Friday, December 28, 2007

Have Yourself a Merry Little Wintersday

This time of year provides one of my favorite and most interesting yearly gaming experiences. Last year, I discovered there is a yearly change made in Guild Wars, one of the online games I play. Several of the towns in-game are altered to be covered with snow and the fictitious holiday of "Wintersday" is celebrated. There are several holiday festivities added to the game, including special quests and items. My favorite part, however, is the PvP Snowball fights.

To play in the Snowball Arena, as it is called, you chat with one of the "Wintersday Priests" and are then transported to the arena gathering area. When you click the "Enter Battle" button, you are randomly assigned three other members to your team and a random side to represent in the snowball fight. All the normal skills used by your character are replaced by the special snowball skills and you are tasked with delivering 5 presents to your team's avatar before the other team can.

The key to this PvP competition is that it is all random. You will likely not know any of the players on your team, nor on the opposing team. You have no say about which side you are playing for. You cannot pick which character classes you want to be teamed with. The luck of the draw determines all of this for you.

I haven't played a lot of PvP prior to the Snowball Arena, and started playing only after exhausting all the other single-player Wintersday festivities last year. However, once I began, I understood the fascination with PvP.

If you lose, you are returned to the waiting area. If you win, the previously random group stays together and plays another round against another random team. If you find a team that you "click" with, you can string together an insane number of wins (my highest is 34, but during one of my runs, someone on my team said his highest was 87 wins in a row).

What interests me is the feeling of comradery that develops between a group of strangers. After you win 10 in a row, everyone knows where to go, what to look for, where to be, all without the benefit of communication: you can only type to one another, which is unlikely during a round, and there is only a short 15-30 second break between rounds. When a team clicks, the hive-mind that occurs really is uncanny. You start to trust in strangers in a very short period of time.

I played a lot of games that I either lost or only won because the other team was more inept. But, when I found that winning team, the feeling derived from that unrehearsed, spectacular show of single-minded teamwork. I haven't played much PvP prior to Wintersday, but I think I will have to participate in some of the regular PvP now.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Multi-Step Solutions to New Year's Resolutions

Every year, I like to put the effort into self-improvement via the tradition of New Year's resolutions. Of all the things I've blogged, my yearly resolutions is easily the most consistent topic. The one post I really think is worthwhile is the one from three years ago that describes how to create an effective resolution; I've re-read it before I started writing this post and my old words have helped me re-think and re-form some of my goals that were a bit off-target.

That said, I am modifying my strategy a little this year. Instead of a focus on a few, more lofty goals, I've decided to be less choosy and select a larger number of resolutions; however, I made a trade-off to keep things balanced: I've reduced the quantitative expectations, with the inclusion of incremental goals that can be accomplished in each category.

What I've considered first this year are the elements that I'm interested in improving. I want to procrastinate less, take on more responsibility for my life, read more, eat better, exercise more, write more and have a better attitude. Each of these qualitative desires I matched with a basic improvement that is not lofty and should hopefully be easily accomplished. They are as follows:

  1. Procrastinate less - This is something I consider to be a matter of training. If I can train myself to be aggressive about not leaving things till later for one particular task, it should be an easier transition to recognizing tasks that don't get better when left for later. My training task is to do the dishes: I will never be done with a meal until all the dishes are out of the sink and in the dishwasher. If the dishwasher is full, I will put soap in and run it. When the dishwasher is clean, I will empty it. If there are things left to dry that are no longer wet, I will put them away. This isn't anything complicated, but it should be an easy way to train myself to not leave things till later. At this moment, upon establishing that routine, I will focus on never putting somewhere "just temporarily" or at least having a plan for when it will be put away. The formation of this secondary goal will be left until the success of the first. Success will be determined by the length of time dishes remain out of place: if dishes are put away routinely for three months, without being left out for longer than necessary.
  2. More Responsibility for My Life - Before I was married, I was responsible for all aspects of my life, including health care and bill paying. If I payed a bill late, or didn't bother taking the time to choose the most effective health plan provided by work, it only affected me. Once married, my wife had a higher standard and more demands regarding both these, as well as other, areas of responsibility. Her solution, which I did not object to, was to take full responsibility for nearly every aspect of the home. From finances to cleaning, she took responsibility. She has done an awesome job, but it hardly seems fair that she should bare the burden of the entirety of our life together, as well as our child. Deciding how to make an effective difference in helping with this burden can be tricky, since there can be a steep learning curve in some areas of household management. However, there is a series of tasks that I know I can do that will help ease the burden, and I know Kendra will offer no resistance to this specific help. Since I know that this is her least favorite part of dealing with stuff, I intend to make any and all phone calls necessary for arranging things, fixing things, or even just making simple queries. Kendra hates having to talk to these people and, while I don't enjoy it either, it seems like something I can do without as much dread. To succeed at this task, I will need to make any requested phone call within 48 hours, and do so for three months without lapse. The next task in this series will need to be determined; once I prove my effectiveness at this, I am certain I can persuade Kendra to help me expand my responsibilities.
  3. Read More - Reading is a pastime that I've always enjoyed, starting in my youth. As many people find, once you are out of school and have a full time job, reading for enjoyment is something that oftentimes goes by the wayside. While my goal from two years ago to read a book every two weeks is extreme for someone who barely reads, to read one book a month should be a much more achievable goal. The success requirement for this task is simple: once twelve books are read in 2008, I have succeeded. The next increment will depend on how long it takes to succeed. Ideally, I'd like to try to double it, shooting for two shy of my original reading goal.
  4. Eat Better - When I was originally losing weight, I knew that the changes I would need to make would be significant. Thus, to try to keep it as simplistic as possible, I put no limit on what I would eat, only caring about the number of calories consumed in a day. Doing so, I was able to lose 50 pounds eating carefully measured portions of hamburgers with fries , hot dogs and pizza. Now that I have established a calorie counting routine, it is time to look at the types of food I am eating and to improve upon it. Currently, Kendra and I scrounge for ourselves and eat a lot of instant meals (frozen meals, chips with cheese, burritos, hot dogs). My goal to eat better will be that I will plan and prepare a healthy meal once per week. To do this will require so forethought to pick a recipe and ensure the ingredients are available for the chosen day. As this is another reoccurring task, the success of it will be measured across a three month period. Once a meal being prepared weekly is established, the next level will be twice a week.
  5. Exercise More - Part of being healthy includes eating better, but regular exercise is also a necessity. Currently, I have no established exercise plan: I had tried to exercise thrice weekly for awhile, but it was more than I could keep up with and haven't done so for several months now. An easy starting place will be to exercise once per week, including both strength and cardiovascular routines. Again, this will be measured across three months. The next level will be twice weekly, either splitting and intensifying the two types of routines across two days, or doing both routines twice weekly.
  6. Write More - Every year, the lure of NaNoWriMo attracts me back to my desire to become an author. And, every year I barely make a dent in the novel I attempt to write. Part of this, I think, comes from my lack of practice with creative writing. While I am already trying to do this, I am oficially declaring my goal of posting to this blog thrice weekly as a resolution for next year. If, over the course of three months I determine I am successful, I will declare specific days that will have posts, and maybe add an additional fourth post.
  7. Better Attitude - I tend to already have a pretty good outlook on a lot of things in life. However, I still fall into unnecessary negativity at times. My way to improve this is going to actively seek out involvement with others (parties, visits and the like) regardless of whether I instinctively am attracted to such engagement. Additionally, I will go with a positive outlook and look forward to it. This is a trickier resolution to judge, so I will put a minimum requirement of one such engagement per month. I will also have to evaluate my success on a case by case basis. This isn't so much a pass/fail as a how good can I do resolution.
That should do it for 2008's resolutions. While there are a much larger number than I have previously suggested, the difficulty level is realistic and promising. We'll see how it goes. I encourage anyone who does happen to read my blog to use the comments to discuss and share their possible resolutions.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Perception of Time and Time Trials

The way time is perceived is known to change, varying on the task at hand. Typically, if it is an enjoyable activity, the time flies by. Conversely, if the task is less enjoyable, time progresses at a snail's pace. In my life, I have encountered enjoyable activities that take less time than I would assume. There are two example of these activities, and both involve Katy.

When I was signing Katy up for swim class, I was surprised that the classes lasted a measly 30 minutes. "What could possibly be taught in such a short period of time?" I wondered. At the first class, I learned that thirty minutes was exactly the right amount. It didn't feel like the class dragged, and yet it seemed that Katy had an opportunity to learn and do a large variety of activities in the water. Even the five minutes of play at the end was just right.

Another activity that we recently experienced our fair share of was Bounceland. Katy was invited to two parties, both structured the same way, with a week between the two. The first part of the party is an hour of bouncing, followed by some time after to eat cake and open birthday presents. The number of times you get to go on the bouncy slides in an hour is much more than you would guess, if you didn't really think about it. An hour was plenty, but I thought it was going to feel short.

These misperceptions about how long was enough caused me to reflect on other things that occur in my life and how long I believe them to take and how long they really take. Already, considering these different things has helped me to either do things that I previously avoided because I thought they took too long as well as looking for ways to reduce time on things that I thought weren't taking that long. The big item I considered was showering.

One way to categorize those who shower is by time spent showering. Really, it seems like there are two groups: those who are quick and are on a mission to get clean, and those who are slow and forget why they entered the soothing, blissful warmth. I am in the second group. Since I know that I might take a little longer in the shower than I thought, I decided to start tracking how long it takes, followed by time trials.

I needed two showers today. This morning, it took 29 minutes in the shower, plus another 12 to finish getting ready. Tonight, I decided to try to stop lolly-gagging and go for a best time. It only took 8 minutes in the shower, with another 4.5 minutes to finish. The point is that often all it takes to improve the time of something is to realize how long it is taking and then trying to change it.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Per Mike's Request

During Thanksgiving, our friend Mike did a magic trick. I recorded it with my new camera and he requested I post it. So, here it is:

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

GameTap has Servers

One of the video game community websites I visit, Evil Avatar, has a forum that I frequent. While a variety of topics are discussed, the most common theme involves video games. In the weekly "what are you playing this weekend" thread, over a course of a number of weeks, I would see various people post about such-and-such a game on GameTap, a service that charges a monthly fee to access their collection of video games. I knew what it was and assumed it was not for me.

Finally, after seeing it mentioned a number of times over several weeks, I decided to give the free option a try. A selection of approximately forty games are available to play at any time and are supported by ads. Essentially, you would choose the game you wanted to play and click start and then watch a 30 second commercial. It was pretty painless, actually.

After seeing the sheer number of games available, I was impressed. And, it wasn't simply a bunch of old games; while there are a good number of the older games available, there are games from 2007 included as well. What finally sold me for the pay service was that, after hearing my co-worker Rob talking about Overlord for the XBox 360, I saw that it was available for play on GameTap. Their promotion includes the first month for $0.99, so one Saturday night, I gave it a shot and was hooked.

If that wasn't enough, they even host "Myst: Uru" an MMO for Myst that has the same gameplay as the original, but allows you to play with others, too.

Since then, I have played a huge number of games. The nice thing is, if you get tired of one, or the game just sucks, there is none of the gamer-obligation to get your money's worth: you can just move onto the next one. I payed for the discounted full year, about $54: about the price of one new game. I have easily played my money's worth.

The best part is that I constantly remind my co-workers of my love for GameTap. I think, deep down, they really appreciate it.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

The Work Necklace

I went to Best Buy with some co-workers one day during lunch. While there, waiting in line for Rob to buy Rock Band, I noticed a box full of Loco-Roco (little smiley face guy) key chain-type things (or Christmas ornaments, even) that were listed free. So, knowing my daughter like I do, I grabbed one for her.

A couple days later when I remembered that I had it, I gave her the little guy and she was happy with it, just as I expected that she would be. There wasn't a clip or ring to attach it to anything, though: just a small nylon cord in a loop. So, I grabbed one of her bead necklaces and looped it through itself to tie it onto the necklace. She was happy with that and wore it for the rest of the day.

Then, before bed she decided to hang it on the bathroom doorknob by the door to the garage and called it her "work necklace". I wasn't sure what she meant but was glad she was happy with it.

The next day, she called it her "work necklace" again and put it on in the morning before going to school. It occurred to me what she meant: I wear a badge on a cord around my neck for work and leave it on a hook by the garage door when I get home. She is duplicating my "work necklace" habits.

So, now we both put on our work necklaces every day before I take her to daycare and I go to work. How's that for adorable?

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

The Inevitable Conclusion

This year, I once again attempted NaNoWriMo with the hope of completing a novel during the month of November. This year, like all previous, I did not even come close. Previously, I had a hope of finishing: this year, I did not. Forgetting about NaNoWriMo until the day it begins, not having an idea for a story, and not spending any time thinking or working on it make for an effective way of not completing it. Really, I treated like a poor resolution: wishful thinking without any plan as to how to make it happen.

On a seemingly unrelated note, replacing the toilet paper is something that everyone has done at some point or another. For a long time, when I needed to replace the paper, I would simply grab a roll and haphazardly replace it whichever way it happened to be aligned. Somewhere along the road of life, it was pointed out to me that there was a "correct" orientation for the roll, with the end hanging from the front instead of behind, the idea being that it is easier to find the end when you can see it. The two methods seem similar to resolution efforts, with the haphazard being the wishful, whatever-comes-to-mind manner of thinking them up when compared to the directed, planned, carefully evaluated method.

The toilet paper analogy can even be taken a step further. Not only is there a correct way to orient the rolls, but it is critical to never overlook the quantity available on hand. Purposely thinking about and ensuring that there are always two extra rolls in addition to the one in the dispenser is like the planning: making sure your environment is aligned with your goals. Running out without a backup is like the random method of not really setting yourself up for success.

Now, it isn't a dichotomy: there are a number of partial successes and a degree of doing some things right while overlooking others. That can be a trouble with analogies; in making things simpler to explain, there comes the temptation to assume the analogized subject is also simple. Making sure you have toilet paper on hand and that it is easy to access from the dispenser is a really easy task when a little thought is put into it. Making sure a resolution, or goal, actually is setup to succeed is, often times, less concrete.

Back to the opening topic of NaNoWriMo, if I had taken the month of October to come up with a good concept, create an outline, think through the characters' personalties and motivations, and decided what times of day I would write and what areas of the novel I would write first, I would have had a much better chance of success. It is definitely something I will keep in mind for next year.