Wednesday, May 28, 2008

And then I felt a little better

No matter how much time I feel like I'm wasting playing video games, I have miles to go before I equal this in terms of production and spectacle.

Thank you, Interweb.

See more funny videos at CollegeHumor

Saturday, May 24, 2008

GTA V - The Windy City's Hail of Gunfire

I had a family from New York on one of my tours this week and in between discussions on the wonders of water filtration and sketchy government dealings one of the kids started talking about Grand Theft Auto IV.

It gave me something to think about from my childless ivory tower when the mom in the group said that she preferred being able to supervise her kids as they played video games at home because they'd otherwise be playing the games at someone else's house.

It wasn't really clear whether she was allowing her kids to play the game or not, but I still have no idea how I'd handle that situation. Either get the game and have all hell break loose in the home or worry about them playing it at a friend's house and being exposed to all the same foul language and unmitigated violence and destruction a few blocks away.

Tough call.

One of the kids said they really loved the game because it was set in New York. Considering the ongoing competition between New York and Chicago, I'd be lying if I said I wasn't very, very jealous of that 15-year-old right then.

A quick glance through Wikipedia lists a long history of losers in the video games set in Chicago department. Aside from a handful of racing games which held their own. I can only imagine the horrors locked away in the Blues Brothers 2000 video game, a cash grab on an awful awful movie.

The bottom line is that there's no real blockbuster title in the bunch.

The GTA treatment has been given to New York City, Miami, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York City again. When's our turn?

For such a good looking and iconic city, we can't get one lousy video game on a next-gen system? Is there any sort of voting process that we can rig? We're pretty good at that.

Sure, we have a governor that picks on the game industry and its rating system and a city that won't allow GTA ads on the sides of city buses, but what better way to avenge that than setting a video game in a fiction twin for the Windy City?

Until then, I guess Chicago gamers will just have to settle for spot-on recreations for Wrigley Field, US Cellular Field and Soldier Field. Well, that, and a Blues Brothers game that has probably been confiscated by the government and buried in a very deep, dark hole at this point.

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Wednesday, May 21, 2008

A solar-powered airplane! We'll call it "The Icarus!"

It's pretty difficult to ignore the rising gas prices this summer, regardless if you commute to work daily or just watch the prices at the grocery store climb as it becomes more expensive to ship any sort of product from Point A to Point B.

Was it only a year ago that I was aghast at gas sold for $3 per gallon? Man, I miss the gold old days of 2007.

When people are scouring the country for used Geo Metros as a cost-effective alternative, things are getting out of control. That was, until American Airlines announced its new policy of charging $15 to check just one bag if you want to fly with them.

While it's somewhat plausible that the United States will eventually move towards something other than petroleum to power its vehicles - just as soon as the energy barons find a way to consistently charge for it - how the hell are they going to pack enough batteries into a plane and still have it remain airborne?

Occasionally, I wonder about the possibility of a major sport falling off the map and never being heard of again. Given the issues with each sport at any point in the past decade, it's hard to ignore the fact that one could spin out and just be gone and only be heard from again on trivia night.

I've been having those thoughts regarding the use of gasoline - mainly regarding the wisdom of purchasing a classic car that might not have the fuel to run it in 30 years - but I can't imagine how this will hit the airline industry.

To go from a point where airplanes rides were luxury items, reserved for the very rich, to affordable, accessible flights in under 50 years is one of the wonders of the 20th century. Flights have gone from the cheaper alternative to driving - both in terms of actual and opportunity costs - to being slowly priced out of the average American's vacation plans. Coupled with gas at over $4 per gallon and the only viable alternative may soon be simply staying at home.

The bigger question looming is whether air travel will remain an affordable option long enough to try and find some wiggle room in terms of providing power for the jets.

Think it's far fetched?

Check out the Wall Street Journal, via

Scott McCartney, who writes the Wall Street Journal's "Middle Seat" column, has some thoughts about what consumers can expect from airlines, now that oil has hit $130 a barrel. He says that "he change in oil prices from a year ago to today translates into $24.6 billion in added fuel costs for passengers and cargo airlines on an annualized basis," which is more than the airline industry has ever earned— its best year saw $5.3 billion in earnings.

Oh, that's not good. Not good at all.

(Image from:

Monday, May 19, 2008

Truck is a dirty word in Chicago

I'll admit that I'm in the minority here in Chicago by owning my own vehicle and the fact that said vehicle is a truck.

Of the five people in my apartment building, my wife and I own both cars. As younger folks in the city, the three people downstairs have no vehicles between them. I've tried to be as unapproachable as possible to ward off any conversations regarding borrowing my truck.

Sure, I'd be happy to drive someone to the hospital in an emergency - but if there's blood, they're riding in the bed, no doubt about it.

It's no secret that the city would prefer that I drive something more sensible, like a Honda Accord, that takes up less space, adds less to the carbon footprint of the city and isn't so tough on the streets.

But there's the rub.

I drive a Ford Ranger that is small in comparison to modern SUVs and sips gas by comparison. I can't help but be a little frustrated when shelling out $180 for my yearly city sticker. Where do I file an appeal?

For those who haven't had the pleasure of purchasing city stickers, Chicago requires a sticker for street parking every year. In theory, you're paying for city services that are required by vehicle owners and they're more than happy to ticket the hell out of you for non-compliance. For newbies to the city, get ready to see those tickets pile up through the end of June as the city nails people who skated by without a sticker this year.

(Additionally, here is the link for online sticker purchase if you don't feel like standing in line at the local currency exchange for what will seem like hours on end.)

As a fairly rational person, I saw the difference between sticker charges - $75 for a car and $180 for a truck - and tried to work out the price jump. Trucks are usually heavier, creating a disproportionate amount of wear and tear on the roads and, they're longer, taking up more space, even when parked on the street.

The funny thing is that when I was looking up the vehicle weight for the form, I needed another vehicle to compare it to, so I chose my wife's six-cylinder coupe.

The tale of the tape shows that my truck gets roughly the same gas mileage (two miles better in the city, two miles worse on the highway) and is just over a foot longer. Still, the truck costs twice the price, but is a hair narrower and only 18 pounds heavier. So much for the wear and tear theory.

I understand the idea behind different plates for the big trucks and why the city tries to police the scrapper trucks that patrol the alleys of the city for reusable junk and metal. I understand the law keeping bigger pickups off Lake Shore Drive, even if I think it's stupid.

But to charge extra for a truck, regardless of the license plates, which for smaller trucks are the same as the city's cars? How can I not feel screwed?

If I'm going to pay for it, I'm getting my money's worth - if you need to find my truck, it'll be the one parked diagonally, halfway on the sidewalk.

(Photo taken for Siberia, Minnesota - it's my Toby Keith portrait of the old truck, strategically hiding the destroyed rear fender on the passenger side.)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

If only life were this beautiful

Everyone thank NAD for finding this and putting it up as his away message for his Gmail account.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Knowledge for the sake of knowledge

One of the lasting memories I have from a few months in Mr. Ferarra's high school Spanish class is his insistence that "man is the only animal with the ability to deceive himself."

Despite hundreds of hours spent watching nature documentaries, two years of spent at the training school working with dogs and living with a handful of lower level primates in my freshman dorm, I have yet to disprove that statement.

While I assume Frank's fondest memories of the class are from the comedy of a mini-lecture on exactly why Ronald Reagan was the devil, that one comment on humanity is the big thing that has stuck with me to the cusp of my 30s.

Man is the only animal with the ability to deceive himself.

That was the big thought in my mind last week as I tried to wrap my head around the idea that I'd be heading back to school within the next year. More than that, I was looking forward to it and would prefer to spend more time in the classroom, versus the online classwork. Flash back to 1998 and you'd see me, in a bar or a crowded house party, loudly defending my assertion that I didn't need to be in that (expletive deleted) class because I didn't need to prove to some professor that I was smart enough to carry a conversation.

Rotate that perspective a few degrees and you'd see an out of control 20-year-old, deceiving himself.

It's amazing how easily we can all rationalize any decision we make, to put ourselves in a better light and make ourselves feel better even if we suspect we might be wrong.

So, that's where I am tonight - a little sad that many of the classes that will transfer are the ones I enjoyed the most and won't need to retake them. I'm a little surprised at just how far along the line I've moved and now see much more intrinsic value in classroom time and peer discussion.

Time spent in the classroom lacked value because I wasn't ready to make it a priority.

If things are already this different, I can only imagine how strange 2009 is going to be.

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Friday, May 09, 2008

Disasters, mitigated and otherwise

In my life, I've learned there are things you share with the world and those that are best kept to yourself. This, of course, is beyond the usual categories of starting salaries and social diseases - though those are good places to start in the keeping your mouth shut business.

Ernest Hemingway supposedly said that the surest way to defeat an unwritten novel is to start telling people that you're writing a novel. Apparently, applying for colleges is kind of like that, too.

When I showed up for my meeting two weeks ago, the meeting with admissions lasted roughly eight seconds. For those who are looking for the breakdown there, eight seconds will qualify as a good ride on a bull, but is only long enough for someone to open an envelope, shake their head and say they're sorry.

With the admissions standards, my failing grades from a decade ago meant that a standard undergrad transfer was out of the question. Luckily, there were a few options available, including a continuing education school, which meant a crash course on the differences between mitigated and unmitigated disasters.

With a week between the first meeting and a second one with the School of New Learning, there was plenty of time to be angry and annoyed and to openly question why a school that prides itself on education for all would put so much weight behind a series of grades from nearly a decade ago.

In trying to decide exactly how much effort would be too much - much like deciding how much money to bring into a casino - I surprised myself at just how much things had changed for me, primarily in the newfound premium I was placing on education's intrinsic value.

The difference is nothing short of night and day.

After a week's delay, the pieces are back in place for a fall/winter return, with the course load looking completely manageable. I'm really looking forward to the math requirements. It's almost impossible to go 0-for-4 in college level math courses, right?

No, tell me, I failed statistics at least once.

(Image from:

The most important thing in everyone's little world

A few months ago, I had to use some insurance money that was set aside for glasses or contacts and made an appointment at random when my usual eye doctor couldn't get me in before the deadline.

The plan was simple, get in, get a basic eye exam and a set of glasses. Contacts would have to wait for the money to reset.

Midway through the exam, the doctor was going over my chart and tried to put together the dates provided.

It had been roughly two years since I'd had my eyes checked, but I was still using contacts. Anyone who has ever done business with an online contact lens seller knows that regardless of the date on your prescription, they'll ship those suckers out the next day.

I'd heard stories of someone who used to "fix" her prescription as she saw fit by tweaking the numbers when she placed the orders. Something tells me that they aren't really checking those too stringently.

This was all news to the eye doctor. And he was pissed.

It just goes to show that whatever your little corner of the world entails in terms of work or hobbies, becomes a major point of contention for the strangest reasons. I'd bet that the same eye doctor who is so upset about out of date contact lens prescriptions lets his oil light go a few days before seeing a mechanic or forgets to properly manage the cables in his home entertainment center.

It's amazing to think that there was a time in human history when someone could theoretically know all there was to know in their society. Now it's impossible to know a fraction of that today, which isn't such a bad thing.

I guess I'll try and be a bit more forgiving of the sloppy speaker installs in shops at the mall and at crummy family restaurants in the future, but I'm not making any promises. It is a very important facet of modern life that is often overlooked and could lead to utter disaster.

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Thursday, May 08, 2008

Frozen time and turtles that can beat your ass

The Martian Child - John Cusack does the whole confused / troubled normal guy better than anyone around. One question remains. Can he act without his sister in the same movie?

Meet the Robinsons - Fun cartoon based on what looks like a cool kids book. The Tyrannosaurus who can't get the kid and starts whining is just as funny as it was on the trailers. Good stuff.

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - I was at the tail end of the age group for the first movie, but still love it. This movie was good eye candy, if for no other reason than to see where CGI stuff stands. Also, ninja turtles.

Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story - Kind of crappy. A bit self-indulgent and not all that great. Tim Meadows is priceless in his scenes, though.

Cashback - Really cool little movie about a grocery store stockboy who can freeze time. Outstanding "what if" premise. Based on an Oscar-winning short film, so the full length seems a little stretched, but still good.

(Image from:

Monday, May 05, 2008

More than you ever wanted to know about Superman

My Kid Could Paint That - Hit on this one already. It makes me even more frustrated with the whole modern art movement. Poor kid.

Enchanted - I thought it'd be a little more brutal in making fun of the whole Disney/fairy tale genre. I was wrong. Still, you can't beat a cleaning, singing rat.

Confessions of a Superhero - Really, really great documentary about the characters who pose for pictures with tourists in Hollywood that contains beautiful still photos as well. From a mildly delusional Superman to a Batman with major anger issues, plenty of fun people here. Funny when it shouldn't be.

Into the Wild - Super duper long, but worth seeing. I was looking forward to this movie for a long while. Fell a little flat for me overall.

Reign Over Me - Great movie and surprisingly deep characters for Adam Sandler. Remember how much you liked Punch Drunk Love or Stranger Than Fiction? It's like that.

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GTA IV is released, people who don't understand it cry

I've made the point here before that one of the major reasons I have an Xbox 360 and not a Wii is because of Microsoft's stable of games.

As someone who grew up with video games, my tastes have changed and I respect the fact that Sony and Microsoft can respect that. Not to knock the Wii, but it makes games for families and younger gamers and that's where they've found the ground to kill the other two systems in sales.

That said, as an adult, if I want to play violent games with zero redeeming social qualities, leave me the hell alone.

Still, whenever a new game comes out, people get upset and cry and holler about the need to protect our children and their delicate little minds. Considering GTA is marketed to older gamers, and is tagged as a "Mature" title - meaning no one under 17 is supposed to be allowed to buy or rent it, the whole argument seems pretty stupid.

This is just the current generation's battle ground for rebellion and a need for a ounce of parental interest and intervention. Where kids in my age group grew up with movies that were off limits, while others did not, video games are playing out in much the same manner.

I realized that I was part of the country's problem with language and violence while playing the last generation of GTA when I was shocked by the language and not the violence after playing for a little while. I decided I'd never let any of my kids play a game like that, if for no reason than to keep them from dropping N-bombs on the playground.

While that would take a degree of interest in a child's life and enough street smarts to realize that a child shouldn't be allowed to play any video game they can afford, I think it's practically the least a parent can do to help police their children's intake of mature content.

With a need to supervise kids online as well as what they can access on cable television, it shouldn't be that much to ask. Oh, and there's the parental warning labels on the game as mentioned above. It really can't be much simpler.

Here's the bottom line - while op-ed pieces like this one just recycle the "think of the children" company line from years past, no one discusses the fact that no one from the gaming industry of the publisher, Rockstar, says that kids should be involved with the game.

It's the equivalent of wondering what's being done to protect kids from the evil clutches of AARP. Neither is designed with kids in mind.

(As a side note, in amongst the foul language and senseless violence, there is actually a pretty solid storyline. This is light years ahead of games less than a decade ago, which makes arguments that draw parallels between movies and games that much stronger. Don't get me wrong, there's plenty of violence and awful behavior, but not at the expense of a solid gaming experience. While I realize that anyone railing on against the game won't care, it's still worth throwing out there. It's also worth noting that the game lets you decide your path with regards to saving people that the crimelords send you out to kill. Make a judgment call and you get a different in-game plot depending on which way you choose to go.)

From the Star-Trib opinion piece:

Research confirms that violent media increase young people's aggressive thoughts and behavior and decrease their self-control and the inclination to help others. Adolescents who play violent video games tend to be more hostile, to argue more with teachers, to get into more physical fights, and to do more poorly in school, one national study reports.

Really? Kids who somehow get access to violent and wildly inappropriate video games don't do well in school? No kidding. I wonder if you find those same types of behaviors and grades at the intersection of populations of kids who have parents who aren't around the house much and those that have parents who want to be buddies and buy them whatever they want.

I'm betting there's some correlation there.

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