11 March 2015

Requiem: A Reptilian Microprose

"Where is the video of eukaryotic cells forming?" asked the Megaton Fuchs of the museum curator dressed as a teddy bear.

Noah taped over it with his home movies. It was later stolen by reptoids after the flood drained into their arctic tunnels and froze over. They also took his clothes and used their talons to transmit a sulfite-rich neurotoxin with an effect not unlike a drunken stupor. The vineyards provided a serendipitous cover for the operation.

The tape was recorded over yet again during a late night showing of The Invasion of the Saucer Men on a UHF station in Topeka, Kansas. The plan was to use it as evidence in a copyright suit as the aliens in the film had a defense mechanism not unlike that of the reptoids. Sadly, they were crushed by a barge full of animal by-products on the way to the courthouse due to the tugboat captain's blood-alcohol level.

I don't have a point. I only wanted an excuse to use the word "Reptoid."

Hug your teddy bears tonight or be one for someone else. Good night.

---RMJZ, MMXV CE

28 February 2015

Auvio Headphone Amplifier Review

I like to think I've got pretty good hearing. I don't regularly attend concerts or trade shows, and before I got moved to a quieter building at work, earplugs were my best friends. As such, I've never quite understood headphone amplifiers. I'd heard of them, of course, but only in terms of gear for video and stage crews, people who need that extra boost to hear directors and stage managers over the crowds, pyrotechnics, and walls of Marshalls. As for everyone else, it seemed a bit pointless. Even then, what ones I saw for consumers were specifically marketed as assistive listening devices--hearing aids for people in denial. 
A few years ago, a revelation into the sheer scope of headphone amps available came to me when a game designer I follow posted an image of the FiiO E09K dock into which was inserted an E17. At first, I couldn't even figure out what the damn thing was (I thought the E17 was an mp3 player), literally researching and double-checking my research utterly convinced I was missing something. There was simply no way something could cost that much that was little more than an upgrade to a volume knob. Even considering the existence of bling culture, the handbag industry, and lowriders, it seemed an asurdity. 
I mean, if you had that kind of dough to spend on an amp for headphones, wouldn't it be more prudent to simply buy better headphones? It made me think of that ad for Rhino TuffGrip that showed the signature spray-on spackle applied to a Chevy SSR bed, irreparably coating the hand-polished wood runners. 
It turned out even FiiO thinks their stuff is overkill, and most of their product photos show the amps hooked up to earbuds and strapped to the backs of smartphones.
That's when I kind of got it. 
Remember how expensive the Macbook Air was yet had one of the worst onboard cameras ever made? That's really where FiiO's bread and butter seems to be; lending better audio to devices that skipped out on it despite higher price tags. Granted, that still makes it an impossibly niche market, but no longer a complete absurdity. 
Moreover, I learned that the amps don't merely raise the volume, but actually enhance the sound by picking up the slack for the built-in amps of the device they're connected to. I was skeptical of this, as audiophiles tend to be the homeopathic, free energy flat-earthers of the tech world. There's also the fact that a headphone amp doesn't bypass the internal amp of the device, although I'm sure a sound engineer could fill me in on what I may be missing in this equation. 
Recently, I went to Radio Shack to exploit their financial failings by way of their everyhing-must-go sale and picked up, among other things, a tiny headphone amplifier. In fact, I got two in case I wanted to take one apart. It's from a company called Auvio, whom I'd never heard of before and suspect they may well have been exclusive to Radio Shack. I won't tell you how much the markdown was, but the initial retail price was around 30USD, very close to the now-discontinued FiiO E6. It's about the size of a matchbook with a nice, rubbery finish and capped off with a brittle-feeling clip that I don't trust one bit. Despite its size and notable lack of heft, it's surprising the level of pure tech under that tiny hood. 
Going back to what I was saying about enhancing the audio, it's true that most lower-end headphone amps are simply volume boosters, but some have equalizers built into them. These isolate certain frequencies and bring them to the forefront, namely bass and treble. The trouble with most audio players (specifically devices for which music player is an afterthought) is that the internal amplifier circuits aren't well-made, effectively homogenizing the deep bass and high treble sounds, robbing them of their respective nuances. 
The Auvio's EQ has three settings apart from "OFF" which are indicated by a slick little LED just under the top of the clip and toggled using the power switch. Blue boosts both bass and treble by 5dB, Red boosts bass by 10dB, and pink boosts treble by 5 and bass by 10. It doesn't sound like that much variety (where's the setting that boosts treble alone for, say, spoken word or talk radio?), but the effect on my PSP was surprisingly remarkable. 
For this test, I used three different headphones, all Sony (shameless fanboy here) and all over-the-ear: a low-end mdr-zx300 with a lovely metallic red finish, a mid-range noise-cancelling pair (mdr-zx110nc) and the gold wireless headset for Playstation. The noise-cancellers are my personal favorite, but possibly a bit of overkill with the amp. The mdr-zx300s, on the other hand, sounded great. My testbed, apart from some Pink Floyd, was Falcom's magnificent Ys series, namely Seven and Oath In Felghana. Followers of the flame-headed Adol Christin are likely nodding their heads right now; few franchises have such consistently awesome soundtracks, perfect for testing sound gear. Although none of the settings were really a good fit for either game, they did help give those power rock tracks that added "oomph". The effect was a bit lost on the wireless headset, but that's more a matter of ergonomics than quality. They're not exactly made with the PSP or even the Vita in mind. I can't speak to the volume boost feature, except to say I had it about as low as possible, and it still sounded great. 
Does the amp make the PSP sound better? Yes, but I don't think it's enough to recommend seeking one out. Having the ability to EQ the output was a nice touch, leagues above the presets, but that doesn't make them worth the price tag, even at the marked down price. As I said, it's better to simply get higher quality headphones, ones that emphasize bass boost. If you want the absolute best sound out of your PSP games, the best option is to play them through a VitaTV and use your home sound system. Obviously, that option's only for you if you don't care about portability and your game was a download rather than on a UMD. 
In the end, the experience of using a headphone amp is a highly subjective one, definitely not for everybody. The best advice if you're curious is to borrow one. If you only care about volume and not the depth or fidelity, then you may want to consider making one. The CMOY is a popular hobby project that uses an Altoids tin and a handful of components (no soldering required if you get some conductive glue).

19 February 2015

Get a Room, You Two of Everybody Else!

OR:
Girls, Gyros, and God, what's wrong with me!?

I've made it a personal tradition to refer to the fourteenth of February as Industrialized Exchange of Token Affections Day. I don't pretend this is any sort of subversive social commentary meant to satirize consumerism; I'm a capitalist, of course I want people circulating their money, supporting businesses they like and keeping people employed. The fact is I'm simply bitter because I'm single. It's my own dumbass, manchild fault. I'm bad at flirting, I hate small talk, I'm terrified that the most inconsequential interaction will backfire in the worst way (that one I kind of blame on Tumblr, but that's another story), and no matter what I never end up being realistic about any relationship ever. 
While I like to think I'm far less awkward now than I was in, say, high school, the improvement barely qualifies as "marked". Last Thursday, the 12th, I was at a coffee shop in St. Louis, near Tower Grove Park and nestled between some lovely townhouses. I belong to a "Creative Work Group" that's currently in a state of flux and trying out new locations. We sit around, talking about various writing projects we've got going, and periodically checking in on each other while we work. The night was going well with lots of progress being made despite the group, thanks to a few last minue dropouts, consisting of only myself, our moderator, and her boyfriend. Then, things just started to fall apart for me in the most tedious of ways for the most absurd reasons. 
The short version of how the downward spiral began is that a cute woman sat down at the booth across from us, and I couldn't work up the courage to go talk to her. 
Seems innocent enough, but here's how awkward this got. I went to WikiHow on my phone and legitimately looked up how to approach women. In my defense, I had absolutely no idea what to say beyond "Hi" (apart from the obvious things like, "You're beautiful" or "You have cute hands" but that's not much to build a conversation around, even when you're flirting.) so I don't think looking up icebreaker ideas is all that pathetic. Plus, it's never a bad idea to brush up on warning signs, because some people are just too damn polite to tell you they're not interested, Lords of Light love 'em. After many furtive glances (none of which were returned) while waffling on which approach to take, I resolved instead to take advantage of my phone's position on my keyboard's case/stand and take a clandestine photo before hurriedly leaving. Yeah, I'm just that sad and pitiful... and possibly creepy. I told myself I'd use that "missed connections" section of an ad site, but that never happened because it doesn't help the "approach" problem. 
Capping off the stress of the night was driving down labyrinthine one-way streets to find this Greek place to satisfy a craving for gyros I've had since my trip out to Ohio back in January, only to find out the guys decided to close about twenty minutes early. "That kind of night" eventually turned into "that kind of week" with stresses and frustrations piling up day after day.

In fact, I've been in such a haze since then that I got my days mixed up, and missed the next meetup of my work group. Last night, I texted my work buddy asking if we were still on for tomorrow.

She asked if I was having a rough week.

Yes. Yes, it has been.

30 December 2014

Why so whiny, Whitney?

Sometimes things just fall into place.

17 December 2014

Sega Power Partner (from Tommo) review

This thing rocks. Usually these more novelty-inclined gadgets, especially the flash drives tend to fall short on the productivity side of things, favoring style over substance. This pack, however, is an absolute bargain at 60USD for 9000mAh of power. To give you an idea of what that amounts to, in order to put it to the test, I plugged in both my phone (an Xperia Z Ultra) and PSVita after both had been completely spent. It charged both devices fully and still had enough juice left to top off a Bluetooth and a pair of wireless headphones (All Sony, by the way, because I'm a shameless fanboy). Had the phone and Vita been on while charging, I may have come up a bit short, but as endurance runs go, I'd say it performed admirably. 
The unit itself is bulky, but not unmanageable. A far cry from those little "boosters" you get from those bargain bins at the Walgreen's, it's about the size and shape of an early iPhone with a bit more heft in the weight department. It definitely favors purses, messenger bags, and the like versus cargo pants. Then again, if you're in the market for a power supply with more oomph, the devices you need this for probably don't like your pockets, either. The casing is a hard plastic that frankly feels more like metal. The design is the array of white grid-lines which adorned the early plastic Genesis game cases before they went to cardboard and red stripes. For added protection, it comes with a silicone sleeve molded to shape of the Mark I Genesis console.
Power level is displayed through five blue lights, visble through the "cartridge slot" of the Genesis cover, which is a clever design choice. The first of the lights is a simple "working" light whenever the unit is connected. It is also touch-sensitive, serving as the power butto. The other four represent the remaining charge, and carry on the Sega motif by looking like the chaos emeralds of Sonic fame. Nice touch.
Accessories include a velvet drawstring pouch with a small partition for the handful of cables it comes with, one long and one short. Both are flat, red, and fit very loosely in the three connectors on the top of the unit. On more than at least one occasion, I did find that a cable had come loose during charging, which was a tad annoying. Meanwhile, other USB cables feel like a tight fit, especially my Vita's cable. It took a bit of forcing, and I was worried about snapping the connectors. There is also a small, thicker white cable, but it is a mini-USB, which neither of my devices use, so I couldn't test it. 
As a rule, these batteries usually give out after about 500 charges before they begin depleting their max (Tommo's site says about 75% is the next step down). Unlike some other USB power supplies, the internal cells are not replaceable. So, when this thing goes, that's it. However, given that I've been using it about every other day, that's at least a year away. After that, I'll be upgrading my Genesis to a Saturn.

16 December 2014

Upcoming Upcycling

As much as I don't like posting "previews" or "work in progress" stuff, this one is pretty big. I have another blue one of these in the works that should be done tomorrow.

30 November 2014

Non-Project-A-No-Go... what?

It's the final day of NaNoWriMo and, in short, I have absolutely nothing to show for it. I had two short stories that had been in the works for some time that I meant to finish, only for them to languish despite making some really good progress at my writers' meet-up.
At best, I've made books as opposed to written them. My upcycled blank journals now number eight with at least enough material for three more. After that, I have to resort to my new cover materials, like the VCR dust-cover and an old purse. The purse is a very nice black leather that I'd like to make into a slip cover for a marble composition book, the small pocket-sized ones. I had found a few pre-made ones, ranging in price from less than 10USD to over 40USD.
Historically, October has always been a rather hectic month for me. However, this year November has taken up the charge. It's the good kind of busy, mostly making travel plans for the coming weeks.
So, I've been productive, just not in the areas in which I first set out to be produtive. The stories will be finished, they simply won't be finished today, tomorrow, next week, or maybe even the end of next month. Right now, I'm on a bit of a bookbinding kick, and I plan to ride that out as long as possible until I'm sick of it.

01 November 2014

NaNoWriMo Non-Project Begin

Well, National Novel Writer's Month begins today. On the whole, I've always had mixed feelings about the project. On the one end of the spectrum, some people turn it into a kind of pledge drive that's meant for charity yet they can't stop talking about how the money will help them personally and how big a cut they will take. That's an extreme example, mind, and it's a trend I have seen diminish more recently. I'm never one to shame self-starters, but one of the great things about writing compared to other art forms is that your startup cost is ultimately nothing. If you need financial incentive for that, you're participating in NaNoWriMo for the wrong reason.
There's also the more practical notion that, given you're hammering out in a month what some writers devote years of their lives to, your end result is most likely not going to be of significant quality. Sure, some people can't probably take full advantage of that breakneck pace to draw on a creative wellspring that's otherwise throttled by a lack of a deadline. Time makes people do incredible things.
That brings me to what I've found to be the best approach to NaNoWriMo: it's not about the final product, it's about the process. In short, if you're an especially goal-oriented person, this is not for you. What this event is, more than anything, is a kind of bootcamp for writers. Some people are extremely casual about their writing projects, to the point that a paragraph can be the result of years of off-and-on tinkering. Usually, in those cases, the writing is purely recreational, self-indulgent. I don't begrudge those people; art is for the artist, a sundae, everyone else is whipped cream and a cherry.
The only trouble with the whole casual approach is that it tends to make people lax, and worse, easily-discouraged. Creativity is a fickle thing, fragile even. Too hot, it melts. Too cold, it shatters. Too much time, it gets bored. Too little time, it collapses from the stress. It's rather like a kid, you've got to push and challenge them, but you don't want them feeling pressured.
Basically what I'm saying is that this event is a learning experience in every sense of the term. It's meant to be a kind of litmus test to see just what your creativity is made of, because it's easy to let it slip away from you going the "whenever" route. It's a rigid structure (X number of words/day to meet goal) and a seemingly daunting task, but as the saying goes, you won't know until you try. Sure, you may fail in the end and not produce your novel, but you've either given yourself a great headstart or gotte into a good groove to work on something else.
As for me, I won't be participating per se. I wrote a novella years ago, and it took me from about the start of October to the first weeks of January. During that time, with very few exceptions, I would come home from work in the afternoon and stay at my computer until I went to bed, which was about 6 hours later. Apart from meals and bathroom breaks, I did not get up. Some days I belted out whole chapters, while others I'd struggle to get one sentence to come out right. So, I feel like I paid my debt to the creative work ethic gods on that front.
I do, however, have to small short stories, one I've been working on for a few months off-and-on as part of a Meetup group I started hanging out with, and another I've barely begun taking notes on. I intend to work on both of them this month, up from my one last  year.
The former story, called Echidna, is one I haven't decided on a publication method for. It's erotica, and fairly crass at that. I kind of started that project with the mindset of, "Take it all the way, damn the inhibitions." as well as the naive idea that I'd have it bashed out in a night. That was at least two months ago... dammit.
The latter story, called The Loneliness of Amy Bryce, is a little more sober, ultimately the result of watching the entire series of Twin Peaks (working on snatching up a copy of Fire Walk With Me) while trying my hand at a more Lovecraftian sort of horror. It's less Cthulhu/Kadath and more Terrible Old Man/The Outsider to give a better yardstick of exactly what strata of Lovecraft I'll be exploring.
Best of luck to all of you, whatever your goal may be.

26 October 2014

Skipping Rocks Along Puddles In The Rain

I'm taking a break from Deadly Premonition. I'm at a point (fairly early on in the game) when all I have to do is literally wait between 0700 and 1500 for the next part of the game to progress. My options in this time are: 1) sidequests, 2) explore the town, and 3) sleep. Given that, apart from sleeping and maybe some story segments, this game moves in real time. This is padding, plain and simple. There's no more discouraging feeling in a game than not knowing what to do or where to go next. It's one thing when you're stuck on a boss battle or a puzzle; you can work through those. However, simply killing time or not knowing how to move the story forward is downright insulting. I remember there was a Spider-Man game back in the day that literally gave you 24 hours for a time limit (years before the game based on 24) and thinking, "Dear God! Really?" instantly regretting my rental choice. It turns out the time limit is a bit flexible, but that didn't stop the game being ultimatey too challenging for my little 12 year-old brain to fully appreciate. I'm wondering now, though, what that version of me would have thought about newer games.
Anyway, by taking a break from Twin Peaks: The Game (and I mean that affectionately), I played Rain instead. Something I like about a lot of modern games is the way they break themselves up into chapters or individual missions (compared to MMOs and their hours-long dragfests). It gives me a good way to pace myself so I don't get burned out (I can't imagine what it's like for reviewers to basically pull all-nighters to meet deadlines). That did get me thinking, though, about somethinng I played a few days earlier. I think it was Bayonetta. I kept running out of time and dying on this early stage, and I think on the third time it gave me the option to skip.
I'm still not sure how I feel about that sort of thing.
I'm hardly the manliest man you'll ever meet, my most masculine traits down to the Greg Behrendt duology of being kinda big and loving women plus the added qualities that I love taking things apart and, here's the kicker, I hate asking for help. It's less to do with some idea about gender roles and more to do with being the youngest in my family on top of having to ironically fight tooth and nail to be given a chance to prove I can manage more on my own than otherwise expected. It's also one of those factors that helped feed my growing depression through college, but we're getting off topic.
Years ago, during a review of Rampart, I mentioned the gameplay mechanic in the PS2 version of Rygar wherein you unlocked easy mode by dying a certain number of times (Rampart worked in a similar fashion by offering you more cannons on your next try). I joked about it being condescending, and then I recalled all the flack the reboot of Alone in the Dark received for its chapter skip option not only being available, but practically encouraged in some of the marketing materials. I'm an old-school gamer; I like a challenge. SHMUPS are one of my favorite genres, known far and wide for their difficulty. I like Demon's Souls and endlesss runners. I like the YS series and gallery shooters. On the other hand, I like my challenges to be fair, and sometimes that's a tall order. Other times, I simply play for the story, turning the difficulty down, using the occasional cheat code, and even using a Game Shark once to watch all the cut scenes from Mortal Kombat Mythologies: Sub-Zero. In Deadly Premonition, for example, one of the DLC packages I got with my bundle was an outfit that triples your attack power; it's practically an "I Win" button, to say nothing of the infinite ammo machine gun the N64 version of Resident Evil 2 furnished you with. Sure, playing a game for the story, to crib a phrase from one of the DOOM devs, is like watching porn for the story, but then again, I've seen some pretty classy porn, and there's nothing wrong with loving a game entirely for its narrative, even if it means bypassing its core gameplay. My point is, when it's a more story-driven game, I don't think it's such a big deal to have various, for lack of a better term, handholding options. That said, if you're playing Bayonetta for the story, best of luck to you on that front. Finding the balance between story and gameplay is a game unto itself, one not many developers have really mastered, with gameplay usually nabbing the bigger piece of pie. In the case of the opposite, I think we need a kind of mutual understanding among gamers that sometimes bad gameplay is bad gameplay. In fact, the biggest reason for all the hullabaloo around the chapter skips in Alone in the Dark was that the driving mechanics were so amazingly broken as to make a normal play-through impossible. This led to the consensus of the chapter skip being more like a cop-out of better QA and testing than an optional way to enjoy the game. This is really unfair in the grand scheme of things. While it's usually a lost cause to compare games to other mediums of entertainment, Jim Sterling had the right idea when he quoted a friend of his: Imagine you're reading a book that suddenly changes its language halfway through. Some people might welcome the challange, while most will probably hunt down the author and beat them to death with their own hardcovers. The point is, gamers are a diverse bunch, and complex within ourselves to boot. We enjoy different games for different reasons and in different ways. I don't care that someone with an encyclopedic knowledge of the Halo universe has never picked up a controller; that's not what they like about it.
Games are supposed to be fun, and as long as the means by which you have that fun don't interfere with other gamers (cough, cough... gold farmers, cough), then there is no shame in using the walkthrough or reading the wiki or even using the good ol' thirty lives code.

Say it with me now:
UP UP
DOWN DOWN
LEFT RIGHT
LEFT RIGHT
B A START

22 October 2014

Famous Last Words

I've been thinking about crowdfunding lately, and not merely because WayForward's new Shantae game is nearing a broader release beyond the 3DS. I started supporting a few people on Patreon, including an artist friend of mine, which kind of got me thinking about what I would do to become a Patreon "creator". Unfortunately, I can't think of anything I'd do regularly that would warrant a kind of subscription service like that.
As for something like Kickstarter or IndieGoGo, I have had some amusing little thoughts from time to time over the past few years: what I would make, how I'd go about getting started, how much I'd ask for, what promises to make, how often to update, and what exactly the money would go towards. I could go on and on about those, and I could go on even longer about the various points of criticism people have brought against crowdfunding (I kind of did a few months ago, when someone criticized the practice as a form of "socialism"), but overall nothing reached much higher than a flight of fancy.
Now, I may start taking it a little more seriously.
About two years ago, I made a short film for Halloween, a disposable little tribute to John Carpenter's Prince of Darkness. It was shot on an old phone, had a silly voiceover, and wasn't very good (though it got a fairly decent response most places I posted it). I'd considered doing a follow up to it, something more tongue-in-cheek as the main gimmick of the short was about the "impending doom of 2012". A few weeks ago, a little idea popped into my head for somethinng different. It would be stylistically similar to last year's, with similar production methods, and probably work better as a kind of demo reel than a proper short film. I sketched up some storyboards and made some "to-do" lists like for props and maybe even locations. It was all coming together so well, I started thinking it may be worth going forward with. Unfortunately, it's been a few weeks, and I don't think I'd be able to finish it in time for Halloween.
Next Halloween, though...
Rather than bash out something unpolished and hurried, I take the opportunity of the time to try and turn it into something with slightly better production values. That's when I started thinking of Kickstarter. I don't want to say a whole lot about it because I could well wake up tomorrow and decide the entire thing's a boring mess that deserves to rot on the back burner until Heaven falls. What I will say, though, is this:

1. I'm not going to ask for a lot of money, and likely it would be for cutting the film together (I'd rather hire an editor than work at it myself, someone with better gear than me). That kind of "in the can" model seems to work out best for filmmakers, especially since it's a lot easier to be upfront about costs as there aren't usually as many setbacks in post as there can be in production.
2. Backers would get an early release of the film (I mean, we're talking about October 2015, here), as well as some incentives I've cooked up.
3. On the off-chance this becomes the next Potato Salad campaign, I do have some ideas about stretch goals, like other actors, a few more scenes, a big screening, a film festival submission, among other things.

So, as much as I don't like to talk about things I'm planning in the near future, let alone next year, I figure maybe I shoud throw this out there, get some feedback and advice as early as possible, gague just how plausible this whole thing may be.