Friday, May 30, 2008

Friday Links!

Look, there's just no reason to get anything done at work today, so close out Word/Excel/Powerpoint/Whatever and start reading.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a link to a fantastic video of robots inspired by animals. You will be blown away at 1:40.

From David Gloier, a link to a picture of the Phoenix lander with its parachute deployed as it descends to the Martian surface--with the photograph taken by the Mars Reconnaisance Orbiter. Also from David, a Wikipedia link--to the strangest Wikipedia links, including articles on Chrismukka and Manhattanhenge. And the hat trick, with an article about a previously undiscovered Amazon tribe.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story about the Hubble telescope looking for baryons--and finding them.

From Don Barree, a link to a startling article in the New York Times--Monkeys Think, Moving Artificial Arm As Own. The video linked inside the article is very, very freaky. Also from Don, a NY Times article about Stonehenge and the conclusion that it was a monument to the dead.

It's spring, when a young man's fancy turns--to cheese. That's right, here's a video from the Gloucester Cheese Rolling of 2008. I believe that alcoholic beverages may be consumed in preparation for this event. Thanks to Matt Sbonik for the link.

From Meg McReynolds, an article in Newsweek about Chung Lee, whose amazing Wiimote projects have been linked here several times. It's a staggering leap in profile for Lee, and well-deserved.

From Sirius, a link to an article about a teenager whose high school science project was a method to break down the polymers in plastic bags. Take a look at his brilliantly simple methodology:
The 16-year-old from Waterloo, Ontario, as part of a science fair project, figured out a way to break down the polymers in plastic bags—compounds that can last for over 1,000 years—in about three months. Essentially, Burd hypothesized that since the bags eventually do degrade, it must be possible to isolate and augment the degrading agents.

...Burd combined ground polyethylene plastic bags, sodium chloride, dirt from a landfill (which theoretically contains the microorganisms that ultimately degrade the plastic) and a yeast mixture in shakers for four weeks at a consistent temperature of about 86 degrees. At the end of the month, he took a sample of that mixture and combined it with a new one, with the goal of increasing the overall concentration of microbes. After one more repetition, he put fresh plastic bags in his solution for six weeks. In the end, the plastic degraded nearly 20%. A little more filtering to figure out exactly which microbes were the most effective, and he upped the degradation rate to 32%.

From Juan Font, a link to a story about a girl who is allergic--to water.

From Vahur Teller, a link to Alice, a Carnegie Mellon project. Here are the details:
Alice is an innovative 3D programming environment that makes it easy to create an animation for telling a story, playing an interactive game, or a video to share on the web. Alice is a teaching tool for introductory computing. It uses 3D graphics and a drag-and-drop interface to facilitate a more engaging, less frustrating first programming experience.

Watch the "learn about the Alice interface" video and you'll how it works--it's very, very cool.

From Scott Zimmerman, a link to a story about electroadhesive robots.

From Jarod, a link to The Crappy Facts of Life, and they're very funny.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

PC Gaming Notes

The indispensable Rock, Paper, Shotgun mentions today that there is a resolution mod for Infinity Engine games that allows you to play in higher resolution. So if you still have Planescape: Torment, it is "ugly ass" no more, and will now be both brilliant and beautiful. Here's a link to the RPS Post.

The demo for Penny Arcade's game On the Rain-Slick Precipice of Darkness was released last week. The writing is excellent (and funny), the visual style is terrific, and the narration is inspired. The gameplay was somewhat repetitive, at least in the demo, but it's not going to stop me from buying the full game.

When SimCity Societies was released last fall, it was reviewed poorly, which was a surprise, given that developer Tilted Mill was also responsible for Immortal Cities: Children of the Nile.

This must be the first time I can remember, though, that I decided to buy a game because of the amount of effort a developer put into a game after it shipped. They've released five substantial patches, significantly deepening the gameplay, and their continuing effort has convinced me.

I also saw in the Quarter to Three forums that Tilted Mill bought back the rights to Children of the Nile, and they're enhancing the game for re-release ( with the enhancements available for free to anyone who has already purchased the game). The Children of the Nile website has more details.

I highly respect how hard these guys work and how dedicated they are to their products.

A Few Chocolate Coins and Mr. Stupidhead

Eli's last day at school is tomorrow, then he's out for the summer.

Last night, Gloria asked Eli what kind of present he wanted to get his teacher. With exuberance full speed ahead, he said "A gift certificate to Target and a few chocolate coins!"

Eli has a friend named Chloe. Chloe is in first grade, too, and she is very smart and very sunny. She comes by this naturally--her parents are both incredibly nice (and smart), so much so that if there was some kind of apocalypse and you could only pick ten people to restart the planet, they would both be on the list.

Chloe is always in a good mood, and always happy to see Eli. Even though he really likes Chloe, though, and talks about her in glowing terms when she's not around, sometimes Eli turns into a grouch when they're playing together. He did this yesterday, because he was really tired (and took a two-hour nap after Chloe went home), but we told him that being tired was no excuse for being jerky, and that he should apologize.

So first thing this morning, Eli got up and wrote a little note to Chloe, and he got right to the point :

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Guitar Hero IV

There have a been a flurry of announcements about Guitar Hero IV in the last two weeks, and I like almost everything I've read. Here's an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry, which summarizes the changes:
The traditional single player Career Mode has been reworked, following a similar mechanic as Rock Band's Band World Tour mode. A player will encounter gigs during career mode, which offers a choice of songs to play, all of which are not required to complete in order to proceed. Furthermore, while the difficulty levels (Easy, Medium, Hard, and Expert) remain in the game, this Career Mode will allow to drop to a lower difficulty without restarting their career if they have difficulty with one song. The player will also be able to switch to a different instrument during the same Career without having to restart. There are four total instrument career modes within the game: lead guitar, bass guitar, drums, and rhythm guitar.

There is also a Band Career mode, which mirrors Rock Band's "Band World Tour" mode as well. However, this mode can be advanced by oneself or with others offline or online. A player that has not progressed as far as another player's band will still gain benefits for successfully completing songs when playing together. The interface for playing with others is described by Game Informer as being the same as Rock Band's. Full four-player bands will be able to compete with other bands online in a "Battle of the Band" mode.

There's a lot to like there: a less linear (and more interesting) career mode for single players, the ability to switch instruments during a career, and a bass career. Plus, being able to have an online band is going to be lots of fun.

There's also a new music creation option where you can create and record your own songs. No vocals, though I can't imagine why. Are you telling me that ten thousand songs with some guy saying "*uck" two hundred times would be a problem?

People might laugh at this music creation feature, and 99% of the songs created will be garbage, but that doesn't matter. That 99% never matters. All that matters is that 1%, and there will be some very creative people in that tiny sliver.

The drums have three pads and two cymbals (plus the bass pedal), and they're pressure-sensitive. I don't think anyone doubts that the hardware is going to be excellent, because that's Red Octane's strength.

When I see a video like this, though, I get concerned. It's 1:45 long, and it's all about the new drum kit, with drummers like Chad Smith (Red Hot Chili Peppers), Stewart Copeland, and Travis Barker (Blink 182). There's plenty of drumming--except none of it is on the new drumset. There are exactly four clips where people are actually using the new drumset, and they all last for basically one second (two, at most).

The drummers also seem to think that adding a drum kit a year after Rock Band did is some kind of sensational gaming revolution. I'm sure they've never heard of the game that's grossed $200M plus. We know they know, and they know that we know, but they're going to pretend like they don't anyway.

This is exactly the kind of bullshit video that's 99% fluff and 1% substance that I expect from Activision, because this is how they've marketed the series from the day they took over.

My other concern is the note charts, because they took a significant step backwards in quality in Guitar Hero III. Given that absolutely no one has mentioned them, it's a fair guess that they're not going to be changed signficantly, so tricked out note charts to compensate for the giant timing window will probably make another appearance.

What is unquestionably good about all this, though, is that it puts pressure on Harmonix to continue improving Rock Band.

Jack Thompson: The Legal Decline

Game Politics broke this story last week:

The judge who presided over Jack Thompson's Florida Bar trial late last year has recommended that the controversial attorney be found guilty on 27 of 31 professional misconduct charges. The Florida Supreme Court must now rule on those recommendations.

...Among the Florida Bar offenses for which Judge Tunis has recommended a guilty verdict:
-Knowingly making a false statement of material fact or law to a tribunal
-Knowingly disobeying an obligation under the rules of a tribunal
-Communicating the merits of the case with a judge before whom the proceeding is pending
-Using means that have no purpose other than to embarrass, delay or burden a third person
-Engaging in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation
-Engaging in conduct in connection with the practice of law that is prejudicial to the administration of justice, including to knowingly or through callous indifference disparage or humiliate litigants or other lawyers
-Making statements that the lawyer knows to be false or with reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity concerning the qualifications or integrity of a judge

Judge Tunis's full report to the Florida Supreme Court is due on September 2nd. In the meantime, a disciplinary hearing regarding possible sanctions against Thompson will be held before Judge Tunis on June 4th.

Didn't we all know this was coming? No matter how many appearances Thompson made on easily-duped news networks, it's always been clear that the one place Thompson has rarely been successful is in the courtroom, where bullshit can't sprout wings. It's also been clear that clicking out inflammatory sound bites like a rabid Pez dispenser was going to get him into serious legal trouble, because he could never turn himself off.

I don't even know who Jack Thompson is, really--most of his television appearances seem like some kind of bizarre self-parody. It's hard to imagine there's a real person inside that self-promoting husk.

Trainwreck, party of one.

Speed Racer

I took Eli to see Speed Racer last week.

I've used Rotten Tomatoes for a while as a guide before I decide to go see a movie, and since Speed Racer had a 35% rating (horrible), I thought I was heading into two hours and twenty minutes of misery.

That's now what happened, though. Not at all.

We went to a high-definition theater, thank goodness, because Speed Racer is an explosion of color. It's impossible to overstate how visually extravagant this film is, but it's a live-action cartoon, essentially, and it works. It's trippy and silly and quite wonderful, really.

Would I have liked it less if I hadn't seen it with Eli 6.9? Probably, but I still think it's far better than it's been reviewed, and if you had any interest in Speed Racer at all as a kid, it's well worth going to see.

Oh, and here's one note if you have kids. The movie is remarkably harmless throughout, except for one scene lasting about a minute where a driver was being held hostage and interrogated. They punched him a few times, and his face was swollen in a way that was very graphic and very realistic. It was jarring, because the rest of the film had a very harmless, fun feeling, but this scene made me uncomfortable (for Eli). He didn't like it either, but fortunately, it was short, and the rest of the movie was just fine for someone his age.

Overall, we had a great time, and Eli even conned Gloria into taking him as well, so he's seen it twice.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Daytrotter

Okay, this is pretty fantastic.

Daytrotter is a music studio, basically. Musicians come in and perform four songs live at a studio in Rock Island, Illinois, and the songs are put on the website. Five bands, twenty songs a week, and I've never of heard of any of them. Mostly.

Everything is free, and you can download any of the songs. The site is also well-designed and easy to navigate, and there are archives back to June 2006.

It's great. It's great to hear people performing live, it's great to discover new music, and I look forward to the new band each day.

Wii Fit Impressions

We picked up Wii Fit last Wednesday, and here are some initial impressions after about five hours of use. That five hours consists of about three hours for me, and two hours of watching Gloria and Eli 6.9

First, I'm very impressed with the quality of the balance board. It's a sturdy, well-built piece of hardware, and it's much more solid than I expected. The sensing rate also is much higher than I expected, as it's quite good in detecting minute changes in balance.

The dimensions of the controller are 20"x11.5". My shoe size is 11.5, and if my feet were any longer, I don't think they'd fit. So if your feet are size twelve or larger, I'm not sure that all of your foot will fit on the board. That may not matter, but Bigfoot beware.

Here's what happens you first start up the game. You'll enter your height, get weighed, and do a few simple balance tests. Then your B.M.I. and "Fitness Age" will be calculated.

None of this matters, really, except to establish a record of your weight, which is useful.

One you've done the initial fitness test, you can start with the activities. They're divided into four areas: balance (yoga), strength (yoga), aerobic, and games. There are fifteen possible yoga poses for balance, and twelve for strength (plus three "fitness challenges"), but only a third of those are available at first. "One-third available" is also true of the aerobics and balance games area (which have fewer total activities overall). However, new activities seem to get unlocked about every ten minutes of usage, so it's not difficult to increase what's available.

Both yoga areas are excellent. It's certainly not the same as having a live instructor, but as tool for increasing your flexibility and strength, it's very satisfying. You can mirror an instructor's movements for each pose, and you're getting real-time feedback on your balance as well. To me, this makes a huge difference in understanding where each posture should be centered.

Once all the poses are unlocked, there are twenty-seven available, and doing them all would take about 40 minutes. Also, as you progress, you'll be unlocking higher difficulty levels (more reps).
Again, it's not a high-level workout, but it's certainly solidly in the mid-level category (if you want to push it that far), which would be just fine for 90%+ of the population. There are also so many people who are just too intimidated to sign up for a fitness class, and Wii Fit would be an excellent introduction. The carrots are nice, too--you get points for your balance rating on each pose, and you can see a graph of how your balance changed while your were posing.

The only thing I don't like about the yoga sections, and I think it's a big miss, is that you need to press "A" or "B" on the Wiimote to advance through certain screens, which means you're picking up the remote frequently. I don't understand why they didn't implement a double-tap with your foot on the board to replace pressing a button on the Wiimote. What's particularly surprising about this is that Wii Fit, in general, has excellent design.

The Aerobics section is unquestionably the weakest area, by far, of the program. The balance board just isn't suited for aerobic activity, although the step aerobics probably come closest. Don't expect Wii Fit to give you an aerobic workout. It can make you more flexible, and it can make you stronger, but it's not going to make you fit in an aerobic sense.

The games are interesting, and most of them make excellent use of the balance board. Ski slalom, snowboarding, ski jumping, and "table tilt" (you tilt a table to move balls into holes) are all a blast to play. Tightrope walking, "balance bubble" (think the bubble levels in SMG), and penguin slide (tilting on an ice flow to catch fish) are not as interesting, but still decent. There's one game I haven't unlocked.

Overall, I'm very impressed. It's another example of Nintendo using the Wii for something more interesting than sitting on the couch. I also think the balance board has huge potential for additional use. A few examples:
--surfing (my #1 hope)
--advanced yoga. Unlimited potential here.
--skateboarding (already announced by EA)
--Super Monkey Ball
--Winter Olympics games (skiing, skating, etc.)
--boxing

I also think it might be possible to use the balance board in conjunction with the Wiimote, which would allow for some very advanced control opportunities. Imagine walking/running in an RPG with the balance board, then fighting with the Wiimote (while still standing on the balance board, and your balance could affect the strength of your blows).

Along those lines, a karate game, or a karate training program, would be all kinds of fun.

Really, Wii Fit isn't a game so much as a platform, and the way it's selling (hotcakes), the platform should be well supported in the future. It's another interesting input device from Nintendo that can change how we play games.

Monday, May 26, 2008

This Is Not a "Greetings From" Post

The names have gotten so remarkably filthy (and funny) that I can't even put up the rest of them, although I did get to read an outstanding and obscene joke about a penguin.

Field Day, Kilts, Christenings, The Hallowiener, and Nooooooo!

Friday was Field Day at Eli's school. All the kids from first through third grade were put on teams and competed in different events.

We had something like this when I was a kid, except it was a straight-up track meet with all the traditional events. First through sixth place in each event got ribbons. Now, individual awards have gone by the wayside. An individual competes for his team, not for himself. I have no opinion on whether that's good or bad, but it's a big difference in the vibe.

Eli 6.9, because his birthday is July 31, is the youngest kid in his class, and since quite a few parents are holding kids back a year before they start school, he's more than a year younger than several of his classmates. Since boys are boys, he occasionally gets teased about his size.

One boy, in particular, gives him the business, even though they're friends.

One of the events at Field Day was rope climbing. The rope was suspended twenty feet above the floor. There were two ropes, and when Eli's team started climbing, they were struggling badly. I remember how hard climbing rope was when I was a kid--I used to calculate how long I needed to hang on to make it respectable, because I was both very fast and very weak. So I wasn't surprised that most of the kids didn't even make it halfway, and no one made it to the top.

Then came Spiderman.

Eli 6.9 climbed up the rope like he was wearing a jetpack. Twenty feet in less than twenty seconds. He made it look like the easiest, most effortless thing in the world.

The guy right behind him? Mr. Teaser. He also made it up the rope, but it was a struggle that could only be called brutal. It took him over a minute, and he was completely drained when he came down. Eli high-fived him for making it to the top and the boy sat down beside him.

Then, after everyone had climbed, Eli walked up to the rope and climbed it again. For fun.

Even for first graders, I believe that's called scoreboard.

At lunch, two kids in Eli's class sat close to us, and one was outraged. "NO, you DIDN'T," he said to his friend. "You did NOT kill the first mosquito in the UNIVERSE. There were AT LEAST two thousand people ahead of you."

I shared his outrage. At least, I thought.

On the way home from Field Day, I saw a man in a kilt standing next to an ambulance. My imagination, stunned, was silent (your punchline goes here).

Friday night, I took Gloria to dinner, and she mentioned that we had been invited to a christening. "I don't see how we can go," she said. "For one, there are a bunch of relatives coming in from out of town, and we don't know any of them, so we'd be totally isolated. There's also a Mass first, then the ceremony, and there's no way Eli could sit through all of that."

"Plus, I'm really uncomfortable with watching the removal of the foreskin," I said.

I've been trying to get Gloria to do a spit-take for thirteen years, and she's still undefeated, but I almost got her that time.

We were walking out of the restaurant, and Gloria mentioned my friend Mike, who I've had approximately one thousand conversations with in the last several years, 99% lasting one minute or less. I told Gloria that one of her phone calls with her friends would be longer than the total time I spent talking to Mike in the last year, even though he's one of my best friends. "Well, women share things in conversations--like their feelings," she said.

"Now that is just gross," I said. "Gross and wrong."

When we got home, Eli read a book to Gloria before he went to bed. It was called "The Hallo-Wiener."

"See, it's funny because it's HALLOWEEN combined with a WIENER DOG," Eli 6.9 patiently said to me.

"That is genius!" I said. "Who would have ever though to combine those two?"

"Hold on," Eli said, opening the book and flipping to the title page. "DAVE PILKEY," he said.

Saturday morning, I took Eli to Krispy Kreme. One of the highlights of Krispy Kreme for Eli is the long window where he can watch the doughnuts progress from dough into glazed dougnuts, and the icing "waterfall" is his favorite spot.

We were eating our doughnuts when a mom came in with two little girls that were about three years old. While she got in line, her daughters went to the glass and stared at the doughnuts moving down the conveyor belt. They were barely tall enough to see over the wall, but when one of the little girls saw the doughnuts reach the icing waterfall, she yelled "NOOOOOOOOO!" at the top of her lungs.

That was annoying, at first, but she kept doing it, and every time a row of doughtnuts got glazed and she yelled, it got funnier. By the last time (about her twentieth), we were almost falling off our chairs.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Friday Links!

Okay, I have to mention one last name sent in last night: Jack M. Self. Oh, and Sharon Peters says hello as well.

I can't believe none of these parents went through the obligatory "What sort of dirty rhyme or taunt could kids make out of this name?" exercise.

Leading off this week is a remarkable piece of art called the Telectroscope. Here's an excerpt:
Before sunrise on Tuesday morning, a strange sight began to appear on Fulton Ferry Landing in Brooklyn: a six-foot-tall metal drill bit seemed to emerge from the wooden pier, covered in genuine East River mud and revolving slowly beneath the glow of the Manhattan skyline. On Wednesday it will grow into a 12-foot-tall industrial-looking behemoth erupting just in front of the quaint Brooklyn Ice Cream Factory. And on Thursday? Imagine an enormous brass and wood telescope, 37 feet long by 11 feet tall, connected to a mirrored dome, like a child’s drawing of something that will see into the future. Voilà: the Telectroscope will have materialized.

A fanciful device born equally of history and imagination, it will visually connect New Yorkers to people in London, where an identical scope will sit on the banks of the Thames in the shadow of Tower Bridge.

A steampunk telescope, complete with its own origin myth. That's just outstanding.

Here's a cautionary tale: a seal trying to have sex with a penguin. For forty-five minutes. Next: penguins wandering around the Antarctic wearing "NO MEANS NO" t-shirts.

From David Gloier, a link to a story about two guys traveling across the country fixing incorrect punctuation in signs.

From the New York Times, an interesting article on walruses.

From Patrick, a link to an amazing piece of animated street art: Muto. This is a mind-blowing piece of work.

From Bob Taylor, a link to another forgotten bit of military history: Secret Strobelight Weapons of WWII. Long-time sufferers of this space will remember previous links to the strange (and highly self-promoting) story of magician Jasper Maskelyne, who's mentioned in the article.

From Josh Catania, a link to Darvaz: The Door to Hell, an underground cavern discovered in Uzbekistan thirty-five years ago while drilling for natural gas. The cavern was filled with gas, so it was set on fire to let it burn off.

It's still burning (and the pictures are fantastic).

From the Edwin Garcia links machine, a story about a lost parrot that was returned to his owners after telling a vet his name and home address. Also from Edwin, a visually arresting video about the dhobi, or laundrymen, in Mumbai, India. It's the world's largest laundry, with over 30,000 workers, and there are so many emotions in that little film that it's hard to describe.

Michael Martin found a few excellent pictures of the Austin bats in flight: one, two, and three. Just imagine three or more streams unbroken streams like that, with each stream lasting for 20-30 minutes before the bats have all left the bridge.

Striped icebergs (and also some here), and they are stunning.

From Sirius, a link to the Marital Rating Scale, circa 1939. Among the questions when rating your wife:
--does she dress for breakfast?
--are the seams on her hose often crooked?

Also from Sirius, a link to the history of the Slinky.

From Michael O'Reilly, a link to a a V8 engine--made out of Legos.

From Dan Quock, a video of Andy McKee, who has a very unique way of playing the guitar.

From Nate Carpenter, a link to a unique and remarkable clock.

From Meg McReynolds, a link to a video of Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates (short attention spans should skip to 2:10).

From Aaron Daily, a link to a Spinal Tap performance that features "every bass player in the known universe."

From Andrew, a link to Starcraft English, a South Korean program that improves your English skills. Uniquely.

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Okay I Lied

Two more: Richard Chopp (incredibly, a urologist in Austin), and Callum Murray (nicknamed, of course, "Squid").

Oh, and Ron A., the name you sent me caused your own mail server to refuse my response, so I can't reply ("content rejected").

Greetings From

The Seymour Johnson Air Force Base, Wendy Stit, Harold Palm, Anita Ho, Tram P. Ho, and Richard Head.

Hook Mitchell

A few weeks ago, I happened upon the last few minutes of a documentary about a basketball player named "Hook" Mitchell.

Playground legends in basketball have always fascinated me, and I've read quite a bit about them, but I'd never heard of Hook Mitchell.

As it turns out, Hook's signature move was a dunk.

Over a car.

He also did 360 dunks over motorcycles, and Gary Payton says he saw him do a 360 over a car once.

Oh, and by the way, Hook Mitchell is 5'9".

He grew up playing with Gary Payton and Jason Kidd, and they both swear he was the best player they ever saw. Brian Shaw, Antonio Davis, and Drew Gooden, too.

What happened to Hook, and the tragic story of why he went to prison instead of playing in the NBA, makes for a gripping film. Here's an Amazon link if you're interested.

Also, here's a highlight video (dunk over car at about 1:00).

Butt And More Butt

Mention the word "butt" in a post and just wait for the e-mail to arrive.

Steven Kreuch said that he went to school with a kid named "Chris P. Butt." Ouch.

Mike went to school with a girl whose last name was Butt. Her first name was Lotta. Seriously.

DQ reader "my mom" reminded me that there was a governor of Texas named Jim Hogg in the late 19th century, and his daughter was named "Ima." She had quite a life, actually.

Craig Scarborough sent me a link to an epic MSNBC story titled Harry Pitts? The worst baby names of all time. Here are just a few of the classics:
Emma Royd
Leper Priest
Lust T. Castle
Ireland England
Audio Science
Al Caholic (Bart Simpson prank, yes, but also a real name)
Seymour Butz
Maya Buttreeks

Superman: Red Son

After reading the post about Iron Man last week, and my reference to Superman as "superbland," Andrew Shih recommended that I read Superman: Red Son.

So I did, and it was tremendous.

In Red Son, the rocketship carrying an infant doesn't land in Smallvile--it lands in the Soviet Union.

If that sounds like an interesting but shallow idea, it doesn't work out that way. Mark Millar writes with a significant amount of nuance, and there is much, much more to to the story than I expected. Superman is so well-established at this point (even shopworn, perhaps) that warping the myth onto another path entirely makes for entirely absorbing reading.

Other superheroes show up, too, but I'm not going to give you any spoilers. If you're interested, here's an Amazon link: Superman: Red Son.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Eli 6.9

Eli 6.9 came home from school yesterday. Two of his friends at school are named Andrew and Tumello, and they're both seven.

"Andrew and Tumello are starting a CAR COMPANY," he said. "Tumello is going to draw the cars and Andrew is going to build them. If they sell enough cars, they're going to buy a HOUSE--in SPAIN! Can they DO that?"

"Good luck finding a house in Spain," I said. "The tourists have absolutely ruined that country."
***

We have a local grocery chain in Texas called H.E.B. It's been around a long time--since I was a kid, even--and they've essentially swallowed all the national chain competition in Austin and most of South Texas.

Two weekends ago, after we came back from the store (flowers for Mother's Day), we were sitting together on the couch.

"What does 'H.E.B.' stand for?" Eli asked.

"It's the initials of the man who started the company," I said. "H.E. Butt."

He could hardly get a word out because he was laughing so hard, but he managed to squeak "BUTT?"

"Butt," I said.

"That CAN'T be a name," he said. "Dad, you're kidding."

"Usually, yes, but that was the guy's name."

"I can't believe it," he said. "Butt."

"Can you imagine going to school with that last name?" I asked.

"Argghhh!" he said. "Did he have any kids?"

"He had a son," I said.

"What was his name?" Eli asked.

"Seymour," I said.

"Seymour Butt," he said. He sat there for a few seconds, then burst out laughing. "SEE MORE BUTT!" he shouted, laughing wildly.

Just then, Gloria walked in from her study.

"MOM! There was a KID named SEE MORE BUTT!" he shouted. Gloria shook her head.

"I love introducing him to the classics," I said.

H.E. Butt's real son, by the way, was named "Charles."
***

The Dramatist was making a (flat) house out of popsicle sticks on Monday, and for some reason, part of the roof wasn't adhering properly, so Gloria took out the hot glue gun to help him.

Last night, he carried the repaired house upstairs, but when he walked into his room, the roof separated again. "Noooooooo!" he said, slapping his forehead. "The hot glue has FAILED ME!"

Fruit Bat

Just to clarify, Gloria knows that "fruit bat" is a kind of bat, but she also knows that someone thinking there are fruit bats in Austin is off by, oh, a hemisphere.

Here's an e-mail from Jim Riegel:
I lived in Okinawa for a couple of years and we used to have them regularly in the neighborhood.

Fruit bats cannot be mistaken for your garden variety bat. Fruit bats are more likely to be mistaken for your garden variety 'HOLY SHIT! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING?!' They've got a wing span of 3 feet plus and a body that's a good ten inches long. Absolutely huge.


Oh, and if you're curious as to why 1.5 million Mexican Freetail bats live under the Congress Avenue bridge, here's the story.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Please Note

Steve Bauman e-mailed me and made an excellent point:
"I've written about this before, but when less than 1% of your customer base is stealing the candy, does it make sense to force everyone to line up and empty their pockets on a regular basis?"

So, publishers don't have any numbers on piracy, but you know it's less than 1% of their customer base?


That's a fair comment--I don't know that. I think that a very small percentage of paying customers are responsible for cracking the game and putting up torrents, but I have no data to support that, and it's not accurate for me to use that number. I assumed that was the case because even a small number of torrents could be responsible for a huge number of pirated copies.

I wasn't trying to minimize the size of the piracy problem for PC games, because it appears to be enormous. It just seems conceptually that PC piracy is a one-to-many relationship because of the digital nature of the content.

Let Me Tell You Something About Borneo

Robinson: Let me tell you something about Borneo. We have here a kind of an earwig.

Macy: A what?


Robinson: An earwig--a kind of caterpillar. A thing almost as fine as a spider's web. It lives on wax, feeds on the innards of flowers, and it has a decided liking for the human ear. The natives hereabout have a distinct terror of it, they do. You see, it moves and it rests so lightly on a human being that he's practically unconscious of it. Now, if you were to place one of these earwigs in a man's ear...well, once it's in the ear, it's a thousand-to-one chance of it every coming out again. You see, Mr. Macy, it can't turn 'round. Backing out is impossible. So it continues to feed as it goes, and it crawls right inside of the head, and the result--think of it, Mr. Macy, think of it! Ultimately, it reaches the brain, with the result that--(snaps stick)--it's the end of it. The complete end of it.


Macy: But while it's happening?


Robinson: Oh, while it's happening, why sir, it's a living torment, is what it is. Torture. But the net result, Mr. Macy. There's the beauty of it. The net result is what it is we're looking for.


When EA announced the copy protection scheme that would be used for Mass Effect and Spore, we heard Robinson. We were outraged to be told that in addition to an initial online activation, there would be this (from Bioware's Derek French):

Mass Effect uses SecuROM and requires an online activation for the first time that you play it. Each copy of Mass Effect comes with a CD Key which is used for this activation and for registration here at the BioWare Community. Mass Effect does not require the DVD to be in the drive in order to play, it is only for installation.

After the first activation, SecuROM requires that it re-check with the server within ten days (in case the CD Key has become public/warez’d and gets banned). Just so that the 10 day thing doesn’t become abrupt, SecuROM tries its first re-check with 5 days remaining in the 10 day window. If it can’t contact the server before the 10 days are up, nothing bad happens and the game still runs. After 10 days a re-check is required before the game can run.

For us, recurring copy-protection schemes aren't about the protection of intellectual property.

They're earwigs.

EA "backed off" later in the week to a one-time online activation for Mass Effect, and said this about Spore:
A few things we wanted you to know:
— We authenticate your game online when you install and launch it the first time.
— We'll re-authenticate when a player uses online features, downloads new content or a patch for their game.


Translation: we proposed a shitload of online "authentication." When you got mad, we proposed a different shitload of online "authentication."

That was my first reaction, anyway, and it reminded me that when it comes to copy protection, we're angry.

Then I wondered why.

When it comes right down to it, we're almost all in agreement that games shouldn't be stolen. We like (mostly) the people who develop games. We want them to make money.

Here's a question, though: how many time should I have to prove that I'm not a thief?

I think that's the question that publishers just don't want to answer.

To me, there are two fundamental, major problems with what publishers are doing right now, and I'd like to discuss both of them with you. If you want the outline first, the two problems would be uncertain benefits and security vs. content.

First, off, let's talk about uncertain benefits. Look, I don't want games to be stolen, but how exactly is checking my CD key every five days helping? Or every time I go online? I thought the vast majority of illegal copies of a game were distributed via torrents? What does this have to do with that? What's the actual benefit of using this approach? How much are illegal copies reduced?

Simple questions, I know, but publishers have done a really, really poor job of answering them.

Really, really poor.

I think there's also a simple reason for why they haven't answered: they don't know. They have only the fuzziest idea of how much their activation schemes reduce piracy. It's more of a faith-based approach than anything else.

That's why we don't get specific explanations: they don't have any. I give EA full credit for at least letting us know the details of the copy protection, but we need more. We need to know why this matters, why it's not just a "well, it can't hurt" idea.

I've written about this before, but when less than 1% of your customer base is stealing the candy, does it make sense to force everyone to line up and empty their pockets on a regular basis? There has to be a more selective, focused approach that would be more effective.

Let's move on to to the second problem: security versus content. Publishers have done an awful job when it comes to influencing our perception of security checks

Why? Because there's nothing in it for us.

Nothing.

Here's an idea. Why not make these security checks beneficial to us in at least some small way? Why not create a thirty second mini-game for us to play while you're shoving a probe up our computer's ass? And if we play the mini-game well, we get a reward--a temporary bonus that could be used in the game we're playing.

In a role-playing game, for example, we might win a special weapon, or a rare item. The vast majority of the time, what we'd win would be a trinket, but there would at least be a small chance of acquiring some kind of rare item. That item might degrade over time, or have limited use, but it would be a reward in the short term.

We could even see several possible rewards, and choosing which one was most valuable would add another layer of strategy to the game.

This could be implemented in a hundred different ways, really--the possibilities are unlimited. I just like the idea of the copy protection check adding more game to the game.

It could also become a new content category: the mini mini-game. Fun to play, and a little reward at the end.

Create compelling mini-games and an interesting reward system, and security becomes content.

Would it change my mind about recurring security checks? On an intellectual level, absolutely not. The issues are too thorny, and this wouldn't fundamentally resolve any of them.

On an emotional level, though, it would (to some degree) change how I feel. I'd be seeing content that I couldn't access otherwise. It would be making the game I'm playing more interesting. I'd be getting something special in exchange for an intrusion.

It would also be a little carrot for people buying the PC version of a game, because this wouldn't be needed with the console versions.

Look, games are supposed to be fun. Why not make the copy protection fun as well?

Monday, May 19, 2008

Happy Annniversary, Baby, Got You On My Mind

Gloria and I had our eleventh wedding anniversary on Saturday.

We each picked out two cards to give to each other. Here was the first card Gloria gave me:

Well, that was lovely and incredibly thoughtful. Here was the second card:



Those were all little colored stones on the card, by the way.

It's at this point that I was reminded of the difference between women and men.

Gloria started to open her first card, "Oh...foxes," she said.

"Cartoon foxes," I said helpfully. "He's about to fall off a ladder."

"Um," she said.

"That was the high-brow card," I said.

"High-brow," she repeated. "Foxes are the high-brow card."

Here was the second card:



The look on her face said this (with apologies to Sir Arthur Eddington): men are not only stranger than we imagine, but they are stranger than we can imagine.

We had dinner at Shoreline Grill, which is right on Town Lake, and walked down to the path by the lake after dinner to see the bats come out. Austin has the world's largest urban bat colony from May to October, and at times there are over a million bats living under the Congress Avenue bridge.

If you've never seen a million bats , it's quite impressive. And smelly--or, at least, it's quite smelly underneath the bridge.

This is one of those things that seems to be on every tourist's list of "things I must do," so in addition to the locals, the path is usually jammed with people who are there because it was mentioned in a guidebook. Where we were standing, people were walking down from an ultra-expensive hotel with their glasses of wine held just so, and they turned what's kind of a joyous natural event into a bit of a snobfest.

My favorite lines:
--"what time do they come out?" Quite a few people expected them to keep a by-the-minute schedule, as if a bell would ring and a million bats would emerge on cue.
--"that's a lot of bats." Spoken repeatedly.
--"are they fruit bats?"

"Fruit bats?" Gloria whispered.

Hmm. Fruit bats.

They're actually Mexican free-tailed bats, and they mostly eat mosquitoes, but suddenly I didn't care.

One of the things I've always wanted to do in life is create a thriving urban legend, the kind that becomes so pervasive it eventually gets debunked on Snopes.com.

I know. Other people want to cure cancer. Yes, I look bad in comparison, but I have to play to my strengths, and curing cancer is unfortunately not one of them.

Creating an urban legend, though--right in my wheelhouse.

Let's see. Snobby people + Lack of Knowledge About Subject= Light Bulb.

Strawberries and wine go together, I think.

Here's the prank. First, get a few friends to go down to Town Lake near dark. Have half of them hold strawberries over their heads, while the other half just hold their hands over their heads. When bats swerve near (a few always stray from the main streams), take photographs.

It's an easy Photoshop job to take the pictures and edit them so that it looks like the bats are carrying strawberries.

Oh, yes.

Upload the pictures back onto the camera.

Return to Town Lake near dark--this time, with a few friends (as plants) and a few boxes of strawberries. Start talking about how amazing it is that bats will take strawberries from your hand.

They'll laugh, of course. That's when you say "We got some pictures last time," and you hold up your camera. At that point, they'll be 100% in, because you have conclusive photographic evidence that this actually happens.

Then, just start passing out strawberries.

My dream is to have fifty or a hundred people lining the path at Town Lake, all holding strawberries over their heads.

Waiting for the bats.

When the bats come out, and a few fly near, your friends can pull down their arms suddenly, claiming that a bat took their strawberry. It's near dusk, the bats fly so erratically that they're impossible to follow, and there will be no reason to doubt them.

Then people return to their cities, and they tell their friends the miraculous story about the bats that take strawberries from your hand. Those friends tell their friends, maybe a photograph or two mysteriously winds up online, and someday, people are bringing strawberries with them when they come to see the bats.

"I"m glad you're not in politics," Gloria said.

Friday, May 16, 2008

Friday Links!

A bizarre compendium, as always, so let's get started. You're not going to finish anything at work today.

As part of crow/superhero week, we have links about both.

From Mike Gilbert, a link to a video about the amazing intelligence of crows. I had no idea.

Sean sent in a superhero link: an essay by Michael Chabon titled Secret Skin. Chabon wrote "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay," which is a wonderful, wonderful book. And also from Sean, a classic story by sportswriter Joe Posnanski about his greatest day in sportswriting.

Not a superhero, but close: the crazy "Fusion Man," Yves Rossey, made a successful public demonstration of his jet-powered wing. And it's homemade.

Also in the near-superhero category, wheelchair racer Josh George, who weighs 98 pounds and can bench press 220. When sprinting, he can hit his rims 140 times a minute.

And one more near-superhero: double-amputee sprinter Oscar Pistorius, who has been linked here before (watching him run with carbon fiber "blades" is one of the most amazing things you'll ever see), won his appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and is now eligible to compete in the Olympics. His 400 meter best (46.56) is still above the Olympic qualifying standard of 45.55, but he could be added to the 1,600 meter relay team.

Several of you sent me this link last Friday: Great Tits Cope Well With Warming. I'm sure they do, but would "good" tits do as well?

Sirius, appropriately following that link, sent in a link to a story at Newsweek about the quest to build the perfect bra. Also from Sirius, a link to a story about a remarkable feature inside Westminster Abbey, and here's an excerpt:
The wraps have come off one of Westminster Abbey's least known treasures, a medieval marble pavement foretelling the end of the world, while conservation experts consider how to preserve the ancient stones for the next 740 years.

Few modern visitors have ever seen it, although since 1268 kings and princes, queens and cardinals have walked across a symbol laden mosaic as intricate as a piece of jewellery.

It is made up of rare marbles and gemstones, including some recycled from monuments 1,000 years older, and pieces of coloured glass, set in complex allegorical patterns into a framework of Purbeck marble cut as intricately as a jigsaw puzzle.

Finally, the hat trick for Sirius this week, and it's a link to a discovery by ex-Monty Python member Terry Jones of a 17th century conspiracy to invade Wales by the French. And a map is what tipped them off.

From Nathan Carpenter, a link to a strange and sad episode in history: the "display" of a Congolese pygmy at the Bronx Zoo. It's an entirely surreal story, with plenty of disgrace to go around.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to an article outlining the mission of the Phoenix Mars Lander.

From Scott Zimmerman, a link to the GEN H-4 one-man helicopter. It weights 155 pounds.

From Jarod, a link to an excellent list over at Esquire: The 75 Skills Every Man Should Master. I think I had forty-two of them--I believe that's an "F."

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to Kyraben: Japanese Character Lunch Boxes. I know, it's motherhood out of control, but they still look fantastic. Also, a link to a photo essay titled In The Time Of Trees, and it's quite striking.

Crazy rasberry ants: look out. On the plus side, though, at least they eat fire ants.

From Fong, a link to a segment on the Star King, a Korean talent show. It features a five-year old blind girl who plays piano, and she's remarkable.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

MLB Power Pros 2008

MLB Power Pros was an interesting game on the Wii last year. It used the super-deformed style, but it was a very strong baseball simulation, and it had an official MLB license as well. This year's version was recently announced, and Blog for the Sports Gamer has a ton of screenshots.

NPD Spin

I was going to put a post up about the promotional spin put on the April NPD numbers, but Chris Kohler did it for me.

Console Post of the Week: They Said What?

NPD numbers for April:
Wii: 714,200
Xbox 360: 188,000
PS3: 187,100
PS2: 124,400

That has to be one of the biggest ass-kickings in the history of consoles. It's the biggest game release of the year for "next-gen" consoles, and the Wii outsells them by almost 2-1 COMBINED?

Here's what must be the frightening point for Microsoft: they weren't supply-constrained in April. Here's what must be the frightening point for Sony: they weren't, either.

This is extremely compelling evidence for Microsoft that they have to cut the price in the U.S., and quickly. Last year in April, the 360 sold 174,000 units. This year, with a lower price, and the biggest game launch of their year, they sell only 14,000 more units? That's a horrific number for them.

For the last year, I've thought that the Wii would dominate, but that there would be a clear second place, and the second-place console would still do very, very well. Now, though, it's looking like both Microsoft and Sony might be completely overwhelmed.

Here are a few data points before we get to (for me) the shocker of the week, which doesn't even involve the NPD numbers.

First off, I mentioned a few weeks ago that GTA IV was going to be an interesting test case to compare the 360 to the PS3. It's been speculated by many (including me) that a portion of the PS3's installed base is "dead" when it comes to gaming. So a ballpark test would be to compare the percentage of installed base purchasing GTA IV by platform.

N'Gai Croal was given access to Gamestop's GTA IV sales by platform, and here's what he found: According to sales information that GameStop has released exclusively to Level Up, 64 percent of the copies of Grand Theft Auto IV sold during the first week were for Xbox 360, while 36 percent were sold on PS3. Put another way, that's a roughly 2 to 1 sales advantage for Xbox 360.

So how does that split compare to the Xbox 360 and PS3's respective installed bases? As we said above, the NPD group reports that 9.9 million Xbox 360s and 4.1 million PS3s have been sold through the end of March 2008. (NOTE: these installed base figures do not include the month of April, so our back of the envelope calculations will be slightly off.) That's a total of 14 million units, of which 70.7 percent are Xbox 360 and 29.3 percent are PS3. So when we compare this to GameStop's split of GTA IV sales--64 percent on Xbox 360 and 36 percent on PS3--it's clear that GTA IV underperformed on Xbox 360 relative to Microsoft's pre-April installed base, while it exceeded expectations on PS3 relative to Sony's pre-April installed base.


That is absolutely not what I expected. There were fewer copies of GTA IV sold for the 360 as a percentage of the installed base? And this is after signing a deal with Rockstar for exclusive content?

Sure, that's not an exact comparison, and Microsoft's already lobbing excuses out there, but it's still a bad, bad number for them.

Another bad number for Microsoft emerged from this weeks earnings release from Electronic Arts. In the "Platform Next Revenue Mix" of their earnings statement, there was this: Look at the change in PS3 revenue versus 360 revenue. Again, that's a horrible trend for Microsoft.

So on the face of those two data points, and Sony's bellowing about their European sales last week (even though Microsoft responded and Sony suddenly shut up), it would be easy to believe that the PS3 is doing much, much better.

There's really only one party who doesn't believe that the PS3 is gaining strength.

Sony.

In yesterday's earnings report, Sony included a shocking bit of forecasting: for the current fiscal year, they project that they'll be selling 10.0 million units into retail worldwide.

Why is that so shocking? Because in the fiscal year just concluded (ending March 31, 2008), they sold 9.24 million units into retail.

Unit sales growth projected for this fiscal year? 8.2%.

Wow.

Even allowing for Sony having totally jammed the channel in the last year, that's a stunner. Sony is projecting that on March 31, 2009, 28 months after launch, the PS3 will have sold 22.81 million units into retail. Remember, those aren't even actual consumer sales. That represents actual consumer sales plus all retail stock.

8% year-over-year unit growth for the console that succeeded the most successful console in history is a disaster. A flaming, bellowing disaster. And that growth is off a crap base to begin with.

To see just how bad this is, let's compare PS3 and PS2 sales as closely as we can.

First, a quick explanation of methodology. Since consoles launch in different territories at different times, there has to be a method of valuation to gain equivalent "sales opportunity" numbers. Based on the last generation, here's how the sales broke out:
U.S.--40%
Europe--40%
Japan--20%

That's not exact, but it's a reasonable comparison base. So for a quarter where a console was available in all three territories (for every day of the quarter), the "sales opportunity" would be equal to 1 (.4+.4+.2). If a console was available in the U.S. and Japan, but not in Europe, the SO for that quarter would equal to .6 (.4+.2+0).

What about partial quarters? That's easy. Let's say, for example, that during a product launch quarter, a console was available in the U.S. for 60 days out of 91 days in a quarter. To get the SO for that quarter, you'd use this formula:
.4*(60/91)

I know, that seems extreme, but I want to get as accurate a comparison as possible between the PS2 and the PS3 at similar times in their lifespans. And I'm going to briefly go through the actual calculations here so that you can see what I'm doing.

Here are the launch dates for the PS3 in the three major territories:
Japan--November 11, 2006
U.S.--November 17, 2006
Europe--March 23, 2007

Here are the sales opportunity numbers:
Q3 2006, end December 31, 2006 (U.S. and Japan launched): (.2*(51/91))+(.4*(45/91)=.30989
Q4 2006, end March 31, 2007 (partial Europe added): .2+.4+(.4*(9/91))=.63956
Q1 2007 and forwards (full sales opportunity in all three regions): 1.

At the end of the current fiscal year for Sony, which will be March 31, 2009, the total SO number will be 8.9494. And they're projecting 22.81 million units sold into retail.

So at the same "sales opportunity" point in the PS2's lifespan, how did it compare?

One caveat here is that Sony has changed their accounting method in the last year. So with the PS2, Sony's historical numbers are "production shipments of hardware," while the PS3 is "unit sales of hardware." Like I said, though, those "unit shipments" just represent inventory sold to dealers, not actual consumer sales.

Here are the launch dates for the PS2:
Japan--March 24, 2000
U.S.--October 26, 2000
Europe--November 24, 2000

Here's the tedious math stuff:
Q4 1999, end March 31, 2000 (Japan launch):.2*(8/91)=0.01758
Q1 2000, end June 30, 2000 (Japan only): .2
Q2 2000, end September 30, 2000 (Japan only): .2
Q3 2000, end December 31, 2000 (Japan, plus U.S. and European launch): .2+(.4*(66/91))+(.4*(38/91))=.65714
Q4 2000 and forwards: 1.

What's the closest calendar point as an equivalent to the PS3 8.9494 SO total? On December 31, 2002, the PS2's SO totals 9.0747. That's very close.

What was the total of PS2 production shipments at that time? 49.59 million.

Even allowing for the difference between production shipments and sales into retail, that is an incredible gap. By Sony's own projections, over twenty-seven months into its lifepsan, the PS3 will be selling, at best, at roughly half the rate of the PS2.

That's a wipeout, no matter what Sony claims.

Here's something else those numbers probably mean: forget about a price cut this year. Just based on the projection of 10 million units, it seems inconceivable that Sony would have to cut prices to reach that level. Plus there's an excerpt from the conference call transcript call posted at NeoGAF that suggests the same (thanks Matt Matthews):
Nobuyuki Oneda - Executive Vice President and Chief Financial Officer
...And the pricing itself, basically we don't disclose any pricing strategies for the coming year, but as I said that the... we don't aggressively adjust the price for the coming year. And to maintain the 10 million level of the quantity this year, I don't think that we really have to adjust the pricing so much.

It seems like Microsoft has been screwing up in epic quantities since the beginning of the year, but Sony doesn't seem to care--they're not going to ratchet up the pressure by cutting prices. Although it's possible, based on the April NPD numbers (and their total wipeout in Japan), that they'll have to cut prices just to get to 10 million, which would be quite embarrassing.

So the next time you hear a Sony executive bellowing about their brilliance, just remember that he's wearing a t-shirt underneath that says "8.2% unit growth."

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Tomorrow

Sony put something that was absolutely jaw-dropping in their earnings report, and I'll tell you about it in the console post tomorrow.

The Escapist Goes To Epic

The Escapist is all about Epic Games this week, and for the first time, they have a video as well.

Here's a vote for Bethesda as their next stop.

Superheroes (part two)

Pete Thistle sent me an outstanding story about childhood and superheroes.

When I was 4 and 5 years old, I had a red sleeping bag. It was cool, slippery nylon on the outside, and warm, fuzzy flannel on the inside, just like many sleeping bags now. It had a zipper that went up the side, from the feet, to the opening where your head sticks out. Again, very normal. Then, at the top of where the zipper stopped, there was a Velcro tab that pulled across the front of the opening and secured on the other side of your neck, so that you stretched it across, secured it tight, and your face stuck through an opening held air tight below your chin to keep you warm. I believe this also is very common. It was an ordinary, regular, plain old, run of the mill, mild mannered red sleeping bag.

Until you unzipped it.


See, then it transformed into a flowing, fluttery, magical sheet, that if secured around my neck by that seemingly normal Velcro strap, would enable me to fly. Or so I believed. I'm not sure what first gave me the idea to tie this thing around my neck with the Velcro, but once I did there was no stopping me. I would climb up a few steps of the stairs in the front of my parents house and leap off with a yell of "SUUU-PER PETER!!!" and the faith of a child who believed that if he tried hard enough, and practiced a lot, he could learn to fly. At one point as Christmas neared, I believed that Santa Claus was going to teach me.

It was 20 years ago now, and I was just a little boy, so my memory is a little fuzzy, but I recall jumping off those stairs for what seemed like hours. Eventually I would get the courage to move up one more, from two steps to three. Then from three to four. Suddenly the distance to the bottom was still manageable, but the height was beginning to hurt my little legs. But I had to get higher! Yes, that's all I needed, just more air time! So I gathered all of the couch cushions and pillows I could find to soften my landing. Four steps became five, and then six. I don't know where it stopped, but thinking about it now, I can still remember the rush and fear of crouching down like a tiny spring, releasing suddenly, flying into the air, falling a distance of what must have been twice my height, and then BAM!, right into the floor.

Santa Claus never came to give me lessons, but he did give me something. When I awoke that Christmas morning I found two interesting presents under the tree. One was mostly green, and it was a box shaped like an army Jeep. The other was mostly red, and was shaped like a biplane. The boxes themselves were essentially toys themselves, but they had one side in the back where you opened them up to take out whatever was stashed inside. In the Jeep, Santa left me a bag of a wooden train set. I don't know what happened to those, but I loved them a lot. Inside the biplane was something that immediately became my favorite item in the world, and I still have it today. See the attached pictures. Thanks, Mom.


That picture isn't Pete (I know him), but it's definitely his cape. Pete's mom sounds like she is many kinds of awesome.

Crows

I posted a link to an article titled Japan Fights Crowds of Crows last Friday, and Bill Trinen sent me a story about when he was living in Japan.

I spent a year studying in Tokyo between 1993 and 94, and as is often the case when you first arrive in a foreign land, there were more than few things that I found to be surprising, if not downright startling. One of these, for me, was Tokyo's crows. I don't know what kind of crows there are elsewhere in the U.S., but in the Pacific Northwest where I grew up, crows are not very menacing. Sure, they're quite a bit bigger than your run of the mill robin, but they are still just birds. In Tokyo, they are beasts.

The crows there are big. As the article points out, a three foot wing span is not uncommon, but they also have massive beaks--up to a foot long--more akin to that of a Toucan than the crows I was used to from back home. Long, tall beaks that curve down to a menacing point. The crows in Tokyo are also fighters. Nasty fighters. It's like on every block there is a crow Fight Club going on, from which only the meanest and nastiest crows survive. They also have much deeper caws than you hear from the crows back home, making them sound all the creepier. Just about every night I would hear their caws and cries from their crow fights, and every day I would see crows with mangled wings, scarred faces, and sometimes even fresh wounds. Like I said, these things are beasts.

So, one bright sunny day in the summer of '93, I was walking down the street through Nishi-Azabu with an Australian friend of mine. We were talking about something or other, and as such, weren't paying whole lot of attention to what was ahead of us. We hit a stretch of sidewalk with a fence alongside it, with fence posts that stood about six feet six inches tall. I was walking between my friend and the fence. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed one of the Tokyo crows sitting atop one of those fence posts, but by this point I'd been in Tokyo for many months and was over my initial fear of things, so I didn't pay it any attention. Being Tokyo, there was a fair number of people on the street going in both directions both ahead of us and behind us, but for some reason that still baffles me to this day, jus t as my friend and passed the crow, it leaned its head and monstrous beak down from atop the fence post to within about four inches of my ear and it let out the loudest, deepe st, most gutteral "CAWWWW!" I have ever heard in my life. FOUR INCHES from my face. It scared the crap out of both of us. First we jumped about three feet to the side, and then we ran down the block. From there we watched the crow for the next ten minutes. But it just sat there, letting everyone else walk by unmolested.

My friend looked at me and said "That crow was talking to you. I think you're gonna die."


The first rule about Crow Fight Club, obviously, is that you don't caw about Crow Fight Club.

The Dramatist

Eli 6.9 has been having intermittent stomach pain for over a month now. It's one of those things that's very difficult to figure out, and his "less than accurate" reporting makes it much more difficult. The doctor has him on Prevacid now, but that only seems to help sporadically.

In an attempt to gather some data, we're asking him his pain level on a 1-10 scale. He will say "10" most of the time, even though he's still able to run around the house at a hundred miles an hour and hasn't slowed down one bit in general.

Last night, after he got out of his bath, Gloria asked him how his stomach felt, and he said "Oh, it's a ten."

"It is?" she asked.

"Oh, yeah," he said. "It feels like Cupid shot a fiery arrow into my heart."

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Interview (part two)

Part two of the interview with Vic Davis is up now, and you can read it here.

Iron Man

Gloria went with me to see Iron Man last weekend. I think it's fair to say that her interest in superhero movies is "low," but she's a fan of Robert Downey Jr. (me, too), and that was enough to get her into the car.

There are parts of Iron Man that I really, really dislike, but that's not what matters. What matters is that there's a scene that lasts about two minutes where Tony Stark (Downey) is flying over the city as he tests his power armor, and it's two minutes of sheer exhilaration. That moment somehow captures the essence of what it would feel like to be a superhero.

After the movie, we were having our usual debriefing, and I mentioned that scene. "I looked over at you, because I knew you would totally get into that, and your face was lit up," she said.

"That moment was being a superhero," I said. "Haven't you ever wondered what it would be like?"

"Not really," she said.

I was shocked. I thought that everyone on earth had wondered what it would be like to be a superhero. I'm forty-seven and I still wonder about it.

"Is it a girl thing?" I asked. "Do all guys think about it, but girls don't?"

"Not completely," she said, "but that's probably a big part of it."

"You really are part of a strange, alien race," I said.

"As previously mentioned," she said.

"So who is your favorite superhero?" I asked.

"Superman," she said.

"See, he's my least favorite," I said.

"Why?" she asked.

"Because, to me, a real superhero has to battle the demons inside himself. Superheroes do great good knowing that they could do great evil. Without that conflict, there's no tension. He's Superbland."

Batman is probably the prototype superhero for that struggle of light versus dark, at least for me. He's angry. He feels rage. It always feels like Batman is one step away from being on the other side, and he has to make the decision whether to take that step every day. That, to me, is far more heroic than someone who eats their vegetables every day and always sits up straight in their chair.

This discussion with Gloria made me wonder whether wanting to be a superhero is just in the DNA of men. Have any of us gone through life without wondering, even once, what it would be like?

Monday, May 12, 2008

Interview

In spite of the surreal nature of it all, I have another guest column at Level Up, which you can read here. It's a two-part (second part published tomorrow) interview with Vic Davis, creator of Armageddon Empires.

In another development, which will surely tear the spacetime continuum asunder, I'm now a monthly guest columnist at Level Up. And if you just did a spit-take on your monitor--well, so did I.

Friday, May 09, 2008

Console Post of the Week (Unusual Friday Update)

Microsoft (Aaron Greenberg, specifically) has responded to Sony's claim of leading in Europe (thanks Kotaku):
Today Xbox 360 has a 5-million-unit console sales lead on a global basis based on most recently public reported data from both companies. This includes more than double the installed base in the US according to actual NPD sell-through and over a 1-million-unit lead across Europe also based on reported sell-through from Chart Track and GfK.

He's correct about the U.S. numbers, and it's actually closer to 2.5 (9,898,000 to 4,053,000).

Europe? Who knows? Reeves made two original claims:
--"we have sold more PlayStation 3s throughout Europe than Xbox 360"
--Sony has been outselling the 360 in Europe since October of last year, and is still outselling them after the 360 price cut.

If Sony basically pulled this out of their ass by talking about "sold to retailers" (meaningless) as opposed to "sold to customers" (meaningful) then they're still partying like it's 2007, aren't they?

Friday Links!

This week there are links on the Cuban revolution and Mikhail Gorbachev and fascism.

And the platypus.

Four out of five doctors recommend Friday Links as a way to both improve your health and ruin your productivity, so let's get started.

Leading off this week is an article sent in by Cibby Pulikkaseril, and it's about The Third Wave, a social experiment performed by a high school teacher in 1966. It's about (to me) the dangers of collective identity, and it's completely fascinating. The original article by the teacher is remarkable, but even more interesting is an interview with one of his students.

The co-lead this week is from Sirius, and it's a video of a working version of Charles Babbage's Difference Engine #2. It's nothing short of astonishing.

Here's a mind-blowing link from Brian Witte: birds sense magnetic fields with the help of quantum mechanics. Bacteria can also sense magnetic fields, and here are some incredible pictures of magnetosomes inside bacteria.

The New York times had some stellar articles in its Tuesday Science section, and here's an assortment:
Redefining Disease, Genes and All is about the process of creating a map of disease based on genetic relationships. It's fascinating reading, and the map is a stunner (click on "multimedia").

Platypus Looks Strange On The Inside, Too is an article about the decoding of the platypus genome.

Researchers Seek to Demystify the Metabolic Magic of Sled Dogs shares some amazing facts about sled dogs--in particular, that they somehow burn calories at a daily rate 2.4 times that of a Tour de France cyclist, yet somehow they don't deplete their glycogen or fat reserves.

Lots of Animals Learn, But Smarter Isn't Better, which is a discussion of the biological cost of learning.

Japan Fights Crowd of Crows is right out of "The Birds," and here's an excerpt:
Blackouts are just one of the problems caused by an explosion in Japan’s population of crows, which have grown so numerous that they seem to compete with humans for space in this crowded nation. Communities are scrambling to find ways to relocate or reduce their crow populations, as ever larger flocks of loud, ominous birds have taken over parks and nature reserves, frightening away residents.

It is a scourge straight out of Hitchcock, and the crows here look and act the part. With wing spans up to a yard and intimidating black beaks and sharp claws, Japan’s crows are bigger, more aggressive and downright scarier than those usually seen in North America.

Finally, Family Science Project Yields Surprising Data About a Siberian Lake is the story of the Kozhov family, which has been studying Lake Baikal in Siberia for 65 years. Lake Baikal is "the deepest and largest body of fresh water on earth," and for 65 years, the Kozhov family has done this:
Every week to 10 days, by boat in summer and over the ice in winter, he crossed the lake to a spot about a mile and a half from Bolshie Koty, a small village in the piney woods on Baikal’s northwest shore. There, Dr. Kozhov, a professor at Irkutsk State University, would record water temperature and clarity and track the plant and animal plankton species as deep as 2,400 feet.

From Chris Meyer, a story with one of my favorite headlines ever: Parachuting Dog Helped Win WWII. I'd just like to know of the dog helped more than the bear (+10 if you remember that article).

From the Edwin Garcia Links machine, a remarkable story about an American journalist who flew to Cuba to cover the revolution. Next, a link to a story about gene therapy and how an experimental trial has been a "major advance in the treatment of blindness." Finally, and you really need to watch this video, it's El camino del Rey, a walkway to the climbing section of El Chorro. If I could use one word to describe how I felt watching the video, it would be "nervous." Then there's Luncheon Meat With Faces Just Tastes Better.

Only Edwin could send in links about the Cuban Revolution and faces in lunch meat in the same week.

From Sirius, a link to an article about a glass chip that spins silk--like a spider. Also, a fascinating article about how air pollution impedes the ability of bees to find flowers.

From Pete Thistle, a link to No Country for Old Communists, an article about Mikhail Gorbachev and a talk he gave--of all places--in Hollywood. At the Hard Rock Live.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to an article about the Phoenix Lander as it nears Mars. Also from Jesse, an article about how scientists believe sand grains form on Titan, and it's not what you might expect.

From Jason Price, a video of TNT analyst Kenny Smith attempting to duplicate Kobe Bryant's digitally-enhanced jump over an Aston Martin. It's a classic.

Thursday, May 08, 2008

fold it!

Seriously, this is so awesome it gives me a brain freeze (thanks Kotaku):
Foldit is a game for the PC and Mac that takes the Folding@Home concept and adds a more human element to the mix. Instead of having a network of computers work through all of the possible shapes for folding proteins, a problem so huge it could take centuries for all of the computers in the world to solve, Foldit presents unfolded proteins to the player in the form of puzzles, on the basis that human intuition could tackle the problem much faster.

Also, from Science Daily:
A new game, named Foldit, turns protein folding into a competitive sport. Introductory levels teach the rules, which are the same laws of physics by which protein strands curl and twist into three-dimensional shapes -- key for biological mysteries ranging from Alzheimer's to vaccines.

..."We're hopefully going to change the way science is done, and who it's done by," said Popovic, who presented the project today at the Games for Health meeting in Baltimore. "Our ultimate goal is to have ordinary people play the game and eventually be candidates for winning the Nobel Prize."

Finally! I've had space on my mantle for a Nobel Prize for years, but all that "science stuff" really intimidated me.

Here's more:
Eventually, the researchers hope to advance science by discovering protein-folding prodigies who have natural abilities to see proteins in 3-D.

"Some people are just able to look at the game and in less than two minutes, get to the top score," said Popovic. "They can't even explain what they're doing, but somehow they're able to do it."

The game looks like a 21st-century version of Tetris, with multicolored geometric snakes filling the screen. A team that includes a half-dozen UW graduate and undergraduate students spent more than a year figuring out how to make the game both accurate and engaging. They faced some special challenges that commercial game developers don't encounter.

"We don't know what the best result is, so we can't help people or hint people toward that goal," Popovic explained. The team also couldn't arbitrarily decide to make one move worth 1,000 bonus points, since the score corresponds to the energy needed to hold the protein in that shape.


Excuse me, but I need to go start playing Tetris Science. I don't want you stealing my Nobel Prize (bitch), but go to fold it to register and download the program.

Duly Noted

Based on my e-mail, the band most likely to qualify as "still being creative in their fifties" is Rush. King Crimson was also mentioned.

Gaming Links

Kieron Gillen interviews Will Wright.

N'Gai Croal writes about mainstream videogame reviews and what they never discuss: gameplay.

Jason Price sent me a link to some of the best viral marketing I've ever seen (for "Too Human").

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment titled Graduation Day.

Mike Smart sent me a link to a website titled Myths About Violent Video Games and Children, created by two psychiatry faculty members at Harvard.

Here's a link to an article I saw in a Penny Arcade news post--Gamble Your Life Away in ZT Online. It's a Chinese online game that's ostensibly free, but not really, and the article is an interesting read.

Chris Grenard has started a new Rock Band website with a twist: it includes user reviews by song, along with difficulty ratings by instrument. Having a database of user reviews is an excellent idea, and you can help by registering at the site and adding some reviews of your own.

Well, Isn't This Interesting

From the Federal Trade Commission (thanks Kotaku):
The Federal Trade Commission today released the results of its latest nationwide undercover shop of movie theaters and movie, music, and video game retailers. The FTC conducted a survey with 13-to-16-year-old undercover shoppers to collect data about the extent to which retailers prevent unaccompanied children from buying tickets to R-rated movies, R-rated DVDs, Unrated DVDs of movies that were R-rated in theaters, M-rated video games, and music CDs labeled with a Parental Advisory Label – “PAL” – for explicit content.

The survey found that 20% of underage teenage shoppers were able to buy M-rated video games, a major improvement from all prior surveys, and down from 42% in 2006.

20%? What was that number in 2000? Oh, yeah--85%.

Here's the progression:
2000--85%
2001--76%
2003--69%
2006--42%
2008--20%

I've written frequently that Jack Thompson and his diseased brethren dry up and blow away if the ESRB worked with retailers to clean this up, and by any standard, they have. 20% is still 20% too many, but look at a comparison between video games and other media (percentage of underage teenage shoppers able to purchase):
M-rated video game--20%
R-rated movie ticket--35%
R-rated DVD--47%
Unrated DVD--51%
PAL Music CD--56%

That's an ass-kicking delivered by the ESRB, which I'm sure is the first time I've ever written those words.

Even inside the same store, games were more difficult to buy. Take a look:
Wal-Mart
R-rated DVD--25%
Unrated DVD--25%
M-rated video game--18%

Target
R-rated DVD--65%
Unrated DVD--77%
PAL Music CD--60%
M-rated video game--29%

Best Buy
R-rated DVD--62%
Unrated DVD--83%
PAL Music CD--53%
M-rated video game--20%

Oh, and what was the number for Gamestop/EB? 6%. Well done.

This is actually an issue where the Entertainment Software Association, Congress, and retailers are in agreement. The fulcrum has always been shoddy enforcement of age requirements at retail. If the ESRB can continue to push point-of-purchase displays and retailer education, this number should continue to go down. And like I said, the entire debate is over once this happens. There's no controversy when underaged consumers can't buy the content.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Console Post of the Week: Across the Pond

This week, we focus on Europe, thanks to some help from you guys.

Yesterday, SCEE President David Reeves had this to say (thanks Eurogamer):
"I am delighted to be able announce today that we have sold more PlayStation 3s throughout Europe than Xbox 360 - even though they launched sixteen months before PS3," he said.

Referring to Xbox 360, Reeves said Sony's machine has been outselling its closest competitor since October 2007, despite the latest price cut. He offered no comment on sales of the Wii.


Microsoft hasn't rebutted either of these data points, and if they were inaccurate, I'm sure they would have been howling immediately.

So in spite of being cheaper and having a far deeper selection of games, and also having being in the market over twice as long, Microsoft is now behind Sony in Europe.

Ouch.

Also, according to Chart Track numbers, here were Grand Theft Auto IV sales in the UK for the first five days:
360--514,000
PS3--413,000

I don't have information on cumulative installed base in the UK, but I strongly suspect that the 360 is still ahead in the UK, at least marginally, and if so, these numbers are more bad news for them. That's not much of a gap between a dedicated gaming platform and a "media center" (and it's a much smaller gap than I expected).

Let's take a more detailed look at a specific country--in this case, Germany, thanks to DQ reader Julian Dasgupta.
Since you're always interested in some numbers from Europe, here are some Q1/2008stats from Germany (Media Control):
Software sales (console): 149m Euros (+41% compared to Q1/2007)
Software units (console): 4.3m (+40%)
Marketshare per platform (in terms of software units/sales):
NDS: 39.3%
PS2: 25%
Wii: 11%
PS3: 8.9%
Xbox 360: 5.6%

The 360 has pretty much the same marketshare it had a year ago. Considering the overall growth of the market that means that they sold more units, but they can't be too happy about the numbers given the headstart they had. Sony certainly has more momentum over here, same for the UK and other countries if you see the monthly sales.

I'd say there's not a single explanation for why Microsoft is having a hard time in Europe. Sony simply happens to have a very established brand and the PS2 did exceptionally well in Europe with Sony shipping almost the same amount of units over here as they did in North-America. Maybe the reputation of the 360 also still is too 'PC-ish', which means that primary PC gamers consider the PS3 (and the Wii, of course) a better secondary system due to the different software library.

Microsoft also lacks software like EyeToy, SingStar or Buzz!. Maybe it's hard to understand on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, but these are very important franchises over here and helped Sony reach beyond the typical audience. SCEE made these brands as big as they are today and it'll probably pay off in the long run.

I know several people who didn't own a new console and recently bought a PS3 for GTA IV. They knew that the 360 version will get exclusive content, but when they had to decide between being able to play the coming episodes or being able to watch some of these new fancy Blu-ray movies on their shiny new HDTV sets or via beamer, they all found the 'movie option' to be more appealing.

I'm totally baffled by SingStar and EyeToy and Buzz!, so Julian's comment about it being hard for us to understand the appeal of these games is true, at least for me. Certainly, Microsoft appears to understand, since they promoted Scene It? fairly heavily, but understanding the appeal of a genre and making a game that appeals to fans of that genre are not the same thing.

We also have information from the UK, thanks to reader Frank McGlade, who sent information from a Games Group investor presentation. Based on Chart Track information (UK only), the 360 was roughly 25% ahead of the PS3 at the end of 2007 in terms of total sales revenue of hardware, software, and peripherals.

Given that the 360 has been in the UK for 24+ months at the end of 2007 compared to 8+ for the PS3, though, that's a thin lead.

I think it's safe to assume that Microsoft's strategy versus Sony a year ago was something like this: dominate in the U.S., draw in Europe, and lose badly in Japan. Actually "losing badly in Japan" wasn't a strategy, really, just a reality (although they've done excellent work attracting premier Japanese developers to the platform).

A year ago, that seemed like a winnable vision. Now, it seems to be in ruins, even though Sony is still throwing up all over itself in Japan (51,053 units in the last five weeks). Microsoft can still hold off Sony in the U.S., but Europe seems like a big loss, and even in the U.S. they made an extraordinary blunder with inventory in the first three months of 2008.

Shockingly, even Sony's executives seem to have rediscovered their grip on reality. Look at what Kaz Hirai had to say to Next-Gen:
"I think it's fair to say that the first year of PlayStation 3 was somewhat a difficult one," said Hirai at Sony's PlayStation Day in London. "There were some teething problems, success from our competitors, and our customers were a little underwhelmed by the range of titles that were available.

"This is something that we're very much aware of, and something we were always confident we could overcome."

Holy crap--a Sony executive admitting that they had problems (in the past tense, of course, because they'd never admit they still have problems). What's the world coming to? Where are the delusional space travelers that gave interviews in 2007?

Oh, wait:
"We are very confident PS3 will have at least a 10-year lifespan, and that the power under its casing and the potential for improvement in all areas is simply astonishing."

Ah, there we go. Eight miles high.

Next week: what Microsoft can do to regain the momentum.

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