MnSCU social media update for August 2015

Here’s the Storify recap of my Twitter stream from Monday, Aug. 3, with my monthly (well, mostly monthly) update on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram follower totals for the seven state universities in the Minnesota State Colleges & Universities system.

MnSCU Change Leadership workshop, Day 1

Today I wrapped up Day 1 at the Change Leadership workshop to support the Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system office’s Charting the Future strategic planning inititaive. The plan has been in development for several years, but hit a rough patch last year when faculty unions across the state revolted against it, leading to a series of no-confidence votes for the system’s chancellor. This Star-Tribune editorial from April covers the system’s work to restart the initiative after efforts were made to bring the faculty unions back into the project.

I haven’t been involved in Charting the Future up until this point, and part of the reason I wanted to explore this now was to get a different view of how the system would be moving forward with this initiative after what felt like a lost year in 2014.

Today’s first day of the workshop focused on organizational psychology and change management; there was a lot of incredibly interesting information, some things I want to research when I get home, and a book written by one of the presenters that I bought for later reading.

Plus, there was a taco bar for lunch — and nothing is bad when you have a taco bar.

Looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow.

What I’m Playing: Mass Effect

Somehow, BioWare’s Mass Effect series is one that slipped past me during my gaming time on Playstation 3; it seems as good a time as any to backtrack and fill in that row on my Gamer Merit Badge sash (which really should be a real thing). Sony’s PSN Flash Sale brought me Mass Effect for $4.50; I found a used copy of Mass Effect 2 at GameStop for $4, and I’ve borrowed Mass Effect 3 from a friend here in town. I’m tackling them in order, starting yesterday.

So far, I’m not far enough into Mass Effect to have a good feeling about it either way — I have just reached the point where Shepherd has interacted with the Prothean beacon and has awoken back on his ship after being rendered unconcious. It’s a lot of dialogue options and infinite frustration with how difficult it is to use the game’s early sniper rifles.

I’ll report back on how things are progressing as I make my way through these games.

Blogo “Blogger Edition”

Blogo released a big update last week; let’s try out their new embed option for Instagram.

(hey that’s neat)

Twitter?


I know Storify works…

#BartlettMetrics for March, 2015

 I’ve not been great about backtracking to ab.com and posting an update about my monthly #BartlettMetrics reports on social media follower updates for MnSCU’s state colleges and universities. For this month, I thought I’d try using Storify to save an archive of the tweets I posted about the update.

Destiny is not its concept art

Back in January, Erik Kain wrote a piece on Destiny at Forbes called “Why Destiny was the best and worst game of 2014.” I just read it today, though, and spent some time discussing it afterward with my go-to teammate for my adventures in this game.

In brief, Kain says Destiny is the best game of the year because:

The gameplay is terrific, and the progression system, however bizarre and confusing it may be, works to keep you playing and grinding away to your heart’s content.

However repetitive the levels can get, there’s no denying that scrapping your way through a challenging mission with a pair of Guardians at your side, and then maybe getting some sweet loot at the end, can be a lot of fun. All the little pieces here, taken individually, are fantastic.

This sounds like a game you’d want to play. And, he’s not wrong — the shooting mechanics in this game are tight, the controls are slick and easy to manage, the game is visually beautiful, and the music is excellent. Existing in the game’s environment as a player is incredibly fun.

However, on the flip side of that “game of the year” coin, and using a series of concept-art illustrations as supporting material, it’s the worst game of the year because “…the game Bungie advertised early on was far more imaginative and inspiring than the final product.” 

That’s obviously a debatable, subjective point. Much of the concept art is indeed significantly different from what can be seen in the version of Destiny that we now get to play. It does not stand to reason, however, that different automatically means better.

This piece in particular was pointed out in the Forbes story:

About it, Kain writes:

Perhaps the most frustrating of all, a giant frog with goblins on its back. And a Guardian wielding a broadsword. Why are these things not in the game?

Well, because it’s a giant frog, and fighting a giant frog in Destiny as the game exists right now would be incredibly stupid. And, given how the universe has been constructed and the direction Bungie seems to be taking the game, fighting a giant frog in Destiny at any point in the game’s future would still be incredibly stupid. Nothing in that illustration remotely resembles anything that’s in the game. And while there are things in the sky on Venus that look like dragons, that doesn’t mean an honest-to-goodness giant frog belongs anywhere in this game as it exists today

This is the folly of getting lost in a sea of concept art that is floating around on the Internet completely void of context. Hundreds of concepts are developed for games like this; some of them make it through to the final game, and a significantly larger percentage get pushed to the side. Some likely get pushed to the side because the scope and scale of the game changes, and reality simply demands that not every awesome thing can go into a game. Some are likely pushed aside because they’re terrible. But even the ones that are amazing may not necessarily work with the current direction of the game and still find themselves on the sidelines. Maybe the concept is so good that it’s revisited in the future as part of an expansion, or as part of the already-in-development Destiny 2. Or maybe Bungie takes that idea and eventually builds another game out of it entirely. The ultimate lesson to be learned in this sea of beautiful concept art is that we’ll probably never know which category any particular piece falls into unless something happens to look familiar in a future expansion.

As an aside, this is why Dark Horse’s The Star Wars project — an eight-issue mini-series based on George Lucas’ first draft of Star Wars with visuals based on early Ralph McQuarrie concept art — has always bothered me. The source material for this series all should’ve been left in the scrap heap of history — interesting relics of what later became Star Wars, but not anything that should’ve been the basis for a full-blown adaptation. There’s a reason Lucas moved on from those concepts — some of them were really bad. This is particularly true of the story elements — a lot of what was in the main plot for The Star Wars involving trade disputes and political gamesmanship actually became most of the main plot for Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. And, as you recall, that movie was terrible

Fans’ current obsession with Destiny concept art feels like a similar exercise in futility — they’re latching on to things that may look cool in a vacuum but lacking in any sense of how those things may or may not be remotely connected to the current state of the game and its universe, or to the plans that guide how that universe will grow and change in the future. But it helps fuel the conspiracy theories about how the game was gutted during the final year of its development, and so these images are added to the crackling bonfire of reasons Destiny is terrible.

As for me, I’ve been playing since the day the game launched and my friend can attest to the fact that I still giggle like an absolute idiot every time I stick a fusion grenade to a Wizard’s head and blow it up. This game is incredibly fun, and it’s a level of fun that some gaps in a story can’t diminish. I still enjoy looking at this art and appreciating it for the creativity and vision; but I refuse to make the false connection between these images and some imagined deficiency in the game.


Saving old buildings


There’s an old building in downtown Bemidji that used to house the Masonic lodge that has been vacant for a long time. It was announced earlier this week that Bemidji’s Watermark Art Center has received a grant that will allow it to buy — and then demolish — the building. You can read about that here at the Bemidji Pioneer.

The immediate reaction is totally predictable — and it falls along the lines of “why put in the effort to save buildings like this when you can just spend three months replacing it with something made of styrofoam and spackle?”


I just wish we could maybe drill into Americans’ heads that if you want to save buildings like this, e
fforts have to be made to take care of them all along. Too often you have these remarkable old places that are just left derelict for decades, and then saving them becomes this amazingly expensive proposition. But had they only found some way to take care of them all along… It reminds me of that fabulous old hospital building in downtown Ely  That place should be amazing, and it’s just sitting there empty and rotting away. But you watch, when the time comes that a decision is made to tear it down, people will come out of the woodwork trying to save that building. But right now nobody seems to give a crap about it.

People like to point to Europe and all of the hundreds-of-years-old buildings they have over there as an indication that we’re doing it wrong. But what they totally gloss over is the fact that those centuries-old palaces and castles over there have had *armies* of caretakers for each of those centuries. They stand because people have made great and enduring efforts to make sure they stand, not because they’ve just magically willed it to be so. THAT is what we haven’t gotten right — it’s not that we lack the desire to preserve history, but not enough people have the will to do the work along the way to make sure it happens. They just want to swing in at the end of a building’s life, waive a wand and save it, regardless of its condition or ability to be saved.


Previewing The Birthday Massacre’s “Superstition”

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A couple of days ago, a five-minute video featuring 30-second samples from each of the 10 tracks on the upcoming The Birthday Massacre album Superstition, which releases on Nov. 11 (pre-order from iTunes), was uploaded to YouTube. You can check out the preview here:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cpVN264NsSg

Here’s what I took from the preview of each of the album’s 10 tracks, to the extent that you can take anything out of some random 30-second excerpt from a song:

01. Divide (0:00)
This song reminds me quite a bit of Down, the second track on TBM’s last album that’s probably my favorite thing they’ve ever done (it’s not an exaggeration to suggest I’ve probably listened to Down over a thousand times). The sound is different – Down is more hard-driving – but the lyrics seem similar, both thematically and structurally. I’d like to hear more. At the tail end of this snippet there’s a lyric “…rising up away from the Earth” that takes me right back to some ‘80s synth pop one-hit wonder that as I write this is driving me insane through my inability to properly recall it. To this mystery song I say: I will find you.

02. Diaries (0:30)
The lyrics that are in this snippet are a little weak: “Close your eyes | You’re dreaming, so am I. You know I can’t stay here and I won’t pretend | All that begins never comes to an end.” I won’t pass too much judgment on this until I hear the whole thing, but at first blush it feels like this could be a “skip track” candidate like One Promise turned out to be on their last album. 

03. Superstition (1:00)
When I first heard this I swore TBM was covering Girls Just Wanna Have Fun. Seriously, listen to this and replace the lyrics with “I come home in the morning light | My mother yells when you gonna live your life right…” It’s almost perfect. I want to hear the rest of this song, but I’m going to be entirely unable to shake the vision of ‘80s Cyndi Lauper when I listen to it. It’s definitely distracting, but there’s no way to know yet if that’s going to be good or bad.

04. Destroyer (1:30)
Destroyer seems to be the obligatory “monster voice” track that TBM has been busting out sparingly on its recent albums; the sound apes the monster-voice parts of Lover’s End from the band’s second album, Violet. It’ll probably be cool, but it feels like the kind of sound you could’ve called for this album the minute it was announced as being a thing. That’s not a slam; this type of thing is one of the band’s signature sounds, and they always make it work. I’m looking forward to this track.

05. Surrender (2:00)
This is one of my favorite of the 30-second previews; somehow it reminds me of Always  which ranks highly on the list of my favorite TBM tracks that I’ve never actually compiled. 

06. Oceania (2:30)
This feels like one of those songs that I’m not going to love, but it’s not going to be a track-skipper either. It sounds like a lot of the other things they’ve done, but from this little sample anyway there isn’t a hook that made me want to stop and listen to it. In fact, although it’s the sixth track in the album it’s the 10th out of 10 snippets I’ve written about for this particular post; I just kept glossing over it while thinking about the other samples. I’m quite interested to know how I’ll feel about this song after listening to the entire thing in the context of the complete album a few times over. Because I’ve just written five times more about this than I did about the immediately preceeding track, which I told you I liked quite a bit.

07. Rain (3:00)
This is going to be the first single from Superstition, and the band has already teased that a video is coming. They also released an instrumental-only track of Rain as one of the promos for its PledgeMusic campaign that’s supporting the album. You can listen to that here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ttlUrbDP_yc
…and there was another teaser from the campaign that featured some of the behind-the-scenes work on the vocal mixing for this track, which you can also find on YouTube, here:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=04xIDNW6yU4

…so hearing a bit of all of that coming together in the final track is pretty cool. This should be a good song.

08. Beyond (3:30)
I can envision playing this song a ton, and I will say right now that I’m probably going to like singing along to this song in my car. I’m not really sure what else to say about it beyond that.

09. The Other Side (4:00)
This is an interesting track to me in that it seems to have the melodic-to-more hard-driving transition that would have made me guess this was going to be Superstition’s monster-voice track, only without evidence of the monster voice. After listening to it a few times, it sort of reminds me of their Red Stars track from Walking with Strangers — which is good because I think Red Stars is one of the band’s best songs.

10. Trinity (4:30)
This is an instrumental-only snippet, the only one of the 10 previews in this sampler to not include vocals. Awesomely, this sounds like it’s been ripped straight from the Blade Runner soundtrack (listen to the end title theme for Blade Runner) and seems to perfectly encapsulate the heavy ‘80s influences that run through most of what The Birthday Massacre has done with their music (and which you can hear repeatedly in nearly every track of this album — I’ve only mentioned a few of the ways this pulled me back to that era as I listened to this sampler. Seriously, it’s in just about every track). I’m very intrigued by this and will be curious to hear the entire track — I’m definitely wondering if there are lyrics or if this will end up being a purely instrumental piece (I could Google this and get an answer, I’m sure, but I choose to not find this out until the album drops on Nov. 11).

Overall this feels like it could be a strong album; as a followup to Hide and Seek from 2012 it’s got its work cut out for it, to be sure, but other than Diaries there doesn’t seem like there’s a particularly weak song in the bunch. I’m very much looking forward to Superstition’s Nov. 11 release date, and I fully expect to listen to that on a constant rotation — and not much else — between then and Dec. 13, when I’m going to have my first chance to see TBM in concert in Minneapolis. 


Coding with Swift

When Apple shocked everyone and announced Swift at its Worldwide Developers Conference this past June, I shared in the excitement that surrounded the language. I watched Apple’s sessions on Swift and it seemed as if the language was something I could understand and probably even code with. After I made my way through the session videos, I posted on Facebook that I could see in my head how Swift worked and that I was excited to try and build things with it.

As per usual, I put this off for months. Until tonight, in fact. I don’t know why. I just didn’t know how to start. But today I had an idea for a project — I’ve been using this little web tool from Raven Software to build URLs for tracking goal conversions in Google Analytics for BSU’s online news stories. I have a spreadsheet where I’ve been building 10 different URLs for each story I post; it’s not a complicated process but it’s pretty detail-oriented (since you can’t have typos) and with the workflow I’ve set up it takes me about five minutes each time. But consider that I’ve built enough of these packages for enough stories already this year that I’ve spent a total of about two hours just building these URLs — this is basic string concatenation, and it’s something that could be easily done programmatically with the push of a button. Today it finally occurred to me that this was my entry point for learning Swift.

So I did it. And I now have 87 lines of code in a Swift playground that will take a hard-coded URL with a hard-coded value for the URL’s Campaign Content argument and run a series of loops to build 10 URLs. I’m pumped; the code is sloppy (I’m using four different loops with different sets of variables where I should be using one loop with three arguments passed into it that runs four times, for instance) and I still need to take the next step of learning how to take that working Playground code and put it into an Xcode project so it’ll actually run. I also want to build a UI for it so a user can enter the starting URL and the Campaign Content variable and pass them into the program, rather than having those hard-coded. But the code works.

There are lots of ways I probably could have gone about this — I could have done something with Google’s scripts to create these URLs and then dump them directly into a Docs sheet, for example — but this way I’m building actual MacOS software, which is something I’ve wanted to do since OS X came out in 2001.

I never could seem to adequately wrap my head around Objective-C, but so far Swift works for me. I want to finish this and figure out what to build next. This is so cool.

Destiny: Three Weeks In


This week marked the third week in the life of Destiny, Bungie’s new social shooter for whatever your favorite video game console happens to be. I have been playing since launch day on Sept. 9 and in general, while the game certainly isn’t without its flaws, I’ve enjoyed Destiny quite a bit. This is a massive game that is part of what will hopefully be a massive franchise, so plenty of people have written about it so far; for the most part the things I think works are in line with what plenty of other people think works, and the things I think are frustrating have been ranted about almost ad nauseum in various corners of the Internet. So there likely won’t be much new here other than the fact that I wrote it. 

What works
• It’s a shooter that is challenging to me but doesn’t make me feel that I have to be a spectacular player in order to be successful (up to a point; more on that later). The entirety of the main storyline is soloable and the strike content that has in-game matchmaking is straight-forward enough that random groupings of three people can tacke all of it, so you can experience the main story by yourself. Part of the reason I’ve enjoyed this game so much is that it feels accessible and the cool stuff feels achievable (mostly).

• Visually the game is pretty great. The effort Bungie put into things like the skies is tangible and makes the game better. The four enemy races are all very cool and seem to be well thought-out. The enemy ships, despite the fact that you don’t actually fight them, all have personality — watching Hive tombships pop out of a wormhole, deploy a bunch of bad guys and then vanish into another wormhole is one of my favorite sights in the game. It’s one of those fun details that don’t add anything to the way the game plays, but add a *ton* to the way it feels. It’s one of those things that world builders don’t have to do, but when attention is paid to those kinds of details it makes everything else better. 

• The game’s music is outstanding. I have been tempted to buy the soundtrack on iTunes and I just need to do it. It sets the mood well, especially in combat, and there is a ton of variety. 

• I haven’t played two of the game’s three classes, because I’ve been having so much fun with my warlock. The tech-magician has just worked for me; there’s nothing more fun than jumping off a high point in the game, gliding over a group of bad guys, looking down on their heads and dropping a huge magic bomb on them while still in the air.

• The way the Cabal heads explode when you hit them with precision damage. 

• This isn’t really something that “works” but it doesn’t fit under “what’s frustrating” either, so I’ll put it here — the game’s famously awful story really hasn’t bothered me that much. I kinda bought into one of the first lines of dialogue in the game from your Ghost, “…there will be a lot of things you don’t understand”, knowing that the game was going to evolve over time through expansions and additional content. Some of the things that have come out about the final year or so of Destiny’s development have been interesting, to say the least, and I’m curious to know where things go and how Bungie builds on what’s obviously a very small first step they’ve taken with this game.

What’s frustrating
• The enemy AI and the invisible fences that keep them contained to certain parts of the map often doesn’t make much sense. You can bait enemies into chasing you to a flight of stairs, for instance; you can run to the bottom of the stairs, and they’ll stop in the middle and turn back, returning to their defined playground rather than chase you. Given the shared-world nature of this game this is probably to prevent people from training bosses out of certain zones into the open, but once you figure out that monsters won’t chase you past a certain place it becomes easy to plan ways to exploit this to win certain fights. It turns a number of boss confrontations from intense firefights into simple duck-and-cover midranged shootouts that are legitimately difficult to lose.

• Leveling past the actual “cap” of 20 — the highest level you can attain by gathering experience points — is somewhat frustrating since it’s entirely gear dependent, making you completely at the mercy of drops or long farming grinds. Granted, this makes individual upgrades, when they come, pretty significant as they are a stat boost and can actually level up your character.

• Once you hit level 20, the difficulty curve of the missions varies wildly and in completely unpredictable ways. For example, as a level 23 character I can smash the level 20 daily heroic mission, and a friend of mine and I two-manned a “heroic” difficulty level 22 strike mission that you typically play with three people, but the level 24 Queen’s kill-order missions are a recipe for horiffic and repeated death. 

• Visually there’s not too terribly much distinction between your starter gear at level 1 and your level 20 gear. In games like World of Warcraft, you can look at a character immediately and say “that person has cleared Black Temple many times.” In Destiny, there’s not that immediate “wow” factor when you see another player’s gear. Blizzard got it right in WoW by focusing on helms and shoulders as the visual focus for different tiers of gear (although transmogrification eventually made this less important). Destiny tries some of this, but the only gear that really stands out is the exotic-quality stuff — and you’re limited to wearing one piece of exotic gear that can come from a random world drop or be purchased flat-out from a vendor. So there’s very little way to look at a character and have some sense of where they’ve progressed in the game. There are some raid weapons in Destiny that are unique, but only your primary weapon shows on your character when you’re in the Tower so if you’re like me and your coolest piece of gear is an exotic secondary weapon, nobody sees it unless they inspect you anyway.

• Getting repeatedly one-shotted in the Crucible is the exact opposite of fun. I typically don’t like PvP, but at least when I played WoW I felt like it was possible to be competitive in places like Arathi Basin or Alterac Valley (but I always absolutely hated Warsong Gulch). I’ve never felt like anything but a moving target in the Crucible. 

Overall, though, I have to say that I still am very much enjoying the game. I love that it’s set up in such a way that I can come home for lunch and spend 45 minutes running patrols while I eat a sandwich and feel like I’ve accomplished something meaningful toward a long-term goal. And although I have historically hated replaying content once I’ve cleared it, the shooting mechanics in this game are so fun that the repetitive nature of the content hasn’t burned me out yet. I’m definitely looking forward to the two expansions, although I wish we didn’t have to wait until December for the first one.