Thursday, March 27, 2014

Copyright Wars

Have you joined the thousands who have stopped playing Candy Crush?  Only a couple of days ago, King Digital Entertainment went public with a very disappointing IPO.  How could such a successful game perform so poorly?  It could be because of a recent copyright scandal.  As more people learn more details from social media, they just want to stop playing the game.  So, what exactly happened?

First, let's remind ourselves what copyrights are for.  They protect the creator of a work of art, fiction, video game, etc.  They help ensure that you get the profits from sales of the work instead of some other Joe Blow who had nothing to do with the creation of the work.

However, more and more, we see examples of people taking advantage of copyright laws in attempts to do what Joe Blow would like to do: earn money when they don't deserve it.

I believe this is what King tried to do and (thankfully) failed.

First off, let's all admit it.  Candy Crush Saga is a fun and addictive game.  One night I tried it out, and I couldn't stop until I ran out of credits.  King did a good job in the presentation of the game, and I believe they should earn money.  Good for them.

However, they started going a little crazy when they tried to "protect" their interests.  Understandably, they went after knock-offs--that is, lower quality games that are similar to Candy Crush.  But they went too far when they tried to trademark the names "Candy" and "Saga."  And they even went after similar games that were created long before Candy Crush existed.

One game in particular is CandySwipe by Albert Ransom, which was created two years prior to the release of Candy Crush.  In fact, Ransom accuses King of stealing parts of his game.  The candy pieces look similar, and so is the use of the word "Sweet."

This snopes article gives a good summary of the saga surrounding Candy Crush, including what Ransom is saying.

What do I think?

#1) I tried out CandySwipe tonight.  There's a demo version you can try for free. My verdict: the games are just too different.  CandySwipe plays like an amateur game with one annoying bug: the screen is too close to the top, and my iPhone "top" menu came down on me at least 10 times while playing.  It also took me a while to realize it's not a three-in-a-row game, but rather a "swiping" game, where you swipe a series of connected pieces to make them disappear.  If you can swipe something like ten in a cluster, you might get a "Sweet!"

I got bored with the game after a few minutes.

I doubt that the gang at King even knew CandySwipe existed.  It's one of those coincidences similar to the story of Larry Potter vs. Harry Potter.  Basically, when someone creates an awesome good-quality story or game, chances are that out of the thousands of mediocre creators who are trying to create similar products, at least one of them will create a product that's remarkably similar.  And to that one mediocre creator, it will feel like the really successful person stole their ideas.

So, no ... King did not swipe ideas from CandySwipe.  (Though as the snopes article pointed out, they may have well swiped ideas from Bejeweled, who also swiped ideas from earlier incarnations of the three-in-a-row variety of games.)  I wish Ransom luck, and I hope he continues to enjoy the cash he's earning from the scandal.  Just, please fix those bugs!

#2) Either way, I find the actions of King to be despicable.  Even though they didn't steal from CandySwipe, and Ransom didn't steal from Candy Crush, there was no reason for either one of them to go after the other.  Ransom's game came out first, so there really should be no standing for King to sue.

King shouldn't have tried to trademark "Candy" and "Saga."  I don't know how many games I've played with those words in the title, and it's silly to expect that others can't use those names.  By the way, since the snopes article was written, King has dropped their attempt to trademark those words.  Though, they successfully pulled it off in Europe.

King shouldn't have threatened to go after "The Banner Saga" which has nothing to do with candy at all, and has zero chance of being confused with "Candy Crush."

I'm just happy that King's attempts failed.  We need less misuse of copyright laws that try to Crush competition and Swipe profits from others who are just trying to make their own living.  I'm glad it blew up in their face, and people could see the greed for what it was.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

The Bloatation Of Smaug

Next in my list of belated reviews is The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

This movie was really cool and exciting--that is if you've never read The Hobbit. There is plenty of fighting, and magic, and orcs, and invisibility, and bad guys, etc.

But if you have read The Hobbit you will notice lots of bloat, even more so than is found in the first installment.  At least in the first movie, most of each item of bloat could be backed up with some other external source such as The Silmarillion or the appendix of The Lord of the Rings.  However, in the second installment, there just isn't that much excuse for the bloat that transpired.

For example, in the book, the hobbit and dwarves had a nice peaceful journey down the river at night in their barrels.  In the movie, however, it was all out war--orcs and elves everywhere.

The land of Lake-town looks like something out of Waterworld where the inhabitants are inexplicably antagonistic toward dwarves, where in the book the dwarves are welcomed warmly.

The scene with the dragon was drawn out an extra 20 to 30 minutes.  (Well, that part was actually kind of cool.)

The only scene that wasn't bloated was the one with Beorn, the bear man.  I think he said three lines maximum.  And one of my favorite scenes with him was cut.  I bet most non-readers found Beorn's existence in the movie to be confusing, and probably rightfully figured the movie could do well on its own without him. Considering how they treated him (giving much of his screen time instead to barrel bloat), I would agree.

Bloat can be fun, and the movie is indeed enjoyable.  But the magic and innocence of the book is entirely destroyed.  What I liked about the book was entirely absent from this movie.

Monday, March 10, 2014

The New Cosmos: A Worthy Journey

It's back!  Carl Sagan's original Cosmos: A Personal Voyage aired Sunday nights in late 1980.  Back then, I caught every one of the thirteen episodes.  My parents gave me the companion book for Christmas and I loved the whole series.

Tonight the reboot, Cosmos: A SpaceTime Odyssey, premiered, brought to us by none other than executive producer Seth MacFarlane, and narrator Neil deGrasse Tyson.  Wait, did I type that right?  Seth MacFarlane--the Family Guy guy? Yes, that's the one.  The same guy who brought the house down at the Oscars last year.  But never fear.  Even though I see a touch of his humor in this show, it's all well done and in good taste.  You can see some samples of the humor in the trailer.  For example, when Tyson puts on shades right before witnessing the Big Bang.  And also when Tyson winces just as the dinosaur-killing meteorite hits.

This first episode was directed by Brannon Braga of Star Trek fame.  What we get is something similar to the feel of the original Cosmos, but with updated special effects, and better pacing for grabbing today's general audience.  Just like in the original, the narrator takes a trip through space and time in a cheesy unexplained ship.  Yet, it looks really cool.

Viewers of the original will recognize some recycled material in this first episode, such as when Tyson proclaims, "We are made of star-stuff."  And when Tyson walks us through the galactic calendar (13.8 billion years of time condensed into one earth year), he describes how all of earth's written history only falls within the last second of Dec. 31.

Tyson is a great choice to narrate this show.  He's nowhere near the same as Sagan, but he also doesn't even try to match Sagan's lovable magical persona. Yet, Tyson has his own charm and a very prominent booming clear voice that is very easy to listen to.  He is funny in his own way.  Instead of trying to match or outdo Sagan, Tyson rather gives a quick tribute or two to his predecessor, including a touching story of meeting him in 1975.

For the finishing touch, Alan Silvestri provides music for the new series.  I know people who have said, "If it doesn't have Vangelis, I'm not watching."  I love the original music, but as a musician, I think that Silvestri's music is more engaging and does a better job at grabbing the attention of the viewer, doing a much better job at matching cues and hits.  Even though his music is much less memorable than Vangelis, it still does its job very well.

My only concern about the show is how it might handle science vs. religion.  Carl Sagan was known for his agnosticism, which came across in the original series, but he always seemed to show respect toward the world religions in the show's presentation.

Tonight's reboot featured an animated section describing the martyrdom of Giordano Bruno at the hands of the Inquisition in 1600.  Though it was informative and entertaining, when it came time to burn Bruno at the stake, his prosecutors had the most sinister looks on their faces, as if the animators wanted to make sure the audience knew who the bad guys were.  I think it would have been more appropriate, accurate, and effective to show these bad guys with faces of "righteous indignation," that is, the look of anger toward a wayward soul.

In other words, I hope that as they present the facts, they do so with accuracy and without the need of artificially magnifying the drama.  Yet, I have high hopes, considering that Carl Sagan dedicated a whole episode to the question of cosmology, where he even related a couple of religious origin stories.  He left the question of origin open.  He even stated how impossible it is to prove/disprove the existence of a god.  If Tyson, et al, follow this same formula, then I suspect that we will see a good discussion on the whole topic of science vs. religion.

In summary, this show it worthy to watch.  It's different than the original, yet some elements are the same.  It's well-produced and well-edited, and it has excellent pace, music and special effects, leaving very little time to be bored.  It doesn't dumb down things very much, yet Tyson speaks very clearly and simply, so as to better explain complex concepts to most audiences.

Be prepared to be blown away as you watch this very-well-done documentary.

Thursday, March 6, 2014

"You Don't Have To Be an Actuary"

Every now and then I post these random vignettes.  It allows me to practice writing, and you get to know me more as a person.  Today, I'd like to describe this difficult choice before me now.  In a nutshell, I must decide whether or not to take this next actuarial exam coming at the end of April. The deadline is fast approaching, and I must decide by this Friday.  (I actually have until next Thursday, but I'm not waiting that long.)  And as you may have already guessed, this is no easy decision, and there's a story behind it.

After graduating from college, I started off strong pursuing the actuarial career.  I passed the first exam with the highest score possible (10), and I also passed the second exam the same day with a good score (8).  That was back in 1998.

For a while, I passed exams left and right.  But as the exam numbers got higher, the difficulty increased.  Sometimes I failed a couple, but then passed those on the second try.  By 2004, I had passed 6 "full" exams.  Only 1 exam away from Associate (the first recognized achievement for an actuary), and only 3 away from Fellow (the ultimate achievement).

But then a few things happened.  Firstly, that 7th exam is my bane.  It has the least math and the most boring stuff I've ever seen in an exam.  I've already failed this thing three times.

Secondly, my company (at the time) got hit hard by the mortgage crisis.  At first, I sacrificed taking exams to help others keep our company afloat.  Then when I was the last actuary left with the company, I suddenly had more time to study, and I was encouraged to continue trying to pass that 7th exam.  That was the last part of 2012.

But then the day after I took the exam, my boss pulled me into a room and told me they were killing the actuarial program.  They were hurting for cash, and they no longer "needed an actuary."  They wanted to keep me, but not as an actuary. They would no longer support my exams nor any subsequent actuarial continuing education.

At first, I resented that decision, as it took away my last chance of career advancement.  I continually expressed my discontent over the next couple of months until my boss pulled me into a room to clear the air for good.

He told me, "You don't have to be an actuary." I have potential and many talents. There are very few actuarial jobs in Winston Salem, where I live now, and if I were to stick with the profession, chances are I would have to move to accept such a job.  However, there are several non-actuarial jobs right here that I would qualify for that pay just as much, he told me, and I needed to keep all my options open.

He gave me a very important wake-up call, and he turned out to be right.

I ended up with the job I have now.  It's not actuarial, but I get to do a lot of similar work.  I don't get to analyze as much as I used to, but we're trying to fix that.  More and more, people are pleased with the work I do, and I have promise of career advancement without ever having to take another actuarial exam.

On the other hand, I'm only one exam away from a designation (the lower designation).  I've been one away for almost ten years now!  Can't I finish what I started and worked so hard towards?  If I give up on the exams, will I look back on my life and regret not passing this one exam?  With one more exam, I'd be able to write actuarial opinions.  I'd be eligible for the next big pay grade.  I'd be able to say, "I won!  These stupid exams have nothing on me any longer!"

And on the other, other hand, life is so much simpler when I'm not studying for exams.  This week in particular has been very depressing in how much study time I've missed.  I also have very little confidence that I will pass even if I go into the test feeling sufficiently prepared (as I felt the last time I took this exam).  I'm growing more and more tired playing the game of paying money to repeatedly fail an abnormally difficult exam, and sometimes I feel I would get more expected financial returns if I spent that time working on my writing career instead.

So now it all comes to a head this Friday.  If I choose not to take the exam, then that would probably be it for my actuarial career (unless I find another local actuarial job in the near future).  If I do take the exam, who knows?  I might even pass!  And then what?

Update 3/16/2014: I decided to sign up for the exam.  This means at most one new post a week for this blog till the end of April, but I've decided that I need closure--do everything I can to pass this exam and get it behind me.  I may be Captain Ahab, but I didn't get this far just to quit one exam away.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Writing Bad: Adventures in Self Publishing

I'd like to tell a story about this guy, whom we'll call Writer Windham.  While this guy suffers a mid-life crisis and learns that he has a terminal case of ihavenopurposeinlife-itis, he decides that changes need to happen.  Then he gets an idea.  An awful idea.  He gets a wonderful, awful, idea.

Immediately, his wife realizes something is different.  "Sweetie, what are you doing at 2 in the morning?" she asks.  He answers, "Um ... nothing ... puzzles?" But still, she suspects he's hiding something he doesn't want to talk about.

His coworkers notice a change.  "Windham!" says his boss.  "Why are sleeping at your desk?"  Writer lifts his head and says calmly, "Amen."  But still, they sense something else is going on.  I mean, he's not that religious.

His sister-in-law, who encourages everyone to get published, would have a cow if she ever found out what Writer Windham was planning.  She would be full of the cream of concern, fearing that Writer may be shunned by the gatekeepers, and banned by the AbsoluteWrite forum.

However, how long could Writer Windham keep this all a secret?  One day, he would have to confess where all that money was coming from, and reveal the true identity of Seussenberg, the author of the purest schtick ever created.  And one day everyone would know his name.

Yes, Writer Windham was Writing Bad.  He was dabbling in self-publishing.  (Or at least he's seriously considering doing it.)

Now, imagine Wayne and Garth doing their dream hands, going "Doodly-doo. Doodly-doo" as we return to real life.  The real Writer Windham has an announcement to make.

In a nutshell, I have two finished novels collecting dust in my computer.  These two stories are actually pretty good, and they need a home.  Several years ago, they were rejected by most of the major publishers for the intended audience, and also rejected by several agents.  So, I figure I have nothing to lose.

Additionally, I have a good day job, and should this publishing effort fail, I'd still have this source of steady income to support living expenses.  (I only bring this up, because I wouldn't recommend self-publishing for anyone who depends on writing for their sole source of income.)

I've spent the past few years trying to write short stories to get them published, and start building my name, hoping to one day become worthy to have my first two novels published.  However, I've only been met by more gatekeepers following the same outdated formulas.  Even though I feel I'm a better writer today, I still feel that I am nowhere near closer to establishing my name.


I think that if my two novels were sufficiently edited and sufficiently exposed to the world, they'd sell well.  So, I'm just going to have to do the hard work myself. Here's the plan.

I will first work on novel #1, Escape From the Planet Justice, your typical space opera action story.  This novel has already been through 3 rounds of editing.  In a couple of weeks, I will send the entire novel to my friends at  After two or three months, I will take their suggestions and do another round of editing, followed by a grammar/wording round of editing.  Then I will hire a reputable editor to do a final check.

I will publish the book through a reputable self-publishing service (most likely Amazon).  I'm targeting a release date of December 2014 if not sooner.  Then we'll see what comes next.

The second novel is The Silver Lining, a Mormon sci-fi look into what happens after death.  This novel has been through one major edit.  I need to send the first four chapters (which are problematic) through another edit, and then I'll be able to send this story through the same process I described above.  I'm targeting a release date of December 2015 for that one (if not sooner).

In the meantime, I'll still try to get published in magazines.  I'll start and continue working on other new books (Time Sleuths, and Space Cadets).  Whether or not I self-publish those will depend on what transpires in the next couple of years.

I'll keep you posted along the way.