Monday, December 19, 2016

Rogue One

In a shocking turn of events, Kelley and I found ourselves at the movie theater on opening night for the new Star Wars movie. Note that this was only two weeks after getting to watch the amazing film Arrival in the theater, and that somehow the showings weren't sold out.


It was great fun to see all the people dressed up for the movie. There were elaborate costumes for Kylo Ren, storm troopers, Rey, X-wing pilots, and others. It almost made us wish we had a bantha or Jabba the Hutt costume.

We won't spoil anything for you. If you've watched the trailers then you probably know almost everything to expect (though there are a few very good surprises). Kelley liked it better than Force Awakens, and I thought they were about equal (maybe a re-watch of both is in order).

---(Very tiny spoilers follow, for those avoiding any info at all.)---

They did a very good job of tying things in with the first movie, though a few of the callbacks (like the camera zooming in on a pitcher of blue milk) seemed a bit over-emphasized. The returning characters are very faithfully recreated--we had to look up the cast afterward to see which ones were the same actors and which were new. (Embarrassingly, the main one I was wrong about was Darth Vader. Apparently James Earl Jones came back to voice his iconic character, but the intervening four decades have left his voice sounding different, at least to me. I guess it's the same as Elvis losing Elvis-impersonation contests.)
UPDATE: It turns out there was some cutting-edge digital makeup applied to help several of the younger actors embody the familiar characters. More info here (with movie spoilers, so go see it first).

The characters are great, and the new robot is an instant favorite. I particularly liked that they gave each of the people in the ensemble cast a chance to help save the day.

Saturday, December 10, 2016

Bravery in Obduction

One additional note about our play-through of Obduction. In Alicia's review she mentioned the navigation:
"No precise navigation necessary *cough* URU *cough* we are back to the controls that don't let you walk off a cliff."
She's right. There are walls and rivers and cliff edges that keep you on the path, and you don't need to worry about falling into the abyss or walking into a giant deadly spinning gear--the game assumes your character is smart enough not to do something like that, and it doesn't let you go too far in a dangerous direction.

While these barriers are exactly what you would expect from a computer game, Alicia and I commented several times that the character was not acting the way we would if we were actually transported to an alien planet. Specifically, I would feel far less comfortable running at top speed down broken stone steps beside a sheer drop (we did this a lot in one of the worlds). On the other hand, I would have no compunctions about climbing over a boulder or wading a shallow stream in order to reach another path that obviously connects to where I want to go (something our character resolutely refused to consider).

Still, if I were actually there in person, I suspect that I would be less willing to trust the ancient, possibly sabotaged machinery that dots the alien landscape. I also wouldn't be confident that the puzzles were solvable. I guess I'm glad that I can make a computer character do the running and teleporting for me, even if I wish they had rock climbing experience.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Have You Been Obducted?

Alicia and I beat the game Obduction on Wednesday, and had a ton of fun doing it.

Short version:
Obduction is a puzzle game in an alien landscape. It turns out Alicia is better at finding clues than I am, which works out fine because I like solving puzzles using less information. On the flip side, when the puzzles get tedious Alicia is happy to let someone else do the “click until your hand goes away” part. And as fun as the game is by itself, it was especially fun to do it together.

Long version:
As you may remember, the creators of Myst and Riven used Kickstarter to fund development of a new game. You can imagine that I was excited, having loved that series and played each game at least twice.

So, I backed the kickstarter project and had fun searching for clues in a mini treasure hunt, using codes from their kickstarter videos to find a chain of webpages with a countdown clock and hints about the game’s premise. Then I got to sit back and anticipate it for two years while they actually made the game.

With each title the company has released, Cyan has tried hard to push the boundaries of computer graphics and of game design. Myst was revolutionary and not only remained the top selling computer game for 17 years, but also helped to make CD drives a common feature of home computers. Riven was a huge step forward in graphics. (Back when Cyan Worlds was preparing to release Riven, some of the developers came to Albuquerque to give a presentation, and Dad and I got to attend to learn about their exciting new techniques in computer graphics. When the game came out we were all impressed with the beautiful realism of the scenery.) Myst V used a free-roam rather than point-and-click interface. URU did as well, and attempted to create a social and interactive experience where you could collaborate with other players to solve puzzles online. That part fell short of their vision, since the audience wasn’t large enough to support it financially, but fan-hosted servers still keep the game running and a small and welcoming community is regularly online.

Enter Obduction:

The company decided to push at the graphics again, to create an immersive world that could be experienced in virtual reality. However, since you can now move and look anywhere you want, (as compared to Riven’s point and click movement, the graphics can no longer be pre-rendered on a supercomputer. Now your home computer needs to do all of the calculations to figure out what you see. That means that to experience the fancy, high-end graphics of Obduction, you need a fancy, high-end computer yourself. 

When the game was released, my laptop couldn’t even open it. While neither Alicia’s laptop nor the new one I bought on Black Friday meet the minimum specs for the game (it calls for a dedicated graphics card), they are able to run it if we use the lowest graphics settings. Which is to say that I can’t comment on the newfangled boundary-pushing graphics and VR experience, only on the puzzles and story of the game itself. Fortunately, those are the pieces that I love and that Cyan does well. On those fronts, Obduction delivers.

“Obduction” is a term from plate tectonics, describing one plate going on top of another one, and the game certainly involves things being covered or hidden. The name also clearly borrows from “abduction” of the Roswell variety, since the opening scene involves you getting teleported away from earth by a glowing space pinecone.

As with past Cyan games, Obduction features imaginative locations to explore, lots of locked doors to open, and puzzles that are largely integrated into the landscape. That last point makes the puzzles feel less arbitrary, and one strength of Obduction is that the story gives a reason for all of the barriers that stand in your way. 

As a whole, Obduction is easier than Riven, but pretty similar difficulty to the later Myst entries (possibly easier if you use all of the in-game clues). This brings us to my favorite part of the game: the new number system. In Riven, the game taught you a base 5 number system that you had to use in several puzzles throughout the Myst franchise. 

In Obduction there is a new numbering system, and understanding it allows you to input the correct patterns on panels like these. 

Easily my favorite puzzle in Obduction, I spent nearly an hour playing with the panels and figuring out how everything worked together. It was supremely satisfying. 

Using our new understanding of the number system, we solved almost the entire game and returned to the original world, where there were still two areas we hadn’t managed to access yet. For one, Alicia found a door I hadn’t seen behind a rock. For the other, we had this conversation:

Chris: “Okay, we need to figure out how to get down behind the gas station.”
Alicia: “Did you try going down that elevator?”
Chris: “Yeah, I thought it looked a bit like an elevator, but I didn’t see any way to make it move.”
Alicia: “Did you try pushing that big button?”
Chris: “What button?”

As you can see, it was a pretty inconspicuous button:


Apparently, that area is one of the first you are supposed to get to, prior to traveling to any of the other worlds. But, though I’m embarrassed to have missed such an obvious thing, I’m glad I did. Once we rode down the elevator we found a sheet of paper explaining exactly how the alien number system worked, next to a machine for interconverting between their system and ours. When they hand you the solution like that, what’s the fun of solving a puzzle?

Regardless, I think Alicia and I make a pretty good team. Together we solved the whole game in either 16 or 30 hours of play time, depending on how you measure. The game was running on our computers for 30 hours, but only 16 of that was spent actually wandering the landscape and fiddling with switches. Specifically, that excludes the time we spent waiting for the game to load as you move between areas or teleport between worlds. On a better computer that time should be reduced dramatically, but for our non-gaming laptops there was apparently a lot to think about.

Usually that loading period wasn’t too much of a drag, because you can take a quick sandwich break and then come back to a new world to explore. But there is a series of puzzles called The Gauntlet that requires a minimum of 11 round-trip teleports between worlds, and that assumes you know your goal and take the most efficient route. When we did it the first time we took almost 40 (I got us off to a particularly bad start). So if you have the option to play Obduction on a machine that won’t choke on the graphics, you will likely enjoy a much more streamlined experience. As an added benefit, you will probably also get to see some of the higher resolution graphics that Cyan put so much work into.


In general, Obduction has fewer codes to solve and more paths to connect. At two separate points in the game I found myself amazed that the designers had managed to pack so much into an apparently small space, and the thrill of opening a door into a whole new set of subterranean tunnels reminded me of discovering the many interconnected walkways on Rhem. The tradeoff is that when you use that type of puzzle, it means a lot of walking. You unlock a door, push a button, then have to backtrack to the other side of the level to find an elevator that is now in the right place. Obduction sidesteps some of this by adding more shortcuts as you solve more puzzles, but finding an efficient route still requires you know where you want to go and what the next step will be. When Alicia and I were in the exploration phase of the game, we made multiple long walks through a world (or two) to get to the piece that was now in position.

For comparison, when I replayed the game and tried to be a little more efficient with loading screens and walking (and no longer needed to explore), I finished in a leisurely 5 hours (2 hours actual play time).

Final verdict: You should give Obduction a try. I am glad Cyan made another game, and I hope they continue to produce such excellent, puzzling worlds, though I wish you didn’t need a high-end gaming rig to take advantage of what they have done. I am glad that I got to play it with Alicia, and I hope we can find another puzzle with prominent buttons to ignore.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

More words

Today's sticky word was vituperative. Having looked it up again, it's a pretty easy guess what context I must have pulled it from.
Despite recalling the definition, this one remains stuck. (It is kind of fun to say, isn't it!)

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Election 2016

Discouraged, disgusted, dumbstruck, disappointed. That is not the way I expected to feel upon learning that yes, it is true that anyone can become president of the United States.



As I decompress after a five hour fixation on electoral results, I'm coming away with an odd jumble of encouraging and depressing thoughts. Hopefully writing them out here will help me figure out where I think we can and should go from here.


Note: I'm writing this mostly for myself. If you are as fed up with the election season as I am, the last thing you want is another opinion blog about the state of the union. 



I think nearly everyone in the country, regardless of their opinions on the candidates, has been sickened by the hateful, polarizing rhetoric of this campaign. I don't have much hope for that to change soon, but I am reminded that this mudslinging is neither new nor worsening. Ever since George Washington stepped down, candidates have appealed to the worst instincts and prejudices of their constituencies, and this year is by no means the most egregious. Those of us who were shocked by the vitriol have fallen into the trap of thinking ourselves more enlightened than our forebears. People are pretty much the same everywhere and everywhen, and we are fortunate to live in a system where some of our worst tendencies are tempered by institutional checks and balances, and (sometimes) by open communication.



I suspect that a majority of votes this year were cast not for a candidate but rather against their opponent. Personally, I consider myself a right-leaning moderate, and I was deeply disturbed by almost everything that now-president-elect Mr Trump said and did throughout this campaign. My vote is best characterized as against Trump rather than for Clinton, and I can understand much of the opposition to Clinton's candidacy. However, weighing my options based on how much damage they would do to the country and the world seemed to make it an easy decision, and I am unhappily surprised that so many people in our country came to the opposite conclusion. I think this election result is a disaster, and I only hope the next few years show it be a small one.


(Still, if it came down to it, Trump would have gotten my vote over Giant Meteor, so I guess I don't see this result as entirely apocalyptic. I recently read a book about meteors hitting Earth, and those are really bad news.)


Wholly aside from whatever policies the new administration enacts, I think that Trump's election alone has harmed the things I value about America. For instance, the mere fact of his candidacy has helped to destroy the image of Western democracy in the eyes of the world. My main worry coming into the election had been that the racist, misogynist, and xenophobic voices in America would feel legitimized by a win (or even just a solid showing) by Trump, who has expressed those views time and again. Those voices are rightly condemned and vilified in the media, and should be actively opposed in the interest of peace, understanding, tolerance, etc. And now those voices can look to President Trump for strength and coalescence.


But you know what? I think most of those racist, misogynist, and xenophobic people already felt legitimized. And regardless of whether Clinton or Trump won the electoral college, the country would still be the same divided place, with about 50% of voters backing each of them. Maybe the best thing to come out of Donald Trump's win is that it makes it impossible to ignore the supporters who put him in office. Maybe it is a wake-up call to the country that these pernicious attitudes are persistent, popular, and powerful, and they need to be addressed. Perhaps analogous to the way that recent police violence led to more open discussion about the racial divide. I hesitate to make that comparison, but I'll leave the idea here. How we go about healing the hatred is something to which I hope many people give serious thought.


One tangent, here at the end: there was quite a bit of discussion about the media's supposed liberal bias. While some think it doesn't exist at all, I believe that
1) it is real
2) it is less dramatic than some (e.g. our new president) would have you think
3) in an abstract sense, it is a good thing!
Yes, despite having a conservative bent myself, I think that a liberal media is a sign of healthy democracy. Defined along a single spectrum, conservative means resistant to change, while liberal means upsetting the status quo. Whatever that status quo is, the people or party in power would like to preserve it. No matter how they start, over time the incumbents will necessarily become the new conservatives. Thus, in the long run a media that biases toward liberal reveals that it is independent of the government. A free press is one of the foundational necessities for a functional democracy, allowing for transparent inspection of the officials and institutions that administer justice. Without that, the government ceases to be accountable to the people. So, though there are things you or I may dislike about liberal bias in the media, or its effects, the fact that the bias exists is a hopeful sign that our way of governing is in fact working as intended.


NOTE: As usual, comments on this blog are moderated.

Monday, September 5, 2016

Partially Plumbed

In chemistry you often heat reactions but don't want any of the liquid to boil away. The solution is to use a condenser on top of your flask-full-of-science. A condenser, like the one pictured here, is simply a double-walled glass tube. You run cold water through the outer portion, which cools any vapor on the inner portion enough that it condenses to liquid again and falls back into the flask. 
* Image of Allihn condenser from glassagencies.com

The slightly warmer water then runs into a sink and down the drain. From there, it tends to become the concern of your municipal waterworks. 

Unless, of course, the pipe draining your sink simply runs 40 feet through the wall and fails to connect to anything resembling regular plumbing.

In that case, it will fill up the pipe until either the purple laboratory glove shoved into the open end bursts a leak, or until the duct tape holding it in place gives up the fight.

Which, naturally, explains why a lab-mate and I discovered a quarter inch of standing water in one of our rooms just before 5pm on Friday. 

Sunday, September 4, 2016

Walden 2.0

On our Labor Day weekend we visited Walden Pond. Thoreau met us outside his cabin to show us how much simpler things are now that he can simply write his blog using his smartphone. 



We even got to take this selfie together!



Sunday, August 28, 2016

Just (can't be) Right

There are some things we've been told enough times that we just accept them as truth. But some of them clearly don't add up, and now that I'm noticing the discrepancies, it is hard to know which parts of our received wisdom can really be trusted. I'm talking, of course, about the story of Goldilocks and the three bears.

The glaring problem is the porridge temperature. You know the story: the Bear family serves porridge into bowls and goes for a walk while waiting for it to cool. Goldilocks arrives on the scene, sees the three bowls set out on the table,  and promptly samples each one. Big bowl: too hot. Medium bowl: too cold. Small bowl: just right. 
Wait, WHAT!? 
It is the same porridge, in the same room, on the same table. How did Mama Bear's porridge cool off more than Baby Bear's? All three servings started at the same temperature, and judging both by experience and by the laws of thermodynamics the smaller portion should cool off faster than the larger one. Unless Mama Bear keeps her cast iron bowl in the ice box between meals, we've been lied to. It was Mama Bear's porridge that should have been just right!

No doubt you are now imagining some (unlikely and unsatisfying) explanations that could potentially account for the reported temperatures. But before we get sidetracked into a discussion of bowl shape or fireplace proximity, let's consider the other suspect elements in the story. The Bears return home, discover the eaten porridge, and proceed to the sitting room where Papa Bear and Mama Bear both comment on the mussed cushions or other small indications that someone has been sitting, however briefly, in these well-used chairs. Can't you hear Baby Bear's incredulity when he ventures to mention that someone has broken his chair to pieces, right there on the floor! How did Mama and Papa not notice that first?

The same scene basically repeats itself upstairs. Despite the fact that it should be clear to both of the adults that they are dealing with some form of home invasion, they studiously avoid noticing the actual person sleeping in their child's bed, instead drawing attention to how their own blankets have been disturbed. How wrong is that?!

I'm sure that you can see the conclusion we must draw. Either these parents are self-centered to the point of total neglect for their child's safety and well-being, or the whole situation was purposefully staged. Recall that neither parent moves to question Goldilocks or stop her from departing. 

What kind of parents would pull a stunt like that? Apparently they hired Goldilocks to teach Baby Bear some sort of life lesson. Fear of strangers? Importance of locking doors and protecting personal property? Don't go on walks? I don't know what they told Baby Bear afterward, but I am disinclined to trust any moral derived from such a manipulative experience. 

Papa Bear's story is too contrived. Mama Bear's story is too worrying. Baby Bear's story is just not right.


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Recursive

The experience of getting a song stuck in your head is somehow universal. A casual association reminds you of the beat or the melody or the lyrics and before you can say "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious" the song had taken up residence and you will be living with it for the next two or three eternities. The squatter in your brain can range from benign to maddening. Occasionally they will leave their own, but usually they have to be forcibly evicted by (per the usual method) trying to invite a more tenacious guest supplant them. The most disconcerting for me is when someone around me starts singing along, in sync with the song my head. Then I know that the invading troops have suborned my vocal cords and are launching a sotto vocce invasion of the world around me.

But the point is that it isn't only songs that get stuck on mental flypaper. While earworms are the most common, I've discovered that many people experience the equivalent with their own unique mental constructs. For one of my sisters, it is typing sequences on a keyboard. One of my friends has numbers follow him around. In my case it is words.

Words that get stuck and repeat themselves in my mind for hours or days at a time are necessarily interesting. (Or at least, I only ever notice one that is uncommon.) The ones that stay the longest are those whose meaning or usage have somehow escaped me. The less I know about the word, the more insistently it presents itself, as though it is confident that this time, there must surely be a way to apply it to the situation. In these cases looking up the definition is often enough to start the eviction process.

Anyway, here are some examples of my recent thought-guests. I will post more as they come up, with far less of an introduction.
  • Hirsute
  • Inveigle
  • Anodyne
  • Philately
EDIT: It looks like I've mentioned this in passing before.