Monday, November 26, 2007

Imaginary Stories: Chapter Three (** Draft **)

(The following will no doubt make slightly more sense if you've read Chapter One and Chapter Two first!)

Chapter Three: The Villain

"And that heated debate at the Royal Albert Hall was only the beginning. As the two men matched wits in contest after contest, their fates became increasingly - and inextricably - linked. Newspapers of the day captured the ebb and flow of the battle with headlines like Allen vs Jeffries - Who's Right?, Jeffries Asks: "Why Can't Nigel Not Read?", Jeffries to Allen: "It's Immoral!", Allen Stands Firm Despite Opposition, and Let The Law Decide!

No other topic had held the attention of so many, for so long, since the time of Jack of Ripper, nearly two decades earlier. It was as if the very fate of the country hung in the balance, were you to ask some of those in the Allen and Jeffries camps. When the debate finally moved into the English court system, police were required to blockade the entrances in order to keep the most fervent members of the public from turning the courtroom into a circus."

- "The Villain", Coming Of Age Tale, Laurel Allen (Born 1982), Published 1997

"It's the foundation of modern society, Linus," Laurel said evenly. "We just passed the centennial of the Literary Revolution last year. What part of it are you struggling with?" She mentally added, besides the part about not wanting to write your own COAT, that is, but feared that her pupil would only withdraw into himself if she were to take that tack with him.

Linus Morgan looked from face to face, scanning the four students' faces around him. He hadn't really expected to see any support there, and therefore wasn't surprised by how little he actually perceived. "So I'm the only one who finds the whole COAT concept strange, then. That's fine. But would someone care to connect the dots for me? Or am I just too stupid to get it?"

Laurel reached out and touched Linus briefly on the arm. "You're not stupid, Linus, and you know it. None of you are." She unintentionally repeated the action of a moment ago, as she glanced from student to student, following the same arc that Linus' gaze had prescribed. "It's not all that common for young men or women to question the value of the COATs anymore, since it's been a part of our culture for so long now that it's generally just accepted. But it still happens, and that's probably a healthy sign all on its own."

"Our very own Doubting Thomas, that's Linus!" chimed in James, in a characteristic move to lighten the mood. "He wouldn't believe in gravity if it didn't keep dropping apples on his noggin!"

"Gravity's a law of Nature, James!" Linus' replied, eyes flashing. "COATs are entirely man-made, and all I'm asking is, why do we place such faith in their relevance? Has anyone ever proven that it's really all that important that you write your own little piece of forgettable literature as a requirement to join society as a full-fledged member? I mean, doesn't that sound ridiculous to anyone but me?"

Peter answered, "Ridiculous, or intimidating? Is it that you don't see the value, or that you don't want to do the work?"

Laurel wasn't sure whether to be thankful that Peter had called Linus on the very point that she'd been thinking about herself, or angry that he'd potentially put his fellow student and friend on the defensive. In either case, she said, "Let's not make this personal, Peter. Linus has raised a valid concern today, and we should all be able to discuss it as such."

Elizabeth looked at Linus but directed her words at her teacher as she said, "And it's a topic that you're something of an expert on." Only then did she turn her gaze toward Laurel. "Aren't you?"

"What do you mean, Liz?" Sanjay asked. "Did Miss Allen rail against writing her COAT back when she was in school, too?" His own personal interest in rebellion was something that he tended to wear on his sleeve, and today was no exception.

"Or are you just remarking on the common surnames involved: William Allen then, Laurel Allen now?" Peter offered, as he struggled to follow the thread started by Elizabeth. Why is she always one step ahead of the rest of us, he silently wondered. Or does it just feel that way to me?

"Do you mean to tell me that none of you have read Miss Allen's COAT?" Elizabeth inquired, with perhaps just a little more derision than she'd intended.

"Um, I meant to..." James said, looking down. "It was on my To Do list, I swear!"

Laurel cleared her throat quietly and said, "Liz, it's hardly Required Reading in this class, or any other. It's nice that you've read it, but with the billions of COATs out there in the Hive, I'm not sure anyone should be wasting their time reading mine!"

"Alright, I'll be the one to say it: I'm completely lost at this point," James volunteered. "What's the connection between your COAT and what Linus has been talking about?"

"May I?" Elizabeth asked, looking at Laurel with the same expression that she always wore when she was the only student in class who knew the answer to a particularly tough puzzle.

At least you asked first, Liz, Laurel thought to herself. But you still can't help resembling the cat that swallowed the canary, can you? Pointedly, she said, "Only if you dial down the sarcasm and remember that we're all friends here, Elizabeth. Can you do that for me?"

The Chinese teenager looked briefly like she'd been slapped in the face with a cold fish but then her features relaxed as she remembered words that her teacher had said to her, one-on-one, earlier in the year: Nobody likes a smart ass, Liz. And you don't elevate yourself by putting down others. "Yes, ma'am, I can." She continued, "The title of Miss Allen's COAT, from '97, is The Villain. It has what I think is a pretty ingenious concept at its core - "

James snorted and was just about to start making kissing sounds when Sanjay, seated beside him, elbowed him in the ribs and hissed, "Shhhh!"

Elizabeth continued, " - which is that it follows the turmoil caused by a man named Richard Jeffries, who challenged William Allen during the early days of the Literary Revolution."

Sanjay said, "I don't recall that name from my studies, Miss Allen. Has history simply forgotten him?"

Before the teacher could respond, Elizabeth said, "No, that's just it, you see. He never existed! Miss Allen made him up, and inserted him into that time in history."

"But why?" Linus asked. "What was the point?"

This time, Elizabeth looked to her teacher for direction.

"Keep going, young lady," Laurel said, with a smile. "You're doing just fine!"

"Well, I'm only speculating, but it seems fairly clear from the work itself that she wanted to bring out into the light some of the very same doubts that Linus has been expressing here today. Huh. I hadn't really considered it in that way when I read The Villain originally, but sitting here now, in the midst of this conversation, that's what occurs to me. Am I way off the mark, Miss Allen?"

"No, not at all. Although it was perhaps less about doubts and more about simply wanting to explore the question, from all angles, for my own peace of mind."

"Did anything like that actually happen, back in the early 20th century?" Peter asked. "I know you made this... Jeffries?... character up, but was he based on someone real?"

"Not that I know of," Laurel answered. "I did as much research on the period as I could afford at the time. Just as we teach in class, the whole thing started slowly - and locally - and then built upon itself over time, as the results started to exhibit themselves. Not terribly dramatic, really. I was struck by the thought, when I was your age, that it really ought to have been more full of Sturm und Drang, so I wrote The Villain to provide that, and to give me a chance to consider the Literary Revolution as the people of the time might've, if things had gone differently."

"Hey!" James said, "You made it into a real revolution! Now I want to read your COAT!"

"So do I," said Linus.

Laurel couldn't tell from his tone if that was good news or bad, but since their session was over for the day, she left it at that.

Next Up Is Post # 1300

As my parting shot before I leave for San Francisco, I've cobbled together Chapter Three of my Imaginary Stories saga. Hopefully you'll enjoy it while I'm not around to otherwise entertain and amuse...

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Perhaps I Shouldn't Have Ended The Embargo!

After going 9-2-0 while I wasn't watching them for a little over 3 weeks, the New York Rangers have now gone 1-1-1 in the days since (or 1-2-1, if you count the game they lost immediately after I announced the embargo would end the next day!)

Of the 2 losses, today's wasn't too surprising (3-2 to a very good Dallas Stars team). It was Friday's shootout defeat at the hands of the struggling Panthers that made me shake my head... as in, why was that game even close enough to go to a shootout, if the Rangers are playing so well?

Oh well, I guess I shouldn't have expected anything different!

Wake Me Up In A Month

We're now into that post-US Thanksgiving, pre-Christmas period of advertising that I could mostly do without, truth be told. Not that I much like commercials at the best of times, but this time of the year just makes a bad situation that much worse.

Here are the archetype ads that always seem to show up, earlier and earlier each year:
  • the husband who finally shows his undeniable love for the wife by buying her a diamond (and presumably found one for his girlfriend, too)
  • the person (usually, but not always, a child) who's completely disappointed with what they got for Christmas until that one special gift turns their whole year around
  • conversely, the lout who doesn't get that one special gift and acts like they were just diagnosed with cancer
  • the person who gets a new car for Christmas (does anyone out there really give cars as Christmas presents?)
  • the piece-of-crap flashy toy that looks like the most exciting thing to come along since ice cream but actually will break the second time a kid uses it... if there even is a second time!
  • the "nothing says Christmas like a week of whiny kids misbehaving at Disneyworld" ad
  • the many, many incredibly lame attempts to transform products no one in their right mind would associate with Christmas into " great holiday gift suggestions"... I'm waiting for the always-ridiculous Viagra folks to get into the act this year!
To all of them, I say: "Bah, humbuggery!"

Nothing To F.E.A.R.

I got myself into quite the pickle recently while playing F.E.A.R. on my PS/3. To understand how that happened, you need to first know how the Save function of the game operates.

Like many console games, F.E.A.R. employs a checkpoint system for progress saves. This means that, as you play through the game, there are periodic automatic saves done for you, such that if you get killed, you'll restart from that point. It avoids the mind-numbingly scary prospect of playing for hours, through many different levels, only to take a stray bullet and have to start all over again. However, it's also not as flexible (read: user friendly) as the way many PC games work, which is that the player can save at any time. Speaking as one of those cautious gamers who will sometimes do very frequent saves - usually because of very frequent dying! - I much prefer to be in charge of the saving. But many games, especially on the consoles, just don't support that.

Usually in a checkpoint-based game, however, you not only have the option of re-starting at the most recent game-initiated save but also of going back to an earlier one. There are several reasons why that capability is good, the most important of which - for me, anyway - being that you can 'undo' some recent poor choice by simply backing up a bit further and playing that part again, smarter this time. What I discovered this past week, while playing F.E.A.R., was that the game doesn't make all of those past checkpointed saves available to you (only a subset) and that, if you pick one of them to resume at, you don't actually get back to that point as you left it. How do I mean? Keep reading!

So one night this week, as Vicki was watching me play for a change, I got into a particularly difficult section of the game. I started off with tons of health and lots of ammunition, only to be set upon by some of the toughest AI bad guys to date, and survived that confrontation with the tiniest bit of health and a very depleted set of ammo left. At which point, as I stumbled forward in the game, it did a checkpoint! A few moments later, as a new wave of villains attacked and made short work of me, I realized just how dire my situation was! My restart situation, after all, was: almost dead, and almost weaponless! Each attempt to get through that latest gauntlet of ne'er-do-wells failed, and I had no way to increase my health or load up on different weapons!

That was when I resorted to resuming from an earlier checkpoint, only to discover that it put me an hour or more earlier in the game - so, not the previous checkpoint or anything close to it! - and reset all of the characteristics that I'd been painstakingly building up (a higher health maximum, a more varied set of weapons, a longer period of Slo-Mo abilities). This essentially made it impossible for me to use those prior checkpoint saves, as they were too infrequent and didn't actually capture my specific profile each time! Very poor design by the game creators, if you ask me!

I then spent one entire evening of gaming - about 90 minutes - trying, again and again, to get through my low-health, low-ammo scenario, with each attempt ending in my demise. Finally I gave up and went to bed, more frustrated than I should've been, considering that it was only a video game!

The next night, though, I happened to stumbled upon the solution, thanks to a "Tip" that appeared on screen as I was loading the game once more. This helpful text 'reminded' me that it's possible to adjust the difficulty level at any time, even during the game. A light bulb appeared above my head, and I immediately dialed my "Normal Difficulty" setting down to "Low Difficulty" and got through that troublesome scene on the first try! Shortly thereafter I was able to find some health, and then I reset the difficulty level back up, and have been playing happily in that mode ever since.

So now I forgive the game designers their poor checkpoint scheme, in light of the adjustable difficulty setting (many games require you to set the difficulty right at the start of the game and don't allow you to change it any point afterwards without starting a new game). If I hadn't noticed that one tip, though, it's possible that I would've given up on the game, more than halfway through (and having enjoyed it immensely up to that point).

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Battlestar Galactica Razor & The Dilemma

I've already asked for advice on this of my resident expert (hey, Kevin, if you're out there reading this!) but I thought I'd put this out to a wider audience, too:

We've not yet watched BSG Season Three, because it still hasn't come out on DVD. Season Two ended on a dramatic enough cliffhanger note that we don't want anything spoiled from the third season if we can help it.

And yet, tonight saw the debut of a 2-hour BSG TV movie, called Razor. I've tried to avoid reading anything about it, for the aforementioned spoiler reason. So I don't know if it's something that we could safely watch - before Season Three - or not. As it is, I've recorded it, but don't want to even start it up just yet for fear of... well, spoilage!

So if you know anything on the subject, and can impart wisdom without ruining any surprises, please do.

San Francisco Now Just A Few Days Away

We leave early Tuesday morning for San Francisco, and don't return until the following Monday. I'm not sure how much - if any - blogging I'll get done while away, so it's possible that things will grow quite quiet around Kimota94's Place for that week.

Consider yourself forewarned, but maybe I'll still find the time to post a thought or two from the Left Coast.

Destination: Unknown

There are so many things to love about this new Omega the Unknown series by Jonathan Lethem and Farel Dalrymple that I sometimes don't know where to start. But for now, I'm going with this brief exchange between young Alex - he of the so-far-inexplicable link to superheroic-but-silent Omega, not to mention parents who turned out to be robots - and one of his new guardians, Clare Weiss, on the topic of Alex attending an inner city school in the midst of modern day New York:

Alex: "Is it academically superior, Miss Weiss?"

Clare: "Let's focus on the good news for now."

That sort of dialogue, that's both laugh out loud funny when you read it for the first time, and yet poignant in terms of what it foreshadows for poor, lost Alexander, showcases Lethem at his best.

Other highlights include Clare and Edie, the latter of whom has taken Alex into her own home after the hospital began making noises about the cost of his stay, trying to explain Sammy Sosa High School to an American teenager who's never even heard of baseball ("They named it for him before that whole steroid thing." "Named it for whom?" "Never mind.") and the outlandish Mink, who perhaps represents the more absurd nature of the Marvel Universe of men-in-tights. As he races to the scene of a battle, he stops long enough to provide the local news crew with a sound byte or two: "When in the course of human events, ask not what you can do for your country, blah blah blah blah blah blah. And you can quote me on that."

Lethem also introduces a new character in this second issue, that of a professor who receives an unexpected gift. A book called Robotics: What Comes Next arrives at his doorstep, after which he takes it to bed to read, stays up all night reading it, and can't put it down... literally! By morning, the book has attached itself to his chest, and by the next day is partially absorbed into his body! Yeah, that's pretty weird!

Another trick that Lethem's employing in this series is one that I've only ever seen Alan Moore do better in this medium: visual irony. While it's unlikely that anyone else will achieve the level of quality of the examples strewn throughout Watchmen, here the author deftly brings us instances of a conversation between two characters reflecting events occurring literally outside their window, as well as intersections of lives that have nothing in common (so far) but still manage to glance off of each other from time to time.

I enjoyed the first issue of this 10-part series, but I truly loved the second one. I'm sure not many comic fans are reading it, but I'm equally convinced that it's one of the best series right now. Jonathan Lethem simply writes at a higher level than most comic authors, and it shows. The big question for me remains, "Will he pay it all off in the end, or will some of it just end up being weirdness for weirdness' sake?" I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for now, and we'll see what we see at the finish line!

When The Bar's Set Too High

Today, at my twice-annual professional haircut appointment (Vicki cuts my hair the rest of the year), the stylist was talking about how much she loves being self-employed, as compared to the days when she worked for someone else, in a salon. That prompted me to ask, "Have you ever had a customer, since you went out on your own, who so bothered you that you refused to do their hair?" I asked this because that seemed like one of the obvious advantages of her current situation over what she'd have faced when turning away annoying louts wouldn't have been an option. She's such a nice, easy-going person that I expected her to say, "Oh no, that's never been a problem." But instead, she grimaced and said, "Just one."

Then she proceeded to describe a former customer of hers who would consistently find fault in everything that she did. The colour was never quite right; the cut wasn't what she'd wanted; and so on. Sometimes my friendly stylist would be in tears after finishing for the day, she said, remembering how embarrassed she'd been, often in front of other customers, by this never-happy complainer. Eventually, she told the loser that she was cutting back her clientele and would only be able to take on her core group from the early days. And happily, she never heard from that particular miscreant again.

This story reminded me of someone I used to work with, who could be very much the same way. He was the type of person who always sent his meal back at a restaurant because it wasn't up to his exacting standard, and then would still complain about whatever steps were taken to address the situation. Nothing in Life ever seemed to live up to his expectations, and therefore he often seemed unhappy or disappointed. This applied to the products he bought, the people he worked with, and even the details of his personal life and family.

What I wonder, with people like that, is how they ever came to the mindset that the world owed them that much? These generally aren't the truly unfortunate - those who've suffered great illness, or loss, and had to live on a fraction of the wealth, success or luck that the rest of us enjoy - but instead tend to be folks with plenty to be thankful for! What happened to them, presumably early in Life, that put them on the path toward such high expectations that never seem to be realized? And how is it that constant disappointment hasn't resulted in them taking the very obvious, and I think, natural course of simply lowering their bars until such a point as to being able to actually enjoy what they have?

As we were saying while my hair was being cut, those types of individuals are never any fun to be around, and don't seem to be having any fun themselves. So what's the point?

Friday, November 23, 2007

The Power Of The Internet

J Michael Straczynski's swan song story on Amazing Spider-Man, wrapping up his several-year-long run on the character, is a four-part status quo changing 'epic' called "One More Day."

All four parts were originally scheduled to come out months ago, on a more-or-less weekly basis. Instead, we've gotten the first two parts, a month or more apart, along with repeated word that the remaining issues would arrive a little later than expected. I used to always say that the definition of a millisecond was the length of time between a stop light turning green and someone behind you honking their horn, but now I think it may instead be the amount of time it takes someone on the Internet to react to a press release with a scathingly funny rejoinder. Case in point:

When the most recent scheduling announcement about "One More Day" came out, someone immediately re-named the storyline "One More Delay". (Tell me that name's not going to stick!) That's why I love the Internet!

Thursday, November 22, 2007

A Milestone Is Passed... Finally

After not working on the Agile book for several weeks, I took advantage of Vicki being out at a team-building cooking class (?) tonight and spent an hour or so finishing up the chapter I'd previously left off on. This was the longest chapter to date (I think, six pages in total) and was all about our Feature Lead experiences at work. It'd probably be a tough section for some at work to read but I figured there were lessons learned there that should be shared (even if no one but my immediate circle ever reads it!)

Anyway, I passed 20,000 words tonight. In Word, it's about 55 pages long at the moment, which I have no idea how to translate into "paper pages" since I'm sure it's all dependent on font size, page dimensions and all kinds of other parameters that I haven't even considered yet. I find word count more reliable, as I've had the notion of the book being somewhere around 50,000 words right from the start. Considering how long it's taken me to produce the first 40% of that number, though, I may end up reducing the target. I guess it really depends on when I feel like I'm running out of topics, which is nowhere close to happening just yet.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Portable Agile Manager

Still not out of a job, I nevertheless effected a cube move today. Including time to pack up, it took me less than 20 minutes from start to finish! The vast majority of what I have at my desk these days resides, somewhat permanently, in a short, open-faced cabinet-on-wheels, as well as a big plastic moving crate with a flip-open lid. Since I divested myself of a workstation - no more monitor, keyboard, mouse or silo to cart around with me - and decided not to bother unpacking most of the stuff, my portability has gone through the roof. I remember the traumatic event that moving out of my office (of four years!) had been fifteen months ago, and today wasn't even 10% as significant, either in terms of time spent or hassle. Our IT folks, to their everlasting credit, have adapted quite nicely to our new Agile world, making for a very painless transfer of phones from spot to spot, as well as wide-scale wireless coverage.

And of course I moved just in time to ensure that I'll be completely thrown off when I come back from my week in San Francisco, as I'll no doubt instinctively head to the old location two weeks hence!

In other Agile news, a meeting I was in today had one of the most unexpected turn of events in a long while: several Feature Team representatives indicated more than a passing interest in the notion of shrinking their Iteration lengths down to 1 week, from the current half-month that we use. I always associate the desire to do shorter Iterations with a growing sense of Agility, especially since we often saw the exact opposite reaction when people were most resistant to Agile ("1 month Iterations? Are you crazy? That's too short! You can't get anything done in a month!") Considering that some of these reps were also reporting that their teams could now plan a half-month's worth of work in an hour or less, there were plenty of good signs evident in this meeting.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

The End Of "The Embargo"

As some of you may recall, a little less than a month ago I entered a self-imposed "NY Rangers-free zone", henceforth referred to as "the embargo" for reasons too nebulous to explain. I was very discouraged by the team's 3-6-1 start (and winless on the road!) in a season where they were being touted as a serious contender to win it all, and also by the fact that they were seemingly finding it nigh-impossible to score any goals (in the final 4 games prior to the start of the embargo, they'd tallied a grand total of 3!) So I committed to giving them about a month to get their house in order, during which time I wouldn't be watching them and swearing at their inadequacies.

With our impending trip to San Francisco next week, and a clearly-stated intention on the parts of Boneman and Shane to provide me with an update the instant I lifted the embargo, I figured I probably needed to do so this week. So I booked them and a meeting room - my old office, as a matter of fact - over lunch today, brought in pizza and they proceeded to fill in the past three weeks for me.

I'd actually heard two scores over that period, both of them losses to the Islanders by a single goal (3-2 and 2-1). I therefore didn't have very high hopes, since they were now effectively 3-8-1, as far as I knew. My lunch companions didn't waste any time launching into their recap of the "lost games", though, as they ran through each one, in order, from the point following the embarrassing 4-1 loss to the Leafs four Saturdays ago.

As it turned out, the Rangers rattled off 4 consecutive wins as soon as the embargo started:
  • a 3-1 victory over Tampa Bay, at home
  • a 2-0 win over the Capitals, at home
  • a 2-1 shootout decision over the Devils, at home
  • a 2-0 shutout of the Flyers, at home.
So they'd gone on a 4-game home winning streak, still not scoring very much (8 regulation goals in 4 games) but more significantly only allowing 2 goals over that stretch, making victory much more likely.

Next came the first of the 2 "known" results, a 3-2 loss at Long Island.

Then they proceeded to go one better and post a 5-game winning streak:
  • a 4-2 win over Pittsburgh at MSG
  • finally, their first road victory, by 3-2 (in a shootout) in Toronto
  • another 4-2 result, in New Jersey
  • another shootout win, this time 4-3 in Philadelphia
  • and a 4-3 Overtime decision on the road against Pittsburgh
Ending that run was the second Islander loss, meaning that the bad boys from Long Island had terminated both of the winning streaks by their rivals.

More important, though, was the incredible 9-2-0 record by the non-evil New York hockey team, improving from 3-6-1 to 12-8-1 in less than a month! Quite a turnaround, comparable to what they accomplished after I gave up on them late last season. Makes me wonder why I don't stop paying attention to them more often!

Shane also provided several sheets of statistics, including current standings, highlights and lowlights over that period, and anything else I might've wondered about. I asked how several of the other teams had been faring, and generally got caught up with the current state of the NHL. I couldn't have scripted a better re-entry path back into the world of hockey after more than three weeks away, and I thank the two of them for that (again)!

The Unacknowledged Conflict

After tossing and turning for an hour or more tonight, I finally got up and read for a bit. I'm still working my way through Thomas Friedman's book The World Is Flat, which Tammy had recommended (and lent me). I hit a section that beautifully summed up what I see as a constant conflict these days, although it's rare to ever have anyone address it.

Most people I know seem to believe that every item they ever want to buy, rent or lease should be ridiculously inexpensive, almost to the point of "whatever price is quoted is too high." (This philosophy often leads to electronic piracy, with rationalizations like, "If music CDs weren't so expensive, I'd actually pay for them!" regardless of the price of a CD.) At the same time, those same people act as if whatever salary they're currently drawing is too low, and thus are always angling for a big raise or more generous benefits. How is that they can't sense the (admittedly invisible) line that joins these two contradictory stances? After all, whatever you do for a living eventually boils down to a service or product of some sort, the consumers of which - if they're taking the attitude described here - want your salary and benefits cut to the bone, so that they can get their 'whatever' at the cheapest possible price! How does that not screw you over, by making your employer (or the conglomerate that owns the holding company that directs the entity that pays you) more likely to reduce benefits and salaries just to stay competitive and meet their ridiculous demands? So aren't you essentially cutting your own throat?

Friedman puts it as, "Yes the consumer in us wants Wal-Mart prices, with all the fat gone. But the employee in us wants a little fat left on the bone... But the shareholder in us wants Wal-Mart's profit margins... Yet the citizen in us want's Costco's benefits, rather than Wal-Mart's, because the difference ultimately may have to be paid for by society." What amazes me is that most people, as far as I can tell, don't even recognize that as a conflict!

These are the things I think about at 5:30 in the morning when I can't sleep!

Monday, November 19, 2007

A Cover To Make My Heart Skip A Beat

This Alex Ross cover, for Justice Society of America # 13 (due out in February, 2008), is the sort of thing that an older fan like me just salivates over.

First, it's Alex Ross. Nobody captures the grandeur of superheroes better than he does.

Second, there's two freakin' Supermen in that main shot! Two of them! And doppleganger stories rule, after all!

Finally, you've got those ringed headshots of the various JSA members, all staring at what's going on in the centre, evoking memories of the old Justice League of America covers from the 60s and 70s that were laid out that way.

'Tis a thing of beauty, that cover...

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Today's TechnoChallenge

After yesterday's misadventures with the wireless card(s), you'd think I wouldn't venture into those waters again quite so soon... and yet I did.

I've wanted to introduce WEP encryption into my home network for awhile now, but just never seemed to get around to it. I decided that today was the day!

First I read up on Wired Equivalent Privacy (not Wireless Encryption Protection, which is what I'd thought WEP stood for). I considered going with WPA-PSK instead, but then decided that all I'm really trying to do is ensure no one's catching a free-ride off our network and potentially having access to our shared folders. I don't really expect to be the victim of a hacker's attack. Should I??

So to do this, I used Vicki's PC (wired, temporarily) and my laptop to test it out, which went differently than I'd expected (I had planned to use a passphrase but eventually just went with a HEX key). I made sure my laptop worked after that, and then unplugged the ethernet on Vicki's PC, and made the settings change there. Each time, it was a different experience, because I was changing versions of Windows (Win2000 vs WinXP) and wireless configuration utilities. Finally, I got my basement PC working and then tackled the PS/3. I'm not sure why, but I'd expected the Sony device to be the hardest of the bunch, and instead it was the easiest! It was the only one where it was absolutely straight-forward and I didn't have to experiment at all to get it to work (on my basement PC, for example, I had to think to click on a "Rescan" button before the new settings would work, until which time I had not been able to get any Internet access).

So now any neighbours of ours who might've been using our router to get Internet access are probably cursing. (Not that I think anyone really was!)

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Living In F.E.A.R.

I spent most of today doing one of two things:

1) Trying to get a wireless card to work in Vicki's PC for the first time ever (so that I could move the router away from her PC whenever I want to play on XBox Live), and
2) playing F.E.A.R. on the PS/3.

The former was way too frustrating, as my first attempt kept resulting in the machine freezing up whenever I'd try to get the drivers to install. After giving up on that card, I scavenged a second one, and it took me two more tries before I could even get that one to successfully install! The whole episode wasn't helped at all by Sympatico changing our e-mail access this week such that I initially thought I'd broken the PC's ability to "get mail" only to eventually figure out it had nothing to do with anything that I'd done. But I still had to fix that issue!

The latter activity, on the other hand, was a whole lot of fun, as I've really gotten into F.E.A.R. since figuring out how to play it without getting killed every five minutes. One of the trickier aspects of it revolves around only being able to carry 3 weapons at a time, and trying to anticipate which ones it's best to leave behind... hoping that you won't regret your decision a few minutes later, when you realize, "I could really use my sniper rifle right now!"

It's funny that I bought this game only because Call of Duty 4 was sold out on the day I was looking for it, as it's hard to believe I'll actually end up enjoying COD4 more than this!

Friday, November 16, 2007

On Days Like This

I think it's time for a new Agile Manager at my company.

Is anyone out there interested in the job?

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Secret Cloverfield Movie Title Is... Cloverfield?

Ain't It Cool News is reporting, in perhaps the most anticlimactic reveal of all time, that the actual title for this once-exciting project originally dubbed "Cloverfield 1-18-08" is in fact... Cloverfield.

Oh, and there's a new low-tech, illegally-copied trailer out at that link, too.

The more I see think about Cloverfield, the more it strikes me that it's going to be to sci-fi monster movies what The Blair Witch Project was to scary slasher movies: you'll either get into it and love it, or think it's amateurish crap and hate it.

This One's For Tammy

(... who likes it when she's mentioned in blog posts... so imagine her delight when she discovers that she's being mentioned in the title of a blog post!)

Three months after taking part in this year's Silver Age Trivia Panel at the Chicago WizardWorld Comic Convention, I'm finally - yes, almost 100 days later - transferring the video from that event onto a VHS tape (and off of Tammy's camcorder). Normally I do this in the week immediately following the convention... this year I did it approximately a quarter of a year later! It's just been that kind of hectic!

Anyway, so as I set up the pieces (VHS tape in the VCR, charge up the camcorder, hook up the various wires) I realized that I couldn't find the camcorder's input for the A/V connecting cable. I mean, I looked... and looked... and opened every little flap that I could find on it, and nowhere could I spot a place to plug the cable into! I looked for Tammy online, hoping that she could solve the mystery, but she - like the input slot itself! - was nowhere to be found!

Before too many more minutes passed, though, I remembered: we live in the Information Age! I went to Sony's website, found the camcorder model, requested the manual - got asked to sign up as a member, filled in the required fields - downloaded the manual and then quickly scanned it, looking for the answer. And wouldn't you know, there's a little piece near the head of the device that looks like it's permanent but is actually removable... under which lay the A/V input slot! Success!

And now I'm busy transferring over the trivia panel that I can barely remember taking part in anymore!

Depending On The Kindness Of Strangers

Less than 12 hours after posting about my HD Component Video input crisis, I had one super-keen friend telling me (over Messenger) about a couple electronics item that would solve my problem, and another kind soul (over e-mail) offering to give me one, if he can find it! How can a person not be impressed by both the generosity and pure speed of such responses? If they're me, they can't not be impressed (this double negative brought to you in the hopes of driving Men from Mars absolutely bonkers).

Today was spent at home, but sadly no gaming was to be found. I had one firm objective for the day - produce a set of slides on Story Points that I could take with me to San Francisco the week after next - and I only just finished that ten minutes ago (7:00 pm!) Most of my day was spent in countless e-mail and Messenger conversations with people at work, on various and sundry topics revolving around estimating and meeting commitments. Oh, and I wrote two (yes, two!) work blog posts today, not coincidentally on those very same subjects! And somehow all of that chewed up roughly nine hours! It's a good thing I stayed home!

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Moore On The Black Dossier

As much to bookmark it for my own future reference as anything else, here's Alan Moore talking about his latest work (can't read it until I get the damn book!)

XBox 360 Now Arrived!

Always-reliable Boneman delivered the goods tonight, and then helped me hook it up and give it a quick test run. I now have a ridiculous number of XBox games (prior to tonight, I owned 3, I think - Halo, Halo 2 and some other one I've never played; now I own more than I care to list, including a couple Medal of Honors and a Call of Duty) as well as several 360 games (Halo 3, Gears of War, Splinter Cell Double Agent, and Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter). We loaded up Halo 3 and Vicki immediately said, "Hey, that's the Halo music!" All that's missing now is Tammy, to play absurdly long sessions of Co-op Mode with me!

The only glitch came when I realized that we only have 2 HD Component Video inputs on our big screen TV, both of which are already 'spoken for' (HD SARA box, and PS/3). Sadly, until we upgrade our TV, that means I either put one of the two consoles in Standard Definition mode (uggh!) or manually switch the inputs anytime I go from PS/3 to XBox 360 or vice versa. The latter's not ideal (obviously) but I'll try it for awhile and see how onerous it seems.

So now the question becomes, what do I play? I was really enjoying F.E.A.R. on the PS/3, but Halo 3 looks awfully tempting... and what about Gears of War??

On a completely unrelated topic, I'll be working from home tomorrow...

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

XBox 360 Coming My Way?

There's a strong possibility that I'll be getting my hands on a (used) XBox 360 shortly, as Boneman's been brokering the sale of his father-in-law's machine (who recently converted to a PS/3, I believe, and is kissing Microsoft's platform goodbye). It's a rarely-used 20Gig box bought about a year ago, along with quite a few XBox and XBox 360 games, including Halo 3 and Gears of War. If it happens, then I will quite likely have more video games than I have time to play! But of course, there's always Christmas break coming up, and I'm sure Tammy would enjoy playing through Halo 3 with me in Co-op Mode (we've already done the first 2 games that way!)

More updates as they happen...

Exciting Comics Coming Out Tomorrow (Nov 13th Edition)

I haven't done one of these for a long while, but seeing as this could be the single most exciting week of comics in the entire year, I had to end the drought! Read on, and don't drool on the pages!

All Star Superman # 9 - Hopefully the crapitude of the last two issues, focusing on Grant Morrison's version of Bizarros, will be wiped clean now that Superman returns to 'normal' (keeping in mind that in this title, normal is anything but!) This comic had been outstanding right up until it took a wrong turn at Bizarro World, so I expect the greatness to resume with this issue. (I've finally come to the firm conviction that I can't stand Bizarro stories. And I'm not speaking in backwards logic!)

Batman and the Outsiders # 1 - I've not had much use for the various Outsiders titles over the past 20 years, but the one run I did like was the original BATO. Whether this one will measure up remains to be seen, but I'll at least give it a chance.

Green Arrow/Black Canary # 2 - As I wrote about exactly one month ago today, the debut issue of this new series really impressed me. I can't wait to see where # 2 goes. I give the creators lots of credit for not dragging out the "Is Ollie really dead?" mystery beyond the final pages of issue # 1. I may be disappointed but it won't be for lack of trying! (And no, I don't know what that means, either!)

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen: The Black Dossier - This is the big one. This is what makes this a week unlike any other in 2007. After many delays, this 208-page Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill hardcover masterpiece finally arrives... although, it's only supposed to be released in the United States! So whether I actually get one tomorrow or not is still up in the air. If I don't, then I'll be on Chapters or Amazon moments after getting home, ordering my copy through them (and having it delivered to Vicki's mom in Michigan, if need be!) I've seen one review so far - seen, meaning seen, not read - and it looked glowing. I want to hold off reading anyone else's assessments until I've had a chance to take it all in on my own... whenever that may be! This is even more of a "Christmas in November" event than the video game and movies I bought last week!
[Update 11/14: As feared, LOEG: The Black Dossier was not shipped to Canada, so I've placed my order on Amazon and will get my copy (along with one for the owner of my local comic store!) shipped to my mother-in-law's address in the States. Gratification now officially delayed!]

Wonder Woman # 14 - Gail Simone begins her much-anticipated stint as writer of this oft-delayed, rarely-satisfying title. I hope she's what's needed to finally make this ostrich fly, because no one's done it yet!

Thor # 4 - I've been loving what JMS has been doing in this relaunch, although I kind of wish he'd pack a little more action into each issue. When I sit back and try to describe what's happened each month I tend to realize the answer is... not much! But I guess that's what the kids like right now (as it keeps showing up at or near the top of the hit list each month).

World War Hulk # 5 (of 5) - WWH wraps up, only a little later than originally planned. This has been a fun mini-series that's delivered lots of cool fights, and the marquee matchup for the finale features Hulk going up against (one of) Marvel's Superman characters: the Sentry. Described as being "as powerful as a thousand exploding suns" (or some such hyperbole), the Sentry should really be able to take care of Emperor Hulk pretty easily (toss him into one of those exploding suns, for example) but we always have to keep in mind: this is Hulk's title! It's not like he's going to lose a big battle here! It should be interesting to see what the new status quo looks like when the dust settles, though. Rumours persist of a new Hulk...

Monday, November 12, 2007

This Is Online Service?

A month or two ago, I decided to take advantage of the Best Buy Rewards Zone promotion that arrived in my in-box, and signed up for it. I rarely do anything of the sort, but figured with all of the video games, movies and electronics that I buy (over time), maybe it was a good idea.

Over the weekend, I got notification of a "3rd Anniversary" sale planned for Best Buy Online, for last night and tonight. I checked out the specials - none of which appealed to me - but then noticed they had 15% off all video games. Since I'd come home empty handed in my search for Call of Duty 4 (for the PS/3) last week, I figured I might as well save the tax on the game and buy it online. So I proceeded to find it last night, add it to my cart, and continue on to checkout.

I was partway through that process when I was told that my item didn't qualify for shipping (only for Pickup In Store). I thought that was fairly strange, since video games are hardly contraband that would normally cause a problem moving through the postal system, but I decided to press on. I had to determine the store closest to me, which was no problem (and it's only a few km's away), so after some hesitation (and head-scratching), I completed the order.

Today I got the e-mail notification that my item was ready for pickup. As I read over the conditions for said pickup, I noticed that I have to print out a copy of the e-mail or else I can't get my item when I go to the store.

So here's Best Buy Online, as part of their 3rd Anniversary promotion, not only making me drive to the store to get what I bought, but also requiring me to waste paper, ink and more time, printing off a hardcopy of the e-mail! Do they not get that part of the appeal of shopping online is reducing the paperwork involved and not having to actually go out to the stores?!? Am I crazy for thinking that this is no way to run an online business?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Someone Else's Holiday

Today was Remembrance Day here in Canada and Veterans Day in the United States. In both cases, those who get that day off work will be celebrating it - by sleeping in, goofing off or playing games - tomorrow, since it fell on a Sunday this year. My wife is in that category, since she currently works for a bank, which will be closed on Monday (she gets the day "off" but since she's not paid for holidays as a contractor, it's more like a vacation day without pay). When I was an employee at the bank, it was one of the best holidays, because it felt like a perk to get the day off when so many others, including kids in school, didn't. Now I'm one of those many, every November!

Coincidentally, we watched Flags of Our Fathers today. Remembrance Day is most closely associated with World War I, but we're almost certainly past the point where any veterans of that war are still alive to be honoured in person (ending, as it did, nearly 90 years ago now). Some Second World War veterans are still among us today, but time's not on their side for much longer, either. When you watch a film like Flags of Our Fathers or Saving Private Ryan, it can be hard to believe that anyone could've survived that war, or that those who did could ever have gotten home and resumed their daily life again after witnessing the horrific sights on the battlefield. What a truly mad species we must be to keep putting ourselves into those conflicts with each other, or worse, to keep creating the need for them in the first place.

If you have someone in your life who fought in and survived a war (WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Gulf War I or II, Afghanistan, ...) give them a call, or a hug, or even just a little bit of consideration this time of year. That's still less than one millionth of what they gave for you, when they were asked to.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Christmas In November

This morning I did most of this year's Christmas shopping, while Vicki was out of town at her mother's. As usually happens when I venture out into the world of colourfully-adorned packages and flashing lights, I ended up buying other stuff, too.

I still had $60 left on a FutureShop gift card from last year, so I bought First Person Shooter F.E.A.R. for the PS/3. It was that or Call of Duty 4, and the latter was sold out, making the choice easy. I may still pick up COD4, but not on this day. I'm hoping F.E.A.R. lives up to the glowing review one of the guys at work gave it (although he played it on his PC...)

Then I saw a big display of "2 for $30" DVDs and just had to take a look. Besides getting Vicki something for Christmas, I also came home with Clint Eastwood's Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima, Kevin Smith's Dogma (which I've been on the lookout for, at a good price, for years) and a combo pack containing both versions of Apocalypse Now! (I already had Redux but didn't have the original).

Who knew Christmas would come so early this year?

Friday, November 09, 2007

Today's Comic Story

For the third time this week, I was centre stage for something at work: this time, providing the "Introduction to Agile" presentation for about 8 recent hires at work. I'd done this dog and pony show once before so I was able to wing it (no preparation required) and still feel fairly confident about pulling it off. It's a roughly 20-minute Power Point slide show, with an accompanying 5- to 10-minute interactive exercise.

The aforementioned interlude in the prezo involves getting a volunteer from the 'newbies' who's willing to do some drawing with markers in front of the rest of us. I try to explain Agile by way of an example showing the power of collaboration: the artist-on-demand draws whatever the audience asks for, and those pseudo-customers react to what's added to the canvas by enhancing their requests. Each time I've done this activity, including with the Grade 9s earlier this week, the results are wildly different. And then I show everyone the requirements that I'd written out beforehand, which consist of a few requests like "a house", "some trees" and "a sunny day." The picture that came about interactively typically better represents whatever the group present wanted, because they were allowed to tailor it as the exercise went along.

Anyway, one of the items drawn this time was a sun (to go along with some storm clouds and a rainbow), which happened to get drawn with a red marker (there was no yellow marker available). My boss came into the room long after the picture was finished, looked it over, and said, "Ah, a red sun, meaning..." at which point we both said, in unison, "that Superman would have no powers!" The new hires and HR representatives all laughed loudly at this amusing display of geekitude, wondrous in its glory!

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Neal Adams On Batman? Well, So Far, Just A Cover!

In fact, a variant cover, to the upcoming All Star Batman and Robin the Boy Wonder # 8 (aka "the train wreck" by Frank Miller and Jim Lee). I don't normally bother about variant covers but this one I may actually try to get my hands on. At the very least, I want to see how the poor colourist is able to make it work (unless it's published uncoloured, of course)!

The rumours persist that Adams is working on a more substantial Bat-project, but still no official word has come out from DC. Neal does so little mainstream comic art anymore that I can't even really say whether he's still got it or not. I do know I wouldn't want him writing the Batman story! (You just have to read any interview with him to know that he's a bit... out there!)

Making That Special Anniversary Celebration Really Last

No, this isn't a Viagra ad, you perverts!

Vicki and I were talking this morning about the 'trick' that I've seen used a few times to stretch out a special anniversary event atmosphere. It takes advantage of the occasionally-confusing way that we talk about time (which was at the core of why so many people misinterpreted the 21st century as starting at Jan 1st, 2000, rather than the correct Jan 1st, 2001). A simple example will probably explain this best.

Suppose you were part of an organization that had originally formed way back on August 26th, 1909 and today you realized your 100th anniversary was not too far off. Assuming that there was some reason why you wanted to celebrate that milestone as long as possible, you could do the following: on August 26th, 2008 you'd begin your "100th Year Celebration" because you'd be starting your 100th year on that date. This doesn't make sense to some people because they'd say that that was happening a year early, but of course all you have to do is talk about "your 1st year" to see how it works. Your 1st year (of anything) begins when you start up, and ends just before your 1st anniversary, at which point your 2nd year begins. So therefore your imaginary organization would start its "100th Year Celebration" on August 26th, 2008 and carry on for a full year. On August 26th, 2009, you'd change the banner/buttons/slogan to be "Celebrating 100 Years!" because now you've been around for that long. This gives you a whole 'nother year to promote your milestone.

I think it was Stratford Festival that I first saw employ this, although I could be wrong. It caught my eye and, because I find such things infinitely interesting, it stuck with me (what they'd done, just not necessarily who did it!)

Ain't numbers and the English language fun?

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

The Challenge Of The Empty Page

A lot went on today, providing me with several juicy-ripe blogging topics, right there at the tips of my fingers. Occasionally it's tough to think of something to write about here - though I try diligently to post at least once a day, and have been doing so for over a year - but today's challenge is to decide between too many!

I didn't have a particularly enjoyable half hour with the six Grade 9 students who came into the office for the annual "Take Your Kid To Work" Day. Why was I spending thirty minutes with them? Because I was asked to, as the Agile Manager, and that's probably all you need to know in order to fill in the blanks on that particular episode!

I bought the boss' Christmas gift today (I always aim to have my Christmas shopping done by November 25th each year, and... tick tock!) but of course if I revealed what it was here, there's about a 1% chance he might read about it, and a 99% chance that someone else would read it and proceed to tell him. So mum's the word on that, for now.

The latest in what currently seems like an endless series of Story Point workshops happened this afternoon. (On the same day as the Grade 9 Adventure... what was I thinking? If you figure that one out, please let me know!) Tomorrow I'll spend the day writing up the notes from it (among other things) but a few really interesting things occurred. Since I may end up blogging about them on the work site, I probably shouldn't make extra work for myself by talking about it here. Aw, screw it, it's only typing!

First, we had the question asked early in the session, "Why can't we adopt a uniform Story Point size across all teams?" This has been inquired into so many times since we started using Story Points that I've lost count. It's a reasonable question, especially if you're not reading and thinking about this stuff a lot, so I always do my best to answer it patiently and carefully. It helps that I can quote Agile expert Mike Cohn, who warns against the use of a "Gold Standard" for Story Points. But my bottom line is always that teams won't accept size units that they haven't had some part in establishing themselves. That's what I've read; that's what I've seen. So I always say that, get some doubtful looks, and then grudging compliance (or at least, no further overt pressing of the issue). What makes this a funny story, though, is what transpired later in the session.

To make today's session more "intermediate" than the "intro" version I'd done months ago, the format was changed such that a pre-existing backlog of Story Pointed features and bugs already exist, and the groups are initially just Story Pointing a small number of new items, using the backlog sizes as their guide. This allows them to only spend 40 - 50 minutes building up a few items instead of 90 - 120 minutes sizing a much larger set, and also gives them experience akin to what someone who's added to an existing Feature Team deals with: learning the existing Story Point sizes. What surprised me was just how quickly, and how vocally, one of the two groups (made up mostly of Program Managers) objected to the previous Story Point values in their backlog! They came right out and said, "We think some of those backlog Story Point sizes are wrong! How can we use them as a base if they're wrong?" And these were some of the same people who, an hour or so earlier, had asked why we can't just adopt one uniform set of Story Points and force every team to use them! The irony was almost too much for me!

Noteworthy event number two involved a scenario in which the two of us leading the session, and playing the Product Owner part, mirrored some recent events and applied mock pressure to our groups to bring their schedules in (find a way to deliver the same features in less time). This is sometimes the national pastime in our world, it seems, and so it made sense to simulate that atmosphere for this collection of management and non-management types. Within minutes, in a scene that reminded me of that well-documented psychology experiment where mild-mannered folks were set up in a phony prison and those playing the guards became merciless tormentors, one of our two groups of participants lunged straight toward the "what if we reduce our quality?" angle. I would've done a spit-take if I'd had a drink handy! It must be almost reflexive, the urge to say "we can get things done sooner if we don't worry about quality." When I asked for an actual example, from the past year or two, of us taking that approach and having it result in us achieving our goal, the closest I got was an instance where manual testing was done instead of setting up automated tests. I can buy that (cheaper in the short run) but that's not really what the group in the session meant by "lowering the quality." They were clearly indicating that they'd simply do less testing and hand over their features earlier (meaning the customers would find most of their bugs).

Yes, it was quite the day. I learned some stuff, and didn't kill anyone. At least I don't think I did. It was a bit of a blur, after all!

(Oh, and at least one of the regular visitors to this blog was in that workshop with me, so he should feel more than welcome to correct any misrepresentations I've made here, or to add his own observations. I can hardly wait!)

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Inflation, And Other Equally-Sexy Subjects

Yesterday, I happened to get into a rather in-depth conversation with one of my favourite co-workers on the topic of inflation. I don't think either of us originally intended to dwell on it anywhere nearly as long as we did, and yet, for whatever reason, there we dwelled.

The bone of contention between us was an assertion he'd come across recently that stated that the true rate of inflation, at least in the U.S., is more like 10 - 12% rather than the 2 - 4% that's regularly published (and used for indexing things like government-run financial programs). I love a conspiracy theory as much as the next geek, but this one just didn't jibe with my own experience of spending money. He quoted some examples of where the calculation of the inflation rate is clearly 'rigged', like when those doing the number crunching for the cost of a PC consider its processing power compared to earlier versions (and thus say the actual 'cost' is going down even if prices go up). But even that sort of thing didn't touch my bottom line in this debate, which is that I don't think real inflation is anywhere near double digits.

For example, a 12% inflation rate, if it continued for several years, would mean that the cost of items would, on average, double every 6 years. (I use the "Rule of 72" for things like that, which states that you can determine approximately how quickly a compounded rate will double by simply dividing 72 by that rate.. so 10% doubles in about 7 years, 6% doubles in about 12 years, and so on.) Using that fact, I tried to think of anything that I buy that's doubled in price since 2001. The only one I could come close on was natural gas, which I'm not sure about but at least could've done so. Comics certainly haven't. Bread or milk? Not anywhere near double. I spend $10 - $15 dollars on a sit-down lunch meal most days, but I don't remember being able to get that same sort of treat for $5 - $7 just 6 years ago. I mentioned this during our conversation but my companion remained unconvinced.

After we talked, I thought about it in a different way. Ever since I left the bank (and my endless supply of service charge-less accounts there) at the end of 2000, Vicki and I have used a spreadsheet to balance our various 'buckets' of money: Vacation, Bills, Spending, Charity, Car Replacement, Medical, etc, (where we'd previously had an actual account for each). Because of that, it's easy for me to see that we've increased our Bills allocation, for example, from $850/month (in 2001) to $1240/month (currently). Over that period, nothing about our lifestyle has gone down (we've never cut anything out), and we've actually upgraded in some areas (we now have a PVR box, so cable's more expensive; we have more electronic gadgets that chew up electricity and occasionally need replacing, both of which can impact the Bills total). So that's a less-than-50% increase along with a higher standard of living, meaning it'd probably be more like a 30 - 40% increase if we'd kept the playing field level. Which is fairly consistent with a 4% average inflation rate, I think.

But what do others think? Is inflation really higher than it's advertised as being? Are your 2 - 5% raises each year keeping pace, or causing you to fall behind? Or is it all irrelevant because no matter how much money you make, you'll always find a way to spend 110% of it?

Monday, November 05, 2007

A Return To The 90s?

Bad enough that variant covers have returned with a vengeance in the comic world over the past few years - a mainstay of the Speculation Age during the mid-90s - but following Captain America's death in March of this year we now have rumours of Batman being killed off next year. Stupid events like that were another symptom of that gone-but-not-missed era in comic history, which saw Superman killed, Batman's back broken, Tony Stark replaced by a teenage version - hey, I'm not making this stuff up! - and scads of other similarly-silly 'events.'

I hope that's not where we're headed, as it sucked last time, and then ended badly (with comic sales dropping off precipitously and never really recovering)!

Sunday, November 04, 2007

This Comic Kicks Your Ass!

Geoff Johns is DC's answer to Ed Brubaker these days, it seems. Just as Bru seems to write about half the Marvel titles I buy right now, Johns is starting to own most of the excitement among DC titles every month. You've got the Sinestro Corps War, and Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes in Action Comics, but the cherry on the sundae may just be Johns' current "Thy Kingdom Come" storyline that just kicked off in Justice Society of America.

About a decade ago, Mark Waid and Alex Ross dropped everyone's jaws to the ground with their prestige 4-issue mini-series, Kingdom Come. This intricately-written and fully-painted masterpiece posited a DC Universe of the near-future, in which young heroes began popping up more and more, with less and less guidance from the old guard, and things quickly got out of hand. A Superman-in-his-50s had quit the superhero game a few years earlier, due to a turn-of-events come wrong, and Kingdom Come was about his return to action, among many, many other things. Leave it to Geoff Johns (and Alex Ross) to take advantage of the return of DC's Multiverse to find a home for the Kingdom Come story - Earth-22! - and then come up with a way to bring that world's Superman right into regular universe to shake things up!

One of the things I love about how Geoff usually composes his comics is that he gives you the scenes you want to see! For example, he's playing off the fact that Power Girl's put out of sorts by KC-Superman's arrival, because he bears more than a passing resemblance to the old Earth-2 Kal-L, who was Power Girl's cousin (just as Supergirl is the current Kal-El's cousin). Yes, that sounds about right! And the next issue of JSA promises a meeting between the two Supermen, young and older, which is also something that makes fanboys lick their lips. And finally, Johns is using this opportunity to underscore the importance of the Justice Society right now, as its existence seems, more than anything else, to be preventing the Kingdom Come scenario from coming true. The JSA provides the kind of mentorship and guiding hand that was lacking in the tale told by Waid and Ross back in 1996.

At times during its previous run, JSA managed to be the best superhero comic on the stands. With this issue, it may be poised to reclaim that position for the first time since the current series launched last year.

2,000,000 Bolts Of Disappointment

Over the last couple weeks, Vicki and I have been playing Ratchet: Deadlocked, the 2006 entrant into the Ratchet & Clank PS/2 (and now PS/3) franchise. We actually purchased the game back in late 2006, played it a little and decided that it just wasn't holding our interest, and moved on to something else. With a new game, R&C Future: Tools of Destruction just recently launched, and a short demo for it downloaded by us and enjoyed, it had seemed like a good time to revisit Deadlocked and see if we could finally get some of our money's worth out of it.

Well, probably due to lowered expectations as well as absence making the heart growing fonder (over the past two years), it was more fun this time around. The format change, away from the story-based approach of the former versions and into a much more linear - not to mention campaign-based and arena-centric - style, still detracts from the game's appeal. But once you're past that, the Co-Op mode is reasonably good if two of you want to play at the same time, the fact that you can select the difficulty level anew each time you load the game delights me no end, and the weapons are a major selling point once again.

Except for one, that is. In games past, there's often been a mega-weapon, much more expensive than any others, that the dedicated gamer aspires to, no matter how ridiculously many bolts you have to collect in order to afford it. (Bolts are the currency in R&C games, and you get them for smashing or blowing up stuff, including enemies.) One of the earliest instances of this was the RYNO gun, which stood for Rip You a New One... and it lived up to its name! It was a quantum leap more powerful and destructive than any of the standard weapons in that particular game, and so spending a couple dozen hours of replaying levels paid off once you got your furry little hands on that sucker! Ah, the sheer mayhem of the RYNO....

Not so much this time around. For the heart-stopping price of two million bolts, Ratchet: Deadlocked offers you the Harbinger, complete with a sales pitch claiming, in essence, that it is to the RYNO as the atom bomb is to the slingshot. So of course I just had to have one!

Having now used it a few times, though, I'd say it was overpriced by a factor of 2 or 3. Yeah, it's a nice gimmick: when you pull the trigger, targets appear under several of your nearest enemies just before destruction rains down upon them in the form of... well, I guess you'd say, columns of all-powerful, God-like energy beams! Where it fails you, though, is that it initially maxes out at 4 pieces of ammo - none of which you can find in the game, unlike every other piece of your arsenal - and leaves you as a sitting duck if you've got more combatants than artillery, especially since you're inclined to stand there and watch the fireworks!

If the rest of your weaponry were weak, I think the Harbinger would live up to the hype - and sticker price - but the fact is that several cheaper guns, if you've used them a lot and leveled them up as we had, are very nearly as impressive and effective. I absolutely adore my automated turret guns, arbiter, floating/targeting mines, scorpion tail and fusion rifle, all of which are quite devastating in their upgraded form. Since you can only really get the Harbinger toward the end of the game - did I mention that it costs 2,000,000 bolts? - the opportunities to upgrade it (through repeated use) are considerably less. On a lark, I did spend some time this morning running around, killing everything in sight with my new toy. After the third upgrade, all of which simply added one to the maximum ammo count, I came to the conclusion that leveling up the Harbinger hardly seemed worth the effort. Especially annoying is the fact that one of the big tournaments battle near the end, which you have to get through in order to keep going, pre-assigns what weapon you can use for it, and doesn't include the Harbinger. Bummer.

Another annoying characteristic of the game occurs when you replay arena battles. If you lose, then you play again (which is fine); if you win, then you're taken back to the main station and have to select the arena again and wait through the cut-scene showing the trip back. This proved quite frustrating as I spent many hours building up bolts in some of my favourite battles, again and again. I actually got to the point where I'd intentionally lose rather than suffer through the delay of starting each one up again. Silly game flow on someone's part.

All in all, I'd consider Rachet: Deadlocked an above average PS/3 game but a significantly-below average Ratchet and Clank game. The early reviews of Tools of Destruction, along with the demo we played, lead me to believe that they've gotten the franchise back onto the (grind) rails with the latest offering. Come Christmas this year, I'm sure we'll be playing it and finding out for ourselves!

Saturday, November 03, 2007

One Week On The Wagon... And Feeling Fine

A week ago I decided that I needed a break from the almost-daily grind of watching the Rangers not score (m)any goals. A month seemed about right, during which time I hoped (and continue to hope) that the team would straighten out its obvious problems and start living up to its potential. Seven days in, I'm happy to report that I haven't missed any of it: the checking of the scores, the disappointment over results, or the gnawing feeling that the team is wasting game after game in a schedule that's rarely forgiving about such things.

So far only one person's come close to breaking the embargo, but even that turned into a great reminiscence about 1994 and my VCR Jinx!

Friday, November 02, 2007

Comics Are More Than Superheroes (But I Don't Much Read Those)

Occasionally I feel guilty because there are so many comics out there today that aren't considered mainstream (read: superhero), which means that they don't get much attention compared to the latest universe-spanning DC or Marvel event, say. And you know that behind most of them are hard-working, talented writers and artists (and editors and colourists...) who've poured their hearts and souls into producing these things... almost none of which I ever even look at!

Just two days ago, at my local comic store, one of the clerks - dressed up as the wizard/keeper of the bridge of death from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but it was Halloween, so he had an excuse.. this time! - was extolling the virtues of a title called Mouse Guard, with its anthropomorphic characters and their charming misadventures. Everything he described sounded perfectly fine and entertaining... but not at all what I look for in a comic book! In much the same way that I read Lord of the Rings as a teenager and thought, "Wow! What a great story, but if this is the best of the genre then I doubt I'm going to like the lesser lights..." (and have only read Fantasy sparsely since then, happily) I can't help but think that something like Maus, the amazing Jewish story by Art Spielgelman, probably taught me that most talking animal tales are going to let me down.

Even further afield from where I graze are the raft of autobiographical comics, as exemplified by Harvey Pekar's American Splendour, although that's only one of literally hundreds like it. I've read a little Pekar over the years - not much, but a little - and I've now and then tried other fare, but it usually just doesn't do anything for me. Often the art's so not-what-I-want-to-read (yes, I'm looking at you, manga!) or just plain bad (barely beyond stick figures, which is to say, still better than what I can do, but so what?) that I don't feel inclined to even check out the words. And when I do, and the stories essentially boil down to "Here are some events that happened to me and I hope you find them as interesting as I do!" I just don't!

That's not to say there aren't any good non-superhero comics for me. A couple decades ago I read and absolutely loved Kings In Disguise, which was just a mini-series about a Depression-era boy who runs away from home and becomes drawn into the hobo world of the day. Wonderful stuff, but it also had a real story to tell, with professional grade artwork, a good sense of pacing, and all of the other attributes of top-notch fiction. Paul Chadwick's Concrete might look at first glance like a superhero - not entirely unlike the Thing from the Fantastic Four, for example - but the tales Chadwick weaves around him have almost nothing in common with that genre, beyond that one physical resemblance. And yet that's long been one of my favourite titles, anytime it appears, because Chadwick is an excellent writer (and very good artist)! Right now, Ed Brubaker has Criminal underway, a comic series about various members of society's underbelly, set in the real world. Normally I wouldn't have even sampled it, but Bru's hit so many home runs with Captain America, Daredevil and the Immortal Iron Fist lately that I did.. and really liked it! Again, though, it's essentially as good as any mainstream superhero comic, in production quality and style of writing, and just doesn't happen to feature any guys or girls in capes!

Bottom line is that tonight I decided it's time to stop kicking myself over this. I'm sure some of what's flying under my radar is excellent, but almost all of it's going to have to find another home to land in. Every once in awhile something will catch my eye, like Bryan Talbot's Alice in Sunderland or Eddie Campbell's Black Diamond Detective Agency, and then I'll venture outside Metropolis and Gotham City, beyond the jungles of Wakanda or the undersea borders of Atlantis, and even out past the orbits of Rann and Zenn-La... but probably only briefly! And I'm OK with that.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

23rd Straight Month Of Biking? Check!

With today's round trip to work, I reached 23 consecutive months of having biked at least once (with most months featuring more like 15 to 20 excursions).

So November's taken care of, but December's always a little dicey, for two reasons: snow may arrive by then, but also the sun sets so early (as the shortest day of the year is approached and passed) that it's challenging to get out of work while there's still enough light to bike home by. With the time change this weekend coming up (yay, a week later than it used to be!) even the rest of November will probably be more miss than hit, but right now I can still be safely out on the paths or streets shortly after 6:00 pm, meaning that I'll have until around 5:15 next week.

I doubt I'll get my 100 rides in this year, what with the five weeks of vacation over the summer. But I'll probably be pretty close, since I had a nice run in September and October where I rode on 24 consecutive working days! It's finally cold enough in the morning (low single digits, Celsius) that it's easy to cool down outside our building, and the bike area in the basement is no longer overflowing with vehicles! In some ways, this is my favourite time of the year for biking! (It doesn't hurt that the paths are so much less-traveled by others right now, either!)

Return Of An Old Friend

OK, so I went a full month with a template other than old, familiar Harbour... but I just missed it so much that I've decided to bring it back! It's simply superior to any of the other current choices!

I feel happier already...