Blood, Sweat, and Kremlinks

Fall of 2013, America was a storm of marriage desanctification, selfies, and Grumpy Cat. Somehow I stopped twerking to “What Does The Fox Say?” long enough to have an idea for a game – a top-down twin-stick shooter. At that point HTML5’s canvas element had recently gained support in all major browsers. Adobe had dropped flash support for Linux and Android, and the writing was on the wall for other operating systems. As someone that had previously written his games in Flash and ActionScript, I was at a crossroads. I’d been writing ActionScript since the Macromedia days, and while I was also reasonably competent with JavaScript for web UI/UX, the process of using it to draw and animate on an HTML5 canvas was still “black magic” to me. A few HTML5 canvas/JavaScript game engines had sprung up already, but I’m the kind of person that really likes to understand things from the ground up. I made the decision to write my engine from scratch.

I’d written engines from scratch before, but they were generally for smaller, less ambitious games. However, my thinking was it’s a top-down scrolling 2d tile-based engine, how hard can it be? I envisioned gameplay similar to one of my SNES favorites, Super Smash TV. Rather than Smash TV’s chain of mostly-identical square rooms, though, I wanted a series of maps, and enemies with real pathing AI. Not just open arenas, but alleys and corridors; maps that would’ve been at home in 2.5d games like Wolfenstein or Doom but in a top-down two-stick universe. It would’ve been a linear, story-driven thing. Science fiction film noir – a space-faring bounty hunter that gets drawn into a web of murder, police corruption, and mad science. Shades of Blade Runner and Shadowrun but with blocky pixel graphics reminiscent of the 16-bit era. A whole alternate history reality grew out around it – a universe where the cold war went hot in the mid-80s. The name “Fistful of Kremlinks” is an obvious homage to Sergio Leone, owing to space western influences like Firefly. A “kremlink” was a blockchain currency developed in the former Soviet Union in the 2030’s by a mysterious, mostly-anonymous engineer. If you’re asking “how would you end up with a fistful of virtual currency?”, consider your character is a high-end assassin and many affluent people in this universe embed their private crypto keys on subcutaneous chips – a mental picture begins to form that gives the phrase “blood money” new depth. Each map would involve gunning your way through the baddies to uncover another piece of the story that would lead to the next location. In concept, it would’ve been my magnum opus. In reality, it was never finished.

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3D Crossviews of the Los Angeles Natural History Museum

It’s with a degree of shame I admit that one year I came home from the Scholastic book fair with only one “real” book, My Teacher Glows in the Dark, the third book in Bruce Coville’s My Teacher is an Alien series. The rest of my budget was allocated to There’s Treasure Everywhere – decades later a much-loved, dog-eared Calvin and Hobbes collection that’s a permanent coffee table fixture in every house I’ve ever lived in – and two Magic Eye books. The Magic Eye books are long gone, but they kindled a lifelong interest in stereoscopic imagery. For the last several years I’ve been experimenting with shooting crossview stereoscopic photos with a smartphone camera, most recently I tried it at the Los Angeles Natural History Museum. These are a few of the shots that came out the best. If you’re not familiar with crossview stereoscopic images or how to see them in 3d, this is a great tutorial.


On a breezy summer evening, seated in an amphitheater carved from the cliffs above Laguna Beach, I attended my first Pageant of the Masters. It’s an elaborate production that stages living reproductions of famous works of art accompanied by a live orchestra. Performers in makeup and costume step into carefully constructed scenes, and transform into the subjects of well-known pieces through the wonders of lighting and stage magic. As part of the beach city’s Festival of the Arts, Pageant of the Masters has been performed every year since 1933, with only a brief hiatus for World War II and a cancellation last year due to COVID-19. As patrons of the arts filled the Irvine Bowl for this year’s return to form, there was a buzz in the atmosphere that couldn’t be wholly attributed to the wine I’d had at Terra Laguna Beach – the upscale al fresco restaurant attached to the festival grounds, fine dining in the unique space that used to be known as Tivoli Terrace. Pageant of the Masters is a beloved Orange County tradition. All the OC natives I’ve mentioned it to have stories to share, their parents taking them to their first Pageant often being among their earliest childhood memories. This post-2020 performance felt resurgent and triumphant.

Every year the works chosen to be depicted in the Pageant share a common theme. This year, the theme was “Made in America.” Like a lot of Americans, I have complex feelings about my country at the moment. I love it deeply, but at times it doesn’t feel like we have much to beat the drum and wave the flag about. American patriotism can be like a failing marriage – you ask yourself if you really love what it is, or only what you wish it could be. Even the word “patriotism” has been blighted by nationalists in this “third-world country in a Gucci belt.” I wasn’t sure if I was ready for a night of applauding Washington Crossing the Delaware set to Yankee Doodle; cheering for white Europeans that enslaved people and massacred an indigenous population to get out of paying taxes and give themselves a chance to play liberal democracy in stockings and powdered wigs. In my opinion, at least, there’s already been enough deification of our founding fathers and other prominent historic figures. They were human beings like any of us; flawed, selfish, and sometimes blinded by their own cultural biases. Whatever else they were, we do our future an injustice by denying ourselves the opportunity to examine their mistakes and learn from them. Glossing over their imperfections and pretending our nation’s history isn’t at least equally condemnable as it is praiseworthy is a disservice to all Americans, and we do it far too often. Safe to say, I brought with me to the theater a set of reservations.

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Escape from LA : Day 4 : Roadtrip Playlist

I’ve been sharing my hand-picked selections for each leg of the greatest roadtrip of my life, together forming a massive thirteen-hour playlist in four parts. Here’s links to parts one, two, and three if you missed them.

The fourth and final day is predominantly the sounds of sunny Southern California – punk, surf, ska, and just a little old school gangsta rap. Many of the artists featured are Californians themselves. Suggested pairing: A view of Saddleback Mountain

Escape from LA : Day 3 : Roadtrip Playlist

I’ve been sharing my hand-picked selections for each leg of the greatest roadtrip of my life, together forming a massive thirteen-hour playlist in four parts. Here’s links to part one and part two if you missed them.

Set in New Mexico and Arizona, day three includes various flavors of rock including classic, alternative, and punk with an overnight stay in a motel whose radio only gets an 80’s pop/new wave station. Beware dinosaurs and low flying saucers. Suggested pairing: An abiding appreciation for the majestic saguaro.

Escape from LA : Day 2 : Roadtrip Playlist

I’ve been sharing my hand-picked selections for each leg of the greatest roadtrip of my life, together forming a massive thirteen-hour playlist in four parts. Here’s a link to part one in case you missed it.

Day two is a collection of punk, psychobilly, and roots rock with detours for classic metal and a little Latin flair. No, you’re not out of Texas yet. Suggested pairing: That part of I-10W around Fort Hancock where Mexico is just to your left.

Escape from LA : Day 1 : Roadtrip Playlist

The roadtrip playlist is a time-honored tradition, dating back to the days of mix tapes, and it would’ve been a damn shame to let the greatest roadtrip of my life go by without suitable mood music. Over the next few days, I’ll be sharing my hand-picked selections for each leg of my journey, together forming a massive thirteen-hour playlist in four parts.

Day one is a broad selection of rockabilly, punk, and alternative, occasionally taking exits marked pop, hip-hop, and metal – there’s something for everyone to complain about. Are we there yet? Suggested pairing: That stretch of I-20W between Marshall and Longview.

Escape from LA

In October 2006, I went to Disneyland. I was 22 years old, and it was the first and only time I’ve ever been.

I’m not a person that would generally think of himself as a Disney fan. I like Star Wars, but despite Star Tours it wasn’t a Disney property yet in 2006. I’m interested in 2d animation as an art form, and Walt Disney’s innovation in that field is hard to ignore, but that was a hundred years ago and honestly I’m kind of in the same camp as John K about it. But I was in Anaheim for a training seminar, and after lunch one day, when the agenda was looking especially dry, my boss mercifully handed me a hundred dollar bill and said “I’ll stay here for the sessions, do you want to go to Disneyland?” It was an easy decision.

While I don’t know that I’d have ever made a trip to California just for Disneyland, it turned into an excellent day. October is the off-season so lines were short and nothing was crowded. Like any good teenage goth I had that Tim Burton/Oingo Boingo phase, so Haunted Mansion rethemed for Halloween with The Nightmare Before Christmas was a memorable experience. And I joked for a long time that my parents never took me to Disneyland when I was kid, so I owed thanks to my boss for righting old wrongs.

I’ve looked back on that day often, but it’s not just because Disneyland exceeded my expectations. We hadn’t rented a car, so I was on foot for the couple of blocks between the convention center hotel and the park entrance. The weather was lovely, all blue skies and palm-tree-lined sidewalks. Besides being my one and only trip to Disneyland, what makes the day memorable is that sunny fall afternoon was the first time I pictured myself living in Southern California.

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I was a Teenage Anarcho-Capitalist

Since I was old enough to have political opinions, I’ve always been pretty socially liberal. My dad was a bit of a biker type, and my mom was kind of a hippie, and for the most part they espoused the old “live and let live” philosophy. I learned to value genuineness and self-expression, and maybe even a bit of non-conformity and anti-authoritarianism. But like a lot of working middle-class folks, they bought into the old quasi-Biblical platitudes like “you don’t work, you don’t eat” and “God helps those who help themselves” (although my mother would’ve been quick to point out while she found the second one theologically sound it’s not a phrase that’s actually found in the Bible). I think most people’s initial political stances are are shaped heavily by their parents, and I was no different. As a fledgling voter in 00’s America, I identified most as a Libertarian – socially liberal, economically conservative – small government, personal responsibility, and free markets.

In an episode of the sitcom Shameless, character Lip Gallagher posits “every Libertarian is born on third base and thinks he hit a triple“. I’m not a big baseball fan, but I know enough about it to understand the sentiment. Most people know hitting a home run is when you’re able to round all the bases off one hit – a triple is just short of that – you stop on third base instead of continuing on to home. A runner on third base is most of the way to scoring already – the run isn’t guaranteed, they may still get tagged out heading for home – but they’ve got better chances and less work ahead of them than a guy that’s fresh up to bat.

It’s a poignant metaphor and its history goes back further than Lip Gallagher, even though the writers of Shameless seem to be the first to tie it to Libertarians in general rather than specific, individual people of privilege (previously it’s been leveled against George Bush, Sr. and Jr., for instance). The idea is that it’s hypocritical for a person that was born with advantages to take all the credit for their own accomplishments. If you were “born on third”, you had a lot less ground to cover than a guy that had to hit his own triple. It doesn’t mean you didn’t still face the risk of failure, and it doesn’t mean you didn’t have to run as hard as you could if you wanted to score, but the odds of your success were a lot more favorable. And the unfortunate truth is that a lot of people that have those kind of advantages are blind to them – they do think they hit their own triple.

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