Putting Things on Notice


I’m calling you out, Andy Dick!

I read on a semi-well-known TV blog that this guy created an internet page that generated Stephen Colbet-style “On Notice” lists. All you have to do is type in whatever you want to put on notice, hit a button and a picture will be generated that you’ll be able to save. Not sure why you’d really want to save it; perhaps to post on your blog review site, or maybe just to show it to your friends.

Now don’t get me wrong; I think the application created to do this with is pretty cool, and I like Colbert’s list and the general idea of it, but I’m not quite sold on people creating their own lists. Stephen Colbert has a national show where showing off this list of things he’s upset with will reach a wide audience. The only thing that making a list for yourself accomplishes is the sense that you now know where things stand, as in you have a concrete ranking of what you hate most, and in what order. Maybe your friends might appreciate it and you’ll all get a laugh out of it. But it won’t make a difference in the real world, and you’ll only be left with the comfort of knowing that you complained about something, even though you did it to no one in particular. Kind of like bloggers. In fact, if I had another spot, I’d throw bloggers on there as well.

The whole “not being seen by anyone” thing is sort of worked around by being able to see on the site, the last 100 lists that were made. Of course, half the time, the people don’t fill in all the boxes and many of them are just the defaults, and a lot of the lists are just excuses to throw profanity out there, but sometimes there are some good ones, like “planes without snakes”, the WNBA, Billy Bush, Cut-off shorts, and strangely enough, Charlie Dent.


Just for good measure. By the by, don’t you hate pants?

***
Three stars for idea and execution. Minus 2 stars for a lack of real purpose, including the usual internet “busying yourself” excuse. I do invite readers to create their own lists and post them for my viewing pleasure, even if it’s not in picture form.

Empty Bookshelf’s First 100 Reviews


Oh, those kids. Always at it. You guys really shouldn’t’ve.

So here we are at the first of what may be a few reviews of our first milestone, 100 reviews. Not only is this the first review of this milestone, but of what could be very many milestones. We here at the Bookshelf like the word “milestone“, and don’t believe in Thesauruses. So here we go, our first hundred in a nutshell.

The first actual review happened way back in October of 2005… remember that time before the Steelers won the superbowl, before “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” movie, before Dick Cheny accidentally shot his friend while hunting, and before Bristol, United Kingdom celebrated the 200th birthday of Isambard Kingdom Brunel (actually April 9) by relighting the Clifton Suspension Bridge?

Dan’s first review was aimed at complaining about post-game hype surrounding an extremely long baseball game. Of course our readers probably care about boring Astros-Braves baseball games as much as they seemed to care about my terrible review of the dictionary. Even though that picture was good, it was nowhere near the five star quality of this image. I too tried my hand at reviewing food, but it was an utter failure. On the plus side, my review of the letter to the editor is one of my favorites, and my first review actually got eight comments, including this link. The few following that grilled chese review focused mostly on music, my opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”, a particular episode of Trading Spouses, and Dan’s opinion of My opinion of “Good Night, and Good Luck”. Dan also said that the Colbert report wouldn’t last, which seems to have been proven false.

October seemed to be us finding our footing.
***

November saw Dan’s Cleveland Trifecta, a diatribe against horses, a road that he liked, an episode of “Coach“, and his complaints about how much he aches, now that he’s an old man. I started the month strong with the Beth review, but struggled through the rest of it, with lame reviews like Thursday, a type of tooth”paste” that doesn’t work for me, and an insightful, yet completely unnecessary complaint about my nosebleeds. My FAO Schwarz review kinda made up for them, but the highlight of the month involved Dan and I sparring about how Christmas is coming earlier every year, and something about me being a time-traveling sheep.

November didn’t see much improvement over October, but the Christmas stuff was entertaining.
***½

December got a bit better, even with a few less reviews. I busted out the old NES games, for a few reviews that I swear are not trying to copy off of XE, another personal favorite, Christmas Cards, Adam’s first review, Dan throwing the hate down on Pitchfork media, and a suprising amount of people commenting on Roger Ebert’s take on video games. The biggest advance in December was the pop-ins, that added added some clarity to our parentheses-obsessed-writing.

December was a highly engaging and entertaining month, even with only nine reviews.
****½

2006 rolled around, and January saw Dan get political, review half of a book, not like warm winters a lot. I only contributed three of ten reviews that month, but all three of them were relatively alright, mostly because “Where In Time is Carmen Sandiego“, and “The Simpsons” after season 9 is so easy to complain about.

January’s topics fell off a little.
***½

February, while being the shortest month, was also a monster for us, as far as number goes. A whopping twenty-one reviews. To be fair, 17 of them came in our envelope-pushing live superbowl reviews, the biggest stunt pulled in the history of reviewing anything and everything on a five star scale. The only other reviews of any substance were my Gauntlet Review of the Beatles albums, and Dan’s digging up of our one-issue underground high-school newspaper.

Despite the big stunt, and two good reviews, February was kinda lacking.
**½

March just plain sucked. Four reviews total. One by me. Three megareviews by Dan.

½

April was slightly better, with another of my top five of my reviews, Legacy of the Wizard. The other four I would give an average of 3 stars to, but since there were only four during the month, that’s going to cancel out the Legacy of the Wizard bonus and take it down a half star.

**½

For my money, May was our best month yet. Dan’s contribution was the lengthy three-part TV landscape review. I threw out quality stuff with my Songs for Silverman, and Degree Navigator reviews. The shorter American Dreamz and Davinci Code video game reviews were serviceable, but my immense LOST season 2 review tops everything.

*****

June fell off a bit. Four reviews total. Split two and two. Mine were based on a ridiculous news story, and anger at other people for coincidentally coming up with the same ideas as me. Dan tried to put everything into perspective by seeing how well the entire history of human ingenuity and artistry stacked up in the interstellar community, and complained a little about how the national geography of roadways isn’t designed to suit his needs.

**

July was filled with the (I gotta admit my ignorance as to the relevance of this phrase… and wikipedia does nothing to help) Navel Gazing set. I was had for a few minutes by a Jimmy Kimmel hoax, and I thought the critics were a little too harsh on Shayamalan. Despite the mediocre numbers for the month, I’d give it a 3.5

***½

This gives us a per-month average of 3 stars, which isn’t too shabby.

In my first ever review, I reviewed the concept of this website. I claimed that we wouldn’t be able to keep it fresh, that we’d run out of ideas, and that we wouldn’t be able to stay somewhat funny at least. I believe my exact quote was “It has the potential to provide hours of entertainment for readers, and shape their lives for years to come. However, the downside is that it could get old real soon, and provide us with nothing but an excuse not to get real jobs.”

Well, I think we’ve significantly proven wrong every single point that I just brought up. We have 29 categories, 19 subcategories, and even two sub-sub categories. We’re still writing about reasonably different things, and while we may have slacked on the funny in recent months, we still bring the ‘A’ game on occasion. As far as my quote goes, I’d be willing to bet that we’ve provided maybe a few hours of entertainment for a handful of people, which probably did nothing to shape their lives for even the near fututre. On the upside, it hasn’t gotten old, and we have gotten real-ish jobs.

For all of these reasons, I’m willing to up our star rating by half a star, over the average rating of 3. I’ve also realized that my method of calculating the rating might not be the best, so I’m gonna throw in another half star for a final rating of 4 stars out of five.

****

And for those of you playing along at home, yes, this technically is the 100th review and so therefore should be included. This review receives 3 stars for not having much to offer in the way of witty musings, and for having a faulty overall rating method, but for packing so many subjects and links into one review.

***

The Degree Navigator Class Registration System


They kinda look like the Azores.

With the one-year anniversary of my college graduation taking place on May 16th, I figured I’d write something about my college experience, something that the few of you who read this that went to Ithaca would be able to relate to and feel nostalgic about. I decided early however, that I wasn’t just going to do a review on my college experience, as that would seem too “Dear Diary” for me. I wasn’t going to complain about the “food” in the Campus Center Dining hall ad nauseum, because I’m sure that’s been done to death… and most people move off campus or to the Circle Apartments and don’t deal with the “Double C” for their last year or two. I wasn’t going to complain about the curriculum, mostly because those issues have been dealt with, starting with the class after me, and they’re much better off for it. Lastly, I wasn’t going to offer warm and fuzzy memories of how great all my friends were, the teachers were, the facilities were, and my extracurricular opportunities and the semester in L.A. were.

What else could there be to complain about/praise? Well if you haven’t guessed by reading the title, I’ll put it bluntly: The method of registering for classes that we used.

Let me preface this all by saying that before computers were used, I have absolutely no idea how a class registration system could be fair. I can assume that people wrote down on a piece of paper the classes that they needed, and the classes that they wanted and turned it in and waited for the results… sort’ve like in high school, where your guidance counselor spent 25 minutes convincing you to take a bunch of extra classes that you didn’t come in wanting, (of course, taking some time out in the middle of the meeting to take a call from his real estate side-job) only to find that when your schedule arrived weeks later, you weren’t enrolled in any of the classes anyway. Maybe that was just me. But by handing in forms that said what you wanted your schedule to look like, how were students to be guaranteed that those were the classes they were going to get? What if classes were filled? What if new sections that students were switched into conflicted with other classes the student wanted to take? How did the administration decide what order to take individual registrations? Obviously by credit amount, but what about students who were at the same grade level, with the same amount of credits?

island” view, which conveniently showed you what your different requirements were (as in communications, non-comm, liberal arts [a phrase whose meaning still eludes me], and the various requirements within each major) shown in the form of colorful islands floating on a bright blue background. When you rolled your mouse over them, it showed what you had completed and what you were still required to take. I believe that those might’ve been shown in pie chart form, but I could be wrong.

You would go to the registrar’s website, and there would be a link to register for classes. Clicking on it would open the application, as sort’ve an advanced pop-up window with forms. This was the degree navigator. You’d go over to the selection tab, type the course number into the spot for it, and hit enter. The course description and section times would come up, and you were allowed to add the classes to your schedule. You would then have to go over to the side where all the selected classes were and individually finalize the registration for each class. If there were island” thing, which was more for telling you what classes you had done and what you needed to do, rather than for registering.

The problem was in the actual method by which the whole student body was meant to register. It happened during the course of a week and a half every semester. A different group registered every day, starting with students in the honors program (i don’t know that i ever met any of them), then freshmen, then seniors (yes freshmen got to register before seniors), juniors, and sophomores… of course all of those were divided up into first and second semester students, via credits. So each day of registering saw students within about a 12-18 credit window signing up at the same time. Not too huge of a problem. We weren’t a terribly large school, so it wasn’t like there were more than a few thousand people registering per day. There was no breakdown however, within each day, and so you had a couple thousand people trying to get on the system at the exact same time. That shouldn’t’ve been a problem… after all, there’s at least four times that amount that use the internet at one time, any other time of day or year. The problem however, was that our residential computer network was incredibly unstable to begin with (blamed by the people in charge on the proliferation of computer viruses on the network…. cause I’m sure that other schools don’t have to deal with viruses, and they manage to be epic disaster. The residential network just couldn’t handle the sheer number of people attempting to log on (if you managed to open the program prior to the start time you could open the application, just not log on to actually register). And of course rather than just telling us that we couldn’t be logged on because something somewhere along the line was too busy, it just kept trying to log everyone on. Of course, in the best possible scenario of it not working, the program froze. In the worst, it caused people’s computers to crash, freeze, and quite possibly be thrown out of windows in fits of frustration.

In fact, only serving to exacerbate things more was the registration time. Because classes started at 8 a.m., and the people in charge wanted to make sure that everyone had the same opportunity to get to classes before the seats were filled, the registration window opened at the extremely early 7 a.m. That’s right. Imagine thousands of frustrated college students pissed off at the idea of being shut out of classes and screwed over by the system, dealing with a program that isn’t going to work correctly, having to reboot their computer numerous times, and on top of that, having to get up before 7. At least we had the opportunity to register from the comfort of our own computers, if we could ever get this demon program to operate correctly.

The worst year that I remember was the second semester of my freshman year, registering for sophomore year. It was early April probably, and it was also probably really cold and rainy outside. I just remember sitting at my computer, my comforter draped over me, waiting, complaining to neighbors across the hall and next door. I sat there, knowing I was going to miss my 8 a.m. class. Everyone that I had recently added to my AIM buddy list was in the same boat as I was. People had away messages up about how much they hated the degree navigator, how they wished it would die, and how they were so tired and pissed off in general. Having just gone through a phase of creating new screennames and harrassing people with them, I saw this as an opportunity to pose as the Degree Navigator through IM, asking people why they hated me so much. I was THAT bored and pissed off. People who managed to log on were offering to register other people for classes via phone, but others were skeptical about giving out their registration password for fear that their schedule might be tampered with. It wasn’t until 10:15 that I was able to log on and register, making me late for my 10:25 class. Of course, I got the bottom of the barrel when it came to classes that weren’t course requirements. I can’t remember what I had, but I’m pretty sure that it wasn’t anywhere near what I had in mind the night before.

The following semesters were much of the same, but not taking as long, as more people in my class (year) decided to move off campus, or use the computer labs, which were on a different network, to do their registration. Knowing that I’d probably have to wait in line to use a computer for as long as it would actually take me to register from my room, and not wanting to get dressed at 6:50, and instead go back to bed when I was done, I decided for next few semesters to just ride out the storm in my room. Unlike the people in New Orleans, my decision wasn’t really all that detrimental to my health. Sure it took forever to get logged on, but none of the future attempts took more than an hour. Still, the away messages were up, the people were complaining across the hall, and there was a feeling of bonding.

Without a popular sports team to rally behind (save the one game a year where the entire school went crazy for the football team, mostly because it was an excuse to get drunk at 8 a.m.), or, fortunately, some tragic event that effected everyone at the school (save the September 11th stuff), the universal hatred of the degree navigator registration system brought everyone together. In fact, I’d wager that had somebody decided to sell T-shirts that said “I survived Registration ’02”, they’d probably make enough money for the school to fix the actual problem. To prove my point even more, I typed in “Degree Navigator”+sucks in google, and these are the first two pages it came up with: here and here.

Of course, what this 7 a.m. east coast egistration time meant for me when I was in L.A. was that I had to register at 4 a.m. Pacific Time….and we didn’t have the internet in our apartment. I’m not sure how we got around that, but I know I didn’t walk 3 blocks at 4 a.m. to register at the Ithaca L.A. student center.

The Degree Navigator was a good system in theory, but they say the same thing about communism. There were bigger problems that everyone pretty much blamed on the Navigator, giving it a bad rap.

***½
The Degree Navigator program itself gets three and a half stars. It was mostly easy to navigate, and I’m sure it was a bit more fair and, yes, less of a hassle, than however they did it before it was done by computer. It was pretty much the scapegoat for the entire student body’s issues with registration, and served to bring them together with something unified to complain about.

*
The actual process of class registration gets one star for not having the foresight to see, especially after it happened numerous times before, that the network would get log-jammed by allowing so many people on at once; for not allowing people to get into classes that they needed; and for intruding on the sleep of thousands of students who schedule their earliest class at 11 a.m. for a reason.

Outsourcing Phone Support to India

This topic has been beaten to death by the old and curmudgeonly (namely my dad and others social commentators similar to him), so it’s under no pretenses of originality that I submit this review…

Today, I learned that my name is Dan Suller. I must’ve been underneath a rock the last however many years thinking my last name was Fuller. Beyond that, I apparently live at 281 Linden Street.

Because the price was right, I signed up for Vonage phone service. It’s a bit less than half as much as comparable traditional phone service with the bonus feature that there’s a chance that when you call 911 as you’re being brutally murdered or your house is burning down, 911 won’t be able to pull your address from their phone system and see it on their screen. A win-win proposition. Oh yeah, also if the power goes out while your being murdered or burning alive inside your house-sized oven, Vonage is of no use.

main_pic.jpg
She may be pretty but her phone service sure isn’t.

I had some questions about the phone service, so I decided to call to order instead of placing it online. Actually, the ordering process went fine, it took longer than the online signup would have, but online has the benefit of a keyboard and it being your own darn fault if you mis-enter your billing, etc. information. After going through the whole spelling words out with my own personal phonetic alphabet, “D – as in, uh, … Dan; A as in, hmm, ‘a bird'” and so on (needless to say, the fact that my last name begins with “F-U” makes phonetic spelling quite the undertaking. “F as in, uh….hmm….hold on…[silence on my end]… umm….fox!” Thank god there are no “P’s” in my name. Anyway, we (the customer service person and I) plowed through the “data entry” part, and I was good to go.

Well, not so much. Ten days after that order (which was 8 days after it showed up on my credit card statement), the “starter kit” never came. I realized I had specified a Vonage.com user name for checking my account, paying bills, upgrading, etc. so I thought I could dig up the tracking number for the package through there. I had used my Gmail account to set up the Vonage service, so I used “dancfuller” as my user name but it wouldn’t go through. There was a default password set, but it naturally didn’t work. I tried the “e-mail me my password,” and that’s when I learned that there was no account with the username “dancfuller,” the one that I had definitely signed up with and had been definitely billed for.

I called customer service, was on hold for only a minute or so and talked to a woman who kept asking if I was having “MAC address” issues (a computer network-related problem) to which I kept saying, “No, I have not and still have not received the startup kit from Vonage.” She tried pulling up my account, but again, no username “dancfuller” and no user “Dan (Or Daniel) Fuller” but a very real entry on my credit card statement. She realized it was out of her control and passed me on to “level two” tech support, probably some guy hiding behind a curtain. More likely, a guy that you’ll end up waiting on hold for 45 minutes then deciding against it and figuring you’ll just go through the painful process of exchanging one e-mail a day with their e-mail service department until it’s finally taken care of. During these 45 minutes, I was looking online and of course, found lots of people with horror stories about Vonage’s support, and going in, I knew it was supposed to be spotty, I just figured that as long as the whole phone over the internet thing got going, I could hopefully troubleshoot anything that’d come up without relying on Vonage’s “representatives,” but being that the “getting it going” part had been duffed by someone at Vonage, I had had enough of sort of being their customer. 45 minutes was too long, so I hung up the phone. Realizing that probably wasn’t going to get any help from their e-mail service (I somehow didn’t technically have an account with them and the first step in the customer service process is verifying that they’re spending their time on an actual customer, I’d be in a bad position. Of course I couldn’t cancel online (and I’m sure that it wouldn’t have worked if I could have), but they do make it look like you can (look through the support tree). That number goes to general Vonage technical support (in India) and once you get through the menus in that system trying to find the “cancel service” option, you’ll be on hold for a short time (a couple minutes), explain you want to cancel, then they’ll say you need to call a different number. That number is 1-800-681-4094. To make sure it shows up well in search results, here it is very obviously. The direct number to cancel Vonage is 1-800-681-4094. You’ll be on hold for a while (mine was 20ish minutes), but that’s the only way.

I talked to someone decidedly in the United States (not that someone in India couldn’t help me….oh wait) and of course he couldn’t access my account either, but he could look up my account via my credit card number. Let’s all note that this means that Vonage doesn’t do any name check against the credit card (I’m not sure this is standard procedure for online orders elsewhere or not). To a computer “Dan Suller” is just as much not equal to the name on my credit card as “Willem Smythe” would be.

So, that’s how I found out that my last name was Suller. Which means that the username associated with my account was dancsuller, and the e-mail address associated with it was “dancsuller@gmail.com.” (that explains why I never received a confirmation e-mail) So that’s three birds with one stone. But wait! There’s more! I needed the kit shipped to a different address than the billing address, but of course those were inverted and the billing address was just plain old wrong. There’s nothing like a phone company having problems with the audio clarity during the ordering process. Quality product, no doubt.

The person I talked to cancelled my account, and pre-refunded the various equipment return and cancellation fees (hey, Vonage doesn’t have contracts, they just charge you a fee if you cancel before an arbitrary amount time has passed….an arbitrary amount of time such as one year) that will show up on my credit card . I’m not sure what the solution is, but Vonage isn’t it. I guess it’s (finally) time I get my cell phone converted to a local number, as I never considered land line (or sort of land line, such as Vonage) phone service all that necessary. The guy’s recommendation was that I just sign up for all of it online to avoid the hearing/clarity/accent issues inherent with having the call center in India.

*

Outsourcing Phone Support to India receives 1 star due to problems with phone infrastructure, accents, and cheap American companies. Global Economy schlobal economy. I have nothing against people from India, the problems I had weren’t related to them “as a people,” but with Vonage’s reliance on it/them because the labor rate is so low. The accent issue isn’t really too bad, but the phone service (ironic in this case) at the call center is awful. I’d guess that someone decided to save money and limit the call bandwidth to a notch below “nominal” for the entire facility. I’ve had similar issues with Dell’s call center audio, and it’s like talking to someone in a third world country (hmm…). Dell’s was especially bad because the system is all about referencing “service tags” and easily muddled strings of letters and numbers. I’m not sure what the solution is. There are some industries where foreign workers can do just as good a job (or better) work than Americans and save the companies lots of money because of the insanely low labor rates, but being that the phone system (at a phone company) was so shoddy, in general American companies are probably more accurately “cheap” than “thrifty.” If the work involved speaking/conversation, I’d hope that companies think twice before committing to inevitable “accent issues.” They spent so little on the phone system that when the initial order representative phonetically spelled my name, it sounded fine to me. Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that she messed up the “bill to:/ship to:” section of the order. I’m sure that they could’ve found more technically proficient people in India to staff their support/ordering center. I’d make some sort of comment here about how in any case, Indian people are good at making bathrooms smell like a wolverine that has been dead for three weeks after an acute case of garlic poisoning, but that’d be culturally insensitive and not that funny. Really though, at college I shared a bathroom with a wolverine. It was awful.

The Apple iPod Nano

I’m no Apple fanboy. I appreciate the industrial design that goes into their products and the whole “look and feel” aspect of their physical products. In terms of their software, I’ve not used their operating system enough to have a complete opinion of it, though I don’t lust after it as some people who don’t own Apple computers do as Windows works fine for me. I don’t appreciate how Apple makes it difficult to download Quicktime without iTunes, and I also don’t like how iTunes (like pretty much every other commercial media player) steals my file associations when I install it. I wouldn’t agree that Apple is a superior “multimedia platform,” having done boatloads of work on my PC for print, photo, audio, and especially DVD and video without having any problems that could be traced back to the fact that I was running Windows (or Windows-specific software). BUT, to be honest, like so many things, it’s not really the “product” that bothers me, but the people in love with that “product.” Apple is particularly egregious because their TV commercials cater to that market of fanboys (and fangirls) instead of telling them to get a damn haircut. I’d include all of this if only because most people would probably give me a weird look if I were on the record recommending an Apple product.

Nano
Whitey’s always putting himself first.

In terms of the MP3 player market, Apple’s obviously a huge success. For some idea of where I’m “coming from” with all of this, I’ve had a Rio Karma mp3 player for the last 2+ years and have no intention of getting an Apple player, but only because I wouldn’t find a player in the ~1-4GB range a good fit for me being that my Karma’s 20GB is all but entirely used. I’d universally recommend the Karma, but unfortunately, Rio went out of business/was bought out and no longer manufactures them. They can still be found online, but it’s tough to get warranty support from a company that no longer exists and an “extended warranty” from a Best Buy-type store won’t be of much help for a product that’s no longer made unless you want to replace it with another company’s similarly priced model. Needless to say, I’m a huge fan of the Rio Karma, but that’s sort of a moot point in this discussion.

Anyway, for people whose music collections consist of tracks (as opposed to whole albums), the 1-5GB range is a nice size for an MP3 player as it’s rare for someone to have more than 5GB of single, random tracks. Most players in this range have a miniature hard drive, but with the introduction of the iPod Nano, Apple replaced the hard drive with flash memory. Normally flash memory was considered too expensive to make an economical MP3 player with that much storage, but Apple has arranged discounts with flash memory makers to all-but price other manufacturers out of the 2+GB market. Flash memory uses less power (meaning longer battery life or equivalent battery life with a smaller, lighter, cheaper battery) and just as importantly has no moving parts. Many people use their MP3 players while running (whether inside or out) and though all reasonable players are engineered to withstand the jarring motion of exercise, it’s easy to see how storing data on chips instead of spinning on sensitive metal platters with a magenetic read mechanism resting impossibly close to the platter might be a better idea.

MP3 players usually have two “problem” areas: the hard drive and the rechargeable battery. For example, my Rio Karma’s hard drive occasionally “sticks” and needs a good quality whack to “unstick” it, AND the battery life is only about 70% of the 13 hours it had when it was new. Apple’s swap of hard drive for “chip memory” erases the hard drive problems (flash memory has a finite number of erase/write cycles…usually somewhere in the thousands, so much less of a concern than premature hard drive failure). The battery life issue will seemingly always be a problem with rechargeable batteries (at leas the kind that Apple uses in the iPods), but unlike companies that no longer exist, Apple offers battery replacement as part of their standard repair/service procedures. Supposedly it’s $59 and for any iPod model, so considering Apple’s financial solvency, you’ll be all set for when the battery goes the way of the buffalo.

Having mentioned Apple’s “industrial design” earlier, I’ll touch on the player itself. Simply, it’s impossibly small in every dimension, with its “thinness” being the most noticeable. It can fit in the pocket of even tight-ish “girl pants” without much of a trace even being seen, while the regular iPods leave the increasingly common “iBulge.” There used to be easy to find pictures that compared the thickness of the Karma to the original iPod, but needless to say, the Karma is thick enough to bulge even in “man pants.” Worth noting is the easy on the eyes and fingers surface finish of the iPod Nano, though I tracked down a picture that shows what the surface looks like after it’s received the inevitable scratches from regular use. Most anything will look like you’ve used it after you’ve, well, used it, so that’s not too major of a concern unless you fall in love with how it looks when you first get it.

Truth be told, I’ve never liked the iPod interface and found the Rio interface much more user friendly, but the iPod, like any other electronic device, is quite learnable. The iPod Nano comes with a color screen and the capability to store/view photos, so for those of you who enjoy showing pictures to friends or even looking through them on your own to kill time, that capability is quite useful. The screen is quite small but perfectly functional for close viewing.

Due to the success of the iPod, many companies offer any variety of (usually over-priced) accessories that are simply not available for other brands due to Apple’s marketshare.

****

The Apple iPod Nano receives four stars due to its more-or-less solving of the issues found in the 1-5GB range of MP3 players. There’s no hard drive to fail, there’s a documented battery replacement method (though that’s not an ideal solution), and it’s a more convenient size than even some players offering one-tenth the storage capacity. It’s not necessarily the cheapest player in its class at $140 for 1GB, $190 for 2GB, and $240 for 4GB, but it offers something most other players in that range don’t. Simply, if I were to be looking for a new MP3 player in that class whether due to battery issues, storage life, a solid company behind it, or many other reasons, the iPod Nano would be my first stop even if it might be made by a company who panders to yuppies (or “stuppies“).
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The Dyne:bolic Media Studio LiveCD

I think this will be a mini-review, but often times, I start as a mini-review, but end up with more than enough for a full-on, double-quarter-pounder with cheese regular review. (Finished writing it: Well, so much for the mini-review…)

Let me pre-apologize for the computer-centric nature of this, but the “product” was a big enough let-down that being that I write reviews for a reviews website, I might as well weigh-in. Also, the offical name of the “product” isn’t “Dyne:bolic Media Studio LiveCD, it’s just Dyne:bolic, but that’s stupid so I’m including the rest of the name I assigned to it.

First, for those that probably stopped reading when I said “computer-centric:” a LiveCD is a CD you put in your computer as it starts up. Instead of Windows or Apple OS X loading from the hard drive, an operating system loads from the CD drive. This might not mean much to the non-computer people out there, but it allows for a completely different operating system to run on the same computer without anything being deleted (you just eject the CD when you’re done), overwritten, copied, or modified (unless that was your goal). With a LiveCD, you can start a computer whose Windows installation has gone the way of the buffalo and have practically full access to the files. If Windows needs to be re-installed, you can copy the relevant files to a USB key or (in some of the fancier liveCDs) even burn them to a CD-R. People who use computers for more abstract purposes (i.e. Linux users) use LiveCDs to sample new flavors of Linux before installing them. Windows has to no offical LiveCD version as few people would be compelled to buy the program if they could just copy it and take it to whichever computer they (or a friend of family member) would use. (Not that this isn’t rampant with regular Windows install CDs as it is).


Yeah, I can make up words too, Mr. “Hacktive.” KOFTOFTIC!! Take that dyne:bolic people.

In terms of troubleshooting, LiveCDs most useful aspect is that one can figure out if a problem is with the computer’s hardware or Windows. In fact, I troubleshooted the hell out of Adam’s computer when he was having network problems using a LiveCD version of Puppy Linux.

Anyway, Dyne:bolic is a linux-based LiveCD that portrays itself as a completely free, complete multimedia solution on a CD. You don’t install anything; you just put the CD in, start the computer, then you’re in a dreamworld of magic desktop filled with free software for internet broadcasting, audio and video editing, print editing, vector graphics (think Adobe Illustrator), raster graphics (think Adobe Photoshop), and more. It’s sounds great in theory. In fact, it sounds revolutionary in theory. In theory. The user interface is simple enough to figure out (it’s probably simpler to use than Windows, especially because it’s so specialized).

BUT, like a lot of the Linux theories, it’s better as just that, a theory. As you turn the computer on, you’re greeted with a prompt that says “boot:” and has instructions for choosing video modes or entering debug mode. Well, I guess I’d consider myself a power user, so I want to set the resolution to the optimum setting for the LCD screen in front of me. Skipping the intermediate step, you choose your resolution and the screen says “Could not find kernel” then it boots into the desktop, running at 800×600. This isn’t enough for power users, and video editing at 800×600 is practically useless as video from a full-resolution DV source will fill most of the space. Aside from the fact that a non-linux user would be dumbfounded by that “kernel error,” as a reasonably experienced (unfortunately, even with Linux) computer user, it’s bad user interface design if you display a serious-looking error, then have the computer seemingly do something unrelated (such as boot into the desktop). Does this mean that the kernel error wasn’t very serious? That I’ll be able to change resolutions once it’s booted?(you can’t) Who knows.

I’d give a a more thorough review, but trying it on various hardware,- I couldn’t get it to run higher than 800×600 and beyond that, the support for the CD was (dis)organized into a “cute” page with very little content, most focused on the individual included programs (which I could already find on the homepages of the included programs), but the not the actual CD itself.

I’m not sure if Dyne:bolic is a one man project, but if it is, it’s quite the accomplishment (in theory) for one person, but as the Linux community is so often to say, “Use this! Windows would never be this good, and you’re stupid if you don’t use flavor of the week. If it doesn’t work for you, then fix it yourself. It’s open source!” I know enough about Linux to say that the kernel error when choosing a resolution probably has something to do with the detection of the video card’s applicable settings (or settings in general), but that doesn’t mean I have the means to fix it. If other Linux-based LiveCD’s can work, this one should too, especially if it’s supposed to be so “ultimate.” I tried it with both ATi and nVidia videocards and had the same error. Linux etiquette says that I’m supposed to go to the forums or wiki if I have a problem, but I’d prefer my “amazing” solution to just work.If it’s a one man project, it’ll probably work fine on his hardware, so he probably has an Intel video card/onboard chip. But, of course, lots of people don’t have his exact setup, so maybe it’s the ultimate setup on his computer. But that’s about it.

*½

The Dyne:bolic Media Studio LiveCD receives one-and-a-half stars due to it setting high expectations but failing to deliver on them. The concept (a standalone CD that turns any computer into a fully-featured media studio) is rock solid, but it’s unfortunately brought down by two of the pillars of Microsoft’s supposed FUD anti-Linux marketing: “questionable hardware support” and “lack of documentation”. Sure, it’s free, but that doesn’t make it better than commercial alternatives, even if they don’t come bundled on one standalone CD (that doesn’t completely work). Oh yeah, and the name stinks.

“The Internet”

hmm, I didn’t have a solid plan when I started this review. I simultaneously wanted to do a running list of “‘the internet’ thinks this, ‘the internet’ thinks that” and a traditional intro, body, rating, conclusion review. Unfortunately I had neither enough entries for that running list or a fully fleshed out concept for the traditional review, so we get a questionably coherent mishmash of both.

hmm #2…I scrapped the list I had when I realized how long the traditional part was. The list wasn’t very good anyway. Anyway, enough meta.

Notice those quotes up there? The ones around The Internet? Those signify that we’re not talking about the actual internet. Nope, we’re not discussing millions of computers, countless low-level hardware thingies that are probably made by Cisco, nor little understood software and protocols that link all of it together. In fact, we’re not even talking about the 750ish million people that use the internet. We’re talking about those people, the one’s that both provide and fuel almost every stereotype about the modern “geek.”

the internet
The most famous parody/stereotype of “the internet.” It’s funny because it’s true.

“The Internet” is almost a collective consciousness; the phrase “all your base are belong to us” means less than nothing to those not part of “the internet.” But those in that club thinks (or at least thought at one point in time) that it is hilarious. “The Internet” loves being first to know about something that’s become “pop-culture,” and isn’t afraid to hold that against you. In fact, here’s a disturbingly complete list of pieces of internet culture. Some of them never caught on with the general public, but some will look quite familiar.

The anonymous nature of participation on the internet (no quotes) allows for those who care too much about something that is inconsequential to spend time (hours, days….years?) and defend their work because there’s someone else on “The Internet” that probably is working on something just like it. These two people will hate each other and will develop fanboys, the offical animal of “The Internet.”

Because the internet is so unfathomably large, there’s stuff about everything. Without going into history, the type of people who were first using the civilian internet, were (standby as I stereotype and generalize)…well, let’s call them the type of people who had the technical background or interest to have the means and abilities to connect to the internet. Stereotypically (and accurately), these aren’t the people to have “mainstream” interests. I’m not necessarily judging what those interests might be, but needless to say, the population at large doesn’t share those interests. Being that college campuses were some of the first places people could experience what would become “the internet,” students with the interest and ability to participate in the internet made some of the first “home pages,” sites dedicated to whatever their left of mainstream interest happened to be. Combine that with the fact that much of the internet traffic was coming from other college campuses, a huge social network of young people who normally weren’t part of a huge social network developed. Before “the internet,” college campuses also served as larger-scale examples of the comic book store phenomenon, with numerous people with non-mainstream interests meeting enough people with those same interests to create a community where discussions could take place about those interests beyond the “Comic books, Dungeons & Dragons, and etc. suck and so do you” stereotypically presented by the “mainstream.” Members of “the internet” would indignantly mention that I skipped the discussion of BBSes, IRC, usenet, and other things that our readership wouldn’t care about.

Oddly enough, “The Internet” doesn’t really have much to say about music. Sure, there are fansites, but if one were to list influential music websites that are just websites, pitchforkmedia.com will probably be the only he can think of. I’d guess that this is because the world of music is simply too huge and diverse; genres are so monolithic that there can’t be a general-purpose site serving all of it.

Oddly enough, considering how similar members of “the internet” are, they have no central meeting point. That doesn’t mean there aren’t sites “they” frequent. Fark, sort of a weird news aggregator, serves as the general news-gathering device. To be fair to Fark, I know of no one, member of “the internet” or not, who didn’t get a kick out of it, at least during their first visit. If they want more scathing humor that specializes in topics of which “the internet” is conscious, there’s Something Awful. Both Something Awful and Fark have Photoshop contests; naturally the two subcommunities hate each other. Usually the Something Awful’s Photoshop efforts go over Slashdot provides computer news and some of the most frustratingly inane arguing about each and every story without fail. The Internet Movie Database, originally “property” of “the internet” is very much a mainstream internet tool and continues to be “the internet’s” definitive source for movie info, while Roger Ebert, the unofficial official movie critic of “the internet”‘s already high profile has managed to rise since “the internet” adopted him. His stance on video games turned off many, but there’s no widely agreed upon second place critic for “the internet” to worship. Computer hardware is taken care of by Anandtech or Tom’s Hardware Guide (or any of the dozens of other hardware reviewing sites). Aint It Cool News continues to be “the internet’s” movie site and, like SlashDot is famous for its attracting of relentless fanboys of particular movie properties. TheForce.net provides Star Wars news (an interest/passion among much of “the internet”). I’m sure there’s an unoffical official site for every science fiction property (I’m condescendingly including LOST in there, 411mania and insidepulse are popular (though both have expanded to cover pop culture and more traditional “internet” interests). Simpsons fans have The Simpsons Archive where you can find “episode capsules” where you’ll learn more than every wanted to know about everything about each episode of the show. Wikipedia and Google had begun as jewels of “the internet,” but Google has long since become the standard for all users and Wikipedia, for better-or-worse, is in the process of becoming the standard for informal research (and formal research by those that don’t realize that an encyclopedia that has a more detailed entry for the Green Lantern than for the Watergate scandal might not be the best source of information).

The above wasn’t an all-encompassing tour of the popular destinations, but that’s a lot of them; each category could have more added and I glossed over some categories (such as shock sites, so it’s your own fault if you see something in three clicks that you wish you hadn’t).

**½

“The Internet” receives two-and-a-half stars not due to its interests, but due to its attitudes. The ending of Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back really captured the whole concept, with two guys previously unfamiliar with the idea of the internet going after (and beating up) everyone that trash talked them on a movie website, not unlike Aint It Cool News. Aside from the fact that much of “the internet” has become used to anonymous, consequence-free trash talking, the significance is that the “mainstream” still doesn’t understand the whole community, why anyone would visit, much less create, comment, or contribute to a websites devoted to, of all things, Star Wars action figures or the intricacies behind how the episodes on the Simpsons DVD’s aren’t 100% complete.

The Something Awful “Photoshop Phriday” examples came from the Paintings of Light competition parts 1 and 2.

Thinking You’re Doing Something Original

Site note: to potentially get some commenting going on, you can now leave a comment without needing to fill-in an e-mail address. What’s that sound? Why, it’s the sound of accountability going out the window!

Hmmph. I never thought we’d be “pioneers” in this little internet endeavor, but I did think that, at the minimum, we’d bring something new to the table in some capacity. Well, now that we’re about two-and-a-half months into its existence, I’ve found that, no, we’re not even bringing anything new to the table.

Tis true
It’s true.

The story goes something like this:
Nate’s friend Pete submits this very website into a “community-driven links database” called digg.com. The way it works is anyone can submit a link and its description, then the “community” rates and sort of reviews it. No, digg.com isn’t the source of the frustration; it’s not a “reviews” site by any stretch of the imagination. It provides a framework for categorizing and ranking links that usually have to do with technology, computers, science, etc.; that’s about it. Looking at what Nate’s friend submitted to digg, we see that four people “digg-ed” it and two people thought they had something worthwhile to add to the discussion. Mr. “schwit,” playing the typical “internet”-role, informed everyone (in the form of a question, of course) that this link (our site) has nothing to do with technology, while a second commenter, “JohnH,” trotted out the straw that finally broke the camel’s back, explaining that although “[we’re] ok, [I] thought Lore did it better though: http://bookofratings.com.”

Please everyone, click that link, and just like me, die a little inside.

I had mentioned the existence of the “Lore”-person’s site to archives, and saw a very disturbing link to “buy the print version.” This led to the following e-mail to Nate and Adam on 1/1/06 (please note, I’m hilarious all the time, not just when writing reviews):

(Adam, this is a follow-up to a conversation about the below topic that I had with Nate” I’m sure you can follow without needing to have the conversation explained to you.)

Here’s the digg.com link.

This is the website: http://www.bookofratings.com/ It looks like he might’ve stopped updating in 2003.

It looks like this Lore person (he’s from San Francisco apparently) managed to actually publish a book of his reviews.

I’d wager that the “Editorial Review” was written by the author, but I won’t hold that against him. What I will hold against him is that fact that he’s practically completely beaten us to the punch and even (potentially/probably) made some money off of it. He even reviewed the seven deadly sins one by one (you can see it in the “look inside this book” on the amazon site).

I’m okay with the concept of someone else doing a “wacky, random, etc'” reviews website, but looking through the Amazon reader reviews I see: “Now a lot of you “simple minded” folk out there might not be interested due to Lore’s advanced and half made up vocabulary.” Now that’s just plain old reverse gimmick infringement. It doesn’t look like he reviews abstract concepts (“The Hype Surrounding This Week’s Trading Spouses,” Verbally Harassing Horses,” etc.”) but that’s probably just because I haven’t looked closely enough through his archives. The “Old Trading Cards I Bought at a Shop in San Francisco [Parts 1-3]” really seals our fates as imitators. Looking at the left of his reviews page, he has a list of other sites/projects. I’m afraid to click on them as I’m sure that one of them retells the story of his production of an action movie about Ben Franklin in 1999.

Now more than ever, we suck.

At the risk of simply repeating the rather straightforward e-mail…that’s right, reverse gimmick infringement. That way, we can blame him for copying us before we even did it. It doesn’t make much sense but it helps me sleep at night.

His reviews are all much shorter than ours, and it seems he likes reviewing things in list form (such as those baseball cards or “Aspects of Santa part 2”), but he always brings the funny. The reviews aren’t the most insightful, but that’s not his goal. For example, when reviewing “Stuff in the Airline Catalog,” one of the many items evaluated is an Authentic Pachinko Machine about which he says, “I’m just glad it’s authentic, because once I ordered a pachinko game and I forgot to check the “authentic” box and they sent me one of those little Cracker Jack toys where you have the get the little bee-bees on the puppy’s eyes or something and it lacked that authentic pachinko experience that I was hoping for.” To get an impression on the general length of his reviews, that’s the whole thing for the “pachinko machine,” but it was one of the six items in the “airline catalog” review. Disturbingly, it sounds just like something Nate or I would say, except this guy said it sometime before 2003, a good 3 years ago.

Nate mentioned that many of the reviews are focused on “internet-popular things,” and we usually avoid that stuff, but to be fair for each “Dungeons and Dragons“-related review, he has one like “Types of Band-Aids.” Because some none of you are looking to mesh his reviews with ours, he uses a traditional letter grading, making his “A+” equivalent to our….oh, nevermind.

½

Thinking You’re Doing Something Original receives half of one star due to the fact that not only is the internet unfathomably huge, it’s been huge for quite some time, and is getting, uh, huger, and that combination means that the likelihood of anyone doing something original dwindles each day. I mean, that’s fine, it’s progress and all, and don’t worry, we’re not going to be like Natalie Portman’s character in Garden State and being wacky/weird/random for the sake of originality, but I can’t help but think I won’t be at least a bit self-conscious about making sure I don’t review things that are already reviewed by our more trailblazing precursors. I’m sure that most people (meaning: our readership) probably don’t consider this to be too big a deal, but the amount of time it takes to write a what-we-hope-to-be-good review, much less maintain the website, it’s frustrating to see it sort of in someone else’s “been there, done that” category. Yeah, yeah, we know that we choose to spend the time writing, maintaining, etc., and we know that we’re only “busy” for the amount of time that we choose to spend, but still, it’s the principle of it. We get the half-star because our reviews aren’t one-trick ponies and we do evaluate serious things every now and then, something Mr. Lore seems to be too good for.

Roger Ebert’s Take on Video Games

Quick site note: This is the first review of either many or zero more that will use “tips.” When hovering over some links, text will pop-up near your cursor. We’re not yet sure whether it’s annoying or if it enhances the writing. I especially find myself drowning in a sea of parenthesis, and these “tips” solve that problem in a way that writing on paper never could. Feedback please.

Lately the non-review sections Roger Ebert’s website have been filled with discussion on the merits of video games versus movies, and “the internet” has been abuzz with him being an out-of-touch old man. His weekly answer-man column has addressed the issue multiple times, namely his lack of interest in video games, in general. I can’t find the absolute starting point for the whole debate, but I think it has to do with a reader objecting to Ebert’s awarding of one star to the movie adaptation of DOOM (he uses a four star system for those of you wondering how to reconcile his reviews with ours.). The reader basically took offense at his generous one star review because one section of the other-wise unremarkable adaptation paid super-close homage to the game. Ebert sufficiently served the reader by explaining that video game websites review movies on their own terms, and he will continue to review movies on his. What started the “controversy” was his final comment in his reponse:

“As long as there is a great movie unseen or a great book unread, I will continue to be unable to find the time to play video games.”

This lead to (what I can only assume to be) countless angry letters of video game fans defending their XBoxen and poorly translated, endlessly sequeled, Japanese-sourced games (i.e. the Metal Gear and “Final” Fantasy series, etc.). True, that’s my bias showing through, but in the response to the letter that Ebert decided to run, he explained:

“I am prepared to believe that video games can be elegant, subtle, sophisticated, challenging and visually wonderful. But I believe the nature of the medium prevents it from moving beyond craftsmanship to the stature of art.”

That’s the one that really got the internet in a tizzy.

ebert
You’d think that after writing all of this, I’d be able to think of a funny caption. Well, that’s not the case.

The problem with video game fans (in general) is that they are relentlessly but selectively enthusiastic about their “art” of choice. There’s no point for me to write an e-mail to the movie “Answer Man” being that it will be lost in the mountains of “You’ve never played Halo, Resident Evil, Final Fantasies 1 through 12, etc. so you suck” type letters (not that I’d assume it’d automatically be printed of course. I’m sure that every e-mail is read, but I think Jim Emerson (The site’s editor/blogger) probably handles most of the filtering). So, being that I have my own internet soapbox that ends in .com, here I go.

Without backing any of it up with fact or definitive history, I can guarantee that every medium of art has had to deal with detractors. Movies weren’t widely accepted as having any worthwhile value at their inception, especially considering that mankind had gotten used to the previous status quo from the past two-thousand+ years of seeing live actors performing on stage. On top of that, even movements within each art form have faced critics (again, with the lack of facts or evidence). People still argue about the merits of Jackson Pollack imagine hundreds of years ago, when Baroque music was developing and becoming (again) the status quo, and *gasp* didn’t base all of its harmony on the 4th. Sure, the now “normal” root-3rd-5th harmony sounds right, but back then a lot of people didn’t like it one bit due to the “profane” nature of the major-3rd harmony (in terms backing that up, I’ll hold a music professor I had responsible for defending that bit of trivia). In philosophical terms, the video game “medium” is about 25 years old and in only its second major movement. Consider the first to be the 2D era, started with the first Atari system and ended with Super Nintendo and Genesis. The second is the 3D era, started with the Sony Playstation, Nintendo 64, and Sega Saturn. The third (sub)wave of the 3D era began in late November of 2005 when Microsoft began shipping the XBox 360. As mentioned earlier, gamers are notoriously selective in their passions, and some choose to be passionate about the hardware aspect of video gaming, so in response to those people:

  1. I know I’m glossing over lots of other systems.
  2. I know that Genesis came out before Super Nintendo.
  3. Atari probably wasn’t the first system, but realistically it started the whole console “thing.”
  4. I know that 2D games have come out for the “3D” systems — especially Sega Dreamcast, but 2D vs. 3D is too significant of a divide to ignore.

Structured music went through quite a bit of development before anything gained an historical foothold; specifically, J.S. Bach and Handel are still being widely performed today while almost the whole of still-existing Renaissance and Medieval music is relegated to prominence in academic environments only. Sure, movies “came of age” much more quickly than music (or even painting), with films from about thirty years after the proliferation of the medium still widely considered classics. Interestingly enough, film also experienced several technical and artistic waves. (The “maturation of computer-generated effects” probably being the academic-sounding, retrospective categorization of today’s “wave.”)

Video games have not yet experienced a true second artistic wave (the 2D/3D divide is of a technical nature). The gameplay advances of Grand Theft Auto 3 (namely, go wherever you want, do whatever you want, follow a story or play randomly) have inspired countless similar titles the same way that DOOM began a wave of 1st person shooters in 1993. They offered different experiences, but neither was the quantum leap experienced by movie-goers attending the first “talkies” in the 1920’s. Newer hardware generations have enabled new features (namely graphical, some incredible advances in AI) in first-person shooters (and eventually bigger, prettier worlds in GTA-style games).

Anyone who says that once Roger Ebert would play Halo or any other mass-market game, Ebert would develop a huge appreciation and change his mind is simply wrong. Halo’s story serves merely to give the player a reason to shoot things. Similarly, Grand Theft Autos’ stories (any game in the series, even way back into its 2D, overhead days) simply provide a reason to take part in the shenanigans for which the games have become (in)famous. Limiting the lens to newer games, even the story of Metroid Prime is just a tool the developers used to make the shooting more compelling, not the other way around. It’s not that there aren’t story-driven titles among newer games, it’s just that in popular games it’s supplemental. I know there are ambitiously enthusiastic fans of the story in the Halo games, but ask yourself if you’d play the game any differently if there were no story, just the mission goals list, then shooting things until the next numbered list appears, rinse, repeat. So, no, I’m not claiming that “new” (more accurately, “popular”) games are bad, just that they serve as poor evidence in one’s claim that video games are narratively engaging.

So, as a bit of a disclaimer, I’d consider my interest in current video games to be passive. I’m interested enough to read game reviews or watch someone play for about 10 minutes or so, but I don’t participate. I own no consoles and the video card in my computer is from 2001. I’ve watched people play FarCry, Half-Life 2, DOOM III, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, both Halos and on and on. (Those games are almost all shooters, but a complete list would be excessive, and these are some of the most popular and loudly defended of the last couple of years). I hold no grudge towards new games, but my personal “golden age” of video gaming passed sometime in the late 90’s. Most recently, the games I’ve spent any considerable amount of time playing have been the Genesis version of John Madden NFL ’98 and the arcade version of Super Puzzle Fighter 2 Turbo, both running on a friend’s modded Xbox. As the understatement of the year, neither of these games is exactly what we’d consider story-heavy, but in terms of bringing things full circle, provide a very social experience with a group of people, exactly what is marketed as the number one feature of Microsoft’s Xbox 360, not its currently man-beast-esque hardware capabilities.

Directly addressing Roger Ebert, we’ll now present the definitive example of the “video game as art” discussion:

“I did indeed consider videogames inherently inferior to film and literature. There is a structural reason for that: Videogames by their nature require player choices, which is the opposite of the strategy of serious film and literature, which requires authorial control.”

At risk of this becoming a “my favorite game is more obscure than your favorite game” reverse sales-measuring contest, let’s first throw out every RPG. Ebert’s comment about “authorial control” initially sounds too heavy-handed to be anything other than hyperbole, but it should be painfully accurate to RPG players. A decently modeled RPG lets the player assume the “role” of a character (or group of characters); the user can choose for his game play experience to be as dull as desired. His or her experience will be different than another player’s. Sure, that sounds ideal, even enough to potentially consider that to be the ideal example of the one thing that would skew video games toward “art” status. But think of Choose Your Own Adventure books; they offer a choice in the reader making his or her own story. The first reaction to that is, “But they’re kids books, they’re not supposed to be good.” It goes without saying that there are plenty of widely appealing kids’ books, and if there were adult-oriented Choose Your Own Adventure books, would anyone read them? Would they be considered “literature?” Nope; and for good reason. It’s just a gimmick.

There are two story-heavy genres in video gaming. Role-Playing Games and Adventure games. (This is where I’m looking to avoid the obscurity-related reverse penis size contest.) RPG’s having already been justifiably thrown out, that leaves Adventure games. Most anyone with a passing interest in video games has played an adventure game, but their popular peak was both dramatically short and intensely focused on one title (which really wasn’t that great of a game, all things retrospectively considered ). MYST (aside from being considered the “killer app” for PC CD-ROM drives) was hugely successful, and was undeniably an adventure game. There was a set story, and very little room for non-linearity; provided you could figure out the “oh yeah, I guess that makes sense” puzzles, you were undoubtedly under the control of some “authorial” figure as you played. Though the graphics contributed to the overall mood, it was really the story and “art direction” that truly established the player’s sense of loneliness on the island throughout its history. The story created the puzzles (the single element of “gameplay”), not the other way around. Though this isn’t a review of MYST, it needs to be noted that it actually offered a rather passive gameplay experience; the puzzles were simplistic, the story, dull, but the mind-bendingly amazing (for 1995) graphics sold everyone. Unfortunately, it became the benchmark for the Adventure game genre, causing most everyone to think them dull and pretty-yet-vapid after most people were left thinking “Gee, I don’t get it” after either finishing the game (or more likely) giving up after getting one’s fill of pretty pre-rendered pictures.

With the genre’s prime and popular example painting such an ugly picture for average users as time went on, the “mass market” PC gamers moved back towards more interactive games (such as Quake, more-or-less the beginning of the PC’s true 3D boom). During this time, adventure games were still being made, and George Lucas of all people was responsible for some of the best. Okay, George Lucas’ company actually made them, but trivia’s trivia. Sam & Max Hit the Road, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, and Full Throttle were some of the best received adventure games of their time and are widely considered the classics of the era. Just like every every other genre eventually shifted to 3D, adventure games followed suit.

LucasArts’ first of two 3D adventure game offered one of the most interactively cinematical experiences in games, ever, no matter the genre. Limiting the focus of the “video games as art” discussion to whether or not video games present the “authorial control” apparently required by Grim Fandango offered the “authorial control” of a movie, while engrossing the player in ways that movies and books simply can’t. Loosely inspired by some sort of Central American mythology of multiple underworlds, and souls wanting to end up in the final, 9th underworld, you play as Manny Calavera, a sort of travel agent in limbo between life and death. Manny “sells” travel packages for different routes to the underworld; the better the prospective travellers lived their lives, the quicker their trip to the 9th underworld. The “cleanest” souls get to ride on the “Number 9” train which speeds them right to heaven,while those that face the travel agent (Manny) with more regrets are stuck with the less desirable methods, notably the long, dark walk through the underworld. All that is the setting, the actual story involves a conspiracy that Manny begins to uncover as he realizes that he keeps getting the “lesser” souls, and due to his unmentioned sins of his human life, he’ll be stuck in limbo forever. Along the way, he meets a special lady, gathers a sidekick, meets a mortician performing an autopsy (one of the harmlessly creepy characters in any movie, game, book, etc.) and ends up having to shoot someone to save his life. (In case you’re wondering, to kill a dead person, you apparently shoot them with a bullet that sprouts flowers, similarly to the earth “taking over” a body buried in the ground.) Without spending forever talking about this game, I’ll simply say it’s a more cinematic experience than many movies: the story is the game, the voice actors are top quality, the art direction (which somehow combines Latin American influences with Art-Deco) compares with any Hollywood production, and it offers an ending more emotional than most movies.

Which brings up the final thought: How many people have played Grim Fandango? How many have even heard of Grim Fandango? Not many. In fact, it’s usually considered the ultimate symbol of the adventure genre’s waning popularity. It came out in 1998, one year after Sierra had abandoned the King’s Quest franchise. Critical reviews were immensely favorable, but sales were not. Escape from Monkey Island, which was ultimately the final LucasArts adventure entered and exited with a whimper as sequels to two of their most popular adventure franchises were cancelled for ‘current marketplace realities’ and ‘creative issues,’ reverse respectively. In any medium there’s a distinct divide between the commercial/popular and the artistic. There is sometimes cross-over between the two, and it seems that most fans of the “artistic” baselessly resent fans of the popular merely because it is the “popular.” Music has thrived with that divide, and the “indie” boom of the mid-90’s brought that awareness to the world of movies. Even today, Rolling Stone and Spin’s editors campaign for the “latest, greatest, obscurest” new music while movie critics practically bet their credibility in defense of those same three superlative adjectives on some not yet known about “indie movie.” Thankfully, we don’t live in France where critics have been known to defend bad movies just to prove a point. Importantly, there is no true “indie” vs. otherwise divide in video gaming. There are no critics willing to champion some unheard of game for the sake of getting more people to experience it. People’s expectations for video games are drastically different than for other media, and even with the internet, there is no true “indie” movement that produces and distributes unheard of games the way that the major movie studios have arms dedicated to picking up obscure movies. There’s simply no My Big Fat Greek Wedding in the world of video games. The infrastructure isn’t set up to “get the word” out, and I’ll go out on a limb and say that in a society greatly affected by advertising and shiny things, video gamers are especially vulnerable to this advertising.

Looks like we covered a lot more than just “Roger Ebert and Video Games” in this one, so here we go, emptybookshelf’s first three-headed review! Let’s hear it for innovation.

**½

Roger Ebert’s take on Video Games receives two-and-half stars due to the fact that as well as he defends himself, he can’t help but come off as just another old person afraid of what the kids are up to. “Oh my God! How could a bunch of moving pictures ever be better than having the actual, live actors in front of the audience?! That’ll never work!!” Unfortunately for the video gaming industry, he has a decidedly correct take on the “games as art” issue. Judging just the popular games, he’s hit the nail on the head; they are diversions where interactivity is thought to remove the need for story. Aside from the fact that he’s said he has not played games, if he were to ever pick up a controller/mouse/keyboard/bongo, he wouldn’t be playing anything remotely cinematical. At the risk of going on yet another tangent, just the fact that you can use bongos to play a video game says something about them compared to movies.

*****

Though I claimed this wasn’t a review of Grim Fandango, I can’t help but consider this an ideal time to “star” it. It receives five stars for being the most engrossing of all adventure games, and dare I say, any game. That isn’t to say that it’s the best game ever, just the most cinematical, and in a non-girly way, potentially the most beautiful.

*

Internet Fanboys receive one star due to the fact that their existence and pedanticism make it so a review of such a contentious topic needs to go on so many sidetracks. There’s something to be said for being enthusiastic about something, but there’s also something to be said for having some perspective. Not-so-oddly enough, Roger Ebert himself, probably one of the wittiest people on the planet, summed up the whole “fanboy” thing quite well in his review of Hackers:

You should never send an expert to a movie about his specialty. Boxers hate boxing movies. Space buffs said ‘Apollo 13’ showed the wrong side of the moon. The British believe Mel Gibson’s scholarship was faulty in ‘Braveheart’ merely because some of the key characters hadn’t been born at the time of the story. ‘Hackers’ is, I have no doubt, deeply dubious in the computer science department. While it is no doubt true that in real life no hacker could do what the characters in this movie do, it is no doubt equally true that what hackers can do would not make a very entertaining movie.”