skippy

hello, dammit.

Ender

I recently read "Ender's Game" for the first time. Upon completion, I immediately ploughed through "Speaker for the Dead," "Xenocide," and "Children of the Mind." Of the four, the first was by far the best of the bunch. I found the latter books to be overly wordy, and extremely repetitive.

It didn't occur to me until I was almost finished with "Children of the Mind" that I was reading this series without any buffer of a publication schedule. "Ender's Game" was published in 1986, and "Speaker for the Dead" came out the following year. "Xenocide" was published in 1991, and "Children of the Mind" wasn't published until a decade after the first book in the series. For fans reading consuming these works, they may well have received some benefit from the frequent reminders of what had been written before.

I suppose if I had to wait years between installments I might well appreciate the gentle reminders of what had previously happened with the characters. I might also find the latter books less wordy, because I'd be mulling over their unique concepts and narrative elements without their predecessors crowding for space in my mind.

But maybe not. I ripped through "Ready Player One" and thoroughly enjoyed it. It wasn't until several weeks later that I really started to pick apart problems with the story, and find myself rather unhappy with the book. It's certainly fun, and presents a reasonably plausible fantasy world, but upon deeper reflection there's a lot fundamentally wrong with the conceit of the book, in my opinion. If a sequel were published next year, I'd likely read it, but I'm not sure I'd be excited about it.

I have no expectation that the forthcoming "Ender's Game" movie will be any good. But I'll probably go see it anyway.

Frankenbrew

Victor, a coworker of mine who also homebrews, gave me some pellet hops earlier this year. I stuck these in the fridge alongside several other packages of hops -- pellet and whole leaf -- that I'd purchased many moons ago, and made a mental note to find a recipe in which to use all of these accumulated hops.

In early June I finally got around to looking for such a recipe. I had to brew something for the annual Fourth of July block party. It's been my tradition for the last couple of years to wheel my kegerator out onto the porch and make my homebrew available to any adults who wanted to try it.

The recipe I found was an American style IPA, with a big dry hopping schedule. It used mostly amber malt with a small amount of specialty grains for some complexity. With this recipe in hand I headed off to my local homebrew supply shop. I was disappointed, once there, to learn that they didn't have all of the proper ingredients: they only had half of the needed amber malt and none of the specific specialty grain. I was faced with the decision to select an entirely new recipe on the spot, or to try to modify my selected recipe based on what was available.

I've never been particularly good about creating recipes. I don't yet have a solid understanding of how the base ingredients work together in the boil to produce specific flavors, so I was reluctant to try to improvise. But I was also in a bit of a hurry, and substituting a few ingredients seemed easier than identifying a whole new recipe.

In the end, I decided to improvise. I replaced the missing half of amber malt with wheat malt, and used a different specialty grain. The brew went off without a hitch, and the wort fermented quite nicely. I racked it to the secondary where it stayed for an additional two weeks, and finally kegged it. Since I had gone so drastically off-recipe, I referred to this as my "frankenbrew," with a little of this and a little of that. Chances were high, in my mind, that it would be a horrible monster of a beer.

On the Fourth, I wheeled the kegerator onto the front porch and put a sign on it declaring free beer (adults only). I didn't make any additional effort to spread the word to the neighbors, but within the hour I was getting comments and compliments about the beer. Several of the folks at the block party were also homebrewers, and there was much discussion of the craft.

The beer turned out to be absolutely delicious. Most people who tried it returned several times for refills. All five gallons were quaffed in just a couple of hours, to my surprise and delight. I'm a little sad that there's no more for me to enjoy, because I know I'll never be able to reproduce this exact batch. Ultimately I'm okay with that, since I brew not for the science or the precise reproduction of a specific recipe, but rather for the fun of the process in general and the delicious end result of that process.

RFYL 2013

Jonah and I did the 2013 Run For Your Lives zombie-infested 5K obstacle course. As with last year's event, it was a great time. The zombie make-up was terrific, the mood of all the participants was great, and the event was, on the whole, well executed.

Registration was quick and painless, as there were plenty of check-in stations open to keep things moving quickly. A security bag inspection was a minor bottleneck. As with last year, there was a bag check tent, in which participants could store their gear. Unlike last year, all of your gear was required to fit in one comparatively small clear ziplock bag, which they furnished to you. Jonah and I had to hike back to the car to drop off our change of clothes and sundry other items we had planned to check. Then we hiked back to the bag check tent and stuffed our towels into the little bags.

The main area of the event was considerably smaller this year. There was a concession stand, a merchandise booth, and the Zombie Transformation Center. I don't remember seeing this tent last year, but maybe I simply missed it. It was a lot of fun to watch the make-up artists apply their craft to the would-be zombies. Everyone seemed to be really enjoying themselves.

Race heats started at 8 AM. The heat for which we were registered was 10:30 AM, and it left right on time. As soon as we were out the gate, I knew this was going to be an even more grueling experience than last year's. When I "trained" for this event, it was at a pretty steady pace around my neighborhood. Unfortunately, simply jogging past most of the zombies isn't a viable strategy: you need to sprint and dodge. This, by itself, wears you down much quicker than a simple jog, and wasn't an activity I had really practiced.

But the biggest challenge to the 2013 event was the terrain. We were in the Hocking Hills region of Logan county, and the hills were absolutely brutal. The very first thing we had to do once we left the starting area was to climb a steep hill. Some brave souls actually jogged up, but most of us tried to conserve our energy by walking up. Without exception, everyone was winded once they reached the top. And of course at the top was the first horde of zombies through which we had to run!

The hills proved far more taxing than I had anticipated, and I ended up walking most of the course. I joked with the folks around me that the event was better called "Walk Briskly For Your Lives," which proved fairly accurate for most of us.

Most of the obstacles were the same from last year: a smoke-filled barn in which electrically-charged wires hung down in our path; hurdles we had to climb over or under; a simple maze; and of course lots and lots of zombies.

Unlike last year, none of the obstacles were bottlenecks for the participants, which was great for all of us. Last year, several of the obstacles were a real impediment, and folks were lined up for several minutes as they waited their turn. This year, there were no such lines and the whole event felt much faster ("faster" being a relative term, since it still took me almost an hour to complete the course!).

The race wasn't timed this year. Instead, it was simply pass / fail: if you finished the course with at least one flag left on your belt then you were a survivor. If you had no flags when you crossed the finish line, you were a victim. I lost all three of my flags somewhere shortly after the first mile. For victims like me, there were a few opportunities to gain a replacement flag, which I greedily snapped up. Of course, the first zombie I saw after I gained my bonus health flag took it away.

Jonah, unsurprisingly, finished the course well ahead of me. As I approached the final obstacle he was there to greet me. He informed me that he finished with three flags! I asked him for one, which he helpfully tossed over to me, allowing me to finish the race as a survivor. I can now honestly declare that Jonah has saved my life.

I recorded the whole race in order to share the experience with friends and family. Large portions of the video were boring views of me walking up and down hills, so I edited many of those out. The video above should represent some of the highlights of the obstacles and zombies. Even highly edited, it still clocks in at 30 minutes and probably has more boring walking bits than is necessary.

Even though I walked most of the course, RFYL 2013 was a lot of fun. I hope to be able to do it again next year. I might even take a stab at being a zombie next year, too.

Google Exodus

I've been using Google Reader daily since December, 2006. I use it to read web sites that interest me. Although some people have complained that it hasn't been updated in a long time, or that it lacks meaningful social aspects, I've been perfectly happy with it.

I don't generally read the news on my mobile device. Any sharing of news I might do would likely occur manually through email or Twitter, rather than some button on the Google Reader site. The lack of new features is actually something I like: it's a product that works well, and has continued to satisfy my very modest needs.

But like all good things, Google Reader is coming to an end. There's a general scrambling amongst Reader users who are looking for alternatives, and there are a number of solid contenders out there. Most of the current crop are offering features that Google lacked, which means they're not features in which I have a strong interest. I expect I'll wait a little longer to see what options mature in the time before Reader officially shuts down.

I think my preferred solution will be to run my own RSS aggregator again. Although the format hasn't advanced substantially in the half-decade that I've been using it, I think the tools available to produce and consume RSS have matured quite a bit.

Just a year after adopting Google Reader, I went all-in with Google for Domains. I updated my DNS MX records, and handed control of all of my email to Google. I eventually switched from using a desktop email client to using Google's web interface exclusively. On the whole, since November 2007, I've been pretty happy. The Google experience is perfectly acceptable.

But the shuttering of Google Reader has me asking: "What else?" It's extremely unlikely that Google would retire their mail service, but what if? Since I'm expecting to run my own RSS aggregator in the near future, does it make any sense to reclaim any other services back from Google?

Way back when, the big draw to Google Mail -- for many, including me -- was the superb web-based experience. From any computer with a web browser, I could access my email. Self-hosted web-mail solutions like SquirrelMail, Roundcube, and Citadel all valiantly tried to compete, and I'm sure they each have a healthy following; but they didn't do it for me.

In today's world, with the proliferation of smartphones, I have convenient access to any email solution, whether mine or someone else's. Web mail is no longer a strong distinguishing factor for a self-hosted email solution. I suspect I could get by without web mail at all by using my phone. If I'm not using web mail for on-the-go access, it makes little sense to use web mail for desktop access. It's been a long time since I've used Thunderbird -- or any other desktop email client -- but I suspect the learning curve would be mild.

Over time, Google's integration of their calendar function and their chat functions made the Google Mail web interface even more useful. And of course, there's Google's superb search backing up all that email. If I were to bring email back from Google, I'd need to tackle the first of those two issues. (Search is largely a non-issue for me, as I very rarely keep my email, let alone search it.)

I've used Zimbra in the past, and could use a full-fledged collaboration suite, if I wanted to. I think things like Zimbra and Citadel and the like all scratch itches I don't have though. I mostly need email, and a decent calendar and contact manager. ownCloud offers the latter in a very nice package, so that would probably be my first stop.

It's been a long while since I last ran my own mail server, so I've got a lot of learning to do should I pursue this.

Egress

Ingress was a fun game, for a bit. Now it's not, at least for me. I'm just shy of reaching level 8, but I don't think I'm going to bother crossing that line. The game simply doesn't offer me anything in exchange for my time and effort.

Grinding

The game mechanics are pretty flat. The actions available to each player are the same for all players: there's no specialization, and no real strategy to the game:

  1. Hack a portal
  2. Attack resonators attached to enemy portals
  3. Deploy resonators on unclaimed portals, or upgrade resonators on existing team-owned portals
  4. Create control fields

Lather, rinse, repeat.

The game encourages team work by restricting the number of high-level resonators that can be deployed on any portal by a single player. A level 7 player can only deploy one level 7 resonator, for example. So in order to get a portal completely stocked with level 7 resonators, seven unique accounts are required to each deploy one level 7 resonator.

Griefers

Note that I said "unique accounts", as opposed to "unique players". There are a lot of people playing the game using multiple accounts. This is in direct violation of the Ingress terms of service, but it's a hard thing to police. So one human being could use two or three accounts to work together. This greatly improves their individual item inventories, and makes it much easier to tag-team enemy portals.

All games are going to have griefers. It's a fact of life. Whether they're violating the terms of service by using multiple accounts, or they're actively cheating by spoofing their GPS coordinates, there are a lot of ways to abuse Ingress. Folks like me who play by the rules are the losers. We don't level as quickly. We don't have as much access to inventory items.

Imbalance

One of the truly frustrating aspects of Ingress is that it take 8 unique accounts to build up a portal to level 7 or 8, but a single account can tear that down in a matter of minutes. So while (ostensibly) eight people need to coordinate their schedules to upgrade a portal together (synchronously or not), a single player of a lower level can come along at their leisure and undo all of that hard work.

Stalemate

There's no win condition to Ingress. You claim some portals, maybe make a field. The enemy comes along and blows up your portals, tears down your fields. They claim your portals, so you go blow up their stuff and reclaim them. This repeats forever. That's not particularly fun for me.

Unskilled

Indeed, there's no strategy for Ingress. Sure, you can argue about the relative value of where to place individual resonators, or when to make a field. But this is all academic: the enemy can and will destroy anything you create. The unending back-and-forth only rewards one specific kind of player: the one with ample free time.

I have a full-time job, and a family with which I enjoy spending time. I don't have the free time to constantly farm friendly portals for enough items to then make it possible for me to harass the opposition. There are a number of players on the opposing team who seem to have enormous amounts of free time. Ingress rewards them, and punishes me.

The lack of strategy means that all players are essentially equal. There's no specialization. Perhaps the game dynamic might be more interesting if different styles of play were rewarded. If there was some long-term in-game benefit to maintaining a control field, or recharging resonators, or something.

Social

The one really great thing to come from Ingress is that I've met -- virtually, and in real life -- a terrific group of players. The amount and quality of ad-hoc organization our team has performed is nothing short of amazing. I suspect the opposition does the same thing, though my personal experience with most members of the opposition has been less than friendly. That's unfortunate.

I don't know how long I'll remain in touch with the other players once I cease my involvement in the game. Participation in the larger community doesn't make much sense if I'm not playing the game. See also the bit above where I enumerate the restrictions on my free time: these restrictions also make it hard to attend team meetups.

In Conclusion

Lest this sound like a pity party for poor skippy, let me state unequivocally that the Ingress technology is really impressive. I hope Google / Niantic Labs learn from this and make a whole slew of other location-based games. I hope professional game designers take notice of what's happening, and work location-based gaming into new projects -- preferably ones with clear skill specialization opportunities, and less mindless grinding!

And for folks who still enjoy playing Ingress: good on yer! Keep playing. If this is the kind of game you enjoy, that's awesome. Getting out, learning about your town, and meeting new people are all awesome ancillary benefits that go along with Ingress.

It's just not the game for me.