Saturday, May 31, 2008

Dinner At Chronic's House - Where's Max?

I grab a longer, sharper looking french fry and impale it into another ketchup soaked fry which looks a bit too slippery to be manhandled. I could use the chopsticks that are sitting in my plate of creamed spinach, but everyone knows eating french fries with chopsitcks is passe, including my cat Spooky, who is eying my burger with great interest to see if I finish it. "Damn ye, ye yellow-bellied sapsuckers! I'm a better man than all ye milksops put together!" I cry out in my best Captain Blackbeard impression as I down the impaled fry and skewer another. Sometimes Im a Pirate when I eat, other times, a Ninja, or possibly a drunken Russian sailor. The fries almost always get finished by the pirate, the creamed spinach and burger, its like 50-50. The Ninja goes right for the burger, but he wasnt around tonight, he was out chopping peoples heads off and flipping out. I eat this meal quite often, as its both satisfying and incredibly easy to both cook and consume quickly. The secret is, I buy a pound and a half of fresh ground beef, and make 3-4 burgers out of it but freeze all except one Im eating right then and there.

Sometimes I run out of buns, and thats when I resort to English Muffins, the authenticity of which is highly dubious ever since I ran the concept past my dear British friend and Catan Grandmaster Mr. Bendypants (umopapisdnpuaq). According to Bender, British people do indeed eat muffins quite regularly but they are not of a national mold, that is to say, there is no one true archetypal "English Muffin" that is consumed by everyone, but rather a variety of muffins and scones and biscuits and tea cookies and sweetbreads. So really, its all a ruse. I should have known when I inspected the packaging, which contains a drawing of a two-horse cart being driven by 3 men in top hats, one of which is playing a trumpet, presumably delivering the morning crumpets. What a steaming load of bull honkey, but of course Americans bought into it hook line and sinker as they are one of the most popular breakfast foods. They dont really go stale, they just kinda go soggy, which Bender says is reason enough to be wary of them and just eat a bagel instead, which he says dont really exist over there in proper form.

I tried watching TV after the Yankees game was over, but the news networks here in NYC are just running endless loops of footage from a huge crane collapse on the Upper East Side. Tiring of that I flipped to the one channel that wasn't covering the collapse, and it was coverage of the Sex And The City movie thats about to come out. How a movie based on a show that was really big like 10 years ago, and is supposedly about sex, but prominently features 4 actresses that when taken out of their makeup and designer clothes look like librarians from Tuscaloosa is news, is beyond my limited comprehension. Turn that crap off.

Whos on Xbox Live? Its freaking Firday man. This is the day to play on Live. James Bond 007 and I tried some ranked Virtua Tennis 3 doubles earlier but it was so painful, the first match lagged out and froze and we got in a waiting match with the other 2 guys, finally they left and immediately we got matched up with kaci smith and Cal1mero. These guys are really, really good, especially kaci smith who is probably the best Tim Henman in Virtua Tennis on XBL. Super agressive at the net, while almost never making an error, he is as tough as it gets. But even as good as he is the guy simply cannot resist using the "glitch shot" during the match, which is an exploit that when executed properly produces a winner a high enough percentage of the time that its quite often the difference between winning and losing a close match.

But, this match wasnt close. I was super hung over, not warmed up and hadnt eaten or smoked anything. I should have known it would be a recipie for disaster and it was. I played terribly, Bond kept us in the game but after winning the first point we pretty much got smoked. In the rematch, they did 2-3 glitch shots in a row and I just let the last few balls go past me, I was so frustrated. Its hard to be a good sport when your opponents insist on nickle and diming you with cheap exploit shots. Virtua Tennis is an amazing game but I have to say Im not having as much fun with it as I used to. When the right people are on the competition is incredible and the level of play is really fantastic and its one of the best games on XBL, but it seems the best players are on less and less now, some gave up on ranked doubles all together because of the rampant lag-cheating and exploit usage, and often the players that are still on insist on using unsportsmanlike techniques to win. Playing people worse than us is worse than not playing at all, and most of the few people we can find that are on or above our play level use the stupid exploit shot, so finding a good clean match is really hard. The French guys we had The Rivalry with rarely get on anymore (they're on our friends list now). Its almost to the level of Burnout 3 where you just have to bring 4-8 of your own people to get it going, and I think Im probably going to start playing ranked less now as well.

But what to play tongight? In cant just write in this damn blog all night. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego, aka as Evil Max? As much NOT FUN getting our lunch handed to us by a couple of glitching punks was, tonight I want to have FUN on Xbox Live. Thats what the whole point of the system is. It is to get on and have fun. Nobody gets this better than Evil Max. The man works 117 hours a week so the only night he can get on is Fridays, but he has been absent the last two Fridays in a row. Dont think we didnt miss you buddy. If Max was on, I wouldnt be writing in this blog, we'd be playing Assault Heroes 2 and doing shots of tequila faster than that guy on Kotaku. Yeah, I could go play Age of Conan with FurryPuddle and Ajax999, but they are already so much higher level than me its basically pointless. Im trying to finish the single player aspects of that game before really playing with them much anyway, but I fear deeply that by the time I hit level 20 they will already be at the level cap. Oh well, at least that will give them an excuse to make a new character and start all over again, maybe I can catch up on the second lap, thats usually where I get my business done in Burnout. Anyway, this has gone on long enough and its time to play some GTA. San Andreas, that is. Just kidding.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Rage Against The Machines

By Tom Chatfield

Mogwai is cutting down the time he spends playing World of Warcraft. Twenty hours a week or less now, compared to a peak of over 70. It's not that he has lost interest—just that he's no longer working his way up the greasy pole. He's got to the top. He heads his own guild, has 20,000 gold pieces in the bank and wields the Twin Blades of Azzinoth; weapons so powerful and difficult to acquire that other players often (virtually) follow Mogwai around just to look at them. In his own words, he's "e-famous." He was recently offered $8,000 for his Warcraft account, a sum he only briefly considered accepting. Given that he has clocked up over 4,500 hours of play, the prospective buyers were hardly making it worth his while. Plus, more sentimentally, he feels his character is not his alone to sell: "The strange thing about this character is that he doesn't just belong to me. Every item he has he got through the hard work of 20 or more other people. Selling him would be a slap in their faces." As in many modern online games, co-operation is the only way to progress, with the most challenging encounters manageable only with the collaboration of other experienced players. Hence the need for leaders, guilds—in-game collectives, sometimes containing hundreds of players—and online friendships measured in years. "When I started, I didn't care about the other people. Now they are the only reason I continue."

Continue reading at Prospect

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Monday, May 26, 2008

Ninja Gaiden II: IGN Review

Well IGN has its review up, and Eric Brudvig has given Ninja Gaiden II an 8.7, a respectable score but a bit of a letdown for what we were hoping would be one of the best games of the year - and the sequel to one of the best games of all time. The problem is simple it seems - the first game just blew everyone's mind so much that there is not much grey matter left for the sequel to tingle. I think the review is quite good and pretty fair in general. The one thing Im shocked about is apparently the 360 cant handle certain sections very well and massive slowdown ensues, which is quite shocking and disappointing seeing as though the game is all about speed, and its published by Microsoft, who one would think has the technical wizardry to eliminate these types of problems or at least suggest to the developer to not ask the 360 to do things its not capable of.

Apparently the difficulty has been toned down a bit so Western audiences dont completely spit the bit, and the fantastic platforming from the first game has also been largely sidestepped in favor of more straight ahead action. Im sure it will still be a blast to chop enemies arms and heads off but its hard not to feel a bit disappointed.


Sunday, May 25, 2008

Can Nadal Stay Perfect in Paris?

"Heavy, high topspin, great footwork, power, stamina. And, because he's a lefty, he bothers opponents even more," says Alex Corretja, winner of 17 ATP titles, who is now a coach for Andy Murray, in cataloging Rafael Nadal's physical gifts.

But the greatest of all Nadal's gift's?

His mind.

"He has the mental power," Corretja says. "He believes he was born to be the best. He doesn't think he can ever lose."

Nadal will need every ounce of physical and mental power this year to make it through one of the toughest fields in French Open history. Incredibly, Nadal has won the French Open the last 3 years in a row and has yet to turn 22 years old (June 3). He is the odds on favorite to win the event, favored over his clay court dominating countryman, David Ferrer, over technical wizard Nikolay Davydenko, over Serbian tennis prodigy Novak Djokovic, and even over world #1 ranked Roger Federer. But Nadal isnt a bookmaker, and he knows any one of the top 5 players can wrest the 4-peat from him, and there are several dozen other highly skilled players who would like a crack at him as well.

To draw against Nadal in The French is considered death for just about any player, but be prepared to see some cataclysmic death spasms. Its generally considered not a great idea to expend every once of energy early in a major tournament, but if you draw against Nadal your tournament life is instantly on the line and you must play like it is life or death on every single point. So what this means for Nadal is that every player he faces for the whole tournament will play every single point against him as hard possible. He wont get a match off, a set off, a game off - its very likely he wont be thrown any gifts his entire stay in Paris. Not one point. If Nadal is going to win in Rolland Garros in 2008 with every player gunning for him, he is going to have to play his A game right off the bat and never stutter.

Tennis can be an extremely demanding and brutal sport. Most players have seen their best years behind them once they turn 30. The physical demands, constant injuries, and father time all take their toll, but the mental strain of constant travel, practice, competition, and dealing with the petulant media, may be the most intense of all the strains pro players suffer. The mental strain was so great for Justine Henin, world #1 womens singles player, that two weeks ago she simply reitred, being the first wonem to ever do so while #1. She said it was just too much after many years on the road, and that she felt her life was too defined by tennis, and the overall strain was too great to continue. This was the #1 player in the world. Imagine what the mental anguish is for #2, #97, #197, #297 and so on.

#2 Nadal, however, is incredibly stubborn in attempting to play every ATP event on the calender, including doubles. I think its pretty clear he wears the #2 ranking like a scarlet letter. If he cant beat Federer on non-clay surfaces enough to be #1, he'll just go win every other tournament on the planet. Last year, Nadal won back to back titles in Monte Carlo, Barcelona, Rome and Roland Garros and reached the Hamburg final, playing a herculean total of 27 matches (comprising 64 sets) in 57 days. This year, to delay Masters Series events in Indian Wells and Miami so they wouldn't compete with the NCAA basketball tournament for television viewers, the ATP compressed an eight-week spring clay season into seven weeks, making even greater demands on Nadal's body.

Even the resilient Spaniard wasn't able to rise above that potential obstacle. He won again at Monte Carlo, beating Federer in the straight-sets final, and a week later in Barcelona. He went to the Rome Masters with intentions of winning, but facing three tournaments in three weeks, something had to give -- and it was the skin on Nadal's right foot. A gruesome blister was the deciding factor in his loss to Ferrero, but it gave him a week off and the prospect of two weeks of mere practice in a stretch of three leading into Roland Garros.

So we should see a well rested, healthy, well practiced, mentally focused Nadal this week in Paris. If his is all those things, he has a great chance to win. If not, its almost certain he will lose. Im quite sure that this year, with one of the strongest and deepest fields ever, Nadal will need every weapon in his arsenal if he wants to make history and win the French Open for the fourth time in a row.

Friday, May 23, 2008

A.J. Foyt - Greatest Driver in History

"I've always thought he was the best." - Mario Andretti

The Indianapolis 500 is here this weekend, so what better time to recognize America's greatest racing icon, A.J. Foyt?

A.J. is the greatest race car driver in history - its very hard to argue with the facts. ESPN took a poll of current top drivers and various racing experts and they agree - A.J. was voted #1 by them in a poll ranking the top 25 drivers in racing history. Mario Andretti came in a close second, with Dale Earnhart, Michael Shumacher, and Ayrton Senna rounding out the top 5. Wow, what a group of incredible drivers. Without a doubt, the one trait that links all these drivers together is their tenacity and super high levels of aggression in making their way to the front.

But I just want to talk about A.J. for a bit, because I think for most people those other names are all household names, but they might not know much about a US driving champion not named Earnhardt. Possibly the most most incredible and unlikely thing abou A.J. is how he made it to the "big leagues." Racing is an extremely expensive sport, so the chances arent great for a blue collar kid from Houston who doesnt have a wealthy family to support him and pay for the myriad expenses. But his dad owned an auto shop, and was quite the mechanic. AJ got his start on the tiny backroad raceways of Texas, and his skills earned him enough wins around local tracks that his dad knew they had to do something to get his kid in a bigger race. His dad cashed a $300 insurance policy (that was a long time ago, back when dollars were worth something) and took A.J. up to Indiana to do midget car racing, where A.J. completely dominated. The cars they used were assembled and maintained in his dad's garage, from day 1 of his racing career until he had won the Indy 500 4 times. Thats right, the Foyt family designed their cars, assembled them, maintained them, and raced them to perfection, all out of the first little garage his dad ever owned in Houston. While all other racing teams are corporate, the Foyt racing team was impossibly family owned and operated.

In terms of racing skill, there is very little doubt AJ was among the best to ever sit behind a wheel. He owned the Indy 500 with a ridiculous 67 wins. He crushed Nascar. He could out drive the very best European touring car experts. He was offered a chance to drive for the top F1 racing teams, but turned it down becaue he found F1 boring, hyper-political, and filled with unsportsmanlike cry babies.

Lets just reveiw: A.J. is the only man in history to win the the Indianapolis 500, the Daytona 500, the 24 Hours of Le Mans, the 24 Hours of Daytona, and back-to-back titles at the International Race of Champions - a feat that will certainly never be equalled.

After 40+ years of dominating, crashing, flipping, barrel rolling, exploding, being set on fire, and almost losing both his legs, at the young age of 60, A.J. decided that even after qualifying for his signature race, the Indianapolis 500, he would not enter. He would retire.

"I wanted to do it at Indy," Foyt said. "No matter what else I've ever done in racing, people know me for Indy."

Officials cleared the 2.5 mile track of all other cars, and A.J. made his last lap. He circled the track slowly, pulled over to the pit crew, and got out of his car for the last time - no regrets, no looking back.


Thursday, May 22, 2008

Thom Friedman New York Times

"There has been much debate in this campaign about which of our enemies the next U.S. president should deign to talk to. The real story, the next president may discover, though, is how few countries are waiting around for us to call. It is hard to remember a time when more shifts in the global balance of power are happening at once — with so few in America’s favor..." FULL STORY

GRID - Trailer

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Too Human - Coop Gameplay Video

So far Too Human looks like it shaping up to be one of the more fun coop experiences of 2008. This coop gameplay video shows the game taking on an almost isometric beat em up type of feel, with dozens of enemies on the screen who all fall to a few blows each. The graphics look pretty sweet so far, and although they made the unfortunate design choice to leave the story cinematics out of the coop mode, you can play through the whole game with a buddy. Definitely put this one on your calender!

Monday, May 19, 2008

Age Of Conan DX10 Version Delayed

OK so the MMORPG we have all been waiting for the past 5 years is almost finally out. Whoo-Hoo! However, I regret to inform my Vista-toting cohorts that the Direct X 10 version of the game has been delayed until August. Thats right, all those extra clam shells you dug up for Vista and a second 8800 card wont be doing you any good over the summer. Apparently, getting Conan to just run decently on Vista has been problematic, and the DX10 version is the biggest offender, so it was scrapped at the last moment rather than invoke the wrath of the internet. KOTAKU LINK

Friday, May 16, 2008

Andy Roddick - Greatest Ace Ever

I have a video of Roddick hitting his world record fastest 155mph serve, but honestly this is just more impressive.

Xbox 360 Spring Update Features

Here are some of the new features coming with the 360 Spring Update. The one Im most excited about is the ability to send points to another gamertag. So, Im thinking a 1000 point buy in single table poker tournament (Holdem only supports 8 players), 1st place is 5000 points and second place pays 3000, probably on Friday nights. Sounds like a good time or what? Sundays is a Burnout 3 GP? What should the buy in be?

Here's part of the list, according to Kotaku.

-Introduce a group chat (4) for Private Chat and conferences through Video Chat.
-Option to 'ping' when testing connection.
-Option to store up to 10 messages permanently on server (excludes invites, status messages).
-Increase character limit for text messages between friends only.
-Option to donate Microsoft Points to anybody with a Windows Live ID.
-Support for headset, Xbox LIVE Vision in Windows Live Messenger.
-Option to delete titles from gamercard with 0 gamerscore and 0 achievements (excludes some titles that will be re-added to launch another title).
-Support to display friends leaderboards for disc-based titles.
-Show dates of an achievement unlocked when comparing.
-Preload Games Library upon dashboard bootup for faster access.
-Support for titles to store installation data on Storage Device for faster loading.
-Calibration options for motion sensor devices.
-Option to see what items will not work offline due to DRM license changing from Memory.
-Voice, picture messages can be read at (Gold accounts).

Monday, May 12, 2008

John Juanda vs Jennifer Harman - Full Tilt Poker Million Dollar Cash Game

John Juanda vs Jennifer Harman - Million Dollar Cash Game

Its the Full Tilt Poker Million Dollar Cash Game, and top high stakes cash game players John Juanda and Jen Harman sit in the small and big blinds respectively, with Tony G first to act and Phil Ivey and several other well known players behind him. Phil makes it $1800 to go, and the action is folded around to Juanda, who looks down at pocket queens.

Never one to play in a consistently conventional manner, Juanda makes the highly unusual play of just flat calling with his queens. Harman behind him in the big blind looks down at pocket 10s.

Most aggressive players would raise here with 10s to try to win it right there or take the flop heads up, but Jen was never a super-aggressive player, and the stacks are deep enough that calling looks pretty good, so she just calls.

The flop comes 3d-7s-Qs, giving Juanda a set of queens and Jennifer an underpair to the board. Phil Ivey has nothing but Ace-Jack high.

This hand is interesting because both Juanda and Harman make some unconventional moves. Juanda flops a set of queens and checks when the board shows a flush and straight draw. John decides that if one of the two player behind him has a flush or unlikely straight draw, they will likely lead out, and that even if Phil Ivey has nothing at all he will still probably fire a continuation bet. Betting out or "donking" (betting into the preflop raiser) might win a high % of these pots, but John is more interested in maximizing the value of the nuts.

The value of deception can be quite high and John gambled that either 1) Harman or Ivey would bet and he could reraise or 2) Harman and Ivey would check and the turn would help one of them a little bit without hurting him, or miss everyone. An underpair to the Queen is probably Harman's most likely holding given the action.

Jen and Phil checked, but the 10 that came on the turn and helped give Harman the second best hand was the Ten of Spades, which conventional wisdom says should slow both players down. But John decided to find out where he was, so he led out and bet $4,000 into a $6200 pot. Jen thought for a bit and made a very interesting play. She raised to $18,000. Jen knows that Juanda is an aggressive player; she and Phil checked the flop so he would likely be betting here regardless of whether he had a hand or not.

If John has something like A-K or A-Q with the Ace of Spades, or K-J or J-9 with the Jack of Spades, the $4,000 bet is a profitable semi-bluff against an opponent with only one pair and no spade, who is probably going to fold a significant percentage of the time.

Against all those hands, Jennifer's set of queens is a favorite, but she must raise to protect against the straight or flush coming on the river. Calling or folding with a set of tens here - and not raising against aggressive players who consistently semi-bluff with the previously mentioned group of hands - will cost a fortune over the long haul.

If John reraised her $18,000 raise, Jen could throw her hand away knowing she was likely beat. Raising in that spot accomplished the following:

1) It gives her a chance to win the pot when John folds his bluffs - she doesn't have to worry about him making a big move on the river.

2) Makes John pay a premium for his big draw if he calls.

3) Makes John pay a premium when he calls with a hand she has beat like a set of 7s, Q-10, or A-Q with no spade.

4) Makes John fold a weak flush that has her beat like the 6-7 of spades or 7-8 of spades (its impossible she put him on QQQ).

5) If John reraises her she can fold her hand knowing she is very likely beat.

John can play like a maniac at times, but he clearly always in control, and would almost never attempt bluff the tightest player at the table after she raised him $18,000 into a $10,200 pot.

Juanda was faced with a pretty tough decision given Jen's $18,000 raise. He had played his hand in such tricky way that he knew Harman would never put him on three queens, and the stacks were still deep enough that if he did fill up on the river he could probably use his aggressive image to get payed off by Jen's flush.

It was pretty clear to me that when John called, he was almost sure he was beat there, but given the stack sizes and his number of outs to a full house (he couldn't know Jen had two of them) it was a call he had to make.

Watch John's body language and facial expression as he registers the reraise from Harman, and decides what to do. The raise clearly bothers him. He takes a few deep breaths, and he shakes his head slightly as Jennifer counts out the raise, and again as he looks at the board.

But the tell that most clearly signals to me that John feels weak here is his facial expression after he has called Jen's raise. He takes a quick glance at Jennifer, sees that she looks very relaxed (strong), and compresses his lips right before the dealer peels off the river. While the shakes of the head may or may not have been an act, the lip compression is unconscious - nobody is watching John there but the camera - they are all watching the dealer. He quickly checks the river - far too quickly in my opinion. Would he ever check that quickly with the nut flush? The highly perceptive Phil Ivey, who was watching all the action intently and had a gutshot straight draw to the king, folded quickly.

Its one of those bizarre situations where the player who has the best hand thinks he is behind and drawing, and the player who actually is way behind thinks she is ahead, strictly because of table images and the exceedingly deceptive way in which Juanda played his Queens.

The river the 4 of diamonds, making for a board of 3d-7s-Qs-10s-4d. Juanda doesn't take long to check - I don't think bluffing if he missed was an option; he thinks he's behind. But Jennifer probably doesn't like his call on the turn, so I think if John fires first on the river with a $20k+ blocking bet he probably takes it down a fair percentage of the time, but he let Jennifer take the pot away from him by checking.

Jennifer reaches for chips and makes a perfect sized bet of $25,000 into a $42,200 pot. This is a bet John surely wont call without a huge hand, because as tight as she is, Jennifer makes big bets very rarely. What can he beat with a straight and a flush showing? Against a tough player, this is the perfect example of a position bet designed to take down the pot when the opponent shows weakness by checking. A donkey will call every time with 3 queens. But Juanda cant raise without committing his stack and he cant call without a huge hand - not against Harman. John shakes his head a few more times, casts another glance or two at Jen, but you know he's folding.

Juanda, as great a player as he is, got a little too tricky in this hand. He was trying to run so many circles around his opponents that he ran himself into the gorund. This is a clear example of how playing straightforward ABC poker makes the game so much easier to play, and how expert, tricky plays make the decisions so much more difficult, and often backfire even in the hands of an expert professional player. Flat calling with queens is tricky, but then proceeding to check the flop with two players behind you and a flush draw on the board is just too tricky in my opinion. One play or the other is deceptive enough, but the two plays combined proved lethal in this case.

Its very rare that you see a top player outplay himself, but in this case I think its pretty clear that is what happened.

Friday, May 9, 2008

Burnout Paradise Coming to the PC with Mods

"REDWOOD CITY, Calif.—(BUSINESS WIRE)—Criterion Games, a studio of Electronic Arts, (NASDAQ:ERTS) today announced that the award-winning driving game Burnout™ Paradise is being rebuilt specifically for the PC. Burnout Paradise will be the first Burnout title ever made for the PC, customized with expanded multiplayer, enhanced online features, and community driven content."

Community driven content is a euphemism for mods.

Wow. I cant believe they finally made the decision to bring Burnout to the PC, and they are giving users the tools to create new content right out of the box. I have to say the potential for modding in this game is incredible. Dont like the vehicle physics? Change them to your taste. Dont like the way the city is layed out? Revamp it. Want tractor trailers and more cross traffic? Add it. Want to add a huge jump over the lake? Just mod it right in. The mind reels at the possibilities. Find racing a bit boring? Create your own new mode. Sneak attack air raid takedowns giving you trouble? Install an Air Raid alarm on your car and rear fired Anti-Bender Homing Missles. Perfect.


Thursday, May 8, 2008

Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

The new Nine Inch Nails album is out, its totally free for download, and its awesome.
What more needs to be said? Go download it now right now in MP3, FLAC, or 24/96 WAV.
Nine Inch Nails - The Slip

Wednesday, May 7, 2008

Stick a Fork In Her

Hillary is done. D-O-N-E done. She needs an impossible 69% of the remaining delegates to win. They put up quite a fight, but aside from a few death spasms from the Clinton campaign corpse, this race is over, and Barack Obama is the democratic nominee for President of The United States.

The math is clear: she cannot win.

Now, can she swallow her pride and make a graceful exit before tearing the party further in two with more negative ads and divisive rhetoric?

Only time will tell, but I have a terrible feeling she will fight until the bitter end, even if it means bringing the whole party down with her. I just hope the people around her, and the eggheads of the democratic party can convince her that the best thing to do for the country is drop out now and take a long vacation, rather than jeopordize the best shot the party has had at the White House in 50 years. At this particular juncture of time and space in US history, we cannot afford to gamble with our leadership, or we may very well go broke.

Tuesday, May 6, 2008

McCain and Bush: True Colors

Bob Herbert New York Times Op-Ed May 6 2008

"At the top of the list of no-brainers in Washington should be Senator Jim Webb’s proposed expansion of education benefits for the men and women who have served in the armed forces since Sept. 11, 2001.

It’s awfully hard to make the case that these young people who have sacrificed so much don’t deserve a shot at a better future once their wartime service has ended.

Senator Webb, a Virginia Democrat, has been the guiding force behind this legislation, which has been dubbed the new G.I. bill. The measure is decidedly bipartisan. Mr. Webb’s principal co-sponsors include Republican Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and John Warner of Virginia, and Democratic Senator Frank Lautenberg of New Jersey.

(All four senators are veterans of wartime service — Senators Webb and Hagel in Vietnam, Warner in World War II and Korea and Lautenberg in World War II.)

Democratic presidential candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton are on board, as are Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House.

Who wouldn’t support an effort to pay for college for G.I.’s who have willingly suited up and put their lives on the line, who in many cases have served multiple tours in combat zones and in some cases have been wounded?

We did it for those who served in World War II. Why not now?

Well, you might be surprised at who is not supporting this effort. The Bush administration opposes it, and so does Senator John McCain.

Reinvigorating the G.I. bill is one of the best things this nation could do. The original G.I. Bill of Rights, signed into law by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1944, paid the full load of a returning veteran’s education at a college or technical school and provided a monthly stipend. It was an investment that paid astounding dividends. Millions of veterans benefited, and they helped transform the nation. College would no longer be the exclusive preserve of the wealthy and those who crowned themselves the intellectual elite.

As The New York Times wrote on the 50th anniversary of the G.I. bill: “Few laws have done so much for so many.”

“These veterans were able to get a first-class future,” Senator Webb told me in an interview. “But not only that. For every dollar that was spent on the World War II G.I. bill, seven dollars came back in the form of tax remunerations from those who received benefits.”

Senator Lautenberg went to Columbia on the G.I. bill, and Senator Warner to Washington and Lee University and then to law school.

The benefits have not kept pace over the decades with the real costs of attending college. Moreover, service members have to make an out-of-pocket contribution — something over $100 a month during their first year of service — to qualify for the watered-down benefits.

This is not exactly first-class treatment of the nation’s warriors.

The Bush administration opposes the new G.I. bill primarily on the grounds that it is too generous, would be difficult to administer and would adversely affect retention.

This is bogus. The estimated $2.5 billion to $4 billion annual cost of the Webb proposal is dwarfed by the hundreds of billions being spent on the wars we’re asking service members to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan. What’s important to keep in mind is that the money that goes to bolstering the education of returning veterans is an investment, in both the lives of the veterans themselves and the future of the nation.

The notion that expanding educational benefits will have a negative effect on retention seems silly. The Webb bill would cover tuition at a rate comparable to the highest tuition at a state school in the state in which the veteran would be enrolled. That kind of solid benefit would draw talented individuals into the military in large numbers.

Senator Webb, a former secretary of the Navy who specialized in manpower issues, said he has seen no evidence that G.I.’s would opt out of the service in significantly higher numbers because of such benefits.

Senator McCain’s office said on Monday that it was following the Pentagon’s lead on this matter, getting guidance from Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Under pressure because of his unwillingness to support Senator Webb’s effort, Senator McCain introduced legislation with substantially fewer co-sponsors last week that expands some educational benefits for G.I.’s, but far less robustly than Senator Webb’s bill.

“It’s not even close to the Webb bill,” said Paul Rieckhoff, executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, an advocacy group.

Politicians tend to talk very, very big about supporting our men and women in uniform. But time and again — whether it’s about providing armor for their safety or an education for their future — we find that talk to be very, very cheap."

Monday, May 5, 2008

Thom Friedman New York Times Op-Ed May 04 2008

Traveling the country these past five months while writing a book, I’ve had my own opportunity to take the pulse, far from the campaign crowds. My own totally unscientific polling has left me feeling that if there is one overwhelming hunger in our country today it’s this: People want to do nation-building. They really do. But they want to do nation-building in America.

They are not only tired of nation-building in Iraq and in Afghanistan, with so little to show for it. They sense something deeper — that we’re just not that strong anymore. We’re borrowing money to shore up our banks from city-states called Dubai and Singapore. Our generals regularly tell us that Iran is subverting our efforts in Iraq, but they do nothing about it because we have no leverage — as long as our forces are pinned down in Baghdad and our economy is pinned to Middle East oil.

Our president’s latest energy initiative was to go to Saudi Arabia and beg King Abdullah to give us a little relief on gasoline prices. I guess there was some justice in that. When you, the president, after 9/11, tell the country to go shopping instead of buckling down to break our addiction to oil, it ends with you, the president, shopping the world for discount gasoline.

We are not as powerful as we used to be because over the past three decades, the Asian values of our parents’ generation — work hard, study, save, invest, live within your means — have given way to subprime values: “You can have the American dream — a house — with no money down and no payments for two years.”

That’s why Donald Rumsfeld’s infamous defense of why he did not originally send more troops to Iraq is the mantra of our times: “You go to war with the army you have.” Hey, you march into the future with the country you have — not the one that you need, not the one you want, not the best you could have.

A few weeks ago, my wife and I flew from New York’s Kennedy Airport to Singapore. In J.F.K.’s waiting lounge we could barely find a place to sit. Eighteen hours later, we landed at Singapore’s ultramodern airport, with free Internet portals and children’s play zones throughout. We felt, as we have before, like we had just flown from the Flintstones to the Jetsons. If all Americans could compare Berlin’s luxurious central train station today with the grimy, decrepit Penn Station in New York City, they would swear we were the ones who lost World War II.

How could this be? We are a great power. How could we be borrowing money from Singapore? Maybe it’s because Singapore is investing billions of dollars, from its own savings, into infrastructure and scientific research to attract the world’s best talent — including Americans.

And us? Harvard’s president, Drew Faust, just told a Senate hearing that cutbacks in government research funds were resulting in “downsized labs, layoffs of post docs, slipping morale and more conservative science that shies away from the big research questions.” Today, she added, “China, India, Singapore ... have adopted biomedical research and the building of biotechnology clusters as national goals. Suddenly, those who train in America have significant options elsewhere.”

Much nonsense has been written about how Hillary Clinton is “toughening up” Barack Obama so he’ll be tough enough to withstand Republican attacks. Sorry, we don’t need a president who is tough enough to withstand the lies of his opponents. We need a president who is tough enough to tell the truth to the American people. Any one of the candidates can answer the Red Phone at 3 a.m. in the White House bedroom. I’m voting for the one who can talk straight to the American people on national TV — at 8 p.m. — from the White House East Room.

Who will tell the people? We are not who we think we are. We are living on borrowed time and borrowed dimes. We still have all the potential for greatness, but only if we get back to work on our country.

I don’t know if Barack Obama can lead that, but the notion that the idealism he has inspired in so many young people doesn’t matter is dead wrong. “Of course, hope alone is not enough,” says Tim Shriver, chairman of Special Olympics, “but it’s not trivial. It’s not trivial to inspire people to want to get up and do something with someone else.”

It is especially not trivial now, because millions of Americans are dying to be enlisted — enlisted to fix education, enlisted to research renewable energy, enlisted to repair our infrastructure, enlisted to help others. Look at the kids lining up to join Teach for America. They want our country to matter again. They want it to be about building wealth and dignity — big profits and big purposes. When we just do one, we are less than the sum of our parts. When we do both, said Shriver, “no one can touch us.”

Friday, May 2, 2008

GTA IV: First Impressions

I think Im getting older. I noticed this the other day when I was driving around NYC (the real one). Im just not jamming on the gas like I used to when I see a yellow light ahead. Im braking. My destination is still gonna be there 5 minutes from now. The guy who just switched lanes right in front of me, well, he might have had a bad day. Maybe hes in a hurry. Let it slide. Last night I was playing poker, and I hit a Jack on the turn to make Broadway for the nut straight (AKQJ10). I couple of guys raised in front of me, and I just called (there was no flush draw). I think even a year ago, I just would have pushed my whole stack into the pot instantly. Now, Im content to slowplay. Im keeping the pot smaller. I might make more or less of a profit by jamming my stack, but I know by slowplaying Im going to at least get decent value for my hand, and I dont feel the need to try to constantly double up. Basically, Im getting older, possibly wiser, definitely slower. Im fine with it, because for years I could just never go fast enough, in everything. Patience, Ive learned, actually is a virtue.

So how does this all relate to GTA IV? Well, Im playing the game slowly. The achievement for beating the game in under 30 hours, which some of my friends like Blank Void could quite possibly earn without trying because they race through games so quickly, I wont earn even if I play through the game 5 times. When I hop in a taxi in GTA IV, I usually dont fast travel (A Button) unless the taxi gets stuck, although I often hit the X Button to speed up a bit. I also like to hit the Back Button, and switch to Cinematic Mode, or just look out the window, kick back and enjoy the ride, taking in the wonder that is Liberty City. Sometimes, I'll sit on a street corner and just watch people while I smoke. Seeing as though I dont smoke on the streets of the real NYC anymore due to extremely harsh laws created during the Giuliani administration, this is as close as I can get.

Its tough to describe what GTA IV is like for me, having been born and raised in Manhattan, and having lived and worked in Brooklyn for the past 5 years. When I go to sleep, my dreams are filled with visions of NYC and the people who live here, just as your dreams are filled with images of the towns and cities you live in and the people who live there. When I close my eyes at night, I see endless serpentine subways, docks with workers unloading crates, the projects, busy intersections filled with psychotic cabbies and reckless garbage trucks, neon lights, insane homeless people, transvestites, ambulances and cops cars with their lights perpetually flashing, all types of restaurants, nightclubs, infinite rooftops, supermodels, elevators, trash flying in the air, Hasids, hookers, hookers doing Hasids, labrynth-like sub-basements, the construction workers, the 5 story walk-ups, joggers, abandoned cars, fire escapes, underground poker rooms, burnt out buildings, brand new skyscrapers, and all the people I know - every night these images fill my head in a never ending loop. And then I open my eyes, and its all there - its all in GTA IV.

I can honestly say that a videogame has never before brought tears to my eyes. But upon seeing how fully realized GTA IV is, and witnessing the uncanny resemblence to my home town, I could not stop myself from choking up a bit. Its like seeing an incredible work of art for the first time. Its just so overwhelming, so unexpected, so incredible and mind blowing to see, that your mind does not know how to react so your body takes over. Its beautiful but in an extremely visceral way that is not "pretty." The best description I can give is that its like looking at yourself in the mirror. Everything is there, as you would expect it to be, yet somehow, you look different from how you see yourself in the eye of your own mind. The experience is affirming, unsettling, and extremely powerful. In GTA IV, I am experiencing NYC through the lens of my own dreams.

Niko, as I play him, is not in a hurry either. Hes content to stop at the yellow light, to play for the small pot. He wants to make the correct decisions, and not doing anything else he might regret. Hes not trying to screw anyone over. Actually, all Niko is trying to do is keep himself, his friends and his family from getting screwed over. He will proceed with caution. He will smell the roses when they present themselves. He will go out drinking with Roman and go to the strip club with Lil Jacob. And when its time to do business, time to get the job done, Niko will oblige his friends.

This is the most fully realized game world I have ever experienced, its the dream world I visit every night come to life, its the reality I inhabit everyday in digital form. Its difficult to describe the irony of sitting in traffic on the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway driving to Red Hook to go see a friend, and then coming home, getting on GTA IV, driving through traffic on the Algonquin-Dukes Expressway to East Hook and meeting up with Lil Jacob to drop off some Kush. So I am taking my time to really enjoy it, to fully experience it, and so is Niko. We will have plenty of time for multiplayer in the weeks and months to come, and if its as good as I have heard, we wont be leaving Liberty City anytime soon.

Thursday, May 1, 2008

As Dumb As We Wanna Be

Thom Friedman
New York Times
Op Ed April 30, 2008

"It is great to see that we finally have some national unity on energy policy. Unfortunately, the unifying idea is so ridiculous, so unworthy of the people aspiring to lead our nation, it takes your breath away. Hillary Clinton has decided to line up with John McCain in pushing to suspend the federal excise tax on gasoline, 18.4 cents a gallon, for this summer’s travel season. This is not an energy policy. This is money laundering: we borrow money from China and ship it to Saudi Arabia and take a little cut for ourselves as it goes through our gas tanks. What a way to build our country.

When the summer is over, we will have increased our debt to China, increased our transfer of wealth to Saudi Arabia and increased our contribution to global warming for our kids to inherit.

No, no, no, we’ll just get the money by taxing Big Oil, says Mrs. Clinton. Even if you could do that, what a terrible way to spend precious tax dollars — burning it up on the way to the beach rather than on innovation?

The McCain-Clinton gas holiday proposal is a perfect example of what energy expert Peter Schwartz of Global Business Network describes as the true American energy policy today: “Maximize demand, minimize supply and buy the rest from the people who hate us the most.”

Good for Barack Obama for resisting this shameful pandering.

But here’s what’s scary: our problem is so much worse than you think. We have no energy strategy. If you are going to use tax policy to shape energy strategy then you want to raise taxes on the things you want to discourage — gasoline consumption and gas-guzzling cars — and you want to lower taxes on the things you want to encourage — new, renewable energy technologies. We are doing just the opposite.

Are you sitting down?

Few Americans know it, but for almost a year now, Congress has been bickering over whether and how to renew the investment tax credit to stimulate investment in solar energy and the production tax credit to encourage investment in wind energy. The bickering has been so poisonous that when Congress passed the 2007 energy bill last December, it failed to extend any stimulus for wind and solar energy production. Oil and gas kept all their credits, but those for wind and solar have been left to expire this December. I am not making this up. At a time when we should be throwing everything into clean power innovation, we are squabbling over pennies.

These credits are critical because they ensure that if oil prices slip back down again — which often happens — investments in wind and solar would still be profitable. That’s how you launch a new energy technology and help it achieve scale, so it can compete without subsidies.

The Democrats wanted the wind and solar credits to be paid for by taking away tax credits from the oil industry. President Bush said he would veto that. Neither side would back down, and Mr. Bush — showing not one iota of leadership — refused to get all the adults together in a room and work out a compromise. Stalemate. Meanwhile, Germany has a 20-year solar incentive program; Japan 12 years. Ours, at best, run two years.

“It’s a disaster,” says Michael Polsky, founder of Invenergy, one of the biggest wind-power developers in America. “Wind is a very capital-intensive industry, and financial institutions are not ready to take ‘Congressional risk.’ They say if you don’t get the [production tax credit] we will not lend you the money to buy more turbines and build projects.”

It is also alarming, says Rhone Resch, the president of the Solar Energy Industries Association, that the U.S. has reached a point “where the priorities of Congress could become so distorted by politics” that it would turn its back on the next great global industry — clean power — “but that’s exactly what is happening.” If the wind and solar credits expire, said Resch, the impact in just 2009 would be more than 100,000 jobs either lost or not created in these industries, and $20 billion worth of investments that won’t be made.

While all the presidential candidates were railing about lost manufacturing jobs in Ohio, no one noticed that America’s premier solar company, First Solar, from Toledo, Ohio, was opening its newest factory in the former East Germany — 540 high-paying engineering jobs — because Germany has created a booming solar market and America has not.

In 1997, said Resch, America was the leader in solar energy technology, with 40 percent of global solar production. “Last year, we were less than 8 percent, and even most of that was manufacturing for overseas markets.”

The McCain-Clinton proposal is a reminder to me that the biggest energy crisis we have in our country today is the energy to be serious — the energy to do big things in a sustained, focused and intelligent way. We are in the midst of a national political brownout."