Thursday, December 13, 2007

Never been a big fan of toast

Don't get me wrong, I'll eat it if someone makes it for me or it comes as a side dish for breakfast at a restaurant, but who needs the hassle of making toast at home?

I hope this isn't some indication of a deeply-repressed negative toast experience early in my life.

But really, who wants the hassle of monitoring the burn rate of a piece of bread just to have the perfect crispy bread-surface crushed by a distorted, cold rectangle of butter? I reject such toast-torture!

And the toaster itself, what an infernal toasty-crumb-making machine it is! Just when you think you've finished cleaning the countertop after the CIA-inspired butterboarding, the toasty bits make their escape as their steel-encased crumb womb is pushed back against the splash board.

I have even seen the case against toast made in a medical journal! Aside from it's general hassle of preparation, witness the "pernicious activity of toast!"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Rock Band lives up to the hype

Last weekend I got together at my buddy Chad's house with a bunch of friends and played Rock Band all evening. We had at least 8 or 9 people, so we all rotated and each had a turn at playing guitar, bass, drums and singing. Playing bass or guitar is virtually identical to the Guitar Hero series, but the addition of drums and vocals take Rock Band to another level, and when you have everyone in the same room, and those not playing at that moment are your "audience," this game really comes into its own and is the best party game out there.

The drums were challenging, but very doable on the easy setting and it was not difficult to make it through an entire song. Of course some songs are harder than others. I enjoyed the drums much more than I thought I would. There's lots of opportunities to do your own custom fills and as long as you hit a final cymbal crash and get back to the song without missing a beat (hah!) you get points for it.

Even the vocals were fun to do. The mic is "on" throughout the entire song, even before the instrument tracks begin, so you can improvise or say concert phrases like "How's everybody doin' tonight? Are you ready to get caraaayzaaay?" etc. The vocals are doable too. Apparently you can hit the notes either right on or an octave above or below, so vocal range isn't really an
issue. It's strange having to hit the note, sing the lyrics (I don't think it measures lyrical accuracy) and manage your breath so you don't run out of sound on a long phrase.

I thought the Rock Band Stratocaster guitar was cool, too. It takes a little getting used to because unlike the Guitar Hero guitars, the fret buttons extend the width of the fretboard, meaning you can't really grab tightly all the way around the neck when hitting notes because you'll press other buttons down. From the pictures I had seen I thought the fret buttons were hinged at the bottom and you would be pressing them at the "top" of the fret, but the entire fret is a button. If you prefer the Guitar Hero guitar, with the Xbox 360 version the Guitar Hero II Explorer and newer Guitar Hero III Les Paul wireless guitars will work with Rock Band.

The song selection is excellent also, with a good variety of difficulty levels for the various instruments. Also, each instrument can be played at its own difficulty level in the same song, so less experienced players can still have fun playing with experts. Chad had bought the song pack for The Police, which was awesome. Actual original tracks, not covers of "Can't Stand Losing You," "Synchronicity II," and "Roxanne." Synchronicity II was the best, especially for drums, though they are all great to play. I also played drums on Metallica's "Enter Sandman" and it was a blast.

The game becomes quite loud with four people getting into it and the "audience" (those not playing that song) yelling or laughing too, so you almost need a standalone house to play it, where noise is not an issue with neighbors. At the moment the game comes as a complete package for about $170, but if you consider you're receiving a game with three instruments (one guitar, mic, drums) it's not a bad deal. If you can easily get a group of friends together to play it's definitely a lot of fun.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Gaming: playing to win or playing to see

I like the way Gabe put that approach to gaming in his post today (second post on the page). He crystallized what Tycho brought up (first post on the same page, 3rd para.) about the range of reasons people play games.

Some people want the challenge, they just want to beat the game like any other competition. The other end of this spectrum is that some people want to progress through the game in order to see what happens next. I suppose this could be a desire to complete a story or simply, as Gabe put it, to see the next level or next cool animation.

Most of the time I'm in the latter, "playing to see" group. I like to win for sure, but revealing the game's story or seeing something particularly creative or cool is more motivating for me than just passing the next checkpoint. I have to say, though, that the Xbox 360's achievements make it really easy to add in more of that competitive spirit to gaming.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Geek factor +10

I've always enjoyed the original Star Trek episodes. The cheesy special effects, William Shatner's overacting and kissing of alien life forms, and the predictable deaths of no-name ensigns who go down to the planet with the main characters is simply fun to watch.

Last night I went to see the theatrical release of the original two-part TV episode, "The Menagerie" from 1966. This episode has the famous Captain Pike, original Captain of the Enterprise, who through a "space accident" was relegated to sitting in a rolling box only able to communicate by blinking a light once for "yes" and twice for "no." Portions of this episode have been spoofed by various TV shows and cartoons.

Everything had been digitally remastered from the original film, new visual effects had been added and the famous Star Trek theme had even been newly recorded using the original score sheets.

There was a nice short documentary at the beginning, hosted by Eugene Roddenberry, Gene Roddenberry's son, that showed the remastering, cleanup and production process. The newly digitized film was remarkably clear and the new visual effects were noticeable (spacecraft, planets and stars) but not distracting. Actually the new effects contributed to the suspension of disbelief since the appearance was what viewers have come to expect in science fiction and it wasn't so obvious this was made in the 1960s.

The showing was done in high definition, but was in the original TV format of 4:3, so no extra widescreen real estate. It appeared that the theater projected it directly from a computer, as evidenced by the Windows task bar, including the "Start" button in the lower left corner, appearing below the movie screen after the end credits rolled and the lights were raised.

The entire first season will be released this month on HD-DVD/DVD combo discs and the second season will be out in 2008, all remastered in the same way this theatrical release was.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Online storage solution that's easy and inexpensive

Quick quiz -- would you rather pay $200+ for an external hard drive and backup software or $0.15 per GB-month of storage used and $20 for a front-end backup application?

Hmmm... not quite as snappy as I'd initially envisioned, but it should get the point across that online file backup can now be a reasonable solution, particularly because that external hard drive is just as vulnerable to wear-and-tear, floods, fire and destruction as the PC you are backing up with it. Same goes for CD and DVD ROMs.

Sometimes I stray from my gaming-related newsfeeds and find something applicable to the realm of work. I've been meaning to find a way to backup my work documents and ran across a recent post (hit ctrl-f and search for "Amazon S3" to skip to the heading) on 43folders that spurred me to try an online solution.

The front-end application is called JungleDisk. It costs $20 after the free 30-day trial and provides an easy-to-use interface for Amazon's S3 web service, which is what actually stores the data. JungleDisk makes an otherwise consumer-unfriendly service meant for developers accessible and useful for everyday backup.

JungleDisk provides secure SSL connections to S3 as well as the option to separately encrypt documents before they are sent. Windows, Mac and Linux versions are available, as well as the source code. Since JungleDisk is merely the front-end to your S3 account, you can also run JungleDisk on any computer with Internet access and you'll have your files.

The S3 service provides off-site, decentralized, redundant and unlimited data storage.

Setting up JungleDisk was pretty easy. No configuration was required beyond the default settings other than telling it which directory I wanted to backup. The "disk" it creates shows up in your "My Network Places" folder on Windows. If you use Windows XP or Vista you can map the "disk" to a local drive letter. For the S3 account, you can either add it as a web service to your existing Amazon account or create a separate Amazon and corresponding S3 account.

As a test I backed up one of my entire directories of work docs, which was 17.3 MB of various Word, WordPerfect, Adobe and OpenDocument files. It took 2 to 3 minutes to upload everything and there were no problems. I was able to check my S3 account activity immediately and it showed I would be billed a whopping $0.04 on December 1 for the storage and transfer.

JungleDisk can automatically backup particular files or directories about as frequently as anyone could want. I'm going to give this a try for awhile and see how it goes. I certainly feel better now that important documents are safely backed up.

Possible clan names - inspired by todolistblog

This post immediately reminded me of my brainstorming session to come up with a clan name in Halo 2 for my group of buddies. I dug up my notes from back in 2004, saved no doubt because of some brilliant naming nuggets which I will now reveal to the world:We ended up going with Lemming Army. Incidentally, my buddy Shawn and I extended the exalted lineage of "Lemming Army" by using it as our team name when we captured third place in the Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory tournament at PAX 2005.

The funniest ones to me have either the word "biscuit" or "ferret" in them.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Beer Advocate goodness

I've been a fan of Michael Jackson, the Beer Hunter, for a number of years. His encyclopedic knowledge of beers and whiskeys has helped to more fully enjoy those beverages and explore new choices.

So when I saw the October issue of Beer Advocate I had to order it (you can order individual issues through the web site). The portrait on the cover is very much an iconic image of Jackson, so I thought it'd be cool to have. I had never read the magazine before, and turns out it's very well written with a lot of interesting stories about beer, brewing, beer history and beer reviews.

An unexpected bonus accompanied my issue -- a thin neoprene beer sock with rubber non-slip bottom! Very cool.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Fair Trade Day at the Sac Food Co-op

This past Saturday was Fair Trade Day, so I thought I'd stop by, do my part, and pick up a few things. Buying local and "fair trade" items feels pretty good and the Sac Food Co-op on Alhambra & S is the best place to do that here in Sac-town:
Check out my bounty:The squash, eggplant and fruit were all locally grown in the Sacramento valley. The beer is Drake's IPA, brewed in San Leandro, CA, a gold medal winner at the 2002 Great American Beer festival. Extra hops make for a nice bitterness and beautiful golden-red color. A couple of fair trade coffees also, a Dark Costa Rican Monteverde from Caffe Ibis in Utah and a French roast from Alter Eco in San Francisco.

I also picked up a delicious chocolate bar from Alter Eco that is a blend of Swiss milk chocolate and South American coffee beans. There's also some brown rice and Annie's worcestershire sauce in the picture, but those aren't too exciting even though worcestershire sauce might be my favorite flavoring for any meat dish.

The co-op also had a few tasting booths set up and I tried some other chocolates and a natural energy drink. The usual demonstration area was also open with a freshly made salad and dressing. Quite a different experience from the typical grocery store.

I also picked up a new canvas shopping bag in the spirit of the day, and even it is made with organic cotton and classified as "fair trade:"Love the co-op.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007

I could get used to this...

Today I participated in BMW's annual Ultimate Drive for Susan G. Komen for the Cure event. What they do is take a caravan of current model year BMWs across the country to various BMW dealerships and then donate $1 for each mile that people drive these cars at each stop. The money goes toward breast cancer research, education, screening and treatment programs.

Participants can also put their signatures on one of the cars that travels with the group so that by the end of the trip the entire vehicle is covered:At the BMW dealership in Roseville, there was a 15-mile loop that had some nice uncrowded roads as well as a leg of freeway driving to open things up a bit. I drove three cars, the Z4 Roadster 3.0i, 650Ci Coupe and 650Ci Convertible. The Coupe was my favorite:
Unsurprisingly, these cars were amazing and truly fun to drive. BMW's craftsmanship is impeccable and the cars are so responsive you really feel connected to the road. This is about as far-removed from a "Cadillac boat" as you can get.

The Z4 is a bit small for me, but was still a blast to drive, especially with the F1-style shifter paddles on the steering wheel. The 650s are just pure fantasy -- the Coupe starts at $75,600 and the convertible is over $80,000 so I'm under no illusion that I'll have one of these anytime soon, but wow, verrrry nice. The convertible has a great heads-up display that projects your speed onto the windshield so you don't have to take your eyes off of the road.

BMW also offers Sirius satellite radio in its new cars and both of the 650 models I drove had it. No "Howard 100" unfortunately, but most of the music channels were available.

I ran into my buddy Chad there, too:The tour is heading to the Bay Area next, so if any readers out there can make it, I highly recommend this event. The only cost is your time and the event raises money for a worthwhile cause. You can either register ahead of time on the web site or sign up once you arrive at the dealership.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Blogger's word verification for comments appears to be down

[UPDATE 10/6 -- word verification appears to be working again. Comment moderation is now off.]

The word verification aspect ("captchas" which require human intervention to recognize and then type distorted words from an image) of posting comments appears to be down at the moment, which makes it impossible for visitors to post comments. For this reason I turned that feature off but enabled comment moderation, which means I'll need to approve any comments before they are posted.

Hopefully this will be short-term and if anyone has wanted to comment lately but couldn't, please try again.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

"Better Shredding" in Wired

I've managed to do it again -- my rant about Wired's "How To" piece (scroll about halfway down to the picture of the black and red "Guitar Hero" guitar) on how to Rock at Guitar Hero was published (scroll down to "Better Shredding") this month. The advice the article gave was good, but didn't talk about a technique to use that will help you to actually hit more notes even after you've learned all of the basics.

My new mini-bio is "Two-time globally published author/ranter."

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Caught on camera, in the wild

I saw this yesterday. Nothing says "classy" like a set of chrome testicles hanging from your trailer hitch:

Nice work, sir. Like we couldn't already tell how manly you are by your huge truck.

All of Sacramento is so proud.

Online comic Achewood shows the logical extreme of such things.

Game on!

[UPDATE: added info on motherboard & heatsink]

She's a real beaut -- manufactured July 19, 2007 with the Zephyr motherboard and an HDMI port:

I haven't been able to get a good picture through the ventilation grill to see if I have the new heatsink, but I believe all new Zephyr motherboards have it.

For the record, my very first contact was with an old Live friend, Inbound Orb, who sent me a message before I could even finish configuring my 360 profile.

See you all on the Halo 3 battlefield, co-op campaign and multiplayer.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Pat Monahan performs brilliantly on Stern ... again

I only caught about the last half of Howard's interview on today's show with Pat and his solo bandmates (not Train), but I was lucky enough to catch Pat's performances of his new single, "Her Eyes," as well as Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love" and Stevie Wonder's "Superstition."

In a word, wow. This guy can sing. His original song was great, and he's a dead ringer for Robert Plant in the vocal department on Zeppelin covers, hitting all of the high notes and picking out the vocal accents that are a signature of Plant's. "Superstition" was good too -- his new band really nails the songs.

I found this when searching for info on "Superstition." It's a great performance of the song by Wonder on Sesame Street. I'm guessing mid-1970's. Watch for the kids dancing, especially the kid behind the band who shakes his mop of hair around, really getting into it. Great stuff.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Stallman, Lessig, Karl and Me


On Monday I trekked down to Palo Alto and Stanford Law School to hear Richard Stallman speak about the General Public License version 3. Though I missed the first 20 minutes due to south bay area traffic & construction as well as construction on the campus, I heard many of the salient points he addressed like software patents, "Tivoization," Digital Rights Management, and the GPLv3's compatibility with other free software licenses such as the Apache license.

Much as I expected, Stallman was a passionate, almost strident, supporter of software freedom who tends toward the melodromatic, as he described, because that his how he feels about freedom. This is why Stallman and the Free Software Foundation are so important to the free software movement. Their position is uncompromising and one that polarizes. Yes, it is extreme in the sense of "live free or die," but without such extremes change would be slow, difficult or nonexistent.

I think of this polarizing catalytic effect by analogizing to the concept of an "absolute zero" temperature. The theoretical temperature of "absolute zero" is the coldest temperature possible. I think of rms and the FSF's philosophy about software freedom as the theoretical "absolute zero" temperature of truly free software, always pulling heat away from proprietary software. The reason it is good they are in that position is that if they were not so extreme ("absolute") the movement away from proprietary ("hot") software toward true freedom in software would happen more slowly or not at all.

Even though Stallman objects to the use of the term "open source" (he corrected me and others more than once when we used it) to describe the type of software that embraces these principles of freedom, that term is widely used and has been standardized and adopted by many in the software industry and business community. Some use the acronym "FOSS" (Free and Open Source Software) to describe this type of software. I tend to lean toward using "open source," mainly because it is what many people recognize as being different from proprietary closed-source programs, so while I recognize the distinction between "free software" and "open source," apologies to rms on the use.

Larry Lessig

I had hoped to see Larry Lessig on campus also, as he is one of my most-admired authors on subjects related to law and the Internet. Indeed, he was at Stallman's presentation and graciously signed my original hardcover 1999 edition of the first book of his I ever read, Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.

In addition to being an author and law professor, he maintains a blog which discusses relevant and interesting issues on many topics. He also helped found the now-ubiquitous Creative Commons, which offers a common-sense balance of copyright license options for artists and their creative works. He's also done a few other things like found Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society, clerk for a U.S. Supreme Court Justice (Scalia) and argue a critically important copyright case before the U.S. Supreme Court (Eldred v. Ashcroft). More interesting details are in this 2002 profile in Wired magazine.

Brandy Karl

Last but certainly not least, I was able to meet Brandy Karl, attorney and blogger, whom I met online after discovering her blog a number of years ago. Before taking a position as a Residential Fellow at Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet & Society (one of the coolest job titles ever) she was a copyright attorney in Boston, MA. She also used to write for when she was a law student. In fact I think I found her blog after reading this piece about her transformation from an anonymous "especially sharp law student" to full-fledged attorney with her own practice.

I found out about this talk by Stallman by spotting it on Brandy's public calendar.

The campus

If you've never been to Stanford's campus, it's a worthwhile visit just to take a walk around. The scenery and architecture is some of the most beautiful you will see.

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Crisp and cool

No alarm sounded and no sound disturbed my slumber.

I awoke, noticed the early light and remembered yesterday's wavering thought;

"I'm up, I'm up" I said and pulled on my clothes and splashed my face.

Outside my strongest awareness was the quiet;

And next the relief of the morning air.

Blood courses and muscles and tendons stretch;

As I now rest, I am glad for the early rise

and the crisp and cool of the early day.

Friday, August 31, 2007

Why PAX matters: it's about the community

PAX this year reminded me of the power of a community with shared experiences. The only other gaming conference I've attended is PAX 2005, so I can't say from direct knowledge that other gaming conferences don't generate the same feelings within their respective attendees, but I was truly moved during this conference at the open displays of passion for gaming and the refusal of those expressing such passion to be ashamed of gaming and of being gamers.

I missed Wil Wheaton's keynote address on Friday, but I listened to it later (nice written summary in addition to audio - occasional profanity, so be careful at work) and was pleasantly surprised at how similar his gaming history is to mine and by how well the audience responded to him. I wasn't aware Wil was such a gamer and I wasn't sure what he was going to talk about. As others have stated, Wil's speech set the tone for the entire event -- no matter what different types of games we play, we share the same passion and we are all gamers. Wil also stated the desire of most gamers and another theme of the convention, to thunderous applause, that people not be d!@ks (some profanity in linked comic) when playing online, despite the fact that you're not face-to-face with the recipient of your verbal comments.

I missed the keynote for a good reason -- I was gaming. One of my friends who also traveled to Seattle for PAX brought his Nintendo Wii along with Wii Sports and we played Thursday night and most of the day Friday. I had not yet played anything on the Wii and it was so intuitive, so much fun, and so great with four people in the room, that we couldn't get enough of it. Eventually several of us, me included, had to stop because we were sore. The rest of the weekend my entire arm, from shoulder to hand, ached as if I hadn't played sports in ... oh, right, I haven't. I doubt I'm coining a new phrase here, coming so late as I am to the Wii party, but I considered myself temporarily on the "Wii-njured" reserve list after the Wii marathon.Discussion Panels

In addition to what one might expect at a gaming conference like console tournaments, PC tournaments and an exhibition hall, the variety of discussion panels was staggering this year. Topics ranged from storytelling in games, to women in gaming, to how public relations teams approach the hardcore community, to what to do as an adult when life cuts into your gaming time, to politics in gaming and music in gaming. And that's just some of the over 40 separate discussion panels that were available. All of the panel members were people from the industry or people who were experts in whatever topic was being discussed, making the interaction that much more interesting and relevant. In addition to the panels, the founders and creators of Penny Arcade, Gabe and Tycho, did three separate Q&A sessions over the course of the weekend, one of which also included them creating the artwork for an actual strip that was published on Monday.

Music and Movies

Friday and Saturday nights also included musical performances by gaming-oriented bands. I did not attend these, but they are always packed. Most of the bands either recreate videogame music or sing about gaming and its culture, but a couple of the artists, notably the band Freezepop and singer Jonathan Coulton were less directly gaming-themed, but still appealed to the audience. Freezepop made appearances in both Guitar Hero I and II with a bonus song on each, and Coulton sings mostly about coding and geek-related themes.

Classic gaming- and geek-related movies also played in the evenings if you weren't into the musical acts. True classics like "The Wizard!," "The Last Starfighter," and "Tron" were among the offerings.

Tournament and Free Play

Countless tournaments were available to meet just about anyone's interest, whether it be tabletop games, handheld games, card games, PC games or console games. Additionally, there were all manner of "free play" opportunities where you check out a game and controllers with your friends and just go play.

One cool thing for handheld players was the handheld lounge. This was a large area covered with beanbags where people could just hang out and play their DSes or PSPs or whatever. There was also a distributed tournament system for handhelds created just for PAX that let people compete against each other for prizes without the need of a formalized tournament structure. This is one of those "extra-awesome" things that takes PAX beyond just being a regular gaming conference.

Even More

There was so much going on that made PAX just feel right it's difficult to convey it in writing. The Washington State Convention and Trade Center was just the right size, as many areas were often crowded, but the way things were laid out and organized one never felt "stuck" anywhere. All of the events and the overall structure of the event were oriented toward encouraging a community experience.

There was some sort of matching game going on that I never quite figured out, where PAX3rs (intentionally left that typo -- seemed appropriate) carried, hung, pinned or otherwise displayed a series of numbers that I assume they were trying to match with someone else's numbers for some sort of game or exchange [ahh... found some info on it at Wired - other great PAX pics there too]. The Sony booth was running a contest where one had to accomplish certain tasks within the convention center in the morning to obtain keys which you could then use in the afternoon to try to open a treasure chest with prizes inside.

All Together Now

All of these things encouraged a community experience, but what all of us already shared was a love of gaming. I don't think anyone would've taken the trouble to travel or even take the bus downtown, let alone fly from across the country, and pay for an entry pass if they didn't.

The full community experience hit home for me during the Omegathon finals. Most of the people in that auditorium had likely never met each other, yet each side of the auditorium cheered in unison when the player whose point of view was projected on the large screen to each respective side of the stage picked up a particularly deadly-looking weapon or when that weapon was used to cause the spectacular death of the other Omeganaut. There's something about the swell of a cheering crowd in response to the recognition of a shared belief or experience that is very moving. It was similar to the experience of watching a popular cult movie like Star Wars in a theater crowded with fans on opening night.

The twist to the Omegathon competition is that no one knows what the final game will be that will determine that year's overall winner until it begins. In past years it has been Pong, Combat or Tetris, classic retro games that anyone is sure to have had an experience with but which likely no one has recently played or practiced. When the Minibosses exploded from behind the stage curtains playing an electrified and distorted version of the Halo theme, it was incredible, and I wasn't quite sure whether this was an intro to some official announcement or just a great song before the introduction of the final game.This year Bungie had a hand in providing the final game: Halo 3 multiplayer. Bungie had said in a weekly update just prior to PAX that there would be an announcement about the Forge portion of Halo 3, which will allow players to customize maps with the placement of weapons, items and vehicles. Turns out the "announcement" was more of an exhibition of this new customization feature, as Tycho stated on Penny Arcade the Monday after the event:
This year, when Frankie offered up Bungie's full support of the event, we realized fairly quickly that we had a startling opportunity here ... Neither MNC Dover or Accolon were especially familiar with Halo, another statistical impossibility, but this might have been for the best - they were doing battle on never seen before maps, each of them tuned in Forge to have piles of big guns jammed into every crevice. To quote Bungie's Lukems, this was Halo: Hyper Fighting Edition. Accolon eventually took it, but our competitors definitely delivered the required spectacle.
So we watched as these warriors, MNC Dover and Accolon, battled on two new multiplayer maps nobody had seen with some new weapons never before seen in action -- the flamethrower, some sort of napalm-ish fire grenades, and a blinding flash-bomb grenade that seemed to blind and throw an opponent away, were among them.

Now Carry it Forward

Everyone who was in that room has an additional shared experience that reinforces the gaming community. Our social nature as human beings seems to me most strongly reinforced with physical, face-to-face gatherings, so the longer PAX continues and the more people who attend, the stronger the community will become.

The more unified gamers feel and actually are, the stronger we will be as a community in relation to other other non-gamer communities, like say, senators and representatives. This year PAX reportedly gathered 40,000 gamers over the course of the 3-day weekend. An event of that size that is peaceful, promotes gaming in a positive way, and deals with real and serious issues about the effects of gaming on society begins to be something that can't be ignored. PAX's participants and supporters begin to be a group worth listening to with valid issues that are worthy of being addressed outside of gaming's inner circle.

So let's continue to reach out beyond our Xbox Live headsets and PC keyboards every once in awhile to meet face-to-face and see and reinforce our common passion of gaming.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

PAX 2007 info coming soon

I hope to have my summary up this week.

It was a blast to be there, an incredible variety of discussion panels and things to do and see. I have my pics up on my flickr page. Gamerscoreblog has tons of great pics too. Monday's Penny Arcade has some videos up of the final Omegathon event, including the live performance of the Halo theme by the Minibosses -- gives me chills just watching it!

Sad beer and whisky news

As you may or may not have heard, Michael Jackson, famed beer and scotch whisky reviewer, died today. I have his books Ultimate Beer and Complete Guide to Single Malt Scotch.

Great reference works from a knowledgeable man. He will be missed.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Archival post -- Penny Arcade Expo (PAX) 2005

In anticipation of this week's glorious beginning of PAX 2007, I am reposting the full report of my visit to PAX 2005. The current host of my PAX 2005 article is going through a portal upgrade and the articles are currently down, so I thought I'd put the full text and pictures here.

From August 2005:

Penny Arcade Expo: The New Videogaming Mecca

I flew up to Seattle, WA last Thursday night to attend the Penny
Arcade Expo (PAX) 2005. The expo was actually in Bellevue, WA, took
place Friday afternoon through Sunday evening, and turned out to be
quite an event. I didn't know what to expect, yet somehow I was not
surprised by what was there. In short: tons o'geeks, consoles, PCs,
board games, arcade games, and plenty of good-spirited gameplay. The
focus was obviously on bringing people together to play games.

The full spectrum of gamers were present, from the casual puzzle game
player to the person who was in full character costume and had brought
his 4' x 4' custom-built and intricately detailed tabletop game board
with full complement of pewter characters to populate it. I don't mean
literally a board that just folds out, I mean a fully-realized 3D
landscape with trees, stone walls, altars, mountains and whatever else
was necessary for full immersion in the game. The cool thing was, even
with this wide range of different types of people, everyone got along,
was considerate and just plain nice.

It was the type of environment where everyone felt comfortable being
themselves and weren't embarrassed, for example, to cheer out loud
when one of the Omegathon contestants increased his Katamari ball past
another diameter milestone. If you're not familiar with what the
Omegathon is, this year it was a six round tournament, with a
different game each round, to test the stamina and skill of its
participants, or Omeganauts. A videogame sextathlon, if you will, that
took place over the course of the entire expo. The grand prize was a
classic gaming cornucopia consisting of every classic Nintendo NES
game and all of the hardware and accessories ever made for the system.

The layout

One floor was dedicated to "free console" play. Xbox, PS2 and GameCube
consoles were all available for play with nice plasma flatscreens
somewhere in the 40" range. You just checked out the game and
controllers and off you went. We played Mario Party 6 and Mario Kart:
Double Dash on the first day.

On this same floor is the Exhibition Hall, where sponsors set up their
various booths to show things off, and the Theatre, where seminars and
some tournament finals were held. At Nintendo's booth I saw the new
Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess in action, Nintendogs, and Mario
Kart for the DS.

Another floor was dedicated to several different types of gaming. Two
large rooms were used for tabletop gaming. These were places where
people could bring their boards and gear and just play. Some of this
stuff was pretty amazing when you consider the effort involved to
create the boards they used. The boards ranged from about 4' X 4' to
4' X 8' and often looked like a model train layout, but covered with
pewter characters, cards and various other paraphernalia which I did
not understand.

This same floor has another huge room dedicated to PC gaming. Players'
own rigs were welcome, and the neon light from countless case mods
bathed the room in a blue glow. Another large room was where the
console gaming tournaments happened.

This is where we played the Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory tournament on
Xbox, but more on that later.

Worth the price of admission

The best event I attended was the "Make Monday's strip with Gabe &
Tycho" seminar. Not only was it fascinating to have a window into part
of the creative process for the strip, the guys kept an auditorium
full of gamers entertained for an hour and a half. They were both up
on stage, Gabe at his PC with his desktop projected on two screens on
either side of the stage. Tycho did the initial typing of the comic's
dialog and then managed the Q&A session for the rest of the time.

You know a guy is a great writer when he can make an auditorium full
of people laugh out loud just by typing sentences on the screen. We
were then able to watch Gabe as he inked and colored the strip from
initial sketches he had done and scanned in earlier. Gabe uses a large
pressure-sensitive touchpad and pen to create the comic and finished
the final art during this seminar that became Monday's comic.

The competition

Sunday morning my friend Shawn and I played in the Splinter Cell:
Chaos Theory tournament. There were 16 teams of two, and each player
had his own flatscreen TV. That's me below.

The luck of the draw went our way the first round. There were two
teams that consisted of a pair of single walk-ons who had never met or
played with each other before, which left them at a distinct
disadvantage as far as communication and strategy went. We were
matched against one of those teams and pretty handily defeated them.
The second round was against a good team, but we played the map called
"Factory," which a lot of players on Live don't like to play because
of its large size and layout. These guys didn't appear to like it too
much, but it happens to be one of our favorites, so we also won the
second round.

The third round was against the team that eventually won the whole
tournament, so we didn't feel so bad about losing. It was a decisive
loss, by the way. They smeared us all over that "River Mall" level.
All we really wanted to do was make it past the first round, so
everything beyond that was gravy. We came in third place overall and
actually won the equivalent of $25! With our winnings we picked up a
copy of last year's PAX 2004 DVD and a t-shirt.

The best sponsor

One of the sponsors of PAX 2005 was Bawls, an energy drink. They had a
booth and sold individual bottles for $1 a piece. This was great
because these things are loaded with caffeine, and a $1 a pop, you
can't lose. Plus, the name lends itself to endless jokes:

"Dude, you're drinking Bawls!"

"I've never had Bawls this cheap"

"These Bawls are nice and cold"

We never tired of it. There was also a variation the company called
Sno Bawls, which was basically an "icee" version of the drink, and
that just added another variation to our jokes.

"Your Bawls are frozen"

You get the idea.

Oh, and did I mention the bottles are blue? We didn't use that in our
jokes, probably because it would've been too obvious. And the place
was full of guys.

A real-world hack

Late Friday night we were all lagging and looking for some caffeine.
The problem was the Bawls people had packed up and gone home at 10p.
However, the booth was still there. My friend Mish somewhat by
accident found an unprotected opening in the Bawls booth procedures
and architecture, which he fully exploited.

The "Sno Bawls" icee machines were still set up at the booth. An
exploratory pull of the lever on one revealed that they still had
Bawls flowing, though by this time the icee part had melted. At the
other end of the table was an empty pitcher, which seemed to provide a
convenient way to avoid spilling the cold Bawls on the floor. Pull,
pour, zip, zip and you have yourself something to drink. I managed to
catch this hack in action.

The woman on the left is one of the PAX volunteers, all of whom had
"ENFORCER" emblazoned on the backs of their shirts, and all she could
manage to say to him was "That was frightening." It was quite funny.
I'm not sure what they did to "patch" this opening, but this volunteer
may have radioed for assistance because a full pitcher from the Sno
Bawls machine was quickly taken down the escalator and shown to a
waiting group of other volunteers, presumably to show the magnitude of
the potential exploit.

A complete experience

This event had something for everyone. One of the things I didn't see
was the musical concerts held both Friday and Saturday nights. The
music was of course videogame-related, and apparently lots of people
enjoyed it as there was a line halfway around the entire building
outside in order to get into the shows. There were also many seminars
and panels with industry pros discussing online gaming, breaking into
the industry, marketing games, and gaming and controversy (think of
the recent Hot Coffee mod and GTA: San Andreas).

According to one of the organizers of the event there were 7,000
attendees as of the end of Saturday and a total of 8,500 to 9,000 were
expected for total attendance by the end of Sunday. This is a serious
event that I hope the videogame industry continues to support. What
sets PAX apart from others like E3 is that it is not "only open to
industry professionals." Anyone and everyone is welcome, and as an
attendee you are made to feel that way. If you can make it up to
Seattle next year, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Do we have a Wii visitor?

Alright, who's using Opera?

For that matter, what's up Camino-using Mac person?

Gotta support the little guys.

Most may ignore you, but I see.

I see and I appreciate.

Friday, August 10, 2007

Xbox 360 new price comparison spreadsheet, clarified

For some reason (embedded Google Doc?) when I go back in to edit my previous post I just see a blank, so here's an addendum.

One particularly astute friend of mine pointed out two things about the Core model of the Xbox 360:
  1. It comes with a wired controller
  2. It comes with basic composite/RCA cables which are incapable of component output
Taking this information into account, and focusing purely on a utilitarian view of being able to enjoy the Xbox 360 experience, my price comparison changes somewhat. My friend suggested some changes to my wording and I don't think I could have said it better myself, so I'll quote his email:
"to equal the Premium model you'd have to buy a Core model
($279) and a 20 GB hard drive ($99). That's $279 + $99 = $388, so you're better off buying the Premium model ($349) and saving $39." To further confuse things, the Core model comes with the standard (Composite/RCA) cable, so if you bought the Core model and wanted to output in Component, you'd actually have to shell out an additional $39 [for a component cable], basically making the Core model cost exactly the same as the Premium model, except you'd have no HDMI and a wired (instead of wireless) controller. It
therefore makes no sense to buy a Core model unless you know for sure you have no plans to upgrade. [I added "RCA" above and moved the last parenthesis from the end of the sentence to the right of "wireless."]
This observation about the controller reveals my bias to have a wireless one, but functionally for gameplay the wired and wireless controllers are identical. The ultimate conclusion is that the Premium model looks like the best deal, particularly if there is any possibility you'll want to play games or watch movies in high definition at some point in the future. The Premium model comes with Microsoft's HD/AV component cables instead of the basic composite/RCA cables included with the Core model. Even if you will only ever use a standard definition TV, however, the Premium is still the best value considering what's included in the package.

Thanks, Shawn.

Xbox 360 new price comparison spreadsheet

I put this together for myself and thought other late adopters might find it useful too. I packed a lot of data in here, so check below the spreadsheet for further info. You'll need to scroll around using the slider bars to see all of the data.

Along the top is each type of console, from the Core model through the new Halo 3 Special Edition. The left-hand margin lists a breakdown of the components included with each console. These are listed cumulatively, from Core to Elite, and the breakpoint for what each console comes with is in the right-hand margin. The only exception in the cumulative component list is the play and charge kit included with the Halo 3 Special Edition because the Elite model does not include that.

Along the bottom I did my best to compare the cost savings of buying one of the more expensive console models versus buying the Core model and then purchasing each component separately to equal that more expensive model. For example, to equal the Premium model you'd have to buy a Core model ($279), a wireless controller ($49) and a 20 GB hard drive ($99). That's $279 + $148 = $427, so you're better off buying the Premium model ($349) and saving $78. These comparisons are not exactly equal because the Core model does not include HDMI and that feature cannot be added separately, but I'm just trying to compare overall relative value.

Interestingly, you save the same amount of money, $78, buying an Elite model versus buying a Core and components individually. The Halo 3 Special Edition turns out to save you the least amount of money as a bundle, even though it includes a play and charge kit for the wireless controller. Now that newly-manufactured Premium models include HDMI output I'm hard-pressed to pay $30 ($78 - $48) for a green color scheme and a Halo 3 picture pack. To make the Halo 3 Special Edition a great value, Microsoft would need to bundle in a copy of Halo 3 at the same price.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Pleased to meet you, my good man

Xymyl ("zai-mull") lives somewhere near Tucson, AZ. He's an artist, a thinker, a brewer, a writer, and some would say (indeed have said), a nonconformist.

I've known him for about 9 years. We worked together in Phoenix at a software and Internet company. I'll leave it at that as at this point he maintains a semi-anonymous blog presence aside from his professional web design, logo, graphics and marketing business which I leave to him to promote as he chooses.

Though he's had an online presence in some form or another since this whole world wide web thing began, he has fairly recently jumped into the world of blogging with two sites, evil nature and nothing, which I have added to my list of friends' blogs over on the right.

Evil nature is the more personal of the two, with no real theme but good stories and thoughtful writings on topics ranging from art, the institution of education (emphasis on institution) to logic, music and blogging.

Xymyl is an accomplished artist and recently began selling some of his work. Check out his online gallery and I think you'll be impressed with the vibrant creativity of his work.

The nothing blog is very much a modern Federalist Papers, except instead of exploring the finer points of Constitutional meaning and interpretation through an exchange of written correspondence, it promotes a fuller understanding of nothing through the wonders of his response to submitted inquiries via email.

Now you must go beyond the plain meaning of nothing and consider its deeper implications. These are no mere tautological, empty pseudo-philosophical ramblings as some others have done. Do a search on nothing and you'll see what I mean. He has thought, and continues to think, deeply about nothing and is happy to clarify any questions you may have.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Penny Arcade Expo 2007

[UPDATE2: added link to archival repost of my 2005 report.]
[UPDATE: added link to my 2005 report.]

I received this in the mail over the weekend:

August 24-26 is coming soon. You can expect a full report.

I went to PAX 2005 (UPDATE2: link down, but see here) and it was a great time -- totally oriented toward the gamer and not overrun with the glitz of hollow corporate promotion. There were great discussion panels, including one with Mike Krahulik and Jerry Holkins walking through the creation of a PA comic that was actually published the next week.

An exhibit hall, gaming tournaments music concerts and free play with console, PC and tabletop games will all be there. Also, this is the first year the event will be in downtown Seattle at the Washington State Convention and Trade Center, a significant square footage upgrade from the previous location at the Meydenbauer Center in Bellevue, WA, so what new and exciting things will be possible is anybody's guess!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Sony's PS3 "price cut"

So now Sony is going to replace the recently discounted $499 60 GB model with an 80 GB model that includes a game and costs $100 more?

Let's forget for a moment the confusion caused by multiple contradictory announcements from different and apparently reliable company representatives last week during E3. What factors go into the thought process of deciding to actually maintain a $599 price point for a game console? I'll tell you what: arrogance and a disconnection from consumers.

I hear and even understand the argument that the PS3 includes a Blu-Ray high definition DVD player as a reason for a higher price, but now that stand-alone Blu-Ray players no longer cost $1,000 (even Sony sells one for less than $500) this argument simply doesn't hold water.

Yes, the PS3 has a lot of potential, but that potential has to do with playing games and when those games simply don't exist there is absolutely no reason to lay out that much cash.

The home electronics market looks much different than the one that existed when the PS2 was released and standard-definition DVD movies were just taking off as a format. The "PS2 is also a DVD player" argument worked then because you could realize all of the benefits of DVD without buying a new TV. Now, in order to fully realize the benefits of high-definition DVD movies you need not only a new player, but a new HDTV also. For a decent HDTV you're talking an additional $750 to $1,000 for even a basic setup.

Put simply, HD-anything is not a mass-consumer product category yet.

This may be a smart way to clear the shelves of the now-discontinued 60 GB PS3 inventory, but as far as public relations goes, this comes off poorly.

Gaming site Next-Generation takes a more positive view on the price than I do, but they hit the nail on the head with the consumer confusion caused by, and the corporate miscommunication and confusion evidenced by, the conflicting announcements.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

Gekkeikan Sake (USA) brewery tour

I usually only drink sake when I have sushi at a restaurant, but one of my friends in Vancouver, Washington has taken an enthusiast's interest in the fermented rice beverage that I have slowly been acquiring myself. My friend found a great sake store in San Francisco called True Sake that, as stated in its history statement on the web site, "is the first dedicated sake store outside of Japan, and is also the first sake store in America." The owner of that store, Beau Timken, is often present there and has such an enthusiasm for sake that it's difficult not to feel it yourself if you talk to him.

I'm not in San Francisco that often, so unless I'm having sushi at a restaurant, I'm left to the local supermarket to find any sake. Pickings are slim, but a few months ago in my local market I found a decent (by American and Sacramento standards) sake brewed by Gekkeikan Sake (USA). Gekkeikan Sake is one of the largest sake brewers in Japan. I didn't realize until I looked at the bottle a few days later that Gekkeikan Sake's one and only American brewery is located right here in Folsom, CA. Turns out they let visitors take self-guided tours, so I went.

The tour

My first impression was that this location was a nice mixture of traditional Japanese style and the modern efficiency necessary for large sake production. Right up front in the parking lot are two large rock gardens, neatly groomed, with a view to the beautiful pond behind and beside the main administrative and visitor center building and tasting room.

This was a Thursday afternoon and I was the only visitor. I walked through the administrative building back to the actual brewery production facility for the self-guided tour. The tour is a hallway down the middle of the production floor with windows on each side and signs at each window describing what process one is observing. I saw that the brewery's koji mold for fermentation is grown on-site by an automated process.

The door to the laboratory area was open and I spoke with a technician who brought out the Brewmaster /Production Manager to answer my questions himself! He said that their rice is bought right here in Sacramento and is grown in the nearby Sacramento Valley. Also, this kura (sake brewery) is situated on the American River and their water is taken from there and filtered on-site.

The lab:The brewmaster said the yeast they use initially came from their parent company in Japan. Interestingly, he said once the yeast was in the Sacramento area it changed character slightly, in a good way, and that now they make different sakes with both the original and changed yeasts. He said the change in character of the yeast happened to be an acceptable one as opposed to a bad one (the usual case with such changes), not that the yeast was necessarily better than what they originally received from the home office. So at most it gives them a little flavor or character variation with the sake produced here in the states. He said a sample was sent back to their parent company for naming and classification but that they do not use the changed yeast in Japan, preferring to keep to the traditional strains. I thanked the Brewmaster profusely for his time and exchanged several bows with him.

After the tour I walked around the pond surrounding the visitor center. It was quiet and peaceful with a waterfall and many Koi and other colorful fish clearly visible. The landscaping was impeccably maintained.

Finally I did visit the tasting room. They made three sakes available: 1) Gekkeikan's "Black and Gold" sake, which is made in the United States, 2) Horin, a very nice Junmai Dai Gingo (indicates a highly polished rice grain used for fermenting) imported from Japan, and 3) Zipang, a Junmai sparkling sake which is naturally carbonated, imported from Japan. All very nice, though the Horin was of course the best (in general, the more the rice grain is milled prior to fermentation, the higher the quality or grade of sake that results), very clean and crisp. The Zipang seemed almost like a sake wine cooler -- definitely a modern variation!

It takes a bit of work and research to become familiar with sake and how to choose one, but with the help of informational web sites and enthusiasts like Beau Timken, it can be a rewarding journey. For reference, True Sake's web site (subscribe to the newsletter for great monthly info and specials); and Sake World, an exhaustively thorough site by another American enthusiast and expert, John Gauntner.

Monday, July 02, 2007

Satellite radio -- without the antenna

So here is my current setup, necessitated by the fact that either my roof-mounted antenna is busted, the cable that connects that antenna to the antenna jack is cranked, or the jack itself is worn out. Whatever the reason, I have been using what is normally a "home" antenna for my tuner, in my truck:

This necessitates placing said antenna in my glove box when I am going to be parked for any appreciable amount of time, so sometimes if I have several minutes stored up in the tuner's memory I will unplug the antenna and keep listening to Howard Stern while I'm coiling the cable up to put it away. That's when I discovered this:

Don't see anything unusual? Let me show you more clearly:

I can receive the satellite radio signal without the antenna being plugged in. That top jack there, labeled "ANT," should have something plugged into it. At first I thought it was just that there was some signal still left, recorded in the tuner's memory, but even after that ran out I was able to rewind, skip forward again, and even change channels. I still thought it was a fluke, so after my appointment and dinner (having taken the tuner with me) I came back about an hour and a half later, tried it again, and it still worked.

These pictures were taken in midtown Sacramento, around 20th and Capitol. I first noticed this phenomenon at 19th and J Street. I was able to drive around midtown and receive a fairly good signal, with an occasional dropout, but serviceable. I checked the signal strength meter and this is a signal only from a terrestrial repeater, not the satellite directly. As soon as I start to leave the downtown/midtown area I completely lose the signal and have to plug in the antenna again.

So what's the deal? Is the terrestrial repeater signal in midtown Sacramento so strong that one doesn't need an external antenna to receive it? Are there special atmospheric conditions that bounce and focus the repeater signal? Has this always been the case but I've just not had occasion to try listening to my tuner without an antenna plugged in? I prefer to think it's just me and that I'm special, but that's less than 100% likely. A quick search of the SIRIUS Backstage Forums yielded no similar experiences.

Anyone have any ideas?

Thursday, June 28, 2007

GPLv3 release - LIVE VIDEO FEED!

[UPDATE-2: failure watching *streaming* Theora content on Windows]
[UPDATE: success watching Theora content on Windows]

Hi nerds! Everyone going to log on for the release announcement by Richard Stallman?

Live video feed at 12p Eastern Standard Time on Friday, June 29 at

Video requirements here. They will be using the Theora open video codec (interestingly, released under a BSD license). Compatible media players are here. It is possible to use Theora on Windows, though I haven't tried to set it up yet.

As much as I have an aversion to RealPlayer because of its system-resources hogging nature and sometimes overbearing self-promotion while using its player, I did get it to play Theora-encoded files with no problem after downloading the appropriate plugins.

I first tried the Directshow filters which were supposed to work with Windows Media Player, but I could only hear audio and encountered an error when I pressed "stop." Maybe WMP wasn't appropriate for tomorrow's event anyway.

Some fun and short Theora-encoded videos to test your installation are here.

I can't explain it other than to say the obvious, which is that decoding and viewing streaming content is a different animal than decoding and viewing a fully complete movie from a hard drive. The short of it is, it didn't work. However, I don't think I missed anything earth-shattering. This should be fairly straightforward, however, and this type of failure is one reason open source, or as Stallman would prefer, "free" software is not quite ready for prime time mass consumption.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

The Police reunion tour

(Edit: added link to concert review)
I received a text message from my brother in Phoenix this past Monday night with a picture attached, which is now my wallpaper:It didn't occur to me right away that this picture might have been taken _AT_THE_SHOW_. I didn't know the tour schedule and only knew that a reunion tour was *going* to happen. Once I found the tour schedule I thought it was a possibility, and indeed he called me a about an hour later and confirmed he had been at the show.

I've been a huge fan of The Police for years, so this was just amazing to see. I saw Sting as a solo artist once, but I really would've wanted to go to this show. Here is a review of that night's show from The Arizona Republic, including a set list. I leave you with a few more pics. Be sure to click on them for a nice 1024 x 768 version:

An incredible view...

Big video screens:

Mr. Stewart Copeland and Sting onscreen:

Mr. Andy Summers:

Sting again:

Except for this guy's head, a great stage shot:

Copeland and Sting: