Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Christmas Post

Author’s Note: Yes, I realize this post should have happened on the 23rd. The problem was sheer absent mindedness. I had queued up some posts to make sure that the blog was updated without interruption, not realizing that the queue overlapped Christmas. So instead of a post about Christmas, you got a post about Felicia Day.

And you’re complaining?

The hallway is dim in the early morning light. It’s just a little past seven in the morning, and the forecast called for rain. There’s a strange flickering in the living room. It’s colorful, but quiet and regular. Not at all like the glow of the usual morning cartoons.

She steps out of her room, a little bleary but smiling ear to ear. She doesn’t know it’s Christmas, she just knows that she’s awake and both Mommy and Daddy are in their pajamas, which means Daddy is staying home all day. This morning is a little unusual, because Mommy changed her in her room instead of the living room where the diapers are kept. But that’s okay, because it means she can go straight for the kitchen for breakfast, which she always tries to do but is always cut off by one parent or the other to change the diaper she’d been wearing all night.

Breakfast is pancakes, bananas and Reese’s peanut butter cup cereal. Her favorite. She eats each course in order, happy to finally be sitting at the table like a big girl instead of her high chair. As she eats, she looks across the table at her infant brother, who Daddy is feeding. He’s looking at Daddy, watching Daddy eat his own breakfast and wondering why everyone gets to eat brown gooey things but him.

He is, after all, almost three months old. He could totally handle cinnamon rolls.

After the last Reesey puff is deliberately crunched and swallowed, Daddy brushes her teeth and says something about going to the living room.

Who is this “Santa” and why should she care what he brought?

She holds Mommy’s hand as she walks down the hall she’s walked dozens of times before. Breakfast is over, that means it’s time for cartoons. The strange string of festive lights gives her pause, and she hesitates at the threshold. On the shelf sits a tiny tree, no more than a foot high, which was all that Mommy and Daddy had time to unpack and decorate. It wasn’t there when she went to bed.

The seven foot artificial tree sits sullenly in the basement, biding his time. Next year, he tells himself. Next year will be mine.

With some mild coaxing, she steps into the living room, and she sees it. Under the tree sit a menagerie of Fisher Price Little People animals, along with a purple SUV, a farm and a Noah’s Ark. If she remembers that she was given them when she was too young for them, and they were then packed away for a year, she doesn’t let on. Instead she sets upon them, smiling even broader than before, if that’s possible. She picks up each individual figure, regards it, and puts it into a line that has an order only she understands.

Then comes the box of puzzles. Another gift from last Christmas, and she’s thrilled to see them. She enlists Daddy’s help to slide the puzzles out, and she immediately takes out all the pieces, puts them in a pile on the floor, and then gets to putting them back into the puzzles.

Puzzles have ever been her favorite.

Then comes the truly new. Sliceable fruits and vegetables held together with Velcro ™. Mommy and Daddy palmed the little wooden knife that comes with the set, which is technically for an older child, but she doesn’t notice or care. She takes apart each item and lines the pieces up.

Last, comes the wrapped presents. Four large boxes, each part of a set, containing playsets of licensed PBS characters from the show It’s A Big Big World. There’s Snook’s treehouse, Madge’s library, Smooch and Winslow’s bedroom and Birdette’s nest. Mommy struggles with the packaging, muttering unpleasant things about the lineage of whoever thought a plastic treehouse needed eleven billion twist ties.

Seriously, it’s a child’s toy with maybe three moving parts, not a working model of a hadron supercollider.

She waits impatiently, but is tempered by the other goodies spread out under the miniature tree. Finally Mommy frees the molded Snook figure, and hands it to her. She’s thrilled.

While she’s playing with her bounty, Mommy and Daddy present a few gifts to her infant brother. He gets a Bumbo chair, which seems to amuse him and alarm him at the same time. It also enrages him if he’s left in it for too long, but such is the life of a three month old. He also is given an Ugly Doll (Jeero), and it’s the first thing he ever grabs and snuggles with his own hands. Well, he grabs it and smashes it into his face, which sort of looks like snuggling provided you spot him to make sure he hasn’t blocked off all the air to his face.

Mommy and Daddy then exchange gifts with each other. Daddy gives Mommy the new Professor Layton game for the DS. Mommy gives Daddy the latest Schlock Mercenary book.

It’s a light Christmas, but she doesn’t know that yet. All she knows is the living room is awash in fun stuff, and that Mommy and Daddy are both home to play with her. She couldn’t be happier.

After the presents are unwrapped and the paper bagged up and set aside, Mommy and Daddy put in some DVDs. They’re not the usual DVDs. The first one involves an orange cat that eats a lot. She likes him. The second features a kid with a big round head who looks a lot like Caillou, but isn’t as annoying or boring and has a fun dog. One has a kid in glasses who wants a rifle for Christmas. The rifle bears a striking resemblance to one that Grandpa brought with him to give to her when she was first born, but she doesn’t know that yet. Another one involves a tall man in yellow tights getting hit by cars and singing a lot. He’s funny. Later, she falls asleep on the couch while Mommy shows Daddy “It’s A Wonderful Life” for the first time ever.

Yes, really. Daddy is surprised to find that he likes it, even if he’s disappointed that Potter didn’t get his.

That night, after she toddles off to bed, Mommy and Daddy open the presents that they bought themselves with money they’d received earlier. Mommy gets a Pokemon Training Deck, which has enough cards to play a short game with half a deck, or to build a beginner’s deck. Mommy and Daddy try a game, in which they have some fun and manage to misinterpret enough of the rules that they’ll have to start from scratch next time they play.

Daddy gets Batman Arkham Asylum for the PS3. After they play Pokemon, Daddy fires up the PS3 and installs the downloaded content he’s had on his hard drive for months in anticipation of getting this game. It’s better than the demo.

The next day, Mommy leaves the house in the morning to do some grocery shopping and comes back with two additional theme decks for Pokemon, as well as a number of booster packs. In addition, she buys Katamari Forever and Eat Lead; The Return of Matt Hazard for the PS3 as well as Cooking Mama 3 for the DS, which Mommy didn’t even know was out. This finishes off the Christmas money they each got this year, and gives them both a queue of games that should last them for months given how little time there is for gaming with a toddler and an infant.

Mommy and Daddy are big geeks, but so far she doesn’t care. She’s just happy that everybody’s home.

Later that afternoon, she is asleep and Daddy gets a phone call from Grandma and Grandpa. They won’t be able to visit as they had planned, because Grandpa has a cold and the weather is going to make the three hour drive too difficult. Grandma and Grandpa tell Mommy and Daddy to go ahead and have a second Christmas Morning without them. While she sleeps, Mommy goes to the basement and gets the presents from Grandma and Grandpa.

When she wakes up, the room is full of colorful boxes again. She’s starting to get what this means. Grandma and Grandpa got her books. Her favorite thing in the world, except for puzzles, and maybe even above them. Two board books that appear to be made of MDF (Grandma and Grandpa are no fools), a lift-the-flap book, and a bundle of Sesame Street “magazines.” The next morning, on getting out of bed, she will immediately make for the living room couch and look at the magazines one at a time.

Mommy and Daddy got mostly clothes, which they seem to like quite a lot but she can’t imagine why. She’ll understand when she’s older and has to pay for her own clothes, but that’s a long ways off.

And that’s it for Christmas this year. She doesn’t even know the word yet, but next year she will.

I’m already looking forward to it.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

World of EverHammer

Let me preface this by stating that I have never played World of Warcraft, Everquest, Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online or Maple Story.

I’ll pause while those of you who know what I’m talking about recover from having thrown up in your mouths at that last juxtaposition.

Back? Good. I tried FreeRealms for approximately two hours in total and didn’t see the appeal. My wife and I played around with Toontown Online for about as long as it took to realize that there wasn’t much to do if you weren’t willing to upgrade to a paid membership. I have even, I’m ashamed to admit, installed Second Life on my laptop before I remembered that Second Life was developed as a kind of honey trap for griefers and perverts to keep them from intruding on real games.

So my MMO experience is essentially nil. I know enough of the jargon to fake my way through a conversation with someone who has a WOW subscription. (“So, how about those instances, eh? Those goldfarmers sure stink.)

So I’m not what you could call the target market for Felicia Day’s web show The Guild.

If you haven’t heard of Felicia Day, you have no business reading a geek-centric blog. I bid you good day sir.

If you haven’t heard of The Guild, I couldn’t say I’d blame you. The only reason I heard about it was because “Julian” Rabbit “Murdoch” interviewed Felicia Day in the aftermath of the googlebomb that Joss Whedon threw at us with Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Weblog. They discussed this webshow that she’d been producing, which was how Whedon found her to fill the role of Penny in HMDSAW.

The Guild is a show about a group of highly dysfunctional people who are members of a guild in a Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game that bears a striking, if not actionable, resemblance to World of Warcraft. The group is a cross section of the kinds of people who get obsessed with MMOs: There’s your fussy, 40 year old loser, your snarky power leveler, your faux confident teenager, your sheltered late bloomer, your bad mother and your mousy redhead with self esteem issues. Apart, they’re a bunch of losers without friends. Together, they’re a bunch of losers without friends known as the Knights of Good.

The drama of the show stems from the fact that a catalyzing event thrust the nature of their relationships with each other into meatspace. Not one of them knows how to deal with people in the real world, though each of them fails to deal with people in their own way. Vork, for example, is a shutin while Tinkerballa is a user. Their interactions with each other are the reason you want to keep watching.

Felicia Day writes the show, and it’s clear that there’s a little bit of Codex in her. She’s clearly had dealings with all of the characters she’s created, though I’m sure (I hope?) the characters on the show are exaggerated for comic effect. (If Clara is based on a real person, someone should call child services immediately.)

As I said, I’m not the target market for the show. To me, Aggro is something farmers do and a mob is something that involves Marlon Brando and Italian American stereotypes. But the show has appeal to the wider geek market; and not just because Felicia Day has become kind of a nerd sex symbol (Sure, she’s attainable. Just not by you.) My wife, for example, knows less about MMORPGs than I do, and my lack of EXP with the genre is clearly evidenced by the fact that I’m the only person who still appends the RPG to the MMO when writing about them. She has become hooked on the show, and is eagerly awaiting the next free episode drop.

And there’s a bit of a rub. Having devoured the last two seasons and been consistently pleased with the writing, I’m not entirely sure I like where the season 3 storyline is going. This season’s Big Boss, the Axis of Anarchy, just makes me want to put my fist through a wall every time I see them. From the moment they cut in front of the KOG at Gamestop, I wanted to personally curb stomp every last one of them.

Maybe games do make you violent. Or maybe it’s just that I was bullied as a kid and have less than zero tolerance for bullies. I don’t just want them stopped; I want them obliterated and their lines striken from the face of the earth. (Let that be a warning to anyone harassing my son or daughter ten years from now.)

And that was my reaction to them after just the first episode. Their transgressions have only escalated in the ensuing episodes. My wife and I have seen up through Episode 7 (Coping and stuff), and with so few episodes left in the season I am concerned. To date, Felicia Day’s writing has shown none of the trappings of the Sci-Fi channel nihilism that insists on putting sympathetic characters through the nine circles of hell only to flush them down Lucifer’s toilet to live in a kind of sub-hell where all demon offal coagulates to form the tenth through eighteenth circles of hell . However, I fail to see how sufficient justice can be rendered to the Axis of Anarchy to satisfy me. To simply destroy their status as a guild would be inadequate. The Knights of Good would have to take everything they hold dear, kill them, take a dump on everything they held dear, and have the befouled items delivered via singing telegram to the grieving families during the funeral. Then the harm the Axis of Anarchy has rendered unto the Knights of Good and countless other fictional characters in the fictional history of the AoA might begin to be atoned for.

I don’t think the Knights of Good have it in them. My lone hope is Tinkerballa.


Okay, so we watched the rest of the season. I won't spoil the ending, but I suppose it worked out okay.

No, the KoG didn't kill the AoA, take a dump on their computers, then send their computers to the funeral via singing telegram, but I didn't really expect that anyway.

I eagerly await season four, and I'm putting season 1 and 2 on DVD in my Amazon cart to be saved for until I have spare money to buy frivolous things (owning a new house is expensive)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Greg’s 2000” TV

So as regular readers may have surmised from my last post, we’re moving. I learned many things about myself while moving all of our worldly belongings from the third floor of an apartment building with no elevator to the basement and garage of our new ranch-style home. Mostly they’re lessons like “I don’t like carrying heavy crap” and “I really don’t like carrying heavy crap down stairs” and variants of that.

But I’m not going to talk about that this post. What I am going to talk about is my bitchin’ boss new TV set.

During the course of the move, I had to disconnect and reconnect and disconnect again the cables connecting my DVD player to my old TV. My old TV is a 27” Sharp CRT. Nothing fancy, but it got the job done. I bought it in 2002 or thereabouts, and it has served me well. But when I disconnected the RCA cables from the back of the set, one of the connectors (the yellow one—you know, the video input) pulled out.

It still works, but I took that as a sign to make this the secondary TV, relegated to the basement and dedicated to the PS2 , Gamecube and other assorted obsolete consoles (YAY! Somewhere to hook my Jaguar up again!). With digital broadcast a federally mandated reality, it was time to upgrade the primary set. And boy howdy, did we upgrade.

The first thing you need to understand is that our living room is enormous. It’s a good ten paces from the place where the TV is to the nearest place where someone can sit to watch it. In a situation like that, it’s time to go big. Fortunately, big TVs are on sale these days because retailers are desperate to sell anything in a down economy. So I moseyed on down to Best Buy and picked up a 42” plasma screen. Yes, it’s HD: 720p. The reason I bought 720p is because 1080i is much more expensive and I have doubts about the capability of the human eye to really tell the difference, even at 42 inches.

Plus, I’ve spent the last few years playing PS3 games on a classic cathode ray tube television; and not even a flat-screen CRT. No matter which resolution I chose, the difference was going to blow my socks off, so why spend the extra money?

Since I mentioned the PS3, I might as well mention that I bought an HDMI cable to use with it. The lads at Best Buy recommend a cable that costs $60. I bought one that cost $30 and it’s gorgeous. So a word to the savvy media customer: When it comes to cables, copper is pretty much copper. Don’t waste your money on premium cables.

I also sprang for an antenna so my wife could take advantage of the new broadcast choices afforded by the digital era. We get about a dozen channels, most of them variants of PBS, which means we can watch the annual pledge drive on seven channels instead of just the one.

We’re still using our old, SD DVD player, and the picture looks fine to me. At last count, I have something like 420 movies and TV shows in my DVD collection, and if you think I’m scrapping that for blue-ray you’re crazier than my hair when I got up this morning.

I would like to take a moment to talk about TV stands, because finding a decent one was more trouble than it should have been. First off, who the heck decided that it was a good idea to make the shelf you’re putting a heavy, expensive piece of electronics on out of glass? How does the design meeting for something like that go?

Johnson: So, we want to design a stand that people can put TV sets on. They typically weigh 50 to 100 pounds, and cost a lot of money. What’s a good, sturdy material that can take a lot of weight?

Schwarz: I dunno, wood?

Johnson: Schwarz, get out. You’ve been warned about your flippancy. This company isn’t made of money. Do you think wood grows on trees?

Butterbin: How about glass?

Johnson: Butterbin, that’s the best suggestion I’ve heard all quarter. Glass is a fine, sturdy material that hardly ever breaks when large amounts of force are applied to it. Build the shelf out of glass. Just don’t forget to focus the support beams into as small an area as possible. I don’t know what PSI means, but more of it must be better. Okay gang, get to work. I’m going to lunch!

I imagine it went something like that.

The other thing I’d like to know is why the bases are all so short. This isn’t a universal condition, but at my house we have small children. As a result, we cordon off large, heavy, expensive things like televisions with baby gates like the Superyard. The problem is that the Superyard is 24 inches tall. Most TV stands on the market (that don’t cost more than the TV, at any rate) are 22 to 24 inches tall. That means that you’re likely to have the lower portion of your screen obscured by the baby gate. At least if you plan on sitting down while you’re watching TV, which I’m pretty sure nobody ever does.

Yes, we could mount the TV to the wall, but that requires finding a stud, and that would require finding a stud finder that actually works, which I don’t believe exists. Plus, if you decide to move the TV, it’s much easier to move a cabinet than to remount a wall bracket. And anyway, who wants to look up to see a TV screen? You know who mounts TVs up on a wall? Emergency rooms. Do you want your living room to feel like an emergency room? Me neither.

That minor aggravation is, however, well worth enduring for the ability to finally read the text in Fallout 3. I imagine it’s a completely different game when you can read the on-screen instructions.

It was a platformer, right?

Wednesday, December 9, 2009


In a previous installment of this blog, I discussed the process of buying a house. Well, once you’ve bought the house, now you have to move into it. You have several options.

The obvious choice is to hire movers. They can even be contracted to pack your things for you so you don’t have to worry about figuring out how to load a tape gun. The downside is that you’re hiring large men you don’t know who probably make too little money for the amount of work they’re doing, so you’re irreplaceable antique curio shelf might arrive at your new home in more pieces than a bookshelf from Ikea, but without the handy allen wrench to put it back together.

If you’re hiring movers, you want a binding estimate, not an hourly rate. A binding estimate is when someone comes to your current place, looks at all of the stuff you want to move, and gives you a sheet of paper that has the words “shall not exceed” written on it somewhere. The number at the bottom of that sheet is the number you pay. Period. Hourly rate means the movers come to your house and charge you based on how long it takes to move everything.

If you’re a lunatic, you can move everything yourself. This requires a number of understanding friends or family members who can help you. If you don’t have local family, and are a social misfit, it means you’re going to be lifting an awful lot of boxes.

There are three ways to move everything yourself.

1) You can load up your car and make fourteen thousand trips back and forth. This works if you’re moving within the same town or neighborhood. Not so much if you’re moving across the state. Rule of thumb: If it takes more than 10 minutes to drive to your new place, you need a bigger truck.

2) You can rent a truck. This is by far the most common method of self moving. Each moving company is different (Budget, for example, tends to be operated by businesslike people, while Uhaul appears to be owned and operated by a grue) but the basic process for renting a truck is pretty much always the same: First, you reserve a truck in the size that you want. Second, you arrive at the lot and find out they don’t have any of that size, so you rent a different size.

We rented a truck from a rental company that rhymes with “Aragorn.” We asked for a 16 foot truck, and they gave us a 25 foot truck. I have never driven anything that large in my life, and I knocked over at least three buildings and several old growth trees in the process of learning to back that thing up. Which brings us to an important point about renting a truck:

Insurance. Is. Not. Optional.

People will tell you that your insurance covers damages and all that other stuff. These people are idiots. Yes, your insurance does cover you in the event of an accident. But then your premiums go up, and you have to spend half your day on a phone trying to convince your insurance company that you have coverage for whatever they’re denying you coverage for. If you buy the rental agency insurance, as long as you can walk away from the scene of the accident, it’s not your problem.

So take my advice: get full coverage not only for the truck you’re renting, but also for liability. It’s only a fraction of the cost of the rental, and it makes your life so much easier if you do have a problem.

3) The third way of moving yourself is to rent something called a POD. PODS are relatively new innovations. Basically, somebody comes to your house with what looks like a moving truck. Only instead of loading up your stuff into the truck and driving away, they leave the back of the truck in your driveway. You can load it at your leisure, have it picked up and delivered whenever you want (except Sundays, because what kind of freak tries to move on a weekend) and driving it isn’t your problem.

The downside of renting a POD is the fact that you can’t really trust anything fragile to it, because you’re not driving it and the crane that lifts the pod back onto the truck isn’t the most elegant device you’ve ever seen.

Finally, if you’re made of money, you can just throw out all your old stuff and start over from scratch at the new place. This has the benefit of being extremely low hassle, but eating spaghetti-Os with your fingers directly from the can while you’re waiting for the new microwave to be delivered gets old very quickly.

You can also do a combination of these methods. For example, because my wife and I are social misfits with no family nearby that can be expected to carry heavy things down four flights of stairs; we couldn’t do a pure self move. So we hired movers (with a binding estimate) to move anything that required two people to lift (EG: our couch). Then we rented a POD to carry non-fragile, non-essential things. Finally, we rented trucks for two weekends. The first, aforementioned 25 foot truck, took all of our essential, gotta-have-it-in-the-house-now stuff. The second was a 10 foot truck rented to take care of the leftovers that weren’t gotten by the 25 foot truck.

As of the writing of this post, we’re done. It took four weeks of intensive lifting and stair climbing (my backside will never be this firm again—seriously; you could bounce a quarter off me), but it’s done.

Now for the unpacking. I predict we’ll be done somewhere around Christmas.

In the year 2014.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

How to buy a house in 25 steps!

In August of this year I started a new job. In September, my wife gave birth to our second child. So naturally, my wife and I decided to buy a house in October.

Because, hey, our lives weren’t already complicated enough.

For the past couple of months, my wife and I have been spending our Saturdays looking at other people’s houses and trying to decide which one to buy. We made four offers. One of them was outright rejected, another was ignored, and the other two were accepted. The first of the two that were accepted fell through because of legal reasons having to do with large pills and lots of water.

No, wait. That’s prostate. The problem with the offer was probate law. My mistake, though it’s understandable. Both problems are painful but would be largely preventable with some common sense.

If you’re reading this, it means we’ve closed on the other offer that was accepted and we’re in the process of moving into our new home. If you’re not reading it, it’s because we got screwed over by a combination of bankers, realtors and lawyers. Or because you don’t visit this blog. Either way, I’m pissed off.

But assuming that you are reading this, I’d like to share some of the lessons I learned while shopping for a house. First off, you should know what the steps are to buying a house, because nobody in the whole process; not the lawyers, not the bankers, and sure as heck not the realtors; is going to tell you. So here are the steps to buying a house:

1) Find a house you like. You think this is the hard part, but it’s not.
1A) While you’re looking for a house, get a preapproval letter from a bank saying that you can afford to buy a house. It’s a worthless scrap of paper that will be of no use to you ever, but seller’s agents like to see them.
2) Make an offer on the house you like.
3) Wait for somebody to acknowledge that you offered them hundreds of thousands of dollars for a large wooden box. Sign and initial two more offer letters because the seller let the first two expire.
4) Find out that the seller thinks there weren’t enough thousands of dollars in your offer to purchase his large wooden box that he doesn’t want anymore.
5) Make a counteroffer on the house.
6) Get a verbal acceptance that means precisely jack.
7) Sign and initial at least three additional offer letters saying exactly the same thing but with different expiration dates because the seller dragged his feet on signing the one he said he accepted.
8) Hire a home inspector to make sure you still want to buy the house.
9) Take the home inspection results and make a new offer on the house because at least some of those thousands of dollars you offered were based on the assumption that the roof wouldn’t cave in on you during the first winter.
10) Repeat steps 3 through 7 until you arrive at a price and set of conditions in which nobody is really happy but everyone just wants to be done with it. This is called compromising.
11) Get a lawyer to draft a Purchase and Sale agreement that won’t be acceptable to either you or the seller.
12) Apply for a mortgage loan and pray that the bank says yes in time for the closing date on the draft of the purchase and sale agreement.
13) Review and make changes to the purchase and sale agreement because the lawyer put in some language requiring you to perform the rite of Ash Kaban in the nude every solstice or forfeit the house and any equity to the lawyers.
You think I’m kidding.
14) Review and make changes to the changes that the sellers made while you were making changes to your draft.
15) Hold a gun to the seller’s agent’s head until he or she takes the agreement that you and the sellers came to and gets an actual, you know, signature on it.
16) Have the house appraised so the bank will loan you the money to buy it, and hope that the bank thinks it’s worth the money you think it is.
17) Provide the same employment and bank information to another person at the same bank you applied for the mortgage loan at because bankers don’t trust other bankers either.
18) Buy homeowners insurance. You will be allowed to think that someone else deals with this until it’s almost too late to do it.
19) Wait around thinking everything is lined up and squared away.
20) Receive a letter from the lawyers informing you that you need to do something that involves spending a lot of money to do something you didn’t know you needed to do, but probably involves either something to do with the title, or something to do with “points.”
21) Wait around hoping everything is lined up and squared away.
22) Do your “final walkthrough” to make sure the sellers didn’t take the light fixtures or toilets.
23) Get a call from the lawyers telling you how big of a check to bring to the closing ceremony.
24) Sign away most of your life’s savings and a large chunk of your income for the next few decades in exchange for a large wooden box.
25) Move into the wooden box and live there.

That’s a lot, and I’m probably missing some steps. And yet nobody will tell you what you have to do until it’s almost too late to do it. No other industry could survive by taking so much money and providing so little information about the actual product.

And that's it for this week. Next week, maybe a post!

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

On Fatherhood

The reason you haven’t been hearing from me for the past couple of weeks is because I became a father. Again.

Our first was born just over two years ago, and she’s a pistol. Born of two families notorious for mule-headedness, and a Taurus to boot. She is not a child that responds well to inflexible parenting. You can guide her, but if you push she pushes back. Hard. It is a trait that will serve her well in the world, which is why the Missus and I are taking pains not to quash it.

Being a first time parent is a weird thing. You don’t know any of the rules, and I mean any of them. Whatever advice your parents have to offer is likely to be useless because your kid is not going to be the same kind of kid you were.

So you read books. If you’re lucky, you find a book that was written by someone who raised your kid. If not? Well, you can always use it to prop that short leg on the coffee table.

Well, that’s not entirely fair. Most of the books out there will have some nugget of usefulness buried amongst the inaccurate generalizations and accusations of borderline abuse if you fail to follow the book to. The. Letter.

But for the most part, you’re on your own out there with a new kid and no clue what to do. Well, I have some advice for you new parents out there that should apply no matter what your kid is like.

1) First things first. As long as mother and child are safe and healthy after the birth, you did it right.

You would not believe some of the claptrap out there about birthing babies. There are, honest to goodness, people who believe that what happens during the birth determines how the child’s entire life will play out. If you get an epidural, if you don’t nurse the child within 10 minutes of birth (more on this later), if your doctor’s name is Karl with a K, these are things that will ruin your child’s entire life! And heaven help you if the kid is born breech! He’ll be destined to read magazines back to front and he’ll learn to walk before he crawls. It’s a nightmare.

Well, I’m about to shock you here: That’s all crap. Whether you have a natural birth or a planned C-section, as long as your wife and child are happy and healthy then you did it right. What matters is how the kid does while he’s in the world, not how he entered it. Sure, if the mother resents how the baby was born that can have an effect on the kid as he grows up, but that has nothing to do with the birth and everything with the mother being neurotic. So if you want to have a happy, healthy kid, don’t be neurotic!

2) You are your child’s parent. Nobody else is.

Everybody will feel compelled to offer advice, and in many cases judge you based on the choices you make. The internet is full of people who will equate any choice you make as a parent to abuse. Examples? I have many, but here are just two:

The first is the whole circumcision issue, which came up with our second child, him being a boy and all. I won’t tell you what we decided, because my boy’s wang-doodle isn’t your business, but I will say that there is a sizeable contingent of people out there that think any choice you make on this issue is abuse. You chose to circumcise? You mutilated your kid. You didn’t circumcise? Well, you just increased your kid’s chances of getting wang cancer.

Good job!

The second has to do with Breast Feeding. Let’s just say La Leche League isn’t known among non-believers as “The Milk Nazis” for nothing. Heaven help you if one of them finds out you so much as looked at a store-bought pacifier, let alone gave one to your child. If you’ve never heard the phrase “nipple confusion,” prepare yourself to become sick of it.

If you formula feed your child, don’t tell any of your hippie friends. If you’re lucky, they’ll just give you the hairy eyeball and privately accuse you of being an idiot. If you’re not lucky, they’ll lecture you about things like lipids and antibodies and corporate greed. They’ll also refer you to websites that allegedly back up these claims.

I can’t really point to a counter example in this case. Parents who formula feed tend to not be militant proselytizers about it. To my knowledge, there is no website dedicated to the wonders of Similac other than Similac’s corporate site.

Well, I’ll shock you again: If you’re kid is eating well and growing, you’re doing it right. Use breastmilk, use formula, do a combination of the two. Your responsibility is to feed the kid, not please a bunch of retired wet-nurses with hairy armpits.

I won’t get into the whole vaccination issue, because I believe that anyone who would put their kids at risk of getting polio because they think a preservative that hasn’t been used in ten years is causing an uptick in a disorder that’s occurred in the past five years is a stark raving idiot. There, I’ve used up my controversy quota for the year. In 2010, I’ll talk about texting while driving.

3) Babies cry. As new parents, it’s hard to wrap our brains around this. A newborn baby has no concept of proportion, and will cry with exactly the same intensity no matter whether he hasn’t eaten in an hour, or if he’s got his foot caught in a bear trap.

Now, as a good parent, you have all the bear traps locked up in a closet with your rifles and blowguns, so you know that he hasn’t gotten caught in a bear trap. That means he hasn’t eaten in an hour. Don’t panic. Feed him. If it takes you a few minutes to prepare to feed him, that’s okay. The baby doesn’t know it’s okay, but it’s okay.

Also, if you think your newborn is loud, give him a year to develop his lungs. Infants are not loud. Toddlers are loud. You might not realize that until you’ve had both at the same time, but it’s the truth.

Oh, and a side note: People without kids will think you are a bad parent if your kid cries in public. I’d lay odds that you were among them before you had kids. They are not idiots, merely ignorant. If your kid cries in public, do not panic because of what other people might think.

This is especially true if you’re a father all alone in a Walmart with a one-year-old in full tantrum mode while your wife goes to get a shopping cart. Chances are good that at least one of the onlookers has already dialed 911 into their cell phones and fully prepared to call in an amber alert.

Not that this ever happened to me or anything.

You can mitigate this by not panicking, and by having your wife leave the diaper bag with you when she goes to the cart corral. Kidnappers don’t wear oversized purses with half-empty baby bottles sticking out of them. But if she took the diaper bag with her, remember that you are the dad, and anyone who doesn’t think so can go jump in a lake.

4) Old people at Target will give you advice on child rearing. Some of it will be useful. Some of it less so.

Among the useful advice “You can’t overfeed them.” This is sage advice that came down from a great-grandmotherly type person who we encountered at, you guessed it, Target. We had fed her an amount that we thought was appropriate for her age, but she was still fussing. The old lady came up to us, very nicely, and said “Oh just feed her! You can’t overfeed a baby.” So we fed her, and sure enough she calmed right down. Guess what: Babies are like real people. They only eat as much as they’re hungry for.

Some of the less useful advice is of the “Oh, kids need germs” variety. This typically comes from men who have kids that are grown and out of the house, and don’t remember what it’s like to deal with a sick baby. I think it has something to do with hazing new parents. “I suffered, so you now must suffer.” Well, if you want to clean your kid’s hands after he touched the garbage can outside the Walmart, you go ahead and clean them. I recommend Sani-wipes, which are alcohol wipes that are designed to be used on little hands.

5) TV is not the devil, but the wiggles are his harbingers. People who call themselves experts like the say that TV makes kids fat and stupid. The way I see it, the only problem with a kid watching some TV is the kind of programming parents make them watch. Heck, if I started to watch Barney or, heaven help us, the BooBahs every day, I’d be fat and stupid too. But there is plenty of quality programming out there that will engage your child and not make her fat or stupid.

My daughter watches a fair amount of TV. Probably more than she should. But here’s the thing, she’s engaged by the programs we show her, and she learns things from them. For example, she loves the They Might Be Giants educational DVDs, and I’m pretty convinced that she learned to count from watching “Here Come the 123s.” She’s two, not super verbal, but can count to six. Just don’t ask her to do it, because she won’t. As I said, stubborn parents and a Taurus to boot. This is not a child who performs on cue.

I should add that she doesn’t just sit on her diapered rear end and watch the screen passively. She plays with her toys, dances when music she likes comes on and sings along with the lyrics she knows (Hearing her sing “Go for G” from “Here Come the ABCs” will make your heart melt.). She also laughs when something funny happens, which is such a joyful sound that I can’t see the arguments for why we should deny her it.

Another helpful thing in our situation is that we don’t have cable or rabbit ears. Just a DVD player. That means no commercials, and we can mix up what she’s watching from day to day. It also means that we have a portable DVD player for the car, which is an invention that makes me want to kiss whoever invented it full on the mouth.

This is not to say you should use your TV as a live-in babysitter. That would be wrong. But if you sit with your kids and watch TV with them, and if your kids seem legitimately engaged by what they’re seeing, then I don’t see a problem.

And that will do it for this week’s post. I’m traveling on business this week, so there might not be a blog post waiting for you next Wednesday. I’ll try to write something extra awesome for the following week.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No post this week either

I know I risk alienating my loyal readers-- both of you-- but once again there will be no post this week.

My daughter, not to be outdone by my wife going into labor, caught a stomach bug on Sunday and as of this writing (Tuesday night) has just recovered. I'll have some interesting things to say in the future, but not this week.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No post this week

No post this week, my loyal readers. The Missus just had our second child last night, and I don't have the time right now to write anything amusing.

Perhaps next week will I will have something for you.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Savant so good

When you look at a DVD collection as extensive as my own, you can’t help but notice patterns and trends here and there. For example, you’ll notice that my comic book movie section (yes, I categorize my movies by genre, and yes I have enough movies based on comic books to make a whole subgenre) has a whole lot of Incredible Hulk movies. You’ll also notice that I like Star Trek enough to own the complete series of TOS, TNG, DS9, all six original series movies, and all four Next Generation movies, but not enough to own Voyager or Enterprise on DVD.

Just because I’m a rabid Star Trek geek doesn’t mean I lack standards, for goodness sake.

If you turn your attention to my TV on DVD collection, you’ll notice another trend: I have a thing for savants. Especially dysfunctional savants. Monk, The Pretender, House, Nero Wolfe, Due South—my DVD collection is loaded up with people who have borderline superpowers when it comes to perception and intelligence. But that superpower never comes without a price, and that’s where the dysfunctional part comes in.

Adrian Monk is nearly crippled by OCD. Gregory House is literally crippled, as well as emotionally detached from everyone. Nero Wolfe is a voluntary agoraphobe. Jarod is trying to recapture a stolen childhood, and Constable Benton Frasier is Canadian.

The protagonists of these shows are virtually incapable of functioning in normal society. So they function abnormally, and society has to deal with them. Some make it easy on society, like Constable Frasier. Others make it harder, like Gregory House. The unifying theme is that they’re so good at what they do that society bends around them.

This is, I think, power fantasy for nerds and geeks alike. When a person usually thinks of power fantasies, they look at anime like DragonBall Z, in which steroid-addled monkey-men turn bright yellow and kill everything in a three mile radius except the one thing they were trying to kill in the first place. But power fantasies are not the exclusive domain of pre-teen boys without strong father figures. They’re for everybody, but everyone’s is different.

Nerds and geeks share at least one thing in common, and that’s practicality. Sure, it would be nice to be able to throw planet-destroying fireballs that fail to kill your enemies, but honestly how much would you be able to use such a skill in a given week? On the other hand, you can be smart all day long. So when you speak of geek/nerd power fantasies, you have to think of Henry Kissinger and remember that Knowledge is Power. That’s why heroes like Jarod appeal to us. He’s like a superhero, but his power is that he reads really fast. If that were the power granted to an X-man, Stan Lee himself would appear in his introductory issue (Ultimate X-Men #426: Enter THE READER!) to kill him on the splash page, because it’s really lame to draw someone who’s good at studying.

If you’re a geek or a nerd, your supreme career goal is to be so good at your job that you don’t have to be pretend to like your coworkers. Admit it. That’s why so many of you go into IT. You’re already good at it, and everyone else stinks at it. You don’t have to be nice to that idiot who disabled the firewall so he could send an executable file to himself and left the door open for the server to get crashed by a DNS worm.

Look at him, sitting there. He doesn’t even know what he did wrong.


So we really get into characters like Dr. House, who never met a person he couldn’t insult, or Nero Wolfe, who can berate high ranking public officials for interrupting him while he tends his orchids. These are men who are so good at what they do that they get to make up their own rules.

The most interesting part is that the thing that makes each of these geek heroes a social misfit is the very thing that makes them effective. That’s something that is never explicitly acknowledged by the writers, and is frequently misunderstood by the other characters inhabiting their worlds.

House’s coworkers are constantly haranguing him to be nicer, to be more humane, more normal. The thing they don’t realize is the thing that makes House is so insufferable is also what makes him so effective. If he were to become more like Wilson or, heaven forbid, Cameron then he would cease to be House, and he wouldn’t be able to separate himself from his patients enough to make the kinds of decisions that save their lives. It’s a game for him because he couldn’t win if it weren’t.

Likewise with Nero Wolfe. He never leaves his house, or at least very rarely, and when he does he makes a point of making sure everything is as he wants it. Why is that? Because his brain is a precision machine working at a very high speed. A little friction and the thought process flies apart.

And consider Monk, who is perhaps the best example of this phenomenon. He catches criminals that nobody else could catch because he is so anal retentive that little, niggling details that nobody else even sees stand out to him like seven foot tall talking bananas would stand out if ever such a horrifying thing existed.

So getting back to our IT professionals, the thing that makes them socially awkward is the very thing that makes them good at their jobs: If they had friends they wouldn’t be so good at fixing computers.

By the way, I don’t mean to pick on IT guys. I’m just trying to pick a real world example that jibes best with this superhero-by-way-of-knowledge motif that I’m discussing. And make no mistake about it: The kinds of things IT guys do strike awe into the hearts of people who are paying attention. It’s just that not enough people pay attention, and a whole generation of people have grown up not having to know what “10 HOME” means because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs have turned computers into something that any nitwit with a few hundred dollars can use.

At least, they can use it until their first BSOD, at which point they probably buy a new computer.


Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Don't beat the bell curve, join it.

I have a confession to make.

I hate Mega Man.

There, I’ve said it. There’s no taking it back. I hate Mega Man. I hate his little 3-credit-card jumps (a term coined by my father, to describe the height to which he could be expected to jump: Three stacked credit cards). I hate the fact that he has to tackle enemies in a specific order, but they don’t tell you which order. I hate that death sends you all the way back to the start.

I’m also none too fond of Warcraft 3. I hate the fact that they spend the first few levels teaching you how to build bases and develop resources, and then send you out into the world with a scout, a tank and an archer and tell you to kill everyone else on the map.

Devil May Cry 4? Bleugh. Why does the main character carry a nerf gun around to do battle with mystical demon hordes? Honestly, the game should have been called “Devil May Shoot, but it won’t do a damn bit of good.”

And don’t get me started on The Sims. Oh, Mr. Wright, may I please have a game where I have to tell my character to pee, make him wash his hands, and also spend 75% of the time waiting for him to finish working or sleeping so I can interact with him? Why yes, yes I can. But why would I? Why would anyone?

What do these games have in common? Four words, or at least three words but one of them comes up twice: Ten out of Ten.

Game scores don’t get much love, and there is some merit to the hate. Every video gamer brings a unique perspective, a unique set of experiences that frame his or her gaming experience and affect how that reviewer views a given game. How do you legitimately take all that emotional baggage and boil it down to a fraction of ten?

Well, if you’re Eidos, you buy large amounts of ad space and make the reviewer give you the score you want. But what about everyone else?

It’s preposterous, really. You can’t take something as subjective as personal opinion and convert it to something as unforgiving and objective as math. It’s like if someone asks you how you’re doing and you answer “3.”

Nonetheless, review scores are very useful tools if you understand how to interpret them. The thing to remember is that you need to calibrate the scale in such a way that you understand what a given number means to you, personally.

Take me, for example. When I see a game review with a score between nine and ten (out of ten), I realize that I’m probably not going to like that game. It took a lot of years, and a lot of wasted money, but I finally figured that out when Warcraft 3 came out. I had played other RTS games at that point, and I wasn’t overly fond of any of them. But the reviews surrounding Warcraft 3 made me wonder if there was something about this game that was different from those other ones.

So I bought it. Then I played it. And then I uninstalled it. Then I tried to trade it in at Gamestop, only to find they weren’t accepting PC games anymore. Then I gave it to a friend. He hasn’t emailed me in a while. I hope he doesn’t hate me now.

To me, a ten-out-of-ten review score means “People who are not you will like this. Move along.”

There are exceptions, of course. I played the heck out of Fallout 3, for example. And I found Bioshock as fun and interesting as other people said I would. But a good 90% of games that earn 90% or better are games that I just don’t like. You might think that makes me some kind of jaded, impossible to please jerk; the sort of guy who goes to an All You Can Eat Buffet and complains about the size of the plates. But such is not the case. I’m actually very easy to please from a video game perspective. All I really want is to blow stuff up for points.

Consider five of my most favorite games from the last ten years:
Mercenaries 2 (PS3)
Spiderman 2 (PS2)
Chile Con Carnage (PSP)
God Hand (PS2)
Gungrave: Overdose (PS2).
What we see from that list, other than the fact that I’m an insufferable Sony fanboy, is that none of those games broke the 7 out of 10 mark (NOTE: I’m using gamespot’s scale here). Or, if they did, only barely. None of them approached eight out of ten. I could list another dozen games that I played the heck out of that got mediocre reviews at best. I can count on one hand the number of critically acclaimed blockbusters that I got more enjoyment than annoyance out of.

The term I like to apply to myself is “B-minus gamer.” I like games that would earn a C or a B-minus if they were graded on a letter scale instead of a numeric scale. Just like my weather, I prefer my game review scores in the mid sixties to low seventies.

This has upsides and downsides. On the downside, I miss out on a lot of the New Hotness, because whatever game has people soiling themselves is a game that I know I probably won’t like. Occasionally a high-rated title will catch my fancy, and I’ll make sure I do a whole lot of research before plunking down any money. Fortunately, there are great forum sites like Gamers with Jobs where I can get multiple perspectives and temper the hype a bit. I bought Sins of a Solar Empire primarily because the GWJ podcast crew spent something like two solid months raving about the game in the “Games You Can Play Right Now” segment of the podcast (and Mr. Borges, if you’re reading this, you are the filthiest enabler of them all when it comes to this one) and I have been very happy with the purchase, even if I haven’t yet summoned the courage to try a solo comp-stomp against the AI set above Average. (My failure to engage in battle against other humans has more to do with my schedule than fear. I’m simply not available to play when other people I’d be interested in playing with are. And now that the Entrenchment expansion has dropped, I’ll never get to a point where I could be competitive anyway)

Likewise, I bought Plants Versus Zombies for the same reason. As someone who likes tower defense games, but only the simple ones, PvZ scratches an itch that games like Desktop Tower Defense (INSERT LINK HERE) only sort of scratch. Desktop tower defense is too easy for me on easy, and not easy enough on medium. PvZ is just right. Plus, there’s nut bowling.

The upside of being a B-minus gamer is the fact that I get a lot of value for my gaming dollar. Every game I’ve bought that was rated between six and seven has seen more play than all of the 9-out-of-10 games I’ve ever played combined (with the possible exception of Fallout 3, which is obscenely large.) I played Gungrave: Overdose from start to finish six times in a row before I started thinking about playing other games again. And I didn’t even use the alternate characters. I beat God Hand twice in one day, and only stopped playing it the third time through because I had to eat and go to work.

And the thing is that 6-out-of-10 games are cheap, because they see price drops way before 9-out-of-10 games do. Ratchet And Clank, Tools of Destruction was still an unconscionable $60 on Amazon in December 2008, yet when I played it and beat it I couldn’t trade it in fast enough. I spent a good seventy percent of that game just being annoyed at it, and I only beat it because I kept waiting for it to get as good as everyone told me it would get. What did I get? A freaking (SPOILER ALERT!) cliffhanger!

Meanwhile, I just got Ghostbusters and Call of Juarez: Bound In Blood for only about $20 more than it would cost to get Ratchet and Clank brand new, and I’ll probably enjoy them more than I enjoyed R&C:ToD.

In fact, I’ll go you one better. I got more fun out of playing the Iron Man movie tie-in than I did playing R&C:ToD, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Ripping the turrets off of tanks, then flying up into the air to catch incoming missiles and throw them at helicopters never, ever gets old. Even if Robert Downey Junior delivers his lines like he’s reading a phone book.

In addition to the value, there is a lot more selection out there if you actually prefer games that rank between six and seven on the ten point scale. There are only a dozen 9-and-up titles per year, but the market is saturated with average games. If you can enjoy a moderately well done licensed game (like Ghost Rider on the PSP), or a workmanlike beat-em-up (Like Vikings on the PS3 or Xbox360) then you have a whole lot of games to choose from.

I’m not sure why the B-minus games fit me so well. It might be that I can’t stand hype. Maybe it’s because the flaws in B-minus games are more thoroughly examined in the text of the reviews than the highly rated ones. For example, the stability issues present Knights of the Old Republic were barely touched upon in all the glowing reviews I read, yet the game ran so poorly on my computer (which I bought almost a year after the game was initially released, and met the tech requirements) that I was able to convince Best Buy to give me a refund for an open PC game. True story.

How a game that runs like a slide show on a PC that’s newer than the game due to known driver issues that the developer failed to fix in the gold edition of the game can get as high a score as KOTOR did, I have absolutely no clue. If the game had rated more poorly, perhaps someone would have discussed the horrible stability and bugginess of the game. But even the folks at (warning: NSFW) congratulated Bioware on making the first Star Wars game since Tie Fighter that didn’t stink.

Incidentally, I’m running Sins of a Solar Empire on the PC that KOTOR wouldn’t run on, and it runs smooth as glass even when the fleets of ships start exploding and my Novalith Cannons start demolishing enemy homeworlds.

But I digress. Another possibility for why I prefer B-minus games is fact that my expectations for B-minus games are lower. Instead of being disappointed because that “perfect” game wasn’t so perfect, I end up being pleasantly surprised by the little game that could. There’s a lot to be said for reducing your expectations.

This is not the same as lowering your standards, by the way. Lowering your standards means you can’t tell the difference between filet minon and a pile of fresh monkey poop. Reducing your expectations just means you aren’t disappointed when you specifically order fresh monkey poop and fail to get filet minon by mistake. It’s the same principle behind enjoying Michael Bay movies. I can still enjoy something by Alfred Hitchcock, but the fact that I don’t expect Michael Bay to be Alfred Hitchcock means I can walk out of Transformers completely satisfied with the experience.

At any rate, that’s how I game. Give me something that critics think is average at best, and I’ll be happy as a pig in excrement. But once you start telling me a game is the greatest thing since silicon wafers, and I’ll probably just go back to playing Chile Con Carnage

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Paul Blart Deserves Your Respect

The action movie is something if a dying art these days. The golden era of one man in the wrong place at the wrong time taking out an army of terrorists using only his wits and the environment is largely a relic of the 1980s. Today’s action movies tend to fall into two categories: Espionage thriller and superhero movie.

The espionage thriller has your Jason Bournes, your James Bonds, and your Vantage Points. Typically the hero is someone who spends the first part of the story thinking he’s working for the good guys, then changing his mind and dealing with the repercussions.

The superhero movies are self explanatory, but this is a blog and I’ve got to fill pixels dadgummit! Your typical superhero movie is an origin retelling, a reboot, or a thoroughly disappointing conclusion to a trilogy. (If Disney buying Marvel means they could go back and make Spiderman 3 not suck, I’d be all for it.) These can be good movies, but they are not pure action movies in the Chuck Norris/Arnold Schwarzenegger/Bruce Willis mold.

Oh, sure, we occasionally get a video game movie which comes close to being a real action movie; Max Payne springs to mind; but frankly I find it hard to take anything seriously if it contains Marky Mark AND Mila Kunis above the title on the marquis. Ms. Kunis has her charms, but whoever made the decision to cast her as Mona Sax when Andrea Parker is out stalking the wild needs to have his head examined by a proctologist. He can go right after whatever nitwit decided to make such a gritty, noir inspired game into a movie rated PG.

But for the most part, the action movie is gone. There is hope, however, and it came from an unexpected place: Great Britain. The wheels for this started turning back in the wee years of the 21st century, when Simon Pegg got together with some friends and produced Shawn of the Dead. Speaking as someone who doesn’t even like zombie movies, I have to say I enjoyed the heck out of that one. But that’s not an action movie, so why bring it up? Well, because a few years after Shawn killed zombies by throwing LP record albums at them, Simon Pegg returned with the same team to do for action movies what Shawn of the Dead did for zombie movies: Hot Fuzz.

Hot Fuzz was not as well received as Shawn of the Dead. The most frequent complaint was that it wasn’t spoof-y enough, and that by the end it turned into your typical action movie shootout. I was puzzled by this response. After all, Shawn of the Dead eventually devolved into your standard Zombie movie just in time for the climactic battle. But then I realized that the critics don’t actually like action movies, and the underlying fault they found with Hot Fuzz was that it wasn’t mean enough in poking fun at the genre. The problem was, at the end of the day, that the movie was a loving spoof. Just like Shawn of the Dead was a loving spoof. Action movies deserve scorn, and Hot Fuzz didn’t scorn them. For those of us who love the action movie, though, Hot Fuzz was a breath of fresh air.

And now we end the history lesson five hundred and sixty four words in. But as a dear friend of my father once said, it’s important you should know these things. And yes, I did actually count the words.

Kevin James has carried on the torch lit by Simon Pegg with Hot Fuzz. He co-wrote and starred in an underappreciated gem of a movie called Paul Blart: Mall Cop. The story is pure 1980’s action movie: Dedicated mall security guard (excuse me, security officer) winds up the only free denizen of a mall taken hostage by a well armed and well prepared band of thugs on Black Friday. He has only his wits, his knowledge of the mall, and his Segway to fight back with. The odds are stacked against him, and he very nearly skips the scene undetected, except that the woman he’s harboring a major crush on is among the hostages.

Now, every great action hero must have a liability that will nearly cost him victory and must be overcome. McClane was barefoot in a glass tower. Dalton had a checkered past that would come back to haunt him. Riggs was suicidal and unstable.

Blart is hypoglycemic, which means he has to keep his blood sugar up or he passes out.

This is where the comedy comes in, and some of it doesn’t work so well. The most notable example is an embarrassing scene in which Paul Blart gets his clock cleaned by a gargantuan woman in a Victoria’s Secret store. But such painful moments are few, which is a blessing given the recent trend in “sucks to be you” comedy wherein an otherwise likable character is humiliated repeatedly to the amusement of mean people in the audience.

For the most part, however, the comedy fires on all cylinders. Physical comedy is hard to do well, and Kevin James is very good at it. Much sport is made of his stature, but like another brilliant, heavyset film comedian, he is surprisingly agile and light on his feet. I don’t, however, envy him the bruises he must have gone home with every day, as he clearly did a number of his own stunts.

The setting also provides much of the humor. While malls are no stranger to action movies (let’s not forget that nearly every movie Arnold Schwarzenegger ever made has at least one scene where a mall gets trashed) Kevin James was able to wring a lot of comedy out of setting an action movie in one. The scene where Paul Blart emerges from a ball pit like Martin Sheen in Apocalypse Now alone is worth the price of admission.

As I mentioned, the story is pure action hero fare. One man against an army who’s better equipped, better prepared, and quite frankly in better shape than he is. But in the end, a cool head and an intricate knowledge of the terrain defeat youth and skill. Once the fat jokes have all been spent, and the Segway ceases to be an object of ridicule and morphs into an implement of justice, all that remains is the action movie. Our hero crawls through ventilation ducts, uses toy robots from The Sharper Image to misdirect his foes, and eventually blows up an entire Rainforest CafĂ© (after a brilliant homage to Predator) in his efforts to take out the bad guys and rescue the woman of his dreams.

But will he succeed? Will he stop the bad guys and get the girl?

Well I’m sure as heck not going to tell you. Go watch the movie. It’s only $5 at blockbuster, and most of you have Netflix accounts already. Put it in your queue. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

I'm not in love with Joss Whedon, but I do want to have his babies

I feel I would somehow be remiss in maintaining a blog about geekly pleasures if I did not take the time to say a few words of sickening praise for Joss Whedon.

Joss Whedon is the man behind such television phenomenon as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, Firefly and, more recently, the Dollhouse.

I haven't seen the Dollhouse, so for all I know Mr. Whedon has lost his touch. But I just got done watching the commentary for Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Weblog on DVD (It's ten bucks, people. A trip to Starbucks costs more than that.) so I'll assume he hasn't.

I will admit, however, that Buffy the Vampire Slayer never grabbed me. I've seen a few episodes here and there, and while the charms of Ms. Gellar are not completely wasted upon me (though I do wish she'd eat something, for goodness sake) I wasn't able to get into it. This is not a knock on the show-- I can most assuredly respect anyone so praised for his dialog that goes ahead and makes an episode where absolutely nobody talks. And anyway, Buffy has been lavished with praise enough to make anything I'd add even if I were a fan redundant.

No, what I'd like to talk about is Whedon.

The man is certainly passionate about what he does, or at the very least he does an excellent job conveying passion in interviews and making-of documentaries. But what is the root of his appeal? It's certainly not universal, but among geeks Whedon is a king. Why is that?

The obvious answer is his dialogue. Whedon is frequently praised for writing "real' characters. His dialogue rings true to his fanbase. The problem with that explanation is that Whedon's dialogue is not realistic. Not even a little.

Consider this excerpt from Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog, hereafter referred to simply as Dr. Horrible because I'm too lazy to type in the rest of the title:

Penny: Unexpected. He’s a really good looking guy, and I thought he was kinda cheesy at first...

Billy: Trust your instincts.

Penny: But, he turned out to be totally sweet. Sometimes people are layered like that. there’s something totally different underneath than what’s on the surface.

Billy: And sometimes there’s a third, even deeper level and that one is the same as the top surface one.

Penny: Huh?

Billy: Like with pie…

Or this exerpt from Firely:

Kaylee: I'd sure love to find a brand new
compression coil for the steamer.

Mal: And I'd like to be king of all
Londinum and wear a shiny hat. Just
get us some passengers. Them as can
pay, all right?

Kaylee: Compression coil busts, we're

Mal: Best not bust it, then.

People don't talk like this. Not even in fantasy worlds where cattle rustlers fly spaceships, or nerds build freeze rays in their basements to impress quiet redheads at the laundromat.

I submit that Joss Whedon does not right realistic dialogue. So why does he get praised for doing so? The reason is that, while he doesn't write things people would actually say, he writes what people wish they actually said.

Whedon's writing is too sharp, and that's the appeal. He appeals to geeks, and as geeks we like to feel clever. But, as geeks, we tend to trip over our own tongues more often than not. If I had a nickle for every time I thought of a biting retort to a disparaging comment while laying in bed hours later, I would be the king of all Londonium and wear a shiny hat.

Whedon fulfills that fantasy for us. He puts the biting retort in the character's mouth right there in the heat of the moment, sometimes even a little before and one character will interrupt another character with something snarky or clever or both.

People think they want to be like Mal or Jayne. Actually, they want to be like Wash.

That's why some people love him and some people hate him. If you're not a person who was ever at a loss for words, or if you're satisfied with how characters on other shows or movies handle the situations the writers present, you're not going to get the appeal. But if you've ever wished you'd thought of saying something, or if you'd wished you had the guts to say something you did think of, then Whedon's characters are going to ring true to you.

Another thing Whedon's got going for him the the uncanny ability to write nuanced archetypes. A nuanced archetype is like one of those people who don't get enough air. Yet Whedon writes them. I'm not entirely sure how.

Take Jayne, for example. Jayne is probably the least complicated character on Firefly. He's big, strong, not overly bright but cunning. He's a bit too confident in be abilities of his guns to get him out of trouble that his mouth causes, but there's good reason there. He is, first and foremost, a mercenary, but he's loyal to people he respects. In the hands of a different writer, Jayne would be a cardboard cutout. Just a big, muscular brute O-D'ing on testosterone and cordite.

But he's not. He's sentimental, just about different things-- Vera, for example.

He's less complex than Mal, but he's not all that different from him. He's Ajax to Mal's Achilles (Yep, I went to the Iliad and compared Whedon to Homer), which is to say he has all of Mal's core qualities, just boiled down a bit more. Mal is more subtle than Jayne, and more rational. He's also more dangerous to have as an enemy, though you wouldn't necessarily get that from your first meeting. That's why Mal is the captain, and Jayne is the muscle-- even if Jayne doesn't necessarily understand why.

Another thing that makes Whedon’s work so watchable (and rewatchable) is the themes he hits on. The most frequent theme is the person who wants something that he can’t have. Buffy wants to be done with vampire hunting. Dr. Horrible wants Penny. Malcolm Reynolds wants to be left alone. The stories revolving around those characters show them striving toward that goal, and usually failing.

The failure wouldn’t be interesting except for the reason behind it. Whedon, as I mentioned, deals in archetypes. The thing about archetypes is that they can’t change, and the only thing that would help the hero get what he (or she) wants is to change who they are. Buffy can’t walk away from vampire slaying, because she is the vampire slayer. Even if she could turn her back on it, it would just come back and bite her from behind (Yeah, bad pun. No, not sorry). Mal will never be left alone, because he’s too honorable; he won’t walk away from situations that he could wash his hands of, because walking away would be wrong, so he ends up hopelessly outclassed in a sword fight to preserve the honor of a woman he makes a point of calling a whore. Dr. Horrible can’t have Penny, because he is the villain, and villains don’t get the girl.

Whedon’s heroes don’t get what they want because they’re too busy getting what they need. That’s something I think everyone can identify with.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Next week's etymology lesson: Irony!

I actually recall how I found out about it a few years back. At the time I owned an iMac. This was back when Apple was making products in colors other than white in order to highlight its differences from Microsoft’s ubiquity. (“Look! Have you ever seen a computer shaped like a fishbowl and painted candy apple red? No! And you never will again!”)

Well, let me pause here for a moment and briefly discuss my fruit-related computer history. I was an apple diaper baby. When I was a lad, we had Apple IIEs in our public schools, and my father; who was a public school teacher; took the computer from his classroom home during the summer so it wouldn’t get stolen. That’s right peeps; I am the product of inner city public schools. We had gangs and on-campus stabbings and everything. And that was just the girls!

Anyway, where was I? Oh right. So my earliest experience with a computer was the Apple IIE, followed by the Apple IIGS. After the IIGS, the two town high schools where I grew up were merged into one high school on the posher side of town, and the computer lab was expanded beyond a single machine, so it no longer made sense to bring a computer home over the summer. So my father bought a computer for the house: A Macintosh LCII with 80MB of hard drive space. I distinctly remember the salesman telling my father that we’d never be able to fill it up, and I can’t help but chuckle when I consider that I could back –up that hard drive 100 times on a USB drive I bought for $30 at BJs.

When I moved out on my own, I carried on the Apple tradition. I bought myself an iMac in candy apple red, or as Mac aficionados would say “F-you Micro$oft red.” I continued to delude myself into thinking that Macs were easier to use than Windows machines until I met my wife in 2003, who had very little experience with modern operating systems (her last computer having been a Colecovision). She tried out my old iMac (I had converted over to a Windows laptop so I could work from home) and proceeded to curse a blue streak at it. You see, the Mac operating system was trying to be helpful, and it kept trying to do things to help my wife do what the computer thought she was trying to do. The only problem was that she didn’t want to do what the computer was telling her she wanted to do, and she had to figure out workarounds to get the computer to take her word for it that she really did want that document to look how it looked.

So I don’t use Macs anymore. I think of them the same way I think of AOL’s online service: They work really hard to develop tools to get around the roadblocks that they themselves built into the operating system just so they can advertise how easy their products are to use.

Anyway, so at the time I was still a Mac Guy, except I knew how to shave my face and neck and regularly laundered my clothes. As such, during my lunch break I would visit websites related to Mac-related gaming, because Mac or No, I will always be a gamer. This one particular site pointed me to a webcomic about a group of college student who used Macs to game and create artwork titled “Mac Hall,” which is now defunct (the original artist is now doing a webcomic called “Three Panel Soul” which I recommend). That webcomic was on keenspot, which was a kind of portal to a list of other webcomics. I remember browsing through the list of webcomics on the list, and seeing something called “Schlock Mercenary.”

And here we finally get to the point.

Schlock Mercenary is a webcomic about a carbo-silicate amorphous alien with an appetite for violence (and anything else he can catch) and a BH209 plasma cannon that has destroyed whole spaceships. In episode 1 of the comic strip, he signs up for a mercenary company known as Tagon’s Toughs by threatening the recruiter with incineration if he doesn’t reconsider the company’s “humans only” recruiting rule.
It turns out it was really more of a guideline than a rule.

From there, we follow the alien; named Schlock; and the crew of Tagon’s Toughs through a series of adventures that include (really) hostile corporate takeovers, patent violations, and a war against a race of beings made of dark matter that nearly destroys the known universe. The comic has been running without interruption for over nine years, which is particularly impressive for a webcomic. What’s even more impressive is the fact that the stories, the jokes, and even the art have only gotten better in that time. Webcomics do not exactly have a reputation for excellence, and while the early years of Schlock Mercenary were not particularly well drawn, they were always funny. And I mean really funny, as in “I must clean the soda I was drinking off of my keyboard because it shot out of my nose, and it hurt like crazy but I still couldn’t stop laughing” funny.

What’s even funnier than the comic itself are the notes that follow some strips. Schlock Mercenary takes place in the distant future, when faster-than-light travel has been achieved and duct tape has been redesigned such that it can actually be used to seal duct work (really ). A lot can happen in a thousand years, and the author brings the reader up to speed on events pertaining to the happenings in that days strip. Sometimes it’s a history lesson, sometimes a science lesson, sometimes a computer programming lesson about how the Trinary unIT replaced the Binary unIT as the basic programming structure, and the affects that had on sexual diversity in the workplace among computer scientists.

And as if all that wasn’t enough, the storylines are huge: literally measured in relativistic units. A given story arc will span months, if not a year, building and building and building to a conclusion that is probably going to result in something very large getting exploded. To give you an idea of how large, at one point someone blows up a Dyson Sphere, and it wasn’t even integral to the story arc.

It’s not always funny, though. The author is no stranger to pathos, and more than one sympathetic character have been snuffed out in the course of the action—we are talking about a troop of mercenaries, after all. But even when long standing characters leave the strip, it doesn’t feel like a cheap way for the author to keep the reader interested; unlike some extremely powerful DC characters that shall remain SuperNameless. Further, ever October the author indulges in a month of darker fare titled “Schlocktoberfest” during which there are fewer jokes and more tension. The mix of humor, action and suspense keep the comic feeling vibrant and new even after nine years of following the same characters.
The comics are also available in dead-tree form. I own all but the most recent book (The Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance; a reference to a joke from the series regarding a napoleonic race of koalazoids and the names they give their warships) because they have become a Christmas tradition at my household. If you like the strip online, I heartily recommend buying the books. Not only is it nice to read the comic somewhere other than a monitor, but the books include exclusive bonus stories that delve a little deeper into the origins of the series’ namesake.

If you can handle the crude art, go back to day one of Schlock Mercenary and watch how the art, humor and characters evolve. You can also use the archive navigation screen to pick a story arc that sounds interesting, which might be a good option if you want to start where the art is prettier. The author-recommended place to start is Under New Management. I say “author recommended” because that was the first story arc to get published in book form. The first few months of Schlock Mercenary were actually the second or third book to get printed, and as with Firefly I can see why he went that way, even if I prefer watching the story from the beginning.

The bottom line is that if you’re a sci-fi fan, you need to be reading this web comic. If you’re a military humor fan, you need to be reading this comic. If you’re a comic fan, you need to be reading this web comic. If you’re a… well, let’s just say you need to be reading this web comic.

So go read it. Go ahead. I’ll be back next week with some other morsel of geekitude for you.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Books on DVD: The Color of Magic

Translating a book into a movie is akin to walking a tightrope. On the one hand, you're taking an intellectual property that has an established following, so you have to please them. But if you want to be successful, you also have to please the people who've never heard of the book.

There are a couple of tacks to take in pursuit of this. If you're Disney, you buy the IP, keep the title and the character names and write a movie without reading the book. Have you ever read Bedknob and Broomstick? 101 Dalmations? The Rescuers? The movies have virtually nothing to do with the books, but it doesn't really matter because the target market will see the movie before it reads the book, and in that case it's the book that gets criticized for being "wrong."

If you're target market is older, but less geekly, you can buy a potboiler thriller from three summers back by Michael Crichton or John Grisham that a ton of people read, but very few people remember, and make a movie that has the same characters, strikes the same basic themes but is basically a totally different movie. The quitiessential example of this is The Sum of All Fears by Tom Clancy. The book is about how the world gets to the brink of nuclear war because of palestinian terrorists trying to destroy Israel. The movie is about... neo-nazis.

The really hard movies to make are geek favorites. In those cases, the core audience hasn't just read the book, but in many cases has committed passages to memory and has probably cosplayed (WARNING: Google "cosplay" only with safesearch enabled) as a character from it.

There are three successful ways of making geek favorites. The J.K. Rowling method is to hold the movies to exacting standards of fidelity, resulting in a movie that is extremely true to the book and probably a little unweildy. Non-geeks will lambast you for being slavish.

The Goldman (Author of The Princess Bride, you philistines) method is to make a movie that strikes all the same themes, but stands alone as a property all its own. The movie becomes a complement to the book, something that fans will get more out of than the average theatre-goer, but still remains a good movie in its own right.

The Tolkien-Jackson Method is to be as true to the books as possible, but not truer. Sure, you will be savaged by hardcore fans for omitting Tom Bombadil from your movie and screwing up the characterizations of Faramir and Denethor, but you will win an oscar, make gobs of money, and ruin Elijah Wood's career the way George Lucas did for Mark Hamil, so on balance it comes out positive.

If you've been in a BJs wholesale club, or if you have the same kind of history I have at, you might have noticed that there is a DVD out called "The Color of Magic," and sure enough it's a film translation of Terry Pratchet's first discworld novel.

Well, technically it's a translation of his first two discworld novels, as it includes not just The Color of Magic but also The Light Fantastic.

For those of you unfamiliar, shame on you! The Discworld series is a series of novels that take place on a world where magic, not science, is king. To give you an example of just how supreme magic is, the world is an enormous flat disc that sits on the back of four enormous elephants that walk around in circles on the back of a turtle that enormous would only begin to describe.

Like I said, magic.

The easiest way to describe it is Terry Pratchet doing for the fantasy genre what Douglas Adams did for the science fiction genre. If you haven't read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy either, I don't really understand what you're doing on this site. But suffice it to say, it's comedy. And british comedy at that.

The story of The Color of Magic and The Light Fantastic revolve around two primary characters: Rincewind, a failed wizard who can't remember any spell but one and doesn't even know what that spell does; and Twoflower, a tourist from a faraway land that thinks all that magic business is very romantic and quaint.

Twoflower gets himself and Rincewind into all sorts of trouble, and they get wrapped up in a plot that ends up saving the discworld from destruction. I won't go into too much detail about the story at this point, but be forewarned that there be spoilers ahead, as I am writing this from the perspective of someone who has read the books.

The movie is cast exceptionally well. Sean Astin (Sam Gamgee from LOTR) is Twoflower the tourist. Tim Curry (who needs no introduction) plays Trymon, a very ambitious wizard who literally kills his way up the wizardly corporate ladder. David Jason, the voice of Dangermouse and Count Duckula, plays Rincewind. Jeremy Irons (Die Hard 3's Simon Gruber) plays the Patrician to perfection. Finally, Christopher Lee himself lends his voice as Death.

As a movie, it only sort of works. A lot of the humor in Pratchett's novels come from the narrator's descriptions of how things work on the disc. This movie keeps narration to a minimum, and while that's very wise from a moviemaking perspective, it kind of robs the movie of some of its magic. We never get the descriptions of how light moves through a world with a strong magical field (answer: very slowly), for example.

The chief problem is that the movie assumes you've read the books. If you haven't read the books, you'll only sort of know what's going on. Why does Twoflower, an insurance salesman, pronounce "insurance" so affectedly? Why is there a trunk that can walk and eat people following Twoflower about? Why does Death personally show up to claim dying wizards, and why does he keep hanging around Rincewind? They never really explain any of it, and if you haven't read the books you just have to take it on faith that what you're seeing is funny, which rarely works.

There are some differences and omissions that were probably necessary but made me unhappy. One of the funniest sequences in the books is when Rincewind meets the clan of rock trolls and fulfills an ancient prophecy that reads "Rincewind will come looking for mushrooms. Do not bite him." They did include Old Grandpa; a troll the size of a mountain; but his introduction is ineffective without the inclusion of other rock trolls (which can be very small), and the sequence where he wakes up is technically impressive enough that it only highlights the fact that they intentionally wrote the other trolls; which they were clearly capable of rendering; out of the story.

The fact that they omitted some visual gags but still kept in the "in-sewer-ants" and "din-chewers" jokes is head scratching, because using phoenetic equivalent spellings for "insurance" and "dentures" only works if you're reading it. Twoflower is supposed to be explaining these terms to people who've never heard them before and have no concept of what they are. Instead, he sounds like he spontaneously shed 100 IQ points mid-sentence.

Personally, I would have much rather they'd included the Hydrophobes than heard a bunch of people say "in sewer ants."

But let's focus on the good aspects, because it's not a bad movie, just a flawed film adaptation. Cohen the Barbarian does make an appearance and the scenes that involve him are fairly true to the book. Being able to actually see the 90 year old barbarian cutting a swath through younger warriors without serious trouble is a treat, and hearing him complain that he hates "shoop" because he hasn't got any teeth left made me smile. Further, like the rest of the cast they found a superlative actor to play him.

Twoflower's sapient pearwood trunk is created through the magic of computer animation, and it looks almost exactly how I pictured it. I wish they had focused on it as much in the movie as Pratchett did in the books, because the descriptions in the books were very funny.

The Color of Magic is $10 at BJs, and if you're a fan of the books I don't really see how you can pass it up. It strikes the major themes as well as can be expected, and it does a good job visualizing a world where light moves very slowly. It's just a pity that they didn't choose what was included and what wasn't with more care.

But then what do I know? Terry Pratchet himself signed off on the script, or so says the credits. I'm just some guy with a blog that nobody reads.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Late to the Party Reviews: Infamous

Well, it's that time of the week again already. How time flies.

This week I'll be taking a look at Infamous, or if you read the box and insist on being faithful to marketing foolishness inFAMOUS. I do not insist on being faithful to people who misuse capslock, so hereafter I shall type the title of the game as if it were a normal proper noun.

Infamous is video game available only on the PS3. Like all PS3 exclusives, a typical reviewer must be cautious about what he or she says because the legion of PS3 fanboys who are grateful to be able to play something that cannot be had on a rival system will send emails using only capslock and various ways to imply the reviewer has had an inappropriate relationship with a barnyard animal, his own mother, or both.

You see, PS3 fanboys tend to have chips on their shoulders, because they picked the loser in this generation's console wars but they don't want to admit it. As someone who owns only Sony products this gaming generation (PS3 and a PSP, thank you very much) I am enamored of my platforms of choice, but I have no illusions about NPD numbers. Face it, guys: Sony places third in a field of three. That's a fancy word for losing.

Anyway, the fact that the PS3 is this generation's loser doesn't change the fact that there are still a lot of good games to be played on it. Infamous is among them, though it is not without flaws.

For those of you who are also late to the party, let me recap: Infamous is the story of Cole McGrath, a delivery boy who gets electrically charged super powers when a package he delivers blows up and annihilates a large portion of the city. It soon becomes clear that some big things are brewing, and Cole is up to his ionized backside in trouble.

The game borrows liberally from Grand Theft Auto III. It's open world on a city that consists of three islands that unlock as you complete story-related missions. There are side missions littered throughout the landscape, as well as pockets of thugs for you to fight if you just want to get into some quick action. As with every other open world game in the known universe, there are a few hundred Totally Arbitrary Collectible Objects (or TACOs, a term used in the JRPG Anachronox which I have adopted) called "blast shards" which grant Cole additional energy to use his more impressive powers.

The developers tried to set this game apart from other open-world games in a few ways. First, Cole is a very agile delivery boy. He can climb just about anything that has a handhold (except chain link fences). The explanation for this is that he "got into urban exploration a few years ago." He says it once the first time he ventures into the sewers, and it totally explains how his climbing abilities are rivaled only by Spiderman.


The other way the developers tried to set Infamous apart is with the morality system. As Cole, you're allowed to play as a hero, or as a villain-ish character. I say villain-ish because the game doesn't make a whole lot of sense if you play the evil path, particularly if you do a lot of side missions, which you kind of have to do.

For example, if you're playing the Evil Path, you will be asked to blow up cops and steal things from other residents of the city. Then you'll be asked to help a doctor establish a new clinic, and protect a bus carrying medical supplies. Blowing up cops and setting up clinics are both optional missions, but you need experience points to buy new powers and upgrades, and if you don't do all of the side missions you won't be able to fully upgrade for the final boss.

The main differences between the "good" and "evil" path are in the powers that you get to wield. As the hero, Cole gets powers that enable him to do precise damage to villains without hurting bystanders and to live-capture enemies for the police to collect. As the villain, Cole gets cool red lightning, and his powers tend to be more explodey.

The powers are completely tied up in your moral fiber, so don't think you'll be able to play through as a grey jedi. Upgrades to your abilities only appear when you've reached a certain level of fame or notoriety (Guardian, Champion and Hero on the good side, Thug, Outlaw and Infamous on the evil side) and you can't use Infamous powers if you're only ranked as an Outlaw, or Hero powers if you're only ranked Champion. When you max out your karma in one direction or the other, you get an ability that temporarily grants you unlimited energy-- so there's no incentive to be a little bit good if you're playing evil, or vice versa.

A lot of reviewers have complained at the implementation of the karmic system, and I can't say I wholly blame them. I've never had a problem with binary moral systems in games-- Fallout 3 had a binary system, and I thought it worked well for the most part. But Infamous is on the sloppy side and a lot of the choices don't make sense. The choice isn't "Cole does what he thinks is right" versus "Cole looks out for number one" which is how the world really works. The choice is always "Cole does what the game tells you is right" versus "Cole acts like a total a-hole."

A good example comes up early, so I have no qualms about spoiling it: Cole is in the sewers and he finds a man guarding a gate. The man believes the bad-guys are holding his wife hostage and will kill her if he opens the gate for anyone but them. His wife, you earlier discovered, has already been killed. At this time the player is presented with a moral choice:

The good choice is to tell him that his wife is already dead and that he doesn't have to guard the gate anymore.

The evil choice is to kill the guy.

I know. Tough call, right?

The other problem with the karma system is that it doesn't really change the story in any meaningful way. If you play the good path, your girlfriend is nicer to you (for about five minutes) and people don't throw rocks at you as you walk down the street but the main story arc is identical to the "evil" path. Most of the side missions don't even change, as I mentioned earlier, so you're still establishing medical clinics and getting the trains running on time no matter which moral path you take.

But when you strip away that moral system, you're still left with a darn good game. The controls are tight, the combat is fun; once you get the hang of figuring out where the snipers are (hint: don't stand in one place and try to figure out where the bullets that are hitting you in the head are coming from. You'll die a lot.) and the story is pretty good if you play the hero.

The controls take a little getting used to, but once you get the hang of holding the R1 button whenever you want to shoot something the combat flows pretty smoothly. If you're quick enough on the draw, you can reflect missiles back at the guys who shot them at you, which is always fun. The sheer variety in the powers Cole wields makes for some good fun-- whether playing as the hero or the villain he has a standard shot, sniper shot, grenade and missile launcher equivalents, as well as the totally awesome "summon a continuous lightning arc and steer it around" power which is sadly useless against any game bosses but will clear out enemy vehicles like nobody's business.

Just climbing around the city is a ton of fun. The controls in this respect are very forgiving, and the only way I missed a jump was when I was trying too hard to make it. Cole is almost magnetic for handholds, which is great for some of the jumping puzzles but admittedly annoying if you're trying to get across a crowded roof in a hurry. The "drop down" button could have used some tweaking, because while it's occasionally useful to push the button and drop down the the next lower handhold, usually what I want to do is drop the the ground, and the drop-down button doesn't allow for that. But on the whole, I'd say the maneuvering mechanics work very well.

One of the things I really like about the game is the TACO system. Usually, players are told there are X number of collectible objects on the map and left to fend for themselves. In Infamous, the player can use radar which will alert the player to the presence of blast shards if they are within range on the mini-map. Using this system I've collected 320 out of 350 shards without resorting to online FAQs, which I did when I played Mercenaries 2.

Overall, I'd say Infamous is definitely worth playing. My recommendation is to play through as the hero first, because the story makes more sense, and then decide if you want to play the evil path. On the whole, I'm glad I did both, but I don't think I would have if I'd played the evil path first. It's clear where the developers want you to go, and there's no reason not to. You'll have a better experience if you don't fight it.

In conclusion, the only honest way to give a game a score is to decide whether it's worth the price you'll pay for it. As with any opinion, this is subject to personal taste, but unlike arbitrary grades it has the benefit of using a practical unit of measure. So, if you see Infamous, what price tag is worth paying?

Well, I paid full price ($60) and I feel like I got my money's worth. It's a solid $60, an excellent $50 game, and a must-buy at $40 or below.