Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Just give in, it might be fun

Vacation planning took a bit of a turn today. We'd been exploring options in Savannah and figuring out how to get there, and sleep in relative comfort while hitting a few key locations to make the trip worthwhile and stay under budget. It turns out that Savannah is a very expensive city to visit unless you stay at the outskirts and commute in. So as a sanity check we considered options in Chicago. There are a few exhibits and an aquarium that are on our list and we ran into the exact same issue: You could be within walking distance of the things you're planning to visit and blow all your budget on the place you'll be sleeping, or you can commute in and blow all your budget and time dealing with parking and gas and traffic.
After a couple of hours I did a spur of the moment tropical sanity check.
For half of the Savannah trip, and two thirds of the Chicago trip, we could book a five night stay in an Ocean View room with Jacuzzi at an all-inclusive, private-beach resort in Cancun.

Museums and history... or cheap alcohol (included) and beach-side grills (included).

Decisions. Decisions.

Monday, April 28, 2014


In a little over a month wife and I will have been married one year. To celebrate, and burn some vacation days, we are planning a trip to Georgia. Initially we looked into some Bed and Breakfast options, but the longer we let that idea stew the more we're shying away from it. Social anxiety is a pain and there is something to be said about the convenience of dealing with an establish Hotel with set protocols instead of worrying about learning how to deal with a situation where you are essentially a paying guest in someone's home. "Don't worry about it! That's what you pay them for." Uhm... too late? We're worrying about it and are rapidly coming to the conclusion that we'll most likely find a hotel with a pool and maybe a spa that, if needed, we can just spend a day or two decompressing in our own way without failing to meet someone's expectations of a 'guest.' As you can probably tell... we aren't adventurous types.
My sister gifted us a little lilac bush for our wedding and we planted it outside of our kitchen window. With the warmer weather it has started leafing out and it looks like it is growing a new stem and seems pretty happy. Apparently the critters in our neighborhood have taken notice and something or other nipped the tips of the branches. I had a few stakes and some fishnet plastic webbing, so we created a fence around the bush. We didn't pin it into the ground, thinking that it was probably the deer that roam through the woods around us, and hoping that it would provide enough disincentive for the deer to seek easier grazing. Then it started raining. I happened to glance out of the window while refilling my coffee and noticed an odd little lump right up against the mesh. It was a grey little ball of something. It didn't move and it was hard to tell on which side of the mesh it was. I put a towel down on the floor (the deck was soaking wet) and took a look outside. Slipped between two layers of mesh and not moving a muscle was a little baby rabbit. Not a quiver, not a shake, not a twitch. Not until I tried lifting the mesh off of it did it jump. It was inside the fence and jumped at the far wall. Apparently the bottom border was loose enough that it just pushed right through. Then, just to emphasize how poorly I had fastened the webbing, it jumped right back into the enclosure. After a few dodges back and forth it disappeared under our neighbor's deck and I repositioned the webbing to hug a bit closer to the ground. Time to look for some tent-pegs to pin the webbing down a bit more solid.
If the weather holds I want to take my bike out tonight. I was riding pretty regularly a few years ago but then between some surgery and new medication and a bout of nosebleeds and general lazy I stopped. Must remember to pick up some chain lubrication and maybe look up if there are any bolts that need to be tightened before I venture out too far. I don't trust the traffic and my bike skills on the long (gradual, but long) uphill section I would have to pedal on the way back, so I have a new bike-carrier that I can strap to the hatch of my SUV. Council Bluffs is slowly but surely becoming more bike-friendly, but there are still some key gaps. My plan is to head down to Manawa lake and see if the old ticker can do a circuit without blowing up in my chest. Woohoo!
Occasionally Tina and I play Minecraft together and this weekend I managed to set up a Thaumcraft 4.1 server for us to play on. We've played Minecraft long enough that the early game has become pretty rote for us. Get tools. Get materials. Plant food. Find ores. Get better tools. Mine gems. Explore for more exotic materials. Establish base-stations etc etc. It is fun enough that we start new worlds pretty frequently (generally after each major update) because while Minecraft can get pretty deep at the higher levels, a lot of the content is locked behind resource scarcity and exploration. Thaumcraft gives you more hooks to go exploring and discover those resources. It also throws more things into the world that make it feel more rewarding to explore. There are tombs scattered around. Magic forests. Giant trees that may have treasures buried at the base. Patches of virulent taint that twist and infect the world, making normally passive creatures attack you, sprouting deadly plants, and constantly growing and spreading unless you research the tools to contain the evil. It's fun.
We are still using YNAB (You Need A Budget). It's a testament to the usability of that application. We've tried other financial software in the past and usually gave up after a few months. We're still wrapping our heads around how it displays debt and what should be considered on-budget and off-budget debt. Since YNAB knows that we have a mortgage it shows our cumulative worth as negative a hundred and some thousand dollars. That's a little sobering. On the plus side it does seem like we're slowly gaining ground. A little too slowly. One of our easiest places to cut is on our restaurant bills. Tina and I have gotten used to buying our lunches while at work. It turns out that we spend almost as much on that as our grocery bills. So we are going to chip away at that by starting to pack some lunches. Today I'm having a smoked beef and cream-cheese pita with lettuce and some carrot sticks. Have you ever had the sliced smoked beef at Fareway? It's fantastic. I usually ask them to slice it super thin because if it is too thick of a slab the flavor doesn't jump out. But with thin slices it almost melts in your mouth. Really good! I also packed up a small tupper of snacks. Some peanuts. Some almonds. And some cheesy pretzels.
Okay, well if this is devolving into describing my snacks then maybe I'm done for now.
Google tells me that at least a few people are at least looking at these... Hi! How are you?

Thursday, April 24, 2014

The Rainy Season

Maybe it's the weather. Maybe it's the season. Maybe it's just me. I've been in a bit of a funk and so I've dug deep into some comfort gaming rather than do the things I probably should be doing. The previous owner of our house chose to use these narrow rounded red brick 'fences' around the perimeter of the house and rounding the trees in the back and the longer they exist the more I don't like them. On one side they are actively channeling runoff and carving a small ravine down the hill. But I don't want to pull them up until I have an alternative. Which means choosing an alternative and buying it. Then storing it until it can be installed. Figuring out what needs to be installed to install it properly. Or just rough it in and deal with any potential consequences until we figure out what we need to do to 'nail' it down properly.
We're planning a vacation, but we've hit a bit of a snag where we're trying to figure out how ambitiously we can plan. Travel costs are still pretty outrageous and with both of us working flying is really the only option if we don't want to burn half of our days on just getting to the relaxation.
Then there has been the nagging knowledge that I need to call the dentist and reschedule the appointment I missed months ago. Part of me wants to say 'hold on' and just make the call now. That sounds like a better and better idea the more I think about it. "Hold on."
Earlier this month I was on a bit of a streak and forced myself to play and complete a few games. Max Payne 3, Psychonauts, and the main story of Costume Quest. Max Payne 3 was a little painful for me. Max is a flawed 'hero' that places himself or is drawn to situations where dishing out brute violence in life or death situations is the order of the day. The early game takes place in an alcoholic haze as Max medicates himself to suppress a painful past that was partially his fault and partially forced upon him... and then in a self-deluded mist as Max quits drinking and starts tugging at the situations he never questioned before... and then in a self-destructive rampage as he chooses to throw himself into the meat-grinder to dish out his version of justice in a system that would otherwise ignore those too powerful to prosecute. It's grim. It's dark. It's self-aware. Max narrates the story in a sort of hind-sight telling of his journey through the twisty maze that is his past. Until ultimately the story arrives back at the place you first met Max. The details don't really matter. The actors are caricatures of excess and manipulation. I 'enjoyed' it despite of myself. The 'game' is fun mechanically. An arcade third person shooter with trappings of score-chase (and I believe the multiplayer modes accentuate that, but I didn't play those). Max is a bullet sponge. A raging ball of fury that soaks up damage and refuses to die. As real and as gritty as the story wants to be, it all fades away when Max takes multiple AK47 bursts to the chest, leaps across the room and in slow motion caps a half-dozen assailants, ducking behind a counter, popping a pill, and then doing it again. And again. And again. Militant kidnappers. Gangs. Drug dealers. Human traffickers. Mercenaries. Crooked cops. More gangs. More mercenaries. Mercenaries in cars. Gangmembers on boats. The bodycount is obscene and in many places the gritty story being told felt at odds with the sections where I was given control of the player. Moments of high tension and drama were negated by the designers hiding collectible gun bits in odd places that you would never find without scouring every nook and cranny instead of chasing after the bad guys that will wait for you to cross the next magic threshold. The thresholds annoyed me early on because I wasn't prepared for them. I didn't realize that doors were locking behind me. The game funnels you along a preset path and there's no turning back. So you either check all the hallways and ledges before you open any doors or approach the flashing button... or you lock yourself away from something you missed and will have to play that level again in its entirety if you want to collect all the nuggets.
I learned to exploit that system and never ever worried about rushing through a level again. This broke many encounters (and is probably why the multiplayer modes have a 'fastest time' score). A bunch of enemies rushing towards cover is exciting if you're also rushing towards cover. But if you're approaching from a wide angle and have an accurate weapon (and years of hand-eye-mouse training) you can generally drop all of them with critical hits before they ever hunker down. Add to that Max's time-freeze ability that builds up as you play through and entire rooms devolve into headshot, headshot, knock the helmet off then headshot. Fun for me, but not how the gamedesigners probably intended that encounter to proceed. Any 'win' for Max Payne is one of hard attrition. He gets the 'bad' guy because the bad guy has no more goons to throw in front of Max. Wave after wave after wave have crashed against him and the relentless pain sponge just keeps rolling towards its goal. I can't recommend this game for the story except if you happen to enjoy these kinds of dark, darker, darkest descents into the pits of humanity to seek a form of vengeance or justice. The game-play was enjoyable enough, but the scripting and pathing was easily exploitable... but it seems to be almost by design. The game encourages you to find the most efficient route through the levels. To discover the sequence of ballet steps and hits that will let you speed through an encounter... but that trial and error stuff is not my bag and there are other games that place more focus on that and don't force you to sit through multiple minutes-long cutscenes to get to the action. If you know what to expect going in and go in anyway... it's fun. I can recommend it. If you're easily affected by realistic portrayals of the horrible things human beings are capable of doing to each other... stay far far away from this one. I paid less than three dollars for this game. I got my money's worth.

Psychonauts is a gem. It's an old game that I first played back on the Playstation 2, but, because it is also a flawed game, was never able to finish. There is a platforming element that was always a little sketchy, and in one of the final levels there was a sequence of jumps that were performed under duress and with a rotating point of reference. A large number of gamers were all stopped at more or less the same place. Google Meat Circus and you will find the majority of comments lamenting how terrible this level is. I've finally finished it. It took over a dozen attempts at the same jumping puzzle, but I finally sussed out the 'trick.' In case anyone here is wondering. I played on the PC with the Xbox controller. The trick is 1) Turn off all sound. The constant taunting and the ghostly moans are infuriating. Play it with sound once or twice, but after that just turn everything down. It's more of the same. Again and again. 2) Ignore what you think you see. If you were stuck in the section where you are climbing the burning circular mesh while your figment-father is floating in the middle throwing bombs at you... stop paying attention to the camera. The mesh is NOT curved. Repeat after me. The mesh is NOT curved. The camera will swing around as you move around the circular mesh and you will feel the need to compensate. Do not. The mesh is NOT curved. Press left to jump the gap, and then when you have cleared the gap press up to grab the mesh again. Do NOT compensate for the curve. Ignore what your eyes are telling you. The mesh is NOT curved. Good luck!

More later...

Friday, April 4, 2014

Counting Down

As per usual I've had a few false starts to this post. I'm struggling to focus. Too many distractions and the subtle suggestions from an achy head and body that I might be coming down with something. Also whoever made the coffee at the office didn't add enough coffee. A grumpy start to a busy morning.
My wife has been very good to me in the last few days. She brought home three boxes of cookies, so I'm not allowed to divorce her for a while. And I haven't received any grief over my self indulgent technology purchases. I've been chipping away at my computer, gearing up for a bit of an update to tide me over for another year or so. For the last... really long time I've been using Dell Ultrasharp monitors. I spent a ridiculous amount of money to get a 24 inch screen when they became available. And then an only slightly less ridiculous amount of money to get a newer 24 inch screen a few years later. (I decided to dig into my old e-mails and found the order confirmation for that second purchase. January of 2009. Only five years. And to be fair that monitor is still going strong. It predates the LED craze so it kicks out quite a bit of heat, but it hasn't given me any trouble. Dell Ultrasharps are expensive because they used LCD panels that are manufactured to provide better color reproduction than the panels made for most consumer devices. Crisp, clean, photo-realistic colors on a high definition display. Well worth all the money I spent. But now technology is going in different directions. On the one side we have super-high resolution displays. On the other side we have super-high refresh rate displays.
There was some controversy over picture quality when the first 3D TVs were released. Most 3D TVs rely on high refresh rates to create the illusion of depth, so when those higher refresh rates were used to display normal content the result was disconcerting to some people. The picture seemed too crisp. Too clear. People looked plastic and moved too smoothly. Many TVs now have an option to limit their refresh rates when displaying regular content. Well that's the kind of clarity I want when I'm playing video games. I now have a relatively 'cheap' Asus monitor that is capable of displaying images at 144hz. So far I'm pretty impressed. It definitely has a much narrower 'sweet spot' than my Dell IPS panels, and I'm still fiddling with the color temperatures, contrast, and backlight settings to mitigate some of the loss in color clarity... but wow. When playing a game that can take advantage of the higher frame-rate the other issues just fade into the background.
I tried a few games that I have spent quite a bit of time with... I saw things I've never seen before. In Borderlands, when fighting up close and personal I could make out individual details that were usually just a blur of motion. It's interesting to think about how much I was compensating for the input lag inherent in IPS displays. Slowing down my actions and delaying trigger pulls to make sure what I saw was actually where I was aiming/jumping, steering. It's the same issue gamers encounter when playing timed games like Rockband or high speed driving games. Most TVs use scaling circuitry to enhance and translate inputs so that they look better on the screen. That processing causes a delay. If you're lucky it's imperceptible. If you're unlucky it means that by the time you see the prompt to press the button on the screen you've already missed your cue and failed. An easy test is to connect speakers directly to the console instead of going through the TV audio. If the audio and video isn't synched up then your video signal is being delayed by the screen.
But I'm rambling. If multi-display setups were a little more friendly I would hook up two displays to my system. One for photos and static screens and one for rapid action.
More soon!

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Fiscal Insanity

A year ago today I proposed to Tina.
"You proposed on April Fool's Day? That's stupid!" *shrug* She said 'Yes' so it kinda worked out. A marriage proposal from me required my brain to add a hook. With an April Fool's Day proposal I had several: 1) The tag line: "She would be a fool not to!" 2) The secure knowledge that 30 years from now I'll still remember the date I formalized my intention to link my future with hers in a contractual way. 3) Friends and Family would either realize immediately that I/We aren't the sort to kid about this sort of thing even on an auspicious day like April Fool's, or they wouldn't and that would be good to know about them. 4) There are more, but most of them involve improving April Fool's day in my head. I'm not very fond of it in general. But yesterday I searched online for cookie bouquets so that I could send one to her work with the note: "I want a divorce...
... or a cookie. Your choice." This amuses me. But not enough to actually follow through. They only let you write up to 25 characters on a cookie. I did share the thought with Tina and she laughed. Yup. A keeper.
On the 5th of this month will be our one year anniversary as Home Owners. It also signifies the beginning of a huge financial sinkhole that makes me appreciate better the stress and worry that this kind of commitment can introduce into a relationship. It is deceptively easy to overextend yourself when the numbers get big enough. Shopping for a mortgage shows you only a fraction of the costs you will ultimately pay. When we started the process we had a pretty firm handle on the costs. We made pessimistic guesstimates for utilities, services, repairs, added in some emergency expenses for good measure and then went shopping. It turns out we were STILL lowballing the costs as responsible adult homeowners. Insurance, taxes, maintenance, upkeep, furniture... Luckily both of us are pretty low maintenance (I said it before, I'll keep saying it. A keeper.) Our guesstimate for the monthly mortgage payment jumped by over 30%. A small part of that is mortgage insurance because we decided that we'd rather lose a few hours of work every month to that than drain our safety net further than necessary with a full down-payment. So far that financial buffer has eased the transition from tenant to 'property manager' and we haven't really felt any sting... yet. But we are trying this whole 'responsible adult' facade. Life insurance. Lawn care and fertilization. Blinds and shades in the windows instead of bed sheets. That stuff's expensive, yo! And they are all disguised in bite-sized little payments just nibbling away at our take-home pay.
So I bought a license for a program called You Need A Budget (YNAB). We are entering month three using this software and it has been an eye-opening experience. Our various debts and pools of resources all visualized and in neat columns and rows. I love data. I had been operating from gut feelings and impressions and a forced cautious pessimism and it is reassuring to see the chaos of two relatively irresponsible adult children resolve into a relatively stable image that is surprisingly sustainable. We've had a pretty indulgent start to our year. But all of our spending has been successfully off-set with self imposed austerity and unexpected incomes. We're even on-track for our super-ambitious plan for paying down our mortgage a bit every six months. Yay!
Why do I feel compelled to share all this? Probably because I feel guilty. I bought some stuff for my computer yesterday. And some new clothes a few days ago. And Tina bought me some computer stuff. And we're about to contact a guy that will do some weed-treatments and pest control and grub control and fertilize our lawn for the year if we give him money. A little less money than we just spent on my computer stuff and clothes. Guilt. Maybe I really should have sent a bouquet of something to Tina... but that would cost money again. It's a vicious circle!
I finally decided to play Starbound and promptly lost a few dozen hours to it. I hit a point where the systemic progression stopped and any further upgrades depended on exploration... that's a good cooling down point for me. I look forward to diving back in after the next update. While exploration can be fun I usually prefer to 'own' a territory. Building up defenses, harvesting resources, generating self sustaining industries to feed whatever engines I'm given access to. Sadly this part of Starbound is still lacking and short of skyrails and some basic circuits it seems more like this phase is all about sampling lots of different environments rather than building up infrastructure. So I booted up Terraria again since that gives me a little more of that systemic progression towards industry, but in that one you can't ever really be in full control. The environment will hunt you down one way or the other and it depends on boss battles to drive progression. My only real other alternative is Minecraft and unless I dive back into mods like Thaumcraft I will most likely need to play some of my more story driven games soon. Or I could play Carmageddon. Since I Kickstartered the reboot I have Pre-Alpha access to builds of the game and even as rough as it currently stands it is just as fun as the original games were. Irreverent. Silly. Over the top. A racing game for the chemically imbalanced.
More soon!