Tuesday, July 23, 2013

What To Name A Royal Baby

I know that the Prince William and his wife, Kate, are pretty busy at the moment, so i figured I would do them a favor: help with picking out a baby name!

We all know it's a boy, and that there is a lot of heritage and legacy attached to it. But I don't see why we can't provide them with a short list of good candidate for the future king of England. And feel free to choose anyone one you want, guys; I request no compensation, though I certainly wouldn't turn down a peerage.

  • William Jr.
  • Severus
  • Banksy
  • Harry Jr.
  • Magnificent Bastard
  • Paul the Great
  • Meal Ticket
  • Dodi
  • Piers Morgan
  • Carlos Danger
  • Aelhearn*
  • The Situation
  • Cornelius the Irish Catholic Suppressor
  • K!ng@fEnngl!n69
  • Bloody Dan
Not for nothing, but I would prefer that my crest has either snakes or Kinder Eggs.

*This is an actual Welsh name. No, they aren't Welsh, but c'mon

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Game Change

I recently got around to reading Game Change, the book about the 2008 Presidential election by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin.

First off, yes, I realize that this is probably about four years too late. I have a particular fascination with election books, starting with the Theodore White Making of the President series through the various accounts written by Jules Whitcover in the 80's and 90's. Game Change serves as the flagship book for 2008, and rightfully so.

It's important to note that much of the talk about this book--in addition to the HBO movie that was made--focused on Sarah Palin. While the book has one of the few in-depth examinations of her selection as vice president, the book only devotes about two chapters out of twenty-three to Palin. The first half of the book is about the primary battle between Obama and Hillary Clinton, and the last four or five chapters deal mostly with the general campaign.

At this point, there aren't many surprises about the campaign, but I thought it would be notable to make a few points:

  • Everyone pretty much comes out as an asshole. Granted, politics tends to bring out the assertive Type A personalities that tend to come off as assholes, but I was a little shocked about exactly how bad everyone was. Hillary Clinton came off as an entitled sourpuss. Obama comes off as a self-righteous jerk. John McCain as a violent hothead. John Edwards was a horny, delusional cad, Elizabeth Edwards an opportunistic crybaby. (Yes, that's factoring her cancer and philandering husband into account.) Joe Biden seems like a self-important blowhard, and Bill Clinton actually comes out as a hands-down, four-alarm gigantic asshole above and beyond his well-known problems. And this doesn't even account for all the little-known campaign staffers with huge egos more than willing to let petty personal issues derail a campaign.
  • Oddly, two people come out pretty good. Joe Lieberman seems like a nice guy, if a bit bewildered; and Palin just comes across as ill-prepared and more than a touch naive, but at least at first seemed to be a level-headed if starstruck choice. It's only when there's blood in the water that the starts digging in and striking back against her opponents as she tried to go into survival mode. 
  • While most people will read for the Palin story (see below), the more fascinating tale is the Obama vs. Clinton. It's pretty clear that more voters really wanted Clinton, at least at first, but the number of senators who effectively stabbed Hillary Clinton in the back to back Obama is staggering, especially given how nearly all of said senators owed Bill for their jobs. A lot of behind-the-scenes trickery also played a good part. Clinton, for her part, showed some signs of obtuseness and elected to ignore some major warning signs, assuming that simply being a Clinton would be enough to not have to worry about the details. 
  • For those who do not know, the main controversy in the book is McCain's selection process for the vice presidency. The McCain campaign knew well in advance that the choice would have to be controversial, and had for an alarmingly long time placed all of their bets on choosing Lieberman: A lifelong Democrat on the national Republican ticket would have been a huge deal. However, a mere week before it was announced, McCain got cold feet (and the response from the hard right when the info was leaked was a warning rocket) and decided against it. However, that left a long list of completely conventional picks, such as Tim Pawlenty and Mitt Romney, and McCain knew it would have to be someone else. Despite a flirtation with Michael Bloomberg, the campaign came up with the name Sarah Palin. So in about three days Palin was not even on the list to being announced to the public, a situation where she was ill-prepared. When she stumbled, the public latched on, and her stereotype as a lightweight cemented, she never had a chance. 
  • McCain's avowed ignorance over economic matters more or less doomed him. He tried to paper over this deficiency simply by pointing out the economic experts he'd have on hand, but he also displayed an alarming lack of comprehension as to what was going on. No one was an expert--not even Obama or George Bush or anyone; things were happening too fast--but McCain excelled in sounding particularly clueless. Two events: his proposal to cancel the first debate to hold an emergency financial meeting in DC, and his participation in a similar negotiation where he barely spoke while Obama owned the entire meeting.
  • In the end, after the 2008 recession began in earnest and the pink slips and bleeding statements showed concrete evidence of the magnitude of the disaster, no Republican ever had a chance. It's easy to blame McCain or Palin, but outside of a complete disaster for the Democratic nomination it was highly unlikely any Republican could win. Despite the Obama campaign's successful assertion that McCain would simply be a third term of Bush, if you had to pick a Republican that was least like Bush to nominate it would have been McCain. Of course, it is notable that the Democrats were reasonably close to nominating such a disaster in John Edwards, whose affairs and attempts to cover it up would have blown the race wide open. 
Some people have had issues with the citations in the book; the authors used the Bob Woodward style of writing of having all "deep background" sources. Still, it's telling that no one has really came out against any of the main assertions in the book (aside from Palin, who bristled at her portrayal).

I think books like this are important; they display the exact sort of detail of what happens during an election that you don't normally get to see or hear about at the time. People know full well that a similar story happened in 2012, and the pieces are being fitted together as we speak. Sadly, these types of books also are heavy on the no-name details of campaign staffing, which tend to bog the narratives down with unfortunately necessary details. While it is important that person X clashed with person Y, no one really cares, but it's necessary to explain why things happened the way they did. Especially in the early days of the campaign, when positions and power plays are being negotiated it can drag things down, and Game Change is no exception.

Still, at this point the book should be fairly easy to pick up, and I think it's an important enough accounting of the campaign that it should be read.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Civilization V: Brave New World Review

I don't do many video game reviews on this site; there are people who play more games and do a much better job of it than myself. Still, I'll occasionally write them, and when it comes to Sid Meier's Civilization, I'm always willing to offer an opinion.

[Just a quick note: if you've never played the Civilization game or have any idea what the game is, most of this review will probably be gibberish. It's an expansion, so this review assumes you know how the original game operates.]

I've been playing Civilization since the very first version came out way back in 1988; I've eagerly anticipated each new edition, with new features, new graphics, and a much more interesting gameplay. So far I haven't missed any.

For those who aren't familiar with the brand, Civilization puts you in charge of one of history's greatest empires--say, the Romans, or the Russians, or the Assyrians--and you guide them through history, discovering technology, building cities, and conquering neighbors. The latest edition, Civilization V, came out in 2010, and has had two expansions: Gods & Kings (released in 2012) and, now, Brave New World.

One of the major criticisms of Civ V when it first came out is that it was too simple: compared to previous Civ games, where each new edition added new features and more depth, Civ V seemed like a step backwards. (There were also some obvious balance issues.) In retrospect, it was certainly a true claim but was also not necessarily a bad thing; the game get new players to play, and slowly added content until the current version of the game is just as robust and strategic as any of its predecessors. 

Anyway, after Gods & Kings added espionage, religion, and a better City State system, it more or less brought Civ V up to speed with Civ IV (save its awkward corporation mechanism). So when the new expansion was released, many people were wondering what changes could be made that were new and fresh aside from the usual additions (such as new civilizations and new wonders).

The game overhauls quite a few things in the game, but the new content boils down to three things: a new Ideology system, a new Trading system, and a World Congress.

Ideology System: Previously, the "policy tree" system allowed players to purchase new policies that would grant benefits to your civilization; many of these (such as Piety and Rationalism) were mutually exclusive. The "modern" idologies--Freedom, Autocracy, and Order--were also mutually exclusive but otherwise worked like regular policies.

That's all changed now. You now explicitly must choose one of those three Ideologies once you hit the modern age (or build enough Factories). The "policy tree" for these three branches are now greatly expanded (fifteen (!) policies instead of the usual five). In addition, your ideology is in direct conflict with the others. Players may try to export their ideology through a new system called "tourism." Basically. the more people that visit your ideology (and see how awesome it is) will affect relations, and may eventually cause cities to flip. (Generally speaking, tourism acts as the offense and culture the defense.) It also overhauls the Culture victory condition: instead of winning by filling out five policy trees, you win by exporting your tourism a sufficient amount to all other civilization in the game.

A part of this new system are Great Works--Music, Art, and Writings. Instead of simply having a "Great Artist" there are three distinct Great People. You can use these leaders to create Great Works, install them in your buildings, and produce culture and tourism. There's a system where you can combine different works in various ways to create bonuses. While you still produce culture the old fashioned way, the output is diminished and instead make up for it by collecting these Great Works. And finally, once you discover Archeology, various archeological digs are found throughout the map, and you can send a new Archeologist unit there to dig it up (where they can be installed just like great works).

Trading: Instead of generating wealth through tile yields, you now generate wealth through creating trade routes. You can build either Caravans or Cargo Ships (land and sea, respectively). Once built, you select a destination city. The trade unit will them move between the two cities and generate a certain amount of money--and, depending on the situation, also religion and science. (There's plenty of other special abilities that generate even more yields.) After 30 turns, the trade route stops, and you can either do it again or pick a new destination. While you still collect some money via tiles and other items, the majority of your revenue comes from trade routes. Your trade routes can be disrupted, so they must be protected.

World Congress: The previous diplomacy system was pretty simple: someone builds the United Nations, and then everyone votes every 10 turns to see if anyone wins enough votes to win the game. it's now much different.

A "World Congress" convenes once one player 1) knows the Printing Press and 2) has made contact with all other nations. Every so many turns (and when certain Age qualifications are met), two proposals are made (the host and the player with the next highest number of delegates). Each player is assigned a certain number of delegates (generally corresponding to the number of City States they are allied with, but could also be for other reasons), and they may allocate those delegates to vote "yes" or "no" on a wide variety of issues. This includes winning the game via Diplomacy, but also includes things like embargoes, outlawing a luxury resource, hosting a World's Fair, and so on. (It's similar to how Civ IV did it, but it's a lot more comprehensive.)

There are, of course, all sorts of tweaks and additions, such as new civilizations, new wonders, new buildings, and so on. But the three things listed above are the main changes to the game.

So, what is the verdict?

All in all, it is a good addition to the game itself. It certainly adds a significant amount of content to the game. All three of the new systems listed above are done very, very well. The Ideology system makes a lot more sense now. The World Congress is fun; the list of proposals is pretty exhaustive and you actually get to wheel and deal with other leaders. The trading system also makes a lot more sense, and it's pretty interesting to look at all of the different destinations, all of which produce different outcomes. All three of these major changes now make the late game significantly more fun; the biggest criticisms of the franchise has always been the lackluster end game, as the thrill of expansion and exploration makes way for boring accounting. The trade network, the ideologies, and the World Congress inject a lot more fun into the second half of the game. And it's pretty seamless--while it's obvious that two of the three don't deliberately kick in until late in the game, you don't notice it because it makes sense.

Probably the most welcome change is in the AI. The AI is just as scatterbrained as always, but now that there are trade routes and the World Congress to deal with, the consequences of war are greater. As such, there are less outbreaks of war. I'm a builder, not a fighter, so I like this change; however, I'm sure many people do not. (To compensate, the barbarians are smarter and more aggressive.)

Edit: I wanted to mention this in the original post, but I forgot. There's a bit of an AI quirk; either the formula changed or other things changed and they didn't compensate for it, but the "Warmonger" penalty seems to be too extreme. This was a penalty if the AI players thought you were capturing too many cities and thus was too aggressive. The way it sits now is you could capture one city in, say, 2000 BC and in 2040 they'd still be mad. It's pretty obnoxious and probably should be fixed.

And just a few notes about the content: there are plenty of innovative new civilizations, such as the Assyrians (steal a technology when you conquer a city) and Indonesia (you get three unique luxuries that can be traded away). Probably the most notable new civilization is Venice; they cannot build any new cities and cannot annex any conquered cities; all they can do is create puppets for the cities. As compensation, their trade revenue is doubled. It's certainly different, and given the core mechanics of the game it works remarkably well. There's also a host of new Wonders; most of them deal with the new Great Works system. Since the three ideologies are combined into one system, that let Piety get split up into Piety and Aesthetics (faith and culture, respectively) and Commerce gets split into Commerce and Exploration.

And as mentioned above, two of the five victory conditions are different: Culture requires that you export your Tourism rating to a certain level to all other civilizations, and Diplomacy is part of the World Congress. This, of course, changes a lot of strategies. The culture system is probably the biggest question mark; while there's still a "closer" bonus for finishing a policy tree, there's no inherent drive to do so now that it's no longer a victory condition.

That said, there are a few changes that...well, they aren't bad, but could take some getting used to. Science costs now increase as you build more cities, which discourages rapid expansion. I kind of like this change, although it gets pretty drastic. I would prefer that it be toned down, but it's not a dealbreaker.The Great Works system is very awkward; it's hard to know what goes where and what would make the best combination. And splitting up the Great Artist into three separate Great People seems to clutter things up with little benefit.  It seems like a lot of work and detail to accomplish something the old system managed to do OK with. I don't hate it; it just seems a little sloppy. The whole Tourist concept works, but it's not documented very well and it's not easy to grasp.

I'm also sure there are plenty of balance issues to work out as well. Right now, it seems a lot easier to generate Great People (possibly to make up for the fact that there are three Great People now?) which throws off some things. There are so many Wonders now it's impossible to hoard them all--which is probably a good thing, although it makes the number of wonders you build and have to abandon much higher. Money and Culture are tight in the early game and become almost embarrassingly plentiful in the end game. These aren't bad changes, but they are different enough to the previous game that it will take some time to adjust to it. The game also seems to take much, much longer;my first victory was a Time Victory, which I haven't done in years.

Is it worth the $30 retail price? It's tough to say--you're getting a similar experience as before, so I'm not sure if that's worth half of the cost of the original game. (At this point, the game, expansions, and DLC exceed a hundred bucks if you pay full retail; I'm not sure if it's worth that or not. Thankfully it's very easy to not pay pull retail.) But if you are fan of Civ V, it's definitely worth getting; while it's a similar experience it's different enough to keep you engaged.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

So Apparently...

...we've decided to put Lady Gaga in charge of the Boston Bomber trial.

Actually, I decided to see exactly what she looked like in real life. As a consequence, I found out that there is something called a "Judgepedia," an "interactive encyclopedia of courts and judges." I can't possibly imagine how many bar arguments that site resolves!

Her name is Marianne Bowler. I did find a photograph of the judge in question:

So Lady Gaga in about thirty years isn't too far off. Or, she actually looks like a cross between Bjork and Betty Draper. I am OK with either answer.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

How To Celebrate Independence Day

It's the 4th of July--a calendar day like any other for most of the world, but it's a particularly awesome day for Americans, who somehow manage to combine pride, gluttony, and sloth into one extraordinarily sweltering day.

So what is so great about Independence Day? Well, there's plenty of things to be proud of for our own national holiday:

We get to eat a massive amount of food: It's what we're good at, right? People are looking for any excuse to grill out during the summer, and there's no better time to do so than a random workweek that everyone gets off (unless you are part of the 80% of the population in the United States that works retail). Nothing is more relaxing than drinking beer, eating two or five more hamburgers than you should, or playing jarts on the lawn knowing full well you still have to be at work in fourteen hours and dammit I still have to write up that report.

We get to set stuff on fire: Somebody, somewhere--I assume Benjamin Franklin, because he always seemed sort of badass who was not above some panache and devilry--decided that the Fourth of July would be a great day to set off fireworks. Massively dangerous displays of wealth and destruction are another cornerstone of American democracy, so it's only fitting that people stare at the night sky and watch stuff blow up. Sadly, our canine brethren do not care for this tradition.

We All Get To Pretend We Still Like Baseball: Just for today.

We Muddle Through The Lyrics For A Whole Host Of Songs We Were Supposed To Learn Decades Ago: Let's face it: our national anthem kinda sucks, Yeah, yeah, patriotism is cool blah blah blah. Our anthem is hard to sing, it's difficult to learn, and even though we hear it fairly often people still screw up the lyrics. Sadly, the rest of the repertoire of American Patriotism isn't much better: No one knows any verse past the first of "My Country 'Tis Of Thee," "This Land Is Your Land" is just a list of crypto-commie platitudes, and "America the Beautiful" is just a fruited pain to sing. Amirite?

We get to engage in minor acts of civil disobedience. Everyone breaks the law on Independence day, whether it's carrying an open container in the park to not checking the fire codes before setting off bottle rockets to throwing the recyclables away with the regular trash. It's our own special way of just checking to make sure the Constitution is still intact. Isn't that right, officer?

We get to buy shoes and electronics slightly cheaper: Nothing says "God Bless America!" then purchasing consumer products made in China for slightly less than the normal price in a place slathered with patriotic signs and (most likely) a wacky handwaving Uncle Sam telling you to declare your independence from high prices, which to be fair is just as bad as those Brits. Ol' Ben Franklin wouldn't want it any other way.

Monday, July 1, 2013

Happy Canada Day!

I have always kind of liked Canada. I know they would bristle (politely, of course) at the comparison, but they always seemed to be an awesome companion to the good ole' USA, without all of the violence and slavery but also without the costly burdens of being a superpower. It’s nice to not have prohibitively expensive health care, but that’s one of the many benefits of not having to pay the massive amounts of money for the military required to defend itself during the cold war for five decades. Not that anyone is keeping track, of course.

Anyway, while I’m loathe to reduce an entire nation of people rich in culture and history to a few well-heeled stereotypes, I am also mindful that in something like four days the entirety of America is going to be reduced to grilling three-pound hamburgers, slapping up Chinese-made red-white-and-blue bunting on the stair railings just in time to throw it away the next day, and shooting colored gunpowder into the air because why the hell not. So if Canada’s had no problem securing itself against the Red Menace under the generous NATO umbrella, they can put up with some ham-fisted stereotypes.

So here's a brief and incomplete list of awesome things about Canada:
  • Hockey: Surely Canada’s single greatest contribution to mankind, it’s like basketball only with sticks and pucks and sanctioned fistfights. Sure, someone can go on and on about how it’s a majestic sport and that the level of athleticism required to win is amazing, but everyone knows that we watch hockey because at any given moment someone is going to get whacked in the face with a hockey stick and there is going to be blood and teeth on the ice. Anyone claiming to watch hockey for any other reason is probably sober.
  • Beer: Ok, full disclosure; I don't really drink beer. Not my thing. But I can certainly appreciate that Canada has just about the best situation for beer brewing possible; crystal-clear water, an abundance of British Columbian hops, and a centuries-old vested interesting in finding something to do between October and May. 
  • Tim Hortons: OK, so Tim Hortons isn’t all that much different than any other chain coffee shop, and yet there is something alarmingly alluring about the place. Maybe it’s the wide variety of baked goods available, or their admittedly addictive coffee, or the college-dorm kitchen they use to toast pauper sandwiches. But it is good and it’s cheap and it is a necessary stop for anyone north of the Rio Grande.
  • How Proud They Are Of Maple Syrup: I mean, I guess maple syrup is OK, but it is really symbol-of-the-nation awesome? I suppose that they would argue that it is, but every time I have maple syrup I basically don’t want to eat anything ever again, although that may just be the pancakes talking.*
  • Barenaked Ladies: The band, not the other equally awesome thing. And they are awesome not only from inherent musical ability, but also to counter the continuing atrocity that is Rush. **
Sure, there's lots to love about Canada outside of (apparently) food, music, and ice hockey. But a nation that has somehow fashioned its culture around these three things can't be measured as anything less than an unmitigated success.

*Shut up, pancakes.
**You thought I was going to say Nickelback, didn't you? Ha, joke's on you, you progressive rock Randroid!