Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Somewhat Healthy Food Review: Veggie Straws

I've spent a lot of time reviewing food that is bad for you--mostly candy, of course. And there's nothing wrong with candy as long as you don't do what I do, which is namely eat candy as a separate meal each day.*

That said, I'm also not a fan of foods that are supposed to be healthy for you but are prepared in snack form. It's not that I don't get the point, but these things usually end up being either 1) not actually all that good for you (i.e., no fat, but full of sodium and calories) or 2) Not actually all that good (taking food that tasted bad but is healthy and rearranging the shape to make it look more appetizing even if it isn't all that much more appetizing). So I tend to look at such things with a grain of low-sodium salt substitute.

Now, this holy grail of tasty, healthy and snack-sized isn't impossible. Rice cakes manage to taste fine, and some of the whole wheat-style pretzels and crackers are pretty good. But such successes are far and few between. Suffice it to say that when I was given the opportunity to try Veggie Straws, I was not impressed.

We're actually going to look at two different brands, Sensible Portions and Snyder's of Hanover:

The first one I tried was the Sensible Portions brand. For some reason my wife had bought a huge bag of these at one of those warehouse chains. I was dubious at the purchase, since this is the sort of thing that gets opened once and then forgotten in the cupboard for six months. But the price was reasonable for what we got, so it wasn't a huge deal.

We didn't open it for a while, though. Each time I looked at it I couldn't possibly imagine it tasting good--it's compressed tomatoes, potatoes, and icky spinach. Even the description "lightly salted" made it sound unappealingly bland. So for months it sat, unopened on our counter.

One night, though, we broke down and decided to give it a try.

As far as snack foods go, they don't look so bad. I wasn't sure why they were hollow, except maybe for some strange engineering decision to be able to scoop up more dip. Oh no, they need a way to make it taste better--these are gonna be little bits of cardboard colored like a garden.

And, of course, they weren't.

These things are surprisingly good. They are very crisp, and they don't necessarily taste like vegetables--which may or may not be a good thing. I easily ate more than a sensible portion, and it was clearly my go-to snack for the next few weeks. These things were awesome.

Of course, there's a bit of a reality check--they are healthy, but the bag specifically states they are good in moderation. The name of the brand is Sensible Portions, for crying out loud. So just devouring the things like you would a Two-Pounder Kettle Cooked Jalapeno Crunchers is still going to be healthier, but isn't going to replace a full serving of real-life vegetables.

And--I won't lie--if you eat too many at once, you do kind of get tired of them quicker than you would a saltier or greasier for conventional option. It's like those baked potato chips--they're pretty good, but you have a hard limit as to when it simply becomes a chore. Given that these aren't meant to be consumed in industrial quantities, this isn't necessarily a bad thing.

In addition, none of the three flavors was really fundamentally different than the others. I wouldn't have minded a slight tomato taste to the tomato one (though the spinach one is probably best left alone.) They all kind of taste like potatoes. But all in all they taste great. In fact, during a recent gathering, someone brought a big bag of these, and it was kicked by the late afternoon.

The other Veggie Straw product is Snyder's. I happened to come across these a day or two after we bought our second huge bag of Sensible Portions snacks, and decided to give them a try.

It's the same thing--tomatoes, potatoes, and spinach all pressed into snack form. These are sticks, now straws, so aren't hollow, but otherwise are the same.

The Snyder veggie snacks are also quite good. I wouldn't say they are as good as the Sensible Portions brand, but I don't really know why. Because these snacks have the consistency more of a standard potato stick and seemed just a touch oilier, I wasn't as impressed. Taste-wise, they were pretty good, and actually may be better for someone who is more used to, say potato chips.

I was duly impressed with both brands. I'm not going to say that it's revolutionized the healthy snack industry, which is still dominated by crackers with wheat pressed on the top and pretzels with shaved almonds sticking to it. For someone who really isn't into healthy foods, I would genuinely suggest giving both of these a try--I was legitimately craving these over conventional snacks. If you can find a bag that isn't the size of the rations for the entire Canadian army, give them a try.

*No, I don't actually do this.Though some days it seems like it.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Board Game Review: Founding Fathers

The last game in my board game review series is the latest one released, Founding Fathers. Like Campaign Manager 2008 and 1960: The Making of the President, this was designed by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews. It was released in the summer of 2010 and is produced by Jolly Roger Games. Unlike the other games in the series (the two listed above and Twilight Struggle), this one actually requires multiple players--it plays with 3 to 5 people.

Founding Fathers (FF) is a simulation of the drafting of the Constitution. Each player takes the role of a Planner--well-known names like Alexander Hamilton and more obscure ones like William Paterson. While players can choose different planners, there isn't really a difference between them beyond their home state. Players will use delegates and influence markers to enact the plan they want and get as much credit for the framing of the Constitution as they can.

The board is an abstracted version of the convention hall. There is the Assembly Room, where most of the action takes place; this is where different articles of the constitution are voted either up or down. There is a debate track, where different planners can hold debates about different issues. And there is a Committee Room, which more or less acts like a loser's room. The board also has different sections for different markers.

Each player can hold a hand of up to three delegates. Each delegate has a home state, a faction bias, and a special ability. On your turn you may do one of four things: vote on the current article, hold a debate, discard cards from your hand to draw new ones, and use a card's special ability. A player then chooses from the current pool of delegates to fill their hand. (A player can only choose from a selected pool of delegates, called the caucus, but the state is the only information listed on the back of each card. That way, each player knows what state they are selecting but not the faction bias or special ability.) Once a player has filled their hand, the caucus itself is also filled up to three. If a planner card comes up, it automatically goes to its owner--so if Hamilton is drawn, it goes straight to the player who is playing as Hamilton even if it's not their turn.

An example of three delegate cards. James Madison, in the middle, is a Planner.

At the beginning of the game, four of the twelve articles are automatically decided. Each article is either for or against two different biases: Small State vs. Large State and Federalist vs. Anti-Federalist. There are four turns in a game, so each turn two articles are resolved. Each article is going to be part of the Constitution no matter what players do; basically, each player is simply trying to flip the faction bias in their favor.

Most of the game will involve players voting for or against the proposed article. Players can do this simply by placing any number of delegates (and an Influence marker) from the same state (even just one) and placing it on either "yes" or "no." There are two main restrictions: first, a delegate cannot vote against their bias. So a Federalist delegate can't vote against a Federalist article. They can only vote for it; however, they are free to vote either direction on a small vs. large state issue. Secondly, you can't place delegates from a state if that state has already voted unless you put down more delegates than are already there. So if there are two delegates from Virginia voting Nay, you must place at least three Virginia delegates down to override it to change that state's vote to Yea. If a majority of the states vote one way or the other, it is immediately resolved and the turn is over.

If players aren't voting on the article, they can try and improve their positioning on the debate. A player may discard any number of delegates with the same faction bias--regardless of state--and move their marker up that many on the debate track for that bias. At the end of the turn, the player with the highest value in each debate track gets a token for that bias; this grants a bonus at the end of the game.

Each delegate has an event associated with it. These vary wildly, from simple victory point bonuses to game-changing alterations in the rules, such as holding extra cards or preventing other events.

Finally, if you just don't have any good options, you can discard your cards to pick up new ones.

Each player is also given influence markers. A player starts out with three, and can pick up more by playing Planner cards as events (along with a few other events). Influence markers allow you to do more things. They allow you to participate in the debates and they allow you to vote. You are not restricted in your actions due to a lack of influence markers, but if you take an action and don't have an influence marker, you have to take one from somewhere else. This means if you've spend a few turns building up your small-state histrionics to a modestly impressive level, but you want to vote Nay on an article and have no Influence markers, you'll have to sacrifice the influence marker from the debates and add it to your vote. Having more markers allows you to get more credit for things on the board.

When the votes are cast, each player gains one point for each delegate that has an influence marker on it that voted on the winning side. Delegates with an appropriate bias faction get an extra point. So if you have two Delaware delegates voting Nay on a Large State article and you have an Influence marker on that delegation, you get two points from that state. If either (or both) of those delegates have a Small State bias, they get an extra point for each. However, if you've moved your Influence marker away to do something else, you get no points from that state! (Even though you don't score, the votes still count.) You score for each state you have an Influence marker on.

Any influence markers on delegations that failed go straight to the Committee Room.

If the article passed, it goes straight to the Constitution. If it failed, flip it (reversing its bias in the process) and add it to the Constitution.

Then, the Committee Room is resolved. This is easy: the player who currently has the most influence markers here gets to choose whether the article in the Committee room gets to keep its current bias or if gets flipped. That player then removes all of their Influence markers, taking one point for each, and places the article in the Constitution.

After both articles are resolved, players get their debate tokens (as described above). 

Two articles get resolved each turn: one in the Assembly Room and one in the Committee Room. After four rounds, all articles have been decided (eight for the four rounds, plus the four automatically resolved at the beginning of the game). The game ends. Players get a bonus based off of the debate track tokens they have collected as compared to the number of articles in the finished Constitution with that bias. The player with the most points wins.

Once players are familiar with the game, a four-player game takes perhaps an hour, maybe a little longer if the votes go back and forth a lot.

What I like about the game:
*It's fun! It's also very fast-paced. While there isn't much to do on a rival's turn, turns move pretty quick.
*The presentation of the game is wonderful. While the components look exactly as they should, all colonial and stuff, the instructions and each card is filled with real-life historical information. Not necessary, but it makes the game much more enjoyable.
*It is very well balanced, at least in the sense of what a player can do in a turn. While the voting in the Assembly Room is always going to be the most important, you never want to neglect the Debate Track, and you never want to pass up the opportunity to play a good event. You have to have your eyes on all parts of the board to play properly.
*While the Influence Marker mechanic seems clumsy at first, it also does a good job of forcing players to make hard decisions about what they are willing to sacrifice. It ends up being quite intuitive. While I wish there was a better way to gain markers--right now it's more or less random--it's not so bad as to be a huge issue.
*While the wide variety in the quality of events seems like it would be unbalancing, I don't really find that to be the case. Since most delegates are going to be spend on voting and debating anyway, you only play a select number of cards for events. Even then, no card is useless, so if you don't have may good options you can always do something.

What I don't like about the game:
*After playing the other three games in this series and their absolutely comprehensive theme-related gameplay, FF seems oddly mechanical. Despite the fact that the board presentation and cards have plenty of historical flavor and real-life biographies, I still feel like I'm simply trying to maximize points. I'm not sure why this is.
*For a game about voting, there's very little deal-making. No one can really offer another player anything beyond promises to vote, but there isn't much incentive to do so. 
*Some parts of the game seem oddly unsatisfying. It seems like the Committee Room could have been infused with an additional layer of strategic decision-making, but instead is more or less automatically determined.  I know there is a certain level of complexity that must be sacrificed, but it just seems like a game like this could have used it.
*One delegate--George Washington--is pretty rough. His special ability effectively ends the turn immediately. While there are a few cards to counter it and it's not without its drawbacks, it still feels like it gives a huge advantage to the player who draws him. This card probably needs to be reworked. 
*For all of the emphasis on faction bias in the game, it has very little impact on a player's final score. Aside from the debate tokens, whether an article ends up being Federalist or Anti-Federalist doesn't matter; it just matters that you're on the winning side. And even the debate tokens aren't all that important; the difference between the first-place and last-place bias is three points. While many games are close and those three points might be crucial, it still seems like a lot of work for little benefit.

The drawbacks to the game, however, are dryly mechanical enough that they don't detract this from being a good game. I find this to be the weakest game of the series, but that doesn't mean it's a bad game. In fact, I think this is probably the best game to purchase first. It has more depth than CM08. I would peg it to be about equal in complexity as 1960, but slightly easier to play; unlike 1960, you don't really need to know all of the special abilities to play a good game. My grade: B-.

I'll compare and contrast the four games in this series in a later post.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

The Downfall of Western Civilization, Part 1

A few weeks ago I was walking through Target and I noticed this:

It's supposed to be a small picture to hang, presumably in a young boy's bedroom.

However, I find that there is a major problem with this. It's wholly inaccurate. The picture suggests that a  "Touchdown" was just accomplished.

The more important part, though, is that the picture is not a touchdown. It's either a field goal or an extra point, which is technically known as a PAT--point after touchdown. The former, of course, is outrageously wrong. Even someone talented in semantics might claim that the extra point is, indeed part of the touchdown. I believe that it is incorrect--it's the point after touchdown, after all, and two-point conversions are rarely considered touchdowns. Even then, it's clear in any level of football that the touchdown--the most important and exciting part of the game, the sort of thing people make small pictures of to use as decorations--is not what is depicted on this item.

In any case, this could potentially cause our youngsters to be confused by the rules of football. They will doubt that anything they have been told in their childhood is true, given the fact that someone went through the trouble of painting the depiction of a football going through the uprights, realizing that having a sign that says "Your Team Couldn't Make It More Than Halfway Down The Field So They Have To Settle For Three Points With A Field Goal" is kind of lame, and just slapped "Touchdown!" instead and hoped that no one noticed while they cashed checks at the bank. This could easily lead to a decrease in confidence in our democracy and erode the social mores that have developed for centuries. A congressional investigation committee is warranted in this case, I think.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Candy Review: Thingamajig

As mentioned in one of my previous candy reviews, the major confection companies like to take an existing candy bar, add a new twist to it, and sell it as a new variation. This is a tried and true formula; an unknown candy bar has little chance of breaking the checkout lane impulse shelf, but a white chocolate Kit Kat or a coffee-flavored Snickers bar at least gets people's attention.

And so it is with Hershey's Thingamajig, a reversal of the existing classic Whatchamacallit.

The cat who insisted on getting in my way is not included.

What makes the Thingamajig different than most variations is that it is more or less a reversal of its father. While the original Whatchamacallit has peanut crisp and caramel, the Thingamajig has chocolate crisp and peanut butter. Both are covered in chocolate.

To do a proper review, I wanted to get both a Whatchamacallit and a Thingamajig and do a compare and contrast. Alas, when I showed up at the store, the only Whatchamacallits available were king size. 

King size candy bars are why the terrorists hate us. But they shouldn't because polls indicate that terrorists prefer caramel over nougat 5 to 1. Hearts and minds, people.

So to make this all scientific and stuff, I was forced to buy two Thingamajigs to compensate.

You know, for science.

I may be a bit biased, because as long-time readers know, I would marry peanut butter if I were legally allowed to while caramel is the man-sauce of the devil. Whatchamacallits aren't so bad--the caramel is actually pretty light--but when you add cocoa crisps to peanut butter, it's going to be hard to beat. 

Not since the riches of King Solomon's mines have I seen such a wondrous delight.

My decision: Thingamajigs may not be my default candy bar of choice, but it's very, very close. It's commonly available at department stores, so it should be cheap and easy to find. If you are a peanut butter fan it would be worth it to give it a try.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Back in Black

Today is Black Friday, the day that many stores open up very early (or, depending on your view, very late) to offer awesome deals for various consumer items.

Back in my childhood, it was assumed that the day after Thanksgiving was the biggest shopping day of the year--it isn't, of course, but the merchandisers have certainly mastered the media covering the event. And that is what it is--an event, a huge marketing effort to get people to wait outside in the freezing winds at two in the morning for half a day to save thirty bucks on a coffee machine.

The crank in me just seems this as another way that corporations jerk us around. And there's a practical side to my view--the chances that these items at their discounted prices will still be available two weeks from now is pretty high. And half of this stuff is clearly available at very similar prices online. From pretty much every standpoint--economic, financial, pragmatic--Black Friday shouldn't exist.

But then I realized something--people actually like doing this. I've spoken with several people--OK, let's be honest--women, and they all love doing this. They love looking over the fliers, mapping out routes, coordinating efforts with other people, finding good deals for people several degrees from their normal gift-giving range. There is a certain rush that people get racing for deals, competing with other shoppers, surviving the slight risk of being injured, and looking at their carts with satisfaction at their accomplishments. It's difficult because people want it to be difficult

Part of me wants to throw up my hands, decrying the fact that the holidays have been reduced to a goods-grabbing free-for-all. But you know what? Some people like burning gasoline riding motorcycles on the highway with no destination in mind. Some people like to spend good American money on movies that were deliberately made to suck. And I like spending half a Benjamin pushing little colored blocks around on some Chinese-printed cardboard. Let them be. To each their own. 

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day Special

A few quick Thanksgiving thoughts on this holiday:
  • Adam Sandler's "The Thanksgiving Song" has not held up well. I heard it today and was duly unimpressed.
  • In retrospect, perhaps having the Detroit Lions playing every year on Thanksgiving was a poor decision.
  • Someday I want to pull this off. But I know I'm far too lazy and unoriginal.
  • Every year on Thanksgiving I wait to listen to "Alice's Restaurant." If you've never heard it, it's a twenty-plus minute long song by folk singer Arlo Guthrie. It's a right proper protest song that happens to take place (initially) on Thanksgiving, so many classic rock stations play it on this day. It serves its purpose, since 1) it's twenty minutes long, so normally doesn't get much (if any) airtime, and 2) lets the poor DJ who has to work on Thanksgiving a nice good-sized snooze.
  • I never, ever want to hear anyone tell be again that 1) Tryptophan causes you to be sleepy, or 2) Tryptophan does not cause you to be sleepy. I get it.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Thanksgiving Eve

For some reason Thanksgiving Eve is one of the biggest party days of the year--often rivaling regular candidates such as New Years and St. Patrick's Day. Why is that? It's not like the day has any particular significance.

I posit several reasons:

1) Pretty much every school lets out for a four-day weekend, five-day if you are in a region that celebrates the first day of buck as a holiday.*
2) There is no reason to get up early unless you are involved in food preparation. Even then, many families don't eat until late afternoon.
3) Even if you somehow are hung over, you're going to spend most of the day asleep in front of the television anyway, so no one will be the wiser.
4) There really isn't any religious or hard-set traditions that prevent you from letting loose. Sort of like how you probably don't get rip-roaring drunk on Christmas. This is a tenuous assumption at best.

Anyway, those are the best reasons I can think of. 

*This is not a joke.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Static and Noise

Black Friday: is coming up. I plan on staying home. I've never been much of a holiday shopper--I will usually go out once during the year to walk a mall just to see if there's anything new and exciting that I've missed, but it's usually just more trouble than it's worth. (Also, the fact that I can't go to the grocery store and back in an hour when I'm at work the first week of December just kind of horks me off. It's a grocery store! Not a Christmas Food Store!) And while I might keep my eye out for specific deals, I ain't getting up at three in the morning. It's too damn cold and I'm too damn lazy. Hopefully I'll get to spend the weekend playing board games and watching movies with my wife.

Don't Grope Me, Bro: I've been more or less silent about the entire TSA/body search issue because I more or less don't know what to think about it. On the one hand, I hate the airline industry; I think it is a broken system that no one is even attempting to fix. The government just wants to make sure it puts on a good security theater show and doesn't really care about delays or profits. The airports are mismanaged, clumsy quasi-public monstrosities that can't seem to get anything right. And the airlines are trying an endless and thankless task of juggling stupid government mandates, poor customer service, labor issues, airport interference, weather, and profits all at the same time. My civil libertarian heart also palpitates at the invasive tactics--whether it be getting my nuts massaged by some rent-a-cop dropout or letting the dick-measuring device radiate my body. Of course, I also know that there isn't an easy solution for security, since materials can be smuggled onboard in any number of new and creative ways--such as shoe bombs and explosives hidden in printers. The only solution--which if the population knew about would probably not accept--is a tacit admission of profiling (no more fondling grandmas and six year olds, but looking pretty close if your name has lots of A's, H's, and syllables) and a certain level of tolerance for, um, airline deaths by terrorism. If given these options, most people would probably put up with the new policies. If you frame the question as "Would you be willing to have one terrorist attack per decade but not have to put up with searches?" most people would pick C) Please Don't Make Me Answer That.

Maximum Verbosity: While researching (i.e., randomly clicking on web sites) my post yesterday, I found out that someone did a documentary about Infocom called "Get Lamp." I cannot wait to see this; unfortunately, right now, it appears to be a small-scare independent effort with little access to view it (and a rather high price to purchase outright). I presume it will show up on Netflix or something similar eventually, but it sounds fascinating. You have a pretty obscure corner of the computing world and a dramatic tale of what happened to the company (there were a lot of bad business decisions, corporate takeovers, etc.) Plus I'm always fascinated by these early-year software stories, about how small inside jokes become massive pop culture phenomena. One of the most interesting books I have ever read is The Ultimate History of Video Games by Steven Kent. Don't let the garish cover of the book fool you: it's an extensively researched book about the beginnings of the video game industry, specifically Atari. As with most burgeoning industries, in retrospect one wonders how the entire workforce didn't end up in prison or dead.

Monday, November 22, 2010

You Are Likely To Be Eaten By A Grue

For those of us old enough to remember, there was a time in which video games didn't have *urp* graphics.

"WHAT!!" I can hear all of your teenagers and college kinds dropping your X Box controllers and pausing your Halo game. "That's not a GAME!"

 This was once the future of gaming.

Well, once upon a time it was. Back in the day, computer processors didn't have the capacity to generate a significant amount of graphics--which is why so many games like Pac-Man and Donkey Kong had only two or three static screens. Even when Apple computers and Commodore 64s became commonplace as household computers, there were severe limitations.

There was also a fairly large genre of games called "Adventure Games." They involved complex story lines, cerebral-heavy gameplay, and--do to its story-telling nature--plenty of capacity for sequels. Sierra and LucasArts were two of the more prominent players in the adventure game market, producing such classics as King's Quest and the Secret of Monkey Island. (The adventure game today is more or less dead--with limited replayability, and computer processing times so high as to make the slow-paced adventure game obsolete, there are few titles that draw people in. Current games such as Fallout 3 and Red Dead Redemption kind of fit into this mold. They have extended plots and dialogue, but there is much less puzzle solving and much more violence. It's probably as close to the genre as we are ever going to get.)

Well, adventure games were popular from the late 70's on, being one of the first styles of gaming available. But by their nature adventure games had to be large in scope--you don't feel like you are progressing if you just stay in the same six locations. The result was to make these adventure games almost completely text-based.

It may seem odd now, but back then it was natural: the game would write a description of your location ("You are in a dark room. Light shines in through a crack to your west, and you smell sulfur from below...") You were then given a command prompt, where you typed in your action ("Go north" or "Pick up axe"). The game would then respond with the result ("The dice are added to your inventory") and you could then continue. As the genre progressed and programming languages became more sophisticated, these parsers could evaluate increasingly complicated actions ("Pick up stone and throw it to the east then kick the gnome").

While other companies dabbled in it, the undisputed king of the text-based adventure game was a company called Infocom. They produced around thirty-plus text games in the 80's. They had done remarkably well; it was a very efficient system, and once the language was constructed only minor tweaks needed to be made each year.

And they were rather thrilling little games. There's an element of charm to it. It was quite literally like playing a novel--you used your imagination as you read what was happening. Of course, it was easier when your actions actually were described back to you, but much like conventional novels everyone had their own idea of what each character was like.

Of course, this couldn't last. Sierra in particular developed a quite extensive graphical game engine and used to to churn out a multitude of series: King's Quest, Space Quest, Police Quest, Quest for Glory, other stand-alone titles. While reading a game was fun, actually watching an adventure was both fun and novel, and the text-based adventure died a pretty quick and quiet death. (Infocom also made some bad business decisions that probably killed it off sooner rather than later, but that is probably for the best.)

Sure, a lot of it is nostalgia, and I sound like one of those ancient English teachers who keeps telling you books are better than movies. But there is something compelling about participating in a novel rather than just reading it.

All of this is a lot to simply introduce this: all of the Infocom titles--you know, the ones people used to pay forty bucks for at the book store because game stores hadn't been invented yet--are available free to play here. There are a few missing due to copyright issues, but over 95% are there. Most people can't tolerate more than a few minutes worth of play, but it's certainly worth a look.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

They See Me Trollin'

So I made the ever-regrettable mistake of getting pulled into a particularly nasty forum "discussion" last night. I didn't participate--I just watched from the sidelines. I'm fascinated by these things much like people rubberneck past violent car wrecks--it's a shame, you know, but the least they could do is show some blood.

I rarely participate, except when it comes to esoteric things like the negative income tax or the causes of inflation, because they rarely ever actually become nasty.

There's always been a few good solid theories as to why internet discussions can degenerate so quickly, and it makes sense: when you can post anonymously you can pretty much say whatever you want; and when there are no repercussions, who cares? It's not like not talking to your forum friends for the rest of your life is going to cause a major upheaval in your well-being. There is absolutely no incentive to 1) not be a prick; 2) craft your arguments better; or 3) participate without knowing all of the details. So it's not really a surprise.

Of course, I think there is another cause at work, and it can be applied more than just to internet forums: we all see the world through our own lenses, and it's difficult to adjust to see others. This is particularly true with the Internet, as you're just as likely to run into a Taiwanese or German as you are some guy two states over.

This isn't a new theory, nor it is particularly revolutionary. But so very few individuals have the ability to recognize it (myself included) that when presented often surprises people and keeps them in check.

I was discussing something the other week online. I don't remember the details, but it was something like "I can't believe state X has a 9% sales tax! They just want to take your money and spend, spend, spend!" I then pointed out that while they do, in fact, have a 9% sales tax, they also have no state property tax. The other individual had never lived in a world without property tax, so the thought never crossed his mind, even though it was a perfectly reasonable situation. 

It's not really surprising that the main focus of these discussions is religion and politics, but I've always been surprised at the amount of venom spewed over a third topic: computer and gaming platforms. So help you if you claim the X Box is better than the Playstation, or even suggest to a Mac user that the PC has its uses. It can get...bad.

Of course, let's not get too relativistic, here. There are certain indisputable facets of an argument that can be held true regardless of the situation, and I'm not suggesting that people throw out their long-held beliefs just because some dude in Prague never heard of zoning laws. But if you were having an argument face-to-face, you would most likely 1) not engage in a debate if you weren't more or less certain of how the argument was going to be framed, and 2) probably know about 90% of your participant's background and information, so you can make some fairly legitimate assumptions. On the internet, neither of these things apply. Adjusting the emphasis of your arguments--not necessarily the content--is valid when you aren't certain of the situation everyone else is in.

Here is another example: a few years ago I read about an American who went to Europe and asked several residents how many executions the United States participated in each year. The results pretty much indicated they assumed there were dozens per week. When told that it was more like two dozen a year, they absolutely refused to believe it. They've lived in a world that has no death penalty, and so don't know the process or frequency or reasoning, and have been told repeatedly that America does it all the time. Their assumption is that the Yanks chow through convicts like an assembly line, not realizing that--recent DNA evidence to the contrary--the process is quite judicial and time-consuming (and, if it weren't for Texas, pretty rare). But to most Europeans, they have been told otherwise and, mixed with erroneous assumptions, have formed a reasonably hard-core belief that is remarkably wrong.

I realize this pretty much sounds like a "just can't we all get along?" type of position, but I feel differently. It's a call to become more educated before you debate--not about your own convictions, but the reasons why your opponent may differ. Granted, the nature of the internet is not going to allow you to do that--you have no idea the background of the people participating, and there are usually dozens of differing backgrounds from around the world. But if you're looking to have a healthy debate instead of standing atop the mountain of slayed carcasses proclaiming that you were, in face, right all along, it's worth learning just as much about your opponents as your own convictions.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

The Luck of the Draw [Board Game Design]

Some people love slot machines. They love sliding their coin in the slot, watching the wheels spin and the machine ding out the results. Some people love chess. They love looking at the board, enjoying the satisfaction of besting their opponent based solely on skill. For board game enthusiasts, the dirty middle is the answer.

Luck has always been the bane of board gamers, at least in America. The most popular board games have always been largely luck-dependent. Monopoly, Candyland, Chutes and Ladders, Risk, Uno, Sorry!, The Game Of Life--all of these games depend significantly on luck. If the dice don't go your way or you don't draw the right cards, it doesn't matter how well you play--you're just plain not going to win. Modern board games try to avoid this. A better gaming experience--so it goes--is when players have control of their destinies on the board.

Modern board game designers try and reduce the amount of luck as much as possible. This trend--which appears to be abating--probably reached its pinnacle with Puerto Rico, where the only luck was in the appearance of various foods for choosing. Other than that, each player had the same opportunities, at least based on their previous transactions.

Of course, having no luck at all can also be a problem. Luckless games tend to be monotonous and repetitive. Aside from chess and go--and possible games like Diplomacy and the GIPF project, which have centuries of history to back them up, successful luckless games don't come around very often. To create a genuinely decent luckless game, there can't be a dominant strategy that works every time--something very hard to pull off and still have the game have no luck and still be fun.

So most designer games try to minimize luck, and even American-style and war games attempt to curb the luck factor. Can luck be both an enhancement to a game without also breaking it?

There are a few theories. Now, before we go much further, I know full well that there are plenty of philosophical ideas about what constitutes luck, with rival theories landing on either 1) Everything is luck and 2) Nothing is luck. Both are wrong, and while I have my opinion, I am more or less going to keep this restricted to just standard definitions of luck.

The Law of Averages: When you are rolling dice and/or drawing cards, the results are important...but each individual incidence becomes less important the more of them there are. If you roll three sixes in Risk, it sucks--but the chances of you rolling sixes each and every time you attack are infinitesimally small. (And, no, the Brazil-to-West Africa route is not rigged.) Getting bad luck isn't so bad when you know you are going to have plenty of opportunities to make up for it. Now, each incidence of luck can be important--that roll to defend a worthless territory went your way, but the crucial game-winning roll got flubbed--but on average it won't. This, to some, is a mark of good balance. Overall, all players will average the same results, so the game is balanced in that regard; however, since individual rolls will occasionally have big impacts, there is still a level of risk involved. 

The Long-Term Suspense Factor: If a game more or less came down to both players rolling one die and the higher player wins, no one would play it. If there are a hundred rolls, it's still a bad game, but at least there is an element of suspense--even though roll 100 has the same weight as roll 1. Likewise, in a game of 1960, it often comes down to a handful of swing states to determine who wins, and this is chosen by pulling a few cubes out of a bag. If they're red, hello Tricky Dick; if they're blue, welcome to Camelot. Some people argue that the entire game comes down to essentially a coin flip. This is looking at it the wrong way; every single choice you made got you to that point at the end of the game. How you played determined whether you were fighting over California and Texas or whether it was Maine and South Dakota, and whether you both had five cubes in the bag or you had two while they had eight. While luck is the determining factor, players are framing the entire situation in their favor.

Risk Management: This is a valid way of taking essentially complete luck-based mechanics and converting them into strategic decisions. Poker is the most well-known of these; players manage their hand, which is drawn completely by luck, and then uses bets and/or draws to "manage" it. Many card-driven wargames also use this. If you are dealt an awful hand, use the rules of the game to minimize the damage, and good hands can be made great with proper card play.

Beginner's Luck: Some games randomize the starting positions, but everything else is luckless. This forces the game to be fresh each time you play, but still adheres to the purity of fairness. Making sure the initial setup is balanced takes some skill, however.

Universality: This is when there is luck in a game, but it's theoretically available to everyone. The Settlers of Catan uses this; if a 5 is rolled, for example, each player with a building next to a 5 gets a benefit. While players aren't equally affected, there is equality of opportunity--anyone can build next to a 5, if they choose to. Event cards often have the same effect.

Other Players: This is where the philosophers start getting into it with one another. The actions of other players is sometimes considered "luck." I, personally do not; each other player is making a conscious decision, and this is not luck, even if that player makes their decision based on a coin flip. However, the outcome can often seem the same--you could be hit by three sides at once, for example, or nothing. Of course, I believe that managing the other players within the rules of the game is part of the game, and not some completely random element. But the similarities are close enough that I can see using the same tactics against other players you are uncertain of the results for as, say, a set of dice.

Of course, with all of these ways to make luck not as much luck, what is good for a board game design?  I tend to enjoy games where outcomes are uncertain, but as a player I can define what my results are going to be--for example, in Risk, the luck in battles is always going to be the same odds, but you have the option to determine when and where to attack, and for how long. Sometimes designing this is easy, and sometimes it is not. A skillful designer will be able to effectively reach that balance.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Victoria's Secret? Keep Refrigerated After Use

What is weirder than seeing a Victoria's Secret bag in your workplace refrigerator?

How about two?

Must have been some lunch. Maybe there was a Victoria's Secret buffet today that I didn't know about.

Actually, I would pay good money to go to that.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Google ABCs

I decided to run a small-e experiment this evening, which did not, alas, did not go as planned. 

Every once in a while I will see one of those "autocomplete" pictures on the internet. Basically, people will start to type in a normal-sounding phrase, like "I would like to..." and Google will try to guess what you are looking for. (See here for some examples.) For my part, I was going to create the Google ABC's. I was going to type in the letters of the alphabet and make a list of the most popular word or phrase for each letter.

Poor Google. The rhesus monkey of the internet.

It...sort of worked. There were two problems. First, I had forgotten that it localized the searches, so it's displaying what people in my area (Western PA) are looking for. This meant a lot of local radio stations and businesses popped up. However, it only made a difference in two or three letters, but otherwise I discarded all obviously local results. The second thing: it's boring. It's just a list of the most popular web sites and the most popular chain stores. For some reason I was expecting it to be all "Dog on Computer Pron" and "UFO Landing During Filming Of Faces of Death XI." Stupid internet. Anyway, let's take a look:

Best Buy
J.C. Penney
Rate My Professor
X Box
Zip Codes

No real surprises here, with the possible exception of Rate My Professor for R. I'm thinking this may also be localized--Pittsburgh has a top of colleges and universities built from dirty steel money--but the runners up aren't very popular, either. Can't Fail Business Plan: Create a chain store that starts with the letter R to corner the market!

Speaking of runners-up, let's look at the second most popular search. Again, local entries were deleted:

Bank of America
Dancing With The Stars
Fox News
Google Maps
Jersey Shore
K Mart
Olive Garden
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Reverse Phone Lookup
Victoria's Secret
Wal Mart
XM Radio

A few notes, here: P was hopelessly compromised. Pretty much all of them had to do with Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Pirates, Penguins, etc. I had to hunt and peck for Pandora.

Weather beat out Wal Mart. And more people are interested in looking up synonyms than in Ticketmaster.

Mad props for Jackie Evancho, local America's Got Talent and operatic phenom. She beat out Jersey Shore.

AOL? Limewire? MSN? J.C. Penney? What is this, 1999?

It says something about the Internet Age. I was fully expecting the normal weirdo Scrabble tiles of X, Q, and Z to be scraping some pretty obscure stuff from the bottom, but when everyone is branding stuff like it's a Dr. Seuss animal, the results were remarkably natural.

Anyway, this wasn't nearly as exciting as I thought it was going to be, but there it is. My social experimentation quota has been met for the month.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Stairway to Heaven

We have trouble in our house.


SOMEONE just learned how to climb up our steps.

My dog, Dexter, has always kind of avoided the steps to our upstairs. Which is probably a good thing, because while the first floor of our house is reasonably dog-proofed, the upstairs is most definitely not. And we have a dog that while he does not chew on furniture or shoes or any of the normal things that puppies chew on, he does like to chew on cloth. As in clothes. And blankets. All of these things of which are kept upstairs.

This is new. He was OK with going down stairs, and we figured that would be fine; as long as we knew he wasn't going up, we could control him going down. However, for whatever reason, tonight he decided to give it the ole dachshund try. I let him out of his crate after his dinner to run around a bit, and realized that I had forgotten my drink upstairs. So I walk up to the bedroom and look behind me and he's there, following me with this happy-dog glazed look on his face, like he just encountered the equivalent of canine Valhalla. And he decided that he wanted to immediately hide under the bed; it took a bribe of a bone-shaped biscuit to get him to come out and go back down the stairs. I strongly suspect that was his goal all along.

Well, now that he realized he could do it, he wanted to do it ALL NIGHT LONG. He chased the cat up there, which is funny, because Nora normally taunts the dog, then hoofs it up the steps knowing that he can't follow. She became visibly cross when--whoops!--he went after her and got halfway up the steps before we caught him. And then he decided to just kind of randomly sneak up there any chance he got.

Thankfully, I think he wore himself out; he's been quiet for a while now. He's also getting to be a bit of a mouthy dog, so the barkless evening is relaxing, even if it has been replaced with naughty dog sneaking up to the bathroom.

If you want to know why I'm being such a brat, this is exhibit A.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Kicking the Kicker

This post may be of little interest to those outside of western PA, but the kicker for the Pittsburgh Steelers, Jeff Reed, was cut today. I'm not sure how I feel about that.

First off, some background: Reed has been a kicker for nine years, all with the Steelers. Over this past summer he was making some noise about not being able to come to terms with the Steelers organization over a long-term contract. The Steelers have a policy of more or less stopping all negotiations once training camp starts, so he was understandably bitter, and the Steelers tagged him as a franchise player. (For those that don't know, each team can tag one player as a franchise player, where he can't negotiate with other teams but, as compensation, gets paid the average of the top five players in his position.)

Enter the season. Reed comes in being one of the top 10 most accurate kickers in NFL history. He does very, very well at Heinz field, which is a notoriously iffy place to kick--too much wind from the river, no turf, etc. Against that, he's had some off-field issues--mostly stupid stuff, but a drunken standoff with a cop on the South Side being the most serious--but not enough to get on the front pages too often. So Reed has a reason to want to stay in Pittsburgh, and Pittsburgh has a reason to keep Reed. But they just can't come to terms. This is hardly a unique situation in the NFL.

Reed then proceeds to have an incredibly awful season. His stats are terrible, he loses the first game against Baltimore with two flubbed but easy kicks, and--finally--misses a gimme 26-yard field goal against the Patriots. This is all bad enough, but after the Pats game he then goes on record that while he isn't going to blame anyone but himself, he's going to blame the field, the weather, the management, the other players, and--worst of all--the fans.

That was Sunday. Today, he is no longer a Pittsburgh Steeler.

And I don't know what to think. On the one hand, I think Reed is a scapegoat--the Steelers have been good but sloppy this season. Yeah, they are 6-3, and everyone has made mistakes, but I think cutting Reed is simply some venting of frustration. And you can't really criticize him for his off-field behavior--if you're going to cut Ben Roethlisberger the biggest amount of slack anyone should ever be given, you can't say too much about punching towel dispensers and posting pictures of your junk online. And sending a message about contract negotiations the year before a potential lockout just seems heavy-handed and unproductive.

But...the post-game comments Reed made were nearly unforgivable. If he was having an awesome year and locked into a hefty contract, I think he would have been given a pass. But he was already on thin ice for about five other reasons, and I think that is what finally sunk him. I also think there is a business decision involved; he is a kicker, and while having an awesome kicker is important, there is a reason they don't get paid $100 million contracts. They are on the field for mere minutes of the entire game. The difference between the best kicker and the worst is significant but not insurmountable. And with the money they save from Reed, they can put towards a new offensive line or fixing any number of other holes in their roster.

I think it was a mistake to cut Reed, but I understand why. Reed should have kept his mouth shut both before the season and now. It's cost him a pretty sweet tenure with a good team that gave him more chances than he deserved.

I'm sorry about writing so much about football, by the way. I honestly don't know enough about football to warrant the amount of time I spend writing about it. I also commit the same sins I rail against; I hate sports radio and talk, where so-called experts blather endlessly about the blatantly obvious, and spend way too much time discussing useless statistics to make themselves feel better about how they were cut from the equipment squad in eight grade. Then again, just because I'm a hypocrite doesn't mean I'm wrong.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Candy Review: Peanut Butter, Triple Chocolate, and Java Twix

Over the past few months, I have accumulated a variety of new flavors of Twix candy bars. It isn't unusual for a candy manufacturer to release a solid, best-selling candy bar with various different ingredients, and, of course, Twix is no different. In this review, we are going to look at Peanut Butter Twix, Triple Chocolate Twix, and Java Twix.

Silly wabbit, Twix are for kids!

I'm not going to lie to you: I bought the PB Twix for this review because I had it like two years ago and it's the greatest Twix candy bar ever. I'm not a huge fan of caramel, so replacing that demon syrup with peanut butter is as great if not better innovation than the steam engine and indoor plumbing combined. And--get this--they even replaced the normal awesome cookie with an even awesomer chocolate cookie. This was an unnecessary but surely welcome development. It is peanut butter slathered on top of chocolate cookie, dipped in chocolate. Also: no calories.

That last part may or may not be a lie, but if you are a true American, you will not care.

Of course, to be fair, it's hard to screw up peanut butter. So we'll move to the next one, Triple Chocolate. I actually don't see this one around much; I happened to find it at a local independent market. The problem is--I can't quite figure out why it's called Triple Chocolate. As far as I can tell, it is a regular Twix with a chocolate cookie instead of a regular one. I count two, not three. It's not bad, but the caramel taste the same as normal to me. Perhaps I'm missing something, or there is some secret hidden layer of chocolate I'm not tasting. It's not bad, though. 
The third layer of chocolate-covered chocolate chips is hidden right beneath that middle class tax cut.

The last one is the Java Twix. I have to admit I wasn't a fan of this one, which is odd because I do likes me some coffee-flavored candy. It really doesn't taste like coffee--it tastes like the normal chocoalte, caramel, and cookie with a slight coffee aftertaste. Almost like that day-old mug that's still sitting on your desk and smells faintly of yesterday's morning blend--it tastes like that. The problem is that it's not particularly subtle, either--it's just an odd combination. I'll eat these on occasion but I wouldn't go out of my way to buy any.

Perhaps if they sold it in a Styrofoam cup and charged five bucks for it people would go crazy over it.

Of course, the regular old Twix is always a favorite; I'd probably just as soon eat the original than any of these. That doesn't count the PB Twix, though--without caramel, it's almost a completely different type of candy bar.  It doesn't help when you try to cram three of these in your mouth all in one sitting; my kitchen table looked like a battlefield. The world's greatest, sweetest, chocolatiest battlefield.

I'm...I'm just gonna blame this one on the dog.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Football Reform

We are roughly at the halfway point in the NFL season, and it certainly has been a bit...different. Sure, there are always stories every season--usually involving Brett Favre or Al Davis--but this year, there's the crackdown on defensive hits and the impending lockout. Basically everything is viewed through the lens of the strike; complaints by players can be seen as obvious positioning, while owners and Roger Goodell craft their reactions as talking points for negotiations.

Against this backdrop, I've actually seen a lot of proposals that will more or less change the fundamentals of football. I've already advocated a massive expansion in teams, but many sports writers have also advocated sweeping changes, from Paul Daugherty on Sports Illustrated to the folks over at Slate.

I'm not convinced that football really needs changing, but I'm always a tinkerer with rules, and if it makes the game better, why not at least let the proposals float and kind of slosh around until we see where it lands? Here are some of the more popular reforms--most pulled from other forms of football--plus some of my own:

1. Ban Punting. This is Daugherty's position in that link above, and I'm sympathetic. Statistically, many, many more fourth downs could be made if teams just went for it; but for some reason coaches are reluctant to take the chance except under remarkably strict conditions. To me, the trade-off of giving the other team advantageous field position is worth the extra try. By banning punting you force teams to manage their strategy much better and make for a much more exciting game.

2. Discard the extra point. C'mon. PATs are so easy and so very rarely make any sort of difference at all, why bother? The handful of times a season that an extra point is missed just makes it kind of worthless. the Daugherty column advocates moving the kicker back about ten yards to make it not so much of a sure thing; I'm happy with that. Personally, I would force two-point conversions after each touchdown, which would probably lead to a lot more 6 point touchdowns than 8, which I don't necessarily see as a bad thing. Or--the best of both worlds--just let the team choose as it does now. Either move back 10 or 15 yards for one point or go for two.

3. Ironman rules: taken from the old Arena Football rules, a player, once on the field, can't be substituted back in for a specified time, usually the quarter. This would force players to be good at both offense and defense. I'm afraid in today's specialized professional NFL this would be too devastating, but I think having more rigid substitution rules would force players to be more creative.

4. Four points for long field goals. Adopted by NFL Europa, a field goal longer than a certain length---50 yards, usually--is worth one extra point. I don't know if I care for this, since I sort of like the weight the current scoring reflects (two FG do not quite equal a touchdown + extra point). But it would encourage a little extra effort and make field goals more interesting.

5. Overtime. It still seems clunky. There are several proposals out there, and I'm not sure which one I like. Probably the cleanest is that both teams get one possession, and field goals less than 50 yards don't count. Or play the full 15 minutes.

6. A general reform of the rules. I understand that the evolution of gridiron football as a game has more or less necessitated a rulebook full of minutia. I think it's time to take a machete to it, arbitrage the rules down, and kind of let things mellow out. There just seems to be too many rules where it would be easier to simply have one rule to cover everything. You may miss some otherwise obvious calls, but the uncertainty of fans and players makes everyone argumentative and cautious. Why have the tuck rule? Why have this checklist of fragile conditions to determine whether a quarterback fumbled or had an incomplete pass? Why have all of these "zones" of targets of when, where, and at what angle players can make contact? I understand the reasoning for each of these rules, but there is a certain point where they actually make things worse, as refs and coaches have more points of order to argue about. Stripping down the rules may make certain plays unfair or exploitable, but in today's NFL, there are six or seven points for each rule that are debatable, and I can't imagine that being a better situation.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Go Directly To Jail

Monopoly is widely regarded as one of the most popular board games of all time. Everyone knows it; it's seen in promotions for fast food contests, it pervades our popular culture, and it's spawned a remarkable number of international versions and domestic variants. It's also a pretty bad game.

It might seem odd to knock a game that sells more units than any other board game in the world each year, but the fact is that it's a pretty awful way to spend your time. Sure, the first twenty minutes are fun as people scramble to buy up properties, but after that it's more or less a long, lonely drag until everyone but some chump who has all the Green properties wins at like three o'clock in the morning. Let's face it--most games of Monopoly don't reach its proper conclusion. Everyone is too grumpy and tired to care.
 Do not pass Go. Just...don't.

So what is wrong with Monopoly? Not to sound like an elitist prick--even though I am--it's just that board game evolution has passed it by. Looking at the modern generation of board games, and you can see why things are different now.
  • Roll and move is an outdated concept. Sure, you see it in a lot of the board games you played growing up, like Sorry! and Clue, but it's just not very fun or effective, and there are better methods to control player decision-making. In order to be a good game people need to make choices, and roll and move does not permit players to do that--they simply are given the consequences of pure luck.
  • Speaking of--it's a game primarily of luck. If you're lucky enough to land on three colored properties, you're more than likely going to win. If your first trip around the board has you just paying rent and ponying up to the tax man, you're in for a long, unfun night.
  • The game lasts forever. Waiting for everyone to go bankrupt takes a long, long time, especially since there are so many ways--Chance and Community Chest cards, mortgages, house sales--to raise money. Often, players will simply do this to keep themselves afloat until one unlucky bastard lands on the hotel at Pennsylvania Avenue. And--given that most players play with "Jackpot" house rules like putting money on Free Parking, adding more money to keep the game going longer--it's a long way to the end.
  • For a trading game, there's not a whole lot of trading. The rules prohibit players from making certain "creative" trades, such as loans or temporary rentals, which more or less make deals simple straight up property and cash.
  • Unclean rules. Weird rules, such as collecting rent while in jail and the housing shortage, entice players to make perverse decisions. Late in the game when there are plenty of houses and hotels, it's better to stay in jail--you can collect rent without the drawback of landing on someone else's property. Likewise, since there is an artificial number of houses and hotels, players can cause a shortage by building four houses and stop--while they collect lower rents, they deny other players the ability to build hotels. 
Monopoly was revolutionary in its time, but its time has gone.

That said, I actually kind of like playing Monopoly on occasion. I'm not saying I would drag it out every weekend, but it's a nostalgic, familiar game that people are comfortable with. And despite all the bitching I just listed above, it's not a horrible game. It's just that there are so many better games out there.

And yet--Monopoly can be saved! Sort of. It's actually quite easy to mitigate many of the negatives listed above with two main rules and a handful of minor ones:
  • End Game: The game ends when the first player goes bankrupt. Everyone else adds up their value (cash on hand plus value of properties) and the highest number wins. The game doesn't drag on forever and it forces players to keep their value up rather than mortgage everything to stay afloat. It also prevents players from selling all of their properties to someone else for a dollar so they can go home and watch TV.
  • Automatic Auction: When a player lands on a property, it is immediately auctioned off. The player who landed on it does not get the opportunity to buy it first--they have to enter bidding just like everyone else. This way, everyone has a chance to buy properties instead of it being dead luck. It also gives players an incentive to make deals, evaluate the worth of all the properties on the board, and be engaged at every step of the game, at least at the beginning.
With this, you've made this rotten game a moderately decent game by removing a large element of luck and shortening the game even though the end result is still more or less the same. The rules could also be cleaned up regarding jail, trading, and the housing shortage, but those are minor and can be tinkered with.

It's still not a great game--it's going to be won or lost on whether the poor sap who lands on Boardwalk owns it or not--but it can be salvaged. To be fair, though, you're probably better off just purchasing a better game. But it's cheap and familiar, so go with what you have.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Who Let the Reporters Out?

Someone had sent me the following link comparing the two parties tax plans:


And this is the reason why reporters shouldn't be allowed to...well, do anything, unless they got some education beyond learning how to be a journalist. (Hint: Everything you need to know to write you learned in high school. You should learn specific subjects in college so you can appropriately report as needed.)

Anyway, my beef is not necessarily with the content of the piece itself--I have my opinions about the tax plans, but that's neither here nor there for now*--but the statistics in the report are flawed.

Firstly, there is no accounting for the size of each section. The number of taxpayers in the $25-50,000 range is going to be vastly different than the ones in the million-plus range. If you're counting actual revenues, that chart is going to look a lot different.

In addition, the size of the intervals changes. It goes from chunks of $25,000 to leaps of $500,000. While the two charts can be compared one from the other, which is the point of the piece, comparing it vertically makes no sense. A line graph would have been significantly more appropriate.

Don't get me wrong--I strongly suspect any corrected charts would look roughly the same. And I'm not denying the fact that the chart is correct--it is. However, the chart as depicted skews the information in a way that, while it probably supports the content of the article (more of the tax breaks would go to the rich) doesn't necessarily mean that the chart isn't flawed. If it's an article about a value judgment on the tax cut plans, that's fine; but don't construct statistics out of duct tape and broken dreams to do it if you're going to claim to be a journalist. That is what politicians are for.

*I will probably bitch about this later.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Oh Deer

There are a few things you should know about me. One of the most important things you should know about me is that I really, really dislike deer.

I never had a secret crush on Bambi. When Sleeping Beauty starts to sing, I'm all cool with the songbirds and beavers and otters tapping a mean beat with their flat tails, but once Doe-Eyed Dawn and Uncle Buck popped their ugly white tails in the frame I was all "Wind it down, bitch. The honeymoon's over." I could edumacate myself and watch Mutual of Omaha follow gazelles around and watch Giraffe-Cams all day long, but if I ever see a hint of stag or hart it's back to Jersey Shore for me.

Why, you may ask? Because in my lifetime I have hit no less than four deer with my car. No joke.

If there is anyone who is a legitimate authority on seeing a deer in the headlights, it is certainly me.

It's a joke! Please don't hex me.

I have seen the last thoughts flash in the eyes of a deer. It is not pretty and I have engaged in much soul-searching after seeing so many deer meet a bad end. Of course, my insurance agent also does a bit of soul-searching himself, but I suspect for much different reasons.

And of course, when I hit these deer, they aren't mere love taps or Excitebike-level speed bumps. These have all been hood-curling, meat-chunk-picking-out, limping the rest of the way home contacts. There is absolutely no way that there isn't a number put out on me in whatever the equivalent of the Deer Mafia is.

Your love is like bad venison. Bad venison is what I need. 

So when I read this story that there have allegedly been multiple deer decapitations in my area I have to admit that a little man-tear formed at the corner of my eye.

I can't imagine why anyone would voluntarily chop the head off of a deer. What use would it be? Are you going to mount it on your wall and claim you shot it? Apparently people do prize the antlers. I'm not sure why. It's not like it's a rhino horn and you can grind it up and shoot it up your butt for an instant erection.* There are much better back scratchers out there that are less likely to give you Lyme disease. I also heard that there is a growing trend of creating furniture out of antlers, an idea so absurd I refuse to believe that it can't be true.

Regardless of what the end result is, I must applaud it. Certainly, it may be illegal, which I don't quite understand. My understanding is that you can't actually take roadkill--taking the meat is a gray area, but taking the head specifically is frowned upon. Maybe deer are like those remainder books where they have to tear off the covers and send them to the publisher. Maybe there's someone out there who periodically gets crates of deer heads delivered to their place of business so they can keep track of the inventory, and there's some flourishing black market for counterfeit deer head.

Anyway, legal or not, I think it sends a good message to all of the other deer out there. I'm convinced that deer are the reason that Darwin will never be proven correct. You would think about a few dozen generations, the jump-out-in-front-of-cars-and-get-slaughtered gene would slowly be winnowed out of the pool. And yet here we are with more stupid deer getting killed each year. Score one for Intelligent Design!

Maybe this decapitation thing will work as there world's most forthright PSA for deer that are on the edge of falling through the cracks of the Deer Justice System.

Deer decapitations are at an all time high. 
Do you want to become a statistic?
 Think before you run. You don't want to be caught...in the headlights.
Brought to you by Nationwide Insurance

Anyway, the point is: I hate deer.

*This is 60% true.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

My Theoretical Small Businesses

I'm not much of an entrepreneur. I'm quite risk-averse and loathe anything that would make starting a small business, such as paying taxes, making payroll, following regulations, too many customers, too few customers, or the wrong type of customers, successful.

That doesn't mean I can't dream. Of course, I have no intentions of starting any of these businesses, mostly because I'm certain I have no idea the downside of all of these businesses. I more or less assume that it is

1. Start business
2. ???
3. Profit!

Anyway, if I were forced at gunpoint to start a small business it would be, in no particular order:

1. Candy Manufacturer. I'm not sure if I'd want a storefront candy shoppe. I would like it to more or less be a Ben & Jerry's version of candy bars--coming up with odd combinations that aren't really seen very much. Knowing me it would be much less about making marketable candy (or any type of profit, for that matter) and more making up cutesy pun names. 

Yet there's some charm in being a chocolatier. My wife and I recently visited one. The prices seemed a tad high, but I guess that's why you're not buying slabs of wax and chalk dust with "Hersey" written across it. But the vast array of choices--and the quantity they manufactured it in--made me assume that this was a sound business and raking in the dough. I know full well they pay Brazilians like a penny a pound for that cocoa. 

2. Board Game Company. No surprise here. The market for board games, however, is tricky. The market is small and fickle, production costs are astronomical (even if you outsource to China), and there's no after-market if your small press game doesn't sell (besides Goodwill, of course). You can't afford a license so you can't rely on familiarity, and right now the market is getting saturated with small independent games. You're never going to get rich, because the "next Monopoly" or "next party game" is never going to happen. It would be a labor of love and you might pull off some industry recognition, which, of course, combined with a buck will get you a cup of coffee.

3. The Fully Automated Restaurant. I understand they actually have a few of these in the West Coast, or at least something like it; touch screen menus, credit card only transactions, etc.  You get in, swipe your card, punch your order, and in ten minutes out it comes piping hot. (Conveyor belts seem just a bit to gimmicky and prone to constant maintenance, so food runners would be necessary.) For some reason I find this to be a particularly effective business plan on the basis of absolutely no knowledge of the food industry whatsoever.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Free Toy Inside!

I have a particularly obvious thing to crank about today, and thankfully it's pretty short: San Francisco recently voted to ban toys in kid's meals at fast food joints.*

There's a lot of things wrong with this. First off, it's the parent's responsibility to make sure that Happy Meals are not a synonym for dinner. No amount of legislation barring the actual abolition of fast food joints will do this--and given the current climate in the intelligentsia, we may get there yet. Secondly, why are they infringing on the rights of both 1) corporations who want to effectively advertise their wares with premiums and 2) adults who want to make the choice for where they eat, not their kids? If there are adults out there who can't push back against the pressure of having their kid collect the fourth Scott Pilgrim glass, then they shouldn't be granted a parenting license.**

As it stands, any responsible parent won't be swayed by this new law--if nothing else, it simply makes a rare trip to the fast food joint less enjoyable. Irresponsible parents who let their kids shovel garbage into their mouths probably have toys near the bottom of the list of reasons why they eat too much junk. This leaves only those marginal parents who normally wouldn't take their kids to Micky D's but decided to because of some giveaway, something I can't imagine being a statistically significant number. Is this a problem that really needed to be addressed?

Alas, I fear this will be the trend. The mayor of Pittsburgh recently suggested taxing sugared drinks, ostensibly to help combat child obesity but mostly to prop up various financial mismanagement problems within the city. Other municipalities, such as New York City, have also taken up the cause. I am wary of these things--while on the face of it I don't mind the propagation of information, such as nutrition info (though I could it does much good and the costs are probably a bit too high for the overall benefits), I'm not a fan of outright banning of specific cooking methods or ingredients. This seems to be straight-up dietary fascism, and I say that fully aware of the alarmism of that phrase.

A few years ago the Economist, upon the Chirac government caving in to basically making no reforms at all to their employment laws, stated something to the effect that France had chosen to not join the future of Europe, but to relegate themselves to a third-rate power indebted to states more willing to embrace and overcome challenges. I am starting to feel this way about many of the cities in southern California. The Golden State has often been an early adopter to many social and political reforms, but I think they've mired themselves into pushing away anyone and anything willing to be innovative.

*Yes, I know, they actually just posted specific guidelines as to what meals could have toys, so many of the Happy Meals and similar items will be fine. It's the principle of the thing.
**What? You don't need to have a license to be a parent? That is...a shame.

Monday, November 8, 2010

First Time Caller

Just a short post today due to the Pittsburgh Steelers being on MONDAY NIGHT FOOTBALL. All together now: BAWB BAWB BAWB BAWWWWWB. Duh DUN. Duh DUN.

Okay, so it's no Hockey Night in Canada. But at least more than twenty people will be watching.

So on a related note: I really, really hate sports talk radio.

Not to single out radio--I hate most of sports media, especially for football. The actual reporting itself I could give or take most of the time--there is legitimate news, after all, that must be reported. I think a lot of the content of sports news, however, is unnecessary; many reporters will harp on the tiniest details all. week. long.

For example, last week, the Steelers lost to the New Orleans Saints. For a week now I've had to hear the comment "They said the Saints wouldn't lost two games in a row, so they were going to win" as if that explained everything. There's some super secret formula that the coaches have discovered where once they lost a game they won't lose another. Just like those ridiculous stats they splash all over the screen: Tony Romo is good on Thursday night games at home in December when the opponent is in the AFC West. WOW! With a sample size as large as two, how could that not be important? And already I've heard that 1) The Bengals can't lose because they are itching for a fight against their division rivals and T.O. and Ochocinco love prime time and that 2) the Bengals are already writing off the season because they are already 2 and 5 and so T.O. and Ochocinco are trying to avoid injury and won't be playing their best. Maybe the sports guys have been hanging around the weather guys too long.

It's almost like there is some sort of demand for talking about sports, but no one really has the material to fill it up. I can understand a little bit at the beginning of the season, when the dirty details of depth and new players and the secondary actually make sense even if it's very detailed. but at the halfway mark of the season, do we really have to analyze the performance of the third-string corner drafted 217th overall from Topeka Community College?

And, of course, I have no use for call-in shows. If there's anyone who knows less about more than sports media personalities, it's fans. They're all homers, looking for the best in their favored team while willfully dismissing the opposing team.

Not all personalities are worthless, of course. There are several--especially local guys that get to cover all of the home sports franchises in a city and don't have time to grant airtime to minutia--who get it. Unfortunately, the good ones are far and few between.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

The Art of Self-Balancing [Board Game Design]

One of the trickier parts of designing a board game is balancing the game. You don't want certain options that depend on luck to tip the game to the player who gets it; also, you want to make sure the costs and benefits are roughly even as to not make one strategy the overwhelming favorite. If one choice makes one player the front-runner for the remainder of the game regardless of all subsequent actions, it's a bad game.

One of the problems will "traditional" American board games such as Sorry!, Life, and Monopoly are the reliance on luck. Luck in and of itself isn't a bad thing, but for many people playing a game that more or less determines the winner via a series of die rolls is a pretty awful way to spend time unless there is cash on the table. As such, many modern board game designers place as much emphasis on strategy as they can--and part of that is making sure the game is reasonably balanced.

Take Monopoly: Statistically, the player who has the orange properties is going to most likely win, since they are the most often landed upon. Likewise, while Boardwalk isn't the most frequently landed on space, the player who owns it fully developed will cause such a large one-time hit as to often win the game.Someone who is familiar with the payout of each property would be in the best position to win the game, but if all they even land on is Baltic and the Electric Company, they are out of luck. Quite literally.

There was a version of Sid Meier's Civilization (by Eagle Games, no longer in print) that was released a few years ago (not to be confused with the current one) that had balancing problems as well. There was one random event--the plague--that more or less devastated the player who was unlucky enough to get it. And the buildings expired after every era which normally only took a few turns. The cost of building a new building was more than anyone would ever get out of it, so that action was rarely taken.

Unfortunately, misrepresenting costs in decision-making is easy to do in board games. Until all of the factors and player personalities come into a real-life game, it is usually very, very difficult to put a static cost on anything and have it equal its benefit. (This is why playtesting is so important.) You don't really know if pricing artillery at 10 gold is worth it when infantry is worth only 5 until the game gets going. Monuments might be worth one victory point or three. This is a particularly difficult concept to cover when designing asymmetrical games, where both sides are operating under different rules and options.

Thankfully, there are a few design components that will allow a game to "self-balance"--that is, you don't have to put a cost on it; it naturally comes from the game itself. Note that I keep saying "cost," since this is what a majority of board games actions represent, but it could be anything, such as turn order or victory conditions.

1. The Auction. By far the most common, the auction lets the players determine the price of something. You never have to say it costs 10 Gold for a Stable or Four Workers for the Winery; you just let it out in the open and let the players determine the cost. It also helps dynamically within the game, since a Winery might be worth more early in the game than later.

There are several types of auctions; the most common are the English bid (the one most are familiar with--a player must pass or increase the bid) and blind (everyone makes a bid at the same time, and the highest player wins). I prefer blind since you don't have to worry about turn order and it's much quicker, but a lot of people don't. You will occasionally see a Dutch Auction variant (the bid starts very, very high, and slowly goes down; the first player to take the bid gets it.) This is also quicker and has more or less the same effect, but since it is unfamiliar many don't like it.

This also covers the bids in traditional card games such as bridge and 500 bid. 

2. Changing Attractiveness. In this self-balancing technique, an option gets more lucrative as fewer people take it. This was used famously in the game Puerto Rico; any roles not chosen in a turn had a gold piece added to it. Eventually, even the most unattractive role would eventually be worth taking. Likewise, the popular Small World has a similar mechanic. There are a series of race combination you can select on your turn, but they are ranked in the order they appear. If there is a very effective combination at the bottom of the rank, you have to put a victory point on each one you pass over. Not only does this make getting that awesome combo more expensive, all passed-over combination--including the lousy one at the top--will eventually amass a huge pile of points.

3. Compensating Cost. I'm not sure how to describe this one, except that by taking a weaker option, you gain a benefit that roughly compensates for it. One example is in 1960: The Making of the President, where using a card that has a weaker value allows you to put more cubes in the rest cube bag--which means more benefits later. Conversely, playing a powerful card often nets zero rest cubes.

This would also cover such mechanics as "I divide, you choose": a player receives a number of cards, and they get to divide them into two piles. The opponent gets to choose which pile they want. This allows the first player to frame the decision as he likes--but the worst decision is the one he'll have to take, so there is an incentive not to make it too lopsided.

I'm tempted to put card-driven games (like my recently reviewed Twilight Struggle) under this, but since there is a hard value placed on each card I'm not sure if it fits. It's not really "self-balancing" as much as it is simply forcing more decisions to be made in relation to your opponent.

4. Balance By Proxy. While there may be cards of static cost and/or benefit, there are other ways to make the choices more self-balancing. While not exactly fitting of what we're talking about here, in the card game Citadels, each player takes all of the roles less one, chooses one, and passes the rest on. In a game where you bid for turn order (unlike Citadels), the ability to choose this first is inherent in the turn order bid. Other games have similar mechanics, where the first player in initiative (or whatever) gets to choose the best of the lot. So while everyone gets a free card or action, those who specifically put effort into it get first crack.

Of course, not all designers want their games to be balanced. Especially in the field of wargaming, some players consider it a point of pride to win a game playing a side that normally has a one in ten chance of winning. However, for most people, investing the time and energy in a game required that the game make an effort to be balanced. Similarly, games such as Cosmic Encounter and Fluxx do away with the pretense of balance altogether--the fun is either in making the best out of a bad hand or blind luck. These games can still be fun--some people enjoy crisis management and chaos more than equal opportunity.

And some can simply be balanced from sheer brute force of design. One of the examples of this is the classic Dune, where the six factions each have a list of unique benefits. There are a few wonky faction choices with less than six players, but otherwise you'll be hard-pressed to find a game where the balance is inherent in the game.

However, for most players, the time invested in a game should be one that gives most players at least a reasonable change of having the same opportunities. This is generally a mark of a well-designed game.