An Open Letter to Wake The Dead Coffee House

Hi Julie,

I saw the other day that some folks in the neighborhood are petitioning to have your beer & wine license revoked, due to a perceived negative impact on the neighborhood. As a resident of the same neighborhood, I wanted you to know that I’m against that action for a variety of reasons.

I’m a big proponent of walkable neighborhoods, since more foot traffic means less car traffic, less pollution, and better health. Our neighborhood, unfortunately, is not a particularly walkable one. Until Wake the Dead opened, there was no place to be able to meet friends, enjoy a drink, or get a bit to eat within reasonable distance. Having the shop within a few blocks of our home has been a boon to our family, as we all enjoy going by regularly — usually on foot.

When our family visited England a few years ago, we fell in love with the pub culture there. The opportunity to bring the whole family and for the adults to have a beer and a sandwich while the kids played was terrific, and somewhat unique for us, since so few places in the U.S. combine those pleasures. Since our return to San Marcos after that trip, we were delighted to see Tantra open, which brought that same spirit (albeit with a patchouli-scented style) to San Marcos. We were further thrilled when Wake the Dead opened down the street, as it brought more of that open, inviting atmosphere to our city, this time within walking distance of our house!

So it’s a rare week indeed when some of our family isn’t down there. My wife and I enjoy slipping down the road for a quiet place and a cuppa or a brew. My 13 year old daughter loves to go down and have a frappe with one of her friends. My 10 year old will happily while away a half hour taking on any willing opponents at ping-pong. And, of course, we come visit frequently for the Irish music session and for movies.

I’m honestly a bit baffled by the hostility some of our neighbors have shown, since each time I know of that concerns about noise levels, handicapped access, etc. have been brought to you, you’ve been receptive to the concerns. Further, none of the issues the neighbors cite seem to have much to do with the beer & wine license, so it surprises me that they would come out so strongly against that particularly. And while I certainly don’t want people driving drunk through our neighborhood (or at all), it is my experience that those who want to get sloshed aren’t likely to seek out a coffee shop for that purpose.

So, in summary, I do hope the shop remains open and busy for many years to come. It is currently one of my favorite features of our neighborhood, and I would be inclined to pay more for any house with a coffee shop of its quality within walking distance.

Best wishes,
Sean McMains
940 239 4202

Emily’s Birthday List

Emily’s birthday is coming up, and true to her artistic nature, she has created a pictorial gift-giving guide:

Tabletop Roleplaying: The Nerdiest Post of the Year

A few weeks back, Liam and I were up in Austin to bring a sick iMac in to the Apple store. After having spent an hour driving up and facing a similar return trip, it seemed silly not to poke around town a bit more before returning. I thought for a bit about what was inexpensive, close by, and would be fun for both of us, and hit upon The Dragon’s Lair, a wonderful games & comics shop that I enjoyed visiting periodically during the time I worked in Austin. The store had moved to a new location since I was there last, but my GPS was fortunately more up-to-date than I was, and brought us directly to the new front door.

Having never been to a store like this, Liam’s eyes bugged out as he surveyed the wealth of comics, games, books, toys and miniatures. He immediately latched on to an immense Heroscape setup, created with the combined parts from several hundred dollars worth of kits, and peppered the players with questions about how the game worked. As Liam learned the intricacies of plastic figure combat on plastic tessellated hex terrain, I wandered over to the section of Role Playing Game books.

Role Playing Games are (for those of you who actually had dates in high school) essentially games where you take on an alter ego and proceed through a series of adventures as this in-game persona. The games are run by a “Game Master” who is responsible for describing the game world and what’s going on therein, while the players tell the GM what they want their characters to do.  There’s often a lot of rolling of funny-shaped dice and consulting of tables of numbers approximately seven times more complicated than those used to get Apollo 11 to the moon. There are a truly astounding number of these game systems, specializing in every sort of adventure from time travel to exploring dungeons to being a spy to werewolf vs. vampire battles. The most popular, however, are Dungeons & Dragons and GURPS.

I had recently read Wil Wheaton’s series of posts about running a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for his teenage son and his friends. (Wil Wheaton, for those of you who don’t know a Dalek from a dilithium crystal, played Wesley Crusher on Star Trek: The Next Generation, and has subsequently grown into a fine writer.) Wil waxes eloquent about the fun that they had together playing the game, working together to essentially tell an adventure story together. (Note to grammarians: yes, I split the infinitive. Bite me.) Since I’m always looking for ways to engage with the kids, I thought that one of these Role Playing Games might be worth learning about and trying out together.

After spending a happy 90 minutes poking around the store, watching various games-in-progress, and (inevitably) buying a bit of candy, we headed back home. En route, I asked Liam if he’d be interested in playing an RPG together, to which he responded with an enthusiastic affirmative. I did some searching around on the Internet and asked a few friends for their input, and eventually decided to try running a game using GURPS. While it’s a bit more rules-heavy than D&D, it had two advantages that were compelling: 1. It can be used to run adventures of any sort, not just the swords, orcs, and dragons stuff that D&D focuses on. 2. There’s a “GURPS Lite” book that has enough information to run a basic game and which can be downloaded for free — an important consideration since I wasn’t yet sure what level of appeal this would have for my crew.

I had hoped that there might be a decent premade adventure that I could use for our introductory session, but I had no luck finding something that really fit the bill. Instead, I spent a couple hours designing a small dungeon crawl that would provide opportunities for exploration, combat, a bit of acrobatics, and some diplomacy, and which was small enough in scale that we could complete it in one session. I also found an invaluable tool called GURPS Character Sheet which streamlines character creation by doing most of the number-crunching for you.

Since I knew from my preadolescent time with D&D that these sorts of games are more fun with more people, I enlisted my oft-times partner-in-crime Jason Young to come down and play with us. Maggie and Abigail  jumped in as well, so Saturday morning found the five of us gathered around our big table with two laptops, a pile of paper and post-its, and an improvised Game Master’s screen made from scrap cardboard I pulled from the recycling bin and cut up.

Liam created a big, dumb stalwart fighter character with a terrible temper and impulse control problems named Spiritman. Abigail’s character was Esme, a nimble archer. With a bit of help, Maggie created Zoey, a Barbie-pretty sword-wielding elf. And Jason created Gront, a gruff but loyal dwarf he roleplayed with relish.

The adventurers began by stocking up on supplies at the local general store. Because Abigail had chosen a “fear of crowds” disadvantage for her character, I told her that she had to stay at the edge of the town and wouldn’t let her talk while the other players bought the gear. (Disadvantages such as these allow one to improve your characters in other ways, but can be awfully inconvenient at times!) They then ventured into a nearby cave the mayor of the town had comissioned them to explore as part of a land survey.

The cave, as they eventually discovered, was the mostly-abandoned lair of a group of bandits that had operated out of the area in years previous. I had spent a fair bit of time thinking about how such a place would be laid out, so was quite gratified when, as they explored the corridors, Jason/Gront wondered aloud “What is this place? It’s obviously not just a cave. It seems to be designed to be very defensible.”

As they made their way through the darkened halls (lit by a throwing axe wrapped up in branches from a bush and set aflame, since they had forgotten to buy torches), the party tripped over traps, discovered secret corridors, and fought with a brace of rats that had taken up residence in the abandoned Great Hall, stopping only for the occasional real-life bathroom or homemade pizza break.

The interesting thing to me about tabletop RPGs, and the reason that people still play them in the era of World of Warcraft and its ilk, is the unparalleled flexibility one has with a human being running the game. At one point, several of the players’ characters had fallen into a pit that was just a bit too tall for them to climb out of. Having forgotten to put rope on their shopping list, they resorted to stripping the leather pants from one of their characters and using them to extend their reaches and help each other up. It was a very clever solution which wouldn’t have been possible in a computer game, but which I was able to handle on the fly without difficulty. (The dwarf lost his grip and fell, getting a bit banged up when he crashed to the floor below, but everyone else managed the ascent without difficulty.)

After making their way through much of the redoubt, the players came upon the former leader of the cutpurses that used to operate there, now an old recluse who rarely ventured out from his dusty underground domain. Because of his extreme loneliness, he forbade their leaving unless they agreed to come live there and keep him company. The party had the opportunity to fight him, to lie and say they would return, or to agree to move in and make that their base of operations for future adventures. Somewhat to my surprise, they overcame their enthusiasm for battle and agreed to report back to the mayor with a fabricated story about the dangers of the cave and to return to live there.

After misleading the mayor, we wrapped up for the day, six hours after we started. Maggie wandered off a few hours into the session, but Liam, Abigail and Jason all had a great time (as did I). Getting to do something that involved with the kids was delightful, and I was really pleased to see that it held their interest so well while putting their creative thinking (and occasionally their math skills) to the test. They are both enthusiastic about playing some more; Liam especially has already been asking me to put together another adventure for them. So, from a parenting point of view, I count it a solid success.

As a gamer, I did find GURPS a little bit cumbersome, but not too bad given the degree of flexibility it provides. For our next go-round, I think I will go ahead and purchase the basic books and a GM screen, which provides ready access to many of the tables and calculations one uses in play. I’m a bit torn on whether to create more adventures from scratch, or whether to try to repurpose something from a D&D module or another source. (Converting such things to the GURPS ruleset is a bit of work, but not generally too bad.)

And as people who like to build stuff, Jason and I are both intrigued by the possibilities of casting our own miniature characters and dungeon pieces from plaster and lead. (We used post-it notes and graph paper for this first session — functional, but not the height of gaming panache.) The one thing that gives me pause here is that this has the potential to be a terrifically time-consuming hobby. But if I can be spending that time happily and productively engaged with my family, I’d say it’s well worth the investment, even if it does mean I add yet another chapter to the already overlong tome of my nerdiness.

The World’s Ugliest Coffee House

A few days ago, I twittered that the world’s ugliest coffee shop had opened down the street from us. My friends Ron and Heather asked for more information and challenged the shop’s honorific, so I hereby offer these two photos, snapped hastily this morning on my way to work so that the proprietor wouldn’t know that her establishment was being surveilled by the aesthetics police:

 

The color palette in the first photo was the first thing that tipped us off that the transgression to the eye might surpass mere quotidian ugliness and burst through to something extraordinary.  The Dia de los Muertos meets The Nightmare Before Christmas sculpture below is 8 feet tall, the centerpiece of the courtyard, and quite visually arresting as well. Taking these things together, I think the title of “World’s Ugliest Coffeeshop” is a lock.

That said, I believe that ugly was the goal. It is an artful, calculated awfulness, very much in keeping with the name of the place: Wake The Dead Coffee House. And I must say, the place is great. It’s the second coffee shop in San Marcos (after Tantra) that has really embraced the full English Pub suite of amenities, with nice indoor and outdoor areas, a good selection of beers in addition to the coffees and teas, a ping pong table (plywood, sadly), a projector set up for watching movies, and a music room in development. Where Tantra, however, has a hippie vibe, this one has a bit more of a punk/goth thing going (though neither are too aggressive about it). I’m delighted to have a place within walking distance (about 5 blocks) where I can bring a guitar and have a tea. (Hibiscus mint, one of my favorites, was on offer when we stopped by.) If you live in San Marcos, come check it out!

Sci-Fi Future: Bioengineering

On one of our recent dates, Kathy and I had stopped by the local pet store to browse around a bit. While passing by the fish, I noticed tank full of fish that were even more brightly colored than the usual tropicals. When asked, a salesperson explained to me that they were GloFish: zebra fish that had been genetically engineered to include a fluorescing protein created by a jellyfish gene. Originally created with an eye toward detecting toxic chemical spills, they are even more eye-catching than the photos show.

The next day, I was listening to an episode of WNYC’s excellent Radio Lab program where they discussed some young bioengineers who got tired of having to smell E. Coli, which is notoriously poopie-scented, all day in their lab. They began by introducing wintergreen genes, and soon had minty-fresh E. Coli in their lab. They then went a step further by having the bacteria start producing a banana smell when full grown, so that the scientists could tell if a culture was ready for experimentation with the merest whiff.

And of course, we’ve had genetically modified foods on our supermarket shelves since the early 1990s. Various GM varieties are more disease and pest-resistant than their unmodified counterparts, have higher yields, last longer without added preservatives, and have their vitamin content boosted.

So, in many ways, it seems like we’re at the dawn of a golden age of bioengineering. We’re able to improve on naturally grown foods, we can engineer unpleasant characteristics out of experimental organisms, and we can even tailor our pets to make them more interesting and fun. What’s not to like?

Quite a bit, as it turns out. Lots of people have concerns about bioengineering, and wonder if it may be a Pandora’s Box we might wish closed again once we have pried out its secrets. A few points to consider:

GloFish are patented just like a mechanical invention would be. From their FAQ:

Because fluorescent fish are unique, their sale is covered by a substantial number of patents and pending patent applications. The providers of GloFish® fluorescent fish, 5-D Tropical and Segrest Farms, are the only distributors that have the necessary licenses to produce and market fluorescent fish within the United States. The production of fluorescent fish by any other party, or the sale of any fluorescent fish not originally distributed by 5-D Tropical or Segrest Farms, is strictly prohibited.

The fact that this patent was granted to cover not just a mechanical device or invention, but a form of life, seems like a pretty big leap. (And allows them to charge an order of magnitude more for these GloFish than for their unmodified brethren.) What do we do with patent and copyright law as we plow into this new area of human endeavor? Consider, for example, an excerpt from this article:

If you could duplicate a person other than yourself, who would it be?

This is not a hypothetical question. Human cloning, may allow you to do
that, with or without the clonee’s consent. Once human cloning technology is available all you’ll need is the desired DNA, and that can be very easily obtained: It is called DNA piracy. The ease of stealing DNA for cloning purposes raises the following question: how is the law going to protect my genes and what legal remedies are afforded in such a case.

DNA Copyright Institution Inc., a privately held corporation in San
Francisco, proposes a solution. It promises copyright protection to your
genetic profile for only $1,500. The visionary DNA Copyright institute,
founded by Andre Crump, is trying to persuade celebrities to use its
services to strengthen their legal position should anyone decide to clone
them against their will.

Yep, the folks out in California are already planning for what happens if you get a strand of Cindy Crawford’s hair and decide to make your own Cindy clone using the DNA therein. More troubling, is it possible for corporations to copyright certain genetic sequences? And if so, can they then bring action for infringement against people who have those sequences in their own genome naturally? There are lots of lines to be drawn here, and it’s not always at all clear where they should be scribed.

Once we have the technology, is is OK to genetically engineer Multiple Sclerosis out of our babies? If so, what else can we change while our kids are still on the drawing board? Can we then choose eye color, hair color, and attractiveness? Could we add a few inches of height to give our kid a psychological advantage? Could we add a few more inches to give them an advantage in basketball? Should our modified basketball player be in the same league as non-modified players, or should there be a GMNBA?

And what of biodiversity? Artificial genes from GM crops can “leak” into the wild population. Even without GM, lots of farms have moved to monocultures — the planting of only the single highest-yield variety of their crop. This tendency would likely be exaggerated further if GM crops showed even better yields than their naturally occurring counterparts. This monoculture farming means that an entire crop can be wiped out by a disease to which it happens to be susceptible. Ironically, it also results in having access to less raw genetic material as the less popular strains are bred out of existence.

Finally, what happens when the bioengineers who may have more malevolent intent start fooling around with this stuff? Freeman Dyson, the futurist who conceived that trusty science fiction chestnut the Dyson Sphere, talks about children having access to home genetic engineering kits. This sounds like great fun as long as kids are just making unicorns or, as South Park would have it, a monkey with five butts.

But what happens when we start bioengineering weapons? Little Timmy could toss together a few genes from bird flu, the cold, SARS, bubonic plague, and a dash of smallpox, mix well, and viola! Instant highly-virulent superweapon! Take it further: engineer it to attack specific racial traits, and you could have a Final Solution that would cause history’s atrocities to look wan and insignificant.

It seems that we have discovered a very powerful tool here. As with all powerful tools, it enables us to accomplish amazing things that were previously impossible, but also has the potential to cause irreparable damage if used irresponsibly. Thus, while our enthusiasm here may tempt us to rush in to a Brave New GM World, I think it’s vital that we approach this new territory with caution. Pay attention to these discussions, befriend a bioethicist, and encourage our lawmakers to take these issues seriously. Our children and their unicorns are depending on us.

What I Want for Lunch

Feeling feisty, and not a little obnoxious, this morning, I responded thusly when asked what I thought should be on the menu for an upcoming retreat at work:

I would like the finest lobster, hand harvested by Poseidon and his entourage of mermaids and cooked to perfection by Maine’s top chefs (flown here for the occasion) with a side of mixed field greens grown in the dirt scraped off of Jerry Garcia by groupies during the time he toured with the Grateful Dead. Belgian chocolates for dessert, delivered on horseback by a Lady Godiva impersonator.

Or a sandwich. Either way.

Tamale Party

A highlight of this past weekend was a tamale-making party at my friend James Buratti’s house that he and his wife Jen hosted. Tamale-making is a ritual that holds a certain mystique in Mexican culture, with recipes and techniques handed down from generation to generation and horror stories of young people’s apprenticeships in the kitchen during the process. While I adore tamales, I’d never gotten to be a part of their production, so was quite excited to get to participate and to be a part of that cultural institution.

Jen and James had things well organized, so we got right to work. They were each trying different approaches to the process: Jen using the traditional techniques and recipes handed down through her family, James working with a recipe from the grocery store that looked good and trying every time and labor-saving innovation he could think of.

The first step was mixing the masa. While you can get a big bag of masa from the grocery store pretty cheaply, it needs further preparation to be used for tamales. We mixed in salt, chili powder, and alarming amounts of lard and vegetable shortening, working the mixture until it had about the consistency of hummus and would float in water. We tried doing so both by hand and using a mixer. The latter produced a fluffier masa, and was certainly less work than doing it by hand. On the downside, one didn’t get the lovely hand-conditioning benefits that the lard provides for practitioners of the manual technique.

Next we spread the masa onto the corn husks, which had been prepared by trimming off the tops and soaking them in water. (Again, you can get bags of corn husks at your better grocery stores if you don’t happen to have a corn field handy.) We started using spoons and fingers to do the spreading, but James, who had been drywalling a lot lately, pulled out a few different sizes of putty knives, which eased the process considerably for me, though they got mixed reviews from others.

Next, we spread fillings in a line and wrapped the whole husk/masa assembly around the filling core like paper around a pencil. The most traditional filling for tamales is actually pulled from a whole cooked pig head, but fortunately nobody was feeling quite that traditional. We settled for spiced pork and beef fillings, with a few raisins added for sweetness in some of them. (Later, beans and cheese and chicken fillings also arrived, though that was after Liam and I had headed home for Christmas decorating. Some of the best tamales I’ve ever had also had strips of poblano peppers and cheese for the center.)

Finally, the finished tamales were steamed for about 45 minutes. And while I thought I loved tamales before, I must say that the ones I have had paled in comparison to these freshly cooked ones — hot, fluffy and delicious!

My only complaint about the whole process is that, as with many things, once I saw what goes into them, my enthusiasm for tamales was diminished a bit. I’m not a fan of lard in general, and watching big blocks of it going into the masa caused a disturbance in the force that I’m sure my cardiologist felt all the way across town. James and I discussed the possibility of substituting olive oil, which might make slightly less-savory tamales, but would certainly make me feel better about eating them!

James took lots of photos of the process, which you can see here. Thanks, Burattis, for putting together such a great event!

UPDATE: Here’s the post from James & Jen’s weblog.

Weekend To-Do: Post-Mortem

  • Attend wedding rehearsal, play with band while wife and kids dance and run around. Find out after the fact that the bartender cut Liam off after 8 root beers.
  • Keep kids out far after bedtime, thus ensuring squabbling and grumpiness. Vow never to do so again.
  • Have breakfast with dear out-of-town friends. Laugh heartily at stories. Spray friends with mist of partially-masticated breakfast taco.
  • Attend wedding. Goggle at beauty of dear friends’ mutual love, beauty of setting, quantity of alcohol consumed.
  • Keep kids out far after bedtime, thus ensuring squabbling and grumpiness. Vow never to do so again. Again.
  • Get together with high school music buddy. Play impromptu ukulele/string bass/2 part vocal harmony version of Helter Skelter. Frighten dog.
  • Complete months-overdue contract work.

Weekend To-Do: Post-Mortem

Minor Tweaks, one of my favorite people-I’ve-never-met weblogs, runs a regular feature called “Weekend To Do List: Post-Portem”. Believing fervently that plagiarism is the sincerest form of flattery, I’m adopting the practice here. Enjoy!

  • Take wife to Fredericksburg for anniversary getaway. Marvel at, contribute to, economy fueled entirely by souvenirs.
  • Try Mad Dog hot sauce on a cracker. Realize belatedly that 600,000 scoville units is 90x hotter than Tabasco. Sweat and moan.
  • Watch “The Holiday”. Wonder why we didn’t get famous neighbors when we did a home exchange in England.
  • Find dog by side of road. Adopt against better judgement.
  • Accidentally set Dance Dance Revolution machine to “ultra-hard”. Flail gamely to the amusement and consternation of Chuck E. Cheese visitors. (“Hide your eyes, children!”) Thank the heavens wife doesn’t know how to use YouTube.
  • Install ceiling fan acquired 9 months ago.