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.

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