Trouble Thinking

October 29, 2010

Comics are Boss: Brit’s Bent Franklin

Filed under: Comics — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 6:13 pm

The second trade paperback of “Brit”, a comic about an invulnerable English super-spy person, has a bit with a different spy named “Bent Franklin” that I thought was pretty cool.

It’s a little non-sequitur heavy, but at the same time “Bucked by a finsoup rocketeer!” Is an amazing expression that I challenge you to find in another medium.


































Once he lands, he is beset by a still deadlier foe:



















































Comics Are Boss.

October 26, 2010

Television: Teacher, Mother…Secret Lover

Filed under: Movies, TV — Mrs. Orange @ 3:45 pm

I’ve always considered myself supremely inept at learning different languages. Five years of French, and all I really came away with is “voulez-vous coucher avec moi ce soir?” (and so far, no takers), but I now realize that I have been looking at my incompetence the wrong way: in fact, I am quite fluent in another language—the language of pop culture.

Pop culture really must be its own language, or at the very least, it’s own code; we apply them to certain situations depending on who we’re talking to, and thus assign them meaning based on context. Now having majored in Linguistics, I’m well aware that no one gives a damn about what I have to say about language, but I’m just going to throw one term out there: code-switching. You know when bilingual people will use both languages seamlessly in the same sentence? Yeah, it’s like that.

In the past, I have often half-jokingly lamented that everything I say is just an amalgam of television and movie references, but now I believe that excessive referencing is a viable means of expression. We all have a cache of quotes, be they from television, movies, songs, or books, which we use to communicate with our peers. There are some that have even entered into the collective subconscious (“Luke, I am your father” anyone?), but quoting tends to be more personal and obscure than that. Quoting marks you as a member of a group or serves as a means of reaching out to a new one—I know I’m at a family reunion when Seinfeld lines are thrown around more than original thoughts, and several friendships have been strengthened with a well-placed Arrested Development quote-off.

So you can look at quotations the same way you look at idioms; they are really only understandable to people who speak the “language.” If you try to look at them literally, you are bound to end up in a world of confusion and hyperbolic sadness. When we code-switch between English (or whatever) and pop culture, we are simply looking for other people that understand both codes and are therefore able to fully appreciate the entire meaning of our utterance. If they don’t, it’s akin to using a big word that no one around you knows the meaning of—people are confused and you look like kind of a douche. And—most of the time—we want to avoid that.

We remember lines of the things we enjoy because we enjoyed the experience of watching it, and we quote things we enjoy to see if people have shared that experience. If you quote The Big Lebowski, for example, to a group of strangers, and someone responds to you with, “The Dude abides,” then you know that at some point in each of your histories, you spent two hours the exact same way. You instantly have a shared history and culture. And isn’t that what language is all about?

October 24, 2010

Superheroes walk among us, Vol. I

Filed under: Uncategorized — SrMeowMeow @ 11:28 pm

In some video game I’m sure there’s a character with a gun instead of a hand. Like in Grindhouse, except it’s a leg I think, and that’s a movie, not a video game. Maybe Barret from Final Fantasy? Honestly, I don’t know. Is that even how you spell his name? In Advent Children this one guy had a sword that was a gun. And it’s a movie about a game.

Whatever. I’m wasting my time trying to pander to the video game crowd when, more importantly: baseball.

I am an Orioles fan. We don’t have a lot to legitimately cheer about, so for now we take pride in the little things. Like, for example…

Nick Markakis literally has a gun at the end of his left arm instead of a hand.

In baseball, saying a player “has a gun” means they have a strong and accurate throwing arm. Markakis, the stoic young Greek right fielder and my second-favorite Oriole, actually has a gun. Somewhere in the nanoseconds after fielding a ball, he releases a projectile towards the intended target at absurd velocities. He is always accurate and often fatal.

Watch! (But don’t look directly at him, or you’ll go blind)

Teams don’t run on Nick Markakis anymore.

Obviously, he doesn’t actually have a gun. Yes, I said literally earlier. Deal with it, grammar snobs. No baseball player actually has a gun…except for Luke Scott, who fells and quarters giant oaks in the offseason to stay in shape and is my number one favorite Oriole, and who carries a concealed firearm for personal protection.

This is the unconcealed model

October 22, 2010

Super Crate Box!

Filed under: Game News — Tags: , , — Durandal @ 8:27 pm

Super Crate Box is a game, and it is a pretty dang good game. It is also free.

It is quick, simple, and fun. What you do is you get crates. The more you crate, the more you score. In these crates, crazy weapons are there. So you take these crazy weapons and you kill kill kill the monsters that are constantly dropping from the ceiling to prevent them from hitting the fire because fire only makes them stronger. While gathering more crates for a higher score. Because each crate gives you a new weapon at random, replacing your previous one, you end up crazy switching between them and dashing about and man is it fun.

You should give it a look, people. You should look so hard you actually download it spontaneously.

October 20, 2010


Filed under: Game News — Tags: , , , , , , — Durandal @ 4:29 pm

Generally, video games are considered to appeal to people who don’t really like using their bodies. Video games are for skinny dweebs who couldn’t make it in sports who have to sit on their couch pretending to be a beefy super-soldier instead of a wimp.

Unfortunately, that’s not necessarily true. The bit about not having to use your body, I mean. If you have even moderate physical impairment, playing games can become an incredible uphill battle. I mean, try holding a controller in one hand. Now try playing really anything at all. What about doing it with no hands at all? Gaming might not exactly be strength training, but the amount of fine motor control it takes is significant. For some people, that can be a huge obstacle. And games aren’t exactly helpful when it comes to trying to make up that difference. In my experience, most games think it’s revolutionary to include left-handed options, much less a method of reassigning the buttons for one-handed control.

I recently found the website, which is designed as an alternative review source for people with most sorts of disability. The major groups included are people who have precision issues or hearing issues, people who are color-blind, and people who need to play one-handed. What I found interesting was that first of all, the scores are almost universally bad. Even games that have a top place in my personal pantheon of excellent fun, like Batman: Arkham Asylum, are ranked abysmally. A surprising number of AAA games offer absolutely no concessions, or minimal ones, to people with any disability. For instance, the Arkham Asylum review mentions that the subtitles in-game don’t identify any of the ambient sounds, conversations, or announcements. So, for instance, you rarely hear the Joker, never hear his minions, and don’t get the full picture of the environment. Color-blind gamers may find the enemy-identification in “Detective Mode” that paints enemies red difficult to use. A saving grace is that the combat system is for the most part 2-button, and can be played one-handed. Which is nice, because if you wanted to re-map the controls, you’d be out of luck.

Console shooters tend to score the lowest as they frequently offer almost no concessions, particularly online ones. Most, for instance, provide subtitles, but only in the sense that cutscene dialog is displayed. In games where the tap tap tap of footsteps, the cock of a gun, or the sound of a grenade clattering nearby is frequently the difference between life and death, the complete lack of detailed subtitling makes online play a huge hassle for deaf or hearing impaired gamers. And when a shooter is on a console, it frequently lacks the remappable controls that make PC shooters a bit easier for those with disabilities to play.

The other interesting thing is looking at which games do score highly on AbleGamers. One of the top games of the past year was Bayonetta, with an 8.5/10. Bayonetta is a game with which I have a slight love affair. As much as I like it, though, I figured it had to be a mistake. How can you play a game that can get that insanely difficult with any sort of disability? Easily, it turns out. See, Bayonetta has an “automatic” mode. That allows it to be played easily one-handed. Bayonetta also has reasonably detailed subtitles, no need to listen for specific audio cues (there’s usually a sufficient lightshow attached to any enemy attack), and the garish color scheme doesn’t include anything that would confuse a color-blind gamer, as no part of the gameplay depends on accurately identifying a color. Bayonetta’s high marks show that it’s not that you need to make your game simplistic or casual in order to appeal to gamers with disabilities, you just need to provide options for play that don’t exclude them entirely.

Most games don’t do that. Most games think people who are deaf just need subtitles for the cutscenes, not for any sort of incidental dialog or audio cues. Actually, most games just assume that no one with any sort of disability will play them, most likely. That’s not only mistaken, it’s a crazy business strategy. There are millions and millions of potential customers out there who just want to be able to make “Right Trigger” aim and “A” shoot. Color blindness is so common and correcting for it is so easy there just isn’t an excuse. Maybe you can just not make mini-games that require you to arrange red things on a green field. Subtitles can include things like “[ahead and to the right]”, or at least some of the information that’s been standard in closed captioning for years. It’s not that small a niche to pander to, and it’s weird that so few developers have put in any effort.

There are at least some people making the effort. The people at SpecialEffect, a UK charity, are making some absolutely impressive strides in opening up gaming to more people, including some really interesting eye-tracking control alternatives.

Another interesting thing to check out is AskACapper, a gamer with quadriplegia. He is… way better than me at Call of Duty. He’s been petitioning for a long time for games to include more options to re-map and alter controls. In the meantime he uses his face

October 18, 2010

“Chew” is Pretty Excellent

Filed under: Comics — Tags: , , , , , — Durandal @ 6:21 pm

Chew is a story about a future where the FDA is the world’s most powerful government agency, chicken is outlawed, cyborgs are real, and the only super-powers are food-based. The main character is a cibopath. What’s a cibopath?

It’s the sort of thing that I cannot imagine working even a little, the sort of thing that should end up being a badly told joke relying too much on “randomness”. But for whatever reason, it works amazingly well. It’s told at a very fast clip, which can make it seem like certain story threads die before they had any time to breathe, but at the same time it allows you to grab a single trade, read a complete story, and be done. It’s a very reader-friendly format. The beautiful art also helps.

It’s a hard comic to sell because it’s a hard comic to describe beyond the jokey-sounding initial premise. Luckily, I don’t have to describe it!

Issue 1 is up in full online for free.

Read it or I swear to god I will clock you one in the teeth. It’s worth your time.


October 15, 2010

But Ashley is?

Filed under: Comics, Uncategorized — Tags: , , — Katherine Barclay @ 4:12 pm

The internet is a scary place. Anyone who’s been around it for more than five minutes has their share of horror stories attesting to that, and there are times when I have to wonder if it’s worth logging on, when every other click seems to lead to girls and cups and seeing goats.

And then I accidentally find my way to somewhere like this, and suddenly everything is totally worth it.

Hanna Is Not A Boy’s Name is a webcomic described by the artist as “sugarcoated horror”, and if you’re in the market for something new to read, I highly recommend it. Hell, I recommend it even if you’re not! It’s about a endearing young paranormal investigator named Hanna, who is as unrestrainedly enthusiastic as he is dubiously competent. Which you can probably tell almost instantly from looking at him, since shortish indie-looking guys with sideburns and massive glasses are pretty much genetically incapable of being badass, and redheads are pretty much genetically incapable of being mopey, unless I made that up. Anyway, Hanna is.  In a really nice break from the whole bumbling-but-well-meaning mould, though, our protagonist actually seems to have his shit together. He might not be very good at it, always, but he’s got a nice little business set up, he’s got his contacts in place, and he actually has some reasonably nifty magic gadgets that make him a little bit awesome sometimes.  He’s definitely not your average incompetent nerd hero, and his sidekick is anything but an average sidekick. This kickass zombie man has forgotten his name, but it’s not like we’re going to mix him up with anyone, so he doesn’t really need one. Where Hanna is excited about everything, the zombie’s emotions run the gamut from nonchalance to mild interest, with the occasional sidetrips through wit. He doesn’t seem to have any particular skill with investigation or combat, but he’s intelligent and a zombie, and the sheer fact of being a well-spoken revitalized corpse seems to be all the qualifications he’d need.

The rest of the cast include a dorky vampire who has a problem with the notion of bloodsucking, a sleazy chain-smoking med-school dropout who doesn’t like ghosts and has an odd obsession with coats with fur on them, a sassy blue-haired chick who may or may not be connected to a sassy blue-furred were-dog, and a black-and-white man who ticks. Everything in the world Tessa Stone is creating seems to be connected, though the ‘how’ is a bit ambiguous. Characters from early plot lines recur later and seem to have their own ideas about where the story ought to be going. What seems like it’s going to start off as a formulaic Investigator-gets-a-case strip quickly wanders away from that template, following random tangets that end up being interesting in their own right. It means the story is a bit hectic, but I found it a nice change, to have no idea what’s going to happen next in the supernatural investigation genre. The strip has only been in the works for a year or so, so it’s not the longest read and you get the feeling the main story has only just begun, but an almost-daily update schedule means that it’s fast-moving.

Last but not least, I have to applaud the art. First of all, the style remains remarkably consistent between the first page and the most recent. Secondly it’s compelling, with amazing use of colour and dynamic composition and posing. Normally, I go for pretty, polished styles, but Hanna uses rough exaggeration so well I forgot that I don’t normally like this style of thing. Tessa cites Mike Mignola and Mike Krahulik as some of her inspirations, so if you enjoy their work and the rest of my obsessive fangirling hasn’t been enough, you now have another reason to go check  this out.

October 14, 2010

MMORPG Anonymous

Filed under: Video Games — Mrs. Orange @ 2:34 am

Hi, my name is Lisa and I am addicted to the World of Warcraft. It’s been one year and two months since I last logged in.

I deleted the game off of my computer and cancelled my account. I have placed my trust in a higher power. I have apologized to the people whom I have wronged.

But I’m talking to you today because Cataclysm is coming out in a couple months, and sometimes, during the long and lonely nights, I’m afraid I lack the strength to resist its pull.  It’s during these weaker moments that I remember the good times spent /laughing with friends and running dungeons with Aldonza, my DPS machine. But, even then, I can’t forget the fact that three years with that game has left a mark on my psyche that I feel even after a year of sobriety.

Aside from the little things, like salivating when I hear the word “epic” and getting inexplicably irritated when someone mentions Chuck Norris, the game warped my ego. I gained an inflated sense of importance that doesn’t seem to translate into real-world confidence and life skills.

I used to be a financial genius that could manipulate the Azerothian economy to suit my mount-related needs. Now, when I ask my mom if I should start saving for retirement, she laughs at me. I used to have valuable skills and sought-after talents that contributed to the well being of my guild. Now, I can make a sort-of-decent pie. I constantly lament the fact that you can’t level up basic world understanding in a point-based system and that my smaller achievements tend to go unacknowledged.

I am also left with a physical reminder of my former addiction. As I type this, I feel the phantom pain of one-too-many rogue-style backstabs radiating from my wrist. Too veiled? Yes, WoW gave me carpal tunnel. Similar to how a meth addict will have to deal with the unfortunate ramifications of “meth face” the rest of his or her life, I have to deal with a right wrist that lacks a full range of motion. But we all have our crosses to bear.

I think that it’s fair to say that I’ve never regretted quitting, but that doesn’t mean I don’t miss it. I just miss the state of arrested development that the game provided; Azeroth is so much easier to live in than Earth. Mistakes aren’t permanent and the character you invest so much time and money on ultimately isn’t a reflection of yourself, which makes it easy to abandon. But I’m in the real world now and, unfortunately, it’s just me. I want to become a fully functioning member of society, but I’m not sure I’m specced for that.

October 13, 2010

Dwarf Fortress

Filed under: Game Reviews — Tags: , , , , — Durandal @ 6:47 pm

Dwarf Fortress is the game I wished for when I was eight, granted by a sinister monkey’s paw. I want to love it, in fact I do sort of love it. But the simple fun of the game’s premise is squandered by the inaccessible and unnecessarily obtuse user interface. If the game would just allow you to play it, it might be less infuriating.

I should preface this by mentioning that the game is free, so I can’t actually complain too much. It’s made a single person building a game for no real money beyond donations. That doesn’t mean I won’t complain a lot, though.

Dwarf Fortress is built on a simple concept: making a big castle is cool, and it’s even cooler if that castle has a working drawbridge that can catapult the goblin hordes into a pit filled with lava and also lava sharks. You play by designating areas in a mountain for various tasks, and assigning your automated Dwarfs to useful roles.  So for instance, if you designated a part of a nearby mountain for mining, your little Miner dwarfs would go in, dig it out, and leave you with a cave and some leftover rock. Perfect Dwarf House. Any dwarf not doing a job spends their time drinking as much as they can.

You begin the game by… well, to be honest you probably begin the game by not playing it ever. Because this is the opening screen:

What’s that? You’re old school, you can deal with a shitty text menu with keyboard-only navigation? Yeah, I played DOS games too. It gets worse. The next several screens after you decide to start a new game are basically impenetrable unless you’ve already been playing for a while. For one thing, you don’t click “Start Playing” in order to start a new game.

First you have to make the world. Which is cool! It creates itself according to some really complex machinations, even drafting a long history of the fantastic Planes of Stuff. Of course, you have no idea what’s happening, and you don’t really care. Note that at no point has the game explained what exactly any of this has to do with anything. Nor does it make it entirely clear what the hell you’re doing.


This is from an unofficial tutorial.


Now you can press enter on “Start Playing”. Ignore the two options besides Dwarf Fortress, they’re only there to trick you. You get a mostly impenetrable map from which you can choose your starting location. Note that umkh and UMKH are tied to different commands because obviously. Actually starting is “e” even though moving forward a menu has been “enter” until now. “Enter” does nothing. Get used to that. Hotkeys change without warning, and are sometimes conspicuously absent for no apparent reason.

You then get the option to either prepare carefully and pick and choose supplies/skills, or just go with whatever the game gives you. Some new player packs offer pre-made parties that seem to work well. If you’re a new player, going with the pre-made parties is the sensible choice because there is absolutely no indication what you might need, what any skill does, or how the point allocating system works anywhere in the game proper. Once you hit “e” again, you’re whisked away to adventure!

Oh man it’s so nice to be out of that awful menu system and into the actual gam-


What is this shit


Yeah. The entire game is controlled primarily by a linked list of interlacing menus you access by hotkeys that change at random. If you’re lucky. Some menus, you just get to traverse at a sedate pace through dozens of items. Mercifully, you can resize the window and get rid of the completely useless map on the right hand side. Note that the only reason you’re seeing a few little dwarfs in some trees on the left is because I’m using a texture pack produced by a fan. Normally Dwarf Fortress uses text characters for graphics.

Okay, so it’s ugly as sin, but I said it was fun right? Some things are like that! A terrible looking menu system or something, but then it turns out that really when you get to know it it’s easy and sensible to use. That’s the apologia I’ve seen over and over again for DF, that if you’d only play it a whole bunch until you know every hotkey it’s really pretty fast to use and makes managing the complex gameplay of Dwarf Fortress much easier!

That is true, sort of.

When you’ve played for a while, the menu stops being quite so obstructive. That doesn’t, however, mean that it’s any good. First of all,the learning of the menu is a hell of a time sink. It takes at least a few hours and some consulting of online tutorials to have even the remotest hope of keeping your little fortress alive through the winter. I remain uncertain how to make the military function, as the only tutorial addressing it was for a previous version.

And even when you’ve gotten more used to the menu, it’s still pretty awful. Menus are haphazardly arranged on the screen, using hotkeys that bear little if any relation to the menu item. Aspects of menu navigation change at random, without warning, and without purpose. Some menus loop back around for no reason. Most of the time you spend in menus, you spend scrolling through lists one item at a time in order to perform routine, repetitive tasks that a better UI would allow you to do in a few broad strokes.

For instance, let’s say you want to make your dwarfs happy by giving them each their own little bedroom. First you need to designate rooms to dig. Which is a bit repetitive because there’s absolutely no cut/paste/copy of any kind. You want 40 identical bedrooms? Then you’d better be ready to tap them out one by one. Then, you need to place beds in all the rooms. That’s pretty easy, just b->b over and over, hitting enter over where you want them placed. Then, you hit q, scroll to one of the beds in one of the rooms, hit r to make it a bedroom, choose the room size, hit enter, hit a to assign the bed to a dwarf, and scroll through a list of your entire population, including the ones you’ve already assigned to beds. You do this every time.

Eventually, your fortress grows to a large enough size that you need to use a third-party dwarf manager add-on called Dwarf Therapist in order to have a hope of keeping your dwarfs various jobs and statistics straight.


So much simpler!


That’s the game in a nutshell. Simple, understandable, and fun ideas obscured by an awful UI that makes these simple ideas into an overly complicated alphabet soup. The system by which you build your fortress is actually rather elegant, consisting mainly of you designating areas for some certain activity or another. It’s great fun to watch your dwarfs carve out the floorplan you gave them and decide that oh here’s the kitchen, and the dining hall, and the bedrooms and the trading post and the workshops… and then watch your little guys get to work on building a bustling fantasy fortress. It’s like drawing the graph paper fortresses I made when I was little, only it is magic graph paper. It’s engaging, and it takes very little work to understand the basic concept of designating areas for activities.

But that “charming” UI torpedoed most of my fun. Even after hours of play, after doing the tutorials I could find online, and getting to the point where I can tap tap tap out the various bits of my fortress with reasonable speed I just can’t get over how annoying it is to play a game that actively hinders my attempts to enjoy it.

A lot of people who play the game seem to think that the awful UI is due to the game’s capital-D Depth. That people asking for a simpler to use interface are just trying to dumb down the game. I think people look at any game with lots of text and assume it must be Deep. Dwarf Fortress isn’t deep. It’s a great game with easy to understand concepts and fun gameplay. Sure there’s a lot of random added cruft, like the 40 jobs that never really come into play, but for the most part it’s on par with a lot of other management games, if not more streamlined. It’s just got a badly designed interface. There’s nothing Deep about having to scroll through lists instead of using a drop down menu or typing in a search string. There’s nothing Deep about simple tasks being atomized into a dozen repetitive or unnecessary actions for no reason.

I knew I should have wished on a goddamn shooting star.

October 12, 2010

Baseball is serious business

Filed under: Sports, Statistical Anomalies — SrMeowMeow @ 2:34 am

There are two kinds of baseball fans, and I say this without condescension. There are fans who are happy to enjoy the narratives of baseball and enjoy the game as a game, and there are fans who see in baseball something more. This is true of almost everything; for example, I am a fan of movies in the former way. I’ve practically made a conscious decision to avoid movie analysis. I enjoy “behind the scenes” features but afterwards it’s harder for me to enjoy the movie I just saw exposed. My film student friend tells me that the more you learn, the more it enhances the experience; he thinks about lighting and composition while I am happy to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

The parallel to baseball is almost exact. Where another fan sees a clutch hero with the ability to elevate their game when it matters most, I see a statistical oddity. Where he sees grit and guts overcoming impossible odds, I see attribution error. Where he blasts a general manager for a move in hindsight, I look for the probabilities at play when the decision was made. Where he sees a break-out season and a star being born, I see regression on the horizon.

The movie example teaches us two things: one, that there is no right way to enjoy something. In many ways, I enjoy movies how they were meant to be enjoyed and the same goes for my hypothetical “other fan”, with baseball. Two, that the two perspectives are mutually exclusive. Once you know how the magic trick is done, it’s not magic anymore. And once your knowledge reduces a movie to an assortment of techniques, or a baseball game to a cloud of probabilities, you can’t easily regain that innocence.

However, the study of baseball is too great an opportunity to pass up. It is a proving ground for intuition, statistical acumen, and logic, as well as affording frequent glimpses into the machinery of reality. Does that sound grandiose? Maybe, but it’s accurate.

Baseball is the perfect statistical sandbox. It occurs in discrete elements: pitch by pitch, play by play, game by game. The technology is improving rapidly to keep up with the demands of a growing analytical community. Pitch f/x is a free database that tracks the speed, release point, spin deflection, and many more arcane data points on every pitch thrown since it was implemented. Hit f/x is on the way. Baseball has always been a statistical game, but on the cutting edge, baseball cards have been replaced with SQL databases and Excel spreadsheets.

For me, the holy grail of baseball analysis is measuring true talent. True talent is the mythical exact “value” of a player: he “is a .305 hitter”, and then luck and defense and the quality of opposing pitching and wind blowing in and wind blowing out all conspire to give us a number, his batting average for the season, that is a function of his true talent but not the thing itself. We will never know a given player’s true talent; the story of baseball analysis is the story of approximations and the story of incomplete information. The key concept is context neutrality: take a player’s season batting average and factor out his bad luck and his good luck and the stadium he played in and the defenses he played against and the pitchers he faced and many, many more things, and the more you work, the closer you get to his true talent.

Baseball has everything a keen mind could want, and every question you ask raises deeper ones, until you’re wondering about the nature of value itself, all because you want to know if your favorite team would have done better to sign Player X than Player Y after all. You ask yourself about determinism: was making Trade Z a bad decision because it played out badly and couldn’t have played out any other way and therefore should have been predictable and therefore should have been predicted, or do you just look at the information available at the time?

Think about it. Read about it. There are hidden depths to be uncovered, and this is a living science. Seriously, I’m neither exaggerating the potential for unique, creative thought nor the difficulty of some of the questions you’ll find yourself confronting.

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