Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Bringing balance to the Force

This post contains spoilers for Star Wars Episode 7.

After the destruction of his Jedi school, Luke went looking for the first Jedi temple. Why? What would he hope to find there?

About the only reference to ancient Jedi in the entire movie series so far is the prophecy about the Chosen One. We have few details about this prophecy, and it's not clear that the Jedi had any either. What does it actually mean to bring balance to the Force? To destroy the Sith? If so, does that mean Anakin was the chosen one, since he did ultimately do that? Or is perhaps Luke the chosen one, or has some added prophetic role? Is this the entirety of the prophecy, or is there more to it? George Lucas has made statements about the matter, but they're hardly canon any more.

This prophecy has had tremendous impact on the entire Skywalker line, and is clearly a tremendous motivator for people to do things they would not otherwise do. I believe Luke went looking for the first Jedi temple because he hoped to find out more about this prophecy. He found it, and his faith the accuracy of what he found may be why he was willing to stay so completely out of galactic affairs. He may have come to understand that Rey was coming. Luke may have been waiting for her all this time.

Snoke, on the other hand, may also be working the prophecy angle with Kylo Ren. Someone he called a perfect fusion of light and dark. That sounds a lot like balance in the Force. Perhaps the prophecy is multiple choice; the chosen one brings balance to the force, but which side he or she is on is yet to be determined. If the prophecy refers to Anakin's grandchild being the true Chosen One, or having some continuing role in the prophecy, and and if Rey is Luke's daughter, Rey and Ren may be competing to fulfill the same prophecies.

Which could lead to all sorts of interesting parallels, which we know the writers have tended towards in the past. Rey would be justifiably infuriated if her father left her in that desert hell with no intention to return. Rather than tell her the whole story, Luke may tell her her father was one of the Jedi, destroyed by Ren. Which is true... from a certain point of view. And while Luke may insist she should follow the prophecy and stay with him to train, she may place much greater weight on her friends' safety than on the prophecy. Ren finds her friends to draw her out. Leading to a confrontation.

"Skywalker never told you what happened to your father..."

Thursday, June 16, 2016

Orlando and Self-Radicalization

I'm the kind of guy who wants solutions. And I spend a lot of time considering them. But I don't have one here.

We're seeing a new kind of terrorist. This wasn't an attack by foreign-born people who come here with a plan. By all appearances, this was an American who decided, on his own and without direction, to kill other Americans. Chattanooga, San Bernadio, Wichita, and Garland were all very comparable. Even the Paris attacks were primarily perpetrated by citizens of France and Brussels.

How do you stop an American citizen who, on his own, decides one day that God wants him to kill as many people as possible?

You can't stop the person from being here; he's a citizen with all the rights I have. Should we strip all Muslims of their civil rights? Put them in internment camps? Burn the first amendment?

You can't eliminate other grievances; many times there are none. We're dealing with people who have lived in rich countries their entire lives. They're not angry about American involvement in the middle east, or support of Israel. They want to kill Americans because they think God wants them to. We're dealing with a small fraction of Muslims, but it's still fundamentally a religious issue.

You can't stop Muslims from being exposed to radical ideas; free speech is impossible to contain even if you're trying. Do we try anyway? Pull down radical videos as soon as we find them? Have a new department of censorship? Once again burn the first amendment?

You can't disincentivize; they expect to die and go to heaven, and bring all their loved ones with them. Paradise beats any possible carrot or stick.

You can't prevent access to deadly weapons; guns are too widespread to practically eliminate, and trying would cause a civil war. If we waved a magic wand to eliminate all guns in the US, we would get less-lethal terror attacks, but I'm not sure the big-picture result would be better. You can do just as much damage with bombs, as we've seen from Christian domestic terrorists in the past.

One of the hardest security problems imaginable is an attacker who will trade his life for the target. How do you stop that when everyone is the target?

So far I have two possible solutions, and I don't like either of them.

1) Harden every target. Hire gigantic numbers of trained armed guards. I'm not sure how much that would actually help anything, but presume it does. We're talking about a million restaurants, 350,000 churches, 50,000 bars and nightclubs, 20,000 theaters, 100,000 libraries, 130,000 schools, and an uncountable number of shopping centers. Not to mention several million businesses. Call it ten million locations, each needing on average one full-time guard. If the guard makes a living wage, that's $300 billion a year just in wages, not to mention the high cost of continuing training. That would make it one of the largest areas of government expenditure. And all that assumes that the armed guards actually accomplish anything, which is far from certain.

Alternately, change our society so that a sizable fraction of the populace starts to carry a gun, all the time. Roughly a third of the US owns guns, and there are roughly 500 accidental deaths due to firearms. Supposing we triple the number of homes with guns in the US, we could reasonably expect an additional 1000 accidental deaths per year due to firearms, plus an indeterminate number of additional homicides and suicides. Supposing we just use the round 1000 additional deaths a year, to make this proposal effective we would have to prevent at least 1000 terrorist murders every year. We are nowhere near that number.

2) Prove the jihadists wrong. Self-radicalization happens when a Muslim becomes convinced they're living in the end times. But this didn't happen until recently. What has changed? The existence of ISIS, and a credible caliphate. Destroy that caliphate, prove that this is not the end of times, and self-radicalization should drop dramatically.

Obviously I'm reluctant to push this as a solution. Our invasion of Iraq was a complete disaster, as was our bombing of Libya. But those were disasters for specific reasons, chief among them that we had no plan to successfully pacify the country afterward, leading to a complete lack of order. For many Iraqis things got worse after the invasion, and that spiraled into further destabilization, leading directly to ISIS in the first place. Libya outright refused foreign intervention past the bombing, apparently preferring their hellhole to foreign soldiers. Because we acted without a full plan, things got worse.

Now consider, for those living under ISIS, is it even possible for things to get worse?

There are other concerns, of course. If we go to total war on ISIS, in the short term we make their prophecies look more accurate. (You know, before all the jihadists in Syria are dead. So the very short term.) How many new domestic terrorist events does that precipitate, vs. how many does it prevent?

What if, at the same time, we offer free travel for any would-be jihadists who wish to go fight us in Syria? These aren't exactly brilliant strategic thinkers; if we ask nicely, they might just line up politely to be incinerated...

And honestly, on some level, it just seems... right. We have the largest military the planet has ever seen. ISIS is the most evil force the world has seen in decades, and they are literally asking us to come fight them. For decades we've invaded places for business interests, or revenge, or in the name of ideologies that we don't even hold half the time. Can we use our amazing powers to do violence just because, for once, it's the right thing to do?

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Mystery Escape Room @ Salt Lake City: Mystery Impossible

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Mystery Escape Room in Salt Lake City.

This game is located downtown in the Rio Grande mall. This is one of the nicer malls I've seen, an open air, design with (when I went) good parking. There's plenty of food and other distractions around before and after your game. That may not seem like much, but it can be a lot of fun to have somewhere to go with your group and decompress afterwards.

One thing about Mystery Escape Room that surprised me is how often they rotate games. They run something like five rooms at a time, but they've had over a dozen rooms since opening a year ago. Some rooms are only open less than six weeks! I can't say I understand how that level of regular refurb is cost-effective, but it must be! They often run beta weeks, where you can test new rooms at half price, which is a neat concept.

I decided to do their newest and hardest room, Mystery Impossible. Just out of beta, less than a dozen groups had run the room, and nobody had escaped. Fine, I said. I'd done eight other rooms, escaped from seven, and escaped two alone. They promised a free game to any group that escaped, and I was sure looking forward to that second game.

I thought I was good at these things...
Mystery Impossible is well named. When they say hard, they mean it. I ran this room with five other people, one of which had done even more rooms than I had. And we still only made it through half the room before time ran out. We didn't even spend much time stuck on things, either, at least not by my usual standards!

The game masters said one previous group had gotten 70%, but that even knowing the solutions to everything, it still takes 35 minutes to execute it all. That's 25 minutes to solve all the puzzles, when there are probably twice as many as any other room I've seen, and all of them are twice as time-consuming, even once you figure out how to solve them!

I'm told there are groups that travel the country doing escape rooms. Maybe they could pull off a room like this. But I feel comfortable saying that mere mortals are never going to get out of this room. Unless you're a professional-level escaper, or just want to see a cool room and don't care about getting out, I'd recommend trying one of their easier rooms.

The difficulty level was frustrating. But I really can't complain about that, because they do label it and give the escape statistics. I knew what I was getting into, and now I have a 7/9 record. I think we could have done better if we'd been well organized. Perhaps if we'd had a leader, or something, we could have knocked a few minutes off. But I still don't think we'd have gotten out, no matter how efficient we were. We just weren't that caliber of players.

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything. Shoot, I don't even know the solutions to most of this room! But I will tell you some details that are obvious to you as soon as the room starts. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

The plot of this game requires you to break into a bank vault. This room has some of the best production values I've seen; it feels exactly right for what they're going for. Unlike any other room I've seen, they actually give you a bag of tools to start with, which alone is perfect for this story. Some of the ideas involved are sheer brilliance. You're given an instamatic camera, lamination film, paper, and an ink pad. With this, you have to create a fake ID, in the room. Pretty sharp.

Another detail is that, like any bank, there's an alarm that can go off and summon the police. Set it off, and you have limited time to figure out how to disarm it. Don't disarm it in time? Game over, no matter how much time is left on the master clock. Great touch.

Now, the puzzles. Some puzzles just have to be explained by the game master; I have trouble imagining anyone would think to do them properly otherwise. There are some math puzzles the likes of which I've never seen, and I've seen a lot of math puzzles. There are some that, even if you've seen them and know how to do them, take some significant time to execute. And this is the first room where I've seen a really time-consuming red herring, at least one the game master doesn't tell you about. (Believe me, I asked.)

This room is extremely, extremely hard. I don't think I could escape now on a second try, even with the head start I have! But ignoring that, it's a fantastically well-done room, and a lot of fun.

Rating: 10/10 (if you don't mind losing)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Escape the Room Boston: The Dig

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Escape the Room Boston.

First, finding this place was a nightmare, as was finding parking. Downtown locations are always a bit of a pain, but this was worse than most. I've heard many bad things about Boston traffic flow, and now I think they're all true! I'd highly recommend parking elsewhere and taking an Uber to the location. The building wasn't well marked when I was there in Fall '15, either. Be sure you read their directions on how to get in.

I was originally expecting to do this room with just myself an engineer coworker. Then eight local music students showed up! It certainly made for an interesting mix, but everything worked really well. We made it out with about ten minutes left on the clock. The staff at this location were perhaps less enthusiastic than some I've seen, but I had no complaints, by any means.

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything, but it will tell you some vague details that aren't obvious when you first walk in. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

This game has the plot of an archaeological dig, but you start in a church setting. It's pretty obvious from the start that there's more to the room than you see, but the depths may surprise you. The lights are dim, and the room has several battery-operated candles in it. This is an excellent touch, really adds to the feel of the place; you have to actually pick up the candles and hold them to things to be able to see them!

As I write this I have done nine rooms with six companies across the country. Almost everything in this room is unique in my experience; nothing about it feels overdone or repetitive. The production quality is as good as any room I've seen, and the attention to detail is excellent. Additionally, this is one of the few rooms I've seen where running it with the maximum number of people isn't likely to be a nightmare. I often feel like running with a smaller group works better, just because of space constraints, but I didn't this time.

Really, there's almost nothing I can say that isn't good. At one point we found an unlocked box, only for the game master to come into the room and tell us to ignore it until we found the key. Apparently they failed to reset the room properly! That's not fantastic, but things happen. I'm surprised I don't see incomplete resets more often, honestly, given the details involved. Other than that I have no suggestions for improvement or feedback. This is just an excellent room, and I recommend it to anyone.

Rating: 10/10

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Breakout Nashville: Kidnapped

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Breakout Nashville.

Breakout Nashville is actually in Franklin, miles away from Nashville proper. Details, details. (Also not a problem for Beat the Clock Nashville, less than two minutes away.) There's on-site parking, even if it is a little tight. The game master (Brian in my case) was a little more enthusiastic than some; most I've seen really enjoy their work, but in this case, I felt like we were dealing with someone who really loved the concept and all its variations. That really enhanced the experience.

I played Kidnapped with my wife and dad. We made it out with thirteen minutes to spare.
While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Everything I say is either something you're told before starting, or something common to many escape rooms. But if you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

From even before the room starts, you may be a little freaked out; before you go in, you're blindfolded, then led into a dark room, handcuffed, and left there! They warn you about this before booking, and a lot of people won't even consider doing a room like that. But let me emphasize, it's okay. You have one arm handcuffed to the scenery by a chain, and the other arm is free. The chain is attached to the scenery by a magnet, so you can still get out at any time just by pulling loose. You are no more "trapped" than you are in any other room.

And let me say, this is a brilliant design choice! Not even seeing the room during the intro makes this room work twice as well as it would otherwise. The blindfolds and handcuffs are really an integral part of the fun. If that part scares you, don't let it.

The plot is pretty standard: you have an hour to get away from the psycho, or you never get out. A previous victim left clues. (Don't think to hard about that part.) The game master plays the part of the kidnapper, giving occasional clues in a creepy voice. Also a great atmospheric choice. The room is very well designed, and could believably be in someone creep's basement.

Most of the elements seemed fresh and unique. Involving the staff in the games always improves the atmosphere.  I have very few suggestions for improvement. The only thing that really broke the flow was one safe that had a lock-out time on it; enter three wrong codes, and you have to wait five minutes to try again. To avoid you locking yourself out and wasting time, the game master will tell you when you have the right code before you enter it. If that wasn't necessary, it would improve the immersion.

Overall, I very much enjoyed this game at Breakout Nashville, and I look forward to my next trip!

Rating: 10/10

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Nashville Escape Game: Gold Rush

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Nashville Escape Game playing Gold Rush.

This was my fourth room at Nashville Escape Game, and my first at the Third Avenue location. The location is very well marked. I really like the big lock sign! You either know what it is and that it's awesome, or you don't know and you say "What's that?" Parking is a pain downtown, no matter where you are, but there's a garage not far away. Honestly, with the price of parking, I think I'd just park somewhere further out and take an Uber next time!

I did this room with my wife, my dad, and three tourists from LA. I don't often end up doing rooms with strangers, so I was a little apprehensive, but this one worked out nicely. We ended up making it out, with several minutes left on the clock.

At this point I've done four rooms with Nashville Escape Game, and four with other companies around the country. Invariably, NEG does by far the best job with scenery, depth, and immersion. I suspect they spent more money on their rooms than other places, and it shows in the quality of the gameplay. Not that the other game rooms are bad! You can do a perfectly good room on a lower budget. Money's not everything, but in some areas, it really helps!

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Nothing I say will help you solve anything, but it will tell you some vague details that aren't obvious when you first walk in. If you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

NEG does their usual job of setting up the backstory in a well-made, concise video. The gamemaster tells you immediately that a couple things in the room are not to be touched or are irrelevant, but from that point, almost everything else matters.

From minute one, I have no complaints about this room. Zero. The atmosphere is perfect, the decor is extremely well done, the reveals are unexpected, and the puzzles are both unique and fit perfectly with the theme. At best, I have some minor observations.

There is one puzzle near the end that I'm not sure most groups would solve. We had an engineer and an actuary, both of whom do math puzzles for fun. It still took us a couple minutes to solve, even once we were told how to do it, which itself was completely not obvious. Perhaps I underestimate the average Joe, but I genuinely wonder how often people get stuck on that one...

Also, do not nail the nails in! You'll know what I mean when you get there. The game master had to stop the clock and come in to help us, which is never what you want.

Oh, and at one point something went off prematurely... I think it may have been manually triggered from outside the room, and designed that way. But I really wanted to push that detonator, consarnit!

Ultimately, I loved this room. It had a great mix of puzzles, and didn't use any of the usual tropes. Whoever did this room did it right.

Rating: 10/10

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Escape Chambers @ Milwaukee: Containment

This is my spoiler-free review of my experience at Escape Chambers in Milwaukee.

First, Escape Chambers. This is the only escape room I've seen that's actually in a mall. If you're walking down the street and don't realize a mall's there, it can be a little surprising. But it works! Like most downtown locations, parking is a pain, but at least the mall has dedicated garages. It's not the nicest mall I've ever seen, but it's not the worst. (I'd stay out of the bathrooms if possible, though.) And having a food court immediately available before and after is pretty cool.

Like everywhere I've been, the people here are professional and fun. They seem to really enjoy what they do, and hearing about other rooms. The overall escape rate for the facility is about 20%, but they didn't have it broken down by room. I did their Containment room, and ended up being the only one in my booking. They said that in the year they'd been open, nobody had ever tried a room alone; I escaped the room with about five minutes left, which is apparently a better time than many groups!

While I will not give any hints to solving puzzles, I will be describing some minor details about the room. Everything I say is either something you're told before starting, or something common to many escape rooms. But if you wish to remain utterly surprised by everything, stop here.

The backstory is straightforward: you have an hour to find 40 vials of blood and three other widgets, or civilization is destroyed by a virus. Good luck, we're all counting on you! No really, all of us.

This game was more primitive than most I've seen. There is no clue screen, almost all the locks are mechanical, and the audio feed is a baby monitor! Those weren't really a problem for me, though there were areas that the baby monitor didn't pick up well enough to be heard by the game master. It's nice to see that a good escape room can be done without the gadgets if you want to.

This game had the best system of hints I've seen in any room so far. You're playing the part of a scientist in a locked-down lab. The game master is actually playing the part of a lab assistant trapped in another room! You can chat back and forth constantly, and she gives hints about whatever you need, including if she thinks you missed something earlier. It's a great system, and really added to the fun.

There were some glitches in the puzzles here and there, which I might not have been able to solve without hints. Two puzzles depended on matching photographs to items in the room. But the photographs didn't look at all like the items they were supposed to represent! One had faded badly and made the colors indistinguishable, and another simply had never been right. It was a little frustrating to have to basically ask for the solution because the needed information just wasn't there. Hopefully they'll fix that with some new photographs! I like things that are easy to fix! Also, one puzzle towards the very end was just kind of silly; I arranged some items properly, but I don't think anyone would reasonably think to get a combination from them the way I was finally instructed to.

Another issue I had was with the construction: the walls didn't go all the way to the ceiling, and I could hear other groups clearly discussing their rooms! That didn't cause me any problems, but it could have been a significant distraction. Having a ceiling on your escape room would improve the immersive feel.

Other unique aspects: this room was really full of things to go through, which I liked. It actually contained lots of irrelevant data and gear, just like a lab should. The assistant often told you when you were on the wrong track, which makes that kind of thing perfectly fine. I can't say enough how great that assistant is! If you and the world survive, give her a raise.

Ultimately, I had a very good time. The staff was helpful, the room had some unique puzzles, and the little details helped make the atmosphere more immersive. The minor glitches were really very small in the overall picture. I sometimes think that rooms are better with minimal groups, but I think this is one room that would actually benefit from more people. I would definitely recommend this room, and I would go back to Escape Chambers for another.

Rating: 8/10