Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Fantastic Contraption

One night not too long ago, my friend Matt asked everyone what they would have liked to study in college. You know, if you had to go back, and you couldn't pick the same major. I said mechanical engineering. I don't know. I figured I could have learned something hands-on, where you can plan things, implement things, change things, and see the results. Then, he said if I had time to kill sometime, I should look up this game, Fantastic Contraption.

The first time I found the game, I poked around for a minute or two, then moved onto something else. But when Jessi mentioned that she had been having fun with the game, I decided to give it another shot.

Whoa. This stuff is intense.

Quick rundown:

Okay, so for each Fantastic Contraption map you have this piece, right? It's usually a ball, but sometimes it's a square or rectangle. It resides in (or near) a rectangular patch of light blue. Here are some different looking starting pieces:

Your mission, should you chose to accept it, is to use a combination of spinning wheels and rods to move the starting piece from the blue rectangular patch to the pink rectangular patch on the map. Here are your tools:

*Yellow wheels spin clockwise, and you will use these a damn lot (since many of the pink patches are to the right of the blue patches).

*Pink wheels spin counterclockwise, and you will use these... not so much.

*Blue wheels do not actively turn either way, but they will rotate with the flow of things if there's motion involved. (Wheels must have a rod attached to their center notch in order to spin...)

*Water rods (blue) are joints that can pass through other wheels and rods and starting pieces, but not through the environment, which includes the green land and the orange balls and other obstacles used on some maps. They're also more flexible, allowing pieces connected to them to jostle around a little bit. Although they can pass through things, they still weigh something.

*Wood rods (brown) are joints that hold firm and weigh a good amount.


The following are screenshots from a map called "Awash."

The blue section doesn't always necessarily contain the piece in question. The blue patch is simply the only area where you may place wheels or joints. Like this:

So you build your Fantastic little creature, and then you set it off to carry / propel / encourage your starting piece to make its journey across the map, like so:

You don't have to get anything except the piece in question into the pink patch. The piece does not have to be connected to anything, and nothing else has to pass through the pink patch. Once your piece hits the pink, you get a victory cloud:

What seems fairly simple and easy in the first few maps soon proves very difficult. ("Awash" was one of the hardest maps for me. My first successful design blocked all the orange balls and had a little car that drove the piece across the top of them.) You develop one way of approaching things, and then you realize a certain map won't allow you to work that way. One of the greatest parts of the game is self-discovery, so if it seems like an appealing game to you now, I'd encourage you to stop reading and to start playing. Seriously. It sort of ruins it when you see a simple solution that you could have come to after a bit of work. I know. I've done it.

The other great part to the game is that you can save your contraptions to share with others. Games are fun and all, but bragging rights are excellent.

It took a few days of intensive play for me to pass all the levels, and then I gave it a break. And then I decided to go back and try to use as few moving pieces as possible. So for all of you who are not keen on playing yourself, now I'm going to list all my solutions, along with the number of pieces I used and whether the idea for the solution was stolen from other players' contraptions (which you can view for each map after you've beaten that map). Oh, and I'll list a few tips / surprises / discoveries I had whilst playing.


*Gravity is an important factor.

*Weight is a crucial factor. Always factor your starting piece's weight into the design of a contraption from the start.

*At least a rudimentary knowledge of catapult design is essential.

*The game has a few prominent glitches (none of which I employ in my solutions here). One minor glitch is when pieces unexpectedly pass through other pieces (such as water rods through the environment) when they really shouldn't.

*You can attach spinning wheels directly onto some of your starting pieces without rods, which can cut down on your total number of pieces dramatically.

*Break down the map into separate elements (that may or may not require separate contraptions).

*One way to get as few pieces as possible is to make your contraption normally and then cut away the fat (redundant pieces).

Okay, on to my final designs. I'm quite proud of them. (I'm less proud of the ones where I stole the idea.) (I suppose now I could devise arbitrary challenges, like "no wheels," or "no wood" or "the piece must pass through ____ once before finishing the map." ... the fun never ends!)

(The only thing is that you have to wait through some ads to watch each solution, so if you only want to see one or two, I'd suggest checking out 15 or 19.)


1) Rolling Away (0 pieces)

2) Reach Up (1 piece)

3) Mind The Gap (2 pieces)

4) Junkyard (3 pieces)

5) The Wall (4 pieces)

6) On a Roll (2 pieces)

7) Full-up (4 pieces)

8) Higher (3 pieces)

9) Around the Bend (1 piece; stolen idea; mine was 4)

10) Up The Hump (3 pieces)

11) Mission to Mars (1 piece)

12) Up The Stairs (3 pieces; stolen idea; mine got to 5)

13) Big Ball (5 pieces; room for improvement)

14) Four Balls (3 pieces; stolen idea)

15) Down Under (2 pieces!)

16) Awash (12 pieces; I've seen it done in 3)

17) Handling (5 pieces)

18) Tube (4 pieces; stolen idea)

19) Back and Forth (11 pieces!)

20) Unpossible (16 pieces!)

21) U-Turn (10 pieces!)


Well, I guess that's it...


Fantastic Contraption 2?!


Death Metal

Death Metal Puppy (Wasn't able to embed. Probably the best one.)

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Finch's Landing

Summers have become synonymous with reading for me. I think it was a combination of factors:

  • I was a rather attentive student growing up, so my schooltime months (early August to early June in Florida) were crowded with school-related readings, assignments, and extracuricular activities. Since I didn't get a job until the summer before my senior year of high school, those summer months were a great time to squeeze in some serious reading.

  • Summers in Florida are mostly unbearably hot and I'm a quick and steady sweater.

  • As many of people of my previous generation (parents, authors, co-workers) are quick to point out, kids don't spend nearly as much time outdoors nowadays, as compared to the good old days. What with the (perceived) rise of child abductions and (real) rise of indoors technologies (the Internet, video games, iPods, etc.), there are hardly any kids knocking about neighborhoods these days. (So even those kids without those technologies will not have other kids to play with outdoors, and so on.)

Another reason that summer equals reading for me is that American society has partly encouraged this association. Summer's for lazing about in a hammock and reading a novel.

There's a particular Calvin and Hobbes strip (that I couldn't dig up on the Internet; I should catalog all of them and quote them like scriptures) where Calvin's talking about how it's summer and how his dad likes to get a good hardback and sit out under a tree to read it. (I don't remember the punchline. I think Calvin says his dad likes to buy the book with cash so they can't trace his purchases...)

There's another comic strip reference that will allow me to transition nicely into what is supposed to be the meat of this post. I haven't read much Bloom County, but one time I bought a short "Best Of" collection in the bargain bin at Barnes & Noble. Opus (the main character of the strip, a penguin) loves To Kill A Mockingbird and rereads it every summer, and I think in this particular strip, he is addressing the book's author, Harper Lee. Maybe appealing to her to write again. (I don't remember. I'll have to seek out that strip, which is also unlocatable online.)

I saw the movie when I was younger and I've always heard good things about the book, but I never got around to reading it. So when I stopped into our local Goodwill used bookstore a couple months ago and saw a paperback copy available for $0.99, I couldn't pass it up.

I spent most of May and June this summer in a class on Ernest Hemingway, reading some of his short stories and novels for the first time. I was glad to have read them, but it started to cast a real gloom over things. A couple days after the class ended, I went looking for something to read. I have dozens of books I haven't read yet, but for some reason I was drawn to Mockingbird, and I must say that it's a damn fine followup to the doom-and-gloom depression that comes with overexposure to Hemingway.

It took me a few pages to get into the rhythm of (Nelle) Harper Lee's narrative, but when I got there, I was there for the long haul. One of the pull quotes in the front of the paperback (from a review in the Minneapolis Tribune) says "The reader will find . . . a desire, on finishing it, to start again on page one." Damn tootin'. When I got to the end and realized it left off at the incident where the story began, I went back and reread the first page, and had to stop myself from going on.

To Kill A Mockingbird is a refreshing tale of humanity as seen through the eyes of one Jean Louise "Scout" Finch, told simultaneously from her vantage points of (1) looking back on the incidents of her childhood (in consultation/collaboration with her older brother, Jem) when "enough years had gone by to enable [her/them] to look back on them" and (2) as a young girl (of 7~8 years old) during the times of those incidents. This is a clever device that allows the reader access to the unabashed innocence and ignorance of childhood mixed with an older type of wisdom that comes through at certain parts in the narrative. (Hmm... much like Calvin and Hobbes, now that I think about it.)

Scout, Jem, and Dill banging about the neighborhood — deathly afraid at times, surprisingly courageously otherwise — made me (in my third year of "adult life," with my first "real job" out of college) yearn for childhood again, and regret not spending more time outdoors as a kid, putting on plays, scaring each other, etc. (Though I did my share of bike riding, I suppose.)

But the larger theme of the book — treating people equally, placing yourself in other people's shoes — had just as big an impact on me. I'll admit, for example, that I was especially touched after the trial, when Atticus received all that food from the neighborhood. I hate to be idealist (Atticus has a great speach on his "idealism"), but it seems to me that if everyone read this book (and taught this book, if they couldn't properly comprehend it), a lot of people (but not everyone) would think a little bit more about what they do, and maybe even change some things they do in regards to their behavior and actions towards other human beings.

The irony in my belief, then, is that the book has been met with a great deal of opposition.

"The book's racial slurs, profanity, and frank discussion of rape have led people to challenge its appropriateness in libraries and classrooms across the United States." (Wiki)

Wikipedia tells me it's been opposed in the '60s for its discussion of rape, and for Mayella Ewell's attraction to Tom Robinson; in the '70s for not being harsh enough on the racism present throughout. But, I'd have to agree with Ms. Lee's written defense of such accusations, excerpted here in a letter she wrote in 1966:

Recently I have received echoes down this way of the Hanover County School Board’s activities, and what I’ve heard makes me wonder if any of its members can read.

Surely it is plain to the simplest intelligence that “To Kill a Mockingbird” spells out in words of seldom more than two syllables a code of honor and conduct, Christian in its ethic, that is the heritage of all Southerners. To hear that the novel is “immoral” has made me count the years between now and 1984, for I have yet to come across a better example of doublethink.

I feel, however, that the problem is one of illiteracy, not Marxism. Therefore I enclose a small contribution to the Beadle Bumble Fund that I hope will be used to enroll the Hanover County School Board in any first grade of its choice.

I don't know much what else to say, except that if you haven't read it, this book is definitely worth the time. It's an easy read, and it's constructed in such a way that if you need to remember a detail from earlier, the narrator subtly reintroduces the detail in case you'd forgotten (but never in an annoyingly obvious way). I suppose I'll close with one of my favorite comments in the book. After the trial, as the kids try to get past the bullshit the adults in town set out, Dill (who is apparently modeled after a young Truman Capote, Harper Lee's childhood acquaintance) comes out with...

"I think I'll be a clown when I get grown," said Dill.

Jem and I stopped in our tracks.

"Yes sir, a clown," he said. "There ain't one thing in this world I can do about folks except laugh, so I'm gonna join the circus and laugh my head off."

"You got it backwards, Dill," said Jem. "Clowns are sad, it's folks that laugh at them."

"Well I'm gonna be a new kind of clown. I'm gonna stand in the middle of the ring and laugh at the folks. Just looka yonder," he pointed. "Every one of 'em oughta be ridin' broomsticks. Aunt Rachel already does."

Friday, June 25, 2010

National Guard troops for the oil spill

[Sent to]

Governor Crist,

I recently read that Florida is only deploying 37 of the 2,500 National Guard troops available to us for help in cleaning up the gulf oil spill. I’d imagine there are sometimes problems with having too many people on the shores (in the affected areas), but it seems like this would be a good resource for the cleanup effort. Is there a way we could deploy more troops? Is there a good reason we’re not deploying more troops?


Thank you.


Justin de la Cruz

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

RSS Feeds

The Tallahassee Democrat has a pretty good explanation of RSS feeds.

Basically, if you'd like to retrieve all of the new information that's being published by your favorite websites, RSS or Atom feeds are the way to go. Most sites generate these feeds, so all you have to do is find a way to harness them.

My preferred way is using Google Reader. It's a simple tool that allows you to read all kinds of internet updates in one window. You just sign up (or sign in with your Google Account if you have one) and start adding your favorite sites with the "Add a subscription" button. You can also click on the "Browse for stuff" link on the left, and then on the "Search" tab of that window.

If you use Firefox as your web browser, you can use an add-on called Live Bookmarks to have the information display right from your browser window.

If you use Google Chrome, I'd recommend checking out these extensions to achieve a similar effect to FF's Live Bookmarks:

RSS Subscription
RSS Live Links

If you use Internet Explorer, I'd say it's about time to start using Firefox.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mistaken Identity

9:53 me Hi. Don't suppose if you'd know if FSU libraries has a way to access Harper's electronic archives?
9:53 me They have archives on from their magazine's history.
9:53 me Available to subscribers.
9:53 fsulibraries Just a second.
9:54 fsulibraries Harper's Magazine?
9:54 me yeah
9:54 me (there are e-texts available from 1993- via the library catalog search)
9:54 me (i'm looking for much older stuff)
9:55 fsulibraries We have e-texts from 1867...look under Hapers Bazaar.
9:55 me that is a different publication
9:55 me that's a fashion mag

Friday, June 04, 2010

Best of the blog

I've been blogging since February 18, 2004.

I just clicked through to every post.

Most of it is junk. A lot of photos are dead (because I starting hosting stuff on my student webspace, which got migrated elsewhere a year ago), a lot of links are broken, a lot of complaints and references are unable to be gotten by anyone but me, and a lot of it is just plain rubbish.

But I've always wanted to do a "Best of" for this blog, so here it is. I'll list my top 15 picks from the past six years, and then I'll post another 35 that I think are at least readable.

Here's The Best:

I never thought it'd come to this... (Dec 2004: Stats)

Stream of Consciousness Post (May 2005)

Do you ever yearn? (Sept 2005: Extended Seinfeld intro)

Eating Contest. (Nov 2005: OMG, never again)

Having Fun at FSU (Feb 2008: Psych experiment)

Why Write? (May 2008)

For the record. (June 2008)

Cross Country (July 2008: Short fiction)

Ladies Room Code Brown. (Jan 2009: Truth)

SAP. (Feb 2009: Cat)

Make 'em Laugh. (March 2009)

This Is Capitalism. (April 2009: Dav Fos Wal)

Vinyl Fever... (Dec 2009: <3 :*()

Anniversary Edition (April 2010: <3)

Great site! (May 2010)

Here's The Rest:

Chuck Yeager (Feb 2004)

Time. (Sept 2004)

A Meaningful Life, or a lack thereof? (Sept 2004)

NYC (Oct 2004)

Punctuation: A Lost Art (Dec 2004)

The Simpsons: A Linguistic Analysis (Dec 2004)


Sellout. (Dec 2004)

Back in town today... (Jan 2005:

A Psychology Major. (Jan 2005: Undergraduate summary)

Sickness. (Jan 2005)

Portraits of Laughter and Joy. (April 2005)

Snapshot. (May 2005)

Labels. (June 2005: Working at Target)

The End of the Affair (July 2005: Weezer)

uh.. (August 2005: Warning Label)

CLASSES. (Sept 2005)

Much Music. (Sept 2005)

Checklist. (Sept 2005: Comments longer than post)

. [sigh] (Oct 2005)

She weren't even... (Jan 2006: Gpit tour)

.. / -.- (Feb 2006)

Suddenly, (Aug 2006)

Self-Written Horoscope (Nov 2006)

Not in my 50 years... (Dec 2007)

Things To Hate. (March 2008)

The literary Lebowski. (Sept 2008)

Blogging about blogging... (Nov 2008)

Responses to Wilco's... (April 2009)

Historical Prejudice. (May 2009)

Ideas for Academic Success (June 2009)

T-Pain for President. (July 2009)

2009 in Tweets (Dec 2009)

82nd Annual Academy Awards (March 2010)

Monty Hall (April 2010)