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Sunday, October 21, 2012

Out Of The Office

This is going to be the last post for a while, as I will be in Florida for the next week - suspending disbelief and taking in the technological wonders and advances as Disney World. There haven't been new recipes to post or general maunderings because, well, I've been too damn excited (with a touch of anxiety in making sure all of my ducks are in a row before I leave). This will be a full week at the parks, and attending 2 Halloween parties that last from 7 pm until midnight, during my stay.

Expect there to be a flood of pictures upon my return.

Quick Game Reviews

Before I leave, I'd like to give you some (very brief) reviews of games I've been playing over the past month to keep me from bouncing off the walls in excitement:

Torchlight II - Like every single review you can find, I will tell you it's not Diablo III. The visuals are clean, the gameplay is smooth, and there's no mandatory online whatever in order to enjoy the game. There's also enough freedom with the skill trees that you don't feel like you're being railroaded as you build your character. Pick it up.
All the Diablo, none of the 3.
Deus Ex: Human Revolution - This is what it's like to be immersed in a Philip K. Dick novel with a healthy dose of William Gibson and Rudy Rucker. Wetware, transhumanism, augmentation, and ethics come to the forefront in this open world, high tension thriller where your choices actually do have repercussions as the game unfolds.

Combine that with a soundtrack featuring Lisa Gerrard (Dead Can Dance, the soundtrack to Gladiator, and so much more)) and it may be my favorite game of the past 2 years (rivaling The Witcher 2).
You're breaking the fourth wall! (And I am humbled by your acute observation about gamers.)
Retro City Rampage - I had my eye on this over the summer, and started playing it yesterday, between bouts of sorting and packing for the trip. This game is an open world, 8-bit throwback that pays homage to everything (and not to subtly in its execution) from Pong to early computer games (Rogue, King's Quest, etc.) to he glory days of the NES (Contra, Mike Tyson's Punch-Out, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and many more).
Nerd-tastic nostalgia abounds.
You will find yourself becoming addicted to the game, but also losing yourself in counting the myriad game references while grinning like the nerd that you are (and you cannot fully enjoy this game unless you are already steeped in gaming history and have an aversion to the outdoors).
From the "stole my meme/stole my IP" category...
That's it for now. This post is mainly here as an "I'm going to be out of the office" note, but also as a reminder to me that I need to get back into the writing saddle (for myself, as opposed to work) when I return. There are a few fun skeptical articles, some recipes I'd like to try out and write up, and some in-depth book (there's been a lot of Steven Brust flying around the house, as of late) and Netflix reviews I want to put up here.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

A Quick Update: The Week In Review

I'm working this weekend, so I'm just posting this for when things slow down a bit and I can expand on some of the topics listed.

This week has been quite full and exciting. Everything kicked off with a job interview that (if I am the lucky winner) would allow me to focus on the tech side of things, apart from simply keeping up to date by reading the latest news articles. I made it to round two, so we'll see what next week yields. This would add to my current portfolio of freelance writer, editor, culinary alchemist, eBay entrepreneur, and...whatever the heck else I do keep money coming in and have fun in the process.

The next thing really took me by surprise. I've been a staff member and occasional writer for VFXG.org for a few months now, and since my experience is more on the writing/editing/directing side of things when it comes to movies, I was asked to interview Scott Ross about the Digital Domain debacle that's been in the news as of late. The interview was very insightful, the readership increased because of it, and I got to be a journalist for once. The whole thing can be found here.

I'm doing a thing I've wanted to do, but since the concept of journalism collapsed as I was exiting college, it never seemed like a reality. Sort of like turning on your faucet and daydreaming about how you wish you could fetch water from the well. The good thing is that in this day and age (if one chooses not to be ignorant), there are enough sources to check your facts. Because he was the founder of Digital Domain, Scott Ross decided to give me a number of facts that were overlooked by a number of the "major" news outlets (WSJ, I'm looking at you) - and you can't really get more authentic than information that comes from the source, before it gets filtered a million different ways. I like writing things that people can see. Most of my time is spent writing very dry manuals and info guides that are used within organizations. It's good to have an audience.

On the entertainment side of things, MechWarrior Online Closed Beta was announced this week, and I was sent an invitation. The game is gorgeous, and no matter what 'mech I pilot, it walks and moves with all the grace I do in real life - like a goose trying to land on ice, only armed with nuclear warheads. Anyone who likes explosions or the MechWarrior franchise should definitely get this game. My only complaint is not being able to take things for a spin before joining a game. I like to know how to use each 'mech before I start spinning in circles and launching everything at once.

In other news, Torchlight 2 was released last Thursday. With a team consisting of developers from Blizzard North, this is the way the sequel to Diablo II should have been. I'm not just saying that because everything's not brown and red like some late-90s metal album. Torchlight 2 has refined mechanics (I like not having to click on every little gold piece to collect treasure); a single-player mode that doesn't require a constant collection; enough story to justify exploring the game and killing clicking on things; and crafting that isn't too extensive to the point of detracting from the fun. Oh, and skill trees make sense, and allow for a lot of customization. And pets! (Yes, I am aware there were pets in the first Torchlight game, but it's less awkward than your Amazon companion in Diablo II - and you were using that NPC like a mule.) If you don't have Torchlight 2, or you found your Diablo III game gathering dust after the first week, you need to get this game.
More game, less server delay.
Cooking's been rather low-key (or take out) simply because of how busy things have been here, so I have no recipes to share. 

I think that's pretty much it. I did receive everything for my week-long Halloween vacation to Disney World next month, but unless you get excited by looking at plane tickets, I'm going to save the details about that until after I return (and have some caffeine in me).






Sunday, September 16, 2012

Early Autumn Soup

Today was rainy, and there's been a bit of a chill in the air (says the man in the middle of Texas), so we decided to make soup. Once again, in order to show that I'm a little more sensitive to the dietary habits of those who try to avoid animal products, I will offer substitutions throughout this recipe (mostly at the beginning in order to spare you the horrors of cooking meat caught on camera). Those substitutions will be typed in italics, so you can pick them out of the line-up.

To start off this recipe, you're going to need the following:

1 bottle of red wine
1/2 pound of rice
1 quart of beef or vegetable broth
2 pounds of small roasting potatoes, cut into chunks
2 heads of garlic
3 large fresh poblano peppers (avoid the dried ones for the sake of this recipe)
4-6 spicy chicken sausages (cut into bite-sized pieces) or spiced, firm tofu (sauteed)
1/2 pound of stew meat or squash, peppers, mushrooms, cut into chunks
1 yellow onion
A bunch of your favorite herbs and spices, added to taste (I suggest Worcestershire sauce, onion/garlic powder, a little bit of salt (or seasoned salt)
1 can of salsa ranchero (or you can add chipotle peppers in adobo sauce, chile colorado, or anything else to give it a bit more of a kick)

The first step is to pre-heat your broiler. While it's warming up, remove the stem and seeds from the poblano peppers. Scalp the heads of garlic. Place peppers and garlic heads on a baking sheet and brush with olive oil. Shove the baking sheet in the oven until the peppers begin to blister (about 10 minutes). Remove the baking sheet, turn the peppers over, brush everything with olive oil (again) and place then back under the broiler.

Note: You can take this time to chop the potatoes, sausage and other items, or to saute the tofu. It's a good use of time.

Now lets get the pot going on the stove. I recommend a 3-5 gallon pot. Add the broth and pour in half of the bottle of wine (which leaves the cook with a nice bonus), and bring everything to a boil. Next, add the rice, potatoes, and any other vegetables you're using that will need thorough cooking in order to become soft.
This is what it should look like for the next 30 minutes or so.
After about half an hour, test the rice, potatoes and other things to be sure they are tender and thoroughly cooked, and bring the heat down to a low simmer.

Remember the poblano peppers and garlic? Remove the individual cloves and throw them into your food processor with the peppers and the large onion. you want everything finely chopped, but you don't want to make a puree. 

There is no escape!
Once you've run these once whole ingredients through the food processor, add them to your simmering pot, along with the contents of the can of salsa ranchero/chile colorado/your red Mexican sauce of choice. Now add the sausage (or fried tofu).

Now the vegetarians and vegans can rest their eyes for a bit. As a matter of fact, they can just let the pot cook - stirring it every once in a while until all of the flavors have melded properly, and then enjoy.

For the rest of us, we are going to be using our remaining ingredient: stew meat.

For this, you want to make sure it's seasoned with Worcestershire sauce, garlic powder onion, powder - basically, whatever flavors you think would be a nice addition to the soup. Now pan-fry the meat until it's medium rare (remember it's getting thrown into the pot, where it will cook even more so don't over-do it the first time around).
Can you tell we love using our pans?

Now dump the contents of the pan into the pot, and stir everything together. Check up on it every 10 minutes or so until you see something like this:

Now you're ready to curl up with a movie, book, loved one, or simply steal away with a bowl for yourself so you can enjoy the colder weather in comfort. You could also share with good friends - I guess - but some things are just too good to share. That's why you get pictures and a recipe, while I enjoy the real thing.

Wednesday, September 05, 2012

Vanilla Orange Cheesecake (With Booze)


Warning: The following is not a vegan-friendly recipe. While it comes nowhere near the atrocities I've committed against the animal kingdom with bacon, lamb, and other things that make life enjoyable, it nevertheless contains ingredients which are prohibitive to the vegan lifestyle. To ameliorate this, I have taken it upon myself to remove all of the offensive materials and offer you an alternative recipe containing only the ingredients which are allowed by herbivorous epicureans:

1 bottle of your favorite orange liqueur
1 bag of mandarin oranges

Preparation:

Put mandarin orange segments in a container. Drown them in the booze. Wait 4-12 hours. Consume.

Now that we're done with that, we can move on to the actual recipe.

Last month, when I made a Bailey's Irish Cream Cheesecake, I decided I would experiment with a new type of cheesecake every month. As this month is my girlfriend's Birthday, she wanted an orange and vanilla cheesecake. Using a wonderfully versatile recipe (thanks to the amazing Judith Tarr), a made some modifications, crossed my fingers a lot, and hoped for the best.

The hardware you will need for this recipe includes:
  • A Food Processor
  • A 9-inch Springform Pan
  • An Oven
  • Measuring Cups/Spoons (optional)

The Crust

Perhaps the easiest part of this experiment, I decided to star off with the following:
One of these things is not just for kids anymore. I'll let you figure out which.
1 Box of Nilla Wafers
2 Tbsp. Butter (softened)
2 Tbsp. Ice Water

Open the box of Nilla Wafers and dump the entire contents into the food processor. Add the butter. Mix on the highest setting until everything is pulverized. Add the ice water as it is mixing to help everything firm up a little bit, so you're not pouring out vanilla sand into your cake pan.


Press the mixture into the cake pan until it evenly covers the bottom. You might want to use the bottom of a sturdy glass to press everything down, or (when diplomacy fails) use your knuckles to make sure the crust is pressed into the edges.

At this point, you can start preheating your over to 325°F

The Cheesecake Part (otherwise you'll just be making a big cookie)

To make the eponymous part of the cheesecake, you will need the following:
Not pictured: 5 large eggs, because the chicken was still in interrogation.
5 (8oz.) Packages of Cream Cheese (softened)
1 and 3/4 C. Sugar
3 Tbsp. Flour
4 Tsp. Vanilla (cruelly extracted) 
1 Tsp. Salt
5 Large Eggs

Put all of the ingredients into the food processor (it truly is a magical machine), and blend everything on the highest setting until you have a smooth, creamy mixture. Now comes the fun part. Into the food processor goes...
About 2 cups of this.
...your favorite orange liqueur! You can use Grand Marnier, Tang mixed with Devil's Springs Vodka, whatever you personally prefer. For the sake of this experiment, however, we bought a nice bottle of Orange X.O.
Always make sure there is enough left over for the chef
Once again, turn up the speed on the food processor until everything is thoroughly blended. When everything is finished, pour everything into the spring-form pan (on top of that cookie crust you made a little while ago). 
Looks...pretty boring, actually. But just wait.
Now that the oven is at the right temperature, you can put the cake in to bake. It takes about one hour and twenty minutes so go off and read, watch something horrible on Netflix, have a drink, or whatever you like doing that fills up this time (I suggest getting half-way through the introduction of your favorite Final Fantasy game).

Now that the time has passed, turn off the oven and peek inside. You should have something that resembles this:
Look! You made a thing!
If your cheesecake looks anything like the above picture, then you did it right! Now leave the cheesecake in the oven to cool as the oven cools. This prevents the cheesecake from splitting and forming giant chasms due to the sudden change in temperature. (Many thanks to my mother for this tip, after I made that very mistake with my first cheesecake.)

Topping

As the cheesecake is cooling (for the next 3-4 hours) it's time to prepare the oranges and the glaze that both go on top. For this you will need:

4 Cans of Mandarin Oranges
The Remaining Orange Liqueur
1 Figurative Ton of Honey (give or take one boatload)

Drain the juice from the cans of oranges into a medium sized sauce pan, and dump the oranges in a bowl. 
This image is here just in case you can't follow simple instructions
To the sauce pan, add the remaining orange-flavored booze, and enough honey so that you begin to contemplated how hard the bees worked, and how good exploitation tastes.
Is a honeybee not entitled to its spit? "No," says the man in the kitchen, "It belongs to me!"
Now it's time to pretend you're making caramel. Bring the contents of the sauce pan to a frothy, roiling boil for about 15 minutes. Keep stirring! You don't want this to burn. Rather, you want it to simply reduce and thicken. Turn off the burner and keep stirring as it cools. When you are done, you should have something that looks like this:
Induction: Reduction. Conclusion: Confection.
Now it's time for the Arts and Crafts portion of this experiment. Take the bowl of mandarin orange segments and spiral them outward from the center of the cake. (If you do this from the outside to the center, you will end up with a small mountain of oranges in the middle.)
Almost finished
Finally, pour the glaze on top, marvel at your own prowess, and then stick the cake in the refrigerator to let everything firm up for a bit.
Yes, you are that damn good!
During this time, you might opt to take a nap, read some more, finish that Final Fantasy tutorial so you can figure out which button to press so that a menu pops up on the screen to let you know what all the buttons do, or contemplate your navel. 

After you realize you may have waited too long, remove the cake from the refrigerator, unshackle it from the ring of the spring-form pan, call over those in proximity, and soak up the adulation. Now size up who might give you the greatest praise, or reciprocate in some way, and select that person to receive the first slice. (If you are making this for your significant other''s Birthday, then your motives should be less utilitarian, or it will come through in the taste.)
You know it's good because it's messy.
And there you have it! Vanilla Orange Boozy Cheesecake!























Sunday, September 02, 2012

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron (A Review)

I've had a love/hate relationship with the Transformers franchise throughout my life. I loved the cartoon as a kid (I even watched Beast Wars in my 20s, when it was on in the early hours of the morning when I was getting ready for work), and even read the comics. I loved the toys, though for a while I was confused as to when some of my older transforming vehicles got drafted into the ranks of the Transformers. However, when it came to video games and movies, things fell apart for me. The games sucked, and the movies amounted to nothing more than money wasted and time off my lifespan that I could never reclaim.

Dead in the first minute. Not because the player sucks, but because the game wasn't meant for humans.

This past Friday, by sheer luck, I won a copy of Transformers: Fall of Cybertron from ShotGaming.com (and if you've never hear of them, head on over to their YouTube Channel for short, informative, and funny reviews of the latest games on Steam). The game actually looked interesting. Let me clarify - the game had less explosions than a Michael Bay movie, the trailer offered no superfluous "comedy" like the movies, and the visuals looked closest to what 9 year old me imagined the Transformers Universe was like.

I can only hope Skids & Mudflap are offered as DLC.

On Friday night, I settled into my chair and took Transformers: Fall of Cybertron for a spin, and didn't stop until sunrise on Saturday morning. 

Configuring The Settings

When I loaded up the game, I immediately went into the settings menu, to see what I could adjust (because most new games seem to think they know what's best for me, and that usually means skimping on graphics, or some weird gameplay setup that just feels unnatural). The first thing I noticed was the VSync was turned off, which is something I usually have to do with every game I've installed for the past year. The second thing I noticed was that there really wasn't much tweaking that could be done with the graphics. The choices were "Super Awesome" and "Sort Of Awesome" (just lacking enough to make you go out and buy a new video card). Luckily, my computer can handle the former setting, so without much else left to configure (it does support both keyboard & mouse, as well as XBox 360-esque controllers), I started up the game.

The Campaign

The whole concept behind Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is that Optimus Prime and his Autobots are fleeing their homeworld rather than stay on a war-ravaged planet that's running out of energy resources. Megatron and his Decepticons don't want that to let that happen, and thus you have the reason this game exists. 

No video tricks here. What you see is exactly what the game is like.


Throughout the campaign mode, you will play various Autobots, as well as Decepticons, in order to accomplish certain missions to either help your cause or to thwart your foes (depending on which side you are playing at the time). While it's kind of weird to play as one side and then get orders to undo the progress you've made by playing the other, it is still very fun if you just accept it as a convention of the game. 

This Is Not GTA With Robots

When I told my friends that I was downloading the game, one of them asked if it was like GTA, only with robots. To be honest, I was only mildly apprehensive about this possibility. Faced with an open world and picking up missions and discovering secrets doesn't sound like a bad premise for a Transformers game. However, Saints Row: The Third and Just Cause 2 spoiled me on sandbox games where one causes mayhem and destruction, purely to indulge the adolescent joy of setting our toys on fire. 

Transformers: Fall of Cybertron is not like that. Don't get me wrong, there is plenty of destruction to be had, and for the most part the environment can be affected by your weapons or crashing into things, but not to the point of making a level unplayable, such as "goal point X done got blowed up while you were swatting flies with tactical nuclear weapons.

I was trying to think of games this is similar to, but I was only coming up with the early Battlefield 1943 games, and maybe Star Wars: Jedi Outcast. Each stage is pretty much a third-person tactical shooter with enough places to explore things to find, and alternate routes to your goals, that you don't mind that - at it's core - you're running down a corridor. Slap on the veneer of Cybertron and make everything about giant robots, and you lose yourself in the game and forget about the technical aspect of the level design. It's about having fun!
Metroplex and blazing crotch are here to help!
What I Liked About The Game

I went into Transformers: Fall of Cybertron with very few expectations. The fact that I played the game for about five hours without realizing how much time had passed is a testament in itself to how much fun I was having. But without just saying "is a really cool game!" over and over again, I've decided to stick with the rambling format of these reviews and give you a short list of specific things I'm enjoying (and a few of the things I just didn't care for):
  • Weapons everywhere! - On each stage, there are weapons that can be picked up, swapped out, and upgraded. The ammunition is limited, so you either have to be quick during battle, very precise, or learn to use your fists when your guns are empty.
  • You can transform - No kidding? Yes, by virtue of the Transformers name, you can change into a form other than a robot, but in this game it's not just an aesthetic. Your alternate forms have unique abilities and can do things your bipedal form cannot.
  • Variety of characters - I'v only played as Bumblebee and Optimus Prime so far, but players will also find themselves taking control of Shockwave, Grimlock, and other favorites.
  • It's better than any Transformers movie that didn't have "Dare To Be Stupid" on the soundtrack - No gratuitous explosions. No bad acting from live action people. This is basically the cartoon series you've known and loved brought to an interactive level. Also, Starscream retreats less.
  • Teletran 1 Network - These kiosks allow you to upgrade your characters and weapons. While some aspects can be very intricate (which specific part of the your weapon you upgrade), and every once in a while it nudges you toward buying extra content, I like this method of increasing abilities for the game, because something like experience points just wouldn't fit into this universe.
Why are you reading this and not playing the game?

What I Didn't Like

  • Occasionally Clunky Interface - While most opportunities to converse with other robots or utilize equipment in this game are literally the touch of a button, the response time between pressing that button and the character response feels delayed, or you have to try it multiple times in order for something to happen. I don't mind this so much when talking to other on-screen characters, but when swapping out weapons during combat, it can be a little frustrating.
  • Boss/Mini-boss Fights - I'm not against the concept of such things, it's just that with a character line as extensive as the the one in Transformers, I would like to see characters that actually have names, like Ravage or Wheeljack. I'm not even asking for major characters here, just something other than a generic robot in a boss fight that becomes a regular enemy on every stage once you make it past that level. (Note: I'm only a few stages into this game, but this seems like the pattern. I'll revise this if I experience something to the contrary, later on in the game.)
  • Claustrophobic Levels - Some levels actually do seem rather limited. I understand that Cybertron is a world of machinery where the new stuff was built on top of the old for centuries, but on a few missions there really isn't much more than meets the eye (I'm so damn clever).
Should You Own This Game?

Absolutely. I pick which big releases I pay for very carefully, and the $60 USD price point is still high for me, but maybe not for console gamers or Transformer fanatics. As a PC gamer (primarily), I would hold off for a few months until the price drops, or it goes on sale through Steam. However, if (read: when) you take the plunge, you will not be disappointed. From the stunning visuals, the smooth gameplay, and the multiplayer option which is full of customization and unlockables, Transformers: Fall of Cybertron definitely gets my vote - not just for allowing me to relive my childhood, but also for being a really solid game.


Monday, August 27, 2012

Shuggy Goth

Yesterday, a friend of mine (through the SA forums) sent me the gift of The Adventures of Shuggy through Steam. My friend is a much bigger gamer than I am, and was telling me about the great mechanics this particular game had in store for players. Unfortunately, things became very busy in my particular part of the world, so I could only squeeze in about 10 minutes before going to bed.

This morning, however, I was expecting for an important package to be delivered from FedEx, so I fired up Shuggy while I waiting for the impending pounding at my my door at the ungodly hour of "before noon."


The Adventures of Shuggy is a very simple game, at first blush. You can move in the four basic directions (up, down, left, and right), jump, and there is also an action button. This is where the simplicity ends. On each stage (many of which will take under a minute to complete, which is great for casual gamers - or those wondering where the hell the FedEx guy is with the package I ordered last week, damn it all, I NEED the instant Amazon.com gratification a shut-in like myself it entitled to!) uses the action in different ways. On some stages, you will have to rotate the entire screen in order to guide a gem (you need to collect these as a conceit of the game) through a maze. On others, you will have to speed up time. Some stages don't even use the action button, and spawn "shadow Shuggy characters" that follow your movements, and if you run into them - well, the results are everything you'd expect from a quantum paradox.

I played through about 15 stages, with what looks like many times that left to complete.

The story surrounding the main character is presented in comic book format, and is as follows:

Shuggy (who is a vampire or a youngster who likes to dress as one), has inherited a  mansion full of ghouls, demons, and (for some reason) green gems. Most of the doors in this mansion are locked, but as li'l Shuggy completes a stage, he is given a key. If you acquire enough keys, you can unlock new areas and challenges. There are even leader boards so you can compete against your best time. (I have yet to try out the cooperative play mode, but maybe I'll ask the FedEx guy if he want to play a round or two considering HE DOESN'T SEEM TO BE IN ANY HURRY TO DELIVER ANYTHING TODAY! But I digress.)



The Adventures of Shuggy employs just about every platformer hook you can imagine, and then puts an interesting twist on the mechanics so that the game never gets old (unless you tire easily from having fun, in which case you might enjoy sticking with your Facebook games). The levels are short, the gameplay is addictive, and you can play for as long or as little as you'd like - though the game is admittedly tough to put down after the first stage.

The Adventures of Shuggy came out in the middle of June but only appeared as a tiny blip on on the radar - possible due to it being released in that tiny window after Sins of a Solar Empire: Rebellion, Lollipop Chainsaw (do people play this?), and immediately before Civilization V: Gods & Kings.
So many nerds never quite made it to the bathroom that day.

I will also put forth that Gateways (the other offering from Smudged Cat Games that I believe was developed solely to push nausea pharmaceuticals) may hve made people a little wary about the content of this title.

Don't press "play." You've been warned.

Yesterday (and possibly for the 15 minutes after I post this article), The Adventures of Shuggy went on sale for 75% off the list price, meaning less than the price of your favorite caffeinated or 40oz. malt liquor beverage of choice. Even if it's not on sale, if you want something you can play without having to invest hours at a sitting, while still having a fun and satisfying experience, pick up The Adventures of Shuggy Today!


Friday, August 17, 2012

Symphony (Reprise)

When Empty Clip Studios released Symphony on Steam, the audience was very excited. Here we had a shooter with a great retro feel to it, and it used music from your own library to generate the enemies and gameplay. The game was initially full of bugs that would seemingly cause it to crash if you so much as hummed a tune to yourself while you waited for the game to load.

However - and this is something more developers should take note of when releasing games - the staff over at Empty Clip (specifically MShores) were quick to respond to the problems users were experiencing, and created a beta version to help record the instances of crashing, slowing down, and any other issues. The results came in the form of an update that was brief in details, but very big in making the game playable and very fun.
Those four points made a world of difference.
First off (and this is the biggest one, considering the game required music to play), Symphony can now handle large music libraries, even if they are located on a drive other than the game itself. This is a boon for people (like me) who have a large external hard drive dedicated to storing music tracks, that totals in excess of 100 thousand tracks. The game analyzes and loads the songs very quickly and smoothly. I know a few of you are probably upset that Symphony will not use tracks that are over ten minutes in length, and while I'm sure some of you wanted this game solely to play through Wagner's Ring Cycle or your favorite Godspeed You Black Emperor albums (you know, that one you used to talk about but never listened to in order to impress people with your only-slightly-less-than-mainstream college music knowledge), the game itself was made for tracks that are between three and nine minutes in length.

The other thing Empty Clip changed was the size of enemy bullets, making them larger and easier to track as the move across the screen. so your ship doesn't seem to blow up for no reason. (Back in my day, we had a little game called Time Pilot, where both your bullets and the those from enemy aircraft were not only white and about a pixel in size, but they were set against a light blue background. We played that game and we liked it! Personally, I liked the challenge of the smaller projectiles, but I can see how they might get lost in everything else that's demanding your attention in Symphony.)


Symphony feels like how you remember arcade games from the 1980s (as opposed to what they were really like - no, don't break the fond illusion your mind has spent so many years creating). Glowing line graphics and polygons zip around the screen to the beat and nuances of your favorite music, and you almost want to start lining up quarters along your keyboard to mark your place so no one else tries to take the next turn. (If you want to get all meta about it, you can load up your favorite video game music and play along to that.)

The story has not changed: An entity has corrupted your music, and you have been challenged to reclaim it, track by track, defeating the demons who have been embedded in the tracks, and picking up the power-ups hidden in there, as well. The ship customization screen allows you to to control which weapons go where, and the direction they fire.

You cannot die in Symphony. As you get hit, you may lose pieces of your ship, but if you destroy enemies and gather enough of the musical notes they leave behind, you can rebuild your vessel as you play. Occasionally, your ship will be destroyed completely, and you will be docked a certain number of points, but a new ship will appear on screen in a few seconds. This does not make the game any less challenging. When you play track, there are certain point targets you have to reach in order to advance or get a new upgrade for your ship, and the amount docked each time your ship is completely destroyed is significant enough to make you want to stay alive as long as possible.

Of all the games I've played that attempt using music to create a combination visualizer/video game (Audiosurf, Beat Hazard, The Polynomial, etc.) none come close to what Symphony has achieved. The visuals never become old hat, and you will often forget there's a goal to the game. Instead, you will just load up your favorite songs to see how they unfold on the screen, and what challenges they present.


The music filtering system is easy to navigate, so you can find that song that's been running through your head all day and start playing instead of going through a clunky folder tree. Symphony also supports a wide range of audio file extensions, so you aren't waiting for a separate expansion or DLC in order for the game to have access to your .m4a and iPod tunes (Beat Hazard, this entire paragraph is pointed at you).

For casual gaming that incorporates your music collection, I cannot think of a better game for you to get than Symphony from Empty Clip Studios. You can play for hours on end, or casually advance through the game when you find yourself with a few minutes to spare (or for when you're on hold with your favorite customer support department).

Normally, shooters don't do much for me, and the best I can say about them is that they aren't terrible. Symphony has gone above and beyond in being a fun, exciting, and visually pleasing game, while also having a development team that is very quick in responding to the players and fixing any problems that come along. For all of this, Symphony is my new arcade shooter of choice, and probably will be for as long as I enjoy music and gaming.

Tuesday, August 07, 2012

A Symphony Of Bugs


After last month's Steam Summer Sale, I found myself with an overwhelming backlog of games, including Beat Hazard. I'd been looking for a game that would incorporate my music library, yet have a bit of a retro arcade feel to it. That's not being too specific, is it? Anyway, I chose Beat Hazard over Audiosurf, and I was really enjoying the game, despite a lack of visual variety.

Almost immediately following the sale, I saw that Empty Clip Studios was slated to release their games, Symphony, through my preferred game management application of choice. I'd been following the development of Symphony for a while now, and it had those cool vector-esque graphics that made it look like the arcade games of yore, combined with upgrades and customization for the player's ship. On top of that, it recognized almost every audio file type that I had stored on my computer and external hard drive(s), so really, the low price point was a no-brainer. (Oh, and it had Steam Achievements, which I have become a sucker for over the past year or so – you know, because those are the types of awards employers really look for on a resume.)

Last night, I installed the game, had it scan specific directories for music (which it did effortlessly – unlike many other games or even audio playback applications), grabbed a refreshing adult beverage, and sat down to play.

As the plot goes, an entity is trying to enter this world, and needs souls in order to make its plan come to fruition. There is soul in music (apparently this being didn't take a good hard look at my John Zorn or Slayer folders), therefore by corrupting the music files it will be able to capture souls and transition in our reality. (Noooooooooo!) The premise of the game is simple and contrived enough that you don't really have to think about how and why this is happening. You simply accept it as a convention to get you to play through your music collection and watch the tracks come alive and try to kill you. Luckily, you have infinite lives, so all you have to worry about is a point setback if you are taken out by an enemy.


First up, was a Tiger Lillies song. Simple, fun, and with just enough tempo changes to make my first run interesting. Symphony actually analyzes the songs before you play, so it doesn't seem like there's a lot of random action with the occasional movement that may synchronize with your music here or there. In this respect, it is by far the best game in the genre of “games that let you play your own music and generate enemies and situations based on those songs while giving you the visual impression that you are stuck in 1983” - which, for the record, is one of my favorite genres.

Dodging bullets, blasting other ships, and weaving through enemy lines to get my power-ups with aplomb, I made it to the end of the track without suffering a single loss.

And then the game crashed.

Fine. This was not a big deal. Maybe it was just getting used to pulling tracks off the external hard drive. With that theory, I loaded a local track – the Desert Theme from Diablo II (there's something very meta about that, but whatever).

And the game crashed before it even started.

Okay, well, let me try a very short track. So I loaded something by Marc Bolan & T-Rex. That level actually worked, and I earned a few achievements, got an upgrade to my ship, and unlocked a few in-game weapons. Maybe that was the trick – to use songs that were under four minutes in length.

Up next, I decided to really make it easy for the game. I chose a piece of music from the game's own soundtrack, located in the game folder. It was time to face one of the “boss demons,” and the level was extremely interesting. I won! I was really getting into this!

And then the game crashed before I could see the results of my victory.

I loaded it again.

Crashed.

I went for a 36-second A.C. song.

It crashed (in all fairness, I have friends who have a similar reaction).

So here is my final evaluation:

Symphony is a really good game and a great way to kill a few minutes here and there, if you can get it to work. If you don't care about “beating the game” and just want to see how your music looks and feels as a game, then you will probably enjoy Symphony. If you get annoyed by buggy applications that crash if you look at them the wrong way, then you might want to hold off until the developers fix a few things (or rant about it to no one in particular). However, visually and conceptually, Symphony is fantastic game. Hell, even those two times I got it work properly for about half an hour the game play was great!

If I were to tweak a few thing or offer suggestions to Empty Clip Studios on how to improve the Symphony experience, it would be the following:
  • Make it so that the game can handle larger song libraries, or at the very least so it doesn't crash when accessing songs from locations other than the local hard drive.
  • Implement a randomization feature so players have the option of not having to select each individual song (admittedly, this goes hand in hand with those of us who have large music libraries).
  • Pay attention to the feedback users are leaving on the Steam forums. Ignore the negative comments that don't go into depth, but the people who are having problems (some with setups more advanced than what I'm using to play the game) have some very valid points.
In closing, Symphony is a great game (when it works) and is really fun for listening to music and engaging in casual gaming. The retro feel combined with being able to watch your music in action is better than other game of its kind. Is it worth the price? Yes. Is it worth the frustration and constant crashes? Ask me in a few weeks when/if the developers fix any of the problems with this initial release.

Update: Matt from Empty Clip Studios has stated the developers are aware of some of the bugs, and are keeping a direct line of communication open with people who have purchased the game. (It's always good to see the actual developers jumping into the forums and taking a hands-on approach.

8/14/2012 Update: The team at Empty Clip Publishing have been putting in long hours since Symphony's release and have released an update that fixes a majority of the issues.

When not writing, Jonathan can usually be found cooking, reading, going on breathtaking adventures, or playing games until the sun rises.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

I Love Mail Days

I have "things" from famous people, but none have ever really meant anything. There was an autographed picture of Tommy John, because I went to grade school with his daughter (though the draw of baseball eluded me well into my 20s). I had a long conversation with Warwick Davis, his wife, Lou Ferrigno, and Bill Mumy once at a science fiction convention. They were away from the main thoroughfare and completely riffing on one another. That was entertaining, but again, all this did was reinforce that two-dimensional people on a screen are three-dimensional people, and the ability to rehearse and act is a job like any other. There was no golden light surrounding them. Many years later, I had the opportunity to meet one Captain Lou Albano at a community center in Albany, NY. My brother picked me up, and we were all set to ask him trolling questions about Cyndi Lauper and the Super Mario Bros. Super Show, but when we got within range of the man, all we did was stand in awe and thanked him for years of entertainment. I honestly don't know what happened that day - I think I felt a bad that no one was approaching him, considering (or because of) his portfolio.

Famous people have always had an invisible wall that separates them from the crowd. Sometimes it is hard-earned and deserved. Other times, it is a barrier that we construct for them, or that they imagine is there. (Hell, I'm a pretty big deal on this site.) I think this has lessened somewhat over the past decade or so, as technology has made the world smaller, but allowed it to gain depth. We are all people, and we often feel and think on similar levels about many topics. We don't always agree, but smiling for photo opportunities (or punching a cameraman, as it were) has gone by the wayside in favor of Twitter feeds and the occasional blog update to maintain that bridge between artist and the people who appreciate the artist's work.

At TAM 8, I was with my good friend Shane, and we talked with James Randi, Phil Plait, and hung out with Tim Cavanaugh of Reason Magazine, and a few others. These were certainly people to be respected, and who are incredibly smart and accomplished, but they were also willing to engage people in regular one-on-one conversation.

Now I am older - not necessarily more mature, but I've definitely moved along chronologically, despite my best efforts with hot tubs and cars. 

This past year, I was given two gifts from my girlfriend. One was a novella that Judith Tarr wrote for me (there aren't enough exclamation points to go here) about Charlemagne's horse, Tencendur. This was a winter present, and an incredible take on the unseen world that influences historical events.


The second was a birthday gift. This was also from Judith Tarr, and concerned itself with the eternal bond of Anubis and Bastet, and what they are doing these days.


Full disclosure: I asked for this story based on two plush friends who live with us. The story is (I think) a very accurate depiction of what these two might do when no one is watching. It would make an excellent illustrated story, and has become the preferred "out loud" bedtime reading in this house.
Ancient, fierce, and imposing powers from a bygone civilization!
I don't know where I was initially going with this, because I've been bouncing up and down (I've grown up, you see) because Judith Tarr wrote stories FOR ME! 

OH! I remember why I wrote this! Because I'm really excited and happy and wanted to brag!

Also, if you haven't read any of her books, you should go and do so. NOW! I have never witnessed history become so palpable in books before, nor have I read books where magic, science fiction, and the worlds in which they exist make so much sense. There is careful planning put into her worlds, and our own (when she pulls back the veil on the forces and beings working behind what is written about in the history books.

I can see where this is headed, so rather than make you scroll through miles of text about how awesome Judy is, I will paraphrase my above statement: GO READ SOME JUDITH TARR BOOKS!


Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Crow and Owl

It's not often that I get requests for pieces outside the realm of SEO/advertising copy, these days. However, once in a while I am asked to venture back into the realm of pure creativity. This time, someone hired my pen (or I guess it's keyboard, these days) to utilize the Haiku in order to tell a short story. I always found Haiku poetry to be very difficult in English. The Japanese language has many sounds and words that are comprised of one or two syllables, but often imparts very complex notions. English often goes in the opposite direction, with very fancy words often having very simple definitions. Thus writing a Haiku in English to tell a story (not that I could really do it in any other language, save for French or German, but that would bee too strange for even my tastes) was a challenge, and one I gladly accepted.

So, here it is. It's not my personal favorite, but I'm a bit proud of what I accomplished .

Owl and Crow


The winter moon snags
On the dying oak's branches
While owls' songs echo

Large nocturnal eyes
Gaze upon swarthy feathers
Caught in Moon's cold light

Wisdom in return
Is caught in the Dirge's stare
Dark predators dance

Perchance, on shadows
To lite on creaking branches
The black one circles

The owl, all-seeing
Lets the dark hunter draw near
Be ye friend or more?


Do ye seek the warmth?
Or rivaled competition?
Or sounds more than wind?

I seek your knowledge
Much as you seek out my voice
You question, I call.

This night air is bleak
And the graveyard is barren
Save for scuttling mice

What say with your eyes
And my razor sharp talons
We bloody our beaks?

Owl and Crow waited
In Silence, save for the wind,
For quick trails in grass

Four tiny opals
Frightened by even the night
Eight Paws and two tails

Feathered confusion
Fury, flurry, then silence
Owl and Crow both perch

With reddened feathers
They sup on their small quarry
And sigh together

Pink heat, now cooling
In the craws of night hunters
The wind begins to blow

This might be friendship
Or a tennuous romance
No prey was now safe

Saturday, June 30, 2012

The God of the Machine


Not the most flattering image of my desk.

Meet Thoth.

When living with a Egyptologist, it's tough to void picking up knowledge about the gods, no matter how skeptical or how much of an atheist one is. While Ancient Egypt has always fascinated me, I have become very familiar with the likes of Anubis, Bastet, Horus, Ma'at – and now Thoth.

This particular depiction was given to me as a Birthday present - in part because Thoth is the Egyptian god of scribes, science, and technology. It's important that you read that last part, because when I was told Toth's purview, I had to do some research.

Unlike Christian Saints, where the sphere of influence is skewed as much as possible to include various modern things (such as St. Christopher for driving, or Saint Isodore as the Saint of the Internet), the Egyptian gods had very fundamental spheres which covered a broad scope. Ma'at, for example, is the goddess of Truth, Law, and Order. These are very basic and powerful concepts.

The Ancient Egyptians, despite what you may see in some far-fetched, speculative History Channel shows, had an extremely organized and practical culture. (On a side note, claiming that aliens designed large monumental structures only devalues the proven notion that humans were capable of undertaking such feats of engineering, and demonstrates grand scale levels of self-loathing.) Yes, they recognized the importance of the ritual (much like one reads the news in the morning with a cup of coffee before venturing out in the world), but only for practical purposes.

Civilizations do not span 4,000 plus years without some foundation in medicine and science, and apparently these were things that were important enough to warrant their own deities. Thoth was the embodiment of technology, writing and science – and in looking at other pantheons that existed at the time (or even today's monotheistic religions and their saints), I've yet to run across one that had a deity specifically for science and technology from the get go. Usually, gods were given to “medicine,” magic, and “the unknown,” spheres which can be broadened and interpreted in various ways to include things such as science and technology, but never specifically designated to preside over such things. (It should also be noted that I am by no means an expert, so if anyone has any historical information to add to this, please let me know.)

Does this mean I've become some pagan, or heathen, or whatever the popular term is for someone who worships a deity other than some invisible sky daddy? No. As a matter of fact, you will find that I believe in very little outside of what can be proved (though Newtonian physics has ruined the best of my plans). I am not a Wiccan. I am not an Odinist. I am not a Buddhist, Hindu, or follower of the Aten.

This does not mean I am ignorant of these cultures. As a matter of fact, one of my hobbies is tracing modern religions back through the ages. Taking Christianity as we know it today and following the various branches to the Schism in The Church, and before that the Council of Nicaea, and even further back to Mithras (yes, I do enjoy the research that Barbara Walker has done on religions) and the cults that sprang up in Rome, and the parallels in Ancient Egyptian mythology, are all things that fascinate me. It's why some people read comic books that tell origin stories of various characters.

On the surface, Thoth is an anthropomorphic ibis holding a scroll and a stylus. To me, that's just cool. The fact that 3,500 ago, a culture recognized the importance of writing, technology, and science is not only cool, but it trumps many “modern” regions in the world today where people would rather trade knowledge for faith.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Cheese Straws

Before the warm weather really kicks in, I've been spending quite a bit of time in the kitchen. (After those hot days finally arrive, you're more likely to find me out on the patio with my laptop and a cold adult beverage.) The past year has been full of new experiences, but cooking as a cooperative effort has been one of the most memorable. Typically, such endeavors have involved people getting in my way (the reverse can easily be said, especially since I am left handed), or the whole timing part of cooking being thrown off completely due to individual preparation rates and subjective senses of time (yes, I know most kitchens have at least one clock). Ultimately, the little culinary projects would end up with one or the other person pulling out a recipe for politics and sausage and pointing a stern finger in the direction of the entrance to the kitchen, commanding the other person to help by doing anything other than assisting in the cooking process.

Last week, we dug out a recipe for cheese straws. For those unfamiliar with this little snack, it's a small stick of baked dough packed with the flavor of an entire wheel of cheese in each bite. They are tasty and very dangerous - making the average person theorize that "one" as a quantity may be an imaginary number after taking the first bite.

The recipe is very simple, but before I go into the details, it should be noted that vegans can easily find substitutes for three of the items listed below, in order to give you an equally delicious and unhealthy snack - but with a conscience. Also, you might want to cut the recipe in half, so that you don't end up having to make 5-7 baking sheets worth of cheese straws.

First, let's start out with the basic ingredients:
  • 2 C. Flour
  • 2 C. Cheese - Any kind will do, just make sure it is grated so that it mixes well. For our experiment, we used smoked Cheddar. Vegan alternatives, such as Sheese, work just as well.
  • 3/4 C. Butter - This is a lifestyle choice. Some people may prefer to use a vegan alternative, while others prefer to make things that taste good.
  • 1 Tsp. Baking Powder
  • 1/2 C. Buttermilk - If you want an alternative, try vegan sour cream, or a combination of soy milk and vinegar.
Instructions:

Mix everything together thoroughly, until you have a very dense dough. The next thing you want to do is take a handful of the dough and spread it over a flat surface (a clean counter top, a cutting board, or the baking sheet itself) so that it is no more than 1/4-inch thick. Now comes the most time consuming part of the recipe - cutting the dough into strips and placing them on the (ungreased) baking sheet. I prefer my cheese straws to be narrow, but remember that the wider you cut them, the longer they will have to bake. 

Tip: To make cutting uniform strips easier, trim off the edges of the dough so you are left with a rectangle of dough to slice. 

Preheat your oven to 400°

Now that the strips of dough are on the baking sheet, all you need to do is pop them in the oven for about 5 minutes, or until they reach a deep golden-brown color. You can do additional things, like sprinkling extra seasonings on them before you bake them, or (as we did) brush them with garlic olive oil we made a month prior to this experiment. It's really about personal taste.

After all is said and done, this is the result:
So easy, even a bachelor can make them.
This is a very basic recipe, and it can be modified in almost any way. Change up the cheese flavors, if you want. Add crumbled bacon. Make a sauce for dipping. Each cheese straw probably contains a billion calories, so anything else you add really won't make a difference. In fact, the most difficult thing about making cheese straws is not eating the first batch before the second is done.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Of Crocs & Kids

Once upon a time, someone accidentally bought a pair of Crocs. That, in and of itself was not bad, as it was an accidental purchase. In order to justify buyer's remorse, rather than throwing out the pair of Crocs, or keeping them well-hidden in a closet, the person decided to wear them out in public - extolling the virtues of comfort and style - and slowly believing the story the more times it was told. As a result, other people bought into this, and suddenly owning Crocs became a thing, and people felt the "need" to have them. A person was neither fashion forward nor caring about personal health/the environment if he or she didn't have at least one pair of Crocs to wear proudly with outfits that didn't belong in the medical field or while gardening in one's own yard.

I've noticed that a similar chain of events occurs when a person shows off a new baby to one's peers.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Needless Things

I can say with good confidence that I've lived a good third of my life as a pack rat. I took care of everything I've ever owned, and nothing went to waste. Or rather, not much has been thrown out that really should have been - trading cards from series that had nothing to do with sports (Garbage Pail Kids, Desert Storm trading cards, etc.); the long cardboard boxes the CDs used to be packaged in (because I enjoyed the artwork); and stacks upon stacks of jewel cases and (formerly) blank media for software, music, document files, movies, pictures, and anything else I clung to as if losing even the most neglected piece of errata would be the equivalent of having a lobotomy and losing precious memories.


As I went through upheavals in my life, or moved to various locations, things became lost or misplaced. At the time, "starting over" meant reclaiming those things form whatever source I could find, so that I might comfortably increase and expand my collection and become a living example of a George Carlin routine. It was comfortable living in a kingdom of my own past, without any room for the present or future on the shelves, or in the corners, or even on top of stacks of books, papers, and music that threatened to topple at any moment.


Over the past few years, I started to accept that technology had finally arrived at a point where I could comfortably start getting rid of "stuff," rather than sighing heavily as I watched circumstances flip the tables and discard the contents all over the floor.


This started with the concept of carving an elephant - based on a children's joke between an inquisitive person and an artist working on a statue. It goes something like this:


Inquisitive Person: What are you working on?
Artist: I'm carving a statue of an elephant.
Inquisitive Person: How do you carve an elephant?
Artist: It's easy. I just look at the block of stone, and take away everything that isn't an elephant!


This almost Talmudic venture into humor (Life is like a river?) eventually turned into a property (complete with domain and everything, because I thought I was just that good) based on the concept of keeping one's life free of clutter, drama, and anything else that hindered happy living. However, I was not exactly at the point where I could seriously tackle such a project (on an emotional or psychological level), so it went by the wayside, as I continued to needlessly collect and acquire "stuff" I'd lost in the previous years (especially when the things I really needed to reclaim weren't external, in the least). Just like learning something new, or reducing your adult beverage intake from three pitchers of margaritas to only one, simply because you know something is good for you (in a larger sense), doesn't mean you can bring yourself to actually do it. After all, I've never seen a cat walk into a pet carrier if it knew it was being taken to the vet.


I think the big shift came the year I was given an iPod (Reciprocity), as well as purchasing an e-reader. When I considered both devices and ventured back into taking Valve's Steam service more seriously, as well as options for cloud storage, it became very apparent that a lot of the physical things I owned (or rather, that were in my possession) weren't really necessary. Sure, I'd copied and recopied hundreds of thousands of files to various hard drives and blank DVDs over the years, for the sake of backing up my digital life, but even those things take up space. Suddenly, I could make my entire music collection disappear, yet accessible any time I wanted. My collection of games wasn't so much portable, as it was playable from any computer, anywhere I went. Books? I have a Nook (two, actually, thanks to my friend, Shane), so unless it's something that is out of print, or is heavily reliant on images and textures (Gryphon & Sabine comes to mind), then I can get he books I want for pennies on the price of a physical copy (though I still hesitate over the disparity in price and how the publishing industry really needs to rethink its current model so neither readers nor authors get screwed), and carry an entire library wherever I go without having to haul around a backpack like I'm some student who is afraid of using a locker (I never trusted them, to be honest). Don't misunderstand me - sometimes it's great to hold a book and read it in its original form, much like "writing" in the traditional sense without a keyboard. But apart from my personal collection, a number of signed copies, manuscripts, etc., almost anything else can live happily on a micro SD card.


I think a lot of the above maundering comes from running an eBay store, recently watching shows about antiques, and a lot of reflection on the sheer amounts of junk I've acquired over the years. Mostly because I know that, at some point, at least a few of these things are going to get donated or sold to some lucky individuals.


Most things do not actually hold memories. I say "most" because there are some things that become cherished, and should not be thrown away - ever. However, if those things are lost or given away, the memory or feelings that are mapped to those items don't simply dissipate. There are certain books, cuff links, suspenders - hell, movie ticket stubs - that I will never lose or give up, but even though the physical matter deteriorates, the things they signify will never disappear.


I guess what I'm trying to say is that if something really matters, as far as memories and feelings go, write them down (notepad applications and private blogs are wonderful things). If you have old pictures and papers, scan them and upload them to a reliable storage service. Music is a no-brainer these days (though avoid iTunes to keep your happiest music memories from being associated with feelings of frustration due to Apple's interface and bloated software), and just look for alternatives to reduce clutter and keep the little things you hold dear.


I'm not suggesting any of you give up your collections or hobbies. I'm lucky in that most of mine can exist virtually, and the ones that can't live in the æther get documented in pictures or words, in case those pastimes become no longer viable.


Once again, technology has made itself available, and it's just a matter of being willing to embrace it and all of the facets of our lives it can "free up" for things like exploring other avenues, acquainting ourselves with new ideas and experiences, or simply getting new things to fill up those freshly emptied shelves.

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