Sunday, December 31, 2006

Virtual NES Delivers Amazing Retro Freenis

vNES is an online Nintendo Entertainment System emulator with a staggering number of games available. I don't see how I am going to be able to pull myself away from this amazing free gaming goodness. I've played emulators before, but I like that this one is online. I needed to download a Java update to get it to work, which I found here.

Via Joystiq, which presents the vNES as a good way to demo games you might be considering for the Wii Virtual Console. I have mixed feelings about the VC, mainly because I think it is overpriced, but I do have five games on it already. More thoughts about that later.


Friday, December 29, 2006

Friday Freenis: Best Of 2006

Don't take my word for it. Take Jay is Games word for it. That kickin free games site has a best-of-the-year feature with lots of gaming goodness. If, like me, you gotta be at work today, make sure the boss isn't looking and try some out. You can even vote for your favorites. Explore and be happy.


Thursday, December 28, 2006

First Post FROM The Wii

The Wii's new web browser launched on the day I left town (and my Wii) for Christmas. I'm back now, and exploring the browser. I'm making this blog post from my Wii, in fact.

Typing with the Wii remote takes a long time. I've also had the browser freeze up twice, both times at gmail. Still, browsing the web from the Wii is a fun novelty for now. Time will tell if it is useful.


Friday, December 22, 2006

I'm Happy Because Of The Squid (Not Christmas)

I'm travelling for Christmas, so postings might be a bit sparse. But in the airport this morning I saw on the waiting-lounge TV that scientists in Japan pulled a live giant squid to the surface. I felt excited and awed by the world in a way that I have become increasingly out of touch with as an adult.

Last year, the same Japanese scientists took pictures of a live giant squid at close to one kilometer below the surface. I thought that was exciting. Here, the many-tentacled creature is right at the surface! See for yourself here.

Unfortunately, it died soon after it was captured.

[UPDATE: Here's some video from Japanese news--note the stirring music.]


Monday, December 18, 2006

Xbox 360 And The Deal That Brought It Into My Life

Check out the white-on-black console porn. On top is my newest addition, the Xbox 360. Sometimes I feel guilty about being such a giant consumer, but the itch is finally scratched (y'all knew I was joking before, right?). I know some friends are uncomprehending, but I was a good boy and waited until I got a nice deal on this. The wife has been very patient. Maybe I love her even a little bit more. There's a lesson for you, ladies: Don't be like this guy's chick (who is apparently making her beau shed a truly amazing game collection in order to buy her a gaudy hunk of compressed carbon).

Anyway, if you are interested in getting a $100 rebate on the 360, expand this mofo.

Here's reason 1,023,657 why I love the web: I never would have snagged a 360 for 25% off without it. First, I see this post at joystiq for a rebate offer if you buy a 360 at Micro Center. I think, $100 off is a pretty great deal, especially considering that I had told myself early on that I'd wait for a price drop before getting one. But then I think, what's Micro Center? I've never heard of this store. So again, internet to the rescue. Checking out the store's site reveals that there is a location out on Strong Island. I check the Long Island Railroad's schedule (online, natch) and discover it is a half hour trip. Better yet, Google maps shows me that the store is less than a mile from the train station. A $10 round-trip ticket and two hours later, I'm back in Queens, spraying Locust blood in Gears of War.

How did we function without the web?


Friday, December 15, 2006

Friday Freenis: Goldbergian

Nerds: recall dominoes. Recall the game Mousetrap.

Do you know Rube Goldberg? Do you like little parts working together? Then you'll like Armadillo Run. You can play some tutorial stages and free levels if you download a demo. It's fun.

[via boingboing]


Thursday, December 14, 2006

Guitar Hero Zonks Tiger Zumaya

The Detroit Free Press is reporting that Tigers pitcher Joel Zumaya injured his arm by playing Guitar Hero. His injuries kept him from playing in this year's ALCS.

The Tigers asked Zumaya to stop playing the video game, and he did. Zumaya then pitched pain-free during the World Series, and went 0-1 with a 3.00 ERA in three appearances.
Umm... Good thing that problem got solved and Tiger pitching returned to form for the World Series.

I've played my share of Guitar Hero, yet apart from occasional, very slight soreness in my fingers on my left (fretting) hand, I've had no pains or problems. Now, with the Wii, it's a different story. My right arm is still recovering from a frenzied Wii Sports session on Monday.


Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Awesome Dolphin Gone Forever

The baiji, a species of river dolphin native to the Yangtze River, has been declared "functionally extinct" after a six-week expedition set up to find one of the animals failed, according to an AP report and the expedition's official website. Another story about the expedition appeared in the Wall Street Journal last week (in syndication here). Scientists put the blame on overfishing and shipping traffic.

River dolphins are amazing creatures. First, they look awesome. Second, they inhabit this curious little niche--relatives of ocean-going dolphins that evolved to life on the lazy river. Third, according to scientists, baiji are "shy and nearly blind." Finally, around the world they inspire some cool legends, often sexual in nature. According to the WSJ, the baiji is featured in an old Chinese "love story, where it turned into a beautiful woman like a mermaid." The pink river dolphins of the Amazon have inspired folk tales in which the dolphins turn into men at night, seduce human women, and impregnate them. (Interesting gender differences between those myths.)

Enough fun, though. I was really sad to read this news. Such a great, interesting animal gone forever because of what people do. Even if one or a few individuals turn up over the next few decades, the baiji is effectively lost. There are certainly not enough to constitute a sustainable population.


Tuesday, December 12, 2006

Planes On A Treadmill

Boingboing has a post up that gets the pedantic science nerd in me going. I’ll need to reproduce it almost in full so you can understand. It begins:

David Pogue at the NYT has presented this classic airplane on a giant treadmill problem, and people are arguing about whether or not the plane would take off or not.

Here’s the set-up from Pogue, quoting someone else:
”Imagine a plane is sitting on a massive conveyor belt, as wide and as long as a runway. The conveyer belt is designed to exactly match the speed of the wheels, moving in the opposite direction. Can the plane take off? I say no, because the plane will not move relative the the ground and air, and thus, very little air will flow over the wings. However, other people are convinced that since the wheels of a plane are free spinning, and not powered by the engines, and the engines provide thrust against the air, that somehow that makes a difference and air will flow over the wing.” (Here’s Pogue’s original post.)
Continue if you like such thought problems.

Boingboinger Mark Frauenfelder has his say:
I say yes. Let's assume the friction in the wheel bearings is negligible. Putting a plane on a treadmill is like putting it on an icy lake. When you fire up the jets, the plane is going to shoot down the lake and take off just like it would on a runway.

Some commenter then disagrees. But I have to say I’m a bit surprised this is a problem for anyone, really. Jets generate thrust by expelling hot air, which pushes back on the plane in a simple demonstration of Newton’s third law of motion. It shouldn’t matter what’s happening with the wheels; they don’t supply any power in our example. They just let the plane roll.

Now, if the plane sped up via power from the wheels, like a car with wings attached, sitting on a treadmill that matched the rotational speed of the wheel would be a problem. But the plane speeds up by pushing air out. Maybe the wheels would be spinning twice as fast as they would be if the plane were not on treadmill, but so what?

Think of it this way: the plane could be disconnected from the ground all together. Say it has a rotor blade like a helicopter’s that suspends it above the ground. The jets will still push the plane forward. To me, this doesn’t seem hard to understand at all (see? pedantic nerd), so I am surprised this issue generates a lot of online discussion.


Monday, December 11, 2006

25 Days Of (Free) Christmas Gaming

Before I totally get off my recent music kick, I wanted to point out an interesting little analysis my friend Jeff did of the top and bottom of the reviewing pile. It has always bothered me that re-issues get rated so highly--critics luxuriating in the safety of hindsight and received wisdom. I gotta say it: Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, not a 10.

Now back to games. Here's some decent Christmas freenis: Nintendo has set up a little advent calendar called Mission in Snowdriftland, featuring the platforming adventures of Chubby Snow. Guide the big-headed snowman through a new level each day, collecting snowflakes and dodging baddies. Who knows what will happen on Christmas day? Maybe you will celebrate the birth of Chubby Snow Jesus by giving or receiving some Nintendo products?

[via joystiq]


Friday, December 08, 2006

Friday Freenis, Wu Edition

No games this time. I've got music on my mind as of late. Spooky, tense tales of mayhem lie at your fingertips here. The Wu-Tang Clan gives you more than 200 assorted tracks (demos, remixes, etc.) at their official Wu-Tang Corp. website.

Oh, Dirty, how we miss what the fuck your gun do.

[via Salon]


Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Meshuggah Will Rock You

Meshuggah is one of my favorite bands currently bringing rock to the masses. Here's the video for their chart-topping hit "New Millennium Cyanide Christ." I've never embedded video from YouTube in my blog before, so I wanted to give it a go. I dedicate this post to my man TZ down in NC.

[Thanks, Marc!]

And since this is YouTube, I give you the real jackassery, as well.


Twilight Princess Glitch Nearly Leads To Wii Murder!

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess for the Wii is an amazing game. It is a long game, an adventure that requires 50 hours or more to finish. It is also a game with a glitch that caused me to become stuck almost 40 hours in with no recourse but to restart.

Let me state this plain: I played for almost 40 hours, the game screwed up, and now I have to restart if I want to finish it.

When I first became trapped, I thought I was just stuck, that I needed to solve a puzzle to continue. I resorted to looking online for tips, and that's when I discovered what seems to be becoming a notorious Twilight Princess glitch. Amigos, I will tell you this: DO NOT SAVE IN THE SKY CANNON ROOM! And keep multiple save files.

I was boiling mad for hours when I figured out I had to restart. My Wii is lucky that it is not a heap of broken plastic and electrical components this morning. The honeymoon period is over, Wii.

[UPDATE: 12/12/06 This is for the unlucky gamers who are coming to this post after getting stuck themselves. I just talked to Nintendo about this glitch, and they say there is no trick to get out, and no fix is available. Don't believe tips you might read elsewhere.]


Monday, December 04, 2006

On The Popularity of The Aspidistra

I tell myself that I blog for myself. I tell my wife that, too, when she complains about too many videogame posts.

But see that counter down there on the right, below the links? Would I really be counting visitors if I was only blogging for myself? No, of course I want as many people as possible to read what I post. Maybe a fuller description of how I blog is that I decide what to write about based on my own interests, but I hope you like some of the same things and otherwise get seduced by my coverage of the things you didn't know you liked, and in the end you love me.

Anyway, this is all a way of saying I’ve been relatively pleased with the traffic over the past couple months. I’m no engadget, but I’m doing a lot better than might be indicated by a recent statement from Eric Schmidt, CEO of Google, who suggested that the average blog has only one reader. (That has to be rhetorical, right?)

Alas, as the wife suggests, the videogame posts rarely bring readers. Here are the top five posts that bring people to The Aspidistra, with some examples of real search terms.
1. dog humps cat
2. wii shopping channel
3. skepticism must be a component of the…
4. hobbes vs. rousseau state of nature
5. manpanzee

Honorable mentions: religious idiots, Freud haters, how-to-make: hovercrafts


Friday, December 01, 2006

A Muscle Myster-Wii

I’m no 90-pound weakling. I’ve never been very muscular, but I go to the gym regularly. I lift the weights. I do my push-ups and pull-ups. Sure, I’m probably tucked closer to the weak side in a normal distribution of adult male arm strength, but I’m in shape.

So why is my right biceps sore? Over the past few days, I’ve been struggling with a small mystery: I’ve noticed that the half of my biceps closer to my elbow is just a bit tender. I’m not doing anything new at the gym. I’ve not lifted anything particularly heavy, or carried anything unwieldy recently. So what’s different?

The answer hit me this morning: It’s the Wii! I feel a bit wussy making this confession, but I believe using the Wii-remote has made my arm sore. And I haven’t even been playing Wii Sports, which encourages spazzed-out flailing, all that much. I’ve mainly been playing Twilight Princess. I’m slightly amazed, but I think making all the little sword swipes, just shaking and stabbing with the Wii-remote as I sit on the couch, has engaged my biceps in a way that my regular life does not.

That controller sure does promote immersion. It has immersed me in un-manliness.


Friday Freenis: Terraforming Edition

I had to do some digging for this one--wait, that's a pun you'll understand if you play the game. Seriously, though, I played this a couple of weeks ago and had to dig around on the web for a while to find it again.

It's a free flash game called Grow Cube. I would describe it as a cutesy, terraforming puzzle game. I recommend just jumping in and learning how to play by experiment. One thing I love about these little, free puzzle games is how I can go from baffled to understanding by exploring and experimenting.

[via kotaku]


Thursday, November 30, 2006

A Game For The Religious And Ignorant

The real-time strategy game based on the Left Behind books has been generating interest on the web for some time and it is finally out. When I first heard about this game, I was willing to keep an open-ish mind. I love plenty of games that draw their stories from crazy, nonsense mythology (Legend of Zelda, God of War), so why not dig on some crazy Christian myths?

Well, Gamespot has a review up, and they suggest a good reason not to play the game: it sucks. I can't say I'm shocked. But I was a bit surprised to see that the game delivers some totally ignorant, intelligent-design-friendly nonsense. Check out this screenshot from the Gamespot review. I guess if you are willing to entertain the idea that the Rapture is possible, well, all bets are off when it comes to a reasoned, rational understanding of the world.

Could this be the first game that I would never want my children to play?

[UPDATE: In order to reduce the smugness level of this post a bit, I thought I'd point out that some Christian groups oppose the Left Behind game because it "mangles biblical prophecy and promotes religious intolerance and violence," according to this story from the Florida Times-Union.]


Third Is The New Black

Nintendo dominated my childhood. Atari was my first love, but Nintendo swept me away to new, vibrant game worlds. I’m still a little sad that a Nintendo console is not at the top of the videogame pile. Although I gots love for all the systems, I guess I have a little bit of a fanboy lurking within.

In this week’s New Yorker (12/4/06), James Surowiecki devotes his Financial Page column to Nintendo’s lucrative spot at third place in the console “wars”. The essay, “In Praise of Third Place,” declares Nintendo a “cool third-party candidate” in the console contest. So what does that mean for Wii?

Surowiecki sees Sony and Microsoft as being locked in a “classic arms race” for more sublime graphics and more non-game functionality like next-gen video, a race that Nintendo has dropped out of. Sony loses something like $250 on every PS3 it sells due to the expensive super-technology inside, while Nintendo, apparently, makes money on the Wii.

The question for me is: what will the gamers gravitate to, better graphics or innovative controls? Because where the gamers go, so do the games. More dreck, sure, but more good games, as well. Can the Wii pull something like that off? Surowiecki writes:

Nintendo knew that it could not compete with Microsoft and Sony in the quest to build the ultimate home-entertainment device. So it decided, with the Wii, to play a different game entirely. Some pundits are now speculating, ironically, that the simplicity of the Wii may make it a huge hit.
After the Gamecube, I’m a little skeptical about the huge hit. But the DS has been great, so I have my fingers crossed.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The Monsters Of Nostalgia

Friends and regular readers of The Aspidistra (I really think those categories are completely overlapping) will know I have a strong nostalgic streak and I love monsters. Can I possibly describe the pangs of sweet nostalgia this website elicits? Scores of wonderful monster toys from the '60s through the '90s. My brother and I owned more than a few from the '70s and '80s.

I'll try to compile a list of those I either had or played with when I was little and put it in the comments. Readers are invited to do the same.

[via boingboing]


Tuesday, November 28, 2006

The Sky Was Not Falling

Andrew Revkin, a science reporter at the New York Times, writes about a new analysis of the recovery of ocean life following the Permo-Triassic extinction 251 million years ago. This extinction is often called the “Great Dying” because more species winked out then than in any of the other great extinctions that have walloped life on Earth. As Revkin writes in his lede:

At least five mass extinctions, most presumably caused by asteroids that struck the earth, have transformed global ecology in the half-billion years since the emergence of multicelled life, lopping entire branches from the evolutionary tree and causing others to flourish.
The problem is, apart from the end-Cretaceous extinction that killed the dinosaurs, no mass extinction has lots of evidence to support an impact-killer theory. In fact, in the case of the Great Dying, the impact theory is more of a minority opinion, albeit one with some very vocal supporters. I’m surprised that a reporter like Revkin would gloss over this. I have NEVER seen it suggested anywhere nor talked to any evolutionary biologist or geologist that felt most mass extinctions were related to asteroids. Many are willing to entertain the hypothesis, but acknowledge that the data don’t support it.


Monday, November 27, 2006

New York Mag: No Wii For You!

I’ve told myself that I should stop looking at New York Magazine just as I have stopped looking at, but as you’ll see, I can’t yet kick the habit. Well, this week’s issue (November 27th) offers the annual Gift List, helpful tips for what rich New Yorkers can give to other rich New Yorkers for Christmas.

Teens should be given the Playstation 3 (good luck finding one!) the magazine declares. And husbands/boyfriends should get the Xbox 360—hey, New York, you made the same recommendation last year. Yet the Wii is nowhere in sight. I suppose that’s better than seeing it on the gift ideas for a child page (that space is reserved for a $500-$800 stuffed horse, natch).


Midway's Quest For "Better Games"

It is always interesting for me, a videogame guy who approaches the medium almost entirely as a player, to get a peek behind the glowing screen and see the business gears turning. Today’s New York Times has an article about game maker Midway and Sumner Redstone, a billionaire investor who owns a majority of Midway’s stock.

Apparently, Redstone has been holding the shares tightly even as Midway’s share prices have been falling. As many a gamer could tell you, apart from Mortal Kombat, Midway doesn’t have a lot going on. (That said, I did enjoy The Suffering.)

I wonder if the business reporter consults with gamers or the Times’s game writers when working on such a story. Most of the discussion of videogames in this piece seems reasonable to me. But surely a gamer would challenge this assertion: “We are focusing on fewer and better games, and we have positioned ourselves very well for the next cycle,” Shari Redstone, vice-chairman of Midway and Sumner’s daughter, told the Times. So what are these “better games”? The Times reports:

So far this year, Midway has introduced Mortal Kombat: Armageddon and it is set to introduce Happy Feet, based on the new Warner Brothers movie.

Coincidentally, I was just reading’s comparison of console launch games last night. Guess which game sits alone, stinking at the bottom of the launch-game barrel. It’s Happy Feet, the Wii’s worst launch game, and one of the worst launch games of all time, according to 1UP’s analysis. Maybe it will sell due to the movie tie-in—and according to the article, this seems to be the real core of Midway’s overall strategy—but the game still looks like typical licensed garbage.

Here’s my business strategy for Midway: make fun games.


Sunday, November 26, 2006

Wii Impressions

I've only been Wii-ing for three days, but I've checked out most of the features. These, my friends, are my impressions:

Overall, I think the Wii is going to be a very nice system. The set-up was easy. The games have been fun. The controller is striking and it works better than I had begun to fear. This post is a bit long, but I wanted to get it all out in one go. Please read on.

Getting the Wii up and running was simple, as might be expected from a Nintendo product. The unit is slim, roughly the size of the re-designed PS2, and can be positioned horizontally or vertically. The infrared sensor bar is the one noticeably unique element in the system set-up. The bar sits either just below or just above the TV screen. It works in conjunction with the Wii-remote in triangulating the position of a pointer or crosshairs on screen.

When I first fired up the Wii, I was impressed with how responsive and accurate the pointer was. The Wii-remote is used to navigate the system's main menu screens, using a little hand with a pointing finger. Moving the Wii-remote moves the hand, and the controls are very responsive: even little things like rotating the remote causes the hand to turn. Overall, at least in menu navigation, the controls felt tight and right-on.

The Wii interface takes the form of different "channels." The first channel is dedicated to whichever game is in the Wii. Another channel houses the Miis, cutesy little characters or avatars that users create, use in some games (like Wii Sports), and share with other gamers. There is a calendar/planner channel and a digital photos channel that I expect will get very little use from me. There is also an online Wii shopping channel, which is where virtual console game are purchased, and online weather and news channels, although these last two won't be operational until late December. Each virtual console game that is purchased also occupies a new channel.

Clicking the pointer on a game channel starts that game. I'll just briefly touch on the games:

Wii Sports is fun but a bit too simple. Clearly, it is meant to demonstrate the motion sensitive controller, and it has an aroma of the tech demo about it. That said, bowling with the Wii-remote works really well. On my first play-through I bowled a 129 (it wasn't as easy for me as the oddly negative pro-Wii writer at Slate suggested), which is about as good as I can manage in real life, too. Golf, baseball, and tennis were rather fun, but many aspects of play, like the running controls, were taken over by the computer. This diminishes how deeply I can really get into these games. So far, boxing has felt a bit unresponsive and wonky, because I naturally try to punch faster than the game allows and the motion-sensing feels out of touch with my motions. That said, each sport has a training mode which can deliver a short-but-sweet blast of fun, like the bowling training in which you hurl the ball at a wide-ass lane with 91 pins. Wii Sports is sure to please casual gamers and even non-gamers, though from my perspective hard-core types are likely to want more from a sports title.

The only other Wii game I have now is Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. I'm about 5 hours in at this point. The game seems solid and unmistakably Zelda-ish. If you've played any Zelda game since Ocarina of Time, which this game resembles in some ways, you will be very familiar with the style of play. I feel like I am only scraping at the surface of Twilight Princess, I've explored just a small piece of the game world, and I've read it takes upwards of 40 hours to finish. So far I'm having a great time, and enjoying the Wii controls more than I expected. Like many Wii games, this Zelda uses the Wii-remote and the nunchuck attachment, which consists of a motion-sensing controller (with a thumbstick and two triggers) for the left hand that connects to the Wii-remote via a cable (hence the name). Shaking and swinging the controllers to make Link swing his sword feels very natural. Likewise, aiming the slingshot with the Wii-remote is easy, and the crosshairs feel fluid and responsive to movements in the remote. I must say I expected less. Twilight Princess was born as a Gamecube game, and some reviewers have felt that the Wii controls seem tacked-on. For the most part, I disagree: from my perspective, the controls felt natural and took good advantage of the motion sensing. My only gripe is that the most powerful attacks come from locking on to a target with one button and pressing another button, with no use of the motion controls at all. When I play, I am almost inclined to use less powerful attacks that use the motion controls because swinging the Wii-remote to make Link deliver a sword slash really is fun and more immersive than pushing buttons.

Just a short note about graphics: as you've likely heard, the Wii graphics are nothing special. At least for the games I have, they are not much above the Gamecube. The lighting and water effects look really nice, true, but the characters are still blocky, lines are a bit jaggy, and some textures are muddy. To be completely honest, this saddens and worries me a bit. I'm not a big graphics whore, but I must admit I enjoy the eye candy some, and seeing what the Xbox 360 and PS3 can do leaves me envious. I worry because, although the Wii clearly has a lot of casual gamer appeal, producers will need to keep putting out fun and innovative titles to keep the system interesting to serious gamers--they can't rely on sweet graphics to carry the weight--and this is a tall order. Of course, I also think this is exactly what designers should do all the time, but my years as a gamer have taught me that interesting, unique, well-designed games are rare.

With that said, I've must say I really love the simple, dated graphics and old-school gameplay of the Wii Virtual Console. There are something like 13 games from the NES, SNES, Genesis, Tubografx 16, and Nintendo 64 available for purchase online right now, and the list will expand as time goes on. So far, I've bought Solomon's Key for the NES and Bomberman '93 for the Turbografx. I'm waiting on Gunstar Heroes for the Genesis, which was supposed to be available at launch but hasn't shown up yet. From the two I have, I can say that these games look and play just about exactly like the originals. I was psyched and a bit surprised to see Solomon's Key on the games list. That was one of my favorite NES games, but I think it was less popular than Gyromite. It is an odd choice for a launch game, but I am grateful.

I think the virtual console has a lot of potential. I'm not sure how much young or casual gamers will get into it, but for a gaming fogey like me, the VC will likely be a big $$$ sink. Right now, I am looking forward to Super Metroid for the SNES, Devil's Crush for the Turbografx 16, and Excitebike 64 for the N64. I'm sure I'll encounter all sorts of games I haven't thought about in a while, and I expect a fair number of impulse purchases to take place. Nevertheless, I think the pricing on the VC is to high. Right now, games are around $5 for NES, $6 for some Turbografx 16, $8 for Genesis and SNES, and $10 for N64. Sure, those prices are fine if you just want a couple games. But I want dozens of these games, and I find the prices to be just outside of impulse range, particularly for the Genesis, SNES, and N64. Most of these games are available online for free if you have an emulator. I'm willing to play by the rules and purchase them, but I expect a good, and by good I mean cheap, price. I would like to see top prices around $3 NES, $4 Turbografx, Genesis, and SNES, and $5 N64. And assorted cheap-ass games ($1 or less) would also be appreciated. Maybe this will happen eventually when the market is more saturated. Right now, though, $8 for Altered Beast is crazy; maybe I would plunk down $2 for nostalgia's sake. (An aside: I see no reason that new, original games should be excluded from the VC. I would love to see some new games in the old style. And look how popular Geometry Wars is.)

To (finally) sum up: I have mostly good things to say about the Wii. The controls work better than I was beginning to fear, although they haven't been really tested for me yet, which will probably happen when a compelling first-person shooter comes out. The graphics are nothing special, and for me this means developers have to work extra hard to come up with unique games. I hope it is a challenge they rise to, rather than seeing the Wii as a casual-gamer junk heap that they can throw any half-baked game onto because the audience is not discerning. It would be nice if Nintendo beefed-up the online functionality, but I don't think Nintendo totally gets this yet, so I expect it to be only half-realized like on the DS. Finally, the virtual console is solid, and I hope it grows into a vibrant, nostalgia-heavy marketplace (with some new games mixed in).

So far, I am quite smitten by my new friend. I hope this crush can grow into a full-blown love affair, and there is no reason as yet to think that it won't.


Friday, November 24, 2006

After PS3 Hate Comes Wii Love

Seth Schiesel, the games writer at the New York Times, ripped the PS3 a bit last week. Today he reviewed the Wii, and was much more positive about the console. Sure, he admits, the hard-core gamer is likely to still be focused on the Xbox 360 or the PS3. But Schiesel enjoys the pick-up-and-play sensibility of the Wii, which led to--and this approach seems to be becoming a game-reviewer cliche--EVEN HIS MOM playing the Wii. To sum up his review: "over all the system left a big smile on my face."

I'll just say that I generally agree with his impressions. I'm not going to get into my take on the Wii just yet. But I'll put up a long-ish post this weekend after I've gotten in a bit more play time.

[UPDATE: The Wii beats the PS3 in a friends-test from the Washington Post.]


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

An Early Visit From Santa

Look what is in my house right now! Yay!

I'm glad I live near the Nintendo World Store, where the Wii is in relative abundance. I got lots of holiday obligations, but I plan on getting some impressions up over Thanksgiving weekend. Stay tuned and we can hopefully answer some of the criticisms that I addressed yesterday.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Premature Wii-jaculations

The disappointed press has its say again. This time the self-consciously oppositional Slate hates on Wii.

I'm down with the criticisms. Certainly it is a little painful to see the fawning coverage of the launch of these consoles. They are consumer products, after all, not the second coming.

Yet from the start of this Slate piece, I have to question the author's ability to offer fair criticism. "I'll admit it—I was in love with the Nintendo Wii long before we'd ever met," writes Erik Sofge. Yet when he gets a chance to meet-up in real life, like an internet dater after a flirtatious email build-up, reality lets him down.

I get that way too, sometimes. I build up high expectations and when they aren't met I feel very negative. Yet in these situations, the negativity is related to fantasies, not reality. It's a very human reaction. But it is a problem for critics, since unmet high expectations shouldn't count against something.

Still, Sofge's criticism has me worried. "The ugly truth is that the Wii's already-legendary motion-detection system doesn't work very well," he writes. Specifically, he has trouble aiming in-game crosshairs with the motion-detecting controls. Playing first-person shooters was one of the things I was most looking forward to with the Wii-mote. I knew the new Metroid for the Wii would have the same old lock-on feature of the Gamecube's Metroid Prime games. I worried: maybe the Wii-mote is not as accurate as had been suggested. This Slate piece seems to validate that fear.

Slate is running this as a pro/con sorta thing, so they also have a more positive review from Chris Suellentrop. This dude is glowing, even though he doesn't have exclusively great things to say about existing Wii titles like Wii Sports and the Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess. It seems his excitement and positive feelings are pinned on how much he expects to love Wii games in the future. High expectations, as we have seen, have a way of not being met.

(Okay, no more cutesy Wii-related post titles for a while.)


Monday, November 20, 2006

Poo Poo on Playstation 3

As I recently posted, I've been having lustful thoughts about the PS3. Maybe this is partly due to how scarce the thing will be over the next few months. But the games look gorgeous. And Sony has such a massive base from the first two Playstations that I expect PS3 will also become the dominant system of this generation, which means the best games selection.

So I was surprised to read this bluntly negative review of the new Playstation in the New York Times this morning. There was a fair amount of grumbling when the PS2 dropped five years ago, and it eventually evolved into a great system. Maybe the PS3 will just need some time. In any case, I am sure I won't be getting one until well into next year at the earliest.


Friday, November 17, 2006

Happy Birthday Aspy!

The Aspidistra is one year old today! Check out the first post. Have I lived up to my promises? Actually, if you browse the archives you'll see that, in early December 2005, The Aspidistra went to sleep and didn't wake up until June 2006, when it really got crackin'.

Still, this is the real birthday. What else has happened on November 17? Check this shit: Martin Barre, guitarist for Jethro Tull, was born in 1946. John Glascock, bassist for Jethro Tull in the late '70s, died in 1979.

It is in the humble opinion of this narrator that this is not just something that happened. This cannot be one of those things. This, please, cannot be that. And for what I would like to say, I can't. This was not just a matter of chance.



Wii-mote creates Wii-motions?

Um, maybe you heard the Playstation 3 launches today. I know the local news was all over the “story.” On my TV I saw hundreds of young men standing in line all night in the rain to probably not get the console, since Sony is shipping an underwhelming 400,000 to North America.

I doubt the Nintendo Wii, which launches on Sunday, will generate the same sorts of scenes. The Wii will have 1,000,000 units available at launch, with maybe 1.4 million through the end of the year.

Still, I have to admit those sexy PS3 graphics have had me lusting after the rarer machine, even though I’m a big Nintendo fan and I’m looking forward to the Wii-mote. Friends like Jeff have been coveting a Wii for a little while, but for me I didn’t really start to get cravings until I read this unusual essay by Jonah Lehrer on Seed about the increased emotional resonance from Wii games. (This is the first Wii review I have read that quotes William James.) I knew the Wii was supposed to increase immersion, but I had mainly thought of this to mean plain-old excitement, simple stimulation. But now, as I ponder whether a Wii will really create more emotional gaming, I find I want one a lot more. Oh, and it also costs less than half of what the PS3 costs. Goddamn Sony.


Thursday, November 16, 2006

Dog Humps Cat, Cogs Born?

C'mon. What the hell is this doing on Reuters? Sure, it's a cute picture: a cat between two puppies.

But read the caption. The owner claims that those puppies are really half-cat, born after a dog humped that cat. Not possible. At least the caption uses scare quotes to say that the owner "claims" those are the offspring of a dog-cat mating. Still, I'm surprised Reuters gave it any play. I can't understand why a geneticist would even bother testing this. Those are either cats that just happen to look dog-like, or puppies that are mixed in with a cat litter. Those two animals can't hybridize.

Oh, here's another cool interspecies-fucking story, with a super twist: dude FUCKED A DEAD DEER!

You may need to register, so if you don't want to bother, here's the nut from the Duluth News Tribune:

Bryan James Hathaway, 20, of Superior faces a misdemeanor charge of sexual gratification with an animal. He is accused of having sex with a dead deer he saw beside Stinson Avenue on Oct. 11.

A motion filed last week by his attorney, public defender Fredric Anderson, argued that because the deer was dead, it was not considered an animal and the charge should be dismissed.

[Thanks, Carlin!]


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Videogame Snob? Moi?

My amigo Jeff, keeper of the eponymous and often hilarious, sent me an interesting question yesterday. Are there such things as video game snobs? he asked. My first response was, Of course, and I am one! But then I thought about it some more, pondered an example he gave, and realized it is a more complex question than it first seemed.

Jeff wondered if liking Katamari Damacy, a quirky and original game, as well as liking Ratchet and Clank (Part Whatever), a fun but perhaps hackneyed platformer, indicated that snobbery, here understood as considering one’s tastes as superior to someone else’s, didn’t work for games. Maybe other elements of games, like how much fun they are, contributed a new variable to an old equation, and rendered a common style of criticism and connoisseurship obsolete.

Do you want to know more?

A snob, or course, is not just someone who would say some games are better than others. A snob would say despite the fact that many people think X is a good game, it is really bad and their tastes are poor.

The clearest case in which to examine this sort of snobbery is when a game that is critically lambasted ends up a big seller. 50 Cent Bulletproof is generally considered to be crap. Yet it sold more than a million copies. Here, critics and many gamers are at odds, and to suggest that the masses who bought the game have skewed and poor criteria for judging games seems justified to me. People bought the game because they think 50 Cent is cool.

Call it snobbery if you like, but it is an inevitable result given that a portion of the game audience (reviewers, hard core gamers, etc.) plays lots of games and devotes lots of thought to games while a much larger portion of the audience doesn’t play as many games and just wants a kick. Put simply, a big part of the audience is unschooled and naïve, and they will have different criteria than critics to judge a game. I am a game snob when it is defined this way; I think naïve opinions are inferior.

But it gets trickier when you begin to explore the different genres and traditions in which games exist, and here Jeff’s example of Ratchet and Clank seems apt. Certainly, there are game formulas that work well. I consider these the videogame equivalent of Michael Bay’s movie The Rock. I wouldn’t argue that The Rock is a great cinematic achievement, but I loved it when I saw it in the theater. It performed its genre duties in an exciting and entertaining manner, and I enjoyed what I first thought would be formulaic garbage.

Lots of games fit in this category. They might be polished, like New Super Mario Bros. for the DS, but critics could make a fair argument that the Mario formula is too overdone to truly produce anything great. I’m talking about more than the fact that we gamers have put Mario through his paces many times before. I think the genre has deep problems, like the mindless collection of coins, that were fine solutions to the problem of making an interesting game in a previous console generation, but ripe for critical analysis now.

Still, I enjoyed New Super Mario Bros. because I am a fan of 2-D platformers. Here, I think the concept of fun and play enters into the critical equation and changes the way I, at least, evaluate games. Another good example comes from sequels (I’m talking about you, Guitar Hero II). I don’t mind sequels that do the same as the original in games as much as I do in movies. Good gameplay can go a long way towards erasing some of the critical scorn that might come from the lack of originality.

Critics do argue that originality is a legitimate demand, of course. I just think most gamers don’t listen and don’t agree because of their limited experience. So a break between the critics and the majority of the buying population develops and leads to accusations of snobbery.

As a seasoned gamer, I put a high value on originality. I’m usually willing to overlook problematic gameplay in favor new concepts. So here I will admit to being a partial snob. But for me, damning a solid game because it is formulaic or derivative is going too far. The interactivity of games increases my tolerance for things I’ve seen, thought, and felt before, and I don’t indulge in the snobbery I might if I was evaluating something that wasn’t a videogame. After GTA III and Vice City, San Andreas didn’t blow me away, but it is still a great way to spend a weekend afternoon.


Friday, November 10, 2006

Has Freud Really Fallen?

Writer Denyse O'Leary, a specialist in religiously-motivated critiques of established science, has started a new blog, the awkwardly titled Mindful Hack. She had recently teamed with William Dembski on Uncommon Descent, the blogospheric home of Dembski's religiously-motivated attack on evolutionary biology. Her new blog promises the same quality "science journalism" in the realm of neuroscience.

O'Leary's first post is a premature celebration of the "fall" of Sigmund Freud. Creationists love to group Freud, Darwin, and Marx as some imaginary super-team of materialists. According to their logic, Marx and Freud have been discredited, and Darwin will soon join them. Any educated, reasonable person would of course object to this. Darwin is unimpeachable today. Furthermore, although every nominally Marxist country is truly a mess, Karl Marx the political philosopher is by no means discredited. And certainly Sigmund Freud is alive and kicking in the world of psychology. Please read on.

Freud-haters love to point to excesses that have been committed in his name, things like the recovered memory movement, and gleefully declare Freud is dead. The problem is, they are simply wrong. I know plenty of working psychologists, both in hospitals and private practice, who trace their theoretical orientation directly to Freud.

Of course, many of Freud's theories have been changed over time. He even tinkered with his ideas over his lifetime. Personally, I feel like Freud erred in being too explicit in his theories. He really felt like he was coming up with a universal science of the self. Most psychologists now consider things like penis envy to be silly elaborations of Freud's own fixations.

Yet Freud laid the foundation for a theory of personality that has yet to be surpassed. Does anyone really doubt that our emotional reactions to people and situations come from a mess of internal conflicts, some of which we are unaware of at the time? Does anyone doubt that infants approach the world and in particular their parents with a tangle of needs and desires, and that their early experiences with having these desires met or not met create expectations--again, many of which are unconscious--that shape a personality for life? These are contributions from Freud's thinking.

Psychology, practiced as such, is not a science as much as a working philosophy based on a practical understanding of the brain, namely that any process of mind is rooted in the biological brain and what happens to it. Religious people, of course, hate this because it conflicts with their absolutely unsupportable belief in god-given spirit. So, like O'Leary, they latch on to straw-men arguments, blaming Freud for excesses like the satanic-abuse/recovered memories hysteria (which, ironically, was very popular in populations suffering from the god delusion).

I wonder: do religious types have any viable alternative theory about how personalities form and develop? And would those believers in the immaterial spirit really be happy if neuroscience, the real academic challenge to Freud, were to replace social/developmental approaches with a more genetically-based one?


Tuesday, November 07, 2006

The Sounds of Space

Forbidden Planet has been called the greatest of the 1950s-era sci-fi movies. By Pauline Kael, no less. It is a sentiment with which I agree. But one of the things I always found most appealing about the movie was the music. The entire soundtrack was created on electronic instruments by married composers Louis and Bebe Barron. It is a masterpiece of bloops, bleeps, and squeals. "We were delighted to hear people tell us that the tonalities in Forbidden Planet remind them of what their dreams sound like," the composers write in the liner notes to the soundtrack.

Sadly, electronic avant-garde music of this sort never really caught on. Mucho props to Scar Stuff, an excellent blog run by a fellow named Jason, for making more space-age sounds from the past available to fans. Check out Music For Robots, a record from 1964 that features electronic soundscapes in the same tradition as Forbidden Planet. The first track is a spoken-word essay about robots. But the second track, Tone Tales from Tomorrow, is the good stuff, the 40-year-old sound of the future. Some days I like to listen to this and the Forbidden Planet soundtrack as I gaze out of the window on the commuter train. It makes the dull and familiar commute feel like a fantastic voyage.

[UPDATE: Check out the real sounds of space here. Some sound remarkably like the sounds of the space-age imagination above, like this one from Saturn's radio emissions.]

[via boingboing]


Monday, November 06, 2006

1000th Visitor

The Aspidistra got its 1000th visitor yesterday. I’m quite pleased, although this number must be taken with a couple heaping spoonfuls of salt. First, I didn’t put my sitemeter counter up right away and I also lost a week when I was updating the layout. Second, and more importantly, like the self-googling guy that I am, I check my blog a lot and rack up visits that way. I have this crazy hope that someday I’ll get enough traffic that my visits will be overwhelmed by hits from others, but until then I just have to live with the knowledge that my count is noticeably inflated.

Still, this is the best way to count, so I’ll happily take number 1000. I’m also happy to report that this wasn’t a webcrawler bot. This was a person brought here from a google search for “religious idiots.” Here's the relevant post. I take some pride in the fact that that term brought them here. I’m no friend of religion. Expand the post for the sitemeter data.

Here’s a link to the info. Or just read the excerpt below. They didn't stay long, but what the hey. I'll take what I can get.

Domain Name (Commercial)
ISP America Online
Continent: Europe
Country: United Kingdom
Language English (United Kingdom)
Operating System Microsoft WinXP
Browser Firefox
Time of Visit Nov 5 2006 10:19:34 am
Last Page View Nov 5 2006 10:19:34 am
Visit Length 0 seconds
Page Views 1
Referring URL
Search Engine
Search Words religious idiots
Visit Entry Page http://theaspidistra...eligious-idiots.html
Visit Exit Page http://theaspidistra...eligious-idiots.html
Visitor's Time Nov 5 2006 3:19:34 pm
Visit Number 1,000


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Will Wright in New Yorker

Last week, after I mentioned Harper's and the Atlantic giving serious coverage to games, I wondered where the New Yorker was. Well, I should have just waited a few days, because this week's issue of the New Yorker has a profile of Will Wright centered around his new game, Spore.

You can read the article online here, so I'm not going to do a summary, but I did want to discuss a couple points of the profile that I found interesting. Expand, if you please.

First, the story covers some of the same topics as the Harper's serious games discussion, namely what role games can serve in education. John Seabrook, the author, explains how Wright showed him an email from a concerned professor. The professor writes:

Most of us are in agreement that this younger generation--raised on video games--has learned to be reactive, instead of active, and worse, they have lost their imaginative abilities and creativity because the games provide all the images, sounds, and possible outcomes for them.

Wright, of course, disagrees. He sees games as potentially more useful learning tools than the traditional lectures-and-schoolbooks model. He says:
I would argue that as the world becomes more complex, and as outcomes become less about success and failure, games are better at preparing you. The education system is going to realize this sooner or later. It's starting. Teachers are entering the system who grew up playing games. They are going to want to engage with the kids using games.

I think Wright is correct here and the professor sounds like a stodgy old grump. I don't have that professor's teaching experience to tell me what games do to imagination, but I have my own life experience, an experience that has been filled with videogames but is not lacking for imagination or creative endeavors.

I might also point to people like Wright, who live lives suffused with games but show the creativity to produce new and exciting things all the time. But I notice that Seabrook puts Wright in a strange category here, and by implication Seabrook seems to side with the grumpoid professor. Wright grew up before games, Seabrook points out a couple times. For example:
The enormous success of The Sims means that children today can grow up without having the hands-on model-making experiences that Wright enjoyed as a child, and that inspired him to make games in the first place.

So Wright didn't start off his life playing videogames--they didn't exist yet, after all--but that doesn't mean he has found the only path into making creative games. The implication is that model-making and play in the real world inspired Wright, yet the products of his inspiration will rob today's kids of the same thing. Bullshit, I say. I was a child of the videogame age. I had an Atari by the age of five and a NES at age 10 or 11. But I still played outside, built castles with bricks, played tag, had fantasy wars in the woods, played with action figures, and all the other imaginative games of a typical late '70s and '80s suburban childhood.

Otherwise, I thought the article was quite good. What I found particularly interesting was Seabrook's distinction between Wright's fascination with games and play, and a more stereotypical version of a creative type as being an author of grand ideas.
Wright is not a visionary, in the sense that he is not the author of a world view; he tailors his ideas according to the technical parameters of the simulation and the logic of games.

This sounded harsh to me at first, like Seabrook was saying that Wright should not be celebrated like Zola or Joyce, creative figures Seabrook name-drops at the beginning of the article. Maybe that is indeed what Seabrook intended.

But a bit later in the profile, this vision of Wright seems more nuanced.
When I asked Wright about Second Life, he said, "I think what you're going to see now on Second Life is people who will start to develop games--someone will invite other people to kick a soccer ball around, and it will go from there."

After this, I began to see how even if you granted Seabrook his point about visionary status, there was still something really great about Wright's world view. The guy really loves games. There's something about that that strikes me as very pure and admirable. Maybe he doesn't go on about the philosophical or psychological features of online life, but he sees ways to create games where people are and encourages people to explore and interact in those game spaces. I might just be interested in checking Second Life out if there was something like that there.


Sunday, October 29, 2006

Halloween Movies: Enough With The Torture Porn

At a Halloween party this past weekend, the conversation turned to horror movies. Our host had set up a video projector and was showing Halloween-appropriate movies in the background. I brought my copy of Dead Alive on dvd, and one friend had to cover her eyes on occasion because of that film's crazy gore. "I like scary movies, but I don't like gory movies," she said. I happen to love both, but if I had to pick one, I might chose gore.

Yet it was with some frustration that I read a story on the state of horror cinema in last week's Time magazine. Actually, I'm quite happy that in the past few years, horror has been in one of its periodic renaissances. I just wish the genre would get over its torture jones. I get it. It is kinda weird to get your kicks by watching people get chopped up. But I'm sick of movies like Saw and Hostel that revel in their ability to make audiences uncomfortable. It is much too self-conscious, and it is just one part of what gore is about.


Saturday, October 28, 2006

Saturday Freenis: Winter Games

Let this help you get ready for winter: Line Rider, a flash game at It's not a traditional game, actually, more like a virtual physics toy. Maybe it invents the genre of sledding simulator? In any case, I find it terribly addictive. I never get tired of getting my little sledder up to speed and then launching him up a ramp into a ceiling directly above the jump. Take that!

I'd recommend looking around at some of the other games at ThorGaming. Lots of fun stuff there.


Tigers, You Break My Heart

What happened? They defeated the Yankees, destroyed Oakland. We were riding high. Everyone back home was proud of Detroit. Then they look like a bunch of amateurs when it really matters. So many errors. I know it's just a game, but it feels like getting dumped.


Thursday, October 26, 2006

Ghosts In The Machine

The November, 2006, issue of the Atlantic has a feature about videogames called Sex, Lies, And Videogames, written by Jonathan Rauch. (What’s with the thoughtful magazines coming out with videogame pieces? Where are you, New Yorker?)

The article is an interesting take on the attempt to broaden the appeal of games, mainly by improving characters. Most of the article is taken up with a discussion of Façade, a conversation-based game, or what the article calls “interactive drama.” As a version of the “are games art?” discussion, this one has a lot more reporting and details than most, which is nice.

However, the big problem of games like Façade is the AI, which, right now, promises much more than it delivers. And I’m skeptical it will reach the levels necessary to make a good game anytime soon. The article is not available to non-subscribers, so I’ll pull some choice bits for examination after the jump.

Here’s the main thrust of the article:

In certain rarefied circles of AI academia and video-game design, people sometimes theorize about a computer program that would combine the graphical realism of a modern video game with the emotional impact of great art. “Interactive drama,” the concept is called. It might contain artificial people you could converse with, get to know, and love or hate. It might engineer dramatic situations, complete with revelations and reversals. Entering this world, you would feel as if you had been thrust into the midst of a soap opera or a reality-TV show.

Apart from a minor quibble—I think a number of games have already achieved the emotional impact of great art—I think this is a fine goal.

As Andrew Stern, one of the Façade designers, says in the story, “There’s no drama genre, there’s no comedy genre … What exists right now are action movies, basically.” More comedy, more drama, nothing necessarily wrong with that. Rauch continues:
If videogames seem inhuman, that is because they lack humans. Their esoteric syntax is an artifact of a stunted environment in which blasting someone’s head off is easy but talking to him is impossible.

I have to admit: I’m immediately struck by a defensive impulse. Why do we need deep drama from games? The background assumption seems to be that games are limited. Why can’t we let them be as they are and do what they do best? People don’t bemoan the lack of comedy in sculpture. Are we trying to shoehorn things into a medium in which they don’t fit? I’m inclined to side with people like Steven Johnson, who have argued that games can’t and shouldn’t be judged with the same criteria that we judge, say, novels.

But I recognize games often have humans undertaking actions in a world filled with other humans, and in that case we can link it with drama. And I want to see games evolve to be as broad, popular, and varied as possible, so let’s explore all possible game designs at this early stage in game history. If some games had realistic characters that responded to players, that would be swell. I’m all for “redefining the meaning of video-game ‘play,’” as the story puts it. (Although I still want to be able to race cars and blow heads off.)

I know more non-gamers would get into videogames if they could talk to the characters. I’ve been playing Façade over the last few days, and my wife snatched the computer away from me. Talking with characters is just what she wants in a game, and the simple interactions of Animal Crossing and Knights of the Old Republic only go so far with her.

The problem is, the conversations in Façade are very poor. When players aren’t being led by the nose by the characters of Façade asking yes or no questions, at best it seems like the characters in the game pick up on mood words like “angry” or exciting terms like “sex” to steer the conversation. Often, the meaning of conversations feels like a result of pattern seeking on the player’s part.

It seems to boil down to a problem of AI. If you’ve ever talked to a chat bot online, you’ll know what I mean. The most successful ones seem to be those that give ambiguous answers that you can imagine were related to your statement. And talks I have had with people who work in AI tend to be pessimistic, almost suggesting that even seeking a virtual intelligence that you can talk to is a silly task, and the goal of passing the Turing test an out-dated fantasy.

But I’m out of my depth here. Maybe I’ve just heard from the pessimists. Maybe there are revolutions just around the corner. Michael Mateas, another designer of Façade, predicts it will be “totally doable within twenty years.”

Ultimately, I’m a wishful pessimist when it comes to believable AI in videogames. As someone from Electronic Arts tells Rauch in the article:
A lot of people have worked on it. Every year we’re like, “We’re going to design incredibly intelligent, fluid humans who act realistically.” We try to take this huge step—and we fall all the way back down. At least [Mateas and Stern] ended up somewhere new. It doesn’t all work, but at least it is a step.


Monday, October 23, 2006

Who Needs the Xbox 360?

If you've followed this blog, you may have noted that I've lusted after an Xbox 360. Well, no more. No, I haven't convinced the Mrs. that we should spend $400 on a new system. Instead, I got an even newer Xbox. A portable one even.

Well, honestly, this thing is a piece of junk. It makes Game and Watch look like a next-gen miracle. I found it in a box of Cocoa Krispies. It plays only one game, called Robo Blast. Robo Blast is a bad game. These odd little smudges move across the screen, and the d-pad controls a cursor. Place the cursor over a robot and push the button to pull the trigger. Beep! The robot disappears. Here's a closer look at one of the robots.

The game has four levels. The goal is to prevent the robots from making it across the screen. They speed up a higher levels. Let too many get across the screen, and it's game over. I'll be frank: this game is not fun. It is part of a series. Looks like there are four more "Xboxes" to get from Cocoa Krispies. They are 1) Motorcycle Madness, 2) Mystic Castle, 3) Disco Mania, 4) Space Blaster. Not one seems promising. At least they're portable.


Friday, October 20, 2006

Friday Freenis, Chess Edition

I'm no good at chess. Too impatient. It is fun enough to play, so long as I'm challenging a fellow bumbler.

One thing I do like about chess, though, is the way the knights move about the squares with their L-shaped hopping. It must light up regions of my brain that enjoy seeking patterns in the world.

Troyis, an addictive puzzle game you can play for free online--although for only 15 minutes a day without ponying up some duckets for a full version--taps into this pattern-loving part of my brain. How about you? MG?

[Via Evolutionblog]


Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Why Is It Raining Rain Men?

What causes autism? TV? Havin’ smart parents ‘n’ stuff? A couple of crazy new theories dropped this month to explain the spike in autism diagnoses we’ve been seeing over the past couple decades.

On his relatively new Discover-based blog, John Horgan covers the hypothesis that the qualities that make successful science-y types can lead to autistic children. In Slate, Gregg Easterbrook says TV might turn kids autistic.

As for the first idea, first reported in IEEE Spectrum, a British researcher hypothesizes that autism is an extreme version of a normal human trait called systematizing, the tendency to focus on grouped things and patterns in the world. Scientists and engineers have this trait, and they are meeting and mating more than ever, suggests Simon Baron-Cohen.

In the Slate piece, Gregg Easterbrook—who can always be counted on for a blood-pressure-raising crazy piece of science journalism—trumpets new research suggesting that watching TV before age three is linked autism. However, a quick glance at the new research reveals that it is a non-peer-reviewed work by some economists. This is not immediately damning, but raises those red flags. I’m no fan of Easterbrook, so I did appreciate the wild take-downs in the Slate comments. Actually, many of the comments rip into what seems like pretty shoddy research. I’m not surprised Easterbrook is giving high-profile attention to such problematic stuff. He’s a quite poor science writer.

For my part, I’m still not convinced that autism is one thing, biologically speaking. As I say in the comments section of Horgan’s blog:

Autism seems to be a bit of a trash-can diagnosis. I've often thought that so-called high-functioning autistic people were just extreme types of normal human ways of being. This would be consistent with the systematizer theory. However, some people classified as autistic seem to be so disabled, unable to talk, unable to live independently, that I wonder if their "disease" has different underlying causes than the higher functioning individuals. It is harder for me to see the more severely disabled folks as just being outliers in a normal distribution. This is a problem I have when trying to understand possible causes for all sorts of spectrum disorders.


Monday, October 16, 2006

Modern-Day Book Burners Ban Blankets

The modern-day equivalent of book burners have struck again in the heart of conservative and ignorant America (a previous attack here). As reported at the Comics Reporter, and then picked up in local and blogospheric media, a library in Missouri has pulled from its shelves two graphic novels, Fun Home by Alison Bechdel and Blankets by Craig Thompson. I haven't read Fun Home, but Blankets is probably the most emotionally resonant graphic novel I have ever read. Of course readers will find drawings of boobies, a couple penises, teenage sexuality, sexual abuse, and a community of closed-minded religious conservatives in the book. They will also find a very moving and honest portrait of a young man growing up, and a thoughtful analysis of the way we make meaning in our lives through art.

Defenders of comic books and free expression generally have written to the library board in Marshall, Missouri, asking them to protect First Amendment rights. The letter also points out what seems like a no-brainer in this case: Blankets, at least, is not pornographic as the one complaining moron in Marshall claimed. Why closed-minded and conservative types will forever seek to deny aspects of the world around them is beyond me. To deal with difficult things that young adults face in their lives is noble, and literature that does this should be embraced by honest people everywhere.

The library has only temporarily removed the books from its shelves. I'm hoping they wisely decide to replace them. Stay tuned, as more meetings are expected this week.

[Thanks Marc!]


Monday, October 09, 2006

Aspidistra Update

I'm swtiching The Aspidistra to Blogger Beta. This means my whole template got scrapped and I have to beautify the new one.

On top of that, real life demands my full attention this week, so expect the changes to roll out slowly. I hope to be back to normal by next weekend.


Friday, October 06, 2006

Big $$$ Ads Targeting Gamers?

Last night I was watching TV, and I see this ad for Travelers Insurance. I know the snowball rolling out of control is an old staple in cartoons and such, but to a gamer like me images of a ball rolling around the city picking up chairs, people, lamposts, and cars calls to mind one thing: Katamari Damacy. Is it possible that this commercial is NOT based directly on that game?

Then on the train to work this morning I'm daydreaming and looking out the window, and a billboard at the Pelham station catches my eye: "Make Rupees" it says. The ad is for Bloomberg. Now, I know rupees are the name for currencies in some south Asian countries--and this is clearly a play on "Make Whopee"--but rupees are also the currency in the Legend of Zelda games.

So I make a connection. And I begin to think. Can these ads be targeted at gamers? Both Travelers and Bloomberg serve people with lots of money. Like, you know, grownups and such. Not gamers. If these ads are at all related to games, I think it is because the creative types who make the ads are in fact gamers.


Thursday, October 05, 2006

Two Kinds of Art has an interesting essay up about the evolution of videogame box art that manages to stay clear of the nostalgia-drenched tone that normally permeates such features. Judging a Game By Its Cover traces some interesting trends over the years, including the de-Japanification of box art that used to be routine when a Japanese game was released in the US. In the case of Ico, the US changes completely erased the lonely atmosphere of the Japanese and European versions. This example doesn't seem as much de-Japanification as dumbing-down to me.

Props are given to the US version of the Legend of Zelda art, while the universally derided Mega Man box is held up to ridicule yet again. This obviously got me thinking of my favorite art. When I was little I was quite captivated by box art from Imagic. Faxanadu for the NES was classy. You may have noticed that I am a fan of Golgo 13; this includes the box art for the first game (check out the sequel for a study in contrasts). Recently, I've enjoyed the art for Katamari Damacy and Pikmin 2 (although I think I like an alternate version more). Feel free to get nostalgic and list some favorites in the comments section.


Wednesday, October 04, 2006

A Connecting Principle Linked To The Invisible

The end of last week found me investigating the large extra dimensions model of the universe for work. Then in my internet ramblings I stumbled as a Sally-come-lately into the cryptozoological phenomenon of rods. Next, I was paging through Carl Sagan’s The Demon Haunted World, again for work. Finally, yesterday morning on the train I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “From Beyond.” Clearly, I am in the midst of a full-blown synchronicitous event, directing my attention to considerations of the reality of things we can’t see. Join me in ruminations on unobservables after the jump.

  • The large extra dimensions model, or ADD model, is an attempt to understand the relative weakness of gravity compared to the other four fundamental forces. It posits extra dimensions, folded up very small, which are filled with gravity. We can’t see or feel these dimensions because they are so small, but the high-energy Large Hadron Collider may test the model when it starts up next year.
  • Rods, also known as skyfish, are cryptozoological entities that can only be seen with video cameras. Enthusiasts suggest that rods move too fast to be seen without these tools. The pictures are real, believe it or not. But critics make an utterly convincing argument, suggesting the rods are motion-blurred insects captured mid-flight with long exposure times.
  • The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark is Sagan’s defense of scientific rationality against all forms of superstition, religious and otherwise. He charts the fine line good scientists must trace between skepticism and acceptance of new ideas.
    We humans have a talent for deceiving ourselves. Skepticism must be a component of the explorer’s toolkit, or we will lose our way. There are wonders enough out there without our inventing any.
  • Lovecraft’s short story “From Beyond” involves a mad-scientist-type who invents a machine that stimulates dormant senses in human beings, allowing people to see normally-invisible entities in the world. Quoth the mad scientist:
    You see them? You see them? You see the things that float and flop about you and through you every moment of your life? You see the creatures that form what men call the pure air and blue sky? Have I not succeeded in breaking down the barrier; have I not shown you worlds that no other living men have seen?

Interesting, no? But I’ll admit right away that I’m enough of a skeptic to doubt the reality of synchronicity. I would subscribe to a soft version of the idea, one in which we give synchronicitous events meaning, one in which our behavior patterns create a pattern in events in our lives. But a harder version of the theory, in which we tap into a dynamic that is bigger than ourselves and directs history, seems impossible to me.

Skepticism, as Sagan points out, is a necessary tool for people trying to understand the world. Too little, and people will end up thinking that blurry insects on video are a life form that is all around us but has never been detected in the thousands of years of recorded human history. Simple logical exercises fail these people in their desperate wish to believe (Where are the dead skyfish?).

Maybe they were sucked into extra dimensions?

Seriously, though, some very smart scientists do suggest the world is queerer than we had previously imagined, and may include invisible dimensions. I’m less comfortable saying these ideas are BS, but I’m still inclined to doubt. Sure, I accept other things no one has seen, like electrons, but those entities are based on innumerable experimental observations. Extra dimensions seem to pop up as predictions of equations nestled in often-untestable models. But maybe the LHC will test at least the large extra dimensions model. I just expect this model to fail.

So, considering this flood of skepticism and my doubt of deep synchronicity, I’m content to simply wonder why these events struck me now. Obviously, science deals with a lot of unobservable phenomena, so the fact that I work in a science-related field means I’m going to encounter a lot of this. As a committed materialist, I’m convinced my experience is just coincidence. But I think that, as is the case with Lovecraft, my materialism spawns a fascination with supernaturalism. Part of me wishes the world was a bit more magical than it seems to be, and yet another part of me delights in putting the smack down on magical thinking.


Monday, October 02, 2006

Free Rock!!!

The Hold Steady, a rockin NYC band that is releasing a new album tomorrow, has made the songs from the album available for streaming here, for free! I thought their previous album was pretty good, but I am still really impressed by and loving these new songs. I detect something decidedly Springsteen-esque in the way these guys can make music that has so much energy and real emotion, and still have it be so accessible. Hey, I'm still in the midst of a months-long metal phase, and even I'm taking a break to get goosebumps to this album. The site was up on Saturday, down on Sunday, but seems to be working again today.

[UPDATE: By now (11/18/06) it looks like this streaming business is over. So sorry to see it go. If anyone comes by, they can at least see the Hold Steady rock out live on "Stuck Between Stations" on YouTube.]


Wednesday, September 27, 2006

The Simpsons is dead. Long live The Simpsons!

I'm of the camp that holds that The Simpsons should have called it quits about 10 years ago. At some point, the show stopped working as the smartest sitcom ever and became a loosely connected series of winking pop-culture jokes. Still, I suppose even a tired Simpsons episode is still better than many shows out there.

Nevertheless, I'm dazzled by this website that provides online access to every episode. Relive the good ol' days with seasons one through seven, or so. You can even check out every Futurama episode here. The Scrubs-y pop culture riffing in Futurama doesn't grate on me the same way it does in The Simpsons, maybe because it had a nice run and then packed it in before it began a long, moldering decline.
[Thanks Marc!]

[UPDATE: Well, that didn't take long. Both sites are gone as of 10/2/06, after pressure from some bullying lawyers from Fox, apparently.]


Monday, September 25, 2006

I H8 Preorders--And I Have Serious Problems With Gamestop, Too

I just spent 14 hours this weekend playing Okami. It was a beautiful little burst of gaming that reminded me of the marathon playing sessions of my youth. I started Friday evening, but I wish I could have started earlier because, from what I hear, I’m only halfway through this gorgeous game. According to Capcom, Okami was released on October 19th, and I was at the local Gamestop, ready to get it then. But Gamestop, really the only option in my area for day-of-release purchases, told me they wouldn’t have it until the 20th. No biggie, I thought. Shipping problems, maybe. So I returned on the 20th, and it was then that I faced the beast of Gamestop idiocy head-on.

“I’d like Okami, please,” I tell the clerk.
“Okay,” he says, and begins bending down to retrieve it from behind the counter.
“Did you preorder?” asks the manager, standing nearby.
“No,” I say.
“Then you can’t have it yet,” the manager says, making no eye contact.
“When can I get it?”
“Two days.”
“So you have it but I can’t get it because I didn’t preorder?”
“Can I preorder it now, then?”
“No, we’re not taking any orders, you have to wait until Friday.”

I walk out, surprisingly mad. Then I return on Friday, get the game, and hear a different Gamestop monkey pushing every kind of preorder on customers in line in front of me. Just bought Madden ’07, maybe you’d like to preorder Scarface? Or, how about rumors that Gamestops in Hawaii are asking for $50 in trade-ins (at least a few games) to preorder a PS3? This place is so fantastically committed to locking up customers, taking advantage of their excitement about games and forcing consumers into stupid arrangements. I’d love to purchase games somewhere else, but outside of Gamestop and EB Games, I don’t have many choices.


Friday, September 01, 2006

Billy Madison Declares This Friday Freenis "Clack-tastic"

Jay Is Games has been running a competition for flash puzzle games and they have just announced a winner. It is a truly engrossing and quite pretty game called Clack, designed by one Sean of Lousiana. I suggest jumping in and experimenting to figure out how it is played. I actually stayed up past my bedtime last night after getting hooked on this game.

Make sure to check out the other entries in the competition, which you can access by mousing over the lower part of the window on this page. There's lots of fun to be had, and it makes me wish I could make games instead of just being a writing parasite.


Thursday, August 31, 2006

Nap Time for Aspy

This week is a busy one. I'm preparing for a two-week vacation to start next week, so work has been nutz. It's time to announce a blog break. I might throw up a bit of freenis tomorrow, but don't expect any real posts until the third week of September. I think I'm going to miss you, Aspy. Sleep well.


Tuesday, August 29, 2006

You Don't Know Me

I'm busy this week. (Definitely too busy for long or thoughtful posts.) Busy and stressed. This makes me anxious, and anxiety makes me depressed. I'm glad I can count on the books I read to let me know I'm not alone, or rather, that I am alone and you are too. Together in our aloneness.

From Psychoanalysis: The Impossible Profession by Janet Malcolm, a writer I admire very much.

The phenomenon of transference—how we all invent each other according to early blueprints—was Freud’s most original and radical discovery. The idea of infant sexuality and of the Oedipal complex can be accepted with a good deal more equanimity than the idea that the most precious and inviolate of entities—personal relations—is actually a messy jangle of misapprehensions, at best an uneasy truce between powerful solitary fantasy systems. Even (or especially) romantic love is fundamentally solitary, and has at its core a profound impersonality. The concept of transference at once destroys faith in personal relations and explains why they are tragic: we cannot know each other. We must grope around for each other through a dense thicket of absent others. We cannot see each other plain. A horrible kind of predestination hovers over each new attachment we form. “Only connect,” E.M. Forster proposed. “Only we can’t,” the psychoanalyst knows.


Friday, August 25, 2006

New Book For Religious Ignoramuses

Jonathan Wells, a Moonie tool in the religious conservatives’ war on science, has written a new, ridiculous, and quite retarded book about evolution. Wells is a notorious creationist ideologue who used Moonie funding to attend graduate school in biology, earn a PhD, and then use those credentials to bash evolution. (Read that link above, my developmental biologist friends. Just be ready for a spike in blood pressure. And yes, the “Father” he refers to is Sun Myung Moon.)

Wells’s previous book, Icons of Evolution, is a well-refuted collection of misrepresentations and outright lies that is endlessly parroted in creationist/fundie/intelligent design arguments. Panda’s Thumb is organizing a smackdown of the new book, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Darwinism and Intelligent Design. PZ Myers has suggested a google bombing campaign, so here’s Apsy’s volley in the war.


Friday Flash Freenis: Ikaruga!

If you checked out the last free games post, you probably discovered that many flash games are a little on the dull side. But this week at Kotaku I found a link to a great flash version of the first boss fight from Ikaruga. As a game it's short, but also very impressive for a free flash game. It's all there: lots of bullets and polarity flipping.

I don't think the controls are in English. It should be easy to figure out if you've played Ikaruga before. Z: shoot. X: switch ship polarity. C: Energy release special attack. The arrow keys move your ship. Polarity flipping lets you absorb bullets that are the same color as your ship and charge your energy attack, but being the opposite color of your enemy increases your firepower against it. You may want to reduce the screen quality, even to its lowest setting, to prevent some slow-down and play the game at something like the real speed.

I'd love to see more flash versions of levels from Ikaruga. That game is one of the best Gamecube games and a contender for best space shooter of all time. It is certainly one of the most beautiful games ever. Long live shmups!