Tuesday Links (10/30/12)

Email Is The New Pony Express–And It’s Time To Put It Down: “Email . . . may just be the biggest time killer in the modern workplace. Here’s where companies are headed next.”

The Saga of Epsilon and Zeta:The story of the seemingly never-ending 2005 hurricane season.

How to Eat a Triceratops: “Step two: tear the head off to expose the tasty neck muscles.”

Book Review: Wonderful Life with the Elements

One of the publicists at No Starch Press alerted me to this recent title, knowing my enthusiasm for the excellent Manga Guide science text series, whose English editions they publish. I was expecting this latest made-in-Japan outing to be similarly quirky, and it did not disappoint.

Would it have ever occurred to you to visualize the noble gases as afro-sporting Japanese men? It hadn’t crossed my mind, but after reading this book of comic-strip style element characters, now I can’t summon up xenon or helium without a full, puffy top. Halogens like chlorine, meanwhile, have a cueball look, while other chemical groups share anything from punk rock spikes to buzz-cuts.

On the other hand, each unique element is also dressed up in anything from an apron to a lab coat to a business suit — or even a simple pair of white underwear — depending on their most common uses. The basic idea of the book is to put the elements in a real-life context of where we’re most likely to encounter them, their important properties, and their uses and threats to people individually or society in general.

A slim read at 200 pages, just over half of this space is given over to brief descriptions of each element in a standardized format. A brief paragraph illuminates a few of the more significant facts of each type of atom, perhaps a bit of its history or important uses. Some other basic data (density, atomic mass, etc.) and an epigram also accompany each profile (radium is the element that “bit the hand that fed it”, no doubt a reference to Marie and Pierre Curie who discovered it, then perished from radiation poisoning), but the centerpiece is always the anthropomorphic sketch.

Other parts of the text include brief sections on the most expensive commercially available elements, elements necessary to human health, and an argument for rare element conservation as part of an ecologically-sustainable future. But the book is never text-heavy, and can be read from start to finish in just a few hours.

The central conceit is cute; an original approach to connecting the reader with abstract yet critical components of our world. It doesn’t make memorizing the periodic table a breeze (what could and who would?), but it has resulted in some patterns sticking in my head better than before. The fold-out poster-sized table is a nice bonus, though educators might be careful of how they use it, or images from the book itself, both of which sometimes contain some cartoonish male nudity (the Japanese simply aren’t as uptight about that stuff as us).

All in all, it makes for a fun little coffee-table book for either the chemically-minded or the simply curious.

(No Starch Press, 2012)

Reprinted with permission from The Sleeping Hedgehog
Copyright (2012) The Sleeping Hedgehog

Game Review: Pokémon White Version 2

It’s hard to believe the Pokémon series is still going strong when all logic suggests it should have completely saturated its own market position. The series began when I was 14, and has now been running long enough that I could have gotten married, had kids, and bought them their own brand-new Pokémon games by now.

Pokémon Black and White marked the fifth generation of Pokémon games, and as was the case with every previous generation, the games make up a duo. Released together, they are essentially the same game with some minor changes in the Pokémon type availability or frequencies, and a single in-game area unique to each version.

Unlike previous games, Black and White provided a sense of “back to basics”, perhaps in a bid to introduce a whole new generation that had grown up since the start of the franchise. Like the very first games in the series, the available Pokémon have not appeared previously. Now, with the release of Black Version 2 and White Version 2, this generation has offered another first for the series: a direct sequel to a previous game.

While previous series have always seen an enhanced follow-up or deluxe edition a year or two later on the same handheld (from the original Game Boy all the way to the current DS/3DS titles), not to mention a flurry of spin-offs and tie-ins on other systems, both iterations of Version 2 provide a whole new story set in the same Unova region as the first Black and White, but with new characters and towns, a brand new main character (which, as a stand in for the player, has no defining characteristics whatsoever; not even a default name), and some new mini-games.

The basic gameplay is unchanged and includes the same features introduced with this generation of the series. However, the availability of Pokémon is different. While 151 new species were introduced with Black and White at the expense of seeing any old favourites (series mascot Pikachu, for example), Version 2 includes a selection of previous Pokémon mainstays along with the new set introduced for this generation.

The basic story is two-fold. As always, the player character (who could be either eighteen or eight) is sent out by his mother to travel the world and become a Pokémon master. To do this he has to capture and train up Pokémon (through the usual RPG expedient of battling, levelling-up, and learning special moves in multiple ways), defeat eight different gym leaders for their badges, and then enter a major tournament in order to battle and best the greatest Pokémon trainers around.

As a parallel and interweaving plot, the player, through no fault of his own, will find himself constantly battling against an organization of supervillains, the remnants of Team Plasma from the previous games, ultimately stopping their nefarious world-dominating plots while en route to Pokémon mastery.

The player eventually has the opportunity of encountering one of the two legendary Pokémon of the Black and White games. In Pokémon White Version 2, it’s the Vast White Pokémon, Reshiram. His anti-thesis, Zekrom, the Deep Black Pokémon, was capturable in Pokémon White, where Reshiram appeared as a boss battle, but was not obtainable by the player. So players of both the original and this sequel can get the matching set of legendaries. The same end may be achieved by trading, or by playing Black Version 2 along with this game.

I find the battle strategy in Pokémon is not as deep as other RPGs. Though the sheer numbers of Pokémon available, not to mention the potential for move customization in each one, mean there are many, many ways to skin a Meowth, it’s also true that, by simple weight of variables, the results of a given match-up can be a bit of a crap-shoot.

Not all Pokémon are created equal, and while it would be nice to pull out one’s fire-type Pokémon to wipe the floor with an opponent’s grass-type choice, the player is probably better served pumping up the all-around fighters with few weaknesses. I have a Genesect who never loses to anybody, and a little Sunkern who can’t win against opponents 15 levels lower than him. Que sera sera.

Of course the theme song of the uber-popular anime series is “gotta catch ‘em all”, and indeed, the collection of pocket monsters and completion of the Pokédex is what plays on the obsessive-compulsive personalities old-school gamers are known for. The battles aren’t particularly interesting because most any match-up is one-sided, and the story is pretty bland. The world-building has reached a point after so many games where credulity is nearing the breaking point.

(Is every non-human living thing a Pokémon? What do people eat? How does an economy function where anything and everything has something to do with Pokémon? What about basic things like farming and manufacturing? And if every ten-year-old goes out to capture weird monsters for glorified cock-fighting instead of attending school, where do nurses, engineers, and other professionals come from?)

The battle animations, though revamped already for the first Black and White, are still basically NES-era Dragon Warrior. The sprites move slightly, an effect happens. I know Nintendo’s handhelds have always striven for gameplay over power, but this pseudo-animation is a bit weak for a 2012 RPG on any system.

But with the main game finished, will I still pick up my DSi for a few more rare Pokémon hunts, some online trading, and a more complete Pokédex? You better believe it. Despite my nitpicks, this series is still quicksand for completionists. Stay far away if you don’t have forty-plus hours to spare in the near future.

Article first published as Nintendo DS Review: Pokémon White Version 2 on Blogcritics.

Tuesday Links (10/23/12)

Hobbit coins worth thousands to become legal tender in New Zealand: From the fictional land that brought you all manner of magic rings, only some of which are evil, this lovely new set of commemorative coins.

It is the Future, Here is Your Jetpack: The lack of jetpacks in the twenty-first century is officially something we can no longer complain about. People will probably still whine about the lack of flying cars, however.

My dog: the paradox (an Oatmeal comic): “My dog does not fear automobiles, garbage trucks, or airplanes . . . but he is terrified of hair dryers.”

Ada Lovelace, Throughout the Ages: Did you miss Ada Lovelace day?

How to Protect Yourself Against Supernatural Creatures (Dinosaur Comics): “Rather than punishing bad behaviour, reinforce your lycanthropes desirable behaviour at the moment it happens with a click and a treat.”

State of the Freelancing Address

Lately I’ve felt a bit overstretched. In one sense this has been an issue of the last month or two, as I started a new full-time job while continuing to work nights at a previous one, all while simultaneously trying to meet writing commitments, provide some TLC to the new house and yard, and ramping up on the final chores leading up to a wedding.

On the other hand, things have really been rather consistently insane since coming back to Canada nearly eight months ago. Upon arriving, I began the work at multiple jobs which has never really stopped, hunting for the house I have been currently neglecting (though my better half has more than taken up the slack), planning that wedding which was, at the time, still several months away.

And now that the wedding is over, the house is being lived in, and jobs have been won, I still haven’t quite reached the point of being able to take a breather. There are post-wedding chores, there’s the settling-in period of the new job, which has ratched-down in intensity, but is still keeping me quite busy, and the house which remains unfinished.

I want to make it clear that I’m not complaining here. All of these things are good things. I’m thankful at how everything worked out over the last eight months. I (or we, rather) looked for a job and got it, planned a wedding and had it, hunted for a house and bought it.

To be frank, I thought we were a bit full of it when we said we were going to come from Central America and get all these major things done, in such a brief time span, just like that. I think we both rather surprised ourselves.

But you know, I’ve missed deadlines for my writing for the first time since I’ve been doing this. Only two or three times, and not more than a couple days’ delay, but I missed them all the same. And I have these pitches and these contacts and these markets I was on the verge of breaking into, and it’s all gone on hold a bit.

In Costa Rica I had a surplus of time and thus had a little trouble keeping to a schedule, at least as far as unassigned work went. But with experimentation and query after query, even at only a few hours a day, I began connecting with new markets, making more sales,to the point that we could actually live off of this. Then I came back to Canada and got a real job again.

I don’t regret this, except in the same sense that I regret not being independently wealthy and not needing a paycheque. I’ll admit frankly that I appreciate career and financial stability, and I’m happy to have that, even though careers take up a lot of one’s free time.

In a couple of months, though, when the debt’s all paid off and my work hours ease up, I think I need to pick up where I left off and start pushing myself on the writing again. I have promising story leads to follow up, some unfinished fiction (yes, I do dabble in fiction) that deserves to be finished and shopped around, and some would-be publishers I’ve yet to produce anything for.

I really do want to get back to it.

Game Review: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure HD Ver.

Even after Sega officially stopped production of the Dreamcast system, the console continued to sell steadily, used Dreamcasts quickly being gobbled up from second-hand store shelves. It became, for a short time, the gaming equivalent of Latin: a dead interface that would never see any new works, the beauty of it and the quality of its existing library drew gaming aficionados to it.

As I contemplated reviewing this particular title, I wondered if this manga-based port might be one of the ill-fated console’s many hidden gems. Only one way to find out, of course.

JoJo‘s Bizarre Adventure is a Street Fighter-era 2D brawler with a cast of characters that, excepting the chihuahua, seems no more bizarre than any other fighting game of its time. The fighting system seems fairly typical at first, with various types of punches, kicks, and projectile attacks, depending on the character. What sets this title apart is the “Stand” ability–a second fighter–possessed by each character.

A sort of inner spirit or projection of the fighter, both the appearance and behaviour of this second self varies wildly from character to character. Some will hang back and let their Stand do the work, allowing the player to control it directly. Others manifest the stand as a shadow that mirrors their movements, allowing every attack to, potentially, hit twice.

Others are in-between. Jotaro, for example, can send his Stand forward as a type of projectile attack. A certain attack calls up the Stand to rush forward and let off a flurry of punches before fading away. One useful strategy therefore is to have the Stand perform its one-off as either an opener or a distraction, while simultaneously diving in after it with a follow-up attack.

The strategic possibilities of this tag-team style fighting are intriguing, though they’re also very different from character to character and Stand to Stand. And, of course, there’s a defensive side as well. A character takes damage either from direct attack or attacks on his Stand.

Use of the Stand can leave the main character wide open to attack, especially for those characters who stay still while the player controls the Stand remotely. Too much damage on the Stand itself also has its risks: the Stand will fade and the character will be left dizzy and open to further punishment.

The game is 2D sprite-based so the HD aspect of this re-release is less important than it might otherwise be. Some parts of the game are a bit dated. The gameplay is perhaps a little less fluid than Street Fighter and other series would become, but the Stand system is also unique, even today. Somehow the idea hasn’t (to my knowledge) been copied and appropriated into other game franchises.

Perhaps the most notable quirk of the game (I hesitate to call it a weakness) is its high learning curve. No effort is made to ease the player into it’s fighting system. There is no tutorial, no in-game hints, no move lists, nothing. You have to experiment and play around if you want to master your character. This is old-school 2D brawling, arcade style: play, lose, get frustrated, experiment, and make joyous discoveries.

Since many likely missed it the first time around, this might just be a chance for classic fighter enthusiasts to experience a new game like it’s 1999 all over again.

Article first published as PS3 Review: JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure HD Ver. on Blogcritics.

Pissing People Off With My Writing

It happens, sometimes. Not intentionally. I try to be fair, perform some honest research, leave polemicism out of it. But sometimes there are people out there with an interest in my writing something very different than what I have, in fact, chosen to write.

Some time ago I wrote on Care2 about a fossil fuel shill who managed to get an instructor gig in one of those massive, science-for-humanities-majors intro courses, in Canada’s own Carleton University. I was alerted to the story by one of the science policy/education watchdog groups I keep in touch with (and have done since before I wrote about this sort of stuff — science teachers need to know about attacks on reality as much as science/environment writers do).

The story was easily verified by checking out the actual course information on Carleton’s own website, and the sort of falsehoods being propagated by this climate denier in the classroom are neither subtle nor relative. Just the other day, Tom Harris left a comment both on that months-old article, and here on the site (on my About page). He wants me to take down the article. I won’t be doing that.

There’s no need to respond to his message point-by-point because he complains my article is inaccurate, when it simply isn’t. You either understand and buy into the scientific method, or you think you can just make anything up you want. I’m not going to attempt a rational conversation with someone who falls into the latter group.

Also recently, I received a message about a restaurant I reviewed here on the site, my local Zesto’s. I had a bad experience there, but didn’t pile on (I think) too much. It’s not the first response I’ve received to that review: not long after the posting went up, somebody commented on Urban Spoon (to which I linked in the review) that I was full of it. It was a bit suspicious (the user made an account apparently just to comment on my review and has never made another posting since I last checked), and in any case, there was little to it other than name-calling.

But the message I received this week was from the actual restaurant owner apologizing for the issues I experienced,and inviting us back for another meal. I give her credit for that. I appreciate the difficulty in finding good people in the service industry, and I’m happy to know that that particular employee’s behaviour is at least not official Zesto’s policy.

I won’t be taking up that meal offer, but I acknowledge it here. She’s trying to make up for a bad first impression, which is difficult to do. At the very least, a polite, honest communication is more likely to get a response from me than ad hominems.

Book Review: The Child Garden

Viral programming has infants discussing Shakespeare, toddlers running storefronts or repairing sewage lines. But knowledge which is downloaded from a standard package rather than built up from individual experience creates a uniform way of thinking and being that is particularly frightening for outliers.

Read my full review at AESciFi.