Friday, July 31, 2009

Lying for "profit"

Consumerist had a post today about parents who lie to get discounts for their kids.

Well, not exactly. They also teach their kids to lie to get the discounts (saying they're younger or older than their actual age).

I found this troubling in several ways, not the least of which being that from a purely practical standpoint, none of the examples mentioned was exactly the sort that would collapse your finances otherwise. The article made it sound more like a game: where can we and Junior "save" a buck today?

One of the first comments captured my feelings about the article pretty well: "Terrible parenting. She advocates lying and dodging responsibility. The few bucks saved now are meaningless when your child grows up with poor morals."

The rest of the comments break out fairly evenly into shock (what are you teaching your child?), approval (my parents used to blah blah blah), and apathy (who cares about anything). To be honest, I was surprised there were so many who disagreed with the practice. I figured more people on the innernets would be willing to trade honesty for a few bucks, like in the post they had a couple of days ago about how to use your student ID and save. Completely different, of course. (My Purdue ID looks nothing like me. at all. and is also clearly not modern. Plus my PSU ID doesn't have a picture on it because, you know, I haven't been to campus. Although that I should probably change at some point. It's always nice to have another picture ID if you need one.)

Don't teach your child to lie.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Just wait, it'll come to me

So I haven't really been thinking about a different reward for reaching my goal ... and in the meantime, it's become clear that there is at least one type of e-book that is DRM-free for the Kindle family.

Public domain. Ah yes, those books more than 75 years old who've not had their copyright renewed. Places like literature.org and Project Gutenberg have collections of public-domain works in electronic format. Most of them can be ported easily to the Kindle or to other reasonable reading devices, and there are conversion programs for the rest.

Of course, if you thought the new Barnes & Noble e-reader was a good idea (we're a financially sound business with original ideas! no really!), think again. Yeah, for some reason, they figure they need to put DRM on the public-domain e-books for their reader. Maybe they were just afraid that Borders would go out of business before they would and they needed a gimmick to make up for lost time.

So when I hit that goal and get some version of a Kindle, I'll check out those sites, hit up Feedbooks, and get myself some stuff that I can read at my leisure.

The DRM thing, well ... even Apple learned its lesson eventually, I guess.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

360 review: Guitar Hero Double Feature, World Tour (5/10) vs. Smash Hits (8/10)

Right, so after I discovered Rock Band, apparently I no longer felt the need to post reviews of other games. (Admittedly, when I realized it would be an ongoing process, it began to wear on me. I'm not good at that kind of stuff. Well, except for the time that I spent 15 years working for one company, but even then, it was in at least 5 distinct positions.)

So it occurred to me as I was rocking out this weekend that perhaps I could use some of my copious free time to get back into this, and what better way to do it than to highlight Neversoft's two newest entries into the fake band genre, Guitar Hero World Tour and Guitar Hero Smash Hits.

Background


When MTV hooked up with Harmonix to create Rock Band, quite possibly the greatest move in all of video game history (how's that for hyperbole?), Activision tabbed Neversoft to step in and replace Harmonix. Easy task, right? "Okay, here's the deal. We've got this great franchise, only the people who built it took off and are working on another project, so we need you to take this and make it cooler and better, except don't make it too much like what they did or they'll get mad and sue us."

So Neversoft did their best and predictably failed. Guitar Hero III was not a full-band game – in fact, it was still just a guitar game, seeing that you couldn't yet play a career on bass – and with the release and massive success of Rock Band, that was clearly what people wanted. (You may explain Guitar Hero: Fill-in-the-band however you like. I can't.) Neversoft did what they could to move the franchise in a different direction, but by forcing in stupid boss battles in a game that had always separated solo and versus play, and increasing the difficulty levels from "pretty darn hard" to "I don't believe that's physically possible," they shrunk the group of people willing to play the game to a reasonable percentage of completion down to about nothing. (Check out the achievements. This is about a 150-point game for good players.)

Apparently they realized this and knew they had to move to the same format. World Tour was their attempt to match Rock Band; Smash Hits built on the World Tour all-band format, but used songs from previous Guitar Hero games (including I and II, which is impressive considering that those were originally set up by Harmonix).

Structure


Both games use the Rock Band format: play solo as bass, guitar, vocals, or drums; play as any combination of 2 or more for a band. Solo and band mode are separate (unlike Rock Band 2).

In World Tour, everything is a set. Unlike its predecessors, you no longer get to choose the order in which you play the songs. Instead, you must play all songs in a set to proceed. (Fortunately, you can save your progress after every completed song. That's something not even Rock Band allows.) Complete a set and you unlock one or more other sets ... you don't necessarily have to play through all the sets to unlock the final one, which is good, because most of the sets have mediocre songs. Like GH III, GH:WT leans toward metal and (I guess) modern-ish rock, meaning "not a lot of songs people over 35 will recognize". When you get to the later sets and have to play through five or six of these songs ... no wonder real bands sometimes see touring as a grind.

Smash Hits combines the set theory (ha ha, math joke) from GH with the free play of Rock Band 2. Each locale has a certain number of songs available (including an encore song if you complete all songs there), but if you collect enough stars, you unlock the next locale whether or not you've completed the current one. Sure, there aren't any "make your own setlist" gigs, but it's a start. Add that to the fact that these songs come from the previous games, and you get gigs that are frequently worth playing. Major points for GH:SH.

The obnoxious, stupid, worthless "battles" from GH III that bled over into WT are thankfully gone from SH. (And to WT's credit, rather than pulling all that crap with "broken strings" and stuff, the battles simply consist of you trying to "outplay" the AI. Still sucks, just not as much.) That was a terrible idea that they should never have done in the first place, and kudos to Neversoft for removing it.

Song play


As Rock Band does, both games show a track for each instrument: vocals across the top, guitars on the side, drums in the middle. Unfortunately for drummers, if you have a World Tour-compatible set, your track looks a lot like the guitar tracks, which can cause problems if your drummer looks at the wrong one. (Yes, this happened to us once. I was not the drummer.)

Thankfully, they adopted the Rock Band convention that allows you to build Star Power even while you're using it. In band mode, each band member can use a certain amount of the band's total. I'm not quite sure how that part works yet. Guitarists still activate by tipping or pressing the appropriate button (the World Tour guitars have a long button that almost looks like part of the guitar; nice, but still hard to find). Drummers hit the yellow and blue pads at the same time – unconventional, and not really helpful. What ends up happening is that you get the occasional break in the rhythm that Rock Band adds, but instead of being able to play what you want without messing up, you either hit the correct pads or break your streak, and then either way you go immediately back into the rhythm. Vocalists just press the Y button on the controller. You're supposed to be able to clap near the mike to do it too, but that's not going to work if you're holding it.

WT introduced the tap bar, five flat "frets" on the guitar that work like the Rock Band solo buttons. Unfortunately, because they're flat, it's really hard to see where they are on the guitar and to determine which ones to hit. (Hey guys, these aren't real guitars. Stop trying to make them look so much like one and focus on how they work.) Fortunately, during a section where you're able to tap, you can tap on the regular buttons instead of the tap bar and still get the same points. (Harmonix, take note.) Of course, you can't use "tap wah", whatever the hell that is.

Vocalists and drummers also have "free play" sections ... but vocalists are scored by matching ... um ... kind of the rhythm and pitch of the song that you aren't singing. I can't really explain it because it doesn't really make any sense. Also, there are sections where if you make noise, the crowd will "respond", meaning that if you have a half-full bulb in your Star Power meter, it'll fill.

The overall difficulty of WT is comparable to GH III: hard guitar is very difficult, expert is nearly impossible. Expert bass can be done on most songs, but the speed metal songs are tricky. Surprisingly, vocals are much more difficult than in Rock Band: you're apparently supposed to have perfect pitch and maintain it throughout each note for 100%. Drums are somewhat difficult, especially when you get to expert and get the double-kick notes that go with the double kick pedal that you don't have.

In SH, however, the difficulty is much more reasonable. In fact, if you have the original GH games, you may run into problems the first time you play a song on the same difficulty level in SH ... you might find yourself trying to play notes that aren't there. There are certainly challenging songs in SH, but not to the point that you should be tearing your hair out.

Once again, Neversoft has innovated here, and in a couple of ways that are pretty cool. On the bass, you now have open notes, which appear like the kick pedal on drums (a solid line across your highway). Funny how all this time we've been playing guitars and up until now had never played an open note ... anyway, on vocals, instead of completing Star Power phrases, everything is a Star Power phrase. Knock one out and build your meter; hit enough and you can activate Star Power ... repeat until song ends. (Vocals are the exception to the continuous Star Power rule, which makes sense: a good vocalist could sing almost the entire song with Star Power running.)

At long last, GH:SH displays your star progress during the song. No more guessing if that was good enough for five stars: you see it right there, complete with a progress meter that shows you how close you are to the next star. Once again, points for SH.

Streaks are still calculated with chords counting the same as single notes. Dumb. Obviously chords are more complicated ... band streaks are also reduced to the lowest common denominator, so if the guitarist and drummer are playing 12 notes per measure, and the bassist is playing 2, you're going to add 2 notes per measure to your streak.

WT and SH have their own versions of Big Rock Endings. (Well, at least WT does. I haven't seen one in SH that I recall.) You know, freestyle sections at the end of songs where you build up killer points that you collect if you hit the last note or notes.

Well, not quite. In WT, they're actually real notes that count just like the other notes. Sounds like an '80s joke. (In Soviet Rock Band, Big Rock Ending plays you! Ha ha!) Yeah, not so cool.

Atmosphere


Neversoft seems to have realized that clownish graphics and comic-book actions during songs really kill whatever immersion you were experiencing. In both WT and SH, band members look something like real people, and during the songs, it actually looks like they're playing the songs. Better yet, in SH, because each song is a separate set (and thus the "house band" is different each time), if no one is on vocals, then SH will use a vocalist that is the right sex for the song ... and in many cases is similar in appearance to what I know as the actual vocalist. I mean, if you're playing Message in a Bottle, Sting isn't actually out there, but the guy they use looks a little bit like him.

The crowd will sing along in SH if you do particularly well, although not as noticeably as in Rock Band, probably because there aren't as many songs where you really want to hear the crowd singing.

In a neat little twist, you can actually build your own guitars and drums using custom components, rather than being limited to standard (and whimsical) instruments. Of course, the vocalist is still trapped in a boring world ... both games also use a color wheel for items that can be colored, which is very helpful. It's much easier to see the different options here than in Rock Band's horizontally-scrolling list of colors.

Summary


World Tour is, hopefully, the last attempt by Neversoft to be noticeably different from Rock Band. The two franchises were able to reach an agreement about songs that enabled us to play the ones we like in both series. Perhaps Smash Hits may foretell an era where the franchises borrow the best from each other to make their own games better.

World Tour is possibly worth a rental, but you aren't missing much if you don't play it. It's better than GH III, but still tedious unless you really like speed metal or are in that top 1% of players who can actually play Through the Fire and Flames.

Smash Hits is definitely a return to quality for the series. While it doesn't offer near the DLC that Rock Band has, and you don't get the create-your-own and random setlists that incorporate DLC so well into Rock Band, it does stand on its own (ironically enough) as a strong competitor. If you have to buy one, buy this one.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Weigh-in: Week 20, -2.2 pounds

Now last week, there was more progress. Down below 171 for the first time in a long time, which puts me over 20 pounds lost in total. Now, I may not reach my goal (I'd need to drop 10.8 pounds in five weeks, which is possible but not reasonable given my progress to this point), but I've definitely made a significant difference so far.

I ended up agreeing to play on a team of four for the second volleyball session, which means that I'll get a bit more exercise than I did the first session on a team of six ... that won't hurt, even though it's basically going to be one hour per week.

More progress to come, hopefully. Next week would be the end of the second month of weigh-ins, so I've got one month after that before the end of the main part of the contest. The second part is technically maintenance, although the prize at the end still goes to the greatest weight loss over the entire time. (I think a better prize would have been to lock in people's weights in the August weigh-in and make it truly about maintenance; they could then reward everyone who weighed no more than they did in August. Of course it doesn't matter now that I'm not eligible myself ...)

Weigh-in: Week 19, -0.6 pounds

Catching up ... there really hasn't been much to report recently, or maybe I've been distracted by the inability of people to decide they want me to do work for them.

Anyway, for Week 19, not much progress; still hadn't made up for the trip to Virginia. No big deal, though. I'm still eating right and exercising a decent amount. The weight will start to come off again when I do those things more regularly. (I suppose that could qualify as foreshadowing.)

Saturday, July 18, 2009

How Guitar Hero lost the war

So I'm testing out my new Guitar Hero controller (I gave in, I do have World Tour rented and own Smash Hits, so I wanted to try the slider), playing bass on expert, and I 100% a song ... and get nothing.

Well, that's not true. I got a $100 bonus for a perfect performance, but that's it. no achievement.

Of course, I'll get 10 gamerscore for playing as something that looks like a cartoonish Ted Nugent.

Yeah, those Neversoft guys, they've got it, all right

Friday, July 10, 2009

Excess in everything, moderation is for monks

That's what they call it, the semi-annual party that is currently held in Virginia. Friends I met in college (which means we've known each other 20 years or so – scary, isn't it?), friends they met in grad schools, and locals they met along the way ... as time goes on, there is less drinking by the regulars (which is a good thing, we were a pretty scary group back in the day) but usually enough done by the unsuspecting locals. And there are epic amounts of food. I'm surprised that their septic system survives. (One year they actually rented Port-o-Lets.)

Thursday


The trip commences. Cloudy day, which is great for an early start, because it means glasses are OK for most of the trip. (I can switch between those and prescription sunglasses all right, but it's obviously not as easy as taking sunglasses on/off.) Off we go out I-70, which distresses the navigation system because she wants us to go a different way. (This is pretty much the story until we're on I-64. At that point, she realizes that because the hotel is on I-64, we're probably heading in the right direction.)

Not a bad drive, as drives go. A little slow, but we miss rush hour in whatever cities happen to lie between here and there. (Not many.) The hybrid doesn't like the mountains, so we lose a bit of time there. About 45 mpg on the trip, which is nice, even though every place east of Indy has cheaper gas than we do.

Somewhere along US-35, we see rest area cat. He's sitting outside the rest area, watching people going in, presumably to ensure they don't cause trouble. He has no time to be petted, but instead settles himself on his side where he can still watch the entrance. Nice work if you can get it.

We listen to baseball about half the trip. The Padres are nice enough to entice bees to delay their game so that it finishes after the 7:00 games start. Naturally, when we arrive and share the news, people have no idea what we're talking about. Apparently bee delays are not common.

Arrive at the hotel, I check in, we head out to the house, we eat some fried stuff and catch up with people. I head back to the hotel, log on, and sleep.

Friday


The last day for party prep. I'm back at the house around noon. The gravel arrives about 12:30. Our hosts have a gravel driveway that is such in name only at the base and head of the drive. The newly-arriving gravel is to be spread at each end.

The kind driver does what he can to distribute it somewhat reasonably at each end, although we end up with a nice pile at the base of the driveway. Rakes and shovels in hand, we begin.

It's clear after not much time that most of us are desk people, not outdoor people. The gravel weighs more and more as the task continues, although thankfully it did not rain. Apparently this makes things much worse. I'm the first to concede defeat, so I go inside and sit in front of the laptop, carefully managing my tycoon teams and mafia whilst the others foolishly pretend they're in the 20s.

Eventually it's all spread adequately, so food prep begins. Chopping, dicing, deboning ... there's usually enough food for three times the number of guests that show up, but it's all fun stuff to cook and to eat. (Also, most of us worked in the cafeteria at one of the dorms at Purdue, which is where we met, so we had institutional experience prior to having our own kitchens. Of course it doesn't help a ton, but at least we'd been exposed to a number of kinds of food and ways to cook it. I miss the convection ovens.)

Eating, talking, and sending off one of the families. Apparently they had a birthday party in Baltimore on Saturday. This is kind of like planning movie night during the first weekend of the NCAA tournament, but they're long-timers, so somewhat forgiven. (Plus they're coming back on Sunday.) Late night Friday means movie night, so this time it's Superbad. Surprisingly funny, but then again I think it's the atmosphere. Perhaps not so funny watching it myself.

Back to the hotel, two of us this time. We see a few deer on the road back to civilization; it's a state highway, so the speed limit is 55, but it's a winding two-lane road in the dark, so we don't go quite that speed once we've seen the deer. Most people use a little caution at night around there.

The other traveler checks himself in; he's trying to be more careful with money, so he's staying elsewhere Thursday and Sunday. Of course, he's delayed because the person at the front desk, well, isn't at the front desk when we arrive. Eventually he gets his room. (Separate rooms, of course. I prefer to sleep in my own room unless accompanied by a willing woman.)

Saturday


Party day. We meet around 11 and head back to the house. Food is heating up and people are starting to show up. I stay outside for a bit and play bags ... we lose the first match, but our conquerors include the host, who has to attend to newly-arrived guests, so we stay and a new team takes their place. We run off four wins or so as I find a nice stroke (holding the bags vertically, a little backspin, aim right of the hole and watch them roll left and in), and then my teammate has to attend to ribs, so we step aside and I go back inside. Plus beer pong and such has started up, and I tend to stay away from those things, not being able to partake myself. (Having a non-drinker participate in a team drinking game can be a problem for his teammate. We did it once. I thought it was funny.)

The DSL is holding up nicely, so I go through a few weeks of OOTP and check my Facebook games. It's nice and cool inside, a pleasant change from the 90-degree heat ... but then again it's raining pretty much everywhere west of Virginia, so we're thankful.

Night comes, fireworks are launched, people drink more, and suddenly I have to build a fire. (Well, not entirely accurate. I have to light a fire. The fire was built yesterday. There are three or four resident pyros ... one is the host, and another is in Baltimore now, so that leaves me. I like fire.) The host lights it, I feed it, and the drunks sit near the fire for about 30 minutes or so until they realize they need to drink more. (I kind of built the fire hot. No one really sat near it.)

We burn some more wood (no weird things this time, like wood of questionable origin or strange chemicals that ought to burn well). The drunk people return, there are discussions about who ought and ought not to have been drinking where and when, most of them are sent inside to play more drinking games, and the rest of us hang out until 1. We leave the fire to burn itself out (it's designed for that), I get the very intoxicated traveling companion, and we return to the hotel. (The next day, he conceded he'd been rather drunk. He doesn't drink that much any more, but he certainly did on Saturday. We blame the mojitos.)

Sunday


Post-party day 1. Locals are gone, people from Cincinnati have left, so there are three small groups here, and we're awaiting the return of the people who braved DC-area traffic on the 4th. Eating of random things, more Facebook, sports on TV. Another Grand Slam event, another Federer win ... we were somewhat limited in what we could watch because we swapped out their DVR for a better one, and of course that doesn't transfer the content. Oh well. Acrostic puzzle to finish, wrapping up things, goodbyes said, I head back to the hotel.

Monday


Time to head back. I swing into Richmond and pick up the traveler, and we head back to I-64 and west. Warmer weather this time, so the air is on and the mileage drops a touch.

Construction isn't bad, but an accident on the turnpike, I think, slows us down, costing us about an hour. Somewhere in the construction, though, we see a crew sanding down the surface of the road, or something ... except when we close on it, we see it's actually a car burning merrily on the side of the road. No obvious flames yet, but enough smoke to make driving hazardous. Everyone's slowed down in the single-lane traffic. Several cars have stopped to help, including a semi driver who looks like he's got an extinguisher, so we keep going.

US-35 is a nice four-lane divided highway in Ohio, but it's only two lanes for most of the West Virginia segment. Fortunately, they've upgraded part of it (the navigation system is horrified that we're driving through the grass and refuses to talk to us until we're back on the two-lane part) and are working on another part of it. Unfortunately, the middle section is unplanned and unscheduled. Tolls are going up to $2 on the turnpike in August. I'll be happy to double that if it means we get better roads soon.

Back home ... I drop off the traveler and arrive at last. The cats are a bit surprised to see me. Their usual cries of near starvation are useless now because of the care ems has taken; they were good to her and only left one small spot of cat puke that could easily have been created Monday. (A real hairball, too, and not the I'm-mad-at-you-here's-unchewed-food-to-clean-up kind.)

Unpack, clean up, and off to bed.


It was a lot of fun, but it's not something I'd care to do too often. Someday I might consider flying again, but only after the airport Gestapo have been removed and when US airlines remember that customer service is important.

Weigh-in: Week 18, +1.8 pounds

No surprise here. This was the week of the party in Virginia, where there is more food than a normal person can possibly imagine. While I may get partial credit for not actually gorging myself, clearly I consumed a lot more calories that I burned. (Note: shoveling gravel does not equal burning massive amounts of calories, not when you only have the stamina and strength to do it for an hour or so.)

Let's see. I ate french fries, onion rings, popcorn chicken, Mongolian beef, Korean beef, salmon, sushi, pasta, brisket, ribs, peppered pork, fudge, Rice Krispies treats ... and I only tried about half of the food that was there. (I mean, really, is there room for all of it?) My friends are excellent cooks, and the ones that host the party grow their own herbs, peppers, and vegetables, at least some types of vegetables. (And by peppers I mean the kind that you have to pick wearing gloves. No, really. Also, detergent is good for removing the oil from your skin.)

And there were donuts on the way out. And McDonald's. And Wendy's. (Although I did bring protein bars with me.)

So it could have been a lot worse, or maybe I'm starting to figure out how to eat bad foods occasionally and not gain as much weight as I would in the past. (That's right. In the past, this would have been more like 3 or 4 pounds, except for the time that we all got food poisoning from something.)

So now it's off to exercise again. Volleyball is moving off the schedule, though. We just don't have enough people with enough free time to make it a regular thing, so I'll have to visit the Y more often. No, really.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Another dumb marketing decision

this.

The "New Xbox Experience" is stupid enough as it is: it takes up way too much space, shows very little of value, and hides most things well away from where you'd actually look for them. Basically, it's like Office 2007. And what a coincidence!

So now they're going to put ads on it. Even for paying members. (Yeah, it wouldn't surprise me if Office 2007 did the same thing eventually.)

The dumbest thing about it is that it's not like the 360 has a browser, so you certainly can't click through anything, and really, when was the last time you saw an in-game ad and thought neat, that's so cool, I need to go buy that stuff?

right.

So now Silverlight will be drawing more cycles on the 360 (which is so awesome because there's no risk of it overheating, none at all) just to serve us ads.

jerks. Microsoft, meet backlash

Weigh-in: Week 17, -1 pound

More good news: down a pound this week (18.1 overall) and half an inch on my waist (4 overall). I gave up on the thigh for now because a) there isn't a ton of fat there anyway and b) it's difficult to measure accurately. Besides, I have strong legs, so they're not going to shrink much even when my weight does come down.

So anyway, a good week, lots of volleyball and bicycling. This week, however, may be more of a challenge: four days out in Virginia with friends. In the past, I would probably have eaten 20 pounds of food or so in four days. This time, hopefully it will be much less. (I will confess to having donuts from Long's Bakery for breakfast. yum.)

I'm not tracking my calories – too many homemade meals to do accurately anyway – but I am trying to stay conscious of what I eat. The 8th will tell that story.

Either that or I'll be riding a century on the 7th. lol.
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