Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Pokémon (the card game)

Yesterday I played the Pokémon card game for the first time. I feel sort of culturally enlightened. I was always against the idea because of the whole rigged-in-favor-of-whoever-has-spent-the-most-money theme. That's still a valid complaint, but my son just got a couple of starter decks, so by playing with default cards we sort of bypassed that element. And I have to say that the card game just might be more interesting than the video game, as heretical as that sounds. And yes, my son beat me.

I was using a deck with electric and fire Pokémon, while he had water and some fire. He never ended up using any of the fire ones. I tried not to, and the one time I did it backfired because of the whole water-beats-fire thing. What really bugged me about my deck is that it was so hard to get energy cards attached to my Pokémon, so I couldn't attack very often. And even when I could, the good attacks use up an energy card. My son didn't have that limitation. If I cared enough to get additional cards to modify the deck, the first thing I'd do would be to swap out some of the lame Pokémon for more energy cards. But mostly I think I just don't like the deck. That said, I'm going to try again and see if I can come up with a working strategy.

One thing I will say in favor of Pokémon is that it doesn't have the nastiness of Magic. I've seen people play that, and it was kind of interesting, but there's also the whole undead theme that permeates that game. Although I did take a sharpie to one of the trainer cards in order to lengthen a shirt, so that's another complaint. And the game isn't as fun as Splendor, which is the other card game we got for Christmas. But I keep winning at that, so I'm afraid my family will bail on it eventually.

Oh, and one more thing: What's up with the accent mark in the name? It seems that the Japanese word for "Pocket Monsters" does stress the "e", but they don't in English. So in English translations, they shouldn't write the accent mark. Or we should all be saying "Po-KE-mon" instead of "PO-ke-mon".

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Force Awakens

[Major spoiler alert on the movie and also on the Plasma Master books.]

I saw Star Wars episode 7 yesterday. It was pretty entertaining - it's amazing how the music an yellow text can get you more excited and engaged in 60 seconds than pretty much any other movie. There were some head-scratching science moments, but I suppose that can be forgiven in Star Wars. And of course the parallels to A New Hope made a lot of the events fairly predictable, but that's understandable too, since they had to prove to the audience that they understand why Star Wars is cool. I guess. It was a little wonky how casually they got rid of a government that only folks who read the now un-canonized books would know anything about. It was a actually a little odd ignoring the stuff I've read; I guess that's now an alternate timeline, analogous to the new Star Trek movies. But the light sabers and X-wings and stuff made me very happy.

One thought I kept having was that I'm super glad I've already published the Plasma Master books. That's because they kept using ideas that I used in those books, and this way it's clear that I didn't copy them. (And to be completely honest, the new movie parallels the first movie way more than my book does.)

So in case you're wondering, here's what they used. I might add to this list later : )

  1. Going to warp inside a ship. Han did this to escape quickly, whereas Mirana did it to avoid enemies outside, but the concept was the same.
  2. Using warp drive to bypass a shield. Han breaks into the enemy base by using normal hyperspace, whereas in my books I specifically make this impossible by saying that it's standard procedure to set up a static warp shell that resonates at each warp phase at the shield's position, but Mirana manages to bypass Venom's shield at a negative warp phase.
  3. The hyperspace planet-destroying weapon - I didn't actually depict this, but I hint that the ancient Plasma Masters may have had such a weapon.
Said weapon was the most confusing bit of science. It seems that all of the New Republic planets were in the same star system, and since they didn't specify that the weapon fired through hyperspace (and since you can see it in a line instead of having it disappear and reappear), it looks like the bad guys' base is also in that star system. (Even so, the weapon would have to be faster than light speed, since it doesn't take hours to cross planets.) Not to mention how you store the mass of a star inside a planet. But like I said, you already have to have suspended scientific rigor if you're watching Star Wars movies. So I'm moving on.

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

"This Christmas"

This is about the song, not the holiday. You know the song. The super whiny one about the guy whose girlfriend broke up with him last Christmas. Sadly, it was the first Christmas song I heard this year. It bugs me on many levels; hopefully writing them down will help me move on.

I guess first of all we need to clarify the narrative. Apparently the singer pledged his love for a girl the previous Christmas, and she didn’t immediately shoot him down. But the next day she told him that things weren’t going to work out. The singer was devastated. It’s unclear what happened over the course of the year, but when Christmas rolled around again, he pledged his love for someone else, then wrote a song to let the first girl know that he has moved on (and implying that she has missed out).

So here’s what’s lame:
  1. “I gave you my heart.” So the singer thinks that by asking this girl out, he was giving her a gift. In reality, though, he was asking her for a favor. And doing this on a holiday was a bit manipulative, since saying no would presumably dampen whatever other festivities were going on. Just imagine the dejected look she’d have to deal with on what is supposed to be a happy day. (Now, I suppose it’s possible that the girl had been sending positive vibes and that he may have been legitimately convinced that she would consider his “heart” as a gift. But I think that interpretation is unlikely given the other issues here.)
  2. The notion that the girl did something wrong by breaking up. If she wasn’t interested, she was under no obligation to continue the relationship. Of course the singer is justified in feeling disappointment, but this song goes beyond disappointment (as described below).
  3. “To save me from tears” – So the singer asked another girl out to avoid tears? Shouldn’t the motivation behind a relationship be a little deeper than that?
  4. “Someone special” – Obviously the singer considered the first girl to be special. So how is giving his heart to someone special different tactical choice now? This line is just a cheap insult to the first girl, but at the same time it paints the singer as pathetic. “You’re not special!” Who says that?
  5. Speaking of how special the first girl really is to him, why is he bothering to write her a song when he just got a new girlfriend? Does this girl know that he’s still pining over the previous girl? Does the singer even like the new girl, or is this whole relationship just a vehicle to launch the before-mentioned cheap insult?
  6. Oh, and let’s not forget the fact that the song consists of the same two sentences repeated over and over.

Of the three people in the song, the new girl is the one I feel most sorry for. Fortunately, since this song comes on every year, I think we can safely assume that the singer gets shot down every year on December 26th, so the poor ladies involved don’t have to deal with him for too long.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bad commentary on space

As a public service, I want to point out some flawed space-related comments I’ve heard recently.

The first was from an Air Force ad. Now, I’m all for the Air Force. But they said they were “pioneering new paths to space.” Really? I’m pretty sure there’s just the one path: up through the atmosphere. Space travel has had lots of obstacles, but a lack of paths hasn’t been one of them.

The other was from NASA. The article below contains the following quote: “We are closer to sending humans to Mars than at any point in NASA’s history.” Well of course we’re closer. Any point in the future only gets closer, right?

http://news.yahoo.com/nasa-closer-sending-humans-mars-163300699.html

There. I feel better now.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Troop Cheer

The scouts I was working with needed some cheers for camp this summer, so I figured I’d help them out. The scouts weren’t fans, but I will grace the world with the best of them. (Actually one of the scouts helped with this, even though he didn’t think it was a good idea.)

Leader: Proud declaration!
    Group: Fervid agreement!
Leader: Obvious question?
    Group: Overly enthusiastic response!
Leader: Tired reference!
    Group: Stupid Rhyme!
All: Excited self-identification!

You’re welcome.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Bad Ads

Here are some Internet ads that aren’t saying what they’re trying to say.

#1:

Canadian Questions

Huh. I didn’t know they had different kinds of questions in Canada. But whatever they are, apparently they don’t have anything to do with the Product.

#2. This one is even worse than I realized at first – I read “ends”. Either way, it’s bad.

LifeWellLivedEndsSoon

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Farewell e-mails: don’t mention fish

I have seen a lot of farewell e-mails from people taking a job at a different company in which they say “So long and thanks for all the fish.” Ha ha, they’re leaving and they mention the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Funny, right?

Only if you don’t think about it at all. [The following might sound like a spoiler but it’s not; it’s from like the first few pages of the book.] The dolphins use that phrase as their final farewell after leaving Earth. They have tried to warn the humans of the impending destruction of the planet, but the humans didn’t listen and haven’t sensed the danger. So the sentiment behind that message is “You are doomed. I’m kind of sad about it because you're nice, but I’m not going down with you.”

Not exactly the sentiment you want to convey to your former co-workers when switching jobs.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Fire Emblem strategy

Okay so I didn’t discharge enough of my thought process in that other post to stop going over it, so here are a bunch more scattered thoughts about Fire Emblem games.

First of all, there is way more complexity in them than you ever need to deal with. You can do these “support” conversations, where if you put certain characters next to each other enough they can talk to each other and boost each others’ status during battle. I pretty much ignored that. Each character has an elemental affinity, which can affect how they work near other characters. I ignored that too.

In a later game (that I’ve seen but not played),

There are a couple of things I did that worked out for me.

  • It seems that Fire Emblem games always start you out with a unit that’s really strong; I’ve seen guides call them “pre-promoted” units because they are already of a class that you can promote weaker units to. You never want to rely on these units, for two reasons:
    1. Even though they can handle whatever enemy you throw them at (early on), they’ll hardly get any experience points for defeating them. This wastes experience points that could have gone to other units.
    2. There’s not much room for these units to grow over time, and other units have higher potential stats.
  • I didn’t use very many vulneraries (healing potions) at all. Instead, I had my healer, Moulder, heal with his staff on every turn if possible, even if someone was only slightly hurt. Here’s why:
    • It means that other units don’t have to waste a turn using a vulnerary; they can just go ahead and attack.
    • Healing is the only way a healer gets experience points, and by doing this as much as possible, I was able to eventually upgrade him to a magic user so he could fight when necessary.
    • Even more importantly, repeated use of a healing staff eventually increased his skill with staves to the point where he could use the really good ones, like long-distance healing and all-team healing. That wouldn’t have happened if I had left healing up to individual units.
  • I used magic users a much as possible. Besides being cool, magic can attack at close or long range, unlike most regular weapons, so magic users can often attack without risk of counterattack.
  • Keeping your distance and letting enemies come to you can be very important. This was hard sometimes, especially later in the game when my characters were strong. There was this one spot where there were just a ton of enemies, and I kept figuring I should venture forward and take out as many as possible so there would be fewer of them to attack me on the next turn. But there were always more hiding in the darkness, and I kept losing. When I finally got smart and held my ground in a narrow passageway, I was able to limit the number of enemies that could reach my units on a given turn, and when they got weak, I could pull them back and replace them with someone else.
  • When you raise a unit’s class (in some games at least), you can often choose between a class with higher stats and one with lower status but that’s more well-rounded, such as being able to use an additional weapon type. I prefer that my units specialize in one thing. It makes it more likely that you’ll be able to use the good items you find later in the game, and you have enough units that no one character needs to be good at a bunch of different things. It’s different if a class offers a special ability, though, like being able to move over water (pirate) or pick locks without a lock pick (rogue or something like that).

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Fire Emblem: The Sacred Stones

Over the last few months I played the second Fire Emblem game for the US. It took a long time and I feel the need to unload my thoughts.

Quick summary of the series if you’re not familiar with it and for some reason care: it plays kind of like a board game, in that you have a bunch of units with various abilities (sword, lance, bow, magic, etc.) as well as strengths and weaknesses. On your turn, you move some or all of your units, and then the enemy units get a turn. Your characters improve in stats and abilities as you use them, but you can only bring a certain number into each chapter, so you have to pick which ones to focus on. There are so many enemies in each chapter, and you want the experience points from fighting them to go to the units you plan to rely on later. Another key element is that if you lose a unit in battle and don’t restart the chapter, that unit is permanently gone. (I make it a point to not lose any units, on principle.)

I normally don’t like turn-based stuff, but because it doesn’t make a pretense of being some kind of action or adventure game, I think it works. (I even turn off the battle animations so it really is like moving pieces over the terrain.)

I actually started the game years ago while on vacation and got to the part where the main characters’ paths split and you choose one. At this point, you have access to various monster battles in-between levels, where you can level your units up. I don’t like this – it makes it too easy and undermines the importance of focusing on the right set of units in the main chapters. Plus I didn’t have a lot of time after the vacation ended, so I stopped playing.

When I picked it up again (and started from scratch), I decided to just ignore all of those side quest things and play the game like its predecessor. I was a bit worried that it would get overly difficult, since the game clearly intended you to level people up on the side, but I gave it a shot. I definitely did make it harder on myself than it otherwise would have been. Besides insisting on not continuing until I beat a chapter without losing any units or civilian “neutral” characters, I also stuck with characters I got early on, ignoring stronger characters that came along later and could have superseded them. (After all the work to build the early characters up, it would have been unsatisfying to stop using them.)

Over all I liked it. In hindsight, I don’t think that ignoring the bonus stages made the game overly difficult, although it does make it impossible to use some of the characters that start out weak and come in late in the game. On hard mode, it might end up being impossible anyway without bonus stages.

In the previous game, my favorite character was Canas, the only dark magic user that can join your team. (Not “dark” in the “evil” sense.) In this game, you don’t get any dark magic users until pretty late (on Eirika’s path), and by that time I was already invested in a light and anima (nature) magic user. So I didn’t use that new guy. Until I got stuck in this one level and realized that I could upgrade him to a summoner. I still almost never let him fight, but on each turn I could summon a weak monster that I could control. I didn’t let the monster fight either, but by putting it out in front, it could take a hit that would normally have damaged one of my units. That made me feel clever.

The strategy aspect was very satisfying. Even when I made dumb mistakes that I should have avoided, like moving forward into a crowded mass of enemies in order to clear them out rather than holding my ground in a narrow passage where they could only come at me a few at time. It’s also satisfying to take weak characters and make them into something useful.

The story, on the other hand, was lame, and like the previous game I pretty much ignored it. Fortunately, it doesn’t really have any bearing on the game.

So in general, it was pretty cool, and eventually I’ll probably go back and play through the levels on Ephraim’s path. It’s not cool enough to make me want to play the whole series, though. I guess a little Fire Emblem goes a long way.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Weird Butterfly Antics

I can’t say that I spend a lot of time thinking about butterflies. They’re fairly non-gross insects (as adults) that have a mysterious flight mechanism, and sometimes they have cool colors. That’s about it. But today I was on a field trip with my daughter, and we went into a butterfly house, and the following weird things happened:

  1. A large, five-or-six-inch butterfly landed on my shirt and just hung out there for a couple of minutes.
  2. After it left, a similar one (or maybe the same one) landed right on top of my head.
  3. On the screen wall, there was another one of these large butterflies, with a hitchhiker. Or rather a hitch-sitter. A smaller butterfly was actually sitting there on the larger one’s wing.

This phone camera isn’t great, and the angle makes it hard to see the big butterfly, but it’s that long, light-brown line in the center:

downsize (1)

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Cake Layers

The last couple of cake slices I’ve had suffered from the same problem, one that I have found to be quite relevant in layered cake: the middle layer was too close to the top. Now think about it: you’ve got cake, which provides consistency and some flavor, and frosting, which (ideally) is what really gives the cake its flavor. (There are of course people who eat just the frosting, but that’s a different issue.) The frosting is on top. And unless the cake is small enough to get a complete cross-section onto your fork, you’re going to have to take at least one bite without that top frosting for every bite you take with it.

This is the major challenge of eating cake. And in a single-layer cake, pretty much your only option is to set aside some of the frosting from the top or edge to mix with the bottom part of the cake. Obviously, single-layer cakes should be fairly short.

Things are different with multiple layers, though. That extra layer of frosting is there to make sure the lower half of the cake gets frosting too. But how much frosting does it get? Well ideally, it would get the same amount as the top, from a layer of about the same thickness halfway down. If the layer is more than halfway down, that’s fine – you just include cake from both sides of the middle layer. But if the frosting layer is less than halfway down, you’re left with the same problem as before, only worse: a bite from the top half intersects two layers of frosting, while a bite from the bottom half gets none! In this case, you’re back to extreme measures like siphoning off frosting from other parts of the cake – but avoiding that is the whole point of putting an additional layer in there to start with! I can only imagine that cakes like that were invented by people who cram the entire height of the slice into their mouths at once, never taking time to consider the taste of the individual layers or the woes of people left to compensate for the cake makers’ lack of foresight or consideration.

Shame on them.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Catching Fire & Mockingjay: what it meant and how it should have ended

[Spoiler warning]

Against sound advice, I finished the Hunger Games books. Quality-wise, it was more of the same – very engaging, but with a lot of nastiness and unnecessary detail about uncladness. I didn’t find Catching Fire to be overly whiny, although I had already seen the movie (and been told about the third book), which may have made it easier to bear. I wasn’t really sure about some of the details at the end, like why they split up and how exactly Enobaria was in on things.

With the third book, I knew the ending basically, but I figured that reading it would clarify stuff. I actually was okay with the first half or two thirds, mostly. I mean, it wasn’t super exciting but it seemed to a least flow logically from the first. As things wound up, though, I think the main impression that I have is that I just don’t get it. The book, the story. What is it about?

It is most definitely not about a rebellion. Most of the war details are mentioned in It weirded me out how Katniss kept going insane and trying to resolve things with killing and suicide. And as for the whole “still in the games” mission to kill President Snow – absolutely nothing comes of that, as far as I can tell. If the author wanted to spend that much time on it, there should have been some kind of outcome other than having Katniss watch the end of the war from up close (and of course becoming even more immersed in watching people die and killing.) There seemed to be some kind of character development happening, and she does have some sort of breakthrough at the end. But I’m not sure what it was.

Here is my best guess though: Katniss hates the capitol and she loves her family and friends, but and sthe story moves on she is motivated more and more by simpler priorities. Staying alive is the priority for a while, and then not getting herself or her friends (mainly Peeta) tortured. In the end the priority is to kill President Snow, even though he’s not necessarily an important military target. In that state, she kills a civilian without thinking (although presumably she views the woman as a threat to her life, since she’s trying to call for soldiers.) And she’s very miserable at this point – all she can see in the world is the suffering she has contributed to. Gale is also caught up in this, and his involvement culminates with his battle preparations contributing to the death of Katniss’s sister. This, and the relief Katniss feels when she learns that Gale is gone and won’t come back, might be seen as a “revenge won’t fix things” motif. In contrast, Peeta’s willingness to sacrifice himself, plus his kind nature, are why Kantiss pick him in the end, and they are what drag her back from her depression to a place where she can participate in the world. That, along with Katniss’s project about recording the good things she remembers.

So I guess that’s what the story is supposed to be about – Katniss learning to cope with evil by focusing on good things. But man, it’s a depressing journey with not much to show for it other than her survival.

There was one bit at the end that was glossed over, though, that seemed very significant to me: the part where Katniss votes to hold one last Hunger Games with the Capitol leaders’ children. Sure, it’s presented as an alternative to wiping out all of the Capitol citizens, but clearly it’s not the only option, as evidenced by several dissenting votes. And right before she votes “yes”, Katniss thinks about how horrible it is that the rebels are bringing the games back. Apparently she casts her vote in desperation, effectively giving up on humanity. But still, why is she willing to participate? If it’s so awful, and if she felt so wronged, why would she agree to murder innocent children? Whatever the answers to these questions are supposed to be, they’re swallowed up in Katniss’s subsequent mental and emotional breakdown.

As a literary point, I think that was a mistake. If Katniss’s personal journey of depression and revenge really has led her to the place where she would support the Hunger Games, then the book should have ended with that. Specifically, I think a better ending would have been to show Snow’s granddaughter as she prepares for the games, ending just as she goes up through the tube and enters the battlefield. That was an intense moment in the first book, switching from preparation to the actual horror that had been looming for the whole book, and showing Katniss as someone who orchestrated this for others would have made the whole “revenge doesn’t help” point much better. Especially if you had heard Katniss’s voice announcing the start of the games or something. Oh well.