Sunday, November 16, 2008

Bright future for Xbox 360

The Xbox 360 leads the console hardware race with an installed base of 22 million as of September 2008 that should reach 25 million sometime this month.

In addition to leading the hardware race, the Xbox 360 leads the way in third-party game sales, meaning that, aside from Microsoft-published first-party titles, more games are sold for the Xbox 360 than third-party titles for Nintendo's Wii or Sony's Playstation 3. This is important because it shows publishers of third-party games which console will provide the greatest return on their game development dollar.

An article in today's ars technica has great graphs that show this obvious advantage over the course of this year to-date. The number of third-party games in the top 10 for sales numbers each month over the past 10 months for the Xbox 360 exceeds the number of games in the top 10 for the Wii by over 6 times and the PS3 by over 2 times.

With the recent price cuts for the Xbox 360 bringing the base model to the magic $199 price point, the sales trends are sure to continue, with more non-gaming consumers willing to buy.

The release of Microsoft's "New Xbox Experience" this week on November 19 should help to broaden the appeal of the Xbox 360 beyond regular gamers. This update to the dashboard interface will have happy avatars, more community features and games, and the integration of Netflix downloaded movies, bringing the Xbox 360 much closer to the general-purpose set-top box that will appeal to media content companies as well as more general media consumers, not just gamers.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Artie Lange on Conan tonight, NPR's Fresh Air today, 11/11

I neglected to mention Artie's appearance on Letterman last Friday mainly to preserve the gravitas of my posts on the week's election events, but also because Gears of War 2 released on Friday and, after picking it up on the way home from work I immediately began playing it and forgot all about posting on my blog.

Tonight Artie will be appearing on Conan, so be sure to catch or record it if you're interested.

*UPDATE* I forgot that Artie was also interviewed on NPR's Fresh Air. I caught the tail end of the interview just now. He is promoting his new book, Too Fat To Fish, and recounts some of the stories from his life. The interviewer, Terry Gross, is always thoroughly prepared for her interviews, and with Artie you can see that she is also a fan. The full interview is online here after 3p EST.

Wednesday, November 05, 2008

Hope begins to return

A few quotes, one I read and one I heard today, have softened my anger about the passing of proposition 8. The first is one I read on John Scalzi's blog today, speaking of a long and difficult struggle:
"Re: Proposition 8 and the other anti-same-sex marriages initiatives on the ballots, which passed in their respective states: I am disappointed, of course. I had hoped voters, particularly in California, would have had better moral sense. But as I mentioned to someone else earlier today, the struggle against bigotry is long and difficult, and the fact of the matter is we’re in the middle of this particular struggle, and it will take years to see it through, as has every struggle against bigotry here in the US. I’m willing to invest the time."
This will indeed be a long struggle. It will take time, and judging from the demonstrations and actions I have read about and seen today that large groups of Californians are taking part in to protest proposition 8's passage, I have no doubt we as citizens will endure the struggle and eventually prevail.

The second is a quote I heard on tonight's News Hour with Jim Lehrer, said by an individual who was interviewed on the street about what the election of Barack Obama means to him. The imagery just struck me:
"Rosa sat so Martin could walk; Martin walked so Obama could run."
Hope.

I don't know if we can

I am sad and dismayed this morning to see that the majority of voters in California appear to have chosen to incorporate discrimination and bigotry into the state's constitution with the passage of proposition 8 (Wikipedia entry). At this moment the results are not official, but with 95% of precincts reporting, proposition 8 is passing with 52% approval.

If it ultimately passes, proposition 8 will cast a dark, ugly shadow across the positive change embodied in Barack Obama. How is it that a state which voted for such fundamental change with Barack Obama can also embrace fear and ignorance to regress to the days of 19th century anti-miscegenation laws?

Those who think they are "protecting marriage" by supporting proposition 8 have done quite the opposite. Discrimination and bigotry against a minority group in our society undermines that society and its institutions, of which marriage is one. If passed, proposition 8 will turn the institution of marriage into a tool of "straight supremacy," something proposition 8 supporters can point to and say "marriage is ours" and that gays and lesbians are not equal under the law.

This is a terrible message to send to children and young people.

The contradiction inherent in electing a black president while simultaneously choosing to enact law to discriminate against a minority group is mind-blowing.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Polling place update

I arrived at my polling place about ten minutes before seven, and waited in line behind maybe seven or eight people. Once the polling place opened I was able to finish voting by about 7:15.

By the time I finished the line was out the door and on the sidewalk, maybe 40 people. It's going to be a busy day, people, but get out there and vote!

Monday, November 03, 2008

Please vote

Please, everyone, remember to vote tomorrow.

Get up early, take time off of work, come home late, but whatever you do, please vote.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Scalzi's "Hate Mail" in the wild

I spent a wonderful few days in Monterey for a friend's wedding last weekend and took along John Scalzi's "Your Hate Mail Will Be Graded" as I had recently received it in the mail and wanted to get a good start. This is the first time I took it out:
Weissbier and Scalzi
I found a German/Italian cafe, and while I sipped a weissbier and enjoyed the beautiful weather, I started to read. I've followed John's blog, Whatever, for a number of years and he always has something insightful, poignant, thoughtful or funny to say, sometimes all three (edit: four!) at the same time (explore his site a bit, you'll find one). This book is a collection of selected pieces from his blog from the last ten years. Some I have read before, but most I have not, and it's nice to have them in a portable, printed format for easy transport.

The reading that day didn't last very long, however, because while Scalzi's book is good, some things just take priority:
Weissbier, brats and Scalzi

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Gamers can be engaged politically

Last month, Microsoft announced a partnership with Rock the Vote, a group which works to engage young people with the political process. This partnership enables Xbox Live subscribers to have voter registration materials sent to them by making a request right from the Dashboard, and provides content from both political parties to allow gamers to become more informed about a candidate or issue. I watched Barack Obama's acceptance speech from the Democratic National Convention and have downloaded John McCain's acceptance speech from the Republican National Convention.

I spotted a story on Edge Online announcing that 100,000 Xbox Live users had participated in an unofficial presidential poll on Xbox Live where users could express their preference for a candidate by downloading the candidate's corresponding gamer picture.

From the above story:
"According to Microsoft, the sample of 100,000 voters was larger than the combined samples from individual Gallup, NBC and CNN polls."
and
"The company said that more than 55,000 voter registration forms were downloaded through Xbox Live and Xbox.com during the first two weeks of the program, and that videos from the recent Democratic and Republican conventions were downloaded nearly 25,000 times."
Those are impressive numbers.

Admittedly, not all Xbox Live subscribers are of legal age to vote, and not all who participated in this poll will go out and actually vote, but the majority of gamers are over 18 and if nothing else, this partnership will raise gamers' awareness and hopefully their level of knowledge about the political process.

If candidates and others want young people to vote and be interested in the process, becoming informed needs to be easy and can't be blocked by barriers to entry like poring through lengthy newspaper diatribes or suffering through the "talking heads" on every news network.

This is politics on demand, and gamers don't even have to let go of their controllers.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Artie Lange in San Francisco

**Eric the Midget Update**

I was lucky to be able to see Artie Lange in San Francisco last Friday night. It was Artie Lange "and friends," which included Yucko the Clown, Sal Governale, Shuli, The Reverend Bob Levy and Beetlejuice.

Unfortunately, due to traffic and parking nightmares, I missed Yucko, Sal and Shuli, but Bob Levy and Artie were great. It's always fun to see people in person, so that alone was cool. When Artie brought out Beetle to say a few words, he received a standing ovation second only to Artie's.

I was surprised and happy to see that most of the people there appeared to be Sirius subscribers and fans, as none of the Stern show inside bits were lost on anyone. The Nob Hill Masonic Center is a 3,165 seat venue and it appeared to be pretty close to sold out. This satellite radio thing might just work after all.

**UPDATE: I forgot to mention that Eric the Midget was in the audience. An involuntary member of Stern's "Wack Pack," he used to be one of my favorite callers to the show, but lately he has become so angry and self-serving with his personal promotions that he is now merely annoying. Artie handed him the mic to say a few words and he received huge boos after attempting to promote an upcoming personal appearance.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Of Great and Mortal Men album release party in Sacramento

Last night I went to one of my favorite pubs in Sacramento, Fox & Goose, for the album release party and performance of a group of musicians who have released a collection of songs titled "Of Great and Mortal Men."

3-CD release packaging

It's a collection of 43 songs on three CDs, one for each of the U.S. Presidents so far. The packaging itself, let alone the music, is quite impressive with an oversized booklet, individual illustrations of each president in a different style of art and complete lyrics and information about all of the artists who contributed.

You can read more about how the project came about in two articles from the local news and review paper, but it began as a challenge to write 43 songs in 28 days and turned into a national and international effort to complete the entire undertaking. The project has received national coverage in publications such as GQ and the Washington Times.

Of Great and Mortal Men

My friend Chad is one of the contributing musicians and played bass during a set last night.

Chad on bass

It was great music, and the songs were non-partisan with no bashing of any particular president or party. If you're intrigued you can find it at the Standard Recording label, Amazon and iTunes.

A 44th song will be recorded for whomever the soon-to-be-elected next President is. The last song will be released for free online. Here's hoping the group will be working to find plenty of words that rhyme with "ama."

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo 2008, the review

It was definitely another successful year for PAX. Initial estimates are that 58,500 people attended over the three days. That number of people, even in a large convention center, has its disadvantages, but not necessarily because of the number itself. More on that later.

First, the highlights.

1. Meeting Wil Wheaton.
Me and Wil
Need I say more? Probably not, but this was the coolest thing I did, so let me throw some words down here. I missed Wil's keynote at last year's expo, but listened to it online, checked out his blog, and have been a fan ever since. We are the same age, so many of his gaming and life experiences have been similar to mine, and it is both fun and nostalgic to read his writings about his life growing up, and familiar and interesting to read his writings about his life now. I "get" the Star Wars, Family Guy and most of the musical and gaming references.

I was looking forward to reading some of Wil's books, and after this meeting, I was not disappointed:
Sunken Treasure - Wil Wheaton's Hot Cocoa Box Sampler and Happiest Days of Our Lives
The "Hot Cocoa Box Sampler" is a limited edition collection of writings from his books, his blog, and several other sources. "The Happiest Days of Our Lives" is his latest book, and tells stories from his youth growing up and coming of age in the 70s and 80s. I have to say, regarding the picture on the cover of that book, I did not have pajamas exactly like that, but mine were similar (full-length zipper and footsies, you know it), and you'd better believe I had a bicycle with a banana seat!

Wil was an exceptionally cool guy to meet. I threw him a little curve ball when paying for the books by literally presenting him with shiny gold rocks. He recognized them right away and said that they were merely pyrite and not worth anything, to which we both then said "...but they're shiny gold rocks." I'm not going to start The Great Shiny Gold Rock Controversy of 2008, but I will say that Wil recognized the value of what I had thought to bring and credited me accordingly. I did also present several sheets of a cotton/linen blend paper printed with green and black ink, which he happily accepted. Surprisingly, no one had thought to literally bring him shiny gold rocks before I did. I wish I'd taken a picture of them, but alas, it was such a dark secret I dared not leave any trail of evidence prior to their unveiling. Do not be surprised if that was the first and only time such an audacious offering will be recognized.

I also went to Wil's panel, where he did some readings and then Q&A. Great stuff. He didn't just read, he did a bit of acting and made the stories fun:
Wil Wheaton panel
Wil Wheaton panel - WHEEEEE!

2. The Exhibition Hall

This is great every year. It's a lot of fun to walk around and see all of the latest or upcoming releases from developers and often, be able to talk to the developers themselves. The most visible thing was the displays for the upcoming iterations of Guitar Hero and Rock Band:
Guitar Hero III demo
Rock Band 2

Ubisoft was demoing the new Raving Rabbids game on the Wii, which was participatory like Guitar Hero and Rock Band, except the "instrument" is you:
Raving Rabbids

The main exhibition hall was probably 1/2 to 2/3 larger than last year's hall, so the show is growing along with the number of attendees.

The not-so-much highlight

The only thing that was not as cool this year was the waiting in lines. For everything. This has been reported elsewhere, and apparently the PAX organization is aware of it and will work on this for next year. The convention hall was crowded, yes, but not overwhelming. When forced to wait in a line, however, things became ugly. Not the attendees, just the waiting. As attendees, we all had similar "line-waiting" stories to share, so we all got along fine. It's just not very fun to wait 45 minutes to an hour or more to see a panel or presentation and not get in. This discouraged me from attending a couple of the panels because I wanted to spend time in the exhibition hall or just exploring instead.

Hopefully, some "pre-reservation," armband or another system will be implemented next year. It would seem that attendees could, if not reserve a spot when buying their admission pass, choose which panels or talks they want to see for sure upon checking in on the first day of the show. A similar system is already in use at PAX for those who wish to attend the band performances in the evenings (first 4,000 in line at the beginning of the day), so extending this to other functions should not be difficult.

The Omegathon

PAX would not be complete without the Omegathon and particularly the Omegathon finals. This may have been the most highly attended event of the show. This year's ultimate showdown was with "VS. Excitebike," which was apparently only released in Japan.
Omegathon finals - VS. Excitebike

A version of this game was released in the U.S., and most gamers from the classic era will remember it. The Omegathon finals is the culmination of an elimination tournament over the entire course of the expo, where the two remaining gamers face off to determine the true champion. The tournament games range from classic and the latest videogames to real-world physical manifestations like Jenga. It's quite a feat to win, and the past two years the prize has been an all-expenses-paid trip to next year's Tokyo Game Show along with $5,000 spending money. This year the prize also included custom-painted Penny Arcade-themed gaming consoles.

A Community Gathering

Ultimately, like years past, the Penny Arcade Expo is about bringing together the community of gamers. All types are welcome, from board gamers, to PC gamers and console gamers. There's a little mix of other related phenomena like cosplay also, which adds to the fun. This year, I believe the number of attendees may have pushed the facility to its limits, so it will be interesting to see how the arrangements are handled next year. Line management is a solvable issue, so hopefully next year will be even better.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

PAX 2008, Day One

The best thing from day one was the exhibit hall. It appears to be almost twice the size of last year's hall, with tons of booths, displays, open consoles and PCs for demos.

My friend Shawn and I had two bad "line-waiting" experiences. The first was waiting to enter the convention itself at 2p. We waited probably an hour, winding through one of the larger exhibition rooms. The thing that made it not enjoyable at all was that we weren't able to see the presentation we wanted, which was the Speed Run gaming video. First of all, the scheduling appears to have been poorly planned as the Speed Run presentation was scheduled to begin at 2p, which was right when the doors were supposed to open. So, in order to make the presentation on time, I suppose one would have had to have been within the first several hundred people admitted to the convention right at 2p.

We weren't, so we didn't make it over there until just before 3p. It turns out that the DVD they were going to play somehow didn't work, so we didn't miss it anyway. We asked if they were going to show it again, but they didn't know. Plus, it was going to be shown via projector, and the glare from the windows directly behind us didn't allow a decent viewing anyway.

The second experience was waiting to see Ken Levine's keynote speech. To make a long story short, we waited in line for about 30 minutes before being told the room was at capacity and we could wait for the next event in that room if we wanted to.

We didn't.

On to something cool, there was this group of guys outside on the sidewalk who had modded GameBoys to play music, and they were making some really good stuff. This was the setup:

Gameboy music

Also, in the main Exhibit Hall I ran into the same woman who last year was promoting the Conan game, but this year she was promoting Saints Row 2. Quite stunningly beautiful, and as sweet and nice as can be. She's the one on the left:

Saint's Row 2 women

And we'll end with this one:

IMGP0240

Thursday, August 28, 2008

First leg of PAX trip complete

I flew into Portland, OR, last night to stay with a couple of friends. I flew Alaska/Horizon airlines and they actually served complimentary beer in-flight! Not something weak like Bud Light, a nice amber ale, "Drop Top Amber Ale" from Widmer Brothers. Good stuff, particularly when it's free.

After dinner, we went to Doug Fir Lounge to watch The Walkmen. The venue was really cool -- basement-level with a 1960's decor and logs all around the walls, almost like a huge ... log cabin. Makes for a nice feel and good sound. I liked the band, too. Their singer has a heluva voice. I heard shades of Bob Dylan in the way he led into some notes, but he could wail like Bono or Chris Martin of Coldplay.

This morning I'm playing Metal Gear Solid 4: Guns of the Patriots on PS3. I'm still in the early stages of the game, familiarizing myself with the controls and relearning the history and past events in the series. It was a bit frustrating to have an eight minute install before being able to play, but hopefully that means shorter level load times overall throughout the game.

Monday, August 04, 2008

Penny Arcade Expo 2008

It draws near on the horizon, a bit more real now that I've received my ticket to ride:

PAX 2008

I went in 2005 and 2007 and am truly looking forward to this year.

All of gaming's major players will be there as exhibitors, as well as independent and small companies and developers. One new feature this year will be "The PAX 10," which will provide a forum to promote independent games. This is a collection of the top ten independent games, selected by a panel of experts gathered by the Penny Arcade guys, from submissions which will be voted on by attendees during the show.

August 29 - 31. More to follow.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

The Police reunion tour in Sacramento

I went with my buddy Chad to see The Police this past Thursday night. Really great show. This was one band I thought I would never have the opportunity to see. They opened with Message in a Bottle.

They played many of their hits and many of my favorites. A lot of them were interesting and cool variations on the album versions, either in tempo, melody, or more completely, but all were great.

My brother saw them in Phoenix last June, and I posted some pics from that show here. Looks like the setup was very similar.

Elvis Costello and the Imposters opened up, and while we missed the beginning of their set, they were good too. Sting came out to sing on Allison.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Snuggly, the Security Bear

Following up to my post on Barack's disappointing support of retroactive telecom immunity, I found these terrific animated pieces via the EFF web site. They are done by Mark Fiore, cartoonist for SF Gate, a daily paper in San Francisco. The two cartoons nail the issues with illegal wiretapping and constitutional compromise. Your narrator and tour guide for these issues is Snuggly, the Security Bear.

Don't you feel better now?

Obama disappoints with vote for retroactive immunity for telcos

It was more than disappointing to hear on the news today that Barack Obama had voted to support the Senate's passage of HR 6304, the bill that amends the Foreign Intelligence Sureveillance Act of 1978. The provision of the bill that held up the vote until after the July 4 weekend involved the granting retroactive immunity to the telecommunications companies who complied with requests from the current administration to allow eavesdropping on domestic American citizens without a warrant.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation put it best by saying that the Senate Join[ed] the House in Caving to White House Immunity Demands. There were some senators who had the backbone to stand up to the White House, and no doubt lobbyists from telecommunications companies, and oppose this bill, most visibly Sendator Biden of Delaware (D), Senator Boxer of California (D), Senator Reid of Nevada (D), Senator Clinton of New York (D) and Senator Feingold of Wisconsin (D). I'm not sure what my other California Senator, Feinstein (no mention of this on her web site today, hmmm...), was thinking by voting "Yea." Senator McCain of Arizona (R) was not much better, as he was "Not Voting."

Granting retroactive immunity in this situation will only encourage future similar abuses by the executive branch, and the continued complicity of telecommunications and other companies in activity that has plainly violated the rights of United States citizens to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures as granted under the fourth amendment.

Only one major telecommunications company, Qwest Communications, had the guts to stand up to the National Security Agency when it was approached with a request for access to its customers' private phone records. A statement put out by Herbert Stern, attorney to Quest CEO (in 2001) Joseph Nacchio puts it quite clearly:
Nacchio declined the NSA’s request because the agency did not have a warrant and that the authorities showed “a disinclination to use any legal process, including the special court which had been established to handle such matters."
What does it say about the other telecoms who agreed to comply with what was undoubtedly a similar request? Is the NSA, acting at the direction of the Bush White House such an intimidating force that companies and people are afraid to disagree? Or do those same companies and people simply not question such requests? Either way is unacceptable.

More information on the NSA's unlawful spying program is here at the EFF. Stay informed, people, and let your senators and representatives know how you feel.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

BMW Ultimate Drive - 2008

I attended the periodic BMW Ultimate Drive today, which raises money for Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Unfortunately I arrived just before 5pm, which is the last driving appointment for the day, so I was only able to drive one car, but it was a winner:

135i - R side

135i - 3/4 front

135i - 3/4 rear

The new 135i convertible. Quite small, but very quick with a 3.0 liter, twin turbo, 300 hp 6 cylinder engine. A nice exhaust note and definitely enough power to push you back into your seat with even moderate acceleration.

This car is very nice. I expected nothing less, but wow. I liked how, with a push of a button, both of the sideview mirrors rotated toward the rear for close-quarters or on-the-curb parking. Of course Sirius satellite radio was present, so I had it on Alt Nation, channel 21, the whole trip. Good stuff.

By the time I finished the approximately 25-mile loop, they were preparing the caravan of vehicles for the trip up to the Roseville BMW dealer for another group of drivers tomorrow. I didn't have the chance to sign the "signature vehicle" that travels around with the group. Next year.

N.B. - I've had a flickr account for years, but this is the first time I've linked directly to my pictures hosted there. I think I like how you can paste the html right into the code of the post. Much easier than uploading to Blogger and then dragging the photo within the text. There's a few more pictures at my flickr account of some of the other cars that were there today.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Western Civilization survived...

Well, GTA IV launched, likely sold millions, and we're still here. No mass riots or violence against law enforcement. Well, not any more than what happens anyway.

The fact that I stole two cars, got into a fight on the street, went bowling on a legitimate date with a woman, and ran numerous red lights somehow didn't have any effect in the real world. According to Next-Gen, NPR apparently gave a pretty fair treatment to GTA IV's release, not the typical overblown media reaction. I'd also like to suggest that gamers are doing their part to stimulate the U.S. economy in this economic recession. The New York Times agrees.

I picked up the game yesterday after work and played for a few hours. The freedom within the game is pretty amazing, but I have to say so far I have been underwhelmed by the experience. Part of it is just me learning to control my character, learning to drive, and not knowing how the GTA universe "works," but I also haven't really been pulled in by the story yet. So far I've just been responding to phone calls from my loser cousin and getting him out of trouble. I would certainly live a boring criminal life.

At one point, the game's tutorial text (appearing early on to orient one to the controls, etc.) suggested I could watch T.V. in my cousin's apartment and I actually wanted to do that, looking for relief from the mean streets of Liberty City. As soon as I parked and got out of his car (I'm using his car, since I'm new in town) however, my cousin called with some crisis, so I was off again.

One thing I can say for sure is that there are definite consequences for your criminal activities within the game. My character started a fight on the street, mainly because I wanted to see what would happen and how all of the buttons worked in confrontations, and a police car happened to be nearby. In less than a minute of fighting, the police were after me, so of course I ran. I ran for a few blocks and could hear the police yelling at me to stop, giving me a chance to stop running before things went bad. I thought I lost them by going down an alley, and was hiding, but quickly there were 8 to 10 officers there telling me it was all over.

I suppose I could have surrendered and been arrested (I guess. I'll have to try it again and see what happens), but instead I chose to run past them. No surprise, I was brought down by a hail of bullets. Apparently you don't really "die" in the game, your character just wakes up outside of the hospital after having been charged (yes, your in-game money is reduced) to be treated.

I'm sure I'll learn how this whole world works and soon either get into the story or just go out exploring. No multiplayer yet, but I'm sure that will change by this weekend.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Grand Theft Auto IV releases today

Quite possibly the biggest-selling and most controversial game of the year hits store shelves today.

Metacritic, the site that aggregates reviews from across the tubes, shows a 99 out of 100 rating. I've only watched someone play one of the previous games in this series, so this will be the first time I've played a GTA game. I'm looking forward to trying it out, but the big draw for me is really the multiplayer aspects of the game -- 15 different modes. Just about all of my friends on Live will have it, plus with the enormous sales expected, this will become part of the gaming community's common experience.

The Xbox 360 version will have additional exclusive (read: not available on PS3) downloadable episodic content available later this fall.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Artie has returned

It was with relief that I learned Artie was back on the show today. When Artie resigned before the show went on vacation, I set up a Google News search with RSS feed so I could stay up to date with any news articles about him. That feed provided an article before I left for work that confirmed Artie's return.

He sounded good, like the Artie we all know, though it also sounded like he had come to a realization that he has to deal with some issues going on with himself. Someone on the show today said the blowout and resignation led to a "moment of clarity" for Artie. I hope so, and I hope he follows through with the "shrink," as Artie put it today, to whom he made a commitment to see for a series of appointments.

I'm disappointed that howardstern.com no longer allows a deep-link to a particular day's show summary, but check out the site anyway and just navigate to April 21, 2008 for some more details about Artie's return.

Welcome back, Artie.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Artie resigns from the Stern show

I thought I'd let this one sit for awhile before writing about it.

Artie has been my favorite individual contributor on the Howard Stern show since he started there in 2001. The amazing stories, incisive and hilarious commentary, unabashedly excessive eating both on and off the air, and most recently sleeping on the air -- he truly complemented the show.

There's not much to say other than things got way out of hand on Thursday's show with behavior that ultimately led to Howard accepting Artie's resignation. Obviously there is more to what happened than a simple annoyance at having a passport copied. I hope Artie has been able to talk to family or friends since this happened and I hope he is able to work out or at least address whatever it is that has been going on.

The Stern show is on vacation all next week, so there may be no official word until the show returns on April 21. Robin Quivers is scheduled to appear on The View on Monday, 4/14, so maybe she will have something to say. Thursday's show has not been rerun in the usual replays on Howard 100 and there is no summary of Thursday's show on the official site.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Hydrogen fuel cell vehicles -- test drive

Last weekend I attended an open house at the California Fuel Cell Partnership in West Sacramento. It was interesting to learn how hydrogen fuel cells work to power a vehicle and to see a working hydrogen fueling station up close, but the coolest opportunity was to actually drive a vehicle powered by hydrogen. None of the vehicles they had were commercially available, but all were fully functional and appeared to be pretty normal.

I drove the Mercedes A-Class car called the "F-Cell:"There are cars that actually combust liquid hydrogen, like the BMW Hydrogen 7, but all of the vehicles available for test driving last weekend were hybrid-electric, meaning the main drive engine was electric, which was powered by electricity from a hydrogen fuel cell where the hydrogen used is in the form of a gas. This is a hydrogen fuel cell that was in Ford's garage at the facility:Apparently there are hundreds of individual "cells" stacked inside of a unit like this. The simplest explanation of how electricity is produced by a hydrogen fuel cell is that the fuel cell has a negative electrode/catalyst plate inside of it that the hydrogen passes through, which strips off its electrons. The then positively-charged hydrogen passes through a membrane and interacts with a positive electrode/catalyst plate which combines the hydrogen with oxygen that is brought into the fuel cell, producing heat and water. The flow of the stripped electrons from the negative side to the positive side produces electricity.

The cars were virtually silent, though the Mercedes I drove had a distinct high-pitched sound associated with acceleration that the representative in the car said was an air compressor pumping extra air into the fuel cell, apparently to provide a bit more "juice." The transmission was continuous, meaning there were no gears or hesitations. I didn't really test out acceleration, but it seemed like just about any other car.

There are two sticking points to the widespread use of hydrogen to power vehicles on a large scale: 1) distribution infrastructure; and 2) efficiency. For infrastructure, there are currently only 24 working hydrogen fueling stations in the state of California. There are only two in the Sacramento area. Here's the one at the facility I toured:
For efficiency, I learned some new terms: "well-to-tank" efficiency, meaning how efficient the process is that produces the energy (here, hydrogen) and transports it to the individual vehicle's tank. Also, "tank-to-wheel" efficiency, meaning how efficiently the car converts that energy from its own tank to the wheels.

Currently hydrogen's "well-to-tank" efficiency is lower than that for gasoline (Toyota quotes 58% to 88%, respectively). Hydrogen's "tank-to-wheel" efficiency is greater than gasoline (38-50% versus 16-37%, respectively). Combining those measures, Toyota estimates that gasoline vehicles have a "well-to-wheel" overall efficiency of about 14%, a gas-powered hybrid like the Toyota Prius has an overall efficiency of about 32% and Toyota's hydrogen fuel cell vehicles range in overall efficiency from about 22 to 29%.

Undoubtedly these efficiencies for obtaining hydrogen and operating hydrogen fuel cells will improve and the fueling infrastructure will be built out, so at some point this will become a viable option for mainstream use.

Thursday, April 03, 2008

Artie on Kimmel and Robin on Mike & Juliet

This Friday, April 4, Robin Quivers will appear on The Mike & Juliet Show, 11a Pacific time on NBC, and Artie Lange will appear on Jimmy Kimmel Live! at 12:05a (ok, technically Saturday, but you know it's Friday night) Pacific time on ABC.

Robin will probably be promoting her new "Girls Night Out" charity and Artie will probably be his usual hilarious self. Kimmel is a great friend and fan of the Stern show, so there will certainly be good chemistry and discussion.

Please update your schedules accordingly.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

U.S. Department of Justice decides Sirius-XM merger is not likely to harm consumers

"Evidence Does Not Establish That Combination of
Satellite Radio Providers Would Substantially Reduce Competition"

Finally.

I wrote about the proposal of this merger last year on February 19. Now, 13 months later the Justice Department closes its investigation and reaches what I believe should have been a fairly straightforward conclusion. I suppose the length of time this has taken is because the DOJ "reviewed millions of pages of documents, analyzed large amounts of data related to sales of satellite radios and subscriptions for satellite radio service, and interviewed scores of industry participants." That may be true, but I think the delay is also evidence of the last desperate attempts of the regular terrestrial radio industry to hold on to its monopoly of the airwaves.

The main factor in the analysis of this merger's effect on competition was the definition of the relevant market satellite radio competes in. The DOJ found that "evidence developed in the investigation did not support defining a market limited to the two satellite radio firms, and similarly did not establish that the combined firm could profitably sustain an increased price to satellite radio consumers."

Presumably the DOJ saw the truth in Sirius and XM's assertion that they "compete with a variety of other sources of audio entertainment, including traditional AM/FM radio, HD Radio, MP3 players ..., and audio offerings delivered through wireless telephones."

The first sentence of today's New York Times article on the merger demonstrates how easy it is to misunderstand and misrepresent what a relevant "competitive market" is:
"The Justice Department gave approval on Monday to the merger of two rival radio networks, XM and Sirius, a marriage that would create a de facto monopoly in satellite services now used by more than 17 million subscribers."
Of course when there are only two companies providing a particular service (here, satellite radio) and they are combined into a single company providing that same service, it becomes a "monopoly" as to that particular service (that's the "de facto" part). They key misunderstanding here is that the DOJ evaluated a competitive market that exists beyond just these two companies. Current and potential subscribers have many other choices for things to listen to outside of satellite radio.

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is a trade association that advocates (read: sends lobbyists and makes campaign contributions) for the interests of terrestrial broadcasters before Congress, federal regulatory agencies (i.e., the Federal Communications Commission) and various courts across the country. This association has opposed the Sirius-XM merger from the beginning and predictably was not pleased with the DOJ's conclusion.

However, the NAB issued a curiously short and curiously nebulous response to the announcement:
"We are astonished that the Justice Department would propose granting a monopoly to two companies that systematically broke FCC rules for more than a decade. To hinge approval of this monopoly on XM and Sirius's refusal to deliver on a promise of interoperable radios is nothing short of breathtaking."
That's it. One paragraph. I'm not sure what FCC rules these two companies "systematically broke" for more than a decade, perhaps some rule that required interoperable radios? Or was that more of a promise that Sirius and XM just haven't delivered on yet?

As Artie might say, "waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhh, they promised they'd make interoperable radios and they haven't done it yet, waaaaaaahhhh."

The FCC still gets to have its say on the merger, so Sirius and XM are not in the clear yet. However, according to an article today on Bloomberg.com, analysts think that the FCC will probably follow the lead of the DOJ and approve the merger, though there may be some conditions. What these conditions might be is unclear, but they could include giving time for public access programs or channels for minority or other underrepresented groups.

According to the same Bloomberg article, "FCC Chairman Kevin Martin said last week that his agency would 'go forward quickly' after the Justice Department ruled." Let's hope so, and also hope that the agency will see the common sense of the DOJ's assessment of the market in which satellite radio competes.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Rainbow Six Vegas 2: Beef Jerky Edition

This is the first Rainbow Six game I've played, and it's quite different from most other first-person shooters out there like the Halo and Call of Duty series. This R6 series is so tactical in its execution that a "run and gun" approach is almost universally suicidal. As the main character, you command a small group of two other soldiers whom you can direct to breach and clear a room, throw grenades, and independently engage and kill enemies, among many other things. An excellent "cover" system that allows you to fire from behind things like pillars and corners is integrated seamlessly and aids greatly to the game's tactical execution. The number of options make the learning curve a bit steep, but once you learn it the options give you an enormous amount of freedom and variability in how you approach the game.

Online co-op play is also possible with your friends in a number of modes. One friend can join you as a fourth team member in the single player campaign, you can play a "versus" mode with two teams against each other, and there is also a "terrorist hunt" mode where you and three friends work cooperatively through a map to clear it of enemies.

I picked up my copy from Circuit City, hence the "beef jerky" reference in my title. Circuit City included some swag with my purchase, namely a "gamer's energy kit," which included an energy drink, energy gum, energy spray (to spray under your tongue!) and beef jerky:and some red fuzzy dice:

The beef jerky was pretty good.

Monday, February 25, 2008

Microsoft, you're the best!

So I received a document over the weekend that had been created with Microsoft Word. "What a boring blog post," you must be thinking, but wait, I'm not finished. This particular document was created with Microsoft Office Word 2007. "This isn't helping!" you exclaim.

Would it improve the situation if I told you the file extension was ".docm" and my version of Microsoft Office Word 2003 was unable to open it?

I believe you stand corrected.

Before I could open this Microsoft application-created document with my Microsoft application I actually had to download a Compatibility Pack. A 27.5 MB compatibility pack, in fact. Apparently this pack allows pre-2007 versions of Office applications to work with Microsoft's new Open XML (Wikipedia's Open XML entry) formats.

This was a time-consuming annoyance when all I wanted was to read some text. I realize a ".docm" extension means the document is macro-enabled, but just a plain Office Word 2007 document with its ".docx" extension would require the same update, and there was nothing extraordinary about the document I was trying to open.

I suppose if this is the beginning of a Microsoft policy of greater interoperability going forward that is a good thing. However, going forward by alienating all that has come before is rarely the best way to proceed. After being forced to use Internet Explorer to use Microsoft Update and confirm that I had all the latest updates (recommended before proceeding -- yes, I RTFM), it took only about five minutes to download, unpack and install this compatibility pack. The best part about the installation was that Word was open the whole time and I didn't have to close down or restart it for the pack to work.

But what about the millions of Office users worldwide? Is this going to encourage current users to upgrade? What if someone doesn't have a broadband Internet connection? What about those in developing countries to whom Microsoft has practically given away its Office suite (2007) and other software products? Is this "free milk" with a past-due expiration date?

In short, thanks, Microsoft. Way to implement interoperability.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

What a difference an "e" and a "t" make

I wonder how different would a children's librarian be from a children's libertarian?

Would a children's libertarian be involved with children only to the extent such involvement is explicitly enumerated in a written constitution with the child left mostly to fend for itself?

Now if a children's libertarian worked in a library...

Monday, January 28, 2008

Artie Lange on Letterman this Friday, 2/1

Be sure to watch the Lateshow with David Letterman this Friday, February 1.

Looks like Paris Hilton is scheduled to be the "main" guest, which sucks, but that should also give Artie some good material for his segment. I didn't hear Artie discuss this appearance on the show today, so I don't know how he rationalized around the Writer's Guild strike. He mentioned on a previous show that he wouldn't cross the picket line, but maybe the deal the Guild made with Dave's production company was enough.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Blame Sally in Sacramento

Indie-pop, folk-pop, whatever you want to compare their style to won't exactly hit the mark. Piano, guitar, bass and percussion (not a drum kit) are the tools these women use to craft their sound.

I was introduced to the band Blame Sally a number of years ago by a friend who discovered them in the San Francisco Bay area. They often play in and around the Bay area and sometimes on the outskirts of Sacramento, but tonight they were right here, downtown at Marilyn's on K. What I really enjoy about this band is that their passion and joy for music comes through in their performance. As a casual musician, it's inspiring. Whether you are a fan of indie-folk-type music or not their shows are great because it is obvious the band is having a great time, the songs are heartfelt and the music's eclecticism is interesting.

The twang of a Fender Strat or slide guitar evokes some country flavor in one song, bongo drums and bass suggests African rhythms on another. Other instruments present were a mandolin and accordion.

The melodies chosen over atypical chord progressions are fresh. Dynamics and silence are no strangers here either, and enhance the individual skill of these musicians and their voices. The two and three part vocal harmonies are beautiful.

Blame Sally has been gaining attention over the past year with their 2007 release, Severland, ranking number one on XM Satellite radio's Starbucks XM Cafe and making the pre-nominating ballot for a Grammy nomination in the Best Contemporary Folk, Best New Artist and Song of the Year categories.

The venue was low-key and not crowded, but in a good way. This band connects with its audience and those who were there were enthusiastic. Here's to more tour stops in Sacramento.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Portalpalooza

I just finished Portal this morning and loved it. I don't know what I could say that hasn't already been said to heap praise upon this game. I finished it over two days, maybe 8-10 hours, so it's pretty short, but it's also mind-bendingly creative and very fun. Portal is one of the five games included with The Orange Box, which is out on PC and Xbox 360.

The basic game mechanic centers around the use of two types of "portals," each can be an entry or an exit, which are linked ... dimensionally, I suppose. As the player you learn how to control and place these portals to move objects, move yourself, and achieve various objectives. It's a deceptively simple concept that you come to realize is surprisingly versatile.

The setting is within a "test facility" where you are supposed to be learning about this new portal device. As you progress you find, through some often hilarious automated commentary, that all is not as it seems. The in-game environment is interesting and at higher levels it is quite challenging to achieve the required objectives. There's a ton of spatial reasoning and problem-solving skill required to achieve these objectives, and I just loved it.

If you've heard the buzz about this game, I'm telling you the buzz is justified. If you haven't heard the buzz, do yourself a favor and find out what rock you've been under and then check out this game. The Orange Box is a compilation and also includes Half-Life 2, Half-Life 2: Episode One, Half-Life 2: Episode Two, and Team Fortress 2, all of which have received high praise as previous separate releases.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Praise and a few gripes for PGR4

I have expanded my videogame collection with the spoils of holiday giving and one of the games I've acquired is Project Gotham Racing 4. The only other game I've played in the PGR series is PGR2 on the original Xbox, and I loved it. It hit the sweet spot between an arcade-style racer and a driving simulator, with an excellent online component to race against your friends.

PGR4 is much the same, though I have to say it is more of a challenge than PGR2. This is due a bit to the more technical nature of the game, leaning more toward a realistic simulation, but it's mainly due to the toughness of the artificial intelligence of your bot opponents. If you don't get out in front early in a race, it's nearly impossible to catch up to first place. I'll be spending much more time honing my driving techniques this time out.

One of my gripes with the single-player portion of PGR4 isn't even with the gameplay, it's with the integration of your friends' stats via Xbox Live -- it hardly exists. In the "arcade" mode where you're just competing for various medals in different types of races you will see a leaderboard after completing an event that shows you where you rank among your friends, but that's it. That's the only time you will see the leaderboard and as far as I can tell, you can't bring it back up just to look and compare. Lame. That's a huge part of the competitive fun of racing games is competing against your friends' times on the same tracks.

In the "career" mode, such friend comparison simply isn't there. Maybe there are too many variables to factor in with all of the choices one can make throughout the course of one's career, but I don't see why the game couldn't at least let you see how your friends are doing.

I played my first online matches this past weekend and they were just as fun as the online races in PGR2, just much prettier graphically. I have to say, though, the interface and menu navigation for setting up the custom races is clumsy and leaves a lot to be desired. Much of the menu choices are text-based with little explanation and the menu choices are all nested inside of each other. It may be a case of sacrificing ease of use for a "clutter-free" onscreen menu appearance.

Even the online web component of PGR4, pgrnations.com, suffers from a lack of ability to compare your stats with your friends'. You can do it, but not without seriously digging down into the "Leaderboards" link, and even then, you are relegated to nondescriptive text-based choices that provide so little information they are useless, particularly out of the context of the game.

I want to see these comparisons when I'm online in the game interface so I can look at a leaderboard for a particular track before I race it, see where my friends placed, and try to beat them. The leaderboard should also be associated with a graphical representation of the proper map with a title, too, not just "Event 1 Street Race."

Another gripe is with the "garage" component of the game. It apparently lets you view vehicles and motorcycles available to you in your garage, but I didn't see all of the cars I'd been using in my garage, and of the cars and bikes you see, you seem only to be able to take pictures of them to upload to pgrnations.com. Huh? I was so bored, here's the picture I took and uploaded:
I couldn't even open the dumpster or kick it or anything. But that's not the worst part about the "garage." In one of the garages you can walk up to and play an upright arcade machine version of Geometry Wars: Waves. I did this and it was a cool variation on the regular Geometry Wars, but when you've had enough and want to go back to PGR4 (even selecting "Back to PGR4" on the menu) it spits you totally out of the entire game as if you rebooted your console. What? I wanted to go back to the garage and walk around taking pictures!

I don't mean to sound so negative about this game. It does provide a great driving experience while you're actually playing, and the online component when you are actually racing works very well. The shift toward a more technical simulation may warrant experiencing this game with a steering wheel. I've read many find this significantly enhances the feel and experience of driving in this and other driving games. Also, one creative addition to PGR4 is the ability to use motorcycles instead of cars. You still race against cars and other motorcycles and it's an interesting addition with a whole different feel and skillset to learn.

I did finally win a few Championship series races in the Amateur category tonight, so I just have to keep at it and keep practicing.

Howard Stern to be on Letterman next Monday

[UPDATE -- LAST MINUTE] On today's show Howard said he'd be on Letterman tonight, January 10!


Just a quick note -- Howard mentioned on his show today he will be appearing on David Letterman next Monday, January 14. Stern always steals the show, so this one's worth a tape or DVR program.