Wednesday, 1 February 2017

Film Review: Pixels

Image credit: IMDB
Loud; brash; subtle-as-a-sledgehammer: 1980s arcade games. And, to be fair, "Pixels", the Adam Sandler movie. If, like me, you grew up on classic video games (not Halo or Call of Duty) like Defender, Pac-Man and so on, then you'll enjoy this film.  The content is 1980s video games, made larger-than-life and blasted all over the planet, and the style is also very much 1980s video games.
The story is full of all the clich├ęd characters, including - the cluster of nerds, the "snobby" love interest, the British military officer, the cannon fodder, the wizened old general who represents "the way things have always been done" and who doesn't get this new-fangled technology.  The film even goes so far as to actively introduce them.  For example, the Adam Sandler character, Brenner, is a nerd herder in the style of Chuck Bartowski, but lacking any of Chuck's charisma:

"Hello.  I am a nerd from the Nerd Brigade.  Here to nerd out on all your audio and visual needs."
"Do you have to say that every time you turn up at a house?"
"If I want to get paid, yes."
"Isn't that kind of demeaning?"
"Only if someone brings it up."

The love interest is in the form of one of Brenner's customers, Violet Van Patten, who - it transpires - is also a senior officer in the US army.  She doesn't fully understand 1980s computer games, but she is prepared to go along with him anyway - eventually.  There isn't much plot or character development to speak of: this is basically a Hollywood mash-up of the best computer games of the 80s exploded into the real world, and viewers will watch in order to identify all the old games blasted across the big screen, and to get all the references.  The story that supports the video-gaming roadshow is very straightforward:  arcade game experts (rendered as has-beens, with the exception of the President of the US - who for his part is inept at his job and can't read or count properly) take on a bunch of aliens who misunderstood 1980s video game footage as a declaration of war and have decided to retaliate.  Or start a war.  Their motivation is a little unclear. 

Anyways, after the declaration of war, the arcade experts have to outgeek the aliens, and in so doing, become recognised as national - no, global - heroes.  After all, all geeks are actually really sensible people who just want their chance at success and fame, even if it takes interstellar war to achieve.  In the real world, playing arcade games probably won't make you famous, but this is Hollywood, and hey, it's harmless enough fun to try and be the best at the latest version of electronic entertainment on the off-chance you might get recognised in the wider world for it.  (Back in the 1980s, the way to get famous with electronic entertaionment was by was high-scoring on video games; nowadays it's blogs, social media or YouTube channels.  Like and subscribe, folks ;-) ).

The unprepared humans, their hardware and buildings get beaten into cubic pixels by the first few waves of alien attacks - Galaga and Breakout - but get their act together and start repelling the next attack in the form of Centipede.  The nerds have been training the regular military, but this approach is not working, and Brenner has to take a light cannon and show the army how it's done.  He tells his friend Ludlow to join him in defending the planet, but the army refuse to give weapons to civilians.  Violet refers the question to the President:

Violet:  "Mr President?"
President:  "Let the nerds take over."
Violet (to the General): "Let the nerds take over!"

And they do.  The Centipede scene is where the film got my attention - after all, nobody has ever previously taken 2D sprites and made them several hundred feet tall, close up and in full glorious HD colour and in 3D.  The humans have weapons that are basically real-world equivalents of the weapons in the original games, and the nerds acquit themselves well (who knew that they were practising for this all those years ago in the arcades every weekend).
The rest of the film is a series of games played in various cities - the Pacman in New York is a highlight for me - with the establishment giving them increasing support, and the love interest slowly warming to our hero.  As the situation with the aliens escalates, our heroes face greater challenges and receive greater adulation from the rest of the world.  Are you ready for Level 2?

I have to say that the treatment of women in this movie is a reflection of the treatment of women in 1980s computer games:  arcade games then were predominantly played by boys, and the characters in the games were almost always men. There are two main female characters:  Brenner's love interest, Lt Colonel Violet Van Patten (who we first meet having an emotional breakdown in her wardrobe), a senior military advisor to the president (played straight-laced but fragile), and later we also meet the love interest for Ludlow (one of Brenner's friends, played by Josh Gad).  Ludlow has been fantasising about a female character from one of the 1980s games, named "Lady Lucy".  Lady Lucy wears a revealing, bright red costume and wields two swords.  Sadly, I think she only wields two lines of dialogue in the whole film, too; this may be the 21st century, but the source material is definitely late 20th.

Image credit: Pixel Dynamo
There are a few twists in the plot along the way - one of the nerds is exposed as a cheat - but as I said earlier, you're probably not going to watch this film for the main plot points (there are some, and they carry the story along well in between the various battles).  You'll be watching for the special effects; the re-interpretation of classic computer games on a huge scale.  Think Independence Day but with lasers on both sides.  

Pixels is a lot of fun - I honestly enjoy watching it, (the flaws in the film and the chronic stereotyping only really occurred to me after a few viewings) but watch it most for the visuals and to try and spot some more arcade game references.  If you're looking for a more thoughtful treatment of retro arcade games (and, to be fair, you probably won't find one that's less thoughtful), then I can recommend reading Ready Player One (there's a film in planning) or Armada by Ernest Cline, or even the Disney movie Wreck-It RalphRalph may not be any more intelligent, but it's more sensitive and has a moral that isn't "One day, playing computer games might save the planet and get you the girl", which is mostly what we have here.  I like Pixels - it's in-your-face, loud, bright and brash - but it could've been much better if it had been slightly more intelligently written.

Monday, 30 January 2017

Ten Things I learned from not quite reading the Bible in A Year

My 2016 sort-of New Year's Resolution was to read the Bible in a year. I've not tried it before - and it wasn't until the start of February that I decided to go for it. I'd read all of Genesis in 2015, so in order to catch up, I started with Exodus. The church I attend was providing reading plans showing that it was possible, and what to read each day. I started February by keeping track and ticking boxes, but then I lost my reading plan in the middle of May 2016 - and carried on anyway. I didn't quite manage it (it's late January 2017 and I'm still in 1 Corinthians), but here's what I learned.

1. Reading the Bible in a year is a lot like running the four-minute mile.  It's likely that you'll be so busy trying to read your daily quota and trying to keep up the pace that you won't have much time to think and you certainly won't get chance to smell the roses.  It's relentless, and if you start slowing down, you'll need to up your pace for the following days just to keep up. If you want to read, consider, ponder and meditate on the Bible, then you're going to have to go more slowly.

2.  If you read the Bible chronologically in a year, you're in for a tough ride. If you read it sequentially (from cover to cover, like I did) it's going to be challenging.  For a start, you won't meet Jesus in the flesh until September or October.  That's a long time.  You'll get plenty of hints and clues about him, but he doesn't arrive until the last quarter of the year. Hang on in there.

3.  It's more fun reading it when we're winning.  Moses, Joshua, Saul, David, Solomon, Gideon and so on - all big winners, and all interesting and easy to read.  It's definitely easier than some of the later stuff, when it's doom and gloom; exiles and punishment; warnings, wrath and judgement.  The narrative of the early Old Testament is more straightforward than some of the symbolic stuff that comes later on.

4.  April will feel like a repeat of March as you read 1 and 2 Chronicles after 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings.

5.  There are spoilers all the way through the Old Testament.  The prophets persistently warn about desolation, destruction and devastation, but they almost all break off briefly to say, "God's going to send somebody to fix all your mess."  Keep reading - it's worth it to find these snippets, and they'll keep you going through Lamentations, and the last few minor prophets.

6.  Some of it is downright confusing (even the Old Testament).  When they aren't warning God's people, or telling them to repent, or reassuring them that God will send somebody to help, some of them even have visions of heaven, or of the distant future.  You thought the living creatures and the elders were only in Revelation?  So did I, until this year.

7.  Your speed through the Bible will probably change dramatically, depending on where you are.  It's possible to "read" large parts of Numbers very quickly - 132,000 of this tribe, 89,000 of that tribe, and so on. Remember how I said reading the Bible in a year is like running a four-minute mile?  Well, this mile-long track is not flat; you'll definitely run different parts of it at different speeds.

8.  When you do reach the start of the New Testament, it'll feel like a breath of fresh air.  Yes, there's the genealogy stuff that we had in the early parts of the Old Testament, but it gets going again - and you'll slow down again. There's just so much happening in each chapter. And when I finally started picking up the pace (through Acts), I slowed down again (Romans, with its exceptionally long, parenthetical, phrases, and therefore I couldn't go as quickly - or as rapidly, therefore - as I could through some of the other books).

9.  On the subject of the New Testament: one advantage to reading sequentially is that you start to notice themes and patterns that you wouldn't spot if you were just reading sections or passages.

For example:  Matthew's gospel frequently refers to "your heavenly Father", which is a very welcome change after God Above in the Old Testament.  There really is a massive change of tone between Jesus and the prophets who came before him - Jesus really knows about heaven.  Mark - immediately.  Jesus is quite clearly in a hurry.  Everything is immediately.  Matthew spends a few chapters with Jesus' genealogy, birth and childhood.  But Mark?  "This is the good news about Jesus: this is what he did first", and Jesus has carried out miracles by the end of the first chapter.   Luke - I didn't find anything specific in Luke, but John is all about "eternal life."  Inheriting it, getting it, having it.  I don't remember reading much about eternal life in the other gospels, so John is clearly compensating :-)

10.  Regular reading works.  I try to read at the same time each day, after the children have gone to bed and are settling down to sleep.  This works providing they sleep at the same time, and the rest of the daily routine works.  I didn't read as much when we were on holiday, and I didn't read as quickly when they stayed up late or didn't go to sleep as usual.  If you can find a fixed, regular time, that'll probably work better.

It's now late January, and as I said, I'm working through 1 Corinthians, with a view to completing the New Testament by the end of February... the finish line is in sight!  This year, I'm taking a far more measured approach - when I've finally completed the New Testament, I'm just going to loop round the gospels for a bit.  The aim of reading the Bible in a year isn't really to read all the pages in 365 days.  It isn't even to read all the pages eventually (although it's a worthwhile aim).  It's to learn to read the Bible regularly.  It's not about running a four-minute mile, it's about building strength and keeping fit.

Friday, 20 January 2017

Producing more than I consume

We are a nation, a society,even, of consumers.  We buy stuff in the shops, we eat remarkable quantities of food and we consume huge amounts of online content.  Netflix, TV, YouTube, Facebook, online apps, games and so on, are all on-demand and all available 24/7/365, all encouraging (or enabling) us to sit back and consume as much of what we want whenever we want.

My fourth New Year's Resolution is to personally call my own halt to excessive consumption, with the challenge that I will produce more than I consume.  My main focus for consumption will be online media (Facebook, Twitter and YouTube) and for production - anything.  Anything creative, from this blog, to online video (if I ever produce any), or meaningful and relevant Facebook content, to pictures, music, writing, drawing and whatever creative outlet I feel like using.  I'd like to aim to produce and output more than I absorb.

And that's something else - I don't want to just 'absorb' - I want to be more selective in what I watch, read and listen to.  

I may not be able to produce more than I consume  (after all, I have two eyes, two ears and only one mouth), I shall be working to close the gap between the two.  If I monitor the quality of what I consume and deliberately work to produce meaningful and high-quality output (works; music; blog content; video or whatever) - then I will consider the resolution to have been a success. We shall see!  

Thursday, 19 January 2017

Repair not Replace

My third new year's resolution is to repair not replace, and to make the most of what I have instead of always looking for the next new big thing.  

I have a steady supply of superglue, a small vice; jeweller's screwdrivers and a "handy desk tool", for repairing minor damage to most plastic toys, along with a set of tools that will cover most domestic tasks. I'm getting quite good at repairing toys, so I'm learning some (useful) skills too - certainly more useful than just flashing the cash on replacement items. Repairing not replacing is not only cheaper - after all, superglue and sellotape are not that expensive - but it's also more environmentally friendly. The mix of materials in a typical household item (especially a toy) makes it unlikely to be recyclable. 

In our modern culture, things don't even need to be broken before we replace them.  Adverts frequently tell us that we need the new model, latest version or the updated device. However, I know that I don't need to replace my computer, the one I have can either be upgraded or left as it is. My digital piano (17 years old) works, is connected to my PC (itself now about six years old) and both are still adequate for my needs. So instead of following the norm of endlessly replacing and throwing away, I will continue to work towards getting the very best out of what I have - by doing unusual things such as reading instructions and reading books about music, photography and so on (borrowed from the library) to enable me to do those things better.  There are more important things in life than always having the newest stuff:

Then Jesus told them, "Be careful to guard yourselves against every kind of greed, because a person's life doesn't consist of the amount of possessions he has."  Luke 12:15, ISV

But godliness with contentment is great gain.  1 Timothy 6:6, NIV

Finally, buying more stuff is going to make it harder for me to have less stuff at the end of the year than at the start, which is one my aims for the year, in line with another of my resolutions - to give away more than I receive.  Next time - producing more than I consume.

Monday, 16 January 2017

Giving Away More Than I Receive

New Year's Resolution number two is to give away more than I receive, and it's as simple as it sounds. Also, I'm anticipating that it will be the easiest to achieve, but we'll see.

I have, over the years, accumulated a large amount of stuff, and I now have far more material possessions than I really need which take up more space than I can really manage. Stuff is becoming clutter and so I've decided enough is enough.

Do I really need two bikes? No. I may have ridden my old bike all round Cambridge when I was a student, but it's worn out and is well past repairing  (I replaced it 18 months ago *because* it was beyond repairing back then). So why have I still got it? Sentimental attachment. I'm not exactly a hoarder, but... :-) 

So, anything that I have but only have a sentimental attachment to: it's going. I'll be donating bags of usable stuff to charity shops, offering items on social media and forums and so on.  I already have plans to donate my old bike to a charity that specialises in restoring and repairing rusty bicycles.

Additionally, we have been given many, many things recently - and we're constantly being given or offered more things (baby clothes and toys are good examples).  In the same way, our children are growing through their clothes and it makes sense to pass them on too. I've said before that it feels like we just can't give things away fast enough.

More importantly:

"Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you."  Luke 6:38
"Freely you have received. Freely give." Matthew 10:8
“Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” Luke 3:11
"[Remembering] the words the Lord Jesus himself said: 'It is more blessed to give than to receive.' " Acts 20:35

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Spending Less Time On Trivial Matters

My first New Year's Resolution is to spend less time on trivial matters. That's pretty broad, so let me expand on it.
Trivial matters are things that serve absolutely no practical purpose at all. There's no end product, no benefit and typically no real aim to them. They vary for each of us but Facebook, YouTube and other social media probably rank quite highly on the list - they certainly do for me. According to my Facebook year-in-review video, I clicked the Like button over 10,000 times - and I found that alarming.
So, this year, the first thing I've done is to delete the Facebook app from my phone. It's been a great change: I no longer get any notifications direct to my phone, so I am completely free from the cycle of post, get notification, post comment, read updates, get notifications, read comments, and so on. I do still read and update information on Facebook, but it's when I want to and not just because I received an update 30 seconds ago. I'm also busier living life without thinking I have to update social media with my latest thoughts just because I thought them.
The twitter app is next to go. I rarely tweet, but still suffer updates from the app.  Life is better and more productive without trivial interruptions.
And that's the point: to make the most of the day by not wasting it on procrastination or unproductive activities. 
There are other pastimes that can quickly become waste-times: for me, computer games and game apps are next. I've hardly had time to play any computer games since Lizzie was born, and certainly not since Ben was born - and that was five years ago. They are games, by definition they're trivial and unproductive - especially if they're just solo games when they're solo games - I'm not even socialising.
Having said that, playing with my children is not a trivial matter - spending time with them is vital, whether that's talking, playing or just spending time with them. That's what the trivial matters are being pushed aside for.
Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Colossians 4:5

Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil. Ephesians 5:15-16

Make the most of every opportunity. Spend less time on trivial matters.

Friday, 6 January 2017

Ten Things I Learned In Fantasy Football

This year, for the second year, I joined my workplace Fantasy NFL Football league, even though I'm nowhere near my 'workplace'.  I work from home in the UK, and most of my colleagues are based in Texas, so I don't get much chance to engage with them outside of a work environment - so I seized this opportunity.  Some of my colleagues asked me if I knew that this was American football (some of them with more sarcasm than others), but they were all very welcoming.  And I can assure you that I know enough about football (I'm going to call it football instead of American Football - it's just quicker to type) to understand the rules of the game, the aims of the game and the basic stats (yards, passes, interceptions and so on).  We use the Yahoo fantasy football scoring system (points per 100 yards, typically, with extra points for touchdowns) - which I soon got to grips with (and produced my own Excel spreadsheet to identify the good players, as you do).

Now, although I understand the rules, I had no idea about who the best players were, so I really did start from scratch - reviewing the previous year's data and rankings, understanding how Yahoo scores each player, and so on.  This means I had no preconceptions (also known as 'experience') about the best players or the most successful teams. They are all just names to me.  Le'Veon Bell's arrest for drugs; Cam Newton's Christian faith (and his fashion sense); Derek Carr's philanthropy... I wasn't aware of any of them.

However, here's what I learned:

1. Some Americans are extremely competitive. Not just the actual football teams and players, but my workmates - and some of them take this very, very seriously.  (I have the advantage of having nothing to lose - after all, is an Englishman supposed to know anything about the NFL?  Don't English men just drink tea and play cricket?).  I had heard about trash talk, but now I know what it means - and thankfully last season, most of it was directed between other players.  This season, there was almost none at all.  Perhaps my American colleagues just weren't trying hard enough?

From "If Brits Played American Football" YouTube video.

2.  As they say when advertising risky financial products, previous performance is not really an indicator of future performance.  It's okay to review a previous season, or even a previous game, but it's not going to give you all the answers.  It's good as an indication of a player's abilities and potential performance, but it's not comprehensive or totally reliable.  More detailed information about player form and fitness, and the strength of their opposition is also important. Fitness levels are important -more than just the "Questionable" that Yahoo listings provide:  wider reading is recommended. For example, Derek Carr (QB) scored 47 points one week... and just 7 the next.  I bet you didn't see that coming.

3.  Yahoo's own points projections are unreliable at best.  I suspect they're produced at the start of the season and not adapted or updated based on circumstances or form throughout the season, because there have been times when my players have massively outperformed them (Le'Veon Bell (RB) and Julio Jones (WR) are two examples) and yet they've not seen their projections change for the following week.

4. MVP (Most Valuable Player) can also stand for Most Variable Player.  I had Cam Newton (QB) on my team last year, and again this year.  I also drafted Derek Carr (QB), who has had a season of two halves.  There was even a week where I played Marcus Mariota (QB), (which worked out for me).

Overall, Derek Carr scored 328 points, 14% more than Cam Newton's 287.  However, Derek Carr was less consistent:  his maximum scores were 47 (week 8) and 31 (week 4), and his minimum scores were 7 (week 9) and 4 (week 14).  Yes, just 4 points.  His overall spread of results is 4 - 47, which is 43 points.  For Cam, the maximum scores are 40 and 26, the minimum scores are 12 and 13, and his spread is just 27 (compared to 43 for Derek).

So, who do you pick?  There's considerable variation in both players:  Derek scored 328, Cam scored 287, but if I'd picked the better player each week (retrospectively), their combined score is 418.  This game is not just about drafting good players, it's also about playing the best one on a week-by-week basis.

How are you supposed to forecast the performances in weeks 8 (47 points) and 9 (7 points)?

5.  I have to pick my draft selections in advance, as I'm six hours ahead of my Texan friends and the draft session is too late in the day.  This is not a significant disadvantage (nor am I complaining), but it does mean I have to choose my list all at once, without knowing which of my first picks I drafted successfully.  It's a lot like running an A/B test (and I have treated the whole Fantasy Football thing like a series of A/B tests) - you have to set up your recipe before you start running the test!

I should probably confess that in my first year, I didn't realise in NFL that you can change/transfer your players each week (it's not like soccer, where there are specific transfer windows) and hence I drafted two kickers - a lead kicker and a substitute.  I didn't make that mistake this year.

Yahoo gets all sassy with my team selections in my first season
6.  It's okay to make transfers to change your team - like I said, this is really just iterative testing with more noise than usual.  It's frowned upon (halfway through the first season, I received the "Most OCD Manager" for the most roster changes), but not against the rules.

Partway through this season, I picked up Jay Ajayi (RB) and Marcus Mariota (QB).  Marcus is the new quarterback for Tennessee - this was his second season - but a few weeks into this season, I noticed his performance based on, and drafted him and played him once.  Similarly, Jay Ajayi has really developed this season, and very quickly became my second running back - my first running back slot was taken since I discovered Le'Veon Bell last season ;-)

7.  It's okay to use the wisdom of the crowd.  There are sites which compile player rankings from multiple sites and will enable you to compare one player against another, week by week (taking into account effects like injuries, opposition, and so on).  This is extremely useful if you have two players in mind - either both players in your squad, or one that you own and one that you're considering picking up as a free agent.  My personal favourite is  These compile the rankings from sites like Yahoo, but also take into account expert rankings which are updated and reviewed every week (unlike Yahoo, as I mentioned in paragraph 3).

8.  Le'Veon Bell (RB) is an extremely good player.  He was suspended for the first four weeks of the season (as I discovered after drafting him) but has still been one of the highest scoring running backs this year.  In week 15, he achieved 55 fantasy points, which was just over a third of my team's total for the week, and possibly the best for a RB in the whole season.

9.  Bye weeks: after a few introductory weeks, each team has a week off during the season, so you'll need strength and depth to carry your team when your best player(s) are not playing.  And it helps if you can stagger your team's bye weeks, so that you don't have a large number of players out in the same week - as I discovered last year, and then remembered too late this year.  This year, I didn't pay enough attention, and had a week where two or three of my best players were all out at the same time.  A note that bye weeks are not the same as in the English Premier League, where an International weekend means that nobody plays.

10.  It's not great when you have players in your fantasy team who are playing directly against each other in a given week.  Are both players going to have good weeks, if only one of them can score points when they have possession?  This is also important when you pick your defence - it's really not a good idea to have your quarterback play against your defence - only one of them can do really well.  And if you're spelling defence with a 'c', and stressing the second syllable instead of the first, 

11.  Yes, I'm having 11 lessons, because the article title is as accurate as a Yahoo player projection.  Lesson number 11 is that if you win, you become the 'commissioner' for the next year.  From what I can tell, this is a thankless task, where you set up all the parameters for the season (the points awarded for yards, touchdowns, field goals and so on) and how many teams make it into the playoffs.  Do it well, and nobody notices.  Do it badly (or less well), and everybody complains, especially at the end of the season when everybody claims they've won; that they scored the most points; conceded the fewest; made the most player transfers (I thought this was a bad thing, but apparently not); and won in the playoffs (which everybody, for some strange reason) was entered into.  Our commissioner this year did a great job.  That's all I'm going to say :-)
My results?  I achieved 6-7-0 for this season, making the play-offs by coming third in our league of eight, and then coming third in the play-offs  My aim was to be not-last in our league, and I exceeded my own expectations.  I even made some of my colleagues nervous by winning my first two games, and climbing towards the top spot.  My weekly points average was 128.62, with a high of 192 in week 10 (Le'Veon Bell 33, Stefon Diggs 31, Cam Newton 26, Julio Jones 25) and a dreadful low of 66 in Week 3 (Willie Snead 0, Julio Jones 2).

Next season: I'll read in advance of the start of the season to identify any suspensions or injuries, then review the best players from this year. My spreadsheet is ready!