Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Illusionist

"I wonder how many magicians arrive at their performance in a booster seat?" Gloria asked.

Eli 8.1 laughed. He could afford to--he was about to get paid to do a magic show.

We usually eat breakfast at least one day on the weekend at a little restaurant near our house. We've been going there for years, and everyone knows Eli well.

A few weeks ago, Eli brought a few magic tricks with him, and he did them for the owner of the restaurant (a very nice lady named Sue). Eli's become quite good at magic, and he does sleight-of-hand particularly well, so when he did these tricks for Sue, she immediately asked him if he would perform at a baby shower.

For pay.

Eli, of course, was positively giddy with the possibilities. "How much do you think she'll pay me?" he asked. "I might get a dollar!" A dollar is less than his allowance, but this was money earned with magic, so it had exponentially greater value.

That night, we went through the tricks he knew, and picked out about a dozen that he did the best. Then he practiced his routine almost every night for two weeks, working out his own patter as he went along.

The night before the show, he was smooth as silk.

We went to the restaurant on Monday night, and there were about 20 people there. We had to wait about half an hour before he could start the show, and when he did, I realized something that surprised me.

He was scared to death.

Eli always acts so grown-up for his age that I never treat him like an eight-year old. He's also essentially impervious to pressure. Until now, anyway, because he was extremely nervous in front of people he didn't know.

And he bombed for the first couple of minutes, stumbling around, dropping things. I felt so badly for him.

Then he got to a card trick that is always a winner. He held up three cards--a seven, and eight, and nine. Then he turned them over in order and asked the expectant father the value of the middle card.

It has to be an eight. There is absolutely no way it can't be in eight. But when he turned the card over, it was a queen. It's a nifty trick and it always blows people away, and the look on the father's face was priceless--he was genuinely stunned.

Everyone burst out in applause, and from that point on, he had them eating out of his hand. He pulled himself out of the ditch and did a terrific job, and I was very proud of him. Here's a picture of him working the audience:

Sue pulled me aside and asked me if she could give him $30. I countered with $10. We settled on $15.

"I can't believe I made FIFTEEN DOLLARS," he said on the way home.

"That's a dollar a minute, little man," I said. "Remember that when you're in high school and applying for a job that makes seven dollars an hour."

"Dad!" he said, laughing.

Auction: Tasty New Stuff Added

DQ reader Mike Crasweller of Stardock just let me know that he is adding a copy of Elemental: War of Magic to the auction that will benefit Child's Play, and this includes access to the beta test. So that's now a "Forever Extreme" account from Hybir Backup, a copy of either Madden 10 (360) or King's Bounty (PC), and a copy of Elemental: War Of Magic.

Here's the auction link again. Five days remaining.

Majesty Gold

I mentioned yesterday that Majesty Gold was a great deal for $10.

And it is--if you can get it to run. Keith Grogan sent me links from the Steam forums (and I found posts about the Impulse version as well) indicating that many people are having problems running the game with either XP or Vista.

I think every time I recommended a PC game this year, I later discovered a crashing problem or some kind of incompatibility issue. Good grief.

There are several games later this fall that I'm looking forward to, but I'm becoming more and more wary of PC versions. That's unfortunate, because I love playing games on the PC, but the problem/enjoyment ratio has dropped substantially in the last few years.

Radeon HD 5850

The Radeon HD 5850 has been officially launched, and if you're wondering how it differs from the 5870, here's a brief list:
--physically, it's shorter (the 5870 is 10.5", which is so long it won't fit in all cases)
--it's quieter (by 5-7 decibels under full load)
--it consumes less power (25-50 fewer watts under load, it even consumes less power than the 4870 under load)
--it runs coooler (5-10c less under load)
--at 1920x1200, it's about 20% slower
--it's much cheaper ($259 list versus $399 list for the 5870)

If you want a comparison with an Nvidia product, it's faster than the GTX 285 (which is more expensive, consumes more power, and louder).

That looks like a winner to me.

Links to a few reviews:
Tom's Hardware

I like everything about this card, basically, so it looks like it's time to upgrade from my GTX 260.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Charity Auction For Child's Play

Rob Cigan won the contest last week that gave away a "Forever Extreme" account from Hybir Backup, DQ reader Rasch Young's new company.

Rob, in an incredibly generous move, is auctioning off the account and donating the proceeds to Child's Play. Rasch was so impressed that he donated another account for Rob's use.

Yes, lots of nice people colliding around here.

Here's a link to the auction. Given that the account never expires, and that the 600GB plan normally retails for $180/yr, it's a valuable item. And I can't think of a better charity for kids than Child's Play.

I'll also donate either a new copy of King's Bounty (PC) or Madden 10 (360) to the winner.

Deep Grooves

I picked up the Eli 8.1 from school today, and we stopped at Einstein's for a cookie, like we always do.

Eli was working on his homework in the backseat, so we just sat in the car for a few minutes. While we were sitting there, I saw a very elderly gentleman pushing a woman in a wheelchair toward the car that was next to us in the parking lot.

He was in his 70s, at least, and the woman (his wife, most likely) looked to be about the same age.

They reached the car and he opened the passenger side door to help her in. He was wearing a green windbreaker, a collared shirt, jeans and running shoes, and he moved in the way that very old people often do, as if he was walking underwater.

She was shorter than him, and a bit wider, and her hair was permed. It was incredibly difficult for her to get into the car. She adjusted her position a tiny fraction at a a time, moving even more slowly than he did, as if she was a stop-motion animation.

It takes forever, helping someone into a car one inch at a time.

I wanted to ask them if they needed help, but it was clear that this was part of a very exacting procedure, and although it seemed to be taking an eternity, the old man knew exactly what he was doing.

When she was finally in the car, he handed her a royal blue throw pillow, and she clutched it to her chest as he put the seat belt around her. Then he meticulously folded up the wheelchair and put it in the trunk, one frame at a time.

I wouldn't have noticed any of this when I was younger, because they would've been too slow for me to see. Now, though, I can see things at that speed, and think about my future, even though it's still in the far distance.

It hurt.

So many things that we see on a daily basis don't even register. Thousands of images pass us by without being retained. But this one, these people, put down a deep groove.

Twenty years ago, in December, I drove past a man who was holding up a sign at an intersection, asking for money. He was the definition of grizzled--old, whippet-thin, exhausted by life. It was cold that day, very cold, with a fierce north wind and temperatures in the thirties, and he was only wearing a thin nylon jacket over his shirt, holding it closed with his hand.

He looked haunted, almost a living ghost. I can still see that face today as clearly as if I'd just driven by. He cut a deep groove.

I pulled into a parking lot, then walked toward him. As I got close I saw the white whiskers like bristles, the only part of his face with any strength left.

I gave him twenty dollars. I don't do that, but this wasn't "that." It was something else, something so far beyond desperation that there isn't a word. I don't remember what I said, but I said something. I'm sure it didn't help. There was no real helping here.

I felt guilty as I walked off, because I thought he might just walk right to a liquor store and spend the money. Then I realized that I didn't care--if there was anything he could do to escape, even for a little while, then good for him. Maybe there would be a few dollars left and he could get a hot meal. A little comfort.

That day, I assumed that the old man was standing at the intersection because he'd made bad choices for decades. He'd just been in a boat on a river, like all of us, and decided to paddle in the wrong direction, and even though he knew it was wrong, he just kept paddling.

It was simple then, being young and knowing immediately why everything happened.

Now I never know why anything happens. I just know there are eddies.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Majesty 2 (PC): Impressions

In March of 2000 (can it have been that long ago?), Cyberlore Studios released a game titled Majesty that was billed as a "fantasy Kingdom Sim." The reviews were middling-- an average review score of 76 (thanks, with 28 reviews.

The reviews were wrong. So wrong.

Majesty was one of my favorite games of the year, and in many ways, it's still one of my favorite RTS games ever. Instead of the precise micromanagement required by many RTS games, Majesty used a different mechanic. To control units, you set reward flags for different kinds of actions, and you attached a bounty to that action.

If the bounty was sizable enough, based on the difficulty and the danger of the action, heroes would be attracted to fulfill your request. So instead of precise control, your role was to influence behavior.

If this sounds like a minor distinction, believe me, it isn't. It was an absolutely wonderful gameplay mechanic that made Majesty feel entirely fresh. And in addition to unique gameplay, the entire game was full of a sense of whimsy. It was a very funny game, and very clever.

It was also quite measured in terms of pace. It wasn't a frantic game by any means, and he gave you time to appreciate just how cleverly everything had been designed.

When I heard that there was going to be a sequel, but with different developers (Ino-Co, located in the Russian Federation of Krasnodar), I had mixed feelings. I was looking forward to having another chance to play in that world, but I've grown weary of Russian development houses.

Don't get me wrong--some of the best games I've ever played (hello, Space Rangers 2, you wacky bit of genius) have come from Russian developers. And I've been extremely impressed with their creativity. The problem, though, is that Russian developers seem immune to public pressure to fix game- breaking issues. They do it on their own impossible-to-decipher schedule, and often it's not done at all.

So if you get lucky and get a finished product, it's likely to be outstanding. If you don't, you are likely to be banging your head against the wall in frustration. I've done both.

Yes, in many ways this is a description of the entire PC development world, but it seems more acute with certain publishers (1C, in particular) and developers.

I'm happy to report, though, that Majesty 2 seems complete and stable, at least for the first 10 hours of play. I'm also quite happy to report that the whimsy and sense of humor that defined the first game are still present. Even better, the game mechanics have been expanded slightly in terms of available buildings and actions that you can perform.

Here's a simple description of how the game works: there is a relatively conventional layer of gameplay mechanics that consist of generating revenue through marketplaces to fund buildings and the hiring of heroes. So at one level, you're managing a simple economy. The unique layer consists of influencing the behavior of heroes indirectly through the reward system.

When you're only capable of influencing behavior indirectly, there are interesting complexities that emerge, particularly when you need to manage multiple goals. For instance, you might need to have an area explored, a building defended, and an enemy attacked, all roughly at the same time. Prioritizing the bounty amounts and adjusting them based on how your heroes respond is tremendously engaging, and it's fun.

One worthwhile change (I believe it's a change, although it has been almost a decade since I played the original game) is the addition of Lords. Lords are heroes that you select at the end of the mission, and their skills carry over during the campaign. A special guild building is available, and when it's completed, you can hire Lords in addition to regular heroes. The downside is that they are much more expensive to hire, based on their skill level.

If you're thinking that this has been very positive, you're right. In general, I think this is a very worthy sequel. I only have one concern, and that's with the pacing. It seems that certain missions spawn enemies at such a rate that they become very difficult to survive. The measured pace of the first game, in these missions, is entirely replaced, and I don't like that at all.

For fans of the first game, this is definitely a buy. For those of you who never played the first game, though, a "gold" version (including an expansion pack) is only $10 via Impulse. Compared to $40 for the sequel, the original is a much better deal.

When I finish the campaign, I'll put up some final impressions.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Friday Links!

First off, an extraordinary story from the New York Times about Carl Jung's Red Book,an unpublished chronicle of his descent into what I can only call madness. The article is a terrific read, and explores both what's in the Red Book as well as the complexities involved in its publication.

Here's a fascinating (and disturbing) article from Shane Courtrille about the Soviet Doomsday machine--Dead Hand.

From Tim Jones, a link to an absolutely stunning video of Jimi Hendrix.

There was a tremendous dust storm in Australia this week, and Dib Oglesby sent in a link to spectacular images of the storm.

From Geoff Engelstein, a link to amazing photos of a bat drinking. The technical story behind getting the shots is also an excellent read.

From Jonathan Arnold, a link to a story about Raptorex, and here's an excerpt:
Meet Raptorex, the "king of thieves". It's a new species of dinosaur that looks, for all intents and purposes¸ like the mighty Tyrannosaurus rex, complete with large, powerful skull and tiny, comical forearms. But there's one very important difference - it's 100 times smaller.

From Sirius, a story about the limits (and pitfalls) of research using functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging. It also has one of the greatest article titles ever: Scanning Dead Salmon in fMRI Machine Highlights Risk of Red Herrings. Also from Sirius, a link to a story about Alabama's war on Cogongrass. I'd never even heard of this grass before--I thought the South was still choking on kudzu. Also, a link to a story about a golden cloth made from the silk of 1 million spiders.

From Neil Sorens, a link to a boingboing video about Synesthesia, a documentary about, well, you know. What I really want to know, though, is if (for instance) colors have numbers, do all synesthesiasts see the same numbers associated with the same colors?

From Jesse leimkuehler, a link to spectacular images of the Milky Way.

From Rob McMillon, a link to a new kind of robot--one that plays pool. Perfectly.

From Kez, a link to 13 Real Animals Lifted Directly Out Of Your Nightmares.

From J.R., a rabbit hole named thelongestlistofthelongeststuffatthelongestdomainnameatlonglast. It's where you can find the longest of anything (watch it now): album titles, alphabets, bridges, etc.

From CNN, a story about the discovery of the largest Anglo-Saxon gold hoard ever discovered in England.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's 8 Bizarre Real Estate Deals. Also, and this is fantastic, it's HD Home Video From The Edge Of Space.

From David, links to two stories about the Netflix prize: BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos Wins $1 Million Netflix Prize by Mere Minutes and How the Netflix Prize Was Won.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hybir Backup Contest Winner!

Congratulations to Rob Cigan.

Hybir Backup Contest #3 [CLOSED]

[Entries are closed. Drawing for the fifteen who made it will be later tonight.]

The first five people who send in e-mails with the subject line "HYBIR BACKUP CONTEST #3" will be entered into tonight's drawing. Okay, Australia and Japan, I waited so you would all be awake.

Eli 8.1

On an entirely unrelated note, Gloria believes that Dallas Cowboys head coach Wade Phillips looks like the Skipper. I believe she has a point:
Wade Phillips
the Skipper

Photoshop submissions are appreciated.

I took Eli 8.1 for our weekly trip to California Pizza Kitchen on Tuesday. He brought his homework with him, and while we waited for our food, he worked feverishly. After about 15 minutes, he stood up from his chair.

"Oh yeah, baby! He said. "I am done. DONE. Homework is OVER. It's over, it's over. Woo hoo!" Then he sang "Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh uh uh uh uh uh uh."

"That's great," I said. "Let me see your paper and I'll check it."

"I'm not quite finished yet," he said.

Our way back to the car, Eli kicked me in the butt. "Now comes the waiting," I said.

"Waiting for what?" he asked.

"To avenge the honor of my buttocks," I said. Eli laughed, then refused to walk in front or even beside me. "I call a truce in the store," I said, and then he walked beside me, though still suspicious.

When we walked out of the store, he said, "You're never going to get me." What he didn't know was that I had reached into my pocket and was holding a quarter in my hand. When he turned his head, I tossed the quarter so that it landed behind him.

He turned to look, of course, entirely neglecting his defensive strategy, and I kicked him in the butt. "Who threw that money?" he asked.

I laughed. "You!" he shouted, laughing. "I can't believe I fell for it!"

Eli was about to take his shower, and he looked at me and said, "Dad, do you have a six-pack?"

"No," I said.

"You don't?" he asked. "Well, do you have a four-pack?"

"No," I said.

"What? Do you at least have a TWO-pack?"

"No two-pack," I said.

"Well, what DO you have?" he asked.

"A two-liter bottle, I think."


"Little man, do you even know what it means to have a six-pack?" I asked.

"I have NO idea," he said.

Madden Patch

The first Madden patch has been released and is available for download. I'm working on slider changes, which will take several days to test at a minimum.

Eating Healthy

I had a huge craving for Pop-Tarts yesterday.

When I realized that having two high-fiber Pop-Tarts would give me just as much fiber (stomach problems lately, unfortunately) as two pieces of toast, my already thin resistance crumbled.

At the grocery store, I was in the checkout lane when I glanced at the items behind me on the conveyor. The fellow behind me was apparently having a large jug of red wine and a tray of cheese danish for dinner.

That's got to be the worst dinner ever, I thought.

That's when I looked at the items of the guy in front of me. He had a six pack of beer, a Mr. Goodbar, and a Nestlé's Crunch.

I'd have to call that a draw.

Compared to those guys, I felt like a nutritionist.

Hybir Backup Contest #2 [CLOSED]

[Holy crap, you guys were sitting and waiting for this one. Five e-mails in two minutes. Now closed, although there will be one more round later.]

The first five people who send in e-mails with the subject line "HYBIR BACKUP CONTEST #2" will be entered into tonight's drawing.

Tokyo Game Show

If you're wondering what's going on in Japan, GameLife has a ton of coverage.

Hybir Backup Contest #1 [CLOSED}

[Note: Closed. I'll open up #2 this afternoon.]

Okay, the first five people who send in e-mails with the subject line "HYBIR BACKUP CONTEST #1" will be entered into tonight's drawing.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Contest Tomorrow

Rasch Young, co-founder and CEO of Hybir Backup, has volunteered to give away one "Extreme Forever" account (no expiration, maximum backup size of 600GB) to a DQ reader, so tomorrow we're having the blog version of a radio call-in contest ("be the X caller").

To make it possible for as many different time zones to enter as possible, I'm thinking about running posts at different times and accepting the first five e-mailers per post (three posts, for a total of fifteen entrants), with a final drawing to select the winner. Or something like that.

The Beatles: Rock Band Impressions (360)

If you believe The Beatles are the greatest rock band in history (note: they are), please abandon this post immediately and proceed to your local store to purchase the game. The game is wonderful, and you will be thrilled.

For the few of you who are left, let's talk. If you're the guy who plays music games but doesn't really care about The Beatles as a band, what's in it for you?

Well, quite a bit, actually.

Let's start with the basic functional differences between TB: RB and Rock Band 2.
--no freestyle drum or guitar sections
--no unlocking of songs (well, except for the "secret" ending song). All songs are immediately playable via the Quickplay mode.

If you have friends to sing with, and they can actually sing, then you're done here. Please go join the group of people already standing in line at the store from the lead paragraph. Even if you want to (inexplicably) argue that the Beatles are not the greatest rock band, there should be absolutely no dispute as to the quality of their harmonies. That's beyond discussion.

If you enjoy playing the bass, you can also leave this post and go buy the game. Paul McCartney is universally regarded as one of the greatest bass players in rock history, not just technically but also creatively. The bass lines are inventive, challenging, and fun.

Guitar? George Harrison, #21 on Rolling Stones' list of the greatest guitarists, with a sound that is entirely distinct. Plus you get John Lennon on guitar as well (he played lead on some songs, including "Back in the USSR," if I remember correctly). There are a ton of licks that qualify as iconic and completely unforgettable. Go to the store.

Hmm. I'm guessing you're a drummer. Well, it's certainly fair to say that Ringo Starr was the weakest member of the band. No dispute there. However, quite surprisingly, the drum lines are fun to play. Lots of fun, actually.

If you're the guy who's a top 1% player, then the difficulty on Expert drums will not satisfy you. Feel free to not purchase the game, and instead wait for DLC from Thrashmetal Crushfest Headstompers. However, if you belong to the other 99% of the population, the difficulty is just fine. It does vary significantly from song to song, but I didn't find that distracting or unsatisfying.

So go to the store.

What, are you still here? Oh, you must be a "value" guy, and you've read some of the reviews that knock the game for not having enough content.

In short: those reviews are whack.

Look at it this way: if there was no separate game for the music of The Beatles, and instead, a 45-song DLC pack was announced at regular DLC prices of $1.99 a song or $60 ($1.33 per) for the entire pack, it would be hailed as a fantastic value.

Instead, you get 45 songs and the most brilliantly creative and polished product ever created in this genre. The dreamscapes alone are epic and so incredibly whimsical that it's hard to believe The Beatles didn't create them themselves.

The meticulous attention to detail in terms of documenting their careers in the game also stands out, and again, you're getting all this in addition to the 45 songs.

So if it's value you're looking for, go to the store.

I do think there is one misstep in the game, which is totally surprising to me, given the unerring instincts of the development team in every other area. I don't think this is a spoiler, since the venues have been mentioned exhaustively, but if you have any concerns, stop reading here.

You should have already been on your way to the store, anyway.

The last venue is the rooftop concert. If you watched the original footage in "Let It Be," you know that it is a surreal moment. The Beatles start off playing to only a few people on the roof, but by the end of even the first song, people were climbing onto fire escapes and running across roofs to get a closer view. There was a building sense of excitement, even jubilance, that grew with every song, and as the crowds quickly grew, so did the police presence.

It was a wild scene.

I felt none of that in the game. It was strangely flat in comparison to the exuberance of many of the earlier venues and dreamscapes. Like I said, the development team seemed so in tune with what The Beatles were doing and what they meant that it floored me when they missed on this.

Did it reduce my enjoyment of the game? Only barely, and the game is such a beautiful, creative, respectful treatment of the music of The Beatles that I almost feel miserly even mentioning it. In no way does it diminish the towering achievement that this game represents.

What? Why have you not left for the store?

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Marketing #2

Yesterday, in a post about The Beatles: Rock Band marketing, I neglected to mention the comprehensive nature of the marketing effort. In addition to high-profile commercials (which were wonderfully done), the print media coverage was extensive. The game was everywhere, and even people I know who don't play games were talking about it.

Here's one more, and I think it's particularly important for the future of the game. For the week leading up to release, I heard The Beatles everywhere. I heard their music on almost every radio station, and I also heard them in every store where I shopped. It was marketing saturation, and it was brilliantly done.

Remember back in March when Warner Music Group chairman Edgar Bronfman threw a hissy fit about the royalty rates being paid for music included in Rock Band? Incredibly, WMG stopped signing new deals with MTV because they wanted a higher royalty rate, and MTV (basically) raised the middle finger of their corporate hand in response.

It's stunning to me that Bronfman refuses to acknowledge the invigorating effect that being in Rock Band can have on sales of old material. Music that people haven't listened to in 15 or 20 years suddenly starts selling again because it was a DLC in a music game. Does he think that's a coincidence?

When sales figures come in for the new box sets, as well as the album DLC, even if Bronfman continues to live on Bitterman Island, no one will be tempted to join him.

In an odd little note, the dispute didn't stop Warner Brothers from partnering with MTV and Harmonix on Lego Rock Band, which is coming out later this fall.

Like I said yesterday, I'm very interested in the sales numbers at the end of the holiday season. TB:RB is so cleverly and respectfully done that I expect it to sell extremely well.

Gaming Links

Andrew B sent me a link to the largest collection of information on gaming programmers I've ever seen: The Giant List Of Classic Game Programmers. Here's a description:
This is a Who's Who of classic game programmers, where "classic" generally refers to "8-bit" (Apple II, Atari 2600, Atari 800, Commodore 64, etc).

If you want to know what anyone from that era worked on, you'll find it there.

Malek Annabi sent me a fascinating link to a public school in New York that has included games as part of their curriculum. Here's an excerpt:
In one sample curriculum, students create a graphic novel based on the epic Babylonian poem "Gilgamesh," record their understanding of ancient Mesopotamian culture though geographer and anthropologist journals, and play the strategic board game "Settlers of Catan." Google Earth comes into play as a tool to explore the regions of ancient Mesopotamia.

Clearly, I went to the wrong damn school. Here's the full article.

DQ reader Dave Kramer of Busy Gamer News posted a brief article this week about singing harmonies in The Beatles: Rock Band. This doesn't help me, because I am entirely unable to sing, but it explains the details for those of you who can (some of which are not entirely intuitive). Read it here.

I saw this over at Joystiq today: a Half-Life 2 mod that replaces all the sound effects with effects recorded by one guy. Using his own voice. It's completely pointless, but it just got funnier and funnier the longer I watched the video. Have a look for yourself.

Console Post-ette Of The Week

I just saw this on Kotaku:
Microsoft sweetens the deal on the newly $299 Xbox 360, offering a $50 rebate on all Elite consoles purchased between now and October 5th.

The website for the rebate is here.

I believe this is a strong indication that in spite of what Microsoft says publicly, they are very concerned about the early sales numbers in response to the PS3 price cut. They should be, because at $299, I think they will be consistently outsold by the PS3. At $249 for the Elite, though, they would stay ahead.

Like I said, this is when it really gets interesting, particularly if all the circulars showing the Wii for $199 in the near future are legitimate. In that scenario, I think Microsoft would wind up third this holiday season. It may well be that they will try to use a combination of temporary rebates and bundles to make sure that doesn't happen.

Oh, and if you've been waiting to buy a 360, that's a hell of a deal.


Apparently, this entire city has the flu.

Well, not the whole city--the three of us are flu-free, for now--but this article should give you an idea of how crazy it is getting. Wait, most of you are as lazy as I am, so here's an excerpt:
Dell Children's Medical Center is seeing so many children sick with what is presumed to be swine flu, it expects to start treating some of them in tents starting today.

The hospital ER has seen steady increases in patients over the past couple of weeks, but the past week has been especially grueling, with some days easily exceeding 300 patients, said Dr. Pat Crocker, chief of emergency medicine at the hospital. When 343 patients swamped the hospital Sunday, officials decided to set up the tents and triage patients with less severe flu there starting today, officials said.

I feel like I'm living on a tiny island while the rest of the world is going through a zombie outbreak.

If I was still single, I could just work from home for a couple of weeks, order pizza online, and never leave the house. I'd just play games, watch movies, and surf the web all day.

Hell, an epidemic would be the best two weeks of my life.

With Eli 8.1 in contact with approximately 7,000,000 children each day, though, all the fun gets taken out of disease and replaced with worry. So instead of playing games for two weeks, I'll probably be driving to outer Mongolia to get Tamiflu.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Correction (Dick List Removal)

Thanks to Jonathan Clement for pointing out that Dan Rosensweig was not, in fact, being a dick--that wasn't his quote. The post has been corrected.


I'm still working on the big The Beatles: Rock Band impressions post, feeling like Harper Lee working on her second book, but in the meantime, I wanted to mention something about marketing.

I've always felt that in the past, Guitar Hero was far more aggressively and effectively marketed than Rock Band. Guitar Hero had the additional advantage in that it already had an established reputation (ironically enough, largely due to Harmonix, who makes Rock Band).

Well, no more.

In the days leading up to the release of The Beatles: Rock Band, I saw television commercials for the game everywhere. Everywhere. And the commercials did a wonderful job of conveying the unique flavor of the game. The commercials gave me the feeling that the game was a worthy extension of The Beatles canon (it is) instead of just a game with a license to use songs by The Beatles.

That's a huge difference.

In contrast, I've seen very few commercials for Guitar Hero 5, and what I did see was always the same commercial: women in dress shirts ripping off Tom Cruise in Risky Business for the thousandth time (that's not tired or anything).

Based on that commercial, I'm still trying to figure out whether Guitar Hero is marketed by 14-year-olds or to 14-year-olds.

So it would seem that this time, based on both marketing and the quality of the product, that TB:RB and the unique experience it offers would reduce the sales disparity between the two franchises.

Or not.

Last week, Activision claimed this:
Dan Rosensweig, head of the Guitar Hero division at Activision, told the Financial Times...that Guitar Hero outsold Rock Band by four to one in the US and nine to one in other markets.

I'm incredibly skeptical of those sales numbers, but even if they were true, Activision reminds me of the guy taking speed who tells you that taking speed is good for him because he get so much done. That's a good time to go to the grocery store and buy him a card that says "good luck in rehab," because you'll be using it eventually. Activision is hell-bent on exploiting their franchises (exploiting, not building) for every last short-term dollar, all the while claiming that it's good for them.

This corrosive attitude starts with CEO Bobby Kotick. Last week, he said this:
I think the goal that I had in bringing a lot of the packaged goods folks that we brought in to Activision 10 years ago was to take all the fun out of making video games."

I swear, every time this guy opens his mouth, he creates the impression that not only does he hate games in general, he hates the people who make them.

Hmm, that was a bit of a tangent.

Back on course--let's see what happens over the next three months, because TB:RB has an incredibly positive buzz going, and I think that's going to translate into strong ongoing sales. Also, while it's easy for holiday shoppers to understand that TB:RB is a unique product, I doubt that most people will be able to tell the difference between Guitar Hero versions.

Watching The Detectives

Loyd Case's blog, Improbable Insights, is filled with nerd detective stories. That's one of the reasons that Loyd has been one of my favorite tech writers for such a long time-- he shares his thought process in such an entertaining way.

Here's a good example: Logical Steps Versus Intuitive Leaps. Not only is it an excellent detective story, he also works in the Myers-Briggs personality assessment test as a bonus.

Because of this, I decided to try to figure out one of my own system anomalies: the video card.

What's always seemed odd to me is that even though my internal system temps are very reasonable, the GTX 260 runs hot. Hot as in "59°C at idle" hot, all the way up to 75°C when I'm playing a game.

The system has always been extremely stable, and I've never had a heat-related video crash, but I've always been curious about those temperatures.

Last weekend, I decided to experiment. I put a small fan in front of the case to increase airflow into the case. Right away, the idle temperature dropped by 4°C.

That result made me curious about the back of the case, oddly enough.

I set the system up originally with about 6" of clearance between the back and the wall, and very little clearance on either side. I wasn't sure that was enough space for ideal ventilation, but heat rises, and the air coming out of the case is much warmer than the surrounding air, so I figured that if there was a problem, it would take care of itself.

Now, though, I was wondering if lack of space behind the system was somehow inhibiting the airflow leaving the system. I shut down the system, moved it about 9" forward (still little clearance on the sides), and turned it on. Oh, and I also turned off the fan.

The idle temperature of my graphics card? 51°C. 6" made an 8°C difference.

When I turned the fan back on, it made almost no additional difference in temperature. I didn't have an intake problem. I had an exhaust problem.

Interestingly, when I play a game, the max temperatures are almost the same. The significant differences only happen when I'm on the desktop or working with non-game applications, but that's the vast majority of time I spend on the computer.

Of course, ATI is rolling out a new generation of graphics cards on Wednesday, and their combination of performance and thermal management is almost certain to make me upgrade. But it's nice to know that I now have a better environment for the almost -inevitable new card. And if I change cards, who knows? Maybe King's Bounty will actually work now.

If you're curious about the new ATI cards (as I bounce helplessly from subject to subject), here's an excellent primer with both known and speculative information: AMD 5800 series (thanks to the forums at Beyond3D).

Friday, September 18, 2009

Friday Links!

The links this week are some the most interesting you guys have ever sent in--gems all around.

Leading off, from The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a mind-blowing article about MIT students taking photos from space. Not impressed yet? Their budget was $150. They're going to publish a full list of materials, and you better believe that I'll be doing this with Eli 8.1.

From DQ reader My Wife, a link to to an epic story about a wildlife filmmaker who brought back an unwanted guest from her vacation-- in her head. It was a botfly, and you can both read the story and watch a video of the extraction (freaking incredible) here.

Here's an absolutely fascinating link (thanks to The Monkey Cage) to visual depictions of Presidential Inaugural Addresses. Here's a description:
In these visualizations, a given text—the “specimen”—is compared to some larger group of texts—the “normative” text—using the Dunning log likelihood statistical analysis, which gives weight to words in a text according to how their frequency of use in the specimen text differs from the norm.

My boss sent me a link to a totally fascinating article about Clay Marzo, a world-class surfer who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome. The article is titled Liquid Cure, and here's a link to a short (three minute) preview of a documentary as well. He does some things on waves that I've never seen before.

I still have incredibly fond memories of the Dreamcast, and Gamasutra has an excellent feature on the console titled The Rise And Fall Of The Dreamcast.

From Vahur Teller, a link that is both incredibly beautiful and heartbreaking--photos of some of the most polluted places on Earth. I say "beautiful" because the composition of some of the photos is entirely remarkable.

Hennie van Loggerenberg sent in a link to a story about pervious concrete, and here's a description:
Pervious concrete [is] a green technology that allows water to pass through instead of running off the surface, thus reducing the need for expensive storm water retention ponds and other infrastructure.

Amazing, and here's another link that provides a video demonstration.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, new pictures of Triton and new images from the Hubble.

I've linked to several versions of the infamous "Downfall" parody (Hitler film with new subtitles), but now there's a parody of the parodies (thanks to Mike Gilbert for the link).

From Juan Font, a fantastic link to 10 Images That Are Actually Paintings.

From Chris Meyer, a link to an article about Haast's eagle, now extinct but a predator (up until 500 years ago) of large birds--and possibly humans.

Here's an outstanding link from Sirius about biscuit injuries. An excerpt:
More than half of all Britons have been injured by biscuits ranging from scalding from hot tea or coffee while dunking or breaking a tooth eating during a morning tea break, a survey has revealed.

More unusually, three per cent had poked themselves in the eye with a biscuit...

That may sound incredible, but remember, the biscuit is the only edible food in England. I kid.

Also from Sirius, a spectacular image of a geological phenomenom known as a Danxia Landform.

From Aaron Daily, a link to a story about the oldest known fiber materials used by humans--a 34,000 year old piece of string.

From Steven Kreuch, a link to what must be the funniest anti-virus ad I've ever seen: protect your chicken from Dokken. Plus a link to a video of a well-known psychological experiment for children called The Marshmallow Test. Even better, a lengthy story from The New Yorker about the test is here.

From John Harwood, who has already logged 1,000 hours (at least) with The Beatles: Rock Band, a link to a hilarious version of the music video of Penny Lane titled Penny Lane: Literal Video Version.

From J.R. Parnell, a link to 21 spectacular photographs and how they were taken.

Finally, from Randy Graham, a link to some absolutely spectacular outdoor murals (I'm not sure that's the right term, but the conversion of plain walls into these beautiful paintings is quite remarkable).

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Eli 8.1

I took Eli 8.1 to dinner last night at California Pizza Kitchen. He took with him this funky eraser, which you can see below.

It's not very useful as an eraser, but it looks great, and Eli likes to carry it in his pocket.

After dinner, we walked down to say "hi" to Gloria (who was actually in another restaurant at The Domain, having dinner with a rhinocerous--actually, her friend wasn't a rhinocerous, but I'd really enjoy a world where that was possible), and on the way back, Eli decided to see if he could skip his eraser on the sidewalk.

I explained that it didn't look like a "skippable" shape, but to go ahead and try. Which he did, and the eraser didn't do much of anything, just bouced a couple of time and stopped.

I picked it up and, instead of trying to skip it, tried to bounce it on its end instead. This worked well, and the eraser went for a long way before it stopped.

Eli kept trying to do this, and he couldn't. He thought it was hilarious that he couldn't do it at all and I could, and he'd laugh harder and harder each time he failed.

Finally, he was standing about fifteen feet away from me, and when he threw the eraser, it started bouncing perfectly, almost hugging the ground as it headed on a straight line toward me, and right when it got close it took one huge bounce--and hit me right in the crotch.

We both burst out laughing, and Eli said "Crotch shot! Right in the tenders!" He was laughing so hard that he could barely stand up. I was, too. It was a million to one shot, really, as unlikely as a man ever walking on the moon, although instead of a man on the moon it was an eraser to the crotch.

As we walked back to the car, Eli 8.1, reflecting on the unlikely miracle we'd just witnessed, said, "We will NEVER forget THIS day."

Last weekend, we went riding in the morning after we woke up, and on the way, we stopped at the McDonald's drive-through to get a biscuit. When Eli unwrapped his biscuit, he held it up and said "BEHOLD! The humble biscuit!"

We watched the Oklahoma St.-Georgia football game two weekends ago, and I was rooting for Oklahoma St. (local conference support). Eli wanted Georgia, which is where his most recent babysitter now lives, and at one point, he stood up, pointed at the television, and said "Go Georgia! It's all about you!"

Eli was lucky enough to get the third-grade teacher he wanted, but one of his friends didn't. I asked him what his friend said about his new teacher, and he said "She's VERY strict and VERY clumsy."

Eli 8.1 was telling me a story about Medusa as I drove him home from school on Monday. "Perseus killed Medusa by holding up his shield, and her reflected gaze turned her to stone," he said. "No, wait, I think it was actually the reflection of his sword...That's not right, either. I think he held up a mirror and used it to find her, then cut off her head with--well, there are MANY stories about how Medusa died."

Actually, That's Not A Confederacy--It's Just Me

Victor Godinez of the Dallas Morning News, who writes an excellent technology/gaming/lots of stuff column, sent in a far more lucid commentary than I had yesterday about broadband definitions:
I think the InternetNews article didn’t quite capture what’s at stake here. (I actually wrote an article for the paper a few days ago about this topic and what it means for Texas: Push Would Spread Broadband Across America).

Basically, the reason the FCC is trying to define “broadband” is that the stimulus plan passed this spring mandates that the agency find a way by next February to make broadband available to 100 percent of U.S. residents. So the agency needs to come up with a definition so it can have a baseline to measure what each household should be receiving.

But the faster the minimum speed, the more expensive the build-out is going to be. If you live in a region where broadband is not available by this point, that’s because the ISPs have calculated that they cannot profitably provide it, either because the population is too widely dispersed, the geography is too problematic or some other issue. So the FCC’s program is going to involve the federal government subsidizing broadband deployment in those rural, unprofitable areas. And the higher the minimum speed threshold, the more expensive it will be to deploy (think Fios versus DSL) and the larger the government subsidy will have to be. While the stimulus plan set aside $7 billion for the first year, companies have already petitioned the feds for close to $30 billion for various broadband deployment projects, and that’s most likely going to be just a down payment.

So while we can all wish that every household in America has access to 10 megabit service, this is going to be a taxpayer-funded initiative. And how much of your tax money are you willing to spend so that every rural shack in Montana can have broadband? And that doesn’t even get to the issue that surveys have found that a large percentage of people currently without broadband don’t even want it. So we could spend hundreds of billions in taxpayer money to deploy broadband, only to find that many of the beneficiaries don’t bother to subscribe.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t spend this money. It could well be that we, as a society, decide that’s an investment we want to make. But it is going to be hugely expensive and take years to complete. It’s not as simple, I think, as just saying the ISP’s are shortsighted.

That's such a clear stream of thought that I'm not going to muddy it up by adding anything.

Red Faction: Guerilla

The best game I've played this year is now available on Steam and Impulse for PC.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Here's What I Used In A Scribblenauts Level Today


A Confederacy Of Dunces

Dana Kaplan sent me an e-mail last week with a link to a very interesting article about certain ISP's in the U.S. (including Time Warner and AT&T) lobbying for a crippled definition of broadband by the FCC.

Dinosaur, meet asteroid.

Has there ever been a more stupid attempt by an industry to resist the very technology and services that could ensure its long-term survival?

This is not to imply that dinosaurs resisted technology and services. Perhaps I muddled the metaphor.

Companies like Time Warner are under siege from satellite television, because there's no franchise agreement they can good-ol'-boy through state legislatures or city councils that restricts the ability of consumers to get television from the sky. And without the generous profit cushion of monopolies, their television business is floundering.

But wait, you think. Everything, absolutely everything, is moving to the Internet: television shows, on-demand movies, every kind of content imaginable. Even better, merchants charge for much of this content. So if Time Warner embraces the broadband content delivery model, they could partner with these companies and profit handsomely. And even better, broadband delivery via satellite still has substantial quality issues, so it could be used as a distinguishing selling point for cable.

Instead, Time Warner is trying to throttle the amount of content consumers can download, while at the same time spending almost no money (based on recent earnings reports) upgrading their broadband infrastructure.


It's really quite incredible how little sense this makes from a business model standpoint.

Here's another excerpt from the article, with a little bit of genius from AT&T:
AT&T did not propose a specific connection speed, but cautioned that "setting [the] baseline too high would thwart Congress' intent to ensure universal availability and adoption of broadband services."

"There are a host of aspirational broadband services that are beginning to emerge in this country, as well as myriad sophisticated applications involving streaming video, real-time voice and the like. All are no doubt 'broadband' services," AT&T said. "But for Americans who today have no terrestrial broadband service at all, the pressing concern is not the ability to engage in real-time, two-way gaming, but obtaining meaningful access to the Internet’s resources and to reliable email communications and other basic tools that most of the country has come to expect as a given. Fulfilling that need is the appropriate national priority at this time."

AT&T: defending the poor and needy. How noble. Of course, "reliable e-mail communications" and other basic Internet services are entirely accessible with trusty dial-up modems. That's not why people get broadband. What AT&T wants is to charge broadband prices for services that need only dial-up speeds.

Yes, you pay for it, but that doesn't mean you should actually USE it. Know your rights, as The Clash would say.

It's difficult to understand how these companies can survive the inevitable evolution in on-demand content delivered via the Internet with their current tactics. Clearly, they don't want it to happen, they don't want to be a part of it, and they want to charge consumers who use this content delivery system "too often."

What I wonder is when this business approach has EVER been successful.

The only explanation I can think of is that these giant cable companies have done business a certain way for decades. Their approach has been to establish monopolies in certain territories via franchise agreements. It's old-school, lobbying legislators and City Council members.

It was slow. Very controlled. Largely non-competitive.

Satellite television, to some degree, blew up that model.

Now, new business models are completely redefining how consumers use their broadband connections, and these dinosaur cable companies are losing control of that, too. On-demand content is impossible to stop--it's ridiculous to consider the notion that it could be stopped, or even slowed down. But instead of partnering with these content delivery companies, they've created this Maginot Line that is downright embarrassing and clearly doomed to fail.

Yes, both dinosaurs and the Maginot Line have somehow appeared in the same post. I will stop now.

Nonsense And Stuff

Scribblenauts is one of the silliest games I've ever played, and I mean that in the very best way. I've summoned catapults and submarines and trampolines and rockets and dinosaurs, and that's barely even scratching the surface. It is a wonderfully imaginative game, and Eli 8.1 enjoys it every bit as much as I do.

Yes, it can get fidgety at times, trying to do big things on a small screen. But that in no way reduces the brilliance of what's being done in this game, which is to provide you with an unlimited portal into your imagination.

This is also one of those rare games that will be fun to play forever. Twenty years from now, it will be as funny and fresh as it is today. Like I've said so many times that you're probably tired of hearing it, great games create stories, and Scribblenauts will create a million stories.

Jonna Higgins-Freese sent me a link to a very worthy cause, and here's a description:
Microsoft has partnered with Children’s Miracle Network to provide three Children’s Miracle Network pediatric hospitals an Ultimate Gameroom experience.

That's an awesome idea, and you can participate by voting for the children's hospital of your choice. If you don't have a preference, you can vote for Jonna's local hospital, which is the University of Iowa Children's Hospital.

Yes, you need to create a "voting account," but it only takes a minute. That's less time than the guy in the cubicle across from you spends scratching his ass every day.

Matt Sakey's Culture Clash column (usually featured much more prominently, but pushed down today by silliness and charity), has a new installment titled Being There: Juggling Immersion And Interactivity.

Good Grief

Bryan Goodwin pointed out (correctly) that Final Fantasy XIII isn't a PS3 exclusive.

It's also true that it's not even a timed exclusive, at least in North America and Europe, because both versions are releasing the same day.

I find it discouraging to know things and then totally forget them.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Console Post Of The Week: Danger, Will Robinson

Unfortunately, that Will Robinson reference has nothing to do with this post, although I am quite fond of it.

First, for review:

Also for consideration:

Please remember that the first point on the graph appears after a console has been on the market for a year (to accumulate twelve months of sales).

1. The Wii badly, BADLY needs a price cut. Rumors abound that it will be $199 shortly. It needs to be. From the historical information I have, consoles never rebound from the fishook in terms of twelve month moving sales averages--it usually indicates a slow and steady decline going forward.

It would not surprise me at all if the Wii is third in the U.S. in September sales if no price cut is announced.

2. Based on year-to-date data, it's a fair estimate that the PS3 would have sold in the range of 120-130k units in August without the price cut. With the announcement coming roughly two-thirds of the way into the month, and retailers selling the Slim almost immediately, the August numbers work out something like this, I think:
Aug 1-Aug 20: 80,000 units
Aug 21-Aug 31: 130,000 units

Sales went up over 3X for that short period. Sure, Gamestop had at trade-in deal, and the inventory swamp (to some degree) was being drained to prepare for the new units, but it's still quite impressive. A few weeks ago, I mentioned potential September sales as in the 330,000 unit range (if the effect of the price cut roughly matched the effect of the $299 to $199 PS2 price cut in 2002), but that may wind up being low.

So Sony is finally doing a large number of things right. This console is never going to match what the PS2 did in terms of sales (the PS3 has never gone over 4 million units sold in the U.S. in a twelve-month period. The PS2 didn't dip BELOW 4 million until over seven years after it launched, which is just incredible), but at $299, it's finally relevant.

Cue cheering after Sir Robin's minstrels were eaten.

3. Microsoft has, rather remarkably, continued to push up the 12-month moving average of sales of the 360 for almost four years, and I think they'll continue to do so with the recent price cut. Halo: OCD (that would be a good title) is coming out this fall, and the compare for last year isn't impossible by any means.

I do think Sony is lining up titles (Uncharted 2, God of War III, Final Fantasy XIII) that should be an enormous source of concern for Microsoft, and they have to respond strongly.

This is when it starts to get fun in terms of watching sales numbers. Instead of sitting around saying "Brand X needs a price cut" every month for a year, we're at the point where everyone (including the Wii shortly, presumably) has already had substantial price cuts. Now it should be quite a free-for-all.

Scribblenauts, Solium Infernium, And My Head Exploding

This will sound a bit insane, but two of my most anticipated titles of the fall are Scribblenauts and Solium Infernium.

In Scribblenauts, you enter any word you can think of to create objects in the game to help you complete a level. It is, quite possibly, the silliest game ever created, and it came out today. There's a copy on my desk, waiting for Eli 8.1 to get home so that we can play it together.

In Solium Infernium, your goal is to rule Hell.

So kind of the same game, really.

Anyway, I know that some of you guys are also looking forward to Solium Infernium as well, and Vic Davis has been putting up some fascinating details about the game design over at his blog Forgotten Lore. It's excellent stuff and Vic can really write, so take a look when you have time.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Another Note

I mentioned that Chris Meadowcraft said several interesting things in his e-mail. Here was another, and it's my favorite description of DQ ever:
I consider your blog a sort of "Three Stooges" take on "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

I don't know if that's true, but if it's not, I wish it was.

Not The Beatles: Rock Band Impressions Post

Since so many people have already written about The Beatles: Rock Band (in short: it's fantastic, and it's a brilliant tribute to the band), I'm taking a different approach.

Since the new box sets were released on the same day (a very shrewd marketing move), I decided to re-listen to all of the albums as part of the process of playing the game.

I've listened to all the albums before, but never in sequence, and never in such a compressed time period. It's a wonderful experience, and I'm understanding some things for the first time, like why Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band had such a seismic impact.

So I'm only playing one set a night in the game, and when I'm done (another few days), I'll make multiple posts about the game that are intertwined with impressions of the albums.


Chris Meadowcraft sent me a thought-provoking e-mail last week. Here's an excerpt:
Well-structured, psychologically addictive games (like Guitar Hero or Rock Band) do take away time from unstructured play. Playing piano for me is a game of my own making. I work on different pieces and techniques and am rewarded by the pleasure of doing something great, or at least better. In a way I'm internally creating levels and badges of accomplishment for myself but they're the result of my own imagination, not someone else's. This type of creativity and judgment is the same, intellectually, as what makes me a good engineer.

I think to a certain extent the cooler and better-designed the game--if it feels like the developers have thought of "everything"--kills the positive aspects of play.

Adults may not call it play, but many people have hobbies: carpentry, working on cars, even reading, which have the good characteristics of unstructured play. It's the organization and analysis part of deciding which book or what piece you're going to work on next and how you're going to go about it. Not doing things by rote, or because you want to get paid, but because it's fun, because it feels good to make or learn something new, is what I call good play.

That's a very interesting concept: that structured play takes time away from unstructured play, and that unstructured play is more desirable. Chris made several interesting points in his e-mail, but this is the one I'd most like to explore.

Now, to no one's surprise, a tangent.

I have always been a misfit (to some degree) because I am often not comfortable around adults, and the reason I am not comfortable around them is because they don't know how to play. I know many people who would be mystified if you asked them the question "Do you play?"

It is an entirely foreign idea, this "play."

I don't just mean playing video games. I mean painting or playing an instrument or playing in the park or watching the Marx Brothers. I have a very wide definition of "play," but there are still many adults who never do.

When I meet a grown-up who does not know how to play, I'm not interested in talking to them. I would much rather talk to children, who always understand play and always know how to laugh. And when children are present, parents tend to talk about play far more often.

This has created an odd situation for me at Eli 8.0's school. Whenever there is an event that involves parents and children, I'm in. Whenever it's an event that involves only grown-ups, I'm out. My ultimate nightmare is a dinner party for parents where there are drinks and discussions about jobs and mortgages. How can anyone stand to have a conversation about that?

End tangent.

I think Chris's notion that directed play takes time away from undirected play is very interesting, but I don't believe that the two are mutually exclusive, unless the time one has for play is very inflexible. So in an absolute environment where I had exactly an hour a day for play, it would be a zero-sum situation, but I think for most of us, time is more flexible.

I also believe that there is frequent crossover. There are times when I enjoy playing a game that's basically a guided tour (first-person shooters, for example, which are basically 2D platform games in three dimensions), and times when I want as little direction as possible.

My favorite example of unguided play has to be Dwarf Fortress. There could be nothing less guided than a wagon full of dwarves at the base of the mountain, with no real objectives other than to survive. That's one of many reasons why Dwarf Fortress is so wonderful, because it inspires and requires so much creativity from the player. It's basically the process of writing a story.

The ability to generate stories is one of the characteristics I've always felt separated average games from great ones. Stories that every player will experience can be cool, but stories that emerge as an organic result of the player's actions are stories at an entirely different level, and the greatest games tend to generate these kinds of stories.

Plus, it's possible to have unguided play inside a guided game, and many of my favorite games have had this characteristic. In Crackdown, for example, you could play the game in a very guided faction, just hopping from one mission to the next. My favorite part, though, was hunting for agility orbs, which was entirely unguided. In Dead Rising, the addition of photography as an unguided extra was an entirely brilliant piece of design, and distinguished an already wonderful game even further.

I think one of the many brilliant characteristics of Rock Band is that while it is clearly guided play, it often doesn't feel that way at all. Even though I'm following a note chart, I usually have a tremendous sense of freedom while I play. It's an incredibly clever bit of disguise, and I think it's one important reason why games in this genre are so popular.

Play of all kinds is so neglected by adults, and I wonder if people who no longer know how to play are more likely to be unhappy.

If they can't play, what do they look forward to?

Friday, September 11, 2009

Friday Links!

Leading off, from Andrew B, an absolutely epic article about the unreleased arcade game from the early 1990s named Tattoo Assassins, a stunningly awful Mortal Kombat clone from Data East. There's no way I can even prepare you for the details, but it's great reading, and don't miss the video of some of the fatalities (that put the "great" in "great bad") at the bottom of the article. Another source, with e-mail from an actual developer of the game, is Dan's Tattoo Assassins Page.

Here's the most awesome soda display--ever. Super Pepsi Mario.

From Shane Courtrille, a link to a fascinating article about the placebo effect and how it seems to be getting stronger.

From Kevin Gaughan, a very amusing link about a "moon rock" that turned out to be, um, petrified.

From Dib Oglesby, a link to a story about a quantum computer on a silicon chip the size of a penny.

This is about the first time my home state (Texas) has done anything less than completely stupid in the last decade (at least), so I'm as shocked as you are: Texas begins paying wrongly convicted.

From Andrew B., a link about the relationship between the Super Friends and--Cincinnatti.

From Sirius, a link to a story about Harwell WITCH, the oldest working computer in the U.K. Here's a description:
The Harwell WITCH is a relay-based machine that used 900 Dekatron gas-filled tubes, each of which could hold a single digit in memory. It has paper tape for both data input and program storage. The computer was used in the design of Britain’s first nuclear reactors. (Read more about the computers used at Harwell in the 1940s and 1950s.)

From Texas Monthly, a fascinating article about--tortilla chips. It's Why Are Tortilla Chips So Damn Good?, and if you ever wanted to know the difference between "crispy" and "crunchy," then this article is for you.

From MeanOnSunday, some incredible footage of the Sikorsky CH-53, performing some absolutely ridiculous maneuvers.

From Mark Lahren, some unbelievable raw cockpit footage of the Blue Angels.

From Ryan Leahser, a link to some stunning photographs titled Normandy 1944: Then And Now.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about a solar panel that uses human hair as a conductor.

From DQ reader My Wife, it's Obsolete Technologies: 40 Big Losers.

From Lummox JR, it's 5 Superpowers You Didn't Know Your Body Was Hiding From You. Also from JR, and this site is very funny, it's Probably Bad News. Oh, and you should brace yourself for these photos (which will make you burst out laughing), it's People of Walmart.

From Brian Witte, a link to an astounding article about levitating mice using magnetic fields.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

August NPD

Analysis on Monday, but here are the numbers:

The Revelation

Gloria was walking out of her study. "I've GOT to stop looking at Facebook," she said.

"There's always something new, isn't there?" I asked. "It just goes on and on and on."

"It does," Gloria said. "Someone is always writing something interesting, and that leads to something else, and it just keeps going. I could stay on there for hours, just chatting with friends."

"It's the sidewalk cafe you always wanted," I said.

"Oh my God, that's it!" she said, laughing.


Jesse Labate identified the mystery Mach 5 lookalike in yesterday's San Diego picture post:
The car is a Bizzarrini P538.

The designer, Giottio Bizzarrini, was an engineer at Alfa Romeo, Ferrari (he is responsible for the 250 GTO) and then formed ATS with some fellow ex-Ferrari engineers after Enzo chased off all his best people from Ferrari. After that, Iso Grifo where he made his (IMO) best looking car, the
A3C, which is stunning with the riveted aluminum body- I actually saw one of those in person un-painted once, just amazing to look at! Finally, he formed Bizzarrini, and the car you saw (the P538) was one of the results. The car you photographed would either have a period Corvette V8 or a Lamborghini V12 engine.

Also, believe it or not, the "ultra low flyby" plane has been re-identified by several people (first by MeanOnSunday and George Chappel), and Tim H. agrees. It's actually a Mirage F-1.

Madden 10: Coach Sliders And Patch Information

I developed a set of coaches sliders for Madden, and I'm very pleased with how they play. Instead of cluttering up the front page, though, I'm just going to link to the post over at the Operation Sports forums. The coach sliders are about halfway down, just below the "play" sliders.

Of course, now that these sliders are as balanced as I can possibly make them, details of the first patch were announced. These are all welcome changes, but it will require all slider sets to be rebalanced. Crud.

Here are the details on the first patch (thanks Pastapadre):

Added Super Bowl and Playoff field conditions in Online Franchise
Fixed false start griefing issue with online games
Fixed video player issues (sometimes video would hang) in Online area
Improved quality of uploaded video highlights
Switched ranked online games to seven minute quarters
Random stability fixes
Added broadcast camera
Tuned slider effectiveness
Made fatigue affect ratings more
Tuned broken tackle chances
Reduced/removed holding on kick attempts
Improved-toe drag catch logic
General pursuit improvements
Man coverage improvements
Fixed double pass online exploit

Lots of good stuff in there, including pursuit, sideline awareness, and holding penalties on kicking plays. All that's missing, for me, is addressing the aggressiveness of the team that is leading during the last two minutes of the first half. Well, the last two minutes of the half and the game both need work in terms of playcalling and timeout usage.

These guys have an excellent sense of their game and what needs to be improved.

The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

At 6 a.m. this morning, I was drinking barium.

Oh, you think that's the bad day in the post title? Oh, no. That was yesterday.

I realized over the last few days that the pain I've been feeling in my stomach feels suspiciously like the pain I had when I needed hernia surgery. This is WTF-FTL territory, for many reasons, but mostly because now that I can finally ride the damn unicycle, and it's gotten me in shape, I don't want to stop for a couple of months.

So yesterday, I decided to go to my primary physician for a check. I called at 11:30 AM and asked for an appointment. "Can you be here in 30 minutes?" said the lady who had her ass up her sleeve, and I clearly explained to her that I had another appointment at 1:00 that I could not miss. "No problem," she said. "Come on in."

I did, arriving at 11:50. Then I proceeded to sit for over 45 minutes. The doctor finally came in at 12:40, examined me like I was a 6 inch putt, and said I needed a CT scan to rule out both appendicitis and an inguinal hernia.

My physical therapist, who is far brighter and more useful than my doctor, said that it might just be general inflammation in my stomach causing nerve to send referral pain and blah blah blah.

So I'm doing the CT scan at 8 a.m. and having that delicious barium milkshake. It was banana flavored, which inevitably led me to remember the Gilligan's Island episode where he eats what he thinks is a bowl of banana pudding, but it's actually barium.

I'd like to think that's the reason barium is banana flavored. Professor!

This is how crazy it was yesterday: I picked up The Beatles: Rock Band and didn't even get to play it for over eight hours. That is so wrong.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


Eli 8.0 was engrossed in finding the names of various states in a word search puzzle from the kids menu at a local restaurant.

"I can't find California," he said.

"Look for the letter 'F'," Gloria said.

"Why?" he asked.

"Not many states have the letter 'F' in their name," Gloria said. "For California, it's like a label."

"Look for the F-ing label," I sang.

"When you are buying a coat, dress or blouse," Gloria sang.

"What is happening here?" Eli 8.0 asked.

Let me just establish, quite clearly, that we do not burst into song in public places (or any other places, for that matter) on a regular basis. However, the song Look For The Union Label was an iconic tune of the mid-1970s, so much so that 35 years later, Gloria immediately understood the reference.

Oh, and if you've never heard it, you really should click on the link. I was a teenager when that song first appeared, and yes, the degree to which the world has changed since then is frequently disorienting.

The Big San Diego Picture Post, Which Is over Two Months Late

The idea of writing a post for each day of our trip collapsed somewhere between day one and day three, so I'm just going to post the rest of the pictures in one big, hopefully reader-friendly blob.

The day that we arrived, we went to the beach by the famous Hotel Something-or-Other, and just before we left, we saw this fellow:

That's actually one of my favorite pictures of Eli 8.0, because of the grin he has on his face.

On our way to dinner, just walking along, I saw something that became my favorite photograph of the entire trip:

You won't be able to tell unless click on the image, but there are helium balloons in the second story windows. There was something wonderfully evocative about the balloons, some promise of a party inside.

We decided this year to spend one of our days at Balboa Park (the "nation's largest urban cultural park"), which adjoins the San Diego Zoo. This turned out to be a great idea, because in addition to seeing the Spreckels Organ being played (which was unbelievable), there were a ton of excellent museums to visit.

For instance, there was the San Diego Automotive Museum, and I'm very sure that we saw the inspiration for the Speed Racer Mach 5. Take a look:

Of course, due to the unconscionable delay between vacation and post, I've totally forgotten what this car was, exactly, just that Eli 8.0 and I saw the car at the same time and both exclaimed "SPEED RACER!"

Next was the San Diego Air And Space Museum, and in addition to a special exhibit of Leonardo da Vinci's inventions, there were a ton of interesting things to see. Here's one good example, which is an exacting reproduction of my college dorm room:

Also, we saw a replica of a prototype of the Horten 2-29 stealth fighter, a WWII-era aircraft designed by Nazi engineers that was decades ahead of its time. The photos I took are not nearly as good as this one, so go have a look. It was so alternate history and futuristic that it looked like something that wouldn't have been out of place in the classic "Rocket Ranger" game by Cinemaware.

We also stopped at the San Diego Hall Of Champions sports museum, where I had one of the finest vacation sandwiches I've ever eaten. It was the "Bill Walton," which I, of course (obscure sports joke alert), ordered with bacon.

Eli was great, like he always is on trips, and the weather was so beautiful compared to the hellish, inferno-like environment we left behind in Austin. I don't really like leaving home, because that's where all my stuff is, but it was (mostly) a good time.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

A Lunchtime Surprise

I went to Chick-fil-A today for a late lunch, and while I was standing at the counter, a woman walked up and stood beside me.

Marion Jones.

Marion freaking Jones, for those of you scoring at home.

If you've never heard of Marion Jones before, just take a look at an excerpt from the Wikipedia entry:
Marion Lois Jones, also known as Marion Jones-Thompson (born October 12, 1975 in Los Angeles, California), is a former world champion track and field athlete known for her doping offenses. She won five medals at the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia but has since agreed to forfeit all medals and prizes dating back to September 2000 after admitting that she took performance-enhancing drugs.[1][2]

In October 2007, Jones admitted taking steroids before the Sydney 2000 Summer Olympics and acknowledged that she had, in fact, lied when she previously denied steroid use in statements to the press, to various sports agencies, and—most significantly—to two grand juries. One impaneled to investigate the BALCO "designer steroid" ring, and the other impaneled to investigate a check fraud ring involving many of the same parties from the BALCO case. As a result of these admissions, Jones accepted a two-year suspension from track and field competition, and announced her retirement from track and field on October 5, 2007.[3]

The United States Anti-Doping Agency stated that the sanction "also requires disqualification of all her competitive results obtained after September 1, 2000, and forfeiture of all medals, results, points and prizes". On October 5, 2007, Jones formally pled guilty to lying to federal agents in the BALCO steroid investigation in the U.S. District Court. On January 11, 2008, Jones was sentenced to 6 months in jail.[4] She began her sentence on March 7, 2008[5] and was released on September 5, 2008.[6]

I was just looking for a chicken sandwich.

It Burns

Here's the final score on our weather this summer: IT SUCKED.

From local weatherman Mark Murray's blog:
Meteorological Summer ended on August 31st (it runs June 1st through August 31st). At Camp Mabry, it was the hottest summer ever recorded. Here are the final numbers:
1) 2009 Average Temp 89.1 degrees
2) 2008 Average Temp 86.7 degrees
3) 1980 Average Temp 86.2 degrees
4) 1923 Average Temp 86.1 degrees
5) 2006 Average Temp 85.8 degrees

Then there's this:
1) July 2009 Average Temp 89.5 degrees
2) August 2009 Average Temp 89.1 degrees
(tie) July 1860 Average Temp 89.1 degrees

Yes, that's correct: three of the hottest five summers since 1860 have been in the last four years.

It's also the third driest 2-year period since 1860. Thanks for that.

One More Note On Review Scores

Jonathan Arnold e-mailed me last week and pointed out the incredible inanity of people getting upset over a difference of 5 points in a review score, and he said we don't need a 1-100 scale.

He's right. Really, we could probably do just fine with four ratings:
1. You Will Like This Game Unless Your Heart Is Dead
2. She's a Fine-Looking Woman Except For The Warts (for a generally positive evaluation)
3. She Was Mighty Pretty Until The Sun Came Up (for a generally negative evaluation)
4. Super Colossal Bag Of Poo Award

Alternate #4 (and a country song title): All I Want From You (Is Away)

Please substitute "he" for "she" as desired. Thank you in advance for any logos you Photoshop.

The Final Word, I Think

You'd be surprised by how much e-mail a video of a fast plane generates.

Almost immediately after I posted the link to what was titled F-18 Hornet Ultra Low High Speed Fly By, I started receiving e-mail indicating that it wasn't an F-18 and that it was probably faked.

Then I received e-mail from a former F-18 pilot, which means he has scoredboard. Here's what Tim Hibbetts had to say:
As a former F/A-18 pilot, I can tell you that it is not, indeed, a Hornet.

The posted explanation isn't correct, either, though; it's an Alpha Jet and the guys appear to be British. But this appears entirely kosher (having seen something similar). You won't be able to tell the affect on the guy in the video because the plane is sub-sonic, but the noise is very evident from the cameraman's reaction. The guy standing there has bowels of steel, though.

Tim also included some outstanding links. First, French pilots (Tim's comment: [this] makes me cringe, because these guys are constantly one second from tying the low altitude record (the guys who studied this stuff determined that one second's inattention, straight and level, is enough to kill anyone flying below 50' and above 360 kts).

One second. Yikes.

Also, video of ultra low-altitude passes by Blue Angles pilot John Allison over San Francisco Bay in 2007.

Monday, September 07, 2009

The Duel

Part One: There Will Be Blood

That is blood. My blood.

Clearly, a change of strategy was required.

I've been having excellent rides on the unicycle lately, with the qualifier that these rides always seem to end in a bloody mess. It's a Catch-22, really--once a ride goes past a certain point, I want to do everything I can to save the ride. But my legs are getting increasingly wobbly the longer I go, and that all adds up (usually) to pavement.

On Thursday, I was riding a loop in our neighborhood. I pushed off from my car in the driveway and started riding. It's about a 1.5 mile loop, with a moderate downhill and several tricky little turns. I realized about a mile into the ride that I felt fine and had a chance at the coveted family record.

The coveted family record, held by Eli 8.0, was 1.5 miles. I knew if I could complete the lap that I had a chance.

As I wobbled past the turnoff to our street, I realized that I was quite close, and I decided to keep go. I made about another hundred yards before an epic unplanned dismount sent me bouncing across the pavement for what felt like several miles.

I decided at that point, since I was so close to home and was bleeding quite liberally, to just walk back to the house and call it a workout. Which I did, but I got in the car and clocked the exact distance first.

1.52 miles.

Based on the speed I normally ride, that meant that I rode for between 15 and 20 minutes.

"It's a good thing Eli doesn't know what you've done," Gloria said. "If he found out, he'd fake a stomach ache so he could come home and ride."

"Are you kidding me?" I said. "It's not just him. I wish we had a trophy for longest ride so I could take it out of his room and put it in my study." Gloria laughed.

I wasn't kidding. Eli is only 8, but he is already a worthy competitor in some things. Unicycling. Rock climbing. Videogame hockey. So even though I knew he would take back the title the next time he rode, it still felt good.

However, in spite of my success, since I seemed to be losing skin faster than I could regrow it, I bought some high-top basketball socks and some long shorts. Good grief--after making fun of Capri pants my entire life, I'm basically wearing them now. My lower body looks exactly like Turtle's in Entourage.

Part Two: Mano a Mano
Sunday morning, we went to a semiconductor company parking lot who wishes to remain anonymous. The parking lot is gigantic, and we both knew (without saying so) that this was a showdown.

I had to step off twice in the first five minutes, once because Eli stepped off, and once because he rode us into a dead end that I couldn't quite turn out of successfully (he managed just fine, though). That meant he'd been riding longer on a single ride.

We rode. All around the front parking lot, all around the back parking lot, and back past our car. At this point, I knew it was a long, long ride, probably already a record, and I thought if Eli stepped off, I could keep riding for a few more minutes to make up for the distance I was behind.

"Dude, are you tired?" I asked.

"Oh man, AM I!" He said. "I am DYING. My legs are KILLING ME."

"Do you want to just step off, then?" I asked.

"No, I'm fine," he said.

I almost burst out laughing, because he'd been moaning and groaning behind me for at least five minutes, making the sounds of an asthmatic steam engine. I knew he was hurting even more than I was, but he wasn't stepping off until I did.

So we rode.

Two more mini-laps around a section of the front parking lot, and we were both dying. "Ready to step off?" I asked.

"Nope," he said.

"You could just step off at the car, and then I could ride for a few more minutes," I said.

"Not a chance," he said.

A few minutes later, as I knew our legs were about to explode and I didn't want this epic moment to end badly, I conceded. "I'll step off with you at the car," I said. "We'll stop together."

"YES!" he said.

We rode to the car. We stepped off. No blood.

I have a phrase that I like to say to him when I'm tired. "My bacon is achin'," I'll say.

"My bacon is achin'," he said, "and my bacon is EVERYTHING."

The distance: for Eli 8.0, 2.32 miles. For me, 1.82 miles. His ride was 25+ minutes.

So we both set personal records, but he took back the title. He deserves it. I'm very, very proud of him.

But I'm going to get it back.

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