From the archives: April 2004

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Flames in six! Flames in six!

Thursday, 29 April 2004 — 10:50pm

A month ago, I would not have believed for a second that I would spend this particular night at the Saddledome watching the Calgary Flames in, of all things, the second round of the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Game 4 was fun, no doubt about that. It would have been more fun if they had won. Though there was a lot of ball-dropping (puck-dropping?) all over the map before and after, the back-to-back goals in the middle of the second period was about as much of a prolonged collective orgasm of excitement as one can expect to see under a single roof at a given point in time. And despite three majors and a misconduct with three seconds on the clock, you’d have to admit, the fight at the end was mildly entertaining amidst a solemn sea of red.

I believe tonight was the first time I attended a Flames game since Jarome Iginla’s debut series so many years ago, but if there ever was a year to be following this team, it’s this one. Not to jinx them, but who knows when they might make it this far again? And speaking of making it however so far, mark my words: we’re taking this one in six, damnit.

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Animal Crossing is eating my life

Tuesday, 27 April 2004 — 5:55pm | Video games

Let me tell you about a little game called Animal Crossing. It is a life simulator where you are a cute little tyke with horns whose task is to collect furniture, decorate a house, pay off a mortgage and talk to animal neighbours. The passage of time in the game is synchronized to the real world: if you play at six in the evening, it is six in the evening in the game. If you play at two in the morning, the shops are closed and the neighbours are asleep. If you play on a statutory holiday, special festivities occur – which, of course, entails special furniture.

Any video game that rewards catching bugs and fish with puns (“I caught a red snapper! That was a snap”), includes an alligator named Boots who calls everyone “munchie”, lets me paint a fish on my front door, and makes interior decoration a mountain of endless fun, clearly deserves some credit. This goes without mentioning activities like hunting for treasure, listening to a street musician, playing vintage NES titles like Excitebike, writing letters and planting money trees. The whole experience is a lot more addictive than it looks on paper.

Now, back to checking to see if any cool new furniture is in the store and what turnip prices are like on the “stalk market”.

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Every day I check my Gmail, hope to get one from a female

Friday, 23 April 2004 — 8:07pm | Computing

So as a Blogger user, I am allegedly eligible for a beta account at this new Google service being set up – namely, Gmail. After reading up about the nitty-gritty of what Gmail portends to offer, maybe it’s no coincidence that they announced this service in a press release on April Fool’s Day – because you’d have to be pretty foolish to buy into the hype over the service, or alternatively, a Hotmail user, which would make you a fool by definition.

First of all, I have no idea why anybody uses web-based interfaces as their primary mode of e-mail. It may have to do with Hotmail’s historical inertia. Back when Hotmail started out in 1996 or so, and was spelt “HoTMaiL” to emphasize that it was web-based, its primary selling point was that it was “free”. It then followed that its primary appeal was to preteens who didn’t want to share an e-mail account with the one that their family got via whatever 14.4kbps dial-up service they used at the time, since back then, most ISPs would only provide that one account.

The theory goes that end-users will always follow the path of least resistance and do whatever’s easiest. The theory is wrong. As proof, I offer the fact that not only do Macintosh systems not comprise the majority of home PCs, but that despite how most dedicated cable providers will offer webspace and multiple e-mail accounts on the bill that a customer is already paying, a heck of a lot of end-users keep flocking to functionally useless, technologically-backwards services like Hotmail for e-mail and GeoCities for webspace.

But let’s bring this back to Gmail, and examine what it offers.

The key selling point, by all appearances, are their promises of a gigabyte of space so a user will never have to delete e-mail to stay under some kind of cap. Apparently, this is meant to come off as an innovation. Right now, the only storage cap for my e-mail, provided I check it more than once every few months, is the remaining free space on my hard drive. I’m going to make a leap of logic here and say that most people with e-mail accounts probably have computers. Those computers probably have storage media, unless your name is Larry Ellison and you still think the Network PC is a viable idea.

So the majority of people would rather check their e-mail by logging into a web interface; downloading a list of messages embellished by formatting, scripts and advertisements; downloading a new page for each individual message read or created; then wasting more loading time by having to refresh their inbox with each deletion or attempt to read the next twenty messages – rather than use a POP3 or IMAP client, even the rudimentary Outlook Express that comes pre-installed on every Windows machine, which is relatively far more intuitive and expedient? If you have a problem with webmail storage caps, it’s not a problem with existing e-mail services, it’s entirely your fault for deliberately picking a useless one.

Then Google boasts of its own claim to fame as applied to e-mail – that is, search capabilities. Again, show me how this is something that proper e-mail clients don’t already offer. Show me how it’s preferable to have a server-side search process dependent on another system when you could just search your saved e-mails yourself using your own computer’s processing power alone.

Now here’s a good one: threaded conversations – that is, organizing a series of replies all under one heading. Once again, it seems like webmail is finally trying to catch up to where e-mail was over a decade ago. Threading e-mails and newsgroup messages in Outlook or Eudora is as simple as a menu selection or a click of a button. There is no need to refresh new pages from a server. You can read archived messages while offline.

Gmail claims to be completely free of advertising – well, except for those targeted ones off to the side, but apparently those are okay because they’re computer-targeted, not human-targeted, and they don’t pop up in new windows. The latter would make some degree of sense considering how Google puts out a pop-up-blocking browser toolbar. As for the former – text advertising? How about no advertising?

Name one major website that provides an apparently free, minimal-advertising service that has stayed that way. After years of experience watching the Angelfires and EZBoards crash and burn – not to mention Hotmail itself, which was doomed to this quagmire from the start – the lesson hasn’t changed: you can only go so far on the Internet before the tides of business sense turn you back. The best ad-free business model on the Web – Homestar Runner – hardly applies here; I doubt Google is going to get that far with T-shirt sales alone, and Yahoo! should have taught it a thing or two about gambling on the IPO.

The other day, someone asked me for the HTML trick that circumvents the generated advertising on Angelfire pages. Frankly, that advertising was his deserved punishment for even using such a service on the basis of its being “free”. It was already useless years ago when one could link images externally and there were no daily traffic limits, and it remains useless to this day.

So once again: why do people use web-based e-mail, when it’s analogous to washing your dishes at a laundromat, or ordering a burger at a Chinese restaurant?

I can see exactly two practical reasons: the first is that yes, sometimes people have to check their e-mail from remote terminals – say, for instance, if they’re on vacation for two weeks and have some immediate replies to take care of in the lobby of a hotel in Inchon, South Korea. However, most POP-based accounts already have web interfaces for exactly that purpose – so you can check messages immediately while away from your own machine, yet download them into your personal files as soon as you return home. It’s the primary or exclusive use of webmail that poses a problem. As a secondary interface, it works fine. But of course other people’s computers are going to have a finite amount of space for permanent storage, when such services have to take care of so many other customers.

The second is that you can now use this extra e-mail address to sign up for things, and never check it while it accumulates with junk you don’t want. This is entirely acceptable.

If you already stuck yourself with a Hotmail account for whatever masochistic reason, by all means, switch to Gmail. It’s like rolling out of a puddle in the middle of a street and lying in the gutter where it’s safe – an improvement. But by no means be hoodwinked into thinking that this is a new and revolutionary solution to any problems short of ignorance and stupidity – and when I say that, I’m not referring to computer illiteracy. Computer-illiterates, of all people, should not be making their own lives harder than necessary.

For my part, I’ll continue to use an e-mail program, not even the best one there is, that came installed with my computer and allows me to centralize my five or six e-mail accounts all in one place where if I want to look up a snippet or quotation from several years ago, I can. If I want to move everything over for permanent storage on a new machine, I can. It appears that those of us with the sense to do this are in the minority.

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Hooded Justice

Thursday, 22 April 2004 — 11:39pm | Adaptations, Comics, Film

Back in October I wrote about my concerns on the subject of adapting Watchmen to film, particularly if David Hayter was going to direct.

Chuck those out the window. Ain’t It Cool News finally lives up to its name and reports that the director attached to the project is none other than Darren Aronofsky. Hayter is still on board from the writing aspect, which is encouraging, but bringing an established independent-film veteran with a proven record behind the camera is even moreso. This is, in as few words as possible, a step in the right direction.

It’s clear what has to happen from this point onwards. David Hayter, do what you did with X2 and not what you did with X-Men – polish a script that doesn’t get lost in a forest of some of the most well-defined costumed heroes in the entire comics medium. Darren Aronofsky, work the same kind of chilling visual magic and style you brought to Requiem for a Dream. The potential here is nothing short of doing justice to the paragon of comic-book literature in the same way Peter Jackson did justice to the paragon of fantasy literature; you can either beeline straight to the Oscars, or screw it up completely. I would prefer the former.

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Henshin a go-go, baby!

Wednesday, 21 April 2004 — 5:30am | Video games

Breaking news: the second-best video game of the 128-bit generation (behind The Wind Waker, of course) is officially getting a sequel. Capcom has officially announced Viewtiful Joe 2, which promises more varied environments, co-op play as both Joe and Silvia, additional Six Machine levels, and a new “Replay” VFX power. There are some initial promotional images that, while not from the body of the game itself, are absolutely gorgeous and entirely in line with the VJ aesthetic.

For those of you unfamiliar with the GameCube original, Viewtiful Joe is probably best described as a melangé of everything that works in video games – the Matrix-style bullet-time effects of Max Payne, the style-point grading system of Dance Dance Revolution, the beat-’em-up approach to wave after wave of enemies like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles games of old – and best of all, a return to the two-dimensional side-scrolling format that has been so sorely missed on home consoles since the days of the Super Nintendo. It even has a Star Wars spoof level. The basic concept is that you play as a superhero fighting evil in the world of the movies, where you have spatial manipulation powers such as slow-motion, fast-forward and zooming in – all of which have physics-bending effects that have to be employed strategically. The mix of American superhero values and Japanimation-inspired designs make this a game I wouldn’t be surprised to be playing ten years on, not unlike the SNES classics I buy off eBay every now and then.

Personally, I want to see the return of the planet-stomping Gundam-bot “Six Majin”. That, and a lengthier experience – the first Viewtiful Joe had only seven “episodes”, which were further divided into a grand total of about twenty separate levels from one save point to the next – never mind that some of them took forever to beat. Hopefully more VJ2 details emerge at the E3 Expo next month, but right now, I’m putting it on top of the Christmas wishlist based on precedent alone.

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