Thursday, April 19, 2018

The Decline of the Sedan

Why is the sedan declining in today's market share? I've poked around and I've found no satisfactory answers, so I'll proffer a few of my own.

1. Boring Sedan Design in the '00's

Back in the 00's, the design of cars had achieved boring. The mantra "offend nobody" became the sedan's motto. To drive a sedan meant that you were driving an uncool vehicle. The smaller car companies shifted their sedans to more exciting designs early in the decade, but Toyota and Honda, the best sellers, moved too slowly, meaning that they exacerbated the impression that sedans were boring.

2.  Marketing

Marketing did a very good job of convincing families that they needed SUV's to fit everything for their family, even if the capacity of SUVs in many cases are no better than the capacity of mid-sized cars or station wagons. Well played, marketing.

3. Casual Sporty Car Buyers Moved to SUVs

People with a casual sense of sportiness, who would have bought the sporty looking sports cars, instead bought the exciting SUVs. This sucked the energy right out of the exciting end of the sedan market, meaning that the sporty cars didn't sell so well, and that fewer were introduced. (Sporty cars are ones that look like they are performance cars, but aren't really performance cars.)

4. Vehicles Now Last Longer

Modern cars just last longer. With vehicles getting so expensive, and used cars getting so plentiful, it's a safe bet to pick up a relatively cheap used sedan. With SUVs being hot, they aren't as plentiful or cheap as sedans on the used market, so buying one used isn't such a great bargain.

5. Dearth of Wagons

With wagons steadily being removed by car makers for more expensive SUVs, the wagon market shifted to SUVs. And then Volkwagen, one of the heavy wagon makers, had to recall a huge block of wagons over its diesel scandal, making wagons even scarcer, and driving more wagon buyers to SUVs.

6. Feeling of Wealth

People with money to spend want to spend their money on something that seems worth it. Sports cars seem worth it. Big SUVs seem worth it, because they're bigger. Plain sedans, however, don't seem worth it.

7. The Illusion of Safety

Having lots of car around you makes you seem safe, especially if you have kids.

8. Full Size Cars Are For Old People

The full size car may, in fact, be dead, or nearly so. Its association with old people is too strong. Their emphasis on comfort and smooth ride leave younger riders wanting a sportier experience, or in many cases, any experience whatsoever.

9. More Tuners than Ever

Kids these days are still into tuning cars, and to do that, you need older cars. Due to the lifespan of the modern car, there are lots of good older cars to choose from, so many kids who might turn to sports cars are now removing themselves from the market all together.

10. Tough Times for Millenials

Many new car buyers have limited funds, so they're either doing without cars, paying for transport as they need it, or they buy used cars. Either way, they don't buy new.

11. Trucks Are Cool

Out in the country, trucks are cool. Trucks are king. The truck is now part of a cultural identity.

12. Muscle is Too Expensive

If you are into sports cars, they are now prohibitively expensive, but if you can't afford one, you likely don't want a sedan as an alternative.

13. Mileage

When cars could get 30 mpg and trucks only got 10 mpg, choosing a car for mileage was a no brainer. When cars get 35 mpg and trucks get 30, that decision becomes more nuanced.

14. Competition

In previous decades, sedans didn't have much competition. Today's alternatives simply hadn't been developed. The consumer now has a wider choice than ever. Naturally, that means that the largest segment, the sedans, should lose out as the smaller segments expand.

What's To Be Done?

Given those conditions, what's to be done? Is there any one thing that can be done? In the short term, no, there's nothing to be done. In the long term, if car companies want sedans back, they have to advertise sedans like they do SUVs, and rebuild that audience over the long term. Before that happens, multiple companies will abandon the sedan market, meaning that the market will shrink, but the survivors will do better. Yet, even if they do win back sedan drivers, the market has fragmented to the point where sedans may never be dominant again.

Sunday, April 8, 2018

Final Fantasy 1 (1987)

Final Fantasy (1987), for FF1, was released in the early days of the RPG market. I would have still been in college, playing on PCs, while this came out on the NES, and I was too good for consoles back then, too poor for consoles, and too good for console RPGs. I was also massively ignorant of the market, so I completely missed this product.

Some of what made the Final Fantasy franchise showed up from the start, while other elements had yet to appear. The game clearly shows influence of RPGS of the day: the spell "dial" shows a relationship to the Wizardry franchise, the sprites and dialog system show homage to Ultima, while the monster variety shows homage to D&D (the pen-and-paper version). Yet, I can't stay that the game feels at all like any western RPG of the era, having its own feel and rhythm.

The title is clearly aimed towards a younger crowd, giving us a simple stories of a band of heroes going about defeating monsters. As in all the early FF games, the adventure orients around four crystals, and the band of heroes goes about restoring them so that the world might be restored.

I played this game on an iPad while I went on a vacation that involved 24 hours of plane flight each way, and it's that grindingly long flight which which allowed me to play through all the good and bad parts of the game. For the most part, I eschewed the internet, solving all the problems as I went along because I wanted the entire play experience was it was back in the day. Wandering around lost was part of the game, and yes, I certainly did get to do that.

For the most part, the adventure went straight forward, but I generally kept up advancing until I hit one object that I couldn't find. Because I went all over the map again, I wound up advancing my level, fighting quite a few optional bosses, and finding just about everything that wasn't what I was looking for. Once I got home from my trip, I looked up the one thing that I couldn't find, then blasted through the end with my level 71 characters with max gold, who were so buff with optional equipment that I rarely found any equipment that was better than I already had. 

I played with a fighter, thief, white mage, and black mage. I named them with the automatic naming function. The two classes that I didn't pick were monk and red mage.

I enjoyed the very simple beginning. "Four warriors of light appeared ..." That's it. That's all that you really needed to get into the game. Who needs back story when there are monsters to defeat? The adventure is the star here, not the characters.

The combat system went by the round, so I had to spend some time to make sure that it coordinated well. Even all these years later, it works well enough to have fun.

In overall tone, the game is upbeat and sincere. There's no posing here. No cynicism. The good guys get cheering and the bad guys get fought. That's ll that you really need.

While exploring, the encounters sometimes got out of hand. A relatively short walk would expand into a waste of time as monsters fought you in a never-ending stream of random encounters. While they were distractions sometimes, they usually acted as irritants. While getting a flying ship helped you to avoid all the ground random encounters, nothing would help you avoid encounters in the dungeons.

The game solved some of the gameplay problem of western titles by throwing out the more aggravating conventions. By making a lighter title aimed at older children, those gameplay aspects which just didn't work became clear, which is one of the reason why the game plays so well. Later on, as the franchise continued, many complexities would be reintroduced in an effort to keep the game interesting. That makes this game a distillation of a play style, one that stuck with the franchise for a very long time.

There's a few dungeon complexes that existed for exploring and fighting, but weren't part of the story. I ended up wasting too much time in them before I realized that they weren't needed to progress the game. However, they were a challenge, and one of the reasons why I was able to handle the final bosses.

My formula for success against bosses was to wind up my fighters. Haste + Temper on each of my fighters usually won me victory, including the boss. However, the optional bosses were often far harder, resulting in 2-3 party members down at the end of a fight. Those optional bosses even stomped on high level characters. 

For those interesting in trying this retro game, it's worth a look just for history's sake, and it plays pretty well, considering its limited scope. It does get dull and grindy along the way, which is a problem with many RPGs, and confusion adds too much time to the game play. Losing the plot thread and looking around for where to go is not content.

Saturday, March 31, 2018

Justice League (2017)

Justice League (2017) is a film that fundamentally fails to understand its own premise and its own power, and as a result, nothing about it works. While many thought that Batman vs Superman was a bad film, I think that Justice League is a far worse film. The responsibility all falls to Zach Snyder. His interpretation failed and so his vision failed. What we had remaining was a salvage effort waged in the editing room to produce something acceptable and palatable to the audience.

The film didn't even rise to lackluster.

I'd say that this was a one-too-many plot film, but it had far too many plots and far too many characters who didn't matter enough, and that's before the resurrection of Superman, which felt stupid, dangerous, and flat-out crazy. I didn't even buy that Batman was desperate enough to pull this off.

One of the base problems with the film is that Zach Snynder inherently wants to produce a film that look and feels like a comic book, with the problem that film is a different medium, so what works in film differs from what works in comics. By keeping so closely to how a comic or graphic novel would pace itself and act, the film guarantees itself an inescapable clumsiness with beats that never seems to land where they should, with motivations which always seem flat, and dialog that only seems serviceable.

The other problem is that the parts which worked even worse were excised in the editing room, leaving many plot and arcs underdeveloped.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I had expected more out of Thor: Rganorok when I set down to watch it. I walked away unmoved. Why did I care so little? Why was it just 120 minutes of stuff happening and yet, it felt like nothing had happened?

Ragnarok isn't a bad move, generally moving along well and entertaining the audience. On the other hand, it's not a particularly good one. It felt rather turnkey, hitting all the points that it was supposed to, threw in a few twists and turns along the way, redefined things, and eventually ended the day.

I think that I wasn't moved by the film because I didn't expect to be moved by the film. I think that the viewer's attitude generates the relationship to the work. The film rides on the goodwill feeling of the Marvel Universe titles, but if you don't feel that goodwill, then the film sorta just exists with no stakes and no purpose. If I don't care about Thor going in, other than he's the jaunty hero, then I'm not going to care much about him later on. The film assumes an endearment to the character and assumes that the audience doesn't need to be won over.

The film's heart didn't exist. I think that's why it passed me by. If Thor had been acting genuinely for those around him, non-cynical, non-joking, where something that truly mattered to him could be lost, where the stakes existed inside of himself, then the film may have had the heart that it needed. Without the heart, the films was just a series of scenes that got me from Point A to Point B in an amusing fashion.

Thursday, March 22, 2018

The Black Flame (1980)

I first read The Black Flame (1980) by Lynn Abbey back in high school. It was one of those books that I was never sure about, especially with a female protagonists, but I gave it a shot and found that I like it. On re-reading it so many years later, I found that Lynn Abbey had a solidity to her writing while also having a bit of squirreliness to her plot twists, meaning that her novelist skills are overall very respectable but not irreproachable.

Despite its thickness, nearly 400 pages, the novel falls in the sword and sorcery category for its general disdain for history, it's hand-waving treatment of the world, its narrow world stage, its personal stakes, and its enthusiastic use of magic. Like so many sword swingers of the day, our hero Rifkin, a female barbarian, has a magic unencumbered by complicated rules. At the end of the last book, she'd lost one of her powerful magical aids, so she goes on a trip to find the Black Flame in the center of a swamp. In addition to healing magic, she's got a psychically connected warhorse, a special relationship with the Moon Goddess (along with significant divine intervention), and a spirit form. She doesn't lack for any specialness. All that specialness did feeling a bit much, but none of it exists as an "I win" button and all of her abilities played out interestingly.

The sheer number of weapons that Rifkin carried veered into the absurd.

Despite its thickness, the tale never strayed too far from action, rarely wound up navel gazing, and generally gave us likable characters that I wanted to root for. By the end, she was in Moorecock territory, where events got pretty over-the-top. The gods are very sword and sorcery, having almost no purpose other than to summon up and hurl against your foes. If you're looking for a deep religious exploration, this tale isn't it.

Jenny is Rifkin's everywoman assistant who isn't terribly adventurous, but don't confuse that with incompetent. Jenny knows her limits, acting both inventively and shrewdly to protect herself and to aid Rifkin.

Some twists and turns are natural to the genre, but some twists feel like Lynne pulled them straight out of her behind, making them up on the spot in a mid-novel retcon. "What?  Huh? Where did that come from?" By modern standards, she plays a bit too fast and loose with her own world where we reader insist that everything be overly well organized. As I said, this is a sword and sorcery book, and in that genre in the 70's, fast and loose was the name of the game. By those standards, she writes a tame and measured tale. (If you want to argue, you'd better know that era better than I do, then I'll buy you your favorite drink and you can tell me how wrong I am.)

The book exists as a feminist take on fantasy, so do expect explicit feminism. The opinions offered are not subtle.

The book pleasingly lacks unnecessary technical vocabulary or strange names. It's an easy read, and you can pretty much work out everything as you go, even if you don't remember what something is. That in and of itself makes this tale an excellent popcorn book. (That's not an insult. Ever had good popcorn? Yeah, you get me.)

Could we call Rifkin a Mary Sue? I suppose, but if you were to take away all her specialness, she'd still be a formidable and clever opponent, and in her world, she's opposed by other Mary Sues, so we'll call that MAMS (mutually assured mary-sueness), which means that it all cancels out in the end.

I enjoyed the book on reread and hope that you give this book some of your time, too.

Monday, March 19, 2018

Listing of Cars by Size 2018

Here's a listing of cars for the North American market, by size, for 2018, hopefully making your car buying experience quicker and easier. Note that some of the listed cars are older or out of production because I figure that you may be shopping for a used vehicle. The car industry makes sorting this list out rather difficult, which means that I made some guesses, especially on sports cars, so double-check my information.

The list should work well for 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, and 2017. (Yes, I typed those all for search engine optimization.)

While I included some performance and luxury cars on the list, I didn't spend much time on them, instead focusing on commonly available vehicles. I looked at a dollar limit for what I would include, but that didn't work.

To be included on this list, a shopper must have a reasonable chance of finding this car on the secondary market.

Mini-Compact

Fiat 500
Mitsubishi i-Miev
Scion iQ (2008-2015)
Smart Fortwo

Sub-Compact Cars

Audi A3 (luxury)
Audi S3 (luxury)
Audi RS3  (luxury)
Audi TT (luxury)
BMW 2-Series (luxury)
BMW i3 (luxury)
Chevy Aveo
Chevy Spark
Chevy Sonic
Dodge Neon (1993-2005)
Ford C-Max
Ford Fiesta
Honda Fit
Hyundai Accent
Hyundai Veloster
Kia Rio
Mazda 2
Mazda MX-5 Miata
Mini Cooper
Mitsubishi Mirage
Nissan Versa
Saturn Astra (2008-2009)
Saturn Sky (2005-2009)
Scion XA (2004-2006)
Scion tC (2005-2016)
Toyota 86
Toyota Echo
Toyota Prius C
Toyota Yaris
Volkswagen Beetle (1997-2018)
Volkswagen Jetta
Volkswagen Rabbit

Compact Cars

Acura CL (luxury, 1996-2003)
Acura IL (luxury)
Acura TS (luxury)
Audi A4 (luxury)
Audi S4 (luxury)
BMW 3 Series (luxury)
Buick Cascada
Buick Regal
Buick Verano
Cadillac ATS
Chevy Bolt
Chevy Camaro
Chevy Cobalt (2005-2010)
Chevy Cruze
Chevy Volt
Dodge Dart
Ford Focus
Honda Civic
Honda Clarity
Hyundai Elantra
Hyundai Ioniq
Hyundai Tiburon (1996-2008)
Infiniti Q 50 (luxury)
Infiniti G Series (luxury)
Kia Forte
Kia Spectra (2000-2009)
Lexus CT (luxury)
Lexus GS (luxury)
Lexus HS (luxury)
Lexus IS (luxury)
Mazda 3
Mazda Protege (1994-2003)
Mazda RX-8 (2002-2012)
Mercedes-Benz CLA-Class (luxury)
Mercury Cougar (1999-2002)
Mitsubishi Lancer
Mitsubishi Galant (2013-2017)
Nissan Cube
Nissan Leaf
Nissan Sentra
Nissan Z
Pontiac Vibe (2003-2010)
Saturn ION (2003-2007)
Scion iM
Scion FR-S (2012-2016)
Scion xB (2002-2007)
Subaru BRZ
Subaru Impreza
Subaru WRX
Tesla Model 3
Toyota Corolla
Toyota Matrix (2002-2014)
Toyota Mirai
Toyota Prius
Volkswagen CC (2008-2017)
Volkswagen Gulf
Volkwagen GLI
Volkswagen GTI
Volvo S40 (1995-2012)
Volvo V40
Volvo XV50 (luxury wagon)

Mid-Size (Family) Cars

Acura TL (luxury)
Audi A6 (luxury)
Audi A7 (luxury)
BMW 5 Series (luxury)
BMW 6 Series (luxury)
Buick Lucerne
Cadillac CTS Series (luxury)
Cadillac STS (luxury 2004-2011)
Cadillac XLR (luxury 2003-2009)
Chevy HHR (2005-2011)
Chevy Monte Carlo (1995-2007)
Chrysler 200
Chrysler PT Cruiser (2000-2010)
Chrysler Sebring (1995-2010)
Chevy Malibu
Dodge Avenger (1995-2014)
Dodge Stratus (1995-2006)
Ford Fusion
Ford Thunderbird (2002-2005)
Honda Accord
Hyundai Sonata
Infiniti M Series (luxury)
Infiniti Q70 (luxury)
Infiniti Q60 (luxury)
Kia Optima
Kia Stinger
Lexus ES (luxury)
Lincoln MK
Mazda 5 (1999-2016)
Mazda 6
Mercedes-Benz C-Class (luxury)
Mercury Milan (2006-2012)
Mercury Sable (1985-2005)
Mini Countryman
Mitsubishi Eclipse (1990-2012)
Mitsubishi Galant (1983-2012)
Nissan Altima
Pontiac G6 (2004-2010)
Saturn Aura (2006-2009)
Saturn L-Series (2000-2005)
Scion xB (2008-2015)
Subaru Baja (2003-2016)
Subaru Forester
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Toyota Camry
Toyota Prius V
Toyota Solara (1998-2008)
Volkswagen Arteon
Volkswagen Passat
Volvo S60 (luxury)
Volvo XC70 (luxury wagon)

Full-Size Cars

Acura RL (luxury)
Audi A8 (luxury)
BMW 7 Series (luxury)
Buick LaCrosse
Buick Lucerne (2005-2011)
Cadillac CT6 (luxury)
Cadillac XTS (luxury)
Cadillac DTS (luxury 2005-2011)
Cadillac DeVille (luxury 1958-2005)
Chevy Impala
Chrysler 300
Dodge Charger
Dodge Intrepid (1993-2004)
Dodge Magnum (2005-2008)
Ford Five Hundred
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Azera
Hyundai Genesis (luxury)
Infiniti Q70L
Kia Cadenza
Kia K900
Lexus LS (luxury)
Lincoln Continental (luxury)
Mercedes-Benz E-Class (luxury)
Mercedes-Benz S-Class (luxury)
Mercury Grand Marquis (1975-2011)
Mercury Marauder (2003-2004)
Mercury Montego (2005-2007)
Mercury Sable (2007-2009)
Nissan Maxima
Pontiac Grand Prix (1968-2008)
Tesla Model X (luxury)
Toyota Avalon
Volvo S80 (luxury)
Volvo S90 (luxury)
Volvo V90 Cross Country (luxury wagon)

Saturday, March 17, 2018

Final Fantasy XIII

I'm sitting here, worn out, wondering if I event want to bother with the ending. I've been grinding towards the end for several days now and it's still not in sight. Emotionally, Final Fantasy XIII has been a vampire to me, draining me of excitement and energy as I go. I've developed strong opinions about this game, and few of them are good, and some are repeatable in polite company.

There was a point in the middle of the game, on Pulse, where I finally got an open playground, and when I got the ability to move on in the story, I rebelled and went backwards, because I just couldn't face more of the story.

The story opens in media res, with stuff happening and characters being introduced, and then like the TV series Lost, flashes backwards in time to fill in character's backstories. This created a sense of disorientation. At the same time, I'm learning a brand new combat system, one based on roles, more like D&D 4th edition than any previous Final Fantasy, and I feel disoriented. There's an equipment system based on levels, but I don't have enough information to make sense of it, or even have any benchmarks, so I feel a bit disoriented. Finally, there are vague terms that I can't quite work out, like l'cie and fal'cie, and what's what, and who's who, leaving me rather disoriented. This combined to leave me not only disoriented, but utterly apathetic to the story, fully divorced from any emotion or delight.

There's no delight in this story. None. I don't care about the characters because there is no delight in them. Lightning, in addition to having no real personality to speak of, goes around hitting people, because she's a walking psycho case. She's everything wrong with the modern male character shoved into a female character.

I never quite bought the plot. In that, I mean that the characters determine their course of action, and when they're standing around and grandstanding their decision, I gasp at their utter incomprehensible leaps of logic and loyalty. The plot makes them go places but doesn't support that journey very well.

We have a new combat system that was supposed to be exciting, but I often found it devolved into "hit them fast" if the opponents were low level, or "fight defensively" if they were high level. That's a shame, because there was real merit to the combat system. They had a way of changing what your party's overall tactics were, much like a sports team will change up depending on where the ball is on the field and who has it. Those quick changes, when they're working well, do engage you. When they don't work well, it's a grind.

A terrible flaw in the combat system is that your main character, your leader, must always stay up, otherwise you lose the fight. That's pretty stupid,frustrating, and needlessly random, because the fights, especially the hard ones, sometimes just kill your leader randomly because that's the math. Towards the end, there was one creature that could one-hit kill my leader from full hit points, so after fighting for ten minutes, I'd have to start over simply because chance happened.

The boss fights often felt like grinds instead of exciting. Because you had to fight more defensively, and protect your leader, I often wound up hitting, healing, and tanking for extended periods of time.

I found the level pacing off for the game. I dwelled and extra twenty hours in the middle part simply because I had to catch up my leveling and prepare for the next stage, where I was sure that the designers would slam me, and I was right. The middle proved such a grind that the developers had to create kill missions from statues to give you something to do, and lots of mini-bosses to fight. As dull as that sounds, I enjoyed that more than the actual game.

Leveling was a bit odd, using tracks to acquire various abilities and stats as you gained XP. There weren't many choices worth thinking about. The whole thing could have been automated with little problem because it gave me the illusion of choice when there wasn't truly a choice at all.

If you like insane amounts of continuous fighting, this game will work for you, but I found that when I needed a change-up in the game, there was nothing else to do except fight. Presumably, the game threw out all the boring stuff that the director thought was boring, but that stuff was actually interesting to some of us, so the game wound up flatter and duller for the streamlining.

I have to save my biggest criticism for the ending. It was one of the most egregious "what the fuck?" endings that I've ever witnessed. Endings are supposed to wrap up the loose and then the biggest loose end, it's not supposed to wrap up things that weren't even problems, by pulling out one deus ex machina after another, especially when they're superfluous machinas. I literally did not follow the cut scenes because they just pulling stuff out of nowhere, things that were barely hinted in the story, if hinted at all.

While technically an excellent game, which played solidly, never crashed, and got me 60 fps on a cheap video card, the game somehow wound up less than the sum of its parts.