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?