Monday, February 28, 2011

Books!

It's been a long time since I've mentioned any books, but it's not because I haven't been reading. I have so many to mention that I'm going to put in a few a week until I catch up.

Today, a book recommended to me by DQ reader My Mom: Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal.

Eddie Chapman would have to be made up by Hollywood if he didn't already exist. The prototypical charming rogue who was always in trouble with the law, he wound up becoming a double agent (perhaps, even, a triple agent) in one of the most ridiculous and remarkable espionage stories of WWI. Here's an excerpt from the Amazon page:
Giving little thought to the morality of his decision, Chapman offered to work as a spy for the Germans in 1940 after his release from an English prison in the Channel Islands, then occupied by the Germans. After undergoing German military intelligence training, Chapman parachuted into England in December 1942 with instructions to sabotage a De Havilland aircraft factory, but he surrendered after landing safely. Doubled by MI5 (the security service responsible for counterespionage), Chapman was used to feed vital disinformation to the enemy and was one of the few double agents to delude their German handlers until the end of the war.

Everyone makes an appearance in Chapman's life, seemingly--even magician Jasper Maskelyne (I've mentioned him several times), who was part of the team that created the faked destruction of the De Havilland factory to deceive the Germans.

It's a riveting piece of writing as well by author Ben Macintyre, a terrific read, and it again reminded me how underused espionage is as a theme in games. With the exception of Spycraft, which came out fifteen years ago, I can't remember another PC game where espionage played a prominent role.

More On Gawker

Keith Ganey sent along some interesting information thats help explain the Gawker redesign:
All the Gawker domains have ceased to be "web sites" and have become "web pages". No matter what information you want from Gawker, you- the reader -are handed the exact same web page. The web page includes lots of JavaScript that your browser then executes in an attempt to get the information that you want.

To see how fundamentally wrong this result is, look at the "source" from your browser. (On most browser's this is as simple as right clicking on the page and selecting "view source".) Don't try to interpret the source directly, just do a Ctrl-F find for any of the words in the article you were reading. You won't find them; they aren't there. Your browser thought the words were chaff because they came in the back door.

Per Keith, more information is here: Breaking the Web with hash-bangs.

Also, he sends along an article from a Twitter engineer defending the use of hash-bangs. Here's an excerpt from the article:
The hashbang is in the unfortunate position of being the messenger of a big change that's been slowly occurring on the Web in the past few years, and will only continue to pick up steam: many Web domains are now serving desktop-class applications via HTTP, instead of traditional Web sites. For instance, twitter.com is no longer a collection of Web pages that represent a Web site, but is simply an application that you happen to launch by pointing a browser at http://twitter.com/. This has many wide-reaching implications, and the hashbang is merely a side-effect. In this way, the hashbang is an easy-to-hate straw-man, whereas the real debate to be had is about this shift towards applications.

The article is quite interesting if you're curious about this subject. Keith's note:
Breaking URLs is a trade off for an application-like experience. Twitter has become more of a chat room, so breaking URLs there is somewhat acceptable.

The Gawker blogs, which are definitely not applications, have no business breaking URLs.

I care less about the technical details than I do the user experience, and with the new Gawker redesign, the user experience sucks. Like I wrote last week, too many things just flat-out don't work consistently.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Friday Links!

Rob Cigan sent in a link to a terrific Eurogamer article titled The Boy Who Stole Half-Life 2, and it is a fascinating read.

I stumbled on a few excellent links myself this week. Have a gander at a mountain biker riding 2,000 feet down a mountain in the Gobi desert. Also, a cameraman filming a great white shark attacking a blue marlin.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is crazy (yet impressive, and it's a brilliant video): collecting mussels under ice.

From Steven Kreuch, and you're sure to enjoy these, a collection of dungeon maps and keys from long-ago D&D adventures. Also, there's going to be a video game exhibit at the Smithsonian, and you can vote on the content.

From Kevin W, a remarkable presentation at Ignite, made by a ten-year-old.

From Joshua Buergel, and this is an absolutely astonishing piece of work: Map Of Metal. It shows each genre and sub-genre of metal as a location on a country map, along with an explanation of the music and songs that you can listen from each location. It's fantastic.

From C. Lee, and this is quite funny: Super Harmony (a dating service with superheroes).

From Frank Regan, a clever illusion/prank: suspending water without a cup.

From Sirius, and this is fascinating: The stairways in Bogota's barrios. Also, and this is awesome, it's Create your own glow-in-the-dark flowers . One more, and it's the Glasswing butterfly. Wait, there's one more, and even though I've linked to it in the past, it's still STAGGERING: Theo Jansen's Strandbeests (kinetic sculptures).

From Dan Willhite, another fantastic adventure in Minecraft: the Large Chicken Collider.

From Scott Gould, a sketch from an early, partial version of what would eventually become Monty Python, on a show called "How To Irritate People" (I've certainly done my part): The Airplane Sketch.

DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand sends along a link about the Singularity, which is both seemingly ridiculous and entirely logical at the same time.

Dan Quock sent in a terrific video made entirely inside DCS: A-10 Warthog.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Oops

DQ reader Zy Ho let me know after last week's Friday Links post that I was incorrect in referring to the Pioneer's PDSP-1 Digital Sound Projector as the "first digital sound processor."

I was way, way off.

DSPs have been around for over three decades, with AT&T (courtesy of Bell Labs), NEC, and Texas Instruments releasing units before 1981. Here's the Wikipedia entry if you're interested, and thanks to Zy for the correction.

Pure Sim 4

Gary Gorski of Wolverine Studios let me know that the new version of Shaun Sullivan's excellent PureSim Baseball series is coming out soon (March 22, actually). PureSim Baseball 4 has some interesting new features, including:
--"Tru-Life Transactions". This one is a real gem. Not only can you load historical seasons, but you can also load historical transactions, which is a fantastic idea. Transactions from 1920-2010 are included, so if you want to replay the 1947 season, player movement is the same as it was in real life.
--there's a new option for Fatigue that factors in age as well as position and playing time. That's also an excellent addition.
--increased finances pool for "major market" teams after an excellent season, which, again, is more reflective of real life, given baseball's revenue system.
--"TRU-Emotion" trade A.I., which will end your ability to submit twenty deals to a team until you find the absolute sweet spot in terms of giving up the minimum to get the player you want. Now, the A.I. will stop negotiating for particular players when you keep submitting inadequate offers. There's also a slider for trade difficulty now--another improvement.
--there's an Iron Man mode now called "Challenge" mode.

Also, there's now a free version of the game called "PureSim Lite", which has full gameplay functionality, but you're limited to Iron Man mode and only a subset of historical seasons is available. See this page.

This has always been a terrific baseball sim, and Shaun is a standup guy who I've always liked and admired. This looks like the best version of PureSim yet, so head over to the website and have a look.

It's A Bit Crazy Around Here Today

I won't be writing anything until late because I have a skating lesson, which then turns right into an event at Eli's school (he's riding the unicycle as part of it), but in the meantime, Chris Kohler wrote a very clever review of Bulletstorm in which he uses the phrase "their Achilles’ penis".

I'm not sure which Hall Of Fame that belongs in, but it certainly belongs somewhere.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Never Expect A Beaver To Talk About Anything But Dams

So FOX news responded to the withering criticism it received after asking, in typically apocalyptic tones, Is Bulletstorm the Worst Video Game in the World?.

I mentioned this once in the Bulletstorm post last week--specifically, that the article included claims about video games that were essentially fabricated out of the ether.

Also fabricated out of ether was the "opposition" of experts quoted in the story. RPS shows quite clearly that FOX basically extracted single sentences out of long responses, entirely without context, to further their agenda.

What's amusing about FOX's response--which you can read here--is one plain fact: it's a shitty piece of writing. It seemingly wanders at random from subject to subject, using incendiary descriptions in place of, well, logic.

Most prominently, the article harps on just how easy it would be for an underage consumer to buy this game online. Why, all a ten-year-old would need is a gift card to an online site that sells games! And all they have to do is lie about their age to see game videos!

Wait--doesn't that exact same scenario apply to movies and music (or anything else) as well, with any website that issues gift cards? Besides, you don't have to lie about your age to see disgusting video content--just head over to YouTube. Oh, and don't forget free porn previews!

Underage consumers can access everything online. The porn, though, is free. The game isn't.

Of course, they don't address the ridiculous claims by Carol Lieberman that rape has increased because of violent games. Quite possibly, that is one of the most delightfully inept fabrications of all time, because there are simply no studies that exist to suppor that claim. None.

Would FOX perhaps correct that ridiculous bit of inaccuracy? Of course not, because games are Frankenstein, and anything that doesn't gin the villagers up to grab their burning torches simply won't fit.

Allow to me to recommend a new slogan. FOX News: the truth is inconvenient.

Thanks For Nothing, Gawker

I've been working on the Friday Links post, and I wanted to include some excellent links that were on Deadspin this week.

Deadspin, along with Kotaku, are two of the many sites that have rolled out a new design this week (I think all Gawker websites did, or something like that).

It's not just that this redesign is, well, sort of crap, because it takes me longer to get information, but quite frequently, it simply doesn't work. The "back" button in my browser sometimes just doesn't work at a Gawker website, and trying to progress through pages of posts is almost impossible, because shit just won't load. Even using the "classic" view (which is far less anoying), it's just not fully functional in the way that websites need to, you know, work.

It's hideous.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

January NPD (by Matt)

I was going to start working on a January NPD analysis post tonight, but I saw Matt Matthews's analysis over at Gamasutra first, and it's so good that there's no need. Here you go:
NPD: Behind the Numbers, January 2011

Matt is both an excellent writer and one of the few people out there who is actually analyzing the data.

Gaming Notes

I've been playing a terrific game called "Rebuild," and here's the game description from their website:
Humanity is suffering another Apocalypse.

The city is not recognizable anymore: the streets are full of roaming zombies who are catching live people and attacking their refuge.

You need to search for survivors in this apocalyptic turn based strategy game (TBS). Create a detachment of soldiers, scavengers, builders, scientists and combine their efforts for city rebuilding and defense.

Manage food supplies, housing and morale while defending against undead attacks. Reclaim the city one square at a time and put your survivors to work scavenging for food, building houses, rediscovering technology and of course killing zombies. Beware of rival gangs, wild dogs, food thieves and even riots as you manage a city. Your fort should be growing constantly.

Humanity anchors its hope on you.

Yes, I know there are quite a few zombie games out there now, but this one is entirely addictive. Like all good games, it forces you to make difficult choices, and when one of your survivors dies (in all likelihood, because you sent him or her into a dangerous situation), you'll feel a tinge of guilt when you see a little tombstone by their name in the survivor list.

Plus, and I think this is usually underrated in indie games, the graphics are absolutely fantastic--they have a colorful, cartoonish feel to them, which is a wonderful contrast to the subject matter. Yes, you're trying to save humanity from zombies, but you'll be doing it in a cartoon.

The visual style is just one of many excellent design decisions. This is a very, very slick game, highly polished, and like I said, it's addictive.

In fact, I have a game open in my browser right now, and I'd like to get back to it, thank you very much. That should work out fine, because you should be heading over to check it out. First, though, please cancel any meetings you might be involved in for the next hour or so, because you won't be going anywhere.

Enjoy: Rebuild.

Monday, February 21, 2011

The Curb

"Honey, there's a guy at the door who paints street numbers on curbs. Do you want to get ours painted?" Gloria asked, walking into my study.

"Um, what?" I was thinking about, well, anything but painted street numbers on curbs.

"Never mind," she said. "I'm telling him to do it." She walked out.

Later, while Gloria was at the store, I was playing street hockey with Eli 9.6 in the cul-de-sac. While he chased an errant shot (mine), I looked at the numbers on the curb. They were painted in white inside a black rectangle. 13420.

Very, very nice.

"So, did you notice the the house number painted on the curb?" I asked Eli.

"No, I didn--hey, that looks pretty good," he said.

"It does, doesn't it?" I said. "He did an excellent job." I paused, and an idea passed into that small space. "Or did he?" Eli looked at me and started laughing, because he already knew what I had in mind.

We raced into the house and started fiddling around with MS Paint, testing various font sizes to match what was used on the curb. Within fifteen minutes, and after a couple of false starts, we had a reasonable imitation of the numbers used by the painter.

Well, two numbers. "43." In other words, our newly-painted curb was going to read "14320", not "13420".

This actually happens fairly frequently in real life--those numbers get reversed fairly often. We were just helping it along this time.

I printed out the sheet, and Eli taped the trimmed page over the "3" and the "4". For a quick job, it looked good. Plus, it was almost dark, which would help.

Then, we waited.

We debated whether to call Gloria and tell her that the painter had messed up, but given our history, she would immediately know we were up to something nefarious. That's a good word, nefarious.

After about twenty minutes, we heard the garage door, and shortly after, Gloria walked in. "Mom, can I help you with the groceries?" Eli asked.

"Sure," she said. She put two bags on the counter, then walked outside to join him. I followed.

I picked up two bags and casually said, "So, did the painter finish the curb?"

"He did," Gloria said.

"Well, let me just go take a look," I said.

"Me, too," Eli said.

I walked to the curb and pretended to look for a moment. "How much did we pay for this?" I asked.

"Why?" she asked.

Eli put his hands on his head. "Mom, he painted the WRONG NUMBER!" he said.

"What?" she said. She walked over quickly, but walked out to where we were standing (which was about ten feet way, to help our forgery look better). "Oh, NO!" she said. "He reversed the numbers!" She gave a rueful laugh. "Oh, well," she said, "I guess I'll just--WAIT a MINUTE."

We both tried to look less than guilty as sin.

"Did you two--" Eli burst out laughing before she could get any further. So did I.

Please Note

Significant things are going on around here. No further information can be disclosed at this time.

Friday, February 18, 2011

January NPD

Courtesy of the detectives at NeoGaf (and Michael Pachter, who apparently put out the Wii/PS3 numbers):
360--381,000
Wii--319,000
PS3--267,000

Friday Links!

From Jonathon Arnold, two wonderful spycraft stories. First, The story of Rudolf Abel, the Soviet spy we traded for Gary Powers. One fascinating note: he appealed his conviction on espionage charges all the way to the Supreme Court, where the verdict was affirmed--on a 5-4 vote. Also, and this is an entirely fascinating read, an official F.B.I. site: Famous Cases and Criminals. Oh, and one more, also related to deception, but of the arthropod variety: Madagascar's elusive shell-squatting spider filmed.

This is quite a mesmerizing slide show on Mexico's drug culture (that's a poor description. It would be more accurate to say that these slides portray how deeply embedded into Mexican culture drugs have become).

From Andrew B, and these are clearly a simple masterpiece, it's homemade chocolate Pop-Tarts.

From Ezra Denney, and this is creepily fascinating, it's The Nazi Style Guide.

I have a deep affection for Winnie-the-Pooh (yes, I went from Nazis to Winnie-the-Pooh), and Phil Honeywell sent in a terrific link: the children's dolls that inspired Winnie-the-Pooh. The pictures are quite wonderful.

From Joshua Morris, an answer to why that Toronto Leafs fan kept throwing waffles onto the ice.

From Mark Trinkwalder, and these are both masterpieces, it's Help Save The Endangered Pacific Northwest Tree Octopus and tree octopus exposes (something I'm not going to tell you).

Another octopus link (this one with 100% more actual existence), this one from Jacob Jaby: the mimic octopus.

From Joshua Buergel, an incredible camera that takes video footage at 2,564 frames per second.

From C. Lee, and I didn't know this: Japanese whiskey is developing quite a reputation. Also, and this is quite interesting, it's The Rita Taketsuru Fan Club: The romantic story of a woman still toasted by some as the Scottish mother of Japan's whisky industry.

From Josh Eaves, and this is awesome: Bioluminescence in the Gippsland Lakes.

From Kevin W, it's a life-sized version of Settlers of Catan. Also, the United States Is No Longer the Fattest Country. U.S.A.! U.S.A.!

Here's a fantastic blast from the 2003 past: the first digital sound processor (or DSP, the technology now used in soundbars), and it only cost 40,000!

From Sirius, and it's the snack you didn't even know you wanted: edible giant toasted leafcutter ants.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

This Is Quite A Piece Of Work

Not mine, obviously.

I received an e-mail from Carlos Anllo about the Bulletstorm post last week, and his writing is so absolutely sublime that I'm sharing it with you. It's an entirely remarkable piece of writing.

I learned about the existence of Bulletstorm via your blog. After many years of gaming, done mostly on the PC, lately I have come to grow more and more disenchanted with the gaming industry as a whole and, more broadly, with the role it plays for ever-increasing numbers of people as it becomes one of today's main pastimes.

I appreciate your sobering comment on what constitutes "raw sewage" as opposed to raunchy humor. In fact, reading about the features of this particular game I get a very peculiar feeling. It´s like a temporary and fundamental disconnection with reality that has become increasingly prevalent as modern games aim apparently lower and lower in their quest to attract buyers. It's hard to describe - a kind of irreality, like I'm suddenly teleported to a Philip K. Dick-meets-Idiocracy future where the line between parody, social commentary and reality is effectively blurred.

(Amusingly, this is accentuated by the fact that Bulletstorm actually rewards you for targeting your enemies' privates, which of course is an amazingly clever and awesome feature - if your name is Frito Pendejo)

As a long time gamer who regularly uses computer games as a vehicle to promote creative thinking (using titles mostly from the edutainment and adventure market but also popular strategy heavies like Civ IV, Rome: Total War, etc), and is pushing for their insertion in schools in the form of an extra-curricular course, I find statements like the following, by one Hal Levy from one National Youth Rights Association, to be particularly outlandish:
Finally, Hal Levy of National Youth Rights Association says the game has been “praised for encouraging innovative thinking. Bulletstorm involves developing new moves and dispatching of enemies creatively.”
(Source: Wikipedia)

At times like this it is hard for me to imagine we're not being victims of a huge collective prank. Surely we're being had. Never mind the company line from EA, in its own right belonging to a different world governed by different rules, one where everything's fine and peachy, drilled habits and images conveyed through entertainment media do not have any discernable effect on the minds of consumers (kids and adults alike), and the blame can always be graciously laid somewhere else (And on the broader subjects of youth violence and the role our modern entertainment plays in desensitizing and creating addictive patterns, the knee-jerk, blindly partisan attitude adopted by too many gamers remind me instantly of Bob Dylan's "Who Killed Davey Moore").

But there are times when this general sense of outlandishness hits harder, and then it is Aldous Huxley and his Brave New World that I'm mostly reminded of. You'll recall that the dystopian future this brilliant man envisioned was not one where people lived crushed under the boot of a typical totalitarian regime a lá Orwell. His was a far more terrifiying picture: a future where no books were needed to be burnt, because no books were read anymore, where people would live among pleasure and luxuries, but mentally and emotionally emptied through their addiction to banality, paralized by their need of being perpetually entertained. People without an inner voice or any kind of meaningful concern beyond quenching their immediate thirst for escapism, conditioned irrevocably into a role of audience. An audience that can not even be insulted, for there is nothing left to react to an insult.

How many people, do you reckon, will see the words "Gang Bang" flash across their screens and not feel the least bit like they're being taken by idiots?

I hesitated to bring Huxley up because it can easily be interpreted as a cheap Godwin-like device whenever there's a hint of any doom-and-gloom reading, but the truth is that I'd be interested in what the author of Brave New World Revisited would have to say about our current world and how far we've come (or gone back) in our relation with mass entertainment. Or Bill Waterson, for that matter, now that kids have much, much more than a TV set to claim their time and attention. It's not hard, to me at least, to imagine Calvin's stance on the pervasiveness of stupid content in videogames.

And while my motivation for writing this was sparkled by your comment on the questionable content in Bulletstorm (and does "questionable" retain any meaning when talking about a game that prouds itself in including "blood and gore, intense violence, partial nudity, sexual themes, strong language and use of alcohol"? There's that sense of irreality again), but it would be unfair to single out an instance in what I believe is an undeniable trend of dumbification not unlike the more spread (and largely accepted) affecting the typical Hollywood summer blockbuster. Earlier I suggested a collective prank; the truth is likely to be as mundane but not as funny. A couple of weeks ago there was news of a study that showed a correlation between kids that spent unreasonable amounts of time playing videogames (I think the study specifically mentioned 10+ hours a day) and generally poor performance in school, along with behavioral problems. Even when common sense would dictate that the link unearthed by the study falls within what can be considered an expected outcome, and even when the very same article explicity stated that this only applied to about a 10% of children subjected to such an extreme sensory overload, the "gaming community" reacted with the intensity and vitriol of a huge nerdrage burst against what was perceived as a vile indictment against their hobby. Suddenly, any attempt to put gaming under scrutiny like any other form of media was parsed by the unruly gaming bunch (and, dismayingly, many gaming "journalists") as a giant neon-flashing "Gaming is Evil" sign.

What are we doing if not replicating the same formal vices we so ardently denounce in others? What exactly has been learned here?

The National Software Association treaded predictable ground with their response -- "you have no proof" being the gist of it, thus emulating tobacco companies in their quest for the ultimate unaccountability.

With all these elements considered, and saving the obvious distances, what, then, is what makes the gaming industry and its stakeholders so self-indulgently deserving of the higher moral ground against Fox News, or any other outfit that makes it its business to regularly and brazenly appeal to the lowest common denominator while twisting facts and deflecting responsabilities, all with the help of a handy militia of screaming zealots apparently incapable of stomaching the slightest criticism, founded or not? How is this not a battle of agendas? You tell me.

I still play games every day, but if being a gamer means siding with such bullshit in the name of a pretended superiority built around having the notion of "fun" as the sole parameter of worth in critical entertainment analysis, then I'll be more than happy to renounce to the moniker as it further and justly conforms to the stereotype of gamers as deluded manchildren.

That is an incredibly eloquent, well-voiced piece of writing--it positively sings. I disagree with him in some cases--and so may you--but that makes it no less brilliant.

He also added this in an additional exchange of e-mails:
I hope it's understood that it's all because I love games, some of my fondest memories come from gaming alone or with friends, and these were enormously stimulating experiences on intellectual, emotional and visceral levels, so my frustration of seeing gaming so often reduced to simply the visceral, in the form of a very deliberate, condescending, studio-packaged crassness traded for a quick buck.

What irks me the most, I guess, is this kind of "omerta" pact in the gaming community at large that you're not to criticize games on any kind of ground beyond fun/mechanics, and anyone actually daring to apply some real-world ethics, logic, values or objections to a particular game is quickly shot down on the accusation of being "unable to discern reality from fantasy" among other delicacies, so it seems that we're to avoid this giant taboo of talking about, eh, human stuff in our games, and all too often I feel we're reduced to babbling about ordinary things like "satisfying combat", "large selection of weapons" and the latest technical feats of such or such engine. Which is all good and dandy in general and of course not all entertainment should be necessarily meaningful, but sometimes some lines are crossed that give you pause and you ask yourself "what am I doing?"

I appreciate and respect writing as a craft, and that, my friends, is craft.

Best Buy Deducts

Of course that's a pun. Commence groaning.

Paul M., who has actually been inside the belly of the beast, sent me some information:
I worked at a Best Buy call center for about 8 months a year or so ago (one of the worst 8 month stretches of work in my life) in the online order support department, and I dealt with the authorization charges you are talking about quite a bit. We were given a reason in training for the authorization fee, so I thought I would pass it on to you.

The reason we were given was to prevent overdraft charges from appearing on customer accounts. When debit cards first started becoming common, people apparently had a tendency to pre-order an item and then not keep the money in their accounts to pay for it. So, when the item would ship, their cards would get charged the 15 or 20 dollars, their bank would cover the charge and then charge a 40 dollar service fee for doing it, at which point Best Buy has an irate customer demanding they be compensated for the charge. So, Best Buy keeps an authorization on the account until the order is shipped to make sure this doesn't happen. Of course, the reality is that the pending charge drops off and then gets reauthorized, so people can actually end up getting hit with fees several times, since the bank counts an authorization charge as a withdrawal in most cases.

Now I'll give you my personal opinion about why they utilize the authorization charges. Best Buy is moving more and more towards what are called Special Order Direct items. Basically, on items that are SOD, the items never enter a Best Buy warehouse. If you ordered sku number 9847049 for example (a maytag refrigerator) Best Buy would pass your order on to Maytag and the item would be delivered and installed by Maytag delivery people (or whatever delivery company they hired out to). They used to do this on appliances exclusively, but they are trying to move more and more towards using the SOD system with other products. Pretty much any CD on their website that says it is backordered and isn't brand new is an SOD item, where Best Buy passes the order to another company and they attempt to locate the CD and ship it out. The problem for Best Buy is, this company has no way of determining whether the card that was used to pay for the order has enough of a balance to pay for the item, or even if it is still a valid card. So, they keep an authorization on the card until the item ships to make sure they get their money, since UPS charges them to cancel shipping on an item. The authorization charge is pretty much there to keep from either delivering items that don't get paid for or having to pay UPS to cancel shipping on an item and send it back where it came from.

The website does say that your card will by charged for this authorization, believe me, I had to quote it 10 or 12 times a day. If you click on the Customer Service link, then the Payment and Pricing link under Help Topics, then select Payment Options and scroll down to the bottom of the screen, you see this:
Authorization Process
When you place an order, Best Buy authorizes your credit card to make sure sufficient credit is available. A hold is placed on funds equal to your order total until the order is fulfilled.

Where this really gets fun is when someone orders an expensive item that isn't currently in stock, and it turns out this item will never be available for delivery. At that point, Best Buy will cancel your order, but that authorization charge can take as much as 30 days to fall off the card, depending on which credit card company you are using. We had the ability to get authorizations removed if the purchase was made on a Best Buy card, but anything else was "it comes off when it comes off". Good times.

If you're curious about how to tell what items are SOD, by the way, anything that says something like "From our expanded online assortment" is probably an SOD item. If an item doesn't say "normally leaves our warehouse in 1 business day" for shipping information, it is probably SOD. Likewise all those CDs and movies that say they are back ordered and usually ship within 1-2 weeks.

That seems entirely reasonable--to maximize their online profits, Best Buy wants to have as little physical stock as possible. Anything they can drop-ship makes much more money than something they have to stock. But it's highly unlikely that the inventory systems between companies have an effective knowledge of each other, because that would require a "bridge" be built between the two systems, and that can be difficult and expensive.

There's another possible explanation that could apply at times. Even for items that Best Buy stocks, there's no guarantee that the sales and inventory systems communicate to the degree that the inventory system can tell the sales system that a product won't be in stock for X more months, so the sales system just keeps authorizing funds holds.

It sounds like that would be easy, but I've worked in very big companies before, and the degree of interaction between the sales/accounting/inventory systems is often astonishingly poor. As an example, I worked in a big computer company that had a custom-built order entry system, a third-party inventory system, and a different third-party accounting system. Getting those different systems to communicate took a ton of custom interface work, and even then, the functionality was relatively poor.

As a consumer, though, I don't really care about Best Buy's problem, because it shouldn't be my problem. I just care that Best Buy is being tremendously stupid to their customers.

Gaming Notes

Well, two notes, anyway.

I have no idea if the actual game will have even 1/10 the creativity and impact of this video, but the Dead Island trailer is just absolutely stunning and incredibly personal.

The last trailer I saw that I thought had this kind of impact was for Gears of---oh, wait. Never mind.

I'm still looking forward to the Fender Squier (two weeks--is that possible?), and now, there's an in-depth video (courtesy of Premier Guitar) that shows the mode in extreme detail (thanks Rock Band Aide). Included in the video is an accomplished guitartist playing "Crazy Train."

Even as I bemoan the distressing financials involved with Rock Band at this point and worry about the future of Harmonix, there is no question that Pro Guitar mode is a towering achievement. If Guitar Hero's non-musical approach was David Hume, then Pro Guitar mode is Harmonix's Critque Of Pure Reason.

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

No High Scores

Bill Abner, Todd Brakke, Brandon Cackowski-Schnell, Danielle Riendeau, and loads of other smart people (well, Michael Barnes) have started the No High Scores website, and it's quite snappy. Have a look if you value your eternal soul (or something like that--I'm never quite sure how to encourage people to check something out).

The Gazer

Matt Kreuch (one of the Esteemed Brothers Of Dubious Quality) sent me a link a few weeks ago, and it's so absolutely ridiculous and magnificent that I couldn't even begin to comprehend what I needed to write as framing.

Well, I'll try. The subject is Braco The Gazer.

Seriously, you need to watch the short video in the link. It's like Festivus, Halloween, Hanukkah, and Christmas all rolled into one.

Braco The Gazer is a fellow with Fabio hair who gazes. He doesn't speak. He stands in the front of the room, touches you with his friendly gaze, and heals you (of anything, apparently).

That will be eight dollars, please.

How many people can he heal at a time? According to his website, up to 10,000 a day in Europe.

In this case, I can't say anything more ridiculous than the basic information, because it's already so ridiculous that it can't be satirized. It's a supersaturated solution of comedy, and nothing more will fit.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The New Day

Chris Kohler wrote a terrific piece at Game|Life titled As Mobile Games Rise, Studios Fear For Blockbusters' Future. The lead:
Blockbuster videogame heroes have tamed the Wild West, repelled alien invasions and driven the Nazis from Normandy. But can they fight off Angry Birds?

It's an excellent article and thoughtful article, but allow me to take it one step further: it's not just blockbusters.

I've been thinking about this for the last few months--in particular, since game prices for the Nintendo 3DS were announced (between $39.99 and $49.95).

How is that going to work, exactly?

Even with a wonderful, beautiful 3D world in front of us, how many games will sell at those prices when there are a kajillion iPhone and Android games for $4.99 and less? Nintendo games will, but I suspect almost everyone else is out of luck.

From the top-down, the middle tier has been killed by big software companies all pursuing nearly identical, "AAA only strategies." From the bottom up, the middle tier has been killed by both under $5 mobile games market and indie developers smart enough to price their brilliant, innovative games at $15 or less.

MMO games? WOW can charge a subscription. Everything else better be "freemium" if it wants to have a chance to survive.

Look, this is a sea change in the gaming market, and people aren't talking about it nearly enough. One or (at most) two companies are going to succeed with the AAA strategy, where every game costs a fortune to develop and market and has to sell several million copies to break even.

Everyone else pursuing that strategy will fail.

One of my closest friends works for a premier gaming company, and he is a smart, smart fellow. Last year, we had a long talk and he said, "We have to go to a different model, and there are no models that work."

Bang.

Now, it's time for a ridiculous metaphor.

These huge gaming companies are like giant, predatory dinosaurs in a world where all the prey that can sustain them has become endangered. They're not nearly fast or agile enough to catch what remains, because smaller predators will easily outhunt them in the new ecosystem.

It's not that all their large prey are extinct--there are still a few big, tasty creatures wandering around--but there aren't nearly enough left to sustain the giants.

What's going to happen, then?

They're going to die.

Here's the irony. As some of these huge companies near death, they'll be bought--by other huge companies. I mean, it's a meal, right? So they'll acquire the one or two big franchises to add to their stable, thus furthering the same approach that guarantees their demise.

As an example, let's look at one of the few companies still making money with this strategy: Activision. In February of last year, they announced their release schedule for the rest of 2010. Take a look:
* New Bakugan
* Blur
* How to Train Your Dragon
* New Call of Duty
* DJ Hero 2
* New Guitar Hero
* New James Bond
* Shrek Forever After
* Singularity
* New Spider-Man
* StarCraft II
* Tony Hawk: RIDE Sequel
* Transformers: War For Cybertron
* True Crime
* World of Warcraft: Cataclysm

Holy shit, look at that list. Guitar Hero--dead. DJ Hero--dead. Tony Hawk--dead. True Crime--dead. Blur--dead. Singularity--dead. The only functioning limbs left on Activision are Blizzard and Call Of Duty. Activision is in danger of becoming a singularity. And they're the most successful company using the "AAA only" strategy.

It's funny, but the brilliant indie developers like Tarn Adams, Vic Davis, and Chris Park (and Notch, obviously) are incredibly well-positioned here. Their games don't cost much to make, they don't have to sell three million copies, and the cost control allows them to take chances. These guys can afford to fail, and they'll still survive (yes, Arcen almost tanked after Tidalis, but they didn't).

[an aside: yes, Vic might have to adjust his pricing structure, but he's much smarter than almost all of us, and I'm sure he'll find a way that works.]

Maybe it's not even just the brilliant developers. Anyone who can make a reasonably entertaining, non-buggy game for $10 or less has entered their golden era.

Is that a good thing for us? Hell, yes. What's going to be more interesting, a bunch of retread AAA franchises in their fifth (of fiftieth) iteration or thousands of games under $10 to choose from? This new model almost entirely democratizes game development and production, and that is a very, very good thing.

If thousands and thousands of people are making games, then it's entirely unimportant if 99% of them are absolute garbage. That top 1% will still consist of plenty of games for us to play, and they'll be great.

Onward, into the new day.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Best Buy WTH?

As you know, I pre-ordered the Fender Squier Rock Band 3 guitar/controller in the middle of December. With shipping, the price was over $320.

This item isn't scheduled to ship until March 1, and that's been known since the first date of the pre-orders.

In spite of that, Best Buy has been pinging my credit card with a $320 pending transaction every single week since then. The charge is pending, the funds are held for 3-4 days, and then the transaction drops off. A few days later, it's back on again.

Seriously, WTF?

Many people (including myself) have credit cards that are a combo debit/credit card, and when I charge something, it's deducted directly from my bank account. So Best Buy has basically frozen $320+ of the money in my bank account for months.

It's incredible, really, and when I asked them why, they gave the most fumblebumble answer imaginable. There's no way for them to explain why they're doing it without falling down in a squishy, disjointed mass.

This is one of the reasons I dislike exclusives so much. If I want the Squier, I have a gun to my head that reads "BEST BUY" on the barrel.

Frozen Synapse

If you remember, Frozen Synapse was the wonderfully stylish indie game that released a multiplayer version seemingly eons ago. Well, they've circled back around with single-player, and Rock, Paper, Shotgun (who is apparently involved in every post today) has an excellent interview: Defrosting Frozen Synapse.

Crysis 2

In case you missed it, here's what happened last week (thanks, RPS):
...a developer build of Crysis 2 containing the full game, multiplayer and the master key for the online authentication has been leaked, and is currently freely available from all sorts of astonishingly illegal websites.

That, in itself, is not something I would normally write about. However, I received an e-mail from a source who wishes to remain anonymous (for obvious reasons), and here's what they said:
They have no internal security. Just about any employee could have leaked that build, and they (the Yerlis) aren't exactly diplomatic about firing people. They should feel lucky that the source didn't leak, as that would be only a little bit more difficult to get out of the building.

That's certainly more interesting.

The source is someone who has e-mailed for years, and I have no reason to doubt their sincerity.

Bonbons for Bozo

Well, Valentine's Day weekend has kicked my ass.

The short version:
--Eli 9.6 has had the "B" strain of the flu since Thursday. 103 fever on Saturday, 102 on Saturday. He's on the mend today, but man, it's been miserable.
--Gloria's car wouldn't start on Saturday.
--Gloria's computer had a scary looking virus warning on it on Saturday.
--the dishwasher stopped working.
--the phone isn't working.
--I tweaked the hell out of my left knee today while skating.

"Gloria" items have been resolved, but everything else continues to seep sulfurous emissions.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Friday Links!

Let's go!

From Matt Sakey, a link to a documentary in progress as the Chernobyl disaster nears it's 25th anniversary: The Long Shadow of Chernobyl.

We have several excellent links from last week's crazy weather. First, from Skip Key, a video: Snowpocalypse 2011 from space!. Also, from Keith Schleicher, one phenomal image: The blizzard as seen from outer space. Then Jonathan Arnold sent in a video that is quite remarkable: Chicago cars snowbound. One more, and it's from Robert McMillon: Frozen Bubbles.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a spectacular mash-up: Carl Sagan Meets Halo. I have a theory that you could combine a voiceover from the Pale Blue Dot monologue with almost anything and it would be compelling.

This is a far more serious article than usually contained in these pages, but it's an absolutely great read: The Apostate: Paul Haggis vs. the Church of Scientology.

From Greg B, and this is fantastic: Found at Last: A Tape of the First Super Bowl. Believe it or not, even though I was only five and a half, I remember that game well. It was broadcast on both CBS and NBC, and I remember trying to decide which channel to watch. And I remember Fred "The Hammer" Williamson getting hammered himself.

I know, it's insane to remember sports-related details at that age.

From Mr. Fritz, a link that is totally spectacular: skiing on 40-foot waves. Seriously, this video will blow your mind.

From Loyd Case, a terrific send-up from 1946: The Turbo Encabulator.

Susan Arendt wrote an article for The Escapist titled My Favorite Mistake, in which she fondly recalls the insanely expensive 3DO. However, the 3DO wasn't a mistake, and I can prove that in just three words: Super Wing Commander.

From Francis Cermak, and these ads certainly deserve the title, it's 25 Horribly Sexist Vintage Ads.

Here's a terrific link from Brian Witte: Secrets of Antarctica's fossilised forests.

From Sirius, a fascinating article about oobleck: Dr. Seussian Mystery Fluid Could Have Saved Top Kill.

A quarterback for Connecticut released a football "trick shot" video, and it's pretty amazing.

From Glen Haag, the answer to one of life's great mysteries: Solved: The Mystery of Ferris Bueller’s Cubs Game.

From Tim Jones, a music video made entirely inside Little Big Planet 2 (and the video is damned good, too).

Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Big Reveal And The Game Trick

Before I tell the story of Eli 9.6 and The Game Trick, here's a quick skating update of my own.

Much to my surprise, it seems to be going well. I can (awkwardly) do crossovers in both directions, although my "marching sideways along the wall" skill has become quite good, as a precursor to the real thing. I'm also doing backward swizzles--again, very awkwardly--up to five at a time.

The first week, there were no positive moments. It was just scary. Now, though, I get all kinds of positive reinforcement every day, and I can feel myself improving. Plus, my back hurts much less, and I was able to stay out for 45 minutes today, which is much better (I can improve even faster when I can stay out longer).

The Big Reveal came last week, and I would have written about it immediately, but it wasn't a big moment, just a very nice one. Eli had been bothered by my mysterious disappearances on Thursday night, so much so that it was very upsetting to him. I should have thought about this beforehand, because I always tell him everything, so keeping a secret was a complete breach of protocol, but I thought he would be okay with not knowing for a few weeks.

As it turns out, I was incorrect.

So last week, on our way home, I said, "Hey, are you still upset about not knowing where I'm going on Thursdays?"

"Yes," he said. "I don't like it at all."

I pulled into a parking lot. "Well, it's a surprise for you, but I understand if not knowing where I am bothers you," I said. "And even though the surprise is worth waiting for, if you need to know what it is, then you can take my keys and look in the trunk. You don't have to, but you can."

He was quiet for a few seconds. "I'd like to wait," he said, "but it has really been bothering me." He took the keys from my hand, then opened the door and walked around to the back. I got out of the car and walked back with him.

"Open the trunk," I said, and he did. What he saw was a black equipment bag. "Hey, that's my old bag," he said.

"That's right," I said. "Go ahead and open it."

He unzipped the bag and pulled back the flap, then just stared. My skates were on top, and it was easy to see my lemon yellow helmet on the side. A small grin started on his face, then grew larger. He looked up at me and was grinning from ear to ear. "You're learning how to skate," he said.

"I am," I said, "and I'm working very, very hard."

He hugged me. "I can't believe it," he said. "And I know you'll be able to do it."

We actually skated together (Gloria, too) last Friday, on the snow day, and I skated as well as I could, which meant I was awful. It was good for him to see me that way, though, because I'm improving quickly, and the next time we go together, I will be much better.

Now, on to The Game Trick.

Eli 9.6s House team has split into three separate teams, and they're playing each other in league games. His team was scheduled to play the middle game of three (the third game was younger kids in a separate group) games on Saturday. Eli was playing in goal, and he was bummed out that he wasn't going to play as a defenseman. "Hey, let's just show up before the first game," I said. "One of those teams will probably need a sub. We'll take both bags of gear, and you'll probably get to play."

"YES!" he said.

So we showed up before the first game, they did need a sub, and he played the first game as a defenseman. He played well, but the team lost.

In the second game, with him in goal, his teammates totally and entirely abandoned the idea of defenseman. Instead, they went with a radical and forward-thinking (literally) "five forwards" concept, and in the first half of the first period, there were eight (EIGHT!) clear breakaways bearing down on him.

In short order, he gave up five goals.

This was emotionally brutal, obviously. It looked like the other team could easily score fifteen goals, because no one on his team was playing any defense at all.

It seemed like there was nothing anyone could do.

Then, the best player on the other team (who'd already scored twice) came in on a breakaway, skated around the net, and tried to stuff the puck in on the other side. Eli, who had been screened, hadn't been able to reach the post, but he dove and extended his stick across the goal line.

Door closed.

It was the greatest save I'd ever seen him make, just totally spectacular, and once he did that, he because The Great Wall. He made save after crazy save, seventeen in a row. Parents don't pound on the glass much at this age, at least not down here. But with every save, it seemed like someone else would pound on the glass, and it progressively got louder and louder. In the third period, every time he made a save, it was deafening.

Incredibly, the momentum turned, and his sad-sack team started coming back, all the way to 5-5 with a few minutes left in the third period.

It would have been the greatest tie ever, but it wasn't to be. There was one last breakaway, and Eli stopped the initial shot, but the rebound got past him. His team wound up losing 6-5--a spectacular result, all things considered, but still a disappointing one.

Man, I was so proud of him.

"I bet the Mites need another goalie," he said as he came off the ice. That was the third game with the younger kids playing 1/2 ice games. They did, so he stayed and played goalie for them, too.

When the game ended, he skated off and raised his arms when he saw me. He raised his helmet, took out his mouthpiece, and said, "Three games! The game trick!"

We all went to dinner together, and while we were waiting for our food, I said, "So, are you actually tired for once?"

"Oh, I'm EXHAUSTED," he said.

"So you won't want to do that again?" I asked.

"OF COURSE I do," he said.

A Note On Congratulations

I didn't have a problem with "drilldo." That's actually mildly clever, seventh-grader humor.

Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Guitar Hero R.I.P.

I had no particular affection for Guitar Hero after the series split from Harmonix, but this is still a sad note:
...due to continued declines in the music genre, the company will disband Activision Publishing's Guitar Hero business unit and discontinue development on its Guitar Hero game for 2011.

Done.

That was from Activision's earnings release today. This shouldn't be a surprise, because Kotick definitely has a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) management style when it comes to franchises on life support. Thing is, though, he's going to wind up with only two games: Modern War and Fantasy War, so to speak.

All those franchises he nurtured to replace the ailing ones? There aren't any.

I've said this before (though not exactly), but Kotick isn't growing an orchard. He's drilling a well.

[Update: Chris Kohler has additional context here, including the first month sales figures for Guitar Hero: Warriors of Rock, which were a spectacularly dismal 86,000 copies.]

Congratulations (Update)

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has a post today titled Churnalism: Fox News' Selective Quoting, and it's well worth reading.

Bulletstorm (Congratulations to People Can Fly, Epic, And EA)

Sodomy
Fellatio
Cunnilingus
Pederasty

Father, why do these words sound so nasty?

--Hair, 1967

Seriously, that doesn't even fit the post properly, but it has to be one of my favorite openings ever.

Cutting to the chase, Bullestorm is a profane and offensive game. I don't mean incidentally--from everything I can gather, "profane and offensive" is an important feature.

In particular, sexual "humor" abounds. A melee weapon is called a "drilldo." Killing multiple enemies in a particular way is a "gang bang" (and you see those words on the screen).

Okay, let's stop there for a minute. Gang bang?

Even for a game rated "M", that's ridiculous. That's not humor, that's raw sewage. Black comedy has a long and vital tradition, but this in no ways is black comedy, and it in no way serves the purpose of black comedy. It's just juvenile.

Let's make a deal. I won't be offended by seeing "GANG BANG" on the screen if there's also a head shot of the person who green-lighted that idea with the words "I AM A GIGANTIC DOUCHEBAG" floating above his face.

That seems fair.

Of course, acting like idiots as a way to sell a game has drawn the attention of FOX News, that bastion of impartial, precise reporting. Their probing (that's a pun, obviously) report was titled Is Bulletstorm the Worst Video Game in the World?, and here is an epic excerpt:
Carol Lieberman, a psychologist and book author, told FoxNews.com that sexual situations and acts in video games -- highlighted so well in Bulletstorm -- have led to real-world sexual violence.

“The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in video games,” she said.

Uh-oh. Looks like some village is missing an idiot.

Her assertion (and I'm sure that's what she pulled it out of) is so utterly ridiculous on so many levels that it's not even worth addressing. It's so entirely lacking in any even vagely factual basis that [insert your own FOX News joke HERE].

Surely, though, she must be an expert or something. I mean, she's a book author, right? So let's head over to Amazon and see what she's written. Oh, here's a list of titles:
Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets
Bad Boys: Why We Love Them, How to Live with Them, and When to Leave Them

Awesome! Clearly, she's an expert. Let's take a look at the product description of one of these penetrating tomes:
Why do millions of smart, savvy, successful men fall helplessly in love with women who are destined to break their hearts? Who are these "Bad Girls," poised to pounce o the next nice guy just waiting to become their prey? And how can good girls learn to become man-magnets without becoming 'bad'?

Bad Girls: Why Men Love Them & How Good Girls Can Learn Their Secrets by Dr. Carole Lieberman is a no-holds barred, provocative look at the dangerous damsels who steal the hearts of men everywhere. They take what they want---money, sex, drugs, or other objects of desire---and leave these unsuspecting men in the dust.

Well, that makes perfect sense. In StupidTown.

That's where Ms. Lieberman and the people who developed Bulletstorm should settle down together, because they clearly are a perfect match for each other.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A Valley Without Wind

Chris Park (Arcen Games), who developed the quite amazing AI Wars: Fleet Command, is working on a new project titled "A Valley Without Wind." The always indispensable Rock, Paper, Shotgun, has an interview with Park about the game, and it sounds fascinating:
AVWW is an adventure game with a focus on exploration and discovery in huge, procedural 2D worlds. There are a few JRPG inspirations here and there, such as having concepts like stats and levels, but in gameplay it’s all action-adventure. There’s a fair emphasis on traps and magic and monster avoidance, though — it’s not a hack and slash, and while combat is quite important it’s definitely secondary to exploration.

Here's a bit more:
Your first character, who is selected from a small stable of randomly-generated characters when you start a new world, is just one of many low-level survivors in the world. The character is alone, surrounded by monsters like everyone else, and just kind of scraping by. This has been just the way of life for most characters in the world for as long as they can remember, for generations.

You the player are put in charge of this character’s well being. What will you do? You can certainly just continue scavenging, and hanging around the starting area. But as you explore around you’ll build some basic traps and weapons, and you’ll find a few caches of small odds and ends. Before too long, you’ll inevitably meet another NPC of some sort, and can start talking to them to make use of their crafting abilities.

DOUBLE IN.

The Breaking (Price) Point

Amazon has 128 (8 16-packs) Frosted Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pop-Tarts on sale for $24.55.

Now I clearly have no NEED for 128 Pop-Tarts, even though I've easily eaten several thousand in my lifetime, but when I can get 5 for less than $1, I may be legally obligated to buy them.

Here's your link from Slickdeals -- just scroll down (excellent site, btw).

Humor From The GWN

Rob Cigan sent me this "Official Canadian Temperature Conversion" chart, which is reproduced here for your pleasure. Oh, by the way, remember when I said the wreck to driver ration would be roughly 1-1 in Austin on Friday? 300 wrecks.

Official Canadian Temperature Conversion Chart
50 F/10 C Californians shiver uncontrollably; Canadians plant gardens
35 F/2 C  Italian cars will not start; Canadians drive with windows down
32 F/0 C  American water freezes; Canadian water melts
0 F/ -18 C New York City landlords finally turn on the heat; Canadians have the last cookout
-60 F/-51 C Santa Claus abandons the North Pole; Canadian Girl Guides sell cookies door to door
-109 F/-78 C Carbon dioxide freezes into dry ice; Canadians pull down their earflaps
-173 F/-114 C Ethyl alcohol freezes; Canadians get frustrated when they cannot thaw the keg
-459.67 F/-273 C absolute zero; all atomic motion stops; Canadians say “cold enough for ya, eh?”
-500 F/-295 C Hell freezes over; Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup

Hybir Backup

DQ reader Rasch Young, who created Hybir Backup (an excellent online backup solution, which can now be used with your own storage as well), is offering a special deal for DQ readers. If you use the promo code "DQ", in addition to the 14-day free trial, you get 50% off standard pricing.

Rasch also sent in this story during last week's snowpocalypse posts:
Being originally from Minnesota, I also have plenty of cold stories. Many years ago, I came out of class at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It was so cold outside that when I reached my 4Runner, I took the time to check that the anti-freeze hadn't frozen solid. It hadn't--it was just slush. The foam of the seats felt solid like cement. My car started just fine, and as I drove away I felt a recurring thump, like a flat tire. I got out of the car, and to my surprise, I didn't have a flat. What I did have, though, were flat spots frozen in my tires.

Monday, February 07, 2011

The Super Bowl

It was fifteen minutes before Super Bowl kickoff.

Eli 9.6 was coming down the stairs after his shower, dressed in his Troy Polamolu jersey.

I was standing at the bottom of the stairs with a flashlight. Two stuffed snakes had been knotted together to make a red velvet rope, which was attached to the stairs, blocking his entrance to the living room. I turned on the flashlight, shining it on Eli's face.

"Halt, please, sir," I said. He started laughing. "I can't let you in to the exclusive living room seating area unless you have a ticket.

"Whaaaat?" Eli said, laughing. Then he started running up the stairs. "Just wait a minute!" Shortly, he came bounding back down the stairs. "Here!" he said triumphantly, handing me this:


I looked at the ticket carefully, scanning it with the beam of the flashlight. "Sir, I'm sorry, but this obviously not a real Super Bowl ticket," I said.

"What?" he asked. "What's wrong?"

"For one, 'ticket' is misspelled," I said. "Egregiously, I might add. "Second, this was clearly hand-written. I'm sorry, but I'm afraid you can't enter the super exclusive seating area unless you're one of the ultra V.I.P.s, and only one name is left on that list."

Behind me, taped to the counter, was Eli's name on a blue sheet of paper.

"Could you tell me your name, sir?"

By this time, Eli was laughing so hard that he could barely talk, but he managed to get out his name.

"Really?" I said, shining the flashlight on the sign, which made him laugh even harder. "I apologize, sir. I have your ticket right here," I said, handing him this:


Of course it was laminated.

"Welcome to the Super Bowl, sir," I said, opening up the velvet rope. "Oh, I see that you're a Steeler's fan. Please accept this Terrible Towel," I said, handing him his own licensed fan towel (that was Brian Pilnick's idea). "Enjoy the game."

Eli went to the couch, found his seat, and sat down, still laughing. "Mom, that was ridiculous," he said. "Ridiculously AWESOME!"

At some point during the game, Gloria also remembered that she had a black wig from last Halloween, and it made Eli's jersey complete:


A good time was had by all, until the end, at least.

Friday, February 04, 2011

Here You Go


We had 3/4 of an inch of snow last night. All those footprints are from Eli 9.6

If you're from "up north" and want to see something funny, check out the list of closures. The entire city has basically shut down for the day.

Friday Links!

I'm doing this on Thursday night, just waiting for the snow to start falling.

First off, a note from Michael M. about the "train laying its own track" link last week:
That's not really a "train." It's just a track-laying machine. Part of the process being seen is the replacement of track ties. A train wouldn't be able to lay its own tracks. The ballast (all the rocks that the ties are sunk into) needs to be laid down first.

Here's a link that gives a small overview of some of the equipment out there:
How To Build Modern Railroad Track.

Michael had a middle paragraph where he said some very funny things about working for a railroad company, but I'm not sure he wanted them used, so I'm leaving them out. Hopefully, he'll let me know that it's okay and I'll use them next week.

Next, from Jonathan Arnold, and this is completely stunning: Google Art Project.

From Josh Eaves, and this helps you see how crazy the weather has been: NASA Satellites Capture Data on Monster Winter Storm Affecting 30 States.

Here's one more weather map, this one from Robert Bruce, and it gives you a thorough look at current temperatues all across the U.S. and Canada.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is fascinating, the discovery of the "mechanism that controls the internal 24-hour clock of all forms of life", and it's not where you'd expect. Also, and this is short but very interesting, it's Scale (in a planetary sense).

From Francis Cermak, China builds a jet-propelled water cannon. I don't really want to think about what it might be used for.

From Sirius, and this is entirely awesome, it's Night Of The Living Dead--in 1080P. There's also an informative commentary about its legendary status and how shocking it was for its time. Next, a hilarious "documentary" akin to "Reefer Madness", only this time, it's "Sex Madness" (from 1938). Then it's Meet Titanoceratops, the Hornier Ancestor of Triceratops.

From George Paci, and this is beautiful, it's Swirly Nautilus Shell House.

Next, from Sebastian Morgan-Lynch, an amazing link to an artist who drew an illustration for every single page of "Moby Dick". And the illustrations are absolutely terrific, too.

From Kevin W, and this made me laugh out loud from it's sheer outrageousness, it's Hunting hydrogen balloons with a weaponized tricopter.

From Shane Courtrille, a very informative article about color and how it's perceived: How Color Vision Actually Works.

Wait, that's not snow I'm hearing: it's ICE.

From Dib O, and this is fascinating, it's Cracking the Scratch Lottery Code.

Thursday, February 03, 2011

News Of Other Hells Freezing Over: Snowpocalypse 2011

The low this morning was 20F, and snow is supposed to start about 5 p.m.

WTF? Let me rephrase that: TFW?

Accumulations of 1" to 3" are expected. 3" in central Texas is blizzard territory. Once it starts snowing, the ratio of drivers to wrecks is expected to be a ratio of roughly 1-1.

If it really does snow that much, the entire city will shut down. Schools will close. Both Eli 9.6 and I are looking forward to that.

Here's something even more bizarre. There's a 30% chance of snow in LAREDO (which is right on the Mexican border). It did snow 2 inches in Laredo on Christmas in 2004, but other than that, I doubt that it's snowed there in the last 40 years. Crazy.

Plus, there's a 50% chance of snow in Corpus Christi (where I grew up). It snowed about .000001 of an inch when I was in sixth grade, but for the eighteen years I lived there, that was it.

Hell Really HAS Frozen Over

Amusingly, I went down a rabbit hole for the last 90 minutes that doesn't seem to actually exist.

What started me digging was a Joystiq post that said this:
Despite a small 6% dip in quarterly sales year-over-year, "due to a decrease in sales in the game business resulting primarily from unfavorable foreign exchange rates," Sony's Networked Products & Services group, which houses its PlayStation brand, posted an impressive ¥45.7 billion (rougly $564 million) in profits for the third quarter period, ended December 31, an impressive 135% boost over the prior-year period.

Wait, WHAT? Over HALF A BILLION dollars in profits? When PS3 sales have been flat for the last two quarters compared to last year, and software sales are up 30%?

That started me building a spreadsheet with sales information for all hardware and software sales for Sony gaming devices and software since the quarter the PS3 launched.

That took a while.

Then, because it just didn't add up, I started trying to come up with some sort of equation (excluding this quarter) that could roughly predict the results of the gaming division (and now, the Networked Products and Services division). That's still in process, but man, it's slow going.

In Q3 of FY2009, Sony reported $211 million of operating income from the NPS division, "primarily due to higher VAIO PC sales." They also noted that "despite a decrease in PS2 hardware and software unit sales, and PSP hardware unit sales, profitability was relatively unchanged mainly due to an improvement in the cost of PS3 hardware."

Okay, so operating income went from $211 million in the same quarter last year to $564 million this year. How do hardware and software sales for the gaming division compare to last year?
PS2 Hardware: 0%
PS2 Software: -52.68%
PSP Hardware: -14.29%
PSP Software: +10.00%
PS3 Hardware: -3.08%
PS3 Software: +21.01%

Hmm. So operating income is over $300 million higher compared to last year? And those are the comparison numbers?

Could it be PCs? They're in NPS as well. There were 2.7 million PCs sold in the quarter, compared to 2.3 million last year. Again, though, that's worth over $300 million in increased profit?

In combination, those numbers are pretty baffling.

Okay, here's Sony's official verbiage:
Operating income increased 26.3 billion yen year-on-year to 45.7 billion yen (564 million U.S. dollars). This was mainly due to a significant improvement in the cost of sales ratio coupled with an increase in gross profit from higher sales, partially offset by unfavorable foreign exchange rates. The game business benefited from significant cost reductions of PlayStation®3 (“PS3”) hardware and higher unit sales of PS3 software, which favorably impacted the change in segment operating results (excluding restructuring charges).

Hey, if the PS3 costs $50 less to make than last year, that might put them in the ballpark. And if the gaming division really accounted for the majority of that operating income, good for them. It certainly hasn't been a smooth road, so those numbers probably feel doubly sweet.

DQ Special Earnings Analyst Skip Key will hopefully weigh in on this later.

Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Well, This Sucks

The White Stripes would like to announce that today, February 2nd, 2011, their band has officially ended and will make no further new recordings or perform live.

He's Had More Than A Taste

A bit of drollery from Marcel Beaudry that I liked very much:
Dear Sir,
By no means do I wish to discount your discomfort (I'm sure there must be a pun there somehow). After all, CHOOSING to live in Texas, well I just wouldn't of anticipated a 32F temp and would be quite disgruntled by it... but just so you know, where I stand it only gets worse the farther North you go here in the Great White North, so I would like to remind you that you have CHOSEN WELL.

It would be my pleasure to invite you for a great big mouthful of cold versus what you experienced, a mere "taste" indeed (perhaps a more of a flick of the tongue at an ice cream treat...). Yesterday morning it was a "natural" (that's what we call it before the wind chill) -36.8 Celsius (I believe that's -32F). Not bad, we normally hit -40C for a week or so this time of year by all reckonin'. Considering that wind chill idea, I believe they were banting around -46C. My dog wouldn't go pee outside...

Today you could FEEL the warmth at -26C... it was freaking Spring!

I am now questioning MY CHOICE to be HERE.
Sincerely,
Marcel
50° 27' 0" N / 104° 37' 0" W  <--- not really even a nice place to
visit when it's NICE out

OnLive

Remember how I said a few weeks back that OnLive was suddenly doing things right? Here's another example:
OnLive's PlayPack plan, which offers unlimited access to a selection of titles on the service for $10 a month, has officially launched.

It's not a huge selection of games, but there's a solid amount of goodness, including Kings Bounty: Armored Princess. And for someone who doesn't want to dick around with a gaming PC, it's a reasonable option.

I also know people who have a philosophical objection to DRM, and won't buy anything that uses DRM. For those people, this would be a viable way to still play recent games.

A Taste Of The Great White North

All of you guys who are getting absolutely hammered by snow in the Northeast will enjoy this.

For once, winter is kicking the shit out of us, in a relative sense.

This morning was the coldest temperature in twenty years. Fifteen degrees (Fahrenheit). It's only 21F right now, so the forecast high of 32F is just a pleasant fiction (or damnable lie, depending on  at this point.

Still, though, big deal, right? That's what I thought, until Eli 9.6 came in this morning at 6:40, shined a flashlight beam on me, and said, "Dad, power's out."

Delightful.

The rest of the state is so cold, and so much power is being consumed, that some emergency board of something or other declared that we would have rolling blackouts to help stabilize the power grid.

"Rolling blackouts" is a misnomer, really, because what it really means is "your power goes off at random." We had three blackouts this morning, each one for over 45 minutes.

15F is no big deal when the electricity is flowing. With no power, though, that shit goes up to an entirely new level.

So when the third blackout hit, after I stopped cursing due to exhaustion, I just went to the rink early. Skated really poorly, but I got my work in, and it was still warmer than being outside.

Ironically, I bought winter clothing just to wear when I sat in the rink for Eli's hockey practice, and today, I'm wearing most of it. Without that, I'd have nothing but a medium-weight coat to wear.

Even so, though, I'm cold. I don't think I understood until today that a wind chill of 20F may be cold, but a wind chill of 0F is another thing entirely. I felt like I was spreadeagled nude on an ice block, and believe me, that image is every bit as disturbing to me as it is to you.

It's supposed to be 15F again tonight, with more blackouts, so I did what any reasonable person would do when the power came back on: plugged all my shit in to charge it up. Yes, I'm officially the worst person in the world for doing that, but my DSi and netbook have to be charged for me to survive.

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

The Sony NGP

Even though there doesn't seem to be anything of note happening with consoles this year, the handheld market is now red hot, given the impending launch of the 3DS and the announcement last week of the Sony NGP.

If you'd like the basics, Chris Kohler's article is here. For discussion, please continue reading.

First off, and it's hard to overestimate this: the NGP, technically, is a beast. An OLED screen, 960x544 resolution (16:9 aspect ratio), and a five inch screen are all first-rate specs. Unlike the PS3, which was essentially no more powerful than a 360, the NGP is massively more powerful than the 3DS. Plus, the underside of the unit is touch-sensitive. Hell, I wouldn't be surprised if it was beamed from the future.

Sure, specs aren't the only thing that matters, but they play a big part in determining how ambitious developers can be with a system. Breakthrough technology, as contained in the autostereoscopic 3D technology of the 3DS, also help define a developer's ambition.

So there are two ways to go: technical beast (NGP), or breakthrough tech (3DS). Both approaches can work, and two have one device with each approach is the best of both worlds. In other words, given what we know about the 3DS, the NGP seems to be an almost-ideal complement.

The NGP won't just be competing with the 3DS, though. Mobile devices now have powerful specs as well, and high-resolution screens. I have a Samsung Fascinate with a 4", AMOLED screen and 800x480 resolution. It is, in a word, spectacular.

However, mobile devices have their own limitations when it comes to gaming. Since all games are downloads, there's a common-sense limit to the size of the programs. The need for touchscreen controls can also limit the types or quality of certain game genres. So mobile devices, at least at this point, seem far better suited to the "crash and dash" kind of games that you can play for 5-10 minutes at a time. There are, obviously, exceptions--I spent hours playing Game Dev Story last month--but mobile devices aren't as versatile as a gaming platform as dedicated devices.

They are, however, staggeringly popular, so the NGP, to be well-positioned against the competition, needs to not only outperform the dedicated competition, but also be capable versus mobile devices that have a new generation of hardware seemingly every year. So if they want the NGP to be viable for five years, they are essentially forced to overspec the hardware.

That can cause a problem, and we'll discuss that later.

Now, what is Sony doing in response to wildly growing popularity of the mobile phone gaming market? Interestingly, they're also introducing a software development environment what will run on Android as well as the NGP.

That's a terrific idea with zero downside, seemingly.

The NGP will also sport a 3G antenna, although it appears that not all models will include 3G connectivity, and there's no word on whether a data plan will be required.

With the 3G antenna, it's a logical question to ask whether there will be an NGP-phone, and clearly, the answer is "yes", although Sony has been coy when asked the question.

So is the NGP viable as a mass-market phone? Well, here's where we get to some of the potential issues with this system. First off, it's a behemoth. It's screen is almost 1" larger diagonally than the Droid X, and I can't imagine anything larger than a Droid X fitting in anyone's pocket. Here, I found three promotional shots of the NGP that should give you an idea of its size. Take a look and form your own conclusions:

(original image credit Checkshakes.com)

(original image credit AmazingOnly.com)

(original image credit AmazingOnly.com)

Damn, that's big (thanks to Dave Loomis for the entertaining Photoshop work).

I don't think the size will be a problem for a non-phone NGP, but it's going to be very difficult to market as a phone.

Second possible problem: heat. There is a ton of power packed into this system, and I expect it to get hot--very hot--at least in the first generation. That may not be a problem, if it doesn't increase system failures, but it's worth keeping in mind.

Third, and I think given Sony's recent history, this is most important: the price, which wasn't announced. After the pricing fiasco that was the PS3 launch, the one thing Sony absolutely HAD to do was establish that the NGP was going to be affordable. Instead, Sony is using highly similar language to how they described the PS3 pricing. Jack Tretton gave an interview to Engadget where he said that the NGP pricing would be "aspirational."

See, that's a bad word to use. He means "aspirational" in the "aspire to own" sense, but when he says that, I immediately think of aspiration of vomit. Sony used "aspirational" pricing for the PS3, and that's why the gaming segment hasn't had a profitable quarter in over five years. So after that kind of financial ass-kicking, you'd think that Sony would avoid doing the same thing all over again.

Incredibly, though, that scenario is definitely in play. I believe the most likely launch price for the NGP is in the $349-$399 range, and that's going to be a problem. Anything over $399 will be an epic fail, and even $399 will be very, very shaky.

It's not that the NGP isn't a beast. It certainly is, and it certainly has far more raw power than the 3DS. But the PSP was far more powerful than the DS, and we all know how that turned out.

Personally, I'm very pleased with this announcement. I'd be happy to pay $349 for the hardware (although I'm not sure I'd go higher than that). Like I said, it's a perfect complement to the 3DS.

However, and this is a big however, the price of games is going to be crucial. Mobile platforms like the iPhone and Android have almost completely redefined what people are willing to pay for gaming entertainment. So Nintendo and Sony are competing, in a game pricing sense, with marketplaces where $9.99 is a high-end product.

I don't think the $40-$50 pricing model for handheld games is still viable, with only extremely limited exceptions. So even if the hardware is priced properly, the price of games may prove to be a brick wall, which is something I'll discuss in more detail at some point.

One last note: EA, strangely, didn't announce any NGP projects in development. That may not mean anything, or it may be temporary, but if EA chooses not to support the platform, it could be devastating.

Wait, I forgot one more thing worth mentioning. Given how many questions Sony hasn't answered, I strongly suspect that this unit isn't quite fully-baked. The timing seems well-placed to distract from the 3DS launch, but being incredibly vague on the launch date ("holiday 2011", but no mention of how many territories) as well as certain specifics of the hardware makes me believe that this announcement was rushed.

So if there are delays, or supply issues, don't be surprised.

Photoshop Enthusiast Needed

[Volunteer has been located. Thanks.]

If you have half an hour and would like to help make some entirely silly composite photos, please e-mail me. I'd spend all day fiddling with Photoshop and wouldn't write a single word.

The Bizarre Behavior Of Blogger

Sometimes, Blogger does some downright wacky things, but I think the best example yet was yesterday.

In the "Request For Assistance" post yesterday, it read like I was the one making the post, and that I knew Tom Vasel.

I'm sure Tom is a very nice guy, and I feel terribly for what he and his family have gone through, but I don't know him.

That entire post was sent to me by Mike Stinchfield, and I was happy to put it up. I made a post with the usual note that you guys are very generous when someone needs help and that I appreciate that greatly.

So this morning, I sit down to start writing and see what got put up yesterday, which was Mike's entire e-mail, but absolutely nothing else. The post that was supposed to be published yesterday, with a time stamp of 1/31/11 1:31 p.m., was still sitting in the queue. And I have no idea how the post that got published was even put together--I think I may have drafted it, then had so many problems with the formatting that I scrapped it and started over. But it wasn't in my "to be posted" list yesterday.

Gremlins.

Regardless, Mike Stinchfield sent me the original e-mail, and I published the correct post a few minutes ago.

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