Reviews


The new Zune software – the one that supports Zune HD – is a slow, hulking dinosaur. Installing it on my computer at work took forever, and actually using it is a pain.

On the other hand, there’s now a new feature called Smart DJ that is absolutely amazing. Essentially, it’s Pandora on crack: Zune software plays music related to a particular artist and adjusts its suggestions based on your preferences. The cool thing is that all the song that it plays are available on the Zune Pass, meaning that if I hear an artist I like, I can download a crap-ton of their albums instantly.

Once again, this goes to show that while iTunes is for people who like songs, Zune Pass is for people who like music. There’s quite a debate raging online about which model is better, the concept of buying music (iTunes) or renting it (Zune Pass). Here’s my opinion and why the Zune Pass is right for me (bullet list time!):

  • Zune Pass (ZP, abbreviated to save me a few keystrokes) is 14.95$ per month
  • iTunes songs are ~1$ each
  • I can download and listen to an unlimited number of songs under the ZP
  • For the same price (per month), I could only listen to 15 songs with iTunes
  • Let’s say I download about 4 new albums every week (on average, this is probably a much lower figure than reality). If each album is 12 songs, that’s 48 songs per week, 205 songs per month (30/7*48), 2,496 songs per year (52*48).
  • If I use the ZP for a year, I will have paid 180$.
    • If I use the ZP for 10 years (highly unlikely, right?), I will have paid 1,800$
  • In a year, for the same price, I can listen to 2500 songs with the ZP or 180 with iTunes

For me, as I am still figuring out what music I like and all (shit, I just realized that I love Pink Floyd and their “Dark Side of the Moon” is (so far) my favorite album of all time), the option to listen to an unlimited number of songs, all for a veeeeery reasonable sum of 180$ a year, is a no-brainer. Maybe if I was stuck in my ways and knew that there are only 15 new songs I wanted every month, and never experimented with music at all, the iTunes approach would be perfect. But that’s not me.

I don’t care about owning music. I’m not one of those people who needs to have their CD collection in neat rows on a book-shelf. I need my music flying through my ears! Yeah, if M$ goes under, I’ll lose all that music. But then, if M$ goes belly-up, I’ve got more important shit to worry about. Like finding another job. But I digress. If I really like some of the music (once again, Pink Floyd), and need it after the ZP is gone, I’ll go out and buy it. Or steal it. Whatever. But I’m not going to constrict my options now to just be able to say that I own a Britney Spears album. The hell with that.

EDIT-

I forgot to mention yet another approach to the Zune Pass: with the Zune Pass is included the option to keep 10 songs every month. At the rate of 1$/song, this translates to you buying 10 songs a month and paying 5$ to rent an unlimited number of songs. So, let’s consider a hypothetical power-listener (buys 1000 songs a month) named Max. Max can use Zune or iTunes, since the cost (1$/song) is the same for either service. If Max also gets a Zune Pass and is smart, in a given month he will buy 990 songs and use the 10-song credit from Zune Pass to get the other 10 songs: the cost is 1,005$, compared to 1,000$ for iTunes. But, for that extra 5$ Max gets to try as many songs as he wants. In essence, he can listen to 10,000 songs and choose to buy only a tenth of that, all for an extra 5$ a month.

But enough of this non-sense, sleep calls.

From the very magical intro to the wonderful presentation of such favorites as “Yellow Submarine”, “Octopus’s Garden” and of course “I Am the Walrus”, the game simply looks awesome. Gameplay is stellar, as usual for Rock Band titles, and the collection of Beatles songs makes it all the better. Single-player quickplay mode (that I’ve seen so far) is very nice, simply based on the fact that the songs start and end with the group in a recording studio, but the middle is taken over by elaborate and inventive (probably LSD based, hehe) animations, known as Dreamscapes.

My only gripe with the game is the small collection of songs, though of course I’ll try to remedy that by buying any and all additional tracks that are released.

Just came back from watching “District 9”. First off, that was the closest I’ve ever gotten to vomiting without having eaten something bad. The theater was packed, even though we got there twenty minutes before the start of the movie, so the first half hour I had to look up at the screen from the third row. I got incredible motion-sickness going there. So had to move to one of the back rows, which thankfully had an empty seat. After that, the movie actually got enjoyable.

The film itself is quite good, both in terms of visual presentation, the drama, the action (quite a lot of action, actually) and the tiny bits of comedy. The two things I didn’t care for were the over-use of hand-held cameras (duh!) and the very weak scientific backing.

See, the premises of the film is that this alien mothership hangs over Johannesburg and then 1.5 million aliens (after two decades) are living in slums in District 9. There’s unrest and the aliens (called “prawns” in the movie for their appearance) are eventually segregated from the humans. The movie picks up at the point when the entire prawn population of the slums is being evicted to a different area.

Now, that whole scenario that I described may sound perfectly attractive to an English major looking for analogies and Apartheid references, but to someone more scientifically minded (or simply raised on sci-fi) this whole idea sounds like bullshit. Aliens land on earth and all we can do is round them up in a shanty-town? The place is run by corporate security forces and exploited by Nigerian scammers (seriously). Not a single scientist or researcher in sight. As if that’s not enough, there are entirely too many scientific mistakes in the movie. For one thing, what’s up with the aliens being human-sized, human-shaped, capable of breathing our air and eating our food? We learn their language, but no one tries to communicate with them, figure out why the aliens are here and how we can help them? The idea of weapons that work for aliens but not for us is glossed over completely. And they seemed to almost forget the fact that a ship-load of aliens seems entirely too willing to forget about their space-ship and settle in the life of luxury here on earth.

But hey, if you overlook some of these fallacies, the movie is great. Just don’t sit too close to the screen.

Just finished “Year’s Best SF9”, an anthology of sci-fi short stories. I think this is my second non-Niven short story collection, and I’ve gotta say: “meh”. Some of the stories there are really outstanding, while others… Not to sound too full of myself, but I think I could write better. (And I’m trying, too.)

The best story of the bunch was Rick Moody’s “The Albertine Notes”. It is a wonderful mind-fuck, not unlike some of Philip K. Dick’s work. I kept expecting the story to end at a dozen different points, all with that classic “well, that’s all, the world is still fucked, and now the hero is screwed as well, ain’t life grand?” conclusion, but the ending just kept moving further away. Give it a go, though be prepared to not understand some of the story. That’s the point, really.

Here’s a quick listing of the stories and my impressions, along with a simple school-style rating:

  • Amnesty – Didn’t like it, the whole story happened during a job interview. C.
  • Birth Days – Not bad. The delivery was OK, most of the “plot” was non-essential and the final conclusion didn’t seem to be really based on science. B+.
  • The Waters of Meribah – Eh. “Science” (according to tree-hugging hippies) taken to an extreme, combined with a strange property of the universe (something like that mystic quantum BS) that results in a monster. C+.
  • Ej-Es – Much non-sense and an attempt at tugging on some emotional strings. Not a bad delivery, but not much else to say about it. B-.
  • Four Short Novels – Good stuff, even if the final moral of the story is sappy. A-.
  • Rogue Farm – Interesting story, though a bit more more exposition would have helped. Which is of course true of most of Stross’ work, so this is nothin unexpected. A-.
  • The Violet’s Embryo’s – The story, like a typical mind-fuck, starts off incomprehensibly and goes from there. It’s actually quite good, but the beginning just bugged the hell out of me. All these strange names and concepts being introduced in every sentence, and none of them explained. Argh. A-.
  • Coyote at the End of History – A classical Native American story mixed with sci-fi. I’m not such a great fan of mythology, and Native American mythology is no exception, so this story didn’t do much for me. B.
  • In Fading Suns and Dying Moons – Cute story and an ironic ending, so classic sci-fi short story. A.
  • Castaway – Strange and unmemorable. B-.
  • The Hydrogen Wall – Great concept, not bad execution. The only beef I have with the story is that two plot points are so damn similar to a short story I wrote a few weeks ago. It’s a strange coincidence that’s in no way related to the actual story, but still weird. A-.
  • The Day We Went Through the Transition – An imaginative take on the concept of Time Cops. One of the better stories of the set. A.
  • Nimby and the Dimension Hoppers – Too short, but really enchanting. A.
  • Night of Time – Spends a lot of time on the inconsequential while merely skimming over the main point, that of an ancient intelligence. Still, a wonderful gem. A-.
  • A Night on the Barbary Coast – Immense potential, great setting, curious characters, horrible resolution. B+.
  • Annuity Clinic – Quite an emotional story, though lacking in pretty much all other aspects. B.
  • The Madwoman of Shuttlefield – Leaves a lot of questions unanswered. Has no real point or conclusion. B-.
  • Bread and Bombs – Might have had a curious point, if the story wasn’t told through the eyes of a kid. B.
  • The Great Game – Eww. Utter crap. An anti-war story that idolizes war. All the characters are (or become) pro-war. C-.
  • The Albertine Notes – Like I said before, a great mind-fuck. A+.

There. No one failed. Good times.

First impressions on “Saints Row 2”, which I picked up this weekend. First off, comparing Saints to GTA4 – which is something that’s pretty much inevitable – illustrates the basic differences between the two games: GTA is much more “realistic”, while Saints is very arcady, both in graphics, controls, characters, etc. Now, this mini review is probably best done with a bullet-list, so let’s get on with it:

  • The graphics are pretty crappy, a distant step behind GTA4 and almost like something from a last-gen game
  • Driving is arcady: cars go from 0 to 60 in a second, stop on a dime, corner at any speed and behave ridiculously when colliding with objects
  • The game is entirely too easy: health auto-regenerates, the cops are push-overs, drive-through confessionals remove your wanted level instantly, etc.
  • Diversions like drive-by missions or ambulance missions are too easy: the first one gives you unlimited ammo, the second one is impossible to lose. Nothing like the similar activities from the GTA franchise, which were an actual challenge.

That being said, the game is actually a lot of fun. As long as you like your fun to be simple and semi-mindless. Often times I just sit down for a short rampage around the city, popping gang-members from behind human shields, or using electric paddles on unsuspecting citizens.

These two activities are actually particularly fun and have something of hidden surprises. While using a cop as a shield, the cops sometimes say – softly – “shoot the hostage”, which I think is just a great reference. And if you’re using the paddles, you can have some interesting fun with them: use the paddles to kill a person, then shock them back to life, only to kill them again. There’s actually no limit to this, as you can kill/resurrect a character as many times as you want.

Aside from these two activities, there is quite a lot of stuff to do. So far I’ve participated in a “Cops”-style reality-TV show, attacked people with a Taser pistol, explored an underground cavern (certainly something that GTA4 doesn’t have), high-jacked a police tank-like vehicle, tried BASE jumping, and created a character strikingly-similar to Greg House. Fun stuff.

Just one card to comment on, and a bit of a rant on Frank.

watch4

I like this secret. Though I don’t particularly think it should be a secret. But whatever.

It’s interesting to people-watch. And this card reminded me of my trip to Alcatraz. The island is mostly a wonder-around experience, notwithstanding the tour by The Old Lady. In the prison building there are optional audio tours that you can get. They’re free and are essentially an MP3 player that “walks” you through the prison. The peculiar thing about them is how people look when they’re using them. Imagine a group of 20 tourists, staring at some prison cell. They’re all quiet. Suddenly, they all turn, as one, and keep walking. Just as suddenly, they all stop and stare at something new. I felt like I was walking through some zombie-infested version of Alcatraz. (I chose not to partake in the audio tour, so I was the only one with “free will”, as it were.)

Now, a bit about Frank, the creator and maintainer for PostSecret. A journalist I know had the misfortune to interview Frank. I say that because, apparently, Frank is a complete bore and has nothing of interest to say. Seeing what he does every week on the site, I can’t say I’m surprised. Aside from taking other people’s secrets, putting them online and making money off the book deals, he doesn’t do anything interesting. The blog looks fairly plain and boring, Frank goes out of his way to only show a week’s worth of secrets (probably to guarantee book sales?), and now he’s following the popular fads of advertising his site on the social networking sites. First there was Facebook, then MySpace, and now Frank is advertising on Twitter. Wow, real original there Frank.

Though my “favorite” move of this ass-turd is his JK Rowling copycat maneuver. Here is the relevant text taken from the blog:

The Secret of Room 412

This week I went to NYC with the never-before-seen secrets for the new book. I checked into the Omni Hotel and went to work laying out pages for PostSecret Confessions on Life, Death and God.

Deep into the night, I arranged postcards I had been setting aside for more than two years.

The next afternoon I walked to HarperCollins with the finalized book, and some memorable dreams from that morning. But before I left my room, I wrote a special postcard and left it behind in the desk drawer.

“PostSecret Confessions on Life Death and God was assembled here in Room 412 on May 19th, 2009.”

If you ever stay in this hotel room, you may find that the postcard I left behind is gone. But look up under the desk drawer for a special secret, and pay attention to your dreams that night.

It’s been a week since I’ve posted. In that week I finished reading “The Selfish Gene” and managed to get pissed off at a tree-hugging hippy. Those two are connected, and they are probably what caused me to stop blogging for a bit. I didn’t want to revisit the points of that argument, so I stayed off the internet for the last few days. Mostly that time has been spent reading “The Ring” by Stephen Baxter, playing games, coding and of course working.

What got me pissed off? The argument didn’t happen on this blog, so I won’t be continuing it here.

And that’s a problem. I can’t seem to move on to other and better things, like actually reviewing the book, until I can counter those arguments. Well, let’s try and see where we get. If you see this post and it’s not a violent rant against a certain hippy, then I’ve been able to push emotion aside (at least for an hour) to write a – hopefully – objective review.

 

“The Selfish Gene” is a mind-altering work, turning on the side my notion of life, evolution and the birds and bees. That last point is, incidentally, not a euphemism. I really did learn quite a lot about both birds and bees, as these were often-used examples.

The book is largely scientific and confines itself to presenting and supporting a theory. The book doesn’t attempt to advocate a specific morality based on this theory, and neither does it attempt to push specific applications of the theory. (Except once, at the very start, where Dawkins jokingly suggests that by pushing the age of reproduction it is theoretically possible to breed immortality into humanity.)

The idea that Dawkins presents is that of evolution from a gene’s (selfish) viewpoint. Nothing more than that. Of course, once this idea is presented, that life is not about survival of the organism but the survival of a gene, ten chapters are spent on providing supporting evidence and explaining how, for instance, altruistic behaviors can still be explained by the theory.

Concepts are presented from the viewpoint of the gene and in probabilities of the gene’s own survival. Gone is the idea that actions benefitting a single organism are the most beneficial and thus ones that are “picked” by evolution. We must now concentrate on how the actions of an organism benefit other organisms that carry the same genes. This viewpoint, for instance, succeeds in explaining the seemingly altruistic behavior of bees, when they sacrifice their own lives for the good of the hive. “Classic” theory of evolution may have had a hard time with this, but we now know that when a bee sacrifices itself, it is for the good of its sisters, who are genetically-identical to the “suicidal” bee. In this sense, the behavior of the social insects like bees and ants seems quite straight-forward.

The the book I read was the 30th anniversary edition, so it included an extra chapter that serves as a tantilizing preview of Dawkins other work, “The Extended Phenotype”. I wish I got my dad this version of the book instead of the first edition hard-cover. But I digress. The concept of the last chapter and of the latter book is that a gene’s influence, its phenotype (according to Wikipedia, an organism’s “observable characteristic or trait”), extends beyond the physical body that the gene happens to be inhabiting at the moment. This can be seen in the instances of parasites that affect the host’s behavior to their own purposes. One of the more striking conclusion this leads to is that the parasite and the host can evolve to work together so well that at some point they may end up being a single organism, without any signs of the old parasitic relationship. Of course, it is not argued that this will happen during the course of a (combined) lifetime, but rather over successive generations of parasites and hosts.

Overall, this book was an eye-opener, both to a “new” (originally published in 1976) approach to evolution, as well as the sad reality that not nearly enough people have read the book yet. Anyway, that’s my own take on it.

An instant classic, “The Selfish Gene” earns high praise from me (which is, of course, not saying much).

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