Get To The Greenways

This year, I’ve been doing a lot of rides with Cycling for Health, a Meetup group based out of Raleigh.  Most of our rides are on the greenways in Wake County.  I wanted to write this post to spread the word ever so slightly and get more people out walking, jogging, and cycling on these greenways, as they are one of Raleigh’s best-kept secrets.  The trail map is relatively easy to find, but it can be overwhelming, so let me give you three of my favorite rides.  I’m not a fantastic cyclist by any means, so none of these are extremely hard.

  1. The Neuse River trail runs from Falls Lake Dam (point 1 in the map) down to Clayton (down by point 26 in the bottom-right corner).  It is 34 miles end-to-end, meaning that you can get nearly 70 miles of cycling in with just one round trip.  It’s also about as flat as a Raleigh trail is going to get, with just a few minor hills here and there.  We love to start at Anderson Point park (spot 41) and pick a direction.  Because Anderson Point is right in the middle, that means you can get a 30-35 mile trip, great for a relaxing Sunday.
  2. The Walnut Creek trail starts at Anderson Point (41) and goes west.  This trail gets a little hillier here and there, and there’s a fantastic stopping point in the middle at the Walnut Creek Wetland Center (74).  You can continue on the Walnut Creek trail out to Lake Raleigh (spot 12) and then Lake Johnson (14).  The downside to Lake Johnson is that it’s a pretty crowded area, so if you’re cycling, you’ll have to go slowly and watch out for people.
  3. Bent Creek has a semi-hidden trail head (spot 11).  They have street parking, so spots can be limited, but the ride is great.  Within a couple of miles, you’re down at Shelley Lake, and then on the Mine Creek Trail.  From there, you can take the House Creek trail (which is very hilly) or Crabtree Creek.

You could also cycle on country roads, but honestly, I try to avoid that as much as possible.  Drivers in this area are terrible and unless you’re riding someplace practically deserted or in downtown (where the speed limits are 25), it’s just not worth the risk.  If you’re in the area and haven’t been on the greenways before, get to it!  If it helps, join up with a group (like CFH) and learn the trails that way.  There are other trails in Durham, Cary, and outlying areas, but I’m most familiar with the Raleigh set.

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Postwar Presidents, ranked

Inspired by the Quinnipiac Poll which found Barack Obama to be the worst president since World War II, I decided to make my own list ranking the Presidents of ‘Murica since the war. I count peak, in Presidents, more heavily than career length, with one exception.

Honorable mention: Gerald Ford. I can’t really fault him as a President, as he basically did nothing of note except pardoning Nixon (which saved the country from a trial it really didn’t need at the time). He gets an Incomplete; if he had played himself on the Simpsons, I would have given him a C+.

The objectively bad Presidents

11. Jimmy Carter. Carter did more damage in a shorter time than anyone else. If Barack Obama is “the wrong way to be a President”, Jimmy Carter is the “Max Power” of Presidents. The energy crisis and Iran were managed extremely poorly. Nice guy, bad President.

10. Lyndon Johnson. Credit where credit is due — he used Kennedy’s death to launch himself into a landslide victory. That’s good politics, at least, if nothing else. Great Society was a trainwreck, and I don’t know if anybody was hated by more of his subordinates.

9. Barack Obama. Won the Nobel Peace Prize for “not being George W. Bush.” Has mismanaged almost every foreign crisis he’s been involved in. Obamacare is not as a big a trainwreck as The Great Society… yet. I appreciate his moral position on gay rights, but that’s not enough to overcome the other problems.

8. George W. Bush. Afghanistan was a good move that might turned out badly; Iraq was not. So much failed potential in domestic programs — privatizing Social Security would have been a big step towards getting him out of this group. No Child Left Behind places way too much on standardized testing. Patriot Act itself isn’t horrid, but the potential for mischief is not worth the cost.

The President I have trouble ranking

7. Harry S. Truman. Soft on Communism immediately after the war… but ended segregation in the military. Containment was the right play if we weren’t going to go to a general offensive against the Soviets. Handled Korea okay, faced up to Douglas MacArthur and won. Not nearly enough credit for Civil Rights as a whole. He didn’t do anything objectively bad, in my opinion, but could have done better.

The good Presidents

6. Bill Clinton. Gets way too much credit for “fixing” the economy (for which the President deserves less credit than how good the weather is, except the President can’t do as much to break the weather), but deserves some. Made real progress with Ireland, handled the Balkans better than a lot of other people have (which is, admittedly, grading on a curve). Might be a kind of a jerk towards women, but as more time progresses, he gets a bit more shine to him until we have a president who’s objectively better.

5. Richard Nixon. I really like what he did in foreign policy — reaching out to China gave the US a counterweight to the Soviets, getting us out of Vietnam as delicately as possible (after actually trying to win the damn war). Even did a pretty good job with the Middle East. Solid healthcare reform plan. Created the EPA, a mixed blessing, perhaps. However, Watergate was unbelievably stupid and completely unnecessary. A bit weak on science.

4. George H. W. Bush. Possibly the most successful single term President the country has ever had. The First Gulf War was a masterpiece of foreign policy foresight and military strategy. Had the guts to raise taxes, which is sometimes necessary and not always an evil if coupled with spending cuts. Worked more on science than Nixon did. Ended the Cold War (even if he was cleaning up what Reagan had already started).

The great Presidents

3. John F. Kennedy. A willingness to aggressively fight the Cold War in a way that no President had before or since. His victory in the Cuban Missile Crisis could be the single greatest foreign policy achievement since World War II. Cut taxes, worked for civil rights reform, and funded the space program. Vietnam is a major blemish on his record, maybe the only one. There’s no way he could have been worse than Johnson in 1964.

2. Ronald Reagan. Devoted a lot of attention to the economy, even if the results didn’t come out as planned. Displayed decisive leadership when it was needed. An aggressive, well considered foreign policy on the whole is slightly diminished by Iran-Contra.

1. Dwight D. Eisenhower. The man killed Nazis. Ended the Korean War, worked effectively with the Soviets in the Suez Canal Crisis. DARPA and NASA. Built infrastructure, something governments are supposed to do and keep forgetting about because it isn’t sexy enough. Continued Truman policies in desegregation. Economic prosperity. Effectively used his Vice President (Nixon) in a way that few Presidents have since.

So, that’s my list. I suspect Kevin’s — if he ever comes to the site again — would be quite different.

Theory of gaming: Twilight Struggle

When I originally set this up, I had this vision of taking you (virtually) through my games closet, introducing you to the various and sundry games within. It would culminate with Twilight Struggle. Then, I realized a virtual tour of a games closet is very difficult when you don’t have the actual games closet. I don’t even have a closet right now.

So, we’re skipping right to the end and calling it good. If I get some energy/time in a few months, I’ll throw in a couple of extras, but that’s it.

Here is what you need to know about Twilight Struggle: it is the best board game ever devised. Sorry, Chess. Fuck you, Checkers. Monopoly… just go home, Monopoly.

Twilight Struggle is a two player board game about the Cold War. If that sentence doesn’t have you out of your chair and into your car, traveling to the nearest quality gaming establishment to purchase a copy, then I am genuinely mystified. This game is so awesome, so perfect, that the agony of not playing it should overwhelm you. Even purchasing a copy over the internet would be the most profound torture imaginable. (That is how I acquired my copy, and the anticipation nearly caused a kidney to explode. FROM AWESOME.)

Enough hyperbole, for the moment. The concept is simple: one person plays the Soviet Union. The other plays the United States of America. There are four ways to win: drive the other guy entirely out of Europe (the Patton Way); get 20 victory points, triggering an instant victory (the Reagan Way); wait until the end of the game and hope you have more points than the other guy (the Brezhnev Way); or, trick the other person into causing a nuclear war, obliterating the planet, but dying one of fraction of a second later than the other guy (the Stalin Way). Making the Brezhnev Way extra appropriate: if the Soviet Union just makes it to the end of the game, it’s pretty much a moral victory.

Twilight Struggle is primarily card driven, like all great board games. There are dice, and they matter (somewhat), but rarely will a bad die roll or great die roll make a huge difference. It’s about gradations of meaning. It’s about weighing short term risk vs. long term reward. If you sponsor a coup in Israel this turn (a very, very difficult task indeed), that could freeze you out of South East Asia in the mid game. If you focus exclusively on Europe, you could see Asia disappear. If the American player neglects Mexico (which is very easy to do), the Soviets can make trouble in the late game.

It is not a war game. Wars are fought entirely in the abstract, via die rolls. That’s one die roll a piece (although sometimes you can reroll if you’re the attacker). You don’t even see armies on the map; it’s even more abstract at simulating combat than Diplomacy. You do not decide what size your army is. It’s all about politics, diplomacy, and covert actions.

The game is purposefully unbalanced; it leans heavy Soviet in the early game, slightly Soviet in the mid game, then heavy US in the end game. It does via the cards, the number of which are dedicated for each side, and the effects of the cards. However, this does not mean that the Soviets win every time; far from it. It does mean that the longer the game runs, the more difficult it becomes for the Soviets. In fact, the late game so rarely happens, that the creators of the game actually included a “late game scenario” that starts you in 1970, roughly.

Most remarkably of all, setup is relatively quick. The pace is fast (fast enough that you will, every once in a great while, lose track of whose turn it is. This is especially common when the person designated to pay attention to turns does not do so.) If you actually played a game from 1947 to 1991 (which has never happened for me), it might take you three hours. The first game will probably take you about that long; the rules are relatively clear — what is less clear is the optimal strategy and the potential card combinations. Again, this is a very good thing: if you’re thinking about how to win instead of how to play, the game designer did their job.

I will not insult you by recommending this game. I will instead, berate you mercilessly until you either buy the game or somebody takes my place. The Khrushchev Way.

 

Gaming news, featuring Qvadriga

A few days ago, I went on a mini-gaming binge. I picked up Hitman: Contracts for $6.99 (a friend bought me the “Hitman collection” as a gift a few months back, which included the 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 5th games, but not the 3rd. Apparently, a music licensing issue?), the Testament of Sherlock Holmes for $16.99, and Qvadriga for $19.99.

The Sherlock Holmes point-and-click adventure games are excellent. The first one, “The Mystery of the Mummy”, is absolute shit, but you can get all but Testament (the latest) for $19.99 or so on Steam. It features Sherlock Holmes matching wits against Arsene Lupin, a Cthulhu cult, and Jack the freakin’ Ripper, among others.

But I am not here to talk about how awesome Sherlock Holmes is. You already know that. I am here to talk to you about a lesser known game: Qvadriga. I first learned of this game via Rock, Paper, Shotgun, which does an admirable job covering PC gaming and, in particular, indie games. Here’s the article that convinced me to buy the game. A bit of backstory: AARs, or After Action Reports, are quite common in the military. It is a write up of what happened during a given action and why. But they’re also an extremely popular version of fan fiction on the Paradox Forums (I myself have written quite a few). The article linked above is one such AAR, and it’s brilliant, as is almost everything written by RPS.

But what, you ask, is Qvadriga? It is a turn based chariot racing game/chariot racing business simulator/horse exploder.

The premise is simple. You can either play a single race or the campaign. The campaign involves you traveling around the ancient world in an effort to get to the Circus Maximus. If you get there and win three races, you win the campaign. (If you choose the Epic Campaign, you also need to have the most wins in the world.) You have a team of charioteers, but only one of them really counts.

The individual races are brilliant. You can win a race in two ways: the traditional way or the destroying people way. You can break chariots, explode horses, kill other charioteers. Each race is made up of a few fixed segments (10 seconds in all), and you make one decision. To speed up, attack the guy next to you, brake to hit a curve gracefully, change lanes to avoid exploded horse carcass, or whip your horses to a point of nigh-explosion.

As long as you finish, you get some cash, which you use to hire new charioteers, improve chariots, replace exploded horses with horses who have yet to explode, what have you. You can skip races, too, to let people recover.

The game is addicting in the best possible way, because even in a short race (you’re looking at maybe ten turns in the average race, which means about a minute and a half per race), anything can happen. Chariots tip over with alarming frequency. Maybe the guy in the other lane doesn’t like you. Or maybe one of the random events that open a race works against (or for you). Maybe you aren’t allowed to whip people anymore. Maybe an opponent was bribed to slow down. Maybe you eyeballed the lane change wrong, and collided with exploded horse remains, thus causing your own horses to explode. The fact remains that you will not win most of the time. You will be lucky to get top three most of the time. In my present campaign, I’ve done about 30 races, have won 7. That seems a fairly typical ratio.

Should you buy it? If $20 is standing between you and food or shelter, no. Otherwise, yes. If I haven’t convinced you yet, the fact that horses explode in a glorious burst of blood when they die (and they die frequently), only to fall on the track in such a way that makes them appear to be sleeping, should be worth the price of admission. The price is a tiny bit steep, compared to most indie games, but worth every cent. Papers, Please and FTL are both better bargains (and FTL just got a massive — and FREE — expansion). Yet Qvadriga is also constantly getting better. There are talks of multiplayer and fleshing out the campaign mode. If you are unwilling to part with $20, the demo (which only lets you do a single race) is free. It’s also available on iPad and Android, and the controls are very conducive to such a move. I don’t know if the price point is different; $20 for an Android game is too much, of course. Still, highly recommended. May you have many hours of horses exploding, particularly the other guy’s horses.

X-Wing Alliance On Modern Hardware

Since I started watching Clone Wars, I’ve felt the urge to go back and play one of the greatest space simulator lines ever:  the X-Wing series.  Folks growing up in the 1990s have fond memories of X-Wing and TIE Fighter as excellent single-player games (TIE Fighter tends to rank high in the hearts of gaming geeks), and one of my time sinks in my youth was X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter (as well as the Balance of Power add-on).  Shortly after XvT, LucasArts released X-Wing Alliance, the final game in the Totally Games X-Wing series.  Unfortunately, LucasArts never came out with any modern space simulators, so all we’re left with were great games from the 1990s.

So here’s the problem with 3D games from the 1990s:  modern video cards tend not to support them.  X-Wing Alliance used DirectX 6.0 (quick note:  we’re up to 10) and all kinds of crazy tricks nVidia and ATI/AMD were glad to deprecate.  This means that if you install X-Wing Alliance on your modern Windows PC (getting around the fact that the game was released a decade before UAC and back when Windows users were always local administrators), chances are good that you won’t get the results you want…at least by default.

This story has a happy ending, though, because we can play X-Wing (and the rest of the games) with upgraded, modern(ish) graphics, on our ultra-powerful machines from the future.  Here’s what you do, keeping in mind that I have an nVidia graphics card from about a year and a half ago.

  • Get a copy of X-Wing Alliance.  Don’t get it new.  In fact, to be honest, I’d consider this abandonware and wouldn’t have any ethical qualms about downloading a copy of the game.  LucasArts won’t make a dime off of it at this point and they haven’t supported the game in over a decade, after all.
  • Installing the game can be a bit tricky.  You need a patch to get the game to pass the Windows version check, saying that yeah, you have Windows 98.  Don’t think about installing this in a Windows 98 VM, though; your 3D card probably won’t work so well through a virtual machine.
  • Once you install the game, make sure to upgrade to version 2.02.  If you can’t get that patch, the next step actually includes it.
  • Now, the game was released in 1999, meaning that it had to run on PCs with 166 MHz processors, 32 MB of RAM, and 4 MB PCI video cards.  Sure, the game looked great at the time, but regardless of how much you love Star Wars, it will look like crap today.  This is why you absolutely need Darksaber’s Ultimate Craft Pack.  X-Wing Alliance was a highly moddable game (thanks for that, Totally Games), and over the past decade or so, people have contributed nicer models, turned on settings that Totally Games originally had off (remember:  crappy hardware), and pushed the graphics engine well past what Totally Games ever could have expected.  For my nVidia setup, I installed the nVidia font fix as well as the No CD crack, and all of the high-resolution models.
  • Once I got that taken care of, I jumped into the game.  On my first mission, pressing T to target a supply crate caused all of the objects to disappear, leaving just the star field.  The game worked fine in Software mode (but that’s crappy rendering and looks terrible!), and apparently, over the past 7 years or so, nVidia changed something in their drivers to make the game no longer work right.  After reading 10 pages of complaints, Reimar saved the day.  Go get XWAHacker.  For me, I ran the fixedclear.bat and 32bitmode.bat files.  The combination of those two changes made it so that I could target objects and perform all the actions without any graphics glitches.  I also used changeres.bat to change the default resolution to give me a widescreen experience.
  • Finally, don’t forget that there were a lot of controls and the game requires a joystick.

Once you do all of that, you’ll get a fantastic game.  Once you finish the default set of missions, you can mod XWA to re-create X-Wing and TIE Fighter with differing levels of success.

Alternatively, you should be able to get the entire series to play on a modern computer…but you won’t find the same upgrade packs, so you’re dealing with old, old graphics.  Still, old graphics beats nothing.

Disney, here’s some free advice:  take these games, put them in a modern engine, and re-release them in 2015 to hype up Star Wars Episode VII:  George Lucas Is Finally Gone.  Get it right and revenues would be fantastic; you’d have a whole new generation of people blowing stuff up in letter-shaped space craft.