Sunday, October 19, 2008

Last Pass

Something else I've been trying out is LastPass. Essentially, it will save all of your logins and passwords for sites you visit and automatically fill in the info/login for you when you later visit the site. So, you really just need to remember one password, for lastpass.com, and it does the rest for you. Everything is encrypted and saved within your "vault." In addition to saved logins and passwords, you can fill in common information to forms, which can also be automatically filled in for you when you visit sites. So, for example, you can input your address, phone number, credit card info, etc., and when you go to a website requiring you to input any of this information, lastpass will fill it in for you. Nothing is submitted right away, allowing you to edit whatever needs to be edited first. You can also write secure notes in your vault, edit any entries for saved websites, import passwords you already have saved in your browser or other password management software, and export your passwords. And one of the nicest features is a tool to generate an unlimited amount of random passwords. Since I no longer have to remember passwords, I can generate these more secure, random ones for all of the sites I visit.

Initially, it is a bit of setup, especially if you take advantage of generating new passwords for all of the sites you frequent, like I did. I basically just cleared all my cookies, then went through all my bookmarks and logged in. As you log in, LastPass asks if you want the site saved, which you can edit later. Or, you can manually add sites and enter all the relevant information. Once I was logged into the sites, I went and changed any necessary information on the site, like email and password. I used the random password generator tool with a simple keypress. The password generator gives you options for the number of characters, the types of characters to use (upper- and lowercase letters, digits, and/or special characters), and the minimum digit count to use in the password. LastPass detects whenever the password changes and asks if you want to update your entry. But, if you change your username, you have to manually edit that in the entry. It took me about two nights worth to get everything settled.

Unlike some of the other password management software I saw out there, it stores an unlimited amount of different passwords, allowing you to have a unique password for every site you visit. You also don't need to carry around a flash drive with the program on it or anything if you are going to be using different computers. If you are at a different computer, you can just log in to the lastpass.com website and access your vault and use the entries like bookmarks. Within the vault, you can organize your bookmarks into groups, as well. There is also a Firefox add-on that lets me use the full functionality without having to access the lastpass.com website.

Overall, it's a pretty handy tool. It does have some problems logging into my homepage, Netvibes. But, you can submit feedback about individual sites, so hopefully that will get adjusted sometime. I also ran into some problems when trying to switch my passwords on different sites. But, those problems were with the sites themselves being unclear about what types of characters were ok for passwords, or limitations on the number of characters the passwords had to be, and not problems with LastPass. But, even so, if you are changing your password, make sure you fill out those questions they want you to fill out just in case you end up entering the wrong password into your entry for the site, or the site doesn't save the correct password. It's usually easy to catch those mistakes right away, though, by logging out and using LastPass to log back into the site.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Best Freeware

There is a ton of free software out there that is just as good as commercial versions. I am by no means an expert in any way about this kind of stuff. But, aside from talking with friends who know more about it than I do, I have found some websites that give a pretty good consensus from others who are more in-the-know about what the best software is. Specifically, I've been going through lists at Gizmo's Tech Support Alert.

I originally found it when looking for some other freeware to replace my firewall and anti-virus software. I had been using ZoneAlarm for my firewall, and AVG for my anti-virus. But, both had been pissing me off for various reasons. So, I went looking for replacements. This was a few months ago. I ended up getting Online Armor for my firewall and Avast! (though it is exciting, the exclamation point is part of the name and not something I put in there) for my anti-virus. I've been very happy with both of them over several months of use.

Online Armor: Online Armor can be a bit intrusive, asking you about a dozen times whether the program you are trying to run is ok. This is especially true right away, as it has to "get used to" all of the programs you already have. And it puts up a little advertisement for itself in the corner on that blue screen as Windows is loading (essentially, "Windows - protected by ONLINE ARMOR! - is starting up"). That's kind of annoying, but not a big deal. I mean, you don't need to advertise to me anymore, dumbasses. I already installed you. Aside from those things, I find it pretty easy to use. It also loads up fine on startup, which was a real problem ZoneAlarm had on my computer. ZoneAlarm always went through at least three or four hiccups before it finally finished initializing. And, Online Armor doesn't nag me with screens trying to get me to upgrade, buy other products, donate money or anything like that, which is something I've found myself really appreciating in freeware. Oftentimes with free software, you have to put up with those kinds of minor inconveniences.

Avast!: Arr, mateys, this be a fine anti-virus program! I liked AVG for a long time, but then there was something about it that I absolutely loathed. I forget now what it was (maybe they changed their policies about it or something), but I don't really care that much anymore because I'm now happy with Avast! On the downside, I get temporary slowdowns on my computer when Avast! downloads new virus definitions. But, honestly, that is probably due more to my computer being a piece of crap than the fault of Avast! And I appreciate the fact that Avast! so frequently stays up to date. Oh, I do have to mention the sound. When you first install Avast!, it will give you an audible alert along with a visual alert whenever it updates and stuff. I knew after the first time of being startled by my computer speaking to me, "Your computer has new virus definitions," that the sound had to go. The voice was soothing enough, but I knew that having to hear that over and over every day was just not going to fly. But, again, like Online Armor, it has been solid and I don't have any nagging splash screens or anything like that.

I could go more into detail about the features and such these programs have, but I don't really know what the hell I would be talking about and you can just read whatever I would be quoting from the websites. "How 'bout those leak tests, eh? Can't beat that Online Armor. Fo' shizzle!"

Let's see, what other free stuff have I used so far from the Gizmo lists? I got CCleaner, a file cleaner that gets rid of all those useless Temp folders and such on your computer that just clutter up your drive. That first cleansing was pretty great, freeing up about 2 gigs of space, if I remember correctly, which is pretty awesome considering my hard drive is only 20 gigs (I told you it was a piece of crap).

I also got A-Squared, a program to scan for/remove trojan horses and stuff. Basically, Avast! scans for a bunch of stuff, and A-Squared scans for any other stuff that Avast! doesn't, covering my bases. When I first got it, I did a scan and a couple of things popped up that were missed by other programs. So, I figured it was a decent download.

I also got The Gimp as an Adobe Photoshop substitute. But that sorta doesn't count, since I already used to use it at work. I have since gotten over my initial hatred for the Gimp interface and actually like the program now. However, if people are turned off by the interface and prefer something like Photoshop, there is Gimpshop, which supposedly mimics the Photoshop interface. I haven't used it, though.

I fiddled around with Sandboxie for a little while. Basically, what Sandboxie does is create a little partitioned area, a "sandbox," for you to run programs in. Things within the sandbox do not affect the rest of your computer unless you specifically allow them to. So, for example, you can run your internet browser in Sandboxie, download all sorts of potentially unsavory files and the files will be isolated from the rest of your computer. At the end of your Sandboxie session, you can specify what things you downloaded you really want on your computer, and it will put them there and delete the rest of the crap. The upside is that it adds an extra layer of security to your computer, and prevents some unnecessary cluttering of your drive. But, after using it a couple of times, I got tired of it. My browsing practices aren't that bad and I know what I should and shouldn't be downloading and all of that. So, it just became more of a hassle than anything. But, it might be a decent idea for those who are more paranoid about what they download.

JAP is another program I tried out one time out of curiosity. It is a program that uses proxies and encryption and so forth to anonymize your IP whenever you go surfing the internet. Again, I guess it could add some security to your browsing, but it seems more like something you would use if you wanted to do something illegal on the internet and didn't want to get caught. And, because it is a German program, all the sites that you visit end up being German versions of the sites because your proxies are German-based. For example, in my one use of it, I was getting the German version of Yahoo when I went to that site. So, again, that alone was much more hassle than useful to me. And that isn't even mentioning the setup for the program, which was a pretty big pain. Definitely not worth it to me.

I've got some other programs waiting to install to check out. I'll let you know what and how they are. Anyways, check out Gizmo's Tech Support Alert for any free stuff you might want to pimp out your computer. They have lists broken down into categories, or you can just go to the bottom of the page and click on the Show Me Everything link to see all the lists. They also have some Guides and Tutorials that might be useful, as well as links to other good tech websites.

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Order Up!

Last week or so, my mom and I went out and bought a bunch of Wii games. One of the games that we got was a game called Order Up! Here is a trailer for the game. It's similar to some of the other cooking games out there, like Cooking Mama, but it also includes an element of time management. Basically, each day, you have customers come into the restaurant and order items off the menu. You then get the order and have to prepare each order. Each menu item has two to four steps to prepare it. This is where the wiimote comes in. You use the motion ability of the wiimote to perform the actions needed. So, if you have to grate some cheese, you shake the wiimote up and down. If you have to flip a steak over on the grill, then you turn your wrist. How well you perform the action determines how good the ingredient is, from perfect down to poor. So, if you accidentally overcook one side of your hamburger, it might come out as only an ok rather than a good or perfect. Then, the quality of each ingredient determines the order's overall quality, which determines how much money the customers pay.

You also can hire up to two assistant chefs to help you prepare items. Each assistant has their own specialty. For example, the first assistant you get, Crispin Brown, is a master of the fryer. If you give him an ingredient that needs to be fried, he will return it to you perfect. Anything else only comes back as good. But, sometimes good is better than anything you might be able to do, such as preparing lettuce leaves.

You also have some chef spices to work with. You can buy spices from Mr. Miyoda at the farmer's market. The spices are essential for Chef Special recipes, which you can also buy at the farmer's market. You can also add spices to change up the usual menu items. Some of the customers have specific preferences, such as Tex Porterhouse, who likes barbecue sauce on everything. These customers will give you an extra tip if you prepare their food how they like it.

There are four restaurants in the game for you to work. Well, actually, five, if you include Burger Face, the fast food place where the tutorial takes place. You start off in Burger Face for the tutorial, then you buy your own diner, Gravy Chug. You try to turn each restaurant into a five star restaurant by fulfilling five requirements, such as opening up all the menu items, buying some Chef Special recipes, and impressing the food critic. Once you have completed the five requirements, a new restaurant opens up, as well as some new choices for assistant chefs. The other restaurants include a Mexican restaurant, an Italian place, and a fine dining restaurant, where you'll prepare things like swordfish and roasted duck and filet mignon. Once you have mastered all four restaurants, you can enter the Fortified Chef challenge to become the Fortified Chef.

I ended up playing all the way through on the Normal difficulty. It took me less than 12 hours of game time to do so. So, if you play straight through, it's pretty short. But, there is quite a bit of replayability in that each time you take orders it is always something different. It is almost like a puzzle, where you need to figure out what ingredients to prepare at what time (e.g. you only have space to fry one thing at a time or grill two things at a time, etc., so you need to plan for those things), what things to pass off to your assitants, etc., to get the food done quickly and at the same time, keeping all the orders hot, to maximize the money you get from the customers. The game does a nice job of adjusting the orders in each restaurant such that in the beginning, you only need to worry about one or two customers at a time so that you can learn how to prepare the ingredients. Then, once you have those skills down, more customers are coming in, and you can focus on the time/space management and division of labor elements.

One thing that I'm a bit unclear about is how much variety you can get out of the spices. The game encourages "experimenting with dishes to make them your own." But, I'm not sure exactly what this does. On the one hand, there are the Chef Specials which are basically normal recipes with certain spices added at certain steps. So, I'm not sure if the experimentation is supposed to help you stumble on those recipes, since you otherwise have to spend quite a bit of cash to buy them at the farmer's market. On the other hand, in some of the Chef Specials I saw at the end of the game, customers were giving me "ingredient bonuses." I'm not sure what exactly that is, but I'm guessing that you can get some bonuses if you use certain spices with certain items or something. I also got the impression that there might be some secret recipes that you would unlock or something if you end up finding them through use of the spices, but I'm not sure if that is true or just wishful thinking. If there are secret recipes, or even if there are "ingredient bonuses" for using the spices, that experimentation would add to the replayability. If not, then it might eventually get boring making the same things over and over again.

One thing I forgot to mention is the sense of humor in the game. Each of the characters, including customers and assistant chefs, have unique personalities that are usually pretty funny. Every time one of your regular customers come in, they will give some sort of hilarious one-liner, and their responses to the dishes you prepare are pretty funny as well. The assistant chefs are also pretty entertaining for the most part, except that you work with them so much that you get sick of listening to them after a while.

Some problems the game has, though, are in the mini-games that it includes. Some of the mini-games are optional, but some of them are forced on you much, much too often. Expect to have to wake up assistants who fell asleep on the job hundreds upon hundreds of times, and get used to washing dishes for the health inspector and flicking rats away from your equipment, because you are going to do almost as much of that as cooking. Also, while each assistant chef has his or her own speciality, there are definitely winners and losers. The most expensive assistant to hire in the game is a monkey, which should be friggin awesome, because it's a monkey and because he's really expensive to hire. But, when I hired him, I couldn't figure out what he was good at. Nothing I gave him to cook came out perfect, and I didn't notice anything else that would justify his paycheck. So, I was understandably very disappointed...

I would have also loved to see some support for multiplayer. Especially given how they have a Fortified Chef competition at the end of the game, that would be the perfect setting to have some sort of cook-off. Or, it could have some kind of cooperative play, where players help fill orders. The closest the game comes to a cook-off type of thing is that individual players can play a mode in which you just fill one order, instead of going through the whole story. But, this mode is pretty weak, in that you can only prepare normal menu items, no Chef Specials, and there's not really a clear way to compare how well each player did. It seems more like a practice mode more than anything, and I don't see much reason for playing it other than to just give people an idea of what the real game is like.

But, yeah, it's pretty fun, though, if you are into those types of games. I'm going to try the hard mode and see what that's like. And my mom's playing it, so that's cool. I'd say it would be a decent game to rent, if nothing else, since it is rather short to get through.

Kongai

A game I have been playing for the past few months is called Kongai. It is hosted on a site called Kongregate, which hosts hundreds of flash games. While most of the games on the site are created by outside individuals and groups, Kongai is Kongregate's own. They got David Sirlin to balance the game rules. Sirlin is one of the elite Street Fighter tournament players, and has been involved with balancing some of the most recent versions of Street Fighter. I found out about Kongai from two different source. I have read stuff on Sirlin's website before and heard he was working on a few card games. And I had played other games on Kongregate and seen some posted challenges to win cards for some game that hadn't come out yet. I eventually figured out that they were all related.

Anyways, nobody cares about all that. What is Kongai? It's a virtual card fighting game. Each player picks a deck of three or five characters, and battle until one person's characters are all eliminated. There are currently twenty characters, grouped into four similarly themed groups of five characters. So, you have Martial Artists, Amazons, Villagers, and Vampires. More cards are on the horizon, including Pirates.

Only one character for each side fights at a time. There are two phases to each turn. First, players determine the range that fighting will take place. You can either be close or far. Characters start the game close. Then, the players have three choices to determine the range, stay, close, and far. Players make their choices at the same time, and the final range depends on what the players end up choosing. So, if players both choose to go far, for example, then they would end up at far range. If one chooses far and one chooses close or both choose stay, then the range stays at what it was. And, if one chooses stay, then the range is determined by whatever the other player chooses.

After the range is determined, then characters fight. Each character has four special actions they can perform. Each action has a range at which it can be used, a speed, probability to hit, damage amount, and usually some sort of special ability. So, for example, my favorite character, Popo, has a Slingshot, Poison Dart, Knee Bash, and Herbal Preparations. Slingshot can only be used at far range and only has a 60% chance to hit, but it has a 50% chance to triple the damage it does. Knee Bash can only be used at close range and has a chance to interrupt an opponent's attack if the Knee Bash hits first. Poison Dart can be used at any range, does a minor amount of damage, but has a chance to poison the opponent for a few turns. And Herbal Preparations adds an additional chance that any attacks will poison the enemy, as well as a chance to heal Popo for some damage.

In addition to the four special abilities, players can choose to switch out the active character. So, if you have a bad matchup, you can bring in somebody who will do better. But, to counter that, players can also choose to intercept the enemy for a large amount of damage. So, every game includes a couple rock-paper-scissors decisions where you need to decide whether you should switch out, or whether not to because your opponent will guess that you are switching out, in which case maybe you should attack, etc. Finally, players can choose to rest, which allows characters to recover a certain amount of energy. Each character starts with 100 energy. Changing range costs 50 energy, and each special ability costs a certain amount of energy. So, that's seven options for the second phase of players' turns. Again, the decisions are made at the same time, then the actions are carried out according to each action's speed.

On top of that, each special action has a certain type, either physical, light, or dark; each character has specific defense against the three types of attack; each character has a special ability (e.g. Popo has a 25% chance to dodge physical attacks); and there are items that each character can equip (e.g. I like to equip Popo with the Elusive Feather, which grants an additional 25% chance to dodge physical attacks). So, each turn you must weigh all of these factors to decide what to do. Usually, really damaging attacks cost a lot of energy, and there's the chance that the opponent will try to change range on you or try to switch out, etc. It might sound like a lot to think about, but it really is a whole lot of fun once you get to know all the characters and items. It is incredibly satisfying when you outthink your opponent and intercept them when they try to switch, or use an attack that they weren't expecting you to use.

So, if this sounds interesting, head over to Kongregate and check it out. You'll need to create an account there. I would suggest practicing against the computer using some random decks, to get to know all of the characters and items, before creating some decks of your own. Now, here's some of the bad parts: You don't have access to all of the cards right off the bat. You get to start off with three of the forty-six current cards. Then, you have a chance to gain new cards every time you win against someone. There are also bi-weekly challenges on Kongregate where you can win new cards. They basically use that opportunity to promote some of the other games on the site. But, it really is annoying. I guess there is that feeling of reward whenever you win a new card. But, I would rather be able to play around with different ideas for decks right away instead of having to wait for weeks or months to get my hands on a specific card I would need. And people are always complaining about how often new cards get rewarded, of course. Because of this system, this leads to another problem, in that this encourages people seeking cards to beat up on the easiest targets out there, namely the newer players. So, it's sometimes hard to start winning right away because you end up playing people with items on their characters when you have none, for example. You don't have to take every challenge from players, but this leads to a problem later on, in that once you are good, then you have to wait around a few minutes as people opt of of your challenges until you find someone else who just wants to play instead of fishing for cards.

The balancing is pretty good. There are some characters that seem more useful than others. But, every character has a couple of characters that give them bad matchups. So, there's an added metagame in which you might put into a deck a character you normally don't use all that much simply because the character is a good matchup against an often used card. And, there are updates made to the characters periodically to rebalance and to revitalize the cards.

On the whole, though, it is a fun game, and it has some depth to it in creating different teams of characters and seeing how they do.

I'm back, bitches.

Oh yeah, I have a blog, don't I?

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Tornado (?) in Woodstock

Last night, at around 6 or 7pm, we started getting some really bad weather and the power went out. I was standing at the sliding glass door to our backyard watching, and all of a sudden it got really fierce and trees started going horizontal. So, we grabbed the three dogs and ran for one of the bathrooms in the middle of the house. We crammed in there and sat/stood in the dark while we heard loud booms all over the place, plus some constant drumming as some tree limbs kept beating against the roof. It eventually died down a bit, so I went to take a peek, and saw a tree lying right outside the sliding glass door.

We went out and saw that there were several more trees lying around. As it got close to 8, Mom was frantic to see her American Idol and Dancing with the Stars shows, so we got in the car and headed to a local restaurant with some TVs and ate some dessert. On our way out of the neighborhood, we saw a bunch of houses had been damaged. There was a skinny tree lying in the road on our street. I tried pushing it off to the side, but it wouldn't budge. So, it blocked traffic a little bit one way. When we got out to the neighborhood entrance, there were a couple of trees lying across the road that our subdivision is on, as well as a tree resting on the power lines, totally blocking one way on the street. The other way, there was also a tree in the road, but they had cut away half of the tree to allow one lane of traffic through.

In the morning, we took better stock of what the damage was. I counted 8 separate trees in our yard, either totally down or snapped in half. But, it doesn't look like there is much damage to the house itself. We didn't get any direct hits, from what I can tell, and none of our cars were hit. All the trees had fallen the same direction, so the storm was definitely taking a path. We were without power until 2:30 this afternoon. There were chainsaws going until the early hours of the morning. They restarted again at around 6 when we got up. Here are some pictures below.

Here's the view out the sliding glass door. Nobody had the heart to tell Phoebe it wasn't a picture of her.

Here's our front yard. That's the top of the middle tree lying there.

This is to the left of our house. There were two trees right inside our neighbor's fence. The storm uprooting both trees and they came down just past the back of our house, to lie across the deck and the rest of the backyard. The tree in front is what we saw out the sliding glass door.

Here's a closeup of where it uprooted. It's kind of hard to tell, but lying flat on top of that is the piece of fence that was there. I think it's still somewhat attached at the top left corner by vines to the rest of the fence. It looks like the trees busted through the right side of the section of fence, then the piece of fence looped up over top as the trees fell.

This is to the right of our house in the backyard. One tree busted through the fence there (obviously) and that one in the back came to land on top of/in our neighbor's big shed. Our shed was taken out in October when a tree fell through it during another storm.

There's his shed. He was pissed.

Here is more of the backyard, looking to the left. The tree in the foreground is the one that busted through the fence. The tree lying horizontally there in the back left is one of the trees that uprooted from our neighbor's yard. That table in the back is where our shed used to be. Even if we had replaced it, I think that was the one place in the backyard that wasn't hit.

Here's our deck. The bench on the right there was smashed up pretty good. And I'm pretty sure the railing in the back there is probably also pretty screwed up. You can also better see the piece of fence lying flat on top of the uprooted ground. Also not the discolored shingles in the corner of the roof, above the mangled gutter. That was where the tree fell and hit the house in October. It had fallen directly where the steps are (and the tree in the picture is lying), hit the house, then rebounded to the side of the house. When the guys fixed the roof, they put the wrong colored shingles on.

This is the shot from the deck. There were three other trees down in the back of the yard. You can see a couple of them on the left there and one in the back right.

This... is not our house. This was one of the neighbors who got some of the worst damage. I counted four houses on the two ways out of the neighborhood with trees through the roof. Some other people also had roof damage, as trees hit and bounced off. But, these people were one of the ones with a direct smash or two. They've got the front sheered off there, and another tree through the roof (under the tarp).


We heard that some people were literally blocked from leaving their house. One of the schools shut down for the day and was used as a rally point for the cleanup efforts. Given how much damage there was, though, I heard there were no injuries.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

One Reason Why The Internet Is Awesome

Behold! Hot Chicks with Douchebags!

It doesn't get any better when you do a Google search for something completely unrelated and stumble upon websites like those. Just think, not too long ago, you wouldn't be able to find something like that if you tried. Now, you can type in just about any term into Google and find a hilarious website within a couple pages of results. I mean, just look at the pictures of Peaches in the Hall of Scrote. I almost cried when I looked at those.

This also reminded me of The Hall of Douchebags that someone (Graham? Brad?) pointed me to quite a while ago.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Cyberboard

Lately, I've been playing around with something I found called Cyberboard. It's a program that facilitates "Play By Email" type of gaming. In other words, you can play board games with other people who aren't sitting right in front of you. I think it was originally intended for war game type of games, but the functionality has expanded over the years to facilitate other types of games. The program is made up of two main programs, a design program that lets you create a "game box" (i.e. virtual representation of the board/card game you want to play), and another to actually play the games. In the design program, you recreate all the pieces you'd need to play, such as board, cards, pawns, dice, and other bits and pieces. It has drawing tools if you want to go that route, or you can scan all your materials and paste in images. Unfortunately, it only takes in bitmaps, which makes the file somewhat large, but in most cases it looks much nicer than anything I would be able to draw. Anyways, once you have created the "game box," you then create "scenario files." In the scenario files, you set up the starting conditions and all of that. Then, the first player makes whatever moves they make and Cyberboard records each move. You save the move file, then email that file to your opponent. They load it up, watch what you did, then do their own moves, save them, and send them back to you. I think you can do games with more than two people, but there might be slightly altered logistics to it that I haven't really looked into.

I have mainly played around with the design portion of it, so I don't know exactly how it plays out in practice. But, it is a pretty nice idea. Some people have posted Cyberboard files up on Boardgamegeek for some of the games. Of course, there are copyright issues with scanning in material and uploading them to the internets for free and such. So, the rule that I have seen around is that you only use it if you own the actual physical board game itself (after the person who made the files got consent from the publishers). Two games in particular that I have seen Cyberboard files up for are Dead of Night, which I posted about a little while ago, and Duel of Ages. As far as the one for Dead of Night goes, that would probably solve some of the gripes I had about it, since I was frustrated with the actual crappy paper bits that I made myself. An electronic version of the game is much nicer. The Dead of Night Cyberboard file posted on BGG is pretty nice looking, has pretty good functionality, but is missing a couple of things and features that I would want. Unfortunately, I can't change the game box itself, so I would either have to bug the guy who made it (he passworded the game box file) or just make my own. The Duel of Ages one is really nice, and includes all expansions for the game. From what I've seen, the publishers have been really supportive of the Cyberboard version, and there are tournaments running on the forums on their site. I'm not sure if you're supposed to own all of them in order to play the Cyberboard version or not. But, maybe I'll try to get up a game with someone sometime.

I've been working on a Cyberboard version for one of my boardgames. I'm not going to post it to BGG or anything, because I don't want to worry about any hassle of getting permission or any of that crap. It's been taking me a bit of time, but I'm liking how it's turning out. If anyone wants to check out Cyberboard and has any requests to play any of the games that I own using it, let me know and I'll see if I can work it up. Or if you want to try out Dead of Night or Duel of Ages with me, I'll point you to the files.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Parapsychology at Duke

I knew that, once upon a time, Duke had a Parapsychology Laboratory. What I didn't know is that it is still around in Durham, and that I probably drove right past it hundreds of times. It's no longer affiliated with Duke, but it's still around. The Rhine Research Center sits right on Campus Walk Drive, between Morreene and LaSalle, across from the Millenium Hotel, and I never knew. According to the site, they were affiliated with Duke from 1927 until the 60s, when they set up the Foundation for Research on the Nature of Man in a building on Buchanan. They changed names to the Rhine Research Center to honor J.B. Rhine, one of the Rhines who established the original Duke Parapsychology Laboratory, in 1995, 100 years after Rhine's birth (he died in 1980). Then in 2002, they sold their building on Buchanan to Duke and moved to Campus Walk Drive. Supposedly, they're still conducting studies on stuff like psychokinesis, human biofields, ESP, and twin telepathy. It's kind of mind-boggling that there are people with PhDs who have made careers out of this kind of stuff and enough money to set up research centers that last 80+ years.

Someone still in Durham needs to go on a tour of their museum for me and report back. Or, even better, volunteer to participate in one of their studies. Please? It even says they have a gift shop with items to do your own research and testing!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Dead of Night

A couple of months ago, while browsing BoardGameGeek, I ran across a game called Dead of Night. It's a free web-published zombie survival game (as in, you are trying to survive a horde of zombies, not that you are a zombie trying to survive). The game rules, card, bits, and everything can be downloaded and printed from here. I decided to check it out, since people had good things to say about it on BGG, because I think zombie survival is a fun theme for a board game, and because I thought the idea of free board games sounded pretty awesome. In printing out everything, I wasn't going to go all out for quality, since I didn't want to waste a bunch if the game sucked.

To cut to the chase, while the game was fun, the experiment resulted in me coming to a much greater appreciation for published games that you have to pay for.

The game itself was actually pretty fun. The game premise is pretty straightforward: A swarm of zombies is trying to reach you and eat your brains, so you need to get the hell out of there. I think it captures the feel of a zombie movie pretty well. In the movies, there seems to be a never ending line of zombies that keep coming after you. They don't move all that fast, but they just never stop coming. So, you need to hole up somewhere and figure out a way to escape. When they get close to you, you need to beat the crap out of them with random objects, or set them on fire, or shoot them, to buy you some time. You might find a car, but of course it's out of gas, or you can't find the keys. Or the place you hole up in is falling to ruins, so you need to patch up holes in the walls and board up windows.

The game can be played by 1-6 players. If you play solo, your objective is simply to stay alive. If you play with others, you cooperate to stay alive. But, they also have some sort of point system to determine a winner. I would prefer just to have a cooperative game, since the competitive point system aspect is a little weak. If played by players trying to optimize points, this will almost always lead to players turning on each other at some point, usually the very end, for no apparent reason. "We made it, buddy! We are about to escape these hundreds of zombies! ...Now, let me shoot you in the face so you will lose enough points to let me win, or shoot you in the face before you shoot me in the face since I'm ahead of you in points." I'll talk more later about problems with the competitive aspect and one way I think it could be improved.

There are currently three "official" scenarios made that specify initial board set-up, winning conditions, and any other special rules or conditions. The three scenarios can be played individually, or can be played consecutively as a trilogy of sorts. These scenarios present situations you might find in a typical zombie movie. In the first one, the players start off holed up in an old house. Zombies, sensing their brains, slowly shuffle towards the players. The players either need to hold out until dawn, or find a car, find the keys, and find some gas to fuel it in order to escape. The second scenario picks up where the precious one leaves off, with the players driving down the road. However, the road is blocked by a military-style gate. The players need to figure out a way to open the gate so they can proceed with their escape. Of course, there are some zombies milling around the area. The third scenario has the players crashing their car. They manage to escape the crash before the car explodes into flames. Luckily, there is another house close by, where they might be able to hole up or find another means of escape. Unfortunately, the house is also on fire, and there are a bunch of zombies in the area.

On each player's turn, they first draw a card. Cards are divided into two decks, Act I and Act II. Generally, in Act I, you are trying to gather supplies and zombie-proof the area. In Act II, the stakes are raised and the zombies have probably reached people by then. Cards can have some good or some bad consequence. For example, you might find some ammo or car keys, or a zombie might pop out from under a bed or cupboard or you might panic and lose your turn. Cards, good or bad, might have a symbol on them indicating that you need to advance zombies and add some more to the mix. The zombies follow simple rules in their movement: They advance straight towards the closest meal. If there is any ambiguity, the player moving the zombies determines exactly how they should move.

After drawing a card, a player can take a few actions, such as moving around, searching a room, starting fires, barricading doors and windows (assuming you have items to do so), resting, and moving around items or trading items with others. While you can gather a number of different items, you are limited in realistic ways in what you can carry and hold. So, you might be armed to the teeth with shotguns, molotov cocktails, chainsaws, and pie (yes, pie - it heals you). But, you can only reasonably hold one or two things, and strap a few more to your back or stuff things in so many pockets. Further, some vital items are especially cumbersome. Probably the most important item to find is a gas tank to refuel vehicles. But, lugging that thing around slows you down, and you can't lug that thing around and shoot zombies at the same time, so you need to plan appropriately and work well with others.

Due to the way zombies are deployed and moved, the difficulty scales more or less to the number of players. But, damn, there are a lot of zombies. I played solo, and was probably moving close to a hundred zombies by the end of the game. I imagine that with more players, it could get pretty crazy, and I bet it is vital to work together. In solo play, I imagine an individual player has a bit more time to gather together enough useful items and move around to strategic positions. The more players involved, the less any individual player can accumulate and move around. So, I bet the zombies move relatively faster the more players involved. So, it's probably pretty vital to work together as much as possible by delegating duties, with one person barricading the house, one or two fighting off zombies/running around as a zombie herder, one guy actively searching for vital items, etc.

The rulebook itself if pretty nice. It is portrayed as a pamphlet for what to do in the emergency that zombies are attacking. It is pretty funny (especially if you have seen a few zombie movies in your time). The rules are structured loosely enough to allow players to be pretty creative. In a way, it is almost like a role-playing game; if you think of something cool to do that isn't necessarily obvious from the rules, it is encouraged to do so, as long as it is not too overpowering. You get a decent enough idea about what might or might not be too much from the rules. But, I could see how this flexibility in the rules might lead to some imbalance or trips to an FAQ. And some rules seem a little weird and seem sort of like exploits when you play them to their optimal advantage. For example, because there are limits to how much you can carry, it is often better to throw items around in the path you plan on going since that will allow you the most movement and "carrying capacity" for your buck (i.e. for the number of actions you can do). So, you sort of end up playing a game of leap frog with items (throw gas tank, grab chainsaw, run forward, drop chainsaw, pick up gas tank, throw it, pick up chainsaw, etc.).

So, the rules and gameplay have a couple of wrinkles, but it was pretty fun. And, you could come up with your own scenarios that mix and match different board pieces and starting and winning conditions. So, there is a lot of potential replay value.

My main problem was with the pieces and cards I printed out. Now, I know this is rather unfair, given that I didn't put full effort into my printing. But, I think that I would still have issues if I was meticulous about it. The game is free, except for the fact that you would have to spend money to replace all the ink used in the process. I used my parents' color printer, which was fairly low in ink in some of the colors. But, I sucked dry every color in the printer, and obviously everything didn't come out looking all that great. That wasn't a big deal. But, I would say that you would plan on buying a full cartridge of ink if you plan on printing bits with any quality whatsoever. Also, you will need to invest in some type of nice, hefty card. I just printed on paper, and that was pretty disastrous. Since you can't print out a whole board in one go without a massive printer, it is broken up into pieces. Paper just doesn't cut it there. It's impossible to keep stuff lined up decently, since you're moving dozens of bits all over the board. The little zombie bits were kind of a nightmare. I had a really tough time picking up all the little pieces of paper to move all the zombies. By the end of the game, there are so many zombies, and it takes so much time for me to pick up and move individual zombies, that I would forget what I had moved and what I hadn't. I'm not sure if printing on card would help that issue all that much, though having more players would help. I would suggest trying to get some sort of figurines to replace as many of the zombie bits as possible. Having to move a hundred little chits is too much. Another issue I had was trying to print some of the two-sided things. The images are given in pdf files, and some are simply not lined up properly for two-sided printing. Or else I was doing something very wrong and couldn't figure it out. I would much rather the images were given as jpegs or something so that I could line them up myself in some program where I could snap images to guides and stuff and print them. But, instead, I ended up with some items with a Frankenstein image on the back, and I gave up on the room pieces and just drew important details on the backs (you don't know what is in a room until you reveal it, so on the back of the room tile, you need to know the location of doors and windows). And, on top of all that, it took me hours upon hours to print out everything I needed, even when you don't factor in time to reprint messed up double-sided bits. Then you need to cut all the pieces apart, which cramped my hand all to hell. I think half the horror in the game was trying to create the pieces.

So, as I said in the beginning, this just made me really appreciate the contribution publishers have with boardgames. Sure, this game is "free" if you ignore costs associated with printing. Factoring the cost of ink and decent card stock to print, Dead of Night probably wouldn't be a lot cheaper than a game like Last Night on Earth, which is $40. And the quality of the bits for a game like Last Night on Earth would probably be much better than whatever I would be able to print and cut out. Plus, all I would have to do is open a box instead of spending a whole day creating my sub-par bits. So, I'm not sure if Dead of Night is worth it, even being free, though I did enjoy playing the game. Maybe if you already had some board or bits that you could appropriate to play the Dead of Night rules with, it would be worth it. But, it was just a pain in the ass to construct pieces that made my eyes bleed anyways.

Getting back to the rules again, I'm not exactly sure why there needed to be competitive winning conditions. But, if you wanted to have individuals winning, I think you could do something like introducing hidden character roles with individual winning conditions rather than having global winning conditions. Two of the official scenarios already out there give players 1 point for each zombie killed, 10 points for escaping, and 10 points for making it to the end of the game alive. The other one (the one where you need to open the gate) is a little more nuanced: 1 point per zombie killed, 5 points for powering up the generator (the gate needs power to be opened) for the first time, 5 points for opening the gate, 10 points for escaping in a vehicle, and 5 points for making it to the end of the game alive. So, you can see where backstabbing would be an almost inevitable strategy.

I think you could come up with some interesting roles based on some stereotypical characters from zombie movies, or just some interesting roles based on what is possible in the game. For example, some hero type of character might get points based on the number of players still alive at the end of the game. One type of character might just love to kill zombies, so he would get more points for doing that. Or there could be some crazy/evil type of character who tries to undermine the others while staying alive himself. Or, given the use of fire in the game, why not some sort of pyromaniac, who might end up blowing up the gas tank rather than use it to fuel a car because he likes to see the boom. Essentially, create interesting victory conditions that would, if played with optimal strategy, lead players to do certain things in line with the type of character they are playing. In some cases, players might benefit by working together, while in others players would have cross purposes. The roles and individual victory conditions would be hidden, and there would be enough roles that are somewhat similar enough that players wouldn't necessarily tip off what character they were. So, players might try to figure out what the other players off and work towards trying to maximize their own score and minimizing others. Of course, the scoring would have to be balanced out and all that. I think something like that could be much more fun and interesting and lead to play that makes more sense.

Friday, April 18, 2008

Expelled Exposed

This is what I was reading today:



Expelled: No Intelligence Allowed is a movie "documentary" (i.e. intelligent design propaganda film) that is being put out, with Ben Stein talking about how the Big Bad Ivory Tower has cast out the Poor Little ID Proponents. In a typical ID approach, the film attempts to manipulate public opinion, by preying on human sympathies for the "underdog" and sense of "fairness" and "outrage," in an attempt to stir up controversy where none actually exists, rather than support their arguments with actual science. Why do the actual work when you can just misquote, interview people under false pretenses, and deliberately misunderstand and mock honest scientists? Oh yeah, and while we're at it, let's trivialize the deaths of millions of Jews in order to advance our agenda by trying to tie Darwin to the Nazis. Nice.

Expelled Exposed, put up by the National Center for Science Education, effectively bitch-slaps the claims made in the movie by examining the facts behind them. Good stuff.

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

"Gateway" Sci-Fi

The fourth and final season of Battlestar Galactica, on the Sci-Fi channel, started a couple of weeks ago, and this got me thinking again about "gateway" sci-fi. I can hear Lindsay now saying, "ugh... science ficccccction..." There is a lot of sci-fi crap out there. But, I think there is some really good science fiction that anybody could enjoy, that's not so much about all the nerdy bits, but are genuinely good stories that happen to be built around some science fiction premise. Battlestar Galactica is one of them.

I would say for everybody to rent the 2003 mini-series that opened up the current incarnation of BSG. For people like Lindsay, who might not keep up with things sci-fi, the current Battlestar Galactica is a remake of a TV show from the late 70s. The basic premise is that humans created a bunch of robots called Cylons, which they eventually went to war with and came to a truce. The Cylons went away for a while, then came back in a sneak attack and annihilated most of the human race. The survivors were primarily on board space ships at the time, though some manage to survive the attacks on the planets themselves. The military ships are incapacitated by the Cylons through a type of computer virus and are helpless. However, one of the older model ships, the Battlestar Galactica, managed to escape because of its older technology and because it was about to become decommissioned and was therefore offline at the time. So, this old ship, with its old weapons and officers who were about to retire, is the one military presence left among a small fleet of luxury space liners and such that is now running from this huge host of Cylons. Leadership of the civilians passes down to the Secretary of Education, who was something like 43rd in line for the Presidency. This group tries to assemble all of the survivors together, while running from and fighting the Cylons, and trying to return to pick up survivors.

The story really revolves around the relationships of the characters, so it is almost more of a drama than sci-fi. It does what I enjoy about science fiction and fantasy: It uses premises that could only be accomplished by resorting to science fiction or fantastical situations in order to best illustrate things about people or current affairs or philosophy or whatever. One catch of the new series is that the Cylons have managed to develop models that are virtually indistinguishable from humans. And some of the models don't know that they are Cylons and have developed relationships with the humans. So, this opens up a whole lot of possibilities of issues to raise. BSG tackles things from what it means to be human, to religion and faith, to torture and the treatment of prisoners, to issues of justice and "civil versus military virtues."

Battlestar Galactica, specifically the mini-series, is probably my #1 pick for a "gateway" sci-fi show or movie, that is, a show that might get people to like sci-fi who might otherwise be turned off by it (e.g. Lindsay - that's right, I'm daring you to comment on my blog to address this issue). The mini-series is about 3 hours, if I remember correctly, so there isn't a huge time commitment to decide whether you might be interested or not. Another candidate might be Joss Whedon's Firefly series. It only had less than a season on the air, but it is a cult favorite, and spawned the 2005 movie Serenity. Joss Whedon (who was also behind the Buffy the Vampire Slayer TV show) writes great dialogue and has some very memorable characters. One reason I would put Firefly below BSG in my "gateway" sci-fi list is that it might take a bit more commitment to get into Firefly. I rented the TV series before seeing the movie, and got into the characters, and enjoyed the movie a lot more because of it. But, I don't know what my impression would have been seeing the movie first. I really feel like you need to watch the TV series, since they couldn't really focus on all the characters in the movie, but that would take a bit more commitment. That is a reason I would hesitate about Buffy the Vampire Slayer also, another candidate I would have for good sci-fi/fantasy that people could get into. I feel like it would take a while to really get into Buffy since, honestly, the show didn't fully hit its stride until the second or third season, and it might be weird to start in the middle. There are some really great episodes in the first season, but its also apparent upon re-watching it that it took some time to really be consistently good.

So, go watch the Battlestar Galactica mini-series and tell me what you think. Or suggest some other "gateway" shows or movies.

Monday, April 14, 2008

Windows XP Going Bye-Bye

I read that in a month or two, Microsoft is no longer offering Windows XP. Instead, people are stuck with Vista. Though, I also heard that there might be some kind of option to downgrade from Vista to XP or something...? I haven't interacted at all with Vista, but I seem to read all sorts of bad stuff about it. And people are creating petitions for Microsoft to keep offering and supporting XP. So, I'm scared that if I ever get a new computer, that I will be stuck with something that I will hate. Who's used Vista, and what's wrong with it, or what's awesome about it that I couldn't have with XP? I'm not too sure I would want to venture into Mac or Linux waters yet, but if Vista sucks too bad, maybe I would consider it. This is all purely hypothetical at this point, of course. I have no means by which to acquire a new computer in the near future. I'm just curious about what I might be in store for... eventually.

Zooloretto

I've been eyeing the board game Zooloretto. It won the 2007 Spiel des Jahres (Game of the Year), and those Germans know their board games. Basically, from what I've seen, players each have a zoo that they are trying to populate. On turns, you choose to put animals and stuff in carts or choose to take the stuff in the carts to populate your zoo. In some circumstances, you can have animals that are male or female, and if you have one of each, they can create a baby to help fill up your zoo. But, you don't want too many types of animals, or else you have to put some in the barn, which presumably subtracts points or something. So, you can spend money to add more pens to your zoo. The scoring system is more complex than just attempting to fill up your zoo, of course. But, it looks like it has a good bit of strategy without being too mind-numbing, and has a fun theme that people could get into. Has anybody played it? Here are some (rather poorly done) YouTube videos explaining the game, if you like watching rather than reading.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Go Mom!

My mom received an Adult Learner Recognition Award yesterday from Kennesaw. The award honors "adult students who have shown success in coping with numerous additional roles such as work and family or have overcome difficult circumstances to pursue higher education and have taken innovative approaches to reach their goals." We went to the ceremony yesterday and she received a framed certificate thing that she can add to her pile of awards and dean's list and honor society notifications. Even some of the other award receivers were impressed by the fact that she had started college after 35 years of being out of school. Forget all the other reasons she had listed. It was the 35 years thing that people commented on.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Netvibes Ginger

I've been using Netvibes as my homepage for a couple of years, since Jen T pointed me to it. Last month or so, Netvibes upgraded to Netvibes Ginger. I haven't checked it out a whole lot beyond that initial glance at the features when I upgraded. But, my impression is that it is an attempt to jump on the social networking train a bit more than it had.

For those who haven't used Netvibes, essentially it is a page where you can add "widgets" or "modules" to it, such as RSS feeds, email previews, and other things. You can also have multiple tabs, to help you organize your info. For those familiar with Facebook, and the ability to add different applications to your page, it is a similar idea. You add something, then you can move it around on your page, etc. Facebook is taking some of these same good ideas that Netvibes (and others) had and have been adding them (e.g. Facebook is coming out with the tabs shortly, so you won't have to see a whole bunch of garbage on one page). Netvibes gives you a bunch of information in a single glance, which is what its main appeal was to me. You don't have to cycle through your list of bookmarks. Instead, if it has some sort of feed, you can stick it on Netvibes and have everything there in the same place. You can also upload your bookmarks from your browser, so that if you are using a different computer, you can just go to Netvibes and have access to all your bookmarks. To give you an idea of the types of things that can go on there, here is a short list of some of the things I have on my page:
  • Email previews for Gmail and Hotmail
  • Weather forecast
  • RSS feeds for 28 different websites, blogs, forums, photo albums: everything from news articles to craigslist listings to ebay listings to movie and game reviews
  • Bookmarks that I periodically upload from my Firefox (if you have nested folders, Netvibes translates these into tags, to help sort your bookmarks on Netvibes)
  • Search tools for web, image, video, podcast, and map searches (each one returns results from a number of relevant search engines (e.g. video searches have tabs for results from YouTube, Google video, Matacafe, Myspace, Dailymotion, and Sevenload, among others - I don't even know what half of these are, but I can get results from them if I want))
  • Wikipedia search widget
  • Google documents feed
  • TinyURL creator
  • Some other random stuff
You can search for other content to add to your site. Every few months I go through to see if there is anything good (I do a similar thing for Facebook). Ok, so those are the basic Netvibes features. Now, they've added this Ginger thing. Like I said, I have only glanced through it and haven't put much thought into it, but the main difference I see is that now you have a public and a private page (whereas you just had the private page before). So, if you find interesting stuff that you would like to share with your friends or whoever, you send it to your public page also. And, I think you can "subscribe" to different people's pages to see what kind of stuff they add to theirs. So, like I said, it seems like they are trying to expand a bit more in the online social networking market.

I'm curious to see how they do. At a glance, a lot of these features seem to be the kinds of things sites like Facebook have jumped all over. So, with the popularity of sites like those, I'm not sure how well Netvibes will be able to get in on the action. Does anyone else use Netvibes and/or have checked out this new Ginger stuff? I'd be curious to see what people had to say about it. I'll probably look into it a bit more sometime. But, right now, it seemed like the pre-Ginger Netvibes features take care of my homepage wants, and Facebook could take care of the Netvibes Ginger-exclusive features. It might just be too much of a hassle to keep up with two sites, especially since I have no idea if anyone else I know even uses Netvibes in the first place. My initial search when I upgraded to Ginger returned nobody, hehe...

Friday, March 28, 2008

YourTurnMyTurn.com

Once upon a time, I challenged Jen T to a game of Connect 4 over email. After that game, Jen invited me to a website called YourTurnMyTurn.com to play Connect 4 there. Shortly after the game started, Jen disappeared and never finished the game. I figured that she invited me to the site as a way of saying, "Hey, look at all these other people you could be playing against instead of me." Ah well. In any case, it worked, and I have been playing there for a while. I invited my friend Khaldoun there to play "wordgame," a pseudo-Scrabble game, so that we could attempt to relive the glory days of when we lived together and played Scrabble every other night. If only YourTurnMyTurn had the Buffy boardgame...

Essentially, the website is a place you can play some turn-based boardgames for free online. Unlike some other websites, games aren't played in real-time. You have a couple of days to make your move. You can invite other players to casual games, and can set the turn duration to 1, 3, 7, or 14 days. Or, you can enroll in 28-player tournaments. Each day, you get an allotment of 50 moves, with a max of 150 moves. So, you could sort of play in real-time with someone, if you have enough moves. You can also give them some money to upgrade your account and get unlimited moves per day. There are also some limits in the number of games and tournaments you can play in as a normal user that the "VIPs" get extended, but honestly I haven't seen that it would be worth it. You get to play in plenty enough games and tournaments as it is. The unlimited moves thing is the only thing that might be worth it for me.

There are some things I like about the site. 1) It has a pretty good assortment of games, and it has introduced me to some fun games I would otherwise not play. 2) They are constantly adding new games. 3) Playing against Khaldoun lets me chat with him and talk about all sorts of boring mundane things, which is something we otherwise would not get to do since I am notoriously bad at keeping in touch with people unless they are standing in front of me. 4) I like playing in game tournaments.

The site features the following games: backgammon, battleship, castle danger, checkers, chess, connect four, crack the code (a Mastermind clone), dicegame (a Yahtzee clone), dipole, dots and boxes, draughts, go, go-moku, halma (chinese checkers), holomino, kahuna, lost cities, mill, oware, penguin, pente, pick and pack, reversi, rummy (Rummikub clone), streetsoccer, subulata, tablut, tally ho, and wordgame (the Scrabble clone). Of those, the games that I regularly play that I already knew how to play are backgammon and wordgame, basically. However, I'll play some tournaments for dicegame, dots and boxes, and halma. The games I started playing since I joined the site are castle danger (no, it's not caste danger like I mistakenly told Khaldoun, though I bet that would be an awesome game), holomino, lost cities (despite knowing Mat and knowing of the existence of flexgames, I had never actually played this game before), penguin, pente, streetsoccer, and tally ho. I'll give my impressions of how some of these games are and how well they are implemented in the site in separate posts. I'll leave this one for comments on the site itself.

There are also a number of things I do not like about the website. 1) The tournament format is one of the dumbest things I have ever seen. 2) Related to this, the rating system seems kind of screwy. 3) The admins are very resistant to change. 4) The admins seem to prefer trying to dumb down games and giving advantage to poorer players rather than giving games depth and providing more options for all players. 5) Some of the games just don't translate well to the format provided by the website. I'll comment about this last point in posts about the particular games.

First, the tournament system. No, actually, I'll talk about the rating system, since the problems with that add to the problems with the tournaments. I'll say that the rating system isn't terrible, by any means, or at least not really worse than rating systems found elsewhere. I'd say it does a decent job of eventually differentiating player skill level. However, that only happens if 1) you play a number of games, and 2) you play a variety of opponents. For example, Khaldoun and I played each other in wordgame a bunch of times, but our ratings didn't really go anywhere because we play so evenly. Our ratings only went up once I started to play in tournaments (and later when Khaldoun did). Essentially, I would win games against other people, then siphon half the rating points to Khaldoun, so that we would slowly move up in the ratings.

Other than that, there are some illogicalities about the rating system. For example, if you win a game, it is possible to lose rating points if your opponent is much lower in rating than you. I can understand not wanting to reward players for picking out weaker opponents and crushing them to gain rating points. But, losing points when you won seems silly. I think you could easily have a system that scales the reward to the difference in skill level, but still reward players for winning (I know, that's a crazy idea!). Giving low enough rewards for drastic mismatches should effectively discourage those hunting the newbies for rating points.

Also, if two players start out and play two games, splitting wins, they would not end up at the same rating. So, that tells me there is something weird about the math.

Another thing I've noticed is that often when a new game comes out, there will be a tournament started right away for it. So, everyone is at the same skill level. But, inevitably I'll see some guys ahead of me in rating by the end of it even though I have yet to lose a single game and they have lost games. Maybe it would make sense if I sat through and worked through the math. But, it just seems like something is funny. In the end, the ratings aren't that big of a deal, though, especially knowing that the system is wacky. What really bothers me is how it affects tournaments.

The tournaments on YourTurnMyTurn.com start out with 28 players split into 4 groups. Each player within a group plays each other player in the group. The top two from each group then go on to the quarterfinals. Players receive two points for each win, 1 point for a draw, and 0 points for a loss. If there are ties in points by the end of group play, then players are sorted by a calculated variable called Tournament Performance Rating (TPR). And, here is where the problems with the rating system start to taint the tournaments. The TPR is primarily based on player ratings, specifically player ratings at the beginning of the tournament. It also takes into consideration the ratings of all the opponents you faced, but it is primarily based on player ratings. So, if there is a tie in points at the end of the group, someone with the lower rating will have a higher TPR than someone with a higher rating, and will therefore advance. That's fair enough, I suppose, giving a sort of handicap for the players. However, that assumes that the rating system upon which it is based is valid, which it doesn't appear to be.

There are also problems with this approach. 1) Players with provisional ratings, by nature, get sorted incorrectly since they haven't played enough games against a variety of opponents to receive a more accurate rating. 2) Since it only considers ratings at the beginning of tournaments, it cannot handle any changes in skill over time. This wouldn't be a problem if it was a weekend tournament. But, we're talking weeks and months here. I am in three tournaments of tally ho that are predicted to last around a year each (they are the first and last three I will play). Surely player skill will change over the course of a year. Current player rating is taken into consideration, but only as a second tiebreaker after TPR.

As for the particular TPR formula, it seems to be a little screwy as well. I think it too heavily weighs ratings, both one's own and the opponents'. This primarily becomes apparent once you reach the quarterfinal stage. In the quarterfinals, semifinals, and finals, you play 4 games. Not 3, or 5 or some odd number that would make more sense, but 4 games. If there is a tie, then TPR again decides who advances. So, the person with the higher TPR only has to win 2 of the 4 games, whereas the person with the lower TPR has to win 3 out of 4 games, to advance to the next stage. It doesn't matter how close in skill level you and your opponent might be. As I said, I think the TPR formula weighs ratings too heavily. So, you can find yourself in situations where you win all of your group matches, yet still have to win three games in the quarterfinals versus someone who lost games in the group matches, simply because you have a higher rating. I am in a wordgame tournament right now where I am in a quarterfinal matchup with someone with the beginning provisional rating. This person lost 2 of the 6 group games, and I went undefeated. But, I still have the three-win burden because I have a high rating and this guy (who is a good player, but just hasn't been able to be "sorted" yet) only has to win 2.

I think the intention is nice: They wanted to institute a handicap system to give "the little guy" a boost. But, it doesn't really play out that way. Basically, with their system, they are saying, "We don't want the A students to do the best on the test. We want the B students to." They would really like the C or D students to have the best chance, but it's really the B students who do. So, the best player in the tournament might not be the most likely to win it. But, the second-, or fourth-, or whatever-best player does. In skill mismatches, the better player is still going to be able to win 3 out of 4 games. It's in the close matchups where the handicap comes into play. And this situation is more likely to happen the farther you get in the tournament. So, if Khaldoun and I were to enter a tournament, and ended up facing each other in the semis or finals, one of us would have a huge advantage in our chances to advance, even though we are about as closely matched in skill as possible (out of 40 games, I've won 22). If it were a handicap system that somehow scaled to the differences in skill level, like a handicap in a golf tournament, I'd be fine with it. But, you don't have enough games for an all-or-nothing handicap like they have to be appropriate. For example, in golf, the handicap is in number of strokes, and through 18 holes, a handicap of a few strokes would work fine. But, in the tournaments on YourTurnMyTurn, it's just 4 games, and it doesn't matter if you have the equivalent of a 1 stroke handicap or a 100 stroke handicap.

I, and a couple of other players, have tried to get the format changed to an odd-number format. But, the site admins are very resistant to change, and they are also biased towards the weaker players. They have attempted to justify the 4-game system with the fact that players will get an advantage depending on what color they play/whether they go first or not. Therefore, in their argument, you need an even numbered system. However, I think they give way too much emphasis to this point. By the win statistics they keep on their site, there doesn't look like there is a whole lot of advantage for any given color for any given game. Of course, there might be some significant advantage if you actually did some tests. But, it is certainly doesn't look to be true for all, or most, of the games. And, I would argue that the TPR advantage far outweighs any advantage color might bring, particularly the later on in tournaments you go, since presumably the opponents are more closely matched. I think you could just go with a 5 (or 3) game format, and just give the color advantage to the person with the lower TPR, if you want to have a handicap of sorts. But, having an even numbered system takes tiebreaker scenarios out of the hands of the players and puts it into the hands of some shady math. That's what really bugs me about it.

Part of the admins' unwillingness to change is wanting to keep a simple system for all games. If they don't want to do the programming to change things, then there's nothing anybody can really do about it, other than find another site or make your own. It's their site, after all, and they probably won't do anything about it unless a lot of people complain. But, too many either just don't care, or might enjoy the (unfair) benefits the handicap system affords them. And some people think that those of us who are trying to get things changed for the better are just doing it because we are being greedy for wins (since people who actually think about these things and who are being affected the most by the system are those who are generally highly ranked).

The admins' desire to keep the system consistent across games and bias towards lower-ranked players spills into other areas that I think could be improved. I'll comment more on that in posts on the particular games. But, one example is backgammon. In backgammon, normally you play matches for a number of points, and in any given game, you can win a different number of points, depending on how the game plays out. Normally you get 1 point for a win. But, if you manage to get all of your checkers off the board before your opponent has a chance to get any of his off, you win a gammon, which is worth 2 points. If you manage to get all your guys off before your opponent can get any off, and your opponent has some men left in your home board (the last six spaces you are exiting from), then you win a backgammon, which is worth 3 points. Added to this is the doubling cube. At any time in a game, a player can challenge his opponent by doubling the stakes. The person challenged has to decide whether to accept the double, or to forfeit the game at the current stakes. If the person accepts, then they control the cube, and may later offer the same doubling challenge to their opponent, who must then make the same decision: accept the doubled stakes or forfeit at the current stakes. Anyways, all of this adds a ton of strategic depth to the game and is pretty standard on any site that takes backgammon semi-seriously. But, on YourTurnMyTurn, despite backgammon being played three times as much as any other game on the site, every game is a one-point match, and they have no intention of including this feature because it would require them to have a different system for different games. Fine, whatever. But, the game is called backgammon, yet you are unable to actually play for a backgammon. And not having those features really takes more than half the strategy out of the game, and rewards luck a lot more than skill. But, the admins don't really care much for rewarding skilled play, by their own admission, because it gives advanced players more of a benefit. Umm, yes. That's what competitive games are about, right?

Ah well. I'm still playing. If I catch whiff of some other site offering a similar selection of turn-based games that aren't played in real time, and that includes a more rational tournament format, then I'll be there in a heartbeat. In the meantime, I'll be banging my face against the computer whenever I look at my TPR...

Feel free to join up at the site and play me in some games. My handle is monkeyswinkle, and I'll play pretty much anything.

Rating Commercials

I want to be able to rate commercials. I want to be able to say, "Hey, Bud Light, your Dude Madness commercials are great" or "UPS, that long-haired drawing guy has worn out his welcome." I also want to be able to have some influence on how frequently I see these commercials. What I envision is being able to use my remote control to give a rating of some sort, like a 5 star rating scale. Then, somehow the TV station will adjust the frequency of me seeing the different commercials. Even if I give a commercial the lowest rating, it doesn't have to mean that I will never see it, but just infrequently. Also, each time a commercial comes up that I have already rated, it will show me what rating I have for it, and I can choose to keep it there or adjust it. I think it would give some good feedback to the companies to. I imagine they would want to know whether their ad is well liked, or if it is annoying or angering people.

Ok, maybe it might not be feasible yet to do it with TV. But, I think you could certainly do it with online feeds. We're beginning to be able to watch a lot of stuff over the internet. Yet, we still have to deal with commercials. What's worse is that there is a smaller selection of commercials that businesses are putting out on the internet. So, you're stuck watching the same commercial or two every break. For example, I've been watching some NCAA games through CBS sports online. But, honestly, every commercial break has the same two commercials every time. I want to be able to tell them to cut that shit out. I'd rather watch black emptiness than see the same commercials over and over. I know the technology exists, people. Make it happen! And somebody get to work on that TV idea too. Actually, add in the ability to rate everything I see on TV. My wisdom needs to be heard. "Billy Packer, you suck. You get only 1 star from me for your basketball commentating."

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Sightseeing in Midtown

I told a couple people about this. But, I thought it was humorous enough to post here, as well, for those who I might not have told.

A few weeks ago, I drove downtown to my friend Kevin's apartment. He lives on Peachtree between 7th and 8th Streets. Here's a map of the area, so you can follow along. I was driving around looking for parking. I was driving east on 8th Street, coming up to the stop sign at Cypress Drive, when I saw this dude standing on the side of the road in sweatpants, a T-shirt, and a hoodie. Actually, there were a couple of people walking up and down the street, but this guy drew my attention because he reached down to his side, as if he was scratching his hip or tucking his shirt in. But, then, just as I was driving by, he hooked his thumb into his sweatpants and nonchalantly pulled down the front of his pants to show off his goods. I would call it "flashing" except that that might imply some sort of quick, "Hey, look at my weiner!" kind of thing. I guess "exposed" would be a better word, because it was much more slow and deliberate, like "Hey, dude, can I get your opinion on something?". The funny thing is that I kept having to drive around the block to look for a parking spot, and passed him by about two other times. One time, I stopped to let him cross the street in front of me. He waved politely - actually, he flashed a peace-sign to me - in thanks. So, at least he was a nice flasher.

Anyways, I did a little Googling, and supposedly Cypress Street has been somewhat notorious as a place of business for male prostitutes in the past. Supposedly it's been getting better in the last few years, because of police stings and such. They cleaned out some disreputable businesses around there and now there are some nice places like Ecco around there. But, that makes a bit more sense why some random dude would show me his schlong, since it certainly looked like I was cruising. I guess he was just displaying the goods to see if I was interested in buying. It also might explain why it is usually so easy for me to find parking on Cypress and 8th Street.

According to this article, and some other stuff I read, Cypress Street is where the male hustlers do business, Ponce is where the "crack hookers" are (and there's an "open air drug market" around Ponce, Parkway Dr, and Monroe/Boulevard), and the "transvestitutes" do their thing south of 5th Street around Myrtle (a couple of streets east of Peachtree). Also, Atlanta is supposedly one of the prime spots for pedophiles to go to have sex with underage prostitutes. I guess the laws for going overseas for sex with teens and children are much more severe than laws for having sex with American teens and children. Plus, Atlanta as a major airport hub makes it easier for people to fly into town, do their business, and get out of town to go back to the wife and kids. Huh. Who knew?

I also encourage you to take a look at this video in which some guy interviews an Atlanta male prostitute. I dare you to decipher half of what this guy says.

Ahh, I just blogged all over the internet!

I think there's some blog on your shirt now. Sorry about that. Ok, I just think the word blog is funny.

With the encouragement of Mat, I have now created a blog. There will potentially be stuff on it. Let me know what you think of the look of it. Do the colors make you want to vomit?

I'm also not terribly clear on some of the settings. So, if there is something that doesn't work how you think it should work, please let me know, like if you can't post comments or send me hate mail or something.

Review of The Ancestor's Tale (Richard Dawkins)

Here's a little review I wrote for The Ancestor's Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Evolution, by Richard Dawkins. Richard Dawkins shares a birthday with one Mathias S. Fleck, which just happened to be yesterday, March 26th. Happy Birthday to both of you!

Apparently, according to the little blue circle on the cover, this book received the 2004 New York Times Book Review of the Year and it is "a notable book" according to the New York Times. I’m not really sure what that means, but I have to say this is a fine book. I think Dawkins is great at sharing the knowledge of his particular scientific expertise in a perfect amount of complexity for a popular audience who is intelligent, but perhaps not as knowledgable in that particular branch of science. This book gives just the amount of depth and breadth that I like to see in a book about science that captures why the subject matter, in this case, natural selection, is incredibly interesting, without going into agonizing detail and making it a dull read. After reading, it leaves you feeling smarter, but still entertained, which is what I hope for from science writing.

In fact, the book is quite a clever and entertaining way to talk about science. Dawkins sets it up as a cousin to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, except that in this book, the pilgrimage is back through the history of evolution by natural selection from the human’s point of view. Dawkins makes clear that he could have chosen any of the existing species and told the tale from their point of view. Along the way, the different branches of species join up as pilgrims with the humans on the way back through the course of evolution. Most times more pilgrims join, Dawkins tells a tale or two or three related to one of the species that highlights an important concept related to natural selection. And this is what I really like about the book. As a 600+ page book about science, it can look pretty intimidating. It’s not really a small book, either; it’s 6” X 9”. That’s one reason I had avoided it until now. I knew that it was supposed to be really good, but some of Dawkins’s other books seemed a bit more manageable, such as The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype. But, after reading those two, I wanted to get more of an updated view of natural selection from Dawkins (the other two books were written 25-30 years ago), so I turned back to The Ancestor’s Tale. Despite the thickness of the book, it did not feel in the least like a boring tome, and I think that is in large part to how it was structured, with the overall story peppered with these interesting, manageable tales.

Each tale touches upon some topic related to natural selection. Dawkins talks about everything from methods, such as fossil dating, DNA coding and comparisons, and constructing taxonomies, to social issues like racism. And every tale features interesting and often humorous illustrating examples. For example, in one tale Dawkins gives an explanation of why men are larger than women, and why gorillas have large chests whereas chimpanzees and bonobos have large testicles. Several tales also deal with clearing up myths and misconceptions about evolution and natural selection, from within the scientific community as well as without. So, the book can be approached as a collection of many short, intelligent, entertaining stories, and you could easily read large portions of it while sitting on the toilet without feeling like you won’t be able to follow some long development of a hypothesis or something. As I said, for me as someone with a background in science, but not necessarily evolutionary biology and ecology, the book offered just enough detail to satisfy me. It was a fairly easy read, though I had to go over some sections a few times to really follow the argument. For someone with more of a background in this sort of stuff, I don’t know. I found myself bored with the level of detail of the arguments in The Extended Phenotype, but not The Selfish Gene or The Ancestor’s Tale, if that gives any kind of helpful measure.

Overall, this has become one of my favorite books. It took me a while to read, but I never felt like I wanted to get it over with. I’d recommend it to anyone with an interest in natural selection.