Monday, August 31, 2009

Modern Day Idolatry

"I have seen these people," the LORD said to Moses, "and they are a stiff-necked people. Now leave me alone so that my anger may burn against them and that I may destroy them. Then I will make you into a great nation."

Exodus 32:9-10 (NIV)

Last night during Eric's message at HealingPointe, he challenged each of us to pray and ask God to help us take stock in our lives and find the idols that we've erected for ourselves to serve as our substitutes to him. Now, I don't have an Ashera pole in my backyard or secret altars in walk-in closets, but I'm not without my own idols. Modern day idolatry is subtle.

The Lord has been dealing with me today as the day's gone on, unveiling one after another to me. He was nice enough not to overwhelm me with the truth all at once, because He knows what I'm capable of handling, but I get the feeling that by the end of the day I'll be feeling pretty bad about myself once He's done with me. I look forward to that. Not because I want to feel bad, mind you, because none of us do; rather, I look forward to the opportunity to better myself that it presents.

One after another, God's shown me things today that I feel like I need to be happy and fulfilled. Things that I run to instead of Him when I'm distressed. Things that if I were to go without for a day, I'd be troubled; a week, and I'd be inconsolable. None of these things were Him, and yet He should be the only thing that fits those descriptors.

Lord, please help me this day to realize what it truly means to worship you and tear down the idols I've built up in my life. In Jesus' name, amen.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Augmented Reality Gaming

Augmented reality (AR) is a term for a live direct or indirect view of a real-world environment whose elements are supplemented with-, or augmented by computer-generated imagery. The augmentation is conventionally in real-time and in meaningful context with environmental elements.

Wikipedia: Augmented reality

I've been fascinated with the concept of Augmented Reality games (which for the sake of my fingers I will from here on out refer to as AR) for quite some time now. Now, my fascination isn't limited to the Wikipedia definition above, although that's a good start, but rather with games that, in some way, let you interact with the environment of the world around you.

My fascination with the whole concept started with a game called Metal Gear Solid: Portable Ops. It's a Metal Gear game, which means that it was awesome. You played Snake, complete with awesome battle mullet, and snuck around places you weren't supposed to be to save the world. The new twist they introduced, though, is that you could use an infiltration team of up to four people for each mission, using soldiers that you captured and converted to your side in the course of your missions. You trained the soldiers, gave them upgraded abilities, and armed them to suit their talents and the mission. It was like Pokemon with guns.

The best part of the game had nothing to do with tactical espionage action, however. The best part of the game was recruiting new soldiers via something they called "RF scanning." You put the game into scanning mode, and if there was a wifi signal nearby, a little radar started to ping. You hammered down on circle button, and eventually you pounded it enough to get a bar above a line and were gifted with a soldier. The soldier was unique based off of the individual router, with some routers giving good soldiers and some routers giving unbelievably bad soldiers. I would take my PSP with us when we'd travel pretty much anywhere and scan as we drove down the roads, cackling with glee as I retrieved soldier after soldier. I'd do it walking around in Walmart or the mall. It was fantastic.

Next came a PS3 game called The Eye of Judgement, which was a true AR game. It was, at heart, a money-sucking collectable card game, except it was awesome. You took your deck of cards and played the game like you would any other card game, except you put the cards under the special Sony camera, it read some characters off of it, and it brought the card to life on the screen with awesome computer graphics. You're just playing a card game like any other that wasn't really outstanding in any way in its gameplay, but when you have CG giants slugging it out against CG dragons because you put down a little card, the gameplay doesn't entirely matter.

Even one of my new favorite pastimes, Geocaching, is essentially a form of AR game. It's basically hiking at which you can win. You find a GPS point nearby where someone has hidden a treature and set off on an adventure to it. You use your game device, a hand-held GPS of some variety in this case, to navigate your way to the GPS point and find the hidden treasure. It takes the ordinary and adds a gameplay element to it, which is awesome.

The last few months, video games have largely fallen off of my radar, the sole exception being iPhone games that I can play in five-minute bursts once or twice a day. The concept of AR games still fascinates and intrigues me. I tried a game called Parallel Kingdom for the iPhone that tried to be an MMORPG based on your actual physical location in the world. The idea got me all jazzed up, even if the gameplay seemed a little lacking. There's another offering on my phone called Seek N' Spell, where you find a field and the screen puts a bunch of virtual letters over your GPS location. You then get five minutes to run around to the location of the letters to "pick them up" and then try to build the best words you can in a mashup of Scrabble and, you know, running around. It's fantastic. These are the kinds of games that still manage to fascinate and intrigue me.

Sony has a new game coming out in this genre called Invismals. It's their answer to Pokemon, in that you collect adorable little animals to make them fight against other adorable little animals. The trick, though, is that you find the adorable little animals for your virtual cockfighting exhibitions by slapping a camera on your PSP and running around and exploring the world - apparently, certain color and texture combinations on the camera trigger different Invisimals in the software. That's freaking amazing.

The iPhone has a camera, GPS, and internet access built into every single new unit that's getting sold. It has the simplest, most intuitive interface on the planet, operating almost completely by touch. It's a device that's almost omnipresent with people who own them, because it's their phone. The fact that there aren't more good AR games leveraging the iPhone is almost criminal.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Mental Ambidexterity

Why are you smiling?

Because I know something you don't know.

And what is that?

I am not left-handed.

Cary Elwes
as Westley
and Mandy Patinkin
as Inigo Montoya
The Princess Bride (1987)

I fence with my left hand. Not for reasons similar to Inigo's, in that I'm far too good a swordsman to have a competitive match if I don't use my off hand. Quite the opposite, in fact. See, I'm a robust individual, and when I turn to the profile and get into the fencing stance, I present quite a large, inviting target. Also, at five-foot-eleven, I'm not a short man, but I'm also not graced with the natural size most of your dominant fencers have. So, when I learned the noble sport, I took up the only advantage I could: I learned to fence with my left hand, which throws most fencers, who are used to the vast majority of their opponents fencing with their right hand, somewhat off-kilter.

But I am not left-handed.

I do most things with my right hand. I write with my right hand. I eat with my right hand. I throw a baseball with my right hand. I shoot a basketball with my right hand. But when I decided to learn to fence, I decided to do it with my left hand to take whatever advantage I could to cover up for my natural lack of athleticism. The beauty of it is that it worked; to watch me fence, you could never tell that I wasn't a lefty in everything I do.

I wouldn't call myself ambidextrous, though. Why, do you ask? Because I can only do things with one hand or the other, not with both. I'm a horrible fencer with my right hand. My handwriting from my left hand looks like it came from a five-week old chimpanzee with brain damage. In fact, there's only one thing that I can do with some level of success with both hands - hit a baseball - and even then, I'm not doing the same things with both hands; I hit for more power as a righty, but I have better coordination as a lefty. So I wouldn't call myself ambidextrous physically.

I would go so far as to say that I'm mentally ambidextrous, though. What does that mean? It means that, in general, I use both sides of my brain equally well. Most people are either your right-brained, artsy types or your left-brained, logical types. I happen to be both. Yes, I'm a programmer by trade, but I'm an art-house, black turtleneck, coffee drinking kind of programmer. I want my code to be elegant, not just functional. As a web developer, I can't just get by on programming, either, because there is an artistic component required of my job. I think that's why I like my job so much: I get to actively use both halves of my brain on a regular basis, and I can't think of too many other jobs like that in the world.

As I've learned more about music, I've discovered that to be why I like music so much, too. Yes, it's obviously a very artistic pursuit. It's also a very logical, system-governed thing, too. I can certainly imagine someone being a good musician without being good at math, but I think having a strong foundation in math and logic makes the pursuit of music theory to be significantly easier for someone. It's the one way in which I can express myself that stimulates both sides of my brain, and I think that's what makes it so appealing to me.

My other favorite hobby? Miniature wargaming. Yeah, I know, I'm a dork. But, it's also similar in that it allows me to stimulate both sides of the brain, albeit at different times. The games themselves require logic, concentration, and tactical thought. In preparation for the games, though, you get to paint tiny little figures. Again, it's a hobby that lets me flex both halves of my mental muscles, and it appeals to me.

Where music surpasses any other pursuit I've ever been a part of, though, is that it lets me do both simultaneously. I'm keeping time, anticipating chord changes and patterns, and all the while making something pretty. What's better than that for a both-brainer?

Monday, August 17, 2009

Field Marshal Connor

Is that for them to take cover behind?

Connor Swank

I picked up a new game for Connor and I to play. You move around giant robots, squash infantry types, and blow stuff up. It will also be a great teaching aid in teaching him measurements, negative numbers, and multiplication. It's funducation, a concept of which I am a huge fan.

On Friday, I sat down to teach him the rules. First game we kept it simple and had one giant robot each to blow each other up with. We played again, and this time I dropped a big metal box (all terms relative, of course) on the game board that the robots can use for cover while firing. He immediately looked at it and said, "What's that for? Is that for them to take cover behind?" Well, so much for that lesson. I was, however, impressed by my son's innate grasp of tactics.

The game progressed, and I managed to get my giant robot to cover first. Connor then got to the other side of it and we traded one volley of fire. The very next time he had the chance to move, I was going to explain that it might be advantageous for him to actually walk around the cover and shoot at me without the cover protecting me. Being my son, though, that was not necessary. Before I could even start that discussion, he asked if he could move around the box and blast me.

I'm only going to be able to beat him at games for another year or two, tops.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Michael Stackpole Is an Awesome Human Being

Have you looked at 25 Years yet? I haven't seen it yet.

Michael Stackpole
directly to me

If you're not a fan of science fiction, you might not have any idea who Michael Stackpole is. To save you the thirty seconds it would take you to do a Wikipedia search, he's an author and game designer. He's probably best known for his work on Star Wars novels, but he's been far more prolific as an author in my beloved Battletech universe. I read my first Stackpole novel when I was twelve years old, and have been reading Stackpole books ever since.

Why does all of this matter? Because I met him on Thursday, it was awesome, and you're reading my blog.

So anyway, I went to GenCon (the biggest dork convention west of the Mississippi) in Indianapolis on Thursday. I spent the day with some friends, checking out some gaming stuff, and generally having a good time. One of the things I intended to do while I was there was visit the Catalyst Game Labs booth, home of the guys who are currently running Battletech, and see if I could get some of them to sign my copy of their core rulebook. As I'm wandering around the booth, two guys with exhibitor badges walk by, and as they were pausing for one of the pair to quip sarcastically about how "subtle" their floor space was, I got a look at the names on the badges. The duo consisted of Loren Coleman, the owner of Catalyst, and Michael Stackpole himself.

The two left the exhibitor hall, and after a few seconds of internal debate, I set off after them. Turns out they were just going to a line that the exhibitors had to wait in to get something. I ambled up to the line, bothered them for their time, then shook their hands for, respectively, resurrecting my favorite board game and for writing so many great books. Then I went about my business for a few seconds before I remembered I wanted autographs. I got into my backpack, got out my sliver Sharpie, and headed back. I apologized profusely for bothering them again and asked them for an autograph, and they happily obliged (although they were a little stunned that I asked them to just sign right on the front cover).

Autographs obtained and emboldened by Loren's suggestion that I go in and find another of the Battletech bigwigs, Randall Bills, to get his autograph, I headed back into the hall and started acquiring more names on the cover of my book. I get a few more autographs, and while I'm waiting to actually get to Randall, I pass the time by looking at a distance at their new Battletech coffee table book, 25 Years of Art and Fiction. They got some of the seminal authors of the Battletech universe, Stackpole included, to write new stories covering all the years of Battletech history and commissioned a bunch of new art. It's a fantastic looking book.

While I'm waiting, Stackpole comes up next to me looking at the same book, and I thank him for his time earlier. We start talking, I explain how I've been reading his work since before my voice started changing, and he proved to be a genuinely cool, nice guy. He had no reason to talk to me, but still spent his time yapping with me like we were old friends.

Then he dropped the hammer. He said to me, "Have you seen 25 Years yet? I haven't seen it yet." I responded in the negative, not having seen the innards of the book yet. So, being Michael Stackpole, he just kind of barreled through the line that was in our way, grabbed a copy of the book off of the stand, and brought it back to me. He opened it up and we started flipping through it like I'd do with another fan. We sat there for a good ten minutes gawking at the pictures they'd collected, talking about our history with a game that we both obviously love, then they get to his story, which is about Devlin Stone, the lead protagonist of the current Battletech storyline.

Then he dropped the hammer again. He started talking about how he got into the project kind of late, and they were letting people pick their stories from a list they wanted to be in there. So a lot of the stories were gone when he picked, but the story about Stone was still avaialble. He said the best he could figure is that nobody wanted to take a crack at writing about Stone because he was so important. Then Stackpole noted that since he created Stone in the first place, he was happy to do it, and signed up for the story. We flipped through his piece - the first time he'd seen his story in print, mind you - and gawked at the art they added. He then told me he was going to go tell Loren he was stealing that copy and excused himself.

I have heard a maxim lately that I actually find to be one that's very true: "Never meet your heroes." The idea behind it, of course, being that they usually disappoint you because they're usually jerks. Being that I've been reading Michael Stackpole books for two decades now and plan on reading them for as long as he writes new ones, he's probably as much of a hero as I have. He did not disappoint. Not only was he totally accommodating and nice to a fan, but he actually proved to just be a nice, cool guy and bothered to spend some time with and share some anecdotes with me. It was by far the best celebrity experience I've ever had.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Because He's God

For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and they will become one flesh.

Genesis 2:24

A quick addendum to yesterday's rambling post that was spawned by the Myers-Briggs test. If you'll remember (or scroll down), I was scored an ENFP - Extroverted, Intuitive, Feeling, and Perceiving. Holli, my beautiful wife, took the same test on the same day and was scored an ISTJ - Introverted, Sensing, Thinking, and Judging.

Yes. Completely opposite personalities according to the test, and yet less than a month ago marked our tenth wedding anniversary. Holli noted that perhaps opposites do, in fact, attract. I prefer to think that the Almighty knew very precisely what each of us was lacking and never meant for either of us to live life without the other.

Between the two of us, we make one pretty good person. I give her spontanaety, she gives me structure. I give her complex logical thought, she gives me common sense. I know how to handle the numbers that aren't prefaced by dollar signs, which she in turn knows how to handle. We are each even the most comfortable teaching the subjects that the other wouldn't be all that good at. We are truly one flesh, and I am thankful to have such a great partner.

I love you, Holli.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Because I'm Larry

Why don't you blog anymore?

Holli Swank

Yeah, I know. I keep blathering on and on about how I need to be more regimented in this, but nothing ever comes of it. Discipline, even with the little stuff like this, is one of the hardest things for me to come by.

I'm made a certain way. I took a Myers-Briggs personality test yesterday, and it scored me as an ENFP: extroverted, intuitive, feeling, and perceiving. Every time I ever take this test I score it either as an ENFP or an INFP, depending on the day. The difference between extroversion and introversion for me is almost always minimal to the point of being non-existent, though: I want to be around people, but I don't need to be around people. It's a subtle but important difference.

Fortunately, the Kiersey Temperament Sorter is a simple tool that's broken down with introversion and extroversion at the end of its scale. Type NFP people are called Advocates by the Kiersey Temperament Sorter. That Advocate itself is a subset of the Idealists, who are in turn a subset of the Introspectives, the first division of personalities as based on the scale. Advocates. Depending again on the day of the test, there's one last division on whether I'm feeling expressive and extroverted or reserved and introverted. The former puts me into the final classification of Champion, as I was scored yesterday, and the latter has me as a Healer, which is how I was slotted the last time I took one of these.

Champion. Healer. Those are great words. Someone who picks up the cause for another and tries to change things for the better. Someone who tries to heal the hurts of the world and those around him. What's wrong with that, right? That's awesome.

Yet despite the awesome way in which God made me, I used the very first paragraph of this post to bemoan my lack of discipline.

I can go through the Myers-Briggs test, look at the questions, and pick out a cornucopia of things I dislike about myself. I'm disorganized. I'm flighty. I'm a starter, not necessarily a finisher. I'm undiciplined. It's hard for me to focus. I can't even remember to write a simple blog post every few days.

And yet, that same test would tell you that all of those things are side effects of the unique qualities that God knit into me in the womb. And it's because of those unique qualities - the very ENFP-itude of Larry - that Kiersey's scale would classify me as a "Champion." Kiersey described Champions as follows:

"Champions delight in novelty. They are optimistic, enthusiastic, and vivacious, craving expressions of strong emotion. With a dramatic flair, they share their experiences with others, hoping to reveal some universal truth or win others over in support of a cause. Attuned to possibilities, Champions scan their environment, probing the emotions, needs, and motivations of others. This sensitivity sometimes conflicts with their intense drive for personal authenticity. Spontaneous and personable, they attract others to their company."

None of that sounds bad in any way, and honestly, I think most people that know me would suggest that's a reasonable description of me. I have such a hard time seeing the good in it, though, saying that if I could just be a little less flighty, a little more focused, I could be better. Would I really be better, though, or would I just not be Larry anymore? And if I worked to change the very "flaws" that make me expressive, sensitive, optimistic and enthusiastic, would I just be shaking my fist at the Lord and suggesting that maybe He didn't make me quite right?

I've struggled with self-confidence all my life. I've always wanted to be something different than I was. As I age, though, I'm starting to understand that self-confidence doesn't come from becoming something else. It comes from being happy with how God made me and refining, not changing, what I am. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to go find something to Champion.