Thursday, February 26, 2015

I Went "Off the Grid" for Four Days

Brain Chemistry

My smartphone is indispensable; it is also physically altering my brain chemistry.

Every time my phone beeps, bings, buzzes, twirps, or tweedles, I actually twitch. If I hear a noise from my phone as I'm drifting off or early in the morning, a rush of adrenaline courses through my body. I have to check the phone or force my body to calm down. During the day, even if I don't hear or feel my phone buzz or ring, every few minutes I reflexively look to my phone or think about it. If I haven't heard anything for fifteen minutes, I pick it up to see if I missed something.

This is despite the fact that I do just fine without my smartphone 25 hours every week on shabbat (plus holidays).

The Opportunity

I had a week to relax between two jobs, but I wanted to make progress on my book, something that I find difficult to do in my house with the call of daily tasks, unlimited media on the internet, and my smartphone.

Hotels in Israel are (relatively) inexpensive right now, being off season. I picked the Leonardo Plaza hotel in Ashdod with 4 days off the grid: no phone, no internet, no email, no messages. For emergencies I was reachable at the hotel. I wanted to see if I could live without the grid for four days.

I invited my son Saarya and my daughter Tal to join me on condition that they used no internet or cell phones in my vicinity (I didn't want to hear disembodied conversations or the usual assortment of continuous beeps and tweedles). Saarya agreed to live off the grid like me for two days. Tal agreed to pretend to be off the grid in my presence.

What follows are separate reports: one about the hotel / vacation and one about living off the grid.

The Vacation

Ashdod is closer to Raanana than I realized, but it feels like a world removed from my home. The hotel is on the beach; it is mid-winter (which means a chilly breeze and cloudy weather) but it's still a beach: pretty dunes, nice waves, and colorful sunsets when it is not overcast.

Working in the hallway of the 9th floor
In front of the hotel is a gigantic, uh, eye / sideways flying saucer stuck in the ground. It's about 10 meters high and lit up with colored lights at night. I don't even.

Ashdod; an empty pool
The hotel is new, so everything is clean. The staff is friendly and helpful. When it comes to a choice between denying you something or giving you something, they give it to you; they really want to make you happy. The room comes with a plate of exotic fruits and bottles of San Pellegrino water and Marom Galil wine. It has cable TV. The first two days there were no movie channels; I thought this was because they sell movies POD, but the channels mysteriously appeared during the second two days. It has a hair dryer, water heater, fridge, and a comfortable bed and sleeping couch.

The hotel has a pool, but it's an outdoor pool that is not open in the winter months. I forgot to think about that. Tip: consider an indoor pool if you're vacationing in the winter. The hotel has a spa, but it costs extra for daily use, even the exercise room. I forgot to think about that. It has a business lounge which is adults only with a buffet of light foods and drinks, some computers and printers, and a private room. Access to the lounge is only for business guests.

My daughter and I spent some time on the beach but didn't get to see a sunset (the one day we waited for it, the sky was gray).

When I first arrived, I approached the reservation desk a little unhappy with myself for having picked a hotel without an indoor pool. Then I found out that, as an Israeli citizen, I have to pay VAT, which is 18% on top of the reservation price. I'm sure that if I search the site I will find that little detail mentioned somewhere, but it came as a surprise to me. Bleah.

(If I had simply presented my American passport, they wouldn't have asked about my citizenship and I could have avoided paying the VAT.)

While processing my reservation I mentioned to the receptionist that I had forgotten to notice the lack of an open pool, the lack of free access to the exercise room, and now this additional not insignificant VAT cost. I asked if there were some way she could offer me something for my ... uh, disappointment. To my surprise, she gave me and my kids access to the basic spa (exercise room and jacuzzi) and the business lounge for free for the duration of our stay, which was generous. Also, the extra charge for my son turned out to be slightly less than I had thought, which was also nice.

The spa also has several rooms for expensive massages and scrubs of different kinds, including some for couples. The first floor of the hotel has a reasonably-priced salon / barber and a store that sells hair and beauty products as well as some of the usual hotel items.

The first evening the three of us spent with my cousin who lives in Nir Galim, a moshav just north of Ashdod.

The hotel breakfast is yummy, with a vast assortment of delicious foods and drinks, some made to order. We didn't eat any of the other hotel meals.

I got some good progress done on my book, spending much of the time in the business lounge. 

The hotel was generally an oasis of quiet except for the one day that a number of Israeli groups arrived, talking loudly in all the hallways and pushing all the wrong buttons in the elevators. That day the business lounge was unusable all morning and afternoon. The group clattered around, messily eating all the food and YELLING at and to each other while standing right next to where I was trying to work. When I asked them to be quieter, they moved two feet away from my table and continued to yell, anyway. I moved to in a mini-seating area next to the elevators on 9th floor. Things quieted down later in the afternoon. 

The hotel also has a little food court with drinks, pasta, salad, and pizza, reasonably priced.

During checkout, I asked reception if I could work in the business lounge for several hours again, even after I checked out, and they said yes.

On the way home I made a stop in TA to execute a Magic card exchange. I gave 15 cards and received in exchange 8,016 cards. Since the exchange wasn't entirely equitable, he also gave me an additional 40 NIS.

Those are stacks of 100 cards each.

Off the Grid

This turned out to be difficult.

After arriving at the hotel (using Waze, of course), I set my phone to airplane mode. But the reservation desk required my reservation in order to calculate my VAT, so I had to briefly grid up to send it to them. In that brief moment, I saw at least three relatively important emails come in, including one that weighed on me for the rest of the evening: it was something from my previous work that I needed to respond to (a financial issue). I thought that it could wait until the end of the week, but if it was going to bother me the whole week, it didn’t really make sense to ignore it. When I returned to the hotel later that evening there was a message waiting for me at the hotel; the sender of this email wanted my response ASAP. So I gridded up again to print out the email, sign the form, scan it, and send it back.

In preparation for rendezvousing with Saarya on the first evening, I told him that I would meet him at a certain place at a certain time. I told him that, if I was late, or he wasn't there, within 45 minute, to proceed by public transport to my cousin. I had written down the necessary directions to get to our meeting point and from there to my cousin. However, as Tal and I walked to the car she told me that Saarya was not at the agreed upon location but at a different location altogether; apparently he had gotten a ride with someone and they had been unable to drop him off in that location since they had driven a different route. If my daughter hadn't left her phone on, Saarya might have been able to message me through the hotel reception, but it probably would not have gotten to me. So I gridded up again to navigate to the new location.

The next morning I checked to see if my scan had arrived by email, and it had. Back off the grid.

Without searching for a restaurant online, we were unable to find a nice place to eat on the second evening (I suppose we could have asked hotel reception) or print out a coupon. Luckily we didn’t have to pay for parking in downtown Ashdod, for which I need my smartphone. On a different evening, we didn’t eat at a restaurant in the mall because I couldn’t look up reviews on my phone. I ultimately decided to not eat there because it seemed under-populated; I assumed that if it was any good it would be mobbed with people. Maybe. I don’t remember how I made this kind of decision before the internet.
Working: Without any formal distractions, I found myself fidgeting every half hour or so. I had to get up and walk around. I had no YouTube to check, no news to see, no emails to check and file. Instead I wondered about them.

It turned out that, in place of movie channels, the hotel TV system included a primitive search for YouTube videos (and Facebook, somehow, but we didn’t try that). At night, we watched a comedy routine on YouTube instead of a random television program in the evening. This felt like cheating.

At one point I tried to sync my music to my laptop, but that required an internet connection to log into Apple; so I executed a brief grid up. Later I heard some music that I wanted to identify and remember. I had to grid up my phone for a moment to use Shazam. I also wanted to back up my work, which required a quick laptop grid up to access Google Drive.

On the fourth day, I turned my phone on in the morning to check for messages and received one from a prospective renter to take over my lease. I called him to discuss it. I told the guy that I would be unreachable again until the next morning because my phone / internet is off while I’m on vacation. I could hear his jaw drop. He told me how much he loved the idea and wished he could do it.

On the last day, I gridded up my phone and left it on. The Internet was still off on my computer. Luckily, my phone didn't beep too often.
All in all, it was a colossal failure and proof that I will be one of the first ones up against the wall when the revolution comes.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Status Update

  • I will not be able to do my annual game industry survey this year (which I have been publishing on Purple Pawn). I will do my best to get it done again next year. Some people have commented that they think I should ask more interesting questions; what should those be? Remember that the respondents are under no obligation to answer, and many owners of privately held companies are reluctant to answer even basic questions.
  • I have made some progress on my book, going from 90 pages of notes to 180 pages of notes and a TOC. I revise the TOC from time to time, and I rewrite notes into chapter from time to time, but I keep starting them over again. At some point I hope things will take shape. It's so easy to hit publish on a blog post but so hard to let go of a chapter.
  • I have left my job in Hod Hasharon and will be starting a new one in Jerusalem next month. Sometime between now and the end of July I will be moving back to Jerusalem (I have been living in Raanana for the last 3 1/2 years).
  • Between the above two jobs, I am taking a week's vacation. I will be off the grid from noon Sunday until noon Thursday: no telephone, no SMS, no email, no Internet. It seems weird, I know. As a shabbat-observer, I do 25 hours off the grid every week. This feels different. Anyway, the point of it is to take a break from the endless chirps, beeps, and distractions that follow me around all the time. I want to make some more progress on my book. I also need to finalize a talk on APIs that I'm giving next month in Tel Aviv at DevConTLV.
  • I started a limited-period gamification project at my last job that was not complete before I left (not my decision; I wanted to to finish before I left). Many things went wrong and some things went right. I look forward to hearing the end results, after which I will write up what happened.
All the best ...

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Review: Fifty Shade of Grey: it's Gamergate all over Again

The movie Fifty Shades of Grey is receiving a torrent of negative reviews. Some of the people behind many of these reviews must be the same ones behind Gamergate, or maybe their college roommates. FSoG is a female-fantasy emotionally-driven movie appealing to women. As such, apparently, it doesn't have a right to exist.

Like in Gamergate, the actual thing that is the movie is different from the thing that is being criticized. Along with the heaps of criticism rightly or wrongly aimed at the actors (more on this later), the bulk of the criticism condemns the movie for being the wrong story; i.e. for being what it IS (a female fantasy), instead of the more acceptable movie that it SHOULD have been (more action, more male fantasy).

What the Story Actually Is

Ana (Dakota Johnson) is a sexually-naive English major who is about to graduate. She ends up interviewing Christian (Jamie Dornan), a young handsome billionaire. Grey is immediately smitten with Ana, despite or because of her naivete. He meets her several times and sends her lavish gifts, appears to be consumed with her. She learns that he has trouble committing emotionally, and instead relates to women antiseptically through BDSM. Though she is still attracted to him, and allows him to give her incredible sex, she ultimately wants more. Herein likes the tension: he wants to keep doing it his way because he is afraid of his emotions; nevertheless, her existence forces him to feel things for her that confuse him. She is drawn to his wealth, beauty, and lovemaking, but she ultimately isn't willing to sacrifice her dream of being in a loving and whole relationship.

The movie hangs around the question: will she sign his "domination contract", giving up her identity, will, and desires, or won't she? The contract is symbolic: who will win the power struggle. Can they find a workable balance? Who will change more?

That's the story.

The movie is a cross between 9 1/2 Weeks and Twilight. The latter shouldn't be surprising, since it started as Twilight fan-fic. Like Edward in Twilight, Christian is a brooding, worldly, handsome guy who lives a secret life and tries to hold himself back from the overwhelming desire he has for Ana because it wouldn't be good for her. He even saves her from an impending car collision, like Edward does for Bella. The difference is that, in Twilight, Bella denies herself and spends the rest of the book/movie trying to get Edward to bite her. In contrast, Ana spends the book/movie unhappy that something is missing from Christian and trying to get him to come to her instead.

The Criticism

A great bulk of the criticism is that Christian acts like a stalker: showing up at her house, at her parent's house, etc. You know what: yes, he does. But this is a fantasy. In real life, no woman wants a guy to do this. In a fantasy, this is acceptable: a powerful, handsome man who is so smitten that he can't stay away from you and does everything to woo your attention. Fantasy, guys, fantasy. Criticism on this point is silly at best, hypocritical at worst. Tons of today's movies have creepy, weird behavior that doesn't work in the real world: police blowing out city blocks, heroes walking away after falling off a building, anything with Liam Neeson, anything set in a fraternity. That's fantasy.

The next is that the movie portrays the BDSM community in a bad light, because BDSM people don't force behavior on unwilling participants, either through bribery or social pressure. First of all, this move isn't about the BDSM community, it's about one messed up individual with particular tastes. The movie doesn't have to represent BDSM people any more than Bob Dylan has to represent folk musicians. Second, I bring you back to "fantasy". Women, even feminists, can have rape fantasies and not condone rape; in the movie, Ana sure seems to be enjoying herself. So I don't know where this talk of coercion is coming from. Again, in real life Christian's behavior is coercive; this isn't real life, it's one woman's fantasy.

The next is the emotionless portrayal of Christian, Ana's lack of connection to some of the proceedings, and the lack of chemistry between the two. That's the whole story right there: Christian lacks emotion, Ana feels that lack, and, while sensually erotic, the sex also lacks something. That's the whole bloody point.

Another big complaint is that nothing happens: the whole movie is about whether she will or won't sign the damn contract. Big deal! Well, actually it IS a big deal, because that's the central struggle of the characters: how can they love and stay true to themselves? This may not sound like a big deal to people who are expecting to see The Avengers, but it's a big deal for the heart.

Critics complain that there wasn't enough kink: yes there was. There was as much as there needed to be, and no more. Complaining that the movie wasn't more pornographic is just stupid. The movie was about the power struggle and the choices that the characters had to make, not about the sex. The sex was there to provide context for the choices, that's it. The movie had to show Ana's vanilla initiation to sex so that it could then later show her initiation into light BDSM. And it had to show all of that to show how something was still lacking between them, however nice it felt to Ana.

So the criticism is largely as follows: It doesn't portray a normal, healthy relationship. It portrays behavior that would be considered threatening to women. The storyline is all about an emotional choice. It doesn't show enough skin. The sex isn't erotic enough. The characters don't seem to be having enough fun. Here's what this all says to me: This movie doesn't appeal enough to straight men. Straight men can't relate to the fantasy story. Straight men find it boring. Straight men aren't titillated enough by the nudity. Therefore we will heap criticism onto every aspect of the movie whether it deserves it or not, because it should not have been made. Hound the directors and actors, burn the book, burn the movie.

Guess what? Not every movie has to appeal to you. Twilight didn't appeal to you, since it was a female fantasy movie, not a male fantasy movie. Every movie with less overt hacking and slaying and more complex emotional tension doesn't appeal to you. So what? That doesn't mean these movies are bad, it means that they are not for you.

This is not to say that you had to like the movie. You can hate the movie, not like the acting, not like the story, not like the soundtrack for all I care. Just don't hate the movie because you don't think people shouldn't be allowed to make movies that don't appeal to your tastes, and don't be hypocritical about the relative reality or morality of the characters when you so don't care about them in your boys-club movies.

My Review

So what did I think of the movie? First, I couldn't believe that the movie I watched was the same one that received all of this critical scorn, until I began to see the subtext behind the scorn. The tension of the story - the idea that Ana wanted one thing and Christian wanted another - was presented well and understandably. The story arc worked. The movie was acted reasonably well enough. It was not a bad movie.

For most of the movie, Ana criticizes Christian for using his game as a means of pushing away a real relationship. Still she goes along with it and likes it. Suddenly at the end she turns on him for his interest in sadism, which I thought was rather unfair. I think this displays more of a failing of Ana's character than a problem with the writing; she flung it at him as a means of hurting him, maybe because she needed to find the strength to force a confrontation with him.

It had problems, and yes, some of these are the problems that are mentioned by other critics. The story is unbelievable, of course, being a fantasy. As a heterosexual male, it wasn't my fantasy (Christian was a "success object" in the movie). Some of the dialog couldn't be made good no matter how earnestly the actors tried to do so. Backgrounds of many characters and even Christian needed to be fleshed out. Christian's character should have had more natural progress; instead he seemed to be randomly, occasionally annoyed. It would have worked better if these annoyances had progressed in intensity and predictably as his character struggled. It was not a great movie, but it was not a bad movie.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

How Much Money Did My Hybrid Car Save Me?

My old car was a 1996 Honda Civic. It averaged about 450 km on 40 liters of gas.

My new car is a 2010 Honda Insight. At my last fill-up, I filled 32 liters after 480 km. I've had the car (18 months) and I've driven 30,000 km.

In the last few years gas has averaged around 7.25 NIS a liter.

Today's math question is: How much money have I saved driving my new car?

Old car: 450 km on 40 liters is 11.25km/l
New car: 480 km on 32 liters is 15 km/l

So my new car has used approximately 2,000 liters in the last 18 months. At 7.25 NIS a liter that should be around 14,500 NIS.

My old car would have taken 2,666 liters to drive the same distance. At 7.25 NIS a liter, that would have been 19,333 NIS, for an estimated savings of 4,833 NIS. Cool, right?

Looking at my records, I spent 14,446 NIS on gas since I got the car (and actually drove a bit more than 30,000 km). That works out. But during the final 18 months that I drove my old car, I spent only 14,149 NIS on gas. I had the same job and lived in the same apt. The price of gas was about the same for the last 3 years. What happened?

I'm guessing that, with the expectation that my new car costs less to run, I made more trips. I went to see my son an extra time (he goes to school in the south). I went for shabbat to Jerusalem a few extra times. I had a steady girlfriend who lived in another city for a lot of that time, and that added a weekly trip.

You could say that I got more value from my car. When you spend a resource to get a service, you are not losing anything: you spend $1 of money to get $1 of service. In my new car, I spent about the same amount of money but I got more service - more value for the same money, right?

Still, I can't help feeling that something didn't work out here.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Review: The Hidden of Things by Yael Unterman

The short of it: The Hidden of Things is a warm, funny book with mostly insightful stories that will be enjoyed in particular by Jewish English-Speaking Thirtysomething Emigrant Religious Singles (hereinafter JESTERS) who make up the book's characters, but will also be enjoyed by people who like stories about dating, relationships, and the quest for meaning, and don't mind an occasional clunky bit of prose.

Disclaimers: Yael has been an acquaintance of mine for many years.

Book summary: The Hidden of Things is a series of loosely-connected stories about JESTERS dating, mostly in and around Jerusalem. The stories are set primarily between 1999 and 2002, with a few later stories coming every few years after until the publication date (2014) and one story set in the future (2029). The stories occasionally foray over to England and the US, but they are mostly set in the small areas of Jerusalem in which JESTERS tend to concentrate.

The protagonists are all JESTERS: nearly all female with the occasional male thrown into the mix. They are all on the hunt for a) a mate and b) a meaningful connection to God, the latter of which instantiates as a self-righteous abstinence of physical contact with the other gender and a desire to be more self-sacrificing. The stories describe hilarious or sad dates, internal conflicts with religion and selfishness, religious conundrums so fine as to be bewildering (you may find yourself thinking "first world problems!"), and the casual anti-Arab, pro-Israel, anti-secular, anti-French, and other provincial sentiments that are common to many (but not all) in the JESTER population.

The core group of women have stories that intersect over meals, at apartments, at the zoo, and on an artificial minimalistic theater stage. One story is a series of blog post entries by Emma, the snarkiest of these women and character with whom the writer most clearly identifies. One story is written like a play. One is mostly a dream sequence. One, being written in the future, dabbles in an exaggerated version of today's religious restrictions as it may instantiate with pervasive computing. Mostly, the stories are laments about loneliness, life choices, or reflections during a torah lecture. Many of them touch on the anxieties of living in Israel, away from family and during the Intifada.

Reactions: Yael chose to write what she knows, and it is obvious in many stories that the people and scenes come from her own experience or the experiences of people close to her. She has a keen eye for the absurd. The stories are often funny on paper, but they are even funnier if you have a chance to hear Yael read them aloud.

Her characters have multiple dimensions, to the limited extent that their world provides: they are all machmir Orthodox Jews, bordering on Haredi: worrying about insects that might be hidden in a fresh date or over the slightest amount of skin that might show or the slightest contact they might make with the opposite sex. Their lives are consumed by a search for a mate, the danger of terrorism, and their fear that they are not holy enough. They attend lectures by perfect, male Rabbis, about whom they speak with reverence and who lecture about general principles about how to be good. These lectures are always exactly what the protagonists need to hear when they hear them (these sequences are used as bridges of transformation within the characters).

The book is strong when describing women and their relationships with men. These stories are keen and sensitive, and everyone has their hangups and foibles. The use of interwoven characters that occasionally come together in conversation is excellent; it raises even the lesser stories to a sum greater than the parts.

The book is weak when it ventures out of this territory. The male characters think like types: like how women want or believe males think; I found them one dimensional and unrelatable. Her "feminist" passages are polemics ranting against straw men of her own devising. The two long stories about people becoming ultra-religious - a woman singer born to humanist parents who moves to Israel, and a man who leaves a sheltered Haredi world but ultimately returns - are unconvincing fairy tales; even if they are/were based on true stories, the stories contain little of interest beyond sermons on the emptiness of modern culture and the joy of withdrawing from it (the man leaves his ghetto because he discovers that he is walled off from the world, but he ultimately returns to it). The last story, a science fiction story, was frightfully badly written; bad science fiction, and a bad story.

In my opinion, a good editor should have cut out or down some of the latter stories, cut or massaged a few other sequences, and asked for more of what she does best. The overlapping characters work better than I think even Yael realizes, it seems; more of this would have been welcome. As it stands, if you can forgive the weaker parts (mostly the last few stories), you can really enjoy the bulk of the book: some really great stories and sad/funny characters offering a slice of early twenty-first century expat singles life in Jerusalem.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Dixit: The Right Game for Non-Gamers

Dixit is a very light social game for 3-6 players (5 is the ideal number, I believe). It's easy to explain, requires minimal "game skill" or concentration, fun, imaginative, and plays in a short time. The components are pretty.

A natural Dixit comparison is to Apples to Apples, but I think a more apt comparison is to Once Upon a Time. Or Barbarosa. I will explain all of them.

Dixit: Each player holds a hand of six cards, each of which contains an imaginative picture with several elements, colors, emotions, and typically a dreamy fantastic scene (like something out of a Dali painting). Players take turns being the active player. On your turn, you lay one of your cards face down and say a phrase, or a word, or a sound, or act out a pantomime that invokes some element of the card. Each other player lays face down a card from his or her hand that also matches your word or phrase. The cards are shuffled and revealed. Each player (except for you) then votes on which card they think you played, or in any case best matches your word or phrase. You cannot vote for your own card.

The twist: The active player only gets points if SOME but not NONE or ALL players vote for his or her card. Each other player gets points if they voted for the active player's card or if someone else voted for their card. Actually, this mechanic is not new (it derives from other, similar games), but it's effective. For example, in Barbarosa, players had to sculpt clay objects for the other players to guess, but they couldn't be too abstract or too easy to guess.

Play is to 30 points.

Every group I have introduced to this game has liked it or loved it. Kids especially love the license to be creative and the challenge of giving clues that point to your card while still allowing the possibility that another card might be chosen.

Apples to Apples: Each player holds a hand of seven red cards, each of which contains a noun: a person, place, object, event, or idea. Players take turns being the active player. On your turn,you turn over a green card, which contains an adjective. Each other player places one of their red cards face down. The cards are shuffled and revealed. The active player selects the red card they think best matches the green card; they can also select the card they think least matches the card or any card that they want (if you play "Claudia Schiffer" on my turn, I will pick it regardless of what the green card says). The person whose red card is selected takes the green card to represent a point, and play is to a pre-determined number of points.

There are a dozen different versions of the game, for different age levels and some subcultures. Most groups like this game the first few times, but tire of playing it with the same people over and over.

This mechanic of players submitting entries from a limited and humorous hand of cards or other items was reused in several games, most notably Cards Against Humanity.

Once Upon a Time: Each player has a hand of 5-10 plot element cards and a story-ending card ("And they lived happily ever after" or similar). The active player tells a story, trying to incorporate the cards in his or her hand, which are played as they are used. If the storyteller rambles, or passes, another player can jump in with his or her own card to continue the story. The player who plays his or her last card and the story-ending card wins.

Mechanically,  Dixit is similar to Apples to Apples (and other games that used the "hazy clue" mechanic) with the card play, rotating active player, best matches etc. The crucial difference is that the creativity in Apples to Apples lies with a) the players selecting a red card that matches the active green card, and b) the selection of the winning card, which can be done with little to no creativity, or even arbitrarily. In contrast, Dixit is similar to Once Upon a Time with the active player required to exercise creativity in order to "play well". Apples to Apples is essentially "closed": the green apples is picked for you and the red apple is chosen from exactly 7 choices. Dixit and Once Upon a Time require open-ended creative expression from the participants.

Dixit scores over Once Upon a Time in many ways, and in fact I can't stand Once Upon a Time (Note that many people disagree with me about this) and I love Dixit. Once Upon a Time is simply a bad concept. The creativity that is required is restricted by the cards you receive, which are cliche fantasy elements. The fun in true creative indulgence works against the goal of winning, which is to narrowly move from card to card in order to end the game and win. Winning, in this case, puts a damper on the process. If you take out the "game" from the game, and just have fun with the story-telling, it's much more fun, and that's what toys like Rory's Story Cubes are all about.

Dixit, in contrast, rewards you for a single bite-sized burst of free-form creativity, and you don't have to be all that creative: the cards make it relatively easy. The amount of creativity required is accessible even to those who are uncomfortable at the thought of having to tell an entire story. All you need is a word, phrase, movie title, sound, etc. Luck plays a factor with any reasonable clue, since the cards played by the other players determine the likelihood that your card stands alone; by then you are no longer in vested in having to sweat. Dixit provides space for elaborate creativity, but doesn't force it.

As a game, Dixit should suffer the same problems that Once Upon a Time does. If you focus hard in Dixit, you can probably cheat your way to victory by simply naming a color. This clue will probably be on some but not all of the played cards, which is exactly what you are hoping for with more elaborate, fanciful clues. But this doesn't happen when you play Dixit. Maybe it's that there is no time limit for giving the clue, and the clue is a single creative act, not an entire story. Maybe I simply played Once Upon a Time wrong.

Both Apples to Apples and Dixit provide all players with options on all turns, which is nice. Dixit provides points to multiple people (multiple wins) on each turn, which is nicer and friendlier. Both games are playable by non-gamers - i.e. people who consider taking games seriously or investing thought in strategy to be a waste of time. Apples to Apples is funnier, because people's red cards often poorly match the green card. But it's all game; the mechanics are everything. Dixit, by providing that element of play - along with some super interesting cards - is more generally likable.

A single box of Apples to Apples is replayable - the replayability suffers if you play repeatedly with the same group, more so than if you play repeatedly with the same components. Dixit is highly replayable with the same group, but needs new cards to keep it fresh (so get some expansions). Without the expansions, the game is still replayable; certainly more replayable than the typical trivia game where the card is useless once it has been seen.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Movie Reviews: Hunger Games, Hobbit, and Hawking

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay - Part 1: Jennifer Lawrence is back as Katniss Everdeen in this third - but only penultimate - installment of the young adult book series. Lawrence is brilliant as usual, but she does little here, sharing screen-time with an assortment of other characters. Primary is Julianne Moore as the rebel leader Alma Coin, with major appearances by the late Philip Seymour Hoffman as former gamesmaker turned rebel Plutarch (he died a week before filming of the sequel finished),  Donald Sutherland as capital tyrant President Snow, Josh Hutcherson as Peetah, Liam Helmsworth as Gale, Woody Harrelson barely on-screen and missed as Haymitch, and others.
A lot of the book is missing again (like all of Katniss' rebellion against the rebellion) and scenes that were "off-screen" in the book were added, like the rescue attempt in the capital. It's two hours of preparatory work for the next movie, politics, and posturing, with a few low key fights. It should not have been a standalone movie. It's enjoyable, if only because of the fine acting or because you enjoyed the books. You won't understand anything if you missed the previous movies.

The Theory of Everything: A movie that hits its mark, this is an adaptation of Jane Hawking's book Traveling to Infinity, which tells the story of her life with renowned physicist Stephen Hawking. If you live in a mall, and so don't know who Stephen Hawking is, he is the most famous theoretical physicist in the world for two reasons: 1) he developed much of the theoretical framework for the origin of the universe as a big bang, as well as how black holes emit radiation, and 2) he has been locked in a wheelchair and nearly immobile since his first year as a doctoral student.

Having been written by Jane, the story covers as much of her commitment to, and struggle to live with, Stephen, as it does his amazing work and triumphs. Unfortunately, knowing as I knew where the story went, I wasn't happy with where it went, but that's life; Jane makes it all seem as nice as possible, and the movie ends before we get into the troubles Stephen experienced from 1995 to 2006. Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen to perfection in an incredibly difficult role, and so does Felicity Jones as Jane, as does the rest of the cast. It's a biopic, well done, brilliantly acted, and nicely paced, but more about their relationship then about the universe.

The Hobbit: The Battle of Five Armies: I really don't know what to say about this. There were less unbelievable things performed by Legolas (just one scene tower/bridge). But there was still the ridiculous love story between girl elf and dwarf. Many of the story elements were taken from the end of the The Hobbit, but I got lost several times with the back and forth decisions of the Elf King. And wasn't there a second orc army that was on its way to attack? What happened to it?

There were many omissions from the book, changes that didn't seem justified, and of course all the added material. With the exception of the above mentioned romance, the additions were fine; I just couldn't follow all of them. The acting was good and some scenes, such as Gandalf tapping out a pipe, were cute or funny.

Again and again, the bad guy (or dragon) took time to talk to his prey or Look Cool before delivering the final blow, and again and again that delay was fatal. The dwarf army leader had an outrageous Scottish accent, but it was kind of funny. The greedy cowardly human guy was funny once or twice, but his appearance on screen was the same joke repeated, and it got boring. It was hard to understand why everyone not only let him live but kept entrusting him with responsibilities when he always abandoned or forgot them. The "gold fever" that possessed Thorin was far worse than the influence of the ring on Bilbo, and its resolution wasn't entirely clear.

The last half of the movie, which were battle scenes, one-to-many fights scenes, and then a host of one-to-one fight scenes, also got to be predictable and ... well, not boring exactly, but not really tense. I knew what was going to happen on the ice flow before it happened. I knew that the guy who looked dead wasn't really dead and was going to make one last attack, even though there was no logical reason that he wasn't already dead nor why he would pretend to be dead except to "surprise" the audience. I also knew from the book who was going to die, so that defused the suspense.

Was it good? Eh. It had some good characters who were not explored in depth, and some great cinematography, of course. It was sorta good. Kind of. Maybe.