Friday, July 31, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Andrew Shih, an absolutely fantastic link to BBC videos of Richard Feynman lectures on the fundamental properties of the universe. Note: you need to install Microsoft Silverlight (which is quite cool as an app, by the way), but it's absolutely worth it.

From David Gloier, a link to a nine-minute film on the construction of Disneyland. It's remarkable to watch, and here's a description:
Using time-lapse and traditional eye-in-the-sky photography, this is a dazzling piece of history, presenting how the fearless construction crews had Disneyland up and running in just under a year. Again: just under a year. commentary by Tony Baxter, Ed Hobleman, and Walter Magnuson, who discuss the frantic construction of the park.

From Francis Cermak, a link to an incredible film that is viewed as you go up and down an elevator at the Standard Hotel in New York. It's Marco Brambilla: Civilization. If you don't have QuickTime, here's a YouTube version.

From Andrew B, it's Glorious Failures in TV Talent Show Auditions. Epic fail. Also, the last surviving British soldier from WWI has passed away--Harry Patch.

From Scott Sudz, links to two amazing time-lapse videos: 4,500 larvae versus 1 hamburger and 5000 larvae versus 2 fish.

From Randy Graham, the discovery of a new dinosaur, and it has nine-inch nails (yes, insert your music pun here): Therizinosaur.

From Jeremy Fischer, news of the rediscovery of footage of the Apollo 11 moon landing.

From Sirius, a link to how tiger months jam the sonar of bats.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's the artist as invisible man (very cool pictures). Next, and this is the story headline, it's World's strongest vagina breaks own record lifting 14 kilos. Yes, I know--if one of the iron penis practitioners slept with her, it would be the immovable vagina meets the unbreakable penis or something like that. Next, it's a great story about Zenith's Phonevision, which allowed customers to watch pay-per-view movies at home--in 1951! Finally, see a spectacular photograph of a Sukhoi Su-35 pilot eject at Mach freaking 2 as part of a movie stunt.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, the discovery of long-lost artifacts from a 1938 TWA plane crash. Also, a black hole in the middle of a cosmic storm.

From David, a link to the greatest project by a Father ever--the Star Wars AT-AT Imperial Walker Loft Bed. Gloria wants one (for herself).

From Matt Kreuch, a link to a video that almost makes Miss South Caroline look coherent. It's a Santa Cruz City Council Meeting, and trust me, you want to see this. And if that wasn't enough (and it won't be), then here's more.

From my friend David Potter, a classic mash-up titled Nirvana vs. Rick Astley: Never Gonna Give Your Teen Spirit Up.

Two excellent links from Jonathan Arnold: first, a fascinating article about diving with the Humboldt squid. Then, a lengthy article by Bruce Sterling that details the security attack on Twitter.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Harry Potter, And Again

Gloria took Eli 7.11 to the Texas History Museum this afternoon. "What?" I asked. "You're not going to see Harry Potter?"

She laughed. "Not today," she said. "Thank goodness."

Gloria loves the new Harry Potter movie. So do I--it's my favorite, by far, in the series. Gloria, though, has already seen it three times with Eli because he loves it so much.

I would normally not let him see anything this mature, but like I wrote a few weeks ago, he's got major sweat equity in the series, so I wasn't going to tell him that he had to wait.

So anyway, they're at the museum, and the phone rings around 2:00. I pick it up and it's Gloria. "So what are you guys doing this afternoon?" I asked.

She started laughing. "Remember how I said Harry Potter wasn't showing at the IMAX here? Well, it is, and we're going to the three o'clock showing."

In the background, I can hear Eli 7.11 shouting "YES!"

"Way to take one for the team," I said.

Improbable Insights

Loyd Case, who has been a premier tech writer for over fifteen years, has started his own blog: Improbable Insights. He describes it as writing on "technology, media, games, and culture."

It's terrific.

The blog format is a perfect match for Loyd's conversational style, and he's putting up excellent (and frequent) content. I highly recommend it if you're looking for an interesting daily read.

Sony Earnings

Well, to no one's surprise, Sony had a horrible first quarter.

Interesting, they've realigned their business segments, and one of the effects of this realignment is to make it more difficult to precisely know what's happened in the game division. Before, they was a division called "Game," and everything in it was entirely self-explanatory.

Now, there's a segment called "Networked Products and Services," which includes games and:
--digital music players
--personal navigation systems

That "etc." is theirs, not mine.

Before, the game division results were broken out quite neatly with their own slides. Now, there are no unfiltered results for the game division anymore, just an overall result for all the products in that new segment. Hardware unit sales are still available, but software sales have mysteriously disappeared, although the report notes that they're "down." Here's everything in the earnings report that I could find related to games:
Approximately 1.1 million PS3 units and 1.3 million PSP units were sold in the first quarter of the current fiscal year compared to approximately 1.6 million PS3 units and 3.7 million PSP units in the same quarter of the prior fiscal year.

...In the game business, the deterioration in profitability was mainfuly due to a decrease in overall software unit sales and a decrease in PSP hardware unit sales.

So PS3 sales worldwide are down 31.6% in the first quarter, and remember, there's no indication that the second quarter is going to be any better. And PSP sales were down 64.8%!

There's more information near the end--sales broken out for the game unit:
Q1 2008: 214,991 yen (in millions)
Q1 2009: 110,514 yen (in millions)

-48.6%, in case you're wondering. Staggering.

Okay, let's do some napkin math here based on what they're reported. It's safe to say that July PS3 sales have not improved, so let's add a month at the first quarter's sales rate. That puts them at 1.46 million units in four months.

To hit their original fiscal year target, that means they need to sell 11.54 million units in the remaining eight months of their fiscal year (which ends in March).

Without a price cut, a reasonable estimate for their fiscal year would be seven million units--barely half of their original projection.

Based on the numbers of the first four months, a $50 price cut might well only get them to ten million units for the year. So unless the're going to seriously revise their estimates downward, we're going to get a $100 cut, and I think it has to get announced within the next eight weeks.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Console Post Of The Week/Holiday Software Mash-Up: How Does This Work, Exactly?

Chris Kohler over at GameLife has a thorough analysis of what's happening this fall. Major games delayed until 2010, sagging console sales, general buzkill. Please read it.

Yes, he mentions one of my posts. This is not why I said it was thorough.

Chris went into what's happening (and what needs to happen) in detail, so I'd like to extend that analysis into why it's happening and how we'll know things are changing.

In short: publishers are afraid. Their financial results (with the exception of THQ) are generally going to suck this quarter, Wii and PS3 sales have plummeted in the last three months compared to last year, and consumers are spending less everywhere.

Six months ago, analysts were (incredibly) claiming that the videogame industry was "recession-proof." It was amusing.

Now, publishers are afraid to pack too many big budget games into the holiday calendar (a sea change from past years), because they're afraid of cannibalization. Everybody's blinking.

Well, except Activision. Activision is teabagging away. However, and I think this is a big however, they may take a grenade as they're gleefully swinging their testicles, because take a look at the fall schedule for music games (one of the teats they're milking at such a furious pace): September 1--Guitar Hero 5*
September 9--Beatles: Rock Band
October 27--DJ Hero*
November 2--Rock Band: LEGO
November 17--Band Hero*

Five major music games in ELEVEN weeks? Are you kidding me?

In theory, at least, only Guitar Hero 5 and Beatles: Rock Band are targeting the same main audiences (and that's oversimplification, really). DJ Hero (I'm a little baffled here: people who want to pretend they're scratching real records on turntables? I am so damn old), Rock Band: LEGO (kids), and Band Hero (pop music fans and people who appear in Mitsubishi Eclipse commercials, based on the trailer) all allegedly target different demographics.

In truth, though, I think there's a ton of crossover here, and I think music games have gone past the point of fatigue and entered exhaustion. Plenty of people will buy these games, but I think the number of little plastic instruments sold is going to plummet, and that's where the real money gets made.

If that's true, then DJ Hero is the most vulnerable, because there's no way to play it without buying the $120 bundle with the plastic turntable. And there's zero crossover--it's not like you can use the turntable in any other game.

If I'm right, then this game is probably dead before it even gets out the gate. Not because it's a bad idea, and not because it can't be good, but because there's zero plastic cross-pollenization.

Moving on.

I've mentioned multiple times in the past that Sony has to cut the PS3 price this year unless they want to fail their fiscal year target miserably. I've also mentioned that the longer they wait, the more likely it is that we get a $100 cut.

How, though, would this happen? What do we need to see first to demonstrate that the rumors have some meat on their bones this time?

First, Sony has to increase their orders for components. Jesse Leimkuehler sent me a link from Digitimes earlier this week that indicates Sony has done just that.
Taiwan OEMs recently have placed significant orders for key Sony PS3 components from IC distributors, with average monthly volume enough for making one million units of the games console in the third quarter, double the average in the second quarter, according to sources with IC distributors.

In some ways, though, this report raises more questions than it answers. Sony has to AVERAGE over a million units a month to hit their fiscal year target (13 million units). So if they're making a million units a month in July-September (third quarter), are those the units that will supply retail stores in October-December? If so, we're looking at an epic miss financially--they won't even reach the ten million unit total they reached last year, let alone thirteen million. They probably need to sell two million units a month in October-December because demand the rest of the year is so much lower.

Sony could sell a million units a month in September-October worldwide without a price cut, just due to holiday demand. So is this an unusual component due to a price cut, or just a regular demand spike in anticipation of the holiday season?

For the time being, I'm going with the latter theory.

Now it's possible that we're getting a $50 price cut, but if Sony's only making a million units a month after a $50 price cut, they're in the ditch.

Okay, if that's not a harbinger of a price cut, what does have to happen before we see one? Two things, usually. First, if the price cut really is going to be tied to the new "slim" model (which is still an urban legend right now), then the retail inventory swamp will get drained as deeply as possible beforehand. New models are always introduced primarily because their cost is lower, and manufacturers want the benefit of that cost reduction as early as possible, so they won't be making older units any longer than is absolutely necessary. So if the PS3 starts uniformly becoming more difficult to find, that's a very good hint.

Jesse mentioned the other tip-off to me, and that's retail advertising, which gets printed well in advance. When we're about a month away from a price cut, future retail advertising is going to leak. It's guaranteed. Everyone has a camera phone now, and someone will take a photo.

For now, neither of those things are happening, as far as I can tell. So we wait.

Sony announces first quarter earnings tomorrow, and I'll post an update.

Life With Boys

Gloria was getting ready to take Eli 7.11 (version revision July 31) to Harry Potter Camp, which starts at 8:30.

She walked out of the bathroom and Eli started toward her because he needed to brush his teeth.

"You might wait a minute before you go in there," Gloria said.

Eli paid no attention, since they needed to leave for camp. Then I heard him say "Mom, you STINKIFIED the BATHROOM!"

"I told you to wait a minute," she said.

"Dad, come smell this!" he shouted.

"I'm not smelling it!" I shouted back. "You smell it!"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

NCAA 10 (360): In Surprising News

Well, I take it back.

Yes, the default game is a mess. Yes, there are some intractable issues that no patch is going to fix, like the frequent inability of CPU runners to run in a freaking straight line. Yes, animations are all-too-often not matched in speed. Yes, progression is all screwed up.

With some work, though, this game is actually starting to look pretty damn good.

CPU quarterbacks make inaccurate throws. The CPU tries to throw deep. Home field advantage is actually a factor.

What's different this year is that sliders can have a significant impact on how the game plays, and through a fair amount of testing ("fair" in that I'm embarrassed to admit how many hours I've already put into this), the game plays quite well at times. Most of the time, actually, and it's a huge improvement over last year. So I think Bill Abner was entirely correct when he said that this is the version of the game that should have been released last year.

At the default settings, the CPU doesn't run the ball effectively, the CPU doesn't pass rush well, penalties are only rarely called, and CPU kickers are too powerful and too accurate.

Like I said, though, the sliders work this year, so the process of improving these gameplay issues should be straightforward, right?

Not exactly.

Here's the best example of the kind of strange relationship the sliders in this game can have. There are sliders for Run Blocking and Rush Defense. Well, if you're trying to improve the CPU running game, then just increase Block and decrease Defense, right?

Yes, but the law of unintended consequences comes into play, because (bizarrely) both of these sliders also affect kickoff and punt returns. Also, some of the sliders (Run Blocking is one) have thresholds that are almost binary because of the way calculations are done--so, for instance, Run Blocking at 50 produces very reasonable results, generally, but move it up to 55 (on a scale of 0-100 in 5-point increments) and the number of defenders getting pancaked increases substantially.

When a defender gets pancaked, it totally alters the flow of the play, because they're knocked down instead of just being off balance. Huge difference.

Since the Run Blocking slider affects kickoff returns, too, you can see this effect very easily in practice mode. I ran a test with 20 kickoff returns in each set with the Run Blocking and Rushing Defense sliders set at different levels. I took a highly-ranked team (overall "A") with an outstanding returner against a poor team (overall "D+") and tallied the results. Take a look:
Run Blocking Slider setting=100
Rush Defense setting=0
Average KO return--55.95

That's just insane. Twenty kickoff returns and SIX touchdowns? So I set the Run Blocking slider at 0 and tried again.
Run Blocking Slider setting=0
Rush Defense setting=0
Average KO return--24.4

After that, there was no doubt that the Run Blocking slider had a massive effect on kickoff returns.

I've always argued that's how sliders should work, with gigantic differences between the highest setting and the lowest. However, it's also true that those effects need to be analog as you move through the possible settings. Unfortunately, trying combinations of settings, it was clear that many combinations produced the TD binge--even seemingly nearly-balanced settings like RB at 55 and RD at 40. Like I said, when guys start getting pancaked too frequently, it blows up kickoff returns, and anything over RB at 50 seems to do that.

So when you try to fix something that seems simple, you can inadvertantly blow something else up entirely. It's also very unusual that some of these sliders are almost binary at points instead of analog--very little effect at one setting, then a huge effect when you move the slider up by one notch.

In this case with the CPU running game, after lots of experimentation, I discovered that the Rush Defense slider doesn't have nearly the powerful effect that Run Blocking does, and I was able to lower it to 35 (from the default 50) without affecting kickoff returns significantly, although it does improve the running game.

Testing the running game is pretty methodical--pick test plays, run them against the same defense 20 times, tally the results, adjust settings, rinse and repeat. I use a spreadsheet like this:

It's time consuming (and probably unhealthy in a compulsive way), but it's interesting to see the results, both on paper and while you actually watch the game. The game looks different with different slider settings in terms of how players tackle or how fast they hit the hole, and it's not just stats that drive adjustments--it's also adjustments to improve visual fidelity as well.

Of course, it's always more difficult than it should be, and that's still true this time. I've got CPU vs. CPU sliders that play like a dream. Unfortunately, all you can do with those sliders is watch a game. It will be a damn good game, but you're not playing.

There's a pseudo-coach mode this year where you can turn on auto-passing, and you'd think that the CPU sliders would work great there, right? Well, no. For some perverse reason, even though your offensive lineman, for example, are still under CPU control, they won't play exactly the same with the same slider setting as the CPU lineman on the opposing team.

Yes, I know--that doesn't make any sense. Welcome to EA Slider World, at least for NCAA.

So stage one is to get CPU vs. CPU games working well, which is completed. Now I need to adjust the human settings so that games where I coach only work that well. After that, I can adjust those settings for when people are actively playing.

I may be here a while, as they say.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Mr. Green

"I want to go check the mail," I said. "I think I'll drive."

"DRIVE?" Gloria asked. "It's less than two hundred yards to the mailbox!"

"It's 103 outside, and the heat index is 106," I said. "I could put on a helmet, tape a pan on top, and actually bake pizza."

"You are the laziest man ALIVE," she said. I left and came back a few minutes later.

"Well, how was it?" she asked.

"Good," I said. "I ran the air conditioner for a few minutes in the driveway to cool the car off first."

"Argghhh! You are impossible!" she said.

"If only I could have driven a car from the living room to the driveway," I said.

She made a sound that I can't spell.

San Diego (#2): It's Just That Easy

We spent our second day in San Diego at Sea World, and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand brought down the Nicest Family In The World and we all hung out together, which was great. I'm hoping that Katie 6.8 will be my daughter-in-law someday, because she is mesmerized by Eli 7.11, and he's very fond of her, too.

NFITW left about an hour before we did. Eli's older than Ben's kids, and at his age, he can basically be a sherpa. So we stayed and did a few more things, like hit the Midway.

I know--the Midway is just an excuse to pay outrageous amounts of money to try a carnival game that is rigged for you to lose. I know that, but Eli was so ridiculously well-behaved on this trip that I told him I'd give him $10 (the games are $5 each, so it meant he got to try two).

He looks around for a while and settles on a game where there are four rows of "clowns" lined up and you try to knock them over with a baseball. I think it's called "Down The Clown," or something, and no, I didn't say "Go Down On The Clown."

We watched a few people play first, and they were terrible. The game is rigged, obviously, because the prizes are absolutely GIGANTIC stuffed animals, but these guys weren't even hitting the clowns, let alone knocking them down.

Eli flushes $5 down the toilet by giving it to the attendant, and he gets handed three balls. If he knocks down three clowns, he wins any prize he wants.

This, of course, is impossible, although I'm vain enough to think that after he loses, I may try once myself, because I'm a very accurate thrower (not fast, though), and I wanted him to win something.

This thought is still in my mind when Eli 7.11 steps up and fires a laser beam with his first throw, knocking a clown off and leaving no doubt about it.

I forgot--this kid can really throw.

With his second throw, he knocks off TWO clowns. Win.

The attendant looks dazed. "And it's just...that easy," he says in a confused voice.

It was ridiculous. It was great.

Eli picked out a giant blue gorilla, and by giant, I mean almost as tall as he is. So we lug this giant gorilla around for a while, and I name him "Pete," which somehow seemed correct.

Pete hung out in our hotel room for two days, but then it was time to figure out how to get him home.

"I can just carry him on the plane," Eli 7.11 said. No.
"We can buy a big duffel bag." No.
"We can ship all the dirty clothes him, then put Pete in our luggage." No.

"Little man, we're going to have to ship Pete home," I said. There was never any question of leaving him behind, because Pete was a win, and wins have earned their freight.

"Ship him?" Eli asked, a little upset. "What if he doesn't make it? What if he gets lost?"

"UPS is very reliable," I said. "Over 99% successful delivery."

"But Pete's never been shipped before," Eli said. "He'll be scared."

"No so," I said. "Pete was shipped from China originally, where he was manufactured in Blue Gorilla Town. He was probably at sea for weeks in a large shipping container. Pete is already an international traveler with extensive experience."

This is how we wound up spending $16 to ship Pete the big blue gorilla from San Diego to Austin, and every night we put in the tracking number to find out where he was on his dramatic journey. Well, not dramatic, really--it's not like he got out at Phoenix and rode the rails and wound up in a flophouse.

So this is Pete (with Eli 7.11):

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Links!

We're so loaded this week that I saved a few links I originally planned on using. If you don't see a link that you submitted after I said I was going to use it, expect it next week.

Leading off this week, several links from DQ Legal Advisor Lee Rawles about the life and work of Julius Shulman, who passed away last weekend. His life and work were epic (he took some of the most iconic photographs of the last half of the twentieth century), and these articles will give you a sense of scale:
photo gallery (don't miss photo #5, probably his most famous)
The Story Of Koenig’s Case Study House No. 22

From Robert, the amazing and freaky Monkey Moves Robot Using Mind Control, and this technology is now moving into human trials.

From Andrew B, it's 17 More Images You Won't Believe Aren't Photoshopped, including cloud buttocks (which is my favorite, of course). Also, the new Internet meme Bulletball: An American Tragedy. Yes, you'll laugh, and yes, you'll feel a little guilty. One more, and it's 5 Pathetic Groups That People Think Rule The World.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to the news that the moon orbiter is going to photograph the Apollo 11 landing site. Then, he sent in a link to the first photos. And here's more (thanks David Gloier, who appears elsewhere in this feature as well).

Also, in other moon-related links, David Gloier sent in a link to a map of the first moon walk--superimposed on a baseball diamond (to provide a sense of scale).

From Eric Higgins-Freese, a link to photographs of the recent solar eclipse (which lasted over 6 minutes in some locations). Also, a photograph taken by a man in a balloon--over Mount Everest!

From Sirius, a link to an amazing photo of a fireball meteor --taken through a telescope! Also, a link to a study of two bird populations as they split into different species.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to Welcome to Gotham, a blog of photos of Chicago "transformed" into Gotham (and the photos are quite amazing). Next, and the awesome machine is cranked up to max for this one, Medieval Battle Records Go Online. Here's one more photo link, and it's Ten Holes That Are Amazing (again, the photos are amazing, and thank you in advance for getting your mind out of the gutter). Lastly, a link to the world's most perfect spheres. How perfect? Try "smooth to the nearest 0.0000000003 meter...and round to within 0.000000050 meters."

From Ben Younkins, a link to a NY Times article about turning trash dumptsters into swimming pools.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to Jon's One Man Band (and quite a Foreplay/Long Time cover).

Thursday, July 23, 2009

It Rhymes With "Encephalopathy," Which I'll Have Any Day Now

So the orthopedist thinks what is inhibiting my future Hall Of Fame drumming career is something called ulnar neuropathy. The way he explained it, sometimes the ulnar nerve isn't quite long enough, particularly in longer-armed people (I'm only 6'1", but my wingspan is 6' 4").

When your ulnar nerve is slightly short, it can get compressed when the elbow bends, and his theory is that adding 1+ hours a day of drumming (plus, at that time, about 9,000 yards a week swimming and regular keyboard time as well) created an overload. And the way that I described the pain corresponds to the kind of pain that normally accompanies this condition.

I didn't explain that very well, but the short version is that if I bend my arms less, I might improve significantly, and one of the things that people do when they have this is (believe it or not) wrap towels loosely around their elbows at night so that they can't bend their elbows very far. Apparently, sleep studies have demonstrated that most people sleep with their hands up on their chests (after they go to sleep), so that's eight hours of bent elbow.

Or six, or seven interrupted with waking up several times from Eli 7.11 needing to pee or Gloria snoring (in a beautiful way, of course) or the cats or...

Of course, I'm only trying this with the left arm, because I want to be able to compare and see if it's working. But at least this gives me something to try. And I'm keeping my left arm straight as often as possible during the day as well.

If nothing else works, surgery is an eventual possibility, but I'm going to do everything I can to avoid that.

Scot Halpin

I've written about Scot Halpin several times. Halpin was the felllow who was called up on stage to play drums with The Who when he was nineteen years old (see Wikipedia entry here). It's one of the greatest stories ever.

Scot passed away last year, and his wife Robin Young let me know that she's created a blog in Scot's memory. A piece of Scot's artwork and music are posted each day, and it's quite interesting. See it here: T. Scot Halpin.

Rock Band Network, Band Hero, And A Marked Decline

From Chris Kohler of GameLife:
In late August, Harmonix will launch an open beta of the Rock Band Network, which will work with Microsoft’s XNA Creators Club to let musicians create and sell their own tracks on the Rock Band platform. Harmonix plans to recruit and train an army of designers and reviewers from the Xbox indie development community who will create and peer-review the tracks before passing them on to Harmonix for final submission.

This is not, as in Activision’s “GH Tunes” feature for Guitar Hero, about creating MIDI music using pre-canned sounds. You’re taking the stems from a ProTools session, the original recorded music, and turning it into a track that is indistinguishable from Harmonix’s own work.


How much smarter can these people get? If Harmonix ever turn to evil, the entire world will be destroyed in less than eight months.

[If Microsoft ever tried to destroy the world, on the other hand, it would take at least three versions, and the first two versions would actually make the world better.]

The idea of having an entirely new route from which excellent music can emerge is fantastic. It just reinforces the idea that Rock Band is a music platform as much as it is a game platform.

Here's how much I love this game (and expect to love The Beatles: Rock Band): I went and had x-rays taken of my forearms and wrists today, because they've never been right since I started trying to play the drums, um, constantly. They got stiff and "achy" and never really recovered, and I realized this week that I can't even play the drums for 30 minutes a day and spend 1 hour at the keyboard.

To me, that's a (bare) minimum daily requirement, so I decided to quit screwing around and finally go to an orthopedist. As a bonus, he's also going to check out my left shoulder, which has never been quite right since last year, either.

So I was answering questions in the x-ray office today so that clerk could complete the necessary paperwork, and when she asked me about the source of my injury, I said "I think it was from playing the drums too much."

She brightened up immediately.

"Oh, you play the drums?" she asked. "Are you in a band."

"Concept Gorilla Manifesto," I said. "It's a garage band. Well, more of a study band, really."

All, right, I didn't say that. But I've played the game so much, and that is so entirely the best band name ever, that I seriously considered it.

Anyway, this shit has to be fixed by September 9. That's all I know.

Now, on to the world of Guitar Hero, which, while inferior to RB, has sone something interesting. The trailer for Band Hero has been released, and while it's laugh-out-loud stupid (just hit the link to see for yourself), the content of the game is actually an excellent move. Band Hero is basically going to be a pop music version of GHWT, and that's pretty damn smart. Pop has a wide audience, and that's going to open up a new market to buy plastic instruments.

Plus, and this is even smarter, those tracks will be exportable in GHWT. Well done.

Matt Matthews, who is a DSG (damn smart guy), has an article up at Gamastutra that looks at the huge revenue decline in music games compared to last year.

I hope MTV and Activision aren't surprised by this. Look, guys, we have all the plastic instruments we want right now. And we don't really care that much about "new" instruments that basically just look different or have minor changes. If you want to make higher quality instruments for almost the same price, and we can tell the difference, then we'll buy them.

Otherwise, I doubt that we'll be interested.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

ESPN Marginally Rejoins The Conscious World

ESPN finally decided to mention the story three days after the rest of the civilized world--well done! Of course, the headline is Authorities Won't Look at Roethlisberger, which isn't the point, really, and their first headline about the story makes it look like he's exonerated (he's not, at least not from the civil lawsuit that was the foundation of the original story), but hey, baby steps.

NCAA, Madden, And A Puzzling Non-Story From ESPN

This post is going to be all over "the place," so please be forewarned. We start off with some wonk talk about player progression, progress to a discussion of marketing decisions and the Madden demo, and finally talk about ESPN and their curious non-coverage of a recent event.

First, here's a thoughtful e-mail I received from John Brown in reference to my post about player progression in NCAA:
While I agree that player progression ratings should be stable, the overall composition of the players shouldn’t stay static. If you want realistic player progression and defining player progression to encompass new players, the way the game can and should change. To stick with the football example, maybe one year there's lots of good wideouts and the passing game is king; then a few years down the road, there's fewer wideouts and more running backs and the running game is king. I don't really want a consistent experience, I want something that ebbs and flows.

My feelings about this is that individual player progression ratings should probably vary around an average. One freshman class might have several centers who are complete studs…the next might also have several good centers. Eventually, the law of averages should kick in, and we should have a class where there’s only a couple studs. Maybe one year the entire freshman class has several noteworthy players and hopefully sometime down the road, we’ve got a freshman class that has fewer noteworthy players. Now apply this to the entire system that handles new players and player progression. Oh, and you need to take into account current ratings.

I also think 5 years is probably too short a time frame to find this kind of stability. 10+ years might be a better gauge, but I’d take the samples every year and then look at the running average. Over the long term, I'd hope to see something along the lines of a sine wave centered around the average.

That's all true, but doing that properly involves much more than just having an effective player progression system (and even doing that qualifies as post-graduate work when the current system can't even earn a GED). Most importantly, if skill levels at various positions cycle over time (much like real life), and if teams change their styles of play over time (also much like real life), then there are going to need to be many, many playbooks in addition to the defaults.

Let's say, that for example, the power running game comes back into vogue ten seasons from now (which is entirely possible). Less than 15% of the teams in the game (I'm guessing, but I think that's probably close to correct, or maybe even lower) have power running as their predominant offensive strategy. That means there are very few playbooks that feature those types of plays. So there would have to be dozens of additional playbooks created for future use when certain strategies came in and out of style.

The play selection probabilities would also have to be adjusted, which is an additional level of complexity.

The most difficult task, though, would be to limit the degree to which this cycling happens--in effect, to choke off the variance when it gets too high. Cycling of team strategies over time is interesting, but having 95% of teams use a power running attack is not. So even if you could get the cycling to work over time, high-low limits would have to be imposed at the team strategy level.

In other words, it would be damned tough to pull off. That's why I would be very happy to just have a solid, stable progression system in place.

I've been watching CPU vs. CPU games today (finally, that feature is back in), and I do see some improvements. Quarterbacks actually miss open receivers at times, which is nothing short of a freaking miracle if you know the history of this series. The sliders do seem to work (post-patch), and with CPU vs. CPU games, it should be possible to develop sliders that are reasonably balanced. So it's not hopeless, but it's a very sloppy game, and sloppy games usually have backbreakers.

Okay, let's move on to the Madden demo, which has WTF written all over it. I don't mean WTF from the design and dev teams, because it seems like they've done just about everything they could do to make this game actually seem more like real football.

So the game (allegedly) has been substantially improved. And it would seem obvious that the best strategy, when you have an improved and worthy product, is to let people see the game in some depth before it's released.

So what does EA marketing do? Sign an exclusive agreement with Gamestop (I thought they were the devil or something?) for people who preorder the game to have access to a demo with five minute quarters.

That's a decently beefy demo.

If you didn't preorder from Gamestop, though, you get a tiny little turd in a sack--a demo with one-minute quarters. What is that--TWELVE PLAYS?

That's so stupid that "stupid" isn't even an adequate word to describe it. We need a whole new word that represents 300% of average stupid.

Look, marketing tools. This is the signature game of your sports line, and it's apparently greatly improved from last year. The way to maximize sales is to expose as many people to the "improved" gameplay as possible, not try to blackmail them into preordering.

Good grief.

Lastly, there's been a very interesting story developing about ESPN in the last few days. I don't take ESPN seriously in a journalism sense any more, because their coverage is so slanted toward self-promotion, but man, I think they've hit a new low.

Here are a few details.

A woman filed a civil lawsuit against Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, claiming that he raped her. The filing of this lawsuit was covered by the Associated Press, Reuters, MSNBC, the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, CBS Sportsline, Yahoo Sports--everyone, essentially.

Except ESPN.

Even has reported on this story, but ESPN won't touch it. They're apparently claiming that they don't report on civil lawsuits when there is no accompanying criminal lawsuit, which is complete bullshit, because they've done it multiple times in the past. They've essentially made up a policy on the spot to protect a marqee player.

It's all quite bizarre, and it's becoming quite embarrassing for ESPN, which gets embarrassed on a regular basis already.

Oh, and please don't infer from this that I believe the woman is telling the truth. I have no idea whether what she claims actually happened or not. It is a legitimate news story, though, and ESPN is refusing to report it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Lunar Links And One Great Story

With the recent anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, interesting links are everywhere. First is an epic history of one of my favorite games: Forty Years Of Lunar Lander.

Another of my old favorites, Buzz Aldrin's Race Into Space (which I've written about before), now has a Window's version as an open source project, which you can download here. And for more information on BARIS, go to The Docking Module.

Now, a fantastic story from my good friend John Harwood:
Did I ever mention that Apollo 11 wouldn't have landed if not for my dad? That may sound overstated, but it's actually not. Admittedly, Apollo 11 wouldn't have landed if not for 29,999 other people as well, but my dad was one of them, and the story (as he would tell it) is pretty interesting.

Dad worked for TRW on a team of folks testing the guidance software for the lunar module. He tells of endless hours of running punch cards to test anything and everything they could think of to make sure the guidance and navigation system wouldn't have unexpected glitches. One evening, one of his fellow engineers spotted a very odd anomaly in a very rare and unlikely set of circumstances and wasn't sure whether that was something to bring forward as urgent as they were now a little over a month away from launch.

If the rendezvous radar, which was used to find the command module upon return of the ascent module, was running at the same time the system got overloaded, it would have completely halted the guidance computer, basically causing a modern day lock-up. If this happened when they were within a certain distance of the surface of the moon, that would have been an automatic abort situation as they would have had no guidance computer and they would have had to kick in the backup abort guidance system to take them back to the command module. That's a situation that basically should never happen because you don't use the rendezvous radar during descent and it was one of those strings of failures that would be very unlikely but would have dire consequences were it to happen.

So they brought this to the attention of a guy at MIT who dad always referred to as the "genius who thought in computer code" to check and see if that was serious enough to warrant a fix and what if anything could be done. So they did come up with a workaround to cause it to just give out an alarm instead of locking up, the computer would reboot, but only come back up with the important programs and ignore things like the rendezvous radar data (more specific details
here). This was a pretty big deal to fix since it was just over a month from launch and they had to have the finalized hardware put together. In those days, you didn't just put in a patch or re-write the software quickly, the "software" was comprised of hard-wired circuitry and they had to redo the entire wiring for that system and get it in place, but it was deemed important enough that they went ahead and did so.

Fast forward to the landing and sure enough, the rendezvous radar was left on, I don't recall if that was intentional or by oversight of the astronauts, and they did indeed overload the system, and when you listen to the audio of the mission, you hear them calling out system alarms 1202 and 1202, and without the reprogrammed workaround by the MIT guy, the guidance computer would have shut down and either rebooted to rest state or not come back at all, and they would have either had to abort or Neil would have had to try to fly manually the rest of the way down. I'd bet that Neil would have proceeded, but then they wouldn't have had any guidance computer for landing or subsequent take off.

Dad was recognized along with several other people from TRW for their contributions and given NASA's highest award, the
Silver Snoopy, for their efforts. And he wound up being randomly chosen from the award winners to get to go watch Apollo 12 take off. Right into a thunderstorm while getting struck by lightning. But that's another story...

So without my dad and the others at TRW who helped uncover the problem in testing, and the MIT team who reprogrammed the software, Apollo 11 would have either aborted a couple of thousand feet from landing, or a possible disaster may have happened later if they proceeded with the landing. So for me, every time I watch the landing, I love it when they call out those alarm codes, because I know that in an alternate universe where my dad didn't help bring that error forward, Apollo 11 aborted right then and there. And perhaps they had to do so much re-testing that Apollo 12 didn't launch by the end of the 1969 and we missed Kennedy's goal. And the Russians beat us there or gave such a PR black eye that the Cold War went a different way.

Everyone's dad is a hero in one way or another, but it's neat to have a story like that to tell. We landed on the moon because of my dad.

NCAA 10 (360): A Brown, Gelatinous Mass That Is Only Vaguely Shaped Like A Football

As a fair warning, I thought NCAA was a complete disaster last year, a bad early beta that cost us $60. Previous to last year's version, though, even with its mounting number of flaws, I'd always felt that I'd found a way to get my money's worth.

When the game shipped this year with rosters fouled up and the sliders not working (I had to download "fixed" rosters, and a patch for the sliders is supposed to come out tonight for the 360 version), it reinforced my notion that this game was going to be a lazy, buggy mess.

Reading the "official" bug thread over at Operation Sports reinforces that impression (with big-time issues with fatigue and, incredibly, spotting a punt correctly when it goes out of bounds, plus loads of others as well), but this is a monopoly, we don't have any other choices, and I'm still hopeful that patches will fix enough of this to be able to enjoy the game.

I decided to test Dynasty mode in terms of career progression (since, without the sliders working, I'm not playing any games yet), which has been a significant issue in the past for this series.

In short, this is how progression should work. For the game to play consistently over time, player ratings (as a composite) should basically stay the same every year. Individual ratings change, obviously, but if you have 10 receivers with an overall rating of 95+ in the first year of a dynasty, that number should be maintained to a reasonable degree by the player progression system.

How should that be tested on the development end? Well, the dev runs a Dynasty for 5-10 years and dumps the player ratings at the end of each year into a text file, then assigns "bins" by position and rating. For quarterbacks, for example, there would be a bin every 5 ratings points or so, and the testing tool would tally up how many quarterbacks in the game (for example) have an overall rating between 70-74. There would be a total for every 5-point range (there's an easy way to do this in Excel).

Once the create player algorithm has run for enough years that the default rosters are no longer involved, that final output is the steady state for the progression algorithm. And if it it changes significantly over a five-year cycle, then the progression algorithm has to be adjusted.

Once that's stable, the dev takes the bin output and checks the default player ratings (that are created manually, not by the player creation algorithm). If the bins for the default ratings are a mismatch with the steady state bins, then the default ratings have to be adjusted until the bins are a close match.

That could theoretically be done for every skill rating in the game as well.

What's most important to keep in mind is stability. These ratings need to be stable over time, because if they're not, the way the game plays is going to change, and stats will change substantially.

If that sounds complicated, it's really not. It's just precise work, and it's repetitive. It takes many iterations to get it correct (I was responsible for this kind of testing in three baseball games over the years--twice as a beta volunteer, and once on my own after a game had shipped--modifying the player creation algorithm to create stable statistics over a 20-year period).

So this is one of those areas where I can claim expertise well beyond the level of "I don't make chairs, but this leg shouldn't be wobbly." I've very aware of the fact this this is a detailed, time-consuming process.

So how does NCAA 10 do in this area? Here's a snapshot:

Please click on the image for a larger version.

The summarized version: there were 14 players in the entire game (any position) with an overall rating of 95 or higher on the default rosters. After five years, there were 75! Also, there were an additional 112 players with overall ratings of 90-94, and after five years, there were 270.

That's kind of a shitty mess, really, and some positions are just mind-boggling. There were originally two centers at 95+ and 8 more from 90-94, but after five years, there were 18 at 95+ and 36 from 90-94!

Middle linebackers and cornerbacks are a disaster as well. Actually, there are quite a few disasters. It's a very poor job.

I did notice something that is oddly enticing. I listed the positions in the same order that they're listed on the roster screen, and if you look more closely, you'll see that the first six positions look very good after five years. Yes, there's some hyper-inflation in the middle, but after a full five-year class has been run through, everything is quite good, actually.

Further down the list, though, it's generally a train wreck. Given the the positions that are stable are the first six listed, did they just run out of time?

I've said this before, but I believe it even more strongly this year: the NCAA franchise is entirely lacking in leadership. There is absolutely no excuse for this game to come out in the shape it comes out in year after year, but no one at EA is ever willing to accept responsibility.

Because I'm Charlie Brown, though, I'll keep trying. I'll try to balance the on-field play with slider adjustments (when they finally work). I'll try out legend mode (even though the overtime bug that made me quit last year has apparently not been **$*#@ patched). We're screwed on player progression, though, unless EA decides to include it in a patch.

I'll let you know what happens.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Console Post Of The Week: Heading Downward

For review, the June NPD numbers from last week:


As I mentioned last week, analysts have finally stopped making excuses for the declining numbers. No one's saying "it's a tough compare" anymore, and it's about time.

Let's look at some numbers that will help demonstrate how serious this decline is becoming, because it's far more serious than is being generally acknowledged.

First off, here's a rolling 12-month graph of U.S. console sales:

I think it's interesting to note that when the 12-month totals started to decline in the last generation (available NPD data goes back to November 2001), there was no revival--it was a steady decline to 65% of the peak before it turned around.

Could it be different this time? Maybe. I think there are some compelling reasons that it won't be, though. For starters, 4 million units of the recent peak are entirely due to a staggering increase in sales of the Wii from 2007 to 2008. Look, though, at a comparison in Wii sales from 2008 to 2009:

In a word, with capitals: DAMN.

Remember that March of last year was really the first time the Wii didn't suffer from supply constraints. So the last three months have shown an absolutely massive fall in sales compared to 2008--a 51% decline.

Absent a price drop, which Nintendo has given no indication they're willing to do this year, what's going to drive console sales? Not MotionPlus. Look, I love MotionPlus, and it's going to sell very well, but I don't think it's going to sell consoles. Even if it raised sales by 30% (which is ridiculous to even consider), there would still be a huge shortfall from last year.

I said to someone just last week that I thought Nintendo would do fine this holiday season without a price cut, but I was wrong. There's no spinning the last three months, and a bundle with MotionPlus isn't going to be enough. Neither is the fall lineup, which is quite uninspired.

So yes, they need a price cut, and after looking at the data more carefully, I wouldn't be shocked if we get one this fall. It would also be incredibly clever to undercut the PS3 price drop announcement (which is inevitable). Nintendo, though, doesn't use human logic. They are absolutely brilliant beyond words and stupid beyond belief, and it's very hard to know which one they'll be this time.

One note about third party software. Tiger Woods on the Wii was the fourth best selling title in June. Neither the 360 or PS3 versions charted. EA clearly put forth their best effort on the Wii version, and it's selling extremely well.

Here's what Sony looks like, using the same comparison graph for the first six months of the year versus 2008:

It's not the spectacular decline of the Wii, but it's close: 47% for the last three months compared to 2008. I know, June is a "tough compare," but hey, the other months don't look so great, either.

So what's going to drive sales besides a price cut? Uncharted 2 looks great, but past that, it's very thin. A new Ratchet & Clank game, Demon's Souls (which is a great, great game, but it's far too hardcore to drive console sales), and not much else. It's very, very thin.

Microsoft is doing better, certainly, but they're also the ones who had the last price cut, which is largely why they're doing better. Here's the same graph:

For the last three months, they're flat compared to last year. Not great, but they look like A+ students compared to Nintendo and Sony. Their fall exclusives don't look so hot, either, though: a new episode of GTA IV, Forza 3, Splinter Cell: Conviction, Left 4 Dead 2, and Halo: ODST. Are any of those games going to make a ton of people rush out and buy a 360 who don't already have one? Not really.

I can't guarantee I that's a comprehensive list of exclusives, but I don't think I missed anything major. So many games have already slipped into 2010 (with more to come) that it's just not looking like a strong line-up for anyone this year.

It's going to come down to price cuts, and without them, this could be a very, very ugly fall.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, a link to the four-year anniversary issue of The Escapist. I still remember when the first issue came out and how much I was hoping that it would survive. It certainly did.

From Katy Mulvey, a link to what may be the most epic DIY project in history: build your own Apollo guidance computer.

From Dylan Jones, a link to We Choose The Moon, a real-time recreation of the Apollo 11 voyage on its fortieth anniversary (it's in progress right now, and it's spectacular).

From John Catania, a link to an article about photographic memory and how it might (incredibly) come in a pill someday. Here's an excerpt:
The scientists first removed from mice the portion of the brain believed to be associated with visual memories--layer six of the V2 region--and showed that the mice could no longer remember any object they saw. They then increased the production of a group of proteins--RGS-14--created in that cortex. The mice's retention of visual images was increased almost 1,500 times.

From Andrew B, a link to Project Pigeon, and as unlikely as it might seem, it was real. Here's more (thanks Nate Carpenter).

From Meg McReynolds, a link to an excellent way to lose several hours of your life: 1980s TV theme songs.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a story about theft of proprietary Goldman Sachs trading algorithms. Also, it's rice paddy crop art.

Kevin sent in a link to a wonderful idea: Anthology Builder. It allows you to put together a custom anthology of short fiction from published sources and will print them as a book (you can even pick the cover).

From Sirius, a link to a remarkable new method of hacking: electrical outlets. Next, it's the actual transcription of a letter used in a Leave It To Beaver episode in 1958.

From Tim Lesnick, it's Amazon comedy in two links: uranium ore for sale as well as a series of scathingly witty reviews of the Relaxman Relaxation Capsule.

Dave G sent in a link to Brass Monki, which features customized sneakers that are stunning works of art.

From Pete Thistle, a link to Casey Kasem talking about a remarkable new technology--the compact audio disc (in 1983).

From George Paci, a new condition that we've all had at one time or another: Living with First-Person Shooter Disease. Plus, it's a dancing tribute to Mario on India's Got Talent.

From Scott Sudz, a link to a fascinating article about a robot teaching itselt to smile.

From David Gloier, a photograph of the exact moment when a bubble burst. Oh, and would you like to have your name included on a microchip on the Mars Science Laboratory rover? Just go here.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

June NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the raw numbers:

For comparison, the June 2008 numbers:

One item of note: analysts have finally stopped claiming "tough compare" as the reason for declining numbers overall.

San Diego (#1)

His face was streaked with dark, gritty lines, a warrior prepared for battle. Hidden from me by the wall between us, I was unaware of his presence. Unaware, that is, until he spun around, stared with a fierce malevolence, and shouted a primordial scream. Then his fists were on me—clutching, grabbing. Would I survive this assault?

“Tommy, let go of that man's computer,” the woman in the row in front of me said to her son, who looked to be three or four years old.

Four years: the age at which a young man's fancy first turns to murder.

I had been politely sitting in my veal fattening pen, working on Made in China, when I saw this face peering at me from the the row in front. He was sitting in the aisle seat, and his little face was streaked with Oreo. His hands, too, and as he looked at me, and I at him, he suddenly reached back with his fat little fist and grabbed the screen of my netbook, trying to yank it into the air.

It was in fact, lifting off the seatback table when Tommy's mother (aka "the warden") intervened. "Shouldn't the boy be shackled?" I asked, quite politely.

Okay, I didn't actually ask that, but it seemed like an entirely reasonable question.

Fifteen minutes later, it happened again, the suddenness of the assault only matched by its savagery.

Primitive peoples, when faced with this kind of bad omen so early in a voyage, would turn back, steering their bamboo raft back to the island where they were born. Clearly, our sacrifices to the gods had been inadequate, and we would need to slaughter another sheep (or several) to guarantee safe passage.

Unfortunately, we did not have this option, as the tickets were non-refundable.

So welcome to The Big Family Vacation 2009, and I only hope we all survive.

Our first mistake, in retrospect, was locating San Diego so far from Austin. True, this is more of a geographical mistake than one we made ourselves, but if San Diego (and the West Coast in general) were only three hours away by car instead of three by plane, we could have driven.
Flying these days seems to be increasingly difficult for me to handle. I think airlines could just bundle all the passengers together with twine and stack us in columns and it wouldn't be any more uncomfortable. Even though the airlines appear to be the greatest losers of capital in world business history, the last empty seat on a flight to or from Austin was in 1985 (estimated).

Plus, we fly so seldom now that we didn't realize Southwest has online check-in. Because of this, we wound up with boarding passes numbered so high that I believe we were supposed to board from the parking lot. Since we were the last people on the plane, we were forced to wander the aisles like hobos, looking for someone to move so at least two of us could sit together.

Just when it appeared we would all forced to sit apart (I really wanted one of us to sit with Eli 7.11), a stewardess darted an uncooperative passenger and Gloria and Eli were able to sit together. Meanwhile, I sat down next to two people (man and woman) who belonged in Vogue magazine and were impeccably polite, thus setting the scene for my confrontation with Tommy The Destroyer Of Worlds.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Phonogram: Rue Britannia

Kieron Gillen (who apparently does not sleep) wrote this graphic novel, and it's terrific. It's set in a world where there are mages called a phonomancers whose magical power is derived, and these mages worship goddesses who represent different genres and subgenres of musical history (most importantly, Britpop in the early 90s).

The protagonist is a slouchy sort of fellow, both charming and an asshole, often at the same time. He's also tremendously interesting.

The writing (Kieron) and illustration (James McKelvie) are both first-rate, it's an excellent read, and in a conceptual sense, it's one of the most interesting ideas I've ever seen in fiction. The first series (six issues) is available in a compilation via Amazon, and the second series, Phonogram 2: The Singles Club, is somewhere midway in the seven-issue release cycle.

Candid Camera

I stockpile stuff for Eli. If I see something I know he'll enjoy someday, and I see it on sale, I'll go ahead and buy it. We have board games and DVD's and electronics kits in my closet, waiting for the time when he's old enough to appreciate them.

That explains why I have a 5-DVD set of greatest moments in the Candid Camera series, and we started watching them last weekend.

Candid Camera must be the funniest show, in a conceptual sense, in the history of television, because it's entirely based on pranks. Plus, some of the setups were so elaborate and so clever that they're genius. Our favorite: a woman hired to be a temporary employee answering phones at an office right next to the Rose Bowl. It's a company that does "parachute show-jumping," and they're supposedly practicing a jump for the next Rose Bowl. Her boss is in communication via two-way radio, and he counts off the jumpers as they leap out of the plane.

Except #6 is missing.

"Where's number six?" he asks. "Has anyone seen number six?" The temp leans forward to look out her window. Just then, a parachutist comes through the ceiling and lands on the floor next to her.

She completely freaked out, and we were both laughing so hard that we nearly fell off the couch. And it was even funnier when she found out she was on Candid Camera.

Here's one more. The Candid Camera staff remove the engine from a car, then tow the car to the top of a hill so the driver can coast down and into any one of several gas stations (so they can see her "drive" in). She stops the car, then gets out and asks the mechanic to help her because her car won't start. The expression on the mechanic's faces when they lift the hood is beyond priceless, and how they try to figure out what happened is even funnier.

Now I can't stop adding these. There's one where they build a vending machine called "Vend-a-Vow," which conducts weddings for fifty cents. They installed it in a courthouse in Reno, and the results were epic. Actually, you can watch this one online (see it here).

It's classic comedy, and I really want to introduce Eli to all of the classics (Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, Ernie Kovacs, Monty Python, etc.) when he's ready.

One More Story (Toys)

A wonderful story from Michael Grimm:
I'm very picky when it comes to my daughter. I will not be THAT GUY...the guy who just buys what she thinks she likes and be done with it. I'll go out of my way to research it and find something interesting...mostly so we both have a vested interest in the item. (Incidentally, my son and I both already have a vested interest as we're both dorks. ) Anyway, this July 7th was my daughter's birthday so it was time again for me to go hunting. What I finally got was perfect. She loves Batman and she loves Barbie. Her mom was already getting her a "girly" gift, so I decided on a Batgirl Barbie from I was so happy that I could get the best of both worlds.

So then we let her open one gift the day before because I have no willpower and am a sucker for her and my wife begging. Naturally, I let her open mine because I wanted to see her reaction. She ripped open the paper and sat there stunned. In my mind I was thinking "uh, oh." and "maybe she's so happy she doesn't know what to say..." Yeah right...she's 4. All she DOES know how to say is what's on her mind.

Anyway, as she started crying, my wife started laughing (she knew how hard I stressed this). I think my wife is slightly evil. I attempted to save the situation: "It's a Batman Barbie..." I got put in my place "It is NOT BatMAN! It is NOT BARBIE." She had a point. It wasn't Batman or Barbie. So I ended up getting her something small from the pink section (I was in a hurry.) My wife wouldn't let me send Barbie back because it had made her laugh so hard...she still laughs everytime she sees it.

On the good side, I am now the proud owner of my first Barbie. My daughter gave it to me and I think of it as a "My first Barbie....for geeks."

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Captain FOS

You know someone like him.

He's American, but Japanese is his native language. He's played every game in history and has minute analysis and criticisms of every one. There's nothing you can tell him that he hasn't already heard.

He's Captain FullOfShit.

What makes Captain FOS so interesting is that he's not just a liar. It's more complicated than that. What he is, instead, is a random lie generator when the truth is less fantastic than he thinks it should be. Sometimes, though, he's actually telling the truth.

This makes Captain FOS a fantastically interesting person, because it's like a game to figure out when he's actually being honest. Plus, he actually seems like a decent guy, so it's not like he's a jerk--he's just a fantasist.

I've written about Captain FOS before (in a different way, and with a different name), but last week, I had a conversation with him that absolutely must be repeated.

Me: So, are you playing Tiger Woods on the Wii?

Captain FOS: Am I ever! That game is AMAZING! (rubs his shoulder) My shoulder is sore from playing so much.

Me: I have problems putting uphill, but everything else is great.

Captain FOS: I'm fine putting uphill, but I get in trouble with my girlfriend, because I'm swinging a club in the living room.

Me: Oh, you mean one of those club attachments? They have those out for MotionPlus already?

Captain FOS: No, not that. I'm swinging a real club. And my girlfriend is freaked out that I'm swinging a full-length driver in the living room.

Me: So how did you do this?

Captain FOS: A friend of mine sent me a link to a Taiwanese website that had a bolt-on attachment to put the remote on a real club. It only cost $15, but I had to import it through a third-party buyer and it wound up costing almost $100.

Me: I'd really like to try that. Do you remember the name of the company?

Captain FOS: Sorry, I can't do that.

Me: Why?

Captain FOS: Because it was a Taiwanese website that my friend sent me, and I had to use Google translator.

Sure, some of that has an odor about it (and nobody who knows anything about golf would attach the remote to a freaking driver), but everything Captain FOS says sounds at least vaguely plausible, which is why it's always so interesting to talk to him.

This is the same guy who, after I told him about Dwarf Fortress, told me three days later that he'd "played for ten hours but just wasn't feeling it."

So yes, I spent at least an hour trying various Google searches, hoping to find this magical device. It was like searching for the Holy Grail, and even though I knew it didn't exist, I just couldn't help myself.

Mr. Mile

Eli 7.11 rode a mile on the track last week. Not in total--at once.

I told him before we started that I thought he would do it soon, and he just took off on his first ride and kept circling the track. He passed the mile mark, then did about another hundred yards before he stepped off.

I've only gone half a mile (which is a miracle in itself), and I spend twice as much time practicing as he does, so I'm getting out-talented at a ratio of 4:1, and believe me, I'm lucky it's not worse.

Eli is still skinny, but he's started developing calf muscles that are totally disproportionate to the rest of his body--his legs look like Q-tips with an edamame bean scotch-taped to the lower half of each one.

I think I'm retiring the graph, because we're both riding so far now that the measurement is relatively meaningless. I can ride "a long time," and Eli 7.11 can ride "much longer."

I'm getting Eli a trophy, because he earned it, and I wanted him to have something tangible to remind him what hard work can achieve. What I'm finding, though, is that they don't seem to exist! So he may be getting a homebrew trophy.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Console Post Of The Week: It's Just Math

Here are the responses Sony executives have given recently to questions about the price of the PS3.

First, Howard Stringer:
Asked about the logic of not cutting prices, Stringer said, "I (would) lose money on every PlayStation I make -- how's that for logic."

He also had his to say about Activision CEO Bobby Kotick:
"He likes to make a lot of noise."

Next,, Jack Tretton:
We could've come out with a PlayStation 2.5 for $299 or less, and in the first two or three years it would sell extremely well. But there would be a point where people would be going, "I am not really seeing the incremental leap." We feel that we're sacrificing the short term to pay dividends in the long term. People are having short-term thinking--the platform is not even three years old. It was $599; it's now $399.

Amusingly, their responses are complete and unadulterated bullshit. These guys are all pretending that they have no intention of cutting the price of the PS3, when, in fact, that's their number one priority.

Why? Well, just look at their FY09 projections for the game segment. The company is projecting sales of 13 million PS3s--a 30% increase from FY08.

In the U.S., for the January-May period, PS3 sales are down 20% from FY08. In June, it's going to get worse, because last year saw the release of Metal Gear Solid 4. If we project that the PS3 will sell 175,000 units in June (which is extremely generous), then after June, sales year-over-year will be down 30%.

Is there any reason to think that Europe is different? No. And while the PS3 is definitely having a better year in Japan, the market in Japan is small enough that it won't cushion drops in the U.S. and Europe.

For discussion purposes, let's say that in July and August in the U.S., PS3 sales are down 30% this year from last year (which would mean sales of 287,500 units total). At that point, here's what we'd have:
2008 January-August: 2,019,100
2009 January-August: 1,417,700

At this point, Sony is stuck under The Big Wheel Of Math™. Sales from September to December would have to DOUBLE compared to last year to hit that 30% growth target. That's why I said last month that the longer Sony waits, the more likely it is that we get a $100 price cut, not $50. A $50 price cut might bump sales by 50% (temporarily), but that's not nearly enough.

Wait a minute, though. Sony gave us that projection for their fiscal year, not the calendar year. How do those numbers look?

Well, they look somewhat different, because the fiscal year started April 1. Let's take out Jan-March but keep the same assumptions for sales in June through August. At the end of August, here's what we'd have:
Partial FY08 (April-August): 1,212,100
Partial FY09 (April-August): 720,500

Oh, hell--that's even worse. That's down 40% year-over-year.

Remember, though, that we're only talking about five months of the fiscal year at the end of August, as opposed to eight months of the calendar year. And since Sony sold 3,435,700 units in the U.S. in FY08, they would still need to sell 3,745,910 units in the last seven months of the fiscal year to hit 4,466,410 units for the fiscal year (30% growth).

So what's the needed growth rate for the last seven months of this fiscal year compared to last year for Sony to reach their full fiscal year target? 68%.

In a word: ouch. Not as bad as needing to double sales, but still: ouch.

Sure, this is only one territory, and sure, there's a slight bump from Japan, but those numbers still represent an orbit that they're nowhere near right now.

If you're in charge of a business, and you wind up 40% under plan for the fiscal year, would you keep your job? No, you wouldn't. And neither would these guys, which is why they're lying out their ass when they're saying they're not going to cut prices. Of course they are.

So when might this price cut happen? The way volume in the console market is seasonal, it's inefficient to have a price cut any later than September (even though Sony did it once already this generation). If they want the most bang for their buck, they'd roll out the price cut by the end of September.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Friday Links!

First off, from Steven Kreuch (who has a second link later), it's a two-minute video that is just amazing: Train vs. Tornado. My jaw dropped open.

I normally mention Matt Sakey's column in a gaming links article, but since I didn't have one this week, here's his latest Culture Clash column: Developer In A Bottle.

Here's a fascinating article from New Scientist about how computer analysis is being used to identify which artisan engraved ancient tablets. An excerpt:
Just as English handwriting morphed from ornate script filled with curvy flourishes to the utilitarian penmanship practiced today, Greek marble inscriptions evolved over the course of the civilisation.

"Lettering of the fifth century BC and lettering of the first century BC don't look very much alike, and even a novice can tell them apart," Tracy says.

But narrowing inscriptions to a window smaller than 100 years requires a better trained eye, not to mention far more time and effort...

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about canopy rafts, and trust me, they're remarkable. Also, and these are really wonderful, it's 12 Vimeo videos for design inspiration. Then there's RC scale model submarine used to run fiber cable through sewers (page down for English translation). Next, it's a video of, well, you won't believe it: Ultimate Wiimote Control Hack: 15-ton Giant Robot Claws.

From JL, a link to a unicycle documentary titled Into The Thunder Dragon, and it chronicles "extreme mountain unicyclists Kris Holm and Nathan Hoover's wild journey across the remote Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan." Note: this doesn't seem to play properly in Firefox, or at least, it's not playing properly in mine.

From Sirius, a link to a story about an amazing discovery: Mexican free-tail bats life significantly longer than other animals of comparable size, and it's due to efficient protein folding. Also, and this is potentially awesome, it's Learn Echolocation. Next, and it's classic, it's Deep Purple Ordered To Pay Royalties To Themselves.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to amazing image from space, and here's a description:
A new image of a gaseous space nebula reveals tens of thousands of giant comet-like knots raining down in a star-spangled cosmic fireworks display. Also, a link to an update on the Kepler mission (now about 6.6 million miles from Earth).

From George Paci, a link to the discovery of over 400 photographs of British soldiers during WWI, and they're quite remarkable.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link that you'll just have to see for yourself: the 15 creepiest vintage ads of all time.

From John Rodriguez, a link to a stunning photo titled Mount Rushmore's Starry Night.

From Steven Kreuch, and it's a hoot, it's The Airplane Toilet Paper Experiment.

This is a commercial, but it's still worth seeing (thanks A&N): Evian Roller Babies.

Thursday, July 09, 2009

NCAA: The Annual Hunt

I'm not buying NCAA this year. I paid EA $60 last year for a late alpha, so this year, I'll be trying the game out courtesy of Gamefly, and if I like it, I'll just be keeping the rental copy for a while.

I still have some small hope for "Road To Glory" mode, but I've been so underwhelmed by the feature list and the demo that I'm not expecting much.

There is one aspect of NCAA, though, that I'm really going to miss: the hunt.

If you're not a sports game fan, you may not be aware of this, but the effort to find a sports game for sale before its official release date consumes thousands of man hours. Sports gaming forums (most notably, Operation Sports) have epic, lengthy threads discussing where the game might be found early. It's incredibly fun to follow the OS thread as reports come in from all over the country.

J.T., an Austin-area DQ reader (and a very nice guy as well), has teamed up with me for the last few years in an attempt to find NCAA early. In two different years, we found the game the Saturday before the release date (J.T. drove to San Antonio, which is 100 miles away, to buy the game two years ago).

This year, though, I won't be in the hunt.

When the Madden release date gets closer, though, I'm in. For the first time with Madden, I'm all in.

Family Vacation

We had planned for months to go to Washington, D.C., this year for our summer vacation, hoping to show Eli 7.11 all kinds of cool museums and historical sites.

Eli, though, asked if we would think about going to San Diego again. He had a great time last year and said he wanted to go back and try some of the things we didn't get to do last year (plus go to the Zoo and Legoland again).

The more we thought about it, the better it sounded. And here's one more reason:

That's the San Diego weather forecast for the days we'll be there. In contrast, here's the Austin forecast:

The average high in June (June!) was 99 degrees this year, which is the second-hottest year on record. The hottest? Last year, believe it or not.

The only complicating factor right now is that I smashed my foot into a wooden (and heavy) toy bin last Saturday, and as a result, one of my toes is making walking fairly painful. Our vacations are heavy on the walking, so it's going to be tough if I'm not better very soon.

That's me--"gutting out" the family vacation. Cue Benny Hill theme music.

I'll be live on tape Monday-Wednesday next week, with hopefully one post from San Diego as chaos unfolds.

Wednesday, July 08, 2009

The Dig

I bought "The Dig" for $4.99 via Steam today.

The LucasArts "classics" released today are priced in three tiers--$4.99, $9.99, and $19.99. The old adventure games are $4.99, which seems like a fair price. On the other hand, some programmer at LucasArts must have a multimillion dollar bonus kick in if Thrillville: Off The Rails sells more than fifty extra copies, because it's priced at $19.99.

I only went through the opening cinematics of the game, but I was really struck by the high quality of the writing and the voice acting. They were both exceptional, and I don't mean for their time--they would be exceptional in any era.

Adventure games, due to their perversely obtuse nature, have never been one of my favorite genres, but I'm still looking forward to playing the game again.

As a side note, it took me over 5 hours to be able to play the game after I purchased it. Steam is a great way to get games the day after their release (or any time after that), but since it launched, I've bought four games on day one and been unable to play three of them until at least a few hours after purchase.


I've posted links to stories about Lenny "Nails" Dykstra several times in the past year. Dykstra was the ex-professional baseball player who claimed to be some kind of financial wizard, allegedly making millions trading in the stock market, starting a glossy magazine (and personal service business) for pro athletes called The Player's Club, and portraying himself in every possible way as the BSD (big swinging dick).

He got the "D" right, at least.

The funny thing, is, though, people believed him. He landed a gig as a columnist at, and Jim Cramer (another "D") touted him as " of the great ones in this business." HBO Real Sports did a glowing profile of him last year. Even though there was absolutely ZERO chance that anything he was claiming was more than an illusion, people believed him.

Let me clarify that. It's not that Dykstra wasn't doing things that appeared impressive, like buying Wayne Gretzky's former house for $18M. There was just zero chance that Dykstra was generating the revenue necessary to support his expenditures, and it was clear that there was a massive imbalance.

Today, inevitably, he filed bankruptcy, listing assets of $50,000 and liabilities of $31,000,000. That's right--liabilities outstripping assets by over thirty million dollars.

If only I'd followed Lenny Dykstra's advice, I'd have a million dollars today--if I'd started with a hundred million.*

*Yes, that was shamelessly adapted from a Jon Stewart joke about CNBC, but it still works.

The one thing Dykstra did that was financially successful after his playing career was open car washes. Seriously. He made a ton of money from the car washes and then sold them.

From there, though, the wheels started to come off. He claimed to be a genius stock picker, touting his "consecutive win" streak (which consisted entirely of buying deep in the money calls and averaging down or rolling over contracts when he had an unrealized loss).

This was gigantic red flag, and I'm still stunned that more people didn't understand. Anyone who knows anything about the stock market will tell you that the percentage of successful trades in any "system" is meaningless. Let's say that Trader #1 makes thirty successful trades in a row that net $100 per trade after transaction fees, so he made $3,000 in total (not including taxes, obviously). Meanwhile, trader #2 only has three winning trades out of ten, but those three winning trades were so big that he netted $10,000 in total.

Trader #2 just kicked Trader #1's ass.

And actually, it's more complicated than that, if you want to be entirely accurate. Without knowing how much risk each trader took with their respective trades, it's impossible to compare the trades fairly. The same trader who makes a fortune from taking a ton of risk in a rising market will likely be bankrupt when the market falls quickly, because the amount of risk he's taking is unsustainable in the long term.

So nobody cares about percentage of winning trades, because it's a meaningless statistic. The only scoreboard in the stock market is money. And someone who obsesses over the percentage of successful trades is (almost always) not a good trader at all, because one of the most important characteristics of being a successful trader (or investor) is taking your losses. People who can't take losses are not suited to investing in the stock market.

The second obvious tell was that Dykstra was obsessed with what he owned. In every interview I ever saw with him, he would point out how much his watch cost, how much his house cost, what his car was worth, etc. He was incredibly insecure, which is not the personality profile of someone who is financially successful. He would basically say "How can I not be successful if I own an eighteen million dollar house?"

Well, you're not successful if you can't pay for it.

The full list of creditors is available over at Deadspin, and there are some stunning details, most notably, UNSECURED loans of 12.9M with Washington Mutual and 4.0M with Countrywide/Bank of America. An unsecured loan involves no collateral, so the banks have cleverly managed to lose 100% (apparently) of those loans.

The guy who clearly saw all this happening before it actually went down was Kevin Coughlin, who wrote an article for GQ titled You Think Your Job Sucks? Try Working For Lenny Dykstra. Coughlin was an ex-employee, and his description of working for Dykstra is a business horror show.

I think what's most true about this fiasco is that quite a few people knew that Dykstra was full of it, but as long as they could make money off him (in salary, bank loan fees, etc.), they didn't care.

All in all, it's quite a story, and I'm looking forward to reading the inevitable book.

As long as it's not written by Lenny Dykstra, of course.

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