Monday, December 22, 2008

Tech News Roundup

Tech News Roundup
22 December 2008

Merry Christmas early, folks. I changed the name of this serial posting to reflect the fact that, looking on the news, it's just going to be tech posts with little deviance. First of all, stupid Microsoft. Or maybe stupid Dell, I don't know which. They tell me (at work) to shut down their main PC Sunday nights so it can update. What? Yeah, apparently computers can now update the system when they're powered off. News to me. A geek's inclined to say that they need to be powered on and connected to the Internet to receive Microsoft updates and/or for Corporate to login and apply patches and install software manually (I've seen this once), but what do I know? I only built my own computer. So anyway, I go to turn this piece of crap on (3.4GHz Pentium D with 1GB of RAM and it runs like a 1996 Celeron) and it wants to do a disk check. Fine by me, maybe it'll run better when it's done. Trouble is, it gets done, reboots (this is normal so far) and then does ANOTHER disk check. Third one goes to start, I figured something was wrong. Before it starts, it gives you 10 seconds to "press any key" to bypass the check. I hit space, Enter, random keys - nothing. Unplug the keyboard, plug it back in. Nothing. Whatever, I go back to this computer and let it do its thing. It does maybe 2 more before offering the safe mode choices. Safe mode, safe mode with networking, safe with command prompt, last good configuration, and normal. I choose "last good" and it starts up, after being stupid for about 2 hours. Great. I do regular disk checks on my machine and I recommend others do as well, but after the one disk check it's not supposed to keep doing them. Yeah, it's probably Dell, because all these corporate and store-bought or mail-order computers people have typically have a BIOS or something inside which is meant to severely limit the machine, to where if you want to upgrade, you have to buy THEIR hardware... and this has all kinds of unintended side effects.

But, onto the news.

Nintendo sued over DS adapter fire

Long story short: House burns down. Investigators blame a Nintendo DS charging cord. Insurance company pays for the damage. Insurance company asks Nintendo for restitution. To the tune of $236,304.

I'm reminded of Edward Norton as the narrator in Fight Club shocking a woman with his job description. Here's what he tells her: "A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one." She asks what car company he works for, and he plainly tells her "A major one". Chances are, it might as well be all of them.

But seriously, does anyone seriously think that Nintendo, a family gaming company, released a faulty DS charging cord? They've been making the Nintendo DS for over four years now, and the first DS (the big one) used the same charging cord as the rechargable Game Boy Advance SP before it; the second DS (the smaller, squarish one) uses a different cable, and that came out in 2006, so 2 years on that. And no word of a cable causing a fire... well, not since reports surfaced a few weeks ago about counterfeit Nintendo DS units with... you guessed it... defective charging cords that were fire hazards.

Seems to me somebody bought a counterfeit one and the cord caught fire. I've never heard of a genuine Nintendo charging cord catching fire. Mine's never even gotten warm. I have had a set of cheap jumper cables fail, so I'm familiar with the effect. The cables aren't thick enough or rated for enough current, so they put off a lot of heat. The plastic or rubber insulating the cables is also low grade, and it melts, quickly. Having melted rubber drip onto your hand is not fun. I'd say it hurt for about a week. There's a pretty big gap between a good cable never getting warm and the rubber melting, so if the cables did start a fire, I'd say it's a good bet they bought counterfeit hardware. It would really stink if Nintendo had to pay up over this. Then again, if it was a genuine part and they let a bad batch go out, hoping the worst wouldn't happen, well, that's on them.

Note to Nintendo: You can port Super Metroid to the DS and recoup the settlement money four times over, guaranteed. The fans have only been asking for it, well, since the Game Boy Advance boasted Super Nintendo-level game capability. 2001? 2002? It never ceases to amaze me, in this day and age where piracy of games, of music, of movies is such a big concern, that the content producers listen so rarely to what consumers actually want. And don't get me started on Squaresoft.

Metal Gear Solid Touch - iPod/iPhone only

There's more than a little bit of hurt feelings in the Nintendo DS community that the new Metal Gear Solid game, based on touch-screen controls (entirely corporate until the DS handheld brought touch screens to consumer devices), will not (as of yet) be making an appearance on that system. And others are worried that the iPhone will compete with the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, as if competition ever hurt gaming.

But, as far as I can tell, it's just a cellphone game. So the iPhone (and iPod Touch) has more colors and more pixels on its screen than your average Motorola or Nokia handset. It's still a very limited platform, and games for it are not going to be terribly complex, let alone enviable. So let the cell phones keep their limited, almost crippled game. The review says all you can do is zoom and shoot, like those arcade games with the gun.

The DS has a game like that - Touch the Dead, based on House of the Dead, and it's not very good. The DS also has a port of the original PlayStation's hit Resident Evil, but it's seldom mentioned that it has a touch mode where you can use the touch screen to slash with the knife or shoot, because nobody cares. (The classic mode is pretty popular, though.) The DS does have a touch screen and that's the big gimmick, but only games that make intelligent use of it really get any respect. The entirety of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is played with the touch screen, but it's done well. Other games, for example, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, don't use it at all, it's simply a second screen. This works too.

First-person shooters like Metal Gear Solid haven't worked well on the DS. It's just not a system for FPS games. The original Metal Gear was a top-down adventure (on the NES back in the early 90s, maybe late 80s) and it was OK. For the DS, maybe they ought to make it based on that model. Not a direct port, of course, but how about an isometric, top-down, sneak-around infiltrate-the-base adventure game, sort of a cross between Phantom Hourglass and the original Metal Gear. I think that would work a little better and sell a lot more copies.

The Eagles: Not quite good enough for Rock Band, but as a consolation prize, Guitar Hero DLC

If you're looking at Rock Band and Guitar Hero as mutually exclusive platforms, and you have to choose one or the other, it's a pretty easy choice given one question: Can you get DLC (downloadable content)? If the answer is no, you might be better with Guitar Hero: World Tour as it includes a lot of great classic rock. However if the answer is yes, Rock Band is the clear winner, with close to 500 downloadable tracks. They were supposed to have 500 in the fall, so they may actually have more than that now. We have quite a bit of that, nowhere near all, though.

What baffles me is that you can't just pick one or the other. Virtually everything that's come out has come out for either the Rock Band series (DLC for RB1 works in RB2) or the Guitar Hero games (Guitar Hero 3 DLC does not work in World Tour and vice-versa). Basically it's this platform or that platform. Rock Band is the more solid bet, because you can almost be sure that your DLC from the first two games will also work in the third game, where Activision's track record indicates that songs you buy for World Tour will not work in future iterations of Guitar Hero. Also, unlike Rock Band, none of the prior Guitar Hero games have a mode where you can copy the songs to your hard drive for use in the newest one. So no, you won't get to try "Through the Fire and Flames" (speed metal song by DragonForce; Guitar Hero 3's iconic "last level") on drums or vocals unless they re-release it for World Tour, and of course charge you $2 for it.

A month or two ago, I reviewed Guitar Hero World Tour, the latest game in the series and the third game (after both Rock Band titles) to enable four people to play as a full virtual band (lead guitarist, bassist, drummer, and singer). It fell short of Rock Band 2 in every possible category except soundtrack. Some parts of the game were shortsighted and hopefully will be corrected in the next game, but some parts of the game simply did not work. It was like using incomplete, or beta software. It was like, "okay, that doesn't work, so let's try something else" and we stumbled through a couple such pitfalls.

So, why do people buy the Guitar Hero game? It's the name. Guitar Hero for the PlayStation 2 was the first game to bring virtual-guitar playing to the home in such a big way, and Guitar Hero II, which moved onto the Xbox 360, blew the scene wide open. But what a lot of people didn't know and still don't know is that Harmonix, who were behind those games, sold the Guitar Hero name to Activision (of Tony Hawk fame) and began distributing their new product, Rock Band, through Electronic Arts through a partnership with MTV. (They couldn't take the name because it was co-owned by Red Octane, who made the cheaper controllers.) Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was a decent game, but other than the interface, it was no different from Guitar Hero II except it had different songs (and boss battles, which most people didn't care for). When Activision tried to make a whole new Guitar Hero based on Rock Band, they more or less fell flat on their face.

But I don't really hold Guitar Hero's shortcomings against Activision, not that much. I just won't buy their product, as much as I like the track list. I hope they improve it for the next Guitar Hero game (not counting the Metallica one coming out next year - I know all those songs will be hard as hell) and provide solid competition for Rock Band. What does get me is bands signing exclusive agreements with Guitar Hero. It shows they're just looking for a quick buck and don't really care about how their music will be portrayed. As opposed to, I don't know, looking at both and saying "you know, this interface is more natural and more conductive to cooperation and fun, and this other one is just going to frustrate people, and we don't want it to be our song that makes people want to smash up their guitar controllers because the game mechanics suck". Or at least put their songs on both platforms.

I did enjoy playing Hotel California on bass in Guitar Hero World Tour when we rented it. I remember it being a fun track to play. Wasn't too hard and wasn't boring. Life in the Fast Lane would probably be fun, too. I'd pay the full $2 apiece for both of them if they were on Rock Band. But I'm not about to pay $60 for GHWT to get Hotel California and then $2 on top of that to get Life in the Fast Lane, and have to change discs to play those songs. As it is, I have access to nearly 250 songs with my Rock Band 2 disc in.

Every time I tell my wife I wrote an article about Rock Band, she asks if I wrote about how it's so much better than Guitar Hero. There it is.

Cyberbullying laws

Yeah, you know what this is about. That sicko from Missouri who goaded a 13-year-old girl into killing herself on MySpace just to see if she could do it or whatever. She couldn't be charged because she didn't actually do anything illegal. Freedom of speech says you can say pretty much whatever you like. You can't cry fire in a movie theater, and you can't threaten to kill somebody. But apparently you can pretend to be an underage boy on MySpace, seduce an underage girl, get her wrapped around your little finger, and then tell her the world would be better off without her. It's all protected speech, how are you to know she's going to hang herself in the closet, and how are you to know it's going to make national headlines? They tried to get this lady (and it was a woman seducing an underage girl online, not a man, ironically) on all kinds of charges, but none of them stuck. This lady gets harassing phone calls and has changed her number a few times, and I imagine it's going to be hard for her to get a job (can you imagine the interview... "Aren't you that lady who goaded a 13-year-old girl to hang herself? What else do you do in your spare time?") but she won't serve any time.

So, the solution is to rewrite the book, they say, make it a crime to bully people online. We saw how well that worked out. Bullies have been a problem in schools for years, but it took two longtime bullying victims shooting up a school called Columbine to really make it a national problem. Before them, kids just dealt with it in their own ways. Schools try to deal with it, I think, but I'm not sure that they're effective at all. More often than not, the bully is just lashing out due to problems at home, so solving the obvious problem is tricky without solving the root problem. Cyberbullying is something different entirely. The bullies in this case aren't just abused kids lashing out at their peers. More often than not, cyberbullies - a form of troll, to use the more technical or "insider" term - are just out to have a good time. They don't equate the Internet with real life because to them it's completely separate. A game. They don't take what's directed at them personally, so they don't think others do. More often than not, they attack an online identity, not the person behind it, so to speak.

While I'm sympathetic to the family of the girl who died and I've got no love for the woman who urged her to kill herself, I really think that kids should be expected, and allowed, to grow a backbone and deal with some of this stuff themselves. I had to learn, in high school, to not let stuff bother me. Honestly it should be learned much sooner. But kids nowadays are babied by the system, partially possibly because of Columbine, and they've come to expect the system to wipe their asses for them. And where will this ultimately go? Are they going to start taking kids out of school because they're suspected of bullying? I suspect they're going to have problems with a lot of false positives, causing even more trouble. As to the specific case, I think they should have brought that woman up on murder charges, being as she knew what she was doing and pretty much had an idea of where she was going to take it from the start. I wouldn't go into reclassifying it as a civil crime and call it cyberbullying, I'd call it what it is. (And, for that matter, she ought to have to register as a sex offender - she did start off by seducing this underage girl, that has to count for something.)

If nothing else, the woman will spend eternity with that Texas woman who drowned her five kids. Hell has a special place for women, whose natural job is to bear and raise children, who deliberately hurt and kill children, especially for amusement, and especially when sex is attached.

Warner Music: We'd rather you Torrent our music than look at it on YouTube

Onto lighter fare. YouTube's been one of a handful of sites which has pushed online music away from filesharing and into a legitimate business model where artists and songwriters are paid, either through subscription fees or ads (in YouTube's case, just ads). Well, Warner Music has come forward and said that they're not getting enough money, that even though they don't have to host any of the videos online or the users who access them by the millions, they want a bigger cut. Google (YouTube's owner) isn't giving it to them (and do you blame them? it's their site, on their servers) so they're pulling out and forcing YouTube to pull anything published under their label.

So I suppose kids who want to hear music that happens to be under the Warner label should just Torrent the music, and the suits (not to mention artists) get nothing. Given the choice between an Escalade and Denali (top Cadillac SUV vs. top GMC SUV), is a used Explorer really the better option? Damn, the economy's in the pisser (though the lines at Walmart say otherwise) and everyone's taking a hit. They ought to be willing to make light concessions while YouTube's offering them a way to profit off the Net while there's money to be made.

Personal Trainer: Cooking: New name, same... game?

Back in June, possibly the worst-titled game came out, but it wasn't a game, as such, it was an electronic, interactive cookbook called "Cooking Guide: Can't Decide What to Eat?". It was talked about for a week or two on the Internets, and then largely forgotten. Now it's back with a slightly spiffier name, "Personal Trainer: Cooking", followed by television ads. You've probably seen it, woman and little girl cooking, following the instructions of a DS handheld, and they wind up making a Chinese chicken dish. And these aren't kids' recipes, either; the jambalaya, which can really be made with sausage and chicken, calls for squid. Squid! Shrimp is one thing, but squid... that's just exotic.

I've been meaning to get this for a while now, and try some of its recipes.

Pressure mounts for Microsoft to succeed with Windows 7

Windows Vista was a failure, and anybody who says otherwise is flat-out wrong. Windows Mojave is a joke (they replaced the name Vista with Mojave and showed people, in TV commercials, actually act like it wasn't Vista) and probably used actors, despite the commercial's claim to the contrary. Nobody wants Vista, and for good reason. A few, actually.

1. Vista treats people like criminals. Since Microsoft is so afraid of people downloading their software and not paying for it, Vista requires that you activate it online before you can use it. And if you change any of the hardware, you have to call Microsoft and tell them what you did. From what I've heard, they're cool about it, but I don't see how it's any of their business to start with. On top of that, virtually everything you do in Vista is checked by the system, it asking for your administrator's password every five minutes to make sure you're really you. People don't like that. Not only do people want something that works, they want a smooth experience, and Vista provides the opposite.

2. Vista's not compatible with... well, anything. You can't read a review of Vista without reading about what it can't do and how the reviewer worked around it. They found another program, or they had to get a patch or something. Even Vista with Service Pack 1 still can't read my SATA drive, but Windows XP can, right out of the box. Vista tells me I have to format it, but it's a 750GB hard drive and I can't back all that stuff up beforehand. I think maybe if I format it with Vista, Vista will read it, but will XP? I would hate to be stuck with Vista; I'd much rather be stuck with XP. On top of that, there are a bunch of programs and games that don't work with Vista. The PC version of Halo 2 was revolutionary for requiring the user to be running Vista, but few if any other "Games for Windows" carry this restriction. Mostly older games, but some newer productivity and security applications will not work in Vista. Yet just about every application made for Windows and used today runs just fine in XP.

3. Vista is $400 for Ultimate. Linux is free. Linux runs Windows stuff, with WINE. What's the problem? You can get any number of Linux distributions (variations), but I recommend the latest Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes with Firefox, an Office suite (OpenOffice), and all the usual OS utilities (disc burning, calculator, notepad, minigames, system tools) and there's a lot more stuff you can get for it. Digital video, for instance, used to give even Windows users headaches, but now we have VLC (formerly VideoLAN) and that runs everything, and it runs on just about everything, including Linux. You can get a program called WINE which lets you run Windows programs natively in Linux without having to install Windows. While modern games made for Windows can't be run this way (some can, with limited results), emulators (programs which let your computer think it's a Nintendo or PlayStation or even Game Boy or DS) are often made for both/all platforms and work just as good. For serious gaming, get an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and remove the one advantage that Windows really has over Linux. And in this economy, the only logical solutions to your OS problem (if you have one) is to pirate Windows or use Linux. One's legal, the other's not, but both are free. Most will still pirate Windows, but Linux is very much a viable choice, at least for most users. Alternately, Macs are starting to look better every day.

4. Vista is just dumb. OK, it's a little prettier, but in my limited experience with the OS, everything takes another click or two to do what you want. Everything's segmented or fragmented off. No more simple control panel which lists everything you want to do; it's divided into sections, subsections, categories. XP tries to pull this crap too, but it's real easy to go back to the Windows 2000 style which makes sense. You click on Control Panel and it's all right there. Not in Vista. A couple features are helpful, and it adds a couple features that would replace functionality offered by third-party, costly programs (such as DVD burning), but since Linux does all that plus includes an Office suite, all for free, it doesn't mean all that much.

Dammit, why can't Microsoft release a bare-essentials OS that "just works"? Start you off with a workspace and menu bar, real simple, like Windows 2000 or some custom builds of Windows XP. One new feature we could really use is force all programs to run in a virtual environment, so if they come with or become infected with spyware or a virus, they're only messing up their own workspace, not the whole computer. Start with this minimalist system and let the user add the crap they want. Linux, for the most part, "just works", but there's not a lot of stuff available for it. Every year this changes, new stuff is added and the old stuff gets better, but it's still not a viable alternative to Windows XP. It beats the crap out of Vista, though, that's about a given.

Heh... unintended coincidence that the Windows 7 story was the seventh story here. I wasn't counting when I did it; knowing myself, I probably would have mixed it up. But, what's done is done, for all intents and purposes, and this concludes this tech news roundup. Happy holidays... heh... maybe that'll be the subject of the next entry up here.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Nathan's Mix 2008 II

Been a while since I've done one of these, and I don't think I even got to make one for my first mix of the year, but I finished this one a week or two ago and thought about putting it up. I've always just made these mixes for my own personal use on my Mp3 player, but this service lets me, for the most part, share the mix. As long as you keep the page open, you can listen to (almost) the whole thing.

I can't vouch for quality as I only listen to a few seconds of each song to verify it's real. Nothing stops whoever's hosting these song files to change or remove them at any time.

The new Nickelback song hasn't been uploaded anywhere that monitors yet, so it's not up there. On the "real" list it's after Theory of a Deadman and before Brad Paisley, near the end.

I used to post a tracklist like this, and try to think of some kind words to say about each song, but it always felt kinda fake. If a song's up here, I like it for whatever reason, and I don't necessarily have a story to tell - so I'll just skip down the list and explain the ones for which there is something to say.

1. Beg (Evans Blue) - This is the song that "sold" me on Evans Blue. Jen was a big fan before I was, and while I did like the singles, the albums just weren't talking to me at that point (how things have changed...), but this song pushed me over and got me listening to the rest.

4. Everything (Buckcherry) - Buckcherry might be the new Guns n' Roses, if you remember how good the latter was on their 1986 "Appetite for Destruction" album. Solid rock that just didn't care. This doesn't seem representative of that, but then again, neither does "Sweet Child o'Mine", the biggest hit from that Gn'R album. This is the equivalent of that. It's not "Crazy Bitch" or "Too Drunk" (as in "Too drunk to F&%#", heh heh) but it's got heart. It was awesome watching them play this at X-Fest 9.5 this past October, and Jen and I named this as "our song" for 2008.

5. Leave the Memories Alone (Fuel) - I first heard this watching WrestleMania 24 on pay-per-view. If ever anyone needed proof that pro wrestling matches are pre-determined and choreographed, look no further than the Ric Flair "Career Threatening" match vs. Shawn Michaels. Don't get me wrong, it was probably the best match of the night, but when Michaels mouthed "I'm sorry, I love you" before knocking his mentor out and walked out of the ring, and they cued this song as Flair got to his feet and realized what happened, it was probably the best example I've seen of dramatic effect in anything the WWE's done - and they dragged it out the next night on RAW. They should have won an award for it.

7. Piece of Me (Britney Spears) - Yeah, I put a Britney Spears song on the album. What can I say? It's good. It's not something I would have chosen to listen to, but I heard it, and it's good, so it goes on the books.

9. See You Again (Miley Cyrus) - See above, except I had no idea who this was. I thought radio was fairly safe from the Disney music that's been coming out lately, and name aside, I didn't know anything about Hannah Montana. So I heard this song on the radio and tried to remember as much of it as I could... and just about kicked myself in the ass when I Googled it. Listened to it again... hell, it's good, so I left it up there. Then Jen admitted she wouldn't mind playing it on Rock Band (on drums), heh heh.

13. Butterfly (Crazy Town) - This one's a little older. Late 90s I think, without looking it up. Rap, techno, rave, pop, I don't know what it is, but it sounds good.

15. Live Your Life (T.I. featuring Rihanna) - This song isn't great, but the vocalizing in the beginning by Rihanna is pretty epic. I'd like to believe she can sing like that without the help of a synthesizer, but I can't. Still, it sounds good. The song overall could be better, but it's good to cruise to.

17. Bad Girlfriend (Theory of a Deadman) - Just the latest in the fun/obscene rock songs that seem to try to one-up each other. "Cold Hard Bitch" by Jet, "Crazy Bitch" and "Too Drunk" by Buckcherry, and now Theory of a Deadman have one. They're all good fun to listen to. It was a toss-up between this and "Too Drunk", and I chose *this* one because it was *cleaner*, other than opening with "My girlfriend's a dick magnet" of course. "Too Drunk" is going on the next one, to be sure, but for now, this one's great.

18. Gotta Be Somebody (Nickelback) (not on the Playlist) - Nickelback's new single. The beat is as moving as anything they've done. It's like that other song they do, both of them make me think someone's honking at me when I play it in the car. The other one actually had car horns in the background, but the back-and-forth swinging sound effect through most of the song has a similar song. While this song will make it on their Greatest Hits album, it's among the best of the new "Dark Horse" album, and it's not as good as the better half of their last album "All the Right Reasons" and that's not a good sign. Still, on its own, it's a good song.

19. Letter to Me (Brad Paisley) - The one bona fide country song on the list (unless you count the Kid Rock song) that's a good story with a bit of the humor which dominated the last two Paisley songs I used. I haven't heard the song "Mud on the Tires" but I can't wait to play it on Rock Band next week.

20. All Summer Long (Kid Rock) - One of the most ambitious of the cover/remake songs they've been doing lately where they only use the beat. It starts with Warren Zevon's "Werewolves in London", but partway through, switches to Lynyrd Skynyrd's "Sweet Home Alabama", and the transition is pretty sweet. It's rock, it's country, and it's got that hint of hip-hop Kid Rock usually brings.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Hot, or should I say, cool? Move Xbox 360 to PC case

This is literally the coolest thing I've seen in a while. Though I've never had a problem with it, the Xbox 360 is well known for overheating, which can lead to permanent damage of the motherboard and/or other internal components, which leads to what's known as an RROD, or "Red Rings of Death", in which the four quad-circles around the power button, used to indicate how many players are connected, all turn red. "Rings" in the plural because it's supposedly quite common. We've had our 360 for almost a year now and no red ring yet *knocks on wood* but we keep it in a fairly cool area.

For those in hotter climates or who are really worried about the Xbox 360 overheating, and you don't have a warranty or you don't care about the one you've got, premium Taiwanese computer case maker Lian Li has a solution: Change the chassis, or external body. To do so requires a moderate to high level of experience in working with electronic devices including circuit boards and a fair knowledge of how static electricity works (to avoid it from destroying your motherboard), but if you don't have the knowledge, you might know somebody who does. (I'll do it, but I won't guarantee it'll work, but only because I can't afford to replace a 360.)

In short, you take apart your Xbox 360. The hard drive is in a special separate casing, but other than that, an Xbox 360, like a standard Xbox, is nothing more than a PC in a special case set up to not run Windows (or Linux) or any PC software, and only run special Xbox software. The hardware is mostly standard stuff, and once you've got it all out on the table, it's mostly indistinguishable from the guts of any PC. And moving it to another case shouldn't hurt it in the least, if you do it right. It doesn't "know" it's been gutted and moved.

The only problem I can see, is that the case is ugly as sin. But from what I understand, you don't buy a Lian Li case because it's pretty (none of them are, that I know of). You buy one for the high build quality and airflow/heat management, which goes back to why they made a specific Xbox 360 case in the first place. In addition to better air/heat management than the standard 360 case, this case also contains the plugins for water cooling, so you can basically have a 360 with a radiator. We don't call it a radiator in the geek world, since a computer isn't a car, but both devices serve the same function. You've got an external reservoir outside the computer which pumps the water through. The water goes through tubes, which connect to copper plates which can be attached to the tops of the CPU and graphics processor and other hot areas. The flowing water over the other side of the copper plate quickly moves the heat away from the chip, allowing it to perform more stressful tasks without risk of overheating.

Again I should note that Microsoft does not approve of taking apart the Xbox 360 for any reason and doing so will void your warranty, if you have one. Lian Li warrants their case to be free of manufacturing defects, but this warranty doesn't in any way extend to the Xbox 360 hardware you put in it.

There's also no way that this is illegal. Usually when you hear about modding a game console, it entails enabling the owner to play copied or downloaded games. The only way to do that on an Xbox 360 is to change the firmware on the DVD-ROM drive, but that only allows you to play burned games. This process doesn't involve that at all, but it does make it easier as you have quicker and easier access to the internals of the Xbox 360, if ever you decide to take that route. Also, if ever they come up with a way to modify the 360 involving sautering the motherboard, this will make it much easier, as, again, access is quicker, and the power supply and DVD-ROM drive are kept away from the motherboard. But simply moving it from case to case in no way constitutes an illegal act.

Lastly, this doesn't give you the ability to change components out. Surely you can try, but I've never heard of a 360 being upgraded. It's an all-or-nothing deal - you can't add more RAM or slap a quad-core processor on it. Also, the hard drives are modified in such a way that you can't just replace it with another 2.5" SATA laptop hard drive. If you want a bigger one (e.g. you have a 20GB HDD and you want the 120 or bigger) you must buy the one for the Xbox 360, take it apart, and put it in. Not 100% sure, but I'd bet money you couldn't use any old hard drive. I've never heard of anyone with a 250 or 300GB hard drive, which I think is how big those little drives get nowadays (though for all I know they may have hit 500GB by now). It also doesn't mean you can add a 1.5TB internal drive and get to use that. It's still bound by the software-imposed restrictions it came with.

There's one thing about this whole process that rubs me the wrong way. I'm led to believe that Lian Li dropped the ball on this in a big way, but I'd like to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that whoever wrote up the guide forgot about the DVD-ROM drive face. See, when you buy a PC DVD-ROM drive or burner, it usually comes with a black bevel, or "face", and this matches most custom or store-bought cases. Some include a white or light grey face you can swap out very simply, and this of course changes the color of the drive. The Xbox 360 DVD-ROM drive has no bevel, but rather a custom protruding tray cover and oversized eject button. For this case mod to be fully successful, they'd better include a proper black bevel.

Otherwise it's going to be ugly as sin, with an open gap around the DVD-ROM drive. They do specifically tell you to take the custom tray cover and eject button off, so there must be a bevel included. If not you could probably get one on eBay, but this would require knowing exactly what drive you have (found on the sticker on the top). The other gripe I have is they don't tell you how to hook up the power switch. Will you be able to see a RROD for what it is with this case?

If they have both of those issues taken care of, this is cool as hell. If they've forgotten both of those points (as opposed to just forgetting to mention/go into detail) they've failed in a huge way. But somehow I think not.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

News Roundup 8-9 December 2008

I suppose you could say it's a slow news day on the blog, but I found a couple things worth writing about while browsing Google News.

Walmart to sell iPhones for $99

Apparently, Apple discontinued the 4GB iPhone, but Walmart is bringing it back for the low price of $99. The two you can get at the Apple Store and AT&T for $199 and $299 hold 8GB and 16GB respectively. Because it's not just a phone, of course. It plays music and video like an iPod, and there are a bunch of programs, even a few games for it.

What an iPhone doesn't come with, however, is good service. Apple and AT&T have a two-year exclusive deal, which means you can't use it on any other network. This is fine if you never leave the greater metropolitan area of your city, but if you travel, or you live in the country, you're going to be seeing a lot of that lovely "No Service" notice, and then what you have is an iPod with occasional phone service.

I am quite curious about the iPhone. I love gadgets, and I'm what you might call a closet Apple fan. I've never actually owned a Mac, and it might be a while before I do (my primary machine will always be a personally-built Windows (or Linux) box), but I like what Steve Jobs and co. are trying to do (and actually doing). Some things I don't like, but I'm interested in some way in almost all of their products, including the iPhone.

I have a Motorola ROKR z6m (the slider) and I'm pretty happy with it. I can make my own ringtones and wallpapers. All in all it's a good phone. The video sucks on it, no two ways about that, but what makes it an exceptional phone (if a somewhat lackluster PMP) is the service. US Cellular, not nationally known, but I've always had bars on my phone, even in eastern Tennessee, even in Connecticut, even in California, where they don't do business. Hell, I was riding with my mother to see family, we were in the hills a good way out of town, and my mother (who has Verizon) couldn't get signal. So I let her use my phone, which did have signal (albeit roaming, which is free on our national plan) and we have free long distance.

Cell phones were originally meant for emergency use. A phone you can take with you so if you're stranded or whatever, you can call for help. It's nice that you can play music on them, take pictures, share video, design your own wallpaper, etc., but if you can't get service when you're outside the city limits, what's the point? Verizon's ads claim they have the best network, but it isn't true. I had Verizon in CA and it was OK, but there were dead zones even in the city. These cell phone companies need to worry less about multimedia and focus more on the network. They should be able to cover the entire country coast to coast before they think about music and video and stuff like that.

Mario makes way for Shakespeare on the Nintendo DS

It used to be so cool to mod a Nintendo DS. In addition to the possibility of getting all your DS games for free (for shame!), you could play music, watch videos, read eBooks, and run homemade software not approved by Nintendo. Last month or the month before, Nintendo announced the DSi, which will be able to play music - but only music converted to a proprietary format. God forbid they pay for a license to use the Mp3 format (or include the license fee in the cost like every other Mp3 player) or use an open-source format like Ogg Vorbis. And now they're making an official eBook reader, but of course it's only books of their choosing.

Yeah, I think I'll stick with my modded DS, since, you know, I already have it modded. But for anyone who doesn't want to buy a possibly illicit microSD (the memory card type your cell phone probably takes) to Nitro (aka Nintendo DS game cartridge) adapter (R4, Cyclo, Edge, EZFlash, etc.) and is interested in turning their DS into an eBook reader, this might be just the thing. If, that is, you feel that the number of books you want to read justifies the price of the device. Nintendo DS games retail for $34.99 brand new, nearly the price of two hardcovers or five paperbacks.

Oh, and I try not to "LOL" much in an official capacity such as when commenting on news articles, but I had to LOL when I read this one. Nintendo known for making classic games such as Donkey Kong and Mario the Plumber? Besides the fact that Nintendo has never made a game called "Mario the Plumber" (he is a plumber, though, or at least he was before he got caught up in the "plot" of the games), Donkey Kong is the second game that came to that author's mind? No love for Legend of Zelda, or even Metroid? Oh well.

"Mario the Plumber." Wow.

Circuit City: 20GB Xbox 360 hard drive and wireless controller for $40

Haven't verified this myself, but a couple of news sites are saying that Circuit City is offering a wireless 360 controller for $39.99, the MSRP... but a 20GB hard drive comes with it as well. This is an Xbox 360 hard drive, and it's refurbished, but should work. This means you can buy an Xbox 360 "Arcade" edition for $199.99 and this package, and wind up essentially with the "Pro" package for $240, what my wife and I paid $350 for this past February (2008) for her birthday. Plus a second controller, as the game system comes with one. We've had our 360 for almost a year (no RROD yet... *knocks on wood*) and we still only have one controller. Well, one gamepad - we have two guitar controllers and a drum controller. Gotta love Rock Band. But while Grand Theft Auto IV will prefer you play with a Guitar Hero X-Plorer guitar controller as opposed to a gamepad if the guitar is plugged in, the instrument controllers aren't very useful for regular games.

So yeah. Good deal for someone looking to get a current-generation console on the cheap. The Xbox 360 is already cheaper than last year's value-branded console, Nintendo's Wii (still $250), but what they don't tell you is it's for a crippled Xbox. Many games require a hard drive. Without a hard drive, for example, you can't get additional songs for Rock Band or Guitar Hero games. So now for about $240 you can get a 360 without much limitation. If you feel you need more space, instead, buy the Arcade edition 360 for $199.99 and buy Microsoft's LIVE starter pack. It comes with a 60GB hard drive, three months of LIVE (the console will come with one month), and an extra headset/mic. That's $99.99. But we have the 20GB hard drive and close to 60 Rock Band songs downloaded, and we're not hurting for space, and we even bought some Arcade games. You don't need anything bigger than the 20GB unless you're downloading movies, TV shows, or other video (especially HD) on your 360. If you have a Netflix subscription, for example, 20GB is too small.

Still, Microsoft's console has the best value right now, and it's the best current-generation console, unless you're looking for a Blu-Ray player with your games (PlayStation 3) or you actually want a console which makes you wave your arms around like a lunatic (Wii).

UK issues warning over fake Nintendo DS handhelds

Terrorists selling counterfeit Nintendo DS handhelds at less than half the cost? ($60 as opposed to $130 for the real thing, or in Pounds Sterling, £40 as opposed to £100, two different articles say - the linked article gives the counterfeit price in dollars, although it mistakenly gives the MSRP of the real thing as $150 instead of $129.99.) That's what the UK is saying. Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs is busting up a network of fake DS handhelds. It's not saying how well the fakes work - whether they play commercial DS games or not, for example - but it is saying the power supplies are a fire risk.

Weren't the Xbox 360 power supplies a fire risk as well, when they first came out? That's what I remember. On one hand, it's a pretty attractive deal. Get a handheld gaming device for less than half the cost? Is it really that much different from buying generic food, generic medicine, or generic household appliances? And after 8 years of the GOP running our economy into the ground, generics don't seem so bad.

On the other hand, this isn't a generic DS, it's a counterfeit. The difference being, well, the difference. Food and drugs are regulated, their ingredients made public; in the case of drugs, after seven years of proprietry. That's why you don't see generics for Viagra or anything relatively new; the company is still in their temporary monopoly on the formula. Once that time's up, you'll start seeing generics. Technology is different - since computer code isn't regulated and can be patented and copyrighted, it can't be copied - ever. Compaq actually famously counterfeited the IBM PC and so did a few others. If you're as old as I am or older, you probably remember software that wasn't made for Windows, but for "IBM PCs and 100% compatibles". Compaq was, but Packard Bell wasn't. You could run MS-DOS on it and a lot of popular stuff, but some stuff wouldn't work right, so it's no small wonder they aren't around anymore. The difference between then and now is PCs have moved on to more open standards which allow competition. And the difference between Compaq and DS counterfeiters is that Compaq (and others) sought to improve the PC, not just make it more affordable, and these counterfeiters probably don't care about gaming, they're probably just out to make a quick buck at Nintendo's expense.

I neither recommend buying nor avoiding counterfeit gaming handhelds if they're 100% compatible with the commercial software. I highly doubt it's the terrorists though - they'll use the "T word" on anything these days to scare people. Don't be fooled. Whether you buy one or not ultimately depends on you. It's the same as buying a burned CD or DVD. Having worked with a couple people who do sell them (no, I'm not naming names), I know that the money doesn't go to terrorism. It goes to light bills. To put food on the table. To... well, I suppose some goes to terrorism, if you count gasoline bought from the Middle East. Unless, like me, they get it from Shell or someone else who gets it from Venezuela or some other country we're not at war with. In the end it really depends on whether the more expensive "real thing" is cheap enough for you to justify paying a premium to support those who entertain you, or if the "real thing" is so much more expensive that the difference would be better served feeding your family or keeping the lights on.

Girls and women good for more than cooking... gardening too!

Have you seen the GameStop commercial advertising GameStop gift cards, showing the game where the character plants seeds, waters them, and watches them grow? The simulated game is meant to show that your parents and relatives don't know a good game when they see one and should just get you a gift card, so you can get the game you want.

Well, the gardening game is actually being made, of course for the Nintendo DS, as its touch screen would be beneficial for simulating the hand movements needed to plant seeds, water the seedlings, and weed the garden.

This is a sequel or a spinoff to the DS series "Cooking Mama" in which, as a woman (or under a woman's guidance) you prepare meals.

The Cooking Mama games are generally well reviewed on the DS, so this might turn out better than it looks, at least with those inclined to play such games.

Wikipedia censored in UK over possible illicit pornography?

Some British Internet watchdog agency called the IWF which runs a blacklist most UK ISPs include just added Wikipedia and pissed a bunch of British people off. Why? Because someone added a cover of a Scorpions album from the 1970s which apparently shows a nude child, some soccer mom (or whatever they have over there - they call soccer "football" over there, so would you say football mom?) complained, and now there's this big uproar, because other parts of the site are blocked as well.

It's not like the Scorpions are the only band that have done this. Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy, Nirvana's Nevermind, and Soul Asylum's Grave Dancers Union all spring to mind. I've recently seen this image, thankfully at low resolution. On the offensive scale, it's actually less offensive than the others. It's a girl on her knees in a provocative pose, and it would be more offensive than the others, but the naughty bits are completely obscured by an "X". You do see her bare chest, but there's nothing offensive about a girl's bare chest if there's nothing offensive about a boy's bare chest, until she has breasts, which this girl doesn't. The kid could be a boy with long hair, for all you can tell. It's actually no different than Van Halen's "Balance" album come to think about it, which shows a nude child sitting backwards on a playground toy, the seat back covering the private parts, and both chests are bare - from the waist up, it's actually two kids, and you can't tell if they're boys or girls or one of each. They look like girls, but only because they have long hair. I've heard that they're supposed to represent Eddie and Alex Van Halen (who both had long hair at the time the album came out, not sure about when they were kids) as well.

I don't disagree that these covers are pornographic. To be pornographic, they have to depict sex. None of these covers do that - not even close. That doesn't mean I like them - not at all, in fact I almost didn't buy the Soul Asylum tape that features "Runaway Train" (still my favorite song of the 90s) because of the cover, which features not one but two naked girls under the age of 10 (albeit pictured only from the back). I bought it anyway, and slipped a piece of paper between the cover and the plastic to hide it, and just enjoyed the music.

Anyway, all of this only leads to lengthly, passionate debate. I don't believe Wikipedia should be censored by ISPs or decency groups. I do think Wikipedia should have higher standards - and I'm a big fan of Wikipedia (just see most of my blog entries, where I link to their articles). Would it really have been too much to ask for them to use a non-offensive cover? Many album covers which are offensive include a simpler and non-offensive slipcover so stores can carry it. Use that. Follow the logic that if people want to see the offensive cover, they'll buy the album. The slipcover is a marketing ploy as well as a point of decency. As it relates to the encyclopedic description of the album, show the album as it appears in shops so people can find it. Leave it to fan sites to show the internal cover. It's not like Wikipedia is showing the back of the album, or the pages within the booklet (if there is one).

AOL: Atheists wage war on Christmas

I thought my contempt for AOL could go no further from when they blasted my brother's (then age 17) email inbox with gay porn, and when he cussed them out in a reply (this was before all spam was sent from email addresses that couldn't be replied to) they threatened to cut off our service for "harassing their trusted business partners". Now apparently AOL hates Barack Obama because a completely unrelated group in Washington State put up a sign in a public place that said God is a lie. And of course the religious right is going nuts over it.

If both of these groups (evangelical Christians and evangelical Atheists) could be represented by one person each, I'd love to smack the shit out of both of them. Obviously both of them are having a crisis of faith (or need of faith) if they're out recruiting. Seems to me they ought to trade hats and call it a day, eh?

Bush tries to define his role in history

Don't worry, I'll be nice.

Wait, what? No I won't. Gas price tripled, unemployment hit record highs, and thousands died in the Middle East (on both sides) over a war started on false information. Not to mention his alleged (and never disproven) involvement in the 9/11 attacks, even if it was just the Bushes' history with Bin Laden dating back to Afghanistan in the 80s and Dubya looking the other way down in Florida, obviously unaware that a handful of good Americans would take down the plane meant to destroy the White House.

These News Roundups are fun. I'll have to keep doing them. Read the news (which I do anyway), find a story that isn't censored by the work computers, and write up the thoughts I think anyway as I read it over in Notepad to be posted later on the blog.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Babylon 5, Day Two

Two more episodes so far. A good but run-of-the-mill political episode about a war criminal, and a medical episode, Season 1's tenth (not counting the pilot) I'm going to spoil the hell out of, because it stunk so bad. Long story short, a couple bring their son to the station's doctor, he's got some simple respiratory infection which can only be cured by a simple operation, but the parents' religious beliefs forbid puncturing the skin, as they believe this lets the soul escape. The doctor swears to save the boy's life, so the parents go first to Commander Sinclair (who's already received a formal request from the doc to override their parental authority) and then the four ambassadors. None of the four are willing to help, and Sinclair actually rules in their favor, on the basis of respecting their religion, even if their religion advocates killing children, because the neutrality of the station must be maintained. Naturally the doctor goes rogue and does it anyway, so the parents kill the boy. And the episode ended before they were arrested for murder, or at least told that their race was no longer welcome on the station. On DS9, Sisko might have respected their beliefs, and Dr. Bashir probably would have saved the kid's life anyway, but that's where the similarities end. Following the murder, Odo would force them to stand trial, and barring that, Sisko would have permanently 86'd them (and maybe even their people) from the station.

This is a little off-color immediately following an episode where everyone wanted to kill a war criminal.

Looks like only three episodes tonight. I can usually get six or seven in over an eight-hour shift (my job rocks, eh?) but I had other stuff to do. Luckily, the 11th episode in the first season was really good. I don't know what the Trekkies on GameFAQs were telling me about B5 not being very good in the first season, being surprisingly bad to the point of it being a surprise the show wasn't cancelled. Anyway, this episode followed a "The Fugitive" angle, with a main character implicated in sabotage, and of course we know he's innocent, but he's got to go on the run while he seeks to prove his innocence. And there's history between this character and both the person setting him up, as well as the security chief who's going after him. Good story, good ending, better than the previous episode.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

News roundup

I'm not sure I've ever done a news roundup blog. I read the news on Google News almost every day, and I say various things to myself as I read, but I'm not sure I've ever published those thoughts. So here goes:

Ex-AOL boss looking to raise cash for Yahoo! bid

Long story short, former AOL executive Jonathan Miller is trying to raise $30 billion from investors to buy Yahoo. Yahoo is only valued at $15.7 billion, and Yahoo rejected a $47.5 billion offer from Microsoft.

Wait, what? If you add Yahoo's projected worth to what Miller wants to raise, it falls short of Microsoft's offer, which was rejected. Better yet, Google's been owning Yahoo in every sense but literally and legally for years now. Their search engine was never anything special, and they've been playing catch-up on the email front ever since Google unveiled Gmail a few years back. (My wife is a Yahoo! Mail loyalist, and it's not a bad product, but it's no Gmail. Before I used Gmail, I used MS Outlook Express to access email at my ISP. I didn't like any webmail programs until Gmail came out and converted me to webmail.) The only things Yahoo has going for it, if you ask me, are its hierarchial organization of the web, and its Games subsection. I don't use Yahoo Games, but from what I've seen, it's good for what it is (something I'm not into). So basically, I don't use or even care for Yahoo at all, though I do have Yahoo News bookmarked and occasionally glance at it. Next!

Apple removes anti-virus support page

Apple's KnowledgeBase, on the topic of antivirus, previously suggested that you use multiple antivirus solutions to keep your Mac safe. Now they say you don't need antivirus at all because a Mac is perfectly safe out of the box.

They've got a point. I think there were a couple odd viruses (*ahem* "Virii" is the proper term, but since nobody knows what it means, geeks often compromise and just say "viruses") when a Mac was a Mac, but now that a Mac is a Linux box running on Intel, I hear there really aren't any. Viruses just aren't made for Unix or Linux because the systems are so well designed. Without getting into the technical side, it's almost impossible for a virus to be effective under Linux, and by extension, Mac OS X. Additionally, since such a vast majority of people use Windows, and Windows isn't nearly as secure, the people who are making the viruses make them to exploit the many more weaknesses of a Windows system. That, or they attack web browsers through maliciously coded web pages, which can affect any platform, and rather than crash your computer, they steal information.

On the other hand, telling people to lower their guard because their computers are safe now not only instigates troublemakers to make trouble for Mac users, and ultimately teaches computer newbies (whom Apple has always marketed to) bad habits which can carry over when (if) they ever move on to a real computer. Nothing against Apple, they make fine machines, but there's a few good reasons why most people use Windows computers. Moving on...

Scientists report mental "Body Swapping"

Hey, look, we can put cameras on a mannequin and little screens over someone's eyes and make them think they're a mannequin! Then we can touch their stomach and the mannequin's stomach at the same time and add to the illusion.

Lame. What I want to know - what I've always wondered - what makes us who we are? Christians say it's the soul, and science really doesn't have an answer, though they strongly imply it's the brain, or a certain part of the brain. Imagine, if you will, two brothers. One is condemned to die for murder, and the other is terminally ill. Swap their brains, and you can save the terminally ill man, he's just got to live the rest of his life in his brother's body. The condemned man gets the terminally ill man, who is put to death by lethal injection to satisfy the State's need for vengeance. But something like that hasn't been done and is probably years away.

Sounds cool though, doesn't it? You're about to die, would you trade your body for a chance at a renewed life? What if you were an old man, and your son was about to die, and he changed bodies with a condemned man. His memories and mannerisms are in this man you've never seen before, how would that be? Or going back to the earlier example of two brothers, what if it were a brother and sister? How would a male mind work in a female body? Would the person become lesbian, or what? And in a society with incest as the highest taboo, how is any guy going to approach sexuality, in his sister's body? Of course, that would be personal choice, the bigger question is how the brain would react to going from one body with one set of physical characteristics to another body with another set, whether you go from an overweight and/or bed-ridden body to a thin and healthy one (say the brain wants to eat pizza but the body is used to salad and soy) or from having male parts to having breasts and female parts? I believe the brain itself is genderless and has "support" for male and female organs (that is, going from one to the other, the brain wouldn't have to be trained to accept stimulus from the other organs) but I'm sure there'd be a period of adjustment. All guys joke about being female for a day (as long as it wasn't during a certain time of the month) and experiencing some of the advantages women/girls enjoy, but I'm sure very few would actually swap brains with one. Or would ya?

Another social issue is that of past relationships. Say you swap bodies with your brother, to use the example, and he's married. Do you inherit his wife as well as his body? If there was a secret desire there all along, you can probably work it out, but what if you despised one another? Would your/his leaving count as a divorce? For this problem I look to the Trills, a Star Trek race which have that problem. A small percentage of them are chosen to receive symbionts, these slug-like creatures which enter the body through the stomach and merge with the host's mind. The host lives about as long as a human, but the symbionts are nearly immortal, many living for nearly a thousand years. Their rule is pretty simple. Posessions, rank (military), and associations are tied only to the host, the symbiont has and owns nothing, so when they go to a new host, they get a whole new life. This may not apply to everything in real life, but some rules would need to be enforced, and fiction's as good a place to start as any, as long as it's logical. But anyway...

Roman Polanski requests dismissal of child molestation charges

In 1978, film director Roman Polanski (Rosemary's Baby, Chinatown, et al) was convicted of unlawful sex with a 13-year-old girl, but ran to France before sentencing, so he can't be sent back. The victim is now 43 and maintains she never had a problem with it, doesn't hold it against him, and swears he's not a threat to society. The courts say he was convicted and ran, and that's that.

How can this girl... I mean woman... say that he's not a threat to society? He's a pedophile or close enough to it. (If the girl was developed, at all, pedophile isn't the right word, there's another word that's more appropriate, and the difference is being attracted to undeveloped kids and being attracted to developed but minor teenagers for the thrill of doing something illegal.) But regardless of what he is, he's attracted to little underage girls, and I somehow doubt he's gotten any kind of professional help for it over in France. For all we know he's probably molested kids and young teens over there. America doesn't need more sexual predators. France has helped him escape justice for 30 years, France can keep him. He may have made good movies (I don't know, not sure I've seen any) but he can make good movies in France and the studio can distribute them here. Additionally, he's shown disregard and contempt for our legal system all these years. He doesn't agree with our laws protecting children from sexual deviants, he should go to Pakistan or Thailand, where, as I understand it, the "inconvenience" of such laws is notoriously absent. I hear most kidnapped children (who aren't found) wind up in one or the other, that child prostitution is legal and common in those countries, and that's where most of the illegal porn comes from. Seems like that's where Roman Polanski needs to go, not here in the US where we (try to) protect our young.

Generic drugs as good as brand-name counterparts

No shit, Sherlock. Skipping the summary as the headline says it all. However to quote the silly article directly, "The developers of drugs are permitted to exclusively market the drug for a finite period of time after its approval, at least partly to recoup the costs of developing the medication. After that time, however, other manufacturers may produce the same drug as a generic." Aspirin is aspirin. Advil is just the trade name for Ibuprofen. Many people believe that the brand name drug is better, and this is simply not the case.

The only possible difference is the dosage. I rarely see this, but if Advil has 200mg Ibuprofen (which it does) there's nothing stopping a generic from saving money and marketing 125mg Ibuprofen. But if you look on the active ingredients, you'd see one is less than the other.

Part of the perception from this comes from generic food. Generic soda is real hit-and-miss. On the west coast, Safeway soda is very good, while Albertsons' soda is nasty. Down in the South, Food Lion soda is decent (though not great) and Harris-Teeter soda is pretty bad (though, not as bad as Albertsons' out west). If you like Sprite, for instance, you might be satisfied with Safeway Select Lemon-Lime, maybe Food Lion lemon-lime, but most likely not the other two.

And there is no such thing as generic Macaroni & Cheese that comes anywhere near close to the quality of Kraft. I've tried most of them. The noodles are lower quality and the cheese is much lower. The reason for that is real simple. Kraft is a big producer of cheese anyway. So they can make decent dehydrated cheese formula at next to nothing, and this is why you can get Kraft Macaroni & Cheese (The Cheesiest, the basic variety) for only pennies more than generic (50¢ a box at Walmart). Note that Annie's is not a generic and is in fact premium (upwards of $3.00 a box) and in my opinion still inferior to Kraft's offering, but that's just my opinion.

Hockey team Stars' Avery suspended for off-color remark

So this Canadian hockey player, eh, he's suspended indefinitely for making a remark that was so brutal about his former girlfriends that the NY Times wouldn't post it, eh. Did he call them "nappy-headed ho's"? Not sure about the NY Times, but other news agencies and radio stations have no problems repeating that off-color remark, eh.

(OK, enough pretending I'm Canadian, eh... OK, no, really, I mean it this time.)

So I found a news agency with enough cojones to publish the remark. I mean, the dude's been suspended for it. At least repeat what he said. If it's not a big deal, he shouldn't have been suspended. You can't have it two ways.

And here's what he said: "I am really happy to be back in Calgary, I love Canada. I just want to comment on how it's become like a common thing in the NHL for guys to fall in love with my sloppy seconds. I don't know what that's about. Enjoy the game tonight." Sloppy seconds? That's it? It wasn't even racist or sexist (the term can go either way).

What does he mean? From the NY Times article, "Avery’s former girlfriend, the actress Elisha Cuthbert, is dating Calgary defenseman Dion Phaneuf and had been linked to Mike Komisarek of Montreal. Avery also dated the model and actress Rachel Hunter, the fiancĂ©e of Los Angeles center Jarrett Stoll." So two of his exes went on to date other hockey players, and he's implying that the other hockey players want what he's got, as opposed to the more logical conclusion that he dates girls who are just into hockey.

Whatever. You put a mic in someone's face enough, he's bound to say something stupid at some point. Get over it, people. The comment wasn't racist, it wasn't sexist, it wasn't even very offensive, and it was characteristic of a young, single guy to say. Get the hell over it.

Wal-Mart Black Friday Death May Not Justify Crowd Control Law

Basically, Walmart is sort of opposed to a new crowd control law New York is considering, following the trampling death of a temporary employee at a Walmart on Black Friday.

First of all, Walmart needs to be held liable. This year they had 46-52" HDTVs for something like $700 and they only had a couple per store. Come on. What do you think is going to happen? Yeah, Walmart knew what they were doing. They aren't kidding anybody.

I don't know about crowd control laws, but they need to pass a law about Black Friday. Simply stated, sales must be at least 24 hours long, and they must give out rain checks for customers who arrive after the products have sold out. This way, nobody's going to rush to get in at 5AM. Just arrive any time to get your TV, and if they're out, they either have to give you another brand of the same size at the same price or give you a rain check. If a rain check holder can't get his or her TV in the next 30 days, the store then must substitute another brand of equal or greater value at the sale price.

Yes, conservatives, I know that this will result in less dramatic sales as the sales will have to be guaranteed. But it'll guarantee to reduce or even eliminate Black Friday stupidity which runs wild across the country, which this year resulted in a fatality. Seems pretty simple to me.

And on that note, we cue the music...

Monday, December 1, 2008

Babylon 5 Review 1 of...

I started watching Babylon 5 last night, and I remember when this show came out, I couldn't help but think it was a ripoff of Star Trek: Deep Space Nine. And I'm not yet convinced it isn't, but over the years, a time or two, I heard something about it that got me real curious. That its creator sat down and wrote the whole thing, or at least an outline, in advance. This being as opposed to just about every other show which starts out with an idea and just goes from there. All of the Star Trek series have been done this way, and when cast members quit or die (not sure the latter has happened, just sayin') they handle it badly. As I understand it, Babylon 5's characters were set up so that any one of them could be written off the show in a hurry if need be, and it wouldn't affect the overall plot. Much more recently, I read up on the series on Wikipedia, and learned that the series was made shortly after the HDTV specs were announced, and was one of the few shows to actually film in HD - way the hell back in 1992. So maybe some people laughed when it came on in widescreen, but now that it looks great on the new widescreen TVs and the best of Star Trek is square, well, who's laughing now? The pilot was square, but the episodes are all wide. Even on a square computer monitor, it looks good.

I really had no expectations going in last night. Way back in 2003 a good friend of mine told me everything that happened on the show. I mean he gave the entire series away, and it sounded awesome. Now I have no idea what he said. I think I remember something about telepaths and an alternate universe or something. And a war. And while there are telepaths on the show from the start, I haven't seen anything related to the others yet, though I could be way off-base with my memories of what I was told.

As I began to watch it, I couldn't help but compare it to Deep Space Nine. In a two-story part of Babylon 5, I noticed that the railings on the second story were very similar to those used on DS9's promenade (social area). They're probably not, but that's what they reminded me of. Early in the pilot, a human-looking female is referred to as an "Ardassian" - one of the primary antagonistic races on DS9 (actually dating back to Star Trek: TNG before it) were the "Cardassians" - same name but with a "C" in front. And one race had a leader named "Dukhat", pronounced exactly the same as the Cardassian Gul (a Gul is somewhere between a Captain and an Admiral) Dukat. So those were obviously a couple of blatant ripoffs. Also, the political intrigue in Babylon 5 looks inspired by DS9, which did so in a way not done in prior Star Trek series. And then there's the fact that both series take place on a space station which is populated by various aliens.

The similarities end there, and I find myself enjoying the differences more than dwelling on the similarities. While DS9 (the station) is a good distance from Earth, Commander (later Captain) Ben Sisko might occasionally go rogue, but mostly he's on as short a leash as any Starfleet captain. I'm not really seeing that level of tight control from Earth in B5. And between Ben Sisko and his security chief Odo (later with the assistance of Worf), they really had tight control of the station. Babylon 5 is more chaotic, with command having much less control. Also, four episodes in (plus the double-episode pilot, so six) I've noticed that the "technobabble" which every Star Trek series uses, is nowhere to be seen. Either stuff just works, or it breaks and they fix it. They don't really talk about their technology, it's just something they naturally have and don't feel the need to explain it, like Star Trek characters do. As far as technology goes, vs. Star Trek, B5 doesn't have teleporters, they don't have food replicators, and they don't have holographic simulation rooms. Their weapons aren't exactly laser guns, they fire some kind of pulse. It's energy, but they don't fire as fast, and they aren't as deadly. Characters survive weapons fire regularly, though they do incapacitate. And the weapons are bigger. Their sidearms are about 125% larger than Star Trek phasers, and their rifles are huge. Though they seem to travel faster as they have an array which seems to make wormholes to anywhere, and other races can send ships through it as well.

Chronologically, B5 takes place at about the same time as the Star Trek prequel series, Enterprise, so the B5 universe is behind the Trek universe in terms of technological development. Regarding the races, where Trek has the iconic Klingons, Vulcans, and Borg, the B5 races seem less than stellar. At this point I only remember two of the five major non-human races: Centauri and Vorlon. I have to look the other two up on Wikipedia... Minbari and Narn. The Centauri are overweight humans with funny eyebrows - I'm almost reminded of Danny DeVito as Penguin in Batman Returns. And they all have the same funky hairdo that starts at the back of their neck, comes up the back of their head, and flares out like a peacock's feathers. The Vorlon don't show themselves, never coming out of their environmental suits (as of yet). The Narn are bald with spots and discret facial ridges, while the Minbari are also bald but wear funky headdresses. There are other races, but they're considered less important somehow. Still not sure how all that works.

So far, the episodes (and pilot) have been of average to good quality with an easy watchability. The pacing is good, the episodes don't get boring, and though none have been particularly memorable, neither have they been terrible. As far as topics, they mostly have established relations between the five major races. The Centauri were the first race to contact the Humans, and overstated their power in the galaxy, even suggesting Humans were a lesser relative of theirs (until the Humans got their hands on some of their DNA and disproved it). The Narns used to be enslaved by the Minbari (or was it Centauri?) and the Minbari invaded Earth, and on the eve of their victory, changed their minds and surrendered. This last situation presents the first storyline arc, in which Commander Sinclair fought in that battle, and "lost" 24 hours of memory, from trying to ram the lead Minbari ship, to landing on Earth and being hailed as a hero; trying to figure out what happened in that time.

I'm somewhere between a third and halfway through the first season, and sci-fi fans (mostly Trekkies) tell me the series starts off weak and gets better in the second season. Well, I'm already impressed. The characters aren't as deep, and as I said the races not quite as iconic, as on a Star Trek program, but B5 is more approachable. These people, unlike Starfleet officers, get paid, and they're more flawed, more normal, wear normal clothes, etc. At this point I'm nowhere near saying it's as good as Deep Space Nine, but I predict it's going to surpass Enterprise (not like that's hard). Now I wonder if it'll be as good as Voyager, or perhaps better. But I'm sure that's as far as it'll go - I can't imagine finding myself preferring Babylon 5 to Star Trek: The Next Generation, which itself is only just under DS9 as far as quality goes. And I certainly don't expect to see an episode of the caliber of DS9's "In the Pale Moonlight" (by far the best Trek has put out, and, according to Wikipedia, the highest ranked episode of any Trek series on, with an average rating of 4.8/5), but I do expect to enjoy the ride.

Four more episodes later, ending with "And the Sky Full of Stars" (Season 1, Episode 8) "business has just picked up", as good ol' JR would put it. Dark Reality, signing off for now, and promising to report back, free of major spoilers, future thoughts on this ambitious series.

Monday, November 24, 2008

Nickelback vs. Guitar Hero (and Rock Band)

I've heard bits and pieces of this story over the weekend, but when I tried to look it up at work, I kept getting the "naughty site" warning from the company net nanny, which I expect from MTV and gaming site/blog Kotaku, which I wouldn't try anyway (though one day I might, you never know what those net censorship tools block and what they don't), but it seemed like every site which was hosting the story about Nickelback blasting Guitar Hero, no matter how obscure, was blocked. Except one blog which had a partial quote. When I get home, I'll try to find the actual site that first posted the story (done!). (I guess it wasn't newsworthy enough for someone like Associated Press, Reuters, New York Times, etc., "safe" news sites that are not blocked.)

Censorship cynicism aside (hey, I'm happy they let me on the Net at all), apparently, Chad Kroeger of Nickelback has gone on record, perhaps after numerous requests from the band's fans to license their songs for one music game or other, and has said something to the effect of, that there aren't as many good, solid rock bands coming out this year or last year, as, say, a few years ago, or maybe the last decade. And he's placing the blame solely at the feet of the Guitar Hero games, and by extension the more innovative Rock Band, which adds the ability to sing and play drums, as well as bass guitar (Guitar Hero was only lead guitar and rhythm guitar, although the new Guitar Hero World Tour adds drums and vocals and drops rhythm guitar as well). He's effectively saying people need to stop playing musician-simulating games and learn to play real instruments.

Following this announcement, I'm seeing a lot of the "cool" kids saying that Nickelback is neither good nor solid to start with and have no room to talk. By "cool" with quotes, I mean a bunch of hypocritical (and most likely virginal) losers who follow the Billboard Top 100 (or however many) charts and popular music news and tabloids with the passion of any Hannah Montana fan, but for the purpose of going online and pretending to hate whatever ranks high on the charts, yet they can't stop talking about it. Something that isn't popular or doesn't chart, they pretend to love (more accurately, they take up for), but as soon as that band or movie or whatever becomes popular, they flip on it. The same people who thought Nickelback were great until they hit it big, and now "hate" them. They seem to believe that anyone who has attained a certain degree of popularity is completely devoid of talent, as if anybody could do what the most popular artists or filmmakers do, but these people were "chosen" as opposed to earning their way. (Some of this is valid... Hannah Montana might not be anyone if her dad wasn't the "Achy Breaky Heart guy" (Billy Ray Cyrus) and Eragon most likely would never have gotten published (the word "plagiarism" would have come up once or twice) had the kid's parents or aunt or uncle or whomever had not run a publishing company and had not been in bed with a movie studio... but these are the exceptions, not the rule.)

Yeah, I like Nickelback. They make songs that sound good to me. It could be rightly said that I don't ask for a lot in music. A song has to sound good, and it's got to move me a little. "Photograph" takes me back to my younger days (precisely the point of the song). "Animals"... interesting story there, it actually makes me think of WWE personalities Edge and Lita, back in 2006 when the former was perhaps at his best (that I've seen - only been watching since late '05). They were heels (villains) but they pulled it off well, it was very cool, the song came out around that time and it just seemed to me they should have used it as their entrance theme, but they never did. The connection stayed with me, and when I hear the song, I think of them... I guess you could say if you have a friend or friends in love and they adopt a song (or have a song often dedicated to them) you grow attached to it. By the same token, my wife and I adopted "Far Away" as our song. Not for the reasons given in the video, but we attributed a more literal meaning to it: that we lived far away from one another and kept having to leave to go home, and when I finally moved in with her, that was the end of the goodbyes. It might not make sense to someone else, but it makes perfect sense to both of us. And "Someday", even though it shares its basic rhythm with another Nickelback song, reminds me not of that other song, but the Twilight Zone-inspired video, where the guy thinks his girlfriend is breaking up with him, she's ignoring him, so he follows her around. There are clues as to what's really going on, but they're easy to miss if you get caught up in the drama. She gets in a car and drives away, and he's chasing her... Eventually the car's hit by a semi, she's killed instantly... and she emerges from the wreckage, finds the boyfriend, and they embrace. We then see a newspaper in a newsstand about how he was killed the day before. So she wasn't leaving him, she was trying to move on - and they're reunited in death. It's a good story (for being told in under 4 minutes) and the song reminds me of it every time. I don't give two shits about how popular they are or aren't, and I'll still love these songs long after the band is inevitably forgotten by most.

Kroeger does have a point, though, but he's severely misinformed about what these games do and how they do it. About ten years ago, Aerosmith sponsored a computer program that would teach you how to play guitar. It came with a cheap electric guitar that would hook up to a computer, and you'd play Aerosmith songs on it. It would show you how, and would rate your performance. An early Guitar Hero? Not exactly. With this, you were actually playing an actual guitar, with strings. With the Guitar Hero and Rock Band guitar controllers, there are only five buttons. Mastery of a real guitar and a guitar controller both require talent, but the talent is different. The talent required to play the game is more like the talent of typing (fast). It's repetitive, and it does require rhythm, but it's nowhere near the league of playing an actual instrument. The Aerosmith program didn't sell well at all. I would even go so far as to say that Guitar Hero: Aerosmith (the Aerosmith-themed Guitar Hero 3 spinoff) most likely outsold this previous game in its first week or two. If that. So Aerosmith learned their lesson this year. Making a program that teaches fans of a popular music group to play a real instrument is not going to be as popular as a video game which simulates playing music in a fun way based on the same band.

The big difference is talent and musical inclination. I can play video games moderately well. The new Castlevania game on the Nintendo DS wasn't out three weeks when I beat it. I'm not bragging - some beat it in days. I'm nowhere near the best, but I'm no slouch when it comes to finishing a game I really enjoy playing. And I don't enjoy playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band as well as I sometimes let on - I think it's more the concept than the actual execution that I enjoy. I am able to and enjoy playing three songs on bass (the easiest instrument) on Expert (the highest difficulty) on Rock Band (which is easier than Guitar Hero). I'll name 'em, too: "Say it Ain't So" by Weezer, "I Think I'm Paranoid" by Garbage, and "Creep" by Radiohead. Can't do squat with them on lead guitar, on the drums, or singing. So for Chad Kroeger to look at someone like me and say "stop playing music games, get a real bass guitar" - it's kind of ridiculous. (Now, I've always wanted to play a real bass, long before these games, but I'm also well aware that I lack the artistic ability to create original tunes and the discipline to master the instrument.)

However, someone who can play every song or just about every song on Expert and get five stars or (five) gold stars, yes, I think that person should seriously consider learning to play the real instrument if that's something they'd be interested in. Especially drummers, since the drums is the most literal translation from the original work to the game's note track. I mean, you can go out and get the five drums that are emulated (bass/kick drum, snare drum, hi-hat, and whatever the other two are) and you can play the songs by the note track (put on No Fail mode and mute the TV) and play along with it, and you're actually playing the song. You can't do that with the guitar controllers. Wikipedia says there are 12 notes, but I count 13 on their chart. I once heard a radio DJ say a guitar has eleven notes (and it's what you do with them that counts). 11, 12, 13, it makes no matter because a Guitar Hero or Rock Band controller only has five note buttons, so the guitar stuff is simplified by more than half. You take someone who can five-star "Through the Fire and Flames" or "Green Grass and High Tides" and all you have is someone who can play a video game well; the person might even be a savant. But what you don't have is someone who can necessarily pick up a six-stringed guitar and jam out the same songs with the same level of perfection. Furthermore, speed metal band DragonForce's guitarist Herman Li tried to play his own song, "Through the Fire and Flames" on Guitar Hero 3, and failed at 2%. His own song. And only on Hard. Also, progressive rock band Rush got together and tried to play "Tom Sawyer" on Rock Band, and they failed out, though much later in the song (96%). (Me personally, I'd love to see Eddie Van Halen try to play "Hot For Teacher" from Guitar Hero World Tour, on Expert.)

The point I'm getting at is that, A) playing real musical instruments is MUCH harder than playing Guitar Hero or Rock Band, and B) real musicians are not necessarily good at Guitar Hero or Rock Band, despite being able to do the more difficult task. Therefore it's given that C) Guitar Hero and Rock Band experts should not be expected to necessarily do well on real instruments. It's simple logic. Not that I would attribute solid logic to a musician; usually artistic ability and creativity do not go hand in hand with arithmetic skills and logical comprehension - two sides of the brain and all. So, long story short, Chad Kroeger has no idea what he's talking about. He might be on the right track (thinking that there aren't enough good bands coming out) but he's barking up the wrong tree. out of Missouri reports that, "Microsoft revealed this month that "Guitar Hero" and "Rock Band" have sold about 45 million song downloads to gamers." (1) Those song downloads cost $2 apiece. So that's $90 million dollars brought in by these games. And on top of that every purchaser has spent at least $60 on each game they have. And that's just for the disc. We paid $90 for Guitar Hero 3 because it came with the guitar. We paid $179 for Rock Band, which included a guitar, a drum set (and sticks), and a microphone. We paid $189 for Rock Band 2, with the same stuff as Rock Band 1 but more durable, plus the guitar and drum set are now wireless. OUCH! But we haven't spent nearly that on CDs. Matter of fact, we haven't bought hardly any CDs over the last year or two. Sure, we get them here and there, but not like we used to.

As they come, Guitar Hero and Rock Band games pull you in with just a few songs on the track list on the back (which is itself incomplete) that you like from hearing on the radio or CD or whatever, and you think that song would be good fun to play in the game. Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But as you play (most likely you have to go through the game's Tour mode to unlock the song(s) you want) you realize that songs you wouldn't have paid attention to (like me with the Weezer, Garbage, and Radiohead tracks) are actually really fun to play. Maybe you come to like the song, but maybe not, but you enjoy playing it. The game could almost guarantee to expand your musical horizons. To that end, we recently hosted a Rock Band party. We had about 2500 Microsoft points left (enough for 15 songs, anyway) and what we did, we passed the controller around the room and let everybody pick a song. Nobody was criticized for their choices really, although everyone had something to say about every song that was previewed, and in the end, the songs that were chosen weren't all songs I'd have chosen or Jen would have chosen, but we added a level of diversity to our setlist we wouldn't have gotten choosing on our own.

It's a shame, though, that we won't be getting any Nickelback DLC (downloaded content, such as songs for Rock Band). We'd buy their songs if they came out, especially the ones we like. We've bought nearly 60 songs so far. I try not to think about how much money we've put into playing Rock Band (I haven't gotten into what we paid for the TV, the Xbox 360, or the home theater system), but we are most certainly supporting the music industry (as well as the electronics and gaming industries) and it's a shame Nickelback sees that as a threat rather than an opportunity.

Sources for the Nickelback/Guitar Hero story, if anyone's doubting for whatever reason:

MTV ... Kotaku ... G4