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New York City
Today's prompt was Talk to me about New York City.

I've only been to New York twice -- once in college to visit friends, and once last year to visit restaurants.

It's kind of funny, having moved to the country 4 years ago (from the suburbs), I find I actually appreciate cities more now. I really like the ability to walk to places (especially with a subway to mitigate longer walks.) I used to think I wouldn't want to live in a city, but at this point I think I could be happy doing so -- I just also love where I live right now and wouldn't want to give that up.

New York is kind of ridiculously dense, at least in Manhattan. The way the downtown is contained to an island actually makes it look a lot more impressive -- from outside, it's a solid wall of skyscrapers, making the city more a giant three-dimensional block than the sloped mountain of other cities (with skyscrapers in the middle, mid-height buildings further out, and shorter ones in the suburbs.) It's clear how much of cyberpunk film was inspired not just by cities but this one in particular.

We visited several museums while we were there. As someone who likes looking at things and learning things, I'm pretty easy to entertain with museums. I recall the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Natural History, though I don't remember if we visited any others. This is certainly something New York has over Seattle -- our art museum is kind of pathetic unless you really like abstract modern art.

Mostly we ate fancy food. New York is pretty much the best place in the world for this -- Las Vegas probably comes in second. We had Scandinavian food at Aquavit, French at Restaurant Jean-Georges, Cafe Boulud, and Bouley, and Japanese fusion food at Momofuku Ko.

The drawbacks of New York seem to be the same as any other city, only writ large -- it's crowded, to the point where it can be hard to even walk around, let alone drive anywhere. You have to allow a pretty large amount of time to go a mile, a distance that I would normally consider pretty much negligible. On the other hand, all of Manhattan fits in about 12 square miles, so a mile is actually a long way there. I didn't, however, find the place particularly dirty, nor did I feel unsafe anywhere, both of which seem to be part of New York's reputation (likely a holdover from the 80's, when, from what I understand, it really was dirty and unsafe.)

Overall, it was a cool place to visit and I think I'll visit it again. I wouldn't want to live there, but that's less because of what day-to-day life would be like as because it's staggeringly expensive. The cost of my house would be lucky to get me a tiny one-bedroom apartment, and in my particular field, I wouldn't make any more money in New York than I do now. (If I wanted to make a fortune, my destinations would be either the Bay Area or Washington, DC.)

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Traveling and vacationing.
Hey, evelynne's prompts are back! Yesterday's was Talk to me about the logistics of traveling and vacationing.

I really like traveling; I like to see new places. I'm one of those people who can really enjoy just looking at stuff -- it's mostly why I like hiking, too.

Logistically, I'm usually a light packer. [personal profile] anjelabug and I are usually able to fit all the stuff for both of us for a long weekend into a pilot case and just carry it on a plane; even for long trips like two weeks in France or three in New Zealand, one large suitcase has generally done it for us (though both of those trips involved laundering in the middle to be able to rewear things.) We also always try to stick a day's underwear & socks into our carry-ons in case of lost luggage.

My airplane carry-on is a nylon DefCon bag I've had for several years. It can hold a laptop (even a big one) if desired, but I still use it even when not packing one. These days, all I need to carry on is generally my Kindle, now that Delta lets you use those during takeoff and landing. Before, I always had both the Kindle and a "takeoff and landing book" for the annoying 15 minutes when the Kindle had to be stowed. If I do have a laptop, it's convenient to have a Linux partition since I can generally get on the WiFi for free if I'm not stuck in Windows.

The only trip I can recall where we packed like normal people instead of incredibly light was our trip to New York City last year. It was a "foodie vacation" -- we pretty much went to New York to eat for a long weekend. And unlike Seattle, which has exactly one jacket-required restaurant in the entire city, top New York restaurants have dress codes. The requirement to pack a suit and nice shoes (plus Anjela's shoes & dress clothes) vastly increased the required volume of stuff. Previously, the only times I'd packed a suit when traveling were for business trips where I was running off to give a presentation, and these were such short journeys that I didn't need to pack much else. I also have to pack a lot of stuff for DefCon, but that's not packing like a normal person -- that's a case full of weird electronics to play with. I always kind of wonder what the TSA thinks of looking at my bag ("Who needs three computers, a lockpick set, a magstripe writer, an RFID reader, and multiple cell phones in their suitcase?"), but I think on DefCon weekend I'm one of a thousand bags like that and they likely think nothing of it.

Once we get to a place, our vacations tend to involve a lot of walking. We like to see lots of things when we're in a new place, and while I don't mind driving in a new city/country, I don't really enjoy it either. Plus in major cities having a car is mostly an expensive inconvenience, especially cities like New York and Paris that have excellent public transportation.

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Our next writing prompt: Talk to me about religion/spirituality.

I'm an atheist. I was raised as a mainline Protestant Christian (United Methodist, specifically), and I believed up until my mid-teens, at which point I considered myself agnostic until about 19 years old. Though religion did contribute a lot of guilt to me, and I found church pretty boring, that wasn't really what drove me away from it -- it was simply a slow, progressive realization that all of the statements it made about the supernatural were either objectively false or empirically unverifiable. Eventually I had stopped believing in enough of the facts that following their conclusions stopped making sense to me. Even "converting" from agnostic to atheist wasn't really a change in beliefs, only in terminology -- I realized (via reading Ayn Rand's nonfiction, actually) that if I were "uncertain" about anything else in the same way I was "uncertain" about the existence of God, I'd say I didn't believe in it, so why should religion get special dispensation that nothing else does? I was agnostic to God in the same sense that I was agnostic to elves or unicorns -- there is no evidence they exist, and the fact that I can't somehow magically prove they don't doesn't mean I have to say I'm "unsure" if there are elves or unicorns; there aren't.

I find a lot of Christianity emotionally appealing -- I like the sense of community, I like the encouragement of charity, generosity, and compassion, and as someone who doesn't want to die, I would certainly like to believe that there is life after death. I love the Christmas season, its messages as well as its trappings (the songs, decorations, etc., and giving gifts to people I love.) There's plenty I don't like about Christianity, too -- like all religions, it has a long history of being used by people in power to justify the oppression of those not in power, and over time it simply changes to oppress whoever the disfavored group is at the moment. This isn't a unique fault of Christianity, though -- any belief system, religious or secular, gets manipulated this way. But in any case, when it comes to my beliefs, I find all of the above to be irrelevant -- to my very rationalist and empirical way of thinking, what I want be true and what I feel to be true have absolutely no bearing on what is true. For me to believe in a religion, I don't need to be told why it would benefit me to believe -- I need to be shown the evidence, and apply to it the same epistemological principles as I apply to everything else.

People talk a lot about "spirituality," and I honestly don't know what that means. I gather from context that it's a combination of a generalized belief in the supernatural ("there must be something more than the world we observe") and a sort of vague mysticism (gaining knowledge from feelings.) In this case, I am not a spiritual person at all. Mysticism seems like intellectual laziness -- emotions are not tools of cognition. Emotions can tell you about yourself, but they can't tell you anything about the world.

And as for the supernatural, I have never found even a definition of "supernatural" that doesn't outright mean "not real." If you verified a supernatural phenomenon to be real, then it would cease to be supernatural -- it would simply become part of nature. If magic exists, then there must be a mechanism of action. If God exists, God has to be made of something, act in some manner, and come from somewhere. Certainly we don't fully understand all the mechanisms of action in nature, but that doesn't mean that those mechanisms don't exist, merely that we haven't figured them out. If there's a "higher plane of existence" beyond the universe, and we proved it to exist, it would then cease to be beyond the universe -- it would be an accepted part of the universe and we would begin puzzling out how it works. It's only supernatural as long as it's not real.

This is in some way just a semantic argument over definitions, but I think it's also indicative of how I think -- that everything fits into systems, and when it doesn't, it just means that we don't understand the system. Perhaps we'll never understand the system, but it's there.

It's interesting to ponder naturalist creation stories -- e.g. directed panspermia (humanity was created by aliens and "seeded" here on Earth) or the simulation hypothesis (the entire universe is a computer simulation being run in a higher-dimensioned universe.) I find them emotionally more plausible, for the simple reason that rather than asserting a systemless "supernatural" they just propose higher-order systems that we cannot yet observe or understand. However, they run into the same problem as religions for me. I can't disprove or even offer a convincing argument against the idea that "since one real universe can build computers to simulate many, many simulated universes, statistically speaking we are much more likely to be in a simulated universe than a real one," but I'd never say I believe that the universe is a simulation, because we have no evidence pointing to the fact that it is. We have no other universes to compare it to, so making statistical statements about the nature and behavior of other universes is just making stuff up.

It would be nice if the universe were created with a benevolent order in which the laws of nature favor the good and conscious beings live forever. However, as far as I can tell, the only way we get a benevolent universe is to make it that way.

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Yesterday's writing prompt was Talk to me about marijuana.

I'm one of the few people who has no experience with the stuff. Due to allergies, I've never been interested in smoking anything, and never have. The idea of introducing more crap into my lungs for me to sneeze out does not have any appeal.

For that matter, I've never had any interest in mind-altering substances, either. I'm happy with life-as-experienced and don't feel any particular desire to change it. I don't even really care for being drunk -- I think I was well into college before I ever was, even even then only got that way maybe half a dozen times during my college experience. For the most part I found it an unpleasant feeling. I drink more now than I ever did in college, but even so, I kind of wish wine were non-alcoholic; I love the variety & taste of it, and the alcohol just adds calories and limits how much of it I can have. I can see some appeal to intoxication in a social environment (i.e. around other similarly drunk people), but still don't really find it appealing per se -- getting drunk alone would seem utterly pointless to me.

I live in one of the two states that's legalized marijuana. I fully support legalization; I don't think it's the government's business to dictate what people ingest anyway, and on top of that I think from a consequentialist perspective, prohibition is horrible. We as a society imprison countless people for harming themselves, heedless of the fact that the imprisonment harms them -- and the rest of our society -- even more than the drugs do, creating a permanent underclass compelled to a life of crime.

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Game of Thrones
So, today's (okay, yesterday's, I'm a day behind) prompt was Game of Thrones -- without spoilers. I'll do my best.

[personal profile] anjelabug and I have been reading A Song of Ice and Fire since the first novel, A Game of Thrones, came out many years ago. I remember picking up the third book in New Zealand in 2005, since it was published while we were on vacation.

As a result, we were really looking forward to the show before it even came out, especially with Sean Bean cast as Eddard Stark. And by and large the show has been excellent; it's certainly the best TV adaptation of a fantasy novel/series ever. The casting has been very good (I have no idea how they were so fortunate as to cast so many good child actors), and it's been mostly faithful to the novels -- certainly faithful enough that for most of the series we book-readers have known what's going to happen, usually well enough to be watching our non-book-reading friends with great amusement when we know that some catastrophe is about to befall a main character.

And do they ever. Martin certainly doesn't shy away from killing his characters.

I like the complexity of the storyline, and the way the background and history is slowly unveiled as we go along. I like the variety of the viewpoints, and how events can turn even some of the most evil characters into sympathetic ones as the story progresses -- though they seldom manage to outrun the things they've done. And mostly I just really enjoy reading about some of the very interesting people Martin's come up with -- both major characters like Arya and Tyrion and minor ones like Varys the Spider (who has some very interesting commentary on the nature of power.)

It has its faults, too. For one, Martin's decision to split the last two books by character instead of chronology resulted in a lot of "filler" chapters for some characters in which not much happened. This was a change from previous books where in almost every chapter you were sad to see it end and the viewpoint change. Regarding the HBO show and the changes made to adapt the books to the screen, I think that the inability to see what's in the main characters' heads makes some of the plots not work as well, and I question how the producers of the show could possibly have read A Song of Ice and Fire and decided it needed more rape in it. Some of the changes also seem kind of random -- renaming certain characters, merging others, etc. -- and I'm not sure why they made them since it would have been no more difficult to just film the scenes as written, and sometimes these are going to cause problems along the line (i.e. early changes to a "minor" character might end up a problem if Martin makes that character more important later, which he's done before.)

All in all, though, it's a very enjoyable show and with the squad of nerds I have as friends has led to a ton of interesting conversations.

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(no subject)
And, another back prompt from June: Describe how you changed something about yourself, or are working on doing so.

I grew up a spectacularly unathletic kid. Throughout my childhood and adolescent years, I had absolutely no interest whatsoever in physical activity, and didn't really care for being outside (admittedly, being outside in Indiana is not usually terribly pleasant.) I was a chubby kid by the age of 8 (to the shock of all my relatives, since as far as anyone could tell I barely ate anything), and became a computer nerd around 9, so I suppose the lack of athleticism wasn't surprising. However, I was also extremely weak -- in high school, I literally never passed a single test in a gym class. They were always graded on a curve based on either the performance of the class or on Presidential physical fitness standards, and doing 15 pushups or a single pullup had always been beyond me; even running a 1/4 mile was. Luckily, phys ed was always a half-credit course so my straight F's didn't count much against me for GPA, class rank, etc.

It wasn't until my late 20s that I decided to try to get into better shape. It was a combination of two things -- first, in the Seattle area I found I really liked being outdoors. It wasn't so much being active as simply being out in nature. Walking, hiking, etc. weren't exactly strenuous, but they did depend on having at least some level of physical capability. The second was simply that by 2007 or so I was upwards of 200 lbs. and wasn't too happy with that (by comparison, that was about 60 pounds up from college.)

Since I hated cardio -- and, indeed, I still do, the boredom is very difficult for me to fight -- I started lifting weights. And it was here that I discovered that I was, in fact, spectacularly, unusually weak. I couldn't squat an unloaded bar. I couldn't do basic physical movements like mantling myself up onto a countertop (I recall when I tried skiing at one point, a difficulty I had was that if I fell down, without both feet planted firmly beneath me -- not always possible on skis -- I was not strong enough to stand back up unassisted.) It took me years of regular weight training to hit the "untrained" level on most lifts -- i.e. what a man of my height and weight should be able to lift without ever having lifted weights at all. I hit plateaus lasting months squatting 65 pounds, then again at 95, and again at 135. Admittedly, I think the strength standards assume your weight is mostly lean body mass -- fat doesn't help you lift, after all -- but even if I pretended I weighed 130 pounds instead of 207 at the time, it took me 4-6 months to reach "untrained" status.

Still, I kept at it most of the time. I'd say that since then, nearly 10 years ago, I've been lifting regularly (defined as 3 times a week following an actual progression program) at least 6 months out of every 12. I am, at this point, "Novice" to "Intermediate" on all my lifts -- that is, years of work has gotten me to where an average man should be able to reach after only 6-12 months.

One major benefit I've noticed, though. Back in 2007, I would actually gain weight eating 1750 calories per day. Losing weight required eating ridiculously low numbers of calories (online calculators would tell me I should lose weight eating an amount that would literally make me gain 1-2 pounds a week.) I think that I just had vanishingly low muscle mass -- that calculators assumed that my body fat was much lower than it actually was. At this point, were I to disregard calories and eat whatever I wanted, I'd end up in the 160-170 range -- which is a far cry better than the 207 and rising I had back then. So clearly, while I'm not "strong" by objective standards, all this has made a positive impact on my life. I still have to count calories, as almost anybody who was previously overweight has to for life, but I can now maintain my weight with a more normal 1750-2000, and lose weight on 1250-1500, which is much more practical. I can eat like a normal human.

What's interesting is that I don't know if my weirdly low starting point was due to simple inactivity from childhood (i.e. I just never built the muscle that most 15-year-old boys do), or if it was an actual medical issue. My testosterone level since my 20s usually tests at around 280 ng/dL, which is the very bottom of the "normal" range -- but the "normal" range was set by testing men from 40-70, so for a 25-year-old (or even my current 37 years old) that's actually weirdly low. Given the various issues [personal profile] anjelabug and I had conceiving a child, many of which were on my side, it's quite possible I was just biologically destined for the intellectual life. :)

On the other hand, I don't let this deter me from continuing to run and weightlift regularly. After all, I still occasionally see women at the gym lifting more than I can, and if they can do that on 60-80 ng/dL of testosterone, with enough dedication, I can do it too.

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(no subject)
Due to the lack of one yesterday, today had two prompts:

Talk to me about dresses.

Well, as a guy, I don't tend to wear them. :) I do like them on women, though. I don't have a particular preference as to type; mostly it's just a matter of distinctiveness. There's nothing wrong with women going about in jeans and T-shirts, of course, but its very ubiquity makes it kind of invisible -- it makes no statement, just as a guy going around in jeans and a T-shirt doesn't either. The fact that you don't really see women wearing dresses around unless you're at a fancy restaurant, a formal event, or Las Vegas makes it more notable, and I find that attractive in and of itself. I am interested in unusual people; while wearing a dress doesn't necessarily indicate anything, anything that makes someone stand out from the crowd makes me think a person is more likely to be interesting. Likewise for people with a "personal style," almost irrespective of what that style is.

Talk to me about accents.

I moved to the Pacific Northwest from Indiana. Honestly, in neither place do I really hear a pronounced accent -- both are pretty close to the "average Midwestern" that makes up American newscasters, etc. This said, I do have bits of the Hoosier accent left, just enough to notice its existence -- things like "measure" being pronounced "may-zure", and "dog" being at least part of the way toward "dawg."

In terms of favorite accents, I suppose I find most European accents from women attractive, though I don't have a particular favorite. This is, of course, pretty common, and I think it's mostly a matter of the fact that we don't hear them all that often. Though I guess it has to be more than just familiarity, and probably has to do with how similar or different those accents are phonetically -- it seems that Americans almost always like Australian and English accents, vary in their opinions of other European accents, and are usually indifferent to Asian accents. I don't really have any idea why this is the case. Comprehensibility might be part of it, since looking back at that list I can't help but notice that Australian & English are the only ones where they're accents of English rather than the application of some other language's phonemes to English.

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Something freaky
Today's prompt was Tell me about something freaky that happened to you.

The first one that comes to mind was a couple years ago. I had awakened in the night a few minutes before, and when I looked over to the side of the bed, I saw a little girl with black hair and a red cardigan standing next to the bed, eyes shining a bright blue-white color. She looked straight at me, then quickly faded away, starting from the extremities, with the glowing eyes fading last.

What fascinates me about this incident is that my very first thought was, "Oh, wow, hypnopompic imagery! I bet this is where belief in ghosts came from!" The idea of an actual supernatural phenomenon didn't even occur to me, but it was really obvious that to someone hundreds of years ago, this sort of post-sleep hallucination would have been taken as proof of it.

As someone who takes a long time to fall asleep, I witness hypnagogic imagery (visual hallucinations just before falling asleep, as parts of your brain enter "dreaming" mode while you're still conscious) not infrequently, but even then it's only when my eyes are closed, and the images -- while as clear and vivid as anything seen in reality -- last only a second or so. Seeing something persistent in the room with my eyes open right after awakening has only happened twice in my life.

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And a back-prompt from June: What is your favorite kind of weather? Why?

As I mentioned in the color post, I'm always cold. I've been this way for a long time, since my early 20s at least, and losing weight in my early 30s only made it worse. So my favorite weather is warm. I also like being outside, so sunshine is great, too.

I realize that liking warm, sunny days is hardly unusual. However, it's hard for it to be too warm for me -- I go to a convention in Las Vegas every August, and after a day spent in the (super-air-conditioned) convention center the first thing I do is run outside and bask in the 115 degree desert blast. I'll overheat like anyone if I'm stuck wearing jeans or a suit or something, but as long as I can dress for the heat, I'm perfectly happy to be out in it.

Unfortunately for my weather preferences, I live in Seattle. Rather than the four seasons of the Midwest, we have two seasons here: dry and wet. Dry is very nice, starting somewhere between May (if we're lucky) and July (if we're not), and lasting until the end of September. It's clear, sunny, and most days are a comfortable spot in the 70s, with the occasional spike into the 80s. Wet is less nice, as it mists or drizzles almost every day, is cloudy the days it's not dripping, and temperatures range from 40 to 60 -- i.e. too cold for me to be comfortable. I have been very happy with the heavy wool peacoat I bought before our trip to New York City in December -- while it would be too warm for most people in this climate, it's great winter wear for me.

I actually enjoy warm rain, and especially the atmosphere outside just after a warm rain. Rainy days in, say, Hawaii are actually pretty pleasant. But below about 75 degrees, rain is cold, and it's wet, and it sucks.

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Today's prompt: Talk to me about color. I don't really have a specific favorite color.

When it comes to my living environment, I like warm colors and earth tones. I think the fact that I'm cold almost all the time influences this -- it's bad enough being cold, it's worse being cold in an ice-blue room. Luckily, my wife and I are compatible in this regard (the colors, not the temperature -- she runs much warmer than I) and so our house's interior is all various shades of brown, yellow, and orange. Mostly very light shades, though [personal profile] anjelabug picked out some pretty bold oranges for two rooms, and I like them just fine.

For cars, my general color preferences have always been "not red or white," but pretty indifferent to the specific color otherwise. However, I've found that BMW has a really nice shade of white (I can't really say what is nice about it, it's slightly opalescent and just really pleasant to look at), and having owned a black car for 5 years, I wouldn't do that again (too hard to keep clean, and shows every little scratch.)

I also have a fondness for dark purple. There's just not a lot of call for it in today's world; I have some ties in that shade, and I tend to use it extensively when selecting graphics (e.g. designing a banner or costume for a character in a video game), but that's about it. I suppose if I ever became an evil overlord I would decorate my throne room in it, but that's not a pressing issue for me most of the time.

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