Wednesday, September 26, 2012

A Tale Of Two Online Magazines

First off, I am not certain whether people still call them webzines or not. That sounds like a very mid-90's thing to call something, much like referring to the infobahn.

In any case, I've seen a lot of tweets (thanks to that horrible, horrible concept of an election we are currently undergoing) linking to online magazines. And I've slowly come to realize that the past, and future, of online magazines can be encapsulated in its two major pioneers: Slate and Salon.

Both magazines were started in the mid-90s ('95 for Salon, '96 for Slate); both were current affairs-style news publications heavy with center-left analysis and embracing new media with old journalistic standards. They both had the same target audience: upper-middle-class youngish white intellectuals. Both launched a failed pay-per-use system for generating revenue. Both quickly branched out to cover lifestyle and occasionally revamp their interface and system. And yet to look at them today is to see vastly different products.

Neither is, of course, perfect. But it's pretty clear that Slate has emphasized pragmatic liberalism and a diffuse subject base, while Salon has retreated into a shrill progressive circlejerk.

Let's look at Slate, first. As of this writing--which, due to the nature of online information, will be different twelve hours from now--the feature articles three main politically neutral yet provocative articles (the Supreme Court, combating child sexual abuse, and an article about copyright law), and five sidebar stories (two vaguely anti-Republican stories, one snoozer about a book, one vaguely anti-Obama/foreign affairs story, and a pro-reform campaign finance story). There's also a scrolling story bar at the bottom that has too much range to detail, but it travels from the NFL to prime time TV to Newt Gingrich, so it's a scattered lot. But you get the idea: mostly politics, liberal slant but not unreasonably so, an emphasis on popular culture, and some intellectualism spiced in there. It hits its target audience perfectly: somewhat affluent and technologically inclined intellectuals, probably liberal in nature; yet the articles won't offend too many conservatives.

Salon, by contrast, rapidly turned onto a sour tabloid-like political magazine, making no particular pretense at being open to all political persuasions. Salon's setup is a little different, but the current sidebar has five stories; four clearly anti-GOP, one somewhat neutral. The "main" leader, sadly, is only one article--about the (gasp!) perils of hiring a babysitter; the rest scroll down like a sad ticker-tape of failed journalism student submissions. A make-news gourd of a piece about some whackjob who "de-liberalizes" the polls? Clearly he represents all of mainstream conservatism, so better throw him up as a headline. Three breathy articles about sex: one painfully excited about sex ads in the Village Voice, an advice column telling bisexuals to be comfortable with who they are, and an article redefining what plastic surgery makes the perfect woman. Throw in a few TV-related articles and a do-gooder liberal-stamped puff piece on education, and you have Salon in a nutshell.

OK. Maybe I'm a little too soft on Slate and hard on Salon. Slate branched out on some pretty awful sub-magazines whose empty opinions are embarrassing to read (The XX Factor, which is full of lackadaisical open-mouthed feminism, is particularly rough to read if you believe any of the writers aren't first-year Women's Studies students.) Their lifestyle articles tend to be written by clueless white suburbanites discovering life without the help. In fact, "clueless" is a pretty good adjective for Slate; the articles all seem very interesting and informative if they're related to policy, history, and social science; but if they try their hand at practicality, like workplace realities or cooking modest meals, it's almost hysterically useless. And Salon was never high culture, so perhaps there's a little bit too much expectation.

It is worth stopping and noting at this point that yet another big-scale general interest/current affairs publication is part of the new information literati, and that is The Atlantic. I didn't really include it in this comparison because they were started over a century ago as a dead-tree publication, and in fact still is in print and doing well. Its setup and core audience is much like Slate's, and I recommend it, but it's outside of the scope of this post.

Still, I think it's clear that the two web sites have seen their trajectories get farther and farther apart. Slate, for all its flaws, tries to be comfortable in its New Democrat clothes, yet internet-brave enough to wander outside of the conventional wisdom. Salon, on the other hand, revels in its poorly-written partisan hackery, willingly trading highbrow reflection over crowd-pleasing saber-rattling.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Video Game Review: Civ V Expansion: Gods & Kings

A few months ago, an expansion was released for Civilization V, called Gods & Kings. As per my previous posts on the original game, this might require some explanation.

The original game was released in late 2010. Since then, every few months, they have released some downloadable content (DLC): mostly new civilizations, maps, and scenarios. In addition, they ended up releasing an almost criminal amount of patches to fix a lot of the problems from the original game. While I love the Civilization franchise, the game as released was not their best effort, and each one of those patches was necessary. Finally, after about a year, they had a game that was decent to play (which, I would like to add, is really unacceptable. But I digress.)

Anyway, the downloadable content you had to pay for, usually a small token about (a few bucks for each). Of course, with around 15-20 downloads, it added up to well past the original cost of the game. Mostly, I'm pointing this out because this is not the expansion. If you pick up Civilization V: Gods and Kings, you'll still need to buy most of the DLC. Of course, you could buy a Game of the Year edition that does, in fact, include almost all of the DLC (but of course not all!), so if you are just now getting into it, buy the GotY edition and then the expansion and then download the remaining content.

[As an aside, I do support this new DLC method--microtransactions and letting customers pick and choose what they want much earlier seems like a decent business model--but companies are starting to get a little greedy about the whole thing. They have the potential to be wonderful revenue enhancers that will make customers happy, but they're also on the precipice of just ruining the whole thing.]

Back to the review of the expansion: it is worth it, and has made Civilization V feel much more like a traditional Civ game than it was originally.

There are two main new concepts in the expansion: Religion and Espionage, but there is a lot more. Let's look at each thing separately.

Religion: A new concept has been introduced: Faith. Faith is accumulated, much like Culture is, by constructing new buildings, having different social policies, etc. When you accumulate a small about of Faith you get to pick a Pantheon: a reasonably small benefit to your civilization, like earning Culture from Pastures or earning Faith from Natural Wonders. You only get to pick one, though, and it's first-come first-serve. (Thankfully there are over 20 to pick from.) After you accumulate a larger amount of Faith, you get a Great Prophet--who can found a religion. Now you get to pick a name and symbol for your religion, along with two benefits: one is a Founder benefit (the player who founds the religion gets the benefit) and a Follower benefit (each city where a majority of its citizens belong to the religion get the bonus). Once you earn your second Prophet, you can "enhance" your religion, picking an additional two benefits (same as before). As with Pantheons, it's first-come, first-serve. While there are plenty of options to choose from, earlier is definitely better.(As a bonus, there is always at least one less religion than player, so at least one person will be left without founding a religion. Better get crackin'!)

Once your religion is founded, it spreads naturally. You can also now use Faith to buy new Great Prophets along with Missionaries (to speed up the growth of your religion) and Inquisitors (who will prevent other Religions from creeping into your cities). You can also "buy" special faith-based buildings with Faith and, depending on the benefits you chose for your religion, you may get to buy non-religious buildings or units. Cities may be under pressure from other cities of differing religions, so there is a constant flux of believers both ways.

Wonders, buildings, and Social choices have also been updated to reflect the new Faith currency. (Stonehenge, for example, now grants a Faith bonus instead of a Culture bonus.) Plus, internal development isn't all that religion adds. Diplomacy is greatly enhances as well. City-States that follow your religion will degrade slower (and be quicker to forgive); likewise, other AI players will consider religion in their dealings with you.

In the end, religion is a net positive in the game. By allowing you to further customize your civilization, you are no longer tied to a specific play style based on the civilization you play. If you want to be a Cultural Mongol, you can go for it. While the mechanics still feel a little wonky--I'm still not sure how certain things are determined, and nothing is really explained all that well in the game--it ends up adding a lot with very little bookkeeping.

Espionage: Spies are around every corner, it seems. With Espionage, players are assigned a certain number of Spies with each advancing age, starting with the Renaissance. Spies are not units on the screen; there is a new Espionage screen, and you can assign tasks to each Spy there.

Spies serve a few different functions. When assigned to a rival's city, they attempt to steal technologies and gather information--like if they are plotting to attack another player. (This information can, of course, be passed on to the target for a diplomatic bonus.) If assigned to a City-State, you can rig their elections and thus gain a boost in favor. Or, you can assign it to your own city to defend it from your rival's spies. None of this costs anything; it's all more or less passively done.

Of course, there are risks. If your spy is caught, there's a chance it can be killed or sent home. Both end with a diplomatic penalty; getting a Spy killed means you will have to go without one for a few turns until a new one is generated. There's also plenty of anti-spying measures, such as police stations, that decrease a spy's chance of success.

Espionage is a nice addition but does not overly change the nature of the game. Since none of it really costs anything--you automatically gain new spies and missions don't cost anything to carry out--you can still use the same play style you always have. However, because you can build defensive anti-spy buildings, it does drag things down a bit on the production end. The limited range of missions is a blessing and a curse; since there's only about three things to do, it doesn't suck time and energy away from other things, but at the same time is very limited in usefulness. Still, in the end, it's a nice variation without being overly intrusive.

City States: I'll be honest, the new rules concerning City-States is much more interesting than the Espionage system, and about on par with Religion. There are a lot more missions one can undertake with City-States: spreading your religion, "bullying" (but not eliminating) other City-States, being bankrupt (and therefore gold counts more), etc. Plus, more than one mission can exist at a time. City-States also grant new benefits. Some have unique luxuries (porcelain and jewelry), and two new types of City-States were created: Mercantile and Religious. Their role in a Diplomatic Victory is thus more nuanced: with more missions to accomplish, it's no longer just bribing your way to victory (though that still works). You have more missions, espionage, and religion that influences how they vote.

New Wonders, Buildings, Units, Resources, and Civilizations: I won't go into this a whole lot, because there isn't much out of the ordinary: just a lot more variation on what you can do, plus a lot of new stuff to fill in what is needed for religion and espionage. Don't get me wrong, they are pretty nice--the new Civilizations, in particular, have a nice, wide range of new abilities--but there isn't much revolutionary. The only complaint I have is for the units: there are just too many of them, and a lot of them do not differentiate themselves from one another to be useful. 

Balance: This isn't really an "enhancement," per se, but a consequence of all of the above factors: with religious benefits, new luxuries, new buildings, and new Wonders, the ability to harvest Happiness, Gold, and Culture has increased greatly. This is, in fact, not necessarily a good thing. When you used to play when Happiness hovered around 0 in the later stages of the game, and now it's easily 50, it changes everything--you don't have to worry about annexing cities. Even though maintenance costs are higher (now that there are more buildings, you still end up with a lot of excess gold. Obviously on higher levels this isn't as much of an issue, but it's still easier than before. It removes a lot of the hard choices that needed to be made in the past.

On net, all of these changes are very positive. While there might be some things out of whack from a balance perspective--and not necessarily in the direction we are all used to--it's still worth it. It's the standard price point of $30, but you should be able to find it for $20 at this point, and at that price it's hard to go wrong. And if you are one of the individuals who disliked Civ 5 and thought it took a step backwards, it's definitely worth revisiting.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Were You Ready For Some Football?

Normally, around this time of year, I have a writeup about football and the things everyone is going to look forward to this season. But for whatever reason, I'm just not into it. That's why the first week has gone by and I haven't really written anything. There could be many reasons:

1) The schedule for the Steelers, my hometown team, looks particularly daunting. Plus a lot of big-time roster changes have been made, and there are very few vestiges left of the previous two Superbowl-winning teams. Quite frankly, the odds do not look good for the Steelers this year.
2) There are two other sports-related distractions in Pittsburgh. The first is the Pirates, who have had an unexpectedly good season this year--at least until about three weeks ago. They had been at the top of the standings for a brief period during the summer, and then have been within arm's reach of the division title for months. Sadly, they collapsed a few weeks ago and now look poised to not even crack .500 for the season. They haven't had a winning season for about two decades, so the sudden chance that they may finally break the string of bad seasons was very appealing. People were actually showing up for games. Oddly enough, they are still only a few games from nabbing a wild card slot, but as the season draws to a close and the Pirates keep their losing streak up that seems largely unlikely.
3) The other distraction is the Penguins. Or, more specifically, the NHL as a whole, since they are likely to have yet another lockout. Now, to be fair, the last time this happened it ended up saving professional hockey; prior to the last lockout, the game was barely being watched by anyone, games had degenerated into low-scoring defensive struggles, and fighting had become so endemic it went from an amusing sideshow to the show itself. This time, however, it will hurt the NHL--viewership is up, fan bases are growing, and a sudden stoppage in play will let other leagues--like the Russian league--capitalize off of it.
4) I did end up watching most of the Steeler game this past weekend, and I had forgotten how many commercials there were. Yeah, yeah, I know...there's always been ridiculous amounts of commercials in the game, there's an ad every break (and there are breaks every few minutes), and everything that pops up on the screen has to have a sponsor's name splashed all over the place so even the dumbest rube can figure out that Dorito's wants you to know how many sacks the defensive tackle from OSU had two seasons ago. If you are socializing or--like me--screwing around on the internet, these ads aren't so bad. But when you are straigh-up watching the game, it's almost unbearable. Now, this was a national nighttime game, so I'm sure that exacerbated the problem, but still.
5) My usual fantasy football group didn't seem to catch on this year. Two people dropped out, and so it's down to a paltry six teams. I've always been a complete wreck when it comes to fantasy football--I basically set up a team and then let it ride the rest of the seasons because I just don't care all that much about knowing the stats on the backup nose tackle of the Seattle Seahawks--but I'm just not into it at all this year.
6) There really aren't any fireworks going on in the league this year. Usually there's all sorts of strange activity, like people going to jail or people saying ridiculous things. Aside from the Tebow-Manning-Luck shuffle, I really don't care all that much about any of the new people or roster changes.

I'm not an idiot--I believe I wrote the same thing last year about not really being into football, and then after a week or two I got into it. I'm sure the same thing will happen this year; get a good, solid afternoon game in and I'll probably start following it for religiously.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

How To Write A Best-Selling Novel

Step 1: If you are friends with Oprah, you don't really have to go any further.

Step 2: Make sure some sort of horribleness has befallen your life. All of the greatest authors have had any combination of the following: undiagnosed clinical depression, substance abuse, being poor and hungry, having abusive parents (or--even better-- aunts and uncles who unwillingly took you as their ward), or communist sympathies. The more of these combinations you can scrape together, the better writer you will be. If you haven't had the fortune to be so misfortunate, try paying your water bill late three months in a row and see what happens. I bet the muse just starts a-talkin' then!

Step 3: Figure out what sort of book you want to write. There are centuries of genres you can choose from, but you are better off randomly selecting something from the current best seller list and copy it. You can certainly write the Great American Novel with grand themes about struggle, pain, and social justice, but if you want anyone to even give your book a second glance it, let alone buy it, had better be about surly teen vampires, sexually frustrated housewives, or juvenile wizards. Slip in some feminist dialectic if you heart wants to, right after you introduce the talking rat in the leather swing.

Step 4: You should also figure out what sort of plot you want. There are some very common themes, such as unrequited love or struggle with an internal villain. Pretty much every novel in existence is a variation on this theme. You get bonus points if you can work in some historically repressed demographic as well, so get ready for some conflict between young quaisgendered Bohemians and environmentally conscious Hispanasian women down on the kibbutz.

Step 5: You must determine whether you want your protagonist to be a hero or an anti-hero in your novel. Most traditional novels had fascinating heroes--Captain Ahab, Mr. Darcy, Humbert Humbert--but this is no longer the particularly trendy thing to do. Making your flawed character an anti-hero will not only help you write a modern novel, but you can project all the horrible things people have ever done to you--from the college admissions clerk all the way down to that barista who gave you a scornful look when you asked if she wanted to hang out at some dull book club like it was some sort of date where they, regrettably, do not serve alcohol--and wrap it up in your horrible, horrible character.

Step 6: Get started on actually writing your book! Different authors suggest different methods to write your novel. Some suggest the brute force technique; simply write anything and everything. Since it can all be edited out later, surely something worthy will spill out on the page. Others will advise to sketch out an outline and stick to it to keep you disciplined. Most likely you will use a combination of several methods, along with a healthy dose of inspiration, dedication, and blatant plagiarism. 

Step 7: For the love of all that is holy, use a laptop. Don't try and write your novel on actual paper. Some pretentious charlatans will try and tell you this is a more "pure" form of writing, but it's all baloney. Not only will you never finish your novel, you're going to look like a complete prick the entire time you hack away at your aimless pursuit. There are many ways in which you can manifest your crippling sense of self-loathing, but getting a spiral-bound notebook and a pack of cheap Bics isn't the answer.

Step 8: Don't ever, ever use the word "baloney" even if it's legitimate. It's crass and uncalled for.

Step 9: If you haven't already taken up an addiction (see step #2), you should start. Writers are a particularly addictive lot, but they are also famously poor and so their addictions are usually of the--shall we say--easily attainable variety. Caffeine is usually a good start, since you can run through a pocket change's worth of pots over the course of a season with your gastric health busted, but not your wallet. Nicotine isn't far behind, especially if you don't have any self-worth and are more than happy to roll your own cigarettes. However, you must use these addictions to fuel your work; do not let them become the reason you get up in the morning. Also, make sure your addiction is stimulative in nature; too many writers get addicted to things such as Bad Girls Club marathons, claim they are for "inspiration," and just end up ordering all of the seasons on DVD from Amazon while your unfinished work sits embarrassingly unfinished next to the remote.

Step 10: Stay true to your plot. It will be tempting to stray from your original ideas as the words become harder and harder to write, but if the book is worth writing the words will find a way. Granted, there's a pretty good chance that your book is not worth writing, which is why there are so many obnoxious books about horny vampires flying off the shelves.

Step 11: Don't be afraid to let a good copy editor look over your work when you are finished. Every single author believes that each individual word they write is sacrosanct, and are unpleasantly inclined to let someone else tear them apart. Baloney Nonsense. You need someone to shamelessly rip your beautiful words to shreds and force you to reconstruct them in a more palatable manner. If you wanted perfection, you should have taken up engineering. Which--let us be fair--you probably should have done anyway. Although I doubt STEM was really your sort of thing anyway, what with you thinking you could write a novel.

Step 12: Even if you do not get your novel published--and let's face it, you probably won't unless you've followed Step 1--you should still feel glad about this sense of accomplishment. You have written a novel, which millions of people would love to do yet very few have actually done so. Sadly, a million more can't write a novel and yet have done so, which is why there isn't a chance in hell of you getting published. I suggest trying zombies next time.