The Wicked + The Divine #1

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 Ãœber after about five issues).

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.

Retractable Screen Doors

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.

My Favorite iOS Game: Ascension

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.

Open House 2014

Yesterday we held our fourth 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!

The Working-from-Home Experience

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.

Meeting the Neighbors

Next door to our house is a house which is a rental property. When we moved in, our neighbor Juan told us that the renters were a bunch of Stanford students, mostly engineers. Other than saying hi to them once in a while when taking out the trash or mowing the lawn, we haven’t really interacted with them. That’s not so strange, since we have several neighbors we haven’t really met, but none of them are right next door to us. They’re mostly fine neighbors, actually; they’ve had a couple of loud parties, but never late into the night, and they used to have an old camper parked in their driveway right next to our joint fence which was there for a couple of years, and which left last year. That’s barely anything to complain about.

So the last two days I’ve been working the developer tools lab at WWDC, for which I woke up early (5:40 am!) and Debbi drove me up with her and dropped me off at the South San Francisco CalTrain station, and then I took the train back home, getting back around 7. Yesterday we also went to get my comic books and then out to dinner. And it was trash day.

We got home and found that someone (probably Juan) had brought in our recycling and yard waste bins (which we store around the side of the house), but the actual trash bin was missing. Since we and the neighbors put out bins right next to each other, I figured they’d probably brought our bin into their yard by mistake, so I went over to ask.

Sure enough, that’s what happened, and two of them went out and checked and brought it out for me. Then we ended up chatting for a while, because we’d never met! Three of their roommates came back while we were talking, and we learned that one of them had just moved in, and he’d brought the trash bins in, and didn’t know which were their and which were ours. So, an innocent mistake (as I’d suspected). But Debbi came out and we got to meet each other. Some of them are students, but others are working at startups. And it seems one guy – who’s since moved out – was responsible for most of the occasional wackiness we’d seen.

Anyway, now that we know them, they seem like nice folks, and it’ll be nice to have more people to say hi to around the neighborhood.

Oh, if they hadn’t been the ones with our bin, I have no idea where else it would have gone! So, glad I was right.

Another Ant Invasion

The summer we moved into our house, 2011, we had serious problems with an ant invasion. We brought it under control with Terro, and have only had a few minor problems with ants since then.

This year has been another matter: Two weeks ago we had an incursion in the kitchen, along the base of the cabinets. Fortunately we seem to have pretty dumb ants around here: They were just wandering back and forth, ignoring the trash, the dishwasher (under which they were coming in), and only wandering kind of close to the cat food. We put the cat food and water in trays surrounded by water, deployed the Terro, and in about three days they were gone.

Late last week, though, Debbi noticed a few ants on the kitchen counter, between the stove and the sink. A few of them made it into the sink, but there weren’t very many. Indeed, there were so few that it took us a couple of days of watching to see that they were coming down from behind the mounted cabinets. Again, dumb ants: Not going into the cabinets (you know, where the food is), and also ignoring the toaster oven and the stove. We deployed the Terro after moving everything off the counter, and holy cow have there been a lot of ants over there this weekend! Annoying the disgusting, but they sure did find the Terro quickly.

The problem is that by the time we see more than one or two stray ants inside, it usually means there’s a nest established fairly close, so Terro takes two or three days to get rid of them (i.e., for them to take enough of it back to kill the queen and the rest of the nest).

I wonder whether California’s drought is causing the ants to range places they usually don’t in search of water or food. We do have a lawn which we water, but I cut back the watering by over a third due to the drought, so maybe that makes a difference. Or maybe it’s a fluke.

A friend of mine suggested using fipronil around the base of the house to keep them away. “Good for a year”, he says. So maybe I’ll try that. If the Wikipedia entry is correct, it’s fairly safe. On the other hand, it does seem to be dangerous to bees, of which we have a number who forage in our yard. So I’ll have to think about it.

Anyway, we shouldn’t complain too much as a serious incursion every three years doesn’t seem too bad, and we are able to deal with it. But it’s still pretty annoying and somewhat disruptive.