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I finally got around to reading The Dark Forest, the second volume of Chinese SF writer Liu Cixin's blockbuster Three-Body trilogy, of which I read the first volume, The Three-Body Problem, a couple of years ago. I thought this installment (translated by Joel Martinsen) was a more elegant and absorbing read than the first, though I still have my quibbles; it makes me more enthusiastic about getting the third volume than the first one had about this one.

There are spoilers for the first volume in what follows; I'll try to avoid revealing too many plot surprises about the second. Spoilers will be allowed in the comments, so don't read them if you don't want that.
Read more... )
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 On Saturday I took my daughter to one of our favorite places to go, the Boston Museum of Science, and probably the highlight of the trip was that I finally got her to see a show at the Hayden Planetarium (not to be confused with New York's Hayden Planetarium--this one was funded by the same guy's charitable foundation). She'd refused to see these shows for years, initially out of fear that they might be too dark or an overwhelming experience, then probably just out of stubbornness.

This time she finally agreed, and I made sure to pick a certain specific show. Basically all museum planetariums these days have high-definition digital projection systems, and most of their shows are just a movie played on the dome. These shows can be spectacular and even impart some information, but they're not proper planetarium shows, to my mind. The one you want for your first visit usually has a name like "Your Sky Tonight" or "Wonders of the Night Sky", and it has a live lecturer who will show you what you can see this time of year if you go outside on a clear night. It does what a planetarium is supposed to do: train the general public to observe the sky for real.

And, best of all, if the planetarium has an old-school opto-mechanical projector, generally a hulking machine with a strange insectoid appearance, they'll haul it out.

I was kind of afraid these things were going extinct, and they may well be, but they're not dead yet. Boston's is actually relatively new, a Zeiss Starmaster, which seems to be their mid-range model (New York uses the top-end Universarium Model IX, a machine that I gather costs close to 4 million dollars). Instead of the classic "dumbbell" appearance, with two spheres of star projectors connected by a cage containing mobile projectors for the planets, this looks more like a single ovoid ball with the planets and such projected from separate units on the base--probably mechanically simpler in an age of computer control.

These analog projectors are more expensive and less flexible than digital projection systems--they can't send you flying through interplanetary or interstellar space--but for showing the starry sky as seen from Earth, they're still just better. Don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of digital planetarium software, but the analog star images are much brighter and sharper than you get from a single pixel of the digital systems. At one point, the lecturer for the show we saw switched from the Zeiss to the digital projector so she could send us to Saturn (for a poignant bit including a short NASA video about the impending end of the Cassini mission). Before it hurled us through the solar system, the digital system started out displaying the same starscape the Zeiss had been showing, as seen from Massachusetts on an evening in early September, but it was striking how much fuzzier the picture suddenly got, with less black blacks. 

This guy has a stupendous collection of old planetarium projectors that he is apparently trying to sell. If you want one, I guess this is the place to go. When I was at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, I remember the school had its own planetarium (dating from its older days as plain old Thomas Jefferson High, I'm pretty sure) with a small projector resembling some of these--I suspect it might have been a Spitz.

Here's a Japanese company selling a projector that they claim can show over a million stars. I don't know how it works. They say they're working on other tech, like the ability to combine the analog projection with a digital image with some sort of masking to put them together seamlessly.

A few years ago I went to a show at the Albert Einstein Planetarium at the National Air and Space Museum in DC, but the show I saw was just the movie-on-a-dome type--I was disappointed to see that their grand old insectile Zeiss Model VI stayed retracted into its pit in the middle of the dome. I remember seeing that thing work when I was a kid and it was called the "Albert Einstein Spacearium". It'd be interesting to compare it to the Starmaster or Universarium to see how Zeiss's tech has evolved.
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- We took a recent week-long vacation that was mostly in Maine. I wanted to go to Funtown Splashtown USA in Saco at some point and check out Excalibur, their large CCI wooden coaster. But the day we'd planned to do it was cool and overcast, and the Splashtown aspect that would have been the main attraction for Sam and the kid was a non-starter. Someday.

- We did make it to Water Country USA in Portsmouth, NH on the first day. Sam likes big water slides, I can take them or leave them, and our daughter definitely doesn't (she doesn't like the idea of splashing into a pool and maybe getting submerged at the end). So I ended up riding their lazy river a whole lot with her while Sam went on the slides. It's a good lazy river. It took us a little while to figure out that there are two sizes of tubes, and the bigger ones have a hole big enough that a kid will keep falling through it. They've got a nice wave pool too. We did all go on Wild Canyon, their family raft slide--unfortunately it was a bit too much for the kid; she likes the sort of theme-park rapids-raft ride where you're belted in, but going down on a glorified big inner tube while gripping the handles was apparently scarier. I liked it, though.

- We got back to Canobie Lake Park last weekend, and I took a ride on Untamed, one of my favorite coasters and one I hadn't gotten around to riding in a while. Also saw a nice acrobatics performance by what I suspect was the junior farm team of the New Shanghai Circus, with lots of jumping through hoops and hat juggling. During costume changes they filled in with "Asian"-themed dance routines by some of Canobie Lake's regular dancers, a couple of which were kind of cringeworthy, verging on yellowface. But it was nice actually seeing a show in the old dancehall, which used to be a major music venue during the big-band-swing era.

- I just heard that Lake Compounce recently permanently shut down their amazing up-the-mountain sky ride, no reason given. Many people suspect it was in response to an incident at Six Flags Great Escape in New York state, in which a teenage girl fell out of one of these ski-lift-style rides with non-locking lap bars (there were people on the ground who caught her, but at Compounce that would not have been possible). It's understandable--the ride freaks me out a little, especially when I'm riding with a kid. But it's also a pity, since that ride was one of the two things that really made Lake Compounce unique (along with Boulder Dash, their world-class mountainside roller coaster).

- There was a horrific fatal accident at the Ohio State Fair, in which a spinning-pendulum flat ride just seems to have come apart, flinging several riders through the air and killing one. The ride had passed a bunch of inspections and it may have just been metal fatigue. It's the kind of ride I don't go on--it'd probably make me sick under the best circumstances--but I imagine there's going to be a lot of attention paid to amusement-ride safety in the days to come. This is actually a pet cause of my Senator Ed Markey, and he gets ridiculed sometimes for grandstanding about it, but I think he's actually right--the lack of uniform standards here can be a problem. In this case, it's not yet clear what could have prevented the accident. X-raying for signs of fatigue, maybe.

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 So, apparently a lot of rumors about future stuff were confirmed at Disney's big fan expo (and some weren't):

  • There's going to be a duplicate of Shanghai's awesome Tron light-cycle coaster in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland. The big surprise: it's not replacing the Tomorrowland Speedway, as most rumors had it. It'll be in the back of Tomorrowland, outside the railroad tracks, to the left of Space Mountain. Tomorrowland Speedway apparently lives on for a while yet.
  • Similarly, they're duplicating the Ratatouille ride from Paris at Epcot's France pavilion.
  • The Universe of Energy pavilion at Epcot is going to be gutted and used in a Guardians of the Galaxy-themed ride of some sort. There's a nice fourth-wall-breaking conceit that the gang is at Epcot because Peter Quill went there as a kid, which might allow them to at least give a nod to what Epcot is supposed to be about. The Guardians are one of the few Marvel properties that Disney is allowed to use in Florida, because Universal isn't using those characters. There's going to be a larger Marvel-superhero-themed land at California Adventure, but they can't do that at WDW. (This also suggests that Florida's Tower of Terror is probably not going to get the Guardians-themed conversion.)
  • Some kind of complete makeover of the non-centrifuge half of Mission: Space, and an immersively space-themed restaurant nearby (I don't think I'd even heard rumors about this--I wonder if the restaurant is going to replace the old Wonders of Life paviliion).
  • Big cosmetic updates to Epcot's whole Future World area, particularly the entrance.
  • Cable skyways connecting some of the hotels and parks around the Epcot/Hollywood Studios area. I imagine they'd consider expanding the network if it works out; this is probably cheaper than building out the monorail.
  • The Great Movie Ride at Hollywood Studios will be replaced by a Mickey Mouse ride based on the recent, very wacky cartoon shorts. Looks like it will make heavy use of projection mapping. Maybe the most controversial change, since that ride was basically the centerpiece of "Disney/MGM" when it first opened. We'll see, I guess.
  • Probably the single wildest thing: a Star Wars-themed hotel with a multi-day immersive guest experience, to go with the new Star Wars land at Hollywood Studios. Sounds expensive, and probably not my thing (it might entirely replace rather than supplementing a traditional Disney World visit), but I admire the audacity.

The one thing I wonder is whether the general slump in international tourism is going to affect these plans. Disney may figure they're doing all right with domestic traffic in the US and they're internationally diversified enough that it won't kill them in general. I get the impression that they consider Universal's parks to be their main threat, and competing means stepping up their game. Animal Kingdom got their splashy new land built already; Hollywood Studios is in the throes of massive construction; clearly Epcot is next on the list to get the love.

Nothing yet about new Epcot country pavilions, or Imagination with Figment becoming an Inside Out ride, or a conversion of Rock 'n' Roller Coaster, or Zootopia at Animal Kingdom, or a Moana ride in MK's Adventureland (other rumors I'd heard). I suspect those are either not happening or are more blue-sky future things.
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Seven and a half years ago I attempted to reverse-engineer some filched pairs of 3D glasses. I successfully figured out that they were using circular polarization to separate the left- and right-eye images. What I couldn't figure out was why the backs of the lenses seemed to have a linear polarizer on them.

I just belatedly learned why: the way you filter circularly polarized light is to use a quarter-wave plate with a linear polarizer behind it. The quarter-wave plate is made of birefringent material in which the speed of light is different for linear polarizations along perpendicular axes. If it's the right thickness, it will alter the relative phase of the perpendicular components such that right and left circularly polarized light turn into different linear polarizations. Then you filter out the component you don't want with a linear polarizer. It works in the other direction too, to make circularly polarized light, which is how I could figure out much of what was going on by looking through the glasses in a mirror.

I'd vaguely imagined a layered construction with a circular polarizer in front of a linear polarizer, but in fact the linear polarizer is itself a vital component of the filter for circularly polarized light. The "fast" and "slow" axes of the quarter-wave plate (which, alone, would leave the linear polarization of light unchanged) are at 45 degrees to the linear polarizer, so there's no way to send linearly polarized light in through the front so it all gets filtered out. But you can do that by sending it through the back, just as I saw in my experiments.

It's interesting that this can be made to work well for all the colors of visible light--the base wavelength over the visible spectrum varies by about a factor of two. I guess the wavelength itself doesn't matter as much as the difference in the speed of light (or index of refraction) between the linear polarizations--all that's needed is for that to be relatively stable over the desired range.

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Several years ago Google introduced an extremely cheap and low-end platform for virtual-reality applications called Cardboard, named after a viewer literally made out of a cardboard box with a couple of plastic lenses, into which you put a compatible smartphone. You could assemble one yourself, or buy a pre-made kit for a low price. The idea was that most smartphones already have most of the pieces necessary to do simple VR: they can detect their orientation in space using some combination of mini-gyroscopes, accelerometers and a magnetic compass, and they can display images and render 3D scenes with hardware acceleration. All the Cardboard viewer really did was position a couple of lenses in front of the screen so you could mash it up against your face, and the Cardboard software in various apps would display a couple of appropriately distorted images to each eye so you could look into this virtual space.

Some other companies like Samsung introduced more elaborate variants of the same scheme that added an external controller. 

Today on a whim I bought an even more stripped-down variant of the Cardboard-style viewer, ten-dollar plastic "VR glasses" made by Homido. This thing reminds me even more of a 19th-century stereoscope, which is basically all it is--it dispenses with the box, and just clips directly onto your phone and suspends the lenses in front of the screen. It folds flat in a clever way and comes with a little carrying pouch with a QR code printed on the outside (more on that below). Homido has a player app they want you to download, but it's garbage and there's no point in using it. The device is Cardboard-compatible. It dispenses with any click-generating mechanism; you just click the screen directly with your finger.

So I belatedly got to try out the Google Cardboard platform. It seems half-baked, with inconsistent app support, but clever as far as it goes. You install a Cardboard app on your phone, which establishes systemwide VR settings by scanning the QR code that comes with your viewer. (If you try the following steps and the image is all messed up so your eyes can't fuse it, it means this step probably didn't work. You may have to separately install "Google VR Services" on Android, something it took me a while to figure out.)

Then apps like YouTube and Street View have a "View with Cardboard" icon in the corner of their screen view, which you can use to switch to a view that's compatible with the Cardboard viewer. You can look around the virtual space by moving your head around, and it's cool. Kind of.

The system is limited in a number of ways. Most of these Google apps don't really have a user interface designed to be used through the Cardboard viewer, so you have to periodically stop using it to do a lot of things, which is awkward. There are nice demos that come with the Cardboard app that cleverly leverage Street View and Google Earth capabilities, but the actual Earth app doesn't seem to support Cardboard at all and Street View's support isn't nearly as fancy as the demo's. I haven't, however, done a great deal of exploration of what apps are out there to make better use of this.

Beyond that, the basic concept of smartphone VR has limitations. Lots of 360-degree videos have started showing up on YouTube that are fun to look at with a Cardboard viewer. They don't look quite as good as you'd think, simply because each eye only gets half of the phone screen to look at, so you're sort of peeping at the virtual world through a square window that only has half as many horizontal pixels as a regular landscape view.

What makes it more frustrating is that, in the case of YouTube, there isn't even any real stereopsis to the image: with a recorded video shot with cameras as opposed to a dynamically rendered 3D scene, you can have stereo 3D or a pannable 360-degree view, but not both at the same time, because that would involve continuous changes in parallax. So you're basically looking at 2D video projected onto a virtual spherical screen, and given that, it'd be just as well to somehow present the same pixels to both eyes and get twice as many, for a nice wide field of view. But the optics to do that wouldn't be simple or cheap.

Still, what do you want for ten bucks (plus a smartphone)?

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I'm only now realizing just how many attractions of note we managed to hit on our trip.

Soarin' Around the World )

The Seas with Nemo and Friends )

The Great Movie Ride )

What else? Our hotel was OK--Coronado Springs, a moderate-tier resort located somewhere between Animal Kingdom and Hollywood Studios. My daughter picked it because of the elaborately themed "Lost City of Cibola" pool with its fake Mesoamerican pyramid and long, twisty Jaguar Slide (it's quite a hike from most of the guest rooms, but there are three smaller, closer pools as well, keyed more to adult guests). The pool was pretty great; the grounds were lovely; the room was clean and of an OK size, but seemed like it hadn't been renovated in a long time. Paying for a "water view" doesn't get you much--there's a little window looking across the exterior walkway toward the resort's central lagoon. Restaurants on site ranged from a not-very-good budget cafeteria to a really quite good sit-down Mexican place and breakfast room. There are places at the hotel from which you can see most of Hollywood Studios' fireworks show, and, at a greater distance, Epcot's.

All in all, it wasn't a huge step up from the Pop Century budget resort where we stayed last time, except for the fancier pool and the presence of good restaurants on site. It was all right, but Universal's middle-tier Loews Royal Pacific is way better.

Other good food at Disney World: The Boma buffet at Animal Kingdom Lodge is still incredible; Spice Road Table at the Epcot Morocco pavilion is pretty great (I've heard the other restaurants in that area are too--it's also the best-looking World Showcase pavilion at Epcot, probably because of the involvement of Moroccan artisans who gave it a real sense of place). The Portobello Italian restaurant at the Disney Springs shopping area is pretty good.

On the Wednesday, the middle day of our trip, we took a day off from the parks and spent it at the hotel pool and at Disney Springs, finishing with the Cirque du Soleil La Nouba show there, which we greatly enjoyed. The show is apparently shutting down at the end of the year--whether they'll be replacing it with another Cirque du Soleil show or with something else entirely, I have no idea. Disney Springs has gone by many names; it was originally Lake Buena Vista Shopping Village, and was recently called Downtown Disney. Now it's been vastly expanded and has a fake history and an equally fake "springs" area by its open-air shopping mall, which is very pretty. My feet were really hurting by then, but by Thursday morning it felt like I'd gotten a second wind and was willing to march through the parks again.

All in all, good trip. The hugeness of Walt Disney World can make it overwhelming; this was the first time that Sam and I did most of the planning, and I think we pulled it off pretty well. I think it will be a few years before we go back. Maybe after Star Wars Land opens.

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Probably the single greatest thing on my "rides I hadn't done before" wishlist was one of Disney's most famous and beloved rides, the Haunted Mansion. So much ink has been spilled over this thing that I'm not sure it even makes sense for me to try a blow-by-blow description. It was groundbreaking when it first opened at Disneyland in 1969 and at WDW a couple years later (after years and years in development hell).

Haunted-house attractions, both walk-throughs and dark rides, already had a long history at amusement parks by the time the Disney parks tried doing it. Disney distinguished themselves not by making their ride exceptionally scary (it isn't, though bits of it are a little unnerving) or even by having a particularly coherent narrative, but just by making the thing really freaking weird and funny, with an explosion of detail that's impossible to take in more than fractionally on one ride. Especially since it's mostly really dark in there (there's the darkness again). One gets the sense that Disney's Imagineers were cutting loose from the fairly conservative constraints they were usually working under, and getting to play with morbid whimsy and surrealism to a much greater degree.

They used all the classic and cutting-edge illusionary tech they could think of: infinity mirrors, animatronics, Pepper's Ghost illusions, statues with projected animated faces, inside-out masks that appear to follow you as you move, etc. Some of the tech has been updated in recent years; the murderous Bride toward the end is a lot more talkative than she used to be ("in sickness and in... wealth!"), and the Hitchhiking Ghosts that are riding with your reflection in the mirror use CGI and your account information to hold up signs indicating that they're following you to your home state. But it's basically the same ride it was originally, not thematically updated to the degree that, say, Pirates of the Caribbean was after the Johnny Depp movie became a monster hit. Paul Frees' eerie-sardonic narration as the Ghost Host still drives the whole thing as you ride through in your Doom Buggy (a name that hilariously dates the attraction in itself).

The Doom Buggies are actually Omnimovers, a system that they apparently invented for an old Monsanto-sponsored Disneyland ride to the subatomic world called "Adventure Thru Inner Space", but the Haunted Mansion was a pretty early use. Basically the same system, or a variant of it, is used on the fairly recent Little Mermaid ride, and at "The Seas with Nemo and Friends" and the horrible "Imagination with Figment" at Epcot, and probably a zillion other places. There's an endless, continuously moving chain of little three-person vehicles with a clamshell shape, and they can rotate from side to side to control what you're supposed to be looking at, and also tilt backward under ride control. Under normal circumstances the chain never stops moving--you board via a conveyor belt that lets you step into the cars in motion; but these rides seem to stop a lot just to accommodate people who need help getting in or out, so temporary interruptions are pretty common. The motion of the vehicles also helps ensure that you simply can't get a good enough look to see everything, which encourages you to come back someday.

Disney's "FastPass+" system lets you pre-select three rides every day for which you can skip the regular standby line. The standby lines often have theming and activities of their own, and can be pretty entertaining in their own right as long as the wait isn't much more than, say, 30 or 40 minutes. But I had a limited amount of time to do rides that my daughter didn't want to go on, so I spent two of my FastPasses for the Magic Kingdom on Space Mountain and the Haunted Mansion.

My third one (actually the first, chronologically) was just for her: the Tomorrowland Speedway, Disney's version of the little gasoline-powered cars that kids can drive, at pokey speed on a roadway with a safety rail down the middle. Disney's layout isn't distinguished by much other than being unusually large, with a lot of lanes arranged in suggestion of a racetrack. She loves these rides, but up to now she's usually demanded that I drive the car. Doing it at Disney World was finally the impetus that convinced her to take the wheel. I still had to operate the pedal.

What she really wanted to do, more than go on rides, was to do "Sorcerers of the Magic Kingdom," a sort of alternate-reality game in which you walk around to different hidden-in-plain-sight window displays and fight animated Disney villains using spells cast by holding up collectible cards (the spells all seem to be equally effective; the differences are entirely cosmetic, and cast members hand out thick decks of the cards for free). It's basically Disney's answer to Universal's interactive wand displays in The Wizarding World of Harry Potter. The main activity in Sorcerers is that the game sends you dashing all over the park to find the next display in the sequence, so you get a lot of exercise, but it did occur at that point in the week where my feet had not yet developed new calluses but were starting to really feel destroyed.

What she likes even more is Epcot's "Agent P's World Showcase Challenge", a goofy alternate-reality game themed after the endless battle of secret agent Perry the Platypus versus incompetent supervillain Heinz Doofenshmirtz on "Phineas and Ferb". Six of the country-themed areas at Epcot have Agent P missions associated with them; Perry's boss Major Monogram appears on your smartphone and tells you to go places, identify clues and enter things into the phone, which then activates hidden animatronics and gadgets in the scenery that do silly things.

This was adapted from an earlier "Kim Possible" game in which players carried around old cast-off flip phones on which they did the user interaction. When we played "Agent P" three years ago, they were still using the flip phones, and the one we got had a malfunctioning screen that made it hard to see the animated clues. Today, they've dispensed with them entirely and just tell you to go to a website on your own smartphone, which works much better, provided you've got a smartphone. But there are some interactive bits in the game that still have anachronistic references to "the directional keys".

At any rate, Agent P's World Showcase Challenge was the reason she voted to spend our truncated last day before our flight home on a second visit to Epcot. I think we ended up doing five of the six missions in all. It goes a lot faster when the agent is 10 years old rather than 7 and the phone's screen is actually readable.

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 Disney's Hollywood Studios is about half a theme park right now, because the whole back section of the park (formerly home to the "backlot tour", among other things) is shut down for construction of both Star Wars Land and Toy Story Land. What's left feels cramped and crowded, though the theming is still nice.

Anyway, pending Star Wars Land, which I think doesn't open until around 2019, they're determined to squeeze as much value as they can out of Disney's acquisition of Lucasfilm, and make the remainder of Hollywood Studios as Star Warsy as is humanly possible. There's a walk-through attraction with a few exhibits and character meet-and-greets called "Star Wars Launch Bay" (we met Kylo Ren). Imperial Stormtroopers occasionally stroll through the place being threatening. There are a couple of alternating stage shows that happen in the park's central plaza every half hour or so, featuring most of the good guys and bad guys in the Star Wars movies who can be played by a person in a face-obscuring costume (which is a lot of them), and another show at the south end of the park called "Jedi Training: Trials of the Temple" in which little kids in Jedi hoods can participate in defeating spectral villains with a collective Force push. Just in case you don't understand what any of this is about, there's a movie attraction called "Star Wars: Path of the Jedi" that is apparently a ten-minute condensation of the entire Star Wars saga. I didn't watch that.

But Hollywood Studios' involvement with Star Wars actually goes all the way back to 1989, with their copy of Star Tours, a motion-simulator ride that originally opened two years earlier at Disneyland. The premise is that you're on a wild, mishap-filled ride through the Star Wars galaxy in a sort of flying tour bus. The queue is themed as a passenger spaceport, much like Space Mountain, but with more droids (in fact, a lot of the decor looks similar).

The current incarnation is actually a major upgrade dating from 2011 (actually still slightly before the Lucasfilm acquisition), with 3-D video and randomized adventures assembled out of sequences of alternative scenes. In this version, C-3PO himself is the pilot, accidentally thrust into the role at the last minute. Some newer material was added to the mix after The Force Awakens came out.

Even so, compared to, say, Universal Florida's many simulator rides or Epcot's Soarin', it still feels a little behind the times. You're sitting in the interior of the "Starspeeder 1000", looking out the front window wearing your 3-D glasses. C-3PO is an animatronic figure, standing to the left of the screen reacting to things. The theater tilts and shakes around with good and convincing motion effects, but the screen isn't anything like the overwhelming Omnimax experience of some of those other rides. On the other hand, that may make it more palatable for some people with motion-sickness issues (Google reviews imply that a lot of people do have problems, though).

This is a jokey take on the Star Wars universe; before the acquisition, Lucasfilm tied itself into knots trying to explain how the ride's storylines fit into Star Wars canon, but with the addition of the Episode VII material all pretense of that has been mercifully dropped. This ride jumps back and forth through decades of in-universe time and we really don't care. In the sequence I got, we encountered Darth Vader, Finn and Jar Jar Binks.

All in all, it's not the most spectacular ride experience, but it's still fun and the randomized storylines probably invite re-riding if you've got the time. I think the Episode VII scene is currently locked into the sequence so you get it every time, though.

I'm sure Star Wars Land is going to feature much more amazing simulator experiences, and they may well shut this thing down then. But it's diverting enough for now.

In this video from "Theme Park Worldwide", you can hear part of the "Jedi Training" kid show going on outside the ride building at the beginning:

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You know, the song "Dude Looks Like A Lady" has really not aged well.

That aside, the now-quaintly-dated "Rock 'n' Roller Coaster Starring Aerosmith" at Hollywood Studios is a lot of fun, and is also easily the most intense roller coaster at Walt Disney World, which is to say that the ride itself would be a respectable though certainly not record-breaking ride at, say, Hersheypark or a Six Flags. It's also another dark coaster, which makes it in some sense a descendant of Space Mountain.

The coaster's a Vekoma custom ride with three inversions; it begins with a powerful, high-speed launch into a twisty double inversion element, and there's a third corkscrew roll toward the end. It is actually not quite as fast as Test Track, but it's obviously a much more intense ride. There are over-the-shoulder restraints. I didn't find it untowardly uncomfortable or rough; it's forceful, but Space Mountain jerked me around more. The promotion for the ride plays up the 4 and a half gees you pull going into the first inversion, but that's pretty normal for this kind of ride. As usual, Coasterforce's East Coaster General has ridden it:

As with most other Disney coasters, much of the fun is in the theming. The building has a big photogenic weenie in front, a gigantic Fender Stratocaster whose strings transform into an overhead track bearing an upside-down car. The queue is a fake recording studio, and there's a scene in which Aerosmith and their "manager" (Illeana Douglas) appear in a video, and grant you backstage passes to a concert that you have to get to in an unreasonably short time. The ride's conceit is that you're rushing through the night in a stretch limo along the freeways of Los Angeles, which apparently go upside down for some unexplained reason.

So the ride is in a dark enclosure and there are old-fashioned, fluorescent-painted flats in there representing road signs and the Hollywood sign and such--all very cartoony once the ride starts, but that's part of the charm. The trains all have onboard audio playing different Aerosmith songs, of which I unfortunately drew the aforementioned transphobic anthem "Dude Looks Like A Lady."

Another dark ride from the same late-90s era is "Dinosaur" at Animal Kingdom. This was one of the first rides I rode on my trip, right after Expedition Everest (which I described a few years ago--it hasn't changed since then; the yeti's still broken but it's still a solid ride anyway).

But I hadn't ridden Dinosaur before. The name seems to have been changed from "Countdown to Extinction" as a tenuous tie-in with the nearly unrelated, largely forgotten Disney movie "Dinosaur". But the ride's actual plot is basically "how much can we rip off Jurassic Park without having the license at all?" Instead of a theme park with genetically engineered dinosaurs, there's a service associated with the "Dinosaur Institute" offering tours in a time-traveling car that takes you to the Cretaceous Era. ("How? That is proprietary," says the director, played by none other than Phylicia Rashad in the pre-show video.)

But an overweening scientist named "Dr. Grant Seeker", who is totally not a knockoff of the Wayne Knight character from Jurassic Park, then appears and wants to divert you to a time period mere seconds before the meteor impact that wiped out the dinosaurs, so you can pick up a specific Iguanodon he is interested in, who I guess is supposed to be the one from "Dinosaur", and this makes no sense but roll with it. Here's a pretty good low-light video of what follows:

 The ride itself is apparently a redressed duplicate of the ride system from the Disneyland Indiana Jones ride, which I have not had the pleasure of riding. It's fairly ingenious, basically a motion simulator bed that can move on rails while bouncing around to simulate a Jeep moving over rough terrain. There's a strange "time travel chamber" sequence that looks like you're being baked in an oven, then the vehicle darts and jolts rapidly through a dark environment full of noisy, menacing animatronic dinosaurs, an onboard computer voice identifies their species, and Dr. Seeker's voice shouts repeatedly that they're still not the one he wants. Finally you start dodging meteors, the Big One is about to hit, and there's a race against time to get back to the present; a giant Carnotaur lunges at you and you go into a small drop while Dr. Seeker yells "They're not gonna make it! They're not gonna make it!" He's kind of irritating, but I have to hand it to them, the storytelling during the ride proper is as simple, stark and clear as is possible. On a relatively fast action ride like this it can't be too complex.

A thing I noticed about this ride is that because it has a pretty low height limit, parents were taking fairly young kids on it, and it's actually kind of a scary ride, far spookier than, say, the Haunted Mansion. Much of the scariness comes from the combination of loud noises and rapid motions in the dark, more than from the dinosaur animatronics themselves, though they're fairly well-done. Anyway, there was a little girl sitting behind me who was utterly petrified by the ride and spent the whole time crying. Parents might want to pre-screen it via YouTube if nothing else.
mmcirvin: (Default)
Three and a half years ago we went to Walt Disney World for what was, for me, the first time. Over the past week we went back, and I got to ride some of the stuff I didn't last time (and some I did), including most of the park's best-known roller coasters. This was particularly fun for me because i've been hearing about some of this stuff ever since I was a little kid.

If there was an overarching theme to the ones that were new to me, it was darkness. Disney's people really like to use low light or even total darkness to kick something up a notch. Here's somebody's nice video of maybe the most famous coaster at Disney World, 1975's Space Mountain, which is inside a weirdly stylized conical building in the Magic Kingdom's Tomorrowland:

It's actually much darker in there than that low-light video implies; even the "space station" diorama you see going up the lift hill is suspended in dim murk, and the ride proper is in near-total darkness. With the lights on, you can see that it's a not-very-extreme coaster with a layout inspired by Disneyland's Matterhorn Bobsleds. There are actually two mirror-image copies of the coaster inside the conical ride building. The ride's not very fast, the drops are pretty small, and most of the thrill comes from the rather jerky turns and dips and the fact that you can't see them to ride defensively. It feels as if you are hurtling by mysterious means through a black void.

But then there's the presentation. The queue and loading station are themed like some sort of interplanetary spaceport, and the beginning and end of the ride involve passage through tunnels of pulsing blue and red light with throbbing sound effects. There are also more subdued light and sound effects inside the mountain while you're riding. There are even a few futuristic dioramas to look at while you're walking through the tunnel back to Tomorrowland after getting off the ride. The extras all make the little ride seem much more epic, kind of like the transformation of Charlie Brown's Christmas tree.

If I have a complaint, it's that the cars feel kind of cramped even for a guy my size. The current cars have three seats in single file, and if you've got long legs you kind of fold yourself in. (Apparently they used to have two seats each of which could hold two people, one sitting on the other's lap! This design probably made more sense in the context of Matterhorn Bobsleds.)

Most people seem to think the one at Disneyland, which was built slightly later (and extensively refurbished not long ago), is a better ride: it's a single, higher-capacity coaster with, apparently, more comfortable cars. I haven't ridden that one. Recently it was given a Star Wars-themed makeover that turned it into "Hyperspace Mountain"; that hasn't been done to the original in Orlando.
mmcirvin: (Default)
1. It seems as if the beta feature to direct all your Dreamwidth accesses to HTTPS, at , is something everyone should be using.

2. Anyone know of an up-to-date procedure for exporting/archiving images from LiveJournal's photo-hosting service? All of the tools and instructions I've seen for this so far are way out of date, and even getting to the original version of an image hosted there is a not-obvious manual process--doing it for hundreds of images would be painful.

Comments up

Apr. 9th, 2017 08:47 am
mmcirvin: (Default)
Well, comments have been imported from LJ--including, apparently, some comment spam that I never got around to deleting (LJ had a major problem with that). I had it set to screen anonymous comments, so you probably won't see most of the spam if it's still there.

The default settings for DW are to allow comments only from registered accounts, which is probably how I should have had things set on LiveJournal. I suspect the spam scene here is going to be less of a problem for now just because Dreamwidth is so obscure, but we'll see.
mmcirvin: (Default)
I see the entries from my LJ imported successfully! Comment threads are next.

The thing this isn't going to handle is that for a while, I was using LiveJournal's Scrapbook feature as my primary online photo album. I'll have to stash those pictures somewhere else, probably Google. That will break the LJ posts that were primarily photo links, but for the most part this is no big loss; the photos themselves were the key content.

It says something about my recent LJ activity that the "recent posts" page here now covers about three and a half years of content.
mmcirvin: (Default)
I'm currently attempting to migrate my old LiveJournal over to here, but it sounds as if LiveJournal is throttling back their responses to Dreamwidth under a storm of migrations, so that may take a long time if it ever happens.

At any rate, I've had this Dreamwidth account for a while and used it for nothing other than commenting on other Dreamwidth users' posts, but now that DW looks set to become more active than LJ among the people I'm actually interested in reading, I'm probably going to be putting my longer-form essays here rather than there going forward. Shorter stuff intended to be public can be found on Google+.
mmcirvin: (Default)
Monday was the very first day of in-person early voting in Massachusetts, ever. I didn't have much in the way of a practical reason to do it, but I was curious (and was probably looking for a bit of early closure to this enervating election season), so I went and voted at City Hall.

Massachusetts of course has long had absentee ballots for people who can provide excuses for not being around on Election Day1, but in 2014 the state passed a law allowing anybody to request a mail-in ballot, or to vote early in person for a period of a couple of weeks before the election. This year's general election is the first one for which the law is in effect. Every city or town has to have at least one early-voting location, though the details vary from place to place. The main location here is in the basement of City Hall, at the opposite corner from the RMV office. They're going to have a few other locations open just on Saturday, at a couple of fire stations and the Department of Public Works. The operation seems modest compared to what already exists in some other places, but it's a start.

I've heard reports of brisk business in some other towns, but when I went there (about an hour after early voting began), interest seemed fairly low. The poll workers were still getting the hang of the system, but it didn't matter much, because there were only a few people there, most of them elderly. The late and weekend hours might get a more diverse crowd.

In any event, it was interesting. Regular Election Day voting here is a pretty streamlined affair in which you check in at a table with paper voter lists, get your optical-scan ballot, retire to a cardboard cubby to fill it in, then check out at a different table with another set of voter lists, and you stick your ballot in the box. Early voting is a little different, since there are people coming in from all over the city, and the ballots have to be sent back to the voters' individual precincts in sealed envelopes. It's basically an in-person version of voting by mail.

The poll workers checked me in on a tablet computer, with the option of scanning driver's license dot codes to get my name and address faster--though they were very careful to emphasize that this was optional, and ID was not required. The tablet was connected to a little printer that spat out a numbered, receipt-like slip, which they kept at the table. Then they gave me a yellow envelope, a ballot, a sheet of instructions, and a marker pen. There was a long line of cubbies for voting off to the side, most of them unoccupied.

The ballot was a regular optical-scan ballot, only pre-creased for folding so it would go into the envelope. Aside from filling out the ballot itself, I had to write my name and address and sign an affidavit on the outside of the envelope, then seal the ballot inside. (So from the voter's perspective, there isn't 100% assurance that these early ballots are secret--but that's the case with voting by mail as well.) I then brought the envelope back to the original table, where they stapled the printed slip to the front and stuck it in a box. The envelope is apparently going to go back to my home precinct, where it will be opened sometime after the polls close on November 8 and the ballot scanned along with all the Election Day ballots. The voter lists that the poll workers have on Election Day will also note that I've already voted, so I can't do it again.

For most people here, it was probably not more convenient than voting on Election Day, aside from the greater time flexibility. There is the advantage that if something goes wrong, you can always come back later; there's less chance of a disaster that keeps you from actually casting a ballot. But my precinct usually has very light crowds and little trouble anyway.

Still, there is something nice about getting it done when most of the country still has a couple of weeks to go.

1 The old absentee ballots apparently still exist as a separate system from the new mail-in ballots, which is a little odd. Presumably there's room to streamline that some more.
mmcirvin: (Default)
I got an XBox One for Christmas (with Halo 5), but only got to actually play with it for the first time yesterday, as the first unit had a broken optical drive and I had to send it to Redmond for warranty replacement.

Mostly what I can say at the moment is: man, Halo 5 is a beautiful game. The high-res textures and high frame rate give new games a subtly hyperreal quality; the latest console generation's graphics are approaching the point where human figures can look photorealistic if they're not too close. They seem to be moving away from the brown-and-dusty aesthetic that was prevalent in Halo 4; everything is shinier. After playing so much Destiny, the traditional Halo mechanic of not getting too attached to your weapons takes some getting used to.

I'm not too fond of the XBox One's use of the Windows Metro interface. There are a lot of situations in which it's actually difficult to figure out how to get rid of a dialog or navigate to some visible part of the user interface.

We'll probably end up keeping the XBox 360 around for a while, since the XBox One is not backward-compatible with all XBox 360 games. Also, I'll need a second controller for the One, and, probably, an external hard drive before long (the storage seems to fill up quickly, but at least the XBox One actually allows external USB expansion).

We played through to the end of Disney Infinity's The Force Awakens playset's main story. The story here is a bit shorter than in Rise Against the Empire; there are only two "sandbox" planets instead of three (Jakku and Takodana), and Han's freighter and Starkiller Base are more linear levels. But there's a fairly significant number of side missions and challenges. Like many Disney Infinity levels, this one has an area just for doing trick jumps on a vehicle; here, it's a lake on Takodana (apparently hovering Star Wars speeders can all go on water) that you outfit with stunt ramps.

A cute thing that it took us a while to realize is that both planets in this one have a tiny spherical moon that functions like a Super Mario Galaxy planet, and one player can actually land on it while the other is still dogfighting in space. We also haven't unlocked all of the "Hologame Console" arcade mini-games.

Mystery: Maz Kanata is strangely absent, unless there's some way to meet her that we missed. I was wondering if she was or is intended to be a playable character figure (there is none currently released).
mmcirvin: (Default)
Playing further through the Rise Against the Empire (classic Star Wars trilogy) playset in Disney Infinity 3.0, we got to a point that I think was just too frustrating, especially for a kid's game.
The frustration of *that one mission*, and other, better things )
mmcirvin: (Default)
I got my daughter Disney Infinity 3.0 for Christmas, prompted by extensive pleading.

As with version 2.0, I don't think this is a great value-for-money proposition; the various starter kits only give you one Play Set campaign unlocked (far short of the three you got with v1.0) and you have to buy the rest à la carte. This game can hit parents' wallets pretty hard. But that's Disney for you.

However, the Star Wars-themed Play Set content for this version feels considerably richer than the Marvel-based Play Sets in v2.0, more on par with the clever Disney/Pixar campaigns in v1.0. There are also more Play Sets overall (three Star Wars campaigns, one based on Pixar's Inside Out and a new Marvel campaign), not all of which have been released yet.
More (no significant The Force Awakens spoilers contained herein)... )
mmcirvin: (Default)
The following is expanded from a comment I posted on John Scalzi's The Force Awakens spoiler thread.

Unlike the thread linked above, it actually is only mildly spoilery; I don't think it'll ruin the movie for you unless you are practicing a total information blackout. However, I'm NOT going to screen for spoilers in the comments.

Why The Force Awakens actually had me missing the prequels a little... and why I liked it )
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