Jan 312008
It’s time to start with a decision-making process. I’m not definitely in the market yet for one of the three next-gen consoles, but I will be, perhaps within the next year. This is an open post that I’ll probably keep updating for a while. Keep in mind that my must-have games may not be the same as yours, though I’ll welcome your suggestions.

This table looks really screwed up and I don’t know why. I have no idea why all these break tags appeared in this post. Sorry for the megascroll. All fixed now. See what effort I go through to bring you my bullshit?

Positives Negatives Must-Have Games
  1. motion control = activity
  2. backwards compatible with my GC library
  3. awesome downloadable retro games selection
  4. system and games more affordable
  5. robust controller
  6. many WiiWare titles are totally awesome
  1. motion control = activity
  2. limited RPG selection (?)
  3. shovelware
  4. limited original downloadable content
  5. DS is enough for casual gaming
Fire Emblem: Radiant Dawn
Metroid Prime 3: Corruption
No More Heroes
Super Mario Galaxy
Super Smash Bros. Brawl
XBox 360
  1. robust online service (friends)
  2. robust original downloadable games listing
  3. great HD graphics
  4. very durable controller
  1. robust online service (John Gabriel’s GIFT)
  2. red ring of doom
  3. I don’t have an HDTV
Assassin’s Creed
Blue Dragon
Eternal Sonata
Mass Effect
Playstation 3
  1. comes with blu-ray player
  2. greater HD graphics
  3. Fumito Ueda
  1. expensive…
  2. …or not backwards compatible with my huge PS2 library
  3. I don’t have an HDTV
  4. will cheaper blu-ray cause buyer’s remorse?
  5. may melt my apartment
  6. flimsy controller
Assassin’s Creed
Final Fantasy XIII
Metal Gear Solid 4
Ratchet & Clank Future
Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune
Valkyria Chronicles

Issues to consider:

Where will the RPG market land? Right now the Xbox seems to be leading on the quirky RPG front. Unless the install base widens significantly, it doesn’t seem terribly likely that the PS3 will be as successful in that regard as the PS2 was. However, the PS3 is a likely landing place for the main Final Fantasy titles and the Tales series. The low development costs of Wii games may end up turning the 2-D RPG and strategy RPG markets to that console, even though the Gamecube was notoriously weak in the genre. Thus, the Wii may end up catching the narrow-market RPGs I often adore.

Can the HD consoles attract classic adventure games? It can’t be a secret that I really like adventure games in the Zelda mold. Assuming that the X360 and PS3 split the RPG market, the clincher for either of these consoles will be success in attracting this generally ignored genre. Games like Beyond Good & Evil suggest that this genre can grow beyond the Zelda clones to include experiences of great emotional depth. Will the HD market go this way, or will the genre languish once again, save for the loving devotion of Nintendo?

Which console will generate the most interesting artistic innovations? I think the knee-jerk response here is the Wii, but it seems to me that developers have so far done much less with motion control than they could have. Instead, the Wii seems to have become a grand repository of casual-gaming shovelware, with a few truly innovative titles here and there. Despite its potential, the Wii has yet to see a game that achieves the true gestalt of emotional communication and interactivity that marks games as an artform. Does No More Heroes fill that void? And Sony Computer Entertainment cannot be ignored in this regard—Ueda’s Ico and Shadow of the Colossus were some of the best art made for the last generation of consoles. Also, as the PS3 and Wii have been getting up to speed, Bioware and Irrational have started to take interesting steps on the X360. This is currently an open question, but for me it’s a significant one.

And, to track my position by date:
1/30/08 – leaning towards Wii first, HD console (much) later.
2/13/08 – If the PS3 lacks backwards compatibility that is a major minus in my book. Baroque will come out on PS2, so it’s no longer in the Wii column. The more I hear about Lost Odyssey the more ambivalent I feel. On the one hand I like the idea that short stories are built into the game, on the other hand I hate games that string cutscenes together using lame gameplay, not to mention that I hate hate hate amnesia as a plot device.
2/15/08 – Okami hops into the Wii category. I was underwhelmed by the gameplay on the PS2, but this is a game that would really benefit from the motion controller.
2/24/08 – Added Insult Swordfighting’s controller reviews.
2/25/08 – Valkyria Chronicle looks really interesting. Into the PS3 pro column it goes.

Super Tuesday

 politics  Comments Off on Super Tuesday
Jan 302008
Well, today is the day of the Florida semi-primary, yet another chapter of the ridiculous primary leapfrog game that occurred this year. A week from now, almost half the states in the nation will have their own, very early, primaries. The madness will not end there, of course, especially in the case of the Democrats. The long slog of the primary season will continue for some time, and it is entirely possible that the candidates will not be decided until the end of March, leaving only a paltry seven months for the parties to assassinate the character and distort the record of their candidates more than has already been accomplished in the extended primary season. I have decided not to vote in the primary for a couple of reasons that I’ll explain. If I were to vote in the primary, however, I would vote for Barack Obama or John McCain, and I’ll explain that, too.

Why won’t I vote in the primary? Well, it’s not because I can’t. Massachusetts has a semi-closed primary, so, because I am not a member of either party, I can vote in either primary. I disagree with this policy, because I feel it discourages additional parties and also third-party candidacies. Independents tend to be more moderate than party faithful; open primaries allow these voters to select centrist candidates. Were the electorate confronted with the true extremes of both parties, the enormous repulsion they felt would make a third-party candidate viable and weaken the parties. I’m also unwilling to signal tacit assent to the parties and their corrupt selection system by joining the primary. Finally, both parties only have terrible, horrible, no good, very bad candidates.

If, however, you put a gun to my head and forced me to vote in the Democratic primary, I would vote for Barack Obama, out of negative selection. None of the candidates have any real, relevant experience—Hillary’s claim to “35 years” is a bunch of crap, and at the same time, her politics-as-usual behavior in every state, in every primary, belies her claim to “change” as well. She’s a rerun of her husband, and frankly, I’ve had enough of the Clintons and the cynical politics of “triangulation”. We didn’t need four more years of Bill back in 2000, and we certainly don’t need four more years of him now. Moreover, while it may not be fair to Hillary, the fact is that for reasons entirely unrelated to her actual degree of competence she is incredibly divisive. The issues we face right now are simply too difficult for us to have our President and Congress engaged in a four-year partisan wrestling match. Hillary has neither the leadership nor the charisma that the job presently requires.

So that leaves us with Edwards and Obama. I understand that Mr. Edwards is very angry at rich people and corporations, and feels that elites are waging war on the middle class. This is probably true, but Edwards doesn’t actually supply any kind of believable answers, except perhaps waving his magic wand to create 1 million jobs. The adversarial position he adopts is not presently advantageous, in my view. We need to partner with corporations to get things done while reining them in gently, not harangue on and on about how bad they are. They are bad, and the present distribution of wealth is dangerously polarized. Edwards, however, doesn’t have any better answer for this, his touchstone issue, than the next guy.

Obama is charismatic, has the right priorities, and lacks the baggage. He doesn’t have much experience, but that’s true of all the candidates. The Republicans hate him less, which means that he has a better chance of getting Congress moving than Hillary does. Moreover, his message of change is legitimate and inspiring. The message itself is trite, of course, but it gives him a chance of getting a true mandate from the electorate, rather than the narrow, confusing results of the last two elections. That will be a much-needed tool to break the intransigence of Congress. So I would vote for him to be a candidate, if I did not hate the parties, the primary system, and the fact that I can’t find any candidate with more positives than negatives.

If you put a gun to my head and forced me to vote in the Republican primary, I would probably ask you to pull the trigger. On the other hand, I might hold my nose and vote for McCain.

Giuliani is a joke, and not even a particularly funny one. Huckabee, with his creationism and “fair tax”, is an inhabitant of some absurd fairy wonderland. And Ron Paul’s only virtue is that he is the only candidate who seems to be aware that “they hate us” more for what we have done than for who we are. I feel sorry for my uncle Sam, who is a fiscal conservative and therefore has no candidate. The whole row of them parrots the line of tax cuts and reduced spending, but nothing in the background of any of them really suggests they’ll hold that line. Hell, at the Florida debate Huckabee practically suggested starting the WPA up again.

And Romney… my God, Mitt Romney running on his record of job creation in Massachusetts is laughable. I am not intrinsically concerned by the fact that Romney’s position on every issue has changed—a considered change of opinion is every man’s right. What bothers me is that all of his new positions just happen to be more expedient for getting a Republican nomination. Changing your opinion so that you will be more popular makes you a jackass, not a philosopher. Moreover, his side-swapping has ruined all credibility with Democrats and Democratic constituencies. He’ll be trusted by neither party in Washington—a bad situation to be in with a Democratic Congress.

I disagree with John McCain on almost everything. However, I think he’s as strong on the environment as a Republican can get. He has what the Democrats lack, i.e. experience, and has a track record of working with both parties to get things done. If, as a Republican, you want anything that matches your values to emerge from a Democratic congress, then he is probably the best bet. Also, McCain has the best chance out of all the candidates to rebuild the U.S. reputation in the world. Alone of all the Republicans he could believably claim that the United States does not torture, and his word on that would be more credible than any of the Democrats either (trivia time: under which President did “extraordinary rendition” begin?). As an independent, I could tolerate him as a president. He’s certainly not a conservative’s dream candidate, but since none of these candidates have real conservative credentials, IMO he’s the least of the available evils from a Republican standpoint too. At least he would be strong on defense and capable of restoring our standing with our allies.

So those are the least bad in two fields of terrible choices. I’d be least bothered by a race between Obama and McCain, and I wouldn’t know what to do in a race between Clinton and Romney, not least because they’d have the same talking points. What the country needs now is an intelligent leader who can work with the other side of the aisle and mobilize public support for necessary changes, not a partisan hack or professional windvane.

Jan 192008
It has not been a very good couple of weeks for big pharma in the public eye. They’ve been taking a pounding in the political arena since the primary season finally got into full swing. Last week, we learned that today’s medicines, rather than funding tomorrow’s miracles, mostly finance power lunches with your cardiologist. And this week, Merck and Schering-Plough, after much delay, finally announced the results of a major study, called ENHANCE, that did not demonstrate any benefit to using the highly-touted drugs Vytorin and Zetia rather than a generic statin.

Because almost everyone who owns a TV knows that Vytorin blocks both sources of cholesterol, and that “Zetia works differently“, the results seem particularly damning. The companies involved did not help this appearance by holding back the results so long, and indeed doing so may have exposed them to lawsuits from shareholders and customers. The study was primarily performed by imaging the carotid artery, and in this regard no statistically significant difference was observed between patients treated with Vytorin (statin + Zetia) and statin alone. Also, there was no statistically significant difference in the number of patients who died from cardiac events or strokes, or suffered non-fatal infarctions in the study. While vytorin lowered cholesterol levels by 56% after 24 months vs. the 41% lowering seen in the statin group, this did not translate into improved outcomes by any measure.

So, is this a case of evil pharmaceutical companies trying to gouge consumers over worthless medications? Not exactly. Like every campaign promoting prescription drugs, commercials for Zetia and Vytorin oversold the benefits and did not sufficiently emphasize the risks of these medications. Their failure to improve outcomes in this study is troubling, but because adverse outcomes were so rare overall, it would be difficult to establish an effect one way or another. Also, this study was not geared towards measuring plaques and clots directly; rather it (indirectly) measured the effect of these drugs on atherosclerosis. The effect of uptake blockers on infarction rates was an incidental measurement.

One important consideration when interpreting these results is that the study group was not constructed to resemble the general population. Rather, the study was performed on individuals who had familial hypercholesteremia, a genetic condition that causes greatly elevated levels of LDL in the bloodstream. Without the data in hand I of course cannot make a solid judgment, but one possibility that immediately suggests itself is that in this population even a significant diminution of LDL levels is not sufficient to improve outcomes. There’s just too much cholesterol for these uptake blockers to affect the outcome. In a normal individual with significantly lower levels of LDL Zetia and Vytorin might have a much greater effect.

Moreover, all the individuals in this study were already taking statins—which contributed to the low rate of adverse outcomes. It may be that the marginal improvement from adding an LDL blocker on top of a statin simply isn’t that great. However, for individuals who cannot take a statin due to side effects, taking an uptake blocker might be a significant improvement over doing nothing. The study does not, as far as I can tell, speak to this possibility.

There is always the possibility that this study points to completely unsuspected aspects of arterial disease. For instance, these results might indicate that once lesions form they attract cholesterol very strongly, and therefore only extreme reductions in circulating LDL can affect their growth. Alternately, this outcome may indicate that mechanisms unrelated to circulating lipids play a more significant role in determining plaque thickness than previously suspected. In light of the highly unusual population used as study subjects, any grand pronouncements in this regard are premature. If these findings are replicated in upcoming studies of greater duration on more representative samples, however, a substantial re-examination may be in order.

The findings of the ENHANCE study don’t really indicate that you should burn your Vytorin prescription and go back to just a generic statin, but it does create doubt as to whether this approach will prove efficacious in the general population. Further study, promptly published, is called for, and it would be wise for Merck and Schering-Plough to pull their advertising campaigns for the time being. Doctors should also be less eager to prescribe Vytorin for patients who are responding well to statins alone, but for patients who are not improving greatly with statins (or cannot take them at all), then a prescription for Vytorin (or Zetia) would still seem to be justified. As always, the best approach is to exercise and eat healthy foods, though that’s much easier said than done.

Jan 102008
The two or three of you that have perused my link section have probably come across the oddly-named Ray Bradbury’s Love-Camel, Eric’s teamblog about pop culture. In a moment of insanity, he invited me to cross-post my own economy-priced cultural musings, and I’ve decided to do so until the comments get too mean or he returns to his senses.

As it turns out, my first post for rblc is actually inspired by Eric’s post yesterday about Blankets, which reminded me of one of my favorite graphic novels, and so even though it was a little early for me to hit it on the decadal rotation I went home last night and re-read Stuck Rubber Baby by Howard Cruse. Although it’s a work of fiction, Cruse admits that it is heavily influenced by his time in Birmingham in the sixties, and this shows through in much of the plot and also in some of the characters. The inspiration for Sutton Chopper, for instance, will be immediately obvious to anyone who remembers any part of their Black History Month lessons. But Stuck Rubber Baby is not about the Civil Rights Movement, except to the degree that the characters’ reactions to it help define their relationships with each other. This story is about a young man coming to terms with his homosexuality in an extraordinary and difficult time, and the mistakes he and others make in the course of that effort.

This isn’t a subject that everyone wants to read about, and I’ll forgive you if it turns you off, while warning you that you are missing out on a wonderful story. On the other hand, both civil rights and gay coming-of-age are hardly topics lightly served by literature; it’s tempting to dismiss this book (if you haven’t read it) as a retread of overdone themes. Yet Cruse manages to avoid the all-too-easy trap of populating this kind of story with saints and sinners. Despite the enormous cast, almost every character who appears on more than one page comes across as realistically mixed. You will find something to criticize in every protagonist (especially the main character), and also something to like, or at least a basis for forgiveness, in the villains. The saintly black preacher unleashes a sarcastic, acid tongue, and the obese bigot who commits one of the book’s worst acts comes across as genuinely remorseful and ashamed at the end.

The black-and-white art reflects this sensibility. The characters are highly detailed, and the lines used to draw them are very curvy. This style allows Cruse to create very expressive faces, and yet at the same time it seems to highlight physical imperfections. These characters are not supermen, nor are they ostentatiously ugly. They simply seem real—not in the trivial way one associates with photorealistic artwork, but rather the deeper reality of memory and emotion. Even the sexual content works, a rare example of art avoiding pitfalls I have mentioned before.

Who knows how much of this tale is drawn from Cruse’s experience and how much is entirely made up? The strength of Stuck Rubber Baby is that you simply can’t tell. This story, though it is fiction, feels real, almost frighteningly so. It has no perfect heroes, no perfect villains, and the last page holds no happy ending… only the impression that someone else’s memories, with all their joy and sorrow, have been made your own.

Jan 022008
Well, I’ll probably get around to a couple of thoughtful, intelligent posts later this week, but while I’m still getting back into the swing of things work is taking up all my brain, so you get a list post instead. Science, philosophy, and history will have to wait a day or two.

Holiday Notes

Best Food: Mom’s pumpkin soup. Runners-up: Cranberry meatloaf, peppernuts, oysters.

Most Food: The oyster roast at Aunt Peggy and Uncle Frank’s place in Charleston. Oysters (of course), along with beer, shrimp, barbecue pork, beer, barbecue chicken, grilled sausage, beer, dirty rice, pies, cakes, sangria, pecans, and cordials. Hope you brought some spare coronary arteries.

Cutest Child: Jackson Partch, as long as he has a cookie available. Here you can see him making critical adjustments to his tricycle. Milo, resigned to his fate, naps in the background, resting up for inevitable time when he will be chased around the apartment by a mad triker. Runner-up: Daniel Fuentes.

Best Gift to Anyone: My Dad got a Crosley vinyl-to-CD direct recorder from Mom, which translated into instant joy for him. I got to hear a Dylan bootleg LP, and also the famous Dave Van Ronk mono LP that led Dad to learn the…

Best Music: “One Meatball” Seriously, click the link. Van Ronk’s version is a little angrier and more up-tempo than this mournful Josh White recording.

Funniest Gift: From Kevin Gardner at his lab’s Yankee swap, I received a George W. Bush out-of-office wall calendar containing some of our noble leader’s least intelligent quotes.

Most Depressing Gift: See above.

Best Science: Kevin’s graduate thesis, with some crazy metal-ion R1 dispersions.

Worst Science: Pretty much anything Fred Thompson says.

Best Game: Sudoku, of which Brain Age has probably 100+. Sudoku is pretty ideal for a touch-driven computer game, because you don’t really remember these puzzles, and they contain relatively few symbols. Notation on the touch screen is also much cleaner than on paper. So there are advantages to this approach for the producer as well as the consumer. Needless to say, I really like my DS. Runner-up: Final Fantasy III, which lacks the cohesive story of later installments but is a very pleasant old-school RPG. Touch screen elements were obviously stapled on, however, and in most ways the game plays better using the buttons.

Travel Notes

Best Airline: JetBlue, who gave me a $25 voucher because of a minor delay. That’s a consumer bill of rights that works. I wish they flew everywhere.

Best Airport Television: Charleston International (sic) Airport didn’t have TV, or at least had it turned down so low I couldn’t notice it. That makes it the winner.

Worst Airport Television: Chicago Midway, broadcasting WGN, which during my layover was airing what appeared to be the “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?” loudest idiot retrospective, followed by the Maury Povich paternity test special. (Dis)Honorable Mention: CNN’s Tony Harris, who just may be the worst interviewer and anchor on any news channel anywhere.

Best Seat: JetBlue. I couldn’t care less about the in-seat television — curiously, mine had its image reversed right-to-left, which I found very distracting, so I turned it off. But that legroom… wonderful, especially compared to the…

Worst Seat: On my AirTran flight from Atlanta back to Boston I was in the “fuselage” seat in the very back of a 737. I say “fuselage” because without a window it cannot really be a “window” seat.

Best Airport: There are no good airports.

Worst Airport: Dallas – Ft. Worth. I know you want me to say Atlanta, but it turned out that my connection there was just a few gates down, and the weather at that point was reasonably good up and down the coast, so I went through none of the hassle that can make Atlanta truly awful. DFW has a positively ridiculous layout, however, and a slower security line than even Logan. (Dis)Honorable Mention: Birmingham International (sic) Airport, for the longest baggage wait in history.

Strangest Airline Habit: Not leaving the whole can. Are you really saving that much money? I mean, with your purchasing volume, a can of Coke costs what, $0.30? If I’m paying $100 for an hour-long flight, does that $0.15 really make that much of a difference to your margin?