Monday, July 27, 2009

Xbox 360 Summer Update

It's been 8 months since Microsoft's last update to Dashboard, the operating system of the Xbox 360. My wife's brother incorrectly believes that the old "blade-style" Dashboard is in fact Windows XP and the "New Xbox LIVE Experience" Dashboard (often abbreviated NXE) currently out is Windows Vista. Let me tell you, once a Southern boy gets his mind made up about something, even if it's incorrect, it's best to just leave it alone. Her sister's ex believes that Metallica started as a country band in Greenville, NC, and that their "crossover album", "Enter Sandman" was their first rock album. ("Enter Sandman" is the title track to their 1991 self-titled album, and while it may be their first rock album, they had four metal albums out before it, and no country albums, although vocalist James Hetfield has been known to sing in country bars.) Anyway, NXE put a lot of Xbox LIVE customers off LIVE for up to three weeks, depending upon when they updated (the problem was resolved on November 19 of last year with another update). But once they sorted out all the bugs, as was the case with Windows XP, it turned out to be a gem.

This update makes fewer important changes than NXE, and does not contain the Twitter and Facebook components featured at the Electronics Entertainment Expo (E3) last month. Twitter is an interesting website, but they can keep Facebook. If they had announced a MySpace integration, that would be noteworthy, but for social networking, I haven't seen anything that can unseat MeatSpace just yet. I have maybe four friends on Facebook - meaning, only four people I know have Facebook accounts. One of them is my wife. On MySpace, I have about 40 friends. I'm not a collector; other than a couple bands, it's just people I know in real life. So it is actually useful to me, though lately it's been much more "potentially useful" than useful, but it's nice to have one for what I do (or rather, don't do with it).

The main thing about this update seems to be the addition of a Marketplace for paid clothes and accessories for your Avatar, the little digital character which represents your profile, introduced in NXE last year. Up until this update, Microsoft have released free clothing and accessories to the pool of free items you can choose from every couple months, and I hope they continue to do so. This time it's Kanye West shades, last time it was beach-wear. Usually it's just a couple items sharing a theme; once they added over a dozen shirts for all the soccer teams. My Avatar still wears England's. Not because I watch soccer. I just like the look. (Matter of fact, you can always see my Avatar on this blog over on the right, below the About Me section.) Every update, I check the newest gear against what I already have. Will I pay $1-4 for gear for my Avatar? Probably not, unless it was something really cool. But a lot of people will, so this will make Microsoft some money against what will probably be a very minimal investment. Halo 3 and Fable II accessories are already confirmed, and Microsoft owns those franchises, so they don't have to pay anybody for the rights. They offer a telescope, which C|Net attribute to the LucasArts game "The Curse of Monkey Island", but LucasArts doesn't own the rights to a generic red telescope. The implication is there, but that's it. The telescope, and a rubber chicken, are $2 (160 Microsoft Points) each. Your Avatar can play with a remote-control toy of a Warthog, an off-road vehicle in Halo games, for $4 (320MSP). Other pricing is to be announced.

Other features include savegame timestamping, an improved Achievement browser (not shown at the C|Net link, but seen elsewhere), and a feature to let you watch movies, Mystery Science Theater 3000 style, with friends online. The library is limited, though, and all participants must not only be Xbox LIVE Gold members, but also Netflix subscribers as well.

This update was initially planned for a week ago, the 20th, but was pushed back to the 11th of August. Way I see it, that's over 3 weeks. Hopefully LIVE works when it comes down the pipes.

//Update: The update is out, and we got it. I believe it is out for everybody now, but at first, only Xbox LIVE Gold members could get it. It didn't offer it to me (my account is only Silver, as I don't play online) and I'd been playing Oblivion for three hours. As soon as Jen signed in, though, it sent it to us. Took about five minutes to download, and installed with no problems. Surprisingly, LIVE worked following the update. The avatar accessories are cool, and there are a ton of designer clothes you can buy as well, from Adidas and Quicksilver, if you're into brands. I want a lightsaber, but it's $5 - for a lightsaber for my avatar to play with. Right... Also, the stormtrooper and Obi-Wan Kenobi outfits are cool, too. Nothing I'd pay for. Avatar clothes and accessories for sale start at 50¢ and go up to $7 (though that's a $5 outfit and $2 helmet sold separately). They say you can win them in games as well, but I'm not sure if old games will be retro-patched to allow the accessories to be won, or if it's new games only. The only other feature I use is rating games. I promptly gave Oblivion my only 5-star rating. I rated Rock Band 2 4-stars, and Guitar Hero: World Tour and Grand Theft Auto 4 3-stars. (And caught some hell from Jen for rating Rock Band 2 below Oblivion, but she can rate 'em both whatever she likes under her own account.)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Amazon vs. 1984

Just yesterday, I wrote about the growing trend of Xbox 360 gamers artificially enhancing their Gamerscore, and Microsoft going into their machines and resetting their score to zero. Before that, however, and certainly more popularly, is catching hell for remotely deleting books from their own electronic book reader, the Kindle. What's worse, the book in question is none other than George Orwell's classic story of totalitarian government oppression, 1984. Sure, they refunded peoples' money, but is that enough? Amazon, some customers, and the owners of the distribution rights to 1984 seem to believe so. Others disagree.

First of all, this is not about censorship. 1984 is, as a novel, but that is beside the point. (Fahrenheit 451 would have been a much better platform to cry wolf on, had it happened to digital copies of that book, as it's about firemen who burn books.) No, it's just a matter of copyrights. Amazon, like any book seller, has the rights to sell new and used copies of virtually any book they like, from Dr. Seuss to Stephen King and from cookbooks to the Kama Sutra. (A note for young people trying to sneak into R-rated movies and play M-rated games, your local Barnes & Noble has far juicier content, including stuff you can't even see in movies and video games, and they won't stop you from reading it.) Their first copyright problems surfaced a few years or more ago when they started letting you read the book right on their web page. Not all books qualified, but for those that did, you could look at the first few pages. Some let you read a random page, up to however many pages. In any case, however, the rights of the copyright owner were always respected. And that's all this is. They thought they had the rights, and between that and learning they didn't, they sold so many copies. Remotely deleting the books, while distasteful, was just an attempt to avoid copyright infringement, which could have made them liable for millions of dollars. If I, or any of you reading, were in Amazon's shoes, you would have done the exact same thing.

Now, I've always been leery of "eBook readers" like the Kindle. You pay a couple hundred dollars for this thing, and all it can do is read books? Where's the benefit? The books still cost roughly the same. And you can't loan or give the book to a friend when you're done. You can't buy a used eBook for half the price. An eBook reader presumably takes batteries; that, or it has a rechargeable power supply like a cell phone. An eBook reader is discreet; without seeing the screen, you can't tell a person reading de Sade from somebody reading Shakespeare. On the other hand, though, you give up any claim to any kind of distinguished look you might have earned from reading classic literature if you're reading it on a screen, you look no better or smarter than somebody reading John Grisham or Nicholas Sparks on an eBook reader, so that goes both ways. Personally, I'm used to paperback books. I don't like hardcovers; they're too big. I barely tolerate the Harry Potter paperbacks, which are nearly the size of hardcovers. (Speaking of which, Book 7, "Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows" finally came out, last week, after 2 years exclusive in hardcover. While I did read spoilers, I have actually held out and have just started reading it.) I have tried to read eBooks on a laptop computer and on a modified Nintendo DS, and it just did not work for me. The one advantage I can think of is that with an eBook reader, you can set a digital bookmark which will not fall out. While a Kindle might combine the portability and ease of use of the DS with the large screen of the laptop, I'm not about to spend $200 or more to find out.

So, what am I saying? Should I have to spell it out? $200 (or more!) for an eBook reader, plus $9.99 for a book that's inconvenient to read that can be remotely deleted... or just $9.99 for a book they can't take back, with the option to get it less secondhand, and/or resell to get some of my money back? (Amazon has a flat shipping rate for sellers of $3.99 per book, and I know it doesn't cost half that, so I'm guaranteed at least $2 back if I sell it for just a penny.) And considering that a book is still the best value in entertainment (though Oblivion on the Xbox 360 is quite a contender; I've got 85+ hours into that sucker and I still ain't halfway done), that ain't bad. eBook readers just screw it all up. This issue though, it's nothing, at the most it's just icing on the cake, or rather, the final nail in the coffin.

Do you care about your Xbox 360 Gamerscore?

If you have an Xbox 360, do you care about your Gamerscore?

If you don't have an Xbox 360, this video game console has a new system not seen previously in video game systems. It has a system-wide system of tracking Achievements from game to game. An Achievement is a kind of trophy given for accomplishing a certain feat in a game, and it comes with an icon, a name, a description, and a point value of one Gamerscore or more. Every Xbox 360 game has at least 1000 Gamerscore total (some have more), and each game can have up to 99 Achievements. Some games are more generous, with huge rewards for finishing the game and certain milestones, while others are more conservative, instead offering dozens of Achievements for finding various secrets in the game.

Most people earn their Gamerscore by playing games, but others cheat to raise theirs. You can give somebody you trust your username and password, and they can "recover" your profile to their Xbox and earn you achievements; usually they do this for Microsoft Points (the currency on Xbox Live, which costs $1 for every 80 points) or other online currency. Some do it for free. When they're done, you recover your profile back, and, if you're smart, change your password back. I have never done this, I've only heard. There are also various hacks which will raise your Gamerscore exponentially. One, as I understand it, figures out the total possible Gamerscore one could have if one bought every single Xbox 360 game and unlocked every Achievement for each one - something like a quarter-million points.

However, Microsoft not only disapproves of Gamerscore manipulation and outright hacking, but they will reset your Gamerscore if they catch you at it. They will also revoke your online privileges, even if you're paid up a full year in advance. In the worst cases, they will blacklist your entire Xbox, so if you had, say, six accounts paid up for a year in advance (a cost of $300) you would not be able to play online, and you wouldn't be able to recover any of that money.

The thing is, do we care enough about Gamerscore that this is such a big deal that we approve of Microsoft cheating people out of their money? More importantly, how do we feel about Microsoft having that level of control? Mind you, these people are not (necessarily) cheating in online matches. They're simply raising a score, which hurts nobody at all. You cannot buy anything with Gamerscore; it's worthless except, maybe, for bragging rights. But if you have a quarter-million Gamerscore, is that really worth bragging about? I would say anything over 100,000 is evidence of manipulation of some kind. I would say that a Gamerscore of 25,000 or more belongs to somebody who has absolutely no life. My wife's brother has about 13,000, he's had his Xbox 360 for three years, and he hasn't had a job in that time. His girlfriend had a good job, and was able to support his gaming habit while he (read: his friends and family) looked after the kids. He has that plan with Blockbuster where, for $22 a month, you can rent one game at a time for as long as you like. He rents a game, plays it until he beats it, and then returns it for the next game. He doesn't seek all 1000 (or more) Gamerscore from a game, but he does complete the main objectives, which get him between 40% and 75% of the total Gamerscore.

I have about 2900 Gamerscore; Jen has close to 2200. And we've had ours nearly a year and a half. I would not care if Microsoft reset my Gamerscore. It means nothing to me. Sure, it's nice to get the Achievements, and it's extra nice when they're worth more (like 50, as opposed to 10), but it's never more fun than actually earning the Achievements. If I wanted to jack up my Gamerscore, I could rent Avatar: The Last Airbender (a fighting game); I understand it's not only possible, but very easy, to rack up 1000 Gamerscore inside of about five minutes from the start of the game. But I don't want that game on my profile; I don't want it known that I was willing to put a stupid game from a stupid franchise on my Gamertag's profile just to raise my Gamerscore. I'd rather earn fewer points by playing games I'm proud to have on my record. Not that I've never played a stupid game; Dash of Destruction is a free Arcade game sponsored by Doritos worth 200 or 250 Gamerscore. I got it for Jen to help her catch up, but it actually looked fun, so I played it until it wasn't. I got some points from it, but nowhere near the total. Jen got all the Achievements but one, so she got more from it than I did. And that's fine, she wants a higher score, but she mostly sticks to games with "Guitar" and "Band" in the title. I've played through The Orange Box and Oblivion, and those games hand out Gamerscore like candy. Assassins Creed and Mass Effect were also both good for Gamerscore, but they bored me, so I stopped playing them. Grand Theft Auto IV is a little more conservative, still gives Gamerscore, but not as much as the others; it bored me as well, so I put it down. I am going to strive for all 1250 Gamerscore associated with Oblivion, but not because I need the score to stroke my ego, but because I love the game and want to get everything out of it. But I'm also doing things that don't get me Gamerscore, too; I'm going for 100% completion, which just happens to result in getting 1250/1250 along the way.

So that brings us back to Microsoft. How comfortable are we with Microsoft policing video games? Sure, crack down on people cheating in online matches. I'm fine with that. If people want to cheat, though, don't take away their access if they want to pay. Just create a new Gamerzone (e.g. Pro, Recreation, Underground, Family) called Cheaters, or perhaps Hackers, and lock them in it. Make a new option in the profile called "Play with cheaters?" and set it to NO by default. Cheaters would thus only be able to play with other Cheaters, and with those brave souls who enabled play with cheaters (which is what their friends would have to do to play with them). Sure, crack down on people putting offensive language in their profile. I'm fine with that, too. The Xbox 360 is a family-friendly console, and people actively undermining that are threatening Microsoft's financial situation. Sure, crack down on people modifying their Xbox to play copied games. I am fine with that as well. Video games cost millions of dollars to develop, just like films. I do not agree that Microsoft should be able to remotely kill an Xbox 360, if their employee they laid off can be believed, but Verizon does something similar with their phones, they can remotely disable a phone's ability to charge its battery, forcing you to buy a new phone. That ain't just crazy talk, either, they did it to me in 2004. I couldn't afford a new phone, either, and they said they'd rather I just cancel my service than let me continue charging the battery until I could. So I guess when you're at the top, you can set the rules like that. But Microsoft's video game competitor, Sony, is no better. Sony put a nasty computer virus on music CDs with the understanding that anyone who puts a CD into their computer is probably intent on distributing it online. Meanwhile, thousands of people, perhaps millions, downloaded the album on BitTorrent and other networks, courtesy of Linux users who were unaffected by the virus, which affected Windows and Mac OS systems only. Playing by the rules is no safe harbor either; users who updated to Microsoft's new Dashboard for the Xbox 360 last November were blocked from Xbox Live for up to three weeks if they were not part of Microsoft's beta team. Too bad the download and the installation didn't say that. Whoops. Not to mention the whole Verizon thing, or fans of music on Sony's BMG label who just wanted to play music on their computer that they'd bought legally.

So again, how important is Gamerscore that it's worth making such a big deal out of?

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Bought Our First New Car

Pretty sure I didn't post about my last car, the 1996 Ford Contour, going out back in March or April. For reasons unknown, it blew a head gasket and was in the shop for a full month getting fixed. Well, despite being "fixed", it blew the head gasket again a week ago, last Saturday morning as I got off work. Granted, I left the water cap off when I put water in it, but that couldn't have been the only thing, as it had been acting up for a while. Plus, when we got the water back in it and the reservoir covered, it continued to act up, so either something wasn't done right before, and/or the guy who owned it before was overly rought with it. It's probably a bit of both.

The problem with buying a used car, whether you buy it from a private citizen or a dealership, is in ten out of ten cases, you are buying somebody else's problem. They had some reason for getting rid of it. OK, there's the occasional story about the widow who's selling her husband's car, which works perfectly, just to rid herself of the memory... but that's also a one in a million shot. If you buy a used car, you can expect that something is wrong beyond what you're being told, if you're told anything at all. And I wasn't. I was told it was normal for Fords to idle so roughly; I was told that it didn't need a thermostat or an oxygen sensor; I was told that it was OK for the "check engine" light to be on; I was told that it was "all in my head". Clearly it wasn't, as the car can't be driven five miles without inexplicably dying. But, it served its purpose. My 1987 Acura Legend was a good car, and lasted me just over six years, before the engine jumped timing and bent the valves. I didn't expect to keep that Contour long, but it lasted me until I was able to get something better. No hard feelings in any case, but it is what it is, it isn't what it ain't, and now I do have something better, so it's all good.

So, we decided to see what it would take to get a new car. I've driven a lot of cars, mostly for work, but also through rentals. In 2006 we rented a 2007 Subaru Impreza to drive to Connecticut and back. In 2008 we rented a Dodge Grand Caravan for the same trip, a 2008 or 2009. In 2007, when we visited California, we rented a 2008 Nissan Versa hatchback, and I really liked it. So we made our first stop Greenville Nissan, just to see what we could do. Well, we met with a salesman, he showed us the lot, we looked at Versa sedans and hatchbacks, and we picked out a black hatchback. My credit was ran, and yes, he said, they could put us in a new car, especially if we participated in the recent economic/environmental stimulus plan "Cash for Clunkers" the government just started doing this week (great timing, eh?). If the new car gets 5-9 miles to the gallon more than the trade-in, it's worth $3500. If the new car gets 10 or more miles to the gallon more, it's worth $4500. And the trade-in must be 25 years old or less, it can't be a classic. We qualified for the first tier with Chuggy (Jen's car). (The Contour would not have qualified.) But we were told to come back the following morning, as they were about to close.

Well, we managed to get out of bed at 9AM (a previously unheard-of feat for us) and get to the dealership by 10, but we ran into a new problem. They wouldn't let me do the Cash for Clunkers program myself because Chuggy was in Jen's name. She couldn't sign it over to me, either, because it has to have been owned and operated for one year. And Nissan didn't like Jen's credit score. Oops. So what they had to do is, put us both down as co-owners, but still, one co-owner having a score under the level they like (and the other just barely over it) didn't look good. When we had to leave for me to take Jen to work, however, they let us take the Versa, and told us the car had to be back by Thursday, at which point they should have it finalized. They woke me up the following morning (as I kept the phone in the room with me) and told me to bring it back Friday, and the paperwork would be finalized then, as Nissan had approved the credit. But the paperwork said Thursday, I told him, so we went to Greenville just for them to change one digit on a piece of paper.

The car has a 13.2 gallon tank, and it was full when we drove it off the lot Tuesday. Thursday night when I had to go to work, I'd put over 250 miles on it, and the tank was around a quarter tank. So I put $20 in. About filled it up, too. Shouldn't have put so much in, I later learned. Hindsight, 20/20 and all that. Anyway, yesterday morning, I get off at 7, I'm home by 7:40, in bed ten minutes later, and up with the alarm (or maybe just before?) two hours later. On two hours' sleep, I got dressed, and we went back to Greenville. Thankfully, Jen drove. She got a full nights' sleep, or close enough to it. Or at least she could have, having gotten off work at midnight the previous night. Three hours of waiting, finally we go into the office to sign the paperwork. 45 minutes or so later, we're the proud owners of a black 2009 Nissan Versa hatchback... that we'll be paying on for the next six years. Still, it has a 100,000 mile warranty, everything's covered except the gas and maintenance (oil changes are free, but we gotta pay for things like tire rotation, alignment, etc.).

So what's this bad boy got? Black exterior, cream interior, partial leather or pleather trim (don't care if it ain't real, it looks nice), cruise control, air conditioning (haven't had either in years), a six-disc CD changer with auxilliary input (for Mp3 players, or my phone) and six speakers (sounds good, too), rear-window wiper, his-and-hers keyless entry/power locks/keys, power windows and mirrors... Generally a nice car, but not fully loaded, either. But not the base model either, it's an SL. Oh yeah, automatic transmission, and a CVT transmission, which means "constantly variable transmission". You can't even feel it shifting, and when it's stopped but running, you can't even feel the engine running. It's also the first car I've owned with drink holders, so that's a big plus, as I drink a lot of coffee, soda, bottled water, etc. I intended to install deer warning whistles on the front, but they have to be glued on, and I just can't bring myself to do it. And I want a steering wheel cover, but I want a hard rubber one like I had in the Legend, and then the Contour, and the only cream-colored ones Walmart has are soft. I'll have to check Auto Zone and Advance Auto Parts. Maybe the Greenville Walmart. And we got a litter bag to put over the passenger seat. No more throwing trash on the floorboards in the back like we've done with previous cars, this car's staying nice as long as possible. Wish us luck with that one, we live in a swamp, just about, but I think I can keep it clean if I keep on it. It's a very nice-looking car, unlike, well... the Legend was classy, if you like the boxy 80s style, which I did, and still do. The Contour wasn't ugly, but it was boring. It was just OK. Looked like any other mid-90s Ford. Escort and Taurus looked the same, just shorter or longer.

Now we have a Reliable Car. Not one that we get in and hope it starts. We definitely have to worry about making the payments, but they aren't bad. What's gonna hurt is the insurance, since we have to have full coverage on it. And we don't know what that will be yet. Also - while I love this car - in a couple years, we'll both have built credit with Nissan, plus they have an automatic approval for current customers, so if we want, we'll be able to trade up. Maybe we'll get an Altima Hybrid. I don't know. It's too far ahead to think about. I'm just thinking, when this car is paid off, we'll have just celebrated our ninth anniversary, and we've just been married 3 years now. Hell, six years means 2015, and half the nuts in the world are sure the world ends on December 12, 2012. Just like it did on January 1, 2000, I suppose.

Anyway, this means we're down to one vehicle. One blew up, and the other is getting recycled, to put a huge dent in what we owe Nissan. Well, Jen told her mother, and her mother's giving her her Jeep, since she recently picked up a new Dodge Caravan, very similar to the one we rented, perhaps a couple years older. It's just got a leaking transmission pan, cracked windshield, and the driver's side door does not register as closed, so either that fuse has to be pulled, or the battery must be disconnected, because the "you idiot, you left the door open" beeper will actually drain the battery. Her mom went with the latter, not sure why, maybe she couldn't find the fuse, maybe the problem's more than that, I don't know, but it'll be a cheaper and quicker repair than the Contour, and Jen's never been a Ford fan anyway. So we're selling the Contour back to our mechanic, who we bought it from, for an "open" sum (he's going to forgive what we owe on it, plus do some of the repair work on the Jeep for free, and sell the Contour for parts).

Oh yeah. Wanna see it? Here's our new baby:

As usual with pictures here, click on them to see them full-size.

Friday, July 24, 2009 Sweeps Awards

How about some actual NEWS on this blog, eh? has swept's Community Choice Awards 2009, taking four awards in the following categories: "Best Visual Design", "Best Commercial Open Source Project", "Most Likely to Change the Way You Do Everything", and "Best Project".

"Best Visual Design" is sort of a vague category. How a program looks, I would think, to those who follow open source, is entirely secondary to how useful it is. If a program isn't worth a damn but looks good, it's worthless. If the program is good and it's ugly, it doesn't matter. But if it can look good and be useful, well, that's just nice. The Platform (PAP) isn't all that pretty - unless you like red, that is - but skins can make it very nice. The latest PAP, just in time for CCA '09, includes a half-dozen color schemes for the same skin. Green, my favorite color, is more of a teal. Black, my second choice, is just a dark grey. And on top of all that, the lighting in the skin is just funky. Thankfully users can make their own themes, and there are some very good ones out there. On top of that, the developers' apathy (one such topic, they usually wind up deleted) towards the community's requests to add folders makes the visual design feel weak (though I'm not sure if that would go under design or function), and still, the menu can display 20 programs and it can put your favorites on top. So while I have plenty to say about the visual design, I still voted for out of loyalty, and I'm not unhappy to see it snag this one. Not a lot of programs look great "out of the box", but does try.

"Best Commercial Open Source Project" doesn't make sense, since the menu and programs are free. However, I'm told that it qualifies because is seeking alliances with flash drive manufacturers to brand their drives with the PA logo and include the Platform and several of the apps, and this is a commercial venture. It hasn't happened yet, and I don't know why; what good is a flash drive other than running portable applications? A giant floppy disk? You can use the Internet for that. For storage, DVD-ROM is cheaper and more reliable. Even though I can probably do it for less, I would buy flash drives with PortableApps branding, both to support the project, and as a gift. But they better team up with Corsair or OCZ, because portable applications aren't worth a crap on slow flash drives. USB 2.0 is pretty much a must, and the flash memory inside must be fast. As it is, VLC Media Player and OpenOffice take a minute or more to open, and some of Firefox 3's security features must be disabled for it to work at all, otherwise it will just halt for several seconds at a time, every few seconds. It's a mess, but hopefully's wins at CCA '09 will push for faster flash drives.

"Most Likely to Change the Way You Do Everything" is the category I was most excited about, and, to be honest, the only category I cared about winning. The other contenders included a Linux distribution, an audio editor, a media player, a password safe, and some stuff I'd never heard of. Nothing worthy of such a title., on the other hand... you can't get closer to what that title stands for than running programs on a flash drive which run in a virtual sandbox and run the same from computer to computer. They're not limited to flash drives, either: if you can plug your phone into your computer, you can use that, too. Same for iPods and other portable media players, digital cameras, the Sony PSP... pretty much everything that you can plug into a computer and is recognized as a drive that you can store files on. Just carry the cable. Or install it on a second hard drive, internal or external. Then, should you choose to upgrade to Windows 7 (bad idea) or Vista (worse idea), or you're using one of those and you're going back to XP (smart move), your portable applications will work just the same, no need to reinstall them, no need to configure them. Get a big external hard drive, and keep all your multimedia on it, put the portable apps on that, and then when you go somewhere, carry it all with you. It's great. I believe application portability is even more important than netbooks and other small laptops. You go somewhere, you don't need a tiny computer, you just need portable applications, because most likely, where you're going, there'll be a computer. Nearly all the benefits of having your own computer can be gotten by having portable applications on a flash drive.

"Best Project" is a hell of a shocker and I don't think anybody actually expected to take it. When you think open source, you think Linux - for over a decade the terms were virtually interchangeable. Then there's Firefox. Some might even know, the free alternative to Microsoft Office. Or VLC Media Player, the all-playing media player. You can load it on a computer with a DVD-ROM drive but that will not play DVDs, and VLC will play the discs, no problem. Or if you have movies stored on your flash drive, that works just as well. So there are a lot of great open source projects out there. I suppose what sets apart is that anybody can take advantage of it. OpenOffice might be great for businesses, but what does it do for media junkies and web surfers? Probably not much. Likewise with Firefox and VLC Media Player. But's Suite includes all of it. Or you can do what I do (and strongly recommend, as the Suite doesn't get updated, like... ever) and just download the Platform and get your apps a la carte, just get what you want. And on top of that, isn't the only place to get portable applications, it's just the best, they stick to open source, and their stuff is tested. I know of a portable warez site that churns out over 60 portable applications a month, but can the same quality as be expected? Maybe some of them don't need PA's attention to detail, but I'm sure some do.

Other winners include: phpMyAdmin (Best Tool or Utility for SysAdmins), XMind (Best Project for Academia), Audacity (Best Project for Multimedia), Notepad++ (Best Tool or Utility for Developers), ScummVM (Best Project for Gamers), Firebird (Best Project for the Enterprise), (Best Project for Government), and eeebuntu (Best New Project). Notes: Audacity is the audio editor I was making a dig at in the "Most Likely to Change..." category, though I use it to make ringtones. It's really a great program, and ironically is shunning the latest version, despite it having clear advantages over the one they do offer. The official reason is that it's labeled as beta software, which is not only common for open source in general, but it's also the state of the current Platform. ScummVM is a neat program which loads games created in LucasArts' SCUMM engine, most famously used by Maniac Mansion, but also for a game I grew up with, Zak McKracken and the Alien Mindbenders. What ScummVM doesn't do, however, is break the clever copy protection in these games. Zak, for example, constantly asks for codes which were printed in black on a dark maroon sheet that came with the game, and copies of that document just don't exist anymore. Oh well, I suppose it's the thought that counts.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

"Firefly" reviewed

Is it Serenity, or Firefly, or...? This point had me confused for a while. Let me spell it out for you. Serenity is the name of the ship used in the show and the film. It's named after Serenity Valley, a famous battle two of the main characters were involved in. Serenity is the name of the pilot (first episode) and the feature film which follows the end of the series. Firefly is the name of the show, and Serenity the ship is a Firefly-class vessel. Clear? If not, see all the things Firefly refers to on Wikipedia.

Anyway, Firefly, as well as the first Serenity, the pilot (but not so much the feature film) is a Western which happens to take place in the future - over 500 years, to be exact. The United States and China pretty much ruled the world in peace, but due to overcrowding, they exiled much (if not all) of the population to the stars, to a new solar system where they found a dozen or so planets, all capable of sustaining life. They terraformed the planets, and tried to start an interstellar parliament, but the outer worlds wanted to stay independent, and a civil war broke out. The Independents lost, and its members generally make up the lower class in the new world (galaxy) order.

Unlike the other space-faring sci-fi shows (Star Trek, Babylon 5, and Battlestar Galactica), Firefly doesn't feature any fancy technology, other than space-faring vessels. Faster-than-light travel must exist, but it's never discussed. At all. Ships don't have weapons to shoot each other with, or at least Serenity doesn't (it's a cargo ship). No teleporters whatsoever. Guns fire bullets. There are a couple laser guns, but they're fancy and rare. The bad guys are kind of like the Empire in Star Wars, and the good guys are outlaws. Kind of like in Star Wars, I guess, but without lasers. And no magic, either, although they do have a latent telepath, and they do have some pretty impressive fighting, though mostly only in the feature film.

The Western element shows in how people dress and act, at least on the outer worlds. And the sort of code of honor among the band of outlaws. A newcomer to the crew tells the captain (a real cowboy) he's afraid he'll shoot him in his sleep. The captain says to him, "If I shoot you, you'll be awake, you'll have a gun in your hand, and you'll be facing me." Scenes and lines like this define most of the characters, at least the main crew. In the pilot episode, the crew picks up a priest who is more than he lets on (though they never fully explain him) and a pair of relatively young siblings, a genius doctor who rescued his sister from a research lab, and now they're both on the run.

The show only lasted for one season, but was followed by a good feature film, and, though short, is definitely worth watching. A couple issues are left unresolved, but it isn't anything major; they wrapped up all they wanted to wrap up, being aware the show was being canceled before they finished making it, so anything left open by the show is mostly answered in the movie.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

$2M for 24 songs?

By now anyone not spent the last week in a cave has probably heard that a jury somewhere in the middle of Nowhere (Minnesota?) awarded that modern Mafia, the RIAA, nearly $2 million, to be paid by a working mother of two or four, depending on who you read, because she or her kids downloaded 24 songs on KaZaA. On iTunes, in America, songs go for 99¢ apiece, but I've heard in Europe they go for what amounts to $1.29. I pay 160 Microsoft Points ($2) for songs in Rock Band, but those aren't just songs, they include nine instrument tracks (3 difficulties times 3 instruments), a vocal track with lyrics, a couple facts about the band for the loading screens, and sometimes, custom band gestures for the virtual band on the stage (though Guitar Hero is bigger on this point). Even at $2, 24 songs are only worth $48. 24 into the $1.92 million award means each song got paid for, at the $1 rate, 80,000 times. Given the way file sharing networks work, you're not going to share a song you downloaded 80,000 times. I guess it depends.

Impulse or nonpayment?
The RIAA would like the general public to think that every song downloaded is a sale lost. Just ask yourself, of all the songs you've downloaded, would you have paid a buck for each one if you couldn't get it for free, or are there some you got just because? (Everyone downloads, including the "high and mighty" on Internet forums who say they've never downloaded - 9 times out of 10 those are the biggest pirates, testing the waters or somesuch.) So while every download represents a kind of interest, it doesn't exactly translate to a lost sale. Besides, it's clearly not lost sales they're concerned about, per se - how many sales will they lose with a $1.92 million fine? I'd say all of them; she's not going to be in a position to buy a CD for quite some time, and people all over are calling for boycotts of music from RIAA-represented labels.

From lost sales to sales
The recording industry's biggest challenge right now is converting lost sales, real or imaginary, to real sales that bring in money. CDs alone are pretty useless; since so many people play music on portable devices now, "ripping" a CD is almost too much work, so acquiring digital files is now the new thing, but the early players - mostly iTunes, but others as well - loaded the music with copy protection, which the industry demanded to keep piracy in check. Problem is, CDs remained more convenient - you could still rip a CD. But more cars play CDs than Mp3s, and more home stereos play CDs than Mp3s as well. So, though CDs can be burned from digital audio files, CDs remain relevant. But it's not just a convenient format - music has to be desirable. The packaging is a good place to start. When I was a kid, albums and tapes came with lyrics, and liner notes, and pictures. You can download that stuff, but the original packaging, back then, was special. They don't really do that anymore. All you get now is just the track listing, and that leads some to wonder, "why not just download it?" On top of that, so many people are saying the quality of music is deteriorating. Perhaps the labels should be listening to these prospective customers? But by far, the most ambitious method they've used to get sales, to get people buying music again, is the Rock Band franchise. This "game" lets you play along with music on plastic instruments, and it's available for all gaming consoles, even the last-generation PlayStation 2. It's not very demanding as far as games go and really only amounts to a puzzle game, at best, but it's getting people buying music. We've spent more on songs than we have on both Rock Band and Rock Band 2. We have 332 songs on our Xbox 360's hard drive. More importantly, not one downloadable Rock Band song has been pirated yet. You can pirate the game disc itself, which includes 55 songs (Rock Band) or 84 songs (Rock Band 2), but you need a modified console to do it, and not that many people actually do. And since it came out that the Xbox 360 has a killswitch Microsoft can flip if they catch you modifying that console, it's a really stupid thing to try.

Computer security
In the 1990s, we learned that a computer must have antivirus. In the later part of that decade, anti-spyware became the next big security measure to take. Now, a computer must additionally have PeerGuardian. The developers of PeerGuardian track the RIAA and other anti-filesharing companies and maintain a list of the IP addresses of these computers, and prevent these computers from even seeing your computer. So say you're downloading a song that is hosted by the RIAA. Your filesharing client will basically act like nobody who has the file is actually sharing it, when, in truth, all of the peers are blocked. You can see them but they cannot see you, so they are not going to share with you. Now, once some poor schmuck who isn't using PG downloads the song, you can download from them, and when they catch a C&D letter, you won't get one at all. Welcome to the third tier of computer security: anti-spy. A secure machine must now protect against viruses, malware, and online spies in order to be safe. Because now they don't just want to damage your computer. They don't just want to use your computer as a slave to attack other machines. Now they want to get to you through your computer and attack your economic situation; essentially, they want to rob you through your computer. "Don't they have the right..." No, they don't have the right to take away our Fourth Amendment rights, which protect us from unlawful searches, which is what this amounts to.

What comes next?
It should be obvious to the casual observer that the RIAA is not going to collect $1.92 million from this case. The RIAA traditionally offers a settlement in the neighborhood of $3,000-$5,000 to keep the case from going to trial, and they haven't ruled out closing the door on that offer, even though the case has been decided for much higher. That would stem any argument that the woman would never be able to pay the fine. It would be a huge economical hardship, but not impossible. Still, it would be a huge loss for the RIAA, twofold at that. First, the case has cost them a lot of money already, money they're not going to fully recover regardless. And second, if this woman has to pay anything above her means, she's probably never going to purchase a CD ever again. (Would you?) On top of that, people across the Internet are calling for a boycott of RIAA-backed labels' music. There is really just no easy solution for the RIAA. If they don't go after people for downloading music, more people will do it. The more they do, however, the more people hate them. And if you go onto an Internet forum populated by members of sites like The Pirate Bay and isoHunt and ask them what the RIAA should do, the unanimous answer will sound something like "roll over and die". Of course, if they disbanded tomorrow, and the record companies they represent all folded, the impact on the economy would be severe, as they do employ thousands. And of course, if they go under, who will bring us the popular music we like? Radiohead was able to offer their album "In Rainbows", I believe it is, for "whatever cost you feel like paying, including nothing" because they're already an established act. Millions of unsigned bands have been giving away music on MySpace and through other venues for years; it hasn't gotten them signed, let alone Radiohead-level fame (which, I admit, is quite a ways away from, say, Metallica fame, or better yet, The Beatles fame, but I digress).

In short, the recording industry needs to look at what's working and what isn't. Some things they're doing are effective, such as songs in Rock Band; also, microSD cards for phones which contain full albums in MP3 format. That's brilliant. Services like iTunes and its competitors are a good idea, moreso now that they're using regular MP3s, not copy-protected AAC and WMA files. Financially wrecking otherwise honest Americans is not working, however, and especially in this recession, amounts to both class warfare and economic terrorism. It's that serious. It's $1.92 million serious.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Portable Applications, and Right & Wrong

A few months ago, I wrote about this great new technology in PC computing called "portable applications" by which applications were not installed (to Windows and its Registry), as usual, but rather installed (to a flash drive, usually, and set up for portability) and then could be used on any computer. Normally, when you install a program, the old way, it is tied to that Windows installation. You can't move the program's folder to a flash drive and run it on another computer, because it hasn't got those roots. Likewise, you can't reinstall Windows and expect the program to still work, for the same reason. And why should it be this way? Why should a program which has nothing to do with Windows be tied to Windows? The most practical reason is file associations. Generally, you want your media player to open your music and video files when you double-click on them. Nevermind the fact that, if you're not careful, a Windows Media Player upgrade will steal those associations away. Also never mind the fact that virtually every media player has a means to open media files themselves. Most also let you "drop" media files on them to play them. The double-click method is the most convenient, sure, but you can set this up without having to tie a program to the system. Internet Explorer wasn't even part of Windows initially, but since the third edition of Windows 95 (colloquially referred to as "Windows 97" but more lengthly titled "Microsoft Windows 95 Microsoft Internet Explorer" on the loading screen) it has been. Before that, it was its own program and Windows Explorer, the file manager in Windows, was completely different. Does anybody remember Windows Explorer before it was married to IE?

All in all, portable applications are great. You can take your favorite programs and their settings you've fine-tuned over the years from computer to computer. And all portable applications are free and open-source, right? Well, that's what their chief proponent,, might have you believe. Well, another advantage to a complex installation is that if your program is commercial, it can also be tied to one user and steps can be taken to ensure it isn't being shared by all your friends. Of course, software piracy is even older than music and movie piracy; it's been going on for years. Software that's controlled by alphanumeric codes (like Windows) is shared with a code that works. Software that's controlled by online activation (like Windows XP and newer) is shared with altered files which have been tricked into believing they've been activated. But not everybody can follow often simple instructions to get a downloaded version of a commercial program (such as Adobe Photoshop, one of the biggest targets of software piracy) to work. Portability to the rescue. Once an application is thusly cracked, it can be made portable, and then the process is automated for everybody. Make no mistake, this is illegal as hell, but it's done every day and fewer than a thousandth of a percent of software pirates are ever convicted of a crime or sued. If that.

But while most people honestly know that pirating paid applications like Windows and Photoshop are illegal, did you know that it is also a violation of many free programs' end-user license agreement (EULA) to redistribute them without permission? Technically, while you can download and use programs like Winamp (a media player) and CCleaner (a computer maintenance program) free of charge, you can't burn them on a CD and pass them off to your friends. You can tell them where to get the programs, or email them the links to the official webpage, but you can't just redistribute them. But wait, you say, what about sites like, Softpedia, and FileHippo? These sites get permission, and that's OK. If you, a nobody on the Internet, email AOL (they publish Winamp) or Piriform (they make CCleaner) and ask for permission to share their programs with your friends, your emails will probably go unanswered, or you'll get a nice form letter thanking you for your interest and directing your questions to the program's homepage. On the other hand, if you pass off the programs, nobody will care, most likely. But what about Firefox and VLC Media Player (formerly known as VideoLAN)? These programs are open source, which is supposed to be the big savior of software. While open source is freer than freeware, there are still some caveats. For open source, you have to share the source as well. Firefox, despite popular belief, is not 100% open source. The logo and name are trademarks of Mozilla. You can redistribute Firefox the program, but you cannot call it Firefox, or use the logo. People do do this, of course - Iceweasel is one, and Blackbird is another. Both are basically Firefox, but they have a new logo and name. I don't recall what the story is with Iceweasel, but Blackbird has a black theme and is set up with bookmarks and extensions which, as a complete package, are supposed to make it the ideal web browser for African-Americans, whatever that means. Sounds separatist to me. As a "white boy", I'm highly tempted to use it, just for laughs. "Hey, I'm rockin' BLACKBIRD..." Heh...

So anyway, they tell me over at that it is in fact illegal to redistribute closed-source free programs like CCleaner and Winamp (CCleaner is the more usual target of these discussions, Winamp is just my example) and that it is illegal to redistribute open source software without the source code. And they get pretty serious about these things, too! While I admire their dedication to righting wrongs, I find hypocrisy in the fact that they publish portable versions of emulators, programs used to play old console games. Specifically, they carry programs which emulate NES, Super NES, and Game Boy Advance games. Now, personally, I have no problems with emulators or people who use them. I really don't. I've in fact used two of the three programs they offer - the NES emulator I used was another one. Not too sure about the one they have, but it must be good if they chose it. And here's the thing I've tried to explain to them: Nintendo has never authorized the use of those games on personal computers, and in fact they speak out against it at great length. Some console games were available on other systems, including PCs (MS-DOS, usually). Some were ported to newer consoles (the Game Boy Advance has a "NES Classics" series, for example; also the Nintendo DS features a Nintendo 64 game). Konami even released both Contra and all three Castlevania games for the NES on the PC, using what amounted to an emulator. That's all fine and that's all legal, but at the end of the day, Nintendo has license agreements in every game manual saying the game is only licensed for use on the console it was designed for.

In their defense, members of the forum have offered a couple defenses. First, they argue that emulators don't violate any licenses, it's the ROMs (the game files) that do, and they don't offer them. True, but the emulator is good for nothing other than running these ROMs. They argue that programs like VLC can be used to play pirated music and video files. This is also true, but they have many legal uses as well. There are no legal uses of emulators. Second, they've argued that they use emulators for "homebrew", software written by others to run on consoles. That's cute on the console, but running console homebrew on a console emulator is pointless. The point of homebrew is to extend the features of the console. There's no console homebrew which beats the equivalent software on a PC. Furthermore, they failed to name any of any merit. They've also argued that they play games they still own, but the consoles have fallen into disrepair and have been given or thrown away. When I asked if they actually kept all those games in a drawer, that question went unanswered as well. Essentially, they were blowing smoke, covering up the fact that they have no respect for Nintendo's licenses of paid software (games). Also, most of these defenses are answered by Nintendo's legal FAQ. Yet they will go to war over freeware, and open source, particularly Firefox.

Now, I know I sound like a real bastard saying all this. The truth of the matter, actually, is that I really don't care if people use emulators. I've used them. They just don't make games like they used to. Games used to be fun, so fun we didn't care how bad they looked. They looked good to us not because they did, but because they were fun and we genuinely loved playing them. Now it's all about polygon counts and frame rates. Games push people to buy a new computer every year just to keep up, but are the games actually getting better? Quite the opposite, in fact. There are some great games out there, but they're so few and far between. Deus Ex (2000). Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (2004). The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (2006). Rock Band 2 (2008). Deus Ex: The Nameless Mod (2009, independently produced!). There are more, I know I'm forgetting a few, but this decade, compared with the last, is quite shameful for gaming. Those are some of the shining stars, though. So yeah, emulation is fine by me. But so are sites that redistribute Firefox and other free programs. They're fine by me. I do not see the problem. I do not see the problem with people downloading old console games they have no legal business playing on their PC, for a good many reasons, so who bloody cares if somebody passes along free software to a friend? Not I, that's for sure.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

What Works (and Doesn't) With Pro Wrestling

When I moved out here, I hadn't seen a total hour of pro wrestling in my life. Once I saw my youngest brother watching WCW Monday Nitro back in the 90s. On commercials, he'd flip over to the other channel and look at WWF Monday Night RAW for a while. Later I found out my wife used to do the same thing. I started out following her favorite wrestler, Mick Foley, on Monday Night RAW (now WWE) watching with her sister's boyfriend at the time, letting her know what was going on with the soap opera side of the show as I had Mondays off and she had to work. Didn't take long before I was hooked, and now it's almost four years later and I can't help but fancy myself a bit of an expert. I know there's a lot I haven't seen, though I've been watching RAW for a quarter of the 16 years it's been on TV (which is kinda scary). It's getting to the point where I feel like there's nothing new and it's time for a drastic change. So I have a few ideas I'd like to throw out there.

1. The WWE really needs to stop using the commercial breaks as a plot twist. It's extremely lame and screams to the audience "if you still don't think wrestling's fake, you're a bloody idiot". Here's what'll happen. The good guy (the babyface, or face, in backstage terminology) will build a good momentum against the bad guy (the heel), and typically knock them under or over the ropes to the outside area, between the ring and the crowd. Fade to black. Four minutes of commercials. Fade in from black. Face is on his back in the ring and Heel is beating the crap out of him. RAW isn't live anyway (despite them saying it is - half the time they don't even tell you where they are) so why not simply pause the broadcast at the commercial and resume where they left off? And it happens this way all the time. Another easy solution would be to plan the commercial breaks around the matches. Sometimes, toward the end they'll have an ad break, then an interview or sponsored segment (e.g. a "Just for Men" ad on the bottom half and a recap from last week on the top half), then another ad break, then one of the combatants will go to the ring, then a third ad break, then the other combatant will come out, the match starts, and we get a fourth and sometimes fifth ad break in the middle. I don't mind the frequent ad breaks near the end, but I'd prefer them not in the middle of matches, and then used as a quick reversal.

2. Characters, characters, characters. The Undertaker is one of WWE's most valuable assets, and most fans don't know the man's real name is Mark Calloway (or that he's in a serious relationship with Michelle McCool - I forget her real last name). They don't care, they love The Undertaker, and that's fine. Nevermind that from when his music hits, you can order a pizza, smoke a cigarette, take a #2 bathroom break, pay for your pizza, and have the pizza mostly finished by the time Taker removes his hat. No, I can't say anything bad about The Undertaker - he's a character done right. What I'd like to see less of is characters modeled after and/or named after real people they aren't related to or movie characters from movies not made by WWE. If WWE wanted to make a movie with one of their wrestlers and then incorporate the movie character into the wrestler's character, that's cool. They kind of did that with John Cena and "The Marine". Before the movie came out, he went from being a rapper/thug to being a Marine, or at least a generic army guy. And that's fine, too. But John Morrison (a parody of The Doors' Jim Morrison) and Evan Bourne (a parody, possibly, but more likely a tribute to Jason Bourne, of the Bourne trilogy of books and movies) are just ridiculous. And they're both great performers, but they're cheapened by these pop culture references that they really don't need.

3. I'd like to see more respect for the titles. Most notably, "distract the ref and cheat to win" shouldn't fly. Or assaulting the ref to be disqualified, or walking away from the match, should not constitute a title victory. A title should carry prestige and represent honor and should only be won honestly... otherwise it doesn't mean a thing. And if it doesn't, that's fine, I suppose, but then why have it in the first place? Currently both world titles were ill-gotten. RAW's WWE Championship was won fair and square by Batista, but was vacated and awarded to Randy Orton when Orton and his two lap dogs came out and broke Batista's arm. More on "injuries" in a bit. And CM Punk retained SmackDown's World Heavyweight Championship in a match against Jeff Hardy by kicking the referee. He'd tried everything, couldn't get a win, so he turns around and kicks the ref. It's a disqualification, he loses, but a title can only change hands if the title holder is pinned or made to submit. In a real sporting event it would be unfair, but since WWE is not a real sport, it falls to lazy scripting. It's a cheap copout. And that's entirely apart from my personal opinions about the matches and their contestants. Furthermore, when they call themselves an X Time World Champion, they're really shooting themselves in the foot, because if they're not holding the belt, all that means is they've lost it that many times. If they are holding the belt, they've lost it that many times minus one. Wouldn't it sound better to say that collectively they held a title for X Days? (They actually did this a while back, Santino Marella was Intercontinental Champion at the time, and every week, he'd announce that the Honky Tonk Man famously held the title the longest, for however many weeks, and he'd display how many weeks he'd had it.)

4. Injuries vs. Fake Injuries vs. Silent Absences and Departures. While it's nice that the WWE is bringing back its "PLEASE Don't Try This At Home" (or as John Cena says, "Please don't try this"), the fake injuries only undermine that point. Now, we know that all these guys get along backstage. There are a few real-life problems, but nearly all on-screen rivalries are pure fiction. The last on-screen rivalry with any basis in fact was between Matt Hardy and Edge over Lita, who was dating Matt but left him for Edge. The three agreed to do a short feud on-screen but have since settled their differences. Amy Dumas (Lita) has since retired, but Matt and Edge (Adam Copeland) still work together, and Matt even helped Edge in a feud against Matt's own brother, Jeff. In addition to that, we know that Randy Orton, Triple H (Paul Levesque, while I'm dropping real names), and Batista (Dave Bautista) all trained under and were mentored by Ric Flair (close enough to his real name). So seeing Randy Orton and his lackeys break Batista's arm on stage with a steel chair, while disturbing, didn't come across as real, at all. Think about it: If there were an unscripted all-out assault by three performers on another in a live event, security would be all over it. That's what they're there for, to prevent things from getting out of hand. So one must conclude that things were entirely under control.

5. Lastly, I'd like to see some semblance of order and more respect for the rules. I'd like to see win/loss records introduced, even if it's not genuine and subject to change (e.g. records wiped clean when a wrestler changes characters, such as when Johnny Nitro became John Morrison, or when a wrestler changes brands or alignment (heel/face)). I'd like to see the refs' authority and presence mean something, and I'd like to see some decisions reversed "upon closer examination of the footage". I'd like some matches to even possibly have rounds, e.g. have one person challenge another to a boxing match or an MMA-rules match. Of course, the outcome would still be scripted, but I think it could work out well.

All in all, I enjoy watching the WWE because they know how to put on an entertaining show. I've tried looking at real fighting (such as UFC) and it's just not as fun. What does impress me about the UFC is the sportsmanship and respect that UFC's fighters display. You know the WWE does it as well, it's just off-camera. And that's a shame, because I think that's the best part of UFC. That these guys can beat the holy hell out of one another and still respect the rules, and one another's skills.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Not all terrorists wear turbans

The Bush administration did a fine job of convincing the American people that terrorists and Muslims, or Arabs, or turbans are all the same thing, but it wasn't always so. When I was a kid, nobody cared about the Muslims, it was the Russians we feared, and the terrorists were Irish (the IRA). But regardless of whatever freedom fighters our government wants to vilify, all a terrorist is, is somebody who spreads terror. Someone who willfully causes mayhem. Blowing up buildings certainly qualifies, but it can be done on a personal level as well. It's not politically correct to say so, but many American citizens are guilty of terrorism. Maybe not at the same level of top al-Qaeda operatives, but they fit the dictionary description just the same. Observe:

As you might have seen on my status update thingy on the right, it's our 3 year anniversary being married. On the honeymoon, we went to Tennessee. On the first anniversary, Myrtle Beach, SC. Second, Connecticut. Third... we both had to work. And Jen had to take her mom to a doctor's appointment earlier in the morning, so she didn't even get to sleep, so she wanted me to bring her a soda and some water, since she had no money and her mom bought her a sub from Subway.

So I'm driving out to her workplace, which is almost to the end of a dead-end road. It didn't always used to be a dead-end, it's just being worked on, but for all intents and purposes, it's a dead-end road. There are a few posh houses before you get to her job, but between them and where she works is just a field. Past her job, there's a church of some kind.

Anyway, I get behind this dark SUV. The guy drives past the houses, but stops about halfway between them and the driveway to my wife's job's parking lot. Just stops. He glances at me in the rear view mirror like he expects something out of me. I figure he wants me to go around, like he wants to turn around. Like he didn't see the signs saying "Road Closed Ahead" and is just now realizing his mistake.

So I pull around him, and just as I get alongside him, he hits the gas and swerves into me. Well, not into me, rather at me, as I saw what he was doing and dodged him, tapping my horn to get his attention in case it was accidental, like maybe he was trying to turn around. I got out in front of him and continued on. Well, it wasn't accidental, and he wasn't trying to turn around - he followed me into the parking lot. I parked, but didn't cut the engine. He pulled in behind me and stared at me, but made no attempt to communicate. Didn't get out, didn't honk, didn't run into my car, nothing. Just sat there and stared.

Jen hadn't come out yet, so I left. Sure enough, the guy followed me. Ironically (or maybe intentionally?) when I got to the light, it was green, but another SUV, this one beige, was just parked there, making no move to go through the light. With the other guy coming behind me, I went around the parked SUV and sailed through the green light. I actually didn't see the dark SUV go through the light. Worried that he might smash some windows in some cars at my wife's job, I doubled back, ready to call 911 if I saw him again. I didn't.

So I met my wife, but kept an eye out for this American terrorist, but he never came back. I am hoping that he did not make the connection that I was waiting for somebody, and didn't start drinking, only to return and smash up the two cars I parked between in case one belonged to somebody I know. I'm hoping he assumed that I had no business in that parking lot and was just hoping I'd leave, so he could follow me to my true destination (which started to play out, but he may have been caught at a red light, which may not have deterred a terrorist hell bent on running people off the road in broad daylight, but oncoming traffic would have stopped him).

Maybe I should have reported this to the police. Maybe he had recently been fired from that place, maybe he drank on the job or something, and maybe, in his twisted mind, if he incapacitated a few people who worked there, an opening would have allowed him to get his job back. Who knows. But I sure felt like a character in a Dean Koontz book, like the nerdy Odd Thomas chased by beefy, faceless villains with murder on their mind.

In any case, I got home safe, I didn't see the guy as I was leaving, and my wife's reporting it to her boss. Apparently they have cameras, so if a car or two do wind up smashed up, they can hopefully review some footage and get an idea of who this guy is. Meanwhile, bin Laden's protoge got maybe a tenth of a gallon of gas extra out of me, but hopefully will get his sooner or later. His type usually do. Meanwhile, I am going to play some Oblivion!

Monday, July 6, 2009

36? Better make it 37.

Well, as you may know, as of tomorrow, Jen and I will have been married 3 years.

We originally wanted to go to the Outer Banks for our anniversary; we knew money would be tight, but we figured we could do that trip on the cheap, for $200 or less. Gas isn't getting any cheaper, of course, but it's not too far out there. The lodging would probably be the most expensive part. Between a room for the night, dinner, and gas both ways, and maybe a souvenir or two, we figured we could get out for a bit. Just one night.

Well, money was tighter than usual, so we put off making our plans until the last minute. Then, when Jen went to put in for the time off, she found out a backstabbing coworker she made the "acquaintance" of had heard about her anniversary, saw she hadn't put in for it, so took the day of, plus the day before and the day after off. So I guess as some petty, catty angry-woman kind of thing, she's celebrating my wife not being able to go anywhere for her anniversary. I tell ya, there are some messed up people in this world, but I'm not too worried, because aside from all the old adages about Karma (e.g. "what goes around comes around"), people who live on and feed off negative energy tend to have it follow them. I guess that's another adage about Karma, but it seems to be fairly true. Everyone has good days and bad days, but you can look on the brighter side of a bad day if you count your blessings and try to make the most of something.

Anyway, I got to thinking. Three years is 36 months. After the wedding, on the 7th of every month, we'd celebrate the anniversary to the month, though it got kinda old after 2 years. Well, she's one of Kevin Smith's biggest fans, and, as any of his fans will tell you, he has a certain affinity for the number 37. He wears a sports jersey, I forget what team or sport, but most likely a New Jersey team; it's where he's from. Anyway, the number is 37. It goes back to his first film, "Clerks.", and it's kind of a crude joke. If you don't get the reference, you can find it here.

So our 37-month anniversary is August 7, and that's a Friday. I have to work Friday nights, but I can get the night off if I ask far enough in advance. Even if I can't get the night off, I don't have to be at work until 11pm. Worst case scenario, they say no, and I go out to dinner, have a great evening, and then go to work. Not a big deal. I'd like to have the night off, but anyone who's punched a time card in the last year knows you can't mess with work, not in this economy. So if they tell me I gotta work... I gotta work.

(No, I didn't get the title wrong. The title is a reference to a line in another movie, Road Trip, just with the numbers changed. The correct quote is "Two fingers? Better make it three.")