Friday, March 30, 2007

Breaking In April

Amigos: Why blog? Right now, I can't answer that question for myself. I've been coasting here, relying on inertia. My posts this month have been half-assed at best. Maybe I'm moody, but Aspy has become a burden.

I like having a voice, no matter how quiet, in the webby free-for-all. I like the idea of sharing the things I care about. But I've become unsure. Why share this? Why link to that? Those are good questions that I can't answer right now.

So I self-prescribe a blog break of one month. I'll post again on May 1st. I hope I'll return with a backlog of posts to entertain tha peeps. But maybe the break won't matter, and then I'll be sad, because I'll be coming back to say good-bye.



Friday, March 23, 2007

Videogames: Metaphors For Your Life?

The new post-9/11 drama Reign Over Me is getting decent reviews, but what has caught my eye about the movie is that reviewers are mentioning that Adam Sandler's isolated character is wrapped up in Shadow of the Colossus, one of my most favoritest games.

Sayeth Anthony Lane in the New Yorker:

For kicks, [Charlie] likes to sit in his apartment and play a video game, “Shadow of the Colossus,” on a huge screen. Over time, we discover the colossus in whose shadow Charlie lurks and mumbles to himself. He lost a wife and three daughters on September 11, 2001, and then he lost the capacity to admit that he had a wife and three daughters in the first place.
And Scott Foundas in the Village Voice:
Five years on, Charlie Fineman is still in a state of shock and awe, which we know not just because his grooming and social skills have gone to pot, but because he can't seem to stop renovating and re-renovating his kitchen—part of an unfulfilled promise to his late wife—and because he spends copious hours in front of a video game called Shadow of the Colossus, in which he can repeatedly lay waste to the evil forces he was powerless to defeat in life.
Hmmm. What does it say about me that this is a game that I also hold dear? I certainly enjoyed the lonely, melancholic atmosphere of the game. From what I've read about the movie, such loneliness seems to be a central feature of Charlie's life. I can't think that I have any colossi looming over me, though.

Still, it is nice to see games used in movies as emblems of something other than juvenile self-absorption, even though it would appear that SotC is presented as a substitute for Charlie's real life. Can any readers think of other movies in which games were used to illustrate important elements of a character?


Thursday, March 22, 2007

Detroit Dying

I remember stories from my grandmother about a now-vanished Detroit of streetcars and downtown department stores. I've alway held a crazy hope that my hometown will one day bounce back to some of it's former glory. Experience should have taught me otherwise--once, as a teen, I saw a man lying in the middle of Woodward Avenue downtown and I and everyone else ignored him--but like all dreams mine is irrational.

A story in today's Detroit Free Press further diminishes my dreams: Wayne county lost more residents (89,000) between 2000 and 2006 than any other county in the country except hurricane-battered Orleans parish.

Is it any wonder that houses are cheaper than new cars in Detroit?


Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Joel Stein Really Hates Baby Pictures

Joel Stein is easy to dislike. He’s got a big head. When it comes to funny, he’s got a bad case of trying-too-hard. I don’t read him regularly, but every once in a while he manages to say something silly enough to generate wide web reverberations that I do notice. Recently, he seems to have launched an attempt to be the surliest columnist in a major paper. For example, he doesn’t want to read emails from readers, so he writes a column about it.

Now he’s on to the not-very-original complaint about baby pictures: they all look roughly similar and parents love to send them to other people. Stein’s not having it! (registration may be required) But not only that, Old Man Grumpus doesn’t even want to see pictures of his friends’ babies!

I know something wonderful has happened to you, and you want to share it with the world, but you've got to be more disciplined about the bragging.

My feelings on this are obviously colored by the fact that a 24-week old fetus is now kicking away in my wife’s belly. I was elated to send sonograms around to friends. I also get excited to see sonograms from pregnant friends. And baby pictures. Sure, being a parent-to-be plays into it, but overriding that is that fact that I love my friends and care about their lives. I like to both learn about them and share with them.

Stein’s problem, as noted in his email column, is that his big head likes things to flow one-way: straight out. Want to listen? Fine, but don’t think he gives a shit about listening to you. (Friends now included, unless they are giving him dinner, apparently.) The guy’s a columnist, so some of that self-absorbed braying is to be expected.

All that’s on record, at least. But I wonder if there isn’t some envy and defensiveness at work in the baby picture example, too. At the Obscure Store, where I first read this, the discussion has degenerated into a breeder/non-breeder brouhaha. Many childless people say they are happy with their choice. I have no reason to doubt them. But Stein sees sharing baby pictures as “bragging,” and that position seems so unreasonable that I can’t help but wonder at the psychology behind it. Why care about “bragging” (and he equates babies with 100K salaries, too) unless you are envious?

I don’t know if Stein has kids. I did some Stein-ian levels of research myself for this post (I looked at his webpage) and read he is married. But he doesn’t have to envy friends' kids for my argument to stand, only their happiness. I actually suspect it is all an act, but such is that type of columnist’s job.


Friday, March 02, 2007

Take This Job And Shove It... I Kid, I Kid.

Jeffrey Dinsmore links to the very funny website of loseractor, a grumpy, self-deprecating part-time actor and (until recently) conflicted denizen of the Cubicle Zone. I spent a good hour reading through loseractor’s witty posts upon first encountering them, which I would call a pretty enthralled response from this easily distracted web surfer. Anyone who’s tried to come to peace with or find a balance between their unrealized dreams and plain ol’ daily life will probably recognize something of themselves here. A taste:

It was a bad omen. The subway doors opened at 18th St on a large group of kids encouraging a fat girl pulling another fat girl face-down along the subway platform by her hair, like she was vacuuming, except she would occasionally punch the vacuum cleaner in the head. Yaay! School had just let out, and I guess the kids were just letting off a little steam, much in the same way I used to when I was a tween. But instead of watching Inspector Gadget and riding bikes around the neighborhood, they were holding a “bitch fight” on a crowded subway platform.
What I would give to go back to middle school! Not a care in the world, save for a bully lady tossing me by my weave in front of a moving train.
The occasion for Jeff’s post is a goodbye email from loseractor to the test-writing company for which he toiled. Jeff, a very entertaining wit himself, posts his own goodbye email to people at the same company (this is how Jeff knows loseractor). I could never write one of these because I just don’t have the skill to appropriately cover the bile with joking. People would just have hurt feelings and be mad at me.


Thursday, March 01, 2007

Got Some Dumb Ideas? Make A Wiki!

In the comment section over at Pharyngula (and in his own post at Unscrewing the Inscrutable), Jim Downey points to one of the recent examples of creationist idiocy: the CreationWiki. Downey calls it a “self-organizing black hole of stupid.” No one can deny that the know-nothings in the creationist crowd are passionate about their never-ending battle with reality (see also Conservapedia).

I’m just too busy to have the energy to fight these fools. That’s a bad sign, because the science on this issue is settled, so we have a lot of ammunition on our side. This is a political fight that must be fought, but recently I’ve wanted no part of it. I just hope my energy returns.

If your fighting spirit needs a little pick me up, try this gem from CreationWiki’s first page on for size:

The theory of evolution (or general theory of evolution) is a philosophical perspective that stems from an atheistic worldview.


Thursday, February 22, 2007

Gamers ≠ Losers

The stereotype certainly exists, but I would have hoped that as those that grew up playing games became adults, the image of the loser gamer would disappear. Alas, my beloved hobby has a persistent image problem.

Just a silly little note in my really busy week: Leafing through this week's US Weekly (cover date March 5, 2007), I see a quote from sorta-famous person Gabrielle Union in the Loose Talk section. Sayeth Union:

I don't understand men that find much time for PlayStation. If you have bad credit but a great Madden score, clearly there are some priority issues.
It doesn't take a logician to see that someone who makes time for games is not the same as someone who can't be responsible for themselves or their personal finances, as Union implies.

Here's my retort, custom fit for the glossy set: I don't understand women that find that much time for primping. If you can't discuss the state of the modern American novel but have blindingly white teeth, clearly there are some priority issues.


Friday, February 16, 2007

The Dover Demon Returns?

Has there been a recent sighting of the Dover Demon? The Wikipedia entry for the beast has this simple statement in the “Recent Sightings” section:

Last seen saturday February 3rd, 2007 in Westwood, Mass. behind the parking lot at Xaverian Brothers High School.
That’s it. The lack of detail suggests to me that this could be part of some inside joking, maybe from kids at the school? Or their rivals? I have been looking for more info, checking Cryptomundo, googling, and I have found nothing else.

I have a special place in my heart among my beloved monsters for the Dover Demon. It has stuck with me since I first read about it as a child for two reasons: One, drawings of it are captivating. Two, since it was only seen a few times over a brief period, it hasn’t gathered a lot of crazy and conflicting related sightings and stories. The Dover Demon is pure, in a way. I can imagine the shock, horror, and fascination the witnesses must have felt if what they said they saw in 1977 is true. Of course, the lack of sightings over the years also suggests that there is no being running around the woods in Massachusetts. But a boy can dream.

(Here's a Boston Globe retrospective about the Dover Demon from last year.)

UPDATE: 2/17/07 Sometime between last night and this afternoon the reference to the Westwood sighting was edited out of Wikipedia. We'll have to wait and see if anything about it ever comes back. Until then, here's a screencap of the entry taken on 2/16.


Friday Freenis: Zombie Capping

As a Lovecraft fan and all-around supporter of putting bullets in zombie dome, I can't resist pointing out Deanimator, a flash game based on Lovecraft's story "Herbert West: Reanimator" (the game site includes a very nice compilation of the serialized story, available here). Put down the never-ending zombie onslaught with some well-placed blasts. This is definitely a short-play kinda game; you'll likely see most there is to see in a few minutes. But it is stylish and clearly aligned with the Axis of Good in the never-ending War on Zombies.

[Thanks to creator Bum Lee and the indispensable games site Jay is Games.]


Teen Murderer Not A Gamer?

Not long after I heard about the recent shooting in a Salt Lake City mall, I wondered how long it would be until someone blamed videogames. I heard teen shooter, and just took it for granted that the kid would have played games. I have been reading the Salt Lake City papers online ever since, waiting to see if anti-game hysteria would take hold.

Yet, the more information that is released about Sulejman Talovic, the clearer it becomes that games were likely not involved in this shooting. Rebecca Walsh, a columnist at the Salt Lake Tribune, on Wednesday made the first reference to a games connection I have seen, only to dismiss it as she discussed the kid's history as a Bosnian refugee. The excellent games blog Game Politics is following the story, and points to another article in the Tribune which declares that police searched Talovic's home but "did not take any computers or video games."

Walsh's column sites at least one instance of the anti-games perspective: the videogame-hating hysteric Jack Thompson emailed reporters with the clearly ahead-of-the-facts claim, "Salt Lake City Teen Probably Trained on Grand Theft Auto Video Game." Like many gamers, I am no fan of Thompson's, but I am struck by the fact that I expected the same thing. Unlike Thompson, though, I don't think violent games make murderers, but I do think that people who harbor violent fantasies (all of us) can find an outlet in games.


Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Self-Love On V-Day

Blogging's been a bit off this week. The reason: Oblivion. This game has me firmly in its clutches, and I have been electing to spend my free time there.

Until I can summon the will power to break free and return to the Aspidistra, I thought I'd engage in a little self-promotion. I've quietly started another blog called Games and Brains devoted to psychology and videogames. The new blog hasn't been a secret, really. You may have even found it by looking at my profile. But I wanted to see if I could get it off the ground before spreading the word. Now I know that I need at least a small audience to keep it going. I'm excited about Games and Brains; I find the focus refreshing and gratifying, although the Aspidistra will continue as a personal blog. I'm also serious about Games and Brains, and I could use help, so please email me any tips or resources you might come across in your web rambles. I hope you enjoy.


Friday, February 09, 2007

Friday Freenis: Mas Shmups

Last week, I linked to a real old-school space shooter. This week, I want to highlight a stylishly modern shmup called Titanion. The visuals, at least, have lots of modern polish, although the gameplay could have been found in an arcade in 1982.

It's like Rez meets Galaga. Shoot down hordes of "space insects," use your tractor beam to capture them and enhance your weapons, and trance out to some techno music. Or play the "modern" mode: you will lose the tractor beam but gain bullet hell. (Download this Windows-based game here.)


Thursday, February 08, 2007

If I Had A Trillion Dollars

Jeffrey Dinsmore points to an interesting essay at ABC news about the cost of the Iraq war that contextualizes the amount of money being spent on this war of discretion. Attaching a “conservative” estimate that places the total cost at $1 trillion, the essay offers some ways to understand that amount.

• At current rates, $1 trillion could fund the National Science Foundation for 170 years, or the Environmental Protection Agency for 130 years, or the Department of Homeland Security for 28 years.
• The U.S. Treasury could use $1 trillion to send a $3,000 check to every person, adult and child, in the country—or a $150 check to every person on the planet.
• If you could spend $1000 per second, it would take you almost 30 years to blow through $1 trillion.
• 1 trillion seconds is more than 31,688 years.

I don’t often get political or into details of my personal relationships on the blog, but recently I have been fuming about the cost of the Iraq war. The reason: anxiety about health care and child care. Keep reading if you are curious about the worries that keep Comstock awake at night.

My wife and I are expecting a baby at the end of June. We’re both educated and hard working people, yet we are very concerned about how we will pay for our child’s day care. The wife will take some time off, and I’d like to as well. But then we need to get back to work. We couldn’t really live in New York City on one income.

So, put the kid in day care, right? The only problem is that day care will cost almost as much as I make. Why should I spend 10-12 hours each day away from my new baby when I’ll only bring home around $500 a month after day-care costs? It makes more sense for me to do some freelance work from home, where I can also supply child care. (In our modern world, wifey is the primary bread winner.)

That may be an option we select, but it, too, has drawbacks apart from concerns about less income for the family. For example, what if the wife wants to find a new job, one with decent coworkers and a salary in line with her education and abilities? If I was freelancing, we would lose our health insurance until the company plan at the new job kicked in. As an adult in charge of myself, I am willing to risk a few months of no insurance, but I will not put my baby in that situation.

I would love to erase the Iraq war and put some of the money that we can obviously scrape together to use in national health care and childcare systems. I think it is shameful that, as a nation, we run from “socialized” health care or childcare, and yet we have no problem with socialized murder. Actually, the whole situation doesn’t make me fume, as I wrote above, as much as it makes me feel sad and powerless.


Tuesday, February 06, 2007

When Theory Met RE

A most unusual paper on videogames is making the rounds, starting on Game Career Guide and eventually being broadcast to the masses at Kotaku. The content is not particularly remarkable game-wise: it is a look at horror franchise heavyweights Resident Evil and Silent Hill. No, the paper is unusual because it brings some dense, psychoanalytically-informed critical theory to bear on a medium which, as far as I know, has remained outside of a lot of such academic mincing.

The paper, Saving Ourselves: Psychoanalytic Investigation of Resident Evil and Silent Hill, by Marc Santos and Sarah White, analyzes the way that the Silent Hill games play on conventions established by the Resident Evil games. Unless you have Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis on your beside table, you might have trouble gleaning much more than that from the article. Try this on for size:

In Resident Evil, we defend symbolic order by killing monstrous zombies. Part of these games' terror stems from approaching that which challenges our own symbolic economies-the Real, the abject vilified maternal that threatens the paternal psychological structures upon which subjectivity is founded.
Does this mean the games are scary because shit jumps out at you? Because that’s where most of the terror comes from, honestly.

Okay, I joke. I don’t want to knock this paper too much because I love academic study of games. That, and I don’t really understand a lot of the content. Plus, I don’t think this paper is meant to inform gamers, seeing as how very few people have spent a lot of time with both Silent Hill and Freud’s Beyond the Pleasure Principle. More likely, the paper is intended for the critical theory circles in which sentences like the above can be read with interest (and comprehension). From my (limited) vantage point, I can say that it is written with humor and affection, so I say more power to ‘em.


Monday, February 05, 2007

The Super Bowl, Monster Brawls, And Your Brain

This was my favorite of the Super Bowl ads. I've seen funnier/more interesting/more useful ads in my time, but this one had me smiling. I liked the giant monster and robot man-in-suit rumble. The music was fun. Oh, and it reflected my deep malaise and discomfort about the violence of the Iraq war.

Wait, no it didn't. Yet the New York Times today has a ridiculously over-reaching analysis of the Super Bowl commercials which claims just that. The headline says it all: "Super Bowl Ads of Cartoonish Violence, Perhaps Reflecting Toll of War." Every little hint of slapstick humor in last night's commercials is seen as embodying feelings about the war. Although the above ad seems most clearly aimed at a nerdy demographic of greasy dudes who like Grim Reaper and Godzilla, Stuart Elliott, the NYT writer, decides the ad was "reminiscent of a horror movie." Sure, if you're willing to massage the evidence to fit your preconceived conclusion.

Keep reading for a discussion of your brain on Super Bowl ads.

Here's a more interesting analysis of some Super Bowl ads: hook viewers up to a NMRI machine and see how their brains react to the different commercials. I'm not sure about the actual scientific relevance of this. I seriously doubt that you can read too much into these NMRI results. But I found it interesting that one ad that Elliott singled out for praise, a General Motors ad about a assembly line robot with mad Johnny-Five-is-alive stylee, elicited anxiety in viewers.

The researchers behind the NMRI study say people noticed the ad, but their brains showed fear. Particularly, the subjects has increased activity in their amygdala (a brain region associated with anxiety and fear). The researchers guess that the fear is related to people experiencing job anxiety and economic insecurity. Exactly. As I watched that ad with my brother, I said to him, "Remember when we were growing up around Detroit, and everyone was talking about how those robots were stealing people's jobs? Now we're supposed to empathize with them?"

Apparently, the Federline burger-flipping ad had the same effect. I didn't feel anxious watching that one, though. My amygdala must have been hypnotized by his insane flow.


Friday, February 02, 2007

Friday Freenis: Oldest School

Like I said, I have spaceships and laser weapons on the brain. So here’s the freenis, a Java version of one of the first-ever videogames, Spacewar, made from the original, early 1960s computer code.

Honestly, this game is not that much fun to play. It's pointless with one player, and even with two players crammed together over the keyboard, the appeal is short-lived.

But the game is incredibly important in the history of videogames. And here’s a little of that history for the young’uns:

Spacewar was created over 1961-2 on the campus of MIT. A group of young, rather nerdish men in the school's Tech Model Railroad Club (TMRC) put it together on what was then amazing high-technology: a computer called the Programmable Data Processor-1 that was about the size of an automobile. (The TMRC was one of the incubators of hacker culture; members coined the term "hack.") One member, Steve Russell, was inspired by the $120,000 computer to create an interactive game. With help and motivation from Alan Kotok, a senior TMRC member, Russell spent six months and 200 hours making a two-player game in which each player controlled a spaceship and fired torpedos at the other player's ship. Other members of the TMRC then added their hacks: Pete Sampson added a background of stars; Dan Edwards helped program a star in the foreground with gravity that influenced the movement of the ships. The final version was finished in 1962.

Some people cite a 1958 game called Tennis for Two as the first videogame. A digital version of tic-tac-toe called OXO or Naughts and Crosses from 1952 also sometimes gets a nod. I suppose it depends on which aspects of games the historian finds important.

(Much of the above information about Spacewar comes from Steven L. Kent's excellent history of videogaming, The Ultimate History of Video Games.


Thursday, February 01, 2007

Like Lite-Brite, Only More Terror-ful

Does this scare you? It damn well shouldn't.

But officials in Boston were pretty much terrified when they saw some of these around their city. As soon as I saw a story about the Aqua Teen Hunger Force ad campaign/bomb scare on last night's news, I was tempted to post something about it because the whole situation is so flamboyantly stupid. But the blog has been weighing me down a bit recently. Fortunately, my good pal Jeffrey D. already gots the shit covered, and he covers it in a way that is probably at least 1.5 times wittier than I would have been, although I think I could have matched him for frustration with ignorant fools.


Wrapped Up In Shmups

Call me a nerd, but I've recently been thinking a lot about spaceships and futuristic laser weaponry. Specifically, I've been getting deep into shmups (short for shoot-em-ups, for my non-gaming readers). Within the past few weeks, five great doses of retro shmupping arrived on the Wii Virtual Console in the form of Gradius, Super Star Soldier, Soldier Blade, R-Type, and R-Type III.

I've downloaded four of them--I'm holding-off on Gradius because I played that game to death on the NES in 1986--and my love for this dying genre has been reinvigorated. Help me explore why after the jump.

Probably at its most simple level, the subject matter satisfies the science fiction fan in me. If your game, movie, story, whatever, has spaceships and flying robots in it, I'm going be at least a little interested.

Shmups also showcase a relatively simple play mechanic: shoot the enemy while avoiding their bullets and other obstacles. Plenty of today's complex games offer challenges and opportunities for mastery, but I think many shmups were more demanding specifically because they were constrained by a simple dynamic. If you can't engage a player with worlds to explore, they must be engaged with a challenge. As a result, shmups provide an intensely satisfying experience when a player feels they've mastered a game. Haters may complain about twitch gameplay and memorizing bullet patterns, but I find I can get into something like a trance state when I feel in the groove during a difficult shooter.

I think the simple play mechanic also allows shmups to achieve incredible style. Ikaruga is one of the most beautiful games ever. Personally, I like the tension and invention that arises when artists explore the constraints imposed by a particular genre or style. I can see this when I examine the evolution of shmups from single-screen versions (Space Invaders), through side-scrolling and top-down scrolling-screen games (R-Type, Star Soldier), finally to bullet-hell (Ikaruga), a scrolling-screen subgenre that I feel is the pinnacle of shmuppitude. (Ironically, I find I must watch someone else play a bullet-hell shmup to fully appreciate the beauty; when I play one it takes a special kind of focus--that trance-like state I mentioned--in which I lose a sense of the overall aesthetics.)

But the appeal of shmups goes a bit deeper for me. I open myself up to charges of pretentiousness here, but I detect a satisfying existentialist vibe at work in most shmups. One lone spaceship, journeying into dangerous, unfamiliar areas, beset by enemies, with no one else to rely on--I know life is not really so brutal, but the atmosphere of such games is appealing.

I wonder if younger gamers are able to appreciate a good shmup. If you grow up with 3D games and the more complete sense of freedom they can achieve, maybe a 2D scrolling game feels restrictive, or simply old-fashioned. Despite the discussion above, I know that nostalgia definitely plays into it for me. No other genre brings back sweet memories of weekend days spent in dingy arcades and snow-day afternoons in front of the home console like shmups. Sigh.


Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Hobbit Brains: !La Lucha Continua!

Carl Zimmer discusses yet more research on the hobbit, the possibly-new species of Homo (H. floresiensis) revealed in bones found a few years ago in Indonesia. Last time I touched on the subject, the research was suggesting that the bones were a microcephalic human.

But new research (PNAS paper not yet online) on a collection of microcephalic human brains indicates that they all share traits that are absent in normal human brains. Features on the H. floresiensis skull suggest that the traits were also absent on H. floresiensis brains. Does this mean the hobbits might actually be a new species? The back-and-forth of the research is really quite exciting, although I wish it could happen in intervals shorter than six months.

Zimmer also mentions research that answers a critical question I had. Sadly, researchers have so far been unable to extract DNA from the bones. But there is still reason to hope. As Zimmer points out, new information about H. floresiensis could be just around the corner, involving new analyses and the hunt for new fossils. New analyses of known bones will probably just draw out the back and forth of the microcephalic/not-microcephalic debate. But new fossils could possibly offer a decisive answer. I’m re-crossing my fingers and hoping for some DNA results, which seem to me to be the surest way to settle the issue.


Saturday, January 27, 2007

Japanese Copyright Infringement That I Love

I saw this at the Little Boy show at the Japan Society a couple of years ago. Nothing to say, really, except that it is super cool.


Friday, January 26, 2007

Web Writing That I Hate

This is my 100th post. I’m going to celebrate by using my blog to—wait for it—bitch about shit I don’t like. And one thing I don’t like is smug, flashy internet writing. There’s a fine line between fun, clever writing and excruciating, faux-clever cliché, and blogs often sink into the later category while attempting to sound snappy. Here’s my advice: if you’ve read a silly turn of phrase or typographical trick elsewhere, don’t ape it on your blog. Just. don’t. do. it. The best blog writing captivates because it seems genuine and casual, not because it shows how the writer is on the inside of the geek-speak club. Blog clichés make you look like teh lamer.

To be clear, here are three common tricks of blog writing that I find obnoxious. I’m sure I could think of more, but I encountered these examples over just the last day. (I’m also sure that I’ve been guilty of at least one of these, but I’m working on getting better.)
1) The “…wait for it…” phrasing. The self-satisfied gatekeeper voice is not an attractive one.
2) Anyone. who. writes. like. this. drives. me. crazy. I much prefer this or THIS or even *this* to emphasize a point.
3) 13375p34k. Unless you are some greasy, basement-troll hacker, I don’t want to see Leetspeak. On second thought, everyone should give this up. When the establishment is hip to your jive, it’s time to move on. (I realize that the example I gave in the above paragraph is poking fun at Leet, but I just saw it yesterday and it reminded me that I hate such writing.)


Thursday, January 25, 2007

McDonald's Ad References... RoboCop!?

Flipping through channels this evening, I saw a new ad for the McDonald's dollar menu. The ad ends with the announcer saying, "I'd buy that for a dollar." That phrase comes from the dystopian sci-fi movie RoboCop, in which it is a catch phrase for a crass, Benny Hill-esque TV show that entertains the degenerate citizens of future Detroit.

What could McDonald's possibly be trying to say with this ad? Has the phrase filtered out into pop culture so far that it is free of its roots? I could be wrong about its roots, I suppose. This forum links it to a sci-fi short story with the phrase "Would you buy it for a quarter?" But a little google research suggests the "dollar" version is indeed from RoboCop.


Is Guitar Hero Endangering Real-Life Shredding?

I say no way. But in Newsweek, Steven Levy considers it a real possibility.

If a teenager can easily become a make-believe guitar hero, does that mean he won't ever bother to master the real thing?
Levy goes on to quote the CEO of Gibson guitars, who notes that learning guitar takes a lot of work, but also that guitar manufacturers are hoping to incorporate (unspecified) technology in their guitars that reduces some of the tedium.
"Building calluses and painstakingly learning all the musical fingering is not creative, but is the discipline to get the creative rewards ... In the future we want to reduce the crap you have to deal with to allow people access to that creativity." It sounds great—just as the Devil's offer must have struck Robert Johnson at the crossroads.
Really? Using technology like Guitar Hero to have fun is like making a bargain with the devil? I suggest that the game actually makes non-musicians more sophisticated listeners. I play guitar, and I have been impressed with how Guitar Hero helps my non-guitaring friends learn to distinguish guitar and bass parts in songs that probably sounded like a confusing mix before. I can imagine that enjoying the game might also lead people to pick up a real guitar and try rocking for real. Maybe this Newsweek story is meant to be sillier than it seems, but it kinda comes across like someone being afraid that all the car driving in games will stop people from becoming Nascar drivers. No one has even determined that real kick-ass guitar abilities are dying out--Guitar Hero has only been out for a little more than a year, afterall. But doesn't the popularity of hip hop seem much more likely to endanger shredding than a game that actually encourages fondness for guitar rock?

[via Kotaku]


Wednesday, January 24, 2007

More Amazing Sea Life From Japan

More news of weird sea creatures from Japan (another beast here). This time, it’s a frilled shark, an animal normally found in the deep sea. Frilled sharks have very rarely been seen doing their thing in the wild. They have been pulled up in bottom trawls, but this NOAA report on a 2004 deep-sea submersible dive to around 3,000 feet claims video from the dive shows the “first time anyone had ever seen the rare species in its natural habitat.” So this is truly a rare sight. Here’s the brand new footage from Japan.

Reuters reports that the animal was spotted by a fisherman and then captured by workers at a marine park, and that the video was taken in a shallow sea-water pool. The shark doesn’t seem to be doing so well. It looks bent out of shape, swollen around the gills, and cloudy in the eyes. Maybe that is why it was so near the surface? The Reuters story says that the animal died a few hours later.

Nevertheless, it is nice video of an awesome creature. As I noted in the squid post, though, I wonder about the music in the background. Is this normal Japanese news procedure? Not knowing any Japanese myself, I have no idea where this video comes from.

[Aside: To follow up on an idea from another previous post, it has been suggested that the long, eel-like frilled shark could be responsible for old reports of sea serpents.]


Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Smoke THIS, You Arrogant Dog

Once, I almost smoked marijuana. I'm glad I didn't, because users are losers and Mary Jane is lame. But then I saw this anti-pot ad in the latest Electronic Gaming Monthly magazine.

If anything, this ad makes me kinda want to smoke pot. First, because good point, it would be cooler if dogs could walk themselves, especially when they bother you when you just want to chill. And second, I've seen many a dog eat poo (their own and other dogs'), so who the hell are they to get all judgmental?

Some online research led me to this video version, which dilutes the pro-marijuana effect a bit, if only because it seems a little more self-righteous. But still, the ineptness of the whole thing shines through when you click the very helpful "read transcript" link. I'll post the transcript here for your edification, and to save you from a life of pot-headery.

Walk Yourself
(Scene opens with a guy lying down smoking weed)
GUY: Can’t you just walk yourself.
DOG: You disappoint me.
(Dog walks away and then raises his flag of independence)

Seriously, do these ads work?. Do you think they're hiring writers?


Friday, January 19, 2007

The Pol Pot Of Global Warming

I accept the idea that human-mediated changes in the levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are partly responsible for the fact of global warming. Like all scientific theories, this is provisional. But I trust the data I’ve seen and the collective wisdom of the mainstream climatologists who argue that some causes of climate change are anthropogenic. I see very little to be gained from belligerent skepticism in this case. But not everyone is like me. Check out the reactions to the calmly-worded Weather Channel blog about global warming. Their blogger, Dr. Heidi Cullen, defends the Weather Channel’s acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and attempts to distinguish the scientific data from the political argument. The angry-as-hell anti-warmers ain’t having it! [via SciAm Observations]

Continue reading to catch some rhetorical highlights and examples of reasoned debate that would shame Socrates.

Anonymous says: We have very good evidence of cooling and warming of the enviroment over the past without human involvement. Why many people are so intent to "Blame the human race for Armagedon" always surprises me.

Me, too! People also die sometimes without human involvement. Why many people are so intent to suggest that some people are murdered always surprises me.

Faxis says: Man Made Global Warming is the new religion. It's exactly the same situation as the when Ugg the Caveman watched his buddy Kronk get hit with lightning and tried to understand what Kronk had done to deserve it. Ugg created religion in order to feel like he had a hand in things he couldn't understand and thus, could avoid getting fried by lightning. Same thing today with Global Warming only now we've got grant money funding the priests

Good point, but I think you made a small error. Last May, scientific priests demonstrated that Kronk wasn’t killed by lightning; he was eaten by a tyrannosaur.

Larry Giraradi says: You must be aware that every erupting volcanoe spews more greenhouse gasses and poions into the air that all of the cars and factories ever built or operated in the history of the world. Maybe we should have a volcanoe tax to study this problem and find a way for the U.S to be blamed, thus pay the rest of the world for volcanoe pollution.

Hmmm, interesting proposal. But you must be aware that volcanoes are notorious anti-tax conservatives who think public monies should only be used for invading Muslim countries and helping corporations pay their taxes.

Dave z. says: I hope everybody listens to the weather channel and reverts back to the day when we didn't cause all this climate change - have you seem my horse?

Ah, I remember that day fondly. And maybe you should take a look at those freedom-hating socialist Frenchies. They might have eaten your horse.

Randy says: Heidi Cullen, The Weather Nazi.....believe what I tell you or lose your certification and then we'll ship you off to the gulag. You're an embarrassment to use what is simply supposed to be an informational forum and turn it into Air America.

C’mon, Randy. You’re being a little extreme here. Everyone knows Al Gore is the Weather Nazi. Dr. Cullen is more like the Weather Mussolini.

Hoo-boy. This is fun. I could go on all day. And there’s plenty of material. In the time it took me to type these, the comment total on this Weather Channel post climbed from 152 to 200. Some wingnut sites must be linking to it.

One last comment quote before I stop, though. I like this one because it illustrates how hard it is to tell the difference between actual right-wing ignorant fury and a parody of it.

Anonymous says: Heidi's the POL POT of Global Warming!!!!

I'm sure that everyone noticed that the Learned Dr. Heidi did not respond factually to the logical and scientific rejoinders to her STALINOID, FASCISTIC suggestion that people who disagree with HER lose their jobs??

And I'm sure that EVERYONE noticed that the Learned Dr. Heidi did not ONCE respond "on the merits" to those who challenged her facts and reasoning with facts and reasoning of their own.
Apparently this give-and-take is foreign to her.

Let's face it: this person is to Science what O.J. Simspon is to Truth.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is the science version of Seinfeld's "Kramer's" racist tirade. Heidi can explain away, seek wriggle room, try to convince us that our position is " spin" but everyone knows the truth.



Friday Freenis: Point And Click Puzzling

Continuing last week's reflection upon free games from a few years ago, I bring you Mystery of Time and Space, an adventure/puzzle game with a very old-school point-and-click puzzle solving dynamic. And as with last week's freenis, I think I have MG to thank for pointing this one out to me.

I've been trying to include some adventure-ish games for Mrs. Comstock, who routinely complains about "too much fighting" in videogames.

Although the game is a few years old, two new rooms were added about a month ago.


Thursday, January 18, 2007

Space Marines Can't Jump

Yesterday in Slate, Chris Suellentrop analyzed the popularity of Gears of War for the Xbox 360. He offers some interesting ideas (mainly by looking at the comments of Cliff Bleszinski, the game’s lead designer) about how gamers appreciate pacing and how this can substitute for plot in a narrative game.

But Suellentrop oddly singles out one aspect of Gears gameplay, the inability to jump, for special consideration. Now, I find it just as frustrating as the next gamer that in Gears a player cannot leap over a low obstacle without first ducking behind it to seek cover and then mantling over it. But no-jumping doesn’t strike me as a noteworthy mechanic. Maybe you could discuss it at length if it was 1988 and you were talking about Bionic Commando. But, while I acknowledge that it is not a path that many action games take, no-jumping has an established history in gaming.

Just look at Resident Evil 4, a game that Cliffy B acknowledges as the prime gaming influence on Gears of War. Just like the earthbound space marine bad-asses of Gears, Leon in RE4 only jumps with the A button—the Park Place of gamepad real estate, as Cliffy B calls it—in some very specific contexts.

While I really like Gears of War, what I would love to see discussed more is its almost monotonous linearity. A lot of the game environments are sprawling, but the paths available might as well be the spaceship hallways of space marine adventures past. Is this what we want from a next-gen shooter? How much linearity is necessary to achieve the pacing Cliffy B wants? If there is a trade-off between freedom and pacing, as it seems there must be, what kinds of balances between the two work well, and in what kinds of games?


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Death Metal And Islam

This week's New Yorker (cover date Jan. 22) has an interesting article by Raffi Khatchadourian about Adam Gadahn, a lost-soul sort of American kid from California who ended up finding meaning in militant Islam, and now lives as Azzam al-Amriki, an Al Qaeda propaganda tool believed to be in hiding in Pakistan.

I'm very much interested in how relatively normal people can become radicalized, particularly when the radicalization involves the levels of mystical nonsense one sees in religious radicals. On this point the article is interesting but not supremely enlightening.

Before Gadahn became a militant Islamist, he was a geeky kid interested in death metal. In covering this phase of his life, the article makes some intriguing observations but tries too hard to reconcile death metal and Gadahn's version of Islam.

As for the interesting bits, the article quotes a former metal d.j. who notes that "Death metal is an extremist movement." But Khatchadourian wants to make a deeper point about the kinds of people extremist movements might attract. The d.j. continues, "Where heavy metal gets a lot of the guys who lift weights and punch out beer cans, death metal is a really interesting combination of people, but a lot of it is just nerds." True dat.

Khatchadourian also locks on to another interesting facet of metal culture: "Members of the genre generally profess to reject Christianity, but they do so in a religious framework, using the language and imagery of paganism or Satanism, rather than atheism." As an atheist metal fan, I can definitely have fun with Satanist imagery, but I do get sick of seeing one form of nonsense used to counter another.

But then Khatchadorian goes a bit off track. "Fans who outgrow the music, as most do," he writes, "often enough become religious." Whoa. First off, I feel like I've grown into metal as I ditched a lot of silly self-conscious hangups I embraced when I was more into punk or indie (although I don't know a ton about death metal; it's a deep sub-genre populated by a lot of small bands). Second, I would be amazed if there are any data available on the religious feelings of former death metal fans. That bit seems like an obvious attempt to create some sense of order in telling the messy story of Adam Gadahn's change from metal head to turbaned head (oh, I coulda written that much nastier).

I doubt the connection between death metal and militant Islam is any deeper than that they both tend to appeal to people who feel isolated in some way, people who like communities in which they feel they've found a niche. But there's no need to hypothesize deeper connections about religion. And sub-cultures that shelter lonely nerds are hardly rare.

I can't finish without saying that I was impressed that Khatchadourian picked up on an unfortunate tendency among the death metallers: "Onstage, artists often wore sweatpants to demonstrate their athleticism and lack of pretense." I'm not so sure about the athleticism; I heard it was to show how above image they were. Still, if your band is called Cannibal Corpse, I think you have already opened the door to pretense. That's why I tend to prefer the more pretense-friendly sub-genre of black metal. It's totally different from death metal. Well, not really.


Friday, January 12, 2007

Aspy Goes Old Media

Make your own here.

[via Pharyngula]


Friday Freenis: So Beautiful

Many moons ago, my man MG sent me a link to a beautiful online flash game called Samorost. In this adventure/puzzle game, players point-and-click to help a little gnome through a bizarre mechano-organic world.

About a year ago, the Czech developers released Samorost 2. Somehow, I never came across it until this week. The new game has the same captivating style, simple gameplay, and engrossing sound/music as the original. Help the gnome rescue his kidnapped dog in this compelling, oddly comforting game.

This first chapter is free. A second chapter can be downloaded for a fee.


Wednesday, January 10, 2007

In Praise Of Will Arnett

I hate to admit it, but I'm a really late convert to the genius that is Arrested Development. I never watched it when it was on the air, but over Christmas I got sucked into a rerun marathon and gulped down the first 10 or so episodes of Season One in one sitting. Since then, the wife and I have rented and watched the remainder of Season One and Season Two on dvd.

The writing, the acting, the directing--they're all great. But I wanted to single out Will Arnett, the actor who plays Gob, for particular praise. He is so funny on this show that I almost can't believe that he didn't make a big splash before. Looking at IMDB, it seem he made a living from a string of small TV parts, but now is involved in a heap of movies (one promisingly titled Get 'Em Wet). He is gifted with a wonderful voice, and his timing is amazing. If his future work is half as funny as Gob, it will still be hilarious.

Here are a couple clips demonstrating his abilities. The first speaks for itself.

The second is more subtle (and blurry) and might not work so well out of context, but I laughed for minutes at this scene in the show, replaying his outbursts in my mind until they seemed like absurdist masterpieces. I can't think of any other actors who can make me laugh like this with one word.


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Online Gaming With Wii

Nintendo may still be a ways away from maximizing the online potential of the Wii (imagine Excite Truck with online races!), but at least the online browser is supplying new gaming opportunities. Weeks before the Opera browser even launched, Wiicade was up and running. The site carries flash games designed with the Wii controls in mind. The games are simple, but they are more fun to play on the Wii with the Wii remote than they were on my laptop. Tactical Assassin and Curve Ball are a couple of standouts.

One thing about new game systems that I love but that I wouldn’t have predicted 10 years ago is how they create a niche for simple games. I’d like to see more designers create online games with the Wii in mind. And I still have high hopes that the Wii’s Virtual Console will eventually host some new games with retro flair.

An aside: I wondered when the porn possibilities of Wii webbing was going to make some ripples.

[Thanks, Jon]


Friday, January 05, 2007

My Winter Wonderland

When I woke up this morning, it was 56 degrees F outside. In New York. On January 5th. Tomorrow, temps are expected to rise to the mid 60s. It has not snowed once in New York City this season, which will make this year's snow the latest snow ever recorded (if it does ever snow, that is). As a northerner, I miss the cold and the snow. Fortunately, I can retreat to Huaraz, my town in Animal Crossing, to hear the snow crunch under my feet. At least virtual nature adheres to expectations.

[UPDATE: 1/6/07 This morning it was 67 degrees at 6:00 AM. WTF?!]


Thursday, January 04, 2007

Meteorite in tha hizzouse!

True story: when I was little, I used to keep myself up at night worrying about meteorites crashing into my house. Then I would panic and call out to my parents, who would come to my room and assure me that we were safe from such a catastrophe. Well, what do you say about THIS, Mom and Dad?

Better true story: A woman living with her adult son in Freehold Township, NJ, heard a thud on Tuesday afternoon. That evening, the son found a hunk of metal, about 3-and-a-half inches long and weighing three-quarters of a pound, lodged in a bathroom wall. They discovered that the object had crashed through the roof of the two-story house, through the ceiling of a first-floor bathroom, bounced off the tiles, and then got stuck in the wall.

Experts say it could be a meteorite. The object apparently has a smoother appearance than other meteorites, but what else could it be? A piece of a satellite? I'll update when the results of analyses are announced over the next couple days.

My adult fears are much more prosaic than my childhood worries, and recently involve money and a bun in the oven. But I can't argue with a woman quoted in this Newark Star-Ledger story, "I don't like things falling from the sky."

[UPDATE: 1/6/07 Sure enough, it's a meteorite, straight outta the asteroid belt.]