Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Cubing in Public, Hasbro Edition

One of the things that I did this week was take my younger child to a play group. The least I could do as a parent would be to make sure that he's better socialized than I am. Since I don't know any of the other parents that well I wasn't quite ready to socialize during the waiting around part. (See - this is why I need to do this.) I'm not worried about waiting around while the kids play, that's what I have my Rubik's cube with me for. However, it was rather quiet there, and like any lobby or waiting room it can be rather echoey.

The cube I brought the first time was one of my two new model Hasbro Official Rubik's cubes with the plastic tiles and the new mechanism that I talked about here. After doing a couple of solves, I realized that it seemed rather loud. It would seem that I am the only person that would excuse himself from a semi-social situation to go get a quieter cube. I had a couple of DaYans in the car and opted for my fancy (well, to me it's fancy) stickerless cube. While I am always happy to demonstrate my meager cube prowess, it didn't seem like I should be making a big racket to attract attention on purpose. It did seem odd to me on later reflection that I had so many cubes in the car.

In other news, I haven't seen an email back to find out why Gamora isn't on the official Guardians of the Galaxy coffee mug. I've been thinking about calling them, but I don't know how my employer might feel about a random call to Apopka on my lunch break. I suspect that the answer is going to be something like "That's the artwork that got approved by the Marvel people" without any regard for the exclusion of one of the members.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Why Comic Books and Coffee Mugs Prove I Don't Understand Feminism or Marketing.

I want to be able to say that I'm not sexist. I'd like to think so. Every once in a while, something will set me off and I tailspin into some remarkable rabbit hole of self-loathing that makes me think that either I'm some sort of naive idiot or some evil monster.

This time it was a coffee cup.

I saw Guardians of the Galaxy a few weekends ago, and I really liked it. That's not really noteworthy, since it would seem that lots of people went out to see a movie that most people would have laughed at the premise of ten years ago. In fact, it's so many people that it's the number grossing summer film in the United States. In an effort to be additionally supportive, and to give me a frequent reminder of the film, I purchased a coffee mug that has four of the characters from the film on it.

So now I hear Peter Falk's voice in the back of my head going "Sorry to bother you, but there's one thing that I don't understand there. Aren't there five members of the team in Guardians of the Galaxy?" (For those of you too young to get the Columbo reference, just have a look on youtube.)

Who's on the coffee mug? Well, Star Lord has to be on the mug. It's practically his movie from start to finish. The bounty is on him, it's his spaceship, and it's his mixtape. Rocket and Groot are on the mug because they carry a lot of the jokes in the film. Drax is on the mug because he's awesome and nothing goes over his head. (Side note: Drax is so awesome that they also have a mug that's just him. I presume that the marketing department thinks that coffee drinkers identify with Drax.) I ask my wife while we're in the store - "Why isn't Gamora on the coffee mug?" - to which she wittily replies, "Gamora doesn't need coffee." She's not a fluff character in the film, by any means. She gets lots of screen time and several awesome action sequences.

So, then I start considering possibilities and the rabbit hole starts opening up on me. First, I think that they really did leave Gamora off of the mug because she's a girl, but then that would imply that the marketers think that comic books fans, especially ones that drink their own coffee but go the movies won't be accepting of her. Then I think - but I noticed that she was missing, and aren't I part of the intended demographic of both the movie and the coffee mug? So then that means I must feel guilty that a woman wasn't included, when women wouldn't actually want her to be on there to be objectified, so I'm bad for trying to introduce gender into a discussion that it shouldn't even have been in in the first place? It's not like the marketers can be wrong - after all, any time I don't get a commercial it's not because it's a bad commercial, it's because I'm not the intended demographic.

Don't comic books play into male adolescent fantasy a little too often for women to not be included, even if they're present for obstensibly the wrong purpose?

Then I think about it some more - Gamora is being played by the same actress that plays Lt. Uhura in the new Star Trek Films, and the lead Na'vi character Neytiri in James Cameron's Avatar. Is there a coffee-drinking man or woman that watches science fiction films that would decline to buy a coffee mug if she was on it? I think not. At a certain point, I have to abandon trying second-guess a feminist viewpoint and go back to trying to see the fan viewpoint. They're a team, she's on it, she should be on the coffee mug.

There's contact information on the bottom of the mug for the company that made them. Since it's here in America, I guess I will try to talk to them.

Let's try this in the contact form and see what happens:

I recently picked up one of the Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy coffee mugs from my local Wal-Mart retailer and opted for the "Character" mug over the "Drax" mug just to have more of the characters but I was still a little disappointed that Gamora was not included. I have been often reminded that I don't really understand marketing.  In those cases where I don't understand the marketing it's often the case that I'm not the intended demographic anyway. I don't actually drink coffee, but I got it for my wife who does. We're both over 40 and have a couple of kids and we all enjoyed the movie.  So - is it because I'm not the standard demographic for this product, or is it because of some marketing reason that I'm unlikely to understand that Gamora's not on the "Character" mug? (Or is there some simple explanation that I've entirely overlooked?)

I'll follow up on this post when I get some sort of a response from the mug manufacturer.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Cubing in public, and breaking cube news

Having had a number of long days and odd situations at work, I was faced Friday with the prospect of having to take a long lunch so I didn't put myself into unauthorized overtime. I brought my good stickerless DaYan with me, and went to go run some errands to make the most of my lunch hours.

I had intended as my first stop to go to Home Depot and find out if they could sell me a prefabbed kitchen drawer to replace my blown-out silverware drawer. Particle board is not amenable to being re-drilled that much, and it had several stress failures in it. I discovered at Home Depot that they don't do kitchen cabinets the same way that they used to. I remember it being more like IKEA, where if you want a particular setup, they say, "Go get 4 drawer kits, one Base A, Two Base G's, and a Door M and N." Now, an entire section is a pre-assembled piece and you just have to fit them together, and the drawers are done completely differently now. Smartly, the rollers are underneath the drawer instead of hanging off the sides, so gravity doesn't act to misalign the mechanism.  I made a couple of laps around the furniture section, hoping to catch someone's eye so I could ask the stupid question to which they were going to answer "No" to, but the only employees that I was able to engage either were in other sections or the sniper guy in the front of the store that I wasn't going to talk to because I wasn't particularly interested in whatever special offers he had today.

Feeling down for having flunked out of the first errand, I walked over to the TigerDirect in the same plaza. Instead of avoiding the salespeople, I brandished my cube and walked right towards them. When the first person said "Hey - Rubiks' Cube!" I knew I was going to be good to do my three minute schtick. I managed to finish off a 27 second solve, talked to them about Will Smith learning to do the cube for ha movie, the fastest current time, the basics about the Fridrich method, how the corners first method is different, how algorithms work, and how learning how to do two moves with a single had motion improved my time. After the demonstration, I got someone to direct me to a good keyboard because I had gotten tired of the overly flat Dell keyboard that comes with the new computers that my company has been rolling out. They showed me a Microsoft Ergonomic 4000 and they had it for $35, and I was pretty darn happy about that. I even did a little bit of my cube demo a second time for the cashier who rang me up since nobody was in line behind me and they seemed interested.

After I got done with that, I went down to the Gamestop up the street. I found a used copy of Killer is Dead marked at $8, but it rang up $16. The cashier was nice about it and split the difference, so I got it for $12. While he was figuring it out, I did a little bit of my cube routine for the line that had formed behind me. During part of my schtick, I had mentioned to the cashier that I usually had my cube with me for when I had to wait in line at places instead of playing Angry Birds, and I got a sort of a hipstery I-didn't-think-anybody-still-played-Angry-Birds response from him. That's a sentiment that's not unexpected from the general public, but I found it slightly unexpected from a game store employee. This is Gamestop after all - if people weren't playing old games they wouldn't be making enough money to be in a strip mall every 15 miles all over America.

So, having forgotten several items on the list, I found myself at Walmart later that evening to get a couple of the things I couldn't manage to get elsewhere. Our local store is being remodeled, so everything is out of place. Towering shrink-wrapped pallets fill the rear aisles, the newly redesigned parking lot doesn't have cart corrals in the right places, the back-to-school section is two narrow corridors of doom and destruction, support posts block the traffic flow of the most used cash lane of the store, turkey pans are assisting with the air conditioning system, and if anything new came in the store you would only find it by accident.

Last night's accidental discoveries were some of the Star Trek series of Hot Wheels cars and a newly redesigned Rubik's cube!

The packaging is clear plastic on top to show the cube inside, with an insert on the bottom that mentions that there's a new smoother mechanism and on the other side that there's a new Rubik's cube app on Google Play and the Apple Store. The cube is shiny - at first I thought that it was just redesigned stickers but it turned out to be embedded plastic tiles. This is not the first time that a Rubik's cube was done with tiles, but the plastic tiles on the 80's cubes were thicker. These new tiles are recessed. I have not been able to disassemble the new cube as I find the mechanism is rather stiff. It may have a spherical mechanism similar to the Void cubes and the 80's Rubiks' Revenge, or it may just be that there are spherical feet. It is not suited for speedcubing that I can tell, but perhaps some breaking in will do it some good. The only information that I had found about the new cube was on the Hasbro page.  I had one face that I couldn't turn that well for ten minutes or so, and then with a firm grip on two layers I was eventually able to turn it. I couldn't tell if it was hung up or there was a piece of plastic flash, but now I can hear a rattling piece of plastic inside the cube when I shake it. Since I can't wear down or delaminate the stickers and they're widely available, I suppose I could silicone this one without fear. If the silicone lubricant works, it would be the first time in a long time that I can carry around a real Rubik's cube without having to apologize for it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

USFIV, slideshow version

I tried to add a Street Fighter video to my Youtube channel, but it was more like a slideshow. I was thinking that it could have been because I was connected via wireless, but apparently I'm not the only one with the problem.

Here you go anyway, if only for humor's sake and for subsequent comparison.

Ken's Ultra reaches a little farther than expected, both in the first and third rounds. Done out of total desperation on my part, that Evil Ryu player should have eviscerated me.

Thursday, August 7, 2014

The harsh reality of being old.

When you're really young, it's not that important to get it 100% right - just the idea that you're trying to do things and putting yourself out there is enough

When you're still young but not brand new, it's easy to be brash and outspoken, and perhaps people don't criticize what you do all the time because they can say, "Oh, they're still young. It's OK, they'll grow out of it." You can establish yourself as you develop your identity, and people will flock to you initially out of novelty, and then stay with you out of a sense of familiarity.

Everybody understands that things change, and perhaps the four year old and the ten year old look at the same things and have a completely different approach - to the point where the four year old couldn't even imagine what the choices of the ten year old would be, and the ten year old can't imagine the choices of the twenty-one year old. Once you've matured that much, perhaps the path forward becomes more intuitive, and sometimes when you can step back and look at all the changes, it's easier to see how you got from point A to point B. That doesn't stop the temptation of doing something brash just to get attention, or maybe just sticking by your guns and hoping that you find the right people to appreciate you.

Of course, I'm talking about Street Fighter. While it's Capcom's second biggest franchise (Resident Evil is their biggest) it's not experiencing the sort of mainstream popularity that it used to. While arcades were starting to dwindle at the end of the 80's, the strength of the Street Fighter II series games made arcades relevant again and paved the way for the character versus character fighting game to become the dominant paradigm of the arcade, instead of all of the shooting games that followed in the footsteps of Space Invaders and Defender.

In its middle age, the Street Fighter III series tried to abandon all of the old characters except Ryu and Ken, and had many problems retaining an audience due to its extreme difficulty and unfamiliarity. Later versions of the game brought back some favorite characters, but it was too late and still too difficult a game for mainstream audiences.

As a mature game, the Street Fighter IV series which is currently on its fourth home release over the course of  six years has tried to straddle the line between innovating and keeping the fan base satisfied. While it's selling more copies than it did during the Street Fighter III era, Street Fighter's overall cultural relevance has waned a little. More people are familiar with the cheesy "Street Fighter" movie with Raul Julia and Jean-Claude Van Damme than are familiar with the newer "Street Fighter:The Legend of Chun Li" starring Kristin Kreuk. It really hit home for me on Tuesday this week when I picked up my copy of Ultra Street Fighter IV. I had been to Target at lunch earlier in the day and had walked through the game section. If they had the new game, I didn't notice. Even when I got to my local Gamestop after work to pick my copy up one the way home, it's not like they had a big cardboard standup in the store or a bunch of copies on the shelf. I handed them my preorder receipt, and they had to look for it. It took them just long enough to find it that I had a moment where I started to worry that CAPCOM had delayed the release date and didn't tell anyone. Maybe now that the game is this old, they don't worry about the marketing so much because they figure they're not going to get any better audience that what they already have?

I like the new characters, although they're not entirely new. Hugo, Elena, Rolento, and Poison were all available characters in other games, and Decapre is visually similar to Cammy. Despite my concerns, Decapre plays like a completely new character. For that matter, the other four new characters have all had some adjustments to them that make them play a little differently than their previous incarnations.

The challenge mode in the game that gives you a set of specific objectives for each character in an attempt to teach you the moveset of each character had gone unfinished in the previous edition of the game, and at the moment is still unfinished. A future patch has been promised, and I will be looking forward to it. I found that I had never really learned Yun and Yang properly from the previous version without the challenge mode. Sure, you can go in training and mess around, and it's not like you can't look up the moves. but I found the challenges a good foundation for learning the other characters. Another feature of the game that I hadn't quite expected is that it pulls in your data from other games, so it knows that I played SFxTekken, and it knows what my scores and character usage from Street Fighter IV:Arcade Edition are.

I'm pretty happy with the game, even if I'm not the most awesome player of Fei Long or Vega or Dan on the internet. I'm looking forward to a lot of games against my older son and my friends. (My older son plays as T. Hawk, and I heard that they made some improvements to his moves. I guess I better watch out.)

The only thing that seems to bug me about the game is one of the the reasons that I waited to get the full retail version of the game on disk was so I could have all the costumes in one shot and get that over and done with. As soon as the game came out a new set of costumes was announced. I know, it's the new thing to monetize add-on content to every game, and it just doesn't sit well with me.

Maybe it's because I'm old.

Friday, August 1, 2014

What Wii still have left to play...

I was reminded at the store today that some people still have their original Wii, and haven't upgraded to the WiiU. It made me think that there are some really good games out there that if you didn't play on the Wii, you still should. I would also add that you will have a better time playing these games on your Wii hooked to a good TV using the component video cables than you will playing those games on a WiiU because of what the WiiU's upscaling looks like.

Here's a quick list of my personal favorites for the Wii that you might want to go back and play if you accidentally skipped them. The more mature-rated games are further down the list.

The Legend of Zelda:Twilight Princess (single player)
The Legend of Zelda:Skyward Sword (single player)
Super Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 (mostly single player, but a second player can assist a little)
Super Smash Bros. Brawl (up to 4 players)
New Super Mario Bros. Wii (up to 4 players)
Mario Kart Wii (1-4 players)
Excitebots Trick Racing
Wii Sports Resort (1-4 players)
Most of the LEGO games (Star Wars 1-3, Indiana Jones 1&2, Batman 1&2, Pirates of the Caribbean, Harry Potter 1-4 and 5-7, Lord of the Rings)
de Blob and de Blob 2 (single player - the first game is groundbreaking, but the second game is easier to control because jumping was mapped to a button instead of waving the Wii Remote)
Kirby's Epic Yarn (1-2 players, unbearably cute for some people)

Okami (single player, especially good if you liked the Zelda games )
Sengoku Basara (1-2 players. #1 game at my house by total hours played, but not for everyone)

Resident Evil 4 Wii Edition (single player, Mercenaries mode is still a lot of fun for a long time after you've finished the main story.)
Tatsunoko vs. Capcom (1-2 players, the only conventional fighting game on the Wii.)
No More Heroes 1 & 2 (While its status as 'Mature' content is often questionable as some of the humor is rather juvenile and crude, the games have a unique presentation and narrative without being so artistic as to be a drag on actually playing the game.)
Metroid: Other M (Single player. The game is ridiculous in many aspects, and there's no reason Samus needs to talk, but it was full of interesting combat and exploration and a streamlined control scheme that uses only the Wiimote. Metroid Prime Trilogy is also a great game that used to be three great smaller games, but the controls are more complicated.)
Sin and Punishment (single player, an interesting take on the rail shooter genre. I was glad that I picked it up for $20 when I could as copies have crept back up to $50 in some places.)
Pikmin 1 & 2 New Play Control ( story is 1 player in both games, Pikmin 2 has some multiplayer vs. games available after finishing the main game. They are conversions of a couple of the best Gamecube games that Nintendo made.)

I might also suggest the Rayman games and the Rabbid spinoff games, although they are not in my personal collection. I don't put games like Call of Duty or Tiger Woods or Rock band on this list because if you really wanted to play those games when they came out you're unlikely to be a Wii owner.

Feel free to pick on this list or suggest more.

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.