Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Call Of Duty Elite Service

Activision announced something called "Elite Service" for the Call Of Duty franchise today. Chris Kohler over at Game|Life discusses it here.

Yes, I'm in that article with a couple of quotes, but I would have linked to it anyway, because I really like how Chris frames news.

Basically, Elite adds social networking features around the Call of Duty franchise, and many of these features will be accessible with your mobile device. It also adds a ton of statistics about your performance in the game, with a "player card" available (think baseball card), as well as online tournaments.

Look, here's the takeaway: it's a shitload of stuff.

Here's the second takeaway, and it's much more important: not all of it is free.

How much? We don't know. How much will it cost? We don't know. What we do know, though, is that it will be a subscription service.

Ding ding ding ding ding.

So Chris asked me what I thought about this last night, and here's how I responded:
I think there are a few things here that really stand out.

Activision tried to milk the Guitar Hero franchise by releasing an avalanche of different games, and they wound up super-saturating (and ultimately, blowing up) the market. That's the "game" approach.

This time, though, they're creating this huge service that doesn't seem to increase the amount of content at all. Instead, it's creating this web of content around the game, focusing on social networking and mobile devices (buzzword alert). So this time, they seem to be trying the "about the game" approach as a saturation technique. And much of it is free, based on the press release. Or, at least, the top layer is free.

I think the top layer, though, is a Trojan Horse for the second layer, which is a subscription service, and I think it's fascinating how the gaming industry has evolved. By era (and I'm not including online games):
1980-1991-see you in two or three years, if ever.
1992-2000-see you next year, if it's a sports game (Madden and Front Page Sports become annual franchises)
2001-2007-see you next year
2008-2010-see you next year, plus DLC
2011-see you next month

I think all we have left is "see you now", and maybe that's what freemium games are, so we might already be there.

This is the Holy Grail, really, for gaming companies--a non-MMO with a subscription model. And just wait, because I guarantee that EA will come out with something like this for their sports games before the end of the year.

The genius in this business model, if it works, is that people are still buying the game every year. So a subscription service is on top of the game, not in place of it. So you could argue that it's actually better than an MMO, because with WOW, for instance, you only buy that game once, along with an occasional expansion. With COD, though, people will still buy the game EVERY YEAR, and pay the subscription price on top of that.

What I also find fascinating is that players will have "baseball cards", essentially, with all their stats, and they'll be able to compete in tournaments. Napoleon said that "A soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon." This is just the marketing version of that truth, only in a business sense, it's "gamers will pay long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon."

Okay, that's the end of my response to Chris.

After thinking about it, there's one thing I should have added: in essence, what Activision is trying to do is become ESPN. I know, that sounds a little crazy, but just stick with me for a minute.

In the 1980s, the biggest thing that happened to ESPN, in a business sense, is that they got cable providers to pay a monthly fee to carry their channel. It was only a couple of cents per subscriber, but that was totally unimportant: what mattered is that they paid a fee.

What is that fee today? Over four dollars.

ESPN, if it had remained as an advertising supported channel only, would never have survived. Without that second revenue stream, without that dual revenue approach, they would have failed.

Well, look at Activision now with the Call Of Duty franchise. Yes, they're making a fortune off the game, but their advertising expenses are skyrocketing (seriously, national television advertising in MAY? Holy crap.), and if COD tanks at any point, Activision has nothing except WOW to fall back on. COD could break the company.

Bobby Kotick might have been an idiot to destroy the music game genre by flooding the market with games, but he's just smart enough not to try it again.

What he needs is the ESPN dual revenue stream approach.

Hey, if Activision has a subscription model on top of the annual game costs, they have a dual revenue stream, too. And they're already advertising the shit out of Call of Duty, so they really don't need to spend a ton of additional money advertising the subscription service.

That's awful for consumers, but it's great for Activision--IF they do it right.

So what is "right" from a business sense? That's an easier question to answer than you might think.

The right way to do it is to take the ESPN approach. Make the subscription fee so low at first that everyone wants to get in, and make it so enticing that people won't be able to say no. Seriously, charge some absolutely insane price, like $2.99 a month. Just condition people to be paying a monthly charge for a game they already pay $60 for each year.

I mean, come on, three dollars a month? That's not even one cheap lunch, right?

Get everybody you can in during the first stage. Then, you need to bring in the holdouts who are saying "I don't need the subscription because I'm fine with the free services that I can get."

That's when you start migrating free services to the premium service. Gotcha.

Don't migrate everything--after all, the free service is important to the social networking aspect--but migrate a few key features and pull in more subscribers.

Then, start raising the price every year.

Add features, sure, but make sure that the increase in subscription price more than covers the expenses incurred in upgrading the service.

At some point in the future, unless the Call Of Duty Franchise blows up, people will be paying $14.99 a month--or more--for a game they already pay $60 for each year.

That's our future, and the future sucks.

Monday, May 30, 2011

And One More

I can't believe I forgot Chris Park, particularly since I said A Valley Without Wind was one of my most-anticipated games of the year. Five days ago. The old grey mare she ain't what she used to be.


This is a great, great day.

I'm fortunate in that there are a decent number of developers who read the blog. I've e-mailed back and forth with them over the years, and they are almost uniformly personable and gracious, particularly the indie developers.

They're easy to root for, and I have to tell you, I'm cynical enough that I don't say that very often.

So there's this group of indie developers I know that I really, really wish would hit it big.

Tarn Adams is one of them, although I don't think he really cares about making it big and is quite happy with just making enough to continue working on Dwarf Fortress. So in his own way, he's already made it big, and if there was only one game I could take with me to a deserted island, it would be Dwarf Fortress.

Vic Davis is one, and he's almost there, with two terrific games (Armageddon Empires and Solium Infernum) that have a devoted following. I've been fortunate enough to play the beta of Six Gun Saga for the last few days, and I think it might be the game that really vaults him forward financially, because it's both highly entertaining and far more accessible than his previous games (and I'll be writing about it soon).

Gary Gorski is another, although he's fighting bravely against the dying of the light in the text-sim genre. But he's made some deep, interesting games--actually, everything he's made has been interesting, including (most recently) the Draft Day Sports and Total Pro Golf series. And Total Pro Golf has an incredible amount of potential, particularly if it was enhanced and ported to mobile devices, because it would be a perfect fit there.

Fredrik Skarstedt is in this group, too. Fredrik is just ridiculously versatile--he created a prototype for a game called Switching Gears  that was about a funny little robot (which won an award in a game design contest), and the game world had a  terrific, clever visual design. He also created MMO Baseball and (most recently) Heroes vs. Evil, both of which were interesting games that never quite reached ignition in terms of audience size.

He's on the cusp, though, which is always the hardest place to be.

There's another guy, only I can't give you his name (well, I can give you his first name--it's Jeff). His game, which is still unreleased, was on my Top Ten Games of 2010, because I played an earlier version for 40+ hours. Yet he was willing to step back, take a look at what he had, and go for much more, expanding the gameplay and greatly improving the graphics. This game is going to stun everyone when it does get released, and like all the other guys on this list, he's a tremendously interesting, thoughtful person.

So I have this list, and if one of these guys ever hits it really, really big, it's going to make my month, maybe my year.

Except I haven't mentioned one guy yet, and his name is Ian Hardingham.

Ian's e-mailed back and forth with me for years, and he's always been one of the guys on this list, just plugging away in the netherword of indie games. His first game, Determinance, was unique and interesting, but it just never caught fire, and for an indie game to really take off, some external event has to happen.

Someone big has to notice.

Last year, he sent me the multiplayer beta for Frozen Synapse, and I played it and mentioned it on the blog. It was a game that took chances. For one, it was incredibly distinctive visually, and I knew immediately that players would either love or hate the look--there was absolutely no middle ground.

I loved it, because it had a TRON vibe, very neon, and incredibly beautiful.

So I played the multiplayer, and then, the game disappeared while they added the single-player campaign, which took almost a year. I don't think anyone's ever developed a game in quite this manner, and it was a big risk, because all the publicity about multi-player had long since dried up.

A few weeks ago, he sent me the single-player campaign, and I was shocked at how much depth they'd been able to put into the campaign. And it was slick, incredibly slick, not just for an indie game, but for any game.

When an indie developer makes a cool, interesting game, though, it's not enough.

They need help.

They need to achieve critical mass, and the only way to do that is through external forces, and 99% of the time, it doesn't happen.

This time, though, it damn sure did.

The game was stealth released on Thursday. On Friday, Eurogamer reviewed it. That's a big deal, for an indie game to even get a Eurogamer review, but not as big a deal as getting a "9" from Eurogamer. There are 911 reviews in the Eurogamer database, and do you know how many games have gotten higher than a "9"?


Also on Friday (seriously, how does this shit happen all at once?), Tycho mentioned Frozen Synapse in his Friday news post, and asked Paul Taylor (Ian's partner with Mode 7 Games) to talk about the game on Monday (which is here). That's unprecedented, in my memory.

A giant challenge for every indie game is publicity, and in just seventy-two hours, Frozen Synapse slew that giant.

I haven't even asked Ian how it's selling, because I know it's selling like crazy. That kind of publicity in such a short period of time, combined with an excellent game, creates the financial equivalent of a breeder reactor, although in this case, it's breeding money.

Maybe in a week or so, when he finally gets to sleep more than two hours a night (if he's getting that much), he'll be able to celebrate.

In the meantime, I'll do it for him.

Friday, May 27, 2011

Friday Links!

Starting off this week is a link sent in by Greg: a brilliant mash-up of John Lennon's "Imagine" and Van Halen's "Jump". You will be blown away by how well Imagine's music and Jump's lyrics blend (and it's really funny as well).

Next, from Steven Kreuch, a fantastic set of images: Abandoned Remains of the Russian Space Shuttle Project Buran.

From George Paci, the funniest song about polymerase chain reactions every recorded.

From Dave Tyrell, a remarkable technical achievement: Laser puts record data rate through fibre. 26 terabits per second, in case you're wondering.

From Meg McReynolds, a topical and interesting analysis: What We've Done to the Mississippi River: An Explainer (the map, in particular, is fascinating).

From Clayton Lee, a very funny video: Obsoletes Anonymous. Also, a time-lapse video of an airport runway (which is surprisingly fascinating).

Last year, I linked to a series of articles about reclusive heiress Huguette Clark. Here's the last one, sadly: Huguette Clark, the reclusive copper heiress, dies at 104 .

Here's a funny link for sports fans: The 10 Strangest College Mascots. Oh, wait, here's another: The Strangest College Mascots: Part II.

From Dan Quock, an amazing addition to the already amazing Miniature Wunderland city: an airport.

From John Catania, and it's nice to know the CDC is both clever and has a sense of humor: Social Media: Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse.

From Katie Kline, a series of terrific links: first, it's Ballistics experts of the bug world. Next, try Strange but true tales from botany. Moving along, it's Fungus makes zombie ants administer ‘death bite’ at noon. Finally, and this is excellent as well, it's The story of the fig and its wasp

From Kevin W, and we've all seen pets dressed up (much to their annoyance): Pets Who Want To Kill Themselves.

Dave Schroeder sent in one of the most remarkable astronomy links I've ever seen: The night sky in 37,440 exposures. Also, check out the photographer's website.

From Jeremy Fischer, links for (believe it or not) the ocarina. First, it's Double Ocarina (which is pleasantly medieval). Then, and I didn't even know this was possible (seriously--who did?), it's an ocarina made from broccoli.

From Sirius, and this is lovely, it's a Glasswing butterfly. Next, an excellent video illustrating "Fano flow".

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Frozen Synapse!

Frozen Synapse has been released, and for $19.99, you get the game plus a free copy for a friend. That's a great deal on one of the most striking games I've ever seen. There's a huge amount of gameplay, the mechanics are unique (in a good way), the interface is excellent, and freaking amazing look of the game doesn't hurt, either.

Head over to the Frozen Synapse website and take a look.

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #11B: Sorry, Not This Time

Sorry, but no update this week. I'm learning on the job about having a weekly feature with multiple contributors, and since I'm not playing right now, I need to find backup. However, I do have an excellent guest submission about playing Pro Bass that's in its final stages, and I'll have that for you next week.


I would normally wait until Friday to post this, but it's just too damn good to wait.

Jimmy Fallon, who does an absolutely unbelievable Neil Young impression (maybe the greatest musical impression I've ever seen), does the Young version of Miley Cyrus's "Party In The USA." And visitors show up to sing with him (just watch the video).

Believe me, it will be the best 3:18 of your day. Watch it here.


This should not come as a surprise:
2K Sports yesterday confirmed that NHL 2K12 will not be published on any console, likely ending that simulation's run.

..."2K Sports will not release an NHL title for consoles this year," the company told Kotaku, without any elaboration.

The 2K series had been, well, not good for years, even though NHL2K3 is still one of my favorite hockey games ever. Treyarch developed that game, and then Kush took over.

Uh-oh. Kush was where good games went to die. Kush games always looked better, but never really worked right.

Here was the decline and fall:
NHL2K3 (Treyarch): average ranking of 86 (thanks GameRankings.com)
NHL2K5 (Kush): 86
NHL2K6 (Kush): 79
NHL2K7 (Kush): 79
NHL2K8 (Kush): 74

Then Visual Concepts took over and finished ruining the game.

This is one of those cases where there's not much left to mourn. It was a great game, in its day, but its day had passed a long, long time ago. It wasn't selling, and it wasn't selling because it wasn't very good.

So here's what's left of 2KSports: basketball and baseball. And believe me, 2K will be leaving skid marks in the driveway as soon as the MLB license expires, because those have been a financial disaster.

There's just not much left in the world of console sports games: one supremely brilliant hockey game (NHL), one brilliant basketball game (NBA2K), an excellent soccer game (FIFA), and a whole bunch of crap.


Wednesday, May 25, 2011

The Sabotagining (no, that's not a word, but it should be)

Richard Lawler of Engadget linked this week to a Boston.com article titled A movie lover’s plea: Let there be light.

It's a remarkable article, remarkable because movie theaters are desperate to give people a reason to come to the movies instead of watching them in the comfort of their own home. And they have something, to a degree: 3-D.

That's where the screw-ups begin.

It seems that Sony provided many theaters with free 4K projectors in exchange for a substantial amount of in-theater advertising for Sony films. When 3-D became a hot technology so quickly, Sony responded by retrofitting a a special lens on the projector for 3-D films.

The problem? It takes time and some degree of expertise to remove the lens, so many theaters don't.

What does that mean? It means that 2-D films that shouldn't be using the 3-D lens are being shown at roughly half the brightness level they should be.

There are other projector solutions that don't have this problem, but because Sony gives away the projectors in exchange for advertising, many major chains (Regal, AMC, National Amusements) have signed with them. And unless everyone takes the time to use the correct lens--and many don't--we're screwed.

It's quite an eye-opener, to to speak, and well worth reading.

One More Indie Note: Dungeons of Dredmor

I've mentioned this upcoming roguelike before, but there's an in-depth preview over at Tales Of The Rampant Coyote.

Indie Notes: A Valley Without Wind, Frozen Synapse, And Age of Fear: The Undead King

Rock, Paper, Shotgun has more information about A Valley Without Wind, and it's looking more interesting than ever. This is one of my most-anticipated games of the year.

Speaking of most-anticipated games, I've been playing the beta of Frozen Synapse for the last week. It's my first experience with the single-player campaign, and I am blown away by the level of detail and polish in the campaign so far.

Frozen Synapse has the highest production values I've ever seen in an indie game, and it's tremendously impressive.

Les Sliwko let me know that there's a new promotion running for Age Of Fear: The Undead King. Until June 6, the game is $14.99 (a 25% discount), and in addition, any purchase receives two licenses instead of one.

I think the indie games are far, far more interesting this year than the big budget games. In fact, I'm having a very difficult time caring about any of the big releases, because they are so endlessly hyped that I'm tired of them before I even play.

The big budget games, because they are so heavily marketed now as part of the "every release must be a huge hit" strategy, are inevitably over-promising and under-delivering. Indie games, though, are often the opposite.

Thunderstone Shuffle

In response to my request for Thunderstone: Dragonspire assistance, DQ reader Joshua Buergel let me know that he's written a free Android app called Thunderstone Shuffle that handles the randomization portion of game setup. I've used it myself, and it greatly streamlines the setup process, plus it lets you include/exclude expansion packs, etc., as needed. Very slick and very helpful.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Lot Of Good, A Little Bad

This is a happy story with a temporarily unhappy ending.

First, let's jump to the ending:

Now, let's go back to the begining.

Two Saturdays ago, Eli's soccer team played in a game that would determine who would win the league. This was the team that they'd lost to 3-2, when Eli had given the team a talk at halftime (I wrote about that a few weeks ago).

Eli was all amped up to play, and he did. He touched the ball more than any other player on the field, dominated with his passing, almost scored several times, and wound up with an assist in a 2-0 win.

There are usually dramatic moments, even in a game with kids this age, but this game was surprisingly drama-free. Eli's team dominated the entire game, never let the other team get the momentum, and won in very workmanlike fashion.

Well, there was one moment.

Late in the second half, the best player on the other team (who turned 13 during the season) was chasing toward a loose ball with Eli, both running at full speed, and Eli got there a split-second sooner. The other kid started to kick the ball away from him, but Eli put his foot on top of the ball and pulled it back.

It's the single coolest thing I've ever seen Eli do on a soccer field, because it required such precise timing to pull it off.

The kid was so surprised that he wound up wiping out in spectacular fashion, trying to kick and stop and change directions at the same time. It was a highlight reel moment, particularly because that kid talked a little smack to Eli during the game

The next day, on Sunday, Eli 9.9 had an hour-long hockey scrimmage. He's been playing very well in practice, and I was hoping he'd have a strong game.

I had no idea.

I'm always trying to get him to play a little higher (at the top of the crease or slightly above), which cuts off a shooter's angle more effectively, but he's never quite been able to be that aggressive.

This time, though, he was. And he was unbelievable. He made 25+ saves, played at the top of the crease or above, and looked like he owned the rink. The goalie he was playing against had been much better than Eli was six months ago, but Eli has improved so much that he's now clearly better, and he proved it over and over again, making tremendous saves.

His team was ahead 4-0 with 3:00 left, and after stopping five breakaways in the game, he finally gave up a goal on the sixth, but even then, he had been above the crease when the shot was taken, and the shooter had squeezed it into about a four-inch opening over his shoulder.

It was, by far, the best game he's ever had in goal, and his team won 4-1. Then they had a two-round shootout for every player, and he stopped 28 out of 30 shots there as well.

In the dressing room after the game, I was helping him take his gear off. "Hey, you know how I always tell you how well you played, then mention one or two things that you could improve?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, smiling.

"Well, I've got nothing to say today except 'great game'," I said. "That was amazing. How did you feel while you out there?"

"I felt really, really confident," he said. "Even on the breakaways."

Now, after that moment of triumph for him (and he had a big, big smile when he came off the ice), he was off to soccer practice, which started in 30 minutes.

He dominated that, too, scoring a hat trick in the scrimmage. After practice ended, though, he stayed to play goalie for a few minutes. One of his teammate's older brothers started playing as well, taking shots, and when Eli tried to stop a high shot, the ball was coming in so hard that it bent his right thumb way back. Plus, and this was even worse, because he was jumping upwards as the ball hit his hand, his momentum caused that same thumb to jam into the crossbar.

On Monday morning, when he tried to write with a pencil and couldn't, Gloria took him to his primary care doctor, then to an orthopedist. She said he had strained ligaments in his thumb, and probably some slight damage to the nerves in that area, because his thumb was numb in places. To be safe, and to give everything time to heal, she recommended casting it for two weeks.

Eli cried a little when he found out he'd need a cast--he'd miss two weeks of hockey, and the final game of the soccer season. Gloria handed him the phone after she had told me what the doctor had said.

"I'm sorry, little man," I said.

"Me, too," he said, his voice shaky.

"Listen," I said. "When I find out something that's going to be bad, like when I found out I needed knee surgery, I feel sorry for myself for the rest of the day. The next morning, though, I think about what I can work on to get better while I'm out. So how about we try that?"

"That sounds good," he said.

Later, when they came home, I thought he would be all mopey and upset--which would have been okay--but he wasn't. He was excited about having a cast that his friends could sign, and he was also excited that his thumb stopped hurting after they put the cast on. So he was just hanging out on the couch, watching t.v. and enjoying himself. "Mom, thanks for helping me so much today," he said, as Gloria brought him a drink with his dinner.

At school the next day, he got an unlimited amount of attention, and two kids volunteered to be his "writers" when he needed help. He could even write a bit with his left hand, if he went very slowly. And, since it's almost the end of school, he hardly had any homework.

All in all, it was about the best time ever to hurt your right thumb, if it had to happen.

I picked him up after that first day back at school, and we talked as I drove us to Einstein's for a cookie. "I think this is a good opportunity," I said.

"What do you mean?" he asked.

"Well, you're an athlete," I said, "and someday, you're going to get hurt more seriously than this. It happens to everyone at some point. So we can use this two weeks as a mini-trial for what you'll do if you ever have a serious injury."

"I like that," he said.

"So what could we do during the two weeks to help you get better?"

"I could stretch," he said. "A goalie always needs to be flexible."

"That's a good one," I said. "And we can do a tennis ball toss, or you can toss it against the wall and do it faster and faster. That's a good one -handed drill. Oh, and we could watch the Pro Hybrid DVDs. I know you usually get bored after a few minutes, but if there was any time to learn more about technique, it would be now."

"That's good," he said. "Three things. So I can really get better while I'm hurt?"

"You can always get better," I said. "Improve something while you're out, and when you come back and get the rest of your game in shape, you'll be better than you were before."

We've found out in the last five days that left-handed air hockey is just as much fun as right-handed, and that two people can play pinball together and have a great time. We're playing NHL together, too (he controls the left side of the controller, I control the right), which is suprisingly hard. It requires so much more cooperation than playing regular co-op, but we're getting better every day, even though we haven't won yet.

We both know, though, that before he gets his cast off, we will.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Thanks for the Dragonspire Assistance

I've gotten enough Thunderstone: Dragonspire help to rule the world, eventually. Thanks, as always, for your generosity.

Mostly, though, what I figured out is that I didn't have all the cards. That's not as simple as it sounds, though--there's a class of card called a "randomizer" that is a base deck you draw from to select certain classes of monsters and heroes to use in the game. I have far more randomizer types than I have classes, which means that when I tried to follow the instructions, I was missing all kinds of cards.

Except not exactly, because in the manual, it says that the randomizer cards were redone to be more visually distinct, so even though I'm playing a standalone expansion, the randomizer cards from the base set were included as well (because they were redone).

If I'd remembered that, today would have been far less complicated. After I went through and matched the randomizer cards to the classes I actually had in the set, life became much easier.

Thunderstone: Dragonspire

If you play this card game with proficiency and would be willing to help out a hack (me), please e-mail. The deck building is befuddling me (or, as Eli 9.9 says, "befuses", which combines "befuddled" and "confused"). Thanks.

Passwords (Rainbow Tables)

One last update, this time from Matthew Montgomery:
Not to be an AFE (another f-ing expert), but regarding rainbow tables:

Given how fast GPUs are, it's to the point where you might not even bother making rainbow tables— you can test all lowercase, alphanumeric passwords that're less than 7 characters in less than two seconds! We're reaching the limits of my knowledge here, but I'll try anyway: here's a table full of estimates for how long it takes for a given GPU to perform a bunch of different tasks. MD5 is the one you usually care about. A Radeon HD 6970 (~$400) can do 5.5 billion hashes per second. Salting alone isn't good enough anymore.

http://codahale.com/how-to-safely-store-a-password/ has some more information. Not sure how easy it is to follow if you're not that technical, but it has some good information.

The Big Picture Thread

Now that I have a phone with a decent camera, I've been snapping pictues when I see something interesting. Let's take a look.

First, there's this:

I've had lots of days when everything made about that much sense.

This next picture is in the lobby of a building where my dermatologist has her practice. She's the "real medicine" practitioner in a cosmetic surgery building, and I can only hope this painting was put there on purpose.

Here's one more, at a local Diary Queen:

That little white paper says "ALL Incorrect Orders Must Be Resolved Within 2 Hours Of Purchase." There is no calculation I can do that explains the need for a two-hour window here.

This is the bathroom of a burger place where I eat three or four days a week:

Notice what isn't there? A mirror. I'm just waiting for them to put up a sign that says "IF YOU WANT TO LOOK AT YOURSELF, GO TO SOMEBODY ELSE'S DAMN RESTAURANT."

This next image is from a chalkboard at my gym:

I can't tell if that's a workout or a restaurant.

This last picture is just something I thought was striking:

Sunday, May 22, 2011

Long Overdue

I received this e-mail last Thursday (excerpted):
For what it's worth, I've been reading you in one form or another since 2003/4, and you're starting to get boring. You don't talk about PC games much, and... physical ailments aren't that interesting to me.

As DQ Film Advisor and Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand would say, let's rip off the band-aid here: he's right.

Look, I've known for several years that my writing isn't as strong as it used to be. I used to be much funnier and much angrier. That was an interesting and generally readable combination.

On the flip side, though, now I'm more human, and much more personal. This enterprise has had much to do with that, and it's helped make me much more capable as a person and as a father. And while I know I'm not what I used to be, I still very much enjoy doing this, and the amount of e-mail I get from you guys hasn't gone down at all. So I know that some day I'll wind this all down, but this isn't that day, and won't be for a while.

One of the other reasons I feel like I've slipped, particularly, in the last fifteen months or so, is that I've been working on a large, "secret" project that I won't be able to mention for another 3-6 months. I think you'll laugh when I do, because it's relatively preposterous. But it's quite difficult, and I'm not done yet.

I guess what I really wanted to say is that while I know I'm older and slower, I'm glad that you're still around.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Friday Links!

From Greg Bagley, and if you thought you knew everything about WWII, you were wrong: Operation Crossbow: How 3D glasses helped defeat Hitler.

From Michael M., and this is a great read, a story on the other side of 419: The Chilling Story Of Genius In A Land of Chronic Unemployment. Also, a story about Tardigrades --the first creature to survive exposure in space.

From Michael Gilbert, a video that is beautiful in both a mathematic and artistic sense: pendulum.

From Sirius, and these photographs are spectacular: The Oceans’ Oddest Creatures and Why They Matter. Also, and I think this may be the funniest kitten video I've ever seen, it's Kitten battles Alien. You're really going to love this: Cars So Stunning, They’re in a Museum. Wait, there's one more, and it's remarkable: Radioactive Core Encases Dwarf Planet in Ice.

Here's another cat video that Gloria sent me, and it's pretty amazing: cat playing with owl.

From Marcus B., a look at another 3D technology: holographic 3D.

From Kevin W, and this is serious, serious soapbox car stuff, it's MAKE Karts and Wheels Contest Winner Jeremy Ashinghurst.

From Mr. Fritz, and this might qualify as the funniest forum thread in history, it's Shrine Of The Mall Ninja.

From Michael T., and you'll want to buy at least two or three of these, it's 10 crazy ways to blow through boring tasks.

From Frank Regan, something so amazing that your jaw will be dropping by the end: Play machine.

From Danny Ashton, a look at life before the iPad: 16 Old-Skool Tablets Rocking It Before the iPad.

From Steve Davis, and this is quite amazing: the marble machine.

From Mr. Fritz, one of the greatest hockey goals I've ever seen.

From Jonathan Arnold, an ingenious video: Ronen's Adventure: Trapped in an iPhone.

From Dib O, and this is quite striking, it's Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 2.0, 'Sleep'.

Thursday, May 19, 2011


There are a ton of interesting mods for Minecraft, but this one is so inspired that you have to watch the video. RPS is calling it the Minecraft Acid Trip Mod, although I think it's much more playful than that.

The Sport Of Kings

Really? I give you Kegasus. Quite possibly, he's the first mascot for binge-drinking in recorded history, and it's all brought to you by the very classy people of The Preakness.

Seriously, hit up the link and listen to the centaur. It's all blueblood and noble, just what you'd expect from a man in half a horse costume.

The Education Of Eli 9.9

A few weeks ago, Eli was talking to me about the planets.

"Dad, it's not pronounced like that," Eli 9.9.

"It's not?" I asked.

"It's 'yer-a-nus'," he said.

"Are you sure it's not 'your anus'?" I asked.

"Dad," he said wearily. "I'm sure it's not 'your anus'." He paused. "OH," he said. "YOUR ANUS." After a few seconds of trying to stay upright, he fell on the floor, laughing.

For education, it's always best to start with the classics.

So "your anus" has fallen in line with other classic bits, with the current favorite being "If you love it so much, why don't you just marry it?", which all three of us seem to say at least once daily.

On Wednesday, we were sitting in Einstein's after school. They have a "happy hour" deal now where if you buy any drink, you get a free dessert. Since Eli loves the iced sugar cookies there, it's a guaranteed stop now.

He looked at me between bites.

"Dad, are Martians from Mars?" he asked.

"Sure," I said. "If there were actually people living on Mars, they would be called 'Martians'."

"Would people living on Jupiter be called 'Jupiterians'?" he asked.

"I don't think so," I said, "although people living on Venus would be called 'Venusians.' And people on Pluto would be called 'Plutonians'."

"Then 'Martians' isn't consistent, is it?" he asked.

"No," I said. "It seems to vary quite a lot between planets, and I don't even know what the right term is for some planets."

"What about Uranus?" As soon as he said it, he started laughing. Of course he pronounced it your-anus. Sure, it's wrong, but for comic purposes, there's absolutely no going back.

"Good example," I said. "I don't know--would it be 'Uranasians'?" His eyes got big.

"NO!" he said. "It would be--URINATIONS!" We both collapsed in five-year-old boy giggles.

"That is 'A' material, my friend," I said.

"Can you imagine what the President would say?" he asked, readying his most official voice. "Hello, my fellow Urinations."

"Where would the train stop on Uranus?" I asked.

He laughed again. "That's kinda personal," he said. He thought for a few seconds, then looked up at me.

"Urination Station!" I said.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #11: We're All Asleep Under That Bench In The Park

We're all burned out this week, but Chris Kessel e-mailed an excellent guest column, and so we continue.

I thought I’d give a mini trip report from someone that’s fiddled with guitar and wanted to play, but lacked sufficient will power to pull it off in the past.

Many years ago, when my father died, I got his 1965ish Rickenbacker. It’s a nice guitar even if fairly well worn. Apparently, he played quite a bit when he was in his teens and 20s, though I’d never seen him do more than pick it up and do a few song snippets. I’d picked up the guitar and started to learn over the years, but never in any methodical way. I’d find guitar tab for a couple songs I liked and learn bits and pieces. I enjoyed doing the solos, but didn’t really enjoy rhythm. I also tend to like music from guitarists of no small amount of skill: Eric Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughn, etc. Lacking any musical training at all, I also have a terrible ear. I can’t tell you if something is sharp or flat. I can’t look at music and get any feel for how it should sound, even rhythmically. Is that 12..3 or 1.2…3? I’d see tab, I’d play the notes, but it’d take a bunch of timing variations before it sounded like something I’d recognize.

Consequently, my “learning” was usually limited to tiny snippets of songs way beyond my skill, which in turn meant that I’d eventually lose motivation as I never seemed to get to a point where I could play anything I liked. Having played Guitar Hero, I wished for some way to learn a real guitar with the same gradual progression GH gave you with plastic guitars. Little did I know at the time that Harmonix was going to fulfill that wish.

Bring in Rock Band 3 and the Squier. My advantage coming in is I had twiddled with guitar for a couple months every few years, so I actually had decent ability to finger notes and run scales. I blew through the anything in RB3’s early training exercises related to single notes. Easy songs were passed immediately with 3 stars, some with 4 stars and a few with 5. Then came chord exercises, particularly barre chords. Holy crap those are hard! I didn’t have anything remotely close to enough wrist strength and it took a couple weeks of very stead playing (probably 10 hours a week) to pass those tests. However, already RB3 is showing its promise as a trainer. I’d already played more, and with more focus, in 2 weeks with RB3 than in most of my prior attempts and I was learning things I didn’t have motivation to learn earlier (barre chords). Getting that little lesson to turn green showing I’d passed it was very motivating. There was definitely a “one more” mentality, particularly with training on songs where you can learn the song in pieces AND you can pass each piece at 60% speed, then 70%, then 80%, etc. There was never a point where there wasn’t some test just within my ability to pass with just a little more effort.

After a few weeks I reached a point where I’d passed every song on Medium. At Hard, things really slowed down. I passed about ½ of the Hard songs. I’d completed every training exercise except the arpeggios one. Passing the training items were difficult just because there were so many notes and you can’t miss a single one if you want to pass. One interesting bit of perspective I gained was a real appreciation for how hard good rhythm guitar is. Complicated strumming patterns and chord changes are brutal difficult.

Which brings me to today. RB3’s has essentially trained me to the point where RB3 is of limited value, but that’s probably a good thing. Playing with the mute on was great initially, but now I really want to hear what I’m playing so typically I turn off failure detection and un-mute. I’ve passed most all the exercises, so the motivation to pass them again isn’t there, even if it might be useful from a skill advancement viewpoint. While with plastic guitars it was satisfying to get to 3, 4, then 5 stars, much of that involved gaming star power. It’s not really satisfying now to me to “pass” a real song by hitting the rhythm and boffing the solos. That just feels wrong and counter to my eventual goal of learning to actually play a song. I’ve also found that the Squier’s detection isn’t always matching what I’m doing, particularly on cramped chords (e.g. F shape on higher frets), which is a bit frustrating if I’m actually trying to get it to pass a song. I also tend to prefer thumb/finger playing rather than a pick, partly because it’s quieter and won’t annoy my wife, and partly because some of the songs I like use that technique at least in portions (Knopfler of Dire Straights uses thumb/finger). The Squier doesn’t detect finger plucking well at all.

RB3 is still a great song learning tool though even if I used it for nothing else. Guitar tab in a nicely done form that’s easy to practice. For exercises, I’m now turning away from RB3. I’m starting to go through Guitar Justin’s method, one lesson at a time. In the past, I think I wouldn’t have enjoyed it, but RB3 has trained me sufficiently in the basics that I can play the chords and walk the fretboard decently, and thus I don’t feel demotivatingly clumsy and slow as I work through the lessons. I’m debating putting the Squire away and bringing out my dad’s Rickenbacker again because I’m not really using what the Squier adds anymore. Plus, I love my dad’s old guitar if for no reason other than it was his, but I think it’s a better guitar too.

In a nutshell, what RB3 did for me was get me past the “I suck! This is not fun!” stage of learning. It gave me reasons to progress and ways to play simple versions of songs (the Easy/Medium versions) as I went through that process of getting the fundamentals in place. Now that I have those fundamentals, I find myself more motivated than in any of my prior dabblings to actually improve my skills more formally.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Wager

This is an utterly delightful 15-minute game that I have played at least a dozen times in the last week. RPS recommended it and I do as well: The Wager.

Books! (and the rule of Ben Macintyre)

Here's an excellent rule about books that has never been wrong: buy anything written by Ben Macintyre.

Think I'm kidding? All of these books are riveting:
1. Agent Zigzag: A True Story of Nazi Espionage, Love, and Betrayal
2. Operation Mincemeat: How a Dead Man and a Bizarre Plan Fooled the Nazis and Assured an Allied Victory
3. The Man Who Would Be King: The First American in Afghanistan
4. Forgotten Fatherland: The Search for Elisabeth Nietzsche

Each of these is a brilliant book in its own right, and fortunately, I found one more recently: The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief. Worth was considered the greatest thief of the 19th century, a title that was well-earned, and was the inspiration for the character of Professor Moriarty in the Sherlock Holmes series of novels by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

One of the many things that Macintyre does well is to create a sense of time and place, and in The Napoleon of Crime, he draws a vivid portrait of both a swindler and a period of time that was lush for swindling.

Many of the details of Adam Worth's "career" made me laugh out loud with their sheer audacity. Rent a building, create a false storefront, dig a tunnel to a bank next door, and break through to rob the bank bare? No problem.

Yes, people have done that before, but they didn't do it before Worth.

His crimes were outrageous, but his friendships, even more so. In the later years of his life, perhaps his best friend was none other than William Pinkerton, a twist that would be dismissed as ridiculous in a work of fiction.

Fiction can only be so strange, but life, so much more. Macintyre is adept at finding and preserving this strangeness.


Gloria drove past a turn last weekend because she was sneaking a look at the full moon.

"Mom!" Eli 9.9 said.

"Oops," she said.

"Mom, you are obsessed with the moon," he said.

"What?" she asked. "I've never done that before."

"Remember Christmas? You drove a mile past the turn while you were telling us about the moon." She did.

"Oh yeah, I, um, forgot that," she said.

"Ouch!" he said.

I pulled out my cellphone and pretended to answer it. "Hello? Why yes, she's here," I said. "Hold on, please." I held the phone out to Gloria. "It's the National Burn Council."

"Ha ha ha," she said.

Monday, May 16, 2011

An Epic Profile

Deadspin today put up a profile about Lenny Dykstra that was written in 1994. This was back when he still played for the Phillies, and it's an absolutely epic piece. It was so obvious to anyone who paid attention who Lenny Dykstra was, even then, but so many people didn't pay attention.

I know that I link to Dykstra articles on a semi-regular basis, but there's something so quintessentially American about how he was lauded, about how money serves as its own validation. He's a one-man cautionary tale for an entire culture.

Like I said, the profile is terrific, terrific reading, and it's here.

April NPD

Xbox 360: 297,000
PS3: 204,300
Wii: 172,000

April doesn't answer any of the interesting short-term questions, unfortunately--PSN had only been down for a week, and the Wii price cut to $149 hadn't taken effect yet.

May is going to be very, very interesting, and we're only a few weeks away from E3, where the new Nintendo console will be unveiled for the first time.

More On Seasoning (of Passwords)

More information about passwords, first from Jan-Willem:
In your post you quote "Mean On Sunday" as writing that there is no way to crack a large number of hashed passwords. Unfortunately, in practice this is not true.

You can think of a hash as a fingerprint. It's just a relatively small derived property of something else. Just as you can identify a person with only his fingerprint, so you can identify a password using only its hash. And just as with a fingerprint, you can't use it to calculate all the details of the original (person or password). Outageddon has demonstrated why you'd want to use this: if your database is ever hacked, the hackers will only have the hashes (fingerprints), and not the original passwords.

Now for the bad news. While you can't efficiently calculate the reverse of a hash, i.e. the original password, you CAN calculate the hash for every word in the dictionary, and store these hashes along with the corresponding words in a database. (See
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rainbow_tables.) This will take a long time, but you only need to do it once, and it's easy to parallelize over hundreds or thousands of computers. Once you have such a database, you can very quickly look up hashes and find the corresponding passwords.

This approach only works if the original password was in your dictionary, which sufficiently random passwords won't be. But in a database of millions of passwords chosen by everyday people, you can safely assume you'll get lots and lots of hits. Especially if your dictionary contains variations like "p4ssw0rd" and "password123".

There are things Sony could have done to defend against this, primarily using a technique called salting, where some random data is added to a password before it is hashed, thus ensuring that it's random enough to not be in most rainbow tables. I hope Sony used this, but I haven't read anything confirming or denying this. So, if people used their PSN passwords for anything important besides PSN, they'd better assume that it's compromised...

Next, additional information from Garth Pricer:
Yes, the Sony passwords were hashed. However, what we haven’t been told is whether or not they were salted.. The rabbit hole on cryptography can go pretty deep, but the short (and mostly accurate) takeaway is this- Hashing passwords make brute force attacks time consuming, but massive tables exist of precomputed reverse cryptographic hashes. These “rainbow tables” can reduce the time it takes to reverse a hashed password to mere seconds. There’s a further counter-measure to rainbow tables known as Salting. This is kind of like multiplying the hash password value by another variable. If this variable is different for each password, rainbow tables become effectively useless, because you’d need a separate rainbow table for each and every salt value.

So did Sony actually salt the hashed passwords? And if so, did they do so properly, changing the salt value each time? I’ve heard they didn’t, but I have no idea how much credulity to give those allegations. Consider this, however- Last year, fail0verflow derived Sony’s ECDSA private key from its public key. How did they manage this incredible feat, something that should have taken currently infeasible levels of computing power? Well, instead of using a random number as part of the calculation, Sony’s signing software used a fixed value, leaving the derivation a simple exercise in algebra. So did they properly salt their hashed passwords? I don’t know, but if I was a betting man, I know where I’d put my money.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Blogger: Hosed

Blogger is all fouled up right now, so that's why you only see one link in Friday's Links post (although it's a good one).

Friday Links!

Late but determined, welcome to the post-Blogger crash version of Friday Links!

Well, this speaks for itself: Lenny Dykstra, in his own words.

From Erik Highter, the story of Lattimore Brown, the man described as "perhaps the most unfortunate artist in the annals of soul music".

From David Gloier, and this is stunning, it's the Capuchin catacombs of Palermo. These photographs are haunting and riveting, I promise. More, and this is also terrific, it's The Old Man of the Lake. One more, and it's The Loneliest Plant In the World.

From Kevin W, an interview with R2D2 maker Chris James.

From Jeremy Fischer, and this is a terrific video: Roll a D6.

From Jesse Scoble (@jscoble), it's Scottish Homes Powered By Whisky.

From Sirius, and these could certainly ruin a picnic, it's Hummingbird-Sized Ants Once Roamed Wyoming.

From PC, and this is fascinating and bizarre at the same time: Euthanasia Coaster.

From Scott Z., and this is entirely disgusting (and funny as well), it's 10 Naughtiest Vegetables on Earth.

From Dib O (and in French), it's gamers and their avatars.

From Steven Davis, it's Sci-Fi Ikea Manuals.

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The Yard Guy

I'm not a yard guy.

We have guys in our neighborhood who enjoy nothing more than mowing their lawn on the weekends, then painstakingly edging to an accuracy of 1/32 of an inch. They can talk to you for an hour about fertilizer mix, watering patterns, and different types of grass.

I am not that guy.

I can mow a lawn without putting my eye out, generally. Beyond that, though, all bets are off.

Which brings us to the subject of bushes.

We have eight bushes that run along our sidewalk. Conceptually, each bush is supposed to be round, and separate, and about the size of one of those big exercise balls that people like to fall off.

Over the years, though, they've become larger and more unruly, no longer distinct, just fused together into one gigantic, nation-sized mass.

On Mother's Day, Gloria and Eli 9.9 were out painting pottery, and I decided it was time to trim the bushes.

We have an electric hedge trimmer, and for the last several years, my efforts in this area have followed an entirely predictable pattern: trim for a while, make considerable progress, then accidentally cut the extension cord. Trimming over.

It doesn't matter how I attach the extension cord. No, it matters not a whit, because somehow, I will find a way to sever it.

This time, though, I made an enormous amount of progress, even separating each bush from its brethren, before I saw a sudden spark, looked down, and saw that the electrical cord was no more.

Oh, well, I thought. Time to go inside.

I did trim for a few minutes more with a manual hedge trimmer--barbaric, although pleasantly quiet--and I thought everything was looking much better when I stopped.

About an hour later, Gloria and Eli returned.

"The bushes look great!" Gloria said. "I can't believe how much better they look. Thank you for doing that."

"You're welcome," I said. "Oh, and the next time you go to the store, we need a new extension cord."

"Already on the list," she said.

Young Eli In Love

Three months ago, we were eating dinner at Central Market, and the table next to us had two teenagers who were holding hands and making goo-goo eyes at each other.

Eli leaned in toward me and whispered, "WHAT are they DOING?"

I smiled. "Hey, you'll be doing that someday," said.

"Excuse me," he said. He leaned over the railing, pretended to put his finger down his throat, and made a very convincing throwing-up sound.

"Noted," I said, and we continued eating.

Last week, we were walking out a store together, and a girl who was a couple of years older than him walked by. A few seconds later, he said, "Did you see that girl?"

"Yes," I said.

"She was hot," he said.

And so it begins.

In the last three months, his defiant attitude toward ever liking girls as anything more than friends has collapsed faster than the former Soviet Union. He has an official crush now, and while he still has many good friends who are girls (which I like), there's no question that girls are conceptually becoming dual-purpose.

World War Z: An Oral History Of The Zombie War

Nate Carpenter recommended "World War Z" to me over two years ago. I read it last week.

This is not, on its face, surprising. Several of you have gotten e-mails (quite possibly, after you'd stopped reading the blog) from me years after a recommendation, when I finally got around to viewing/reading/doing what you'd suggested.

I apologize. The queue unfortunately stretches for miles and is filled with an abundance of time-consuming, interesting whatnot.

Back on topic. So I finally read the book last week, and it's just great. What a beautifully written, brilliantly structured piece of work. It's structured in a similar manner to a Studs Terkel book, who has written a series of world-renowned books consisting entirely of interviews to capture the feel of a particular place in time.

Employing this narrative structure as a fictional device is a wonderful idea, and it's used unbelievably well. You might think that a book about 1) zombies and 2) war might be sterile, but World War Z is anything but sterile--it's filled with human, personal moments, and it's deeply poignant.

It's also impossible to put down. Once I started reading, I returned compulsively until (with much regret) I finished.

It's one of the best works of fiction I've read in the last decade, and recommend it wholeheartedly. Here's the Amazon page: World War Z: An Oral History of the Zombie War.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #10

We're leaking fuel and breaking guitar strings at a record pace this week. John hasn't played, and neither have I (for reasons I can't go into yet). Thank goodness for Expedition Leader David Gloier, who writes this week about the different types of electric guitars and how it influences their sound:
Electric guitars come in three major types: hollow-body, solid-body and semi-hollow body.

For many of you out there, your Squier Stratocaster controller is your first "real" guitar. It's the only one you've held, played and known. The Strat, though, is a relative late-comer to the electric guitar scene, even though it's design is nearly sixty-years old.

The first electric guitars were hollow-bodies. In the 1920's, with the advent of big band music, a need arose for the guitar not to be drowned out by the band. They were essentially arch-top guitars with pickups retrofitted. Hollow-body guitars generally have a nice mellow tone and tend to be favored by jazz musicians. The major shortcoming of the hollow-body is that it is susceptible to feedback due to the the open cavity, large size and the thin shell. They also tended to lack sustain. These were all features that, while beneficial to an acoustic instrument, led to the search for a guitar that would correct these issues. Hollow-body guitars also tend to be a bit fragile.

Solid-body guitars began to take shape in the 1940's as the need arose for guitars that were louder and more durable. Two of the biggest figures in the development of the solid-body electric guitar were Les Paul and Leo Fender. Their designs are still prominent today. Les Paul created "The Log", which was essentially a 4x4 piece of lumber with a bridge, a pickup, and a neck attached. He split an acoustic guitar lengthwise and attached both halves to his log to make it look more like a traditional guitar. In the meantime, Leo Fender produced his "Esquire" in 1946, which is essentially a Telecaster with just a bridge pickup, followed shortly thereafter by the "Broadcaster" (1950), a two pickup version, which, due to a legal dispute became the "Telecaster". Fender's designs were the first mass produced solid-body guitars and Gibson quickly realized there was a market and began producing their solid-body guitars based on Les Paul's designs in 1952. In 1954, Fender followed up his Telecaster with the solid-body Stratocaster, which all you Rock Band players should now be familiar with.

The advantages of the solid-body are increased volume and sustain, without the feedback at higher volumes that can be common with hollow-body guitars. It's no surprise that shortly after a guitar was produced that could be played reliably at louder volumes, Rock and Roll emerged. (God bless Les and Leo.)

The solid-body is also much more durable. Stories abound of disasters that Telecasters have survived. Keith Richards even clobbered a guy over the head with one in the middle of a concert, strapped it back on, and kept playing.

Gibson, in 1958, introduced the ES-335, a semi-hollow body guitar which offered the benefits of both the hollow-body and solid-body guitar. Semi-hollow bodies provide the resonance of a hollow-body guitar with some of the sustain and bite of a solid-body. The solid center design of the semi-hollow makes it more resistant to feedback, unlike hollow-bodies, which, as discussed, tend to feedback at higher volumes. The advantages of this design are that it gives the resonance of a hollow-body with the sustain of a solid-body.

So there, in a very basic nutshell, are the three major electric guitar designs. Hopefully, when you're staring at that wall full of guitars at your local guitar store, you'll have a better idea why they all seem so different.

King Of The Wild Frontier

You should really go listen to this first.

"Dad, have you ever heard this song?" Eli asked. Then, he sang: "Davey, Davey Crockett, king of the wild frontier."

"Are you kidding me?" I asked. "Of course I've heard it. That was a big song in my childhood. There was a t.v. show about him and everything."

"We're learning about him in school," he said.

"So are you learning the standard or original version of that song?" I asked.

"Uh-oh," Gloria said. You may think that Gloria is automatically inserted into posts of this type just to say "uh-oh" or something similar, but she does indeed say these things.

"How do I tell?" he asked.

"Well, the original version had quite a few more verses," I said. I began to sing: "Davey, Davey Crockett, best darn bowler in the town."

"Nope, we didn't that one," he said.

"What about this one? Davey, Davey Crockett, burned down the neighbor's shed."

"Starting to not believe you now," he said, looking at Gloria.

"Well, what about Davey, Davey Crockett, he called it sherbert, not sorbet?"

"All right, THAT'S IT," he said.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Great Strides

DQ reader Ken Dean is participating in a charity walk to benefit the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation. Ken's one-year-old son Ethan was born with CF, and I can only imagine how strong a family must be to cope with the effects of this disease. Please consider donating if you can, and the donation page is here. Thanks very much.


There are some badass things happening in technology. There always are, obviously, but I thought these two items in particular were extremely interesting.

First, David Braden (yes, that David Braden) has invented a PC, and it's the size of a USB key:
The tiny computer -- dubbed "Raspberry Pi" -- looks somewhat like a standard USB memory stick, as a USB 2.0 connector juts out of it. But on the side it packs a SD/MMC/SDIO card reader to provide Flash storage (of course buying said storage might bump the price $10-$20). And on the side opposite to the USB port an HDMI connector sits, capable of piping out 1080p video to a monitor/TV.

The little board has smartphone-esque hardware, with a 700MHz ARM11 processor and 128 MB of SDRAM packed in. Specifics on the processor, including the manufacturer were not yet revealed. The GPU also was not revealed, but it is said to be capable of handling OpenGL ES 2.0 (hence the 1080p output).

Mice/keyboards can be plugged in via the USB slot. The computer runs a version of popular open-source Linux distribution Ubuntu 9 and comes with a variety of open source software tools (Iceweasel, KOffice, Python).

The best part? It costs $25 to make. Amazing. Details here.

Next, remember what I've been saying about autostereoscopic 3D (no glasses) and how the technology will improve rapidly because that's essentially the Holy Grail for televisions? Well, MIT is on the case, and they've come up with this:
The device, described in a paper for SIGGRAPH Asia, improves upon the 3DS parallax barrier technology, a partly opaque screen that helps create the 3D effect without glasses.

The HR3D system, seen in a video below, uses two layers of LCD screens like the 3DS, but the top screen displays a custom image based on the image on the bottom screen instead of relying on large vertical, opaque areas, which block the underlying light and require the batteries to work harder.

"Instead of consisting of a few big, vertical slits, the (HR3D) parallax barrier consists of thousands of tiny slits, whose orientations follow the contours of the objects in the image," MIT said.

"Because the slits are oriented in so many different directions, the 3D illusion is consistent no matter whether the image is upright or rotated 90 degrees."

Look, these issues are going to be resolved. The financial incentives are far, far too great for them not to be.

Console Post Part 2: The "D" Stands For Denial

It was announced last week that sales of the new 3DS were falling below Nintendo's expectations.

Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata had this to say:
While Iwata did not give specific reasons why the console hasn't done as well as Nintendo had predicted, he voiced a few hypotheses. One is that consumers have yet to fully understand the console's capabilities, even when trying it out.

"The value of 3D images without the need for special glasses is hard to be understood through the existing media. However, we have found that people cannot feel it just by trying out a device, rather, some might even misestimate it when experiencing the images in an improper fashion," Iwata said.

No no no no no no no.

Do not blame the consumer. Do not become Sony, endlessly talking about how consumers just didn't "understand the value proposition" of a PS3 at $599.

Why, the unwashed masses just can't handle this miracle device beamed from the future, can they?

Look, Nintendo. If people cannot "feel" the experience when they're trying out the device, if they can't even try it out properly, that's a "you" problem, not an "us" problem.

The absolute last thing a company should ever do is blame their problems on the consumer's lack of sophistication or ability. No, this wasn't Jack Tretton swinging his Gigantic Schlong Of Arrogance, but it wasn't good, either.

It's not the consumer's fault that the 3DS launched with a weak software lineup. That's what needs to get fixed.

Okay, let's move on to Outageddon, and as an opener, here's an e-mail from "Mean On Sunday":
A correction to one of the comments you posted from "a professional source". Sony said the passwords were not encrypted, but they were hashed. This is an important difference. Without going into details, while you might be able to crack an individual hashed password there is no practical way to crack a large number of them. This might be useful to a hacker that wanted to make a point by accessing a particular account (why does Jack Tretton's name come to mind?). But someone looking to make money by selling accounts would not waste their time on a database full of hashed passwords--flipping burgers would be more profitable.


What I think we all need, at this point, are some Photoshops of Communist worker propaganda posters altered to refer to their unending efforts to restore PSN service. I know some of you are bored out there--probably as you're reading this post--so gentlemen (and ladies), start your Photoshop engines.

Sony did announce a set of free gifts for giving them your personal data and having them fumble it away. Free credit reporting services are a reasonable start, but it sours after that. I don't know what I was expecting from Sony in terms of recompense, so maybe it would have been impossible to satisfy me, but one free month of Playstation Plus and two free games (out of a selection of five) feels awfully shitty to me.

Hey, in response to losing control of your personal data and quite possibly your credit card information, and our network being down for a month, we're going to make it up to you by giving you a one month free demo of a pay service!


Instead of seeming like any kind of apology for being clueless, incompetent hacks, Sony instead tries to get us to sign up for a premium subscription service on their network. That seems pretty crappy, really.

What they should do is have a gigantic sale on downloadable titles, with the price discount being eaten by Sony. That would help developers who depend on PSN recoup some of their losses. That would help the consumer as well as the developers. Instead, they create this ridiculously obvious attempt to gain subscribers to their premium service. Good grief.

I will say, though, that Sony hasn't used the "victim" word yet, and their executives, in contrast to their regular style, haven't been dicks in interviews. Credit for that.

Of course, that means nothing until the man himself, Jack Tretton, weighs in. It's an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object. Will anyone or anything survive?

Monday, May 09, 2011

Win Free Stuff

Dan Spezzano of Old Board Gamers Blog let me know that they're having a contest, and the prize is a free copy of the new Lord Of The Rings card game. If you're interested, hit the link for details.

Age Of Fear Multiplayer Beta Testers Needed

Les Sliwko is now actively seeking multiplayer beta-testers for his game Age Of Fear: The Undead King. If you're interested, please go here for more details.

Console Post Of the Week: Stuff and Nonsense

Much to my surprise, some of the worst analysis I've ever seen has emerged after Nintendo's announcement that they're introducing a new console in 2011.

Let's do a survey.

First on the roster:
“Don’t be surprised if Nintendo, this time around, creates a piece of hardware that is more compelling to the core gaming community, as well as the mainstream,” said Jesse Divnich, an analyst with EEDAR, a market research firm for the video game industry.

Um, okay. And how exactly did the disappointment of the "core gaming community" affect the Wii?

Crickets chirping.

There's problem with creating the high-end hardware that is "compelling" to the core gaming community: it costs too much. Nintendo made billions and billions of doors with innovation, last-gen graphics, and inexpensive hardware. They made money on every single console sold, right from day one. The Wii had the most successful first four years of any console in history, and the successor will be released next year.

Let's go the Sony route: allegedly super-powerful hardware, ungodly launch price, and still $299 four years later. I'm willing to bet that the NEXT Nintendo console will eventually cost less than the PS3. That's how badly the PS3 was positioned.

Or maybe, the Microsoft approach: release powerful hardware that is entirely unreliable for the first 24+ months of its lifespan. Seriously, how can you applaud in any way a 25%+ failure rate? How is that even possible?

Microsoft did a great job with online services in this generation. Their hardware was a disaster (it's excellent now, but how does anyone discount those catastrophic first two years?). Sony's done a crappy job with both, because hardware that's overpriced for the market by $200 at launch, and $299 four years later, is failure.

Next up, Michael Pachter:
“I think the only way for them to succeed is if the architecture is similar enough to the PS3 and 360 that makes it easy for developers to port games over,” Pachter said. “That way, you get all the third-party games. That’s what hurt the Wii.”

The only way to succeed? That hurt the Wii? How much god**** money does Nintendo have to make to be considered a success? Yes, that's what the new console desperately needs--Call of Duty.

Maybe Pachter's quote was lifted from a longer excerpt, but to say anything "hurt" the Wii is ridiculous. The Wii kicked everyone's ass to a degree that is almost incomprehensible. Anyone using the word "hurt" should put it in proper context, or use something else entirely, because that's the wrong word.

Maybe people haven't figured this out yet, but at this point in the evolution of the videogame market, just focusing on the hardcore is death. Hardcore is the gaming ghettto, and while there's a philosophical argument to be had about whether it should be that way, there's no argument that appealing to the hardcore is not necessary to succeed.

I totally agree that Nintendo should have done a better job attracting third-party developers to the system. Well, that's not quite correct--they did attract plenty of third-party development, but most of it wasn't very successful (and quite a bit of it wasn't good, either), and no one could understand why a third-party game succeeded or didn't succeed on the Wii. Development dropped off based on lack of success, not lack of interest.

What's happening here is that analysts never quite understood why the Wii was successful to begin with. None of them thought it would be, and they're still confounded. I'm sure you can find a Pachter quote from 2006--oh, and wait, I just did:
"We expect the dominant console at the end of the next cycle to be the Sony PlayStation 3," he explained, "primarily due to our assessment that Sony will win the high definition DVD format war."

It's not all bad news for Microsoft, though, with Pachter anticipating that Xbox 360 will "enjoy a first mover advantage for the next two years, capturing approximately 42% of U.S. and European combined next generation hardware unit sales through 2007."

Looking past 2007, however, the market seems likely to settle down to a more familiar pattern - "with Sony capturing around 45% of the total market, Microsoft capturing 35%, and Nintendo capturing 20%.

Pachter expected the Wii to capture 20% of this generation. Instead, it's captured roughly 45%. And his projections were roughly in line with other analysts. And I'm sure if I looked hard enough, I could find a quote about how the Wii needed to attract major franchises from third-party developers.

The Wii blew up the paradigm, and analysts still haven't recovered.

However, and I'll talk about this tomorrow, Nintendo is making a mistake with the 3DS, at least in their public statements. And I'll have a bit on Outageageddon as well.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Friday Links!

An outstanding infographic: Why Pro Athletes Sleep 12 Hours A Day.

Here's an absolutely fascinating interview with Nicholas de Monchaux, who has written a book about Apollo spacesuit design titled Spacesuit: Fashioning Apollo.

From Eric Barrett, an entirely fascinating video about a Japanese soldier who fought WWII-- until 1974. It's an incredible--and incredibly strange--story.

From Tom Tjarks, and this is endlessly amusing, it's Thog's Masterclass, a site devoted to epically bad science fiction and fantasy writing. It's entirely wonderful.

From Kevin W, it's Pigs In Space.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is quite amazing, it's the Freerunning Academy. Also, and this is just as amazing (or more), it's An impressive balancing act. Finally, and these are remarkable but difficult photos, the devastation from the recent tornadoes in the south, via The Big Dig.

From hippo, and I bet a bunch of you more "mature" readers (like me) remember this: the story behind the "Mastermind" game box.

From Meg McReynolds, and this is entirely delightful, it's Crochet Vandals Do Graffiti ... Like Your Grandma.

From Robb, it's Revolutionary new paper computer shows flexible future for smartphones and tablets.

From Ben Younkins, a developing mystery: Aviation Geeks Scramble to ID bin Laden Raid’s Mystery Copter.

From Sirius, and this is quite interesting, it's Scientist claims he's finally discovered how Grand Canyon was created. Also, and these are very amusing, it's Molecules with Silly or Unusual Names. We're still going with How to tease your dog. Finally, and this is a fantastic video, it's The Inner Life of a Cell.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

Harmonix: The Complicated Price

From Gamasutra:
Viacom generated a tax benefit of approximately $115 million dollars with the sale of Guitar Hero and Rock Band creator Harmonix, according to its filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission.

When Viacom sold the developer for the surprising sum of $49.99 late last year, it was widely reported that it had done so in order to reap a major tax benefit for closing a sale by the end of 2010. With this figure officially revealed, this appears to have been the case.

I've heard many sources cluck-cluck-clucking that this means that the purchase price of Harmonix was $115 million.

That is not correct.

Yes, Viacom may have realized a $115 million tax benefit, but the purchaser of the company is not paying that tax benefit. So while Viacom may have realized an enormous tax benefit by selling the company, the company itself was not valued in that manner.

This is a mistake.

There's no question that the little plastic instrument genre has imploded in spectacular manner, but I believe the people at Harmonix are some of the most creative developers--ever. They develop games that are playable by an incredibly wide audience. Whatever they make will always be worth buying.


This indie game looks terrific (thanks, Qt3 forums): Dredmor. It's a rogue dungeon crawler with a very charming visual style, and I can't wait for it to be released.

Every Bunny Gets Drunk After Easter #9

We've had a semi-collapse this week, with David Gloier working on a piece about types of electric guitars that isn't quite finished, and my almost total lack of playtime (30 minutes on chords, not much to report there). John Harwood soldiered on, though, and we hope to do better next week.

Here's John's update:
I realized what my issue has been of late in not pushing myself with the Squier: I'm lazy. Coming from me of all people, that may not seem like a massive feat of self-realization, so bear with me.

I'm driven as hell to learn something new. I don't blink at dumping 5+ hours into something when it's fresh and exciting and challenging. So why am I no longer pushing myself 2+ hours a day hurting my fingers with no clue (or care) what I'm doing? I think it's because I can now get by. I can play bass on hard on anything that's moderate difficulty or less. That's quite a few very very satisfying songs, but in the back of my head I know that I'm not really progressing any more. I can't do chords reliably, but I find myself not really wanting to press and work at it. I can either frustrate myself and push for more and more, or I can take the easy road and play single string stuff and have fun.

I've noticed this tendency in myself in several other areas and I like to think of it as the Lazy Valley effect. If you were to graph my drive to achieve vs my skill and understanding, you hit a point where I'm headed up the curve and all of a sudden drive takes a complete nose dive when I hit a certain level of comfort and I stop pushing myself at all.  If I'm interested enough, I'll eventually pull out of the pit and start back up the curve, and the length of time spent in the valley is directly proportionate to how satisfying the activity is at that level of skill. That's the big problem I have with RB3 and the Squier at the moment: What I can do right now is very fun. But it's fun in a game-controller way, not in a playing-the-guitar way. Playing guitar for real is an incredibly compelling experience, so I think I'll pull out of this, unlike what happens to me in some computer games that I don't stick with.

Anyway, I'm beginning to climb out of the valley and this week spent about 3 hours going back to chords on Justin's site and... god help me... working on "The Hardest Button to Button" on expert guitar. You must by now understand what an effort of will that is. Have gotten to where I can play most of the song at about 85% speed in practice and I've noticed very definite improvement. I'm really "excited" to get to the point where I can "enjoy" playing along to that song on the amp and possibly even without the game going. So I think the worst of the laziness is behind me (damn you LOTRO and 3DS!) and I'm feeling motivated again.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

I Don't Know If You Want To Ride That

"There's going to be an elephant ride at the Family Event," Eli 9.8 said, talking about an event at his school.

"Really?" I asked. "I thought elephant rides were going out of style."

"I guess not," he said. "Are they dangerous?"

"If the elephant is pissed off, yes they are," I said. "Elephants are very smart and relatively awesome, though, so that doesn't happen very often."

"Well, I don't know if I want to ride one or not," he said.

"It's certainly not the most dangerous thing you can do with an animal," I said. "There was quite a long period of time before people understood what was safe and what wasn't."

"Here we go," Gloria said.

"For instance," I continued, "early on, the 'brush the lion's teeth' attraction ended in disaster."

All kidding aside (and I only wish I had said "floss", which was funnier), WTF are people still riding elephants for, anyway? Does the elephant like that? Do we want to piss off elephants? Put me firmly in the "no" camp on that. There must be some kind of elephant retirement home (hey, right here) where they could just hang out together.

Anyway, as it turned out, there was (allegedly) some kind of "incident" at the previous event the elephant attended, so when we got to Eli's school, we saw--a camel.

Those bastards spit, you know.

In Passing

Eli 9.8 had a hat trick on Saturday, and his team won 5-1.

That wasn't the cool thing. The cool thing was that his team is now passing crazy. They were passing the ball all over the field, and he was leading the charge--I think he would have had five or six assists if anyone had been able to finish. It was the best game he's ever played in terms of controlling the game by passing, not scoring.

Incredibly, it looked like real soccer, and just last year, only two or three kids on his team were aware of the field and who was open. Now, they all are, and it's fun to watch.

At the end of the game, the teams were in line to shake hands, and Eli was near the back. A bunch of his teammates started pushing him forward, and one said, "Eli, get in front of the line. You deserve it."

"No, we're a team," he said. "I'm fine right here."

That made me very, very proud.

The Bending Of The Future

I like it when the future begins to bend, particularly when it's in a way that I never imagined. From Daily Tech (I'm excerpting at length because this is quite cool):
Pepsi recently announced that it will release a new vending machine that utilizes technology such as a full touch screen for beverage selection, and will allow consumers to use cash or credit. But the more notable addition to this high-tech vending machine is its use of social networking among Pepsi drinkers.

In addition to simply selecting a soda for oneself to drink, the new vending machine also allows consumers to send soda to each other. Let's say a person wants to send a Pepsi to someone in another building that has the same vending machine, or even to someone that does not have the same vending machine. The consumer can enter the recipient's name, mobile phone number and a personal message into the vending machine, and it will send a text message to the recipient.

The consumer can even record a video to be sent to the recipient. In the received text message, the location where the Pepsi can be redeemed will be noted along with the personalized message or video.

Consumers can also send a Pepsi product to a complete stranger through the "Random Acts of Refreshment" option. This allows a consumer to send a Pepsi product to any other social vending machine.

That's actually innovative. Brilliant, really, to do those kinds of things with a vending machine.

Now, it will obviously be hacked to smithereens within weeks and basically become free Pepsi machines, but still, it's totally cool.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Passing Of A Legend

One of the greatest long-distance runners in history passed away on April 19. Her name was Grete Waitz.

I was seventeen (1978) when Waitz ran her first marathon (New York City), shattering the world record by over two minutes. Her stride was both beautiful and indomitable, and over her career, she lowered the women's marathon record by over nine minutes.

For over five years internationally, any race Waitz ran in became an event, because the times she ran were so crazy-fast that whenever she laced it up, a world record was possible. And in pre-instant information days, I remember waiting anxiously to hear race results, wondering if she had done it again.

Olympic gold eluded her, largely because Norway boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow. She did win the world championships in 1983, and was second in the 1984 Olympics to Joan Benoit (who was also a complete badass, although that's a story for a different day).

She was also, from everything I've read, a grounded, decent person.

So if you want to read about a true legend, head over to her Wikipedia page and enjoy. Also, a very well-done New York Times profile.

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