Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear

Cixin Liu, The Three-Body Problem
I just finished this book, which was a bestseller in China and recently won the Hugo for Best Novel (in a year somewhat marred by the Sad/Rabid Puppy mess, though this book was not on the Puppy slate). I don't have a lot to add to James Nicoll's review, which I largely agree with, except to say that even the more "modern" elements of the book read to some degree like an old-fashioned idea-SF story from the mid-20th century (and that I enjoyed it for that). I suspect Cixin Liu was heavily influenced by Isaac Asimov; he explicitly references an Asimov short at one point ("The Billiard Ball"), but I can also see elements of Asimov's stories "Breeds There A Man..." and "Nightfall" in the setup, and his novel The Gods Themselves.

He's better at characters than Asimov was, though motivations still tend to be simple and stark. In real life, I would expect his aliens' propaganda techniques to produce at least as many terrified wannabe resistance fighters as enthusiastic turncoats. I found the sections dealing with the Cultural Revolution and its aftermath affecting, horrifying and fascinating (translator Ken Liu's footnotes do an excellent job of getting a Western reader through the unfamiliar aspects).

Unfortunately, the involvement of the three-body problem mentioned in the title is perhaps the least believable thing in the story, given that Cixin Liu is using a real triple star system that, given its configuration, shouldn't behave like he describes it behaving and should be fairly tractable to numerical prediction (also, he doesn't understand how tides work). That is, the least believable thing up to the final chapters, in which we finally see the extraterrestrial menace without a highly figurative filter and the super-science becomes colorfully goofy, in what Nicoll accurately calls the Edmond Hamilton mode. This is the first volume of a trilogy, and I would expect to see more of this in the later installments.

More Moomins
A couple of years ago, I posted reviews of a couple of Tove Jansson's classic children's books set in the world of the Moomins: Comet in Moominland (in which Moominvalley is threatened by an extraterrestrial impactor), and Moominsummer Madness (a charming adventure set largely in a theater cast adrift on the water). I loved these books when I was a kid, though I didn't read all of them. A couple of the others in the series have become favorites of my daughter by now, but I never got around to reviewing them.

The Moomin books were written over several decades, and the style gradually evolves, from straightforward, if whimsically strange and occasionally wise, adventure tales early on; through more experimentally witty and psychologically complex stories in the middle books; to the melancholy, largely interior narratives of the late stories. Eventually Jansson entirely abandoned Moominvalley for adult mainstream fiction. Comet is from the early period, and Moominsummer Madness (my personal favorite, I think) is a middle book.

Finn Family MoomintrollCollapse )

Moominpappa"s MemoirsCollapse )

Other stuff at Universal Florida
Honestly, apart from anything with Harry Potter stamped on it, I didn't experience a lot of the best stuff at the Universal resort. Partly this was stupidity/lack of research/occasional unwellness on my part; partly it was having to wrangle a frequently grumpy 8-year-old. I shouldn't be too hard on her, though; she was, as always, far, far more intrepid about going on rides than I was at her age. When you're traveling with a kid you expect some opportunities to pass by unseized.

I made some mistakes. Two primary ones.
Read more...Collapse )

Our hotel, the Loews Royal Pacific, was a very nice place with cod-Hawaiian decor and a gigantic pool--I can't really make an apples-to-apples comparison with our Disney trip a couple of years ago, because we stayed at a budget resort then and we sprung for the next level up this time. My one complaint is that there was something in the room that had us all coughing with allergic reactions every night, maybe just leftover seasonal pollen in the air ducts. Fortunately I'd been having trouble back home for the previous week and brought lots of Benadryl. But it did mean that for my first full day at the parks I was not by any means operating at 100%, which cut down on the amount of fun stuff I was willing to do.

The Harry Potter stuff at Universal Florida
This is my daughter's school vacation week, so we spent a few days at the Universal resort in Orlando, a pair of large theme parks (Universal Studios and Islands of Adventure) with an associated shopping/restaurant/entertainment area (CityWalk) and a bunch of hotels.

The obvious comparison here is to Walt Disney World: Universal's the only other theme-park operation in the area that is really trying to play on something approaching Disney's level. They have much, much less real estate, so the scale isn't anywhere near as colossal, but for the visitor, that's not necessarily bad. It's really easy to get around Universal's territory, much easier than in Disney's vast pocket universe.

Universal has a number of renowned big steel looper roller coasters... which I didn't ride. I don't know, maybe I'm slowing down. Part of it, I suppose, is that I was more interested in the park's signature motion-simulator/dark-ride attractions, and they provided more than enough sensory assault for one visit. There were also only two of us adults along to wrangle my 8-year-old daughter. I did ride one very special coaster at Universal, more on which below.

I do solemnly swear that I am up to no goodCollapse )

Much too much video games: Destiny, Titanfall, yet more Disney Infinity
...But on to the ones I actually got for Christmas. For these I really only have first impressions.

I've been spending too much time playing the big game of the year, Bungie's Destiny. I'm only a little way into it (my Hunter is level 7, and the cap for the pre-expansion game is 20), and haven't completely wrapped my head around the many options for network multiplayer play and the byzantine loot system. But I can say that, even on the now-previous-generation XBox 360, it's an absolutely gorgeous game, one of the prettiest shooters I've played. It goes for the blasted post-apocalyptic look characteristic of many such things, but it's very well executed, and I like the strange touches of high-fantasy aesthetic mixed in with the science fiction. People make fun of the narration from Peter Dinklage as your mini-robot friend who looks like a cross between a hovering eyeball and a twisty puzzle, but I think he does pretty well with what he's got.

The worst thing about it is that it requires an Internet connection, and if your connection to the back end isn't absolutely rock solid, you'll be unceremoniously booted out of the game (even if the actual mission you're playing is essentially single-player, which can often be the case).

In some cases this seems to happen as a result of some server problem, possibly just overloading. There are missions I've never played simply because I get a network error message every time I try (and it seems to happen more often with some missions than others, which is what makes me think at least some of it is on the back end).

Read more...Collapse )

Too much video games: Geometry Wars 3 and its antecedents
I've been playing video games a lot lately, partly because of Christmas.

The one I've experienced enough of to write something like a knowledgeable review is Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions, the latest in a series of twin-stick shooters with gameplay that is essentially a refinement of the old Robotron: 2084 formula (move with one stick, shoot in all directions with the other).

History and details...Collapse )

Disney Infinity 2.0
Having talked about Disney Infinity before, I guess I should mention that Jorie got v2.0 as a belated birthday present.

I agree with most of the reviews out there: the game's improvements to its Toy Box mode make it even more addictive. They fixed most of the irritating things about building content in the Toy Box: your toy collection, rather than just being organized into idiosyncratic and lopsided categories, can now be viewed through a collection of "filters" that make it far easier to navigate, and the editor actually has an undo button and more "are you sure?" checks for dangerous actions. There are tools for procedurally generating random cities, treehouses and racetracks.

Best of all, the annoying random "spin" mechanism for getting new Toy Box toys is gone, replaced by a system where you can simply buy the toys you want with an in-game currency that you earn by playing, unlocked in a tree diagram similar to the new skill-tree system for characters. And if you have the Play Set pieces for version 1.0, while they aren't playable here, they do unlock all the toys associated with that Play Set in 2.0, so upgraders end up with a huge collection to start with.

But (as most reviewers also noted)... the Marvel superhero content that is the game's main selling point, and replaces the 1.0 version's Disney-themed Play Sets, is also its weakest point. Not the characters themselves—Thor, Black Widow and Iron Man, at least, are actually terrific additions and great fun to play with. The combat system has been beefed up in ways that make fighting a lot more fun, varied and challenging; there's a bit more to it now than "hit it until it's dead". But the Avengers campaign that comes in the box (the only one that's playable with the starter set alone) feels a bit too thin to be the centerpiece of this release.

Basically it's not that different from the Incredibles campaign in the first version: a quasi-open-world superhero adventure in a city of skyscrapers, with Frost Giants as the standard mooks in place of Syndrome's Omnidroids. But since two of the pack-in characters can fly, they've taken away the climbing-puzzle element that Incredibles revolved around (some characters, such as Spider-Man, can climb walls, but these three can't; Black Widow has to use elevators, peculiar streetcorner jumping pads, and pipe-climbing to get up high, unless Thor or Iron Man is willing to give her a boost). There also seem to be fewer oddball side quests, though there are still a number of challenge mini-games scattered around town. Mostly, you're playing the story missions, most of which are only of about three or four basic types: lots of smackdowns to get to some MacGuffin, object defense and escort missions.

I think part of it is that to try to make the Marvel Play Sets less twee, they took out the weird customization options that the Infinity 1.0 Play Sets had. A lot of players disliked those because they were completely irrelevant to the gameplay, but they actually provided a significant part of the exploration aspect (since there were red capsules all over that supplied customization options).

(Instead, the customizable wallpaper and ornamentation have moved to a new Toy Box environment called the "INterior", basically an arbitrarily expandable dollhouse for your characters. I wish you could make as many full-fledged INterior Toy Boxes as you like rather than just having the one as your virtual hangout, but Jorie seems to really like this feature, so what do I know?)

Avengers has its moments. Most of the voices are the actors from Disney's Marvel TV cartoons... but Nick Fury's voice actually is Samuel L. Jackson. My favorite battle so far was a surprisingly tough showdown with multiple duplicates of Loki, who like to shoot you repeatedly when you're already down. One of the more clever additions to the combat system is that being killed is slightly less trivial a thing than it used to be: in multi-player, your character gets taken out of commission until revived by your partner with the usual multi-player "healing" mechanic, and in single player, you generally have to switch to a different character or go back to a checkpoint. It does make the game feel slightly more grown-up.

But my favorite bit of the Marvel content is actually not the full-fledged Avengers Play Set; it's a smaller side game called Escape from the Kyln, ostensibly set in the outer-space prison from Guardians of the Galaxy. It's an old-timey fight-and-loot dungeon stomp displayed with a top-down isometric view, and I love it. There's also a tower-defense game called Assault on Asgard; I haven't played it much since I don't really dig tower-defense games.

Anyway, quibbles aside, I'm actually having a lot of fun playing this with Jorie and solo. The improved Toy Box is definitely the jewel here.

Story Land and Mount Washington
We just took a long weekend and spent a couple of nights up around North Conway, NH.

On Friday, we went back to Story Land, a little kid-oriented amusement park that I visited with my daughter a couple of years ago. She's a little older, and some of the things that used to thrill her are less thrilling; having ridden Big Thunder Mountain Railroad and Test Track at Disney World, she's a little too jaded to be truly excited by the Polar Coaster any more.

But what I was really looking forward to was Story Land's newest ride, Roar-O-Saurus. This is a surprisingly hardcore ride for a kiddie park like Story Land: a small wooden coaster made by The Gravity Group, which basically concentrates on delivering as much negative G-force as possible in a small space.

Jorie, having been a bit overwhelmed by Canobie Lake's Yankee Cannonball a few weeks ago, opted out of Roar-O-Saurus. Considering that she was still feeling slightly carsick from the ride up, I don't really blame her. Sam, who I similarly traumatized with a ride on Lake Compounce's gigantic Boulder Dash a few years ago, wasn't keen on it either, and was all too happy to supervise Jorie at the Loopy Lab play area while I went over there and rode Roar-O-Saurus.

Which turns out to be a fairly awesome, somewhat intense ride, and I think I'd actually recommend it more to older coaster fans than to little kids (though a fair number of kids were riding on it, so what do I know). It's only about 40 feet tall, so the biggest drop, while quite steep, isn't big enough to even be worth a scream... but after that, it's all wicked bunny hills, which the trains zip right over, producing enormous amounts of what coaster fans call "ejector air": the feeling that the coaster is trying its best to throw you out of the car, like a mechanical bull. Do not wear an unsecured hat or glasses on this thing; you will lose them.

I was in the front seat just behind the triceratops head, much like East Coaster General up there, though I think that video is shot from the left seat and I was on the right (and I think at least one of the ride ops in that video was working the ride).

The train on this ride is one of The Gravity Group's Timberliners, technically advanced wooden-coaster trains that provide a smooth, comfortable ride, while also a somewhat unnerving one. The only restraint on a Timberliner is a single padded bar that swings down from the side over your lap; it somehow silently and continuously "ratchets" so that it stays in place wherever your lap happens to be. The ride ops were making sure they were pretty snug, so it wasn't the old-fashioned buzz-bar experience where your butt constantly flies out of the seat, but the seats are designed to make you feel like you're fairly exposed. All in all, The Gravity Group's tech impresses me.

There were a lot of adult coaster fans in line with me. I later found out that this was because ACE (American Coaster Enthusiasts) had organized an expedition to Story Land that day to ride Roar-O-Saurus. The ride's reputation had probably been helped by its similarity to a previous small Gravity Group coaster, Wooden Warrior at Quassy. I'm sure they weren't disappointed.

Later that day, we concentrated on water-based rides. Jorie had refused to do anything wet the last time we went there because she insists on wearing a bathing suit, and I hadn't brought hers; but this time we were prepared. One weakness of Story Land in this regard is a shortage of decent changing areas and locker rental (the only lockers are coin-op, so you have to stock up on quarters). But we managed.

"Dr. Geyser's Remarkable Raft Ride" is one of those splashy rides with big circular rafts, this one with a campy turn-of-the-20th-century theme; unlike Thunder Rapids at Compounce, it relies much less on general chaos and more on gimmicks to spray you with water (fake firehoses, fountains that spout up out of the water, a chamber filled with mist), and the sprinkling the gimmicks produce is relatively gentle, probably to make it friendly to younger children. Of the various raft rides I've been on, it's by far the tamest. Despite the warning signs, I suspect it would be hard to get truly soaked on this ride.

This is not true of "Splash Battle: Pharaoh's Reign", an ancient-Egyptian-themed ride in which you ride around on a slow-moving boat and fight with spectators using powerful hand-cranked water cannons. This ride is great hostile fun and gets everyone involved completely inundated. I suspect there are people who just hang around this ride all day long and shoot everybody who floats by. Aside from Roar-O-Saurus, I think it's the actual high point of Story Land.

On Saturday we took the Mt. Washington Cog Railway, a cogwheel train or rack railway to the top of Mt. Washington, the highest peak in New England. I'd hiked up Mt. Washington a couple of times in my youth (and always thought it was a bit surreal to hike through the wilderness up a mountain and find a snack bar and gift shop at the top), but this was my first time on the Cog. It used to be a coal-fired steam train; several years ago, they switched to diesel for most runs, though they do a steam run once a day in the early morning.

This is a pretty remarkable experience, somewhat unnerving when it goes over Jacob's Ladder, a curving trestle with a 37.4% grade (about 20.5 degrees, if I'm calculating correctly). It creeps along at about six miles an hour; it's an hour to go up and an hour to descend, and they give you an hour at the summit. Jorie was really apprehensive even before we got on the train, and spent about the first half of the ascent clinging to me, but eventually decided the whole thing was cool and greatly enjoyed it. There's also a little museum at the bottom, displaying, among other things, the primitive and dangerous sliding board that railroad employees used to use to get down the mountain on the center cog rail at great speed, like a proto-alpine coaster.

A brief visit to Lake Compounce
We went back to Lake Compounce yesterday on the way home from a little family reunion in Pennsylvania. The visit was shorter than we'd expected, thanks to the two-hour backup caused by a car accident at a terrible choke point on I-84 near Waterbury.

No coaster rides this time. My nerves were already a little jangled by the ride in (though Sam was driving); also, the interesting development is that my daughter Jorie is now just tall enough to ride most adult rides, so it's a lot more fun to do stuff with her. But she's at an awkward point where the coasters at Compounce are still a little too much for her, except for a minute kiddie coaster which is far too babyish. Like many small parks, they're lacking something in the "family coaster" category like a Mine Train.

Also, the water slides and such, which I'd say are at least half of Compounce's attractions, don't open until next weekend (and it was too cool for them to be really attractive anyway).

So the standout ride today was the sky ride, which is pretty unusual for any amusement park, let alone a smallish one: basically a long ski lift that goes 700 feet up the mountain and back down again, giving spectacular views of the lake and environs. There's much more of it than you can actually see from the ground; it's about a half-hour ride. Sam and I hadn't been able to ride this last time, because the only means of evacuation involves a hike down the mountainside, so they can't run it when it's just rained and potentially slippery. This ride was pretty amazing, but was also enough to actually trigger the little bit of acrophobia I have, especially by proxy whenever Jorie started horsing around (I kept remembering that the lapbar is non-locking). She seems to completely lack this fear, incidentally, so she may turn out to be a bigger thrill-seeker than I am.

One of the most unusual things you can see from the sky ride is a colossal forest of satellite dishes, that you also drive past on the way in; I'm used to these being defense or intelligence facilities, but this one turns out to be the nerve center of ESPN.

After that, we discovered that Sam's favorite ride at the park, Thunder Rapids, actually was open, so we rode on that and got wet. It was a walk-on and they just let us ride through three times in a row, so we got really wet. Wet enough that we had to concede the argument we'd had with Jorie on the sky ride about the need to go back to the car and change our clothes afterward, which ate up some more of our precious park time. I've ridden several of these sorts of rides in which you get splashed a lot in a big round raft, and I think Compounce's is actually the best one I've encountered. Kali River Rapids at Disney Animal Kingdom is bigger and fancier, with a small drop at the climax, but Thunder Rapids is splashier and more chaotic, and wins for general soaking.

And then we had our first time contesting with our daughter on the bumper cars.

The experience of going to these parks changes a lot when your kid is no longer in the kiddie-ride category. It's one thing I like about Story Land up around North Conway (now owned by the same company as Compounce): they made the decision to specialize in family rides rather than kiddie rides per se, so that you can share the experience even with rather smaller children. I'd like to get up there again and take Jorie on their new wooden coaster, Roar-O-Saurus; it sounds like it would be exactly her speed.

The Pinball Arcade returning to XBox 360?!?!
I first got into playing Farsight's The Pinball Arcade on the XBox 360, which, according to Farsight, has also been their main development platform.

These days, I play it almost exclusively on Android, which isn't quite the same quality of experience, but at least you can get the updates on Android.

Unfortunately, I don't think you've even been able to buy it on XBox Live for some time, and there have been no updates after the first 10 tables or so. Early on, this was mostly Farsight's fault. Their releases, especially early on, were buggier than they ought to be, and for a while Microsoft kept rejecting them for having stability problems of some sort in their qualification testing for release on XBLA. The turnaround time for getting a patch released was fairly long, so this tended to delay the XBox versions of new pinball tables for months.

Then the relationship hit a more serious obstacle. On the 360, Microsoft required companies like Farsight to work through game publishers, which in Farsight's case was Crave Software, the same people who distributed Pinball Hall of Fame on disc to bargain bins everywhere.

One day, Crave's parent company went bankrupt. Farsight tried to line up another distributor... but apparently the bankruptcy court treated the exclusive XBox 360 distribution agreement with Crave as an asset of the bankrupt company, which Crave and Farsight were no longer free to break while things proceeded. That was where it stayed for many months. Farsight has announced that they're going to be shipping on the new XBox One pretty soon, but I think 360 owners had long since given up any hope of the game resurfacing there.

Just a few days ago, though, this happened. It sounds as if TPA really is coming back to the XBox 360, with all the tables they've developed in the interim (since they'd continued to use the 360 as a dev box all along).

If true, this is pretty remarkable. Here's hoping they still remember who requested the 360 versions of the Twilight Zone and Star Trek: TNG tables as Kickstarter thank-you gifts.

It also seems to me that the recent releases on Android have been of higher quality than the earlier ones. I think pulling back to just one table per pack helped with the quality, and I hope that carries over to the XBox. They've also been adapting some real classics recently, such as Fish Tales, Black Knight 2000 and High Speed, and they seem to be quietly fixing the bugs in some earlier ones like Black Knight in the background.


Log in