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Vacation Part 2: Cape Cod [Aug. 23rd, 2014|11:20 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

The main plan for this vacation was to spend a week on Cape Cod. My parents have been vacationing there every year (well, as far as I know they haven’t missed a year) since I was a kid. Even after they divorced they continued to go, each one going down to the cottage on consecutive weeks, with my sister Katy and me going down for two weeks. We moved among different cottages in Orleans over the years before eventually settling on a duplex near Skaket Beach.

Katy suggested last year that we all go down with my Dad this year, so we were able to rent both sides of the duplex. Dad and I drove down last Saturday, and Katy joined us, with her boyfriend Andrew, and her son I and his daughter A. I haven’t done more than a day trip down to the Cape in over 20 years, so I was looking forward to this.

Cottage Sign

We had gorgeous weather for most of the week – a little humid at the start, and a little cloudy at the end, but considering it could easily have been drivingly hot and humid all week, or raining, I’m not complaining!

We settled into a pattern of Dad going to get us pastries for breakfast in the morning, and we’d each brew coffee on our sides of the cottage. It was relaxing. Katy and Andrew went out for runs or walks in the morning, and sometimes I’d amble down to the beach to look around. We spent some time down on the beach during the week, but we also spent a lot of time going out and doing stuff.

We took a trip down to Chatham, where we stayed for a few years when I was quite young. It’s got a cute downtown with a nifty candy shop, among other stores. On the way back we swung by the beach, which has changed a lot over the last few decades, as storms have washed away the natural breakwater and radically changed the shape of the sands. Once upon a time you could walk in the shallows and pick up starfish, but I don’t think they come in that far anymore. I bet that over the next few decades that erosion will even threaten Chatham Light which stands a few dozen yards from the bluffs over the beach. We’ll see.

Chatham Beach

None of us were terribly familiar with restaurants to go to on the Cape, so by Wednesday we were turning to Yelp to find some places to eat. We found several good ones, such as the Orleans Public House (which we went to three times), and the Rock Harbor Grill.

On Tuesday, everyone else went off on a horseback ride, so Dad and I drove down to Woods Hole to see the Oceanographic Institution (WHOI, pronounced “hooey”). Unfortunately, it took longer to get there than I’d expected, and it turns out the WHOI buildings close down at 4, so we didn’t get to see a lot. But it’s pretty down there. We’ll have to go back earlier in the day someday.

On Wednesday we went to the Edward Gorey House, where we tried another new restaurant, the Optimist Cafe, which was maybe the most popular among us. The Gorey House was quite cool, with lots of samples of his cartoons and original works. The house is the house he lived in, which is also pretty neat. And there’s a scavenger hunt based on the Gashleycrumb Tinies. Well worth the visit. I wish I’d bought one of their tote bags.

Edward Gorey House front door

On Thursday, Debbi came down with her sister Dianne and two of her kids, R and J. The girls, R and A, are about the same age, and the boys, J and I, are also about the same age. After a bit of ice-breaking, they all got along great. We got pizza for lunch, and then went down to the beach for a couple of hours. It was nearly low tide, so the boys dug in the sand for a while, and the girls pulled the floats out to the water and paddled around until it was time to go. Everyone seemed to have a great time!

Andrew and A left Friday morning, and the rest of us made a trip to shop in Wellfleet. We had lunch at the simply-named Bookstore & Restaurant; I’d been going to the bookstore for decades, and always assumed the restaurant was just a basic diner, but it’s actually a quite good restaurant. The bookstore, sadly, is a shadow of its former self; I found a number of neat things there in the past (they once had a fine set of silver age comics, for example), but now it seems to be a barely-organized collection of random stuff. Too bad. Anyway, we also walked over Uncle Tim’s Bridge, which is quite scenic. Well, on the way back I and I (heh) ran down the hill and across the bridge as fast as we could go. I can outrun him, but he’s not far from being able to outrun me. Then we waited for Dad and Katy to catch up.

Saturday it was time to head out, so we packed up and cleaned the cottages and drove home. Dad and I stopped at the Optimist Cafe for brunch, and bludgeoned out way across the Cape through nasty traffic. I visited Mom for the afternoon and then went back to have dinner with Dad and do laundry. Tomorrow Debbi and I fly home.

It was a nice, relaxing trip. Kind of nice to be off the Internet for a week except for my iPhone. I don’t know when I’ll make it down there again, but hopefully before another 20 years go by.

Sitting on Skaket Beach

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John Scalzi: Redshirts [Aug. 19th, 2014|08:40 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

Redshirts is just about the perfect vacation book: It’s a page-turner, it’s funny, and it’s thought-provoking.

It takes place in a Star Trek-like universe, in which crew members of the starship Intrepid find that they are at great risk of being killed whenever they go on a mission with one of five key officers. So much so that most of the crew tries to look busy whenever they can’t avoid the officers outright. Our hero Andrew Dahl and his friends – all recent recruits to the Intrepid – try to unravel what’s going on, and find that not only is there a high fatality rate, but that the officers’ adventures are filled with near-impossible levels of coincidence, as well as events which seem flat-out impossible violations of the laws of physics. Eventually they convince themselves of what must be happening, and hatch a plan to try to fix things and save their own lives in the process.

If you’re familiar with the central conceit of the book, then I’ll discuss it at more length after the jump below. If you’re not, then I’m not going to spoil it here. And it’s either going to work for you, or it isn’t. It worked for me (for the most part), and the story is a fine example of characters backed into a corner and struggling as best they can to get out of their predicament. It’s also at at-times touching story for certain characters who realize what’s been happening to them (in some cases for years), and for certain other characters whose confrontation with the fantastic events causes them to reflect upon and change the course of their lives.

Scalzi is, no doubt about it, a fantastic wordsmith. His light tone doesn’t always work for me (and I can easily see it turning off some readers), and he has to thread the needle here to not lighten the tone of the often-gruesome first half of the book without making it feel inappropriate, and then switch gears to the more serious second half without it becoming maudlin. He succeeds at this quite well, and I was constantly impressed with how funny the book was, but also how clever it was.

As I said, the similarity to Star Trek is deliberate, but it’s not – as I’ve seen a few observe – fan fiction by any reasonable measure. It’s also not metatextual in that it’s not really commenting on Star Trek or similar shows. (If it’s commenting on anything, it’s poking fun at the bad writing that creeps into – if not pervades – most TV shows which have to crank out 20+ episodes per year.) It’s using the basic framework of Star Trek to tell its own story, and I think by-and-large it is respectful of the genre while still being realistic about its sillier aspects.

Unless you take your Star Trek too seriously, or can’t connect with Scalzi’s writing style, I think Redshirts is well worth a read.

Some more spoiler-laden discussion after the jump:

Read the rest of this entry »Collapse )

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Vacation Part 1: Errands with Mom [Aug. 15th, 2014|07:16 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

We headed off for our latest vacation last Tuesday night. Yes, another red-eye flight to Boston to visit our families. Which also means it was another vacation apart for us, since I go to visit my family and Debbi goes to visit hers.

The payoff for the vacation for me comes tomorrow – more on that in part 2! But this week was about doing stuff with Mom.

One thing I miss about visiting is that I no longer spend long, lazy days hanging out with Mom at her house. Since she no longer drives, I spend a chunk of my visits taking her to places she wants to go, and since I’m managing her finances I often have things I need to do with her. It can be stressful at times, and it’s definitely less relaxing than before she moved.

It was raining when we landed early Wednesday, and it kept up when Debbi and her sister dropped me off at my Dad’s house. He and I went to breakfast and then I took a nap. After lunch I drove out to get Mom.

On the way I drove past my elementary school, which is being demolished to be replaced which a modern building. It’s about 90 years old and felt out of date even when I attended, so while it’s sad to see it go, it’s also time. Then I drove past my Mom’s house, which we sold last year, and found that it had been demolished. Which is what we expected when we sold it, since like the school it was old and not really able to be modernized. I was less shocked by it than I’d expected. But it does close the book on part of my childhood.

I met Mom and told her about the school and the house. And then we headed off to run some errands. First she had some watches she needed fixed, and I had researched some jewelers we could go to. One of them was supposedly just a few blocks from her place, but it no longer existed. So instead we drove to a very nice little place the next city over, and they were able to get all of her watches’ batteries replaced the same day. Then we swung by the bank to deal with an issue with her bank account, which was pretty straightforward.

We went to dinner at Tartufo, a quite good Italian place I hadn’t been to before. Definitely worth a return trip someday. The only downside had nothing to do with the restaurant – the rain had gone away for several hours, but returned during dinner, and I’d left the umbrellas in the car, so we got drenched on the way back.

Thursday morning I got up really early to pick up Mom and her cat Maggie to take Maggie to the vet. Maggie is a middle-aged cat who needed her teeth cleaned, so we dropped her off shortly before 8 am. We met the vet and he said they’d cleaned her teeth before, which was a relief to me since it meant she’d gone through anesthesia before and would probably be fine.

The other big task for the day was to go to the Registry of Motor Vehicles to get her a new state ID. One thing I’ve been very grateful for is that Mom has not wanted to resume driving, and though I asked her repeatedly if she was okay with surrendering her driver’s license, she stuck to her willingness to do so. So that meant all we had to do was wait for 90 minutes for our turn to submit the forms. Fortunately the lady who helped us was extremely helpful and after the wait it all went very smoothly.

We had lunch and then picked up Maggie, whose cleaning had the best-case outcome, with no teeth pulled. We brought her home, the vet having warned us that she might be lethargic and have a suppressed appetite for a day or so. She promptly ate half a can of food which alleviated that worry. Since we’d driven all over creation, we instead went out to get coffee and do some walking, and ended the day having dinner at a nearby Chinese restaurant.

I breathed a sigh of relief at having done all the tasks I needed to do for the week, so Friday Mom and I did some shopping that she wanted to do, and had a nice lunch along the way. We also swung by my elementary school to get a closer look, and ran into my sixth grade teacher who has been taking pictures every day during the demolition. I haven’t seen him in several years, and it was good to chat with him again.

In the evening I headed back to have dinner with Dad and do my laundry.

And tomorrow Dad and I are heading to Cape Cod for a week with my sister and her clan!

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Tiny Kittens [Jul. 25th, 2014|05:20 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

Over the last couple of months I’ve been watching a group of kittens through a page called Tiny Kittens. They have a Facebook page, but more importantly they have a live stream page. Ceej turned me on to them.

These particular kittens are six called the “tiny dancers”, born to a mother named Calypso, and with six dancing names: Mambo, Foxtrot, Jitterbug, Lindy, Salsa and Hula. Over that time the kittens have grown from barely-able-to-move to being small but fully-functional cats, running and playing. Their mom has been great, too: Once they started weaning from her, she became playful and would even wrestle with her kids. And she was a beautiful calico to boot. (She was a little clueless about monitoring her kittens sometimes; once one of them fell out of their bed and was meowing on the ground, and Calypso would go down, then jump back up, and back and forth until a human came in and picked up the kitten and put it back.)

Anyway, the kittens are now about three months old and have been getting fixed and are heading out to their forever homes. Mambo and Hula headed out on Wednesday, and Calypso – who has also been spayed – went to her own home today, after one last morning snuggling with and cleaning her kittens. I watched Wednesdays’ departures being packed up with little plastic lunch box care packages, and being shown to the camera one last time before they departed. (Each pair has their own Facebook pages: Hula and Mambo, Foxtrot and Salsa, Lindy and Jitterbug.)

Watching them get broken up has been sad. Even though I know they’re all going to good homes, living together is all the kittens have known and I wonder how the seven cats each react to being broken up like this. It’s totally anthropomorphizing on my part, since I know most cats adapt to their new situation, and they’ll all be happy with their new humans. It’s great that it looks like each kitten will have one of their siblings to spend their lives with: I remember telling Newton several times that he got to spend just about his whole life with his brother Jefferson. Of course I don’t know whether they really cared about that, but we humans like to think they do. I still have small regrets that none of the other three cats got to say goodbye to Jeff, since he went so quickly.

Anyway, I can’t imagine fostering kittens myself. It would be too hard to let them go, I think. It’s hard enough watching these kittens – who I haven’t even spent times with directly – head off. Debbi has thought about volunteering with our local Humane Society, but I think she worries that she’d have trouble saying goodbye to them, too (not to mention that not all of the animals will come to a good end; even if the shelter is no-kill, some of them will get sick or have other problems).

In any event, I guess the Tiny Kittens shelter will get some new kittens in at some point, and I’ll get to watch them grow and then leave. It’s adorable and entertaining while it lasts. But it’s sad because what the end is for me comes all too soon.

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Three Disney Films [Jul. 19th, 2014|05:34 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

Recently we watched the three most recent Disney animated films, and I wanted to write a few words about them.

The Princess and the Frog (2009), based on the fairy tale “The Frog Prince”, takes place in New Orleans in the 1920s where Tiana (Anika Nona Rose) wants to open the restaurant her father – who died in World War I – always dreamed of. Her plans are derailed when Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) comes to town intent on marrying into money, and the villain, Dr. Facilier (Keith David) turns him into a frog in a scheme to get rich himself. The twist is that when Tiana kisses Naveen, she too turns into a frog, and the pair embark on a quest of personal and mutual discovery as they try to get changed back.

This film has bold and flamboyant characters somewhat reminiscent of Aladdin – particularly the jazz-playing alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) – and the dialog crackles effectively. Debbi liked the music a lot, and I enjoy it but felt they were bending over backwards a bit far to cover all the kinds of music in New Orleans and Cajun territory. I also felt there was a little too much “frog time” and not enough “people time”. I kind of felt like there was a story about Tiana as an adult woman rather than a transformed frog which I’d rather have seen. But it’s an enjoyable film, and the climax and denouement are both worth cheering for.

(I did wonder a few times during the film about how it willfully ignores the fact that slavery would have been in the living memory of people in the 20s, and the film’s awkward predecessor among Disney films with black characters, Song of the South. But of course it’s not in Disney’s nature to consider such things.)

Tangled (2010) is probably the weakest of the three films. Based on the fairy tale “Rapunzel”, it features the character of that name (Mandy Moore) being the daughter of a king and queen who is spirited away by Mother Gothel (Donna Murphy) who is using the magical properties of her hair to keep herself young. She keeps Rapunzel trapped in a tower at the edge of the kingdom, where Rapunzel sees the floating lanterns released each year on her birthday, and she longs to go see them up close. One day a thief, Flynn (Zachary Levi), stumbles upon her tower while on the run from both the law and his partners whom he’d double-crossed, and she captures him. She then extracts a promise from him to take her to see the lanterns, and they set out on a journey pursued by his ex-partners, by Mother Gothel, and by the King’s men.

Worst things first, I felt the songs in this film fell flat. None of them stood out to me or really stuck in my head after watching it. I also felt the villains were pretty weak, in particular Mother Gothel needed to be more of a big bad than just a schemer and manipulator. Not that seeing her defeat wasn’t satisfying, but she just didn’t feel very threatening. Maybe if she’d been a true wizard, or even the queen of a rival kingdom she might have had the necessary weight.

Flynn and Rapunzel are both fun characters, but the story ultimately belongs to Flynn. Partly because it’s the more flamboyant character, but also because he’s the one who grows and changes and gains redemption – and who ultimately is the one who makes the big sacrifice in rode to thwart the villain. Rapunzel is on a quest to discover who she is – because at the beginning she isn’t anyone – but the growth of a more complex character like Flynn just flat overshadows her arc.

The highlights of the film are generally the action sequences, which are very well-staged. Also Flynn’s act of sacrifice. But while it’s worth watching, it’s not one of the classics.

Then there’s the surprise breakout animated film of recent years, Frozen (2013), inspired by Hans Christian Andersen’s story “The Snow Queen”. A pair of princesses, Anna (Kristen Bell) and Elsa (Idina Menzel) are best friends as children, but Elsa was born with the power to generate cold and snow. After almost accidentally killing Anna, Elsa is put into seclusion by their parents, and Anna’s memories of Elsa’s powers are removed. Alas, their parents die at sea and Elsa grows up to become the new queen, but she’s unable to control her powers during her coronation, and takes herself into exile, also inadvertently dropping a magical winter over the land. Anna heads out to find her, and is helped by an ice farmer, Kristoff (Jonathan Groff), and an animated snowman, Olaf (Josh Gadd). Elsa’s powers again threaten Anna’s life, and a plot to take over the kingdom threatens all of them.

Frozen captured peoples’ attention partly for its soundtrack, which is surely very good. “Let It Go” has been almost unescapable in pop culture over the last nine months, and “Do You Want to Build a Snowman?” has also been popular. (For my money, the best song behind “Let It Go” is “Fixer-Upper”.) The other songs, and the orchestral music, are also quite good. If anything I think some of the tracks are a little under-orchestrated – one can rarely say that anything in a Disney film isn’t enough over-the-top.

It also grabbed some headlines because both main characters are female, and ultimately they solve their own problems (though Kristoff helps a little). The characterizations suffer some from both of the women being relative ciphers. To some extent they suffer from the same problem as Rapunzel, since both have grown up in isolation and they don’t have much in the way of backstory or personality. Anna’s central conflict prior to the coronation is that she wants something – anything – to happen to her. Elsa just wants to be normal and is frightened by who she is. This is enough to drive the plot, but it makes their motivations and characters pretty one-dimensional.

Like Tangled, Frozen involves a lot of running around, and at least the running around is fun and well-staged, which is good because there’s just not that much to the plot. But as with the other two films Frozen does stick the climax and resolution (even if its “true love conquers all” approach to solving Elsa’s dilemma doesn’t make any more sense than it usually does).

Reading about the film’s development, it does sound like fundamentally it suffered from not knowing what kind of story it was telling, and changing direction along he way. Even the core story between the sisters changed (for a while Elsa was apparently going to be a flat-out villain). It might have felt like a deeper film is Elsa had already become queen and something went wrong with her powers (a villain exposing her for his own gain, perhaps), adding more sophisticated elements to Anna’s coming-of-age story (because the coming-of-age story doesn’t really seem to fit Elsa).

I feel like I’m only saying bad things about Frozen, but it’s certainly not a bad film. It’s just kind of strange from a story construction perspective, but it is trying something outside of Disney’s usual comfort zone so perhaps it’s not surprising that it feels awkward (the supposed villains, for instance, feel basically bolted on, if not outright redundant). Anna’s quest and growth along the way are enjoyable and work fairly well, and have a number of entertaining set-pieces.

If you’re curious about the difference between a Tony-award-winning Broadway singer and a Disney pop princess, compare the cinematic version of “Let It Go” sung by Menzel and the music video sung by Demi Lovato.

Oh, on the Blu-Ray release don’t miss “The Making of Frozen”. Really, don’t miss it. Really.

Anyway, three Disney films. All of them flawed, two of them trying substantially new things for Disney’s oeuvre, and both feeling not entirely comfortable in doing so, but the more traditional one (Tangled) feels less artistically successful than those other two. But they’re all worth watching. Worth watching, that is, if you enjoy Disney films, because the stretching that the two films do isn’t enough to make them feel substantially different from what we’re used to from a Disney animated feature.

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The Wicked + The Divine #1 [Jun. 29th, 2014|09:37 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

The Wicked + The Divine #1, by Kieron Gillen & Jamie McKelvie, Image Comics, June 2014

The Wicked + The Divine #1 Like most of the comics-reading world, I discovered Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie through their two Phonogram mini-series. I quite enjoyed the first one, although McKelvie’s art was still very raw (plus it was in black-and-white, and I prefer color). But I couldn’t get into the second one, The Singles Club, which was a set of short stories with thin characterization and minimal plot. McKelvie’s art had reached A-list quality by that time, so I’ve kept an eye on each of their work. That wasn’t hard to do, since the comics blogosphere loves them. Also, I’ve been quite enjoying Gillen’s run on Iron Man (though I bailed on his Avatar comic Über after about five issues).</p>

Their new collaboration, The Wicked + The Divine came out a couple of weeks ago to rave reviews. I enjoyed it, but I think it’s far too early to get tremendously enthusiastic about it. Well, except for the art – the art is fantastic.

The premise is that there are a set of gods (at least 4, perhaps 12) who manifest in human form – apparently by taking over the bodies of actual humans – every 90 years, stick around for 2 years, and then die. We see their last incarnations’ final moments in the 1920s in the prologue, and then we jump forward to the present day where a girl named Laura is at a dance trying to become the host for the goddess Amaterasu. She’s not chosen, but afterwards she meets Luci, one of the other gods (bet you can’t guess which one). After an assassination attempt on the gods during an interview, Luci is put on trial, and everything goes to hell.

The story has its ups and downs. The big issue I had with Phonogram is that I can’t relate to Gillen’s perspective on pop culture, especially in music, so the scene where Laura goes to Amaterasu’s concert was, for me – just short of literally – sound and fury, signifying nothing. But what happens afterwards is quite interesting: Luci’s interest in Laura, and her friction with her fellow gods, and her seemingly erratic nature. Which characters are in play, and what games they’re playing. That’s the stuff I’m interested in, and what the gods plan to do with their brief time on Earth. (What would make someone apparently give up their life to be a host to a god is another interesting question, though after this issue it’s far less interesting than what led to the issue’s cliffhanger.)

Oh, and the art is fantastic, as I said. McKelvie still sports the clean line that’s characterized his art all along, but the 1920s sequence also shows a sense of form and shading reminiscent of John Cassaday – which isn’t necessarily better than McKelvie’s usual style, but shows a lot of flexibility.

So color me cautiously optimistic. So there’s a lot of promise here. But if the series ends up being built around Gillen & McKelvie’s musical interests, or being clever in its pop culture references, then I expect it will lose my interest. It’s the gods and the game they’re playing that I’m here for.

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Retractable Screen Doors [Jun. 25th, 2014|11:18 am]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

Our house has some nice french doors that open from our family room onto the back porch. But with multiple indoor kitties we haven’t really been able to enjoy them (i.e., leave them open) except for a few open houses when the cats have been confined to a room. But recently we got some retractable screens and now we’e able to have them open when we want:

I staged this picture specifically so you can see the screens, but they're not generally this visible.

I staged this picture specifically so you can see the screens, but they’re not generally this visible.

We bought the screens through ClearView of San Mateo after seeing them at the Mountain View A La Carte & Art fair this spring, and getting them ordered and installed was quite straightforward. Installation took a few hours, but really there was nothing (including the price) which was beyond what we expected. We were also quite happy with how well the frame blended in with the door trim, including the dark brown bottom rail which works quite well with our wood flooring. We bought a few upgrades, such as low-profile handles, magnets inside the doors, and locks to hold one of the doors in place.

We almost immediately learned that opening up the doors cools off the family room and kitchen within just a few minutes. And the cats have been gradually warming up to sitting and looking outside, although at night we often have to close it up because Jackson starts jumping at bugs that come up from outside. I understand that other people have had problems with cats quickly figuring out how to get under the screen and get outside, but our cats so far haven’t tried. (We have on order an enhancement to put a piece of clear plastic into a slot at the bottom of the screen to prevent them from being able to do that.)

The screens are not invisible, but they’re not intrusive, either. And we did get heavier-duty screens to deal with potential cat paws on them. Plus it’s good to have them slightly visible so you notice they’re there and don’t walk into them. So far, neither of us has, and we haven’t tripped over the bottom rail, either. (And neither did anyone at our open house, as far as I know!)

We’d been thinking about doing this since we first moved in, and it’s great to knock down another long-standing home improvement domino.

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My Favorite iOS Game: Ascension [Jun. 17th, 2014|10:36 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

My favorite iOS game – for several years now – is Ascension: Chronicle of the Godslayer. It’s a card game by Stone Blade, but it has an excellent iOS implementation by Playdek.

Unfortunately, it seems that the lifespan of Playdek’s version is coming to an end (more on that below), so I wanted to write a post about it before the end arrives.

Ascension is a “deck-building game”, which shares some things in common with “trading card games” (such as Magic), but has the key difference that it’s not “collectible”, which means that you can’t build better decks by spending more money on cards, and you don’t need to sink money into it to stay competitive. Rather, each game starts with each player having a pre-determined deck of cards, and there’s another set of cards which the players can acquire in the course of the game. “Acquiring” a card usually means spending some resources and putting the acquired card in their discard pile. Then when they finish going through their deck, they shuffle their discard pile into a new deck and draw from it, so they can use the cards they acquired on their last time through the deck. But the key is that players are on equal footing – everyone’s playing the game with the same pool of cards.

(By the way, probably the best-known deck-building game is Dominion, which does not have an official iOS version.)

In Ascension, each player starts with 8 Apprentice cards, which provide points (“Runes”) to acquire cards, and 2 Militia cards, which provide points (“Power”) to defeat Monsters. The rest of the cards in the set are shuffled into a draw pile, and six of them are laid out in the center row. These are the cards which can be acquired (if they’re Heroes or Constructs) or defeated (if they’re Monsters). Defeating Monsters gains the player Honor. The game starts with a pool of 60 Honor to be gained, and once the two players have gained at least 60 Honor between them, the game ends. Heroes and Constructs acquired also provide Honor (but Honor which is not counted against the pool of 60), and the winner is the player with the most Honor from defeating Monsters plus Honor from acquired cards.

Each turn a player draws 5 cards. Heroes are cards (including the Apprentice and Militia cards) which are played once that turn to provide an effect. The effect can be to provide Runes or Power, or to do things like draw more cards. Constructs are played and remain on the board, and have a continuous effect, for example to provide 1 Power each turn. Defeating Monsters can have effects besides producing Honor, they can also produce Runes, or they can have effects like making the opponent discard a card, letting you draw a card, or making them discard some of their played Constructs. When you acquire a card from the center row, or defeat a Monster in it, it gets replaced by a card from the draw pile. There are also four factions, which the Heroes and Constructs in the center row belong to, and some cards’ effects have an additional impact based on their faction.

A mid-game turn, with some of the more interesting cards from the original set in the center row. (click for larger image)

A mid-game turn, with some of the more interesting cards from the original set in the center row.
(click for larger image)

When I started playing the game I thought it was going to be a pretty simple game and I’d give up on it before long, but I soon found that it had surprising depth. It took me a little while to realize that acquired cards provide Honor – this is key because Constructs from the Mechana faction in particular provide much more Honor than other cards. But I quickly learned that the principle of acquiring better cards (basically, investing in future turns) tends to trump defeating Monsters early on, while when the pool of Honor is nearly gone you want to make a mad grab for the most valuable cards. Sometimes I’d take a balanced approach, other times I’d focus single-mindedly on building up my deck. Some cards allow you to get rid of the less-powerful cards in your deck permanently, which I tend to prioritize, even above (most) card-drawing cards.

Another turn from the same game, with the cards currently in my deck exposed.

Another turn from the same game, with the cards currently in my deck exposed.

On our trip to Hawaii in 2011 I spent a bunch of our free time playing Ascension, and got quite good at it. Then they started releasing expansions to it, available as in-app purchases. I was skeptical that there would be a lot they could do to make it more interesting, but they’ve actually come up with a lot: New effects you can trigger, new Monsters, and even just new permutations of earlier cards.

Even when I felt I had gotten as much as I could out of an expansion, I would sometimes notice a card or two which I’d rarely played with because it didn’t feel very useful, and I’d wonder whether I could craft a winning strategy around it. And usually I could – the card was there for a reason, but you had to figure out how best to use it.

Treasures of the Study is a neat card to build around if you can acquire it early.

Treasures of the Study is a neat card to build around if you can acquire it early.

The iOS app is extremely smooth: It’s very clear in showing how much Honor is left to be gained, what Constructs each player has in play, what’s in their discard piles, whether a card has been modified in some way (e.g., having its faction changed), etc. And the online multiplayer support is excellent: You start a game where each player has a certain amount of time to play all their turns, and then you can either play a fast game (e.g., a 10- or 30-minute limit), or set up a game which lasts for days, if you want to play with someone over a long period of time. And you can set up a game for others to join, and then challenge them to a rematch after each game. You can also play 3- or 4-player games. It’s really well done. I’ve got some series of games against the same opponents going back months. I’ve even made a new friend who figured out my Facebook identity after befriending me on iOS Game Center (a trick which is harder to pull off now, since Playdek uses their own servers for player identity today). At my “peak”, I had over 30 games going at once. (These days I have about 10.)

It’s hard to imagine playing the physical card game – the app does so much bookkeeping for you, from tallying players’ Honor, to shuffling their decks, to making random selections where appropriate. Despite being a “card” game, it feels designed for computerized play.

Sometimes the board gets degenerate: Here the center row is all Monsters, but as usual I have no cards providing Power.

Sometimes the board gets degenerate: Here the center row is all Monsters, but as usual I have no cards providing Power.

Sadly, the number of people playing the iOS game seems to be dwindling – I often check new games and see very few or even none available to join, when a year or two ago there would have been dozens. I believe the reason is newer expansions of the print game have not been coming to iOS, probably because Stone Blade is pulling back the rights to the game from Playdek. Early last year Stone Blade ran a Kickstarter campaign to bring Ascension to Android and PC, and I bet they plan to eventually do an iOS client of their own, playable with the Android and PC versions. If that’s the case, then the real question is whether their implementation can be as smooth, easy to use, and bug-free as Playdek’s. It’s one of the best implementations of any game I’ve seen on iOS, and I am unsure whether iOS users would accept anything less.

(The comments on the Kickstarter from May and June of this year are not very encouraging – it sounds like development is behind schedule, the last update from Stone Blade is from March, and a number of backers seem unhappy.)

In any event, the iOS version of Ascension seems to be dying, and I think Stone Blade is missing out on the chance to keep people excited about the game by not letting Playdek bringing the newer expansions to it as they come out. If the environment dies out entirely, then by the time they bring out a new client for “Ascension Online“, players like me might look at it and think, “Yeah, that was fun to play, but I’ve moved on to other things.” It seems very shortsighted.

Anyway, I’ve been enjoying the game for about three years now, and it’s sad to see it dwindling like this. On the other hand, playing it less means more time for other things. Probably not what Stone Blade has in mind, but that’s the way it’s working out. If the end is nigh, well, it’s been a good run.

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Open House 2014 [Jun. 15th, 2014|10:38 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

Yesterday we held our four annual open house, which is really just a party for our friends and neighbors. Of course, none of them have been as big as the first one, from the month after we moved into our house, but we’re still enjoying them. One frustrating detail is that we use Evite to send the invitations, but we are never sure whether the invitations it sends make it to their recipients, or if they end up in peoples’ junk mail boxes, or what. A lot of people don’t respond. But, we haven’t really found a better site than Evite, and the alternative is to send a bulk e-mail and collect replies that way.

Anyway, we bought too much food as usual, and made sangria and margaritas and infused water. It got into the mid-80s by the time the party started (2 pm), but the first people showed up around a quarter to 3, and by 4 pm it was cooling off pretty nicely. Plus our back porch is in shade by then.

The biggest downside to a large party is that I have good conversations with a few people, but there are many who I do little more than say ‘hi’ to. But as long as everyone has a good time, that’s the important thing.

I also tend to be in high demand to play with the kids – for some reason, kids love me. We had kids from ages 2 to 7, plus a (I think) 12-year-old, and they spent most of the afternoon running around in the back yard, kicking balls around and the like. We bought some bubble-blowing stuff and I made bubbles for them, and they ran around popping them.

We had a few guests who hadn’t been to the house before, so we gave some house tours, which is always fun. We also had our home’s builder and his wife come by, so we got to catch up with him.

At first we left the cats out to play with the guests, but after the first hour it was getting too chaotic and we wanted to leave the doors open, so we put them in our guest room for most of the party. I think Roulette and Sadie snoozed together under the bed, while Jackson was mostly resentful at being closed away from the action. When the party started winding down we let them out and the kittens came down to check things out.

Anyway, we had some folks stay until nearly 9, and I got to talk to several people I don’t see very often. We’ll do it again next year!

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The Working-from-Home Experience [Jun. 13th, 2014|11:27 pm]
(Crossposted from Fascination Place)

A couple of months ago I decided to start working from home one day a week. I have a couple of cow-orkers who work from home one or two days a week because they have a long commute, but even though I live a lot closer I thought it was reasonable to see if I could, and my boss didn’t have an issue with it. For me, the decision was a tension between liking to be around my cow-orkers, and the fact that I now have an officemate but wanting to have my own dedicated working space once in a while. So I thought I’d try it.

Well, actually I kind of did try it back in 2012 when I worked from my Mom’s house while she was recovering from surgery, and that went pretty well.

It took me a couple of weeks to get into a good routine working at home. From a work standpoint this was because my first two days doing so happened to coincide with days when a bunch of random things to investigate came in and my plans to make progress on major projects got derailed. (This is not uncommon for the project I work on, but those two days seemed to be particularly bad for disruptions.)

Another reason is that the day I chose to work at home is Wednesday, which is also comic book day. Plus I had to figure out what to do about lunch. So the first couple of weeks I went with my first instinct: Go get comics over lunch, and also eat somewhere while I was out. This turned out to take way too long and took an unreasonable chunk out of the afternoon. So I quickly moved to planning to have lunch at home (sometimes leftovers, otherwise soup or something simple), and then go get comics after work as usual. This has worked out much better. And honestly it was a little weird to be getting comics in the middle of the day, then having them sit around unread until the evening!

Since our study is a bit of a work-in-progress (read: we need to replace my ancient desk that we have in there), I set up to work in the dining room. One perk to this is that I have one or another of our three cats hanging out with me during the day. In the morning, Sadie and Jackson come and lie in the sun. Later on Roulette comes in and sits in the window, and eventually moves over to lie on the table. Sometimes Sadie or Jackson lies there, too. And Rou and Sadie each come over to get attention from me at some point in the afternoon. I think they enjoy having something different happen at home.

The other little perk is that I’m driving in one less day per week, which with my biking twice-a-week schedule means I’m only looking for a parking spot twice a week. Not bad. Though I do drive a chunk of the way there to get comics. But you can’t have everything. I do save some commute time, too.

I definitely don’t feel like, “gee, I should’ve done this years ago”, but it’s nice to have the option, and the quality time with the cats has been fun. Plus I get to play my music and podcasts without wearing headphones. So, on balance it’s been a win.

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