Browsing the blog archives for December, 2006

Link Roundup – Odds and Ends

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Miscellaneous

Like Shamus I’ve been way too busy to manage to keep up with everything I’ve wanted to write about or mention lately, so here’s a roundup post to (mostly) clean out my blog cache before the new year.

Here’s a video showing off the Final Fantasy 13 environments. I love the renderer they’re using, though I have no clue how it’s able to calculate all that detail in what seems like real-time.

Jesse Curry muses on why Digg is filled with ***holes. I’m definitely inclined to agree that the simplicity of the Digg/Bury mechanism only allows the lowest common denominator to rise to the top. I find Slashdot’s moderation/ranking system intimidating, but it also has a much better signal-to-noise ratio. At the same time, I feel like Slashdot attracts a more mature crowd in general, so I have no clue whether Digg’s problems stem from the system or from the users themselves.

While I tend to be skeptical of claims like these, the obligatory joke is that performing solat five times daily results in a 67% decrease in having your head sawed off. Seriously though, that meditative practices like prayer may have health benefits wouldn’t surprise me.

I’ve been sitting on a couple of links here for awhile on pseudonyms and blogging. I believe I grabbed the first of these from 2Blowhards and the second from the first, but it’s been some time so it’s tough to remember. The first is from someone calling him/herself Oso Raro, the second is from someone calling herself Dr. Crazy. The angle is a bit obliquely academic, but I found them worth a read.

I also liked this piece by John Derbyshire, found via Steve Sailer, on the educational establishment.

Last, but not least I wanted to provide a link to this post by Sheila O’Malley about the Charmin bathrooms in Times Square… Perhaps the only bathrooms in Times Square, to which no doubt tens of thousands of people will flock tonight. Alas, the Sheila’s post does not seem to be working anymore, at least not on her blog. Here’s the Google cache of the page, you must read it.

WoAdWriMo Musings

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Personal, RPGs

It’s been awhile since I’ve had time to sit down and write anything substantial for this blog and longer still since I’ve managed to do anything substantial regarding D&D. Awhile ago over at Treasure Tables Martin made a post spotlighting a little venture called WoAdWriMo or Worldwide Adventure Writing Month. It’s a simple basic idea riffing off of the popularity of NaNoWriMo, with the goal of writing a 32 page adventure during the month of June.

I’ve been contemplating starting up my campaign again, or at least moving into a pre-game planning stage so I’m ready to start it up in a few months, and the WoAdWriMo project offers me a convenient way to multitask my efforts at planning for my campaign as well as making something that other people might find useful. Of course how useful anyone might find what I do will vary — I see this little venture as a way to get back into my campaign setting, so whether someone else can make use of it will depend on how much room their game has to drop in a small-to-moderate sized slice of another game setting.

I’m pretty sure what I’m going to be doing is running the campaign, when it starts up again, out of the Iron Heroes rulebook. I like a lot of things Iron Heroes does — Plenty of skillpoints to balance out characters, dynamic combat utilizing the token system, armor as damage reduction, no dependency on magic items to balance the game… It’s much closer to what I really want for my campaign setting than core D&D is. That’s not to say I don’t have reservations about Iron Heroes — It’s a lot of extra effort to learn the new rules and make new NPCs in that, not to mention the extra bookkeeping that running any classed-NPCs would entail (regarding tokens, etc). Still, I think it’s a lot simpler to just run out of one book and keep the houseruling to a minimum, which is really the reason why I stopped the campaign in the first place last time. Rewriting D&D’s entire Magic system is just too drastic a change to spring on the other guys. In any case, since none of the Iron Heroes classes have magical abilities this really makes my life easier, since I can reserve Magic as the domain of powerful NPCs.

Back to WoAdWriMo — I’ve got a pretty good idea what I want to do for this. Starting up the campaign again with the Iron Heroes rules means either recreating or making new characters (I’m leaning towards insisting on new ones, but some could still work). That also means I need to have a basic adventure to introduce the players into the gameworld and the factions of the gameworld. I think I’ve got a pretty good idea of how to do this too — I was listening to one of the D&D Podcasts and Dave Noonan and Mike Mearls were talking about adventure ideas. The one I really like is the idea of hooking the players into the service of one NPC who then goes missing and everyone in the city eventually comes calling for him, leaving the PCs to deal with the trouble left in his wake. Although it’s pretty simple in concept, what I really like is how it introduces major factions to the PCs and also leaves conflict resolution entirely up to them. I think I’ll be lucky if I can keep this thing even remotely close to 30 pages.

Save the Reindeer!

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Guild Wars

I haven’t been posting much the last couple days, what with Christmas Eve and Christmas in there and all that entails. I realized in the wind-down after Christmas day that December’s coming to a close — That means Guild Wars’ Wintersday event is going to wrap up soon too, and since I’ve had a whole maybe five hours enjoying the thing, I’ve been trying to dedicate some more time to finish the Wintersday quests and throwing snowballs around.

Here’s a few screenshots from what I have accomplished…

GWNReindeer1

GWNReindeer3

GWNReindeer2

GWNReindeer4

Blasted Grentches, how could they be so cruel as to try and make hats out of these adorable guys?

Wintersday is Here!

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Games, Guild Wars, RPGs

Well, I managed to survive last week with most of my sanity intact. I just logged in to Guild Wars to blow off a little steam and what do I see?

GWNWintersday1

GWNWintersday2

GWNWintersday3

GWNWintersday4

GWNWintersday5

GWNWintersday6

GWNWintersday7

Wintersday! Kamadan is really pretty in the snow… Kind of amazing, actually, considering how desert-like the rest of Elona is. Heh. Now I’m off to play, may update once I’ve done some of the Wintersday quests and games.

YouTube Showcase

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Miscellaneous

Also known as: Holidays are way too busy, but here’s some cool stuff.

Anyway, if there’s one good thing to this whole YouTube “revolution” — for lack of a better term — then it’s that creative guys and gals with a computer and a digital videocamera can make amazing low-budget independent clips, films without having to go through traditional distribution channels. High-concept, low-concept, whatever, as long as someone’s got the will to push the project through, it can be on YouTube.

Tony vs. Paul, a stop motion battle:

This next one is, I think, a student project by either a student or a group of students. Kiwi:

This last one’s actually got some real funding behind it, but it’s a marvel nonetheless. I guess if I were to attend some of these Digital Animation Expos and Conventions I might see this sort of stuff outside of YouTube: The Cathedral.

Enjoy.

ArenaNet Owns Me

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Art, Games, Guild Wars

So ArenaNet announces the festivities for the Holiday Season 2006:

Even before the grand finale, wherein Dwayna and Grenth promise the crowds gifts to gain their favor, Wintersday will provide many opportunities for wintry fun and presents. Here’s what you can expect:

* The return of two well-known Wintersday quests, which give you the chance to side with Grenth and his grentchies or Dwayna and her snowmen even before their final showdown. Unsure of which deity to support? Try both quests to pick your favorite!
* New for this Wintersday season are two all new quest chains revolving around the two competing holiday gods. Polar bears, reindeer, and devious presents – Oh my!
* Venture into the Underworld for a series of repeatable snowball fights against either the forces of Grenth or the forces of Dwayna. Take control of piles of presents to ensure your side’s victory in this frosty fray.
* For another dose of snowball mayhem, try out the PvP snowball fight. Random forces will unite within an arena to fight for either Grenth or Dwayna. The first team to gather five presents for its patron deity will win the day.
* And, if you believe the old adage that it is better to give than to receive, try your hand at the city event game in Lion’s Arch, Droknar’s Forge, Kamadan, and Ascalon City during the festivities. Deliver presents to the children before the grentchies destroy Wintersday. And you never know, the little urchins might just reward you with something special for your generosity.

* Winter Gift: What surprise will you find inside? “Unwrap” it to find out.
* Snowman Summoner: Need an instant snowman? This gift is for you.
* Eggnog: The holiday season’s staple drink.
* Spiked Eggnog: A more potent glass of nog for the hale and hearty. Please imbibe responsibly—don’t drink and quest.
* Green Candy Cane: The return of the adventurer’s favorite candy treat.
* Rainbow Candy Cane: A different flavor of candy cane that should also make those long days of questing much more enjoyable.
* Yuletide Tonic: Drink this tonic if you want to be one of Dwayna’s little helpers during the festivities.
* Frozen Globs of Ectoplasm: You’ll need some of this collectible item when you get low on Yuletide Tonic.
* Candy Cane Shards: Collect these colorful fragments by questing and competing. The outcome of Wintersday hangs in the balance, and your contribution of Candy Cane Shards may make all the difference. Besides, you never know what somebody might trade for these once the festivities come to a close. Tip: Hold onto those shards until the Wintersday finale and use them for good (or mischievous) intent!
* Fruitcake: A tasty holiday staple that is sure to put a little spring in your step.
* Special Rewards: In the tradition of the season, you’ll receive special headgear during the Wintersday finale. And even better, you’ll get a new means of storing it, as well.

ArenaNet also announces two really nice presents for players of Guild Wars available when the holiday festivities start:

Party Search — A brand new Party Search panel will be added to Guild Wars this December, which will allow players to more easily form groups. Casual and hard-core gamers alike will benefit from this new system, as it will make it easier for players to form parties for some of the tougher quests and missions in the game, find the last cog needed for a fearsome group that can tear through the PvP arenas, or just connect with old friends online to go explore the diverse Guild Wars world.

Reconnect After Disconnect — One of the most player-requested features comes to Guild Wars! If a player gets dropped from the game due to a connection problem, and that player can reconnect within ten minutes, the player’s character will be relocated to the spot of disconnection. If the character was performing an action, such as casting a spell or auto-attacking a target, that character will complete the action as if still connected. If a player is in a group when disconnected, the other members of the party will be notified about the player’s connection problems.

Awesome. A better grouping mechanic, and a way to reconnect to an instance after being disconnected are just about the most popular requests for the game in general. Add on the fact that we’re getting additional storage for holiday items and this will be a very merry Wintersday indeed. I’m crossing my fingers that next year I’ll find additional general storage, a stylist NPC, and an auction house — If that happens my Guild Wars life will be complete.

I also ran across this gem of a thread. Apparently one of the special editions of Guild Wars: Nightfall had a concept art book that contained beautiful concept art, which is now being reposted here online to this thread. Some samples:

NightfallStructure

NecroHighland

WingedParagon

Everything in that thread is stunning. An absolute treasure trove. Happy Wintersday, ANet!

Beckstein Blues/Germany Giggles

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Culture, Games, Politics

Note: The following post was originally posted at this location by a user known as “Tim Partlett” (presumably the author’s real name). I’m reposting this here because I think it’s a fascinating and well-written look at the problems that face one of Germany’s biggest game development houses.

Beckstein Blues
Note: This is a personal commentary and does not reflect the views of my company in any way.

When I tell people in Germany what I do for a living, they usually react with a mixture of pity and disgust, like I had admitted to them I was a male prostitute. I’ve learned to avoid the subject, and give a vague answer like “software developer”, because this causes me less problems. The attitude has been getting worse lately.

I was sitting in a restaurant one day in Coburg, Bavaria. An old couple asked if they could take the seat on my table. I agreed. They sat down actually at my table, ordered food, and the woman proceeded to chain smoke her way through a packet of Reemtsmas, allowing me to smoke passively while I ate.

Sitting at a stranger’s table in a full restaurant is considered quite normal in Germany. Smoking while other people are eating doesn’t even register here as something one shouldn’t do, and nobody would even think to ask if you might not enjoy it. And health reasons? Who cares; what are those anyway?

There’s a strong link between passive smoking and death. They estimate about 50,000 non-smokers die in the US every year to passive smoking. Under pressure from the EU the German government reluctantly proposed new laws banning smoking in restaurants. This law was due to take effect in the new year, but it got struck down last week for being unconstitutional.

Despite the proven links between passive smoking and a very unpleasant death for many thousands of people every year, nobody in Germany wants to ban smoking. Not the public, nor the politicians. They will find any excuse to avoid EU pressure to conform and save lives. Not so for computer games.

For computer games both the press and public are histrionic, and the politicians are keen to tap into every reactionary outrage. What triggered the latest bout of threats to the German computer games industry was an “amokrun” at Emsdetten last month, but the whole issue has been simmering for some years now, since Robert Steinhauser took out his 9mm Glock and killed 13 teachers and 2 students at his school in Erfurt.

At the time of the shooting, we were already in development of the “murder simulator” Far Cry at our old studio in Coburg. We were just across the state border from Erfurt in northern Bavaria. Tensions in the region were high. While the people of Coburg continued to treat us like mini-superstars, because we were the biggest thing ever to happen to this small German town, it was a different matter for the rest of the state.

In 2004 the Bavarian authorities sent in the state troopers. Ostensibly it was as a response to a claim made by a former employee that we had illegal software installed on our machines. Their remit, however, appeared to be a lot wider. When the small tech team appeared to inspect our computers, they were accompanied by over one hundred flak-jacketed riot police, all armed with Heckler and Koch sub-machine guns.

It was a total overreaction. It was like they expected to find us hunkered down behind our desks, pulling out our shotguns and semi-automatics and shouting “you’ll never take me alive, polizei!” They arrived first thing in the morning, and kicked down our doors. They even raided the nearby private residences, with one of our programmers forced to lay down naked on the floor with a gun to his head after he discovered armed police in his room after finishing his shower.

Because we weren’t all at work at the same ungodly hour that most Germans start, they were forced to set up ambushes all over town. I was caught just outside the office. Others were pounced on in the park. There were reports that they’d even set up roadblocks on the exits to the town. We were all shepherded into our Mo-Cap room, and there we were forced to remain until questioned, prevented from leaving by dozens of armed guards. There must have been two guys (and girls) with submachine guns for every one of us. You can imagine we didn’t feel very welcome in Bavaria after that.

Bavaria is a very conservative state, possibly the most conservative of an already conservative nation. The state president of Bavaria, Dr. Edmund Stoiber, renowned for his somewhat bizarre habit of dressing up in lederhosen and a Tyrolean hat, made it very clear before the raid how much he despised the kind of “killer games” that we made. And it is again from Bavaria where this latest attempt to ban computer games is stirring.

Dr. Günther Beckstein (many important Germans have doctorates; the Germans seem to have a great respect for qualifications), Interior Minister for the state of Bavaria, has drafted a new law so that those “who distribute, produce, obtain or deliver computer games that allow the player to perform violent acts against human beings in a cruel way or a way violating human dignity as primary or secondary objectives, will be punished with a fine or imprisonment of up to one year.” He’s backed by Lower Saxony, our neighbours.

It seems that the politicians are largely just reacting to hysteria in the public and press. The general consensus is that the government won’t pass this law, and even if they did, they would find themselves in conflict with local state laws, and overarching EU laws. EU laws are designed to protect free trade between nations, and so banning something that is perfectly legal in every other part of the EU causes problems. Our current home state of Hessen is relatively liberal, and so far hasn’t made any noises about supporting this legislation, so we aren’t packing our bags just yet.

The hysteria, however, is huge. Even before the latest amokrun the press were fixated with games and their effects on children. Crytek are big news in Germany just on their success alone. Our latest game is currently attracting more development dollars than any German movie in history. You’d think the press would be interested in us purely because of this, but no.

We had Der Spiegel, roughly equivalent to Time Magazine in the US, and the most popular weekly magazine in Europe, run a five page center spread on us a few months back, before the Emsdetten shooting and the latest furore. Even this relatively restrained and respected news magazine couldn’t resist focusing almost the entire article on violence in games. They even printed a picture of children playing some unnamed game at the Leipzig Games Convention, with the words of our CEO, Cevat Yerli, underneath saying how “we don’t make games for children.”

That’s pretty mild. The tabloids have headlines screeching about “killer games”, and stating as fact that children become killers because of playing such games. The TV stations when they covered this issue recently kept playing the youtube video of the “angry German kid” alongside supposedly serious coverage. If you’ve seen the video, you will understand what kind of impression this would give viewers. I don’t even believe the video is genuine, as he doesn’t even appear to be moving the mouse when he is shooting people in between bouts of keyboard smashing. But facts don’t appear to be all that important in the German “killer game” debate right now.

Since the shooting, Der Spiegal returned to the subject again last week, reporting on the violent murder of a homeless man in Cottbus, in deepest East Germany. The man was kicked in the face repeatedly until he died. The autopsy found “a profound demolition of the face”. The opening line of this article painted the obvious bias in it.

A 19 years old man has confessed that he killed a homeless man with kicks and blows to his face. His motive was frustration he stated at court. Right before this act of brutality he had been stopped by the local police and had been playing a violent computer game – losing every match.

At least Der Spiegel had the decency to write about the other factors in the case, albeit almost as a footnote. What they didn’t feel appropriate to comment on in the lede, was the fact that he’d claimed the killing was a result of him playing the game and having drunk a bottle of beer, two bottles of wine and an entire bottle of chocolate liqueur before the incident. Nor did it mention that he was a neo-Nazi obsessed with violence. He’d even scrawled “Heil Hitler”, “White Power Hooligans” and multiple swastikas on the walls of his holding cell before the trial.

Of course, it was the game’s fault that the neo-Nazi caved in this man’s skull. You know what the game was? Maybe Gears of War or Dead Rising, two games recently refused classification in Germany? The usual suspects of CounterStrike, Manhunt or Grand Theft Auto? No, it was SmackDown vs Raw 2006 – a wrestling game.

Wrestling is considered family entertainment in the US, but a simulation of Wrestling is considered in Germany a “violent computer game” with the ability to stir previously innocent neo-Nazi hooligans to acts of immense violence. It beggars belief and its little surprise that Germany is becoming the laughing stock of the European press.

Despite the incredulity of these articles, the lack of evidence, and the bemusement of the rest of Europe, Germans remain adamant that these games are evil. A recent survey suggested as many as 66% of Germans would support a ban on these games. On the other hand, despite the known dangers of passive smoking, the certainty of a nasty and painful death for thousands every year, the majority of Germans are opposed to the banning of smoking even in restaurants.

With a majority of Germans thinking you are evil and the press and politicians baying for you to be thrown in jail, it can make life uncomfortable. Thankfully Frankfurt is a wonderful city, the richest in Europe, where people are more interested in making money than moralizing about the contents of games. When my friend recently dared to mention his exact profession to a woman in one of the great nightclubs here, he was surprised that her reaction was “that’s a fantastic job, you must make a ton of cash.”

I love Frankfurt. I love Germany. I think it’s a great country to live in. I really hope they don’t make me leave.

It’s amazing to me that a country that’s presumably in the first world could even consider backwater legislation like this. “Games that allow the player to perform violent acts against human beings in a cruel way or a way violating human dignity” is such a flexible category… Presumably no videogames would fall under this definition, as videogames typically don’t involve the player performing violent acts against human beings but rather against representations of humans (or aliens).

That technicality aside, it definitely seems problematic to me when a game like BattleChess could reasonably expect to be banned under such a rule, for depictions of “cruel violence.” Indeed, Chess itself could be banned, though any such ruling would depend on whether mere killing constitutes “cruel” violence. Were this bill to pass into law I can imagine with glee the hilarity of German courts ruling, say, the exact amount of visible blood (in metric units, of course!) permissable before an act of violence becomes “cruel,” or whether vampires can be considered human beings for purposes of this law. Dark Ages 2.0, here we come!

Adventures in Anime

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Anime, Personal

Via Steven I came across this posting by BeckoningChasm on his conversion into the otakusphere collective.

I kid, of course. I’m not an otaku, and I only use the term because, like BeckoningChasm, I don’t tend to use the conglomeration of jargon and adopted Japanese words that most other people who write about anime do. There’s really no point to using borrow words where English will do just fine. I’ve been watching anime regularly for going on a decade now, and it’s rather strange because, like BeckoningChasm, I don’t consider myself an anime fan. I think it’s kind of a unusual situation to be in, particularly when the fanbase of anime seems so often to be so fanatical that they swear off books, television, live action movies and start dipping into disturbing and obsessive practices.

Unlike BeckoningChasm, I’ve been watching anime for about a decade now. I can count the number of anime DVDs I own on my hands, but have a few friends who collectively must own almost every DVD ever burned. Where did I get started? That’s tough to say. My recollection of events that far back is definitely jumbled. I do remember the first two major anime films that I watched: One was late at night when everyone else had gone to sleep, I pulled out the DVD of Ghost in the Shell, which I had remembered being recommended by Siskel and Ebert. I sat down to watch it and was completely hypnotized. The other was a DVD recommended to me called Ninja Scroll, which was enjoyable enough but certainly not something I’d class as great. Presumably the latter is respected for its animation quality, but I really don’t care about the technical aspects of production so long as it doesn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the story.

From there I’ve gone on to watch a decent number of movies and series, although I am pretty passive insofar as my anime-acquiring habits. I recognize that almost everything out there is garbage; Either it has no redeeming qualities or it isn’t entertaining to watch, or both. By utilizing other people as my filtration mechanisms I can maximize the amount of good content I can watch while minimizing the bad. The trick, of course, is, as BeckoningChasm points out, finding out how other peoples’ tastes coincide with your own. For example: Big O and Full Metal Alchemist are both shows that became very popular because they were featured on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim. Both are trash, but worse, I didn’t even find them enjoyable trash. Big O had an amazing concept, but it was never developed, instead being used as a vehicle to ignore continuity and throw lots of big robots at each other. I hated all of the characters in Full Metal Alchemist, found the plot repetitive and far too graphic to be enjoyable. Lesson learned: The dreck the masses of Cartoon Network lap up like it were honey is not for me. I find this a pretty good rule, although I will watch that interminable series, Inuyasha, simply for the fact of analyzing it in terms of an ongoing D&D campaign, or DragonBall Z, which is a definite guilty pleasure.

Of course, personal recommendations are also hit or miss. While I enjoyed Ninja Scroll enough that I don’t have reservations about watching it, I was also recommended Plastic Little by the same friend — And I definitely regret watching that. Steven , just to give a more relevant example, has watched and liked enough harem/romance comedies, and rejected as many other good series or movies, that I know it’s probably hit or miss whether our tastes align.

In any case, I have run across a number of good recommendations in my internet travels, and will run across more no doubt. Now if only I had the time to watch them…

Link Roundup

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Culture, Miscellaneous

How difficult is it to become a popstar in the modern music world?

On an entertainment-related note: A Chinese actress talks about the obvious scumminess of the film industry. Does anyone believe that the film industry is any different anywhere else? It’s an industry where women succeed by virtue of raw sex appeal rather than talent or intelligence. Lets be realistic. The only real question in my mind is: How do movie executives in the US get away with this behavior without getting sued into oblivion?

Here’s a hilariously bad video I found on YouTube that, oddly enough, deals with some similar themes. It seems to be some bizarre hybrid of a World of Warcraft and Coke commercial.

I don’t really watch much television anymore, so I’d only heard tangentially about Dateline’s somewhat controversial entrapment scheme “To Catch A Predator.” There are a number of people who’ve posted clips of the “busts” featured on Dateline, and somehow or another I ended up watching a few of them — I find the segments kind of problematic. My test is this: What if someone wanted to play a prank on Chris Hansen? What if you wanted to play his game and win, and show him, his condescending attitude, and his hair, for a fool on national television? How would that play out?

Simply put, it wouldn’t. I can’t even conceive of how clever and how airtight of a case you’d have to have in order to escape from Dateline’s spin. And if these vigilantes are convinced of their own self-righteousness…? Anyway, here’s a funny parody of Dateline’s entrapment scheme.

On a crime theme, I had a great laugh at the Worst Burglar Ever.

Unbelievable. Just unbelievable.

Via Gene Expression I came across a link to Peekvid. Peekvid seems to be an aggregator of copyrighted video content. Although I wouldn’t want to watch anything extended on it due to the horrible quality, it seems like a good resource to sample things to see if you like them. I browsed their anime section for a bit, although as one would expect, the worst animes are also the most popular (Examples: Bleach, Naruto, Pokemon, etc). I also took a look at their comedy section and took a look at some of the Borat videos available there. After watching a few Borat segments I’ve decided that I don’t particularly care to subject myself to two hours of the same thing. At least now I have a good idea of the schtick and don’t feel completely out of the cultural loop.