Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Accord Hybrid

After five days, I have a serious crush on this car.

What I expected to get was a car that was a little nicer than a Prius and less annoying to drive, full of compromises that enable the high MPG (45 highway, 50 city).

This is not what I got. At all.

Instead, I got a car that is positively luxurious, incredibly quiet, and far more impressive than the Lexus ES 300 Hybrid while costing almost $15,000 less. The level of engineering is nothing short of spectacular for a car in the 30k price range.

A couple of pictures:


The color of the car is hematite (dark green), which Gloria said sounded like "hermit-type", and once she said that, this was obviously the only color that would be acceptable.

When I first got the car, it had 4 miles on it and the MPG readout for miles driven was 28. Now it has about 220 miles driven and the MPG is up to 45.1 (the picture was taken last Friday, when it was still going up).

The funnest feature of this car is that it turns driving into a game, essentially. Dashboard readouts give you all kinds of real-time feeedback about your driving style. See the green arcs around the speedometer? They change color based on the economy of your driving style. On the far left, you can see when the car is using power versus when it's charging the battery. Then there are multiple options for the center speedometer display, several of which give you additional driving feedback. So getting the highest MPG you can is a videogame, basically. Who wouldn't like that?

This car also doesn't drive like a hybrid. It drives like a regular, high-end sedan, and the "hybridness" is basically invisible.

I've dreaded driving for years, and now it's actually fun again.

Lexus ES 300, 2001-2013

Lexus ES 300, 12, of Austin, was traded in on April 18.

She was born in 2001. She received no formal education, and entered a service career immediately.

In her twelve years of service, she was considered generally reliable by her driver. Notably quiet, she provided a soothing environment. Unfortunate issues with power door locks, which worsened in recent years, contributed to her decline, as well as reliability issues with her audio system. She had also begun burning oil.

She is survived by her driver.

There will be no funeral arrangements, per her final request.

Monday, April 21, 2014

Gridiron Solitaire 102: Heading toward 1.3

All right, it's been a long haul, but I'm finally getting closer to reaching 1.3. I'm guessing it's another three weeks until it's ready, but man, so many things have changed for the better.

I'm in a phase now where I'm focusing on three main issues:
1. Adding more "big images" to support the new presentation style.
This is Fredrik's focus right now, and as he adds images, I just drop them into the game. The code is set up to add images very easily now, and every time one gets added, the presentation improves.

Plus, one of the testers suggested a while back that I needed to show a huddle of cards pre-play, then animate their move into slot position after the user selected a play button. I liked this idea the first time I heard it, but I didn't do it because of the animation. Even a 1.5 second animation would add almost two minutes to a single game, and it's always (always) a priority to never add anything that slows the game down.

Last week, though, I realized I could do it without any added time at all. There's just going to be a huddle image when the play buttons come up, and as soon as the user selects a play, that image disappears and the cards show in their normal play position. It adds zero time, but it's surprising how much it increases the atmosphere of the game. Fredrik's working on finalizing the huddle image (right now I'm using a placeholder image), and I can't wait to see how it looks.

2. Revising CPU AI in the offseason.
With a more accurate emphasis on special teams and their role in the game, I need to modify how the CPU evaluates their offseason needs. Previously, it was simple. I evaluated whether a team was considered successful or unsuccessful--based on wins--with three tiers: successful, unsuccessful, and "gray". So, for example, 11 wins or above would be considered successful. 4 wins or below would be considered unsuccessful. In-between, it was determined by a weighted dice roll. So if you had 5 wins, you were likely to be considered unsuccessful, but it wasn't a 100% chance.

Successful teams spent their first two points improving their two best run/pass ratings (strong teams retain their strengths). Unsuccessful teams focused on their two worst run/pass ratings (taking a new approach).

That wasn't terrible, but it certainly was limited, and now the CPU needs to place more importance on the Special Teams rating, so I'm going to think about how it should work over the next few days and put a new system in place. I'm guessing that it's probably going to be a two-step process: first, evaluate the team style (run focus, pass focus, offense focus, defend run focus, defend pass focus, defensive focus, overall balanced). Having team styles creates a more logical chain of needs--for example, a team with a defensive focus is not going to spend a bunch of money trying to improve their passing rating, because passing takes less time off the clock. They would instead pursue a ball-control, running offense that would take as much pressure off the defense as possible, and they'd also want their special teams to be as good as possible. That's a more nuanced team strategy than "improve the best two ratings". So each team style is going to have a relatively fixed tier of needs, although I'm going to add probabilities instead of having 100% certainly.

3. Bug fixes.
There are a few rare bugs that aren't gamebreakers, but would fall into the "fit and finish" category. I want to eliminate all of them, so I'm trying to squeeze that into 1.3 as well.

Wait, there's a #4.

4. Difficulty tuning.
This could be a real sticking point, trying to adjust the different difficulty levels in response to the new yardage system and some of the gameplay additions (sacks, kickoffs, revised punt logic). Veteran level is fairly well-tuned, but I need to look at Rookie and Champ and see if I can scale the difficulty appropriately.

A month ago, I thought I was never going to get to this point. The game had been taken apart, I wasn't comfortable with how it was playing, and I was frustrated. Now, though, it's playing well again, the new presentation system is much more dynamic, and I can see the release point being reached.

This has also made me realize that it's important to always be able to see "there" from "here". Big changes are fine, but there always has to be a visible there.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Friday Links! (Supplemental)

Everyone sent in this link: Rare Video Of People Actually Riding Action Park's Infamous Water Slide. Just looking at that slide is mind-blowing! Plus, Chris O. sent in this memory:
I grew up two towns over and spent a lot of time at Action Park. A friend of mine worked there during the summer, and we quickly learned that if you tied a red polo shirt around your waist and had a whistle around your neck, most of the staff would think you were an off-duty lifeguard and you could use the park for free! I worked there during the winter in high school so I could ski for free; it was nothing like the park during the summer though.

From Eric Higgins-Freese, and this may come in handy for some of you: EASY Pinewood Derby Car WINS using Science!!! Also, the same guy who did the Pinewood Derby video did this one: NASA Pumpkin Carving Contest- 2013.

From Michael Gilbert, and this is a tragic story: Remembering the worst ever U.S. industrial accident, 1947: 576 dead at Texas City.

Here's a silly way to end the week, from John Willcocks: 20 Jokes That Only Geeks Will Understand.

Friday Links!

From J.R. Parnell, and these images are just mesmerizing: These 23 Far Away Perspectives Of Famous Places Will Change The Way You See Them Forever.

From C. Lee, and this is disturbing: Samsung's War at Home. Also, and this is both amusing and quite silly: Getting angry with your spouse? Quick, eat something! One more, and it's both brilliant and wacky: How Mathematicians Used A Pump-Action Shotgun to Estimate Pi. This next story will infuriate you: Anti-vaccine movement is giving diseases a 2nd life.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is terrific: Europe in 8 Bits. Also, and who knew the Queen had a sense of humor: Queen Shows Up At Wedding.

From Chris Pencis, and this is one of the most amazing hockey goals you'll ever see: KHL Player Juggles Airborne Puck and Scores Wonder Goal.

From Wallace, and this is bizarrely fascinating: A Communist Haggadah for the Passover Seder.

From Sirius, and this is amazing: Glow-in-the-dark roads make debut in Netherlands.

From Jeff Fowler, and this is outstanding: Classic album covers in Google Street View – in pictures.

From Gridiron Solitaire Artist and Renaissance Man Fredrik Skarstedt comes a beautifully written, gut-wrenching story that we all need to read: On Poverty.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Golf Club (early access)

I saw that The Golf Club was available on Steam Early Access today, so I went ahead and purchased.

The last great golf game, for me, was one of the early Tiger Woods versions by Headgate that still included a course architect. Once the course architect was taken out, though, I rapidly lost interest. So it's been years before a golf game has really hooked me.

The Golf Club is still not finished, but even the Early Access version does a ton of things right. For one, and I can't overemphasize this, the course generator is flat-out amazing. I wanted to play on a mountain course, so I specified degree of hills, trees, water, and difficulty. Then the game generated a prospective layout that I could edit if I wanted to (I didn't). What I wound up with was a beautiful, fun course.

There are also some graphic touches that I've never seen done this well before--in particular, patches of ground that aren't lush, but aren't bare, either. Those sections looked photo-realistic, and some other sections did, too. There are still some issues--flickering shadows, for one, and some pop-in--but overall, it's a tremendous looking game.

I'm also impressed with how the game handles slope and friction. It's very easy to understand and "feel" slopes in the game, particularly on the greens. Friction might even be a tad low, but it's still very, very well done.

Controls are a mixed bag. The mouse and keyboard are not very well implemented, currently, but gamepads work extremely well. I think m+k support has only been recently added, so there should be some improvement.

The one area of the game that feels weak right now is putting, although it's much better with the gamepad than with the mouse. What I don't like is that the putter is drawn back further than you would in real life, which screws me up. The way that greens break, though, is excellent.

Oh, and one more thing that could use improvement: sound effects. The sound of the ball landing on the fairway sounds like someone dropping a golf ball on a board. Not only that, but I guarantee that exact same sound effect has been used in other golf games in the past. I can't remember which one, exactly, but I'm getting somewhere in the Jack Nicklaus era. Hopefully, they'll sort this out, because the sound of the ball landing is a primary sound effect, and the game looks so good that it should sound that good, too.

Overall, I'm impressed, and I think the game has a ton of potential.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Meaning

I read an article a few weeks ago, written by an ex-NHL player, in which he described a meeting he'd been in with other players and some kind of life coach.

He was challenged by the speaker to write down five things that had meaning in his life, and he wasn't allowed to write down hockey, family, or God.

He couldn't think of a single thing to write down. Not one. And most of the other players in the room couldn't think of anything to write down, either.

That made me think about meaning and life, and I talked about it with Eli 12.8 this week. We talked about what his life would be like if he was only involved in hockey instead of hockey, tennis, band, magic, juggling, etc. What would it be like if the meaning of his life was totally dependent on hockey?

It would be hard. It would put a ton of pressure on every moment in hockey, which would make it less fun. And if at some point something happened and he could no longer play hockey, or couldn't progress to the next level, what would he replace hockey with?

Life without meaning, without some kind of inspiration, is empty. Caring creates energy. It's much harder not to care.

I thought about my own life, and realized how fortunate I am that I write this every week (some weeks better than others, obviously), and to get to know so many of you via e-mail over the years. And in retrospect, I was fortunate to get into programming, which is a relatively natural fit for how my brain words (and doesn't work). I want to help Eli grow into being an honest, kind adult, but I have to grow, too. He's helped me as much as I've helped him--I'm a much, much different person than I was before he was born--but I have to keep developing my own life.

I want him to be strong, and fearless. And I have to be strong enough to help him.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Service!

Eli 12.8 played in his school's conference tournament last weekend.

Hockey has taken up most of his time, but once the season ended, we started playing tennis again. And he's very good--he has a big, powerful game, and he has an all-court game, too. He hits approach shots and volleys like a high school player.

I thought he had a good chance in the tournament, but he'd never played in one before, and starting out in the conference championships is a steep introduction.

He was in a 32-player draw, but had a bye in the first round, and his opponent in the round of 16 defaulted due to injury. So he had an express train to the quarterfinals, which started on Saturday morning.

He had ideal conditions for his first tournament: 20 MPH winds with 30+ gusts. And it was cold. I needed my damn rink jacket, it was so cold. Man, it was tough, and I was just watching. Having to serve in that kind of wind should be illegal.

This isn't going to be a long story, because it was a very straightforward day. He played lousy in the first match, but beat a kid who was worse. Then he played very well in his second match and beat a much better player easily.

He lost in the finals, but to be fair, it was against a 14-year-old who was 6'1" and the point guard on his basketball team (that must be one hell of a basketball team, and seriously, what are these people feeding their kids?).

Eli didn't play as well as he could have, but the winds were terrible, he'd never played multiple matches in the same day, and the other kid put so much topspin on his forehand that every ball was bouncing up to the level of Eli's face. So he didn't win, but he was the only 7th grader who made the semi-finals.

I was very proud of him, because he battled, and he kept his composure even when things were going against him. Plus, and this was very funny, every kid he played was his best friend during the match. He talked to them on changeovers and congratulated them on good shots and they responded in kind. They were the politest matches I've ever seen.

This weekend, he's playing in an open tournament in Georgetown, but he's playing in Boys 12 division (in the USTA, you can play in an age group until your birthday). So unlike last weekend, he'll probably be the tallest kid in his division. These kids are going to be much better than the kids he played in the school tournament, though. All of the other kids in his draw play on the junior circuit.

I told him he just needs to do his best, and if there's a gap between him and the other kids, we'll figure out how to close it.

He always closes the gap.

Communication

My dentist's office is an annoying happy place, the kind of happiness given off by brightly-colored plastic patio furniture. I went in this morning for a regular check-up, and while I was there, I sent this text to Gloria:
People are trying to jam happiness up my ass every second I'm here. It's an enema from My Little Pony.


Dagger

John Walker of RPS wrote a biting, witty review of Jane Jensen's new game Moebius: Empire Rising. It's much better than the game, certainly, and entirely worth your time: Wot I Think: Moebius

Eli 12.8

Eli was watching a cooking contest show on the Food Network last night, and one of the contestants served a dish that was a monotone of color. "That dish is a BEIGE FIESTA!" he said.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Gridiron Solitaire #101: Reflections

One of the qualities in football that I like very much is what I call reflection. Football is composed of very discrete entities (plays), and your team is either on offense, defense, or special teams.

In theory, there's no interaction between a team's offense and its defense. In reality, though, there's a ton of reflection. Everything the offense does, really, has a reflective effect on the defense.

I know--I'm butchering "reflection". I just like how it sounds.

Here's how it works. When a team's offense has a high time of possession, it means that its defense doesn't have to be on the field very often. That's a huge, huge difference in terms of how a game progresses. When a team runs 60 plays on offense, it's an entirely different game than when it runs 40.

That's one consequence of the high-speed offense, and you particularly see this in college because so many teams go no-huddle. It's exciting to see your team score in ninety seconds on an 80-yard drive, but it also means that the other team is going to get many more chances to start drives.

If a team has a run-first, possession dominant offense, there are other reflections. These kinds of offenses are much lower-scoring, generally, so while your defense might be on the field less often, there's much more pressure on them to stop the other team from scoring.

Special teams have their own set of reflections. A great punter can pin the other team deep in their own territory on a regular basis, and teams are much less likely to pass when they're starting inside their own 10-yard line. That gives the defense an advantage. On kickoffs, good coverage can force the opposing team's offense to start from a difficult position.

In a game sense, that's an excellent set of interactions and dependencies from seemingly discrete entities.

In the original version, Gridiron Solitaire nicely modeled some of these reflections, particularly time of possession. Since Big Play presses on defense were a limited commodity, controlling time of possession was critical. Because of that, and because run matches were worth 4 yards each, running the ball became the dominant strategy for 75% of players, at least. It certainly was for me.

This wasn't realistic, though.

With the new definition of 3 yards per running match instead of 4, running becomes situational instead of dominant, which correctly models real football strategy. That's good, and it's much more accurate, but I still wanted to more correctly model the influence of special teams.

That's being done in two ways now. First, on kickoffs, both the kick distance and return distances are modeled on real NFL data and are influenced appropriately by special teams ratings. Second, with the new punt code (which I discussed last week), good punters are now a real weapon.

Plus, there's something more.

I was frustrated, trying to model the difficulties an offense faces when pinned deep in their own territory. Garret suggested something (reducing the CPU's offensive efficiency and max gain), and as often happens, his suggestion made me think of something that I would not have previously considered.

In this case, what I thought of was adding Big Play presses for the defense.

Here's how it works. If the punt is downed inside the 10, two BP Presses are added. If it's inside the 15, it's worth one. Those BP presses are very valuable, and in combination with more predictable CPU playcalling in that area of the field, models real life in a fairly satisfactory way.

I've played about a season with this new setup, and with a good special teams rating, I find myself punting from midfield much more often. Plus, there's an added element of interest, because where the ball is downed becomes interesting in itself.

Now I feel like, for the first time, I'm modeling all the different interactions between separate units of a team and the effect they can have on each other.

Generally 1.3 testing is going pretty well. I could see it being released in early May. Right now, I'm working on bug fixes, plus Fredrick is adding as many big images as possible. It's going to be different, but good different.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Friday Links!

From C. Lee, a story about Threes and the staggering number of copies (and why): Meet the Clones.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is tremendous: Carl Sagan and Government (with Charlie Rose). Next, and this is a fantastic read, it's Couple Buy an Abandoned French Chateau, Start a Blog to share their Journey. I think I may have linked this last week, but it's so punishingly interesting that I'm doing it again: If the Moon Were Only 1 Pixel: A Tediously Accurate Scale Model of the Solar System. These next images are nothing short of incredible: the remote and little known rice terraces of yuanyang county in china’s yunnan province.

From Sebastian Mankowski, and this is excellent, plus it can keep you busy all afternoon: Byzantium: The Lost Empire - John Romer.

From Wallace, and these are some terrific concept sketches from none other than Hayao Miyazaki. Also, and Eli 12.8 would love to sample some of these entries: The Grilled Cheese Invitational. One more, and it's the most dinosaur images I've ever seen from one person: Nobu Tamura's Paleoart Portfolio.

From Hadley Belcher, and this is an utterly fascinating article: Megadeath in Mexico: Epidemics followed the Spanish arrival in the New World, but the worst killer may have been a shadowy native—a killer that could still be out there.

From Jeff Fowler, and this is hilarious: Jim Cummings Reads Star Wars as Darth Pooh.

Multiple excellent links from Jonathan Arnold this week. First, it's Photographer Creates Twisted Fairytales With Real Wildlife (bizarre yet compelling). Next, some absolutely wonderful stop-motion video: A Girl Named Elastika. This is astounding, really: Meet the seven people who hold the keys to worldwide internet security.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Madness

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, who is bicycling around the world or something. Maybe more than once.

DISPATCH #01 - EUREKA, MONTANA
APRIL 4TH, 2014

I arrive in Eureka, Montana with six days of stubble and the knowledge that the loudest geese are those flying only as a pair; that freight trains have 114 cars whenever counted; and that hearing wolves howl in the middle of the night is a sound that takes some getting used to. Especially when in a tent.

We've now pedaled 700 miles since leaving Seattle. My wife and I have averaged over 55 miles per day in the saddle, and we've arrived early. Two months too early to be exact. Everywhere we go, from towns of just 79 residents to those much larger (e.g. 507 people), someone has been quick to tell us we're crazy for being out this early. "The bikers don't usually start coming this way until May or June," they say. Some call us premature, others call us nuts. And one, a bearded Montanan in dirty jeans and a fishing hat, told Kristin that she's far more adventurous than himself. That was my favorite.

Pedaling east along the 49th parallel this time of year hasn't been all that bad, though. Sure, we have to spend a few extra minutes in camp each morning brushing the frost off the tent, and we each go to bed with two pairs of heavy wool socks on to ward off minor frostbite (not to mention fleece hat and gloves, and down sweaters), but the days have been bright and sunny, and we've enjoyed some wonderful campsites along the Pend Oreille, Bull, and Kootenai rivers this past week. 

Of course, when people warn against an early spring crossing of the Pacific Northwest, they're thinking of the mountain passes. And for good reason. Though we've already tackled three of the four major mountain passes that stand between Puget Sound and the Great Plains -- Stevens, Wauconda, and Sherman (all in Washington) -- the descents weren't the freewheeling euphoria they are in the summer. Each of the descents took place in full winter conditions: freezing temperatures, sleet ripping at our faces, and slush and occasional ice on the roadway. Still, these are small prices to pay for endless views of white-ringed peaks, solitary camping, and vacant rural highways that, I suspect, teem with traffic in the summer months.

We'll clear the Continental Divide early next week and then begin the long, slow, descent across the Great Plains to Fargo. But first we're going to rest our legs (and our saddle sores) in this little town just seven miles south of the Canadian border.

Keeping the rubber side down,
- Doug Walsh

Also, pictures:

Like he said, maybe a little early in the year for this stuff:


You can follow Doug's trip in far more frequent detail at Two Far Gone.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

SAM Simulator

Red Door Blue Key has one of the most fascinating interviews I've ever read with a game developer. In this case, the developer is "Hpasp" , and his game is SAM Simulator. Here's a description:
There is no more accurate, demanding, or unlikely simulator available today than SAM Simulator, which recreates in exacting detail vintage Warsaw Pact surface-to-air missile systems. 

Oh, yes. More:
He created SAM Simulator in 2006 and has been offering it for free since 2009. Over the years he’s expanded the game with new missile platforms, major features like Google Earth integration, and historical scenarios ranging from Hanoi to Tripoli. If you want to spend an evening trying to bag Gary Powers’ U2 spy plane, defending Vietnamese airspace from B-52 bombers, or cursing the cheap Soviet engineer who saddled your Shilka with analogue gauges and a mechanical “computer,” SAM Simulator is simply the only game in town.

The screenshots display a level of obsession to detail that I have rarely, if ever, seen in a game. They are pitch perfect, incredible reproductions. I don't want to leech off Phil's article, so I'm not showing them here, but hit the "interviews" link up top to have your mind blown.

Do I have time to play this? Hell, no. Do I want to play it? Hell, yes. What an incredible piece of work!


About S.P.A.M. (Special Poem Amidst Mail)

Some of you are asking how I got a poem in my e-mail.

Well, I didn't, exactly.

What I got were hundreds of spam e-mails, because somehow my e-mail filter isn't blocking them before they get to my inbox. They get shunted to the Spam folder properly, but I used to not see them at all.

I get quite a few of them now, and I'll usually take a quick glance if it's one of the "personal story" frauds, because they're the pulp literature of the 21st century. They are often epic stories of betrayal, or derring-do, and I find them quite fantastic.

So yesterday's poem is composed of individual lines from these e-mails, cobbled together into a story. And I might do it again at some point, because it's thoroughly fun.

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