Wednesday, June 30, 2010

He's Back

I've mentioned ex-major league baseball player Lenny Dykstra several times in the last two years, just because his ridiculous story is, well, ridiculous.

You may remember that he was a big swinging dick in the investment community, at least for a short time, entirely due to the promotion of Jim Cramer, who proclaimed Dykstra "one of the great ones in this business."

People will believe anything if you say it loudly enough.

It was obvious to anyone with any common sense that Dykstra was full of shit. Lots of people don't have any common sense, though, and Dykstra, in a brilliant bit of self-promotion, made people believe he must be making a ton of money by spending a ton of money (like buying Wayne Gretzky's California mansion for $18.5 million).

Dykstra had an "investment strategy" that was supposedly fabulously successful--he claimed at one point that his "system" was 99-1 in terms of wins versus losses. It involved buying deep in the money calls, but I never heard much else in terms of specifics.

Until today, that is, when an article about Dykstra alleged  that he agreed to promote a stock in exchange for $250,000 of the company's stock.

Yes. That's bad. Very bad.

That link led to another link, which led to another, and I finally wound up here. Incredibly, it was an explanation of Dykstra's trading "system." What was it? This:
Lenny’s strategy consists of entering an order for 10 contracts (he has explained that his system is scalable for those with less capital) of a particular deep-in-the-money call option at a price below the current market price. If the trade is executed, he enters a good till cancelled (GTC) sell order at $1.00 above the price of the trade. So if a trade executed at $10, he immediately enters a sell order at $11.

So what do you do if the stock drops and the contract value drops with it? You average down--in other words, buy more to lower the average cost of each contract. And you keep averaging down until you turn a profit.

Oh, my.

So this system explicitly limits the profit per trade, but has absolutely no limits on the loss per trade.

I'll tell you what this is called: bankruptcy.

This is not unlike the fellow who goes to Las Vegas and bets $100 on red on the roulette wheel. If he loses, he bets $200 on the next spin. If he loses again, he bets $400.

See? He'll never take a loss. He just has to double down each time he loses, and eventually, he'll wind up ahead. And this system will work great, right up to the point where our gambler goes bust. Because he will go bust if he plays long enough--it's guaranteed. It's math.

It's the same thing with Dykstra. One sharp, hard reversal in the market would wipe him out, and while I haven't seen specific details of his collapse, I'm sure that October 2008 did him in (and something much milder than October 2008 would have been sufficient). Deservedly so, because if you don't have something in place to limit losses, you will lose all your money. It's Investor 101.

Actually, Dykstra would have gone bankrupt anyway, based on his spending and his seeming affinity for refusing to pay his bills. But his trading system was guaranteed to fail, and anyone who took his advice failed with him.

Digging To China

Here's very something cool I stumbled across yesterday. It's called Tall Eye, and among other things, it lets you dig an imaginary hole from anywhere on Earth straight through to the other side.

We wound up in the middle of the Indian Ocean, about halfway between South Africa and Australia.

Entirely Plausible

This is absolutely the money quote of the year.

In an interview with CVG, Ryan Moore (Microsoft's Worldwide Product Marketing Manager), responded to a question about Kinect's appeal with this gem:
I think we know that hardcore gamers will be the first to go out and buy it, as they are with any product.

Interestingly, Ryan Moore also posted this to his Twitter account:
I am so high right now.
11:41 AM Jun 28th via TweetDeck

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Puzzle Quest 2 Impressions (DS)

Well, I'm torn.

I've played Puzzle Quest 2 for about fifteen hours, and while that would normally be seen as a ringing endorsement of a game, my feelings are quite mixed.

First off, the basics. The Puzzle Quest series uses match three mechanics in combat, along with the ability to perform special actions that require resources ("gems" that are gathered in the course of the combat round). Besides being generally entertaining, the match three mechanic (in theory) makes combat more unpredictable, because giant cascades of match-threes can significantly alter the flow of the round. Also, if you played both the original Puzzle Quest and Galactrix, know that replacement tiles in PQ2 always drop straight down--there's no directional strategy like there was in Galactrix.

Unlike Puzzle Quest, which featured an overland map, PQ2 is firmly in the dungeon crawl category. In practice, this matters not at all, because the combat mechanics are almost identical, but PQ2 does add some interesting mini-games (also featuring the match 3 mechanic). In particular, the Loot mini-game is quite fun, because finding a match four or five, or enough cascading matches, rewards you with a key to a treasure chest, and a match three with the keys then gives you the treasure chest, which contains either resources or equipment, depending on the color of the key. The playfield slowly disappears, one row at a time, which makes it an interesting challenge to match keys before the row is gone.

There's also a strong roleplaying element in that experience points are accrued through battle and completing quests, and leveling up offers the kind of stat increases (with corresponding bonuses in gameplay) that will be immediately familiar to any RPG fan.

That all seems pleasing and entertaining, and it is, to a degree. But I've had an odd interest curve as I've progressed through the game. In the first five hours, I didn't like it at all, because I wasn't adjusted to some of the changes (many of them cosmetic) from the original Puzzle Quest. For the next five hours, though, I deeply enjoyed the character and equipment progression, and started thinking in combat instead of just mindlessly matching gems.

Now, though, I find myself running out of steam again. I chose a character in the Assassin class, because I thought it would be the weakest character, but after upgrading my weapons and equipment, I haven't lost a combat encounter in several hours, because I no longer take much damage. So even though the combat gameplay is still interesting, it's a relatively foregone conclusion that I'm going to win. That means that the element of unpredictability that the match three mechanic offers is largely wasted--unpredictability is local, but the outcome is universal, so to speak.

I also think my growing dissatisfaction with the game is reflective of my desire to see something greater than that Puzzle Quest 2 offers. It's fine, as far as it goes, but I want more.
One example: I'd like to see successful completion of match three boards leading to other mini-games that aren't match three based. For an example, let's look at a castle siege (not in the game, but it could be). The match three board would represent your men attacking the walls of the castle, and maybe one of the tiles would be ladder pieces, while others might represent a catapult. Gathering enough catapult matches would let you trigger a capapult mini-game (think Defender Of The Crown), where you could aim a giant boulder at the castle walls. Accurately destroying the walls would influence how many tiles of certain types would drop onto the combat board (where you would return after using the catapult). Matching enough ladder pieces would let you put a ladder on the castle walls, which would lead to another mini-game. Remember, though, that you have to stay alive long enough to destroy and raid the castle, so you're required to manage your health as well.

I could have said that much more simply: gathering resources in the match three board enables access to mini-games that aren't based on the match three mechanic. They wouldn't have to be complicated mini-games, either, just simple physics-based mini-games that would be engaging to play. So the match three mechanics would just be a layer of the gameplay, not all of the gameplay.

Plus, I miss rare events. Why can't games of this type include rare events? Rare drops would keep me interested long after the entertainment of the basic game mechanics have worn off.

Without any of that, things turn into a bit of a slog, moving two spaces and attacking another troll or goblin or whatever. I'm still playing it for 15-20 minutes every day, and I'm enjoying it in small doses, but the compulsive need to play has passed. If you liked the original, I think you'll enjoy this game as well, but don't expect anything groundbreaking or particularly innovative.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Eli 8.10

We were watching television last night, and Eli 8.10 decided to have some ice cream.

Our freezer tends to make ice cream rock-hard, so Eli took the container and walked over to the microwave.

I turned back to the television, and the next thing I heard was Gloria saying "DO NOT put your foot in the microwave!"


"But I was holding the ice cream," Eli said.

"Your mom's right," I said. "That's dirty."

"But my feet are ALREADY dirty," Eli said.

"I was talking about the microwave," Gloria said.

"Ohhhhhhhh," he said.

Eli was supposed to go to a birthday party on Sunday.

"Sorry, man, no party on Sunday," I said.

"What? What happened?" he asked.

"It was cancelled," I said. "Lucy had some kind of behavior violation and then she got in a fight with her sister, and I don't know if that's bad enough to cancel a birthday party but they did."

"Leave me out of it," he said.

"Those are the five smartest words ever," I said.


I've recommended several books on art forgery in the last few years, and I saw an article yesterday that was an interesting twist. An excerpt:
The hidden secrets of some of the world's most famous paintings have been revealed thanks to a partnership between EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) and the UK National Gallery.

Culminating in the first major exhibition of its kind in summer 2010, scientists at the Gallery have been using the latest equipment to shed new light on the history behind some of the Gallery's priceless works of art.

A state-of-the-art, EPSRC-funded gas-chromatography-mass-spectrometer (GC-MS) has helped specialists in the National Gallery's scientific department study the organic chemistry of old master paintings to understand how paintings were made and how they have changed over time. In painstaking investigations, the scientists used GC-MS to study the characterisation and composition of paint binding media, additions to paint media such as resins, and the composition of old varnishes.

In one specific case, this technology was used to distinguish between two allegedly authentic versions of the same painting (a 15th century work by Francesco Francia), and clearly identified one as a forgery.

Well Done, FIFA

This has to be the singular moment when everyone realized just how stupid FIFA has been about instant replay.

In the Argentina-Mexico game, Argentina's first goal was scored on a play when Carlos Tévez (the goal scorer) was at least a yard offside. It was dead obvious, but the call was missed.

The Mexican players gathered around the referee, pointing at the large video screen in the stadium that was showing a replay clearly indicating that Argentina was offsides.

No worries, though, because logic should never enter into this. GOAL!

The other very funny moment was in the first game on Sunday, when England had a shot that was fully three feet inside the goal and went unseen. At halftime, the radio announcer mentioned that Germany had better watch itself in the second half, because surely the officials had been told that they blew the call on the non-goal, and they would be looking to make up for it.

Let's see. FIFA won't use video replay when goals are scored, but they'll use it to tell the officials that they blew a call so that the officials can then spend the rest of the game trying to unfairly make up for the mistake that would have been easily prevented if replay had been used to begin with.

My head hurts.

But wait, it gets better. FIFA's response? From ESPN:
FIFA will censor World Cup match action being shown on giant screens inside the stadium after replays of Argentina's disputed first goal against Mexico fueled arguments on the pitch.

That makes perfect sense--in Crazytown.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Friday Links!

Huge links blowout this week, with lots to assist you in your eternal quest for work avoidance.

Big news released recently: Lucy's 'great-grandfather' found.

This will blow you away: a robotic butterfly (the video is incredible).

Like I said Wednesday, I think soccer's becoming more important in the U.S. Here is a Deadspin compilation of celebration videos from Wednesday's game, and I don't remember it ever being like this before.

In one of the the most adorably charming videos I've ever seen, Laura Shigihara performs  "There's A Zombie On My Lawn."

From Meg McReynolds, an article about a remarkable educational experiment initiated by Bell Labs in 1954.

From Glen Haag, an article about IBMs supercomputer Watson, described as the world's best "question answering" machine. Also, a lovely and touching Father's Day article about the bond between a son and his father.

From Frank Regan, an update on the continuing quest to solve the elusive mystery of Amelia Earhart.

From Tim Jones, and this is remarkable, it's a video of the Guillaume Nery Underwater Base Jump.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, the greatest cease and desist letter ever: The National Pork board threatening ThinkGeek over a satirical unicorn meat ad that used the phrase "the new white meat." Yes, I should have spelled that "satyrical."

From Andrew B, a bit of kit from the past: a Seiko UC-2000 wrist computer from 1984. Also, and this is very touching, it's Blind Dog Has Her Own Seeing-Eye Dog.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, the World's First Solar Sail Photographed in Deep Space. Also, scientists have been able to watch a matter fall into a black hole for the first time. Finally, a sinuous aurora seen from space. Wait, there's one more: 7th-Graders Discover Mysterious Cave on Mars. Please note that the 7th graders weren't actually visiting Mars at the time.

From Steve Davis, and this is mind-blowing, it's first replicating creature spawned in life simulator. Next, and I know you want some of this, it's bacon in a multitude of colors.

From David Gloier, and it's one of the greatest Halloween costumes I've ever seen, it's General Grievous.

From Kevin, a video of Street Orchestra being used by a real orchestra to create an iPhone symphony.

From Phil Honeywell, video of a raven attacking an RC airplane. It's quite impressive.

From J.R., stunning photographs of Yang-Yi, a city that vanished under the waters of the Three Gorges Dam.

From Ryan Leasher, it's a guided tour of the Sci-Fi Air Show. Some of these photos are tremendous.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Two Notes About Rock Band 3

I realized two things about Rock Band 3 today that I haven't seen anyone else talk about, so I thought I'd mention them.

First, does the addition of Pro mode increase Harmonix's chances of getting formerly resistant bands into the game? The objection has always been that little plastic controllers are just toys, but what do those bands say now that the game can actually teach you how to play these songs using a real guitar? How do you ridicule that?

So, for instance, if Led Zeppelin has never been interested in appearing in a music game, does the addition of a real instrument mode with accurate note charting change their mind? Man, why wouldn't it?

Second, given that Dhani Harrison was one of the first people to mention that Rock Band 3 was going to teach people how to play real guitar (remember how crazy that sounded back then?), and how he was apparently consulted as part of the process, I think the chances are extremely high that we'll eventually have Pro mode available in The Beatles: Rock Band. How can you not add Pro mode for a band with one of the greatest guitar players (Harrison) and bass players (McCartney) of all time, along with some of the most interesting and inventive licks ever written?

Well, you can't not add it, because it would be ridiculous. And it would make sales of The Beatles: Rock Band viable forever, essentially.

I don't see it being added as a free download, or added to the game disc, but I certainly expect a download with drum, bass, and guitar charts in Pro mode for some kind of fee.

I will happily pay that fee. Hell, I'll line up to pay it.

Broken Wrist Boot Camp: The Endening

Broken Wrist Boot Camp started 44 days ago. I had 38 workouts, including one (unauthorized) unicycle ride per week, and with the high-intensity nature of the work, I'm in considerably better shape now than I was before I broke the bone. Eat it, Hamate.

My wrist still has a slight ache occasionally, and I still sleep with a brace on it at night, but it's essentially healed, and I'm starting back on a regular riding schedule as of yesterday. It's nice to be back.


Okay, we weren't quite the size of Hockeytown, but game five of the Calder Cup beween the Texas Stars and the Hershey Bears turned a little part of an Austin suburb into Hockeyville, at least.

Sold out arena, crazy fans, thrilling games--games four and five were two of my favorite live sporting events ever. It was great to be sharing it with Eli 8.10, too, who was into the games every bit as much as I was.

Also of note: if you're familiar with the Vancouver Green Men, who are hilarious, you'll be happy to know that we had our own version--two guys in skintight, lime green body suits, one of whom was the size of Chris Farley and wore a Lucha Libre mask. They had individual signs printed out for each of the Hershey players, and there was much laughter in warm-ups when the players skated by.

We lost game four in the last three minutes on a power play (too many men on the ice penalty), and lost game five in overtime. Game five, in particular, was a real gut punch, but it was still tremendous.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

The World Cup In The U.S.

SPOILER: if you haven't seen the U.S. game yet, then don't read this post. You have been warned.

Several international readers e-mailed today and asked if the results of the U.S. game today will change our level of interest in the sport.

Believe it or not, it's already changed.

There were watch parties at local eateries for the morning game today. The game was on radio as well as television. Overall, the buzz for this World Cup is substantially greater than it was even eight years ago.

I was working out at the gym (which has loads of televisions) during the U.S.-Slovenia game, and when the second goal was scored, a cheer went up. That's unheard of, really.

Part of this is due to ESPN. In many ways, ESPN is the Sports Death Star, because they create trends that often completely suck, but what they've done this time is legitimize the World Cup in the U.S. They've gotten people far more involved in the World Cup than ever before.

Also part of what's happening is demographics. I dug up a Gallup poll from 2008 that asked for Americans to identify their favorite sport to watch. Results:
Football: 43%
Basketball: 12%
Baseball: 11%

Soccer was at 3%. 

More revealing, though, were the age-related demographics. In the 50+ demographic, 14% said that baseball was their favorite sport to watch. Soccer didn't even register.

In the 35 to 49 demographic, 10% said that baseball was their favorite sport to watch. 3% said soccer.

In the 18 to 34 demographic, though, only 7% said that baseball was their favorite sport to watch, while 5% said soccer.

That's baseball's problem: lots of their best fans will be dead soon. 

I don't know if soccer will eventually replace baseball as the third most popular sport, although I think there's a good chance of that happening. Wait, that's not really how I feel. I really do think that it's going to happen in the next 15-20 years.

I would have thought that was totally ridiculous ten years ago, but that's where we're headed.

E3: The Positive Post

Let's talk about all the good things from E3.

Seriously. I thought I'd try to do a post without hammering all the stuipd things that happened at E3.

--The 3DS looks like a terrific piece of hardware, with a tremendous software lineup.

--persuading Valve to release Portal 2 on the PS3 with integrated Steamworks was a big get.

--The $100 Xbox Live Family Plan is a good idea. Of course, that's to promote Kinect, which is selling for $150 with no f-ing pack-in game. WTF are you thinking, Microsoft? Damn!


-- the coolest new game, for me, was Rock Of Ages.  That link takes you to the trailer, which is incredibly striking, and it's being published by Atlus. Here's another preview from Game|Life, and "Monty Python" seems to be mentioned frequently in articles about the game, which can't be anything but a good sign.

-- Kirby's Epic Yarn is absolutely spectacular.

--also very interesting was Lost In Shadow, a Wii game using light and shadows in intriguing ways.

-- Epic Mickey, Warren Spector's new game for Disney, looks terrific.   

-- like Bill Abner said, EA Sports had an incredibly strong show. Even the NCAA demo is leagues above the "F" and "D" games of the last two years. It looks like EA may have finally understood that when trying to make a game for a sport, the game should resemble that sport. Kudos.

-- Rock Band 3, by all accounts, was superb. As much as I enjoy playing sports games, I'm looking forward to playing this game (and learning how to play guitar) much, much more.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Turkey Baster Of Knowledge

"Hey Dad, do you want to play some Super Mario Galaxy?" Eli 8.10 peeked his head into my study.

"I can play in about an hour, little man," I said. "In the meantime, why don't you read for a while?"

"Read?" Eli 8.10 temporarily doesn't want to read because school is out. "Oh, come on!"

"There's too much empty space in your brain when you're eight," I said. "Reading fills in the holes."


"Think of reading as a giant turkey baster filled with the knowledge," I said. "When you read, it's like laying on your side, having that turkey baster put into your ear, and the rich sludge of knowledge gets squeezed into your brain."

"Blechh!" he said, laughing.

"Fill that empty head with knowledge sludge," I said. "Get to work."


Thanks to Louis Bojko's suggestion to read Brilliant Orange: The Neurotic Genius of Dutch Soccer, I'm slowly coming up to speed on the history and unique style of our adopted World Cup country.

Basically, and I hope I'm summarizing this properly, the Dutch team:
1) are highly respected for their sportsmanship.
2) are tremendously skilled
3) play a beautiful, attacking game
4) will lose to an inferior team that is harder inside and wants only to win

As a fan, that's all quite attractive, rooting for a brilliant, doomed team.

I've also been watching old YouTube footage of the 1974 and 1978 World Cups, as well as the Cruyff Turn.
And the history of Dutch soccer in relation to Dutch culture is completely fascinating. I've decided that we've adopted the Orange for life.

Lifetime adoption, unlike a single tournament adoption, requires gear, so I ordered us jerseys. I'll put up a picture of Eli 8.10 when he's kitted out.

I also would like to mention that I never understood how exciting a tie in soccer could actually be, but New Zealand's tie with Italy was absolutely brilliant. Desperation exponentially increases the excitement.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Massive E3 Round-up

GameShark has posted their extremely useful Complete E3 2010 A-Z Guide. Over 140 games are covered.

Of particular note: Dean Of Sportsgame Reviewers Bill Abner really, really liked Madden 11.

Crackdown 2 (Demo)

I still think Crackdown is one of the very best games of the current console generation. It was wildly exuberant and incredibly entertaining.

So why don't I like this demo?

If memory serves (often it doesn't), the demo for the original Crackdown started in an amusement park. It was colorful and quite silly, and the world felt incredibly expansive. It felt vast.

The Crackdown 2 demo takes place on the docks, right in the middle of a few thousand packing containers, many stacked in tiers for your convenience. It's claustrophobic.

Shooting in this demo feels quite strange, really--when I shoot, there doesn't seem to be any tangible feedback that I'm hitting or missing something. I just seem to hold down the trigger long enough, and an enemy is dispatched. That's just with a machine gun, so maybe it gets better with a different weapon, or perhaps there's a more advanced targeting mechanism, but the default feels clunky and very, very detached.

The agility orbs are still fun to collect, but my character no longer feels light on his feet when he lands, because the sound effect chosen must have been recorded by an elephant jumping on a tin roof. Seriously, I feel like I must weight five hundred pounds.

Wait, I didn't mean that an elephant jumping on a tin roof recorded the sound. Damn my dangling whatevers.

This is entirely subjective, and like I said, memory often doesn't serve me, but the original Crackdown felt inspired. Compared to that inspiration, this demo feels lacking.

Rock Band 3: More Paradise

In a June 11 interview  over at Plastic Axe, Rock Band 3 Project Lead Daniel Sussman dropped a bombshell (at least for me):
You said that the legacy content already supports cymbals. Did you mean that you’ll see the cymbal icons when playing older DLC in Rock Band 3?!

DS: [clearly amused] Yeah, that’s what I’m talking about.

Wha — How did that happen? Have you guys basically been planning to do this all along?

DS: Well, yeah. Most of the content — some of the early Rock Band stuff doesn’t have it, but by and large, the vast majority of the entire Rock Band catalog supports cymbals in gameplay.

Wow. I, uh…wow. I don’t have a cymbal kit for my Rock Band 2 set — have I been missing something? Has this always been the case?

DS: No. Without devolving into too deep of a technical discussion, our authoring guys have basically been putting in information that has gone unrealized up until Rock Band 3. So there are a lot of cues and “hooks” in our authoring flow that have always been there; we just haven’t had the software cycles to take advantage of them. Cymbals are an example of that. [Our authors have been] authoring the distinction between a tom hit and a cymbal hit, but the software has never taken advantage of that distinction until Rock Band 3.
That's huge. I have 300+ songs (probably 500+) existing songs, and to be able to play with proper cymbal notation exponentially expands what I can play, because once I play songs with cymbal notation, it's going to be very hard to go back.

Everything I've heard about Rock Band 3 so far has been exactly what I've wanted.

Now, let me activate the mindlink with Harmonix to ask for one more thing (it's the last one, I swear): we need correct cymbal notation in The Beatles: Rock Band as well as the ability to use the MIDI box to connect an e-drum kit. That makes TB:RB more viable in the long run, and if there's any single product that Harmonix shouldn't abandon, it's TB:RB, because it's a masterpiece.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Rare Friday Note

I remember almost buying a product called "TrackIR" years ago. It provided head-tracking functionality in PC games (if they were supported). I never wound up getting it, though, due primarily to laziness (always a good guess with me).

Grass grew. Tall grass.
I had no idea that the company making TrackIR was even still in business, but after that note I put up yesterday about head tracking in a game like Oblivion, I was bombarded with e-mail letting me know that TrackIR is both still alive and works very well.

Basically, your head movements are substantially amplified to affect the game view, and this amplification is adjustable (see an explanation of how it works here).

No, there are no kitty petting simulators or mime certification tests available, but it does support over 100 titles (mostly focused on flight sim/driving games, although a few FPS are supported). It's all very impressive, and here's the website: TrackIR.

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Chris Meyer, one of the most gripping stories I've ever read. It's Raising The Dead, and it's absolutely riveting.

Next up, a fantastic story about Billy Ray Bates, and NBA player who became a true legend in the Philippines. It's both exuberant and tremendously poignant, and the videos are spectacular.
From DQ reader My Wife, it's paper stop-motion Mario.

Here's an excellent story from Chris Meyer: How Henry Ford And Thomas Edison Killed The Electric Car.

Here's the latest installment of Matt Sakey's always entertaining Culture Clash column. This month, it's The Back Of The Centipede.

From Larry, and this is entirely brilliant, a stop-motion LEGO surf film titled LINO.

From Clayton Lee, a very witty music video from The Bedroom Philosopher titled Northcote.

Julian Bell sent me a classic news article: Student's Bizarre Attack On Hell's Angels. The lead:
A German student created a major traffic jam in Bavaria when he 'mooned' a group of Hell's Angels, hurled a puppy at them and then escaped on a bulldozer.

From Joe Beidelschies, it's a fully-functioning LEGO sniper rifle. Fortunately, it only shoots LEGO bricks.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, elves and sprites photographed for the first time (that's the space version, not the Tolkien version). Plus Earth and the Moon are younger than we previously thought. And one more: a Soyuz spacecraft landing, caught on film.

From Brad Ruminer, a link to hands-on impressions of the Eigenharp Alpha and Pico, two of the most unique musical instruments I've ever seen.

From Sirius, and no, this isn't a story about students from unnamed college university students, it's Teenager Passes Out Marrying Cow He Had Sex With. Also, a fascinating article about the flock dynamics of starlings. Next, an explanation for how butterfly wings get their color.

From Mr. Fritz, a spectacular image of the launch plume of space shuttle Atlantis.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine (now with corporate headquarters in Seattle), it's a commercial for Butt Drugs.

From Frank Regan, it's monster chess with supersized LEGO robots.

From Josh Eaves, and this is quite amazing, it's a gigantic mayfly hatch caught on radar.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Two Quick Notes

I'm getting lots of e-mail that head tracking won't actually work, because as we turn our heads, we'd lose sight of the screen. That's not exactly how I was picturing it working, and I wasn't thinking of adjustments of that magnitude, but it still points out that even things that seem potentially cool are problemmatic.

Victor Godinez of the Dallas Morning News sent me an interesting excerpt from this Gizmodo article:
"What do you think?" asks Wil Mozell, a Microsoft GM who oversees many of the companies designing Kinect's important launch titles.

"It's great," I say. "But what about the lag? Will you ever fully eliminate it?"

"We can get rid of a lot of it. Keep in mind, these games are 80-to-85% there. There's still lots of optimization left to do."

"But what about the hardcore games? The FPSs, the gameplay that requires 100% accuracy?" I push.

"Kinect isn't going to replace the controllers that have worked for those types of games for the last decade—that's not what we're trying to do. Kinect will work alongside those controllers for hardcore games. For throwing a grenade, for vocal commands, for..."

"For head tracking??"

"Yes, head tracking! Exactly." He gets a big smile. He wants to say more. Bound by Microsoft confidentiality agreements, he can't.

I bolded that one quote.

So apparently, this is revolutionary, hands-free control, except when it's not. And I don't know about you, but I am very fired up about paying $149 to arm-motion a grenade.

One Very Cool Thing That Kinect Could Do

Can you imagine playing a game like Oblivion and having your view change when you turn your head? That would be fantastic.

Console Post: Motion Control (Pricing)

I keep hearing that Move and Kinect aren't really any more expensive than Wiimote.

Hold on there. Let's take a look.

First, even though Kinect is apparently going to be $149, remember that it does support multiple players out of the box. Consumers may not be able to process that information clearly, but it does. You also get a pack-in game, although no one seems to know what it will be yet.

The Sony Move bundle is $99 (includes a Wii Sports clone), but that's incredibly misleading. Without the "sub-controller" (aka "the nunchuk"), you're not going to even be able to easily move through menus. Oh, wait, you can use the PS3 controller. Yes, that will be comfortable, particularly if you want to play a game that actually requires forward movement and need to hold that PS3 controller (and operate it) with one hand.

In short: you have to buy the sub-controller for an additional $30. So you're paying $130 for one full controller plus the sensor (the EyeToy). Unless you're always playing solo, the Move is going to be significantly more expensive than Kinect. Sony did a good job of hiding that, though, in a marketing sense.

But wait--it's even more confusing than that. If you don't want the game, a controller plus sub-controller is only $80. And if you want to buy a PS3 bundle with Move, it's $100 over the regular price of the system.

Kinect is the same way in terms of system pricing. It appears that all the "bundles" are basically not discounted at all--you're paying $149 more to get Kinect regardless. Yes, Microsoft hasn't officially announced pricing, but almost every major retailer now has the same prices listed, which is a strong indicator.

Let's compare that to Nintendo.

Separately, you'd pay $70 for a Wiimote, Motionplus, and a nunchuk. That's only $10 less than Move (without a game). If you look at the system pricing, though, there's a huge difference. $199 for the console, the full controller bundle, with both Wii Sports and Wii Sports resort included.

Nintendo is half as expensive to start with, plus the two Sports games are both outstanding.

Plus, and this is another big difference, motion control is standard on the Wii. It's not optional, like it is on the 360 and the PS3. The catalog of games is enormous compared to the competition.

I'm not saying that you shouldn't buy Kinect or Move (well, actually, if you haven't bought a Wii yet, I am saying that). It's just that Kinect, by its radical and forward design, is a niche product. Move is a hybrid, with some mainstream games supported. The Wii, though, is essentially founded on the concept of motion control.

Console Post: Motion Control

I've been thinking about motion control for weeks (cue laughter), and I think I finally have an understanding that I can share with you.

What's been bothering me are the lack of titles that seem to fully use the concept of motion control in a way that isn't superficial. Kinect's launch lineup, as well as Move's, has many of the same kinds of games that were greeted with derision on the Wii.

I was particularly disappointed with Kinect, because it's been touted ad nauseum as "revolutionary." Well, I guess it is revolutionary, because there's no controller to hold, but the games are largely a heaping helping of "same old shit."

Today, I think I figured it out. That doesn't mean you don't already understand what I'm about to write, but I didn't understand it until now.

Motion detection as a method of videogame input is brilliant, but it's also constrained. Ideally, it's best suited for limited radius movement. However, and this is important, it's also best suited to translate that limited radius movement into limited radius movement on-screen.

What the farb am I talking about?

For throwing a frisbee, motion detection is terrific, because the character just rotates. Golf? Perfect, because the character is rotating. Anything where the character doesn't have to move forwards or backwards (beyond very short distances) works just fine.

Think about it, though. In games where the character needs to run, or needs to walk long distances, how is that done? It's not done with motion detection, with rare exceptions, because even if you can detect someone running in place, or walking in place (Hey! Is that man walking against the wind?), it would be boring as hell for the person actually running or walking.

That's why the Wii controller has a nunchuck with an analog stick, generally--for walking and turning characters through a game world.

Now think about Kinect. That isn't available, because there's no mixing of control methods. It's ALL motion detection. So when Microsoft tells developers to "think outside the box," that's a little misleading. What they're really saying is "Think outside that box. Think inside this one." There's still a box, and in many ways, it's more limiting.

So how exactly are we going to use Kinect in a role-playing game, for example? Damned if I know, beyond the likelihood of needing to map some kind of gesture to forward movement. A gesture that must be so simple that it can be performed with 100% reliability. A gesture so simple and easy that we won't want to stab ourselves after doing it a thousand times. A gesture that can also be performed in conjunction with every other gesture needed in the game, because it must be seamless.

See the tightrope here?

I could easily see someone needing to memorize 10-15 distinct gestures to get through one level of an FPS, unless the game is so dumbed down that it's basically on rails. Who's going to be willing to do that? Not many of us, that's for sure. So the kinds of games we see on Kinect are going to be constrained. It will be grreat for mini-game collections, yoga classes, mime certification, and kitty petting simulators. But games where the character moves through a complex gameworld and interacts with that world in complex ways is going to be almost impossible.

So like I said, it is outside the box, but it's right into another box.

The Wiimote and nunchuck contains two levels of control: the traditional, button-based method, and the second, motion-sensing method. Motion-sensing can make a game more immersive, but having the button-based fallback is very handy to paper over weaknesses in motion-sensing as a method of controlling in-game movement and actions. Sure, you can call it a kludge, if you like, but it's also quite versatile.

There are a ton of crap mini-game collections for the Wii, but there are also some rich, complex worlds to explore, because the nunchuk allows for that kind of interaction, and buttons on both the Wiimote and nunchuk help simplify some of the most repetitive actions.

That kind of versatility doesn't exist with Kinect. The precision of motion detection is quite brilliant; unfortunately, the precision gained doesn't seem to be nearly as important as the versatility that's been lost.

I occasionally hope I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong this time.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Console Post: 3D

The 3DS, from almost all reports, is a spectacular piece of hardware.

Game|Life's Chris Kohler was hands-on with the unit yesterday, and here's the opening to his report:
Nintendo’s new 3DS hardware is, in a word, unbelievable.The company didn’t talk about how its stunning technology works during Tuesday’s brief demo for members of the press. But work it does: Without using special glasses, you can see a deep, rich 3-D display on the top screen of the new Nintendo 3DS portable.

That echoes much of what I saw yesterday, and like I've written before, I still vividly remember seeing a 42" autostereoscopic display at E3 almost a decade ago. It was mind-blowing, and 3D without glasses is clearly the future of 3D.

The 3DS, as far as I can tell, uses parallax barrier technology, and here's a description of how it works:
In Parallax Barrier displays a slitted layer is placed over a standard LCD screen to separate the image into separate light paths for the viewer's right and left eyes... One problem with the technology as a home TV option is that the viewer needs to remain still and central for the effect to work. However, as Oliver points out, "if you know there is only one viewer and they are roughly in front of the display and within a meter, then there are ways to give each eye a different image."

I'm sure that this is belaboring the obvious, but for a 3D effect, each eye has to get a separate image from the display. That means that 3D has a much smaller "sweet spot" than 2D viewing, because to see the images in the optimal position, the viewer must be looking at the display from straight-on (or close to it).

That's why autostereoscopic (without glasses) 3D hasn't taken off yet with larger displays. The glasses that we wear "fix" the viewing angle problem, because they're doing additional processing to separate the on-screen image for each eye. Until we can see 3D without glasses with a viewing angle at least as large as current LCD displays (which themselves have inferior viewing angles to plasma), we won't see home displays with autostereoscopic technology.

I went to Best Buy last Saturday to try out the Samsung and Panasonic 3D displays. Both require powered glasses, and it took over fifteen minutes for the salesman to actually find pairs for us to use.

The Samsung LCD, in brief, sucked. The 3D effect looked sort of pasted-on, very cheesy, and I was completely underwhelmed.

The Panasonic plasma was entirely different. The 3D image popped right off the screen, the colors were spectacular, and I was totally blown away.

The glasses, though, were annoying as hell, and no amount of on-screen magnificence could hide that.

That's sort of a circuitous route (do I take any other?) to this point. Nintendo, traditionally cast as an inferior technology company, is actually using cutting-edge technology for the 3DS. Given that the size of displays using parallax barrier technology is increasing every few months, it's entirely possible that this same tech will eventually be used for 42" autostereoscopic displays, and these displays are going to blow everyone away.

Sony, traditionally cast as a cutting edge technology company, is using 3D technology that has a severely limited lifespan. They're promoting the hell out of it--hell, they're essentially betting the company on it--but it's still 3D with glasses.

If it weren't for Nintendo, very few people would even know that glasses-free 3D exists, but as soon as the 3DS launches, everyone will know it, and I wonder how that will affect the purchase of large 3D displays that require glasses.

It's going to be hard to go back, isn't it?
Sony focused on 3D in the E3 presser, and it's definitely going to draw an audience, but before their heavily-touted 3D displays even reach market, they're old news.

Pro Mode Guitar Video: Rock Band 3

This video is 100% saturated with large-font WIN. It is exactly, and I mean exactly, what I was hoping for from Pro mode guitar in Rock Band 3. Unbelievable! See it here.

Thanks to the metric ton of you who sent this in.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

A Curse Of Plenty

Since I eat lunch at Subway 3-4 days a week, I eat quite a few bags of Miss Vickie's Jalapeno Potato Chips.

These bags are the individual serving size, and of course, the bags are 2/3 air, so there aren't many chips. They're still good, though.

About a month ago, I picked up a sandwich and a bag of chips, and the bag felt heavy. When I opened it, I realized that I'd basically discovered the Seven Cities Of Cibolo in potato chip form.

This bag was packed. It was 99% full of potato chips, and there were at least the number of chips in three regular bags.

It was entirely awesome.

Maybe that's happened to you before, but in 40+ years of eating chips, it had never happened to me. And in case you're wondering--hell yes, I ate them all.

Great story, right?

Well, yes. And no. Before this happened, I always took the first bag of chips I picked up. I mean, what's the difference, right? Now, though, I always pick up three or four bags before choosing one, because I'm haunted by that hefty, magic moment, a moment that will never be repeated.

E3 Coverage

If you're looking for E3 news without being overwhelmed by 50 items a day, try Game|Life. Excellent information without overload.

Console Post: Microsoft

I had a friend in college named Al.

Al liked this girl named Janice, but she wouldn't go out with him unless he found a date for her friend. So he showed me the picture of this friend, and while she looked borderline, I was trying to help him out, so I agreed.

He asked them over and we were going to cook spaghetti. He had just dumped the spaghetti out into the strainer, steam still rising from the pot, when we heard a voice and the door opened.

Al walked into the living room to greet them.

Within seconds, he came blasting back into the kitchen like a rocket fueled dragster. "I'm sorry," he muttered under his breath, right before they walked in. "I'M TERRY," she said, rattling the walls.

My "date" had put on thirty pounds, at least, since the photo I saw. And she'd apparently put on about forty decibels, too, because every time she said something, a picture of a lighthouse foghorn came to mind.

This was the bait and switch of a lifetime. Until yesterday, anyway, when Microsoft had their E3 keynote.

Seriously, Microsoft, "Kinect?" WTF is that--a piece of Norwegian furniture? Nintendo named their console after a euphemism for urination and did a better job. The team that came up with that name probably spent half a million dollars to squash together "kinetic" and "connect?" Good job, boys--enjoy your vice presidencies.
So let's take a look at the launch games for Kinect. Let's see:
--dance games
--pet raising games
--fitness games
--sports mini-games
--a rafting game (I can't even make shit up this good)

Holy crap, Microsoft, you just announced copies of all the ***damn games you've been making fun of for the last three years.

At least there's some good news: the price. Wait, no there isn't, because Microsoft didn't even announce one. Gamestop was listing it at $149 earlier today, though.

That seems fair--if I have one month to live.

This appears to be the biggest bomb of a product launch ever. This is going to extend the lifecycle of the 360? Are you kidding me? This is two slices of fail with fail sauce on top.

Monday, June 14, 2010


Based on your application e-mails, we've adopted quite a few countries.

Officially adopted: the Netherlands. Seriously, has there even been a more beautifully evocative, game-like name for a country? Plus, you (collectively) submitted several excellent applications. And how could anyone not love those fans?

Unofficially adopted:
--the entire continent of Africa, excluding Algeria (they're in the same group as the U.S.). In particular, the Ivory Coast, thanks to Didier Drogba, who is 100% awesome.
--New Zealand and Honduras. Honduras qualified in the last five seconds of the qualifying round, basically, on a goal by the U.S. against Costa Rico. And in the funniest line from all the e-mails you sent me, a New Zealand resident, in asking for support, said it was so unlikely his team qualified that he was still considering the possibility that it was an elaborate hoax.
--Japan, although at this point I believe I've forgotten why.

Onward, teams we support!

P.S. this is sheer, unabridged genius (thanks Mike Gilbert): LEGO World Cup Highlights.

Eli 8.10

This is an accurate rendering of Eli 8.10 at all times.

Gloria was driving Eli home from something-or-other on Saturday, and he fell asleep in the car. She drove around for a while, so he could nap, and then he woke up with a start.

"Are you ready?" he asked.

"Ready for what?" Gloria asked.

"I don't know," he said. "Where am I?"


I spent some time last week with Flying Finn's Backbreaker roster editing tool.

After a few iterations, I was able to establish that the CPU offense is quite challening if I lowered the Speed and Strength ratings for the defensive lineman to 10. In fact, the CPU killed me.

So while there are certainly some A.I. issues, and the rumored slight increase in camera height in the also rumored patch will help, much of this game's problems can be mitigated via some very simple ratings edits.

There's a dynamic, vibrant aspect to Backbreaker that is very much worth pursuing. A patch to fix the obvious rules errors, along with some simple A.I. improvements, should extend the lifespan of this game substantially.

I'd much rather play Backbreaker than the 20th version of NCAA, if the developers will just show their commitment by putting out a patch.

Sunday, June 13, 2010

What You Can't Say At E3

Here's something I'd like to try this week while so many of you are at E3.

There are plenty of things written about games at E3 that are, well, diplomatic. There's just a level of honesty that has to be foresworn, in most cases. You can't just write that something is downright shitty.

You can, however, tell me via e-mail, and I will post your unadulterated thoughts here anonymously.

Now, a couple of restraints. If you've never e-mailed and I don't know you, I won't post your thoughts, because I'm not going to unwittingly (boy, there's a one-word description of me, isn't it?) let a company rep trash a rival.

Plus, this doesn't have to be just negative comments. I'll post any comments you have and keep your identity anonymous.

Oh, and a few of you usually ask me if there's anything in particular I'd like you to check out while you're at E3. Yes, please, and here's the list of my top items:
1) The Fender Squier for Rock Band 3, and any and all impressions of Pro mode.
2) The Nintendo 3DS. Obviously.
3) Find those Backbreaker guys and find out when they're patching their potentially 90 game that shipped in 60 condition.

Friday, June 11, 2010


From Kotaku:
The good news for actual musicians? If you already have a MIDI keyboard or MIDI drum set, you can opt for the Rock Band 3 MIDI Pro Adapter Box. The device will convert MIDI messages into console controller data and includes on-board console navigation buttons that will let players navigate the game's menus. 

Friday Links!

This is quite a read, although you'll need a strong stomach. Infamous fraud and King Of Dickheads Bernie Madoff is profiles in New York magazine. Madoff isn't interviewed, but the people he's been in prison with are, which is far more interesting.

From Christina Gray, and this is very cool, it's an infographic of the tallest mountain to the deepest ocean trench.
Here's one of the most spectacularly strange products ever (from DQ reader My Wife): The Brobdingnagian Sports Chair.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, an article about the possiblity of life on Titan's surface, discovered via chemical signatures. Also, an asteroid that struck Jupiter left a hole in the atmosphere the size of the Pacific Ocean.

From George Politis, another example of "deep zoom" photography/imaging: Winston Churchill.

From Kevin, an unholy hybrid: the monster trike.

From Randy Graham, the entirely ridiculous and amusing trailer for Jackboots On Whitehall.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and get your tinfoil hats out, shortwave radio station UVB-76 has gone offline.

From Clayton Lee, one of the most incredible flying recoveries you've ever seen.

From Francis Cermak, an interesting look at the French influence on the history of gaming.

From MC, and pay attention now, it's important that if you're in an area with jaguars, do NOT wear Calvin Klein's Obsession.

From George Paci, an absolutely incredible piece of design: a round, expandable table. That was a horrible description, but just go watch the 30-second video--it's amazing.

From David Gloier, the most unique rendition of Sweet Georgia Brown I've ever seen, with a tractor for a rhythm section.

From Johan Lindh, and this is impossible to describe, it's poodle exercise with humans.

So droll it almost hurts, it's Couch Cushion Architecture: A Critical Analysis (thanks to Steven Kreuch). Also, this time from Katy Mulvey, another link from the same site: Cardboard Fort Architecture: A Critical Analysis.

From Sirius, fire up the pressure cooker, because it's time for edible dormice.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Please Send Your Applications Immediately

With the World Cup starting tomorrow, Eli 8.10 and I need a team. Sure, there's the U.S., and we'll kind of root for them, but we need more than that to stay interested.

What we need is a charismatic underdog from a likable country. So if you live in such a country and want us to root for your team, send in your request post-haste.

The Double Down

The Double Down is a KFC sandwich that has two pieces of chicken, two pieces of bacon, two slices of cheese, and "Colonel's sauce."

There's no bun.

If you're not an American, you're probably gasping for air right now, but we see this surreal kind of thing all the time. Manifest destiny isn't about land, it's about eating massively  high-calorie foods until we all explode.

However, I heard something about the sandwich this morning that I can't get out of my mind. That Colonel's sauce? It's a cheese sauce. That means the Double Down has two slices of cheese--with cheese sauce on top.

Epic. Even as my heart's exploding, I can't help but be impressed.

I Can't Even Make This Stuff Up

There is so much bizarre shit happening today that I can't even keep track of it all. A sample:
Frank and Jamie McCourt, those feudin' and fussin' co-owners [of the Los Angeles Dogers] and estranged spouses, spent good money — really good money — on an elderly man who sat at home in Boston, watched Dodgers games on TV, and sent positive energy.

Yes, this is a thing that happened. Beginning in 2004, 71-year-old Vladimir Shpunt has been retained by the team, with an annual bonus of "six figures or more" based on how the team performed, and his only job is to direct positive thinking to the players, from 3000 miles away.
Oh yeah. That works. Money well spent.


Partial track list from Kotaku, which includes (among others) Bohemian Rhapsody (Queen), Break On Through (The Doors), Crosstown Traffic (Jimi Hendrix), and The Hardest Button To Button (The White Stripes).

There's a Night Ranger song in there, too. Nothing I can do about that.

Two Worlds

I didn't mention the reveal for Guitar Hero 6: Warriors Of Rock because I thought it was, well, complete crap. There was a story mode that sounded like it was directly ripped off from Brutal Legend, a new guitar that's not new in any functional way, and it sounded like Activision had decided that the 12-14 year old demographic was their new wheelhouse.

What there wasn't really any mention of, though, was music. You know, music.

Don't take my word for it though. Here, watch the trailer. See? Complete crap.

Today, though, it looks like we have the reveal for Rock Band 3 (thanks Joseph Holley). And it's insane. A few excerpts:
We are adding a new instrument (a 25-key, fully functioning MIDI keyboard)...

I expected a keyboard, but a 25-key MIDI keyboard? Didn't see that coming.

Even better:
•Rock Band Pro. This new music learning mode lets players develop real-world music-playing fundamentals for keyboards, guitars and drums. More realistic music notations replace the standard color-coded notes during gameplay. For guitar, numbers flow down the screen along six guitar strings, telling you where to place your hands on the neck and when to strum.

Two new guitar controllers in the works have actual strings where you strum; one is a full-sized, fully functional six-string Squier Stratocaster from Fender. "It can tell where your fingers are based on technology in the neck and the bridge of the guitar. No buttons," Drake says. "While you're playing it, it feels exactly like playing a real guitar," because that's what you're doing.

The other is a Fender Mustang Pro controller from accessory maker Mad Catz with a field of buttons in each fret. As your fingers compress the smaller non-colored buttons on that guitar's neck, your finger positions are represented in the game's display. "You can go from plucking single notes to power chords and bar chords, we have crazy stuff like tapping and slides," Dubrofsky says. "If you ever had any aspirations of connecting with the music in a deeper way ... you are really going to like Rock Band 3."

For drums, three new cymbals are added to the standard four drum pads, and you are forced to play the correct cymbal at the right time. "It really immerses you more. You feel more like a drummer," Dubrofsky says. "It's not only for expert levels. You can come in on easy and actually play Pro drums. We have all the different levels established. It's actually really fun. You are playing up on the high hat or down on the snare, and it feels more like a kit than ever before."

On keyboards, Sussman says, "we're actually utilizing the full two-octave range that the keyboard controller has. Everything that you are playing, whether you are playing on easy or expert, is accurate musical information. The track looks like a real keyboard track, and you are playing notes on the keyboard that if you were to step away from the game and were to play on a real piano, they would be the right notes."

Pro players can use the mode for private practice or incorporate it while others play the game's standard arcade modes. "You can be an expert keys-player playing with an all easy band, no problem," Drake says.
Win win win win win. WIN.

What I wrote in October 2008: I think there are a lot of us who would be highly motivated to play a real guitar if the learning process could be more "game-like."  Check.

Cymbal notes for drums? Check.

Learn how to play real keyboards from what you're playing in the game? Check.

Damn it, I have to clear out more space in my study.

Oh, and one request, since Harmonix has a direct interface into my brain. Please support those of us who already have real electronic drum kits. Don't make us wait for a modder to build an interface box so that we can use our kits with the game.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Super Mario Galaxy 2

Anyone who says they're a "gamer" (whatever that means, really) should be required by law to buy a Wii and play both Super Mario Galaxy and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

It would be only be "required by law" until someone actually started playing, because after that, it would be impossible to stop.

I felt like Super Mario Galaxy was the most complete and interesting representation entry in the Mario canon, and it was, until now. Incredibly, Super Mario Galaxy 2 is better.

Here's a brief explanation of why these games are so brilliant, on the off chance that you haven't played either one. For starters, the world is incredibly coherent and internally consistent. Once you enter the game, you are inside the world, and not for one second will anything happen to take you out of that world until you quit playing the game.

Here's something else: every single level, every single object, has been given equal attention. There is nothing, absolutely nothing, in SMG2 that isn't polished. There are no levels that feel half-finished, no game mechanics that feel tacked on at the last minute. In a gaming sense, it's always lush.

Speaking of game mechanics, they are incredibly diverse. Eli 8.10 has mastered a dizzying array of moves, and when he's controlling Mario, he does things that I would never even try. SMG and SMG2 both fall into the category of what I call "onion" games. Onion games have many, many layers, and the more you peel, the more you find. This is true for the Super Mario Galaxy series both in terms of game mechanics and the world itself.

Another wonderful feature of SMG2 is the diversity of levels. Some require precision, while others feature speed. Every possible move you can make, though, is needed at some time in the game.

Another huge draw, at least for me, is the childlike nature of the game. Childlike, not childish, in that many of the levels feature objects and enemies that children might have imagined, in a dizzyingly colorful world.

Somehow, these worlds always feel safe.

I don't mean safe in the sense that Mario never loses a life or never gets attacked. I mean safe in the sense that very few things in the grown-up world are completely safe, and we all miss that feeling at times. In the worlds of Super Mario Galaxy, nothing ever happens that reminds me of the real world. Nothing ever gives me a bad feeling.

There are no ghoulies.

If you're wondering how the second game specifically differs from the first, here's a short list. First, co-op play, which was already quite good in the first game, is even better now. This time, it's possible to retrieve gold coins and extra lives as well as stars, and if that sounds trivial, it's not trivial at all when you play. It's something new and substantial for the second player to do during a level, and it makes being second fiddle quite a bit more fun.

Second, in a subjective sense, I think SMG2 has more speed-based levels, and they're very, very fun. There are a few levels that give me the same feeling I had during the first Sonic game, which was so fast at times it was giddy.

Third, this game is both harder and easier than SMG. It's harder in the sense that the levels are more intricate--in a good way--and the combinations of moves and jumps required is definitely more difficult than in the first game. It's easier, though, in the sense that a spectral princess appears and offers to guide you through a level on auto-pilot if you fail a certain number of times.

I don't know the exact number for when she appears, but for us, it means whoever is controlling Mario is sucking. "There she is!" is always followed by plenty of laughing. For new players, though, it's another very clever way to keep them engaged in the game and progressing.

If you haven't played either game, I'd highly recommend starting out with Super Mario Galaxy first. It would be a shame to skip such a fantastic game just to start out with the latest version, and even though I like SMG2 more, it doesn't mean that the original isn't a must-play.

In a gaming time capsule, both of these games would belong in the front.

The Flowering Of Wisdom

I normally use the "Plasma Television Reference System" to examine any potential purchases.

If Gloria comes up and says she wants to buy a couch, for example, I'll say "A couch? We could have a 50-inch HD plasma for the same price!" It's at these moments that I'm always glad the axe is locked away.

I was taking Eli 8.10 to see his Granny yesterday, and we stopped at the grocery store to pick up a snack. As we drove to the grocery store, we passed a Quizno's.

"Blech," Eli said. "Quizno's." Eli's never had a sandwich at Quizno's, but I can't stand them, and he knows that. Much like the Red State/Blue State or Wal-Mart/Target or Cracker Jack/Poppycock divides, one is either a Subway guy or a Quizno's guy. I'm a Subway guy.

"I have no idea why anyone would even want to eat a sandwich there," Eli said. "Maybe they have great deals."

"But Subway has a footlong sandwich for five dollars," I said.

"I know, right?" he said. "So you could buy two pens, or you could have a gigantic sandwich. I know what I'd take."

He paused.

"Well, actually I'd take the pens, because I hate sandwiches," he said. "But still."

I was talking to Eli 8.10 about pizza last night because a Papa John's commercial came on t.v.

"I kind of miss Papa John's," I said.

"WHY?" he asked. Eli is a 100% Pizza Hut man.

"When you were about five, that was the only pizza you'd eat," I said. "You absolutely loved Papa John's. We had it so many times that I got used to it."

"Those were the dark ages," he said, laughing.

We're going to Game 5 of the Calder Cup tonight. That's the Texas Stars vs. the Hershey Bears, for those of you keeping score at home.

Eli 8.10 was in the kitchen, and when I walked in I saw that he was making a sign on white poster board. It said "BRIN" so far.

"A sign for the game?" I asked.

"Yes," he said, hunched over the poster board in concentration.

"What's it going to say?" I asked.

"BRING THE CUP HOME." That's one of the slogans being used in local advertaising for the games.

"Very nice," I said.

"I watch a lot of hockey," he said. "I know some fashionable signs."

Tuesday, June 08, 2010

A Dream

I had a dream last night.

In this dream, we were in a house that was our house, but different from the fabulous, 84-acre estate (well, 84 acres minus 83.5 acres) that we live on in real life.

It was about 6:30 a.m. in the moring, and I was walking around downstairs. Eli 8.10 had been sick all week (real-life transported into the dream), and I'd woken up the night before when he couldn't sleep, so I was very, very tired.

A little girl, about five years old, appeared out of nowhere. She was wearing pink clothes and had blonde hair with pigtails. I'd never seen here before.

This little girl walked up to me and started talking, but I couldn't understand anything she said. Clearly, there was some kind of urgency involved, but I couldn't make out a word she said. So she just stood there in front of me, talking and waving her arms wildly.

"Go see Aunt Gloria," I said.

The Not-Even-A-Mild-Surprise Of The Day

Seriously, has any sports figure been more of a punk than Pete Rose?

I'll spare you the history, which is sordid, and move on to the reveal: corked bats.

The short version is that certain bats which were indisputably used by Rose were recently x-rayed and they clearly show cork inside.

So Rose didn't just gamble on baseball (including games in which he managed), he also cheated as a player.

Backbreaker Note

I know that the impressions post on Backbreaker last week was harsh in places, but it doesn't mean that I'm not still interested in the game. Without the ability to adjust ratings to investigate the CPU offensive issues, though, I was at a dead stop.

However, Flying Finn (a legend in sports modding circles for his ESPN NFL2K5 editor) is working on an editor for Backbreaker, which would allow us to change player ratings.

This would allow me to create a team with lineman rated 90 in every ratings category, for example, and see if that reduces interceptions and sacks by allowing the QB more time to throw. Or increasing quarterback ratings, or reducing defensive back ratings.

I get the sense from playing Backbreaker that there's an excellent game inside the Russian nesting doll. It's just going to take some work to extract it from what shipped. As long as they patch the obvious rules errors, Finn's editor could help take care of almost everything else.

Monday, June 07, 2010

Split Second (360): Boom

This is a damn fun game, the surprise of the year for me so far.

I wasn't expecting much. I thought the combination of car racing and explosions would appeal to Eli 8.10 (well, and me, too), so I put it in my Gamefly queue.

As it turns out, and much to my surprise, Split Second is a blast. Almost literally, because explosions happen all the time in this game. They are all hyperbolic, and by "hyperbolic" I mean "kick ass." Big, big stuff blows up in this game, and it looks fantastic when it does.

The basics: you're a contestant on a television reality show called "Split Second," and the promos for the various show episodes are tremendously clever and well-produced. You race in various types of events until you earn enough points to enter the "episode," and placing high enough earns you entry into the next tier of races (and the next episode of the show as well).

So what, right? With the exception of the television show device, it sounds like every other racing game ever made, and in some ways, that's true. The driving model is very friendly and familiar (drift FTW), and this has all been done before, hasn't it?

Well, not exactly.

What this game does differently is combine an absolutely brilliant graphics engine and a likable driving model with boom. Lots of boom. Just try driving down an airport runway with a jumbo jet exploding above you without feeling an adrenaline rush. It's all absolutely over-the-top, and it's so over-the-top that it's impossible to resist.

Basically, you accumulate points by drafting, or jumping, or avoiding the boom of others, and when you've accumulated enough boom points, icons appear above cars in front of you that you can potentially take out via explosions of various pieces of generally huge machinery.

Or maybe a helicopter will just drop a bomb in front of the car.

If that sounds cheap, it doesn't really feel that way, because the boom is so incredibly cool. Eli 8.10 and I laugh all the time while we're playing, and it's fun for one of us to drive and the other to watch, because paying attention to everything going on is almost as much fun as playing. In the last lap of a multi-lap race, the air is full of debris, and it's spectacular.

We've played for about five hours now, and I don't know if the thrill will stay at the same level all the way through the game, but Split Second is something you need to play, even as a rental.

One final word: boom.

Sing Us A Song, You're The Piano Man

A few weekends ago, we went to a restaurant that had a piano player.

Tell me this, piano players: do you aspire to work in a restaurant playing Vince Guaraldi tunes? Or is it more like Jim Rome's description of something else entirely:
You don't ASPIRE to be in porn. You END UP in porn.
Nothing against Vince Guaraldi, who was a total badass. It just seems that a guy playing a piano in a restaurant is the blogger equivalent of a writer. Well, except that the guy playing piano is actually making money. Scoreboard given.

So were were sitting in the restaurant, listening to the piano player, when I had an inspiration.

That's inspiration, not aspiration.

"I've got an idea," I said.

"Oh?" Gloria, with years of experience, fears my ideas.

"These piano players all take requests, right?"

"Sure," she said. "That's one of the ways they make money."

"What if we assemble a list of the most depressing piano songs ever written? Bleak, weary dirges, all of them. Then we can ask these guys to play one of them."

"That is awful!" Gloria said.

"Yes, it is," I said. "So, are you going to help me with the list?"

Friday, June 04, 2010

Bonus Link!

Words cannot describe this:
Sky Smith & E

I love the Internet.

Friday Links!

First off, this must be the greatest drumming video I've ever seen, and by "great" I mean "horrifyingly bad." It's a cover band performing ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man," and this video is so disturbing in so many ways that I highly recommend you have a memory-erasing drug at hand.

Having said that, though, I also laughed so hard that I almost fell out of my chair. The laughter effect is cumulative, much like arsenic.

Here's a great moment in gun safety, courtesy of Steve Davey: Man accidentally shoots himself in testicles. Dude felt like he needed to be strapped up walking through a Loew's Home Improvement store. Well considered, sir.

Here's a fascinating Jalopnik link from Shane Courtrille: How The U.S. Government Killed The Safest Car Ever Built.

Here's a link to an amazing piece of technology: an autonomous quadrocopter. The video is quite spectacular.

From Sirius, a link to a story about a breakthrough in the treatment of Ebola. Also, a century after his death (per his specifications), Mark Twain's autobiography is going to be published.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a fantastic animated short: RSA Animate - The Secret Powers of Time. Also animated are New Short Films From Jacques Khouri/. Finally, do you remember the Star Wars Kid? Well, now he's a lawyer.

From Glen Haag, it's every statistic you wanted to know about Internet *orn but were afraid to ask.

From Ian Anderson, and this is both amazing technology and very Big Brother-ish at the same time, it's electrical network frequency analysis.

From Dib, and this is quite beautiful, a time-lapse video of the creation of a sand mandala, and if you've never seen one, it's spectacular.

I think I've linked to this in the past, but it's so clever that I'm going to do it again. DQ reader My Wife sent in a link to the automated ball-throwing machine built to entertain a pet dachsund. I guess that's implied, really--there aren't a bunch of wild dachsunds running around in packs.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a story about a Russian simulation of a voyage to Mars.

This is pure genius: Fraunhofer developing bike helmets that stink when damaged.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Comparison (part two)

Game One of the NBA Finals: 78 stoppages of play, not including the stoppage between free throws (which, with some players, lasts quite a while).

By quarter: 22-15-22-19.

In comparison with the Stanley Cup Finals game I recorded, that's 80% more stoppages of play per minute. The NBA game took 2:48 to play, and it wasn't even competitive at the end, so the last two minutes didn't include any intentional fouling or timeouts.

Plus, no one is ever in a hurry after a whistle stops play in the NBA. Guys are barely even walking. In the NHL, the goal is to have a faceoff within thirty seconds of a whistle, and the officials are often sprinting to get the puck to the correct faceoff circle.

So that's why the NBA felt glacial to me compared to the NHL: it is glacial compared to the NHL.


[Rant on]

I'm off to a slow start today, mostly because my mind has been paralyzed by the stupidity of major league baseball commissioner Bud Selig in not acting in "the best interests of baseball" and overturning the blown call at first base on what should have been the last out of Armando Gallaraga's perfect game last night.

With only 20 perfect games in the last 130 years, this was the incredibly rare and unique situation where it was appropriate for Selig to intervene. Of course he didn't, because Bud Selig is a complete hack, and the next time he makes a logical decision, it will be the first time.

Selig is the genius who decided that the outcome of an exhibition game should decide home field advantage in the World Series. So clearly, he lives in Crazytown.

I like to visit Crazytown, but I don't actually live there.

[rant off]

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that it was hard for me to watch the NBA after watching the NHL playoffs. My perception was that pro basketball had so many stoppages of play that, for me, it was just unwatchable.

Because I'm, um, a bit of a data nut, I decided to gather some data. I counted the stoppages of play in the second and third period of last night's Stanley Cup Finals Game Three.

In those two periods, there were 37 stoppages of play--17 in the second period, and 20 in the third.

I would have done all three periods, but we lost signal for about half of the first period during a fairly vicious rainstorm. However, the announcers did mention that there was a 5:30 section of the first period with no whistles, so I think assuming that the rate was, at most, the same as the other two periods is fair.

Roughly, then, there was one stoppage of play a minute.

I'll be tabulating Game One of the NBA Finals tonight, and I'm very curious to see the number. There are some gray areas, though, in terms of data collection. If a player shoots free throws, is it considered an additional stoppage of play between free throws? To me, it is, because the referee has to get the ball, return it to the player, and then the player stands at the line, does his pre-shot routine, and shoots. It's not cut-and-dried, though.

Because of that, I'll post two numbers--one that counts each free throw as a stoppage, and one that doesn't.

Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Havana Nocturne

I just finished reading Havana Nocturne: How the Mob Owned Cuba and Then Lost It to the Revolution this afternoon, and it's a cracking good read, as they say (I'm not sure who “they” are, but they say it).

I had no idea of the history of Cuba in the 1940s-1950s, before the Revolution, but author T.J. English has done a comprehensive job researching that era and interviewing as many of the surviving participants as possible.

Who was involved? Well, let's see—the Mob, military dictators, the CIA, and the revolutionaries, for starters. The Mob paid a truly spectacular amount of money to bribe Cuban government officials to open up the country for the most lavish casinos and hotels ever built. Cuba, briefly, became one of the entertainment capitals of the world, with an epic dose of sin mixed in with the entertainment.

Inside the fascinating narrative are individual stories that are truly amazing. In 1942, notorious mobster Lucky Luciano, while serving a 30-50 year sentence in New York state prison, was approached by the U.S. Government about German sabotage at the Port of New York, which had reached “crippling” levels.

The government's reasoning was simple: since the Mob controlled the waterfront, maybe they could help find the saboteurs. When approached, Luciano agreed to authorize the effort, and within months, the FBI arrested eight German secret agents that had been brought ashore by U-boat.

The code name for this project was “Operation Underworld,” and it was entirely successful in reducing attacks on Allied ships. Less than seven months after the war, Luciano's sentence was commuted to time served by Governor Tom Dewey.

That's just one of dozens of remarkable stories in Havana Nocturne, and in addition to highly recommending the book, it made me realize that Cuba in that era would be an absolutely perfect setting for a game.

Consider the possibilities. There would be three factions: the Mob, the Cuban government (a military dictatorship), and the Cuban rebels. Each faction would be struggling to control the island, but each would have different game mechanics. The Mob would be building casinos and hotels, along with bribing the Cuban government, in a kind of corrupt business sim, while the Government would try to maximize their payoffs from the Mob to finance suppressing the rebels, with their game mechanic focused on the military. The rebels would be trying to convert the populace to their side (think “Republic” but in an actually working version), take over the island, and send the Mob packing.

The possibilities for double-dealing and espionage would be almost unlimited, particularly in a multi-player mode. Calling Vic Davis!

Amazon link: Havana Nocturne.

Tuesday, June 01, 2010

Backbreaker (A Little More)

This game is a 90 that was released in 65 condition.

I think the guys who designed and developed this game have huge talent. This game is a big breath of fresh air. And none of the problems I mentioned yesterday can't be fixed, but unless they are fixed, this game is unplayable in single-player mode.

I played a test game tonight with a team I created. This team had 1 gold player on offense and 1 on defense (the minimum possible number). It was rated at a 44 overall (45 off/45 def). I played the Cincinnatti Hogs, who are a 74 overall (73 off/63 def). 74 is the highest overall team rating I found. Apparently, you unlock a 100 rated team after winning Road To Backbreaker mode, but obviously I haven't done that.

I played with five minute quarters, Pro Mode, Hard difficulty, and "very poor" form for my team (which should make them even worse). I also played the same defense on every play--a simple Tampa 2 defense--and didn't blitz the player I controlled (linebacker, with position lock). I just played my zone and went forward if I recognized a run.

I had 4 tackles in 55 offensive plays, so I certainly didn't dominate. It was my CPU defense (the worst possible) against the CPU offense (best in the game), running the same defense on every play.

The CPU had 18 rushing attempts for 33 yards, with 2 fumbles. They were 12-23-2 passing for 111 yards, with 6 sacks. Believe it or not, that's the best I've seen a CPU quarterback play.

4 turnovers and 3.5 yards a play, with 6 sacks. And remember, this was using the same defense for every play, with a 73 rated offense against a 45 rated defense. They scored 7 points, and that was on a drive with 2 fourth down conversions and 2 penalties against me.

That just isn't going to work.

Like I said, I think this is entirely fixable. The defensive line is breaking free way, way too many times, given the discrepancy in ratings. Adjusting the balance between the offensive and defensive lines would make the game play much better.

It's just that we can't do it ourselves, because we can't edit player ratings. The developers have to do it, and there's no way to know yet whether that is going to happen.

The Playground

A few weeks before Eli got out of school, we went to Unicycle Club on Friday, as always.

After I learned how to ride, I've always focused on using the unicycle as a way to stay fit. I get a ridiculous workout in a 3-mile ride, and it's fun to ride on trails that are normally used by runners and cyclists.

I usually don't ride during club, because I spend most of my time helping new kids learn, but it means I get to watch more of what's going on, and I noticed something last week that blew me away.

Club takes place in a regulation-sized gym, and there are about twenty kids who can ride. Eli 8.10 was playing basketball with his friend Erin.

Yes, basketball on a unicycle.

They were playing full-court, dribbling and shooting just like a regular game, except they were riding the whole time. Eli wound up winning 18-17 (one point per basket), and they played for at least half an hour.

In another corner of the gym, about half a dozen kids were playing tag. Again, just like regular tag, but on unicycles.

Another group was playing follow the leader.

That's when I realized how differently they saw the unicycle from how I do. To them, the unicyle was just a way to play, and once they could ride well enough, they turned the gym into a gigantic playground, playing all the same games they played during recess.

It was just recess on one wheel.

Their approach also means that they keep getting better, because they're always trying maneuvers that are at the very edge of their abilities. If their skill is a circle, they're always working at the edge of the circle.

I go to the edge of my skill circle occasionally, but I'm really much more into piling up miles and wanting to be able to point at numbers that I consider achievements. So my endurance has increased substantially, and I'm much stronger, but I don't have that fine level of skill.

It's not that what I do isn't fun--it's quite a lot of fun, really--but it's not as carefree as what the kids are doing, and I think I envy them.

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