Sunday, November 16, 2008

Games to Try (or not)

Been trying a bunch of new games recently. Given that Christmas is on the way, figured I'd let people know my opinions, to help them with their shopping.

Wii Fit (Wii)
Thumbs Up!
Finally, you can find these in stores, though who knows how they'll fare during the Christmas rush. Basically, Wii Fit is a step board, capable of determining centre of balance and weight. The game itself simply unlocks a variety of activities and mini-games completed with the board and occasionally remotes, including a full assortment of yoga poses, strength training, cardio/fitness, and balance games.

The balance games are the most 'fun' - downhill skiing being my favourite so far. The fitness games are a good middle ground, with Einin being a huge fan of the hula hooping. The strength and yoga break the illusion - there's no mistake here that you're doing exercise rather than playing a game, and they don't try to hide it. I'd also say these last two are weaker in that it's far more difficult to detect correct execution of the techiques from balance alone.

However, Wii Fit is still win. The balance games are sufficiently entertaining to be party games, and the rest are nice for when you don't feel like trekking to the gym. I don't like the lack of solid multiplayer (you have to go all the way to the main menu to switch) nor the lack of pre-programmed exercise routines, but those are in no way fatal flaws.

Plus, hackers have done some sweet things with the Wii Fit board.

Final Fantasy III (DS)
Epic Fail
A port of the Japanese classic not only to English but to the DS (complete with advanced graphics). Summary: I can see now why they skipped over this one when they originally ported the series.

The game is the worst RPG I've ever played. The characters may as well be random pixel blobs - they're so undeveloped that I don't even remember their names. The story is a sequence of mini-quests, but beyond "I'm saving the world from the darkness", and there's some crystals involved, the story is nearly non-existent.

The class system is ridiculous. There's maybe 20 classes to choose from... you get a few more after each crystal. Each character may change at will. However, short of the Internet, there's no way to know what class does what, is good for what, or can use what equipment. Plus the fact that you have to level each class you try separately, so experimenting is an expensive proposition.

The final straw for me was the end tower. I fight through a bunch of very difficult areas, get to the final boss world, decide I want to save. Walking back the way I came leads me not to the exit, but to an encounter with an unkillable boss who kills me and sets me back 3 hours of play time.

I quit at that point. It's not worth another half-dozen hours of playtime to see the end. And I use 'play' time in the loosest sense.

Geometry Wars: Galaxies (DS)
Surprizing Win!
Capitalizing on the success of Geometry Wars: Evolved and Geometry Wars: Evolved 2 for Xbox Live Arcade, a clever company decided to make a DS version. To justify the value they added, they included a 'campaign' mode and an upgradable drone. Oh noes...

I thought this was going to be serious cheese, but I bought it anyways, figuring that it'd still be Geometry Wars, and thus fun enough for a short plane ride. But wow, it took me by surprize. The campaign is excellent! Yes, you just play a bunch of rounds of what is essentially the same game, but they mix it up a bunch. Levels with different shapes and borders; a level with Astroids-like dividing shapes. A level with minelayers whose mines you have to set off. Even a giant spinning gravity well.

I hope they adopt these features into Geometry Wars 3!

Wrath of the Lich King (PC)
Say goodbye to your non-WoW friends.
Everyone expected good things from the second expansion to World of Warcraft. Blizzard exceeded expectations. Their updated engine shows; the new world is all about tall peaks, snow lines, and waterfalls. There's times where we've just stopped in the middle of a battle for a town to just admire a breathtaking view! Death Knights are great fun, and make use of seamless instance transitions to script an elaborate opening scenario. Not a bug to be found, and except for a couple of queues, solid as a rock.

If you've left WoW, now is the time to come back.

Other Games I don't have yet, but want to try

Fallout 3 (PC/Xbox)
The first two were epic; you're sent on a grand quest into the post-apocalyptic wastes, and by the time you're done, your entire worldview has changed. Turn-based RPG that actually emphasises freedom of choice, and lets your character and even the world evolve based on your decisions on and off the battlefield.

While the new FPS style worries me, I've been assured that the game is still excellent.

Saints Row 2 (Xbox)
A blatant ripoff of Grand Theft Auto. But it took the announcement of this game to really appreciate some of my dissatisfaction with Grand Theft Auto 4. While I did love GTA4, it really spent too much time doing realism over the fun factor that makes GTA great. As Yahtzee points out, taking my cousin bowling got boring after the 12th time, and distracted from running over pedestrians.

Saints Row had no such qualms. Loose driving mechanics, readily available weapons, and hilariously entertaining subgames by the truckload. Saints Row 2 looks to play the "If it ain't broke" card; every description looks like it's the same as its predecessor; down to a cheezy retcon of the first's ending (even the cliche coma). I can't wait.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

My Final Canadian Election Choice

So, I made my decision on Monday, and finalized the series of envelopes that will ultimately make absolutely no difference to the fate of my riding, but make me feel better for at least participating.

Oz Cole-Arnal (NDP)

I know I am going to take a fair bit of flak for voting NDP, but I think the decision was justified based on what I consider a reasonable analysis, so please read on before you flame me to my ultimate demise.

Green John Bithell didn't make the final three. While I have no particular gripe with the Green party, the continued green focus of the NDP, and 'Green Shift' of the Liberals give me two alternatives to access the key Green platform item. The rest of their platform is a grab-bag of ideas across the centre-left; clearly not a unified vision. The Greens are working hard to be taken seriously; they've had an MP, and their leader is finally in the debates. Still, I'm not ready to be a Green "early adopter" until at least one MP is elected and proves to be a force in the House of Commons. My particular candidate is a new nomination to the riding, has no serious qualifications to brag about, and has practically no personal platform information beyond his basic bio. He didn't even have a Facebook politician page. No communication - no vote.

So, down to the parties.

Conservatives are socially and fiscally the right of the spectrum - which puts them at odds with my other options (who pretty much all share the environmentalist centre-left at this point). This really leads to an "us vs. them" approach to just about everything, from their party politics to the media. Continuing the trend from 2006, the Conservatives' platform has consistently been less about their own policies as ridiculing the Liberals.

Despite an accountability platform in 2006, they're the least trustworthy of any party, for reasons I've already outlined, even in the very calling of the election! They've even earned the ire of two provincial governments though their broken promises to date. There's several deal breakers in their policies that have relied on their secrecy and disregard for accountability to proceed. The main ones - the latest IP treaties and copyright bills, directly affect my life even from the US! Plus, even where they've got positive campaign points, like anti-spam, they're areas that they've already provably failed from the past two years.

It also doesn't help that I am morally opposed to their social conservatism (right to life, anti-gay, etc) - it doesn't affect me personally at all, but I still can't support the party that actually tried (and failed, heh) to reopen the gay marriage debate.

On the plus side, their leader is tried and tested, and he's good at what he does. They're also the only party that is actually thinking about not lighting our economy on fire (though their success to date is a matter of opinion). Their social conservatism actually helps them out in getting tough on crime. They're the only party for whom the main sales point is something other than the environment. Finally, as much as I hate to bow to it, they're good because they're not the Liberals or NDP, who are next on my scorn list.

The Liberals are the 'natural' Canadian party, and what I would normally support in any sane election. However this time around, it's just bloody ridiculous! Their leader is incredibly uncharismatic. Instead of selling a reformed Liberal party willing to lead responsibly in times of economic uncertainty, they're selling a green shift (with a proposal of which many are dubious). This, combined with rampant spending I mentioned earlier. If I wanted a slew of new social programs, I'd go NDP, much like I'd go Green for a carbon tax.

It's a party that is ready neither for an election nor to lead. Given their inability to show the slightest backbone as opposition between 2006 and 2008, they don't even seem ready to be an opposition. They're the least vocal of the parties in the campaign, and haven't done anything to sell most people beyond trying to stave off the vicious Conservative offensive.

The NDP are basically socialists. Raise taxes, give them to some poor starving kid overseas. Or more likely, give it to the unionized workers who make up much of their base. Not pleasant at all if you like paying less taxes, or think that a high corporate tax rate will negatively affect your job. They've been focusing on green issues much longer than the Liberals, but with a more regulation heavy cap-and-trade approach.

Their leader: a veteran of campaigning, but not of leadership. Never a leader, nor even an official opposition. Still, Jack Layton is charismatic among his supporters, and at least has more support than Dion.

  • Stephen Woodworth (CON)
  • Strong educational background (practicing lawyer).
  • Liberal candidate (1988), but hasn't otherwise run recently.
  • Passable communication from website with press releases, though often focused on the party level. Local commentators have observed very little communication.
  • Website has very little useful 'static' information. Focused almost exclusively as being a Conservative mouthpiece.
  • Involvement in right-to-life groups.

  • Karen Redman (LIB)
  • Weak educational background (BA, a 'writer').
  • Veteran of riding for 11 years, party whip, caucus member, leader of several private member's bills, and often involved in question period.
  • Lack of online communication via her website or Facebook group. I got more info on her campaign from Woodworth's website!
  • Passable static website information talking about her varied activities while holding her seat.
  • Environmental issues, womans' issues, disability issues.
  • Hefty religious involvement, but does not appear to play out in her political life.

  • Oscar Cole-Arnal (NDP)
  • Doctorate in European History! (my previous comments mocked his Masters in the New Testament, but when you add a pair of post-grad degrees on top of that, you've got my respect).
  • Newcomer, replacing a better-known NDP candidate. Only been in Canada since 1975, and a citizen since 1986.
  • Top communication by far. A blog, active Facebook group. Also lots of static information - I know exactly what his personal key issues are.
  • Lots of support for 'redistribution of wealth'.
  • Woman's issues, social justice. Meh.
  • Regulation. Yay. Proportional representation. VERY yay! More transparency in Government, but in particular not negotiating trade deals in secret - with ACTA coming, this is absolutely essential.
  • Extremely high level of religious involvement. Doesn't play out negatively like in the US, but one stil has to worry.

Analysis and Conclusion

My choice is Conservative, Liberal or NDP. None of the three have the perfect platform. However, while I enjoy the fact that the Conservatives are the only party that differentiates itself from the pack and isn't trying to raze the economy to buy voters, they have deal-breaker policies (eg. copyright) and a blatant disregard for their own accountability laws that would otherwise prevent such travesties from happening. Anyways, I just don't like their US "character assault" style of campaign. While their local candidate is educated, I don't have the information nor the trust to believe he'd do the right thing either.

But I have to look at reality. The conservatives will get the plurality, no matter what I say. The choice is only really of majority or minority, and who gets how many seats of opposition. So I must choose the party who will best defend my interests against the Conservatives, which is a very different question than who I want to lead.

In the end, it has to be the NDP. The Liberals were literally useless in the last parliament, meekly surrendering to every confidence vote. During the Liberal minority before it, the NDP were a major player, and bought several concessions for the budgets they voted for. The Liberals are basically a shattered party, which is no good for an opposition that needs to keep the Conservatives from doing evil things.

While I'd normally worry about the excessive spending of the NDP or their focus on the common worker over... well... me... as an opposition they are unlikely to cause these sorts of problems. Anyways, the Liberals seem so concerned with rebuilding their voter base that the NDP seem fiscally conservative in comparison. A party more amenable to government regulation may also prove useful, given the telco stranglehold on the country. For example, I think NDP would be a better defender of net neutrality and cell carrier abuses, which the Liberals enabled, and the Conservatives ultimately failed to defend when it counted.

But I can't lie, what ultimately sold me: Oz. I respect his extensive education. I enjoyed that I could read his policies, and follow his campaign online. Even when I was ambivalent or even against his policies, at least he was upfront and honest about them. Both him and Karen from the Liberals focused exclusively on what I'd call 'meh' issues that mean nothing to me, but the fact that Oz's communication was more personal and immediate from him blog gave me confidence that when an issue I do care about comes up, he'll be a stronger advocate for it.

Guess it's all marketing in the end. As is with the microcosm that is my riding, Jack Layton's message reached me best. So they get my vote.

Monday, September 29, 2008

Voting By Mail

My vote is filled out, and ready to go in the mail. It's sad that I need to vote before the leader debates, but it has to arrive by the same election day the rest of you scrubs vote, or it's not counted.

It's actually a very reasonable process. You proactively register to vote in the riding of your last permanent address in Canada, and provide your new mailing address. They will contact you occasionally by mail to make sure your info is up to date (even with the occasional reminder email, if you're one of those 'computer' folk). You can register (or remain registered) up to five years from the date of your departure, after which you are no longer considered eligible to vote. 

When an election is called, they print up your 'special' ballot and mail it out to you, right away!

A ballot. Literally just a dotted line to write a name, so don't make a mistake! But then, no less than THREE envelopes.
  • Inner envelope. Votes need to be private, after all, so they give you a small unmarked envelope that actually goes in the ballot box on election day.
  • Outer envelope. Your vote needs to be private, but also unique. Name, riding, and various uniquely identifying marks clearly on the envelope, and a dotted line to sign saying that this is your one and only vote for the election. I might have spilled some Photoshop on it.
  • Mailing envelope. Since your name and signature need to be private, right? Plus nice and addressed. But sorry, you have to pay your own postage.
Pretty easy! It's my last election (anywhere!) for awhile, so I'm making it count.

Who did I vote for? Well, you can probably guess, and it's something I enjoy sharing, but that can wait for the next post.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Riding Updates and More Voting Thoughts

They updated my riding again. The Communist candidate is back. Also an Independent candidate, Amanda Lamka; though a complete unknown. Found some great commentary about my riding as well.

Even better, a website and blog for the NDP candidate! While I was skeptical of Cole-Arnal before (both as a fresh face, and a perceived danger of faith-based policies), I am now far more accepting of his candidacy. The web is a powerful tool of democracy - there's no excuse anymore to not be in regular communication with your constituents. The combination of a regularly updated blog and a Facebook page garner huge amounts of my respect. Even better, I now know about his policies instead of just his qualifications.

The election continues to depress me. Given that my vote has to be mailed in soon to make it to Ottawa on time, this is a worrying development. My choices are: don't vote at all, vote for the independent candidate, for the Communist party, the Green party, the NDP, the Liberal party, or the Conservative party.

I dismiss not voting. Not voting is a bad option (unless you're uninformed) - it expresses support for all parties equally, even the ones you like less than the others. One may say that it sends a message of disdain for all of the candidates. However, in the results it is very difficult to differentiate apathetic voters from informed dissenters. Voter apathy is a key battleground for the US, but not much at all in Canada.

I dismiss the independent. Recent minorities have proven that independents can decide the fate of entire governments! I cannot in good conscience vote for someone with potentially massive power with no knowledge of their intended platform. Until she reaches out to voters over the Internet, no vote for her.

I dismiss the Communist candidate. No chance of the vote being meaningful, and I don't agree with most of the platform (eg. anti-free-trade). Nor do I suspect that a disabled truck driver is going to be the most effective advocate of my concerns.

So, Green, NDP, Liberal, or Conservative.
My thoughts, coming up...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

So Much for Kitchener Centre

Well, I've received my ballot, so whenever I'm ready, I can get my vote on in Kitchener Centre.

But it's not that easy. No sooner than I declare a grudging respect for one of the candidates in Kitchener Centre, that it's announced that every party except for the Liberal incumbant Karen Redman, has been swapped out!

Lets see who we have for candidates now.
  • Stephen Woodworth (CON). Laurier grad, and a lawyer. Former Liberal candidate. Admittedly, not bad, except for being heavily involved in right-to-life and Christian advocacy groups.
  • Karen Redman (LIB). BA English. Involved with disability and children's issues.
  • Oscar Cole-Arnal (NDP). Masters in 'New Testament' (I can't make stuff like that up!). Issues mostly centre around civil rights.
  • John Bithell (GRN). Not much mentioned. 'Studied' macroeconomics.

Except for the Green Party candidate, every single candidate has heavy religious involvement to the point where I can't expect them to really be advocates for... you know... actual important issues instead of faith-based initiatives or random useless hippie propaganda. Great. Way to ramp up the suck in my riding.

I'm getting a lot of people telling me "you should vote for the party, not the candidate." While I disagree with the assertion (your MP is meant to be your representative first and foremost), I already explained that it was just a backup plan because of the equal amount of suck thrown out by all the parties.

But just to satisfy people, lets see what we can find about the parties. We already know that there's no way we could ever trust the Conservatives. Apparently it's an opinion shared even by some provinces. So, vote Liberal or NDP? Well, unfortunately, not wanting to prove Harper's claims of ridiculous spending wrong, both parties are fighting to waste as much money as possible to give free rides to old people and parents to buy votes. Of course, they're also looking to offer some money to potentially useful things like city infrastructure and schools, but still, there's only so much money to go around, and it's pretty clear that the sort of spending they want to make is going to be off the charts!

The Greens and the Bloc seem to just be staying out of the way, and allowing the mutually-assured-epic-fail between the big boys to play out to their advantage. Great.

This is ridiculous. How am I supposed to vote when I'm being given these sort of choices?

Sunday, September 07, 2008

But wait, Lownewulf... can you vote in 2008?

Yep, I can vote by mail, likely for the last time. After five years out of the country, Elections Canada will probably start questioning my extended absence from Canada, so by 2012, I may only be able to contribute through what meager influence I can make on other voters.

I'll probably vote in Kitchener Centre, as my last 'permanent' address. Unfortunately, it's an unfamiliar riding to me, since my last (counted) vote was Kitchener-Waterloo (I was eligible in 2006 in KC by mail, but the ballot didn't reach me). KW was easy, especially with the on-campus debates. The charismatic Liberal veteran versus the asshat Conservative, the NDP nooblet, and ridiculous Greeny. It was a pretty easy call.

In my latest riding; well we'll see who the candidates are. If voting by party, the Liberals get a massive 'meh', and I'm still waiting to see if the NDP can pull some excitement out of their ass. So really, it'll probably come down to candidates.

In terms of candidates, I'd probably support the NDP guy, Richard Walsh-Bowers. I appreciate his hefty professional and university academic backgrounds in clinical psychology - I believe higher education, especially in the sciences, can lead to a candidate better predisposed to critical thinking and objective analysis. Still, I haven't seen or read much on him, so we'll have to wait and see if he's persuasive, or if he supports any crackpot policies.

Karen Redman, the Liberal candidate... meh. She's the Liberal whip, and apparently fairly competent. But she lacks the powerhouse academics of Walsh-Bowers (BA English... fries with that?). The groups she's involved in seem like the polar opposite of anything I'd remotely care about - heavy church involvement, disabilities, dependent children, blah blah blah. She campaigns a lot for her riding's interests, which is great for her riding, but meaningless to me here in Seattle.

Even if I hadn't already summarily dismissed the Conservatives for their disregard of their own accountability platform, Steven Cage sounds like a pretty big asshat. Big MBA education and money job is his background (as a techie, I naturally distrust MBAs). Standard anti-Liberal rhetoric instead of an actual platform of his own... except for an aggressive opposition to gay marriage of course.

Oh, and a Communist Party candidate. Yarly! If that wasn't hilarious enough, he's a former truck driver on disability for stress and depression. What a winner!

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Why You Should Send the Conservatives Packing

The Canadian Prime Minister, the Right Honourable Stephen Harper, is expected to request the dissolution of Parliament today, which will ultimately lead to an election in October 2008. Despite being the smallest minority government in history, it is also the longest a minority government has survived.

Still, this is a great opportunity to send the Tories packing.

"Why, Lownewulf? Why, if the Conservatives have done so well, would you send them home? They even gave us a 2% GST cut!" Sure, but in the end, for a Government whose campaign was centered around government ethics and accountability, they have shown a brazen disregard for their own accountability rules that make the Liberals look like saints in comparison (and given that the Liberals were largely booted out due to the sponsorship scandal, that says a lot!). They are so incredibly dishonest, and have shown such a callous disregard for accountability, that one cannot possibly trust them to lead for a second longer.
So, if you feel that a Government should actually be accountable, vote for anyone but the Conservatives! Of course, that's easier said than done. After all, who on Earth are you going to vote for?

The Liberals? Sure, they're the standard middle ground for Canadians - the Liberals are always a safe bet! But Dion is perhaps the least inspiring leader that Canadian politics has ever seen! I may have despised Paul Martin, but at least he was worth paying attention to. And seriously, a green focus? Why not copy a party that's actually successful rather than copying the Greens, who have never even held a seat! Seriously, it's like this party lost it's will after 2006, and is still floundering to find its purpose again.

The NDP? They were exciting during the 38th Parliament, but what have they done for us since then except whine in the background? Anyways, I'm not quite ready for a 80% tax rate to support every sad story on the planet.

Ironically, the Bloc is the sanest of the parties right now (assuming you ignore the whole soverignty thing :p). A socially liberal stance but with the sort of financial and political discipline that even the Conservatives should admire. Problem is, you can't vote for them since they only exist in Quebec - and even if you did, it's a mathematical impossibility for them to govern *.

[ * 308 seats, 75 of them in Quebec. Split the remainder evenly between Liberal, Conservative and NDP; each remaining party must have at least 77 seats, meaning Bloc can't govern without a formal coalition. ]

The Greens? Seriously? Come on. No.

Of course, there's always the local independent candidate. After all, they made all the difference during the 38th Parliament. But, is there a good one in YOUR riding, who will fight hard enough to make your vote count?

Some folks down here admired the fact that we could call an election now, and still have our results decided before the Americans chose their president. On the other hand, at least they have some decent candidates to choose from this time around.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Satellite Radio Showdown

After discovering that Microsoft Prime gives us a 20% discount on Sirius satellite radios, Amber said she would get me a satellite radio for my birthday if I wanted one.

So what is satellite radio? Basically, it's like satellite TV, but for music (and recently, for TV as well). You buy a special radio that lets you tune in to approximately 130 digital-quality radio stations, whenever you can get a signal from an orbiting satellite or set of ground-based repeaters. Cost is $12.95/mo, but all the music stations (about 60) are commercial-free.

There's other options for radio. Traditional radio is free, and has a local focus - but the quality is low. I'm not just talking about sound quality either, though it does suck too. There's at best one station that I can pick up in Seattle that's even worth listening to. From the near-constant barrage of commercials during the morning commute, to repeats of months-old talk shows, to the total lack of any control or choice, and the rampant FCC censorship of anything even remotely interesting; it's only barely an option at all! There's HD Radio; same radio, same stations, but in digital. Addresses the sound quality issue, but the fundamental suck of free radio remains. I could always just download podcasts, but that involves effort on my part to keep getting fresh material. Finally, there's Pandora-on-the-go. While you may remember that I'm a total Pandora fanboy now, I must admit that the appeal of radio does include being exposed to new material, and perhaps even a DJ sometimes making a few comments. You really do need to interact with Pandora to keep the experience fresh, I've found. Anyways, Pandora on the Go doesn't support my Tytn (or any Windows Mobile phones) yet, and even if it did, I can't use it in Canada because of the ridiculous roaming data rates.

So, convinced that I'd give it a try, I decided to compare the two heavyweights, Sirius and XM. Of course, the two just announced their merger, but plans for mixing and matching across the networks' content are still a ways off, so I'd be stuck with one or the other. I tried the three day trials of each service's Internet streams, and below are my findings.

Sirius offers most of their channels online; free at 32kbit if you subscribe, or 128kbit for an extra $3/mo. I found this embarassing, since XM had free CD quality with their subscription. 32kbit is just not reasonable if you're paying for a service. Plus, their solution was based on Windows Media Player. They obviously didn't get the memo that Flash won the Internets. XM had a really slick Flash-based solution at high quality, and free is the best price. Internet radio victory clearly goes to XM.

I spent my three days focusing on mostly the metal and hard rock stations. Overall, it's hard to say which I like better; it really varied over time. Both have "metal" stations: XM Liquid Metal and Hard Attack for XM and Sirius respectively. I was not impressed with either - both focused a little more on the American Death and Thrash than I'd care for. Hard Attack was pretty much a waste of time unless you're seriously pissed off at your parents; XM Liquid Metal you'd at least get a bit of In Flames and old-school Metallica mixed in with the cookie monsters. Next on the list is Squizz vs Octane. Both are more mainstream hard rock... they were pretty good, but a bit far from the metal bus I wanted to get on. I'd say that Octane just barely edged out Squizz, so victory for Sirius. For classic rock Sirius had Buzzsaw and Hair Nation, and XM had Boneyard. Boneyard was freakin awesome - basically the 80's hits of all the bands we love; Ozzy, AC/DC, KISS, and even some really hard stuff! Buzzsaw and Hair Nation were both pretty good, but had a slightly higher 'cheese' content in terms of music. Basically a toss-up; Boneyard is great, but Sirius gives me two stations to bounce around.

Overall, the DJ component was pretty light on all the stations, but I must admit I preferred the far more professional atmosphere from the Sirius DJs. While some of the banter on XM was pretty funny, it was also pretty dumb at times. Though I must admit, the lack of FCC regulation is great! It feels much more natural when you don't have censor every other word.

I tried listening to a few other stations; news, sports etc. But meh, I hit commercials right away, and didn't really make much progress. They both have BBC and CNN, so meh. XM has NHL, so they win on sports, peroid, no matter how much everyone asserts that Sirius wins sports.

As for reception... it's the one thing you can't judge from the Internet. The internets say that Sirius runs a trio of satellites in elliptical orbits, while XM runs a pair of geostationary satellites. I'd guess the former would work better (geostationary satellites have to orbit the equator), but apparently, XM has a pretty nice network of repeaters near Seattle. Both are designed for strong coverage through the continential US, and would be fine for the parts of Canada and Mexico I'd care about.

Finally, hardware. My Scion tC is satellite-ready, so I should be able to wire in directly, right? Well, not really. It's difficult to get the hookups for XM at all except through the dealer, who wants $Ridiculous to install it, and won't do any dockable setups. Sirius you can buy the parts to link into my radio off the Internets, and I can find an installer easy enough. Still, it's going to be $300 to do even before the radio itself. I finally gave up and decided I'd just use my aux jack, which means I can use any radio I want from either provider. Still, points to Sirius for at least having the option for an aftermarket hookup.

So, Mike, what's your conclusion? Sirius or XM?
I... um.... can't decide. I checked all the right things, and they beat each other down into a stalemate. But, more importantly, it shows how important this merger will be - what hardware will we need to access both networks? How much will it cost to get the best of both worlds? Will the price go up, or down? Or is this the final desperate cry of a technology that knows full well that 3G cell networks may obsolete them entirely?

I decided to wait. I'm going to ask for a bluetooth GPS instead, and then see if I can run my entire car off one device. In the meantime, I hear you can download music off the Internets...

Friday, July 04, 2008

In Advanta

Anyone who talks to me pretty much ever, knows that a) my team moved to a new Microsoft campus, b) that it's the exact opposite direction from the old campus vs my new house, and c) that I've been uniformly skeptical about the benefits of the move.
Well, I've finished my first week in Advanta-B. Having dealt with the commute, the new building services, and my new office, I'm sold on the place. The commute thus far has been under 20 minutes (but is farther; I need to investigate some more fuel-efficient options). The cafeteria, while not yet impressive (some stations aren't open yet), is at least usable. I love my office. The building also has a better area-to-distance ratio, meaning it's a shorter walk to most offices I need to visit. Spirits are high so far.

So, I retract my complaints, and admit that Advanta is not a horrible place to work.


While Pandora may be old news to most of you, I just tried it for the first time yesterday, admittedly because both of my favourite streams were down and my Youtube playlist was getting old. I was amazed by what I saw, and am now a convert.

Pandora is an extension of the Music Genome Project, a grand effort to basically classify everything in the world of music. This leads to a gargantuan collection of data that can be mined. Not only do they have the official discography and history of the band, but also the 'genome' of the band. For example, a particular band may have flags for "hard rock roots", "electric guitar solos", and "vocal harmonies".

Pandora basically builds a radio on top of this information. All you do is type in the name of a band or song that you like. It uses its knowledge to find other songs it thinks you'll like. Then, using a simple flash player, it plays a continuous stream of similar songs for you! I tried this a couple of times, naming a band I liked each time. The result was astounding - out of the next 20 songs, I'd say about half are among my current favourite songs, and the other half were songs I hadn't heard but loved.

You can apply feedback to the process too - a simple "thumbs up" or "thumbs down" balances the station closer or farther from attributes similar to the song you're listening to (to the point where entire bands can get 'banned' from your station). You can also add more seed bands to your station to vary certain attributes (but reinforce commonalities). For any song that plays, Pandora can tell you exactly why it chose the song for you.

How is this all legal? Well they pay the major studios, just like a radio station does. Anytime you click on the webpage (to thumbs up, pause, etc), they adjust the background of the page to an advertisment. Alternatively, you pay a small fee for a premium service with no ads. Also, of course, every band and song has a link to Amazon/iTunes, and you know that they're getting a cut of that.

However, since they want to be considered a radio station, they have to make some concessions. You can pause, but not rewind. You can't request specific songs. You can't save the song to your computer to play later.

Also, unfortunately, it's US-only for now, though several have found ways to circumvent this check.

Still, if you have access, give it a try. If you're on Facebook, my profile lists my stations if you're curious.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

All Canadians Need to Beware!

I normally wouldn't post on something like this, but it is literally a cause that could destroy Canadian technology overnight if it not stopped. I hope you will all take the time to browse some of the many links I've provided here, and read up on this issue.

Bill C-61 "An Act to amend the Copyright Act", introduced by Industry Minister Jim Prentice (largely considered a prime candidate for the next leadership of the Conservative party), had its first reading today.

While this may seem boring to most of you, if passed, this would totally destroy many of the privileges you enjoy in today's technological society.

While parts of the bill are reasonable, the primary point of concern is section 41. This is the widely-expected "Digital Millenium Copyright Act" style anti-circumvention regulations. Basically, what they say is that making, selling or even talking about any device that could possibly circumvent any copy protection is illegal.

Basically, this means that any encrypted content (most technology made in the past decade, for example) cannot be accessed except expressly how the creator has specified. C-61 spells out explicitly what were formerly just implied rights. But section 41 overrides every right you have, including those they explicitly give you in section 29.

The following things would now be illegal under section 41.
  • Any DVR used for cable or satellite TV. This includes things like Tivo, but more importantly, could even extend to your VCR, or anything that lets you watch a show later.
  • Copying music to a CD or iPod to play in your car.
  • Unlocking a cell phone for use on another carrier.
  • Giving your friends instructions on how to repair his broken car stereo.

In fact, even TALKING about the above things could be illegal. Unless you're in a strictly academic setting, a simple twelve-year-old hobbyist trying to figure out how to make a DVD player would be fined up to $20,000 if he told anyone what he did. In fact, I would have to get a very good lawyer if this law passed just to justify some of my hobby projects (under the 'interoperability' exemption) or my publications (under the academic exemption). I would have to take a hammer to my perfectly legal Xbox, which despite not being usable for any sort of piracy, is not protected by any exemption.

You think it's not that bad? The American version of the DMCA was described by its creator as being a dismal failure, and has been rife with frequent abuse since it came out. The anti-circumvention provisions in C-61 are actually described as worse than the US equivalents!

If you currently live in Canada, you need to talk to your MPs. Right now. Don't wait. Email. Letters. ANYTHING to make sure this bill dies (or, like the Liberals, the government dies before the bill).

Here's some neutral coverage from the major outlets. They are only loosely accurate, but show the sort of front-page attention the issue is getting.
[ CBC National Post Globe and Mail ]

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Want to Buy My House?

Well... half my house. I live in a semi-detached home, and my attached neighbour is selling her home!

Asking $369,900 for 3 bed 2.5 bath @1470 sq ft.

But, most importantly, you'd be my neighbour!

Monday, April 28, 2008

Nexus Cards

  • Lownewulf received [Nexus Card]!
    [Nexus Card]
    Requires Honored with Canada
    Requires Honored with United States

    Allows the bearer to travel in the nether regions between countries.
    Use: Reduces aggro radius of all border guards by 60% for five minutes.

So myself and Kyna finall got ourselves our Nexus passes. The basic gist of the program is as follows: by consenting to a background check and risk assessment, and ponying up a non-refundable $50 fee, you get to use the fast lanes between the US and Canada for five years. You know, when you drive through the border and there's that lane that's always empty beside you? You get to use that. Even better, with a stop to a participating airport you can get your irises scanned, which enables you to use the same Nexus pass to clear customs at US and Canadian airports, allowing you to sit waiting at the baggage claim in record time!

It was pretty easy; all you do is sign up online. If you pass their screening process, you get an acceptance letter, and are invited to an interview. This interview for us actually happened in a room with both a Candian CBSA officer and a US CBP officer*. One asks you why you want to enroll in Nexus, and if you are a dangerous criminal that probably shouldn't be given a carte blanche to wander the border. If you pass this grueling interview, you're handed off to the other officer, who asks you largely the same thing. The result: they snap your picture and print you a little plastic RFID card right there on the spot, and you're a member.

(* The US CBP officer was surprizingly friendly; probably because she got the slacker desk job, instead of dealing with jerks like me in cars at the border on a day-to-day basis. The Canadian CBSA officer seemed a little less happy with her situation, probably due to being trapped in a small room with a US CBP officer for eight hours a day. )

BUT, the officers warn, HEED OUR WARNINGS! For as the Border Patrol giveth, the Border Patrol can also taketh away.

Then starts the fifteen minute lecture of the many many things that the newly minted Trusted Travellers must refrain from doing, else they risk being forever barred from the cool persons club. And it really is quite the list. I couldn't possibly remember them all. Even worse, the rules are completely different for residents in each country and in each direction. For example, I can't bring beef dogfood into Canada... but that same dogfood is okay coming back into the US, as long as it's not lamb or goat. You have to declare every item you bring into Canada, in writing, but only if you're a Canadian resident. The US rules for personal exemptions doesn't require a written declaration, but it takes an entire booklet just to describe the basic cash exemption. Speaking of cash, if you have a lot of it, you have to use the regular lanes with the peasants.

The caveats go on and on. No using the lanes if you're travelling with the untrusted masses. No using the lanes past bedtime. And so on and so on. I can genuinely envision that even for the simplest of weekend trips that I could spend more time figuring out if I'm eligible to use Nexus than actually waiting at the border.

But, lets be honest. For what adds up to $10 a year and a few minutes of your time, you get to use the fast lane. Skip an hour border wait, even once, and there can never be any doubt that it was a worthwhile investment.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

US Taxes 2007

I have, for the first time, e-filed full-year United States resident taxes. Honestly, it was unpleasant, but I'm glad to say it's done.

US taxes are pretty much the same basic idea as Canadian taxes - follow the instructions, copy line 666, etc. -, except the Canadian forms are more colourful. Shockingly, for a single man like myself, the federal tax rate is similar to what I'd pay in Canada - for example, for a straight-up 100k, a tax bracket of 26% in Canada vs a bracket of 28% in the US (Washington lacks state income tax, unlike B.C., but that's another story). So much for Canada's excessive taxation!

The American taxes are arguably a bit more complicated - they have the same type of rules, just more of them.

In any rate, this year, I downloaded Intuit TurboTax Premier, using a nice 25% discount provided by Fidelity. A few people asked why I would download a product as opposed to doing it online, potentially even for free. Well, in summary:
  • I can do as many returns as I want this year. It's at very least two-for-one: Amber will get the freebie. Since it included a free state too, I can even add her California taxes (since Washington has no state income tax).
  • Reliable stop-restart-save. No worrying about my session timing out, or using the back button on accident, etc. Any time I'm worried, I can save the file, copy it to 100 backup locations, etc.
  • Control. I don't have to trust as many people with my data.
  • Import data next year for whatever application I choose to use (any application worth buying can import from TurboTax).

While the software definitely has some quirks and even outright bugs (sometimes I had to delete entire sections to get it to 'forget' old numbers I had made mistakes on), it feels like a solid application. It's designed in a linear "interview" format, while seamlessly allowing you to move back and forth if you need to change something. Also, at any time, you can look at the raw tax forms that result from the answers you give, and edit them to your satisfaction. If you have a truly unbelievable tax scenario, you can look up tax forms by number and edit them manually (they won't interview you, but you have the interactive form with all the calculations done for you).

It was looking pretty grim at first - capital gains, some disallowed capital losses (the dreaded wash sale), and not even enough mortgage interest to break past the standard deduction. Thankfully TurboTax revealed that the hefty premium ("points") I paid to Golf Savings Bank to secure my loan was fully deductible. Thus, I now have a small but pleasant refund coming back.

While my taxes will be largely the same next year as they are this year, I still think I'll buy next year's version. Unless I get audited this year; in which case there will be lots of ranting... and yelling.

[[While tax software may seem irrelevant in a world where accountants are cheap, I am dubious of any accountant I can personally afford. Our expensive KPMG accountants last year did a passable job , but I had to fill half of everything in ahead of time on their website anyways (which was far less informative than TurboTax was to me this year). And after all that, I still got slaughtered on my taxes based on a technicality (arriving on Jan 2 instead of Jan 1 means you don't get the standard deduction). And let me tell you, I know how much KPMG costs, and I can't afford anything like that. The last accountant I had before that, a BB&A Inc in Vancouver, simply farmed my taxes out to an intern who actually told the Canadian government that I worked sixteen months in the past year, while simultaneously going to school. Such a feat would be impressive if it were possible - needless to say, the Canadian government was not amused with the assertion.

So unless twelve of my closest friends can vouch that their accountant rescued their Mothers from a raging fire, I remain dubious of the cost-to-benefit ratio of the professionals in this field. Hence, software wins.]]

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Metroid Prime 3 is Done!

Finally, I have completed Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Unfortunately, the progress estimate on my savegame was misleading; despite my earlier estimate of 40 hours, my first clear was 18:24, with a respectable 88% collection rate. Certainly not what I'd call a speedrun, but not as long as I expected. Still, that beats Halo by a fair margin I think; while a good game, I'm still disappointed at the short complete time.

I have to stand by my earlier assessment. This is a great Metroid game! It keeps all the core elements that make Metroid great (yes, even two Ridley fights!), built into a FPS designed for the Wiimote and nunchuck. Add to that a huge environment, lots of power-ups and arguably one of the longst Metroid games to date.

One technical flaw I observed though, is that room transitions can lag pretty badly. If you're backtracking through a sequence of cleared rooms, it can take upwards of 15 seconds for a door to open. It gets very annoying after awhile.

Two things bother me about this game, and both are nerfs.

1. Metroids.
The game is named after these creatures - round hovering jellyfish-like creatures that fly at you and can drain your energy. They were truly fearsome in the original. Twice your size, and ticking off nearly 10 energy per second (which, when you only have 5 energy tanks, is pretty extreme) until if you're very lucky, you shake it off. Your only hope is to freeze it and hit it with five missiles, terminating the fearsome creature. Every encounter is a brush with doom.

So, needless to say, walking into a research lab with small metroids in glass statis chambers along the wall, I was naturally nervous. Doubly so when I flip off the power, the lights go dim, and you hear the crash of the Metroids escaping. To the backdrop of spooky music, I go creeping back through the facility, dreading my first encounter with what would surely be an express train to my last save point.

Instead, I find something like this.

The Metroids are wussy. Beyond wussy. They spend more time thinking, building power, and hovering than sucking your lifeforce, and in case your ineptness got the best of you, and you find this Metroid on you.... ... ... .... .... .... .... .... ... ... ... ... oops it drained one point of energy [note: not exaggeration - literally, one point of your 600-1600 pts every five seconds or so]. Boo hoo, maybe in an hour or two, you might have to bother to shake it off.

This has been a trend in the Prime series that has really annoyed me. They've butchered Metroids, and it makes me sad.

2. Missiles
In the original NES game, missiles were the easy way out. When your firepower just wasn't enough, you unleashed these explosive goodies, and beat through anything that moved. In Super Metroid, they had "Super Missiles", thus making your original missiles less desirable, but still worthwhile in that they could be fired very quickly.

This latest game goes to great extent to put around 50 missile expansions for you to find. A shame that missiles don't do jack. Their damage doesn't even really compare to a regular beam shot, and unlike other Metroid games, fire slowly, and travel even slower. You don't even really use them except where the game says you have to.

But, I still like it.

Yea, it's a good game. I'll probably play again. My clear unlocked "Hypermode" (the difficulty above hard) - and given the rather yawnfest difficulty of normal, I think this might add a much-needed level of difficulty to the game.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

New games... any good?

It has been a Christmas of oh-so-delicious gaming. Most noteworthy being Kyna's receipt of a Nintendo Wii for Christmas (that's right.... Lownewulf has the connections ;)). However I didn't get off too badly either, with Asian Jon getting me Metroid Prime 3 for the Wii, the sis getting me Assassin's Creed for the 360, and Big Jon getting me Crysis for the PC. And of course, add that to my own shopping - before Christmas, Mass Effect for the 360, and just recently, Twilight Princess on the Wii.

You know... I think I might be getting old and cynical. But I just have to pick apart every game I see now. Even games I have to grudgingly admit are good. Honestly, some of the games these days are simply amazing; despite what many people say, there is still a few people trying to innovate in the industry. But, in the end, most of them lack what I would consider relatively simple polish that mars an other great title. In the search for the next epic, I really am starting to feel that game studios are cutting corners, and it makes me sad.

But I can probably best explain by example, namely all of the above games.

Mass Effect
You know... this is meant to be a good game. A fun game. A combination of shooter and RPG, something done far too rarely and almost never well.
But you know what... if you want me to enjoy a game, it had better work!
This game froze on me. Hourly, if not more. While we suspect our media was bad, I hear that even a working copy tends to freeze every now and then. It's really not acceptable for a console game to do that with any level of frequency.

However, I had the option to replace my copy once the store I bought it from restocked. I said no. I returned the game, and may never buy it again.

I'm told that Mass Effect gets better once you get past the beginning (I wouldn't know, lock-ups suck). But in the beggining, what I saw was a bad combination of RPG and shooter. You try to set the pace of a shooter, but stop what you're doing to loot. And of course, in live action, trigger your many psychic skills for your entire party. Of course, there's plenty of friendlies, and they bring back one of the most painful parts of the RPG world: dialog trees. That's right. Now you, to understand what's going on, have to play the exhaustive dialog traversal game. Reminds me of AI class all over again. And what's better than talents? That's right, for all the characters in your party, if they get a level, you get to set their talent points - now you too can spend hours online speccing not your Warcraft toon, but your random nothing characters in a single player console game.

Yes, I know you can set the game to easy and choose to automate a lot of this, but I think it hurts a game more to design their gameplay around features that many players won't even want to have on.

Combine this with a nearly non-existant gameplay intro, and a manual missing most of the critical game elements, and you have a winner. Mass Effect could be fun for some people... but not for me.

Assassin's Creed
Actually, this game is pretty good. So good, that I spent a few full nights and burned through the game. It's got decent gameplay length... longer than Halo 3 by far (though sadly for Halo 3, that doesn't say much). It has a novel control system, and a fairly unique gameplay style. And totally atmospheric. You really feel like you're gliding anonymously through a crowd in a crowded medieval Middle Eastern capital, stalking your next target.

But it's got one major flaw: it's as repetitive as hell. Except for the 9 or so scripted assassinations, there's really only six things to do in the game (you have to do at least three investigations per assassination, so the rest is technically optional, but it'd certainly cut down your first clear time), and you do them over and over and over again. Lets go climb some viewpoints. Oh, and save some citizens. Pickpocket this guy. Eavesdrop this guy. Interrogate this guy. Stealth-kill these targets. Collect flags. Sorry, I lied, that's seven. But they are practically identical each time you do them, there's nothing even remotely different between your first pickpocket and your last interrogation.

Even the audio is repetitive. I probably saved a good 50 citizens (see what I mean about repetitive?), and they have like THREE different things they can say when you rescue them. Same with the Town Criers... I've heard exactly the same speech for the past four missions, yelled repeatedly over blocks of terrain. The guy at the other end of the city seems to be saying the same thing, in the same voice. Fer crying out loud, is 15 minutes of extra studio time really THAT expensive to record a few more audio clips?

And finally, the Animus. You aren't *really* an assassin, you're in some futuristic VR simulation replaying your genetic memory at the whim of high-tech kidnappers (no... really! I couldn't make something like that up!). At night, you can sneak out and read your captors' email and stuff, but that's about all. This is what is known as filler. It would make a good layout for a book, but adds nothing but dead time to the gameplay. Especially when the ending in the 'real world' is so lame and weak. Seriously, why not just cut out the whole future thing? You're an assassin, regaining the respect of your guild while fighting the Templars and discovering philosophical truths about the human condition. That's a great story all by itself! They could have used the extra disc space to add some variety in the gameplay

Of course, given the repetitiveness of the non-required content, this game has zero replay value. It was totally fun while it lasted. But just rent it, and stay up all weekend kicking its ass, because if you buy it, it'll just sit on your shelf after the first clear.

Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
The one thing the Wii has shown me is this:
If you talk about how great the Wiimote is, you can ship the exact same stuff all over again, with no upgrades, and people will love it.
The main reason for this is, even without the Wiimote, is that Nintendo makes some awesome games. So really, why mess with them?

Metroid Prime 3 plays just like the rest of the Prime series. Fight Space Pirates through a 3D shooter, collecting powerups your suit miraculously lost after the last game, and completing various puzzles along the way. It's certainly a different sort of game from the side-scroller, but ye know, it's still fun in its own way.

Corruption adds something that I think is novel - allies. Not really; most of the time, you're still running solo, but occasionally you can talk to people that don't want to shoot you. I was worried this would bother me. Samus always worked alone. But when you actually play, it does feel right. It's just the right amount of immersion into the universe in which Samus plays a part, and I feel it was a worthwhile addition.

Looking at my progress, I tag it at a 40 hour game. Great for a both a shooter and a Metroid game.

Honestly, I haven't played much yet. But it genuinely looks neat. A lot of attention to detail. A decent storyline built into a futuristic shooter with a far more realistic combat model than your average Unreal Tournament match. While I didn't particularly like the shooting model (it's very hard to hit with your guns), I honestly think it'd be something I'd grow into.

But Crysis isn't about the gameplay, it's about your tech epeen. It's about having the sort of hardcore system that will actually make a game like this look good. Sadly, no matter how much I love my awesome computer, it just can't hope to do this game justice. I feel somewhat less of a man. Maybe Amber's sweet new PC will handle it better (that blog post is probably next).

Since I haven't made it far yet, I can only discuss one complaint: SecurROM.
Basically, SecurROM is a complex third-party anti-piracy measure that looks for all manner of debugging tools and virtualization technology (that practically any programmer has in use for their day to day work) and disables the game if it finds them. And it casts a wide net as to what it doesn't like, but offers not the slightest hint as to what's wrong or why.

These game developers need to get hit with the same cluebat that the music studios did - those that want to pirate will crack your protection anyways (easily in fact. every time. without exception.) and distribute their magic on the Internet. So the only one you really hurt are the poor souls who are in fact legitimately trying to use your technology. The music studios are getting the hint and starting to sell MP3s instead of protected crap. Games... soon I hope.

Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
Let me say it again.
If you talk about how great the Wiimote is, you can ship the exact same stuff all over again, with no upgrades, and people will love it.

Twilight Princess plays just like any modern Zelda game. It's basically what Ocarina of Time would be if it was made today. Except with the Wiimote. Thankfully all the cel-shaded suck of baby tribal Link from Windwaker was left out - unlike that 'game', this one actually has more than six hours of gameplay (a *lot* more), doesn't look stupid, isn't 90% ocean and has more than just three dungeons.

There are some quirks... the fishing comes to mind (they never explain that you need to use the nunchuck as a reel). And there is still the fundamental brain-grinding pain that comes with a puzzle-heavy Zelda games as you try to figure the odd quirk you need to get you to the next step. But really, I can't criticize the game beyond that.

We were just renting it... and Kyna got the Master Sword and knew where the boss was. I was like "GG, game over". But apparently we were like less than halfway through the game. And still having fun. We decided it would be cheaper to buy at that point. While I doubt it's ultimate replay value, we probably still have a couple of hundred hours between us (a couple of clears/collections each), which is more than I can ask of most games.