Saturday, May 31, 2008

Cutest videogame ever

It came from make you giggle. Check out MLB Power Pros, a baseball game with the full MLB licenses (i.e. all the real teams and players) but rendered in the goofy, huge-eyed, Japanimation art style.

All the real players are completely recognizable by their details -- Manny Ramirez's dreadlocks, Eric Gagne's goggles, and Alex Rodriguez's eternally-frowning eyebrows are all present and distinguishable -- but in hilarious anime guise.

What's funniest about the game is that it's actually a very realistic baseball simulation. And in the famous tradition of Japanese sports games, there are soap operas running, too -- for example, each player has a "Motivation" rating that ebbs and flows based on how often you use him in the lineup. So you have to balance your optimal lineup choices with the need to get your backup players in often enough to stay Motivated.

Kudos to Japan for this delightful kiddie-ization of Major League Baseball. Too much fun.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Old book bonanza

This weekend I ended up picking through a rummage sale where I happened upon a trove of vintage war books. The price: $5 for all the books I could fit into a paper grocery bag. Check out this literary haul I walked away with:

A seven-volume, hardcover "History of the World War" published in 1918.
It reads like journalism, obviously being fresh off the signing of the Armistice, and it's filled with naive boasts about how the Allied victory has essentially ended war for all time, with democracy coming out the winner for eternity.

"American Guerrilla in the Phillippines"
First edition of a 1945 book by Ira Wolfert, chronicling the experience of U.S. Army commandos in the Phillippine campaign against the Japanese. Referring to the enemy as "Japs" throughout the book, it's a good example of a "sensational" contemporary military account -- written in the heat of the conflict and leaving the niceties for history to sort out later. It's illustrated with drawings that might have been cut from Boy's Life magazine or an early G.I. Joe comic...a book that was clearly marketed as an "adventure tale," if nominally a piece of war journalism.

"The Conquest of Civilization"
A 700-page 1926 hardcover by James Breasted, summarizing the military victories of Western civilizations dating back to the ancient Greeks. Interesting intellectual precursor to the work of Victor Davis Hanson, a Stanford professor who builds on Breasted's theory that the European democratic tradition is the ultimate explanation for the West's military effectiveness throughout history.

And the best:

A yearbook from the 1955-1956 cruise of the aircraft carrier USS Oriskany.
In mid-1955, the Oriskany (pictured above) sailed out of the port of Alameda for a year-long tour of East Asia, where its air group helped enforce the tenuous Korean War armistice. (The carrier had been produced at the very end of WWII, and saw combat during the Korean War.) This yearbook is just spectacular, with tons of photos from the cruise, including port calls in Yokohama, Manila, and Hong Kong. It's a great snapshot of the old-school Navy life, and must have previously belonged to a veteran of the cruise. This is a pretty precious document in my eyes...I'll give it a safe home.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Great Work Near-Immolation of '08

This photo was snapped from the office window 20 feet away from my desk, and indeed shows a huge brush fire eating up the hill right across Highway 101 from my office building. (This is in Northern Southern California readers will know this highway as "The 101.") Since our office park is basically situated in a bowl of dry scrub, we figured there was a larger-than-zero chance that this blaze would ride the whipping winds and jump the freeway to incinerate us all.

Of course, work proceeds without skipping a beat, even as an inferno rages less than 300 yards away. All the on-ramps were closed at the highway, so there was nowhere for us to flee in any case...if worse had come to worse, our brilliant plan was to wade into the bay (which is just a short walk from the building) and literally swim for Oakland.

Fortunately it didn't come to that, as the state firefighting helicopters swooped in like a Bruce Willis movie (a cool one like Die Hard, not a crappy one like Hudson Hawk) and extinguished the blaze with some type of secret alien foam technology. I'm pretty sure these were the last Hueys not assigned to Iraq, so that was a bit of good fortune for us.

You can watch a 15-second video clip of our rescue here on YouTube, thanks to the miracle of real-time near-victim technology.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Mind control games...yes way!

This is my colleague Logan Decker, one of the editors on PC Gamer magazine, demonstrating the control of a videogame with his mind. I know, I know – that's what I thought at first, too. "Inconceivable!" But I do not think that word means what you think it means. Because this headset actually does allow Logan (or anyone else) to command a videogame with their thoughts.

Well, technically, it’s not thoughts that do the job, but bio-feedback. The headset's sensors are detecting tiny skin palpitations to determine when you're thinking "Fire!" (as in, to fire your weapon in the game). So as you move around the game world, your character shoots whenever you think about shooting. It's like the movie Firefox, but for real.

I'm a huge skeptic and at first I thought it was crap. But I was convinced when I directed Logan in a little experiment – I asked him to fire in three-shot bursts at my specific verbal command. As he ran around the game world, I would intermittently say "Now!" and sure enough his character would fire a three-shot burst at the instant I commanded. Then I mixed it up, asking for a five-shot burst, and Logan delivered a five-shot burst…without so much as a twitch of his finger.

Convinced and delighted, I began crowing patriotically about the genius of American science. Then I realized…"Hmm, this might not be American technology." So I gingerly asked if it was…but yes, it is! Hooray! Another landmark for good ol' American know-how…another edge in our looming war with the rest of human civilization!

Tuesday, May 13, 2008


Finally! It took until May, but at long last I was able to make my way to my first game of the season, an A's-Rangers contest at Virus Protection Coliseum in Oakland.

Not to wax too pastoral about baseball, but there really is something rejuvenating about "taking in a game at the yard." I was feeling ill all day and almost canceled the ballgame plans, but the prospect of missing the game induced me to literally drag myself out of bed and take the queasiest BART ride of my life across the bay.

And you know what? I felt better almost as soon as I stepped off the train and saw the coliseum and all the fans streaming into the place. The sound of the P.A. announcer, the sight of ballplayers taking the field, the crack of the bat as the Rangers hit a quick three-run homer off of A's starter Greg Smith -- wait, actually that last part sucked. But it didn't suck, even though the A's played badly and lost...because the simple rhythms and pleasures of the game are constant and reassuring no matter what the outcome.

Stephen King once wrote that any day is a good day when at the end of it you can say, "There was baseball."

Thursday, May 8, 2008

Live-blogging = just not difficult

As I type these words, a colleague is arguing that it would be "a nightmare" for our editors to write small stories from a trade show, more or less in real-time as the event is unfolding. I couldn't agree less, which is why I'm live-blogging from the conference room in which we're having this very debate -- hoping to make a (somewhat childish) point that this stuff just isn't very hard to do.

The thing is, it's 2008 and any middle-schooler with a smartphone is more or less blog-casting their life globally in something close to real-time. If they can do it, then media professionals sure as hell had better be able to do it.

There? Was that so hard? Not really.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Iron Man = as bad as I dreamed

In my circles, I'm notorious for not liking superhero movies. Hated X-Men. Hated Spider-Man. Really hated Spider-Man 2, and didn't even bother with Spider-Man 3. Thought Transformers was horrible, and thought Daredevil was physically painful.

So nobody expected me to like Iron Man. I joined a few of the PC Gamer editors for a trip to the Metreon cineplex and I tried to keep an open mind – hey, I'm as big a fan of Robert Downey Jr.'s patter as anybody.

I made an extra preparatory effort: two stiff martinis at Jillian's Bar just before the movie started. I figured that a slight buzz would be just the thing to make Iron Man enjoyable.

Turns out that the martinis weren't enough. I was bored silly by the movie, which felt like a 90-minute opening act. The best thing I can say about it is that Downey was game, in a "What the hell, I may as well try to earn this $5 million check" sort of way. The final showdown with The Mechanized Lebowksi was laughable.

Then I saw today that the movie made over $100 million in its opening weekend, good enough to register as the tenth-biggest opening weekend in history, proving once again that the earth-annihilating asteroid cannot get here soon enough.

Best moment at the screening: When Jeff Bridges revealed his evil stripes, I said aloud "The Dude no longer abides!" and it got a good laugh from several moviegoers within earshot. Good to see that Lebowski humor still goes over well.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Shostakovich "Violin Concerto No. 1" at SF Symphony

Last night I took in Dmitri Shostakovich's "Violin Concerto No. 1" at the SF Symphony. The soloist on violin was Vadim Gluzman (pictured here), an absolute assassin of a violinist, who rose to the occasion of a concerto that demands virtuosic ability from its soloist.

I first became aware of Shostakovich when I found myself entranced by the opening music in Eyes Wide Shut. (In fairness, the footage on-screen was Nicole Kidman naked; the association might now be permanent in my mind, and thus the love of Shostakovich perhaps?) It's no accident that Kubrick chose this composer to score a story about the dissatisfaction simmering beneath the perfect veneer of an upscale married couple; Shostakovich composed his music under Soviet rule in the Thirties and Forties, and his works are superficially stately and beautiful (as demanded by Soviet authorities) but contain a barely repressed chaos.

At times, a Shostakovich composition can seem to be on the verge of flying off its own rails…in many ways he is the great underminer of all that's superficially pleasing about classical music... one of classical music's great postmodernists.

"Violin Concerto No. 1" runs about 35 minutes and can only be described as ferocious. After a slow, brooding opening movement, the orchestra uncorks the buildup and the violinist commences terrorizing. Violinists are actually prone to snapping bowstrings as they shred their instrument with Rachmaninoff-type intensity. There's a sense you're watching a violinist's high-wire act.

(Check out this YouTube video of a teenage Sayaka Shoji killing the final movement, if you want a taste of what the concerto sounds like and what it demands of its soloist.)

I normally can't relate to classical music...but unlike so many classical composers, Shostakovich wasn't spending his time attending balls and eating bonbons and trying to impress his local emperor-patron. Instead, Shostakovich was living in the gray cinderblock wasteland of Soviet Russia with Stalin writing nasty op-ed columns about his work…here was a composer who had to worry about a midnight train ride to Siberia, and his music sounds like it.

Fun note: Mr. Gluzman plays a Stradivarius violin made in 1690, which is on extended loan to him from the Stradivari Society. It's in very good hands.