Saturday, July 18, 2015

Ant Man Capsule Review

Ant Man turned out pretty funny. All the actors did good work, but the secondary cast really brought it and nearly stole the show more than once. It is very heavy on the continuity nods. Marvel movie junkies will want to see Avengers 2 before this one, and stay to the end of the credits, though there aren't any big surprises. On the Marvel Cinematic Universe scale, the tone is even sillier than Guardians, and the entertainment value for my tastes puts it firmly in the mid-range above 1st Thor  and Iron Man 2, but behind the big tent poles of Avengers and Cpt. America. I like that they took some time for the set up, because it feels like there was just the right amount of ant antics and big/small fighting without wearing out the gimmick. Yes, this is Marvel going very, very comic book with a movie, and still pulling it off.

A warning for the realism inclined: just don't even worry about it, the physics in this movie lives squarely in the realm of utter nonsense. Consider this your warm up for the future one about a magician. Assuming the talking tree and raccoon didn't already get you settled. Or the two starring a Norse god and his flying hammer. Or the... yeah, you get it.

Friday, July 3, 2015

RPG Settings in My Head

I suspect nearly everyone who enjoys playing role playing games, and almost certainly everyone who referees them, has settings they would like to play in. Or maybe it's just me. In any case, being without a gaming group at the moment, I need to get my set of settings out of my head to free up room for other things. Also it's a fun exercise at a time when my creative side has had most of its juice squeezed out by relentless, difficult, mental work going on at the real job.

1) The Far Realm.
The Eternal Empire is a place of order, serenity, and control. Its holy rule has tamed the wild lands and given all safety, opportunity, and surety of their place in society. But not all people recognize the benefits of this. A few, a very few, people refuse to accept their natural place, or seek to sow chaos in the great realms. Those people are found by the Empire. And since they can not fit into an ordered society, they are deported for their own good. The Empire's mightiest barges risk crossing the Black Sea, carrying the people to the Far Realm.
This one would be stock swords and sorcery with some steam-punk or sci-fi if the players desire. (It could easily go full pulp if desired as well.) Patterned with Dungeons & Dragons (any version) or similar games such as Pathfinder in mind, I originally envisioned this as a setup for a West Marches style exploration campaign. All characters have in their background a reason why the Empire wanted them gone. It could be anything, from being a criminal or revolutionary, to studying the wrong magics, to trying to court the wrong nobleman's daughter. They begin on a deportation barge arriving at the massive iron fortress controls the only harbor and passes through the Stone Wall mountains to the lands of the Far Realm beyond. The barge opening provides a chance for initial social encounter, they are released into the town of Iron Wall in the valley below the Fortress.

2) Unnamed dark fantasy
Our world stands on the brink. Too much of it has been used up. Too many lives lost. Magic tears at its fabric, and from the rends come chaos and things unspeakable. We must continue to fight to hold it together, for the alternative is utter destruction.
Swords and sorcery as slow apocalypse, with horror elements. Pull some of the magic and insanity rules from Call of Cthulhu and derived games, place into a war torn world with dwindling resources. Think of a setting similar to westerns, with an emphasis on bust rather than boom, on its way toward becoming Roland's "moved on" world from The Gunslinger. Sorcerers driven insane seeking powers beyond those of mortal man. Dark cults seeing evil forces as their salvation. Destruction, chaos, and death, all adding to the strain on reality, opening magic portals (rends) to a dark realm (along the lines of Mortal Kombat's Outworld) which bring even greater dangers. I see this setting as more appropriate for a generic rule set such as Savage Worlds, GURPS, or GORE than D&D.

3) Saturday Afternoon at the Movies
In the not-too-distant future, teams of troubleshooters drawn from the best and brightest scientists, soldiers, engineers, and negotiators are formed by the UN to handle the increasingly extreme threats being faced by the world.
This one is B-movie sci-fi pulp in a post-global warming, post limited nuclear exchange, post bio-engineering, post-any-other-bad-sci-fi-movie-plot-device-you-can-think-of world, the UN troubleshooters faces mutant beasts, weather gone mad, callous corporations, and overzealous warriors of all stripes. I pretty much made this one up with Savage Worlds in mind. My original idea for this setting was for a series of stand alone scenarios rather than a full blown recurring-character campaign. I thought it might be a good format for irregular play schedules, varying player count, and all the other inconveniences imposed by actual adult lives.

4) Cyberpunk set in a spin on the Car Wars/Autoduel America setting.
Probably Savage Worlds again, with some additions from Interface Zero. This could easily shade into Saturday Afternoon at the Movies territory, but as envisioned I would try to keep it more toward a noir-ish tone. Autoduel America has some very nice elements as a setting, including a company that will clone you and back up your memories, for a price, political splits from a second civil war, and its own take on a mini-apocalypse that kicked off the return of death-sports and made the country outside of "fortress towns" a rather dangerous place to go without a well armed and armored car. I think it would be a pretty interesting place to set a combat heavy cyberpunk campaign.

I've probably got a space opera setting in me somewhere, but the capsule pitch always comes out as Star Wars without the Force, so I probably need to give it some more thought. In any case, if you made it this far, would you most like to see me expand on any of these? What strange worlds would you like to take a fictional ramble through?

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Bookworming: Uwharrie

Uwharrie, Eugene Pfaff, Michael Causey, **
I went into this one thinking it would be a mystery, but it's actually a horror story. While I suspect it would make a pretty decent B-movie, as a novel it never quite gels. There isn't enough characterization to give the jeopardy weight, and not enough actual plot to move the story on its own. It has a few good set pieces and some local color, but I would only recommend it if the jacket blurb sounds like it would be directly in line with your tastes.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Gaming the Steam Sale Game

The summer Steam sale is currently running. This year it comes with its own game that involves clicking (or using an auto-cannon that allows you to not click) to kill an endless stream of monsters. The game itself is the worst kind of web game that's essentially just a Skinner box with increasing numbers as the reward. But because it's a browser game, programmers are generating javascript programs to send clicks or optimize the gold gaining rate by putting you in the optimal place. I find it interesting that programming was an immediate response to being presented with what is essentially an exercise in optimization. I have no idea whether these things would be considered "cheating", but it is a good reminder that the web browser is one of the premier programming platforms right now, and it can be heavily automated.

Monday, May 25, 2015

VIM resource file

I have been using the VIM editor for something north of twenty years now. Even when my "primary" editor has been Visual Studio or SlickEdit, I still use VIM for quick tasks and for diffing (along with the indispensable GNU diff utility). And really, I'm far from a master with it. It occurs to me that reading back over my VIM resource file is almost like a mini personal archaeology of my programming experience. I have the simple stuff from my early days in college, a lot of the GUI movement things came from later when I started into CS more seriously, and then bits and pieces added that reflected what I was doing in my jobs. The editor wars will never really end, though the old text editors are increasingly taking a back seat to IDEs that are better at navigating through large projects or reflect the more complex work flows of modern applications. In the end a useful tool never really stops being useful.

My .vimrc:

"Basic editing behaviors
set showmode      "mode info at the bottom of the screen
set backspace=indent,eol,start "allow full backspace movement
"set autoindent    "regular auto-indent
set smartindent   "a more advanced indenting option
"set cindent       "strict rules based indenting
set columns=95    "preferred window width
set lines=40      "preferred window height
set expandtab     "use spaces instead of tabs
set ruler         "show line and column numbers
set showbreak=<=  "what to print at front of wrapped lines
set showmatch     "blip to matching brackets
set shiftwidth=2  "code indention size

"search behaviors
set nohlsearch "highlights all matches to a search
set incsearch  "search incrementally
"set smartcase  "only be case sensitive if a capital is in the search string
set ignorecase "case insensitive searching

"file behaviors
set directory=c:\windows\temp "set the swap file directory
set wildignore=*.o,*.class "ignore these files when doing filename completion

"status line stuff
"always show the status line
set laststatus=2           "always show the status line
"set statusline=%t\ %h%m%r%=%-12(0x%02.2B\ %b%)\ %c,%l/%L "broken out below
set statusline=%t          "filename (not fully qualified)
set statusline+=\ %h       "help file indicator
set statusline+=%m         "file modified indicator
set statusline+=%r         "file read-only indicator
set statusline+=%=         "shove the rest to the right (left/right separator)
set statusline+=%-12(0x%02.2B\ %b%)
                           "hex value of the character under the cursor padded
                           "  with zeros to min and max of 2 characters long [0x%02.2B]
                           "  followed by decimal value of the character [%b]. All
                           "  of this left justified and padded to min 15 characters
                           "  [%-12( ... %)].
set statusline+=\ %c,%l/%L "column cursor is in

"GUI commands
highlight Normal guibg=Black guifg=White
"set guifont=Consolas:h10:cANSI  "Set the font (***PLATFORM SPECIFIC***)
set guifont=DejaVu_Sans_Mono:h9:cANSI  "Set the font (***PLATFORM SPECIFIC***)

"Color and syntax highlighting stuff
set background=dark "MUST be before other highlighting settings
syntax on           "turns on syntax highlighting
highlight Comment   guifg=#DDA0DD "HTML Plum
highlight Constant  guifg=#FF6347 "HTML Tomato
highlight Statement guifg=#5588FF "A mid-intensity blue
highlight Type      guifg=#5588FF "A mid-intensity blue
highlight PreProc   guifg=#7CFC00 "HTML Lawn Green

"Session stuff
set sessionoptions-=options "Don't save options with the session

"Make the HOME key go to the first non-whitespace character the
" first time it is hit, and then to the first column.
fun! s:SmartHome()
  if col('.') != match(getline('.'), '\S')+1
    norm ^
    :call cursor(line('.'),2)
    norm h
inoremap  :call SmartHome()
nnoremap  :call SmartHome()
vnoremap  :call SmartHome()

"Add shortcut keys to move between buffers (not to be confused with
" moving between windows, which is shortcutted below).
" Alias Alt-Up to move to the previous buffer
nmap  :bp!
" Alias Alt-Down to move to the next buffer
nmap  :bn!

"Alter split switching behavior to make me happier
set winminheight=0  "This allows open windows to display as status line only
" Alias Ctrl-Down to move down a window
map  j_
" Alias Ctrl-Up to move up one window
map  k_
" Alias Ctrl-Right to move right one window
map  l
" Alias Ctrl-Left to move left one window
map  h
" Alias Ctrl-h to 'maximize' the window
map  _

" Use specific file type highlighting for files with a given extension.
"au BufRead,BufNewFile *.bob setfiletype cpp

Watching the Watchers: Tracking Makes the Web Worse

Internet privacy is a fairly recent addition to the list of oxymorons like military intelligence and classified advertisement. Privacy issues on the internet interact constantly with monitization attempts, because, the old cliche tells us, if you aren't paying for the product then you are the product. Increasingly, "big data" analytics drive more and more advertising. And for that to be effective, there must be a way of establishing patterns, tying all the movements on the internet together. And of course, there are. Mostly in the form of tracking cookies or javascript snippets that can tell a server where you are. Recent work by Monica Chew and Georgios Kontaxis using the currently-in-development tracking protection feature of the Mozilla Firefox browser to look at the top 200 news sites resulted not only two thirds less cookies than usual on a system but also a better than 40% reduction in average page load times and nearly 40% reduction in data use. Learning the performance of web pages is harmed by tracking and analytics is hardly a surprise, but learning how big that number is surprised me. With the ascendance of mobile and the attendant data caps, the data usage is hardly something to overlook either. And so as commercial interests struggle to make themselves relevant to our personal interests, they add drag into the system. On the other hand, something has to pay the bills for those news sites, because it seems the users sure aren't interested in doing so anymore.

Watching the Watchers: Science, Politics, and Pragmatism on the NC Coast

Coastal regions will see the most direct and immediate impacts of climate change. Here in NC, the extensive, popular coastal region anchors several powerful political forces. Those forces, along with energy producing corporations and development interests, have shifted the actions of the state away from looking at the long-term predictions of scientists. Aljazeera America gives a very nice overview of the situation and how some of the coastal communities and their governments are reacting.

Friday, May 22, 2015

Bookworming: Art Before Breakfast

Art Before Breakfast, Danny Gregory, *
A few years ago I read The Creative License and I heartily recommend that book over Art Before Breakfast. If you have any exposure to Gregory's writing before, there is very little new in this book, and far less than the claimed zillions of ideas on hand. If you haven't, this one isn't substantial enough to give you a real taste of his inspirational style. The central message (you can find ten minutes a day to draw something) is a good one, but in my eyes it isn't instructional enough for beginners or deep enough for more serious hobbyists.