Thursday, July 24, 2014

Celebrating My Candy Crush Dominion

I have a confession to make. It’s a little embarrassing.

But sometimes it’s more entertaining to just blurt things out, even if it gets awkward.

I’ll express it in pictorial form:

Yup. In case you don’t recognize that middle graphic, it’s an in-game relative standing progress chart: I am the top Candy Crush player of all my friends.

It has taken me 9 months of desultory play to achieve this dubious distinction, woven from the interstitial pauses of transit commutes, laundry loads, and grocery lines.

I have survived the horror of level 578. Emerged resilient and unbowed from the frustration of level 461. Endured and somehow vanquished level 350. I am a Candy Crush King!

My sincerest apologies to any Facebook connections I spammed along the way, inadvertently or otherwise. Your forbearance is admirable.

Candy Crush Saga Level 461: Indelibly frustrating

I’m fascinated by the mechanics that make Candy Crush so popular.

And it definitely is popular. Boasting over 46 million average monthly players on Facebook, Candy Crush Saga has also been installed over 500 million times across iOS and Android devices. It’s played by men, women and children of all ages, exhibiting a uniquely broad appeal that most video games lack.

As with anything that becomes so widespread that it seeps into the culture, many people outwardly profess an attitude of scorn and derision towards the game. Certainly it is a time-waster. But vast rewards have accrued for its British maker, Ltd. According to ThinkGaming, the game’s daily revenues are currently just shy of $1 million — for the US section of the iOS App Store alone.

I’ve been tempted many times to join that throng of paying rubes.The gameplay is transparently designed to provoke and beguile players into purchasing extra moves and game boosters. But as King notes in their FAQ, the entire game can also be completed without any purchases. My miserly nature (and yes, my ornery stubbornness) has enabled me to resist—thus far.

Mr. Toffee (left) and the main protagonist, Tiffi (short for Toffette)

How I First Got My Sugar Crush
Kat, this is all your fault.

My friend Kat introduced me to this saccharine diversion. We were riding the subway home after a climbing session, and she started playing with her cellphone.

“What’s that?” I asked her.

“Just a silly game. It’s called Candy Crush.”

That night, I googled the name and came across this Slate article describing the game’s addictive qualities. Like other match-three puzzle games before it (Bejewelled comes to mind), Candy Crush features straightforward play that begins simply, and progressively gets harder as you complete more levels.

The social integration is devilish, and though I am loathe to admit it, the system hooked me almost instantly: In addition to fielding periodic exhortations to share and like the game, users can observe where they stand in relation to their peers.

Colour bomb! Delicious.
This was my first exposure to such cunning psychological manipulation (I don’t normally play video games), and my competitive instinct was led astray far too easily.

While I was initially taken aback by the number of my Facebook connections who indulge — I had expected close to zero — soon I was right there among them, vying feverishly to complete “just one more sweet level.”

It turns out there is a disproportionate thrill to be had from catching up to, and then passing people you know. Nevermind the game’s lack of sophistication or its gaudy, childish presentation — it’s fun.

Final Thoughts
I’m going to savour this absurd moment, however fleeting it may be, where I am demonstrably the... best? at this endeavour.

Yes, it’s a stupid game, a leisure-time opiate of distraction. But I’ve enjoyed playing it. It relaxes me. At time of writing, I’ve only got about 30 levels left; King periodically releases new levels. Then I’ll be done, and I can start reading Shakespeare again in my spare time.

Yeah, right.

I cannot recommend that you try it for yourself. It’s far too much of a time-waster. But should you decide after all to challenge me for the Kingship of Candy Crush — I’ll see you in nine months.

Monday, July 07, 2014

Setting Easy for Summer Sweatfest Wasn't So Easy!

I recently had the diverting experience of assisting the setting crew for the initial competition in this year’s Summer Sweat Fest bouldering series. The opener was held at The Rock Oasis, my home gym.

My first time setting problems for a bouldering comp!

I learned that setting for a competition—even a casual one like Sweat Fest—is a lot of work, and harder than I imagined. Comp routesetters: you have my newfound respect!

Often when you read (or watch videos) about cool boulder problems that people have made, the focus is on hard movement through advanced sequences—so I thought I’d write a somewhat unstructured piece regarding the other end of things, and relate my first-time personal experience of trying to set easier and moderate problems, in the context of a comp.

The head-setters were Adam Tataryn and Adrian Das (both professional setters), and we were joined by Dave Machado (another ‘recreational’ setter like myself). The way it shook out, I wound up authoring a modest chunk of the beginner and intermediate grade problems, which freed the other fellows to focus primarily on the Open category and advanced scramble-format problems.

An Emphasis on Fun
It’s important to note that with Sweat Fest the emphasis is on a friendly bouldering series, with beginners and youth encouraged to participate. Other themes would be low cost, informality, and the general aim of fun.

There were 26 scramble-format problems, numbered in roughly ascending difficulty (e.g. 1 was the easiest, 2 a little harder, etc.) (There were also 5 Open problems each for Men and Women).

The challenge was, how do you set problems which beginners find stimulating, but without being frustrating or too difficult? And at the same time you can’t just let the intermediate climbers cakewalk through your problems either.

It was a learning experience for me—it was my first time ever setting for a comp. The most apparent lesson is that I’m still figuring out how to properly set at a given grade.

My problems tend to favour movements that I personally find entertaining, or that I’m trying to improve on. I had to continually remind myself (and occasionally be reminded) that I was setting for newer, moderately skilled climbers, and youth.

This meant: You can’t make moves too hard. You can’t make moves too long or out of reach. You have to take into account a lack of technique. You have to make it extra safe.

Following are a few of the problems I set (bear in mind this is only a small subset of the comp). I’ll briefly discuss my intent versus how it turned out.

#8 - Yellow (click images to view larger)
This short V1 requires calm, deliberate movement. Despite the brevity, the volumes give the route a curiously exposed feeling; the hand holds are tolerable, but not overly good, pinches that you have to negotiate with.

We turned the start and middle holds so they were easier to use. I wanted to create a longer problem with more moves, but at that skill level I didn’t want the finish to be over either of the two volumes, in case of a fall. So it wound up being quite brief. Perhaps I could have put a couple of easy traverse moves leftwards at the top.

#10 - Purple
I was happiest with #10. It has two distinct playful movements. The first involves stepping up onto the red volume and balancing on it with no hands. The second move is leaning left from that balanced position until you 'fall' onto the next hold. Both involve the climber doing something coordinated, a bit out of the regular.

The start hold (on the green volume) was added to prevent the climber from skipping the above sequence and grabbing the left hold immediately. Instead, most people will step up on the red volume from the right side, leading into the balance position. I was delighted to watch people get on, reach out left, then realize they had to leave the safety of the start hold and balance on the red volume, exactly the way I had imagined it.

I added two left side footholds for the 2nd half. Originally I wanted to make the climber smear up but it proved too challenging for the grade range we wanted to use it in.

#5 - Green
This simple problem caused me headaches, believe it or not. I wanted to set an easy (V0) overhanging problem. The challenge is that most beginners are not strong enough to do much on an overhang.

I put up the biggest, juggiest holds I could find — and it was still too hard. Then we substituted in the big hold in the middle, adjusted a few angles to be smoother, and that solved it; the problem became doable for novices.

I also couldn’t make the problem too lengthy, again because most beginners haven’t the endurance to deal with an extended overhang. So the problem peters out after not going anywhere exciting. If it were twice as long, it would make for a nice warmup.

During the comp I watched this problem specifically, and was gratified to see climbers on it, sometimes falling off, but ultimately mostly completing it.

#19 - Yellow (green tape)
The blue volume is the highlight of this V3. (Though if you’re short like me you have to fight with the opposing vertical holds, also some good work. I should have moved the start hold further right to force this for everyone)

You have to wrestle with the volume to get to the end. Adrian and Adam removed a foothold I originally placed under the volume. It was an excellent tweak, and really forces the climber to deal with the volume. Thematically the end is like the reverse direction of the Women’s Open problem (pink holds) shown in the same photo.

The tail end of #16 - Grey/Black (beginning not shown)
#16 (about a V3) has a pleasurable sequence at the end where you have to use the (left) triangle volume in a couple of different ways. Approaching from the left, you pull on the spine of the volume as if it was a big hold, moving your feet from the small knob below it (in the yellow paint) to the next foothold out and up to the right. Then you move forcefully upwards into a double gaston, which you must maintain as you shift your body right in order to high-step the left foot onto the side of the volume. After establishing both feet on the side, launch for the finish.

I had originally made the top of the wall the end, but then we moved it down and used a nice soft finishing hold.

#20 - Blue
This one qualitatively turned out very different from what I intended! I wanted to set an elegant, somewhat beta-intensive problem where the climber has to thoughtfully push and pull the corner, in order to get around it.

Instead it climbs very messy and a tad sketchy. The lower hold on the corner is slick and slippery, a real pain to deal with first as a handhold going left around the corner, and then a couple moves later as a foothold when you come back right for the finish.

An ugly problem, but it served its purpose.

Final Thoughts
In general, I had a tough time relaxing and ‘setting loose’. I felt overly self-conscious about balancing the tension of keeping the grading consistent, versus spicing things up. I had to tone down several of the problems because I would lose sight of the audience who would be climbing them. And the pressure of setting in quantity within a given timeframe unnerved me. Although I’m happy with the overall end results, I felt that a couple of my problems (not shown) perhaps leaned towards the mundane, and in that sense I was not entirely satisfied with the expression of my creativity. I was glad that the other setters were there to worry about ‘the big picture’ of where problems fit into the context of the overall competition.

The comp turned out great—there was a solid turnout, and people enjoyed themselves. Crucially (to me, at least), people got on my problems! And within the more-modestly-skilled set of competitors, the problems didn’t all get sent on the first try, nor did they frustrate and bedevil everyone. I saw smiles!

So it was a decent mix.

I want climbers to get something out of the problems, to feel like they’ve accomplished something at the end, that they’ve had to apply their mind and bodies to solve the puzzle.

Big thanks to The Rock Oasis and Karen McGilvray for the unexpected invitation to participate—I had a fantastic time. Thanks to Adam and Adrian for their thoughtful advice and direction, their trust and patience with my setting and questions, and to Don Williams and Dave for forerunning with me. I enjoyed myself.

The problems from the comp are all still up at Oasis, so by all means go and check them out! They’re a lot of fun.

Other Climbing Posts I’ve Written (recent or otherwise)
Hub Climbing in Markham: a great bouldering experience
What is it like to Judge an IFSC Bouldering World Cup?
Why is Tree Climbing Illegal in Toronto?
The Secret Life of Iyma Lamarche, Rock Climber
Hurrah For The Ontario Access Coalition

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

Goodbye to The Grid (and Eye Weekly)

I’m sad to learn that The Grid is ceasing operations.

A free alt-weekly competitor to NOW magazine here in Toronto, The Grid was published by Torstar Corp. (Star Media Group) and was the reincarnation of Eye Weekly. Launched three years ago with a complete rebrand and redesign, The Grid won numerous awards for journalism and design.

The Grid is no more. I’ll miss it.

By nature I am curmudgeonly; I generally dislike change and am stubbornly resistant to publication revamps.

But The Grid won me over with quality. It was a smart, brisk—and generally positive—take on what was happening in the city. I enjoyed reading every issue, and it’s unfortunate in this age of new media and declining ad revenues that their business model no longer supported continued publication.

Lively local journalism.

Best of luck to all the staff who have lost their jobs with this announcement. I wonder what happens to the online archives of past issues?

Further reading
Torstar's weekly magazine The Grid to cease publication - G&M
The Grid weekly magazine is closing - Toronto Star
Eye Weekly/The Grid, 1991–2014 - Torontoist
The Grid R.I.P. - Michael Barclay

Sunday, June 22, 2014

Hub Climbing in Markham: a great bouldering experience

Yours truly on the Dragon, an
overhanging feature above a foam pit
I’m feeling thrashed today.

Yesterday I had the pleasure — and I use that word deliberately — of attending the opening of Hub Climbing, purportedly offering the largest amount of indoor bouldering terrain in Canada.

My friend Yumi and I had a blast. There’s simply a lot of bouldering available, at all difficulty levels — so whether you’re a beginner, intermediate, or advanced climber you’ll find plenty to engage you.

I was singularly impressed by the facility. Maybe it was the brand new holds, the shiny Walltopia surface, the reassuring thick double padding, or the bright lighting, but I think the Hub is a fantastic new addition for the local climbing community in the GTA area.

One wall was reserved for 'World Cup'-style comp problems.
Of the 6, I was able to top these three. I could only do the ‘intermediate’
versions of 2 of the remaining 3. Need to get stronger! 

The sheer amount of wall surface available for bouldering is lovely. A friend of mine pointed out that for shorter walls & bouldering, instead of spending money building up, you’re spending the money on building out. It allows the gym to set problems by colour (instead of the more common taping), which gives a very clean and aesthetic presentation.

Setting by colour: clean presentation. There’s more than 1 arch at the Hub!
Photo via The Hub Facebook page.

I have ambivalent feelings about this; taping gives you the widest universe of holds to choose from, and allows for density, but invariably looks messy; whereas setting by colour looks great, but then your problems tend to be thematically driven by the sets of holds that are acquired, i.e. a sloper set, a pinch set, etc.

Variety for everyone. These photos don’t really capture the scope of the place

I enjoyed the topping out. A couple of the finishes felt a touch committing, but it was always on an advanced problem, so if you got to that point you undoubtedly had the skills to properly assess the situation. One of the top out areas has a slide for you to get back to ground level. It was an amusing touch, though I’d still prefer a downclimb option.

The grading was... inconsistent. But it’s completely unfair to make judgments on opening day; an assessment six months from now, once they’ve established a flow, will give a better idea of the grading. More importantly, the setting was fun, independent of the ratings.

As a boulderer, I don’t think I’d bother bringing a harness to do routes at the Hub, if only because of the wealth of bouldering available. The route section seems more set up for beginners and to cycle through birthday parties, schoolgroups, and corporate events—which is nice because then you kind of have a subtle distinction in areas and don’t have to worry as much about keeping watch for complete beginners in your fall zone. Additional areas for yoga and weight training are planned but haven’t been built out yet.

Early birds lining up for the opening. Yes that’s
me being an enthusiastic goof at the back.
Photo via The Hub Instagram account.

I had a chance to briefly speak to each of the three owners, Yoav, Rob and Steven. I also met Max Summerlee the gym GM & head routesetter. Getting the gym built was a lengthy process of location selection, design planning, engineering, permit wrangling, and logistics, and you could tell from their faces it has been a rewarding if tiring journey to get to this juncture. They should be commended on their accomplishment.

If you live in downtown Toronto and you don’t have a car, it’s a serious trek to get there. You’ll want to budget a couple of hours.

We took the subway to Victoria Park station, the 24 Victoria Park bus up to Victoria Park and Steeles, and then leisurely cycled north up Woodbine for about twenty five minutes until we arrived at the gym, just past Highway 7. At some point I’ll try going to Finch station and using the 53 Steeles East bus instead.

Lastly, for those of you who care about this sort of thing, the washrooms and changerooms were compact but clean.

Congratulations to the Hub for their amazing, well-organized launch — for a day one opening, the attention to detail was superb. Even though it’s too far for me to attend regularly, I’m excited about the opening of what promises to be an excellent bouldering facility. I strongly recommend checking it out; it’s absolutely worth a visit.

Hub Climbing is located at 165 Macintosh Drive in Markham.

ps. Thanks to Max for getting us into an unused slot on the popular Dragon feature! That brought a huge smile to our faces.