Archive for April, 2005

Four days in the life…

April 30, 2005
Howdy again! Well….where to start…ah, the bad news.

My digital camera’s Compact Flash card made an trip through my washing machine. It came out much cleaner, and it looks okay. I’ll give it some time to dry out, but now I have doubts. Is it safe to try the card in my camera? Maybe it’ll dry out and work fine, or maybe it will short circuit my camera. As much as it would cost me to replace a $50 memory card, it’s not worth risking an expensive camera like my Nikon. Anybody else out there know the answer to this dilemma?

Game night on Wednesday was fun. We played Bell-bottomed Badassses for a few games, then played a nail-biting four-player game of D&D Minis. I did well with the assorted Dwarven warband that Kurt lets me use, and I came out as the front runner with the de facto victory when 10pm came up and aborted the game. I practiced with Thin Ice on the side, and other folks joined in.

I made my first Icehouse game design last night. Check out the game page at Icehousegames.orgĀ . Try it out; feedback is highly welcomed! If it goes over well, I’ll enter it into a future Icehouse Game Design Contest. Soon, I’ll post my second game too, which I’ve tentatively dubbed Juxtapose.

Luckily, JJMA’s acquisition by Alion Science has been an unexpected boon to my game design efforts. Now I’ve got a whole brick of obsolete business cards. Yay! They have blank backs! Where’s my pen and my rules drafts? This could keep me busy for a while. I’ve been hoping to design a simple kid-friendly geocaching-themed card game to leave in caches. Now my be my chance to experiment.

You know those fake credit cards you get in the mail from credit card companies? For a year and a half, I’ve been collecting them; my parents are mailing me the ones they get. For a while I’ve been hoping to design a game using them, but my plans have changed. Now I’d like to mail them back to the credit card companies, accompanied by a sarcastic note, "Thanks for helping America end its addiction to petroleum"!

I read a statistic on MSN that 65,000 tons of used cell phones are thrown away in the US alone (though I don’t remember the time frame of that number). Think of how much oil went into the plastic for those phones. Think of how much land was strip mined for the gold in the wiring. Think of how much heavy metals that’s putting in American landfills. It’s absurd, considering how people treat cell phones as a disposable vanity item! What a waste they create!

Well, enough on my environmentalist rant. I’ll spare you the stories of how little I manage to throw out every other week. I take pride in how efficient I live. Looks like more caching this weekend, and more game design projects in the works.

—Ryan

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Icehouse, a Call to Arms!

April 30, 2005
Ever since Andy Looney announced last week that production costs were forcing the boxed set of Zendo to go out of print, long discussions were sparked about the future of Icehouse for Looney Labs. Looney drew a lot of criticism for his business practices; he was accused of destroying jobs rather than let them go to China. With Asian labor, the production cost per pyramid could be slashed down to a pittance. Newbies balk at the $40 cost of Zendo. Many fans realize that the current retail prices are cost-prohibitive, and that the long-term health of the game system would be better if more people were drawn into it (a move that lower prices would go hand-in-hand with). However, Looney Labs is proud that their products are made in the USA, with money staying within our borders supporting the local economy. This position is not likely to change in the near future, given LL’s mission statement.

I for one appluad Looney’s position. It takes fortitude to refuse to compromise his ideals in the sake of his business and livelihood. Though it seems stubborn to put his favorite and oldest game design at risk for such ideological beliefs, he’s believes that the system will survive by its merits alone, despite higher costs than competing products. Andy takes the blame for his products’ high costs, but he feels that the ethical values behind his decision are worth it. He holds his convictions strongly, but even devoted Icehouse fans aren’t entirely sold on the idea.

Regardless, Looney Labs is looking for ways to lower the costs of pyramid production. I think the best way to do this is to get molds that can produce more pieces per run, and use a hot runner to eliminate the manual labor costs of clipping. But these new molds will cost a large sum of cash on hand. and it’s more than LL can muster. Eventually, the reduced cost of making pyramids might pay for the mold over time, that is if Icehouse stashes pick up. I think the mold is worth the investment. The plastic pyramids have already outperformed their predecessors, and I think they ar slowly but steadily making headway. I support the Icehouse fan community in any effort to raise capital for a mold fund.

So, what is to be done with these pesky pyramids? I read through the Hypothermia archives, which chronicles the history of Icehouse from 1990 to 1996. Having read this, I learned that Icehouse has always been plagued by a combination of high production costs and lackluster sales. Yet, a small and dedicated fanbase has helped the game survive and evolve.

On Monday, Mike Sugarbaker launched IcehouseGames.org, a new site for Icehouse fans. If Icehouse is to grow and thrive, it needs to get its name out there. I think the biggest hurdle Icehouse has to overcome is that people, even gamers, look at the pyramids and wonder, "what the heck are those things for"? Most people aren’t aware of the games these pyramids are used for, or the variety of those games, from Zendo to Homeworlds to CrackeD Ice. Also, the Icehouse community needed a better community portal, a place where new designs can be perfected, and established games can be referenced. The IcehouseGames.org wiki does just that. However, the site is only as strong as the community that supports it, so I urge all Icehouse fans to go and contribute! It has really grown in only four days, and it is an impressive establishment already.

I even submitted my own Icehouse game design, Traction! Please give it a try. I think it combines the fast pace of games like Icetowers with the maneuvering tactics of Icehouse. If it goes well, I hope to enter it in the next Icehouse Games Design Contest. Soon I will add another game to the site, a partial design I have dubbed Juxtapose.

So, go and try out some games, new and old! And remember to have fun!

Gloom, brownies, Backgammon, and geocaching

April 25, 2005
What a week it’s been!

Last Wednesday Evelyn and I went to game night at the Compleat Strategist. Emily decided that if she bought a game, we would play it. So she decided to buy and teach us Gloom. The theme of the game is straight out of the Addams family, with victorian art in the style of Edward Gorey. The object of the game was to have all of your misfit family members suffer as cruel a life as possible, and then have them die tragic deaths; the winner has the lowest score at the end of the game. In terms of game mechanics, the transluscent cards worked well, but the print quality (doubts about which prevented me from buying it myself) was mixed. Some cards appeared clear and crisp, while others looked worn or smudged. Further, the text is small, and is difficult to read even from across the table. The four of us had fun with the game, and the humor was amusing enough to keep our interest. I hope that repeat playings will help the more subtle elements shine through.

On Thursday night, we made another loaf of herb oat bread, and tried some two-player variations of Fishing for Terrorists. My idea of just drawing a card at random from the opponent’s hand worked okay, but Evelyn suggested simply revealing a random card, where the active player could use that card for his or her turn as if it were in his or her hand. Unlike the previous loaf, this loaf of bread didn’t even make it through the night.

Friday found as playing Blam!, which I enjoyed but left Evelyn scratching her head. We filled our bellies with fresh brownies made from a recipe my Mom sent; they were rich and chocolatey. Unlike most brownie recipes, this one called for actual chocolate rather than cocoa powder. Interestingly enough it didn’t need baking powder either, just baking soda.

On Saturday we went to see the Asian Games exhibit at the Smithsonian. The games of antiquity were surprisingly recognizable, namely Go, Chess, Pachisi, and Backgammon. There was an interesting section on playing cards. A set of Chinese cards were very narrow, and had a stark and modern Art Deco appearance, as if they were made in the 1920s. The cards from India were round and had up to sixteen suits, making for tall decks to shuffle! It got me to thinking…what board games if any *did* come out of Europe instead of Asia? Was the Church that strong of an influence to stifle friendly competition, or was war and illiteracy to blame?

I was delighted to see that game tables were set up for visitors to play with. Although my second attempt to teach Go to Evelyn failed (probably for the same reasons as Blam!), she loved Backgammon. We played six games of it in the next 24 hours. She remains undefeated within the Smithsonian!

On our way out of the Smithsonian we got drenched with rain, and we made a mad dash to the Metro station. We got back and made matzah ball chicken soup, which tasted wonderful after a long day at the museum, and peacefully ushered in Passover 5765 (that’s 2005 A.D. for the rest of us).

On Sunday, Evelyn and I decided to go geocaching together on her way out of town. We drove seperately, with my car leading the way to the Ossio Bucco cache. This one proved to be simple and straightforward, the only challenge coming from the chilling breeze. After helping Evelyn to the beltway, I tackled the Koz Klimber cache myself. That one took adrenaline!

I have lots of things I need to do for next week. I’m due for another haircut, as I’m brushing it away from my ears and forehead. The ring should be ready from the jeweler today, which I will check up on later. I need to look into ordering a roof rack for my car so I can fit my kayak on top, and I need a place to store it too. I also need to upload more caches onto my GPS, and Evelyn’s sending me another Passover recipe to try. I’m fresh out of beans today, so I’ll make another pot tonight.

Whew, what a week it’s been! Stay tuned!

Sahara, CrackeD Ice, and more

April 19, 2005
I’ve had a busy few days. Saturday was hectic; I found all 8 caches I attempted, including a real tough 3-part multicache. I also had a very minor fender bender in the CVS parking lot that succeeded in damaging a corner of my car that was already damaged. Now I’m glad I procrastinated in having last August’s accident repaired.

Then Evelyn arrived a little after noon on Sunday. She got an uncharacteristly early start, and didn’t have much troubles driving down from New York. As we walked to Food Star to get potatoes and eggs (Food Star’s the one place around where you can still get a dozen eggs for $1), I told her about these MSN Spaces things, with built-in blogging. She really liked the idea, as a very cheap and effective way to write about her views on dating, relationships, financial planning, education reform, and pooling stay-at-home mom work potential. She’s full of big ideas and has been looking for a good way to promulgate her thoughts.

We also started playing a few games of CrackeD Ice. It’s a cute little dexterity game, and we engineers can visualize the moments and balancing forces in our heads. It gets easier as more and more pieces are added; the challenge is just getting it started. Gotta love them pyramids!

Last night, we went to see Sahara, the film adaptation of the 1992 Clive Cussler novel. Having read the novel five years ago, I wanted to see Cussler’s unique blend of action, history, and intrigue portrayed rightly on the big screen (as opposed to 1980’s tragic rendition of Raise the Titanic). The picture had been getting mixed reviews, and I had my differences with the casting, but I had been waiting to see the movie for a couple weeks, just so I could take Evelyn along.

And the verdict is….we liked it! Without knowing anything about it besides what I had told her, she followed it well and really got into the movie, gripping my arm in suspense and cheering the Pitt and Giordino on. Familiarity with Cussler’s novel isn’t a must, and in fact helps distract a viewer from obvious plot omissions. I couldn’t help but compare it to its literary source, and contrast the characters as portrayed on screen with my visualized concepts from the book. I quickly picked up on some major differences in plot; obviously the writers had to take significant artistic liberties to compress a 500+ page book into a 2-hour film, but the end result captures the novel in basic plotline, and in spirit instead of to the letter. It stands well alone as a grandiose adventuring tale full of nonstop action and the ‘devil may care’ derring-do attitude Cussler injects into his characters.

The casting department was a mixed bag. McConaughey was a decent rendition of Dirk Pitt, exuding Pitt’s natural guile, confidence, charm and curiousity, and his perfomrance did a good job distancing himself from other characters he’s played (U-571, Reign of Fire). My only criticism of his take on Pitt is his Texas drawl; I don’t see So. Cal.-raised Pitt having a strong Southern accent (or for Giordino, for that matter), yet both did. Steve Zahn was about as far from my expectations of Al as Lagos is from Richmond. I picture Cheech Marin, Dennis Franz, or the late Telly Savalas doing a better job with Al. Zahn and McConaughey did well as buddies, trading snide banter and working as a team; Al was treated as an equal to Pitt rather than a mere sidekick kept around for comic relief, though Zahn did lower Al’s IQ a bit. Penelope Cruz was okay in her role as WHO investigator Eva Rojas, a sharp and professional scientist with a bleeding heart. Her character came off in the film as very one-dimensional but respectable, much as in the book. Rojas was not a demanding role for her, but she filled the shoes adequately. William H. Macy was a delight to see as Sandecker, but he lacked the spine that Sandecker needs to pull all the favors he does. I’m afraid Macy can’t escape his ‘lovable loser’ image that easily. Sadly, many of Cussler’s other characters are either way off (Rudi Gunn), or absent entirely (Perlmutter, Jaeger). As for the villains, neither Massarde nor Kazim come off as truly evil or treacherous, and their performances are regrettably stale.

It seems Sahara’s biggest criticism comes from the absurdness of the action and the implausable plot. Those who are unable to suspend disbelief will be disappointed, as with any Cussler novel. If ironclad vs. helicopter is too much for you to take, then Cussler’s works aren’t for you. Still, I enjoyed this movie by taking it at face value for what it was meant to be: a freespirited and rolicking action adventure, far more satisfying than an overstylized superhero or Vin Diesel vehicle (the XXX sequel’s trailer comes to mind). That and as a maritime history geek, I was engrossed by the brief ironclad opener segment, as ironclads are rarely in movies at all.

As for the next few days, I’m looking forward to relaxing with Evelyn, and going to game night tomorrow evening. We’re also planning as visit to the Asian game exhibit at the Smithsonian for Saturday.

Live! from 15 April 2005 A.D.

April 15, 2005
(In this space appears a block of largely-ignored text that contributes to the overburdening and eventual collapse of the Internet, and to the heat death of the universe.)

Ryan adorns himself with a neon top hat and prismatic campaign ribbons, strides into the steam-filled Great Crystal Palace promenade, and begins waltzing solo to the unheard tune of Sonic Youth’s "The Diamond Sea". He watches through self-adjusting telescopic lenses as glistening pyramids slide across the warped panorama. He tips his hat to the Lady of Ice as she takes his picture, while a rousing silent applause resonates continuosly. The geared pylons click fluidly until midnight, when the rain begins to upwell from the ground and fall into the sky. Ryan’s gloved hand adjusts the dialing wheel, and aims with jaded precision at the empty tin cans, deftly striking each one with not a glimmer of concern. And then a flash of light drowns out all, and Ryan continues his wayward journey, turning his ship toward 1878.

(I’m in an artistic mood.)