Monday, June 30, 2008

The Who Tracks Announced

A post in the Rock Band forums referenced a link on The Who Official Website that lists the twelve tracks coming out July 15:
“Amazing Journey”
“Baba O'Riley”
“Behind Blue Eyes”
“Eminence Front”
“Going Mobile”
“Leaving Here”
“My Generation” (LIVE)
“Real Good Looking Boy”
“Sea & Sand”
“Summertime Blues” (LIVE)
“Who Are You”
“Young Man Blues” (LIVE)

I'm baffled by the inclusion of "Amazing Journey", "Real Good Looking Boy", and "Sea & Sand". I can think of a slew of Who songs that would be better choices than those three. However, there are still plenty of outstanding songs in that list.

Sunny Day Sky

There was a post over at Rock, Paper, Shotgun on Friday about Sunny Day Sky, another game by Ferry Halim (Orisinal).

If you've never played the games at Orisinal, it's impossible to appreciate their gentle nature. They're beautiful and absolutely unique, with a remarkable sense of style, and most importantly, they're fun.

"Sunny Day Sky" features a teddy bear and an umbrella, and when the umbrella is opened, the bear is swept over traffic. The goal is to fly over as many cars as possible, landing on top of one when necessary, then taking off again.

Goofy? Just try to stop playing it.

It also features the most irresistably attractive music I've ever heard. I've even minimized the game window and just let the music play in the background. It sounds like something from a Doris Day film.

Heat

You may remember that I've been whining about how hot it's been (and how early it's been hot).
Here's just how hot it's been: with two days left in the month, the average temperature in June has been 87.6 degrees. Not the high temperature--the average temperature. That's almost 7 degrees above normal. It's going to be the hottest June in 154 years. Since they only have records back to 1854, it means it's the hottest June in recorded weather history.

Yikes.

Rock Band and Real Drums

Here's why the phrase "new ways for you to transition from Expert to real instruments" in Dan Teasdale's interview got me so excited.

My technique on the drums is complete and total ass.

I saw my drum teacher play the drums for about fifteen seconds in my lesson last week, and it shattered any illusion I had that I even vaguely knew what I was doing. He was demonstrating how I didn't need to be moving my arms (at all) to be playing the drums, and it was astonishing. He wasn't even moving his wrists, really--he was holding the drumstick between his thumb and index finger, and using the last three fingers of his hand to provide all the acceleration.

It was insane. I expected some kind of rift to open up in the earth and swallow me whole.

This, of course, is why I've had so much trouble with my forearms in the last few months (getting better now, thankfully)--I've been beating on the drums like a caveman. To a certain extent, though, that's how you learn to play on the Rock Band kit, because there's just no rebound.

If you're wondering how different the Rock Band kit feels compared to a "real" kit, just go to your local drum shop (or music store) and sit down at a Roland electronic kit with mesh heads. You'll be amazed, because it's an entirely different experience.

So Rock band is quite good in terms of teaching rhythm and keeping time, but in terms of actual drum technique, the rock-hardness of the kit forces you into bad habits.

Because of all this, I've completely dismantled my "style," and I'm trying to relearn technique focusing entirely on my wrists and hands.

That doesn't sound complicated, but it's several orders of magnitude in terms of difference. And I'm doing it, but I am really, really going to suck at Rock Band for a while.

The Who Info And Rock Band 2 Announcement

Lots and lots of Rock Band news today, so let's start with that impacts us soonest. From Yahoo News:
MTV Games and Harmonix are releasing 12 "Rock Band" songs on July 15 from The Who — ranging from "My Generation" to "Who Are You" — that all utilize the band's master recordings. The tracks will be available for $1.99 individually or $19.99 together. The special release coincides with the upcoming "VH1 Rock Honors" ceremony commemorating The Who.
"Their music really comes alive when you're playing it," said Rigopulos. "We were trying to release 'Who's Next' in its entirety, but we were unable to locate all the masters. So in the face of that, Pete (Townshend) and Roger (Daltrey) helped curate this best-of soundtrack of everything we were able to find."


Pete Townshend confirmed a month ago or so that one side of masters for Who's Next had been stolen from the vault. That's a blow, because every song on "Who's Next" is worth playing, but a greatest hits pack (depending on the songs, since only two of the twelve were announced today) could be just as good or better.

$19.99? Well, it's The Who. I have no complaints paying $20 for twelve songs.

Rock Band 2 was also officially announced, but much of what was given in the way of information was mostly in teaser form. Lead designer Dan Teasdale had an interview with IGN, and here are a few data points:
--DLC from Rock Band will be immediately usable in Rock Band 2. DLC will be "fully functional cross-title."
--there will be "amazing new ways for you to experience your music library that have never been seen in a music game before." Like I said, plenty of this is a tease, but I trust these guys because of their track record.
--World Tour Online was not absolutely confirmed, but Teasdale certainly hinted strongly to that effect.
--no tools to enable user-created content this time, although it sounds like they're on the radar, at least.
--in terms of instruments, here's the teaser: "...we've been able to take all of the feedback we've received to make quieter, more realistic, and more reliable instruments. We've also added some features for players to customize the experience that they want to have..."
I assume that "quieter" refers specifically to the drums, obviously, and it will be interesting to see what changes they've made, because the Guitar Hero World Tour drumkit looks impressive.
--here's one more teaser about instruments: "We're also actively welcoming new peripheral makers to make instruments for our game." Seriously, if real electronic drumkits haven't added an option for Rock Band compatibility by this fall, it's an absolute waste.
--the random setlist feature in career mode is being modified so that you don't have to play "Green Grass and High Tides" (as an example) if you don't want to.
--in terms of singing and playing an instrument, Teadale said "One of our new ways of experiencing your music library has something targeted explicitly towards players that want to sing and play guitar."
--here's a very, very interesting quote: "We have several new modes that not only provide new ways for you to experience your music library, but also new ways for you to transition from Expert to real instruments."
That wasn't focused on in the interview, but that's the tipoff on a feature that could potentially be huge. To me, that's the single most important piece of information that's come out today.

I'm also fully expecting an announcement at E3 that either Led Zeppelin (or, incredibly, the Beatles) will be in Rock Band 2.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Friday Links!

It's a links blowout this week--all links must go--so let's get started.

First off, from Matt Sbonik, a link to a wonderful, remarkable video titled Where The Hell Is Matt?. It will change your day, so please watch.

Next, and this is an absolutely great read, is an article sent in by John Lewkowitz titled The Itch. It's a story about a woman whose head itches, and it plays out like an episode of Night Gallery. It was written by Atul Gawande, and it's a riveting piece of work.

From Rock, Paper, Shotgun, a link to a Christie's auction--of a 20-sided gaming die. From the second century A.D., by the way.

From Nate Carpenter, a story about an amazing athlete who ran around the world. A 61-year old grandmother, actually. Her name is Rosie Swale-Pope, and she's a badass.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, another remarkable athlete: 63-year old Robert Kraft, who has run 8 miles every day for the last 33 years. On Miami Beach, no less. Also, a link to a no electricity, sustainable fridge. Finally, a thread from the Something Awful forums titled Oh dear lord. Bees! It's a classic, even if it's not exactly "eco-friendly."

Greg Wakolbinger sent in a link to an article about Stan Winston, who passed away earlier this month. He created many of the most memorable creatures in film history.

If you remember Len Bias, you'll want to read this: The Day Innocence Died.

From Cibby Pulikkaseril, a fascinating article about synthetic diamonds which discusses how they're created, their quality, and how they could affect the diamond industry.

This link was sent to me in pendulous quantities: Victoria's Secret: Harnessing the Untapped Power of Breast Motion.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to "Black Holes All Eat The Same Way," an article discussing how recent research into black holes demonstrates that they have similar properties, regardless of size.

From Sirius, a link to an article about CamSpace, a webcam-based program that allows you to track the location of up to four objects in real time. Also from Sirius, news of a major dinosaur find in Utah. And the hat trick, with an article about how trees (incredibly) regulate the temperature of their leaves.

Two cool Lego links this week. The first, from Frank Reagan, is a 750,000 piece replica of the Kennedy Space Center, and it's unbelievable. The second, from Scott Ray, is a link to a video of Lego's Memory Lane, a vault containing every Lego set ever manufactured.

Paul Costello sent in a link to an article about a frog with claws.

From Andrew B., a link to (believe it or not) extreme ironing.

From Jeremy Fischer, a link to an article about a scientific conference that took place in World of Warcraft.

From Michael O'Reilly, a link to an article about how doctors in London have successfully used stem cells to restore eyesight.

From Michael Grimm, a link to a Japanese game show that features an arcade game that's sort of a Piano Hero (but with buttons instead of keys). That may not sound like much, but you've got to see this guy play.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

An Interesting (I Hope) Story

I'm reading a book titled The Hungry Years: A Narrative History of the Great Depression in America. It's a fascinating book, particularly in the way it describes the Depression era with so much detail.

Here's one of many stories that surprised me.

One of the centerpieces of Roosevelt's plans to revitalize the economy was a piece of legislation called the National Industrial Recovery Act. Title I of that act established a National Recovery Administration (the NRA), an agency that worked with industries to develop codes that both industry and labor agreed to follow.

[Describing how this worked, and its consequences, is a fascinating subject in its own right, but I'm not going to attempt that here.]

As part of a nationwide push to get individual businesses to sign up, a logo was designed. Here's a description:
The result was the image of a Blue Eagle patterned after the thunderbird ideograph common in the ritual art of the Navajo Indians. The bird's wings were outspread, its head and beak facing left (naturally, some suspected). In its left talon it held the cog from a factory wheel and in its right, a clutch of lightning bolts. At the bottom of the image appeared the words, "We Do Our Part."

You can see the actual logo here.

If a business signed the blanket agreement, they could display the eagle logo, and there was tremendous pressure on businesses, both from the government and from consumers, to comply. As a result, the blue eagle was everywhere, and when the NFL decided to add a new team in 1933, the team owner decided that there could be no better mascot.

Which is how the Philadelphia Eagles got their name.

The Last Great Act of Defiance

I almost never eat at Taco Bell anymore, because it's basically battery acid for my stomach, but at least a couple of times a year, when I'm having a really, really bad day, I succumb to the spork.

When you're seventeen and defiant, you hold up your middle finger. When you're forty-seven, you hold up a spork.

$*&#$!

I don't have bad weeks very often, but every year or so, I go through a 5-7 day stretch where every single thing I do goes wrong.

Starting last Sunday, I'm having my "special" week for 2008.

I'll spare you the giddy, nightmarish details--well, most of them. After four consecutive days of disaster after disaster (including our fence being apparently rebuilt by The Three Stooges, only without the humor), I got to Thursday. Today. And I felt certain that I was going to break out of the cycle.

In particular, I was looking forward to playing some Rock Band.

I've been struggling in my drum lessons for the last two weeks, because trying to produce a consistent double beat on the kick pedal has been killing me. Even using the Omega Pedal for Rock Band (which uses an actual Pearl P-120 kick pedal) hasn't helped, because while the beater does hit the pedal clamp, it's just not the same in terms of feedback.

So I got the bright idea of buying a practice pad--that way, the beater would be actually hitting a drum-like surface. That would help me learn how to control the kick pedal more precisely.

When I sat down to put everything together today, I realized that I needed to adjust the beater position on the Omega Pedal. Because the beater was hitting the clamp (which was attached to the crossbars on the Rock Band drum stand), I needed to rotate the beater up so that it would contact the pad properly.

There was a really simple way to do this, but of course the simple way never crossed my mind, so I did it the difficult way, which involved using a tiny allen key and loosening two tiny something or others. As I was loosening the second one, I had this moment of insight where I realized EXACTLY what I needed to do in order to adjust the beater properly.

At this precise moment, the little tiny something popped out of its hole, bounced on my desk, and hit the floor, destination unkown.

This piece by the way, was roughly 1/16" of an inch, both in length and width.

How did I react, particularly after the week I've already had? Put it this way: if I had been dropping f-bombs for charity, I would have collected enough money to end world hunger.

Eli and Gloria were gone, obviously, which was a very good thing.

This little piece was essential--the pedal assembly couldn't be put back together without it--and it wasn't the kind of thing that Home Depot stocks.

In other words, I had to find it.

So the hunt was on. After trying to poke around the floor clutter for at least half an hour, I decided that the only way I had any hope of finding was to take everything out of my study that was on the floor.

Aegean stable cleaning, anyone?

After just over an hour, I saw it--almost four feet away from my desk. I put the pedal back together (incredibly, I did it correctly), hooked everything up, turned on Rock Band, went into practice mode and cued up the organ intro of "Won't Get Fooled Again" (no drum notes, so I could test it as much as I wanted).

And, I'm proud to say, proceeded to get double hits every single time.

I fixed that, thanks to John Harwood's extremely clear instructions, but compared to me this week, Alfred E. Neuman looks like Albert Einstein.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

NCAA Football 2009 Demo (360)

I downloaded the NCAA 09 demo last week.

My previous experiences with the Tiburon versions of NCAA are almost identical to opening up a can of soda. There's the anticipation of popping the tab, the whooshing sound when it opens, the burst of carbonation with the first drink.

Wait a while, though, and it starts to go flat. After a while, there's no carbonation left at all, and you can't stand to drink what's left.

Each year, I'll start playing NCAA, and my first impressions will be very positive (just opened, the can, lots of carbonation). With each passing hour of playtime, though, the glaring oversights start to bother me more and more, until finally I just give up. My primary objection to everything Tiburon makes is that they demand on dictating how I experience the game. I can't pick from camera angles. I can't remove onscreen clutter, including the scoreboard. I can't remove the name identification of the active player.

In other words, I can't remove a lot of the crap that reminds me I'm not playing real football. A fundamental design mistake, certainly, but for a game that desperately needs a design enema, it's not surprising.

However, in spite of these annual objections, it's a game that I feel like I've usually gotten my money's worth from. For several years, the recruiting was terrific, and last year, Legend mode (again, in spite of its obvious shortcomings) was still very fun for quite a while.

The demo this year features two minute quarters on Varsity difficulty, so what we're going to be able to establish is limited. However, a few things are clear right away:
--animation has improved (this is a given every year, but still appreciated).
--the pre-snap onscreen clutter is even worse this year, but they've added a way to remove it, and they clearly show you how. That may not sound like much, but it's a sea change from how Tiburon normally does things, and it's a big improvement.
--the persistent scoreboard seems brighter this year. Just wait for the plasma burn-in stories. I also think they've moved the scoreboard slightly up, which is a move in the wrong direction.
--more camera angles? Forget it. I guess four years isn't quite enough dev time to squeeze them in. I think (and again, this is based on my memory of last year's game) that the passing camera has been moved in slightly, but I'm not 100% sure.

The first time I played the demo, I was totally underwhelmed. A few people e-mailed and asked what I thought, and I basically responded with "same same same." After playing a few more times, though, I like it more than I did originally.

At this point, there are no excuses for mistakes. This is the SEVENTH YEAR (at least) that Tiburon has been developing this game. That's seven years to figure out how far and how accurately kickers should be able to kick the ball. seven years to figure out the proper distribution for penalties. Seven years to figure out DB A.I. Seven years to figure out everything. It's darkly comical that ANYTHING should be less than perfect at this point.

To me, Tiburon just needs to make up their damn mind. Either let us pretend we're playing football and enable us take everything off the screen, or let us pretend we're watching a game on television, which means we need to see in-game cutaways to highlights of other conference games or Top Ten games. We also need a halftime highlight package and a weekly round-up.

Better yet, do both and let us pick which way we want to play. What a crazy idea--letting your customers choose how they want to experience the game!

Gamers With Jobs And The Big Huge Interview

In January 2003, I saw a new gaming website called Gamers With Jobs. What really struck me is that, even as a brand new site, GWJ had style. It had a very cool, retro look that was instantly appealing, and I remember being very impressed.

From the day they started the site, Sean Sands ("Elysium") and Shawn Andrich ("Certis") demonstrated that they were both excellent writers and had a remarkable instinct for making the right decisions when it came to growing the site. Plus they were both nice guys, and their personalities came through clearly in their writing.

I was lucky enough to have lunch with the GWJ crew at the last two "real" E3's (2005 and 2006), and they were just as easy-going and funny in person as they were via e-mail. By then, GWJ had developed a unique community. Unlike almost all other gaming communities, GWJ members remained civil, and their forums never descended into the chaos that often happens in other gaming communities.

Today, that's just as true as it was in 2003, or 2005, or last year. Gamers With Jobs is a uniquely cool place to visit, and it's my favorite gaming website.

Plus, and I don't think this is mentioned nearly often enough, GWJ has established itself as an incredible pipeline for outstanding writers (Russ Pitts, Lara Crigger, Julian Murdoch, and a host of others).

While I was on vacation, the GWJ podcast included an interview with John Carmack Yes, THAT John Carmack, and thanks to the exellent preparation by Julian Murdoch, it's one of the best interviews Carmack has ever given. It's a free-ranging discussion on intellectual property and patent issues and how they relate to gaming, and it's terrific.

It couldn't happen to a bunch of nicer guys (wait, I'm not sure that came out right, but you know what I mean), and you can listen to the interview here, which starts at 1:07 into the podcast.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Securicup™

To understand this, you need to see our front door:


Please note the rectangular sections of glass near the door handle. This is the standard Identikit door provided for homes in the suburbs.

Gloria sent me the neighborhood newsgroup summary last week. I usually don't traffic in arguments about shrub height, but this time there was a note about two break-ins that happened in our neighborhood in the last month.

At least one of us is home quite a bit during the day, but since we were leaving for San Diego the next day, I was troubled. Our house is geared up, as many of your homes are, and our "electronic device exposure" in the event of a robbery would be substantial. We have an alarm system, but I suspected that these break-ins were of the smash and dash variety.

To me, it seemed like the easiest way to commit a robbery would be to break one of the small panes of glass near the door handle, reach inside, and turn the deadbolt. That would get me into the house with the least amount of noise and visible damage to the door.

Hmm.

Later that day, I saw a little orange bowl on our counter. This bowl is so small that I don't even know what it's used for--too small for a human, certainly, or even a squirrel, although it might be appropriate for a grasshopper at an all-you-can-eat buffet.

I suddenly realized, though, that the circumference of this bowl was almost an exact match for the dead bolt assembly on the back of our front door.

"I have an idea," I said to Gloria as I walked into her study.

"Is this the kind of idea that stays in your head, or one that you do something about?" she asked.

"The latter," I said.

"Oh," she said.

"I call it 'The Securicup'," I said, holding up the little orange bowl. "TM."

If this were an earlier era, Gloria would be taken faint and have to go lie down "for a spell." As a modern women, though, she has to remain in her chair and face the mounting dread.

This was the theory: if I could mount that orange cup around the lock assembly, it would be much more difficult to turn the deadbolt. So I got some Gorilla tape, butterflied the pieces so that there wouldn't be any wrinkles, and did this:


I know--beauty, eh? And if someone broke that little pane of glass and stuck their hand in, they would have a very substantial WTF moment. Once installed, the little orange bowl was impossible to turn, because the tape was very strong, and it was even harder to pull off the tape. So I was hoping that after 15-30 seconds of total confusion, a burglar would retreat instead of standing exposed on the front porch.

Gloria was laughing so hard that she couldn't say anything for a while. "Mock the innovator," I said sternly. "But when we come back from San Diego and The Securicup--TM--has foiled a burglary, that mocking will turn to shame."

"I'm ready to take that chance," she said.

So off we went to San Diego, knowing that The Securicup™ was on the job.

When we returned from San Diego, all was well. The next day, Gloria sent me a link to an article that said the burglar had been caught. In the article was this bit of news:
Acosta would always strike around noon during the weekdays, tapping out glass to reach in and unlock the door, and then try to disguise the break-in.

"I DEMAND an apology!" I shouted as I walked into her study. She started laughing immediately. "This man would clearly have been FOILED by The Securicup!" I said.

"TM," she said.

How Delightful

Today was my annual physical.

I've got a band-aid on my left bicep, a cotton ball in the crook of my right elbow, and my ass feels loose. I won't be breaking out into a chorus of "Happy Days Are Here Again" anytime soon.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Vacation Notes

This is what I didn't understand about San Diego: there are two of them. The first San Diego is anywhere within a mile of the water. The second San Diego is everywhere else.

Both San Diego's, however, are trying to hang out in the first San Diego, as are all the tourists (us). And, by the way, there's no parking in the first San Diego--per mile, there are beaches and commercial areas for 5,000 people, and 100 parking spaces. So San Diego's problems with pollution (which are quite severe when you're more than a few miles away from the water and the sea breeze) are seemingly almost entirely caused by people driving around looking for a place to park.

This is what we learned from three days of driving around looking for parking places: if you're within a quarter-mile of your destination, and your destination is near the beach, then take the first parking place you find (and consider yourself fortunate). We actually spent more time driving around looking for parking places than we spent driving to the general area we wanted to hang out.

Eli 6.10s top 5 vacation moments:
#5: "I'm going to ride the scariest ride and I'll puke when it's done and it'll be AWESEOME!"
With the help of a two time zone change in our favor, we arrived in San Diego at 9:50 Sunday morning. Early that afternoon, we went to Belmont Amusement Park. This was our first experience with the quarter-mile rule, and we would have that lesson reinforced every time we went somewhere near the beach, basically.

Eli 6.10 did ride the scariest ride at Belmont Park, a classic wooden roller coaster (the Giant Dipper) that has been around forever, but that wasn't the highlight of our visit.

The highlight was a 25 foot tall plastic coconut tree.

If you could climb this "coconut tree," you won a prize. It was clearly impossible, because there was absolutely nothing to hold on to, except for 1/4" ridges that simulated the roughness of a real tree.

So Eli put on the harness and started up. When he realized that he can't use his upper body as much as he would for a rope climb, he just squeezed the trunk with his legs and kept going. I was watching the guy who was in charge of the booth, and when Eli was about 2/3 of the way up, he turned to me and said "He can climb."

"He can," I said. "He's Spiderman.

He made it to the top, of course, and I still have a very hard time imagining anyone else who could make it. I took a look every time we were near, but it looked so intimidating that hardly anyone was even willing to try.

That might have been the most effort per penny of prize value (an inflatable sword that probably cost five cents to make) in recent history.

#4 Lumpy Quintuplets

Gloria loves Mad Libs, and when we were eating breakfast at IHOP (Eli 6.10s favorite breakfast place when we're on the road), the kid's menu had one on the back. When we'd answered all the questions, she started reading the story to us, but she started laughing so hard at one point that she couldn't keep going. She tried three times, and finally squeaked out the phrase "lumpy quintuplets." That got Eli laughing so hard that he fell sideways in the booth, and it immediately became the ideal vacation phrase when anything was going wrong.

Also, it's a great name for a band.

#3 The World's Noisiest Toilet

We were eating dinner at a restaurant called Gringo's, which had just about the only Tex-Mex menu in the area, and I went to the bathroom just after I finished my meal. I flushed the toilet and was greeted with a sound that can only be described as the Niagra Falls of Toilets. It was absolutely deafening.

I was required by law, obviously, to go get Eli and show him this wonder of plumbing, and he agreed that it was, by a large degree, the loudest toilet in the world.

#2 Eighty-eight Years Old
While we were at the San Diego Zoo on Tuesday, we went to the orangutan habitat. There was one orangutan in particular who was clearly the dominant male--he was absolutely huge, and he also looked very old. Eli watched him for a few minutes, then announced, "He's eighty-eight years old."

Eli generally uses as his source the Encylopedia Makeitupica, so I immediately asked "And where exactly did you learn this?"

Outraged, he said "Hey! He LOOKS like he could be eighty-eight years old!" Then he smiled, having been busted.

A few minutes later, I wandered to the edge of the habitat, while Gloria and Eli were still watching the orangutans from the other side. As I stood there, I saw three people standing together chatting, and one of the men said "That big orangutan is eighty-eight years old."

Eli was thrilled when I told him, of course. Within the week, I expect an article in the San Diego newspapers proclaiming "San Diego Zoo Home To World's Oldest Orangutan."

#1 Secretariat, With a Shell

Gloria loves the Galapagos tortoises, so we went to visit their habitat just before we were going to leave the zoo. They had a retaining wall around the habitat (about 48" high), plus a steel rod fence that went up an additional 36" or so. The fence was angled inward, and I can only assume, given the relatively poor vertical leap of gigantic tortoises, that it was there to keep people out, not keep tortoises in.

I saw Gloria lifting her arms high over her head, camera in hand, to take pictures without the rods being in the way. I turned to look in another direction, and then I heard her shout "Oh, NO!"

Given the highly inflammatory nature of tortoises and their behavior, I know immediately that her tone could mean only one thing: she dropped the camera.

In the tortoise habitat.

That is, in fact, what happened, and a brief discussion ensued over how best to handle this statistical outlier. I could have gone over the fence, but that would have been breaking about forty zoo laws, and it felt highly improper in general. So I went looking for a zoo employee.

After several minutes, I found one: the oldest living zoo employee (I suspect) in San Diego Zoo history. He was also incredibly nice, and he walked back with me to the tortoise area, where a remarkable drama was unfolding: one of the giant tortoises (and he was truly giant) had seen Gloria's silvery-colored camera glinting in the sun, and he was making a heroic run for the merchandise.

That's right: a Galapagos tortoise was racing a zoo employee in his 60s. It was like watching the Golden Girls run the 100 yard dash. The tortoise was Secretariat with a shell, and he was making good time, already imagining how many photos he could take of future tourists.

"He's going to eat my camera!" Gloria said to me.

"No way," I said. "He's not used to sprinting. He'll pull a hammy." I thought for a few seconds, then said "Actually, he probably won't eat it, but he might pee on it."

Eli 6.10 collapsed in laughter at this point.

"You're probably rooting for that because it would make a better blog post," she said, laughing.

"The thought fills me with glee," I said.

At this point, the zoo elder had climbed up the wall and was struggling to straddle the fence. It seems like a very, very bad idea that he was up there.

"I can do that," I said. "I don't want you to get hurt."

He started laughing, with a twinkle in his eye--I think he might have been Santa Claus. "If I get hurt, it's covered by workman's comp," he said, laughing, and with that, he rolled over the fence and landed (heavily, but on his feet) in the tortoise pen.

Still ten feet away from his photographic destiny, Secretariat With a Shell realized that his day would not be today. He was Alydar to the zoo employee's Affirmed.

After retrieving the camera, someone suggested (quite helpfully) that there was, in fact, a very low fence in the next habitat, which could be reached by simply stepping over a very low fence that separated them. I should have something to add here about cheetahs, but there was only a different breed of tortoise to contend with, and senior zoo man clambered out, none the worse for wear.

"Okay, that was GREAT," Eli 6.10 said as we walked away. I couldn't disagree.

Oh, and for those of you who have adopted Eli as a surrogate son, you'll be pleased to know that he was absolutely aces on the entire trip. Five days, and not one fit, not even a cross word. He wanted to see everything in the San Diego Zoo (which is huge and very hilly in places), and we did--seven hours worth of walking, and he never asked to be carried once.

I pretty sure I did, though.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Friday Links!

Post-vacation edition, and we're bursting at the seams. With links.

From New Scientist, a link to an article titled Bacteria Make Major Evolutionary Shift In Lab. It's too complex to summarize, but here's the basic setup for the experiment:
Twenty years ago, evolutionary biologist Richard Lenski of Michigan State University in East Lansing, US, took a single Escherichia coli bacterium and used its descendants to found 12 laboratory populations.

The 12 have been growing ever since, gradually accumulating mutations and evolving for more than 44,000 generations, while Lenski watches what happens.

From Science Daily, a link to an intriguing article about an unusually inactive period for sunspot production.

From Deadspin, a link to a brilliant video by (believe it or not) The Tampa Bay Rays on the history of the fist bump.

From Kwadwo Burgee, a link to a hunter--of giant hornets. These are the hornets with three-inch wingspans, and the footage of the strategy honey buzzards use to hunt them is just amazing.
Here's a link to a video from Jessie Leimkuehler of the NASA Phoenix Mars Lander using its robotic arm to sprinkle Martian soil onto a collection plate.

From Sean, a link to an amazing architectural mystery--in a New York City apartment. Here's an excerpt:
But some of that furniture and some of those walls conceal secrets — messages, games and treasures — that make up a Rube Goldberg maze of systems and contraptions conceived by a young architectural designer named Eric Clough...

It's totally fantastic, and you can read the full story here.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to the BMW GINA, a prototype with some amazing design features. Here's an excerpt:
The GINA replaces the traditional metal/plastic skin with a textile fabric skin that’s pulled taut around a frame of metal and carbon fiber wires. Even the shape of the car can change.

From Sirius, a link to a story about László and Georg Bíró, who patented the ballpoint pen in 1943. Here's an excerpt:
When the pens went into commercial production in 1945, they were a sensation. In the United States, the Reynolds Pen sold for $12.50 (about $150 in today's money). Yet people swarmed a New York department store to buy 8,000 of them on the first day of sale.

Also from Sirius, a link to the home page of Tom Rokicki, who has now reduced the minimum number of moves necessary to solve any Rubik's cube configuration to twenty-three.

And the hat trick for Sirius, with an article about the discovery of a "unicorn deer". The picture's pretty amazing.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to a story about a tree that grew from, well, this:
A 2,000-year-old seed recovered from the ancient Jewish fortress of Masada near the Dead Sea has become the oldest seed in the world to have germinated successfully, scientists said yesterday.

From Gloria, a link to tree-carving man, a sculptor who shapes downed trees into art--with a chainsaw.

Last week, I saw an article on MSNBC about a wiener war. Then, I received this story from Steven Kreuch: Weiner bill looks out for models. What would you call that--wienerdipity?

Thursday, June 19, 2008

"On Perspective"

I think this is one of the funniest Penny Arcade comics I've ever read.

Sports Games: The Future

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

First off, I apologize, because someone sent me this link, but I can't remember who, so I can't credit them.

If you want to see the future of sports gaming, though, I think it could look something like this:
"It's clear that the next trend in gaming is going to be bringing real objects into the virtual world; playing not against other gamers but people doing the real thing," said Andy Lurling, founder of iOpener Media.

The patented system his company is developing sucks in real-time GPS data from racing events and pumps it out to compatible games consoles and PCs.

The idea is that you could pit yourself against the top drivers in the world, as it happens, from the comfort of your living room.

"You can compete against the best of the best," he told BBC News.

That's just brilliant. So we could drive in the Indy 500 and compete against the actual races of the other drives, potentially in real-time.

There are complications, of course, because there would have to be programming to accommodate us being on the track, but still--it's breathtaking.

Here's an easy way to revitalize the Tiger Woods series: let us play on the real PGA tour each week, with scores updating in real-time. That would be huge, and it's exponentially simpler than capturing real-time telemetry data.

Wait: why aren't we doing this in EVERY sport? Why not have a "real world" option, and except for games involving our teams, the results and stats match what's happening in the current sports season? This could be used in every sports game that has a seasonal component.

Now that's a feature I'd like to see.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Books!

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

I've been fortunate enough recently to read some truly outstanding books, and I'm happy to tell you about them.

The most remarkable is The Race Beat: The Press, the Civil Rights Struggle, and the Awakening of a Nation, by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff. Simply put, it's one of the most riveting nonfiction books I've ever read.

The Race Beat meticulously documents the course of the civil rights era, but from a different angle: the influence of the press, both positive and negative, in defining and changing the discussion.

This book is frequently very difficult to read, because the events it describes in detail are often sickening. It's very difficult to understand the stunning amount of hatred that existed in our country, and after reading this book, I will never again doubt that we have made progress in the last four decades. We are a long way from being a colorblind society, but we are not nearly so far away as we were back then.

I can't recommend The Race Beat highly enough. It's brilliantly written and meticulously researched, a stunning piece of journalism, and on top of all that, it's a great read.

Amazon link: The Race Beat.

The next book is the most thoroughly researched biography of Mao that I've ever read. It's somewhat controversial, as its Chinese author clearly hates her subject beyond all pretense of objectivity, yet the details assembled are still quite remarkable. The book is Mao: The Unknown Story, written by Jung Chang (who also wrote the highly-regarded Wild Swans: Three Daughters of China) and Jon Halliday.

The portrait of Mao that emerges is of a man beyond regret or remorse. It's chilling to see the documentation of the mammoth degree of foreign aid given by Mao at a time when millions of its citizens were starving each year. Also chilling are Mao's stratagems for identifying and eliminating dissent. I think it's fair to say that he was willing to execute a thousand innocent men to eliminate a single threat.

It's difficult to read about inhumanity on such a massive scale, but the authors conducted hundreds of interviews and had a seemingly unprecedented degree of access to official documents, and it's an excellent read. If you want to know about Mao and the history of the Communist revolution in China, I would highly recommend this book.

Amazon link: Mao: The Unknown Story.

The next two books are both written by Rick Perlstein: Before the Storm: Barry Goldwater and the Unmaking of the American Consensus, and Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America. Of the two, the book about Barry Goldwater and the 1964 election is more interesting, only because that particular election has been thinly covered in the past, and Perlstein has assembled a staggering amount of detail about what happened. Nixonland, which covers the 1968 in 1972 elections, is just as dense, but lacks the revelatory nature of the Goldwater book because these elections have already been-well covered elsewhere.

Again, the general chaos and borderline madness of the 1960s is on full display here. Perlstein is identified as a "liberal" historian, and it certainly appears to influence how he connects the dots from one event to another, but his analysis is not why these books are valuable: it's the truly stunning amount of detail he has gathered.

The Barry Goldwater book is out of print, so you might try your local library, but for Nixonland, here's the Amazon link. I also think these books are much better if they're read in order, because combined, they cover the whole of the 1960s.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Super Mario Galaxy (the Bonus Levels)

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

I mentioned in the Level Up column that we have 192 stars in Super Mario Galaxy. That's 203 now, and I wanted to describe how it all works, because it's another example of just how much depth is in this game.

The first time you play, the goal is to get to 60 stars with Mario (you get a star the first time you finish a level). When you get to 60, you can travel through space to battle Bowser, and when you win, you see the game's ending. Very nice cut scenes, nicely conceived, and very satisfying.

At that point, though, if you want, you've barely even started.

In addition to regular levels, there are all kinds of "special" levels. You might need to find a star hidden on a level, or find Luigi (who needs rescuing). "Purple coin" levels require you to find 100 purple coins, and some of these are timed. Health is usually very generous in this game, but some comet levels will start you out with one health, and a single hit will kill you. Then there are speed runs with time limits.

These aren't new levels, compared to the "regular" levels. They add elements to levels, though (like purple coins), which force you to approach the level in an entirely different way. Also, and I think this is particularly well done, these new approaches force you to learn absolutely every single jumping technique in the game. It's easy to get through the first 60 levels without using the advanced jumping techniques, but you'll never clear the comet levels without them.

Playing through the first time is like being a tourist--it's terrifically fun, there's lots to see and do, and it's all very enjoyable. We actually avoided the comet levels in our first playthrough because they were significantly harder. The comet levels, though, are like an advanced course in how to play the game, and they teach you to be a much, much better player.

Another difference is that in the regular levels, a huge amount of exploration is not necessary. In the comet levels, though, particularly the purple coin levels and the levels where you need to find hidden stars, you have to absolutely scour the level, and it forces you to see everything. Doing so has given me even more appreciation for the level design, because it's brilliant.

We wanted to get to 120 stars (which is every level in the game, including all comet levels) because I had heard that when you did, you were granted access to one bonus level.

That's almost right. What happens is that if you get 120 stars, you can play as Luigi (who jumps farther and higher, but has more momentum and is slightly more difficult to control), and when LUIGI gets 120 stars, too, THEN that 121st level is available.

Yikes.

I thought that was impossible, but we get stars so quickly now that it's not going to take us much longer.

Well, with the exception of the Luigi's Purple Coins level. There are 150 coins on that level, and you only need to gather 100, but it's made up of only two kind of tiles: green and yellow. The green tiles shrink and disappear after you touch them, and the yellow tiles start to rotate. Here's a video of a guy making it look very easy (and collecting all 150 coins in the process), but it's wickedly hard, because even one mistake and you'll fall through the board. I've done it once, but it was epic luck, and I think the second time will be much, much tougher.

I think another thing that the bonus levels do is capture the spirit of previous Mario games in a way that the regular levels don't, just because they're so much more challenging. It's remarkable how many layers of skill the designers put into the game.

When we get to 240 stars, and finally see what we get, I'll let you know. At least, I'll let you know what I can without spoiling it for you.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Limbo of the Lost

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

Here's a feel-good story: three friends who love computer games get together and design their own game, an epic, sprawling adventure. They start working on the game in the mid-1990s, for the Atari ST, then switched platforms to the Amiga. There was some press coverage, including a magazine preview, but that version didn't get finished, either.

Three years ago, they started again, this time on the PC version. They finished it, were signed to a publisher, and the game was recently released in the U.S.

Seriously, it doesn't get any better than this. And quite surprisingly, for such a low budget project, the quality of the art work is surprisingly high. In fact, the quality is as high as many high profile games.

Mostly, it appears, because it IS the artwork from many high profile games.

How many games? Let's see: Oblivion (excellent choice), Thief 3, Silent Hill 4, Painkiller, Return To Castle Wolfenstein, Diablo 2 (skulls), Pirates of the Caribbean (FMV), Crysis, Spawn, BioShock, UT2004, and Baldur’s Gate, as well as several images from my unpublished Flash game Wrecked Him? Damn Near Killed Him!

Hey, if you're going to steal, aim high.

Rock, Paper, Shotgun is all over this story in a very tongue kissy kind of way, and they've compiled most of the details into one easy reference. The full post is here, and it includes the following:
--the 1995 preview story (page 1, page 2)
--embedded trailer video as well as a "behind the scenes" trailer
--a zip file of 76 screenshots.
--a few epic quotes from the developers on their "influences"

It's an episode right out of Mr. Bean Makes a Computer Game, and of course the obvious question is how in the word did they think they'd get away with it?

Check That Carry-On Bag

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

Just in case you're wondering, here are just a few of the things that you can't carry onto a plane these days: meat cleavers, sabers, spear guns, flare guns, cattle prods, saws, billy clubs, brass knuckles, stun guns, throwing stars, kubatans, dynamite, hand grenades, gasoline, fire extinguishers, tear gas, and snow globes.

You can, though, bring pudding, if the container is no larger than 3 oz.

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Father's Day

[DQ is live on tape this week, as we are presently on The Big Family Vacation™.]

I wrote a guest column for Level Up about gaming with Eli 6.10 for Father's Day, and you can read it here.

Here's the card that Eli gave me for Father's Day (sorry about the size of the second image, but you can click on it to enlarge). I particularly appreciated the shout of "Hiiiya!"



Friday, June 13, 2008

Friday Links!

We are absolutely loaded this week, so stop trying to work and start reading.

Leading off is a link from Brian Minsker to The Sky, From Above, a collection of stunning photographs from space. Some are among the most amazing I've ever seen ("Moonset, Over the Caribbean" is incredible), and there are source links to Johnson Space Center archives as well.

From Kato Katonian, a link to a fascinating Stephen J. Dubner (Freakanomics) article about a silver thief who was "too good for his own good".

From Gloria (otherwise known as "wife"), a link a story in the New York Times about dark energy and how it's driving scientists. absolutely crazy.

From Roger Ray, a link to a video that makes magnetic fields visible. It's extremely beautiful.

If you're feeling ambitious, here's a link from Sirius to an article titled The Top 5 Ways to Cause a Man-Made Earthquake. Also, a link to an outstanding article about Ada Byron, daughter of Lord Byron and assistant to Charles Babbage. Her plan for his analytical engine (the succesor to the difference engine) to calculate Bernoulli numbers is considerered to be the first computer program. Finally, here's a link to The History of Copy Protection, which I wish had been twice as long, because the old days of copy protection were quite inventive (remember the code wheel from Rocket Ranger?).

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a story about Namba Parks, one of the most amazing pieces of landscape architecure in the world. Also, a link to a moving and deeply emotional video of Bobby Kennedy's funeral train. The faces of the people watching (the video is shot from the train) are unforgettable. Next, a terrific video called DIY Skate Park, which is about the building of Burnside Skate Park in Portland, Oregon--by skaters.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to a book you might want to own--a copy of “On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres”. A guy named Copernicus wrote it.

From Victor Godinez, a link an outstanding Batman fan film that includes some real surprises.

From Jarod, a link to the World's Strangest Looking Animals, and they certainly are. Also from Jarod, a link to Holovizio 3D, and the technology looks very promising.

Here's a story from Chris Meyer about burning a NeXT computer, which, as you might remember, has a magnesuium case. Also from Chris, a story about a watch returned to its owner--after 67 years underwater.

Remember the crazy rasberry ants in the Houston area? Now, the state of Texas is asking for federal funding to research them. Thanks to Garrett Alley for the link.

From Steven P., a link to a story in the Onion titled Liberty City Police Face Allegations of Incompetence, Brutality.

Also in the world of GTA IV, here's a link from Mike Gilbert to the intro of Naked Gun--in the world of GTA IV. It's terrific, and if you're too young to remember the intro to Naked Gun, there's a video of that, too.

From Frank Regan, a link to an article about a link to a new primary color. It's called squant, and it resides in your mouth.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Laurels (part two)

Level Up has an excellent piece by attorney Justin Blankenship updating the attempted EA takeover of Take-Two. There's a ton of interesting information in the article, but here's an excerpt:
What's happening here is that the negotiation process between Take-Two and the FTC appears to have completely broken down, and the FTC has taken the somewhat extraordinary step of enforcing its second request in federal court... The gist of it appears to be that Take-Two had an agreement with the FTC to search for responsive documents in the files of certain individuals. But after hiring a new law firm, Take-Two has apparently reneged on that initial agreement, and has on several occasions narrowed the scope of the search that it is willing to perform even further.

Although the target of an FTC investigation has some grounds to object to a second request on the basis that it's unduly burdensome, the Horwitz affidavit tells the story of a corporation that's gone beyond making good-faith objections based on scope. Take-Two appears to be simply stonewalling.

Here's one more, and it pertains to my previous post:
Not surprisingly, the FTC's investigation appears to be focused on "competing titles for simulated sports games, including basketball, football, hockey, and baseball." (Horwitz Affidavit, paragraph 6). Some of the specific documents sought by the FTC include "databases and copies of its licensing agreements with the various professional and college sports leagues and associations" (Horwitz Aff., paragraph 18) and "marketing and pricing documents relating to basketball and hockey video games" (Horwitz Aff., paragraph 20). This seems to confirm our own speculation that the focus would be on the overlapping basketball and hockey simulation games, since Take-Two already has a Major League Baseball exclusive and EA has the well-publicized Madden exclusive (although one could argue that Take-Two's All-Pro Football is its closest competitor).

So it's come to this: EA has the potential to crush the team sports game market to such an absolute degree that the Federal Trade Commission is concerned. Incredible.

Laurels

Peter Moore of EA Sports made a very funny blog post today titled Not Resting On Our Laurels:
To set the record VERY straight (despite what you might have read to the contrary in the last day or so…), we had:
• Four EA SPORTS titles get Sports Game of the Year nods by various outlets, including FIFA, NCAA Football, Madden and NHL. Of course NHL was consensus best in class, as I mentioned a few days ago. Named sports game of the year by seven publications. No one comes close to that.

I bolded that last sentence, because it reminded me of a story. A dictator once ordered his guards to shoot every prisoner in his country, and when they were done, he proudly announced that the jails were empty.

Seriously, Peter, are you high? You've bought exclusive licenses with the NFL, the NCAA (football), FIFA, NASCAR, and the PGA. Do you know how many competing products will be released in those sports this year? One (Pro Evo). Sure, there are text-sims and an occasional over-the-top arcade title, but those are low-budget, niche games.

Oh, and by the way, you're desperately trying to acquire Take-Two, which would kill more competition. After you buy Take-Two, do you know what's left in the graphics-based team sports category besides EA games? Sony's MLB and NBA series, and Pro Evo. Three games across seven sports (pro football, college football, pro basketball, college basketball, pro hockey, pro baseball, and pro soccer).

Congratulations, Peter. You've successfully destroyed a genre.

Your laurels? Try your checkbook.

May NPD: The Thrill Is Gone

May NPD numbers:
Wii--675,100
PS3--208,700
360--186,600
PS2--132,700

Here's that massive GTA IV bump that was supposed to happen in May (compared to April sales):
PS3: +21,000
360: -1,400

Oh, ouch. That's 19,600 extra units for both consoles combined over April sales, which weren't very high to begin with. And the 360 and PS3 were within a whisker of being outsold by the Wii 2-1 combined as well.

So the biggest release of the year has come and gone, and neither the 360 or the PS3 has averaged over 200,000 units in the last two months?

Again: ouch.

Of the two, though, Microsoft must be even more freaked out than Sony. After all, they paid a $50 million advance to Rockstar for exclusive downloadable content. So what did that and a $50 price drop from last year get them? About 45,000 more consoles than they sold in the same two months from last year, and they got outsold by Sony, even though Sony has released exactly one exclusive this year that anyone cared about (MLB 08: The Show).

Earlier today, it was announced that Jeff Bell (Corporate Vice President of Global Marketing for Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business and Puppy Killer--wait, I added that last bit because his title wasn't long enough already) was leaving Microsoft. I wouldn't be surprised if several more high-level executives follow him in the next three months.

Why? Microsoft had a huge amount of momentum at the end of last year, just huge. Five months later, it has been absolutely and completely squandered. First was the inventory fiasco of the first few months of 2008, followed by inept marketing of the exclusive downloadable content for GTA IV.

The 360 Premium is $50 less than the PS3, but in the U.S., which is Microsoft's best market (by far), they've been outsold (barely) so far this year by the PS3. That's a disaster for Microsoft.

I don't think Sony is happy with PS3 sales, either, but they've got to be quite pleased that they're slightly ahead of the 360 in the U.S., particularly with their staggeringly crap software lineup so far this year.

At some point, I think analysts are going to start questioning whether the Wii is hurting 360 and PS3 sales. If that's asking whether people are buying the Wii instead of the 360 or PS3, I think the answer is "yes," but I also think Microsoft and Sony are responsible. It's very simple: these consoles both cost too much at this point in their lifespan, no matter their features.

If you want to know what kind of juggernaut the Wii's turned into, look at a comparison between the Wii and the PS2 for the first five months of the year.
2002 (PS2): 1.80M
2003 (PS2): 1.88M
2004 (PS2): 1.42M
2005 (PS2): 2.12M
2006 (PS2): 1.28M
2008 (Wii): 2.81M

That's right. Even compared to 2005, the best year for the PS2 in the January-May period, The Wii still sold 690,000 more systems in the first five months.
Monthly average PS2 2005 (Jan-May): 424,000
Monthly average Wii 2008 (Jan-May): 562,000

Incredible. Oh, and out of 28 retailers in my area, how many have the Wii in stock? 1.

And I'm pretty sure by the time I got to that store, it would be gone.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Planescape Update

Thanks very much for your always-intelligent suggestions. It's a true pleasure to write for people who are uniformly smarter than I am.

So here's what didn't work: rebooting into safe mode, running in Win 95 or 98 compatibility mode, and using process monitor.

What did work were a few reboots and magnetic realignment of the Earth. Or something, because I got it installed. Then I got the huge mod pack installed, and finally the widescreen mod.

In a word: PHENOMENAL. Caps are fully deserved.

It is staggering how beautiful this game is, even today, in 1600x1200 resolution. Just brilliant.

NPD Preview

NPD numbers for May come out tomorrow. I strongly believe that the Grand Theft Auto IV effect on console sales is going to be far less than was expected, so I don't expect blowout numbers. Well, except for Nintendo, but every month is a blowout for them, basically.

I also think the May numbers are going to lead many analysts to start banging the drum for further price cuts in the 360 and the PS3.

The Big Summer Family Vacation™

On Sunday, we leave for San Diego.

A short list of what we'll be doing:
1. San Diego Zoo
2. Belmont Amusement Park
3. Legoland (in nearby Carlsbad)
4. Balboa Park Museums
5. The beach

It's been 99 with blast furnace winds every day for the last two weeks (ah, spring), so it will be a relief to go somewhere where the projected highs are between 70 and 72 degrees every day.

We took this trip before Eli was born, and everything on that list is +10 awesome, so I'm really looking forward to experiencing it again with him. He has such a love for animals, and the San Diego Zoo is going to be a great experience.

We're coming back on Thursday. Don't even think you're getting the week off--I'm writing content that will be posted automatically by Blogger in my absence. In theory.

The New Involuntary Era: Voice Recognition

I mentioned several times that I had forearm tendinitis, and it's been incredibly tenacious.

However, I'm not sure it's forearm tendinitis anymore. In the last few weeks, it's borne more than a passing resemblance to carpal tunnel syndrome.

I had already stopped swimming and playing Rock Band, and I realized the only stressor left was the time I spent on the keyboard. I spend a lot of time on the keyboard--several hours a day--and even though I've never had any problems before, I strongly suspect that it's finally caught up with me.

I've been considering using voice recognition software for several years, but the learning curve always stopped me. This time, though, I didn't really have a choice--I needed to get off the keyboard.

So I did, at least for now. I'm using Dragon Naturally Speaking 9.5, and I'm shocked by how effective it is to use. And the learning curve is reasonable--in terms of what it can do, getting 80% out the program only takes a few minutes of training. That last 20% is much more complex, but it's manageable.

One thing I do need to do is get Eli 6.10 to knock on my study door before he comes in so that I can turn off the microphone. Today, he burst in, and by the time I got the microphone turned off, this had been inserted into the post I was writing:
and and and and and and and 80 and I buy a 58-year-old widow at

I don't remember exactly what he was saying, but I'm pretty sure that wasn't it.

So if I send you an e-mail and you see an odd phrase or two, you know who was in my study.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Eli 6.10

Eli 6.10 has been in fine form since he got out of school for the summer.

"My stomach hurts," Eli said as he sat on the couch.

"But a little while ago, you said your stomach was fine," I said.

"I have a headache, too," he said.

"Good grief," I said. "You have so many symptoms I'm not sure anyone can even keep track of them."

"Dr. Larry can," he said.

"Who's Dr. Larry?" I asked.

"He's the DOCTOR that lives in my FINGER," he said.

"Does he see other patients?" I asked. "Because I've been wanting to make a change in my primary care physician."

"Dad!" He said. "OF COURSE he can't be your doctor--he lives in my FINGER."

"You'll have to get your own finger doctor," Gloria said. "Duh."

"But I can't," I said. "I had a medical school in my arm, but it closed over a year ago."

"Mom, can I have dinner?" Eli asked.

"Dinner? It's only 3:30," Gloria said.

"Dr. Larry said it was okay," Eli said.

"Well, Dr. Larry is a quack," Gloria said.
***

Eli and Gloria came in from a day trip last weekend, and Eli was bushed. He came in, blearily said hello, and flopped down on the couch.

"He fell asleep on the way home," Gloria said.

"Hey!" Eli said. "I was NOT sleeping. I was just PRETENDING. "

"Pretending?" Gloria said. "You were asleep for forty-five minutes."

"Faked it! Hello!" he said.
***

We were playing Super Mario Galaxy together last weekend, and I was playing one of the toughest bonus levels in the game (Luigi's Purple Coins). This level has both disappearing and rotating platforms, and we would each try twice, then pass the controller over. At one point, after yet another death, Eli was trying to encourage me, and he said "You looked AWESOME! You looked like a BIRD taking off--and then you hit a TREE and FELL DOWN."
***

When Eli and Gloria went to see The Lion King musical last year, they brought me back a T-shirt that had a drawing of Scar with the caption "I'm surrounded by idiots."

Last weekend, I wore the shirt, and I was standing in the kitchen when Eli walked up, looked at the shirt, and said "I'm surrounded by IDILOTS."

"Idiots," I said. "I'm surrounded by idiots."

"That's very funny," he said, "but it's unappropriate for school."
***

Eli 6.10 has quite a vocabulary, but it's not fully operational. We were watching the Disney Channel together, and he saw an older girl as one of the announcers. He shook his head and said, "It's not sanitary to watch the Disney Channel in high school."
***

We went fishing last Sunday, on what turned out to be a very windy day. Since it was almost impossible to fish, we just hung out together. After we finished playing on a playscape that was near the pond, we were walking back to the car and he asked "What time is it?"

"I'm not sure," I said. "I left the phone in the car."

"I wish there was a clock in the sky," he said. "That would be really convenient."

We did catch two little fish, and the second one was a tiny little sunfish that fit into the palm of Eli's hand. "It's so cute that I want to pet it," he said, "but it doesn't have fur."
***

One of the things that's really, really fun as a father is to watch a kid's sense of humor develop. Eli 6.10 has an excellent sense of humor, but now he's getting a much more complex understanding of how humor works.

We went to Dave & Buster's last week, and we decided to get something to eat before playing games, so we went into the restaurant. While we were waiting, Eli made the paper napkins into boats. "Dad, let's have a boat battle," he said.

We moved our boats into position, and then I picked up a pepper shaker. "Cannon," I said, and launched a broadside. He wrestled it out of my hand and proceeded to smash the paper boat I was holding to bits. "Your boat SANK," he said with glee.

"That's not my boat," I said.

"It's not your boat?" he asked. "Why not?"

"I sold it to you," I said.

"DAD!" he said, laughing so hard he wound up sideways in the booth.
***

We temporarily have a fair number of tiny, tiny black ants commuting into our house. I've always heard them called "sugar ants," but that's not correct--I have no idea what they're really called. When it gets really dry down here, though, they start looking for water, and that always leads them inside.

I brought home two chocolate glazed doughnuts for Gloria after our last trip to Krispy Kreme. They were in a cardboard box, and I put them on the kitchen table.

That afternoon, Gloria walked over to the table and opened the box. "Uh oh," she said

"What is it, mom?" Eli asked.

"The sugar ants like doughnuts," she said.

"Where? Let me see!" he said. He ran over to the kitchen table and took a quick look. "DAD!" he shouted. "They ate a WHOLE CHOCOLATE DOUGHNUT!"

"That, um, was me," Gloria said.

Inept: The Transcript

Game Politics has the transcript of Jack Thompson's epic fail in his Florida Bar trial before Judge Dava Tunis.

In short, it's embarrassing.

Activision: Plumbing New Depths of Shittiness in Marketing

From Music Radar:
Sadly, we’ll never know if Jimi Hendrix would have been any good at Guitar Hero, but thanks to Activision, the game’s developers, we now have a reasonable idea of what he’d have looked like wielding its dedicated controller.

To celebrate the fact that there will be two Guitar Hero performances on the main stage at this year’s
Isle of Wight Festival, Activision has re-branded the bronze statue of Hendrix that sits in the grounds of the island’s Dimbola Lodge, turning Jimi’s guitar into the aforementioned video game peripheral.

Yes, there's a picture, and yes, it's just as horrific as you'd expect. Nothing like defacing the statue of a music legend to sell a product. Well done.

There's a statue of Stevie Ray Vaughan on the shores of Town Lake in Austin. If Activision Marketing Clowns come down and try to do the same thing to our statue, the first person who walks by will punch them in the face. We take our music seriously down here.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Two More Gaming Links

From the Onion News Network, coverage on the just-launched sequel to World of Warcraft. It's called World of World of Warcraft, and here's the video. There's also a thirty-second bonus clip at the end of the video, so keep watching.

Maximo Park playing "Suffragette City" in Rock Band, and the singer, in particular, has a good time.

Gaming Links: the Good, the Also Good, Other Stuff That's Good, and I Actually Moved the Ugly Into An Entirely Separate Post For Tomorrow

2K games announced today that the new expansion for Civ IV will be Civ IV: Colonization.

That's right. Colonization, and if you remember the original, you're probably just as pleased as I am. There are loads of details in the official press release.

Patrick let me know that Popehat has assembled a giant collection of Oblivion mods into a single package, complete with installer and documentation. Here are the details:
Announcing the Popehat Oblivion Omod Project, or as we like to call it, POOP.

Created by our friend, commenter, and forum member
triggercut, POOP is a compilation of the best mods produced for Oblivion, a set which will improve graphics, immersion, story, mechanics, and more, making what we hope might be the perfect Oblivion experience. The POOP project is easy. It self-installs and contains documentation for setup. And it’s big. So big that you’re going to have to get it by torrent if you want it.

That's exactly what I want after I build my new system, but you don't have to wait--here's the post that explains all the details.

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment, which you can read here.

Brian Minsker sent me a link to an interesting court case that involves the First Sale Doctrine as it applies to software. In this case, its AutoCAD, and the case is important in terms of how it may more clearly define the issue of license versus purchase. Here's the article.

Keith Schleicher wrote a preview of Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, and he mentions that the boss battles are now optional. Thank goodness.

Planescape: Torment

After seeing the post about the high-resolution mod for Planescape: Torment last week on Rock, Paper, Shotgun, I bought a used copy of the game on eBay.

This is exciting.

Until I tried to run setup, that is--that's what I got the hourglass, then nothing. This is not so exciting.

This has occasionally happened to me over the years when installing programs, and it's particularly difficult to diagnose. There are no events logged in Event Viewer, no error messages, and basically no information whatsoever. There are also multiple possible solutions (although it's also possible that none of them will work), so trying to sort through them all is very time intensive.

So I'm only one step away from playing this game in 1600x1200, but it's a long step.

Rock Band #112

With the announcement of the "World Tour" version of Guitar Hero coming this fall, along with the announcement of Guitar Hero: Metallica, the Rock Band forums have imploded. I usually check the forums every couple of days, and when I returned this week I was shocked by how the tone has changed. If you believe what's being written there, Rock Band as a franchise is doomed.

Um, why exactly?

Look. Right now, these games have distinctly different objectives from a marketing standpoint. What Activision is trying to do right now is stop any more people from buying Rock Band before Guitar Hero 4 comes out this fall. They want to make as many splashy announcements as possible, and they want to do it right now. Rock Band is still selling extremely well, and they want to blunt that momentum.

Harmonix doesn't need to do that. Rock Band is already out there. Even if someone wanted to buy Guitar Hero 4 instead of Rock Band, they couldn't, at least not now.

What Harmonix needs to focus on in terms of marketing is making announcements toward the end of summer, or even early fall, as it gets closer to the time when people will actually be able to buy Guitar Hero 4. And I'm sure they'll have them--there is no way that Viacom (MTV's parent company) can afford to let the game wither, because based on their last quarter's results, it's become a major growth driver.

I'm hoping for a redesigned drum kit that doesn't feel like hitting concrete. Oh, and Led Zeppelin would be nice, too (I got to play "Kashmir" in my drum lesson last week).

It's a Deep-Fried World, and We Just Live in It

I haven't been to Sonic in quite a while, mostly because I'm old and my stomach hates me when I eat there.

I did go last week, though (their chili dogs are great), and I saw a new menu item: Deep-Fried Macaroni and Cheese Bites.

Oh, my.

Every time I think there's nothing new under the sun that can be fried, I find out that I'm wrong. I did a little research, and apparently fried macaroni and cheese is a new craze in restaurants. Sonic, if anything, is late to the party.

Did I try them? I was about to, but just the thought made two arteries explode.

Friday, June 06, 2008

Friday Links!

You can stop pretending to work now, thank goodness.

First, a few gaming links.

Several of you sent in this link (Christophe Grandsire-Koevoets was first): Birdmen and the Casual Fallacy. Sean Maelstrom has written a sprawling, provocative examination of Nintendo and their strategy. I don't agree with some of his conclusions, but it's tremendously interesting and a terrific read.

Craig Miller sent me a link to a commercial (in Japan) for Shiren the Wanderer 3, which looks terrific, and I can only hope that they bring it out here.

Lummox JR sent in a link to The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey.

From the New York Times, an article detailing the current scientific knowledge about post-workout recovery and how it can be maximized (DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, take note).

From Future Nobel Prize Winner Brian Pilnick, a link to CamSpace, which "enables you to play any PC game you want using almost any object as a controller." Very, very cool.

Ryan Malinowsky sent in a link to the website for the M-TRAN, the "modular transformer" robot. I linked to a short video last week, but there is much more information here.

Last week, it was Gene Kelly tap-dancing on roller skates. This week (thanks David Byron), it's Fred and Ginger.

Incredibly, and this will probably never happen again, here's a second dance link this week. Sent in by Cibby Pulikkaseril, it's a crazy video mash-up of Fred Astaire dancing to the music of Smooth Criminal by Michael Jackson. Oh, and Cyd Charisse (red dress) had what might have been the finest legs in the history of the world. Also from Cibby, and this must be a record for the greatest distance between links, an article titled Can Machines Be Conscious?

I linked to Daytrotter last week, and "mts30+" sent in a link to La Blogotheque, which is different but also entirely wonderful. La Blogotheque features bands performing in environments that are usually startlingly intimate, and the results are remarkable. For a sample, take a look at the Arcade Fire songs. The second (starting at about 7:00 of the video) shows them performing Wake Up (which is a brilliant song) in the middle of a crowd--using a megaphone. It's stunning.

Oh, and here's R.E.M. as well. I think this is some of the best live footage R.E.M. has ever done.

Eric Higgins-Freese sent in an outstanding link--classic literature, now in Powerpoint.

From Ryan Leasher, a link to a 1967 Soviet demonstration of animation--according to the video, it represents the "first images to be animated with the use of a computer."

From Sirius, a 'paper towel' for oil spills.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, Fail Boat Sails Home.

From Mike Gilbert, a link to Cereal Mascot Reunion. And also from Mike, an article that begins with this:
Of all the drugs young people can use at clubs, the latest trend in New York may be the least hip among all circles: Preparation H.

Read (incredibly) Preparation H Finds Place in Club Circuit.

From Michael O'Reilly, a link to a story revealing that the discovery of the Titanic in 1985 resulted from a secret U.S. Navy investigation of two wrecked nuclear subs.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Vista (your e-mail, part two)

By far, the majority of e-mail I received about Vista was in defense of the usability of the operating system. Memory and processor hungry, yes, but a much better experience in general than might be expected (based on reviews). Several of you also mentioned that Vista, to provide a positive user experience, needs more tweaking out of the box than XP did.

Interestingly, the e-mail that I received about Vista in the past was largely negative. So it's a significant swing of opinion within the last six months.

DRM (your e-mail)

Thanks for the e-mail you guys sent in about DRM.

I've tried to collect your thoughts into categories, and I'll discuss those shortly. First off, though, is an e-mail from someone who wishes to remain anonymous, and it's a short explanation of how piracy works today:
First of all, it's absolutely a one-to-many relationship like you said in your blog, as it's always been. It's not normal people who are cracking games, but rather a talented and dedicated team of crackers and testers.

Most groups have stayed together largely unchanged for five years, and in some cases, decades. They have established connections to people working at stores or, occasionally, duplication plants, as well as to many FTP sites (explained later). They're frequently composed of some of the best programmers in the world, as they have to decompile and work around thoroughly booby-trapped software in assembly language under a short deadline. The groups are really competing for respect: who can pull it off, in a complete and working manner, in the shortest amount of time. Amusingly, these groups always buy their games, and often multiple copies, because they have to study the copy protection in action, usually with multiple crackers working at once, and have to verify their cracked version works exactly like the original.

Once cracked, the group releases it to a set of very fast, very private FTPs known as topsites. Users on these sites test out all releases and can 'nuke' any releases that don't meet a set of agreed-upon standards.

Next, couriers (essentially, trusted intermediaries who keep a barrier between high-level groups and more general non-vetted users) transfer files from topsites to dumps, another type of FTP site which is sort of a warehouse for all sorts of pirated releases, with massive amounts of storage. Dumps are where every other type of release comes from, as it takes only a modicum of knowledge and credibility to gain access to one. BitTorrent, IRC, web, pirated discs on the street are all one step away from dumps.

Most release groups actually hate BitTorrent, as the releases they've slaved away at are often renamed, have passwords, ads or viruses added, and have their NFOs (small text files giving release information and group credits/notes) stripped out, thus essentially stealing or mangling the respect they've earned...

The only game in recent memory that has avoided being cracked within a week or two of release was Splinter Cell Chaos Theory, which took over a year for a working crack that didn't require some incredibly esoteric tricks.

...Statistics are impossible to compile; the only rough method would be to check a torrent search engine that scans multiple trackers, like isoHunt, and compare that to NPD and other sales numbers. The major flaw is that numbers constantly fluctuate, and many torrents are downloaded via private sites, where the most serious downloaders are and where the highest speeds can be obtained. This also doesn't include other methods, such as IRC, FTPs, Usenet, and single downloads that are then burned off and shared by hand. Even numbers like the number of fake keys that are tried on official servers are incredibly unreliable, as people will try many different keys in the hope of hitting on one that's legitimate.

That's one of the most concise descriptions of how piracy works that I've ever read, so thanks to Mr. Anonymous. He also very clearly points out how difficult it is to compile statistical information about piracy. The fog of war is very high here, and for publishers, making decisions without precise data is extremely difficult. Without accurate data, it's also very, very easy to believe the worst.

If I'm a publisher, I understand the temptation. As a consumer, my perspective is that since only a small percentage of legitimate purchasers (I believe) are stealing, it's unfair to subject us all to frequent security checks. From the publisher's perspective, though, the percentage of paying customers who steal is totally irrelevant. The number that matters to them is the percentage of all people who have the game who have stolen it.

JL sent me a link to a Gamasutra article about piracy that does an excellent job of illustrating how confusing and difficult it can be to both measure and combat piracy. A casual game developer concluded that 92% of the people playing their game stole it, yet also concluded that for every thousand pirated downloads they stopped, they only generated ONE additional sale of the game.

Do I consider this article definitive? No, of course not (it's a casual game, the methodology can be criticized, etc.), but no method of measuring piracy rates is going to be definitive, and that's part of the problem. How do publishers control something that they can't even measure?

Now let's look at what you guys said about DRM in general.
1) when you buy something, it should stay bought
Buying a product that requires some kind of authentication is a potential nightmare if the authentication system goes away. I was surprised by how many of you said that you had played a particular PC game for five years or more, spanning multiple operating systems and ten generations of graphics cards. What happens five years from now when a game requiring online authentication can't be verified because the publisher has gone out of business and the servers are no longer functioning?

I understand that if I subscribe to a service like Gametap, my access to the games they offer depends on their continuation as a going concern. If I buy a physical disc, though, I expect that purchase (and access to that purchase) to be permanent.

2) Starforce has poisoned the well
Back when it was a going concern, Computer Gaming World investigated Starforce and demonstrated that it slowed down optical drives over time. This was after repeated and heated denials by the developer that any issues existed.

It was around this time that the Sony rootkit fiasco was exposed. Yes, that involved music CD's, but Sony is a major player in copy protection for gaming (SecuROM).

At that point, I think it's safe to say that someone had poisoned the well, so to speak. Now, whenever I install a game, I wonder about the DRM application and what it's doing to my system. My trust level is zero, basically, and based on my e-mail, so is yours.

I'm surprised that publishers don't understand this. I've written this before, but if an application is going to be installed on our systems, it should be clearly explained, and it should also be clearly explained what that application is doing and when it's doing it.

It's a tricky balance for publishers. As consumers, we want transparency, and I don't think that's unfair. For publishers, though, transparency might well reduce the effectiveness of their authentication schemes.

3) Stop sticking your finger up our ass
Not our literal ass--I'm talking about our computers. You guys are very uncomfortable with having DRM applications installed on your systems. These applications generally get installed outside the game directories, their locations are often hidden, and they're frequently not uninstalled when we uninstall the game.

When I buy a console, I understand that a copy protection scheme is built into the hardware, and that additional authentication may occur whenever I go online. But I don't use my console as a productivity machine--it's purely for entertainment. The idea of having multiple DRM applications installed on the device that I use several hours a day for e-mail, writing, and other non-gaming applications is a problem for me. When are these applications running? When do they load? How much of my system resources do they require?

So I spent $50 on this game, and now something gets installed on my system to verify that I didn't steal it? From a consumer standpoint, that just doesn't work.

Do I advocate or support piracy? No, absolutely not, and if you've read this blog for any length of time, you know that. Stealing a game is 100% wrong. With only extremely rare exceptions, I like and respect every developer I've ever corresponded with--they're smart and funny and tremendously creative, and I want them all to be very rich. That's why this is such a messy issue, because being totally against piracy doesn't mean an absolute endorsement of the methods publishers are using in an effort to reduce piracy.

Is there a middle ground between publishers and consumers? Yes, but no one seems to have found it yet.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Musion

Magnus sent me a link to the "Cisco Onstage Telepresence Experience." It's a video that demonstrates the 3-D holographic display technology developed by a company called Musion, and it's amazing.

This kind of technology is still a long way from being incorporated into gaming consoles, but it's coming.

The video is here, and you can also visit the Musion website.

Grand Theft Childhood

With Jack Thompson self-immolating today, it seems like a good time to mention Grand Theft Childhood The Surprising Truth About Video Games and What Parents Can Do. Written by husband-and-wife research team Lawrence Kutner and Cheryl Olson (both on the psychiatry faculty of Harvard Medical School), it's receiving positive buzz from the gaming community as a balanced look at video games and their effects on the developing personalities of children and teenagers.

Adam LaMosca, another of the fine writers from Gamers with Jobs, wrote an excellent article for The Escapist titled Grand Theft Childhood and the Case Against Media Sensationalism, and it's a solid discussion of the topics explored in the book. Dan Holmes also sent me a link to an interview with Cheryl Olson over at VGPro. The interview includes transcripts of several interviews the author conducted with children about video games and how they felt after playing them.

In case you're wondering about credentials, Adam's article spells it out clearly:
Kutner and Olson introduce their subject, in part, with an overview of a $1.5 million study on youth violence and gaming they coordinated at the Harvard Medical School between 2004 and 2006. Funded by the U.S. Department of Justice, its core components were written surveys from more than 1,200 middle school students and over 500 parents, and interviews with dozens of teen and preteen boys and their parents.

Please note: a study not funded by a "family" organization or the gaming industry. I think that immediately gives them credibility that many other researchers just don't have right now. Too often, all that's required is to "follow the money" to cast doubt on research findings.

Thanks to Sean, whose e-mail prompted the post.

Site Meter