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November 29, 2004

"Halo 2" and Feature Films

I wish I could say that my brother Eric and I finished Halo 2 over Thanksgiving. We didn't, but we did make good progress on it. It made me realize that the best video games are now more entertaining and of higher quality than some major feature films.

Me: Someone should capture all the cinematics from Halo, edit in enough captured gameplay to make the story flow properly, cut the whole thing to fit in two hours, and release it as a video on the Internet. I'd totally watch it. And Halo 2, too, once I finish it.

Eric: Me, too.

Second Breakfasts

I'm back from Thanksgiving vacation, which was delightfully spent with my brother and sister-in-law (and her family) in a little town in East Texas.

My sister-in-law fixed lots of amazingly tasty food while I was there. One morning, I had a bowl of cereal early, then found myself eyeing leftover cranberry pie around 10:00 AM. "It's okay," she said. "After all, hobbits have second breakfast." I embraced her philosophy, and later in the week, had another second breakfast of her pumpkin-chocolate cheesecake. I ran four of the days I was there and I'm sure it barely made a dent in working off all that I ate. How do hobbits keep in shape, anyway?

November 20, 2004

On Vacation...

...with my brother and sister-in-law. I'm facing a hard week of multiple Thanksgiving dinners, some serious Xbox action, and power lounging. Keep me in your prayers.

November 19, 2004

Fussing over Halo 2

Richard Giles wonders about the fuss being made over Halo 2:

Gadget Lounge has been wondering what all the Halo 2 hype is about. We've seen it in action and there is nothing remarkable about it at all, other than Microsoft's marketing budget. Sure there are different levels weapons and vehicles, but really the only new addition is the ability to wield two guns. In fact we'll go so far as to say that everything has been done before, and there is nothing special at all about this game. ID Software, the makers of the Doom and Quake series of games should pull out some patents and go to town. Even the game Unreal is the same game under different graphics, and yet years older. Granted, it's a fun first person shoot-em-up, and will give people hours of entertainment, but we've heard some claim it's the best game of all time. Perhaps console gamers are a new breed, and they missed the PC game revolution, but please, lets be realistic, it's just another first person shoot-em-up.
Halo 2 isn't the greatest game ever -- not by a long shot. But Halo made a good claim as the greatest first-person shooter for a console ever. Why? Partly because of the well-tuned gameplay, partly because of the solid story, and partly because of the fact that it was the first first-person shooter to be truly usable with a handheld controller (as opposed to a keyboard and mouse).

Why all the fuss over Halo 2? Partly it's sequel-itis. Remember how excited (and subsequently gratified) you were over The Empire Strikes Back? Remember how excited (and subsequently disappointed) you were over The Matrix Reloaded? It's like that, then add on the fact that it promised dead-simple Internet multiplayer action, with ubiquitous voice (headsets come with every Xbox Live subscription kit), and you've got the makings of a monster hit before a single review was written.

It would be a mistake to chalk this up to Microsoft's marketing machine. Every person I know who has played a lot of the original Halo has been dying to get their hands on the sequel. Halo 2 is a big deal because its predecessor was so good.

With that said, how does Halo 2 measure up against the hype? I haven't played much of the single-player game, but it seems to be a reasonable continuation and extension of the original. As for the long-awaited online multiplayer capability, the developers have taken a potentially risky step by providing a very different implementation from what gamers are used to. It seems they're trying to appeal to the much broader market of people who haven't played online games. We'll have to see if it works. First, though, they have to deal with what must be incredible loads on their servers so that players don't have to wait three or four minutes for multiplayer games to start -- that's just unacceptable.

November 16, 2004

Nicholas Kristof on Guns

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote recently about an approach to guns based on public health -- not restricting their availability, which has proven impossible in the US political climate, but making them safer. Along the way, he points out statistics that should make advocates of unfettered gun rights cringe:

You can talk until you're blue in the face about the 30,000 gun deaths each year, about children who are nine times as likely to die in a gun accident in America as elsewhere in the developed world, about the $17,000 average cost (half directly borne by taxpayers) of treating each gun injury. But nationally, gun control is dead...

[I]n the 1990's, two children a year, on average, died after locking themselves in car trunks. This was considered unacceptable, so a government agency studied the problem, and General Motors and Ford engineered safety mechanisms to prevent such deaths.

In contrast, 15 children under the age of 5 die annually in fatal gun accidents in the U.S., along with 18 children 5 to 9 years old. We routinely make aspirin bottles childproof, but not guns, even though childproof pistols were sold back in the 19th century -- they wouldn't fire unless the shooter put pressure on the handle as well as the trigger.

Something that amazes me about the gun rights debate is that the people most likely to be against restrictions on gun ownership, often in the name of protecting citizens from a hypothetical future totalitarian regime, often seem to be the people with the least problems with the attacks on civil liberties currently being perpetuated in the name of the war on terror. In other words, such people are willing to inflict tremendous harm on society now to prevent (or so they think) hypothetical restrictions on civil liberties, while at the same time being willing to suffer real restrictions on civil liberties today that seem to have delivered no measurable benefit. What sort of cognitive dissonance does such thinking require?

November 11, 2004

Pop Quiz

Below are two excerpts from stories about people who voted for President Bush last week. One excerpt is from a satirical article in the Onion; the other is from a serious article in the Washington Post. Can you guess which is which?

This is from article "A":

"Dear Lord," Cary Leslie is saying for the sixth time since waking up at 3:45 a.m. to go to work. He has prayed for strength not to hit the snooze button on the alarm clock. He has prayed for a safe day for his wife and three children. He has prayed for patience with the foul-tempered customers he deals with at the car-rental counter. He has prayed for a job that will pay enough for a struggling family of five to keep up with the bills. He has prayed for a quick resolution to the presidential election. And now, with the election decided, he is thanking God for listening to his prayers.

Tara Leslie, Cary's wife, has been praying for President Bush, too, and now she is saying, "I think it's so important to have a society of moral absolutes."

"It's really good to know our country had a decision to make, and there are so many people who feel this way," Cary says. "It's a victory for people like us."

The Leslies: They are George W. Bush votes come to life. The millions of voters who describe themselves as "white evangelicals," 77 percent of whom voted for Bush? That's the Leslies. The voters who said "moral values" was the single issue that mattered most to them, 80 percent of whom voted for Bush? That's the Leslies, too.

They are precisely the people the Bush campaign built its reelection strategy on -- people who would put faith-based moral values above every other consideration when it came time to vote, including the war in Iraq, terrorism, the economy and, in the Leslies' case, a life that has been in financial peril since Sept. 11, 2001.

He is 29. She is 27. They have a 5-year-old, a 3-year-old and a 6-month-old, and they are thinking of having one more. They oppose abortion, favor a constitutional amendment that would define marriage as being between a man and a woman, and want more Supreme Court justices like Anton Scalia and Clarence Thomas. They eat at home and shop at Wal-Mart. They home-school their 5-year-old and are members of the nondenominational Church on the Rise, which is "committed to helping families hold down the family fort in the 21st Century," according to its literature, and where the senior pastor says 90 percent of the 1,200 congregants voted for Bush...

"We're definitely going to celebrate," Tara says of Bush's victory, but what that means is constrained by the changes in their lives that occurred during Bush's first administration.

On Sept. 10, 2001, Cary was earning about $55,000 a year. On Sept. 12, the decline began. No one was flying. No one was renting cars. Down went the commissions Cary gets when customers sign up for insurance coverage. "Maybe $35,000," he says of what he earns now, and that includes income from a second job he took a year ago, delivering pizzas on Friday and Saturday nights.

Forty hours a week at the car-rental counter, 12 hours a week running pizzas, the pinch of gasoline at $2 a gallon, savings drained, the realization that he and Tara are "kind of the working poor" -- and still it was moral concerns, rather than economic ones, that guided both of them on Election Day.

And this is from article "B":

[T]he Republicans found strong support in non-urban areas populated by the people who would have benefited most from the lower-income tax cuts and social-service programs championed by Kerry. Regardless of their own interests, these citizens turned out in record numbers to elect conservatives into office at all levels of the government.

"My family's been suffering ever since I lost my job at the screen-door factory, and I haven't seen a doctor for well on four years now," said father of four Buddy Kaldrin of Eerie, CO. "Shit, I don't even remember what a dentist's chair looks like... Basically, I'd give up if it weren't for God's grace. So it's good to know we have a president who cares about religion, too."

Kaldrin added: "That's why I always vote straight-ticket Republican, just like my daddy did, before he lost the farm and shot himself in the head, and just like his daddy did, before he died of black-lung disease in the company coal mines."

Kaldrin was one of many who listed moral issues among their primary reasons for voting Republican.

"Our society is falling apart -- our treasured values are under attack by terrorists," said Ellen Blaine of Givens, OH, a tiny rural farming community as likely to be attacked by terrorists as it is to be hit by a meteor. "We need someone with old-time morals in the White House. I may not have much of anything in this world, but at least I have my family."

"John Kerry is a flip-flopper," she continued. "I saw it on TV. Who knows what terrible things might've happened to my sons overseas if he'd been put in charge?"

Okay, okay, that was a little easy. Yes, article "A" was the Washington Post's "It's a Victory for People Like Us" (via The Road to Surfdom), and article "B" was the Onion's "Nation's Poor Win Election for Nation's Rich." But still...

November 10, 2004

Amazin' Laser

A friend of mine forwarded to me a bit of spam offering to sell a variety of weapons from a site in Russia, including surface-to-air missiles. I suggested that perhaps the site should have a "Terrorists, please don't buy our surface-to-air missiles" notice, which of course would be an homage to one of the great Saturday Night Live fake commercials, "Amazin' Laser", broadcast in 1994 and starring Chris Elliot:

[ open on Homeowner working around his yard ]

Homeowner: Mowing. Raking. Pruning. It takes a lot of work to keep a place like this looking good. But the hard part is getting rid of all this mess -- unless you have... the Amazin' Laser, the amazing new gardening tool that vaporizes any and all matter in its path, giving your home a professionally landscaped look.

Use the Amazin' Laser on grass clippings. [ demonstrates ]

[ SUPER: "Warning: Do Not Fire Amazin' Laser At Police Officers." ]

Get rid of brushpiles and branches. [ demonstrates ]

[ SUPER: "Warning: Do Not Fire Amazin' Laser At Military Personnel." ]

And what about this 1,800-pound granite boulder? [ zaps it with the Amazin' Laser ] Gone in a minute, with Amazin' Laser.

[ SUPER: "Warning: Do Not Use Amazin' Laser When Drowsy Or On Medication." ]

How accurate is Amazin' Laser? Accurate enough to hit a man in a moving automobile, from up to 3,000 feet away! Is that accurate enough for you?

[ SUPER: "Warning: Do Not Fire Amazin' Laser At The President." ]

And Amazin' Laser won't rust or corrode like metal gardening tools, 'cause it's made out of 100 percent durable Lexon plastic. Just watch it go through this metal detector! [ walks through, no problem ]

[ SUPER: "Warning: Terrorists, Please Do Not Buy Amazin' Laser." ]

Make your yard look its best, with the Amazin' Laser! [ zaps a truckful of wood out of his yard ]

[ SUPER: "Warning: Amazin' Laser Can Be Used For Good Or Evil, Please Use Only For Good." ]

The Amazin' Laser. It's amazing!

[ SUPER: "On Second Thought, Please Do Not Buy Amazin' Laser." ]

Announcer: Amazin' Laser. Available at Walgreens and Rickel Home Centers. Ask for it by name.

November 09, 2004

Paging Dr. Freud...

...Secretary of State Colin Powell just slipped:

"Our European friends have no illusion that the president wants to have a strong relationship with all of our European friends and allies, notwithstanding any disagreements we have had in the past," he said.

November 08, 2004

Thomas Friedman on the Election

I haven't written much about the election last week, except to point out how wrong my prediction was. So much has been written about the election that I'm not sure what I would have to add to it. Besides, as usual, the best columnist in the world, Thomas Friedman, said what I wish I had the cleverness and eloquence to say myself:

[W]hat troubled me yesterday was my feeling that this election was tipped because of an outpouring of support for George Bush by people who don't just favor different policies than I do -- they favor a whole different kind of America. We don't just disagree on what America should be doing; we disagree on what America is.

Is it a country that does not intrude into people's sexual preferences and the marriage unions they want to make? Is it a country that allows a woman to have control over her body? Is it a country where the line between church and state bequeathed to us by our Founding Fathers should be inviolate? Is it a country where religion doesn't trump science? And, most important, is it a country whose president mobilizes its deep moral energies to unite us -- instead of dividing us from one another and from the world? ...

Despite an utterly incompetent war performance in Iraq and a stagnant economy, Mr. Bush held onto the same basic core of states that he won four years ago -- as if nothing had happened. It seemed as if people were not voting on his performance. It seemed as if they were voting for what team they were on...

My problem with the Christian fundamentalists supporting Mr. Bush is not their spiritual energy or the fact that I am of a different faith. It is the way in which he and they have used that religious energy to promote divisions and intolerance at home and abroad...

[T]here is a lot of talk that Mr. Bush has a mandate for his far right policies. Yes, he does have a mandate, but he also has a date - a date with history. If Mr. Bush can salvage the war in Iraq, forge a solution for dealing with our entitlements crisis -- which can be done only with a bipartisan approach and a more sane fiscal policy -- upgrade America's competitiveness, prevent Iran from going nuclear and produce a solution for our energy crunch, history will say that he used his mandate to lead to great effect. If he pushes for still more tax cuts and fails to solve our real problems, his date with history will be a very unpleasant one -- no matter what mandate he has.

November 07, 2004

"A Hopeful and Decent Society"

Of all the doublethink from the Bush Administration -- the war is going well, the economy is great, and so on -- this latest has to be the worst of all:

President Bush will renew a quest in his second term for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage as essential to a "hopeful and decent" society, his top political aide said on Sunday...

"If we want to have a hopeful and decent society, we ought to aim for the ideal, and the ideal is that marriage ought to be, and should be, a union of a man and a woman," Bush political aide Karl Rove told "Fox News Sunday."

So let me see if I have this straight: by amending the Constitution to preemptively take away rights from a class of citizens -- something never before done in our nation's history -- Republicans will create a "hopeful and decent society."

The truly frightening thing is that given the passage of all 11 anti-gay marriage state ballot initiatives last week, I'd say there's a good chance the President and Karl Rove -- the Republicans' Clarence Beeks -- will get their way.

What is happening to my country?

November 06, 2004

The Funniest Thing I've Ever Read

Ask and ye shall receive: blogger Jonathan Schwarz does my work for me and enters (it's unavailable online) a favorite article from The Onion's faux-history Our Dumb Century. Over the years, I've probably read this 30 or 40 times, and it still makes me break out in uncontrolled laughter. I'm not sure exactly what it is that makes this so funny to me, but I'm reminded that Zippy the Pinhead creator Bill Griffith once called humor "the unity of opposites," and I'm fairly sure that's on the right track...

Japan Forms Alliance With White Supremacists in Well-Thought-Out Scheme

From the East Asian Correspondent, Sept 1, 1939. -- In a course of action praised by many as "far-sighted" and "tactically brilliant," the Japanese government has sworn its allegiance to the Axis powers led by white-supremacist Nazi Germany. In a formal statement, Japanese leaders declared, "We wish to be counted among the loyal allies of this back-stabbing, racist hate nation."

Following the announcement, Japanese General and military leader Hideki Tojo told reporters, "We are pleased to enter into an alliance with the paranoid, xenophobic government of Nazi Germany. We anticipate a deeply enriching exchange of our military aid with their deep-seated hated of our non-white heritage."

Tojo went on to say that the "unbeatable team" of Germans and Japanese will one dominate the industrialized world as "Aryans and those hated by Aryans, working together."

Likening their war instincts to those of "a very advanced clan of yellow apes," German Chancellor Adolf Hitler praised the government and military of Japan.

"I salute you, chinky-dinky rat men, who have been given life by the confused hand of some long-dead pagan deity," he said. "When Germany stands victorious on a conquered Earth, and Aryan supermen wipe out the undesirable mud races one by one, your like will surely survive to be among the last to be exterminated."

November 05, 2004

"An Eye for an Eye..."

My blog is always open to friends who want to post guest entries. I have a good friend from Australia, Katie, who's upset and has plenty to say in the wake of the re-election of President Bush (and I certainly can't blame her).

"An eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind" (Gandhi)

Whilst many of us hoped that Kerry would now be president, and that with his presidency, a level of sanity would return to American foreign policy. However -- Bush is now in -- and all of us, even those of us who live outside the US, have a responsibility to try and prevent the global tragedy that we all fear is on the horizon.

Edmund Burke said -- "The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing." Sitting back now -- and waiting for the worst to happen, will ensure that the worst happens.

What is really concerning is that both 'sides' of the 'war on terror' appear to be operating under the misapprehension that by inflicting harm on the other side, that the other side will say "Oh -- I see how we have wronged you, we won't do that again".

In his recent video tape -- Bin Laden stated that he attacked the twin towers in New York as a result of the US's attack of two towers in Lebanon in '82. He stated that the 9/11 attack was so that Americans would "taste what we tasted and they stop killing our women and children". His reasoning appears to have been -- once they understand how they have hurt us they will "stop killing". Using similar logic -- Bush has gone into Afghanistan and Iraq. This logic is at best childish and simplistic.

As Gandhi said "An eye for an eye would make the whole world go blind". We're already starting to see this. Three thousand Americans were killed in the 9/11 attack -- a major tragedy. But over twice that number of Iraqis are killed every month now in Iraq.

All of us that live in democracies need to recognise that with the freedom that we have comes a responsibility. A responsibility for the actions of the nations that we live in. Even if we didn't vote for Bush -- if we stay silent now -- and let the worst continue to unfold -- then we are equally responsible.

So what do concerned citizens of democracies do to stop the worst from happening? We continue to speak out. We continue to look for ways to change public opinion. We recognise that living in a democracy means that we have the right to a say not just by voting once every few years -- but by making our voices heard.

Why I'm Not Paid for Punditry

My election prediction:

  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 49 percent
    • Kerry: 51 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 232
    • Kerry: 306
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, New Mexico
    • For Kerry: Florida, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin
What actually happened (with two states, Iowa and New Mexico, still too close to call):
  • Popular vote
    • Bush: 51 percent
    • Kerry: 48 percent
  • Electoral votes
    • Bush: 274
    • Kerry: 252
  • Battleground states
    • For Bush: Colorado, Florida, Ohio
    • For Kerry: Michigan, Minnesota, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin