So… I watched Guardians of the Galaxy Today. I’ll admit that I didn’t go into the movie with particularly high expectations. Guardians has a certain quirkiness to it that I felt might not translate so well to the screen.
But I was pleasantly surprised.
What struck me, right from the beginning of the movie, was that Guardians is not a movie that takes itself overly seriously. From the use of small, alien creatures as pretend microphones (you have to see this to understand how awesome it is) to the single greatest phrase I’ve heard in a movie this year (it involves the words “pelvic sorcery”), Guardians is not afraid to have fun with itself and with quite a few of the standard “galactic villain of ultimate doom” cliches.
This isn’t to say that Guardians is just about the laughs – although there are plenty of those. The movie ticks all of the boxes you’d expect from a good comic book movie:
Another concern I had about the film going into it was whether or not they would be able to simplify the story enough for non-comic people to follow. I think they did a pretty good job on this. Sure, most people won’t know – or care – what Xanodor or the Cree are, but they don’t have to. The bad guy establishes his bad guy status fairly clearly by being a genocidal maniac bent on obliterating a whole lot of innocent people. You don’t need to know what particular species of alien he is to realise he has to be stopped. In short, even if you’ve never read the comics, you can still follow the storyline, which boils down to: genocidal crazy dude = evil; cool guy who listens to a walkman = good.
So, yes, I quite enjoyed this one. It set a good pace and maintained my interest throughout the whole movie. I would call it one of the better comic book movies I’ve seen, and I actually liked it more than Captain America: The Winter Soldier.
This year has been pretty good for movies so far (at least in my point of view). The next movie I plan on seeing will either be Lucy or Hercules. I’m leaning toward Lucy because I’ve been a fan of Luc Bessson since The Professional.
So, what’s my final rating? I’d give Guardians of the Galaxy a solid 8.5 on the enjoyment scale.
It isn’t the most cerebral thing you’ll ever watch, but it will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step. If movies could have souls, this movie would be wearing a smile and cracking a joke while beating the absolute crap out of its enemies. And it’d be listening to some sweet 80s and 70s tunes while doing it because that’s just how it rolls. Oh yeah.
In English, there are three dash-like punctuation marks: the hyphen, the en dash, and the em dash. Although these punctuation marks appear quite similar, each of them has a slightly different purpose.
The hyphen (-) is the shortest of the dashes. It has a number of different uses:
The en dash (–) is longer than the hyphen. It is mainly used to connect numbers, dates, and other similar things that provide a range of values:
The em dash (—) is the longest of the three dashes. It has a variety of uses:
As you can see, all three of these dashes serve a different purpose. However, there has been some disagreement about whether or not it is acceptable to use one particular kind of dash over the other.
Traditionally, the em dash is used without a space on either side of it (as you can see from the examples given above). However, there are style guides (e.g., the AP and most newspapers) that suggest flanking the em dash with spaces (i.e., having a space on either side of it).
One of the issues that has been raised with the em dash is that it looks rather hideous. The em dash can be quite disruptive from a visual perspective, drawing the reader’s attention away from the actual words of the text. Simply flanking the em dash with spaces does not solve this issue. It may, in fact, even make it worse.
My preference – and the preference of quite a few others – is to abandon the em dash in favour of using an en dash flanked by spaces (i.e., an en dash with spaces on either side). Indeed, that is what I have just done. Those who have adopted this approach typically do so because they feel that an en dash flanked by spaces is less intrusive but still manages to do the job.
You might be surprised by my stance on this issue, given my support for correct grammar. However, one of the purposes of correct grammar is to aid communication, and I believe the en dash does this by being several million times easier on the eye than the em dash.
If you found this little jaunt into punctuation interesting, you can find more of my thoughts on writing and grammar here.
I also write original fiction (mostly fantasy), which you can find here.
My newest original story Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf is now available on Amazon! It weighs in at 35,000 words and goes for $1.99. Most of my previous stories have been fairly serious (e.g., The Last Huntress), but this one is different.
If you’ve been looking forward to something humorous from me, then your wait is finally over. Two Necromancers, a Bureaucrat, and an Elf is a fantasy with plenty of humour, warmth, action, and a healthy dose of craziness (the kind you’ve come to expect from me).
You can get it here.
And here is the blurb:
Two necromancers, a bureaucrat, and an elf – it sounds like the start of a bad joke, only the joke is on Timmy.
Timothy Walter Bolton – better known as Timmy – has spent most of his life as a necromancer. When he isn’t terrorising his enemies, he’s plotting inside his castle, which is built on top of lightless chasms filled with nameless horrors and beings of a generally malevolent and megalomaniacal nature. But after one of his latest creations, a zombie hydra-dragon-bear, tries to eat him, he decides that maybe it’s time to find a new, less dangerous, career.
But that’s easier said than done. He’s a wanted criminal with no shortage of powerful (and crazy) enemies, and he has a bone or two to pick with the Everton Council of Mages.
Hope arrives in the form of a new law. War is coming to Everton, and the Council is desperate. In exchange for providing some help, Timmy might just earn that pardon he’s been looking for. Of course, just because it’s possible to earn a pardon doesn’t mean that it’s going to be easy.
To earn his pardon, Timmy is going to have to take down some of Everton’s most dangerous enemies and put together a quirky group of unconventional heroes, most of whom want nothing more than to mangle him and/or the Council in as vicious a way as possible. It’s a good thing that he’s got some help: an obnoxious ten-year-old apprentice who thinks that pink glasses are appropriate for a budding necromancer and a bumbling bureaucrat who may or may not make it through their first real fight without puking his guts up.
Still, Timmy’s never been one to back down from a challenge even if their first recruit is basically the elf version of the bogeyman.
If you want to know more, just keep on reading to see a longer preview: Read more…
Without telepathy, it is impossible to truly know what someone else is thinking. We can each feel emotion, so we assume that everyone else can too. But how do we know what emotions someone else is feeling? We make judgements based on verbal and non-verbal cues.
Verbal cues are perhaps the quickest and easiest way to make a judgement, but they are not necessarily the most accurate. A verbal cue for sadness might be someone stating that they feel sad. But just because someone says they feel sad does not mean that they actually are sad. It is easy to lie, and some people are very good at lying.
Non-verbal are the other way we can judge a person’s emotions. In the case of sadness, there are a particular subset of facial expressions that are associated with sadness. Tears are also often related to sadness. But we can look at other parts of the body aside from the face. For instance, someone’s posture may change when they feel sad. They may slouch, and their shoulders may slump. Sadness is not simply a facial express – it is a whole pattern of behaviour.
In writing, emotions are amongst the trickiest things to accurately depict. It is possible to simply state how a character feels, but we can paint a much richer picture if we include both verbal and non-verbal cues to better convey their emotions. Indeed, some of the most poignant moments can occur when we deliberately contrast the verbal and non-verbal cues.
Consider the impression left when a novice soldier tells their superior that they are fine despite how badly their hands are shaking. Are they really fine? Or are they simply putting on a brave face?
Likewise, what conclusions can we draw when we read about someone who claims to be heartbroken but shows no outward signs of sorrow? Are they lying? Or are they simply holding it all in?
Emotions are an important part of character development, and it is rarely enough to simply state how people feel. Instead, it is often better to look at the consequences of human emotion. Show the reader the consequences of emotion and they will be able to draw their own conclusions about how the characters feel.
Punching power is one of those things that people talk about all the time in combat sports. Fans, in particular, are obsessed with fighters who possess the kind of firepower that leaves their opponent twitching on the ground. This is why a good, scrappy brawl often pulls in higher ratings than a highly technical bout.
But what are the secrets behind punching power?
The two most obvious places to begin are size and muscle mass. There is no denying that larger combatants tend to have more striking power than their smaller counter parts. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some middle weights who hit harder than some heavy weights, but the average heavy weight is going to be a much bigger puncher than the average middle weight.
But setting those two factors aside, how can we explain the differences in punching power between people of roughly the same size and muscle mass? There are a few places we can look.
A punch is basically a collision – you are hitting someone’s face with your hand. The amount of force that is transferred during that collision is a function of the mass of objects colliding and their acceleration. This means several things.
A punch that the opponent walks into is more powerful than one they are trying to get away from. The classic example of this is when someone walks into a big right hand rather than trying to flinch away from it. If you aren’t a particularly big puncher, you can help your cause by luring your opponent into the punch. In boxing, Ali was very good at this while Machida provides an example from MMA.
Do not allow your opponent to cramp your punches. A punch accelerates most rapidly (and attains most of its speed and leverage) when it is allowed to extend fully. An easy way to test this is to throw a normal punch at a punching bag before taking a step closer and trying to throw that same punch again. In the latter case, your fist will end up shoving the bag rather than striking it cleanly. If you allow your opponent to get too close, you will not be able to extend your punches properly, robbing them of much of their power. This is why you will often see fighters with shorter reach swarming those with longer reach – their aim is to get close enough to throw their shorter punches while smothering their opponent’s longer punches. This is also why at very close ranges it’s more common to see punches like hooks or uppercuts (which have shorter ranges than jabs and straights) or other strikes like knees or elbows (in MMA).
The punch that the opponent doesn’t see is the one most likely to hurt them. Any well-trained fighter will know how to respond to a punch. They can block a punch, parry it, slip it, roll with the impact, shift to take the hit on a stronger part of the body, and so on. Any one of these approaches reduces the damage they receive. But all of these responses rely on them actually noticing the punch and reacting to it. If the opponent does not see the punch, then they cannot react to it properly and will take full damage. The classic example of this is a fighter who gets lazy with their jab eating a counter right hand (usually an overhand right) over the top of the jab before getting knocked out. Seriously, watch some MMA knock out highlights and many of them will feature fighters getting knocked out by overhand rights after throwing out a lazy, pawing jab without tucking their chin in. Boxers are hardly immune to this either – I’ve seen quite a few technicians knocked out when they throw a pitter-patter jab against a savvy brawler with good instincts.
Counter punching is another way to potentially increase the force of your punches. Fighters are often at their most vulnerable when they are in the process of striking. Think about it. If the opponent wants to really hit you, then they are going to have to commit. A properly thrown punch usually requires planting the feet, a shift in weight, and a focus on where the punch will be directed. All of these things leave the opponent vulnerable. If they plant their feet and are shifting their weight, they will not be able to evade as easily – they may even move into your punch. And their mental focus on landing their own strike can make it easy for them to miss a counter strike coming in. Fighters are also often not mentally prepared to be hit back while in the middle of throwing their own attack.
But counter punching can be very difficult – it requires both speed and timing. Speed is required because you must be able to react to a particular set of circumstances (e.g., the opponent throwing a hook) in the correct manner. Timing is also required because you have to know when to throw your counter strike to do maximum damage.
Although boxing has had its share of fighters who had Howitzers for hands (e.g., Foreman and Shavers), the majority of its knock out artists rely on more than just brute force. They rely on leading their opponents onto their punches, on speed and timing, and on getting the most leverage out of their punches.
Here are a few examples:
In this video you can see quite possibly the most perfect left hook ever thrown. Sugar Roy Robinson catches Gene Fullmer leaning in to throw his big right hand and catches him with a blindingly fast short left hook that Fullmer never sees before he’s down on the ground. Sugar Ray’s punch not only had speed and placement behind it, he also caught Fullmer moving into the punch.
And in this video you can again see what happens a fighter is caught in the middle of a punch. Ricky Hatton throws a pawing left and gets caught by a tremendous left hand from Pacquiao that hits him right on the jaw. Not only was Hatton caught unawares by the punch but he was also leaning into it. Take a look at Pacquiao’s body placement as well. His feet are planted firmly, his entire body is pivoting into the punch, and his punch connects at the perfect distance – he has maximised his leverage.
And finally here. This is the great Ali putting Sonny Liston down with an “anchor punch”. Ali, though a great boxer, was never known for the kind of chilling power that some of his contemporaries had (Foreman comes to mind here along with the doozy of a left hook that Frazier possessed and Shavers’s bomb of a right hand). What makes this punch so effective is that he catches Liston missing and hits him while he is still moving forward but before he can take a defensive a stance again. Heck, Liston doesn’t even seem to see the punch, it comes out so quickly.
The Last Huntress will be available for free on Amazon today (4th July, Pacific Standard Time). Get it here. If you enjoy fantasy with a healthy dose of atmosphere and action, give it a try! Here’s the blurb:
Scarlett is the last of her line – a huntress sworn to kill all monsters.
Rose is a girl searching for the power to take back her homeland.
In the icy forests of the north, on the trail of the only werewolf to escape her, Scarlett will teach Rose what it means to be a huntress. There can be no room for softness in a huntress’s heart, no room for weakness. And a huntress must be willing to kill anything – and anyone – that poses a threat to the innocent.
If you don’t have a Kindle, don’t worry. You can download a free Kindle app from Amazon from here.
You can find my original fiction here.
My father has loved basketball ever since he was a kid. During the 1980s, his two favourite teams were the Lakers and the Celtics. Magic Johnson is still his favourite Laker, and he still firmly believes that Larry Bird is the best small forward to ever play the game.
My earliest memories of basketball are the Jordan years. There was something special about him. It wasn’t just about the clutch shooting, the suffocating defence, or the ability to completely ignore the laws of physics for yet another impossible dunk or hand-changing lay up, it was about the way he uplifted an entire franchise. Like Magic Johnson and Larry Bird before him, Jordan put an entire city on his back and made them believers.
But basketball is a team sport. As great as Magic Johnson was, he didn’t win those championships alone. The Showtime Lakers won those championships, and they did it with phenomenal passing and an offence that you had to see to believe. There are very few things in the world as beautiful as watching the 1980s Laker burst out of their half with Magic Johnson handling the ball. I didn’t watch those games live (I’m too young), but I’ve watched tape of those games so many times. Likewise, Larry Bird’s Celtics were a team. Their team defence was renowned, and their three great big men (Bird, Parish, and McHale) were a front court that has arguably yet to be surpassed.
What stuck in my mind about Jordan’s Bulls was the absolute intensity with which they played. Jordan refused to lose, and he refused to let his teammates play at anything less than their best. There is an entire class of Hall of Famers who never won a ring because the Bulls were there to break the hearts year after year. The Bulls didn’t just beat teams – they demoralised them, leaving them burnt out, ruined shells of themselves. Just ask Karl Malone and the Utah Jazz.
After Jordan retired for the second time, I remember feeling lost. My favourite player had retired. But there were other players that I liked. I’d always been a big fan of David Robinson. Part of that was his nickname. Everyone called him “the Admiral” and that was what first got me interested since my father was a marine and my granduncle was a commodore.
David Robinson was very easy to cheer for. He was extremely athletic and skilled, but he was also articulate, well-mannered, and humble. He was exactly the kind of player that you wanted to do well. The only problem with David Robinson, however, was that he could never quite get over the hump and win a championship. Some people said he wasn’t nasty enough. Others said that he was a choker. I prefer to believe that the Spurs were one piece short of being good enough.
And then they got Tim Duncan.
My father always impressed upon me the importance of the fundamentals in basketball, and Tim Duncan was as fundamental as it got. He came into the league with all the moves that a big man could possibly want. He could bank the ball off the glass, nail shots off the elbow, and he was an absolute monster in the post. But his impact wasn’t just on the offensive end. He was – and remains – one of the best defenders in the NBA. His ability to read passes before they happen and anticipate the flow of an attack is exceptional. Lots of big men appear good defensively because of their athleticism. What has allowed Tim Duncan to remain an excellent rim protector and defensive player even after his knee troubles is his ability to couple his physical size and length with unmatched basketball IQ.
Tim Duncan led the Spurs to their first championship, and I almost cried along with David Robinson during the celebrations. Timmy would go on to lead the Spurs to three more championships (they won in 99, 2003, 2005, and 2007). Those early teams were characterised by two things: exceptional selflessness and stifling defence.
When Duncan arrived, Robinson could very easily have been offended and defensive. Instead, he saw the future of the Spurs in Timmy, and he set about teaching the younger man everything he knew. As good as Timmy is, I think he owes a lot to the Admiral. Robinson spent countless hours facing off against Tim and helping Tim hone his defence and his post moves. Robinson gave Timmy everything he had, and Timmy repaid him with championships.
But everyone gets old. Robinson slowed down and eventually retired, and for a few years Timmy had to carry the Spurs on his back. That 2003 championship run remains one of the most astonishing in the history of the NBA. Timmy had very little help that year, but he dragged the Spurs to their second championship while putting up some monster numbers.
But with the descent of Robinson came the rise of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Both arrived as relatively unknown overseas players, but both have made their mark. There are few point guards in the league who can finish at the rim and penetrate into the paint the way that Parker can. And even after all these years, I still have a hard time believing half the stuff that Ginobili does. I swear, I can go from wanting to stab Ginobili to wanting to throw him a parade in about thirty seconds.
But after the title in 2007, things took a turn for the worse. The Spurs continued to be good – they’ve never missed the playoffs during the Duncan era – but they were never quite able to get there. Dallas, Memphis, and Oklahoma all threatened to sweep aside the dynasty from San Antonio.
And then 2013 happened. Tim Duncan led the Spurs to yet another Finals appearance. They took a 3-2 lead against Miami and all seemed well until the last minute of Game 6 when everything fell apart.
I’ll admit that I was scared after the loss last year, scared because I know that chances like that don’t come around often, and every year that passes means that the Big Three are one year older. Tim Duncan is no longer a young man. Ginobili no longer has a full head of hair. 2013 felt almost like the ending of an era.
But the Spurs didn’t break. When a team loses like they did last year, they can either fall apart or come back stronger. The Spurs did the latter. This year, the Spurs unleashed what I consider to be the most beautiful offences that I’ve ever seen.
Every man in the Spurs offence this year knew what to do. The passes were swift, precise, and designed to carve open defences. The Spurs passed up on good shots to create great shots. They used ball movement and movement without the ball to leave defences wrong-footed and confused. If the Spurs of the late 1990s and early 2000s were a defensive juggernaut that relied too much on Tim Duncan to carry the offence, the Spurs of this year were a whirlwind of surgical passing and brilliant offensive execution.
This year’s Spurs also had a phenomenal bench. If you don’t believe me, look up how the Spurs’ bench stacked up to the benches of its opponents in the playoffs. It was a blood bath. If you still don’t believe me, watch the series against Portland, Oklahoma, and Miami where the Foreign Legion (San Antonio’s bench) left a trail of corpses in their wake. The Big Three can no longer carry the Spurs the way they used to, but they don’t have to. Not anymore.
What I love most about these Spurs is how they’ve taken players and made them better. Kawhi Leonard came to the Spurs a raw talent. They turned him into a Finals MVP. Danny Green was on his way out of the league, but at the Spurs he became a key 3 and D specialist. Boris Diaw was washed up only a few years ago, but he was instrumental in dismantling Oklahoma and Miami. Tiago Splitter has proven himself to be a superb defender with the Spurs, shutting down first Dirk Nowitzki and then Marcus Aldridge. And let’s not forget Patty Mills (go Patty!). The plucky, little Aussie came back this season fitter than ever before and Popovic rewarded him with more playing time and a bigger role. Mills responded beautifully, becoming a key component of the bench and showing the kind of shooting touch that let him top the 2012 Olympics in scoring. Even Marco Belinelli found a new home at the Spurs, becoming yet another contributor off the bench.
This year’s Spurs embody everything that I love about basketball. They play as a team and for each other. When someone does well, they all cheer for him. When someone is struggling, they all rush to help out. They are unselfish, moving the ball and always looking for an assist to set up an easy basket rather than trying to play hero ball. They are humble, never trash talking but instead preferring to let their play do the talking. They play defence, hustling for every ball, pressuring every single possession. They are a deep team, with every man contributing and knowing what he has to do.
In an era when the league seems more and more driven by individuals and superstars in search of glory, the Spurs are a throwback to the days when the team came first. They are a reminder that a great team is more than just the sum of its parts. A great team is like a great watch – every piece fits together perfectly and performs its own specific purpose perfectly, and the result is something beautiful.
There are many different kinds of stories. Some stories focus very heavily on character development, and others focus more on developing a rich, immersive world. Of course, there’s no rule against a story doing multiple things, but most stories tend to focus on a few key areas.
The important thing is to understand what your story needs – not what it wants, but what it needs. A character-based drama might want a detailed, imaginative setting, but what it needs is deep, engaging characters. Likewise a mystery might want interesting and original characters, but what it needs is a well-paced plot and enough clues for the reader to keep interested.
Instead of worrying about what your story wants, focus first on what it needs. Once you’re sure that you can give your story everything that it needs, then you can worry about adding on all the things that it wants.
If you want to read more about my thoughts on writing, you can find thosehere.
I also write original fiction, mostly fantasy, which you can find here.
“All the best games are easy to learn and difficult to master. They should reward the first quarter and the hundredth” (Nolan Bushnell, 1971).
The ideas contained in Bushnell’s quote are some of the most discussed in game development, but I’d like to go over them again. It never hurts to make sure that you understand the basics.
A game that is easy to learn is one that a player can pick up and understand relatively quickly and without a great deal of outside assistance. A great example of a game like this is Tetris. The rules of Tetris are very simple, and its controls are equally easy to grasp. You can give Tetris to a child and be confident that they’ll learn how to play it inside of a few minutes.
Another game that is easy to learn is Space Invaders. All that players have to remember is that they need to kill the aliens without being killed. The controls are extremely simple: they can move from side to side and shoot. Once again, you can give Space Invaders to almost anybody, and they will only need a few minutes to understand how it works.
But why does it matter if a game is easy to learn? The answer lies in the psychology of the player. Human beings only have so much time to invest in leisure. If a game doesn’t start to entertain fairly quickly, people will simply move on to another activity. People also like to feel like they are at least partially in control of what happens in a game. If players don’t understand what’s going on (i.e., why they are winning or losing), they will quickly become frustrated and quit. People hate feeling powerless. In contrast, people enjoy feeling powerful. The quicker someone learns how a game works, the quicker they can start feeling powerful.
There are several ways to make a game easy to learn:
As you can see, there are at least two axes along which a game can be made easier: rules and controls. Rules can be made easier when they are simple, obvious, or similar to the rules of other activities that are already familiar to the player (e.g., the rules of a sport). The controls of a game can be made simpler by matching them more closely to what feels natural for players (e.g., using a gun to aim at enemies on a screen is much easier to learn than learning to use a joystick and buttons).
One thing that not many people are aware of is that there exist versions of the original Street Fighter game that used two buttons (one for punch and one for kick), as opposed to the more familiar six (three different kinds of punch and three different kinds of kick). The trick was that how hard a player pressed the buttons determined what kind of punch or kick came out. As you can imagine, trying to control how hard you pressed a button in the middle of an exciting battle proved to be quite difficult. It is not a coincidence that all subsequent versions of Street Fighter have used the six button configuration – it makes the game much, much easier to learn since the player isn’t struggling with the controls the whole time.
If it’s good for games to be easy to learn, why do we want them to be difficult to master? The answer can be found, once again, in the psychology of the player. If something becomes too easy, it usually becomes quite boring (i.e., unenjoyable). People like winning, but they like it even more when winning actually means something. Think of how it feels to play chess against someone who is much, much worse than you. You might enjoy beating them the first few times, but after that it gets boring. There is no sense of achievement involved, no feeling that you’re doing something awesome – and people like feeling awesome.
A game that ceases to challenge players will become boring, and people do not play boring games for long. This applies to more than just video games. A skilled crossword player will naturally seek out harder crosswords. A gifted chess player will look for stronger opponents. Elite athletes hunger for elite competition.
Mastery involves achieving greater and greater proficiency at something. So how can we make games difficult to master?
A game that is easy to learn rewards you from the moment you put in the first quarter (assume for a moment, that you’re back in the glory days of the arcade). A game that is difficult to master ensures that your hundredth quarter is worth it too.