April 2007 Archives

At 3,865 words, my Financial Statements Analysis final is now officially done! Woo! The subject company wasn't quite as interesting as I'd hoped (I was crossing my fingers for Nintendo, but I suppose it being a japanese company would have made that hard) but it was fairly entertaining nonetheless. I actually quite enjoyed the class and feel I've gained a mildly useful skill out of it. Or at least a very boring party trick.

Interesting side note: If you search for "Officially" on Google, the first page you get is entitled "What Tolkien Officially Said About Elf Sex." Oh, internet, it's comforting to know that you're just as chock full of sex and dorkery as ever. You'll never let me down!

Fun with Word

I'm currently using Microsoft Word 2007 to write a take-home exam. So far the spell-check and grammar check haven't given my much trouble, but if stumbled upon something odd. The problem involves the generally useless Sentence Fragment checker.

According to Word 2007, this is a sentence fragment:

"The credit card companies and banks that Company X deals with have a significant amount of power over the market, as they are free to set interchange and other fees at whatever levels they like."

This, however, is not a sentence fragment (change in bold):

"The credit card companies and card issuers that Company X deals with have a significant amount of power over the market, as they are free to set interchange and other fees at whatever levels they like."

Weird. For reference, I've since re-edited the sentence to be less awkward and gangly. Also, the company's not actually called Company X; since it's a take-home final I don't want to disclose the company's name for fear of tipping off those who haven't picked up the exam yet.

My Blood Boils, in Theory

Via Joystiq, we sort of learn that it may be possible that Sony slaughtered a goat as part of a promotional event for their new greek mythology-based platformer, God of War II. To be more specific, at a press event held at the Parthenon in Greece they slaughtered a goat by cutting its throat, leaving the head to dangle by a thread, then sliced open its stomach and had actors and guests feat on the offal within. The party also allegedly featured topless women serving guests by feeding them peeled grapes.

First let me say: Disgusting! Barbaric! I had been considering buying God of War II, but if this is story is true I can promise you I will never play it. Moreover, I have heretofore maintained general neutrality in the Sony vs. Microsoft portion of the console war (I love Nintendo, but have been open to the concept of buying a second console once prices come down a bit). If this story is accurate, it pushes me towards buying an XBox 360 rather than a Playstation 3, when the time is right.

But I'm not really sure the story is accurate. On the one hand, the story seems over-the-top. Topless women I can believe; that's par for the course in video game marketing. But slaughtering a goat? Eating the offal from its stomach? Really? On the other hand, the article at least paints a plausible picture for how it could happen: Sony turned regional marketing for the game over to an independent Greek company, which took things out of hand. Said Greek company may have incorrect ideas about what sort of images it is appropriate to associate with a multinational electronics conglomerate. The story then got reported by another outsourced Sony project, Official UK Playstation Magazine, which is ostensibly the source for the Daily Mail's article.

But here's the thing: If this really happened, it was the world's quietest press event. This event supposedly happened a month ago, yet we're only hearing about it now? What's more, and this is what I consider the most suspicious, there are absolutely no accounts on the internet about this event other than the Daily Mail article and articles that link to the Daily Mail as a source. The Mail article, in turn, appears to be based entirely on a phantom issue of Official UK Playstation Magazine which, according to the article, was recalled before it hit news stands. Now, allegedly, issues of the magazine have already been mailed to subscribers, so maybe confirmation will start to arrive in people's mailboxes over the next few days.

Still, suspicious! If this were a press event, you'd expect for a few press accounts to exist, or even a press release. Instead, the first the world learned of it was in a second-hand account of a photo spread from the news pages of a magazine that hasn't been distributed to the public yet.

It is possible, though, that all of the existing press accounts are in Greek, which would explain their not showing up on google searches. Perhaps news of the event managed to stay in Greece until Official UK Playstation Magazine reported on it for the first time in the English language. I suppose it's possible. I'm less sure that it's likely.

At the same time, the Daily Mail seems to really be sticking its neck out if this is a fake story. The Daily Mail may be a tabloid, and thus prone to sensationalism, but there are a lot of very specific claims made about Sony's behavior that would expose them to Britain's harsh libel laws. Moreover, the photo included at least looks like a Playstation Magazine-style layout. I'm particularly swayed by the inclusion of the Playstation logo in the corner; if the Daily Mail has created a mock-up of an OPM photo spread, including the actual Playstation logo is an open invitation to Sony to sue them for however much its heart desires.

The fact that we haven't heard anything official from Sony yet other than what's in the Mail article makes me very skeptical. I would say this story is slightly more likely to be false than true. Nonetheless, I am conditionally outraged.

UPDATE: Goat sacrifice confirmed. According to Sony, the party did happen, and there was a dead goat involved. However, the goat was slaughtered beforehand, not as part of the festivities, nobody actually feasted on the goat's offal, or entrails, or anything actually from the goat. Rather, they were served a meat soup that they referred to as offal, sorta like that game at Halloween parties where they pass the peeled grapes around and pretend they're eyeballs. The goat was apparently returned to the butcher from whence it came after the party.

So: Dead goat, yes. Slaughtered on-site, no. Offal, no. Topless serving women, yes. I still fundamentally object to the use of a slaughtered goat as a centerpiece for a PR event, but other than the apparent blood and gore involved I suppose it's not fundamentally different than a suckling pig. I also object to the topless women. I still plan on not buying God of War II as a result of this, but I may hold off on universal Sony condemnation. Your mileage may vary, though.

Basic Instructions

Via Lore Sjöberg, I recently discovered Basic Instructions. Basic Instruction's high concept is that each strip presents a simple how-to lesson, such as how to give directions or how to plan a vacation. The visual style is very simple; it's all black-and-white and appears to consist of a handful of original pieces of art that the author copies, pastes, and photoshops to suit the framing needs of each panel. The comic makes up for its lack of visual style with deft wit, and Scott Meyer manages a nice mixture of observational and absurdist humor.

I'm not Eric Burns, so I can't write a 10,000 word essay on the literary and rhetorical significance of the main character's goatee, so instead I'll just link to a few favorite strips:

How to train your back-up
How to apply the laws of physics to personal relationships
How to apologize without accepting any blame

Nintendo has announced that it has purchased an overwhelming interest in Monolith Soft, an RPG developer founded (as all small Japanese RPG developers seem to have been) by former Square programmers. Previously owned by Namco-Bandai, Monolith will presumably now be making all of its future games for Nintendo platforms.

Monolith was founded about 6 years ago by a group of disgruntled Square employees who had previously worked on Chrono Trigger and Xenogears. As you know, Bob, Xenogears was a fantastically pretentious role playing game stuffed to the gills with self-important and bafflingly incongruous religious symbolism. The clearest way to get a sense of the plot is to imagine somebody playing MadLibs with a bog-standard Japanese RPG plot, and inserting randomly selected names from the Bible for all the proper nouns. Bam! Xenogears. Sadly, thousands of players mistook Square's random walk through the New Testament for some sort of incredibly deep and complicated commentary on Western religion, and the generated a swarm of rabid fans.

Square, however, was uninterested in making further Xenogears games, which led a big swath of the Xeno team to leave and form Monolith. Using some obscure loophole in Japanese copyright law, Monolith set about creating Xenosaga. Initially, Xenosaga was to be a five-game prequel to Xenogears. The games didn't sell well enough to justify the full series, though, so they quietly wrapped it up at three games.

Where Xenogears was a decent game soaking in an interminable plot, Xenosaga was the longest, most boring science fiction movie you've ever seen periodically interrupted by uninspired gameplay. To give you a sense: The game begins with a 20 minute movie. You then play a tutorial for about 15 minutes. This is followed by a half hour movie. Now you get an hour of exploring the ship and fighting enemies. Just when it seems like the game is about to start happening, you learn that you've essentially been playing the prelude and are treated to a two hour movie, which concludes with a half hour of playing an entirely new character in a new setting. Twenty minutes into the movie that follows this segment I realized that I would never, ever actually get to play the game. I turned it off and never returned.

Monolith also created Baten Kaitos, a card-based RPG for the Nintendo Gamecube that some seem to like, but that I never really got into. Apparently Monolith developed a close enough relationship with Nintendo while working on Baten Kaitos that Nintendo has decided to bring them into the fold.

Despite the fact that I haven't actually liked anything that Team Monolith has ever made, I confess to being a little excited about this news. Nintendo is exceptionally strong at making platformers and adventure games, but their RPG team is a little light. Heretofore that niche has essentialy been filled by their Fire Emblem team and Intelligent Systems (the Paper Mario people). Monolith will help make their first party line-up a little more well-rounded. They might not be the development team I'd have chosen if I had access to Nintendo's money hats, but they at least have the right idea. Now if Nintendo could buy a decent first person shooter developer that isn't integrally tied into the Metroid Prime franchise, they'd be pretty well set.

Freebooter: Arena

Hopefully this will be the first of a series of posts where I point readers to entirely legal, free computer games to download. If that doesn't pan out, though, then please enjoy the one game that I'm pointing you to right now!

You have, perhaps, heard the great commotion all the country through for Oblivion, the massive, open-ended RPG from Bethesda Softworks available for the PC, XBox 360, and PS3. Playing the game, though, requires a minimum investment of $300 in a low-end 360 (and a maximum investment of multiple thousands of dollars for a gaming PC). Not to worry! Oblivion is the fourth game in the Elder Scrolls series, and Bethesda has kindly made the first game, Arena, free on their website. All the open-ended wandering of the Oblivion, with graphics scaled down to a level anyone can enjoy!

The trick with Elder Scrolls games is that the plot is not the point. There is a plot, yes, and you should probably get around to completing it eventually. But the games are filled with dozens of side-quests for every plot quest, and the game never tells you "You must go here now and do this to proceed!" Most games, even open-ended ones that emphasize exploration, will start you in a small area and gradually unlock more of the world as you complete the plot. Not Elder Scrolls games. The world is wide-open from boot-up. Moreover, there's generally a lot of freedom in terms of character advancement; rather than being locked into rigid classes, you're free to build your character in whichever direction suits your playing style.

I'd recommend anyone interested in computer RPGs give Arena a download. If nothing else, it'll give you an idea whether you're the sort of person for whom the significant investment necessary to run Oblivion would be worth it.

This has irked me for a while, and since I just walked four miles through the rain now seems as good a time to complain about it as any.

I buy my groceries from Fresh Direct. They're an online grocery store in New York City. They're incredibly convenient. They've got an easy to navigate web site that lets you easily find what you're looking for, comparison shop between products, and add and remove stuff from your cart. The selection is better than any store in the area, and the prices are somewhat lower than you get at most neighborhood grocery stores. Fruit and vegetable quality used to be a little dicey, but they've improved significantly in the couple of years I've been shopping with them and now I get produce from them that's as good as when I hand pick it. They're also incredibly convenient for my schedule. I can shop whenever I like with them and usually get delivery the next day, plus I can schedule the deliver for any time between 5 in the morning and 11 at night. I still buy emergency goods from the local stores, but I no longer have to schlep a week's worth of groceries when I do the bulk of my shopping.

So, on whole, they're fantastic. But there's one thing that's irked me for the last two years. Go do their web page. Take a look around at their top menu bar. Roll your mouse over the different options and enjoy the animated icons. Do you notice something odd? Something problematic? Something that would lead to this post being placed in the "Gender Stuff" category?

The "Your Account" menu is represented by the universal pictogram for Woman. This bugs me on a number of levels. First, on the personal level, it bugs me in that I am not a woman, yet the interface seems to tell me that I ought to be. It excludes me. Second, it doesn't seem to be accurate when I move further outward to my group of friends. Almost everyone I know who buys groceries gets them from Fresh Direct, regardless of gender. I know a lot of guys who shop for groceries, I know a lot of guys who cook. I've had conversations with guys about where the best places to get groceries are. Making the Your Account icon a woman seems a bit thoughtless on Fresh Direct's part.

And, of course, it bugs me because it perpetuates the cultural assumption that cooking and grocery shopping is woman's work. Equitable division of housework is one of the largest obstacles in the way of economic equality between the sexes, and Fresh Direct sayin that someone shopping for groceries should be assumed to be a woman only reinforces unequal gender roles.

Again, it's just a small thing. I still shop there because it's a great grocery store. And arguably, by making grocery shopping less of a time sink, Fresh Direct lightens the house work load and makes equitable division less problematic. Still, the icon is silly and unneccessary and I wish that they would change it.

Administrative Procedural Acts

Via Making Light, we learn that the FDA is considering allowing companies to call things that are not chocolate chocolate.

Specifically: At the request of the Chocolate Manufacturer's Association, the Grocery Manufacturer's Association, and the Snack Food Association the FDA is considering whether products that contain cocoa but no cocoa butter can be labelled Chocolate. As it stands, such products are referred to as "Chocolate Flavored."

If the FDA were to approve this, chocolate makers could use vegetable oil substitutes in place of cocoa butter and still call their product chocolate. This likely won't have any impact on upscale chocolate makers; your Guitards and your Ghirardellis will likely to continue to sell real chocolate made with cocoa butter. The people this will really impact will be the folks who buy mass-market chocolates from the likes of Hershey and Nestle. Given a chance, do you think either of them would hesitate in an instant to switch from cocoa butter to a cheaper, inferior substitute?

Tomorrow is the deadline for public comment on this issue. You can go here to submit your comments directly to the FDA.

Fun Tax Ruling of the Day

If your home is destroyed as a result of the wood being eaten away by beetles, it is tax deductible.

If your home is destroyed as a result of the wood being eaten away by termites, it is not tax deductible.

This is the result of an elaborate study conducted by the IRS on termite eating habits and destruction patterns for homes infested with termites. They have, in fact, created a regional map to indicate in which regions termite loss is tax deductible and in which it is not.

I complain often and loudly that New York has no decent Mexican food. That doesn't prevent me from eating New York Mexican food, though, because my need for salsas and fried beans must be met somehow. Thus: Burritoville, a New York City Mexican chain.

Burritoville is an omnivorous restaurant, but only barely. In a refreshing inversion of the norm, vegetarian fare seems to be the standard there, with vegans amply accomodated and meat on the menu as an afterthought. About three-quarters of the menu is vegetarian (complete with a crossed-carrot symbol to indicate the absence of meat), plus the counter is littered with posters advertising daily specials, none of which contain meat.

Moreover, they put a lot of thought into their vegetarian menu items. A lot of times the vegetarian options at an omnivorous restaurant are meat items with the meat left out (my favorite example of this being the Veggie Whopper at Burger King, which is a regular Whopper with no meat, and nothing to replace it. So, a lettuce and ketchup sandwich). Burritoville's vegetarian selections use a variety of meat substitutes that ensure the end product is both flavorful and substantial. You'll find options that use marinated tofu, chorizo-flavored TVP, seasoned tempeh and seitan.

Burritoville also cares about vegans. Dairy-free menu items are highlighted, and every item that includes dairy on the menu can be made dairy free; they'll substitute soy cheese and soy sour cream for their dairy analogues.

Since this is New York, and since vegans are used to paying high prices for restaurant food that accomodates them, you'll pay through the nose for Burritoville's fare. A burrito and a soda comes out to about $10.

I can't speak for Burritoville's other locations, but the 72nd street location is a little small for the customer traffic they get. The interior design is also a bit much for the size; I found myself bumping my head on some of the wall decorations as I maneuvered my food to the table. Service was notably slow, with a single burrito when I was the only customer waiting taking about ten minutes to make.

I was disappointed in their chips and salsa. They've got an awkward set-up by the counter with a basket of chips, some jars of salsa, some paper plates, and some cups. The cups, they insist, are not for salsa. This leaves the customer to pile chips on a plate then put salsa in pools next to them. The trouble with this, as I discovered, is that the plates they use are not quite hearty enough to withstand their highly liquid salsa. Some of the salsa had leaked through the plate and pooled on the table before I finished with my chips. The actual chips were decent enough, they had a good corn flavor and were crunchy without being hard. The salsa was adequate; a mild tomato salsa and a spicy tomatillo, both of which did the job but neither of which were particularly noteworthy.

The burrito, on the other hand, was excellent in the way that only greasy mexican food can be. You don't realize how much cheese and sour cream enhance a burrito until you have a burrito smothered in them after a long period of abstinence. Sure, it was soy sour cream and soy cheese, but a burrito isn't exactly the place for subtle distinctions in flavor and texture. My burrito was awesome, and its veganity made it all the more so.

Burritoville is now my favorite mexican place in New York City. The atmosphere sucks, the service is bad, and the prices are high, but they offer a variety of vegan burritos that I can't even get in Southern California and a quality that makes it well worth the trip. Highly recommended.

The Victoria's Secret frontpage these days is hawking the Very Sexy® Infinity Edge™ Extreme Plunge Push-Up Bra. Every time I see this, I think that Infinity Edge™ sounds like the name of a sword from a Final Fantasy game. Probably one of those swords that your ninja character can through for large amounts of damage. I rather doubt that the Victoria's Secret Infinity Edge™ can be thrown for similar damage, though I suppose it depends on the circumstances.

Commenting Update

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Partial Birth Abortion Ban

It suddenly occurs to me that, since the recently-upheld partial birth abortion ban is a federal law, and therefore enforced by the Justice Department, I may have to work on a partial birth abortion prosection during my work at Justice this summer.

I wonder which unit that'll be in? I would guess General Crimes, though I suppose Violent Crimes might also be a possibility.

Fun fact: In the New York State Penal Code, there's one section for "Laws Governing Violent Crimes." The next section is "Laws Governing Abortion and Murder." And, indeed, that section just covers abortion and murder; it gives definitions of terms, then it discusses various degrees of manslaughter, then various degrees of murder, then abortion. The abortion statutes are weird, though, in that they all conclude with a throwaway "...Is illegal and shall be considered a Class A Felony, Unless subsection 2 of the abortion definition section applies." Subsection 2 of the abortion definition section says "If the woman consents, it's not illegal." So, by a weird sort of patchwork, the laws seem to only ban involuntary abortions. It's not altogether unusual to run into a weirdly-constructed penal code, since codes are crafted ad-hoc by legislatures over the years, but it's always interesting to run into one that requires you to read multiple statutes to figure out what the crime is.

Command and Color

I've been playing Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars lately. It's fairly entertaining thus far, though it definitely trades heavily on nostalgia. The game plays essentially like every Command & Conquer game you've ever played, complete with FMV cut scenes briefing you for each mission. It certainly looks very nice and it's a fun Real-Time Strategy game, but it is definitely EA's way of saying "Command & Conquer is a series rooted in the mid-90s, and in the mid-90s it shall remain!" I'd say the biggest complaint I have is about the game's subtitle; the first Command & Conquer game was Tiberian Dawn, the second Tiberian Sun. This one, to maintain consistency, ought to have another heliocentric title (Tiberian Sunset? Tiberian Twilight?). And if we're going to be technical, all three Command & Conquer games have been Tiberium Wars, a nomenclature adopted internally within the game itself, so Tiberium Wars is a somewhat silly subtitle all around.

What I find most interesting about C&C3, and the Command & Conquer series in general, is that it has an enormous, overblown sci-fi plot that is essentially the after-effect of a gameplay kludge. To understand this, you have to go back through the history of Westwood, the company that created the series.

In the mid-90s Westwood was a small programming company that had enjoyed modest success doing contract work for larger publishers and developing its own original games, such as Eye of the Beholder. It had recently been acquired by Virgin Interactive, which gave it access to franchises that had previously been beyond its financial reach. For whatever reason, they settled upon Dune, Frank Herbert's science fiction epic, as the ideal subject for a video game. The game they created was an interesting mix of adventure and strategy; you played Paul Atreides and had to travel around Arrakis, maintaining the Atreides estate by dealing with problems that arose while managing harvesting and preparations for war. A fun game, fairly faithful to the book, but one that didn't leave an especially lasting mark on the world of video games.

Westwood decided to make a sequel, but this time they went off the rails and made a game that was, shall we say, unconstrained by the limitations of canon. Dune II: The Building of a Dynasty sees the Padishah Emperor Frederick IV fallen on hard times. Deeply in debt, he decides the only way to satisfy his creditors is to sell off House Corrino's most valuable asset: the planet Arrakis, known as Dune. The Emperor sets forth a challenge to the three great Landsraad houses: Whoever produces the most spice will be given ownership of Dune. There are no set territories and no rules of engagement.

So Dune's interesting plot elements are used as the basis for a flat-out war game. The game plays simply enough. There are a series of missions. With very few exceptions, the goal in each mission is to utterly destroy your opponent. As a rule, you will start each mission with a construction yard and an allowance of credits. Using that you can build a spice refinery. Every spice refinery comes with a harvester, which you can use to collect spice which gets transformed into credits at the refinery. Credits, in turn, are used to construct new buildings, like vehicle factories and barracks, and units, like troopers and tanks, which you can use to defend your base and crush your opponent. The system fits very well with the essential elements of the Dune universe, and if if fails at capturing the grand discussions of strategy, desert power, and so on and so forth, this can be excused as being due to the limitations of the technology.

The game was revolutionary, creating the Real-Time Strategy genre as we now conceive it. It has been argued that other, earlier games like Ancient Art of War, Stronkers, and Herzog Zwei are essentially Real-Time Strategy games, but Dune II is the game that established the genre conventions that are still in use today. If you play Dune II now, you will say to yourself, "Hey, this is a Real-Time Strategy game!" If you play Stronkers now, you will say to yourself, "Hey, this is sort of like a Real-Time Strategy game!"

Westwood wanted to capitalize on Dune II, and since they already had a lot of the legacy programming to build off of they could create new Dune-like games at relatively low cost. Rather than make another Dune game, they decided to create a new series unfettered by licenses, their own unique intellectual property. They created Command & Conquer.

Command & Conquer is another war game in the mold of Dune. It's set on Earth in the mid-90s, when the game was released. The plot concerns a covert war between an international peacekeeping organization called the Global Defense Initiative, or GDI, and an international terrorist organization called the Brotherhood of Nod. The game itself is Dune II. Granted, there are a lot of upgrades to the interface that make the game much more playable than Dune II, plus the graphics are better and the game featured (awkward) full motion video briefings before each mission, but the game is Dune II.

This raised an interesting game design problem. Dune's resource system made sense. Spice was the most valuable resource in the Dune universe, and the only resource anyone was interested in on Arrakis. It made sense that spice would be a universal currency used to finance a war. Similarly, it made sense that spice would just be lying around on battlefields waiting to be quickly harvested on the spot using dedicated harvesting machines. It was right there in the books. But Command & Conquer takes place in the real world, right now. Real military operations are funded with tax dollars, or dollars from smuggling contraband, or whatever, and none of that can be implemented in a game without making it too boring (manna-from-heaven in the form of periodic disbursements from a central organization) or too intricate (smuggling drugs or whatever).

What was needed was a universal resource that could just be found lying around on battlefields. You can come up with some real-world ones, but a lot of those are geographically-specific. Make it oil, for instance, and you're limited to battles in the Middle East, the Black Sea, and Alaska. So Westwood created a new resource: Tiberium. Tiberium is a mysterious green crystal, possibly from space, that is highly toxic, spreads rapidly once it enters an area, and is incredibly rich in minerals and, I don't know, energy or something. The GDI and Brotherhood of Nod both want it, they fight over it, and they gather it using big treaded vehicles called harvesters that take them back for processing at tiberium refineries. They barely even needed to change the graphics from Dune II!

Which brings me to C&C3. I didn't really play the second C&C game, but apparently the developers took the tiberium ball and ran with it. The game takes place in 2047. Now Tiberium has infested 80% of the Earth's land surface, rendering 30% of it entirely uninhabitable. War still rages between the Brotherhood of Nod, which operates primarily in the 50% of the Earth that's infested-but-habitable, and the GDI, which controls the 20% that's untouched by tiberium. Nod, which started as a generic anarcho-terrorist organization, has become an apocalyptic cult that worships tiberium and seeks to wipe out all life on Earth through the spread of tiberium. Also, apparently aliens are going to come eventually to harvest the Earth's tiberium and kill everyone.

I find it amusing that the stop-gap that Westwood used to allow them to keep Dune's mechanics in a contemporary war game has led them to turn C&C into a whole science fiction universe built around their kludge. It's like if somebody catches you in a small lie, and then you build an elaborate, implausible story to explain that, no no, this lie really is the truth, honest! We really were planning to build a whole universe around the conveniently spice-like resource we created, really!

Trendy Journalism


I am sick and cranky, so this is a sick and cranky post.

Via Joystiq, we learn from Reuters that The Guitar is Killing Your Relationship. Not just any guitar, though: the guitar controller you use to play guitar hero. The piece cites minimal evidence, all anecdotal, and leaves the reader less informed for having read the it. Welcome to the exciting world of trend journalism.

Trend journalism happens when a journalist doesn't have an actual story but faces a deadline. The reporter rounds up some friends, gets a couple of anecdotes on the article's subject, then hashes out a few hundred word relating the anecdotes and trying to fit them into some broader trend. Does the trend actually exist? Who knows? Who cares? So long as you make your word count and don't buck conventional wisdom enough to draw attention to yourself you'll clear the bar of your minimum obligations and noone's the wiser.

This article's premise is that the proliferation of new and unusual video game controlers is putting a strain on relationships. For evidence we've got two anecdotes, some speculation by an expert, some background analysis by an expert, some speculation by a non-expert, a barely-related statistic, and a tangential anecdote. This article doesn't even meet the Trend Journalism Rule of Three ("If you can cite three anecdote, you've proven a nation-wide trend").

Let's look at the anecdotes first.

Consider Chris Blessitt. He had so much fun with his buddies playing "Guitar Hero II" he decided to buy his own copy of the popular music game -- and the nearly life-sized plastic guitar that goes with it -- much to his girlfriend Kate's dismay.

As the 27-year-old stage actor went looking through the shelves at a Best Buy Co. Inc. store in New York this week, he recalled his girlfriend of nine-months' reaction when he approached her with the idea.

"She rolled her eyes," he said.

I'm not entirely sure this is on point; did the girlfriend roll her eyes at the specific addition of the controller to the boyfriend's collection, or did she roll her eyes for reasons unrelated to the trend? She may have rolled her eyes because she doesn't like that specific game and he plays too much of it, or because of a general aversion to video games. In either of those cases, there's nothing about the specific controller that differentiates it as more relationship-straining than any other video game. But let's grant the benefit of the doubt. Next:

Then there is the issue of safety.

Maybe that's why self-confessed game junky Brenda Brathwaite, whose 10 or more video game consoles and over 20 controllers once ruined the living room decor, drew the line when her "Guitar Hero" guitar fell on her head.

Brathwaite, a professor and game designer at Savannah College of Art and Design and author of "Sex in Video Games," took it to heart after her husband -- a stay at home father of two who is definitely not a game player -- suggested her games and gear might be happier away from the family living space.

"I'm allowed to have my sprawl in my office," she said. "The living room is for the family.

"With all the new controllers, it's getting out of hand," she added, saying her living room once looked like "a large spider was crawling out of the television."

This seems like a genuinely on-point anecdote, to the extent that anecdotes prove anything. Getting hit on the head, while possible with traditional controllers, is less of a problem than with new ones, and while most controllers cause big messes of tangled cords in living rooms bulky specialty controllers have much more potential to take up space.

Finally we have some speculation by an expert, Carrie Sloan, editor-in-chief of dating magazine Tango. She claims that large collections of video game controllers are to women what large collections of shoes are to men. I suppose I can grant her expertise in the field, but I note that her statement is so broad, and the specific part about video game accessories is summarized rather than quoted, that I'm a little suspicious about whether what she actually said was on-point for the specific issue of new controllers.

Backing up this suspicion is the enthusiasm she shows for Guitar Hero in the story's closing anecdote:

Tango's Sloan, the authority on relationships, in fact recommends "Guitar Hero" and "Dance Dance Revolution" as games that could bring couples together.

Sloan and her boyfriend were recently invited by another couple to a "Dance Dance Revolution" double date.

"So maybe the accessories are twofold: they may take up space, but also serve as a his-and-hers social elixir," Sloan added.

On balance, it seems that Sloan's testimony doesn't point one way or the other on the issue of whether new-fangled controllers are putting unusual new strains on relationships.

Then we have non-expert speculation from "game player Festus Williams": "For whatever reason, girls just don't like you spending time playing video games. And then you come in with a guitar or steering wheel, that could get people in trouble." This really feels like a quote that the author solicited from a friend of his because he needed some sort of extra evidence to add. It's not a story, it's not a particularly strong statement, it's just idle speculation.

Finally we have some background statistics related to sales figures on video game peripherals and an expert discussing why new peripherals are needed for games. These don't even pretend to speak to the trend at issue, they're just there to provide context.

Trend journalism annoys me because it tends to be shoddily researched and hastily written. Moreover, it almost always confirms some sort of conventional wisdom. In this case, the piece reinforces the idea that gaming and dating are incompatible, as well as providing weak support for the gender stereotype that games are enjoyed by guys, endured by girls. As for the trend itself, I'm dubious. I don't doubt that some non-gaming SOs have been put off by specific purchases of video game peripherals, but I'm not sure you can attribute any special animus to the new peripherals rather than to video games/obsessive hobbying in general.


Kurt Vonnegut has died. I've only ever read one book by him, The Sirens of Titan, but I enjoyed it and have meant to read more. The world has lost a kind and interesting person today.

Comment Policy!

Since it seems to be in the air, I thought I'd formally articulate my relatively fast-and-loose comment policy. These are fluid standards, not hard and fast rules, for those who care about Rule of Law jargon.

1. Comment spam gets deleted. That hardly even bears mentioning.

2. Comments on recent posts are allowed by default. If I read a comment and find it hateful, offensive, counter-productive, spiteful, or otherwise useless I will probably delete it. If you find your comments getting deleted multiple times, you may be on the road to having your IP banned from commenting.

3. Where others have commented on a comment otherwise bound for deletion, disemvowelling is preferred. This preserves the meaning of the original comment and its derivative comments for those who wish to decipher ir. For those who don't, it can be taken as a signpost reading "Here there be trollage!"

4. Everyone makes mistakes. If you put a comment up, whether trollish or not, that you subsequently find embarrasing feel free to contact me about it. I'll have to weigh how deleting the comment would fit in with the what remains of the conversation, but chances are I'll remove it.

5. Similarly, I reserve the right to delete my own comments and posts wholesale. Generally this means switching a post to draft status, meaning the conversation is preserved but no longer public. If circumstances change and cause me to think better of a post's removal, I may bring it back.

6. When posts get old, the commenting burden shifts. This blog is configured to automatically put any comment on a post greater than two weeks old into moderation, since spambots tend to hit older posts. However, since new comments show up on my sidebar, a comment on an old thread will draw that old post to the fore again. Thus: At the two-weeks-old mark, the burden shifts. For posts younger than two weeks, the default is that comments will be accepted and only extraordinarily bad comments will be deleted. After two weeks the default is that a comment will be deleted unless it compellingly adds to the post in a manner that causes me to want to open that discussion again. So don't feel offended that, for instance, I don't want to discuss abortion on Gilmore Girls or words that end in "-trix" anymore.

That should be everything. As always, I reserve the right to bend any of the rules as necessity requires and to amend these rules on a whim.

My Time is Not Very Valuable

I spent over $409.50 on New York City and State Sales Taxes last year. I know this because I spent about two and a half hours tonight painstakingly sorting through all of my receipts and adding up the sales tax on those receipts generated in 2006.

As you know, Bob, the Federal Government allows you to deduct state taxes paid from your income. The IRS gives you a choice: either deduct your state's income tax or its sales tax. For most people this means deducting income taxes. State income taxes are easy to calculate and usually larger than sales taxes paid. Looking at the numbers, though, I realized 1. that I would not be paying any state income tax after various credits and deductions were applied, and 2. I had paid a lot of state sales tax over the year. Never mind the fact that I would just wind up taking the Standard Deduction anyway, the moment I realized that I could calculate my state sales tax I was determined to do so.

This was all made possible because, as you may know, I'm a little neurotic about receipts. Which is to say, I never throw them away. Ever. I have all my receipts dating back to the hamburger I ordered the day my dad dropped me off at college in 2001. Now, at last, they could be put to good use. I had to separate the 2006 receipts from the other years, and I had to remove from the 2006 pile those receipts where I didn't pay sales tax (principally ATM withdrawal receipts and receipts from supermarkets and clothing stores, which don't charge sales tax in New York City. With some exceptions). Then I added them all up, set them aside in a new file folder labelled "Receipts - 2006 - Tax" and filed them away with my other receipts. Then I entered the number in the e-file form, learned that I had $410 of itemized deductions compared to the $3,300 standard deduction, and just took the standard one. It didn't matter either way, since I didn't make enough to be taxed in any case, but I liked the extra cushioning the standard deduction provided.

I knew all along that I'd end up taking the standard deduction. So why'd I do it? Well, when all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, and when all you have is a giant box of receipts, you start looking for reasons to put them to good use. In a way, computing my total sales tax felt like justification for all the years of pack-rattery. "Who's laughing now, IRS?" I could say. "Bring on the audits! I've got a paper trail three feet deep justifying every penny of my state sales tax deduction!"

It was also nostalgic. Everything that happened in the year 2006 that had some sort of purchase associated with it is recorded in those receipts. My purchase of a Junta at Games of Berkeley reminded me of my trip out to San Francisco to interview with Cooley Godward and see Dianna. A receipt from a drug store in Hyde Park recalled my trip to Chicago to visit Pam. I had two Nintendo World receipts to memorialize my two long waits in line to buy Wiis for myself and my sisters last Winter.

I even discovered a weird coincidence: I found a receipt to a Europa Cafe on 5th Avenue. I had bought a snapple there on an exruciatingly aweful date last August. On the back I found a name and a phone number. Both belonged to a girl I had met at a vegan brunch the weekend after the terrible date. I eventually called that number and a good date came out of it. It didn't lead anywhere, but it was a lot of fun. I just thought it was amusing that the two dates were tied together by that slip of paper.

In a way, my receipts are like a historical record of my life, and probably one of the more accurate ones you're likely to find. I would wager that a box containing a lifetime record of a person's purchases would tell a lot more about that person than any journal they may have written. I'm creating a dream reference for some future historian.

Now the work is done and the taxes are filed. I'll bet I had more fun going through those receipts that I had the entire rest of this weekend. Which either tells you something about how much I like receipts or how wild a life I live outside of receipts. Or both.

Sub-Rosa Catholicism

Via Feministe, I've just come across this article in the Journal of Higher Education. If the article presents a fair depiction of Georgetown's present public interest funding policy, and it seems likely that it does given that the author was able to interview both Dean Aleinikoff and the Associate Dean for Clinical Programs and Public Interest, I am now very glad that I chose not to go to Georgetown Law.

Georgetown, like most top law schools, offers funding for students to pursue unpaid internships in public interest fields during the summer. It's thanks to such a funding program at Columbia that I was able to work last summer for Project Renewal on housing issues for the homeless and mentally ill in New York City. Georgetown is apparently more selective than Columbia in distributing public interest monies, which isn't surprising given Georgetown's large student body. Nonetheless, to every appearance Georgetown has not in the past engaged in subject matter-based discrimination in its funding of internships. This has now changed.

In years past Georgetown has funded public interest fellowships with Planned Parenthood and other organizations that work for abortion rights. That policy, apparently, is no longer operative. This year at least one first-year student was told that Georgetown would not provide her with funding for the summer because the institution could not provide funds for abortion-rights advocacy. The university told her this in April, as finals approached, after she had already accepted an internship with Planned Parenthood, and with about a month left before her internship was to begin. Georgetown justifies the policy on the grounds that it is a Jesuit institution and, as such, cannot fund abortion rights advocacy since abortion is contrary to Catholic Church doctrine.

I don't dispute that Georgetown is within its rights to do this. My problem is that Georgetown Law takes every measure possible to hide the Catholic affiliation that it is now using to justify this move. If this had happened at Notre Dame Law, I would have shrugged and said, "That's unfortunate, but not really unexpected," because Notre Dame is up-front about its catholicism start to finish. It's in every piece of recruiting literature they send out. Students who attend Notre Dame are put on notice that the school's role as a Catholic institution will be a major factor in all aspects of education there.

Georgetown, by contrast, is circumspect about their Jesuit nature. Like most top law schools, Georgetown has been trying for years to eliminate any perceptual barriers to entry among potential students. Law schools want the best students they can get, not the best Catholic students they can get, or the best in-state students they can get. That's why the big state law schools have slowly been eliminating admissions preferences for in-state students and that's why parochial schools emphasize the religious diversity of their student-body. It's why Georgetown trumpets in their admissions brochures the existence of the J. Reuben Clark Society (LDS Law Students), the Georgetown Jewish Law Student Association, and the Muslim Law Student Association among its officialy sanctioned student groups.

I applied to Georgetown Law and very nearly went there; it was between it and Columbia at the very end. In the entire recruiting process I had only the vaguest awareness that Georgetown Law was Jesuit. At the time I was obsessed with the admissions process; I read every scrap of paper and pamphlet sent to me by every school I was interested in, and I spent every moment of break reading the various schools's web sites. The only time the term Jesuit was mentioned was in brief descriptions of the school's history ("Georgetown was founded as the first Jesuit school in the nation. Today, it is a diverse community etc. etc.") and as justification for Georgetown's commitment to public service. Georgetown Law does everything it can to tell students "Technically, we're Catholic, but that won't have any impact whatsoever on your legal education here."

By amending its summer funding policy, Georgetown appears to be taking affirmative measures to turn itself into an institution that only supports students whose political positions agree with those of the Catholic Church. They're free to do that, but they have to accept the consequences of that and advertise the fact to prospective students. If I had known then where Georgetown was and where it was heading, my decision on where to attend law school would have been a lot easier.

See You On the Other Side!


Having found a sort-of solution to the external hard drive issue (quick version: Throw money at the problem!) and having struggled to find non-corrupted versions of all the files in my music collection, I've now backed up what I think are all my essential files and I'm ready to format the laptop's hard drive and re-install Windows. If I'm not back in 6 hours, avenge my laptop's death.

UPDATE: Whew! I seem to be up and running at some minimal level of functionality again. Still need to install a lot of drivers and programs, but I do at least have an OS + internet access + access to an external harddrive, which should be all I need to bootstrap back to where I was a few hours ago.

I Don't Hate You

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Comments have been temporarily disabled due to SPAMSTRAVAGANZA! (150+ spam comments in about 15 minutes) Will tentatively peek out from comment-free hole in a few hours to see if it's subsided.

UPDATE: And we're back. I think I might have just caught the tail end of the Spam Wave. Anyhow, comments have been enabled for about half an hour now with no more spammage, so hopefully that'll be the end of it.

Teetering Uncomfortably

My backup harddrive has rather unceremoniously decided to crap out on me.

For the last two years my entire computing solution has been a single hand-me-down laptop. This is not the most secure way to store one's data. Moreover, my laptop has a pathetically small 30 gigabyte harddrive. So last Summer I bought a 50 gigabyte external harddrive, the largest I could afford at the time. I use the external harddrive for two essential purposes: First, it backs up important files that are too large to save via e-mails to my gmail account. Second, it serves as primary storage for large amounts of data of secondary importance (things like my music collection and various videos that had previously stuffed my laptop's hard drive until MP3s were leaking out at the seams).

My laptop has never had its harddrive formatted and Windows re-installed from the ground up. After three years, winrot has left the thing so slow that it takes fully a minute to launch my web browser and three minutes to load Outlook Express. It takes five minutes for it to get from the user log-in screen when I come out of stand-by mode to a point where I can actually issue commands that it will obey. It is, in short, in dreadful need of a bootstrapping.

"No problem," I thought to myself, "I shall simply scour my harddrive for all remaining essential files, move them temporarily to my external harddrive, then spend the weekend re-formating the laptop, re-installing windows, and restoring my files to their former state on my laptop." Mais non! The external harddrive has decided it does not care to accept my files any longer!

It's a bit curious; I can read data off the external, I can copy files from it, and I've encountered nothing on it that seems damaged or corrupted (though I haven't checked every single file on it). Yet when I try to copy files to it I receive a Cyclic Redundancy Check error, which, according to the internet, is a sign that either a harddrive/cd/other data medium has catastrophically failed or is on the precipice of catastrophic failure. Poop.

Needless to say, the Precipice of Catastrophic Failure is not a place I like to frequent. I generally prefer, when at the height of my daring, to venture no further than the Bluff of Irksome Setbacks. I am left, again, with only my laptop to rely upon for data storage, which naturally worries me. I have, once again, backed up those essential files that can be backed up through gmail. I've ordered a new desktop computer (not out of paranoia from this incident; I ordered it somewhat before these latest annoyances played out) and once it arrives I should have a little more breathing room. If the external should crap out entirely it won't be the end of the world; the videos are non-essential, the music is all on my iPod and I have some programs that will allow me to treat the iPod as a harddrive and remove the files I need from it, and most of the essential files are also stored on the laptop, so hopefully they won't both die at once before the new computer arrives. It will be annoying, though, not to be able to use my external harddrive as a conduit through which to channel the files I want to transfer to the new computer.

Searching the internet has yielded no easy solution to the external harddrive's breakdown. I've used Windows's check disk utility to search it for bad sectors and it came up empty; when I try to repair the file system, though, it fails within 30 seconds. The only solution the internet has offered up is a piece of professional harddrive repair software that costs $90 for first time users. I'd prefer not to lose my data, but I don't $90 prefer it. Does anyone know of any cheap/free disk repair utilities I might throw at the problem?

Gagh. Tonight I have been reminded rather forcefully that caffeine is a mind-altering drug, and as such is not to be trifled with.

I spent yesterday securely ensconced in my room trying to write a program that will play Nine Men's Morris. All well and good, but I've found that if I don't get a certain minimum quantity of exercise and sunlight I start to feel sickly and lethargic. Today proceeded much as yesterday until I forced myself outside around 6 in the evening, still early enough for about an hour and a half of walking in daylight. I brought a book along with me, and eventually ducked into a coffee shop as twilight fell.

It should be pointed out that I lead a largely caffeine-free existence. It isn't that I have any strong objection to the stuff; I just don't really like coffee or tea and I can take or leave soda, and since soda is more expensive than tap water I generally leave it when left to my own devices. But I had a book with me and wanted to read it, and it was both too dark and too chilly to comfortably read on a bench outdoors. Since coffeeshops are more-or-less the only appropriate places to read indoors in public, and since most businesses frown on people occupying their limited floorspace without making a purchase, I found myself in a Starbucks buying a black coffee. I figured that I would be reading for a while, so I decided to order a large.

The remainder of this evening has been excruciating. About half an hour after I finished the cup I experienced a light-headedness that lasted about three hours. This was followed by an hour or so of queasiness about the stomach, after which I was seized with a nasty bout of paranoia and existential angst. Finally, I was gripped with an overwhelming logorrhea, the results of which you are reading now.

Ideally I would learn a lesson from this, something to the effect of "don't drink large coffees when you haven't engaged in a strenuous training regimen of sodas and smaller coffees to build up to it." As a practical matter, though, I imagine that I'll forget this lesson the next time I find it necessary to stay up late to work on a paper or other project, neglecting to remember that whatever gains in wakefullness I derive from the accursed bean juice are more than offset by the loss to coherence and concentration.

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