The tyranny of choice

I bought a subscription to Playstation Now yesterday, because it was only $60 for a year. And as I started to browse the games available, my overwhelming feeling was one of stress, of trepidation, rather than pleasure. Here’s another several hundred interesting games to go along with my existing PS3 and PS4 libraries, never mind the thousand-plus games I have on Steam, and all the game systems I don’t have hooked up right now! My DS and 3DS sit at arm’s length from me, both packed with even more experiences.

How exhausting it is to live in the Golden Age of content.

This golden age is part of why I’m always baffled when people tell me that they get bored. With hundreds of television shows, thousands of video games, and tens of thousands of books available at the modern consumer’s beck and call, how is it possible that you can’t find something to entertain you? People constantly inform me of shows on Netflix that seem totally in my wheelhouse–Mars is a recent example–that I’ve never even heard of, because there’s just so much stuff on there that hasn’t been surfaced to me by the app or my casual reading of websites like the AV Club. And that’s just one source of many.

But the golden age can be oppressive too. Where do you start, what do you dig into? I’m the sort of person who generally likes to commit to a thing, to play the game through to the end rather than just taking a nibble and moving on, to watch every season of the show or read every book in the series, and that makes picking content difficult. Thirty hours spent on thing X means that I’m not spending that time on different thing Y, which may be qualitatively better for me. Even though I’m retired, there are only so many hours in a day; there is a hard limit to how many more games I’m going to be able to fit into my life. The choice feels weighty, and there are too many to choose from.

I know I’m not alone with this problem. Being overwhelmed by choice is a common issue nowadays. I contrast it with when I was a kid; I had a Nintendo and a reasonable library of games, but a quick dig into my database tells me I have 36 titles for the original NES. That’s way less than I have for the Wii (66), a system I barely played at all, and a fair number of those 36 were acquired after the NES had gone off the market, from friends who had moved on or stores that were liquidating old stock, before the retro game boom. (I have a copy of Goonies II? When did I pick that up?)

And the Wii is old hat. My PS4 library has over 700 games in it, my PS3 one almost 600. That’s enough content to last a lifetime, but new stuff just keeps. coming. out. Television? With Hulu, Amazon Prime, and Netflix, there’s already way more to watch than I’m willing to set aside time for, never mind HBO and Showtime and all the old broadcast standbys. And my stack of puzzle books grows way, way faster than my ability to complete them.

I’m most of the way through Guns, Germs, and Steel, which is fantastic and absolutely deserves the Pulitzer Prize it won, and I wish I had gotten around to it sooner. But there are so many books that still beg to be read, stretching back over a hundred years, and the rate of publication is far greater than any fan can possibly keep up with. I stopped buying the vast majority of my reading material several years ago, relying instead on the library, and that mediation helps quite a bit… but my list of “things I need to check out” is near infinite and expanding.

Any one of these venues for entertainment would be enough to keep someone going for years. Having them all available is exhausting, with that constant question in the back of my mind: what do I do? What do I do? Limiting my passive screen time to a couple of shows does a lot to reduce that particular space, but it’s a decision to basically write off 98% of a particular medium, which seems like a shame… even if that decision feels absolutely necessary to keep sane in this modern era. And I try to do something, rather than sitting and spinning my wheels making a choice, even if it often results in me switching between three or four puzzle books over the course of the day, with reading and videogames interspersed in between. A goldfish-like attention span at least gives me the feeling that I’m getting something out of all the various media available to me, even if it’s not sustained in any one direction for long.

And then there are the days when I pick up a controller in the morning and don’t put it down until 4AM, when I curl up with a book and only leave my recliner to go to the bathroom, when the tyrannical bleating of choices is silenced or at least quieted. This is the thing I’m enjoying right now, and everything else can piss off. But those days are rare.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to finish up this damn book. And then play a game… or do a puzzle… or watch a show. I don’t know yet. I’ve gotta make a choice.

Fair play in an unfair world

I played El Grande for the first time tonight, despite owning the game off and on for over twenty years. It was tense, highly strategic, and deeply intriguing the whole way through, and I’m angry that I had never managed to get it to the table before.

But it was clear, during the game, that one of the other players thought that I was picking on them. Specifically, there was a point where I gave a different player–someone new to this whole “complex strategy games” thing–some advice about what they could do; they followed that advice, and then a turn or two later it set up a situation where I benefited greatly1.

My first response to this was something close to outrage. Of course I wasn’t trying to game the system in my favor, and how dare they think that that was the case? But this person hasn’t played all that many games with me and isn’t aware of the precepts I bring to the table.

The first and most important precept is this: I want everyone at the table to have the best time possible. For newer players, this often means giving them suggestions as to what they could do, in an attempt to winnow down the often overwhelming field of choices that modern board games can provide2. For other players, it means keeping far away from their decision process. I tend to err on the “help” side, and try to keep myself in check if I feel like what I’m doing is steering too close to my alpha-gamer tendencies, but of course this sort of thing isn’t perfect.

The problem comes in a game like El Grande where just about every decision a player makes hurts someone else at the table. The game has very few “just good for me” moves; almost anything that improves your position on the board is messing with someone else’s plans, or even directly stealing points from them.

Now, I try to be scrupulously fair with my advice–and I’ll admit that there is almost certainly some unconscious bias as to the hints and tips I give, no matter how hard I try to make that not the case–but when anything I suggest is, by design, going to hurt someone at the table, I can understand why it might seem like I’m trying to inveigle some advantage under the cover of providing in-game suggestions3.

This is hard for me. I can of course just sit back and never provide any advice at all, but I know that for some people that would make for a quantitatively worse experience, and I’m definitely one of those “some people.” I like looking for the great move another player has lying in wait, even when they don’t see it themselves. I think a game’s more interesting when people are playing at close to the same level, and if I can help nudge it in that direction I feel almost obligated to do so.

But I think I need to be more careful when it comes to games like El Grande, where every move has deep and lasting consequences that can sway the game hard one way or the other. It’s a tough line to walk, given my propensity for advice, but a line I clearly need to get better at finding.

Fortunately, everyone seemed to really enjoy the game, even the person who felt picked on, and we had a discussion afterward that (I hope) cleared the air. I don’t like that that had to happen in the first place, though, and I’m going to give serious thought to how I should manage similar situations in the future. Hopefully it’ll result in even more fun at the table for everyone involved, which is right in line with my first precept4. And any game night with no hurt feelings is a better game night indeed.

Socializin’ and shootin’

For the last week or so, I’ve been playing Earth Defense Force 4.1 online with friends almost every night.

The game itself, as mentioned before, is kind of a mess. But it’s a ton of fun to play online, and I’ve found myself really looking forward to the nightly sessions. (I missed last night due to a very late nap, and was disappointed when I finally woke up to see that it was too late to get started.)

Part of that “looking forward” is definitely just the joy of running around and shooting giant insects with rifles and lasers, but a big part of it is the socialization that comes with the game.

Neither of the other two regular players are that chatty1, but there’s a certain amount of camaraderie that comes from playing a game together. EDF is the sort of game where, for most of the missions, we can work independently, running around on the map and doing our own thing. We call out the big events and talk about movies and television while we pew-pew our way to victory.

Sometimes, though, the mission requires greater coordination. I usually call the shots on those levels, and that engenders a completely different type of joy from socializing: working together on a thing, doing that thing, and coming out successful at the other end is the sort of results that we are biologically hard-wired to really enjoy, and a hard-fought virtual battle tickles most of the same bits of our brains that surviving the real thing did back in our just-past-the-primates distant past.

And, really, it’s just nice to hear other people’s voices for a couple of hours every night.

I’ve mentioned before that a lack of regular social interaction the biggest issue I’ve had since I retired. Maybe the solution is as simple as getting a regular online game group going. I’ve never had a lot of success with this over the long term; usually one or more of the people involved get tired of whatever game we’re playing after a week or two and the whole thing falls apart. The last game we stuck to with any seriousness was the original Destiny.

Fortunately for this group, though, Earth Defense Force 5 just came out, and is waiting in the wings for when we get tired of this one. Hopefully we’ll last that long, and if not, maybe we can find another game to play the same way. Goodness knows there are enough out there. Surely we can strike gold a second, or third, time?

I can only hope.

The pleasures of mediocrity

I’ve been playing a lot of Earth Defense Force 4.1 recently.

For those of you unfamiliar with the series, the Earth Defense Force games are about alien invasions of Earth. And also giant ants and spiders and bees? This particular one is very insistent that all of the animals are “giant insects,” which, y’know, spiders aren’t… but, mostly, the enemy list in the game runs on the Rule of Cool more than it does on any semblance of coherent design. You fight said aliens and creepy-crawlies with a wide assortment of guns, rockets, artillery strikes, tanks, and even giant mechs, across a series of enormous sprawling maps littered with destructible terrain.

Are they fun to play? Yeah. But, to put it bluntly, every game in the series is a bit of a mess. I’ve been playing the series since I imported the second one from for my backwards-compatible Japanese PS3, which could play PS2 games, and a decade-plus on the series is very much evolutionary rather than revolutionary, and said evolution is something of a dead-end of design. Aiming still stinks, navigating the too-large levels with the default soldier-dude class (the Ranger) is slow and tedious, and the upgrade system is basically “play a level with lots of drops over and over and over again,” which is never a great sign.

And yet.

I’ve actually played EDF4.1 every evening for the last three nights, for several hours, with a friend online. And it’s been a ton of fun. I laugh a lot, make fun of the uniformly terrible voice acting, and then proceed to wipe the battlefield of the hordes of ants–they come in two colors, because why actually expend effort on new enemy designs?–and flotillas of weird spaceships. And then I do it again, and again, and again.

There’s something deeply pleasing about the game despite the fact that it is, objectively, mediocre at best. The upgrade loop is a compelling “ooh, what’d I get this time?” version of a gacha machine, the plot is so ridiculous it almost loops back around to awesome, and it is just so damn satisfying to mow down hordes and hordes of weak enemies with laser guns and automatic rifles. (Also, it has a sense of scale unrivaled by just about any other video game I’ve ever played.)

The long-running Dynasty Warriors series scratches a similar itch, mowing down hordes of mooks in an otherwise very bland game design, but for whatever reason it’s never quite resonated with me the same way that the Earth Defense Force games do. I actually spent quite a bit of time playing through the Xbox 360 version of the game (the third in the series) on the couch of an old college friend, playing split-screen multiplayer all the way through the campaign. It was a lot of fun then, and it’s still a lot of fun now. And I think I know why… or, at least, a part of if.

When you play a game like, say, the most recent God of War, or a perfectly-tuned modern indie game like Celeste, you need to be on in terms of engagement. They’re carefully considered experiences, to be savored and enjoyed and appreciated and noticed. Because of that, I’m not always in the right frame of mind to play those sorts of games. Playing them half-asleep is doing the games, and myself, a disservice.

But a game like EDF, exemplar of “just good enough” design? Who cares? You’re just going pew-pew with the lasers and getting even better lasers. It’s perfectly fine for me to be only 70% present when I’m playing, because the designers were only 70% present to begin with. It’s not a guilty pleasure, really, so much as it is a guiltless one. The game says: “I am perfectly happy to be a near-mindless time-filler with lots of explosions. If that’s all you can handle right now, I’m here for you.” And sometimes, yeah, that’s all I can handle.

I wouldn’t want every game experience to be the interactive equivalent of a B-movie… but I’m glad that such games exist, to fill the same sort of hole. Sometimes you just don’t want to have to pay that much attention to what you’re doing, and it’s those times that mediocre games are here to fill.

Now, if you don’t mind, I’ve got to go destroy another three million, six hundred and twelve thousand, three hundred and fifty-five giant ants before they take over the planet.

Pew pew.

Reeling, in a year

Today marks a year since I retired.

Here’s one of the questions I get asked the most: do you have any regrets about retiring so young?

I have to bite back the glib answer, which is, man, do you even know me? I have regrets about everything. I’m pretty sure that there’s no major decision in my life I haven’t questioned furiously before, during, and after making said decision, for hours, days, months, or even years. I still feel bad about the way I answered some Very Important Questions1 when I was sixteen, and those were twenty-three years ago. Regrets? Yeah. Yeah, I have them. I have them all the time.

Another common question is this: does being retired make you happy?

(It’s worth taking a moment here to note that, while I’m never angry with people who ask me these things, they seem to be coming from a place of mild bewilderment that someone can retire before the age of forty without the excuse of being makes-cigar-wrappers-out-of-hundred-dollar-bills rich2. The world at large is still very confused by us lean-savings early-retirement types.)

And, to be honest, sometimes I’m not happy at all. I lead a pretty lonely life, and one of the biggest things I lost when I stopped having a job at a vibrant company was a large, easily-available social circle. Getting people together to hang out when outside of work is hard, and I still haven’t cracked that particular code a year in. I went from always having a person or two I could chat with in a moment of downtime to sometimes going for a week or two where the only people I speak to face-to-face are the cashiers at Walmart. They’re nice and all, but it’s not exactly high-level social interaction.

But.

Let’s change these questions around a bit, starting with the last one: are you happier, now that you’ve retired?

The answer to that question is an unequivocal yes. I had a rough time at work the last couple of years. The social aspects were great, never mind the food and the board games, but I didn’t find the job itself very satisfying, and could feel myself getting unhappier by the day. There were times when I had to take vacation for a week or so, not because I actually went anywhere–if you’ve read much here you know I’m not much of one for travel–but because I needed to get back the energy required to actually be able to show up for work again.

(There was a coworker of mine, a younger person who I regularly chatted with in regards to our careers. They were unhappy with their position, and I told them that they needed to grab hold of one of the many opportunities the company offered to move upwards and outwards, that being unhappy in a job was one of the most exhausting places to be in life, that they had years of working professionally ahead of them and they needed to make the best of them. Their usual response was: great advice, buddy, but have you ever thought of taking it for yourself? And they were right, of course. I was one of those jerks who didn’t practice what they preached.)

So, sure, some days I wake up and feel like I’ve made a poor decision… but most days I wake up and go: Yeah. Yeah. This is right. This is what I want to be doing right now. Am I happy? Maybe. Maybe not. Am I happier? Abso-freaking-lutely.

Let’s go back to that first question now, and take another stab at it: Do you have enough regrets about retiring early that you’d choose not to if given a chance to do it all over again?

And the answer to that question is as easy as the answer to the last: Absolutely not. I made the right decision then, and I’d make it again in a heartbeat if I had to. Retirement’s not regret-free, but nothing is, at least for me. That doesn’t mean I won’t change my mind in the future, of course, and one of the things I intentionally planned for is the ability to change my mind if I need to3. But regrets are a part of life, and every decision made is another decision unmade, every road traveled a path not taken.

And my footing is firm.

Setting money on fire, 2018 edition

[This entry is almost entirely about my finances. If you’re the sort of person who is uncomfortable reading that sort of thing, best leave now.]

I spent a lot more in 2018 than I meant to.

Gnucash tells me that I spent $36,600.67. That’s probably close to the truth–I’m pretty good at entering things into the program–but I’m sure some stuff slipped past. For the purposes of this article, let’s round up and call it $37k. I wanted that number to be closer to $30k… and I overshot by more than twenty percent.

I should note that that number very explicitly does not include the taxes I paid last year, which was another $30,000, thanks to the sale of almost all of my tech-company stocks I got while I was an employee. Taxes cost money, yes, but you’re going to pay them no matter what, so it feels disingenuous to consider them with other expenditures. (Besides, my tax rate has already plummeted, since I only worked in January last year, and will drop again for 2019.)

I should also note that, while I do track, I don’t budget. That’s probably a mistake, but it turns out that my regular costs are very regular indeed, so a bunch of the variability comes either from stuff out of my control (maintenance, twice-a-year car insurance, etc.) or stuff I know I shouldn’t be spending anyhow (healthy servings of boardgames and videogames, mostly, with a light sweet drizzle of puzzle magazines from Japan on top).

Now, some amount of that $37k is pretty fixed. My rent is $650 a month, and I paid a bit more than that each month for my COBRA health insurance continuation. Yes, that means had I not had health insurance, I would have hit my $30,000 goal pretty much on the nose. I wasn’t willing to risk that, though, and I still feel that keeping said insurance was the right decision even though it cost me a lot of money.

In my heart, though, I know there’s a lot of obvious wastage in those numbers as well. (In a moment, you’ll even get to see it in graphical form.)

The first question is: did I get better at this spending thing over time?

You can even see how I break down my money.  Yes, “Frivolity.”  (The huge Travel chunk in March was ~$1000 in necessary car maintenance.)

The answer: yes, by a bit. My monthly spend rate dropped from ~$3,000 to ~$2,500 by the end of the year. That’s a good sign; were I to stay at that level for this year, it would save me ~$6,000 for the year, which is a significant chunk of change when you no longer have a regular income.

There’s still a whole lot of orange in the bars, though, which means that most months I spent north of $500 on unnecessary stuff. In fact, for the year, my Frivolities sub-section accounts for almost $11,000 of the $37,000 I spent. That’s… well, it’s stupid, not to put too fine a point on it. That leads to the second question: can I stop setting so much money on metaphorical fire?

Fortunately I realized the need to do that even before writing this up, and have already adjusted course pretty aggressively. For January it looks like I’ll have spent less than $300 on frivolous things this year, and part of that is an $80 once-a-year payment to Grandmaster Puzzles, which you should check out if you’re as much of a puzzle fiend as I am. On the other hand, I already know of at least one big Kickstarter in February that I’ll be backing to the tune of $300… ugh.

In addition, thanks to the Affordable Care Act’s subsidies being income-based rather than means-based, I’m not paying anything for my health insurance this year. That’s another $6,000 or so I’m saving this year.

Given all of that, let’s ask a third question: is it plausible that I only spend about $25,000 in 2019, rather than the $37,000 I spent in 2018? It is, and that’s my goal. I won’t be furious with myself if I miss it… but I will be if I break $30,000 due to unnecessary spending.

I do have one big purchase coming up that’s going to hurt the numbers a bit. My current desktop is more than nine years old, so calling it a “potato” is honestly a bit of an insult to potatoes. (I kid; as long as I’m not playing modern games, it actually still works perfectly fine.) I don’t plan on spending more than $1,200 or so on a new machine, all bits and bobs included, but we’ll see how that goes.

And, honestly, we’ll see how this all goes. I knew this first year was going to take some getting-settled time, and honestly that’s still going on. I suspect my expenditure rate will continue to drop over the coming year or two as I figure out what I do and don’t need to spend money on, and that’s on top of my having explicitly decided to spend less on unnecessary stuff.

Hopefully year-in-the-future me will be proud… or, y’know, at least not furious… at the soon-to-come me. We shall see!

Et tu, Kiesling?

As I mentioned in last week’s roundup, I played Azul for the first time on Friday. And my reaction to it, by the end of the second round, was viscerally negative. I was absolutely Not Having a Good Time, and boy did it show; both of the other people at the table could tell that I wasn’t happy. I ended up in a distant third, which isn’t surprising for a first time playing a game I didn’t fully understand when we started, and I was bitter. Not at the loss, not really, despite that being an issue for me; it was at the game itself.

We ended up talking it over afterwards, and almost as an afterthought, I said that I felt I would have enjoyed it much more as a two-player game. Something dawned on me as I drove home from my friends’ house: why Azul, like Photosynthesis before it, was the sort of game that I would likely never be comfortable playing any way other than head-to-head.

There are certain board games that are mostly non-confrontational. Race for the Galaxy is a great example; you can definitely play better if you have a grasp of what your opponent’s going for and make use of that knowledge, and there is a tiny bit of blocking that you can do by holding onto cards across shuffles, but fundamentally it’s a game about building a better, faster, more efficient engine than the other people at the table. You can never be too angry when someone doesn’t pick the phase you wanted them to, because you could have always picked it yourself, ya damn leech.

Then there are board games that are very explicitly confrontational and wear that on its sleeve. I don’t sit down to play Risk 2210 to shower cuddles onto my opponents; I come to destroy. The same goes for a game like The Resistance, where a huge part of the experience is calling people liars and trying to verbally manipulate your friends. If you’re not in a confrontational mood, well, you probably shouldn’t play one of these types of games to begin with, and so I come into them with the knowledge that it’s going to be nasty and don’t feel put off by that experience.

Some games allow you to explore multiple strategies, both antagonistic and peaceful. When there are options, I almost always go for a peaceable approach. Part of that is because it suits my temperament more, and part of it is because I have a long and storied history of being ganged up on as “the guy at the table who knows the game,” so presenting myself as meek and non-threatening is useful to keep me from being obliterated by multiple focused death beams coming from everyone else at the table. I tend to avoid attacks in Dominion in favor of engine-building, and fight as little as I can get away with in Antike II.

Games like Azul and Photosynthesis trip some sort of Uncanny Valley switch in me, though. They have the trappings of a non-confrontational game: build your stuff! Make pretty patterns! And they seem to allow you to play in a way that doesn’t completely antagonize your opponents. But it quickly turns out that the best strategies are to mercilessly screw everyone else at the table over at every possible moment.

We played New York Slice precisely twice and set it aside because it was so confrontational, and something similar happened with Imhotep. But I’ve realized that it’s not just the combination of the confrontation and the cognitive disconnect, although that definitely plays a big part. It’s also that the maliciousness in these games feels deeply targeted. It’s not just that you’re punching someone over and over, it’s that you’re picking people to punch. And it turns out there’s a handy solution to that problem: playing with only one other person.

One of my favorite games is BattleCON, which is a “luck-free” simulation of fighting videogames like Street Fighter II or BlazBlue. And thinking about why I absolutely love BattleCON, which is as confrontational as a game can be, helped me understand what was going on in my subconscious a bit better. The fundamental goal is to beat the crap out of your opponent, to outguess their moves and land the perfect combo. So of course I’m mentally prepared for that when I sit down.

That means that the real outliers are the Risk 2210s and the Cthulhu Wars, where I don’t mind multiplayer confrontation. And I think that the difference comes down to several things:

  • The heart of the game is conflict, not construction. In Risk 2210, you know there’s gonna be a lot of fightin’. Azul looks like it’s just about playing pretty pieces on your board and scoring, but really it’s about putting your opponent(s) into bad situations.
  • Luck mitigates and makes stories. You keep picking on me but rolling low? That’s funny and memorable. In a game like Photosynthesis, there’s nothing I can do to stop you because there’s no way to “luck out” of a bad situation.
  • Conflict-hearted games are inherently more social and more political. “I won’ t fight you this turn if you don’t fight me next” is a common sort of deal that you’ll see made at the table in those games. I think it’d be really weird to hear that at a game of Azul! Yeah, political games come with their own whole suite of issues (which I may write about at some point), but it feels right in a game like Risk in a way that it doesn’t in a “secretly cutthroat” game.

And so: I feel like I should, and will, revisit some games I’ve been dismissive of, like Imhotep and Azul. But I’m gonna do it with only one person at the table, and with the certain knowledge that, no matter what the game may look like, it’s really a knife fight in disguise.

Hold’em out for a hero

I spent most of the last two days watching the end of the Main Event at the PokerStars Caribbean Adventure on Twitch, thanks to some timely front-page placement. It was a fascinating look into the psychology of a deeply complicated game being played at the highest levels.

I should note that I’m nowhere near being a poker expert; I’ve played a bit over the years, but never for money, and the sum total of hours spent playing in my life could be easily counted on one hand. I also intentionally didn’t write about poker in my Guide to the Cardpocalypse, because I feel it’s much more of a game about psychological one-upsmanship than it is about the actual pieces of pasteboard, and watching the PCA in some ways confirmed and in other ways weakened that argument in my head.

Early on I was rooting for “the old guy,” Scott Wellenbach, who seemed laid-back and conversational in comparison to everyone else playing. Turns out he was the only amateur that made it to the final table, and he ended up placing a respectable third, winning over half a million dollars for charity. The winner, Chino Rheem, was ahead both days and never lost his lead, so it mostly felt like everyone else was jockeying for second. That was probably unfortunate from most people’s perspective, but it sure made the psychological side of the game shine.

In particular, Rheem effectively took the role of the “heel” in wrestling parlance, pushing around everyone at the table with big raises and keeping the pressure on even when he had garbage hands. It helps that he’s naturally a very gregarious player, and also apparently quite notorious–something of an actual bad boy in the poker circuit–which matched well with his particular persona in this tournament.

There’s a natural tendency to root for the underdog, and in particular one so natural and forthcoming as Wellenbach–the man is donating his winnings to charity, for Buddha’s sake–and that feeling grows even stronger when they’re up against an opponent who comes off as arrogant and pushy. It made for great TV (well, streaming, whatever), and I honestly couldn’t look away.

The gods’-eye view that modern poker play provides the viewers is both a blessing and a curse. You know exactly what everyone has, and the graphics automatically update with winning percentages… but of course the players don’t know the details, and so you see people make decisions that seem horrible in the view of omniscience but obviously make a lot more sense on the ground. If anything, it adds to the sense of the mind games that are clearly going on at the table. Someone raises big when they have utter garbage… but everyone else’s hands suck, so no one calls them on their bluff. How did they know? How did they know?

Wellenbach got burned not once but twice on the river; the first time he had a 95% chance of eliminating the eventual second-place player, Daniel Strelitz, and somehow the exact card Strelitz needed showed up on the flip. The second time cost him the game. Sometimes the hero you want to win doesn’t, but you have to be proud anyway.

I don’t think poker is likely to become a regular part of my media consumption diet, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy watching the gears turn behind the eyes of a bunch of high-level players–and one heroic amateur–for the better part of two days. And I was strongly reminded that I should never, ever consider playing poker for realsies. I wouldn’t be a hero or a villain; I’d be the mook bleeding out in the corner ten seconds into the first fight scene.

Resolving the future

I’m not a fan of New Years’ resolutions. I’ll be the first person to admit that I have trouble with follow-through when I’m not fully invested in a project–and sometimes even then–and all making resolutions seems to do is increase the guilt factor when something inevitably falls by the wayside.

That said, I do have things that I’d like to have happen in this coming calendar year. They’re not necessarily projects I’m going to start today, or when I get back from this trip, but instead stuff I want to work in in the medium term, want to be eyeing as possibilities when I’m looking for something to do.

Here’s a bulleted list of not-really-resolutions:

  • I went off the diet hard for the holidays, because that’s the only way to stay sane in Louisiana when you’re only there for a short time, but I’ll be getting back on the wagon when I make it back home. I’d like to be within shouting distance of my goal weight by the end of 2019, which should be totally feasible if I take it seriously.
  • I’ve done a bit of prose writing outside of NaNoWriMo in the last week or two, which is a genuine rarity. I’d like to continue doing so, with greater frequency, whether it’s short pieces I can post here or longer-form stuff.
  • Speaking of prose, I’d really like to start working on the rewrite of Rewind this year as well. It’s the closest thing I have to a real, “salable” story (whatever that means), and although it needs a lot of work to get it up to the sort of standard that I think it needs to meet to be shopped around, it still needs less of it than anything else I’ve ever written.
  • I’d also like to get back into recreational programming. I have DXV’s code sitting quietly over on Github, unnoticed and untouched, and I think if I could work up the enthusiasm to work on it the act of rewriting a game in another language would actually be a very interesting experience. There are other potential projects, too, of course, both open source and personal.
  • Whether I end up making a decision about moving somewhere else or not, I need to do something about my ridiculously large board game collection. Narrowing it to 100 or so “big box” games, plus a bin or two of smaller stuff, would do worlds of wonder for my sanity, never mind dramatically easing any future shipping around of the whole mess. I have at least one potential way to shed most, if not all, of the collection; I just need to take the time to do a massive, more-detailed inventory to make it happen. And, potentially, investigate alternatives if that falls through. (Anyone want to buy ~2000 board games, most still in shrink? Reasonably priced, I promise!)

It’d also be great if 2019 ended up as less of a total dumpster fire in terms of the world writ large, but on that front there’s not much more I can do other than exercising my vote and, possibly, taking up some sort of volunteering. That said, here’s to hoping all of our 2019s are better, resolutions or no.

The preservation of collaboration

For the last two days, I’ve been working with someone on a program.

This came about because they run a rather famous puzzle website, full of puzzles of tons of different types that they generate via computer.  That site has a puzzle type that is close, but not quite, like one of my favorite Nikoli types, Ripple Effect.  And their site has a bit that says “Don’t see your favorite puzzle type?  Let me know!”

So I did.  I even sent them photos from a puzzle book I just got this past Saturday, that I’m in the middle of solving, which happens to have some Ripple Effects in it.  They said that they’d take a look at it, and honestly I thought that that would be the end of the whole deal.

Then they contacted me, asking: are you willing to transcribe some puzzles, so that they can be used as test cases for the solver?

Here’s a (puzzle) thing: I like to transcribe puzzles.  I’ve done so for the tiniest fraction of the number that I’ve solved over the years, although if I had infinite time and energy I would put every single puzzle I’ve ever solved in a computer-readable format.  That probably sounds really stupid, but I feel that puzzles are a fascinating form of entertainment, and one we treat entirely too ephemerally, tossing the magazines once we’re done with them.  I fully realize that I have a biased view here, but is it so crazy to think that in 100 years someone wouldn’t want to try and solve a full issue of, say, Nanpure Fan in the same way that I sometimes enjoy leafing through old advertisements?  It’s not like the type of puzzles I do (i.e. non-crossword-y ones) have an expiration date.  That sudoku will solve just as well in 2118 as it does here in 2018.

Anyhow, of course I said yes, and set about immediately to transcription.  Well, no.  It turned out that the format that was being suggested was actually a bit of a pain to write by hand, and I thought of a way to make it easier, so the website’s author sent me the code he was using and I ended up banging on it to suit my will.

As of today we’re sharing our work in a Github repository; I’ve mostly done transcription (of course) and some code cleanup, and he’s been working on the actual solver and friends, since this is all based on code he’s been the master of for years.

If the generated Ripple Effect puzzles actually get published, I’ll link them here, but even if not it’s been nice to work on some code for the first time since I retired.  And it’s been nice to collaborate, to bounce ideas back and forth on how to do a thing.  That’s definitely something I miss from the job.

And, if nothing else, it got me to preserve at least a few more puzzles from a couple of books I have.  Probably no one else cares, but perhaps one day they can be used to reconstruct a puzzle book, to be solved by our ancestors who may have never touched a physical magazine at all, to be experienced all over again.