Monday, December 05, 2005

... It's for the Kids ...

I am very involved with my kids and their activities. I'm a Cub Scout leader, a Team Manager for Destination Imagination, and teach CCD for our Church. I attend every weekend or night function, and do my best to get to every function during the day. I'm involved, and I do pretty well as a leader and motivator of kids - and I love doing it. But when I got a call a week ago to help as a volunteer at the lower elementary school's (preschool - grade 2) 'Breakfast With Santa' I stepped into uncharted territory.

My kids are very smart, but they differ in how they see the world. My younger son has an imagination that runs rampant in both directions - he came up with more than half the ideas for our town's Haunted House, including a fully realized 'Monster Lab' in which he got up in the middle of the room and told the entire room (of mostly adults) what would be where, and what would happen ... and it was great. But that same imagination kept him from ever stepping foot in the finished Haunted House. My older son is much more of a pragmatist - he is very creative, but is much more analytical and is always trying to work things out.

When it comes to Santa, while both know that the 'Santa' at our December CubScout pack meeting is the Scoutmaster in a suit, they approach the other 'Santa's Helpers' in different ways. My older son understands that Santa can't be everywhere so there are helpers, and that sometimes people just dress up like Santa for fun at parties. My wife and I believe our younger son will go to college thinking any guy he sees in December with a white beard and red suit is *the* Santa.

It should be pretty obvious what I was asked - to play Santa for the kids. There was some talk last Monday, but I didn't get the call until Thursday night - but since I already knew it was likely to come, I was prepared and said yes immediately. But then we had to decide what to tell the kids - do we tell them, hint at it, or just not say anything. We decided not to say anything - not lie or avoid, just that I was working, and had to be there earlier than them (my wife was also working, but didn't have to be there before it opened.)

I was very nervous about doing this, which is somewhat strange. My wife thought it hilarious, since I don't even blink an eye about presenting controversial technical subjects at conferences to audiences that have exceeded 1000 people, where I know I'll be challeneged by some of the brightest people in the semiconductor industry. But here I was, all out of sorts at the thought of having a couple of hundred kids come sit on my lap for a picture and tell me what they wanted for Christmas. But I don't get nervous for work stuff because I know what I know, and am not afraid of what I don't know. With kids, all bets are off - and even if I'm not the *real* Santa, I wanted to be the best Santa's Helper I could, making the experience as magical as possible.

All of my visits to various Santa photo opportunities have been from the other side - either as the kid or adult. The most I've ever had to worry about was when my older son was 1 and didn't want to be left with Santa and it turned into a family photo. So seeing it from the other side was eye-opening. The kids were all respectful - people asked me later if I got my beard pulled or anything. Far from it, the most common reaction was *AWE*. Sure, there were many kids who were afraid, and wanted nothing to do with me, and other who wanted to stand next to the chair (if I saw a kid looking tentative I offered that as a choice), just as there were kids who came right out of line to hug me, most kids were very respectful, keeping their distance and giving me a smile and a wave.

Just in case you thought it only happened to you - kids tell Santa everything, and most parents are left straining to make sure they hear everything their child is saying or asking for. I heard it all, from shoes to laptops and everything in between - as most kids were in first or second grade, GBA was a very popular request, as was all things Barbie and Bratz - and I tried to make each kid feel special be saying how wonderful their idea was, with some details if I knew them.

Only one kid knew who I was, and it was one of my older son's friends. I gave him a wink and his mother glared at him as if to say "if you say anything to your little brother I'll kill you!" There was a teenager whose mother worked at the school and wanted a picture of her daughter with Santa. Her daughter was very nervous and embarrassed, so I told her 'remember, you can't actually die of embarrassment', which made her chuck and put her at ease.

The saddest thing was two kids whose only wish for Christmas was that their family be happy - these were kids under 8, and there were some obvious issues, probably a recent death or divorce, but sadness permeated their faces. I said I'd do what I could and would pray for them as well ... and I have.

My own kids ... I bet you wondered what they thought? Well, neither one really said anything, but I bet my older son knew. He was poking around it as we were getting ready to leave, but there were still a bunch of little kids there so I deflected the questions with non-answers, but as soon as we were home I talked about things and left it wide open ... he talked a couple of times as if he might ask, but I was going to make him do it himself rather than pushing it. When he mentioned talking to his friend I figured that was it, but he sidestepped it. My younger son never went there - where I saw skepticism and exploring in my older son's eyes as he approached me/Santa, with my younger son there was only pure wonder. He told me his secret wish for Christmas - that Rudolph would visit him sometime. And when we got home he told us that he had told Santa his secret wish - but *still* wouldn't tell any of us ... and this is the kid who can't stop from telling anyone anything! It was truly a great experience ... next year both of my boys will be in the 'upper elementary' school (3rd - 5th grades), and there are no Santa parties, so this might have been a one time magical experience.

As it says in the end of 'Polar Express', so long as you hear that bell, the magic of Christmas is yours ... I still hear it, as does my wife, and we hope you all do too and have a wonderful Christmas!

Friday, December 02, 2005

Bringing Closure to Two Years of Hate

Two years already? ... two years. On December 2nd, 2003 Deus Ex: Invisible War was released - and I was there on the day of release to get it. Sure, there was a demo a couple of weeks prior, but I had already decided I didn't want to spoil the beginning ... see, I was such a big Deus Ex fan that I *knew* it would be great.

Only it wasn't. In fact, not only was it a mediocre game, and a *huge* disappointment to fans of the original, it was also a complete pig in terms of performance. Not only that, it showed too many hallmarks of being designed 'console first' including some settings that explicitly said 'for XBox, if used on PC change this to X' but hadn't been changed.

I hated this game, oh how I hated it ... from playing this sad excuse for a Deus Ex game - which crawled and stuttered on my brand new laptop with a 3.2GHz processor and a 128MB nVidia 5220 card, as well as my slightly older desktop - came my first gaming resolution: if there is a demo, play it! I had gotten complacent based on successfully skipping available demos for Jedi Academy and others.

But that was two years ago, and I have a new computer. I decided that it was time to confront this old ghost once again. First I took a look at GameRankings and for some reason the average score for this game is >80%. That I don't get ... but anyway ...

I was also surprised that it was on 2 CD's ... have I become so used to 4 CD installs that 2 CD's seems svelte? It installed quickly, and I patched it up to 1.2 ... which too a surprisingly long time.

But what surprised me most were the graphics and performance - the graphics didn't look that great, and the game breezed as if I was playing an old game. Sure, I have an nVidia 7800GT with 256MB, but still ... So I cranked the setting little by little, until everything was maxed out - and it still didn't look all that great. I'm not expecting Half-Life 2 or F.E.A.R. here, this game didn't stand up to my maxed out No One Lives Forever 2!

Finally, the gameplay. It isn't as bad as I remembered - I still don't think it is 80% material, but I not longer hate it for wasting my $50 and representing an insult to the legacy of Deus Ex. So I can let go of the hate, but remember the lessons - a great game doesn't mean a great sequel, and always, ALWAYS play demos when they are available.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

For the Love of Game Demos

One of the games on my IGN 'Wish List'was Hammer & Sickle, a strategy-RPG by a Russian developer based on the acclaimed Silent Storm engine. Everything that I read about it looked quite interesting - you play as a Russian agent in early Cold War located in the Allied zone of Germany, you get to choose a character type and progress through the game, and there broad flexibility in the turn-based combat system.

A demo was just released for the game. Obeying one of my Gaming Resolutions, I downloaded and installed the game immediately. The game opens with a long series of cutscenes, which are interactive to the extent that I needed to constantly click 'next' to advance the dialogue. By the time the action moves to player-control, I already had a bad feeling - poor translation of bad dialogue, lousy voice acting, mediocre graphics and not great performance.

Playing for a while I became painfully aware that the game is just awful. I have no need to spend $40 to get the full version to confirm this - and I have no desire to play this game in some attempt to uncover the 'golden nugget' that might be hiding. This isn't really my game type, but looked interesting enough to check out.

Amusingly, had my Gothic II Gold pre-order arrived at EBGames when scheduled, I was going to pre-order this game ... so while I'm lamenting the shipping delays with Gothic, it appears to have saved me $40.

This is also a validation of the value of demos. Prior to the release of Deus Ex Invisible War I would often buy a game without trying a demo even if it was available ... but after getting burned by that game I resolved to test out anything I possible could.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Thanksgiving With a Difference

Someone said that 'Traditions are made to be made'. In other words, don't just stick with the way it has always been done for the sake of it, adapt and change with what is going on around you. That is something we have tried to do, and this year we really needed to embrace it head on! My wife's parents are not well - her father has end-stage leukemia (has for >2 years now!) and her mother might have lung cancer, anyway they are no longer traveling - and since she and her sister don't talk, and her sister claims every possible holiday as her familily's to visit, we don't see them at holidays.

With my family it has been a different thing - we have been growing apart, and for a while I thought that both they and I were changing, but upon reflection this year, I can see that much of what is going on is just the way things have always been. The difference is that I will no longer 'put up and shut up' and do things to appease them - especially when I see them treating my kids like items on a checklist. My motto for years now has been - mess with me, fine, mess with my kids and watch out! So we have completed the fall checklist and my parents once again got in as many checklist items in one day as possible - which meant celebrating his birthday a month late (I was proud - he firmly said "do *not* sing, it is *not* my birthday). There was no mention of what they were doing for Thanksgiving.

Last year we had invited some friends over with their twin girls who are a few months younger than our older son. It was a great time, and we had a wonderful Thanksgiving weekend.

So this year we knew we would be just the four of us, and decided amongst ourselves how to make it fun. So what did we decide?
  • Everyone would help make out a menu so we would all have our favorites.
  • We would have a fancy dinner that we would all work on cooking.
  • The weekend would have lots of relaxation and family time.
  • We would be out of the house by 5AM Friday on a 'Shopping Adventure'.
  • While shopping we would all get some choices of where to go.
  • We would make it to church for the first Sunday of Advent.

    Pretty ambitious list, I know ... but very do-able. And we did it all - and more. We had a great week leading up to Thanksgiving - it really started when I took a half-day on Tuesday and we had the kids' 'Parent-Teacher Conferences', and ended when reality struck again Monday morning.
  • Everyone wanted traditional dinner - so we had a great 10lb turkey with stuffing, mashed & sweet potatoes, veggies, gravy, salad, cranberry sauce ... and pumpkin pie, chocolate cream pie and chocoltate ganache cake. My wife loves to bake ... and she is truly awesome.
  • I went out to get the Boston Globe to get the Black Friday newspaper ads, and got to plow through a few inches of snow. I was thankful we weren't traveling anywhere.
  • Later in the day I got the chance to work off some of my turkey by shoveling 6 inches or so of snow! Lucky me!
  • We're all shoppers - so the prospect of braving the Friday crowds was exciting rather than daunting. We decided on a shopping plan, starting with Toys R Us and heading through a few other stores before hitting Target and the Mall. We also decided that drinks and snacks would come in the car and we'd have brunch later. Another side benefit was that the earliest stores we wanted to hit opened at 6AM.
  • Arriving at Toys R Us at 5:45 AM was something ... it was interesting that Office Max had a larger line (due to the low-price computers, I later discovered). The atmosphere early on was pretty festive, but certainly frantic. Our primary goal was charity gifts, but we managed to snag a few gifts for our kids while they weren't looking.
  • Shopping was largely successful, and pretty fun, but by the time we got to Target, we were all well aware of one thing - this was *not* a day for browsing.
  • We found a new place for breakfast, a small classic diner that had recently opened. We got a nice breakfast there, for pretty decent money.
  • There were other stores we talked about getting to - Barnes & Noble in particular - but we were close to the theater, so we checked the time for Harry Potter. It was starting in 10 minutes! So we jumped right in - which worked well, as the popcorn and sode would have cost more than the huge breakfast we had just devoured!
  • The rest of the weekend was busy but casual - we had gotten an artificial tree this year due to my wife & younger son's allergies, so we spent Saturday decorating.
  • Sunday we finished the shopping - a few things at the Christmas Tree Shop (mostly gifts for the Scout caroling at the elderly housing we do next week) and a bunch of time at Barnes & Noble.
  • Monday came too early, as it always does ... I wasn't all that rested, and had certainly gained a few pounds, but felt wonderfully loved and rewarded.

    After going through the weekend, I look back on a great deal more that I'm thankful for:
  • I'm more thankful than ever for my wife and kids - it may sound corny or hackneyed, but they are the center of my universe, and we had an absolute blast together in a way you wish could just last forever.
  • I am thankful that near the top of both my boys' lists were gifts for less fortunate kids.
  • I am happy that my younger son broke down and cried as he watched this scene at 8AM in Target: a woman in standing in front of a end-cap in Toys, looking at stuff, when another woman grabs a toy off the shelf. Apparently it was the last one, because the first woman, without attempting to talk, streams explitives and then throws coffee at the other woman (thankfully the top was on so it was a trickle), whereupon the other woman returns a verbal volley and leaves her while calling out psycho. I am so glad that my son sees this as completely crazy behaviour, enough to make him very emotionally upset.
  • I am grateful that when an item for one of the charity kids - something my older son picked from the 'wish tree' at church - ended up *not* on sale, that he volunteered his own money to make up the difference.
  • I am proud that we can go places as a family without temper tantrums when nothing is bought; without having problems at the table of a restaurant; without having to ever bribe for behaviour. Days like Black Friday are so full of these problems that you really appreciate what you have.
  • I am thankful that my wife shares my values so closely, and that by parenting by example as well as by lesson we have the joy of two boys who have manners and are polite - who will say 'thank you' and 'please' even when clerks in stores are rude.
  • I am proud of my boys school work. We were at a birthday party the week before, and report cards came out the day before. While others discussed their results, my wife and I were silent - because saying anything would sound like bragging. Which it would - both kids have already mastered all skills for their grades, and the teachers are challenging themselves to keep them challenged. See - sounds like bragging! But beyond brains and grades, there is attitude and behavior - and my boys are both called a joy to have in class. Too often kids who breeze through work end up with behavior issues, so I am proud and thankful that the bahavior they display everywhere is exemplary.
  • I am proud that my older son loves playing soccer and made the fall 'travel' team, and tries hard. No one will call him the best player out there, and he certainly inherited my speed (read: none), but he enjoys playing and does his best. For a kid who has so many things come easy, and so many things he is best at for his age, it is nice to see him be happy not shining.
  • The parent teacher conferences were unsurprising yet surprising at the same time. We have been told repeatedly - since kindergarten that we are the type of parent who always comes but doesn't need to, since there are no issues to discuss. Yet this year in particular, the praise heaped on the kids was something that stuck my wife and I, and we went to Dunkin Donuts for a coffee before going home and relieving the babysitter ... just to soak it all in.

    This was a very thankful year for my wife and I - and we got to focus on the greatest things we have, each other and our kids.
  • Wednesday, November 23, 2005

    Remembering the game - XIII (PC, 2003)

    XIII is one of those milestone games that tells a good and bad tale from my gaming life. I was very interested in this game based on what it offered - a quality FPS presented in a stylistic graphic novel presentation with a compelling story of mystery and intrugue that would require gamers to use their brains as well as their trigger fingers.

    Of course, anyone who has played the game knows it is really not all that great. Sure, it has style. Certainly, it has an interesting way of laying out the story. But after you get past those, you are left with a pretty average shooter which makes use of entirely too many gaming cliches.

    So why is it a milestone? Two reasons: timing and cross-platform compatibility. Let me explain.

    In the summer of 2003 I really hit my stride in terms of 'game anticipation'. Prior to that there was the rare game that I really looked forward to before release, but they all made sense - I anticipated 'Return to Castle Wolfenstein' as I had been playing 'Castle Wolfenstein' on my Apple ][+ many years before; I looked forward to 'Jedi Knight II' as a Star Wars fan and lover of the previous games in the series. But after my kids got old enough that I had some more free gaming time I started to keep track of what was coming, and prior to the release of 'Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic' I was also getting into RPG's as well as FPS. I was regularly 'talking' with like-minded groups of gamers all over the world, and many of us were looking forward to what seemed to be an interesting variation on the shooter theme. But the demo put questions in my head ... it just didn't seem all that compelling. So I put the game on my Christmas list, and when I got it I played straight through. It was a pretty decent game, and occasionally loads of fun.

    What about cross-platform compatibility? Ever since the Apple ][+, I've maintained some sort of Apple link ... especially for music stuff, as the best MIDI options have always been Mac programs. But for a number of years my gaming had been PC-centric. Once Apple launched the 'TiBook' - the high performance Titanium Powerbook G4 series - I grabbed one and was able to do hard disk recording as well as 'modern' gaming. So I started collecting up games ... and then, beginning in late 2002 with the release of Jedi Knight II for the Mac, I started my habit of 'dual purchasing' games. This meant that if I liked a game I would have it for both Mac and PC. So games like Deus Ex (the *real* one), Baldur's Gate 1 & 2, Fallout 1 & 2, NWN, KotOR, Soldier of Fortune II, Elite Force I & II, Jedi Academy, etc ... I got for both platforms, and was in many cases able to transfer files. The bottom line was that I preferred using the Mac because of the tremendous design and quality of the hardware and OS, but 'needed' the games way before they came to the Mac.

    But by the time XIII came out for the Mac things had started to change - the Mac hardware hadn't kept up, but mainly it was that with my greater interest in RPG and handheld games I simply couldn't justify the purchases ... especially when a game like KotOR had pretty marginal performance on the Mac compared to the PC. So I decided to skip XIII for the Mac. But yet I kept an eye on eBay for bargains ... why?!?! I really don't know ... but it ended up becoming one of the reasons I started up my 'Gaming Resolutions' - to remind myself to keep away from junk. As I said there, if you don't like enough to replay it on one platform, don't buy it on another!

    Today I uninstalled XIII from my gaming desktop, which was the last place I had it. I played a couple of levels 'for old times sake', and it is interesting, but quickly tiresome - it has good music, really cool visuals, a nice style, and not much else.

    But yet it stays with me more than many other games - even games that are much better. It holds some specific good memories from a group of gamer who rarely keep in touch any more, and also a cautionary tale I come back to frequently ... and even if the game isn't so good, at least I can be proud remembering it for those other things.

    Wednesday, November 09, 2005

    Is Gay Marriage Eating Itself?

    Buried deep in the news coverage of yesterday's "off-year" elections was the following item:

    Texans approved a "constitutional amendment providing that marriage in this state consists only of the union of one man and one woman and prohibiting this state or a political subdivision of this state from creating or recognizing any legal status identical or similar to marriage."

    In the same area, you could find this:

    In Maine, voters turned back a measure placed on the ballot by a church-backed conservative coalition that would have repealed a gay-rights law approved by lawmakers earlier this year. The lawmakers had expanded the state’s human rights act to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation.

    Is it me, or is there some cognitive dissonance here? On the one hand voters are saying that there should be no discrimination based on sexual preference, and on the other they are saying that there should be a 'separate but equal' institution for the partnership of couples based on sexual preference. Does that make any sense?

    Perhaps it does - not that I agree with it, but perhaps it makes sense based on the distinction between basic decency and the natural resistance to institutional change. But perhaps it is because the forces behind the gay marriage initiatives have overplayed their hand and made the voters uncomfortable.

    That is the only rational explanation I can think of. By the 90's it seemed that homexuality had gained acceptance as a naturally occuring sexual preference - as opposed to aberrant perversion. But then some groups began to take an 'in your face' approach to it, demanding special rights and priveledges, appearing in public wearing wholly inappropriate outfits, and basically behaving like the aberrant perverts that people feared. Naturally there has been some amount of backlash, and I think that is part of it.

    A larger part is the activism of so-called Christian Conservatives. They have decided that two loving homosexuals engaged in a loving union is a greater threat to the institution of marriage than 'drive by weddings' by celebrities and rampant spousal abuse. And they are using scare tactics to make people believe that homosexual marriage is an affront to existing marriages and will legitimize perversion.

    Why do I care? Because I want everyone to have the opportunity to have happiness without oppression, experience the love I share with my wife without legal limitations and stigma. And I have two boys - how can I know if perhaps one of them is homosexual? And if they are, I want them to be able to enjoy life to the fullest without repercussions or limitations based solely on sexual orientation.

    Monday, November 07, 2005

    What's On First

    No, not "who's on first" - although I am a big fan of Abbott & Costello! What's on first. What?!?

    I just got a new computer - and it is a whopper! A Dell XPS M170 (they've dropper the Inspiron attachment with this latest generation), fully decked out - 2GB of RAM, big hard drive, the latest Pentium 4M processor (2.26 GHz 'EE', not directly comparable to std. P4), and in particular a 256MB vNidia GeForce 7800 GTX video card mapped to a 17" widescreen 1900 x 1200 screen. Like I said, it is a monster.

    So I got is all set up, on our wireless network, all protected, then started setting up various applications and web sites and so on. Finally, I was ready to more on to games, and halted for a minute ...

    What should I put on first?

    For a very long time - more than 3.5 years now - my 'install first' game has been Jedi Knight II. I got a nice Dell Inspiron 8100 a month or so after getting JKII, and quickly installed and replayed the game through - and this time Yavin Swamp wasn't quite so choppy. That continued as I continued to get new laptops - I always get the top of the line, so they perform pretty well for a while. When the Mac version of JKII was released in late 2002, I installed and started to play and then got a new G4 Powerbook within a month - JKII was first on that system, and I was treated to the most beautiful and best performing Yavin experience to date. My last new PC system was a high-end Inspiron (non-XPS) in late 2003. I already had a nice Dimension desktop, and have just upgraded that to keep up. The Inspiron has managed to keep up pretty well - but I have had to scale back details and resolution to handle newer games like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2. More recently I have upgraded the video card on my Dimension to a GeForce 6600GT and been pretty pleased with performance for F.E.A.R. and Quake IV.

    But what should I put on the new PC first? Well, one thing for sure, I don't want to take the 'install loads of stuff' approach I've done with other PC's - there is too much junk left behind with the constant install/uninstall cycles. So I only want to put stuff there that I will absolutely play and really want.

    So what was I thinking about:
  • New games - I could definitely have put on F.E.A.R., Quake IV and Serious Sam 2. But Quake IV I've played and don't know when I'll play again, Serious Sam 2 I'm almost finished with and will most likely never play again. That leaves F.E.A.R., and I don't know when I'll replay that. So that wasn't it ...
  • Classic RPG's - I've been playing bits of some classic games like Arcanum, Baldur's Gate II, Planescape Torment, and so on. I could certainly install them on this PC, but since they all run great on my work ultra-portable, why bother? Same goes for Geneforge 3 from Spiderweb, which I've played some of but still have a *long* way to go. Still not the right fit ...
  • Gothic 2 - I was replaying this when Fable: The Lost Chapters came out, and am looking forward to getting back to playing. However, the 'Gothic 2 Gold' is coming in the next couple of weeks, and includes both the original and 'Night of the Raven' expansion, which was released in Germany in 2003 but unavailable thus far in the US. So that will wait.
  • Vampire the Masquerade: Bloodlines - tempting, but I have a game mid-stream on the Dimension, and if I re-installed, I'd want to restart with a new character. So not quite yet.
  • Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic II: The Sith Lords - I also have a game mid-stream on the Dimension ... same reasoning as Bloodlines.
  • Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic - I just started replaying this one the Mac. Falls into the same basic RPG restart/replay rule as the others.
  • Soldier of Fortune II - I recently replayed this, and am not really itching for another run quite yet.
  • No One Lives Forever I & II - very tempting, and they will be installed soon enough - I *have* been itching for more Cate Archer action ... terribly under-rated games.

    So that left me with a couple in the front of my mind - Jedi Academy and JKII. I had pretty recently played the whole Dark Forces series, but these are always good for a go. I like Jedi Academy in terms of customization and character development, but JKII is a better story and overall game. But in the end it came down to the fact that JKII is one CD, and I have it in my 'game CD carrier' ... Jedi Academy would have required a 'trip to the vault'.

    So JKII was once again 'first installed'. It is clearly not a game to show off the power of this system, but it remains one of my all-time favorite games.

    But ... what about Half-Life 2?!?! Brilliant though it is, it just isn't one of my favorites. I played it again recently, and am quite satisfied for a while. When the expansion comes out, it will no doubt go on the new system ... and we'll see what else I play on it before then.
  • Friday, November 04, 2005

    Time For A Break

    Discussion forums have been at the heart of my internet experience since the mid-late 80's on university mainframes. For the longest time I was involved in USENET groups covering everything from Statistics to Programming to Handheld PDA's to Jazz and finally Gaming. It is only recently that the reality of the 'Death of USENET' has caused me to stop checking the newsgroups.

    I have never gotten much into 'internet chat', but remember well the advent of 'web forums', and resisted them every step of the way. Why bother checking at and and various small, specialized sites when you can just have a dozen or so groups you're subscribed to. Over time, though, the USENET groups shrank in their audience and relevence while the Web forums grew. Instead of the convenience of a few groups in one application from a single source, I was now faced with monitoring many web forums in addition to USENET. That was unsustainable, and in the end I dropped out of one USENET group after another.

    Some of it was tough - you develop relationships with these people, some of whom I had 'known' online for 10 years or more. Some keep in touch, but for most it is all just memories of the 'good old days'.

    The same thing happens on Web Forums - people come and go, communities are fluid, and so is the focus. For example, one of the first non-technical communities I became part of was at '', which I had found and lurked around while waiting for a game called 'Obi-Wan' that was in development for the PC. After Obi-Wan was cancelled, speculation turned to confirmation that there would be a true successor to the classic Jedi Knight, I became a very active member of the forums. There were many people of a similar age group - their 30's - in the crowd, as well as someone who also used a Mac on a regular basis as well as PC's. That crowd became pretty close-knit over the ensuing months of speculation and dribbled-out information, and some decent relationships were formed. Immediately following the game's release, however, the average age of members seemed to drop by half, as did the maturity and respectfullness of the discourse. Several people left the community almost immediately, others lasted longer, still others never left.

    I personally realized that it was time for a break - for me to part with the community and just check in occasionally.

    Several months later, Jedi Academy was announced, and while the pre-JKII level of intelligent dialogue never resturned, the community became somewhat more mature and focused. A few months after Jedi Academy was released, however, it became clear that as the average age had dropped to about 15, the ability to discuss anything not of interest to 15-year old male Star Wars fanatics was quite limited. So, despite having a few friends, it was time for me to leave. And it was a good thing for me, as it allowed me to better spend my forum time. I will still check in on occasion, probably every month or two, and perhaps even reply to a post, but largely it is a part of my past.

    There was another Star Wars gaming site formed largely by people disillusioned by the JK site, who wanted a place of their own. They were by and large older and more serious, and after talking to a couple of my best 'friends' from the original site, I joined that community. Growing a community is a good thing, but when sampling from the same pool you'll get the same water, as it were. So as the new forums grew, some from the old site came along for the ride - many frequent both places. In addition, personal reasons caused one of my oldest and closest online friends to have to all but leave the forum worlds at large, leaving me pondering what to do. I was finding the discussion I was involved with were not worthwhile for the time I was spending, and that I was putting an effort into a community for which I was not seeing a return in value.

    I once again realized that it was time for a break, to step away for a while, then come back with a fresh perspective and decide what level of involvement was appropriate. During that break I was contacted by four people from the site - one person was the founder, a young guy who was pretty decent and just wanted to check in, and the other three were people I'd been involved with for nearly five years - they were all parents, gamers and Star Wars fans, and all understood what I was thinking, but wanted me around regardless. I realized then that the community I sought was right there, and happily returned - in a much lighter mode.

    One of the reasons for this post is that I heard from an old friend today - someone who I have known since some of my earliest days of PDA's, back in the HP200LX days in the early 90's. We were involved with Microsoft directly in some of the beta testing for their earliest PDA forays, and stuck together through the Newton demise. After a couple of years in the Pocket PC world, each of us was heading in a different direction. We still keep in touch, but that is pretty much all that is left of what was once a big part of my 'hobby forum time' - PDA's.

    It is interesting how things change over time.

    I have always been a gamer - back to Pong in the 70's. And my top priority in life is my family. So is it any surprise that perhaps the biggest forum time involment - and major gamign writing commitment - is at GamerDad? Andrew Bub had a vision to create a place not for kids, but for parents who care about games, care about kids and care about the games their kids play. I have been full on-board with that vision from the moment I heard about it (can't recall where) nearly 2.5 years ago. And during that time, as other forums or newsgroups have come and gone, GamerDad has remained. Why? Because it is the community that makes sense to me - adults, gamers and (mostly) parents.

    So how does this tie in? Well, despite being a member for over 2 years and a very active member for most of that time, it is really in the past year since I have become first a reviewer and now also a regular columnist that I have felt a true part of the site. Like I am part of making something real and of value, which is not something that happens much in the non-hobby part of a hobby. I like contributing articles and reviews to the site, and take pride not only getting emails from people about the articles, but from getting people giving praise about the site in general and how cool it is what we are doing.

    But last week I had sort of a "who's your daddy" moment at GamerDad ... and not for the first time. While the site is generally friendly and light, we occasionally wander into more serious territory. And when we do, things can get pretty heated. That is fine, I can deal with that. But there is a saying that goes something like 'don't critique the wine choice when you're a guest for dinner'. The problem is that when you are working in a forum that is generally light it is easy to toss somewhat flippant comments around. Occasionally you need to provide the proper context, or just say that you were off-base. But there is a different feeling when it is with the creator and owner of a site, especially one who can give a pretty decent smack-down. For whatever reason, despite the generally great relationships I have in general at the site and specifically with this person, I let this bug the heck out of me for a while.

    After that I asked myself - is it time for a break here? The thought barely crossed my mind before I knew the answer - NO! This was just a normal disagreement that felt weird because of the relative positions of the participants. There have been instances before and after from others where they have made comments along the same lines "it is your site after all ... " And I realize, it isn't just me - and it isn't necessarily related to him - it is likely just due to the position.

    I also have had a couple of other 'blasts from the past' in the last couple of weeks. A couple of other online friends have contacted me - one from my heaviest programming days, the other from my even more remote music past. It is amazing how things change - neither one was involved with the stuff they were doing back when we talked all of the time. For my music friend, that was no surprise - neither one of us figured a career in music. He ended up in a corporate job at a large office supplies store chain based in our area.

    The other one was more interesting. Here was a guy I had loads of contact with for quite a while using Turbo C++ for DOS, involved with in the early VB days - not some superstar from one of the big companies, but a reasonable programmer on Usenet, someone who did that stuff for a living. So what is he up to now? He has a small farm in Vermont. Huh? How did that happen? Seems he decided it was time for a break, and never looked back ...
    Bookworm ... or, just checking my references ...

    These days you hear about falling literacy rates all over the place, how kids would rather plug into to watch Cartoon Network or play on the PS2 than pick up a book. We have always worked to instill a love of reading in our kids, and apparently it worked ... my younger son was reading a Usborne book on crystals he had gotten from the library, and it referred to the bible as a historical reference for a certain piece of crystal used on armor. He has probably read more of the Bible than the rest of the family - it started with reading the stories of Daniel in his 'Children's Bible' after watching the VeggieTales video, but he quickly grew into the full 'Good News Bible' I had gotten back when I was in CCD as a kid. When I walked into his room, I expected him to be reading on of the Droon or Narnia books, or perhaps a Garfield book ... but this floored me and I had to capture the moment.

    Thursday, November 03, 2005

    Halloween Fun

    We did things a little different this year.

    Normally we spend a bunch of time decorating the house, getting the inside and outside all ready, and get two sets of pumpkins - one in September just for decorations, and the other for carving. We work on our costumes as a family and are all ready well before Halloween.

    This year we were contacted by a friend who was involved with the town recreation department. Seems they wanted to restart the traditional Haunted House that had been held for many years in the old basement of the local Congregational Church, but hadn't been done is a couple of years. Since we're well known in town for dressing up each year, and for using a family theme, we were tapped early on to volunteer.

    The Haunted House is entirely a volunteer effort, and sought to allow the town some fun and cheap thrills, while helping to fund other activities for the recreation department throughout the year. So we started having organizational meetings. The leader of the effort had stated that he was very interested in us being 'The Star Wars Family', as that is a very popular theme for us. We would work outside, along the line, entertaining people before they entered.

    As ideas for scenes started to arise, a great many came from the two seats next to my wife and I ... and one in particular. Now you have to know my younger son - he has a tremendous imagination, and is scared of loads of things. So he comes up with the idea for a monster laboratory in which people are fed potions which turns them into monsters, and there is all kinds of scary stuff going on. He describes it is pretty decent detail ... and everyone is very enthusiastic. He also talks about a haunted fortune teller who has bad fortunes for everyone. My other son talks about a cemetary full of zombie animals. There is other stuff that they talked about that there wasn't the time of people to get done.

    As it came time to put it all together, between Cub Scouts and my older son getting sick, I was alone in helping with assembly for the week. The Haunted House was running Friday and Saturday nights, so Thursday night we planned a final walkthrough and dress rehearsal. It was cold that night, which was good becuase it told us we didn't dress heavily enough under the costumes - so we made a note to bundle up better. When it came to the walkthrough, we didn't even get inside and my son was *done*. No way was he going in ... eventually we convinced him to stand by the Fortune Teller at the door so we could help out inside and the outside door could be closed.

    Friday night, we arrived early - the doors opened at 6PM and we wanted to have ourselves ready to go. The temperature was about 30 degrees at 5:30 when we left the house. We had a few canned skits - one with a Stormtrooper capturing Princess Leia and bringing her to Darth Vader, only to have Luke cut down the Stormtrooper and do battle with Vader to cover Leia's escape. Others included playing out chases and battles from the movies and improvising scenes - these mainly were done to involve people in line, Luke and Leia would try to keep them safe from the Imperials, and I would go around menacing them into revealing the location of Leia or the rebels. It was all great fun, but after three hours we were exhausted and done.

    We didn't get to view the haunted house in action the first night, which was fine - there was another night to go! Saturday night was just about as cold, but we had dressed well the previous night. This time we brought a mug of hot chocolate for everyone and some water. It only took us about an hour to feel 'done' the second night, and then we struggled for a bit, but found a good improvisational rhythm and thorought enjoyed the last hour or so.

    As the line dwindled, we had the chance to go through the Haunted House ourselves. Not surprisingly my younger son wasn't interested, but my older son was. So he and I went through - it was great seeing everything completed and in action, and it was fun. Apparently my younger son was starting to freak out that we had been gone too long and that perhaps something had happened, but we came out unscathed. A clean-up session ensued, and we went home and all fell into bed exhausted.

    After all of that activity and a busy weekend of soccer and cub scout hikes, Halloween was upon us - we hadn't finished decorating, and it was Sunday before we got our pumpkins. We had a relaxing and fun time carving them, and my wife put out a few more exterior decorations for Monday. Trick or Treat was done as ... yep, the Star Wars family. My wife never got dressed - for which she took a good deal of grief from the neighborhood kids and adults alike. We saw some of the people who had participated in the haunted house, and collapsed into bed full of sugar.

    We probably won't do that again next year - standing outside for three hours a night isn't much fun and we know better than to be located inside. But for this year it was some wonderful Halloween Fun.

    Monday, October 31, 2005

    First Snow

    This weekend we had both our first snow and some wonderful 'Indian Summer' weather. There isn't much to look at in the picture above, taken on our Cub Scout hike up Pack Monadnock mountain in Peterborough, NH yesterday - but the impact was there. The couple of inches that had fallen were melting fast in the 60+ degree temperatures, making the rocky climb muddy in spots and treacherous in others. The kids absolutely loved it - tehy could pick up the bits of snow and toss them around, but without being cold. Quite nice after several days of very cold temperatures.

    Thursday, October 27, 2005

    Global Warming ... Or Not - Does It Matter?

    There has been an uptick in the debate over whether or not the recent spate of massive natural disasters - hurricanes, tsunamis, earthquakes - are all indicators that not only is Global Warming real, these are indicators of the impact it is having on our environment.

    The counter-arguments are all supported by some decent science as well, showing temperature trends and the cyclical of our world. They say that the Earth naturally warms and cools over many eons, and that whatever trends we are seeing is simply part of that. They further say that things like the hurricanes are simply a result of a confluence of events making the conditions more favorable, and that since we humans have been on this planet a short time and observing the conditions for even a shorter time, that we are not able to guage significance.

    I say - what does it matter? Does the non-detectability of the leverage of a factor thought to have potential significance make that factor insignificant? Certainly not. I am an optical engineer with a focus on metrology and a statistician, so I deal with detectability and statistical significance every day. Too often who want to ignore something rant and rave about how they are paralyzed by measurement error - that because the measurement data cannot prove significance, they cannot act. I tell them the same thing I think now about the Global Warming issue. Baloney! If you think a parameter might be significant - even if you cannot measurem its' leverage on your output variable - control it!

    Is there anyone who believes that the amount of pollution we generate can be neutral or even beneficial? Or that the clear-cutting and deforestation has no impact? Who thinks that the environment wouldn't be healthier and the atmosphere in better shape if we lived agrarian lifestyles?

    So why should there be debate around semantics? Can't we accept that it is *likely* there is environmental impact of both short and long term nature based on man-made waste and that by reducing or eliminating them we can help preserve the planet for future use?

    Wednesday, October 26, 2005

    The 'In' Crowd

    It seems that an increasing amount of games released recently are either based on or tied into a license of some sort. Whether it is a movie, TV show, or even just characters from other games, the amount of individually developed intellectual property in games seems to be shrinking. Sure, there is some - F.E.A.R. for the PC is a good example - but by and large the tendency seems to be to go with a known quantity.

    There are a few ways in which this happens - tie-ins, sequels, and use of licensed material in original stories. All are represented in full-force this gaming season, so what is there on offer?

    Movie Tie-Ins: Usually these are pretty bad, such as Charlie & the Chocolate Factory. But games for some recent movies - such as Chicken Little and Wallace & Gromit have received average review scores of ~70%, and the upcoming Harry Potter movie game might prove again to be an entertaining if unremarkable game.

    Sequel Mania: these vary, but too many deteriorate in quality. Currently I'm playing Quake IV. This game is the sequel to Quake II (Quake III was a multiplayer game), but is very playable for those new to the series. Perhaps this is partly because id software games have pretty thin plots, or because Raven has made a point of including the original story interspersed with the action of the new game.

    Licensed Property:
    This is really what I want to focus on. Again, these vary in terms of quality - Star Wars games are a great example, as some are terribly great and others are just terrible. These are very interesting in a way, as they allow familiar characters to get new settings and stories. There are a couple I'm playing right now - Ultimate Spiderman for the DS and XMen Legends II for the PSP.

    Ultimate Spiderman is an interesting game in that it presents some new and some old material in a very stylish format that allows you to take on the role of hero or villian at certain points in the game. Spiderman is a license I know something about - he was my second favorite superhero as a kid (behind Batman), but there is much new stuff, and I don't keep up with all of it, as my kids no longer have the time for Saturday morning cartoons very often. But lacking specific knowlesdge doesn't hamper enjoyment of the game - so long as you know the basic characters and background. The storytelling is direct and interesting, and the gameplay fast-paced and fun. I'm about half-way through and it is a very good game - not one of the greats we've seen recently, but very good. XMen Legends II is an ambitious direct port of the console game, in which the XMen and the Brotherhood join forces against a new evil named Apocalypse. I know the basics of the XMen and have seen a few of the cartoons, but many of the characters and references escape me. That really doesn't matter, however, as the story of the game seems well done so far.

    And that is the important thing, right? That the story work, that the characters make sense, and that the gameplay is solid? So it shouldn't matter where the ideas come from, so long as they are good. Right?

    To an extent.

    Take a game like Star Trek Elite Force II - this a pretty solid shooter in its' own right, averaging ~75-80% in review scores. To me, it really illustrated what I call an 80% game - very good without major flaws, but not truly excellent, but with a particular hook that keeps it from being a 70% game. But what really makes it shine above other 70-80% games is the level of Star Trek love. Taking time on the Holodeck to try a new weapon, being particularly successful and getting the praise "almost as good as a Klingon!" was great ... for me. Perhaps for you. But for someone with no knowledge or love of Star Trek?

    That is what has struck me during XMen - I'm not a huge fan, and probably wouldn't know as much as I do without my son - to an extent that is true with Spiderman ... well, at least in terms of Venom. So these games are marketed to the 'in crowd' - those who know the territory, and can get maximum enjoyment based on using that knowledge.

    And shouldn't we also expect innovation in terms of creative story development? Stepping outside the endless franchise-spawns and retreads and yearly sports updates and so on? I think we should - but not for its' own sake. The risk in making a new property is that it will sell like No One Lives Forever rather than F.E.A.R.; that it will turn out like Dungeon Lords rather than Dungeon Siege.

    So keep producing good games based on known entities, and carefully select new properties to bring to market successfully - spend the marketing dollars to help a game like Gothic 3 succeed where the first two games have only achieved 'cult classic' status. Take the time to develop properties we'll care about, instead of always just tapping the familiar for new games.
    Painkiller vs. Sacred ... gaming like it's 1997!?!

    Something I posted on a forum about a year and a half ago:

    I've been playing Sacred for many hours, and just got Painkiller last week. While playing the two games (Sacred one night, Painkiller next day) I was struck by something ...

    Picture the scene - you are strafing into hordes of undead, killing all of them is your only goal, your only option, since the doors don't unlock until they're all dead, heavy metal thrashes as you frag one after the next ... later, in a different game, you are in a dungeon, click-attacking skeletons, liches, and so on ... picking up gold and items hoping for the next level to click-kill some more ... or just get bored and stop playing ?!?

    Is it 1997 and the games are Quake and Diablo? Or 2004, and the games are Painkiller and Sacred? Who knows ...

    I think I finally quit on Sacred ... I just don't remember when I stopped caring and just kept on playing because I'm a dedicated gamer. Unlike in 1997 when I had too many other things (baby and pregnant wife ) to stick to a game I didn't love.

    Painkiller is like one of those Quake games - loads of fun and frustration relief, just don't look for any more than that.

    Sorry for the non-sequitor .... it just struck me ...
    Playing Nice With The Sam

    At first there was disappointment. Then resignation. Bargaining. Acceptance. Installation. Realization. And Despair. Now I'm trying to ...



    Yep. Installation of Serious Sam II. The game I railed about not getting in this space just a week or so ago is now on my hard drive, and has seen a couple of hours of gameplay. And all I can do is sit back and chide myself that I was supposed to be doing better about not getting things unless they were on my 'must have' list.

    So how did it happen?

    I went into my local EBGames to pick up XMen Legends II for the PSP, and had two realizations - one that I only had $35 and not $60 in my pocket because we had taken a scientist who was leaving the company out to lunch, and that the rest of my 'October gaming cash' was at home. The other realization was that despite indicating 'in stock', they didn't have any copies, so the fleeting thought of paying with my debit card was squashed. So no XMen for me that day.

    Then I saw it sitting on the shelf - Serious Sam II. I had liked the demo, and knew that I would be done with F.E.A.R. well before Quake IV was available, so I grabbed a copy and bought it. Just like that.

    But it isn't that bad ... is it?

    No - it isn't a bad game at all. It is pretty average, nothing outstanding in any area I've seen so far, but certainly better than many games released recently. My problem was that I put a stake out there for myself - said I wouldn't do it based on an appraisal of the demo and my current wish list of games and the amount of money I have to spend on them.

    And everything about this game tells me that not buying it would have been the right decision for me. Not for everyone, but for me. Some people have a blast with this type of game, and I did enjoy the 'Second Encounter', and I have had some fun with this one.

    But I should not have bought it, but I did. Do I regret buying it? Yes. Will I play it and enjoy it? Certainly.

    I just hope I learn something from all of this.

    Monday, October 24, 2005

    The Game is Dead ... Long Live the Game

    If you spend any time on the 'official forums' of any game with a multiplayer component, it is inevitible that within months or perhaps weeks of release you will see posts along the lines of "the game is dying!" I was thinking about this as I looked at the playlist numbers below:

    Looking at the stats on GameSpy as of October 24th ...
    1. Half Life 30437 servers, 76271 players
    2. Half Life 2 18512 servers, 59279 players
    3. Battlefield 2 6359 servers, 40604 players
    4. Call of Duty 6294 servers, 15528 players
    5. Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory 3280 servers, 11617 players
    6. Americas Army: Special Forces 1835 servers, 8663 players
    7. Unreal Tournament 2004 2543 servers, 7310 players
    8. Neverwinter Nights 1317 servers, 5833 players
    9. Medal of Honor Allied Assault 2115 servers, 4622 players
    10. Quake 3: Arena 1999 servers, 3821 players
    11. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault Spearhead 1294 servers, 3766 players
    12. Soldier of Fortune 2 1245 servers, 3485 players

    13. Unreal Tournament 2157 servers, 3437 players
    14. Battlefield 1942 811 servers, 2812 players
    15. Halo: Combat Evolved 758 servers, 2579 players
    16. Star Wars Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy 700 servers, 1767 players
    17. Battlefield 2 Demo 83 servers, 1342 players
    18. SWAT 4 230 servers, 1101 players
    19. Battlefield: Vietnam 252 servers, 922 players
    20. Vietcong 284 servers, 817 players
    21. Lord of the Rings: The Battle For Middle-Earth 218 servers, 754 players
    22. Halo Demo 175 servers, 706 players
    23. Return to Castle Wolfenstein 255 servers, 657 players
    24. FEAR: First Encounter Assault Recon 222 servers, 615 players
    25. FEAR: First Encounter Assault Recon Demo108 servers, 547 players

    One game in particular I recall that sentiment being expressed strongly about was Jedi Academy. The supposed release (delayed to 14 months later) of HL2 eclipsed the release and drove down review scores, but the game sold fairly well, and has maintained an active community of modders and players for over 2 years.

    Other 'old' games on there include Soldier of Fortune II, Medal of Honor Allied Assault and Return to Castle Wolfenstein. The bottom line is that so long as you can find a game you like and that has some players online (if you happen to like that thing), the game is alive and well.

    The problem is that games that include both 'single player' (SP) and 'multiplayer' (MP)content run the gamut from SP-focused games with 'tacked on' MP to MP focused games with a 'bot match' mode masquerading as SP. So the expectations you have for a game might not match the reality of the market. Take Jedi Academy, for instance - it is a story-driven, SP focused game with some decent MP modes, but nobody seriously thought it would challenge 'Counter-Strike' - or even the WWII shooters like Medal of Honor Allied Assault.

    I have been thinking about this since the release of F.E.A.R. - a game dominated by a tense and excellent SP mode, with some available MP modes. I have spent a bit playing the MP mode, and it does a pretty good job of translating the tight gameplay into some fun action. Deathmatch, team deathmatch, capture the flag, elimination - all are enjoyable, and there are games around that are lively and challenging. Yet on the official forums, two of the most active topics are declaring "FEAR MP is Dead!" Here is a game that has been out less than one week, has several hundred players, requires a hefty computer to run, yet it is dead?!?!

    If this is what a 'dead game' looks like ... kill more games!
    What's that in the Sky? It's the GamerDad Signal

    Andrew Bub launched a new column at GamerDad called the GamerDad Signal, in which he says "GamerDad is recognized by mainstream newspapers as a source for accurate information about videogames and children. And GamerDad is respected industry wide by the people – especially the parents – who make these games."

    He makes the case for GamerDad, which is a site that immediately meant something to me 2.5 years ago ... so much so that I pretty quickly registered, started participating in the frank and intelligent discussions, and have now become a part of through reviews, articles, news and now a weekly column.

    As my own kids age and we deal more with video games at ratings above 'E' and movies other than G or PG, the mission of GamerDad rings true more than ever in my home. Maybe it should be in your home as well - check out the article and the site.

    Friday, October 14, 2005

    The iPod Frenzy

    PSP Forum switchboards all over the world are lighting up today following the announcement of Apple's new iPod with video capability. Apple has done something with the iPod for video that they have already done for music - make it legal, accessible and easy. And that is putting the PSP fanboy network on high alert!

    You see - they need to know that they have the "#1 Sexy Gadget in the World". But they don't nor have they ever - that mantle has belonged to the iPod since 2001.

    So great is the draw of the iPod that people defy logic in how the respond to them. Recently in a frontpage blurb on GamerDad Andrew Bub stated how much he wanted a new iPod Nano despite already having another iPod - even though he is a member of the media and should be immune to such things. Personally, I got my first iPod right after they came out, and now have a '3rd gen' 40GB - the one with the different button arrangement. It works great, and there is absolutely no need for me to have another - yet I want a Nano ... or a video iPod ... they are both so alluring. Indeed, I was getting my wife an iPod for her 40th birthday recently and was all settled on the Mini (which I could get in pink with matching leather case), when the Nano came out - and for some reason I was thinking about getting her one of those. I have no idea why ... it would have cost more, messed up the accessories we have, and been less convenient ... but if they had a 4GB while model, I'm not sure I could have resisted.

    So what does this have to do with the PSP? Well, Sony is selling it as 'ATTAP' - all things to all people. Touting the multimedia features at least as prominently as the gaming capabilities. There is no doubt that it is the most technically advanced handheld game system yet, with some very nice multimedia and other capabilities. But is it really 'ATTAP'? That is what Sony is selling, and that the fanboys are pushing.

    But what about reality? Reality tells a different tale:

    • A tale of a game system littered with mostly mediocre games, except for a few decent console-ports and stripped down console releases ... and Lumines. Basically nothing 'system selling'.
    • A tale in which David is played by the DS, when it should have been the other way around. Sony so effectively pushed the technological superiority angle that the DS became the underdog, despite Nintendo having ~100% market share before the PSP release.
    • A tale in which things look great for David - in terms of awesome, system selling games like Nintendogs, Advance Wars and Castlevania. Games that make no apologies for being on a handheld, that feel like nobody's 'little brother' - these are just plain great games.
    • A tale in which the touted music capabilities are really rather rudimentary. They compare pretty well to those of the Pocket PC PDA from 2000 - manual transfers, rudimentary playlist controls, and so on. So far behind where the iPod was even at launch that it is not even worth comparing.
    • A tale in which another touted multimedia capability - displaying photos - is again a manual cumbersome process, while the iPod has a strange (through iTunes) but easy to use automated process.
    • A tale in which another secondary use - as a PDA - is accomplished on the PSP through another strange and manual method, whereas the iPod will synchronize directly to the Mac address book and calendar or Windows Outlook.
    • And finally, a tale of proprietary video disks that cost more than DVD's in many cases, which are playable only through the PSP, whereas the Video iPod has a huge hard disk for video, which loads from iTunes, and features licensed TV shows for $1.99 the day after.

    Can the video display quality of the iPod match the PSP? No, but that isn't the point. Apple has once again changed the discussion from technoology of delivery to content - much as Nintendo has done with the DS. Sony and the PSP are left with impressive technology that has yet to demonstrate much value, and the fanboys are left defending their platform of choice.

    Me? I love my PSP - and I'm hoping that some of the upcoming releases will finally break the trend of mediocre to crappy console Jr. games. Buy I will never mistake the PSP for something it is not. If I want to play music I'll use my iPod; need a PDA I'll pull out my HP Jornada; and if I need games ... well, right now that means the Nintendo DS for me.
    No, I will NOT 'Get Serious'!

    'Get Serious!' It is one of those expressions many of us have heard while growing up and into young adulthood, and perhaps some of us have used as our own kids begin to grow up.

    'Serious' Sam is a video game franchise based around a simple premise - shooting lots of stuff. Frenetic action is the order of the day. Wave after wave of enemy came rolling at the player - there was no AI, it was kill of be plowed through. When it arrived in 2002, it was laughed at - a 'old school' shooter at a budget price! Then something happened - people started buying it and playing it like crazy! The follow-up 'Second Encounter' did even better commercially, and both games got reasonable reviews. It was only a matter of time before a true sequel was made.

    The developers at Croteam focused on producing an engine that would be graphically advanced while allowing for a virtually unlimited amount of on-screen enemies. The goal was to take the Serious Sam experience to a whole new level of intensity. The demo for Serious Sam II shows how they have succeeded - it is an end to end, over the top killing spree that is a load of fun, and looks pretty good too. The visuals aren't up to 'next gen' snuff, but they are nice in the same stylized sci-fi fashion as the original games.

    So what's the problem? Seems like the perfect sort of game - hours of mindless action and fun! Possibly - and I have no doubt that a year or two ago I'd have been at EBGames on the day of release buying Serious Sam II and plauing the heck out of it. I blame the Nintendo DS, and to a much lesser extent the Sony PSP. Basically, I would rather be playing interesting and innovative games for the handhelds - even relatively mediocre games like 'Lost In Blue' - than 'yet another shooter' on the PC. Truth is, if I want that experience, why not just play the original games again - I really thrilled at playing 'Second Encounter', and then bought the first encounter ... but never actually finished. Nor have I gone back and played again.

    Have I lost my love for first person shooters? Far from it - I have replayed several shooters recently, and played the demos for Call of Duty 2 and F.E.A.R. as well as Serious Sam 2. I plan to get F.E.A.R., and have pre-ordered it to get the bonus items. I may also get Quake 4, but the early reviews don't look very good. What has changed is that I am also looking forward to several upcoming handheld games - Star Wars Battlefront II, XMen Legends II, Lord of the Rings Tactics, all for the PSP, as well as some DS games such as Mario Kart.

    What has also changed is that I am trying to be better with my 'gaming resolutions' - particularly regarding "keeping a tight 'must have' list" and "finishing what I already have" and "replaying is never bad". So I figure that if Serious Sam II didn't make me reload and replay either Serious Sam 1st or 2nd Encounter, it must not really be a 'must have'.

    So no, I won't get Serious ...

    Wednesday, October 12, 2005

    If it's such a great game ...

    ... then why has it taken you long to replay it?

    That's a question that was asked of me in the wake of the recent release of the 'media upgrade' for Star Wars Knights of the Old Republic 2: The Sith Lords (aka KotOR2). Isn't that a strange question? With longer games, don't people often only play once, or at least wait a while in between playing? Perhaps 'people' do that, but not me. For me, a great game is one that I launch into replaying immediately after finishing it. Usually I play all the way through, but occasionally I only get part way ... but if I love a game, I always get some significant portion of the game replayed.

    I gave KotOR2 a 90% review, based on what I described as "The first 20 or so hours of KotOR 2 are some of the best gaming experiences I've ever seen. We have PlaneScape Torment levels of dialogue, plot weaving and intrigue, Baldur's Gate 2 levels of party interaction and banter, and action right out of KotOR."

    And I played the heck out of the game the first time - I was fully immersed in the story and characters and continued right through the end. But then I started a new game, and never got even as far as Atton on Peragus. As I embark on another attempt to replay the game I am left wondering why ...

    And the only thing I can come up with is that the 'end ruined the means' to paraphrase a cliche. By that I mean that the obviously unfinished and rushed-out feel to the end of the game was such a let down after the glory described above that it killed the incentive to work through the game again.

    Also, the tutorial does not replay very well. That is acceptable, as it is short, can be skipped, and has no impact on the items or experience gained. However, It is somewhat surprising that the opening area of the game is not as enjoyable to replay. Whether or not this is also related to the end-game is not clear. Normally, the beginning of a game is when we get familiar with everything and everyone, so it is typically slow and usually linear. I don't think that KotOR2 is any worse in this regard, yet for me it seemed to drag worse than any of my many replays through Taris in the original KotOR. It is not until you leave Peragus that things get good.

    So what does this mean? Is the game worse than I originally reviewed? I honestly don't think so - once on Telos I found the game became immersive and quite engaging once again, and the excellent work of Obsidian began to shine through. I think that there were more pacing problems than I could pick up in a single playthrough. Whereas games like Baldur's Gate and the original KotOR also started slowly, they reached such tremendous heights by their conclusion that you were swept through the openings each time you played by the promise of the glory to come. Which brings us back to 'the end ruins the means' ... since the promise of ultimate glory at the end of the game is gone, there is much less to carry you through the slow opening.

    So why did it take me so long to replay KotOR 2? Because I had no desire to be disappointed again at the failed promise of such an excellent beginning.
    So they didn't die before they got old ...

    I was listening to some 60's rock on my iPod (specifically some Yardbirds), which then triggered me for some reason to listen to The Who's Tommy. So far so good. But then that night, we were watching some TV, and heard a couple of Who songs - one as part of a commercial, the other as part of one of the various CSI shows. And recently the Rolling Stones tour has been all the rage, and summer festival shows were full of old groups whose stints in the spotlight ended many years ago.

    So what is it that these 60-ish rockers have to offer? Nostalgia, mainly - a reminder of a time past that many of us preferred because we think of it as a simpler, happier time. But that is a fallacy, as always - it was just that we were younger and things were simpler, and these songs remind us of a happier time.

    So what is the harm? The harm is that with the ever-increasing productization of music, there is little space for innovation or risk-taking. When you add revival shows like the Rolling Stones, you further diminish the airplay, shelf space and mind-space for new artists. That is not to say there is no value in these artists - 'oldies' and nostalgia have always been forces in music. It is just that the value of these (largely) stagnant self-caricatures to bring audiences and sell CD's comes at the direct expense of new artists.

    An interesting statistic is that only 10 or the 100 best selling recordings of all time were released in the last 10 years. How much of this is due to the comparitive quality of music on those recordings? I don't know, but I am sure there is also a contribution of the saturation of 'product' artists, the tendency towards nostalgia in older generations, which has surprisingly intersected with the desire to do non-mainstream things in our youth. The longevity of popularity of rock music has allowed this, but it seems that in some way the music is continuing to eat itself. It has become increasingly hard for new voices to be heard because radio is increasingly controlled by a smaller group of corporate interests which push very specific playlists. These stations are dominated, not surprisingly, by 'product' music and 'oldies' or 'classics' (depending on your viewpoint) - leading many to claim that piracy may actually have a positive impact in allowing new artists to catch the ears of listeners. But this is a limited opportunity - how will people hear about these bands to know that they should be listening to them?

    The problem remains exposure, and so long as we have 'dino rock' sharing space with 'productized pop', there is little mind, shelf or radio space to introduce new music ... unless the music industry tells us that it is what we should be listening to.

    Tuesday, October 11, 2005

    All Tragedy is Local

    That adaptation of Tip O'Neil's famous line "All politics is local" is what I thought of this weekend. While the Gulf Coast is still reeling and recovering from the recent hurricane disasters, Central America is still counting its' dead from the recent hurricane in that region, and even as we learned of the horrific earthquake in northern Pakistan killing tens of thousands, all eyes in upstate New York remained fixed on Lake George.

    The tragic boating accident, for those who don't know, involved a relatively small tour boat which had 48 mostly elderly passengers. The boat hit a wake and rocked, and the passengers were sent to one side, which resulted in the boat capsizing and sinking. There were a host of failures - the boat was short a crew member (meaning one, rather than two), nobody was wearing life jackets, the boat was modified considerably from original design which made it quite top-heavy, and so on. Of course, many of these things are basic problems with lake tours - people want a nice view with shade, and don't want to wear lifejackets. Nonetheless, the tragic image of 20 eldery people, many in wheelchairs, drowning helplessly is tragic and heartbreaking.

    My wife is from Glens Falls, which is a small city about 15 minutes south of Lake George. Her retired parents still live there, and we go to visit to help them out whenever we can. While her parents don't know any of the victims, they know many in the area and are naturally drawn by age and similar fragility to those who suffered losses. So for the weekend we went through many discussions about the tragedy, turning to the earthquake only as we left New York.

    As we returned home, we learned that much of our own region had undergone many inches of rain, and that a large area in southwestern New Hampshire had massive flooding. We were lucky that we hadn't had such problems in our area, but due to the proximity felt great empathy for those who had lost homes and been injured.

    So when the week began, we gave most of our charitable support ... to the people in New Hampshire. Sure, we did what we could for those suffering from the massive earthquake, but as the old saying goes, all tragedy is local.

    Tuesday, October 04, 2005

    Yardbirds - Shapes of Things

    Interesting story ... we had bought my son the Green Day 'American Idiot' CD for his birthday, but a friend gave him that at his party so we needed to change plans. So I had returned the CD, and was going to get him The Killers 'Hot Fuss'. I was in the mall, and wandered into the music store (the type where you almost never buy stuff because it is usually $17+), and on my way out saw the name 'Yardbirds' in the bargain bin. So I looked, and found three CD's - 'BBC Sessions', 'Roger the Engineer' and '25 Greatest Hits 1964-1966'. There was definite overlap, but at $5 each, I just grabbed all three.

    The Yardbirds were a group I loved, largely for Jeff Beck. I always found him preferable and more innovative than Clapton, and never had much use for Page (not saying he isn't a fine guitarist, just that he never rose above the 'hey, he's a really talented guitarist' level for me). But my exposure to them was happening while I was also beginning to explore fusion, so I only ever got a single recording - a double-album collection called 'Shapes of Things', which had stuff featuring all three guitarists. I recorded it to tape (which broke) and digitized then downsampled to 64kbps WMA format (early days of MP2, on a Pocket PC when Compact Flash was expensive) ... and so by today the only decent song I still had from that group was 'Shapes of Things'.

    So I dumped all three into iTunes, and combined them to get rid of duplicates, then did some listening. I found the BBC sessions to be interesting, but more of a curiosity. I decided that it would be one of those CD's I'd have on the shelf for occasional use, and so deleted it from iTunes, as my Powerbook laptop is filling up (something about using it for digital photos, music AND video!). Then I made a single playlist and got rid of everything I didn't care to keep, which left me with 16 songs. That would have been $16 if I could have done it by-song in iTunes, so I came out about even.

    Some of my faves:
    - Heartful of Soul
    - Evil Hearted You
    - I Ain't Got You
    - Train Kept a'Rollin'
    - Over, Under, Sideways, Down
    - I'm a Man
    - Mister You're a Better Man than I
    - and my fave is still Shapes of Things

    Thursday, September 29, 2005

    Paranoia Reminder

    Don't stick your neck out, they'll cut your head off.
    Comfort Gaming

    When times are difficult or stressful, many of us look to things that give us comfort against those stresses. Comfort foods are the classic example, but some people do gardening, or yoga, or other activities. I run 5 miles in the dark every morning at 4AM to loosen up my brain and muscles, and I also fall back on some of my favorite video games as a form of stress relief.

    In fact, I would say that certain games are like comfort food to me. I call them ‘comfort games’. So what makes a game suitable as a ‘comfort game’? A couple of things are critical – why you play the game and how playing it makes you feel. There is never a bad time to play a comfort game, but there are particular times when you will learn which games are your true ‘friends in times of need’. These are times you don’t really want to talk or need a hug, you just want to be transported somewhere. While there are various games that you can turn to in a certain mood – anger games, humor games, or whatever – a comfort game is something that you actually find relaxing.

    Here are the three games that I would most characterize as my primary ‘comfort games’.

    Jedi Knight II:
    This game was a revelation to me. I was certainly not new to gaming – or Star Wars – in 2001, but for some reason things all fell into place. In 2000 I had configured my Toshiba Portege laptop to run the Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith games which was great since I was traveling one week a month. The family had gotten me the VHS of ‘Episode I’ the day it came out, and I had been keeping an eye out for information on the upcoming ‘Obi-Wan’ PC game. By the time the Obi-Wan game got cancelled and Jedi Knight II was announced, I was fully engaged. It looked exactly like something I wanted to play, and for the next year I gobbled up whatever information I could get. When it was released, I had to stay away for a few days – because my birthday was 7 days after release and I decided to let my family get it for me.

    That night, I installed it and just wanted to try it out ... and four hours later I needed to rip myself away to get some sleep. I played the heck out of that game until I finished. And, by the time I finished I realized it was my favorite game ever. Not the 'new infatuation' type, but the real thing. Something had happened when I was playing ... the early areas recaptured my Dark Forces love like an homage, and the Yavin Training section was just a catharsis unlike any other in all of gaming for me. By the time I reached Yavin again, I was totally immersed in the experience and anticipating my next run through the game. And that happened immediately after I finished. Then again after that, and again, and so on.

    And each time I play, I am immersed in the characters, the world, the fantasy of the Star Wars universe as a Jedi. Each time I get to Yavin I get goosebumps going through the training. Each time I reach the Doombringer I am totally relaxed facing waves of Stormtroopers and Reborn and Shadowtroopers. And each time I reach the final battle level I rejoice in the glorious music from Return of the Jedi. Indeed the game has brought special love to many themes I had previously glossed over, such as 'Lando's Palace'. I am not blind to the many flaws in the game, nor have I ever been. It is just that - for me - the game is totally transcendent. It captures the right experience in the right way and just totally connects with me in a way that a game never has before or since. And in doing so has become my ultimate comfort game - guaranteed to take me to another place in which I am relaxed and comfortable and thoroughly enjoying the experience.

    Gothic 2: It is interesting that a game that ‘gave me the smack down’ at first has become a comfort game. After ‘getting into’ RPG’s through Neverwinter Nights on the Mac, and then playing Knights of the Old Republic on the PC and picking up Baldur’s Gate 2 and the expansion for the Mac, my next RPG was Gothic 2. This is a game that doesn’t wait around for you to get your act together – if you stray from the path early on you will die a quick and painful death.

    Yet as I played it, I became very engrained in how the game 'does things'. Perhaps it was the music that drew me in, perhaps the easy style of the protagonist. Maybe it was the lively towns and interesting characters. Whatever it was, I was hooked. The game can get really hard at times, and is unsympathetic to you getting yourself in trouble. Yet I find it a pure pleasure to play, and have completed it several times despite the 60+ hour length. Why? It is a compelling world in which to role-play. You are not given a choice as to who you are, but you are given almost total freedom on how to accomplish things and live life in the world. Combined with everything else, Gothic II remains one of my favorite games and one that I can just slip into and lavish in.

    As I was writing this, I learned that 'Gothic 2 Gold' is coming, which will include the 'Night of the Raven' expansion. Can't wait!

    Soldier of Fortune II:
    This certainly didn't start as a comfort game. There is tense action that will tear you apart throughout the game, the story is droll, the characters hackneyed, and it plays almost exactly the same each time. Yet it has become one of my favorite and most replayed games. Why is that? Quite simple - because of how it feels. It is a nice, solid but simple shooter, but the weapons and locational damage system remain unmatched to this day. While newer games may have more realistic looking and sounding weapons, they all tend to use the 'meatbag' approach to hit damage - you are a generic mass that absorbs damage uniformly, except for your head. SoFII did a wonderful job of making your shots feel like they mattered, and given the weapons you got (particularly the overpowered shotgun!) and the satisfying blood-gurgle as you popped someone's skull with a head-shot, it is a glorious game to replay. And because it is easy to become very familiar with the game, you can work out strategies to taking out areas of enemies in different ways. Very satisfying game, and since I have become very good at it, just a relaxing way to while away an hour here or there.

    So how do you predict whether a game will be a comfort game? Who knows?!? I have a hard enough time determining whether or not I'll like a game, and if I do like it I have a hard time figuring out whether it will become a 'replay favorite', or just a fun diversion I only play once or twice. Finding a comfort game takes time and patience. But in the end they can be the most rewarding gaming experiences of your life.

    What are your comfort games?

    Wednesday, September 28, 2005

    Bard's Tale Second Opinion Review

    I got my copy of the Bard's Tale for very cheap off eBay right before GamerDad posted Marc Salzman's review. I had previously decided not to get the game, so the timing was interesting - it allowed me to get a view from a perspective I always appreciate on a game I bought on a whim, and therefore had pretty low expectations from. So what did I think about it?

    First, the very fact that I'm putting this on my blog rather than submitting a 'protest review' to GamerDad indicates that I don't radically disagree. Perhaps I'd score it a bit higher - I was thinking 70% rather than 60%, but scores are meaningless, it is the context that matters.

    And it is in that context that I feel the review misses the mark. It talks about well-done dialogue and average gameplay. Let me address each of these.

    The problem with doing a combined parody / homage in a game is that you must still make the player go through that which you are parodying. That, to me, is the Bard's Tale's greatest weakness. In order to keep the focus on the lighter side of the game, the developers removed much of the role-playing. You have some control over the level-up process, but not much. Items picked up are either equipped or converted to gold depending on whether they are more powerful than what you already have. In some ways I actually like this system (compared to selling 100 'rusty swords' for 6 gold each in Gothic 2). And the Bard's summoning system is a mixed-bag. On the one hand you get the coolest little dog to battle with you and many helpers to get you through battle. On the other hand, you get all of these cool summons but do nothing with them - for instance you get a beautiful ranged warrior 'Heroine', but never make a comment to her. What a waste. But the real weakness is battle - the combat system is really not fun. Compared to Dungeon Siege 2, or any solid action-RPG for that matter - the combat feels weak and gets boring and frustrating quickly. I would tend to rate that aspect even lower than the GamerDad review.

    As for the humor and presentation, the game really plays like a Mel Brooks comedic parody of RPG's. There seems to be an endless stream of dead or soon-to-be dead 'Chosen Ones', cliched quests and over the top scenes. Many of these hit, while some fall flat. But in the end it is this aspect that drives the player through the game - every conversation is interesting and you are offered choices whether to be nice or 'snarky'. And you need to read the situation to know which will get you what you want (which is basically coin, cleavage and rest from adventure). The production values are very high, as is the interplay between the Bard and the narrator. The graphics show the lower resolution artifacts of their console roots, but are satisfactory otherwise.

    My summary would be - if you are looking for a serious role playing experience, look elsewhere; if you are looking for some light fun, Bard's Tale might be for you; and if you have $30 to spend on a game ... find a better game. I'd give the combat and RPG aspects 2.5 stars, the humor and pacing 4 stars, and the overall game 3.5 stars.

    Thursday, September 15, 2005

    Letter to PC Gamer on the F.E.A.R. Review

    When I saw in the back of last month’s PC Gamer that the ‘world first’ review of the game F.E.A.R. I did a bit of math to satisfy my curiosity. November issue means early September delivery, which means late August press date which means mid-August deadlines. That means an early to mid-August play-through required.

    As I check now, as I read the article on September 13th, the game *still* hasn’t ‘gone Gold’ – which means that you have produced a review based on an unfinished game that may or may not represent what us consumers see at retail.

    If the demo is any indication the game will be great, but that isn’t the point.

    First, I do not accept it as a 'review', as the game is not out yet, and couldn't have truly been 'gold' for press time. Therefore calling it a ‘review’ is a fraudulent claim – perhaps ‘final test drive with score’ would have been more appropriate. Then you could have followed up with a ‘full review’ next month. Less glamorous, perhaps, but more honest – and do your readers deserve less? Don’t you want us to regard you as the serious journalist magazine of PC gaming, not yet another flashy and pretty hype zone?

    Second, I have no doubt that you played the game, but where and under what conditions? Nothing is mentioned in the review, but I assume you went to the developer’s studio, where the game was already installed on their test system, and were allowed some amount of hours of supervised play. What does this do to your credibility?

    There have been several reviews in recent issues that discussed installation difficulties across machines, difficulty getting settings correct, and so on. None of that could have entered into your review because it was conducted in a sterile environment. And I love your reviews in general – they are pointed and direct, and cut no corners. But even the feel of this review is softer - more like a preview – when compared to the reviews for Dungeon Siege II or Fable in the same issue.

    As I say - I am hopeful that FEAR will be the 90+% game you describe, but am bothered on principal by the 'scoop at all costs' mentality here - I didn't like it when you did it for HL2, and I don't like it now.
    Boxed Sets Can Be Gems
    The first boxed set of music I ever got was a set of Wagner's Orchestral works on three albums that I bought in 1981. It has remained with me in one form or other ever since, and remains on my iPod to this day. The next one I got was 'Miles Davis - The Columbia Years 1955 - 1985'. This wasn't bad - I had the majority of the music, but there were some new tracks, and the presentation format - one CD for 'Blues', 'Standards', 'Moods' and 'Electric' - made it great car listening in those pre-iPod days.

    Then my wife got me 'The Complete Columbia Studio Sessions, 1965-68', which has always been one of my favorite periods of Miles' stuff; some of my favorite music of any type. The problem was I already had all of the music from that period, and for the few extra 'alternate takes' it just wasn't worth having, so I returned it and got some newly released Miles live stuff from the 70's (Black Beauty, At Philharmonic and Dark Magus).

    Since then my box set purchases have been a decidedly mixed bag - 'Complete Bitches Brew Sessions' is a tremendous 4-CD set of music that shows the creative genius flowing through Miles at the time of the Bitches Brew sessions, and comes across as a tremendous augmentation of the original 2-CD set, making it a must have for any fan of the music. 'Complete In A Silent Way Sessions', on the other hand, represents much of what is wrong with boxed sets. First off, it isn't all from the 'In A Silent Way' sessions - much of it is from earlier. Also, lots of the music is previously released, and much of the unreleased material consists of lesser alternate takes and rehearsals. Only a couple of songs - such as Ghetto walk" - are remarkable and worth having. This is not a very good value.

    The latest addition to my boxed set collection is a newly issued set called 'The Cellar Door Sessions'. This is a 6-CD set recorded live over a four day stint that Miles and his sextet of that time played at the Cellar Door Club in Washington DC. In these appearances, Miles was playing with a band consisting of Gary Bartz on saxophones, Keith Jarrett on keyboards, Michael Henderson on bass, Jack DeJohnette on drums, and Airto Moreira on percussion. Heavily edited sections of the final concert of the stint on December 19th, with John McLaughlin on guitar as a guest musician, were previously released as part of the Live-Evil album. But until now, the Bartz-Jarrett-Henderson-DeJohnette-Moreira band on its own had never been heard on official releases.

    Now this is what a box set should be – ‘beyond the music’, as it were. The ‘Live Evil’ CD has always been a favorite of mine, as it captures so much of where Miles was going at that time. To take that vision, and expand it from 2 (album length) CD’s to 6 full-hour CD’s allows us a look into everything the group was doing at that time. Despite there being largely 5 songs repeated in each session, there is a huge variation in the music presented. The amount and level of improvisation – and not just solos, but actual twisting of the rhythms and themes and structures of the tunes from performance – is simply staggering. As Michael Henderson put it, "we were vicious. This band was on the edge and off the rails." And Keith Jarrett adds in the liner notes “His (Miles) playing is so strong here that I need not comment on it. If it doesn't knock your socks off, you aren't wearing any."

    The songs features across the sets were: Directions, Honky Tonk, What I Say, Sanctuary, Inamorata and a few short interludes titled Improvisations. Yesternow – one of the songs from the Tribute to Jack Johnson – is featured on the first day only. While I have know of these songs from their various appearances on live recordings of the period – such as at the Fillmore East and West recording and the ‘Black Beauty’ concerts – it is amazing how much variety is put into them here. The band really is thrilling, and every minute of every CD is worth listening to.

    This set has taken a high-listening spot on my iPod, and has reaffirmed my faith that the box set can represent the possibility to fill in the musical space in a way that single CD’s can never approach.