My Movies: Sneakers

There are a handful of movies that I can watch any time or all the time. I realized that they’re the ones that have shaped my sense of humor, my personality, and my pop cultural references. As I realize and appreciate them for what they are, I’ll babble about them here.

Sneakers stuck with me for two reasons. One, it was a great geek movie — white-hat hackers searching for a black box that can slice through any crypto in the world. It was also the first movie I ever reviewed. I remember being in Ithaca with a big pad of paper, writing very large notes in the dark. That, too, was unbreakable code.

The characters are broad but not stereotypes; with actors like Robert Redford, Ben Kingsley, and Sidney Poitier leading the way (not to mention a pre-Battlestar Galactica Mary McDonnell and a still-alive River Phoenix), the performances are subtle. It helps that the plausibly geeky script is by Lawrence Lasker (the co-writer for WarGames) and the whole film has a very human feel thanks to Phil Alden Robinson (Field of Dreams).  Also, there’s a big audio angle to it, and it takes place in the Bay Area. The movie holds up; I still think this is wildly underappreciated, especially when I hear friends speak warmly of dreck like Hackers.

My wireless network is called Setec Astronomy.

The Nomad returns

The little blue Fernandes Nomad Deluxe that survived our studio fire is finally back in my hands. I think the only reason it survived is its hardshell case, which I didn’t get until two years ago. The guitar’s electronics and built-in effects and speaker are just fine; you’d never know it was through such an ordeal. Bistie cleaned it up a little bit for me, which was very nice of him, but it still needs some love and TLC. Seems that when you combine the oils from your hand with the water from the fire hoses, well, you get rust.

That’s both on the strings, which are obviously easily replaced, and the frets, which are obviously not. Plus, that wood needs a good cleaning.

I called Greg, who has always been cool about sharing guitar knowledge, and told him what I thought I should do. He confirmed: Tape the fretboard off with masking tape so the frets are the only things showing.

With the strings removed, you can see the rust pretty clearly, along with just dirt and residue that has collected around the strings. But with some 0000 steel wool and very little elbow grease, the frets clean up pretty quickly. Compare the scrubbed ones on the right to the ones I haven’t touched yet on the left:

If they shine, they’re fine.

Define “on the phone”

After shaking my tiny fist at drivers who were on the phone, I was happy when the California law went into effect. Handset to your ear? Pull over here.

Unfortunately the rise of texting happened in the time between the law was drafted and when it was passed. So now, I’m seeing more people swerving than ever before because they’re taking their eyes off the road to type into Razrs and iPhones. I tried it myself the other night, very late when nobody else was on the road. It was the worst I’ve ever driven. It was scary and stupid.

Twice in the last few days I’ve seen people weaving like they were drunk. The only substance they were on was Blackberry.

United: Plane stupidity

I don’t like to fly. I’m not afraid of it; I just hate it. As a result, I’m generally not a nice person to fly with. I have rules.

Rule 1 is sit down and shut up. I prefer a window seat because I know I will not have to move unless I want to. But in exchange for this, I rarely bother the other passengers in my row. I don’t climb over them to get to the bathroom. I don’t fight over who gets the armrest. I try not to even reach over them to get stuff. And I sure as hell don’t feel the need to engage in awkward social banter. I’m traveling with a laptop, a DS, an iPhone, an iPod, and mutliple magazines. I’m fine.

Rule 2 is keep your crap to yourself. Whenever possible on business trips, I pack everything in one bag — my big blue messenger bag, my “murse.” All of the above electronic doodads go in there as do things like Advil, earplugs, a Clif bar, and hand sanitizer — not to mention fresh underwear for the trip. That way everything is at my feet; I am self-sufficient for the entire flight. I am not one of those people who constantly fishes around in the overhead bin for things.

Rule 3 is check your motherfucking bags. Seriously, this is one of the things that annoys me the most — people who bring overstuffed roller bags onto the plane that just cause congestion problems for everybody else. I don’t expect everybody to have the security dance down (take off your shoes, take off your coat, put your laptop in its own bin, hop around on one foot) but I do expect them to understand that there’s a skinny little aisle in the middle of the plane and barely enough room for the people, let alone the luggage. So maybe you shouldn’t bring yours on board. Just because they tell you that you CAN does not mean that you SHOULD. But hey, you cry — if I have my bag with me, the airline can’t lose it! True enough. But more often I get the feeling that it’s a sense of smug entitlement. I look at them causing a 15-person backup as they tug at their bag, tring to unjam it from the overhead compartment, and recall when they got on the plane with a look on their face that said “I’m the exception.” I never and will never offer to help one of these people. It’s your bag; it’s your problem. Learn from your mistakes. You should have checked the son of a bitch.

United — they who have delayed and cancelled and generally fucked up 70% (NOT an exaggeration) of the flights I’ve had the misfortune of booking with them — apparently thinks Rule 3 is bullshit. I arrived at the airport to check my bag only to find that I was being charged for excess baggage. Standard baggage is now…none. Seriously. It’s an on-site charge of $15 for the first bag, $25 for each additional, and no baggage check is included in your ticket price. I was so pissed by this, I just laughed. The baggage handler looked at me funny. I told him I knew it wasn’t his fault, but it was the stupidest thing I’d ever seen the airline do, and it fed directly into the biggest complaint I have when flying.

Maybe someone thought it would encourage people to pack more efficiently. Maybe this is a way to simply squeeze a little more money out of each and every customer. But what it’s really going to do is make people think “Fuck it, I’m not checking my bag — I’m carrying it on the plane, where there’s no room and I can inconvenience up to 200 people with it. And I’ll save some money in the process.”

The very basic rule of business is that customers are motivated by price. Note to the airline: The reason we’re flying United is that it’s cheap. And the reason the passengers will not check their bags is because they are cheap. I would have thought that the space in the CABIN was more valuable, but I’ve got it all wrong. I was expecting a $15 charge for anybody who DIDN’T check a bag that clearly needed to be checked. Let’s start charging for gate checks, not encouraging them. Fucking asinine.

I don’t have issues with JetBlue or Virgin America or even Southwest, believe it or not. United is singularly wretched, and I hate living 10 minutes from its west coast hub. “We know that you have a choice of airlines when you travel and we thank you for letting us prove to you why United is the last on the list.”

Guitars & Gaming – on sale now

I was really slammed with deadlines and special projects a few weeks ago, and now the source of those deadlines is on newsstands.

The folks at Guitar World approached me to ask if I’d be interested in working on a special issue for newsstands that brought together the current trend in guitar-based gaming with the real deal. I’d write the game stuff, they’d take care of the real guitar stuff. I couldn’t say no!

I would up writing a lot for it: The history of the Guitar Hero & Rock Band franchises, interviews with most of the session guitarists who created all the cover tracks for GH and RB, a visit to and feature on WaveGroup, the Fremont studio where it all happens, a look at the guitar games that came before GH, a gear section that covers both camps, all the cheat codes for all the games, and fresh previews of both Rock Band 2 and Guitar Hero World Tour. All that original content is in addition to a few bits we picked up from OXM, including my guitar lessons on how to play fake guitar better, a strategy guide on how to beat Lou in GHIII (which only ran in another newsstand special, amusingly enough), and a feature on how Harmonix takes a master track and turns it into a playable song in the games.

Guitar World then piled on interviews with Slash, Joe Perry, and Marcus Henderson, plus some excellent info for newbies who want to buy their first real guitar and don’t know where to start.

It’s a lot of stuff for $6.

I am really proud of the WaveGroup feature and the session guitarist interviews, as well as one tiny little thing that nobody will notice. I didn’t just cut and paste the codes for all the games; I tried them all out and took fresh screenshots. And as I was doing that, I found that one of the GHII codes for 360 — “guitarist’s head on fire” — was incorrect in all the lists on the internet; since most of those sites just cannibalize from each other (or at least the users do), the false information spread to everywhere. I figured out the real code all by myself (the button combination was different) and put it in the magazine. I shared it with GamesRadar, so they’re the only site that has it right on the whole internets. Of course, the cheeky bastards had to poke fun anyway.

So what I’m saying is, please go buy this thing when you see it on the newsstand. Thank you.

Studio fire aftermath

If you’d like to see a miracle, I have some photographic proof. This is our gear, after a fire:

That’s our PA and power amps, powered up and working. You can see from the road cases that they’ve been through something nasty, but they did make it through. We’re floored and very grateful. This would have been the toughest to replace.

We lost the rest of that drum kit, all our cables, our mic stands, mics, some amps, one of the subwoofers, our main 15″ speakers, our entire monitor system and wedges, and of course, all the banners, flyers, and memorabilia we’ve ever put up in the space to make it feel like home. Some items are still being looked at; Bistie’s POD may be operational if the water from the fire hoses didn’t damage it. But miraculously, guitars that were in cases — including my little Fernandes Nomad, apparently — survived. The cases are toast but that’s kind of their job, isn’t it? Disaster protection. If my case melted but saved the guitar in the process, I’ll be very happy indeed.

This weekend the band is cleaning everything. Tuesday we’re going to have a run-through with our recovered gear plus everybody’s personal replacement gear filling in what’s missing (I have a PA of my own with 15″ mains, so they’re going back into service for the band) and then we have a wedding gig on the 6th.  Not quite like nothing ever happened, but at least we’re not going to lose any gigs. And the gigs will pay for replacement gear.

I already ordered a new Nomad case. I’ll probably get a new mic too, ’cause I liked the old one.

And the beat goes on.

Are game reviews pointless?

I think I have dedicated my life to writing things that nobody wants to read.

When I started reviewing games, it was for a love of games and a love of writing. I still have both. Then I started to take great pride in offering advice — both to consumers who wanted to spend their money wisely, and to developers/publishers who didn’t have an objective perspective on their own work. As long as my criticism can be constructive, I feel I’m doing the right thing.

But increasingly, the developers don’t want to read reviews that aren’t positive. This isn’t just cases of creators feeling that they’re misunderstood; this is because more and more often, their compensation and bonuses are tied to the average review score. Pointing out flaws in their games takes money out of their pocket. They don’t want to hear that the frame rate lagged or the tutorial was unclear. They want to hear that they did a good job, and as a result, that their daughter can get those braces after all.

Meanwhile, the consumer wants to know that the opinions they’ve already formed about a game — based on previews and screenshots and simple desires that every fan comes up with naturally — are right. They don’t want bad news, because they might lose face for supporting a game that their friends have already heard them endorse. The review has to prove that they were right. And when the review doesn’t do that, they don’t trust “the media” because “the media” has become tainted and corrupt. Well, that’s what they’ve heard anyway, and that means it’s true.

So we’ve got unrealistic expectations, unrelated baggage, and closed minds at work in both potential audiences. Were I the voice of the people, I could feel comfortable pushing back to creators who take personal offense and say, “Please understand that I represent the end user first and foremost.” Or if I felt like the creative community didn’t immediately dread my review, I could turn to the audience and say, “This feedback is part of the process of making new and better games.” But that’s not the case. I feel like developers hate reviews and readers hate reviews.

And because of those reactions are based on personal or career biases, I’m often labeled…biased. Whether the review gives a good score or a bad score, whether it’s clearly written or aspires to be creatively entertaining in its own right, I’m basically a hack who hasn’t played the full game, doesn’t understand the genre, isn’t qualified to pass judgment on anything or anybody, and is certainly on someone’s payroll anyway.

They can’t prove it, but nobody has to. And they won’t ask me directly, because I’d only lie. Isn’t that convenient?

Boo hoo, woe is me, welcome to the martyrdome. I know. But I have always taken my responisbilities seriously, and I do feel, more often than not, that my work is an annoyance to the very people I’m trying to help.

UPDATE 9/9: It would seem that a lot of people misinterpreted the latter half of this post, and it’s starting to get passed around. Subtlety is apparently dead; I should have put quotes around the “hack” stuff to suggest that this is not what I am saying, but what many other people say about me and reviewers like me. Folks, here it is without the sarcasm: I do understand the genres I review, I do play the games, I do feel that 15 years experience is enough to pass informed and responsible judgment, and I am not on any game publisher’s payroll. I’m saying that for some people, it’s easier to discredit a reviewer than give his or her dissenting opinion any credence. To them, “I’m just a hack,” etcetra. And they can’t prove anything they allege, but they don’t have to, because others want to believe the bad stuff, too.

We just got a new guitar and I swear to god it’s not my fault this time

Two of my favorite music stores — Gryphon and Gelb — are closed Sundays, and I never seem to be near them Saturdays. Today we knew we’d be near both stores so I arranged time in our schedule to go and window shop. I mean, you never know what you’re going to see for the first and last time, and it’s good to be ready to jump…but I just like looking anyway. I don’t like to be that guy trying everything and buying nothing, so I usually don’t even ask to play anything. But I did play a number of Taylor soldbodies and I think I now know I don’t want one; they just don’t fit me yet. Maybe later, but this model doesn’t connect with me. (But after playing the T5 12-string? Sign me UP.)

But a swing by Gelb to see what they had on the walls (I have been particularly curious about the Paul Reed Smith McCarty Korina — I loooove korina as a tonewood) revealed a tiny little Ibanez Mikro GSRM20 bass. And even though it was shiny blue, it didn’t grab my eye — it grabbed Kat’s.

Now, we have a deal: I don’t get new guitars unless I sell an existing one. I understand the necessity behind that very fair rule, and I have now gotten the guitar and bass count in the house to under 20 (15 are mine, the rest are Kat’s basses). So for something to grab her eye, well, I do get to say the same thing. “Do you like this more than your Fernandes Nomad Bass?” I asked. She said yes. Her face just lit up when she saw it, and again when she held it, and again when she played it. So she said “I can’t put this through its paces, tell me if it’s good.” So I played it. Um, wow. A bass for $180 should not be this good. Full-size pickups, a solid bridge, even the setup was pretty damned good out of the box. Great neck feel.

It’s clearly a bass aimed at kids (the other colors in the store were black and metallic pink). It’s a very short-scale instrument (28″ instead of the usual 34″) but I play a short-scale guitar (24″ instead of the 25.5″) and it feels great in my tiny hands. Kat’s hands are similarly small. The knobs are embarssingly plastic, and I figure the thing is probably made of agathis or some other horrible wood, but I trusted my instincts — if she liked this more than her other bass and she would play it more often, it had my endorsement. So, we jumped, and we’ll sell the one she doesn’t play. We will likely make a profit on the deal.

I got home and found it’s not only gotten some good user reviews, but it’s made of mahogany. Yeah. Fucking A.

Now, it’s worth noting that if you search for this bass online, it looks like this:

That’s Dan Amrich Blue™ but otherwise unremarkable. What would grab your eye? This.

They don’t show the metalflake at all in any of the promotional materials. And it’s gorgeous. My photo does not do this justice. Kat used to have a Yamaha BB404 in metallic blue which also looked pretty, but it didn’t feel half as solid as this.

So if anybody wants dibs on the Nomad Bass before I put it up for sale, speak now. It’s also great, but Kat just wasn’t playing it, and…well, you know the rule.

Our studio burninated

Our rehearsal space caught fire yesterday. Um, great catch?

Our guitarist runs the studios/owns the business. He doesn’t know how much of our gear is toast but we are being realistic and assuming it’s all damaged and needs to be replaced. I had one guitar in there — a Nomad Deluxe — which was there for utility and convenience. We aren’t allowed in so we don’t know what we’ve lost. Full drum kit, PA, monitors, microphones, keyboard, amps and guitars…gotta assume it’s all gone and consider anything that’s not to be a blessing. We’ll likely rent for our next wedding gig.

I guess I’m lucky that I’ve been playing as long as I have and I’ve never had anything like this happen before — nothing stolen, nothing burned, nothing run over, etc. I’ll take it as inevitable and hopefully we can rebuild and upgrade. I still have my old PA so we will probably use that to supplement the bassist’s PA.