Friday, May 29, 2009

Friday Links!

We have some excellent science links this week.

Leading off, a remarkable article from Smithsonian Magazine titled Brain Cells For Socializing, and it details the study of Economo neurons, spindle-shaped brain cells that are only found in human beings, great apes, elephants, humpback whales, sperm whales, fin whales, orcas and bottle-nosed dolphins. Here's what scientist John Allman believes:
"The basic proposition that I'm advancing," he says, "is the notion that self-awareness and social awareness are part of the same functioning, and the von Economo cells are part of that."

From Brian Witte, a link to the remarkable discovery that ants have magnets in their antennae, and that soil is used as a magnetic sensor. In other words, ants have GPS.

Here's a link from Ben Younkins to a story that is just mind-blowing: Spy Fired Shot That Changed Germany. Why is it mind-blowing? Here's an excerpt:
It was called “the shot that changed the republic.”

The killing in 1967 of an unarmed demonstrator by a police officer in West Berlin set off a left-wing protest movement and put conservative West Germany on course to evolve into the progressive country it has become today.

Now a discovery in the archives of the East German secret police, known as the Stasi, has upended
Germany’s perception of its postwar history. The killer, Karl-Heinz Kurras, though working for the West Berlin police, was at the time also acting as a Stasi spy for East Germany.

Freaking unbelievable.

Also from Ben, and also remarkable, is a link to a video demonstration of a still-working, 1964 Livermore Data Systems "Model A" Acoustic Coupler Modem. That's right--it's still working.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to Nano GigaPan, a nano-photography site that has some incredible images.

From Andrew, a link to one of the greatest headlines ever: man charged in penis 'puppet' incident. Here's an excerpt (which is required in this case):
The police report of the incident said Timothy Wayne Martin, 44, of Auburn, Wash., was arrested after residents of the Arcadia Apartment Complex in Federal Way called police at about 10:30 a.m. May 13 and reported a man standing over an air conditioner intake wearing only an unbuttoned flannel shirt and "was apparently manipulating" his penis with a string "like a puppet," reported Thursday.

No news yet on whether this man was related to Shari Lewis.

Also from Andrew, a link to a real-life bionic woman, and the picture is absolutely stunning.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a wonderful article about the first t.v. image of Mars--and how it was made with crayons. Next, it's interstellar GPS.

From Staci Avison, a link to the Cloud Appreciation Society, and the gallery has some amazing images.

From Frank Regan, a link to some fantastic building art. John Pugh paints 3-D wall murals, and you really need to see them.

Glen Haag sent me a link to a classic bit of comedy: Steven Banks Home Entertainment Center. This clip, incredibly, is twenty years old, but it's as funny as ever. It will still be funny a century from now.

From Matt Teets, a link to a story about how autopsies and CT scans performed on dead soldiers are helping save lives.

I linked to a story about Everett Ruess, a few weeks ago, and David Gloeir sent in a link that confirms the mystery has been solved.

From Sirius, a link to a story about a giant blob found deep beneath Nevada. It's believed to be a lithospheric drip (and no, I won't pretend I'd ever heard that phrase before). Also, a link to a story about how spiders enter a coma state to survive for hours underwater. Then there's the discovery of the world's largest cave.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

A Collection

This is a "Free Form Jazz Odyssey" post, because I am (for once) totally tapped out today. Eli 7.9 caught some kind of stomach bug Monday night and just started feeling better today. In the meantime, he hasn't been able to sleep because his stomach has been hurting, so I've gotten about ten hours of sleep in three nights (an hour at a time, seemingly). Gloria's gotten even less.

In other words, we're all running on fumes.

On top of that, last night my demented neighbor with the giant dog didn't come home until 1:30 a.m., and the dog barked almost non-stop for four hours.

Okay, enough griping. Now, the collection.

1. Here's one of the most charming game trailers I've ever seen: Paperworld. Unfortunately, it's more of a "game concept" trailer than a finished product, but it's still quite special.

2. I forgot to mention that when we went downtown for Mother's Day, I saw a sign at a pay parking lot that made me burst out laughing. It said "DON'T PAY IMPOSTER."

3. Demon's Souls is just freaking great. I'll try to write up impressions next week.

4. A bunch of you guys sent in a link to a Malcolm Gladwell story in the New Yorker about a girl's basketball team titled "How David Beats Goliath." I really like the Freakanomics guys, and I'm a big fan of "data guys," but to me, Gladwell isn't a data guy--he's a cultural fabulist. He tells us stories we want to hear, pseudo-supports them with data, and drives an armored truck of cash back to his mythological lair. I'm going to try to get into this in more depth next week, but my brain is too foggy to do it right now.

5. I've been riding that damned unicycle every day for the last 8 days. I rode at 9:30 one night because I didn't have any other time to practice. I even went into high school football coach mode when Gloria asked why I just didn't take the day off. "You don't succeed by failing," I said.

That's ridiculous, of course. That's exactly how many people succeed, because failing is part of gaining experience. But when I'm in high school football coach mode (an extremely rare phenomenon, fortunately), I can't tolerate any shade of gray.

Like I said earlier this week, though, it's on. And even though it's killing me to ride an hour a day, I'm not taking any days off until I can ride a hundred feet. At the same time, just to clarify.

A week ago, the farthest I'd ridden was about fifteen feet. I rode forty-seven feet today, and rode forty feet three other times.

It's hard, and I'm worn out, but it's working.

6. The early reviews for Red Faction: Guerrilla look very strong. Volition is a very strong developer, and I'm really looking forward to this game.

7. As you guys have probably already figured out, I'm not going to E3 this year. There will still be plenty to write about from here, though.

8. Remember how I said my new system wasn't working well in S3 mode? As it turns out, it may not be just a motherboard issue, because I've read about issues with both Nvidia drivers and my monitor as well. It seems like a large range of hardware has issues with implementing S3 support in a flawless manner.

9. LG announced a new, 1080p resolution 3-D monitor, and it looks very impressive. Someone's going to get this right.

10. The Austin American-Statesman had a classic headline this week: Austin man arrested in death of woman found by store.

Um, oops?

If you click on the link, you'll see that they changed the headline to "found near store," but that wasn't what the print edition originally said. Outstanding.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Design Brilliance And The Timing Window

I mentioned in the previous post that Guitar Hero (and Rock Band succeeding it) is almost a perfect game.

Here's one more example of the tremendous sophistication of the design.

I'm a decent drummer in Rock Band, even playing with the Ion kit and using cymbals (which is more difficult than just using the pads). I can play more than half the songs on Expert, I can five-star a large number of songs on Hard, and in general, I can hold my own with 95% of the people who play the game. That other 5% can absolutely kick my ass, but I'm not an embarrassment.

My Ion kit has been heavily modded over time--Roland PDX-8 snare, PD-8 toms, Pintech cymbals--hell, the only thing left of the Ion kit was the rack and the controller.

That's when I realized that I basically had an electronic kit, and all I needed to complete it was a "brain" (a module to translate all the inputs into sounds, essentially). I found a used TD-6 brain and realized that now I could do something I've always wanted to do: play to the Rock Band note charts outside the game.

In other words, I'd be playing real drums to the Rock Band note charts. I could pull up a song in training mode and hear the music, but the drum sounds I'd be hearing would be the actual sounds I produced while playing my Frankenstein kit.

I decided to start with an old favorite: Gimme Shelter. It's one of my favorite songs in the game, and I usually play it at 99% accuracy on Expert.

So I start the song, I start playing, and in about two minutes, I realize that I SUCK. I can basically follow along to the note chart, but my timing is slightly off quite often, and there are patches where I just fall apart.

Here's where design genius comes into play.

The timing window is a sleight of hand that is unbelievably elegant. Even though I know better, when I'm playing the drums in Rock Band I feel like I'm hearing what I'm playing.

That's not true obviously--what I'm hearing is the actual drum line recorded by the song's drummer, and I'm triggering those sounds by playing notes within the designated timing window. And that timing window, even on Expert, is quite a bit more generous than real life.

It's the difference between truly playing a beat and merely invoking a beat. When I play Rock Band, though, that difference is camouflaged so subtlely and so well that I never even notice.

That's a beautiful bit of design, isn't it?

That's the kind of elegance that permeates Rock Band and the first two Guitar Hero games (common element: Harmonix).

For Tony Hawk to succeed, that's the kind of sophistication they need to duplicate, because otherwise, that skateboard is just a novelty controller. And it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to create that kind of magic with such precision and style.

Tony Hawk's Ride

Well, this is going to be interesting.

From Engadget:
...according to GameStop... Tony Hawk's Ride game with skateboard peripheral lists for $119.99 with a simultaneous Wii, Xbox 360, and PS3 launch on October 13th.

That skateboard peripheral is required, apparently.

My initial reaction is that they're going to be bulldozing these skateboard controllers into a New Mexico landfill.

After that, though, I started trying to understand why I felt that way.

Here's the conundrum: before Guitar Hero, specialty controllers were always associated with niche games. I can't remember a single game before that with a specialty controller that was a huge hit in terms of sales volume.

Originally, Guitar Hero was going to be exactly that: a niche game. I don't think anyone expected it to be the giant, breakout hit that it became.

What people tend to forget, though, is what a masterful piece of design Guitar Hero was, both on the hardware and software sides. On the hardware side, the genius of the guitar controller was that, from a user standpoint, it was quite simple. Five buttons, a strum bar, and a whammy bar (which 90% of people never even used). It felt impressive, but it was also easy to comprehend.

On the software side, the game was incredibly well thought-out, and the difficulty level was masterfully managed. At the time, it was the best-designed and best-tuned gamed that I'd ever played (I think Rock Band exceeded it, but that's a separate discussion).

In sum, if a game could ever be called perfect, it was Guitar Hero.

Here's the problem for Ride: without that masterful game balancing, without a controller that's easy to comprehend, the game becomes annoying instead of fun. In particular, the ramping of difficulty is crucial, because the game has to be fun while people are learning how to use the controller (again, something that Guitar Hero did incredibly well). If any of those aspects fail, there is zero chance that the game is going to reach critical mass, and Activision can't really afford to release niche games these days.

So Activision is seemingly trying to capitalize on the Guitar Hero "model," but the Guitar Hero model is almost impossible to duplicate, because it was so precisely executed. It's like someone looking at a perfect game and saying "Hey! All we have to do is make a perfect game!"

Sure, Activision will flog this peripheral to death in a variety of games: snowboarding, surfing (hopefully), unicycling (kidding, I think), an RPG where the hero skateboards--whatever. But the first game out of the chute has to be a killer, because that's what generates the buzz. And it's important to remember that the original Guitar Hero was released with almost zero buzz, and very little publicity.

It wasn't marketing that made the game take off--it was all of us.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Family Matters

Eli 7.9 has been watching quite a bit of hockey with me in the last week, and he's turned into a big fan of Sidney Crosby. Last night, they showed him on the bench, and Eli said "He's a handsome guy!"

Gloria and I both started laughing. Later (when Crosby had the puck), Eli started doing the announcing (he loves doing this), and he said "He HAS the PUCK! He's HANDSOME! He SHOOTS for a GOAL!"

"I am going upstairs for some very PERSONAL and PRIVATE work," Eli 7.9 said as he marched upstairs.

Five seconds later, he shouted "MOM! How do you spell EGYPTIAN HIEROGLYPHICS?"

We were out last weekend, and when 100 Days, 100 Nights came on the radio, Gloria said it was one of Eli's favorite songs to sing. If you listen to the song (hit the link), you'll know why I started laughing--it's a great song, and I really like Sharon Jones, but seeing Eli belt it out would be hilarious.

"He likes singing 'Message In A Bottle,' too," Gloria said. "My God, I'm so old--I remember when Sting was cool."

"Sting was never really cool," I said. "Stuart Copeland was cool. Sting just wasn't aggressively uncool yet."

"Maybe I'll buy a Police album for Eli this summer," she said.

"No way," I said. "I forbid it."

"Why not?" she asked.

"He's going to like that album, and then he's going to ask you about The Police, and he's going to want to know why they aren't together anymore. How are you going to explain what happened to Sting? You know, when he started singing about turtles and ponies and became an obsessive Beanie Baby collector. What are you going to say?"

"I'll say he lives on a farm," Gloria said, laughing," and lives with a nice family."

"With plenty of space to run and play," I said.

I wrote a while back that our refrigerator had broken. Because of the age of our unit and the cost of repair, we wound up getting a new one.

[digression: the box for the new fridge was absolutely HUGE, and we had to keep it for the first month in case we needed to make a return. So we had the box in the garage (it was almost scraping the ceiling, seemingly) and it said "REFRIGERATOR" in big letters, and a neighbor walked up and said "I see you got a new fridge."

"What makes you say that?" I asked.

end digression]

The new fridge was a "side-by-side," and it had an in-door water dispenser, which is the first time we've ever had that convenience.

Last week, Gloria walked in on me as I was, um, experimenting in the kitchen.

"Oh, MY GOD!" she said, laughing. "What are you doing?"

"Trying to drink from the water dispenser with a straw," I said.

"You really are the laziest man on Earth," she said.

"This way I don't have to use a cup," I said. I'm conserving. It's all about being green."

Really, it's not. It's really about how freaking cool it would be to drink from a water dispenser with a straw.

"Good grief," she said.

"I really need a bigger straw," I said. "None of these are really big enough to completely fit around the nozzle."

"And now, in spite of my horror, I find myself helping you," she said, opening up the cabinet and looking at Eli 7.9's collection of cups. "Here," she said, handing me a plastic bendy straw.

I drank. Deeply. "Oh, yes," I said. "Oh, yes."

It's at this point that I should insert some clever variation of veni, vidi, vici, because "I came, I saw, I drank" in Latin would be quite nice here, but I can't do the translation. [it's "veni, vidi, bibi," thanks to Peter Thompson and others]

Later, when Eli 7.9 came home from school, Gloria said "Ask YOUR FATHER what he spent his time on today?"

"What were you doing, Dad?" he asked.

"Trying to figure out how to drink from the refrigerator with a straw," I said.

"OH, DAD!" he said, laughing all the way to the couch, where he fell over. "Dad, LET ME SEE!"

And so I did.

Monday, May 25, 2009

A Loathsome Device (#3)

I practiced on Saturday.

I practice every day now. Whether I want to or not is completely irrelevant. Nobody cares, including me. I just go practice.

On Saturday, I went to the Basketball Court Fence Of Despair and started working. In short order, I realized that I'd forgotten my wrist gloves. I'd parked quite a ways away from the court, because there was an AAU track meet at the high school, and I just decided to go without gloves.

It's not like I'm going to fall and break my wrist, right?

As I rode and frequently grabbed the chain link fence, I felt my hand getting jabbed every so often. I still didn't go get my gloves, but resolved to touch the fence less, although "resolve" is no substitute for "actual skill."

I'd totally forgotten that chain link fences have little metal burrs every so often, and the burrs are sharp.

[in lieu of car crash scene, temporarily switch to active tense for dramatic effect]

It's hellishly hot, I'm sweating profusely, it sucks, and then I look at my hands. They're bloody. I've got cuts all over my hands from where I grabbed the fence. At that moment, I realize that I'm only two thousand extras away from making a Mel Gibson skateboarding movie.

I went back on Sunday, with my hands still hurting like hell. I rode twenty-one feet three times. I rode that far once on Friday, which was the first time I'd ever gone that far. In another two weeks or so of daily practice, this will be over, and I'll be riding fifty feet with no problem.

I'm just not looking forward to the next two weeks.


Today, I went to the high school and it was stinking hot. There were kids on the basketball court, so I couldn't use the fence. The tennis courts were locked up. The only place I could take off from was a little section of fence right next to this giant bag of garbage. It had split open, it stunk, and it was five feet away from me.


I was mad about all that, at first, and then I was riding horribly and I got madder. I was tired of practicing. I thought up an abusive name for the unicycle. I was dropping f-bombs about every twenty seconds.

Finally, I got so mad that "mad" was no longer an appropriate word. It was a mutation of mad into a whole new kind of anger.

This was a good thing.

Seriously, it was. Do you know how there are certain points in certain games that just make you want to scream? It's either unfair or so precise that it's almost impossible to get past, and after failing dozens of times, you either quit the game in disgust or decide that it's on.

Many times, you'll quit. Sometimes, though, it's on. And when it's on, your whole approach changes. You don't care how long it takes. You don't care if it's unfair. All you care about is getting past the level. And your anger is like fuel that keeps you going.

Well, at that moment when being mad mutated into something else, I realized it was on. Actually, it wasn't on--it was F---ING ON.

So I hit half an hour (which is a long time on a unicycle) and kept going. I hit an hour and kept going. The kids left the basketball court and I kept going. I rode and rode and rode.

It felt good to feel that moment again, that moment when your will goes from flexible to fixed. And yes, I'm entirely aware of the irony of rediscovering my will on a device that is used by clowns in the circus.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week is a link from David Gloier to what must be the most bizarre and intricate prank ever. It's called The Future Shock: A Three Year Cross-Country Adventure To Save The World. I can't even describe it adequately--you just have to read it. It's The Truman Show, sort of, in real life.

I've mentioned Jack Kerouac's fascination with baseball before, as well as a fantasy baseball game of his own design that he played (and documented) for years, but here's a New York Times article that discusses it in more depth.

From my wife, in what must be the greatest headline ever, it's Duck Genitals Locked In Arms Race.

From Dan Quock, a link to some astonishing footage shot by the I-Movix SprintCam, which shoots up to 2500FPS. No, that's not a typo--twenty-five hundred frames per second.

From Sirius, a link to a remarkable moment in history: May 15, 1953, when 23-year-old Stanley Miller published his work on creating amino acids. In a jar. Here's an excerpt:
The experiment was simple. Miller and his advisor at the University of Chicago, Harold Urey, built the apparatus you see at the right to “duplicate a primitive atmosphere of the earth.” They combined ingredients they believed were part of Earth’s primordial soup — circulated water, ammonia, methane, and hydrogen — and zapped the concoction with electricity as a stand-in for lightning flashes.

“During the run the water in the flask became noticeably pink after the first day, and by the end of the week the solution was deep red and turbid,” Miller wrote.

When he took the water out and analyzed it, sure enough, half of the amino acids used to make proteins in living cells appeared, as you can see from the hand-labeled
chromatograph above.

Here's another excellent link from Sirius: Physicists Create Universe Smaller Than A Marble. And one more--a story about the Maleo, a bird who buries its eggs in the sand (they're incubated by the heat), and when the chicks are born, they're fledged and ready to fly. Also in this story is a useful fact: if you're trying to find the equator on a map (and it's not already marked), the horizontal extension of the island of Sulawesi is your guide.

More links from David Gloier, and they're all excellent. First, a link to a time-lapse film of a tanker making a night run through the Houston Ship Channel to Galveston Bay. If you ever wanted to know just how a immense a ship channel can be, this will show you quite well. And here's one more excellent time-lapse film: time lapse video of the night sky as it passes over...the galactic core of the Milky Way is brightly displayed.

From Andrew B, a link to another lost robot experiment, where a robot asks bystanders for directions, but this experiment focuses on the technology of the robot (and it's amazing). Here's another, and it's right up the alley of most of us: Top 10 Technologies That Burnt Early Adopters. I only bought three.

From Tateru Nino, a link to some absolutely ass-kicking sand castles.

From Tim Steffes, a link to a collection of the "most obscure and rare words in the English language." It's the Grandiloquent Dictionary .

If that story about the tree growing in a man's lung wasn't strange enough for you, Geoff Engelstein sent in a link that tops it: fish found in boy's penis.

From Michael Clayton, a link seemingly straight out of Brazil (the movie): world's smallest car built out of children's ride.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to an article about neutron stars and an amazing possibility: the crust of neutron stars could be 10 billion times stronger than steel.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

The Crowd

Gloria's study is in the front of the house, facing the street, and sometimes at night she forgets that the blinds are open and sits in, um, "dressarray." In other words, she'll have her nightie on.

"I've been wanting to speak to a large group of people lately, so thanks for sitting there in a baby doll," I said. "Let me just quickly review my notes."

"Oh, good grief," she said. "It's a cul-de-sac. There's no one out there."

"Well, let's see," I said, walking over to the window and looking out. "There are four guys in tents...two more cars are pulling up...looks like a crowd is guy is offering valet parking...there's a guy with a sign...hold on, he might be protesting."

"You can go now," she said.

An Expansionary Post

I was driving Eli 7.9 to soccer practice last week and we passed a person dressed in a devil's suit (holding up a business sign of some sort). Red face, horns, pitchfork--the full package.

Oh, and enormous boobs.

"Did you see that woman?" I asked as we drove by.

"I think that was a MAN," Eli said.

"No, that was definitely a woman," I said. "Did you see her chest?"

"Her chest?" Eli asked. "You mean it was hairy?"

"No, if it was hairy, then it would be a man," I said. "Usually."

"Are you SURE it wasn't a man?"

"Dude, did you see her b--" I caught myself, because I've never used "boobs" or "boobies" around him before, and he'll hear them soon enough, I'm sure. "Um, did you see her breasts?"

"Breast?" he asked. "What's a BREAST?"

I know that he knows what a breast is, but a seven-year old's brain is so packed full of new things that sometimes he just forgets stuff. "Um, you know, that place between the stomach and the neck," I said, flailing wildly.

"You mean the ARMPIT?" he asked.

"No, not that," I said. "You know--breasts! Like what your mom has that we don't."

"Oh!" he said. "You mean the EXPANSION of the NIPPLE."

"That sounds about right," I said.

"Compared to us, those things are HUGE," he said.

The Best Gaming News You've Had All Year...

...if you have a PS3.

Demon's Souls Coming To U.S.

Trust me.

A Loathsome Device (#2)

So, I rode 540 yards on the unicycle yesterday.

How do I know that? There are two outdoor basketball courts at a high school near our house, and a fence around the outside, and it's a great place to practice. In my semi-treasured status as "worst kid in class," having a fence to grab onto when I'm about to lose my balance is perfect for me.

I'm not sure what it feels like to ride a unicycle for 500+ yards when you're actually riding the whole time. Maybe it doesn't feel that bad. But riding that far while you're grabbing the fence every ten feet is an outright bitch.

As feeble as that sounds, though, I'm getting better. I realized last weekend that, by almost any definition, I was failing to learn the skill. This was kind of a slap in the face, and my usual approach at this point is to dig in and double down. So I've been practicing every day, and it's starting to make a difference. I told Eli 7.9 that we're going to ride laps on the track together this summer, and we're going to do it, even if it kills me.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

A Great Idea

I've written many times that we, as gaming consumers, are getting screwed.

Publishers can ship games that are fatally buggy, and if not enough copies are sold to make it economically worthwhile to develop patches, those games are often abandoned in their disastrous state. Even games that sell well are often declared "finished" in a markedly unfinished state.

Do you know how many rights we have as gaming consumers? In the U.S., at least, it's an easy answer: none.

Zero. Zip. The only "right" we have is to not purchase the product.

Even worse, in addition to screwing us as consumers, it allows shoddy developers to stay in business--if their marketing department is good enough. If we could return games that get released in alpha condition, those games would stop being released. It would only need to happen with a few titles for publishers to understand that they couldn't ship out "the boat with a thousand holes."

The current environment actually punishes good developers who release quality products, because people have limited amounts of disposable income, and every time they buy an unfinished game (because of marketing hype, usually) and can't return it, that's less money they can spend with the developers who actually do finish their games.

So it's not just consumers who are getting screwed here.

Now, incredibly, the European Union is proposing changes that, at least for member nations, would confront this head-on.

The proposal is to expand Directive 1999/44/EC (known as the "EU Sales and Guarantee Directive") to include licensed software. That would give consumers a two-year period to claim that the software is "non-conforming," which could entitle them to a refund.

Here's the entire section dealing with consumer rights:
Rights of the consumer
1. The seller shall be liable to the consumer for any lack of conformity which exists at the time the goods were delivered.
2. In the case of a lack of conformity, the consumer shall be entitled to have the goods brought into conformity free of charge by repair or replacement, in accordance with paragraph 3, or to have an appropriate reduction made in the price or the contract rescinded with regard to those goods, in accordance with paragraphs 5 and 6.
3. In the first place, the consumer may require the seller to repair the goods or he may require the seller to replace them, in either case free of charge, unless this is impossible or disproportionate.
A remedy shall be deemed to be disproportionate if it imposes costs on the seller which, in comparison with the alternative remedy, are unreasonable, taking into account:
- the value the goods would have if there were no lack of conformity,
- the significance of the lack of conformity, and
- whether the alternative remedy could be completed without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
Any repair or replacement shall be completed within a reasonable time and without any significant inconvenience to the consumer, taking account of the nature of the goods and the purpose for which the consumer required the goods.
4. The terms "free of charge" in paragraphs 2 and 3 refer to the necessary costs incurred to bring the goods into conformity, particularly the cost of postage, labour and materials.
5. The consumer may require an appropriate reduction of the price or have the contract rescinded:
- if the consumer is entitled to neither repair nor replacement, or
- if the seller has not completed the remedy within a reasonable time, or
- if the seller has not completed the remedy without significant inconvenience to the consumer.
6. The consumer is not entitled to have the contract rescinded if the lack of conformity is minor.

Yes, the two-year period seems excessive and should be shortened. But do you guys see anything else unreasonable? I sure don't. If a publisher releases a seriously broken game, consumers should have rights that they can exercise. To argue otherwise is ludicrous.

Consumers having no rights of return is anti-competitive. It places the focus for financial success, in many cases, on marketing departments instead of the quality of the product.

I don't believe that quality companies would be hurt by this directive at all, because their development process, from a consumer standpoint, isn't broken. But we all know that their are publishers who essentially use the first month (or several months) after release of a PC game as the extended beta test. This is broken, and it wouldn't exist (or would only rarely exist) if we had any rights as consumers to reject software that wasn't finished.

The response to this proposal was, predictably, ridiculous:
Dr Richard Wilson, head of the video games developers' association Tiga, said a balance between consumers and developers was needed.

"They have to be careful not to stifle new ideas," he told the BBC.

"Consumers need good quality products - that is only reasonable - but if the legislation is too heavy-handed it could make publishers and developers very cautious.

A balance? Where exactly is that balance today? And this legislation would make publishers and developers "cautious" about what? About releasing barely-tested shit? Well, I have one word for that: hooray!

One of my long-standing complaints about publishers is that while they constantly complain about piracy and the used game market, very few accept responsibility for shipping finished product. So I'm not going to cry any tears when suddenly they have that responsibility forced upon them.

Then there's the Business Software Alliance, and they're even funnier:
In a written statement for the BBC, the BSA's director of public policy - Francisco Mingorance, said:

"Digital content is not a tangible good and should not be subject to the same liability rules as toasters. It is contractually licensed to consumers and not sold.

"These contracts are governed by civil law that provide consumers with multitude of remedies for breach of contract. We are not aware of any shortcomings of the legal frameworks with respect to digital content."

Really? And how many of those remedies have been successfully exercised--ever? That "multitude of remedies" is, in essense, zero remedies.

Would this be disruptive to the software industry? Yes, particularly to the development houses who ship betas. Or alphas.

It's about time.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Console Post Of The Week (#2): Sony

Here's the problem:

The graph shows, in millions of units, each fiscal year from launch for all three generations of the Playstation platform. The yellow addition to the PS3 line is what Sony is projection for FY2009.

[As always, this note: Sony changed accounting methods beginning in FY2007, from "production shipments" to "recorded sales." As best I can determine, "recorded sales" means "shipments to retailers," not actual consumer purchases.]

In many ways, the first two fiscal years of all three Playstation generations are similar, and the second year striking so: 9.2M, 9.2M, and 9.12M, respectively.

Then, however, it gets ugly. If you look at the next two years (including Sony's projected 13M for the PS3 in FY2009, you get this:

So no matter how many times Sony tries to imply it, the PS3 is not the PS2, or the PS1. It's far too expensive, it's always going to be chasing on price, and it's never going to get the same market penetration as its predecessors. Just last week, in Sony Tokyo's earning briefing, CFO Nobuyuki Oneda confirmed that the cost to Sony of a PS3 is still 10% above the retail price, and that's with a retail price that is still far too high! It could take the PS3 three years from launch (or more) to even MATCH the launch price of the PS2. That's incredible.

Sony has acknowledged how badly the PS3 project has been managed, although not in words, necessarily. They've replaced so many members of senior management that hardly anyone is left, seemingly, and appointing an "outsider" (Howard Stringer) to run the company was certainly a watershed moment for a Japanese company that has traditionally been deeply insular. No, that wasn't entirely due to the PS3, but it was certainly a factor.

Howard Stringer recently gave an interview to Nikkei Electronics Asia, and although this interview hasn't been widely cited, he made some relatively astonishing (for Sony) statements. Here are a few excerpts:
We developed brand new, absolutely incredible technology for the PlayStation 3 (PS3), but the cost was high. We've adopted a slightly different approach now, and are evolving the PS3 into a platform for Web services...

A lot of people thought Sony's content download service was doomed, but it's in a pretty good place right now in the form of the PlayStation Network, available to PS3 users for network gaming, video, etc. The DRM is based on Marlin, an open scheme developed by consumer electronics companies and other companies.

What does all this mean? Very simply, it means that Sony has begun the transition from a closed system to an open one. Next we will be expanding the PlayStation Network to hardware other than the PS3, because the number of PS3 units sold puts a limit on the scale of the network possible.

That seems significant, for several reasons. First, he's clearly waving the white flag for the traditional Playstation business model, and even waving the white flag for what seemed to be the original business model for the PS3. "Evolving" the PS3 into a platform for web services and "expanding" the Playstation Network to other hardware translates into this: the PS3 cost too much, they couldn't sell enough of them, they're not going to sell enough of them, and they got tired of taking an ass-kicking in their earnings reports.

In other words, the closed system arrogance appears to be at an end. Sony simply can't afford to be that way anymore. Stringer makes some definite comments to that effect, and here are more excerpts:
We can no longer say that we're right and our customers are wrong. We can't build only what we want to build.

There was a time when it made sense to divide the market with closed technology, and monopolize a divided market, but that's just not an effective strategy any more.

Understanding customers and open technologies are not the only important things. Prices should also be reasonable and reflect what customers are willing to pay.

Then Stringer lays down the law, and seemingly, he's speaking directly to Sony employees:
The relationship between Sony and its customers is changing, even if some people at Sony may not like it. We really didn't have anything you could call a relationship back in the analog era. It was pretty simple, with the manufacturer providing products and the customer either buying them if they liked the goods, or not. The Internet and information technology have changed all that. And if we don't adapt accordingly, we will lose our customers to the competition.

It seems fairly clear from this interview that Howard Stringer gets it. He understands what's gone wrong with Sony, why it won't work anymore, and how they have to be different. Whether he can accomplish this in a company that, to some degree, seems firmly against him, remains to be seen. One thing that will probably be necessary, though, is bringing in people from outside Sony's culture. Last week, Stringer named former IBM senior executive George Bailey
[obligatory: "You're thinkin' of this place all wrong, as if I had your money back in safe! The money's not here--your money's in Joe's house, that's right next to yours, and the Kennedy house and Mrs. Mapeland's house, and a hundred others. You're lending them the money to build, and then they're gonna pay you back best they can."]

as "Chief Transformation Officer." Of note, however, is that Stringer has hired only one other "outsider" of note (Apple's Tim Schaaff) during his tenure.

This is running long, so I'm going to (finally) pull the plug, but it's going to be a grindingly painful transition for Sony. It's entirely necessary, though, if they expect to both survive and remain relevant.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Unicycle: A Loathsome Device

I wanted Eli 7.9 to learn how to ride a unicycle because I wanted him to learn what effort meant. Since the unicycle has a brutal learning curve, I expected him to fail and fail and fail.

That would be good for him.

I decided to learn with him, so that when he got discouraged, I'd be there to keep him going. Then, when he finally did learn how to ride, he'd understand that he could overcome almost any obstacle with enough effort.

Life lesson. Cue theme music.

Irony: I now despise the unicycle. I have failed and failed and failed. It does not, however, feel like it's good for me.

Eli 7.9 on the other hand, rode 100 feet during unicycle club on Friday. It could have been farther, but he just ran out of gym.

Today, we went out to practice on two outdoor basketball courts.

Very early on, he rode 125 feet. It was awesome.

Later, he started riding across the width of both courts. As he neared the side of the court, I figured he'd ridden about 140 feet, which would be another record. At that moment, he started a graceful turn and began riding back.

All told, it was 235 feet.

He's only been doing this for two months, and sporadically at that.

Meanwhile, I was riding along the edge of the courts, holding on to a fence.

I'm just waiting for him to say "Dad, I'm proud of you for continuing to try. Learning to ride the unicycle is hard, but when you can do it, you'll know that you can do anything."

Cue theme music.

Console Post Of The Week (#1): A Puzzling Oddity

It's been repeated so often now that it's accepted as gospel: the Wii and DS don't have games for "hardcore" gamers. They aren't "hardcore" platforms.

Okay, to begin with, I have no idea WTF "hardcore" even means anymore.

Let's say, though, for the purposes of discussion, that a "hardcore" gamer spends more his time gaming than the general population, he spends more money on games, and he's more likely to play an "M" rated game. We don't need to know the dividing lines on those categories, exactly, just that they exist.

I have no argument with the notion that games labeled as "hardcore" aren't selling well on the DS and the Wii. Grand Theft Auto: Chinatown Wars for the DS sold only 89,000 copies in its first two weeks after release, and it sold 74,000 copies in April (which Matt Matthews notes may have been influenced by a Best Buy sale that dropped the price to $20).

Chinatown Wars has been incredibly well-reviewed and almost universally praised.

Madworld for the Wii, a wildly exuberant game that received solid-if-not-great reviews, sold only 66,000 copies in March. I've played it, and I don't think anyone who did so would question its "hardcore" nature.

I've seen plenty of opinion pieces about these sales figures and what they mean, but there's one angle that everyone seems to be missing, and it's important.

The installed base of the DS in the U.S. is 30 million units. The installed base of the Wii in the U.S. just crossed 20 million units.

It would be laughable to allege that only the "non-hardcore" are buying these systems. Almost everyone I know who plays games has a DS, and a good percentage of those people are in the "hardcore" category. To a lesser extent, that's true of the Wii as well.

Even if only 5% of the people who buy a DS or Wii fall into the "hardcore" category, that still translates to 1.5 million DS owners and 1 million Wii owners. And I think that percentage is an incredibly low estimate, particularly for the DS.

So the story inside the story, at least to me, is that hardcore gamers who own the DS and the Wii aren't buying the hardcore games. It's not just the casual demographic ignoring the games--it's the hardcore demographic, too. Joey Hardcore, who owns a 360, PS3, and DS, and who buys M-rated games all the time, isn't buying them for his DS.

It's the same story with Madworld. If even a decent number of the "hardcore" bought Madworld, the sales numbers would have been just fine, but they didn't.

To me, that's a far more interesting story than the casual gamer not being interested in more mature content.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Friday Links!

Let's get started--just refuse to open or answer your door for the next hour.

From Robert, a link to a story that is so outstanding it almost sounds made up (but it's not): parasitic flies turn ants into zombies.

Yes, that is most certainly delicious. Here's an excerpt:
The flies "dive-bomb" the fire ants and lay eggs. The maggot that hatches inside the ant eats away at the brain, and the ant starts exhibiting what some might say is zombie-like behavior.

They're being tested as a way to control fire ants, in case you're wondering. Or maybe that's just a waystation on their way to world domination.

Allen Varney let me know (after I linked to Kim Graham's Troll sculpture last week) that there's a detailed account of how she constructed the troll here. Plus she just seems like an interesting artist, because there's lot's more on her home page here.

From Sirius, a link to a story over at Wired about a viral "missing link," and it's a fascinating story. Here's the lead:
A virus so large and strange that it’s redefined the very concept of a virus has been photographed for the first time. It’s even weirder than expected.

Next, the hobbits are back, and now it does look like they're a separate species.

From Jarod, a link to an epic (and I mean that in a great bad kind of way) website featuring awkward family photos. Oh, and one more photo link--to a gigapixel photograph of Vancouver. Yes, Vancouver is that beautiful, and yes, there's apparently a naked woman somewhere in the photograph. Oh, and you can keep zooming in on that image and it stays clear.

Here's a link to another amazing image--an aerial virtual tour of New York City (thanks to Julian Bell).

From Dave Alpern, a link to the "three best visual illusions" of 2008.

From Randy, a link to the works of sand artists Paul Hoggard and Remy Geerts, and they are just amazing (there's a slide show on the front page).

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to an unexpected benefit from the new emphasis on scanning literary "treasures"--the ability to scan and read ancient texts that were once thought unreadable. And some of what's been found is incredible. Next, and this is a wonderful link, is the story of Wilson's ants. Edward Osborne Wilson is the scientist who discovered that ants used chemical signals in communication, and even this brief story is fascinating. You'll find out the story behind quite a historical oddity--"Stalin's ant."

From Dan Quock, a link to a video of more Kondo robot battles. These are hobbyist robots built using kits, and one of the robots in the first final (which is the second video on page) is pretty amazing. Also, a link to The Hunt For Gollum, a 40-minute Lord Of The Rings fan film made with a budget of $5000. Don't let the budget fool you, though--it's quite impressive.

Loren Halek of Colony Of Gamers sent me a link to a much more detailed compendium of what's happened in the world since Duke Nuke Forever was announced.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Please Note

I put up the console post, then realized about two minutes later (fortunately) that I'd used March 2007 numbers for comparison with April instead of April 2007. Fixed.

Console Post of the Week: NPD's, Sony Earnings

April NPD numbers:

Wow. That is a dramatically horrible month. Look at numbers for April 2008 in comparison:

Here's how bad that 340,000 is for Nintendo: excluding severe supply issues in January 2008, it's the first time since July of 2007 that the Wii has sold less than 400,000 units in the U.S.

Here's how bad that 175,000 is for Microsoft: it's the worst month they've had since July of 2007, and while it's not their worst month ever in the U.S. (that would be May 2007, with 155,000 units), it's not far away. It's the first time they've had similar sales number to the April-July 2007 period (which was when everyone was screaming for a price cut).

Here's how bad that 127,000 is for Sony: In the last 17 months, that's the worst month Sony has had--by 58,000 units. Those are pre-price cut numbers.

In short, April was a disaster for everyone. For one company, though, help is on the way soon (not "this fixes everything" help, but "it's better than nothing" help). Please keep reading.

Sony released their FY08 earnings report today, so let's take a look.

Overall, they lost $1.299B, but that's not really our area of interest, so let's keep moving.

The game division lost $597M. That's a considerable improvement over FY07, though (a loss of $1.245B).

Worldwide individual platform sales:
PS2 (7.91M, down by 5.75M)
PS3 (10.06M, up by 0.94M)

Worldwide software sales:
PS2 (83.5M, down 70.5M)
PS3 (103.7M, up 45.8M)

Sony's announced target for the PS3 was 10M, so they made it--a staggering growth rate (tongue firmly in cheek here) of 10%.

Software, though, is a much better story, with significant growth, and while the PS3 software library certainly still pales compared to the 360, it is improving.

More interesting, though, are the forecasts for FY09.

At the company level, Sony is forecasting a loss of $98.9M. Again, not our thing, so let's keep moving.

In the gaming division, PS3 sales are forecast at 13M, or up almost 30%.

There you go. There's your price cut verification right there, although it's a double-edged sword. It's 100% guaranteed that Sony is going to cut the price of the PS3, because they're not going to grow 30% (or at all) at the current price, but it also means that the PS3 probably only drops to $349, because a drop to $299 (and the equivalent worldwide) would result in growth far higher than 30%.

Interestingly, they project total software sales (PS3, PS2, PSP) to be essentially flat compared to FY08, but I think that's mainly due to loss of PS2 sales. So PS3 software sales will increase (but since they don't break out the forecast by platform, there's no way of knowing what they expect at a platform level).

Again, Sony is strangely passive when it comes to the PS3. Yes, 30% growth sounds reasonably impressive until you consider that it's 30% growth from the position of being #3 (last, in other words) worldwide. They're basically conceding that they're still going to be #3 in terms of installed base in March, 2010, and will make up little or no ground on Microsoft.

Gaming Link

I know, it's usually link(s), but I've been wanting to link to Matt Sakey's new Culture Clash column for several days, and I'm tired of waiting. This month, Matt talks about Demigod and the larger issue of DRM.


Justin sent me a link last weekend.

I get lots of links from you guys. Lots. I pull them up, see if I think they'd fit into the Friday links post, and move on.

This link, though, was a video of a four-year-old named Joe.

Joe plays the drums, and the video I watched was Joe playing the drums. Oh, and he was playing the drums to "Won't Get Fooled Again."

Yes, that's right. He's four and he's playing one of the signature performances in rock drumming history. And he's KILLING it. Plus the look on his face tells you everything you ever need to know about why the drums are so much fun to play.

Here's the video: Joe. Oh, and if you're really lazy (who isn't?), skip to the 1:15 mark in the video if you want to see a sample of Joe absolutely tearing it up.

Stinkaphonic (#3)

Brad Gallaway of Game Critics let me know that they put time played in their reviews. Here's an example (from the Shellshock 2: Blood Trails review):
Disclosures: This game was obtained via rental and reviewed on the Xbox 360. Approximately 10 hours of play was devoted to single-player modes (completed 2 times).

That kicks ass. Well done.

An Actual Conversation

Gloria bought this soap about two weeks ago that produced the most painful shower I've ever taken. It had these "abrasive bits" in it, which were supposed to stimulate your skin, and if by stimulate they mean "make your entire body feel like it's bleeding" then I agree with them.

Strangely, though, after the pain stopped and the blood clotted, I realized that it felt kind of good.

I called Gloria this morning from work.

"Hello?" Gloria answered the phone.

"Hi, honey," I said. "Hey, I'm sorry that your deadly soap isn't in the dish."

"Deadly soap?"

"You know, the one made out of pumice and broken glass. I decided to use it this morning, because I thought if I screamed for five minutes it would really energize me. So I was in the shower and I'd finished using it, but I didn't want to carry it out after the shower, because then my hand would be soapy again, so I tried to pitch it out of the shower into your sink, which I did, and for a moment I thought it was going to leap out of the sink and actually land in the soap dish, which would have been the greatest moment of my life, but it missed the dish, and I forgot to pick it up off the counter."

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Music You Might Like

A few weeks ago, Rob Varak e-mailed me and asked if I'd ever heard of an Austin band named "Black Joe Lewis."

Well, I hadn't, but DAMN, I have now.

It's a rhythm and blues/soul band, and the reason I'd never heard of them is because they hardly ever play here. They're a national act now, so they only play in Austin a few nights a year.
Here's a two-word summary of their music: smoking hot. Smoking!

Seriously, you are going to absolutely love these guys. Plus, their entire album is up on their MySpace Music page, and there's not a single weak song. Don't complain to me when you immediately go order their CD.

A few of the songs have "explicit lyrics" (an occasional curse word lobbed in here and there), so put on your headphones and get busy.

Black Joe Lewis MySpace Music

Last weekend, I was randomly looking at music videos from the Jools Holland show on YouTube, and I saw a woman named Asa. She's a soul singer from Nigeria, but she also has a strong hint of reggae influence, and I've only rarely heard a female reggae singer. It's beautiful, powerful music, and she has a nice selection of songs on her MySpace Music page.

I'll tell you this: MySpace Music is the bomb. There is nothing better than hearing music you like, popping over to MySpace Music, and immediately getting to listen to half a dozen songs (or more).

"Tony" (follow-up)

I wrote about "Tony" two weeks ago, and you guys sent in some thoughtful and interesting analysis, based on how I described Tony's behavior. I'm going to use these comments anonymously, because this is a sensitive subject, but like I said, they're thoughtful and worth sharing. In order of submission, we have the following.

I am a teacher (and we learn to look out for these things), and it sounds like that kid needs to be checked for Oppositional Defiant Disorder. I had a 7th grade student with this problem, and things only get more unpleasant as they get older. Of course, even for a teacher, bringing this sort of thing up with parents can be difficult.

You say he's willful, but maybe it's just something in Tony that is more willful then Tony.

I'm not saying that this next bit might be it or anything like that, but an explanation why this caught my attention.

An aspect of something I got to deal with last year was ADHD. What this is that biochemically the brakes on the brains don't work well.

In ADD this means that thoughts go where-ever they want to go regardless what's in front of someone. The extra H in ADHD, the 'hyperactivity' is basically poor impulse control.

So when someone says to not press this big red button your immediate instinct is to press the button to see what happens. But you can 'catch' the impulse, put it aside and then forget it.

With ADHD it takes a constant effort of willpower just to have something like a stream of consciousness. The willpower it takes to control an impulse is something quite beyond what a kid can do (though an adult might, which is why it was thought that kids 'grew out' of ADHD).

What I am saying is that there might actually be a 'disability' as you put it.
That Tony does what he does because he can't help it. And he then would cry if he's being punished because he tries so hard, and it takes so much effort to do right when he can or not to do worse or not to do wrong all the time.

From your description, it sounds like "Tony" might be a case of High-Functioning Autism. HFA children are pretty normal in most ways: motor skills, cognitive thinking, etc.; but they are almost completely void of basic social skills. Failure to greet/acknowledge people, talking at inappropriate times or speaking on subjects that are irrelevant to the current conversation, focusing obsessively on a single subject, frequent outbursts of expression, inability to relate to peers, routinely drifting off to "own little world." All of these are symptoms of HFA or Asperger's Syndrome, something Bill Gates had a form of as a child, and are part of what's known as Autism Spectrum Disorders.

I speak from experience-- my son was diagnosed as HFA/Asperger's. He's 9 now, and although he has friends at school and gets along well with people in general, he has a very difficult time holding normal conversations with them. When he becomes interested in a certain subject (his current fixation is Transformers-- he can tell you the name of nearly every TF from any series), almost all of his conversations must contain something about that subject, whether it fits or not. Often times, it's extremely difficult to break or interrupt his attention on his favorite subject to get him to focus in class or participate in group activities (he's in Scouts) as a result. The thing is, once you understand what's going on with children like this, it becomes difficult to walk the fine line between proper discipline and encouragement with them as an authority figure. But does make it somewhat easier to deal with in general.

Your comment "He's just kind of bizarrely inappropriate, like a kid who's never been around another kid in his whole life and doesn't know how to act" stood out to me.

On a hunch, head to wikipedia for:
Asperger's Syndrome

Ask his dad if "Tony" thinks of the world as a set of black and white rules, not relations of people that have shades of gray between the black and the white.

Also observe if "Tony", when he talks to someone, watches the movement of their mouth instead of the focus of their eyes.

It's not a guarantee, but as variants of autism often go undiagnosed, it's helpful to go through a mental checklist.

Part of autism/Asperger's is not being born with the "relationship manual" already in the brain, and having to learn proper relating by trial and error, and/or direct education of a set of rules.

Autism/Asperger's does not excuse poor behavior, but it can indicate that "good behavior" must be explained, in meticulous detail, not just modeled.

If Tony is somewhere on the spectrum of it, his dad may or may not know, or know, but be in denial.

The above info is offered to you as a way of possibly constructively working on a relationship with Tony, who might have a desperate need for order, structure and rules of behavior, but not know how to ask for it. It may be necessary to specifically state directly to him, "nnn is a rule for anyone on the soccer team" as opposed to "don't go to yyy place because zzz." He might even need "nnn is a rule for you, when you are with this team."

Like I said, thoughtful and interesting analysis of what might be going on with "Tony," and I appreciate you guys taking the time to think about what I wrote and consider the possibilities.

Duke Nukem Forever

Ben Younkins sent me a link to a Jeremy Parish blog post over at 1UP, and this excerpt in particular perfectly sums up Duke Nukem Forever:

First announced in PC Gamer magazine back in 1997, Forever was shown before the original Half-Life launched, before the Dreamcast hit Japan, before either Game Boy Advance or Game Boy Color existed, before Microsoft's buyout of Bungie, and before Medal of Honor launched the whole damn World War II shooter genre. In the time since the game's revelation, empires have risen and fallen, or rather fallen and risen: Nintendo has gone from being the industry's top dog to a moot has-been to top dog again.

Here's another slice. In 1997, Intel released the Pentium II CPU.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Days

I've been thinking about baseball over the last few days, and after Eli 7.9's soccer game this Saturday (2 goals, a 2-0 win), an idea fell into place when I remembered something about my childhood.

I grew up in a town of 7,302 people. When I was a boy, I counted the days until I was old enough to play Little League baseball.

We didn't have any other sports leagues. No soccer, no football, no basketball.

So we didn't even have any other sports leagues. And yet, somehow, in this tiny town, we had a real ballpark for the Little League games. It was this pristine little jewel that backed up to City Hall, with the greenest, smoothest grass and a red dirt infield. Fences, bleachers, dugouts, lights for night games, everything--it was a real ballpark, and I loved playing there. And every boy my age played baseball--literally, every single boy.

That's how important baseball was in 1969.

Forty years later, in a city with over 750,000 people, I know two boys who play baseball. They're brothers. I know a huge number of kids, and they have no interest in baseball. They don't watch it. They don't even know the rules.

Eli 7.9 has a glove and a bat. Once a month or so, we'll play catch and I'll pitch batting practice for him. He enjoys it, but not in the sense of having any continuing interest--it's just one of fifty things we can go out and play.

I'm sure that youth baseball still has regional pockets of interest, but it's a sea change in forty years.

Guitar Hero: Dilution

From Gamasutra:
Talking following the Activision results, CEO Robert Kotick reveals the Guitar Hero franchise is the third game in history to reach $2 billion in sales, criticizing a "rather precipitous [sales] falloff" for MTV's rival music game Rock Band.

Damn, Robert, did you misspeak? I think you meant to say that you've RELEASED two billion Guitar Hero games.

On Friday, I was in Target and saw Guitar Hero: Aerosmith on clearance for $39.95. That's the game and TWO Les Paul controllers for forty bucks.

I'm happy for Bobby and his $2 billion franchise, but Activision is drowning the market in product. This fall, we get Guitar Hero 5, DJ Hero, and Band Hero, and don't forget Guitar Hero: Van Halen this summer, along with Guitar Hero: Metallica released barely a month ago. That's not even including Guitar Hero: Arcade, an arcade machine that we saw at the movies on Friday. Then there's the newly-announced animated series Guitar Hero: Hero, the fictional treament Guitar Hero: The Book, and the newly-announced Guitar Hero: That Guy You Saw Play Once At A Bookstore Who Released His Own CD.

I think what Activision is trying to do is release three Guitar Hero games or spinoffs for each game that Harmonix puts out. Hey, if we put out 3X the games, then people will spend 3X as many dollars on our games as theirs, right?

The problem, though, is that there's already a quality gap between the Rock Band and Guitar Hero franchises, and given the amount of dilution that Activision is inevitably creating here with all the different games, that gap will probably increase.

Maybe it won't matter. Maybe Guitar Hero has such gigantic name recognition that they will be successful indefinitely. As a long-term approach, though, I think the focus of the Rock Band brand (and Harmonix) on quality is a more strategic approach.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Stinkaphonic (Update)

The e-mail after the Stinkaphonic post last week was very interesting.

First, here's some additional perspective on the Darkfall Online review by Ed Zitron. It's not the first time he's written a relatively savage review of an MMO. Check out his PC Zone Review of Roma Victor (published October 2008)--it's very similar to the Darkfall Online review in terms of sheer snarkiness.

Chris Rasco, who is Editor-in-Chief of Snackbar Games, sent me the link. He said that Ed had written reviews for the site for a few years , and that he was a friend. He also said that the developers of Roma Victor made the same charges about playing time. Here's an excerpt from his e-mail:
They did the same exact thing with regard to saying he didn’t play the game as long as he said. I’ve “known” Ed a long time, and while he can be harsh on games, he’s a very thorough reviewer and I always had his back. If he trashed a game, it usually deserved to be trashed. I don’t have facts related to either of these reviews first hand so I can’t prove anything either way in this instance, but I wouldn’t have kept him on our staff for so long if he had questionable integrity.

That's one perspective. Another one is provided by Dennis Willett:
I played Darkfall (about 30-40 hours) - and I thought when I read that review: what is this guy's problem? Yeah, there are things wrong with Darkfall, BUT there are a number of good things - and those seemed to be completely unrepresented (for example, how Aventurine is rapidly responding in real ways to player complaints, and - for the right type of gamer - how the gameplay can be very tense and engaging).

So there you go. Ammunition for both sides.

On the other issue mentioned in the original Stinkaphonic, the e-mail was tremendously interesting because the fault lines were so clearly defined. With no exceptions, people outside gaming journalism said that including the length of time a reviewer spent with a game was an excellent idea. And also without exception, the people inside gaming journalism said it was absolutely unworkable.

It's true that there are some hard stops built into gaming journalism: the pay for doing reviews, when builds are supplied, when reviews need to be published, the fact that some games really are shit and three or four hours is plenty of time to figure it out.

Plus, even if play time was included in a review, what's to stop a reviewer from just lying about how much time they spent?

That's all true, but it's also awkward, because I think the perception of most consumers is that reviewers have finished the games they're writing about. In games that can't be really "finished," I think they assume that reviewers have put in 20+ hours, at least.

J.R. (among others) sent me a link to a new feature at Joystiq called JoystiQuitter, and it's an excellent idea. Here's the description:
If there's one thing we hate about our new focus on reviewing games here at Club Joystiq, it's having to play games that we don't like very much. But then we realized: For every second we spend playing a game we hate/just don't want to play, that's another second we can't spend telling you about a good game, or putting hilarious captions on pictures of cats.

So, we'd like to humbly introduce Joystiquitter, where we tell you what we thought, why we stopped playing and just how long it took for the game to break our spirits.

I think this is a far more interesting idea than writing a straight review, and probably far more honest as well--we find out how long they played and why they quit.

Mother's Day

"I hope you're not disappointed with your Mother's Day Gifts," I said to Gloria as I handed her a gift bag.

"Well, you guys didn't have to get me anything," she said.

"Expectations met!" I said brightly. Actually, she got flowers, an Asa CD, and a comprehensive guide to restaurants in Austin (she's a restaurant hound), so she did just fine.

We were on our way home from Mother's Day Brunch (I recommend packing mace and a trebuchet to fight the crowds), and for some reason, I pointed to a restaurant on an interstate access road and said "Eli, that's where I met your mom."

"Really?" Eli asked.

Well, um, no. Our friend Ellen called me from that restaurant (I think, although this is also in dispute) and said that I should come meet her and Gloria for lunch. I didn't.

"The first time I met your Dad," Gloria said, with metronome-like precision, "was when we went out to the County Line." County Line is a locally famous barbecue restaurant.

"Really?" Eli asked.

Well, um, no. That was wrong, too.

"That was our first date," I said, "but I met her at her house when she threw a going away party for Ellen."

"What? You didn't come to that party," she said.

"This explains why you didn't call me back for a month," I said. "You didn't even think I was there."

"I'm sure you didn't--oh, wait. You WERE there!" she said, and at that point, she got very embarrassed. Mortified, actually. Women pride themselves on having an encyclopedic knowledge of such things.

"I remember that County Line date so vividly," she said, and launched into a long, very specific recounting.

"Eli, this is important," I said. "When you've forgotten something really important, try to work your way back by talking about something else you remember really, really well." Eli 7.9 laughed.

"I can't believe I forgot that!" Gloria said.

"Dad forgot, too," Eli said.

"I did, but it doesn't bother me," I said.

"He has his strengths," Eli said to Gloria.

My mom (who went with us) asked Eli to describe our personalities. He described me first, then thought for a few seconds about his mom. "Well, she's funny," he said. "And she's thin."

"Well done, my man," I said. "Always get in the thin angle."

"And she has a big head," Eli said, and we all burst out laughing.

We didn't actually send her the card at the top of this post, but I thought we should memorialize the thought, at least.

[A digression: I know that men are often accused of being tone-deaf when it comes to the needs of women, so let me give you a couple of pieces of solid-gold advice. First, if you fancy yourself a wordsmith, know this: no matter your smithing skills, no matter your cleverness, do not begin your Mother's Day limerick with
There was a young girl named Jill
Who tried dynamite for a thrill

Second, if you fancy yourself a comedian and want to write one of those humorous Mother's Day cards, do not, under any circumstances, work in the punch line "Wrecked him? Damn near killed him!"]

Friday, May 08, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week is the curious case of Snowball, the parrot who can dance. I don't mean "dance" as in "canned routine," either--he can speed up or slow down depending on the beat of the song. In other words, Snowball has rhythm, which is something that has never been observed in non-humans before. The story of how this was researched is pretty fascinating, and watching Snowball dance is incredibly funny as well. There are videos inside the link, plus here's a video of him dancing to Another One Bites The Dust.

This next link is an absolutely fantastic read, sent in by Yacine Salmi. It's an article written by the guy who (in his own words) wrote the software that turned mortgages into bonds. Yes, the man who (in some ways) created the tools to facilitate the epic train wreck.

Next, and this is so totally NSFW, it's the most inspired mash-up I've ever seen (submitted by my wife): it's Miss Piggy (and her Muppets Show companions) singing Peaches' "F-ck The Pain Away."

From Andrew B, a link to a classic pop-up book from the 1980's: a pop-up guide to the personal computer. Next, a story about the real-life inspiration for Shrek, and believe me, the likeness is unmistakeable. Then there's The Book Inscription Project, and it's exactly what it sounds like.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to images of a remarkable piece of architecture: the Khyber Ridge residence. Also, a link to a video of a McDonald's meat factory (a supplier), and whether you're fascinated or repelled is entirely up to you. Here's one more, and it's quite a bizarre read--How An Intern Stole NASA's Moon Rocks. It's a heist story, but not necessarily the kind you'd expect.

Sirius has broken the bank this week. First, in Russia they apparently drive solid-gold covered Porsches. Next, photos of an incredibly rare weather phenomenon: snow rollers. Next, from the Big Picture (and these pictures are just fantastic), it's Cassini's Continued Mission. Then there's a troll, and you really need to see this image, because it's just stunning.

A second link from Yacine Salmi, this one to the story of a writer who found his stolen laptop. The cyber-sleuthing involved was more interesting than the laptop, and it's an interesting read.

From Jarod, a link to X-ray gaming goodness, a series of x-rays of gaming hardware.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a mind-bending link: warp drive may be possible. Mind-bending because of this:
While any given object can't travel faster than light speed within space-time, theory holds, perhaps space-time itself could travel.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

Plants vs Zombies

I've played this game for about five hours in the last two days.

A few times, I've thought to myself this is fun, but I think I'll take a break. Invariably, though, I'm playing it again thirty minutes later.

Here's a brief description of the game: you're trying to defend your backyard from zombies. It's a tower defense game, basically.

Why is what is essentially a tower defense game so much fun? Well, because it's tower defense with sunflowers, and potatoes, and pea-spitting plants, and chili peppers, and corn catapults that fling huge blobs of butter to blind incoming zombies. And about two dozen other incredibly goofy items. The zombies are also extremely silly, including their costumes and how they use various kinds of equipment.

In short, it's pretty damned funny. I've laughed out loud dozens of times.

It also has the feeling of a game that's been been exhaustively playtested and balanced. One new item is introduced per level, and while the action gets fairly frantic at times, I never feel confused by what's going on.

Add in the mini-games, the level variety, and just the general goofiness of the entire game, and I think PopCap has a big hit on their hands.

It's available via Steam for only $9.99, which is a ridiculously excellent deal.

The Palace Jeweler Can Make A Tiny Home For The Princess

I was in Fry's on Sunday and say the Blu-Ray version of The 7th Voyage of Sinbad on sale for $9.99.


Eli 7.9 has never seen this movie, and while I consider an introduction to the work of Ray Harryhausen a mandatory part of any kid's education, I was concerned that the film itself (made in 1958) was going to be so dated that he wouldn't be interested.

Boy, was I wrong.

He was wowed by the special effects (which are impressive, even today), survived the kissing ("Man! There is a LOT of kissing in this movie!"), and thought it was absolutely hilarious that a Cyclops was trying to turn a barbecue spit (it was).

The movie holds up amazingly well, considering that it was released over half a century ago. The transfer isn't going to wow you or anything, but the colors are much more vivid and pleasing in the Blu-Ray version. Lots and lots of grain, and this film doesn't look nearly as good as some other Blu-Ray transfers from that era, but it's still impressive.

I'm not sure if girls would like this film nearly as much, but if you have a boy in the 7-9 range, he's the perfect age to enjoy this. And I really enjoyed it as well.

That post title is my favorite line from the film, after the evil magician shrinks the princess.

Manny Ramirez Suspended For 50 Games


If I was still a baseball fan, I think I'd slit my wrists.

Just out of curiousity, I looked up the AL and NL MVP's from 1990 forwards. That's 19 award winners in each league and 38 total. Of those 38 awards, 18 went to guys who are known to have been steroid users, and I think several more look very suspect at this point.

Plus, almost every active player with 500+ home runs has been linked to steroids (Ken Griffey, Jr., being the exception), and anyone who retired after 1998 looks suspect as well. Here's the list of players with 500+ home runs who are either still active or retired after 1998:
Barry Bonds*
Ken Griffey, Jr.
Sammy Sosa*
Mark McGwire*
Rafael Palmeiro*
Alex Rodriguez*
Jim Thome
Manny Ramirez*
Frank Thomas
Gary Sheffield*

You know what the asterisk represents. And I think Jim Thome may still be "outed" some day.

I mean, look at that list. Damn! And that's not even including pitchers (Scumbag Hall of Fame Roger Clemens among them).

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


I've mentioned on many occasions that I trust Eurogamer's reviews more than any other site I read.

In part, that's because of certain individuals (Kieron Gillen and Kristan Reed) who write for the site. Even if I don't recognize the reviewer, though, I feel like Eurogamer has a higher standard when it comes to reviews.

In the last day, though, Eurogamer has become caught up in a stink, and it's a stink over a review.

Yesterday, a review of Darkfall Online was published. Darkfall is an MMORPG that (according to Wikipedia) "combines real-time action and strategy in a fantasy setting. The game features unrestricted PvP, full looting, a huge, dynamic game world, and a player skill dependent combat system free of the class and level systems that typify most MMORPGs."

The reviewer, Ed Zitron, gave the game a 2 out of 10.

"Savaged" is a fair description of the text of the review. A few excerpts:
--Sadly, every little thing Darkfall does is tragic, but without a personality that might make you feel sorry for its developers, Aventurine.
--From the grubby textures and grammatically incorrect quest text to the anarchic control system, any attempt to glean joy from this torrid husk of an entertainment product is met with disdain.
--Underneath the lack of originality, there's a hole where the game should be: a loose, incongruous mess of bad controls, horrible user interface, and broken combat system.
--It's the emperor's new clothes of 2009: such a marvellous game that only an idiot wouldn't realise the beauty of the gaping holes in its content, its wonky control system, and its seemingly decade-old engine.

Yes, that first comment seems strangely personal. Zitron does have many, many specific complaints in the review, though (review is here), and the level of detail seems competent.

Then the controversy began.

One of the game's developers posted in the game forums with this blast:
We checked the logs for the 2 accounts we gave Eurogamer and we found that one of them had around 3 minutes playtime, and the other had less than 2 hours spread out in 13 sessions. Most of these 2 hours were spent in the character creator since during almost every one of the logins the reviewer spent the time creating a new character. The rest of the time was apparently spent taking the low-res screenshots that accompanied the article. At no point did this reviewer spend more than a few minutes online at a time.

That's a career death sentence, if true, but as it turns it, it's quite hard to establish what's true and what's not. Here's an excerpt from Eurogamer's response:
The reviewer in question, Ed Zitron, disputes the server logs that Aventurine presents as fact. According to the logs they supplied, Ed played the game for just over three hours. Ed says the logs miss out two crucial days and understate others, which suggests they are incomplete, and he insists he played the game for at least nine hours.

Eurogamer, to their credit did very two smart things. Number one:
I've already contacted another one of our PC writers, Kieron Gillen, who has agreed to review Darkfall.

Smart thing number two:
It's safe to say that we've learned some lessons from this episode, and they will be beneficial when it comes to future reviews. In the meantime, any and all discussion of the subject on the forums and comments threads is fine. Just as game developers have to deal with the response to their work, so too do we, and you've every right to criticise and debate it.

Assign your most highly-respected reviewer to re-review the game, and don't stifle debate on your own forums. Win and win. If it had been me, I think I would have added an editor's note to the front of the review which mentions the server log controversy, but in spite of that, they have moved quickly to address this situation.

However, this does bring up an issue that I've written about on multiple occasions: why don't reviews always include the length of time the reviewer spent with the game? Why don't reviewers always tell us if they finished the game, and if they didn't, how far they got?

Would a reviewer review a book without finishing it, or an album without listening to all the songs, or a film without seeing it all?

Now if you're thinking "well, games are different," I totally agre. They're open-ended and often unfinishable in any conventional sense. That's why it's even more important that we're told how much time the reviewer spent with the game and how far they advanced.

It's true that if Zitron had mentioned his alleged playtime--9+ hours--it still would have been disputed by the developers, based on their server logs. But Eurogamer would have looked better if that number had been stated at the outset, instead of in response to what the developers claim are their server logs.

When I write up impressions for you guys, I tell you how long I've spent with a game, and there are plenty of times when it's only two hours. There have been many games where I've seen all I wanted to see in that length of time, and unlike a reviewer, I don't have to continue. But you may value my opinion far differently if I play for two hours instead of five, or ten. That's why you need to know, and that's why I tell you.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Good Grief

There is no degree of shame adequate for mentioning the Winnipeg-Calgary series when, obviously, I meant the Edmonton-Calgary series. Even more shameful, it easily qualifies as one of the top five sporting events I've watched in my life, my memories are still incredibly vivid, and I still can't get the freaking teams right.

I have a shovel. Digging hole now.

A Great Attempt At A Save

We went to a fundraiser for Eli's school last weekend, and Gloria bought me two ginger cookies from the bake sale.

Tonight, I tried to find them.

"Hey, where are those two ginger cookies you got me?" I asked.

A pause.

"Um, well--"

"You ate my cookies!" I said.

"Those home baked cookies don't last very long," she said. "They spoil."

The NHL Playoffs

If you're not watching the Capitals-Penguins NHL playoff series, you're missing out. The first two games remind me more of the legendary 1986 Edmonton-Calgary series than any series I've seen since then.

The flow of play has been phenomenal, with long stretches between whistles, and the pace has been incredibly high. Last night, both Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby had hat tricks in the Capitals' 4-3 win.

For me, nothing matches the sheer desperation of a team that's behind in the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Every sport has desperation, but not like this.

Gaming Notes

First off, Matt Matthews has an excellent three-part series analyzing GameStop. A few tidbits:
--the profit margin for sales of used products is 48%, more than 2X the margin for new software and 8X the margin for new harware.
--surprisingly, in the last two years GameStop has sold as many new units of software as it has used.
--GameStop accounts for 21% of the U.S. market for new hardware and software.

That's just a sample--there are a ton of interesting bits of information in the series, which you can find here:
part one
part two
part three

Michael Pachter predicted last week that the next generation for consoles wouldn't begin until 2013:
Pachter believes previous cycles won't repeat themselves -- next year won't be the year this time, in other words.

"We do not expect a 'new; console in 2010 (other than the long-rumored high definition Wii, which is likely to upgrade the Wii to current console technology)," he says.

"We do not expect the 'next' generation to begin before 2013, if at all. We remain convinced that the publishers will resist the introduction of any video game hardware technology that requires a refresh of software, as the publishers have as yet to capitalize on the immense investments made in being competitive in the current cycle."

I like Michael Pachter, but I think analysts, by the nature of their position, have to make too many predictions too often, which is why their hit rate is often fairly low.

In this case, I don't think anyone expected a new console (again, possibly excepting "Wii HD", and I'm not even banking on that) in 2010, but that's a long way from saying the next generation won't start until 2013 (or "at all"--what?).

I do think this generation is different from previous ones, because I think it's likely that the successor to the 360 won't come out until 2011. That would be six years, and that's the longest it's ever taken to go from the first console of a new generation to the first console of the next generation.

Even six years, though, is stretching it. Eight years seems preposterous. Technology is still advancing far, far too quickly. And don't forget that the next generation will likely feature storage capacity that will make it possible for publishers to shift their model to download instead of disc. I'm not sure that's as wise an idea as it would initially seem for publishers, but they're hellbent on destroying used game sales. So I believe they would have much interest in supporting the next generation than Pachter believes.

Introversion's Chris Delay wrote about what went so terribly wrong for the company in 2008, and it's a great read. I think Introversion is full of some of the brightest people in gaming today, so to hear how they stumbled makes for fascinating reading. Take a look here.

One last note: Plants vs. Zombies comes out today.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Peli 7.9

Saturday's line: three goals, one assist. He played offense for half the game.

Part of this domination is an age-based illusion, because this is a 6-7 league, so Eli is one of the oldest players now, but what's not an illusion is that he really knows how to finish. He's played three games so far this season, and he has nine goals on ten shots. Plus he's got four assists.

Saturday he did something that just blew me away. He had a long run down the right side, and as he neared the corner (with about five kids following him), instead of trying to turn and dribble toward the goal, he stopped and lofted a perfect cross to one of his teammates in the box. He put it right on the kid's foot, who was so surprised that he shanked it from about five feet in front of the goal and didn't score.

I'm happy for Eli because he's not turning into a big snot about having success, and he's been trying very hard to help other kids on his team score. It's hard to have perspective when you're seven (hell, it's hard to have perspective as an adult), but he doesn't seem too impressed by what he's doing--he just plays hard, has fun, and enjoys his juice box.


We have local elections in a week. I think.

I know it's our duty as citizens to get involved politically, but when I start a sentence with "I know...but" you know how it's going to end.

For this last presidential election, both myself and Gloria were fully engaged. In my case, it was for the first time in my adult life.

Now, though, it's back to the local stuff. Scooter McCray running for Justice of the Peace, Place 79.

I'm not going to even label the names in this conversation, because it could be either one of us, and it's slightly fictionalized, but only slightly.

"So have you voted yet?"

"No, but I'm definitely voting for Buster, um, McQuicken."

"Buster? Do you mean Brewster McCracken?"

"That's what I meant."

"Are you voting for Larry Laughingwell, too?"

"Very funny. I know it's Lee Leffingwell."

"All I know is I'm definitely voting 'no' on Proposition Four."

"There is no Proposition Four. But I think you should vote to incorporate the Anderson Mill district into Austin."

"We can't vote on it unless we live in that district."

"I'm guessing we don't."


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