Nearly 15 Years Ago - Roger Waters, The Wall in Berlin

Tonight I had a conversation with one of my oldest friends, David Oppenheim. It is unfortunate, but true, that sometimes it takes tragedy (in this case, the passing away of a mutual friend's mother) to bring old friends together for a conversation.

David was my best man when Julie and I married almost exactly 14 years ago (May 18, 1991). We grew up together in Indianapolis and stayed in touch throughout college. During our senior year we started chatting about spending the summer after graduation in Europe. We pulled it off and spent 13 glorious weeks in 13 different countries. David and I couldn't have been more compatible and at least once or twice a year I pull out the photo album and journal of our adventures.

One of the highlights was the timing of our visit to Berlin. You may recall that 1990 was a year of radical transformations, including the opening of much of eastern Europe and the disintegration of the wall. Partly to celebrate the pending reunification of Germany (oh, and we were also in Germany when they won the World Cup that summer), Roger Waters put on his star-studded The Wall: Live in Berlin concert. We arrived in Berlin a couple of days before the concert, toured the city and spent some time around Potsdamer Platz (this used to be in no-man's land) watching the crew setup the show.

We were staying in a youth hostel and had reservations on a train leaving after the show, around 2am or so, for Belgium. We needed to stash our backpacks the morning of the show, and the common approach for backpackers is to check them into the large lockers in the train stations. Unfortunately, we couldn't find a single available locker in West Berlin. This meant heading over to East Berlin to try the same, and fortunately we found some space there.

Our tickets for the concert indicated that we needed to enter on the West Berlin side of the platz. We were already right next to the platz, but on the east side, so on a whim we decided to see if there was an entrance we could use there. I think the gates were going to open around 11am or so, but we were trying to get in line around 8am. The attendant at the east gate indicated that our tickets would be just fine there and that we shouldn't bother going around. This was good, because "going around" was still a pretty big deal logistically at the time. There were about 200-300 other people hanging out at this gate, and we were right up at the front.

Meanwhile (we didn't know this at the time), at the other gate there were well over 100,000 people waiting to get in. They opened our gate moments before the other, and David and I sprinted into the plaza to find that we were the first two people to enter the concert area. We continued to run, taking our position in the front center of the audience. We ended up have to stand, crowded by the other concert goers, for something like 8-9 hours before the show started.

So, how can I prove that I was truly in the front? Here's a screen capture from the DVD - just go to the 1:45.52 mark during the final song when they pan the camera to the front of the audience.

That's me on the right giving the peace sign. David is two heads over to the left, next to the dude with the long hair that my hand is covering. In my right hand I'm holding the traditional "The Wall" pink mask.

Someday I'll scan in some of the photos from this trip, including the snapshots of the crew building the wall the day before the show.

When Worlds Collide

I guess this shouldn't be a surprise given the strong positive correlation between those who game and those in IT, but I was certainly a bit surprised when I saw Gerry Heidenreich's posting about German Boardgames. The posting included a link to my blog as well as Susan Rozmiarek's.

I read Gerry's weblog primarily for the technical content. We also seem to have a few things in common; for example, he wants to teach his young daughter how to program. Until today I had no idea that Gerry had any interest in modern boardgames. Now I know.

Age of Steam - Scandanavia, Oltremare

Matthew's baseball tournament this weekend was cancelled, leaving some time free on Saturday to join the RipCity folks for some gaming on Saturday. Eric was hosting (read his session report) and though we were expecting four to show up, Mike got hung up at work so it left us with just three (including Dave). We batted around a few ideas, but when Eric suggested one of the Age of Steam expansion maps (Scandinavia) Dave and I gave our approval. Age of Steam apparently isn't the best game with three - I wouldn't know as I've only played twice and both times with at least four players. This is a smallish map so seemed like a good choice for our small group.

The Scandinavia map for Age of Steam. The white lines are sea routes and cost $6 to build.

The Scandinavia map introduces a few new special rules that make sense in this seafaring area:

  • Sea routes are dedicated links between cities separated by small water distances. These behave just like normal routes, but rather than being built with track hexes players can simply claim them when building at a cost of $6.
  • There is a new action choice called Ferry, which allows a player to move one good from one ocean-side city to another during transportation of goods. This makes it much easier to transport goods around the map, allowing for a tiny bit more chaos than the original game.

Eric (green), Dave (yellow), and I (black) about midway through the game.

The game was close in the early going, but Dave pulled away significantly around mid-game, pulling out several 4 and 5-segment shipmens over consecutive turns. I kept myself close only by being a bit more conservative in issuing shares, but Dave was just too strong and pulled out the victory. Scoring was fairly evenly distributed, with Eric finishing in third.

Next up was Oltremare, a game I had been hoping to play since back in January. Eric did a fine job explaining the rules, calling out some similarities with Bohnanza while explaining the specifics.

The mini board provided with Oltremare. This is mostly a card game - the board is there to provide a scoring track plus a depiction of the travel routes players follow to pick up special tokens.

It took the whole game for me to start to figure out the economics of card management. There are a number of conflicting priorities in the game that need to be balanced: you want to collect the right sequences of cards in your cargo deck to score points in the endgame, but those same sequences of cards do not always provide the best mid-game payout. In particular, you need to keep a steady flow of cards coming into your hand (or at least plan for an ebb and flow - I had too much ebb). Eric won with a healthy advantage, I finished second place. Scores were 60-51-40. I look forward to playing this a few more times - should be a good lunchtime play.

Backpack Review

I've been using Backpack since the launch earlier this month. I was initially attracted to Backpack because of the technology involved (Rails, AJAX), but I just became a paying customer because of the pure utility and simplicity of the service.

We all have todo lists - once the list gets beyond 5-7 items, it is usually a good idea to write them all down. I've used the task features in Outlook extensively; I even used Taskline for a while, a cool Outlook plugin that maps tasks into calendar entries. My main issue with using Outlook tasks is that they aren't as portable as I'd like them to be, even with synchronization to my BlackBerry. Currently this synchronization only happens when docked, not wirelessly.

I also have a long list of items I track across a range of projects, some work-related and some personal. Many of my personal projects involve collaboration with others - often via emailed lists of assigned tasks. So allow me to enumerate some of the very cool features of Backpack that I'm currently using:

  • Create pages for each of my projects. On each page I can track a todo-list, notes, and (because I upgraded to the fee-based service) file/image uploads. The data entry via AJAX is extremely slick. There are a few kinks they still need to work out (especially around focus for editing list items).
  • Share pages with the public or specific individuals. For non-sensitive info, I just make a page public and share with my collaborators. This allows them to view the page (read-only) without having to create a Backpack account. Here's an example page I've made public:

  • Access my Backpack from my mobile Blackberry browser via the mobile interface. No AJAX support there of course, but the interface is clean enough and is well-designed for my most common use case: checking off task items.
  • The killer feature, in my book: emailing items to my backpack. Each page has a unique, system-generated email address that can be used as a mailbox for adding content to a page. I added these addresses to my contact list ("Backpack Personal", "Backpack Chess", etc.) and when I think of a new todo item, I email the appropriate Backpack with "Todo: Take care of FooBar" and seconds later it is added to my list.
  • Use the reminder service to generate SMS reminder messages at specific times. There are some great shortcuts for reminders as well.

My recommendation: create a free test account and try it for a few weeks. If you don't spend much time at a computer, you may not find it as useful as I do. But if you do, Backpack is a great way to keep your personal life in order.