Thursday, September 13, 2007

We're Getting The Band Back Together

So, the three of you that occasionally read this blog may have noticed that it hasn't been updated in a couple of months. You probably just thought that this was another fly-by-night blog that's disappearing into the bowels of the internets as so many others have before. Well, sorry to disappoint, but not so much.

Playgrounds are a lonely place in the summer, what with all the youngin's being shipped off to camp, so we at the AP decided to take a much needed summer vacation. Consider this your notice. The plan was to resume in late August, but hey, plans change. What do you expect when you're not paying for something?

Anyway, the reason behind the delay is that the Playground's main office is relocating. New York has been good to us, but now that retirement is upon yours truly (did I mention I'm under 30? Jealous?), we're getting out of town and kicking back in the mid-west. The move should happen in the next month, and once we set up shop out there, things should get back to the normal levels of awesomeness that abound at the Atomic Playground. Check that - expect even more awesomeness than before. Yeah, that's more like it.

In the meantime, there may be a few updates between packing boxes and chasing the rats out of the building - this is New York, after all. The good news about going dark over the summer was that there was next to nothing going on, aside from some lackluster releases at the box office (Hot Rod anyone?). But now that we're swinging into the fall, good things should be a coming, so we'll have to get back to work. But not today.

So be patient - you'll be able to get your fix at the Playground again in no time. And until then, may I recommend mind altering drugs to keep you distracted? They do a body good.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Friday Freebie - There's Something To Be Said For Compatibility

I'm sure at some point during your travels of the interwebs, you've come across a video (pr0n related, no doubt) that just wouldn't play on your system. Blame codecs - there's too damn many of them out there to keep up. There's Xvid, DivX, HuffYUV, and those are just some of the more popular among the internets 1337. Wouldn't it be nice to create a video that you knew would work on any PC running Windows? Sure would, and the solution is at hand:

Now, I'm no Microsoft fanboy - I'm a firm believer in the fact that Bill Gates and Google are in a race to take over the world. But I have to admit that using the Windows platform - while frustrating at times - does offer some convenience. And to that end, we have the Windows Media Encoder. This little guy is designed to take a wide variety of video files, or live capture, and transcode the file into the Windows Media Video (WMV) format. This will ensure compatibility with any PC running a modern copy of Windows, as WMV files are natively supported in Media Player.

Of course, MS is quick to tout numerous other supposed "benefits" of the WMV format, but honestly, these are no different than what any other codec creator will tell you. Nonetheless, with this program you do get a full featured interface for transcoding your files over to WMV. There are even numerous preset options for bitrates and other variables, broken up into categories based on what you plan on doing with the video (saving it to your hard drive, internet streaming, etc.). This is nice for all the noobs out there who haven't had that much experience working with video files.

Unfortunately, there are no provisions for editing video files, so you'll need to do that elsewhere. But that's not really the point of this tool. After all, if you wanted to edit and save a video in the WMV format initially, you could just use Movie Maker, which ships with every copy of XP. Instead, this tool is best for converting older files over to ensure compatibility.

Do I suggest that you convert your entire video library to WMV? Hell no. Unless you're streaming videos to an Xbox 360 or something, there's just no point. But when you need to make sure that a video will play on another machine, this is a nice way to do it.

The Windows Media Encoder homepage can be found here, and the download is right here (there's an alternate version for those of you on 64-bit OSs right here). Also, for you Vista guys, MS has noted some possible compatibility issues, so be sure to check out this Hotfix. Man, if Microsoft can't build apps for Vista, what chance to third parties have...

And for those of you wondering about a tool for audio files and the WMA format, don't bother. Despite their best efforts, Microsoft has yet to derail the MP3 train, so that's your best bet. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Tuesday Trainwreck - I Remember When Jim Carrey Was Actually Entertaining

Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Dumb And Dumber. The Cable Guy. These are all really good Jim Carrey movies. And it's not just a case of looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Go back and watch any one of them, and I dare you not to laugh out loud at some point. Go ahead, watch one right now. I'll wait. I've got two hours to kill.

So, what did you think? Funny, right? I know! Now that you've enjoyed a good movie, how about some more Jim Carrey goodness, but this time in television form? Just fire up an ep of In Living Color, and bang, Fire Marshall Bill and Veracosa are taking you on a journey to comedy town. Good times (for the record, Jim was never on that show - I'm just using it as an expression). So all that begs the question - what the hell happened to Jim Carrey's career?

Oh yeah - he stopped being funny. Old Jimmy boy seemed to have more misses than hits in his recent comedy attempts (*cough* Grinch *cough*), so he finally decided to just stop trying. Can't say I blame him. I imagine that being a failure is tough. But instead of just giving up acting all together and spending his days swimming in his giant Money Bin, Jim decided to give serious acting a try. Lucky us:

The Number 23 stars Jim as a man who becomes obsessed with a book detailing all the strange coincidences having to do with the number 23 in the world. Crazy stuff basically, like when people say that the 13 stripes on the American flag signify the 13 original colonies. We all know it's for luck! Anyway, convinced that the book was written about him, Carrey slowly descends into a world of paranoid delusion, aiming to solve the fictitious mysteries put forth on its pages.

This movie isn't supposed to be a comedy, but some people do seem to find comedic undertones in Carrey's acting. I'm not convinced it's intentional though - like it or not, Carrey is a comedian at heart, and his acting style reflects it. Even when undertaking a serious role, his true nature shines through. Truth be told, that aspect does make this movie somewhat watchable, but its poor story and overall cheesy tone relegate this disk to Trainwreck status.

If you're desperate for something to watch in 10 years, and you happen to come across this one in the $2.99 bargain bin at Best Buy, you could do worse. But watching Jim Carrey in his current state is almost too painful to endure. The good old days of funnyman Jim may be gone, but I'd rather relive them through the magic of DVD than subject myself to his current offerings. Time to throw in the towel, pal, and head back to Canada - the moose will have more love for you than we will.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Friday Freebie - Ditch The Ribbon Toolbar Forever

Let's face it - we all need one of those "office suite" programs every now and then. Maybe you need to write a letter to the collection agency, explaining why you're 11 months behind on those credit card payments. Or maybe you need to put together a spreadsheet so you can figure out how much crack you need to sell every month before you can afford those new rims. In any event, an office suite will be your ticket to success.

For the past hundred years or so, Microsoft Office has been the standard. It's gotten bulky and bloated over the years, and can be a real PITA sometimes, but it's fairly powerful and usually has the right tool for the job. But, it's from Microsoft - strike one. It also will cost you the price of a kidney on the black market for the all singing, all dancing version - strike two. And now, in the latest version, they did away with the familiar toolbars that everyone loves, in favor of a hip new interface called Ribbon. Yeah, nothing says hip, cool, and productive all at the same time quite like ribbons do.

But what's a boy to do? If you head down to your local Best Buy, you'll find that Office is the only game in town. Bill Gates, the 800 lb. gorilla that he is, has successfully muscled almost every other player out of the mainstream office suite market (Corel doesn't count since they're Canadian). Well, you're just looking in the wrong place. As usual, the internets delivers:

OpenOffice is a fully featured suite of programs, and it has the ability to do just about anything you can do with Microsoft's Office package. Featuring a word processor, spreadsheet, database, presentation creator, drawing tools, and an equation editor, OpenOffice can effectively cover all the needs of even the most die hard consumer, and even some smaller businesses. These aren't some cheap knock off programs either - these are fully featured, developed, and tested programs.

And, the best part of this whole package is that it's free (I'm sure most of you figured that out by virtue of it being featured as this week's Freebie, but I just wanted to be clear for the glue sniffers among you). That's right, you get an entire Office replacement at no cost. And this isn't just shareware or adware - the programs are completely free and open.

Of course, Microsoft Office does offer more than you get here. For instance, there's no email client or HTML editor, but you can easily find great free versions of those types of programs on the web if you bother to look. And at least one of those has been covered in a past Freebie.

Honestly, there's no reason not to check this program out, even if you have a newer version of Office. The two programs will happily coexist, and you may find that you prefer the sleeker, simpler offerings of OpenOffice. And if you're still rocking Office 2000 or earlier, you owe it to yourself to upgrade to something more powerful. Uncle kilroy thinks you deserve it.

You can check out the OpenOffice homepage here, and the download page can be found here (another one for the FreeBSD guys out there). So go check it out, and then write me a thank you letter using your new found set of programs. Be sure to put a nice border on the letter too - maybe something with kittens.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Tuesday Trainwreck - The Reason Why Elizabeth Berkley Doesn't Have A Career Anymore

1995 was a crazy year. The European Union was still forming, the Space Shuttle docked with the Mir space station for the first time, and people were setting off bombs in Oklahoma City. And there was also some court case about an ex-football player named O.J. But all that was trumped by a singular motion picture release. One film that changed the world as we know it. A mere 128 minutes that redefined everything that we thought we knew. That film - that epic - was none other than Showgirls:

In case you hadn't figured it out by now, that was my sarcastic voice. I know, it sounds a lot like my regular voice. Anyway, some genius decided that it was time to re-release Showgirls on DVD - again - so here we are, with cannon fodder.

For those of you that were living under a rock back in the year of our Yahoo!, let me break down the movie for you. Showgirls tells the story of Elizabeth Berkley trying to find work after Saved By The Bell came to a close, and she was passed over for The College Years. Undaunted, Liz bravely makes her way to Las Vegas, desperate to prove that it doesn't take a huge rack to make it in Sin City, as long as you're willing to show off what you've got. Her efforts are stymied by the incumbent slut on stage, but after pulling a Tonya Harding on the competition, and with a little help from that guy from Twin Peaks, she becomes the next big thing. Take that Tiffani-Amber Thiessen!

For some unknown reason, this flick has actually become a cult classic over the years. Personally, I think that a lot of people just have really bad taste, or haven't discovered how much more entertaining other diversions can by, like watching paint dry or needlepoint. Or maybe it's just all those guys that grew up watching SBTB can't enough of seeing Jessie's knockers on screen, and thinking about what might have been if only they had been cast over Mario Lopez as her high school love interest. Don't worry guys - he didn't touch her either. He was much too busy rubbing suntan lotion on Mark Paul Gosselarr to notice her.

Besides, everyone knows that the first season of SBTB was the best, before Jessie and Kelly showed up, when Hayley Mills taught a young Zack and Screech how to be men in this dog eat dog world. Wait, what were we discussing again?

Friday, July 13, 2007

Internet Radio Lives To Fight Another Day - And It Will Have To

Many of you probably get through your day at work with a little help from internet radio - I know I do. But what you might not have known is that come Monday, there was an excellent chance that your favorite site or station would have been silent. That's because a few months back, the Copyright Royalty Board raised the costs that internet stations have to pay to SoundExchange, a rights organization that collects royalty fees for musicians and record labels. In other words, the jerks that the idiot record executives pay to rake in the dough.

One of the things that makes internet radio so popular is its diversity. Most broadcast stations occupying the airwaves today are owned by Clear Channel, which controls the playlists nationwide to make sure that "popular", big label music sells. So if your tastes differ from that of the popular kids, you're out of luck. And even if you find a station you like, odds are they'll play a lot of the same artists over and over again. I swear, every classic rock station plays at least one Led Zeppelin and one Rolling Stones song every hour. Haven't they ever heard of too much of a good thing?

Satellite radio is a little better. First off, there are more channels, so there are more opportunities for diversity. Second, the company doesn't control the playlists as tightly, so the DJs are allowed to stray from the mainstream a little more often. But, your choices are still limited, not to mention that you have to buy a new radio and pay a monthly subscription fee.

That brings us to internet radio. In contrast to broadcast and satellite, the variety is almost endless. Like bluegrass? You're covered. Jazz? No problem. Hip-hop folk? You're weird, but I'm sure it's out there somewhere. And to top it all off, most stations are free. There are always banner ads on the webpage, and sometimes there are commercials or trailers to listen to, but there's no separate subscription. All you need is a computer and an internet connection, which you already have if you're reading this. Seems like a good deal. However, this free model means that stations can't pay the same royalty rates that broadcasters with big name sponsorships can. This wouldn't be an issue, except for the fact that music labels are beginning to demand higher royalties from internet radio, since it is seen as a threat to the traditional means of delivering media.

On the downside, the sound quality isn't always top-notch. Thanks to broadband connections, this has gotten better over the years, but some smaller sites still broadcast at a low bitrate. If you're listening at low volumes in the office or through an average set of computer speakers, this won't be an issue. But there are plenty of free sites that offer high quality streams as well, though they usually don't cover quite as many of the smaller genres. Still, you'll find a more varied list of songs than you will on your local stations.

Another shortcoming is the fact that you have to be tethered to a computer to listen to the music. Sure, you can also access the sites through WiFi hotspots, but unless you live in a wired city, you won't be listening to these stations in your car or while out jogging anytime soon.

But these downsides aren't enough to deter thousands of people from logging on to sites like Pandora everyday and enjoying great music. And thankfully, that will get to continue, at least for a little while longer. Earlier this week at a Congressional hearing, SoundExchange agreed not to enforce the new royalty rates, which would have gone into effect this Monday, and instead agreed to renegotiate the rates with the internet broadcasters. What's best about this story, however, is the fact that this was made possible in part by the thousands of internet radio fans that contacted their elected representatives and spoke out about the new royalty rates.

No one wants to deny musicians and record labels their fair share, but that share shouldn't be so large that it puts an entire industry out of business. The labels need to remember that without listeners, their music would be worthless. It's also great to see that when people work together to support something they believe in, real change is possible. The fight isn't over, though. To stay updated, check out the blog by Tim Westergren, the founder of Pandora Radio. Today, internet radio. Tomorrow, the world!

Friday Freebie - Do People Even Know What Usenet Is?

When people these days think about the internets, they usually just think of the world wide web. Those www addresses have become so ubiquitous, even your grandmother has one. But there's actually a lot more out there on the tube system, and it's all free for the taking. In fact, you're probably paying for access to it with your monthly broadband bill, and didn't even know it.

I'm sure most of you frequent a message forum or two on your favorite websites. These are great, but if your tastes are varied, you may find yourself browsing to a dozen sites to post all your thoughts on the moon landing hoax and that photo of Bigfoot you took on your last camping trip. Not to mention, those forums tend to be moderated pretty heavily, so you have to watch your language and what you post. Too bad there isn't a place you can go and speak your mind, not to mention break a few laws. Well, guess what - there is. It's called Usenet.

Usenet was created long before the web, and it's essentially nothing but forums. These forums are called newsgroups, and there are literally thousands of them, covering almost any topic you can imagine, and people communicate by posting messages or data. That's right, you can get pictures, music, even software from newsgroups. All you need is access to a newsgroup server, which you're probably already getting from your ISP, and a news reader program:

When it comes to Usenet programs, Xnews is the best around. This tiny little package, which is free for the taking, let's you access all the newsgroups you want to visit. Not only can you post and read messages, but uploads and downloads are quick and easy. The program also automatically recombines multipart messages, making them simple to retrieve.

I'm sure you're now asking, what the hell's a multipart message? Well, remember when I mentioned that data could be uploaded to newsgroups? This is done by storing data inside the post, not by attaching to it. The thing is, each message has a size limit, which by today's standards is fairly small. This means that a multi-megabyte file can span tens or hundreds of messages. And that's why it's important to have a robust program to download them. Xnews fits that bill nicely.

Now, concerning those downloads. As I mentioned earlier, you can find almost anything posted on newsgroups. And if you don't see what you want, you can always ask. That being said, many of the things that people get from newsgroups are not legal downloads. In other words, you can find pirated music, movies, and software rather easily. Legally I can't encourage you to go get your fill, but now that you know what's out there, I certainly can't stop you from putting that knowledge to good (bad?) use. Just be smart about what you're doing. Oh, and before I forget, there's also tons or free pron out there. TONS!

Another word of warning for you. Usenet is kind of like the wild west, meaning there's the potential for danger around every corner. There are lots of viruses and spyware out there, so make sure your scanners are up to date. Also, do not, under any circumstance, give out your personal information on these groups. This is where the real crazies live online. Of course, without risk, there is no reward.

The Xnews homepage can be found right here, and the download is right here. There's also a brief online manual, which can be found here. So have fun, but be careful. You never know what you're going to find on Usenet.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Nothing Enhances Your Gaming Experience Like A Cheap Piece Of Plastic

If you're any kind of gamer, odds are you've owned numerous consoles over the years. And each of those consoles had a specific controller. But that wasn't all - it probably had some specialized controllers as well, that either came with the main unit, were bundled with a game, or were sold separately. Some of these controllers were useful, like the NES Advantage - one of my personal favorites. Some, not so much.

Light guns usually fell somewhere in between. The were hella cool, and worked pretty well. In fact, to this day, light guns are still sold for consoles in Japan. That being said, they weren't very popular. This wasn't due to a problem with the gun itself, mind you, but with the lack of software for it. When you think of light gun games, one instantly comes to mind - Duck Hunt. But can you name five? I didn't think so.

There's another problem with light guns - they only work with direct view (or CRT) televisions. This means that they're not compatible with all those fancy flat screen HDTVs that the kids are buying these days. So whatever is a game company to do? Easy - release a piece of plastic that looks like a gun. And that's exactly what Nintendo is doing. Currently dubbed the Wii Zapper, this piece is actually just a controller shell that your Wiimore and Nunchuk snap into. Essentially, it adds no functionality to a game, since it is just a hollow piece of plastic. But it looks like a gun, sort of.

The fun doesn't stop there, folks. The big N has also announced that a new version of the venerable Mario Kart series would debut on the Wii soon, and it will include a plastic steering wheel to help ease casual gamers into the driving experience. Again, the piece will just be a plastic shell that the Wiimote plugs into, and adds no actual functionality to the game.

Now I'm all for enhancing game play, but are cheap plastic accessories the way to do it? I want good games, not gimmicks. I don't see myself ever holding a toy plastic steering wheel to play Mario Kart - I've managed just fine on every other version of the game without it. And sure, I could see the Zapper being somewhat useful, but for how many games? Are people going to buy this thing just so they can download Duck Hunt and Hogan's Alley (there's #2 for ya) off the Virtual Console? I guess history really does tend to repeat itself.

If we've learned one thing throughout the years in the gaming industry, it's that software is king. It doesn't matter if you have the most expensive console or the cheapest console. If you don't have any good games, you're doomed to failure. And no accessory, no matter how cheap or cool, is going to change that.