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.

Monday, December 08, 2014

Lume and Lumino City: Video Games Made of Paper, Cardboard, Motors, and Lights

Lumino City is a video game made from videos shot of handmade paper-craft, cards, lights, and motors. It took three years to construct and is the sequel to 2012's equally artistic and intriguing Lume.

What do we call a game that plays like a video game, but it made out of physical objects in the way that board games are made? Obviously they are video games. But they are something else, the same way that The Dragon's Lair was a video game but also a choose-your-own adventure movie.

Come to think of it, what do we call a board game made from computer graphics, like what we play on an iPad? Obviously they are board games. But they are something else, especially when the game adds a little something extra that is hard to reproduce in the board game equivalent, like animated piece movement.

So often we see copies of the most obvious products that our tools can produce. Artists use tools to create new things. The Lume series is art: not because the paper-craft or constructions are art (though they are), not because the game-play is art, but because the combined experience opens up new worlds, makes us think differently, and speaks to us about what it means to create. And it's awesome.

This is not the first video game created from non-computer graphics media. For example, The Neverhood is a 1996 game made from (crude) claymation.

This year also brought us Crafty Arcade's iPollute ...

... as well as The Dream Machine.


Monday, December 01, 2014

The Best Chanukah Game is on Sale

Candle Quest, the best Chanukah board game, is on sale (25% off) at Victory Point Games. It's the first discounted game in VPG's Christmas Sale.

Go now and buy several copies to give to your friends and family as presents. Go, go. I'll wait.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Ghurka Leather Luxury Games

If you're holiday shopping for a rather expensive but beautiful gift, I was contacted by Ghurka Leather Products who asked me to promote their first, all-new classic board games.

One is a chestnut leather Backgammon set. It costs a mere $4,895. And they offer free U.S. domestic shipping (they also ship worldwide).
The other is a chestnut leather Poker set. It's yours for a paltry $3,700.

Of course, the best part about these games, other than the fact that they are swanky and beautiful items, is that I get a commission if you buy one.

For somewhat less costly gifts, see my holiday gift guide.