Sunday, March 25, 2007

In today's Sunday comics, two strips decided to call out their competition for ridicule (though in the case of Pearls Before Swine, the mockery seems to fall in the category of good-natured ribbing):

Lio attacks For Better or for Worse (which is like shooting fish in a barrel...or, to borrow from Todd Barry, like shooting a barrel)

Pearls Before Swine is a tad jealous of Get Fuzzy

I only recently started reading both Get Fuzzy and Pearls Before Swine regularly, but I'd have to say Pearls Before Swine is probably my favorite current comic strip. I've also started reading Lio recently, and today's strip reflects my confusion about the strip's nature. I was under the impression that one of the strip's signifying qualities was the general lack of dialogue, like a silent film. I knew this wasn't a hard and fast, inviolable law of nature, but still, in the time I've been reading it, it's been awfully wordy. Kind of hurts the strip's charm (the strip is pretty repetitive, and certainly hasn't lived up to my first impressions).

UPDATE: Well, seeing as I linked to Pearls Before Swine, I should probably link to today's Get Fuzzy, too, since it was pretty funny.

Eiji Funakoshi, dead at 84. It's been awhile since I've seen the original Gamera; I think Funakoshi made a bigger impression on me in Gamera vs. Guiron.
I went gambling with a friend of mine last night, and when I picked him up, he offered me a bottled tea. To my surprise, it was a plastic bottle of Honest Tea green tea. I was surprised because it wasn't in a glass bottle, as I was accustomed to, so I asked where he purchased it. Turns out, CostCo now carries an Honest Tea assortment. I quickly drilled him on the flavors included, as my grocery store stopped carrying my favorite flavor, Moroccan Mint Greeen Tea, but he wasn't sure if that flavor was included. But I've been meaning to make a CostCo run (been out of shaving gel for two weeks or so), so I'll have to check that out.

Oh, and as for the gambling, I lost what I won at Barona on Thursday, when I placed in the evening poker tournament. Had fun playing No-Limit Hold 'em live on Saturday night, I don't think I've ever played that game in a brick-and-mortar casino outside of a tournament setting. Didn't get much in the way of cards, but one big pot put me right back where I started from, so I almost broke even at poker (though I lost a fair amount on video poker while waiting for a seat).

And, may I say, huzzah and kudos to Barona Casino for offering fair food prices for the gambling community. The buffet is discounted to $9.95 Monday-Thursday this month, and will be $8.95 next month (I assume also Monday-Thursday, though this I have not confirmed). Quarter-pound hot dogs are $1, half-pounders $2. The burger joint in the food court had several satisfying options under $3. And midnight-six AM, the coffee shop has some decent-looking breakfast specials in the $3-$4 range. Contrast this with Viejas, which, last I checked, wanted about $6 for a hot dog. No wonder Barona was packed both times I went, and Viejas was quite depopulated last time I was there. So, way to go Barona, giving the customer an honest deal.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Two of my favorites, together at last: Willie Nelson on The Colbert Report:

For the record, I had a Nelson/Colbert taste-test the other day, and must admit I wasn't a huge fan of either ice cream. Willie Nelson's Peach Cobbler was pretty good, but I'm just not a huge fan of peach. Not bad for a change of pace, but not something I'd see myself eating regularly. Colbert's Americone Dream is pretty good, but a bit boring. I'm quite a fan of those Drumstick ice cream cones, so it sounded just up my alley, but the ice-cream-to-cone ratio just isn't quite right. But despite my qualms, I'd have to side with Colbert on this one.

A preview of This American Life's new cable TV show:

Friday, March 16, 2007

Cryptographers defeat the Amazing Randi. I was a bit confused when I saw this article's headline, as I couldn't understand why these two forces would be at odds. Did Randi announce his belief that encryption was bullshit? But, as is often the case, reading the story aquainted me with what actually happened.
Wii friend codes to be unique for each game. Boo on you, Nintendo.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

A few comic strips that amused me recently:

No time for poetry

Whistling past the graveyard

Living life over again

Too close to home

What makes the sky blue?

Al D'Amato, poker lobbyist. I never thought I'd live to say it, but, God bless you, Mr. D'Amato.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

In uploading a picture of my Mii for the previous post, I realized I had a bunch of photos on my camera from my vacation last September, which I never shared here. I've gone ahead and uploaded a few pictures from the Charles M. Schultz Museum, in Santa Rosa, California. It was a fun time. I'll upload more pictures later.

Photo album from the Schultz Museum

Friday, March 09, 2007

The above is a crude photographic representation of my Mii, the avatar that represents me on my Wii. A fairly accurate representation, I would say, certainly the most faithful recreation of an actual person I've seen using the somewhat limited customization choices available. (For comparison's sake, here's a recent photo)

I've had my Wii since December, and have meant to share my impressions of the system for some time. But whenever I would sit down to type up my thoughts, it would occur to me that my time would be better spent playing the damn thing. But, at long last, here I am, ready to speak frankly about my experience with the wildly-hyped next big thing in video games.

I'll work my way up to the games, which are, of course, the most important aspect of a games system. But I'll start with the general design and features. The machine is small and quiet, barely the size of two VHS tapes. The main menu is designed to look like a series of TV channels, which keeps things simple, though the ability to create sub-folders would be nice (for instance, filing all downloaded games into one channel). The messaging system is nice to have, but not terribly useful. Friend codes are a pain (both you and the recipient of your message must enter the other person's friend code before you can communicate with each other), and in this case, the inability to create folders for messages, or really filter your messages in any way beyond deleting them, is a major flaw. The photo channel is a nice bonus, making it incredibly easy to watch photo slide shows on your television. The ability to automatically take screen shots and transfer them to the photo channel would be a nice feature to add (it would have allowed me to share a much nicer photo of my Mii than what you see above). The weather channel would be useful, if it updated more often, and was more accurate. Seeing a happy sun when it is raining outside is irritating. The news channel updates more frequently, and I actually use it more frequently than I anticipated. Not that it's all that taxing getting the news off the computer, but if I find myself lying on the couch, it's nice to just sit back and read the news on the TV. The text size and resolution keeps things easy on the eyes, and navigation is reasonably smooth. The news channel features a global map (as does the weather channel), showing where news events took place; an amusing flaw often has the map showing, for instance, Syracuse, Italy, when the news article refers to Syracuse, New York. A new channel, "Everybody Votes," was just recently added. Fairly useless, but amusing enough for the two minutes or so it takes to answer a couple inane poll questions, and then vote on what response the majority of Wii users will choose. And, of course, there is the Mii channel. There are some minor quibbles I can offer, wishing there were more options to choose from in customizing one's Mii, and more ways to share them with other users, without the burdensome friend codes. But word is these concerns will be addressed in future updates, and none of this takes away from the joyous experience of creating yourself and your friends on your gaming console, and using your own image to play a video game. Bowling a strike is much more satisfying when it is you that threw the ball, and not some random character. The implementation of the Miis is the perfect example of how you don't need the most bleeding-edge graphics and processing power to create a brilliant new gaming experience.

But whatever the merits of these channels, they are minor extras, at best. The Wii is a video game machine, and as such, the most anticipated feature of the system, beyond the actual games made for the Wii, is the Virtual Console, which allows you to download classic video games for play on the Wii. I must say, while this was the first feature that really got be excited about the Wii (it wasn't until I experienced the Nintendo DS, and its unorthodox control scheme, that I became more open-minded about the motion-sensing controls), it's left me underwhelmed so far. I've downloaded a total of four games, and only spent a significant amount of time playing Super Mario Bros. and the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Partly, I've been disappointed by the lack of selection, but seeing as that has improved markedly recently, I guess I'd have to say the main problem is the price. Games for the original NES are $5, which seems fair to me. But prices go up from there, from $6 for TurboGrafx-16 games to $8 for Sega Genesis games and $10 for Nintendo 64 games. The more expensive games may indeed be more sophisticated, but they are all old games. With the possible exception of the Nintendo 64 games, I don't see a price tag over $5 being defensible, especially in comparison to prices for brand-new games downloaded from the Xbox Live Arcade (virtually all classic games on the Xbox are $5, and unlike the Wii store, free trials are available). Of course, the main reason I haven't downloaded more games is probably because I'm busy with new Wii games; I'll probably make more use of the Virtual Console in the future. But the pricing definitely doesn't encourage impulse purchases.

But enough of that, let's get to the Wii games. As you probably are aware, the Wii's main feature is it's motion-sensing controller, which looks like a remote control. The Wii comes with a pack-in game, Wii Sports, which is the perfect game to familiarize yourself with the unfamiliar controls, and realize just how revolutionary the new controls really are. Wii Sports consists of five games, but the one which seems to capture everyone's attention is bowling. The appeal of this game is obvious: The controls feel exactly like real bowling. You don't experience the resistance offered by the weight of a real bowling ball, but beyond that, playing the game really does replicate the experience of bowling. And the physics of the ball and pins is very impressive; the relative amount of pin action when I bowl versus when my mom bowls is comparable to what we would experience when we bowled in real life. No doubt, bowling is the Wii's killer app, and a great example of Nintendo's tactic of appealing to the non-gamer; my mother has rheumatoid arthritis, and she enjoys the occasional game of bowling (not much else on the Wii has captured her interest; the Nintendo DS is more her speed--she bought her own after borrowing mine for months), and pretty much everybody who has entered my home since I purchased the Wii has bowled at least one game. The other games in Wii Sports aren't quite as well-implemented, but most are still quite fun, especially Tennis. I got bored with baseball pretty quickly, but golf has grown on me a bit. Boxing is exhausting, but the motion controls seem a bit flawed, with about half the punches I throw not turning up on the screen.

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess is the most successful game for the Wii in terms of sales and critical acclaim, and probably deservedly so. I haven't gotten very far in the game, because I haven't had enough time to really get into such an immersive gaming experience. But from what I've seen, it is impressive, if not quite up to the enormous praise it has received. Wii Sports is probably my favorite Wii game, but I'm also rather fond of Rayman Raving Rabbids. It's not perfect, but this collection of minigames has a lot more positives than negatives. The evil rabbits are hilarious, as are most of the games (though a few games are fatally flawed by controls that simply don't work). The on-rails shooter games are fun, but my absolute favorite part of the game are the rhythm games, where you, as Rayman, dance, and if you keep the beat, you are rewarded with Rabbid backup dancers. Really shows the potential for the upcoming DDR game for the Wii. My only complaint about the Rayman rhythm games is, the music is too low in the mix, so that the experience isn't as musically rewarding as it could be. (I tried to find a game-play video showing the Rhythm game, but a quick look at YouTube didn't turn up anything, though I did find a clip of a delightful minigame where you have to find the rabbid in the choir singing out of tune, and slap him silly--and I also found some spots for UNICEF featuring Rayman and a Rabbid)

I've picked up quite a few Wii games, and mostly been quite satisfied. Super Monkey Ball is the only game I really didn't like, mostly because the controls are really flawed for most of the minigames. Elebits was fun, but I got bored of it fairly quickly--it was compared a bit too much to Katamari Damacy, so I probably had too high of hopes for it; I'll probably give it another chance once I get bored with my other Wii games. Trauma Center: Second Opinion is better than it's DS-counterpart. I was a bit disappointed to learn that the Wii game would just be a port of the DS version, which I already have, but performing surgery on the Wii is a lot of fun, so it was definitely worth double-dipping, in this case. WarioWare: Smooth Moves is fun, in short bursts, just like the other WarioWare games. But the Wii WarioWare does have one flaw: The game has to tell you which of the many "poses" one has to strike with the Wii Remote, before the game starts. This somewhat takes away from the main appeal of the WarioWare games, in my opinion, because the main challenge in these five-second games is to figure out what the hell you're supposed to do. That aspect of the game is still present, but somewhat watered down in the Wii version. Still fun, though. Sonic and the Secret Rings has a lot of problems, but just barely works well enough for me to recommend it. I could go on, but I think you get the idea. There are several great games currently available for the Wii, though none of them are perfect. But considering the dramatic change in the game controls, it's actually remarkable how much of the potential of the Wii Remote has already been unleashed in the early Wii games, which really makes me hopeful for the future.

That's my impressions of the Wii, after three months or so of ownership. To be perfectly honest, I haven't been playing the Wii as much as I anticipated. In fact, I'm still getting plenty of use out of my Playstation 2, and my Nintendo DS gets plenty of play, as well. The launch of the Wii actually turned me into a bit of a video game nerd, constantly scanning the video game blogs looking for tips on where to score my Wii, and once I found my Wii, I kept reading the blogs, which kept my excitement about video games stimulated. In fact, I'm really trying to justify the purchase of an Xbox 360. If buying one wouldn't pretty much force me to buy an HDTV as well, I probably would have already bought one. But I'm waiting, until the price comes down a bit, and until I break down and buy an HDTV. Maybe this Summer. But for now, I have my Wii, which means I can bowl, perform surgery, and dance with bunny go-go dancers, all in my own living room. Who needs anything more?

I reported a while back that You Don't Know Jack was back, in the form of a daily "Dis or Dat" question (at least, I thought I had so reported, but I can't seem to find said post). Now, in addition to the daily "Dis or Dat" (featuring such challenges as determining if a given quote comes from the Bible or from Deathstalker III), you can actually play a full game of You Don't Know Jack. Only one episode up so far, and I don't know how frequently they'll be updating. But it's good to see my favorite trivia computer game of my college days (first time through) staging a comeback.

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Major problems reported with Blockbuster Online. Apparently, some users haven't received a new movie after two weeks. I intend to subscribe to one of these online services again, after I work through some of the backlog of DVDs I've purchased, and was tempted to try Blockbuster due to the return-movies-to-the-store option (once I found out you can rent a movie in-store at that time, and they would mail you one as well, it started to sound like a pretty good deal). But hearing this, it sounds like the service offers the level of service one expects from Blockbuster, and seeing as the company's solution to the problem seems to be to deny that there is a problem, I think I'll stick with Netflix.
John Inman, dead at 71.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Elana James's new CD was released officially last month. I had most of the songs from a sampler she was selling when she was in town last year, and I just downloaded the rest of the album off iTunes. Highly recommended for any fans of western swing, or of the fiddle in general, and, of course, for fans of the Hot Club of Cowtown in particular. She's coming back to San Diego next month, along with Whit Smith, very exciting.
Captain America, dead at 65.
A Shockwave animation of The People's Mario

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

New royalty fees threaten to destroy internet radio. I was relieved by this article's assurance that, as a British entity, is not responsible for these fees, so their radio service shouldn't be affected. Still, I hope common sense prevails and these new fees are abolished.

Monday, March 05, 2007

The Stardust is scheduled for implosion March 13th. This site has been documenting the demolition of the legendary casino, and features a video of the famous Stardust sign being disassembled, for its move to the Boneyard.
Justice Breyer to appear on "Wait Wait ... Don't Tell Me."

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Returning visitors will notice things look a bit different. I'd been meaning to make a change to the blog's layout for some time, and I finally bit the bullet and chose a new template. The main reason for the change is, I don't think my old layout was very reader-friendly. I didn't often have reason to read my own blog, but when I did, I often had to use the browser's option to increase font size to read it comfortably. If a blog's own webmaster finds the font unpleasant to read, that's a sign of a serious design flaw.

I was on the fence between this template, which Blogger calls "Rounders," and "Minima Dark," which is somewhat more in keeping with the previous aesthetic of this blog. I nearly went with the darker color scheme, but ultimately went with the current look. Primarily, I felt that, as long as I was making changes, I might as well go for a completely different look, but also, I felt that the "Minima Dark" template is just a tad overused (not that variations on this template are not also quite common, in my experience). I hope you find the new look pleasing.

I also took the option to revamp the links a bit, to somewhat better reflect my actual web-surfing habits, for the most part. I also intend to break it down a bit more into categories (so far, the only sub-category is for music blogs, but I intend to add links to podcasts, as well as other categories as they come to mind), but for now I think this is more than adequate. And I added a chart of the last ten songs I listened to, as collected by my profile. I might replace that with my top ten artists of the week or some other more interesting chart, I haven't decided yet (I'd add more than one chart, but I fear things would get too busy). I also signed up for Google Ads, mostly out of curiosity about what ads would be matched to this blog, as well as a desire to learn more about the program for another project on which I'm (very, very slowly) working.

I'm sure I'll be making other minor changes around her in the coming days. If you notice anything missing, or anything broken, let me know in the comments.

When I posted my top albums of 2006 list recently, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I came to regret some omission. And that time has come. I finally got around to listening to Rodrigo y Gabriela's debut album, which was released in 2006. Had I heard it earlier, and had I realized it was a 2006 album, it definitely would have made the list; in fact, it deserves to be in the top five. Great stuff. I had heard one track, featured on the Tofu Hut music blog (that MP3 is no longer available), which got some play on my iPod at the time, but for some reason I took my sweet time in getting the album (which is available on eMusic, though I didn't realize that until after I bought the physical CD, which comes with a bonus DVD). The presence of an acoustic guitar cover of Metallica's "Orion" could be a selling point for some, or alternately reason to write them off as a novelty. But nothing could be further from the truth: Rodrigo y Gabriela don't take themselves seriously, but the technical mastery on display on this album is breathtaking, and their unique form of acoustic rock seems destined to have a broad appeal. I almost used the word "jazz" to describe what's going on here, but their website warns me that that's almost as off-base as calling this stuff "flamenco," so I'll say just go to their website and read about it there, and maybe watch a video or two. Really wonderful stuff.

Oh, and I also picked up Regina Spektor's latest album, and it's probably safe to say, had I gotten around to hearing it last year, it would have made the list, too. Though further down, in the also-rans, as it were. Definitely worth hearing, though.