Matt McIrvin's Steam-Operated World of Yesteryear

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.

More fun with cellular automata
I missed this when it happened, but Andrew Trevorrow and Tom Rokicki's fine program Golly, the most powerful software I know of for running Conway's Game of Life and similar cellular automata, is now available for free on Google Play for Android and on Apple's store for the iPad. I can now mess around with my tweaked variants of Life anywhere I go!

The Android version seems to get into an occasional crash loop on my Galaxy S4 if I push it hard, but otherwise it's great. Most of the features are there, including all the automaton types, the pattern library, the integrated Life Lexicon, and the remarkable HashLife algorithm, which for sufficiently regular patterns can do things like run them to quadrillions of generations and cosmic sizes. The Android version lacks Perl/Python scripting, auto-fit (though you can still hit a button to make the view fit the active region), and the "hyperspeed" feature that automatically accelerates the time step (only really useful with certain gigantic engineered patterns on HashLife). I think the viewing and editing interface is actually more intuitive than in the Mac/PC version.

I also just spent a little time messing with their more recent project, Ready, which generalizes cellular automata in all sorts of different directions: its main concern is simulating chemical reaction-diffusion systems, like the one that Alan Turing theorized as the source of spots and stripes on animal coats, but it can also run continuum automata like SmoothLife, 3D cellular automata and models on non-square grids (triangular, hexagonal, Penrose tilings, arbitrary lumpy surfaces). It can also use OpenCL to accelerate its math using your video 3D hardware. It's clearly in a more primitive state than Golly and is not as simple to play with, but what it can do is pretty amazing.

Some things that are not obvious about Disney Infinity
Somehow this blog has become all about Disney products. Oh, right, I have a 7-year-old daughter.

My kid got Disney Infinity for Christmas, a game that is both charming and brilliantly evil in its business model: like Activision's Skylanders, it's a game with huge wads of on-disc unlockable content that you access by buying collectible tchotchkes, that go on a USB platform that is a near-field communication interface.

I have to give it to them, though: you actually get a tremendous amount of play value just from the base starter set, and much of it is as fun for grownups as for kids. Basically you get a set of three full campaigns themed after Pirates of the Caribbean, The Incredibles and Monsters University, plus a monstrously addictive Toy Box mode in which you can build nonsensical worlds out of sweet Disney IP with abandon, unlocking more and more stuff as you play on in the campaigns.

Considered that way, it's not such a bad deal, though it does push the extra content at you a bit hard at times. Probably the game's single most evil touch is that, because of the restrictions on character use in the campaigns, the three starter-set campaigns are single-player only until you buy more characters. But the Toy Box is multi-player from the start, and this is indescribably fun. (This game actually drove me to buy a second XBox controller so I could mess in the Toy Box with my kid.)

The campaigns are actually solid games in themselves, too, though not without some design glitches; they've got the "open-world" design common to most big modern games, in which you can roam more or less freely, but there are missions you gradually unlock that involve both a main story progression and a large number of side quests, loot to collect, achievements and optional hurry-up challenges. My favorite is the Pirates world, mostly because of the customizable pirate ship that is transport between the game areas and vehicle for naval combat. The amount of content in each campaign world isn't as much as in a major standalone game, but for all three put together it's comparable or more.

All this has been covered in many other reviews; I think it's a case where, as with so much that Disney produces, both admiration and resentment are legitimate responses.

What I wanted to emphasize, for people who have been sucked into this maelstrom, are a few play-value-enhancing facts that were not at all obvious to me.

Read more...Collapse )

Some rides at Walt Disney World
While I'm too averse to physical punishment to be one of these people who can ride roller coasters all day long, I am interested in them. This summer I didn't get to ride any new-to-me coasters; the last amusement park I went to for the first time was Lake Compounce last year.

Over the long weekend, though, we went to Walt Disney World in Florida. It was actually my first time there, and also, I think, Sam's (though she'd been to Disneyland in California). My childhood had been Disney-park-free, so this stuff was new to me.

WDW has four large theme parks, of which we visited three (Animal Kingdom, The Magic Kingdom, and EPCOT; we left off Hollywood Studios, the site of the Aerosmith-themed Rockin' Roller Coaster, which I'd like to ride someday). Disney's parks are not primarily about thrill rides, but Animal Kingdom and The Magic Kingdom have lavishly themed coasters of note, and EPCOT has a difficult-to-classify ride with some coaster aspects. Inevitably, I didn't ride all the ones I wanted to (which was all of them*), but I had a lot of fun.

Some coasters and a not-coasterCollapse )

*Except Primeval Whirl at Animal Kingdom. Spinning coasters are not a thing I have ever regarded as a good idea.

Amazing invention!
Apparently Facebook's imitation of the LiveJournal friends page was the most revolutionary innovation on the web.

Moominsummer Madness, Tove Jansson
Back in July, my kid and I read Tove Jansson's second Moomin book (and the first really well-known one), Comet in Moominland, as bedtime reading. At the time, I noted that, despite Jansson's reputation as a queer/feminist author, the gender roles in that early book are for the most part quite conventional: there are only two major female characters, and they function as a doting mother and a damsel-in-distress/love interest, though the latter does eventually hold her own and rescue the hero as well. Interestingly, several days ago Jed Hartman made a blog post noting the same thing.

I'd remembered at the time, though, that the number and variety of female roles multiplies later on. Recently we acquired the fourth and fifth books, Moominpapa's Memoirs and Moominsummer Madness, translated by Thomas Warburton. Jorie started in on reading Moominsummer Madness, having been intrigued by the book's central idea of an adventure in a floating theater, so I guess we're reading these very much out of sequence. (It doesn't matter much, though I suspect it's best not to start with the darker, more interior stories of the late books.)

At any rate, Moominsummer Madness, which I remember being one of my favorites of the series as a kid, is a complete delight. By this point the cast of characters has changed a bit: Sniff and the male Snork are absent without explanation, and Moomintroll is missing Snufkin, who is off voyaging somewhere. The family's hangers-on are the Mymble's Daughter and her sister, the minute and uncontrollable Little My, who can hide inside of skeins of yarn, ride in a hatband, and stare down biting insects, and likes to shout biting wisecracks and gleeful predictions of fatal disasters. Little My is one of Jansson's greatest creations, and though she only appears for the first time in the fourth volume, she becomes more and more prominent as the Moomin series goes on. Screen adaptations of the books often insert her into the earlier stories as well.

Spoilers ensue, though again spoiler protection is not really important for these talesCollapse )

Comet in Moominland, Tove Jansson
Having read through the first several books in L. Frank Baum's Oz series a few years ago, I recently managed to get my daughter hooked on them, and we've been reading them in Kindle e-book form. It's fun, and it's been great watching Jorie progress from passive bedtime consumption to reading them on her own, but the Oz books only go so deep.

On to a very different fantasy series. I read four or five of Swedish-speaking Finnish author Tove Jansson's Moomintroll books when I was a kid, and loved them. They seem to be more obscure in the US than they are in the rest of the world (especially Japan), but I'd wanted to read them again and see how well they hold up (I'd heard good things).

Jorie and I just read through the 1946 Comet in Moominland (the original Swedish title just seems to be something like "Comet Quest"; the translation is by Elizabeth Portch, and it seems to be of the first version of the novel, prior to some revisions by Jansson in later Swedish editions). This is actually the second book in the series, but the first one (The Moomins and the Great Flood) seems to be relatively obscure, though Comet mentions the events of it. Comet was Jansson's breakout hit. It really does hold up; indeed, like much of the best children's literature, it has depths I didn't consciously detect when I read it as a kid.

Many spoilers, but this isn't the kind of work that can really be spoiledCollapse )

Some Sage code about Fibonacci-like sequences and primality tests
For a little while I've been poking around in some basic number theory using the Sage computer mathematics system (and a tiny bit of PARI/GP, which is another package that comes bundled inside of Sage).

I was initially inspired by a blog post of John Cook's about the Perrin numbers, a sequence sort of like the Fibonacci numbers that can be used via a simple further operation to generate what seems to be a list of prime numbers (and it in fact contains all the prime numbers, but eventually starts including some composite ones as well... starting with 271,441.)

More on sequences and pseudoprimes...Collapse )

The main purpose of this post is to provide all of my Sage code. So people not interested in that can stop reading here...Collapse )

Dental implant: DONE
And now I have a tooth. A fake tooth. I've been eating with it and everything.

The last stages of this process were pretty simple and relatively unexciting to recount. A couple of weeks ago, I went in and my dentist checked the fit of the metal abutment that would run up the middle of the tooth; he stuck it into the hex-shaped socket and put in the screw, and they took an X-ray to make sure it was properly seated in there. Then they took it out again, and compared my real teeth with a color chart so they could get the crown to match.

Today, the ceramic crown was finished, and there was a little bit of testing it in place on the abutment and grinding it down to get the bite just right. Then the dentist used a tiny little torque wrench to get the screw holding down the abutment to some precisely measured degree of tightness (he said the torque wrench was a recent development in dental-implant practice), and glued the crown on top.

It's not precisely functionally identical to a real tooth. Real teeth sit in sockets and have a bit of freedom of motion; this thing's rigidly bolted to my jawbone, which is one of the things that sometimes makes implants fail in various ways. At least if it's the crown that fails instead of the bone, they can replace it pretty easily.

For now, though, it seems to be working.