Saturday, December 07, 2013

Batman as a Video Game

Recently I've been playing the Batman Arkham games.  I hadn't been much interested in them at first, since they seemed like fighting games, and I'm not a great fan of those.  But Humble Bundle was offering them as a deal, and I got them both (plus a bunch of other games), for $10.  They were definitely worth the price.


The Arkham games do involve a lot of fighting--Batman frequently solves problems with his fists.  But they're primarily action adventure games.  If you're not familiar with the genre, these are games where the goal is generally to figure out how to get from point A to point B, which is complicated by labyrinthine maps, including unjumpable ravines, insurmountable doors, and the occasional enemies.  So you have to figure out the way around each of these barriers, and get where you're going.

For this sort of genre, Batman is probably the best protagonist of the famous superheroes. There are some lesser known ones who could do as well, but if you're going to pick a famous superhero to base this sort of game around, you don't want Superman, Green Lantern, Wonder Woman, or even Flash. There are a lot of reasons why:

  1. Batman is human. When it comes right down to it, Batman is a vanilla human, with all the strengths and weaknesses of the species.  He can't fly, or break through walls.  Barriers that wouldn't challenge Superman require some effort on his part.  And enemies who would be insects to Superman are very dangerous.  Yeah, Batman can fight his way past a dozen goons armed with wrenches and knives, but his suit isn't bulletproof enough to make facing armed guards head on anything other than foolhardy.
  2. Batman has a lot of gadgets. This is why Batman is a superhero, rather than just a vigilante.  His superpower is his money. (That, and his mind and body are honed to implausible perfection.) But that affords him all sorts of useful tools he can use to overcome the aforementioned barriers. Since the days of Castle Wolfenstein (and, yes, I'm lumping first person shooters in this genre--they're fairly closely related), the key to games of this type is the upgrade. Whether that's picking up a better gun or some other type of technological gizmo (and since Batman doesn't use guns, it's the other type), every time you pick up a new toy, you get better. You can take on stronger and more dangerous enemies, and in this game, you can get past different type of barriers, whether they're mines, walls, locked doors, or water.  For Batman, the two most important gadgets are the ones you start with: the grappler and the cape.  Both of these work much like they did in the Batman movies. The grappler allows Batman to grab hold of higher ground and drag himself up, and his cape functions like a cross between a glider and a parachute.  He can't fly, but he can glide long distances, and use the grappler to grab hold of ledges and gargoyles.  You can navigate most of the city without ever touching the ground.
  3. Batman is sneaky. As I mentioned in the first point, goons with guns are dangerous to Batman.  So how do you fight them? By being sneaky. If Batman can sneak up on an enemy, he can take him out before he can raise an alarm.  He can do that by hiding either above or below, on the gargoyles (which seem like a rather common architectural theme in Gotham), below floor grates, or in the shadows scattered around the room.  From there he can take down armed enemies before they see him coming.
  4. Batman has a colorful cast of villains. Good villains are critical to a game of this type.  The main ones in this game were Ra's al-Ghul, Joker, and the Riddler.  Joker is Joker: crazy, and hatching bizarre plans, and he's the main one Batman has to deal with in these two games. Ra's is different.  His plans are more subtle, and it's harder to figure out what he's up to. The Riddler has the most interesting role, though.  He makes puzzles and scatters them throughout the city, which Batman needs to solve.  This actually serves an important purpose, adding a lot of little point A to point B puzzles to the game, and significantly increasing its length.  In the second game, I got all the way through the main plot without getting even halfway through the Riddler's puzzles (fortunately, you can continue to play after the main plot ends in an attempt to resolve those puzzles, and the other sidequests--some of the sidequests don't seem to trigger until after the main quest is done).
Take all that, and consider what this sort of game would be like with Superman as the main character.  A goon with a gun is no threat to Superman, as bullets just bounce off.  No door is much of a barrier, as he can simply break through it.  And since he can fly, if he can see the location of what he's trying to get to, he can get there.

So it's pretty obvious that Batman was a much better choice for this game, and I've found playing him to be quite enjoyable.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Regulations and sunset provisions

I haven't posted on something like this in a while, but I figure folks may be getting tired of the clothing posts, and it's something that's been on my mind lately, so I thought I'd share. The US Constitution was designed with the idea that laws should be hard to pass--that's why they have to go through both houses of the legislature and the president before they're enacted.  The system of regulations bypasses this safeguard.  Regulations aren't passed by Congress.  Instead Congress authorizes the executive branch to make the rules that it then enforces.  Now, aside from the question of whether that blurring of the Constitutional division is problematic in itself, there's the problem that all the incentive in these regulatory agencies is to create regulations, not limit them.

As Tyler Cowen puts it in his New York Times column:
Many regulations, when initially presented, can sound desirable. The problem is that, taken in their entirety, excess rules divert attention from pressing issues like the need for innovation and new jobs.

Michael Mandel, an economist at the Progressive Policy Institute, compares many regulations to “pebbles in a stream.” Individually, they may not have a big impact. But if there are too many pebbles, a river’s flow can be thwarted. Similarly, too many regulations can limit business activity. When the number of rules mounts, it can become hard for a business to know whether it is operating within the law’s confines. The issue is all the more problematic when federal, state and local constraints all apply.
...
What we need today is the selective pruning of bad regulations. Cost-benefit studies are a good idea, but they tend to be done when we have the worst possible information about the effects of regulations — namely, before the regulations are passed. Furthermore, cost-benefit studies may look only at some of the largest regulations, and not the general problem of regulatory accretion over time.

Better bureaucratic incentives are needed. Agencies are now motivated to generate regulation after regulation, because those are the formal assignments set before them. One possible step forward would be to require agencies to submit plans for retiring some fraction of their regulations over the next few years, and to reward these agencies for seeing this process through.
While that's a good idea, I'm wondering if something more drastic isn't needed. Perhaps what we need is a requirement that all regulations come with a sunset provision, so that they will expire in a number of years.  Such a sunset provision could be applied retroactively by law--all current regulations expire 15 years from their start or 5 years from the date of the sunset law's passage, whichever comes later.  That will give regulatory agencies time to propose and implement new regulations as the old ones expire, which will require them to review their rules and decide which ones they should keep.

In addition, any new regulations must have a sunset provision of no more than 2-5 years (personally, I prefer two, but it may be that five is more workable).  This is too short on its own, which is where we put Congress back in the loop.  Congress can extend the sunset provision on any regulation by ten years, but not by more than ten years, so that any existing regulation will have to come up for review every ten years.  I imagine this will happen in an omnibus bill of all the regulations proposed by the regulatory agencies.  Most of the regulations will pass, but there will always be some that will be removed, or changed, in the amendment process. That's as it should be. The advantage here will still go to the regulatory agencies, since it's harder to remove and change regulations than to put them all in the proposed bill in the first place, but at least Congress will have some say, which will make regulatory agencies more accountable to the elected representatives of the people.

What's needed is some way to prevent regulatory agencies from just reinstating the same regulations as soon as they expire, and thus bypassing Congress.  A provision that a new regulation substantially the same as an expired regulation cannot be instituted for at least five years might help with that.  It can be left to the courts to decide what qualifies as substantially the same. Or some measures could be spelled out in law: for example, the same rules, just with different, or even stricter, numbers, is not substantially different.

So, would this work? Would this help clear away some of the old, ossified regulation while making sure that Congress has more of a say in the rules that do apply?  Or would it be an unworkable mess? Is it politically feasible, or would the groups interested in preserving the current regulatory regime quickly overpower the movement for such a law?  Certainly, I don't think the regulatory agencies themselves are looking for more Congressional oversight, and I'm not sure that any president would agree with allowing Congress to take away much of his influence.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Coats

In addition to a hat, I also recently acquired a coat.  Or to put it more accurately, I bought the hat because I had bought the coat.

I had wanted a trench coat for a while, something that would do a better job of keeping the rain off than my current rain jacket, which does a decent job of keeping the rain off my upper body, but my pant legs usually get soaked, no matter how big the umbrella.

Kristin and I at Niagra Falls.  I'm wearing my old rain jacket here.
This became an issue when we were in England.  I had neglected to pack my rain jacket, and it was supposed to rain on the day we were planning to go to Stonehenge and Old Sarum. So the night before we stopped at a Debenhams department store about 15 minutes before it closed to find a rainproof jacket.  I wanted a long overcoat, but in the time we had we couldn't find one that was sufficiently rainproof, so I ended up getting this performance jacket instead:

Kristin and I at Stonehenge. I'm wearing my new jacket and my old hat.
Fortunately, it didn't actually rain that day, so I didn't have to put up with being wet from the thighs down.  I was still glad I had bought the jacket, as it came with a nice, thick fleece linking, so it was considerably warmer than the outerwear I had brought with me.

But when I got back, I decided to take another stab at the coat I wanted, and this time I found it on Amazon, as you can see on the left.  While in the picture, this trench coat looks like it goes down to the knees, even the short fit reaches my calves. I think I'll chalk that up to a benefit of being short, rather than a disadvantage.  It claims to be rain repellent rather than rainproof, but it seems to be good enough for the rain I've faced so far. It also comes with a zip-in liner, though it's not as warm as the one with the performance jacket.  However, the trench coat is cut large, as it's supposed to be worn over a suit, so I can wear the performance jacket's fleece liner under this coat and its liner, and the combination is quite warm.  I selected the color loden mainly because I didn't like the tan color, and while I did like the black, I figured I'd be wearing it a lot while walking in the dark on the Boston streets, and I'd prefer not to be invisible to cars.  Unfortunately, the color I selected cost extra, though I see that it's already $20 less than what I paid a little over a week ago.

The combination of the new coat and the hat was pretty effective at keeping me dry when it rained on Thursday, even without an umbrella (though I was wishing I had worn my waterproof hiking boots). So I've decided that it's a worthwhile purchase. It is, however, quite a production to put on, so I may not wear it so often when it's not raining, when the performance jacket will be sufficient.

Ready for the rain. Or perhaps to investigate crime on the mean streets of Boston, noir-style.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hats

I recently acquired a new hat.  Now I'm not usually one to accessorize, but I consider hats to be a necessity.  First, because winters in Boston are cold.  And secondly, because my optometrist tells me my eyes are overly sensitive to light, so I like to wear a hat with a large brim.  Now, of course I have a winter hat, but like most such hats, it has no brim.  And I have a wide brim hat that I wear on hikes in the summer, but it is designed with the exact opposite of warmth in mind.

So I recently acquired a new hat, with warmth in mind.  This one: the Tilley TTW2 Tec-Wool hat. It's decently warm, has a brim, and even has earwarmers.  Now, the earwarmers aren't quite as warm as I'd like, but they, and the hat, are wind proof, so they keep my ears from getting too cold.  And the hat looks pretty nice too.
Me in my new hat.
The earwarmers, which look a bit silly, but definitely help.

Sunday, November 10, 2013

Bath

After Salisbury, we went to Bath.  There are two main tourist attractions in Bath: the old Roman Bath, built on a natural hot spring, and the Thermae Bath Spa, that also draws from the hot spring.  There are other things as well, of course.  It's a nice, old town, with restaurants and museums.  I particularly liked this bridge:
Google Goggles tells me that this is the Pulteney Bridge.  It's lined with shops on either side. Google didn't recognize Kristin, but I think that's a good thing.
There are also some famous, and scenic, neighborhoods:

The Royal Crescent, in Bath. Also, the back of Kristin's head.
The Circus in Bath.  That's Kristin to the right.
But the baths--ancient and modern--were the main reason we went.

The ancient baths are the best preserved Roman baths in the world.  They were built on top of a natural hot spring, and thus have a very unusual Great Bath--a large pool of hot water:
The Great Bath, with tourists.  There was a roof in ancient times.  It's open to the air today.
They also have the more typical baths from the Roman era: the caldarium, which was the hottest bath and more of a sauna, though it did sometimes have a small, hot pool; the tepidarium, or warm room, which usually didn't have any water; and the frigidarium, or cold pool.

The Caldarium, or rather, the stacks of tiles that held up the floor.  Hot air ran through this area (called a hypocaust) to heat the room above.


The tepidarium, or warm room

The frigidarium, or cold pool.
We also went to the modern day Thermae Bath Spa.  We figured that this was as close as we could get to the experience of the Roman baths. There's a large warm pool, several saunas, and a warm, rooftop pool.  There was no cold pool, and to be honest, the warm pool was more characteristic of the special setup at Bath rather than the typical Roman path, and of course, everyone was wearing swimsuits, but it was the best we could do.  They didn't let us take pictures inside, so you'll have to check out the Thermae Bath Spa website to see what it looks like inside.

After Bath, Kristin and I went back to London for a day, and then on to home in Boston, where we're currently recovering from jetlag.

Thursday, November 07, 2013

Salisbury

We spent Thursday through Monday in Brighton for the World Fantasy Convention. As most of that time was spent at the Con, going to panels and parties and the Dealer's room, and I neglected to take much in the way of pictures, I'll just skip to the next part of the trip: Salisbury.

One of the neatest things about our trip was the hotel we were staying in.  It was built in the 14th century, and we were staying in one of the suites in the older part of it:

The suite in Salisbury
Kristin in the hallway outside the suite

An old door, with gryphons.
The construction of the walls of the inn, underneath the white plaster.  This is, I believe, wattle and daub construction.
We went to Salisbury because we wanted to see Stonehenge and some of the other historical sites in the area. Stonehenge proved to be less exciting than I had hoped. Pretty much the only thing to do there was to walk in a circle around Stonehenge (without getting too close), and take pictures. And frankly, after you've taken a picture from every conceivable angle, there just isn't much left to do. There's a free audio guide, but the only plaques are numbers to use on your audio guide. Personally, I hate audio guides, and would rather have something to read, but as that wasn't an option, I kind of regret not taking the guide. In any case, here are some pictures from Stonehenge:

Stonehenge
Stonehenge again.
Yet more Stonehenge
The heelstone at Stonehenge.

We also went to Old Sarum. This is the original town that Salisbury grew out of, which dates back to an Iron Age hill fort, later used by the Romans and then the English kings. However, the secular authorities of the castle at Old Sarum got into a feud with the Bishop of the Cathedral in Old Sarum, and the bishop requested, and got, permission to build a new cathedral, well away from the town of Old Sarum. A new town grew up there, and as the English monarchy used Old Sarum less and less, New Sarum became Salisbury, while Old Sarum died. But, pictures:
Leading up to the location of the old castle
The view of the remains of the tower and castle from the wall
The remains of the Old Sarum cathedral.
The new Salisbury Cathedral can be seen in the distance.  It's the tallest church spire in England.
After looking at Old Sarum, we visited the Salisbury Cathedral, and saw what was built after the old Cathedral was left behind:
The view of the spire from the cathedral's courtyard.

Inside the cathedral.

Also inside the cathedral.
A model of Old Sarum, including the old cathedral, inside the Salisbury Cathedral.
Update: (11/8/2013): Added a picture of the Heelstone, which I couldn't find before.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

New Review up


My latest review is up at Black Gate. This month, it's The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles by D.P. Prior.  To quote myself:
I have a soft spot for dwarves. I consider elves over-used Mary Sues and I could go another decade or two without reading another story about fairies, but give me short smiths with beards and axes who drink too much and I’ll keep reading. Which brings us to this month’s self-published book: The Nameless Dwarf: The Complete Chronicles. This wasn’t a book that the author submitted to me by my normal process: I’ll get back to those next month. This time, I actually bought the book from Amazon for actual money, because hey, it was about a dwarf.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

London Holiday

Kristin and I are in the UK for the World Fantasy Convention in Brighton.  The convention starts tomorrow, and in the meantime, we've been in London doing the tourist thing.  Being who we are, this has meant not Big Ben and the Tower of London, but the Science Museum, the Classics wing of the British Museum, and Verulamium near St. Albans.

We're staying in a hotel room which is very modern, but rather small:
Kristin on her phone in the hotel room

The very narrow bathroom
All the lights in the hotel room appear to be LEDs, from the ceiling lights, to the stars overhead, and the blue highlights and the television accents:

Blue highlights and star-studded ceiling

The television has a nice glow behind it.
And, of course, there's a collection of inputs for the television, in case you want to show something through HDMI, VGA, RCA, or any other connection.
Connections for the television.  I'm using the USB to charge my phone.
I'm afraid that I didn't take any pictures at the Science Museum, which is too bad.  There was a fairly nice exhibit on steam power, with a huge, working steam engine.  I'm sure all the steampunk writers at World Fantasy would enjoy it.

Kristin and I were focused on the Roman exhibits at the British Museum.  I have more pictures than is practical of that part, but here are a few:

Cooking utensils in the ancient world

A body chain, one of the few examples of this Classical type of jewelry

Weapons!

The Portland Vase
I took a lot more pictures, of a lot of different things, mostly for reference in my writings.

We also went to Verulamium, which was one of the big Roman towns in the early years of Britain's induction to the Empire.  They had a pretty nice museum as well.  Much smaller than the British Museum, and very kid friendly with a lot of annoying multimedia presentation, but there were some interesting items, including the reconstruction of a number of rooms to try to show daily life:

Preparing food in a "middle class" kitchen

A door latch--I've been trying to figure out how exactly it worked

A hearth for preparing food
There are also a few excavation sites nearby:
Part of Verulamium's wall

What's left of the theater

A mosaic floor with a hypocaust--an underground heating system
Today, we went to see St. Paul's Cathedral.  They wouldn't let us take pictures inside, but we were able to take some outside:

The front of St. Paul's, distorted since I was using the panorama mode of my phone.
The dome
A picture from the top of the dome,  looking down on the towers in the first picture.  It required climbing a lot of stairs. 
That's all for now.  Tomorrow, we're heading for Brighton and the World Fantasy Convention.

Saturday, October 19, 2013

T-shirts

For our anniversary in May, Kristin and I designed matching T-shirts.



They are now available for sale, in an array of styles and colors.

I won't ruin the joke by explaining it, but I will give a hint.


Saturday, October 12, 2013

LED bulbs

I've recently been buying LED lightbulbs to replace the various bulbs we usually use around here. For a while, my wife was buying CFL bulbs, but she got tired of them, not so much for the quality of the light, but for the fact that their odd shapes and sizes kept them from fitting where she wanted them. So she's been buying the energy-efficient incandescents instead. These use a small amount of halogen (usually flourine or bromine) inside the bulbs, resulting in a chemical reaction which redeposits the tungsten evaporated by the bulb onto the filament, which allows the bulb to be operated at a higher temperature, where it has better efficiency. Most of which I learned from the Wikipedia entry.

The halogen incandescents are only very slightly more efficient than regular incandescents, though, and the GE ones, at least, are also dimmer than the bulbs they're supposed to replace. The 60 W replacements consume 43 W to produce 750 lumens rather than the standard 800 lumens, while the 100 W replacements consume 72 W to produce 1490 lumens rather than the standard 1600 lumens. Meanwhile, I can buy LED light bulbs that consume 9.5 W and produce 850 lumens, or 19 W and produce 1680 lumens. In math terms, they consume a quarter of the power and produce about 15% more light than the energy efficient incandescents.

I've long believed that LEDs were probably the light bulb of the future. They're more efficient than incandescents or CFLs, and last longer--twenty years, by standard measurements (which, unfortunately, don't actually involve waiting twenty years and seeing if they still work).

The problem is that LEDs cost commensurately more. I can buy decent quality 60 W equivalent LED bulbs for $10-20 apiece, or spend $2.50 for an energy efficient incandescent. And as for 100 W bulbs--not that long ago, you couldn't buy 100 W equivalent LED bulbs at any price. That's changed, but they're still expensive: $50 or more usually, though I have found a few available for $30 apiece. 100 W energy efficient incandescents? About $2.50 each for those too. Sure, the LEDs also have a 20 year lifespan, compared to the one year of the incandescents, but then again, LED prices are coming down pretty quickly, so buying incandescents this year and buying LEDs a year from now would probably save money in hardware costs. Not, though, when combined with electricity costs. So my compromise is to replace the bulbs we use the most--kitchen, living room, bedroom, with LEDs, and leave the rest for a little while.

LEDs in the living room's candelabra
One of the problems I've run into doing that is that a lot of pre-existing light fixtures in our apartment use the candelabra bulbs, and finding LEDs for those is more difficult--escpecially since it takes a lot more of them to fill the light fixture (6, in the case of the two we have in the living room and dining room), and they're about the same price as 60 W bulbs. Fortunately, I have found a fairly cheap option from Feit--a three bulb pack for $21. These actually work pretty well. They have a slightly higher color temperature at 3000 K (which means they're slightly more white than the yellowish incandescents), but they are close enough for us. We get 300 lumen for 4.8 Watts out of them. I have noticed that they turn on a bit slower--most of them seem to take half-a-second to come to life after flicking on the switch, which is usually something you see in CFLs, not LEDs. And one of the sockets won't work for any of the Feit LEDs for some reason--I had to use a LED from another company (one of the ones costing $10-20). But it works. And it seems to be just as bright as the fixture in the dining room, where I'm still using all (non high efficiency) incandescents.

The incandescents in the dining room.
In the kitchen, we have a five light fixture which takes normal sized 60 W bulbs. Two of them have CFLs which my wife put in a while ago, and since they seem to be working well, I haven't bothered replacing them. The rest I've replaced with LEDs, all from the Cree 60 W replacements. These have the right size, even if they're a bit oddly shaped.
The one on the left is the old style Cree 60 W, while the one on the right is the Cree TW 60 W.
I've tried both the older Cree bulb, and the Cree TW, which is supposed to have better color. I think the color of the TW bulb is a bit better, but as it's also more expensive ($18.50 vs. $12.50), and it also consumes more power (13.5 W vs 9.5 W). I think that the older bulb is a better purchase. It can be found at Home Depot, in packs of 6 (or less, for a slightly higher price), though it looks like that may not last for much longer.

I have yet to buy any 100 W bulbs. I bought a 75 W bulb from Sylvania at Amazon, but at $38 it was pretty expensive. Still, it works pretty well, and it appears to be brighter than the 100 W equivalent CFL which it replaced. That may simply be because the light is less omnidirectional, and while it produces only 1100 lumen, more of it is in the direction I want, while the 1600 lumen CFL sends more light up and to the sides.  Or it could just be that I didn't wait long enough for the CFL to reach full brightness--but if it takes more than a couple of seconds, that's an advantage for the LEDs.

100 W equivalent LEDs are mostly above $50, but at $30 apiece, this set of two seems more reasonable. I'm a little bit reluctant to buy them before I see some more reviews. They seem different from the usual orange Philips LEDs, and I'd like to know why. I've also spent a good bit on LEDs recently, and these, while cheaper, are still expensive. They're also larger bulbs, matching the large size A21 bulb, rather than the usual A19. There are places where they can fit, but they're too big for a lot of our fixtures.

I think I'll wait a month or so before buying any more LEDs, and then I'll probably buy more of the Feit candelabra bulbs, the Cree 60 W bulb, and the Philips 100 W bulbs.

Update (10/13/2013): I was clearing out my pictures on Google+, and accidentally deleted the pictures I had here.  I've replaced most of them, but I've changed the text so it's not as dependent.