What’s next?

Play some games.  Get used to the tactics and principles.  Read further.  For reference, these are some good articles in the same area:

Read books, play through some games.  I recommend studying Capablanca, as I find his games incredibly clear for such a high level.

Then, learn a few openings.  Two or three are good for a start…one as white, and then a black response to P-K4 and P-Q4 each.  I’m always amazed at how quickly games diverge from the openings.  But you will notice themes.