Friday, January 25, 2008

Brief. Very brief.


Howard v. Kunto
D bought a summer home plat
and P claimed the title did lack
but adverse posession
can be had by succession
if privity allows you to tack

Armory v. Delamirie
A chimneysweep's boy found a stone
and had it appraised as his own.
The jeweler removed it
the judge assumed it
was precious unless the jeweler atoned.

Fisher v. Steward
P hears a buzz and he sees
a tree that is swarming with bees
P gets no money
though he found the honey
'cause D owned the land with the tree

Goddard v. Winchell
Down fell a rock out of space
To the spot the defendant did race
he dug it up from the deep
but the rock he can't keep
'cause P owns the rock's landing place.

Hanna v. Peel
An absentee landlord can't own
a res by soli alone
unless he can swear
he knew it was there
It is "lost" by the usual tone

Songbyrd v. Grossman
Bear steals some tapes full of music
Byrd wants them back so he sues it
but Byrd is too late
for the SoL date
starts running as soon as you lose it.

Civil Procedure

Merrel Dow v. Thompson
When Dow got sued for bad meds
it removed from the state to the Feds
in its disapproval
the court barred removal
for not meeting jurisdictional heads

Friday, January 18, 2008

Breaking the Game

To Solve the game is to determine all the possible endings from any given state
To Break the game is to determine a strategy from which there is no advantageous alternative.

I've heard lots of talk about solving games, but I've never heard anyone else discuss (or at least use the term) breaking them. Is the concept out there but just known known by a different term?

To elaborate on the definition above, I understand breaking a game as finding a strategy (or trick, or technique) that any player must adopt or, to the degree that they do not adopt it, they lose. The idea of games being breakable first occurred to me when reading Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card. In brief, a tactical prodigy in a military school breaks the zero-g combat simulator by realizing that a combatant can use his disabled legs, doubled up underneath him, as a shield. This technique gives such an advantage to the team employing it that all other strategic variation is, at a stroke, ironed out of the equation.

As I think about this, I'm getting echoes of summer afternoons playing Super Nintendo fighting games. The relative lack of variety in possible moves in those early games often led to complaints that one of the players was being "cheap" in ceaselessly exploiting a particularly effective move or combination. Other players then had to either keep getting beaten, adopt the tactic, or stop playing. (Find a counter would be a 4th option, but if a strategy is counterable then it's not longer a "breaking" strategy. In fact, wouldn't the counter now in a sense be the game's breaking strategy?)

Going somewhat further afield, I can see that if the idea of "game" is expanded to encompass all competitive scenarios, then breaking strategies could be anything that forces players to adopt it or cede the field. Ranged weapons is perhaps one example. (See Agincourt, Battle of) I can conceive of other candidates (Fosbury flop, baseball steroids) but in the real world it's easier to think of counterexamples or edge cases which would allow survival despite the strategy.

So, returning to the world of games meaning something more akin to its casual usage, has anyone else thought about this? In computer games, broken games, especially when broken by betas, usually lead to play balancing. After all, when a game is broken it ceases being fun because there's no strategy. Or rather, there's only one strategy. But now I wonder how it's possible to draw a meaningful line between a breaking strategy and...I don't know, a game goal? "Don't screw up" sounds like it fits the definition of a breaking strategy, but it doesn't make the game feel broken. Maybe it's that constraint of choice that's at the heart of the idea that the effect of "breaking" is to undo the essence of a game.

By way of example I propose Tic-Tac-Toe and Ghost.

Tic-Tac-Toe has been Solved. It's a few hours worth of work, days at the most, to brute force through every possible outcome from every possible game state. The end result is essentially a table listing the implications of any given move. If the players were truly playing to win there would be essentially no "strategy" any more complex than looking up the possible moves in a table and picking the one that forced the game into the ply containing the most advantageous outcomes for the player. It's not really "playing", anymore. If you proposed a casual game of tic tac toe to someone and they pulled out a Tic Tac Toe table you would be very unlikely indeed to stick around.

The nice thing is, though, that most people don't walk around with phonebook-sized outcome tables for tic tac toe. So the breaking strategy, if employed, does retire the game, but its not generally feasible. Therefore, despite being Solved and thereby Broken, it seems that Tic Tac Toe is still a viable game.

Ghost is a similar game to Tic Tac Toe in that it has very simple rules and a large but finite universe of outcomes and moves. In Ghost, players alternate proposing a letter, trying to avoid being the first to propose a letter that completes a word. Because all moves must contribute to a valid word, the apparently open game is in fact very determinative and can thus be both Solved and, to a greater degree than tic tac toe, Broken. As pointed out most recently by xkcd's Randall Munroe, Ghost can be won by any player who can memorize a short list of words. This means Ghost is more susceptible to breaking than Tic Tac Toe because the strategy is easier to deploy. Essentially, if you want to win at Ghost, you can.

So, what of it? This proposes to me a few insights and a few questions. First, Tic Tac Toe and Ghost are still fun, that is, people still play them. This suggests even in simple games there are really two goals, not one: Playing and winning. In broken games, it becomes clear that players often mutually subordinate the goal of winning to the goal of playing. (Or, perhaps, tacitly rewrite the rules to excise the breaking strategy while vigorously pursuing victory under the modified rules.)

This also gives insight into the idea of a strategy being "cheap". It seems that breaking strategies have the effect of deflating the gameplay experience by removing the "play" from it. Therefore, the social distaste, the sense of "cheapness" that other players feel when having a breaking strategy deployed against them, is not so much a response to being foiled at the "winning" goal, but in being foiled at the "playing" goal.

Lastly, I'm curious if anyone can come up with other examples to flesh out my list below. The brief survey I came up with suggests that there is partial overlap between Solvable and Breakable games, and that not all games are Solvable or Breakable. Are there any Solved games which haven't been Broken? These are just ideas from off the top of my head; I haven't done any deliberate research. Is there more to this?

  • Checkers has been Solved
  • The Battle Room has been Broken
  • Tic-Tac-Toe has been Solved and Broken
  • Prisoner's Dilemma has been Solved and Broken
  • Ghost has been Solved and Broken
  • Nim has been solved and broken
It occurs to me that another possible definition of breaking the game would be simply "Taking the skill out of it" or "Rendering it meaningless as an indicator of the tested attribute". A propos that latter definition I append an idea that I've been kicking around for awhile which is: On the SAT, wouldn't it be ballsy-awesome to prove you're damn smart *and* show contempt for the whole process by getting them all wrong? On a multiple choice test with 4 possible responses, you'd get 75% wrong by pure chance, but to get 100% wrong on a, say, 160 question test you would only have a 0.00001005658% chance of getting them all wrong. That is to say, the powers that be must either deny statistics or admit that they have no empirical grounds for preferring your score over another candidates. (Or, lets be honest, for ranking it below anyone's, which they would do anyway. No one ever said being an iconoclast was a bed of roses.)

Parts of this article are a rebuttal in spirit to a rather nasty piece of work I stumbled across at a "game design" site. It argues (in the strongest language) essentially that winning is the only goal of play and that playing to win is the only acceptable form of play. Choosing not to employ and exploit or breaking strategy is the mark of a "scrub" and grounds for ridicule. See if it sticks in your craw, as it apparently did mine. Link defaced so as to not provide Google ranking.

Edit: TV Tropes has a some good examples, including how certain cards are banned in Magic the Gathering tournaments and certain characters are disallowed in Street Fighter tournaments.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dive is a noun. Bar is a verb.

Among other things, tonight was an object lesson in "listen to your gut". I always check the address and plot a location to my route. Maybe it's a boy scout thing. Maybe it's a not getting lost in the city thing. I want to know that I can get there and back on my own. But nooooooo, they're like "We know where it is. We'll just call when we get off the metro."

...well, those two statements are inconsistent, for starters. So I got myself a tour of Adams Morgan, which is basically the unpretentious drinking district of DC. And by unpretentious I mean you don't have to worry about running into anyone important because if you're important you don't have to go to AdMo. Either that or you just don't want to be seen there. Basically it's a relatively safe harbor in a city that doesn't have many. I wouldn't go so far as to call it a Mos Eisley "hive of scum and villany" but then, I stayed on the main drag.

Walking, much walking. Now, I don't mind the walking. I quite like the walking. It's my exercise considering that I sit in the library most part of most days. But the girls. They were not prepared for walking. H'oh no. They were prepared for looking good. High heels. To every girl that I am even halfway decent friends with, I preach the gospel of functional footwear. But, alas, these two had to suffer. And so, consequently, did we. Time will vindicate me. Blessed are those who perish in the hope of victory.

Eventually we found it. Such a strange little place; dive bar, no other word for it. The bartender seemed like he'd been into the stock, the paintjob on the outside had passed "rustic" a decade ago, and the whole place had never smelled the heady scent of varnish. But, despite all that, the whole "dive bar vibe" was utterly ruined by the fact that none of the clientele was the least bit dive-ish. No burnt out truckers, no one with tics or 3 days' growth or skin disease of any sort. It was all Gap specials and suitcoats and 40 dollar scarves. Very wierd dissonance. It was like the disneyland of divebars where all the people go to see what a divebar looks like.

On the other hand, the bartender made up for a lot of it. It's cold and rainy here tonight, so I was thinking scotch.



Freaking LOOK at this place.

Does it say scotch to you?

So I decided on a rum and coke. I order a rum and coke; the guy stumbles to the back wall, begins looking at bottles. Finds one that must look like rum to him cause he takes the top off, pulls a pint glass off the shelf, and fills the glass. In fact, empties the bottle.

When wet stuff stops coming out of the bottle he looks at it with a betrayed scowl, then tosses it into the back room with a crash. He turns and takes the glass, full of NOTHING BUT RUM and puts it on the bar. Then he disappears below the bar and after some rooting around, comes up with a CAN of Coke, shrugs, and puts it on the bar.

He then wanders down to the end of the bar and finds a bowl which he fills with ice. He puts a straw in the bowl and scoots it methodically up against the can and the glass. He studies the still life for a second then, apparently satisfied, says "Eleven dollars."

Now, I was about to go "11 DOLLARS FOR A RUM AND COKE?!" But then I realized that I basically had a bottle of rum in a glass. So I paid it and took my winnings to the table. I considered distributing the largesse amongst my fellow tablemates, but...some battles we must fight alone.

In short, merely getting away from the library for awhile was balm to an aching spirit. It was a nice to see another part of DC as well. It did occur to me this evening, however, that it gets colder earlier here on the east coast. I'd not actually noticed how cold it was because I only have a ten minute walk from home to the metro at longest so I had mostly dispensed with a jacket; I just walk fast. But I was puzzled to see everyone in their winter finery complete with jackets and scarves and hats and gloves. Apparently it's been like 35-45 degrees out the last few days. Good to know. Guess I'm going to have to start acting my longitude and pull out the winter clothes.

Speaking of winter, I must say, I'm finally far enough away from home and for long enough to start feeling the nostalgia. Hearing about the fires down south was interesting because it was like hearing about a tornado in Oklahoma or an ice storm in NY...people described the areas like they didn't known them. And in Contracts the other day one of the cases was so-and-so v. the Pacific Gas and Electric Company. Well, the professor spent the whole class period referring to the defendant in shorthand as "P&G". Plus, if I say "The city" it means Washington, and "the bay area" means near Annapolis.

I like it here. But that doesn't mean I'm not also looking forward to seeing home again, too.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

...sed quid in infernos dicet?

I think of Latin as a sort of garnish to good English. You can't make it the whole meal; nothing smacks of pompous pedantry more than weighing down each sentence with overwrought Latinisms just to show off, or worse, to make it impenetrable to a "lesser mind". On the other hand, there is a certain joy in deploying just the right phrase for maximum effect. Sure, you could make a brilliant argument and just let it speak for itself, but adding Q.E.D at the end is the philosophical equivalent of spiking the football in the endzone. With that, I present some of the more enjoyable fragments I've come across in the last few months. Some are legal technicum that are in wide use, others are merely phrases or peripheral concepts of interest.

In re: You may think that the "re:" in the subject line of an email stands for "regarding". It in fact is the abbreviation of "in re" pronounced "in ray" and means simply "in the matter of". Used in case names when there's no formal adverse parties or the controversy is about the disposition of an item rather than the parties specifically. (ex. "Memo to house, in re: the red thong found on the couch Saturday morning...")

Subpoena duces tecum: This useful little guy is unfairly confined to law courts when it really has broad application to many circumstances. Since a "subpoena" just means means under penalty of punishment, a Subpoena duces tecum is an instruction to "bring it with you under penalty of punishment"...aka "Show up without it and I'll break yo' KNEES". Useful for club treasurers and hosts enforcing BYOB.

Expressio unius est exclusion alterious: The unconscious rule you apply when a braggart is telling you all the mountains he's climbed but only actually names two. "To express one is to exclude others" in law means that if a writing went to the trouble of specifically mentioning something then, by implication, anything not named was deliberately left out.

Ejusdem generis: Unnamed items in a class are assumed of the same type as the named items. It's the unconscious rule that you apply when you see "etc." that suggests that unnamed list items are of the same type as named list items. (Complimentary "soda, water, juice, milk etc." is not gonna get you a free gin and tonic.)

Volenti non fit injuria: The principle that, at least within the legal definition, you can't be harmed by something you consented to. Fight Club and Jackass come to mind.

Res ipsa loquitur: "The thing speaks for itself." Can be used anytime something is self-explanatory. (Original use was in a case wherein a plaintiff was walking in front of a shop and a barrel of flower comes flying out the window and lands on him. The court was tying itself in [Gordian] knots trying to figure out how to fit it into the theory of negligence liability when the judge finally sliced through the morass and declared "res ipsa loquitor: Barrels don't just fall out of the sky. Obviously someone screwed up."

...sed quid in infernos dicet?: "...but what the hell is it saying?" As is often the case,res ipsa loquitor wasn't the tidy solution it was hoped to be. Some wag finally added the pseudo latin clause to the end to put it all in perspective.

Malleus Maleficarum: Unfortunately not one of our textbooks, but fascinating nonetheless. The "Witch Hammer" was the medieval equivalent of the US Government's Bluebook report on UFO's, except this was in 15th century Inquisitive Catholic Germany and was arguing (vehemently) for the existence of witches. And, naturally, for their subsequent dis-existencing.

That's enough for now; I don't wanna scrape the bottom.

[Edit: I *knew* it. I was deciding between using dishes in the sink and a thong on the couch as an example and I figured "in re: red thong" sounded funnier but wondered if people were going to assume there's a story behind it. I'm sorry to say there's not, Anja. You can convey the disappointment to your mom. ;-)]

Friday, September 14, 2007

It's English, Jim, but not as we know it....

The coming and going of September 13th quietly marked the completion of one month of law school. As expected, August 13th feels a long way in the past. Looking back to the beginning of any adventure always seems to me to be like looking in the wrong end of a telescope; the sheer weight of experiences dilates time. (Of course, it seems to balance out on the other end, as when you look back at college and go holy *crap*, that was four years?) It's calming to be reminded that only a month ago I had basically no idea what learning the law entailed; the tabula rasa from my first day helps me see that yes, I really have learned something. As I said in my last post, we've all seen the elephant now and we're starting to walk the walk (kind of a hunched-over shuffle from the weight of the backpack and obligatory bookbag) and to talk the talk. And what a strange talk it is! I wanted to share a little bit of the language of law school to help illustrate the sort of concepts and thinking that distinguished law school from any other kind of education.

I still consider "legalese" to be a mild pejorative, but it's pretty accurate characterization of the first most important rule that new law students learn: It's English, Jim, But Not As We Know It. There's a temptation to think that law books are written in English. After all, you pick it up and it says "Contracts" on the cover, and if you open it and flip through it most of the words are familiar. This is a LIE! Only a few pages in you realize that not only are many seemingly familiar words invested with new meanings, but those meanings are rigid, highly structured, and are often only definable by reference to other, similarly loaded words. Clearly after brief consideration one could arrive at the expectation that in a Contracts class the word "contract" would be a technical term. But try writing the previous sentence without "consideration" and "expectation", which are also verboten for casual use because they have specific legal meanings. "Consideration", for example, is "that which is sought in exchange for a promise." And in case you were wondering, "promise" and "sought in exchange" are also a technical terms that need defining.

Teasing out sentences and concepts ends up feeling as much like math or logic, at times, than it does either English or even philosophy. Definitions of some key concepts, like "contract" require a sort of prime-factorization to break them down through all the levels of complexity into their component parts. "Contract" breaks down as follows:

a CONTRACT is formed when there is a BARGAIN and a CONSIDERATION.

a BARGAIN is an AGREEMENT in which a PROMISE (or a promise for a performance, or a performance for a performance) is SOUGHT IN EXCHANGE for a return promise.


MANIFESTATION OF MUTUAL ASSENT is when both parties either make a promise or begin to render a performance

a promise or performance is SOUGHT IN EXCHANGE if it is intended to be induced by and is induced by the original promise

a PROMISE is a manifestation of intent to act such that the other party is justified in expecting the first will perform as promised

and finally

CONSIDERATION is that which is bargained for in exchange for a promise

So, if you unpack this thing totally and then put it back together you have (stay with me here)...

A CONTRACT is formed when one party manifests an intention to act or begins to act, and that manifestation seeks and induces the second party to act.

That's a lot of meaning packed into a two-syllable word!

Beyond loading seemingly familiar words with expansive new meanings, however, there's an altogether new lexicon as well: case law. Though none of our professors have put it this way, it's pretty clear that the cases themselves form a sort of "power user's quick-reference" for those who have internalized the cases and the concepts they stand for. If you can read a case, break it down, analyze the logic, and understand the implications (basically, if you can grok it) then you'll naturally use the name to stand in for the whole expansive concept. Some cases have been digested enough by the public consciousness that anyone with a little Law & Order behind them can wield them. Say "Miranda" everyone knows what you're talking about. Heck, it's even entered common English as a verb; cops routinely "Mirandize" a suspect using the sanctioned words that we all know. "You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law..." (Of course, this is as far as most people can quote because it usually cuts away before they can get any further.)

And yes, there's legal Latin, too, but that's basically just dessert. I'll have to remember to put up a few of the more interesting ones next time.

[Edit: Fixed the literal non sequitor above wherein I left out the factorization of CONTRACT. I had to get my notebook to be sure I did it right. And then I had to get my textbook. And then I still wasn't sure. In fact, I think just trying to lay it out for this post is going to send me back for office hours. I swear; you don't just read contract theory, you debug it.
Also, added photos of CUA campus at night to help break up the block-o'-text (tm).]

Saturday, September 1, 2007

RamblingRovers rides again

This Labor Day weekend is, for CUA Law students, the final deep breath before the plunge. We've been in class for 2 weeks now; we've all seen the elephant and we know what the next 13 weeks hold in store. It's time to clear the decks, screw your courage to the sticking post and, perhaps most importantly, do something fun to refresh your spirit and renew your gumption. I went into this weekend with *nothing* planned. Many of my classmates took this weekend to get out of town, return home and see their families. There were a few "bar reviews" planned by various law school groups but my heart wasn't in it. Socializing at bars is just not my scene. What I really needed was a chance to eat, drink, and be merry my way. But where? And with whom?

It Comes in Quarts?
In keeping with the fortunate serendipity that has been my life of the last 2 months, my old friend Brian called up and proposed the obvious solution: The Maryland Renaissance Festival! A ren faire is the perfect antidote to the deluge of dense reading and overexcited socialization-come-shameless-networking that all law students are prone to. Nothing cleanses the soul like donning a pirate shirt and a swagger for a day of revelry, wench oggling, and hoarse "Huzzah!"'s. The Maryland festival is blessed with a wonderful venue, full of trees and winding hills that give it more the sense of a forest village than a faire. Being finally of age I was able to partake in a cup of ale (Sam Adam's October Fest) with my turkey leg and I found the combination to be greater than the sum of its parts.

We wandered around reveling in the unabashed nerdliness of the faire. It did my heart good to see "cool" fly out the window, or at least become transmuted into something all together different and more joyful. Instead of cool being some sort of aloof reserve that disdains wholehearted abandon, the coolest people were the ones who plunged in and played along. Criers hawked their wares with bawdy slogans and enjoyed a running repartee with quick witted passers-by, fellow faire-goers became other characters in a collaborative play that routed around sticks in the mud and mere observers. Politically correct was suddenly socially unacceptable and I found myself cursing in silent embarrassment to have answered innocently to the shopgirl's offer of "If you boys see anything you like just tell me and I'll pull it out for you..." It's escapism, pure and simple, and if you don't give in and play along you won't receive your full measure from it.

I tried on a leather fencer's jacket at the leathermonger's and watched the fine lads at Badger Blades put their money where their mouth is in proving that they proudly make only the real thing. (If you want to see a show, just begin to doubt, out loud, that anyone can really forge usable blades anymore. You'll get a Cliff's Notes in medieval metallurgy, a magnificent display of functional craftsmanship, and exactly 1/2 of a US Quarter as a souvenir.)

While standing in line for my October Fest I heard a few wandering minstrels begin a casual jam session behind me. While a bodhran laid down a lively beat a bearded singer with a guitar began to sing a tune that sounded awfully familiar...

Come and listen, I'll tell you what happened to me
One day as I went down to Cork by the sea
The day it was hot and the sun it was warm,
So says I a quiet pint wouldn't do me no harm

I went in and I called for a bottle of stout
Says the barman, I'm sorry, all the beer is sold out
Try whiskey or paddy, ten years in the wood
Says I, I'll try cider, I've heard it was good...

That's right; they had launched into Johnny Jump Up! Of course I sprang over to sing along, but had to listen carefully for they were singing different words. I gave myself away on the chorus when they sang "After drinking a quart of the Johnny Jump Up". As the guitar player explained later, the "pint" lyrics are the English version "'Cause they canna stand bu' ah pint o'it!".

We also sat in on the jousts, the only other de rigeur event of a ren faire other than the turkey leg, and watched a performance of "Fight School", something similar to Bold and Stupid Men at the Casa de Fruta Faire in CA, but not quite as well written. Y Musiki presented an appealing fusion of middle eastern gypsy music and rock accented with Celtic inspired fiddling. We left ahead of the crowd because we had to get back to Brian's house to bottle his most recent brew, an October Ale, and get turned around so we could be in Langley Park by nine to accept a mystery invitation.

[Intermission. It's a long post. Sorry! ;-) Go do something else and come back and it will seem like two bite-sized ones.]

When I hear the word culture I reach for my spoon
This mystery invitation was not so much a mystery as to whether we were invited, but rather to what we had been invited. The gist of it was that on my first day at CUA I had met Edmond, an early thirty-something CS PhD student from Cameroon. He was a heck of a nice guy, earnest and really friendly in an English-as-a-second language sort of way. We joked about monolingual Americans and chatted in a rough-around-the-edges combination of French and Enlgish. I was happy to have met someone and so I exchanged numbers with him, suggesting that we go out for a beer sometime and I could learn a little more about Cameroon. Several weeks later he called me, very excited and invited me I honestly couldn't tell what it was, but the basic idea was that it was some sort of gathering of people from his village in Cameroon, to celebrate their culture. There would be food and dancing and revelry and I was invited if I wanted to come. Well, most of my friends know that he had me at "food". I tried to explain it to Brian as we drove to the faire, and to his credit was more than receptive, he was enthusiastic. We both agree that new and novel experiences are, by their nature, good things. They have, if you will, intrinsic positive value, such that even if it's not enjoyable it was still an experience.

We arrived at the Boy's & Girls club of Langley Park still pretty much unsure of what we were getting ourselves into. Following the brightly dressed crowd (what I could only assume to be traditional garb) we were not even sure if we needed a ticket and more than a little nervous that someone would ask us if we were "lost". Entering the bustling gymnasium we were met by Edmond, grinning ear to ear that we came. After handshakes and introductions he led us over to the displays where he explained that this was the first Annual Haut-Nkam [/Ho-Cam/] Culture Festival, a chance for all the ex-patriots of the Haut-Nkam district of Cameroon to join together and celebrate their shared heritage. And Brian and I were, quite simply, invited to help them celebrate! What a treat!

After Edmond, with the help of a wallmap, gave us the basic tour of the country, he introduced us to Beke who told more of the stories. He explained that Cameroon has been the object of many countries but subject of none; during the age of colonialism virtually the entirety of imperialist Europe tramped through Cameroon in their exploration of Africa.
The name "Cameroon" is actually a comedy of errors written into history as a result of this parade of European powers. The Portuguese discovered it first, calling it simply "Rio dos Camarões". When the Germans arrived not long after they misheard it as "Kamero" which the French latinized as "Cameroun" and by the time the English got their hands on it they had no chance of getting anywhere close and just simplified it to "Cameroon." The modern name for the national tribal language is a result of a similar white-man's-folly. Missionaries asking for directions to the area' "big city" were repeatedly told "ef'efe'e" by local villagers. The Missionaries heard it so often that they began refferring to the language itself as Ef'efe'e, which basically means "This way and that."

Beke explained the colorful costumes as well, telling us that tribal affiliation is demonstrated in the traditional garb which varies in style, color, cut, and fabric from tribe to tribe. Tribal garb is worn for formal occasions to the utter exclusion of the European tradition of business suits. Instead of drab black and greys, formal events in Cameroon are a riot of color as invitees show their tribal diversity as well as their national unity. Cameroon has, depending on how you count, nearly 300 different tribes, each with their own traditional costume and language. I reminded Beke of the joke cracked by an exasperated Charles de Gaulle who once lamented "How can you run a country that has 300 kinds of cheese?" Surprisingly, Cameroonian politics take the enormous diversity of tribal and village connections in stride. Apparently there are so many different villages that citizens simply can't be strict partisan for their hometown candidate because then no one would get elected. The end result is that the best man truly does get the job and that leaders don't have the option of merely aiming to please one powerful party. Jean-Paul, the son of a Cameroonian "chef" or king, confirmed this, briefly explaining that western two, three, or even six party politics never sat well with the free-for-all public participation of traditional tribal government.

With our heads spinning from 600 years of Cameroonian history we stumbled over to the buffet table to sample some local flavor. Ignoring the potatoes and the beef we deliberately loaded up the plate with things that neither of us could identify. Edmond was delighted to take us on a culinary tour and saved us from eating the baking leaf that should be shucked off before eating the cassava inside. On the plate, counter-clockwise, we have "yellow soup", "dohle" [/dole-ay/], baked cassava, barbecued pork, and pulverized, roasted, orange...tuber...thing. My brother asked about the large, caterpillar-like thing on the plate. Though I was tempted to tell him it was just that, it's actually even better. That's the leaf-wrapped cassava paste. It had been mashed and tightly wrapped into the leaf, then baked till it was firm. It's like a bush PowerBar, with the taste and texture very reminiscent of incredibly dense sticky rice. If you're feeling manly you can just eat it plain, like a carbo-supercharged banana, but the best way is to break it up and us it to clean your plate of any remaining "dohle" and yellow soup.
The yellow soup is essentially a ninja curry. Delightfully tasty, overall, but not to be trifled with. When you first taste it it seems creamy and almost sweet, if somewhat bland. Then you swallow and it seizes your throat in a flaming deathgrip of eyewatering spiciness. (For best results, have cold Guiness standing by.) The chunks are large, succulent mushrooms and tripe.

We left late in the evening with our ears ringing and our heads spinning, both utterly delighted with our good fortune. We've already promised to bring the beer if Edmond wants to cook sometime, and I rode home thinking that RamblingRovers isn't just the rallying cry of a single trip but a whole state of mind, and one that I'm *more* than happy to maintain.

[Edit: Both Patrick and I had so much fun with the flickr site over the summer that we've continued using it as a clearinghouse for pictures from our adventures even after we diverged. Check out Patrick's Tucson, AZ collection on the RamblingRovers flickr site, or go straight to his magnificent sunset in the high desert photos taken right in his backyard.]

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

A local welcome

As promised, the hot humid air of the eastern seaboard mixes with the cold fronts coming off the Atlantic to create some *wicked* thunderstorms. This one, on Saturday the 25th of August (2007) generated repeated severe weather warnings and sundry cries of "Auntie Em!!" from local government and public safety types.
The Overture had just started as I was leaving the library and Act One was closing in on Hayattsville when I stepped off the metro and headed for home. Though I was supposed to be going straight back to studying I just had to interrupt it a few times to run out and document the progress of the storm as the clouds piled up and the lightning developped from flashes to great forked arcs. I like the area already, but talk about value added!

Perhaps the novelty will wear off (probably next time I'm in dress clothes) but as it is, I get a kick out of the warm, steamy air combined with the cool rain. The lull and rush of the cicadas as the wind picks up and the rythym of the rain as it's driven in waves across the tree branches is so perfect it seems surreal. It's all terribly atmospheric and sensuous; to walk out into the beginnings of the storm after the quite, air-conditioned sterility of the library makes me feel invigorated and alive.