Friday, July 31, 2009

A Sinister Plot Against Left-Handers

I have a confession: I'm left-handed. Well, sort of. I eat left-handed and I write left-handed. However, I punch, bat, bowl, throw, etc. right handed. I ended up specializing my left hand for fine motor skills and my right hand for gross motor skills - I am by no means ambidextrous. This was not a conscious decision, but it turned out well for me. (Note: Wikipedia informs me that this is called mixed-handedness or cross-dominance - I never knew there was a name before, but I'm happy to keep company with that list of people!) In any case, I certainly identify myself as a left-hander since most things that are left/right specific end up requiring fine motor skills.

Included in this list is the Nintendo DS.

I would really like to understand how freaking difficult it is to enable your game to be left handed. In some cases perhaps it's non trivial if you have to move your entire UI around, but the ones I'm talking about are generally simple button-remapping. And this isn't a trivial part of your audience. Wikipedia states (yes, I cited Wikipedia - deal with it) that a British study in the 70s found that 11% of people aged 15 - 24 are left-handed, and a separate study in the US found 12% of 20 year olds to be left-handed. So, that's a core age demographic for you, and at 11% of all of your gamers you'd think it'd be worth noting the fact that your game is nearly unplayable for left-handers. Hell, how do you not have at least one left-handed on your dev team? It's unbelievable.

Yet we end up with games like Final Fantasy XII: Revenant Wings that map all scrolling to the left D-pad and a few low-priority buttons on the right hand. So, anyone using their left hand for the stylus is stuck trying to also control the camera with that same hand. And it gets even worse with Ninja Town. You know what the 4 buttons do on the right side? NOTHING! Not one damned thing. They're dead buttons. How hard would it have been to map them to the same movement as the D-pad? The answer is it would have taken the programmer about 30 seconds. If he were a slow typist. I can't really think of a bigger "Screw you!" to left-handers than just killing the buttons that are so easily accessible to them. And yet I purchased this game, only perpetuating the idea that it's okay to give lefties the finger if you're a game developer.

Screw you and your cute little ninjas

And yeah, sure, in the grand scheme of life left-handed oppression is really not all that important or even really oppressive. The original study that showed a 9 year decrease in life expectancy for left-handers has been debunked repeatedly. But these are people whose job is to make a fun, enjoyable game that people will buy, and yet they can't seem to get basic interface principles down. It truly boggles the mind.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Verizon - America's Largest Network, Most Archaic Practices

I've been on the fence about Verizon for a while. I started my cellphone life with Alltel (much later than most, I didn't get a phone until 2004). Service was decent, but they clearly have the crappiest selection of phones on the market. A gadget-lover like me just can't be satisfied with such substandard fare. So, I moved over to Verizon once my Alltel contract was up. They have a good family plan, great coverage, a new and invaluable "friends and family" feature, and a few decent apps (including a very slick VZ Navigator GPS application - more on that later). However, they also have some mind-boggingly boneheaded policies and procedures that seem to keep them behind everyone else (except of course recent partner/acquisition Alltel).

I remember first being annoyed with them when I realized how locked-down their phones were. No Java apps here - everything must be BREW, which means they have tight lock and key over any installations. Want to use Gmail's cool, free mail app? Too bad. You have to instead pay a ridiculous $15/month to use Verizon's email service. Want to check out some cool free games? Not gonna happen. Only games purchased through Verizon's store will work.

I'll be up-front - for the most part I've been reasonably happy with Verizon's customer service. I don't recall getting screwed over too often, except a recent event that involved an accidental activation of their $10/month GPS application. Now, I love their VZ Navigator app - it's very effective, updated with new features fairly regularly, and even has voice-recognition built-in. I've happily paid $10/month for it for years, as has one other person on my plan. A few months ago, I noted that a third Navigator app was being charged though. I realized it accidentally got turned on on my brother's phone.

So I called them up on July 24 to see if I could get it turned off. Now, my billing cycle ends on the 23rd of the month. So, I'm calling on the first day of the month to cancel a monthly service. I did not request refunds for the two months that I had missed - all I wanted was to cancel this coming month and not have to pay for it. Apparently, this was completely impossible. "There's no way it could accidentally be turned on" I was told, and therefore they are completely unwilling to return my subscription fee for the month that just started today. Unbelievable.

But during this conversation I discovered the real gem of their WTF-policy-making-department. They've switched to a megabyte-usage system for internet use. Previously I had been charged $5 a month to connect to the internet. Now it's $2 per megabyte. Considering I only check my mail and occasionally wikipedia or amazon, I figured I might even save a buck or two. However, I started noticing charges when I hadn't been on the internet. Turns out, those megabyte charges apply to any apps you download from their store. So, buy an app, and pay an additional megabyte or two of download charges. Apparently they're taking their pricing lessons from airline backage-check policies. But it gets much, much worse.

You see, apparently, in order to view their store on your phone, you have to connect to this thing called the internet. Yes, that's right - they charge you for the mere privilege of oggling their wares. Can you imagine if stores charged for window shopping? What kind of moronic, backwards, I-got-an-MBA-but-know-nothing-about-people kind of marketing decision is that? Not even the elitist fashion boutiques on Fifth Ave. in New York charge to look around. They know that the best way to get customers is to let them see what you have and covet it. And not only that, but to add insult to injury, apparently adding up parts of megabytes is too complicated for the Verizon computer system, so each time you connect to their store you have to pay at least a $2 fee. I'm just flabbergasted at this policy. I've bought numerous games from them in the past, but now I'm never going to look in their store again. There goes any more revenue for them from games for me. Nice job guys. Pat yourselves on the back for being complete marketing idiots. You wholeheartedly deserve it.

On a related note, the only reason I'm staying with Verizon at the moment is the Friends & Family calling circle thingy that they stole from Alltel. I have a couple of calls (most specifically my daily conference call for work) that eat up a lot of my minutes, and if I don't have a couple of landlines that I can call for free my minutes skyrocket (specifically, my personal monthly minutes dropped from about 700 to about 150 when I added just 3 numbers to my plan). If I can figure out a way around that I will be very seriously giving the new iPhone a thorough look-over.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Movie Review: The Orphanage

The Orphanage, or El Orfanato as it is known in its native Spanish tongue, is a 2007 horror/mystery movie "from" Guillermo del Toro. I say "from" because on the front cover it says "Guillermo del Toro presents...", but in fact he neither wrote nor directed the movie, meaning he was probably about as involved in it as Steven Spielburg was in the Animaniacs (which, while I could be wrong, I imagine basically amounts to signing a paycheck for putting his name on it). The result of this misleading though effective advertising is that I had the wrong expectations going into the movie.

I was thinking "Wow, Guillermo del Toro did a horror movie! This should be aboslutely amazing." Because really, if you think about the gorgeous cinematography and incredible creature designs of Pan's Labrynth, or of the over-the-top but still inspired and original creatures from the Hellboy movies, you have to think that del Toro would be most at home in a true horror movie. Unfortunately, this movie is not that movie, but if that movie ever happens I'm totally there.

That's not to say the movie is bad - it's really not. But when you're expecting del Toro creatures and you get typical horror movie small-scary-children it's more than a little disappointing. Still, let's look at the movie for what it is: a good, though not great or inventive, horror/mystery movie. I hesitate to call it a horror movie outright because it really lacks the gore, scares, or general terror to really fill that genre (and is a rather mild R-rating). But it's more than just a mytsery or a thriller because it does genuinely have a few very creepy scenes.

The rough plot is that a woman now lives in the orphanage she grew up in (already the audience gets a little bit of a wtf from that one). She has a husband and a young, sick boy who likes to play with "imaginary friends". One day, he decides to go off and play and disappears. Anyone not see that coming? The movie then follows our herione's efforts to find her lost boy. A common theme in the movie is the concept of a clue-hunt where one clue leads to a location where another clue is found. These hunts come across like The daVinci Code in fast forward and without the code-breaking, and really to me seemed kinda silly. I won't spoil the ending, but don't hope for anything too shocking or ground-breaking - it falls into one of the few stereotypical endings for these movies, while still leaving you will a few unanswered questions.

On the plus side, the movie has a few genuine shocks in it, some creepy characters and scenes, and the single most terrifying game of "red light, green light" I've ever seen. I will say, watching a scary movie on an elliptical can certainly motivate to run a little harder at times. In any case, I'll give the movie a 7/10. Competantly acted, a decent though somewhat derivitive story, and some good scares. If you like horror movies but have a very jumpy date, this might be a good one since it's often tense but only jumpy a few times. If you're looking for a better horror movie, I'm still partial to The Ring (thought primarily on first viewing - it gets weaker each time you watch it) and probably my favorite horror movie: The Descent.

On a related note, my Netflix Diet is going well. I was down to 197.5 pounds this morning, which considering I was at 203.5 less than 3 weeks ago that's pretty encouraging. I'm sure that'll fluctuate naturally a bit and I'm probably on the low end, but still progress is progress. :) I'm also keeping a daily log of the duration, calories burned, distance, etc., which I find to be encouraging and would recommend to anyone on a new exercise routine since it gives a good sense of accomplishment and progress.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Movie Review: The Darwin Awards - A semi-cute comedy quickly eaten by better movies

The Darwin Awards stars Joseph Fiennes as a hematophobic forensics investigator who ends up helping insurance investigator Winona Ryder in a series of suspicious insurance fraud claims. The concept was very interesting to me: I enjoy forensics shows/movies and I've always enjoyed the Darwin Awards - should be a perfect match, right? Well, not quite...

As a forensics investigation movie, it pretty much flops. Some (perhaps all?) of the cases were actual Darwin Awards, which was cute, but meant that it was bloody obvious what was going to happen to anyone who's heard about some of the most famous ones. The ones that were less obvious were just too ridiculous for the viewer to have any hope of guessing, yet somehow Fiennes manages to intuit this absurd sequence of events. It all comes across as unbelievable, while at the same time spending far too much of the plot on showing us how these events came to be. The Metallica concert scene was just painful - a very unpleasant 10 minutes that felt more like 30, and I'm a big Metallica fan.

Instead, the movie shines more as a comedy, with Fiennes showing off some mad slapstick skills. It wasn't a roll-on-the-floor comedy, but it managed to elicit a few of chuckles, a couple of good laughs, and one hearty guffaw at the "shower scene" (which is much funnier and less sketchy than it sounds). Still, as a romantic comedy I feel that it fell flat thanks to Ryder's character being fairly unlikable, having me feeling like Fiennes could do better the whole time. It's hard to enjoy a "romantic" comedy when I don't want to root on the unlikely couple.

All in all, the movie isn't great, but it doesn't suck. It has some slow parts, and seems almost insultingly obvious at times. The ending is silly and stupid, even though they managed to reference a popular fabricated Darwin Award, which I enjoyed. The film student who follows Fiennes around (whom I'm sad to say I didn't recognize until I saw the credits) filming his every move is a pretty funny foil for Fiennes' straight-man character, but ultimately feels like it's the same joke over and over. There are a number of impressive list of cameos though (David Arquette, Chris Penn, Metalica...), including a real surprise (that I won't ruin here) as the pair who own the army surplus shop. Honestly, seeing that cameo alone made the movie worth it to me, but if you're less geeky you might not appreciate it. I enjoyed the movie, but I wouldn't watch it more than once. For a movie touting Darwin, it fails to really stand out as a dominant fish in the sea of comedies. 6/10

*Chomp* - The 40 Year Old Virgin

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Poor ad placement #1

I'm being bold and calling this #1 because I fully intend to collect a bunch of these. In any case, I'm guessing this particular page was not the best one to try to convince people to come see your movie:

Yeah...that's a 0% recommendation of the movie.

Church of Treason

Alright, it's rant time, because I need to get this one off my chest.

I'm not a church-going man, but occasionally I'll go along to support family members who are singing or have a special occasion or whatnot. This past weekend, 4th of July weekend, was one such occasion. They had a mildly patriotic service, including having military servicemen (and, well, there actually weren't any women there) stand up and be recognized. Everyone applauded and it lead nicely into the sermon about commitment.

However, at one point in the service, someone got up to sing a "special song" according to the bulletin.  A lot of times, special songs at patriotic services go something along the lines of "God bless America, and no one else".  Sure, they're not quite that blatant, but there's usually an implication that our country is far superior to all other countries, and even the "chosen one" of the nations of the world.  I find this to be mildly offensive, but tend to just smile and nod and let it slide.  

In this case however, the song was "In God We Still Trust" by Rio Diamond. To only slightly exaggerate, he might as well have gotten up there and started singing Mein Kompf set to the Afghanistan national anthem. The song was a direct attack on America and our freedom. How so? Here are the two versus (the chorus was pretty mild "We all believe in God and so should You" stuff):

"You place your hand on His Bible, when you swear to tell the Truth
His name is on our greatest Monuments, and all our money too,
And when we Pledge allegiance, there's no doubt where we stand,
There is no separation, we're one Nation under Him.

Now there are those among us, who want to push Him out,
And erase His name from everything, this country's all about,
From the Schoolhouse to the Courthouse, they're Silencing His Word,
Now it's time for all Believers, to make our Voices heard."

What's wrong with this song? Let me count the ways...

Verse 1:

1) Swearing on the Bible in court is optional.
2) Monuments don't dictate policy.
3) "In God we Trust" was added to coins in 1864 (nearly 100 years after we were founded), and on bills in 1957. It has also disappeared from coinage occasionally and is hotly debated.
4) "under God" was not added to the Pledge of Allegiance until 1954.
5) No separation? This is where the song goes from silly to an assault on some of our country's dearest principles. We're going to reject what our founding fathers have set in place (despite attempting to use historical religious sentiment to justify current policy just a few lines previously) and declare that there is no separation of church and state and in fact we should be a theocracy. Screw you Bill of Rights.
6) "stand" definitely doesn't rhyme with "Him".

Verse 2:

1) This country is all about the Christian God? I must have missed that part of US History, especially when Ben Franklin said, on his death bed, that he doubted the divinity of Jesus.
2) God's Word is being silenced in school. Ok, I might see the desire to include it in school, though not to be taught as "God's Word", but instead as Hebrew Mythology, since those stories are very relevant to modern literature and culture. But to teach it as "Truth" would be highly irresponsible and a violation of the 1st amendment.
3) God's Word is being silenced in court. This was the line that really set me off. To claim that our legal system, that our laws, should be governed by the Bible is offensive to the highest order. We would be turning ourselves into a full-on theocracy - the very thing that this country was founded in protest of.
4) Now it's time for believers to make their voices heard? Perhaps I'm reading too much into this one, but it sounds a lot like a threat of force. "You're not listening, so we're going to make you listen." This is where we start to cross the line over to a physical threat of assault and overthrowing the government.  

So, what did I do when I heard this nearly treasonous song, sung 4th of July weekend, in front a number of war veterans? The same thing as everyone else: nothing. I don't know if other people didn't notice, didn't care, or agreed with the song's sentiment. But I do know that no one said anything at all.

Now I wonder to myself: "Should I have spoken up? Should I have stood up in the middle of a church I'm a guest at, in front of my family, and lashed out at singer, telling him that he was spitting in the face of the veterans who sit before him?" The answer is "probably not". The damage done to my family wouldn't have been worth it. Most likely, everyone would have thought I was a raving lunatic and instead agreed with the singer.

Was my silence correct? These were just words, not actions, but they were poisonous words. Should they be corrected, or would the low likelihood of correction, combined with the potential to alienate family, make it so that such an outcry would be foolish?  I don't know.  I hesitate to take silence as tacit approval, for I was silent myself.  I don't tend even to feel that the singer is evil or malicious, but more misguided.  What scares me is that he, and the other members of this church, are voters.  It is precisely in situations like this that I realize just how wise the founders were when they created different branches of the government.  Without the Supreme Court to strike down such misguided voting this nation would have fallen long ago.
In any case, it's easy for me to sit here, retrospectively imagining an impassioned and articulate speech that was so compelling that everyone in the room would have agreed with me, when in fact such a spontaneous outburst without forethought probably would have gone something like "You guys are a bunch of poopie-heads who hate America."  So, instead of that supreme form of embarrassment, I am writing this blog post.  

God bless the edit button.  

Monday, July 6, 2009

Movie Review: JCVD - Van Damme Flexes His Heart Muscle

I have never thought much of Jean-Claude Van Damme, so one has to wonder why I would watch this movie. It's called JCVD, starring one Jean-Claude Van Damme, or, as he admits (partially) in the movie: Jean-Claude Camille Francois Van Vaerenbergh. Good job to whoever told him to get a stage name.

This, however, is anything but a typical Van Vaerenbergh movie. The plot is deliciously, if not a bit ridiculously, self-referential. The Muscles from Brussels plays himself in this film. He is a huge action movie star who feels that all of his movies are crappy, low-budget action movies that will never amount to anything. As his director asks in the opening scene, "He still thinks we're making Citizen Kane?" In other words, this actor, Jean-Claude Van Vaerenbergh, longs to create art, and we can only imagine this film is his attempt to do just that.

At the beginning of the movie, he gets into a custody battle over his daughter after his most recent movie shoot, hits some money problems, and heads back to Brussels to try to "get a new start". A few minutes later, we see him making demands from the police chief from inside of post office full of hostages. He's now starring in his own personal real-life action movie. It's an interesting interpretation of "get a new start", but let's roll with it.

I won't go into much more detail about the plot because I severely hate spoilers, but the movie was actually pretty enjoyable. I won't say I loved it, but I genuinely liked it. The movie is entirely in French, though I saw a dubbed version, but I didn't mind too much. The acting seemed competent, and I found myself really sympathizing with JCCFVV as an actor as he laments his "plight" of being an international movie star. At other times though, the movie almost gets a bit preachy; you get the feeling that this is a Belgian movie defending their international superstar and trying to play him up to the world, including a bizarre prayer/rant sequence that calls out American moviegoers.

There were a few other interesting characters in the movie, and some plot turns that had me guessing. The filming seemed quite good (the opening action sequence was cool and done entirely in one take) and the musical score was effective, if not almost a bit over-dramatic at times. I get the feeling this director would do an excellent horror movie if he hasn't already.

There were a few plot inconsistencies - some characters didn't really act in a way that made sense, and there were some loose ends I would have preferred to have been tied up, but it was fun to see JC2FV2 playing a serious, dramatic role, and doing a decent job at it. All in all I enjoyed it - check it out if you're feeling like something a bit different. I give it a 7 / 10.

Plus, for those following my Netflix Diet, this was 90 minutes of elliptical work - so go me. :)

Thursday, July 2, 2009

The Netflix Diet

I wonder how motivational it'll be to give some personal details about myself publicly where they can be read by...well, no one at this point...and know that I have pressure from complete strangers to actually keep working and progressing.

I'm a little heavier than I, or my doctor, would like me to be. At about 5'9", my 202 pounds puts me just shy of a 30 BMI. Ideally, I'd be down in the 170 range. I've been down as low as 185 a few summers ago (from my previous high of 215). I'm not morbidly obese - I can still run a 5K in under 30 minutes - but I could use some work.

My plan of attack, like last time I set out to lose weight, is a combination of diet and exercise. Amazing how well such a simple combination works. I tried the South Beach diet once. That was a disaster. I didn't enjoy eating any more, but much worse I found myself blacking out after exercising, presumably due to the conspicuous lack of carbs. I changed instead to some portion control, smarter snacking, only water to drink, and minimal/no desert. Combine that with 45 minutes of rowing and running 5 days a week and I shed almost 30 pounds in 6 weeks.

I'm now hoping to do that again, although the timeframe isn't as pressing (last time my girlfriend was out of the country for 6 weeks and I decided to surprise her). I started at 206 pounds in May of 2009.

Step one was to acquire an elliptical since I no longer had access to the university gym. We landed a pretty sweet NordicTrack AudioStrider 990 on Craigslist for a very reasonable price. I started using it occasionally - a few times a week, but nothing regular enough to really have a large impact, having dropped only 4 pounds in 2 months.

Where does Netflix come in? Well, I used to watch movies. A lot. I was in a movie club. I was a member of BlockbusterOnline. I rented movies constantly when I was home alone in the evenings in my apartment. In the past year, I've lacked the time and the opportunity to watch many movies, and I've missed that.

This morning, I decided to get up and hop on the elliptical, but instead of watching some TV, I booted up Netflix on my Xbox 360 (which is freakin' awesome by the way) and started watching JCVD (review to come in a few days). I got 30 minutes into it when my running program ended, and then I stopped it. I don't get to watch more until I run again, which is some great motivation.

Now, I'm going to be able to get my exercise (might even bump it up to 45 minute programs) and watch tons of movies without feeling like I'm wasting my time. I'll be able to get through almost two movies a week if I run each workday (which is my goal), and then I can write up my reviews here. It's a win-win situation and is dirt cheap: $9 per month and you get 1 out at a time plus unlimited on-demand video. Awesome. :)

Car Allowance Rebate System idiocy

Time for my first Bone to Pick.  This one isn't huge, but it's more than a Nitpick, so it gets to start off the new category.  

What is the Car Allowance Rebate System (beyond one of the less awkward but still silly government backronyms)?  It is a plan pushed through by Obama to incentivize purchasing of more fuel efficient cars.  I'm not exactly sure where the money for it is coming from, but assuming funding is available, it seems like a pretty sweet plan.  It stimulates the ailing car market (which we all own stock in, so yay for stimulation), promotes and raises awareness of fuel efficiency in cars, and even helps to just generally make everyone happier.  Not too shabby.  You can read more about the details at

So, where's my complaint?  The basic plan goes like this: you trade in your old vehicle and buy or lease a new one with better gas mileage, and the government gives you an instant rebate of $3500 to $4500, which is pretty awesome.  I'm looking to get rid of a '99 Ford Taurus with a busted air conditioner and blah gas mileage.  In order to be eligible, the new car must cost less than $45,000 and have a mileage increase of at least 4 mpg.  Damn, no Denali.  I guess I can settle.  Honestly, we were pondering a new Prius, with an EPA estimated 46 mpg.  The old car must be in working order, less than 25 years old, and have an EPA estimated combined mileage of 18 mpg or less.  

Cool.  Check.  Check.  And...shit.  Ford Taurus: EPA mileage of 19 mpg.  Are you freaking kidding me?  So yeah, I'm ticked off because this hurts me personally, but it also led me to think about the implications.  The government would rather you trade in your 18 mpg car for a 22 mpg car (increase of 22%), than trade in a 19 mpg car for a 46 mpg car (increase of 142%)?  That's absolutely ridiculous.  Something like: "must be at least 4 mpg increase, or for cars over 20 mpg must increase by at least 30%" would have made a lot of sense and had much farther reaching benefits.  But no, apparently we're only aiming to get rid of the worst of the worst and don't care about trying to really push everyone to really improve their mileage.   

Perhaps it's an effect of having limited cash.  Perhaps they just had enough money to be able to focus on the worst offenders, and I suppose that makes sense.  But geez - I was all excited about going full-on green (well, just shy of a sparkly new Tesla Model S), but because Ford made my car just efficient enough I'm out about $4000.  Nice.