Friday, April 30, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off, from DQ reader My Wife, a NY Times feature on Jure Robic, a Slovene soldier who may be the world's greatest ultra-endurance athlete. How ultra? He's cycled 518.7 miles in a 24-hour time trial, and that's one of the milder things he's done.
Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment--this time, it's about Heavy Rain.

From the Edwin Garcia Links machine, a terrific interview with bespoke tailors Zaremba & Kaminski.

From Eric Lundquist, and this is just magnificent, an "architectural procection" using the front facade of the Great Keep at Rochester Castle. It's titled AC/DC vs Iron Man II, and you really need to go take a look.

From Steven Davis, one of the freakiest bits of video you'll ever see: robot mouth simulates human voices. Also, and this is amazing, it's Huge 3D Printer Makes Buildings Out of Sand. Finally, a fascinating story about a WWII tank that was so gigantic it defied description--named, ironically, the Maus. How heavy? It weighed 188 tons!

From Jonathan Arnold, the world's highest resolution picture (172181x93611, with a link for direct viewing).
Also, it's the most ridiculous detention slips of all time (good to know "that's what she said" is still popular).

From Jesse Leimkuehler, some absolutely amazing images from the Solar Dynamic Observatory.

From Frank Regan, a terrific time-lapse video titled Timescapes. Also, and Eli 8.8 loved this, it's a film where you insert the "hero" via an image from your computer or webcam. That's a poor description, but th end result is great. Finally an epic video showing shock waves coming out of Eyjafjallajokull/ during its recent eruption.

From Brian DeyErmand, and this is amazing, it's The Johnny Cash Project. People submit drawings of Johnny Cash which are then assembled into a music video.

From Nicholas Czekalski, it's astronomer's favorite Hubble images, and there's accompanying audio from the astronomers as well.

From Cliff Eyler, the curious case of historian Stephen Ambrose, who is now appearing more and more to have been a considerable liar. Also, and it's a surprisingly honest admission from the U.S. military, it's We Have Met the Enemy and He Is PowerPoint.

From Mike Reed, a MythBuster segment about a self-balancing unicycle.

From Paul Costello, and the "Punisher Shape Shifters Crotch Rocket" is an instant classic, it's 15 Unintentionally Perverted Toys for Children.

Here's something you'll love: the Apollo 11 Saturn V Launch  in HD, from a camera running at 500fps. The detail is incredible.

From Sirius, a fascinating article about Tibetan sky burial (in layman's terms, cutting up a body and putting it out for the vulture to eat).

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Football: Virtual And Real

Madden 11 features are trickling out, and like last year, I'm impressed with how much attention the development team is paying to the simulation aspect of the game.

The big feature being touted this year is "Gameflow." If you see offensive coordinators on the sidelines during games, they usually have a big, laminated sheet of plays in their hands. The way that sheet is organized is by situation, so for any particular down/distance/score combination, they have a set of plays to choose from. Some NFL teams go into a game with more than 200 possible plays (out of a much larger playbook), so it's not possible to sort through all of those in the few seconds a coordinator has to call a play.

That's what they're introducing in Madden 11 this year (as an optional feature). There will be 15 play slots for each down/distance situation, and you can weight each play from .5 to 5 stars. Then, when it comes down to which play gets picked, the CPU "coordinator" makes the call. So you choose the suite of plays to choose from, and weight them, but you don't choose the actual play that gets called.

I like that. A lot. It's much more realistic, and it's also potentially much more fun, because it removes a degree of control from the player.

Here's a video of the feature in action, and please note that the audio/subtitles can be turned off.

In more good news, while Turbo is still an option, the default position is "off." Turbo is just cheese--there's no other way to describe it--and disabling it by default is, again, a step toward a better simulation.

Here's the real football note, and you may have been following it already: Miami Dolphin General Manager Jeff Ireland, in a pre-draft interview with Oklahoma State receiver Dez Bryant, asked Bryant if his mother was a prostitute.

Let that sink in for a minute. I'll wait.

Here's what I find mind-boggling: there are people defending Ireland. On what planet is it legal (or ethical) to ask that question in a job interview?

Apparently, quite a few teams asked Bryant is his mother used illegal drugs, and again, since when is that legal? And why does the NFL apparently believe that they're exempt from the employment law standards that exist for every other business in this country?

I heard someone say on the radio that questions like that help judge a player's "character," and I burst out laughing. Seriously, if the only way someone can find out a prospective employee's character is by asking questions like that, then they're a complete idiot and should be fired.

Dez Bryant has done enough stupid things on his own that it's pretty clear that he does have character issues. No one needs to act like a borderline sadist in an interview with him to figure that out.

Eli 8.8

I was driving Eli 8.8 home from school yesterday, and we were talking about a boy in his class. Let's call him "Thomas."

Thomas is "the" kid. He doesn't have any friends. He annoys everyone. He can be mean. He's small, and he's not athletic, and he struggles with his classwork.

Eli understands that while Thomas might be kind of a jerk, it's more complicated than that. He knows that Thomas probably doesn't have much to feel good about, and he does feel some compassion for him.

We were talking about this on the way home, and I said that it was hard when no one was watching your back. Then I asked him if he knew what that meant. "If I'm fighting a guy with a sword, and a guy with an axe sneaks up behind me, I won't notice him, and if someone isn't watching my back, that guy will chop my head off with the axe."

"A little more graphic than I would have gone," I said, "but that's correct."

"I was just using the rare example," he said.

"Dad, listen to this." Eli 8.8 makes an arm fart, although it's a weak effort. "It sounds like a FART, but it's with my ARM."

"It's music, but it's also exercise," I said.

"Do you know who's the best arm farter in my class?"

"I have no idea," I said.

"Mary!" he said. "She rides horses in the summer and gets all sweaty, so she learned how to really let 'em rip."

"So she's kind of an expert," I said.

"Oh, she's an expert," he said. "She went to A.F.U."

"What's that?" I asked.

"Arm Fart University," he said.

Activision (More Later)

These bombshells just keep coming. From Gamasutra:
After weeks of ugly conflict with its most valuable studio and the resignation of its publishing executive, Activision finally has some good news to report in the signing of a major ten-year deal with Bungie.

The new, exclusive multiplatform deal means Activision will publish the Halo creator's new franchise, its first since it became independent from Microsoft.

Bungie's next project is described as an "action game universe"; as an independent studio, the developer will continue to own the IP. The terms of the deal were not publicly disclosed, but do not include all Bungie titles -- purely the "rights to publish and distribute all future Bungie games based on the new intellectual property on multiple platforms and devices".
Bungie owns the IP, and Activision owns the publishing and distribution rights to all games based on this IP.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

The Loneliest Cosmonaut

I've been thinking about Abdul Ahad Momand today. I hadn't heard of him before I read this article.

Shortly after the Soviets withdrew from Afghanistan in the late 1980s, the Soviet government, as a token show of support to the government of Mohammad Najibullah, offered to send an Afghan into space. Momand was a pilot in the Afghan Air Force and was chosen by Najibullah.

Abdul Ahad Momand went into space in 1988.

Near the end of the mission, in mid-descent back to Earth, the module's computer malfunctioned. Momand, who had basically been given the "don't touch anything" warning, noticed that the computer was about to jettison both fuel and batteries, and his intervention (while the trained Soviet pilot waited for instructions from ground control) saved the capsule.

Momand was named both a Hero of the Soviet Union and deputy minister of Aviation and Tourism in Afghanistan. And everyone lived happily ever after, right?

Here's where it gets strange.

Najibullah was overthrown in 1992. Afghanistan descended into even greater chaos. Momand fled the country, escaping to Germany.


He still lives there. At first, he worked in a space-research institute, but it didn't pay well enough, and after some intermediate stops, he wound up working for a "small trading company."

His comment on his job is one of the most poignant lines I've ever heard: "It is not in space."

I'm aware of the corruption of Najibullah's regime, and the political consequences of identifying yourself with a politician who is then overthrown in the wildly shifting Afghani landscape.

Still, though: a man who has been in space.

Somehow I thought that being an astronaut or a cosmonaut bestowed some kind of diplomatic immunity, some kind of lasting and preferred status. Instead, Momand lives in an apartment in a foreign country, and likely will for the rest of his life, working at a meaningless job, when once, he was in space, looking down on the Earth.

That must be the fundamental definition of despair.

Brouhaha? Ha Ha Ha

That title will stir some memories if you remember Nick Danger (and you should). Now, on to the post.

Not only won't this go away, it just keeps getting more interesting.

Today, Mike Griffith, the CEO of Activision, resigned. Was it related to the excruciating nature of the Infinity Ward fiasco? It's hard to imagine it any other way--the timing is far too coincidental.

Here's the thing. It doesn't matter, at this point, whether Activision is 100% correct in all of these lawsuits. The fact that it even got to this point was a clear indictment of Griffith.If his resignation wasn't related to the Infinity Ward situation, he would have stayed on (for PR purposes) until everything settled down. It's not like he's leaving for some great outside opportunity--he's staying on as vice-chairman of Activision Blizzard.

In other words, he's been kicked downstairs.

I saw the lawsuit filed by the 38 current and former IW employees today (thanks Joystiq), and it's simple: 
1. "the members of the Infinity Ward Employee Group were, and are, express intended third party beneficiaries of the Bonus Plan Agreement."
2. "The only condition precedent which needed to be satisfied in order for the members of the Infinity Ward Employee Group to qualify for their share of the Bonus Pool was the delivery of Modern Warfare 2 to Activision in time for a November 10, 2009 launch of the game.
3. "Pursuant to the formula set forth in the Bonus Plan Agreement...Assuming Infinity Ward's Fourth Quarter Bonus Pool is $118 million, and not counting West's and Zampella's share, the employees of Infinity Ward are currently entitled to at least $82 million.
4." ... Activision has already paid approximately $28 million...Activision is withholding, and refusing to pay, at least $54 million due and owing to employees of Infinity Ward for the Fourth Quarter of 2009 alone."

Also, the Bonus Pool for the first quarter of 2010 is estimated at $30-45 million.

There's more, but that's the meat. In contrast to the lawsuit filed by Zampella and West, which read like it was written by an incendiary carnival barker, this lawsuit is very lean and very clear. There's nothing vague here, and it's an absolutely specific claim: under the Bonus Plan Agreement, Activision owes them a shitload of money.

The clarity leads me to believe that the employees are correct.

Here's what I think happened. Activision created that bonus pool with an estimated amount of compensation in mind. They wanted to incent the employees, but really didn't want to actually pay them--or, at least, didn't want to pay them more than a planned amount. So they created some kind of incentive plan that looked potentially fabulous on the surface, but only really paid off under highly unlikely circumstances--i.e., Modern Warfare 2 selling far more units than even Activisions's most optimistic scenario. A tiered bonus plan could work that way, where the payout gets substantially higher if a game's sales go into the stratosphere. So Activision might have created a bonus plan with multiple tiers, but in every scenario they envisioned, the payout would be similar, due to the way they set up the tiers.

What happened, though, was the scenario they didn't envision: Modern Warfare 2's sales did go into the stratosphere, even beyond Activision's own inflated expectations.

It's possible that the bonus pool might be 5x or even 10x what Activision expected, and an employee at IW might be looking at ten years of salary--or more--as his/her bonus.

In that situation, it's hard to find a way to incent people for the future. They got their nut. It's not like you can offer them that kind of money for the next game (there are issues of fairness with other development teams that could get very, very ugly), and they can afford to be very demanding about their future compensation, because if you don't satisfy them, they just walk.

However, the one thing you absolutely don't do in this situation is hold the money hostage. Good grief, a fourth grader would know better.

I don't know how this ends, but I do know one thing: for Activision, it doesn't get better from here.

More 3D

I should have mentioned this yesterday, but there have primarily been two reasons why the parallax techology Toshiba is using in their 21" autostereoscopic display was previously considered unusable in larger screens. First, the viewing angle is severely compromised unless you're in the "sweet spot," and the sweet spot is very small. However, producing nine images (the number in the 21" display) is going to significantly improve the viewing angle (because you only need two for the 3D effect, if I'm understanding it correctly)--in essence, everything above two images is increasing the size of the sweet spot.

Second, parallax displays previously had resolution issues. Daily Tech had an article today that mentions Toshiba using a "low-temperature poly-silicon technology" to resolve that problem. Plus, this tech also allows the production of a panel that has brightness levels comparable to 2D panels.

This is pretty damned exciting technology.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

P.S. And You Owe Us Money

A postscript to the Activision post earlier today. From G4, news of a lawsuit filed by 38 current and former Infinity Ward employees:
The IWEG [Infinity Ward employees group] is looking "to recover between $75 million and $125 million, if not more, in compensatory damages." That number's derived from:

* Unpaid bonuses from 2009 and 2010 sales generated by Modern Warfare 2 -- fourth quarter 2009 and first quarter 2010, specifically.
* Bonuses "due and owing to them" past first quarter 2010.
* "Bonus/royalty/profit participation" related to "technology/engine" royalties, "other special performance bonuses," "other studio bonuses" or "any other bonus/royalty/profit participation."'
* Lost value on "restricted stock units" that Activision "promised" would vest (read: own it in your own name and purchase it from Activision) when Modern Warfare 2 sales eclipsed Modern Warfare 1, which "has long ago occurred."
* Money owed as it relates to Modern Warfare 2 "sister games, including but not limited to" the oft-mentioned Modern Warfare 3, "if Modern Warfare 3 is ultimately delivered and marketed."
* Interest rates related to the above sums of money.

So if you include Zampella and West, roughly forty percent of Infinity Ward at the time Modern Warfare 2 shipped are currently suing Activision.
This has gone from being somewhat embarrassing for Activision (when the original lawsuit by Zampella and West was filed) to being a complete freaking disaster.


Here's an excerpt from an intriguing post over at Engadget:
While we were fretting about what special tech Nintendo's 3DS would use to generate autostereoscopic imagery on its comparatively puny screen, Toshiba Mobile Display (and others) have been working on bringing that same headgear-free 3D to TV-sized panels. Employing a "multi-parallax" technique...the 9-parallax implementation requires the generation of 9 separate images and therefore could be achieved with only an "ultra-high definition LCD module. How large is the display being touted in this post? 21 inches. It was just a few weeks ago that this kind of technology was being described as unusable on larger screens and only suited for smaller mobile devices. That seems to have suddenly changed, and even with the generation of 9 separate images, the specifications include 1280x800 resolution and 480 nits of brightness, which are both quite impressive.

Now I'm wondering if the supposed limitations of the parallax method is due to the technology itself, or the cost. Previously, it seemed to be a technical limitation, but if a 21" display can use this technique, maybe larger displays can as well. Eventually.

Dear Activision: Apparently, You Suck

From Gamasutra:
As of today, the studio has lost 26 employees, according to Kotaku's count -- about a quarter of the talent Activision said it still maintained at Infinity Ward just recently. And LinkedIn profiles first noticed by consumer weblog Joystiq show that two more IW expats have joined Respawn.

Twenty-six freaking people. Or maybe twenty-eight, depending on how you read that last paragraph. 

Do you remember the news item a few days ago mentioning that Infinity Ward was taking West and Zampella's allegedly forfeited bonus and redistributing it among remaining team members? Well, here's the catch:
Rep Dan Amrich confirmed the bonus money would be distributed among remaining staff, but several sources close to the situation have told Gamasutra that employees are being asked to sign time or project commitments before receiving their bonuses.

For Activision, this is very ugly.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Splinter Cell: Conviction (Impressions and Review Notes)

I played Splinter Cell: Convicion (360 version) for about an hour, courtesy of Gamefly--maybe a little more than an hour, but certainly not two.

It's highly polished, but it wasn't my kind of game. I've increasingly turned away from "the kill is the thrill" genre, and the Splinter Cell franchise has turned substantially in that direction. Stealth has been replaced with hyper-violence, including a macabre combo where after you murder someone in hand-to-hand combat, you then get to mark targets for execution, and on your command, your character disposes of them (complete with brain matter splatter--doesn't anyone get shot in the heart anymore?). You also get to interrogate suspects by finding objects in the environment and smashing their faces against them until they beg for mercy and give you information.

Non-lethal actions? Sorry, you must be in the wrong game.

Is it cool? Yes, there's certainly an element of cool, and quite a lot of bad-assery. The subtitle of this game should be I've Got Big Balls And I'm Swinging Them As Fast As I Can.

Is it grisly? Yes, it is, to the point where I actually felt a little uncomfortable.

The presentation is hyper-stylized (everyting about this game is "hyper'). Your objectives are written in gigantic letters on the environment, which is designer-speak for "THIS IS FU*KING COOL." And it is cool, and it is in your face, but I didn't really want something in my face, thanks very much.

Far less interesting than my own reactions to this game, though, are the reactions of the reviewers, particularly in regards to one issue.

Splinter Cell: Conviction has a short single-player campaign. Very short. Estimates of time to completion are generally in the 5-8 hour range.

In other words, if you buy the game for the single-player campaign only, you're getting what can only be described as terrible value for your money. And any review of the game should include a prominent mention about the campaign length, because reviews are all about whether you should spend your money to buy the game, and this could seriously affect your decision.

With that in mind, let's look at some reviews--or, more specifically, what mention they give to the single-player campaign length. Every mention. The number in parenthesis is the rating given by the review, translated into Metacritic's 1-100 scale.

Gamepro (100): These segments, including an exciting on-foot chase sequence, help keep the game fresh throughout the eight-hour experience...

While the single-player of Conviction might not scratch every itch fans of the franchise have...
I'll give you a preview: most review sites are bending over backwards not to criticize the length of the campaign. Instead, they use obtuse wording like Gamepro--"might not scratch every itch."

The Escapist (100): Not a single word.

IGN (93): The campaign is a brisk and enjoyable five-hour experience...While the single-player campaign won't take long to beat, even on Realistic difficulty, it's just one piece of the larger package...The single-player and co-op campaigns are short, but there's a lot of other things to do.

1UP (91): might feel a little bit cheated if you pay full retail price for the game. Even with the multiplayer thrown in, you can expect to go through almost everything in the game once in well under ten hours..., while the game is very well put together, it's also over all-too-quickly; experienced gamers can probably expect the single-player campaign to last about five to six hours. That would be perfect for an episodic game or a budget-priced downloadable title, but no matter how high the production values, $60 for such a short experience feels a bit overpriced...Conviction's stylish presentation and intuitive cover mechanics prove that Ubisoft can make a highly polished product, but for the amount of game you get, the price seems sorely inflated.

That's certainly not obtuse. And I think it's entirely appropriate to give the game a high score, but warn people about the length.

Game Informer (90): Conviction’s single-player campaign is a finely crafted thrill ride... 

I think that's code for "really short," but that's the only mention, however vague, of length.

Edge (80): Nothing.

Gamespot (80): ...given the ease of the short six-hour campaign--seven, perhaps, if you prefer silence to stridence...Brief campaign doesn't offer much challenge.

Eurogamer (70): By the end of the short single-player campaign...

That's right--one word: "short." That's quite a disappointment from Eurogamer, because I think their reviews are generally excellent.

Please note that I didn't cherry-pick these reviews; I tried to select major sites only. It amazes me that of all these prominent sites, only 1UP actually mentions the issue in any real detail. And since this is such a high-profile game, these weren't short reviews--there was time to mention everything else, seemingly.


Friday, April 23, 2010

Friday Links!

First off this week, from George Paci, an absolutely mesmerizing paper: The World's First Immunization Campaign:
The Spanish Smallpox Vaccine Expedition, 1803–1813
. It is completely and utterly fascinating.

Next, from DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand, it's First Person Observer, which I can only describe as The Onion of video games. Sample headlines: Desperate, Marooned Astronaut Tries To Use Every Item With Every Other Item, and Health Pack Reform Divides Nation.

Francis Cermak sent me a link to a terrific blog titled The Psychology Of Games, and if you're interested in human behavior, I highly recommend taking a look. Francis also mentioned that if DQ is blocked at work, you can use Google Reader to sneak around the block (in most cases).

From Chris Lamb, video of a scuba diver and his remarkable encounter with a camera stealing octopus.

From Tim Lesnick, a spectacular photo of Ash and Lightning Above an Icelandic Volcano.

From Sirius, one of the most amazing works of art I've ever seen: San Francisco, recreated with toothpicks. Also, and this is fascinating, a story about the use of hyperspectral imaging to find bodies underground. Here's an excerpt:
Hyperspectral imaging collects and processes light from across the electromagnetic spectrum, including visible light as well as ultraviolet and infrared light. The research could help police solve missing persons cases or reveal new mass graves from hundreds, if not thousands, of years ago.

Now, meet the amazing turtle ant. And finally, a video clip of the acrobatic contortionist triplets, the Ross Sisters. Be sure to watch past the one-minute mark.

From George Paci, it's Getting Revenge On Zombies.

Sam Veilleux submitted this as the best headline ever, and I really don't disagree: In Safety Study, Sheep On Meth Are Shocked With Tasers. The headline is much funnier than the story itself, which is pretty icky. I would, however, submit that Civilized caterpillars talk with their butts is also quite amusing, and it's not disgusting at all. And caterpillars are hardly the only species to talk with their butts--or out them.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's George Washington Racks Up Late Fees at NY Library. Also, and this is both interesting and amusing, it's Time Traveler Caught In Museum Photo? Also, and this is remarkably clever, it's Hark a Vagrant: Great Gatsbys.
From Mark Lahren, and this is fascinating, it's Rock and Roll Heaven, a list of major musicians from the 1955-1980 era  who have died.

From Andrew Baerg, a beautiful piece of music (and an excellent use of technology as well): Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir - 'Lux Aurumque'.

From Jonathan Arnold, a series of photographs taken from a passenger aboard the Eureka Zeppelin, the only zeppelin in the United States. Also, some totally fantastic coin magic.

Finally, here's a spectacular ending: Wife Hacks Husband's Car Forum Account, Divorces Him With It.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Okay, since we've talked about tortadas, Joe Strummer, and Tammy Wynette this week, let's move on to volcanoes.

Like many of you, my interest in voclanoes took a surge with the recent eruptions of Eyjafjallajokull (pronounced "EYE-a-fyat-la-jo-kutl," not that any of us can), and I was very curious as to the effects on Europe if it's sister volvano, Katla, erupted.

Enter Dubious Quality's Geologic Advisor, Ben Pope, who gave me a ton of interesting information over the course of a few e-mails, so let me share some of it with you.

First off, in a geological sense, he writes this:
Iceland is a fantastic, active, terrifying place.

Next, the case for an upcoming eruption of Katla:
As you probably know from some googling, yes, there appears to be a link between Eyjafjoll and Katla with regards to eruptions. Every time it's erupted in recorded history, Katla has also erupted. Of course, in this case 'every' is a sample size of three, and only one of those post-dates the American revolution, but there you go. There've been earthquake swarms beneath Eyjafjoll for the last few months, and an article in February noted significant crustal distension and movement related to the change in the magma chamber directly beneath Eyjafjoll.

It's interesting to note that this means the recent eruptions were effectively expected a few months ago. While it's difficult tp pinpoint the day, "within the next few weeks" is as close to perfect as can be, and the small jokulhlaup caused by the eruption was avoided with prompt evacuation thanks to this information.

He also, though, makes a case against:
There's been movement in the Eyjafjoll chamber, yes, and all the predictives were there for an eruption some time this spring. That said, I can't seem to find any information on recent activity at Katla, and nothing from the reports I can find implies the predictive events at Eyjafjoll are linking to or triggering things nearer to Katla. In fact, the earthquakes seem to indicate that movement in the chamber is primarily on the opposite side from Katla.

The worry seems to be stemming in this case from two primary sources. Firstly, the historic record of twinned eruption in the sites. This is honestly somewhat damning, but circumstantial at best.

Secondly, the fact that Katla is and has always been a terrifying, unstable volcano. It's much larger, Where Eyjafjoll has erupted three times in the last thousand or so years, Katla's got twenty-five confirmed and counting. It appears to have a hair-trigger and a mean temper, for all that you can anthropomorphize a mountain.

My boss mentioned the VEI (Volcanic Explosivity Index), a logarithmic measure, so a "5" on the scale is 10x larger than a "4."

Katla, on the scale, has generally erupted at the 4 or 5 level, historically. For context, the Mt. St. Helen's eruption in 1980 is also classified as a 5, as well as Mt. Hudson (Chile) in 1991.

According to the Wikipedia page, eruptions from 2-5 on the scale have occurred almost 5,000 times in the last 10,000 years (based on data from the Global Volcanism Program of the Smithsonian Institute).

Above that, though, there have only been 56 in the last hundred centuries. So a 6 is a very, very rare occurrence. Mt. Pinatubo in the Phillipines  in 1991 was the last eruption of this size, and before that, you have to go all the way back to 1912.

Looking for a 7? Try Mt. Tambora (Indonesia) in 1815.
The eruption happened at around 7pm, when three columns of flames reaching heights of 40km were first sighted. Two hundred million tonnes of sulphur dioxide and 100 cubic km of rock were released.

The explosion was heard over a thousand miles away,

The after effects were devastating
During the summer of 1816, unexpected climate changes left countries in the Northern Hemisphere suffering from devastating famine and epidemic outbreaks. These weather patterns were the result of the volcanic eruption of Mount Tambora in Sumbawa, Indonesia, on 10th April 1815.

Over the following year, heavy ash-fall filled the air across the globe, preventing sunrays from reaching the earth. The resulting frost and rains devastated crops and caused the “Year without Summer”.

The death toll outside Indonesia ran into hundreds of thousands. With the 117,000 victims who died in the original cataclysm in Indonesia, this was one of the deadliest disasters in history.

In other words, a 7 would put us in deep, deep trouble. Not as much, trouble, though, as we'd be in if the Yellowstone (yes, the park) Caldera erupted :
The last time that beast woke up - with a roar - was 640,000 years ago. That was a supervolcanic eruption that ejected 1,000 cubic kilometers of ash and lava - 8,000 times what was spewed forth by Mount St. Helens in 1980. The Yellowstone eruption area collapsed upon itself, creating a sunken giant crater or caldera 1,500 square miles in area.

Holy crap. That would be between an 8 and a 9 on the VEI scale.

If you're interested and want to bookmark a few information sources, the weekly activity report of the Global Volcanism Program is a good place to start. If you're specifically interested in Katla, here's a site with a ten-minute updates of tremor levels from monitoring sites near the volcano. And if you just want to see some absolutely spectacular photos of Eyjafjallajokul, Scott Ray sent in a link to a magnificent collection from The Big Dig.

And By The Way

Since I've bookmarked Grub Grade, I was reading a post there today and it referenced Burger Business, which also covers the fast food industry and is also quite a read.

Oh, and since we're discussing fast food and burgers this week, let me mention a topic used followed by something like this: *#*$(#! I'm speaking, of course, of the "veggie burger," which is generally reviled, and for good reason: they taste awful.

I occasionally try veggie burgers, because they're generally lower in fat (and saturated fat), and I'm old, and I have to pay attention to shit like that. But they usually taste so bad that I have to put cheese on them, which defeats the whole "saturated fat piety" bandwagon I jumped on by eating one to start with.

That brings us to Freddy's Frozen Custard & Steakburgers, which has a Pflugerville location that's on the route to my favorite unicycle course. After I ride, I'm starving, so I usually stop and have some french fries, at least (and an occasional burger). Last week, though, on some kind of demented whim, I decided to try the Veggieburger.

It was great.

Seriously, it was freaking great. It was spicy, with a black bean influence, and instead of just taking a few bites and throwing it away (what I expected), I ate the whole thing and had one again on Tuesday. No cheese necessary.

Freddy's has kind of a funky franchise distribution--the Southwest not including California, then a few restaurants in Oklahoma, Kansas, Nebraska, and Missouri--but if you're near one, it's worth taking a look.

The Tortada Primer

From "Mike":
"Tortada" doesn't mean anything in mexican cuisine, I believe it means "cake" in Portuguese or maybe in Spain, but in Mexico there's no such food.

Tortada is probably a mix of the words tostada and "torta". A "torta" is basically a sandwich made with hard bread. There's many kinds in Mexico, and sometimes it's called a "telera".


Surely, this is the most charming story ever done about Dwarf Fortress. Charming because it's wonderfully illustrated, and a great story because it happened in Dwarf Fortress, where almost all the stories are great. Take a look at The Thriving Fortress Bronzemurder.

I've said this before, but I don't think any other game has ever generated the kind of stories that Dwarf Fortress does on a daily basis.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Eli 8.8

On my birthday weekend, we were watching the Final Four (like I always do), and Eli 8.8 went into the kitchen and started drawing something. "I'm making you a birthday present, Dad," he said. I thought he would draw for five minutes and be done, but he worked steadily for about forty-five minutes, and then gave me this:

The flower really puts it over the top.

Tonight, we were all eating dinner together. "Eli, I haven't seen Ivan in a while," Gloria said. Ivan is a boy at school. "How is he doing? Remember when he was so sick last fall?"

"I remember," Eli said. "Swine flu AND pneumonia. They said it was life-threatening."

"So how is he doing?" Gloria asked.

"He's fine," Eli said, "but that was scary. We were all worried that swine flu plus pneumonia equals adios Ivan."

Stuff You Might Like

You've probably noticed that I try to write one of these after I'm grouchy as hell for a couple of days, just to even things up (a bit).

Gloria gave me Redemption Song: The Ballad Of Joe Strummer for my birthday, and it's terrific. Strummer (John Mellor) was the lead singer and rhythm guitarist for The Clash, and the amount of detail presented in this book is quite extraordinary. If you have any interest in Strummer, The Clash, or that era in music, this is absolutely a must-read.

Strangely, and through a path that I can't fully remember, that led to me picking up Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen. This book would be worth reading just for the detail that it provides about the music business in Nashville in the 1970s, but it's also a fascinating look at Wynette's life, and to call her life "rocky" would be a tremendous understatement. One note: this is written by the same author (Jimmy McDonough) who wrote the outstanding Neil Young biography Shakey (one of my alltime favorite musical biographies). For this book, though, he adopts an almost chatty style that's grating at times, an affectation where he writes letters to Wynette and other personal touches, and these stylistic touches fall absolutely flat, unfortunately. The information he presents, though, is fantastic.

Next is How To Train Your Dragon, and this is one of the rare children's films that I can wholeheartedly recommend to adults. It's extremely intelligent and well-written, it's very funny, and the 3-D is fantastic. I can't think of one single thing to complain about in this film, and Eli 8.8 loved it as well. One note: the dragons are beautifully rendered and sometimes quite fierce, so for kids under 6, I'm guessing it might be a little scary for them.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Dead Rising 2: Case Zero

So the Dead Rising 2 "prologue", Case Zero, is going to contain about three hours of gameplay,  Capcom's Keiji Inafune told Kotaku.

Three hours if it's "rushed through," allegedly.

Here's a bit more:
Set two years after the Willamette incident of Dead Rising and Frank West and three years before the game show zombies of Dead Rising 2, Case Zero, Capcom's Keiji Inafune promises, will "bridge the gap" between the two games.

Well, it bridges that gap if you buy it, because it's a pay demo, not a free one.

Not a demo? Sure it is, unless they also release a free demo. If there's no free demo, and there's "prequel" content that you pay for before the full game is released, it's a demo.

Again, and I hate to harp on this, but it just seems to be the dominant theme day after day after day: big gaming companies are giving us less and less value.

I've had free demos last much longer than three hours. This isn't any new kind of content category: it's a price increase. A price increase on top the price increase that DLC gave us if we wanted to experience the "full" game. A price increase on top of "one-time use coupons" included in new games that are intended to gut the resale market. A price increase on top of the change in game price from $50 to $60 when the 360 and PS3 launched.

Good grief.

Price? No one knows, and (of course) Capcom doesn't want to tell us until the last minute, to mute what is certain to be a general level of outrage. But this is case zero, so to speak, in what looks like it could be an unfortunate, ugly trend.

I loved Dead Rising--it's still one of my favorite 360 games and one of the most entertaining of the next-gen games. It would have absolutely been a minute one purchase for me. Instead, though, I may well just rent it. So in their quest to get an extra $5 (or a bit more, possibly) out of me, they lost $60 instead.

The Tortada, in Tortuga

We were watching Sidney Crosby score about a point a minute against Ottowa when a commercial came on for a new Taco Bell product.

The tortada.

"I'm not sure what that is," I said. "I guess it's the combination of a tostada and, um, something."

"They are TOTALLY ripping off the panaco," Eli 8.8 said.

p.s. "tortada" actually means "tart" in Spanish. I'm not sure how chicken, lettuce, tomato, and bacon qualify as a tart, but that's what it means. Oh, and I also stumbled on this fantastic fast food website called Grub Grade.

I Should Have Known

We're having some tile work done. I had no idea it would be so dusty.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Console Post Of The Week

Dave Yeager sent me an e-mail:
The console posts are some of my favorites but I do have a question - if the numbers every week are so consistently bad for the Xbox360 and the PS3 then how are the product lines still in business at this point? I mean basically for a couple years now the numbers have come out every week and they've been categorized as terrible.

Just curious - is it a matter of it being okay to lose money from Microsoft's and Sony's perspectives to just try to keep some market share? If they don't have sufficient market share due to a couple years now of bad sales, why are game companies still making games for them? Somebody must be making a profit somewhere.

Those are excellent and relevant questions.

It's true that I've generally had a negative slant on console hardware sales for Microsoft and Sony for the last few years--particularly Sony. That's both a reaction to how Microsoft and Sony position the numbers (often in ridiculous ways), and a longer-term view of what their current sales mean twelve months from now.

In this generation, incredibly, it's been all about Nintendo. They've printed money, while Microsoft (some) and Sony (lots) have lost money. So when I'm negative about Microsoft or Sony, it's because they've been successful enough to tread water (Microsoft occasionally swims), but not successful enough to do anything more.

Interestingly, the question about software companies has a somewhat surprising answer: almost no one is making money.

Look at the trailing twelve month results for the big players:
Electronic Arts: -749M
Take Two: -117M
THQ: -95 M
Ubisoft: -72.5M (that's a projection from the company for the fiscal year that ended March 31)
Activision: 112M
Konami: 39M

I'm sure I'm leaving someone out there, but a huge percentage of the industry is represented by those companies, and the picture isn't pretty. That's a lot of big companies losing a lot of money.

So what do companies generally do when they're losing money like this? They cut prices and offer more value. What is the video game industry doing? Neither, seemingly. This is one of the reasons I think that this is going to be an ugly, ugly year financially, along with the inevitable train wreck caused by everyone pursuing the same basic strategy (Activision's strategy, basically, with the exception that no one else has a World of Warcraft to print money with. Oops.).

Okay, let's move on to March NPD's. Here are the raw numbers again:
PS3 - 313,900
PS2 - 118,300

The numbers for March 2009:
PS3 - 218,000
PS2 - 112,000

With the exception of the PS3 numbers, this year is last year. And remember how I said that this year's PS3 sales in the U.S. are going to mirror last year's 360 sales? The variance for March: -4.8%.

Sony is crowing, as always:
We also remain the only console to see double digit growth of 44% when compared to last March and are up 36% at this point in the calendar year.

That's true, but it's also true that they cut their price by 25% compared to last year. Plus, three of the highest profile games to be released on the PS3 this year (MLB 10: The Show, Final Fantasy XIII, and God Of War 3) were ALL released last month. And their sales still basically matched the 360s sales from last year.

Even more remarkably, the PS3 sold 46,200 units LESS than in February, and March is a five week month for tracking purposes (compared to February, which is four).

Like I said, that number is so weak compared to where I expected that, at first, I thought it was a mistake. Then I thought about supply constraints, and I have to believe that the PS3 is severely supply constrained, even though even writing that boggles my mind. How in the world do you not have stores loaded with product when the release schedule was as packed as it was in March?

If the PS3 was selling 500,000 units in the U.S. each month, and previous demand had been 200,000, it would be easier to understand. But Sony cut the price by 25% in August, and since then, they've sold a grand total of 18,700 units more than Microsoft in the U.S. (and sold 133,000 fewer units in the last three months). They can't keep units stocked at those demand levels? What are they, a boutique outfit?

I think it's a foregone conclusion at this point that Sony ends this generation in last place in the U.S. They're almost 7.5 million units behind Microsoft at this point, and they're not catching up.In other regions, though--particularly Japan--consumers have responded far more substantially in the last six months, and next week, I'll show you what's happening in Japan.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

A Request For Assistance

I need to ask a few questions to a qualified volcanologist. If you are one, or you know one who is amenable, please let me know.

Friday, April 16, 2010

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Blake Senn, and this is one of the most mind-blowing things I've ever seen: the construction of a programmable computer inside Dwarf Fortress. To see design details, click on "spoiler" just below "Giant Wall of Text" in the post, and also check out the link under "Click here to see my testing results." Just incredible.

Courtesy of GameSetWatch, some of the best videogame art I've ever seen: arcade game propaganda posters. The Joust poster is absolutely brilliant.

From Shane Courtrille, a link to a story about a very clever April Fool's joke by Gamestation: a modified terms and conditions statement that gave up legal ownership of the customer's soul. The point being that people never read those things, but what a funny way to make the point.

Here's a crazy story: a Starcraft betting scandal in South Korea. This is a big, big deal.

From Cliff Eyler, and this is both fascinating and bizarre, a new exhibit opening in Wewelsburg Castle  that examines Himmler, the SS, and their f-ed up and monstrous nature in general.
From George Politis, a "deep zoom" program that allows you to examine famous works of art so closely that you can see brush detail quite easily.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, some spectacular images of the climb to visit a teahouse in China. Also, what I can only describe as a drive-in lava theater.

From DQ Reader My Wife, a link to a profile on "The Mad Russian"--
Alexander Ovechkin.

From Greg V, a photo of the International Space Station flying through an aurora.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a beautiful image of the Rosetta nebula.

From hippo, and this is a bit hard to describe, a construction video that includes a bulldozer climbing up the outside of a tower. Bad description, but an amazing video.

From Steve Davis, a $3 device that could significantly improve wound healing.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

March NPD

Analysis next week, but here are the numbers:
PS3 - 313,900
PS2 - 118,300

Short analysis: WOW. Final Fantasy XIII (not an exclusive, but traditionally one of the Playstations' most revered franchises) and God of War III come out in the same month, and the PS3 finishes third? That's stunning.

That number's so bad it seems like it should be a mistake.

Unicycle Stuff, Which May Or May Not Bore The Hell Out Of You

I'd been trying to increase my training mileage in the last few weeks, extending my average ride to four miles or a little more.

That was working, for my endurance, and my average ride time was inching over fifty minutes, but I noticed that I was starting to have occasional pain in my calves.

No big deal, because strained muscles are what happens when you try to ramp up mileage. Unfortunately, though, it wasn't strained calves--it was the beginning of achilles tendonitis. In both legs.

Not riding isn't really an option at this point, because I enjoy it too much. That required a new approach while I tried to manage the tendonitis, so I started focusing on shorter rides (about three miles), but with higher RPM's.

A digression to the wayback machine: about twenty years ago, I cycled fairly seriously. It wasn't crazy serious--I don't think I ever went past 200 miles training in a week--but I learned quite a bit about cycling. And I rode with a guy who was a world-class triathlete for a few years, and he'd also been a national class cyclist, so he taught me proper technique (or tried to). So I always rode at about 90 RPM, even when I first started riding.

That history comes in handy now. I rode at a fairly steady 100 RPM today (I start bouncing if I try to go higher than that), and it felt much easier on my legs. Plus, instead of riding at about twelve minutes a mile, I was riding at nine, which is a significant speed increase.

The trick, of course, is to ride at that cadence without falling off. On a paved course, though, it was fine, and I didn't have any problems.

There were four school buses in the park where I rode, and a huge mob of little kids were having a picnic lunch at a covered pavillion. When I rode past, all the kids starting yelling at once.

It's too bad Eli 8.8 wasn't with me. They would have completely lost their minds.

Infinity Ward

Not including Zampella and West, the number of Infinity Ward employees who have resigned in the last few weeks is now up to nine, apparently, and lots of these people had "lead" in their job title.

At this point, I think it's fair to say that while there are no public comments from current/ex-employees, the steady stream of resignations is a definitive comment in itself.

Update: Eleven.

Hold On To Your Jaw

I mentioned yesterday that high school football in Texas is completely insane.

Craig Blaszka sent me a story today that blew my mind: Allen (just north of Dallas) is building a new football stadium that is projected to cost $59.6 MILLION dollars.

That's sixty million dollars for a high school football stadium. 18,000 seats. Take a look at a mock-up here.

Yeah, that's not messed up or anything.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Lout, Clout, And A Happy Shout (I forgot to mention this)

Ron Anderson sent me an e-mail:
Just to let you know, that the vast majority of coaches for hockey up here are really great and make sure all the kids have a good time. The jerks don’t really start appearing until you get into the 14 to 15 year old level where things start getting really competitive. I played 9 years of hockey myself growing up and can say I never had a bad experience with a coach. Our problem up here isn’t the coaches who think they are going to the NHL, it’s the parents who think little Johnny is going to make the NHL and are constantly yelling at the ref, coach or both.

Hockey coaches in Canada: defended. Up to age 14, anyway.

I totally forgot to mention what Ron pointed out at the end of his e-mail: it's not just the coaches that are trying to climb the ladder in the dominant sport, it's the parents. Every parent down here thinks that their kid is going to be inducted into the NFL Hall of Fame if only the coaches develop him properly.

With hockey, though, I can't imagine any parents down here envisioning any kind of greater glory for themselves. Which is a good thing.

The Lout, Clout, And A Happy Shout (part two: Clout, And A Happy Shout)

Yesterday, I wrote about the negative side of being a huge fan of a sport that barely qualifies as fringe where I live.

Today, the positive side.

In Texas, it's often said that the number one sport is football, and the number two sport is spring football. Hockey is far, far under the radar, even with an NHL team in Dallas and three AHL teams (Austin, San Antonio, and Houston).

So if you live here and your son wants to play hockey, it might seem like a huge negative.

It's not, though. It's great.

Here's why. Every youth football leage coach (or most of them, anyway) in Texas thinks he's a superstar coach just waiting to be discovered. And if he wins his youth league games 60-0, maybe he'll get a junior high job, then a high school job, then a better high school job, then a small college job...then he's winning the Super Bowl, and he's the legend that he knows he so richly deserves.

In other words, in Texas, there is a giant ladder in front of every coach, and most of them desperately want to climb it as high as they can go. They want the clout.

And they're dicks.

They yell at the kids. They don't care about kids learning good judgment on the field, so that they'll be better players when they get older. Even if they're coaching a team of ten-year-olds, they have to win NOW. All they want is every kid to perfectly execute the instructions they're given.

I've watched youth football practices, and it hurts. I'm glad that Eli 8.8 hasn't expressed an interest in playing, because it looks like a soul-sucking experience, and that should never happen to a kid.

I've heard some horror stories about youth hockey league coaches in Canada, too, and I think it's a version of the same problem we have down here--hockey is the number one sport in Canada, and all those coaches have ladders to climb.

For a hockey coach in Texas, though, there is no ladder. Hell, there isn't even a step. Anyone who coaches hockey down here is coaching because they love hockey and want to work with kids. It's just not financially or professionally lucrative enough to attract selfish people. There's no clout.

Plus, lots of them are Canadians. Win.

Eli 8.8 went to his first hockey skills class last Saturday. There were thirty kids in his class, and seven coaches, so they split the kids up into groups based on their age and skating skill. Eli went with the highest level group (and remember, he's been skating for less than a month), so it gives you an idea of how low the initial skill levels are down here.

He was all geared up (I'll get a picture), and he skated around, and damned if he didn't look like a hockey player. He really did, and he's skating ridiculously well to have only put in about fifteen hours in his life on the ice.

All the coaches were just terrific--positive, friendly, funny--and the practice was extremely well-organized. At one point, Eli skated over to the glass, and I walked down from the bleachers. He had his mouthpiece in, so I couldn't understand what he said, but I could see the gigantic grin on his face.

Later, I asked him about it, and he said he just skated over to let me know how happy he was.

He's going to want a dryer  for his birthday. I just know it.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

The Lout, Clout, And A Happy Shout (part one: The Lout)

We went to a hockey game Friday night.

All three of us went, and we were enjoying the game in the middle of the first period when four people entered the row in front of us (it had been empty). All four of them were around thirty, three of them were men, and they were carrying two cups of beer each. The seats they sat down in weren't theirs (I heard them talking about it), but they had been empty, anyway.

I have a finely tuned Jackass Radar, and it started beeping.

They were loud. The girl looked like, well, a skank. They all had that "we're too cool for school" look. I was pretty sure that one of them was already drunk.

Worst of all, they were barely watching the game. The problem with hockey being such a fringe sport down here is that lots of people have no clue what hockey is all about--they don't even know the rules. They just come to get drunk and hopefully see a few fights.

The first period ended, and the guy who came in drunk moved to sit directly in front of us. Then he moved over to the aisle to make a phone call, and every third word out of his mouth was "f---ing." It was loud, even between periods, and I didn't think Eli 8.8 could hear him (I barely could), but the guy was clearly drunk, and it wasn't a good sign going forward.

[Context: I curse all the time, but never around Eli. In almost nine years, the worst word he's ever heard me use is "crap," and that's only been two or three times. I know he'll hear it all eventually, but I'm going to delay it as long as I can. Innocence is a wonderful, happy place for kids.]

Within the first few minutes of the second period, it was clear that I was going to have to say something to this guy. Then two players on the ice dropped gloves, and he stood up and yelled "F--- HIS SHIT UP!"

I tapped him on the shoulder, and when he turned around I said, "There's an eight -year-old sitting right behind you. Could you do me a favor and lay off the f-bombs?"

He motioned me to lean in toward him, and he said (in a low voice just above a whisper), "Well, I'll try, but since I'm an AMERICAN, I'll probably do whatever the FUCK I want."

Oh, wow--that guy just basically encapsulated every problem I have with this country in one sentence.

Make no mistake: this guy was ready to throw down. I was almost twenty years older than him, he outweighed me by thirty pounds (at least), and I was with my family, but he was ready to go, and he wanted to make sure I knew.

Look, there was a part of me that was really angry and wanted to kick the guy's ass.


Except--oh wait--I can't physically kick anyone's ass. I couldn't kick Mr. Bean's ass. I'm not built that way. I kick ass in spelling bees and SAT's. I'm the fighting equivalent of that kid in YMCA soccer who spends all his time picking wildflowers and pretending to be a lion.

So even without Eli 8.8 there, fighting really wasn't an option. Plus, fighting is stupid, and I'm not.

There was really only one thing I could do. I tattled.

I went to the section usher, who was about 4'10" and slightly stout, and I gave her the rundown:
1. He's drunk
2. He's dropping f-bombs every thirty seconds.
3. He's a dick.
4. My son is right behind him.

We've sat in this lady's section before, and I love her, because she takes no crap from anyone. I apologized for putting her in an awkward situation, and she said no problem, she'd take care of it.

And she did. She called the guy over and read him the riot act, and he came back over, offered his hand, and apologized. It was all bullshit, of course--his eyes told me that--but I couldn't believe he was doing it.

A few minutes, section usher Juanita Rambo Smurf was joined by a security guard who looked like Vin Diesel but twice as mean. He didn't do anything but stand there for a few minutes, but the message was clear.

Problem solved, right?

Well, not exactly, because this arena (incredibly) has seat service for food and drinks, and waitresses kept bringing these losers beer. Clearly, at a minimum, U.S. American was quite drunk, and his friends weren't far behind, and the section usher was less than fifteen feet away, but the beers kept coming.

There were two other guys, about my age (and who looked about as aggressive as I do), who were sitting next to Gloria, and as the third period was about to begin, they started to walk past me to get back to their seats. On their way, though, they stopped, and one of them put his hand on my shoulder and said, "If that guy is about to go, motion to us. We'll be right down."

Good grief. EVERYBODY hated this guy. It was turning into the AHL version of West Side Story, except instead of Sharks vs. Jets, it was Grays vs. Dicks.

I later heard, from random loud conversation, that U.S. American was named "Jay," and in a split second, my brain worked in a way that my fists never, ever will. I didn't actually have this conversation, but here's what I wanted to say:
"Hey! Your name is Jay? Mine, too! Except we can't have the same last name, because mine isn't 'Douchebag'."

Yeah--that wouldn't get me into trouble or anything.

When the game was in its last few minutes (and U.S. American had spilled an entire beer a few minutes previous), the waitress came by to tell his friends that he shouldn't drive. Great.

Anyway, we all survived, and Eli 8.8 said he hadn't heard a thing (although he thought all four of them were quite annoying, which they were).

We'll go back, and I'm looking forward to it, but I'm making sure it's not $2 beer night first.

Another Mascot Has Been Announced For NCAA 10

Right in the balls, Mahoney!* The balls!

*a fictional character, created for the purposes of this post

Lawsuit (part three)

I was thinking more about this after the post yesterday, and I wanted to add a bit more to explain why I think it's so likely that the lawsuits will be settled out-of-court.

First, let's take a slight detour through investing.

We have a hypothetical investor who has five million dollars. He has a very satisfying lifestyle, and his guaranteed investment income will sustain this lifestyle for the rest of his life. Someone approaches him with an investment opportunity, and they say that there's an 80% chance he will double or even triple his money.

There's a catch, though. There's a 20% chance that he'll lose all the money he invests.

So how much should this guy invest, assuming that the percentages are absolutely correct (which doesn't exist in the real world, obviously)? More to the point, what is the one amount he should absolutely NOT invest?

Five million dollars.

Why? Because the only way this guy fails is if he takes too much risk. No matter the reward, when you're already flush, that kind of risk is a stupid, stupid move.

A smart move? Invest half a million. It's 10% of his wealth, but remember, these are guaranteed percentages in our imaginary world. If the investment goes bust, he has 4.5 million. If it pays off, he has at least 5.5 million, and he has an 80% chance of cashing in.

He could even invest more, depending on lots of variables that I won't go into here. But the one absolutely stupid move is to risk all, or most, of what he have.

Back to the lawsuit.

Can Activision afford to take this to trial if there's even a 10-20% chance that the verdict WILL give a substantial amount of control of the Modern Warfare franchise (and like products) to Zampella and West, based on the Memorandum Of Understanding? Hell, no. They can't afford to take this to trial if there's even a 5% chance.
Can Zampella And West afford to take this to trial if there's even a 10-20% chance that Activision will be able to "reclaim" compensation already given to Z and W from the date that they began breaching their employment contract? Hell, no. That could be a substantial amount of money--millions--money they may well not have. What's most important is not the royalties they're allegedly owed, but the ability to continue to make games, because that's the revenue stream.

Look, there's plenty of success to go around here. With a negotiated settlement, everyone can continue to be ridiculously successful--it's not an either-or situation. The only way either party can possibly fail is if they go all-in, and everyone involved should be more than smart enough to realize this. The best thing everyone could possibly do is kiss and make up so this will all go away, because people buy games, not lawsuits, and this isn't good publicity for either side.

One other note: I wrote yesterday that I hadn't seen any Infinity Ward current or former employees defend Zampella and West, which I thought was quite unusual. However, after posting that I did receive an e-mail.

Now, before I quote the e-mail, here are some qualifiers. One, the author wishes to remain anonymous (completely understandable). Two, he has e-mailed me in the past, but not frequently. Three, he's not an Infinity Ward employee, but he says that he does personally know people who work there. Having said all that upfront, here's the e-mail:
I need to remain anonymous on this, but from all first hand accounts of the IW people I've spoken to, those two are pretty universally loved, and you'll likely see that reflected in Respawn's employee roster.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Lawsuit (part two)

On March 8, I wrote about the lawsuit filed by Jason West and Vince Zampella after Activision terminated the co-heads of Infinity Ward.

Contractually, West and Zampella made these claims:
1. A Memorandum Of Understanding was agreed upon to induce IW to begin development of Modern Warfare 2. Inducements included:
--additional compensation
--a royalty for any Call of Duty Game
--a technology royalty for any Activision game using IW technology
--a royalty for Modern Warfare 2 and future titles.
--creative authority over the development of any games under the Modern Warfare Brand, or any COD games set in the post-Vietnam era, the near future, or the distant future
--no such game (as defined above) can be commercially released without the written consent of West and Zampella.
--complete control of the Infinity Ward studio.
--the right to choose to develop new IP after completing Modern Warfare 2.
2. West and Zampella were terminated without cause.
--because the termination was without cause, West and Zampella are owed an assload of additional royalties. Their estimate: 36 million.

That's not everything in the lawsuit, but I think it's everything that matters in a legal sense. West and Zampella claimed wrongful termination, and also claimed that they essentially have complete control of the Modern Warfare brand.

On Friday, Activision countersued. It's impossible to precisely map the claims versus the counterclaims, but here's a summary of what Activision claims:
1. West and Zampella engaged in a pattern of conduct that was designed to "steal" the Infinity Ward studio from Activision.
2. In 2003, in exchange for Activision purchasing the remaining 70% of IW's common stock, both West and Zampella entered in exclusivity agreements with Activision, including the following requirements:
--refrain from competing with Activision during the term of employment
--all rights to all IP "produced, created or suggested" by West or Zampella during the course of employment related in any way to their work with Activision would be the sole property of Activision.
--all confidential/proprietary information received would be kept confidential.
--no solicitation of Activision employees for two years following the termination of employment.
3. These contracts were extended in 2008 to 2011, with additional compensation given.
4. The Memorandum of Understanding included:
--that IW would develop Modern Warfare 2 in time to release the game by November 15, 2009.
--additional compensation and profit sharing was offered to West and Zempella for Modern Warfare 2 and other Call Of Duty games.
--the non-solicitation provision was extended to three years, whereas previously it had been two.
5. West and Zampella breached their contract, including:
--threatening to halt production of MW2 during a "critical final stage" to "gain further leverage" in their contractual relation with Activision in an attemp to "wrest control" of the COD franchise and IW studio from Activision.
--openly discussing their plans for an independent studio with IW employees, and "impeded Activision's efforts to provide IW employees with additional incentive compensation so as to further the (mis)perception that Activision was not "taking care" of IW employees."
6. West and Zampella attempted to negotiate a deal to leave Activision
--they retained an agent "to search for opportunities for them to leave Activision's employ and compete with it."
--they attempted to hide their actions in regard to "covertly copying certain materials."
--they secretly contacted the CEO and "other senior executives" of Activision's largest competitor.
--they told Activision they wanted a "level playing field" in regards to recruiting former IW employees.
7. West and Zampella attempted to "block IW employees from receiving significant equity grants, bonuses and financial compensation and incentives they deserved." They did so to make it appear that Activision was treating the umployees unfairly.
8. West and Zampella "are not entitled to any further compensation from Activision, and must return sums already given to them during the period of their disloyalty, including equity obtained pursuant to the Activision, Inc. 2002 Incentive Plan."

Here's what Activision wants:
--West and Zampella prohibited from soliciting Activision Employees for the period of time specified in their contracts and MOU
--no further compensation, and must return certain equity gained in the past.
--prohibited from using any Activision confidential information in any manner.

Basically, in addition to the relatively insubstantial hoo-ha of lawsuit language, Activision's primary claim is that West and Zampella were actively negotiating with a different studio, planning to leave, and planning to take the studio's most valuable employees with them. They pursued this agenda to the point that they were trying to delay financial compensation to other studio employees (and blaming Activision for the delay) in hopes that it would encourage them to leave.

Okay, let's get to brass tacks.
1. Clearly, Zampella and West were negotiating with EA in violation of their employment agreement with Activision.
2. Also clearly, they were planning to take some IW employees with them, also in violation of their employment agreement.
3. However, Zampella and West may have Activision by the balls when it comes to the Memorandum Of Understanding, because they claimed that it game them far-reaching control of the brand, essentially, and Activision doesn't seem to address that in a direct manner.
4. Zampella and West claim that they're owed a minimum of $36M, in addition to future royalties. Activision claims that not only are they not due additional royalties, they actually owe Activision money from the point at which they violated their employment contract.

Now, more news this morning. West and Zampella announced a new company called Respawn Entertainment, and EA is going to publish their games, but Respawn is retaining all intellectual property. Oh, and they're giving Respawn "several million dollars in seed capital."

Again, I would be stunned if these lawsuits ever actually make it to trial. Based on what's happened in the last few days, this seems to be the most logical outcome:
1. West and Zampella drop all claims to the Modern Warfare brand
2. West and Zampella drop all claims to additional compensation, including future royalties
3. Activision drops the non-compete claim, allowing W and Z to make competing games
4. Activision drops the claim that West and Zampella owe them money
5. As to the poaching of IW employees, I have no idea how that gets parsed into an agreement.

To me, that Activision countersuit was about ensuring control of the Modern Warfare brand by threatening West and Zampella by claiming they owed Activision significant amounts of money. So even if W and Z claim that they have a mountain of unpaid royalties etc., Activision just claims that they're not due from the moment they breached the employment contract.

It's possible that West and Zampella might be willing to press forward in court, if they calculate that the possible reward in future royalties is worth the cost of the lawsuit, but it no longer sounds like a slam dunk (I originally thought they had a strong claim for at least some portion of the $36M they claimed was due).

One thing I haven't seen: current or former Infinity Ward employees talking about what great guys West and Zampella are and how terrific it was to work for them. Not one.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Friday Links!

Here's an in-depth interview with Solium Infernum creator Vic Davis over at Cyber Stratege.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's The Coolest Butcher Shop In The World. Pristine, really. Also, a fascinating article about AT&Ts secret plan to dominate broadcasting--  in 1922.

From Nicholas Czekalski, a link to a story about the work of Michael Benson, who is responsible for for some of the most spectacular space images you've ever seen.

From Steve Davis, and this is absolutely breathtaking: the Bach Toccata & Fuge in D Minor. On accordion. It's performed on a Bayan accordion, and if you only click on one link this week, listen to this one.

From Matthew Teets, a video that he described as "unfettered awesomeness" (and he's right): Team Fortress 2: Law Abiding Engineer.

From Sirius, and I've never heard of this before: a poisonous bird. Also, and this is quite beautiful, a classic piece of animation from 1987:  The Man Who Planted Trees.

From Steven Kreuch, some spectacular helmet cam videos.

From J. Simms, an absolutely fantastic story about flying the SR-71 Blackbird, the word's fastest jet.

From Matt Cantrell, an extreme unicycling video (it's sick).

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to a patent application that's quite amusing. Here's the best part:
The player remaining in possession of at least one card from the first round of play is subsequently required to be identified by wearing a hat. While no particular type of hat is required, it is desired within the scope of the present invention that the hat have at least a portion that resembles the human buttocks.

From Mark Bryant, a fascinating story from a photographer who recently toured Chernobyl.

From Sebastian Manikowski, a very clever short film titled Pixels, described as "New York's invasion by 8-bit creatures."

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Eli 8.8

The house was in absolute disarray this week with painters here for three days, and all our stuff was pushed into the center of the rooms being painted. This meant no t.v. in the living room.

We only have two other t.v.'s in the house. One is in my study (Pioneer Kuro FTW). The other is an old 25" tube television upstairs that only has a basic cable connection.

I can't remember the last time anyone used that t.v. upstairs. It's been a long, long time. Eli 8.8 wandered up there yesterday, though, and after about ten minutes, he came downstairs and announced "I'm DOOMED to watch PBS all week!"

Eli, the master of invention, has also created a new look for himself. He will occasionally hang out downstairs in his underwear, particularly if he's coming down after taking his nightly shower. Tonight, he tucked in parts of his underwear and yelled "SUMO!"

When we looked up, he did indeed look just like a sumo wrestler, complete with prominently visible butt cheeks.

He grimaced and stomped around, and we both burst out laughing.

Maybe it's the paint fumes.

How Important?

Don't worry, this isn't a rant about Ubisoft DRM. Yes, it's about Ubisoft DRM, nominally, but it's about more than that.

It's about conviction.

Eurogamer reported Wednesday that the DRM issues with Settlers 7 (difficulty establishing and maintaining the required connection with Ubi servers) are still not "completely resolved."

The game shipped nearly two weeks ago.

Here's a quote from Ubisoft:
Our technical teams have made progress but we are not yet able to say that the issue is completely resolved.

So this has morphed from "measured inconvenience" to "inconvenience without boundary," and I've got to think that's a disaster for Ubisoft.

Here's what seems particularly interesting, though: even after an absolute public relations ass-blasting in regards to their use of this "constant connection" DRM, they're still forging ahead. Well, forging, anyway.

To me, that indicates that Ubisoft is absolutely convinced that piracy rates are so high that even losing a significant portion of PC sales due to the DRM method will be more than recouped by pirates buying the game because they can't crack it.

That's the question, really--who constitutes the larger group? Is it pissed off customers who won't buy because of the DRM, or pirates who WILL buy because of the DRM?

It's hard for me to make the leap to pirates buying games they can't crack, unless the game was so huge and so necessary that everyone was playing it. Ubisoft isn't making Modern Warfare, though.

At first, I thought this was just another example (one of many) of us getting screwed. As it turns out, though, it's more interesting from the standpoint of Ubisoft so strongly believing they're right that either
1) they really are right, or
2) their congitive dissonance is so high that they can't see their mistake

Either way, I'm making some popcorn, because this just keeps getting better.

Tiger Woods Is A Cyborg Sent From The Future To Destroy Us

This is not a comment on Tiger (Caligula) Wood's heinous sexual misconduct during his marriage.

To be away from competitive golf for almost five months, then go out and shoot a 68--at Augusta--in his first round is just sick and wrong. Anyone who has played golf seriously knows it's simply impossible, except he just did it.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Mr. Satisfaction

"Dad, how do I put in a three-point-five if only a three and four are available? Because the food was better than 'good', but I don't think it was 'excellent'." Eli 8.8 has discovered the customer satisfaction survey, which was handed to us on our most recent visit to Freddie's Steakburger.

We stop at Freddie's every week, because after a forty minute ride (or sometimes longer) on a unicycle, we're both starving, and Freddie's is on the way home.

When the Freddie's clerk handed me the customer satisfactions survey, Eli's eyes lit up. "Dad, can I fill that out?" he asked. I handed it to him, and while I sat in the booth waiting for our order, he scrutinized the survey like he was taking the SAT. When he finished, he handed it to me and said, "Everything was 'Good' or 'Excellent' except for the bathrooms. I gave them between 'Bad' and 'Average' because there's kind of a smell."

"If you ever walk into a new restaurant and aren't sure if you want to eat there," I said, "just go check the bathroom. If it's sparkling clean, it's probably excellent. If it's nasty, keep driving."

"Does that mean we wouldn't eat here?" he asked.

"We would, because the bathroom is clean," I said. "It just has a little bit of a funky odor."

It's a good thing Eli didn't grow up when I did, because when I was a kid, there were bathrooms at gas stations that could send you into therapy for twenty years.
We went to see "How To Train Your Dragon" last week, and on the way back, we started talking about societies and isolation. Eventually, I said that that there was at ime when if people lived in a valley surrounded by mountains, there was a good chance that they had never seen someone from beyond those mountains. Everyting they knew and understood depended on their little world.

Seriously, I just teed up about fifty political jokes, but I'm going to pass.

Eli listened to this very carefully, then said, "Dad, that could NEVER happen. OF COURSE people knew about the outside world."

"Why is that?" I asked.

"Well, duh," he said. "The INTERNET!

Next topic: the history of the Internet.
When Eli's grandmother (my mother-in-law) was in town last week, Gloria talked about going on a wildflower drive.

"Dad, what's a wildflower drive?" Eli asked.

"Well, it's where you take a two-hour drive and every half hour you see a field of wildflowers and you go 'Wow! Those are beautiful!' "

"That's it?" he asked.

"Ask your mother," I said.

"Yeah, that's about it," Gloria admitted. There would be no wildflower drive.

However, when we were all driving to dinner, Gloria's mom was talking about how she hoped to see some bluebonnets, and Eli burst in a few seconds later with "Look over there--that hill is INFESTED with them!"

The Tragedian

The painter who's currently painting four rooms in our house is a tremendously nice guy, very salt of the earth, and his son works with him, which is also very cool. We've known them for several years, and we'd use them even if they didn't do the best job, just because we like them so much.

[An aside: Gloria is agonizing over different shades of the color we chose for the walls. Today, she went through this five-minute explanation of how one shade would affect the use of another shade in an archway between the living room and the kitchen, and my eyes were glazing over. When she was done, she said, "What do you think?"

"I think that six months from now, if we're not in the house, you can ask me what colors the walls are and I won't be able to tell you," I said.

Her response was a gutteral sound that cannot be reproduced here.]

The painter, though, has a curious quirk: he's the tragedy painter. Two weeks ago, when he came over to talk about the painting, he mentioned that his niece had a miscarriage and that he'd been out of town. He went into detail well past the point where I was hoping he'd stop, but it seemed kind of cathartic for him, so it was okay.

Today, though, in less than five hours of them being in the house (and about twenty minutes of actual conversation), four drownings have been mentioned. Curiously, these events have been discussed in the natural course of conversation, as a sort of flow from one subject to the other.

I'm trying to decide whether I should go put a piece of bread into the toaster, just to see if the discussion turns to electrocution.

I'm not sure how he does it, but the man can paint.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Console Post Of The Week (with a little DS thrown in)

I may start sneaking in a little Nintendo 3DS news into the console post, because it interests me, and it's the first mass market device to create glasses-free 3D, which I've always considered the point at which 3D becomes utterly irresistible.

The issue, of course, is that it's Nintendo, which has historically been behind the hardware curve for more than a decade. The Wiimote was ass-kicking and sold about fifty billion consoles galaxy-wide, but the core hardware in the Wii is somewhere south of nothing special.

So it was with some curiously that I saw an article at Engadget last week that talked about the display allegedly being used in the 3DS. Here's an excerpt:
...according to early leaks from Japan, the special Nintendo 3DS display is supposedly built by Hitachi and Sharp using a parallax barrier system. So guess where this new 3.4-inch, 480 x 854 pixel display is likely headed? While Sharp doesn't say for sure, it's a good bet that this parallax barrier 3D LCD will be fronting the user interface on the 3DS.

1,000 to 1 contrast ratio and 500 nit brightness as well, and combined, that's a relatively ass-kicking spec. Here's an article from Akihabara News with more follow-up, including hands-on impressions of the panel (not in a 3DS, please note). Included in the article is a mention that the 3D effect is primarily due to the perception of increased depth inside the screen, not effects protruding from the screen.

That's perfect for a handheld. Could you imagine playing an RPG that felt look you were looking into a diorama?

If this is actually the panel, it's is a big, big win for Nintendo. Remember the lines at E3 when the Wii debuted? Same deal this year, if the handheld is there.

Look, 3D without glasses is magic. It's a kind of sorcery, so powerful that some part of our brains don't even believe it's possible. It's a gift, not from the near future, but the distant future.

On the console side, Microsoft has quietly been doing some interesting things with pricing. Sam Veilleux sent me this e-mail two weeks ago:

I noticed something going on when I was up north of the border this past week.. The 360 arcade model is currently on sale for $130 in Canada. it looks to be a weeklong sale up there, and it's advertised all over TV there right now.

Weirdest thing of all? it's not just one store selling them at $130 this week. from what I can tell, it's direct from Microsoft pushing that price on TV.

Hmm. The regular price is $199, so that's a massive, 35% discount. That is a huge markdown, even a temporary one, for console hardware.

If I'm Microsoft, there's only one reason I'd do this, and that would be as a test bed for a future price decrease. Follow the same advertising plan and measure response to obtain an estimate of the amount of capacity increase needed to service demand if this is made permanent.

This dovetails relatively well with the persistent rumor that a "360 Slim" (with a $149 price point) is going to be announced at or near E3. Alternatively, Microsoft could be trying to drain the channel in advance of the new units.

Again, the standard clue is generally the draining of inventory, so if 360s are in short supply by mid/late May, something is definitely up.

Also, from a source who wishes to remain anonymous (who I've known for a long time and trust 100%), I received this information about Natal:
I know two persons who attended some of Microsoft's developer briefings. They didn't say too much because of strict NDAs, but they were quite impressed with and inspired by what they saw. They assume that Microsoft/Rare still have a number of kinks to iron out. They also said that Microsoft is telling everyone that they really need to abandon the idea of simply porting their concepts and trying to 'Natal' them. Sort of: "We've toyed around with stuff from FPS to RTS, and we know what doesn't work." They definitely encourage everyone to come up with software that's different.

One more thing: Apparently, Natal, at this point, does not work well when people sit. From what I understand, Microsoft tells developers to create their games with the player standing rather than sitting in mind. This issue likely will be addressed with some update later on, but for now most games probably will require the player to stand. Think about that and the implications for the software for a second.

I think we'll definitely be able to tell from the pre-launch advertising done by Microsoft. If this is still an issue, they won't be showing anyone sitting on a couch. Well, to play the games, at least. As always in the world of advertising, there will be an admiring group of friends around to watch the coolest person in the world play video games.

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