Friday, February 27, 2015

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Roger Robar, and this is the best explanation of the Monty Hall problem that I've ever read: The Time Everyone “Corrected” the World’s Smartest Woman.

From Meg McReynolds, and this is, well, not that surprising: Don't panic! How a rehearsal for a nuclear disaster descended into farce. Next, and this is outstanding, it's Yoga Joes: Plastic Green Soldiers Practicing Yoga.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is quite bouncy: PEOPLE ARE AWESOME (Xpogo Edition). Next, and this is excellent for you cinema buffs, it's What is neorealism? Next, and this is a truly stunning comic: Heavy Lights of January. Next, and this is a pretty fascinating experiment with MP3 compression, it's A ghoulish “Tom’s Diner” emerges from lost MP3 compression data.

From C. Lee, and here's an amazing guy: Osaka taxi operator wages campaign against hate speech. Next, and this is completely fascinating, it's If software looks like a brain and acts like a brain—will we treat it like one?

From Steven Davis, and this is very cool: Building a Working “Zoltar Speaks” Fortune Teller. Also, and this is fantastic, it's Fantastically Functional Lego Mechanical Loom. Next, and this is incredible, it's Demonstration of David Roentgen's Automaton of Queen Marie Antoinette, The Dulcimer Player. Next, more automaton, and it's spectacular: Alexandre Pouchkine by François Junod.

From Jonathan Arnold, and these are incredibly striking: Urban explorer reveals an abandoned world, frozen in time.

If you're curious about ISIS, this link from 3Suns is a thorough (and unnerving) explanation: What ISIS Really Wants.

From Tim Steffes, and this brings back good memories: Retired developer who created ‘NHL ‘94’ video game in Maine barn reflects on career.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

Reaction Time

You guys sent me a ton of interesting information, and in case any of you might find it useful, here's a link to the studies:
Increasing Speed of Processing With Action Video Games (thanks Matt C.)

A Double-Blind, Placebo-Controlled Study on the Effects of Lutein and Zeaxanthin on Neural Processing Speed and Efficiency (thanks C. Lee)
I don't think that a supplement at Eli 13.6s age is a necessary option, but it's a fascinating possibility.

Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning (also from Steve Nygard)
Here's a brief description from the Amazon page:
Presents a compelling case for why we are attracted to the wrong strategies for learning and teaching—and what we can do to remedy our approaches… In clear language

Anticipation and Timing in Human Motor Performance (from Garret Rempel, of course)
This is a fascinating article, and it draws a distinction between pure reaction time and functional reaction time. Here's a description:
Receptor anticipation is present in situations in which stimulus events are displayed ahead, so that the subject can preview the approaching events and respond without the lag due to reaction time.

So raw reaction time isn't the best measurement of performance for an activity that requires a complex and coordinated response. Receptor anticipation creates a situation where an individual can respond far more quickly than in a situation where there are no stimulus events.

This all makes sense, because reacting to a shot in hockey involves a set of what can be very complex clues: skate angle, whether the skater is gliding, stick angle, shoulder position--when I think about it, it's entirely amazing that anyone (let alone Eli 13.6) could process all that information and translate it (without any conscious mental effort) into physical reactions. Our brains are incredible.

So to reframe what I'm trying to help Eli with, it's really not just raw reaction time. It's (I'm not even sure this is a term) functional reaction time, where training improves the ability of someone to perform complex movements in specific situations. Improving reaction time as measured by a computer program or something is not the goal.

Being so far away from a hockey nexus has required us to go off the grid, in many cases. And I've been meaning to write about that for months, but somehow haven't gotten around to it yet. It's very much a mad scientist situation, except and Eli and I are both mad scientists, trying to do everything we can to help him reach his goals.

That's one of the distinct things about Eli. He doesn't have dreams; he has goals.



Well, Hello, Common Sense!

FCC Passes Strongest Net Neutrality Rules In America's History

In spite of the remarkable inability of American government to do the right thing, they somehow do it this time in spite of themselves. On a 3-2 vote, of course, because idiots and everything.

Still, though, a bright moment.

Clearly, This is the Best Spam Ever

The random phrase combiner struck pure gold with this:
Stuyvesant died in 1672 and was interred in a vault under the chapel. Celtic fans and some reporters had argued the challenge was deemed worthy of a straight red.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Reaction Time: It Takes a Village

I've been researching this for a while, and I realized that I should be asking you guys as well.

Eli 13.6 is a remarkable goalie for a kid his age. Terrific technique, super athleticism and agility, mentally tough--he's more as an athlete than I've ever been in my entire life.

And he works.

I've never seen a kid work so hard, and so intelligently. And I want to help him.

Athletically, I know how to help. He's doing some amazing dry land workouts to improve his athleticism, and his tennis is off the charts now (he hits the ball harder than I do, and I'm a solid player).

There's one piece, though, that would put him over the top and legitimately give him a chance to reach his goals.

Reaction time.

Average reaction time is in the 250ms range. Top goalies are much lower. And reaction time directly translates to more saves.

If I can find a way to help  him lower his reaction time by even 5%, it would be important. 10% would be huge.

The problem, though, is that there isn't much solid research into improving reaction time.

I think what I call the "overload" technique is established, but I can't find anything else. Overload is basically a technique where you practice an activity at higher speed than you would in competition. So, in this case, Eli would be seeing shots at a higher velocity than he'd ever see in a game, and over time, the brain rewires itself to accommodate the higher speeds.

There's another way to produce overload, and that's with strobe glasses. Basically, the glasses remove visual information at intervals by flashing from transparent to opaque (for example purposes, think of a film running at 24fps where every 4th frame is black, for example). So the brain has to calculate trajectory, speed, etc., with less information than it normally has.

So that's overload by addition (overspeed) and subtraction (removing information).

Those are both interesting techniques, but if there's anything else out there, I'd really like to know about it. So if you're aware of other research or methods, please let me know. Thanks.


NFL Draft

Once again, it appears that everyone has forgotten the cardinal rule about quarterbacks: drafting quarterbacks from great college teams is very, very dicey. 

It's especially dicey when the quarterback in question has mediocre stats, because the talent surrounding him is far better, relatively, than he'll have in the NFL.

Which brings us to Jameis Winston.

Forget the character issues (there are many). Forget the attitude issues. Just remember that in his last season, with better talent on his team than the opponent in every game, he threw for 25 touchdowns and 18 interceptions. Take out a mandatory win scrimmage against Citadel, and it's 23 touchdowns and 18 interceptions.

I cannot overemphasize how poor those stats are for a top-flight college quarterback. That was the second highest number of interceptions in Division 1-A, which has well over 100 teams.

This is the kid who might be the number one pick in the draft? If he can't make good decisions and reads at the college level--when the players on his side were far better than the players on the other side--what is he going to do in pro football, when everything is much, much harder?

Draft at your own peril.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The Musiquarium (Sloan: part two)

Today, the conclusion to Chris Hornbostel's epic two-parter about Sloan.

***
Twice Removed announces its awesomeness with a should’ve-been-hit called “Penpals”  that pretty neatly establishes the Sloan ethos within its three minute run time.  The story of the song is terrific, too. The band had become friends with some of the folks at influential Seattle label Sub-Pop, also known as the first label Nirvana recorded for. Those friends gave the Sloan guys some of the more illegible international fan letters sent to Nirvana that were still pouring into the label’s offices, letters that were destined to be thrown out unseen. Instead of letting them go to trash, Murphy crafted a full song out of the tortured text in those missives.  What’s great about the lyrics of “Penpals” is that for most of the song, as listeners we feel like the band is making fun of the letter writers. There’s the fractured syntax and weird phrasing and since this is the early 1990s we’re thinking how ironic and funny it all is. The joke’s on us, though, when Murphy gets to the final lines of the song, delivering an answer to those kids in Algeria and Norway and France: “You’re so cool but you know that. I hope your letters never stop. You are truly special, I like you, I like you!” It’s an amazingly disarming, revelatory moment of pure “I’m OK, You’re OK” sentiment, something that particular decade could’ve used a bit more of. (The galloping pace of “Penpals” should also be noted. Perhaps it’s the maracas on the studio cut that do it, but in a decade where a whole lot of drumming sounds turgid and wooden and slow, “Penpals” manages to skip along briskly.) The band figured all along that “Penpals” would be the hit single, and it’s a signifier to just how checked out of things Geffen was that they didn’t see it that way. This is the hit single from Twice Removed that never was.

The next song up is “I Hate My Generation”, which is significant for a few reasons. First of all, it’s a song written and sung by rhythm guitarist Jay Ferguson. Secondly, it’s the song that Geffen decided to list as the “emphasis track” on the piddling promotional material they bothered to send out. It isn't as glorious as “Penpals”, but it’s a neat track in its own right, with the us-against-the-world chorus of two misfit buddies who have in common nothing but playing the guitar...which is enough.

The third track in on the album keeps the string of amazing songs going. “People Of The Sky” is also significant because it was written and sung by drummer Andrew Scott. While his Dylan-inspired run-on verse lyrics tend to the oblique, the “Ba-ba-bada BAAAAH” chorus is so instantly winning that the song became an immediate fan favorite. (When the group would play it live, everyone in the band switched instruments, usually with Chris Murphy ending up on drums and Scott front and center on guitar.) 

The next two tracks are back to being Chris Murphy songs. “Coax Me” builds off a minor-key melody into a winning chorus, while also featuring one of the greatest lyric kiss-offs of all time, when he admits that he thinks industrial dance band Consolidated is OK, but “It’s not the band I hate, it’s their fans.” “Coax Me” is also notable for being the closest that Twice Removed got to a hit single. While Geffen in the States had pulled the plug on promoting the record from the outset, the group’s Canadian distributor, MCA-Canada scraped together some funds to cut videos for this song and “People of the Sky”, and both videos saw mild airplay on Canada’s version of MTV, Much Music.

The other Chris Murphy song in this duo, the one that follows “Coax Me” is one of the great unheralded album tracks of the decade. It’s a song about unrequited love, separation, jealousy, anger, and longing called “Bells On”. It’s one of those songs with perversely detailed lyrics that feel so personal they become universal. The song builds through layers of loss and resignation to a shattering final verse. The details here are so closely drawn that anyone who’s been through a crashing relationship will recognize them. “Bells On” is one of those songs where you feel like you’re the only one who loves it, and then you find out that everyone you know thinks they’re the only one who loves it. It’s one of the tentpole songs for the album.

The one songwriter in the band absent from Twice Removed so far shows up on the next two tracks. Patrick Pentland’s contributions to Twice Removed are uncharacteristically low-key efforts, with one exception. “Loosens” is the first track of his that comes in, with it’s restrained, almost delicate and stately melody that feels fragile as a snowflake. Pentland--ever the metal guy--shakes free of those constraints with his next effort though, the stirring “Worried Now”. 

“Worried” is an important song for Sloan in a lot of ways. First and foremost, it reveals Patrick Pentland as a formidable singer and songwriter in the band. His clear, earnest vocals are the perfect matchup to Chris Murphy’s, and throughout the record the two wield the perfect harmonies they first demonstrated on “Underwhelmed”. The other thing about “Worried Now” is that its anthemic chorus sums up the uncertain times of Twice Removed perfectly: “Remember the times you told me not to worry? I’m worried now.” The song also reveals that Pentland possesses a unique ability to write massive melodic hooks that sound like instant classic rock anthems--something that would later serve Sloan incredibly well.

The last section of the album is mostly built around Chris Murphy’s songs. At the point of Twice Removed in the group’s brief history, he’s clearly the most confident of the group’s songwriters. “Shame Shame” is more betrayal and bewilderment. “Deeper Than Beauty” is a return to the lighthearted university girls and guys themes of “Underwhelmed”. A live favorite, “Deeper” features only guitar and drums, with Murphy giving free reign to his clever poetry about a girl who when she takes off her glasses (“Her hideous glasses”) makes him want to skip his classes. “Deeper Than Beauty” exists as one of the last smiles to be had here.

The album closes not with bleak songs, but rather with quiet melancholy. Jay Ferguson’s second offering of nostalgia and love lost, “Snowsuit Sound” (She’s the “sizzle teen” who’s older than Ferguson; he's the dork with braces who walks around in winter making that snowsuit sound. Ouch. Been there.) Murphy follows that with the most difficult song on the record, the seven-minute building swirl of “Before I Do”. It’s another dark song, one that builds and builds to a crescendo of noise. For all their catchy smarts elsewhere, here the band reveal they can still bring a lease-breaking racket. It’s many layers reward repeat listens. The album closes with Pentland’s “I Can Feel It”, a duet he sings with his ex-girlfriend Jennifer Pierce who was in another Halifax band called Jale. “Feel It” is a mostly acoustic song about--like other songs on the record--failed love, recriminations, and betrayal.

And so that’s that. As mentioned earlier, when the van gave up the ghost and required the remaining tour budget to fix, Sloan cancelled remaining Stateside gigs and returned home. After playing some live show commitments in Canada they called it quits. The guys agreed to play a few more shows they’d previously agreed to honor a commitment for MCA-Canada, but then that was it. 

Chris Murphy and Jay Ferguson found themselves both working for a friend’s independent label, murderrecords. That label was curious: were there any stray tracks lying around from previous Sloan sessions? It would really help the fledgling label out if they could put out something by Sloan, even if the band was no more. The guys had already agreed to form up one more time to play an official set of farewell shows around Toronto in the summer of 1995. Sometime in all that, the idea of putting together a few tracks for murderrecords was mentioned. Maybe the guys played some songs they’d  written in the past year for each other, too. Maybe Jay Ferguson played “The Lines You Amend” for the group. If Patrick Pentland played “The Good In Everyone” for them, that likely sealed the deal. The group agreed to record those songs. They found themselves with a record label again (about their American deals, the best left unsaid, the better). The little record was actually picked up for major label distribution by EMI, and yielded three massive Canadian hits and went platinum, making Sloan superstars north of the border. The band decided they could get along with one another after all.

Thus, the story has a happy ending, something you rarely get in rock music. I know of few nicer people in rock and roll than the four fellows in Sloan.  They survived their worst year, a year that would have ended the careers of 99% of their peers. The awful experiences that resulted in them recording an all-timer of a record seemed to galvanize them both as a band and as genuinely nice human beings. I also know of no other band with their career arc. The four band members have remained in the group together since 1991--still going strong after 24 years. Throughout Canada, and even in the US and Europe, they've managed to sell enough records to at least be comfortable working musicians. Over the years, the songwriting contributions of all four members has blossomed, with the group importantly providing a songwriting credit of “Sloan” on all releases, something that no doubt has helped keep them an agreeable going concern. (That the rest of the band ended up relocating to Toronto also worked in their favor.) In fact, on their latest double album, Commonwealth, opened in the US Billboard charts in the top ten “Heatseekers” category and appears on many critics' best-of year end lists.

Sloan, in fact, have made a number of tremendous records. If you've decided they might be your thing, I envy you your joy of discovery for the ‘60s influence of One Chord To Another, or the swaggering 70s glam rock stylings of Navy Blues or the Abbey Road experimentation of Never Hear The End Of It. They exist now as one of the world’s most enduring and excellent rock bands, something that probably would've sounded crazy to the lads sitting inside that blown out Winnebago in Iowa in 1994.

Monday, February 23, 2015

The Musiquarium (Sloan: part one)

I am entirely delighted to present a new episode of "The Musiquarium", written by Chris Hornbostel. This time, he discusses one of the greatest bands you've never heard: Sloan.
**
It is October of 1994. Somewhere in the middle of Iowa at midnight, an old Winnebago is broken down on the side of a lonely state highway, engine still wafting oily smoke tendrils. It belongs to a Canadian band called Sloan. They’re a four-piece band, crammed in this camper van along with a sound guy and a buddy who works their merchandise table for a tour of the States that couldn't be going much worse. A few hours earlier, the sound guy accidentally filled both empty gas tanks in the van with diesel fuel instead of regular gas, effectively destroying the engine and leaving them stranded in the middle of nowhere.

Half the band have gone for help, the other half huddle inside, chugging a bottle of Jack Daniels. Things are bleak, and this breakdown is the culmination of a very bad year. What began as a real shot at the brass ring (they were signed to a lucrative contract with Geffen after playing only 11 live gigs) has turned into a death spiral for the group. They've just put out their second record, but their label hated it and has refused to promote it. The most popular newspaper in Canada issues a snidely terse dismissal of that record in a virulent, zero-star appraisal. They assume that being dumped from their contract at this point is an inevitable formality. And so here they are in the States, playing shows in front of perhaps a dozen indifferent audience members at a time, no CDs in stores, no airplay on radio. The van keeps breaking down. The band is riven by internal dissension, feuding, and feelings of betrayal. There’s a feeling in the back of everyone’s mind that this ill-fated “tour” needs to end so everyone can get home and the band can officially break up and they can all get on with their lives. Six weeks later, sitting in a conference call, that breakup happens with the band not so amicably calling it quits.

End of story.

Except it is isn't, not even remotely.

This is the story of that terrible record that Sloan put out in 1994, the one that got made despite bitter feelings in the band, and made working with a temperamental producer who seemed at best indifferent to what the group was interested in doing. It’s the story of a record that the group’s label, Geffen, wanted to refuse to issue. They eventually did put it out under duress, mostly because the band’s manager called in a contractual clause. Even so, the label swore they’d not spend a penny promoting it. The name of that terrible record was Twice Removed.

Before we jump into that story, though, let’s flash forward 2 years. It’s 1996. Chart Magazine--the Canadian equivalent of Billboard--has just run a poll to name the 10 best Canadian rock and roll albums of all time. As you can imagine, Neil Young figures prominently--Harvest is number two in the poll, with After The Goldrush also in the top five. Joni Mitchell’s landmark album Blue is number three. The Band is in the top ten of course.

And there, at number one in the 1996 poll, sits Twice Removed, by Sloan. The little album that couldn't, written during interpersonal band turmoil and recorded under miserable circumstances--yeah, that record. A few years later, Chart ran the same poll, and Mr. Young reclaimed the top spot….but there’s Twice Removed at number two, just the same. A couple of years after that, Sloan found their way back in at number one. This, then, isn't just the story of a band at the far end of its own rope making a troublesome sophomore effort. It’s also the story of one of the best rock and roll albums of the 1990s, one which unless you’re Canadian is likely a complete non-entity to you.

The story here starts with Sloan in the late 1980s. A group of school friends--in what was then a musical backwater in Halifax, Nova Scotia-- eventually came together from different musical backgrounds and scenes. Bassist Chris Murphy and guitarist Jay Ferguson were punk and indie rock kids. Guitarist Patrick Pentland was more of a metal guy. Drummer Andrew Scott--a working artist trying to sell his paintings--was into Dylan, as well as more esoteric stuff. They put out a first record called Smeared in 1991.

Listening to Smeared today one comes away with thinking that the album is kind of a mess. It’s their most disjointed record for one thing. The band’s main influences sound like the British noise-rock movement shoegaze, combined with the experimental art-rock of an American group like Sonic Youth. Everything is so loud, though, that you could be forgiven for thinking that this is a grunge record, given the era. The folks at Geffen thought as much, and when they signed Sloan and reissued Smeared in 1993, they figured they’d signed a Canadian version of another Geffen band, Nirvana.

There’s one song on Smeared that deserves note. It is a song called “Underwhelmed” . In it, Chris Murphy spins a clever tale of a faltering university romance with a French-Canadian girl art student who “rolls her r’s, her beautiful r’s.” The song is jammed with hooks and shows off Pentland’s ability to effortlessly harmonize with Murphy’s lead vocals. These were all harbingers of Sloan being a whole lot more than just another faceless early ‘90s grunge group. Of all the songs on Smeared, it is “Underwhelmed” that sounds the most like what the group would evolve into. Newly signed to Geffen, the label promptly sent the band out to tour for what seemed like an endless 10 week span of playing every night. It exhausted the group, who realized together that they were sort of tired of playing the noisy songs off Smeared.

As a band, they decided that they wanted to make a record that maybe didn't sound like so many of their grunge and alt-rock contemporaries. Something with a little more of a timeless sound to it. Something more modulated. It was while they were writing these songs that troubles began. Andrew Scott was recently married, and his wife found herself with a chance to make a career as an actress but needed to move to Toronto for that. For a painter like Scott, that offered far more opportunities than living in the Maritimes, so he was all in.

The rest of the band--particularly Scott’s closest friend in the group, Chris Murphy--felt betrayed. They were JUST getting started. They’d just signed a record contract with a big label...and now one of the guys in the band was moving away? It’s unclear just how deep the animosity ran, but it’s obvious now, looking back, that Scott’s move by itself nearly broke up the band right then, and at the very least caused an undercurrent of mistrust throughout the recording of their second record, Twice Removed.

That record was going to be their first recorded entirely for Geffen, and the record label wanted the band to do it up right. They put forward a huge advance for the record. They enlisted a hot producer, Jim Rondinelli, who’d engineered Matthew Sweet’s breakthrough album Girlfriend. They booked a two month session for the band at Lenny Kravitz’s prestigious Waterfront Studio in New York.

There were recording problems, though. Rondinelli was going through a difficult breakup with a girl and at times seemed distracted to the point of indifference to the recording session (to his credit, Rondinelli pulled together the sessions and did an outstanding mix of the album and it sounds terrific). For their part, the band was bewildered with what to do with two months in a studio with equipment used by Zeppelin and the Stones and REM and Kravitz. They’d recorded Smeared for $1200 in someone’s house in a few days. Murphy--who’d end up writing the majority of the songs for Twice Removed--felt the pressure most acutely. He knew how much money had been staked on the album, and he actually felt guilty about it. What if the record wasn't worth that amount of cash?

When the band finished up their sessions--which could sometimes be tumultuous, given the rift between Scott and the rest of the group--they handed off the mix to their manager, who dutifully presented it to Geffen. That’s when the very real problems began. Geffen eagerly took it in, hopeful to hear their Canadian version of Nirvana. What they heard was something else entirely, because Twice Removed sounds like many things, and none of those things are grunge. The label was nonplussed more than angry at first. What happened to the noisy, loud, fishing province kids who’d recorded Smeared? This sounded like a completely different band.

The band’s manager passed on the bad news to the group. The label wanted to spike the record they’d turned in. The band wasn't angry. Being nice Canadian boys that they were, they felt responsible. They’d been given stacks of cash to make a record and they felt like they’d let the label down. While the band discussed amongst themselves how to make things right (maybe re-record a few songs louder? Grungier?) their manager was back on the phone with Geffen, laying down the law. The record was done. The version the label had was the final version. Geffen said no way. The manager then reminded Geffen of a contractual passage that had been meant to give the group the artistic freedom it craved. That clause required the label to put out whatever the band delivered, no matter what. Fine, said the label’s management. We’ll put it out...but we’re not going to market or promote it at all. Geffen also made it clear: following whatever tour the band wanted to do, there would be a long discussion about whether they were going to continue as part of the label.

Sloan were pretty crushed by this. There was nothing defiant in their stance against the label, and Murphy has since expressed the opinion that what they should’ve done was hopped a plane to California, gotten cozy with the angry record executives, and found out what they wanted the record to sound like. Thankfully (it turns out, in retrospect) none of that happened. What did happen was that desultory tour with the Winnebago and Iowa. The band fared a bit better back in Canada doing some touring, but not much. Twice Removed came out in August of 1994. In December of that same year the band sat down in a conference call with Andrew Scott to try to hash out their future. That call ended with the band breaking up, under the mutual satisfaction of Geffen, who weren’t interested in putting out any future records by the group regardless.

Some strange things started happening, though. A number of publications in America, Canada, and Europe began putting that broken, misfit, ill-fitting record that Sloan recorded into their year-end top ten lists. There’s a reason for that, too. Despite the troubled creation--or perhaps because of it--Twice Removed is a tremendous record. You've never heard it? You like melodic, guitar-based rock and roll? Stop reading this now. Go listen to Twice Removed. Seriously.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, some terrific and special links. First, this is a terrific read: Billie Holiday: Jazz’s Aching Songbird. Next, the link to one of the most memorable televisions programs of the 1950s: The Sound of Jazz CBS 1957. Who was in this show? Count Basie, Billie Holiday, Coleman Hawkins, Thelonious Monk, and that barely scratches the surface (basically, everyone was in this). Then there's an absolutely fascinating bit of history:The Gorgeous Typeface That Drove Men Mad and Sparked a 100-Year Mystery.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is useful: DeathHacks Tech tips for people who are going to die (someday). Next, another video about Whittier, Alaska, which is accessible from the outside world only via tunnel: I Am A Whittier Teacher. Next, and this is quite a story: A rifle named Rosalie. This, though, is an even more incredible story: When a black German woman discovered her grandfather was the Nazi villain of 'Schindler's List'. I can't even begin to do this next video justice with a description (Alabama kid lives in the woods for two years), but it's entirely memorable: Harmony Korine's 'The Legend of Cambo'.

From C. Lee, and this is fascinating: In Japan, Dog Owners Feel Abandoned as Sony Stops Supporting ‘Aibo’.

From Steven Davis, and this is both interesting and odd: Carrot Clarinet. Next, and this is quite amazing: GimBall by Flyability: A collision-tolerant flying robot.

From Skip Key, and this is fantastic: Guerrilla Public Service.

From Sirius, and this is so, so beautiful: Sigiriya. Also, and this is very cool, it's The other side of the moon.

From Steven Kreuch, and these are some remarkable friends: Rambo Day.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is a cautionary tale (among other things): How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life.

From Jeff Fowler, and this is amazing: a video shot for five seconds (in real time) at 1000 frames per second. Here you go: unconditional rebel - siska. Next, and this is awesome: Undercover restorers fix Paris landmark's clock.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

The Petting Stool

This is The Petting Stool:


The Petting Stool has rules, and Gracie knows them.
1. If someone is sitting in The Petting Stool, they are immediately petted.
2. If someone is not sitting in The Petting Stool, they are subject to immediate removal.

This means that anytime Gracie is in my study, mucking around and messing things up (a hobby for all cats), she will sprint to The Petting Stool as soon as I decide to notice her and make General Noises of Dissatisfaction.

Gaming News Bits

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has Early Access impressions of Offworld Trading Company.

Remember the greatness that was Frozen Synapse? Well, the sporting version--Frozen Cortex--launched today, and it looks tremendous. Steam link: Frozen Cortex.

It seems to me that we're in one of the finest gaming eras ever. There is a dizzying number of sensational games from smaller/indie developers. Innovation, excellent design, and good value.

On the big company side, we have a bloated QTE experience like The Order: 1886, released today after endless hype, which is currently pulling an absolutely expected 68 on Metacritic. Ouch.

You can't afford to innovate if you're charging $60 for a game (and a short one, at that).

The entire economic model for $60 games seems to have collapsed. Yes, there are still annual franchises being milked, but new franchises at that price point have essentially vanished.

That's okay, though. Most of those games weren't any damn good, anyway. The small indie games are--in the best cases--being built with so much care and craftmanship that they're a real pleasure to play, and there are so many indie games that if even 5% excel, we have a huge variety to choose from.

Oh, and while I'm mentioning games, don't forget Rebel Galaxy. It's already fantastic, and will only get more so by the time it releases.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Offworld Trading Company

Soren Johnson was kind enough to send me a Steam code for Offworld Trading Company last week, and I've been playing it since then. These impressions are based on 12 hours of play.

It's been 12 very, very good hours.

The game is in Early Access on Steam, but in no way is it in the early stages of development. It's polished and well-balanced and fully playable, with plenty of content.

The premise of Offworld Trading Company is simple. Corporations are engaged in offworld exploration for profit, and they exploit the planet for everything they can extract. The ultimate goal is to buy out the other corporations (via stock purchases) and be the sole presence on the planet.

How do you do make money? By selling resources you've either mined (like silicon) or created (like glass). All of the resources of the game have market prices, and these prices fluctuate over time, based on supply and demand.

When you begin a game, your HQ is at level one, which gives you a limited amount of resource claims. Every time you upgrade your HQ, you get additional claims. You're never going to have as many claims as you want, though, so each one is an exercise in deciding what you need most.

Sounds straightforward, right?

Even more straightforward, there is no combat, which is hugely refreshing.

There are, however, absolutely enormous amounts of sabotage and dirty dealings. Enormous! So what might appear straightforward on the surface is not so straightforward at all. The other corporations are utterly ruthless bastards, and they are hellbent on destroying you.

In addition to all that, there's this word: pressure. To me, this is the defining word for Offworld Trading Company.  Every second, there is decision-making pressure, and I mean this as a compliment to the design, which is rock-solid.

Here's an example of how, from the very first second, there is pressure. When a new round begins, you're on a map with other players, and you can all reveal a small portion of the map every few seconds. This shows you the types and quantities of resources available in that small area.

Theoretically, you could just take your time and eventually reveal 100% of the planet's resources, right? Well, no. You're trying to scout a location for your HQ, and you need to place it as soon as possible, because then you can start mining/producing. Meanwhile, the other corporations are doing the same, so it's a mad dash to find a suitable location and get started. If you want to have a chance of succeeding, you reveal resources until you see just enough for your particular strategy, and then you immediately set up your HQ.

An example: on one map, I revealed a few high deposits of iron, but only a few. Iron is a critical resource, because it's a requirement to produce steel, which is needed for base upgrades and all kinds of buildings. So with only a few iron tiles revealed, I put down my base, hoping that the other corporations would follow suit before any more iron tiles had been revealed.

Then I used almost all of my early claims to monopolize the existing iron tiles.

In the end, there was a huge shortage of iron during the round, prices soared, and when I sold my sizable surpluses, I had enough cash to buy out the other corporations and win the round. It was incredibly satisfying, to find and exploit that situation.

That sounds like an obvious strategy, but only because it's logical, and that's one of the truly delightful aspects of OTC: it makes sense. Do things that should logically work, and they will. The game system is very transparent and easy to understand. That doesn't mean it's easy to master--it's certainly not--but it's definitely transparent.

Something else tremendously satisfying about this game is that it plays like a symphony. There are so many different resources, so many decisions, so much to do (and always at a high pace) that it's possible to reach this incredibly immersed state where data is processed at an unbelievable rate inside your head. The nature of the game requires that kind of focus, and the feeling you get with that level of focus is just fantastic.

Helping process all this data is the interface, which is very, very clean. All the information you need is right in front of you--again, a high level of transparency.

Visually, the game is quite striking. That's very pleasant, and I enjoy the visuals, but even if everything were ass-ugly, this would still be a tremendous game.

My only quibble at this point is that rounds can end with breathtaking speed when other corporations (or, hopefully, you) amass enough cash to buy large amounts of stock quickly. It's so sudden that I miss a more gradual transition into the end game, some time to savor my victory (or stave off my defeat).

That is a very, very small complaint compared to all the positives, though. Offworld Trading Company is a wonderful piece of design, and its transparency is a lesson that all developers could learn from.

Here's the Steam page: Offworld Trading Company.







Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Sunless Sea (12 hours)

I've seen things you people wouldn't believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time... like tears in rain.
Batty, "Blade Runner"

I am Batty, but in a different world, one of Victorian Gothic wonder. I sail the Unterzee with my fearful crew, searching for adventures and incredible tales to share when I return to my beautiful Fallen London.

Sunless Sea is a Cabinet of Curiosities unlike any other.

Fearsome beasts, fanciful tales, a world so strange and fantastic that it compels you to explore it all. This is a world streaked with fear, then terror, then madness, and if you cannot still your pounding heart, you will not survive.

What do you do? You sail the seas. You experience incredible and strange societies. You stay above the law, or perhaps choose to go somewhat beneath it.

Around you, always around you, are words. Beautiful, elegant words. An example:
Sizzling vapours rise from the sea. Time slips, sideways. A coil of rope has stung a stoker, and his fellows beat it to death. We are under the hand of The Iron Republic.

Jules Verne could have created Sunless Sea, and that's high praise, indeed. Indeed, it plays like a Verne novel as game, with an utterly boundless imagination.

I tend to focus on the words, due to my own nature, but the visuals in Sunless Sea are just as striking as the words. Haunting and mysterious, dominated by the cool hues of the sea, they are quite beautiful.

Certainly, this is one of the most creatively vivid game worlds I have ever inhabited, and I recommend it absolutely.

Now, quibbles. They are minor, but they exist.

First, the currency in the game is "echoes", and they can be difficult to come by. I seem to always be struggling to fuel and supply my ship. Partially, this is because of the second quibble, which is that it's difficult to establish where something can be sold. I have various fantastic items, but some can't be sold in the shops of Fallen London, and I have no larger resource in the game to plan where I might sell these items. Because fuel/supplies are so dear, it's not practical to idly sail the seas, stopping at every port to see if they might be interested in some of my more exotic fare.

The third quibble relates to text and its size. The game looks absolutely stunning at 2560x1440, but the text doesn't scale up as much as I'd like (the developers have acknowledged this and are working on it). This is a minor quibble--I can read the stories with no problem, but it would be easier if the text were larger.

Beyond the quibbles, one of the utterly entrancing things about Sunless Sea is how tangible the world feels. It is so fantastic and strange, yet it feels utterly plausible because of its meticulous, detailed creation.

I occasionally play games where it feels like a privilege, and so it is with Sunless Sea. It is a privilege to sail these waters, to explore, to fear, and sometimes to founder. 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Make Better Decisions (Valentine's Day Edition)

An Einstein's clerk. Young.

"So, did you get your lady something special for Valentine's Day?" he asked.

"Um, yes," I said.

"I'm making some bacon roses for my lady," he said. "You cook the bacon in the shape of a rose and then just slide it on the stick."

"Well, that's certainly something," I said.

He leaned over the counter and lowered his voice. "Chicks say they don't like bacon"--he pauses for dramatic effect--"but they do. They totally do."

Good luck with that, sir.

Possibilities

Here's the headline: City officials: E. Austin piñata store OK’d for demolition.

They use a giant bat, right?

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