Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Gamble

Like I said yesterday, we stayed in a casino hotel in Shreveport--"Sam's Town."

Staying in a casion hotel when you're not gambling results in a strange kind of dislocation, because the entire focus of the facility is on something you're not doing. However, there are plenty of advantages to staying in a casino hotel, because the casino's entire strategy is to have you never leave. That means that food is reasonably priced (and reasonably good), room service is prompt, and services like laundry aren't much more expensive than in the "real world."

In other words, unless you want to, there's no functional reason to leave.

Like I've talked about before, I don't gamble at casinos for strictly mathematical reasons. If the math is always against me, I'm not interested.

I'm always staggered, though, by the number of people who see the actual act of losing money as entertainment. They know that they're supposed to lose, and they usually do, but that's okay. Somehow, the possibility of not losing qualifies as entertainment.

I saw a family leaving the casino on Monday afternoon. It was a family of four--an obese man and woman, poorly dressed, with two kids around Eli 7.5's age. The father's face was so red that he looked like he was about to have a stroke, and the woman said (with a very thick country accent) "Well, you can't get mad when you're lose--they fix it so you're supposed to lose."

These people certainly didn't look wealthy. They didn't look like the kind of people who could blow money at a casino and never give it a second thought. I've always somehow associated casinos with the wealthy, but these people were hardscrabble (as were most of the people I saw there).

And the father was so angry. I can't understand what he expected--that the laws of probability would majestically roll back for him for one golden day? I'm not trying to mock him when I say that, because his anger was clearly genuine, but I can't quite discern what's going through people's minds when they play a game that is, by design, stacked against them mathematically, yet somehow they expect to win anyway.

It's tremendously interesting to see people walk in and out of casino hotels. On the way into the hotel, most of the people I saw had momentum to their stride. They had some steam. They were talking, laughing.

On the way out, people were walking more slowly. No steam. I watched several hundred people this way, and I never saw even one person look exultant as they left.

I missed out on a golden opportunity this trip, but I'm going to remember next time. I need to go into the casino and watch people play. I really want to see what happens between that look on their face when they get to the casino and the look on their face when they leave.

I do have one guess, and I'm sure you guys will tell me if this is true. Does winning at a casino feel so impossibly good precisely because you're not supposed to win? That would be an incredibly nefarious psychological transaction, but somehow it feels plausible.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

120 Minutes

The day before we left for Shreveport, I asked Gloria about preparation. "These trips always seem to go badly," I said. "Isn't there some way I could prepare more thoroughly? Isn't there something like a Scared Straight program for son-in-laws?"

There is not.

Here's what happened in the first two hours after we arrived in Shreveport:
1. Gloria's father had shingles. It was a very bad case of the shingles, and he was contagious. The shingles are related to chickenpox, and if you've never had chickenpox, you can catch chicken pox from someone who has shingles.

After a call to my mom, it was established in short order that I had never had chickenpox and had also never had the vaccine (it wasn't around when I was a kid). Gloria had chickenpox as a kid, and Eli 7.5 already had the vaccine, so they were safe.

I was advised not to shake my father-in-law's hand and to watch what surfaces I touched in the house. No problem, because we were only there about ten hours a day.

2. We received a semi-incoherent call from our petsitter, letting us know that she had sent her assistant to feed Gracie and Furious George.

This was putting the character of a summer intern into the movie Jaws instead of Quint.

This is not to say that George isn't lovable. He's incredibly warm and very affectionate, unless he doesn't know you, in which case he will kill you and drag your body into a closet to consume you at his leisure.

George actually drove her from the house. She couldn't even get up the stairs.

"So who in the world do we get to take care of George if Maggie blacklists him?" Gloria asked.

"I don't know," I said. "A beekeeper?"

3. We reached the parking garage of the hotel (a casino hotel, because all the hotels in town were booked, incredibly, for the Independence Bown) and started unloading our luggage. I pulled out my backpack, and I heard a "clink."

"I just heard a 'clink' ," I said, and kept unloading bags.

"Do you know what it was?" she asked.

Right at that moment, I realized my wedding ring had fallen off.

"Um, that would be my wedding ring," I said, looking down the fifteen degree slope of the parking garage, "now rolling downhill at high speed."

Here's how bad this trip was: on day three, I found a screwdriver in my backpack, and I assumed that I had sent it to myself from the future in case I wanted to stab myself.

Monday night, Gloria was trying to open a bottle of wine with the corkscrew from a Swiss Army Knife. She could get the corkscrew into the cork, and screw it in, but the cork wouldn't come out. She kept trying, more from the frustration of not being able to do it than anything else. "This is begining to have disturbing similarities to the story of the monkey putting his hand in the coconut to get the rice," I said. "If you see any islanders coming toward you with clubs, for God's sake, just drop the bottle."

We drove home today, a six hour drive that felt like it took six weeks. I drove through dozens of those faceless East Texas towns, full of abandoned buildings, machines rusting in front yards, and piles of burning trash. In every town, we saw hand-painted signs talking about Jesus or yard sales. "Just once," I said to Gloria, "I'd like to see a hand-painted sign that said 'SOYLENT GREEN IS PEOPLE.' That would really kick this drive up a few notches."

Maybe next year.

Monday, December 29, 2008


Here's a list of the parts I used in my system build, along with ratings for performance, noise, and quality of documentation.

Antec P182 (case):
In terms of "performance" for a case, I mean the ease of installation. Yes, it's largely my own fault for using a long power supply and graphics card, but many people are going to be using those same kinds of components, and this case isn't really a good choice if you are. Also, if you want to use this case, I highly suggest a modular power supply, because space for cables can be tight, and you want to be able to avoid any unnecessary clutter. Documentation wasn't great, but case documentation usually isn't.

If I had it to do over, I would have heeded Loyd Case's review at Extreme Tech on the Lian Li PC-K1.

Nexus D12SL-12 (fan):

Incredibly quiet, even though they don't create the airflow of the Noctua.

Noctua NF-S12-1200 (fan):

Much better airflow than the Nexus, and only slightly louder.

EVGA 132-BL-E758-A1 X58 (motherboard):

This board has been very stable, it's an excellent overclocker, and the documentation is unbelievably detailed. I am blown away by the level of support EVGA provides in their forums, and I'd highly recommend this board.

With one caveat. If you're building a system and you're going to use XP, I'm still not sure about that IDE emulation mode in the BIOS that I mentioned in the previous post. With Vista, it's fine. And if you do have any problems, like I said, the support is terrific.

Zalman ZM850-HP (power supply):

The documentation is only average, but this power supply is just freaking amazing. I literally can't hear it when the case is closed, and I can only barely hear it when the case is open. There are also a TON of cables, but many of them are modular--there's a base set (which is fine for an average build), and a ton of connectors on the back if you need to add more (with extra cables included in the box). All in all, a phenomenal piece of hardware.

Intel Core i7 920 (CPU):

This isn't the highest clocked Core i7 you can buy, but it's still ridiculously fast. Plus, it's one of the best CPU's for overclocking in history--the stock speed is 2.66GHz, but many people are running up to 4GHz and beyond with only air cooling. That's an incredible overclock.

Corsair XMS 3 x 2GB DDR3 (memory):
Not much to say about this, except that it works.

Intel X-25M 80GB SSD (hard drive):

This drive absolutely screams speedwise, it's whisper quiet, and it generates very little heat.

Asus ENGTX260 (graphics card):

I chose this card specifically due to this review at SilentPCreview, which indicated that the Asus card was particularly quiet compared to its peers. So far, I'm really pleased.

That's it. I can't remember the model number of the DVD-RW drive (it's Samsung, and it's fairly quiet). I'm using onboard audio for now, because I wanted to reduce complexity as much as possible (ha--that worked out really well).

Saturday, December 27, 2008

DQ Live On Tape

We're heading to The City That Dare Not Speak Its Name on Saturday, returning on Tuesday (unless the governor calls), so Monday's content has been pre-recorded, so to speak. I won't have access to e-mail again until Tuesday night.

Friday, December 26, 2008

Friday Links!

Okay, so you're at work, but nobody expects you to actually do anything today. And that's a good thing, because we're going to keep you busy for a while.

Leading off, from Gizmodo, a stunning link to the original press kit for the Apollo 8 missions, complete with scans of each page.

From Andrew B, a link to a wonderful story: How I Got My Sega Genesis: Remembering Christmas 1992. This is really a terrific read. Also, a link to an eye-opening story about software awards given by download sites. It's both funny and utterly alarming.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a fascinating story about the discovery of leaks in Earth's protective magnetic field. Also, a link to a riveting Wikipedia entry about Michael Larson, and here's the lead:
Paul Michael Larson (May 10, 1949 – February 16, 1999) was a contestant on the American television game show Press Your Luck in June 1984. Larson's claim to fame was his winning $110,237 in cash and prizes, which he was able to do by memorizing the patterns used on the Press Your Luck game board.

The rest of Larson's life, though, reads like a Shakespearean tragedy.

From Rob Varak, a link to an absolutely spectacular series of photographs as part of 2008 in photographs.

Two excellent links from Brian Minsker, and the first is a link to Nikon's Small World Photomicrography Competition. Also, a link to thousands of images that NASA has now made available online.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a title that says it all: Hubble Captures Moon Disappearing Behind Jupiter In Stunning HD Video. Also, a link to a 60,000 piece LEGO Star Wars Hoth Diorama. Next, a link to a story about a University of Utah student who managed to totally disrupt a government auction of 15,000 acres of wilderness that were going to be opened up for oil and gas drilling. He's a genius. And finally, a link to the discovery of 7,000 hectares of previously undiscovered forest--by using Google Earth.

From Patrick O'Brien, a link to some spectacular cloud formations.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to a 13-year old girl drummer playing Rush's YYZ. Okay, I know she's no Tony Royster, Jr., but it's still fun to watch.

From Allen Varney, a link to the bizarre sex techniques--of squid. How bizarre? Here's an excerpt:
The cephalopods' intimate encounters include cutting holes into their partners for sex, swapping genders, and deploying flesh-burrowing sperm.

From Steven Davis, something I never expected to see: the punking of speed cameras.

Like Geoff Engelstein (who submitted the link) said, I don't know about the politics involved here, but this photo essay of the recent Greek riots is just brilliant and very moving.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Commando For The Holidays

"Dad, come check this out." Eli 7.4 is holding up a Voldemort action figure, part of his Christmas haul.

"What is it, dude?" I ask.

"Look." Eli holds Voldemort up toward me, feet first. No tightie whities for the ultimate evil. In fact, no underwear of any kind.

"Voldemort's going commando?" I ask, bewildered.

"I see England, I see France, Voldemort isn't wearing underpants," Gloria said. Eli started laughing, and so did I, because that rhyme never gets old.

Fortunately, there was no Learing Penis of Evil™ under Voldemort's robe, either.

Eli's started using reverse psychology.

We were going to Fry's on Sunday, and there's a little quarter machine near the exit that is filled with little rubber Ninjas. "Dad, can I get a ninja?" he asked.

"Yes," I said.

"Can I get TWO?" he asked.

"No," I said.

"THANK you," he said. He says it in this hilarious, ironic way, and it cracks me up every time.

We were walking into Macy's Tuesday night, and when Eli heard the music playing inside the store, he started dancing.

Eli's dancing looks kind of like a seizure, except in a very happy way.

So he dances like this for about ten seconds, totally happy, and then he shouts "HERE I COME, WORLD!"

Eli's using two new phrases now.

When he's surprised, he says "SWEET MOTHER OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN!"

Now that I type that, I'm not sure that's even new.

When he's disappointed by something, he says "BARNACLES!"

I'm not big on Christmas tradition, because I'm a tech person (like many of you). To us, "tradition" just means "thirty percent slower."

I'm a big fan, though, of ad hoc Christmas events.

Last night, we were driving home about 7:30 p.m., and Eli suddenly shouted "TURN RIGHT!"

So I did.

A few houses down, there were seven Christmas inflatables in a single yard. I can't even begin to imagine that guy's electric bill.

We decided to just drive around and look at Christmas lights for a while. Eli was the designated spotter. We decided that people who use those creepy frost-blue lights are probably vampires or some other form of the undead, and then we went home.

Happy holidays to you all.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Culture Clash

Matt Sakey's new Culture Clash column is up, and you can read it here:
It's The Allegory, Stupid.

Burned (part two)

Where were we?

Oh, yeah--$#*(@(*#@.

So the motherboard is installed (I love this motherboard--seriously, I think we're dating), and putting in the Core i7 920 was simple. Then it was time to install the gigantic tower heatsink (Noctua NH-U12P SE1366). This heatsink is so big that it could be a climbing wall.

I'd already installed the backplate and assorted pieces of the heatsink onto the motherboard before I put it into the case. These huge tower heatsinks are like ice cream sandwiches, and the CPU is the ice cream in the middle.

I must be hungry.

After I assemble the tower and the mounting bracket, there are spring screws that tighten it down. That's when I see that, clearly, the heatsink isn't making good contact with the CPU, and by "isn't making good contact" I mean "not making any damn contact at all, really."

I (eventually) found out that I'd put one of the piece of the mounting bracket on backwards. Me putting on something backwards is an entirely commonplace event, although I will say in my meager defense that after a quick forum search, I found that I wasn't the only one who did this.

Plus I put the thermal grease on in an incredibly sloppy manner, like I was slathering icing on cookies.

Damn, I really am hungry.

Confidence level at this point: 0%. Still I plow on.

Memory. Easy--it's keyed so it can't be put in backwards. It's my dream component.

CPU fans. Putting these on requires an enormous amount of knuckle busting, because they're such a tight fit, and "knuckle busting" is a good description of what happens when I hook up all the various leads from the front of the case onto the motherboard. Even if the case is bigger, the motherboard isn't, and there are a ton of things that have to be hooked up in very close quarters.

I've heard that a system builder must put at least one drop of blood on the motherboard to activate its magical powers, but that's just a legend. For now.

I put the Intel X-25M SSD into the middle drive bay, and that was easy, but when I then tried to install the GTX 260 (quieter, less heat than the 280), I found out that long graphics cards don't fit well into the P182, either. In fact, it was so tight that the cabling for the hard drive had to be bent in a torturous manner to get around the graphics card, as there was almost no space between the card and the drive. I can't even pull out the drive cage because no matter where I put the drive, one of the rails can't get past the card. So I can put in the drive, then the graphics card, but if I want to try the drive in another place, I have to take out the graphics card first.

As Daffy Duck would say, shoot me now.

Still, I've reached the phase of the build that I like to call "I've got a lot of crap hooked up." I'm at the point where I can fire it up and hope that isn't literal.

Remarkably, and this must be a Christmas miracle, it doesn't melt. Jesus, the Antec fans seem loud, even on medium speed. The CPU temp seems high, although the BIOS may not be reporting it accurately. All the reported temps seem a bit high, actually, and the longer I run the system, the higher they get. In other words, I'm not reading a steady state, which is a big bucket of FAIL.

All right. Even though the temps are too high, those damn fans have to go. I had several Nexus 120mm fans (incredibly quiet) just for this reason, so I pulled out the Antec fans and put them in instead. Powered back up.

Now this is pretty quiet. Temps, of course, are worse. I start thinking about the airflow in the case. There are two exhaust fans, and the GTX260 exhausts air out of the case (an important distinction from the ATI 4870, which doesn't) [please note: I was thinking about the Radeon 4850. The Radeon 4870 is a dual slot design and does exhaust air out of the case (thanks to SB for the correction], but there aren't any intake fans, because I took the one in the bottom bay out. Some air is coming in through the grille, but clearly, it's not enough.

To fix this, I decide that I need a fan in the middle drive bay. That seems simple, right? Here's what I have to do to get that done.
1. Remove graphics card (also unplugging its power connectors)
2. Remove the hard drive
3. Remove middle chamber drive cage (can't use it if fan is installed)
4. Re-route cables to the bottom drive bay, where I'm now going to put the hard drive. It's tight.
5. Figure out how the bottom drive cage works (it looks funky compared to the other drive cage). This means staring dumbly at it for 15-30 minutes, then having an "ah, ha!" moment.
6. Re-drill the screw holes in the suspension bracket I'm using for the hard drive. They're just ever-so-slightly too small.
7. Install hard drive in bottom chamber.
8. Remove fan bracket in middle drive chamber because the fan screws aren't long enough to hold both it and the fan in place.
9. Screw the fan in place and hook it up.
10. Turn on the system.
11. Listen to a godawful sound and see that the fan blades are hitting the clips for the air filter that's flush with the grille.
12. Remove the air filter.
13. Turn on system again. Fan spins fine. Now worried about having no air filter on the intake.
14. Sit around for twenty minutes, because I know I've done it wrong.
15. Realize that the fan bracket i took out is exactly what would have kept the fan blades from hitting the mounting clips of the air filter.
16. Unscrew fan.
17. Reinstall fan bracket.
18. Reinstall fan. The screws are long enough, although just barely.
19. Put the air filter back on.
20. Power on system. Blades turn without hitting the air filter.

That should give you an idea of how labor-intensive this all is, at least for me (aka, "noob amateur"). And that was just for one fan.

However, and this is a big however, airflow is much improved. I've got the intake fan blowing air through the middle drive chamber, over the top of the graphics card, and close enough to the "pull" CPU fan that it will suck some of that air through the tower heatsink (where the "push" fan will send it directly to one of the exhaust fans, because they're directly in line with each other).

Looking at it, it seems reasonable to think it would work.

Almost. I wind up having to replace one of the Nexus exhaust fans with a Noctua (similar decibel levels, but higher airflow), but then it seems to be quite stable.

Oh, and I take off the CPU heatsink, apply the thermal paste like a grown-up, bust my knucles getting the fans back on, and it seems stable as well.

I power up and check temps in the BIOS. I've got a steady state.

Almost done, sort of. I put in the DVD-RW drive backwards (well done), put it back in the right way, and decide that it's time to try and install Vista.

Man, that DVD drive is loading files slowly. I wonder what's up with that? Ah, to hell with it.

The Windows installer loads files, then I get that green loading bar screen.


That's right. That little bar just keeps going across the screen, then starting across the screen. No error message, nothing.

Microsoft! Mix in an error message, bitches!

I powered down and tried it again. Same waystation--of despair.

Later (quite a bit later), I realize that I've connected my SATA hard drive to an e-SATA port (what the HELL is e-SATA, anyway?). The ports are identical in shape, but the e-SATA port is red, while the SATA ports are black.

My bad. The brilliant EVGA documentation said that and I just missed it.

Recable. Boot up and go into the BIOS for a pokearound, because the DVD drive seemed really slow. See 6 IDE devices listed, included my hard drive and DVD drive, even though they're both SATA.

Hmm. That seems, um, wrong.

Obscurely (and this wasn't in the manual), some sort of mode had to be enabled in the BIOS for SATA drives to be recognized as such. Or something. Otherwise, they would default to IDE emulation, which is kind of like spending your life's savings to date a fashion model and having her emulate a fat chick.

Reboot. Damn, that DVD drive is really, really fast now, and hey, I'm past the Green Bar of Despair. Damn, Vista is installing quickly.

Finish Vista install. Install chipset drivers. Install audio drivers. Install graphics card drivers. Install a temperature monitoring utility that comes with the motherboard.

Time to download 3DMark Vantage and weep about temperatures. This is how Loyd Case tests systems, and that's good enough for me.

After an hour of testing at the "extreme" settings, running continuously, the CPU core temperatures are up 5C. The temperature in the case is up 5C, and as soon as I stop testing, the temperatures fall back to idle levels in less about 5 minutes.

Win. Win. Win.

I still have lots more testing to do, but that's about as good, temperature wise, as could possibly be expected.

I've got one oddity--even when I shut down Vista successfuly, the power supply doesn't turn off. It doesn't turn off from the front panel of the case, either, although the power button does turn it on just fine (I've checked the connection on the motherboard, and it's correct). So I have to unplug from the wall. That goes on the list.

Otherwise, the system seems very stable, the airflow is good, and this thing is scary, scary fast. Fast like evil wizard fast.

So I'm pleased, really pleased, but I still know that Hercules would drop on his knees and weep like a schoolgirl if King Eurystheus told him he had to build a computer. "Please!" he'd plead. "The Augean stables! I beg of you!"

On Monday: a list of components and ratings for how well they perform (and how well they were documented).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008


On the second night of building the new system, I walked into Gloria's study, screwdriver in hand.

"How's it going?" she asked.

"Do you smell fear?" I asked.

"No," she said.

"Smell harder!" I said.

If you're wondering when I realized that this "simple" build was going to be something else entirely, I think it was the moment when I realized I was going to need one more tool.

A hacksaw.

That's right. Less than two hours into a simple build, and I'm using a hacksaw on the power supply bracket. Hunter S. Thompson would have taken out a .45 and fired a few slugs into the metal bastard right there.

Preparing to build a system is a decision making process, and the decision I was most confident about was the case. I had decided on the Antec P182, because in my efforts to build a quiet system, this was one of the premier noise-reducing cases available. According to SilentPCReview (a terrific website) and dozens of other websites as well, it was the best combination of airflow and noise reduction available. The P182 features three separate drive chambers and separates the power supply from the main case area to seal off as much noise as possible.

This decision was rock-solid. It was also entirely wrong.

I remember throw-in notices in a few of the reviews that "long" power supplies were an awkward fit. Not having built a system in five years, though, I really didn't understand what that meant. Not until I took my new Zalman ZM850-HP power supply and stared dumbly at the case after I removed the side panels.


So within thirty minutes of starting the build, I'm forced to pull out a fan in the middle of the lowest chamber, because otherwise, the power supply isn't going to fit. That fan is riveted in, by the way.

The power supply cage also doesn't fit, because it's meant for the smaller power supply. The problem with the smaller cage is that the opening on top doesn't fit the fan grille of the 850.

Ah, crap.

That's when I get the hacksaw out, because I'm not blocking part of the fan grille.

Oh, and there's a black plastic separator between the lower chamber and the main case area, but the cables from the Zalman are so thick I have to yank out the separator, too.

At this point, and it's taken a while, I haven't done anything except make this unique noise control case much less unique. I've only just gotten the power supply in, and it's taken longer than it takes most people to build the whole system.

Not helping is the documentation, which is generally sparse for both the case and the power supply. I like lots of documentation, and lots of pictures, and I still generally do everything backwards. This documentation refers to things that can be done without any explanation whatsoever about how to do them.

That's fine for most people, but nothing about this comes naturally to me. Every step is usually a struggle of some kind or another, and while I do eventually arrive at the correct answer to my questions, it's usually my third answer.

That's day one. I spent so much time screwing with case mods and the power supply that it just killed my enthusiasm, and I didn't even try to put in the motherboard until two days later.

When I do, I briefly get my mojo back, because after deciding on the EVGA X58 board (solely because of their ridiculously excellent forum support), I opened it up to find the clearest and most thorough documentation I've ever seen with a motherboard. It's beyond stellar, and there's even a giant fold-out picture of the motherboard with everything lableled, along with step-by-step instructions.

In a word, it's fantastic. So I installed the motherboard into the case and felt good again.

For about fifteen minutes.

I'll tell you the rest tomorrow.

Monday, December 22, 2008

3-D News and Notes

Pete Thistle e-mailed me last week and let me know that the BCS National Championship game (Florida vs. Oklahoma, January 8) is going to be shown in 3-D.

I knew that, but what I didn't know is that it's going to be showing at many, many more theaters than I thought, and there's a list here. There are around a hundred theaters listed nationwide, including the Galaxy 10 in Austin.

Yes, I already have tickets.

Sony recently brought to market an first ultra-high refresh rate LCD--240Hz (double the standard 120Hz refresh rate for home theater screens). In theory, it should help significantly with motion artifacts, which have generally been considered one of the limitations of LCD technology.

What would be more convincing with a refresh rate that high? Stereoscopic 3-D, certainly. So when I saw this item today, I was very interested:
Acording to Neil Schneider, President and CEO of Meant to be Seen (MTBS), Blitz Games Studios has confirmed that Sony “fully intends” to support stereoscopic 3D gaming and Blu-ray 3D on PS3 in 2009 with their Blitz Tech engine. MTBS is a stereoscopic 3D certification and advocacy group.

Andrew Oliver, CTO of Blitz Games Studios says, “3D gaming on console is coming and we license the tech.”

“The best part is console support will only need a bios upgrade to work,” Schneider writes. “We are told that the ability to add this capability via bios may be unique to Sony PS3 versus the other console solutions.”

What are the chances that this is true? Certainly, in my mind, the chances are very, very low. It sounds like an entirely self-promotional statement from a company that desperately wants to draw attention to themselves.

However, and I think this is more important, someday we're going to be playing games in 3-D on consoles, and it's not that far away. This could be a stunning feature for the next generation of consoles. And that press release, however entirely delusional it might be, made me think about the day when it's all actually true.


"Why do you build your own computers?" Gloria asked earlier this week. "Why don't you buy just buy one that's already built?"

I gave her the usual answers about using the components I want, setting up everything optimally, all the technical answers that people usually give. That was all technically true, but it wasn't the real answer.

It's because computers are fire.

Computers have changed our world as much as the discovery of fire. Unlike fire, though, their power keeps advancing. What we use today for computing, on our desktop, has more power than the sum of all computing power in the world only a few decades before.

In terms of sheer intellectual power, it's staggering. But there's also something decidedly beautiful about this, an elegant statement about the complexity of the human mind. I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit this, but I think motherboards are beautiful. They are a testament to our unfathomable creativity.

Because of that, I don't want to buy a computer. If I was a caveman (I'd be dead, because I can't see clearly two feet in front of myself without glasses, but that's not the point), I wouldn't go to the guy who discovered fire and ask if I get a light off his torch. I might let him explain the process--documentation, as it were--but then I'd go off, hold the torch backwards, cut myself with the flint, and generally do it wrong.

Eventually, though, I'd make fire.

I can't do that, because I'm not a caveman. What I can do, though, is make the 21st-century version of fire.

And I've done that, as I hear the whirring of OS installation going on in the background. However, if this was fire, I would have burned myself to a crisp. In terms of computer builds, it was the defense of Stalingrad.

I'll tell you the gory details tomorrow.

'Tis The Season

We were on our way home last night and I was singing along with the radio.

People are strange, when you're a stranger,
Faces look ugly when you're alone.

"Hey, you have your Christmas music, I have mine," I said to Gloria.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Friday Links!

It's our pre-holiday edition, complete with heartwarming links and hopefully no links to penis cookbooks. Oh, and if I ever decide to build a new system during the holiday season again, I want all of you to remind me that it's a bad idea, and if I try to continue, then kill me. Thank you.

First off this week, via Neatorama, is Zooborns, and it's exactly what it sounds like: pictures of baby animals from zoos all over the world. They're cute and utterly adorable and I demand that you go look at them immediately.

From Tim Jones, a link to a terrific videogame documentary--from 1984. Here's a show description:
Computers are creating an entirely new platform for playing games, between humans or between humans and computers.

Guests: Trip Hawkins, Electronic Arts; Bill Budge, Game Designer; Chris Crawford, Atari; Steve Kitchen, Activision

Products/Demos: Pinball Construction Set, One on One, Space Shuttle, Excaliber, Larry Bird Basketball

Yes, it's just as interesting as the description.

From Vahur Teller, a link to Doug Engelbart's The Demo, and here's a a description of what was shown:
This was the public debut of the computer mouse. But the mouse was only one of many innovations demonstrated that day, including hypertext, object addressing and dynamic file linking, as well as shared-screen collaboration involving two persons at different sites communicating over a network with audio and video interface.

From Michael O'Reilly, the greatest death and "after death" story EVER. Here's the headline:
Weather rocket kills man and blows up his body at cremation

I think I saw that on an episode of Six Feet Under.

From John Richards, a link to a working replica of the legendary Antikythera mechanism.

From Jeffery Gardiner, a link to a stunning video of bioluminescence in an Australian marina.

From Sirius, a link to a vintage flying car (complete with video).

Here's a link from DQ reader Herman Kreiger to a set of black-and-white photo essays , also taken by Herman Krieger. And they're very, very cool.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a link to some spectacular photographs of lenticular clouds over Mount Ranier.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to the thinnest house in the world (several of them, actually, and you'll laugh when you see just how thin they really are). Next are five amazing HDR photographs of Vancouver (my favorite city in the world). Next, a link to a remarkable journey to the city of Cappadocia (in Turkey), and the essay is titled Welcome to the underground.

From David Gloier, a link to a story about drillers breaking into a magma chamber .

From Chris Meadowcraft, a link to tiny, laser-cut dinosaurs.

From Andrew B, a link to the man without a past, who was found next to a dumpster four years ago and still has no memory of anything that happened before then.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to alternative Christmas trees.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

One Fine Day (part two)

I forgot to mention that I went to the doctor today for pain in the "chestal" region (as Bart Simpson would say) and he diagnosed a pulled chest ligament (I think I ordered those at Popeye's once--they were dipped in batter and fried). He said it was going to hurt for 3-4 weeks and there wasn't really anything I could do.

Working backwards, I think that means I don't have to stop playing the drums in Rock Band.

I did get him to write me a prescription, and this is what it said:

Freezing (your e-mail)

Here are some of your stories, and thanks (as always) for sending them in.

First, from Jeff Koch, who may be a distant relative of Ernest Hemingway:
I see you'll be putting some stories up tomorrow. I've a good one. It was 19 below when I woke up this morning where I live. The end.

Then, from Glen Haag (who lives in Wisconsin):
I was entertained to hear a radio call-in show today where they debated 90 and humid, versus 0 with a 20 below wind chill.

20 below won by a vote.

David Reite weighs in from the Great White North:
Of course, I'm writing to you from the Southwestern Tip of Canada, known not for its snow, but for it's rather mild winter weather. According to Wikipedia:
"Victoria, BC has a temperate climate that is usually classified as Marine west coast(Cfb), with mild, damp winters and relatively dry and mild summers. It is sometimes classified as a Mediterranean climate (Csb

Typical daily temperatures this time of year are about 7c, or say, 45f. However, after receiving 6" of snow on Saturday (typically washed away the same night or the next day), the temperature tonite is -10c/14f, with a windchill of about -22c/-8f and appears to be remaining this way for at least the next five days. We may even get more snow on Wednesday again! If I didn't know better I'd think I was living on the prairies right now.

Jack sent me a link to weather trends for Billings, Montana. On Sunday and Monday, the HIGH was -8F.

Here's a classic story from Jarod:
Sunday we had to try and catch some of the dog's pee to take to the vet (Ah, pet ownership). We were about 100 feet from the house and got some in a dish (success after 24 hours of trying!) and hustled back inside. When we got to the door I noticed something...the urine in the dish had frozen. Solid. Earlier in the day the temp had been 37 was now 13 with a wind chill of -10. When I woke up Monday it was -6...wind chills in the -35 range. I am pretty sure my car said a bad word to me when it started. Our high that day was -2.

I know, I know...Minnesotan folks should be used to it...but even for us it was a good time to ask 'Why am I living here?!"

Finally, Garret Rempel sent along a very interesting question:
I have always wondered, and maybe you are able to answer this for me. Do extreme temperature values hold any significance to someone who has never experienced them? At what point do the numbers simply become abstract in a "wow, yeah that would be hot/cold" manner but without any ability to physically extrapolate what that temperature would feel like? For example, if someone says to me "The surface of mars is -325F" I would accept that as being very, very cold, but have no frame of reference to be able to say how cold -325F would actually feel.

Now, having lived most of my life in a climate that ranges yearly from -60F to +100F I can reasonably grasp most of the human habitated temperature ranges on earth. How do you relate (or Eli for that matter if you've experienced it already) when I say I woke up this morning and the thermometer read -20F with a windchill making it feel like -50F and a daytime high of -19F (-45F windchill) and cursed myself for forgetting to plug in my car last night so that IF it (hopefully) manages to start it will take a good 5-10 minutes of running at high-idle before my transmission unfreezes enough that I can move the gearshift.

My answer to his question would be "no." I understand what cold temperatures feel down to about -5F wind chill, but beyond that, I have absolutely no idea what it would feel like. I ran for thirty minutes once when it was 112F (and many times when it was over 100F), but I've got no clue past that, either.

One Fine Day

I was about to get in the shower this morning when the phone rang. It was Gloria, and she wanted me to run downstairs and get her checkbook.

Since I was about to get in the shower, I had nothing on, and I thought I would just run down the stairs, grab the checkbook, and run back upstairs. The blinds were closed, so no one could see me naked, right?

I'm running down the stairs when I hear a loud knock at the front door. You know, the front door--with glass. It was the FedEx driver, making a delivery at the unheard of hour of 8:15 a.m.

This is how I wound up hiding naked on the stairs behind the Christmas tree, which was conveniently located between my nudity and the front door.

After that alarming bout of stairwell espionage, I went through a series of mid-morning disasters that culminated in me sticking a straw up my nose.

Ivan The Fool, Now With Company

"Okay, how many letters does this have?" We're at Chili's for dinner, and while we wait for our food, we're all playing Hangman.

"Five," Eli 7.4 said. "Mom, guess a letter."

"E," Gloria said.

Eli wrote "e" at the bottom of the page and drew a head. "Okay, Dad, your turn," he said.

"BUTTS," I said.


" 'BUTTS' is the word," I said.

"Butts!" Eli said, laughing. He started laughing, holding his stomach, then fell over in the booth. He laughed for ten seconds, then sat up. "Ah, good times," he said.

Later I almost pulled off a coup with "melon fresh," but the "o" was my undoing.

On the way home, a woman passed us in a sportscar, then wound up just ahead of us at a stoplight. Her license plate said "TLSTOY."

"Look at that,"I said to Gloria. "Was she so desperate to have 'TOLSTOY' as her license plate that she took that when she couldn't have the full version?"

Gloria started laughing. "I don't think anyone else would look at that and see 'Tolstoy' ," she said.

"Am I on the wrong planet again?" I asked.

"Without a doubt," she said.

Breaking News

This just in from Eli 7.4's playground: Apparently, girls go to college to get more knowledge, but boys go to Jupiter to get more stupider.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Taking My Medicine

So I had a choice: I could keep playing RB2 drums on Hard difficulty and get four and five stars on most songs--and not get any better--or force myself to play on Expert.

Spoon. Medicine. Swallow.

I started a new band (my old favorite--"Concept Gorilla Manifesto"), and I'm only playing on Expert. Plus, if I get less than four stars on a song, I have to go practice that song and play the gig again until I get four stars. Passing a song with three stars really isn't that much fun, anyway, because it's just way too ragged.

At first, this royally sucked, because the kick pedal is used in inconceivably brutal ways on Expert. After about two weeks of this, though, a funny thing happened: I started getting better.

Now I'm through 15-20 of the RB2 core songs, and I'm even getting four stars on some songs that I'm sightreading, which has never happened before. I've got not illusion about what's going to happen on the harder songs--I'll get crushed--but I'm definitely improving.

Oh, and believe it or not, this week's DLC is a "Country Pack."

Um, yuck?

If it's not Johnny Cash or Patsy Cline (and one or two others), I'm not interested. At all. However, in spite of this, I think the Country Pack is a good thing, because it raises the possibility of DLC in other genres, like reggae or ska (The English Beat would be excellent).

Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar

This is easily one of the most compelling and riveting works of non-fiction that I've ever read.

After reading Simon Sebag Montefiore's brilliant biography, it is impossible to see Stalin as less than human, which makes him even more terrifying. He was a monster, yes, but he was also one of us.

This book was made possible by the release of tens of thousands of pages of information from Soviet archives which allow a stunningly personal recounting of Stalin's reign of terror. Even his henchmen become human, and the level of political intrigue overwhelming everything in Stalin's era makes for fascinating reading.

Much of what makes the narrative so gripping is that actions which are undeniably evil were so mundanely approved by the organs of the state (in this case, Stalin and his inner circle). Hannah Arendt's description of the "the banality of evil" has never been more appropriate.

This is also an absolutely terrific piece of writing, because at 650+ pages it somehow manages to never be boring. I can't recommend this book highly enough, and if you're interested in history, it's an absolutely first-rate piece of work.

Here's an Amazon link: Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar.

You're With Me, Leather

On Tuesday nights, I'm with Eli 7.4 from 5 p.m. onwards, which gives Gloria some time to go out and do whatever she wants to do.

Like get hit on.

"So I was sitting at dinner, reading Harry Potter," she said, "and a man walked up to me."

Uh, oh," I said. "Dear Penthouse Letters. I never thought it would happen to me, but..."

"He said 'I saw you reading this weighty tome, and being an avid reader myself, I just had to ask what it was.' "

"He sounds rather noble," I said. "Was he, by any chance, the Duke of Dorkus?"

"I told him I was reading Harry Potter," she said, laughing," and he said 'my son reads Harry Potter. So, are you traveling? Because I'm just over here at the bar having a drink.' "

"From Potter to panties in one smooth sentence," I said.

"I couldn't believe it," she said. Gloria gets hit on all the time, actually, but she only rarely realizes it.

"I don't know what to tell you," I said, "but based on this, I think illiteracy is a highly viable option."

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Fallout 3 (your e-mail)

Not to put up any spoilers, but I've been advised by several of you guys that there are a few rare drops as well as epic beasts. I apparently need to progress a bit futher into the game. I know, I'm thirty-one hours in, but like I said, I've mostly ignored the main plot.

Console Post of the Week (a bit more)

First, in case you're wondering, Sony's stock is down 69.97% from a year ago. Almost everyone's stock is down, mind you (even Nintendo is down 45%), but they're down more.

Several of you noted that the PS3 is no longer the cheapest Blu-Ray player, not by a long shot, and that this had to be hurting PS3 sales since people were no longer forced into buying a PS3 if they wanted a Blu-Ray player. True.

By the way, the PS3 is an absolutely excellent DVD/Blu-Ray player.

Sony did something remarkably bold in this generation: they tried to dictate the meaning of value to their customers. That may not sound remarkable on its face, but they tried to justify the incredible launch price of the PS3 by saying it was "value," and because they were Sony, we were expected to agree. They were, in essence, telling us (repeatedly) that they knew more than we did.

That's a rather stunning amount of hubris, even for Sony.

Freezing (I Stand Corrected)

I saw a guy wearing shorts today. It was 33 degrees at the time.

You guys sent me some fantastic cold weather stories, and I'll put them up tomorrow or Thursday.

Fallout 3 (more impressions)

The first batch of DLC for Fallout 3 was announced last week, and it all seems far above the level of "ordinary." Here's an excerpt that sounds particularly intriguing:
In Operation: Anchorage the player will find themselves able to re-live the famous liberation of Anchorage from Fallout lore -- inside a simulation similar to one found along the main quest of Fallout 3. Once the player finds their way into the simulation, they'll be stripped of their resources and have to survive within the rules set up by the simulation's creators.

That's a big, meaty idea for DLC, and I can't wait to play it. Now, though, let's talk about what I miss.

I'm 31 hours into the game, still having only vaguely ventured into the main plot (although I am past Rivet City now). Playing side missions and using the world as a post-apocalyptic sandbox is a wonderful way to play the game. There are a few things, though, that would've made it even better, and the more I play, the more I feel their absence.
1. A dynamic weather system
My favorite moment in Morrowind (and one of my favorite moments ever in gaming) was the first time I was enveloped in a dust storm. I could see approaching, then I could hear it, and it was an epic, unforgettable moment.

I expected savage dust storms in Fallout 3, because it would seem like the perfect environment, but I haven't seen even one. No rain or wind, either. A dynamic weather system, with enemies adjusting their behavior based on the conditions, would have been fantastic.

2. Rare drops
I'm one of the people who enjoys all the scavenging in this game. It's a wasteland, after all--I expect to have to search through everything I find. What I don't like, though, is that there don't seem to be any rare drops. I'd like to find rare weapon augmentations, like a new scope for my sniper rifle or a more efficient fuel for my flamethrower. There should be rare ammo, too. I just want to have the expectation that the next drop might be something incredibly rare. Instead, I just seem to find the same items over and over again.

3. Epic opponents
Here's something else I miss in the sandbox environment--epic opponents. It's 300 years after a nuclear apocalypse, after all--I would hope to occasionally see something so staggering and incomprehensible that it would just blow my mind. Maybe it would be everything but impossible to defeat these rare opponents, but it would be a blast to try.

4. Greater enemy variety
It's possible that I will see a greater variety of enemies as I progress further through the plot, but I wish that the further away I explored, the greater variety I would find, and that isn't happening.

None of these are game breakers, not even remotely, but in combination, they have reduced the amount of time I've spent with the game in the last week. To be fair, though, none of the games I tried in the meantime were anywhere near as interesting, and to spend 30 hours and barely progress in the main plot is a testament to just how engrossing the game has been.

Console Post Of The Week: The Breakdown Lane

To start with, let's review the November NPD numbers that came out on Thursday:
PS3 - 378,000

Instead of stopping with the observation that the PS3 isn't competitive at $399 when the mid-level 360 is $100 less (which is true), let's look at that briefly and then move on.

Make no mistake: this is a catastrophic holiday season for Sony in the U.S. Last November, the PS3 sold 466,000 units. To be down over 18% year-over-year in the second most important month of the year is a disaster. It's particularly disastrous when your closest competition more than doubled your sales.

What's happening this year is just a preview of what's going to happen for the next several years in the U.S., I believe. Through August of this year, the PS3 was within $50 of the 360 Pro, and the PS3 was outselling the 360, if only slightly. Look at the numbers for January-August:

That's not a huge gap, but still, it's a huge change from last year.

Then, price cut for the 360 in September, the price gap between the PS3 and the 360 Pro goes to $100, and look at the last three months:

So the PS3 outsells the 360 by 15% for nine months, but a $50 price cut enables Microsoft to DOUBLE PS3 sales.

The PS3 is probably going to sell around 750,000 units in the U.S. in December, which would take it up to about 3.5 million units for the year. And it will be outsold by the 360, for the year, by about a million units.

So after all that crowing by Sony this year, they're going to get outsold by almost 30%.


Remember the analysts who were proclaiming that the PS3 would lead in next-gen sales (including the Wii) by 2011, or that it would wind up being a "draw?"

Hey, if "draw" means "getting the living shit kicked out of you," then hey, it's a draw!

Most famously, iSuppli predicted this:
The PS3, which has lagged the other consoles due to its high price and dearth of blockbuster games for most of last year, would double its base to 20.3 million and by 2011 would lead the industry with some 38.4 million users.

That prediction was in February of this year, by the way. And the Wii already is over a worldwide base of 38 million, which I guess means that they'll sell negative numbers for the next several years.

Now, let's take a closer look at this. Besides price, which is obvious, what the hell happened?

In retrospect, I think Sony made two absolutely critical mistakes. One, they didn't include a pack-in game, and two, they ignored the game that could have been the blockbuster they needed.

Seriously, at $499 (for the lower-priced system), how in the world do you NOT include a pack-in game? It's as if Sony believed that the people who bought PS2's (gaming machines) would seamlessly convert to buying a PS3 (multimedia machine) because it was Sony.

Boy, that was a crap notion from the start. Fail.

Here's their other mistake, though. I think Sony actually had an internally developed game that could have been an absolute blockbuster in terms of demonstrating the potential of the PS3 and expanding their audience.

Oh, and by the way, trying to make Little Big Planet that game was a horrible mistake. LBP is totally charming, brilliantly designed, but as a mass market phenomenon, it depends way, way too heavily on user-designed levels. It's a sensational niche product, but I don't think it's going to be any more than that.

However, there was one game that consistently wowed people when trailers were shown. Every single time. And instead of lavishing attention and budget on that game, it was largely ignored.

That game was Afrika.

Think about it. Rendering the spectacular landscapes of Africa could prove that the PS3 was more powerful than the 360. Playing a role as a wildlife photographer would have appealed to a far wider audience than a game like Resistance. The entire game would have been one gigantic demonstration of the overwhelming power of the PS3.

As proof of concept for a piece of hardware, it was absolutely perfect.

So, of course, Sony let it vanish. It did finally come out in Japan a few months ago, with almost zero fanfare. I bought a new version (called Hakunah Matatah) last week from Play-Asia that has English text and menus, and while it's not a great game, it's quite striking, and more to the point, it could have been absolutely breathtaking.

Here's what Sony should have done. Put HUGE budget into Afrika. Huge. Then, instead of a bunch of Sony executive asshats TELLING us that the PS3 was superior, include Afrika as the pack-in and say "The PS3 IS superior, and here's the proof." Then load up with plenty of television commercials demonstrating that you, common person, can go on a freaking KICKASS African safari with this new console that has been beamed to Earth from the year 2029.

In other words, if you're going to charge $499 for the damn console, you better have PROOF IN HAND that it's clearly superior. And they didn't. They still don't.

Nintendo included a pack-in for a $249 console, and it was proof of concept that motion-sensing controllers were lots and lots of fun. Without that, the Wii would have had an entirely different (and far less successful) course.

Monday, December 15, 2008


During the day today, it was 31 degrees, and the wind chill was below 20 degrees.

This is a humanitarian crisis. I can't wear shorts.

When it gets this cold down here, we expect to see frozen bodies stacked on the side of the road like cordwood.

Part of the problem is that we don't have proper winter clothing. I don't even have anything that would remotely qualify as a "winter" coat, because I'm not spending money on something I'd wear for an hour every year.

I swam today, too. Heated outdoor pool, yes, but cold wind on a wet body was still brutal.

I know--you Canadians wear swimsuits MADE OUT OF ICE. Noted.

The Mallaise (a new word)

I haven't written anything about how the economy and stock market have thrown up all over themselves in the last six months because it is been covered so exhaustively that I had nothing to add.

Until now.

Gloria wanted to shop for her mom for Christmas, so on Saturday night, we went to the mall. I was dreading the shopping trip, really, since it was already so close to Christmas, and Austin is one of those "by everything that isn't nailed down" cities. Mall traffic this time of year is just absolutely insane.

We started at Nordstrom's, which was surprisingly empty. I asked one of the clerks, and she said "We're busy from noon to two in the afternoon, but the nights are dead. It's been really bad this year."

Gloria looked on the sale racks, but didn't find anything. "I just can't seem to get into shopping," she said.

"A mall-aise, perhaps?" I asked.

"Oh, that was terrible," she said.

I thought I might look for something for her while we were shopping, and I suggested that we could go and take a quick look in Talbots Woman.

"Don't," she said. "The name is in code. 'Woman' means 'big.' "

"What is it with you strange people and your secret language?" I asked.

Instead of Talbots Woman, we went to J. Jill. Sales clerks outnumbered customers by a 2-1 margin.

At Coldwater Creek, there were four clerks and two customers (us). Gloria found something to get for her Mom, and at the register, the clerk told her that everything in the store was 25% off.

Then we went to Gap Kids, and there was a sign saying that if you purchased $75 or more, it was all 30% off.

I've seen far busier Saturdays in June in this mall in other years.

So no matter what you're hearing about retail sales, my guess, at least anecdotally, is that the final numbers will be worse.

Fallout 3 DLC: For Christmas

Garrett Alley sent me the greatest DLC idea ever:
I'd like a DLC pack for Fallout 3 that includes Christmas/winter/holiday songs from that era.

AND, let's add an option where you can find old records/LPs out in the wasteland and bring them to the radio station to add to the playlist.

I'd happily pay for that, and I'd happily pay for non-holiday song packs from that era to add to the radio station.

The Kid Gift Guide For Christmas

Almost everyone buys gifts for kids for Christmas, whether for their own kids or someone else's (or both). It can be hard to find something unique (so much of what's out there is a regurgitated copy of someone else's regurgitated copy), but that is no longer your problem.

Last year, I put up a post with gift ideas (which you can read here--they're all still recommended choices), and I found more this year.

1. Textile Fetish clothing
Why am I recommending a place that makes girl's clothing? Well, take a look at this:

Yes, that is 100%, pure AWESOMENESS. And if skulls are too much (seriously, how can skulls ever be too much?), how about sock monkeys and Elvis on board shorts?

All of these are handmade, so it's kind of like a Farmer's Market--you never know exactly what's going to be there when you go look. Personal disclaimer: the lady who creates this clothing has two daughters who are both friends of Eli 7.4, or I never would have seen the website. That in no way diminishes the sheer awesomeness of the clothing, though.

2. Elementeo
I wrote about this card game a few months ago because it was designed by a freaking ninth grader (Anshul Samar). Supposedly, it was a card battle game that would teach some concepts of basic chemistry.

I ordered it, not expecting that much, and was blown away by the quality of the finished game. It's absolutely first-rate, and I played it almost daily with Eli 7.4 for at least two months.

This is basically how the game works. There are 37 different element cards, and here's a sample:

Here's what each card contains (from the game's website):
--Element Symbol and Element Name
--Element Family, or Tribe as we call it
--Atomic Mass and Atomic Number
--Power: This is shown by spheres at the bottom left. This is also the element's oxidation state.
--Movement: Shown with an arrow: up/down, sideways, or all around on the battleground. This depends upon the state of the element at room temperature (solid, liquid, gas).

At the beginning of the a game, cards are dealt and then deployed onto the game board (see what the board looks like here). Like chess, each card has different movement abilities (depending on the state of the element at room temperature). When cards battle each other, their power is modified by a dice roll, so there's an element of randomness to keep things interesting.

If a card makes it to the end of the board, the player gets to roll the dice to decide how many "electrons" his opponent will lose. Take all the opponent's electrons, and you win the game.

One of the many excellent features in this game is that there are five different levels of play, each of which builds upon the previous level. As an example, level one only includes elements, but at level three, cards can be combined to make compounds (which are far more powerful). At level five, players get to build their own decks, which requires as much knowledge about elements and their properties as possible.

We started at level one, but we were up to compound level in only a week, and Eli can name at least twenty elements now with no problem (sure, he says "sodium dragon" instead of "sodium," but that's okay for now).

Plus, this game is fun. There are so many strategic choices in the game, so many ups and downs, that it's very involving. We've had plenty of games come down to a single dice roll, and it's hard to get more exciting than that.

As a stealth chemistry teacher for kids, it's excellent. As a game, it's excellent. Combined, it's even better.

3. Monster Lab (Wii)
I've already written about Monster Lab last week, but it's a phenomenally fun game with 20+ hours of content and a wicked sense of humor. It's Eli 7.4's Game of the Year, and it's in my top ten, too.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Space Rangers 2 + Expansion=$3.99

Thanks to all of you who sent this in, because it's a ridiculous deal on one of the best PC games of the last five years. Impulse is selling Star Rangers 2 and the expansion pack for $3.99, and there is zero DRM (no Starforce, in other words). What a great deal!

Here's the link: Space Rangers 2 Complete.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Friday Links!

Sure, it seems impossible, but that's what dreams are, aren't they? It's a pizza vending machine.

From the New York Times, a fascinating article about the life of H.M., who lost the ability to form new memories after brain surgery. Studies of his condition resulted in the discovery of multiple memory systems in the brain. Read about it here.

Here's a bizarre yet fascinating video of Aiko, a robot created by inventor Le Trung. She understands over 13,000 phrases, and the video is amazing. There's a freaky side-story of Le Trung inventing her to be his "partner," but ignore all the Vincent Price creepiness (if you can) and marvel at the technology.

From Sirius, a link to a story about scientists achieving, well, this:
The illusion of body-swapping -- making people perceive the bodies of mannequins and other people as their own -- has been achieved by Swedish neuroscientists.

Also from Sirius, a fascinating story about differences in how dogs and cats evolved, particularly in the area of biomechanics. Then there's a link to a story over at Wired titled 12 Living Fossils, and the pictures are well-worth a look. And one more--a link to a story about computer scientist Douglas Engelbart. Here's the intro:
1968: Computer scientist Douglas Engelbart kicks off the personal computer revolution with a product demonstration that is so amazing it inspires a generation of technologists. It will become known as "the mother of all demos."

Wait-one more, and it's the most comprehensive collection of leaf mimics you'll ever see (the pictures are amazing).

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's Not Always Right, and that's in reference to customers, in case you're wondering. It's chock full of classics, including the woman who thought she had "Spartans" on her computer. Then a delightfully demented review of the new Ford Fiesta on Top Gear. Also, a link to the world's slimmest houses (not surprisingly, they're in Japan).

Via Neatorama, a link to The Ghosts of Antarctica: Abandoned Stations and Huts. Here's one more, and it's a real treasure: Google Books now has scanned copies of every issue of Popular Science--back to 1872!

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a link to a story with details of Blue Origin, the rocket program funded by Jeff Bezos.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

November NPD's


PS3 - 378,000

Sony (as expected) crushed.

Analysis on Monday.

Game of the Year (Eli 7.4 Edition): Monster Lab (Wii)

It's gotten zero publicity, the reviews are only average, it's got zero buzz, and it's one of the best games I've played this year. It's called Monster Lab, and it's a brilliant piece of work from the Vancouver studio of Backbone Entertainment.

It's also Eli 7.4's game of the year, and nothing else is even close.

Here's the basic premise: you are an aspiring mad scientist, and as an apprentice Of the Mad Scientist Alliance, you are given a wide assortment of missions to complete. In the course of these missions, you will both play mini-games and battle other monsters to gain access to new materials and ingredients that can be used in various laboratories to create more powerful parts for your monster.

The world of Monster Lab looks like it came straight from a Tim Burton animated feature, and the levels are both brilliantly colored and extremely atmospheric. The writing is very funny, and the voice acting is very campy-- in a good way. The music is also first-rate, and production values are extremely high in general. It's just bursting with personality.

The game design is also excellent. Most of the game consists of either battling monsters, playing a mini-game to gain ingredients, or playing a mini-game in one of the various labs to create a new part for your monster. That means lots of mini-games (around twenty, I think), and while their quality is uneven, we enjoyed the vast majority.

Monster Labs also has a surprising amount of depth. In the design phase, each of the mini-games have four levels of difficulty, and there are a huge number of ingredients that can be combined to create all kinds of ridiculous appendages.

A monster is made up of the following parts: head, two arms (selected individually), a torso, and legs. Each of those parts has two possible actions, and the actions vary widely--there are dozens of possible actions for arms, for example, and which ones are available depends on which ingredients you used. Each action also uses up a certain amount of power, and if your power drops too low, you'll need to recharge.

Combat is turn-based, and again, it has a surprising amount of depth. There are two ways to win: destroy your opponent's torso, or destroy everything else (head, arms, legs). Since each part has its own health rating, and each of your attacks has a damage rating, there's quite a bit of strategy involved. Plus, and this is another surprise, dodge and block are actually very useful-- even critical in certain battles.

On top of all that, the animations in combat (and in the game in general) are excellent. Combat is extremely entertaining, and there's definitely that addictive quality of fighting one more monster in hope of acquiring an exclusive or rare ingredient.

Our primary monster wasn named "Leopard Alien 7" (Eli named them all), and it featured a death mask for a head, an auger drill for an arm, a king crab claw for the second arm, a Bahamut torso, and locust legs. The three labs are mechanical, biological, and alchemical, so the possible combinations are entirely silly and practically endless.

Another plus: the amount of content. We finished the game Tuesday night, and we put in about 20-25 hours. So this isn't a short game, but there's really no filler content, either. It's all fun.

I'd even recommend this game for an adult, because it's a tremendous amount of fun, although I think a couple of house rules would be needed to make the game more difficult. It's really designed almost perfectly for a kid in the 7-10 age range, though, and I think that's probably the primary audience.

On a scale of 1-10, for a kid, it's a 10.


I saw this in the latest issue of Sound & Vision magazine:
...2009 is when the 3-D flirtation will turn into a full-blown affair. Most of the major studios are working on 3-D titles, and both Disney/Pixar and DreamWorks Animation have made 3-D a major part of their future strategies. Disney/Pixar plans to release eight animated 3-D features in the next few years, including the next Toy Story installment and a Cars sequel. DreamWorks Animation has said that all its pictures going foward--including Monsters vs. Aliens and Shrek the Fourth--will be in 3-D.

Some of Hollywood's biggest directors are also joining the party. Upcoming 3-D releases include a trilogy based on The Adventures of Tintin from Peter Jackson and Steven Spielberg, a remake of A Christmas Carol by director Robert Zemeckis (who's now working exclusively in 3-D), and 3-D conversions of all six Star Wars movies...

A Little More (The End of an Era)

I wish I had been able to fully form this in the original post, but here's something else I wanted to say.

Most politicians see elections in terms of wedge issues, because it divides the electorate into "us" and "them." If a politician can find issues where 65% (or more) of the voters agree with him, no matter if those issues are really important, he's going to focus on them as much as he possibly can.

In other words, he only wants to take a stand on issues where "us" is greater than "them."

When so many people are playing games, though, gamers ARE the "us." So it's useless as a political tool for these goofballs, except (as I noted yesterday) in more regional races.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Even For Us, That's Crazy

On Wednesday, at 1 p.m., it was 81 degrees.

Ten hours later, it was sleeting. Hard. And less than five miles away, it was snowing.

This Can't Taste Like Chicken

That's a chart of the stock price of Electronic Arts over the last twelve months. Today, the stock closed at $17.00.

I know, I said this was going to happen, but my timeframe was so far off that no credit is earned.

If you're wondering why the plunge in the last day, there's this (thanks Gamasutra):
Electronic Arts says holiday sales across North America and Europe have not met expectations, and thus neither will its 2009 financial results.

To compensate, EA says it'll cut titles from its slate for next year, reduce headcount and consolidate facilities, although it didn't further specify those cost reduction plans.

Certainly, they're in some trouble right now. And for a company that size (having worked in one, I know), it's incredibly difficult when things start to go bad. In a company of several hundred people, everyone has a personal relationship with the company. The owner, who probably knows your name, can come to you and make a personal appeal to work harder or be loyal or whatever. It's a big family.

In a huge company like EA, that's not really possible. It's business, and after the first round of layoffs, the number of people actively shopping their resumes exponentially increases. Productivity, invevitably, goes down. Innovation usually goes down, too, because it's risky, and risk is a stretch goal for most companies.

Plus, and this is a big deal, whenever the stock goes down 75% in a year, employee stock options become worthless. Almost every stock option EA has granted since 2001 is probably underwater right now (deep water, too), and that's also a motivation killer.

What is EA trying to do, exactly? Who do they want to be when they grow up? I think their product mix, at this point, is hopelessly confused. I don't think they really have an identity right now except as the Borg of gaming companies. Ironically, this is all happening during a year when they've actually introduced several new franchises (Dead Space, Mirror's Edge, and reviving Head Coach) that have significant potential. In terms of an identity, though, the company is so big that it's just a company now.

EA does have some tremendously strong franchises, but I think their expectations for those franchises are usually unreasonable. They don't seem to be looking for solid, popular franchises--they want the next Sims in terms of popularity and dominance. More to the point, they desperately need something that big to drive growth.

Good luck with that.

Gaming Links

Boy, there is some good stuff to share with you today.

Chris Kohler of Wired has a fifteen-minute interview with Alex Rigopulos, CEO of Harmonix, and it's just terrific. It reinforces my notion that the people who work at Harmonix must be the most collectively interesting group of people imaginable.

I usually can't stand to listen to podcasts, because they usually consist of three or four guys constantly interrupting each other for an hour. The Hatchet Job podcast, though, sounds much more like a radio program, and because of that, it's something I enjoy listening to. Now they have a podcast with Trip Hawkins, and they ask excellent questions. I know, Trip can be incredibly self-serving, but that doesn't mean he isn't interesting.

And, incredibly, there's a Joe Kapp reference (in part one).

They also have an interview with Prof. Charles Spence, the head professor of Oxford's Crossmodal Research Lab, and here's a description of what he discusses:
He studies the human senses and how they interact with each other. In one of his recent studies, test subjects was asked to eat stale potato chips while listening to the sound of crisp chips in headphones. The subjects reported that the stale chips tasted fresh. On this theme, we talked about how video games engage the senses, what happens if your surround sound system isn't set up properly and the lack of smell, touch, and taste in modern entertain mediums, etc.
Thanks to Matt S., who sent me a link to Anandtech's analysis of the new Jasper version of the 360.

Jason Brogden e-mailed me and asked me to mention the upcoming Carolina Games Summit (he's the video editor), so here's a link to the press release.

The End of an Era

So it ends with a whimper, not a bang:
More than half of American adults play video games and one in five play just about every day, according to a survey released Sunday by the Pew Internet & American Life Project.

I've been writing for several years that, as gamers, time was on our side in terms of demographics, and I strongly believed that we would see a day where gaming was no longer declared the demon by politicians seeking to make a name for themselves nationally.

What I didn't expect, though, was for it to happen so soon.

What struck me after I read this story was how little attention it's gotten, and I think that's because no one sees it as particularly remarkable. That, in itself, is an overwhelming statement of how mainstream gaming has become.

Do you remember how just a few years ago, politicians with national profiles used the issue of gaming and children as a bully pulpit? That issue won't resonate, though, when most of the parents themselves play games. They know full well that some games are not appropriate for children, and they will be able to manage that issue just fine without any government intervention, thank you very much.

This is now a dead issue for politicians at the national level. Have you noticed how no one at the national level is really bringing up gaming anymore? Sure, there will still be some backwater state hacks who try to rile up the 60 I.Q. locals, but that won't even make a ripple in a larger pond.

So why has this happened so much sooner than I expected? Three things, I think. One, the ESRB has done a truly outstanding job in the last two years of addressing legitimate complaints. It's much easier for kids to buy DVDs or music that is inappropriate for them than a video game, and the new, detailed ratings system is outstanding. No political hay to make there.

Second, I think the stunning rise of casual games has exponentially expanded gaming's reach for adults. For years, games were treated as a separate class when it came to entertainment. Critics contended both that gaming was both juvenile and harmful to juveniles.

That artificial construct has been blown to bits. Games aren't a separate class, and they don't have unique effects. They're just another form of entertainment, no more juvenile than anything else. The people who said gaming were juvenile were just another version of those people in the 1970's who refused to have televisions in their houses because television programs were "infantile."

Third, I think the Wii has had a huge influence. It's just impossible to believe that gaming is harmful for kids when you see them playing games on the Wii. Thanks to the Wii, gaming is a full-blown cultural phenomenon in the U.S. now.

Combine all those factors, and the writing is clearly on the wall. We are gamer nation-- demagogues beware.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

He Who Must Not Be Named

That's Eli 7.4 reading Harry Potter and the Socereror's Stone.

It's hard to convey how much of a thrill it is for me to see Eli having his first experience with the Harry Potter books. They weren't around when I was boy, so I'm seeing them that way for the first time, through his eyes.

We started reading the first book to him in early October, then read Chamber of Secrets to him in November. We're stopping there for at least six months, because the entire concept of Dementors scares the crap out of me, so Prisoners of Azkaban will have to wait for a while.

I've been secretly hoping, though, that he'd want to read the first two books by himself, and that's what he's doing now.

We also decided to let him see the first two movies, and that was terrific, except when I saw Lord Voldemort's face on the back of ******, I was reminded of what a powerful image it was, and I wondered if it was going to give Eli nightmares.

As it turned out, it did, and for three nights in a row, Eli 7.4 came into our room in the middle of the night. The plot of the dream was always the same: he met Voldemort on a playground, they dueled, he almost defeated him, but Voldemort destroyed him in the end.

Every morning, I told him that Voldemort wasn't real.

On the third morning, though, I remembered Frankenstein.

I've told this story before, but when I was eight or nine, I watched the black-and-white version of the original Frankenstein movie, and the scene where Frankenstein is chained up in a dungeon (I think it was a dungeon, or maybe it was a cell) really frightened me. Frankenstein was on a kind of stone throne, and his arms and legs were chained down, and there was sunlight coming in through a barred window behind his head, the shafts of light filtering through the dust.

It was an incredibly beautiful, evocative image, and it was scary as hell.

I knew Frankenstein wasn't real, but I also somehow believed that he existed, and I got particularly creeped out at night, including having nightmares of me being chained in the dungeon, unable to get away.

So when we went out to dinner last Tuesday night, we talked about his dreams, and I told him one more time that Voldemort wasn't real.

Then we went on to a far more important conversation: how to defeat him.

"Dad, how can I defeat Voldemort if he isn't real?" Eli asked.

"He is real--in your dreams," I said. "And if he's real in your dreams, why can't you defeat him in your dreams?"

"But I'm not powerful enough," he said. "When we duel, I can always damage him, and I can get really close to beating him, but he always casts one last spell."

"Okay, so let's think about this," I said. "So your spells are powerful enough to defeat him, but you never have enough time. So what about petrificus totalis?"


"Petrificus totalis. Remember Hermione casts it on Neville?"

"Oh yeah!" he said. "And Neville went stiff."

"Right," I said. "So if you cast that on Voldemort, he won't be able to cast a spell."

"That's a good idea," he said, "but what happens when he can move again?"

"It won't matter," I said, "because while he's rigid, you're going to snap his wand in half."

"Snap his wand in--HOLY SMOKES!" he said. "He can't cast a spell if his wand is broken!"

"Well, he can't cast many," I said. "The wand gives him greater power, so if he's without it, he's not nearly as dangerous."

"Right, but he's still there with me," he said.

"You can do one other thing," I said. "Use Riddikulus."

"What is that?"

"It's a spell that turns him into something silly," I said. "So you think of something ridiculous in your head, then laugh, and he turns into it."

[Harry Potter nerd alert: I know I'm abusing the canon a bit here, since this spell can only be used on Boggarts.]

Eli laughed. "Something ridiculous? You mean, I could turn him into an ant?"

"Sure, " I said. "Or a doodle bug."

"I could turn him into A TROPHY!" he shouted.

"You could," I said. "That way, you could keep him on the mantle, and boy, would he be embarrassed."

Thus fortified with ideas, he went to bed that night with high confidence.

And was defeated.

The next night, though, he didn't wake up, and in the morning, he came into our room. "Dad!" he shouted. "I defeated him!"

"You did?" I asked. "What happened?"

"We were on the playground, just like always, and I froze him. Then I then broke his wand, and I turned him into a trophy!" he laughed. "He couldn't do ANYTHING!"

Eli 7.4 1, Voldemort 0.

Frankenstein, watch out--we're coming for you next.

Monday, December 08, 2008

The Plan, Delayed

The plan was to build my new system today.

I've got all the parts. Actually, I'm sure I'm missing something, but that's why there's a Fry's a mile from our house.

At 9:30, though, Eli 7.4's school called and said his stomach was hurting. He came home from school, and his stomach is still hurting tonight. He's had a bad health run for the last few weeks, and it seems like every time he gets well for a few days, he comes down with something else.

Instead of trying to build the system anyway, I decided to wait until he goes back to school. So hopefully I'll be able to write about it before the end of the week.

Console Post of the Week

Holy crap.

This is quite the bombshell:
Nintendo president Satoru Iwata has revealed that the company sold around 800,000 Wii consoles in the US over the Thanksgiving weekend - more than double the 350,000 number from last year.

800,000 Wiis in a week.

Here's some context for that number. Going back to 2001, here are the consoles that sold more than 800,000 units in the U.S. in November:
PS2--920,000 (2001)
PS2--1,300,000 (2002)
PS2--850,000 (2003)
Wii--981,000 (2007)

In other words, the Wii just sold more units in one week than the 360 or PS3 has ever sold in a full November. And it looks almost guaranteed that Nintendo is going to shatter the 1.3M units sold by the PS2 in November 2002.

The biggest month in history? I believe it's the 2.7M PS2s sold in December 2002. Depending on supply constraints, that number looks to be in jeopardy this year.

Microsoft touted its November sales in Europe in an announcement today, and there was also this tidbit:
November 2008 saw the largest Xbox sales ever in the six-year history of the brand in Europe. GfK-ChartTrack data shows that the console outsold PlayStation 3 across the entire region and in particular has seen significant gains in markets like France, Spain and Italy, where it has been outselling PlayStation 3 week after week.

That's a huge change from three months ago, and I think it again points to the problems Sony is having at their current price point. If Micrsoft can just draw with Sony in Europe, they'll outsell them worldwide, because Sony is going to get hammered in the U.S. this holiday season (see previous CPotW on advertising over Black Friday weekend). It will be no surprise if the November NPDs show the 360 selling 800k-900k units and nearly doubling PS3 sales.

It's not complicated: Sony is in a ditch (again) until they cut prices.

An Early Distraction

Here's an excellent way to start Monday, with an absolutely brilliant 8-bit meditation titled Balloon Trip: An Existential Journey.

Friday, December 05, 2008

Friday Links!

Ignore the boss behind the curtain. He is not important. These links, on the other hand, are an important part of your Friday.

Leading off, a link to an auction that will benefit Child's Play. You can bid on any of five diffferent systems (Atari 2600, Turbografix-16, Atari 5200, Sega Genesis 2, or Odyssey 2). All of these systems come from the dusty past of Wired's Chris Kohler, and you can find all the information here.

From Dan Quock, a link to an utterly amazing social experiment called Domestic Tension. Here's an excerpt from the article:
Last spring, Iraqi artist Wafaa Bilal moved into a cordoned area set up in the back of a Chicago art gallery, where he would remain for one month. The makeshift cell contained a computer, desk, bed, lamp, coffee table, and stationary bike (which, like most stationary bikes, went untouched). Facing him was a paintball gun with an attached webcam. With the help of friends, an interactive system was designed in which users could log on to the Internet, aim the gun, and fire. For the month, Bilal was an around-the-clock target, offering himself up to anyone wanting to "shoot an Iraqi."

What happened then makes for completely absorbing reading.

From Sirius, a link to a nanotech clothing fabric that never gets wet. Also from Sirius, a link to a fascinating article about a mysterious dearth of acorns in certain parts of the country this fall. Then there's a link to an intriguing idea: using comic books to teach hard science. Wait, there's one more: a "super ant" is taking over Europe. Please remember that this is "super" by European standards, not Australian ones.

From Mike Cascio, a link to a musical documentary called Playing For Change, and here's a description (courtesy of Metafilter):
Playing for Change - Peace Through Music is a documentary film by Mark Johnson. He traveled the world and recorded various musicians playing the song Stand By Me . Each musician was charged with layering a single song over the previous artist thus building upon it. Over thirty musicians globally participated in this project and not one artist knew the other or came in contact initially.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to a totally fantastic tilt-shift video of a demolition derby. Also, a link to the discovery of a prehistoric canoe, found at the bottom of the Black Sea. And following his link to the world's worst cookbook last week, he sends in a link to the testicle cookbook. Insert your joke about marriage [here].

From Max Weinstein, a link to a well-written article over at Giant Japanese Robot titled Parents Guide to Video Games.
From Dan Holmes, a link to discovery of a giant squid that has to be seen to be believed.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a link to a video of the Da Vinci of motorcyle riding--Toni Bou. It is simply not possible to do what he does on a motorcycle.

From John Catania, a link to the most amazing papercraft art I've ever seen.

From Jeremy Fischer, a link to a video of a dog that really likes the snow, even when it's over four feet deep.

From Kim Klotz, the woman who makes the best birthday dessert in history, a link to the story of a man who tried to pay an overdue account by sending in a picture of a spider.

From Sean, a link to some outstanding pictures of the recent flooding in Venice.

From Marty Devine, a link to an article about why our pushbutton phones wound up with buttons in the now-standard grid.

Finally, from Cliff Eyler, a link to an article about how difficult it is to design and install a window--in space.

Site Meter