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Dominaria Prerelease

Yesterday I went to the Magic prerelease for the Dominaria, and had a lot more fun than I expected! Of course, winning a lot will do that.

I went to the new Isle of Gamers, which is two doors down from their old location, but is at least 100% improved due to the wider and brighter space. They’ve gone all-in on a pirate theme (which they had before, but it feels more pronounced now), and they have a great-looking private gaming room in back.

My approach to sealed deck has been slowly evolving, and these days I tend to focus first on bombs I open and second on number of creatures across the colors, since limited is such a creature-heavy format. It feels like I rarely open pools in which I have more than one viable color pair unless the format supports 3-color decks. Dominaria certainly does not unless you’re base green, because there is very little color fixing (much like the last time we were in Dominaria, back in Time Spiral), and I think you have to have just the right set of stuff to even consider splashing.

As it turned out I had 4 colors in my pool with nominally enough creatures to build decks – blue being the one that didn’t. Red had some good removal, but the creatures were terrible. At first I as leaning towards black-green, but as I looked at it I felt my green was just not very good and white had a lot more punch. So I ended up going black-white.

At first I wasn’t sure I’d had enough playables, but after some thought I talked myself into playing this little combo:


Voltaic ServantTraxos, Scourge of Kroog
This seemed a little sketchy to me, but I felt like I had enough Historic cards that it was worth playing. So in the end I ran with this deck:

Dominaria prerelease deck

My main reservation about this deck was its relatively average high converted mana cost and the low-impact 2-drop creatures (3 of them were 1/3s). I also did a test run and realized I had to be mindful of casting Demonlord Belzenlok since I could easily draw a bunch of cards off of him but also lose a bunch of life.

My first round was against another WB player. Game 1 I mulliganed to 5 (my first 2 hands had zero lands total), and predictably lost – although if I’d drawn a second Swamp I might have made a go of it. Game 2 my opponent got stuck on 2 lands and quickly conceded. Then, game 3 went on forever and ever. I got out Traxos, put On Serra’s Wings on it, swung twice, and then he killed it. Then we got into a long board stall, I got back Traxos with Daring Archaeologist, he killed it again, and finally I managed to seal the deal with Belzenlok.

1-0.

Second round I faced another WB opponent, but this one went considerably quicker. The second game was a bit of a slog as I kept drawing removal for his good stuff, but I couldn’t get any good stuff of my own. Finally I put On Serra’s Wings on a Voltaic Servant and just kept swinging away with a flyer he couldn’t deal with.

2-0.

Third round I played a red-white deck which looked similar to mine only without as good a top end. I played Divest to lead off game 1 and saw that he had Gideon’s Reproach in hand, but I ended up with more gas than he did and won the first game. The second game we ended up in an early board stall and then I played a Serra Angel. Next turn I had On Serra’s Wings to play and had to decide where to put it. I decided to put it on the Serra Angel in case he had Gideon’s Reproach in hand, making the Angel a 5/5 and out of reach of his spell. His groan when he drew his next card told me that I’d guessed correctly, and I rode the Angel to victory.

Flavor win or flavor fail? Marshall Sutcliffe says:

Flavor win

3-0.

On to the finals! I played a fellow who had just defeated my friend Subrata at the next table over in the third round. He was playing a black-green go-wide deck based around Saprolings and Slimefoot, the Stowaway. He got Slimefoot out in game 1 and he was as annoying as advertised, but I managed to keep the pressure on with slightly-bigger creatures so that he kept chump-blocking with the tokens, and I finally pulled out the victory with a Serra Angel.

Game 2 was epic, and we had several onlookers for the match. He observed that he drew the other half of his deck from the first game, which meant bigger creatures. I managed to get out my Traxos/On Serra’s Wings combo, but he dealt with it through removal and a Mammoth Spider. He got a second Mammoth Spider out, but we ended up trading off some creatures and I used removal to bring us – around turn 10 – to the point where neither of us had any nonland permanents on the board.

A little more maneuvering resulted in me with a 3/2 flying Windgrace Acolyte on the board, but then he dropped a kicked Baloth Gorger, which put me in a bad place. I’d been drawing a lot more gas than lands, and I started playing creatures to chump his Gorger. He was on 8 life and I was around 13, and I was stuck on 5 lands. Just in time I drew my sixth land and played my kicked Sergeant-at-Arms, which gave me several blockers, and I followed it up with a Serra Angel which ended up being just enough for the win.

So I went 4-0 in matches on the day, 8-1 in games, and finished first in the tournament, which was good for 9 prize packs!

People have been speculating that Dominaria is going to be a slower limited format, and that’s how it felt yesterday. I rarely felt like I didn’t have time to get down my 4-drops and slow my opponents way down. I’m sure there are a few faster decks in the format, but it feels like there are ways to deal with them. That kind of makes sense in a format with the Kicker mechanic.

I’m pretty happy with my deck, though in hindsight I think Divest wasn’t really pulling its weight and I should have replaced it with almost anything else – even just a combat trick. I’m also not impressed with Caligo Skin-Witch, mainly because its kicker cost is too high for what it does and its 1/3 body is unimpressive, but I didn’t have a great choice to replace it with. So I don’t regret playing it, but I think it’s a card to avoid going forward.

Overall I was happy with how many redundant moving parts my deck had, so I really didn’t have much trouble slowing down fast starts, dealing with big threats, and getting out my own big threats. Each game played very differently, but my deck was pretty consistent in always having something useful to do.

Oh, and On Serra’s Wings is just as awesome as people have been thinking it would be.

I’ll definitely have to see how this set plays in draft. I think it will be a lot of “good stuff” decks with minimal synergies, but that can still be fun.

Social Media

I have some thoughts on the turmoil in corporate social media recently – meaning, in particular, Facebook and Twitter. For posterity, the precipitating events are:

I’m hardly the first – or the five hundredth – person to observe that this is the natural development of handing over our online social connectivity to a few corporations who are mainly driven by profit motives and which mainly make money through advertising. The details of election manipulation were perhaps harder to foresee, but it seems clear that there was plenty of room for badness.

So what now? While there’s a movement to delete Facebook (#DeleteFacebook), it is still a tremendously useful resource for keeping in touch with friends and family. (My observation is that it’s especially handy for generations older than mine.) Twitter is less useful for that purpose, but it’s more useful for keeping up with people involved in or who share my hobbies and interests.

Frankly I trust neither of these companies, as both have long histories of not caring about their users. Facebook in particular I think is deeply untrustworthy as Mark Zuckerberg’s 14-year apology tour indicates. Twitter I think is at least as incompetent as they are untrustworthy, and I’m not sure if that’s better or worse – probably it just means they’re going to sell to some large, more solvent company in the next few years. (My guess is Google will buy them.)

Should I stop using them? Yeah, probably. Will I? Probably not. But I have been making some changes in how I use them:

  • I recognize that making political posts is not going to change the opinions of my followers on these platforms. So I’ve been cutting back on doing so unless I think I have something novel to say.
  • More seriously, I’ve been trying to avoid sharing political posts unless the post’s originator is someone I know and trust. The means of political manipulation has been to promulgate divisive political propaganda – at both extremes of the political spectrum – and while I’m solidly left-liberal, I see little reason to help them.
  • I’ve also been cutting back on following people whose main social media activity is to share political content which they didn’t write. So if that’s mainly been what you’ve been posting, then there’s a fair chance that I’ve stopped following you. I follow people mainly for what they have to say, not for them sharing content from others.
  • I also use an ad blocker (AdBlock on the Mac, 1Blocker on iOS), and also a tracker blocker (Ghostery). Since ads can be a vector for malware, using an ad blocker is also a security measure. Moreover, if I visit a site which doesn’t let me read its articles because I’m using an ad blocker, then I stop visiting that site.
  • My Twitter client on both Mac and iOS is Tweetbot. If Twitter drops support for third-party clients and doesn’t come up with a good client of its own with the features that I want, then I’ll probably stop using Twitter. I’d probably do the same thing with Facebook if they ever remove the live feed.

In the long run we’re going to have to move away from corporate-owned social media networks, or at least move to ones which we pay for, where we, not the advertisers, are the customers. Maybe something like Micro.blog or Mastodon is the future. It seems like something like that should be viable, but whether it will become popular is something else altogether.

The bottom line, though, is that it’s got to be something each of us owns. Because if you don’t own it yourself, then you don’t own your own presence on the Internet.

Which, despite my relative inactivity here lately, is why I still have this blog.

(Oh: This is the second post I’ve written titled “Social Media”. Things have changed a bit in the 9 years since I wrote the first one.)

My Trouble with Names

I’m bad with names.

No, not that way. I’m fine with remembering peoples’ names. Well, above average. Probably.

I’m bad at coming up with names. At naming things.

The earliest instance of this I remember was when I was about 10 and was playing Dungeons & Dragons with my friends. We’d come up with characters, and a few of them would persist for a while. The one I kept the longest had the deeply evocative name of… Seggerillon.

(He was a wizard.)

I probably haven’t written that name since I was 13 and geez, it looks even dumber than I remembered. Just a bunch of syllables stuck together, and it doesn’t even scan well. Okay, in my defense I was 10. But still.

This has extended into other parts of my life. For example, my two journals, both with names I’ve never been very happy with (“Gazing into the Abyss” and “Fascination Place”). I’ve never been able to articulate what I wanted my journals to represent, and I’ve shied away from titles that seemed snarky or dismissive. It’s been over ten years since I started this one and I haven’t yet come up with a name I like better. (Not that it’s been a high priority.)

I also hit this at work, where naming classes and objects is a routine part of the job. Fortunately, most of this involve fairly rote and descriptive names. But coming up with good names for more advanced classes is sometimes a challenge. I sometimes joke that one of the big problems in programming is that many things you create are abstract with only a tenuous connection to anything in the real world, and there are only a relative handful of words for abstract concepts in English compared to the number of words for concrete things. So we always end up with some class which is a BuilderOperationDelegateProviderManagerContext or some subset thereof.

On another note, something I rarely mention here is that I write a little fiction. A very little. So little that I wouldn’t call myself a writer. One of my problems is that I have trouble coming up with names for characters, especially since what I really want to write is far-future science fiction, where the names might arguably have a tenuous connection with names in today’s world. I like to think I’ve advanced a little beyond Seggerillon, though. I have a couple of names in my quiver that I’ve carried through a couple of story concepts looking for the right one. (And waiting for me to actually start writing one of them.)

Anyway, as they say, there are only two hard things in computer science: cache invalidation and naming things. At least I’m good at invalidating all the caches.

Middle Age

The last couple of years I’ve been feeling more keenly that I’m middle-aged.

I guess it started a decade or so ago when a cow-orker of mine observed that he remembered watching Babylon 5 when he was in junior high school, whereas I was halfway through graduate school when it premiered.

Since then time has marched inexorably onwards. Most of my cow-orkers are between the ages of 30 and 40, which puts them in average half a generation younger than me. It’s enough that our cultural touchstones are just a little askew: I saw Star Wars in the theatre when it came out, while they mostly watched it on cable growing up. They grew up playing Nintendo and Sega game consoles, while I had left game consoles behind by then and was playing Apple ][ and Mac games. One of them was visibly surprised that I was born in the 60s. And, my career at Apple is almost 19 years old, which means there’s a real chance that I’ll soon have a cow-orker – an intern, perhaps – who was born after I started working there.

(This is not at all to disparage my younger cow-orkers, who I learn things from all the time!)

As I’ve been feeling these differences in age, though, I’ve started making quips about our relative ages from time to time. Some of the jokes are rooted in these different touchstones, and others are more generally about my age (“Pipe down sonny or I’ll whack you with my cane” types of jokes). It’s not that I feel old – in a lot of ways I feel better than I did 20 years ago – but it’s like I have a new perspective that I haven’t had before, and which feels weird.

I’ve been feeling a little – something, guilty? Unjustified? – in making these jokes. I don’t necessarily believe that talking this way is a self-fulfilling prophecy, but it’s been making me a little uneasy. So my plan – my resolution, if you will – is not to make jokes like those this year. There’s a gray area, since I don’t think it’s feasible for me to just ignore or never mention these differences, but to the extent that not talking about them leads to me not thinking about or feeling being middle-aged, I think that’s a good thing.

I’m sure age will announce itself to me in due time, without any help from me.

2017 in Review

I’ve seen several people on social media say something along the lines of, “2017 was a pretty terrible year for the country/world, but a pretty good year for me personally.” That pretty well sums up how I feel. The Trump administration and Congressional Republicans have been a garbage fire, working tirelessly to destroy the country and stymied in large part by their breathtaking, historic incompetence. But I’ve had a pretty good year.

A few years ago I was going through a rough stretch at work for a variety of reasons (among them my Mom’s declining health and eventual passing), but I feel like this year things really came together. I’ve spent the last two years working on a fun project (Xcode’s new build system, unveiled at WWDC in June), written in a new language (Swift) which I have been thoroughly enjoying, and I’ve been broadening my skill set in a variety of ways. In addition, I’ve been moving into a larger leadership role, which has been surprisingly rewarding. The surprise is because what I’ve always found most enjoyable about my job is building things and seeing them work, but the coordination and organizational parts of my job have been more fulfilling than I’d expected. While I’m still happy when I can carve out a day to work through a problem and code it up, the rest of it has been pretty cool too.

(By the way, if you’re a programmer who’s like me in that you primarily enjoy building things and seeing them work, I highly recommend embracing an automated testing development workflow, because it gives you great feedback and a sense of accomplishment to write tests and see them work. Even working on test infrastructure is fun and rewarding!)

At home we had an unorthodox set of vacations. In February our niece R and nephew J (on Debbi’s side) came to visit for a week, their first plane trip without their parents. I think they enjoyed their stay more than they’d expected; we mixed up seeing the sights with time hanging around at home, and also getting together with some of our friends with kids (albeit younger kids, which didn’t seem to make a difference). R is a couple of years away from college so we drove through UC Santa Cruz, and we had a big day going to Alcatraz and Ghirardelli. In June we went back to visit our families, and spend a few days at the family beach house (which is great unless it’s ridiculously humid). And in September my dad came out to visit for the first time in over five years, which was also fun. It had been long enough that we went to see a few things a second time, for instance the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I sure hope I’m able to make cross-country plane trips when I’m in my 80s!

Somehow I’m now 2-1/2 years into running regularly. I peaked at running 3 miles about 5 times a week (2 out of every 3 days), and decided that I needed slightly more off days, so I switched to running 4 days a week and worked my way up to 4 miles earlier this month, which works out to slightly more distance overall. My legs seem to appreciate the extra day off each week, and it gives me a little more flexibility when we have things going on during the weekend. Frankly it’s the podcasts I listen to which keep me motivated (thanks especially to Limited Resources and Magic the Amateuring) – if I fall behind on my running then I fall way behind on my podcasts, so in a sense I use my OCD to keep me going (though I honestly enjoy the podcasts too).

Our household has been stable, but with a pleasant development: I wrote a few years ago about how Roulette was traumatized by her three brothers passing away, but over the last year and a half she seems to have gotten over her grief and started enjoying life again. She doesn’t put up with Jackson’s crap and stands up to him on a regular basis. She and Sadie sometimes chase each other around (which is hilarious because each is easily the smartest cat the other has ever played with). And she’s started sitting on our laps and even sleeping with us at night. Rou is now 14 years old and is acting younger and happier than she has in years – it’s been a joy to see.

So now we’re having a quiet New Year’s Eve watching television, having eaten Chinese take-out for dinner, our cats snoozing around us. We’ve had fun times with friends and family this past year, and we’re looking forward to 2018 with the hope that it will be better for everyone.

Happy new year to all!

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

We went to see Star Wars: The Last Jedi this week. I see this is the third consecutive Star Wars film in which I led with wondering whether I have enough to say about it to be worth writing a review, so I think I won’t lead with that this time, and instead just jump to the spoilers (after the cut).

Read on, Macduff! »

Doctor Who, Season Ten

While I’ve enjoyed Peter Capaldi as the Doctor well enough, I haven’t been terribly impressed with the stories in his first two seasons, although season nine did have two very good ones and one decent one. Did I like his final season in the role?

Find out (with spoilers) after the jump!

Read on, Macduff! »

Star Trek: Discovery

Sunday saw the premiere of Star Trek: Discovery, the latest installment in the Star Trek franchise. The first story was a 2-parter, only the first part of which aired on CBS; the rest of the season will air on the new “CBS All Access” subscription streaming network, which I have no interest in subscribing to, so I only saw the first episode, which ended on a cliffhanger.

As my readers may know, I’m working on over 30 years of disappointment in Star Trek. Despite the occasional good story here and there, Star Trek has been a dramatic, storytelling and characterization wasteland since Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered in 1987. I guess it’s a testament to how wonderful the original series (and Star Treks II and III) were that I keep trying the new series. (Well, okay, I passed almost entirely on Voyager, since Star Trek was entirely superfluous from 1994-1999 due to the presence of Babylon 5.)

Despite hoping that the decade-plus since Enterprise went off the air would lead to some philosophical changes in the Star Trek TV franchise, the first episode of Discovery, “The Vulcan Hello”, was about as mundane as ever. The series takes place in the original timeline (i.e., not the J.J. Abrams reboot timeline), approximately 10 years before the original Star Trek series (i.e., about 2 years after the events of “The Cage”, the one Christopher Pike episode), and it focuses on the (apparently last) adventure of the USS Shenzhou, which encounters an alien object while investigating damage to a remote yet apparently important satellite.

There isn’t really a way to discuss the episode without spoilers – frankly, there isn’t enough story here to discuss otherwise – so I’ll continue after the cut:

Read on, Macduff! »

Twenty Years!

How appropriate given my relative quiet here that I missed my 20th anniversary of starting my web journal (which was yesterday). Since I still haven’t gotten around to importing my old entries into WordPress on this site, you can still read it from the beginning in all its hand-rolled 1997 glory starting here. (shudder)

Or you can read my entry on “Ten Years!” Or my long winded reminiscences on the early days of my blog.

The big difference between 10 years ago and today is the advent of social media platforms. Twitter was only a year and a half old a decade ago, and Facebook was a little older, but neither one had anywhere near the penetration they have today. I didn’t join Facebook until 2009, and Twitter maybe slightly later, so in 2007 I was still doing almost all of my online writing here.

Today, it’s much easier to make pithy comments (and a few pissy ones) on those two sites where the opportunity for dialogue and interaction is much greater. (Twitter is a pretty lousy platform for saying anything with any nuance, to be sure, but it has its uses.) Heck, I post links to my entries here on those sites since that’s where most people follow me.

I keep wanting to spend a little more time writing here – an entry a week – but it’s hard. Always so many other things I want to do, around the things that I need to do. It’s a different tension than in the old days; back then if I was busy doing stuff I didn’t have time to write, and if I had time to write I hadn’t been doing stuff to write about. Now I do stuff, take pictures of it, and post it on Facebook for my personal friends.

Anyway, cheers to 20 years of blogging. Or web journalling. 20 years ago I was still living in Madison and was over a year away from moving to California. 20 years from now I’ll be… geez, who knows? But hopefully still writing at least the occasional piece in whatever blog I have when August 2037 rolls around.

Obduction

This past weekend I finished playing Obduction, the latest game from Cyan, the folks who made the MYST series of games. I backed it on Kickstarter and played it on the Mac through Steam, starting with some of the, well, I guess post-beta but pre-final releases.

Not to bury the lede: It’s a fine game which I enjoyed thoroughly! But I wanted to write a little historical perspective about my experience with Cyan’s games.

A friend of mine introduced me to the original MYST back in the mid-90s, and I powered my way through half of it, got stuck, put it away for a few months, then came back and finished it. While I enjoyed the puzzles, to me it was primarily an experiential game, the first game I ever played where I had genuine moments of feeling like I was really there – in hindsight an amazing accomplishment since the rough edges due to the technology of the day (texture mapping, animations, etc.) were quite apparent.

I played the sequel, Riven, when it came out, and while the technology was considerably improved (the renderings were gorgeous), the story felt less expansive and a little more awkward than the first game. (I wrote a little about it at the time.) A few years later I picked up the third game, MYST III Exile (which was not made by Cyan), and felt that it shored up the deficiencies of the previous games, and despite the thrill of the new of the original game, I think Exile is the best of the MYST series. (A bit more here.) I was also a big enough of the fan of the series that I read the three novels they published (which were okay).

I thought things went off the rails a bit with MYST IV: Revelation (also not by Cyan), which, despite having a good story, had some puzzles that were very unintuitive and frustrating to try to get through without a help from a story guide. And then I only barely cracked MYST V: End of Ages (which was by Cyan), in part due to some serious problems it exhibited with a lot of Mac technology at the time (some graphics cards would cause it to freeze the whole machine regularly), and also due to a disenchantment with the rendered animated people, which felt like a big step down from the interleaved live action footage from other games. (Sadly, I bet it doesn’t run on newer Mac hardware, and it looks like the Steam version is Windows-only, so I may never return to it.)

Despite that finish, ten years later I was pretty stoked for Obduction!

It took me a little while to get into it, partly because the early releases seemed to have some bad performance problems on Mac hardware, requiring me to ramp down the resolution quite a bit to get decent performance, so I played a few hours of the game late last year and then put it away for a while. I picked it up again a few weeks ago and played a couple of hours per week before finishing it. The final version has much better performance and I was able to get pretty nice resolution out of it with only a couple of moments of stuttering (some of which I suspect involved loading resources from disk). For reference, I played it on a late 2013 model MacBook Pro, so it might play better on a newer Mac. (I did find that the “seed swap” devices were often tediously slow, though.)

Obduction has a premise similar to MYST but arguably a little more grounded: Rather than mysteriously arriving on an island, you-the-player are one of many people who have been plucked from your time period and dropped into a bubble of Earth in the middle of another world. The game’s title plays on the sounds-like word “abduction” as well as the dictionary definition of obduction (“an act or instance of drawing or laying something (as a covering) over”) and the tectonic definition (in which layers are flowing above or below each other), all of which are appropriate in the story. You find yourself in a nearly-abandoned town called Hunrath, with chunks of Earth from different time periods lying around, messages from the former inhabitants, and signs of a battle from the recent past.

As in the MYST games, you need to find clues to what happened and solve puzzles to get things working in the village again, until you eventually unlock the secret as to what’s been going on and how to get beyond Hunrath to start fixing things. There are a lot of clever bits, including ones that make you feel clever when you figure them out.

The game’s biggest problem is that some of the puzzles are still too hard, in the sense of being basically unintuitive: You need to stumble on the right thing, or put together pieces which don’t logically go together. I relied on the player’s guide which came with the Kickstarter reward for some pieces, because I just wasn’t interested in endlessly wandering around some parts of the world to look for something I’d missed. I also found the puzzles involving the alien number system a little too annoying. But, your mileage may vary. Unfortunately, the final puzzle of the game I found utterly unintuitive and ended up going onto the web to find out what I had to do to solve it the “right” way (as it leads to multiple endings). They do need to walk a fine line between making the puzzles challenging and making them understandable, and I think Obduction is just a tad over the line to not understandable, though better than MYST IV. The first three MYST games all nailed the balance, I think, but maybe they just made it look easier than it is.

Experientially, though, Obduction is a pretty amazing piece of work: Wonderfully envisioned and executed, with only a couple of spots that feel a little glossed over (in some cases by necessity, since you still can’t really interact with the few characters you meet in the game). The sense of history and tragedy conveyed in Hunrath is extremely well done, particularly the bits in Farley’s house.

So, while slightly flawed, I found it perfectly enjoyable and rewarding, and while I might not run through it a second time for a few years, many bits have stuck in my memory, as with any good story.

I hope that Obduction isn’t Cyan’s swan song with this genre of game (which has fallen out of favor since its heyday around the turn of the millennium), but if it is, then they’ve gone out on a high note.

(image from the Obduction web site)