Friday, February 26, 2010

Friday Links!

It's a no-dogs-barking-behind-my-back-fence edition of Friday Links, so let's get started.

Paul Baxter sent in a link to a totally fascinating article about children titled Learning To Lie.

From The Escapist, a story about an astounding game called Exile that I've never even heard of before (this is not normal). Here's a teaser:
Released on the BBC Micro home computer in 1988, it crammed a sprawling open-world environment (along with digitized speech) onto a single side of audio cassette tape data. It also came bundled with a 20,000-word novella explaining the backstory. was a landmark title that featured realistic gravity, inertia and object mass years before players understood the concept of a physics engine. It also had an astounding level of AI, stealth-based gameplay, a logical ecosystem governing the world's creatures and a teleportation mechanic that feels startlingly like a predecessor to Portal.

Some of the detail reminds me of a Dwarf Fortress precursor (although the game is quite different), and you can read all about it here.

From Tim Steffes, links to another crazy NES auction: Old Nintendo NES system and five games sell for $13,105 on eBay. Chris Kohler would have gotten all that for $5 at a thrift store. Here's one more, for a single game, and the bidding is over $22,000 with a day to go. Here's why it's worth so much.

Chulbom Lee sent in a link to a stunning, fan-made intro to show what a remade FFVII might look like, using clips from the FFVII movie and technical demo for the PS3.

From Sirius, a story about a LEGO robot that solves any Rubik's cube in less than 12 seconds.

Here's a link to a very funny and clever commercial for Nolan's cheddar cheese.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a story about a man launching rockets--that look like giant crayons.  Also, it's Lost Nazi nuke-project uranium found in Dutch scrapyard. Next, and it's pretty stunning, it's Su-33 near-miss with Kuznetsov carrier deck.

From Rob Varak, it's The World's 18 Strangest Airports.

From Neil Yamamoto, a terrific link (following up from last week's link about green/blue screen) showing an example of how sophisticated this work has become: when The Truman Show was filming, none of the buildings were higher than one story. Take a look at how the buildings were digitally altered in the final film.

From Andrew B., a story about the deepest part of the ocean--the Mariana trench. Also, a wonderful animated short called Accro.

From Steve West, a link to a street drummer video, and the guy is fantastic.

From Chris Meadowcraft, another Onion News Network parody, and this time, it's Denmark Introduces Harrowing New Tourism Ads Directed By Lars Von Trier.

From Dan Sheppard, a wonderfully rambling article by Stuart Campbell that is nominally about Psychocandy by the Jesus And Mary Chain, but is more about the feeling you get when you are young and music can still overwhelm you (in a good way).

Okay, I'm not sure the music is for me, but Brad Ruminer sent in a link to a visual feast: Neurosonics Live, Featuring Holographic Heads Projected on a Drumkit and Turntables.

Finally, from DQ reader My Wife, it's The 14 Funniest Police Composite Sketches.

Thursday, February 25, 2010

The Shortest Console Post Of The Week

Someone who wishes to remain anonymous sent this in after last week's console post:
I buy PS3s from Sony for my company and work pretty closely with them.

Sony has told us for the past 60 days that their hardware shortages have been due to a scarcity of hard disk drives of the proper spec for their machines. I expect that the explosion of laptop and netbook sales might be a contributor.

Sony's laptop sales were very strong last quarter, so this is certainly possible. Regardless, this is what Sony is telling their customers.

Oh, and one more note: Nintendo announced some very interesting nuggets this week, and since Chris Kohler always has terrific coverage of these events, I'm linking to him.
Wii Super Mario Galaxy 2 in May, Metroid: Other M in June
SMG2 is May 23, to be exact. And I was quite surprised to find out the game isn't coming out this fall, which makes me wonder what they'll be showcasing. More:
Hands On: The Many Layers Of Metroid: Other M
Hands On: Diggin’ Holes, Ridin’ Yoshis in Mario Galaxy 2

A New Era (part three)

I talked to Eli 8.6 about lying last Friday, while we were on our way home from unicycling club. We hadn't talked about it since the big "reveal" on Monday, and I thought enough time had passed where we could sort of explore the issue in an environment where punishment wasn't hanging in the air.

I also wanted to tell Eli a story about a big lie I told, when I was in first grade.

My first grade teacher was an angel, and I loved her. I was crushing every assignment she gave me, so she made extra lesson plans to make sure I was always busy and challenged. She was also incredibly kind. I stayed after class every day to help her (yes, with her I was the biggest teacher's pet in the world).

I felt 100%, totally secure.

Our classroom shared a bathroom with the adjoining classroom, and one day during class I raised my hand and went to pee. While I was there, I started playing with the toilet paper, and before I was done, I had basically put toilet paper everywhere.

I T.P.d the bathroom.

I distinctly remember not understanding why I was doing it, even while it was happening. The whole time I was doing it, my mind was telling me to stop. I didn't, though. I didn't stop until there wasn't a single square of toilet paper left on a roll.

When I was done, I came out and sat down. A few minutes later, the teacher from the adjoining classroom came and talked in low tones to Mrs. Poling. She called me up to the desk and asked me, quite nicely, if I'd noticed anything unusual in the bathroom.

Now remember, I loved this woman (I love her to this day, and Eli's even met her). I adored her. I still lied to her, though. I said I had seen nothing unusual, even when she asked me a second time. I remember feeling a little nervous, but the lie just came out of me automatically. She looked at me for a few seconds.

Then she let me go back to my seat.

She wasn't punishing me, at least not overtly, but I knew she knew what I'd done, and she knew that I knew. I felt awful, like I was hurting her. And I felt that way for a while.

That's what I told Eli. I didn't want him to think that I had never told a lie, that somehow he was defective or something.

On Sunday, we went to Krispy Kreme and saw a father absolutely berate his five-year-old son over a fight the boy was having with his younger brother. When we walked out, I asked Eli what the father had done wrong. "He just yelled," Eli said. "He didn't listen to them."

"Right," I said. "And if all he does is yell at them to stop, and doesn't help them understand how to make good decisions, they're not going to ever stop doing anything unless he yells at them."

"He's going to be yelling all the time," Eli said.

"That's right," I said. "

"Dad, you always listen to me," Eli said. "And you never yell."

"Thanks, little man," I said. He took my hand as we walked back to the car. It was a nice, warm moment, because I realized that he does listen to me most of the time.

Eli is in a complex stage of his life right now. On the way to Krispy Kreme on Sunday, we talked about the visible light spectrum, leukemia, and dyslexia--all at his request--but he still sleeps with two little stuffed bears at night.

In a bit of irony, Mrs. Poling gave him one of them, a little rainbow-colored bear that he has slept with for almost four years.

So I guess if it feels hard sometimes for me to understand what he most needs in this period of his life,
it's probably nothing compared to what he's feeling.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Flip

Eli 8.6s big Christmas present was a Flip video recorder, the Mino HD. $199, and you can shoot 60 minutes of 720P video.

It's incredibly simple to use. Push the red button on the front and it starts recording. Push it again to stop. It's not an ideal tool if you want to get all auteur and shit, but for quick-and-dirty recording, it's just fantastic, and video in 720P looks terrific.

There's a built-in USB port (which is hidden until you slide a switch), so transferring the video to your PC is very easy.

I'm reminded of TIVO when I use this, because it's absolutely the TIVO of video camcorders--it's almost totally intuitive.

The funny thing is that I'm using it far more often than Eli is, at least for now.

The Barker

A few of you guys checked my YouTube videos page and asked why I had a video of a dog barking.

We share a backyard fence with a neighbor who has two dogs. They're both big dogs, and they have big barks. For reasons that have never been explained, one of the dogs (who is basically insane when it comes to barking) stays inside. The other dog spends quite a bit of time in the yard.

The owner has told that at least one of the dogs is "highly trained," but that doesn't apply when it comes to barking, because they're both out of control. Not all the time, because the one dog isn't always in the backyard, but the owner goes through periods where she's leaving him in the backyard 10+ hours at a time.

That's not quite correct, actually. He can get back into the house via a dog door, so he doesn't have to be in the backyard or 10+ hours. So what he does when he goes into the backyard, bascially, is bark.

During the day, it's usually reasonable. He barks, but it's not ridiculous (usually). In a bit of irony that would be quite funny if it wasn't happening to me, the dog barking inside the house is often what makes the dog in the backyard bark. So the neighborhood is dead silent except for two dogs owned by the same person, locked in a canine feedback loop.

The exception to "not ridiculous" is if the dog has access to the backyard after dark. For some reason, this dog freaks out when it's dark and his owner isn't home. When it gets dark, he'll start barking, and there are frequent nights where he barks for an hour or longer.

This is jackhammer barking--20-25 times a minute, and it's loud. Really loud. Our house is about 20 feet from that fence, so it's like having a big dog taped to my ear.


Even worse, a few times a year, the dog is barking after 11 p.m., as late as 1:30 a.m. When that happens, I'm quite pissed off, understandably.

After a few years of trying to negotiate with the owner, and her holding out promise carrots that always decomposed over time, I decided to go nuclear and complain to the homeowner's association. I don't like doing that, because there's no going back, but in the last two weeks we'd had one night of barking from 8-1:30, plus two other nights of where he barked for over ninety minutes non-stop.

The owner has never acknowledged that her dogs (or her) are the problem. I've always been the problem, because I just "don't understand dogs." I do know that big dogs can't be left alone for twelve hours at a time, because they get really, really bored. And I do know that big dogs need lots of attention, which they're not getting.

I realized that unless I wanted to be in a "he said, she said" situation, I needed to make a few videos to make my point. On two consecutive nights last week, it got dark and the dog barked for over an hour, non-stop. So on those nights, I took Eli's Flip video recorder onto the back patio and just started recording (the Flip is awesome). When I made the complaint to the homeowner's assocation, I put the two videos on a USB drive and gave them to someone on the board. It's pretty hard to argue your dog isn't barking when there's video of him barking 750 times (roughly) in half an hour.

I hate being that guy. But I hate being the guy who can't have a conversation at night in the living room worse.

Before I send in the complaint, I decided that I needed to listen to the videos once, just to be sure that I wasn't exaggerating the level of barking. So at one point, I was sitting in my study, behind a soundproof window (soundproof being a misnomer, unfortunately), wearing noise-cancellation headphones, to listen to a video of a dog barking, after installing the window and wearing the headphones just to avoid hearing the barking.

I am recursive panda.

Tonight: The Most Exciting Game Of The Olympics

Canada versus Russia. 6:30 p.m. (CST) on CNBC (HD for you, hopefully). As several Canadian readers have pointed out, this is a heated rivalry that goes back over six decades.

[Note: CNBC coverage starts at 6 p.m. CST, but the listings I see show the actual game starting at 6:30.]

Between the two teams, there are over a dozen superstars, as well as the two best offensive players in the NHL (Crosby and Ovechkin).

I know it's the quarterfinals, but I don't think this game will be topped for sheer intensity. Here's a preview, although hopefully a Canadian reader will send in one that's a little more starchy.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Olympics Note

The hockey quarterfinals start tomorrow, and the quality of play has been incredibly high. If you were ever curious about hockey, this is a great time to watch. Depending on the game, try your local NBC affiliate or CNBC (both stations available in HD for you, hopefully).

The Obligatory Snowman Photo

That's a robot, in case you're wondering, and he's none too happy. Maybe because he knew he was going to collapse in less than an hour.

We had grand designs for a snowman, all of which collapsed when we decided we'd much rather have a giant snowball fight.

You Heard It Here First (Unless It's Wrong, In Which Case You Didn't Hear It Here At All)

Let's look at some recent data points. Emphasis in bold is mine.

January 25:
[The Rock Band-vs.-Guitar Hero competition] does the consumer a disservice. … What we really should be looking at is: what is right for the consumer? I don’t think the consumer wants a format war. We all have our strengths … [but] I don’t think anyone can afford to continue to have this shooting war. The consumer is telling us pretty clearly, ‘we’re interested in playing these games on the platform — make it easier for us.
(MTV Games senior VP Paul DeGooye)

February 9:
During an EA earnings conference call, in response to the lack of Rock Band games listed in their upcoming titles:
COO John Schnappert responded: “Our deal with Viacom and Harmonics continues through FY ‘11 at that time.

“As you can see from our modelling, we have not included a lot of revenue for distribution next year, but we continued to have talks with them and hope that maybe there’s an opportunity to continue the relationship beyond that.”

February 11:
Harmonix owner Viacom is looking for a refund of “a substantial portion” of a $150 million bonus to former Harmonix shareholders.

February 12:
As we go forward, we are continuing to focus more on software than hardware, looking to reduce the cost structure associated with Rock Band, being selective in the music titles that we choose for Rock Band based on their cost.
(Philippe Dauman, Viacmon’s president and CEO)

February 18:
Speaking to a packed room of game industry executives at the DICE Summit here, Kotick said that not getting together with the Boston-based game developer was a “miss” for his company.

“We had always known (Harmonix) as somewhat of a failed developer of music games … nothing that was commercially viable until Guitar Hero,” he said. So when Activision decided to acquire Red Octane, the owner of the Guitar Hero brand, in 2006, it didn’t even consider working with Harmonix. Instead, it gave game development duties to Neversoft, the studio formerly responsible for creating the Tony Hawk skateboarding games. Harmonix was acquired by Viacom and created competitor Rock Band.

“We really didn’t even think, ‘Hey, we should go to Boston and meet these Harmonix guys and see what they’re up to,’” he said. The world of music games would be very different had Activision partnered with Harmonix, he said: “It would probably be a profitable opportunity for both of us.”
(Bobby Kotick, CEO, Activision)

Here's a quick summary:
1. MTV Games wants the "platform war" to end.
2. EA is unlikely to extend the distribution agreement with Viacom/Harmonix when it expires at the end of fiscal year 2011.
3. Viacom is trying to reclaim $150 million it paid to Harmonix employees based on 2007 performance.
4. Viacom wants to pay lower royalties for music included in Rock Band (3 and 4 combined: Viacom is making much, much less money from music games than they thought they would).
5. Bobby Kotick said that Activision made a mistake not partering with Harmonix.

In particular, why would Bobby Kotick admit publicly that not parterning with Harmonix was a mistake?

Don't think he said this casually, because I don't think Kotick says anything casually, even when it seems that way. To me, Kotick doesn't even mention this unless he's trying to set the table for something. I see two possibilities here:
1. Activision wants to be the distributor for Rock Band games when the EA agreement expires, or
2. Activision wants to buy Harmonix from Viacom/MTV Games.

I know that this is coming from left field, and no one else has mentioned it yet, so I might be crazy (wouldn't be the first time), but Kotick's comment, in addition to the MTV Games comment about ending the format war, seems to create a plausible case for an acquistion. It also seems like Viacom might be sick of the whole business, so maybe they want to get out.

In a business sense, Activision buying Harmonix and essentially controlling the music game platform works as well:
--less pricing competition at retail
--more leverage when negotiating royalty deals with music companies
--asset sharing between games and developers

It just seems like a lot of tea leaves are suddenly in the cup.

If February 23 Is December 25, Then This Is A White Christmas

I believe this is the hardest snowfall we've had in twenty-five years.

Even better, it's no-commitment snow. I don't have to worry about shoveling the driveway or finding Grandma frozen in a snowbank. The high tomorrow is supposed to be 51, so we had this wonderful time and it will all be gone by tomorrow afternoon.

On tap later today, when Eli 8.6 comes home from school: tiny snowman building.

Solium Infernum

Courtesy of the fine fellows at Rock, Paper Shotgun, I saw a link to a terrific interview  with Vic Davis over at Gamsutra.

That's Vic Davis of Solium Infernum, the most nefarious PBEM game ever created (and wildly entertaining in single player as well).

With the initial burst of publicity for the game now slowing down somewhat, I'm trying to finish a series of posts about the game that will become a solid week of Solium Infernum. Next week, hopefully.

Monday, February 22, 2010

A New Era (part two)

I was thrown off-balance when Eli 8.6 didn't tell me he'd been sent to the principal. So sure-footed for years, but I knew right away that this was a new era.

In a way, though, I was relieved. I hadn't felt like I was very well-prepared to talk to him, because I hadn't had much time to think about how I wanted to frame the discussion. Plus, we were on our way to unicycle club, and it was going to be very hard to have a discussion (where I was sure he would be upset), then unicycle like nothing had happened.

So we unicycled at club and had a good time, as always. After that, we went home to take showers before we went to the Texas Stars hockey game. We had tickets on the glass, and we were both excited about sitting so close for the first time.

The longer Eli went without telling me, the less inclined I was to press him. Clearly, this was a big, whopper lie, and it seemed like the bigger hole he dug, the better our chances of getting him to understand how wrong it was to lie.

Sitting next to the glass at a hockey game is wonderful, even if there's a loudmouth woman sitting next to you who has a child that is totally unable of controlling himself and would be better off in a straitjacket.

I digress.

During warm-ups, while there were a bunch of other kids pounding the glass demanding pucks, Eli just stood by the glass and watched. He didn't even move. It was like that scene in The Natural where Glenn Close stands up in the bleachers and she's bathed in light.

Then Greg Rallo skated by and flipped a puck over the glass to Eli. Not all the glass pounding kids, not the yelling kids.

See, I told you it was like The Natural.
It was awesome. Actually, it was beyond awesome. Eli's face lit up like it was the best present he'd ever gotten, and in a way, it was. Believe me, Greg Rallo has two fans for life now.

During the game, I noticed that Eli didn't seem to be enjoying himself as much as he was last time, even though we both agreed that being on the glass was fantastic. I also noticed that he was coughing a little, and that usually means that he's getting sick.

We got home very late (about 10:15, and his bedtime on non-school night is 9:00), so he brushed his teeth and went to bed. He was barely even awake, so I didn't think he would tell us anything until the morning.

He would tell us in the morning, right?

Nope. Not a word. Saturday afternoon, he was going over to his best friend's house for his first sleepover, which was a big deal. All right, little man, I'll let you keep digging that hole because I love you, and I want to help you learn a lesson before it has a bad effect on your life later.

It hurt, though. It made me sad in a way that I don't ever feel. I wanted to rewind to Friday and give him another chance to tell me, but I couldn't. It was already done.

We were going to ride on Sunday, and I was looking forward to it, but when he came back from his friend's house about noon, I could tell he wasn't right physically. His coughing was significantly worse, and he looked exhausted (he was, because they'd stayed up really late, which is what you do when you have a sleepover).

Great. It's been three days now, he still hasn't told us, and now he's sick.

I went ahead and rode on my own, still a little sick myself, and even on a 2.5 mile trail ride that was only modestly difficult, but my lungs burned like they were on fire. I was trying to unicycle carrying a refrigerator on my back. I was hoping that I would lose my balance and have to step off just so I would have an excuse for walking the rest of the way.

I didn't.

I thought about Eli, of course, and I realized something about our relationship: it had never been bittersweet, at least not after I'd gotten over the initial shock of fatherhood (which took a couple of years, really). Since then, It had been one big sugar rush, doing all kinds of awesome things together and genuinely enjoying each other's company. I'd never had such a happy, joyful relationship.

Now, it was going to get hard.

Sunday night? Not a word. I had agreed with Gloria that we would have to ask him on Monday (President's Day, and he was off from school), because we had to address it before he went back to school on Tuesday. I couldn't sleep that night, anxious and worried about our little man and what kind of lies he was telling himself in order to justify not being honest with us. Afraid, too, of how I would handle this, and whether I would start failing just when he needed me most.

On Monday morning, there was no question that he was sick. Some kind of virus, probably, and his cough was steady (it had woken him up on Sunday night for about half an hour). He was on the couch on Monday, looking tired.

I couldn't imagine what he was feeling. Had he just compartmentalized what happened to the degree that it didn't bother him at all? Did he feel awful but felt like he couldn't tell us because he'd waited so long?

"Little man, we need to talk about something," I said, "and I want you to try to stay calm, because it's very important that you hear what we're saying."

"Okay," he said, and I think he had an idea what was coming.

"We know about you being sent to the principal's office," I said, "and we know that part of you making amends was to tell us what happened."

Tears started rolling quietly down his cheeks.

"Help us understand why you didn't tell us," I said.

"I knew that you guys would be SO mad," he said.

"When have I ever been mad at you?" I asked.

"Well, not MAD," he said, "but disappointed."

"Little man, we don't stop loving you if we're disappointed," I said. "We don't love you any less. And when you tell us the truth, when you give us good data, we can help you. But it has to be the truth."

"I know," he said. "I am so, so sorry." He's still crying.

"I know you want us to be proud of you," I said. "But I also want you to be proud of yourself. That's even more important. I want you to make good decisions for yourself, not for us. Does that make sense?"

"Yes," he said.

What were you feeling when you let those kids into the computer lab?" I asked.

"It was kind of exciting," he said.

"Sometimes you do feel kind of excited when you do something wrong," I said. "Now tell me--did the excitement feel better than it felt bad to be in the principal's office?"

"Oh, no," he said. "That was HORRIBLE. I felt so bad."

"Here's what happens when people lie," I said. "They always believe that one more lie can get them out of trouble, even if lying got them into trouble to start with. And lying is a little exciting, because it's wrong. So they tell a lie, then another one, and even after all those other lies didn't work out, they still believe that the next one will solve all their problems. Do you see how lying to us is a much bigger deal than what happened at school?

"Yes," he said.

"Letting those kids into the computer room was bad judgment. It was a bad decision. But you made it in just a few seconds. Not telling us, though, meant that you had to decide to lie to us, then you had to decide to keep lying. It wasn't just one bad decision--it was a bad decision over and over again."

"I know," he said. "I'm done with lying."

"This is your punishment," I said, "and this is punishment for lying to us, not for what happened to school. No t.v., video games, or computer for five days."

"Okay," he said. "Dad, I am so sorry."

"I know you are, little man," I said, hugging him. "We love you very much, and we always will. We'll start the five days tomorrow."

"No, let's start them now," he said. "I don't even want to watch t.v."

I called it "serving a suspension," to put it into sports terms, and he didn't complain once. It was hard, because we were all constantly reminded of what had happened, and I can't stand to punish him--now that I think if it, I've never even needed to before.

I don't think he'll stop lying because of this--lying becomes a habit as much as a choice--but I do think he'll be more conscious of what he's doing. I'm kind of looking at this like drug rehab. I've always read that even if rehab doesn't work for a person the first time, it slightly increases the chances that it will work the next time. Cumulative potential, of a sort.

I'm hoping it's like that for Eli 8.6. It's going to be very hard for him to stop lying, and maybe it won't work this time, but if we're consistent, I hope that we can help him understand over time how many problems lying will cause in his life, and how easy it is to tell the truth.


What is that word on the Tuesday forecast? Am I hallucinating?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Friday Links!

I'll have the second part of "A New Era" up on Monday. Yesterday was so surreal and busy that I didn't have time to finish it.

Leading off today, eviltimmy let me know that Blizzard donated $1.1 Million to the Make-A-Wish Foundation. That is 1.1 million worth of TOTALLY AWESOME. Conundrum: what if one of the children's wishes is for Blizzard to make a new MMO? What do they do?

Matt Sakey has another Culture Clash installment, and it's a look at the inside of his brain, an idea I'd like to totally steal someday (I've been thinking about doing something similar, because my notes are so strange after a few weeks it's almost like someone else wrote them).

From Sirius, another entry into the world of science bizarre: Scientists freeze water with heat.

Sean sent me a fascinating link about the of green screen in all kinds of filmed entertainment, and it shows how selectively it can be used in a scene. It's hard to explain (obviously, since I butchered that last sentence), but I was blown away by how it was used in some of these scenes: Stargate Studios Virtual Backlot Reel 2009. I'm hoping that DQ Film Advisor And Nicest Guy In The World Ben Ormand will weigh in on this subject shortly.

From Joshua Buergel, and this link is the apex predator of nerdiness (in a good way), an economics rap song: Hayek vs. Keynes Rap Anthem.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, it's the best shuttle image ever.

From Kez, who saw the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle art link last week, it's Under The Influence: Masters Of The Universe Tribute Art Show.

From Steven Kreuch, and it's a classic, it's 20 Unholy Recipes: Dishes So Awful We Had to Make Them.

From Frank Regan, and you'd better be sitting down a mash-up song combining Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" and Metallica's "Enter Sandman." Your brain will cry like a child.

From Phil Honeywell, and this is entirely wonderful stop-animation (which is usually entirely wonderful anyway, as a rule): A Brief History Of Pretty Much Everything.

From slackerjoe, and this is a fascinating bit of baseball history detective work based on a single ancient photograph, it's Rabbit Maranville Is Not A Nazi.

From Brad Ruminer, an excellent blast from the wayback machine: a short documentary on the making of the 1983 HBO intro (which included a fantastic miniature city).

From Matthew S., if you're jonesing to see some Olympic crashes, this is absolutely your lucky day.

From Dib, another slice of Lego awesomeness: a Lego Segway.


The men's figure skating finals were tonight. There was no bullfighter or mime, but there was (dramatic pause)--a marionette.

With tears painted on his face.

During his free skating routine, Gloria's head dropped to the couch and she closed her eyes. "Come on!" I said.

"I can't stay awake," she said.

"This is a man pretending to be a marionette with tears painted on his cheeks!" I said. "Falling asleep is incredibly disrespectful to sad wooden men everywhere."

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Civ V

It's been relatively insane here today, so I'm behind, but thanks to those of you who sent in e-mail about Civilization V being announced. Even better, it's shipping this fall.

Accidentally In The Middle (Video Link)

This is the video, and I'll see if I embedded it properly. Also note that you can watch it in 720P:

This is the last time I will purposely drive into the rubbernecking lane, but I wanted to get video to share with you.

Accidentally In The Middle

"That's a fireball," Karen said. Karen sits about fifteen feet away from me at work, and she has an office with a nice window view. We work on the fifth floor.

"What?" I asked.

"A fireball," she said, sounding shocked. "And there's smoke."

I walked over to her desk, looked out the window toward where she was pointing, and saw smoke pouring from a building about a quarter mile from our office.

The building she pointed to was near the intersection of one of the busiest sports in the whole city--three major highways intersect within a few hundreds yards. Those roads are busy twenty-four hours a day, and since it was just past rush hour (just a little before 10 a.m.), hundreds of drivers must have seen the fireball, too.

Within less than ten minutes, I saw at least half a dozen fire trucks and a dozen police cards racing to the scene, as well as multiple ambulances. It was surreal. And the amount of smoke pouring from the building was staggering.

So this is now the lead national story, because as it turns out, it was a small plane that flew into the building. Which turns out to have an IRS office inside. And the pilot of the plane flew it into the building intentionally.

Welcome to nutbag world.

In another incredible coincidence, this guy lived less than two miles from our house, and only a few hundred yards from where we've eaten breakfast every weekend for the last five years. I've unicycled within thirty yards of the guy's house before. He apparently posted this note just a few days ago, and clearly, the guy was a hardcore hater.

Here's a link to a photo gallery, and believe it or not, I joined the gawkers and drove by on 183 solely for the purpose of taking some video, which I did. And if it will ever finish snail-uploading to YouTube, I'll post the link, because it's startling. It's only about thirty seconds in length, but it's in 720P and razor sharp.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

A New Era (part one)

A nice moment from the wayback machine:

That's one of my very favorite pictures of Eli, just so innocent and silly, much like he's been his whole life, really.

I've been very, very fortunate as a father, because Eli is such a good kid. I don't know if it comes through in my posts, but it's easy being his father. Sure, I'm tired all the time, and I need the day to be twenty-seven hours long, but we have such a good relationship that it makes up for anything else.

I mean, I've never been mad at him.

I know, that sounds ridiculous, but I can't remember the last time I was mad at him for anything (a few years, at least, and maybe never). He's easygoing, he's fair, and he makes good decisions. I've never seen him throw a fit. I don't put my foot down very often, because I only rarely need to, but when I do, he accepts it with no argument.

Plus, I know what to do. I feel like I know Eli so well that I never have any doubt or hesitation about what to do when it's time for me to be a father instead of just a buddy. It's been like that for five years, at least. There's something about having confidence that makes everything easy.

It never crossed my mind that it would ever be different. I mean, I've been so sure-footed for so long--that means it should last forever, right? I just assumed Eli 8.6 would grow older and more awesome, win the Nobel Prize, and marry a brilliant, beautiful, kind mathematician or something.


For the last few months, Gloria and I have both known that Eli was starting to play a little loose with the truth. He'd turned into a fabulist, sort of, spinning stories about moments that almost certainly never happened. Kids go through a phase like that, generally, but our concern was that it would bleed over into important things.

I've always stressed with him that it's important to tell the truth, both because it's the right thing and because truth is data. With good data, I've told him, I can help him with almost anything. With bad data (lies), I can't help him, because I don't really know what's going on. And I've always told him that both kids and grown-ups, when they do something wrong, get in much, much more trouble when they lie to try and cover up what they've done.

So I've had this very quiet sense of unease for a few months, but it's been very small. And while we've both sensed that he's being less than honest at times, there was never the right moment, the ironclad, can't-be-disputed moment to unmistakeably make our point.

On Friday, Eli's school called about 2 p.m. It was the principal.

As it turns out, Eli had learned the code to the computer room and had let other kids into the room when no classes were going on. The librarian caught him and sent him to the principal's office.

Ironically, he'd told me about this, sort of. He'd let me know that he knew the code, and I'd even mentioned that he should never let anyone in without permission, and he said "Of course I wouldn't."

Except, of course, he was, and he got caught.

That wasn't why the principal was calling, though. She was calling because Eli had been so upset when she talked to him, far beyond the level of regret she expects when someone gets in trouble, so much so that she thought it was a good idea for him to talk to a school counselor.

I felt good that he was taking things seriously. I want him to care about right and wrong, and I want him to feel badly when he does wrong. I didn't understand the degree of his reaction, but I was glad that he cared.

One of the things that happens when kids get sent to the principal is that they have to make "amends" for what they've done. In Eli's case, he was supposed to work extra hard in computer lab, help the teacher, and tell us what he'd done.

I went to pick him up that day, because we had unicycle club, plus a hockey game after that, and he came out and hugged me and said "Hi, Dad."

"Hi, little man," I said. "Ready for club?"

"Yeah," he said. "Let's go."

We started walking to the car to get our gear. "So how was your day?" I asked, like I usually do.

"Normal," he said. Uh-oh.

"Anything interesting happen?" I asked.

"Not really," he said.

A Man, Dressed As A Bear

In exchange for Gloria watching all the Nordic events (my favorites) at the Olympics, I have to watch figure skating.

The men's short program was last night. I find the costumes the skaters wear wildly entertaining, but often baffling.

For example, a skater came out in overalls, and I swear there was "farm dirt" on the legs.

"Is that the farm boy from the Rosetta Stone commercial, the one who only has one chance to woo the Italian supermodel?" I asked.

It got confusing after that. Following the farm boy, there was a Renaissance huntsman, a man in a bodice, a skeleton, a sailor with one puffly sleeve, and a cat burgler with feathered cuffs.

"What's next?" I asked. "A furry?"

When the skating was over, I felt sad. "I can't believe we didn't see a bullfighter or a mime," I said.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

I Stand Corrected

Thanks to J. Simms, I can tell you that Sony IS claiming  that they're supply constrained:
"We're working very hard with our retail partners to meet consumer interest, but the demand is tremendously high for the PS3 and we expect tight inventory in the coming months,” said Patrick Seybold, Sr. Director of Corporate Communications at SCEA.
Who would have ever guessed that just matching Microsoft's sales for the last three months in the U.S. would cause such a dramatic inventory crisis?


Straight From The Boasting Archives

From September 2008 (thanks Julian Dasgupta):
[Kotick] also believes that Activision's employee headcount has kept the company a step ahead of its rhythm game competitors.

"Our next-nearest competitor has a couple of hundred people working on these projects," said Kotick. "We have close to 2000 people just dedicated to the Guitar Hero note tracking, introduction of new hardware, introduction of new software, and so we just have a lot more in the way of resources available to us to continue to dominate the category."
...Earlier this week, Kotick revealed that the publisher intends to triple the amount of its total released Guitar Hero games and content by 2010.

Just over sixteen months later:
Guitar Hero developer Neversoft has seen an unspecified number of staff cuts...

Separate reports from multiple sources also confirm layoffs and claim potential closure at Bay Area-based Activision studio Underground Development, latterly the developer of titles such as Guitar Hero: Van Halen.

Oh, and Red Octane? closed.

Summary? After lower-than expected sales of music games in 2009, Activision Blizzard will release just two games in the Hero franchise in the second half of 2010, the publisher said Wednesday.


Console Post Of The Week: January NPD

First, let's look at the January NPD numbers again:

It's been generally acknowledged that the Wii was significantly supply-constrained, which looks to be true, since the Wii sold 679,200 units in January of last year. Plus (and incredibly), Wii sales last month almost doubled Wii sales in December 2008 (3.8M to 2.1M). So it seems safe to say that if the Wii hadn't been supply-constrained, it would have sold over 800,000 units (easily). It also could have been even more--the demand seems to be so large that it's difficult to even reasonably assess.

At this point, it's clear that in spite of what many people believed, there was a huge amount of untapped demand for the Wii at $199.

The PS3 situation is a bit more complicated. Sales basically doubled from September-December over last year, which is a nice pop for a 25% price cut, and the new Slim model is more aesthetically pleasing and runs much cooler, but the January numbers have to be a concern--it's only a 35% bump over last year, and even with the price cut, the PS3 was decisively beaten by the 360.

I don't think Sony has anywhere to go from here in the U.S. I don't expect a price cut this year, and I seriously doubt that Arc is going to stimulate sales in any significant way, no matter how much it's hyped.

People tend to forget that it wasn't the Wiimote by itself that blew people away--it was the Wiimote with Wii Sports. The software and hardware were a near-perfect match. Until we see a title with that level of appeal with Natal or Arc, a game that people feel like they have to have (and can't be played with a regular controller) they're both just bolt-ons to existing hardware.

This doesn't mean that Sony won't have its moments. God Of War 3 is going to be huge, certainly. Even with that, though, it looks like they're going to be third in the U.S. this year (like every year for the PS3). It won't be a rout, unless Microsoft has another $50 price cut, but Sony's $100 price cut only got them to parity with the 360 during the holiday season, not ahead, and the effect of the price cut seems to have sharply declined in January.

The one variable here is the possibility that the PS3 itself is supply constrained. I did get one e-mail from a reader who said it took them several weeks to find a PS3 locally, so it's possible, but I haven't heard Sony even mention the possibility, so I think that on a national scale, it's unlikely.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Not That There's Anything Wrong With That

One of the Valentine's Day cards I gave to Gloria:


The Household Leader In Sports

ESPN has taken their branding machine into toys and sporting equipment.

In the last few months, I've seen ESPN ping pong tables, baseball "trainers", and a hockey game. Three words come to mind when evaluating all the toys: Cheap. Plastic. Crap.

Yesterday, though, Eli 8.6 brought home this:

For $15, that's not bad. It's a microphone (nice job with the logo) with attached speaker, and there are multiple volume levels , along with sports "pre-sets" for different sports environments. Also, in what must be the utter humilation of Steve Levy's entire life, he pre-recorded phrases that play when you press the buttons.

As soon as I hear Eli talking on it, I'm reminded (of course) of the all-time classic commercial for my generation: Mr. Microphone. Yes, you can actually watch the commercial if you hit the link, and it's even worse than you remember. Who can ever forget the classic phrase "Hey, good lookin'--we'll be back to pick you up later!" Hear that once and it gets burned into your brain for life.

Eli has this sportscaster mentality already, because when he's playing a sports game, he delivers constantly running commentary as he plays (which is actually pretty good). So with this microphone, he was in heaven. He was running around the house, volume turned on max, saying "SportsCenter is NEXT" and "The kick is up--and IT'S GOOD!"

Plus a thousand other phrases, because he was talking non-stop.

"Dad, this is going to be GREAT," he said throught the microphone. "I can use this for EVERYTHING."

"I think it would be great in the car," I said, "when your mom is taking you places."

"Hey!" Gloria said.

"DAD," he said (of course this is through the microphone--everything is through the microphone), "I WILL BROADCAST EVERYTHING YOU DO. Oops, gotta pee!" He put down the microphone and ran to the bathroom. With eight-year-olds, peeing is like an Olympic track event, because he always waits until the last second, so he never goes to the bathroom at anything less than a sprint.

I picked up the microphone, switched it on, and walked outside the bathroom door. "REPORTERS BELIEVE HE'S IN THE BATHROOM," I said.

I heard laughter from inside the bathroom. "I guess that backfired a little," he said.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Friday Links!

From Phil Honeywell, a link to a fascinating new technology: spray-on liquid glass.

From Greg V, a link to what is probably the most moving PSA I've ever seen. It's just beautifully, brilliantly done.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to some beautiful images and descriptions of The Dresden Codex, the oldest book from the Americas. Next, it's Ninja Turtles In The Style Of Famous Artists.

From Josh Catania, a link to Tommy Westphall's Mind, and here's the incredibly clever premise:
Tommy Westphall was an austistic child on the TV series St Elsewhere who, it was revealed in the closing moments of the final episode of that series, had dreamt the entire run of the show.

If St Elsewhere exists only within Tommy Westphall's mind, then so does every other series set within the same fictional sphere.
How many shows have ties to St. Elsewhere? You won't believe how many.

From MitchYoungblood, an awesome discovery: whiskey left by the expedition of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton in 1909.

From Kari Benjamin, and this article made my head explode, it's Our world may be a giant hologram.

From Popular Mechanics, and hopefully you'll never need this information: How To Fall 35,000 Feet--And Survive. Also, it's The Free Fall Research Page.

From Brad Ruminer, and this sounds great, it's 40 Finches Go Jimi Hendrix On Electric Guitars.

This link sent in by C. Lee is both bizarre and utterly brilliant. It's a rap song  based on Final Fantasy I (including footage from the game), and while the quality is uneven (and it's definitely NSFW), there are some fantastic moments.

From Sirius, it's H.R. Giger's Cyborg Horror Merges Sex, Tech, Legend. Next, a story about how insects can recognize human faces. Next, and this is the best collection of lava photos I've ever seen, it's Selected Images of the Pu‘u ‘O‘o–Kupaianaha Eruption. Finally, it's
Stunningly Preserved 165-Million-Year-Old Spider Fossil Found.

From Ben Younkins, a New York Times article about a disturbing trend: murders over karaoke renditions  of "My Way" in the Phillipines.

From Franklin Brown, a fascinating look at the automated pitch correction software known as Auto-Tune. The embedded video is also excellent.

Steven Davis sent me a link to a spectacular performance of Take The 'A' Train by Michel Petrucciani. It's remarkable.

Finally, from Andrew Martin, a link to a photo of the world record holder for unicycling in 24 hours: 281 miles.. Yeah, I know--that's insane. I think on a great day I could do seven--maybe.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

January NPD

Analysis next week, but here are the numbers:

Two notes:
1. The Wii is supply constrained, based on several reports I've seen.
2. PS3 sales are firmly wedged between 360 sales in January 2008 and 2009. There's no crazy breakout at the $299 price.

Music Game Notes

I'm still a bit under the weather, really struggling to grind through the week, but this certainly helps. Next week's Rock Band DLC? Five classic Otis Redding tracks. That is a gigantic bag of awesome.

Chris Kohler has an interesting article over at Game|Life that dicusses Activision's earnings conference call--in particular, their release schedule for music games this year. Only two new games (a new Guitar Hero and DJ Hero) and less than 10 SKUs (down from 25 last year).

Of note: no full-band games. Is Activision abandoning the band genre entirely? Certainly "backing away" is a fair description, at a minimum. [Jason Barr e-mailed with a good point: Guitar Hero 5 was a full band game, so there's no reason to think that GH6 won't be. I was thinking more of there being no Band Hero game this year, but Jason is still right.]

I'm baffled as to why Activision thought that consumers were a kind of perpetual motion machine when it came to purchasing instruments and games. Instead of nurturing the market, Activision acted like they were strip-mining instead. Retailers: no one has an inexhaustible appetite for anything.

I meant in the gaming world. Do not e-mail me about porn.

Thursday Jambalaya

Ingredients: Eli 8.6, Dick Vitale, the rectus abdominis, Mike Dornbrook, Uniquekeys, Arc, The Dickferno Part 2: Satan's Revenge, an excellent interview, and the return of Lenny Dykstra.

Since Eli 8.6 is now a huge sports fan, I get to see a few things through his eyes instead of mine.
--"Dad, look! That guy is holding up a "D" sign and a fence sign. It's Defense! That's genius!"
--The PRO Bowl? All the best football players in one game? We have GOT to watch that."
--upon seeing Dick Vitale for the first time: "That guy is really creepy."

Yes. Yes, he is.
I found out this week that I have a strain in my rectus abdominis muscle, and no, that's not my ass--it's my stomach. It's a long muscle that goes all the way from above your groin to below your pectorals, and I'm 100% sure it's from unicycling.

It hurts.

I'm still riding, of course, but I'm wearing one of those ridiculous ab-reducer waist dealies to compress the muscle and keep it warm. Every time I think I've hit the top of the ridiculous meter, I take it up a notch.
Jonathan Arnold let me know that the fellow who created the New Zork Times--Mike Dornbrook--was hired out of MIT by Infocom for their marketing department, and later wound up at Harmonix.
Scott Zimmerman let me know that Ubisoft changed their FAQ last week. "Uniquekeys" has now become "unique keys," and that was a very odd mistake to make at first (if it actually was a mistake).
Julian Dasgupta sent me a link to an article about Natal titled Analysts see Project Natal adding billions to Microsoft's revenue. LOL--okay. Even better, here's a quote:
Internally, Microsoft views Natal’s introduction as significantly extending the lifecycle of Xbox 360 to 10 years (until 2015), which is double the average for consoles," they write. "If this is the case this could have significantly positive ramifications for the longer-term margins of [Microsoft's Entertainment & Devices] group.

Yes, and if my grandmother had balls, she'd be my grandfather. Again, let me stress that just because the tech is more advanced, that doesn't mean consumers are going to like it more--it's not the same thing. And if the 360 is around until 2015, I will personally die of boredom.
Rob sent me a great e-mail yesterday:
Just wondering if you are aware of the fact that the end boss of Dante's Inferno, Satan himself, has been faithfully rendered down to his dickferno....that's right, the devs saw fit to render Stan's dick and balls in 3D AND have applied ragdoll physics to it.

There is nothing more awkward than having your wife walk in and seeing giant close up renderings (due to the camera swinging around wildly) of Satan's wedding tackle jiggling about on the screen and have her ask "WTF are you doing?"

Wedding tackle--a highly underused phrase.
I saw an excellent interview over at GameShark: Behind the Games: Might And Magic: Clash of Heroes. I think I just created a colon explosion. This is the kind of interview that stands out from the saturation of previews and reviews that seem to dominate most websites.

Finally, our old friend Lenny Dykstra is back. Incredibly, he has a new investment service and says he hasn't made a losing trade in over two years, even though he filed for bankruptcy less than a year ago with assets of less than fifty thousand dollars. Um, okay.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Impending Winter Disaster

DQ reader Christopher Boyd has been keeping me informed on the epic snowfall in the D.C./Baltimore area over the last few days--38 inches with one storm, and another 15-20 inches a few days later. The last time it snowed like this was in 1898, apparently.

I mention this because it sleeted here for the last two hours (not even sticking) and it's Armageddon. I'm betting that store shelves are already bare as people lay in a month of supplies.

Here's the lead of an article on a local t.v. station's website:
Old man winter isn’t done with Central Texas.

On the heels of a cold front that dipped temperatures into the 30s and 40s across the area, KVUE Storm Team meteorologists say there have been reports of sleet or snow Wednesday, with sleet in Austin and flurries reported in San Marcos and Elgin, but there has been no accumulation.
Oh, and snow flurries tonight. Sand the roads! Sand the roads!

The Mature Hot Wives Party Palace

I just finished reading Tokyo Vice: An American Reporter on the Police Beat in Japan, and it's a great, great read. Here's a very concise description from Publisher's Weekly:
A young Japanese-schooled Jewish-American who worked as a journalist at Tokyo newspaper Yomiuri Shinbun during the 1990s, debut author Adelstein began with a routine, but never dull, police beat; before long, he was notorious worldwide for engaging the dirtiest, top-most villains of Japan's organized criminal underworld, the yakuza.

If that doesn't convince you, let me add a few details about the flow of the book. Tokyo Vice starts off as a gentle memoir, really, very witty and even innocent. It almost reads like an excellent detective novel, but there's very little sense of menace or danger.

At first.

As Adelstein starts to see underneath Japanese culture and into the underworld, though, the book progressively darkens. It's riveting and fiercely intense, and at the same time, it maintains a deeply personal tone as the author analyzes what and whom he's jeopardizing (and losing) in his single-minded pursuit of a story.

It's one of the most interesting and personally affecting books that I've read in many years.

Also of note: his website, the Japan Subculture Research Center.

Oh, and if you're wondering, "The Mature Hot Wives Party Palace" was the name of a "club" offering prostitutes who were older (thirties) than the norm. Greatest band name ever.

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Another Reason

I mentioned yesterday that the NCAA Basketball series from EA had been cancelled. In large part, it appears to have happened due to poor sales over time (well deserved, because the game was weak). However, I think this  may also be involved:
It’s a legal opinion that could have significant impact on the way the business of college athletics is conducted. At the very least, it should make the financial books, contracts and business deals of the NCAA, its conferences and individual schools public, in some cases, for the first time.

U.S. District Court Judge Claudia Wilken denied the NCAA’s request Monday to dismiss a 2009 class-action lawsuit led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon over the use of former players’ likenesses in everything from video games to memorabilia to television rebroadcasts.

The way college games have always worked is that player likenesses and ratings would be as "real" as possible, but the player would be given a fictional name. So Tim Tebow would have a different name, but his physical size and his ratings would correspond to the real person. In every respect except the name, it was Tim Tebow, and we all knew it was Tim Tebow.

What pissed off O'Bannon was that he saw himself in a video game as part of a "classic" team (I assume it was an all-time UCLA team, because all-time teams aren't uncommon as an added feature). It wasn't his name, but it was his stature, physique, and ratings. Plus, the player was left-handed, like O'Bannon.

In other words, it really was O'Bannon, but he wasn't getting paid for the use of his likeness.

I think O'Bannon has an entirely fair complaint, and while the NCAA should be expected to prevail just because they usually do, this is a very, very uncomfortable area for them, because if they ever lose a case like this, it will open Pandora's Box.

Was this a primary reason that the NCAA series got cancelled? No, but I do think it's a factor, and I think it may also become a problem for the NCAA Football series, which was already bitten in the ass once. Remember last year how the "custom sounds" feature was introduced, enabling users to add their own sounds to the game? Well, it didn't get much attention at the time, but EA had been sued in late 2008 over the unlicensed use of the UNLV fight song. EA, to my understanding, believed they had the rights to all the various school fight songs through their purchase of the NCAA license, but as it turned out, the rights to some of the fight songs weren't owned by the schools.

So in NCAA Football last year, a decent number of fight songs (including Texas Tech, which is the team I usually play with) were suddenly missing, and this new "feature" to add sounds tied to certain game events was added. Including some events where the school's fight song would normally be played.

Does that sound like a coincidence? It shouldn't.

For quite a few years, licensing for an NCAA game was turnkey--just buy the rights from the NCAA and you had everything. Now, though, many of those rights appear to not be as cut-and-dried as it originally appeared, and I think there's a pain-in-the-ass factor that's going to reduce the willingness of EA to release college sports games at all, particularly when their sales are already borderline.

With Thanks To Gutenberg

"Dad, what do you think was the most important invention in history?" It's Sunday, I'm still sick, and Eli and I are driving a few minutes from home to try out a new unicycle trail.

"Well, it could be the wheel," I say.

"Who invented the wheel?" he asks.

"I don't know," I say. "Sometimes I think about inventions in terms of which one was most amazing. The wheel was really, really important, but I don't think people were stunned when they saw it. What do you think was the most amazing invention ever?"

"I don't know," he says. "The pencil?"

"The pencil?"

"Yes," he says. "I think it's really incredible that you can move your hand and writing appears."

"That is pretty amazing," I say. "But I think the most amazing invention of all time was the balloon. No one had ever been able to float above the ground before. Can you imagine what it must have felt like to be a few hundred feet above the ground, or what people thought when they first saw a balloon sailing by? It must have felt like a miracle."

"I wish I had been there," he says. "Hey, what about paper? Paper must have been really amazing?"

"That's a good one," I say. "Paper is always considered one of the most important inventions ever. It made it possible to record and save knowledge. Oh, and along with that, the printing press was huge."

"The printing press?" he asks.

"The printing press made it possible to make copies of things mechanically," I say. "Before then, everything had to be copied by hand. If someone wanted a copy of a book, they had to copy every page themselves."

"That's impossible," he says.

"Almost," I say. "The printing press made it possible to make thousands of copies of a book. It democratized information so that everyone could become educated. Before that, there were thousands of scholars who did nothing but make copies of books by hand. But because there were so few copies, only a very few people had access to books.

"Wow," Eli says. "Did YOU have access to books?"

"This is probably the point where I should mention that the printing press was invented over five hundred years ago, not in my lifetime," I say.

"Oh," he says.

Monday, February 08, 2010

NCAA Basketball R.I.P.

I wrote this back on December 2 of last year:
This isn't being widely discussed at this point, but I think the writing is on the wall for NCAA Basketball...
Today, EA announced their quarterly earnings (poor) and laid out their release schedule for 2011. Not included: NCAA Basketball. In other words, it's not officially cancelled, but it's officially cancelled.

I'd like to claim some sort of of +5 Prophecy here, but it was dead obvious this was going to happen.

What's such a shame here is that, properly developed, the college world is a much more compelling gameplay opportunity than the pros. There were a few years when NCAA Football, in particular, handled recruiting in a compelling, fun, way--an excellent balance between complex and accessible.

Recruiting is potentially more fun than a draft, and there's nothing better than taking Obscure State University from being a 1* school to playing in the mythical National Championship (I guess that would be the Mythical Virtual National Championship) in football, or winning the virtual NCAA tournament in basketball. Plus, the NCAA Tournament is so much more fun than grinding through best-of-seven NBA playoff series. Having said all that, though, the College Hoops 2K series was quite good and didn't sell well enought to survive, either.

So, incredibly, it appears there will be zero graphics-based college basketball titles this year.

The Dickferno

Let's briefly look at some of the marketing efforts behind EAs new game, Dante's Inferno:

June: demonstrators at E3 protesting the "anti-Christian" message of the game are revealed to, in fact, be actors hired by EA to stage the protest.

July: at Comic-Con, ran a contest described thusly:
In an effort to promote the title at last week's San Diego Comic-Con event, EA decided to run a contest asking showgoers to "commit acts of lust" with any models working at the convention's myriad booths. They were then instructed to submit photos via social networking sites like Twitter or Facebook. The winner would receive "dinner and a sinful night with two hot girls, a limo service, paparazzi and a chest full of booty," while five runners-up would have to make do with a copy of the game, a $240 gift card and assorted game merchandise.

I suggested a contest title of "Gaming Bros versus Hos," but I guess they didn't get my e-mail, because marketing would have thought that idea was shit hot.

Date unknown: a group of gaming publications were sent "severed arm" cakes. Seriously, I'd try harder to find the exact date, but I just don't care.

September: sending $200 checks to to editors of various gaming publications, with this note attached:
By cashing this check you succumb to avarice by hoarding filthy lucre but by not cashing it, you waste it, and thereby surrender to prodigality.

I was seriously waiting for an editor to say they cashed the check and used it to subscribe to Gamefly so they wouldn't have to buy EA games. Then I realized that they get them for free, anyway, so this wasn't funny.

November: a satirical advertisement for a game called Mass, We Pray:
Last week's satirical advertisement for Mass: We Pray, which featured cross-shaped motion controllers and gameplay modes like 'baptism' and 'ring the tower bell', has turned out to be another bit of sneaky marketing for EA's upcoming Dante's Inferno.

I'm pretty sure that ringing the tower bell got a few people thrown out of divinity school.

There are seven deadly sins, so there were seven marketing stunts to correspond. I'd list which stunt matched up to which sin, and I'd find the other two (I've only got five here), but seriously, I'm tired of looking.

Just reading about these marketing stunts makes my brain feel like it's been keelhauled.

Look, EA, and this is something I didn't understand when I was twenty, there's a fine line between edgy and complete asshole.

Wait, that's not quite what I mean.

What I should have said was it's very, very difficult to be edgy, but it's easy to be an asshole. And boy, has EA been easy with the marketing for this game.

As it turns out, this is an excellent test case in the ongoing hypothetical battle between style and substance, because EA has pushed this game hard. While I don't quite understand what demographic they were targeting with the "sins stunts"--maybe the douchebag demographic, I guess--there's no question that they're pushing. Incredibly, they even paid for a commercial during the Super Bowl. They've done everything they can to convince us that this game is edgy and hip--the hottest thing going, so to speak.

Of course, if you played the demo, you know it's basically shit. Great, epic art style in the cut scenes (really, it's wonderful), but the gameplay and style of the actual game are spectacularly non-spectacular. Flaccid. Dante's Flaccid Inferno would have been an excellent title, based on the demo.

It's too bad that we can't name our hero, because if I could name him "Jonathan Flaccid," I would totally buy the game. Then, I could have hopefully seen text dialogue like "Flaccid, enter the Inferno!"

No, not "Dick Flaccid." I'm not ten, people. I'm at least twelve. Although I do like the sound of "Dick Limply" and reserve the right to use it later.

Based on the demo, I felt like this was a "C" game, at best, and based on a metric ton of Metacritic reviews, that's how the full game rates. So now we get to find out, after Super Bowl ads and EB midnight launches (seriously, have those jumped the shark or what?), whether marketing can be the ultimate deflaccidator.

Yeah, don't bother looking that one up.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Friday Links!

I had never heard of this before, but there's something called a tunnel boring machine, and the largest, incredibly, is over fifteen meters in diameter. Here's a link to The Blog Below, which has some absolutely fantastic photographs and video links.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is epic (with great photos), it's The 19 Most Complex And Dangerous Roads In The World. Also, and this sounds like a Darwin award winner, it's Man Hurt Using Explosives In Backyard Sledding Stunt. Here's an excerpt:
The man is thought to have constructed the backpack from a used automotive muffler, which he filled with gasoline and gunpowder, “trying to get a rocket-launch effect,” McCabe said.

From Ryan Shalek, a fantastic website that takes an Edward Tufte approach to charting The Beatles. There are some enormously clever graphs, and it's fascinating to see The Beatles broken down this way.

From Colin Austin, and it's a classic, it's U.S. School Bans The Dictionary. Next up: banning the alphabet.

From Eric Lundquist, an invention that puts the Snuggie to shame: it's the sleeping bag you can walk in.

From Tim Jones, a link to a newly-released Jimi Hendrix track.

From Clayton Lee, a link to an excellent optical illusion: The Blue And The Green. Also, a link to a website dedicated to optical illusions: Color Illusion 12.

From Allen Varney, a link to Batmanalyzed (from the latest issue of The Escapist).

From Sirius, a link to some of the funniest (unintentionally) headlines ever: Crash Blossoms.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a story about the discovery of an early draft of the U.S. Constitution. Also, a story about the Mars rover Spirit now being used as a stationary research platform.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a link to pictures of the "artificial island and devotional chapel constructed in Montenegro's Bay of Kotor" known as Our Lady Of The Rocks. Next, it's Chinese maker's homemade submarine. Then there's Underground Cities: 3500 Years of Cappadocian Cave Homes. Finally, a new video of the Challenger disaster has emerged.

From David Gloier, and it's a classic, a 90-year old woman and her car--which she's driven for 557,000 miles.

From Andrew Martin, a link to a stunning series of photos that recreate the photographer's hometown. Why did I say recreate? They're all models.

This is from a regular contributor who wishes to remain anonymous for this link only: The 6 Weirdest Things Women Do To Their Vaginas.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Console Post Of The Week: My Head Hurts

I have something called a "fever" today, so I hope I've kept these numbers straight (with thanks to Julian D.--for ideas with the numbers, not the fever).

With Nintendo/Microsoft/Sony all announcing earnings in the last week, it's a good time to review 2009 and see where we're headed in 2010.

First off, here's an anecdotal bit of information. Based on what Nintendo announced last week, when they talk about Japanese sales figures, they're taking about actual sales to consumers. That does not appear to be the case in the U.S., though, because they mentioned 32 million as a lifetime figure, but the NPDs only record 27.115 million. So I'm guessing that in the U.S. (and probably in Europe as well), Nintendo is counting sales to retailers, and the difference in the numbers represents inventory.

[NOTE: Matt Matthews e-mailed and correctly pointed out that Nintendo was talking about "the Americas", not just "America." That accounts for the discrepancy.]

Moving on.

Based on earnings reports, here are what each manufacturer claims to have sold in the nine month period from April 1, 2009-December 31, 209. I'd use the full calendar year, but Nintendo released information for the last nine months, so let's go with that:
Nintendo (Wii): 17.05 million
Sony (PS3): 10.8 million
Microsoft (360): 8.5 million

Ah, but it's not quite that easy, because Microsoft talks about "shipped" units, Sony talks about "unit sales", and Nintendo is probably talking about different things in different territories. In spite of that, I think these numbers are useful for ongoing discussion.

First off, let's look at US + Japan sales for the last nine months (these are actuals from NPD and Media Create):
Wii: 9,281,759 (7.56M U.S. + 1.72M Japan)
PS3: 5,147,728 (3.63M U.S. + 1.51M Japan)
360: 3,968,594 (3.74M U.S. + 228k Japan)

Again, given how each company classifies their console sales, this may not be exact, but if we added to the U.S. + Japan numbers to equal the manufacturer's earnings statements, what would they look like?
Wii: 17.8M (7.56M U.S. + 1.72M Japan + 7.77M Rest Of World)
PS3: 10.8M (3.63M U.S. + 1.51M Japan + 5.65M ROW)
360: 8.5M (3.74M U.S. + 228k Japan + 4.53M ROW)

I think what's most revealing in that set of figures is how strong Sony appears to be in "rest of world" (in particular, Europe) compared to the U.S. It's not a new observation, but seeing that Sony sells as many units in ROW as Japan and the U.S. combined is surprising.

It's easy to sort out what these markets will be like going forwards. The Wii will be first in all three markets (U.S., Japan, Rest Of World). The 360 will be second in the U.S. and third in the others. The PS3 will be second in Japan and ROW).

Placement is only part of the picture, though. What about momentum? Sony hasn't passed Microsoft in the U.S., although they're closing, but Sony's 2009 sales in Japan were up 80% over 2008, so the price cut has really helped in Japan. In the U.S., though, sales were up "only" 22% versus 2008, which leads me to think that the price cut is going to have a lesser effect in the U.S. than Sony expected.

If you're curious about annual sales figures, here they are for the last three years in the U.S. (in millions):
              360           PS3         Wii
2007      4.62          2.56         6.29
2008      4.73          3.54       10.15
2009      4.77          4.33         9.56

Yes, Sony has increased PS3 sales each year, but it's worth nothing that sales in 2009 still weren't at the level of 2007 sales for the 360. It's fair to expect the PS3 to outsell the 360 worldwide in 2010, though, because there will be a 1.5-2.0 million unit gap in Japan.

It's also important to remember that the player with the most recent price cut is always going to appear to have the most momentum. The Wii, in particular, seems to have huge momentum after the price cut to $199.  What it means, though, since both Sony and Nintendo had a price cut last fall, is that Microsoft is likely to be next at some point this year, and when it happens, we'll see some of the same historical patterns re-emerging (in particular, dominating Sony in the U.S. market). Even after the price cut to $299, Sony barely outsold Microsoft in the fourth quarter in the U.S. (by about 10,000 units), and without a further price cut, I expect their 2010 sales in the U.S. to strongly resemble Microsoft's.

Here's an updated 12-month rolling sales graph for the U.S.:

Sony has definitely changed their sales trend, at least temporarily, but it's worth noting that they're still over 650,000 units away from hitting 5M on a twelve-month basis. The PS2 was over that level for the first four and a half years!

Here's a look at Japan:

I mentioned a few months ago that the PS3 was trending much like the Gamecube, but the price cut ended the resemblance. Interestingly, though, do you see what's almost outselling the Gamecube at the same point in its lifespan in Japan? The 360, believe it or not.

For Microsoft, with 360 sales flat in the U.S. and rolling over in Japan, it would be an ideal time to start promoting the 720 or whatever the next system will be. In an attempt to significantly stretch out the life cycle, though, they're going to use Natal this fall in an attempt to "re-launch" the console, essentially.

Risky? Very much so, because if Natal doesn't generate significant additional sales over the next few years, Microsoft has nowhere to turn, and as I've said before, expecting Natal (or Sony's Arc) to gain significant traction is very optimistic, no matter their technical merits.

I'm completely out of gas, so I'm stopping here, but I'll continue after the NPDs next week.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

'Round Midnight

Out of nowhere, I had a bit of a sore throat yesterday.

It evolved from "a bit sore" to "ass-kicking" over the course of a few hours. I didn't have any fever, though, so I assumed it was sinus drainage.

This happens to me a few times a year, and the biggest problem it causes is that I can't sleep. I have to stay up until I'm totally exhausted, then hope that I can fall asleep before the tickle starts up.

That's all bad, except it's not. The reason it's not is because it's a golden opportunity for a gaming marathon. Wait, let me market that more enthusiastically: GAMING MARATHON!

Mind you, "marathon" has a different meaning than it did when I was single. Back then, a three or four hour session was no big deal, and the litmus test for a great game back then was whether it kept me up all night.

Now, though, one continuous hour is a solid session. I enjoy playing as much as I ever did, but the day is the wrong length.

So for most people, sinus drainage is the plague. For me, it's the golden ticket. Vancouver Rhinos, please board the team flight now.

That's right--I moved the Lions to Vancouver.

Madden handles franchise relocation in a pleasing manner. There are a huge number of cities to pick from, and for each city, there's a level of interest in having a franchise. To secure funds to build a stadium, you have to make a financial proposal that includes levels of contribution from seat licenses, bonds, and your own contribution. The less the city has to pay, the more likely the voters are to approve the stadium deal.

If the referendum fails, you have to wait at least a year before trying again, and in the meantime, the city you're trying to jilt (in my case, Detroit) will be understandably pissed.

Once I received approval in the Vancouver referendum, I designed a stadium and new uniforms. "Your team looks like a pack of Starburst," Gloria said when she saw the new unis for the first time.

If you'll remember, the Lions were 0-16 in their first season. Their second season was 1-15. The third year, the first as the Rhinos, was 2-14.

Yes, I was getting my ass kicked. Interestingly, though, it was getting kicked in exactly the right way--the talent level of my team was rarely as good as my opponent, and I saw that difference play out on the field. There was no prestidigitation I could perform on the field to overcome the lack of talent.

As General Manager, I started pruning the roster, exchanging age for youth. One of the franchise house rules I adopted was a ban on player trades, so I had to focus on building the team through free agency and the draft.

Last season, I was 8-8 and missed the playoffs by one game. Most of the dead wood and huge contracts are gone now, though, so I'm not sure I can even keep this team together. I'm facing the same kinds of decisions that real GM's face, which is another tribute to how well Madden plays this year.

I guess that was a tangent.

So last night around 10:30 p.m., I sit down to play. Four hours later, after a four-game marathon, I'm exhausted and happily go to sleep in minutes (or seconds).
Of the four games last night, I won two (both in the last two minutes) and lost two, and they were all gritty, hard-fought games. Madden does a terrific job this year of conveying a sense of speed and power (with the right slider settings, anyway). The second-to-second immersion is extremely high.

Here's an example of how much detail there is in Madden this year. Three of my first four home games this season have been in the rain. In most football games, rain is largely cosmetic.

Not in this game.

First off, players slip, and the different animations for the slip look fantastic. I've even seen the line judge slip, which is the kind of non-essential detail that makes a game look very, very real.

Players also drop more passes in the rain. I had seven drops in my last game in the rain, and some of them came at crucial times. The same is true of quarterback mis-throws.

In one of the rain games, I tried a field goal that was easily inside my kicker's range, but it was short. In other words, driving rain affected the distance of the kick. That sounds like something simple and obvious, but believe me, graphics based football games just don't operate at that level of detail.
What all these little bits of detail do is create variability inside repetition, which is the hallmark of getting a sports game "right". Knowing that if my receiver is open, I'll make the completion 100% of the time is just not realistic. This year, there's an element of uncertainty that has a high level of fidelity to real football.

The ultimate litmus test for me with a sports game is whether it can get me to talk to the television. I don't know why, but an excellent sports game will have me talking frequently, even though I'm only talking to myself.

Last night? Running commentary for four hours.

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