Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Pittsburgh Pirates 2011: RIP

And so it ends. For the 19th consecutive season, the Pittsburgh Pirates have failed to have a winning season.

As you can see, my Pittsburgh Pirates Care-O-Meter settled on the next-to-last level, "How Much Are Neil Walker bobbleheads going for on eBay?" The only reason that they ended up there is for about two and a half glorious sunny months, they gave us hope, which is more than they gave us for about two decades.

Granted--that's not enough. There aren't any "Best Participants Awards" in pro sports, nor should there be. The Pirates lost because they stunk, and that's not acceptable for 19 years. More respectable organizations would have long moved to Memphis or Jacksonville or Las Vegas long ago just so they could talk a silkwood shower after the disaster they've had in the steel city.

Now, despite the fact that I'm both a sports fan and an armchair numbers guy, I am surprisingly uninterested in the stat-heavy game of baseball. I can't tell you what the problem is. I can't say whether it's bad fielding or bunting or catching or whatever the hell it is they do out there. Of course, they can't either.

When it's all said and done, of course, Major League Baseball still has a money problem. Every year, the Yankees make the playoffs due to their outsized payroll. Instead of the standard salary cap, they simply pay a "luxury tax" which more or less gets distributed to small-market teams. Rather than discouraging huge payrolls, it simply lets small market teams (like the Pirates) be profitable with 19 losing seasons; why would they increase payroll and potentially lose, when financial success is not tied to games won? (As we have seen in football and (somewhat) in hockey, salary caps would all pretty much max out, leveling the playing field for all teams.) The owner of the Pirates can actually lose money when their team wins, you know something is wrong with the system.*

It doesn't have to be like this. The Milwaukee Brewers are a small-market teams and are currently in the playoffs, even with a reduced payroll. And the Pirates almost had it. So it can be done, but I just can't see why it can't be made easier. When one specific team had a 25% chance or so of winning each year, why bother winning when you can just make money?

Anyway, I think the Pirates will do okay. Hopefully next year we can sustain the victories long enough to make a decent season out of it. I don't expect competitive play for quite a few years, and I fear that there is a chance they will lapse back into awfulness. We will have to wait until next summer.

*This, in reality, would probably never, ever happen. But gone are the days where baseball teams are owned as novelties but are now integral business units. So it is a concern.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Terrifying New Changes To Your Favorite Tech Companies

It wasn't a good week for tech companies.

First, Netflix announces a name change and organizational restructuring (oh, and a half-assed apology), enraging long-time users. Then Facebook's new design has frustrated many individuals and compromised security of accounts. But these two aren't the only companies that are making missteps.

Here is a list of massive changes that big tech companies are planning on implementing very soon, for good or bad:
  • Yahoo! will adopt some sort of product or service that will generate income
  • If you download a holistic health book, A Shore Thing, or any Dan Brown book to your Amazon Kindle, Jeff Bezos will personally come to your house and punch you in your stupid face
  • Twitter will automatically suspend your account if you post what you are eating
  • HP will move from the manufacturing of computers to burning down their own offices and factories.
  • Google will automatically send a message with your search bar queries to your spouse once a month
  • PayPal will reroute unused funds in your account to this guy they got a hot tip from in Nigeria.
  • Apple will start ordaining clergymen
  • Internet Explorer will promise everything they can come over to his house and play cars and eat sundaes if they just use him
  • Wikipedia will stop auto-deleting the page you made about your ex-girlfriend and the different sections entitled "That Whoreface," "Her Sister Was Hotter," and "I Sat Through A Jason Mraz Concert For You, You Heartless Bitch."
  • YouTube will exclusively offer content related to dogs riding on skateboards and cats falling off things
The march of progress goes on.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Faster Than The Speed Of Light

Recently, scientists announced that they may have discovered particles moving faster than the speed of light--an impossibility per Einstein's theory of relativity, at least up to now.  While it still has to be independently confirmed (and presumably replicated), it still appears to be a major breakthrough in theoretical science.

Of course, this isn't the first time the light speed barrier has been broken. Here is a list of things that as far as I know have already been declared faster than light:

  • The time between when you buy an iPad and when Apple comes out with a better version of the iPad
  • Ryan Reynold's agent running out the door after The Green Lantern
  • The time before Terra Nova--or any other reasonably high-quality drama on television--gets cancelled to make room for Real Vegas Mechanics Kitchen Challenge*
  • Ron Paul's decreased chances of winning the Presidency if gold goes below $1200 an ounce.
  • How fast Solyndra spent the "loan" money gift-wrapped for them
  • Facebook changing its layout after its previous, privacy-compromising layout change
  • How quickly people complain about said Facebook change
  • The time between someone inventing planking and the time in which it is the stupidest thing ever
  • Subscribers cancelling Netflix--I mean, Quikster.
  • The time between when you first meet a new mother and the time she wants to tell you about their child's bowel movements in graphic detail
  • Rick Perry, if someone tells him there is lost treasure to find, Injuns to attack, or a minority to execute
  • The time before all scientists, rather than admit that they were wrong, declare this is what they meant all along in the first place
I am sure that scientists will find more practical use out of their new discovery than any of this stuff has.

*I would still probably watch this.

    Tuesday, September 20, 2011

    There Will Be Cake

    So, I finally got around to playing Portal.

      I'm so happy for you.

    Yes, yes, yes, I know, I'm only five years behind. And I'll be honest: the only reason I played Portal is because it was free to download this weekend. (I'd always wanted to try it; I just hadn't pulled the trigger on paying for it, yet.) They tried to convince everyone it was in honor of learning physics or some bullshit like that, but, really it's about boosting sales of Portal 2. It reminds me of the physics class trips we took in high school to a local amusement park called Kennywood, where we would perform various physics experiments on roller coasters and all the other rides. This, of course, was a blatant falsehood; the only physics actually getting done on that field trip was how many Potato Patch french fries it would take for my pants to go up another size.*

    Anyway, it's no longer free, but even still, it's worth the money.

    Portal is one of the more original and engaging games to come along in a while. (Again, assume that I'm writing this five years ago when everyone in the world else discovered this.) You are given little to no instructions aside from how to move around, and no backstory to orient yourself--you're in some sort of testing environment for a laboratory, but the purpose and extent of this training is left vague. You don't get to control any weapons, and your level of destruction is pretty minimal--a few sentry robots get destroyed here and there, and there are plenty of pools of acid for you to fall in, but the game is remarkably non-violent. It's a puzzle game that looks like a first-person shooter.

    Of course, the concept of the game is the portal gun: you have a gun that is capable of creating a portal, where you jump in one entrance of the portal and come out the other. This very simple mechanic leads to various puzzles involving physics, moving platforms, and hidden rooms. You have to deflect energy pellets and defeat the aforementioned sentries, all while using one simple concept. You aren't given a time constraint, so you can fuss around all you want to find the solution. While you can die, the times you can die are pretty obvious, and you're only set back a short while (although frequent saves are still recommended).

    While the gameplay itself is fun, it's also very short: it only provides about four to six hours of play total. And while there are 19 levels, you'll breeze through the first dozen or so in a half hour at most. Around the mid-teens the complexity ratchets up significantly, and you'll find long, multilayered challenges you have to think six steps ahead for.

    But none of this matters, because the best part of the game is GLaDOS, the computer that aids you on your way. Your journey to the end is a true psychological thriller, as you realize the intentions of your supposed benefactor are not what they seem. Announcement slowly get more and more aggressive and cryptic, and are written and delivered with a perfect combination of humor, assertiveness, and dread.

    The game takes place in a sanitized laboratory, but you get a few peeks here and there of the ductwork and storage rooms, full of half-crazed scrawlings of the test subjects before you. Since they're not specific, they must fill you with dread as to what is coming next. There are no characters besides yourself and GLaDOS, and you even only get glimpses of yourself if you set the portals up right--the fact that you can only partially see yourself is even more creepy than if you never saw yourself or were able to see everything. The contrast between the sleek, clean lab floors and the dirty, noisy, dangerous back rooms just adds to the impending gloom.

    Anyway, while I think that the game is original, there's no doubt that parallels can easily be drawn to HAL from 2001: A Space Odyssey. While the concepts and even motives are roughly equivalent, the personality is sufficiently different as to be considered independent.

    Of course, the game is not without its flaws. It is too short, and some of the puzzles rely a little bit too much on finding an obscure place to place a portal; I occasionally checked walkthroughs on the internet, just to confirm I was doing the right thing, just a few pixels off. There is very little positive feedback, so a frustratingly long puzzle leaves you with nothing to show for it. While I won't say much about the ending, a little more background could have been useful--although the deliberate vagueness of everything is part of the charm, so I'm not sure if that would be positive.

    The internet is full of young video game players looking for speed-plays and minimum-portal wins. To me, this defeats the purpose of the game. Unlike so many other big-budget games, Portal encourages experimentation and patience. It's not whether you can kill everyone in record time or force your way through brute force, but whether you can experiment and have fun.

    Is this game for everyone? Probably not; overly assertive players only looking for war and conflict in their games will be bored; the easily frustrating will give up; and hard-core sci fi apologists will probably find the storyline mundane. Personally, I enjoyed it, and look forwarded to playing Portal 2. In, probably, five years or so.

    *This experiment is still ongoing.

    Monday, September 19, 2011

    Split Decision

    It's getting to be the season: it's time to start thinking about the Electoral College!


    OK, so this is the sort of thing that us Poli Sci majors get all excited about, and no one else much cares. Even 11 years after the first electoral college disaster in over a century--that would be the 2000 election in case you have mercifully forgotten--nothing concrete has really changed. Colorado tried to alter how their votes were distributed, but that was shut down by voters. And aside from the historical but otherwise trivial split that Nebraska pulled off in the '08 election, no one has said much of anything.


    Then enter my home state of Pennsylvania. A lawmaker recently proposed setting up a district-based system for assigning electoral votes. Basically, the presidential candidate that wins each congressional district would win one vote; the statewide winner would get the last two additional votes. (For those that fell asleep in civics class, each state is awarded one vote for each representative they have--based on population--and then one for each of their state-wide senators. All states but Nebraska and Maine have a winner-take-all system.)


    A Republican member of the State Senate--Dominic Pileggi--says that this is a fairer system than the winner-take all method, since all of those individuals voting for the losing candidate for their state still don't feel their votes matter. It is entirely coincidental that PA is more or less a Democratically-leaning state and, oh, yeah, the Republicans are in the process of redrawing their congressional districts.



    Personally, I don't find there to be flaws in the current system. People who get upset that people in states that are a lock for one candidate or another--and so there is no reason to vote--forget that the same happens on the other side, too. Texans who wanted to vote for Obama, knowing full well McCain was going to win the state, felt the same as Republicans in California and New York. Yeah, it makes you feel bad, but the end result isn't going to change all that much. (And, besides, you should also be voting for lower-ballot candidates as well, which conceivably have more of an impact on your life.)


    And the vote-splitting proposal causes other problems--with very little at stake, candidates will be less inclined to campaign in your state. The system for PA right now means a candidate will either win 20 votes or 0; with the new proposal, it might be 12-8 or 11-9 or something similar. Yes, you can fight in the middle for a few swing districts...but why bother, when it's only one or two votes out of 538? To alleviate this problem, many states have signed legislation that they will adopt this split-vote method...as soon as other states do the same, so everyone is in the same boat. Add to this that you now introduce the ugly art of redistricting into the presidential election, not just the congressional ones, and it just seems like you're replacing old problems with new problems.


    It's easy to point to, say, Florida in 2000, and claim that without the electoral college, Al Gore would have won. But you can't turn back the clock. Had there been no electoral college, Bush might have campaigned in northern California and upstate New York, while Gore would have made trips to Austin and Atlanta. The entire landscape would have changed--different issues, vote totals, and speeches would have been emphasized--so you can't take the rules from one scenario and transplant them to another.


    My love affair with the current system is part blind historical appreciation but also of practicality. Say that, instead of just Florida, the entire nation was just a 537 vote difference. What would the recount have looked like then? Where would it have happened? Everywhere, in each state? Since all votes contribute to the final total regardless of state, a recount in Iowa would mean the same as a recount in California.  By localizing the elections by state, such issues can be contained to only a few states to reflect the needed practicality of our system.


    I don't think the world will come screeching to a halt if Pileggi's vote somehow passes. I think it's a bad idea, given my thoughts above, but even as a political matter, Pileggi's proposal could easily come back to haunt his party.  There are several ways this could happen, but I will leave it to the interested parties to formulate their own plans.

    Friday, September 16, 2011

    Concert Review: They Might Be Giants and Jonathan Coulton

    On Wednesday, my wife and I went to go see They Might Be Giants, with opening act Jonathan Coulton.


    I'll be honest: I was more excited to see Coulton than They Might Be Giants. Not that I don't like the two Johns, but 1) I have already seen them several times in concert, and 2) I knew they'd probably be playing a lot of stuff from their just-released album, Join Us, a project I didn't particularly care for. And I had yet to see Coulton live. But TMBG always put on a good show, so I was looking forward to the show.

    We get to the Byham Theater in the Cultural District of Pittsburgh--and spending perhaps four minutes of our allotted 45 minute allowance to find parking--and the first thing I notice is the rather diverse crowd. There are plenty of people my age, but also quite a few younger college kids wearing ironic T-shirts and a surprising number of older people as well. The theater itself, which I had never been to, was also quite nice--but more on that in a minute.

    The usual marketplace was there, where we somehow managed to score a copy of Jonathan Coulton's Smoking Monkey for a sweet ten bucks, and then was informed his other album, Where Tradition Meets Tomorrow is out of print and normally goes for fifty bucks on eBay. So much for that. Rather embarrassingly, I pretty much had everything on the TMBG table already.

    The show started, and Jonathan Coulton came on stage. He also has a new album out (Artificial Heart) but played a good, solid mix between his old music and new. He kicked off the show with "Skullcrusher Mountain" and played "Still Alive," "I Feel Fantastic," and "Good Morning Tuscon." Alas, he only played for a half hour, but was funny, performed excellently, and  definitely made some new converts; the audience members around me, clearly hearing him for the first time, were laughing.



    After his set, They Might Be Giants came out. As expected, they played stuff from their new album, but also a mix of the crowd-pleasing classics such as "Birdhouse in your Soul" and "Particle Man." Unfortunately, the Byham Theater is not built for live music such as this, and the acoustics were pretty bad. After an hour of play the band seemed to adjust and the second half of the concert went better, but it was disappointing that the sound was so off.

    Here is John Flansburg sporting a creepy mustache. He was offering free copies of Mink Car from a van after the show.

    John Linnell in his element.

    But John and John had a blast. They had clever banter between songs, did a hilarious little puppet show in the middle of everything, and talked about the vaunted Mr. Smalls, the previous oxygen-deprived venue they played in.

    It certainly was a good time. The crowd had fun, the set list was just about perfect (they didn't play any of the few songs I hate, which other people seem to love) and aside from the acoustics problem was a grand show. I'm not sure if I'll go back--I've seen TMBG enough that if I miss a show I don't think it will be a huge deal. But I definitely will be seeing Coulton the next time he tours. I'd like to see a full show of his.

    Wednesday, September 14, 2011

    Candy-ish Review: Freezer Bars

    Well, summer is over, but that doesn't mean that the hot summer treats have to end!*

    One of those summer treats are those old sugar-with-artificial-flavoring ice sticks. They were called various names and were usually manufactured by low-rent food distributors looking to unload untold gallons of blue-colored corn syrup injected with synthetic blueberry flavoring. Kids loved them because they were more or less nothing but pure sugar and it made their tongues bright neon colors that probably ended up giving them nerve damage later in life. And let's not forget the arcane packaging, where you had to find a pair of scissors to snip off the end of it or--if you are a human being of any sort--you just chew off the jagged plastic end of it with your teeth, cutting up the tip of your tongue which can then be soothed by frozen cherry syrup and red dye #2. And, of course, not to forget the last, manhood-forming ritual of sucking on the package and slurping up the syrup that has melted and collected in the bottom of the package, thick and sweet enough to make Hi-C taste like Evian.

    Of course, none of this matters. They are incredibly cheap--usually pennies apiece--and they are cool and tasty, so why not?

    What we are going to review today are some of the newer flavors to come out, and these are flavors that appeal to the young and old alike:


    Here we have A&W Root Beer, Warheads, Dr. Pepper, and Candy Shop. All are manufactured by the Jel Sert company.

    We can lump A&W and Dr. Pepper together. They both taste exactly as you would expect--root beer, and whatever the hell it is that is in Dr. Pepper.** They are very good and not too strong. However, the main problem is the nature of the product--these things aren't carbonated, obviously, so it basically tastes like you are drinking a frozen, flat version of a can of soda.*** It's not that bad, of course, since the sweeteners prop it up a bit. They're good, but don't expect the same refreshment of chugging a six-pack.

    The Warheads are very...strange. If you aren't aware, Warheads are these obnoxious little candies that are lip-puckering sour. These are no exception. The initial taste wears off quickly, though, and the remainder remains fairly tart. I enjoy this the most, although those who don't like sourness are advice to stay clear. While they come in different colors and (presumably) different flavors, they actually just come in one flavor: taste-bud-destroying sour.

     And to think, Reagan wanted to rid the world of these. Useful idiot, indeed.

    The last one, the Candy Shop, includes red licorice, cotton candy, banana taffy, and bubble gum. I didn't get to try the bubble gum, but the other ones were pretty good--they taste exactly as you would expect. Banana taffy just tastes like banana and the red licorice is a little weak, and they're all just a touch too sweet. But I guess for a branding called "Candy Shop" you can't expect too much different.

    The verdict? None of these are too strong, and all are refreshing. They're also reasonably priced, though when you can get a crate of the regular kind for less than a dime you have to look at it in the absolute.  While I'm not sure I would stock up and run through them, I can see them as an occasional refreshment on those hot days--or, hell, during the next ice storm.


    *Oh, don't look at me like that. You eat ice cream during blizzards, the same as everyone else.
    **My guess: prunes, ginger, and the souls of abandoned sea monkeys.
    ***Or, as normal people say, pop.

    Monday, September 12, 2011

    After

    My 9/11 story isn't particularly exciting or insightful.

    That morning I had a phone interview for a job--I had been unemployed for about eight months and was really looking forward to the opportunity. It was with a start-up company that seemed very, very interested in me, so I quite literally locked myself in a room with no distractions (such as television or radio) and just my notes. The phone call was scheduled for 10:00am, so imagine my bewilderment when that time came and went, and I heard nothing. Hoping they hadn't forgot, or had rescheduled, I called then back, with no answer. Eventually I left the room and found out what had happened; but up until that point I had no access to any form of news or communication. (This was in the days before I even had a cell phone.) The employer eventually called in the afternoon to reschedule, and I did go to a live interview much later, but nothing came of it--no doubt because of the changed conditions of the economy.

    9/11 didn't trigger any particular emotion in me. I didn't really feel angry or perplexed or frustrated. Maybe that's bad of me, I don't know. I didn't get any sudden swelling of patriotism or a sudden overly jingoistic desire to burn the rest of the world. I just knew things would be different in the short term, and the trajectory of American history probably got knocked a few degrees one way or the other.And since we weren't asked to grow victory gardens or send used tires to Fort McHenry, but just to go shopping, that's exactly what we did.

    Of course, like most Americans during that time, I just didn't know how to react. What did this mean? Was it a future of roadside checks, national ID cards, and a retreat from globalization? Or would it be absorbed into the American experience like so many other tragic events have? I certainly had opinions at the time--most, I am sure, I would be embarrassed about today--but as far as conceptualizing what 9/11 did, I didn't know.

    A few weeks later, I remember standing in our local Wal-Mart. I remained frustratingly unemployed, so it was in the middle of the afternoon. I was standing in front of the magazine rack--still, week after week, a collage of headlines and covers, all gray and black and smoke and Bold Impact. A well-dressed, middle-aged woman walked up beside me, transfixed by this panorama of emotions in newsmagazine form. She was clearly out of her element--her clothes were too expensive for 1) being in my small town, and 2) being in a Wal-Mart. I always assumed she was driving somewhere instead of flying, and just had to stop at an exit to get something. I don't know.

    She turned to me and said, "I still can't believe this happened."

    I replied, after a pause, "I know. It's all too surreal."
     
    I could think of nothing to say, so I said the exact sort of thing I try to avoid.

    It was most definitely not surreal. It was quite real, and staring us both in the face, as it would for months. But no one knew what else to say--or at least I didn't--so we fell back on platitudes and comfort.

    Even now, I don't know what to say. Over the weekend, many people told their 9/11 stories on social media outlets and the airwaves were crammed with heart-wrenching tales of heroism and tragedy. I didn't watch any of it. Not because I didn't care, or wasn't interested, but that I still don't know how to digest it. I wasn't originally going to write a post about 9/11 because I have nothing useful to add. And, still, I really don't. But back then, as now, you fall back to that which makes it easier to process.

    About the only thing that conjured up in my memory was that feeling of--I don't want to call it bewilderment, because it wasn't a particularly confusing time. It was kind of this blank, malleable feeling that no matter what decision you made, you could no longer predict how it would end up. It made people like me that routinely use strict cost-benefit analysis to figure out what brand of kidney beans to buy uncomfortable with the world. Perhaps that is the appropriate adjective--uncomfortable. 

    I tend to disdain such shallow superficiality when it comes to tragedy, since I find that most people use empty words to replace hard choices and specific actions that have a legitimate impact. But sometimes grinding down both edges of blind patriotism and irrational hatred is exactly what is needed for this world to proceed. Maybe I'm just a hypocrite. Or, most likely, both.

    Thursday, September 8, 2011

    The Future Is Now

    I can't say that I'm the most scientifically knowledgeable individual--my physics grades in high school can attest to that--but I've always held a fascination about the speculation of our future. I love reading about different fuels our cars will use, or the advances the military has made in various endeavors, lethal or no.* While I find most technical magazines fail to enlighten me, popular (i.e., dumbed-down) sources such as Coast to Coast AM** and newsmagazines help fill the void.

    And so, looking at the latest issue of The Economist, they have an insert about just that--innovations that are currently wavering between theory and practice. (They have a Technology Quarterly section, of which the latest was just released.) Here are a few of the highlights--though note that I am basically providing a simplified summary of a magazine article that is already a simplified summary:

    Enhanced Cameras: Cameras that take multiple pictures at different angles, then use computer animation to make one big "super" picture. Since many standard pictures suffer loss of lighting in at least one dimension, these photos will always provide an extraordinarily-lit and highly details still. It also lets you change focus after the fact.

    Advances in Game Theory: A pet interest of mine, most people are familiar with game theory mostly through the Academy-Award winning movie A Beautiful Mind. Economists and mathematicians have created game theory frameworks for years, but advances in computing technology have made it much more accurate. (Game theory, for those who don't know, is the science of creating "games"--basically, decision-making matrices with varying payoffs based not only on what you choose but what your rivals choose. Google "prisoner's dilemma" for the most famous example.) Game theorists have gotten to the point where they can accurately predict when governments will be overthrown, government-sale auctions will be determined, or wars will start.

    Artificial Muscles: The science of making artificial muscles--they are exactly what you think they are--has become so efficient that they may replace conventional electric motors. These muscles are significantly more efficient, and can be much smaller and lighter than conventional engines--which can have a huge difference in many applications. The biggest roadblock was getting a muscle to make a true rotary motion, which has been accomplished. While they will always be used for the purposes of artificial limbs, new applications are being formed every day.

    Thought Control: New ideas about using thoughts alone to control things, namely electronics, have been introduced. Of course, while many are suspicious, forms of it have been around for a while (such as lie detector tests). But now, games and applications are being developed where the outcome is based on your thoughts alone--no actual mechanical or electronic input required. (These games/applications range from such subjects as disaster-response scenarios to job interviews to dating sites.) Prices are tumbling and readings are becoming more accurate, but they aren't quite at the mass-produced scale yet. Expect a lot of hand-wringing and worry as applications become more...diverse.

    Fusion Power: Long the darling of futurists and scam artists, fusion power is the El Dorado of scientists. He who develops it will unlock a world-changing phenomena--a world of limited power. Unless fission, which is what our current standard nuclear power plants rely on, fusion power leaves only trace amounts of radioactivity and can use nearly any material as fuel--doubling as a waste reducer as well as an energy provider. A reactor being built in Germany is the closest scientists have come yet to cracking this. It's still a long ways away from fruition, but reading the article makes one awfully optimistic.

    There are plenty of other new developments of a more practical matter--ridiculously versatile ID scanners, remarkably efficient cancer drugs, and desalination techniques--are not nearly as sexy but are quite important. Granted, the Economist, as well as other outlets, have a tendency to oversell new scientific discoveries; drawbacks abound, and most of these are barely out of the theoretical stage. Still, sometimes looking at the future isn't so bad.

    *Extrapolating this to history--which I suppose is the exact opposite of the future I'm envisioning--The entire story of the Manhattan project is equal parts scary and illuminating--it was like taking twenty years of research and doing it in, like, two years. It sometimes makes me wonder if today's theoretical scientists should just get on the stick and give it a try, though I suppose the folks in Geneva are doing just that.
    **Laugh, but they often have legit scientists talking about what the future is likely to bring. While I love the werewolves and Kirilians, these scientist shows are by far my favorite.

    Tuesday, September 6, 2011

    Discord

    Below is a tale of woe and electronics. 

    I had one of those cords where you can hook your cell phone and/or MP3 player into your car speaker. It costs maybe ten bucks, which I suppose is OK; even though dollar-store headphones can be bought by the gross with a ten-spot and this cord is basically two of the less-expensive end of those, I will admit I'm not about to borrow my neighbor's soldering iron and go to the basement for a mad splicin' session. So I put my money down at a big box electronics store (for what ended up being about fifteen bucks) and then, after contemplation and deciding to get one for my wife, I find one at a different big box department store for nine dollars.

    Fast forward about a month. The cord somehow manages to slip between the car seat and the metal frame without my knowledge, so the next time I slid the car seat back the cord was chopped right in two. (Or at least I assume. It looks normal, but it only vaguely works when I squeeze one part of it with both sets of fingers, something that is remarkably difficult to do when operating a vehicle.) So after cursing the fates and debating whether I wanted to get a new one or buy a cord on eBay for twelve cents from some back-alley electronics distributor from Kuala Lumpur and wait a whole two weeks to get it, I break down and get a cord.

    It works fine, and all is right with the world, but SO HELP ME if this one commits suicide like the last one I will storm the Best Buy with a regiment and demand they sell me the necessary six cents' worth of rubber, copper, and shame at cost.

    Friday, September 2, 2011

    Board Game Review: Railways of the World

    This is a review of Railways of the World, by Eagle Games/Fred Distribution. It was designed by Martin Wallace and Glenn Drover.


    First, a little background. This game was originally published as Railroad Tycoon, from a license with the popular PC game. The rules were tweaked a little and the parts were changed a bit and it was re-released as this game.

    The first thing you notice when you open up the box is that there is a LOT of stuff, and ALL of it is big.

    This is probably about a third of what comes in the box.

    The Eastern US board, in particular, easily can take up the entirety of a standard kitchen table.


    Of course, part of this is necessity based on the nature of the game. Railways of the World  is a playable board game in and of itself, but it's also part of a kit: the publishers have released different maps covering different regions of the world. So you get all of the parts in this base game, and then all you need to do is purchase a board and some new cards and you can play any new map they release. So while it's intimidating at first, realize that you're not really going to be using all of the parts that have been provided.

    The base game comes with two maps: Eastern US and Mexico. The Mexico map is small and suited best with two or three players. The Eastern US, however, is the flagship map. The rules change slightly from map to map, so what I am describing below are the "generic" rules, though all of the examples are from the Eastern US.

    The goal of the game is to end up with the most victory points. Note that the goal is not to get the most money. The two are clearly related, of course, but since there are a few ways to earn victory points that are unrelated to money (such as connecting specific cities) this is an important distinction to make. Players will spend most of their time building track between cities and transporting goods.

    The map is first "seeded." Small wooden cubes of differing colors represent goods in each city. Each city has a number roughly representing its size/economic activity, and the board is set up by placing a random cube in each city equal to this number.

    Each player is dealt two Railroad Baron cards, and they keep one. Each baron is kept hidden from all other players; the card provides some sort of victory point bonus at the end of the game. (Things such as "have the highest-valued engine" or "get one point for every connection you control in Chicago.") Most only provide a few points, but their abilities tend to vary wildly, so choose carefully.

    Three Railroad Operations cards are placed face-up so all players can inspect them. The first three are pre-determined, but after a card is taken a random one replaces it. Technically, the operations cards are an optional rule, but it makes the game so much better I can't imagine ever not playing with it. Players are also given a pile of trains of one color, which serve to note ownership of railways on the board.

    Players start the game with no money. Obviously, players need money to do...well, anything, so players must take out bonds. A bond permits a player to collect $5,000. However, interest must be paid each turn, and each bond costs you one victory point at the end of the game.

    Once the game is set up, play begins.

    There are three phases in each turn: First Player Auction, Player Action, and Income and Dividends.

    The First Player Auction is easy: each player makes a bid to be the first player on the turn. Play proceeds clockwise from the first player.

    There are three Player Actions for each player, done once each in turn order. Players can build track, transport goods, take an operations card, upgrade engine, and urbanize. Players will spend a majority of the game building track and transporting goods.

    To build track, players simply place rail tokens on the board. The cost of the rail depends on the terrain; generally, there is an extra cost for mountains or water. It takes a time or two to get used to adding it all up, but it's not hard to get the hang of. Players cannot split railways; while they can cross other railroads, each section of track can only be a single line from one city to another. Players can only build four pieces of track each turn (and you get three turns per round), and any incomplete tracks are removed (and your money wasted) if you can't finish it by the end of the round.

    The hexes are easy to see: it only takes one piece of track to get from Philly to Baltimore, but two to get to Dover. The cities are much more spread out in the Midwest.

    You don't have to connect to your existing track, although it often pays to do so. You note your ownership of a railway by placing a train of your color on it.

    Transporting goods is easy, but finding ways to go about it isn't quite so easy. You can transport a good from one city to another--passing through additional cities on the way, if needed.. However, the destination city has to be the same color as the good. And you can only move through as many cities as the level of your current Engine. So at the beginning of the game, when your Engine level is 1, you can only make simple, one-track deliveries. As you upgrade, you can transport goods farther away from their home city. And you gain one victory point for each segment you use to deliver the good.

    You can move along another player's track, but they get any victory points from each segment you use.

    Many of cities are colored gray: no cubes may be delivered there, since there are no gray cubes.

    Let's look at some examples:

    In this situation, the yellow cube in Columbia can be delivered to Raleigh by the yellow player. It could not be delivered to Charleston, since Charleston is red. The red cube in Raleigh can be delivered to Charleston only if the yellow player has upgraded to Engine Level 2, since it will be traveling along two different segments. Nothing can be delivered to Columbia since it is grey.

    The cube in Atlanta can be delivered to Jacksonville; however, two different players own track. So either the Blue player will have to move along a Red track, or the Red player must move along a Blue track. Both players get one victory point either way. Either player may attempt to build new track to circumvent their opponent. Or--since some cards and abilities grant additional bonuses above and beyond the delivery--it may still be worth it to deliver the good if additional bonuses are granted. The black cube in Jacksonville cannot be delivered yet, since it is not connected to any Black cities.

    It seems a little complicated, but it's really not. Basically, you ignore the color of the city you are delivering from; you're only concerned about the city you're moving to.

    When a city has had its last cube delivered, place a special token on it. The city is now "spent." Once a certain number of cities have been emptied out, the game ends.

    Upgrading an engine is easy: you simply pay the cost of the new engine. This gets pretty pricey as you reach the highest level, 8.

    You can take an Operations card and follow its directions. There are plenty of different conditions for each card: some you keep in your hand, some you must play immediately, etc. It's not difficult, so just read each card.

    Finally, you can urbanize. With an expensive price tag ($10,000) you won't do this often. It can convert any "any grey-colored city into a colored city, and add a few cubes there as well. This can be useful for two reasons: it gives you more cubes to deliver (and, usually, these are cities right in the heart of your train network, so they will be easy to deliver) and it creates a new color for you to deliver to. This can certainly help if you've found yourself boxed in with little opportunities to grow without major expense, and maybe deliver some stubbornly-placed cubes that have been taking up space in your existing cities. Of course, any player can deliver these goods, so players must be careful that they are in the best position to take advantage.

    Once all players have taken three actions, the game goes into the Income and Dividend phase. Players collect money based on their position on the victory point track, and also pay the interest on any bonds they have. (Income rises drastically as you get more VP; then it levels off, and, strangely, starts to dip as you get even more VP.) Interestingly, players are not permitted to pay off bonds, so once taken out you're paying interest for the rest of the game. (It's possible a player has to pay more than what they have on hand, which necessitates taking out another bond. This can get ugly and spiral out of control if you're not careful.)

    Once a set number of cities have been empties of their cubes, the game ends. Players adjust their victory point totals based on the number of bonds they have and any bonuses from their baron card. The player with the highest final total wins!

    Game time varies greatly depending on how many people are playing; a 3-4 player game probably takes about two hours once you get the hang of it. You can also adjust the length of the game by changing how many cities must be emptied for the game to end.

    As stated before, the rules can change from map to map. For example, the Eastern US has a rule about the Western Link, where a player can spend an enormous amount of money to "link" their rails to western cities. This produces a ready supply of new cubes. I like these small but important rules, since it adds a little flavor to a game that tends to seem a little generic at times.

    What I like about the game:
    *The rules are simple. People's eyes may boggle a bit at the delivery and rail-building rules listed above, but it's actually quite intuitive. Aside from some weird track-laying situations, there isn't much room for question of how to do it.
    *Even though the rules are reasonably simple, there is still plenty of strategy involved. Do players take out bonds with abandon, stocking up on cash so they can build aggressively, hoping their efforts will pay off in the long run? Do you make several regional railways, or let them spoke out of one major city? Do you build long, expensive rails to deliver some high-valued goods, or deliver a lot of shorter routes? The free-form railway-building system makes plenty of decisions about how best to win, and the randomized goods at the beginning of the game make each game different.
    *A few small, subtle decisions make the game better. For example, you can't urbanize a new Red city: these are set at the beginning of the game and won't change. It doesn't seem big until you realize that it makes delivering red cubes more difficult, and suddenly you realize you can't take some action you originally intended.
    *Separating cash and victory points--although keeping them closely related--helps the game design. There are certain decisions that will help your income but not your VP, and vice versa. This makes many decisions more meaningful than if the game was a straight-up cash grab.
    *The Operations cards are very nice; while none of them are particularly overpowering, they can help give a boost to a player willing to spend an action picking it up. And the first three cards are "conditional" cards--you can't pick them up until you meet specific criteria--so there is sort of a time-delay release before players can start snapping up random cards.This lets players get their footing and prepare for any unexpected cards that pop up.
    *The length of game vs. fun ratio is pretty good. It doesn't take horribly long until only one or two cities are left to be emptied before the game ends, and so there is a tense period that's over before you know it. But early in the game, the building pace is nice and slow.
    *Although the "expandable" nature of the game seems gimmicky, so far they've been done very well. For the records, there are maps for the Eastern US and Mexico (which come with the base game) along with Europe, Western US, England and Wales, and (oddly) Time. Fans can also easily make their own maps.

    What I don't like about the game:

    *The rules could have been cleaned up. Some track-laying situations are spelled out, but others aren't, and I had to resort to some mad internet searching to find the answers.
    *Players are permitted to "block" other players by building track in spaces, preventing them from completing their track (which then must be discarded at the end of the round). This seems...cheap to me, since one player placing a $2,000 piece of track can easily force someone else to abandon $15,000 worth of track. Granted, this only happens in the tightest of games, but it can happen, and it just seems ugly given how the rest of the game works.
    *The income you derive on the victory point track scales up, reaches a peak, then scales back down--which means the more VP you earn, the less money you make each turn, after a certain point. I understand why this was done--leaders can run away with the game if it wasn't set up like this--but it seems so illogical. (I suppose the increased fixed costs of running a huge railroad can be used as an excuse, but I'm not impressed with that reasoning.) I just wish something a little more elegant could have been used.
    *If you get the first print of the game, keep in mind that there are two issues with it. The first is irritating but minor: there are no Mexican Operations cards. Technically, the rule is optional, but I can't imagine why anyone would not play with them. The reprint includes them for free, and you can buy a deck for five bucks from the manufacturer, although shipping is pretty pricey (and ends up being something like $15 for a handful of cards.) You can simply print them out for free if you want to go through the trouble. 

    The second issue, however, is pretty bad. I guarantee this mistake will ruin your first game play, because it does for pretty much everyone. While the reprint fixes this, there really isn't a way to correct it on the first edition or the first few expansion maps.

    Basically, the colors in the game are screwed up. The "blue" cities on the board are very, very dark, to the point where they look like the purple cubes. However, the purple cubes are supposed to be matched to purple cities--which are, in reality, a bright magenta. So basically purple cubes look like blue cities. Blue cities aren't even close to magenta/purple cities, so you can't just switch them. And it is so easy to confuse the two, and it happens every game. It's unacceptable and makes the game much more confusing than it should be: the entire game, players are going to be trying to deliver purple cubes to blue cities.

    The lower cube is "purple" but that city is "blue." They are, essentially, the same color. But the upper cube is technically the blue one. You can see a magenta city (which is supposed to be purple) in the first track-laying example above.

    There's no reason you can't have a house rule that blue cubes go to magenta cities, but that often is confusing as well. There's no reason this should have happened, and it spoils a perfectly good game.

    Final verdict? Despite the color issue, this is a very good game. It actually feels like a railroad-building game, even though a lot of it is abstracted out for simplicity and it plays reasonably quick for its scope. The sheer size and quality of the components is impressive for the price tag. And it plays reasonably fast for the amount of fun you're going to have. I'd like to try some of the other maps, but I just haven't had the time to do so. I would easily rate this an A if you have new reprint, but I can't let go of the color issue, or how it happened in the first place, so overall it gets a B.

    Thursday, September 1, 2011

    I Haz A Fall

    Yay! Let's ring in September with post #300!

    1. I am ready for Mad Men to come back. I've had to push gender stereotypes and verbally abuse my inferiors on my own to make up for it, and my friends and co-workers are starting to get grumpy. Especially the inferior ones.

    2. I was never a huge fan of webcomics. They tend to be pretentious and I have found very few that both have storylines and also are consistently funny. (As much as I find today's syndicated comics trite and at best blandly amusing, it at least has the benefit of quality control.) The better ones tend to be the self-contained one-off panels. And so, if you've never seen them, I can recommend the popular xkcd, The Oatmeal, Hyperbole and a Half, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, and (my current favorite) Hark, A Vagrant! Like most things they are hit or miss--and sometimes post erratically--but still are some of the best I've found. If anyone has any good suggestions, by all means let me know.

    3. Man, both the 5.9 earthquake and Hurricane Irene turned out to be huge busts. 2012 needs to get here and show us how shit gets done.

    4. It's time for Fantasy Football! I will do what I do every year: let the system auto pick everyone, then more or less ignore it until the week before it's over, keeping players on the roster well after it has been confirmed they no longer have functional limbs. Basically: I don't know what I'm doing. (I am many things in this life, but one of those things is not caring who, or how good, the third-string cornerback for the Washington Redskins is.)

    5. It's almost fall, which means it's pumpkin time! Once again I will be on the lookout for Pumpkin Pie Pop Tarts. True, I still have nearly all of the boxes still unopened from the great Big Lots raid of 2011, but at this point I'm afraid their quality is quite suspect.

    6. You know that whole joke about gingers not having souls? It's stupid, it's getting old, and we can all stop now.

    7. I've never considered myself a proper grammar Nazi--everyone makes mistakes, including me, and there are plenty of easy ones to make with our imperfect language--but I always had a knee-jerk corrective reaction (that, thankfully, I often did not verbalize) when I saw someone else make a mistake. I think I may actually be letting go of that particular annoyance. Part of it is seeing how people with such a low grasp of grammar and style succeed monetarily, and I realize exactly how little grammar, spelling, and formatting really matter. And part of it is the fact that so many true-blue grammar Nazis just piss me off with their self-righteous pretentiousness. I don't ever want to be that person.

    8. I know that it's blatantly obvious at this point, but the fact that I was able to get more information about last week's earthquake and hurricane from Twitter instead of the old-school television set or (so help us all) radio is an astounding thing that I don't think society has quite come to grips over.

    9. I think that this blog needs a mascot, and that mascot is going to be a new character I will artfully name Pimpin' Abe Lincoln. Just think of the marketing possibilities.

    10. So, you know how Saturday Night Live kinda sucks? How they will have one character or skit that is legitimately amusing and clever, then they will beat the hell out of that dead horse for six seasons until all the life and energy that went into whatever made it creative is a mere embarrassing husk of itself? And that, at any given time, there are about 45 minutes worth of such sketches every episode? Well, that is what Lady Gaga is at this point.