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    SimCity 2013: The Phantom Menace – putting the “limited” in Limited Edition


    2013 - 03.21

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    So I wrote a little blurb shortly after the launch of Simcity, but the news on this game has been evolving so rapidly that what I’d written felt irrelevant before I could even publish it.  It’s been a strange tale.  I haven’t actually bought the game yet, and that turned out to be the right call.  As I’ve observed the commotion, my feelings on the game went from major excitement, to pessimistic disappointment, and eventually to my current ambivalence.  The pre-release hype made it seem like this was going to be a return to the glory days of one of the best franchises in all of gaming, and then the reality set in at launch: servers were crushed under the initial load, then once people finally did get started playing, the gameplay was revealed to be broken on multiple levels.  I was super excited about this one for months on end, and now I wonder if I’ll even get it….

    I won’t even begin to chronicle the plain-out-weird tale of corporate-newspeak from EA/Maxis and their apologetics for why the game absolutely had to be online-only.  That story will probably go down as a textbook example of how not to handle a PR meltdown.  The superbly-written and eminently-thoughtful gaming blog Rock, Paper, Shotgun has had unbeatable coverage of the whole fiasco, which is certainly worth perusing, if you’re interested.  Besides, they’re the best PC gaming blog in the biz today, check em out.

    A couple weeks in, it sounds like most (but not all) of the server-related killjoys have been addressed.  But perhaps more nefariously, the game’s underlying AI seems to have deep problems with pathfinding.  Epic traffic jams that span whole highways between city.  Fire trucks stuck in the station, or simply never arriving.  Pedestrians wandering in circles endlessly around the same intersection, blocking all traffic.  Trade frozen.  Bus pileups as far as the eye can see.  Once your city gets big enough, these unfixable problems begin to break it. 

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    There are other weirdnesses that make no sense: it’s possible to build nothing but roads and residential zones, and end up with a 60k population… in spite of the fact that your city has no commercial zones, industrial zones, power, water, sewer, trash, police, hospitals, etc etc. 

    People have have also lamented that city size is much more restricted than it ever was in SC2k and that disasters cannot be disabled.  Those are overshadowed further by the downright baffling design choice that you can’t even save a copy of your city… which used to allow experimentation with the freedom of restoring to an earlier save-state.  Your city data is not stored on your local computer, apparently?  You have no possession of the content you create now.  That’s just… deeply unfortunate. 

    In spite of all this, odds are I’ll end up buying this game in good time, assuming they can fix the worst of the pathfinding problems.  I’m glad to be reading all this trash-talk before I ever touch the thing.  No game has a soft spot in my personal Venn-diagram of nostalgia/videogames the way Simcity does.

    I remember as a grade-school kid, staying after school for hours to play the original Simcity in the computer lab, since home computers were a rarity in those days.  One time no one knew where I was, and it even prompted a moment of panic until they found me at the PC, just building my city again.  Then when my best friend got Simcity for his SNES we played the dickens out of that, even with lots of other games vying for attention.  We would take turns building and strategizing, laying on the living room floor for hours while his parakeets cheeped and that same music looped over and over.  SimAnt was another addictive one for me when we eventually got our first home PC.  Taking over the whole yard and eventually forcing the humans out of the house was strangely gratifying, and the game somehow made ant-trivia fascinating.  Then fast-forward to junior high when Simcity 2000 (aka SC2k) came out… whoooo, I don’t even want to know how many hours went into that.  One of the all-time top-10 on all platforms, if you ask me.

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    So it’s tough not to approach a new Simcity with giddy overenthusiasm, reminiscent of how I probably felt in the theater watching Star Wars The Phantom Menace for the first time.  Sure, all your favorite tropes are here, but uhhh, you’d better tame those expectations: childlike wonder is by no means guaranteed!

    And how could it be, really?  Part of what made Simcity 2000 such an amazing powerhouse was the fact that I played it at a point in life where I was old enough to grab my bike and ride off to any part of town, yet too young to be expected to work; a moment in life when free time was endless, and the relatively-new world of 3D videogames was a fascination with few rivals.  There was all the time in the world to build that perfect masterpiece, then realize all the oversights you’d made in dreaming it up, tear it all down, start over, and build the real masterpiece this time… ad infium.

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    Looking at the screenshots of people’s creations (those who have been able to play) brings back a wash of fond recollections of the old Simcities.  This series is sort of the original and greatest “sandbox” game.  One with no win or lose condition, no time limit, no missions to complete, just your imagination.  I really look forward to spending some time in Maxis’ latest iteration of that wonderland I used to get so lost within–I’m just tamping down my expectations.  This is Simcity: The Phantom Menace.  And thanks to the wonder of modern technology, you can’t actually BUY it.  You can only RENT it from Electronic Arts.  That is, when they decide to eventually shut down the servers for good in some years time, that’s it, everyone’s done.  There will be no dusty box in the closet with a CD in it that will allow you to reinstall a working copy.  Nor will there be a stack of 3.5″ floppy disks that got lost for years, only to be found under the bed one day, allowing some magical time warp back to your old experiments, quirky half-successes, and weird ideas.  Those save games kept that time portal open, in a way that few toys could–your LEGO creations could never rebuild themselves into a badass spaceship you created that one time, and the particles in the real-life sandbox of your backyard can never reassemble into the sweet castle your pal Jake made with his tower-shaped bucket.  There is a euphoria in rewinding.

    Those days are gone.  The future is here, and what’s new isn’t always better.

    Instead of a sarcastic “Thanks EA” I’m going to do my best to simply enjoy Simcity 2013 at face value.  It’ll never be able to touch SC2k in terms of pure addictive thrill.  And when it’s over it’s gone forever.  I’ll make a point to enjoy it in the moment, going in knowing that’s a very pretty, but ultimately much smaller, more limited world than my nostalgia wants to paint it.

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    2 years in Microcosmology: Retrospective


    2012 - 12.27

    2012 has been a huge year for me.  I bought a house and got engaged.  Big stuff.  This year I was considerably less active on the website compared to 2011, although it’s because I’ve been more busy doing things around the house, doing more car repairs on my own, and of course, working on this new model railroad which I now have space for.  It’s been a happy time for me.  And a very industrious one!

    Last year on Microcosmologist I crossed paths with several personal heroes of mine and that in and of itself was super fulfilling.  This year has been much more humble and introspective by comparison, and that’s not a bad thing.

    I have also done some real cool stuff that just hasn’t made it onto the site yet.  There are two very cool timelapses that haven’t been posted, a ton of great pictures that still need to be uploaded, and many poems that need to make their way onto the periodic table.

    Speaking of poetics, as a new year’s resolution last year I told myself I needed a new push to write more poems.  I created a folder called “Project Renissance” with the goal of writing a poem a day.  Predictably, I fell far short of that lofty goal, but the project was an unmitigated success, in the sense that it generated a giant amount of writing, far exceeding what I did in 2011.  I need to push myself to keep the momentum up.  I think growing closer to completion on the poetic table will help a lot.  When it is complete, I plan to make it into a second book, which is additional motivation.  That one is near the top of the list for 2013…

    How about you, dear readers?  Anything you want to see more of on here?  Any goals of your own for the coming year?  We survived the Mayan Apocalypse so I think some celebration is in order!

    Engine Disassembly Level: Holy $#/+!


    2012 - 11.29

    I know for a lot of people out there this isn’t anything all that scary, but for me, the novice car repairman, this was super intimidating. I was performing a valve cover gasket replacement and vanos piston seal upgrade. I did this several weeks ago and I only now feel comfortable posting a picture because the car still works!

    Greetings from Glorious Bear Creek


    2012 - 11.09

    So me and my pal Billiam are attending our third consecutive Bear Creek Music Festival and I have zero doubts that this one will be just as hot as the previous ones.  Slight twist though: this year I will be attending purely as an observer/enjoyer.  Last year I was granted a press pass and used it as an excuse to rent some cool photo gear like a steadicam and a 2nd camera body.  I also brought along a custom slider I made, which was fun to use.  The results of all this are dutifully recorded under the Bear Creek tag.  It was an awesome experience, no question, but I do admit, when you’re investing energy into chronicling what’s happening, you do miss out on ‘the moment’.

    This year I will be solely devoted to savoring ‘the moment’ as it unfolds.   And that’s gonna be awesome!

    Alan Watts & Andromeda


    2012 - 10.27

    Beginners Mind again, for this: The Hubble Extreme Deep Field


    2012 - 10.21

    One of the first cosmological images which really and truly blew my mind as a young adult was the Hubble Ultra-Deep Field. Basically the idea was “Hey, what happens if we take our most powerful telescope and point it somewhere that’s pretty much empty and just stare at that spot for a really long time. What would we see?” The answer to that question was “We see somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 very distant galaxies.” Pause and let that marinate for a moment.

    Here is a closeup on one small area of the image, a random part that I thought looked cool:

    For a long time I left that as the wallpaper for my computer at work and I’d come in every morning and stare at the image while my slow computer took forever to finish loading windows. What was cool about having it as the wallpaper I had to look at while I waited for the machine to become usable was just how much there is to look at in there. As long as I stared at it, I’m certain there’s oodles of things I still didn’t notice. Looking at it first thing in the morning too, when the mind is raw and still gradually awakening surely added some awe to the effect as well. It’s staring into an abyss. Staring into infinity. And knowing that it stares back at you too…

    As a humorous aside, I’ll note that the “Hubble Ultra-Deep Field” is actually the sucessor to the “Hubble Deep Field” which showed a different region in space. And this new image, the “Hubble Extreme-Deep Field” is a closeup of a smaller section within the Ultra-Deep Field image, adding around 5,500 galaxies to the original 10,000+. When the James Webb Space Telescope goes online, they have plans to image the same area with it’s mighty Infrared sensing capability. What will that image be called? The Ultra-Extreme Uber-Deep Field Tournament Edition Plus. Director’s cut. Enhanced, expanded edition. Two. Strikes Back. Reloaded. Chopped and Screwed. Remix. Turbo.

    Whatever, it doesn’t matter what it’s called. Just, everyone, do me a favor: full rez this new baby and spend at least two minutes staring, thinking about what it shows:

    Everything on the internet, everything in a book, everything you’ve ever heard, learned, imagined, or even dreamed, in the most remote recess of your subconscious, is all within the realm of the ‘Earth’ experience. And Earth is a single, small terrestrial planet out in some sleepy backwater arm of the Milky Way, a perfectly average spiral galaxy with about 300 billion stars, and about as many planets, with maybe 10 billion of these being in the goldilocks “habitable” zone. Or at least habitable to “life as we know it”. Nevermind moons, nevermind thermally-supported life, nevermind ‘Steppenwolf’ planets that were flung from their parent stars. If the entire breadth of human knowledge, emotion, and experience resides within our differential-unit-small grain of sand that’s floating in the Milky Way swimming pool, then try to concieve of the vast diversity of lifeforms, cultures, natural wonders, and sub-realities residing within the oceanic field of view of this image, depicting thousands upon thousands of distant galaxies. Try to imagine traveling there, surveying them. Imagine exploring just a handful of those galaxies and chronicling the habits of their residents.

    How could we explore it? First we’d need to aggressively master interplanetary voyages, remote communication and colonization. Fly probes and listening devices to the Kuiper Belt. Mount them to passing comets for a long voyage back out to the Oort cloud. Use those to learn about the radiation and galactic wind in interstellar space. Develop shielding, life prolonging and hybernation capabilities for deep space travel. Contact alien cultures within our own galaxy and master inter-species diplomacy. Develop non-invasive, non-destructive ways to study primitive life still early in its evolutionary tree. Catch the best bacteria to help us live longer, retain more knowledge. Authoritively chronicle the Milky Way with billion-year data storage capability. Pool resources with other intelligences to build intergalactic ships or probes. Scatter them in all directions to search for points of interest. Then, finally, research ways to reach the most distant of galactic neighborhoods like the ones we see in these pictures. My point: The actual exploration of these places is not something that’s a few ‘ages’ away in terms of a civilization. Exploring these places is an act for intelligences unthinkably more sophisticated than our own… But we can dream of it.

    When I look at this, I like to focus in on individual places and try to imagine what might be there. I like to find a pretty looking galaxy and think about what planets might be inside of it. Or sometimes find a teeny sub-pixel dot and wonder if that less-than-a-pixel point is a whole giant supergalaxy, burgeoning with life forms, interstellar commerce & conflict, culture & craftsmanship. Maybe these two galaxies colliding are locked in an interspecies war millions of years long. Maybe they’ve evolved organic-electronic synthetic intelligences that can instantly teleport between host bodies, allowing them to be anywhere their race has ever traveled instantaneously. I wonder what their music sounds like. I wonder what senses they have. Can they “see” radio waves? Does their culture have money, or government? I wonder what “pleasure” or “sex” means to them? Or consciousness? I wonder what THEIR telescopes have discovered about the formation of the cosmos. Does it look “the same in all directions” from the far-far edge of what we humans can see?

    It’s fun to try envisioning all these things. And then humorous, in a zen sort of way, genuinely humorous, knowing that it’s impossible. You can’t. You’re looking at something so much bigger, ancient, and wilder than the capability of the feeble human brain to comprehend. The are not human words in any language to meaningfully describe what any of these Hubble Fields show. These images, obscured by the thick, nearly-opaque veil of distance, give the most fuzzy, teasing glimpse of something beyond us. Something beyond even what our most distant descendant will ever become. I find that deeply exciting. This picture shows, unquestionably, indisputably, that the universe has more to explore than is possible to explore. What better reason to be alive in this cosmos?

    Armstrong’s gone & the full moon’s blue


    2012 - 09.03

    Still ruminating on the passing of Neil Armstrong.  As my tiny tribute to him, I decided to take a photo of the first full moon after his death, which also happens to be the last blue moon until 2015.  I added the blue coloration in post… the blues for one less moonwalker among us.

    Neil Armstrong,1930-2012


    2012 - 08.26

    The first man to walk on the moon died yesterday.  That’s a guy whose name will be printed in history books as long as humankind ever has them.

    Will there come a time when all people who’ve walked on the face of another world are no longer alive?  That’s a sad thought.  I hope that we get some fresh boots back into deep space sooner than later.  Armstrong would certainly want it no other way…

    Oh man, two new Hubble Space Teless–heyyyyyy wait a minute!


    2012 - 06.14

    I dig space telescopes. The images they produce are moving on an emotional level and alter the way I see the world around me on an intellectual level. I like talking about them, thinking about the things they are telling us about that giant universe that’s out there, lurking above the thin blue haze which protects us from vacuum. In the news last week I see that NASA has recently been given not one, but TWO spare telescopes from one of the sixteen different US spy agencies, the National Reconnaissance Office. In fact, the mirrors on these things are the same size as Hubble’s mirror (7.9ft). NASA isn’t sure yet how they’ll use these super sweet mirrors. The ‘scopes will need to be kitted out with cameras, spectroscopes, electronics, etc and applied to a specific mission before they see any use, which they’re saying will probably happen in the 2020s.

    But hold the phone here–these things were sitting in a warehouse collecting dust for who knows how long before some record keeper at the NRO said, gee, maybe someone could, like, use these? I recently donated some items to the local goodwill and all of it was stuff that had been sitting around forever; things I hadn’t interacted with in years and were essentially useless to me. The discoveries Hubble has made, the pictures it’s been taking, the realizations about the universe it’s spurred–you could argue that it’s the most important single instrument on the NASA inventory.

    And yet, at just one of our 16 spy agencies, they’ve got TWO of these things, mothballed. The optics on these, still considered “state of the art” to NASA, are ostensibly so old and outdated to the spy crowd that they’re literally giving them away. This raises so many questions… It makes you wonder what else your tax dollars have bought, sitting unused in a giant warehouse somewhere. It makes you wonder what the heck the NRO is using now that is so much better, to the point that a Hubble-equivalent is considered worthless. It makes you wonder how much THAT cost (and when they’re giving one to NASA). It makes you wonder why publicly-funded NASA has to struggle and languish and put a hundred other amazing missions on the chopping block in order to make their James Webb Space Telescope happen, while the also-publicly-funded spy agencies probably get a blank check in a blacked-out portion of the budget with carte blanche to build the best ‘scopes concievable… something far ahead of what NASA can do. It makes you wonder about the ability of democratic governments, of which we are made to believe the Unites States is supposedly the pinnacle, to allocate their collective resources into meaningful and worthwhile pursuits. It makes you wonder about our priorities as a society… which I suppose are decided on our behalves by a tiny elite, as they always have been throughout history.

    In the end, someone devoted to discovery, understanding, and endless research (aka science as a whole, science as a lifestyle) needs to calibrate their expectations. That’s a despicable euphemism but it’s a fact of life. In the world of academia, you will be hard pressed to find places where the engineering department funding and facilities outstrip that of the athletic department. Those rare enclaves exist as exceptions to the rule. Will governments continue to squander their cut of the GDP on self-indulgent machinations? Until the end of time. There is a constant battle going on inside of me, between cynicism and optimism. Which side of that battle rules the day comes down to what I focus on. For today, I want to force myself into focusing on the part of this tale where NASA gets two new Hubble mirrors for free. And remind myself that Kepler is still scoring more points every day while James Webb inches ahead here on the ground. All those facts are something worth toasting to. Here, here.

    Frontiers.


    2012 - 06.05

    Post #250.  Sestercentennial, baby.  Time for some introspection…

    I’m not sure what to feel about the crescendoing success of SpaceX. On one hand, it’s awesome that we’ve arrived at a point in time when space travel is within reach of a smart company. SpaceX did a nice job broadcasting their launch/ISS docking, including lots of cheering and even a tear-wipe or two. You’d never get that from NASA (and that’s not a bad thing). It is cool to see them get emotional about it–as well they should. I hope they do more live-broadcasts and behind the scenes TV work. I hope they’re not all secretive about the awesome work they’re doing, like say, Apple would be. Or China.

    And on that other hand, I worry that this event signals the beginning of the end for NASA. One thing that makes the work NASA does so incredible is that they do what they do because… someone should. Someone should walk on the moon, someone should evaluate the cosmic microwave background, someone should build the most badass space telescope ever and use it to learn the infinite secrets of the universe. Someone very seriously should do all those things–and much more–in space. Part of me worries that transferring the routine spacefaring work over to a private company is the first step of congress gradually scaling back and eventually pulling the plug on the whole thing. One amazingly great thing about public funding is that it goes to the PUBLIC good. One agonizingly bad thing about public funding is that it’s controlled by utterly short-sighted, duplicitous, and/or clueless plutocrats. AKA congressmen!

    I see headlines about NASA planning a manned mission to Mars–in 2033–and I just sigh. Those kind of timelines are just pure talk. There’s no responsibility for something that’s supposed to happen 20 years from now, no accountability for the people who make those claims. Maybe I’m being pessimistic, but I sort of feel like it’s never going to happen unless we have another JFK moment where the man in charge says, “your objections are nice and all, but too bad, we’re going to Mars because I say we’re going to Mars, and there is nothing you can do to stop this.” That’s basically what JFK did. I read an interesting article that gave stats on the public approval ratings on the worth of the Apollo program and even right AFTER the moon landing, they maxed out at around 43% I think it said. Even in their moment of glory, less than half of Americans thought it was a worthwhile exercise. I do wonder, if they asked those same people today, with the context of history now putting it into perspective, what the percentages would be.

    There’s a billboard I used to pass on my way home that’s advertising for an Alzheimer’s association. It shows a picture of an Apollo astronaut on the moon and asks “Do You Remember?” I think it’s poignant that out of every world event in the last century they could have picked, and even right over the top of personal events like your daughter’s wedding, or your favorite dog, or (insert personal joy of choice here), they picked the moon landing. THAT is the one thing that blew everyone’s collective mind and stands out brighter than anything. That is the one piece of history you simply cannot forget.

    I saw a late night comedian once, lampooning the USA by comparing us to Michael Jackson, saying “It’s kind of sad when your greatest achievement is a moon walk that happened three decades ago.” OUCH! As someone who grew up watching the space shuttle take routine flights, it feels wrong that NASA has no manned launch vehicle now. I’ll enthusiastically say that it feels great to see an American company take up that mantle (or at least getting closer and closer now). But I worry that as private enterprise takes the lead, and we transfer over to a system that ruthlessly asks the question “what is the short term profit?” that human spaceflight could miss out on true glory while grubbing for coins.

    If I can live to see one piece of history unfold, a man landing on mars would be far-and-away the thing I’d love to witness. When I look at that billboard with the astronaut, that’s what I think about. When will come THE moment for my generation, that piece of history you can never forget? Not a disaster or a scandal or a sporting event–but a true triumph of humankind. Those are rare. And accordingly meaningful. In 2033 I’ll be 53 years old. Will boots touch martian soil by the time I break 60 years of age?  Will I live to see it at all?