Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Board games: Revolution

I used to play board games as a kid, but switched to computer games and the occasional card game long ago.  I hadn't really touched board games for years when I moved to San Diego 5 years ago, but as I moved into the computer game industry I also discovered many new friends and co-workers who still enjoyed playing board games, so I've been catching up on some great board games (and card games) in the past few years.

Someone on Facebook asked me to post some reviews of my favorites, but having realized how long it would take to write up a top 10 (or even decide on them), instead I will just post about a board or card game from time to time.

To start, here's one of my favorites: Revolution.  It's published by Steve Jackson games, a well-respected name you'll see on many board and card games including the infamous Munchkin series.

I like it for a number of reasons:

  1. It's very simple to explain and play.  No hours of reading a 50 page rule book here.
  2. There's no luck or memorization involved, it's all about guessing what your opponents are planning.
  3. It's short: takes about an hour, even the first time you play.

So what's it about?  The board shows you the layout of a small town, which contains a town hall, cathedral, market, barracks, harbor, and similar buildings.  Each building has a certain amount of room for people who work in it.  For example, you can see from the photo below that the cathedral (the cross-shaped building in the top right) has room for 7 people (who stand in those little white squares).  The harbor has room for 6, one in each boat.  Etc.

As the game's name suggests, there is a revolution afoot, and all players are vying for control of the town.  Whoever gains the most influence in the town will take over and win.  Players gain influence by outright buying it (as you accumulate influence directly, you move a token around the outside track on the board to keep count), and also indirectly, by gaining control of the buildings in the town.  Each building is worth a lump sum of influence which goes to whoever controls it at the end of the game.

To gain influence directly and to gain control of the buildings, players can bribe, threaten, or blackmail the town's key residents.  Each resident has influence over a different area of the town and can benefit players in different ways.  Each turn, all players try to bribe, threaten, and blackmail the residents they choose, and then their success (or not) affects their presence in the town.  For example, if you win over the priest to your side, you'll gain influence in the cathedral, meaning you can place one of your people in the cathedral that turn.  Next turn, you could try to win the priest again and place a second person in the cathedral - or perhaps someone else will win him away from you.  At the end of the game if there are more of your people in the cathedral than anybody else's, you'll gain the influence points that the cathedral is worth to add to your total.

The turns are simple: everyone has a combination of tokens indicating either bribes (gold coins), blackmail (black envelope), or force (red fist).  Everyone has a card listing the 12 key residents in the town who can be influenced.  In secret at the start of each turn, all players allocate their tokens onto the people they wish to attempt to influence.  Some residents are immune to certain types of influence: for example, the General cannot have force used on him, the Magistrate cannot be blackmailed.  This is indicated by the colour of that person's square on the board: you can't use a red force token on someone whose square is coloured red, and you can't use the blackmail token on someone whose square is coloured black. Everyone can be persuaded by coins.

Once all players have placed their tokens, as shown below, the privacy shields are removed and players evaluate who won influence over which town resident.  There is a hierarchy: force beats blackmail which beats coin, and more of something beats less of it.  So for example, one force token beats any number of blackmail or coin; but two blackmail beats one blackmail.  One blackmail and three coin beats one blackmail alone.  In the case of a tie, nobody wins.

Depending on the town resident, they will have different effects.  Some directly give influence on the board's outside track.  Some allow you to gain influence within a town building, as in the priest example. Others give you less direct reward but may give you extra tokens to be used the next round.  Some allow you to change places of markers on the board.  The strategy can be quite simple but can also become as complex as you want to make it, if you try to not only second-guess who your fellow players will be trying to influence but also who you need to influence this round to gain useful tokens to win next round also.  Many's the game I've seen where nobody puts even a single coin on the most valuable town resident, all assuming that someone else will have done so.

And that's all there is to the game.  Rounds continue until all spaces on in the town buildings are completely filled up, and when that happens, the influence from controlling buildings is added to the influence scores on the outside score track to determine the final winner overall.

The base game is from 2-4 players (best with 3-4) and there is an expansion which adds an additional building and more town residents, and takes the player total up to 6.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Minecraft cake!

This is what a cake looks like in Minecraft:

A Minecraft cake is something I've been wanting an excuse to try making for a while, since I'm a big fan of Minecraft, and of cake. So what could be better than a Minecraft cake?  Duh, NOTHING!  This was made for fun and given away as an attempted peace offering. It was fun to make and pretty simple!

I used my super quick and easy egg-free cake recipe (see below - instead of chocolate chips I used a bar of orange dark chocolate, chopped up into small chunks), and a whisky-heavy dark chocolate butter cream icing.  Conveniently, I already had a whole tub of the home made buttercream icing made up in the fridge, since I've been making a lot of cupcakes and cakes for people having birthdays at work and at my former work.  As I made this, I found myself saying "it's always useful to keep a tub of chocolate buttercream icing handy in the fridge!"  ...Words that 10 years ago I would never have expected I'd find myself saying, but there you go.

So anyway, I needed two square cakes.  All I had was some square pyrex dishes, but I lined them with some parchment paper for ease of extraction and then trimmed the edges off once they were cooked to make them fully square and flat sided.

Cake trimmings: just as yummy as the cake. Although I gave the cake away, I did get to eat the trimmed off edges. Part of a nutritious and delicious breakfast!

Once the cake was cooked and cooled it went into the freezer overnight (because it's easier to frost a frozen cake). Meanwhile I was melting white chocolate chips in a plastic freezer bag, in a bowl of warm (but not too hot) water.  If you get chocolate too hot the texture changes and becomes all grainy, so you have to melt it very slowly and carefully.  Most of the white chocolate chips were melted in one big bag, as shown below, but I separated out a few into a smaller ziploc bag and added red food colouring to that bag only.

Once the chocolate was melted, I poured it out onto a sheet of parchment paper, used a spatula to smooth it flat into an approximate square, and covered with cling film to keep it clean while it cooled.

The red coloured white chocolate had to be mixed up carefully before the colour was smooth and homogeneous.  It was softer than the pure white due to the added colour, but that just made it a bit easier to work with.  It too was spread out flat to cool.

Once the sheets of chocolate were mostly but not entirely cool, I used a sharp knife to cut them into squares.  If the chocolate gets too cool it'll just shatter when you try to cut it, so it needs to be cut before it's totally cooled.

Next day I removed the cake from the freezer and put the first layer of cake into the container it would be delivered in, and covered it with buttercream icing.  You don't have to freeze the cake, but it has to be cool (or the buttercream will melt) and it's much more crumbly if it's not frozen which makes icing it neatly a lot harder.

The container is just a simple clear box with lid picked up from an office supply store.  The base of the container is a layer of cardboard which (a couple days before) I'd cut to fit the container, and painted to look like a sheet of Minecraft grass, and then wrapped in cling film.  It took a little extra time to make this base, but it ended up looking great!

Once the first layer of the cake was iced top and sides, I put the second layer of cake on top, and also covered it in butter cream.  Once that was in place, it was time to start decorating.  The sheets of white chocolate had been cut up into squares previously and stored in the freezer to keep them hard.  I placed the white chocolate squares so they covered the top, with small spaces in between to keep the pixellated look.  Around the upper edges I placed full and half squares, alternating, to look like the Minecraft cake edge you see above.  Technically I should have done 7x7 squares instead of 5x5 to be completely accurate, but I failed to plan this well enough when cutting the squares. This was easier anyway and still looks good!

Finally, on top of the white chocolate, a few red chocolate squares of varying sizes, to match the pattern of the Minecraft cake as much as possible.

I'm definitely not a very skilled cake decorator so I was happy this worked, and was also pretty easy.  I think it turned out really well, although I will improve a few things for next time.

Ta da!  Minecraft cake!  Looks awesome and tastes absolutely delicious.

Egg-free chocolate cake

3 oz salted butter
2 oz cocoa powder
8 oz (1cup) sugar
7 oz all-purpose flour
½ tsp baking powder
½ tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt
1/3 cup organic apple sauce (note: this substitutes for 1 egg)
2/3 cup water
½ tsp vanilla
½ cup mini dark chocolate chips or your favorite chocolate of choice

Melt butter gently and allow to cool for a minute or two. Add everything else except chocolate chips and mix well using a fork or whisk until smooth. Add chocolate chips (can either mix in, or leave sprinkled on top). Pour into a cake pan and bake in a preheated oven at 350F for about 30 minutes, until a toothpick stuck into the middle comes out clean. Wait until cool (refrigerate or freeze so it won't crumble when being iced), then cover with the icing below. (You can also use this recipe to make cupcakes, these will bake faster in about 20 minutes so check sooner.)

Buttercream icing

4 oz (½ cup) salted butter, at room temperature
2 cups powdered confectioner's sugar
1-2 shots of whisky or other strong alcohol (e.g grand marnier, brandy, rum, Bailey's) or cream
½ cup cocoa powder (or more, for a stronger chocolate taste)

Mix well, adding more liquid if needed to soften up. Spread on cooled cupcakes then refrigerate. 
Note: the icing ingredient measurements are pretty flexible - add more or less of anything according to whatever tastes good!

Thursday, November 01, 2012

Wonder Woman costume

All the Avengers and other super hero costumes last year inspired me to try a Wonder Woman costume for Halloween 2012.  I loved the old Lynda Carter TV show way back when it was new, so I started looking at the details of her costume:

After making my Felicia Day "Codex" costume 3 years ago, and sewing the corset from scratch, I swore I was never going to do that again, so the first task was to find a corset of the right color that I could use as a base.

To the rescue: sexy "Santa Baby" costume, which I think was from Amazon, or possibly ebay:

The straps were already removable, and the hat, belt, and g-string no use, but the corset itself was just the right colour and a good starting base.

However, this corset had metal hook-and-eye fastenings up the front, and laces up the back, which were both problems.  I unpicked the stitches and removed both.  The front had to be solid fabric, because the gold eagle would be sewn on top of it; and the laces at the back looked wrong for Wonder Woman.  I sewed both up, and instead unpicked the side seams and sewed in zippers.

Since removing the laces and the hooks made the corset width smaller, it was now too small, and I needed to add some extra fabric at the sides also so I could fit into it! Fortunately, a matching red satin was pretty easy to find at the local fabric shop.

Once the corset fit comfortably, it was time to sew on the golden decorations.  The fabric shop also had gold spandex and thread, so I sewed a lot of gold tubes, and the cat was VERY helpful as I tried to lay out the eagle wings.

The spandex was a real pain to sew; I think I wasn't using the right type of needle, but I'm definitely going to avoid spandex again as much as possible!  However, eventually the feathers and then the eagle and rest of the gold detail were in place, and the top was done.

I didn't try to make the outfit a one-piece; I ordered some stretchy blue athletic shorts from Amazon and simply sewed some white stars onto them.  Comfortable and not too high cut.

The shorts were still fairly short however and female super hero costumes tend to be rather more revealing than male ones, and since I'd likely be wearing it around work colleagues, I decided an added skirt would be appropriate. I came across this great blue gauzy material with silver stars in the "seasonal" fabric section: apparently it's Christmas-y?  It was perfect for a skirt.  And, apparently, a cat tent.

Rather than make a full skirt, I just sewed the fabric to some more of the gold spandex as a waist band and added a fastening at the front so it would be open at front, but long at the back.  I also sewed lots of gathers into the skirt so that rather than hanging down straight, it hangs in gathers.

Wrist band and headband were easily sewn out of the same gold spandex.

I'd found the boots fairly cheaply on Zappos.com back around February, and I used white bandage tape to add the highlights. Add some flesh coloured stockings, and of course the invisible plane.

And so it was assembled!

This took a LOT of work, probably more than last year's dalek outfit, but everyone seemed to like it.  And it was actually pretty comfortable too - the headband (which was slightly too tight) and the contact lenses were the most uncomfortable parts.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Game designer at the races

Just got back from an afternoon with friends at the Del Mar Racetrack, watching the horse races.

This is only the second time I've been to horse races, and I was really just there for the fun and the company, not expecting win anything since I certainly don't have the knowledge needed to put the odds anything close to in my favour. And nor did anybody else there; the others with me that I asked said their strategies for picking horses were:

  • pick a particular colour in each race (in this case, pink)
  • pick the names you like best
  • bet on the horse with the longest odds (backing the underdog ... or underhorse I suppose)
Reverting to my scientific training not to mention game design habits of thought, I decided to take the opportunity to do a little experiment.  My plan: in each of the races I would put a bet on two horses to win.  
  1. logical method: the horse ridden by the best of the top 3 jockeys listed for most wins this season; or if none of the top jockeys were in the race, the expert's recommendation in the official race booklet listing the race details;
  2. irrational method: the horse with the most romantic sounding name.
Then I would compare the overall results and see if there was a significant difference.

Here are the results (I missed the first 2 races as I arrived late):

Race 3:
  • Logical pick: Awesome Annie.  First place winner.
  • Irrational pick: Wink and Wish.  Didn't place.
Race 4:
  • Logical pick: God of War.  First place winner.
  • Irrational pick: Nearly Was Mine.  Didn't place.
Race 5:
  • Logical pick: Gab Power.  Placed third.
  • Irrational pick: Until You.  Didn't place.
Race 6:
  • Logical pick: Starlight Magic.  First place winner.
  • Irrational pick: River Kiss.  Didn't place.
Race 7:
  • Logical pick: Flashy Dame. Didn't place.
  • Irrational pick: Romantic Wish.  Placed 2nd.
Race 8:
  • Logical pick: Take Control.  Didn't place.
  • Irrational pick: Prayer for Relief (ok, not a very romantic name, but choices in this race were very limited...)  Didn't place.
Race 9:
  • Logical pick: Smoken Legacy.  Placed 2nd.
  • Irrational pick: Frisky Moment.  Didn't place.
Final conclusion: out of 7 races, the logical choice based on my criteria above won 3 and placed 5 times (placed means 1st or 2nd).  The irrational pick based solely on the name didn't win at all and placed only once.

While this certainly isn't a big enough sample size to be statistically significant, it's still a pretty suggestive difference.  I used the jockey win record as a basis for picking the winner because it seemed logical and just happened to be available in the race booklet.  I imagine it would be possible to take a little longer to study more information and find some other important factors besides the jockey's track record which would give better odds.  (I'm told my grandfather used to supplement a meagre student income by betting fairly successfully on horses, but felt it was appropriate to give this up when he became a clergyman.)

That said, the successful jockeys are riding good horses and are expected to perform well, so the odds on the bets don't return a whole lot. For races 3 and 4 I just doubled my bet, and for bet 6 I quadrupled it, but these do not make the kind of big wins you retire on. Overall I still did not break even (I was betting on each horse to win). If I'd bet on the horses to place (first or second) instead of win, I would have won 5 times instead of 3, but won only half as much money since that changes the odds, so I still don't think I would have come out ahead.

All of which just goes to show that:

  • randomly picking names is not a good way to bet on horses; 
  • jockey experience does seem to make a big difference to a horse's success; 
  • I am probably not going to retire based on horse betting winnings; and 
  • being romantic doesn't pay off. 
Also, that you can look for game design in almost anything if you try, even horse races. This is the kind of thing that scientists, and game designers, think about when they look at any kind of game ...

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Defiance at E3!

So, E3 (the Electronic Entertainment Expo) has come and gone, and with it the first time Defiance had a hands-on playable demo of our game.  A large part of my time since joining the Defiance team has been helping to get the demo ready for E3 and making sure everything ran smoothly.  Which it did!  The hard work paid off and the show went extremely well with no problems.

And people were very excited to see the game and run around in it for the first time (or drive, on our personal ATVs which are a lot of fun and handle brilliantly).  We also had an exciting new trailer that mixes up footage from the TV show with footage of the game and really highlights the close cross-overs between the two.  Here's a link: 

What I love most about this trailer is the times you aren't quite sure for a moment whether you're looking at the game, or the live actors.  In particular, check out the real and game versions of Nolan, one of the show's main characters who is played by Grant Bowler.  Obviously, the character will appear in both and is just one of the many ways that the show and game will tie together.  I can't talk about any details that haven't already been made public, but I've been very excited to help out with all this planning and I hope it turns out as enjoyable as we intend!

Photo from E3 of the actor Grant Nolan playing the game he appears in - how cool is this?

Here's a G4TV  interview with Bowler himself from the E3 floor:

Gamespy awarded us the "Best MMORPG" award at E3: http://pc.gamespy.com/pc/dishonored/1225010p1.html

Game Informer's review: http://www.gameinformer.com/games/defiance/b/xbox360/archive/2012/06/06/a-massively-multiplayer-sci-fi-shooting-gallery.aspx

The Escapist's review, with a nice selection of screenshots: http://www.escapistmagazine.com/articles/view/editorials/reviews/previews/9719-E3-Preview-Defiance

Check out this photo of a bunch of the award nominations that were displayed in the booth during the show (this was part way through the day, not sure if this is a complete collection yet):

And if you can't get enough, a whole bunch more links are posted on the Defiance community forums which do exist, although in a very limited state as yet.  Those forums will be expanding over time as our launch date approaches, of course, so keep watching!

We've already got two fan sites I've seen so far, the Defiance Wiki and Defiance Junkies.  It's great to see our future players are as excited as we are.

Keep watching the official site and follow Defiance on Facebook and @DefianceMMO on Twitter to keep up to date with the very latest news!  And I hope we'll be seeing you on the forums soon, and in game in April. =)

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Work habits

There's a very good commencement speech by Neil Gaiman here:

The whole thing is good, but this part particularly caught my attention:
You get work however you get work.  But people keep working ... because their work is good, and because they're easy to get along with, and because they deliver the work on time; and you don't even need all three.  Two out of three is fine.  People will tolerate how unpleasant you are if your work is good and you deliver it on time.  People will forgive the lateness of your work if it's good and they like you.  And you don't have to be as good as everyone else if you're on time and it's always a pleasure to hear from you.
I try to aim for all three; goodness knows I make enough mistakes at times that I can't afford to ignore one and trust I'll always be perfect on the other two.  If I aim for three and don't always succeed in all three, hopefully I still succeed in two at least.  But the recent layoffs in the game industry reminded me that the point about other mistakes being more tolerated if it's always a pleasure to hear from you is a particularly good one.  I've seen enough layoffs in this industry as well as my previous to realize that you never know when you'll be relying on the opinions of former co-workers to decide whether you get a job or you don't.  I know I've watched some highly skilled people interview for positions they're quite qualified for, only to not get a job offer because too many people said they were unpleasant, or difficult to work with, or unreliable.  All the brilliance in the world isn't enough alone when you work on a team.

A little while ago I randomly asked Twitter: "If you made a list of most important work habits/lessons you wish everybody in your workplace had learned, what would top your list?"

Here are the replies I got:

  • Hygiene >.<
  • Get away from your office for an hour-long lunch.
  • Being able to think on your own when given initial direction. Being fluent in English is nice too.
  • Work ethic. People at my current job have this. Previous ones...
  • Take ownership of your mistakes. Don't be afraid to admit that you're wrong, and learn from mistakes. Propose solutions.
  • Top of my list is a split between attention to detail & follow through, too many people drop the ball and don't follow up on things
  • Remember your fellow co-workers are humans, not automatons. Communicate with and treat them accordingly.
  • Thinking back to my retail days.... use logic and common sense.
  • Listen before reacting.
  • Baking
  • Document your changes!
  • Punctuality! It is disrespectful to everyone in that you can't be bothered to show up on time (repeat offenders, that is).
  • Independent time prioritization. :)

All good ones!  I was thinking over these and others last month when I went to talk to kids at a local high school's career day.  If all those kids went into their first job knowing all the above, boy, there would be nothing stopping their advancement.  It's a shame some of these things take so long to learn; and some people never do learn them.  I know I still have a lot to learn and I hate to look back to all the mistakes I made when I actually did start my first real job way back in the 90s. If I had to make my own wish list I'd look for when hiring someone, I think it would be:

  • Reliability (be that person who will ALWAYS deliver what they promise, when they promise it)
  • Follow-up (pro-actively clearing away problems and making sure no details get lost)
  • Attitude (I don't care how brilliant you are if you're a negative, sarcastic, backstabbing drama seeker)
Sadly, these aren't things it's easy to teach, and certainly not things that can be communicated in one short job fair.  Those kids are going to have to learn these things themselves the hard way, but I guess that's sometimes how the hardest lessons are learned.  Good luck to them!

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Two Months Later...

This weekend marks 2 months since my last day on the EQ2 team. As I posted on Facebook that day:

They don't warn you when you get hired to work on an awesome MMO like EQ2 that leaving the job isn't like quitting McDonald's; it's like ripping out your heart and stomping on it! But today is my last day on the EQ2 team and it's been nothing but the best times, the best of co-workers, and the best of players, all of whom I'll miss ridiculously much.

On the day I wrote my resignation letter, I ended up bawling my eyes out on the shoulder of my long-suffering ex-boyfriend, to the extent that a lady who passed by as I was crying into my lunch saw my tears and misheard something I said and thought my pet dog had died.  When I explained that no, I quit my job, she looked at me as if I was a bit crazy; but my ex (also being a game dev) understood.  On my last day at SOE I was so sad, I couldn't even manage to stop by and say goodbye to Smed or Smokejumper or several others because I knew I'd just dissolve in tears and be unable to stop.

As most know, I was an EQ and then EQ2 player before being a developer; now I'm back to being a player again, and still logging in regularly to check out the new content and chat with friends both old and new.  Of course I never stopped playing while I was working on the game, but now folks know I'm the former dev known as Domino, whereas before I was just another person in the crafting and homeshow channels.  So I've spent the last 2 months trying -- and I think succeeding -- to reassure the crafters and the home decorators that the world is not in fact ending with my departure, that the game is in excellent hands under Windstalker and Smokejumper, and that EQ2 is still the best, most content-rich MMO out there and will continue to be for a long, long time.  (I am clearly a little bit biased on that last point of course, but I think you can make a pretty good objective argument nonetheless when you look at the wide variety of gameplay options, the independently leveled crafting system, the amazing house decoration options, and just plain 7+ years worth of content!  And did I mention the tradeskill questlines and the house items?  Two of my personal pet projects of course so they must be awesome.)

Despite being sad, I don't regret my decision to go learn new things; it's a fact of life that doing the right thing isn't always the easy path.  But my new co-workers are also a great bunch of folks, and my new project, "Defiance", is very interesting and will present a lot of unique challenges in terms of platform as well as game/TV coordination, and I'm already learning a ton of stuff that I wouldn't otherwise have had the chance to. It's a very different type of game from EQ2 and I think it will appeal to a completely different audience, but it's fascinating to work on so far, and will definitely help me to continue to grow my skills, experience, and knowledge to become the best industry professional I can be.  If you haven't been keeping up with the press releases, Defiance is both a shooter style MMO and a TV show in collaboration with the SyFy network, and I'll be doing everything in my small power to make it as good a game as I can also. Some links:  TV show infointerview talking about the transmedia collaboration, and latest gameplay trailer:

Still, despite 2 months passing, it does still feel like there's an aching EQ2-shaped hole in my heart.  (My friends laugh that I still keep saying "us" and "we" by mistake when talking about the EQ2 team.)  I suppose when you put that much of your heart and soul into a game for so many years, a bit of you just stays there forever, even as you look ahead to what's in the future.  And I guess that's okay; if I have to leave a piece of my heart somewhere, I can't think of a nicer place to leave it than in the magic lands of Norrath.

However, to end this post on a lighter note before I start sniffling again, here's the very first fan video I made, long before I was ever hired to work on the EQ2 team; I think this was made in the lead up to EQ2's expansion 3, and sent over to the dev team (who I had met at the previous fan faire) to give them a smile while they were hard at work crunching.  Enjoy!

Monday, April 09, 2012

Why you should flee the country.

I went on a date last year with a guy I met at a co-worker's barbeque. Seemed like a pleasant enough fellow so when he asked what I'd like to do, I suggested he join me for dim sum brunch at a fairly local place called China Max.  He sounded slightly horrified at the idea of being anywhere at 11am on a Saturday (not a great sign, as I'm generally up by 7), but he took the details of the restaurant and we agreed on a day, and the next weekend we met up for brunch.

One might assume that the name of the place, "China Max" (not to mention the location of the restaurant in the middle of a heavily asian area, and the fact that I did say it was for dim sum) might have provided enough clues for him to figure out that the food would, in fact, be asian.  However, apparently this was not the case and so it was only when we sat down and looked at the menu that he mentioned he didn't eat (a) any seafood, or (b) anything "foreign".  Besides causing some rather problematic issues with the ordering of food, this also led to the discussion of foreign travel, to which he was entirely opposed, as he said he was afraid to go to a foreign country.

Since I haven't lived in my country of birth since 1995 this seemed like a rather failed match on several points, and in fact the date was not repeated.  However, I was reminded of the guy when I watched this rather excellent TED video about different ways of looking at things in different countries:


It's not long; I recommend having a quick watch.  But to summarize, the speaker uses a couple of excellent examples to illustrate how we can so easily take for granted that the way we think about things is the only way to think about them, and how our thinking can easily be trapped in a little box that we don't even realize is there.  Exposure to other perspectives -- particularly through travel -- is a great way of escaping this trap and one that people who never leave their home country will always struggle with.

The importance of different perspectives and an understanding of differences between countries isn't just theoretical or helpful in terms of innovating new ideas.  It can be the difference between being an average business professional and an excellent one; or the difference between making a costly and stupid mistake and avoiding it.

A great example from my own experience: when I was hired in 2000 to be the IT manager for a US company with an office in Australia, I moved to Sydney.  One of my responsibilities was to ensure reliable and secure nightly backups of all the servers, including the financial system.  The finance team were clearly still highly traumatized by a recent incident and told me several times over in tones of pain and horror what had happened: prior to my arrival, the US head office had assisted in some updates to the financial software that was in global use by the company.  This wasn't unusual: the software was remotely managed primarily out of the US and UK, smaller offices like Sydney not needing a dedicated IT staff resource just for that one system.  Usually the UK office handled international updates such as Australia, but for some reason this time the US staff had been responsible.  As part of the updates the nightly backup schedule had also been updated by them.

Unfortunately, the US staff member who updated the weekly backup schedule was apparently not aware that pretty much every country except the US uses the date format day/month/year.  He had just assumed that the date format would be the US order, month/day/year, and entered the backup schedule accordingly without checking.  As a result, instead of resuming the normal backup schedule, there were actually NO weekly full backups happening for a period of months; daily incremental backups were fortunately not affected, but the error was only noticed when a problem occurred and a restore from backup was needed.  At which point it was discovered that the last successful full backup hadn't happened for months.  The poor finance team had to spend about 2 days feeding in every single nightly incremental backup tape since that last successful one in order to restore the data (and then spend days more reconciling every last penny to verify it), an experience which clearly traumatized them so much they were still talking about it -- and cursing the US narrow-minded view of the world that had led to the mistake -- even years later.

If that staff member had ever traveled outside the US, even just to Canada, there's a good chance he'd have been aware that date formats can change depending on country, and might have at least thought to double check what Australia used before resetting the backup date.  Experiences in foreign countries and seeing how different regions can do things differently would have made him a more valuable professional, not to mention saving the company and the finance team in Australia quite a lot of both time and money.

Besides practical considerations like the above, it's just a good experience for people to learn different cultures.  I think it makes us both more tolerant, and more accepting of differences.  Besides which it's really quite fascinating what one country considered quite okay while others consider entirely inappropriate.

When I worked in Brazil, it was customary to exchange kisses (on the cheek) with co-workers every morning, at least between men and women.  I got quite used to male co-workers kissing me every morning, so used to it in fact that after 6 months in Brazil when I visited the US for business and bumped into the first US colleague that I knew, I unthinkingly kissed him on the cheek, rather to his surprise.  If my boss here in the US started kissing me and every other female colleague every morning it would be seen as VERY inappropriate, needless to say.  But there, quite normal, polite, and expected.

So if I could give graduates one piece of advice as they start their careers, it's to take any opportunity possible to work overseas.  Visit at least if you can't find work, but if you can find a job then seize the chance.  It's so much more than just a job and an opportunity to travel; it'll expand your perspectives, open your eyes, and make you more valuable and useful in your professional career for the rest of your life.  It's not always been the easiest path to take, but I've never regretted all the moving around that I've done in my career.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Dalek dress

Finally, the details of my costume from last Halloween!

To start with, I've been "aware" of Doctor Who all my life; having spent a couple years of my childhood in England (plus regular visits) I had watched it occasionally during the Tom Baker, Peter Davison, and Sylvester McCoy years as my cousins were big fans.  I was always a bit ambivalent; it was interesting but often scary to a kid, and I used to have nightmares about the daleks.  Although I'd sometimes watch it when other people had it on, I'd never watch it on my own.

So I didn't rush into the new episodes of Doctor Who when it was revived with Christopher Ecclestone as the newest Doctor.  I watched a bit of one episode and it looked very very cheesy and I didn't really like the heavy romance feel of Rose, so I avoided it for several years.  However, eventually I gave it another try and got pretty hooked.

I've learned since moving to the US that buying a Halloween costume off the shelf is not something I'm a fan of.  Here's how I felt my first year here:

And especially since almost all the Halloween parties I've attended have been with co-workers, I'm not too enthusiastic about wearing little more than underwear!  So after the first year I've been making my own costumes.  (Two years ago: Felicia Day's "Codex" outfit from "Do You Wanna Date My Avatar"; last year a pirate outfit.)  This year I came across a few pictures of dalek-themed dresses.  Here, for example.  I didn't like the way they were almost all mini-skirted, however.  Daleks are not miniskirted; daleks showing legs seemed silly (and back to the "sexy dalek" idea from the cartoon above).  I decided to make a full-length dalek dress and see how it turned out.

First stop: finding a skirt.  I could have sewn one (I did sew the skirt for the pirate outfit last year) but it would be quicker, easier, and quite likely cheaper if I could find something adaptable in a charity shop.  I actually found an appropriate dress very quickly at the local Salvation Army: a floor length black ball gown, which was even already lined with crinoline stuff to make it stand out more.  Perfect!  Of course, it was a full dress rather than a skirt, but that was easy to change.  About $9 for the dress; no way I could have bought that much fabric and lining and sewn one for cheaper.

I also hopped on eBay and found a plain black satin corset, which I ordered.  Under $15 including shipping. 

The first challenge I faced was finding something to make the bobbles on the skirt.  In theory any kind of foam ball should have worked, but after searching through quite a lot of sports and department stores, all I had managed to find was quite firm foam.  That would have looked fine, but if I wanted to actually sit down at all it would have been very uncomfortable.  I wanted to find something REALLY soft that would compress completely.  Eventually Amazon came to the rescue: I found 2 inch diameter sponge balls that were intended for magic tricks: Super Soft Sponge Balls.  At $35 this was the single most expensive part of the costume, but it turned out to be exactly perfect. They squish down into nothing at all and were just the right size.  

The sponge balls had been available in a variety of bright colours but I had decided on a traditional black-and-silver colour scheme so I ordered the black balls and picked up some silver spray paint and spent quite a while over several weeks cutting the foam balls in half and spray painting them silver.  This was probably the most time-consuming part of the costume, though not difficult.  Laying them out on the dress they seemed to be just the right size and I was able to estimate how many I'd need.

Next I converted the dress to a skirt by cutting off the top, shortening the side zip, and hemming the waist.  It didn't need to be beautifully finished since it wasn't going to be visible under the corset top anyway.  Once that was done I used a brand of "Goop" glue that's safe for both fabric and foam to glue the silver hemispheres onto the skirt.

What to do for the top half puzzled me for quite a while.  Leaving the corset plain black didn't look "dalek" enough, but converting the top half of a dalek into something stylized for the top half of a dress was a challenge.

After looking at many, many dalek photos I eventually settled on just some simple criss-cross silver ribbon, in a matte silver to match the spray-painted sponge balls.

And that was the basics of the dress done; all that remained was accessories.  The toilet plunger was easy, I just picked up a wooden-handled toilet plunger at the local supermarket and spray-painted the handle silver.  Done.

I didn't bother making something for my other hand, since I was clearly going to need a hand free to hold food and drinks and things anyway.  That left only my head.  Daleks have a central eyestalk-type thing and a couple small light-like things on each side.  At the local pharmacy I picked up a cheap wide black plastic headband and  a couple of small plastic bottles intended for travel-size shampoo samples or something like that.  I cut the tops off these and glued just the screw top part onto the headband.  Luckily I already had some little LED lights I'd bought for a steampunk costume I made earlier in the year, and one each of these fit perfectly into the bottle screw-tops.  The lights twist on or off, so I was able to just twist the lights on and drop them into the headband when it was time for the party.  

The central "eyestalk" thing was the most complex to make.  I bought a blue LED from Radio Shack, as well as a small section of circuit board and a battery clip, and I soldered these together and fixed them onto a bit of coathanger.  Then I found a bit of threaded black plastic tubing in the plumbing section of the local hardware store, and used this to hide the coathanger, so only the LED stuck out the end.  I used FIMO modelling clay to make a base for the coathanger which I could glue onto the headband, and I cut the middle out of another of the black sponge balls and slid it over the blue LED so it hid the battery and the end of the plumbing tubing.  The sponge ball was still soft enough that I could slide if off as needed to insert or remove the battery at any time.  Finally, I used some black construction paper to make a series of small "fins" to add to the tube, making the "eyestalk" look more complete.

At the last minute I also bought a pair of long fingerless black satin gloves and glued a spare silver hemisphere onto each.  Not really necessary, but I happened to see the gloves and they seemed to match.

And here are a few photos of the finished costume at work on Halloween:

When all's added up it probably ended up costing about $100, which is not an insignificant amount, but certainly less than you'd pay for a purchased costume of the same quality and it was a lot of fun to make.  And looked really good!  I hope to get a few more uses out of it in the future.

Sunday, March 04, 2012

Rhubarb & Strawberry Cobbler

By request, my recipe for rhubarb & strawberry cobbler.  This is adapted from Delia Smith's recipe for gooseberry cobbler.

Note 1: depending where you live, rhubarb may be hard to find (it is in San Diego).  I've had good luck finding frozen rhubarb in health food stores such as Whole Foods.  Bristol Farms and some other supermarkets sometimes carry it also but the frozen stuff is actually often cheaper.

Note 2: If you buy fresh rhubarb you will probably only be buying the stem, but just in case you get whole leaves, remember the leaf part is actually poisonous; only eat the red stems.

Rhubarb & strawberry cobbler


1 lb of rhubarb stems, chopped into short (about 1-2cm) sections.
1 cup (roughly) strawberries.  Frozen strawberries are just fine.
4 oz (1 cup) sugar


  • If the fruit is frozen, allow it to thaw (or microwave briefly).  Drain off any extra liquid, then sprinkle with about 2/3 of the sugar.
  • If the fruit is fresh, sprinkle with about 2/3 of the sugar.
  • Allow the fruit to sit for about half an hour in the sugar, this will extract some of the water from the rhubarb.  After about half an hour, pour off the excess water.  Add the rest of the sugar.
  • You can cook this either as one big dish, using a medium size bowl or a cake pan, or cook individual servings using small bowls/ramekins/etc.  Divide up the fruit into whichever containers you prefer.  Only fill the serving dish(es) about half full of fruit, remember to leave room for the topping.


8 oz (just under 2 cups) plain flour
1/2 tsp salt
3 tsp baking powder
4 oz (1 stick) salted butter
6 oz buttermilk - or use 6 oz regular milk and add 3 tbs lemon juice, mixed in.
2 tsp brown sugar


  • Preheat oven to 425 F (220 C).
  • Soften butter in microwave until it's very soft, then mix in flour, baking powder, and salt.  You can do this by hand or in a blender; it will end up looking like thick breadcrumbs.  When it's mostly mixed, add the buttermilk (or sour milk) and mix briefly with a spoon until you have a thick, sticky dough.  
  • Spoon the topping over the rhubarb and strawberry mixture. It will look lumpy and uneven, this is how it's supposed to look.  Sprinkle the top with a little brown sugar.  If you are using individual serving bowls, place them on a baking sheet or tray to bake as some liquid is likely to bubble over while cooking.

Bake in the oven for about 25 minutes, until the top is starting to brown and sticking a knife or toothpick into the topping shows it's cooked all through.  Allow it to cool for 5 minutes or so, then serve warm, with ice cream.

(You can substitute pretty much any fruit for the rhubarb and strawberry, just adjust the amount of sugar depending on the fruit used.)