Tuesday, June 18, 2013

How to beat Kingdom Rush: Frontiers

So if you own an iPhone or iPad, immediately close this blog and go buy Kingdom Rush: Frontiers. It's the sequel to what I consider to be the best Tower Defense game ever. It has many levels of complexity, the art if beautiful, and there is tremendous replay value. The first one was fairly hard, but I found the new one to be fairly easy. I don't care very much about achievements, I just want to beat the game.
And I did pretty fast. Here's how:

1. Don't waste money buying heroes - The free ones of Alric, Mirage and Cronan are fine. The definitely increase with value as you earn new ones, so stick with Mirage when you get her, and then Cronan for the rest of the game.

2. Learn when to run - While it's not a big deal if your hero dies (they respawn in 30 seconds), sometimes pulling them away from battle for a few seconds will let the regain their heal and use distance attacks. Cronan can resummon dead boars, or launch a stampede if he's got breathing room.

3. Assassins and Knights Templar are equal - I found the advanced barracks to have roughly equal value. The Assassins can deal some damage, but don't get hung up on their robbing skill - it's only a single gold piece. And the knights are basically just defense.

4. Best deal ever: Maxed out artillery - The high level artillery are so valuable, I try and get them out as quickly as possible. The Battle Mecha is not only cool, but provides great air cover. But it has a single significant weakness- it's useless against big enemies. So the Dwarve's Core Drill is essential at the higher levels to take out the Saurian Brutes and Gorillons. So use both as you get at the higher levels.

5. Pass on the archers - At the higher levels, the archer towers, even the advanced ones, don't offer much. Yes, the Tribal Axethrowers are good to debuff the many witchdoctors, but they just don't hit hard enough. The archer towers are good at some lower levels to kill bees and birds, at least until you unlock the mage towers. Speaking of which:

6. Necromancer tower rocks - First, it looks great. Second, raising oodles of skeletons is great defense. And third, the Death Rider is great, and the pestilence is all right. The Archmage tower is great too for firepower, but I always get some Necromancers up first.

7. To beat the final boss - Umbra is pretty easy - I KO'd him on the first encounter. To get past his awful tower zapping ability, throw out a bunch of first-level barracks (the cheapest tower). He randomly kills a tower, so by adding useless ones ideally he'll target them and not your good towers. Having at least 2 of each artillery on the center corridors is critical.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

Japan's toilet technology bows to no nation

Japan is obsessed with cleanliness. They hand out wet ones before every meal (no matter how modest). Their subways are so clean they have legit restaurants in them. And they care a lot about their restrooms. Here is a gallery of typical toilets that we encountered:

 (Above) This is a pretty typical Japanese toilet. You can see a zoom in on the control panel below.

As you can see, it's much more than just a bidet - which has excellent usability via the picture of a rear end with water shooting up at it. It also plays music to cover the embarrassing sound of a natural body function shared by all humans. There's also a seat warmer.

 Here's another control panel that offers not one but TWO ways to rinse yourself.

 This is a rare low-tech version, but it at least still was motion sensored.

 Another rare low-tech version but notice the foot-operated flusher. It'd be a shame to touch anything with your hand, after all.

Here's what appears to be another standard-ish model, except that the control panel is on the wall. I believe there was a few options - noisemaker, flusher and maybe bidet controls.

 This was a highlight. We went to Tokyo's Akihabara district, famous for video game parlors and six story buildings dedicated to anime and manga. We went to one of the many Sega stores and finally found this: a video game built into a urinal! The game I played was basically just to see how long you could... um... relieve yourself for. The animated cherub below...
 ...would encourage / taunt you. When you were done it would tell you how many millileters you were able to... umm... release? It was free - you just went.

So after all of this impressive porcelain, you could image my surprise when I found this: a literal hole in the ground. Dianna said they were called "Eastern toilets" and that she had found them before in Italy. You squat over it and hold on to the railing (if provided) and just go. There's a high pressure water jet that shoots horizontally after you're done to clean it out. It was pretty brutal. We saw Japanese people enter these stalls, take one look and then turn around and find another. This one was in a metro station.
 It wasn't until our final night in Narita that we found this: an actual, 100% electronic-free toilet. Ironically, this is the guest toilet in our suite that we somehow lucked into. The other toilet was a typical "Bidet Deluxe."

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

10 essential phrases to help you get around Japan

I spent four months listening to Japanese language podcasts, reading Japanese phrase books, skimming Japanese textbooks and even creating Japanese flash cards to burn words into my head. In the end, I was able to get by using very, very few words.
  • Sumimasen (sue-me ma-sen) / "Excuse me" - Used dozens of times every day. Works when you bump into someone, when you're trying to get around someone blocking the elevator, or when you need to signal a waiter. 
  • Konichi wa (Cone-itchy Wa) / "Hello", but more accurately "Good afternoon" - For extra credit you can say "Ohio Goze-zai-mas" / Good morning, or "Kombah wa / Good evening
  • Arigoto (Arr-ee-got-toe) / "thank you" - used constantly. 
  • Toyde wa doku deska (Toy-de wah dough-ku desk-ka) / "Where is the bathroom?"
  • .... Doku deska? / "Where is it?" - Used after the word you're looking for, like "Tokyo station wa doku deska?" This followed by a point to a map is often enough to get you there. 
  • Mizu (Mee-zu) / Water- many restaurants won't give you water unless you ask, and often even if they do it's literally the size of a Dixie cup. They must be the most dehydrated people on earth
  • Kudasai (Kuda sigh) / "Please" - You put this at the end of a sentence. So if you wanted to say water please you'd say "Mizu, kudasai. "
  • wakarismasen (Wa-car-ee-ma-sen) / "I don't understand" - Normally they'll be able to tell by the clueless look on your face, but it's still good to know
  • Eigo ga hanesemaska (Eggo ga ha-nah-she-mas-ka) / "Do you speak English?" - I used this ISPs the beginning a lot when I had more energy, but later on I was able to get by without it. still a nice way to impress. 
  • Making an X with your hands / Check please - no need to learn the words. This way is faster and can be done from the other side of the room. Also, they will often not bring you your check until you ask 
Pointing and gestures can help a lot, and some people (although definitely not all) know some English. Generally, the farther you get from Tokyo the worse people's English is. People in your hotel will know serviceable English (they are usually fluent in Tokyo), but taxi drivers and restaurant staff often know very little.

Monday, June 3, 2013

Japanese restaurants: sushi is just the beginning

Dining experience 
When you walk into Japanese restaurant, people WILL shout at you in Japanese. Mostly, they are saying hello hello and an idiomatic traditional welcome. They may ask you if you want smoking or nonsmoking (assuming they have different sections) but most likely they will just give you a seat at a table or booth. I've yet to sit on the ground. 
If you asked for an English menu, and they have or, they'll bring it. Otherwise, you'll either be able to order by picture or you're out of luck. 
They probably won't bring you water. You can ask, and they'll most likely bring you a small Dixie cup with water. 
You'll place your order, they'll bring it and the check. Then you won't see them again. No refills, no "How is everything?" And no dessert upsells. You probably will bring the check up to the cashier. Most places take credit cards. 
Almost all restaurants will give you either a hot napkin or a wet nap before you eat. Etiquette is for you to use it your hands and then set it aside. Your table will most likely have chopsticks and maybe toothpicks. Many restaurants don't have napkins at all - they assume you'll be using chopsticks and won't be dirty. Sometimes there will be hot sauce or hot spices, soy sauce, hot mayo or a plum sauce. 

There was a time when eating sushi was adventurous. Well, to my dad it still is. But for most of the people I know it's passé. But over here, sushi is just one of many types of food. Sometimes each restaurant serves only one type. Other times they'll have a ton of different foods - and often fries and pizza and other western stuff thrown in as well.
Some styles I've seen:
  • Yaktori - skewers of chicken, pork, veggies, prawns, etc. 
  • Noodles - soba, udon and many other types, sometimes with meat or sometimes just plain (ugh). Yakisoba, one of our favorites my be here if you are lucky
  • Sushi - using sashimi (no rolls) but they may have a few
  • Fried everything - fried prawns, fried pork, fried beef, and fried acne on your face when you're done
  • Hot plate - different types of noodles or meats served on a hot plate, like those Chinese restaurants when you were younger
  • BBQ - as the price of meat decreased, so has beef made its way to the center stage. Huge pieces of meat, or thinly sliced cuts, and everything in between. 

Sunday, June 2, 2013

Japan is brought to you by the letter "S"

  • Sushi
  • Sumimasen ("Excuse me")
  • Sumo
  • Soy sauce
  • Shinkansen (bullet train)
  • Shrines
  • Soba noodles
  • Sapporo 
  • Subway
  • Stairs
  • Sore feet
  • Sleep
  • Sayonara

Good news! Americans aren't the worst travelers

Most stereotypes have a grain of truth in them. Americans are not always the best travelers. We come in wearing fanny packs, loud clothing and never bother to learn the language. We complain about everything and go straight to the McDonalds or similar western fare. I have witnessed this.
However, I am pleased to announce that we have company and, quite possibly, have even surpassed when it comes to boorish behavior:
  • A huge troupe of amazingly loud Indians who close the elevator door on you if the think the elevator is too full (it wasn't)
  • Two Japanese women who hand their dirty dishes to a waiter while he is taking our order
  • Two Japanese families who have a loud pow-wow in the hallway at 7 am about what they are doing that day, with their doors wide open
  • An Indian man who bumps me out of the way when I am talking to the concierge and starts his own conversation as if I hadn't been speaking
And we did see a huge group of Americans eating by the McDonalds at Narita airport when we were leaving, we ate there too. There's only so much sushi and noodles you can eat. Really.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Tokyo: Home of the world's greatest metro

So yes, Tokyo's metro system is cleaner than DCs and probably at least close to the size of New York's. The trains are certainly small by DC standards -  only about 9 feet wide and enough room for two rows of chairs facing inward and a small space to stand. But the primary reason it's so impressive is the metro has a letter and number for each station, and the numbers increase or decrease as you move away from the station you're in. this makes travel incredibly easy and means you really don't need to know the name of the station or any Japanese at all. I need to go eight stops up on the M line, and I'm at M2, so I look for the side of the station that says M3 - M13 and stay on till M10. brilliant!
But I think what makes it so impressive and outstanding are all of the little touches:
* the ground has arrows on it to show you which side of the hallway or staircase to walk on
* they play bird calls in the station so it feels less cold and mechanical 
*  they have vending machines and recycling cans everywhere, yet no litter
* at major stations there are employees standing at the tracks to direct you
* newsstands and other vendors like in NY
* the trains have different chimes or classical music snippets that play before the door closes
* some stations even have doors built into the station that open only when the train doors are next to them 
And if you get a daylong metro pass for between 7 and 10 bucks, you're good and can zip through the stations like a local. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Japan: I'll have one sake - hold the bowing

Japan is like a little girl who has lost her way. Japan is like a child fighting a dragon. Japan is like a cat on a hot tin roof.
Writers sometimes use these grandiose statements to describe a very complex place or situation and look exceptionally wise while doing so. Usually I think they are full of b.s.
But Japan does appear to have some basic dichotomies: old vs new, young vs old, Pepsi vs coke. In that sense, everyplace is just about the same. (It's true - travel writing is not my forte). So rather than sweeping statements about Japan, I'll just comment on a few different areas.

When you arrive
Expect clean like you've never seen in a city before. I always thought DC had the cleanest metro on earth - it's a bag lady in comparison. Japan metro bathrooms are actually just regular bathrooms that anyone - not just the desperate - would use. Their streets are litter free. Their soda machines often have recycling containers built into them, which is ingenious.
Cleanliness is a cultural institution as well. At every meal you are given a scented towel to clean your hands off with. At shrines you wash your hands in a fountain first. And their toilets... Well, their bathrooms probably merit their own blog post entirely...
People really don't bow that much - in traditional sushi restaurants, occasionally. But that's it.
Some signs are in English, some aren't. People at hotels will know English very well - your average restaurant employee won't. Best to get some words under your belt first. You'll often be the only American that you'll see - especially on the metro. At tourist attractions, though, be prepared to see the people from your hotel over and over again.
Don't worry about food or drink - there are vending machines every 30 feet selling cold drinks and cigarettes. Haven't seen any of those "other", less reputable vending machines yet.
There are also giant, monster crows the size of small cats and with beaks like parrots. They travel in huge flocks are fearless and noisy as hell.

Work attire is very American - suits and ties for me, dresses or skirts for women. Because Japan puts such value on collectivism as opposed to individuality, there is usually very little diversity in what people wear. Men's ties are drab and muted. Women often wear white tops and blue skirts. Children almost universally wear uniforms - often in the sailor style that became very popular after WW II. Older women wear these goofy sun hats that are adorable. And speaking of the sun, women use umbrellas (regular ones, not the fancy ones you think of) to cover themselves from the sun all the time. Often, they'll be riding a bike, using an umbrella, and texting at the same time.
But there are little things people do to stand out. There are millions of phone cases with floppy ears or fun designs on them. Key chains have adorable anime characters on them that stick out of pockets or backpacks. And then there is the famous Harajuku district, which caters to dozens of subcultures, like goth, Lolita, punk, even pirate (I think that one is still catching on, though).
More soon.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Jon's DC Brunch Reviews

I suppose I am turning into a Portlandia character, because Sunday brunch and a discussion of brunch culture has gradually become quite interesting to me. DC has an incredible assortment of brunch places. Here's my best and most hated joints around:

Exceptional: Perfect for special occasions
  • Liberty Tavern (3195 Wilson Blvd  Arlington, VA). Blow-your-socks off all-you-can-eat $25 brunch of incredible quality. The deserts alone are worth it.
  • Beacon Bar and Grille (615 Rhode Island Ave NW Washington, DC). Rightfully voted One of the Top 50 Best Brunches in the U.S.  $35 for all you can eat and drink from dozens of food stations. Tons of vegetarian options. I would eat here every day if I could.
Solid: Always a good time
  • Metro 29 Diner (4711 Lee Hwy  Arlington, VA). Featured on Diners, Drive-ins and Dives, the menu is vast and food is served in blinding speed and always correct. Only problem - no reservations and a 20+ minute wait.
  • Silver Diner (3200 Wilson Blvd, Arlington, VA). Featured on Man vs. Food. Delicious, excellent service, creative menu.
  • Front Page (1333 New Hampshire Ave NW  Washington, DC. A disaster. Tasted like Howard Johnson's fare. Clueless or aloof waitstaff, dirty glasses, sub-par food. Small selection, with an omelet bar hidden at the other end of the restaurant. Certainly not worth $21 a person.
  • Farmers Fishers Bakers (3000 K St NW Washington, DC). Not a huge failure, but not worth the $29.99 per person. Food is so-so, no vegetarian options.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

I heart (the idea) of Fan Fiction

Creative people (at least nerdy ones like myself) love to think about what could happen:
  • What if Harry Potter hung up his wand and became an accountant?
  • What if Tintin and Sherlock Holmes teamed up?
  • (Warning: Game of Thrones Spoiler) What if Eddard "Ned" Stark lived?
  • What if Hellboy actually brought about the apocalypse?
  • What if Superman ACTUALLY fought the Hulk? (answer: Because Superman can move at the speed of light, he pulverizes the Hulk via 1,000,000 punches in less than a second)
But no matter how great our ideas may be, the various franchises will never work together or shell out enough money to make these dreams a reality. And so the seemingly brilliant thoughts remain in our head, or forgotten.

Enter Fan Fiction. It combines the endless creativity of the internet with... the varying quality of the internet. It's a growing subculture. Fan Fiction gets a shout out in They Might Be Giants new song "He's Loco." Some truly terrible stories become memes. And the Vampire Diary's cast even read some of their favorites on tape.

One of the leading sites I've found out about recently is FanFiction.net. Some creative entries include a story about Calvin and Hobbes' Spaceman Spiff, new plots for the play Wicked, or even alternative paths for the 1990's classic video game character Parappa the Rapper. Check it out and read a few. Just beware: Given the collective sick mind of humanity, some of even the most beloved characters are occasionally put into...  adult situations (ewww).

Thursday, April 18, 2013

The elusive GoldenVoice - organizer of Coachella Music Fest

On NPR today there was a story about the mayor of Indio California, where the famous (and yet I've never heard of it) Coachella music fest has been held for more than a decade. The music fest brings tens of millions of dollars to the economy, and the mayor was trying to levy a tax on tickets to held city finances. The organizers refused and threatened to move if the tax wasn't repealed. An agreement was struck - it ended amicably.

But the part I was interested in was when the NPR host was referencing the festival's promoter - GoldenVoice - refused to comment on the story and was in fact "secretive." So that's interesting. I tried to Google this group and had a hell of a time finding out anything. And when I weeded out Ted Williams, the homeless guy with the "Golden Voice," there was even less.

The wikipedia page for the group doesn't exist. Rather, if you search for it you get the page for AEG Live which says:

Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) Live is a live entertainment promotion subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Group. It is the world's second largest live show promoter.[1] [2]

That's it. One line. No mention of the festival at all. And certainly you'd expect more from a festival that rakes in $60 million, and while it is in the news, too. It definitely seems reasonable to wonder if this information was behind actively deleted. There's not much you can get from AEG's website either. Fortunately, Wikipedia has the magic of transparency, so you can see past versions of the page. This is a tedious process, and a lot of the pages are gobbledegook. But a few are intelligible, like this one:

Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG) Live is a subsidiary of Anschutz Entertainment Group.
AEG and AEG Live own, manage and/or book events for the following, among others.

And then lists dozens of locations in the U.S. and many more in Turkey, the UK, Australia, China, even India. OK, so it's a list of their business holdings. Certainly nothing scandalous about that. Unless, perhaps, you are trying to portray yourself as a homegrown, friendly and approachable organization, and not an multinational concert Goliath. The whole thing is strange.

A little Googling about AEG Live is quite damning - they're being taken to court in connection with the death of Michael Jackson and are being sued for $40 Billion. That's not a bad reason to be covert, I suppose.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gotta be the future

TV and movies have done a good job of creating passable (or even great) versions of fantastic fictional environments. You've got Lord of the Rings world, Oz, Pandora, the Marvel and DC universes, and lots more. Period movies have been great for a while, from the "Ten Commandments," "Cleopatra," "Pride and Prejudice," etc.

But there's one gaping hole: the far future. And I don't mean flying cars. And "Planet of the Apes" doesn't count. I mean the FAR future, thousands or millions of years, where humanity has fundamentally changed to the point where we are hardly recognizable. Much farther ahead than "Terminator 2" (or 3), 2001, "The Fifth Element" or "Star Trek / Wars."

The end of "AI" is more like what I'm talking about. In Sandman a character goes so far in the future that humans are eight feet tall, transparent, and fueled entirely by photosynthesis. Some science fiction stories I've read have genetically enhanced humans with regenerative powers who can leap from orbit and survive by eating stone. Another had these things called "cornucopia machines" that can basically create matter. Or living bioships that are artificially intelligent. Or a time when people can upload their intelligences into computers, and copy themselves endlessly.

Yes, I know it would be prohibitively expensive to film things like this. But a guy can dream...

Thursday, March 7, 2013

Why international adoption is actually a good idea

Adoption, already a fairly emotional issue, has become even moreso. For example, I wasn't aware there are lots of groups that are fighting "closed adoptions" - or basically the right of adoptive parents to not allow the birth parents access to their kids. This "open adoption" movement seems to make sense on its face - why not give the birth parent access to their kids? It's their kid after all, and maybe the kid will want to know about their birth parents in the future.

Except the problem is for that the adoptive parents, who often have been through hell with failed fertility treatments or other serious health issues. They, after tens of thousands of dollars, finally have a child to love. They are distinctly aware of the fact that the child is not biologically theirs, but they are intent are trying to create a seamless family that is as whole and supportive as any other. And that's hard to do if you have an open line to the birth family, who may want to stop by on weekends, or send birthday cards, and create an incredibly confusing emotional situation, perhaps against the wishes of the adoptive families who are doing all the actual parenting. So even though adopted kids may want to use Facebook to find their birth families when they get older, I can respect the adoptive parent's rights for secrecy.

But here's another issue: international adoption. Opponents will say, "Hey! We have kids without parents right here in the U.S. Let's help them first!" And that's valid. But there are other reasons why international adoption is ethically sound. While traipsing around on Fark I found a thread with this comment:

I lived in China for a while, and while there, I spent quite a bit of time at the local orphanage. There was one kid whose father had thrown her in a fire when she was born. Why? Because he didn't need another girl. Her mom pulled her out of the fire (obviously) and took her to the orphanage, but she lost most of her nose, a hand, most of the fingers on the other, and all her toes. Along with that little girl, there were profoundly retarded children who were strapped into metal potty chairs (i.e. chairs with holes cut in the seats) that were placed over sewage trenches, several other children with various forms of handicaps, and the baby room.

The baby room averaged 10-12 infants at a time, all girls. I was told that parents would keep their first girl, but not register her while they kept trying to have a boy. If the second child was a boy, the first went to the orphanage. If the 2nd was a girl, she went, since they'd already invested in the first born. By my count, the orphanage got 1-2 new babies a week, but never had more than 15 in the nursery, and did not have a single adoption the whole time I was there. The rest died, mostly of dehydration or starvation, since the workers didn't go in regularly to feed them or change their diapers. The workers mixed the formula thick, clipped the ends off the bottle nipples, and propped the bottles in the kids' mouths. If they could eat, they lived a while. I was holding one, trying to feed her, when she died.

So, while I'm sure there are needy kids in this country, I'm all in favor of whatever it takes to get those poor kids The. Fark. Out. Of. There.

No further comment needed.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Species domination

Louis C.K. had a bit where he was talking about eating the... err... private parts of duck in a Chinese restaurant, and it was then that he fully realized how much we dominate the animal kingdom. Well I'd like to one-up him: Above is a picture taken in a Harris Teeter in Washington, D.C. It's an entire freezer cooler full of Turduckens. And if that's not enough for you, they aren't even REGULAR Turduckens, because that stuff is old hat. No, it's Cajun or nothing. Unbelievable.