Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Vacuum Energy favorite posts of 2010

5 weird things about the 2010 film remake of "True Grit"

  1. Mattie Ross spends hours riding her horse through the snow, gets caught in pouring rain, and even immerses herself up to the eyeballs in a stream, yet she never ends up wet.

  2. Everyone in this film seems to have been replaced by a cartoon character. Rooster Cogburn gets shot in the shoulder, but is still able to carry Mattie for miles. The Texas Ranger, like Daffy Duck, can get hit in the head with a boulder and just walk it off. One character gets shot in the leg, gets some of his fingers cut off, and then gets stabbed in the chest with a 6-inch knife without seeming to feel any pain or discomfort.

  3. The film's dialogue sounds like it was written by George Lucas.

  4. The characters anachronistically refer to "Indian Territory" as "Native American Territory". Similarly, even though the Texas Ranger fought for the Confederacy in the Army of Northern Virgina, he doesn't seem to notice that Mattie has non-white facial features (which mysteriously disappear when she gets older).

  5. Mattie loses her left forearm to a rattlesnake bite just so the filmmakers can deploy the CGI "limb erasure" tool at the end of the film.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Obama's plan for the lame duck session

How is it that President Obama, the liberal's liberal, managed to convince himself that he needed to fight his own base over preserving the Bush tax cuts? And why was it so damned important for President Obama to get a repeal of "Don't Ask. Don't Tell." in the lame duck session?

Two words: Jerry Brown.

As the governor of California, Jerry Brown will perfectly positioned to mount a primary challenge to Obama in 2012. Brown has the most powerful Democratic state in the Union as his own personal fiefdom. He has loyal armies of union goons to do his bidding (if they're sufficiently compensated). Brown has no obligation to run on Obamacare, the stimulus package, Obamanomics, or any of the other Obama blunders since 2008. Brown is dumb enough to make a go of it and smart enough for his campaign to be a credible threat.

The key is whether Brown can turn the California economy around before Obama can turn the national economy around. If California is perceived as outperforming the national as a whole by 2012, Brown becomes a very dangerous man. If the national economy is doing well in 2012 and California is still mired in the doldrums, Brown has blown it and Obama wins.

Thus, the next two years are a sort of chess game between Obama and Brown. Extending the Bush tax cuts was the opening move.

Why the emphasis on "Don't Ask. Don't Tell." then? Think of that as a political gift for Nancy Pelosi. As a congressperson representing San Francisco and the outgoing Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi is obviously a major political power in Brown's backyard. Giving Pelosi this as a consolation prize from the 2010 midterms is Obama's way of making sure she stays on his side in this battle.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

"Civilization V" sucks

For the sake of convenience, I'm going to refer to version # of the long-running "Civilization" series of video games as C#.

I first got invested in the "Civilization" series back in the late 90s with the release of C3. C3 had its quirks. Modern battleships would occasionally get sneak attacked and destroyed by spear-wielding barbarians in dugout canoes, for example.

C4 was the incremental improvement on C3, and it fixed some old quirks and added new ones. The most glaring lacuna is that, based on the amounts of CD-ROM space devoted to different aspects of the game, C4 is essentially an animation program for three-dimensional heads of world leaders with a few gameplay elements knocked on.

The current version of the franchise is this year's C5. If C4 was a step forward from C3, C5 is the two steps backwards. Here's a list of what I believe the game does right and what it does wrong.

Right: the hexagonal tileset
The most obvious change introduced into C5 is the new hexagonal tile shape which gives the terrain a more natural feel compared to the traditional square tile set. Unit movement is more natural as well since it feels harder to speed up movement by gaming the tile topology. C5 also handles the problem of what do to with the polar ice caps more gracefully than its predecessor.

Wrong: the same old unit animation
A C4 warrior unit, for example, consisted of a trio of little animated warriors who walk around the map like real, little people when they follow your orders. A C5 warrior unit consists of... a few more, slightly smaller little people still walking around following orders. Maybe this is some kind of titanic, computer programming breakthrough. Maybe it's just the programmers being lazy. Either way, I'm definitely not impressed.

Right: C5 eliminates the three-dimensional animated heads

Wrong: stupid diplomacy
World leaders in C5 are constantly pestering you to join "pacts of cooperation" or "pacts of secrecy". What these pacts do, why they're important, and what happens when you violate their terms is apparently a complete mystery. The "pact of secrecy" is so secret that even the game programmers don't seem to know what it is.

Right: better voice-overs
C5 replaces the celebrity voice-overs of Leonard Nimoy with voice-overs by actor W. Morgan Sheppard (cf. the film "Gettysburg"). It's hard to overstate what a smart move this was.

Wrong: C4's video clips were replaced with static splash panels.
This is incredibly disappointing. C4's video clips were mind-bogglingly bad; completing, say, the Pyramids in C4 wins you a 20-second video clip showing the Pyramids being built in super-fast motion. Completing the Pyramids in C5 wins you a static splash image of the Pyramids and a 20 second audio clip. When you win the game in C4, you were treated to a 20-second video clip showcasing sweet, sweet late-90s computer graphics. In C5, you get an early-90s static image and another voice-over.


Terrain and terrain improvements
Right: "on the fly" expansion of civilization borders.
This is a major leap forward. In C4, each city had a static, pre-defined zone of tiles that it could work. In C5, cities slowly expand their suite of workable tiles, but you can also purchase tiles to work for your city. This lets cities rapidly expand to encompass strategic tiles and critical resources and then slowly filling in the gaps as other priorities rise in importance later in the game.

Wrong: workers have little to do
C5 workers can build farms, mines, trading posts, and lumber mills to improve tiles. You have one primitive improvement for each of the three primitive resources and one primitive improvement to stick on forests. And that's it. Your workers pretty much have nothing to do for a big chunk of the game. Roads also cost money for upkeep, which means you can't pass the time having your workers carve out "road spaghetti".

Game Mechanics
Right: cities have built-in garrisons
Cities can fight back against beseigers. This is more realistic and spares you from producing the large garrison armies of C4.

Wrong: Cities can shoot volleys of arrows at opponents even if you haven't researched "archery" yet.

Right: Ranged units can actually attack opponents "at range". Major conceptual breakthrough.

Wrong: Unit upkeep is a mystery.
C5 tells you a total gold cost for maintaining units. There is no way to break this down on a per unit basis. The C5 documentation is totally silent on this point. Late in the game, you'll do things like delete your do-nothing worker unit and discover it, alone, was responsible for 50% of your unit upkeep costs over the last 200 turns.

Right: You can buy "social policies" with culture points.
This seems to be a rational solution for turning culture (i.e. the stuff you do when you're not at war) into a viable game mechanic.

Wrong: You can't switch social policies.
Once you buy a social policy, you're stuck with it forever, even if it becomes worthless.

Right: city-states
C5 has the innovative feature of non-competitive city states that you can ally with or attack. The city states will give you resources, culture, science points, food, or even military units if you befriend them. They make an intriguing addition to the game-play if you can get on their good sides.

Wrong: the game is designed to deter conquest victories
Cities have garrisons now, so good luck storming one with a handful of stone age warriors. Resource limits prevent you from mass producing key military units. Your civilization's global happiness degrades rapidly when you annex (or even "puppet") captured cities. And in a deliberate slap to the face of all of the hard-core conquest players, there are some cities that cannot be razed so a "one-city" conquest victory is impossible.

Summation: Unless you're a hard-core "Civilization" masochist, I recommend that you not drop any money on this game.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Another bad day for Democrats

President Obama's class warfare tactics are rejected in the Senate:
The Senate blocked President Obama's and Democratic leaders' tax cut plans Saturday in a foreordained symbolic vote that now sends both sides back to the negotiating table to work out a viable deal.

A bipartisan filibuster, led by unified Republicans and joined by four Democrats and one independent, proved there isn't enough support to back Mr. Obama's preferred option to extend income tax cuts for couples making less than $250,000 and tax increases for those making more than that.
Nancy Pelosi passed this bill in the House as a test of the resolve of the Senate Republican caucus. This time, the squishy moderate Republicans didn't defect as they did on the stimulus bill. I'd call this a win for the Tea Party movement.

In other news, the WikiLeaks revelations seemed to have claimed their first political victim:
"I think I will serve as secretary of state as my last public position," [Secretary of State Hillary Clinton] said. Clinton's career has included not only her current position as secretary of state, but also eight years in the Senate representing New York.
Of course, the statement was made with the typical Clintonian rhetorical escape hatch. She isn't definitively leaving politics, she just thinks that she will someday in the future. On the other hand, people don't usualy go around saying that they're abandoning formal politics forever unless there is a reason.