Wednesday, December 31, 2008

shoot 'em up

Looking for an escapist piece of postmodern nonsense to distract you from the Holiday Recession Blues? Please try Shoot 'Em Up (2007). I don't know if it's just because I was in the right mood or what, but I watched this with my brother over vacation and frickin' loved it. I have no idea how this got by my radar last year, since usually the presence of Clive Owen in a movie will perk my interest a little.

It's disturbingly, humorously violent. It's aware of what it's trying to do and does it unapologetically. Clive Owen plays the mysterious bad-ass, Paul Giamatti the annoyed villain, and Monica Belluci the lactating prostitute. Don't want to spoil it for you, but several things won this movie over for me.

  1. Wolfmother & Motorhead on the soundtrack.
  2. Scene: Owen is shooting at thugs while protecting a pregnant women, and the empty shells slow-mo onto her exposed, bulging belly.
  3. Owen tries to buy a gun with food stamps.
  4. A carrot is used as a killing weapon.
  5. The movie bends over backwards so that there can be a firefight in a gun factory.
If you're still not convinced, that pretentious A.O. Scott of the NY Times dubbed this a "worthless pile of garbage."

Sunday, December 28, 2008

neuroshima hex

So even though I didn't get this for Christmas, I was pleased to do some serious boardgaming with my older brother. He's the quintessential grognard, a wargamer through and through. Over the years, we've had some memorable battles of Memoir '44, and I even beat him once at Napoleon (though I bet he'd deny it). This Christmas, I introduced him to my newest obsession: Neuroshima Hex.

Based on a popular Polish tabletop role-playing game, Neuroshima Hex might very well be the most innovative game I've played this year. It's an intense tactical puzzle, plays very fast, and is just loads of fun. It can handle 2-4 players (with a 2v2 team combat option), and the rules are readily learned in 10 minutes. It's replayability factor is very high, for reasons I'll enumerate later.

I like to think of Neuroshima Hex as chess with guns. But that doesn't quite capture it. You first choose an army to play with; there are 4 factions, each with different strengths and weaknesses. For example, the Borgo (blue army) have strong melee units who can attack adjacent enemy units but they lack ranged fighters that can attack from a distance. The board starts empty and represents a post-apocalytpic battlefield. Each player places their army headquarters somewhere on the board (a single tile). Your goal in the game is to damage your opponent's HQ more than they damage yours. Each HQ starts with 20 "hit points" and if you ever reduce your opponent's HQ to 0, you automatically win the game.

Players take turns sequentially. When it's your turn, you first draw 3 tiles (shaped like hexes) from your army of ~30 pieces. The tiles are flipped over so that all players can see them. You must discard one of the three tiles and of the remaining two, you can play both onto the board (the most common option), keep both until the next turn, or play one and keep one. A unique element to Neuroshima Hex is that once tiles are played to the board, they typically won't move. Strategic placement is a key to victory and you have to think offensively and defensively. Furthermore, tiles can be placed onto the board in any orientation - and this orientation matters, since units attack in specific directions. Here are some examples of tiles/units:

The circled number is probably the most important attribute in Neuroshima Hex - it represents "initiative." When a battle begins, units with the highest initiative will attack first. Therefore, if a unit with an initiative of 3 is face-to-face with a unit with an initiative of 2, the 3 will eliminate the 2 before the latter even gets a chance to attack. The other symbols on the tiles represent the type and direction of attacks that that unit can engage in. A short, fat triangle represents a melee attack, while a long, thin triangle is a ranged attack. The yellow unit above has 1 melee/1 range attack, both in the same direction. The red unit in the bottom-right has a strength 2 melee in one direction, and a 1 range in another. This unit also has a "+" symbol which represents armor, and white borders on three sides which represent shields. In other words, this guy is a monster.

Your army will consist of several "grunts," a few monsters, some officers (that give bonuses to adjacent units, like +1 to initiative), and some "action" tiles. Action tiles can let you move units (and rotate them), push adjacent enemy units back, and start battles. Battles also start if the board ever fills up completely with units (this does happen quite regularly).

Battles are fast, deadly, and deterministic - there are no dice in Neuroshima Hex. Players simply start with the units with the highest initiative (usually 3 or 4), conduct their attacks, remove destroyed units, and then progress to the next initiative round (3 -> 2 -> 1 -> 0). Tactical play in Neuroshima Hex often boils down to ensuring that more of your units survive and successfully damage your opponent's HQ in each battle. Here's a board with some units on it, so let's imagine that a battle takes place at this point:

Note the blue and yellow HQ's labeled in the bottom half of the board. If a battle started now, the blue HQ would take some serious damage: 7 damage total from 3 different units (2 of them receiving a +1 bonus to melee damage from their HQ). But let's focus on the yellow HQ. A blue unit (labeled 'A') is threatening and could do 2 points of damage (thanks to the adjacent blue officer providing a melee bonus). However, the yellow unit labeled 'B' would actually kill 'A' before it conducts its attack due to the higher initiative of 'A' (3) and its ranged attack.

This is a relatively simple example, as many battles in Neuroshima Hex are determined by a complex cascade of mini-battles taking place all over the board. When you place a unit during your turn, you really need to think about all these cascading possibilities - which is what reminds me of chess ("if I move this piece here, he'll probably move that piece there, and then I can move this other piece here, etc., etc."). Sometimes your head will swim with the possibilities, but in the end you'll only have to worry about the 3 tiles in front of you and decide which to discard and which 2 to use.

If none of this makes sense to you but you're still curious, try checking out this somewhat bizarro video-trailer:

And if you're really excited to give it a try, here's the good news: you can play right now, for free. There's a wonderful online version that allows people from around to the world to play each other (mostly it's Poles and Americans). You'll find the java-download here. I suggest that you read the instructions as well, which can be downloaded from the Zman website. And for god's sake, if you dig it, support the mad creator and the minimal Polish boardgame market by buying the damn thing.

An online game in progress. Knowledge of Polish not required.

Neuroshima Hex does so many things right. Being able to choose 4 different armies, each focused around a different style of play, really adds significant longevity/replayability to the game. Several expansion armies have already been published, along with terrain tiles and scenarios. Games play quickly and battles are bloody. You get instant feedback on what moves are working for you and what horrible mistakes you've made. The art style is fun and the components are quality.

My only two minor criticisms of the game are: 1) The armies do not seem perfectly balanced. In particular, I get the sense that the Outpost (green) are hardest to play due to a serious lack of units. However, this is very easy to fix by giving that army an extra mercenary unit. 2) You can periodically get screwed by the tile-draw, especially in the early game. Your opponent may take an insurmountable lead in some unfortunate cases. However, this does not happen often, and I have been able to come back from some serious deficits by playing well. In other words, the randomness of the tile-draws does not trump good, strategic play. Better players are more likely to win, period.

Which reminds me: I beat my brother in 3 out of the 4 games we played. Sweet sweet victory.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

where are my god damn toys

Christmas just isn't what it used to be.

Friday, December 19, 2008

mate economics

Lately, I've been reading a lot about women's mate preferences. Professional reasons, I assure you. One of the more intriguing methodologies I've come across has used economic principles, like minimum standards and diminishing marginal returns, to examine people's priorities in mate characteristics. The central issue at hand is sex-differences.

Briefly, evolutionary psychologists have proposed that (heterosexual) men and women tend to value different things in romantic partners because of their reproductive value. These differences emerge based on the asymmetric costs of sex. In our species, like most mammalian, females get pregnant. Therefore, women have to be particularly careful about mating situations since there's the possibility of internal fertilization. Remind yourself that we're talking evolutionary history here, and how our ancestral environment shaped the design of our respective male and female brains. Thus, any reference to reliable contraception (such as the pill) is irrelevant. Robert Triver's parental investment theory predicts, specifically,that the sex making the largest investment in lactation, nurturing and protecting offspring (women, in our case) will be more discriminating in mating - and the sex that invests less in offspring (men) will compete for access to the higher investing sex.

Sex differences in mating strategies and preferences are particularly visible in species like the elephant seal, where there is a vast sex disparity in parental investment. Males compete (vigorously) for access to reproductive females, and females choose to mate only with the most dominant males. Females, in effect, are "choosing" nothing more than the genetic quality of their mate, since he'll have absolutely nothing to do with parental care.

Humans, admittedly, are a different story. We're defined by intense bi-parental care of our offspring, due in large part to our extended childhood and period of vulnerability - which in turn exists because our massive brain needs time to develop and acquire boatloads of information. Thus, we might expect sex-differences in mating strategies and preferences to be less extreme in our species - and they are. But don't doubt that they still exists. Men cheat more than women, crave a wider variety of sexual partners, and tend to be less discriminating. For example, if you ask men and women what's the likelihood that they'd have sex with someone they've known for 1 year... or 1 month... or 1 week... or 1 hour... you get data like these:

(cool data presented in a shitty graph)

A positive number on the y-axis indicates a positive inclination to have sex, so it's interesting to look at where the lines cross the x-axis for both men and women. For women, it's around 6 months. For men, it's around 1 week. Now, admittedly, these data were collected approximately 20 years ago and some might argue that "things have changed, man! Women hook up ALL the time, now." Bullshit. If anything, recent evidence suggests that college women are having less sex nowadays than they did 10 years ago, even if they are engaging in more non-commital make-out sessions with boys in the back of the bar/party/van/etc.

When it comes to specific mate preferences, or what we look for in members of the opposite sex, we're all pretty choosy. Neither men nor women (some fools notwithstanding) mate indiscriminately. But there's still the question of what we prioritize. What traits do we particularly value in our partners? And here we will find some interesting sex differences that again can readily be explained by evolutionary theory.

Briefly, men tend to place greater importance on physical attractiveness than women do. This largely has to due with cues of youth and reproductive fertility. Women, in contrast, tend to place greater importance on resources than men. "Resources" in this context can mean many things - it could mean actual wealth, for example, or traits that help one acquire wealth (such as industriousness, intelligence, social status, etc.). This largely has to do with finding a mate that can help support the family and offspring survival outside of immediate investments, like breastfeeding. Our ancestors survived, and successfully passed on their genes, because of this reciprocal cooperation and division of labor.

If you ask men and women to rank a list of traits that they value in marriage partners, you'll get something like this (from Buss & Barnes, 1986):

(click for larger image)

Men and women agree that "kindness and understanding" are vital. There is no sex difference there, or with an appreciation for intelligence, creativity, and health. However, three items stand out on this list: 1) physical attractiveness, 2) college graduate, and 3) good earning capacity. Each of these shows a strong sex difference in how men and women ranked their importance. Can you guess who ranked each one higher?

This is all well and good, but isn't how mate-choice works in the real world. We deal with people who are amalgamations of many traits, a combination of physically stunning but none-too-bright, or brilliant and rich but cruel. What do we do in these situations? Well, we prioritize. We weigh costs and benefits, and depending on what we're looking for at that moment in our life, we make (imperfect) decisions. Herein lies the brilliance of the economic mate-choice model, introduced by Normal Li and Doug Kenrick.

You have 20 "mate-dollars" to spend on a potential sexual partner. This is only going to be a one-night stand and you'll never see this person again. You can distribute this money across a number of traits, including physical attractiveness, kindness, intelligence, and so on. Where do you put your money? What do you value most highly?

Perhaps not surprisingly, when phrased like this - with a relatively small budget and a casual sex scenario - both men and women put a lot of money into looks (66% of budget for men, 54% for women).

But now, let's say, you're shopping for a marriage partner... a soul mate. What will you invest in? Will you really put that $15 into attractiveness, when you're sacrificing intelligence, amicability, and empathy? Well, if you're a man, you're more likely to (actually, men put about 1/3 of their budget into looks, even for a long-term partner - compared to 25% for women).

(from Li & Kenrick, 2006)

A clever model. Social psychology can sometimes leave a bad taste in my mouth, because it's based so heavily on self-report data and is often atheoretical. But I admit to liking evolutionary-minded analyses like these, which demonstrate (in many ways) what we've long suspected: men and women are different. But the valuable lesson here is that they're different for a reason, and that reason isn't as simple or dull as "culture taught them to be so."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

minotaur china shop

An amusing diversion for the midst of winter. Visit the lovely Minotaur China Shop, a free web-browser game wherein you play a minotaur alternately serving customers and destroying wares in a shop of expensive china. (You will likely need to install a "Unity Web Player" before being able to play, but rest assured this is not malicious spyware). The makers of, Flashbang Studios, have also produced such wonderfully absurd freebies as Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Jetpack Brontosaurus. They are all worth at least a couple hours of your time.

You remember when video games first started incorporating destructible environments? I mean, back in the days of Doom or (if you're really old) Castle Wolfenstein, you'd be lucky to interact with a frickin' door. Everything was solid and you ran amidst concrete lanes to the next scary episode. But now, you can knock over the oil drum, wait until the ground is slick with black gold, taunt your zombie-enemies into running towards you, and then set the whole room on fire by flicking your cigarette. And that's pretty damn cool, I agree. Game environments are designed to be destructible. But what if there was a game goading you with the constant temptation of destruction, but to succeed you needed to be very very careful not to break anything? Well, you'd be a minotaur in a china shop.

Your goal is to make money. You can do it in one of 2 ways: 1) serve customers, selling various products or 2) go nuts, break everything in the place and hope the insurance pay-off is more than the damage costs. Clever. The more items you break (by accident or on purpose), the more enraged you become. The screen will get darker, the music more tense, until finally there will be only red, your entire world shrinking to the one priceless, mocking urn before you.

Note the arrows. Once you start breaking stuff out of control, security will come and take you down. At this point, your goal is to trash the place as much as possible before you get knocked out.

If this was the extent of the game, you'd be amused for a few minutes at most. But the cleverness of MCS is that it's a game of economic decisions. You have 5 days to make the most money you can. At the beginning of each day, you're given the opportunity to buy upgrades, like new battle moves, or strength (to shake off those pesky arrows), or higher rage insurance (so that the payoff from breaking shit is higher).

This allows for some interesting strategic play. Do you invest in Advertising, Inventory, and Speed so that you can serve more customers faster? Or do you invest in Strength, Rage Insurance, and Inventory to maximize profits via insurance payoffs? Often, the best strategy is a subtle mix between the two, although some players have noted that you can really score it big if you play a pure "customer" strategy. This takes enormous patience and diligence. And of course, that's the fun of it. You'd much rather run around breaking everything in sight.

Try it and work out your frustrations. Think of it as gaming therapy.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


Portishead's new album, Third, has appeared out of the void. Their debut, Dummy, was released in 1994, in trip-hop's birthing era - and their self-titled sophomore set came out in '97. It's been over a decade since we've heard a new siren song waver out of Beth Gibbons' mouth, and I can't say I ever expected to hear one. But this album is very very good. The lyrics remain brooding, gothic, and dark but I'm not sure if many people listen to Portishead for insight or advice.

I'd like to laugh at what you said
but I just can't find a smile
I wonder why you can't
I struggle with myself
hoping I might change a little
hoping that I might be someone I wanna be

Really? Are we reading Twilight or something? But there's clearly some musical experimentation and diversity here. "Hunter" and "Deep Water" are ghost-tracks from the 1930's, "Small" is psychadelic '60's, "The Rip" is old-school Leonard Cohen, "We Carry On" drones like the soundtrack to a Lovecraftian ritual, and "Machine Gun" is KMFDM industrial-lite - none of which are necessarily "music to make love to your old lady by." Those juvenile lyrics don't sound so silly because Portishead music is witchcraft and chaos, sensuality in the abyss. If you're curious and want to sample a single track, start with "Magic Doors," appropriately named.


01. Silence
02. Hunter
03. Nylon Smile
04. The Rip
05. Plastic
06. We Carry On
07. Deep Water
08. Machine Gun
09. Small
10. Magic Doors
11. Threads

(worth staring at)

Monday, December 1, 2008

miserable much?

AM linked me to this a while ago, but it's so astute I have to meme it for y'all. From

7 Reasons the 21st Century is making you miserable

Some excerpts to whet your palate:

"Lots of us were born into towns full of people we couldn't stand. As a kid, maybe you found yourself in an elementary school classroom, packed in with two dozen kids you did not choose and who shared none of your tastes or interests. Maybe you got beat up a lot. But, you've grown up. And if you're, say, a huge DragonForce fan, you can go find their forum and meet a dozen people just like you. Or even better, start a private room with your favorite few and lock everybody else out. Say goodbye to the tedious, awkward, painful process of dealing with somebody who's truly different. That's another Old World inconvenience, like having to wash your clothes in a creek or wait for a raccoon to wander by the outhouse so you can wipe your ass with it. The problem is that peacefully dealing with incompatible people is crucial to living in a society. In fact, if you think about it, peacefully dealing with people you can't stand is society. Just people with opposite tastes and conflicting personalities sharing space and cooperating, often through gritted teeth."

I love reason #3: "Texting is a shitty way to communicate."

After reading inane flames from some internet trolls over coffee this morning, I also love the following graph, posted by the blog's author:

"In my time online I've been called 'fag' approximately 104,165 times. I keep an Excel spreadsheet. I've also been called 'asshole' and 'cockweasel' and 'fuckcamel' and 'cuntwaffle' and 'shitglutton' and 'porksword' and 'wangbasket' and 'shitwhistle' and 'thundercunt' and 'fartminge' and 'shitflannel' and 'knobgoblin' and 'boring.' And none of it mattered, because none of those people knew me well enough to really hit the target. I've been insulted lots, but I've been criticized very little. And don't ever confuse the two."

"The problem is you are hard-wired by evolution to need to do things for people. Everybody for the last five thousand years seemed to realize this and then we suddenly forgot it in the last few decades. We get suicidal teens and scramble to teach them self-esteem. Well, unfortunately, self-esteem and the ability to like yourself only come after you've done something that makes you likable. You can't bullshit yourself. If I think Todd over here is worthless for sitting in his room all day, drinking Pabst and playing video games one-handed because he's masturbating with the other one, what will I think of myself if I do the same thing?

You want to break out of that black tar pit of self-hatred? Brush the black hair out of your eyes, step away from the computer and buy a nice gift for someone you loathe. Send a card to your worst enemy. Make dinner for your mom and dad. Or just do something simple, with an tangible result. Go clean the leaves out of the gutter. Grow a damn plant."