Saturday, November 30, 2013

Team Fortress 2 Confessions

This might be a little too inside baseball for a lot of you, but Team Fortress 2 (the absurd free online game) has been thriving for quite some time. I got hooked about two years ago. While I am by no means an expert at the game, I've logged a lot of fun and a lot of hours on it, and I think at this point it's confession time.

  • I think the next best thing for the TF2 developers is to make female versions of all the characters. You get to expand on the canon, you can make some headlines with being female-friendly, and it will add a lot to the fun. Also, I bet it makes a boatload of money.
  • For the longest time I thought that the stickybombs from the Demoman were location-specific--that is, the went off if anyone got close. I didn't realize you needed to right-click to set them off. Whoops.
  • I absolutely, positively suck as Spy. I have tried watching videos, watching what other people do, etc. and nothing seems to help. I do OK on certain maps, but by and large I basically get killed instantly as often as I maybe rack up one backstab. Half the time I just give up and start unloading my revolver into people. I'm a lazy, horrible Spy.
  • I can't imagine playing in competitive games (as opposed to casual). This game is goofy enough as it is; it's hard to take too seriously. And that's exactly what it seems most people in that scene do.
  • I think most of the "overpowered" weapons are just fine. This includes the mini-sentry and the Pomson.
  • I have absolutely no idea what the Demoman is saying at any given time.
  • While I get what the Botkiller/Collector/Killstreak/etc. class weapons are, I just can't wrap my head around it. I think they've gone a step or two too far in the in-game economy. Then again, if you don't buy into it, it doesn't affect gameplay.
  • I love playing Sniper--and I'm pretty good at it--but since every new player wants to play Sniper too I never get the chance. I don't want to be that guy who is Sniper #3.
  • I think hats are kinda dumb. There. I said it. But I get why it exists--it's a huge moneymaking opportunity for them.
  • I'm glad this game wasn't around when I was in college or high school. I would so totally be a power trader (translation: I would be broke).

Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 Christmas Shopping List

This year, I've decided to do something a little different: Instead of going out and braving the stores this Black Friday, I'm going to create a list of products that I, personally, have consumed in some way or another, and am going to recommend it to my readers.

Most of the people who read this blog know my interests, more or less. I've tried to pick stuff that isn't incredibly well-known; you can hear about most consumer electronics or popular music from people who know more about it than myself. Yet I've also tried to not put things too horribly obscure; sadly, not everyone who is getting Christmas presents this year is me. I don't just want to do an info dump on y'all this year, so I've also held some items back for future years. My tastes, after all, are always perennial.

As part of full disclosure, if you buy off of this list I will get a (reasonably small) portion of the list price.

Books:
Hark! A Vagrant! Kate Beaton's comic strips are something that has to be seen to be believed--a mixture of historical wit, absurdity, and alarmingly hilarious art. Sure, it gets a little too inside baseball with Canadian history, but it's more fascinating then anything else.
The Areas of My Expertise   John Hodgman's first book in the Complete World Knowledge series, this is a 100% serious almanac filled with completely false facts. It excels mainly in its extraordinary detail, with the highlight being the list of 700+ hobo names (no, really). It's the first in the series and the best, so I suggest starting here.
A Flash of Murder by Jeff Boarts is a local author who has written a classic mystery set in (a thankfully fictional version of) my hometown. With plenty of suspects, a slowly unraveling motive, and plenty of action, I can't recommend it highly enough.

DVDs:
It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia: I know the show has been around for a while and it's hardly unknown, but if you haven't had the pleasure, I highly recommend this series. Sure, it's crude and crass, but the cast and writers know exactly how to pull off some good comedy with an equal mix of continuity, hedonism, and sharp writing. Season One tried to be a little bit too outrageous just for its own sake, but starting in Season Two the series was dramatically improved with the addition of Danny Devito, the depraved father of the group.
Best. Concert. Ever.: A perfect if a bit lengthy introduction to this century's awesomest musician Jonathan Coulton. It operates as (more or less) of a greatest hits album with the addition of the concert experience. While some of this complication might be a little too meta for some (Playing Still Alive on Rock Band isn't as funny unless you know about the song beforehand) it's still too good to ignore.

The Venture Brothers: The cult hit from the Adult Swim lineup of the Cartoon Network, VB takes a look at what a realistic superhero would look like. Rusty Venture is the child of famed scientist and inventor Jonas Venture at the height of the Cold War, but things have gone...downhill. Rusty and his two kids, Dean and Hank (the eponymous Brothers), along with bodyguard Brock, run the Venture Compound by more or less skating along with the least amount of effort possible. His archenemy, The Monarch, tries to thwart his plans. While it's a parody of the superhero comic strips of the Golden Age, it's surprisingly played straight as well, with interesting character development and legitimate plots that aren't just blatant spoofs.
Flight of the Conchords:This musical comedy duo from Australia New Zealand converted their muscial success to this HBO series, which follows Bret and Germaine as they try and find success in America. Punctuated by the occasional absurdist song, the pair do an excellent job of playing off of, and giving tribute to, various stereotypes.

Board Games:
Settlers of Catan: The grandfather of the German Games revolution (don't ask--or, rather, do, if you are interested and want to hear me talk about it for a few hours), Settlers is the perfect introduction to "modern" games. It has all of the elements of the new style of games--reduced direct conflict, no one gets eliminated, negotiation--while still retaining the familiar (dice rolling, victory points). In Settlers, you are trying to build settlements on an island. The "board" changes every game, where there are various resources (like wood or sheep) that are only collects on a specific die roll--so a roll of 6 would let anyone adjacent to a hex that has a 6 collect it. (Thus, 2s and 12s are the least common, while 6s and 8s are the most common--and everyone is affected equally). While the game has shown its age and is a touch on the expensive side for what you get, it's definitely worth playing.
Ticket to Ride: If building settlements ain't your thang, try your hand at building railroads. This incredibly simple game still packs in a lot of strategy. It combined the familiar rummy-style meld mechanism with a map of the United States, with the goal of connecting various cities on the map. (For example, the route from Miami to New Orleans requires six Red cards to be "melded" at one time.) While I'm not a fan of how blocking works, everything else about the game absolutely shines.
Say Anything: A simple if effective party game, this has always been a consistent hit, and due to its nature is eternally replayable. A judge--rotating from round to round--reads a question ("What superpower would be the best to have?") and everyone writes down their own answer and reveals it. The judge secretly picks a "winner," then all players get two votes, placing tokens on two different answers (or both votes on one answer). The judge reveals their pick, and points are scored depending on how many people picked the correct answer. The scoring is a bit wonky but you're not in it to win.


Thursday, November 28, 2013

Proposed New Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade Balloons

  • That Geico Hump Day Camel*
  • Various parts of Kim Kardashian
  • Jennifer Lawrence. Seriously, that girl is everywhere
  • Rob Ford. Not a balloon of Rob Ford, but Rob Ford himself.
  • Grumpy Cat*
  • The UMPC Happy Funtime Anti-Competitive Get Well Bear
  • A collection of old health care plans that people won't be able to keep after the parade is over
  • Doug from accounts payable
  • Kanye West's ego
  • Whoever that horse is that Lady Gaga put on the cover of Artpop
  • Federal Reserve Chairman Candidate Janet Yellen.
  • The State of California, if only that someone might "accidentally" let go and it drifts away into nothingness
  • Steven Moffat, filled not with helium but with the gaping expanse of plot holes he's written in Doctor Who.
  • A fox, just so we can find out what it says and everyone can stop singing that damn song
  • The horse they used to make Aldi's hambugers. Sorry, "hamburgers."
  • That bear that Miley Cyrus dressed as. Or the Miley Cyrus a bear dressed up as. Either way, don't stand underneath it.
  • Vladimir Putin with a crossbow
  • A big graph of Macy's year-over-year retail sales. Unfortunately, this is one balloon they won't be able to inflate it.
*This might actually happen.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Photo Gallery

Here's a bunch of photographs that I've taken over the past few months:

If it's always 50% off, then it's not really 50% off.

Aw yeah, who wants to go on a ride on the Skat Trak

I was at a local fair, and this was on the bathroom. No a "Women's Restroom," but a "Not The Man's Restroom." It was right next to:

So either someone in procurement screwed up/was a thousand years old and didn't know what they picked up (likely) or they honestly mean that no one can ever use the bathroom, ever. Actually, on second thought, that one might also be likely.

I don't know what it means, but I promise not to.

Aw yeah, it might just look like a natural has drilling site, but the Swank Pad is where I take my honeys on my Skat Trak. 

This is the sort of graffiti-on-graffiti action you see at a book store.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Snowpyros

So I had a brilliant idea about how someone (i.e., me) can 1) make money; 2) serve the public good, and 3) commit legal arson.

We are about to hit Peak Snowmageddon Season (in other words, October through July) where even the threat of one inch of snow will have riots at the milk coolers at the local Shop 'N' Save. Which makes no sense to me. I always here these stories about towns like Savannah or Lexington effectively shutting down when there's half an inch of crusty snow on the ground. And while us northerners think that's cute, it sort of makes sense; they couldn't win a Civil War*, let alone drive in a wintery mix. But for us people in places like Pittsburgh, well...it's old hat. You should be able to get to Sheetz and back for a pulled pork burrito when there's two inches on the ground without freaking out.

Anyway, our old standard road-clearing methods, while they get the job done, are very inefficient and expensive. It's a bit of a chore to pay a bunch of guys time and a half to plow, salt, ash, sand, and otherwise anti-winter the roads so people can get to the Elks for the roast beef brunch. It's about time someone came up with a viable alternative, and that someone is me.

I just sat down and thought of a few questions, all of which had obvious answers.
  • What is snow's moral enemy? Fire.
  • Who likes to burn things? Everybody
  • Will people be willing to do fun things for free? Absolutely
  • What is the most efficient way of spreading fire very quickly over a large area? A Big MF Flamethrower
So my idea is simple: with the modest investment of a few after-market Soviet-era flamethrowers, we get volunteers (I suspect teenagers, college kids, and veterans, but everyone is welcome) to strap them on. They then walk about the city melting the snow into steam and water, letting it stream down the gutters like a sad waterfall. Problem solved! We melt the snow, make the roads safe, and make the winter wish it had never snowed in our time. It will have nightmares. I want to ensure that Old Man Winter and Jack Frost have flashbacks to our time.

Sure, there are some ongoing costs: flamethrower fuel isn't cheap, and once my plan is adopted in cities across the nation the demand will be sure to pick up. (My other million dollar idea, turning meth labs into fuel distilleries, is still being worked on.) Plus I can see how this can be impractical on the highways, which is why I'm OK with developing a sort of big ass Flamethrower Truck, that blasts flames from its undercarriage but otherwise do the same thing. (Think of it as sort of reverse Zamboni.) But the savings in salt and manpower alone make this a win-win for everyone. Except the snow, which, let's face it, had it coming.

Don't say I don't care about this community. Although I would like my million dollars. 

*Yeah, I'm still crowin' about that. U.S.A.!

Monday, November 25, 2013

Board Game Review: Smash-Up

Smash-Up is a unique game released in 2012 by AEG games. It's a card game that represents several factions fighting over control points in the game, with the eventual winner being the player to reach 15 points.



Of course, the real goal of the game is to see the different factions fight with each other. Because those factions represent a dizzyingly wide array of genres from all over the cultural landscape--we're talking Robots and Ninjas and Dinosaurs plowing up against each other over pirate ships and zombie graveyards. This awkward yet awesome mixing of different genres catapults this game into chaotic, if nonsensical, fun.

The actual base rules of the game are alarmingly simple. Each player is randomly assigned two factions. So in one game you might be the Robot Wizards while in another game you might be the Pirate Aliens. Each faction (there are eight in the base game) has their own strengths and weaknesses; combining two of them generally makes the game balance itself (although with some exceptions; see below). For example, the Zombies are good at recovering cards from the discard deck (get it?) while Pirates are good at moving from place to place. There are twenty cards in each faction, so each player starts the game with forty cards.

All of the faction decks: Robots, Dinosaurs, Pirates, Zombies, Ninjas, Tricksters, Aliens, and Wizards.  The base deck is at the bottom.

There are two types of cards; Minions and Actions. Minions represent actual entities--the robots, aliens, zombies, etc. Actions are one-off opportunities that are generally discarded upon use. All Minions and all Actions have some sort of special ability.

Examples of Minions. Clockwise from the top left: Wizards, Pirates, and Dinosaurs. Note the Strength number at the top left, the special ability at the bottom, and the faction icon on the bottom right.
 
Each turn, a player may take two actions; they may play one Minion from their hand and play one Action from their hand. They can't play two Minions or two actions, although they can choose to only take one action. They then draw two cards and add it to their hand; your hand maximum is ten, so you have to discard down if you go over.


At the beginning of the game, three "bases" are placed on the board. Bases represent places where your minions are fighting. Each base has a special ability and three point values; it also has a "Breaking Point" that determines when it is won.

Example of a base. The number in the top left is the Breaking Point; the score values are first through third place, from left to right. The Special Ability is at the bottom.

When a player plays a Minion, they simply place the Minion on any base they wish. Each Minion has a Strength. Once the Strength of all Minions of all players meets or exceeds that base's Breaking Point, the base is scored. The player who has the most points wins the leftmost score; the runner up, the next number, and the third the rightmost score. Anyone else does not score.

That's it; the first player to 15 wins.

Of course, the game is much more than simply placing Minions on bases until someone wins. If you hadn't noticed, each card in the game has some sort of special ability. These abilities affect other cards, cancel other cards, destroy other cards, increase and decrease strength--pretty much anything and everything. Plus, a lot of cards allow you to do a lot more than just play one Action and one Minion.

The result is a game full of awesome chaos. While you can certainly plan--the cards don't veer that far off of the base rules--your best laid plans are bound to be disrupted in one way or another. Of course, knowing roughly the sort of powers each faction has players can defend against it, but, still, it's a fantastic setup that plays quick enough that you won't find things slogging down too much.

Here's What I Like About The Game:
  • The Theme. There's something particularly fascinating about just jamming all of these genres into a game, and making it work pretty well. Sure, it's kinda stupid to have leprechauns riding dinosaurs with lasers, but that's kind of the whole point, isn't it?
  • Play Time: With a victory point level of 15, the game plays pretty quick, especially when you keep it at 4 players or less. (With only eight factions, in the base game you can have a max of four players. If you get any expansions or buy another set, you can expand this to more players, but I've never tried that.) With a game with this amount of chaos, you don't want a long, drawn-out game. The games I have played have ended in 30-45 minutes, and that sounds about right. 
  • The Price Point: You may get a bit of a shock when you buy the game--it's a card game, and you'll pay thirty bucks for a stack of cards and an insert. At first glance this might seem like a ripoff, but once you realize how the game operates, how quickly it plays, and how many plays you'll get out of it, you'll find that the price is just about right.
  • Art and Graphic Design: Done very, very well.

Here's What I Don't Like About The Game:
  • The Chaotic Combinations: Smash-Up's greatest asset can also be its greatest drawback. The odd and strange combinations that make this game so fun can also cause a lot of headaches. For games like this, where there are simple rules but complicated cards, the designers need to be very careful as to how they define terms. For example, they use "killed" and "discarded" interchangeably, but also define them to be different terms meaning exact same thing. Then why not just use one term? There's also some wonky logical wording that requires some off-the-cuff judgement to use.
  • Components: A lot of people have complained that it cheaps out on components; since the game is already just cards, but in reality you need some way to keep score (and keep track of the total strength of minions on a base) they should have included some sort of tokens and/or markers.  This doesn't bother me as much as it bothers some, but I suppose it's worth pointing out.

The Verdict: This is a pretty good game. Yeah, there's a lot of randomness and chaos, but it's not that bad. Add to that a pretty quick playing time, easy setup, and simple rules to teach, and it's a decent game to get your money's worth pretty quickly.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Triumph of Incentive

The Swedish people voted on a law this weekend that would have capped CEO pay to never exceed ten times the lowest-paid worker. The law, as presented, failed to win approval from the people.

Now, to be fair, the Swedish system of getting ballot initiatives up for a vote is remarkably easy. You only need 100,000 signatures. Sure, Sweden is small, but it's not that small. You could get a million Americans to sign a proposal to outlaw apple pie. So this may not necessarily be a reflection of the best and brightest of any nation, let alone the Swedes.

Still, it's telling that it got that far. Things like taxing the rich or outright capping their pay always sounds great in theory; whether it's borne from jealousy or economic plans or a grade-school concept of "fairness," it always sounds good to soak it to the rich and powerful. And yet ham-fisted attempts like these always end up disastrous, for the simple fact that it's an economic reality.

For any sort of economic system that wants economic growth, there has to be a system in place where what people produce and what they make is related. A company isn't going to hire someone if it costs them $15 an hour but they only get $14 an hour out of them; likewise, a worker isn't going to get paid $14 an hour if they can get $15 elsewhere. There are, of course, a lot of nuances with this--worker skills and expertise make a different, and the market may not demand what a worker can do--but, generally speaking, people get paid what they are worth.

Capping CEO pay never makes sense. CEOs don't just magic up some number from the bank account and takes it home; C-level salaries are almost always determined by a board of directors or the shareholders; if a CEO is making $20 million dollars, they must feel that they bring at least $20 million in productivity. If not, the CEO gets fired. It's the exact same principle as the factory line worker.

About a decade ago, the ice cream company Ben & Jerry's tried to find a new CEO. They're hippies, and so declared that they would not pay more than five times an entry-level worker. Once their existing CEO left, they couldn't find anyone qualified to fill the spot, so they had to abandoned it. It was from the stark reality that the CEO was certainly going to create five times as much productivity as someone on the assembly line, because that is something that the CEO specifically does. 

Granted, one can make the case that the board of directions and shareholders are just helping their friends out, and while that certainly can be the case, it's unlikely in the long term. A board of directors is ultimately held responsible by the shareholders. If anyone things that a CEO is being paid unfairly, it will eventually come back to the case. Most of the vitriol against CEOs is that people can't believe that anyone is worth that much money; a single day with a CEO would probably prove that to be highly unlikely.

There's also a lot of irritation at CEOs since even if they do bad or if the company tanks under their tenure, and yet they still take home a fat check. That ignores a very important reality: CEOs are often put in those positions deliberately. Some CEOs are installed because they know they are going to lose money, but they want to stop as much loss as they can. Sometimes they know a company is going to go bankrupt, so they create a strategy to make their company attractive for a buyout (which may include lowering its value). To an outsider, it simply looks like "Oh, when the CEO was installed the company was worth $125 million, but now it's worth $100 million. What a disaster!" But internally, that's exactly what was needed; the CEO often make things better, especially if the alternative was $80 million or a complete liquidation.

Now, don't get me wrong--there are lousy CEOs out there that are paid an unfairly large amount of money. But you could say the same about all the everyday workers out there, too. And given the outsized and very public performance of highly-paid CEOs, there's a lot more of the latter than the former.

The Pledge: Yeah, some CEOs are overpaid, but by and large all people's pay is roughly translated into how much value they produce. Artificially capping this is a really, really dumb idea.


Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Doctor Is In

This weekend is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, highly anticipated by the UK, nerds, and fangirls worldwide.

For those who do not know, Doctor Who is a show about a time traveler who goes throughout both time and space doing…well, things. They travel in a TARDIS, a time machine disguised as an old blue Police Box. Invariably, he manages to encounter some sort of trouble, and the series is built upon The Doctor and his companion figuring out how to resolve the problem--which usually ends up meaning that they have to save a world from getting destroyed or some historical figure from perishing at the hands of an animate trash can wrapped in bubble wrap.

Doctor Who has been on for a long time. A long time. It original run, which started in 1963, started out as a sort of educational adventure show; they used the time traveling plot device as a way to alternate between learning about history (the past) and learning about technology and the future. It grew, however, into a more of a sci-fi adventure series, with The Doctor and his companion battling a series of aliens hell bent on destroying whatever planet they were on—the most famous enemies being, of course, the dreaded Daleks.

In the process, over the decades, the writers built up a rather impressive mythos around The Doctor, his origins, the story of his race (he is an alien known as a Time Lord) and the universe. A plot point is the fact that when a Time Lord dies, he “regenerates”—which is when, quite conveniently, a new actor signs a contract and breathes some new life into the show. Budgets were often laughably small; space aliens tended to be thrown-together bits of hardware that happened to be laying around the BBC studios. (Thankfully, things got much better after a few years, even if it is 70's era effects.) The stories, while often ridiculous, were solid enough that they appealed to kids and adults alike.

After airing for over 30 years, the series more or less ended its original run in the mid-1980s, when a miniseries more or less ended its original run, only to be rebooted in the mid-2000s with a whole new set of details, an increased budget, a focus on more adult-centered storylines (although still strictly PG), and a worldwide audience eager for more. After a bit of a rocky start (the first few episodes weren't overly impressive, effects- and writing-wise), the series really hit its stride with the tenth Doctor, David Tennet.

Doctor Who isn't for everyone. Its rich and fruitful history is a benefit but also a bit of a drawback; by relying on old, creaky bits of lore that were written almost four decades ago it seems more like a crutch than an proper sci-fi experience. Its attempt to appeal to a wide audience can sometimes water down the writing and the effects. The quality of the plots is wildly uneven; some episodes are incredibly emotionally draining, while others are almost laughably bad, as if they are written by a grandfather who is using tech words he read in a random article about technology in the Sunday supplement (like--so help me--Wifi Aliens. No, really.). The plots can often be lazy, the problems they create are artificial, the dialogue is filled with obvious technobabble, and it's all solved by the end of the episode with some convenient deus ex machina. It's a formula--and a good one--but one that's pretty thin and tired if the writing isn't up to stuff.

Still, there is something charming and unique about the Doctor Who universe. He is an incredibly deep character, and the show does a particularly effective way of lulling you into a false sense of a happy-go-lucky, hyper-intelligent hero, just to have him do something absolutely horrible. (He deliberately brings companions along on his adventures, not just as a useful foil, but also to keep himself morally in check.) Many of the alien races are incredibly fascinating. Sure, the Sontarans look like potatoes with faces and the Cybermen are just tin robots with a bully complex, but their entire existence and backstory that have built up over the decades means that every time you see one, you're legitimately excited to see what's next.

And, at the end of it all, even if it's one of the lousier episodes, they keep things going with enough action and excitement that you never feel like you've wasted your time. The entire "regeneration" concept, while a casting gimmick to begin with, does feed into a legitimately interesting effect--while it is the same character, with the same memories and same history and same purpose, each new actor does it in their own way and with their own personality quirks. You know it's the same character, and yet it isn't, and it's fantastic.

It's probably too late to start now, but the 50th anniversary special is this coming weekend. Sadly, the TARDIS is unavailable for you to go back and watch them all in time.

Friday, November 22, 2013

On Towards The Grassy Knoll

It's the anniversary of the JFK assassination. It's one of American history's most celebrated mysteries--for better or worse--and an entire industry has grown trying to "prove" one theory over another. Of course, this many decades later, it will be impossible to verify pretty much any sort of information until 1) documents become declassified as time goes on, or 2) we get a particularly well-timed deathbed confession. In the meantime, here's a look at the leading conspiracies as to who could have killed Jack Kennedy:

The Cubans: For those who don't remember, or at least slept through the last two weeks of senior history class, relations between the United States and Cuba have been (shall we say) less than cordial for the last, oh, 50 years or so. The Kennedy years were the most violent: the failed Bay of Pigs invasion, combined with the Cuban Missile Crisis, made Cuba public enemy number...well, probably four, after the Commies, Red China, and the fluoridaters.  Plus the CIA had made sort of a cottage industry out of failing to assassinate Fidel Castro. So it wouldn't be too much of a stretch to imagine ol' Redbeard McCigarchomp deciding to return the favor. Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 4 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Cuba was basically one big island called The Institute For Assassinating John F. Kennedy.

LBJ: Lyndon Johnson was an enigma. A big, greasy, hambone of an enigma. He was equal parts compassionate and stubborn. LBJ and JFK never really liked each other very much; Jack Kennedy's brother Robert downright hated the guy. And given his uncouth and brash manner--in direct conflict with the Boston suave Trio of Jack, Bob, and Ted--it's not surprising to see why. While it's unlikely that Johnson would go so far as to actually kill Kennedy, he was more than willing to commit voter fraud to get elected, so who knows? Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 1 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Lyndon Baines Johnson was a very successful, very headstrong man, but his biggest targets were pushovers and he was stymied by his greatest enemies. The Texas Republican Party and Barry Goldwater? Easy. The Vietcong and inflation? Not so much. He didn't have it in him.

The CIA: Having just been thrown under the bus by Kennedy due to the Bay of Pigs fiasco, they were understandably quite cross with the Kennedy administration.Kennedy himself was shocked at the department's autonomy, ostensibly because of plausible deniability but probably just a good old-fashioned case of coyboying up the joint. He cleaned house and, in the process, put a lot of noses out of joint.  Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 3 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. The CIA is literally an agency that specializes in assassinating heads of state. The only question is if they were any better off than before; the CIA is not known for emotional revenge killing, but for cold, calculated measures.

The Mafia: It's not exactly a secret that the election officials of Cook County, Illinois were more than happy to provide a certain level of electoral assistance to get JFK to win that state (and thus the Presidency) in 1960. This is Chicago, of course, so there's only one organization that had the power to pull such a thing off, and it wasn't the Boy Scouts. Then, after he was elected, now-attorney general Robert Kennedy went after the mafia (and their associated unions) with a passion unparalleled. Sam Giancana, the boss of Chicago, was particularly resentful. It's not entirely unjustified that the Mafia was having a bit of buyer's remorse. Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 5 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Double-crossing the mob is never a good idea. The son of a bootlegger should have known better.

The Russkies: This was at the height of the cold war. All of the issues with Cuba , Korea, and the then-first-rumblings of Vietnam were really all just proxy wars with Big Red. Knocking off the head of the greatest democracy in the world would have a hugely destabilizing effect on the nation, and give the Russians the chance to move in clandestinely And after the public shaming of the Cuban Missile Crisis, there was a major score to settle. Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 4 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. The Soviets had the means, the reason, and the opportunity to kill Kennedy, but, in the end, why bother? It's not like Nixon, Goldwater, Romney, Johnson, or Wallace was any better.

Right-Wing Fanatics: The early 60's were a strange time. The decade was known for the hippies and the counterculture, but it's often forgotten that the right wing was having a field day long before that. Whether it was the John Birch society, the Daughters of the American Revolution, or the resurgent Klan, or any number of other organizations, they permeated society as a philosophically (and occasionally physically) violent reaction to the spread of communism. They saw in Kennedy a toppler of the social culture, a naive idealist unwittingly selling out to the Soviets, and a backdoor socialist.  Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 2 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Oh, they had the rage, all right, but the right couldn't organize a church bake sale at a revival, let alone an assassination.

Military-Industrial Complex: Having had a bit of a slump--they made out like bandits during World War II and spread the icing on the cake like butter during Korea--and weren't too happy that the hot war just turned cold. Kennedy, looking to reap some peace dividends for his social policies, was more than willing to engage in diplomacy in Vietnam rather than send troops; they knew (quite rightly) that Johnson felt differently. Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 2 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Yeah, there's boatloads of profit to be made, and it's not unheard of for corporations to turn to rampant violence (see: South America). However, you didn't exactly need a crystal ball to realize that the next thirty years were going to be full of proxy wars in the Third World. It wasn't worth it.

Mr. X:  This was an age before the internet, before 24-hour news broadcasts, before Twitter. The Kennedy family's history was full of all sorts of hidden machinations and deal-making, as is the case with so many bluebloods in New England. Here, fifty years later, we're still learning about stuff that they did. So any number of people may have felt crossed by Camelot; it could be J. Edgar Hoover, who felt his power slipping; it could have been angry Dominican Republicans, upset that the CIA had assassinated their leader; it could have been Jackie, tired of Jack's chronic infidelities. Or it could be someone we will never know.  Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 2 out of 5 Grassy Knolls. Too many wild cards here to really get a good take, but single one-off enemies probably didn't have the resources to pull it off. Now, joining up with some of the others on this list...

Oswald Acted Alone: Oh, please. Conspiracy Believability Ranking: 0 out of 5 Grassy Knolls.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

My Own Personal Mystery Machine

I think the Scooby-Doo gang got it all wrong.

Oh, don’t get me wrong: I love me some Scooby-Doo. But from a straight-up mystery-solving perspective, they were up the creek from the get go.

First things first. Why the hell is the name of their program “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You!”? I don’t think the grand, overriding mystery of the series was trying to locate Scooby Doo. First off, he was a Great Dane. Has anyone ever seen a Great Dane? They are bigger than most buses. It’s not like he’s hiding under the couch cushions. And we all know where he is at, anyway. He’s doing what most dogs would do in his situation: hang out with Shaggy, smoke pot, and beg for snacks. This ain’t a mystery that needs to be solved.

But what is a mystery is why there is an exclamation point in the title. I’m not sure if Hanna was pissfaced drunk or Barbara joined some punctuation-sensitive cult, but that’s a question, not an excited declaration.  Even if it was something to be shouted, it should be properly both a question mark and an exclamation point. Velma may look like a nerdy librarian, but she was shit as a proofreader.

Enough meta discussion, though. I’m not sure how their mystery-solving gang operated. Did they even take cash? I don’t recall they ever did, and the Mystery Machine wasn’t using hopes and dreams as fuel.  Did they advertise? Craigslist wasn’t around back then. Was that Daphne's job? To find old rich men who made up mysteries for them to solve? It wouldn't surprise me.

Now let’s take a look of who was in charge. Why the hell was Fred there? He didn’t know anything except how not to get barbeque sauce on his nice white sweater. All he did was be recklessly aggressive in his sleuthing skills and getting everyone in much more trouble than they should have. He was really only good for two things. First, he was probably the only one who would be able to get Shaggy off his lazy ass to do anything. And secondly, there was always a good chance that one of the fake ghosts would take one long look at Fred’s smug ascot-adorned face and punch him right in the nose, immediately blowing his cover and saving everyone a half hour of running through doorways that have impossibly random exits.

And how about Daphne? All he had going for her was the rarity of natural redheads in the late 60’s. She never offered any useful insights except how to sneak away from that nerd and the stoner and that horse of a dog so that her and Fred could go to third base without getting interrupted by boner-killing shouts of “G-g-g-g-ghosts!” The only apparition that Daphne should be worried about would be the thin Fred-shaped line of dust that will appear as he heads out the door the second he hears that she’s knocked up.

Don’t get me started on Shaggy. Lazy slacker who contributes nothing? Sure, he takes care of Scooby-Doo and I’m sure was everyone’s supplier (surely you’ve figured out by now that Velma pretended to have glaucoma by being blind without her glasses, right?), but he also make many two-minute mysteries into days-long adventures in dry incompetence.

Why did they bring Scooby along? No, seriously, why? Dogs are great, but mystery-solving isn’t really something you’re going to see at the top of too many canine resumes. My dogs can barely crack the Case Of Where Did That Ball Go or the Mystery Of Why You Shouldn’t Eat Your Own Poop, let alone figure out the identity of the Miner 49er. I guess his snoot might be useful in some context, but there were waaaay too many random ham dinners and apple-pies-on-windowsills in Scoobyland for this to be particularly effective. 

Which brings us to Velma. Velma’s about the only one who gave two shits about solving mysteries. I don’t know if she was getting paid in Indigo Girls albums and vegan cupcakes on the side or something, but she was a pro. She’d always have some book to crack open or some nugget of arcane knowledge that perfect fit like a puzzle piece to solve the whole thing. Personally, I think she took an interest in solving the mysteries because she just wanted the night to the over, and she only hung out with them because if she wasn’t there they’d all be in jail with a DUI every night.

So, I can hear you say, what would you do, smarty-pants?

Well, if I had to gather a small ragtag group of professionals to go around solving mysteries (a profession I would love getting into, mind you—think of the Fuelperks alone!), I’d have to go with:
  • My wife’s about three-quarters Velma anyway, so we’ll go with her. I’d actually consider her to be Velma 2.0: better hair, better eyesight, better fashion sense, and waaay bigger boobs.
  • Instead of douchebag Fred…well, the boring answer is me, but I am using executive privilege and state that I am an extra sixth member. So instead, I am putting my money on John Hodgman—that’s right, the guy who played PC in those commercials but, more importantly, is a well-regarded judge and purveyor of arcane knowledge. Now, our little group might need a bruiser, and while I certainly can’t do it, I suspect that John could more than hold his own, having grown up in the mean streets of Brookline, Massachusetts.
  • We will need another lady to balance things out, but preferably one who isn’t going to be a total waste of space and actually have some critical thinking skills. I am going to go with Amy Poehler on this one. I was going to go with Tina Fey, but I’d rather not have the whole van smell like Greek food all the time. Also possible backup: Marilyn vos Savant, if she can keep up.
  • We don’t need a scuzzy distributor, but we still need a wild card. If Charlie Kelly isn’t available, I’ll gladly go with the Shamwow guy, Vince Offer. Yeah, I’d want to punch him in the face most of the time and there is zero chance he’ll shut the hell up when he needs to, but he’s good with gadgets and if we need to beat up any hookers, we got ourselves a ringer.
And, of course, I’d still bring my dogs. They’re horrible at solving mysteries and Dexter in particular doesn’t care for riding in cars, but if I have to spend hours on end with these people, I’d rather have them with me to keep me sane. Maybe I was a little too harsh on ol’ Shags after all.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Still Wonderful

There's been a lot of cranky talk about the planned sequel to It's A Wonderful Life, a movie quite rightly considered a classic. While many people feel that extending the story on a beloved classic is both a cheap attempt to capitalize on that movie's highly esteemed place in the holiday film rotation and just a bad idea creatively, telling a story that doesn't need to be told, I'm not quite so hung up. I'm no film purist; I think both good things and bad can come from such things, and if your inability to enjoy a film due to a lousy sequel exists, it says a lot more about you than it does the movie.

Still, I wouldn't mind seeing how the Baileys and their friends made out in the sequel:

  • Clarence the angel, now with his wings, must accomplish some even more daunting tasks to move up to third class: namely, sober up Toronto Mayor Rob Ford, get healthcare.gov to get working, and get Miley Cyrus to wear some clothes.
  • Tired of raising kids and putting up with George's passive-aggressive whining (c'mon, we all know it), she withdraws and gets addicted to amphetamines. She later ends up a Rich Housewife of Bailey Park and cold-cocks Doris Day after an argument about canapes.
  • Bert goes on to make headlines when he breaks up a local rum-running ring run by a local fellow named Heisenberg. It doesn't end well.
  • Janie finally learns how to play that song. 
  • Zuzu grows up to be a Brazilian children's entertainer. With that name, her career options were pretty limited; she didn't have the gams to make it in the cabaret, and she didn't have the skin tone to be a gypsy. 
  • Sam Wainwright ends up going on to resolve a number of various Doctor Who conundrums. How fortunate!
  • After the war, Harry Bailey ends up in Korea, where he kills an estimated 450 enemies with his bare hands. He then manages to profit handsomely from his wartime adventures, where he travels the world, cures polio single-handedly, and marries a succession of extraordinarily beautiful and open-minded women. He then digs up Hitler and punches him in the nose after winning President of the Entire Universe. After twenty years, in his final act of office, he sends George a thank you card along with a basket of fruit.
  • Henry Potter, forever resentful of his wizard brother, withdraws all of his money from the town after George's success and invests it in a series of ill-defined social media startups. They were destined to fail, what with the internet not being invented yet. He should have stuck with banking.
  • Uncle Billy, living every moment of his waking life teetering on the edge of disaster, finally finds the wonders of Xanax. Unfortunately, he also finds the wonders of the OTB and still ends up in the nuthouse, George Bailey never been born or not.
  • And, of course, George, ever the eternal optimist, grows his savings and loans to rival Potter's, only to lose it all in a housing bubble. But the story has a happy ending; instead of a guardian angel, George finds out that he's simply Too Big To Fail. That's a Christmas miracle, indeed.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Harkleland

After seeing this post about owning a private island (on the cheap, no less!--although it assumes you want to live in Nova Scotia and/or like living in a fetid swamp), I got to thinking...what would I have on my own island?


  • My own government--that's right, why not? Once anyone gets their hands on their own island, I pretty much assume that this is going to mean an immediate declaration of independence from any foreign powers. What's the point of having your own island if you don't?
  • A new constitution. The United States Constitution is awesome and all that, but I wouldn't mind making a few...adjustments. Namely, immigration policy, meaning the only immigrants are the ones who would vote for me. I suppose, technically, I should put "votes" in quotes since everyone involves knows full well that it will be a sloppily-policed oligarchy. Also, I should probably add an article about how people who use the speakerphone in an open office should be thrown in jail, and people who use gas stations to circumvent red lights should be shot on sight.
  • My own name. I'm partial to Harkleland, but I'm open to suggestions. The Federal Republic of Crank, perhaps?
  • A National Day. Sort of like the Fourth of July, only I get to pick the date. Might as well make it my birthday, and then move Labor Day to May 1st so we can dispense with the pretense that it's anything more than Commie Day. My National Day will be celebrated by playing board games, eating pulled pork sandwiches, and buying shoes at 20% off. We'll still set off fireworks, because that's the sort of thing you do on a national day of celebration.
  • My own flag. It will probably be either an art deco profile of Ayn Rand or the Team Fortress Logo. Let's not kid ourselves; Harkleland is basically going to be the nation-state equivalent of fanboy XBox achievements and Facebook "Pages I've Liked."
  • If we are declaring ourselves sovereign, though, we'll sadly have to have some sort of military to fend off the superpowers. I suppose we can scoop up some SAMs on the Russian black market (or Saudi, I'm not picky) and recruit some of those badass chicks who work for the Israeli Defense Forces. I don't know about you, but I'm sleeping good knowing that's what is protecting me.
  • My own national anthem. I'd probably want a custom job, but I'll be happy as long as it sounds more or less like a cross between Green Grass and High Tides by the Outlaws and Sons and Daughters by the Decemberists.
  • A health care voucher system. Hey, this is my fantasy. 
  • I am assuming that my island will have no natural resources--I wouldn't be getting it on the cheap otherwise, now, would I? So I'd have to come up with a decent economic plan on how to exploit the opportunity. So far I've whittled it down to: Online Gambling, Offshore Bank Accounts, Customer Service, and Political Asylum For Rich People. Chances are it will be a combination of them all.
  • We'll also have to have some sort of tourist trade. Amusement parks and golf courses are always good, but I suspect that real estate is going to be at a premium, so we may have to be creative. I understand that ecotourists love throwing money at stupid stuff, so maybe we can train some catfish to jump around like dolphins and see if we can get them on the endangered list. Barring that, just open up the kegs and host a spring break reality TV show. Live from Harkeland!
  • A nation-state isn't a nation-state without a state-of-the-art intelligence service. And how! Nowadays, you don't even need gray old dudes in trench coats tailing the reds or smuggling yellowcake up their hoo-holes. You can bribe some greasy hacker with Raspberry Zingers and industrial-grade NoDoz (the Harkleland FDA isn't very thorough, except when it comes to accepting money to let unsafe over-the-counter drugs on the market) to sit in a room. He can play KOTOR all he wants, except for the forty hours a week he (or she, I'm not sexist, but, c'mon) has to dig up stuff with which to blackmail major world leaders. It doesn't have to be much as long as one of them has nukes.
  • Finally, a private island isn't worth a thing unless there's a gloriously ostentatious statue of my likeness in the middle of the whole place.If there's one way to make a private island truly private, it's to scare away the ne'er-do-wells and government spooks with my cranky mug staring down at them.
Update: My friend Louie, inspired by my Rand vs. Lenin statue proposal, submitted to me this artistic representation. Caution: there is a bit of nudity, but it's classy, objectivist nudity:



Monday, November 18, 2013

Snack Review: Cracker Jack'D

I noticed on the store shelves a few months ago a new product called Cracker Jack'd. Modeled after the old standard Cracker Jack confection (caramel popcorn with glazed peanuts), they presented a wide array of new and different flavors. A bit hesitant--I've been burned by brand derivative products before--I finally got around to picking some of them up. There's seven flavors overall; the three I'm reviewing today are Cheddar BBQ, Zesty Queso, and Spicy Pizzaria. (The others are Berry Yogurt, Buffalo Ranch, Salted Caramel, and Peanut Butter and Chocolate, with a few regional test flavors in different markets.)

I'm always up for some new flavors that aren't candy, so I was looking forward to this...except for the price. These packets are 3oz each and they retail for $2.49. That's pricey for a small amount of product, even if it's a "premium" version of an iconic brand. Obviously, most places sell for less than that, but most places don't get much lower than a buck fifty.

Anyway, I eventually got around to acquiring them, and the verdict is actually pretty good. Spicy Pizzeria lives up to the "spicy" end (not so much the pizzeria end, but that is hardly unexpected). It's good and probably my favorite of these three. Zesty Queso is also good; it's the mildest of the bunch, despite its name, but hold itself pretty well. I was unsure of Cheddar BBQ--most BBQ snacks are iffy to me--but these ended up being very tasty. It's probably also the strongest of the bunch; both the cheddar and the BBQ are perhaps a touch too strong (I could smell them in my nose twenty minutes after eating them) but that's not necessarily  a bad thing. Tthe Zesty Queso and the Cheddar BBQ relied on little granola clusters to deliver the flavoring for each; I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I figured it would be nuts, and in any case ended up being surprisingly effective.

(I had taken a picture of each of the snacks dumped out, but quite frankly they all looked the same and none are any different than what you see on the covers above.)

You'll notice that there are two different "lines" represented above: the Zesty Queso and Cheddar BBQ are part of the "Hearty Mix" (they have nuts) while the Spicy Pizzeria is part of the "Intense Mix" (relies more on spices, no nuts). (The Salted caramel is part of its own savory mix.) I am hesitant about the other flavors I haven't tried--I'm not sure if sweet would work with this concept, although I'm sure I'll probably try them eventually. (I would have gotten Buffalo Ranch had it been available; it's the only other flavor I specifically want to try. I have zero desire to have Berry Yogurt.)

That said, these aren't perfect. They are extremely flavorful, and while you'd think that would be a good thing, it isn't immediately great. I ate one packet and almost got overwhelmed with the flavor. Even at a paltry three ounces, there's more than enough for one sitting, but it might not really be enough to satisfy any hunger cravings before you have to stop eating. I almost wanted to cut this with some actual Cracker Jacks to even everything out, and that might not be a bad idea.

The other thing, as I mentioned above, is the price--$2.49 is too much for what you get, at least in my book. I get that it's not supposed to be a bad of potato chips or a huge sack of pretzels you chew on, but to pay the same price for this as an entire 12 or 16oz bag of pretzels seems a little excessive.

One last drawback--they don't have any prizes. Of course, given the quality of regular Cracker Jack prizes now, that actually might be a benefit.

So, in the end, these are pretty good, very flavorful, and worth trying...it just may not be worth the list price. 

Sunday, November 17, 2013

I Don't Know What I Don't Know

I don't think of myself as a particularly perceptive man; I like to think I have a pretty good grasp of exactly the sort of things that I don't know, and don't try to pretend that I do.

I don't know, for example, how the restaurant industry works. I try to put all of the moving parts in my head, and all of the approximate costs, and yet I see empty restaurants stick around forever, I see crowded restaurants go under, and I can't make heads or tails of what makes success and what doesn't. I more or less assume that chain restaurants need to be X% profitable (not just profitable) or they pull the plug, and I assume that most mom and pop outfits are actually distributing meth and that is why they hang around. That's the only explanation I can come up with.

Likewise, I don't know how the economics of commercial radio works. I assume their major portion of profits come from advertising, and I also know that DJs generally don't make much. Plus they have to pay royalties and (I'm sure) licensing and...all sorts of things, and then I get a figure in my head of how much a thirty second spot has to be and I can't imagine who would buy it at that price. But then again I predicted when one radio station was about to go under when they started randomly doing "extra" breaks for a string of ads in addition to the regularly scheduled ad breaks, so who knows?  It all just seems like a well-oiled Ponzi scheme based on skeleton crews and sweaty Christina Aguilera singles.

I don't know how road constructions crews operate. On the one hand, I try and give them the benefit of the doubt: road work is hard, unforgiving physical labor in (usually) intense heat. I sure as hell don't want to do that. And most of it requires skill; it's not just digging ditches. On the other hand, about 90% of the time one or two people are working and about twenty-five people are standing around doing nothing. And then they work on one mile of road for four months and then the next mile--where they are doing the exact same thing--takes, like two days. I know you can't judge how a crew operates based on the twenty seconds you see them on the way to and from work each day, but there's enough of a pattern that I can't figure it out. Part of me thinks it's all part of some featherbedding scam, and another part of me thinks it's magic.

As with most things, while I don't know how all these things work, I also don't think I want to know. Sometimes mystery is a good thing, even if it's something as mundane as why we've heard Steely Dan three times today when you might hear them once a week, tops.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Department of Bad Ideas

The world is filled with bad idea. Heck, I have a dozen bad ideas before I even get up each morning. But it takes a certain level of determination to take a bad idea and make it into a real thing.

Now, in the past, bad ideas rarely got very far--you had publishers or your boss or market testers to put their hand on your shoulder and say "Stop." But in today's world--where do it yourself is a highly profitable sector of the marketplace--the bad idea industry is taking off.

Case in point is the Marry Yourself Kit, designed by (surprise!) a branding consultant and (surprise!) a jewelry designer. Funded through a crowdsourcing site, it's a kit you can buy to...well, to marry yourself. Because why not?

Read the article for the self-explanation necessary as to why this isn't that bad, but the idea itself just seems to be a packaged-up version of the incredible level of narcissism and waste that has become so prevalent. Everyone has a reality show, everyone has their YouTube video, and everyone who has a bad day being single can, instead of ordering a large pizza, a box of tissues, and Sixteen Candles, can instead shell out three hundred bucks in a shallow attempt to make yourself feel better.

Generally speaking, I try hard not to judge people on what they spend their money on. Hey, it's their money; if they feel like wasting it on an expensive ring and a fake ceremony just so their self-esteem will skyrocket, more power to them. And, hey, maybe there's the off chance that this will help some people. But that's part of the problem--somehow, we have managed to operate as a fairly successful society without having to create artificial props to make ourselves feel good about our lives, especially ones that are expensive and serve so little social utility.

Weddings, of course, mean something; they are a ceremony specifically designed for people to express their love to another. Pretty much every single aspect of a wedding, in one way or another, either symbolically or practically, is done to drive this point home. So when the entire thing is inverted into a mission of self-importance, it's less about making yourself feel good and more about being a parody of the ceremony itself. Granted, the makers of this product have a specific ceremony laid out, but the intent is clearly there.  


You want to feel good about yourself? Take that $300 and give it to a charity of your choice. Or spend 40 hours volunteering, and spend that $300 on food and clothing this Christmas. Of course, keep a little for yourself; I hear St. Elmo's Fire can be bought pretty cheap at Wal-Mart.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Broken Ideas

For anyone who has been following board game news lately (and who hasn't?) one of the biggest bits of news from the Essen convention was the release of Caverna. It's big news because it's designed by one of the hottest game designers out there, Uwe Rosenberg--the desginer of the classic Bohnanza and the more-recent and much-heavier Agricola, which for a long time was ranked the #1 board game on boardgamegeek.com.* He'd probably be considered a top ten (current) designer.

And no sooner had the game been released that a game-breaking combination was found.

OK, perhaps game-breaking is a bit strong, but it did create what is known as a "dominant strategy," a pretty big problem for board game design. If there is an obvious route that one is supposed to take in a game, it means there are no real decisions to make--and the crux of nearly any sort of game is presenting the player with a series of decisions that have real consequences. When there are no such decisions, it makes for a very dull (and usually broken) game.

For such a high-profile game (and for a designer who has plenty of award-winning games under his belt) it was a minor if somewhat alarming oversight. It serves as a good reminder that, no matter how well a game is playtested or how professional the designers, publishers, and writers are, there's always something.

Board gaming isn't like video games. Aside from the obvious, you don't have the ability to run multiple tests repeatedly. Video game playtesters, of course, sounds sexy but is actually very mundane; your job isn't to simply play video games, but to fall down a pit on level three 400 times to see if anything wonky happens. With board games, having that level of detail in the playtesting would be awesome, but unfortunately, you need multiple people, plus the physical aspect of manually doing everything, and it makes such repetition unrealistic. Good designers know that good playtesters try and break a game as much as possible, stretching it to its limits to see what happens.

Another sad aspect is that you can't really patch it; once it's shipper from a Chinese printer and on a dock in San Francisco, there's nothing you can do about an error except let everyone know on the internet and hope it gets to all the players. It was even worse back in the days of Avalon Hill; they made highly complex wargames riddled with unknown combinations. You'd have to send a SASE to Baltimore, and they'd send you back a thick packet of FAQs (back before FAQs were on the internet) and you'd have to cross-reference anything. I'm old enough that I remember specifically doing this. Times were tough, back before dial-up, let me tell you.

Thankfully, most board gamers know this and are pretty forgiving. Rosenberg himself showed up not seven replies into that forum post I linked above (showing that he was not only paying attention to what people were saying, but was doing so pretty quickly), profusely apologizing in amusingly broken English and offering up some practical solutions. That, in and of itself, should tell you everything you need to know about how people in the board game hobby operate.

*For those that aren't into the hobby...that's a pretty big deal. The current holder is Twilight Struggle, which I reviewed here.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Monopoly, Twenty-One, Checkers and Chess

In case you haven't heard, Andy Kaufman is alive! Except that he's probably not.

I'm fascinated by Andy Kaufman, but--as a confession--I also never really thought he was all that funny. He's what I would consider a comedic innovator; while he wasn't all that humorous to me, he did things that no one had ever done before. And he seemed to have a certain level of genuine comedic ability, something I don't find in other so-called provocateurs like Bill Hicks or Lenny Bruce (I find both of these men to be little more than potty-mouthed hacks).

Kaufman, for those who don't know, was all about absurdity. His material would be deliberately bad, lulling the audience into a false sense of horribleness; the average nightclub would call for his head mere minutes into his act. Then--as if on cue, because it was--he'd pull a magic rabbit out of his hat. My favorite bit of his was when he would read from the Great Gatsby on stage. No jokes, no humorous inflections, just a straight-up reading of a classic novel. Titters at first, nervous laughter after a few minutes, then comedy-killing silence. After reading just a touch too long after the momentum fizzled out of the joke, he's ask the desperate audience if they would rather hear a record instead. They'd enthusiastically say yes, and Kaufman, ever the crowd-pleaser, would roll out a phonograph player, drop the needle, and play--a recording of him reading from The Great Gatsby. It was a long trip for a stupid joke, but he made it work.

He took a job using his "foreign man" bit on the classic sitcom Taxi. He didn't care for it, didn't like the regularity and convention of the sitcom. His personal life was often a mess, and he almost certainly suffered from long bouts of depression. And then, thirty years ago, Kaufman died at a very young age of a very rare form of lung cancer--diagnosed after, of course, incessantly bragging about faking his own death. So it wasn't exactly unwarranted that rumors about his death were an elaborate prank.

So this past weekend, someone posing as Kaufman's daughter claimed that Andy was still alive.Kaufman's actual brother hosted the Andy Kaufman awards, and brought up onstage this woman, who read a letter about how he is still living. As per the article above, this appears to be (surpise!) a hoax, and his brother is a little irritated. (Or may be in on the hoax. Who the hell knows?)

Personally, I hope this goes on forever. There's nothing quite as satisfying as the long con, and Andy Kaufman was a pro.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Retrotastic

So, this exists:

If you can't tell, it's a pixelated retro version of Team Fortress 2. It's called Gang Garrison 2 and it's fantastic.

I won't lie--I've always been a fan of these "retro" games ever since Homestar Runner would post them all the time. There's something elegantly charming about them, probably undeservedly so. And I used to specifically think about how exactly a Team Fortress pixelated game would operate, even going so far as to think about how, say, the Sniper would work, and what sort of game modes would be able to apply.

Needless to say, this particular incarnation of the game met all expectations I had. While it's not an exact duplicate of the standard first person shooter--that would be impossible--they managed to get the spirit of the game pretty good.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Hold My Calls, I'm Playing Candy Crush

Being on the forefront of social media is, for the most part, awesome; I get to connect with all sorts of new people, I get opportunities that I wouldn't otherwise have, and it's remarkably freeing with the amount of aggregate information at my disposal.

Of course, it's not without its drawbacks. I am fully aware that I'm near one end of the bell curve as far as generations go; most of the people I interact with are younger than myself. And as with all generations, there's certainly a distinct change in outlook and attitude between them and myself. Which is fine, of course; innovation, creativity, and progress is made when different viewpoints sort themselves out over each other. That said, it can get a little tiring hearing the same complaints all the time (as, I am sure, they are saying about me).

One rather serious issue is that of job outlook; recent grads have been hit the hardest with unemployment, as they graduated in a world where people with much more experience and knowledge were having trouble getting jobs, let alone themselves. Still, like every older generation ever, I noticed that it wasn't all the world's fault--there was a certain attitude of entitlement by these young graduates that just grates on the nerves. I never really was able to put my finger on it without brushing in unfairly created broad strokes. This article in Time magazine, however, manages to  more or less puts it in perspective.

Employers are having a difficult time hiring many Millennials because they lack what employers call soft skills--the ability to navigate through a company's operations. This basically means things like organizing meetings, working with teams, working with people who differ from you, critical thinking, communicating your ideas effectively, and so on. It's not necessarily a lack of knowledge (especially the much-heralded STEM skills) that's keeping people from getting hired; it's because they simply don't play well with others.

[As an aside, before we get into this too much, keep in mind this is simply part of a trend--I in no way mean that all young workers, or even most, are like this; the article is just noting a noticeable increase in these problems. I don't want to give the impression that I'm bringing this up as a representative sample.]

You can extrapolate all sorts of theories and reasons why this is the case. A common one (which I generally agree with) is that for a generation or two, kids have been taught that everyone always wins and just showing up is valued as its own reward. Instead of competition, mere participation gets you the things you need, and effort is good enough even if the results don't make the cut. I see a direct correlation with the problems people are seeing in those that lack soft skills--why should I work with a team, communicate with others, or lead a team? Isn't just being here good enough? Young workers don't show up on time, aren't flexible with their roles, and basically act like entitled narcissists. College isn't helping anymore, as universities move away from letting students learn how to handle adverse situations their own way and instead hand-hold them from entrance to graduation (a contributor, I'd like to point out, to skyrocketing college costs, but that's another post for another day).

It's easy to reduce all of our economic problems down to a minimalist reason, and I don't mean to dismiss the many other problems that all workers have, regardless of generation. But some of the things noted in the above article are simply alarming , and my (admittedly anecdotal) observances tell me my gut is right. Too many people seem to think that the older generations just sort of skirted though working without having to put much effort into it, not realizing that while the world has changed, busting your ass to get paid hasn't.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Candy Review: New Flavors of Pop Rocks

Pop Rocks have been around forever. It's the quintessential creepy adolescent I-triple-dog-dare-you candy, the sort of think you buy at cheap candy stores and ingest in small pours down your throat on the way home from school that you are taking twice as long to do as it should take so you can screw around with your friends, swilling gulps of Mountain Dew and kicking rocks with that disheveled kid down the block everyone knows has an alcoholic dad and hasn't bought him new clothes since elementary school. That sort of candy.



Well, the Pop Rocks people haven't changed much since those years, and for good reason: it's a formula that works and has the added benefit of being pretty awesome to boot.

Pop Rocks, for those who weren't born in 1972, are a crystal-like candy (provided in easily pourable form) infused with harmless carbon dioxide, causing a popping sensation in your mouth when released. So while it's already just a bunch of flavored sugar crystals--already a known steady hit with kids--the extra sensory bonus of having your mouth fizz adds to the "toy" factor. (There's also the even more added extra bonus of being perpetuated by an old urban myth about ingesting Pop Rocks and then drinking pop causing your stomach to explode--a myth, no doubt, that has caused many childhood memories to be scarred and plenty of market share gained.)

Anyway. Times have changed; the market is flooded with cheap Turkish knock-offs (no, really)and kids are more interested in crystal meth than some stupid candy that does the same thing as soda pop. Which is a shame, because Pop Rocks are pretty awesome. So if you haven't been to the candy store in a while, here's a review of some of the newer flavors. As per the picture above, we have grape, cotton candy, bubble gum, and pumpkin patch orange.

Grape: Ok, this one really isn't new; it tastes like grape. It's good, but it acted more as a palate cleanser for me.
Cotton Candy: Cotton Candy has a quick drop-off for me as far as a flavor goes. it's good, but a little bit goes a long way, As such, this little packet of Pop Rocks was just the right amount. It tasted sufficiently like cotton candy, and actually had the odd effect of tasting like I was drinking Cotton Candy Pop.
Bubble Gum: This isn't just bubble-gum flavored candy; this is actual bubble gum. As in, once all the carbon is released and normally the pop rocks would dissolve into sugary bliss, it instead becomes bubble gum that you can chew. It's...OK; the gum loses its flavor pretty fast, but for what you're getting it's actually pretty good.
Pumpkin Patch Orange: You would think that a Pop Rock flavor called "Pumpkin Patch Orange" would be flavored pumpkin, right? Nope--orange. In fact, I'm not quite sure why they called it Pumpkin Patch Orange, because it's actually both orange and green (but still just tastes orange). So this was a little bit of a disappointment; I was expecting to have some experimental flavor that was probably going to be gross, but ended up just being orange. Not bad, in the end, but it's a blatant way to cash in on fall flavors. 

Pop Rocks are pretty cheap; a packet just has a handful of crystals, which is probably just enough. (After tasting all four of these in one sitting, I'm good for a while. Also, I didn't sleep for two days.) Sadly, you won't find these in too many places anywhere, but dollar stores often have them for cheap. Not much has changed, but if you haven't thought about Pop Rocks for a while it's worth picking some up, even if it's just for nostalgia's sake.


The most important thing about this review, however, is this: If you didn't click on the link above, this is what you are greeted with when you go to a foreign web site that sells pop rocks:
 
If that guy ain't on the Do Not Fly list, our government has failed us.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Don't Be A Tuna Head

The other day some friends had mentioned the old mid-80's video game Maniac Mansion. This game was one of the first huge graphical "adventure games" (along with Sierra's King's Quest and Space Quest games) for the PC market, and kickstarted a particularly memorable genre of video games for nearly a decade. These games, of course, don't really exist anymore, although they are still around in different formats.

Sadly, this is not a representation of how the graphics looks in-game.

In Mansion, the player takes on the role of three different high school kids. You play with Dave, and get to select two other kids (out of a pool of six)--each kid has their own special abilities, and the game can be won (slightly) differently with any combination of kids. A meteor has crashed next to the mansion, causing its Scientist owner to become sufficiently Mad. The meteor, controlling Dr. Fred (and his family, wife Edna and son Weird Ed), forces him to kidnap people and suck out their brains for "research." One such person is Sandy, Dave's girlfriend, prompting the kids to enter the mansion to rescue the girl. It's all rather tongue-in-cheek, humorously utilizing a lot of tired tropes from old horror movies (and, conveniently, housing all interactions in the mansion itself to save on precious computer memory).

It's sometimes odd to think that younger gamers don't really know, or have never really played, an adventure game. For those who don't know, an adventure game relies more on puzzle-solving than action. And by puzzle solving, I don't mean switching tiles around or getting certain colored boxes in a row; I mean thinking about how to use different objects in different situations to get past obstacles.

Note that above I said that Mansion was one of the first graphical adventure games; adventure games existed for nearly a decade before that in the form of the text adventure. (I've written at length about it here.) In the old text adventure games, descriptions and objects were key--since no graphics could be used--and this mentality was brought over with the introduction of graphics.

To give an easy example of a puzzle, in Mansion there is a bottle of developer fluid on a very high shelf in one of the rooms of the mansion. Trying to simply pick it up causes the player to drop it, and the bottle smashes over a conveniently-placed grate. Elsewhere in the mansion you'll find a sponge, which you can pick up. If you go outside the mansion and look behind some bushes, you'll find an access hatch of sorts (which require either tools or a trip to the gym to be able to remove the grate from). Crawling in the hatch reveals access to some plumbing values...right before the room with the developer fluid. If you've previously smashed the bottle, you'll find the puddle of the fluid on the ground, which can easily be soaked up with the sponge. Voila! You now have developer fluid, which you'll need to solve some other problem down the road.

Sound convoluted? Of course it is! That's part of the fun.

The two main producers of graphical adventure games were LucasArts (now LucasFilm Games) and Sierra. Both had different approaches to game design; LucasArts focused on a point-and-click interface, while Sierra still relied on a text parser. (Eventually, both companies, and most adventure games in general, settled on a simplified point-and-click system.) LucasArts (after some experimentation) made games where you couldn't die or get stuck; Sierra had no problem letting you die and/or screwing up the game so it was unsolvable.Of course, these two companies weren't the only ones in the game; many other companies also made adventure games of varying (and mostly subpar) quality.

(As an aside, after Maniac Mansion, they released a game called Zak McCracken and the Alien Mindbenders, about a race of aliens trying to take over the world by causing the population to become stupid via the tones on landline telephones. It's just as goofy and humorous as their other titled, and I actually preferred it to Maniac Mansion.)

The games were fun, very imaginative, mostly humorous, and a blast to play. But the genre is more or less dead at this point. Why?

There are several reasons:

1. Replay. Unlike pretty much every other game genre, adventure games are really only good for one go. Once you win the game, you know how to solve all of the puzzles, so why would you play it again? There may be some utility in just walking through the story to enjoy the narrative, but after that there isn't much point. Contrast that to, say, an arcade game, where it can be a different experience each time.
2. Expansion of computer capabilities. Adventure games could be memory hogs, but they could also get away with a lot on account of their very nature; you might be able to squeeze a dozen hours of gameplay off of six screens. As graphics and processing speed increased, other games could offer a lot more of an experience at a cheaper cost. Adventure games didn't get any better by adding a hundred new locations, whereas an arcade game or first-person shooter did. Adventure games might be able to improve with graphics, but they excelled with writing and creativity--which didn't necessarily get better with better computers. Adventure games stayed static.
3. Changing tastes. As with all genres, adventure games simply went out of style. The release of Myst, for example, was an adventure game...but not really. It was more of an experience. You solved puzzles and there was a narrative, but it was all about simply clicking on things to get them to work. Add to that the release of The 7th Guest, another "adventure" game which was all about sliding tiles and getting colored boxes in a row, and the entire perception of adventure games was changed.

The release of Grim Fandango in 1998 is often seen as the death of the genre. The game itself was excellently done, critically acclaimed, won all sorts of "Best of the Year" awards--and sold extraordinarily poorly.* It didn't matter how well you made the game; people just weren't buying them anymore. There were still a few titles released after this time frame (The Longest Journey, and Syberia were both popular titles after 1998, but notably were produced in Europe where the genre lasted a little longer) but for pretty much all practical purposes adventure games were dead. (Notably, LucasArts did try and revive the genre, with modest success, with a new business model: They used their existing properties, notably Monkey Island and Sam and Max to release "episodes" on the internet. They worked just as well as the old adventure games, but they were sold per episode to capitalize on the narrative nature of the genre. This worked well enough that they produced several series of each.)

Of course, they really weren't--like all things, they were just absorbed and adapted. Notably, many first-person shooters adopted an adventure-style format, and games like Fallout 3 can rightly be considered both an adventure game and a first-person shooter. And with the introduction of Kickstarter, many small-press entities are trying to revive the format; since flashy graphics and processor-consuming number-crunching take a back seat to good writing and inventive storytelling, small programmers can get away with it. While it's doubtful the genre will even make a huge return, it's never going to go away completely.

*Supposedly, it actually didn't do too bad sales-wise, and supposedly still made a profit. But seeing the immense return that first person shooters were making in comparison, it was a devastating return for the title.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

Dead Leaves and Pumpkin in Everything

I love fall! There are several reasons:
  • The air. There's something alluring about the crisp, cold air every autumn. I don't particularly like the smell of leaves, but maybe there's something subconscious about the odor that is very relaxing.
  • Winter is coming! I'm a cold-weather person (although definitely not a snow-driving person). I'd rather be cold and wrapped in a warm blanket than sweating in a gross room burning up entire coal fields to power the air conditioning. Obviously those bitter, can't-hardly-move mornings where everything is covered with ice and regret aren't very fun, but overall I love it.
  • School has started in earnest, which means students are in schools and not anywhere I am going to be.
  • As a corollary to the cold, fall is also when the cooking starts, whether it be a turkey stuffed full of awesome things that now also taste like turkey, or a nice warm baked good of some sort.
  • Five years ago I would say that it's television; all the new series are going to start. The scene has changed, of course, now, so there aren't as many new series specifically coming out in the fall; it's more or less a year-round endeavor anymore. Still, plenty of series are starting their new episodes now, and it's immensely enjoyable.
  • Likewise, football and hockey. Hockey probably doesn't get exciting until the winter, but at least it's started. And while I have a love-hate relationship with football (especially this year with the Steelers), I at least enjoy the fact that I have the option to watch it.
  • Fall also provides plenty of material for when you can't think of a particularly good blog post on a lazy Saturday afternoon.