Saturday, December 21, 2013

Visiting a previously ignored franchise, part 2

Last time I talked about how I had ignored Mortal Kombat for the lifetime of the PS3, and went through the basics of the 2008 title "Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe". The other part of this reunion between me and Mortal Kombat is the 2011 reboot of the Mortal Kombat series by NetherRealm studios.

A big chunk of the Midway team that worked on the Mortal Kombat franchise and some of the other teams that worked on Midway projects in the Chicago area became NetherRealm Studios. (In 2009 after the acquisition they were just called "WB Chicago" but they got renamed/rebranded in 2010.) So, despite having been purchased by Warner Brothers, it was essentially the same team that worked on the previous game.

Having seen the success of Capcom's Street Fighter IV where 3D rendered graphics were employed to simplify development but did not use a 3D fighting system, the Mortal Kombat franchise went back to a single plane of combat. In addition to streamlining the gameplay, the 2D nature of the arenas meant that they could recreate many of the iconic arenas from the original games like the bridge over a pit of spikes, the walkway over a pit of acid, the walkway across the top of the evil monks' tower, the walkway across the front of an audience of monks both during the day and at night, Shang Tsung's throne room, and even Shao Khan's throne in an arena. (As an amusing bit of fan service, Tanya who was my favorite character from MK4 and not playable in this game as far as I am aware is occasionally one of the two people chained up next to Shao Khan's throne.)   Instead of being forced to make every fight location a large open arena with a few interesting features off in the distance, the arenas are more like hallways and walkways bringing the camera closer to both the fighters and the backgrounds. In a game where nearly all of the characters have some sort of projectile attack, having 3D movement would nullify a lot of those attacks, so now ducking without blocking is useable again for avoiding some projectiles without taking block damage.

Somehow, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe managed to tone down the violence enough to get a "T" rating but this game is much more like the original three games in terms of the tone of the violence. With the reboot, we can expect ridiculous things like complete bisections done by the sharp edge of a hat and uppercut-powered decapitations, but is supplemented by better quality graphics and some new attack types.  Mortal Kombat had started using a meter for special attacks some time ago, but it was either for a 'rage attack' feature (MK Trilogy, MK vs DC) that allowed you to do more damage and move more quickly for a limited period of time or for a 'breaker' feature that allowed you to break your opponent's combo midstream (MK vs DC). The games between Trilogy and MK vs. DC that used 'breakers' (Deception and Armageddon) just gave you three breakers per match. In the reboot, the gauge has three segments and is now used for enhanced attacks (more damaging versions of the character's special moves) which use one segment of the gauge, breakers which use two segments, and an even more damaging attack, the X-Ray Attack which uses the entire gauge. Not every character has the same attack properties for the X-Ray attack - some must be done in the air, some must be done as countermoves to an opponent's attack, and some start like a regular attack on the ground and can be chained in from a regular attack.

The story mode in the game is centered around Raiden, the thunder god.  At the beginning of the story, he is about to be defeated by Shao Khan, so he sends a message to his past self in an attempt to change the events that got him in this predicament. As the story unfolds, we play as other characters in a nostalgic tour through the story of the first three Mortal Kombat games, with subtle nods here and there to other parts of the series. However there are some unexpected plot twists here and there, and even though the game has been out for a while I'm in no mood to spoil them.

Like many of the other facets of the game that have reverted to the original style, the special moves are performed a lot more like they had been in the original three games, and in general the moves available to characters are in keeping with their original versions. Since this was the team's second attempt at using the Unreal engine for a fighting game, and they were likely able to re-use a lot of program code from Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe, the game is much smoother and better animated than MKvsDC. All of the character textures are a big improvement, and most of the animation is more fluid and better executed. Like Street Fighter IV's improvements over Street Fighter II, they have managed to make a new game that pays a lot of respect to the old game, adds enough new features to be interesting, but doesn't take much away from what we liked about the games in the first place.

One of the gag features made it to the reboot, the Babality, so instead of turning your opponent into chopped entrails after the announcer says "FINISH HIM", you can turn them into an infant version of their character. Amusing, certainly not necessary, but since I haven't done one successfully yet I don't know if you get a end of match bonus on par with having successfully performed a fatality.

Now there is another game done by the same team which is only the DC Superheroes, which is Injustice:Gods Among Us, and the second version of that game dubbed "Ultimate Edition" which includes all of the additional characters released via DLC was released just over a month ago. It's not a Mortal Kombat game at all, as the control scheme is radically changed, but now knowing that NetherRealm has gotten their act together again I suppose it's something that I'd be willing to consider instead of dismissing it out of hand.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Visting a previously ignored franchise, Part One

It's funny how the passage of time colors our perception of old games and distorts our expectations of new games. I was reminded about that as I had recently picked up the two Mortal Kombat games for PS3 recently now that the cheap bin is littered with them. This post will mostly pertain to Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe.

Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe came out in 2008 - I blogged about the character lineup a few months before the game was released but never ended up purchasing the game. I didn't have a PS3 when it came out, and then when I did get a PS3 it didn't seem like I needed to get it. I recently picked up a copy for under $10. I had not played a Mortal Kombat game since 2006 when the PS2 version of MK:Armageddon came out. I had been annoyed with the fighting part of the last few MK games (Deadly Alliance, Deception, Armageddon) but I had continued to play them because the storylines were interesting. They were like a bad soap opera that I couldn't stop watching. The storyline of MK vs DC isn't part of the overall Mortal Kombat story, and DC treated it like an Elseworlds scenario also, so nothing that happens in the story of the game affects any of the other games or comics. Now that I have played it, it seems a little like a rough draft of a game. Surprisingly it sold well, and it was a great swan song for Midway Games before they went bankrupt and sold off the rights to Mortal Kombat and a few other Midway properties to Warner Brothers.

The first part of the experiment: put two storylines together in a way that helps boost the visibility of both franchises. They did a good job with this by getting comic book writers Jimmy Palmiotti and Justin Gray involved. The story has some cornball features to it, but nothing any more so than any of the previous Mortal Kombat games.

The second part of the experiment: get a fighting game to run in 1080p. If you're fuzzy on what '1080p' means, review my post "Is it really HD?" In an effort to maintain fast frame rates, most fighting games run in 720p so they don't have to push the extra pixels and the game can stay fast, since a little bit of slowdown here in there in the visuals will be enough for some hardcore fighting enthusiasts to throw a controller across the room. (Thankfully, the really hardcore fighting enthusiasts only use corded controllers and often they're the big arcade joystick style so while they may do a lot of damage, at least they won't go very far.) Midway opted to use the Unreal engine with some modification to make it simpler for them to have good looking models and not have to build everything from scratch. The Batman:Arkham series games use the Unreal engine, as does the new Devil May Cry game "DmC".  First person shooter fans had already seen this game engine for the "Gears of War" series and a bunch of the "Tom Clancy" series games, just to name a very few. (If you're inclined, check out a much bigger list here.) Other than the eyes on some of the characters and some of the facial expressions, the character textures look pretty good. The more complicated outfits (Scorpion, Batman) seem to look a lot better than the characters with a lot of skin showing (Liu Kang, Wonder Woman). But, it's not a deal-breaker, and overall the game looks good in still shots. There are parts of the animation that seem a little uneven, but I'm not sure that that's the fault of the game engine they chose - sometimes they have to keyframe a few things that are impossible to do with motion capture, and you can tell somewhat which things were taken from motion capture and which things were taken from pure animation.

The third part of the experiment: Make some changes to the fighting system (again) so that it feels 'fresh'. (Stop thinking about the 'Summer's Eve' commercial.) I don't think that this part worked. They added elements where the fighting gets different when two players are up close, and another similar element where the characters pummel each other through the air as they are falling from one part of a stage to another. I'm never sure which side of the screen I need to pay attention to when they show contextual button presses for the closeup combat since my health bar stays one particular side but my character does not. It seems to be less confusing when they do the same thing falling though the air, but it seems like it just slows down the gameplay.

Part of the requirement of 'fresh' in the Mortal Kombat franchise is that it seems to need to change character's special moves on a regular basis. Since I have spent more time with the Street Fighter series, perhaps that's a product of my expectations. Since Street Fighter 2, Ryu's three signature special moves (fireball, dragon punch, and hurricane kick) have always been performed the same way. That's not to say that they haven't changed other parts of his fighting style for the sake of variation and to help the balance of the game, but they left his signature moves alone. So, even through the Alpha series games, the Street Fighter III series, the EX series, and up to the current Street Fighter IV games, anybody that's ever played Ryu has had a decent chance to grab a controller and get in the game without having to start from scratch. This is basically true for every character in the Street Fighter series except Chun Li, M. Bison, and Adon. (Since this is the internet, I'm sure that somebody will think of more.) For anyone that had played any of the previous versions of the characters, few people would have any trouble adjusting to their Street Fighter IV versions. 

By comparison, Raiden, who appears in nearly all of the Mortal Kombat games, has had his three basic moves (lighting bolt, teleport, torpedo) change often in the last four games, so by the time you get to MK vs DC, none of them are the same. This is true of the majority of the Mortal Kombat characters over the last four or five games. The other part of this is that none of the characters in Mortal Kombat have overlapping movesets. In Street Fighter, if you play as Ryu, it's not much of a stretch to play as Ken, Sakura, Dan, Akuma, or even Sagat. Moves with similar properties are input in much the same way between characters in Street Fighter. In Mortal Kombat, everybody's projectile is performed with a different controller motion, which makes it that much tougher if they keep changing it every game. Maybe it's an important design decision to them, it's just not one that I like. Oddly, I don't seem to care if they change the Fatality inputs from game to game - it's not like it's actually part of the match and seems more like a surprise bonus feature (although a gory one.)

The one part of the fighting system that they didn't seem to change was that the game is still a 3D fighter (which Mortal Kombat has been since MK4) which can tend to nullify the effects of many of the character's projectiles since they can be easy to dodge once you're used to the 3D part of the controls.

So, to sum up, Mortal Kombat vs DC Universe made big strides in improving the visuals, but the controls and the gameplay seem to be a repeat of their other efforts (Deadly Alliance/Deception/Armageddon) that were not always well-received. Luckily for gamers, Netherrealm Studios learned from a lot of these mistakes before they put out the 2011 reboot of the Mortal Kombat series, but I'll have to save that for next time.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Who are these people who need kiosks?

Coming out of a Saturday shift a little earlier than I expected to, I popped into a couple of stores on the way home. One of them was a music store, the other a big box electronics retailer. I didn't buy anything at either place - my intention in both cases was to merely get some eyeballs on what they had available at each store.

At the guitar store, I was greeted when I walked in and they asked about why I was there. I also saw that they had a fair number of people in the store in various locations, so if I had any subsequent questions I could ask them. They had a lot of new things in stock, everything was well-marked with prices and model numbers so it was very easy for me to see what was new from the last time that I was there. They've done a great job to make the store easy to navigate so people can find what they want.

There certainly are a lot of musical instrument retailers online, and there are lots of products that they sell that nobody would have any problems purchasing mail order. Effects units, cables, some keyboards, stands, and maybe the occasional microphone are probably bought online every day without issue. When it comes to guitars, basses, and drums, a lot of the time people want to try them out in person before they buy them, so music stores are still doing OK having physical stores although most of them are using a hybrid business model where they have a strong web presence in addition to the store.

At the big box electronics store, my intention was to put my eyeballs on Sony's new Playstation 4. They did have a PS4 kiosk set up. They also had a display next to it showing a constant stream of Sony commercials and promos. I had thought about actually touching the controller, but the only game that anybody was playing was a soccer game that I was unfamiliar with, so I didn't see the point of trying an unfamiliar controller in an unfamiliar context. Oddly, this was the only part of the store not swarming with salespeople. I had also noticed that they had changed the back middle section of the store where they sell computers to be more like an Apple store. White furniture, places to sit down and be interrogated by salespeople, and then a slew of terminals in the back that was sort of like a sales counter that caused me to walk around it instead of behind it even though it was the same width as the rest of the back aisle. As I was walking through the computer section I though I should see if they had a plain, simple, corded mouse. If they did, it was not apparent. I then started looking to see if they had any Wacom graphics tablet products only to realize that everything they're trying to sell is a touchscreen these days, so graphics tablets have turned into a super-niche product when they were just regular niche products before.

Looking around at the store layout, I now realize that they had converted more of their square footage to kiosks and help desks for their customers and had fewer shelves for actual products. As I walked out, there was an older man with a clipboard that asked me about my shopping experience. I presume that they didn't make him wear a store shirt in an attempt to get people to give truthful answers. At first, I said that it was OK, but that I didn't get anything. He told me that they also wanted to get impressions from people that were just browsing. So, I decided that I was going to have to tell him what I thought without editing, since I felt like I was asked a direct question. So then I said:

"Seriously? It looks like you guys have turned most of the square footage into kiosks. It's like walking around in a tank full of sharks."

I politely ran away at that point.

Driving home, I started to think about it. If electronics stores are losing market share to the internet, then the  people left getting phones and computers at brick-and-mortar stores are more likely to be people that are less tech-savvy and less likely to have already researched what they want. So, the people that don't buy anything should be complaining that they don't like the store because the store wasn't designed for them.
I used to like going to this electronics store 15 years ago, but that was when the only kiosk was a cell phone kiosk, and we had the good sense to walk around it.

Strangely, I talked to the same number of people in each case. One. In the guitar store, I was greeted right away, and walked the main path of the store with no subsequent distraction even though there were salespeople nearby at every turn. In the big box retailer, I only talked to the guy with the clipboard at the end and had to make a small effort to avoid the kiosks. Since the context of the two conversations were wildly different, it made a giant change in the shopping experience for me.

As shoppers, maybe we all need to ask ourselves what kind of shopping experience we expect from a real store that we don't get from buying online, and what retailers provide those other experiences? Conversely, as providers of goods and services, perhaps we can think about how we can provide the best experience for our customers. Maybe it's a pretty showroom, or maybe it's an efficient store layout.

Good luck getting any help at the kiosks on Black Friday. I'll be home having a turkey sandwich. 

With regard to the title, you'll have to pardon my poor Jerry Seinfeld impersonation. I'm starting to think that I'm really doing an impersonation of Gilbert Gottfried's impersonation of Seinfeld anyway.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

A few recent months of cubing

So, having properly claimed that I have not fallen off the face of the earth, I try to catch up on cubing stuff, both personal and otherwise.

In a small group of people assembled by my sales manager for the express purpose of watching me solve a cube, I was able to do a 30-second solve with my black DaYan. I found it rather funny because five or six of the people had written times on a piece of paper to see who was going to be the closest, and right before I started the solve I spotted my operations manager and suggested to the group that he would be able to write my exact time down on the paper. He looked at the list, saw that the two closest times written were 25 seconds and 35 seconds, and quickly wrote '30' on the paper before I got started. I was a little amazed when I finished in 30 seconds as I felt that I had made a couple of mistakes, but I have been a few seconds faster on the DaYan than on my regular stock Rubik's cube lately. On a stock Rubik's cube, I average around 37 seconds or so but can occasionally get down towards 33 once in a while.

My older son reassembled a 4x4x4 for one of our friends while I made dinner the other night. Let me be clear on this - reassembled, not solved. I was still glad and more than a little bit proud of him. It had been dropped, and was brought to us in pieces in a Ziploc bag. His LEGO construction skills come in handy, and he still has good closeup vision and smaller fingers. I asked him to inspect all the pieces for damage, but this 4x4x4 appears to be a newer build than mine. My 4x4x4 is an Ideal Toy Company model, and the 'feet' that hold the center pieces in place are a little bit thinner than the one that was brought to me. As I recall, more than a few of my center pieces were glued back together with jeweler's glue and I still have to treat it like an antique. (But, it's a 30 year old plastic toy, so maybe it's almost an antique.) I like knowing that DaYan makes a stickerless 4x4x4.

Well, perhaps now that I feel a little more caught up, I can get back to writing more regularly.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

No, I have not dropped off the face of the earth.

Not having written anything here for a couple of months, there is some difficulty in finding a place to begin. However, looking at my own blog title, it occurs to me that I should start with the 'Gaming' part. I will have to gloss over some details, perhaps, but I think I can come up with the big picture items, in some sort of chronological order.

1) Both of my kids have 100% completion in LEGO Batman 2. I can't play any of the LEGO games without nodding off.

2) I still can't find my Gamecube copy of Pikmin. I used to play it before bedtime a lot, particularly the 1-day challenge mode, because I found it relaxing. At some point I will have to just find the Wii Play Control version. (At least it should render correctly on widescreen if necessary.) My replacement small-dose game before bedtime has been Resident Evil 4:Wii Edition in Mercenaries Mode, which is not particularly relaxing for me.

3) I still don't have all the ending movies unlocked in Tekken Tag Tournament 2, partly because there are a lot of characters and partly because I'm not willing to set it to a difficulty easier than 'Normal' and there are a few characters that I can't seem to get the hang of. (Lili, I'm looking at you.) Yes, I know I could just team her with a character that I'm better at and still get her ending movie, but I'm trying to be well-rounded.

4) I picked up the 'Game of The Year' edition of Batman:Arkham City, which includes some Robin and Catwoman missions on top of the hours and hours of Batman missions. I liked it a lot, and there was a lot more of the things I liked in the game, but it didn't scare me or creep me out like the original Arkham Asylum did. There was more emphasis on action in Arkham City, and it seemed like you interacted with civilians a lot less. I have finished the main story on normal, but I have not finished all the side missions.

5) I picked up the rather old (or at least old by PS3 standards) Burnout Paradise hoping that my younger son would appreciate the open-world aspect of it. Since he had so much fun running around the hub in LEGO Batman 2, and found all kinds of fun things to do outside the dungeons in Zelda:Twilight Princess, I thought he might get some enjoyment out of driving around at random discovering things, maybe have some fun crashing cars or jumping ramps and learning the layout of the city. However, it turned out to be a total non-thing to him unless he's watching me play. There are a lot of things to buy in that game and few of them ever became free or available on a disc, even five years after the game came out originally. My initial surprise/amusement was that downloading updates for the game took hours and hours and I woke up SuperMonkeyWife when the game rebooted and she was treated to Axl Rose's voice somewhere around midnight. (Somehow I slept through it, but I'm more of a fan of Slash than Axl.)

6) I found out that there is a another version of Street Fighter IV coming out- not that I'm surprised or anything. The four Street Fighter characters (Poison, Hugo, and Rolento from Final Fight and Elena from Street Fighter III) that they made for Street Fighter X Tekken that weren't available in other games will be included, and a new fighter that has not been announced yet will also be added. I can either upgrade my copy of Arcade Edition, or buy the whole thing and finally get all the other costumes. Capcom hasn't exactly spelled out the pricing or release dates yet other than to say it will be available in 2014 for arcades.

7) I picked up a used copy of Darksiders for PS3 for less than $8. (I tried to type this three other times and kept typing 'Darkstalkers' instead.) I was told that it was rather Zelda-like in terms of level structure, and I have not been disappointed in that regard. I have been a little disappointed with the controls, but the games that I'm comparing it to don't have as many items and functions to deal with.

8) My younger child discovered Soul Calibur V and Tekken Tag Tournament 2. He's not that good at the actual games yet, but he is endlessly entertained by the Character Creation/Costume Editor module in both games.

9) Both of my kids are playing the ever-loving daylights out of Minecraft. I have no idea what they are talking about a lot of the time.

10) Pokemon Y came out last weekend and caused my older child to try to adopt a position at dinner that involved having a fork in one hand and a stylus in the other hand. Even with this unorthodox approach, he defeated all of the Pokemon League by Wednesday. There are some side missions left, but I think he's already looking for a copy of Pokemon X.

I think that catches me up to now, gaming-wise. Next post: I know what cubes you did this summer.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

A little diversion

Just a little something for amusement, since I wanted to look at the words a little.
This was made using with a hefty dose of Java.

Wordle: August 2013 Blog snapshot

As a side note to this - I always hear from my programmer friends that Java is incredibly dangerous. Is it dangerous because it's inherently and irreparably flawed or is it dangerous because it's a big target?

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Engineering is about tradeoffs.

Despite the derogatory implications that some might associate with this statement, I present this idea merely as a statement of fact: Most Americans don't fix as many things themselves any more.

I was presented with this idea quite some time ago, as one of the customers where I worked was complaining that replacing the starter on his standby generator seemed incredibly wasetful, since in his day starters were usually rebuilt. He used to work in the auto parts business. The inherent problem with what he was saying didn't even register with him. His maintenance was being done by an electrical contractor that happened to also do generator work. Should the electrical contractor have rebuilt a starter, having little experience doing so, nor having any of the equipment to do it? That's probably not cost effective. Should the contractor have subcontracted a rebuild out to someone who did specialize in rebuilding starters, at a substantial markup? That's probably not time effective or cost effective. On a thing like a backup generator, you just want it to work when you need it, and it doesn't really run that often. Was the guy going to notice if it didn't start on its exercise cycle? How mad would he have been at the contractor if it didn't start when it was supposed to? At a certain level, it comes down to the company that has to warranty the generator, and that's the generator manufacturer. Their recommendations end up outweighing all other concerns, since they're worried about both the reputation of their product and their responsibility to the product warranty. Their recommendation? Replace the starter with a new one that they've sent from the factory, and then the responsibility is back on them where it belongs.

This is somewhat typical to most troubleshooting these days - find the faulty module and replace it. This means that the technicians need to be most familiar with how the equipment is supposed to work normally, and following the path of operation through the system until the first failure is discovered. Once the failure is discovered and addressed, then the system can be re-assessed for proper operation.

Are we in any position, as laypeople, to accumulate this knowledge for every piece of equipment in our daily lives? Phones, computers, printers, cameras, cars, coffee makers, media players of all sorts, air conditioners, electrical equipment, radios, televisions, and the like?

I picked on radios and televisions last there because it wasn't that long ago that people took vacuum tubes (thermionic valves) to the drug store or the hardware store to check them and replace tubes themselves. You plugged the suspicious tube into one of 70 or 80 different sockets in the tester, and the machine told you if it failed on anything obvious, like if it had a short in it or something. Those testers probably could check several thousand different vacuum tubes. With vacuum tubes having been replaced by transistors, I can't imagine how large the tester at the drugstore would have to be to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of different devices, nor can I figure out how most people could unsolder a single transistor to check it. So, to use our oversimplified examples - two of the big reasons that we don't fix as many things ourselves is 1) we can't easily amass enough knowledge to fix all of the things that we might need to fix and 2) the things themselves are more complex than they used to be, so individual components are harder to extract. There was a small resurgence of fixing things ourselves when PC's hit the market, mostly due to the modular nature of the PC itself. Individual cards, having failed, are relatively simple to remove and replace. Certainly, nobody is going to be rebuilding modems these days.

I had a problem with one of my bass guitars that I put up with for a long time. A couple of the bridge saddles would collapse down to the face of the instrument periodically, allowing the string to whack against the pickup covers where it's not supposed to be. I was daunted by the idea of replacing the bridge, especially when I couldn't find an identical replacement. I put up with its failure for a long time, and eventually stopped taking the instrument in question to gigs. Just recently, I had the horrible "The disc cannot be read" failure on my Wii game console for what I think is the third time. So, I decided to take matters into my own hands on both accounts. I figured that if my Wii didn't work after I tried to fix it, I would be no worse off than I was. I felt the same way about the bass I wasn't using. After a few minutes looking around on the internet, I discovered that the laser module in the Wii's optical drive was the usual thing that failed, and if I recall correctly it was one of the things that Nintendo had previously fixed for me under warranty. The only thing that I would need besides a replacement laser module was something called a tri-wing screwdriver. On the bass side, I was able to find a different bass bridge than the stock one for my bass that had the same string spacing. The height might have changed, but at least it wouldn't be too low. If I didn't manage to get it to work, I could just put the old bridge back on.

The new bridge arrived first, and it took me a while to round up the right tools and courage to get it installed. My biggest concern was putting it on crooked and not being able to ensure good intonation, but I got it lined up correctly on the second try and everything went just fine. It would have gone fine the first time, but one of the holes I drilled was a little problematic because of how the bit walked around on the finish. I actually think that the intonation is better now that it was, even though the strings are a teeny bit higher.

The advantage I had on replacing the laser on the Wii over working on my bass is that there are plenty of tutorial videos on youtube for getting the Wii apart and changing the laser. The one thing I couldn't really understand was what the point was in making me purchase a tri-wing screwdriver. It was pretty easy to find replacement laser modules and tri-wing screwdrivers on Amazon, and the screwdriver was less than $3. It did take a really long time to get here, but that wasn't much of a deterrent either. Is it illegal for me to own a tri-wing screwdriver? Is it some sort of obscure DMCA violation?

I guess the question I really want to ask has to do with our title - "Engineering is about tradeoffs". With the bass bridge, it's a job that not everyone is willing to do, and many times will get contracted out to luthiers because they have the correct skill set for the job. All the hardware on the bass bridge is either Philips head or some size of hex key (and the new bridge even came with the two required hex keys). With the Wii, you needed two different sizes of Philips in addition to the tri-wing screwdriver to get the case open and replace components. In my mind, using a non-standard fastener comes with a significant extra cost, but maybe it's only a few cents per console. But even at a few cents per console, the Wii has sold over 100 million units. What, if anything, was gained by using a non-standard screw to secure the case of the console? Even if piracy was the concern, the most famous modification for the Wii allowing non-approved software to run doesn't require you to take your system apart, as hackers were able to discover a method via software. If the Wii had all standard screws - how many more people would have taken them apart? I'm guessing not many - especially in light of what we were talking about above - since not that many people are fixing their own stuff these days. Imagine what Nintendo could have done if those resources were spent on making a more secure and stable OS (not that the Wii OS is bad, just pointing out that it was hacked) or developing a few more games.

If any of you really do want to take your Wii apart and the screwdriver was stopping you, here's the link for buying one on Amazon.

Monday, August 5, 2013

It's never too soon to talk to your kids about microtransations.

When I started playing Candy Crush on facebook, I was an anomaly. If you play into the stereotypes, it's a cutesy girl's game that looks like you ate too much stuff at Sloan's and daintily regurgitated it into gel-filled ice cube trays. I tried it because it was a lot like Bejeweled Blitz in function, but it's not on a timer so I can use the regular mouse instead of having to play lefty with a stylus to keep up with my right-handed and touchscreen-playing friends. At first, I was the only guy amongst dozens of girls. I presume that this is a microcosm of the rest of the groups playing the game, although perhaps my age plays into this somewhat. Since I can only see scores of people on my friends list, I can only see how the demographic that I'm in changes, but there are now a reasonable number of guys playing the game now as compared to before. I did find it funny a couple of times at work talking to tradespeople where they were evasive about a game that they were playing on their smartphone but I was still able to guess when they were talking about Candy Crush. Part of the reason they even mentioned it was frustration over some of the levels, and since I don't hide my affection for games in conversation, certainly they can feel like I am a person to ask about a thing like that.

The biggest frustration that I have seen is that some of the levels appear to be rather difficult without buying extra moves, but I haven't bought any extra moves yet and don't plan to anytime soon. This would appear to be a great plan on King's part (King is the company that makes Candy Crush) since typically most people tend not to buy stuff in free games. The last statistic that I had heard (and quite a number of years ago, prior to the big surge of facebook games) was that typically less that 10% of the players were responsible for over 90% of the in-game purchases in a free-to-play game. With the space a little more cutthroat and competitive, I doubt we would have access to those figures now, but I now hear about more people buying extra lives and moves in Candy Crush that I used to hear about people buying premium features in free-to-play games before. Sure, there were a few reports of kids racking up wagonloads of Smurfberries a couple of years ago,  but we can't count the under-12 crowd as a real demographic for making informed purchases.

So, how are we supposed to feel as gamers about this sort of stuff? Let's look at Candy Crush and see how it stacks up to other games.

Arcade shooters, Gauntlet, Gauntlet II, Smash TV, fighting games, brawlers, and arcade sports games - $0.25 to play, $0.25 to continue, but buy the home version and never have to worry about quarters again. The arcade versions of Gauntlet  and Gauntlet II had 4-player cabinets and ever-decreasing health. Playing through with a group of friends could cost $20 without too much trouble, and was probably a lot more than that. I picked $20 as a reference since you can pick up the console version for PS3 or XBox for that much and it includes dozens of other Midway classics. The X-Men brawler had a 6-player cabinet with a double sized display and could suck down quarters even faster. I don't recall that there was ever a good home version of the X-Men brawler on consoles but apparently you can get it for your iPhone for $2.99 now. (5 friends not included.)

Current generation console action and fighting games - $20 to $60 to play (not counting the original console purchase), add-on characters, maps, and levels cost anywhere from free (extra Portal 2 Co-Op levels) to $5 (MvC3 Jill or Shuma Gorath, each - unless you preordered the premium version) to $9 (DmC add-on Vergil levels unless you pre-ordered the original game) to $20 (Street Fighter X Tekken 12-character pack, regardless of preorder status) to $30 (Borderlands Add-On Pack). I didn't even count costumes - the character costume packs don't affect gameplay, but they can be rather expensive. Separately, there are over $40 in costumes available for Street Fighter IV, although there's a pack on Steam for the PC version that's only $14.99 for all of them.

Candy Crush - Free to play, facebook. Free to play the first batch of levels, iPad version. Can't buy the whole game at all. Five extra moves, $1. (Fine, $0.99, whatever.) Extra lives if you don't want to wait 30 minutes for one to regenerate, $0.99. Three lollipop hammers, $1.99.

Honestly, this would be like if you could buy three potions or keys in Gauntlet for $0.50 - which no one at the time would have done. They would have just slogged away at the enemies like normal. So I am going to just take my time and chip away at the game bit by bit like I'm doing. Maybe I'll call it Candy Chisel now.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Practice makes... more practice.

I was picking up my new pair of glasses the other day, and ended up explaining my take on the cube to the tech that did the final fit and one of the waiting customers there. I had done the same with the woman that scheduled the optometrists' appointments the previous weekend, and both times I was feeling really on the mark, like delivering good comedy or a convincing musical performance. I was wishing a little bit that I could get somebody else to film me doing this, just because I've never actually seen it, and I'm not entirely convinced I could just fire up a camera on a tripod and run through my schtick for nobody. Part of the reason that it's a little bit different every time is that I usually tend to tailor my responses to the initial questions, and then steer the presentation in to my standard bit when it seems right to do so. I'm not even thinking about that when I'm doing it, it just seems to go that way on its own.

At lunch the subsequent Friday, feeling confident with my new glasses, I got the "how long does it take you/what's your fastest time" questions and I started feeling a little disappointed that that number hadn't really changed much. I answered the rest of their questions and went to eat my lunch. While I ate, reflecting on my good performances the previous day, it occurred to me that it is pretty rare that I work on my speed specifically. What I tend to work on is exactly what I'm doing - explaining the Rubik's cube to people while I'm solving it. If I were using a faster solution method, I wouldn't have enough time to explain it while I was doing it. I also wouldn't have enough spare processing ability to be able to talk while I did some of the more complicated moves, especially at first when I would still be learning them.

So that got me thinking - what we practice is what we do is what we practice. Ok, so that's not worded well. Let's think about this in terms of music for a moment. If you spend all your time practicing by yourself, you can develop considerable technique but you are surrounded by a mostly comfortable situation - your roof, your room, your, idiosyncrasies, your accompaniment (if any), and your lack of an audience. You run the risk of not absorbing new input, and the challenges you face are fairly small and usually self-imposed. This is why for most players there is much value in both teaching and public performance.

The value in teaching others comes from many things. First, it forces us to strengthen our foundation of knowledge on the subject, purely by repetition. Second, we are presented with students that are approaching these ideas with (hopefully) a new mind. Sometimes the fresh perspective is invigorating to the teacher, allowing them to re-approach ideas with a new mind themselves. Sometimes the fresh perspective just helps us re-verify the ideas while we teach them to our students. Sometimes the fresh perspective makes us reevaluate some ideas and throw out some ideas entirely, but this is usually more difficult to do. Third, now we have a reason to communicate ideas back and forth. In our musical example, this would usually be some sort of musical notation. (In the cubing world, I might communicate an idea like R'D'RD'R'D2R'.) In dealing with other persons, both as students and as audience members, we are presented with the concept of hazard. Sometimes there are mistakes, and it is a necessary part of the interaction.

This brings us to the value of performance. In our musical example, we are strengthened by our interactions with other musicians, and it gives us more reason to communicate musical ideas although usually this happens in a more informal way. Instead of using strict musical notation, the ideas may be as simple as a set of lyrics and some chords to go with them. (In the cubing world, talking to other cubers at a competition, I might say, what moves do you use for the Sune and the Y permutation?) The level that the communication takes place at is usually raised by the level of skill of the participants. We are influenced by the different styles, methods, and presentations of our fellow participants, both in other groups and our own group. The outside influences add dimensions to our own ideas that we would not have had in isolation. We are also presented by more aspects of hazard. Will the microphones shock us if it starts raining? Can anybody in the back of the room hear the acoustic guitar? Are we going to remember the new ending that we just rehearsed last month the one time? Is the movie theater going to call and say we're playing too loud? (Cuber example: If I use my faster, looser cube to gain speed do I run the risk of having a piece pop out during a solve?) The best things that we learn from performance are usually not how to avoid hazard, but how to skillfully deal with it.

We must practice so that many things are second nature and we do not have to give those things our attention. We must practice so that when hazard appears we can give it our attention to minimize it. If this is not what we do, if we do not place ourselves in hazard's way, then we are ill-equipped when it finally occurs.

So, for me, for now, that means that I stick with my performance art/comedy bit/one-on-one cubing presentations, since I have a bit that's only designed for a small group of people.

While I'm thinking of it, for those of you that need to read more about the inherent hazards of musical performance, please go read my friend Nikki's blog at

Sunday, July 14, 2013

A missing news tidbit, or, Data is easier to locate when it's codified.

When some guy on YouTube is juggling Rubik's cubes, it seems that I get told about it nearly immediately. I was even reminded about it the other day when I got my oil changed. Somebody saw me with my cube and told me about it - just in case I hadn't seen it. (I blogged about it here.) To be honest - it's kind of amazing to me that it only took a day or two for me to find out about it because in every minute of every day, 100 hours of video are uploaded to YouTube. It's a little bit amazing that people can find things there at all, but it's made much easier by the fact that when someone posts a video, there's usually a title, and most of the time there are keywords added and a category attached so that people that might be looking for a certain thing can find it.

So, when Edward Snowden made himself a fugitive last month, nobody told me the really important part of the story and I didn't find out about it until I caught up on episodes of NPR's "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!". I had to find out the really important part when Faith Salie mentioned it. Snowden took four computers, some clothes, and a Rubik's cube with him.

In his defense, if I had to become a fugitive it would be hard for me not to take a cube with me. Faced with hiding out in public parks and hotel room lobbies and warehouses and who knows where else, at least a cube wouldn't be traceable, wouldn't need batteries, and fits in your pocket (sort of). In the article they mention that he used it as an identifying trait for people he was going to meet that hadn't seen him before. This may mean that I will have to stop telling people at work that if they can't remember my name to "just ask for the guy with the cube".

So why didn't I hear about this until Faith mentioned it? Well, part of it may be that that particular facet of the story wasn't revealed at first, so maybe nobody was aware of it until a month ago, and it's my fault that I didn't listen to that episode of "Wait Wait" until this week. Why didn't I hear about it from anybody in person? It's way down in any of the stories about Snowden, not part of the sound bites, and unless you start reading the part where he meets up with the journalist from the Guardian via an elaborate scheme, perhaps you wouldn't have noticed.

It was easy enough to find in a web search - that's how I found the right part of the transcript from "Wait Wait" to link here, and it's how I found the right spot in the article from the Guardian. Once you've turned speech into text, or just have text in the first place, then you have something to work with. That gets me thinking about the part of the Snowden incident that is more likely to have the rest of you concerned but we'll have to start with a thought experiment first.

Go in a store, or some other public place, and look around. Or, think about your workplace during the day. How many people are there, and how many of them are on the phone at any give moment? One in ten? More? Less? Perhaps that's an exaggeration, so we'll aim low, and also to include people that are at home not on the phone and to correct a little for the lower phone activity at night. Let's say that at any given moment, only one person in a thousand is on the phone. (If that number seems low, give me a minute here.) So that means if the population of the United States is 316 million or so, then 316,000 people would be on the phone at any given moment. Since we're going to make the radical assumption that most of these people are calling each other and not outside the country, we're going to divide that number in half. That means that for every minute, if this haphazard model is correct, there are 158,000 minutes of telephone audio generated. That's over 2600 hours every minute - more than 26 times the amount of media uploaded to YouTube. Since it's just audio, it doesn't take up nearly as much space.  With some reasonable compression, if the phone companies wanted to store every phone conversation being made, they probably could - but they would need server capacity on par with YouTube.

Even if you think I estimated low, I still I think it's safe to say that there are hundreds and hundreds of hours of phone conversations taking place every minute of every day. What could someone do with all this data? That totally depends on their ability to search it. Right now,  speech-to-text programs are adequate for some things, especially under good audio conditions, so I'm sure it's relatively easy to have a computer do the first draft of the transcript for a well-engineered radio show. Under typical audio conditions, most speech-to-text programs would prefer a little bit of training. Once it gets worse than that, could a computer decipher the dropped packets and field noise of a poorly routed cell phone call or would they have to put a human on it? Yes, I realize that they can do profiling from the CallerID information and decide what to look at and what not to look at and narrow this down to who they really need to listen in on. However, you still have the disadvantage of not having keyword tags and a title like a YouTube video does. If someone thought they were being listened in on, they could start calling from other numbers, or start making a lot of mundane calls about nothing, or start including highly searched keywords in every phone call.  Penn Jillette references the early days of email being searched and what to do about it when he breaches this topic on his podcast. (See episode 69, "Frank and father's got nothin' to hide".) George Carlin refrences a friend of his in one of his routines who always initiated a phone call by swearing at J. Edgar Hoover since it was assumed that the FBI was listening in. (See the bit "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" from the album "Class Clown".)

But my point, and I seem to not have exactly made it so far, is that even if the government is technically listening in on everything I think there's a practical limit to how much they're able to pay attention to. Otherwise, somebody would have called me sooner to let me know about this Rubik's cube thing.

(Thanks, Faith.)

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Cubing in Public, Federal Holiday Edition

I suspected something was up when SuperMonkeyWife got ready in the kid's bathroom instead of ours, although I did not discover that there was a broken shower head in our bathroom until later.

My first though was that I should peruse the local drugstores. At least they're open on the 4th, and I didn't really want to go to Walmart and stand in line behind all the people getting beer and sparklers.  Since I tend not to spend more than $20 on a shower head and I didn't really need anything fancy other than having the detachable head, whatever might be at the drugstore would likely be acceptable. (If you're wondering, the part that fails on the plastic ones is the piece that you hang the detachable head on. The repeated stress of hanging the shower head back on it eventually cracks it in its weakest point. I am not convinced that buying a more expensive shower head will prolong this failure long enough to make up for the additional expense.) I asked the clerk at CVS where a shower head might be, and he walked to the aisle I already perused. Plungers, yes. Sink stoppers, yes. Fluorescent light bulbs, for sure. No shower heads.

As we're walking back towards the aisle, he noticed me twiddling the cube in my hand and suggested that he could fix it for me. I asked him how fast he was, sincerely hoping that I've found a real cuber at last, and he wasn't sure how to answer the question right away. Without waiting for him to try to formulate an answer, I told him that I average just under 40 seconds and he seemed impressed. Then I had to lay on him the heavy news that 40 seconds wouldn't even get me in the senior division and that there are kids in  California that are averaging under 15 seconds. I showed him a typical solve, and then I did a second one for his coworker up front. His coworker made the "the best I ever did was three sides" comment that I've already complained about in a previous Holiday Cubing post. However, they seemed like nice guys and I didn't feel like calling him out on the three sides thing. While I was talking to them, and they were still capably handling customers, one of their customers took interest in what I'm doing and commented about how he used to be able to do it, but he can't now. (I'm surprised that I haven't complained about that particular thing in a previous post.) He asked if I can explain it, and I went through my usual bit about the centers not moving relative to each other, and about how there's a one-to-one correspondence between the pieces and their eventual locations, and it seemed unsatisfying. He wants to know if there's like, a thing I can just tell him that will subsequently allow him to solve the cube. I tried to make clear that there isn't and explained that it took a couple of weekends for Will Smith to learn how to solve a cube for "The Pursuit of Happyness". He asked me for the cube, so he could show me that he could do a side - except that he fell victim to the classic blunder of getting involved in a land war in Asia.

No, that wasn't it.

His classic blunder was that he completed a side, but not the layer. For someone who had a) claimed to have previously solved the cube and b) had just watched me explain the bit about the centers and how they determine what goes where, I didn't expect him to revert to working without any of that information. He was also a bit shaky, having put himself on the spot, and I know firsthand that that doesn't lead to efficient cubing. As soon as he finished the side he asked about solving the rest of the cube from there, and I had to take it back from him and re-complete the side so that it was a complete layer and explained again why that had to be that way. I showed him the move to insert edges into the middle layer three times, more slowly each time and then walked him through the move the fourth time. I rushed through the remainder of the cube, eager to get out and see if the other drugstore on that corner had a shower head. No dice.

After the second shopping failure, I relented and went to Walmart.  I got a shower head, along with a few other necessities. I also poked my head in Gamestop since I was over that way. At Gamestop, instead of getting to talk to my usual clerk, I got the shift manager instead. Having the cube in my hand gave him some sort of flashback from 1981 where he won $10 from a friend of his for solving the cube. He said it took him 57 minutes and change, and I heard my usual clerk suggesting to the manager that he was just making up numbers. I had a list of games that I was considering, but I couldn't make a clear decision because the manager was too chatty and wasn't making any sense to me (although it's equally possible I didn't make any sense to him).  Thinking I needed to worry more about dinner, I leave without getting anything and ponder the idea that someone solved a Rubik's cube in just under an hour.

Assuming one had any sort of a system at all, there are only 20 pieces to solve. Let's get really crazy and suggest that they're only making one turn every 10 seconds, so an average of 6 turns a minute. So, that's a solved cube in 342 moves, or  17 face turns per piece. By comparison, the lower bound is 1 face turn per piece for the 3x3x3 cube if solved by computer. A good speedcuber is using a solution that is somewhere in the neighborhood of 45-60 turns, or 3 face turns per piece. My corners first method might be 70-80 moves, or 4 face turns per piece. The Nourse method would put you somewhere in the neighborhood of 100-120 moves, or 5-6 face turns per piece, unless you're super unlucky. So, with 17 face turns per piece, the solution must be so complicated and esoteric that perhaps it would stand to reason that you would forget it, or it was somehow an example of the Infinite Monkey Theorem, or it was utter baloney.

I will leave the determination of the scenario as an exercise for the reader.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

This is what a dry twig sounds like.

I got a marketing call the other day, and it was the third attempt by someone to find out what stores I had recently shopped at and what I liked about them. They got about halfway through the first sentence of their script, and I told them -

Now listen here. If you want to measure customer engagement, I understand that and it would be really great if the store manager came up to me once in a while and asked me about my shopping experience, but instead some consultant has sold them on the idea that they need to sell third party surveys and all it's doing is trying to create a revenue stream for the consultant out of thin air instead of finding out if you have engaged customers. Why should I talk to you? I don't have a relationship with you. I'm not inclined to tell you anything. You know what, this is something that I've been mad about for a long time and you really shouldn't bear the brunt of that so I'm going to hang up the phone now.


I admit, I kinda snapped like a dry twig there.

What makes me even more mad about third-party surveys and information gathering is that the stores have made the information completely useless most of the time. Sprint is the worst offender that I can think of in that regard, but there are other stores that do the same thing - the employee has something at stake if the survey results are not perfect, which leads to store associates and phone support people having to end the call with "Please give me a perfect score when they call you for a survey or else they'll torture me in a pit full of rabid slugs and light jazz".

Do you want to find out of you have engaged customers? The best way is to find out what they want, yourself, so that you are in a position to deliver a good customer experience if that's actually possible. Everybody has a few customers that will complain no matter what you do, and a few customers that have unyielding brand loyalty that is hard to shake, and those represent the statistical far ends of your customer spectrum. For everyone else in the middle, I'm not convinced that a third-party survey that's likely to polarize the data is the best way. The perceived problem with asking customers yourself is that they're likely to say everything is fine, until it isn't, and that's another way that the data is skewed. Consider the two scenarios - taking the time to know your customers yourself and enhancing your knowledge about the people you provide goods and/or services for, or paying a bunch of people that don't really know your customer at all to sit on the phone and annoy them? Another advantage you have gathering information yourself is that you know more about each customer's history than the dude in a cube farm reading off a script does, and it will be easier for you to combine what the customer says and what the customer does into a clearer picture of who they are as a customer.

Now after that, if you still really want survey data, just get the data and don't find a way to skew it before you look at it. Don't put yourself in a situation where employees have to bias the data by telling the customers how to answer it - how the survey is answered depends on how your customer interprets the questions, and since the goal is to learn things about your customers, let the answers tell the story on their own. Results are going to be analog, or digitally sampled analog, but not digital.

At this point I'd like to give a big shoutout to my local GameStop, for easing up on the scripted prompts when they talk to me and actually talking to me to find out what I like.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

The Importance of X, Part 3: Ueda Edition

It is a bit nostalgic to play ICO and Shadow of the Colossus again. Both of these games were designed by Fumito Ueda and characterized by a sparse visual style, overexposed lighting, and a minimal amount of dialogue. These two games are often among the first titles two be mentioned when the topic of videogames as art comes up. While the original releases of the games looked nice enough compared to other Playstation 2 games of the time, it is even better to see the remastered PS3 versions, which are both available on the same disc.

I originally played the two games farther apart than the actual game releases. I played ICO several months after it came out because a friend of ours got the game and suggested we (the wife and I) play it just as soon as he was done with it, and Shadow of the Colossus had been a Greatest Hits title for over a year or more before I played it.  ICO especially is dear to me because it was one of the few modern games that both my wife and I had finished independently, and it really resonated with us as long-time gamers in terms of it design and story. Shadow of the Colossus was beautiful and haunting in some of the same ways as ICO was, partly due to the sparse environments and the lack of dialogue. 

The last few times that we had gone to the game store as a group, my older son kept asking about the PS3 remake. I found it strange at first that my older son got so fixated on the idea of playing these games. But, I had talked about them a lot, and he had never seen the first game at all so perhaps the mystery of it was enticing him somehow. So, eventually I picked up a copy. The first night that the game got played, I had suggested to my older son that he play ICO, so that our younger son would watch him play, and relax and hopefully get some sleep. However, my older son opted for Shadow of the Colossus only to discover that it was much more intense than ICO. It took him quite a few tries to get the hang of what he was doing on the first Colossus, and I had noticed that he spent a lot of time calling his horse while he was trying to run away. As it turns out, the reason for that is that the jump button for that game (and ICO as well) is mapped to triangle instead of X, so he was trying to jump while running to go faster and ended up calling his horse instead. In the slower pace of ICO, the abnormal mapping of the jump button is less of a hindrance, and once having completed ICO, it's a little more natural to use the triangle button for jump when you get to Shadow of the Colossus.

I was thinking for a moment that perhaps this was some cultural difference, and the Japanese preferred the triangle button to the X button since the first Devil May Cry game also used triangle for jump, but I was just reading that the Japanese version of DMC uses X for jump (which, luckily they did for later US titles).

Team ICO still has one more game to do, no telling what the control scheme will be, but I am looking forward to the release of The Last Guardian (but with my luck they're going to delay it until the release of the PS4).

Addendum: Those of you who weren't sure what I was getting at about a non-standard mapping of the jump button should see the previous posts - Part One and Part Two.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

The Unbearable Intrusiveness of Marketing (with apologies to Milan Kundera)

I finally managed to make my way to real hi-def TV the other day, after having my 16x9 480p tube TV conk out on me after several years. I found a TV in a brand that I was happy with that was the same size as the tube TV that I had before. I had convinced myself that I would be perfectly fine with a 720p60Hz television, only to find that the TV I was going to get was no longer available and I had to get the 1080p60Hz model that replaced it for $11 more. My previous attempts at figuring out if I could get a 1080p television had convinced me that the difference was going to be somewhere around $130, but I apparently lucked out.  I have not put the old TV out by the road yet as it had been raining a lot and I have not found a silver Sharpie or a good Spanish translation of the phrase "Damaged Power Supply".

I was glad to be able to separate my Wii from my PS3 again, so that they weren't both tying up the same screen. Once I had it hooked up, I was excited to see the PS3 reissue of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus, and the Blu-Ray of Wreck-It Ralph. It was also nice that my younger son could go play Wii again if he didn't like what was on the PS3. With the TV conflict sorted out, gaming around the house mostly went back to normal and I would now be telling you about how much I liked ICO and Shadow of the Colossus and how much they mean to gaming and how I'm going to really enjoy playing them again and my older son will get to take a crack at ICO for the first time.

Except that I'm not. (At least not today.)

The thing that's really gnawing at my brain at the moment happened a night or two after the TV debacle got straightened out. We were trying to round up the SuperMonkeyChildren at bedtime when we got distracted by something. The Wii, which I was sure was off, was flashing its blue LEDs from the drive tray in all sorts of strange patterns in an attempt to get my attention. (Yay, it worked.) I checked to make sure that nobody had left a disk in the drive, and then I turned the TV it was attached to on to see what the heck was going on.
It wasn't already on, and I turned it on only to see that there was a message. I figured it was going to be a system message like "You played Super Smash Bros. for 1:27 and Sengoku Basara:Samurai Heroes for 4:15 - what happened to Wii Fit, you lazy slug" but it turned out to be a message from outside. Since it's nearly impossible for anyone to send a message like this on purpose thanks to Nintendo's overly protective online strategy for the Wii, I should have figured out even before I opened the message that it could only have come from Nintendo itself.

The message was Nintendo telling me that I should buy a Wii U since I already had a Wii and could use all my existing controllers on it already. My first offhand thought was sending a response that said "Well, if I hadn't just replaced my TV...", while SuperMonkeyWife just suggested I send a response along the lines of "Well, if you're buying...". What I realized was two things. One, this was the first time that I had been marketed to this way, and two, if Nintendo had been paying attention like the way it's able to pay attention now it would know that I have eventually bought almost*every console they've ever put out, just not always right away. The Wii is the first Nintendo console that had any substantial online capability, and so it's their first console that seems to be tracking aggregate gameplay data to find out what people are playing. I presume that Microsoft and Sony were already doing some amount of this for XBox users and PS2 users that played online in the previous generation - the GameCube didn't really do much in the way of online other than a handful of titles so I imagine there was hardly any reason to track usage stats.

I know that my PS3 figures out which titles to suggest to me based on what games I have save files for, so I guess it's not long before I see the same message from Sony about buying the new PS4 this holiday season. I don't think it's going to tell me that I can use my PS3 controllers, though. I'm in no rush to get a PS4 anyway. I could be a little more excited about the WiiU once Pikmin 3 is out, but ultimately if there are still games to play on the Wii and PS3 that still seems like a good thing. If I'm always looking for the next console instead of the most satisfying game, you end up with something like this:

"A person who longs to leave the place where he lives is an unhappy person." -Milan Kundera

*While I expect to eventually get a 3DS and a WiiU, there's little chance I'm going to go back and get a Virtual Boy.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

What the _heck_ did I just say? Or, All Your Combinations Belong to Us

So, I'm at the bank the other day, and another person tells me "A Rubik's Cube? I haven't seen one of those for a while." Between all the 80's specials on TV, that Will Smith movie, and the fact that cubers can warrant coverage on NPR now, I'm not sure if people really mean that when they say it or if they're attempting to make conversation. Having recently re-read Penn & Teller's How To Play With Your Food, I explain my situation with the cube to the guy at the bank much like Penn Jillette explains the concept and inherent risks and rewards of a person being associated with a specific thing. The example Mr. Jillette gives in the introduction of the book is of a person that shows up at the local tourist hangout with a parrot all the time subsequently being referred to as "the Parrot Guy". I explain to the guy at the bank that sometimes if I forget to bring a cube with me, the only question I am likely to be asked is where my cube is. (I decided to skip the part about not being recognized at my high school reunion by some people when I did not have a cube visibly on my person.)

So, while he decides to get out of line from his place in front of me and fill out some other slip he forgot to fill out on the first go-round, I polish off a quick solve before he can really even turn around and look. He then asks me "So you know all the combinations?" I said yes, and went on with the rest of my bank business, but by the time I was back in my car again I felt like I had given the laziest answer possible. I realize that not answering "Yes" would not be particularly helpful at that moment, since there was no reason I needed to lecture the poor gentleman merely trying to make conversation about how many combinations there really are and why you didn't need to know all of them. This post is merely me trying to make amends for my incredibly lazy answer to that question.

Let's start with the obvious (well, obvious to me) part. I do not, and can not know all the combinations. I say that I can not know all the combinations because there are a little over 43 quintillion combinations. If I had a second apiece to learn each one it would take more than a trillion years. As it turns out, however, it is not necessary to know all the combinations - it is only necessary to know all the combinations of smaller, well-defined groups. For example, if you had completed one face of a cube and wanted to put in the edges of the middle layer, let's look at the possibilities. At this point, there would only be eight edges unsolved, as the four on the first face would already be in their correct places. Since I'm old school, we'll call the solved layer the Up, or U face. As you look for edges to place in the middle layer, and you look at each one in turn, they would be:
  1. In the middle layer already, correctly placed and oriented,
  2. In the middle layer already, correctly placed but not correctly oriented,
  3. In the middle layer already but not correctly placed,
  4. In the Down (D) layer such that the color of the edge piece on the D face is to the left of its eventual location in the middle layer, or
  5. In the Down (D) layer such that the color of the edge piece on the D face is to the right of its eventual location in the middle layer.
So, instead of dealing with 8! (8 factorial, or 8*7*6*5*4*3*2*1=40320) possible locations of the last eight edges at that point, we look at the same 5 possibilities 4 times in a row. This is the basic mechanism of every cube solution. At each step, deal with only a subset of the pieces, limit the number of choices you have to make, and craft algorithms to solve the specific cases that don't disturb the work already done in previous steps and don't concern themselves with pieces yet to be solved.

Of course, I could have explained all this to the guy that I was talking to in line at the bank and he could have said, "Yeah, that's what I meant."

Monday, March 11, 2013

The perils of innovation. In a can.

I was reading the other day about the forces that hinder companies from real innovation and I was a little bummed out by the idea that most companies have become so risk-averse that it creates very few actual improvements. It got me thinking - what would happen if Edison had worked in today's economy? How long would they let Edison tinker with finding a commercially viable solution for the light bulb before they fired him and defunded his project? Would we have looked at William E. Sawyer vs. Thomas Edison and seen the same things that we see with Apple and Samsung now fighting over the finer points of their respective technologies?

Now, I do see the point of incremental technological improvements. We are always improving our computing capability by making new processors that can do more with the same or less power. We work on improving the cost to manufacture solar cells, so that it can become a technology with wider adoption. Chemical improvements are being made with batteries to make them larger and more reliable. These things can go on as planned, and we eventually reap some small reward from it, but it would be nice to see some real innovation once in a while. It's also possible that real innovation is going on behind the scenes however slowly, but thanks to the protective nature of companies and new products we don't see it particularly often. They're scared to hint at anything that might turn out to be a failure. About the only time we see high-profile failures any more are movies, cars, and food - but these failures are more failures of fashion than function. You may not want to drive an Aztek, but the car failed in the marketplace because it was ugly, not because it had rampant mechanical problems. I was going to cite a movie example here but Ben Affleck has taken enough heat about it already so I don't want to pile on. (Correction: One of my editors said that with Ben's recent Academy award win for Argo, maybe I shouldn't make an obtuse reference to Gigli. After all, Ben didn't write or direct Gigli anyway. ) So, I'm going to skip straight to the beverage part.

In an attempt to try to get soda drinkers to resist the temptation of drinking coffee in the morning, Coke and Pepsi have tried to find ways to leverage their own brands. Coke's last attempt at this was in 2006, with Coca-Cola BlāK which was discontinued by 2008. Pepsi had taken a swing at this a couple of times with the regular flavored but more caffeinated Pepsi AM (1989) and the coffee-flavored Pepsi Kona (1995?). Both of Pepsi's attempts were just as short-lived as Blāk was. So by now, Coke and Pepsi may have realized that the real holdouts that don't drink coffee in the morning are people that drink energy drinks, people who drink juice in the morning, and people that drink Mountain Dew. Both companies make energy drinks now, and both companies have had major juice brands in their portfolios for a long time. But, Pepsi can't help but feel that they still have an untapped market, so their new innovation is Mountain Dew Kickstart.

There are two flavors, "Orange Citrus" and "Fruit Punch". I opted for the "Fruit Punch" only because I found that most of the Mountain Dew flavor variants that I have had over the past several years that said "citrus" on the label have been a little bit too tangy for my taste. (I liked LiveWire, and they discontinued it, so I figured that it wasn't going to go my way.) It did not really taste like what I expected, as what I had heard previously about this drink was that it was "Mountain Dew + Juice". While it is true that there is juice in it, there is much less sugar in it. The 16 oz. can is 80 calories, while 16 oz. of regular Mountain Dew or juice would be easily 220 calories. After a cursory check of the label, it would appear that the sweeteners include HFCS, white grape juice concentrate, acesulfame potassium, and sucralose. There are some B vitamins in it, as well as the obligatory inclusion of glycerol ester of wood rosin without which I presume it can't have a Mountain Dew label on it. It does not have the thick mouth feel that Mountain Dew usually does, it was like a low-calorie sports drink in that regard. It might be useful to note that my wife described the beverage on first taste as "Mountain Dew + Gatorade". Coca Cola's sports drink Powerade adds B vitamins, Gatorade does not. I'm not entirely sure how much the B vitamins or the potassium contribute to the taste. There is also 92 mg of caffeine, 20 more than you would get in 16 oz. of Mountain Dew. Would I drink it again? Probably not - and certainly not for breakfast. It's cheap caffeine, but I could easily get cheap caffeine that I actually wanted to drink in other ways, and at the correct dosage.

Disclosure - I typed this entire post under the influence of most of a can of Kickstart. I had to backspace a lot more than usual.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Cube + Juggling = NPR?

Ravi Fernando is a name that's already made the rounds among cubers, but it would appear that NPR has finally taken notice of him after this video posted a few days ago.

I'd seen Ravi do something like this before - check this out from last year. This trick goes on for a while since he's messing with three cubes. It's clearly not designed for a short news segment, but he's working on his craft here more than his showmanship.

Arguably, this cubing plus juggling thing has gone on for some time - here's Shotaro Makisumi (usually referred to as "Macky") doing an early version of this trick.
 Since cubing at its fastest is a combination of visual recognition and muscle memory, it would stand to reason that it's not that tough for the best cubers to engage the brain in other activities while cubing, since the actual cubing part doesn't take up a lot of working memory once mastered. This is largely the same technique I use to carry most of a conversation while I'm doing my relatively slow solves with a corners-first method. I have so much time while I'm doing moves that I can easily hold up part of a conversation, or if I'm talking about cubing itself I have enough mentally pre-scripted material that I can just explain what I'm doing while I'm doing it without slowing myself down in any noticeable way.

That being said, I'm not ready to start juggling anytime soon.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

A wild Llama appears...

Now I'm going to preface this story with this: Lots of things here are not the way you would do them. I am aware of it.

Last night (Friday) my younger son, who we'll refer to as 'Bub', got to sleep by about 7:45, which honestly is a touch early for him especially in light of the fact that it's the weekend. I read to my older son for a few minutes, said goodnight, and then headed to bed myself knowing that I might be woken up again by barking dogs when my wife came home from work. Luckily, my younger son was not woken up by the barking dogs. So then let's fast forward to 1AM. I hear Bub say "I need a drink" and I go get him some water and then go back to sleep. The next time I wake up is somewhere around 3:40, where I hear him telling my wife that he's going to go watch a movie on the computer and that he needs to find some headphones. He's awake, so arguing with him about how he should go back to sleep will only result in waking up the one person in the house who is still asleep. Bub suggests that all the headphones are in the room of the person who is actually sleeping (his older brother), so at that point I get up out of bed and successfully locate the pair of headphones that are in the computer room already and help him get his movie started. I did think that it was rather considerate of him to want to watch a movie far away from the people trying to sleep, and with headphones on to boot. He's watched DVD's on the computer before, and he can usually manage to operate Windows Media Player most of the time, so I figure I can go back to bed, and this is where (for me) it all goes terribly wrong.

By chance, this is a DVD that he hasn't watched on the computer before. From a statistical standpoint, I didn't figure that was a big deal, since we have several dozen kid's movies and he's only watched five or six of them on the computer. The movie he picked was Robots, a CG animated feature from 2005 made by Blue Sky for Fox. It's a movie that I'm fond of, but I would watch sock puppets in black and white low frame rate Flash video if you told me that Ewan McGregor and Robin Williams were doing the main characters. I like this DVD more than most of the kid's movies we have because it has a very well-mixed DTS audio option and good soundtrack music including a marching band rendition of "Get Up Offa That Thing". I had no idea that once we put it in to the computer that I would find that it didn't act like a normal DVD.

Windows Media player knows that there's a disk in the drive, but it won't start it because it's not convinced that it's a DVD. There's a program asking to run that I had not encountered before called "HOTLLAMA" which at this time of the morning seems rather suspicious. The logo is a bright red llama-shaped silhouette. Since I just want this to be over and done with, I go ahead and install it, knowing that I will be removing it after the sun comes up when I come to my senses. I am ecstatic that it doesn't make me restart the computer when it installs, but when it starts the first time it a) checks for updates (expected) and b) tries to configure TurboTax It's Deductible 2006 (rather unexpected, and honestly edging over into Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot territory). My first thought is that it will check for updates and find that the page isn't even there and the company packed it up years ago, leaving me with a hung install that knows that there's an update and can't get one. As it turned out, it just wasn't any good at talking to the internet unless I had a browser window open. Having done that, the update downloads and installs in a minute or so, give or take a dozen extra mouse clicks to get the aforementioned Turbo Tax module to stop trying to reconfigure itself.

Before HOTLLAMA runs the second time, I spot something in the EULA that says that if I don't agree to it that I should uninstall the program and just watch the movie in my regular DVD program. Since I have a six year old sitting next to me, I exercise some restraint and do not vocalize the idea that if it would just play on my regular DVD program, I wouldn't be messing with this stupid Llama program in the first place regardless of how Hot it is.

So, I let the movie run and go back to bed, and guess what. The program misbehaves - Bub says that it "randomly rewinds" when he comes in to tell me about it - and he ends up watching it on the DVD player in our bedroom anyway. Suffice it to say that I've already uninstalled HOTLLAMA and did some registry cleaning. Now I think I have to go find a Mac user with a copy of Robots.

EPILOGUE: Upon further inspection of the DVD case, I noticed that it specifically says that is not compatible with the Apple Macintosh. Also, around 11:30 Bub poured himself a bowl of Cheerios, ate it, and then promptly fell asleep behind me at some point while I was folding laundry on the bed. Since I wanted to tie this up neatly, I put on 'Robots' again. 

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Heavy on the rambling

I managed to finish "Ghost Rider:Spirit of Vengeance" and "John Carter", despite thinking that I wouldn't. The second half of the Ghost Rider movie was much more focused, and all of the things that they set up in the first part of the film paid off. The influences from "Crank" that the crew carried in became more pronounced, and Nicholas Cage had a little bit more one-on-one time with the other characters to develop a little more perceived chemistry.

With "John Carter", I actually had to re-watch a couple of chapters to figure out why I wasn't getting it. I realized that being distracted by my kids talking the first time through caused me to miss a couple of big chunks of dialogue. Once I solved that problem, I liked the movie a lot more.  To be fair, a lot of the scenes that followed the spot where I stopped the first time are more dialogue driven and only have a few characters in them, so they were inherently less confusing than some of the early action-based sequences where we were still trying to figure out the characters. It's still no Pirates of the Caribbean, but considering that this was Andrew Stanton's first go at a real big-budget live action feature, and he was trying to make a movie on par with Star Wars, it was a gutsy attempt. Yes, I realize that it was a box-office dud and expensive to make. (It cost $250 million to make - nearly 4 and a half times as much to make as Ghost Rider:SOV at a paltry $57 million.) If I was the head of the studio, I would have sent Stanton to go make some music videos or some commercials before I bet the farm on him, since directing animation is not the same as directing people. However, having watched the movie I can't point at something in the film and say that there were any specifically bad performances. Certainly, all the main actors in "John Carter" outshine any of Hayden Christensen's "Star Wars" performances.  It's possible that different editing and screenwriting could have tightened up the film some, but ultimately this is down to the story. Sadly, Pixar is usually really good about refining the story first and I think that's the lesson that Andrew Stanton may either have forgotten or didn't have time to realize. I did see that some critics complained that it was derivative. Did they forget that the whole 'space opera' thing practically started with Edgar Rice Burroughs?

So now the real question is, now that Disney is Pixar is Marvel is Lucasfilm, will we see some consistent improvements in their filmmaking?

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Movie watching, heavy on the rambling.

I have been trying to make good use of our public library as a resource for movies that I think that I want to see but have no current intention of owning. Every once in a while I get lucky and find a movie that warrants repeat viewing, but I'm perfectly fine with some movies just being a one-shot deal.

Since I own the first Ghost Rider movie (Don't laugh. I got it for $4.00.) and have been trying to keep up with the current wave of Marvel movies I figured that the second Ghost Rider movie "Ghost Rider:Spirit of Vengeance" was worth a watch. I didn't notice right away that the producers of the film thought that it would be important to say "From the guys that brought you Crank". I found that rather odd, seeing as 'Crank' isn't exactly in the superhero genre, but I presume it's to attract the 20-something male audience that thinks that they're too cool to watch a superhero movie. Between the cold open that's supposed to tell you something about what Johnny Blaze/Ghost Rider (played by Nicolas Cage) will have to deal with later in the film, and the long expository narration during the opening credits, it's clear that the story is not particularly streamlined. It also suffers from the possibility that hardly anybody watched the first film so they have to re-explain a lot of things in a way that develops the character but without making too many specific references to the first film. I have made it approximately halfway through last night and don't particularly care if I watch the rest of it now.  Since Ghost Rider is sort of an antihero, it's hard to care whether he wins or not, and the chemistry between Mr. Cage and the female lead is not as good as it was in the first film. (Actually, the chemistry between Nick Cage and anybody in this film is not as good as it was in the first film.)

If the guys that brought me "Crank" learned anything from making that film, they should have learned a) have a good idea to center the film around and b) stick with it. "Crank" had a very clear albeit ridiculous premise, and they didn't take too many unnecessary side trips. "Crank 2" was actually better since it was more tongue-in-cheek than the first one. So, even though "Crank" is a ridiculous action film with a low maturity level, the story keeps cooking along, stays focused, and holds your interest. I cannot say the same for "Ghost Rider:SoV", so perhaps Jason Statham will be getting a pass from me more often than Nicolas Cage. At least I know exactly* what I'm going to get with a Jason Statham movie.

Tonight, instead of attempting to finish "Ghost Rider:SoV" we tried to start "John Carter". It starts with a crazy story-in-a-story exposition, and then gets around to telling the story. It's very visually polished, but there's a tremendous number of characters introduced over the course of the first act. By the time John Carter figures out the Deja was a princess, my kids were playing with plastic army men and ignoring the movie at point-blank range, so now I am wondering if we're going to finish that one either.

On the good side, the Ghibli animated version of "The Borrowers" by Mary Norton called "The Secret World of Arrietty" turned out to be fantastic and my younger son watched it a second time the day after we watched it the first time. It has very cute animation as per Ghibli usual, most of the story focuses on the title character, and the fantastic world portrayed feels totally natural in the context of the film instead of self-referentially being amazed at its very existence.

*Jason Statham film summary - He's a regular dude with a checkered past, or possibly a hidden past, some stuff happens to him, and then he beats the tar out of everybody that screwed him over so he can finally go on that vacation at the end of the movie.