Saturday, July 19, 2014

Cubing in Public, Neurology Edition.

I haven't talked about cubing that much since I've been excited about PS3 and WiiU things the last few months, so I probably have a few too many things saved up to talk about.

I discovered that there is someone at my local drugstore that can at least solve two layers of the cube, and he says that he had learned in middle school but had fallen out of practice. It's nice to see him at the register now, since I have something to talk to him about other than just random chit-chat stuff.  The first few times I encountered him he was on the late shift, so with fewer people in the store we had a chance for him to demonstrate what he could do. I just saw him a couple of days ago but I couldn't find out if he had been practicing because he was getting a fairly thorough talking-to by the store manager about several things but thankfully none of those things were about why you shouldn't operate a Rubik's cube on company time.

About a month or so ago, I was at an event where there were various vendors present, some of which were giving away various trinkets and things for kids to do which included one of those slightly oversize cubes made of rather soft plastic. You can see the kind I'm talking about here from one of my old YouTube videos, it's the same as the largest one. Instead of regular stickers, it has very eye-catching shiny laser-cut stickers with circular patterns on them, so one of my kids grabbed one for me. Since we got it for free and those are usually pretty cheap to start with, I didn't feel bad about taking it with me to work and leaving it out at the sales counter for people to mess with. What I didn't realize was that it wouldn't take much abuse, so someone managed to shear the foot off of one of the edge pieces within a few days of it being out at the counter. To me, it's just hard to turn and I know to ease up on the softer pieces.  You can still place the piece in such a way that it looks like it's together, so now it's just fun to leave it at the counter and see who thinks that they broke it. The guy that actually did break it has become interested in cubing, and got himself a GhostHand cube and learned how to solve it. The only other person that I usually see at my counter that can solve a Rubik's Cube (that I know of) has started working on larger cubes, and he's been practicing on the 4x4x4 and the 5x5x5.

The cube has been a good icebreaker for me at work, even to the point where my boss will put me up to it in an attempt to showcase me to certain customers that hadn't dealt with me yet. I'd like to think that it allows me to make a good impression as someone that may have talents that are not immediately apparent, and that I can demonstrate fluid competency on something that most people would struggle with. What was surprising to me was that he used it to re-introduce me to our division vice president when he stopped by this last week. During the introduction phase of the meeting, my boss asked me to get a cube so I should show the group my particular talent.  I grabbed my GhostHand and my DaYan that I have out at the counter and gave the group my usual demonstration, and tried to field questions as best I could. The division vice president started to ask me something about my "God-given talent" and I felt compelled to interrupt him as fast as I could and emphasize that what he was seeing was purely the result of practice, and the only natural advantage I might have had to start with is having a good spatial sense. It's a little sad, I suppose, that for all of the time that I spend with a cube I'm not anywhere near the fastest in the world. Last time I checked, if I averaged 35 seconds under competition conditions, my ranking would be somewhere are 16,000th in the world. What I realized, though, is pure speed is not really the thing that I practice any more. What I do and what I seem to practice is demonstrating the cube while solving it, and being able to maintain my end of a conversation and answering questions while solving it. It may not be conducive to me having better times, but I'm still enjoying it, and I'd like to think it's more entertaining this way. Our division vice president used my little demonstration as a way to segue into talking about how each branch and in a larger sense the entire company needs to work as a team, and about how it's helpful to have a mix of different talents available on those teams.

Several of the regular customers at our counter are accustomed to me, despite some of my personality quirks, but only one so far had been daring enough to drop this question on me.

"So, are you autistic? Like your brain never shuts off?"

I didn't really know how to answer the question at that moment, but it's certainly something I've thought about. All I could tell him was that both of my children have been diagnosed with Asperger's, and that the current version of the DSM includes Asperger's as part of a larger generalized disorder diagnosis criteria. I think I may have made some sort of "the apple doesn't fall far from the tree" comment as well (or I thought it but I'm unable to distinguish the difference when replaying the event in my head later). The customer then went on about how autism was probably caused by "those big needles they stick in women when they're pregnant". At the time I presume he was talking about epidural anesthesia, but now that I think of it he could have just as easily have been talking about amniocentesis. I had to remind him that there are strong genetic factors involved in autism and Asperger's and I tried to describe the surge in cases in Silicon Valley, but I think I came off like a rambling lunatic. It's not uncommon to come off like a rambling lunatic if you present a completely different viewpoint that someone else is unprepared for.

As far as I can tell, no my brain does not shut off.

Certainly there are facets of my behavior that are similar to those of my children, and there are things that I still have to deal with now that most people that aren't on the spectrum don't give even a moment's notice to. When I'm comparing my immediate family to other people I tend to consider myself closer neurologically to my children and my wife than the public at large, but I realize that I'm probably a little bit closer to neurotypical than they are. This isn't an on/off sort of thing - this is precisely why it's referred to as a 'spectrum'. There are a wide range of presentations and behaviors, and you're going to see the same kind of diversity that you would hope to find in the public at large.

So, maybe I am autistic, or maybe I'm just part of the larger autistic phenotype but for me doesn't matter. It matters a little bit for my kids, if only in making sure they don't get run over by the modern standards and metrics-based approach to the education system. Asperger's isn't something that's going to be 'cured'.   Often, smart kids with Asperger's weren't even being diagnosed in years past because the profile of 'gifted' seemed to allow for a lot of eccentricity. Most of what's required in a setting that's trying to foster real growth - for any person - is knowing what an individual's strengths and weaknesses are, and working with it. If that means a visual schedule, or a to-do list, or a flowchart helps get things done, then that's how it should be done. To my friends, I'm not a diagnosis, I'm just me. And if that's the person that can explain imaginary numbers to their kids, or figure out why a particular cable routing has less signal gain than is required, or knows what flavors of Mountain Dew are available where, or can find an obscure part out in the warehouse, or remembers what happens when you just barely move the on-off switch of an Atari 2600 to the off position and back on again, or the guy that can explain a Rubik's cube while solving it, then that's the me that they expect - and I'm happy to be that person.

As a side note, the event where we picked up the cheap cube was one of the Surfers for Autism events. Ever since my older son had been diagnosed, we have been going to these events in our area when we can. It's a great organization, and they get a lot of community support everywhere they go. It's been a great opportunity for us to talk to other parents going through what we're going through, and to talk to people about Asperger's and how understanding the underlying neurology of Asperger's may lead to more insight to the other autism spectrum disorders. It's been one of the best things for our family in terms of dealing with our own idiosyncrasies and learning about ourselves in a new context.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Another report from the land of WiiU.

These are things I am glad about, some of which I realized beforehand and some I didn't.

1) The WiiU Game Pad is a pretty good controller even without the screen on it, when it's a game where a traditional controller is a good fit. The analog sticks are very responsive, the button layout and the physical contours of the controller are comfortable in the hand, and the screen is just a nice bonus.

2) NintendoLand is a good, solid, way to get used to using the Game Pad. It's a little cutesy, but the various activities are all modeled after beloved Nintendo first party franchises. The Pikmin game in NintendoLand is a household favorite.

3) Nintendo's attempt to increase their attach rate by offering a free download game with the purchase of Mario Kart 8 may be working a little bit. (It's still going to go on through the end of July, so if you were thinking about getting a WiiU this summer, it's not a bad way to start.) We opted for New Super Mario Bros. WiiU, since we already picked up Pikmin 3 and our console was bundled with Wind Waker HD.

4) My older son seems to be a little better at Mario Kart 8 than I am, and I'm actually really excited about that. (For those of you that are wondering, the answer is Rosalina, the Circuit Special, the Slicks, and the Cloud Glider. We don't have the Cyber Slicks unlocked yet.) We've even managed to win some races playing on the internet.

5) My younger son spends most of his time on the WiiU playing regular Wii games. At the moment, everyone is taking another swing at The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword when we're not playing Mario Kart 8 or New Super Mario Bros. WiiU or Pikmin 3.

6) If you're bad at a particular level of New Super Mario Bros. and you're playing the Wii or WiiU versions, eventually an exclamation block will appear at the beginning of the level. Ordinarily this would not be a big deal, since it's there to ask you if you need help. If you hit the block, Luigi shows you a way to get through the level. It's just that the noise that the game makes when that block is present sounds an awful lot like a doorbell, which means that our dogs have to bark at it.

Friday, June 20, 2014

Change happens -OR- When lefty is not right.

Getting a new game console has seemed like an upheaval every time it's happened. For a long time, I was only concerned with Nintendo consoles, so it was simple enough to tell when it was time to get the newer console.  At a certain point, they stop making the games you want for the console you have, and the effort goes into making the games you want for the console you don't have yet. However, near the end of a console cycle, it's very easy to amass some of the titles you hadn't played for a quarter of the price you might have paid otherwise. In the Nintendo and Super Nintendo era, that usually meant pawn shops and yard sales, but in subsequent generations that also meant clearance bins and record stores and game stores. So, the end of each console cycle meant weighing your amassed collection against how much you wanted to play the new games.

Now if there's only one specific game series that you play, then it's usually child's play to make the determination, since you just play your old system until the game you want comes out for the new system. This is especially true for system exclusives like Nintendo's Mario, Zelda and Metroid series games, Sony's Gran Turismo games, or the Halo series on XBox. At the other far end of the spectrum, if you have more money and time than everyone else, it's also very easy since you can just get each console when it comes out and pick up whatever you find interesting at the time. If you fall somewhere in the middle (which most of us do) and play a variety of games but aren't in a position to get or even have time to play everything, then usually the decision to get a new console and which console to get is tied to the point at which you can afford a new console but you can no longer afford to be left behind on a particular game series. For example, I played a lot of Street Fighter on the Super Nintendo, but when the next generation of consoles came out Capcom made no effort to make them for the Nintendo 64 since it was a style of game not well-suited to the N64's controllers or hardware. So, the other systems got Street Fighter versions but not the N64, and I eventually got my hands on a Playstation so that I could continue on in that series. When Street Fighter continued on to the Dreamcast, however, I was not compelled to get a Dreamcast since there weren't enough of the other games that I was playing available for that system. The Playstation 2 had a lot to offer at that point, it played all my existing Playstation games, and it also doubled as a DVD player so I couldn't find a way for the Dreamcast to outweigh the PS2's benefits.

My Wii tanked completely at Christmas of last year, months after having done a laser module replacement myself. There were a lot of things my kids were still playing on it, even though I had started getting all of the new LEGO games for my Sony Playstation 3 instead of for Wii. I couldn't have regrouped fast enough to pick up a WiiU at that point, and we still had plenty of things to play on PS3. So, I started figuring out when I could get one.

My tipping point for the WiiU was Pikmin 3. The Pikmin series is fundamentally about managing a group of entities, the bipedal but flower-like Pikmin, to complete tasks on your behalf. Different Pikmin types are able to perform different types of tasks and some tasks can be performed by all of the Pikmin. These tasks include finding parts to repair your ship, collecting treasure, and collecting sustenance.

I really enjoyed Pikmin 1 and 2, and I still like to go back and play the challenge mode boards on Pikmin 1. As both Pikmin 1 and 2 were on the GameCube and largely overlooked by mainstream gaming since the words "Theft", "Duty" and "War" were not in the title, I was a little surprised that Pikmin 3 made it to the WiiU. As it turned out, Pikmin was relatively well-received among people who were already buying other Nintendo first-party titles. I suppose that Captain Olimar's inclusion in Super Smash Brothers Brawl allowed him to be introduced to a few more people, and Nintendo followed up with revised Wii versions of Pikmin 1 and 2 to take advantage of the Wii's control scheme.

On the WiiU, there's even an interesting control scheme that takes good advantage of the Game Pad controller and its touchscreen controls.

If you're right handed.

They worked out a control scheme that involves the two left triggers, the left analog stick, and the d-pad, used in conjunction with the stylus in the right hand. It has a lot of functionality, but no option to mirror the controls to the other side. If you still have your Wii controllers, which I did, you can use a Wiimote and a Nunchuck controller and control the game identically to the Wii Play Control versions of Pikmin 1 and Pikmin 2.

The map on the Game Pad works better if you don't need glasses at all, or if you need glasses for everything. I don't really need glasses to read with, but I need glasses for distance. It's not like I could just push my glasses down my nose and look down at the Game Pad. However, once I started using the Wiimote + Nunchuck controls, I put the Game Pad back in its cradle so I could look down at the map and have it be approximately the same distance away from me as the TV is.

I'm going to have a hard time explaining this to my ophthalmologist.

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Squirrel! -or- How long does it take to set up a new console?

So I feel like I've been sidetracked a little. (Squirrel!) My intention of late was to try to play some of the hidden hits of the PS3 before they all disappeared, but now that school is out my attention has been turned to the WiiU.

I actually purchased a WiiU (Nintendo's next console after the Wii) weeks ago, knowing that I wouldn't be allowed to set it up until after school was out. The details from yesterday were a little tedious, I tried to summarize a little while still giving a sense of the timeframe.

  • 7AM - Download the WiiU transfer tool onto the Wii. Play it cool for a while because my younger child doesn't know we have a WiiU yet.
  • 10AM - Charge the gamepad in the older son's room without the younger son noticing. The biggest difference between the Wii and the WiiU is the gamepad. Sure, the WiiU finally has HD graphics now, but you don't notice that as much as holding a controller with a 852x480 6.2" touchscreen in the middle of it.
  • 2:30PM - finally start hooking things up in the living room, and tell younger child what's up.
  • 3PM - still setting things up. User accounts, the player characters called Mii's, etc.
  • 3:30 PM - Still downloading a system update.
  • 4PM  - configuring an SD card for the data transfer from the Wii.
  • 4:30 PM - The second SD card has failed to communicate with the Wii.
  • 4:45 PM - The third SD card has failed, and I'm giving up on retrieving the Wii data for now.
  • 5PM - start the download for Hyrule Historia
  • 5:15PM - Start playing NintendoLand while Wind Waker downloads in the background.
  • 9PM - after older son is done playing Wind Waker, I tell him to put in Pikmin 3, just to see if it has to do an update, even though he's not interested in playing Pikmin 3.
  • 12:30AM - tell older son to stop playing Pikmin 3 and go to bed.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Google Bends Time, or Extra Special Cube Edition!

I was pretty sure that I got a 25th Anniversary Rubik's Cube, with one reflective silver side instead of the white side sometime after my older child was born. He's only 13 now, and 25+13=38. So, how did we get to Google's posting of the 40th Anniversary of the Rubik's Cube as a Google Doodle?

Well, you have to change the goalposts a little. The 25th Anniversary cube came out in 2005, which is 25 years after the 1980 Ideal Toy Company product release, and the 30th Anniversary wooden cube came out in 2010. Those two things are still on the same timeline. However, if you look at when Ernő Rubik actually built a working prototype of the cube, that was in 1974, which is 40 years ago.

Like most Google Doodles, it's well-constructed, but I tried not to take too much magic out of it to see if there were keyboard shortcuts.  You do get a nifty screen for solving, which honestly I wasn't sure was going to happen or not.

I can't say that I was trying that hard, and I certainly didn't know I was being timed, but it's not too bad for what it is. I'm sure I had to turn the cube around more than usual, and I had a couple of moves I had to do twice, or differently, or whatever else was required, so 20 extra moves didn't seem like a lot.

I had thought about shooting some cube video for this evening, but I think the surprise of the finish screen is fun enough.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

I guess this can't count as an overlooked PS3 game...

...unless you count the idea that Americans overlooked the Sengoku Basara series and made it so they wouldn't make an American version.

We finally picked up our first import game, Sengoku Basara Utage. It's a companion game to the Capcom hack and slash set in the Sengoku period,  Sengoku Basara 3. While it's not the only game of this style using historical characters with fantastic abilities (Sengoku Basara is basically a clone of Konami's Dynasty Warriors series), it's not really a common or popular game style in the west. You can read some of my rambling about it here.

It's been out for a while but it had been $80 or so on amazon every time we thought to look for it. We were looking for some other things and saw that there was a copy that went down under $40, so we picked it up. The game controls the same as the American version of Sengoku Basara 3, but the menus are a little bit different because Utage3 has some additional game modes, and we don't read any Japanese yet so we're winging it a little bit. This isn't like trying to play a game in Spanish or Italian where we understand the alphabet and some of the Latin root words. This is only working because the language of the gameplay itself is familiar to us. I think my older son has unlocked all of the new characters, but he has a long way to go to get all the weapons and allies unlocked.

The most amusing thing about the game so far is which words do end up in English. The combo counter is in Arabic numerals, and the combo descriptors that show above the combo count are in English. I'm sure that there are other funny parts of the game, but we're losing all of the story and character comments.

The biggest difference in this game is that most of the new playable characters in the game were all the non-playable major opponents from the last game, and all of the other playable characters return. It uses your game data from Sengoku Basara 3 and uses it to establish what level and what skills your old playable characters have available to them. It was nice that even though the primary bad guy (Nobunaga Oda) is rather time-consuming to unlock and difficult to defeat in Sengoku Basara 3, he unlocks fairly soon in Utage even if you hadn't unlocked him in the other version. There are some new areas, but I haven't seen anything spectacular yet. There is one additional character that didn't show up in the original version of 3, and it's the character most prominently featured on the cover of the game, but I'm not 100% sure about his name. I think it's Hisahide Matsunaga. (Yay! I got it right - thank goodness for the Wiki.)

Sengoku Basara 4 came out in Japan in January, so I presume that's why the price dropped on Utage. I also presume that Sengoku Basara 4 will not be localized for any other countries, so I can only guess that we'll be trying to muddle our way through in Japanese again if everybody decides that we want to play it.

Part of me hopes that my younger son gets into the game enough to start learning some Japanese.

Monday, May 5, 2014

Is this thing still on?

I used to do blog posts at 1up before I ever started here on blogspot, but it would appear that 1up is brokenish lately.  My blog posts that I link elsewhere go to this so-far reliable blogspot page, but there are probably some amusing anecdotes from 2007 that didn't make it. Crap, have I been blogging that long? It seems like I was super-late to the party. Anyway, if you want to find the old stuff, it's here. New stuff will only be posted here until further notice.