Saturday, October 27, 2012

Fall Barefooting

It's been too long since I wrote a blog entry. Something about putting to bed a 5-year long has a tendency to juggle your priorities a bit. But here I am.

So, I wanted to get on here to talk a bit about the "fall" season for barefooting. It's definitely one of the most interesting times of the year for a barefooter. While the rest of the people around me are donning heavy coats, insulated socks and waterproof knee-high boots, I'm splashing in rain puddles, collecting pine needles on my soles and leaving wet barefoot prints everywhere I go.

Although I tremendously enjoy all those wonderful things about barefooting through the falling leaves and the first cool rains in September and October, no other time of year is as isolating to a barefooter. The primary reason for this is that it shines a spotlight on how much of an "outsider" we are, when we don't follow along with the rest of society by "sensibly" encasing our feet in extra layers of protection as the temperatures drop and the drops start falling from the clouds.

Every year, from October to December, is without a doubt when I get 90% of the comments about my feet. "Aren't your feet cold?" being the hands-down favorite around here. To which the answer is: Yes. But my hands and head get colder. I never feel cold enough to wear anything over my face, and I wear gloves way more than I wear shoes. Also, your feet actually do adapt to the temperatures and so long as you keep your core warm, you can handle most common temperature changes. We're actually quite resilient in this area, from the heat of summer asphalt to the cold of snow and ice...we can cover a pretty broad spectrum. But most people make a lot of assumptions about the inferiority of their own bodies to adapt.

In the past week, I've had three complete strangers make comments about my lack of footwear, when in the past six months I heard not a thing. It takes a certain kind of strength to be different from everyone else. And although I tend to think that I'm not really that bothered by what other people think, I'd be lying if I claimed that it didn't still have an impact. Even when the comments are mostly neutral and/or benign, as is most often the case with Seattle natives, you can still feel singled out. And no, I'm not asking for this kind of attention because I am barefoot. In all honesty, I'd much prefer that people didn't even notice. I'm barefoot because it's just a part of who I am. Although strictly speaking, it is a choice I make, to me there is no other choice. In my view, it's as unchangeable as the color of my skin or the shape of my eyes.

But human beings are, by our very natures, a social species. So straying from the norm, and deliberately setting yourself up for possible ridicule and misunderstandings is not something that should be overlooked, even by those of us who have always danced to the beat of our own drum. I'm thankful that I've been fortunate enough to have been surrounded in my life with thoughtful and supportive friends and family. I've read numerous stories from other barefooters about how shunned they've felt by those that claimed to love them, but then tried to shame them into conform by putting shoes on because it's "proper".

The bottom line is that this is both my favorite time of year, and my most dreaded time of year, to be barefoot. My feet are happy and mind and my heart are on edge waiting for the inevitable drive-by comment from the next "concerned citizen".

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My "SkyReal" project

So I think it's safe to say that if you know me, or have been following me, you know that I love Skyrim. Best game to come out in 2011, hands down, for me. Maybe even further back. I played through the game "to completion" on two characters. Now I put quotes on "to completion" because Skyrim is not the type of game you ever really finish. There's always more to do, and things to find. It's a vast, vast world. But on my first two characters I completed the main story, all the side quests, and a vast majority of the miscellaneous favors, objectives and activities. In essence I played both character until I had emptied my quest logs (not as easy feat). In the process I logged over 350 hours, and all 50 achievements.

But anyway, despite how much I love the game, there were always some things that bothered me. But the number one thing that I was disappointed by was the feeling of immersion and realism. Although the living world is phenomenal (NPC's go about a daily routine, and things happen whether you participate or not), once you look past the radiant AI characters, the world itself felt less like a world and more like a playground (this is not necessarily a bad thing, it's just not my preferred play style).

I'm talking about environmental immersion, which I find to be lacking in the vanilla version of Skyrim. Well, thankfully that's why Bethesda makes its editing tools available to the community, and the mods have been steadily pouring forth since the tools were released. And I've continued to scour the offerings looking for choice mods that help with this facet. I'm calling this effort my "SkyReal project". So here below is the short list of mods that I've got installed that help increase environmental immersion in Skyrim. Let's begin, in order of importance:

1.  Realistic Colors and Real Nights (RCRN 3) - Legacy Preset: So what this mod does is provide a complete overhaul on how the game renders environmental post-processing. It amps up the HDR, and makes use of custom shaders to make the world look prettier overall. But the color shifts are more of a subjective thing, so your mileage may vary on whether you like the game better with the richer colors or not. However, I installed this mod for one reason mainly - darker nights. Although I found the nights in Skyrim to be beautiful, you never got the feeling that darkness was dangerous. This changes that. The makers of this mod have created three versions of this mod, with each one making the nights progressively darker. I have the Legacy preset which is the least dark of the settings, but it is definitely darker than vanilla Skyrim - enough to make you cautious about roaming around at night. This mod also works on dark indoor areas as well, which has the effect of making it almost impossible to meander through many of the world's dungeons without a torch. Yep, you now have to make difficult choices about whether to bring out your torch to look around, or if you want to try to sneak through in the dark. And the way that this mod handles the HDR means you can be blinded momentarily when going from pitch black to fully lit - again increasing the tension of dungeon-delving. This is one of the best mods for increasing environmental immersion, so this is why I put it at the top of my list.

2. Sounds of Skyrim (The Wilds and Dungeons) - This is actually a pair of mods, but they really belong together as they provide the same benefits but to different areas of the game. As you can guess from the title, these mods add sounds to the world. But not just a few sounds here and there. No, this is one of the most ambitious audio overhauls I think I've ever heard. Both mods adds tons of new ambient sounds, making the world sound so much more alive. You hear ravens call, wolves howling, moose calls, insects buzzing past your ears, and trees swaying in the breeze with The Wilds. And you hear draugr moaning, rocks falling, metal  creaking and a whole host of dungeon life scrabbling around in the dark in Dungeons. Although none of the sounds are tied into any of the game's content, it doesn't really matter. What it does is create an atmosphere which you didn't know was missing...until you install these mods.

3. Pure Waters - This mod changes the way that the game renders the various bodies of water in Skyrim. By and large it's goal is to make the water in Skyrim more realistic. As with the top mod, some of this is subjective, as what looks real to some may seem not so real to someone else. Water can appear differently in different conditions, so there's no one "correct" way to render water. However, what this mod does which I found to be worth keeping is that it changes underwater to something like I would expect. Submerging yourself with this mod, you'll quickly see the difference, in terms of your loss of visibility. When you combine this mod with the above mod, no longer can you amazingly see from shore to shore when underwater at night. No, this mod will have you waiting for daylight to go swimming unless you want to go groping around in the dark, which feels right to me.

4. Better Dynamic Snow - This mod is really simple, but it's also really powerful. I actually really consider this less of a mod and more of a bug fix. All it does is apply the default snow texture onto the snow that accumulates when a storm is going on. With the vanilla Skyrim, the accumulation effect simply applied a flat white texture onto surfaces, which works from a distance, but up close just looked horrible. I installed it primarily because of how MUCH snow is in Skyrim, and it left me scratching my head why they chose a flat texture for this effect (when the default snow texture was already loaded in memory, since it was being used for the surrounding terrain).

5. Disable Fast Travel* - This mod does exactly what it says it does - you can no longer open your world map and fast travel to any place you desire. If you need to get somewhere, you either walk with your own two feet, or you buy yourself a horse, or you rent yourself a carriage. Now, I put an asterisk on this mod because although I like the amount of environmental immersion is provides, I have opted instead to leave myself the OPTION of fast traveling, but ONLY as a last resort. So, in most games I'm happy to make use of things like fast travel, but for a game like Skyrim where a large amount of the "fun factor" is in just exploring and seeing the world unfolding before you, I want to participate with it and not "skip ahead" just to get to the content. One of the chief reasons I don't play with this mod active though is that while I love the idea of not being able to warp around the world, the game is designed with that mechanic in mind, so your options outside of that are really limiting. Case in point: The carriages you can hire to take you places are only available in, and can only take you to, the capital cities - settlements like Ivarstead or Riverwood are strangely carriage-less. Yet these settlements would seemingly rely heavily on carriages to bring them supplies, etc. from the larger cities. So if someone ever releases a mod which increases the network of carriages, I might re-enable this mod.

6. Leveling Merchant's Wallets - This is a mod that simply makes more gold available to the game's merchants, and the amount that they have available changes the more you sell to them (they get wealthier) so that you can actually sell things out of your inventory. Now, you could make the argument that this mod actually takes away from environmental immersion because what it does is enable you to pretty much just use a single merchant for the entire game, but I actually see it as a realistic application of capitalism. If I sell all my unwanted gear to a merchant who can afford to buy it all (and there is complete absence of anything like this in the vanilla game which in itself is strange), it makes sense that he could turn around and sell it for more than what he gave me, which would in turn make him wealthier, and finally able to buy more from me the next time I visited. The reason this mod doesn't offend my sensibilities and actually increases my environmental immersion is that I feel as though I'm establishing relationships with merchants, and those relationships are what make buying and selling a better experience. I was never a fan of the way that the vanilla game relies on your speechcraft skill to increase the amount of gold that merchants carry. I am fine with the skill being used to determine how much the merchants will pay you for selling to them, but having their purses being directly tied to my ability to speak eloquently never made any sense to me. This mod fixes that gripe, and you'll never have to worry about hoarding gear in your house or making multiple trips to vendors across the city to offload your junk again.

So those are the mods I've got installed right now, which help give Skyrim that sense of environmental immersion I was hoping for. If you know of any additional mods that you think should be added to this list, please feel free to post it in the comments below. Thanks for reading, and maybe I'll see you on the road to Markarth!

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Up to speed

Wow, it's been forever since I wrote a blog entry. Well that's what happens when you are A.) Finaling a massive project years in the making, B.) Organizing two meetups and assisting with a third, C.) Being a husband and father and D.) obsessed with following everyone ELSE's social media updates. But today I have been given an extra day of the weekend because my son's school has decided to give them all one more day of rest, and Karen and I split being home with him on those days (as best we can) throughout the year.

There's a lot to catch up on, so I'll just get right into it. First, I wanted to cover my "Your Day Without Shoes" event which took place this past Saturday. It was not a total failure on my part, but not for lack of trying. The only saving grace of the day was that two very gracious individuals came out to join me, and we turned my failure to put together any sort of organized event into something fun for us. The mistakes I made were good learning experiences, at any rate so if I decide to do this type of thing again, I will already know what not to do. ;-)

In the end, it was a lot of little things that went wrong, and taken together, they conspired to make the morning a complete disaster. Things like forgetting to charge my cell-phone the night before, or checking the schedule of the venue I chose. But perhaps the biggest blunder of the day was mis-remembering the layout of Greenlake park, and as a result scheduling an event for an area I was clearly unfamiliar with. As a result, it took a while our attendees to find each other, and when we did we had no really good place to be to hand out fliers and spread the word about barefooting. In the end, we went for an impromptu barefoot hike instead, and that was great fun! So I'm really thankful that I have some awesome and understanding folks in my meetup!

In more exciting news, I was recently given the chance to be featured in a story about barefoot hiking and being a barefooter, that will be published in the Seattle Times very soon! When it comes out, I'll come back on here to talk more about that experience - it was really super positive all around, and I'm excited to see the article, both in print and on the web. My feet are going to be more than just internet famous. :-)

I will also just lay this tidbit out there - I am trying to plant the seeds of something potentially really exciting, but this is something that only has a remote chance of happening so I won't say anything more on it right now. Wish me luck, though! :-D

I've been playing Diablo 3 and really, really enjoying it. With one small exception. My account was hacked last Friday, and all my gold taken. I guess I consider that a lesson learned for thinking "Oh I don't need an authenticator to play this game!" - if you're playing, and you haven't picked one up for your smartphone or tablet device, do it. Trust me. I've got two characters to around 35-ish (monk and barbarian) and working on my third, who is around level 12. It's a fantastic looking and sounding game, and really satisfies with its astounding character progression. Monk is my favorite class, of the three I've tried. I might sample Demon Hunter as well, but I don't think Witch Doctor will be a class I go for...really not my play style. Anyway, I've posted it elsewhere but if you want to hit me up in game, my battle tag is barefootmm72#1858.

In Guild Wars 2 news, we just announced our next BWE which is June 8th-10th! We've all been working really hard, both based on the feedback that we got from the first BWE (in addition to the rest of the game's content) so I can't wait to see what people think. Best of all - you can continue the characters you were playing from the previous play session, so no starting over (well, unless you want to - nothing is stopping you from starting on those alt characters!).

It's been such a hectic past few weeks and months that as I sit here typing now I can think of three hundred things I could type, and none of them that seem worth typing at the moment, so I guess I'll hold onto those thoughts and try and put them down later, in more frequent blogs.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

It's kind of funny that when I was using this blog to promote my barefooters meetup, I never posted my upcoming events, and now that I am using this blog as my own personal internet playground, I am. But that's just the way things go sometimes. So here ya go - if you're in the greater Seattle area, and are looking for something to do this weekend, come out and try a barefoot walk/run along Lake Washington. It's a great, easy  urban trail with a spectacular view, and we're sure to get some stares from the many runners that will pass us by, as well as the morning coffee crowd in downtown Kirkland. :-)

Monday, January 30, 2012

Church and State

I make no bones about the fact that I'm a staunch supporter of many non-religious causes, but perhaps none are as important to me as the issue of church-state separation. I believe that many Americans, especially those on the conservative side of the political spectrum, don't fully understand the issue and why it is important to stand up to any encroachment from one domain to the other. This subject has been covered in-depth by scholars, politicians and philosophers since the concept of separation was first introduced, and I don't believe that I have any new answers or special wisdom on this matter. But I have wanted to write about my own reasons for continuing to fight this battle, even when the stakes seem low, for some time now. So here we go.

First, I think it's important to look at all the possible positions that government can take with regards to religion. There seem to be four main positions: I call them Exclusive Support, Inclusive Support, Inclusive Neutral and Exclusive Neutral.

Exclusive Support is a closed theocracy. This means that the government supports a single religion, to the exclusion of all others. Non-state led religions may or may not be tolerated, but if they exist, they are not supported in any way by government money or resources.

Inclusive Support is an open theocracy. In this system, the government declares a national religion or religious position, but it also tolerates other faiths and leverages some measure of financial support to many different religions and/or denominations. This is what many conservatives believe our country is, or should be.

Inclusive Neutral is an open democracy with no specific religion, but many religious ties. In this system, the government remains neutral, in that does not have a national religion or official religious position. It is tolerant of many faiths, including those with no faith, and it makes certain concessions, including financial compensation, to various religions and denominations. This is currently where our country seems to be, and this is also what many liberals believe our country should be.

Exclusive Neutral is an open democracy with no specific religion, and no religious ties whatsoever. In this system, government remains neutral on religion, and while it tolerates religious belief and freedom of religion, it provides no assistance whatsoever to religion. It neither helps nor hinder religious worship. This position is also called "True Neutral". This is the position that is set forth in the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment (there is some argument on this point, but I hope to demonstrate that there should not be), and is what some people, both believers and nonbelievers, are working very hard to re-establish.

Both conservatives and liberals seem to favor an Inclusive position, perhaps because the Inclusive position seems, at least on the surface, to be the most tolerant of many religious faiths, which this country has in abundance (the sheer number of Christian denominations alone is staggering). However, there are real problems with an Inclusive position, and I believe that long-term, this position in not sustainable.

Perhaps the best example of the failure of an Inclusive position is the Washington State holiday displays in Olympia, which have captured national and international media attention for the last few years. The major hurdle with holding an Inclusive position is that to be truly inclusive is impossible. Attempting to support the sheer number of religions and denominations that exist today, in order to not exclude any one religion, is an exercise in futility. It quickly became comical as the public space in Olympia was filled - first with legitimate religious sentiments, and then over time, with one kooky belief system after another.

The other major problem with Inclusive positions is that while they pay lip service to tolerance, what ends up  happening in reality is that a certain subset of religious belief ends up taking a dominant position. In the United States, Christianity in some form ends up at the top of the heap of religious belief, because that is the professed religion of most Americans. Conservatives want to bolster that position and edge other religions out, while liberals wish to bring in more diversity, but not too much to upset the majority. So while Inclusive might seem to be open to diversity in principle, in practice there is still one religion or subset of religions that hold the lion's share of public and, subsequently, government support.

An example of this was seen very recently (and corrected) in Cranston, Rhode Island. Jessica Ahlquist, an atheist student, recently filed suit after her school refused to take down a sectarian Christian prayer banner that was hanging in the school's auditorium. Conservatives decried her lawsuit because they claimed she was attacking Christianity, in the same vein as "removing prayer from schools" (itself a falsehood - kids are free to pray in school all they want, it's staff-led prayer that was banned, as it clearly shows government support of a particular religion). Some liberals also decried her, claiming that the prayer was doing her no harm and simply a representation of an earlier time, or that the prayer banner was generic enough that she was wrong to be offended by its presence. "Where's the harm?" I kept hearing.

Thankfully, federal judges from the district level on up to the Supreme Court, are well versed on the Constitutional issues at stake, and tend to rule in favor of taking the Exclusive Neutral position - removing any and all trace of religion from our publicly funded and run buildings. They do this because they know, as did our founding fathers, that despite whatever the majority opinion is on religion, religious freedom is all about protecting the rights of the minority. Of the few. Or even the one. They know that the only way for our government to maintain neutrality on the subject of religion is to leverage no support or hold any opinion at all, until and unless there arises some need for civic or legal disputes to be resolved. Belief must be preserved, but it must be preserved as the private, personal issue that it is.

The first several words of the First Amendment read: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof;" and this can only be interpreted one way: the Constitution explicitly prohibits the federal (and for all intents and purposes, the states) government from establishing an official religion, or from favoring or disfavoring one view of religion over another. It's the second part of the clause, and its interpretation, that I feel is lost on many Americans.

Almost all people are happy to accept the first part of the clause, that speaks to not establishing a state religion, most likely because it addresses the literal letter of the law. But the second part "...or prohibiting the free exercise thereof" is even more important, because it speaks to the spirit of the law - the intent of the establishment clause, which is not simply to keep religion out of government and vice-versa, but which tells us that government must have no voice on matters of religion whatsoever. The free exercise of religion by all can only be accomplished when it is done without bias, and there is only one system under which that is possible, and that is to completely remove government from the discussion via the Exclusive Neutral position.

The reason why I feel it's vitally important for more Americans to understand this issue is that it speaks to our national identity; what kind of country we were truly meant to be. Every time I hear a conservative author or TV show host talk about how liberals are trying to "secularize" this country, I cringe to think that they have only understood a small part of the brilliance of our founding document. We are a secular country by design. And we must fight to maintain it as such.

But I also cringe when I hear voices on the liberal side defending school vouchers or faith-based initiatives, in the name of inclusiveness and tolerance, because I fear that they also are ignoring or denying the beauty of our purely secular government.

And with that, I will close with the timeless and wise words of James Madison, from a letter he wrote to the Rev. Jasper Adams:

"I must admit moreover that it may not be easy, in every possible case, to trace the line of separation between the rights of religion and the civil authority with such distinctness as to avoid collisions and doubts on unessential points. The tendency to a usurpation on one side or the other or to a corrupting coalition or alliance between them will be best guarded against by entire abstinence of the government from interference in any way whatever, beyond the necessity of preserving public order and protecting each sect against trespasses on its legal rights by others."

I apologize for the lengthy post - this is what happens when you don't blog for a while - it builds up into a massive snowball of text. If you've read this far, thank you for taking the time to do so. Next post will be more fluff, less stuff. :-)