Monday, May 31, 2010

Backbreaker: Impressions (360)

I really want to like Backbreaker. Really, really, REALLY want to like it.

Wait. I do like Backbreaker. I like it quite a bit, actually. There are just a few things that are keeping me from actually playing Backbreaker.

If you don't want to muck about in the details, here's the most precise analogy I can give you: Backbreaker is like dating an incredibly hot woman who has a constant problem with passing gas.

You love to look at her, but you can't stand to smell her.

That's Backbreaker. Big chunks of this game are, hands down, the best ever seen in a football game. Big chunks of this game are so brilliant that they defy description.

The bad parts, though, are crippling. They're brutal. And they take a surpassingly brilliant game and essentially make it unplayable, at least in single-player mode.

Let's take a more detailed part, and let's start at the pretty. I always like to start at the pretty.

First off, even before kickoff, this game stands out. The menus are well organized, and the game options are well chosen. In particular, the designers have included the option to remove all visual indicators from the player you currently control, which is something I've been wanting for years. I know what player I'm controlling--I don't need a spinning circle or star to tell me what's going on.

The create-a-team feature is, bar none, the best I've ever seen. I spent almost three hours in the team creation feature yesterday, just fiddling around with logos and jersey designs. The tools are nothing short of spectacular, and it's possible to perfectly recreate every team logo you can imagine. The uniform creation tools are just as good, and if you wanted to exactly recreate the NFL logos and uniforms, you could do it with 99% fidelity.

In terms of players, there isn't as much flexibility. It's possible to choose how many "gold" players you have on offense and defense, but you don't get to choose the positions, and individual player ratings are not editable (although names can be edited).

Not being able to edit player ratings is going to make it more difficult to troubleshoot the game's problems, which I'll discuss in more detail later, and it violates the prime directive for development: never stop the community from helping you. This particularly matters in sports games, which rarely ship in a finished state and are notorious for having balancing issues.

Let's move on to kickoff, and boy, does this game shine on the field, at least at the play level. Individual plays are like highlight reels of absolute wonder--the animation system is so spectacular that it has to be seen to be believed.

It's not just the animation, though. In many ways, the A.I. in Backbreaker is far better than Madden, and Madden has been a football franchise for over twenty years. I've seen some some spectacular moments, A.I. wise, and because the animation is so stellar, these momens look absolutely and totally real.

I should mention the camera angle. There's only one, and it has been the subject of many complaints from people who are used to the angles traditionally found in other football games (in general, higher up and further back) . What this camera angle does, though, is create a tremendously visceral sense of the action. It's fierce. Hits are bone-rattling. It's generally terrific, and while I'd like to be able to raise the camera at least a couple of feet, it's not a problem.

Okay, after hearing about all the pretty in this game, you may be ready to drive off to the store and buy five copies.

Not so fast, my friends.

Here comes the gas, and believe me, the gas smells as bad as you can possibly imagine.

There are various kinds of fidelity required of a sports game, and it's required at different levels. In terms of individual play fidelity, Backbreaker is spectacular, because individual plays look very, very real, and players act very "real" as well.

However, per-play fidelity is only a subset of what a great sports game needs. Above the per-play level is the game level, and it's here that Backbreaker collapses. I'd like to think of a nicer word than that, but I can't, because "collapses" is accurate.

In a nutshell, the CPU A.I. is utterly incompetent on offense. They cannot consistently mount a credible attack--more accurately, only rarely do they mount a credible attack. Even on "Hard" difficulty, the highest level, the CPU offense is totally incompetent.

Teams have overall ratings as well as individual ratings for offense and defense. Anyone should be able to take a team from the lowest division, with an overall rating in the mid 40s, and beat the highest-rated teams (mid 70s), because even at that level of disparity, the CPU offense can't attack properly. Hell, I can run a simple Cover Two all game and beat those teams. There is zero sense of danger when facing the CPU offense, and there are no zero-sum choices to make.

In real football, defense is generally a zero-sum proposition. Every positive in a defensive scheme has a corresponding negative, and in many ways, it's a pick your poison situation. That's the way it should work, too: every choice must carry risk.

In Backbreaker, though, the CPU offense is so bad there there are no corresponding risks. I can sit in a simple Cover Two coverage all game long and the A.I. won't adjust.

Statistically, at the surface level, it's easy to spot the problem: interceptions and sacks. It's common to see 4-5 interceptions by the CPU offense, and another 4+ sacks (or more). Actually, the CPU ground attack isn't much, either. It's an offensive disaster.

What's more difficult, though, is accurately finding the cause at a more fundamental level, and here's where the lack of editable player ratings and a decent replay system hurt our ability to analyze the game (and in the process, possibly help the developers find the problem).

First off, the replay system doesn't have a camera angle that makes it possible to see everything that's going on, and it's not possible to move the camera. That makes it relatively impossible to find out how a play broke down. Was it pressure? Was it a bad read by the quarterback--did he have open receivers that he just ignored? Or was everyone covered and he threw the ball anyway, instead of trying to buy more time in the pocket?

Unfortunately, there's no way to tell.

We do know that sacks and interceptions are too high, which leads me to believe that the offensive-defensive line balance is uneven. Now, if I could edit player ratings, I could create a team with 99 rated offensive lineman, or edit an existing team, and then play an exhibition game against them. If the CPU offense suddenly started tearing me up, and I would know right there that the ratings could be tweaked to provide an exciting game.

Really, all these games have to be tweaked. I've never played a football game that was great out of the box. They don't exist. In this case, though, the toolkit to do anything about the problems is almost nonexistant. I can't even watch CPU versus CPU games, which is always a GREAT way to identify and isolate problems.

So I know that the CPU offense is so poor as to break the game, and I think the root cause is probably the offensive line, but I can't be definitive.

By itself, that's a game killer, but there's more. There are cases where the rules are just wrong. As one example, if the CPU team downs a punt in your end zone, you'll be starting your drive from the one-yard line, not the twenty. There are small rules mistakes and big ones, and that one is an elephant.

There have been other issues with rules reported, but that's the one I've seen personally, and it happens often enough that it's unbearable.

Another issue, and Backbreaker isn't the only game with this problem, is the lack of an accelerated clock feature. Madden, after decades of fail in this regard, finally got it right last year (thank you, Ian Cummings). It's simple, really--start with the standard 40 second play clock, and when a play is selected, run the play clock down to 15 seconds (or 20, if the user so desires). That lets you use 10+ minute quarters, and more importantly, it makes the two-minute offense, which is a huge part of the professional game, properly challenging.

With the automatic runoff, players can't afford to call plays in the huddle when they're in a hurry. They're forced to use the no-huddle offense, which is an entirely different environment, and it's very difficult, like it should be. The two-minute offense is a game within the game.

In Backbreaker, though, there's no run-off, so there's never a reason to even run a hurry-up offense. There's no time penalty for huddling. That entirely flattens what should be the most exciting part of the game.

It also breaks the two-minute period as used by the CPU. Since an entirely unrealistic number of plays can be run by the CPU in the last two minutes, there's no real reason to call a timeout unless there is less than thirty seconds left in the half. The CPU A.I., though, will take its timeouts much earlier. That wouldn't be unreasonable in the real word, but the way the clock works, there's no real reason to do so. And the CPU is also entirely willing to use up all three timeouts, without holding one in reserve for the last few seconds.

How is the CPU A.I. in the last two minutes of the half/game? It should give you an idea of how bad the CPU offense is that I didn't even pay particular attention to the two-minute A.I., which is usually one of my primary areas of focus.

In summary, it's disappointing. Seriously, this chick is SO HOT, but the gas is SO BAD.

I am slightly encouraged, at least, by the active role taken in the Backbreaker forums by the development team. They're noting issues properly, and they're not ignoring anything or denying that there are issues with the game. This makes me hopeful that they'll be able to release a patch that will make the game playable.

Seriously, I want to play this game more than any other football game I've seen. And the CPU offense doesn't have to be perfect, but it does have to be credible.

You're In Trouble

From Sports Illustrated:
The London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games used 40 focus groups and spent 18 months to come up with the designs for the 2012 mascots Wenlock and Mandeville.

Here they are (image courtesy of the CBC):

Could someone explain to me how 40 focus groups missed the giant pee stain on Mandeville's pants? The Olympics are all about "universal" symbols, and there's nothing more universal than a "splash" of color in that particular place. "I have one centrally located eye and I just peed myself" does not seem like an enduring bit of branding.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Friday Links!

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a stunning breakthrough: Quantum teleportation achieved over 16 km. Also, an interesting bit of architecture known as Fujian Tulou.

From Cliff Eyler, a fascinating article about mapmaking: Long Before GPS, You Had To Have Portolans. Also, a story about how the only surviving warship from the Spanish-American War (1898), the Olympia, may soon be scuttled.

From Sirius, and excellent blast from the past: an e-book--from 1986! Also, the best visual illusion of 2010, and it's amazing. Next, it's India's self-styled "monkey man". Note: all three of those links were from Tywkiwdbi, which has a ton of interesting information.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, one of the greatest bike ads ever. An excerpt: I know for a fact that this bike will jump over canyons, climb trees, kill bears, and forge rivers.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, a planet photographed as it's being devoured by a star. Also, a planetary system found with more than one planetary plane. Finally, an explanation of the mystery spirals on Mars.

From Dib, some magnificent artwork: Heike Weber installations.

From Jarod, a time-lapse video of the six weeks of work before a shuttle launch.

From Don Slevin, a cool bit of stop-motion animation titled My Desk is 8-Bit.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Gaming Links

Some choice gaming links have piled up recently, so here goes.

Tarn Adams, who is always a fascinating interview, has another one with Elijah Meeks of HASTAC. Tarn's interviews are more interesting than most games (not his own, fortunately). Thanks to Steve Davis for the link.

A while back, I linked to a brilliant article by journalist Patrick Hruby (it's here, a sensational piece about a Cambodian refugee bringing baseball to his country, but it's a very dark and complicated story), and Glen Haag of Sports Games And More interviewed him in early May. It's a two-part interview--go here and listen to Episodes 50 (interview starts about 1/4 into the show) and 51 (episode 51 is about the history of Madden and its influence on EA).

I'm still working on the Frozen Synapse feature, but in the meantime, Eric Leslie of Colony Of Gamers has a podcast with Level 7 co-founder Paul Taylor, and you can listen to it here.

Matt Sakey's excellent Culture Clash column has a new installment, and this month, he writes about The Humble Indie Bundle.

Next, a rumor that Rock Band 3s keyboard support actually comes from--a keytar. I've jokingly said in the past that Harmonix was wired directly into my brain, but Harmonix, the keytar is NOT in my brain. If it lets me play songs from Yes and The Doors (two logical choices if keyboard support is added), though, maybe it will work.

Also mentioned in the article is a "Pro" mode that will require "proper technique" on the guitar and bass. That's way too vague to be definitive in any way, but we'll find out at E3.

Eurogamer published an interview  today with Demon's Souls' Director Hidetaka Miyazaki. For my money, Demon's Souls is, by far, the best PS3-exclusive game.

Frank Regan sent me a link to the original pitch for BioShock. Very, very cool.


If you follow college football, I just saw a website that should be mandatory reading: Oversigning.

Basically, oversigning is when a college coach signs more players to Letters of Intent than they have available scholarships. So, for instance, Big Time University, based on the number of players they have graduating, have 18 scholarships available. Instead of signing 18 players to Letters of Intent, though, they sign 30.

Problem? Yes, and the details of why it's a problem and how some schools and conferences (um, cough, SEC) abuse the process makes for fascinating reading.

Oversigning is a terrific website with some excellent muckraking journalism, and when I say "muckraking" I mean it as a compliment.

The Horror

This is alarming:
BUENOS AIRES, Argentina -- Diego Maradona has promised to run naked through the center of Buenos Aires if Argentina wins the World Cup.

The Argentina coach made the promise during a radio show. The unpredictable Maradona was speaking a day after Argentina defeated Canada 5-0 on Monday in its final warmup match before the World Cup.

"If we win the World Cup, I'll get naked and run around the Obelisk," he said, referring to the tall monument that marks the center of the city and serves as its most famous landmark.

For starters, I can't root for Argentina anymore. That's not the real problem, though. What if a wave of copycats follow after Maradona?

Just think about it. Rex Ryan promises to run naked down Broadway if the Jets win the Super Bowl. Thirty-eight colliding waves of jangly man-flesh.

Do you know how windows in skyscrapers can blow out from extreme heat? Dozens or even hundreds of them can shatter at the same time. That skyscraper will be my brain.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


Okay, I freely admit that I'm trying to find a copy of Backbreaker early. If you have an extra copy, I would be willing to pay both for the game, your shipping charges, and a copy of something or other to compensate you for your time. Please let me know if you can come through and thanks for your consideration.

By law, I must devour this game without delay.

The Dream Is Dead. The Dream Lives

The bad news is that any lingering notions I had of going to E3 this year just died.

The great news, though, is that they just died because the Texas Stars beat Hamilton 4-2 tonight and they're in the finals of the Calder Cup. So we're going to get to go to the Calder Cup Finals, which is going to be completely awesome.

As much as I'd like to go to E3, I'd rather take Eli to the Calder Cup Finals. It'll be great.

Message for Matt W.

Sorry--can't respond to your e-mail because your server keeps blocking me. I've been trying.

I Forgot To Mention This About The Backbreaker Demo

No suction blocking. Let me emphasize that: NO SUCTION BLOCKING.

Also, no magic warping.

Console Post Of The Week: What Happens Next?

I thought it would be interesting this week to take a look at where we might be going from here.

"Here" is the current console generation, and here's what analysts never seem to mention: this generation has been a financial disaster for almost everyone not named "Nintendo" or "Activision."

I took a look at Microsoft's segment reporting by fiscal year from 2003 forward (MS didn't report by segment before then, as far as I can tell). They've lost 5.5 billion dollars in what is now called the "Entertainment and Devices" division. Yes, there are other items included in that division, like Zune, but there's no question that Xbox and Xbox 360 have been big money losers for Microsoft.

Sony? They've lost 2.5 billion dollars on the Playstation family since 2002. Again, they've recently put Playstation into a larger division, but this is still a conservative estimate of their losses.

The gaming software industry in the last five years? There's no question it's net negative as well, even including Activision's substantial profits.

Gaming is the future, but that future apparently doesn't include making money.

I have no idea, at this point, why Microsoft and Sony would ever want to make a new generation of consoles. That's not to say we don't need a new generation--we definitely do to support the open-world games that are so compelling--but who's going to pay for it, exactly? It would be far more profitable (or less punitive) for Microsoft and Sony to ride these consoles all the way into their graves, then just drive off into the sunset.

I think I just went from horses to cars there, but no matter.

If Microsoft does want to create another console (here's hoping), the last thing they should do is be involved with the hardware. Create a joint venture with a company like Samsung to manufacture the hardware, then Microsoft could supply the operating system and the online services.

If they had done that in this generation, they would have made a ton of money. No billion dollar charges for shitty hardware FTW.

Sony has a different problem. They had a compelling reason to make the PS3--to further the adoption of the Blu-ray standard--but what's the incentive for the next generation? Unless gaming is going to massively promote sales of 3D displays (I'm skeptical), what's the point, exactly?

It's not that I didn't personally get my money's worth out of this generation--hell, yes, I did--but the companies making the hardware and making the games certainly haven't.

The software companies, certainly, have responded. EA, Take-Two, and Ubisoft decided to just copy Activision. That's a really, really bad idea, but after they realize it's a bad idea, where do they go from there?

It's been promoted by certain analysts and developers that the future will be "platform agnostic," but that would depend on broadband streaming, and metered or capped broadband seems to be the holy grail for broadband providers.

In all the years I've been writing about gaming, I don't think there's ever been a less clear path to the future than there is now.

Well, except for Nintendo. Their future is paved with gold coins, and if you say anything negative about them, they'll just put a gold coin in their mouth and bite it to prove that it's real gold.


I watched my first entire pro basketball game of the season last night: Suns versus Lakers (Steve Nash coolness previously noted).

I've always thought that the Prime Directive for sports camera work was that if you switch from the main view, the new camera angle must convey additional information that the primary angle couldn't capture.

Not if you're TNT.

TNT apparently has a severe case of the Red Bull Jitteries, because they provided all kinds of camera angles, and they were uniformly horrible. There was Free Throw From The Bottom Of The Opposite Standard Cam. There was View From The Fifteenth Row Of The Stands Cam. There was View From The Rafters Now We're Zooming Now We're Zooming! Cam. There Was View Too Low To See A Damn Thing Cam.

None of these angles conveyed more or unique information. Uniformly, they conveyed less. The only worse possible angle would have been a lipstick cam velcroed to the back of Kobe Bryant's ass, and I fully expect that to be in place for Game Five.

Everyone--seriously, everyone-- knows that the one view that will always convey additional information, in any sport, is the elevated view from behind the goal. That's a great angle, because it lets you see player spacing and movement more clearly than the traditional side-view camera angle.

That angle, of course, was not used.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010


I called Gloria on the phone.

"I was wheeling the garbage bin out to the curb, and I heard a sound," I said. "It sounded like music."


"So I kept wheeling, and I heard it again," I said. "So I opened the lid, and do you know what I heard?"

Gloria started to laugh.

"Pa-la-la-la-Polly!" I said. "THAT'S what I heard!"

"Oh, no," she said, laughing. "I knew you'd find that."

"So you tried to throw out Polly Pocket Groove 'N Dance Disco," I said. That was the little toy that you could wind up and it would start playing the Polly Pocket song, which, by law, required us all to start dancing.

"It was broken," she said. She lied. ALL LIES.

"This continues a disturbing pattern that began with Little Chemo Bear and continued with the Headless Christmas Reindeer," I said. "I'm going to wake up in a trash bin some morning." She laughed.

"Do you know what we'll be doing tonight?" I asked.

"What?" she asked.

"Dancing," I said. "You have been foiled."

Backbreaker: Demo Impressions

I don't know if this is the future, but it should be.

Dynamic. Vibrant.

In two words, that's the Backbreaker demo. It looks and feels like real football more often than any other football game I've ever played. And when I say "real" I mean "exactly real."

NFL2K5, as wonderful as it was, looked like the 2K series. Madden 10, even though it was greatly improved, looked like Madden.

Backbreaker just looks like football.

Players aren't skating or sliding--they're running. Tackles aren't pre-triggered animations--they're organic. I've seen a greater variation in tackles in four hours with the demo than I've seen in twenty years of Madden. The speed and intensity on the field are something I've never experienced from a football game to this degree.

It's not just about the animation, though. The game felt highly polished in general, and it consistently surpassed my expectations. As an example, one thing I didn't expect was the intelligence of the control design. Moves are mapped to the analog sticks in very logical ways, and with the number of moves available, it's critical.

Here's the best way I can describe the demo in terms of how it feels: an accurate simulation of football with individual control options as diverse as a Street Fighter game. Football, as a sport, is a series of one-on-one confrontations toward a greater team goal, and the individual confrontations are modeled better here than ever before.

It's not perfect, of course. I think the passing animation looks a little off, although it still looks better than any other game. It's just not exactly right, and so many other things in the demo are so exactly right that it stands out in comparison.

Also, the punter's drop is wrong. The ball doesn't tumble on a drop--it's very precise. And the line of scrimmage and first down lines have some sort of diamond shape moving back and forth on them pre-snap, which is a bit too busy for me.

That's not much to complain about.

Look, this is a different game. I highly discourage you from jumping right into an exhibition game--you'll be completely overwhelmed because the camera angle is so close. Play through all the available tutorials, then play in Tackle Alley for a while, and the game will make sense.

I praised Madden highly last year, and it deserved the praise. And it may well be that Madden's full package is something that Backbreaker won't be able to match. But there is no question that Backbreaker has a kind of dynamic energy that we haven't seen before, and I can't wait for the full game to be released next week.


I was watching the end of the Suns-Lakers game two nights ago--because Steve Nash is, by almost any standard, one of the coolest athletes ever--and I saw Derek Fisher foul Nash, with his arm hitting Nash's nose.

After the foul, a timeout was called, and as Nash was walking to the bench, it looked like he was trying to set his nose, as if it was broken. At the time, I remember thinking "If that guy is setting his own broken nose, it's the most awesome thing ever."

Well, it was broken, and that's exactly what he was doing  . He also never left the game.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Impossible To Resist

Someone has to play these games. It may have to be me.
Woodcutter Simulator: The player assumes the role of a timber worker who slowly works his way up from small to huge orders, where he even has to fell mammoth trees. You receive orders for the safe removal of trees in gardens or parks, the preparation of building sites and the production of firebreaks. In addition to the tree felling you have to take care of the processing, such as debarking or sawing as well as the wood transport to the processing facilities.
Seriously--a lumberjack simulator? How in the hell am I supposed to resist?

Snowcat Simulator: You are responsible for the quality of the slopes in a huge ski area. Every day, big crowds flock to the ski-regions and want to rush down the ski runs as fast as possible. But as soon as any inconveniences or delays arise, the tourists complain and money stops rolling in. Keep in mind, keeping such a slope in good repair is not as easy as you might think. Perpetual snowfall, aggressive snowboarders or strong winds mean that the pistes slowly but surely become impassable. Therefore you and the piste caterpillar have to keep on moving - in such a profession the fear of steep slopes is out of place. Slide the snow correctly, compress it and spare no effort to ensure that the slopes keep in good repair, the skiers will thank you.

Blaster Simulator: The player assumes the role of a blaster, who works his way up from small jobs to big ones. A level is considered to be solved, if the predetermined demolition rate has been reached and all set targets have been met.

The buildings are made of in real-time calculated walls, pillars and carriers which explode or collapse back upon themselves according to the used explosive. Every single action can be witnessed due to live cameras. The most sensational blasts can even be stored. 

This is entirely the fault of the Quarter To Three forums, where I saw them mentioned.

He Is The Champion, My Friends, And He'll Keep On Fighting, Till The End

That's Eli 8.9 on Saturday afternoon.

Eli's soccer coach was out of town this weekend, so I volunteered to replace him for the Saturday game. In the world of 8-10 YMCA soccer, this week's match was Manchester United vs. Arsenal--two undefeated teams, playing for the entirely mythical league championship.

Hawks vs. Eagles: the battle by the cattle.

These times had played twice before, and both games ended in ties. And the second best kid in the league (Eli is considered the best, even by people who aren't his father) played on the Eagles. He was a terrific player and tremendously fast with the ball. He was older than Eli, both a little heavier and a little taller, and he played very, very hard.

In both of the first two games, the Hawks (Eli's team) took the lead, but in the second half, the star kid went on long runs and scored. 

"I don't know how we're going to stop that kid," Eli 8.9 said on Wednesday.

"Well, do you want to mark him?" I asked.

"What's that?"

"Everyone else is responsible for area, but you're responsible for him," I said. "It's man-to-man. Mano-a-mano."

"I can do that?" he asked, practically jumping out of his chair.

"I'm the coach on Saturday," I said. "Heck, yes, you can do that." Hell, I wanted  him to mark that kid, because I loved watching both of them play, and it would be a terrific challenge. Eli was averaging two goals a game, but we have other kids who can score.

The Eagles, though, didn't. That kid was their star, and everything happened through him.

Real world check here. You may be wondering why I cared about doing this in a scrub soccer league game. Well, it's because I remember what I was like as a kid, and how much I loved sports. I watched teams win championships on t.v., and I wanted nothing more than to feel that kind of thrill.

I did, a couple of times, and I still remember what it felt like. It was epic, and only people who win championships know what it feels like.

Because of that, I didn't want to downplay what he was feeling. Once I realized he wanted it to be his championship game, I helped him frame it that way.

I did try to temper his desire to win by telling him that he didn't necessarily have control of the outcome of the game, but he did control the level of his effort, and championship effort was special. Other than that, though, I wanted him to be as excited as he wanted to be.

Game on.

At gametime, it was hot--over 90--and muggy. Usually, when the weather is this hot, both teams play at 3/4 speed. Eli, in particular, is really sensitive to the heat, and he usually doesn't play nearly as hard when it's hot, because he just gets worn out.

Not on this day.
He was everywhere. It was like he had a jet-pack on, going full speed every second, and he kept bursting out of nowhere to make plays. Eli 8.9 was gravity, and everything that was happening in the game was drawn toward him.

The star of the Eagles? He never went more than five yards with the ball before Eli took it away. 

Eli scored the first goal, and we added a second before halftime.

In the second half, he shook loose near the goal, faked out two defenders, and put a perfect shot into the top left corner of the net. 3-0.

I felt this little swell of pride, knowing that for him, he was winning the World Cup. It was his game.

Final score: 3-0. The star for the Eagles didn't take a single shot. The whistle blew and Eli raised both arms, a big smile on his face.His cheeks were like peppermint, red from the heat with white streaks of sunscreen.

Our boy, a champion.

Here's the funny part. I barely had time to congratulate him, because his ice hockey skills class had been moved to the afternoon, and it started in fifteen minutes. So he grabbed a Gatorade and sprinted toward the car, Gloria running behind him, so he wouldn't miss his class.

Hey, winning the World Cup is one thing, but this was hockey class.

After all the kids left, I drove over to the ice rink, and there he was, grinding away through puck-handling drills. He's learned how to get good air on his slapshot, and the last shot he took for the day settled into the net just under the crossbar. It was almost exactly the same spot where he'd scored his last goal during the soccer game.

When we got home, he put on his goalie pads (he's taking a goalie class, too, but it's on a different day). I went to get some lunch, and when I came home, Gloria met me at the door.

"He's sound asleep on the couch," she said, smiling.

Just As Good Or Better

You guys are e-mailing to let me know that the original article detailing the arrest is also a classic. Excerpts:
It's not what you would expect from a doctor or Captain America.

...when they arrived, the officers wrote in their report "there were so many cartoon characters in the bar at the time, all Captain America's were asked to go outside for a possible identification."

Next, The Pulitzer Prize

This is via Deadspin, and it must be the greatest lead in the history of journalism:
The Brevard County doctor who was arrested for groping a woman while dressed as Captain America with a burrito in his pants will not go to jail.

No taco jokes. You have been warned.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Backbreaker Demo


Friday Links!

From George Paci, and this is quite epic: a history of Victorian body snatching. It's a weird and entirely surreal story. Also, an amusing story about the tradition of wearing pajamas in Shanghai.

From Phil Honeywell, and this is entirely fantastic: a short film about great microbiologists, done with LEGOs.

From Andrew B, a link to a product that was decades ahead of its time: the Puma RS Computer Shoe Pedometers.

From Matt Haney, a link to unicylists that redefine extreme: Divide By One.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, the story of one of the most remarkable guns in history. Follow its travels. Next, and these are absolutely amazing, a collection of images: the early 1900s in color.

From Meg McReynolds, it's the geek alphabet.

From hippo, an invention that is either brilliant or a copy of existing technology, depending on who you believe: Steve Durnin's D-Drive.

From Sirius, and this is quite interesting: Early Birds’ Wings Probably Didn’t Flap.

From my boss, a tremendous story about Haw Par Villa, built by the brothers who invented Tiger Balm, believe it or not. It's one of the most bizarre and fantastic structures ever built.

From Jason Woolf, a link to videos of the annual clearing of Beartooth Highway Pass, a Montana road where the snow levels can be as high as 26 feet.

From Ryan Leasher, one of the greatest obituaries I've ever read: Rosa Rio, Organist From Silent Films to Soap Operas.

From Eapen Leubner, a link to a white paper on making games more accessible.

From Jean-François Boismenu, a link to Improv Everywhere's Ghostbusters tribute.

From Brad Ruminer, a surreal 1946 animated short from Russia: pint-size cyborgs dance on your piano.

From Brian Witte, and this is a great headline: Hot pursuit ninjas save Australia mugging victim.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Console Post Addendum

Joystiq is reporting that during Gamestop's earnings conference call, CEO Paul Raines said this:
Supply on hardware was a continuing challenge this quarter, as on an average daily basis, our U.S. stores were out of stock for the PS3 for 80 percent of the time and were out of stock for Wii 50 percent of the time.
This lends credence to the notion that both the Wii and PS3 are supply constrained right now. To what degree this is affecting sales is not determined.

I'd add Sony's stupid comment about demand being "incredibly high" when it's not high at all and they're only forecasting 15% growth this year, but you can just fill in the blanks yourself.

Backbreaker Demo

From the Operation Sports forums comes news that the Backbreaker demo is coming out tomorrow. Well, it's coming if you have an Xbox Live Gold account, anyway, supposedly at 11 a.m. CST.

It's not very often that I'm actually rooting for a game, but I'm rooting for this one. I'm really, really hoping that the game is excellent and the series gets traction.

Workus Interruptus

I had many goals today.

I won't be reaching any of those goals, though, because of a little game called Mamona Sweeper. It's Minesweeper, but the numbers on the board equal the total level of the monsters in the surrounding squares.

If you ever worked in an office and got hooked on Minesweeper at some point, it's crack.

Be warned, if you need to get something done this afternoon, ignore the link.

From The Wayback Machine

When I was writing about Sony yesterday, I remembered something I wrote about EA in the distant past. From January 19, 2005:
EA can't keep growing at its current rate. It's much, much easier for a company to go from one billion to three billion in revenue than it is to go from three billion to nine billion. At some point, scale just eats you up. And as your growth goes down, so does your P/E, and as that happens, the stock price starts to deflate. I believe it's entirely possible that this $65 stock price might be as high as EA gets, at least for the next several years.

Electronic Arts revenue history (fiscal year, revenue in billions, growth rate):
FY01: 1.322B
FY02: 1.725B, 30.5%
FY03: 2.482B, 43.9%
FY04: 2.957B, 19.1%
FY05: 3.129B, 5.8%
FY06: 2.951B, -5.69%
FY07: 3.091B, 4.74%
FY08: 3.665B, 18.6%
FY09: 4.212B, 14.92%
FY10: 3.654B, -13.25%

Average annual growth from FY01 to FY04: 30.7%
Average annual growth from FY04 to FY10: 3.6%.

The stock did close at $68.12 on February 4, 2005. It dipped below $65 three days later. It occasionally traded above $60 for the next two years (most recently in October of 2007), and was trading at $17.18 at mid-day on Monday (when I wrote this post).

I'm not putting this up because it was a smart call. It was an easy, easy call. It's just that no one wanted to believe it back then, because of the implications it had for the larger gaming industry as a whole.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Console Post Of The Week: NPDs and Sony's Strategy

First off, let's see the numbers again:
Wii: 277,200
Xbox 360: 185,000
PlayStation 3: 180,800

Last year, for comparison:
Wii: 340,000
Xbox 360: 175,000
PlayStation 3: 127,000

Sony appears to have gotten zero follow-through from God of War 3. Their sales continue to mirror, to a remarkable degree, Microsoft's sales last year (180,000 for Sony versus 175,000 for Microsoft last year). Given that Sony has only projected a 15% increase in PS3 sales for their new fiscal year, this is probably less surprising than it seems.

Wii sales collapsed, although there may have been inventory issues. Of note, however, is that there was also a tremendously steep dropoff last year at the same time (down 43% last year from March to April versus 50% this year).

Mathematically, since March is considered a five-week month by NPD for data reporting purposes, a 25% drop would be considered normal, so Nintendo's drop isn't as large as it first seems (but it's still large).

Here's something I'm surprised more analysts haven't noticed (or any analysts, really): that compared to a normal year, these numbers have been propped up by the unusually first-half heavy release schedule. I've never seen so many high-profile games come out in the first half of the year. It's unprecedented, and it means the fall release schedule isn't nearly as concentrated as it has been in the past.

I think that means we may not see as pronounced a holiday buying season this year. It would seemingly make sense that if publishers front load the year to a greater degree, then console sales would follow. To a minor degree, anyway, not a major one, because holiday seasonality mostly overwhelms any other influence.

Other matters.

I've been looking forward to Natal, to some degree, until I realized yesterday that I can't actually use it. I have a 360 in my study but not in the living room, and space is somewhat tight (only about 7' from the display to the wall). Plus, my drum kit is in-between (I raise my seat and look over). From what I understand about how Natal works, that makes my study a no-go, and I'm not going to move my drum kit or buy a second 360 for the living room.

That means nothing, individually, but I wonder how many other people are in the same boat.

I did some additional poking around in Sony's past earnings reports to gain some additional context to what I wrote last week about their product strategy for this fiscal year. I found a few things that surprised me, so let's take a look.

First, here's a graph of CRT and LCD sales since FY00:

It's interesting to note that Sony's LCD sales actually HAVE increased 60% annually before, but off a very small base. More recently, in FY08, they initially forecast 17 million units (a 70% increase), but later revised the forecast to 15 (final result: 15.2).

As I've mentioned on multiple occasions in the past (usually in reference to EA), it's one thing to have high-percentage growth off a small number. It's another thing entirely to continue that growth as the base number gets larger and larger. Sony is trying to project 60% growth off a 15-million unit base, and that seems impossible.

I also saw something interesting about the gaming division. Remember when I said that Sony was losing a ton of money this generation? Going back to FY02, Sony has (combined) lost over 230 billion yen in gaming. So they're net negative for the last eight years.

Oh, and before an eagle eye e-mails me, I'm not excluding FY00-FY01 for gaming on purpose. I found a slide in Sony's FY03 annual report that listed television shipments for FY00-FY01. I couldn't find profit information for those years for gaming on Sony's website (their earnings statements only go back to FY03).

Because I was curious, we stopped by Best Buy on Saturday night to take a look at Sony's current LCD lineup.

First off, I assumed that the 60% projected sales increase was going to heavily depend on consumers purchasing displays that are 3D-compatible. That's Sony's big push right now, seemingly.

They're not out yet, though. Roughly 15% into the fiscal year, they're not available. And the date on their website says "summer."

I did look at their existing LCD line, and unlike Sony in the past, they appear to be quite competitive in a pricing sense. However, their LCDs, in addition to being priced the same as their competitors, look the same, too, at least in Best Buy (which did at least a decent job of adjusting the displays). Nothing stands out for Sony versus its competitors, and I don't think the Sony brand carries nearly the premium image it carried years ago.

In sum, I'm still baffled as to how they'd project a 60% increase in sales this year. As far as I can tell, it's not happening, and they won't be close.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Possibly The Greatest Recipe In History

Not a recipe, actually, but cooking directions.

I saw in a magazine that if the temperature is 100F or higher, you can do the following:
1. park your car in the sun
2. roll up the windows
3. put slice and bake cookie dough on a cookie sheet
4. put the cookie sheet on the dashboard (with a towel underneath, to protect the dashboard)
5. Come back in 2.5-3.5 hours (depending on temperature).

You will (apparently) have fresh-baked cookies, ready to eat. I may gain 20 pounds this summer.
More details here.

A Better Explanation

It took a while for me to clarify my thoughts on this.

I've been thinking about this $10 EA Online Pass, trying to figure out why it bothers me so much.I knew that it did bother me, but I hadn't been able to precisely understand why.

Now, I think I do.

For years, the videogame industry has been screaming about used game sales. Digital media are different, they've said, because they can be sold and resold again without any physical degradation. A single game could be resold ten times or more, they've said, and the consumer experience would be the same.

This is true.

It's also true that this is a problem, because Gamestop might resell the same physical copy of a game six times in a twelve month period, and they keep all the profit, with the publishers getting zero. That's why Gamestop's profit margins are obscene, and why their profit margin on used games is more than twice their profit margin on new ones.

What about the first used sale, though?

That first sale isn't reselling a copy over and over again. If I bought the game new, why shouldn't I should be able to resell it without some kind of specific, punitive action by the publisher to reduce its resale value?

If I buy a $60 game new, my investment basically loses half its value as soon as it's unwrapped.


By way of comparison, an automobile, after a full year of driving, will still be worth more than half its original purchase. And that's with 12,000 miles (or more) of actual wear, instead of an optical disc that is still perfect.

Can you think of ANY product that loses half its value as soon as its opened? And I don't mean food--I mean some kind of consumer good that wears but doesn't spoil.

Why does this kind of crap market exist? No real competition. Gamestop has an absolute stranglehold on the used games market, so they don't have to offer competitive prices for trade-ins, because there is no real competition. If there was, their profit margin for used game sales wouldn't be almost 50%.

So we're already losing half our purchase value in a split second. Now EA wants to take a third of what little value we have left. So we spend $60 on a game, open it, and it's worth $20.

Seriously, does anyone think that Gamestop is going to reduce our trade-in value by ten dollars and also reduce the price of a used copy by ten dollars? Horseshit. They'll reduce the trade-in value by ten dollars, all right, but we'll be lucky if they reduce the resale price by five dollars.

I have no problem if EA wants to limit reselling the same copy of a game over and over again. There's a way to do it, though, without screwing the guy who was willing to go out and buy the game new in the first place.

How? A two-use code.

That's right. The original owner could use the code, and when he sold the game, the first used purchaser could use the code as well (or put two different codes in the manual). This would impact Gamestop, but it wouldn't impact people who buy new games.

Wait, isn't that the point? Publishers want people to buy more new games instead of used ones, right? Why do publishers want to punish the people who are doing exactly what they want?

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mother's Day +

I never told you about Mother's Day.

“HAPPY MOTHER'S DAY!” Eli 8.9 shouted, coming into our bedroom with a tray of nicely toasted waffles, sliced strawberries, and orange juice.

It was 6:50. In the morning.

I was really tired, because I'm always really tired when I wake up, but it's impossible to be grumpy when Mount Enthusiasm roars into the room, as he does on every weekend morning between 6:50-7:00 a.m. And over the years, I've somehow adapted. English Premier League soccer comes on at 7:00 a.m. during the season, or there might be a new episode of Phineas & Ferb, or a new episode of Clone Wars from the night before. In short, fun shit is happening, and I don't want to miss any of it.

Well, on Saturday, anyway. On Sunday, there's not as much, but there was this spiffy Mother's Day holiday to enjoy. Eli made Gloria a necklace with beads and a bottle cap (bizarrely, bottle cap necklaces are apparently popular now—you put a little picture in the bottlecap), and he made her a very nice card.

“I can't wait to go ice skating,” Eli said as we were sitting downstairs in the living room. The new weekend tradition is for Gloria to take Eli ice skating on Sundays. “It's going to be great! We can skate for two hours and maybe stay long enough to play broomball. And we can go by the pro shop and look at equipment, and get my skates sharpened.” This pro-skating soliloquy went on for a while, then he paused. “But we don't have to go skating, Mom,” he said. “After all, it's YOUR day.”

Gloria burst out laughing.

We braved the holiday gauntlet to have brunch with my Mom. then Gloria and Eli skated for three hours, and Eli played broomball. A good time was had by all, including me, because I read and took a nap on the couch.

Eli has developed a curious affection for The Police's “Message In a Bottle,” although it's an analytical kind of affection. You may remember that he previously suggested “that guy should just build a boat,” and when he heard the song on Friday, he bobbed his head to the beat, then said, “That is a very unreliable way to send a message.”

We were watching the last few minutes of pomp before the running of the Preakness on Saturday, and they introduced a U.S. Naval Academy choir to sing something or other. Eli was only half listening, and he said “U.S. Nasal Academy? Do they have a college just to study noses?”

Of course they do. Otherwise, where would they be studied?

Gloria and I went out on Saturday evening for our wedding anniversary. When we came home, Eli handed us a bead chain he made with this note:

Whose son is this--Ben Ormand's?

It totally blew my mind. I'm not exaggerating when I say that I think I'm the luckiest father in the world.


This  is a problem:
MTV Games boss Scott Guthrie has indicated that he expects Green Day: Rock Band to sell more than The Beatles: Rock Band.

..."Our core audience of 16 to 34-year-old males are much more familiar with Green Day music than The Beatles."

"Green Day probably has a much higher awareness than perhaps The Beatles did."
First off, if Green Day outsells The Beatles, I'm going to stab myself. That's just a personal aside.
Second, this seems typical of MTV, setting up totally unrealistic sales expectations for any Rock Band product. They're releasing this as a $60 product, which is an incredibly unrealistic price point, and then, when the game doesn't sell to projections, they're going to blame Harmonix instead of their own ridiculous assumptions.
I like Green Day, and it's true that the core demographic is probably more familiar with the music than they were with the music of The Beatles, but The Beatles was a masterpiece of a game. That it didn't sell better is a hard truth about the state of the genre, not the music of The Beatles.
Given how the little plastic instrument genre has been doing in the last year, trying to release a full-price game for any band whose name doesn't begin with "L" is just stupid.

Travis Baldree Will Be Picking Up The Tab For A While

From Joystiq:
Perfect World, a China-based developer and publisher of several MMOs, revealed today it has acquired "a majority stake" in Runic Games for approximately $8.4 million. Runic is the studio that spawned from the ashes of Hellgate: London's Flagship Studios and is best-known for Torchlight, its single-player Diablo-inspired action-RPG.

Travis Baldree is an absolutely phenomenal designer. Fate was brilliant, Torchlight was brilliant, and it's great to see him (and everyone else at Runic) rewarded.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Console Post Of The Week: Addendum

I found some very interesting information looking at Sony's past fiscal year forecasts, and I'll share it with you on Monday.

Friday Links!

From Randy Graham, a terrific article about the history of fallout signs.

From Robert McMillon, a story about how Jupiter has lost a stripe.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, it's Titan's gem tumbler, a story about how flash flooding in the Xanadu region of Saturn's moon Titan has paved streambeds with "thousands of crystal balls of ice."

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a social network called Diaspora that doesn't act like Big Brother. Next, an article about a unique features of dams called bell-mouth spillways.

From Brad Ruminer, the entire Star Wars Trilogy, with LEGOs, in two minutes.

From Josh Eaves, and it's a classic, it's Russian Governor Claims He Was Abducted by Aliens.

From Malcolm Cox, a wonderful video of drumming legend Bernard Perdie playing at a drum clinic.

From Dirk Heinz, and I think I've linked to it before (but will do it again due to the sheer awesomeness), it's the A to Z of awesomeness.

From Sirius, and this is quite spectacular, it's Canada's eager beavers build world's largest dam. Next, it's A Single Molecule Computers Thousands of Times Faster Than Your PC. Finally, and there are some epic pictures in this, it's 15 Agonizing Automotive Atrocities.

From Andrew B, and this is a fantastic image, it's Shipwreck Of The Eduard Bohlen.

From DQ Fitness Advisor Doug Walsh, a story about the first human-powered winter circumnavigation of Lake Baikal. Freaking amazing.

From Steven Davis, a stunning gallery of images from The Seed Cathedral. Seriously, some of these pictures are just incredible.

From Brad Ruminer, a cave house built by a cow. Well, sort of, and here's more, with a few additional images.

Here's a bizarre article from Hippo: the Soviets used nuclear weapons to stop uncontrolled oil leaks from drilling rigs. Here's the Google translation of the original article (which was in Russian).

Thursday, May 13, 2010

A Product Of Staggering Brilliance

Surely, this must be the greatest product name ever:
Escentials Micro Sherpa Aromatherapy Memory Foam Slippers

Yes, at long last, tiny sherpas and aromatherapy have joined forces to misspell "essentials."

April NPD

Wii: 277,200

Xbox 360: 185,000
PlayStation 3: 180,800

Analysis next week.

Just Dance (on sale)

Just Dance is on sale at Amazon for $22.54. At $40, I wouldn't recommend it as a purchase in terms of value, but for $22, I definitely would.

See previous video of Eli 8.9 dancing for a review.

Console Post Of The Week: Different Perspectives

Sony announced their fiscal year earnings and also their forecast for the new fiscal year today.

Before I continue, let me warn you that I'm going to present you with an analysis that no one else is presenting. That means I'm either ahead of the curve or blind as a bat, and I will freely admit that it may well be the latter. I'm seeing some things between the lines, though, that I think are interesting.

Here's slide from Sony's earnings presentation to get us started:

Quick comparisons with FY08:
PS3 hardware: +29%
PS2 hardware: -7.5%
PSP hardware: -29.7%
PS3 software: +11.4%
PS2 software: -57.2%
PSP software: -11.7%

That's not a healthy picture. Even worse, the FY10 projections are dismal, compared to FY09 results:
PS3 hardware: +15.3%
PS2 hardware: -17.8%
PSP hardware: -19.2%
PS3 software: +0%
PS2 software: -+0%
PSP software: -+0%

So software units are projected to stay flat, but in hardware, only the PS3 is projected to grow, and only by 15%.

In other words, no PS3 price cut this year. Forget it. We're going to hit the four-year anniversary of the PS3 launch this fall, and the system will still be priced at the launch price of the PS2.

Sony also appears to be engaged in magical thinking. Let me get this straight: PS2 software sales declined by 57% last year, but this year they're going to suddenly stabilize? Really?

One of Sony's problems, and it's been on the horizon for years, is that PS2 software sales have declined much more quickly than PS3 sales have increased. Combined software sales dropped from 187 million to 151 million units, and with PS3 software sales projected to be flat, that's not going to improve.

Clearly, the gaming division is not in a profitable environment right now. It's difficult to get exact numbers, because Sony has lumped gaming in with PC's and digital music players, but the umbrella unit--Networked Products & Services--lost 83.1 billion yen in the last quarter.

So Sony's game business is struggling. Big deal--we all knew that already. Far more interesting, though, are some hints that Sony sprinkled into their forecast for the new fiscal year.

Take a look at one more slide:

Sony just laid out their entire FY10 strategy for us.

Look at those numbers in terms of forecast change from the previous year:
LCD TV's: +60.2%
Video cameras: +0%
Compact digital cameras: +9.5%
Blu-ray recorders: +14%
Blu-ray disc players: +66.7
DVD players: -4.3%
PCs: +29.4%
Digital music players: -8.75%
PS3 Hardware: +15.3%
PS2 Hardware: -17.8%
PSP Hardware: -19.2%
Playstation software: +0%

That couldn't be more obvious: Sony doesn't give two shits about anything but LCD TVs this year. That is a gargantuan projected increase.

Well, and PCs, to a much lesser degree--they're projected to increase almost 30%. But that's only half the projected percentage increase for LCD television sales.

Note: yes, I see the projected increase for Blu-ray players, but that's off a miniscule base. We're talking about almost ten million additional televisions being sold in this fiscal year.

Sony isn't abandoning the PS3, but they're not pushing it either, projecting only 15% hardware growth and flat software sales. Gaming used to print money for Sony, but there hasn't been a profitable quarter for what--four years now? Sony used to shout that the PS3 was the future of the company, but those days are long gone--Sony couldn't afford that future.

What they're pushing, instead, are LCD televisions, and with that kind of forecasted increase in sales, get readly to be deluged with advertising for Sony televisions. That's where the lion's share of the advertising and promotions are going to go this year.

Welcome to the new future.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Electronics Arts: The WTFening

Electronic Arts announced its fiscal year 2010 earnings yesterday. Let's take a look:
GAAP net revenue for the fiscal year ended March 31, 2010 was $3.654 billion as compared with $4.212 billion for the prior year...GAAP net loss for the year was $677 million as compared with a net loss of $1.088 billion for the prior year.

In other words, revenue down 13.2% for the fiscal year, but losses cut by 37.7%.

2008? $3.66 billion in revenue with losses of $454 million.

2007? $3.09 billion in revenue with profits of $76 million.

One more. In 2006, $2.95 billion in revenue with profits of $236 million.

Oh, what the hell--in 2005, $3.12 billion in revenue with profits of $504 million.

In 2004, $2.95 billion in revenue with profits of $577 million.

Here's a handy chart (amounts in billions):

In the last three years, EA has lost over $2 billion. If that graph were a short story, it would be Stephen King's "Survivor Type".

EA did make $30 million in the last quarter, but their projections for fiscal year 2011 seem relatively dismal: beween $3.35-$3.60 billion in revenue, with losses of $279-$378 million.

So after cutting staff by 26% in the last year, and cutting the number of titles 50% over a two-year period (see previous post here), they're still projecting a loss in the $300 million plus range?

I don't know what's going to happen to Electronic Arts, but more to the point, anyone who says they do know is lying. There are too many variables, and too many different ways this could play out.

Here's something that probably isn't an unknown variable, though. My #1 suspicion for the upcoming fiscal year? More employee cuts, and not just a few.

In the conference call, John Riccitiello had this gem:
...CEO John Riccitiello stressed the company's objective to publish the number one shooter.

"We're not going to be happy until we've taken the leadership back in the first person shooter category," said Riccitiello.

This is known as the Their Game Sold A Shitload Of Copies, So Let's Make The Same Game But Better strategy.

This strategy is frequently unsuccessful.


In the first round of the NHL playoffs, I was fortunate to witness the single greatest goaltending performance I've ever seen: Montreal's Jaroslav Halak's 53-save masterpiece against the Washington Capitals in Game Six.

I've never seen so many shots, by so many great players, coming without pause. Halak had perfect positioning on every one, and even then, he had to stand on his head for at least twenty absolutely spectacular saves. It's one of those performances in sport that's so brilliant it gives you chills.

Tonight (6 p.m. CST, on Versus), the Canadiens play the Pittsburgh Penguins (our favorite team) in Game Seven of the Conference Semi-finals, and even though Eli 8.9 is a huge Penguins fan, we've already committed ourselves to root for the Canadiens in the next round if they win tonight. I don't think I've ever seen a team play harder on a second-to-second basis than the Canadians do.

If you want to get a taste of what hockey is all about, watch this game.

Hockey has actually ruined the NBA for me. We've watched at least one hockey game a night (often two) since the playoffs started, and they've been better this year than ever. The intensity and excitement level has never been better.

I've tried to watch NBA games several times since the playoffs started, but I just can't do it--within ten minutes, I'm bored to death. There are so many interruptions to the flow of play that it seems like an incredibly disjointed game compared to hockey, and while I always knew that, it seems totally glaring this year. There are some tremendously compelling storylines in the NBA playoffs this year (LeBron trying to lead Cleveland to a title, badass Steve Nash playing with one eye swollen shut--and winning--against San Antonio), but it's hard to get involved.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Educating Our Youth

After my first workout at the gym on day one of Broken Wrist Boot Camp (please note: this is a satirical title), I stopped on the way home to pick up some lunch.

The guy at the counter was a fresh-faced kid, in his early twenties (or younger). As I ordered, I added an item right at the end, but he didn't hear me. I repeated myself, and he said, shrugging, "Sorry--I have selective hearing sometimes."

"If you're married, that could come in handy," I said. Standard guy marriage humor.

"Oh, I'm not married," he said, "but I know all about it. I almost got married twice."

"That's like saying you almost got shot," I said.

The Dude

We had breakfast at McDonald's on Saturday morning, and while we were there, a guy walked up to the counter.

He was about 5'6" and rail-thin--I doubt he weighed more than 120 pounds. He had long blonde hair, down past his shoulders, and big-ass meatchop sideburns. He wore wheat-colored work boots.

That wasn't all he wore, obviously, but it's what stood out, because the boots were clearly new.

His demeanor wasn't alarming, necessarily, but something just seemed off. He was, in a word, jittery.

On his belt, he had what initially looked like an employee I.D. badge. It was that size, at least. What it was, though, was a laminated picture of Bombshell McGee.

There is no place in my mental filing cabinet for this image. He is entirely outside the known universe.

Why Just Dance Has Sold Over 2 Million Copies

You may need to turn up the volume a bit to hear the song ("Who Let The Dogs Out?"), but I think this is all the explanation you need:

And by the way, I don't think the game gives you that much content (30+ songs), and there's no career mode or anything, but as a rental, it's solid gold (so to speak).

Monday, May 10, 2010

Repetitive, And Brutal (Please Note: I Am Not Referring To This Blog)

Sometimes I read something about the past that's so fantastically strange it seems like it's referring to another universe.

Today's find:
In 1872, the British government and the Royal Society launched the first major oceanic expedition, transforming a two-hundred-and-twenty-six-foot naval warship into a floating laboratory...the ship, with five scientists, roamed the globe for thee and a half years. The crew was constantly dredging the ocean floor for specimens, and the work was repetitive, and brutal; two men went insane, two others drowned, and another committed suicide.

That passage is from The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, which I'll tell you more about later this week.

The Last Post About This, Seemingly

This kind of thing is happening so often now that I'm going to stop noting it (after this post), because it's no longer news:
Starting with Tiger Woods PGA Tour 11, out June 8, EA Sports games for PS3 and Xbox 360 will include a title-specific "Online Pass" that enables access to "online services, features, and bonus content." If the code has already been redeemed (i.e. if you bought the game used) additional Online Passes will be available for (you guessed it!) ten dollars. Each game will include a seven-day free trial.

The online services under the Online Pass vary by game, but an EA rep told us they can include basic online multiplayer, as well as group/league features, roster and playbook updates, downloads of user-created content (like Photo Game Faces) and tournament support.
So what's in it for us? Nothing. Actually, it's worse than nothing--it's negative, because it reduces the value of a used copy without any corresponding decrease in the price of a new one.

Negative change in value to the consumer. Also no longer news. Let me just say this, though: increasingly, it seems like big gaming companies are treating us as adversaries instead of customers, and that is dangerous business, indeed.


Okay, so as it turns out, I did break a bone in my wrist.

It could be much worse. Like I said to Eli 8.9, I have lots of bones in my wrist, and I only broke one. Plus, it's not even a bad break,and I should be good to go in 4 to 6 weeks (I'm hoping for sooner).

This means more posts written with voice-recognition, although I'm hoping to improve my writing rhythm with a little bit more practice. Hopefully, this will be mostly transparent for you.

I have also rolled out the ridiculously named "Broken Wrist Boot Camp," with the goal of being in better shape when my wrist heals than I was when it broke.We'll see if I can keep that up.

I figured out that there's no reason I can't practice the gallop on "Can't Buy Me Love," because I play it with my right hand. So I even get to play a little Rock Band, albeit in practice mode only.

My goal: have more fun with a broken wrist than most people do without.

Buying Roadside Picnic

There are now officially about 100 places you can buy Roadside Picnic at a decent price. Thanks to all of you who sent in the following:
 Book Depository ($9.90, free shipping)
Abe Books ($9.21, $2.64 shipping in U.S.)
Powell's ($12.00, not sure about shipping)

Friday, May 07, 2010

Friday Links!

If your work filter has reclassified this blog as unsavory, melodramatic, prone to larval infestation, or otherwise unsuitable, remember that Google Reader can be your friend (aka "enabler").

From Kevin, a bizarre collection of banana commercials in Japan.If you ever wanted to see bananas squirt out of someone's nose, this is your lucky day.

Here's a terrific interview from the New York Times with "wheelchair adventurer" Matt Getze, who travels all over the world.

From Brian DeyErmand, a link to a remarkable Flash game: Super Mario Bros. Crossover. The genius of this game is that playable characters have been added (Samus from Metroid and Bill from Contra, for example), but these characters maintain their own powers and control schemes from their original game. It's a brilliant mash-up.

From Paul Weaver, and this is a doozy: scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory are trying to create a star. This article will blow your mind.

This is quite awesome: Neanderthal genes 'survive in us'. The teaser:
Many people alive today possess some Neanderthal ancestry, according to a landmark scientific study.

From George Paci, a look at the city of Oil Stones, built 25 miles off the coast of present-day Azerbaijan. It's quite incredible.

From Andrew B, a story worthy of the Three Stooges: Mercedes left dangling seven stories up after smashing through wall. Well done, Oklahoma!

From Nate Carpenter, a very touching story about a 13-year-old boy with cancer who wanted to be a superhero, and how the Make-A-Wish Foundation  made his dream come true.What makes this so utterly awesome is that literally hundreds of volunteers were involved, and it is as elaborate and detailed as the best alternate reality.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, a new product that is, incredibly, quite real: the Better Marriage Blanket. Keyword: farts.

From Sirius, a fantastic video that shows the transformation of a 300 square ft. apartment into 24 separate rooms. One room, actually, that can be  transformed by walls on wheels.This is quite incredible, and also quite striking. Also, a fascinating article about the invention of a brass horn with valves-- in 1815. Also, a fascinating look at Hugo Gernsback-- the man who foresaw science-fiction.

Here's a forgotten bit of history, along with some new information: The Real History Of John Dillinger And Henry Ford.

From Cliff Eyler, a story about a sniper's successful shot-- from a distance of a mile and a half.

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Not a Good Week

This has been a crap week for writing (even more crap than usual), because I have a very hard time finding a rhythm when I'm using voice recognition instead of typing on a keyboard. Hopefully, I'll be back to normal next week.  


This has been a big reading week, because with my wrist, I'm not using a game pad (although I did ride 3 miles today, but that's a different story).Here are a few books I think you might enjoy.

The first is a book that's quite difficult to find--Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Roadside Picnic. It's considered a science fiction classic, but I had never read it until prompted by Matthew Sakey's brilliant chapter on the S.T.A.L.K.E.R. series in a soon-to-be-published book. S.T.A.L.K.E.R. isn't entirely based on Roadside Picnic, but it melds phenomenological events in the book with Chernobyl as the source--an entirely brilliant mash-up.

This is a gripping, lean story, and the writing is both evocative and barren at the same time. It's easily one of my favorite science fiction stories ever, and I highly recommend it, even if you're not a fan of science fiction.

Now, the difficult part. The book is long out of print, and trying to find a copy via Amazon is problematic, because the cheapest edition is rarely available, and "collector's" editions often cost several hundred dollars. However, it's much more readily available via eBay--there are multiple listings for the edition I have that can be purchased for under $15.

Next is a wonderful book by Neil Gaiman, ostensibly written for children, titled The Graveyard Book. It's the story of a toddler who, through a series of tragic circumstances, is raised by the residents of a graveyard. It's also a beautiful piece of writing, very touching, and the world is richly rendered. After I finished reading it yesterday, I told Eli 8.9 about it, and he's starting on it today.

Oh, and while this book is allegedly written for older children, it's a great read for adults, too.

Now, an entirely ridiculous PS, thanks to Big Bosoms and Square Jaws: The Biography of Russ Meyer, King of the Sex Film. This was written by Jimmy McDonough (who wrote the Tammy Wynette biography I recently mentioned), and "rollicking" is the best single word I can think of to describe the book. I don't find the films of Russ Meyer particularly interesting, but his career, and the details of how he made his films, are absolutely fascinating. It's also a look back at pre-porn America, back when bare breasts were controversial, which is fascinating in its own right.

Meyer is quite a character, both magnetic and repulsive, and often at the same time. It's an unforgettable book, with plenty of laugh out loud moments. If you want to read something a bit off the beaten track, try this.

The Next Empire

There's an entirely fascinating article in The Atlantic this month titled The Next Empire, and it explores China's investment in Africa. Here's the intro: All across Africa, new tracks are being laid, highways built,ports deepened, commercial contracts signed—all on an unprecedented scale, and led by China, whose appetite for commodities seems insatiable. Do China’s grand designs promise the transformation,at last, of a star-crossed continent? Or merely its exploitation?

I had no idea this was going on, but it's of particular interest to me because I've done a decent amount of reading about the colonialization of Africa in the 19th and 20th centuries. Here's more:
All across the continent, Chinese companies are signing deals that dwarf the old railroad project. The most heavily reported involve oil production; since the turn of the millennium, Chinese companies have muscled in on lucrative oil markets in places like Angola, Nigeria, Algeria, and Sudan. But oil is neither the largest nor the fastest-growing part of the story. Chinese firms are striking giant mining deals in places like Zambia and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and building what is being touted as the world’s largest iron mine in Gabon. They are prospecting for land on which to build huge agribusinesses. And to get these minerals and crops to market, they are building major new ports and thousands of miles of highway.

It's quite difficult to establish whether this is a partnership or a more sophisticated form of exploitation of Africa's resources--or both. The long-term outcome, though, will have a huge impact on the world. If you're interested in world history, or the future, this is absolutely a must-read article.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010


"So you remember that I was going to ask Tom and Brenda if they could go to dinner with us?"

"Um, what?" That's my go-to phrase when I have no idea what Gloria is talking about.

"Dinner," she said. "We talked about it last week."

"Oh, right," I said.That's my follow-up go-to phrase.

"We're going out on Saturday," she said.

"Just the four of us, right?" I asked. To me, more than four people equals a mob.

"Yes," she said. "You know, I used to think that it would be fun to invite people who didn't know each other but were friends of mine, because I thought they would all like each other. It never seemed to work out that way, though."

"Of course it didn't work out that way," I said. "That's a code violation."


"Men don't want surprises," I said. "We actively prevent them."

She laughed.

"If men are involved, the only acceptable surprise guests are children from the Make-A-Wish foundation," I said.

Drumsticks and Rock Band

I haven't played for a few days, because of my wrist, but before that spectacularly embarrassing accident last weekend, I made a discovery that might be of use to you.

The biggest issue I have on the more difficult Rock Band songs is speed. Even with complicated beats, I can usually play them with near 100% accuracy at 80% speed in practice mode. At full speed, however, I get roasted- my hands just can't move quickly enough.

A few weeks ago, I was browsing through the drum shop before my lesson, looking at drumsticks. At one point, I had tried a lighter stick (5A instead of 5B, both Zildjian Anti-Vibe), but with no real improvement over time.

A slight tangent: if you're wondering about drumstick nomenclature, here's a brief explanation. Drumsticks are usually designated with a number, then a letter. The number refers to the circumference of the stick (not an exact measurement, just a relative scale), and generally, the higher the number, the smaller the circumference. The letter designation refers to the type of music the stick is designed for, and again, there are weight implications (S is heaviest, B sticks are in the middle, and A sticks are the lightest).

There needs to be this tremendous variety in stick size because the different sizes produce very different sounds and tones, and at very different volumes. It's incredible how many different sounds can be created on a drum kit, and the stick type plays a large role in this.

Playing Rock Band, though, you're not producing a sound- you're hitting a trigger. So weight isn't a factor, as long as the drumstick can fire the trigger.

Tangent over.

So when I was in the drum shop, I saw a pair of drumsticks called Zildjian Aeros. They were extremely thin--probably half the circumference of the 5B's- and they weren't tapered.

As it turns out, these sticks are designed to play timbales, a shallow drum invented in Cuba. I didn't know that at the time, but they looked interesting and I bought a pair.

I tried them out that night, and I realized one thing immediately: they were fast. More specifically, because they were so light, I could play much faster than I ever had before. Songs where I had barely been able to keep up with the beat were now much easier to play, and songs that had been no-hopers were at least playable.

There was a corollary benefit, too. I'd always assumed that my problem in some songs was my foot,but when my hands were on top of the beat instead of behind it, my foot suddenly became much more accurate.

Oh, and one more corollary benefit: they're much quieter than a regular stick as well. So if you want to play faster, or just more quietly, you might check them out. Here's a purchase link.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Frozen Synapse

My wrist is interfering, but I'm hoping to have impressions of the multiplayer beta of Frozen Synapse written up within the next few days. DQ reader Ian Hardingham has kindly consented to answer questions, so that will hopefully be part of the package as well.

If you haven't heard of Frozen Synapse, it's a simultaneous-turn-based tactical game, and here's a description:
Matches take place between two players.

Each player is dealt a "hand" of units, which have different capabilities, weapons and ranges. Both players must then evalaute their units and the terrain, and make a plan to defeat their opponent.

When both players have submitted their plan, both plans play out together and the outcome is revealed.

There are no health bars; units are killed by one good shot from an enemy. The game is about pure tactics and outwitting your opponent, rather than ploughing through a resource tree or memorising dull attack patterns.

There will be a single player campaign as well, but the multiplayer beta is the kickoff. Oh, and if you're wondering about PBEM, it's possible to set up a match, then leave the turn on the server for later pickup by your opponent.

It's an incredibly striking game visually, and I think Ian really has something going here.

The Humble Indie Bundle

Here's quite a deal: Game|Life is reporting that the Humble Indie Bundle is now available, which includes the following games:
World of Goo
Penumbra: Overture

That's an outstanding bundle, and even better, you get to choose your own price. Plus, and this is even more outstanding,you can designate a percentage of the purchase price to go to Child's Play or the EFF,with the remainder going to the developers.  

There are several excellent games in the group, you choose your own price, there's no DRM, and you can designate some of the purchase price for charity.That just can't be beat.

Football (p.s.)

Miles sent me this e-mail:
It's common practice for NFL teams to ask prospective players to sign waivers that allow them to conduct "personality tests" and such that pretty much mean they can ask whatever they want.

That makes sense, from a liability perspective, and it answers my question about federal law and interview content, but this entire series of events still blows my mind. Unless you're applying for a job that requires national security clearance (the F.B.I. or C.I.A., for example), how in the world is the type of questioning Dez Bryant was subjected to relevant to his job performance? It's a ball, a field, and a scoreboard, not the future of the free world (although the way most NFL executives act, you would think the future of the free world was at stake). 

It was very amusing that two "anonymous" sources floated an alleged line of questioning last week that supposedly led to Ireland's question.Why, it was entirely natural, said the sources. Of course, the NFL is not exactly the early apology league, and if that really is what had happened, Ireland would've said that when the story first broke.

Unfortunately, the NFL is like sausage--you may enjoy eating it, but you don't ever want to see how it's made.

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