Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Door Dings

When we were walking into the Lakeville Theater for Star Wars a couple weeks ago, one car in the parking lot immediately jumped out and caught our collective eyes. Why? Because it was a Maybach.

Yep, that's right, the ultra-high end, starting at $300,000 for the lowest model, custom-built for each owner, Maybach Benz.

I had never seen one before, but thanks to my collection of Jay-Z albums, I was aware of their existence.

The obvious question was "WTF is a Maybach doing in the middle of the parking lot of the Lakeville theater on Star Wars night?".

It wasn't even parked out at the end of a row where no one would park next to it, it was just right in the middle of a regular row, between the plentiful Explorers and Suburbans that make up your typical Lakeville parking lot.

After thinking about it for a bit, I suppose it makes some sense. I mean, if you have the money to spend $300-400,000 on a car. What do you care about having to fix a door ding or two?

Wealthy is not the guy parking his BMW 3-series diagonally across 6 parking spots, it's the guy who has a Maybach and doesn't give a crap if you bang your doors into the side of it. He'll just buy another one, or maybe two.

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A Feast for Crows

After 4.5 years, it's done!

Oddly, I happened to check George R.R. Martin's site this weekend on a whim and at that point there was no update.

The bad part is that he is only done because he cut the book in half. And didn't cut the book in half as in only told half the story, but instead told all the story for half the characters. Robert Jordan has done that in the past and I was dissapointed by the result. When you have a deeply intertwined story and characters, it doesn't seem to work. But on the other hand it doesn't mean I'll read half a story and then have wait 4.5 years to find out the conclusion.

I'm excited for the book, as Storm of Swords was one of my favorite books (although by now I can't remember much about it) and I've been whining about how long A Feast for Crows is taking since 2000.

Must Keep Expectations Low.

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Monday, May 30, 2005

Duck, Duck, Road Block

On Friday morning heading to work, I turned onto the main drag that takes me out of town and snapped out of my morning haze long enough to notice two little Mallards sitting in the middle of my lane of traffic. I slowed down nearly to a stop and tried to steer around them to the right (i.e. into the bike lane). As I was headed around them a third Mallard came flapping in on his ungainly wings to land directly in the middle of where I was headed.

Now I was stuck, I was turned too sharply to the side and was too close to the ducks to be able to turn back to the left and go around them in the fast lane. So I sat there hoping that no one would come screaming up from behind, not notice I was at a standstill in the middle of a major road and kill everyone involved.

Eventually, after nudging every so slightly forward a couple times, the ducks got the hint and moved out of the way enough that I could continue on my way to work. As I pulled away, all three ducks were just fine. Although they were still in the middle of the road, so I can't vouch for their continued safety.


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Sunday, May 29, 2005

Mini-Golf

My buddy Gerard called this week looking to get a poker game together for Saturday night. As it turned out we weren't able to find enough people, so Gerard, Vanessa, Kendra (Gerard's youngest sister), Linzy and I went mini-golfing instead. It was a lot of fun.

We went to Grand Slam's course in Eagan, which I hadn't been to in forever. It wasn't crowded at all (although by the end there was a bit of a backup behind us). I think their course is one of the nicer ones left around the south metro. They have reasonably challenging holes without putting in any stupid volcano holes for no purpose other then frustration. Plus it is not too expensive, ~$4 an adult.

Gerard and I have a good-natured competition when it comes to mini-golf (well, actually we can compete at pretty much anything). Neither of us is necessarily all that good, but we are pretty evenly matched which makes it fun. One summer we went mini-golfing a bunch of times and kept trading victories back and forth. Oddly enough we ended the summer in an exact tie, each with 2 wins and the exact same score during the 5th and deciding match. We had another close match yesterday, decided on the last hole.

And so it begins...

Linzy putting.

Vanessa using the rare and difficult tree-hugger technique.

Gerard was making everything on the front nine, even when he had to stand off-balance.

Kendra had pretty good form for a seven-year old.

A disturbingly limp-wristed bear statue. I wonder if that right paw was really what they had in mind when they started carving.

Linzy was playing well, so was still all smiles by the back nine.

Gerard just before his Mickelson-esque collapse on the last hole.

Vanessa sinking her last shot.

Me putting what would end up being the game winner.

The final result.


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Saturday, May 28, 2005

Star Wars Easter Eggs

I enjoyed reading through the list of Easter Eggs in Star Wars Episode 3. I only noticed one, where Jar Jar walks into the back of one of the senators and appologizes.

Spoilers abound, of course.


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Friday, May 27, 2005

And for your bonus, a fully-loaded Brink's truck!

I've been meaning to mention it's that time of year again, when the Annual Report allows executive compensation to be examined with a microscope. That means it is my annual chance to read about what all the guys at the top of the pyramid are making and shake my head in disgust/jealousy.

Take for example, William McGuire and his obese $120 million haul. I don't care if you are taking lead home at night, turning it into gold bars and bringing them back to work the next day, there is nothing you can possibly be doing to deserve $120 million for running a company for one year. Especially a healthcare company.

How hard is it to say:

Hey, I don't think we are making enough money this year. How can we make more money? I know, let's raise premiums! Maybe we should charge more for our services! I'm a genius. Now where are those stock options?

Oh wait, I just said it, I guess it's not that hard.

And then on top of the $1 billion in outstanding stock options the dude already has, his cronies on the compensation board give him 1.3 million more options? WTF? He doesn't have enough motivation to succeed?

I'm gonna let you in on a little secret, when you are making $100 million a year I don't think you are just doing it for the money anymore.

I'll go out on a limb and predict the upcoming scandal. The first year UnitedHealth Group fails to meet its targets/starts losing money/etc and ol' Dr. Billy takes home one of his 100 million dollar paydays those same shareholders that are happily rubber stamping his pay packages now won't be quite as friendly.

But by thast time he'll probably have secured one of those multi-million dollar severance packages.

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Thursday, May 26, 2005

So I have this business I'm looking to expand...

It is depressing to see that Pyramid Schemes are still alive and well these days, albeit with a new friendly name like Multilevel Marketing.

All you need is a few hundred people, their people, and their people's people buying overpriced crap from The Website, and you too can be a millionaire!

Or not.

It is vaguely disturbing that anyone actually thinks that pyramid schemes/multilevel marketing/whatever is a good idea for anyone but the guy on the top. And if it's being sold to you...you aren't on top.

One thing I did learn is that if you want to get someone trying to sell you on Quixtar out of your house, the magic phrase is "No offense, this looks a lot like a Pyramid Scheme". Tada, they are packing up and leaving faster then you can say 'No thanks'.

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Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Reproducible

Software developers take a fair amount of abuse for not usually being particularly willing to fix problems they can't reproduce on their system. There's no kiss of death for your bug report quite like 'Works fine here'.

But while some of that abuse is well deserved, lots of other industries do the same thing. Car Mechanics, for example, frequently shrug their collective shoulders over any intermittent problem that isn't storing a diagnostic code. I've also had the same problem with dishwasher repairmen.

After our first dishwasher decided it had had enough of those dirty dishes and started acting up, I had paid a hefty fee for someone to come out, shine a flashlight under it and go "Hmm, looks like everything is working fine to me". Well, I knew everything was working then. But it sure wasn't working correctly the previous time we used it, when it decided the tile needed a good coating of water.

We ended up having to replace that miscreant dishwasher with a new one, because we didn't feel comfortable trusting it to be home alone. And all was good in the world of dishes, until about three or four weeks ago when we started noticing water pooling in the bottom of the dishwasher. Pushing the 'Cancel/Drain' button always cleared up the problem, so I thought it wasn't draining correctly and called Sears to get a warranty repair.

A few mornings later, allowing himself a nice cushy 4-hour arrival window, a guy showed up to 'fix' the dishwasher. Apparently he went to the same repair school as our previous repairman. He ran the self-test (heated-dry, high-temp wash, high-temp wash, heated-dry if you were curious) and did the official 'flashlight under the dishwasher' inspection.

Failing to find anything from his intensive study, he fell back on his apparent former career as a fantasy writer, and after saying 'everything looks fine to me', just started making things up. Initially his ideas had only minor plot holes in them, but when I, politely I might add, questioned a few of his assertions we went totally out of the realm of believability.

Eventually, I gave in to the futility of arguing with him over why it didn't make any sense that 'Smart Wash' would "sometimes not drain the dishwasher, because when the dishwasher is unplugged the computer loses power and it doesn't know how to run the cycles anymore" (I mean, if that was true, how would it ever work? How could you transport it without unplugging it?). So I sent him on his way with promises to follow his very helpful instructions of "Don't use Smart Wash".

A few washes later (using only Normal Wash, not that evil computer-controlled Smart Wash), the problem shockingly hasn't gone away. So I had to call for Yet Another Appointment, which couldn't be scheduled for another week and a half. Sigh.

The only good thing is that in the meantime I've done some more observation of what exactly is going on, and decided that it is probably the water inlet valve at fault. I think it is letting water slowly leak into the dishwasher, and we didn't think it was happening regularly because it takes a while to reach a level where it becomes visible.

We'll see what the professional has to say next week.

All I know is it is pretty unlikely I'll be willing to let the guy get out of here with vague explanations of what the problem might be and how to fix it.

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Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Beauty and the Beast

On Sunday evening, Andy and Laura took Linzy and I to Chanhassen Dinner Theater to celebrate Linzy's birthday. We saw their main play, Disney's Beauty and the Beast.

Neither Linzy nor I had been to the Dinner Theater before, it was really a lot of fun. The food was pretty good and the play was excellent. We had a booth in approximately the center of the 5th row, which provided a very good view of the whole stage and was plenty close to be able to see everyone's expressions.

I've seen the Beauty and the Beast movie many times, and enjoy it. It was very interesting to see how they translated everything onto the stage. With just some pillars that were trees on one side and pillars on the other, and a few stair pieces they managed to set up environments that convincingly conveyed where everything was happening.

They performed pretty much all the songs, including my favorite when I was a kid, the Gaston song. I was pretty impressed with the staging of that song and Be Our Guest, which in the movie involve fairly elaborate dancing/backgrounds/fighting/etc. Both were convincingly done. I was also glad that Be Our Guest turned out well, I was leery of how well they'd be able to sing it in a French accent (although I guess Jerry Orbach managed in the movie).

I only had two complaints about the experience, and they didn't really have anything to do with the play itself.

First, Chanhassen is fairly expensive. It doesn't seem that bad until you actually go and find out that a lot of stuff is extra cost and price gouged (i.e. $4.50 for pop). Between the ticket price and the addons, you are pushing $140-150 for two people. That isn't bad I suppose for a play and a dinner, but certainly a 'special occasion' type activity. At least on our budget.

Second, the booth seats are both good and bad. On one hand, they are sort of raised up and since they are semi-circles it is easy to get an unobstructed view of the stage. The bad part is they are semi-circles, so unless you cram all four people into the back side of the table and make everyone uncomfortable, the people on the ends basically have to turn and sit facing the stage with no back support. That got old after about 10 minutes.

However, I'm not sure that the tables would be all that much better. Because while you can at least turn your chair as necessary, you are packed six to a table with other tables pretty close by. With all those people turning and shifting, it looked like some people's sight-lines were probably partially blocked.

Anyways, my complaints are over fairly minor issues, and the whole experience was very fun. I was glad that I got the opportunity to go, especially to something like Beauty and the Beast, a play that I enjoyed a lot. It was very generous of Andy and Laura to take us.

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Monday, May 23, 2005

May Birthdays Pictures

I never got around to putting up any pictures from our trip to Duluth a few weekends ago. I was too busy with all those next-generation console posts, I guess. Linzy spent most of the week of her birthday in Duluth for a conference, and then I went up that weekend for the party with her family.

On Saturday afternoon it was spontaneously Sironen Solitaire Time; everyone had their hand-held solitaire machines out. Except the son-in-law, who wasn't properly equipped for such coordinated activities.


Eating one of those blue flowers will discolor your teeth and tongue, I've heard.

My, what blue teeth you have.

This way it matches your shirt.

Note the almost hidden blue color on our lips for the 'respectable' picture.


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Sunday, May 22, 2005

Movies: Revenge of the Sith

[ Full Disclosure: I'm a huge Star Wars fan. That carries with it all sorts of biases (both good and bad) towards Episode 3. Your mileage may vary. ]

On Thursday, Linzy, Brenden and I went to see Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. We went to the Lakeville theater for an evening show (7:30pm). It was fairly crowded but surprisingly not sold out. There were quite a few costumes though. We got there pretty early and so were able to get pretty decent seats in the rather small theater our show was in.

After a seemingly unending wait for the show to start (it was actually like 20 minutes), and a mere two previews, the Lucasfilm logo came on screen and a spontaneous cheer went up from the audience.

I really enjoyed the movie. Even considering my rather high expectations for the movie, I was not disappointed. Was it the best movie I have ever seen? Of course not, it didn't even stand up to the original Star Wars trilogy movies for that matter. But it was clearly the best of the more recent trilogy and tied everything together very well.

I thought the movie only got better as it progressed. The opening action sequences were OK, but by the last hour it was really outstanding. Even the required Padme-Anakin scenes were kept reasonably brief, although they weren't much better written than the horrible ones in Attack of the Clones.

The fall of Anakin was well done, neither so slowly that it bogged the movie down but not so fast that it was unbelievable. I was entertained watching Supreme Chancellor Palpatine manipulate Anakin and lead him down the path to the dark side. In fact, I thought Hayden Christensen actually did a fairly serviceable job playing Anakin in the portion of the movie after he has turned to the dark side.

The stand-out of the movie was something you didn't often even notice was there, the computer-generated special effects. They were just superb. Nearly every shot in the movie had computer-generated characters, backgrounds, effects, or a combination of those in it. Only a few times did things actually look out of place, and the rest of the visuals were amazing.

There were countless completely computer-generated characters, all of whom were believable and realistic looking (as much as you can say that about a sci-fi movie). Interestingly, one of the things that I noticed as a sign of how much better CGI characters have gotten in the past 6 years was in the (thankfully) brief appearance of Jar-Jar Binks. He looked much more realistic, and didn't stand-out in the scene the way he did in The Phantom Menace.

For a movie that pretty much had to go from a known Point A to a known Point B, I thought they did a good job keeping things interesting. And they primarily accomplished this by throwing as much or more action than any other Star Wars movie at you.

Particularly cool was the Obi-Wan versus Anakin lightsaber duel, which was probably the best lightsaber duel in any of the movies. It was just extremely well done. Very fast paced, with interesting camera work and intricate lightsaber moves.

Also cool was the Yoda versus Emperor fight. I laughed out loud at Yoda's opening move upon walking into the Emperor's room, and I enjoyed that both had lightsaber techniques distinctly different then anyone else.

If I had any disappointments, they were minor. I would have liked General Grievous to have been a bit more of a badass like he was in the cartoons. I would have liked Padme and Anakin to have some freaking chemistry (did they forget to screen test them during auditions?). I would have cut back on the droid one-liners just a touch. Regardless, the disappointments certainly didn't ruin the movie for me.

All in all Revenge of the Sith was an extremely satisfying conclusion to the first trilogy, and the perfect segue into the original trilogy. It wrapped up all the loose ends and did it in a very exciting and action-packed way. Highly recommended if you are even remotely a Star Wars fan.

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Saturday, May 21, 2005

Star Wars Nerd

Like most nerds my age, I am a huge fan of the original Star Wars trilogy. Star Wars was the first movie I ever saw in the theater (probably when it was re-released in theaters prior to Empire Strikes Back). I still remember having to sit on my knees to see over the people in front of me, and being amazed and mildly frightened as the Empire blew open the door to Princess Leia's spaceship in the opening.

When I was a kid, I had every Star Wars action figure they made (literally). I had all sorts of Star Wars books, board games, Halloween costumes. I watched the movies so many times I could recite entire sections of the movie verbatim. I've paid George Lucas for the privilege of having Yet Another Copy of Movies I Already Own several times. I even relucantly put up with George's incessant twiddling with the movies I love.

My incredible love for the original trilogy doomed my enjoyment of The Phantom Menace. I went in with ridiculously high expectations and when it turned out not only to be a terrible Star Wars movie, but also a pretty freaking bad movie in general I was extremely disappointed. Eventually with additional viewings plus more realistic expectations I came to not hate the movie quite as much as I originally did. But I still don't really like the movie.

The huge disappointment that was Episode 1 actually set me up to somewhat enjoy Attack of the Clones. I was pretty bitter about the whole thing, so went to Episode 2 more out of duty then any real excitement about enjoying it. So when it turned out to be mildly entertaining I was pretty happy.

Since then I've slowly been getting more and more excited about Revenge of the Sith. After watching the last 5 episodes of the Clone Wars cartoons, I was really excited to see the movie.

Having learned my lesson with Episode 1, I tried hard to keep my excitement under control. I would jokingly remind myself, or others that it was going to be a bad movie, that I was going to hate it, that it would be the last straw causing me to throw out the last remaining Star Wars toys I have (Legos). My friends at work even got into the act, stopping by my cube to remind me just how much I would dislike the movie.

I'm not sure how much that actually worked to keep my expectations low, versus making me think more about the movie itself, but it seemed worth a try. Eventually May 19th arrived, and it was time to go see the (likely) final movie in the my favorite movie series of all time. I just hoped it would finally be a movie that could live up to the standards set by the original trilogy.

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But, who will I be able to pick on now?

I was shocked, shocked I say, to learn that Onterrio Smith failed his third drug test in the NFL and is suspended for a year.

And here I really thought that Whizzinator was his cousin's...

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Friday, May 20, 2005

Cement Truck Crash

The other day on my way home from work I noticed a big commotion on a corner near my house. There were five or six cop cars (probably the entire Lakeville police force) with their lights flashing, a big-rig fire truck, and ambulance and a handful of other miscellaneous cars hanging out.

Driving by I couldn't exactly tell what was going on, so Linzy and I decided to swing by and see what was going on when we took Pippen for a walk. It turned out a big cement truck somehow tipped over and crashed near our house.


In addition to the cops and firemen, there were lots of gawkers (like us), and lots of big trucks hauling away various parts.

The driver was taken to the hospital, but I don't think he was too badly hurt (at least I hope so).


We never did hear exactly what had happened, but the prevailing theory was that the driver tried to take the corner too fast on a wet road (it was drizzling at the time). Many, many hours later, when we came back from dinner, they were still working on cleaning up the mess.

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Thursday, May 19, 2005

We Don't Take Reservations

[ This story is my Dad's, he told us it at dinner the other day. ]

Monday afternoon at about 1pm Dad called Outback Steakhouse because we were planning on going there for my Mom's Birthday dinner. He wanted to check if they took reservations, the conversation went roughly like this:

Dad: Hi, I was wondering if you take reservations for parties of 4.

Dude: No, we don't take reservations. We do have call-ahead seating though. [ ed. Where you call ahead 20 or 40 minutes ahead of time to get on the waiting list, even though you haven't arrived yet. ]

Dad: Oh, OK, well does it get very busy on Monday nights? Do we need to call ahead?

Dude: Yeah, actually it sometimes gets kind of busy, calling ahead is usually a good idea.

Dad: OK, well I'll call ahead then I guess. Thanks.

Dude: Ok, what is your name?

Dad: What? It's Eck, why do you need that?

Dude: For call-ahead seating.

Dad: What? It's like 5 hours before we want a seat.

Dude: That's OK, you can call ahead up to 7 days in advance.

Dad (In his head): Umm, how exactly is that different then a reservation?

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Wednesday, May 18, 2005

TV: Star Wars: Clone Wars

In preparation for the big day tomorrow, Linzy and I sat down and watched the Star Wars: Clone Wars cartoons from Cartoon Network. Each cartoon is a short 10-15 minute episode that together cover the story and time period between Episode 2 and Episode 3.

The cartoons are actually fairly old now, but I had never gotten around to watching them. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the shows. They weren't up to the standards of say a Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, of Fullmetal Alchemist but they were fun to watch.

The first season didn't have much story, but basically just showed a lot of the clone wars battles. Towards the end of the season they started introducing some additional characters and a little bit of story, making it pretty interesting. The second season (which is really just 5 ~13 minute episodes) started slow but was very, very good by the last three episodes, mainly because they significantly advanced the story.

That story advance was actually fairly surprising because it included some stuff that I assumed would be in Episode 3. I won't spoil it here, but I am glad that I watched the shows so that I have all the background information for the movie tomorrow.

The other good thing about Season 2 (Episodes 21-25) was they featured one of the coolest fighting characters to come along since Darth Maul, General Grievous. I'm pretty excited to see how they use him in the movie.

Finally, it turns out you can stream the last 5 episodes (albeit in postage-stamp sized Quicktime movies) right from StarWars.com, if you so desire.

Now I just have to concentrate on keeping my expectations low until tomorrow evening.

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Playstation 3

On Monday evening, shortly before more information on the Xbox 360 was revealed, Sony had their conference revealing a lot of details about the Playstation 3. The biggest surprise for me was that they are sticking to the original plan of releasing it in the first part of next year. The past few weeks the rumors were flying all over that it was going to be pushed up to compete head to head with the Xbox 360 this Christmas. Alas the PS3 won’t be making an appearance until roughly a year from now.

If the release date was surprising, the over-the-top hardware specs were not. On paper the PS3 looks amazing from a sheer processing standpoint. Even with one of the 8 ALUs disabled (to improve yields apparently, which makes sense given the massive size of the Cell processor) they were boasting 2 teraflops of floating point performance, over twice what the Xbox 360 was claiming. Similarly the graphics card described as more powerful than two GeForce 6800 Ultra cards (the top-of-the-line PC graphics card today). Throw in a Blu-Ray drive, a slew of various ports and connectors, built-in 802.11g (yeah!) and support for 7 wireless controllers and you have a monster of a machine.

One thing that made me happy was to see that Sony says that the PS3 will be able to view digital pictures, audio and video, as well as the added bonus the possibility of having an HD-DVD player (not that we have an HD TV). I couldn’t find much information on exactly how they would provide the digital media viewing functionality. Hopefully it will be allowed to access the content over the network rather then just supporting jpeg and mp3 cds. To be honest I would not be surprised if Sony (the content owning arm) puts significant restrictions on what exactly it will play. They are the company that originally didn’t support MP3s on their digital audio players after all. But for now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and assume they will provide comparable functionality to the Xbox 360. And that makes me excited.

Similarly, I was glad to see that they will continue the tradition of backwards compatibility by providing PS1 and PS2 support (I assume by embedding both chips in the console, that is how they were rumored to have provided PS1 compatibility in the PS2). Backwards compatibility is a terrific feature for someone like me who has stacks of unplayed PS2 games, and doesn’t have the space to keep all my consoles out at any one time. Back when I got my PS2, I played a handful of PS2 games initially, and then spent a good year playing old PS1 games (that I had never played since I didn’t ever own a PS1). To some extent the same will probably be true with the PS3, since the new games will likely be expensive for a while.

The rub with the PS3 is of course whether anyone other then Carmack and Sweeney will be able to program the thing and get anywhere near theoretical performance. I’ve mentioned it many times, but I really do think it will be a critical part of how successful the PS3 will be. Since publishers are always looking for the almighty dollar there will be a lot of pressure to produce multi-platform titles, and even more, to produce code that is easily compiled for either platform (as there is always a time-crunch). And of course the more portable the code is the more difficult it becomes to do anything other then target the lowest common denominator. That might result in a lot of games not really taking advantage of the full-power offered by the Cell processor.

On the other hand, if Sony can secure a bunch of exclusive titles those will probably have the time and resources to really tune for the PS3 and take full advantage of its power. Plus, the market presence of their of zillion current PS2 users will likely ensure that they can remain a relevant platform long enough for programmers to get a good handle on how to parallelize their code to utilize the PS3’s strengths.

It will be very interesting to see how things shake out.

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Tuesday, May 17, 2005

Xbox 360: Part 2

[ This is a continuation of yesterday's post: XBox 360: Part 1 ]

On a different note, I was impressed with the XBox 360's clever idea to make the hard drive externally accessible and upgradeable. As the console gets older, the smaller hard drives that were cheap originally start to become more expensive then larger hard drives (due to scarcity). Making the hard drives easily upgradeable allows Microsoft to offer enhanced versions of the console in later years with larger hard drives as they get cheaper. Plus, they can get a few extra bucks out of early adopters selling them larger hard drives. Very smart.

Also, making at least portions of Xbox Live available for free is a very good idea. A lot of players (like me) have never tried the service, so don’t even know what they are missing. Letting those players use the service on the weekends is going to help get them hooked and eventually help sell them on buying the full service so they can play whenever they want.

The other benefit of having everyone on Xbox Live is the Big Brother aspect of the whole thing. Right now, there are probably a good portion of consoles that have never been on Xbox Live. This makes distributing patches difficult at best (like for the Halo 2 480p menu problem). It also makes policing mod chips and modified hardware pretty difficult. With easy access to Xbox Live, patches and extra content are dead easy to distribute. Similarly, making sure people aren’t using mod-chips should become easier, because it is more likely the console gets on Live before modding (so baseline data can be collected). Granted this doesn’t solve the mod-chip problem, but it raises the bar just a bit more.

There are certainly a lot of aspects to the Xbox 360 that are very intriguing. Even though the hardware looks pretty powerful strictly from a game system standpoint, it is pretty clear that Microsoft is eyeing the digital media arena as well. In some ways this leaves the door open for the Playstation 3 to claim the most powerful game-console crown. In fact, the PS3 is widely rumored to be significantly more powerful then the Xbox 360, and if they include something like a dedicated physic processor, it could be extremely difficult for the Xbox 360 to compete strictly on fancy technology (something that saved them in the current generation).

On the other hand, it might not matter who has the most powerful console, if it turns out to be impossible to program, or doesn’t have exclusive game deals. Similarly it is possible (but seemingly unlikely to me) that Nintendo could come out of nowhere with their console and its rumored innovative control scheme and strong first party titles. Or, if Sony and Nintendo don’t focus on it and digital media really takes off as a selling point, Microsoft could clean up. Or, Sony could provide a difficult and temperamental beast of a console to program, lock up terrific exclusive titles, and take the title strictly as the game console with the best eye candy and games.

Who knows, but it should make for an interesting E3 this year, and an interesting fall as we see the release of at least the Xbox 360, and get more information about the PS 3.

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Monday, May 16, 2005

Xbox 360: Part 1

I was unfortunate enough to spend a half-hour on Thursday night watching the Xbox 360 unveiling on MTV. It was just as bad as I expected it to be, but being a huge console system fanboy, I couldn’t resist seeing any little tidbit about the next generation of consoles.

More interesting I thought were all the articles that got released after the NDA was lifted that night. Like these two articles at Team Xbox talking about the hardware and features of the new console.

After thinking about it for a while, I’ve decided that the thing that excites me the most about the new console is not the possibility of new games, but the built-in media center functionality. That seems pretty odd, but it’s true.

First off, if you look at the games I play, I spend a lot of my game-playing time on previous generation games, re-releases of old RPGs, and only rarely the latest shiniest games.

But more importantly, I love being able to stream videos and music from the computer downstairs to the TV/stereo. Combined with a PVR to record the shows, the ability to sit on the couch and choose from seasons worth of TV to watch is just amazing. The same goes for being able to queue up 13 hours of music for a party, all using playlists of MP3s from the computer.

The problem is that all the current set-top boxes are frustratingly complicated and unreliable (DLink DSM-320), overly expensive (Windows Media Center), or moderately illegal (Xbox Media Center). Having a supported, (hopefully) relatively inexpensive media center sounds terrific to me.

I can see how this could be a good thing for Microsoft too, because it helps them sell copies of Media Center. Using the Xbox 360 as a Media Center Extender will likely provide better media functionality, on top of all the functionality the Media Center software has (like a PVR and TV Guide). Plus it helps them get their software into the living room, which is very important if you buy into the theory that the living room will be the next big expansion area for computers.

[ This continues in XBox 360: Part 2. ]

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Sunday, May 15, 2005

Idiot of the Week

The Idiot of the Week award goes to the guy I saw on my way to Duluth who was doing 90 mph (in a 70) on Interstate 35.

Except he wasn't driving in the fast lane, he was actually passing the cars that were in the fast lane, on the left, by driving through the ditch separating the two sides of the highway.

Dust was flying, cars were swerving madly trying to avoid the lunatic, his light-duty pickup was bouncing all around, it was mayhem.

Sweet justice was dispensed a few miles later when he was pulled off on the side of the road with a flat tire. Idiot.

[ Update: Newplanet correctly pointed out this entry is confusing if you live somewhere where the left side of the road is the slow-lane. The guy in question had invented his own super-fast lane of traffic. ]


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Friday, May 13, 2005

Bleeeeep

When did "unbutton" become something that had to be bleeped out on the radio?

While running my errands yesterday I stumbled upon a Clear Channel station playing "Just a Little Bit", with that word scratched out. Apparently I'm not fully aware of the salacious connotations of "unbutton".


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Thursday, May 12, 2005

Vanishing Checks

Does anyone write checks anymore?

Linzy would, if we didn't get free money for running all our purchases through a credit card. I, on the other hand, never liked filling out checks and moved to plastic/online bill-pay as soon as it became practical. But I didn't realize just how few checks I write these days.

A few nights ago I was entering a check into Microsoft Money that I wrote to Sam's Club for the party. The check before that was written way back on January 4th. I've been on this book of checks since December of 2003, and likely won't finish it this year.

Over the last year or so I've been noticing more and more places sporting signs saying they are no longer taking checks, and even my hair-cut place takes credit cards now. Nearly all the checks I've written out of this book are to:

  1. Sam's Club (who doesn't take Visa credit cards)
  2. Small local companies that probably can't afford to pay for the machine and per-transaction fee (like the dog training place for Pippen, or the place that fixed my garage door springs)
  3. Things where I had to mail in a registration form (Convergence, TCOUG, etc)
  4. Individuals I owed money to (like Linzy's Grandma for the snowblower)

Pretty much everything else we pay through online bill pay, or with the credit card. That seems pretty amazing, because for the most part I imagine I'll probably always have to pay these types of things with checks.

If I was in the check processing business, I think I'd be looking to get out.

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Wednesday, May 11, 2005

One Year!

Today happens to be the one-year anniversary of when I started my blog. The first post was, fittingly, about video games and much of the first month was about video games, books and computer stuff.

Originally my plan was to do a mostly technology focused blog, with occasional personal things thrown in. But it turned out that most of my interesting technical knowledge was either tied to custom programs I write as part of my job, or requires such detailed background information it wasn't much fun to write about.

Also complicating the technological focus of the blog was that the one area where I was learning something interesting that would have been easy to write entries about was in making DVDs. We had just bought a new computer in April, as part of my master plan to create a surprise first year anniversary video for Linzy.

But, since Linzy knew about the blog (rolling her eyes about my new hobby), I couldn't really post updates on what I was trying, or what was working without ruining the surprise. Instead I was forced to do rather general complaint posts and make up excuses about what exact videos it was that I was working on.

So, anyways, eventually I tried to de-emphasize the random technology posts, settled into the types of things I enjoy posting about, and hit my stride (when, if ever that last part happened is probably open for debate).

Thus, here we are one year and 459 posts later.

I'm actually fairly proud that I managed to maintain an average above one post a day even subtracting out the whole 'Daily Music' period and including several weeks and many weekends when I was on vacation. Who knew I could get so many posts out of my relatively uneventful life.

Now, I'm not claiming all those were necessarily terrific posts, but when I read through the monthly archives, I can usually find at least a couple posts that still make me laugh.

Anyways, I am still having fun writing posts, so I am not planning on stopping. Thanks to everyone who reads the site, I appreciate it. We'll see if I can dodge the sophomore curse. Here's to hoping.

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It's Not For Me, Really

Onterrio Smith is really not the smartest man on the planet. He might not be Larry Ned dumb, but he was caught at the airport with a Whizzinator, a device for faking drug tests. Along with six vials of white powder which turned out to be dried urine (yuck).

Onterrio (who I wrote about last year when he was suspended for drugs) insisted, of course, that it wasn't for him but his cousin.

Regardless, I'm guessing the league will be checking him real close during his drug tests next year.

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Tuesday, May 10, 2005

Speed Monitors

In the Twin Cities, the big thing for the past 4-5 years has been those portable speed monitor displays. The ones that constantly display the speed of cars driving past, underneath a sign showing what the speed limit is supposed to be.

Yesterday while I was driving home from work , I saw something I haven't seen before, a permanent speed display. Instead of being on a trailer so that it can be placed wherever the current speeding problem area is, this one was permanently attached to a speed limit sign.

That seemed really weird to me.

I can kind of understand how the portable speed monitor could help slow down drivers, by making them aware of their speed. But I think the reason they slow down is because having the trailer there with a display of their speed is something out-of-the-ordinary. So it catches their eye and perhaps raises their awareness of the fact that they are doing 50 in a 30.

But having the monitor there all the time is going to eliminate the 'out-of-the-ordinary' aspect of the whole thing. It will just become another thing people tune out. Like the speedometer that they already have in their car.

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Monday, May 09, 2005

Spring Party: Details

On Saturday we had our spring party, it was a great time. Hopefully everyone else had fun too, it seemed like they did. The turn-out was pretty good, almost exactly what we had planned on.

The weather surprisingly cooperated. It rained fairly hard all morning, and by about 11 am I was starting to get nervous, since the food we were planning required the grill. But, around noon the rain let up and the sun even came out for a while to dry up the puddles. It was still a bit windy, particularly up on the deck, but by early evening it was just gorgeous outside. Since our house isn't laid out particularly well for entertaining (everyone tends to cluster in the kitchen) it helps a lot if half the people can be out on the deck.

This was also the first party since I put together a typically overly complicated multi-room media center setup. So I was able to put together a 12 or 13 hour playlist of highly-rated songs, stream those over the wireless network to the mp3 player located in the basement, and then route that music through the Zone 2 plugs on the receiver to the living room/kitchen. The end result was the same background music playing throughout the whole house.

We ended up going through a lot more of everything (food, beer, etc) then we thought we would, but we just barely had enough. Most surprising was the fact that 13 people ate 12 half-pound hamburgers, 15 brats, 4 bags of chips, a bunch of salads, and were looking for more (especially of the hamburgers which were apparently pretty good). In addition to all the food, some people were on a mission and so we went through quite a few beverages. We drank both cases of beer, plus another 16 bottles that were laying around, along with a fair amount of hard liquor.

Which brings up the only downside to this year's party, the mess. Someone who spent the night apparently got sick in the middle of the night and didn't quite make it to the bathroom. In addition to retiring the inflatable mattress to the trashcan, they also managed to save a healthy amount for the carpet.

So I got to spend most of Sunday morning working on cleaning up the mess. My usual technique of a tablespoon of laundry detergent+a cup of water, followed by a third of a cup of vinegar+a cup of water was fairly ineffective. What did work well though (and is really the only reason I mention this) was Oxy Clean. That stuff is amazing. It still didn't get the job done in one application, but after a few treatments the stain is completely gone.

Of course, the effectiveness of Oxy Clean is apparently directly proportional to its scary toxicity. I was initially using my finger to stir the water and dissolve the crystals. Until my finger started tingling..and then burning. And then even after I took my hand out of the water my knuckles start itching. And a disturbing line formed on my hand where it had been submerged in the water. After washing my hands it was better, but the moral is that they weren't kidding when they said 'avoid prolonged skin exposure' on the container, and by 'prolonged' they meant like a minute.

Regardless, the party was a lot of fun even with the clean-up that was required.

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Sunday, May 08, 2005

Spring Party: Pictures

It rained all morning.

But it cleared up nicely, just a couple hours before the party.

There's nothing left but the waiting.

Where is everyone?

Cheers.

What kind of party doesn't involve cards at some point?

Brenden was having fun.

So was Dan.

Wes was a bit tired.

Gerard showing me his, rather convoluted, picture-taking technique.

What happened to all the beer?


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Saturday, May 07, 2005

Overly Complicated

I can make anything into a complicated ordeal.

For example, yesterday after work I was going to go to Sam's Club to pick up two cases of beer for the party today. The plan was to get one case of Heineken, and another case of something else (in theory, whatever struck my fancy).

So when I got in the store I wandered around and located the Heineken and then started looking around at what else they had, so I could pick out something else. However, lazy Steve was out in force, and I decided I didn't really want to carry around a case of bottles while looking at the other beer (which in typical Sam's Club fashion is spread all over two walls of a warehouse-style room).

After wandering around a while, I eventually chickened out at buying a case of something that some people might not like (say Beck's Dark or HOG Microbrews) and decided on the old standby Michelob Golden Draft Light. After picking up a case of that I turned around to go get the Heineken.

However, when I turned around I noticed a stack of limited edition (yeah right) Leinenkugel's Gold Medal Packs. That seemed perfect, because it included 6 bottles of 4 different varieties of Lienie's, Honeyweiss, Creamy Dark, Red, and Amber Light which would be optimal for a party situation where people might like different kinds of beer. So I picked up a case of that, headed to the checkout, paid and went out to the car.

Did you notice the missing step? I picked up the Leinie's, but never put the Michelob back. Thus not purchasing the one kind of beer I had explicitly gone in the store to buy.

After stashing the Leinie's in the truck, back into the store I went. After talking with the guy, he explained they don't take returns, and was not particularly swayed by my "but it's an exchange" argument, nor by my "I just bought this 30 seconds ago, can't you give me a break" argument.

Eventually the manager was waved over, and using my rather limited charm, I managed to convince him to let me return the Michelob. Of course they couldn't do that in the liquor store, I had to go back to the customer service desk. And then back to the liquor store.

But the end result was that I ended up with the beer I had wanted to get, so I guess it was worth it. It just turned out to be a lot more complicated then it would have been if I had been paying attention, and/or not so lazy about carrying a case of beer bottles around for a while.

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Broadcast Flag

I was thrilled this morning to read in the paper that an Appeals Court threw out the FCC's Broadcast Flag requirement on Digital Television.

Why shouldn't I be able to record a show once and watch it whenever I want.


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Friday, May 06, 2005

Guarantee

Whenever we have a party:

  1. Linzy and I will fret about how much food to buy
  2. If we are planning to cook out, it will rain

So, given that we are having people over this weekend, the last few days have predictably been filled with trying to line-up exactly who will be attending, guessing how much food everyone will eat, and worrying about whether it will actually rain on Saturday.


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Thursday, May 05, 2005

Usernames are not Passwords

Why do places insist on applying complexity rules to usernames, in lieu of applying them to passwords? That is just stupid.

I'll let you in on a little secret, making me have an 8 character username with an upper-case and lower-case letter, a number, and a special character does no good if my password is "steve".

All you've accomplished is making sure that the user has to write down their username, instead of their password, in order to sign into your site. And no one is trained to protect their usernames, only passwords. And most people aren't even good at that.

So, assuming I don't write the username down, and don't let the browser remember it for me, that just means I have to click the 'I forgot my username' link once a year when I want to use your site, because I forgot that on your site only my username is $tupidS1te. Instead of a normal username that is good enough for banks, health information, paying my bills, and everything else on the Internet.

Except when I follow that link and answer the 'validation question', you're experiencing technical difficulties and can't send me the username. Congratulations, your site is so secure even the legitimate user can't use it.

If Password Corral didn't exist I would never be able to login anywhere.

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Grievous Insult of the Day

They were such dives, they made Kmart look like an upscale shopping destination.


As told to me by Don, while talking about Spartan-Atlantic discount stores.

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Wednesday, May 04, 2005

Greeting Cards

When did Greeting Cards (Birthday, Mother's Day, Father's Day, etc) become $6.99? That is insane.

Is it printed in gold? Am I unaware of the new titanium core they use for better distance? Perhaps it can cook twice as many burgers in the same amount of time and is dishwasher safe?

And worse yet, I forgot to get the little Hallmark gold stickers. For $6.99 they should be giving me the whole roll.

[ Update: The timing of this was a bit poor. See here. ]

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Muir Woods Photos

While I was writing up the entry on John Muir, I was looking through my pictures of Muir Woods and hard a hard time picking a favorite to use on the top of the post. I decided to post some of the rest of the photos, in case people like photos of the bottoms of really tall trees.

Redwoods are some of the tallest trees in the world. They get taller then Sequoias, but not as big around.




Redwoods tend to grow in circles (that have some name I can't recall). When they are stressed they grow burls on the bottom of their trunk that grow into another tree.

Growing close together helps them stay upright, because Redwoods don't have a tap root. Their roots only go 10-13 feet down and then spread 60-80 feet out to the sides. When they grow close together, the roots intertwine and help keep everything from blowing over in the wind.

Redwoods have some sort of natural fire-resistant sap, so when there were forest fires they only burned part way up the tree. The rest kept living and growing.


Rumor has it Redwoods are big.

There was a doe and two baby deer roaming the woods.

This trunk was at least 6 feet in diameter.



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Tuesday, May 03, 2005

John Muir

Today I did a bit more research into what I thought were strange poems on Linzy's calendar. Turns out they are actually excerpts from John Muir's Stickeen: Story of a Dog.

I found that out by searching for the whole Sleekit line, but when I looked later, it actually says that in small print on the first page of the calendar. Shows you how much attention I was paying, that I thought paragraphs taken out of a story were poems. In my defense, the text is pretty strange, including words like sagacity, moraine, and Diogenes. And when the story is chopped up a paragraph at a time it seems a bit disconnected and random.

Anyways, I thought it was interesting that the story was written by John Muir, the generally credited inspiration for Roosevelt's creation of national parks (even the American history ride at Disney World mentions him). Plus, during our honeymoon in San Francisco two years ago, we spent an afternoon in Muir Woods just across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco. We had a great time walking among the redwoods and taking in the scenery.

Finally, John Muir was indeed Scottish, and the Sierra Club site says he was using sleekit to mean 'sleek or smooth'. Not near as fun as my definition, even if it does make more sense.

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Monday, May 02, 2005

Word of the Day: Sleekit

It's been quite a while since I did a 'Word of the Day', so perhaps all your friends are getting tired of you working Chisler, Toerag, and Haute Couture into conversations.

Today I glanced at the newly revealed May page of our kitchen calendar. It happens to be a Yorkshire Terrier calendar and it has bizarre snippets of poetry each month in addition to the requisite 'cute puppy' pictures.

Anyways, this month's poem was a doozy containing all sorts of ten-dollar words. The first to catch my eye was sleekit. As in:

But poor Stickeen, the wee, hairy, sleekit beastie, think of him.


That, plus the rest of the, rather long for a calendar, poem didn't really give me enough context to figure out what sleekit meant. So I had to ask Google.

The first result from the "Dictionary of Difficult Words" said:

a. crafty, sly; smooth.


The perhaps more reputable MSN Encarta says:

adjective
Scotland sly: superficially charming but cunning and untrustworthy


Most of the rest of the results dealt with the use of sleekit in a Robert Burns poem .

So there you have it; Sleekit is apparently a Scottish word meaing sly, crafty and cunning, but in a sort of not-to-be-trusted way. Why you would use it in a poem about your dog I am not really sure.

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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Peg's Wedding: Pictures

The overcast day and camera mode apparently conspired to make us look like photoshopped skin-cleanser models.

Greysolon Ballroom

Peg and her Dad during their dance

Katie and Linzy

Heather dancing with her parents

Jim and Peg's Dad cutting the rug

Linzy, Heather and Katie

Frank, Katie, Heather, Jim, Linzy and Angie trying out crazy arm moves

The dancing continues...

The bouquet toss


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