Monday, March 31, 2008

If only this were true...

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Assassin's Creed: Game Review

Two elements of this game stood out: the engine and the ending.

First, the engine is amazing. It's easy to waste a couple hours just running around the game world, finding handholds to scale cathedral spires, free-stepping across rooftops, stabbing unsuspecting guards in the neck, and picking the pockets of thugs. Crowds and guards react to events around the screams and panicked questions only increase the satisfaction of grabbing a guard and throwing him from a tower.

Second, the ending, which actually sucks in the game, is amazing when you pause and decipher the scrawl that only flashes across the screen. (Of course, I didn't do this, but I read about someone who did.) The Mayan long form calendar, the Aztec god Quetzalcoatl, the Tunguska Incident, the Philadelphia Experiment, the Golden Apples of ancient Greece, the underwater Japanese ruins of Yonaguni, and the Chinese Emperor Jiajing are woven into drawings, patterns, and written messages (in three different languages.) All of this is part of an amibitious plot which is only hinted at in this, the first game of a scheduled trilogy.

I didn't do any fact checking on the historical details of the game, but it passes muster if you're barely knowledgable like myself. The designers made a bold choice to portray the hero as an Arab who assassinates Templars, and there's plenty of video-game philosophy exploring the familiar balance of freedom vs. security. King Richard makes an appearance, there are numerous mentions of Saladin, and much of the action takes place in actual cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, and Acre. All of this adds depth and believability to a very realistic environment.

Sadly, the game itself is barely (if any) more fun than just aimlessly wandering through this rich world. The cutscenes are well-produced, but long and unavoidable, even on replays. The difficulty is either exactly zero or frustratingly difficult (timed missions, meh.) Once you learn how to fight large crowds, you can ignore any pretense of stealth and wade through oceans of armed guards with a dazzling array of counter moves. And even if you have no idea how to fight, like I did for 95% of the game, you can simply run to a rooftop and kill guards one at a time as they climb up the ladder to reach you. The mechanics of saving citizens are tiresome and repetitive, but in many cases necessary.

There is no loot, no opportunity to customize your character, and no skills to improve, all of which decimate the replay value. There is endless potential in this game, but unfortunately not enough of it was exercised. Still, I'm glad I played it, and I'll likely play the sequel.

In the meantime, I'll be breathlessly waiting for Gears of War 2. If anyone finds a better trailer than that one, let me know.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Unintelligent Design

I was reading an interesting article about the evolution of E. Coli bacteria, and the thought struck can one of those Intelligent Design goofballs reconcile this science with their groundless beliefs. I'm reprinting a section of the article here, all italics are mine. Let's see if I'm up to the challenge:

The scientists concluded that at some point in the not-too-distant past, this strain of E. coli O157:H7 evolved rapidly into was created by God to be a far meaner pathogen than its ancestors probably to punish homosexuals and Muslims. Natural selection God altered its genes quickly, thanks to the ability bacteria have to reproduce in as little time as 20 minutes his incredible compassion. Speeding up their evolution creation even further was their ability to take in DNA from other microbes, even from species that are only distantly related God's desire to finish really fast, so He could get back to judging goats and sheep. The genomes of bacteria are being continually rejiggered by God into new combinations of genes. Some bacteria become better at capturing sunlight, others at resisting antibiotics. And, in the case of the spinach strain of E. coli O157:H7, the introduction of viral DNA has made them far nastier because in His infinite wisdom, He decided the world needed a nastier strain of E. coli O157:H7.

Someone please explain to me how these anti-intellectual idiots look themselves in the mirror.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Up in smoke

I've never seen anything like it.

JP Morgan bought Bear Sterns today for $2 a share.

What's truly incredible about this is that Bear Sterns closed at $30 on Friday. Sure, that's a far cry from its high of $170 just under a year ago, but it's still a long way from zero. Or so we assumed. In danger of imminent bankruptcy, someone at BSC called up JPM and sold the company on the cheap. For a mere $236 million, JPM is now the proud owner of Bear's $1 billion Madison Avenue office tower, and a boatload of debt.

A lot of times, bankruptcy rumors get well out in front of an actual bankruptcy, but judging from the market reaction today - an 85% drop in share price - I'd say this one took a lot of people by surprise. Thankfully I don't own any (although I'm knocking on wood, since Citigroup could well be next in line), but imagine being a Bear employee. In addition to the thousands of jobs that will be lost thanks to the buyout, 30% of the stock is owned by employees. That's $6 billion in value, most of which would have been counted on for retirement, reduced to $35 million in less than a year. Next time you take a trip to New York, don't be shocked when a well-educated stock broker is driving your taxi.

And not that anyone feels sorry for the executives, nor should you, but there's no golden parachute in place at Bear. No millions of dollars in bonuses for running the company into the ground and then selling out. Just wagonloads of underwater stock options and vanished net worth.

So what does it all mean? Well, JPM was up 10% on the day, as investors realized that there is a lot of value there, once the debt is paid off and the markets start working again. So, if you assume that other financial companies will face similar straits as Bear, then there will be other winners as well. Goldman figures to get an opportunity to suck the marrow out of the bones of the next carcass, whoever the unlucky victim might be. Down here at $150, I'd pick up ten shares and see what happens. It's a much better investment than those Powerball tickets you bought.

Oh, and of course, it means that Cramer was right. He said that major financial corporations were going out of business, and today was likely just the first. Too bad he's not Fed chairman, he wouldn't have waited until it was too late to take action.

Friday, March 07, 2008

Eagles Release Spikes

Linebacker Takeo Spikes is history after just one season with the Birds.

He was all over the field with 139 tackles, but had only one sack and didn't cause a single turnover. The third-round draft pick, Stewart Bradley, got onto the field in the last two games and created havoc - making huge goalline tackles and interceptions - and basically forced the Eagles to make room for him on the field. Spikes, an older player scheduled to make $5 million this season, was the natural choice to drop. Gaither will move to WLB and Bradley will start in the middle. A mid- or low-round draft pick at LB will supplement the position and add competition. I'm not concerned at all about losing Spikes.

Now the question becomes: What do the Eagles do with the extra $5 million? I don't see them picking up any more significant free agents, unless D.J. Hackett's price drops to the $4 million/year range (unlikely). That means it's the perfect time to re-sign some of their own players to long-term contracts.

  • Priority #1: Brian Westbrook. Currently signed through 2010, but grossly underpaid. You'll need him here, productive and happy, to ease the eventual transition from McNabb to Kolb. Give him a 5-year/$35 million deal with $15 million up front, with annual tickets to Hawaii.
  • Priority #2: Omar Gaither. You won't have to spend a lot to get this done - he's a productive, but not dominant player who is still very young, at a position that doesn't command a lot of money. Currently signed through 2009.

Meanwhile, Paul Domowitch of the Philadelphia Daily News wrote an article with the exact same plea I made a week ago. I'm sure that Domo doesn't read my blog, but it's comforting to see professional sportswriters eventually arriving at my conclusions.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

We Matter! I think...

For the first time I can remember, the Pennsylvania presidential primary (I tried for about 10 minutes to think up a less-than-dorky way to include the word 'perspicacity' in that orgy of alliteration) will have meaning, at least for one of the parties.

Somehow - and I won't claim to know how - Hillary halted the Obama inevitability machine with wins in Texas, Ohio, and Rhode Island last night. I'm intentionally resisting the temptation to make sports comeback analogies or phoenix references, because you can get those in every other article you'll read about her campaign today. Mathematically, it still looks fairly bleak, although wildcards like Michigan, Florida, and pandering superdelegates will certainly make it an interesting convention.

Regardless, it's so historic that I'll actually vote in a primary for the first time this month. There's never been a time that it mattered before - Pennsylvania is so late in the season that the nominations are routinely sewed up long before. Living in Harrisburg, I might even get a chance to see one or both of the Democratic candidates in person. Not sure I'll take advantage of the opportunity, but I'm celebrating the fact that I have a choice for once.

Pennsylvania - a highly populous state with more than its fair share of delegates, considered a swing state in a general election - and we have less to say about the future leader of our country than the ethanol farmers in Iowa or the seventeen residents of New Hampshire. Try not to think about it too much.

At least I'm not a Raiders fan

Who's running the Oakland Raiders anyway? Is it Al Davis making these ridiculous deals, or some bonehead in the personnel department?

Throwing $50.5 million at mediocre defensive lineman Tommie Kelly induced chuckles from sportscasters and football analysts across the country, and $39 million for mediocre safey Gibril Wilson might have been even worse, but I contend that today's $55 million signing of WR Javon Walker is the worst of the bunch.

The deal pays him $16 million in guarantees - more than Randy Moss - and $27 million over the first three years (the same as Moss.) There isn't any way to justify this. Walker's stats last year: 26 catches, 287 yards, zero TDs. Moss set the NFL record with 23 TD catches - Walker only had 3 more catches total. Of course Walker was injured, so the stats don't tell the whole story, but injury history should diminish his value. He's had as many knee surgeries as my mother's had husbands, and there's no way I'm handing $16 million to a guy with duct tape holding his ligaments together.

In addition, Walker has now talked his way off two teams. An oft-injured malcontent is exactly the kind of player you don't sign to a long-term contract with huge guarantees. How about $5 million up front, with tons of incentives and escalator clauses? That's what a shrewd GM would have used as a template, not the highest WR contract in the league.

The Eagles need a #1 WR, and they offered Moss a bigger contract than the one he signed, but they didn't even have Walker in for a visit. There's not a gap between these two guys, but a chasm, and the Raiders will regret overspending on the lesser of the two.

Asante Samuel - unanimously regarded as the cream of this year's free-agent crop, and a Top-10 player at his position - signed a 6-year $57 million contract with the Eagles. For only $2 million less, the Raiders get an injury-plagued player whose mouth has produced more than his hands, who wasn't even the #1 WR on his previous team. The Broncos cut him because they didn't feel he was worth the $5 million they owed this season. But the Raiders? They're happy to pay more than three times that amount before he ever plays a game in silver and black.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Eagles Strike Gold

The rare, day-one, free-agency splash by the Eagles was impressive. Both Andy Reid and Joe Banner said the team was going to add playmakers in the offseason, and that's just what Samuel is. Last year he picked off six passes, twelve the year before, and took four of those in for scores. For a team that was last in the NFL in both interceptions and defensive turnovers, Samuel is just what the doctor ordered.


Andy Reid wasted no time announcing that Samuel would be the starting left corner. That's where Lito Sheppard currently starts, with his two Pro Bowl appearances, history of injury problems, and reported unhappiness with his measly $5 million/year salary. This has fueled speculation that Sheppard will be traded.

I am making a plea: Don't trade Lito Sheppard. Move him to right corner, and let Sheldon Brown be the nickel guy. This sounds like a huge demotion for Sheldon Brown, but in actuality it's not. Currently, the nickel corner for the Eagles is on the field more often than the starting SLB. With the current NFL focus on passing and multiple WR sets, and considering how often Sheppard is injured anyway, Brown will see plenty of action. The Eagles have a history of keeping three good corners - both Al Harris and Rod Hood played the nickel at one point - and the Eagles had an excellent defense when they did. The trio of Samuel-Sheppard-Brown is by far the best trio in the league.

Additionally, they don't need trade bait. The Eagles have a dozen draft picks already, and there's no compelling reason for them to move up in the first round. The spot they currently have - 19 - gives them a shot at the best 4-3 DE on the board this year (both Long and Gholston are viewed more as 3-4 OLBs) without writing a ridiculous top-10 contract. As far as trading him for a player - there's no need, as the best players available by trade are no better than those on the free agent market.

Samuel was a great signing. But if we end up trading away Sheppard, it's only a tiny upgrade. Keeping all three corners gives the Eagles the #1 nickel and dime packages in the league.

One more starter in free agency. It looks like it will probably be Chris Clemons from the Raiders, whom the Eagles see as a Trent Cole clone. Another hard-working speed rusher who has produced (8 sacks last season) in less than a starting role. He's not a big name, so they should be able to sign him to a reasonable deal. Personally, I'd rather add a WR like Javon Walker or DJ Hackett, and then draft a DE. Rookie DEs can make an immediate impact, while rookie WRs are usually a waste. But Clemons should help, so I can't argue.

That was a great start, guys. Don't mess it up.