Monday, December 31, 2007


The only thing missing from the first day of this trip was bot flies.

Well, that and space. Traveling in a car for 6+ hours, arriving at the in-laws, then heading straight into a tiny living room (with six of us now). After half an hour, a drive to a restaurant in an even more jammed car. After waiting for half an hour, the six of us cram into a small booth. One more person in that booth and it would have qualified as a fraternity prank.

After dinner, we're off to the house where we're staying (Gloria's friends from school). They have a nephew who Eli knows, and he's spending the night. Eli 6.4 can't sleep in the same room, though, because he snores like a bulldozer, so Eli sleeps with us--on a double bed.

A "double" bed contains 16 hours of sleep, in total. Eli took 9 of those hours. Gloria took 5. I think I took 2, at most, because I was a bit, um, cramped.

Let me be clear. A corpse would have been cramped.

When we woke up in the morning, I turned to Gloria. "Let us never mention the concept of the 'family bed' ever again," I said.

It took less than 12 hours, and I already had SAD (Shreveport Affective Disorder).

For the purposes of domestic harmony, I will skirt around the details of much of what happened to us there, but here is a suitable metaphor. Gloria's mother has a small tree on a kitchen counter. It's about 18" high, and it looks like it's dying. There's no question that this tree has no chance of surviving.

Except that it's an artificial tree.

That's right, this dying tree isn't even real to begin with. When you can wrap your head around that zen koan, you will understand exactly what these yearly trips to Shreveport are like. Up is down, front is back, and even artificial trees are one step away from death.

On Saturday, I walked from the house to a drugstore that was only about a hundred yards away. I picked up a few items, then got in line behind a woman who looked to be in her 70's. She only had a few items as well, but when I walked up behind her, she looked up an immediately said, "Oh, you can go ahead of me."

"You don't have any more items than I do," I said. "Thank you, though."

"Well, some people are just always in a hurry," she said.

I smiled. "Not today," I said.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Friday Links: Holiday Edition

A little lean this week, but most of you guys are on vacation. I'm going to Shreveport, which is something else entirely.

From Cliff Eyler, a link to a post about a visit to a Scottish nuclear reactor at Torness by science fiction author Charlie Stross. It has a ton of interesting details.

Here's a remarkable video about the Aptera's Electric Typ-1, a futuristic electric car with a range of 120 miles. It's an amazing piece of engineering, it's only going to cost $30,000, AND it looks like something George Jetson would drive. Win win win.

Sacha Baron Cohen, one of the five funniest men on Earth, gave an interview to the Telegraph and it's an excellent read.

From the New York Times, a story about the Aurora, judged by many automobile historians to be the ugliest car ever made. It was designed and built by a priest, incredibly enough, and the story is a very good read.

From Sirius, a link to microscope art, and some of the images are amazing.

A second link from Sirius, this to a BBC story that giraffes may actually be represented by six different species, not one.

From Edwin, a link to a musical composition called Hip Hip Violin And DJ. And it's really, really good.

Here's a remarkable map of nighttime illumination on the Korean peninsula. Believe me, the contrast between North and South Korea is stunning.

Finally, from Jesse Leimkuehler, a story with links to some of the coolest webcams in the world. How cool? Let's see--African Safari, Mt. Everest, the Pyramids of Giza, Vladivostok, the Panama Canal, Pike's Peak, Prague, and a slew of others.

Thursday, December 27, 2007


I walked out the door last Friday morning, heading to work.

"Wait," Gloria said, walking up behind me and pulling on my shirt. "Your shirt is totally untucked in the back.

"It's a style," I said.

"Stop it," she said. "I"m trying to help you become a more normalized member of society."

"Sure," I said. "Mainstream me. See what good that does you."

Marathon Kids

Eli 6.4 is in the Marathon Kids program, so he's running thirteen miles at school over a period of a few months, and we're running thirteen miles together--one mile at a time.

We're at mile 25, so we have one more mile to go.

"We have to run one extra lap next time," I said as we ran around the track.

"WHAT? Why?" Eli asked.

"A marathon is 26.2 miles," I said. "We need to run that extra point-two, and it's almost a full lap."

"Dad, come on! They didn't tell us at school."

"No matter," I said. "That's an extra three hundred and fifty-two yards, and we're running it."

We run forwards, but we also run backwards. We speedwalk. We skip. We pretty much do something different every twenty seconds.

"Dad, are we doing The Punishing Last Lap today?" Eli asked.

"Of course!" I said. We always run the last half lap faster, and I started calling it The Punishing Last Lap, sheerly for entertainment purposes. Eli is fast, so we're running at last 200 at 7:30 pace or better, and he always "collapses" when he crosses the finish line.

This time, though, I didn't say anything when we started the last lap, and Eli sped up on his own. He ran the fastest he ever has for the last 220, and while we were throwing the Nerf football around afterwards, he suddenly stopped and went "Dad! We didn't run The Punishing Last Lap!"

"Dude, we did," I said. "I didn't mention it, but you ran really hard anyway."

"I did?" He thought for a minute, then smacked his forehead. "Oh, no! I punished myself!"

Shaun The Sheep

I can't remember if I've mentioned this before (and hopefully, neither can you), but if you're a fan of Wallace & Gromit, you should check out Shaun the Sheep. Shaun was created by Aardman Animations, and the style is very familiar (and likable). It's also very funny. The episodes are airing on The Disney Channel in the U.S., and they're short (only six or seven minutes long), so a digital recorder is really helpful in catching them. Eli 6.4 loves them, and so do I.

Tearing Down the Wall of Sound

I recently finished reading Tearing Down the Wall of Sound: The Rise and Fall of Phil Spector, and I highly recommend it as both a piece of music history and a study in character.

I knew that Phil Spector was a little odd, but believe me, I had no idea. "Odd" is entirely inadequate to describe his strangeness. "Bizarre" probably doesn't even begin to describe it. Yet Spector's influence on the course of pop music is unquestioned, and at his peak, he seemed to influence everyone.

The book recounts this influence in meticulous detail, as well as throughly explaining how the Wall of Sound technique he pioneered actually works. The setup to produce the sound is also described, and it's far more complex than I ever imagined.

It's an excellent read, particularly if you're interested in the history of music or the incoherent edges of genius.

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

The Pit

We're off to The Pit tomorrow, otherwise known as The Town Who Must Not Be Named.

We won't be back until Sunday, and I won't have access to e-mail, but I'll post Thursday's content and Friday's links post before we leave on Thursday, so you'll have all the usual distractions.

Skin, Meet Teeth

I just got through "Foreplay/Long Time" on Hard. Barely.

If you're having problems with this song, just remember that if you make it through Foreplay, it's an easy pass from there.

Yes, I know. Double Entendre Theater.

The opening is just brutal, but if you can practice a bit and make sure that you're always correct on the kick pedal, you can miss more notes than you'd think and still stay alive.

Now Showing: Eli 6.4 (Holiday Edition)

Sometimes I read a show description to Eli 6.4 to see if he wants me to record it for him.

Today, I read this: "A giant mutant coyote terrorizes a small village in Central Mexico."

"TAPE IT," he said.
On Saturday, Eli had been all over town with Gloria, and when he came home he sat down and said "Do you know what's making out today? My butt and this couch!"

He got that from a Drake and Josh episode, but he said it like he owned it.

We went to dinner on Sunday night with my Mom for Christmas (tamales--a South Texas tradition), and on the way out of the restaurant, there was a "Love Tester" machine.

I've seen these before, but for Eli, it was the first time, and he wanted to try it out. He actually had a quarter in his pocket, so he pulled it out, put it in the machine, and grabbed the handle.

A few seconds later, the flashing lights stopped on "HOT STUFF."

"Yeah, baby!" Eli said. "Now that is some GOOD NEWS."

On Monday, Gloria promised him that he could open one present on Christmas Eve. We went to my sister's house for dinner, and on the way home he said "Now refresh my memory about this present."

My sister got him a small metal catapult for a gift, which was very high on the awesome scale, and he said "I've ALWAYS wanted one of these."

I said "Dude, everyone wants one of those. Who wouldn't want a catapult?"

He thought for a few seconds, then said, "I don't know--catapult haters?"

Did You Know?

Gloria was sleeping on the couch last night.

Sleeping pleasantly, she emitted what can only be described as swamp gas.

If Eli 6.4 does this, I call him Tommy the Toxic Tooter. With a member of the fairer sex, though, a more diplomatic approach is required.

Fortunately, diplomacy is one of my strong suits. So when Gloria started to wake up, I was ready.

"Honey, did you know that people can fart in their sleep?" I asked.

"No," she said, still groggy.

"Apparently, they can," I said. "And these 'dream farts,' as I like to call them, are incredibly powerful and noxious compared to a regular fart."

"Why are you telling me--oh, good grief! Jesus!"

Rock Band #98: Christmas Miracle Edition

I was playing a song last Thursday night, and Gloria walked in watched quietly. The singer in this particular song wore a flannel shirt and had a long, unkempt beard. "There's a fine line between grunge and woodsman," she said.

My friend John Harwood came over for two hours last Friday and we played Rock Band straight through. We've put in a little over three hours into Band World Tour at this point, and we have 484,000 fans.

483,000 of them are his, obviously. Hello, I'm Ringo Starr.

Playing a song with John is relatively surreal, because he's guaranteed to be 98%+ on almost any song on Hard, which is the level we're playing until we hit the fan cap. So I can play bass/lead guitar (whatever he's not playing), and as long as I hit even 90%, we're almost guaranteed to 5-star the song. I've actually had my mind wander a few times because we'd five-starred a song so early.

We also played the drums this time, and damn, the drums are loud. I always wear headphones, which mutes the sound quite a bit when I play, but as soon as we played a song with me on guitar and John on the drums, it was impossible for me to concentrate on the guitar line. It made me realized how difficult it must be to concentrate at times when someone's playing in a real band.

There was also my Rock Band version of a holiday miracle over the last two nights. For starters, I passed "Vaseline" and "Go With The Flow" on Hard on the drums (ugly efforts both), and when I went back up the set list and played "In Bloom" on Hard, I was able to use the kick-pedal correctly when it was off beat.

I'm not sure how to explain this musically, but what's so evil about the kick pedal is that oftentimes you need to use it in-between beats. You have a steady rhythm going, then the kick-pedal gets inserted between beats (and there's not much time between the beats). I've never been able to play those sections--not even once--but last night, for some reason, it just happened. I wasn't thinking about it, I wasn't really conscious of trying to prepare in advance.

I just did it without having to think. Which is good, because that's when I'm at my best.

That probably didn't come out right.

Today, I passed every song in the next to last set except Boston's "Foreplay/Long Time," which has an absolutely brutal opening. So it hasn't been pretty, but I may be in the final set on Hard soon.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Happy Holidays From Eli 6.4

Monday, December 24, 2007

Sweeney Todd

We went to see Sweeney Todd on Saturday night. We don't go see that many movies (I'd rather see them at home, really, since we have a nice setup), but anything with Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, directed by Tim Burton, is a must-see for me.

I went to the bathroom before we went into sit down, and while I was at the urinal I saw some graffiti scratched into a metal support that held the adjoining stall in place. "SUCK MY NUTS," it said.

It's true. You can never go wrong with the classics.

What was most amazing about Sweeney Todd were the previews. They were endless, and it was easily the most schizophrenic set of previews in history. In order, they were:

1. The Metropolitan Opera in HD
2. A marathon in HD
3. Post-apocalyptic horror
4. Romantic comedy
5. Hip-hop dance film
6. Horror
7. Action thriller

It was insane, but after the movie, I realized that it was also almost entirely correct. Sweeney Todd IS an opera, sort of, and it is a horror film, and it is a romantic comedy, and it is a thriller.

I never saw the hip-hop dance scenes, but it wouldn't surprise me if they were in there.

The movie itself was magnificent, as you'd expect, and remarkably grisly. I'm biased, obviously--Helena Bonham Carter could read the back of a Wheat Thins box and I'd want to give her the Academy Award--but the entire film was so carefully, lovingly done.

In a very darkly comic and disturbing way, of course.

It's been quite a week for me. I saw the two funniest men in the world on Monday night (Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant), the third funniest man in the world on Saturday night (Sacha Baren Cohen, who has a hilarious turn in Sweeney Todd), the best actress in the world (Helena Bonham Carter), and one of the finest actors in the world (Johnny Depp).

Oh, and the HD-DVD edition of Blade Runner is on my desk.

'Tis The Season

"Here's the schedule," Gloria said on Friday. "Tomorrow night, we're going out. Sunday, we're taking your Mom to dinner. Monday, we're going to your sister's for dinner. Tuesday, people are coming over in the afternoon. Wednesday, we're going to Matt and Jocelyn's house for dinner. Thursday, we leave for Shreveport.

"Is this Christmas or am I running for President?" I asked.

Sports Gamer Podcast

The grumpy old bastards at The Blog For The Sports Gamer did a podcast.

Normally, I can't even stand to listen to a podcast, which is why I've never considered doing one. Even people whose writing I really admire have podcasts that are just unlistenable, at least to me.

So when I say that this is an interesting podcast if you're a sports gamer, I don't say it lightly. Glen and Dan interview Tara Clover, PR Director of Grey Dog studios, and they also interview William Thomas, former All-Pro Linebacker for the Philadelphia Eagles and Oakland Raiders.

It's engaging and very entertaining. To find it, just head over to The Blog For The Sportsgamer and look for "Riding the Pines" in the upper-right corner of the page. It's Episode 3.

A Note on Fairway Solitaire

First off, like I said last week, you need to try out this game. It is a 100% recommendation.

I mentioned in the post I made about the game last week that you could use the golf club cards you collected to extend a streak. That's true, but what I didn't know then was that you don't have to use them to continue a streak--you can start a new streak.

Here's an example. Let's say you've got a run of 2-3-4-5-6 going, and you've got a 7 and a 4 in your golf bag. If you want, playing the 7 will extend your streak, but you could also play the 4 and start a new run (in points terms, though, it adds to your current streak). So the golf club card you play doesn't have to continue an existing streak, which makes them very powerful as gameplay elements.

I've gotten e-mails from about a dozen of you who have tried out the demo. Everyone loved it, and it would be almost impossible not to, because it is utterly addictive.

The NEW Johnny Lee Blow-Your-Mind Video

I'm beginning to suspect that Johnny Lee has been beamed to us from the future. Now he's back with a video about how to use the Wiimote and sensor bar to create a virtual reality display.

Yes, it will indeed blow your mind.

Again, and I keep banging the gong on this, while high-definition is "this" future, 3D is absolutely the "next" future of gaming. But I always imagined that "the future" would involve new, incredibly advanced hardware that's several years away, at least. Johnny Lee, though, uses the hardware from a $249 console, makes a simple modification, and presto the future is here right now.

Don't take my word for it--see the video for yourself (thanks Kotaku).

Friday, December 21, 2007

Friday Links!

Enjoy as you frantically compile your holiday gift lift.

First, a link that should really be in a Console Post of the Week, but I'm leading with it here instead. From Stefan Stirzaker, a story about how occupational therapists are now using the Wii as physical therapy.

From Sirius, a link to many other links: the Cabinet-of-Wonders gift guide. There are a TON of interesting links there, so follow as desired.

From Cliff Eyler, a link to an amazing discovery. Whales, it seems descended from a "deer-like animal" that lived 48 million years ago. Here's an excerpt:
Remains found in the Kashmir region of India suggest the fox-sized mammal is the long-sought land-based ancestor of whales, dolphins and porpoises.

Whales are known to be descended from land-dwellers but the "missing link" has been a mystery until now.

Also of interest in the story is a mention of how closely whales are related to hippos.

From Rob, a link to a story about how scientists believe they have discovered the energy source of the Northern Lights. Here's an excerpt:
New data from NASA's Themis mission, a quintet of satellites launched this winter, found the energy comes from a stream of charged particles from the sun flowing like a current through twisted bundles of magnetic fields connecting Earth's upper atmosphere to the sun.

Here's a second link from Rob, this one to a story about "locked-in syndrom." It's a form of paralysis, and here's an excerpt:
This condition is not the same as other forms of paralysis where you feel nothing in the affected areas. Ramsey has 100 percent sensation all over his body. An itch can become excruciating with no way to communicate that he needs it scratched. He has frequent muscle spasms as well, which can be painful.

Remarkably, scientists are working on a device which would allow people afflicted with this syndrome to communicate.

From Brian Pritchard, a link to a fact sheet about the Voyager Planetary Mission. It's full of information about the history of the Voyager mission, and here's an excerpt:
The Voyager mission was designed to take advantage of a rare geometric arrangement of the outer planets in the late 1970s and the 1980s which allowed for a four-planet tour for a minimum of propellant and trip time. This layout of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune, which occurs about every 175 years, allows a spacecraft on a particular flight path to swing from one planet to the next without the need for large onboard propulsion systems. The flyby of each planet bends the spacecraft's flight path and increases its velocity enough to deliver it to the next destination. Using this "gravity assist" technique, first demonstrated with NASA's Mariner 10 Venus/Mercury mission in 1973-74, the flight time to Neptune was reduced from 30 years to 12.

Here's an outstanding link for the passive-agressive in all of us. It's Passive Aggressive Notes, and it's exactly what you'd think it would be.

From Marty Devine, a story about the apparent discovery of Captain Kidd's pirate ship. Here's an excerpt:
Complete with cannons and anchors, the wreckage of the 400-ton Quedagh Merchant has lain untouched and undiscovered off the coast of Catalina Island in the Dominican Republic.

...Charles Beeker, a scuba-diving archaeologist who teaches at Indiana University, said: "When I first looked down and saw it, I couldn't believe everybody missed it for 300 years. I've been on thousands of wrecks and this is one of the first where it's been untouched by looters.

From David Gloier, a story about a new theory concerning wooly mammoths and their extinction. The new suspect? Trees. Here's an excerpt:
It all comes down to food. Mammoths thrived most in large areas of frozen grassland. Around 10,000 years ago, temperatures started to rise. The frozen grasslands where the animals lived and fed started to be replaced by forests expanding from the warmer climates. No more frozen grasslands meant no more food.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

A Look At The Future

I wrote this on January 11 of this year:
I said this a year ago or so, but I believe that the next big step in gaming will be 3D displays. The big step after that, though, will be 3D projections from the console itself, and we will interact with those projections.

I think this will be huge within the next decade--3D projections where we are physically inside the projected game world.

So take a look at this article from Business Week. An excerpt:
Intel has talked to console video game makers about using chips that can perform in excess of 1 trillion calculations per second (, 2/12/07) in future products that use cameras to track body motion to control the action, instead of using buttons or joysticks. "We imagine some future generation of [Nintendo's] Wii won't have hand controllers," says Justin Rattner, Intel's chief technology officer. "You just set up the cameras around the room and wave your hand like you're playing tennis."

We're still a long ways away, but I think people are starting to understand what's possible.

Gaming Links

First off, from Shacknews:
Cleveland-born director Dwight Little (Anacondas: The Hunt for the Blood Orchid, Free Willy 2: The Adventure Home) has been chosen to direct the live-action film adaptation of Namco Bandai's Tekken fighting franchise.

This is officially the greatest Photoshop opportunity ever.

Next, from Penny Arcade, a note on the mod "support" between the PC and PS3 versions of Unreal Tournament 3:
Mods need to come over on memory cards for some inexplicable reason. Indeed, gamers lured by the promise of the $400 forty gig machine (or those who purchased the twenty-gig, as I did) don't even have the slots to use mods built in.

Leonard Suckworthy, what have you done?

And in another fine moment for the Suckworthy's, Leonard's sister Leona has instituted a new policy at EA where digital purchases from the EA store can only be re-downloaded for six months. If you want to download after that, you'll need to purchase EA's $5.99 "Extended Download Service."

Look at this (from EA's website):
Think of this as your digital safety net for those unexpected occurrences - like your hard drive frying or a virus infection. EDS means that with the purchase of your digital product, we'll keep a copy of your file for two full years, so you don't have to.

Wow. The stink off this is pretty powerful. Funny, I thought all they needed to keep a "copy" of was the fact that you purchased the product. Am I misunderstanding this somehow, or is it in the "gigantic ripoff/how stupid do you think we are" category?

Thanks to Joe Richmond for letting me know about EA's attempt to squeeze even more money out of us.

Christina González wrote an article for The Escapist titled Gaming Ability: Modern Consoles and the Disabled Gamer, and it's an interesting read.

Marty Devine sent me a link to a Pvponline strip about rock band and the perils of virtual stardom.

Lastly, here's an update about Sim City Societies. I've always Tilted Mill, and I've been meaning to try this game, but the reviews seemed to uniformly indicate that it lacked depth. Surprisingly, Tilted Mill not only listened, but they're releasing a significant update to the game that adds a mode with increased difficulty and complexity. Gamespy PC has the details, and it's very impressive that the game is still being worked on and improved.


The series finale of Extras was on HBO on Sunday night, and in the 80-minute episode Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant once again demonstrated why they are the two funniest men alive. It's one of the funniest final episodes of any show--ever--and it's also tremendously poignant at times.

Even if you never watched the show, this episode is worth watching. It would be hilarious even without the show's backstory. Here's an episode summary, and HBO should be rerunning it this week.

Oh, and here's a phrase to remember (without making it a spoiler): "I didn't check my dignity at the door."

Looks Like It's Official

Thanks to Kotaku for a link to this Boston Globe story:
Activision spokeswoman Maryanne Lataif said her company was willing to work with Harmonix to make the various game controllers fully compatible with one another. "Unfortunately for Rock Band users, Harmonix has been unwilling to discuss an agreement that will allow us to provide that option in a manner that maintains the high standards people have come to expect from Activision," Lataif said.

She added that any agreement will involve someone at Harmonix writing a check. "We believe we should be compensated for the use of our technology," said Lataif.

I can cut through all that in one word: L-O-S-E-R.

Wednesday, December 19, 2007

Rock Band #97 (Plus a Guitar Hero Story)

Julian Murdoch just wrote one of the best Guitar Hero stories ever for Gamers With Jobs, and it has one of the best titles ever as well. Don't miss Best Buy Bodhisattva.

I'm down to two songs on Expert guitar--Flirtin' With Disaster and Green Grass and High Tides. There's no question that I'll pass FWD--I've gotten through the long solo three or four times, but couldn't get my hands transitioned back to the regular buttons quickly enough. When I'll pass it, though, is another question entirely.

Flirtin' With Disaster also has one of my favorite note charts ever. Almost every single skill you can learn in the game is incorporated into the note chart, and even though it's very difficult, it's also totally fair. There are no tricks or artificial difficulty jacking. It's one of those songs that must be earned, so to speak, so failing it isn't nearly as aggravating as it could be.

Green Grass and High Tides, though, may be my Hangar 18 for this game. The first set of solos are difficult but bearable, but the last solo (which seems to go on for several minutes) is brutal. I've played it in practice mode, and while the note chart isn't unplayable, the sheer length of the solo makes it tremendously difficult.

I'm still having way too much trouble seeing which notes are HO/PO, and I hope that Harmonix can do something to change the way that those notes are represented. Both regular notes and HO/PO notes are rectangles, the only difference being that the HO/PO notes are smaller rectangles. This has to be the most difficult possible way to present those notes in terms of us being able to identify them easily. Use a different shape, or have a different kind of border--anything that will make it easier to identify them. And make it an option, so that people who like it the way it is don't have to change anything.

On drums, I'm through 29 songs on Hard. The set I'm in right now (Vaseline, in particular) is pretty nefarious for my skill level. Once again, I'm stunned at the level of stamina professional drummers must have, and the sheer speed at which they play. I finish some of these songs and my arms are in what can only be identified as shock.

November NPD

Matt Matthews has written one of the clearest and most thoughtful columns analyzing NPD numbers that I've read. It's over at Next Generation, and it's an excellent piece of work, covering both hardware and software.

Eras And Their End

Crysis and Unreal Tournament 3 were released for the PC in November. According to NPD, here are the sales numbers:

Crysis--86,633 (18 days)
Unreal Tournament--33,995 (12 days)

How many units did the tenth rated console game sell? 376,843.

This isn't going to be one of those "PC gaming is doomed" posts. It's not. Certain kinds of PC games, though, probably are.

Crysis had tons of buzz and plenty of advertising and it couldn't even get to 100,000 units in almost three weeks. And the development costs must have been huge. Unreal Tournament is a well-established franchise, and it barely broke 30,000 copies.

There's a reason for all this.

I've written this before, but the PC market isn't one market--it's twenty, or thirty, and as more time passes, even more markets get created. The gap now between a high-end and a low-end system is staggering.

Remember when Origin would release a new PC game and we'd all upgrade our systems to be able to play it? It was worth it, because after we finished the new Wing Commander or Ultima, other developers would catch up in terms of stretching the abilities of our new hardware.

Those days are long gone.

I think more and more people have turned into me, as frightening as that is to all of us. I built a new PC when the FX-51 came out four years ago. Since then, I've upgraded the graphics card two or three times, and the power supply once. I've been threatening to build a new system for over a year, but it keeps getting put off because there's just not much that I really want to play on the PC. I can still play 95% of the games I want to just fine. Sure there are a few games I'd like to check out (The Witcher, to be sure, which I'm guessing would run like a pig), but the vast majority of the time, it just doesn't matter.

I'm someone who should be a primary demographic for PC gaming, and even I don't really care at this point. How many games really push cutting edge PC hardware now? Five a year?

And, importantly, of those five, probably none of them are PC-exclusive.

Wait, that's not quite right. There are still MMO's, like WOW, that are PC-exclusive, and plenty of people upgrade their computers to play them with more bells and whistles. Here's the deal, though--people who upgrade their computers for WOW do it so they can play WOW. They're not playing a lot of other games, because they don't have time. They're not going to play for twenty hours, be satisfied, and move on. They're not even looking for the next game. So they upgraded, but it doesn't really expand the market for other high-end games.

MMO's also have a vested interest in keeping their hardware requirements manageable for as many people as possible. If not, they might wind up like--Crysis.

There's one more problem. Of the last three retail, boxed PC games I've tried to play, I've had serious problems getting two of them installed. The most important initiative that could be undertaken for the PC market would be to get all this driver bullshit sorted out, because it's out of control. I know there's a Gaming for Windows initiative for Vista that allegedly helps this mess, but then you have to install Vista, and damn, that's a steep price to pay.

If new, top-end games don't sell, and older, established franchises don't sell, what's left? Well, lots of cool stuff. MMO's, for one. As great as WOW has been, someone's going to top it, and we'll be playing it on the PC. Then there are outrageously brilliant indie projects like Dwarf Fortress and Armageddon Empires. Then, in the "casual" space, there are about a billion puzzle-type games, and a few of those are extremely fun as well--like Fairway Solitaire, which is nothing short of gaming crack.

That's a lot of goodness for a "dead" platform.

The era of the PC-exclusive, big-budget, AAA title? Dead, unless it's an MMO, and even that might be temporary.

Is that bad? Not really, at least to me. Look at it this way: you can easily spend more than $400 on a high-end graphics card. With that same money, you could buy a Wii, a 360, or a PS3, giving you access to both a ton of games and many more exclusives. And with the 360 or the PS3, you'll be playing all your games in HD.

Oh, and you'll never have a driver conflict.

Still, though, your system will probably be able to play 90%+ of what's coming out on the PC.

Somehow that doesn't seem like a change for the worse.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

The Most Unlikely Game Recommendation Ever

I've been compulsively playing a game for the last three days and I can't seem to stop.

This is not the kind of game I usually play. In fact, it's in a genre that I almost never play. But this game is so clever and so polished that I'm just amazed.

It's also one of the strangest ideas I've ever seen, because it combines solitaire--with golf.

It's called Fairway Solitaire.

Let me try to explain a few of the play mechanics in this game and why it's so incredibly addictive. You play "rounds" consisting of either nine or eighteen holes (plus the occasional special event). Each hole is a solitaire game (they take two or three minutes each), but the card layout varies widely. You can match either one card above or below in value, and it's possible to go on ten or even fifteen card runs. Once you've exhausted the matches, you draw a card from the deck, and when the deck is empty, the hole is over.

At the end of each hole, your score is how many cards are remaining, although the worst you can score is five over par for the hole. And really, even though there's a a golf scorecard with "par" for each hole, par doesn't seem to have much relation to the difficulty of that particular deck.

What does have meaning, though, is how the golf theme affects the play mechanics. For instance, you'll occasionally find a "club" card--a five-iron, for example. This goes into your bag, and if you need a five to continue a matching run, you can just pull it (once) out of your bag and play it.

If there's a "bunker" on the hole (four or five cards, all face down), you need to find the sand wedge card in the layout before those cards flip over.

Oh, and here's one more cool feature. If you chain enough cards together, it's a "long drive" and it increases your scoring multiplier. And when you finish the chain, you're rewarded with a very authentic sounding driver sound. You'll also hear a cheering crowd when you do well.

What all these variations in gameplay do is keep the game feeling very fresh. And the sound effects, in general, are just fantastic. There's golf commentary, sand trap and water sounds, and the "big drive" sound, in addition to the cheering (and groaning) crowds that I already mentioned.

The "courses" are really just a different background picture at each venue, but they still help establish atmosphere. There are a huge number of card layouts, though, and they definitely make each course feel unique.

It's simple to play, utterly addictive, and incredibly fun. You can download a free demo at Big Fish Games, and the developer is Grey Alien Games

Basketball Notes

I almost never keep track of the NBA regular season, since the playoffs last what--six months? When I saw that MSG had settled the sexual harassment case case filed against them for 11.5 million dollars, though, it caught my attention.

Isiah Thomas was in the middle of all this, of course, and isn't anything that happens within a five-mile radius of Isiah Thomas a full-on disaster? Once he left the NBA, he just never grew up. He's basically Webster with a better handle.
I've been reading Paul Shirley's blog for a year or so, and when his book--Can I Keep My Jersey?--I thought it was going to be great.

Curiously, it wasn't.

Shirley can be very funny, and he was, at times, but there was a bitter undercurrent in the book that wasn't funny at all, and it was whiny.

Then there's Rod Benson.

Rod played for California, and he was good. Damn good. Now he's toiling away in the NBA Development League, playing for the Dakota Wizards.

I don't think he'll be there long--he's averaging 15 points and 14 rebounds per game in 36 minutes--but what's relevant to this discussion is that he writes a blog.

It's kind of a revelation to read something written by a professional athlete who is just as goofy as the rest of us. It's goofy and funny and interesting, and it's so popular that now he's writing in two different places--personal posts in The Blog Baby!, and basketball-related posts over at Yahoo! Sports.

If you're tired of professional athletes who do things like release weak-ass, weaselly statements that start off with "If what I did was an error in judgment on my part, I apologize" (seriously, Andy Petit, could you be more of a little bitch?), then Rod's a real breath of fresh air.

EA: The Disorderly Orderlies (But With a PhysX Twist)

Here's an e-mail from Sean Hoyt, and it's so well-organized that I'm going to post it verbatim:

I thought you might find my recent experiences with EA interesting. I've been downloading a lot of PC demos lately, trying to figure out where to spend my meager resources. I enjoyed Far Cry, so I thought I'd try out Crysis. While running the demo it installs a copy of the Ageia PhysX engine. I try the Crysis demo, and meh... not so great. I uninstall Crysis, but notice that PhysX is still there. Since they have a separate uninstall I decide to leave it.

Fast forward a few weeks, and now EA is hyping their Medal of Honor: Airborne demo. Okay, I'll bite for a whopping 1.3GB demo. Many hours later (all the hosts are running at some painfully slow bitrate) I have my shiny new demo which I proceed to install. Everying looks fine, and about 5 minutes later the Windows Installer kicks in. Then nothing. No error message. No MHO:A installed. Simply nothing.

Well, isn't that special. Okay, try a reboot and lets go at it again. Same thing. I try to get to the MOH:A forums, but it's not really clear how to accomplish this so I forget about it for a few days.

So I find myself this afternoon needing to kill an hour or so while I'm waiting for someone, so I give it another try. Still nothing. Finally I do much searching on the internet, and find out how to add a registry key that forces the Windows Installer to write out a log, and it spits out a huge one. Way down at the bottom I find this little tidbit:
MSI (s) (A4:C8) [15:40:06:539]: Product: AGEIA PhysX v7.07.09 -- Installation operation failed.

Well that's strange, because I'm pretty sure that Crysis installed version 7.09.xx. I launched the PhysX control panel, and sure enough, I'm past the minimum requirements. I try google about this problem, but get nothing, so I tried the EA forums again. It seems that when you go to the MOH:A home page, and select forums, you don't get to the forums, but you get a listing of the last five or six posts. Well, nothing there looks relevant, but just for giggles I tried jumping to one of the posts.

Whoa, this is whole different site. It even has a different URL! Okay, I tweak the URL and manage to get to the top of the forums. Success in something at last. What a minute, what's this? A posting marked The MOHA TECHNICAL ISSUES & FIXES LIST? That looks promising, and inside it I find the following message:
Problem: My Install rolls back at the Ageia Physics Driver stage
Solution: Your driver may be more up to date than what Airborne is trying to install. Try rolling back one version and the install should complete.

So let me get this straight:
1. EA publishes Crysis.
2. EA publishes Medal of Honor: Airborne.
3. Both products use the PhysX engine.
4. The Crysis demo comes out a couple of weeks before the MOH:A demo.
5. The Crysis demo uses a newer PhysX engine.
6. The MOH:A demo installer doesn't tell me what's wrong.
7. The MOH:A demo doesn't give you an option to skip the PhysX install.
8. You can't get to the forums for MOH:A by clicking on the forums link on the MOH:A site.
9. I have to break Crysis to play MOH:A (I'm assuming since I'd already uninstalled Crysis).

This must be one of those 'side benefits' of being a ginormous, multi-national entertainment conglomorate.

On the face of it, this is just another example in a long list of how EA isn't doing a good job of process management.

But--there's one more piece.

Last week, I received Black College Football Experience. Months ago, when this game was first announced, I wrote about why I thought it was a great idea, and when I first opened the package, it really heightened my enthusiasm for the game, because everything that was included with the game was absolutely first-rate.

So I start the install process, and I'm psyched. Time passes. More time passes. It's the longest install I've ever gone through, and one of the first steps was to intall PhysX drivers. I already had drivers on my system, but I assumed it was overwriting with a later version.

Finally, the install finishes, and the game is ready to go. I double click on the desktop icon and--nothing.

Let me say that again: NOTHING.

No error message, no task kicking off, nothing.

I try rebooting. Nothing. I try to start the task several times. Nothing. I try from the game menu. Nothing.

I try e-mailing tech support for the game. It's been over a week now, and nothing from them, either.

My system started to seem sluggish at times, even though nothing unusual was showing in Task Manager. After a couple of days, though, when it was still sluggish, I finally remembered something that you guys taught me: look at the Windows Event Viewer. So I did, and what I saw were multiple events taking place every ten minutes, and they were related to the game looking for the PhysX drivers, as far as I could tell. Here's an example:

Detection of product '{D405F378-7AE1-45FE-8699-BA8E2EAEF530}', feature 'testphys_Files' failed during request for component '{D2D7B4BF-6CCA-11D5-8B3F-00105A9846E9}'

This isn't the first time that I've tried to run a game, nothing happened, it was related to PhysX, and there were no error messages. Why are developers not creating error messages when their product won't start because it fails a PhysX-related check?

So I haven't played the game. No word back from tech support, and at this point, none expected. Why anyone would spend what must have been a significant amount of money developing a game (including buying a multi-year license for several HBCU conferences) and not have tech support to help people, I don't know.

I do know, though, that PhysX seems to generate more issues for me than all other drivers combined.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tech TV Employee Number One

Russ Pitts is a terrific writer. I can't put it any more clearly than that. You've probably seen his work at Gamers With Jobs, The Escapist, and many other publications, but he was also a writer and producer for a show on Tech TV called The Screen Savers, and he's written a scathing, hilarious, and uncomfortable series of articles about his time there.

What makes this such an interesting piece of writing is that Russ is able to describe how he felt and what he thought at the time without tidying up his memories. It's full of both swagger and defeat, and the combination is excellent reading.

The series is titled TechTV Employee Number One, and it's highly recommended.

A Microsoft Request

If any of you guys work for MSN, particularly with the search engine, I'd really appreciate it if you'd e-mail me and answer a few question. Thanks.

MLB 08: The Show

Pasta Padre has details on the MLB 08: The Show features list that was released by Sony last week. The new features are some of the most ambitious I've ever seen for a sports game, and the graphics have been significantly upgraded from last year as well.

This game is one of the few sports franchises that has actually fulfilled its potential in recent years, so it makes me believe that this has a chance to be a truly great sports game. The development team certainly has the skill. The only question is whether the additions are so ambitious that they will derail completing and polishing the game.

Rock Band (It's Business Time)

Yes, I stole that from Flight of the Conchords. Man, I hope HBO renews that show.

Two pieces of Rock Band-related information beyond note charts and my continued failure on "Flirtin' With Disaster" on Expert.

First, according to NPD, Rock Band sold 382,000 copies in about ten days. Remember when people were mocking a $170 game as being an overpriced novelty that couldn't possibly sell? Well, that's 64.5 million dollars worth of scoreboard for Harmonix. In ten days.

Rock Band is going to succeed because word-of-mouth is off the charts about the game. Their only problem has been the quality of the intitial batch of controllers, but they quickly set up a program to replace faulty equipment. More importantly, I don't know a single person who bought Rock Band who is still playing Guitar Hero III.

I'm sure you'll be e-mailing me, Mr. Single Person, but I think the fun number is stacked against Guitar Hero, no matter how many bajillion copies they sell. In terms of game quality, the franchises are tracking in opposite directions.

Second piece of news. Here's Activision's response to the compatibility issues with using the Les Paul guitar in Rock Band (thanks Kotaku):
Harmonix and its parent company MTV Games/Viacom recently declined Activision's offer to reach an agreement that would allow the use of Guitar Hero guitar controllers with Rock Band. We have been and remain open to discussions with Harmonix and MTV Games/Viacom about the use of our technology in Rock Band. Unfortunately for Rock Band users, in this case Harmonix and MTV Games/Viacom are unwilling to discuss an agreement with Activision.

"An agreement?" What?

That sounds--to me, at least--like Activision wanted some kind of licensing fee, which is ridiculous.

Does Activision seriously think that they'll sell more copies of Guitar Hero III because people can't use the Les Paul controller with the PS3 version of Rock Band? Do they think the Les Paul is so superior that people won't buy Rock Band if they can't use it?

Are they high?

There's really no way for Activision to spin this that doesn't sound petty, and it was a mistake for them to issue a press release that was worded in that manner.

That Spoon Was Bent Beyond Repair

Here's a follow-up to the post I made about cancelling a Capital One credit card last week. In response to that post, I received two excellent links that I want to share with you.

The first comes from Mike Ferrante, and it's the Get Human database. It's a website that gives you the necessary information and menu options to reach a live human being when you call into a company's phone system. And it's company specific--hundreds of major corporations are listed. It also lets you know which companies are "direct to human."

Also, Mark Reedy sent in a link to an article over at The Consumerist titled How To: The Ultimate Consumerist Guide to Fighting Back, which also includes plenty of company contact information.

NCAA 2008 (360): 149 Days Later, A Patch

The long-awaited (what an understatement) patch for the 360 version of NCAA 2008 has been released, which is supposed to fix the interception issue, improve the ability of QB's to throw a lob pass, and has various other tweaks as well.

It's been almost five months since this game was released. I don't know whether to praise EA for continuing to work on the game, or criticize them for releasing a game that had such obvious, major issues.

Both, I guess.

It's still an improvement from years past, when the patch for NCAA 2004, for example, would be called "NCAA 2005." So in that sense, kudos to EA for not abandoning the current version of the game nine minutes after its release.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Draft Day Sports: College Basketball

From Gary Gorski of Wolverine Studios, news of the upcoming release of Draft Day Sports: College Basketball. The coaching lineage feature is an excellent addition, as well as the "pitch options" that have been added to recruiting. The videos do an excellent job of showing off the new additions, so click on the links if you're interested.

Wolverine Studios Announces Draft Day Sports: College Basketball Release Date and Game Trailers!

Michigan, December 14, 2007. Wolverine Studios, a developer of sports simulation games, is proud to announce that Draft Day Sports: College Basketball will be released via digital download from on Tuesday, December 18, 2007 for $39.95 USD.

In anticipation of the official release we have released four video trailers on our website.

Coach Lineage
Track the entire coaching “family tree” of every coach in the history of your league. See which coaches have been the most successful in teaching their assistants what it takes to make it on their own.

Player Recruiting
Our already deep recruiting system just got better! Check out the new pitch and focus areas, the ability to call up recruits and converse with them and gather the info you need to determine if he’s the right fit for your school. Check out the massive amount of detail on each recruit – even down to info on his parents who could play a role in his decision making.

Check out the detail of the history stored for your league. Go back and look up past award winners, pre and post season tournament winners, team, coach and player records and historical standings for each and every season you’ve played!

In-Game Experience
We’ve redesigned our gameplay screen to provide you with much more on court 2D action and our new player icons make it even easier to determine on court matchups and visualize the game. Take a look at the wide array of coaching options you have at your fingertips including the ability to choose different motivation tactics to try and fire up a listless team or heap praise on your boys for a job well done.

Friday Links!

For your reading pleasure, and sorry for the late start.

First off, and I know I'm outing myself as a moron--wait, that's old news--but I never knew that Stevie Wonder could play the drums. And I don't mean "kind of," either. Here's a video clip of him absolutely melting the stage with a six-minute drum solo. The solo starts at about :40 into the clip.

I've written about 3D printing using a RapRep before, and even though the prototypes have been a bit clunky, I always thought that their potential was enormous. Jeffery Gardiner sent me a link to the announcement that the technology will be used to enable WOW players to order 3D statues of their in-game characters. It's a sensational idea, and there are details as well as a video to watch here. Here's an excerpt that explains the process:
We use technology previously reserved for the manufacturing industry, called rapid prototyping machines, to convert three dimensional computer models into physical objects. The electronic version of your FigurePrint is cut up into more than a thousand very thin slices. The printer creates a slice at a time and the slices are stacked on top of each other to form the final three dimensional statue that we call a FigurePrint. We remove it from the machine, hand finish it, mount it in a glass display case and it’s ready to go.

Ah, Terry Tate. I still burst out laughing every time I see one of the "Office Linebacker" commercials, and here's a compilation of all the commercials in one package. My absolute favorite: "You eat someone else's cake AGAIN, and I will give you a slice of Terry's special PAIN CAKE, and you WON'T want seconds of THAT."

Here's your Christmas feel-good story: English opera singer Tony Henry sang the Croatian national anthem before a Euro 2008 qualifying match against England. Here's an excerpt of what happened:
He should have sung 'Mila kuda si planina' (which roughly means 'You know my dear how we love your mountains').

But he instead sang 'Mila kura si planina' which can be interpreted as 'My dear, my penis is a mountain'.

In America we'd be storming the castle in outrage. In Croatia, they thought it was hilarious and have adopted Henry as bringing good luck. In this case: Croatia 1, U.S. nil.

From Michael Gilbert, a link to an article about the Commodore 64's twenty-fifth anniversary.

Since we just had a band name contest, it's the perfect time for this NSFW link from Craig Miller to The Worst Band Names of '07. Believe me, they're lousy.

From Meg McReynolds, a link to an audio interview by NPR with Nolan Bushnell.

From Griffin Cheng, a link to an article in the New York Times about how Scott Adams, after mercilessly mocking management in his Dilbert comic strip for years, is now managing--a restaurant.

From Steven Davis, a link to a violin-playing robot that is totally remarkable.

From Sirius, a link to the infamous corpse farm in Tennesse, which is used to study the decomposition rates of corpses to improve time of death estimates in criminal cases. Also in this article, and it's a fascinating piece of news: Houdini's body is going to be exhumed and tested to find out if he was actually poisoned by Spiritualists, as was recently alleged in The Secret Life of Houdini: The Making of America's First Superhero (which I highly recommend--it's a terrrific book).

Another link from Sirius, and it's a doozy: Tesla downunder. It details "almost 200 high-voltage projects," and man, the pictures are just amazing. It's not just high-voltage projects, either--there's liquid nitrogen (the banana hammer caught my attention), lasers, and all kinds of ridiculously cool things.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

November NPD Numbers

Wii: 981,000
360: 770,000
PS2: 496,000
PS3: 466,000

This is an easy analysis, so it's going to be short. If you look at historical data for the PS2, Xbox, and 360, there's an easy rule: September sales will equal the sales of the following January, plus or minus 15%.

That's why when companies crow about their October-December numbers, we need to be cautious, because those gains really don't carry through to the following year that often.

Here are the years that the rule is correct (year refers to January sales, September sales would be previous year:
PS2--2004, 2006, 2007
Xbox--2003, 2004, 2005

In 2003, the PS2 tracked within 20%. In 2005, sales in January were over 2X what they had been in September of the previous year.

Xbox numbers didn't track in January 2006 because the 360 was released in November of 2005, and Xbox sales fell of a cliff (unlike the PS2, because Sony wasn't selling enough PS3s to put a dent in the PS2 market that soon).

In case you're wondering, the Gamecube didn't track like that--it was all over the map. Nintendo appears to be a special case in general.

As a general rule for Microsoft and Sony, though, I think the +/- 15% expectation is reasonable, unless there are exceptional circumstances. For instance, with the launch of Halo 3 in September of this year, I don't expect 360 sales to be in the 500k range in January (but I do expect ongoing sales in the 230k-250k range).

However, I think it does give us some good information about what we can expect from the PS3.

Here's what we know. I mentioned in last month's analysis that November sales in the U.S. are usually 2.5x the sales in October. Since October sales for the PS3 were 121,000 units, sales in November--even without a price cut--would have been expected to be roughly 300,000 units.

So we're talking about 166,000 excess units in sales that can be attributed to the price cut, not the 345,000 units that Sony is going to claim.

Divide November sales by 2.5 and you get 186,400 units. That's theoretically what October sales would have been at the $399 price point (without discounting unit numbers for the initial price cut buying spike).

So we have 186,400 units in October, and we know that September sales will equal January, plus or minus 15%. So here's the last question: how do October sales usually compare with September?

The answer is "roughly equal"--some years October sales go up, some years they're down, and some years they're the same (I'm guessing it's heavily dependent on the schedule of the big game releases).

So, at the end of the rabbit hole, I think it's reasonable to estimate January sales for the PS3 at 186,000 units, plus or minus 15%.

And for Sony, that's a problem. Yes, 186,000 units a month is a huge boost for them, but that will leave them a distant third in the U.S. market. The 360 outsold the PS3 by 304,000 units in November--that's crushing. And that's with a price cut for the PS3 and all the initial hoopla and promotion.

Certainly, it's positive for Sony that the price cut raised sales 50% over what they would have been expected to sell otherwise--but that 50% increase is from a base so dismal that it was almost irrelevant.

So when you see press releases from Sony talking about how brilliant they are and how great sales were in November, remember holiday sales inflation and what those numbers really mean for the future.

Armageddon Empires In GFW

I opened up my new issues of Games For Windows magazine today, and Armageddon Empires is everywhere--it's the subject of the "Tom vs. Bruce" feature and the "Line of Attack" column as well.

This is a game that's so good it just refused to die. Vic Davis has tweaked the gameplay for months, greatly improving what was already an excellent game.

I think there's a common element in the three best indie projects of the last three years. Mount & Blade, Dwarf Fortress, and Armageddon Empires are all the sole projects of its developers, and they're continually working on improvements. I don't think that's a coincidence.

Album Covers

Here are the two album covers I mentioned earlier.

The first is from John Compton:

"Rough Age." Nice.

The second is from Mark Bryant:

Maybe we'll have an album cover contest someday.

The Worst Hard Time

This is,simply, one of the most gripping books I've ever read.

The Worst Hard Time is the story of the Dust Bowl, a Depression-era nightmare of heat and drought on the High Plains that lasted for nearly a decade and produced hundreds of mammoth dust storms.

Anyone who lives in this country has probably heard the phrase "Dust Bowl," but it's hard to conceive what that actually meant. There are photographs in the book of houses--literally--buried in dust. The people who couldn't (or wouldn't) leave the High Plains would sweep drifts of dust (inches deep) out of their houses almost daily.

Here's an excerpt:
By 1934, the soil was like fine-sifted flour, and the heat made it a danger to go outside many days. In Vinita, Oklahoma, the temperature soared above 100 degrees for thirty-five consecutive days. On the thirty-sixth day, it reached 117. It was a time without air conditioning, of course, a time without even electricity for most farmers in the southern plains.

On the skin, the dust was like a nail file, a grit strong enough to hurt. People rubbed Vadeline in their nostrils as a filter. The Red Cross handed out respiratory masks to schools. Families put wet towels beneath their doors and covered their windows with bed sheets, fresh-dampened nightly.

The storms. They were bigger than hurricanes, and in some years, there were more than a hundred.

Here's a description of the storm that hit on Black Sunday in April 1935:
In the afternoon, the sky went purple--as if it were sick--and the temperature plunged. People looked northwest and saw a ragged-topped formation on the move, covering the horizon. The air crackled with electricity. Snap. Snap. Snap. Birds screeched and dashed for cover. As the black wall approached, car radios clicked off, overwhelmed by the static. Ignitions shorted out. Waves of sand, like ocean water rising over a ship's prow, swept over roads. Cars went into ditches. A train derailed.

...The storm carried twice as much dirt as was dug out of the earth to create the Panama Canal. The canal took seven years to dig; the storm lasted a single afternoon. More than 300,000 tons of Great Plains topsoil was airborne that day.

No crops grew, no grass grew, no cows could be milked. There was nothing. It was a miracle that anyone survived. Here's what it was like in 1933:
The High Plains lay in ruins...There was no color to the land, no crops, in what was the worst growing season anyone had seen. Some farmers had grown spindles of dwarfed wheat and corn, but it was not worth the effort to harvest it. The same Texas Panhandle that had produced six million bushes of wheat just two years ago now gave up just a few truckloads of grain. In one country, 90 percent of the chickens died; the dust had gotten into their systems, choking them or clogging their digestive tracts. Milk cows went dry. Cattle starved or dropped dead from what veterinarians called "dust fever." A reporter toured Cimarron County and found not one blade of grass or wheat.

That was in 1933. The storms and drought went on for five more years.

This book won the National Book Award, and it's easy to see why. Timothy Egan is a masterful writer, and his ability to create a riveting narrative is completely remarkable. There's no way to put this book down once you start it--it's both very intense and deeply moving.

If you are interested in history, or just enjoy great writing, this is a fantastic book.

Contest Winner!

First, of course, a few last notes about the contest.

There were two extremely clever submissions that were past the deadline. First, Eduardo X submitted the album name "Lanky Strut." That's got to be one of the best album names, real or imagined, that I've ever heard.

Amy Benton also had a post-deadline submission with the brilliant band name "Uteri." An all-female band, obviously, and their album name was "Built for Birthing."

Thanks to all of you who entered.

Now, on to the winner. To explain why this entry won, let me mention what I thought about last night. I was leaning toward a particular entry, but then I started thinking about music in general, and music culture, and if any of these entries had any significance beyond being clever.

As it turns out, one did, and it happened to be the same entry I was already leaning towards.

Let me tell you how I understand the philosophy and culture of heavy metal. Mind you, I'm not saying this is the correct interpretation--it's just mine. To me, heavy metal has always represented a darkly cynical view of humanity. In Christian culture, all men have fallen, but they can be redeemed. In heavy metal, all men have fallen, but no redemption is possible.

I think a collateral belief of the culture is that absolutely nothing is sacred. Heavy metal music is irreverant and often deeply offensive. At the micro level, much of it could be considered just noise, really, but at the macro level, when seen in aggregate, what it says about us is surprisingly challenging.

So any band name that was able to combine all this conflict would be brilliant, not just in a band name contest, but in real life. And that's why, unquestionably, the winner of the contest is Brent Pedersen. His band name Improper Pontiff and the album Genurection (which is a brilliant and funny combination of "genuflection" and "erection", although I'm sure you already knew that) are both clever and very representative of real music culture.

I think I'd like Fallen Pontiff even more, but I'm quibbling.

Brent also submitted an album cover, which didn't help him win, but it's a nice bonus, and again, I could easily see this as a real album cover. Here it is:

Congratulations to Brent, and again, thanks to all of you who entered. I have two more album covers that I'll put up this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Contest Finalists!

First off, a sad note. Matthew Naumann's brilliant band name "Show Me On The Doll," unbelievably, is already being used by a real band. That's an incredibly unfortunate coincidence, but he's graciously removed his entry from the contest.

He is, however, still completely hilarious.

All right, we're down to six, and here they are:
--Steven Kreuch, with his band "HÄMMERTOW" and their album Dermatöphyte
--Trevor Stewart, with his band "Grim Pinata" and their album Crates and Barrels
---Nathan Black, with his band "The Shallow Graves" and their album By The Side Of The Road
---Nate Carpenter, with his band "The Paper Beats" and their album Rock (But Not Scissors)
--Andrew Shih, with his band "Hermaphrodite" and their album Intersexy
--Brent Pedersen, with his band "Improper Pontiff" and their album Genurection

A few more notes:
--Steven Kreuch was the ONLY entry that used an umlaut. How is that possible?
--Trevor Stewart's entry "Grim Pinata" is an outstanding Half-Life 2 reference (from his e-mail, "...the Vortigaunt calls body parts stuck in a web "a very grim pinata indeeeed").
--Nathan Black also mentioned that the reunion album for The Shallow Graves would be called The Shallow Graves - Dig Deeper.
there's nothing to say about Nate Carpenter's entry except that it's terrifically clever.
--Intersexy sounds like it should be a Prince album. It's even better than Lovesexy.
--Brent Pedersen included an album cover, and even if he doesn't win, I'll share it with you.
--there are actually three album covers I'll share with you after the contest is over.

Since I've been working on this for most of the day, I'm going to take a break and play Rock Band (Molly Hatchet on Expert--argghhh). Plus, I want to sleep on it overnight, so I'll announce the winner tomorrow morning.

This delay should drive the 6 finalists crazy, which I'm sure the 169 non-finalists will enjoy.

Gaming Links

Here are some gaming links while you're waiting for the contest finalists to be announced.

First off, here's a story that seems very odd ("odd" as in "stupid"). It appears that Activision is blocking the release of a patch for the PS3 version of Rock Band that would make the Les Paul controller compatible with the game. Here's a statement from Harmonix (thanks Kotaku):
Two weeks ago, Harmonix created a software patch for the Sony PLAYSTATION 3 version of Rock Band that allowed for guitar compatibility and support for third party peripherals, including enabling use of Activision's Guitar Hero III controller with Rock Band. The compatibility patch was submitted, approved and had been scheduled for release by Sony on Tuesday, December 4. Unfortunately, Activision objected to the compatibility patch's release. The patch remains with Sony, but we have been told that it will unfortunately not be released due to Activision's continued objection.

If this is true, Activision needs to back off as quickly as they can--that's a mistake, and it makes them look petty.

Jane Pinckard (of Game Girl Advance) did an interview with Tracey John of MTV Multiplayer about "gender in the gaming space." The questions are thoughtful, and the answers are as well--it's an excellent interview.

I saw a link over at the Quarter to Three forums to another video by Johnny Chung Lee, the fellow who created the "multi-touch interface" mode using the Wiimote. Now he's back with something even cooler--using the Wiimote to create an interactive whiteboard. Even though I can't describe how awesome this is in words, the video is amazing.

Matt Sakey has two links: one, to a new installment of his excellent Culture Clash column, and two, to an article he wrote for The Escapist about Xbox 360 failures titled Escalation.

I mentioned last week that Eve Online had a client update that could, in some situations, delete a user's boot.ini file.


What's worth noting, though, is how Eve Online responded. There's an informational post, and here's an excerpt:
When this problem was discovered, developers were called back to work in the middle of the night to investigate and fix it. Since then we have been working hard around the clock helping our customers that were affected by this problem, quickly establishing phone support and even making arrangements for external support technicians, such as Geek Squad, to assist our customers when necessary. In all, we've been contacted by fewer than 215 users (170 by petition, 45 by phone) who were adversely affected by the boot.ini issue and we will remain diligent in our efforts to see that each case is resolved satisfactorily, first through our Customer Support and if that fails through third party tech assistance such as Geek Squad. (For more information on the boot.ini issue, please visit this webpage.)

Giving specific numbers is always a good idea, and using third party tech assistance when necessary is even better. I think that's an excellent response overall to what could have been a public relations nightmare.

Here's a new lawsuit that's worth following: public relations firm Kohnke has sued Star Trek Online developer Perpetual. In short: investors with and vendors of Perpetual have lost lots of money, and some of Perpetual's asset transfers to another company (allegedly, at well-below market value) are being scrutinized. Shacknews has the story, and more detailed information is available at Ten Ton Hammer.

Contest Semi-Finalists

Total contest entries: 175
Percentage of entries that were disgusting, obscene, or referred to anal leakage: 85%.
Amount of enjoyment I got from reading these entries: 100%.

One note: those of you who thought that feces were your ticket to the semi-finals will be sorely disappointed, although if someone had sent in the band name "Faecal Matters" and their first album Remains of the Day, they would have qualified easily.

One more note: these were incredibly difficult to judge.

Here we go, and in no particular order:
--Mark Lahren, with his band "The Stretchpants" and their album We Don't Need Irons!
Nathan Carpenter, with his band "The Paper Beats" and their album Rock (But Not Scissors)
Brian Pritchard, with his band "Mobius Stripped" and their album One Face
--Steve Matuszek, with his band "Antimony Arsenic" and their album We Will All Rock Together When We Rock
--Andrew Shih, with his band "Hermaphrodite" and their album Intersexy
--"theohall" Halloran, with his band "Atomic Truman" and their album Superfortress
--Steven Kreuch, with his band "HÄMMERTOW" and their album Dermatöphyte
--Toren Smith, with his band "Hi-Definition Jesus" and their album Idol Speculation
--Chris Kotrla, with his band "The Caution Children" and their album Call Before Digging
Matthew Naumann, with his band "Show Me On The Doll" and their album Candy From Strangers
--Brent Pedersen, with his band "Improper Pontiff" and their album Genurection.
--Steve Eck, with his band "Can't Dust for Vomit" and their album Who Killed The Drummer?
--Charlie Rosenbury, with his band "The Verbs" and their album People, Places, and Things
--Nathan Black, with his band "The Shallow Graves" and their album By The Side Of The Road.
--Mark Dinse, with his band "Ladies Home Urinal" and their album Smells Like Cake
--Trevor Stewart, with his band "Grim Pinata" and their album Crates and Barrels
--Kato Katonian, with his band "The Trundle Under the Trundle" and their album Strange Bedfellows.
--Daniel Sasson, with his band "3 Red Rings" and their album I Asked for a Replacement and All I Got Was This Lousy Refurb

There are 18 entries remaining, and around 5:00 p.m. CST today I'll announce the finalists.

Not Quite Yet

I'm sorting through 175 entries, so the semi-finalist selections are still in progress. I can say that you people have an unhealthy fascination with Olestra.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Contest Details

I'm going to give you guys contest information up front, so that you have to time to think about your entries, but the contest doesn't actually start until midnight tonight (Central Standard Time).

First off, the prize, which is a Rock Band package (360 version). However, since it's both console-specific and region-locked, if you win the contest and don't want the Rock Band package, you can pick any two games as a replacement. The only requirement is that I can order them online. In that case, the Rock Band package will go to the second place winner.

To enter, send me an e-mail with both a fictional band name AND the name of their first album. The subject of the e-mail should be "CONTEST." One entry per person, please.

Brandon Cackowski-Schnell gets the credit for suggesting album name as part of the contest.

The contest is open from midnight CST tonight to noon CST tomorrow. That should give everyone in all time zones a chance to enter.

I'll try to announce semi-finalists around 2 p.m. CST tomorrow (Wednesday).

Judging will be 100% subjective, so when your band Monkey Steals Peach and their hit album Don't Feel the Fuzz get eliminated, blame me but don't hate me.

The Mortgage Mess

I wrote a post a few months ago about sub-prime loans and what they could possibly do to the economy. Well, it's happening now, but people still don't really understand how sub-prime is a financial octopus.

The most thorough explanation I've seen of the possibilities, though, is in a Herb Greenberg column over at Marketwatch. It's very detailed and very thorough, and if you're interested, will help in understanding what's still out there.

The witty and clever Esther over at Star Spangled Haggis linked to this in a post a few days ago, which is where I saw it.

Oh, and if you're wondering if the government's "intervention" is going to help, I think the answer is "no." I haven't seen a single analysis that indicates it will help more than 10-15% of homeowners with sub-prime loans. That's a drop in the bucket right now.

No Fruitcake, Please

I cancelled a credit card with Capital One yesterday. It was like tunneling out of a labor camp with a spoon.

Here's a brief timeline. On October 23, the fraud department at Capital One called me and said that an online vendor (whom they didn't identify) had notified them that their online database had been compromised. So Capital One said they needed to cancel my existing card and issue me a new one.

No problem. I keep a detailed list of all my recurring payments, and--oh, wait. No, I don't.

So this was a gigantic pain in the ass for me. Gigantic. And Capital One happily told me that it would be two weeks, at a minimum, before I got the new card. That was a remarkable bit of indifference for something that wasn't my fault.

I asked to speak to a supervisor, and not only did he readily agree that their service sucked, but that sucking was built into the machine, so to speak. He did promise, though, that he would expedite the new card, and that I'd have it in a week.

After three weeks, I tried calling them to find out what happened to the card. After winding through a labyrinth of phone menus and being on hold for almost half an hour, I gave up.

Fast forward to yesterday. I called in again, and this time, after talking to three different people, being transferred, and being on hold over and over again, I realized that this was like going to get a haircut and being told that six different barbers need to be involved.

As it was explained to me, the reason the card hadn't been sent was because on December 7, Microsoft tried to renew by Xbox Live membership for another year using my old credit card number. That caused a fraud block to be put on my account.

And what happened between October 23 and December 6, I asked? That was one of life's little mysteries, it seemed.

The fifth person I talked to, at last, was able to cancel the credit card, after reading a disclaimer in a dispirited monotone that would have made Lurch proud.

So why am I telling you this story? Because I listened to an episode of "This American Life" as I was swimming today, and it was a story from 2003 about an MCI customer service nightmare that had gone on for over six months. In the end, the fix was ingenious: Ira Glass called in with the customer, told the service rep that he was being taped for a national radio broadcast, and miraculously, they were immediately transferred to corporate customer relations, where the problem was completely resolved within a week (and they wound up speaking to a vice president of customer service, who sent a lovely gift basket as well).

That's when it hit me--media coverage is the magic bullet when it comes to customer service in the U.S. these days. And I highly recommend "adapting" National Public Radio's techique for your own ends. Believe me, the next time I'm faced with the worst customer service this side of the old Soviet Union, Gloria is going to get on the other line and identify herself as a producer for National Public Radio and say that the call is being taped for possible national broadcast.

And I've cleared a spot on the counter for my gift basket.

At Least Their Name is Half Right

I'm not sure what I think is Game of the Year at this point, but I can point out, with absolute certainly, the Losers of the Year.

In case you missed it, at the Spike Video Game Awards show (damn, I think I threw up in my mouth just typing that), BioShock won Game of the Year. As Ken Levine went on stage to accept the award, two people in rooster outfits rushed the stage and shouted a couple of idiotic things about Gamecock into the microphone.


Here's what CEO Mike Wilson said to Joystiq:
...Mike Wilson telling us "the award acceptance they interrupted was the LAST one we would have wanted to interrupt, ("most addictive game fueled by mountain dew" would have been a wonderful choice) as we have the utmost respect and love for BioShock and all who were involved in it, and it totally sucks that Ken Levine didn't get to speak after making such a fantastic game."

Really? It was the last awards acceptance you'd want to interrupt? And yet, you did.

What's really darkly comic about all this is that they chose the Spike Video Game awards to pull this stunt. How many people watch that show--ten? All these guys did was humiliate themselves for nothing.

Here's a really crazy thought: why don't these guys get people talking about them by making some good games?

Monday, December 10, 2007


I saw this over at The Nut and the Feisty Weasel. It's a YouTube link to lengthy excerpts from the Seinfeld "Festivus" episode, which has always been one of my favorites. If you've never seen this episode, it's a classic, and you'll see plenty of highlights.

Feats of Strength FTW.

For Those About to Rock--In Europe (We Salute You)

DQ reader Vahur Teller e-mailed me a few weeks before Rock Band was released and asked if we could work out the details to ship him a copy.

To Estonia.

My answer: hell, yes.

That's Vahur and his friend Lauri Kikerpill (Vahur has the beard), along with kids from each family. Their band's name is Inspector Troy's Horse.

As far as I know, they're the first people in Estonia to have the game. And if they're not, they should be.

The logistics involved in doing this are relatively awful, and it's very expensive (even with a fantastic exhange rate, since the dollar is in the dumpster), but while it's definitely not a great idea in a financial sense, it breaks all kinds of records in the all-important fun category.

In the Park

Eli 6.4 went to three birthday parties this weekend. That's "three" as in "I want to stab myself."

In the third party, on Sunday, he was hanging out with his friends from first grade, and I witnessed one of the strangest elements of childhoold.

Here's how it works. When your boy is by himself, he will be gentle and pleasant, totally charming, and utterly non-agressive.

In other words, he's a hippie.

Most little boys, in isolation, are like this.

Put four or more boys together, though, and they'll be looking for lizards and fans as they read William Golding novels. They stop acting like themselves and start acting exactly like each other, and the worst thing anyone does will immediately be adopted by the others.

This party was in a park, and all the boys decided that what they really wanted to do was start a fire. So they started gathering sticks and placed them on a large rock.

Their short-term objective, in other words, was to burn down the park.

Maybe they weren't actually trying to burn it down. But watching the hive mind at work, I wouldn't have been surprised.

I was hanging out on the swings at one point, and Eli walked over and sat in the swing next to me. I'd been watching him pretty closely, so I knew what was going on, but I always like to hear his version. "So, are you having a good time?" I asked.

"Pretty much," he said. "Except for Thomas."

"Why Thomas?"

"Dad, THOMAS tried to KICK ME in the WIENER."

"He did?" I asked. I've never heard him say "wiener" before. Another vocabulary triumph of the playground.

"THEN, he tried to kick JAMES in the WIENER," he said.

"Did you tell him to stop?" I asked.

"YES," he said. "Then he tried to kick me in the WIENER AGAIN. And WIENER is a BAD WORD, so not only is he trying to kick me, he's making me use a bad word. But if someone is trying to KICK YOU in the WIENER, how are you supposed to explain it WITHOUT saying WIENER?"

"Try groin," I said. "That includes the wiener and surrounding areas."

Then, in an interesting development, Thomas's mom walked up while Eli and James and Thomas were all standing together, and she proceeded to extract a confession from Thomas about all "incidents wiener." Even at the point where it was impossible to tell who was lying (which happens in every single incident involving little kids), she pushed through, and finally got her son to tell the truth. It was gritty but fair, and I felt like I'd been watching the Nickelodeon version of The Shield.

Something happened at the park that has never happened to me before. The temperature was in the 70s, and it was muggy. So I was standing there talking to another parent, and as I turned my face I felt a huge gust of cool, fresh air.

It was a cold front.

I can't remember ever being outside at the very instant a cold front blew through. It was just one second, and then it was at least five degrees cooler, maybe ten.

All that warm, muggy air was gone, and I had an idea to chase after it, trying to run on the border between hot and cold for as long as I could.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Friday Links (+1)

Penny Arcade has something very special up today. Gabe has an interview with his grandfather, who served in the Navy in WWII. It's fascinating to hear about WWII from a personal level, and it's also very interesting to read his perspective on war games. You can read it here (and if it's not on the front page by the time you get there, it's the "My Grandpa" post from December 7).

Friday Links

For your reading pleasure.

Greg V sent in a link to an article in the Washington Post about life in Savoonga, Alaska, "an island so remote that it is closer to Russia than the U.S. mainland. This is an article from 2005, but it's still a great read.

Many of you sent in a link to the discovery of the most complete dinosaur fossil ever recovered. An excerpt:
A high school student hunting fossils in the badlands of his native North Dakota discovered an extremely rare mummified dinosaur that includes not just bones but also seldom seen fossilized soft tissue such as skin and muscles, scientists will announce today.

It's a spectacular discovery.

From Allan Varney, a link to a video of Crayon Physics Deluxe (which looks ridiculously cool) as well as an interview with Petri Puhro, the creator.

In somewhat the same vein, here's a link to a film over at AtomFilms called Animator vs Animation, and it's extremely clever.

Another gaming link, this one from Marc Klein, to an interview with Yoshiaki Koizumi, the director of Super Mario Galaxy, and his discussion of both gaming and Shigeru Miyamoto are fascinating.

From Cliff Eyler, a link to a story about the Hubble Telescope and its remarkable ups and downs since it was first powered on in 1990. There is plenty of information in this story that I hadn't read elsewhere (ymmv).

From Mitch Youngblood, a link to a short film directed by Martin Scorcese that's both an advertisement and a send-up of the style of Alfred Hitchcock. If you like Hitchcock, you'll burst out laughing at the camera angles, which are uncanny.

Edwin Garcia sent in a link to a story titled "Real-life Superheroes: 10 People with Incredible Abilities." It's a twenty-first century sideshow.

Here's a second link from Edwin, and it's both funny and definitely NSFW. It's about swearing in baseball--in 1898.

Future Nobel Prize Winner Brian Pilnick sent in a link to The 6 Most Important Experiments in the World, including The Blue Brain Project and The Census of Marine Life.

From Sirius, a link to a gallery of bug art. That's bugs, creating art.

From Nate Carpenter, a link to a video of an exoskeleton that gives humans superhuman strength.

Jake Pursley sent me a link to an articleabout physicist Robert Bussard and a new type of electrostatic fusion reaction. You can also look at a presentation given by Bussard on the subject.

Finally, from John Catania, a link to a series of Liquid Art & Droplet photographs which are remarkably beautiful.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Eve Online: This is Their Brain on Drugs

David let me know that under certain circumstances, a patch for the client for the Eve Online expansion Trinity can, incredibly, delete your boot.ini file. I know, that sounds impossibly stupid, but nothing's impossible, apparently.

I probably butchered that description, but there's a detailed description of the issue and the fixes over at Massively, so if you patched the client recently, be sure to hit the link.

Site Meter