Friday, October 13, 2017

Gamer sense: The Ten Commandments


Given my proclivity to collect trophies in games, I would say I'm a little better than the average gamer, though everyone has titles they are experts at. However there's a way you can approach every game that I call "gamer sense," that some people don't seem to have. I am subscribed to James and Mike Mondays, and enjoy watching them play old and/or rare games. Occasionally, they miss things that to me, are quite obvious. Call me elitist, but I feel like these habits are pretty universal, and implementing them will make you a better gamer in general.

Thou Shall Visit the Options Menu before starting thy Game.

In our excitement to get to the action, tutorial, or 10 minutes of opening cutscenes, it's helpful to know what you can customize about the game. Even if you don't tweak anything right away, if you need a difficulty reduction, want to turn up the game music or hate that R1/shoulder is fire (I despise this).

Thou Shall Go Left when the Main Story branches Right.

Not everyone's a collector, but games almost never put upgrades and bonuses in your main path. Even if you run into nothing but dead ends, you've deduced that the game is linear!

Thou Shall break Shit.

This is a test of the game's physics. Shoot/slash everything in the first room you start. If you see a crack in the wall, does it break open to reveal a secret or is it graphical? Is that door texture or does it open? Can you hurt your teammates?

Thou Shall Make multiple Saves.

Yep.

Thou Shall Throw a Hadouken.

If you're playing a new fighting game and don't want to interrupt the flow every 2 seconds, try out familiar inputs from Street Fighter. Smash Bros are the only fighting game I can think of that doesn't share inputs with SF. That leaves the rest of the fighting game market.

Why won't it go forward!?!?!?!?
Heed the HUD.

In coop, it'll keep you from taking the only food for yourself, despite having full life. You also learn what info is available. A friend of mine always asks how he died when the message to 'press X to survive' button is right there in the middle of the screen.

Thou Shall Listen, but...

Play with the best audio you have. Aside from sick soundtracks, sound design is a long part of the developing process and should be prioritized in your game experience. Telling where you're getting shot from is pretty important to survival. Also, special attacks and collectibles usually have audio cues that aren't to be ignored.

Thou Shall Grind Levels to thine own Music.

Game music is a sacred gift, and such repetition may sour your experience. If you're gonna do something tedious, jazz it up with something you can sing to, or make up your own lyrics about rocking bad guys.

Thou Shall not Play only one Platform.

If you have the funds, then get over your brand loyalty! Nintendo has a new gimmick each system, and most of them work quite well! Microsoft boasts a great controller for FPS games, the Gears and Halo series. Sony made a perfect controller, and shares your best gaming moments at the press of a button. Keyboard and mouse are pretty much the only ways to play RTSes and PCs offer the ultimate customization.

Thou Shall Watch thy Mouth.

If you're going to vent your frustration in a litany of racist, sexist or otherwise derogatory marks, mute your microphone. We all get heated, but share your comments with friends in private chat, rather than the general public. Also, don't diss on others' favorite games, and instead rejoice in the fact that they enjoy video games! There are still people who don't enjoy video games, called "sleeping husks." That was just me, ending my Commandment of Respect with a diss!

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

early Oct updates: money edition

On a recent post on credit cards and the data breach, I advised readers to freeze their credit. Since millions of smarties went to do this responsible thing, the three big companies, Equifax, Experian and Transunion haven't made it easy. (Warning, that link has a video that autoplays, but it's relevant.)

Servers were definitely congested, resulting in dropped forms and lots of frustration. I finally paid for the services for 2 of the 3 to freeze my credit, also not neglecting to spend a good 10 minutes looking over purchases in 2017. The only advice is to keep trying, especially the further we get away from the incident. One warning is that if you don't answer your background questions accurately, they may tell you it can't be done online, and ask you to mail a request to them with your name, address, social sec...PAHAHAHAHA. Keep in mind these people are supposed to be experts in security. They want me to mail all that in a letter than anyone could intercept?

Easy money.
Poorly-planned protocols aside, making it so that you have to take an extra step to open a credit line is the prudent thing to do; just don't lose that unlock code!

Also suggested is https://www.optoutprescreen.com/ to stop receiving those pesky pre-approved credit card offers that are littered with your personal info. The stoppage is supposed to last 5 years if done online.

Another update is that my filing with Unclaimed Property of the WA State Treasury went well! I got a check in the mail 2 days after sending the form!


Also, with Fall weather encouraging more indoor activities, you all should consider a Movie Pass. This lets you see one movie per day, any movieThis company mails you a debit card, and you use an app on your phone that shows you local theaters and play times.

When the company first announced the price drop to $9.95 per month, it took a lot of patience to navigate barely-informative webpages and sign up forms to get one. I got lucky, and mine arrived a week later.


Also, my phone battery is on its way out after 5 years, so that caused me to go on a pricing spree. The last time I tried to swap hardware on an Apple device went poorly, so between that and wanting to give Android another try, I went ahead and did some research. I ended up paying about $50 for a brand new Moto e4, a decent phone, with its own phone number. While it's not an iPhone 8 or Galaxy S7, it has a bright 5 inch screen, fingerprint scanner and is very fast and responsive. It also costs 1/16th what an unlocked top-of-the-line phone does and has a headphone port.

How'd I get such a deal? I unlocked a brand new prepaid phone and swapped SIM cards.

So, Walmart.com will let you pick up a Verizon Prepaid Moto E4 for $39.99 and "activate it" before you leave the store. Except they don't actually turn it on. So, I added another FreedomPop line by ordering a $1 LTE Sim, which always seem to be on special. The code to unlock the Moto e4 was $2 on eBay. Before turning on the phone, I swapped out the Verizon sim and turned the phone on and entered the unlock code. There's one more step before everything works: Set a custom network, which is 3 clicks in the Setup menu. An added bonus was that the Verizon prepaid phone didn't come with too much bloatware - all those free silly apps that slow down your phone.

All in all, Frugal Fall is working out pretty well!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

Tips in frugality: Where I ate in Japan

As of march 2015, just over $8
I've been to enough company dinners and dates in Japan to walk away from a $60 meal still hungry. It sucks. It's certainly a great way to bond, but is also usually Part One of a second, drinks-only place which will have you shelling out more of those sweet-sweet Noguchis (see right). Frugal romance note: Japanese women are proud to pay their half of the date, and actually look down on others who let (foreign?) men foot the whole bill. Thanks, ladies :)

$60 back home can buy dinner for two at almost any restaurant in my repertoire, most often with a drink. And for $60 per person in Seattle, you can eat like God. Even before I started socking away my kizzash, I sought out some cheaper alternatives to heartily suggest.

Izakaya are everywhere. The characters 居酒屋 are "to be somewhere" + "alcohol" + "place." There are dozens of izakaya chains, and most of them have competitive prices: Kin no Kura, Doma-Doma and Wara-wara will have you walking away fed and boozed for ¥2000-3000 per person, which goes down if you're sharing or eating lightly.

Kin no Kura boasts that everything on their menu, drinks included, is ¥270. My top recommended izakaya that also has this a la carte pricing is Tori-kizoku. "Chicken Kingdom" has yakitori (chicken skewers), different types of chicken salad and chicken-broth ramen, which, surprisingly, isn't very common.

After being in Japan for a while, you might start to miss Western food, and I wouldn't be worth my salt if I didn't mention La Pausa. For ¥3000, you can get tabe-nomihoudai 食べ放題 / 飲み放題 (all you can eat/drink.) On this dazzling menu, there are a handful of 8" pizzas you can order, a dozen pasta dishes, salads and of course wines and happoshu.

Happoshu 発泡酒is a malt beer made of slightly-different ingredients that generally costs half as much as real beer. Bud Light and Coors Light have this tasteless, sometimes metallic quality to them and remind me of happoshu. Japanese breweries started this because the government was a little too specific in which kinds of alcohol are taxed. While Yebisu, Kirin, Sapporo and Asahi have their delicious flagship lagers, they've all made their own cheaper happoshu variants. I personally am more likely to get a headache with happoshu than real beer, but that's what comes with cheaper izakaya.

$10 for all of this, about 3 meals. Katsu, gyoza, yakisoba, onigiri and karaage. Also, a free creeper.
Staying cheap, I also ate a lot of ready-to-eat deli food. I lived a close bike ride to Seiyu, Japan's Walmart, and would get katsu, seafood salads, rice balls and other entrees for a few hundred yen each.

Lastly, ramen. Ramen is the only contender for pizza in my book of favorites that I have regular access to. You're never far from a good ramenya ラーメン屋 in Japan. This was part of my favorite research whenever I moved to a new place, and bowl of ramen will run you $7-10.

All in all, I only cooked about half of my meals because over 2 years and 4 apartments, I never had a large enough prep surface to make cooking not a pain in the ass. Japan's ready-to-eat food has good portions, is not overly salty, and seeing delivery trucks more than once a day instills confidence that a lot of people are paying attention to freshness. I'm pretty sure my Japanese friends were quite aware that these suggested restaurants were cheap, but no one ever had an aversion to them the way you'd get shot down here for suggesting McDonalds to co-workers. Also, drinking after work was often a can or two from a 7-11 instead of going to a bar, which cut down drastically.

All aboard the Carb Express!
I think the average middle-class person there ate out a lot more often than I did, but I still bought food half the time. This was one of the ways I socked away 40-60% of my paycheck, and it certainly left a lot of room for improvement.


Sunday, September 24, 2017

Sep-timberrrr

As the needlessly hot weather sloughs off, and nature finishes ruining peoples' lives in the southern US, it's time to clam up for the next half year and get a little more passive. I started season 4 of Orphan Black, which, while a great show, has been kicked up a notch in terms of biological nightmares and R-ratings. It's bloodier, the language is coarser, and my girl Tatiana Maslany is showing more skin. I can't say it makes the show better, but my focus is in gaming.


Loot and stats, bro
Dungeon Defenders II is a free-to-play 3rd person tower defense game. You can dynamically switch between your 4+ heroes for different types of towers and of course different powers for your hero. This game is just about exactly what I needed, though I prefer god-view in this genre. Dungeon Defenders is also a little equipment-stat-heavy, but it's a sweet package considering it costs $0.00. Trophy-wise, the list is only 100%, no platinum. One of the reasons I like (reasonable) trophy lists is because they're a definite ending point where you can sell/let your friend borrow the game and move onto the next adventure.
My ro-bro, BT-7274

Continuing in the vein of sequels, I had an awesome week completing Titanfall 2, which has a trophy list that proves there are designers who want you to finish their game. Nothing is worse than 99% of trophies being reasonable, followed with a place-in-the-top-3-500-games-in-a-row-online trophies.The story's natural difficulty progression happens so that beating it on the hardest mode gives you a fighting chance: you don't get dropped into a firefight very often, and if you're pretty much always moving, it's not punishing. Plus the game makes use of the system's RAM in that when you die a hundred times, loading time is minimal.



Titanfall 2 fixed Titanfall's missing single-player campaign, having the story go out of its way to give you interesting levels to traverse as fast-moving pilot or blow-stuff-up mech. At one point of the game, you wander through a home manufacturing plant and are wall jumping and Parkour running up sideways bedrooms, upside-down fake-grass lawns, and dodging the factory machines that mercilessly press on. It's bizarre as hell, but quite fun.


The bulk of my time was spent with Final Fantasy XII: International Zodiac Job System, a mess of a title that came about because the devs wanted to distinguish from other upgrades of titles in the series. International means extra content and dual language options, and the new job system that allows you to assign your characters their own classes relates to zodiac signs. Originally, FFXII characters developed along pre-designed tracks.

Fran's ass is still awesome.
XII blew my mind when it came out on the PS2. Most people missed the online-only FFXI, so the quiet and depressing FFX with obnoxious lead characters was the last title we had played. Gorgeous graphics, really solid voice acting, set in the swords-iron-magick world of Ivalice, and a wonderful soundtrack in addition to a huge non-linear world that encourages exploration. You can finish the 30-hour story and still have more than 70 hours of optional (and trophy-hunting) content to wade through explore.


Vaan is a red/black mage
The massive departure in gameplay from the series is still there: budding programmers get to program their party's AI, one behavior at a time, using the Gambit system. In the beginning of the game, you get 3 slots for each character. You might have Attack: closest enemies / HP < 30% : use potion / Ally : eye drops, which means your character will prioritize attacking, and heal up after the realtime battles. However, if you put eye drops first, potion and then attack, that means that if these criteria are met in the middle of battle, your character will stop and heal up before going back to slashing away at the baddies. Endgame, you have 15 Gambit slots and about 100 actions to take, resulting in some pretty complex programming and planning. The resulting button-pressing is basically controlling movement and camera, but if you don't plan ahead, you'll find yourself micromanaging a ton to keep status ailments from overwhelming your party.

This place's music is definitely my favorite
My quest is currently at 55 hours and I might be half way to the platinum trophy. There are still a few poorly-designed areas of the game (Draklor Laboratories, Bhujerba) but it's still ultimately an awesome RPG experience and the PS4 version is an awesome upgrade.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Credit Cards

Well, folks, we got Equi-f***ed. I read somewhere that 130 million Americans' info was vulnerable in September 2017's data breach. SSN, addresses, names, the whole shebang. If the population is 330m, then maybe it's a time to revamp the system? A social security number is basically your national ID (since not everyone gets a passport) that has no photo attached, stays unchanged and has no letters or special characters to mix things up. Your email password is more secure, and you even give part of this number over the phone pretty often. My immediate thought was how ridiculous it is that we spend trillions of dollars on 'defense,' yet the average US citizen isn't protected from information security hacks. These thieves can do a lot with your SSN, name and address because of the convenience of electronic forms. Think about how many important things you've signed up for without a photo ID and it gets pretty darn scary.

What to do? The FTC says to check your credit reports for free, monitor your accounts, and consider a security freeze, which makes it harder to open accounts without your consent. Freezes for the big three credit report agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) will cost you up to $30 (fees depend by state), but you'll be that much more secure. As of 9/15/2017, the websites are overworked and I'm getting errors, but it's worth it to keep trying.

Now that we're all secure and confident to continue our lives (with a weekly check of our spending), let's talk about the borrowing part of credit. I know people that are super proud to always use cash, never have debt, and avoid loans like the plague. They are all super lucky but are missing out on a few major benefits of using credit cards.

The biggest and most obvious double-edged sword is the deferred payment: if you need a car/bike repair and payday is far off, you just have to wait. That might mean you can't get to work or school! (I can't use hospital emergencies in this case because even if our healthcare system is a crisis, it's pretty standard that they bill you after setting you right.)

Next obvious is that credit card companies protect you from fraud, and this is taken for granted until it happens to you. It's happened to me twice so far. I've had my card info stolen before and Capital One was on that ish like fur on a mouse. Credit card companies make so much money off people who neglect (or unfortunately can't keep up with) payments that they can afford to have our back at the drop of a hat. Those banks also often credit your account before they roll up their sleeves and go after the fraudster or company that shafted you!

Except when they don't. Story Time! A few years ago, I found a debit card on the street and called Chase customer service. I gave them the digits and told them I'd found a card on the street, and that they should close it because it's obviously not in the owner's position. Well, Chase bank, whom we so generously bailed out in 2008 asked my name, city and phone number in response. I got about 5 digits in when it occurred to me to ask why I was giving them my phone number. The associate told me that they were going to give the card owner my number and have me meet them to return the card back. This resulted in me closing my other Chase account and moving over to a credit union because of an absolute loss of confidence. Security means nothing to those people.


Anyway, it was a debit card that I'd found, and here's an important point about credit: since it's magic money, you're not completely screwed over when Klepto Chris cops your card. Cash can blow away in the wind, and debit cards are directly connected to your bank account. You might not be able to pay for your internet connection and read my blog if your debit card is compromised.

I hope I don't have to give a disclaimer that you should
do your best to pay the balance in full every month?
The last reason credit cards are dope is the permanent discount you get when you get cards like Capital One's Quicksilver that give you 1.5% cash back. Until they recently added a 2.5% charge, I paid my rent and utilities with this sucker, which was basically a free $100 per year!

So, while your peace of mind in not borrowing and always using cash on hand could be worth more than these benefits, think about each of these points and consider getting yourself a credit card. Check out nerdwallet.com for recommended cards.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My first experience with Amazon Flex

Amazon Flex is when you deliver items for the retailer, using your own car.

My amounts were different
How it works: Download their app and consent to a background check; you're good to go in a few days. This isn't offered everywhere, but Amazon is expanding rapidly, and this works in a lot of major cities. The night before my route, I accepted a block of time for the advertised pay. In the app, it says "3 hours: 8:30 - 11:30 AM, $54." Next, I arrived to the pickup location at 815, started scanning and loading packages. This took me about 20 minutes trying to load my sedan and not thinking ahead very well. After checking out with an attendant, the app's GPS started me on the route, making it the most time-efficient.

How it worked for me: My addresses were all within 2 square miles, but I wonder how much gas I burned up idling and running the AC. The current pay works out to $18 an hour if you complete the route in the allocated time. However, for my first delivery, I actually had until 9pm to deliver everything. I had a few issues so the actual delivery took me almost 6 hours, so I effectively made $9 per hour. My first issue was that I hadn't brought my car charger for my phone. Luckily my delivery route was only a few miles from my apartment, so I broke off and spent 30 minutes going to the house and rooting around in boxes to find it. My bad. The second issue was that I hadn't organized the packages when I received them. The attendees will tell you how to stack your morning stock so that the last items are packed in the furthest, but all bets were off when every package pretty much filled my sedan. The third holdup was a particular apartment complex spanned 3 different addresses, and had secured doors. I delivered 2 packages, waiting to be let into the buildings before remembering that everything for the complex was supposed to go straight to the rental office. Also, with 3 different addresses, that meant I circled back to it two additional times, wasting at least 30 minutes.

The final time-waster was that my morning scan was one package off from inventory. The attendees told me that was fine and that if I found out which package it was, I could manually add it to my route before delivering it. The kind people even showed me how to do it. Well, when I got to the end of the route, I finally realized which package was left over, but made the mistake of marking the last one I'd added as delivered, and the app closed the route. A closed route cannot be edited, and customer support can't be contacted except by email. So, I drove 30 minutes back to the warehouse to get an actual phone number to call for help, and made my final delivery.

My advice for Flex? Phone charger and extra battery. Next time, I will make quadrants where the passenger seat is 1st - 50th street, the rear passenger is 51st - 100th street, and so on. However, you'll have a different breakdown every day: maybe it makes sense to organize your deliveries by zip code. Lastly, get a help phone number from the attendees because the app either doesn't provide it, or only provides it while your delivery route is open. Unfortunately, I got a notice a few days later that a package wasn't received, but Amazon is open to letting me try again. All in all, I can recommend Amazon Flex as some great extra income that pays weekly.


Resources: I was worried about data usage, since my free phone plan (freedompop.com) limits me to 500MB per month. Luckily, one delivery route was about 40MB. My odometer says I used 60 miles, but the warehouse is 14 miles away, but I went to the warehouse twice. However, you'll use additional gas from idling and AC/heating. So, because of my mistakes and partially because of how the help/support function works (i.e. providing no phone number), I made out with roughly $9 an hour for delivery. However with this valuable experience, I will probably make closer to the advertised $18 per hour next time.

Ohh snap! I need money...

We've all done our best to avoid frivolous spending and to politely decline "sales" of stuff that was originally marked up 400%. Even with a few hundred in your savings account to maximize interest (my credit union gives 6% on your first $500), and hopefully the rest invested in a Vanguard ETF, sometimes you have emergencies.

Now, I am confident that any expensive emergency is going to be able to wait the week for you to cash out a portion (and not a cent more) of your investments to cover it. Right? No hospital on this planet is going to refuse to stuff your jutting bone back into place until seeing cash first. This is why I ignore the common advice to keep a big savings account; also, the piddly interest is insulting. Money is constantly losing its value: why the hell would you keep it around and not put it to work? Also, unless your jar of change has a specific goal like gas money or one month of health insurance at the end of the year, it's also uselessly taking up space. You can usually avoid the ~10% fee at Coinstars by getting a gift card for the local store or Amazon, which hopefully has something you need. However, whether it's unplanned dental work, a minor car accident, or Nintendo selling its limited edition mini classic system and their deliberate BS underproduction is causing the street price to quadruple, sometimes you need more money than you have that month, but not enough to disturb your investments.

There is a lot of advice on how to make money quick that depends on luck, unpossessed skills, or illegal activities. I offer two suggestions that can get you money within a month: Amazon Flex and Unclaimed Property.

Amazon Flex is when you deliver items for the retailer, using your own car. After you download their app and consent to a background check, you're good to go within a day. This won't work for every major city in the US, but Amazon is expanding rapidly, and this will work for Seattle and Everett. I wrote a separate article about my first experience Flexing.

My advice for Flex? Phone charger and extra battery. Also, your initial package loading is important. Next time, I will make quadrants where the passenger seat is 1st - 50th street, the rear passenger is 51st - 100th street, trunk is large packages, and so on. However, you'll have a different breakdown every day: maybe it makes sense to organize them by zip code. Lastly, get a help phone number from the attendees because the app either doesn't provide it, or only provides it while your delivery route is open. All in all, I can recommend Amazon Flex as some great extra income that pays weekly. Uber customer service failed me when I got an error after signing up that 3 emails later, they still couldn't solve for me. Door Dash wanted me to complete registration in a city 30 miles away, so that's why I can't personally promote those other options.

The first celebrity name I could think of. Sorry if I exposed anyone...

Unclaimed Property
 (via the WA State Dept of Revenue - search for your own state) is old bills and rebates that never made it to you because you moved or fudged the address. You enter your name, create an account, and upload some documents that prove you were at the previous address. Old driver's license, utility bills, old bank statements and tax documents are the most common types. For me, the addresses were so old that I had to use the comments section to appeal to them for having no proof I lived there. I'll let you know how it goes, but I should have a claim for ~$150 processing.

Think of these suggestions as the monthly equivalent to lifting the sofa cushions or raiding your car's ash tray (does anyone smoke anymore?) and scrounging for pizza.

Gamer sense: The Ten Commandments