Thursday, December 22, 2011

Lord Bling's Top Ten Games of 2011

This has been an interesting year for video games.  Some titles that I'd feverishly anticipated ended up disappointing.  Some I thought would suck ended up impressing.  And a couple weren't very good at launch, but improved with patches.  While many on the list may not be in my rotation a year from now, I'd put this year's top 3 up against the top 3 from any other year.  But enough setup ... let's get into it:

10.  Call of Duty:  Modern Warfare 3.  MW2 was my #1 two years ago, and Black Ops was #3 last year.  My, how the mighty hath fallen.  Considering over half of Infinity Ward left the company (and it took four other dev teams to help finish it), it's practically a surprise that it ended up on my list at all.  But I have to say, the campaign tied up the plot threads fairly well (even if the gameplay is just Michael Bay on speed).  CoD Elite was a failure for weeks after launch, but the free version is actually pretty robust.  As for the multiplayer .... I'm severely disappointed.  Over the years, they've turned a solid fast-paced tactical shooter into Quake.  All of the maps are tight, run-and-gun close-corridor death traps.  This makes sniper rifles mostly worthless, and they had to nerf the range on the shotguns (or else that's all anyone would use, because you're rarely looking further than 15 feet ahead before you hit a barrier of some kind).  Kill Confirmed is a fun new game play mode, but the concept was stolen directly from Crysis 2 earlier this year.  All of these things aside, it's still as polished as any shooter you'll ever find, and it's still the top-selling game of this year so they're doing something right.  I just don't consider myself much of a fan of the franchise anymore.

9.  Crysis 2.  When I bought this game, I expected a gorgeous sci-fi shooter.  That's what I got.  But I didn't expect to enjoy the single-player campaign as much as I did.  I even got some time into the multiplayer.  Well, I did when EA's servers let me.  The MP was pretty much broken at launch, and when you could get into a game, the client-side hit detection was completely lop-sided.  Subsequent patches have improved it, but it's not a great experience.  Maximum Armor is a waste, and the unlock progression is a very slow grind.  Still, the campaign is worth the price of admission.  The pacing is almost perfect, and the set pieces are amazing.

8.  Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception.  Speaking of set pieces, here's a franchise that lives and breathes them.  No matter where Nathan Drake is in the world, expect everything to go tits-up and you'll be racing to escape a crashing airplane, a sinking ocean liner, etc.  They also included some multi-segmented MP maps, which felt different from everything else I've played this year.  So why isn't the game higher on this list?  Part 2 was #2 in 2009.  Unfortunately, this one doesn't live up to the gold standard of that game.  The campaign's story and dialogue aren't nearly as sharp, and weakly ties the set pieces together.  The aiming and shooting mechanic was tweaked, and now it felt a lot sloppier (Naughty Dog has since patched this, but I haven't replayed any of the campaign since).  Worst of all, I wasn't really rooting for Nathan in this one.  His motivation is largely selfish and stupid.  But wow, those set pieces.

7.  Assassin's Creed:  Revelations.  A franchise that has steadily improved over the last two iterations finally runs out of gameplay innovations.  AC2 perfected the exploration, tightened the combat, and deepened the story.  AC: Brotherhood added assassin's guild trainees you could call on to assist you, had a whiz-bang of a cliffhanger ending, and created a one-of-a-kind multiplayer experience.  I guess after the last two games, I was expecting another round of miracles.  Instead, we got a hookblade and ziplines, and a Den Defense mini-game (which is like a really bad and unbalanced version of Plants vs. Zombies).  The story ties a lot of threads together, but is still weaker.  The setting (Constantinople) isn't nearly as compelling or varied as Rome.  MP is improved and deepened, but still has a very high learning curve (and upper-level players have strong perks unlocked which throw off the balance).  But the game was improved so much up to this point that it still is a lot of fun to play, and free running in a Renaissance setting still hasn't gotten old.  But Ubisoft, please:  For the next one?  No more Den Defense.

6.  Gears of War 3.  Serious improvements all around here.  Four-player co-op (which the series has begged for since the beginning).  Dedicated servers for multiplayer (no more Host Shotgun rampages!).  An improved story that ties up many loose ends (although I could've done without the entire 4th chapter .... sorry Ice-T).  And the new bad-guy version of Horde mode (called Beast) is fun.  Being a Berserker and smashing through people got a lot of laughs out of me.  I haven't played it in a while, as the overuse of shotguns is still annoying, but I feel like I got my money's worth already.

5.  Jetpack Joyride.  An iOS game in my top five.  Yes, I did.  Don't look at me like that!  Have you played it?  If so, you wouldn't judge.  I've put over 20 hours into this stupid little 99 cent game.  I say 'stupid' because it's extremely simple.  One-tap gameplay, and that's it.  But somehow I can't quell the desire to get a better score (or more coins).  It's perfect for mobile gaming.  Tiny bite-sized experiences, with that 'one more quick one' that keeps pulling you back.  If you have an iPhone, you need to download it.  If you don't find yourself as hooked as I was, you're only out 99 cents.

4.  Dead Island.  Hands down, this is the biggest surprise on my list.  It's buggy, the combat feels unpolished, and a couple of the boss battles were uninspired.  But I'll be damned if I didn't put about 30 hours into it.  In a first-person RPG, the right atmosphere means everything.  This game brings it.  I felt like I was really on this island, struggling to survive and help those who were less fortunate.  There's no humor or tongue-in-cheek references; it's a bleak affair, right up into the final cutscene.  The co-op could use a little improving (it's no Borderlands), but it was playable and held some promise.  I hope we see a sequel of some kind, and that they have enough time to give it more polish.

3.  Portal 2.  Expectations can be a bitch.  When The Orange Box was released, Portal was the sleeper hit of the year, and for good reason.  The first-person puzzle gameplay was one-of-a-kind, and the writing was whip-smart and laugh-out-loud funny.  It not only told a compelling story, but did so in about two hours.  So here comes a sequel, which is around six  to eight hours long, and adds a meaty 2-player co-op mode.  And people still flooded Metacritic user reviews to complain.  "It's too short!  It's not worth $60!"  Wrong wrong wrong wrong WRONG.  They added to an already deep and rich universe, with new gameplay mechanics that somehow don't break what had been established previously.  That alone is worth celebrating.  And then there's Wheatley, the best character in a video game in a long damned time.  I had very high expectations for this game, and it met every single one of them.

2.  Battlefield 3.  Let's get it out of the way right at the start:  This game was never going to out-sell Call of Duty.  Why?  Because A) the gameplay isn't simple enough to appeal to the masses, and B) those of us who play EA shooters online know their servers will be trashed at launch.  They even ran a beta which they claimed was meant to be a server stress test.  And sure enough, this game was unplayable on Xbox on Day 1.  It's a good thing I also bought it on PC!  That's right, I gave EA over $100 for this game.  And I have zero regrets.  Yeah, the campaign is a Call of Duty knock-off, but by the time the last two levels were over, I found myself with a slight appreciation for the way the story was handled.  The co-op grind to unlock weapons?  Not cool.  But the multiplayer.  The sweet, sweet multiplayer.  The only thing I miss from Bad Company 2 is the buildings you can bring down, killing everyone inside.  But this was meant to be a full sequel to Battlefield 2, not the Bad Company games.  I will be playing this game long into 2012.  In fact, I could sell all of my other games and not miss them this year.  Well, all but one....

1.  The Elder Scrolls V:  Skyrim.  This is the most immersive video game I have ever played.  It should come with a warning label:  "May cause a lack of sleep, decreased interest in bathing and eating, and a marked decline in contact with the outside world."  It's not a game you pick up and play for 30 minutes or an hour.  It's a game that becomes the world you live in, and the real world becomes a nuisance that is keeping you from Skyrim.  Shortly after it launched, I had a conversation with a coworker that I ended like this:  "What did I do last night?  Oh, nothing much, just KILLED A DRAGON BY SHOUTING AT IT."  How does anything in real life compete with that?

I haven't had the time lately to play the game like I want to, so I have been avoiding it.  Maybe part of me is even scared of it.  The world is just too big, and there is too much to explore and see and do and loot.  It's daunting.  The developers say there is up to 300 hours of content in the game.  Three HUNDRED.  I put about 100 hours into Fallout 3, and I put about 130 into Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Those were two of my favorite games of this generation.  And yet, at this time next year, I will probably have both of those combined on this, and I still won't see everything the game has to offer.

It's not flawless, but no game of this size and scope is.  However, the drawbacks are so small in comparison to what you get.  In fact, at the moment I can only think of one real negative:  I'm not playing it right now.


Honorable Mention (in alphabetical order):

-- Batman:  Arkham City.  This could've ended up on my top ten, but didn't for one main reason:  It didn't really add anything to the original besides a bigger environment.  Still a solid game though, and has polish to spare.
-- Brink.  I bought this game on sale, even after reading some rough reviews.  I wanted to like it, but the maps were lackluster, and the feel of the weapons was off (recoil was terrible).  Then later in the year, Steam had it on sale for $5 on PC.  I bought it, and then realized they'd patched it.  The weapons now feel much better, and the new maps are pretty solid.  Worth a look if you find it cheap; just don't expect a good single-player experience.
-- L.A. Noire.  I have a love / hate relationship with this game.  I really had to slog through the last few hours of this game, but when it was over, I was glad I'd played through it.  Part of what I didn't like was the lead character was unsympathetic, but looking back, I have to admit that he was compelling all the same.  And the motion-capture?  Ground-breaking.
-- Renegade Ops.  A fun throw-back to the 80's drive-and-shoot arcade games.  Four-player co-op online is a blast.  It's not a deep game, but it's only $15.  (Full disclosure:  I work for the publisher that released this.)
-- Saints Row: The Third.  I just got this game about a week ago, so perhaps it would've ended up higher on the list had I had more time with it.  But after about 90 minutes or so, I'm already enjoying it more than the first two.  It's completely over-the-top and zany, and it knows it and has fun with it.  I mean, they start you off with a purple dildo baseball bat.  I stand corrected; THIS is my Game of the Year!  Okay, maybe not, but I gotta give 'em credit for going the insane route.


Biggest Disappointments (in alphabetical order):

-- Dead Space 2.  The first game was a great survival horror experience.  Then we get this, which is 99% action and almost no suspense.  They also took away most of the ammo, so you're forced to use kinesis to throw objects at bad guys when you get cornered.  And you will get cornered a lot.  Plus, the story was a huge step down from the first.  And then there's the unnecessary multiplayer.  Some liked this game, but I miss the suspense and pacing of the original.
-- Rage.  What a beautiful game.  What boring gameplay.  It could've been Doom meets Fallout, but instead ended up being a bunch of lame fetch-and-carry missions.  It launched two months ago and is already below $20.  I'm sure id Software will have plenty of success with the engine, but that doesn't get me my $60 back.
-- Test Drive Unlimited 2.  The original was an innovative overachiever, streaming the entire island of Oahu for you to drive on.  It also was the first racing game I can remember that had on-the-fly, drop-in / drop-out multiplayer.  I put over 40 hours into it.  But the sequel fails to improve upon the original in any way.  The voice acting is laughable, and the character models are PS1-quality.


Well, that's it for the top ten lists for 2011.  Have a great holiday break, and we'll see you again in the year where it all ends.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Lord Bling's Top Ten Albums of 2011

It was a very good year for metal, but the top spot came from out of nowhere.

10.  Scale the Summit -- The Collective.  Instrumetal.  I hate the word, but that's exactly what it is.  I really liked their debut, but this one feels like it will stay with me longer.  And the production?  Top-notch.  Favorite Track -- Whales





9.  Mastodon -- The Hunter.  Their last album made the top of my list in 2009.  Perhaps it was a bit pretentious, but they had never been more ambitious.  When it worked, it really worked.  So it was impossible not to compare their new album to it.  It's more of a step backward in scope, and more inconsistent.  But it's still got some great jams on it.  Favorite Track -- Stargasm


8.  Crowbar -- Sever the Wicked Hand.  Their first album in six years also happens to be one of their best.  No experimental song structures or covers, just a really good sludgy hard rock album.  Favorite Track -- Liquid Sky and Black Earth




7.  Animals as Leaders -- Weightless.  More instrumetal!  I've written about Tosin Abasi twice on this site in the last year, and for good reason.  He's the most talented guitar player in metal today.  And that probably makes him the most talented guitar player on the planet.  This record isn't as shreddy as his debut, but it's probably more tasteful and inspired.  Years from now, I'll still reach for his debut first, but this one deserves to follow it.  Favorite Track -- Isolated Incidents

6.  Opeth -- Heritage.  The two-decade long transformation from death metal to prog-rock is now complete.  Gone are the growling vocals.  Gone are the 15-minute long songs.  Stripped down, jazzy, and something your parents might actually like.  And that's not meant to be an insult.  Having said that, I still miss the Watershed / Ghost Reveries style of prog-death, but Akerfeldt's talent and craftsmanship cannot be denied.  Favorite Track -- I Feel the Dark

5.  Anthrax -- Worship Music.  Finally, a true follow-up to Persistence of Time.  I like John Bush's voice, and I like some of the songs they wrote with him, but it just didn't feel like "Anthrax".  Now with Joey Belladonna back for the long haul, they sound re-energized.  A couple of riffs may sound recycled from older stuff ('Fight 'Em Till You Can't' is an awful lot like 'Gridlock'), but no matter.  Of the Big Four, they're the band that's still writing and recording the strongest material.  Favorite Track -- The Devil You Know

4.  Amon Amarth -- Surtur Rising.  This band has perfected their sound, no doubt.  With Odin On Our Side was the beginning of their ascent (and still my favorite of theirs), but this one is a close second.  I think the songwriting is tighter than their last one too.  And on top of all of that, they even stepped out and wrote a song that wasn't about Norse mythology.  Favorite Track -- Slaves of Fear

3.  Decapitated -- Carnival is Forever.  This Polish death band was starting to climb the ranks a while back, but then their insanely-talented drummer (and brother of the guitarist and chief songwriter) Vitek died in a bus accident.  They disbanded for a couple of years, but then Vogg decided they needed to continue, since it's what his brother would've wanted.  It's also what the fans wanted, and they deliver their most focused album yet.  Favorite Track -- Homo Sum

2.  TesseracT -- One.  A good vocalist can make or break a band.  This is true in most genres, but not quite as much in metal .... until now.  This album defies so many metal rules, and gets away with it.  The vocalist could probably go on American Idol and make the finals.  There isn't a single guitar solo on the entire album.  The lyrics aren't about death or evil demons.  But it's all about the hooks, and this album is full of them.  Think of what Meshuggah would sound like if Jeff Buckley were their vocalist.  It shouldn't work, but oh does it ever.  It's just too bad that they now have a new vocalist.  Favorite Track -- Concealing Fate Pt 1: Acceptance

1.  Anathema -- We're Here Because We're Here.  Buy this album.  Find a quiet corner where you will be undisturbed for an hour.  Put on a good pair of headphones.  Listen.

Released in the UK last year, it finally saw an official release here in the U.S. last April.  While they started in the early 90s as a doom metal band, they no longer feel bound to any specific genre.  If Pink Floyd were raised on trip-hop and prog-rock, this is what it would sound like.  The lyrics are as hopeful as any album I've ever owned.  It is beauty stacked on top of beauty.

A great work of art can change the way you look at the world.  When I play this album, I feel that there might still be hope for the human race.
Favorite Track -- Thin Air

P.S. -- With all the metal on the list this year, you might be wondering where the new Devin Townsend Project album is.  The readers on Metalsucks.net voted it the best metal album of the year, but I found it to be overproduced and lacking.  It pains me to say it, as someone who absolutely loves Devy's work.
P.P.S -- I also didn't include the new Cynic EP because well ... it's not a full album.  But if you've followed them over the years as I have, you have no excuse for not buying it.

Lord Bling's Top Movies of 2011

I added up the films I saw this year: 41. Pathetic. I count 57 from 2010 (although a few were seen this year).  Considering I used to see around 100, that's pretty weak. Granted, it was my job to watch movies for quite some time, but still. I don't feel like a true Top Ten list will be justifiable, since there's so much I haven't seen yet. But of what I have seen, here are my favorites (in alphabetical order):

50/50.  A perfect blend of comedy and drama.

Bridesmaids. A female 40 Year Old Virgin? It's close. The pacing is a little off at times and it feels long, but its heart is in the right place and there are plenty of laughs.

Captain America. Almost as good as the first Iron Man movie. Almost.  It has me really excited for the Avengers movie, so I'm sure it'll probably suck.

Crazy Stupid Love. Above-average script (even if the final reel is a little groan-worthy). However, good casting makes all the difference.

Hobo with a Shotgun.  A wonderful homage to the 80s action-gore genre.  Feels like the best Troma film ever made.

Horrible Bosses. One of the better raunchy comedies in some time. It knows what it is, and it isn't afraid to be just that. Charlie Day is flawless.

The Killer Elite.  This one surprised me.  The trailers made it look like another dumb Statham vehicle, but Deniro and Owen are well cast and believable.  Similar to The Bank Job, in that it has a lot more going on in it than you'd think.

Melancholia.  One of Lars von Trier's most mature works.  If you don't know who he is, you probably won't like this movie.  I didn't give a shit about the characters, but I was still drawn into the story.

Moneyball.  The Social Sports Network?  Same screenwriter, and same arms-length handling of the characters.  An appreciation for baseball will help.

The Tree of Life. Terrance Malick makes a movie about every decade.  If you're not a fan of his, you'll think this film has a similar run time.  Consider yourself warned.

Picking one out of the bunch, I'd say 50/50 was the best.  However, each of them are films I could see myself watching a second time.

Other films from this year that I enjoyed (i.e. "Honorable Mentions"):

Drive
The Ides of March
Limitless
Paul
Our Idiot Brother
Source Code

Something all of those have in common?  Good rentals, but not enough in them to warrant a repeat view.


Music and Video Game lists coming soon.....

Sunday, December 18, 2011

GTFO 2011

Fuck you, 2011. You're the year I lost the last bit of faith I had in our government, you made a Bible-thumper the quarterback of my favorite team, and you took away the best pet I've ever known. I'm about to leave you for that hot chick, 2012. She might be super-hot if the Mayans were right, but we won't know until a year from now.

Speaking of 'super', I made a new Battlefield 3 video last night. I think it's super, thanks for asking!



I'm technically on vacation next week, but in between replying to ad-hoc work e-mails, prepping the house for the holidays, and Skyrim, I'll be writing up my year-end Top Ten lists. They'll be posted before Christmas this year, lucky you!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Review -- Saints and Sinners Tour (Dallas, TX -- 11/18/11)

Last Friday, I went to a metal concert featuring two up-and-coming openers, and an increasingly-popular headliner.


The venue was the House of Blues. It's my favorite place to see live music in Dallas. It's still fairly new, and in perfect shape. It's indoors, so no Texas hot weather shenanigans. And then there's the sound: It was built for live music, and has never been disappointing.

The first band to play was TesseracT. I've tweeted about them quite a bit, and their album 'One' may be high in my Top Ten at the end of the year. The simplest way to summarize their sound is if Jeff Buckley sang for Meshuggah. At least, that's how I felt about them before their vocalist on the album (Dan) left the band about three months ago. Apparently his priorities in life have changed. Uh, yeah, whatevers. The new singer (Elliot)? He's okay, but has nowhere near the range or power of his predecessor. Judge for yourself with these two videos. The first is from a live performance earlier in the year, and the second is something I taped from the show.

With Dan:


With Elliot:


Fans of the band have been split, but if you listen to Elliot and think he's as good of a singer as Dan, you're tone-deaf. Otherwise though, the band was very tight.

Then came Animals as Leaders:


Perhaps you remember my post from earlier this year, stating how Tosin Abasi is the Chuck Norris of guitars. Well, he got on stage and gave a roundhouse kick to the brains of every person in the venue. He is a virtuoso in every sense of the word. But don't just take my word for it:



I just wish the venue would've had a spotlight on him, so we could better see his pyrotechnics. But no matter. Their merch booth was swarming with business after their set. I'd hoped to track Abasi down afterward (to get a picture and shake his hand) but my friend that went with me to the show said, "I bet he's in the back room icing his hands down." No doubt.

Finally, there was Between the Buried and Me:


While I was never much into their first few albums, they have really grown on me in the past couple of years. They've started to show a more mature direction in their songwriting, yet still allow themselves to run wild with their influences. At times they sound like Faith No More, Rush, and Opeth hanging out at a carnival together. Everyone in the band has chops to spare, and it almost feels like normal song structure bores them. But somehow it all manages to stick together, especially on their last two albums (Colors and The Great Misdirect). If I had one complaint, it's the lack of vocal variety in the growls. However, he enunciates well, and in a live setting, it's appreciated.



This was the third time I've seen them live, and I think this was the tightest set yet. They looked comfortable in the headlining slot, and for good reason. They've gathered quite a loyal and growing fanbase, and all the touring in the past decade is really starting to pay dividends. I hope they stay as active as they've been recently, both in the studio and on the road.

Overall concert review? I'd give it an A-minus. Tesseract's new vocalist was a little disappointing, and more light on stage for Animals as Leaders would've been appreciated. However, it was easily worth the full ticket price.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

25 Things I Learned While Traveling In Italy

Last week, Lady Bling (not her real name) and I arrived at our 10th anniversary of non-wedded bliss. To celebrate, we decided to do something we'd never done before: Travel overseas. We chose Rome as a place that interested both of us, and with about six weeks of lead time, I set up a week-long trip through a travel agent. It was a great vacation, and I'm glad we went. However, there are some things I learned that would've been helpful to know before we left. I'd like to share them with you, in case you ever go to Rome, or Europe in general. Or perhaps you've already been, and can relate. Either way, I'll be keeping many of these things in mind the next time I travel abroad:


1. If you’re going to a foreign country, buy a Rick Steves guide book. Use his suggestions for sites to visit, restaurants, etc. However, don’t follow his hand-drawn maps. Any hotel will have a free street-accurate one you can fold up and stick in your pocket. And trust me, you WILL need it.

2. If you can afford to, fly Business Class or First Class. On a 9 or 10 hour flight, the additional pampering and leg room will be appreciated. If you can’t do it both ways, at least do it on the way over, so you have a better chance to sleep.

3. If your travel agent recommends you stay at the Hotel Anglo Americano while in Rome, get a different travel agent. We were booking on short notice, so we took what we could get. Having said that, calling it a 3-star hotel is being awfully generous. I’ve slept in gutters that were more comfortable.

4. Hearing German spoken on the Lufthansa flights and at the connecting Frankfurt airport brought me back to the years I studied it. I actually started speaking it here and there too, which freaked out my better half on more than one occasion. However, I kept the goose-stepping to a minimum.

5. If you’re going to spend time at an outdoor monument like the Colosseum or Palatine Hill, do it earlier in your trip. If it rains, they close many of them all day (and usually the day after). We had an exclusive Colosseum tour scheduled on our last day, and didn’t get to do it.

6. Unless you’re only in town for a day or so, don’t do the ‘hop-on, hop-off’ bus tours. I thought we’d use it early in the trip to help familiarize ourselves with the city, but since we were there for almost a week, it wasn’t really necessary.

7. Do the Vatican tour last. Any other basilica you see in Rome will be a lot more impressive if you see them before St. Peter’s.

8. When you see a thousand masterpieces in a day, they start to blend together. Having said that, Michelangelo’s Pieta in person was just as amazing as I’d hoped. And he was 24 when he sculpted it. If you’re looking for a humbling experience, I highly recommend it.

9. Italians seem to speak with their hands less than Italian-Americans.

10. OMG, street vendors. They were on every corner, with their splat balls and scarves. I cursed their existence, until it rained one morning and I saw one outside the hotel entrance selling umbrellas. He had a big smile on his face, as if to say, “I gotcha.” And he did.

11. When in Rome, you can only say ‘When in Rome’ once before it’s no longer funny.

12. I’ve never seen so many Smart Cars in my life. And Fiat 500s, and Mini Coopers, and mopeds. The parking spaces in Rome are unbelievably small, and the roads are narrow, so it makes sense. I did see a few 5-series BMWs and a couple of Audi A7s, but minus a couple of crossovers, I didn’t see a single SUV.

13. Speaking of transportation: What Americans would consider a ‘near accident’, Italians consider normal driving. Bumper-to-bumper, and FAST. Our hotel was supposedly one hour from the airport. Our cabbie on the way back covered the distance in 25 minutes.

14. Last point about transportation: Whether you’re in a car or on foot, traffic lights are only a suggestion. Think Manhattan and you’re good.

15. Pickpockets and gypsies are supposedly rampant in Rome. I saw neither. Pulling out my hidden security wallet to pay for dinner always made me feel like an asshole.

16. Pizza in Italy doesn’t come pre-sliced. They hand you a butter knife, and what happens next is up to you.

17. A Piazza is a plaza, not a pizza.

18. MTV in Italy actually shows music videos. However, Jersey Shore was on one morning, and I felt like apologizing to everyone I met later that day.

19. Be prepared to hear ambulance sirens constantly. At first I thought there were a lot of people getting hurt, but then I decided there was one ambulance that just drove around the city all day, happily making its presence known.

20. The amount of graffiti in Naples was not nearly as disappointing as the amount of stray dogs running around. I was there for only an hour or so, but desperately wanted to start a rescue program.

21. Pompeii was a lot bigger than I’d imagined. It once housed around 20,000 people. We only got to see part of it in an over 2-hour tour.

22. I went to Pompeii expecting to see something that looked like an ancient Fallout 3, with ash and corpses everywhere. Instead, all I got was a couple of plaster molds and a bunch of old walls! Video games > real life

23. The older the American tourist was, the more likely they were to be rude to locals. I guess people get set in their ways, and don’t like to accept that things are different outside of this country.

24. McDonald's are WAY nicer in Italy than here. I was also impressed by the ability to substitute beer in your combo meal! As for the quality of their food, I’m happy to report: Crappy like everywhere else.

25. I probably shouldn’t have told the locals I’m from Texas. After hearing that, they gave me blank looks, and then started speaking a ... lot ... more ... slowly.


I took a few pictures. Okay, I took about 1,200 pictures (32GB memory card FTW). If you know me in real life, you may have already seen some of them on Facebook. If not, here are a few of my favorites:

Colosseum:

Dome of the Pantheon, from the inside:


Trevi Fountain:


Pompeii ruins, with Mt. Vesuvius lurking in the background:


Underneath the dome at St. Peter's Basilica:


Michelangelo's Pieta:


Seriously, he was 24 when he did that. When I was 24, I was running around Greeley masterfully hitting golf balls at houses and artistically pickling my internal organs.

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

Work work work

I've been slammed with work lately, but with what little time I've had, I've been enjoying the new laptop. Especially, I've been enjoying recording gameplay footage and editing it together.

Here's one with nothing but sniper highlights.



And here's my masterpiece. My Mona Lisa, if you will.



Honestly? I got nothin' else to contribute. At the end of October, I'll have traveled to Rome on vacation, so I'll post some pics and video when I get back. Otherwise, yeah. Just traveling a lot for work and the occasional video game. Sorry my life isn't very entertaining right now.

Monday, September 05, 2011

How I Spent My Summer Vacation

With my work and travel schedule, I haven't had much time to game lately. I've hardly been on Xbox Live at all. But that's where the new laptop comes in handy. I love this thing. In fact, I decided to get the full version of FRAPS so I could record HD gameplay video. I set one of the side buttons on my mouse to turn the recording on and off. That way, I don't have to reach for the Record button, and it's not running all the time, filling up my hard drive with lots of ugly deaths and the occasional kill. When I think something cool is about to happen, I turn it on, capture it, then turn it off. In spite of a terrible kill-death ratio, I'd started racking up some decent knife kill footage. Then I thought, 'Why not use Windows Live Movie Maker to create a little compilation video, set to some death metal?'

This one is all knife, all the time:



I wish the X360 version had a video editing suite in-game like Black Ops. I've played that version a lot more, and am a lot better at it on that side. Still though, the game is amazingly fun either way. Can't wait until 10/25. Might even have to buy both versions.

Thursday, August 04, 2011

It was worth the hassle.

I love my new laptop. It was worth the hassle. Having a gaming rig in a 14'' setup is exactly what I wanted!

Here's me talking about some of its pros and cons, and trying to play Bad Company 2:



Team Fortress 2 runs great...



.... but can it run Crysis?



It's loaded up with tons of Steam games, just in time for Quakecon this weekend. I'm ready to get my nerd on.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

If you hate taxes...

Apologies in advance for the copypasta, but a friend on Facebook shared this and it was too good not to post here.

(Also, I finally received my laptop last week, and it's glorious. I'll shoot a couple of videos and post at some point.)


If you hate taxes, please do the following:

1. Do not use Medicare.

2. Do not use Social Security

3. Do not become a member of the US military, who are paid with tax dollars.

4. Do not ask the National Guard to help you after a disaster.

5. Do not call 911 when you get hurt.

6. Do not call the police to stop intruders in your home.

7. Do not summon the fire department to save your burning home.

8. Do not drive on any paved road, highway, and interstate or drive on any bridge.

9. Do not use public restrooms.

10. Do not send your kids to public schools.

11. Do not put your trash out for city garbage collectors.

12. Do not live in areas with clean air.

13. Do not drink clean water.

14. Do not visit National Parks.

15. Do not visit public museums, zoos, and monuments.

16. Do not eat or use FDA inspected food and medicines.

17. Do not bring your kids to public playgrounds.

18. Do not walk or run on sidewalks.

19. Do not use public recreational facilities such as basketball and tennis courts.

20. Do not seek shelter facilities or food in soup kitchens when you are homeless and hungry.

21. Do not apply for educational or job training assistance when you lose your job.

22. Do not apply for food stamps when you can’t feed your children.

23. Do not use the judiciary system for any reason.

24. Do not ask for an attorney when you are arrested and do not ask for one to be assigned to you by the court.

25. Do not apply for any Pell Grants.

26. Do not use cures that were discovered by labs using federal dollars.

27. Do not fly on federally regulated airplanes.

28. Do not use any product that can trace its development back to NASA.

29. Do not watch the weather provided by the National Weather Service.

30. Do not listen to severe weather warnings from the National Weather Service.

31. Do not listen to tsunami, hurricane, or earthquake alert systems.

32. Do not apply for federal housing.

33. Do not use the internet, which was developed by the military.

34. Do not swim in clean rivers.

35. Do not allow your child to eat school lunches or breakfasts.

36. Do not ask for FEMA assistance when everything you own gets wiped out by disaster.

37. Do not ask the military to defend your life and home in the event of a foreign invasion.

38. Do not use your cell phone or home telephone.

39. Do not buy firearms that wouldn’t have been developed without the support of the US Government and military. That includes most of them.

40. Do not eat USDA inspected produce and meat.

41. Do not apply for government grants to start your own business.

42. Do not apply to win a government contract.

43. Do not buy any vehicle that has been inspected by government safety agencies.

44. Do not buy any product that is protected from poisons, toxins, etc…by the Consumer Protection Agency.

45. Do not save your money in a bank that is FDIC insured.

46. Do not use Veterans benefits or military health care.

47. Do not use the G.I. Bill to go to college.

48. Do not apply for unemployment benefits.

49. Do not use any electricity from companies regulated by the Department of Energy.

50. Do not live in homes that are built to code.

51. Do not run for public office. Politicians are paid with taxpayer dollars.

52. Do not ask for help from the FBI, S.W.A.T, the bomb squad, Homeland Security, State troopers, etc…

53. Do not apply for any government job whatsoever as all state and federal employees are paid with tax dollars.

54. Do not use public libraries.

55. Do not use the US Postal Service.

56. Do not visit the National Archives.

57. Do not visit Presidential Libraries.

58. Do not use airports that are secured by the federal government.

59. Do not apply for loans from any bank that is FDIC insured.

60. Do not ask the government to help you clean up after a tornado.

61. Do not ask the Department of Agriculture to provide a subsidy to help you run your farm.

62. Do not take walks in National Forests.

63. Do not ask for taxpayer dollars for your oil company.

64. Do not ask the federal government to bail your company out during recessions.

65. Do not seek medical care from places that use federal dollars.

66. Do not use Medicaid.

67. Do not use WIC.

68. Do not use electricity generated by Hoover Dam.

69. Do not use electricity or any service provided by the Tennessee Valley Authority.

70. Do not ask the Army Corps of Engineers to rebuild levees when they break.

71. Do not let the Coast Guard save you from drowning when your boat capsizes at sea.

72. Do not ask the government to help evacuate you when all hell breaks loose in the country you are in.

73. Do not visit historic landmarks.

74. Do not visit fisheries.

75. Do not expect to see animals that are federally protected because of the Endangered Species List.

76. Do not expect plows to clear roads of snow and ice so your kids can go to school and so you can get to work.

77. Do not hunt or camp on federal land.

78. Do not work anywhere that has a safe workplace because of government regulations.

79. Do not use public transportation.

80. Do not drink water from public water fountains.

81. Do not whine when someone copies your work and sells it as their own. Government enforces copyright laws.

82. Do not expect to own your home, car, or boat. Government organizes and keeps all titles.

83. Do not expect convicted felons to remain off the streets.

84. Do not eat in restaurants that are regulated by food quality and safety standards.

85. Do not seek help from the US Embassy if you need assistance in a foreign nation.

86. Do not apply for a passport to travel outside of the United States.

87. Do not apply for a patent when you invent something.

88. Do not adopt a child through your local, state, or federal governments.

89. Do not use elevators that have been inspected by federal or state safety regulators.

90. Do not use any resource that was discovered by the USGS.

91. Do not ask for energy assistance from the government.

92. Do not move to any other developed nation, because the taxes are much higher.

93. Do not go to a beach that is kept clean by the state.

94. Do not use money printed by the US Treasury.

95. Do not complain when millions more illegal immigrants cross the border because there are no more border patrol agents.

96. Do not attend a state university.

97. Do not see any doctor that is licensed through the state.

98. Do not use any water from municipal water systems.

99. Do not complain when diseases and viruses, that were once fought around the globe by the US government and CDC, reach your house.

100. Do not work for any company that is required to pay its workers a livable wage, provide them sick days, vacation days, and benefits.

101. Do not expect to be able to vote on election days. Government provides voting booths, election day officials, and voting machines which are paid for with taxes.

102. Do not ride trains. The railroad was built with government financial assistance.

The fact is, we pay for the lifestyle we expect. Without taxes, America would be a third world country. The less we pay, the less we get in return. Americans pay less taxes today since 1958 and is ranked 32nd out of 34 of the top tax paying countries. Chile and Mexico are 33rd and 34th.

“I like to pay taxes. With them, I buy civilization.” ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Dell's customer service is a JOKE

I bought an Asus 14'' laptop last August, and have been pretty happy with it. It has great battery life, and is very lightweight. However, I made a mistake soon after I bought it: I installed Steam. My laptop wasn't made to run most of the games I found myself interested in, and so for the past few months, I've been pining for a gaming laptop. I bought a used Asus G51 on eBay in late May, but that turned out to be a scam, and I returned it (and eBay gave me my money back). In a way, I'm kinda glad things worked out that way, because it was a 15.6'' laptop, and I'm hoping for something a little smaller, but still with a ton of gaming horsepower. Enter the Alienware M14x:


After playing around with the build options on their website, I came close a couple of times, but couldn't quite commit. But then, something wonderful happened: My employers saw fit to give me a bonus. All of a sudden, my pining for the M14x turned into downright bloodlust. I found a deal that saved me almost $300 and got me some good upgrades (8GB of RAM, 900p screen, 3.0GB graphic card), and on June 26th, I pulled the trigger. I ordered a sexy 'Nebula Red' one, and with a sufficiently nerdy laser-engraved nameplate on the bottom:


Now all I had to do was wait. I signed up for the Quakecon BYOC and reserved a seat. And I occasionally checked the order status on Dell's website. The estimated delivery date was July 11, just like they'd estimated. Then it became July 20th. Okay, no big deal. Quakecon is August 5th. Then last week, it got delayed again to July 27th. A month after placing the order? Fuck that shit.

On July 15th, I called Dell, and after navigating the voice-activated robot, I got transferred to India. The tech said the delays were due to the M14x being their most popular model right now, but he reassured me twice that there would be no further delays. I asked if there was a specific part that was holding up the build, and if it was something minor, perhaps I could switch it out with something else. He said, 'No, there is no issue with any specific part. There has just been a larger-than-anticipated demand." However, he was assigning a case manager to look into the specifics of the build, and this person would contact me in '24 to 48 hours'. More than 48 hours passed, and I received no callback from anyone.

On July 18th, I called Dell again. I spoke to a different tech who said, "You shouldn't have been told 24 to 48 hours. It's actually 1 to 2 business days. You're on the schedule to receive a call tomorrow." Tomorrow came and went, with no contact. In fact, we're now on 4 business days and still no call (and I verified that they have my correct number).

That same day, I e-mailed their Customer Order Service desk with a detailed complaint (and included my case number and my order number). I threatened that if I don't receive my computer by 7/29, I was going to cancel the order, or ship it back and demand a refund. I've received no reply to my e-mail.

That night, I started checking the Alienware forums on NotebookReview.com. There's a shipping status thread where people compare notes about the build they ordered, the estimated delivery date, and how their overall experience has been. I found two people who ordered theirs two weeks after I did, and they both received them this week. One had a different video card, and the other had the same exact specs, except his was black instead of red. Now I'm really starting to get pissed off.

July 19th: I called Dell again. Spoke to a different tech, who responded to every question I asked with "Just a second," and then there was two or three minutes of silence. Finally, I said, "For my troubles, can you upgrade the shipping to Next Day?" He said, "Just a second," and then dead air for another two minutes, and then, "Yes, I can do that. You'll have Next Business Day shipping." That night, I checked the Order Status page on their site, and it still said "7-day shipping". Uh-oh.

July 20th: I called Dell yet again. Spoke to a different tech, and asked him, "Can you tell me the shipping on my order?" He said, "Yes, it's 7-day." After telling him about my call the day before, he said, "Our shipping tools were down yesterday, so it didn't post. But I'll make the change to the shipping now." Not satisfied, I said, "How long will it take to update on your site?" He said, "4 to 5 hours." To his credit, it updated in about an hour (thank you Sumit!). So, I now have free Next Business Day shipping, if and when they ever decide to ship the thing in the first place.

So, today is July 21st, and here I sit, still staring at an Order Status that says 'In Production.' It's a damn good thing this laptop is getting such good reviews, or I would've cancelled it by now. Granted, there aren't many options for gaming laptops in the 14'' size, but still, it shouldn't take a month to build a freaking laptop. However, I'd gladly wait a month if it meant never speaking to Dell's customer service again.

EDIT -- I saw someone on the forum who said his is shipping tomorrow (7/22). He ordered his a day after mine, so I figured maybe mine will be on the same timeline. I called to ask if I could get Saturday delivery, since I'm traveling next week. After about 15 minutes of back and forth, I was told it was going to be delayed again to an estimated 8/3 delivery. I flipped out and asked for his supervisor. She told me the delay is being caused by an incorrect SKU number for the wireless card, and the order needs to be replaced. They're giving me a 10% discount for my troubles, but if it doesn't show up by 8/3, I won't have it up and running in time for Quakecon, and I will cancel the order.

Fuck Dell.

EDIT #2 -- Just got an e-mail from Dell. It shipped today, and should be at my house tomorrow. That would make it a month and a day from my order date. Not great, but I can live with it. I'll post pics at some point soon.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

Bad Answers to Unasked Questions

A Primer for Sociopaths

In 1985, Alice M. Brock wrote "How to Massage Your Cat," a short illustrated book for people who hate cats or wish to lose the use of significant bodily appendages. Or both. Three days ago, I bought that book, because I make the kind of money that allows me to just buy books without thinking twice about it. Book money. There is literally around $23 in hard cash in my wallet at this very moment. And I didn't stop at an ATM or nothing---that's just how I roll. But the economy has been tough on many people who don't have my mad skillz, so I thought I would share the book with you so that you, too, can learn how to permanently damage your relationship with any cat you might ever meet. Sadly, I can't share the illustrations with you, because that would require effort on my part. Instead, I'll just share the text of the book, along with some cogent observations.

Right out of the box, the book lets you know how it's gonna be. The first sentence: "Arrange the cat nicely on a clean towel and press firmly into place." Yes, there is a drawing of a hand mashing a cat onto a table that has a towel on it. So, by page 2, you know: the author either has never met a cat in her entire life, or has a deep-seated hatred of felines, such that she hopes to create a zombie army of cat-torturing book buyers. If the author had ever so much as touched a cat, she would know that the next sentence needs to be "Find the cat, corner it, pick it up again, put it back on the towel and try again to press firmly into place." Except that, if those were the instructions, no reader would ever get beyond the first page. Wash, rinse, repeat.

After some advice on picking hairballs off your cat, the book continues with this wisdom: "Pinch lips shut and thrust fingers under ribcage. An audible intake of breath will signal proper respiration has begun." Yes, those are the cat's lips you're supposed to pinch shut. Here, Ms. Brock, let me fix that for you: "Pinch lips shut and thrust fingers under ribcage. An audible intake of breath, followed by a bloodcurdling scream will signal that the cat has sunk the entire length of its fangs into the back of your hand."

Sometimes, the book reads like a manual for silently assassinating politically important cats: "Place thumbs behind ears [the illustration makes it clear you are standing behind the cat] and lock fingers securely under chin. Raise cat 8 to 9 inches above table and shake energetically." Just so we're clear, take your hands, touch the tips of your thumbs together, and now interlace your fingers. Now picture a cat head with its chin resting on the top of your index fingers. Now imagine shaking the cat "energetically" while holding it up in the air in this position. This advice is followed by the comment "The cat should feel completely loosened. Allow cat to rest a minute." Yeah, dead animals DO go limp, Ms. Brock. You have a point there. And you probably should tell your children that Mr. Whiskers IS just "resting" on the table.

But now it's time for the real massage. Apparently working from the assumption that any massage a human would love, a cat would love too, Ms. Brock shows us a cat laying stomach down on a towel and advises us to "Being at the rear and work your way around the cat using a vigorous kneading motion, bunching it up and spreading it out." Yes, the latter part is accompanied by an illustration that looks like someone is trying to make a pizza cat. I would make a joke, but....why?

"Stand squarely in front of cat and grasp it by both ears. Press firmly back till you hear the click." Potential next sentences include:
  • "Your cat is now loaded and ready to fire."
  • "The click is the sound of the cat's canines scratching across the bone in your thumb."
  • "Toss the cat over the sofa, and duck and cover."
Up to this point, one potential explanation is that Ms. Brock owns what might be the most patient, or slow-moving, cat that history has ever known. But right about now is where the book takes a turn, including suggestions like "Grip the tail tightly and turn slowly counterclockwise." I'm not sure what the depth of thread IS on a cat, but be sure not to pull it all the way out. At least with a counterclockwise twist, you don't have to worry about over-tightening. You might want to use a torque gauge, because the guys at the factory tell me the tail is only rated to 35 footpounds.

Now, it's cool-down time, so "Gently flip cat over onto its back [stomach up] and direct a volley of rapid slaps to the midriff." The cat in the illustrations is always the same cat, which strikes me as unrealistic. I cannot imagine that Ms. Brock has ever seen the same cat twice, and the book offers no suggestions on how to drag the cat out from under a bed.

Once again, the end suggests that the author may know more than she is letting on: "At this point your cat should be entirely relaxed. Cover the face briefly with a tea towel to prolong calm. A well massaged cat may remain in this position for some time." I can add an epilogue: "And may begin to smell."

I wish I could somehow offer an explanation for all this. Like, that Alice M. Brock is somehow related to Simon Bond and is just trying to throw some business his way. The dust jacket flaps suggest that the book is a "hilarious spoof." I can tell you for absolute certain that sentence is at least 50% wrong. The same description ends by stating "Instructions accompany 27 strange and charming illustrations sure to inspire delight in anyone, be it feline friend or foe." I did the punctuation exactly as they had it: "feline friend or foe." Maybe better stated: "friend or feline foe." Plus, the book was for sale at a store in Chinatown. Draw your own conclusions.

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

My take on L.A. Noire


I just posted my thoughts on L.A. Noire over at TL;DR. If you're interested in the game, feel free to have a look for yourself....

Monday, May 30, 2011

The Chuck Norris of guitars?

I have a new favorite guitarist, and wanted to share in hopes that he'll be your new favorite guitarist too. His name is Tosin Abasi. I was introduced to his instrumental project recently, called 'Animals as Leaders'. Think Periphery, but instrumental and jazzier. In fact, Misha from Periphery helped out on the album, playing keyboards and programming the drums.

Here is Tosin, playing 'Song of Solomon' from the album. And before you ask, yes, that's an 8-string guitar.



Here is the official video for 'CAFO', also from the same album:



Someone on YouTube called him 'The Chuck Norris of music.' I don't know if I'd go THAT far, but the Chuck Norris of guitars? No question.

Animals as Leaders is on the road through July. However, his new project (titled T.R.A.M.) recently signed a deal with Sumerian Records, and hopefully the album will be released soon.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Your Honor, I present to you, Exhibit A:

Pics from the 'Midge Got Him Some Booklearnin'' Party, also known as 'Illegal Omaha'.

Loitering, Public intoxication:


Cavorting with sexual predators. Seriously. This guy told us he had 4.7 Terrabytes of porn at home. Who else tells people those kinds of things? Men with beards, that's who:


Breaking and entering:


Making random oral sexual propositions:


The transference of head lice:


That last one might be a bit of a stretch, but no one knows what Furry party that Sonic hat has been to.

In all seriousness, it was a lot of fun. Midge, you should graduate more often.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011

The Midge got him some book learnin'

This weekend, our very own Midge is getting his Doctorate's degree. I don't know how many professors he had to blow, or how much blow he had to sell to pay for school, but all I know is, it's happening. Some folks from this site will be convening upon Nebraska for this occasion:

CowboyLaw
The Miles
Lord Bling

And that's just who's confirmed. I'm sure there will be other surprise guests. No matter what, it's going to be one for the record books. Fortunately, the weather is looking like it will cooperate. The forecast for Saturday is partly cloudy, with a slight chance of loud noises:


In case you were wondering, there will be free parking:


Here is a sociologist's estimate of what Ryan's yard will look like on Sunday morning:


And here is a projected satellite view:


I'd like to say 'Actual pics coming soon', but it depends on your definition of 'soon'. Hopefully CowboyLaw can help us determine the proper statutes of limitations.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

LOL @ The Oakland Raiders

Some here are Denver Bronco fans. Others are Kansas City Chief fans. We argue constantly, although neither of our teams has won much in the last decade. However, there's one thing we all agree upon: The Oakland Raiders suck incredibly.

Yeah, they swept both of our teams this year, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. And what good did it do them? They finished 2010 with their best record since the Rich Gannon era: 8-8! Their 'Commitment to Excellence' only guaranteed they get a weaker draft pick than they're used to. Not like they ever did much with their draft picks anyway. So let's point and laugh at them:



Their fans dress up for every home game like it's Halloween. They think they're intimidating, but they really just look like unemployable dipshits.


Their owner is a walking corpse. That's not a joke either. Look at a recent picture (not Photoshopped ... source is here):


They call a part of their stadium 'The Black Hole', thinking it's a nod to outer space, but it's just another sucking reference. That, or it's a reference to what their average fan has seen while in jail.


And yet, it gets even better. Today, they've given us more ammunition: They just announced an official new name for their stadium: Overstock.com Coliseum. Because they're overstocked on tickets. And overstocked on closeout-quality athletes.

Overstock.com is soon re-branding themselves to 'O.co'. I can't wait for both the Broncos and Chiefs to go into their stadium this fall and show them their O-faces.

Photobucket

Friday, March 25, 2011

Best Cry Ever

I saw this video on Know Your Meme a few months ago, and laughed, felt bad for laughing, then laughed some more.



Then like most internet memes, I didn't think about it again. That is, until a couple of days ago, when a friend on Facebook posted this:



The English language cannot properly convey the joy this video brings me. I hope the people from that episode of Intervention can look at these videos and laugh too, but if not, well, I got mine!

P.S. Time for Full Disclosure: I was digging through the site archives, and noticed something. The amount of posts here has declined over the past year or two. It's to be expected, as The Midge and HCP were both finishing college, and CowboyLaw and I both were diving deep into our professions. But we've never gone more than a month without a post. I couldn't let March go by without throwing something up here.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Last minute Oscar picks

I've been out of the film industry for a few years now, and every year I see fewer and fewer Oscar-nominated movies. I just remembered that the Oscars are tonight, and thought, 'Well, I've done picks on the blog every year ... may as well throw some darts at the ol' dartboard'. So here we go:

Best Picture -- 'The King's Speech'. It feels like Oscar bait, especially coming from the Weinsteins, who have received more than their fair share of Oscars. Who even remembers 'Shakespeare In Love', other than it robbed 'Saving Private Ryan' back in 1998?

Best Director -- Tom Hooper, 'The King's Speech'. He won the DGA, which usually translates into Oscar gold. Really rooting for Aronofsky though.

Best Actor -- Colin Firth, 'The King's Speech'. Again, it's an Oscar bait role. Period setting, and a speech impediment? Yeah. On top of that, his body of work is strong. If anything, he'll be winning because the Academy just now caught up to his stellar work in 'A Single Man'.

Best Actress -- Natalie Portman, 'Black Swan'. Body of work + woman of the hour = trophy.

Best Supporting Actor -- Christian Bale, 'The Fighter'. If he wins, I hope someone says, 'OHHHH, GOOD FOR YOU!'

Best Supporting Actress -- Hailee Steinfeld, 'True Grit'. There have been a good amount of younger winners in this category in the past, and I think AMPAS is ready to give it to a young girl again. However, if it's a King's Speech kind of night, Helena Bonham Carter will take it.

Best Original Screenplay -- 'The King's Speech'. Probably the biggest gimmie of the night. And it's the first award given out on the broadcast, so it'll set the stage for the rest of the evening. If it doesn't win, then a lot of my other picks are gonna be blown out of the water.

Best Adapted Screenplay -- 'The Social Network'. It'll be snubbed in most other categories, because it's too 'now' and most of the Academy voters barely even know what Facebook is. But it's hard to argue the quality of the writing.

Best Foreign Language Film -- 'Incendies'. I almost picked 'Dogtooth', because it's the only one that's streaming on Netflix, but then I remembered the average Academy voter. If they don't know what Facebook is, they sure as hell don't know how to stream movies online. 'Incendies' is about war, and those win a majority of the time here.

Animated Feature Film -- 'Toy Story 3'. Okay, I stand corrected: THIS is the biggest gimmie of the night.

Art Direction -- 'The King's Speech'. It's the only true period film nominated. 'True Grit' doesn't count because it's a Western.

Cinematography -- 'True Grit'. Roger Deakins is as due to win as anyone can be. If he doesn't win here, it's Susan Lucci Syndrome. But even Susan finally won, so c'mon Academy, do what's right and give him an Oscar already.

Costume Design -- 'Alice in Wonderland'. Even though 'The King's Speech' will probably get it, I have to go with a dark horse. Tim Burton films always go over the top in areas like this, so maybe the Academy will throw them a bone.

Documentary -- 'Restrepo'. Filmed in a live war? Check. Named after a war casualty? Check. Although I'm really rooting for 'Exit Through the Gift Shop', because it was much more enjoyable. And, if only to see what shenanigans Banksy will provide at the broadcast if he wins.

Documentary Short Subject -- 'The Warriors of Qiugang'. Multiple war films in this category, so it's a coin toss. However, this one actually has 'War' in the title, so I'll pick it.

Film Editing -- 'Inception'. Oh wait, 'Inception' didn't even get nominated! Another snub in this category for Christopher Nolan. I remember how pissed I was when 'Memento' didn't get nominated. I wasn't nearly as pissed this time (Inception was good but not great, as I mention in my review here), but it's still a major oversight by a clueless Academy. So I gotta go with 'The Social Network' here. It's edited tightly, but still has enough room to breath, you never lose track of the timeline, and it does it all without feeling 'showy'.

Makeup -- 'The Wolfman'. It doesn't take a genius to make Benecio Del Toro look unattractive, but it's a makeup movie at heart, so I'll go with it.

Music (Original Score) -- 'Inception'. I should probably say 'King's Speech', but I can't bring myself to do it. Trent Reznor is also a better pick here (even if most of his score blends into the background). But how can you deny the power of that musical cue in 'Inception'?

Music (Original Song) -- 'Toy Story 3'. I am SO over Randy Newman. AMPAS won't be though.

Visual Effects -- 'Inception'. It's either this or Iron Man 2, and I doubt they'll give it to a sequel.

The Other Categories -- 'I don't give a shit.'