Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Candle Quest keeps selling out at

When Candle Quest is in stock on Amazon, you can find it here. In the meantime, you can still buy it here, here, here, and here (UK).

I just sorted through my Magic cards and separated out the rares I have accumulated over the last few years. I'm happy to trade them for recent non-rares in bulk. I don't usually buy magic cards ... *dramatic pause* but when I do, I buy commons.

The only game I expect to receive this Hanukkah is from my secret santa. There was some scrambling around on his/her part on how to deliver it inexpensively, but I am assured that something will arrive.

Saarya finished the army service part of hesder and has returned to yeshiva (Yerucham). Tal is starting psychometric with the eventual aim of teaching. I continue apace.

Happy Hanukkah, boys and girls. May your flames burn strong, may your latkes be tasty, and may your gifts be received with joy.

Monday, November 18, 2013

The Benefits of Playing Games with Others

The following is a guest post from Kathy Flute:

Games have a proven track record of bringing people together, whether through family game-nights or team-building corporate retreats. While games are designed to be entertaining, they also provide a considerable amount of developmental, physical social and mental benefits, especially when games are played with others.

Developmental Benefits
Playing games with others encourages the development of logic, critical thinking, coordination and spacial development, especially in children. Games force the brain to solve problems, as well as utilize association and recognition skills, especially when playing word games like Scrabble or strategy games like Monopoly. When a game requires the movement of game pieces, or requires participants to draw or act out key words or phases, this benefits hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Playing games also forces players to focus, which can help to increase attention spans. Games like Cranium or Pictionary also help people of all ages to develop creativity, innovation and imagination.

Physical Benefits
Team games and sports that require movement have additional physical benefits. Active indoor games like Charades, or outdoor active games like tag increase physical activity, which increases exercise and burns calories. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that all individuals get at least 150 minutes of exercise each week, and playing games can help meet those requirements when they involve running, jumping or other physical movements. The CDC recommends even greater amounts of physical activity for children, or about an hour a day. Staying active helps stave off obesity and a long list of conditions, ranging from heart disease to cancer. Over time, active team games help children develop healthy habits with benefits that will extend way beyond adulthood.

Social Benefits
Playing games with others helps build social and life skills, such as verbal abilities, teamwork and how to appropriately interact with others. These skills are especially important for developing children. Children can learn how to take turns and to talk appropriately to each other while playing. These skills help children build important relationships. Winning or losing activities also helps develop sportsmanship, and teaches children how to appropriately respond when things don't go as they want them to.

Mental Benefits
If you're more concerned with psychological issues, then playing games encourages social interaction, which can combat loneliness and reduce depression. Most games are designed to be entertaining and cause laughter, which reduces the presence of hormones that contribute to stress, such as cortisol and epinephrine. Even children experience marked mental health benefits from playing games, especially with outdoor games. In fact, playing games outdoors can help reduce symptoms of ADHD and emotional disorders in children, suggests Dr. Garrett Burris, a pediatric neurologist from the Baylor College of Medicine.

While any type of game provides benefits, look for those that include educational or physical activity elements for maximum benefit. Video games can offer some of the benefits listed above, though more physical and interactive activities are preferable. That said, every platform has its pros and its cons!

Kathy Flute is a mother of three earning her master's in special education who enjoys writing articles about family, teamwork, and the Top 10 Special Education Master's Degree Programs Online.

Everything is a Close Call

I tell this tired joke on occasion: "Just this morning as I was driving a car barreled by at 120 km/hour right over where I had been only a second earlier! I could have been killed!" Ha ha.

Though I laugh, there is a hidden truth to this joke. Real danger passes by us more often than we realize. We rely on the fallible reflexes, good intentions, and social contract obligations of tired and distracted strangers, or on being one of the faceless individuals in a teeming herd who happen to not be picked out by someone with evil intent on that day. We live in denial about this, because we have no choice.

Yesterday, I was tracking my girlfriend's El Al flight from Hong Kong back to Israel on a tracking website and it showed the plane passing over Iran (see above). I was expecting either of two things as I watched the plane crawl over Iran: a) news reports of a plane crash in Iran, or b) the display to update eventually with the correct route, since El Al planes certainly don't fly over Iran.

Sure enough, a little while later the map was redrawn with the plane 1,200 km further north, somewhere over Kazakhstan near the Caspian Sea. Well, at least I don't have to worry about a plane crash, I thought. A few minutes later there was a news report of a plane crash: in Kazan, Russia, about 1,900 km north of her flight.

Ok, the plane that crashed was a Boeing 737, the model with the most number of crashes (because it has flown the most number of flights, although earlier versions had a notorious rudder problem), while the El Al flight was a 777, a model with an excellent safety record. The Tatarstan Airlines plane was previously known to have problems and Russian airplanes are notoriously unsafe. Still, I was happy to hear when the El Al flight touched down safely in Tel Aviv.

I suppose my point is this: live every day as if it was your first. The world is full of wonder: trees, sky, joy, books, friends, working limbs. You were given the capacity to feel joy; use it whenever you can. And ... oh yeah: look both ways before you cross the street.

Monday, November 04, 2013

Movie Reviews: Ender's Game, Jobs, Thor: The Dark World

Ender's Game: Ender's Game - the movie - is about the possible immorality of resorting to violence as a proactive defense. This issue dominates any part of the movie that is not a video game walkthrough, which is about half of the movie. Ender's (Asa Butterfield) personality is just enough to sustain this theme; his comrades have nearly no personality, and, of his three mentors, Colonel Graf (Harrison Ford) and Major Anderson (Viola Davis) have one-dimensional personalities of devil/angel, while Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley) has none at all. But that's not really the problem: the problem is that this issue isn't interesting enough to sustain a movie. It's an overused trope and the movie doesn't have anything new to add to it.

In the future, Earth is attacked by bugs in spaceships, and they are beaten back by Earth's forces and the brilliance (?) of a guy named Mackham Razer. Children are then recruited to control Earth's forces in order to deal a blow to the bugs in their own system before they can regroup and send another invading force. Children are used because they are good at playing video games. Ender, in particular, is singled out because he has a tendency to kick harder than he has to in order to make a point.

The acting is fine, the sets are cool, but everything is rushed without follow-through. Ender is supposedly set up to be a loner during training, but a minute of screen-time later he already has a band of friends. He is supposed to be learning something in training, but there are only two or three training sequences and he seems to know everything he needs immediately.

I try not to let my knowledge of the book influence my review of the movie, but it's nearly unavoidable here. While a main plot point of the book is, indeed, the above moral issue about unnecessary violence as a form of defense, the great majority of the book is about Ender's training and transformation: his fear, his sleep deprivation, his isolation, his slow change from loner to leader, and the dozens of battles that slowly reveal how he learns to think in 3D and survive by fighting cheating with cheating. The last part of the book was represented ok by the movie, but that part is really just the necessary cap to the book. This movie is barely a version of the book at all.

The movie introduces Ender's brother and sister but makes little use of them. It uses the story of the bug entering Ender's private video game world, but doesn't explain how and doesn't explain how the bug - a queen no less - could be walking distance from Earth's great military base or communicate with Ender. It completely dispenses with all of Ender's and Bean's brilliance and all of the politics.

If you haven't read the book, the movie will be a bit confusing but will probably be ok. If you have read the book, you're curious to see it and it will probably be a bit of a letdown.

Bottom line: I wouldn't call it necessary viewing, but it wasn't bad. Better if you like watching video game walkthroughs.

Jobs: Ashton Kutcher plays Steve Jobs, from his latter days in college to his firing from Apple in the mid-1980s. There are some very short scenes of his return to Apple in the mid 1990s and an opening scene of him announcing the iPod.

The movie's interest to computer geeks and non-geeks is on par with that of The Social Network, which was a better movie. This one wasn't bad. However, the movie spends a whole lot of time on Jobs' negative traits and personal fights and too little time on the brilliance and fun he had and brought to others (and barely any time at all on Bill Gates, who was a seminal part of the Apple story). The actual interesting aspects of the inventions are not discussed. This movie was obviously someone's vendetta.

The early parts of the movie are more entertaining and colorful; the latter parts are mostly boardroom scenes that lead to their well-known conclusions. All of the supporting characters are good, especially Woz (Josh Gad). Ashton does fine, though he seems to be just slightly shy of doing a parody of Jobs' mannerisms at certain points.

Bottom line: Possibly worth seeing on a small screen, but not necessary viewing (there are other biopics about computers and Apple that are better (Pirates of Silicon Valley was a nice TV movie), and you should probably just read the book).

Thor: The Dark World: The movie Thor didn't excite me too much, though it was sometimes humorous and Loki is pretty charismatic. This entry is a bit better: still sometimes humorous, Loki is still charismatic, and the action sequences are well-paced and not all over-the-top, which lets the characters (at least the main ones) drive the action. But the movie is still depressing.

The plot is 12th generation recycled boredom: There was a big battle and a big artifact of power was hidden away, but a human stumbles onto it, and some bad guys chase the human to get it, and some lone good guys try to prevent it (in defiance of other good guys who want to do nothing), and the bad guys catch up to the human and take possession of the artifact, and just when they are about to use it ... they do and the entire universe is destroyed (yeah right). Sound like any other Marvel movies?

With the exception of quick scenes in which Sif (Jaimie Alexander), Thor's buddy, and Frigga (Rene Russo), Thor's mother, fight, the women in this movie are helpless victims. Natalie Portman is wasted, spending her on-screen time fainting.

This movie has very little to do with its Norse mythology source; I know little about comics, but I suspect that it has little to do with its comic source, either. It's just a Marvel action movie, with little to distinguish it from every other Marvel action movie; and frankly, they're getting tiring.

The gods, and Asgard in general, are far more foolish and vulnerable than they should be. The mythology made them vulnerable, but not to simple attacks by space ships or basic deception that any mortal earthling would see coming a mile away. Asgard's line of defense is taken straight from the Gungans in The Phantom Menace: a field generator and some inaccurate laser guns.

Things made of rock fall to pieces all over the place, but if a main character is in a building, it doesn't fall on his head, even if all the support columns are knocked out. And no one cares about the thousand of innocents killed in all of the other buildings.

Lastly, and I can't go into it because it's a spoiler alert, but the major plot point around Loki's character is Badly Plotted. He steals all his scenes, and has good lines, but the movie introduces a plot turn for him and then undermines it with a bad resolution.

Bottom line: If you're into Marvel movies, this one holds up like the others - and it's better than Iron Man 3 - so I can't stop you.