Monday, July 23, 2012

Snack Review: Creepy Animal Jerky

I've always been a fan of jerky. It's the perfect food for when you want a nice, tasty snack, but don't want the guilt of eating something crammed full of sugar. I've somehow convinced myself that jerky has zero negative health effects, the same as I feed with dry roasted peanuts and Lucky Charms. Maybe I didn't have a very good health teacher in high school, I dunno.

In any case, I never ventured far outside the standard beef jerky. I've had some homemade venison on occasion and it's not bad, and I've had all sorts of carne seca beef jerky and hot sauce-infused beef jerky and many other flavors, but in the end it's always just good old also sodium-in-a-stick. About the only thing I've ventured outside of that is turkey jerky, the success of which I am wholly convinced is due only to the fact that it rhymes. (It's actually quite tasty.) I think I've also had ham jerky, but the only problem with that is that there is a 50% chance I'll accidentally pick up Maple Sugar Ham Jerky, which is nasty and violates the rules of my jerky-is-healthy misconception.

So when I saw a little display at the butcher section of my local grocery store, I thought it was interesting. It had all sorts of various animals that are most definitely not cow, pig, or turkey.

If you want to make a zookeeper cry, you can visit Buffalo Bob's poorly-designed web site here.

In addition to the above, they had quite a few others, in various flavors: elk, buffalo, antelope, boar, etc. But I went with alligator, kangaroo, and ostrich. They were available in both the "formed" stick as you see above, and the tougher "natural" jerky you often see. (I put that in quotes because I assume just like everything else in this world someone had developed a machine that pressed jerky into a realistic-looking "natural" formation instead of it actually just being natural.)

These jerky sticks then sat in my refrigerator for like a month because I was too scared to eat them. Thankfully, it's jerky, so it wasn't going to go bad anytime soon.

Still, I suspected that they were going to taste largely like regular jerky. If you can see the label above, it says "with beef," so I assumed that these meat treats were going to be 2% ostrich and 98% beef, salt, and seasonings.

I was, in fact, wrong.

Or, for the most part, I was kind of wrong. I tried the kangaroo first, and I was pleasantly surprised. It certainly didn't taste like beef jerky, but it was similar, and it was quite tasty. It got an immediate thumbs up from me. I'm not sure if it's different enough from other types of jerky for it to be a go-to snack, but if you want to try one that's a little different this is a safe bet.

The second one I tried was the ostrich. I was expecting it to be a little gamey, and it was. Because the meat was a little more tender than the others, the casing had a little bit of a snap to it. It still tasted good and much different than, say turkey, but it was my least favorite of the bunch.

Finally, sadly, I cheated a little with the alligator jerky. I was expecting it to taste like luggage, so I opted to get the Cajun-style. (Because alligators are from Louisiana, you see.) So I can tell you that the alligator stick didn't taste like a pair of shoes, it tasted like CAJUN. As in, the Cajun spices were so strong I could have been eating a sofa cushion and still would have gone in for seconds.

The price was right for these (I paid about a buck fifty for each, not horribly out of line than with standard jerky sticks). I may try the other ones, but quite frankly I've had elk and buffalo and the others and they don't taste sufficiently different enough from beef for me to go out of the way to try it. Still, if you are a fan of jerky, you can buy some of these and tell the ladies you're all impressively exotic because you've eaten kangaroo. Shh, it will be our secret.

Friday, July 20, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises: Rumors and Speculation

I fully realize that a large portion of the movie going public may, in fact, have already seen The Dark Knight Rises, the most recent movie in the rebooted Batman franchise, thanks to the new trend of midnight showings (otherwise known as Sleepy Nerd Friday). However, I assume (I would hope rightly) that most normal people--i.e., the people who don't already know the entire storyline so they can pick it apart by combing through every comic book released since grade Z pulp was first pressed together and pointing out every meaningless discrepancy and sending it to Christopher Nolan's Hotmail account--would wait until this weekend (or, more rationally, six months from now at the dead-mall second-run dollar theater) to see this certain blockbuster.

Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but our crack team of researchers here at C2R have managed to get a list of the rumored spoilers about the film. Sure, you can not read this column and get a nice, engaging story, or you could just read it now and save yourself $12.50 and a night dealing with rude teenagers.

So here's a list of important rumored spoilers for The Dark Knight Rises:

  • Batman's new villain is the mysterious Bane, whose strengths including buying up struggling firms and firing everyone while sucking out the last penny before their discarded carcass is sent adrift in the ocean of red ink*, while his weaknesses are not being the Joker.
  • Cat burglar Anne Hathaway manages to escape a heist by being mistaken for a whippet.
  • Sadly, the Penguin was traded to Carolina before he could enlist as the next villain, so they had to scrape up Bane from the comic vault. (Seriously, who's next? Egghead?)
  • As much as Bruce Wayne would like it to be the case, the final hero vs. villain showdown does not, in fact, happen at Zuccoti Park.
  • Lucius Fox introduces a new gadget to Batman's utility belt: the undisputed masterpiece of Genesis's Invisible Touch
  • Gotham is finally revealed to really be New York City, as everyone already knew, only with less rats and more bats.
  • Commissioner Gordon, unable to cope with the guilt over covering up Harvey Dent's true identity, instead preoccupies himself by refocusing his efforts in finding Peter Pettigrew.
  • And cats! More cats! Because of...because of Anne Hathaway, you see? As...the...Catwoman? Dammit, I which I had thought of that before.
  • Batman does not spend any time looking for Robin, mostly because he can't be bothered to look in the closet.
  • Alfred totally gets sick of Batman's shit and tells him to go piss up a rope, then he peaces out. That happens! I swear!
  • Sadly, it appears that Batman does not, in fact, say "Want to see my Dark Knight rise?" to Vicki Vale. 
  • For some reason, they do not reintroduce Maggie Gyllenhaal as Batgirl. That would be sooo cuuute and you all know it.
  • Yes, I know, Maggie Gyllenhaal's character was killed in the previous movie. So what? This is a movie about a freakin' crime-fighting bat who owns a tech firm that produces unrealistic gadgets and has a Transformer car and fights dudes with burlap sacks over their heads. I'm sure they could cook something up.
  • The movie ends in a horrific, tragic twist, when Bruce Wayne, having fallen from grace from Wayne Enterprises, is forced to do the one job only a flawed hero like Batman can do: be installed as the CEO of Yahoo.
*Yes, I thought of this joke before that asshole Rush Limbaugh went and ruined it for me. I'm using it anyway.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

"You Didn't Build That."

As someone at least somewhat familiar with the concept of economics, I'm always astounded at the disconnect people have with how economics works. That's easy enough to forgive, of course; there are plenty of maxims of economics that seem, on their face, to be illogical and yet make perfect, logical sense (see comparative advantage for a reasonably simple example).

Of course, if you're foolish enough to get politics involved, all logic goes straight out the window.

I generally don't like to take about specific political events here, mostly due to my inability to have access to this blog for most of each day. By the time I get around to writing about current events half of the internet has already written about it and the other half has digested it and formed a rock-solid opinion about it, so my contributions are usually meaningless.

However, the President's recent remarks seem to have marked a fundamental change in the political landscape, so I think an exception can be made.

Let's back up a little bit. A few months ago, Massachusetts senatorial candidate Elizabeth Warren made an oft-quoted statement about her opinions on the capitalist system:
You built a factory out there? Good for you. But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for. You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.
If you want a bare-bones distillation of how the contemporary progressive movement in America views economic activity, this is it.

For some, of course, it seems to make sense: you can't start a business if there isn't a foundation to build it on, and that foundation is (more or less) by necessity a social good. Like any good politician, though, she stretches the straw man beyond recognition and in the process makes the economic libertarian's point for them. There aren't many free market economists that are calling for the tearing up of roads or dismantling the army; these are textbook examples of the free rider problem, a well-established and recognized market failure of capitalism. Any good free marketeer would immediately point to the armed forces and our judicial system (and, with a little hesitation, roads and power lines) as one of the few true responsibilities of the government, since the free market (by their advocates' admission) can't provide it in any meaningful sense outside of a classroom graph. I suspect that if you were to make an offer to any free marketeer that they would pay taxes on these services (and those services only) they would jump on it with two feet and willingly give the government all the credit.

She's extrapolated what free marketeers already agree on, and assume that's what they want to dismantle. This is, of course, far from the case. And when she then accuses the rich from benefiting from these free rider services, she seems to imply it's because they don't want to pay for it--ignoring, of course, that the rich pay so insanely more in taxes than anyone else, it can truly be said that the reverse of what she said is true: everyone else is living off of what the rich built. When she said that a successful businessman moved their goods to the market "the rest of us paid for," it's flatly wrong, because the amount of tax revenue generated by successful businessmen paid for a majority of said road. They should be able to use it, because they paid for most for it, and they shouldn't have to feel guilty about it. If the businessman wasn't moving his goods on that road, the road most likely wouldn't have been paid for. So who is really contributing to the common good?

I assumed this was simply a one-off statement by a liberal-minded candidate in arguably one of the most liberal states in the union, so I didn't give it to much thought--sure, she became the darling of the extreme economic wing of the liberal movement, but so what? And as one senator out of a hundred, she can't do much damage (though is certainly not alone--Hi, Mr. Sanders!).

However, this all changed when Barack Obama effectively said the same thing:
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business, you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen. The Internet didn’t get invented on its own. Government research created the Internet so that all the companies could make money off the Internet. The point is, that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.
If you've got a business, you didn't build that. This unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. This is even more to the point of anything Warren has said. Of course, the point can be diffused; obviously, no business can succeed on its own (they need paying customers, for one). And he seems to cover himself in that last sentence, dangling the thought that initiative might have something to do with how well a business does.

[I'll let slip that creating a government that allows someone to thrive is a direct contradiction with the natural rights of man, but this could easily have been a slip-up and without a sustained repetition of this thought I'll give him the benefit of the doubt.]

The thing is, as with any economically creative endeavor, of course individuals built it. Sure, these individuals are benefiting from roads and cops and security, but we all are, because we all pay taxes. No business owner gets into their business thinking their ultimate goal is to exempt themselves from paying for free-rider problems--if anything, they'll end up paying more in taxes the more successful they are, and thus will have a better claim at building the work "the rest of us did." And business owners risk their own money and their family's time and a good portion of their lives creating something for this economy. That is definitely something that the "common good" had nothing to do with. Not being able to differentiate between these two things--benefiting from the common bedrock of society, and taking a risk with their own time and resources--is the height of arrogance. 

I realize it's a childish thought, but there's a part of me that wonders if individuals like Obama and Warren don't realize exactly how difficult it is to start and manage a business, especially a small/medium business. The fact that he introduced a costly health care program in the middle of a recession making it even more expensive to hire people makes me think he had little idea exactly how difficult it is.

In the end, politicians like Warren and Obama miss the point. The rich don't want to not pay taxes on roads and the justice system--they need that, just like everyone else, and we'd still have these things, regardless of how many rich people we have. (And to believe that even roads and education and the military don't have a ton of waste and are above criticism should be silly for just about any rational person.) They are upset about taxes because taxes go to so many things that are decidedly not part of the "social contract" we have. Someone who doesn't see that is a decidedly short-sighted politician, but, sadly, will most likely be a successful one.

Shell Shocked

So yesterday, the Shell Corporation (or Royal Dutch Shell, I guess, even though it is neither Royal nor Dutch) was the victim of a reasonably elaborate hoax. In a nutshell (ha!), activists (Greenpeace and the Yes Men) created a fake Shell web site to make it seem like Shell was allowing individuals to make their own ads or memes with stock photos and their logo. Shell had nothing to do with it, of course, but activists then went to the fake site that they created themselves and made offensive and satirical ads and sent them to others. Then, they used a fake Twitter account to publicly and loudly get people to stop sharing the fake ads on the fake web site, making the Shell PR department seem like they were not only technologically backwards but also completely out of control of their own internal employees.

Except, of course, they weren't.

I'm not sure what I think about this. I'm a respect-the-rules sort of person and I don't abide childish pranks once you stop being a child. I find most corporate activism like this does nothing more than titillate those already converted to your side and piss off your opponents, and in the crossfire are decent human beings just trying to do their job.

And yet there's a part of me that's glad things like this happen. Especially in the corporate world, it isn't necessarily a bad thing to rattle people's cages. Not only do things like this serve as warning rockets to what could happen--and allow a company to better prepare themselves for future hoaxes--but it sometimes offers new and fresh perspective on an idea or demographic. A company that is forced to react to bad PR can sometimes shine a light on legitimate issues, even if the focus of the activism itself is not based on logic.

Of course, the problem is that particular lack of logic, and it's the sort of thing that activists are generally guilty of. Activists truly feel like they are doing the right thing when they hack a web site or tear down a distribution network. Instead of bringing converts over to their cause, however, they just end up ruining people's careers and slashing people's paychecks, and these people who are most affected probably had very little to do with the problem in the first place. The only effect for their cause is that it makes themselves feel like they've "done something." It's a selfish act that rarely has any intended effect at all, and their organization ends up just looking like a bunch of pricks.

It's also quite likely that the activists themselves are hypocrites. Often, activists will hide behind the claim that, no matter what, if you draw a salary from an oil/chemical/drug/etc. company, you're part of the problem and deserve to suffer the consequences. If you work in payroll or clean the cubicles of an oil company and your Christmas bonus just got halved yet you have nothing to do with drilling oil, is that person any more guilty than an activist that increases the demand for oil by using it any capacity at all?

The Pledge: So I guess I sort of have a lame justification for corporate activism. I like it in moderation where no one gets hurt, which sort of defeats the purpose of activism in the first place. So just man up and do something respectable with your lives, okay, Greenpeace/Yes Men/PETA? You're not getting theater credits anymore for your community college course.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Candy Bar Review: Girl Scout Cookie Themed Nestle Crunch Bars

My wife recently surprised me with a crop of candy bars to test out. She even sent me a picture to taunt me about all the tastiness I was missing out because I was at work.

However, I apparently did not catch that these were, in fact Girl Scout Themed candy bars. So imagine my happiness when I realized that these were much, much different than the standard variation of taste most candy bars get.

Even though these are Nestle Crunch bars, you can see from the packaging above they are more like those sugar-wafer bars you often see. There are several thin layers of wafer in each candy bar and there doesn't appear to be any crispy rice involved. That's not necessarily a bad thing, as we shall see, but don't go in expecting a standard Crunch bar. As us sophisticated candy bar reviewers know, selling a new candy bar often means using a well-known name despite having roughly zero in common with the original version.

The candy bars above actually are two small candy bars apiece. I'm sure there's some merit badge you can earn by sharing each of these snacks, but I recommend not doing that, especially if you are not a Girl Scout. Just eat it.

You'll notice something else odd about the above picture: aside from the Thin Mint, they don't actually name the cookie involved. It's clearly a Samoa and a...Tagalong? Yes, Taglong. (I had to look it up.) I don't know why this is the case, but I did find it curious. It's clearly licensed by the Girl Scouts (what with the logo being there), but I'm assuming someone did not earn their merit badge in copyright law. (Please note that I have no idea if Girl Scouts still do merit badges but I'm still going to make the jokes.)

First up is Samoa caramel and coconut. It doesn't quite taste like the cookie; rather than being chewy, it's crispy (hence, the "Crunch," I suppose). Both the coconut and the caramel flavoring are light, but since they have a tendency to be strong this is probably a good thing. They seem to have hit the right balance in flavoring.

The next is the Tagalong peanut butter creme bar. It tastes very similar to a Nutty Bar, with perhaps a little bit less wafer and more chocolate and peanut butter. This is a good thing, of course, since Nutty Bars can be gross if you eat them on the wrong day. (Don't ask.) By itself this is a good candy bar, but I'm afraid it may not differentiate itself enough from similar candy to be notable.

Finally, the Thin Mint is exactly how you think it would taste. It's probably a little stronger than it should be; my wife thought it almost tasted like medicine or a cough drop. From a consistency standpoint this was most like the cookie, but I think I'd rather just eat the cookie. That said, it's not a bad candy bar by any means.

Oddly, it's the consistency of the candy bars that sets them apart from the cookies, and that is their advantage. Don't buy these candy bars assuming they are just going to be the cookies in candy bar form; you'll be disappointed. However, they are similar enough that they will probably sate the same craving and they are unmistakably based on those popular cookies. As long as you like your Samoas, Thin Mints, and Tagalongs, you'll like these--and even if you don't, these are different enough to warrant a try.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Who Will Be Romney's VP? An Easy Reference Guide

There's been a lot of chatter that Romney may select his vice-presidential nominee this week. It seems a little early, of course, but no doubt this is in response to the horrible week he's currently having.

As in every election year, there will be plenty of armchair speculation as to who will get the #2 slot. And, of course, the stakes are higher, what with last election's choice being as close to an unmitigated disaster as you can get without involving electroshock therapy.

So as you hear the rampant predictions as to what the Romney camp is doing, here's a handy guide for who might be our next vice president. There are plenty of likely candidates that didn't make this list--most notably Rob Portman and Bob McDonnell--but they are boring and thus no chart entry is required.

Condoleeza Rice
Who? George W. Bush’s Other Woman that no one seems to want to acknowledge.
Selling Point: Mostly foreign affairs, since Romney’s international credentials involve mostly convincing the French to join a religion that involves marrying multiple women at the same time or finding some island willing to hide maintain a favorable return on his cash.
Drawbacks: She's never ran for elected office, so she hasn't perfected the art of creative vague yet plausible platitudes to assuage moderate voters. You know, lying.
Best Part: We will have a ticket where the first names are Mitt and Condoleeza, which is somehow even more absurd than having a president named Barack.

Michele Bachmann
Who? The crazy-eyed Tea Party favorite from Minnesota.
Selling Point: She has a vagina, which is a point that can be mentioned out loud in about 32 of our 50 states.
Drawbacks: She’s “married.”
Best Part: After she wins on election night, she will stand on stage with Mitt Romney and tear off her mask to reveal that she has been, as suspected all along, Sarah Palin.

Bobby Jindal
Who? Governor of whatever is left of Louisiana.
Selling Point: Has done a decent job of running a state that is more or less a collection of criminals, fishermen, and voodoo priestesses.
Drawbacks: I have heard better speeches from King George VI.
Best Part: Joe Biden is so totally going to think he works at 7-11.

Paul Ryan
Who? Some creeper from the redder parts of Wisconsin.
Selling Point: A budget hawk, he’s been an uncompromising advocate for rich white people, which thankfully overlaps with Romney’s core demographic. Also, he appears to have no soul, which in some battleground states is seen as a benefit.
Drawbacks: He really, really hates old people and puppy dogs, unless they are for dinner. FOR DINNER.
Best Part: When someone asks his opinion on foreign affairs, say, like, Afghanistan, his response will be to ask what its market price is at the moment.

Marco Rubio
Who? The notably Hispanic Senator from Florida.
Selling Point: There are 29 good reasons, compadre. Also, for the GOP, he’s the correct type of Hispanic.
Drawbacks: His background story has more holes than Dick Whitman Don Draper’s.
Best Part: At some point during the presidency, Romney is going to absent-mindedly ask him how the re-sodding of the White House lawn is coming along. YOU KNOW IN YOUR HEART THAT’S GOING TO HAPPEN.

Rick Santorum
Who? The frothily popular Urban Dictionary entry from Pennsylvania
Selling Point: All of the people who chewed through Gingrich, Cain, Bachmann, and Perry and had to give up on Santorum were left with a bad….taste in their…mouth. Sorry.
Drawbacks: Romney’s strategy appears to including winning states outside of the South.
Best Part: Sweater-vests will be the new fist bump. That…that was a thing, right?

Tim Pawlenty
Who? The least crazy candidate to come out of Minnesota.
Selling Point: He looks like a character actor from the demonstration portion of a late night infomercial. Yeah, he’s boring and cheesy, but someone just spent $19.95 for an orange-colored sponge.
Drawbacks: People might confuse him with the Magister. Which I guess could also be a selling point.
Best Part: Two or possibly one word: T-PAW!

Chris Christie
Who? The enormously (ha!) popular governor of New Jersey or, as the rest of America sees it, Old Person Vegas.
Selling Point: He’s a ball-busting Republican governor from a reliably Democratic state.
Drawbacks: He’s pissed off an organization even more deadly and violent than the Mafia: the teachers' union.
Best Part: It is entirely possible that he can have people killed.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Illuminati: The Online Game?

A few months back I wrote a lengthy scribe about converting the Illuminati board game into a Living Card Game. Clearly, my powers of persuation have not worked (YET) as there has been no movement from Steve Jackson Games on this front.

So, as an alternative idea, I've thought about this, and I think there is a pretty decent and potentially lucrative format the game could be re-introduced as: an online game powered by microtransactions.

So, let's back up a little bit. Readers of this blog know that I'm a fan of Team Fortress 2. I won't get into the specifics, but its business model is what we are going to be examining. It appears to be quite successful and also seems particularly well-suited for Illuminati. Basically, Team Fortress 2 is a game that is free to download and play. There is absolutely no gameplay advantage based on how much you've spent. However, you can upgrade to a premium account by buying anything in the game store, including something that's worth 50 cents. A premium account lets you trade with other players and expands your inventory.

It's a combat-based game; you gain new weapons randomly for free. If you want a specific weapon, you can wait for it to drop or trade with someone. You can also combine other extra weapons to 'craft' a weapon you want. Alternately, you can buy it.

And that's the trick. The microtransaction model allows players to make small purchases--usually in the $1-$5 range--to enhance the game. Well-designed games make these transactions cosmetic, or at least do not give a specific advantage. TF2 does it right: There are three free ways to get a weapon (drop, trade, or craft) and one way that you pay for. And since no one weapon is better than another--any advantage is offset by a disadvantage, for the most part--you don't get an advantage in the game by spending money. It gives you more options, sure, but no actual benefit that you couldn't eventually get for free. Plus, you can only have one weapon in a slot at a time, so if one person with three different shotguns goes up against another player with only one, they both still only get to choose one for that battle. Other things, such as hats, keys, and name tags are also available--and they're fun, and at only a buck or two lots of people are willing to spend the cash. The Team Fortress 2 model is so successful and robust that the company hired an economics consultant to handle their marketplace.

Okay, with that in mind, many of these ideas could easily be translated into the Illuminati universe.

[I will note here that I'm actually talking more about the CCG version of the game. Since the microtransaction model is more or less going to be customized, I'm going to pull most of the inspiration from Illuminati: New World Order, not the base game. Aside from the customizable aspect, of course, anything from the base game (like the megabucks model) could also be used in my proposal. Also, I'm referring to everything as "cards" although in online reality they will be something different.]

I won't go into the details of the rules of Illuminati here, except that to note that the game involves organizing various groups (such as the Mafia, the Democrats, and the Post Office) around your Illuminati. In addition, Plot cards, Resources, New World Order cards, Goal card, etc. are also present, so there are plenty of customizable options players have.

You start the game by customizing your deck. When you start playing, you're given one free Illuminati and maybe 60 or so cards. (These could probably be quasi-random, having a core set that everyone gets plus a bunch of random cards.)  So when you start playing, your card selection in and of itself probably isn't very high, but the actual game you play won't be any better or worse than anyone else. (This would be a good time to generate some income: when players first start, they could pay, say, $9.99 to immediately get all the basic Illuminati cards. Or, select the ones you want at two bucks a pop. Not required, but it makes your customization much more robust.) The important thing to note is that a player's "deck" is a set number of cards: regardless of whether a player has 60 cards or 500, they still only get to choose 45. So while a player with more stuff certainly has more options, once the game starts everyone has the same amount of cards to use.

Because of the nature of the game, customizing your game before you play is a must, and that's where the microtransactions come in. As you play, you are awarded new groups, plots, etc. You don't need any of them, but since they have different abilities and alignments, you'll have more options as you gain cards. You can simply wait to "drop" your favorite group, or you can trade other people for it, or even craft it (say, discard three Criminal groups and a Violent group to create a Mafia card). Or, if you are impatient, or you have an idea for a perfect deck but don't have a key card, you can spend a couple bucks on it.

And here's the beauty of it: since it's an online game, it can be updated instantly. Some new celebrity pops on the scene? A new organization is created or a meme gets in the headlines? Pop it in the distribution and it's ready to go. No need to wait for a printer or an expansion; they get added every month, or week, or day.

I could easily see adding (to take this past week as an example) a "TomKat Divorce" plot card. It could have some relevant effect on the game (distract Media groups, maybe). It would be topical and funny, and people would desire it, but it would also be dated very quickly. So after a week or two anyone who has that card would have it removed from their inventory and a token good for another card draw (or some such bonus). You'd give people an incentive to keep playing the game (to get any of these "temporary" cards). Some people might buy them in case it doesn't drop (knowing ahead of time they are dated, of course), and then they get some compensation when it expires. Cards would also be periodically updated; Dan Quayle turns into Sarah Palin, for example, or the Fred Birch Society becomes the Tea Party. Also, special abilities could get added or removed as the times change.

With the online format, the rules can change as well to allow for more complicated things. Bonuses can be percentage-based, for example, or you can do away with action tokens or megabucks and allow each point of Power be usable in whatever way you wish (i.e., a group can spend 3 of its 6 Power instead of it being all-or-nothing). It can be as simplified or as complicated as needed. Battles can be more convoluted since the computer is doing all the paperwork.

Not to stray too far from the core of the game, but it also opens up other, new possibilities. Maybe your Illuminati can earn bonuses. Cthulhu, for example, might get a bonus to attack Nations, or The Network gets additional snooping abilities. However, you only get to choose one or two of these bonuses per game, so you're never more powerful than anyone else; still, you get the longevity of "customizing" your Illuminati as time goes on.

Many of the variants provided by Steve Jackson Games could also be implemented easily. I remember there being an evolution variant, where you play a series of games and you could only change one or two cards once the game is over before you move to the next.  Maybe you can buy an Evolution Token for a dollar or two that you can slap on a deck, and that deck can only play other Evolution decks in specific games.

Of course, the online format causes some challenges as well. Most likely, the game would have to be action-based instead of player-turn-based. (In other worlds, everyone gets to take one action at a time, rather than each player taking all of their actions at once.) This will allow the game to move quickly and be more compatible with the online format. (It would also make cards such as New World Order cards much more interesting.) There will have to be some rules alterations to accommodate this, of course, but I think that can be mitigated pretty easily (and may actually present some new, additional opportunities). 

The bigger challenge, of course, is the graphics. I'm not exactly sure how something like this would look. On the one hand, simply looking at a bunch of cards is not going to be in the least bit visually appealing. On the other hand, it would be prohibitively expensive to animate each and every single card. I think as long as people know what to expect it won't be a bad thing, and if the interface can be made to look slick and easy I think this can be overcome.

Also, given the nature of the game (and unlike games such as TF2), not every card will be balanced. Some will be more useful than others. Now, the CCG had a built-in balancing feature; a very useful card (such as, say, the Nuclear Power Companies) can be mitigated by copies, so if everyone adds it to their deck it becomes less powerful. Even beyond this, it can easily be turned into a benefit: add a crafting element, so if you have a handful of duplicates or less-than-useful cards, you can simply convert them into one useful card. It's not very efficient, but it will certainly be a welcome option. (Also, remember, that regardless of how many cards a player has in their inventory, they can only bring a set number into each game.)

I'm also not sure how many "cosmetic" things you could purchase. I'm sure more creative minds than mine could think of something, but offhand I can't think of much. Maybe you could buy "scribe" tokens to use on your groups/Illuminati to keep track of the number of successful attacks or under what Goal they won. You can't really rename the groups, but maybe you could add flavor text, or get to add historical figures that once ran your Illuminati. I don't know, but I'm sure there are options. I don't even know if any sort of "crate" system could be implemented, mostly because I can't think of a way to enhance a group without changing its effect on the game. (Maybe some sort of Elite status?) There's always inventory expanders and other sundries that can be regularly purchased to provide a steady stream of income.

The pitfall is, of course, to get too greedy. The important thing to note is that no one likes a game where, if you pay more, you win more often. The game should be as balanced as possible without having the spend the money, while encouraging fans to spend small amounts multiple times over a lengthy period of time. I'm torn whether the cards should have a rarity or not; I don't like that it might alter how the game is played, but it would make trading much more interesting. If there is rarity, I wouldn't make it nearly to the scale as the traditional CCG; rare cards would only slightly be more rare than uncommon, and so on for common cards. I also don't know if you could buy packs of cards, or if sticking to buying individual cards is the way to go. There's no reason why both can't be done: buy a pack of random cards where you're guaranteed one rare, or buy the card outright and know exactly what you're getting. However, I don't want it to devolve into just a CCG in an online format.

So there you have it. Online Illuminati. The customizable aspect could lead the game to be very lucrative, as players crave the powerful cards, cards that fit their deck ideas, or just cool-sounding current events. The online component can allow new rules and make existing rules much more efficient. And the theme has always been very interesting, especially amongst gamers. While there are certainly high development costs, the core game is more or less already designed, and it's all digital content for real money after a point. I'm not saying that it's fool-proof, but it's a proven business model if effectively done.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Pax Americana

I’m usually not particularly impressed with columns and posts and treatises and pretentiously idiotic monologues on half-baked pay-TV series that detail exactly why the Unites States sucks. I’m not a full-on, balls-to-the-wall nationalistic patriot: I’m proud of the country I live in, but part of that pride is because I know that we live with huge problems. I’m under no illusions that America is perfect, and anyone who says so is kind of a moron.

That said, I’ve always believed that the quite specific form of government we have is the best at distilling these problems, so even if we're not perfect we have mechanisms to fix them that other national identities don't. Sure, it’s clunky and messy and frustrating, but it’s important to remember that this is how it was designed. We don’t want an efficient government. We want consensus joined with a baseline level of liberty. Any time you think to yourself that the two-party system is hyperpartisan, just remember that the alternative is that one party always gets what they want.

Anyway, so when I came across this screed by Mark Manson about “Ten ThingsAmericans Don’t Know About America,” I was initially ready to write it off as yet another down-with-America post. Yet when I read it, I realized that while I don’t agree with his overall conclusion, his specific assertions are actually not far off. 
Go ahead and read the link above, and I’ll give my thoughts on each of his ten points:

1.       Few People are Impressed By Us: Sounds fairly accurate. I think it’s a little unfair, though: we only hear about the people that care about us, so obviously our bias is going to think that’s the case across the world population. There’s no headline in our papers stating “Majority of residents in Latvia don’t give a shit about you.” Still, the point is valid and makes sense.

2.       Few People Hate Us: Pretty much the same as above; we only hear the bad stuff. 

3.       We Know Nothing About The Rest Of The World: Guilty as charged. However, I’ll offer a defense: For other nations, they really only need to know about three or four nations besides their own (The US, China, a major European nation or two, and their neighbors). America has to keep tabs on almost 200 different nations in order to not be accused of global ignorance. If we only have, say, ten in-depth news articles to read in a week, we’re never going to make it down the list to Zambia or Belarus. That’s one of the many drawbacks of being on top.

4.       We Are Poor At Expressing Gratitude and Affection: I agree. I just chalk this up to cultural differences, though, so I have no real problem with it.

5.       The Quality of Life For The Average American Is Not That Great: This is one  point I don’t agree with. His point is that only those of great intellect or talent rise to the top, while everyone else is crowded in the slums. Despite the current class-war rhetoric, this isn’t even close to being right; except for the most extreme poor, everyone is living much higher than the worldwide level of standard comfort. Plus, America is a historically competitive nation, and I don't necessarily see that as a bad thing; it's part of what made us a legitimate superpower.

6.       The Rest Of The World is Not A Slum-Ridden Shithole Compared To Us: While I agree up to a point, there’s also a lot of extreme poverty in the world that even the poorest on our nation aren’t at. The writer holds up examples such as Norway and Singapore, but those really aren’t the problem areas we’re thinking about. I don’t think there are a whole lot of people claiming that Europe or even Asia is some weakened kobold scraping by (although you may want to skip any articles about Greece or Spain if you’re trying to prove this)—in fact, it was only two decades ago we were worried about Japan “catching up,” and now it’s China, and three or four decades ago even South America was on the economic watch list. So I think that Americans only think parts of the world are slum-ridden shitholes, and the parts we’re thinking about otherwise are fairly accurate.

7.       We’re Paranoid:  I generally agree. I think that security theater needs to be reduced, and a lot of our angst is generated from our lawsuit-driven legal system. As far as being paranoid about tourism, the writer is probably right, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to feel like you’re a target when you’re an American abroad.

8.       We’re Status-Obsessed and Seek Attention: Very true, although I think it’s more to do with the medium now than any drastic increase in narcissism. We have the ability to instantly tell everyone exactly how we feel via social media, and there’s hundreds of television stations instead of just four or five. And for the first time pretty much anyone can make music or film something and instantly be available for the entire world to see, so the capability to put ourselves out there has dramatically changed in less than a decade. We’ve always been this way, it’s just easier to do it now. Still, I think there’s just as much status-seeking in plenty of cultures in the world; it’s just American culture is remarkably global.

9.       We Are Very Unhealthy: Also true. However, his assertions about the reasons our health care and prescriptions are so expensive are off a little. (For example: health care isn’t “cheaper” if you’re paying higher taxes that pay for it.) I won’t go into it much right now simply because it’s outside of the scope of this analysis. There are plenty of reasons outside of simply eating poorly (for example, we spend a lot—I mean a lot—of money in the last years of our lives, while the culture of most other nations treat this stage of life quite differently.) But it’s certainly a problem.

1       We Mistake Comfort For Happiness:  I don’t necessarily disagree with this point, but I also don’t think it’s a huge issue—different people are happy about different things. I guess my thought on this one is “so what?”
While I agree with nearly all of these points (albeit perhaps not as strongly), I think the overall conclusion is wrong. America has undoubtedly been the most successful nation in nearly all metrics for about three or four decades after World War II, and for three or four decades after that still the overall winner if not first place in all relevant categories. And I think we were successful largely because of these differences listed above, not despite them. Being status-obsessed and comfortable (#8 and #10) also made us competitive. Our perception of how others view us (#1, #2) and how we view them (#3, #6, #7) are a by-product of our success, not a cause for our downfall; by being the best, our perception is skewed. And the drawbacks we have (#4, #5, #9) are, relatively speaking, not that bad. The problem with comparing nations is that each nation has a trade-off that doesn’t show up on the balance sheet.

Americans could improve on nearly all of these points. My own list of grievances would be much more geared towards our expectations of society to the individual (and thus much more boring). Still, it may be a touch of jingoism in my blood to think that someone who claims that the average Joe in, say, Columbia has it just as good as an America is flat-out wrong.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Why Do Small Businesses Hate Social Media So Much?

Over this past weekend, my wife and I encountered what I am certain sociologists would consider a "modern problem." Yet it's something that's baffled me in ways I can't comprehend.

While on vacation a few weeks ago, we ran into one of those new* frozen yogurt places, where basically you've convinced yourself that froyo is healthier than ice cream so it's perfectly acceptable to load it up with gummy bears and Oreo crumbles. You then put it on a scale and they charge you by the ounce. It's not a bad concept, and when we got home we decided to see if any new ones had been opened around our area.

Turns out there were about three or so, approximately three more than we were expecting. However, when we decided to take a trip to visit one, that's where we ended up having issues. My wife started searching online for information--it was going to be about an hour drive regardless, so we wanted to make sure these places were even open--but of all the frozen yogurt places we found out about, none of them had:

1) A functioning web site
2) A Facebook page
3) A phone number listed online
4) A Twitter account
5) Any sort of street address

Really? It's 2012, and they don't have any functional online presence at all? One place had a web site that was "under construction" and didn't even have any basic information, but the rest were under radio silence. Most had Yelp review pages, but none of those had phone numbers and the addresses ended up being incomplete and wrong. (Also, it's Yelp.)

Now, I understand that a lot of these were relatively new businesses and most likely just opened up this summer. And most small business are overwhelmed with getting their actual storefront up and operational. But this is Getting Customers Through Your Door With Cash In Hand 101, here; no one can walk in to your store if they don't know where it's at. And it's not like this is that difficult. Sure, a web page takes time, money, and expertise, but it literally takes less than a half hour (and is mind-numbingly simple) to set up a Facebook page, and is completely free to boot.

I'm continually amazed about how slow most new small business are at embracing social media. I know a lot of them do, but there's an alarming number who don't even do the basics, and that's just foreign to me. And the baseline contact information, while needed, could be so much more: if you want a way to let everyone know what your specials are, or any events you have planned, there is literally nothing easier, cheaper, and with such an easily attainable set of willing eyeballs looking at your offer than social media.

Given all this, it's also frustrating with how little regard social media experts are held, yet there is a clear demand for it. There are plenty of people like my wife and I (and plenty others) that know social media and have a decent level of business understanding, yet our skills go untapped. Business owners seem to only want social media if it is free (and thus won't pay a consultant) but then end up not setting anything up at all. Or, more commonly, they are perfectly happy relying on a yellowed marquee sign to advertise their specials visible only to people who are already on their property.

I am sure that there are small business owners who are simply content with foot traffic and word of mouth to keep them afloat, and I'm sure that works for some people. But times are changing, as they say--and have been changing for a while--and it's not going to be very long before companies like that will simply be out of business.

*"New," as in "it's been around for a decade or so but we just now got around to doing it."

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Static and Noise: Not Of This World

Illegal Aliens: Today in 1947, the Army issued a statement to the effect that a "flying disc" had been recovered in Roswell, New Mexico, sparking an intense and prolonged interest in UFOs--as well as establishing the government as the go-to entity for alien cover-ups. I have an interest in aliens, but not a particularly intense one. I find the thought that we are alone in this infinite universe to be unlikely, and yet I think the probabilities of an advanced civilization on a hospitable planet are also mind-numbingly low. Still, it's interesting one way or the other, plus I can't figure out another explanation for the inexplicable popularity of Deal or No Deal.

Black Monday: Monday marks the doomsday for the internet: or, at the very least, a tiny fraction of them. A malware virus spreading throughout the internet over the course of the past year will cause infected computers to stop connecting to the internet. I've never quite understood why these things existed. It's one thing to cook up a virus that steals credit card numbers or spams inboxes, but just to cause inconvenience to people seems particularly...well, stupid. And the sad part is that at this point even the most careful of users can still be susceptible, including Mac users. Chalk this one up to another mystery of humanity as who why anyone does anything stupid.

Superheroes: I am patiently waiting for the Superhero Movie craze to be over. They predicted the death of it last year, and yet it doesn't appear as though they are going away. Now, don't get me wrong: I like the superhero movie as much as the next guy; they're often a lot of goofy fun. And yet it seems like at this point there's one or two a month throughout the summer, and it's starting to crowd out all of the other styles of movies. They've also tapped out on the big stars, so they're moving down the relevancy list. Either that, or they are making too many sequels. They're well done, but if you have too much of anything it's going to get old. I'm sure there are a few years yet, but one of these summers there's going to a huge, studio-crippling flop that will serve as a long-awaited wake-up call.

Friday, July 6, 2012

The Pittsburgh Pirate Care-O-Meter Redux

Last year, when our lowly Pittsburgh Pirates, coming off of a 19-year losing streak, got themselves a new coach and a crop of young yet promising players. (For those keeping score at home, when I say "losing streak" I don't mean "non-playoff years," I mean "lost more games than they won," which by all accounts in all professional sports is a pretty remarkable level of horribleness.) So I decided to keep a homeland-security style  Pittsburgh Pirates Care-O-Meter on the right side of this blog to track how much I was going to follow the Buccos this year. Here is a picture:

I believe that orange was as high as it ever got, and to be honest I'm not sure it got that high. Throughout the first half of the season, they danced around .500 ball for quite some time, always giving us hope and then, just as quickly, taking it away. After the All-Star break, though, they collapsed like a cheap tent, the meter dropped to deep purple, and I stopped even tracking it anymore.

I'm a lukewarm fan of baseball. I find it nominally boring. While you would think that I would love something as stat-heavy as baseball, I can't quite connect. And I'm sure part of it is the franchise; half of the fun is watching your favorite players, and the Pirates have a cottage industry of plumping up decent prospects and then trading them away. It's like a revolving door of broken dreams. Plus, unlike football (and not quite as bad as hockey), baseball seems to have this arcane and mystifying system where random farmboys sling balls around in rural Oregon for years before they are ready for the pros, and they get their way to a major park only after a labyrinth-style ascension through the ranks. I just can't bring myself to care all that much about a thousand faceless prospects until they've been around for a while.

So this year I thought about running it again. Despite their late-season debacles, the coach seemed to have at least got everyone's shit together, at least to the point where it was plausible. But I chose not to. Not only was the joke old, but it was actually kind of a pain to keep up with. I had forgotten that unlike every other reasonable sport, there are approximately five thousand games per season, so I would easily lose track of the record.

Still, I'll have to admit that things are certainly looking up. Right now, only a few days away from the break, your Pittsburgh Pirates have managed to have a thin lead as first in the division. They're also around 10 games ahead, so they can still suffer a modest collapse and still bounce back. For the first time in nearly two decades, it's possible to get excited about Pittsburgh baseball again.

Then again, let's not get ahead of ourselves. This isn't the first time a promising season then went into a downward spiral. And we're one injury away from watching everything collapse; Andrew McCutchen has proven to be the only reliable offense so far. So it's cautious optimist at the moment.

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Baldwin Blues

Alec Baldwin recently got married, and apparently as part of the honeymoon festivities he's decided to delete his Twitter account.

I've got no problem with that, of course; while I find Twitter to be an integral part of today's entertainment business (for a variety of reasons), I can at least respect someone who doesn't want to get involved. While Twitter has a lot going for it, with a 140-character limit it's difficult to get...well, nuanced. It's gotten a lot lesser people than Mr. Baldwin in trouble, so it often makes sense.

That said, this seems to be one of a series of temper tantrums Mr. Baldwin has undergone in recent memory. After a mean-spirited voice mail was released, where he intemperately called his own daughter a "little pig," he swore he was going to quit his high-profile role on 30 Rock. It took all season for him to get over it and sign on for a few more years. (Of course, a few years after that, he leaked that 30 Rock was done for good, only to backpedal and claim that he was done for good; the rest of the cast might still be interested. Whether this was an honest mistake or he assumed 30 Rock wasn't feasible without him is up to...ah, screw it, the guy's a prick and he thinks he's the only star of the show.)

He wrote a book, A Promise To Ourselves, which is a pretty long diatribe about the "divorce industry" and comes across as sort of a crybaby's vent. (To be fair, the book brings up a lot of good points about the way lawyers have vulturized high-profile divorce and puts a spotlight on parental alienation, but to write an entire book about it when you're not really an expert is...well, a touch creepy and obsessive.)

And, of course, there's the incident where he refused to stop playing Words With Friends on a runway (using electronic devices is verboten), forcing the flight to be delayed and got himself kicked off the plane. And in true Hollywood asshat fashion, he apologized to the crew and passengers, but deliberately did not apologize to the airline or federal regulators. He did, at least, make fun of himself in later skits.

And he's gone on record to wanting to murder two people: the editors of TMZ, Henry Hyde (who should be stoned), and the wives and children of Republicans (who should be slaughtered in their homes). Also: Kim Basinger's divorce lawyer  (choice of weapon: baseball bat).  He's tried to explain some of these away as "jokes," but it's getting to be a tired joke.

This wasn't supposed to be a diatribe against the passive-aggressive failings of the eldest Baldwin. But it does paint a remarkably consistent picture of the typical arrogant out-of-touch Hollywood limousine liberal. Usually with celebrities, you assume that they are nice people most of the time, but their bad moments get amplified in the searing glare of stardom's heat lamps. But for Alec Baldwin, it honestly seems like he's just a straight-up pretentious asshole.