Nerdstalgia: (Grand) Mother’s Day Edition

I’ve got more Microprose and Legend of Zelda articles in the pipeline, but this Nerdstalgia installment is a little bit different. It was inspired by a post at IGN about the nostalgia of The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Where that author talked about gaming with his mother, my memories of gaming as a child are with my maternal grandmother 1. She played a lot of games over the years, but there are a few that we played together that stand out in my mind.

Dr. Mario

I’m starting with Dr. Mario for a couple of reasons.  The first reason is that it’s the game I remember her playing the most, but it’s also the game that caused the least amount of strife, which isn’t to say that it caused no strife at all.

Dr. Mario was a fairly simple puzzle game, originally released on NES and Gameboy in 1990.  The idea was that there were “viruses” on the play field that could be removed if they were paired with pills of the same color. It was a game that was very much in the same family as Tetris, but, unlike Tetris, there were levels and an “end” in sight: you needed to clear all the viruses to move to the next board, which would have more viruses and move faster.  Most importantly, there was one major difference for the NES version: competitive multiplayer.

Multiplayer worked with a split screen, with both players having access to their own separate board. Combos would send random pill pieces to the other player’s board, allowing you to spam them, giving you a slight advantage. That caused plenty of frustration and grumbles from both of us, but it was mostly friendly competition.

Dr. Mario is available on the Nintendo eShop as a Virtual Console title. The NES version is available on the Wii U, and the Game Boy version is available on the 3DS.

Super Mario Bros. 3

The World Map was the site of many strategic ambushes.

The third installment of the Super Mario Bros. was actually featured in a movie, The Wizard, before it was released in the United States in February of 1990. Unlike Dr. Mario, the multiplayer of Super Mario Bros. 3 was alternating and more-or-less cooperative, as players took turns clearing levels (or attempting to) while working their way through various kingdoms to track down Bowser and rescue the once-again-kidnapped Princess Peach.

Super Mario Bros. 3 featured a return to the type of platforming that was seen in the original Super Mario Bros., after a departure in Super Mario Bros. 2 (which wasn’t originally a Mario game in Japan, which explains the departure). It added some new enemies (including the Koopalings, who appear in several modern games) and some new abilities for Mario and Luigi, while removing Luigi’s ability to jump higher than his brother. At the end of each level, players were awarded a card. Collecting three cards would earn extra lives (depending on whether your cards matched or not).

I said the game’s multiplayer was mostly alternating and cooperative, and those cards play heavily into the exception. If the currently active player passed over the “on-deck” player on the map, the “on-deck” player could challenge them to an original Mario Bros.-style duel. During these duels, cards could be stolen from the other player 2. The winner of the duel became the active player, a fact that could be used to prevent your fellow player from accessing a bonus game in certain situations.

The frustration and friendly competition from Dr. Mario was somewhat amplified when playing Super Mario Bros., because the “betrayal” of an ostensibly friendly fellow player (read: grandchild) was, sometimes, considered cheating by my grandmother.

Honorable Mention: Uno

Before I get to the most divisive video game that my grandmother and I played, I’d like to give a quick mention to a classic family card game that was also pretty divisive. Uno is a fairly simple game, and I’m pretty sure every citizen of the United States over the age of 10 has played it as some point in their lives. At one point, when I was very young, I was frustrated by my inability to win consistently, and I attempted to stack the deck (literally) in my favor while shuffling for a new hand in Uno. I lost, despite my attempt at cheating, and I was caught, which caused my behavior in any game from that point forward to be viewed with more than a little suspicion, which probably contributed to some of the hostility caused by the last video game on my list.

Lemmings

Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to get a good picture of multiplayer Lemmings.

Lemmings is one of the first indirect-control, real-time games. It’s considered to be more of a puzzle game than a strategy game, but its gameplay inspired a lot of the gameplay of early real-time strategy games. Even more than Super Mario Bros. 3, Lemmings is primarily a single-player game. Most people who remember Lemmings remember it purely as a single-player puzzle game, and probably never played the multiplayer version much. Basically, the multiplayer game is played on a split-screen like Dr. Mario, but, unlike Dr. Mario, the players share a single map.  Usually, the players would find all their Lemmings entering the map in the center, and would have to work their way to one side or the other to find the exit. Each player had their own team of Lemmings, and the goal was to save more Lemmings than your opponent.

My grandmother saw this as something like a race, where you were competing as much against yourself as the opponent, and there wasn’t really much interaction between the two players. I saw it more as a game that had both offense and defense, and it was infinitely easier when your opponent wasn’t really playing defense. I’d take most of my Lemmings and go to solve the puzzle, but I’d manipulate one or two to travel the other way, usually after a short delay so they were mixed in among my grandmother’s Lemmings. I’d then alternate between solving the puzzles on my side of the map and subtly sabotaging my grandmother’s solutions (or not so subtly, if I could find a way to start killing Lemmings en masse).

This behavior was generally considered fair game by me (after all, you can’t cheat at a video game, outside of hacking; if the game designers allowed it, it’s within the rules), but was considered to be cheating of the worst kind by my grandmother. After a few games where I would promise not to screw with her design (and kept the promise), I would always slowly go back to my sabotaging ways. Eventually, she refused to play Lemmings with me anymore due to this fundamental difference of opinions about how the game was meant to be played.

To my knowledge, there is no place available to buy the original Lemmings for any of the systems on which it was released. All screenshots here were taken from my copy of the PC game, which I play primarily on DosBox (along with several other old Windows and Dos games that I can’t find anymore).

I know I’ve made it sound like my time playing games with my grandmother was full of fighting, but, honestly, even the “fighting” was with a friendly and loving tone (mostly). The nostalgia I get when I fire up Nintendo’s Virtual Console or my copy of DosBox is very strong, and I’ve found that I’m unable to play Dr. Mario with the music on because nostalgia starts to overwhelm me a bit. My grandmothers both contributed to my love of video games as a hobby, and I will always be grateful to them for that.

Rage Quit: “10 Concerts I’ve Been To, 1 is a Lie”

You may have seen the social media trend of posting a list of 10 concerts where 1 of them is a lie.  The idea is that your friends will look over the list and guess which one of the concerts you didn’t really attend.  On the surface it appears to be a harmless attempt at some entertainment, but, according to a CBSNews report, it could be THE WORST MISTAKE OF YOUR LIFE!!!

[insert commercial break cliffhanger riff]

http://www.cbsnews.com/news/10-concerts-free-coupon-scams-go-viral-on-facebook/?ftag=CNM-00-10aab6a&linkId=37081500

Cyber security expert Dennis Nedry.

Let me start this rant out by first saying that identity theft, hacking and phishing attempts are all very real threats in today’s world.  I am in no way minimizing the risk of being frivolous with your personal information.  With that said, though, I feel like news reports like the one above are taking a real danger and marginalizing it by seeing the boogeyman everywhere you look.

The first sign to take notice of in these articles is when they trot out a “cyber security expert”.  It’s the equivalent of asking a car salesman at a dealership their objective opinion on whether it’s worth it to trade up to the latest model of car.  Cyber security experts make their money on the fears of their audience with respect to how hazardous the internet security monsters truly are to them.  They don’t really want hackers to lose all the time, because if your data was safe, then the experts would be out of a job.

“The first thing that came to mind was a phishing attack where they could see your preferences and probably glean some demographics info from your band preference and send an email that says something like free tickets to whatever band you said you liked,” Ingemi explained. “You click on it and then you’ve downloaded malware or a virus and they have access to your network.”

The CBS News writer then hammers home the point with: “Hackers could then get into your account by resetting your password.” 

I would like to point out that within three quick sentences, they just went from harvesting band preference data to resetting your password and taking control of your account.  That is some CSI level, made for TV, hacking abilities!  Never mind the fact that your entire Facebook page contains your preferences.  The entire idea behind a Facebook like or follow is to refine your newsfeed to the things you are interested in.  If all hackers needed to steal your account was whether you were a Lakers fan, a Patriots fan or a Yankees fan, then they don’t need a post from you to do it.  All of that information is freely available, if public, on your Facebook profile by pages you like or follow.

“When you forget your password to various things, one of the [security] questions is what was the first concert you ever attended,” Ingemi said. “Well, if you have that list you could do some reverse engineering to figure out what might have been the first concert.”

So, if by some slim chance on one of your accounts you picked a security question option that asks what your first concert was and you played the concert game with your friends on Facebook, then hackers have a 1 in 9 chance of “reverse engineering” (Wow, that sounds technical) a single security question on that account.  Forget the fact that there will be other security questions, usually 2 factor authentication through a code, and you will also be alerted to all failed attempts.

Let’s be honest here for a minute.  There is no chance of a list of concerts you may or may not have attended being posted on Facebook is ever going to play a part in your identity being stolen or accounts being hacked.  A person could gain more pertinent and detailed information from a decently worded Google search than they would ever get from a list of 10 concerts.  I know that, you know that, and CBS News knows that.  What CBS News also knows is that alarmist headlines involving social media trends and hackers makes for great click bait.  It also makes their older clientele strap on their tin foil hats and tune into the nightly news programs to find out how those evil Russian hackers know everything from their shoe size to their preference in deodorant.

“If you want to participate and you’re concerned about the security risks, Ingemi recommends setting your privacy settings to “Friends Only,” preventing strangers — and potential hackers — from accessing that valuable information.”

I am glad that CBS News finished the article with the first useful piece of information of the entire piece.  If you plan on sharing personal information (agree or disagree with whether concert attendance falls in this category), make sure your privacy settings are set accordingly.  You wouldn’t want ex-girlfriends stalking your page to know you ate Chinese last night.

I’m all for informing people about the potential risks of doing stupid stuff with personal information on the internet.  The problem arises when you continue to produce hysterical laden articles sourced by cyber security experts on a regular basis; you start to sound like the boy who cried wolf.  You either delegitimize the seriousness of the real issue or you make people so paranoid they fear doing anything on the wicked internet.  Neither of those are really that helpful to the people that need the internet to function on a daily basis and don’t want to have their private information targeted.  So, please feel free to keep sharing the concerts you’ve attended and quit clicking on CBS News articles.  You never know, it could be a link for adware…

/rageQuit

AirPods: The Review

Back in December Apple released wireless Earpods, aka Airpods. I immediately wanted a pair, but the available stock sold out pretty much instantly. Foolishly, I spent two months waiting on them to become generally available, thinking I’d just pick them up at Best Buy. By the end of February, when the people in Best Buy still showed me packs of wired Earpods when I asked if they had Apple’s new wireless headphones in stock, I finally did what I should have done back in December:

I bought a pair on apple.com and waited 6 weeks (the lead time since the initial batch sold out has been, and remains, at 6 weeks) for them to ship.

A few weeks ago a co-worker told me www.att.com had them in stock, and since they were in stock with free shipping and my Apple order was 4 weeks out I decided to order a second pair from AT&T and I could get them the next week and cancel the Apple order if my wife didn’t want the second pair (or eBay them for fun & profit).

As it turned out, the Apple Airpods shipped the day after the set from AT&T shipped out. :-/

Two hundred words in, lets start the actual review!

Imagine the wired Apple Earpods we’ve had for a few years now. Now imagine how they sound and how they fit in your ears. Are you happy with how they sound and how they feel? I’ve used and liked the Earpods that ship with iPhones for a long time, so I expected to at the very least like the Airpods as much as the wired version. If you like/love the wired Apple headphones, the Airpods are no different. If you hate the feel or the sound of the ones that ship with the iPhone, you’ll hate these as well.

It turns out removing the wires makes a HUGE difference in day to day usage (yeah, I know….welcome to Bluetooth tech and 2012). Any worries I had about the Airpods falling out of my ear was completely unfounded. Without the wire to pull on them and get snagged on things, I’ve never had one fall out accidentally in a couple weeks of use. They sound identical (to my ears) as the wired version. If you are happy with how they sound, you’ll like the Airpods’ sound quality as well. The battery life has been great, the storage case keeps them charged up and I simply charge the case every other day during my commute.

Really the only issue is the loss of the volume adjustment that is on the wired version. I don’t know how you’d address that in a version 2 of the Airpods, but Apple wants you to use Siri to change the volume (a quick double tap of the Airpods activates Siri by default). As you might imagine, that’s an awful solution. The first thing I did was change that setting to play/pause the headphones. I’ve just settled on changing the volume via the volume buttons on my phone. Not great, but not the end of the world either.

 

I was thinking the other day, now that I’ve used them for a few weeks……would I buy them again? I would. In fact, I really wish I had ordered them back in December so I could have been using them since February.

9/10 – Would buy again (which I technically did by accident)

 

The Miracle of Flight

I sometimes wonder if the Wright brothers knew the magnitude of their contribution to our world as they stood ankle deep in those chilly sand dunes in December 1903.  Did they know their newly crafted controls would allow flight to be experienced in nearly every corner of the globe?  Did they see the ever-expanding family of aircraft through the next century?  From warplanes to rescue crafts, jets to puddle-jumpers, did they really understand the wave of invention and exploration they had unleashed?  Would they truly understand that their simple few seconds in the air would revolutionize how millions travel every day?  Perhaps my greatest question though is, could they peer through the years far enough to see me strapped into a rickety metal seat by a ragged belt, sweating profusely, eyes bulged, attempting, with white knuckles, to hold an airliner up in the sky by the sheer force of my own will.  I doubt it.

Thanks a lot Orville and Wilbur.

As you may have guessed, I am not a big fan of flying.  My wife will attest to this fact.  That is, if you can get her to stop rolling her eyes and cursing me under her breath whenever the subject is mentioned.  In fact, flying helped me realize when the honeymoon was truly over for us and the hard work of marriage had begun.

I had agreed to accompany my wife on our honeymoon (I felt it was the least I could do) to a nice spot in the Bahamas.  Of course, this would require that we fly from Pittsburgh to Charlotte and then from Charlotte to Nassau.  At the time, I attributed my going along with this decision to the fact that I was “in love.”  Looking back, I now attribute the decision to the fact that I am an idiot.

My wife, for her part, was very supportive during both flights down to the island, one lasting 50 minutes, the other just slightly longer.  She loves to fly and has travelled extensively throughout Europe and Russia.  She would see my discomfort, pat my hand, look lovingly into my eyes and ask if there was anything she could do to help.  Would I like to read her magazine for a while?  Use her headphones? Did I want a drink?

“Just relax and close your eyes” she would whisper lovingly.  Then she would gently grasp my hand and assure me that everything would be fine.

We did indeed survive the two flights to Nassau.  As I “de-planed,” I resolved to enjoy the time with my new bride on the beach and not think about the return trip home.  We spent the next several days enjoying the sights and sounds of this wonderful little slice of the Caribbean.  

As the end of the week approached, I would awake each morning to the familiar pangs of anxiety about the flight home.  It was nothing major, just your typical sense of impending doom.  As we drove to the airport on the last day, I tried to concentrate on the new part of my life that was now stretching out in front of me, not the vast expanse of ocean that would soon be stretching out beneath our plane.  My wife seemed to be in good spirits and ready to help me through this little annoyance at the start of our life together.  

The flights back home, it should be noted, were not going to be the same as the ones that brought us to the Bahamas.  Instead of two moderately long flights, this trip would start with a two hour and twenty minute marathon of sheer terror to Philadelphia.  Then a quick twenty five minute flight back to Pittsburgh.  Some people have told me that it is safer, and therefore better, to have one long flight instead of several shorter ones.  A nod to the myriad of problems that could occur with every landing and takeoff no doubt.  I don’t share their view, however, and would much rather have a few shorter flights.  Shorter flights, it seems to me, always have something going on to pass the time;  first we take off, then we ascend, then the drinks come out, then the nuts come out, then the nuts are strapped back into their seats and the pretzels are served.  Before you know it, the captain is coming on talking about the weather forecast in your destination city, which is now just a couple minutes away.  I definitely prefer short flights.  Actually, if I’m totally honest, I prefer no flights.  Can we just get the plane to cruise along the ground at that same high speed it achieves just before take off until we arrive at our desired destination?  Sound okay?  No?  Oh well…

If you look closely you can see my screaming face pressed against one of the windows near the rear of the plane.

The first thirty minutes of the flight to Philly were fine.  I simply engaged in some tried and true time-passing techniques I had picked up over the years.  I tried to break up the monotony of thinking about the left wing and engine falling off the plane by worrying about the right wing and engine.  The variation seemed to help.  I was able to refrain from shrieks of terror and rarely did my anxious displays rise above the level of gentle sobbing.

The final part of the journey into Philadelphia seemed to take just short of forever and was accompanied by some turbulence as we made our way up the east coast.  With every bump and bounce I felt as if the plane was going to drop nose first out of the sky dragging my screaming form with it.  Most of these feelings I kept to myself, but on occasion I would ask my wife if she felt the plane lurch or wiggle.  My wife claims those “occasions” numbered in the hundreds, but I think her number is inflated.  Seething rage has a way of playing tricks on the mind.  

 During the last portion of the flight I felt the plane drop in altitude abruptly in what I perceived to be the same manner as a carnival ride gone haywire.  I turned to my wife and quietly remarked “Good gosh almighty!! Did you feel that?!  That can’t be normal!”

My new bride, the woman who had held my hand so gently just days earlier, who had just shared a wonderful honeymoon with me in the Bahamas, who would be the mother to my children and lifelong companion said: “I wish you’d just shut up and not breath another word until we get there!  If you don’t, I swear…” It got a little blurry after that, but I think she went on to pose some serious questions about my lineage, the legitimacy of my parents marriage, and my intellect, or lack thereof.  I couldn’t really make out most of it.  It’s hard to hear when someone is trying to stuff you headfirst into the overhead compartment.

The flight to Pittsburgh was somewhat less eventful, but no less terrifying.  After sitting on the runway for an hour to let a storm pass over the Pittsburgh airport we began our ascent.  The captain gave his usual mumbled briefing about our flight.  He said we’d be in the air for about 25 minutes and that we’d be cruising at around 30,000 feet to our destination.  My keen senses trained on each movement of our plane, I noticed that we’d been ascending for quite a long time.  The reason for this was made known when the pilot returned to the microphone to announce that we were currently cruising at around 50,000 feet and were doing so to fly over the storm now making its way from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia.  For good measure, he mentioned that if the passengers on the left side of the plane looked out their windows they could see the rare sight of a massive storm front from above.  I reacted to this announcement with the scientific curiosity that would’ve been displayed by any college-educated 24 year old in that situation:  I yelled out “For the love of God and all that’s holy don’t everyone look at once!  You’ll tip the plane!”

As three flight attendants, two passengers and my new wife wrestled me back into my seat, I tried to explain my reasoning.  If the pilot can’t be trusted to tell the truth about the cruising altitude of our flight, what other secrets or misdirections was he planning.  I was grateful for the assistance back to my seat given me by the crew and passengers, but I felt the repeated blows to the head and upper body were a bit much for that situation.  The troubling part is that I’m 80% sure the damage was done by my wife.

She isn’t the only victim of my fear of flying.  My brother, Matthew, has been forced to endure air travel with me.  He soldiered through these experiences with the same caring demeanor and positive attitude displayed by my “better half.”  Once, on a bumpy flight to Toronto, he told me that if I touched his leg again when grasping the arm rest or asked if he felt the plane move just once more, he was going to kill me.  He smiled as he made this threat.  The kind of smile that makes you think he may be joking. On the other hand, it was also the smile of a person who has not only arrived at how he’s going to kill you, but has also determined where to dispose of the body.

Matthew also played a part in another flight-related incident.  At one point in my struggle with air travel, I took a prescription anti-anxiety medication prior to flights to help with the abject fear of the trip.  The medication did take the edge off, so to speak, but the underlying issue was still there.  It made it manageable, but it also made me so “relaxed” that I was essentially useless for a few hours after touching down.  I would be alert and could tolerate the flight, but when that fearful stimulus was out of the picture, the medicine seemed to take a strong hold on other parts of my person, namely basic motor functions and rational thought.

Ah, the Vegas Strip. I’ve been there. At least I’m pretty sure I’ve been there. That Ativan is a heckuva drug.

Matthew had flown with me to Las Vegas for a pharmacy convention (sounds fun, right?) because my wife was pregnant at the time and elected not to accompany me.  It was a five hour flight to Vegas and I’d taken a dose of medication prior to departure.  To ride out the grueling trip across the country I decided to take another dose during the flight.  By the time our plane touched down, I was very, very relaxed.  We landed, picked up our luggage and were waiting in line for a taxi outside the airport.  I just remember thinking how good I felt at that point.  Just really, really good.  Everything was good.  Good.  Our taxi took us to our hotel where we waited in line to check in.  My company had set up the reservations and paid for the room, we just needed to confirm our information and get the keys.  As the line thinned out, I finally stepped ahead of Matthew and up to the counter and began the check in process.  After confirming my identity the receptionist at the front desk asked some more detailed questions about our room.

“Smoking or non?”, she asked.

“Non.”

“Would you like a view facing the strip?”

“Sure,” I replied.  Who wouldn’t want to see that, right?

“Will you be using the mini bar?”

“No.”

At that point, I was as chemically altered as I cared to be.

“Would you like twin beds or king size?”

As I stood there, with my brother standing slightly behind me, but still close enough to be recognized as the other member of my party, my mind tossed the question around for a moment.  I thought, “What could be better than a king size bed facing the strip?”  Seemed like the way to go.

“King size.”

“Wha..?” said Matthew.

The receptionist responded with an inquisitive, furrowed brow and a shake of the head.  I just stood there with, what I have to assume, was the biggest, dopiest grin anyone’s ever had on their face ever.  

Matthew didn’t say much the rest of the week, but I have to assume that two grown men spooning in a king sized bed was not his idea of a wonderful trip, even if we were in Las Vegas.  Enough time has finally passed so that he and I can share a good laugh about the whole ordeal.  I’m not sure if it’s a related issue or not, but he still won’t sit beside me at Thanksgiving dinner.

My last encounter with flying happened about six years ago when I decided at the gate not to board a flight to Las Vegas for another pharmacy convention.  My wife had come along this time and did everything she could to get me to get on the plane.  I was having none of it and decided to remain earthbound.  I haven’t flown since.  I would share more details, but my lawyer advises me it’s best not to discuss an ongoing case.  He feels it could hurt my defense in my wife’s filing to have me committed.  Yes, whatever the Wright Brothers hath wrought, I just know it’s all wrong for me.