Friday, November 21, 2014

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, and I dare you not to laugh at this: We are All This Golden Retriever Spectacularly Bombing an Agility Test.

From Steve Davis, and I'm going to try this later: How to Fold the World’s Best Paper Airplane. Also, and this is quite interesting, it's Steve Albini on the surprisingly sturdy state of the music industry. One more, and it's excellent: GET TO KNOW A PROJECTION: AZIMUTHAL ORTHOGRAPHIC.

From Brian Witte, and this is mind-blowing: Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy. Also, and this is fascinating, it's NASA Computer Model Provides a New Portrait of Carbon Dioxide.

This is from J.R. Parnell, and it's a short documentary about the making of one of my favorite songs ever: Here’s The Amazing Story Of How 10cc Recorded "I’m Not In Love".

From Meg McReynolds, and I have no words: The Gettysburg Powerpoint Presentation.

From Shane Courtrille, and this is both forward-thinking and comforting: The Dutch Village Where Everyone Has Dementia: The town of Hogeway, outside Amsterdam, is a Truman Show-style nursing home.

From Dan Wilhite, and this is amazing: One of world’s largest landslide deposits discovered in Utah: A landslide with a 90 kilometer-long debris field? That's pretty big.

From Jeremy Connell, in reference to the breathing post I made last week. This guy is just incredible: William Trubridge.

From the Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is an incredible piece of craftsmanship: The Roentgens' Berlin Secretary Cabinet.

From Lael Jones, and this is an amazing site: Story Corps. Lael describes it as "a site that collects stories from people as an oral history project", and it's tremendous.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Droid Turbo (Verizon)

I'm one of those old codgers who still has unlimited data with Verizon. To keep it, though, I have to buy my phones outright, not get the subsidized upgrade every two years.

Because of that, I kept my Samsung S3 for a long time, through drops and repairs and etcetera. The battery was starting to go, though, and I decided it was time for an upgrade--subsidized by me--but I couldn't find a phone that I wanted for almost a year.

When the Droid Turbo was released recently, it looked like the phone for me, so I went to a Verizon store to have a look. Verizon stores have this quaint service model from the 1950s, because it takes 20 minutes, at least, to get any help.

I told the representative that I would be willing to give up unlimited data in exchange for a reasonable level of data and a lower monthly bill. Then she started explaining the options and the charges and I felt like I was at a carnival staffed entirely by grifters. I'm surprised she didn't go to the back and bring out the sacred texts, then spend an hour consulting them with Verizon elders. She said it would be more expensive to go from unlimited data to 6GB of data.

Well, that makes sense.

It was absolutely miserable in a customer service sense, so I thanked her and left.

I wound up buying the phone through another vendor, and I'm very glad I did, because this phone is a killer. It is ultra-fast, the display is gorgeous, the camera shoots great pictures and video, and the battery is utterly ridiculous. I can use it for two days, at least, before I need to recharge it, and then there's a "turbo" charger that will charge it roughly 1% a minute.

If you're looking for a phone, I highly, highly recommend this one. I think the Droid Turbo is exclusive to Verizon, but there will be slight variants popping up with everyone shortly, I assume.

I'm in the middle of an upgrade cycle, I guess, because I'm building a new PC next week as well. My current PC is about five years old, and I need more power for Visual Studio as well as critically important things like Oculus Rift support in Elite: Dangerous. And stuff.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna): Impressions

This is simply wonderful.

Never Alone is a cultural document of the Iñupiat, framed by a simple platforming game. Here's a description:
Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna) is the first game developed in collaboration with the Iñupiat, an Alaska Native people. Nearly 40 Alaska Native elders, storytellers and community members contributed to the development of the game. Play as a young Iñupiat girl and an arctic fox as they set out to find the source of the eternal blizzard which threatens the survival of everything they have ever known.

As you progress through the game, you uncover cultural highlights in the form of short videos that you can view whenever you'd like. As an example, one is about Scrimshaw, and do I even need to say anything after that?

It's absolutely beautiful, and while the game is relatively simple, it's also quite satisfying. As I mentioned, the visuals are terrific, and the sound design, in particular, is outstanding. The cultural videos are fascinating, and all the different elements are interwoven in a coherent and entertaining way.

As an added bonus, the narrator speaks in his native language, with English subtitles. That adds even more atmosphere to what is already a deeply atmospheric experience.

Here is the website: Never Alone. As a cultural document, this is a magnificent piece of work, and it is deeply entertaining as well.

This is What Happens When You Fast Forward Through Commercials

I saw an image of Santa, then immediately saw a sign that said "I NEED A KIDNEY."

A Brief Letter

Dear Buffalo,
I am very sorry.
Every Other Place On Earth

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Another Surprise (or two)

This has been quite a week for releases from small studio.

As I mentioned yesterday, This War of Mine is terrific. Very, very dark, but terrific.

Today, two additional games I've been looking forward to were released: Never Alone (Kisima Ingitchuna), which is based on folklore of the Alaska Native community, and Rollers of the Realm, a medieval pinball experience with role-playing elements and quite a few neat little twists.

I'm playing Never Alone tomorrow, but here are some brief impressions of Rollers of the Realm. There are a ton of neat ideas represented here, and they come together in a very light, satisfying experience. As an example, you have different characters, and each character is represented by a different pinball, each with their own physical characteristics. The Knight, for example, is heavier and does more damage. The healer is much faster and collects mana much more quickly (which can be used to revive a character if drained). There's loot to collect, and foes to fight, and each level is designed as some form of pinball table.

Like I said, Rollers of the Realm seems to be very much on the light side of gaming, but it's undoubtedly fun, and it's nicely designed. The visuals are crisp and clean, the voice-acting is decent, and the world is very cohesive.

I've played about an hour, I'm guessing, and it's been quite enjoyable. It's not Visual Pinball, but it's not trying to be--it's a game that combines elements from multiple genres, and it does so well.

This Couldn't Be Any Better

This is easily one of the best things I've ever seen. I mean, just have a look at the headline: "Town Tricks Neo-Nazis Into Raising Money For Anti-Neo-Nazi Charity."

Here are some details:
Each year, residents of Wunsiedel in Bavaria have to deal with a gathering of neo-Nazis who trek to their town to commemorate Rudolf Hess, one of Hitler's deputies, in a perverse recognition of National Heroes' Remembrance Day on Nov. 15, according to the Independent.

But this year, the townspeople teamed up with Rechts gegen Rechts (Right Against Right), an anti-extremist organization with a plan to turn the tables on the would-be brownshirts, as a video released by the group showed.

Their trick was simple enough: As the neo-Nazis prepared their annual march through the town, residents of Wunsiedel agreed to pledge €10 for every mile the unsuspecting fascists walked.

According to the video, the money would go to EXIT Germany, a charity dedicated to providing a way out for disillusioned rightwingers trying to escape the neo-Fascist scene.

Yes, that is undiluted genius.

Do yourself a favor and enjoy the video, because it will absolutely make your day a little better: Town Tricks Neo-Nazis Into Raising Money For Anti-Neo-Nazi Charity (VIDEO).

Monday, November 17, 2014

This War of Mine

This is a powerful, emotionally corrosive game.

I started playing earlier today, and find myself entirely unable to stop. My group of fellow survivors, living in an abandoned and decrepit building, are losing their emotional resiliency as our problems mount up. Self-sufficiency is a cruel fairy tale from other, more prosperous times.

My life is quite simple, on the face of it. During the day, I make what I can in the workshop. Tools, furniture, even weapons, but only if I have the right raw materials. I might also trade, if I trust the person enough to open the front door. If someone else is taking care of those responsibilities, I might grab some sleep. We only have one bed right now, so we use it in shifts.

At night, one of us goes to scavenge for supplies. This is critical, because it's not like we're going to be growing our own food anytime soon, and the last time I looked, this abandoned building was lacking a pharmacy.

There are relatively safe places to scavenge, but they will rarely have food and medicine. Sure, try the local superstore, except everyone else within 20 miles is thinking the same thing. Unless you want to resort to violence, you become a human rat, searching through every trash pile, through everything, for supplies. And the longer you're a rat, the more the potential rewards of violence begin to drift into your head.

The slow grind of despair is a remarkable achievement for any developer. Individual moments in this game weigh heavily on me, and I find myself agonizing over minor decisions. As my fragile band begins to weaken, both physically and spiritually, I find that a virtual despair settles over me as well.

Like I said in the open, powerful and emotionally corrosive. Brilliantly.

I'm not going to explain the mechanics or go anywhere that could remotely be considered a spoiler. The game's website is here, and I encourage you to go have a look. This War of Mine is exceptional, and exceptionally gripping.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Friday Links!

Leading off this week, from Eric Higgins-Freese, and this is a powerful, mesmerizing article: Into nothingness In the 1940s, Japan’s search for a national philosophy became a battle for existence. Did Zen ideas create the kamikaze?

I've linked several times to stories about Soylent, the liquid food replacement that had a hugely successful Kickstarter campaign a while back. Here's a terrific article about Soylent and possible cultural consequences: Freedom from food: It takes time to plan a meal, to say nothing of cooking and eating it. What if we could opt out of food altogether?

Breaking Madden is one of my favorite videogame series ever. This week, Jon Bois tries to get Mark Sanchez to the Super Bowl--for over 90 years: Breaking Madden: The Mark Sanchez Century.

From Jonathan Arnold, and this is fascinating, an article about the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447: The Human Factor. Next, and this is depressingly predictable, it's The Cliff and the Slope: The proof is in: Detailed report shows how U.S. Internet access monopolies punish rivals and catch innocent bystanders in the crossfire—legally.

From Steven Davis, and this is a mesmerizing short film from the 1930s: Kiri-Clogs - A Tale Of Japan (1932). Also, and this is amazing, it's How Lobster Eyes Inspired a Radiant Heater. One more: Sesame Street: James Earl Jones: Alphabet.

I have no words for this, but what a picture: World's Smallest Man Meets World's Tallest.

From Jesse Leimkuehler, and this is quite beautiful: Dad Filmed His Daughter For 15 Seconds Each Week From Birth To Age 14, The Result Will Leave You Breathless.

From Tim Lesnick, and this is both illuminating and amusing: Graphic Shows The Size Of Rosetta's Comet.

From The Edwin Garcia Links Machine, and this is a fascinating video: Testing WWII Exploding Ammunition. That's right: exploding on purpose.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Head Exploding in 5,4,3...

Churchill Downs just bought Big Fish Games.

Stop laughing. Well, keep laughing, but it's real: Churchill Downs to Buy Big Fish Games for Up to $885 Million.

I hope John Cutter gets a piece of that $885 million.


I had to go to the dentist for a crown today.

I've been developing some anxiety about the dentist. I don't freak out in the chair or anything, but I definitely feel strongly uncomfortable. I've mentioned that before, I think.

I may have also mentioned that I very hard to focus on my breathing when I'm in situations like this (the dentist, MRI, etc.). What I didn't realize until today was the extent to which I can control my breathing.

I've always had a low pulse rate and low respiration rate. But I realized during the procedure today that I was breathing so slowly that it was worth measuring. So when I got out of the chair and into my car, I stopped for five minutes and timed how many breaths I took when I was focusing on controlling it.


That's total, not per minute.

When I swim, I do several things to increase my heart rate without otherwise increasing the physical stress. So when I do breaststroke, I'll try to swim half the lap underwater. Or when I swim freestyle, I'll try to swim every fourth or fifth stroke instead of second or third. Plus I can still swim an entire length underwater (which is not hugely unusual, but it's quite a while to go without breathing).

That all must be having some kind of effect, I guess.

Oh, and it's not Bradypnea, which is an "abnormally low breathing rate" along with all kinds of undesirable symptoms. I don't have any of those symptoms at all, and I feel fine. And I don't breathe that slowly when I'm not specifically focusing on it, although I think my respiration rate is probably in the low normal range.

Anyway, there's a physical oddity for you.

The Fraud of Frosted Flakes

Of course everyone's life would be much better if they had a super enthusiastic animated tiger in their kitchen. That has nothing to do with breakfast cereal.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Sorry, I can't remember if I've posted this


Fry's and the Death of the Brick and Mortar Store

We have a Fry's in Austin that's a real showplace for the brand. It's huge, it's beautiful, and it has an incredible selection of electronics/appliances/televisions/computers/etc. 

This store is so large it has over 70 checkout lanes, and during the holidays, there are times when they're all open.

So while it doesn't look good--at all--for brick and mortar stores, Fry's is an exception. 

Or it was until about a year ago, at least.

That's when I started noticing the product mix changing. Certain categories of legitimate, consistent merchandise (like video games) were shrinking and getting replaced by, well, crap. "Advertised on tv" items. Five dollar bottles of perfume. Row after row of junk.

That's when I realized Fry's wasn't different at all. They have a huge space to fill with inventory, and they can't sell enough in certain merchandise categories to justify the floor space anymore. So they're putting in the cheapest possible stuff they can that will enable the store to still look full. In a retail sense, the store is no longer coherent.

Fry's still does a huge amount of business. But their product mix is starting to sound like a death rattle, and I wonder how much worse it will get.

I still remember when Best Buy, Circuit City, and CompUSA were all within ten minutes of my house. Now, Best Buy is the only holdout, and they're not going to last much longer. 

It's not a bad thing, necessarily--Amazon is spectacular when it comes to prices and customer service--but it does feel strange. Ten years from now, it may not be possible to walk into a store and look at much of anything, unless its groceries.

On a positive note, Fry's does have the funniest impulse racks I've ever seen.

That's right. In the same rack, you can get Gumby, Wonder Woman, cheese danish, banana bread, gift cards, fruit chews, and Five-Hour Energy. And if you can get that cheese danish cheaper over the Internet, they'll match the price.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Trumpeter

Eli 13.3, as you may remember, plays the trumpet.

He enjoys playing, but he's not driven to play. He's not the first chair in his school band, which isn't even very good. Despite this, though, his acuity is high, and he definitely has moments. He's developed a quality when he plays.

Last year, he missed the Region Band competition because of hockey, but this year, there was no conflict. And even with his thumb still in a splint, he was able to play with only slight impairment.

In the weeks leading up to the competition, he would occasionally practice at home. When he was first learning how to play, he was very mechanical, playing the notes correctly, but without feeling.

For the Region competition, there was a piece he had to learn, and one night when he was practicing, in a slow section, I felt this burst of emotion as I listened. The trumpet can be a very emotional instrument when played well, and somehow, he had tapped into that emotion.

So yes, his playing was uneven and not polished at times, but like I said, he's developed this quality, this ability to wring emotion out of the music. He feels something as he plays.

He went on the bus Saturday to the competition. He was competing against quite a few kids, and he needed to be in the top 15 to make it into a special band that would play in December.

These contests are endless. He waited around for six hours to play, actually played for about three minutes, then called Gloria to pick him up (hockey game later, and even though he couldn't play yet with his thumb, he wanted to be on the bench).

When they got home, we headed for the rink.

"How'd you play?" I asked.

"Pretty well," he said. "I started off a little rough with the slower piece, but played the fast piece better than I ever have."

"Well, what do you think your chances are?" I asked.

"I don't know," he said, shaking his head. "There were 81 trumpets, and the proctor said it was the best year for trumpets that she could ever remember." He paused. "If I do make it, I'll probably be in the thirteenth to fifteenth chair. I heard some really good kids in our group."

"It's okay," I said. "I'm glad you got to go compete, and playing as well as you can is the most important thing." Yeah, I know. I was trying to set up a soft landing when he didn't make it. I really wanted something good to happen for him, because of that stupid thumb injury in hockey, but he was facing long odds. "So when do you find out the results?"

"It should be soon," he said. "Mary and Ellie will text me." Those are the other two kids who play trumpet, and Eli hung out with them all day. Good friends and very nice kids.

When we got to the rink, Gloria let me off at a Whataburger nearby so that I could quickly grab some food before the game. I ate, then walked back to the rink, and on the way, I saw there was a text on my phone:
Did Eli text you? He got first chair!

I started laughing. He's ridiculous.

I saw Eli at the rink and gave him a hug. "First chair? Seriously?" I said.

He started laughing. "I have no idea," he said. "My phone blew up with texts. It was crazy."

I keep saying I'm going to stop being surprised, but I hope I never get there.

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Dream

From DQ Reader Glen Haag (of The Blog For The Sports Gamer):
Two nights ago I had a dream where I was involved in the faking of your death so that you could move your family to Mexico. 

In the last few moments before I woke up you showed me the rink you had constructed for Eli in Mexico.  I have to say that I was impressed by all of your planning in escaping the country and your engineering capabilities of building such a rink in Mexico.  

Kudos, sir.  

Rocksmith: 2014 Edition

Okay, I'm back in.

The original Rocksmith was an ambitious, forward-thinking program. I was full of enthusiasm when I started, and within three weeks, I got stuck on chords, fell into a lesson chasm where I couldn't get to the next step, and wound up quitting.

It wasn't just that--I had to spend more time on Gridiron Solitaire if I wanted it to ever ship, and even 30 minutes a day saved was important--but reaching a dead end was a killer.

So far, I think the 2014 version is different.

The additional number of levels inside lessons is a huge improvement. So for a lesson on sustains, for example, when I initially play the practice track, I get an evaluation. It's not a binary pass/fail, though. I might only see ten notes the first time through, and if I play eight of them correctly, my total score isn't 80%. Instead, it's the percentage of the total track I played correctly.

The full track probably has about 50 notes. So instead of seeing 80%, I see 16%. The next time I play the practice track, I'll see a few more notes. When I nail those, the program adds a few more. So it might take me five playthroughs--or more--to see the full track, and I'll only get 100% when I play the full track with full accuracy.

For someone who is a completionist (me), this is the perfect way to get me to practice something until it's mastered. And it's broken down into such small increments that I'm much less likely to hit the wall.

Also, if you're working on a practice track and it's just too tough, there are all kinds of tools so that you can slow a track down or get a section of it to repeat. Some of this was in the game last year, but it just feels more thorough and polished this time around.

My plan is to spend thirty minutes a day practicing, although the practice is fun and feels like play. And I'll try to file regular reports on how I'm progressing.

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