The new installment in the Civilization computer game series is out. This review dings it a bit for being too like the last installment (Civ 5), but I am sure I will like it because I still evidence addictive behavior whenever I go back to Civ 5. Just one more turn.... After how badly the Sim City franchise has been trashed in recent installments, I will take a Civ game that is safely similar to the old Civ games. Though my life, the Civilization game series is probably second only to having children in terms of sucking up my free time.
Posts tagged ‘games’
Yesterday, Yale did not cave to pressure from certain parts of the student body and Ayaan Hirsi Ali spoke on campus. As with many controversial speakers, mostly consisting of folks not on the political Left, a number of campus groups tried to force Yale to cancel her speech because they expressed themselves offended by her. Among politically correct colleges, there has been a growing trend towards enforcing a right not to be offended, though this enforcement tends to be asymmetric -- Muslims apparently have a right not to be offended, but Christians do not. Women have it but men do not. Greenpeace has it but Exxon does not.
People of prominence who offend us or with whom we violently disagree should not be the least but the most welcome speakers on campus. I will demonstrate this by using the most extreme of all possible examples: An imaginary speaking tour by Adolph Hitler, say in December of 1938. Could there be a more distasteful person, the leader of Nazi Germany just weeks after the Reichskristallnacht? But I think he would have been the most valuable speaker I could possibly imagine.
If he were honest, which Hitler likely couldn't have stopped himself from being, what valuable insights we could have gained. The West made numerous mistakes in the late thirties and even into the forties because it just could not believe the full extent of Hitler's objectives and hatreds**. Perhaps we would have understood sooner and better exactly what we were dealing with.
Even if he were dishonest, and tried to "convert" the office without discussing specific plans, that would still be fascinating. What arguments did he use? Could we get insights into why he struck a chord among the German people? Would his rhetoric be compelling to American audiences? I despise the guy and almost everything he stood for but I would have loved to have him on campus as a speaker.
I will tell one of my favorite stories about the rise of Hitler. You have heard the story of Jesse Owens at the Berlin Olympics. Supposedly this was a slap in the face to Hitler, to have a black man winning medals. But one of the last events of the games was a four man relay race. The US was certainly going to win. But one of the US runners was Jewish and the US pulled the runner from the race and substituted Owens. The US didn't want to embarrass Hitler by making him hand a medal to a Jew. This sounds odd to put it this way, but one of the problems we had in really taking the worst of the Holocaust seriously as it was happening is that we were not able to see that Hitler's anti-semitism was so much more dangerous than the ubiquitous and run-of-the-mill anti-semitism that obtained all over Britain and America. We should always have a policy of letting even the most extreme people talk as much as they like. We might learn that they have a point and adjust our thinking on something, or we might learn that they are even batshit crazier than we thought. Either outcome is useful.
As a former hater, I have really enjoyed the World Cup this year. I think an unsung part of why so many people have been coming around in the States is having ESPN broadcast every game, instead of just seeing two or three here. Seeing all the games lets one start getting to know the players and the teams, develop favorites, etc.
However, like most Americans, I do find it, at best, humorous to watch folks act like they have been gut-shot every time someone brushes their jersey. I talked to a friend of mine who used to manage NHL teams, and said that it would be funny to do a parody with ice hockey players falling and writhing on the ground every time they were touched. There would be 10 guys laying on the ice in about 30 seconds.
Not quite the same idea, but I thought this parody was pretty funny
I really am not a productivity app sort of guy. I have a lot of games, but most apps strike me as just dedicated browsers for someone's web site. To date I am a big user of the Kindle app and the Feedly RSS feed reader app and the Gmail app. Oh, and Google maps (the Apple maps program still sucks). And that is about it.
But I have been using Tripcase (free) to bring together all my travel info and I really like it. All one has to do is forward airline, hotel, car rental, restaurant, etc confirmations to a certain email address and the program parses out what information it needs. The only work is that each confirmation gets set up as a separate trip, but it is easy to merge three or four together to get all of one trip in a single record. It provides a nice interface with travel information and provides notifications for such things as flight delays and gate changes.
My kids are working to waste large swathes of my time by introducing me to addictive games
2048, via my daughter
QuizUp, via my son
Those are the quickies. For more serious gaming on the iPad, I have been playing a bunch of euro-style board game ports, including Lords of Waterdeep, Agricola, Eclipse, Dominant Species, Small World, Ticket to Ride. All recommended. I have heard rumors of iOS apps for Dominion and 7 Wonders, two of my current favorite board games, but I have seen anything appear. Board Game Geek has an iOS blog (beware, the format is uglier than a geocities page). I downloaded Pandemic but have not played it. There are also ports of Carcasonne and Settlers of Catan but neither of those are my favorites.
I have also enjoyed the port of Baldur's Gate II to the iPad. This is still, perhaps with Neverwinter Nights 2, the best AD&D rules RPG for the computer. The only problem with Baldurs Gate is the graphics on the PC are dated, but they work fine on the iPad. I downloaded a Master of Orion port the other day but have not tried it yet.
But for REAL time wasting, I look forward to this fall when there is apparently a new version of Civilization / Alpha Centauri coming out. Trying to have my desk cleared before then.
My new column is up at Forbes.com, and asks why we fetishize capital gains over regular income
Let's consider two investors. Investor A buys a piece of land and builds a campground on it, intending to run the campground for decades. Investor A gets her return on investment from the profits each year running the campground, profits that are taxed as regular income (Full disclosure: In my business life, I am essentially investor A).
On the other hand, Investor B buys the same piece of land and builds the same campground on it, but in about a year Investor B sells the newly developed facility, making a profit on the sale over his original investment. Investor B likely will pay taxes on this gain at reduced capital gains tax rates.
But why? When Investor B sold the property, the price he got was probably something like the present value of the expected cash flows from operating the campground. Both Investor A and B created essentially the same value., but Investor B took the value as a single lump sum rather than as a stream of income over time. Why is Investor B's approach preferred in the tax code? Or, stated another way, why does the tax code favor asset flipping over long-term operations?
Go into Google and search "Windows 8 is " and you will get auto-suggestions "Crap, Rubbish, Awful, Terrible, Horrible, Slow, A Disaster, A Flop". When this was first noticed, folks suggested Google was playing games, though personally having tried Windows 8 a couple of times I thought the suggestions were dead on. So Don Charisma tried the same thing with Microsoft's search engine Bing:
It appears that Microsoft got the message and has done a little managing of their algorithm, because now you get this:
Cool? Great? Amazing? Seriously, who are they fooling? Even Yahoo, which is powered by Bing (I think) doesn't give this kind of result
Nothing seems to obsess general managers (and fans) as much as the home run. And with the steroid era (maybe) in the past, there are a lot fewer of those out there to find. Which means that given the perhaps irrationally high demand and the declining supply, the price for them is going to go up. Which is a very good reason to be skeptical of deals for power hitters.
Unfortunately, the Diamondbacks just can't quite get over their sense that they need more power on the team. So they have made a deal to acquire Mark Trumbo from the Angels. To my eye, Trumbo is the reincarnation of former Diamondback Mark Reynolds -- 30-35 home runs, a batting average south of .250, and nearly 200 strikeouts a year. I wouldn't take this kind of player if you gave him to me. He is an inning killer who manages to hit one out of the park every five games or so. I suppose he is cheap in money terms (has a couple of years until free agency) but we traded two good players who had down years last year. In stock market terms, we are selling at the bottom and buying at the top.
Today is the anniversary of what is probably the greatest moment in Arizona sports history. But it is also the occasion of the most precient bit of sports commentary I have ever heard. Watch this brief clip. Listen to Tim McCarver's comment just before the second pitch and then see what happens. He called it exactly.
I suppose we Arizonans are biased, but the whole game is one of the best baseball games I have ever watched. Randy Johnson relieving Curt Schilling. Mariano Rivera relieving Roger Clemens. You can watch it all here.
Best Buy says it is not afraid of showrooming, the practice of testing products at a physical retailer and then buying it online. Best Buy says it is confident it can convert visitors into buyers, even if their intent was to buy online.
Well, that is a brave front. And I wish them luck -- I certainly like having bricks and mortar retailers around when I need something fast and can't wait for the UPS truck. But it probably was no accident that the article was illustrated with this picture:
What don't you see there? CD's, DVD's, speakers, DVD players, computer games and most of the other stuff that used to make up a lot of Best Buy's floor space. Because they have already been demolished by online retailers in those categories. The picture above is of appliances, one of the few high dollar categories that has not migrated to the web. Go to Best Buy and you will see appliances, health equipment, and TV's, all categories where bricks and mortar stores have some advantages over online.
This makes perfect sense, but don't tell me Best Buy is ready to take on the online retailers. They are bobbing and weaving, ducking this competition wherever they can.
Postscript: Best Buy is hoping that having "trained" sales people to help customers will garner business. There are two problems with this. One, the training of their sales staff has always been spotty, and likely will not get better as their financials go south. And two, I find that Amazon.com reviews are far more helpful, and often more knowledgeable, than most in-store sales staff. But on the positive side, who doesn't enjoy getting hassled for an extended warranty at checkout?
One of my favorite early C64 games may be returning to mobile platforms. M.U.L.E. would work great as a networked iPhone game. Hopefully these folks do a good job with it.
The Red Zone channel from DirecTV. Basically the show's producers channel surf for you, flipping obsessively between as many as 8 simultaneous pro football games (sometimes with two split-screened at a time). My wife says she gets a headache from watching it even for a few minutes. But I think its awesome. I actually flip back and forth between the RZC and whatever game I have chosen to watch that day for extra hyperactive bonus points.
I am working on a couple of euro-style strategy card games at the moment. The first is a business start-up game, and the second is a space-themed game loosely based on my experiences playing the Traveler role-playing game years ago. A good stock image account (I use Shutterstock) gets me everything in terms of card images I need for the first game, but royalty-free space images are harder. However, it is actually possible to start with prosaic industrial and other images and hack them to look futuristic, but it takes some work.
So I have been working on Photoshop skills. If I could digitally paint, I would paint beautiful concept art, but I cannot. So my Photoshop training has focused not on painting per se but on hacking images together and overlaying effects. A LOT of the work is learning to do selections well to mash up images and then overlaying a few effects. I can make a really good laser beam now, for example. Take a modern weapon, have a laser beam come out, wala a pretty functional sci fi gun (Don't believe me? Look at the Death Star Turrets in the original Star Wars movie and tell me those aren't essentially current-era battleship turrets with green and red light coming out). I wrote earlier about the lessons I followed in making custom planets.
As an example, here is the lesson I did last night. It is not production value because it started with a low-res iPhone photo my daughter sent me and as you can tell from the edges and especially the hair, I did not spend much effort getting the edge selection just right. But my daughter liked being a cyborg:
She has dark brown hair and dark brown eyes, so she is not the ideal model for this because those are hard to colorize well. Blondes may or may not have more fun, but they are much easier to colorize. The downsize of the exercise is that she loved the hair and now wants to color it that way for real.
It is interesting that the buck just never stops at this President's desk. Apparently, the reason for the delay in approval of the Keystone Pipeline is the Republicans.
The approval process for the Keystone XL pipeline has been delayed by Republicans playing “political games,” Treasury Secretary Jack Lew says.
Lew said that the economy is “strong” and more resilient after 40 months of growth but the economic recovery is not fast enough, which led Chris Wallace on “Fox News Sunday” to ask whether approving the pipeline would help speed up job growth.
“If you’re so interested in creating more jobs, why not approve the Keystone pipeline, which will create tens of thousands of jobs?” Wallace asked of the pipeline under review.
“There were some political games that were played, that took it off the trail and path to completion, where Republicans put it out there as something that was put on a timetable that it could not be resolved. It caused a delay,” Lew said. “Playing political games with something like this was a mistake.”
Several companies announced a new sensor product to keep track of the number and severity of blows to the head during sporting events like football. For a while now, I have been predicting such equipment (once invented) would become required in most sports, with at least younger kids' leagues setting maximum numbers above which a player might have to sit out for one or more games, sort of like mandatory pitch limits in little league.
I grew up in Texas and I am not sure the concept of tailgating I was weaned on was flexible enough to encompass the opera. But it's good to try new things. Here are a couple of photos from my first trip to the Santa Fe Opera
Didn't see any cornhole games though.
I just read about a project dedicated to local celebrities, people who are very famous in their own backyard but not known at all beyond a small region.
The one person in this category I could think of (beyond local TV and radio personalities) is Johnny Barnes in Bermuda. I encountered him around the year 2000 when I went to Bermuda for a job interview -- I was running Internet companies at the time and a group in Bermuda had an idea to combine an Internet B2B model with offshore banking and tax havens. Transfer pricing games seemed to be prominent in the model.
Anyway, there he was, at a busy traffic circle almost everyone on the island passed when going to work in the morning. He just stood there saying hello and good morning to everyone. I found out later he was a Bermuda icon -- if he missed a day the radio stations and government offices would be flooded with calls from people asking if he was OK. Searching the Internet, I found that someone has made a film about him.
Shoppers typically associate Best Buy with TVs and computers, but the retailer plans to dedicate more floor space to appliances in the coming months as the housing market continues to improve.
Here is my translation: Half of our floor space has gone digital (DVD, CD, games) and the other half has items where Amazon and Walmart are killing us. But we are locked into long-term leases we can't break for a bunch of freaking large stores so we need to put something out there. So we will try appliances. Next up, mattresses?
First, an update on SimCity. I am a huge SimCity series fan from way back. I was excited by the new release, which turned out to be a total disaster. I wrote several weeks ago about the horrendous decision to make SimCity an always-online game, which led on day 1 to the game being unplayable for most because of server problems and overloads at EA.
Since that time, they have (mostly) fixed the server overload issues and I have been able to play. Sort of. The game is beautiful and the interface is pretty nice. And the game tantalizing retains many of the elements that made the previous games so compelling to some of us. But in the end, the game is a fail.
First, it is full of bugs. One horrible bug ensures that over time, almost every city you build will crash on the online server. The only solution is to accept a rollback to an earlier state, though every once in a while this leads to a total city loss.
Beyond that, almost every element of the game is broken. Sims will suddenly stop going to school, and complain about there being no education when an empty school is right across the street. City water tables can be drained in a matter of months, making a city unplayable -- one can avoid this only by putting their sewer plant right by their water supply. Certain city specializations added to the game, like gambling, don't work right. Meteor showers cities every few months and can't be turned off. etc. etc.
It may be that this game will be playable in 6 months or so, but even then I fear that the EA team has simplified the game so much and removed so many options to appeal to the mass market XBOX set that the wonky complexity many of us enjoyed in early games will never be there. In particular, city size is limited such that in about 20 minutes of play I can completely fill the city space. All that one can even do with the game after that is just sit and watch density increase and expand a fire station or two as the population grows. In fact, a lot of the game for me runs unattended, since EA had to turn off the fast speed mode. The city now needs to just run for hours for anything to happen, so I resorted to leaving it on in the other room and checking back on it every hour or two.
Oh, and by the way. The highly touted multiplayer features are a bad joke. Someone in the business department told developers that the game had to be online for piracy protection, and told them to go develop some game features that justified this decision so they could tell users that the online requirement was really for their benefit and not for copy protection. Well, they failed.
Bioshock Infinite. I don't play a lot of first person-shooter style role-playing games, but my son talked me into playing the new Bioshock. He has played a lot of this genre (e.g. the Mass Effect series) and said that this was the best he had ever played. This evaluation may be in part due to his fascination with strange dystopic visions of society, because we certainly get one in this game (as in each of the Bioshock series).
I am not every far into it but I will say that is a fun experience. So far I would say it was less of a game and more of an immersive novel -- WTF is this place I am in and what is going on. The environment is really fascinating to explore. I am still trying to figure out the back story, but piecing it together is a fun process. Already I have been to several memorable locations.
Here are the standings of our bracket challenge. I have been light on blogging because I have been on the road for 2 straight weeks, which has left me both underwater with work and a bit out of sorts.
|Leaderboard after 48 games - See full standings|
First, I have always enjoyed the SimCity games. Sure, I know that these games take a planning and technocratic control approach that I find distasteful in real life, but I enjoy playing first-person shooters as well despite being a pacifist.
So I have been extremely disappointed in their implementation of their new version. In this sort of mad rush to be like all the other games out there, SimCity built in a multi-player mode where you play online interacting with neighboring cities run by other players. This is all fine as far as it goes, thought the appeal escapes me so far.
But the true fail is that they require players to log in and play online on their servers, even when playing solo. What was an irritant yesterday became an enormous mess today, as every North American server for the game is full. Run the game, and you immediately get hit with a pop-up window with a counter forcing you to wait in what is at least a 20-minute queue before you can play. There is no offline mode - even if your intent is to play solo, you have to wait for a spot to open up on their multi-player servers.
At this point I would seriously recommend that you wait before buying this game. Combined with other irritants (the game is not available on Steam, you have to use Origins far inferior proprietary clone), and the game's high price, I am sorry I pre-ordered and did not wait for reviews to come in. It may eventually be a good game, but I am not going to pay $70 to stare at a 20-minute count down clock every time I want to play.
Update: Most online games allow players to pre-load the game several days prior to when the servers are turned on. This smooths out the load on the download servers. Apparently Origin did not do this, and the servers for downloads crashed yesterday (these are different from the play servers which are full today). Apparently Origin was still "polishing" the code right up to the hour of launch, which is code for, "this is likely still a bug-filled mess."
I visited B&N the other day -- tellingly not to buy anything but as a way to kill time while my daughter was shopping. What I saw gave me a serious case of deja vu -- where the book store used to be all, you know, books, there were now large sections dedicated to toys and games and collectibles and other such stuff.
This totally reminded me of the last days at CompUSA, when floor space originally all dedicated to computers and software was being used for DVD players and appliances and all kinds of odd stuff. I see the same thing now at Best Buy, with workout equipment and other oddball products. I told my son on a visit a year ago to Best Buy to expect to see the a larger appliance selection next time we visit. He asked why, and I said "because Wal-Mart does not generally sell them, and not a lot of people buy their large appliances at Amazon." Sure enough, you see more appliances nowadays.
I don't think that converting your over-sized book store into an under-sized department store is going to work. It is hard to shift a retail chain's positioning, though it is possible (anyone remember when the Gap was just a Levis store?) But things like leases and locations are really sticky, making it hard to change fast if your new concept needs more or less space or different locations.
Kevin Drum is claiming that the government has already done much fine work on deficit reduction, reducing spending by $1.8 trillion and increasing taxes by $600 billion.
This is fantasy, pure and simple, and perhaps why the term "reality-based community" has fallen out of favor among Progressives. There has been and will likely be no reduction in spending -- these "spending cuts" are merely reductions in spending growth rates from the Administration's initial wet dream spending proposals. I am sure the tax increases are probably real, but Obama and the Congress were already proposing to spend most of those in new stimulus and other boondoggles right in the end of year tax legislation.
The tax numbers are characteristic of the stupid budget games played by both parties. For example, the recent tax law represents a tax increase over law in place on 12/31/2012, but represents a massive tax cut vs. law set to be in place on 1/1/2013. This gives the administration cover to call it both! When it wants to portray itself as a deficit hawk, as in this case, it was a tax increase. When it wants to portray itself as being populist, it was a tax cut.
Charts like this are absolutely worthless. We will likely get deficit reduction over the next few years, but it will be entirely due to rising tax revenues from an improving economy.
And here we are back to my constant theme -- if you want to posit a trend, then show the trend.
Over Christmas break, my son (home from college) and I have played a half dozen or more games of Twilight Struggle, the #1 rated game on Boardgame Geek that refights to US-USSR cold war from the 1950's to the 1980's. There is a good reason for that ranking - it is a very enjoyable game to which he and I have become addicted.
I mentioned it before Christmas, and after playing it once made a couple of comments that I want to revise. I had said I remembered it to be "complex." Actually, for a wargame, the rules are quite simple (no zone of control rules, line of sight, tracing supply, movement costs over terrain, etc etc.). Basically, each turn you play a card from your hand. You may either take the effects of the event on the card, or you may take one of four actions using the operations points on the card (sometimes, if the event benefits your opponent, you have to take the event and the operations points). Your goal is to gain influence over countries and regions, which in turn translates into victory points.
The cards are divided into early, mid, and late-game cards that are staged into the game. This helps avoid anachronisms like Solidarity union forming in Poland in 1950. It also creates a setting where the Russian has early advantages, while the US has late advantages. This really befuddled me for a number of games as I played as Russian against my son, and lost more than I won despite the general sense in the playing community that the game (until recently revised) is a bit unbalanced in favor of the Russian. The problem is that my play style in wargames tends to be methodical and defensive, and to win at Russia you have to open with an RTS-like rush and gain the largest possible lead before the Americans come back in the end game. I finally routed the Americans in the last game when I finally got more aggressive.
The game's complexity comes not from a lot of rules but from three sources:
1) dealing with complexity of scoring possibilities, as while there are only a few types of actions one can take, there are a hundred locations on the map where one can take those actions. The scoring dynamics causes focus of both players to shift around the world, sometimes in Asia, sometimes in Latin America, sometimes in Africa, etc. The cards ensure that no region is ever "safe" (for example the combination of John Paul II's election and Solidarity can turn a strong Soviet position in Poland into a total mess.
2) getting rid of or minimizing the impact of events that benefit your opponent. The latter adds a lot of the flavor of the game. On average, half the event cards in your hand help you, and half help your opponent. If a card helps you, you can take either the op points or the event, but not both. This is sometimes a tough choice in and of itself, made more complicated by the fact that unused events get recycled and can come back later, when they might be more or less useful. But if the card has an opponent event on it, you generally (with a few exceptions) have to take the op points AND trigger an event favorable to your opponent. Managing the latter consumes a lot of the mental effort of the game, and really helps give the game its Cold War flavor of jumping from crisis to crisis.
3) the interaction of the cards. Like most card-driven games, there are a near infinite number of card interactions. This means that there are almost always certain card pairings where the resulting net effect is unclear. We had to keep our iPad nearby locked into a web site of the game maker that includes rulings on each card. Since the game is now 6+ years old, we never encountered a situation where a clear ruling was not available.
Anyway, we think the game absolutely deserves its #1 rating. Highly recommended.
Hotels Among the Favored Few in the Corporate State (Along with Sports Teams, Taxi Owners, and Farmers)
The various cities in the Phoenix metropolitan area have spent a fortune renovating ten spring training fields for 15 major league teams. I have seen a number like $500 million for the total, but this seems low as Scottsdale spent $100 million for just one complex and Glendale may have spent as much as $200 million for theirs. Never-the-less, its a lot of taxpayer money.
The primary subsidy, of course, is for major league teams that get lovely facilities that they use for about one month in twelve.
But these subsidies always get sold on their community impact. But that economic impact turns out to be really narrow. For in-town visitors, the economic impact is typically a wash, as money spent on going to sports games just substitutes for other local spending. But these stadiums are held up as great economic engines because they attract out of town visitors:
Cactus League baseball and year-round use of its ballparks and training facilities add an estimated $632 million to Arizona economy, according to a study released Monday by the Cactus League Baseball Association.
The study found that 56 percent of the 1.7 million fans attending games this past spring were out-of-state visitors and the median stay in metro Phoenix was 5.3 nights.
Spring training accounted for $422 million in economic impact in 2012, up 36 percent from the previous study in 2007. Both were done by FMR Associates of Tucson.
One of the flaws of such studies is they never, ever look at what the business displaces. For example, for local visitors, they never look at local spending sports customers might have made if they had not gone to the game. All spending on the sports-related businesses are treated as incremental. For out-of-town visitors, no one ever considers other visitors coming for non-sports reasons who are displaced (March was already, without all the baseball, the busiest hotel month in Phoenix) or considers that some of the visitors might have come to the area anyway.
However, let's for one moment of excessive credulity accept these numbers, and look at the out of town visitors. 56 percent of 1.7 million people times 5.3 nights divided by 2 people per room is 2.52 million room nights, or at $150 each a total of $378 million. So most of their spring training economic impact is hotel room nights. This by the way is the same logic that supports various public subsidies of local college bowl games.
Which begs the question, why are we spending upwards of a billion dollars in taxpayer money to subsidize sports teams and hotel chains? If the vast majority of the economic impact of these stadium investments is for hotels, why don't they pay for them, or split the cost with the teams?
PS- as an aside, it seems that to be successful in the corporate state, one needs ready access to consultants who will put absurdly high numbers on the positive impact of one's government subsidies. It's like money laundering, but with talking points. Take your self-serving spin, hand it with a bunch of money to a consultant, and out comes a laundered "study". In this case, the "study" architects are FMR Associates, which bills itself as specializing "in strategic research for the communications industry." The communications industry means "PR flacks". So they specialize in making your talking points sound like they have real research behind them. Probably a growing business in our corporate state.