Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Wow, Doctor Who is awesome.

Doctor Who is the UK's long-running science fiction show, it's older than Star Trek by a few years. It's the main influence for the Bill & Ted movies - phone booth that can travel through space and time? Yeah, they nicked that from Doctor Who. Only the original phone booth is only a phone booth on the outside, it's much bigger inside. One could almost imply that Star Wars' R2-D2 was influenced by the long-running villain, the Daleks.

I first heard about this series a couple years ago, when I was still on the Disturbed board. The wife of the admin was a big fan (or rather, she had a crush on the Tenth Doctor, the bloke with the 3D glasses at 0:07 in the video) and I always wanted to check it out. I got Series 1, which ran, I think in 2005, but she told me that Series 1 (we'd call it Season 1 in the US) has the Ninth Doctor, and it's the Tenth Doctor, who doesn't appear until Series 2, who she likes. (Don't ask me why, but they started over in 2005, kind of like how Star Trek did with the series "Enterprise" and now this new movie... yet they keep the count on how many Doctors they've had from the original.) Anyway, while the show is kind of silly, I love it and can't get enough of it. If you get a chance, it's worth a look, and unlike the best of Star Trek, and Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica, you really don't have to watch them in order, unless it's a two-parter. I just don't know when Doctor Who comes on in the United States - it's made by the BBC. I bet you can download them though, but don't go asking me how to do anything illegal. ;-)

In this video, two evil alien robots have a little war of words. Interestingly enough, they both look like robots (think C-3PO and R2-D2 from Star Wars) but both have living creatures inside them. The Cybermen (the upright ones) have human brains in their heads, and the Daleks have these little octopus-looking things inside.

Sick burn, or just a couple tin cans rattling on about nothing? Have a look and decide.

Cyber Leader: Daleks, be warned. You have declared war upon the Cybermen.
Dalek Sec: This is not war. This is pest control!
Cyber Leader: We have five million Cybermen. How many are you?
Dalek Sec: Four.
Cyber Leader: You would destroy the Cybermen with four Daleks?
Dalek Sec: We would destroy the Cybermen with one Dalek! You are superior in only one respect.
Cyber Leader: What is that?
Dalek Sec: You are better at dying.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

My take on the peanut situation

I'm almost ashamed to say, I have to have a laugh when I hear the news that peanuts are killing people now. Of course, I don't intend to make light of any real death; that wouldn't be right, of course, but having been deadly allergic to peanuts my entire life and seeing how little it's been taken seriously these nearly 30 years, it's not even a surprise to me that this peanut factory or the other was found to be dangerous but they kept on, business as usual. It's like tobacco, people know it's not good but many don't care, they just go on doing it for whatever reason. Now some will say that not everybody is allergic to peanuts. Well guess what? Not everyone who smokes cigarettes will get lung cancer, and not everyone who gets lung cancer got it from cigarettes. So it is the same. More or less.

To me, peanuts are highly toxic; they cause my throat to swell to the point where I can't swallow anything or even breathe. Depending on how much I ingest, I must be injected with a powerful antihistamine (epinephrine) and adrenaline to get it into my system faster. This includes other nuts: pine nuts, walnuts, cashews, almonds, pecans, one or two others I'm missing, and their by-products. Once when I was a kid, before school age, to "see what would happen," my father gave me a peanut. Not the kind you break open that holds two or three, but just one half of one of those inside the shell, like from a jar of Planter's (it was his favorite brand). One half of one. It was tiny. And I threw up all night.

The Food and Drug Administration requires that all ingredients be claimed in order of prevalence in the food. For example, this can of Mountain Dew here lists carbonated water first - so it's mostly carbonated water. The last ingredient is Yellow 5, a food coloring; that's what it has the least of. So allergy products must be claimed as well, but not everything has ingredients available. Such as going out to eat, that's the biggest concern, you have to really be smart about what you order, or ask. And then some people won't care, they'll go off and come back and say that yes they asked, and no that doesn't have peanuts in it. Back to ingredient lists however, some companies will be nice and bold all their allergens. Others have a second ingredient list below which lists common allergens so they can be spotted at a glance. Candy companies like to say products are manufactured on equipment that produces peanut products, which is more of liability protection than anything (but this probably wouldn't hold up in court if brought to trial because of the FDA's requirement that ingredients actually be claimed). And Chik-Fil-A, a chicken restaurant run by the Church (or a church, some branch of Christianity) fries their chicken in peanut oil, but at least they (well, one I went into) tell you on the menu board, so it isn't a surprise.

So why is it, now, after almost 30 years of me being allergic to peanuts, and thousands, maybe millions of others, is it all of a sudden a big surprise that peanuts are making people sick or killing people? Peanuts are dangerous; there's something in them that affects a decent percentage of people, and it's no secret. Nor is it new. Now here's a brilliant idea: a cure for nut allergies. Isn't this something that should have been figured out by now, or is it something that stem cell research or something equally or more advanced is required to have before it can be done? Here's another idea that's more practical and already done: Artificial flavoring. I can have hazelnut coffee and coffee creamer; I can have Southern Pecan coffee creamer because they use artificial flavoring. They taste nutty, but they don't have nuts, so I don't get sick. Obviously you can't have artificially flavored peanuts; that'd just be wacky, and while peanut butter is a good candidate (I'd love to try a PB&J sandwich, see what all the fuss is about) the real thing should still be an option; anything where they need to grind the nuts up real fine to where you can't see or taste them - use the artificial flavoring if it's so important. Not hard (shouldn't be), makes sense, and can save lives.

Of course I don't think or believe that the peanut problems are based on allergies. I know it's a salmonella thing, completely unrelated. The thing is though, we've had a peanut health issue for decades and it's been mostly swept under the rug. But now eight people have died, so far. People are starting to take notice. Stupid people don't do anything until half a dozen people die. Until then it's just "oh well" or whatever.

What's ever more important than saving or preserving life? Oh, right... $$$

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Let's talk about breasts, shall we?

This has been an issue off and on for years, but recently I've heard of two news stories where women breastfeeding their babies in public have created a bit of a stir; in one case a woman was thrown out of a Denny's; another, it was a mall. And the comments on these news articles are at one extreme or the other, some saying these women should be more discreet; others saying it's perfectly fine and natural. Hippies and prudes. Very few, if any of them, seem to have much common sense.

Are breasts sexual or aren't they? This seems to be the main issue. Breasts serve no sexual function, specifically, but that doesn't mean that they're not enjoyed in a sexual situation - but then again, the same could be said for the mouth, the hands, and even the feet, in some cases. Do we cover those as well? Then the next question asks if breasts are or are not primarily for feeding babies? This is a big obvious no - breasts are present, albeit in a much smaller form, from birth; unless a [female] baby or child is starved, the breasts, or rather breast buds (which grow into breasts later) are apparent and there's a slight but noticeable difference in the appearance of the bared chest between a boy and a girl of the same age and build. And the breasts grow long before a woman's first pregnancy. Breasts do not even lactate (produce milk) until a woman's so many months pregnant or just after she delivers. And then only for so long after. So while breastfeeding might be the most useful function of the breasts, it only applies to a very small percentage of a woman's life, and that's assuming she bears children at all - many women don't.

But the issue isn't about objective facts as described above, but rather, subjective opinion, which is a bit trickier.

To look or not to look? The obvious solution to being offended by public breastfeeding is quite simply not to look. But some people can't just look away. It's like an accident on the side of the road, it's something out of the ordinary that demands your attention. Same with bared breasts (or rather, just the one). It attracts attention, but whose fault is that? The one watching or the one doing?

The one watching, which is any of us; people in general seem to have this unspoken and undefined belief that we have some kind of authority over all we see, all that happens to be right in front of us, that the world as laid before us is ours to edit and alter as fits our own preferences for such things, and if something doesn't fit, it's wrong.

As for the one doing, the woman breastfeeding in public, there are a number of alternatives. First there's formula, which is "close to breast milk" and loaded with nutrients to be good for the baby and removes the issue altogether, but it's expensive as hell, and even though the government has programs to help poor mothers pay for some of it, it doesn't cover all, and these programs don't cover everybody. Plus, a lot of women feel the need to breastfeed naturally, much like giving birth as opposed to adoption. Then you have blankets; a woman can throw a towel or blanket over the baby while feeding, but in hot weather this may not be practical; also it might not be practical to carry a blanket in the first place. So asking women not to breastfeed in public is not an easy task given the lack of a proper alternative.

It's not exactly common; you can't just go to a mall and expect to see a bare breast with a baby attached. Most mothers of infants who breastfeed, it would seem, do go to the trouble of feeding the baby before they go out or in a more private location, but there are just cases where it cannot wait and would be impractical to cover it up, and I believe as a society we need to be more understanding and accepting of that.

Pornography or nudity? Pornography is defined as obscene material (not specifically sexual, but most always) designed to arouse the viewer. It's always recorded; viewing live sex acts isn't pornography, it's something else; it borders on prostitution, but that's outside the purview of this article. Nudity on the other hand, as opposed to nakedness, refers to deliberate exposure of the body's generally-defined private areas (the genitals and buttocks, and the breasts for girls of about 7-8 years of age or older) not necessarily for purposes of arousal. (Nakedness is not deliberate, but again, that's outside the range of this article.) For example, when the MPAA gives a movie an R rating for sexual content and nudity as opposed to just saying pornography, they're being quite accurate; sex and nudity in a movie that is not pornographic, as such, is just that - nudity. And, that said, a woman feeding her baby in public isn't pornographic, lewd, or obscene in any way. It's just nudity - partial at that. We're born naked. (Almost said nude, but naked is the correct term there.)

Before the whole pedophile scare of the last 10-15 years, people used to let their children (up to school age) run around naked outside, like in the sprinklers. In the 1980s this wasn't common, but not exactly rare to see. It's not something that was made a big deal of and was never considered sexual until sexual predators put that spin on it, and now it's rarely, if ever done. It's ironic, America, as a society, has gone from children being the "property" of their parents and abuse being acceptable, to abuse being acceptable to a certain degree, to abuse never being acceptable; also we've gone from nude portraits being acceptable to spontaneous nude photographs being acceptable, and now only "one or two" bathing pictures being acceptable, with an emphasized preference on a towel covering the genitalia, with a woman being brought up on charges for taking a picture of her daughter coming out of the shower, and teenagers being brought up on charges for taking cellphone pictures of their nude bodies and sharing them with their peers.

The nature of nudity hasn't changed, only society's perception of it. As it relates to kids, the change is a necessity. There are sick people out there and they get bolder every year, so at the sacrifice of a little innocence, kids must be taught modesty, that others' viewing of their private areas must only be out of necessity, and then limited to a select few: parents and the occasional other caretaker(s) for hygeine when they're young and can't wipe themselves; doctors if something goes wrong down there; siblings if they bathe together; and later in life, trusted lovers. Women, on the other hand, know better, or at least they should. They should have some discretion - and I believe that many, in fact, do. But in that rare case where their child gets hungry, they must feed, and there's no convenient cover, others, particularly those who would ask the mother to show some decency and not breastfeed in public, should show some discretion and either look the other way or mind their own business, because it's really none of their business.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

It has begun...

Nintendo's full transition to the DS, that is.

In 2004, Nintendo dropped its most ambitious handheld, the DS, worldwide. The first Nintendo handheld to not bear the Game Boy name, Nintendo distanced itself from its experiment so as to avoid tarnishing the near-spotless Game Boy name (as they had with a previous flop, the Virtual Boy). Not sure the DS would take off, they included a Game Boy Advance slot in the bottom in addition to the dedicated DS slot in the top, so that in case the DS line crashed and burned, early adopters would at least have a GBA that could play a few of the new games. Following the release of the DS, Nintendo released a third model of the wildly popular Game Boy Advance line, the Micro; designed to look like a classic NES controller and only a little bigger than the game cartridges themselves, the GBA Micro was an utter failure. Everyone wanted a DS. This handheld, which like the GBA SP before it, looked like a cross between a makeup kit and an electronic dictionary with its clamshell design, which protected its signature and as of yet unparalleled features: Two screens, the lower of which a touch screen. The system also featured a microphone. Originally costing $149.99, the console dropped in price to $129.99 just a year or so later, and has stayed at that price point since.

It's important to know that the DS, while a Game Boy in spirit, the DS is actually something else entirely. As early as the late 80s, the Game Boy line has been accused of, purely by the name of the product, excluding girls. Laugh it up, but girl gamers are a huge financial incentive and have helped propel DS game sales with titles such as Nintendogs and the Imagine line, with focus on care and nurturing rather than conquest and destruction. While "Game Boy" is marketable to sentimental old fossils such as myself, Nintendo, much more so than Microsoft or Sony now or Sega or, well, anybody else back in the day, wants to appeal to families, games that are fun for Mom and Dad and educational for the kids, as young as possible. And while the debate as to whether edutainment titles actually help kids learn more so or even as much as traditional learning, none can deny that it makes learning fun, or better yet, Nintendo's sales records. In the 1980s and pre-PlayStation 1990s, Nintendo creamed their one major competitor, Sega, to the point where the company stopped making consoles and focused, instead, on games, primarily for Nintendo, it would seem.

2006 saw the release of the DS Lite, a smaller DS with a more squared-off design, and, at a glance, about a 33% reduction in overall size (though, oddly enough, the stylus got bigger). The battery was said to be better, the screens got two more brightness settings, but it was pretty much the same thing. The size reduction caused the original DS to be redubbed the "DS Phat" by fans, and was still preferred by some (including many with larger hands). The DS, now marginally bigger than a smartphone, could now be carried discreetly in most articles of clothing. It was about the size of the GBA SP, only wider.

2006 also saw another advancement in technology: the rise in popularity of micro SD to Nitro converter cards. (micro SD is the kind of memory card your cell phone probably uses if it takes a memory card, and Nitro is the code name for the DS; "DS Cartridges" are technically "Nitro cartridges".) Such a device allows, among other things, one to load a few to a couple dozen DS games on one memory card and play them for free. Of course, there are legal uses for the converter cards (referred to as "flashcarts" by many of their users, as cartridges which take flash memory) as I've even blogged about in the past, such as music and video playback, PDA features such as calendar/appointment keeping, painting, writing text files, and playing homemade games. And quite naturally, it's Nintendo's responsibility to its game publishers (as most of their games and arguably all of their best games are exclusive to the DS) to try to prevent this. They've gone after Japanese shops selling a popular flashcart called the R4 (the one I've got), but so far their efforts have been in vain. Like the RIAA going after KaZaA and other old networks long after most users have jumped ship, Nintendo likely hasn't stopped anybody from downloading, rather than paying for their games. However, Nintendo really can't fight pirates in realtime. The DS just isn't set up for forced firmware updates. Sony's PSP is better equipped to do so, relying more on the Internet (it has a web browser that actually works, unlike the one Nintendo put out in partnership with Opera a couple years back) and releasing firmware updates every so often.

In 2008, rumors circulated about a new DS system. Videos appeared on YouTube; one showed what looked like two iPhones side by side, implying an ultrathin clamshell design, and another showed something straight out of Transformers which is probably a physical impossibility. These viral videos probably fooled very few people, but the gaming world was indeed abuzz that something new was coming for Nintendo's handheld market. Quietly announced in Japan and hurriedly translated by American gamers, the DSi features two 0.3MP cameras - one on the outside and one on the inner hinge - a slightly slimmer design, slightly larger screens, an SD card slot in the side, and a more intelligent design, as far as the indicator lights, placement of the power and reset buttons, and speakers, all the "little" things. Oh, and no GBA slot. The casual dismissal of the GBA slot led to a fair bit of controversy among fans. Fans who sold their GBAs and intended to replace their DS Phat or DS Lite for a DSi but still wanted to play GBA games felt burned. Oh, and the two (and one upcoming) Guitar Hero games, among others, rely on an attachment which plugs into the GBA slot.

The removal of the GBA slot is a far more important move than most fans notice, or care to admit. The DSi is Nintendo's first dedicated DS, as in the first DS which does not double as a GBA. The DS Phat and DS Lite were really both two systems in one. With a DS game, it was a DS, something totally new, but with a GBA game, it was really just another GBA. With the DS Lite, Nintendo said, in not so many words, that they did not trust the DS to carry the Nintendo handheld, but combining the failure of the GBA Micro and the success of both DS systems, as well as the exclusion of the GBA slot from the DSi, Nintendo has finally accepted that DS is the future of Nintendo handhelds. It will not become the "Nintendo Game Boy DSi"; likely, they will never put the "Game Boy" name on anything, again. The last true Game Boy platform was the Game Boy Advance line, and it was a hit. The only thing that burns me is that the Game Boy Advance was a widescreen gaming platform, and the DS line took a step back returning to square gaming. But regardless, Game Boy went out with a bang, and may it rest in peace.

If it's any consolation, PSP loyalists like to let Nintendo fans know that a modified PSP can play GBA games with 100% accuracy in most games. A PSP is good for music and video, much more so than a modified DS, so if a DS Phat or DS Lite owner really must have a DSi, the PSP looks real good as a second system. Never mind that it's expensive and has few really good games. Its homebrew emulators are far in advance of the DS's, so it can play the NES games, just like a modded DS can, and it can play Super NES games, ironically, better than a DS, especially as most Super NES games don't even play correctly. They may be playable, but they don't look right. Nintendo wants us to forget about the past and move on (and of course buy all their new games, good or otherwise) but many of us self-proclaimed Nintendorks just can't let go of the classics. It's a damn shame Nintendo doesn't accept this and try to make money by reselling all their classics every year on the latest platforms. They'd really make a killing, and on franchises they own - namely Mario, Zelda, and Metroid - they wouldn't even have to pay any licensing fees. They already own the content. That said, the DSi will have an SD card reader and a "Channel" system like the Wii - it's speculated that it might have a Virtual Console of its own. Obviously not as many games would be supported, if it's true at all, but it is a step in the right direction.

Oh, and about the pirates. The DSi will not support homebrew software from booting from the SD slot, so apparently, that's out as a means to play downloaded games on the system. Apparently it can store resources, but the actual executable programs (or the keys to run them) will be held elsewhere, possibly on a flash memory device inside the unit. The anti-piracy measures of the DSi are not known at this time, but it is known that most if not all of the flashcarts made for the DS Phat and DS Lite will not work on the DSi. However, flashcarts are out now that work on Japanese DSis, as the console is available there. When the DSi comes to America in May of this year (unless it gets pushed back) it's pretty much assumed that the system will be ready for hacking.

And so it goes. Another great handheld game system is about to come out with unforseen potential, and the hackers, crackers, and pirates will have their way with it, as they always have, and those who buy games, well, both groups are in for a new world of surprises, only one's paying more, and hopefully it's enough to keep Nintendo going long enough to go at it again in 2011 or 2012.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

More Microsoft Update Woes

Oops! It appears that an update released just the other day for the Xbox 360 - rather, forced, as in, if your Xbox is on Xbox Live, as soon as you connect, it downloads the update, and then tells you that you must install the update, let it reboot your system (twice actually, once after the install, and the other after it runs the first time), before you can continue to use your Xbox. The update was intended to fix the audio output over HDMI on some older model Xbox 360 units. Not launch consoles where there is no HDMI port, but the ones just after that, I suppose it is.

Nice plan, but several users on Xbox.com and on blogs and tech sites' comments following news of the update reported that following the update, they got the dreaded Red Rings of Death, named for the infamous Blue Screen of Death in Windows. In Windows, if something goes wrong, you get this ugly blue screen with white text that tells you nothing, really, but means you've got to restart. The Xbox 360 console features what Microsoft calls the Ring of Light; surrounding the power switch are four arcs which make a circle, each representing a player, for up to four connected. One to four of them can be lit. Green means a player is connected, but if you turn your Xbox on and any of them are red, it means something is wrong.

The real clever bit here is that the manufacturer's warranty for many of these consoles is now out of date, and folks who didn't buy an extended warranty with their Xbox are now being told that, following a mandatory update from Microsoft, they must now pay for repairs to continue using their console, which they paid $300 or more for, and which was working quite well before the update was forced upon them.

I got the update, same as anybody else (there's no choice really) but my wife's Xbox continues to work fine. I guess we got one made after the Red Rings problems, or at least most of them, surfaced and were dealt with internally. I don't doubt that I'll end up with Red Rings at some point, but that's why I bought Jen her Xbox at Best Buy. Their warranties are good and they're good for honoring them. They couldn't fix my digital camera so they gave me another one, a better one in fact.

So what's my motivation here? Well it's not the first time something like this has happened. Just last November, Microsoft released version 2 of their Dashboard operating system for the Xbox, then referred to as the New Xbox Live Experience, or NXE. The update was released via the traditional Internet; anybody could get at it and a lot of people did. What they forgot to mention was that if your console wasn't registered with them as a beta tester, you couldn't access Xbox Live for 3 weeks, even if you were a paid subscriber. And they wouldn't tell anybody how to remove the update, if it was at all possible (I'm understanding that it isn't). Oops! And yes, I was one of the ones affected. Found a tech site that was hosting the update. Said all I had to do was unpack it and burn it to a CD or put it on a flash drive; I did the latter. Stuck it in the Xbox and it updated automatically with no intervention from me. But whoops, no Xbox Live for nearly a month. Great job Microsoft, the fuckuppery that Windows has become known for on personal computers has now extended to Xbox consoles. Twice now actually, thrice if you count the Red Rings epidemic, and many do.

Yet I'll still say the Xbox 360 is a better console than the PlayStation 3. Better exclusives, cheaper, and while Microsoft may have its flaws, at least they didn't put PC-crippling viruses on music CDs following the rationale that anybody sticking a music CD in a computer was intending to post it to filesharing sites. Yeah. Real smart, Sony. The worst Microsoft has done (this decade) is Windows Vista, hardly as bad.

Monday, February 9, 2009

Rock Band Tournament: Came in 3rd

The weekend before this past weekend, if you had asked me "What are you doing next weekend?" (referring to this weekend just past, that is) I would have said "Oh I don't know, probably staying home, maybe playing Rock Band with Jen and the guys."

I would have been half right, at least.

Anybody who's married can sympathize when I say that although my wife, her brother, and their friend were talking about this Rock Band 2 tournament for months, I had no idea about it until I read a MySpace bulletin where she said we were going to a Rock Band 2 tournament on Saturday and that she, her brother, and our friend were competing in said tournament.

Huh? What?

I love Rock Band, as anyone who reads my blog will tell you, but I'm not particularly good at it. I used to love Tetris, so you'd think a game with what amounts to falling bricks would be second nature, but while I'm good at Tetris when the blocks are falling slowly, when it speeds up real fast, it's a whole different story. Same with Rock Band. The game offers a decent challenge on Medium, when the pace is fair and you only have four columns of notes (blocks) to hit, which goes with only four fingers to hit them with, one for each column. Expert, though, what you set it to for a tournament (since it's based on score), means not only do they fall a hell of a lot faster, but you add that fifth column as well. (I wonder if six-fingered folks find Hard and Expert to be easier than I do.) And if you want to know how to play the game, read one of my other blogs about it where I spend 2-3 pages describing it, read Wikipedia, or look it up on YouTube. This story's long enough without getting into all of that. But suffice it to say that while I enjoy playing songs I like on Medium, I am not tournament material.

The tournament is in Goldsboro, at the Wayne Community College, a good hour and a half away, so I agree to drive. Then come to find out it's at 10:00 in the morning. And the car needs gas. And we need batteries for the camera. And Jen wants McDonald's sausage gravy and biscuits for breakfast. Bad preparation meant that while she was at work Friday evening, I should have got the batteries and got gas. But I didn't think to for whatever reason. No, I stayed home. When Jen got home, we went over to her brother's to practice. She and Robert (her brother) and Carl (our friend) practiced, while I tried not to fall asleep. I did not play because I had no intention of playing at the tournament. I, like Robert's girlfriend, was just going for support and picture-taking (and driving). When we got home, I stayed up studying the directions on the computer. Google sent electric cars all over the country with camera kits on top, so that you can get panoramic photos of the roads all across America (in most areas) (and where was I when they were looking for drivers?) so I was noting landmarks and whatnot.

I got somewhere between an hour and an hour and a half of sleep.

Naturally, Jen's alarm woke me. She got up a half hour earlier than we planned to take a shower. I had taken one the day before, so I was good. (She probably had too, but she was in this tournament, she wasn't about to not go in looking her best.) We left at a quarter, maybe half past seven in the morning. That's seven hours after she got off work. Four hours since we left her brother's house from practicing (and him playing Ninja Gaiden II). And about two hours since we went to sleep, having been up all Friday and Friday night. One hour of good sleep and maybe half an hour of rest.

I love Google, and Google loves Greenville, North Carolina. What Google has for Greenville, I'd say among my friends, but I wouldn't post up here because it's a crude sexual reference. No matter where you're going in Eastern NC, Google will recommend that you drive through Greenville, even if it's 30 miles out of your way. But Google is somewhat accomodating in that if they're giving you directions, you can grab part of the route and drag it to make waypoints. Greenville is northwest of us, and the tournament and Goldsboro are to the southwest of us. I figured the best bet would be to go through the small town of Ayden, as right on Highway 11 where we'd likely pass through, there's a few gas stations, a McDonald's, and a Food Lion (grocery store). Dragging a waypoint to Ayden resulting in Google telling us to go up to Greenville, down to Ayden, and then onto a new route to Goldsboro. The second half looked pretty direct, but they still had us going way out of our way to Greenville. A second waypoint between Ayden and us, in the even smaller town of Blackjack (which is almost directly between us and Ayden), set the course right, and only a couple minor modifications later, and we had our perfect route.

So it's 7:30AM at the latest, and we head out. Grabbed a couple Mountain Dews for the road (love that stuff) and we were good to go. Had my latest mix in the CD player (which I still need to blog about, it's a great mix), and the heater on, which takes a while to get going. We were nearly in Ayden when I took off my beanie (my wife calls it a toboggan, maybe that's the proper name, but they've always been called beanies where I'm from - sock hats otherwise). Got into Ayden, stopped at Food Lion for batteries (and M&Ms), got cash back to get in the door (no advance/Internet ticket sales for this - $10 a head to play or watch), and we were off again. We got there around quarter after 9:00 in the morning, at a time I'm usually going to sleep. The doors didn't open until 10:00 in the morning, but we were told to be there early. We were a little too early, but Rob and Carl were a little too late. We took separate cars, partly because Robert and I both like to drive, partly because nobody likes riding in the back seat, and partly because all three of them (Carl and Rob and his girl) smoke menthol cigarettes where both Jen and I are nonsmokers.

We got there, and the line was stupidly long. There were at least 100 people in line. At least. We got in line, and fell in behind some guys talking about various games. Every time I'd open my mouth to say something, Jen would shoot me a look to shut it. Wasn't long before I couldn't help myself, and the four of them and I were getting along great, talking about handheld games and how to modify them, comparing games, and whatnot, all very friendly. Shortly after we got in line, the line doubled in size, with as many people behind us as there were ahead of us, as people started coming in herds. We called Rob; he had taken a wrong turn and was still on his way. It was almost 11am when we finally got in the door. We paid $10 each for our passes and showed our IDs to allow us to play T-rated games such as Rock Band and, if we so chose, M-rated games like Halo 3 and Gears of War.

When we got in, it was your typical convention. Most of the booths set up were for the video game and peripheral industries. One was for a generic Guitar Hero game a student had made as a project. We saw costume players (cosplayers) as Darth Vader, a Stormtrooper, Boba Fett, and Princess Leia, all from Star Wars, and some various steampunk characters, perhaps from the Fallout games, I suppose. I wanted to ask them what the deal was but didn't. All of the arcades in the break room had been rigged for free play and three pool tables took quarters (75¢) to play. People were everywhere. Talking to the folks at the booths or to each other. Some had laptops and were online, some had PSPs and Nintendo DSs. I think I saw a Magic or Yu-Gi-Oh! game in the break room. We were told registration for the tournaments was upstairs, so upstairs we went.

The ground level of the Wayne Community College "Learning Center" (aka Student Center anywhere else) consisted of a lounge with arcades, a theater/auditorium, a cafeteria, the student bookstore (closed), and various offices (e.g. financial resources) (also closed). The second floor was a computer lab and seminar/meeting rooms. The third floor, off limits to us, was classrooms, and apparently a library as well. We called Rob again, and he had taken yet another wrong turn, and hadn't arrived yet, but was on the right road, so he was close. Jen registered for her spot in the Rock Band 2 tournament. We called Rob, who was now in line with his girlfriend and Carl, and we got some personal info from them so as to register accounts for them and then put them in the band. All three DysS\MemB/EreD members registered, we found the meeting room the Rock Band 2 playoffs would be hosted in.

The room was fairly small, with about 30 people inside, including three small children and a teenage boy, who turned out to be the tournament director's children (and at least 50 people right outside, trying to watch or listen). They had a projector and screen setup, with what looked like a brand-new Xbox 360 "Arcade" edition (the $199 one) and secondhand instruments, as well as the first and second game. (Why they had Rock Band 1 is beyond me. It was never used.) The instruments were all from Rock Band 1, however, and were all in shoddy condition. The tournament director came in, and among other things, noted that now "partial" bands would not be able to play. Any band with three or fewer members was free to recruit anybody at the tournament, but could not play with three or fewer members. In other words, we needed a bassist or we were out of the tournament.

We were one of the bigger partial bands, we later learned. There were a couple others with three, and there were 3-4 with only one member. But still, we couldn't find a single person who wanted to join our band. The other partial bands all folded, every one of them. The tournament director wasn't very sympathetic to a single one of them. We only had one choice. I had to register and join the band. I was able to register an account on their site at a computer in the room, but I had to go back to the computer lab to join the tournament, so I did. I tried to be all sly and text Rob that we had to get a bassist, but Jen had already spilled the beans.

Nine bands ended up ready. The director's assistant put six of them on the whiteboard, which was to be the makeshift leaderboards and bracket, until they could figure out what to do with the odd band. They went with the two-on-two format they agreed upon on the website prior to the event. Each band paired with one other band. Each band picked one song and each pair played both songs, highest score between the two songs advances. We were the sixth band, and we picked "New Kid in School" by The Donnas. The other band picked "Man in the Box" by Alice in Chains, despite the fact that the song was played during both of the prior pairings (thus had already been heard four times). The interesting thing about "Man in the Box" is that, like any song in Rock Band with cursing, it's censored, but unlike any other censored song, the bad words aren't removed, they're replaced. The song features two instances of the word shit, and first it's replaced by pit ("I am the man in the box, buried in my shit" becomes "...buried in my pit") and second it's replaced with spit ("I am the dog who gets beat, shove my nose in shit" becomes "...shove my nose in spit"). The nice thing about this is that if the singer sings the original, correct, profane words, the game reads it right because shit, spit, and pit all sound the same (to it). And every band up to and inlcuding us sang the lyrics with the clean words out of respect for the kids. The band we were playing against sang the words profane, but they failed "New Kid in School" because their male vocalist couldn't handle the female vocals.

Then an interesting thing happened. A tenth band was introduced before the ninth band, called "D-Squad", featuring the youngest of the children on vocals and her brothers on the three instruments. She could not read, so the tournament director called on a spectator to assist her. The director chose "Eye of the Tiger" by Survivor (the game's easiest song) and the other band chose Rise Against's "Give it All", the hardest song played. The kids barely passed "Eye of the Tiger" but, quite naturally, failed the Rise Against song. The other band beat both songs and advanced to the next round.

Round two. The tournament director decided that two songs per pairing would take too long and that people had taken too long to decide their songs. He picked "Drain You" by Nirvana, an easy song from the first or second difficulty tier. But then we were faced with another odd number. Five bands had advanced from Round 1. The first four bands, including us, paired up. The band who beat the kids was given a pass to the finals. Yes, this tournament, this self-proclaimed "Summit", advanced a band to the finals for the stunning achievement of besting a band formed right on the spot who had little or no practice, whose average age was eight and whose vocalist could not read. It was about 3pm now, four hours after we got there, but only a little over 2 hours since we started. We were told to return at 5pm for the finals, which would be held in the auditorium, in front of an audience.

Great. I was under the impression that the tournament would only last until 2-3pm. I was thinking, win or lose, we'd go home, I'd catch about 4 hours of sleep, and then we'd all get together to drink and play Rock Band until about 4-5 in the morning, or until everybody left. So now we bothered to read our flyers they gave us at the door, and it turned out following the finals at 5, there would be an award ceremony at 8, and we were expected to be there. By now, we were guaranteed at least some measure of victory. There were three bands left. We were guaranteed third place. No one who went to the finals was leaving empty handed. So we made a run for the border - Taco Bell, that is. Got some plain-old crunchy tacos and a chicken Gordita; Jen got a small order of nachos and a taco supreme or two. Jen fell in love with Code Red Mountain Dew a few years back, but not the kind they can or bottle, only the fountain version, which only Taco Bell had, which made Taco Bell her favorite fast-food joint. They stopped carrying it and she stopped going. I figured out how to make it. A splash of the fruit punch and fill the cup with regular Mountain Dew. That's all it is. Tastes exactly the same. Now she loves Taco Bell again. I miss Subway, but I don't mind Taco Bell (used to be my favorite place to go). So. We ate our food, and headed back to the college. Hung around for a bit, then headed to the auditorium at the designated time.

The finals were a mess. The difference between an auditorium and a theater, I came to understand, is a theater is just a silver screen bordered by curtains. Sometimes the curtains close over the screen, but I haven't seen that in years. An auditorium features a stage you can get up on via stairs on either side, the curtains close, and the screen is optional. The screen was present in this one, full size, so movies could be shown here. What they had done was placed us at stage left (audience's perspective) not quite off stage, but not quite on stage either. They had set up a table with a tiny little 20" or so TV and the Xbox, with the instruments behind it. Somehow the Xbox was sending its video signal to the TV but also its video and audio to the projector in the room at the back of the auditorium, which was projecting the image on the screen behind us. As you've probably seen, a typical Rock Band 2 screen with the full band playing is one guitarist on the left, the other on the right, the drummer in the middle, and the vocalist on top. The vocals track is horizontal anyway, and on the bottom 3/4 of the screen you have the three note highways side by side. How we were positioned, you simply couldn't see the left track, and the light from the projector was blinding us. Not only that, the floor was freshly waxed and the drum kit, I later learned, was getting away from our drummer. Not just ours mind you, the other two bands had this problem as well, though they did a better job of overcoming the odds. Oh, the song. "Today" by the Smashing Pumpkins. How we came to that conclusion was, we'd tell the game to give us a Random song (this is an option) and the 12 of us (3 bands * 4 members each) would each have the option to veto it. A couple songs came up, I can't remember, maybe easy, maybe hard, maybe "Painkiller" (by Judas Priest, one of the hardest songs on the game), I don't recall. "Today" came up and nobody said no. It's an easy song, it's popular, people know it - why not? I had no problem with it, but the setup of the game and everything was a mess, and we scored a very modest 300,000 and some change. The next band scored in the 500,000's, and the third band - the one who beat D-Squad, actually, handed all of us our asses with a score of roughly ours and the other band's put together.

We came in third.

But, we got to go to a town we'd never been to before. We had a good... We had a GREAT time. We competed in a tournament for our mutual favorite game (not mine - theirs - but I do enjoy playing it enough) and we met some good people - not one jerk in the lot. We got out of the house and did something we'd never done before and probably won't do again, at least for some time. It's not every day a video game tournament rolls through your neck of the woods. This particular lot announced its intention to come back, same place, roughly same time of year, in 2010. We'd like to come back, but we'd like assurances that the shortcomings this year will be addressed next year.

Awards ceremony at 8pm. There were a lot of games besides Rock Band 2. Guitar Hero World Tour for instance, as well as Halo 3, Gears of War, Madden '09, Mario Kart for the Game Cube (not sure the official name, just saw it played), Call of Duty 4, Call of Duty 5, and many others. Each would have its winners, as many as 3 each or 3 teams/squads each. We had no idea when we'd be called. Most bottled liquor in North Carolina is sold by government-run stores cleverly named "ABC Package Store" and they close at 9pm at the latest. Some as early as 7pm. It was about 5:30; we had no idea where to get liquor after dark in a town we'd never been in. Here's where my keen sense of navigation should have been of assistance, but wasn't. We were on Wayne Memorial Drive, a few miles off the main highway in the area. We knew we were on the outside of town, so we went back to the highway, me driving and Jen looking for ABC stores. (Hey, I wanted some rum and she wanted some tequila.) We left town via Wayne Memorial Drive, having passed a road called Ash Street, which I do remember from the map as being the main road in Goldsboro. We came back to it and I took a guess. Wound up outside of town in relative short order. Turned around, passed Wayne Memorial Drive and took it the other way. Bit longer, but we left town again. No liquor stores, but again, we'd passed another busy road, so we took it in one direction. Luck held up - road outta town. Turn around, past Ash, back into Goldsboro. (Any Goldsboro residents reading this are probably laughing their asses off - I bet we passed a half dozen liquor stores by then.) This was Berkely Road or Boulevard. About to leave town, I pulled into a gas station, and we asked the attendant for directions to the nearest liquor store. She gave them, and we were off again, and this is where it gets funny. Jen could have sworn we passed a Walmart coming into town, and the liquor store is across from Walmart. We follow the directions, get to the Walmart, and look where we are. Right off the freeway. In other words, we get our liquor, which we drove about 30-40 minutes to get, and inside of 5 minutes, via the freeway, we're right back at the school. Lovely, eh? Had we known we could just jump on the freeway back towards home, take the very next exit, and search the area, we'd be putzing around the school for another 45 minutes having the time of our lives. Right.

Well, we got back, and we still had a good hour to kill. Jen and her brother played pool. His girlfriend and Carl smoked outside, and I bounced back and forth between the two groups. Jen and I were having a great time, but the rest were bummed out that we didn't do better, and Rob's girlfriend was downright irate at what she was probably about to call a conspiracy to usher one band through the playoffs, never mind that they were actually better than us, perhaps better prepared, who knows, maybe their instruments at home were in excessive disrepair as well and they were ready to overcome that hurdle. Jen and I buy our Rock Band and Xbox gear from Best Buy, and we pay for the warranty. Something goes bad, they replace it. It's that easy. Rob buys his stuff from Gamestop. If something goes wrong, he can send it off to Microsoft to be worked on and he's without an Xbox for a few weeks (though, a couple days before the tournament, his 360 got the Three Red Rings of Death - catchy name, that - and his girl bought a brand-new one, planning to return the new Xbox when the broken one comes back from the shop). I don't think any of us were actually happy that we came in third, but at the best of times we were willing to concede that at least we made it to the finals, at least we had a good time.

We go into the auditorium, take our seats - actually, some savage looking for a handout swoops in and takes Jen's seat right from under her, and Rob's girlfriend ended up having to temporarily share a seat with him as we couldn't get anyone on either side to move over (despite open seats on either side, because, God forbid, you know, a group sit together, right). Anyway, we were all pleased that Rock Band 2 was the first game announced, and being in third place, we were the first band announced. We were marched up on stage, announced by band name and first and last names, all of us but Rob's girlfriend, each given a bronze medal which unceremoniously read "3rd", ushered to the back, and given a goodie bag with four posters and God knows what else inside. Rather than take our seats again, we simply exited, better to avoid the traffic, we figured, and checked out our goodie bag. The poster was for Guitar Hero: Aerosmith, a game none of us cared about much (though, for a while, I had the demo, though, because it was free). Couldn't be Guitar Hero: Metallica, but oh well. Four shirts. Two Medium, two Extra-large. I wound up with an XL, but swapped it for a M. I'm gonna re-gift it, and I can't say to whom because that would spoil the surprise. Also inside the bag was a guitar skin, though not for a Rock Band guitar, but for a Guitar Hero guitar. The best prize though, was on the way out, we were given a case (10-pack) of Vitamin Water. I guess they were the main sponsor. Actually the best prize was the good time we had, but I've said all that a few times already, no need to be (too) repetitive.

The five of us parted ways, Rob and his girlfriend and Carl in Rob's car; Jen and I in ours, and headed for home. We offered to get together and play Rock Band (ha ha) but none of them were up for doing anything but sleeping, though they'd gotten far more of it than we had. Wusses, lol. Then again, Robert was probably up at 6am Friday morning seeing his daughter off to school. No telling if he'd had a nap during the day or how long Carl or Rob's girlfriend had been up. (If anyone's curious by now, I'm not posting her name because she asked Jen not to post any pictures with her in them (or to cut/blur her out) so I'm extending a similar courtesy here. She probably told work she was doing something far more charitable than accompany her boyfriend, his sister, her husband, and their friend to a Rock Band tournament. Oh well.

Update: It's now early Tuesday morning as I write this extension of the story. We were so sore and tired when we got up Sunday afternoon. I had to work that night, too. We barely had time to run the errands we intended to run, and I had no time to cook dinner to take to work. So, instead we picked up a pizza at Walmart (Walmart deli pizza is awesome by the way) and I baked that, cut it and ate it at work. Good stuff. Though I would like to ask the Waltons what "beef product" is, that it says is on the pizza on the box. I am not joking. Go to their deli and look at the all-meat pizza, see what it says is on it. It's good though.

At some point (the next couple days kinda ran together) I made two postings on the CarolinaGameSummit.com forums, the official site for the tournament. One called out all the Rock Band 2 players. I told them that we didn't get enough time to play and we knew they didn't either, so we posted our Xbox Live gamertags, so they could add us as friends and play us online, if they chose. Good guys, all of 'em, I figured it would be awesome if we kept in touch until the next tournament, practiced together, and had a better tournament next year. I also posted Jen's, Carl's, and my MySpace pages (Rob hasn't got one) in case they wanted to contact us that way. The other post was much longer, not only detailing everything that was wrong with the tournament, but also a suggestion for how it could be better next year, addressing each and every problem. The tournament director (forums username DigitalRecruiter) read my post and only had one misunderstanding; it turns out he thought I was insulting his daughter by pointing out that she couldn't read. I apologized for the misconception and explained that I was only making the point about them pushing a band who bested kids through to the finals and reiterated that it was admirable and inspiring that he was allowing his kids to play the game. I also figured that if that was the only problem he had with my post, hopefully the other issues would be addressed for next year, and I hinted at that inference as well. Hopefully it wasn't in vain. Also, the band who bested D-Squad and won the tournament joked, on the forums in another topic, that they wished they had had better competition and would have been allowed to play more songs (in fact they played one fewer song than the other two finalist bands as they skipped the "Drain You" round). Overall it was good sportsmanship on part of the players and a lack of planning on part of the folks running the show. On top of the shortcomings of the Rock Band 2 tournament, players from virtually every other game showcased at the tournament had a long list of complaints. And virtually nobody said that the game they came to play went off without a hitch.

All in all, the 2009 Carolina Games Summit was a failure and an embarassment to the gamers, and possibly the sponsors as well. However, it was a lot of fun. It brought a lot of cool people together. And I really do hope that if the same people do the tournaments again next year, that they learn from their mistakes.

A short summary of my suggestions for improving things, as the problems are mostly mentioned here, I think it's only fair to point out the solutions I suggested. As it relates to the lines, they could have had outdoor entertainment for those in the line and could have facilitated ticket sales better. Let people buy them online and register online, and merely confirm their registration on arrival. Would have been much faster. As for the nine teams, do groups of three instead of two. Have D-Squad open the playoffs and/or the finals but not actually compete, let alone be the means for a band to advance straight to the finals. (That little girl could have sang any Hannah Montana or iCarly song she liked if they'd picked "Testify" by Rage Against the Machine; the way the vocals are set up on that song (and a few others) are such that all you have to do is say something, anything.) For the finals, we should have been performing behind the curtain and the drums placed on a mat of some kind. They could have rented or bought working guitars. We could have used Guitar Hero instruments. Rock Band 2 recognizes them and they're sturdier (despite the game software being inferior). Too many spectators made the room crowded; they could have limited the spectators or cycled them through.

In closing, it was our first video game tournament. All four of us. My youngest brother, who's always been better than me at video games, has never competed in a tournament (I asked). I wasn't even a proper member of the band, but following this tournament, I'm going to start practicing with the guys and Jen. They actually had two prior bassists but became a dedicated three-piece band when both flaked out on them too many times. Well, I won't do that. When I can, I'll play bass for them, and next year, we'll be a well seasoned four-piece virtual rock band, and DysS\MemB/EreD will go for first.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Carry your digital life on the go with Portable Apps

Have you ever gone to a friend's house to borrow their computer for something? Say you want to check your Gmail account for new messages. You go to mail.google.com and your friend's browser automatically connects to your friend's Gmail account. Whoops! So you sign your friend out and sign yourself in. Your friend's browser now wants to know if it should save your login info - you tell it no, and proceed to do your thing. Finished, you sign out, and it has your email address in the username field, so now your friend's gotta retype his credentials to check his mail. What a mess! On top of that, what if your friend has a keylogger, maybe he doesn't trust his girlfriend, and now he's got your password? Will he use it or will he delete it and slyly advise you to change it, lest he be tempted? What a mess indeed.

These days, every computer has USB, whether it's a laptop, a desktop, or one of those new netbooks. On top of that, USB drives get cheaper every day. Our local Walmart is selling 2GB flash drives for $5. I got a 4GB flash drive from Newegg for $11, shipped. I hear the 16GB drives are fast approaching the $20 price point. And at the other end of the road, you have the open-source Mozilla Firefox taking the web browser world by storm. Open source meaning that anybody can take it apart, change how it works, and re-release it on the web as their own program (Mozilla just stipulates that they alter the name to avoid confusion).

So what brings these two ideas, cheap USB drives and an open-source web browser, together? How does this sound...? "Portable Firefox". That's right, you can install a modified version of Firefox formally entitled "Mozilla Firefox, Portable Edition" to your USB drive and carry it with you everywhere you go. You carry your own bookmarks, your own login credentials, and your own plugins. Looking at the above scenario, instead of using your friend's Firefox, you instead plug your USB drive in, find the portable Firefox, and run it.

That's all pretty nifty, but for the non-technical user, it's a bit of a hassle. Enter PortableApps.com.

You download their suite, which sort of takes over your flash drive. It's best to install it on a new or freshly formatted flash drive, but it's not required. Now when you plug your flash drive in, when Windows asks you what you want to do with the device, you can choose a new option, right at the top, "Start PortableApps.com". A menu much like your Start menu, but red, and on the right side of the screen, pops up. There's nothing on it, if you just downloaded the menu, which I recommend. If you want to go all-out, you can get the suite, which will include a ton of stuff you don't need. But, like Windows, it includes a lot of stuff a lot of people would like at some point, so it's not a bad thing. PA (short for PortableApps) recommends you take the full suite or the light suite. The light suite is a little smaller, replacing the Office suite with just a word processor. I recommend starting with just the menu, because their site is very simple to browse, and you can add what YOU want a la carte just as easily, and this is more efficient as you're not wasting space (drive space, and menu space) with crap you won't use. (And remember, you're not just limited to their programs. It's quite easy to add your own applications. More on that in a bit.)

Here's what I run and some notes on each. All of these I got at PortableApps.com unless otherwise noted.

7-Zip - Archive and compression tool can open just about any archive (e.g. ZIP, RAR) you throw at it. So if you're at the library or at work and you want something that only comes in an archive file, it's a quick way to unpack it right then and there. Or if you'd like to mail something to yourself, you can ZIP it and send it along.

AbiWord - This word processor (Microsoft Word alternative) is the difference between the Full and Light suites (Light has it, Full has the full OpenOffice suite). I carry a text editor as well, but sometimes you need just a little more power, or formatting options like bold, italics, etc.

CCleaner - I like to live by the philosophy of leaving things as I found them, or better than I found them. After using someone else's computer, I'll run CCleaner on it to get rid of unnecessary temp files, redundant registry entries, and other stuff that's not needed but just taking up space. This isn't on PA.com, but you go to CCleaner's page, and under the download link, there's a link that says "Other builds". Click that, and there are two of interest. Slim doesn't have the Yahoo toolbar which bloats the original to 3x its size, and Portable is just a ZIP file you can unpack everywhere. To save about 1MB, you can opt to not unpack the LANG folder if you don't need any languages besides English. Also when running CCleaner on someone else's machine, go through its settings and don't let it delete their Firefox cookies - doing so will log them out of every site they're logged into, and they might not appreciate that too much.

ClamWin Antivirus - It's never fun to be without antivirus, and while this isn't automatic, it won't scan files on access, you can start it and let it scan a machine before you use it. It might take a few hours, though, so it's not practical. Best to just refer your friend to the free version of AVG Antivirus, or keep a copy of the latest installer on your USB drive so they can quickly install it, if they haven't got one. Or maybe their computer came with Norton or McAfee and the trial expired, so they're left with no protection. The worst thing about ClamWin is there's no way to update it. You have to go to the ClamWin site, search for updates (they're not linked from the main page) and download two files, then search for these files (because it would be too much work for them to tell you where they go) and replace the ones you've got. But, it's currently the best way to get antivirus on the go.

CoolPlayer+ - Simple audio player similar in appearance and form factor to Winamp, but nowhere near as good. And it looks like the PA menu. Cute. It's rather buggy, and since learning VLC (more on this app later) plays music, I'm considering dropping it. If you don't want a video player, CoolPlayer+ is a lot smaller than VLC, so it's not all bad.

Crimsonland - I love this game. Top-down shooter, similar in concept to Asteroids, but very different. You're destined to die, as monsters approach you from all directions. The goal is to take as many of the bastards with you and score the most points. This app isn't meant to be portable and won't be found on PA.com, but just to try it, I copied the directory to my flash drive. It worked. It won't always work that way but sometimes it does.

Deus Ex - My favorite game of all time. My CD got damaged years ago, so I copied all the files to my hard drive. It didn't work, so I downloaded a pirated copy and transferred over the files it had that I needed, and I built myself a working copy of the game. (Now it's cheap enough I could buy another copy, but why fix what ain't broken?) In doing so I discovered that I could disable the CD check by removing a reference to the CD in one of the INI files in the System directory. I won't explain how to do that here, but instructions can be found online. And it works just as good on my USB stick, except it takes 2-3 minutes to save and load a game or go from area to area. It should go without saying that this isn't found on PA.com either.

Firefox - This is what I started this article with. My Firefox at home has optimizations for stuff I can't do at work, so why take that with me to work? My portable Firefox has AdBlock Plus, so it doesn't display ads, just like at home, and features a proxy switch so at work I can turn it on and turn it off at home.

LightScreen - Screenshot utility. This is actually one of my favorite portable apps. If I want to show somebody something (mostly Jen) I start it up, click the big ugly button, choose Area, and it hides, then dims the screen, and I can draw a square around what I want to take a picture of. It then drops the picture in my Pictures folder, and I can go rename it if I like, and email it off. It can't take pictures of digital video, though. You'd need the internal screenshot feature in VLC if you want to do that.

MPlayer - This is my primary backup video player. VLC crashes on some DVDs and videos. It's rare, but it does happen, and MPlayer will play those same videos without interruption.

Notepad++ - Handy text editor and what I type most of my blogs and articles in, when I write them at work. Any text editor you can make display the text in neon green on a black background is A-OK in my book. It's just a retro look, but I can't stand black on white. Another retro look is yellow on blue (or white on blue) but that's tacky(ier).

Sudoku - A basic Sudoku game from the PA site. Very simple, four difficulty levels, no automatic error checking or relaxing music or any of that junk, but very playable. Great way to stimulate the mind.

Sumatra PDF Reader - Got PDFs, Adobe eBook files? Is the host computer one of only a dozen or so computers in the world that doesn't have some version of the Adobe Acrobat Reader? If so, this free and lightweight PDF reader is for you. Even if the computer you're using has Acrobat, this opens faster.

The GIMP - It's basically a free version of Photoshop. Photoshop is that famed photo manipulation tool from Adobe that costs or at least at one time cost $700. Someone once told me that any movie poster, any billboard ad, any publicly displayed image worth a damn was probably made in Photoshop. My brother pirated it once years ago and I couldn't make heads or tails of it. Way outta my league. His too. We didn't keep it around long at all. The GIMP is a free alternative that is supposedly just as powerful. It amuses me to have something that powerful, portably. Maybe I'll even learn how to use it someday.

VLC - Formerly known as VideoLAN and stands for VideoLAN Client, VLC is literally the Alpha and Omega of video players. It will play just about anything you throw at it, and it doesn't depend on system codecs, but rather internal plugins. Many systems have a DVD-ROM drive but not the software to decode DVDs. VLC has this software built in. Wish you could play DVDs at work, but can't, even though they have a DVD-ROM drive in your computer? It's because it doesn't have the DVD codec. Get VLC and play DVDs through it and all will be well. Or you could pop in a DVD-ROM with six DVD-Rips on it and they'll all play. They'll even load the subtitles if you've got 'em.

WinDirStat - Among other things I don't know about, it'll show you what folders are using up the most space on your drive.

ZSNES - Super Nintendo game emulator. I can't tell you how to get the actual game files, but they're not too difficult to find. Start with Google. Games that would take you several hours to complete are often smaller than a 5 minute mp3 file. Quick tip: If you wanted to, you could load up a 1GB USB drive with nothing but ZSNES, the PA menu, and EVERY North America Super Nintendo game EVER made. How's that for a game system? I should also note that it's illegal to have a game if you don't own the actual cartridge, though Nintendo would like you to believe it's as bad as murder or treason even if you do own the game. While for action-based games, you really should have a gamepad, for simpler, slower-moving games you can get by using the keyboard. I'm sure if I cared to try, I could beat the Zelda game using just a keyboard. ZSNES is not hosted on PA.com, you have to Google it, go to their page, download the program, and put it in a folder of your choice.

As you can see and probably guess, I have too many programs to be displayed on PA.com's PortableApps Menu (PAM). In doing so, you get scroll bars. Not too nice if there's nothing you can do about it. So... I don't use PAM. PAM and everything at PA.com is open-source, and they're not very big fans of programs that are not. Being open source means you can change the code, in most cases without even having to ask permission. It's not even frowned upon, especially not if your changes improve the project. And the PAM Mod R34, as it's called, does that and then some. Unlike PAM, R34 lets you rename apps, so you can take "Portable" off the end of every single app on PA.com. You can make folders on the menu. All of my games and the system utilities have their own folders, so my menu only has 9 objects on it, including the two folders, so it's very streamlined.

Update: PortableApps.com has recently updated their Platform to version 1.5, which now allows renaming. It's not as pretty as R34's, but it's one click less. Rather than right-clicking and choosing rename, you just right click. Like R34, you can also hide apps, but to do so you simply rename it to "-" (just a minus sign). They're still not supporting folders, and are being rather mysterious as to why (R34's been out well over a year), though it's promised in a future version. So if you only want to run a few apps and don't really care about categories, PAM 1.5 is really the way to go. It's the latest representation of the code. If you need folders, R34 is where you want to be for now.