Friday, September 28, 2007

In Which I Use the Name "Ken Levine" Nine Times

I've linked to Ken Levine's blog before (like I did this morning), but I got enough e-mail about it that I should clarify something.

About Ken Levine.

Apparently, "Ken Levine" is an absolutely ass-kicking name to have. The blog I linked to--"Ken Levine's Blog"--is not written by world-of-awesomeness Ken Levine the game creator. This Ken Levine is Ken Levine, the Emmy-winning comedy writer and former play-by-play announcer for several major league baseball teams. This Ken Levine is also awesome, and his blog is tremendously funny.

Seriously, if you have a baby coming soon, and it's a boy, name him Ken Levine.

Friday Links!

Another strong set of links for your reading pleasure.

Before we get started, here are two quick gaming notes. One, the PC demo for Pro Evolution Soccer 2008 is out, and you can find it in all the usual places. Second, a new version of Mount & Blade has been released, and you can get it here.

First off, from Ken Levine's excellent blog titled, um, "By Ken Levine," here's a link to a real rarity: a lengthy excerpt from the audio recording of John Lennon's guest appearance as a morning DJ on Los Angeles radio station KHJ in 1974. To hear it, go here and look for the "Genius, Beatle, Boss Jock -- John Lennon" post on September 21.

DQ reader and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand originally recommended the blog to me, and it's a great read in general.

Next, from Johan Nilsson, a link to the Wikipedia entry for the SS Great Eastern, an iron sailing steam ship built in 1858. She could carry 4,000 passengers and was absolutely massive for her era, the largest ship ever built at the time (and remained the largest for 40 more years). It's a fascinating read, and it's here.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent in an absolutely fantastic series of articles about the Barrow Whalers. Here's an excerpt:
Welcome to the top of the world, home of the Barrow Whalers, the one and only Arctic high school football team in America. Here, 330 miles north of the Arctic Circle, at the very top of our country's 49th state, a place with no grass, no trees, but plenty of permafrost (snow and ice covers the landscape eight months a year), school superintendent Trent Blankenship controversially brought America's most popular sport to town this year. And no one is quite sure what to think.

There are four articles in all, and they're all excellent reads. The first two are from last season, while the last two are recent updates.
ESPN part one
ESPN part two
ESPN Update
Anchorage Daily News

From Dan Quock, an article from Think or Thwim titled "How to Hide an Airplane Factory." It's the story of how the Army Corps of Engineers managed to make a Lockheed Aircraft Plant in California look like--from the air--a rural area. The pictures (in particular) are remarkable, and you can see them here.

From Rob, a link to an update about the "hobbits" of Indonesia. Based on a study of wrist bones, it now appears that the hobbits were actually ancestors of man, not humans suffering from genetic disorders. Read about it here.

From Francis Cermak, a link to an article by the always-interesting Kieron Gillen about the making of Thief: Deadly Shadows. It's an excellent read, and you can find it here.

From John Harwood (the man who actually sold me the Phillips CD-i I wrote about earlier this week), a link to some excellent MIT pranks. First, a re-invention of an on-campus statue, now with a Spartan helmet and an assault rifle--at Harvard. See it here. Here's also a link to some of the legendary MIT pranks over the years, all of which are outstanding, and you can read about them here.

From Sirius, a link to an article over at MSNBC about an exciting discovery when it comes to recovering DNA from extinct animals. The secret, it seems, is getting the DNA from hair instead of bone or muscle. Here's an excerpt:
Contamination from bacteria DNA generally make up 50 to more than 90 percent of the raw DNA extracted from the bone and muscles of ancient specimens, Gilbert said. In contrast, more than 90 percent of the DNA extracted from hairs taken from woolly mammoth specimens in the new study belonged to the extinct mega-mammals themselves.

"The quality of the DNA was fantastic," Gilbert told LiveScience. "It was way better than we ever imagined. There's both mitochondrial and nuclear DNA in there."

The finding, detailed in the Sept. 28 issue of the journal Science, could simplify DNA extraction in taxonomy, forensics, anthropology, paleontology and other fields. It could also help overcome one of the major hurdles involved in potential attempts to clone extinct animals.

I'm waiting for Mammoth Park, because it's coming. Read about it all here.

Here's a link to an article at MSNBC about the greatest philanthropist you've never heard of: Chuck Feeney. He's given away well over a billion dollars, but he still wears a fifteen dollar watch. Here's an excerpt:
"I had one idea that never changed in my mind — that you should use your wealth to help people. I try to live a normal life, the way I grew up," Feeney said. "I set out to work hard, not to get rich."

It's an inspiring read, and it's here.

The true genius of invention may never be understood, particularly after the introduction of this product: an MP3 player that also has a deep cleaning mode for your face. Too bizarre for words, and it's here.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Lessons Learned: the crApple Debacle

1. I am an idiot.
This is not a "new" lesson, actually, but I should have known that audio tracks on a data disc do not an audio disc make. I've never really burned anything to disc, though--if anything, I just rip audio tracks from CD's to my hard drive (to use with my MP3 player when I swim).

2. crApple has really craptastic error messages, or none at all.
A "cannot import audio tracks from data disc" message would have been highly appreciated. Actually, any kind of failure message at all would have been highly appreciated.

As to the whole experience, in a word: ugh.

And Here's What Was Going On

So what happened was that when I wrote all the episodes to a DVD-RW, iTunes asked me if I wanted to write a data disc, because I had specified audio disc as my preference. Not knowing a damn thing about anything, I said "yes."

As it turns out, iTunes can't import anything on a data disc, even if it's an iTunes file, because the format must change somehow when they write it as a data disc. Oh, and thanks very much, it also changed my burning preference in the program to data disc instead of audio, even thought the DVD was a one-time deal.

Then, when I tried to burn a CD again, it was still burning a data disc, not an audio one. So when I tried to import it, the same issue prevented it from working.

How this import feature could fail with zero information about what went wrong is beyond me, but once I changed my burning preferences back to audio disc, it did successfully write an episode to CD, then import it back as an MP3.

What's crazy is that a lot of people would never even be able to find where those burning and importing preferences are listed--they're in a sub-tab of the "Advanced" tab off the "Preferences" menu. And with no error messages, there's no way for them to know what to do.

Good grief!

Welcome to My Nightmare

The last time I had a good experience with Apple was when I had an Apple II-GS computer in the late 1980's. Seriously. Apple has done a masterful job of marketing, but every time I'm told something is supposed to be "easy" and it has anything to do with Apple, it turns out to be a nightmare, with all kinds of proprietary crap that either works or it doesn't, with no way to troubleshoot if something goes wrong..

Case in point.

I installed iTunes on my system this afternoon and purchased several of the This American Life episodes (as I wrote about earlier today). It seemed like the consensus procedure to convert the DRM tracks into MP3 was to use iTunes itself--burn the tracks to CD, then import them BACK into iTunes after specifying that you wanted to import in MP3 format. Clunky, but supposedly it worked.

After I bought the episodes, I tried to burn them (from iTunes) to a blank CD. Each episode is about 27MB, they all should have fit easily on one CD.

Uh, no.

iTunes keeps telling me that there's not enough room, and finally, I burn ONE episode to a CD. One.

I then go into the import options, specify MP3, and try to import the episode from the CD. It's slow, but it works, and it is in MP3 format.

I try it with another CD (because that one is no longer "blank" and iTunes won't use it, and I can't delete the file, even though it's a CD-RW disc), and I still can't put more than one episode on a disc. It's incredibly annoying.

Instead, I take a DVD-RW disc (surely, THAT'S big enough) and iTunes does let me put the rest of the episodes on one disc.

So I'm almost done. All I need to do is import the tracks and they'll come in as MP3's.

Oh, except they don't. And since this is Apple, I get no error message, no failure code, nothing--it just doesn't work.

What is this--1985? Or should I say 1984?

The import feature just basically stopped working. I burned one episode to a CD and tried to import that, and it wouldn't work, either. So it's completely FUBAR with zero information from the program telling me what's happened.

Very well-done in the user friendliness department, Apple.

NPR Has Turned Me Into a Criminal

When I get to our neighborhood pool this morning, there's a sign on the front (retail, not hand-lettered) that says "POOL CLOSED."

Hmm, I wondered. What does that mean exactly?

See, when I see a sign that says "POOL CLOSED," what I actually see is "POOL CLOSED: EXCEPT FOR YOU." And my pass card works, so I walk right on in and start swimming.

I can tell right away that they closed the pool because the chlorine level was too high. But I've swum in worse, so I started my MP3 player and turned on This American Life.

That's right. I realized a few days ago that certain episodes of This American Life, which has to be one of the finest radio programs ever created, are offered for download in MP3 format.

I've tried to increase my yardage this summer, but I'd hit a wall for a few months. I could swim 35-40 minutes with no problem, but I just didn't care after that. And I'd tried all kinds of mental tricks to motivate myself to swim longer.

This was magic, though. This American Life is 60 minutes long, and the episodes are usually so riveting that it's impossible to stop listening.

Motivation problem solved. Start an episode and swim until it's over, whichi s what I did today. I never even thought about how long I'd been swimming because I was so wrapped up in the stories.

And if you've never listened to an episode, just listen to this episode and you'll understand. Here's the description from the show's website:
Over the course of his life, Keith Aldrich was a child of the Depression in Oklahoma; a preacher-in-training in booming California; an aspiring Hollywood actor; in the 1950s, a self-styled Beat writer, and then a man in a gray flannel suit; in the 1960s, a member of the New York literati, and then a hippie; in the 1970s, a denizen of the suburbs with a partying, Ice Storm kind of life; and a born-again Christian when the Moral Majority helped put Ronald Reagan in office.

We devote this entire episode to the story of Keith's life, as told by one of his nine children, Gillian Aldrich. Keith's life is not only a history of most of the major cultural shifts in the second half of the Twentieth Century. It's also a case study of the question, "What happens if you're too good at transforming yourself?"

If you think that sounds fascinating, believe me, the way they tell the story is even better than the description.

This show has been on radio (weekly) for thirteen years. That could be a lot of time in the pool. I realized that I could actually listen to every episode from the beginning of the show. I'd be swimming an hour a workout for years.

And this is about the point where NPR turned me into a criminal.

The most recent episode is a free download--in MP3 format. That's what my "swimming music player" supports.

All the other episodes, though, are $0.95 each from iTunes.

I have zero problem with that price. I'd be happy to pay twice that much. The problem, though, is that the MP3 player doesn't support songs in AAC format (which is the DRM iTunes uses).

Well, crap.

They have a "buy CD" option. Maybe I'll use that. I can probably choose a dozen episodes to have on CD, and just order more CD's when I run out of new episodes.

That sounds like a plan--until I see that EACH episode costs $13 to purchase on CD!

So if I want to listen to This American Life while I swim, I have to either use a program to record the audio stream (you can stream old broadcasts), which seems like stealing, or I have to find a program to convert the iTunes AAC tracks to MP3.

It would be pretty easy to record the audio stream, but here's the irony: National Public Radio wouldn't be getting any money, even though I want to pay them. They've made it much more convenient for me to take the episodes than to pay for them.

So I'm going to fiddle with iTunes this afternoon (there's Google info that you might be able to download AAC tracks to a CD, then prestidigitate them back into iTunes as MP3 tracks) and see if I can get it to work. And if I can't, maybe they'll offer those shows on the new Amazon Music store, which doesn't have any DRM.

Oh, and I suffered no adverse effects from the extremely high chlorine levels, except I had to put a plastic dropcloth around my chair to catch the giant sheets of skin as they sloughed off.


I would normally be the last person in the entire world to be posting a link to a women's soccer highlight, but I taped the Brazil-U.S. World Cup Semifinal this morning because I wanted to see Brazil play.

They have a woman on the team, Marta Vieira da Silva, and she is absolutely sensational. Brazil won 4-0, and when she scored the last goal of the game, she did so with a move that has to be one of the greatest in women's soccer history. Here's a link to the clip (you see a great angle on the move with about :40 left in the video): Marta.

Here's a YouTube video as well. The woman has some other-worldly skills (watch at about :20 of the video--what the?). See it here.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Gaming News and Links

Game Politics just posted a very funny article about Mr. The Blur Can Be Disarmed, otherwise known as Jack Thompson. It seems that in a court filing to a U.S. District Court judge in Florida, Thompson included graphic images of--

Hmm, have to make sure the Internet filters at your place of employment don't go off like air raid sirens. Well, the graphic images that Thompson included in his court filing rhyme with "day horn."

This is the same judge, by the way, who will rule on whether the Florida Bar can suspend or disbar Thompson.

Seriously, every time I see a story about Jack Thompson, I make popcorn. It's just gotten that good.

The full story is here.

Here are a couple of notes on two games that are among my all-time favorites. First, Dwarf Fortress is nearing its first new release version in over a year. Based on the development notes Tarn has put up, the new version should be out (I'm making an educated guess here) within the next two weeks, and the change log and feature addition list will be absolutely massive.

Second, I saw a story yesterday about the next edition of Fatal Frame--and it's going to be for the Wii. I'm not sure anyone expected that news.

If you've never played the Xbox version of Fatal Frame II (which includes the addition of a first-person mode), then you've missed out on what is absolutely the most frightening game ever made. After I finish a game, I usually can't rememember anything about it a week later, but there are dozens of incredibly vivid moments from Fatal Frame II that I can still see with utter clarity.

N'Gai Croal has an excellent article series over at Newsweek with a title that's so long I'm not even going to bother typing it. The articles, though, are excellent, and they discuss Bioshock and Metroid Prime 3. Be warned, there are a TON of BioShock spoilers, so if you haven't played the game yet, take a pass. If you have, though, the discussion between N'Gai and Stephen Totilo is terrific, particularly in part one. Read them here:
part one
part two

N'Gai has also posted a guest column by several editors from Beyond 3D (an excellent hardware site, by the way) about the hardware capabilities of the Wii. It's the most detailed discussion I've seen of what the Wii has under the hood, and it's here.

Dan Holmes sent me a link to an interesting article about biological determinism between the sexes and how gaming was used in a study that seems to suggest our ability to perform certain spatial tasks is determined by environment, not biology. It also suggests that when gaming improves our ability to perform spatial tasks, that improvement might be permanent. It's an excellent read, and it' s here.

Don Barree sent me a link to a German website called Brettspielwelt. There's an English language option, and the site allows you to play many popular board games online, including Carcassonne, Caylus, Diamont, Settlers of Catan, Saint Petersburg, Ra, San Juan and more. Take a look here.

Zero Punctuations new video column is a review of Peggle. That's right--Peggle. He's consistently hilarious, and you can watch it here. Oh, and of course it's NSFW--depending, of course, on how "safe" your work is to start with.

Building Character and the Coaching Cult

Last week, Jenni Carlson, a columnist for The Oklahoman wrote a column about Oklahoma State quarterback Bobby Reid in which she basically called him out for being "soft." The column was mean-spirited (you can read it here), and I thought it was unfair.

After Oklahoma St.'s game against Texas Tech, though, head coach Mike Gundy basically went berserk in a press conference and ranted for over three minutes about the article while Carlson was sitting there with the assembled reporters.

And when I say "berserk," I'm not exaggerating. You need to see it for yourself, which you can do here.

Again, if you haven't watched that clip, you need to, or what I'm about to write won't have any context.

One of the things that I've noticed as I grow older is the incredible decline of civility in this country. And 90% of the time, when I see someone screaming on television, acting like an absolute, complete asshole, who is it?

A coach.

I'm not saying that there aren't coaches who are wonderful role models, who treat their athletes and their community with respect. Those coaches absolutely do exist. But it seems like mostly what I see now when I watch sporting events are red-faced, screaming sociopaths who have veins bulging out of their necks like ropes.

Why is that screaming coaches are not only accepted, but expected? Is it because we equate screaming with caring? Do people who scream when they get angry somehow care more than the rest of us? How ridiculous.

If a university president went on a rant like that, they'd resign within a week. Somehow, though, coaches are allowed to act like that. Somehow they're exempt from the normal rules of civilized society. Is it because sports are somehow more important than the rest of our lives? Again, how utterly ridiculous.

Coaches are a primary role model for millions of young boys and girls (and young men and women) in this country. And when it comes to coaches, we have tragically confused "abusive" with "tough." Screaming at people, whether it's your players or a reporter, isn't "tough." It isn't "hard-nosed." It isn't "passionate."

It's just being a dick.

So what happens when millions of kids are around a primary role model who's a dick? I think it's very safe to assume that a far higher percentage of these kids will wind up being screamers and physically abusive than the kids who had coaches who treated them with respect.

Screaming, out-of-control coaches aren't character builders. They're character cancers.

I'm not saying that Carlson's column wasn't objectionable, even though I do feel that college athletes are fair game for criticism. The column was too heavy in innuendo and drew too many conclusions from very thin examples. And I have no problem with Gundy criticizing Carlson in public. He could have started the press conference by noting that he had read the column, he felt like it was totally unfair, and that he was disappointed in Carlson's lack of professionalism.

And then he should have moved on.

Instead, he winds up becoming the latest in a long, long list of coaches whose behavior is so sub-human that it defies description.

Here's a thought: what would coaches do if a regulation was passed that ejected any coach in any sport that raised his/her voice to an official? Well, they'd collectively have a stroke. But how different would the games be if television cameras weren't constantly cutting over to the sidelines and showing a coach with spittle coming out of his mouth as he rages against an official over some alleged error?

My love of sports, and that love runs very deep, has really been poisoned by the behavior of coaches. One of the reasons I look so desperately for a great sports game to play is because I'm almost to the point where I'd rather experience a sport through a game than through real life.

No screaming. No rage. No crazy people.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Open House

Eli's school had a "P.E. Open House" on Friday.

Those of you who have read this "entertaining" feature for any length of time will not be surprised to learn that I managed to injure myself.

There was a long bar, fifteen feet long or so, and one of the activities was to crawl up a curling ladder, swing all the way along the bar, then slide down a smooth board at the other end. I didn't see many parents in line to do this with their kids, even though we'd been told that all the equipment was "grown-up proof."

That was true. Unfortunately, while the equipment might have been adult-proof, I forgot to remember that I am not child-proof.

So I'm in line behind Eli, and I swing across without any embarrassing moments. Right behind, Gloria is impressively swinging around like George of the Jungle, and she makes it, too.

This entire feat of derring-do took less than fifteen seconds.

That was all fine until I started swimming Saturday morning and felt a burning pain in my right tricep after about six hundred yards.

Hmm, what the hell could that be? I haven't done anything that could have...


I'm just glad I didn't try the hula hoop--I would have blown out a hammy for sure.

This may seem like an incredibly strange incident to you--if you're under forty. Trust me, once you hit forty (or, sadly, forty-five), your body turns into that twenty-five cent balsa wood plane with the rubber band propeller. Wind it up once, launch it, and the second it hits the ground, it explodes.

Later that day, on the way home from school, we stopped to get some ice cream, and there was a toymaker in the same shopping center, and they make wooden toys. We stopped by for a look, and Eli played with a wooden train while Gloria and I walked toward the back of the tiny shop.

That's when Gloria picked up a special musical instrument. "What is this?" she asked, holding it up.

"That--is a Chokwe thumb piano," I said nonchalantly.

"No way," she said.

"An ancient Central African tribe," I said. "They speak Bantu."

"And yet you can't find your car keys," she said pointedly.

What I couldn't tell her of course, is that I know about the Chokwe thumb piano because of gaming. I was one of maybe nine people in the world who bought the Philips CD-i system.

As noted previously, I have poor impulse control.

One of the very few interesting discs ever released for the system was titled "Treasures From the Smithsonian," and it was fantastic. All I can remember today, though, is the segment on the Chokwe thumb piano, which basically looks like the metal tines of a tiny rake attached on top of a wooden box (except for the curved portions of the tines, the rake section is flat on the box). The tines are then plucked to make sound.

It sounds like this.

"It's not a thumb piano," Gloria said, holding up the box. "It says it's a kalimba."

Ouch. Scoreboard denied.

I walked over to the newly-dubbed kalimba and picked up the packaging.

"Hey," I said, reading from the packaging, "this musical instrument is commonly called a kalimba, sansa, or thumb piano."

Heh. Scoreboard restored.

"Refer to my previous comment about the car keys," she said.

On our way back to the car, I was holding Eli's hand and we started to walk up some stone steps. He slipped, and I thought he might take a nasty fall, but instead he just hung on to my hand and stopped inches short of the steps. "SAVED BY THE ARM!" he shouted with glee.

We kept walking toward the car. "Dad," he said, did you know that Alex put a BOOGER between his TOES to attract the girls?"

There was a dramatic pause.

"And it WORKED!" he shouted.

Console Post of the Week (Supplemental)

N'Gai Croal has a new installment of Monday Morning Quarterback, which is basically a roundtable discussion by e-mail about the previous month's NPD numbers. If you want to keep up with what's going on in the console world, it's become required reading, and here's an excerpt:
...I started to get some, ah, rumblings from trusted sources outside of Sony that, if true, strongly suggest that a $399 SKU is on the way. My source tells me that Sony placed a sizable order for 40 gigabyte hard drives. My source also informs me that the profit and loss on hardware has been moved from Sony Computer Entertainment International (SCEI) to the regional groups, SCE America, SCE Europe and SCE Japan. This means that each territory is now free to set its own pricing on PS3 hardware, but those individual territories are responsible for managing the hit to their profitability if they decide to cut the price.

Again, if my source is correct, I'd expect to see a $399 PS3 in North America before Thanksgiving.

So there's more speculation on a $399 unit. Far more interesting, potentially, is that P&L has been moved from SCEI to the regional units.

See the full Monday Morning Quarterback here.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent me some very interesting links this morning to FCC reports that may verify Ngai's source. The report is a "Radio Test Report" from Underwriters Laboratories Japan, and it appears to be a test report on a new PS3 model.

The first link Jesse sent me is here, and it's the test report on the original PS3, model number CECHA01. The second link is here, and it's a letter to the FCC in the U.S. concerning the 80GB unit, which is given model number CECHE01.

The third link is from a test report dated "August 27 to September 5, 2007" (in reference to the testing period). That report is here, and it appears to be a test of a new model number--CECHG01.

If you look at the diagrams and notes in each report, it's easy to see that two of the front USB ports have been removed. It also looks like memory card support has been removed (referred to as "USB memory" in the report on the original console version). The new model, though, does have one addition: a port in front that was tested using a PSP, so I assume that's for a wired connection between the PS3 and the PSP.

Does this mean we'll be seeing a $399 model? I have no idea. But it does look like something's afoot, and it does look like Sony has stripped away a few features to lower the cost of the BOM. I would urge caution concerning all of this information, though, since it's totally unverified at this point.

Jesse mentioned that he originally saw these links on a PS3 forum, but I'm not sure which forum or which poster, so I'll update later to give credit to both when I find out more information. [UPDATE: Jesse let me know that he originally saw the post on PS3 at, and the poster's handle was 'konangrit.']

Monday, September 24, 2007

Halo 3

If you're waiting around for the Halo 3 release, here's a very funny video to whet your appetite (link sent in by David Gloier): Halo: The Future of Gaming.

If A Mime Falls In The Forest And There's No One To Hear Him, Does He Make a Sound?

Marcel Marceau, dead at 84. Story here.

The Escapist

"I swallowed a fly once."

Eli 6.1, after handcuffing himself to a kitchen chair, is eating dinner under stylish, self-imposed duress.

"Does eating dinner while handcuffed make the food taste better?" I asked him.

"You know what, Dad? It does," he said, desperately struggling to get a chicken nugget to his mouth.

He bought these handcuffs, of all places, at the grocery store. Since when did grocery stores start selling metal handcuffs like these? What's next? Leg irons? Authetic replica wooden stocks?

This purchase let to a forty-eight hour period where every action, no matter how mundane, required extraordinary effort. Two nights ago, we were having dinnner, but Eli had already finished eating, so he had gone into the living room and turned on a show.

"So what do you think about that light rail terminal they're building near here?" Gloria asked.

"Light rail terminal?" I asked blankly.

"Dad!" Eli shouted. "Dad! I need help!"

Normally, a call like this would signal great alarm. In hour thirty-two of The Great Handcuff Era, though, it was only one of an endless stream of such calls.

"They're building it on the other side of the highway," Gloria said.

"GUYS!" Eli shouted from a distance of approximately ten feet. "Little EMERGENCY here!"

I looked in his direction. He was handcuffed to the wooden frame of the sofa, and the key to the handcuffs was on the carpet beside him.

"I can ALMOST reach the key," he said dramatically, straining and reaching with his right foot. "If I can get my sock off, I think I can reach it with my TOE."

"You do realize that the safety latch will open these immediately," I said.

"I can't REMEMBER where the safety latch IS," he said, still reaching with his foot toward the key.

"It's on the handcuffs," I said. "It's that little notch."

"I don't SEE it," he said, raising his foot to his mouth, then pulling at the sock with his teeth.

"That counts as your desert," I said, turning back to Gloria. "They're building light rail here?" I asked.

"Where have you lived for the past two years?" I asked.

"I told you--I'm in this world but not of this world," I said.

"GOT IT!" Eli yelled triumphantly, as his big toe brushed the elusive handcuff key. He started to inch it back towards him, finally picking it up with his feet, then transferred it to his hands. "I'M FREE!" he shouted, displaying the handcuffs with a flourish as he stood up and bowed.

We applauded.

Console Post of the Week

Sony's big TGS announcement on Thursday was that they've added rumble to the PS3 controller.


This was the same feature they derided as "last-gen," and Penny Arcade does a very good job of examining this seeming contradiction here.

Oh, and they've delayed Home until Spring 2008, which we all knew weeks ago when they said they were going to "roll it out slowly."

Price cut? Not a chance.

Here's an excerpt from a GameDaily BIZ article:
Wedbush Morgan Securities analyst Michael Pachter and other analysts had been fairly confident in predicting that Sony would lower the price on the PS3, the PS2 or perhaps even both, but Hirai made no such announcement. Pachter told GameDaily BIZ that he's a bit perplexed by Sony's non-action on the pricing front.

"I'm really not sure what they're thinking," he commented. "Hirai said no cut this year when asked the direct question, so I think the PS3 cut is unlikely until Spring. It now looks like the delay of Home and the lack of any killer games this year made them reconsider whether a price cut in 2007 would have much impact."

Pachter added, "I would not rule out a PS2 price cut, but it looks like we can put the PS3 cut to bed until some time early next year."

Well, they're not thinking. They haven't been thinking for quite a while now, and until they do, we should assume they won't.

So Pachter's projection for lifetime sales of the PS3 had already fallen from 100 million to 50 million as this last year has unfolded. Where are they now?

This was also very interesting:
"Going aggressive only on price without being able to back it up with content doesn't make a whole lot of sense to me," [Hirai] said. Hirai added that a price cut would have a "real impact" on hardware sales only if Sony also provided enough software titles to support the PS3.

Think about that for a minute. This is a system that launched almost a year ago, and Hirai is admitting (accurately) that the PS3 is still poorly-represented by first party titles. Based on his statement, he's writing off this holiday season. That's fairly stunning.

Here's my best guess on the next four months: if Sony lowers the 80GB price to $499, then the 360 will outsell the PS3 2-1 for the the September-December period. If they don't, and the 80GB stays at $599, then the margin will be 2.5-1 or even 3-1.

Either way, that's an ass-kicking.

On to Nintendo. There are a few anecdotal reports that Wii's seem to be slightly more available than they have been for the last few months in the U.S. Slightly.

Andy Stingel mentioned another point about Nintendo and Australia (Australia, where their major sporting import seems to be getting screwed in the World Cup), and here it is:
Aaron Rex Davies didn't mention the number of Nintendo games that never even make it to Australia. GameCube titles which spring to mind are "Custom Robo" & "Baten Kaitos Origins" (both published by Nintendo in other regions) and "Harvest Moon: Magical Melody" - and I know there were others.

Even the GCN games which made it to Australia were hard to get through most of the system's lifespan - one major retailer stopped carrying 'cube games years ago, and EB only carried selected titles - mail order was often the only option.

Wii games get less retail space than XBOX and PS from every B&M retailer I've seen, and I regularly hear the Wii being dismissed by retail staff as a very poor alternative to other systems.

If Nintendo's position as the the console with the largest installed user-base does lead to more software coming to the Wii I fear there's a lot of it we won't see in Australia.

One last note. It will be interesting to see if either Nintendo or Sony announce anything that would blunt Halo 3's suffocating coverage, or if they're both just going to conede the week and hope the furor dies down quickly.

Armless But Not Harmless, Now With 100% More Plagiarism

I was quite pleased with the "Armless But Not Harmless" link title I used on Friday. Well, until several of you reminded me that The Tick has an episode with the same name. Since The Tick is one of my favorite animated shows ever, and I've seen every episode several times, there's no way that phrase just popped into my head.

As to the state of my head if the phrase "armless but not harmless" has been rattling around in there for an unknown number of years, I have no comment.

Hopefully I'll remember this when I try to title a post "The Midnight Bomber Who Bombs at Midnight."

Friday, September 21, 2007

Friday Links!

Goodbye to work and hello to your weekend. I'll have a gaming links post on Monday, because there were just too many good things to fit into one post today.

First off, a fascinating and detailed article about Black Monday, which refers to October 19, 1987, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped by more than 22%. I asked my boss about his reaction to this day (he was a broker in 1987), and he said that everyone thought the country was going to head straight into a depression. And he said not many brokers slept that night.

Read the article here.

From the New York Times, an article about "Mrs. Watanabe," the large number of Japanese housewives who day-trade currency. No, I'm not kidding, and you can read about them here:

From Sirius comes a link to a remarkable article about the "Fighting Quaker," General Smedley Darlington Butler. Here's an excerpt to a story that I can only classify as mind-blowing:
In the early 1930s, a secret collection of prosperous men are said to have assembled in New York City to discuss the dissolution of America's democracy. As a consequence of the Great Depression, the countryside was littered with unemployed, and the world's wealthy were watching as their fortunes deflated and their investments evaporated. As men of action, the well-financed New York group sought to eliminate what they reasoned to be the crux of the catastrophe: the United States government.

Butler stopped them almost singlehandedly, and you can read about it here.

This might be one of the funniest things I've ever linked to. It's part of a long running prank war between two friends, and this one involves Yankee Stadium and a fifth inning marriage proposal on stadium scoreboard. It's both hilarious and cringeworthy (as all great pranks are), and you can watch it here.

If you're a soccer fan and you've never heard of the "seal dribble," then this video will be a real treat. It's of a Brazilian soccer player named Kerlon, who occasionally dribbles the ball downfield--off his head. He's also emerging as quite a star, apparently, and you'll see some goal scoring highlights in this video as well. Plus the clip has some great music. See and hear it all here.

An abandoned baby macacque has found a best friend--a pigeon. Warning: one of the cutest pictures you'll ever see in your life goes with this story, and you can read it here.

From Randy, a link to a time-lapse sequence of the creation of a line drawing. It's wonderful to watch (seriously--it's fascinating), and you can see it here.

Everything you've read about Vista's DRM is wrong, at least according to this article, which is quite a good read. See it here.

Jesse Leimkuehler sent in a story to a link about a parasitic star. Amazing, and you can read about it here.

Another link from Sirius, this one to a story about the first U.S. pedestrian killed by a car. Read it here.

McSweeney's "discovery" of an internal Sony memo (from Andy Sellick and many more):
Sony's plan.

Here's a story about a couple who has been Living in a Travelodge--for 22 years (thanks Taylor Materna). Read it here.

Apparently, 1/3 of the men in the U.S. don't wash their hands after using the restroom. I'll skip the joke about knowing who they all voted for. It's a good reason to keep a gallon of anti-bacterial liquid handy, and it's here.

I've written about Chernobyl several times, and the "new new" plan is to cover the reactor with a steel dome. Read about it here.

If you remember the story about the giant spider web being found in Texas (the web was almost two hundred yards long), scientists have apparently figured out what's going on. Read about it here.

I've linked to storied about the "world's leading micro-artist" before, but Andrew Brown sent me two links and the guy is so amazing that I think he's worth mentioning again. Read about him here and here.

Finally, a link from Randy to a story about an armless man who got into a fight over a woman, head-butted the other guy, and killed him (heart attack). It sounds like something out of a Jackass movie, but it's all too real, and you can read about it here: Armless but not Harmless.

Yes, I believe I should write headlines for a living. Have a great weekend.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

An Idea

For some reason, I was talking about RPG's today and the problem of re-visiting NPC's just sort of bashed into my head.

You know what I'm talking about. There are 30 NPC's in a town, and you need to talk to all of them, but sometimes you can't remember if you've already talked to someone, especially when quite a few of them might look alike. So if there are one or two key characters you haven't spoken to, it can be repetitive and time-consuming to track them down.

So here's an idea. What if all these characters had mostly blank faces when you first met them? They'd have hair, plus eyes/nose/mouth, but they would be very indistinct otherwise. As you spoke to one, though, their features would gradually fill in--their uniqueness--and when you had received all the information the character could give you, their face would be fully formed.

I think the process of seeing a face "come alive" like that would be a memorable experience, and as a game mechanic, it would easily identify which characters you still needed to speak to. And particularly for a highly-stylized game that used cel-shading, for example, it could be implemented in a very stylish way.

The Kreuch Brothers Weigh In On The Worst Film of All-Time

Matt and Steven Kreuch, the official Brothers of Dubious Quality, weighed in after my post about Kong--King of Atlantis.

First, from Matt:
As someone who ranks Ishtar fairly high in my all time favorite movies list, I have to share with you a movie my brother Steven and I highly endorse. If you haven't seen Gymkata, stop what your doing and rent it now. In fact it's probably playing this moment on TNT or USA or some other random cable channel. I think, per FCC regulation 1469B, it has to be playing on some channel every moment of every day. It's truly a classic. Whenever I channel surf and stumble upon it, I'm totally hooked.

Here's what you need to know: Gymnast Kurt Thomas, karate, a town of crazy's, a long lost father, a country called Parmistan.

Must see scene in Gymkata: Kurt Thomas gets surrounded in the town center by a mob of crazy's but thankfully the structure in the town center is shaped like a pomel horse. Kurt proceeds to kick some crazy town ass with scissor kicks and flairs, etc. (see trailer!)

Here's the trailer.... it says it all:
Gymkata trailer
IMDB listing:

Next, from Steven:
GymKata and Beastmaster must have a home in everyones home video library.

Check out this fantastic user review from of Gymkata:
A Carefuly Scripted & Subtle Cold War Commentary, June 12, 2005
Vic G. Sarjoo "VicSarjoo" (New York & New Orleans) - See all my reviews
This review is from:
Gymkata (VHS Tape) Extremely reminiscent of cold war sleepers like "Gorky Park" and "Reds", Gymkata is one of the most carefully scripted and brooding commentaries on American foreign policy during the Reagan years. The film is more like a documentary than a work of fiction in its deep attention to historical accuracies and avoidance of hyperbole.

Robert Clouse's directorial adaption of Dan Tyler Moore's Pulitzer-shortlisted novel manages to capture timbre of the times and the voice of the decade in a script of intricate complexity. Kurt Thomas's portrayal of the hero across from Tetchie Agbayani's heroine is one of the most dynamic and surprising chemistries since Bogart and Bergman's 43 years before.

However, where "Casablanca" fell far short of documenting the spirit (and fears) of the times on a granular level, Gymkata and its cast is unafraid to take this plunge.

In characterizations deeply respectful, and yet photo-accurate, regarding world cultures and global motifs, Gymkata manages spell the poly-sided views of complex conflicts that occurred during the final grey gasps of the Cold War.

Amazingly Gymkata manages a foreshadowing the rise of the Neo-Cons some 20 years later in its depictions of the United States use of aggression in strategically important hotspot regions -- and as well -- the film is able to show that the nationalistic concerns of the competing sovreignties (both ally & foe) remain unchanged despite which decade these events play themselves out in.

A timeless film, Gymkata should be a core film study in every graduate level political science class.

Dear Mr. Sarjoo: you are a genius.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Armageddon Empires Play Guide: Part Six

Previous installments:
part one
part two
part three
part four
part five

This is the last installment of the play guide, and hopefully it's given you a worthwhile introduction to what is an excellent, engrossing game. I also highly recommend the game manual, which can be downloaded here.

Please note that I do get into a fairly detailed discussion of Tactics research, which is very important to playing the game. I just slog through a few turns before I get there.

We left off at the end of turn thirty-six. I lose the initiative roll to begin turn thirty-seven and go second. First, I deploy a hero from my deck (Winston Liu) into the Indy army that's currently occupying the northern supply point. The hero commanding that army has recently been killed (see part five), and I wanted to get a new hero in place. Plus it only costs me 1 AP.

I draw another card (hoping for the war college, but no), then deploy an MoBV-V Panther tank unit into the southwest resource point. That ends my turn.

The Machine Empire assassin, though, immediately finds the hero I've just deployed. This can be a very difficult part of the game, protecting your heroes, and I'm not doing well this time. He gets a terrible roll and is terminated.

Turn thirty-eight, and I'm informed that a saboteur has damaged a facility and five tech resources have been destroyed.

This is frustrating, obviously, but it's another thing I really, really like about this game: it plays out on both large and small scales, and possible to succeed (or fail) either way. Saboteurs and assassins are highly vulnerable, but they can do a huge amount of damage if they're not found. It provides an additional layer of tension in the game that can get very high.

When my turn arrives, I draw a card (tank unit), move Kusanagi in a futile attempt to find the assassin, and move IndySouth (a hero and the Mech unit). I need to start doing some damage, even on a small scale. [UPDATE: as it turns out, this is wrong, as reader Don Tordilla pointed out. I should have used a unit with a high recon rating, not a high stealth rating. No wonder I didn't find the assassin.]

Turn thirty-eight and let's just say "Oh, crap."

The turn starts off fairly promising, as a Machine Empire air attack is both intercepted and destroyed by my defenses. Kusanagi detects an enemy unit in her hex, though, and when I inspect it, I see that it consists of five units, including a Behemoth (tank unit, 7-7 attack-defend with 2x damage). They're headed for the northern resource hex I currently control.

When my turn begins, I've unfortunately used so much AP intercepting the air attack that all I can do is move IndySouth back to my northern base for defensive purposes. Kusanagi would have a chance to kill the enemy hero leading the invading army, but I don't have enough AP.

If I win initiative for the next turn, though, I have both extra AP and a chance for a successful assassination. I blow out a huge number of resources to max out my die pool and do win initiative on turn thirty-nine.

First off, Kusanagi makes an assassination atttempt against the hero. Actually, I make two assassination attempts, and the second is successful. I've also drained my AP for the turn, but that army no longer has a leader, which means they've lost all their combat bonuses, which could be critical.

When the Machine Empire's turn rolls around, they continue air attacks on my northern base, and my intercept attempts on each attack consume AP. So it's a war of attrition in two ways--they're trying to destroy units in advance of a ground attack, but they're also limiting my ability to do anything offensive during my own turn.

They also find Kusanagi, who I stupidly left in the same hex as her assassination attempt, and she's been terminated, which was entirely my fault.

I launch my own air attack during my turn (and with my reduced AP, it's my only action for the turn). Unfortunately, it does almost no damage.

Turn forty, and the Machine Empire doesn't attack this turn. I immediately deploy another hero into the IndySouth army, draw a card, and I have enough AP left for another air attack. This time, I destroy an artillery unit.

Forty-one, and I draw another card, still looking for the war college. That fails, and I deploy one more artillery unit.

Forty-two, and I use as many resources as I can to get enough dice to win the turn initiative, which I do. I then deply another MeBU-II Vengeance mech unit. I now have two in the same army, and that will be a combat machine.

Turn forty-three, and I immediately start moving the MeBU-II army (IndySouth) to the hex immediately northeast, surprising a sniper unit which I quickly dispatch. With only 2 AP left, I decide to upgrade my Home base to level 2 (which adds hit points and improves defenses).

On turn forty-four, the Xenopods attack me by air as well. In spite of my mech army, I'm not looking too "survivable" right now. But just because I'm ornery, I move IndySouth one more hex to the northeast and attack the Machine Empire base.

Here's a look:

The base I took over is an ICBM missile complex, which explains where the air attacks were coming from. Not any more, thanks very much.

I've got trouble on both fronts, though. The Xenopods lay siege to my southwestern resource hex, and an assassin attempts to take out the hero leading IndySouth. He fails, but the hero won't survive another attempt, and I need to use the remaining 3 AP in this turn to do something to help my defenses in the soutwestern resource hex.

I wound up losing the southwestern base over the next two turns--the Xenopods launched an air attack, which took out one of my defending units, and my remaining unit was just mop-up work for the ground forces.

However, I did FINALLY draw the War College card. I also immediately deployed it at my Home base.

I won initiative on turn forty-whatever, and I've got 12 AP, so let's take a good look at tactics and how they work. When you have a War College at a base as well as a hero with the ability to research tactics (which will be noted on its unit card), you have the ability to research tactics. This is similar to Genetics research, except what you're researching are cards that can be used to change battle outcomes, so they are incredibly important.

I right-click on the unit card of hero Fulton Strangelove, and "Tactician 4" pops up, which I then select. Here's the tactics research screen that I see next:

As you can see, there are some powerful cards to research. +3 Fate points in a battle, rerolling 3 successful dice of an opponent, +2 success dice, turn 2 success dice into failures--those could all be huge in the course of a battle.

All these cards are single-use--they go into a special tactics deck, and when you use them, they're gone. That doesn't mean you can't research them again and get another card, but one research attempt, if successful, nets you one, single-use card.

If that sounds like a bad deal, it's not, because research attempts only cost AP, not resources, so it's a way to improve your chances in battle without having to consume resources in the process of research.

We'll research something easy, so that we can have a better chance of success, so let's go with "For the Empire," which is a two-dice challenge that gets you a card worth +3 Fate points in battle.

The research is successful, and I accept the +3 Fate card. If I want to see the cards in my tactics deck, and my other card set is showing, all I need to do is click on the "Tactics" button and my tactics cards will be displayed.

You're limited to 5 tactics cards in your deck at any one time. I go ahead and do a few more +3 Fate research attempts, since it only costs me 1 AP, until I fill out my tactics deck.

Remember, Genetics research can create unit modification cards which raise your hero's research level by 1, which would take my tactician to level 5, giving him more dice and more Fate points. So research can combine in interesting ways.

Now I just need to find a battle to be able to show you the tactics cards in action. Over the course, of two turns, I move the IndySouth mech army to the west and find a Machine Empire base.

I attack.

This time, though, when I see the screen about arranging my units for battle, my tactics cards are shown at the bottom. Take a look:

When battle begins, you'll have the option to use your tactics cards at any time you're defending, and if you're attacking and the defender uses fate points or tactics cards, you can use them then (in response) as well.

Let's look at a typical situation, which is shown in this screenshot:

Actually, since I'm only losing the roll 6-5 and will take only minor damage, I probably wouldn't normally use a tactics card here, but for the sake of demonstration, let's say it was an 8-4 roll against me instead. Since I'm out of Fate points, the only thing I could do to lower the damage would be to play one of my tactics cards--in this case, a +3 Fate card, since it's all I have. I just drag the card up into the "Play Tactics Card Here" box and I immediately have 3 more Fate points, which I use to reroll dice until I eliminate as much damage to my unit as I can.

You can use a combination of Fate points and Tactics cards during battle, and so can your opponent, so battles can be tumultous affairs--you've got dice rolling, Fate points rerolling, and Tactics cards doing all kinds of things.

Which is extremely fun. It's another example of how Armageddon Empires is remarkably dynamic in combat.

Here's one last note about battles. It's possible for an enemy to have several armies stacked in the same hex (it's possible for you as well), and you get to specify battle order before combat starts. If you're fighting several battles on the same turn with the same army, though, your Fate points are a pool for that turn that you have to spread out over all the battles, not something that gets refreshed each time you face a new army. Don't blow out your Fate points in the first battle, thinking that they'll be renewed.

Well, that should give you a good start in playing Armageddon Empires. It was a fantastic effort by Vic Davis and his team, and I hope the game gets all the attention that it deserves. And if you've read all the installments of this play guide, thanks very much for taking the time.

Honey, Could You Put In Another 10psi Before We Have Dinner With the Boss?

I went to the dermatologist for my annual "skin care" check up today.

My dermatologist works in a practice where everyone else specializes in "enhancement dermatology," for lack of a better description, and all the women who work in her office (except her) have lips the size of bananas. She's ruefully aware of this, so I always try to bring in one cosmetic surgery story that will make the top of her head explode.

Today, I brought in a doozy. It seems that a new kind of breast implant has been introduced that allows it to be re-sized after it's been implanted. There's an article here (with picture), and here's an excerpt:
The implant consists of a "port" that is left exposed after the implant is inserted (usually subcutaneously) under general anesthesia. Then the surgeon takes the patient in front of a mirror and inflates the implant to the desired size, and can adjust the implant over a period of weeks.

The reason for this technology is (allegedly) that the vast majority of women are dissatisfied with the size of their implants after surgery (they want them to be bigger). So more saline solution can be pumped in, um, as "needed."

Plus it's apparently an entirely new market for Fix-A-Flat.

NCAA Football 08 (360): Final Notes

Because I'm, well, insane, I decided to take a look at player progression.

The reason I'm insane is that I can't just take a cursory look at anything involving player progression. It's like a disease.

Last year, Dynasty mode was essentially ruined because of player progression issues. Ratings inflation was extreme, and there were so many players rated 95+ after a few seasons that recruiting was relatively meaningless. Too many players at the high end of the ratings scale completely unbalanced the game.

I give Tiburon lots and lots of grief for their football games, primarily because they seem to have absolutely zero idea of what needs to be improved from year to year. If they're five percent away from delivering an absolutely great, Hall of Fame game, they'll improve the next version by ten percent, but it will be the WRONG ten percent every single time.

Because of their track record, I assumed that player progression would still be broken. In fact, the only reason I even took a look was to confirm that it was broken, so that I could shelve any notions I had of playing a Dynasty.

Here's the suprise of the year, though, at least for me: they fixed the damn thing.

Here's how I tested. I took the default player ratings (day one, season one) and manually tabulated (I told you, I'm insane) all the players from each position in three categories: 95 and above, 85 and above, and 80 and above. That's not comprehensive, but it's still enough information for the purposes of this analysis.

I then simmed through seven seasons, which was long enough to get rid of all default players, plus a season or two extra because, like I said, I'm crazy. On day one, season eight, I looked at the player ratings again.

Here, take a look. Offense first. Also, please note that none of the players are counted twice, so (for example) the 85+ category includes players from 85 to 89.

90+: 15--19
85+: 49--38
80+: 100--80

90+: 16--17
85+: 107--43
80+: 110--101

90+: 9--2
85+: 36--10
80+: 55--20

90+: 23--14
85+: 104--57
80+: 183--39

If you think those numbers aren't outstanding, please look again. I think the ratings after seven seasons are far better than the default ratings. There are fewer 90+ players, which means each one is more important, and those numbers should be stable for as many seasons as you want to play.

From here on, I only have 90+ numbers for season one for most positions, because it was mind-numbingly boring to count all this crap up (I did a full count in 2014 because I did it first and still had enthusiasm). You can still see that the distribution in 2014 is excellent, though.

90+: 12--4
85+: ----18
80+: ----33

90+: 20--5
85+: ----11
80+: ----38

90+: 10--4
85+: ----10
80+: ----24

90+: 8--1
85+: ----8
80+: ----24

90+: 9--4
85+: ----13
80+: ----23

90+: 7--0
85+: ----5
80+: ----27

Now Defense:
90+: 11--6
85+: ----18
80+: ----45

90+: 12--5
85+: ----14
80+: ----42

90+: 28--12
85+: ----24
80+: ----46

90+: 14--8
85+: ----16
80+: ----38

90+: 16--11
85+: ----11
80+: ----36

90+: 19--12
85+: ----24
80+: ----47

90+: 21--12
85+: ----45
80+: ----88

90+: 24--11
85+: ----31
80+: ----30

90+: 18--9
85+: ----20
80+: ----36

Again, those numbers are very, very impressive.

Kickers and punters:
90+: 8--1
85+: 14--31
80+: 7--7

90+: 4--0
85+: 3--2
80+: 13--7

I think those numbers could mean that a slider adjustment is required in season four or five, but it would be a one-time adjustment only.

Here's one other way to look at some of these ratings--as matched pairs. A few examples:
2014 RE--LT
90+: 5--5
85+: 14--11
80+: 42--38

2014 RG+LG--DT
90+: 8--12
85+: 23--24
80+: 47--46

2014 WR--CB
90+: 14--12
85+: 57--45
80+: 139--88

That is all extremely playable in a long-term sense. It's the best long-term progression system I've ever seen in a football game.

Now, if you're still awake (both of you, raise your hands), here are a few notes on what Tiburon should be working on for next year:
1. Interceptions
2. Collision Detection
3. Head Tracking
4. Suction Blocking and Tackling
5. Between-Play Choppiness
6. Slow-Loading Menus
7. Camera Angles
8. Polls/BCS calculations

Seriously, if they would just work on those issues, this game would be epic. They don't need 200 new animations--the only new animations they need are for head tracking.

Instead, I'm fully confident that they'll announce at least two or three major new features and 300 new animations. If we're lucky, they'll address one or two of the issues on that list.

That's it for NCAA 2008.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Console Post of the Week (Supplemental: Tokyo Game Show)

The Tokyo Game Show is this week (September 20-23), and there's been quite a bit of speculation about what Sony will announce, centering around a 40GB version of the PS3 for $399.

I think the speculation itself, and what it implies, as well as the implications of what Sony might do, are worth examing before TGS starts.

The analyst speculation is extremely interesting, but it tells us more about the analysts than it tells us about Sony. It's incredible, but Sony has done less than the analysts expected every single time since the PS3 launched. Has there been a single case of Sony exceeding analyst's expectations since last November?


So when analysts are saying that there will be a 40GB PS3, it's worth taking a look at why they believe it's going to happen. The general line of reasoning seems to be this:
Sony discounted the 60GB unit to $499 and introduced an 80GB unit for $599. Therefore, a 40GB unit can come out at $399.

I haven't seen a single analyst say that any functionality will be missing from the 40GB model--it's just a smaller hard drive.

Here's the problem with that line of reasoning, though--it's assuming that raising the price and lowering the price are linear, and they're not.

Seriously, there's a $100 difference in cost for 20GB difference in hard drive size? Take a look at Pricewatch--do you know the difference in price between 60GB and 80GB hard drives for same-model notebooks?

Seven dollars and fifty cents.

Seven freaking dollars!

So here's where the analysts are mistaken. When Sony introduced a model with a 20GB larger hard drive and priced it $100 above the 60GB model, that wasn't representative of cost. It was gouging on a gigantic scale.

That doesn't work for Sony going in the other direction, though. The 40GB model only reduces their costs by a few dollars. How exactly are they supposed to sell the unit for a hundred dollars less?

In other words, the combination of Sony consistently disappointing and the miniscule cost savings associated with a 40GB PS3 make a $399 unit unlikely. I'm not saying they won't announce one--it is absolutely the most logical thing to do--but the numbers really don't add up, even if they're funding the loss with the proceeds from the IPO they announced a few weeks ago.

Instead, what would be far more consistent with how Sony has behaved in the last year would be for them to announce that the 80GB unit is going to sell for $499 and make it seem like a gift from the heavens:
Behold, more mortals, the awesome power of the console from the future!

Blah, blah, blah, and blah. In other words, behaving just like they have during the past year. I think it's fair to assume that Sony still doesn't get it until they prove otherwise.

Here's one more angle on the PS3 pricing. When the 360 was launched, iSuppli estimated that the bill of materials (BOM) was $525. Twelve months later (November 2006), that estimate was revised downward to $323. That's a 38% reduction in twelve months.

Cost reductions naturally occur over time as materials move along the production curve. Yields improve and costs decline. An important part of declining costs, though is volume. The more consoles you ship, the faster (generally) your costs decline.

iSupply estimated that the 60GB PS3 bomb was $840 at launch. If costs declined by the same 38% in a year from launch, then the BOM would be roughly $520 in November of this year.

Except of course, that the PS3 has manufactured far fewer units--at least 25%, and that's probably a conservative estimate. And by all accounts, the PS3 is a more complicated architecture, with far lower yields, so I think cost improvements will come more slowly.

Factoring all that in, I think it's reasonable to estimate that the PS3 BOM is still in the $600-$650 range. If we use $600 as the example, that means Sony would be losing $200 per unit if they sell a $399 model.

Compare with Microsoft. Microsoft went from losing $126 on the hardware to making $76 per unit twelve months later. If Sony does introduce a $399 unit at TGS, they'll have gone from losing $241--to losing $201. And that's based on the $600 BOM.

That's the problem with introducing a console at such an outrageous price. Sony might not make money on the hardware until the third year after launch, and if they have to keep dropping the price of the console, which is a reasonable expectation, maybe not even then.

That is absolutely brutal.

Now if Sony does announce a $399, it's absolutely fantastic for everyone who plays games. Microsoft will be forced to respond with a price cut of their own in the near future. With the user bases for each console exploding, developers will be even more willing to develop games. For us, it's all good.

So I'm very much hoping that Sony does announce a $399 unit this week. I just don't believe that history and economics are in favor of it happening.

If it does happen, though, I will be very happy to be wrong.

Monday, September 17, 2007

The Worst Movie Ever Made

Every six months or so, Eli 6.1 and I rent the worst movie ever made.

It's very rare that something qualifies in the "ever" category. This movie, though, stands like a champion.

I give you Kong--King of Atlantis.

It's a straight-to-video cartoon feature, and it's letterboxed. I have no idea why.

Here's the plot. Kong, who is not the original Kong but a DNA-replica enhanced with genetic material from a human teenager, is King of Kong Island. Through a staggering coincidence, though, Kong Island is located directly above the lost continent of Atlantis. When an ancient prophecy (you couldn't see that coming) is fulfilled, Atlantis starts rising, and Kong must decide whether to believe his human brother, a shaman, or evil Queen Reptillis, who wants to make him King of Atlantis for her own evil ends.

Add in a dream sequence, a solar eclipse, and tar pits. Spaceships. A cobra queen with boobies. Giant dinosaurs with armor. A skateboaring dude, always wearing a jersey with the number "7", whose name sounds suspicously like "Ten."

Kong and his human brother Jason also have a, um, "unique" bond. Through the magic of a Bluetooth headset, Jason can actually "cyber-link" with Kong and enter his brain.

Want more? It's a musical.

That's right--it's a musical, and all the songs have the extreme, aggrandized singing style better known in contemporary Disney cartoon features.

The movie begins with a crisis on Kong Island. The hot female Shaman "Lua" tells Kong that Atlantis has "awoken" and he must go with her to save the island. His human brother Jason tells him that Lua is wrong and he's needed for something that I've thankfully completely forgotten.

Lua starts crawling up Kong and singing. She is literally crawling up his leg.
Konggggg, don't listen to him, the boy is totally wrong
Your duty calllllls

Please listent to me
there's something happening
Can't you seeee

you protect the island life?
Now come with meeee

it's your responsibilityyyy

Decide now, decide nowwww
Just let your shaman be your guide
I'll show you howww
Decide now, decide nowwww
We'll show I am right
If you decide nowwwwww.

She sings in the entirely breathless, dramatic style of life-or-death of off-off-Broadway vanity productions.

But wait! Jason, his brother, has his own song, which he sings while climbing up Kong's other leg.
Kong, Kong, Kong
Just be your own man
don't let her push you around.
Stand your ground
You don't have to go
stay here with your bro.
Why can't you see
we have a job to do?
Stay here with me
You know how

Decide now, Decide now,
Just let your brother steer you right

I'll show you how
to decide now
She's not close like you and me
so decide now!

"You don't have to go/stay here with your bro." Truly, one of the greatest lines in the history of imagination.

So after they each sing individually, they have a duet as they continue to climb up Kong, who looks somewhat alarmed at this point, and frankly, who wouldn't be?

Kong, Kong, Kong
The protector must stay
Things are better this way!

Wrong wrong wrong!
She's totally blind

Stay here with your kind

Can't you see that you're listening to a fool?

She's just a girl, and giving orders isn't cool!

Yes, it's entirely epic. Here's some more sheer genius, at a moment when Jason is stuck in a tar pit, which turns out to be evil (that's right: evil tar. Of course, Jason should have known this, because just a few seconds earlier, he'd said There's something really, really strange about that tar.)

Jason winds up in the tar pit, of course, and as he's sinking, he realizes Kong can save him:
No time! I'm going to activate the cyber-link. Merger sequence, engage!

Here are a few more moments of dialogue brilliance:
You think being a shaman makes you better than the rest of us!
It's okay, bro, it's just an eclipse!
You've got to work on those dismounts, dude!
Gangway, lizard puss!

And my all-time favorite, one of the greatest lines in movie history:
I was so afraid of failing as a shaman that I could not see I was failing as a friend.

There's a snake-man whose name is "Syccaphys" (prounounced sick-a-fis). At one point, the evil cobra queen addresses him as "Lord Syccaphys," and I said "Lord, I'm sick of this, too." That became a running gag, so that character is now always referred to as "Lord Sick of This."

How does it end? Would I spoil the ending of this animated thrill-ride? I don't think so.

Eli loves this movie, and so do I. I assume that we're going to rent it every six months for the rest of our lives. I hope so, anyway.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Gamer Dad

Andrew Bub, founder of GamerDad, had a heart attack on September 1, and a quadruple bypass on the following day. His wife, Linda, posted this information today on the GamerDad site, and you can read her post here. Also, if you'd like to make a donation, there's a PayPal link as well.

Friday Links!

The end of your productivity begins now.

There's a fascinating story over at the BBC about a stunning new technique for recovering the images on ancient texts. Many of these documents are damaged or so brittle that scientists haven't even unrolled them, but this new process should enable passive scanning and retrieval of the contents. Here's a description:
The team now plans to use the Diamond synchrotron's powerful X-ray source to penetrate many layers of parchment.

The synchrotron, which covers the area of five football pitches, generates light beams that can probe matter down to the molecular and atomic scale.

Professor Wess explained: "The letters have got iron in them, so you shine a band of X-rays through, and you end up with an absorption image, rather like your bones would absorb on an X-ray.

"This is something we can take forward with Diamond, to try to unravel the secrets inside documents that we're too scared to try to open, or that are beyond the point of conservation."

That reference to iron refers to iron gall ink, made of oak apples, which was used beginning in the 12th century. It's quite a story, and you can read it here.

Google is funding a thirty-million dollar contest--for moon rovers. Here's a description:
The new prize calls upon teams to create autonomous rovers that could land on the moon, travel at least three-tenths of a mile (500 meters) and send video, images and data back to Earth.

Read about it here.

Thanks to Geoff Engelstein and Andrew Shih, who both sent in a link to an article about research being done on memory density technology at I.B.M. Called "racetrack" memory, it could increase store 10-100x as much data in the same amount of space. It's an amazing idea, and you can read about it here.

John Catania sends in a link to a bizarre scientific discovery about salt water. Apparently, when exposed to certain RF fields, the chemical bond between sodium chloride, hydrogen and oxygen are weakened, and hydrogen is released. If the hydrogen is ignited, it continues to burn as long as it is exposed to the RF field. The story of how this is discovered (as in many scientific discoveries, it was an accident) is very interesting, and you can read about it here.

From Kadunta, a link to a story in the New York Times about sequencing the human genome. Even though the 2003 announcement that the sequencing had been "completed" drew a huge amount of publicity. However:
The consortium’s genome comprised just half the DNA contained in a normal cell, and the DNA used in the project came from a group of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

Now, another genome has been announced, and it appears to be far more complete. Read about it here.

"Lummox JR" (that's a great handle) sent in a link to a story about pyrite (Fool's Gold), which is being considered as a possible catalyst for certain chemical reactions that are fundamental to the creation of life. It's a remarkable possibility, and the story is here.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story about "the Titanic of Lake Superior," otherwise known as The Cyprus. A 420-foot long ore carrier, it sank on only its second voyage. It sank on October 11, 1907, and after nearly a century, the wreck has been discovered. Read about it here.

From Sirius, a link to the discovery that some moray eels have a second set of jaws. Here's a description of how they work:
Instead of sucking, one of these eels bites its prey with its primary set of teeth. It then draws the second set of teeth into its mouth by contracting long muscles. The secondary jaws clamp down on the prey, allowing the eel to move its primary jaws forward in a gulping motion to take in more of the prey. The two sets of jaws take turns until the whole animal has been swallowed.

Yikes. See the article (and an AWESOME video) here.

Let's finish with a few funny links.

From Franklin Brown, a link to one of the best WOW videos I've ever seen, combining in-game footage with Weird Al Yankovic's "Hardware Store." Watch it here.

From N'Gai Croal's Level Up blog, a link to 10 of the funniest reasons given by the MPAA for a movie's rating. Here's the description for Twister:
Twister (1996)“PG-13 for intense depiction of very bad weather”

Read them all here.

Here's a link to a very funny article from CNN titled "Funky Fries And Other Foods That Flopped." I'd heard of some of these (even tried the blue french fries once), but others are undiscovered classics. Read about them here.

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Console Post of the Week

General commentary first, with NPD-specific analysis toward the end. I fully expect Sony's pop last month following the price cut to have weakened considerably.

Anecdotal reports on the Web, as well as a few e-mails from you guys detailing personal experiences, seem to indicate that the service level for repairing Xbox 360's has pretty much collapsed.

When my console puked a few months ago, I had a replacement unit in less than two weeks, and overall, I was satisfied with the service. Now, though, the replacement time seems to be 4-6 weeks, which is totally beyond what anyone would consider as reasonable.

Scrutiny of Microsoft seems to have evaporated as soon as they announced the price cut, but this should still be a major story.

Sony announced something quite interesting last week:
Sept. 4 (Bloomberg) -- Sony Corp. will sell about 332 billion yen ($2.9 billion) of shares in its insurance unit in Japan's biggest initial public offering this year, raising funds for the consumer electronics and games divisions.

From Bloomberg, full story here.

Well, if that's used to fund a $100 price cut for the PS3, dropping it to $399, then it's a reasonable move. 10M consoles x $100 = $1B.

That seems logical, which immediately makes me suspect that Sony won't do it, although they desperately need to. The PS3, in nine months, hasn't cracked 5 million sales yet. Worse, that's a totally bastardized install base. How many of those people bought the PS3 just to play movies? How many bought it just to play games? It's hopelessly muddled, and companies considering which platform to develop for realize that--software sales have been far lower than expected for the number of consoles that Sony has sold.

Nintendo, meanwhile, has "officially" taken over the lead in total sales, based on a Financial Times article that appeared earlier this week (and which I can't link to because it's already in the archives, which are subscription only cough losers cough). Here's a summary from 1UP:
The report is based on sales figures from Enterbrain in Japan, NPD Group in the US and GfK of Germany, which tracks European sales. Sales figures from each console's launch date through the end of July (and the end of August in Japan) were added up, with the Wii just barely edging out the 360: 9 million for the Wii, 8.9 million for the 360, and 3.7 million for the PlayStation 3.

I believe those are probably the most accurate numbers we have at this point.

Also, in an interesting sidenote, Andy Herron sent me a link to a report on the staggering delays for Nintendo-developed games to reach Australia and New Zealand after they're released in the U.S. A fellow named Aaron Rex Davies is mad as hell about it and has written a report, which you can see here, comparing the delays for Nintendo versus third-party developers.

It's also a little-known fact that the Wii in Australia has a poisonous stinger, which means that you will be dead in ninety seconds if anything bites you outside or inside the house.

N'Gai Croal had an interview with Satoru Iwata (President of Nintendo), and his statements are a striking contrast to how Sony executives conduct interviews (which led to my "don't be a dickhead in interviews" rule). Here's an excerpt (full interview here):
...Nintendo's next obstacle is to not lose its internal energy and internal momentum. I believe my most important role right now is to prevent Nintendo from being in a company where people say, "Oh, Nintendo is arrogant," "Nintendo has let its guard down," or "Nintendo has lost its challenging spirit." We want to avoid all of the pitfalls that can come from losing one's momentum.

Oh, and what's the last thing Iwata said to N'gai in the interview? Thank you. Very nice to see you.

It looks like somebody missed their mandatory training in being a gaming executive asshole.

Even when I was criticizing Nintendo several years ago for being, well, inter-planetary, I always appreciated how they spoke of their customers. They never told us to get second jobs to pay for their crap, or how lucky we were to buy a Nintendo product, or how it was our fault if we didn't like one of their games.

Okay, NPD numbers are out, so let's take a look (thanks Gamasutra):
Wii: 403,600
Xbox 360: 276,700
PS2: 202,000
PS3: 130,600

It's been obvious since launch, but Sony's strategy isn't going to work. Their launch price was at least $200 over what the market would bear (more likely, $300), and they are far, far behind the eight ball because of that.

Here's what I mean. They lowered the price of the 60GB PS3 by $100, and their August NPD numbers (based on weekly sales, because June was a 5-week period, while July was a 4-week period) doubled--they went from 20k sales a week to 40k.

So in a four-week reporting period, they would have added 80,000 units.

That first month spike after a price cut doesn't mean much, though--it's basically the maximum effect, not the ongoing effect. One month later, that 80,000 unit bump dropped to 50,000.

They need to sell huge numbers to recoup their investment in the Cell processor, and these numbers are unbelievably bad. Don't kid yourself--this is not a 10-year console, no matter what Sony says. They can't afford to wait until year three to be competitive.

Like I said, all that first price cut did was make them a closer last. Or, at least it did until Microsoft dropped their price, because the gap went from 11,000 units last month to 146,000 this month. Worse (for Sony), that's probably the smallest gap they're going to have for the rest of the year unless they go to $399.

The last thing Sony can afford right now is to get outsold 150,000+ units a month. This will sound outrageous, and it would have seemed impossible a year ago, but if Sony doesn't cut their price to $399, and soon, they risk becoming irrelevant in this generation.

Sports Notes

After posting several times about Rick Ankiel and what an inspirational story he was, I would be remiss if I didn't mention that I should have added if he didn't use human growth hormone like all the other cheating bastards in baseball.

Unfortunately, though, he did.

This is a really good example of why I don't watch baseball anymore, even though I loved it for decades. For at least a ten-year stretch, so many guys used steroids and human growth hormone that the game became hopelessly polluted, and I'm sure many players are still doing it. I'm just waiting for the story that Greg Maddux used steroids. If that ever happens, and you need to find me, I'll be on a ledge.

In other staggeringly discouraging news, the New England Patriots have been illegally taping other teams from the sidelines as part of an effort to steal defensive play calls during games. They were caught red-handed during the Jets game last week, and now everyone is just waiting for the punishment to come down from league commissioner Roger Goodell.

Goodell even sent out a warning before the season about things like this, but the Patriots ignored him.

Look, if Goodall wants to hold players accountable for their actions and come down hard when they misbehave, he needs to do the same thing for coaches. He should suspend Bill Belichick for four games and take away the Patriots' first-round pick in the 2008 draft. Maybe take away a second-day pick, too.

That would send a message.

The Lair Reviewers Guide, Which Veers Off Into Another Subject Entirely

Sony has actually sent out a 21-page "reviewers guide" for Lair, a picture of which you can see here.

That's funny enough, but John Harwood reminded me of a classic moment in gaming history, and it's about Outpost.

I still remember the feelings of absolute awe I had when I played the Outpost demo. Pure awe. You were building a colony on an alien planet after an asteroid (Vulcan's Hammer, thanks Moby Games) destroyed Earth, and the atmosphere of the game was just stunning.

It felt weighty.

Plus, the pedigree of the game looked fantastic. Bruce Balfour (designer) had been involved with both Wasteland and Neuromancer, and also had worked at NASA doing artificial intelligence research.

Seriously, I thought Outpost could potentially be the greatest game ever.

PC Gamer came out with an early review of Outpost and gave it a 93% score, which was the highest score the magazine had ever given, if I remember correctly. So my anticipation went up even more.

Finally, and it was an agonizing wait, the game came out. I still remember opening the box. I still remember what the box looked like. Everything had an epic feeling about it, like this was going to be an experience I would never forget.

I was right, except it wasn't the "never forget" kind of experience I had been hoping for. It took about an hour to figure out that Sierra On-Line had basically released an alpha. The game was incomprehensibly buggy and missing huge chunks of features.

As it turned out, PC Gamer had been given a "beta" (I don't think this game ever actually made it to beta, but that's just my opinion) and was promised that a long list of bugs and problems would be fixed. So they gave a version of Outpost they'd never actually played a 93% rating.

Outpost was quickly renamed "Outhouse," and even after a few patches, the game was a mess. The concept was still rock-solid, the atmosphere was still amazing, but the game was just never finished.

Here's what John Harwood reminded me of, though: Sierra had a newsletter. I think they sent it out quarterly, and instead of just owning up to having ruined what should have been one of the greatest games ever made by releasing it before it was finished, they put an article in the newsletter titled "Outpost: The Game That Was Just Too Difficult For Most."

Um, right.

John also reminded me of this:
I still love the fact that over 1/3 of the pages in the hint guide referred to a feature that didn't make it into the final game or wasn't functional... and yes, I counted.

If Outpost had been released today, some mod team would have spent three years and thousands of hours of their own time finishing the game. Sadly, that kind of thing didn't happen in 1994, and the game was never finished.

That's a very rambling way of saying that when a publisher blames the gamers who are playing the game, or the reviewers who are reviewing the game, it's a guaranteed sign that something has gone terribly, terribly wrong.

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