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Matt McIrvin
Attended College of William and Mary
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Matt McIrvin

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So, having gotten Lego Dimensions for her birthday and gotten her curiosity whetted by the Doctor Who-themed level therein, my daughter spent some birthday money and augmented it with the Doctor Who-themed expansion reviewed here.

The main story level in the pack is not a huge amount of game content; as stated, it's one game level. But it's a longer-than-usual level, about yet another Dalek invasion of Earth (they never learn), with some cameos by other famous enemies. Because of the length, it did annoy us slightly that there don't seem to be any internal save points, like most of the main game's levels have.

It's filled with clever little puzzles involving time travel: typically, you have the Doctor hop into the TARDIS and do something in an earlier time period to affect the environment in a later one. As with all Lego game levels, there are a lot of optional achievements and hidden areas and such that ought to boost the replayability.

There's also a particularly nice open-sandbox Adventure World (with appearances by Captain Jack Harkness, Zygons and Missy), and, as with all the Dimensions toys, you can use the Doctor, the TARDIS and K-9, and their special abilities, in all the other parts of the game too. A few levels apparently have "alternate time period" Easter eggs.

Best of all (this is the thing that will probably attract adult geeks the most), once you beat the story level, you unlock the ability to regenerate into every incarnation of the Doctor. With a period-themed TARDIS interior for each one.

Considered purely as toys, the K-9 toy and the alternate costume for the 12th Doctor are also nice addenda to the TARDIS Console Room Lego playset I mentioned earlier. We found ourselves harassing the Dimensions figures with the Daleks from the other set pretty frequently.

The LEGO Dimensions Doctor Who level pack plays out like a television episode, and like any television episode it starts with opening credits—what might be the best Doctor Who opening credits sequence ever.
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...There's also an Easter egg within an Easter egg: if you're playing as the Fourth Doctor, on certain days he gets the wood-paneled auxiliary console room.
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So my daughter got Lego Dimensions for her birthday, Lego/Travelers' Tales' entry into the money-grubbing genre of "toys-to-life" games like Skylanders and Disney Infinity.

We've only played a little way into the Starter Kit campaign (and I got her the Wicked Witch of the West and The Lego Movie's Princess Unikitty as add-on characters), but I have to say, so far it sure seems like the developers of this game took a long, careful look at Disney Infinity and decided to fix everything that was wrong with it.

The campaign gameplay is way better, being based on the long and mature line of Lego games based on licensed properties, so it has a high degree of polish. There are no stupid restrictions on characters wandering into levels based on the wrong franchise: in fact, the game positively revels in this and the storyline is based on it. The writing is tight and funny, and it looks as if the game will have at least as much replay value as the Lego Harry Potter games, which was a lot.

The leveraging of Lego toys is ingenious: the little character and vehicle toys, and the portal that is the central gimmick of the game, are things you actually build from Lego bricks and put on the USB platform and RFID bases that unlock things in the game. The vehicles even have multiple alternate forms with different functions, and in-game instruction manuals tell you how to build them (since the bases can't detect what's built on them, of course you don't in principle have to do the building, but that's all part of the fun).

My one criticism of the in-game instruction manuals is that they are a bit trying for old people like me who can't focus their eyes on both a Lego model and a TV screen without changing glasses.

Also, they've managed to turn the placement of characters on the portal platform into a bit more than just an unlock for game content: there are game mechanics that involve moving characters around to different sections of the platform (which can light up in different colors) to make things happen in-game and solve simple puzzles. It seems to me that in general they're trying to turn the "playing with real toys" aspect of the game into more than an excuse to raid your wallet, which is nice.

The one thing it lacks (ironically, given what Lego is) is a Minecraft-like free-construction mode like Disney Infinity's Toy Box. (That's a different game, I think.) But, on the other hand, the incorporation of actual physical Lego construction does add to the game's Lego-nature.

With more characters joining in on the fun, get ready for the wildest mash-ups this side of the Multiverse. Play through full-movie experiences of the year’s biggest blockbusters with immersive 6-level Story Packs, and prepare for battle in all-new Adventure World Battle Arenas where you can challenge friends in 4-player competitive split-screen. So grab your favorite characters and make room for the new ones to continue the LEGO Dimensions adv...
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...We finally figured out how to access the open "Adventure Worlds": in the opening hub world with the big portal in it, there's an elevator to at the left front corner of the level that leads up to an upper floor containing little portals to the Adventure Worlds.

As game content, they're relatively thin: each has a few little missions and challenges you can do that award Gold Bricks (one of the Lego games' many and varied measures of total completion), but there's no overarching story; they're mostly just scenery to hang out in and do some low-stakes messing around and exploring. Younger kids may prefer them to the main game.

I am amused that there is both a Lord of the Rings Middle-Earth world, and a Lego Movie world that contains the different sub-realms from the movie, one of which is "Middle Zealand". I suppose it's in the same spirit as the game's juxtaposition of Lego Batman and the Lego Movie version of Lego Batman.
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Over the past week, we were visiting my parents in Virginia and took a side trip to my old neighborhood of Chantilly, Virginia, to visit the Udvar-Hazy Center, the large suburban annex of the National Air and Space Museum.

My daughter greatly enjoys the museum on the National Mall, so I figured she'd be interested in seeing this one too--I'd made a couple of brief visits when my parents lived in the area, but not since they moved to another town.

The biggest change since my last visit years ago is that the Space Shuttle orbiter Enterprise, used for glide tests in the 1970s, is no longer there: it's been moved to the Intrepid museum in New York (where we saw it a while ago) and replaced by Discovery, the most-used of the spacegoing orbiter fleet. Discovery has the same shape as Enterprise but its appearance is dramatically different, since the exterior systems required to make an orbiter spaceworthy are in place: most obviously, a clearly well-used heat-shield system. I think that some parts currently installed, such as the Main Engine bells, are not real (the originals were scavenged for the SLS program), but they're identical-looking facsimiles.

In some ways, the Udvar-Hazy Center is a less sophisticated museum than the original NASM building downtown. Its primary mission is the display of things that won't fit in the other building (either because they're too large, or simply because the other building is full; there's a lot of stuff there that got rotated out of the other building to make space for new exhibits). So the collection is somewhat less organized, and there aren't as many contextual or hands-on exhibits. Families with kids, in particular, will probably not want to spend quite as much time there. But it will interest them for a few hours.

There is, however, more there than the museum's famous large objects (such as the Shuttle, the Enola Gay, an SR-71 Blackbird, a Concorde, and the prototype 707), and the museum seems to be filling out. From the beginning, it filled a gap in the downtown museum's military aviation coverage, which seemed to abruptly stop after World War II: Udvar-Hazy has a lot of aircraft from the Korean War, Vietnam and later. There are also a lot of early aircraft and an exhibit devoted to helicopters and autogyros, including some really peculiar ones.

There's also a restoration workshop there with large observation windows where visitors can see aircraft being restored, and an observation tower overlooking Washington Dulles International Airport, with a small exhibit about the air-traffic-control system (which is a bit thin, but it does convey some information).

The Space Hangar is definitely worth visiting for any space fan: as a supplement to the historically epochal capsules on display downtown, it has a more oddball collection of surplus and test spacecraft, including the only original Mercury capsule that still has its retrorocket and parachute modules intact (intended for a cancelled orbital flight by Alan Shepard), and a Gemini demonstrating the ultimately unused system in which the capsule would land hanging from a sort of inflatable hang glider (I think the modern hang glider was invented as an offshoot of this project). There's also a Soviet Vega probe, a boilerplate Apollo with its splashdown bags and flotation ring deployed as if it were floating in the ocean, and the famous Airstream trailer in which the Apollo 11 astronauts were quarantined after their return.

There are a bunch of spacesuits on display, and the gloves and visor used by Neil Armstrong when he stepped onto the Moon. When my daughter was examining Discovery there were some volunteers nearby talking about the features of a Shuttle-era EVA suit, and she got to try on the suit's glove.
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IIRC, the MOL Gemini used to be on display at the Air Force Space and Missile Museum (at CCAFS); I saw it there years ago. Not surprised they moved it to WPAFB for a more accessible display.
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One of the oddest and most disturbing angles in the current presidential campaign.

Over the last year there has been a recurrent refrain about the seeming bromance between Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. More seriously, but relatedly, many believe Trump is an admirer and would-be emulator of Putin's increasingly autocratic and illiberal rule. But there's quite a bit more to the story. At a minimum, Trump appears to have a deep financial dependence on Russian money from persons close to Putin. And this is matc...
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Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Trump would be gleefully feeding us into Putin's elongated, pike-like maw and making locker-room jokes while he did it.
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While it's lately been overshadowed by a certain mobile-phone game, up until the last several days Overwatch seemed to be the videogame getting the most buzz. It's certainly displaced Destiny for the time being as the game I play the most, even though (perhaps because) I'm much worse at it than at Destiny.

Why is this competitive FPS such a hit? I think there are a lot of reasons--there was a big and shrewd marketing campaign behind it, and the aesthetics are colorful and appealing in a way that your usual grimdark postapocalytic shooter doesn't satisfy. (It is very much a spiritual successor to Team Fortress 2, as Zompist implies.) The matches feel less like an actual war or a mass-murder incident, and more like a frenetic Nerf battle with particularly eccentric weapons.

(I've noticed that women and girls seem to take to this game much more than they do most FPSes. The availability of a lot of female characters probably has something to do with that, but the whole aesthetic is also not overly drenched in testosterone.)

But, in part from watching my daughter play the game, I think a big part of it can be explained by an idea +Curt Thompson has brought up a few times in the very different context of paper RPGs and MUDs: that of the Fun Tax, and having none.

In many modern videogames, you start out as a relatively underpowered character who plays only in very simple ways, and you have to gradually unlock various weapons or gear or abilities in order to use them; there may be some elaborate skill tree you have to ascend to get all sorts of superpowers. This can help the early part of the game function as a kind of tutorial, and it also provides a satisfying sense of story and character progression.

But if they overdo it, the early game is just not fun; you're dropped into an environment that kills you instantly, and you have to pay the Fun Tax of struggling to master that before you're allowed to have the fun. For a certain type of player, that struggle is actually fun. But I think that most audiences actually have a low tolerance for it.

I was just messing around with The Crew, a driving game from a couple of years ago that recently dropped as a free bonus for XBox Live Gold subscribers. One might describe it as Burnout Paradise done as an MMORPG. The thing that frustrated me, though, is that the game really, REALLY wanted me to win this stupid street race in Detroit before it would stop nagging me and let me do what I wanted. A sandbox shaped like the United States with little driving challenges all over? Cool, I want to noodle around that and explore! But no, I kept losing that initial Detroit race over and over, and the game kept nagging me to go back and try to win it so it could progress some stupid character story. I drove off some map boundary past Cleveland and it teleported me back to Detroit and started yelling at me. You haven't paid your Fun Tax, citizen! Fun must be earned!

While Overwatch is a game with some surprising depth to it that rewards diligent practice, it has no Fun Tax. Nothing functional is an unlockable: the unlockable rewards are 100% cosmetic, and provide only bragging rights. (Nor is it pay-to-win: you can buy loot boxes with real money, but, again, the stuff in there is just cosmetic.) From the moment you start playing, you can play any of the 20-odd characters and use any of their bizarre abilities at maximum strength.

(The one exception to no functional unlockables is Competitive Mode, which recently dropped in the release. But Competitive Mode is just the same game against other elite players, with a ranking system.)

This has two main effects. First, it makes the game more viable as an e-sport when played at a high level, because matches really truly depend on relative skill, coordination and tactical choices rather than on what uber-gear you've ground for. This isn't a party game with a lot of rubber banding (though matchmaking does an OK job of trying to match skill levels); better teams can crush inferior ones on a level playing field.

But, paradoxically, it also makes it more inviting to newbies. You get to do all the cool things from the word go, whether you have any understanding of how to use them effectively or not (learning that is your job). There's a very easy players vs. AI mode that my daughter sticks to--and while it was probably intended as practice, it seems to me that many of the players in that mode are young kids and casual players who are just having fun. They may never play any other mode, and that's OK.

Well, someone had to make Team Fortress 3. I know that it’s is the obvious comparison, but if Valve ever got around to making TF3, I’d want it to be pretty much exactly like Overwatch:…
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Sam Wang's correspondent "N." has come up with a mind-boggling method for predicting presidential primary votes using Google Correlate. Includes long, sometimes peculiar lists of correlated terms.
I will comment on the East Coast primaries at the end of the post. First I will write about something more interesting: Google Correlate! >>> In human genetics there is a form of analysis called a genome-wide association study (“GWAS”). In this kind of analysis, the researcher looks for bits of ...
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+Andrew G These lists will, I think, tend to exaggerate and thereby caricature any group differences between one candidate's supporters and another's, since terms preferred by both groups will fall out of the analysis. That said, the dominance of baked goods in the Sanders list is extraordinary.
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Holy jinkies, Lego Dimensions has Weeping Angels in it. I did not expect Weeping Angels. (Or at the very least, I expected them to turn up in the Doctor Who expansion, which we don't have yet, rather than in the starter kit.) I give major credit to them for putting in a Doctor Who-themed level that is actually pretty true to the spirit of the series.



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The fight with the Balrog in the Lord of the Rings level is another one that seemed to just be impossibly difficult, but we were missing a trick. You may need to look up an online walkthrough here and there. In general, nothing in the game should take an unreasonable level of videogame skill.

We also did get hold of the Doctor Who expansion that gives you the Doctor, his TARDIS and K-9, and are starting to play through that. The puzzles in this actually involve time travel: you need to effect some change in the environment in one time period, so you go back in time and do something that alters its history (though I won't say the changes are entirely consistent).
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My kid and I are a little over halfway through assembling this now. "Surprisingly fiddly"... please! Lego sets on this level are not for the faint of heart. But my ten-year-old is doing pretty well with it.

As usual when we cooperate, I do most of the finding of pieces. What makes this build just a little more difficult than most fancy modern Lego sets, like the Star Wars models, is that it doesn't use the recent technique of separating the pieces into sequentially numbered bags corresponding to different sections of the manual. At the beginning it suggests sorting them by color, which isn't terribly practical if you don't have a work surface that can stay unmolested by a cat throughout the length of a multi-day build.

On the other hand, a nicer old-school touch is that the box is a little more substantial than the ones you usually get these days; you can actually store the pieces in it while you're working.

The thing I'd wondered most about the model itself was how they managed to produce the sixfold symmetry of the TARDIS console in Lego. I didn't come close to guessing the actual method used! (Hint: There are Lego wheel pieces that have six holes suitable for Technic connectors around the hub.)

The manual mentions that this set was originally based on a fan submission, and that the product developer who helped him turn it into a commercial product was also the nephew of Eighth Doctor actor Paul McGann, so he had a personal connection to the show. (According to this review, the originally submitted model was based on the Tenth Doctor's console, and would have had figures styled after David Tennant and Billie Piper.)

It hadn't occurred to me that the reason the Peter Capaldi Doctor is not wearing his cape is that this is the befuddled version who appears immediately after regeneration in the closing moments of "The Time of the Doctor", asking Clara if she knows how to fly this thing. That makes some sense. I also find it amusing that the Matt Smith Doctor and Clara, in Lego form, both have alternate happy and stern facial expressions (by rotating their heads), but Capaldi only gets one.
RadioTimes.com finds that Doctor Who's first ever Lego set is "surprisingly difficult to build" but "immensely rewarding"
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Finished now. I think my one tiny disappointment with this kit is that they couldn't find a way to make the front TARDIS door operable in addition to the clamshell opening of the rear, so nobody can actually wander through the door directly into the console room and exclaim "it's bigger on the inside!"

Then again, on the classic series they never managed to do that scene without a cut.

On the other hand, the look of the iconic blue police box is reproduced with extreme fidelity, and it's actually possible for one of the figures to ride inside it when it's closed. I also like the hint of the console room's wall styling inside the rear doors, and the subtle scaling trick they pull with the interior door graphics.

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New physics at the LHC? Nope.
 
Death of the diphoton bump

In June 2015, after a two-year upgrade, the Large Hadron Collider turned on again.  In its first run it had discovered the Higgs boson, a particle 133 times heavier than the proton — and the main missing piece of the Standard Model.   When the collider restarted, with a lot more energy, everyone was hoping to see something new.

In December 2015, two separate detectors saw something: pairs of photons, seemingly emitted by the decay of a brand new particle 6 times heavier than the Higgs boson.  

But was it for real?   Maybe it was just a random fluctuation — noise, rather than a true signal. 

It seemed unlikely to be just chance.  Combining the data from both detectors, the chance of coincidentally seeing a bump this big at this location in the photon spectrum was one in 100 thousand. 

But in particle physics that's not good enough.  Physicists are looking for lots of different things in these big experiments, so rare coincidences do happen.  To feel safe, they want to push the chance down to one in 3 million.  That's called a 5 sigma event.

So they looked harder. 

Meanwhile, theoretical physicists wrote 500 papers trying to explain this so-called diphoton bump.  It turned out to be easy to make up theories that have a particle of the right sort.  Not so easy, though, to make a convincingly elegant theory.

New data have come in.  The bump is gone.

Theorists are bummed.  A particle physicist named Adam Falkowski wrote:

The loss of the 750 GeV diphoton resonance is a big blow to the particle physics community. We are currently going through the 5 stages of grief, everyone at their own pace, as can be seen e.g. in this comments section. Nevertheless, it may already be a good moment to revisit the story one last time, so as  to understand what went wrong.

In the recent years, physics beyond the Standard Model has seen 2 other flops of comparable impact: the faster-than-light neutrinos in OPERA, and the cosmic microwave background tensor fluctuations in BICEP.  Much as the diphoton signal, both of the above triggered a binge of theoretical explanations, followed by a massive hangover. There was one big difference, however: the OPERA and BICEP signals were due to embarrassing errors on the experimentalists' side. This doesn't seem to be the case for the diphoton bump at the Large Hadron Collider. Some may wonder whether the Standard Model background may have been slightly underestimated,  or whether one experiment may have been biased by the result of the other... But, most likely, the 750 GeV bump was just due to a random fluctuation of the background at this particular energy. Regrettably, the resulting mess cannot be blamed on experimentalists, who were in fact downplaying the anomaly in their official communications. This time it's the theorists who  have some explaining to do.

For more, see Adam Falkowski's blog.  He goes by the name of "Jester":

http://resonaances.blogspot.sg/2016/07/after-hangover.html

By now we have to admit it's quite possible that the Large Hadron Collider will not see any new physics not predicted by the Standard Model.   Unfortunately, this triumph of the Standard Model would leave a lot of big questions unanswered... for now.

The video explains the diphoton bump in simple terms.  It was made back in the early optimistic days.

#physics  
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I never was impressed by this bump; its global significance was just too damn small. It got oversold and overhyped, leading to all sorts of breathless stories in the media, not to mention 500 theory papers... and one large embarrassment for the field.

Or possibly two large embarrassments, because Jester's post and the article in the Daily Mail about this precede any actual announcement of new results. Passing off rumors as facts isn't helpful right now. I'd be surprised if they're wrong, but still, they jumped the gun.

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40 years ago this morning (7 years to the day after Neil Armstrong stepped out on the Moon), Viking 1 made the first fully successful landing on the surface of Mars, and sent back this picture.

I've told the story many times before of how I saw it come back live, strip by tiny vertical strip, with CBS preempting Captain Kangaroo to my little sister's great annoyance.

I was a huge space fan as a kid, and I think the personal importance of Viking 1 to me is that this was the first big space exploration event that I didn't just witness in real time, but really understood while I was watching it. I'd been following the mission in National Geographic World magazine and was very excited. The landing had been scheduled to coincide with the US Bicentennial celebration on July 4, but ended up being delayed, coincidentally I think, to the Apollo 11 anniversary instead.

Maybe because this was the one (and Voyager 1's encounter with Jupiter was just a few years later), I've never had the disdain for uncrewed planetary exploration that some people seem to have, as somehow lacking romance. My experience has always been that these missions are the ones that really show you new worlds.
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...Not to give the impression that the Soviet planetary program was incompetent: they were the kings of Venus. All the pictures we have from the surface of Venus come from them.
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You know, sue me, but I actually greatly enjoyed the rebooted Ghostbusters. The first half was funnier than the original.

It has the usual third-act trouble that most big special-effects spectaculars have these days, and there, the original held together better. And just because it's not the first one, this can't surprise us with anything comparable to the first appearance of the Sta-Puft Marshmallow Man, though it tries.

But this is a very, very funny movie held together by a lot of great comic performances. Kate McKinnon in particular is a revelation.

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The trailers were a big miss. They used music not much in the movie (bad modern knock offs of the original musical themes) and they focussed on McCarthy and Jones, while the movie leads us into the story with Wiig and introduces McCarthy and MacKinnon in the same scene. You don't get a feel for their (McCarthy-MacKinnon) buddy-team dynamic in the trailer, or for how much comedy is mined from their dumb secretary.
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Nice A Scanner Darkly shout-out near the end.
It’s fun for the occasional tech demo, but now we know the real reason that Google Glass, and other augmented reality solutions, have failed to catch on. The future they’ve promised us will eventually turn into the same nightmare that surfing the web has become—a sea of intrusive ads and countless another annoyances trying to sell you something.
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Not pictured: AdBlock, and fifteen minutes later, legislation banning 'gratuitous aural or visual distraction' after someone pulps a two-year-old.
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Education
  • College of William and Mary
    Physics, 1986 - 1990
  • Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences
    Physics, 1990 - 1997
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Matthew James McIrvin
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I'm the Matt McIrvin who lives in Massachusetts, formerly of northern Virginia.  I was trained as a particle physicist but quickly got into programming instead.

People who have been around on the net for a while may remember me from Usenet in the 1990s and early 2000s, posting mostly in physics-, science fiction- and humor-related groups. Since then I've hung out mostly on LiveJournal, but am curious about this Google+ thing.

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