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November 23, 2007

Mass Effect — 'A landmark'

Seth Schiesel's review in yesterday's New York Times of Bioware's new Xbox 360 game, being released this week, called Mass Effect (above) "... a landmark of interactive storytelling."


Because "... Bioware harnessed all of the Xbox 360's silicon horsepower to render the most important element of visual storytelling: faces."

Schiesel continued, "It may be the first game in which the 'digital acting' isn't an oxymoron."


Here's the review.

    Computer Game With a Special Special Effect, Facial Expressions

    Most game designers don’t worry about wrinkles. Casey Hudson does, which is one reason Mass Effect, which he spent the last three years directing, is a landmark of interactive storytelling.

    It is the best rebuttal yet to the notion that games are inherently inferior to linear media like television and film in their ability to envelop an audience in a world that is both fantastic and a lens on the complexities of real human emotion — in short, to be an art.

    Mass Effect, despite its science-fiction trappings, is not a child’s game. Much like the “Lord of the Rings” books, it will probably bore all but the most precocious youngsters.

    Certainly there are plenty of explosions in Mass Effect, which is being released this week by BioWare for the Xbox 360. There are spaceships and aliens and laser guns. There are firefights to wage and ruins to explore. But the real stars are not the environments or weapons, as in most games. Instead Mass Effect revolves around exquisitely realized characters and serious, at times wrenching, stories — of betrayal, love, duty and perhaps even redemption.

    That gets back to the wrinkles.

    The best television and film directors realized decades ago that no matter how exciting an action set piece might be as pure eye candy, what really draws in a viewer is an emotional connection with the characters, whether that means Jack Bauer, Oskar Schindler or Luke Skywalker. It is a lesson that has been largely lost on game designers, who tend to use the latest graphics technology as a sort of bamboozlement, a misdirection that makes fast-paced action and flashy special effects the whole point.

    But it is not a lesson lost on Mr. Hudson and the rest of the BioWare team in Edmonton, Alberta. Mass Effect does use some of the most sophisticated graphics around, but its explosions are fairly pedestrian. The interstellar settings, while gorgeous, are nothing gamers haven’t seen before. Instead BioWare harnessed all of the Xbox 360’s silicon horsepower to render the most important element of visual storytelling: faces.

    It can be disconcerting to realize that in many video games players never see the faces of the characters they inhabit. (Master Chief, hero of the blockbuster Halo series, is as famous for his ever-present helmet as anything else.) They experience most games through either a first-person perspective — peering out through a character’s eyes — or a third-person perspective above and behind their virtual marionette.

    In Mass Effect, however, most of the story is shaped through conversations between the player’s character and other denizens of the game’s galaxy. And those interactive conversations have been “filmed” more like a movie than a game. In other words, they have been shot as close-ups from the characters’ fronts, so you can actually see them talking and reacting to one another.

    It’s an innovation that has been unthinkable until now because it had always seemed almost impossible to render speaking digital faces that would seem natural to the human eye and ear. It is perhaps Mass Effect’s greatest strength that its characters do just that.

    It may be the first game in which the term “digital acting” isn’t an oxymoron. Even the game’s alien races have been animated with a generous anthropomorphism that imbues them with plausibly human emotions. And parsing emotion often comes down to the wrinkles.

    “We wanted to create a video game that had the potential to rival live-action movies in terms of cinematic, dramatic power,” Mr. Hudson said in a recent telephone interview from Edmonton. “We wanted our characters to be able to just raise an eyebrow and have it convey a thought or emotion just as it could in a film.”

    “If the action in our game is exciting, it’s because you care about the story situation,” he added. “And what makes the story exciting is emotion. And what makes emotion is wrinkles. When you take the wrinkles away, you just have parts of the face moving around like a cartoon, and it really takes away a lot of the subtlety we intuit in human emotion.”

    Of course a great video game is not made of wrinkles alone. And Mr. Hudson’s wrinkles are only one example of how Mass Effect has been built up from its story and characters, rather than down from some technical specification. BioWare even published a prequel novel set in the Mass Effect universe months before the game’s debut.

    “We did a lot of research into the psychology of what creates and portrays a compelling emotion,” Mr. Hudson said. “And then it becomes art, and we have to shape each face into a look of fear. Or we ask: What does your face look like when you’re telling a lie? Or what are the visual cues when you are speaking in a beguiling, slightly flirtatious way?”

    Perhaps as impressive as the game’s visual expression is the quality and amount of its professional voice acting. The game includes more than 22,000 lines of spoken dialogue, incorporating about 400,000 words. Played end to end it would take about 23 hours to listen to it all.

    But every time you play the game, you hear only a small fraction of it. And that is because no matter how filmlike its presentation, Mass Effect is still a game, and that means that you, the player, are in charge of the story. As you try to save the galaxy from an evil madman, you can pursue your goals as an altruistic protosaint or a ruthless, ends-justify-the-means antihero.

    Depending on your actions and attitude the story will play out quite differently. Just getting through the main arc could take up to 30 hours, and pursuing all the myriad side quests could take at least an additional 40 hours or more.

    Don’t worry, there is enough adrenaline mixed in. But as I played through Mass Effect the first time, I realized that my priorities had flipped, forming almost a mirror image of the gamer psyche. In most games the plot scenes are merely breathers on the way to the next battle. But with Mass Effect I actually found myself rushing combat, so I could get back to exploring the story.

    It was the first time a game made me feel that way. I hope it will not be the last.

November 23, 2007 at 04:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Massaging Booties — Built-in motors quiet your barking dogs


From the website:

    Massaging Booties

    Slippers that actually massage your feet while you wear them

    These luxuriously soft boot-style slippers massage tired feet while keeping them warm and cozy.

    Each bootie contains a tiny but invigorating massage motor to soothe your feet with a gentle, vibrating massage action.

    There is also an ankle drawstring on the faux mohair boots to keep your feet very warm.

    If you have aching, tired feet, these slippers will give you the experience of having a massage therapist right in your home and at your feet.

    With these slippers, all you have to do is put them on and you are at ease.

    You will be amazed at how relaxed your feet feel after a few minutes with the motor running.

    Each boot has its own on/off switch, and because they are battery operated (2 AA for each, not included), there are no cords to trip over.

    Put in a movie, slip on your slippers, turn them on, and you have a quiet, delightful evening at home.

    One size fits womens shoe sizes 6.5 to 8.5


November 23, 2007 at 03:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

The Leaning Tower of... Suurhusen?


Look at the photo above.

What do you see?

It's the new leaning tower world champion, to be named as such in next year's Guinness Book of World Records.

The 15th-century church tower's ascension to the top of the heap was noted in today's Washington Post story by Craig Whitlock, which follows.

    Church Tower Lists Toward Tipping Point, If Not a Title

    German Town's Landmark Outleans Pisa's, but Record Goes to Yet Another Rival

    Compared with this town's 625-year-old crooked church, the Leaning Tower of Pisa is a model of rectitude.

    Ever since it was built out of stone in 1382, the Church of Our Beloved Ladies by the Mountain in Bad Frankenhausen has been listing gradually to the east. Undermined by a porous geological foundation, the 184-foot-tall church tower has been falling over, sometimes as much as an inch or two a year. Townspeople have been accustomed to its lopsided shadow for centuries and, until recently, the church attracted little outside attention.

    Two years ago, however, someone got out a measuring tape. Over time, villagers discovered, the tip of the spire had toppled more than 14 feet from where it was supposed to be, outleaning Pisa's more famous tower by about six inches.

    A wave of civic pride quickly swept over Bad Frankenhausen, pop. 9,000. Burghers have been walking around with their chests puffed out since.

    Henry Hunger, the deputy mayor, said locals are used to the sight of visitors gawking at the tower, their heads askew as if they can't believe what they're seeing.

    "You go up to them and explain, 'No, no, it really is crooked,' " he said. "It's the image of the city. It's always been there, and it's always been crooked. Plus, it just dominates the skyline."

    The tower [below]


    is perched on a hillside on the edge of town and looks like it could keel over in a stiff breeze. Locals insist the structure is sturdy and say no one has abandoned the row of tidy homes sitting about 75 feet from the tower's base. At least not yet.

    Engineers have noticed that the speed with which the tower is falling has picked up recently, with the spire now moving 2.4 inches a year. At that rate, it could reach a tipping point in the next decade or so, though nobody knows for sure.

    As a result, local and state government officials have agreed to spend $1.5 million to try to stabilize the tower. Contractors started work over the summer and have wrapped the tower with temporary anchors and cables.

    "We're going in very small steps and we're being very, very careful," said Juergen Ahlers, site manager for the contractor overseeing the project. "Essentially, we're going to grab it, lift it and push it back a bit."

    The ground under the church is riddled with deep cracks and fissures. Engineers decided the only way to save the leaning tower would be to reinstall it on a flexible base. Plans are to straighten it slightly — about two feet — and see what happens.

    Ahlers said he expects the tower to keep falling a couple of inches each year, even after the repair job. He predicted that it will have to be yanked back every 10 years or so. "We'll never be able to completely stop the tilt," he said.

    Previous fix-it attempts have met with mixed results.

    In 1759, a fire burned the steeple, so craftsmen built a new spire that curved in the opposite direction, hoping to make the tower look straighter than it really was. In 1911, the town tried propping up the tower with giant poles, but somehow that made things worse. In 1935, engineers strapped four giant iron belts around the building; architects say the tower likely would have crumbled otherwise.

    The tower has been closed since 1984, but city officials hope to reopen it next year after the stabilization project is completed. Their aim is to lure thousands of tourists eager to climb up the winding steps to the belfry and drink in off-balance views of the surrounding landscape.

    That vision, however, has some obstacles. Unlike Pisa, Bad Frankenhausen is located in a remote corner of eastern Germany and doesn't rate a mention in many tourist guides. And then there's a question of how long the Church of Our Beloved Ladies by the Mountain will be able to hang on to its crooked distinction.

    Although residents don't bring it up, the stabilization project will straighten the tower just enough so that it will no longer lean as much as Pisa's, at least until it starts falling again. The Pisa tower, which is roughly the same height, was fixed in place in the early 1990s.

    Just as worrying is the emergence of other challengers.

    About 270 miles away on Germany's North Sea coast, the village of Suurhusen boasts that its 15th-century church tower is the crookedest on the planet. Residents cite a different measurement, saying that the base of their tower is askew by 5.17 degrees, compared with 3.97 degrees for Pisa and about 4.4 degrees for Bad Frankenhausen.

    Even better, Suurhusen's village elders revealed this month that they had won a place in the Guinness Book of World Records, which plans to list their tower as the leaning world champion in next year's editions.

    The announcement caught people in Bad Frankenhausen by surprise and left many steamed. They pointed out, rightly, that Suurhusen's tower is only half as tall.

    "It's ridiculous," said Baerbel Koellen, head of an association dedicated to preserving the tower. She said the group had scheduled an "emergency meeting" to decide how to respond.

    "We always knew about their church," she sniffed. "But we didn't see them as competition. There's no question that ours is more crooked."

    Ahlers, the contractor, dismissed the rival claim too, saying that measuring the angle of tilt from the base was misleading.

    "You cannot compare these two churches," he said. "It's like comparing boxers in the lightweight category with heavyweights."

    Guinness Book officials haven't done much to clear up the controversy. Olaf Kuchenbecker, a Guinness representative from Hamburg, said the World's Crookedest Tower was a new category and acknowledged that record keepers hadn't visited Bad Frankenhausen.

    "This is not an absolute, by any means," he said. "If another group thinks it has a more crooked tower, the group is free to apply to us for consideration."

    Meanwhile, the citizens of Bad Frankenhausen have another worry.

    According to local folklore, the tower will remain standing as long as jackdaws — a black, crow-like bird -- keep nesting in the steeple. Problem is, no one has seen jackdaws flying around the church in years.

    "They've left Frankenhausen," Koellen said. "I don't know why."




the dethroned champion.

November 23, 2007 at 02:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack



A name like that cannot pass unremarked.

From the website:

    The Baggler™

    Triple-hook bag holder fits comfortably in your hand with soft rubber grip — helping you tote several plastic grocery bags without pain or hassle!

    Great for arthritis or carpal tunnel sufferers — simply slide bags onto sturdy hooks and carry up to 50 pounds with easy grasp.

    4-7/8"long x 4" wide.



November 23, 2007 at 01:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack

Kindle Blogs


I was interested to read that among the features available with Amazon's new Kindle eBook device is automatic daily downloading of blogs via a paid subscription model.

307 blogs are available as I type these words, at $0.99 to $1.99/month.

A chunk of the price goes to the blogs owner(s).

Alas, I looked really hard but didn't find bookofjoe among the chosen.

I reside with the far more numerous "hosen."

You have to wonder, though, why Amazon's not offering every single blog that exists, what with the "long tail" effect and the zero upfront cost of doing just that.

Real soon now — maybe.

Note to file: Forward this post to Wired magazine editor-in-chief Chris Anderson, who popularized the concept of the "long tail."

November 23, 2007 at 12:01 PM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

'Ring Bell For Service'


Welcome to the Dew Drop Inn.

From the website:

    Ring For Service Bell

    Wouldn't it be great to have a magic bell that made someone wait on you hand and foot?

    Well, now you can at least have the bell.

    This nickel-plated bell is the perfect gift for a new bride or groom who wants to gain an instant edge in the relationship.

    The base of the bell is 3-1/2" in diameter and, just like the bell on the counter of a hotel, you slam down your palm to make it ring.

    Why strain your voice with yelling or nagging when you can ring the bell as a signal to bring food or as a reminder that work needs to be done?

    Not recommended by marriage counselors.




November 23, 2007 at 11:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack



"Finally, you can claim experience points for housework.'

"Recruit a party of adventurers from your household or office, and whenever one of you completes a chore, you can log it and claim XP."


November 23, 2007 at 10:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack

Electronic Yodelling Pickle


Can your pickles do this?

You don't need a Magic 8 Ball to know the answer is "Doubtful."

From the website:

    Yodelling Pickle

    Are you sick and tired of trying to convince a jar of pickles to yodel using melodious mind bullets and sheer force of will?

    So were we.

    At last, the Electronic Yodelling Pickle that you have always hoped for!

    Each 6-1/2" long plastic pickle yodels its little heart out at the push of a button.

    Batteries included.


Listen for yourself.


November 23, 2007 at 09:01 AM | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack

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