Friday, September 26, 2008

U R a Genius!

OK, so color me SOLD on Apple's Genius system. It still has no idea what to do with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, but I will forgive that (I know very few people who know what to do with them! :D )

I still barely touch them on my Mac or PC, but have started using them on my iPod. And it was one of those off-hand sorts of things - I was listening to a Miles Davis song from his Live at Fillmore 1970 CD released a few years ago. I was checking how much time was left in the song and decided to press the 'Genius' button - and it generated a list of 25 songs for me.

The list included some other Miles stuff, Charlie Parker, Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke, Return to Forever, and so on - not necessarily nailing the sub-genre, but putting together a solid list of songs.

I will continue pushing it to see how it does, but my first look is very promising.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Retro-Gaming - killing my interest in handhelds?

Just a thought - since I started doing all fo my retro-gaming, and in particular since I started using the HP2133 Mini-Note more and more for gaming, my time on the DS and PSP seems to have dwindled.

There have certainly been many hours of handheld gaming, as demonstrated by my quarterly 'whole game in my hand' articles at RPGWatch. But right now, as I await getting a new batch of games today my 2 PSPs and DS all sit idle and empty. I played a bit of Star Wars Lethal Alliance to get ready for The Force Unleashed ... but otherwise not too much.

I wonder if it means anything or if it is just a part of the natural ebb and flow I have seen through the years.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Retro: Revisiting Divine Divinity

Before I did reviews for GamerDad, I wrote these things called 'Game Comments' for another site. Having just played through Divine Divinity again i thought i would go back and revisit the one I did more than two and a half years ago for that game ...
Game: Divine Divinity
Genre: RPG
Sub-Genre: Single player, isometric.
System: PC
Rating: T (Teen)
My Score: 4.5+/5
General Comments: Divine Divinity is an isometric action-RPG in the style of Diablo, but with much more depth than a hack-n-slash game like Sacred. It is a very difficult game early on, reminiscent of Gothic II, where any move from the path can result in a quick and painful death. Once your get a few character levels behind you, you are rewarded with an excellent RPG that features great interactions, absolutely amazing sound and music, and a really enjoyable story.
Graphics: The graphics of an isometric RPG are not likely to be pushing the pixels like a high-tech FPS, but most - including Divine Divinity - tend to be visually pleasing, featuring 3D characters against prerendered backdrops. There are many ice touches in the graphics, like rippling and reflective water (see screenshot, which doesn't do it justice). Another element is that the various information panes - for mini-map, character, equipment, inventory and skills - are non-modal, meaning they can br dragged anywhere on the screen and left there, or just simply closed.(10/10)
Story/Plot: This is an RPG, so you wake up with no clue about life, right? Right! You were struck down on a battlefield, and are now suddenly charged with some great destiny! Despite the cliched beginning, the game does have a really good story, if somewhat lacking in originality. But, like most RPG's, the real joy of the story is 'branches' that flow out of the main trunk of the storyline. And there is lots to do, from the typical 'I'll give you the item if you get me X', to settling disputes, tracking evidence, killing stuff, and even a bit of romance.
The game also begs exploration and talking to anyone with a name, which often results in a quest. It is a very long game ... I spent many hours I should have been sleeping or doing something else accomplishing that 'one more thing' and would estimate that the game took me close to 80 hours or so to finish - not as long as BG2, but longer than most RPG's.(9/10)
Character Development: Divine Divinity's character development system has two facets - traits and skills. Traits are your typical Strength / Agility / Intelligence / Constitution, and you can immediately see how they impact your attack, defense, hitpoints, mana points and so on. The skill development system is more complex, and took me off-balance at first. You have three 'Paths' - warrior, mage and survivor. Within each you have four areas of development, and within those you have eight possible skills. Each skill has five ranks (for those keeping score, that is 480 possible skill points ... but you'll have far fewer than that to spend). The game displays useful information about what each skill does, what requirements there are, and what the next rank will give you. Some of the skills are absolutely essential to playing the game, others help in various quests, others are just suited to your particular style. It is really through the skill system that character development shines - sure you can tailor a BattleMage using trait points (which I did), but it is through judicious skill point allocation that you become a powerhouse that can take out very high level enemies while sustaining virtually no damage (see screens for the before and after ;) ). In that screen, I have a skill that lets me see the character's properties, so I know to equip a blade with poison damage.(9/10)

Gameplay/Controls/HUD: A major area where an action-RPG's live or die is on how easily you can execute combat actions. Divine Divinity has excellent and intuitive controls for most things, and the rest (like repair) are very learable. Once you figure out how to do things, you can just sail through the game. More importantly, the game (properly) uses the Spacebar for pausing (whereas Sacred uses it for health potions), so you can easily pause, switch skills or spells, then continue the battle. Moving around, using items, and so on are all intuitive and work well. The HUD is very flexible, and just about everything can be hidden and easily recalled.
One great element of the game is 'wear and tear' on your weapons. One skill you will almost need to take is Repair, which allows you to fix your own equipment ... which can be the difference between life and death in a heated battle. With enough skill points, you can repair anything to brand-new state.
Another great gameplay element is the ability to charm equipment. You do this by taking the Charm skill and then placing charm elements on an item that can accept them. Items can accepts from 1 to 5 charms, and the charms are either bonuses to traits (like strength or mana) or to resistances (like fire or poison). The charms can range from 'minor' to 'very large', with the caveat that once placed they become a permanent part of the item. Therefore it is critical to plan before using weak charms on strong items, or strong charms on weak items.(9/10)
Sound/Music: The sounds and particularly the music in Divine Divinity are simply excellent. There are more than 35 pieces of music used, and they are highly varied and very effective. Some of the spoken dialogue suffers from typical RPG over-use, such as when you flip a lever you will get one of two clueless lines, and other lines suffer from translation issues. But typically the voice acting is very well done, and serves to move the story forward effectively.(10/10)
Value/Replay: Classic RPG's are typically some of the most replayable games out there, due to the ability to play different character types and make different choices. Which is why I'm surprised - and somewhat disappointed - to say that there is little replay value in Divine Divinity. Why? Well, as far as I can tell, any *successful* character build will likely contain elements of Warrior, Mage and Survivor by the end of the game, meaning that you won't be playing a different class as much as a different 'base class'. That is not bad, but you are left with more subtle options for replaying with any different character. The other reason you would replay is to choose 'the other path' or other affiliation or whatever. Divine Divinity plays one path, and you have no choice but to follow it, so that is removed as a replay motivation.(7/10)
Overall: I really liked this game, certainly more than I expected. It started very hard, but was pretty easy (but still intense) by the end. It is certainly available at a bargain price these days, either by itself, or bundled with Beyond Divinity in many areas. And, given the many hours and the joy of character development, any RPG fan should put this game on their 'to do' list.
+ Excellent graphics
+ Addictive gameplay
+ Well told story and quests
+ Wonderful character development flexibility.
+ Enjoyable combat
+ Music is some of the best in any game
+ Very long game without getting boring.
- Character intermixing limits replayability.
- Linear plot path limits replayability.
- Character personality doesn't allow choices.
Score: 9/10
So ... what do I think now? Actually the only thing that I disagree with in that review is the 'replayability'. I was disappointed that I needed to sword-train my mage, but it is an action-RPG in terms of combat. Upon replaying twice, I have taken different routes of character development and come up to very different builds - each of which is very satisfying.
I loved this game a couple of years ago, and I cherish it now even more.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Retro: Demos galore ... and no more PC games ...

So I wandered into my local EBGames tonight on the way home from work to see if they had the new Mage Knight games for the DS and PC. I went straight to the counter because I didn't have much time. The guy there used to work at the store in the Mall, and is one of the more competent game store guys I've met. So while he grabbed me a copy of the DS game Mage Knight: Destiny Soldier, I asked about the PC game, and he said - boy, it has been a while since you've been in here ... we don't carry *any* PC games here anymore, unless there is a pre-order. Whoa-boy! There goes another source of off-the shelf purchases! I also noticed a basket with game demos and asked about PSP demos - he said that they are supposed to go to people who pre-order or reserve those games, but that if I reserved *anything* I could get all of the demos. So I left with demos for SOCOM 2, Gangs of London and Killzone - which I also reserved.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Retro: Grandma is Right

A couple of weeks ago my wife's dad finally died after a long struggle with leukemia ... and coronary issues ... and lung problems ... and fluid issues ... and, well lots of other stuff. The death certificate read like a laundry list. For perspective, it was three years ago at Thanksgiving that the family came together for a 'goodbye' dinner - no one, including his various doctors, expected him to see 2004.

But his passing is only one of four stories from the last couple of weeks.

First there is the story of the brave young man. John is our nephew - he is a senior in high school and was 3 when he was a ring-bearer in our wedding. And he was there when his grandpa died. But that wasn't the bravest part. My wife argued that her dad should be DNR - something he didn't help by refusing to ever clarify while also saying he didn't want his wife to decide. When he stabilized aound 4AM and the nurse convinced Lisa's mom that we should all get a couple of hours sleep, we all left for a while and the issue of the DNR was undecided. Of course, he went into respiratory arrest while we were gone, and when we returned around 9AM we found him on a ventilator. To make a long story short, decisions needed to be made. His main doctor was away, but his associate was in, and someone Lisa's mom knew and trusted. She said it wasn't a matter of if but when he would arrest and die, on the ventilator or off. The decision was made that he would be DNR, and that the tube would be removed so he could die peacefully. That is when things got interesting. Lisa and her sister don't get along. That is just the way of things. But her sister is very difficult - her parents tend to bow to her whims so as not to deal with the fights. Lisa's mom was ready to give him the morphine and pull the tube right then. Jean wanted her Dad kept alive until her daughter could come from college in North Carolina. My wife had been pushing the DNR, so her opinion was clear. But Jean wouldn't let it go - it was about what she wanted - she opposed the DNR, and now she wanted him on the tube. She wasn't ready to let go. After a bit of lovely back and forth, she asked her son John what he thought. It didn't sound much like a question to me, it sounds like she wanted backup (certainly neither I nor her husband were chiming in!). John immediately said "Grandma is right - Christie will understand; it is what has to be done, it is the right thing to do." In an instant he transformed from little Johnny the ring-bearer to John the young man in my eyes. It was very brave - and allowed Dave to die in peace, with some amount of understanding of what was happening around him. Off the tube, he couldn't talk, but he looked around and smirked a bit now and then. And twenty minutes later he was gone, and John was holding his hand as he died.

Then there is the story of the two little boys and their godmother. Danny and Chris have four different godparents - my brother, Lisa's sister, my friend Jeff and Lisa's friend Theresa. Our siblings are useless, and Jeff is a no-show - but Theresa is a god-send. She is functionally the kids sole godparent, which is fine. She also lives in Saratoga, ~20 minutes south of Lisa's parents. So after her Dad died, we went back to get the boys, she offered to help in any way she could. She is a single person and has her own issues, but is a wonderful woman and an important part of our lives. We picked them up on Saturday and got back to the hotel after midnight. She came by around 9AM next morning, and they spent much of the day together while we did funeral arrangement stuff. And it wasn't just supervision - they spent a while swimming in the hotel pool, and then did some shopping and general hanging around and catching up before meeting us for a late lunch. Funny story - we ate at the Olive Garden, where they were going to have a 'post funeral lunch'. When the drinks came, the waitress had done nothing to differentiate the two Diet Cokes from the two Dr. Peppers. So she slid one in front of Theresa and said 'taste this, I think it is Diet Coke'. Nope, it was Dr. Pepper. So she just slides it over in front of Chris like nothing is wrong! At the wake the next day, she came after work and stayed for a while, then she and the boys headed out, changed and went to her house to play with the cats for a while, then went back to the hotel, where they were in bed by the time we came back. Finally, she was there for the funeral, and at the lunch after - she sat with us, but remained a rock of support as the boys tried to figure out where they belonged in all of this and what it meant to them. And that was hard for them - because the only GrandPa they knew was a sick and scary old guy confined to his chair. Their cousins has a relationship with him from when they were younger, but our boys didn't know that man. Still, they were mature and respectful and very well behaved - and had nearly unlimited game time. They were pall bearers and took that duty seriously - it helped them belong. I don't know if we've seen the end of the ripples from this yet, but they have done themselves proud.

Also, there is the story of two sisters who really tried. Dave would have smiled - all he wanted was for his girls to get along. And for a couple of weeks they did. Things didn't change, nothing is resolved - nor is it likely to ever be resolved - but they needed each other and made an effort to be there for their mom. Since coming home that has continued to some extent - Lisa got flowers on her birthday, Danny got a check on his, and they have talked a couple of times. But it is already apparent that things are unraveling ... but that is because the relationship is fundamentally broken. But for a couple of weeks, they really tried - and gave their dad what he always wanted. Since then they have continued to try for the past couple of weeks - because their mom is a mess. Lisa thinks she is depressed, not just greiving - and that would make sense. It makes sense because she has really been depressed for a while, and Lisa had to extract herself somewhat from dealing with her mom so much because she was getting sucked into her depression. Lisa ended up in therapy - not a bad thing, because she picked up where she had left many years before exploring the issues within her family. She and her sister were mentally and emotionally abused as kids, and the whole family lived within those roles for years. My wife shook things up when she didn't want to play anymore, and really assumed based on earlier therapy it was related to her sister. But it was her parents - heck, her Dad died never having told her he loved her! So now she and her sister need each other - they need to maintain a connection to keep the other from getting swallowed up in their mother's depression!

And finally there is the story of the invisible family. This is the toughest thing to discuss, because it bothers my wife so much. It doesn't feel so great for me either, since the situation isn't much different on my side. When we arrived at the hospital that night, we had already secured a hotel room. This is because Jean gets first 'dibs' on the house, always has. In fact, when we went back to the house later, it was clear that they had arrived and promptly taken up all three upstairs bedrooms! What had they assumed? But that is just the way of things - to cope growing up in that house, Jean constantly confronted her parents, and Lisa just blended in. Lisa has told me of her sweet sixteen - they had a couple of gifts, and her sister and father got in a fight as usual and her dad had her sister slammed against the wall by the throat ... So invisibility - being easy-going - was the strategy. But Lisa is no wallflower - all of this has made her a very strong person, and over the years she has refused to shy away any longer - and that has caused troubles in her family. But there is still stylistic differences - when we visit her parents, we ask what needs to be done and do it. Her sister decides what she wants to do and does it whether or not her parents want it. But since they will often not do anything to help themselves - her dad never got on pain management despite constant suffering, for example, and they never enlisted a visiting nurse despite having access to one - and since her sister thrived on those shouting matches, it all seemed to work out for her.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Retro: Not to be confused with GamerDad

What the heck? It seems like we should all be working together, but as usual Microsoft sees something that they like and stomp in like the 800lb gorilla. This time it is GamerDad - yep, place I've enjoyed being part of for the past few years. Seems Microsoft has launched a new site called 'Gamer Dad' - check it out here and here. The second one even says "(not to be confused with"
C'mon guys! I fully support the *idea* of what they are doing with the parental controls and all - and even thought for a moment that GamerDad had found a lucrative new home and all of us little-uns would have to write elsewhere ... which would have been fine.
I just hope that this can be resolved in a way that doesn't hurt GamerDad, nor does it blunt the message of Gaming with Children.
As one comment on that blog mentioned "Yep, another patented MS ripoff of a great site ... but, then, we've come to expect this and really shouldn't be shocked in the least.

Do yourselves a favor and go to the original instead of giving MS your hits."
Porting some other stuff ...

I had decided to stick with Blogger rather than Windows Live Spaces a few months ago, but since I did things in both places for a while I have stuff that needs to be ported over. I'll label those as 'Retro' articles.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Sacred 2 DRM - aw crap, NOW what do I do?!?

Well, Sacred 2 is a game I have been looking forward to and plan to buy, but I was annoyed at reading the press release from Ascaron about their DRM. They have a less restrictive SecuROM than Mass Effect / Spore, where you can activate / de-activate yourself to keep your license up to date. The problem?

"A transfer to a third (party) is not part of the license."

Which means that selling / trading will not allow you to transfer the license, so the new person cannot activate the game.
So what do I do? The other day I said I was going to actively oppose DRM junk like this, yet Sacred 2 is a game I want. Arrgh!
How to recognize a good school.

Last week the kids started school, the first full year in New York. They had gone to school for ~6 weeks at the end of last year, which gave them some familiarity and contacts. But they were quite nervous because they still missed their friends and Mass was the only home they had ever known.

My wife had worked in the middle school for about a year and a half before we moved, and knew that it was an absolute mess, and we were glad not to be sending our older son there. When she talked to a friend the other day, my wife was told that someone else they both knew had looked into the middle school and that with the change in administration everything was great. But my wife got the last laugh in here ...

Because on the first day of school she got a call on her cell phone wondering why our older son wasn't in school. Of course he was, and she had walked with him to school that morning. The other person insisted, but then something dawned on my wife and she asked 'what school are you calling from'?

It turns out that it was from Massachusetts and for some reason he was on their list after 5 months of us being out of state. They claimed it was the elementary school's fault for not processing the records, but mysteriously we had no problem with our younger son, and we had records from them about our older son clearly showing his transfer to New York.

So it ends up that things really are still every bit as crappy at that school ... and we continue to be thankful for getting out of a school system (and state) that was excellent 15 years ago but in a severe state of decline.
September 11th ... a time to reflect.

It was the first day of preschool for my younger son and my wife had my older son at the playground and when she came back to pick the little one up she found out.

I was at work and had a visiting colleague who ended up stuck across the country from her family for an extra week.

I have a blog post at GamingWithChildren today.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

News Flash: Apple's Mobile Me STILL Sucks

There has been loads of activity since Apple launched the iPhone 3G back in July, but too little seems to be focused on the fact that the launch of MobileMe was a disaster - and that the service continues to be easily described as 'MobileMeh'!

I have always liked the ability to access my .Mac email from the Mac or PC, and traditionally used the Mail app on the Mac and just used webmail on the PC. That has always worked great for me, right up until the MobileMe rollout. Along with the rest of the crap that happened, they changed to a new webmail interface.

The new interface looks nice enough, and I have been able to use the iDisk and WebGallery as well as the iCal and Address Book aspects very nicely. But the webmail interface is just plain crap. Oh it seems like it is going to work fine, but after trying to deal with it on my work XP laptop, my home/gaming XP laptop and my HP Mini-Note running Vista, I just punted and stopped looking at my Mac mail except for on my iPod Touch or the Mac. That wasn't convenient enough, so last night I set up Outlook Express on the gaming XP laptop so I can get my mail there. Lo and behold, the 187 mail messages I thought I had deleted through the MobileMe webmail interface were still sitting there ...

And I upgraded my Mac to iTunes 8 this morning but haven't done the iPof Touch to 2.1 ... but am hearing 'wonderful' things about it!

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Apple's new 'Genius' ... not too smart!

Of course I just couldn't wait to grab iTunes 8 as soon as it was posted by Apple. There are supposedly a bunch of new features, but the one Steve Jobs was touting in his big announcement was the 'genius', which is supposed to look at your library and into iTunes and then suggest things in your library and on iTunes that you might like.

Since the stuff I like tends to be obscure I decided it should be a good test - and I chose the Art Ensemble of Chicago's 'Reese & The Smooth Ones' from 1969 (out of print for a while then re-issued on CD in '05'). So I choose the first 'song', which was one side of vinyl, and click the 'genius' icon. The screenshot below is the hilarious results I got when it choked on the song. I wasn't surprised it couldn't help me, but figured it would have at least had the logic to say 'suggest from the genre of the song the user clicked'. I guess not ...

Posted by Picasa
Spore - The heck with you EA, I'm *NOT* getting it!

I have been interested but not frothing about Spore, but it is the sort of game - like Sid Meier's Pirates! a few years ago - that I would have bought for near full price within the first couple of weeks.

I say 'would have' because I have decide that I will *not* be buying Spore. Why? Because of the draconian DRM scheme that EA has cooked up that severely limits the number of times you can install the game. You get 3 times and you're done. Install it and run into an install failure? There goes one. Install correctly? There is #2. Swap hard drives or upgrade the video card? You're done. Then you have to call EA support and beg for more.

People who have had issues are already running into the limit - but this is no surprise since it happened with Bioshock and Mass Effect. With those games I was already sold: I had decided that even getting to play only once or twice was worth the $50 I was paying. I had decided that my desire for the game outweighed my outrage over the DRM.

But not with Spore. With this game I am interested, but want to be able to share it. I want to play some, hand it off to my kids to play on their laptop or the Mac or wherever ... and not feel like I am a criminal for having multiple installs while still only playing one copy at a time.

And as if I needed another reason, I have been playing game after game for my series of 'Retrospectives' at GamingWithCholdren and RPGWatch. These games are 5, 10, 15, 20 or even 25 years old! Yet I can install all of them (well, most of the 20 and 25 year old ones I'm playing through GameTap unless I have them on a collection CD) and play them without issue. The old Forgotten Realms games require the Code Wheel to access, and many of the 5- or 10-year old games require a CD in the drive to play, but that is all. Imagine if I couldn't play Baldur's Gate without contacting Black Isle, or Wizardry VIII without SirTech, or Arcanum without Troika, or Deus Ex without getting authorization from Ion Storm!

We risk losing touch with some of the best games of this generation because greed is driving publishers to punish their paying customers. Everyone knows that pirates will have these games cracked - probably already do - yet there is a new and more intrusive system coming out every year. And as I said, the ones who have to suffer are the ones who don't pirate, don't download cracks ... in other words, the ones who suffer are the ones who have actually paid for the game.

It reminds me of the 'You wouldn't steal a car ... don't download a movie' commercials in front of so many DVD's. They are dropping a wonderfully heavy guilt trip on their paying (or renting) customers that those who pirate the movies will never see.

Enough already! I know there will be games in the RPG and FPS genre that I will suffer through the DRM to play, but it is time to take a stand - I will actively try to avoid paying companies to screw me over with insidious DRM that targets me as a paying customer instead of those who are actually pirating the game.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

So what *do* you tell them ... ?

It isn't really a question, more of a lamentation, I suppose ...

I found out on Memorial Day that my uncle had killed himself ... 46 years ago. My mother took care of decorating the cemeteries and sent pictures of gravestones. I was casually asking some questions and it came to how my two uncles died. I knew my one uncle had died of kidney failure. Apparently he had bad strep, and they were stationed on a base in Germany at the time and it blossomed into kidney failure, and transplants were very new and the matches had to be exact and no one was close enough so he just died. I knew most of it, but learned some details.

But my mother said something that struck me - "I guess since you're 40 I can tell you the whole story". He was the star of the high school football team, and that was going to be his ticket. But he got a bad head injury and was never the same. That much I knew - I had always been told that he had never recovered from a bad head injury from football. But there was more - it was more than two years after the football injury, and he had never straightened out, and he killed himself. They never dealt with any of it. My grandmother just blamed it on the injury and my grandfather ... who knows. I've never heard my dad talk about it.

I feel like I've been fighting an uphill battle of communications with my parents

... and that is where this draft stopped - two and a half years ago! Since then, my parents have moved to South Carolina, I have moved to New York, and this trend has continued. They were up at our house just over a week ago for a long weekend and I thought things went well, but now I'm swimming in it again. I was pretty well ready to toss it in with that relationship - it seems that every time I would try to confront them to deal with issues it would go nowhere, then there would be silence, then making 'nice nice'. But right after she left our house, my mother blabbed all sorts of things out of context to my sister, including putting my wife in a bad light yet again, and then my sister sends a 'poison pen' email, because she cannot communicate any other way. Arrgh!
Negative feedback ... hard to take

The other night I got my first negative feedback at Goozex. I didn't panic or freak out - I knew what to do, and sent PM's to 'feedback' and also to the other trader in order to work things out.

But this is my first negative, and it really made me angry getting it! I was surprised, of course, and would have been with any game I had sent out. Unplayable disk was the reason. With a detail that the game installed fine, launched without issue and could create characters and choose options and so on without problem. But launching into the actual game after character creation resulted in a disk error crash.

But this time I had actually installed the game on my newer Macbook Pro (my initial playthrough and review had come from my older MBP) *just* before offering the game to see if there was any chance I'd keep it - but given that I have the PC version on the 'Windows side' of the Mac, I could compare performance and tell that I would never choose to play the sloppily ported Mac version again.

A 5 second Google search showed me a thread at Bioware that asked the same question as this other person, and basically the answer was that if you have a Macbook or some iMac's you are out of luck for this game. A further look shows that the minimum system requirements are discrete graphics with 128MB of video RAM. Meaning that all Macbooks and some iMacs are out.

I have gone back and asked the person what system they're using, and unfortunately they did have a Macbook. At the same time I had been copying Goozex on my progress, and once they knew the hardware situation then notified the other person that the buyer is responsible to make sure their system meets the requirements, and reversed the negative feedback.

The whole thing took less than 24 hours, and was an excellent exercise in customer service and how a user-powered community should work.

But seeing that negative? Boy did that suck.
The Dumbest Generation - Harrowing First Thoughts

I've been reading the book "The Dumbest Generation: How the Digital Age is Stupefying Young Americans and Jeopardizes Our Future" recently, and reflecting upon what is being said as I travel through everyday life.

The more I think about it the more I realize my kids are very much an isolated case - they read a ton for pleasure, listen to a wide variety of musical genres, enjoy art and museums and make an attempt to understand religion and politics and the world around them.

Stop in just about any forum site on the Web that includes teens and you will immediately be regaled by self-interested illiteracy. All of the inward focus and scoffing at the value of cultural literacy the book talks about is proudly on display.

These kids are 'smart idiots' - they are intelligent kids who see no problem using text speak such as 'u r wrong' in business communications ... and they are beginning to make those changes acceptable. This isn't a cultural broadening or an accepting of technology integration - it is dumbing down, plain and simple. It is sad, and scary.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Thank you for smoking ... NOT!

We love to go outdoors and do things together as a family. So naturally on Labor Day weekend we took advantage of the excellent weather to do as much as possible. There was a variety of activities, but one common theme - wherever we went, it was impossible to engage in the activity we wanted to without walking through a wall of second-hand smoke.

These were outdoor, family activities, mind you ... it isn't like we were strolling through a bar! I believe in the rights of individuals to engage in self-directed activities, but only so far as they do not impact others. Since second hand smoke is a known and proven health threat to others, that self-regulated activity becomes a public activity and therefore disappears from individual liberty.

I mean, if I sat around in the middle of a park breaking open mercury thermometers or playing with the regulator on a tank of fluorine gas, you would agree that I should be stopped immediately. But smoking is a different story. As I said, I have no problem with people engaging in a legal activity - or an illegal one, for that matter - so long as it doesn't interfere with my ability to engage in an activity in public space. Private space is just that - private. Also, circumstances should dictate reasonable expectations. I don't believe, for example, that it is my right to expect a smoke-free environment in a Cigar bar. But everything we did was outdoors, and much of it was centered around fitness-inducing or 'fresh air' based activities like hiking trails.

This is one thing I miss about Massachusetts. Public smoking is pretty well banned everywhere. Sure there are smoking areas, but they have to be set up in a way that isolates them from normal traffic. For example, at my old job I never ran into a wall of smoke in 15 years, yet perhaps 75% of the times I enter the research center here and 100% of the times I enter the diesel manufacturing facility I have to wade through a sea of smoke.

So there were two things this weekend that bugged me: the first was at the Ferrari festival in downtown Corning pictured above. For some reason all of the owners and many of the fans thought there was no better way to celebrate expensive cars than by puffing on cigars. It was just plain nasty, because there was no way to avoid it. When you are in an open-air event and everyone has to wash their clothes because of the stench, it is a problem.

But worse still was on Monday, when we went to the 'Grand Canyon of Pennsylvania'. This is an absolutely gorgeous area, with overlooks and several miles of hiking trails. But to get to it all you have to go through the info center / gift shop. And in between the two is a covered hall with benches that looked like a fog bank had rolled in. It was nasty, and inexcusably rude on the part of the smokers. I had no problem with those who sat at benches out of the or hung out by their cars to smoke ... well, to an extent I did but more on that later. Those other smokers enjoyed their rights without infringing upon mine. This is an inherently outdoor, health-centric activity, and I cannot believe that there is anyone alive who would equate smoking as consistent with 'fresh air' or 'healthy' or 'good exercise'. It is the antithesis.

OK, my other problem with smokers? Virtually all of them are poisoning the environment. It goes beyond the smoke itself to the ashes they brazenly flick to the butts they crush and toss in public places for the birds to eat and choke to death. I'm sure there are some who bring along their own ashtrays to avoid these things, but I haven't seen one. And before anyone starts with 'other people litter', yeah they do - and they are no better. But smokers are the subject here.

I think there is a certain hypocrisy in allowing smoking to be legal yet treating it like a crime. I believe that smokers should be allowed to pursue their legal right to smoke. I believe in smoking sections and smoking areas and so on. But I also believe that my right to *not* smoke should be honored, and that due to the health considerations it should be put above the right to public smoking.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Loving my iPod Touch once again!

OK since my last comments on the iPod Touch as my least favorite iPod, Apple releases a new upgrade (2.02), and as a result I haven't touched my iPod Nano in a week.

Has something happened to change my opinions of the MP3 player shortcomings of this otherwise wonderful device? No. It is still a major hassle to deal with.

But it hasn't crashed since the new upgrade, and the battery life is much better. I have been managing the screen power much more closely, but even before that I noticed a difference. But the biggest thing is the crashes - when I would switch the screen back on I would dread the possibility of yet another music crash. Since the update, when I turn the screen on the iPod is always in vertical orientation and never locks - whereas before it would switch from horizontal to vertical and cover-flow to the current song. It is a small change, but I guess it signals what matters to me with my music - I just want the darn thing to work!

Monday, August 18, 2008

Adventures in Babysitting.

Well, this is somewhat redundant ... I posted nearly two months ago about catching up at Goozex and going through all of the posts, and how much of a strain it was looking at all of the posts from teens there who were complaining about every manner of injustice.

Well, Goozex just got unblocked at work, so I have been trying to drop by to join back in the conversation. But it is not easy ... I had to catch up with 1500 unread posts (I hate seeing anything 'unread'). And there I was again, smack in the middle of the 'whine tour' ... and with each post I answered, nearly answered, or even read other helpful people answering, it sapped my energy.

I know that my kids will want to do this stuff in a few years, but I know I will work hard to make sure that they read the rules, use sentences, re-read the rules, check the rules before asking questions, search the forums for same or similar questions, scan the forums before asking, re-read the rules again ... and then ask me.

At least the movie Adventures in Babysitting had Elizabeth Shue ...

Friday, August 08, 2008

iPod Touch - my least favorite iPod

OK, so I'm spoiled rotten ... I admit it. I have had digital music since I could play AIFF files on my Newton back in the 90's, and I bought the original iPod and have had one from every generation since. I have pretty much skipped the video-focused ones because, well, I have other gadgets to do that! I still have that first iPod, a 40GB one that had the short-lived touch-wheel and separate touch buttons, a 4GB 2nd-gen Nano, and my newest addition - a 32GB iPod Touch. And of all of those, the iPod Touch is my least favorite music player. Let me explain ...

The first thing I did when I got the Touch was to set up some email accounts and web browsing stuff. And of course fill it up with music and video and pictures and subscribe to podcasts. The Touch is always with me, and I have a load of games and useful apps from the app store. I use it for maps, weather, quick web browsing, and other stuff. When we were on vacation I hooked it up to the TV to watch some videos, and have a number of photos on it as well.

Yet when I got in my car this morning and wanted to listen to music for the commute, I reached for my 4GB Nano. And it is pretty obvious to me why that is - convenience. With the Nano, if I want to play or stop I just hit a single tactile button without even looking. With the Touch, when music is playing the screen switches off and locks after a minute, then I need to click the home button to activate the screen, slide the unlock section of the screen, then press pause. The last two are 'virtual' buttons and therefore require looking at the screen.

Another thing that bothers me about the Touch is instability - I have had issues with songs stopping or skipping over the years, but I have had more freezes and crashes playing music with the Touch in the few months I've had it than with all other iPods combined! What will typically happen is that I will start planing music, then set my Touch sideways next to the shifter. Then if I want to change songs or see what is playing I pick it up and activate the screen. When I do that 'Cover Flow' flips to the correct album cover and then orients it in vertical mode ... and sometimes just shows the generic 'notes' graphic - and freezes. I have no idea why this happens, as it is random - and almost all of the music is stuff I have played successfully for years on other systems (iPods, PDA's, PSP, etc).

I think that the Touch is just so focused on the massive screen that it has lost something in terms of simplicity. I can stop music to answer my cell phone with one touch in a fraction of a second on my Nano, but on my Touch it takes several swipes and looking at the device. It is just too much of a hassle, and while I still use the Touch for the massive capacity, I don't feel bad using the Nano anymore.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

When the music dies ...

One thing I have always liked about the 'less-than-commercial' music I enjoy is that the artists remain PEOPLE. I mean, I saw The Police three times during the late 70's - early 80's period, yet have nothing that really keys me into the trio as individual people. Contrast this with my elevator ride with jazz legend John Scofield in the Charles Hotel in Cambridge back in the early 80's. The quick chat in a group setting was casual, fun and REAL. I admit having to take a deep breath because he was the reason I was in the elevator, but considering he had been flying coach and dealing with traffic hassles (same as me) and having a good laugh ... it was all fun.

That sort of connection adds a dimension that is all too often missing these days. Most of the people my kids and wife like have their lives plastered on tabloids and TV shows, dealing with hundreds of paparazzi and bloggers speculating if buying those Twinkees makes them a bad parent. Again, I contrast that with helping Ronald Shannon Jackson and the Decoding Society finish setting up for a show at my undergrad college way back when ... it was no different than setting up my own stuff from my high school band. Fun conversation and no pretense - and it allowed me to chat with Vernon Reid, who would go on to some fame as the guitarist of Living Color with 'Cult of Personality'.

There are numerous instances where I was able to have some interaction with the musicians and composers I admire, and this has added to my view of them not as disembodied producers of great music, but as people. This connection manifests itself when bad things happen to them - when troubled Emily Remler had drug issues stemming from illness and eventually died of a heart attack at 32 just as she was really beginning to shine, I was saddened for her family as well as the music world. It is interesting that in that smaller community her death was treated so much more respectfully than it would had she been a pop star of any acclaim.

So this week I have already read four obituaries of jazz artist whose work I admire - George Russell, Johnny Griffin, Joe Beck and Hiram Bullock. I was blessed to have seen three of them perform at one time or another.

But the one that really struck me was Hiram Bullock. I saw him play a few times, including with David Sanborn and also with an amazing band led by Jaco Pastorius. He was a serious musician who was never afraid to have fun with his music. He was a performer in a genre where artists let their notes do the talking, and he was a kind person to anyone who approached him. I was thrilled to see him later with the David Letterman house band - he was the guitarist who played barefoot.

I brought this up with my family, but it is really a foreign concept for them - as I said, they like music where the artists end up treated almost as some non-human persona, where any intrusion into their life is justified as 'the price for fame'. There is no disrespect we won't commit in the name of 'needing to know', which amounts to a money-grabbing feeding frenzy often sustained by those who are also screaming the loudest that it is wrong.

But what I tell my kids is this: I am sad that Hiram Bullock died. I am sad for his wife, his adopted kids, and his friends and colleagues; I am sad for fans who have tracked him for decades and for those who have yet to discover his music. But I am happy that I know that he was a person with good and bad traits who produced some wonderful music and also some mediocre music and wasn't always a good employee due to some bad choices. He was human, as are we all. I tell my kids that they need to remember that everyone is just a person, with flaws and strengths and numerous things that shape who they are and the art they produce.

They are people, just as we are people. Music is one of the rare things that permeates every corner of the world - styles and genres and tastes vary widely, but we all love music. It is important to remember that music comes from people, and is a reflection of their own experiences. It is important for several reasons - it is important because it empowers our kids to pursue their dreams to become whatever they want to become; it is important because it reminds us that everyone on the planet deserves the respectful treatment we would like to receive; and it is important because that human connection makes the musical experience more meaningful.

Encourage your kids to love the music that they love, and rather than bemoan how much of the stuff aimed at kids is 'corporate product pop', instead encourage them to remember that there are people behind that music who are really no different than them.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Rebooting at Goozex:

After getting settled in a bit, I started offering up some games at Goozex again. I had been on a 'receive-only' binge for a while and burned through most of the 11,000+ points I had accumulated. So it was time to get back to dumping my junk for points.

I have sent out a few things, and also ran into a confusing problem: I can't find some of my DS games. Not stuff I care about, which is either in the game cases or my cool DS bag; no, I can't find the stuff I want to get rid of, like Time Ace and the DS Browser. So far as I can tell it is only DS games, making me think they are all in a bag somewhere ... but I haven't found them yet. I certainly hope they aren't lost ...

I also have continued getting emails from the Goozex forums for threads I'm subscribed to, and added the Goozcast to my iTunes subscriptions. So I figured it was time to rejoin the forums. My typical viewing habit for forums is to 'view unread', look at what I want, mark all read, and go from there. Unfortunately the Goozex forums lack a 'mark all read' button - and there were ~4000 unread posts since my last participation (last December). So I have spent a couple of hours per day for the past several days wading through the posts - 25 per page, clicking to open each individual thread and then closing them, reading some but not all as I went along.

Boy was that a depressing process! I had thought about posting this to the private area of the forums, but even that seemed out of line. So instead, I figured I could post my thoughts here and re-enter the forums much more politely.

What a bunch of whiny, lazy, self-important, impatient, ungrateful, over-indulged, childish brats there are on those forums! I have no idea how the rest of the mods have managed to stay active continuously!

Whew! I mean, out of 4000 posts, I can't estimate how many times people asked about 'what are turns' or 'how does this work', despite there being multiple stickies with names like 'read this before asking a question' or 'how goozex works' and so on. I mean, it is OK to still have questions, but make some attempt to search things out - if I had $1 for every 'I'm new and have some questions' post that is nearly identical to every other 'I'm new and have some questions' post ... well, I'd have enough cash to buy a PS3 and X360 and use Goozex even more! Then there are those who write excited posts because they want instant gratification - they complain that they matched a few hours ago and no response yet ... or they sent a game three days ago and no feedback, or whatever ...

There are many who seek vengeance for those who fail to leave instant feedback, or let a trade request lapse. It is sickening - we know you want the game, but lighten up. People are busy, others are lazy and irresponsible ... but the level of vitriol is amazing!

On the other hand, the immaturity is not one-sided. These sentiments come from a continuous rash of folks trying to 'game the system', with rampant reports of non-shipments, sending broken games, scammers, dual-accounts, and other ways that people are trying to be dishonest traders. And that is just a shame.

Also, I found at least a half-dozen threads that amounted to 'should I buy a PSP'. Also 'what about listing DVD's' or 'Please list UMD movies' or others. These are all valid questions / requests, but c'mon people, there aren't THAT many PSP threads that you can't look in a page or two. It is pure laziness that I find completely annoying - if you have a question, hit 'Search' before you hit 'Post', it is just good netiquette.

And that is my final complaint - poor netiquette and lack of consideration for others. Take time, give your post a real title that helps people help you, and then use actual sentences with meaning to communicate your idea / question. You are not on a cell phone or IM, so leave the 'lol's behind.

I know why I want to return - the guys there like Mark & Jon, like Lurk & Shawn & the rest of the mod crew are really great people I enjoy communicating with, and from listening to the Goozcasts there are some newer folks who are really great as well. So I know I will persevere ... I just needed to blow off some steam first.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Dungeon Lords Box (from GamingWithChildren) Imagine this: a new third-person action-RPG is announced, created by one of the grandmasters of the genre, the mastermind behind some of the best games in the beloved Wizardry franchise. It promises tense action, engaging combat, deep skill system, and a complex and engrossing story.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Another new start ...

Well, it has been a couple of years ... but my last post detailed how my previous work laptop had this blog blocked so it wasn't worth trying. But over the past 6 months or so I have been laid off, worked a 3 month spot at a small start up, and more recently been hired and started working at Corning Inc in Corning NY.

This has meant moving the whole family to the 'Southern Tier' of New York. My wife and I mulled this over - we had possibilities in North Carolina, Seattle, and also to stay in Massachusetts. But we knew we wanted out of the local school system but didn't want to move closer to Boston, so we quickly ruled out Massachusetts. The jobs and companies in Seattle and Charlotte were nice but not really clear in terms of long term potential. I had heard some bad things about the company in Charlotte, and while I liked the people I met, all dealings with the corporate entity were awful - and since they had been bought out and the corporate presence was increasing I was anticipating a repeat of the downward spiral I saw at Rohm & Haas. In Seattle, the company was in the midst of a major crisis that had resulted in big layoffs the previous year. It was a big gamble moving cross country into a potentially unstable situation was a bit risky for us.

We loved the Corning area no a visit, and the offer from the company was great and included a guaranteed home buyout option ... very nice in this market. We were lucky and sold our house within two weeks for nearly the asking price, and found a wonderful home in a little place called Horseheads, which has the best schools in the region. It has been two and a half months now and we are happily settled in.