Friday, January 30, 2009

Gears Of War 2

About a month ago, I had a dilemma: two sequels to two games that I had loved were about to be released at the same time: Fable 2 and Gears of War 2. In a nod to the general state of the world economy and being a reasonably cheap Gujju, I decided to limit myself to one, not both of these promising games. The dilemma, at this point, is obvious: which one gets bought?

After going back and forth a few times, I settled on Fable 2: I convinced myself that I really had liked Fable more than GoW the first time around, so I was setting myself up for good times.

Big, big mistake. Fable 2 sucked. It was way, way, too easy. There was no penalty for death (other than ugly scars), the money system blew - there were ways to get unlimited wealth right away, the characters got really fat (I am not making this up) unless you ate nothing - in which case you would no recover health in mid battle. The battles were useless - my mage was easily using melee and shooting guns and killing things, all without casting spells. The final thing that killed it off was that it had recurring disc issues which is apparently a well documented phenomenon and reported on various game boards. Great.

Luckily, I managed to sell the game off for $40 or so and got GoW2 instead.

What. An. Awesome. Game.

I cannot believe how much fun this game has been. I just finished playing the normal campaign and it was absolutely great.
  • Stunning graphics: The worlds look spectacular. The charachters look great too. They have kept the Gears 1 type of overly muscular, chest-bigger-than-a-gorillas sort of look and it just looks great. The monster art is pretty spectacular and the cut scenes make it look like a movie.
  • Great gameplay: I played single player, split-screen co-op and xbox live co-op. All of them were great. The combat is fun and its not difficult for a newbie to pick up (thinking of certain housemates here). I really enjoy the cover-and-shoot style of play that the Gears series pushes, rather than the run-around-and-dodge style that the Halo series espouses.
  • Multiplayer Co-op: I got stuck trying to knock out the boss - the AI was being silly (look in lowlights), so I jumped online and found an old friend from Seattle who happened to be playing the game too. Created a multiplayer coop, was is combat with my friend in seconds and a minute later: no more boss. He was cool with playing some more and we essentially finished the game together.
  • AI: The AI that controls the friendlies is really bad. It was bad in GoW1 and hasn't seen much improvement in GoW2. Case in point: revival. When you die in combat, you basically get really hurt and start crawling around. At this point, your buddy has a limited time to come revive, or heal you and you can fight again. You would think that this is one thing that the AI would be able to do well: see a fallen buddy: revive. But no. You will be crawling around right next to the friendly bot, and no revival. Seriously: WTF?
  • Story: The story in both the games has been pretty weak. Marcus (the hero, the protagonist, YOU) runs around above-ground, below-ground, all over the place, without a seeming purpose. Saving something, destroying something else, now destroying the thing you saved and saving the thing that you half destroyed - sometimes it just stops making sense. There is a lot of alluding to some sort of back story concerning Marcus's father but we never really get to what it is. And just when you think its going to all come together, it all falls apart even more.
If you have not played this game yet, I would strongly encourage you to get it. Parents: beware. Very foul language (F-word all over the place) and tons of gore (chainsawing through the locust) make this game not at all kid friendly. My best game of 2008 - I wish I had bought this much sooner.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Sea of Poppies Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

My review

rating: 5 of 5 stars
One of the best books I have ever read. I cannot wait for the next episode in this saga.

Many people read a previous Amitav Ghosh book such as The Hungry Tide(which I loved) or The Glass Palace(which I could not get through) and were generally put off by his writing style. He likes to take his time, likes to describe everything, setup the scene. He does not hurry through the story; thus making Sea Of Poppies anything but your everyday adventure story.

There is so much about this book I liked: the characters are exceptional, all rather strong, explored in detail, and all *interesting*. There is a lot of imagery - anyone who has read any of Ghosh's previous work will immediately understand what I am talking about. What is very interesting here is that the book is set in a bygone era of indian history when India was ruled by the British East India Company and *not* the British Government. There is so much stuff written about India prior to the British and so much about their rule and a bit about post-independence India. However, this is the first book, fiction or not, that I have read that is set in East India Company times. Most of all, however, is the story line. At the end of the day, Sea of Poppies is an adventure book full of pirates and slave ships, action and adventure. Thoroughly enjoyable read and some of the best English writing I have known.

View all my reviews.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Ski/Snowboard equipment buying guide

I originally wrote this as a response to a friend who wanted to know if she could/should buy gear online. She got a much bigger response than she expected (ha!) but I think its a reasonable ski or boarding checklist or at least reasonable to post here.

What are you buying? Skis? Boots? Bindings? Poles? Clothes?

In general, the stuff that I'm okay buying online is clothing / apparel and bindings. Everything else, you probably want to see and have a professional fit you out with good things rather than go online.

Skis: Go to REI / Play It Again Sports / Sports Basement and they'll help you out with the size and style of skis that you need depending upon their level. If you have an iphone around, you can cross check the price against Evo and see if its comparable. I've bought a TON of stuff from
Play-It-Again, both in Bellevue and in Seattle and their service has been excellent (replaced broken boots for me no problem) and their staff has been pretty informative and helpful. REI is the same, though they tend to be busier; however the Redmond staff was great.

Bindings: Most skis now come with regular support and thus bindings are interchangeable. However, most ski systems you buy will come with bindings as a package, so most likely you won't have to deal with this.

Boots: This is the one thing that i would *not* buy online. The fit is extremely important and most places will give you a fit guarantee - they'll custom mold your boots if they don't fit perfectly. You really want this because boots change their fit after the first couple of
weeks of wear - for ski boots, the inner layer will mold to your foot, but the outer plastic won't. Almost all ski boot people will tell you to get a shoe that is a bit tight, wear it for a couple of weeks and see if it "opens up". In some cases, they will have to modify the
plastic itself, which they can do as well. So again, strongly recommend bricks-and-mortar (evo has one too) store over online.

Clothes: Definitely stuff to buy online and cheap. I'm sure you guys have gone skiing before, so you have most of the stuff, but just in case, here's the clothes checklist, especially if it is going to be extra cold:
  1. long underwear: silk, performance stuff, REI brand is great, underarmor makes awesome stuff as well. Usually $50 / upper and $50 / lower. Worth every penny.
  2. Ski pants: waterproof outer ski pants, any brand will do, just make sure they're water proof, *esp* if you are learning.
  3. Fleece pants: optional, if you're the kind that gets really cold, really fast. Get a pair of these, they're cheap (~20-30), and last forever.
  4. inner fleece (upper body): you're living in seattle, so you have to have multiple of these lying around.
  5. outer shell: again, water proof is the most important part.
  6. ninja mask: I own one of these and its *awesome* when its cold and windy. Worth the $20 bucks.
  7. inner gloves: thin, inner gloves - only if you're the kind that gets very cold.
  8. outer gloves: most likely you already have this, waterproof is the most important part. I've used the REI brand for years and they're great.
  9. wrist guards: *only* if you're snowboarding.
  10. goggles: don't make the mistake of going skiing with sunglasses; it only works in california, if you're lucky.
  11. hat: common mistake people make is to not get a waterproof or water resistant hat and it gets snow on it and wet very fast. Try and see if you can get a waterproof one. Also make sure it has ear protection.
Also remember that both REI and Play-It-Again will rent stuff out.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009


This is my first post written using an all Dvorak keyboard layout. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, Dvorak is a newer/better keyboard layout compared to good ol' qwerty. I started the switch to Dvorak sometime in late November partly because I had some rsi-type issues because of long hours spent on my laptop keyboard, but mostly because I wanted to learn something new that was not an esoteric programming language.

I cannot elaborate on the reasons to switch to dvorak as well as these guys do If you are remotely interested in switching to dvorak, this is a great (and relatively short) read.

If you do decide to go ahead and take the plunge, this tutorial is awesome. I will strongly recommend doing most, if not all of it to get your fingers used to things.

Finally, one thing I really wanted to do all along is measure how well (or not) I was doing over a period of time. So I used Google Spreadsheets and measured my wpm and error rates using the same measurement tools to track my progress. I used this site (typing the Gettysburg address over and over again) to measure these - its not a good sample for work stuff because its rather thin on the ;s and certainly doesn't include <> and [] or /=. The C language and the Gettysburg address don't have much in common it turns out.

Item Numero Uno:

My great hope, when I started this exercise, was that I would be able to prove that learning dvorak does not imply that I couldn't do qwerty. Something along the same lines as learning French isn't going to make you forget English. Bzzzt. The data isn't very good at this point and I'm pretty close to DISproving my hypothesis - assuming you can count my experiences as "proof".

Item Deux:

The dvorak error rate has been under 10 for quite a while now and what is most interesting is that it got to under 10 within 2 weeks of starting to learn dvorak. I don't know if this is the strength of the dvorak layout or the power of the human brain to learn something completely different so quickly (it certainly isn't me - I am typically not a fast learner with anything involving motor coordination), regardless, I think the low low error rate is astounding. I am interested to see if the error rate stays down as the WPM goes up (I suspect it will).

One more thing for the (extremely) nerdy: I didn't switch any of my emacs keybindings at all and its not been too bad. Definitely had periods "discovering" some key combinations that I "knew" but it doesn't take too long to adjust.

All in all, I can't wholly recommend or disrecommend dvorak at this point. I have definitely had my share of frustrating moments - typing at 20 WPM is slooooooooow - but then again my rsi hasn't kicked in and I've been hitting the laptop pretty hard. I think I'm on the positive side and am definitely past the point of no return in my conversion, so its unlikely that I'm going back, but I feel that the journey has not been easy and you'll want to be sure about it before diving in.