Thursday, February 28, 2008

Bad Pork, Good Trailers  

Random bits, engage.

Food: Went to a local eatery called the Hi-Life, located just down the street. It's got a pretty good rep and seems to have positioned itself as something of a hipster place with upscale grub. The wife and I went there with some friends for brunch last year and had a pretty positive experience, so we thought we'd try it at lunch today.


We started with the green salad, followed by the pulled pork sandwich accompanied with fries and “pickled green beans". The salad was almost $5 and amounted to nothing more than a small plate of butter lettuce with maybe three small shreds of red cabbage and a few greasy croutons.

The sandwich plate was even worse. The filling was comprised mostly of a large dollop of sauce, with maybe five or six extremely fatty chunks of pork -- not even enough meat to cover the entire bun. The fries were cooked too long, they were cut too thin, and tasted incredibly greasy. The sort of nasty fries that come out of the fryer limp and soggy. And as for the green beans? There were exactly three very small beans on the plate. It was such a small amount, I wouldn't have even listed them as an accompaniment.

We took one small bite of the sandwich and ate a couple fries before deciding to get up and find lunch elsewhere. It was that bad. We might be back for brunch again someday far in the future, but I'd rather eat lunch anywhere else than there.

Games: It was a good day on Live today. The absolute high point was the trailer for Bionic Commando: Rearmed, and it was looking like The Hotness.

I'm a big fan of BC from the NES days, and Rearmed looks to be a remake of that gem with completely updated graphics and retooled gameplay. It also appears to have a 2P co-op mode, and if you purchase the full version it unlocks a “classic” skin for the forthcoming big-budget 3D Bionic Commando. All I can say is ‘hallelujah’… the character model shown for the next-gen version is ugly as sin.

Also released today were a pair of new trailers for Viking: Battle for Asgard, from the Creative Assembly. These are the same folks who were behind last-gen's Spartan: Total Warrior, and if you weren’t one of the twelve people who played that title, you missed out. I had such a great time with Spartan that I'm probably becoming more excited than is reasonable for Viking, but I have a good feeling about this one. The developers really knew what they were doing last time, so my fingers are crossed that they can repeat.

Speaking of trailers, a new one was released for Alone in the Dark. There's been a lot of talk about the upcoming entry in this long-running series, and how it's a complete revamp that allegedly takes place entirely in New York's Central Park. The trailer showed some impressive environmental interaction and physics, but not a lot of gameplay. Based on what was shown, I got the feeling that it was perhaps more an experiment in simulating real-world environments and physics than what will turn out to be a satisfying gameplay experience, but I could be wrong. My eye is on this one, but from what I've seen and read, I'd say it's only about a 50-50 shot that it will score. (And now that I've said that, it will be the breakout hit of 2008.)

Last and not exactly least, Live Arcade received Triggerheart Exelica. I'm not sure if this is an old-school game or a new game that’s trying to look old-school (sorry, I'm half-asleep and I've got to get up in five hours... screw research), but my immediate impression was that it needed a lot of work in the graphics and presentation department. It didn't look at all optimized to run on the 360’s hardware, and I was little surprised that it was ready to be downloaded looking so rough. Graphics aside, it seems like it will be a fairly enjoyable vertical shooter with the interesting hook of being able to grab enemies and swing them around in sort of a shield/club motion. Being a shooter fan, I'll most likely get the full version once I whittle away some of the more pressing games in queue.

Writing: Got some good work on BIE done today. Since the books were envisioned as a trilogy from the start, it was a little hard to resist launching straight into things from the get-go but I think I've found a good middle ground between recapping for readers who will be coming late and those who will already be familiar with past events. Now that that part is taken care of, I'm looking forward to getting into the meat of the events I've got planned…

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Complete Culdcept Geekery  

Fair Warning: This post is all about Culdcept Saga for the Xbox 360. If you've got no interest, just skip today's post and come back tomorrow... otherwise you're liable to fall asleep at your keyboard.

So, after what was a playtime that ran on for far too long, I finished (but not completed) the game tonight. Overall, I'm pretty pleased with it, and definitely had a good time in terms of the singleplayer mode. Apart from a length that overstayed its welcome, the difficulty curve was right where it needed to be and most of the tweaks that had been made to the PS2 formulary were good ones.

The final few matches were real pains, though.

The second-to-last match was a sickening Scroll Hell where the opponent basically chewed through my lands while I was helpless to stop the damage. The upshot was that this opponent was all offense and no defense, so it turned into a waiting game that ended with me simply strolling along and taking each land back once they had been leveled up for me.

The final match wasn't too bad, just painfully drawn-out. The boss made use of the extremely annoying combo where a creature's ST is turned to 0, and then followed up with a Doublecast spell switching the creature's ST and HP, equaling instant non-combat death. (Those particular spells should not be Doublecast-capable, if you ask me.)

On top of that, the boss was constantly using Enlightenment to activate his creatures' Territory Abilities which wasn't bad until he cast a Lightning Dragon that could hit any creature on the board for 30 damage. Ouch. Even still, the AI didn't abuse it too much and it just boiled down to running a lot of laps, nothing fancy.

Both of these matches ran well past 100 rounds, so I'm glad to have them behind me and the story mode done. Besides, with all the time I've been sinking into the game, my to-play pile has gotten out of control... time to start knocking them off my list again.

Final Stats:
Victorious in 34/42 matches, final card count of 531 cards (total.)

Winning Deck Composition:
Avenger x2 - Good numbers for both attack and defense.
Barbarian x1
Chimera x1 - first-strike defender to hold lands.
Fire giant x2 - high attack and critical on Blue.
Gas cloud x2 - awesome land defenders.
Minotaur x1
Aspidochelone x1
Fate x1
Kelpie x2 - these will end matches, just hold lots of defense items handy.
Lizardman x1 - another first-strike land-holder.
Mistwing x1 - negates Red and Blue.
Sir Gawain x2 - 70 ST after round 20; he killed a lot of enemies for me.
Yeti x1 - negates Red.
Cerberus x1 - attacks twice; pair it with Stormcauser or Vorpal Sword.
Gargoyle x1 - first-strike land-holder... see a pattern here?
Spiny Agama x2 - 50% damage reflection, great defender.
Wereboar x1
Woodfolk x1 - very versatile with a Support ability.
Magma Avatar x1
Stymphalides x1 - penetrates Yellow and Blue.
Eagle Rapier x1 - for first-strike defense.
Fire Shield x1
Magma Hammer x2 - can't have a Red/Green deck without these.
Nuclear Fusion x1
Prismatic Wand x1
Stormcauser x1 - one of the best cards in terms of offense.
Tower Shield x2 - turn anything into a Gas Cloud.
Vorpal Sword x1
Water Shield x1 - to protect Kelpies.
Anti-Element x1
Crusher x2
Drain Magic x2
Holy Word 0 x1 - for whenever I wanted to collect a fat toll twice.
Hustle x2
Peace x1 - to nullify an opponent's death zone, or to protect your own land.
Reflection x1
Relief x1
Senility x1 - for when you just can't breach the defense.
Sink x1

This deck served me well, but it's not as tight as I'd like it to be. I will definitely be tweaking it, and it's possible I'll drop the whole Kelpie gambit at some point. Anyway, I'm still going to be playing multi online for the forseeable future, so if you see me on Live, don't be afraid to hit me up for a match!

Happy Anniversary To Us!  

Hate to say it, but I sort of called it in Saturday’s post -- I was summoned to work on Sunday, so the wife and I didn’t even make it through a full 48 hours of downtime.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m complaining or that I’m ungrateful to have a good job in a soft economy, but still… It’d be nice to have a real weekend once in a while.

In unequivocally happier news, today (2/25) the wife and I celebrate our 2nd anniversary, and I celebrate two-plus years of being with the best lady on the planet. Sho’nuff ain’t no one finer!

Games: Finished Warhammer Squad Command (PSP) late last night. There were a few issues with it like the coldly brutal difficulty spikes (levels 10 & 13, if I recall correctly) and it was a little bare-bones in terms of customization and post-completion extra content, but it played like butter and has an extremely robust and slickly competent combat engine going on. A definite thumbs up, I’d love to see a slightly tuned-up sequel built on this foundation.

Still playing Culdcept Saga’s story mode (it’s starting to become a slog now due to the bloated length) and I just started the PSP's Pursuit Force: Extreme Justice (pictured). As loath as I am to play anything with ‘Extreme’ in the title, it’s a lot of high-energy fun so far. Not sure that its better than the first, but this one’s got WAY more approachable difficulty.

Writing: Submitted two entries to the 77th Annual Writer’s Digest Competition… Winners are announced in October, so it’s sort of a “fire and forget” thing. I’m not going to worry much about it, but it’d be nice to get some sort of prize or deal out of it.

With regard to Behind Infernal Eyes (and SIFT, for that matter) I met a person today who screamed ‘put me in your book’ with his odd personality and erratic manner. I’m definitely going to work him in, but with the character he will be (and others I’ve used) I’m sure some people will accuse me of being too over-the-top and bizarre. Funny thing is, most of these people have a very real basis in life…

Politics: There was some talk recently about passing a bill in the WA state legislature requiring drivers with a DUI (drunk driving) conviction to have bright yellow license plates on their cars as a mark of public shame, the point of which would be to put greater pressure on them to not re-offend. Evidently it died a quick death, and I’m a little disappointed.

I’m absolutely against drunk driving, and I defy anyone, anywhere, to give me a good reason why driving under the influence is all right. In my view, there’s just not EVER a good reason to get behind the wheel after tipping back a few, and if public humiliation is the only thing that would stop some people from doing so, then so be it.

There was some talk that since some families share cars, other non-DUI members of the household would be stigmatized despite being innocent -- but the way I see it, that just puts even more pressure on people to do the right thing. Would you really want to risk it if you knew your entire family would be humiliated if you got caught?

With so many people dying in accidents that are alcohol related (and how is it that the drunk driver is usually the one to walk away without a scratch?) just about any measures taken to try and stamp out unsafe driving are all right with me. With this bill being defeated, I suspect that there are more than a few higher-ups in the legislature and elsewhere who’d be pretty embarrassed to be seen driving if the new yellow license plates had gone into effect.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

::Light Snoring Continues::  

Just a lazy day at home today... first one the wife and I have had in a while. It's really nice to not have any obligations, not need to be anywhere, and just toss our schedules out the window...even if it's for only 24 hours (or 48 if we're really lucky.)

However, the idyllic scene was shattered by a knock at the door.

I figured it'd be UPS or the mailman needing a signature or something, but it turned out to be a homeless man who had grabbed a stack of free weekly papers from some untended kiosk, and was pretending to be raising funds for the local high school.

Launching into a pre-prepared speech about how “the kids are working so hard" and how my neighbor was “such a generous guy, he gave $25 and you've got to keep up with the Joneses", I sniffed this guy’s scam out in about three seconds and told him politely that I wasn't interested.

I expected him to maintain the fa├žade and go along his way, but as soon as he realized he wasn't going to get a cash handout on the spot, he got nasty.

"You're the only deadbeat on this block, you ain't even gonna give me nothin’?”

At this point, I started to get pissed and told him to start stepping. He walked straight through my front yard, cussing as he went, but he left.

I give the guy points for trying to be a little more creative and enterprising than the wastes of space who stand on streetcorners by busy intersections or freeway offramps, but to go up to someone's house, disturb them, and then start hassling them when all they've done is stay inside and keep to themselves -- that just takes the cake.

I'm having a trapdoor put in under our welcome mat next thursday. The hungry alligators that will inhabit the water pit underneath come the following tuesday.

Happy Kitten Day... MEOW!  

Just a quickie tonight... it's ten before one (a.m.) as I write this, and I'm a few words away from finishing another chapter in SIFT2, or as it shall be known henceforth:

Behind Infernal Eyes.

Gotta finish before I fall asleep.

If I was a little more awake, I'd also comment on going out to a fun night of dinner and an improv show with friends, or how easy it is to overstuff yourself when seated in front of a conveyor belt that just keeps bringing more sushi your way.

But I'm not. So I won't. 'Cause I'm tired.

::cue light snoring::

Friday, February 22, 2008

Black on Black  

I had an interesting conversation with a person yesterday, and something they said really caught my attention. It probably would have stuck out in my mind anyway, but the comment was virtually identical to one I heard from a completely different person in a completely different conversation, and it got me thinking.

The person I'm referring to is black, and has only been in the area for a short time. We were having the sort of general chit-chat that you go through with anyone, and I asked how they liked living in Seattle. This person responded that it was “Not bad”, but even though it wasn't their favorite, it was “Much better than D.C.”

Naturally, I asked what was so bad about D.C.

The response was that our nation's capital was “Too dirty, and had too many black people.”

I kind of froze for a second, mentally processing what I had just heard. I asked, “What do you mean? You’re black yourself.”

The person didn't hesitate before stating “But they’re thugs, and there are a lot of gangs.”

Now, I've never been to D.C. and I can't say one way or the other whether this is an accurate picture of the city, but the thing that seems puzzling to me is that this person chose to describe the city as being too “black” as their primary response, rather than saying something specific about the crime rate, gangs, and so on.

I probably would have written it off as a slip of the tongue, except that this same comment (about a different city) was made to me by a completely different black person in the recent past, as I mentioned in the beginning of this post. This usage seems to be too much of a coincidence.

Although I'm not pure anglo myself, I generally identify as white in most situations. However, when I go to a bad part of town or some place I don’t feel comfortable in, I don't say that the place has “too many white people”… I’d probably describe it as having too many rednecks, too many skinheads, too many punks, druggies, whores, comic book nerds, hyperactive furries, angry fry cooks, or whatever... but it would be something very specific.

Although I'm not exactly sure what these chroma-descriptive occurrences represent, I do think they represent something.

At the risk of coming off as completely non-PC, a simple examination of this person’s statement seems to suggest that describing something (like D.C.) as “black” suggests negative connotations which might not mean much when factoring in a person’s internal biases, but are quite surprising considering the source. For example, this kind of statement would make sense to me coming out of the mouth of the Grand Goblin at a KKK rally, but threw me for a loop coming from someone who was black themselves.

As something of a word and language wonk, it seems to me that there are some issues to chew on here.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Witty Joke About Taxes Here  

Like I said yesterday, this has been quite the eventful week. I can't spill on everything, but one thing that just got removed from the docket was…

Misc: As a self-employed person, my tax structure is a little more complicated than the average 9-to-5 employee. In some ways this is good, but in general it just means I pay more and there's more paperwork to do. I'm certainly not a tax expert, but I do my best to keep up and I've been using a series of accountants for the last few years. (I still haven't found a good one, but I'm going to keep on trying.)

Anyway, for some bizarre reason my accountant last year forgot to include a small number somewhere on the return, and neither the IRS or I were aware of it until very recently. (Carrying that 3 is hard work, I guess.) We got it straightened out eventually and I've been paying off the difference in monthly installments on time, every time. Yesterday, I get a letter saying that I've defaulted on my payments and that the IRS is levying my property.

After I recovered from a small heart attack, I went back home to double check my records and could not see anything that could have triggered this aggro response. All the checks had been written and cashed, et cetera, so I took a trip down to the local IRS branch office to get it straightened out.

It made me feel a little better to see that it took the helpful person at the desk about 40 minutes before they got a handle on what was going on with my account, so obviously I wasn't the only one that was confused. Long story short, because the amount owed had changed, it automatically put my account into default even though I had been making my payments as agreed, on time.

Let me just restate this for clarity: I was doing everything I was supposed to do, but because the IRS changed some numbers, their first response was to threaten me with property seizure.

I was glad to find out that I hadn't done anything wrong although I hardly think it's an appropriate response to put someone into a negative status when they haven't actually done anything, but here’s the kicker… because my account had been put into default, I had to pay a $45 fee to reinstate the payment plan.

Again, for clarity: they defaulted me even though I had been following our agreement to the letter, but I had to pay cash to get back on the payment agreement that I never broke in the first place.

I'm not anywhere close to calling myself a Republican, but complete BS like this is making the whole "do away with big government" concept a little more appealing.

Games: A charming old-school throwback with a serious addiction factor, N+ was released for Live Arcade today and I completely recommend the download. (DS and PSP versions will follow in April.) Although looking at screenshots does absolutely nothing to convey what a joy this game is to play, trust me when I say that it's a unique platforming experience that gets my seal of approval.

I was fortunate enough to speak to one-half of the development team recently, the gracious and talented Mare Sheppard. You can see the original interview here, and I plan on doing a follow-up piece to see how things have gone since we first chatted. Check back for more details, and buy this game!

Also on Live today, an add-on pack was released for Overlord. Although I personally found this title to be more enjoyable in concept than in practice, it was still a decent game that I had some fun with. It will never make my top 10 list, but you know what I'm saying. Promising new weapons, upgrades, and an expanded single-player segment, I'm definitely going to check it out (although the wife will probably get to it first.)

SIFT2: Last but not least, I'm pretty sure I've found a good title, but I'm not completely decided yet. Regardless, I've been chipping away and although my last weekend wasn't nearly as productive as I had hoped, I've got four rough chapters in the bag. Everything is still in the very early phases, but progress is being made...

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Couple Quickies  

It's been a hell of a week, and it's only tuesday... just a quick update tonight.

Pray for me, people.

Games: Warhammer Squad Command for PSP is a total thumbs up. Haven't completed it yet, but the mechanics are silky-smooth, the graphics are good, and it provides very straightforward strategy action with a good kick. It's a little thin on the options and customization, but I'd rather my Strat games go too light than too heavy, honestly. So far, I've gotten more than my $20 worth.

I also just finished Pokemon Ranger on DS. My son picked this out so I was obligated to go thorugh it... it's my policy that what the son plays, the parents play. That way, we know what he's seeing on a screen, and we also know what the heck he's talking about when he needs help or whatnot. Anyway, the wife volunteered to go through Pokemon Pearl, so I took Ranger.

Ugh, what an annoying little game. The main hook is that players draw circles around spazzy, jumping Pokemon to try and catch them. Sounds simple, but it's a lot harder than you'd think. My son got frustrated pretty early on, and I can see why... for a kids' game, the circle-drawing is a perfect way to get someone's aggravation up. The rest of the adventure is a brain-dead simplistic RPG, so snooze city there -- but at least that aspect was playable for young ones.

Why is it so hard to find quality kids' games?!?

Food: Take a few scoops of sherbet (rainbow, orange, whatever), add ginger ale, and some fresh fruit slices... Stir and sip. Pretty damned good, right? Props to the Mother-in-Law for that one.

Love ya, MA.

Monday, February 18, 2008

The Tipping Point  

A favorite activity for the wife and I, and I'm sure for many of you as well, is to go out and try new restaurants. We’re both slightly-better-than-amateur foodies (cooking as well as eating) and it's a lot of fun to see new spins on favorite recipes, or to try something that we wouldn't normally have. However, whenever we go restauranteering with friends or family, the inevitable discussion comes up: what to tip?

Now I'm not a skinflint and I would hope that people wouldn't describe me as a heartless bastard, but I'm definitely of the mindset that a server has to earn a tip. I've never been of the opinion that it's mandatory, and I have to admit that I'm very surprised at how often people I dine with feel that they have an absolute obligation to leave 15%, 20% or even more regardless of how the service was.

The simple fact is, the job description of a server is to take people's order and bring them their food. This is what’s expected, so anyone meeting this bare minimum and not going a step further can look forward to a big fat zero from me when they peep that little line on my credit card slip reserved for gratuity. I'm sorry, but a person picking up a plate and simply bringing it from point A to point B doesn't deserve any of my hard-earned cash as thanks for doing what they’re hired for.

I often hear the argument that it's a tough job and people work hard doing it, but if it's really that tough, then get a different job. I've waited on tables myself so I know exactly how hard it is. I didn't stay long. Besides that, I've had a bunch of jobs where I worked harder and kissed more ass on a more consistent basis than I ever did waiting tables, and never got a single tip. I could remember the names of just about every customer who came into my comic shop, remember what they read and what they liked, and even remembered to ask about their family and pets… was that worth a damn dollar to any of them? Of course not. They appreciated it, liked it, and it kept them coming back to the shop, but they never felt obligated to leave cash. What's so special about being a waiter?

I also hear the argument that servers get taxed on estimated tips, and that if a diner doesn't tip, then the server actually loses money because the government takes part whether they actually got that tip or not. I understand the situation, but I fail to see how it's my responsibility to make sure that this person doesn't get a bite taken out of them by Uncle Sam. Personally, I think that servers should not be taxed at all on their tips… when I get bad service, I don't leave anything, so it seems unfair that the government should tax a person for something they didn't earn. However, instead of always leaving enough money to cover someone else's taxes, it makes more sense to me that the servers and restaurants should band together and get the law changed.

The final argument that always comes up is that many restaurants pay minimum wage or even below minimum wage, so these people are depending on their tips to survive. I don't know how true this is or not (and it may vary from state to state) but I don't agree that anyone working anywhere should be earning less than minimum wage. If there's some loophole in the law that permits this to happen, that loophole needs close. Additionally, there are tons of minimum-wage jobs out there that aren't in restaurants, so I don't see how people waiting tables are somehow getting a rougher ride than some guy who's cleaning toilets or picking cauliflower. Having servers is an expected cost of doing business for restaurants, so restaurants should expect to pay servers what they're worth. If the job doesn't pay enough, look for another one.

Now before you all start thinking I’m anti-server and never leave anyone that tip, ever, let me just say that because I'm so critical, I absolutely reward good service when we get it.

Honestly, it doesn't take much.

If the person taking my order actually gets it right, they're starting off on the right foot. If the server checks back after dropping off the food and asks how things are, I notice. If I ask for something and it gets brought to me in a reasonable amount of time, another plus. Toss in the barest hint of a smile or perhaps even a little warmth, and that person is absolutely going to get something. If the server wants a tip, they have to earn it… however, I really don't think it's that hard. And when a server is great, I'll tip heavily and write down their name to ask for them again the next time I come back.

For example, the wife and I went to Cascadia here in Seattle on First Ave and the bartender, Michael, was superb. He was friendly, cracked a few jokes, kept checking back with us to make sure everything was OK and paid attention when we asked for something. At the end of the night, we gave him an extra $20 and made sure to ask him what days he worked, so we could come back when he was there.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we went to Thai 65 on University Ave today. The waiter started out all right, but vanished as soon as the food was brought. After I finally flagged him down to ask for more rice, he said ‘right away’ and then proceeded to sit at the bar and eat ice cream in full view of the restaurant while he was texting. I caught his eye again to ask for the rice a second time, and when it came, he dropped it off with attitude. Can someone explain to me why servers like this deserve 20%?

Although I feel like my stance on tipping is logical and quite reasonable, more often than not I'm greeted with weird looks and disdain from people who I would otherwise describe as smart and sensible. Am I the only sane person lost in a Twilight Zone of undeserved tips, or am I somehow way off base?

If you’ve got an opinion, I’d like to hear it.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Alone on Sundays...?  

After starting this blog recently, I started getting into reading the blogs of others. I usually touch base with a few faves before bedtime, but I'm starting to notice that almost none of the ones I frequent get updated on Sundays.

...Is everybody posting while they're supposed to be doing things at work? Are most bloggers highly religious folk who use the seventh day as rest? in a situation like this, what's a man supposed to read before he goes to bed?

Help me out here, people. If you've got some good blogs that you can recommend, drop me a line. Blogs that update on Sundays are a plus.

...Oh, one more thing. Cheesy Nachos + Fried Ice Cream = Intestinal Badness.

You've been warned.

Konami and Kaneko  

Games: Got paid today after what felt like forever, so the wife and I took a trip down to the local GameStop to have a look-see. Since joining up with GameFly, I usually don't buy a game until after I've already tried it, but it's hard to resist the instant gratification of walking into a store and having a new game in hand just a few minutes later.

Purchase 1: A used copy of Warhammer Squad Command for PSP. I haven't had anything to play on Sony's little machine for a while and I've heard fairly good things about this one -- any game referenced in the same sentence as X-Com gets the benefit of the doubt with me.

Purchase 2: Professor Layton and the Curious Village for DS. Although I just stated that I don't usually buy games until after I've tried them (and then, my purchases are usually limited to secondhand copies) I do buy some games right off the bat on principle alone. Off the top of my head, I ponied up the asking price for Culdcept Saga and before that, Mass Effect and Persona 3. These are games I absolutely want to support and I know the developers put out a quality product, so I'm fine with giving the green.

I went ahead and got Professor Layton new because it's from the good people at Level 5, and as far as I'm concerned they can really do no wrong. It's been a long time since I've been able to put complete faith into a developer, but Level 5 is coming very, very close. The last time I trusted a developer so implicitly was probably Konami back in the NES/SNES era when anything with the old orange and red logo meant it was going to give you your $50 worth.

Random: I have the best wife in the world. All you other married guys out there, you may have pretty good wives or even excellent wives, but there isn't a woman alive who can top mine. There are approximately 34,642 reasons why this is true, but today's reason is… Kazuma Kaneko.

I'm a huge fan of this artist, most commonly known for his work on the Persona series among other things. His clean designs and iconic style are unmistakable, and I've been wanting a collection of his art for some time. I think I mentioned in passing to the wife one day when we were browsing in an import bookshop, but that was months ago and it wasn't any big deal.
Today, what do I find sitting on my doorstep?

There you have it. My wife is the best.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Unauthorized Withdrawls  

Random: I was talking to a guy who works at an international bank today (the financial institution will remain anonymous to protect the innocent) and he dropped a pretty amazing set of numbers on me.

During our conversation, he said that by adding up the amounts of all combined crimes like ATM ripoffs, bogus checks, actual armed robberies (with ski masks or without) and other sorts of nefariousness, this bank loses approximately $25-$30 million per year.

When totaling up all the money stolen by employees of the bank, it was a little higher. Try somewhere on the order of three billion dollars per year via inside jobs and scams on the system by people in the know.

He had one other little interesting tidbit... the person most often responsible for these employee thefts?

The managers of individual branches themselves.

In other news...

SIFT2: It's been a busy and unpleasantly eventful week, but (fingers crossed) the weekend will be the opposite. Culdcept Saga is still drawing me like a moth to butane, but if everything goes according to plan and the forces of the universe cooperate, I'll try to get some serious writing time in. I've got 2.75 chapters of SIFT's sequel in the can, but I'd like to at least double that by the time Monday rolls around. Note to self: stop slacking.

Books: Finished Terminal by Andrew Vachss yesterday. Vachss is a great writer, but I haven't been following his Burke series -- I discovered him through his standalone novel, Shella.

Although I'm aware that a reader jumping into a series late in the game has to give the writer some slack while playing catch-up, I found Terminal to be nearly incomprehensible. Very little is said about the characters, tons of things are referenced with no help to newer readers, a lot of the events are made up of what seem to me to be convenient contrivances, and there are several wild tangents that look like nothing more than an author's indulgence to me.

I'm sure I'd get more out of it if I had read the prior books, but the mark of a good series book (in my opinion, anyway) is the ability to hook a reader into what's going on whether it's book two or twelve and make them go hunt out the previous ones. I finished the last page of Terminal wondering what the hell was going on, and why the book went on for as long as it did when the main plotline could have been completed in five chapters.

After I wrapped that up, I started Son of Rosemary today -- sequel to Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. I'm still in the opening chapters, but it's already pretty clear that Levin is a true master of the craft.

Good, good stuff.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Robotic Life Suit  

Not much happened today unless you count working all day and chatting with co-workers about how completely disgusted we are at the events I wrote about in yesterday's post.

...Still sort of bitter.

In lighter news, I heard a completely inspiring story on my local NPR station about an inventor who was rendered paralyzed by a bad fall during skydiving. Although he eventually recovered the use of his legs (something of a miracle in itself) while he was down, he was driven to invent a real, working robotic exoskeleton after being inspired by Heinlein's Starship Troopers. (Book, not film.)

The link to the story is here, and all I can say is that although it looks sort of ramshackle, the concept and reality are pretty awesome... All that's left is to strap some machine guns on the tops of these things, figure out where the laser sword goes, and then we're in business.

Lots of stick, Not so much carrot  

Got a blanket message from a company I work with this afternoon, going out to me and (I assume) a significant number of other people who contract with them.

Turns out that a number of us have been missing some "important documents" in our personnel files for several months that are somehow vitally necessary, but rather than bring the issue up on a case-by-case basis or head the problem off at the pass in an efficient and diplomatic way, the solution was to simply cut us all off from future work.

Got an email about it in the afternoon, and I'm locked out of the online work distribution system by evening.

It's sort of complicated to explain all the ins and outs, but I've done this work for a long time and I can't help but feel a wee bit frustrated at the situation as a freelancer who depends on this sort of setup for my livelihood. Even worse, I feel as though there's no recognition for the work I've personally done to help make this particular company successful, and this sort of hands-off, one-size-fits-all approach to a simple paperwork problem leaves me feeling put off and disaffected.

I'm sure it will all be resolved soon one way or another -- the company needs people to do the work just as much as we workers need a company to help coordinate our efforts. That said, the sort of bad feeling that gets stirred up by these kinds of heavy-handed actions can have far-reaching repercussions; something I've learned from personal experience.

Not exactly the way I wanted to end my day. Hopefully tomorrow will be better.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Call Signs  

Playing Culdcept Saga over the last few days, I've run into an interesting phenomenon that has only happened to me very rarely in all the years since I first owned a PC.

As anyone who spends even a small amount of time on internet websites or messageboards knows, the vast majority of people who post use aliases or 'handles' when posting. Whatever the reason, I've found that the percentage of folks who submit comments under their real names is quite small, almost to the point of being nonexistent.

As a result, I've found (as I'm sure everyone has) that I start to know regulars on a given site by these made-up names. No loving mother ever names their child Wicky99, 1l0v3A22, or MasterChiefsNutSack, yet these entities reveal elements of the people behind them over time when replying to threads or sounding off on the topics of the day.

So what's the phenomenon? 

When meeting some of these folk online to play some game, I find that I have absolutely no idea what to call someone I "know" when speaking aloud through Live's voice chat function.  

It seems bizarre to have written messages back and forth with people, sometimes for years, only to realize that I don't know what their real name is. I feel somewhat hesitant to call someone by their handle in the same way that any self-respecting person doesn't pronounce the letters "ell-oh-ell" as a word to ever be used in real conversation, and most of the games I've played over the last few days usually begin with something along the lines of:

"Hey, uh... nice to meet you, sort of. Uhm, like, what's your name or what should I call you?"

This line is usually met with a few moments of awkward silence on both sides-- I wait to hear the response while the person I'm speaking to quickly tries to decide if I'm some sort of internet predator who can unravel the threads of their carefully-guarded identities with disastrous slasher-film consequences.

That's right, Billy Johansen... my shiny butcher knife and I traveled twelve states, found your home address, broke into your house and hid inside your broom closet because you told me your REAL NAME during a multiplayer match... and now your GamerScore is MINE. MwahahahAHAHAHAAAAAAAA!!!

In all seriousness though, the weird intersection of online and offline lives is still something of an uncharted social territory to me, and for others too, I'd guess... For every person who came right out and said "My name's Jason", there was another who insisted that I keep on using their Nom de Game

Perhaps those who post and comment as their "real selves" feel less guarded than those who use these electronic aliases as a way to get out things they aren't really comfortable expressing in the company of others?

I feel like there's a thesis paper in here somewhere just waiting to get out. 

Lazy-ish Sunday  

Got off to a good start with some strawberry pancakes and turkey bacon this morning, but the pager went off and work was calling in the afternoon... 

We'll try this again next weekend.

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Yes, Culdcept Again. And Some New Blood.  

I've been caught up in Culdcept fever for the last few days, and I’ve been putting in way too much time on it. It's a sickness, I tell you, a sickness.

… but if this is the sickness, don't give me no cure.

Seriously though, this is one fantastic game. Hardly anybody was even aware of its existence when it debuted stateside during the PS2 era, selling somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 copies nationwide. Although the game remains essentially unchanged, I couldn't be happier that it's been given a second chance on life.

However, I do find it a little worrisome that the online multiplayer seems less than optimal. In two out of the three online matches I've played so far, there have been "unstable connections" that have caused the AI to step in and take over for players who are still online. Not only did this rob all of us of an Achievement or two, it just sucks that we weren't able to complete these games with each other.

If there are benevolent forces in the universe, the developer will whip up some sort of downloadable patch and get this resolved ASAP.

...And for those who might be interested, you can read my review for Trauma Center: New Blood here.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

It's Been How Long?  

Yeah yeah, I know… it hasn’t been six months, blah blah blah.


Games: In the “all that & a bag of chips” department, Culdcept Saga is indeed every bit as an awesome as I had hoped. I’m still in the very early stages, but I just completed Coliseum Three and I’m undefeated (so far, anyway… we’ll see how long that lasts.)

Effectively, this is the exact same game that was released on PS2 way back in ’03, but since I gave that version a 9.5 and called it nearly perfect, I’m not complaining. The only reason I held back that extra .5 was because it didn’t have online multiplayer, which is an issue that the Xbox 360 handily solves. However, although I haven’t checked it out for myself, I’ve heard that it’s not possible to trade cards with friends online… if it proves to be true, that will be a bit of a bummer.

…Probably bummer enough to keep it from earning that same .5 again, but we’ll see.

In other news, it was announced recently that my top game of 2007, Mass Effect, will have an all-new adventure available for download via Microsoft’s Live network. Allegedly titled “Bring Down the Sky”, this new segment will be approximately 2 hours long and sell for about 400 points if the information I heard was correct. Couldn’t be more excited.

SIFT2: Everything was put completely on hiatus while the mother-in-law was here, but we dropped her off at the airport today and I’ll have about five weeks (give or take) of relatively uninterrupted daily routine.

(::knocks on wood::)

I’m planning to get back on track and start moving full steam ahead starting tomorrow, probably.

Books: Finished the Nymphos of Rocky Flats and was completely unimpressed. I don’t mean any disrespect towards the author, Mario Acevedo, but there were a number of issues I had with the book and to be perfectly frank, I’m a little bit surprised that certain aspects weren’t tightened up or polished.

For example, the “rules” of vampirism weren’t handled consistently to my satisfaction, and the main character who is supposed to be a private detective pretty much bumbles his way through the events of the book, and I don’t mean that in a “sly fox” Columbo-ish sort of way… I mean "bumbles" as in inept and nonsensical.

There were a few other things that dissatisfied like certain thin characterizations and weak justifications for some events, but I’m not going to go into full nitpick mode. It may sound obscenely egotistical of me to say this, but books like Nymphos are the sort of thing that gives me hope. My own work is far from perfect, but if books like this one (and hundreds more which aren’t even as good as this) get published, then so can I.

HeroScape: My Soulborg-themed army was no match for Gina's Irregulars. The wife kicked my ass again. Twice… and I love her for it. (By the way, this is SO not a picture of us, but it gives you an idea of what our current 'Scape map looks like.)

And now… Back to ‘Cepting.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008


Twelve minutes ago, I heard my doorbell go off.

After wondering out loud who the F*** it could be at 7pm (we don't get many unannounced visitors here), I opened the front door to discover a small package getting drizzled on as it sat on my doormat.
My copy of Culdcept Saga for the 360 had arrived.

...Check back with me in about six months or so.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Dancing Goats  

Just a few quick words on a (sort of) relatively new discovery: Dancing Goats coffee.

A local shop near my house was sporting these beans, and after brewing them at home, I'm a big fan. The wife and I detest citrus notes in our coffee, and go for rich, smooth blends. The bag of Dancing Goats we got fits the bill perfectly, roasted by Batdorf & Bronson.

We were devotees of B&B from our days sipping black at the Pearl Bakery in Portland, but had given up hope of getting the same up north here in Seattle. Don't get me wrong, there are *tons* of great roasts around here, we just had a particular taste for this one and we were quite pleased to find that it was pouring just a few blocks away.

If you're not as close to a retailer that carries it, I highly recommend placing an order online... You won't be disappointed.

Monday, February 4, 2008

The Half-Life 2 Wrapup  

Finally laid Half-Life 2 to rest last night by finishing Episode 2.

All told, the ride provided by The Orange Box (Half-Life 2, HL2: Ep1, HL2: Ep 2, Portal, Team Fortress 2) was a great one, and the game was indeed one of the best values to ever be offered to people who buy new software. I paid full price for this one ( a rarity for me) and wasn't disappointed. But I digress...

So, Half-Life 2.

The first thing that hit me in the face about the game was that there was a major storytelling disconnect between HL and HL2. The game makes no effort to explain what happened between the two titles, and in all honesty, I think players would be better served story-wise if they skipped the original altogether. In my mind at least, HL2 has a better dramatic arc on its own when viewed completely apart from the events that had gone before. Obviously someone at Valve must have had a major brainstorm after they wrapped HL1 and wanted to jump ahead into the good stuff instead of trying to tie it together for those who played their earlier effort. I can admire the energy and the jump in direction, but it wouldn't have killed anyone to make the gap in continuity a little less Grand Canyon-ish.

Besides the plot, Half-Life 2 itself felt very bloated and scattered. The playing time ran far too long, and there were many segments that would have been better at half, or even a third of their actual length. Setpieces felt cobbled together, and I felt as though there were three or four "big ideas" fighting for dominance over what was happening at any given time. For example, the boating sequence felt like it dragged on forever, and the headcrab-infested town of Ravenholm and its Romero-esque zombie tones felt obscenely out of place with the rest of HL2's Sci-Fi slant. I can appreciate that it was a great way to showcase the Gravity Gun's ability to fling sawblades violently, but the concept was out of step with the game as a whole and was one instance where a director should have stepped in to reinforce a unified vision. Experiment all you want, but don't sacrifice the cohesiveness of a game by cramming things that don't really fit into a finished product.

Episodes 1 and 2 were leaps and bounds better, primarily because they were shorter. Because there was less fat, the action was tighter and segments were over before they had a chance to feel boring or stale. The focus of these installments also felt tighter, and although neither of the had the scope or range as HL2, I actually think they were both better for it.

Those issues aside, I do want to both praise and scold Valve for its storytelling. On the one hand, they have one of the best female characters in the history of gaming, Alyx Vance. Strong, independent, believable and wearing sensible clothing, Alyx is a true rarity in that she's extremely well-written and handled in the most mature fashion possible. Most of the supporting cast is nearly as good, and their behavior and dialogue are some of the best in the industry. The voice acting in particular is outstanding, the roles delivered by Robert Guillaume and Robert Culp being notables.

So what's the scolding? Main character Gordon Freeman should never have been a silent protagonist. Personally, I don't think the SP approach EVER works, but in a game like HL where so much of the story is superbly accomplished and so many of the characters are believable and natural, it makes NO SENSE to have the hero interact with people, lead a rebellion, and save the planet without ever uttering a word. Instead of being one of the most memorable characters in history, Gordon is simply a mute hand holding a gun and nothing more. This is a missed opportunity of the highest magnitude, and I sincerely wish that Valve would see the error of their ways for their future projects. With their talent for writing and indeed, for creating such a convincing post-apocalyptic world, such a weak, outdated choice is inconceivable.

That said, I will give credit where credit is due and say that the Half-Life arc succeeds far more often than it fails. Although it has issues here and there (an overenthusiasm for wonky PC physics and a sick fondness for mine shafts, for starters) the majority of what it offers is certainly in the top tier of gaming today. I look forward to Episode 3, and the conclusion of one of the most interesting sagas I've played through.... Here's hoping that the hints of including a Portal gun will turn out to be true. Flinging sawblades at zombies with pinpoint gravity control is all well and good, but I'd much rather open holes in reality's fabric and drop them into a dark well of spatial nothingness.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

...What's "Tetris?"  

My wonderful, wonderful mother-in-law is staying with the wife and I for about a week or so. She and her husband live in Russia, so I've not had many chances to spend much time with them although we do connect over the phone, Skype, videochats online, and so forth.

Anyway, this is the biggest consecutive block of time we've had to get to know each other, and it's been great. After a day of hanging out, I was taking five and decided to grab a little downtime by firing up the 360. I was going to jump straight into Half-Life 2: Episode 2, but I saw her just sort of chillin' on the couch, so I invited her over for some Live Arcade action.

I fired up Tetris Splash and asked if she wanted to play.

"What's Tetris?" she says.

Hold the phone... say what??? I think I feel the Earth suddenly stop rotating.

"What's Tetris?!? Are you serious?" 

If it wasn't for the totally sincere look on her face, I'd swear she must be putting me on. I suggest that surely she must have at least heard of it, if not played it.

"No, I don't think so."

Words cannot fully express the amazement I felt that there was still a person in the world who hadn't played or even heard of Tetris. I mean, the game's been around forever, been ported to every platform known to man, and sold more copies than the cumulative number of  people who've lived on earth since the dawn of humanity. 

I felt like I had just stumbled into a glade and seen a unicorn, or that I had gone out for an afternoon fishing trip and brought home Nessie in a net. The impossible was living and breathing, right here in front of me.

After my wife pulled me up off the floor, I sat down with my mother-in-law and we played some Tetris. It took her a minute to get the gist, but then she was off and did quite well for her first time out. I told her I was proud of her, and thanked her for playing before I realized I had just witnessed the end of an era....

Tetris' hold on humanity was now complete, the last free human having been assimilated.