My origin story

Sorry, been very busy, and just got around to watching this myself, even though it’s been online for a while. If you’ve ever wondered how I got my job at GamePro, this collection of videos contains the story.

Kat is listed as Kat Amrich, unfortunately. But you know her as Kat Auch.

Netbook GET!

Ever the gadget girl, Kat spotted a deal on woot.com recently — an EEE PC 900A for just $170. I’ve been complaining about my discomfort writing on airplanes during my frequent biz trips; I like working in the air, and I adore my Dell D630, but I hate the guy in front of me who always reclines his seat to the max immediately and makes it impossible for me to open my notebook all the way, let alone type on it. So I have been thinking, “Hmm…maybe I’ll get a netbook just for typing on trips, but $300 is a bit steep for that convenience.” An Atom-powered model with 1GB of RAM $170 solves that nicely, so after quite a bit of prodding from Kat as the deadline ticked down. I jumped.

Then I found out the thing is a piece of crap. Not permanently; the processor is good, and the machine is very easy to upgrade. But it was a bargain as it shipped because it was ill-equipped. With a small, slow 4GB SSD drive that was stuffed to the gills with unnecessary, outdated, Chinese Linux apps, it was pretty unpleasant to use. At the advice of almost the entire EEE-owning internet community (and the guys from Maximum PC), I picked up a 2GB stick of RAM and a 32GB SSD drive. These extra parts brought my total up to — you guessed it — $300, but that’s still a little cheaper than the current crop of good netbooks ($350-$400), and I bought name-brand parts for it. Warranty’s void, but so what? Girls buy shoes and handbags; this is my fashion accessory. (Oh, wait, I also buy shoes.)

The hardest part of installation was one of the tiny screws on the existing SSD didn’t wanna come out. Pfft. Nathan‘s leet skills made quick work of that for me. I popped everything in, used the USB DVD burner I got for Kat for Christmas to install the beta of Windows 7, and I was off to the races.

And Windows 7 is niiiiice. I never upgraded to Vista because I heard so many bad things about it; I have four PCs in the house all still running XP and I know that OS well. But if this little netbook can crank with Win 7, I can only imagine what it will do on my quad-core.

Everything in Win 7 worked fine except for some minor driver issues — I had to track down an older video driver as well as the trackpad driver and the ACPI driver to make the Fn keys (volume up/down, brightness, etc) work properly. After only an hour or two of combing the net, I found everything I needed — this hack/mod/upgrade is very popular, so many people had already found the answers I was seeking and shared them with the world. The internet is cool.

The EEE is also a nicer piece of work than I thought. Three USB ports is one more than Kat’s 15″ MacBook Pro comes with, and that cost $1500. With an Ethernet port and analog audio inputs, it’s got the makings for a great podcasting Skype machine. There’s an SD reader built in, so I popped a few of my iPod movies on there and they play perfectly (and don’t take up hard drive space). Plus, there’s VGA out if I ever want to leave the confines of 1024×600. Maybe this loadout is standard for a netbook, and if so, I’m happy to hear it — the right stuff is in this tiny box, even if the battery only lasts three hours without WiFi turned on (which it won’t be, on a plane).

With one exception. I am a keyboard snob and I knew that buying a netbook meant I would never be 100% happy with it for that reason alone. I am proud to type comically fast and I use one of those fancy split ergo keyboards. I take touch-typing exams at 80wpm, write extemporaneously at work at 100wpm, and rant on the internet at around 120wpm. This array of tiny pieces of plastic with letters on them is simply not a keyboard by my definition. It feels flimsy and cramped, and I knew that going in, but I still don’t like it. I will learn to use it, though. I am forcing myself to write some stuff on it this weekend just to start breeding familiarity before I find myself on deadline at 30,000 feet. I just keep telling myself one thing: It’s better than not writing on the plane at all.

Of course, first thing I wanted to do after installing OpenOffice was try to get some games on there. The August 2009 issue of PC Gamer has a great article on netbook gaming so I will take some of their advice. In the meantime, I still have a ton of PC games from the 800×600 era on my shelf here, and many of them…do not work. The netbook’s unusual resolution confuses them, and Trackmania Sunrise, Majestic Chess, and Monopoly (Encore’s excellent 2007 edition) all had problems of one stripe or another.

GOG to the rescue. My Good Old Games installers of two of the three Pro Pinball games worked fine; Fantastic Journey actually works brilliantly, like it was built for the hardware.

My MAME ROMs are long out of date, but a bunch of the 80s classics (Ms. Pac-Man, Raiden, Asteroids Deluxe, Mr. Do’s Castle, Atari’s Tetris) still worked with the latest build. Amazingly, I can run the original Mortal Kombat and NBA Jam TE fine (but I can’t run NBA Hangtime smoothly — darn). Also, the utterly awesome Plants vs. Zombies ran without a single hitch.

So…I guess what I really did was loaded the machine up with a bunch of reasons not to write on airplanes. But the point is, if you have a netbook, go Win 7. It’s almost entirely painless.

How not to sell me a guitar

Since I have no good guitar store near me on the Peninsula (no, B Street does not count), going to Guitar Center is always something of a treat. I was visiting friends in the East Bay on Saturday, and those friends live very close to a Guitar Center. So after seeing them, I found that GC was staying open late for a “midnight madness” event and I checked it out.

Mostly, I was looking for a case for a hard-to-fit guitar (they were very accomodating and tried three different models to no avail — it’s not their fault, it’s the guitar). I was also there to window shop and look to see if there was anything I would kick myself for passing on. Some floor models (including one stompbox I probably should have snagged), some accessories deals…a good sale, really.

I am starting to think about selling my existing 12-string and getting a new one. This 1974 Epiphone Bard been in my family for several years and has some battle damage but still sounds lovely. Unfortunately it doesn’t match me — I have small hands, it has a huge 70s neck…hard to overcome that physical limitation. The instrument should match the player, and I don’t believe in owning guitars I won’t play. I haven’t played it in a year. I do love Taylors, so that’s my obvious replacement…but they’re spendy and I haven’t fallen in love with one yet. So, I’m browsing and thinking and collecting information on both Taylor acoustics and the 12-string T5. And maybe I’ll ultimately find something awesome by another manufacturer and go with that. I’m open.

Dude working the acoustic room at Guitar Center greeted me warmly, then got caught up with other customers. I looked around and tried a few things for about 10 minutes, then made my way back to the electrics. He came out after me, apologizing for ignoring me (he didn’t, I was just browsing), and asked if there was anything I needed. Well, I was looking for a Taylor 12-string, I said. He then informed me that he had a great Martin 12-string for me to try and that he played on Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue.”

This would make him Chris Weber, which could be entirely true — there are tons of excellent guitarists in the Bay Area with professional experience — but it’s also entirely irrelevant. I see this as the first sign of a bad salesman: When he wants you to know how cool he is. I immediately asked him what the hell he was doing in Guitar Center in Concord, but followed him back to the acoustics anyway. He went to the guitar — a D12X1 — took it off the wall, and played it for me in the little fancy room where the pricey acoustics live. He then showed off his mad fingerpicking skills…for longer than I expected.

This is the second sign of a bad salesman. I don’t care how it sounds and feels in your hands; I care how it sounds and feels in mine. If you want me to buy it, let me try it.

I patiently wait for him to stop, then pick up the guitar myself. I am not really in the Martin camp; I respect the brand and I’ve tried a few (I considered buying a friend’s D-28 a few years back), but I haven’t played one that made me go “oh my god this is mine” yet, the way most of my guitars have spoken to me. And 12-strings are always more expensive because of the engineering that goes into them; that’s a lot of tension on a little wood, and of course it still has to sound good. It’s tough.

I’m thinking I’m looking at around $2K for my budget, selling my existing one as vintage (since it is) and saving for the rest. The price tag on this model: $600. It’s a Mexican import, which isn’t inherently a problem, but isn’t an heirloom, and that’s what I’m shopping for.

Kat instantly knows this is not my next guitar. “There’s no way that’s real wood,” she says. “Oh, it’s real wood!” assures the salesman. “That’s solid spruce on the top, and that’s the most important part to have, because all the tone comes from this area back here, behind the bridge.” That’s true. I know this; Kat knows this. Anybody who knows anything about guitars and shops for four-figure-price-tag instruments knows how the physics and resonance of an acoustic guitar works. Even the entry-level acoustics have solid spruce tops for this reason. It’s only worthy of note if they don’t.

But Kat is not to be fooled; even she knows high-pressure laminate when she sees it. “Yeah, but the rest is laminate.” “Uh…yes,” he admits. “The rest is laminate but it sounds great. And you know, it’s Martin; they’re not going to put their name on something that isn’t good.” Martin describes the back and sides as “Mahogany Pattern HPL Textured Finish,” which is to say the wood grain on this guitar is basically a big laser-printed texture. I notice that the bottom strap button is missing, but I keep my mouth shut.

I also notice that the neck is too wide for my tastes. This is entirely a personal ergonomic judgement; it might be built wonderfully, but if it doesn’t feel right in your hands, a lot of guitarists simply say “Sorry, no.” I play short-scale guitars and thin necks, because my hands are small. I avoid 70s Fenders and 50s Gibsons and Hamers and things like that just because of the neck shapes; I go for modern Fender C-shapes and Taylor’s neck profiles generally feel very good to me. I know pretty much as soon as I hold the neck if a guitar will work for me or not. I tell the salesman that it does sound nice but I don’t like the neck because my hands are too small. (Not that I’m not even blaming the instrument; I’m blaming Darwin.)

He sniffs and mumbles something. I couldn’t hear him, so I ask him to repeat. “That’s a cop-out,” he says louder.

This is the third sign of a bad salesman: The customer may not technically always be right, but the customer is absofuckinglutely right when it comes to their own physiology. It’s great that you played with Dylan, douchebag; my experience to counterbalance that is 38 years of owning the same two hands. Am I supposed to take that as some sort of challenge and buy the guitar to prove you wrong? I know what feels comfortable to me, and your insults will not change that. In this context, “that’s a cop-out” is possibly the stupidest thing a guitar salesman has ever said to me.

I guess I’ve been lucky; he’s the first jackass I’ve found in a guitar store in a while, and he was actually my first bad sales experience in that particular Guitar Center. I have bought guitars and gear there before; I like shopping there instead of the closer San Francisco location because Concord is generally not staffed by guys like him. If I spot him next time, I’m avoiding him.

Note to guitar shops: Don’t fuck with me. You’re only fucking your commission.

PUZZLE: Sinister Digits

I wrote this some time ago for Perplex City, but it didn’t get picked (a few of my others did, but then season 2 went on indefinite hiatus). So far nobody’s gotten it without help or a hint. If you know the answer, don’t post the spoiler in the comments — email me and I will confirm/deny.

SINISTER DIGITS

I was doing a lot of data entry at work when I suddenly noticed a pattern.

Fewest     Greatest
Sex     Teaser
Braggart     Zebra
Arcade     Fracas
Career     Wasted
Earwax     Sweater
Degraded     Restart

Which of these words fits?

Digger      Quest
Scavenge       Wanted
Crazed      Secure
Weirdest     Danger

Supergroups for summer

Looking at the albums and tours of the summer, there’s not much that interests me, I’m afraid. Spinal Tap releases a new album this coming Tuesday, which is not just the musical highlight of my summer but possibly of my decade. And beyond that…meh. Well, I mean, I’m stoked for The Beatles Rock Band. But in terms of bands that are still making new music, it’s a cruel, cruel summer.

But two projects did come out in the last two or three months that I was eagerly anticipating, and both were supergroups. Tinted Windows is a power-pop side project from Adam Schlesinger (Fountains of Wayne, one of my all-time favorite bands, here writing and playing bass), with James Iha (Smashing Pumpkins) on guitar, Bun E. Carlos (Cheap Trick) on drums, and Taylor Hanson (Hanson) on vocals. I thought, holy shit, how could that be anything but awesome?

Then I bought the album and got my answer: Taylor Hanson. This is not based on any lingering distaste for his family’s band, because I never really cared one way or the other. This is based on what he’s not getting done on this record. He sounds like he’s doing a fey impersonation of Billy Corgan all the way through, or pretending to be a tough guy when he’s not. He completely lacks any power or grit or interest in his voice — you’re bored hearing him, and while he’s good at the harmonies part of power-pop, he sucks at the power. The second single “Messing With My Head” is a perfect example of his inability to sing this material — he can’t hit the falsetto notes cleanly, let alone with oomph, and I can’t believe they actually issued this as a single. The drumming is awesome, and everybody else feels like they’re at least having fun, even if the songs do largely sound like tunes that weren’t good enough to make the last FoW album. All told I think there are two decent tracks, and I am sadly disappointed.

The other biggie is Chickenfoot — Sammy Hagar, Michael Anthony (who, for some reason, actually signed away his rights as a member of Van Halen), RHCP drummer Chad Smith, and Joe Satriani on guitar. (Best nickname I’ve heard for the group so far: “Van Alien.”) I think Satch is a god, I think Mike is horribly underappreciated as a musician and backup singer, I have no problems with any funk drummer ever. And Sammy…well, I actually think he’s fantastic as a singer and a frontman grounded in the real world (not to mention his tequila is my favorite), but he’s pretty lousy as a songwriter. Sure enough, my cliche counter broke halfway through the first song. Almost everything Sammy sings, you’ve heard before in converation, or in another song, or as an ad slogan or something. From the single “Soap on a Rope”:

Got money, got fame
Fast cars and everything, yeah, whoo
I wanna dance, I gotta sing
Rock, soul, blues, sing anything to ya, hey

I got a woman, she fine too
Let me do anything that I wanna do, oh
Got it all, still want more
Come on, baby, show me what I’m lookin’ for

yeah
yay-yeah

Part of me goes, okay, he’s just goofing off, right? It’s only rock and roll. It’s party rock, and there is absolutely nothing to apologize for if you set out to make a catchy rock record for the fun of it. He’s not trying to be Dylan (or worse, Radiohead); he knows he’s not being profound. Then I come across this quote on Blabbermouth.net:

“I write what comes to mind,” the singer says. “I’m not bound by anything subject-wise. I’m inspired by the music. When I heard the music Joe was going for, it made me reach, it made me stretch.”

Wait…you are trying? Check out the rest of the lyrics and see if you think he’s stretching or simply overextending a limited ability. (Remember — this is the guy who, when he got back together with Van Halen, wrote a song about getting back together with Van Halen.)

The musicianship on the album is wonderful. Satch plays like he’s having fun and kind of enjoying the opportunity to tell the world “You know, Eddie kind of went crazy, but I’m still a fantastic guitar player and I know what I’m doing — listen.” He’s wheedlie-deedlie and does all the tricks and then some, but remains super-musical all the way through. Mike has some trademark understated awesomeness; he’s used to playing in the pocket behind a superguitarist, but he still gets his trills in where they belong and actually serve the groove. Chad Smith is clearly having a blast.

And yet…I have forced myself to listen to the album a few times now and it once again comes down to the singer. Sammy’s great, but the brain-dead-yet-pretentious lyrics make me wonder what it would be like as an instrumental album. “Down the Drain” (sorry, that cliche came so fast I didn’t have a chance to warn you) starts with Sammy’s old trick of talking to the guitarist and ultimately mellows into (to borrow a criticism from Spinal Tap) retarded sexuality and bad poetry:

Oh, along came a wind like a-lightning
Strong enough to feel the heat
Felt like the night will wonder
With the wings flyin’ under my feet

But all that’s changed
My whole world’s been changin’
And it’s a low down, dirty shame
‘Cause it’s all down the drain

Oh, I need love first thing in the morning
I need love, baby, first thing in the evening
I need love, ow, first thing in the morning
I need love, love, love, yeah

What are you going to do? It’s Sammy Hagar. Believe it or not, he’s an incredibly healthy and vital 61 years old. He’s had 40 years of success being Sammy Hagar, and he’s not going to change how he writes at this point. Honestly, he doesn’t have to. But I still wish he could.

The takeaway on Chickenfoot is at least a little better than Tinted Windows. Taylor’s vocals make me cringe; Sammy’s vocals merely make me roll my eyes. Tinted Windows is out of balance; Chickenfoot is mostly harmless.

So I don’t know what I’ll be cranking this summer. I hear the Jonas Brothers are actually pretty good if you listen with an open mind.

The L4D2 boycott

A group of more than 10,000 Left 4 Dead players is organizing a boycott of the just-announced Left 4 Dead 2.

Are you kidding me? Please tell me you’re kidding me. Because those reasons are pure comedy.

Just like I am somewhat infamous for giving straight answers to angry reader mail and crank letters, I’m going to give this joke just enough credibility, in case it might be real, and go over the points one at a time.

* Significant content for L4D1 was promised, and never delivered
Classic gamer entitlement. We got a whole new game mode, for free.  I felt that Survival Mode was quite worth the wait. Also, I haven’t heard Valve say L4D1 extra content is officially over, but maybe they did and I missed it. What exactly were you expecting that was never delivered? Was anything more actually promised, or did you make up your own release schedule for free shit? I honestly don’t know; maybe Valve did talk big and deliver small. But I didn’t get that impression as a fan of the game.

* Valve put little faith in L4D1 since they almost certainly started working on L4D2 right after release
10 million dollars is a lot of faith. Giant billboards in major cities make it pretty clear that Valve was dedicated to getting the word out, and the various tweaks and improvements that have come in the form of patches/updates since prove that they have been watching, studying, listening to, and responding to the active user base. That’s faith in the game and its community.

As for working on L4D2 so soon…creative types create. Of course they had ideas they couldn’t fit into L4D1 at ship. Every dev team leaves something behind at ship. My bet is that those left-4-later ideas grew to be larger than the first game could reasonably accomodate as DLC, but it was never a matter of emotionally charged words like “faith.” I think you could argue the opposite when it comes to having faith in L4D — “hey, this isn’t a game, it’s a franchise with legs. We think it’s strong enough to expand the game’s world, and not just bolt something on. So let’s do the sequel and not try to overextend the game that exists and clearly works. We have faith in the vision for the series.”

* The fact that L4D2 is nearly identical to L4D1 will decimate the community for both games
Sure, many players will move from the first game to the second; that’s a fair assumption. But “nearly identical” is more bullshit, because none of the protesters have played it to know. Not all L4D2’s changes are evident from screenshots and early footage; some of the changes will need to be experienced. And none of the complainers can do that until November.

* The announced date is not nearly enough time to polish content or make significant gameplay changes
More assumption from people who do not develop games and therefore cannot make any statement about game development speed or quality. Six months with a large enough dev team is plenty of time. And the L4D2 dev team is quite large.

* The new character designs seem bland and unappealing so far
Oddly personal, and frankly underinformed — so little has been shown (which is even admitted in this statement). It seems like the boycotters expect everything to be built for them, not a mass gaming audience. “And while we’re on the topic, in L4D1, beta Louis was better, and Zoey’s breasts should have been bigger.” Opinions are like assholes, but don’t mistake them for viable or even even vaguely relevant instructions.

* L4D2 is too bright to fit in with L4D1’s visual aesthetic
Um, it’s Valve’s visual aesthetic, not yours. Seems the people who refused to accept Diablo III because you could see the environment have jumped ship to talk about a new game. News flash: It’s very possible to be scared with the lights on.

* The fiddle-based horde music is extremely disliked, though the differently orchestrated music is otherwise welcome
You’re objecting to a violin? Sorry, I’m out of rational thought now. See the response about the character designs and consider telling Steven Spielberg that filming Shindler’s List in black and white was extremely disliked.

* L4D2’s release will result in a drop in quality and frequency for L4D1 content, even compared to before
Projection/assumption. Goes back to the first point — what were you promised, and what did you convince yourself to expect?

* The community has lost faith in Valve’s former reputation for commitment to their games post-release

You don’t speak for me. Maybe you have lost faith, but the community has not.

At worst, this is bratty whining, akin to complaining that the Porsche daddy promised to get you might be the wrong color. “I’m not going to pay my hard-earned money to put gas in an awesome yellow car!” But at best, it gives these people something to do this summer. Not enough L4D1 content? Convinced L4D2 is a money-grabbing disappointment some six months before its completion? Then take the freely available and heavily supported modding tools that Valve has given you since day one, and get cracking — let’s see your version of L4D1.5 and let your work prove your point. On the back of Valve’s original efforts, make something so compelling that L4D2 fails miserably in the mighty wake of your vastly superior ideas and execution. I know the Left 4 Winchester team is looking for talented folks. Stop passively boycotting things you might not like and start actively creating things you know you do.

And if you can’t do that, I look forward to playing L4D2 without 10,000 or so closed-minded players clogging the servers.

Palette-Swap success, internet style

Last Friday Palette-Swap Ninja released a new song, “Learn to Spell.” It’s a parody of All-American Rejects’ “Gives You Hell” and it’s about people who post on gaming forums with limited verbal capacities. I was really busy and forgot to plug it here.

A week went by and our swanky premium page at Entertonement launched, which also brought with it someone who posted that embedded-player version of the song on Digg.

Digg, for my friends who don’t follow the internets so much, is a site where anybody can recommend anything that they deem of interest on the internet to the rest of the internet, and the rest of the internet says “we agree” or “that sucked.” If you like it, you just click once to vote for it. Digg is a big deal for generating traffic to your site.

We got 1200 votes in about 21 hours. That’s a lot for Digg, enough to get us into the top stories of the day. That feels great.

Of course, you can’t write and record and release a song that makes fun of people who cannot write without being made fun of for your writing. Nitpicks included everything from incorrect verb tense in the song’s description on Entertonement to the improper use of “who/whom.” It’s a fair cop. And of course, it inevitably turned into a Digg argument about grammar Nazis and the evolution of language, which was planned on from the moment we wrote the song — it’s kindling for flame wars.

But mostly? It’s cool that 1200 people liked the song enough to vote it up. Not bad for something recorded by amateurs with GarageBand in two bedrooms on opposite sides of the country and given away for free.

You should buy a t-shirt to celebrate the moment.