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Monday, November 28, 2011

RockSmith Might Make Me a Believer (in XBox)

Those of you who know me well or know my kids know that our house is XBox/PS-free. I'm against kids sitting around playing video games all day when they could be outside. Even if that weren't the case, I have three computers within arm's reach as I type this, plus another desktop system in my garage and my wife's laptop downstairs. Oh, and an old system in the music room that I just haven't parted with yet. So, we have no shortage of computer systems on which we could play games if I were inclined to buy and play computer games. No need to spend $300 on an XBox or Playstation, right?

Until now.

Before we go further, I should explain that IF I break down and buy a gaming system it will be the XBox rather than the Playstation. That's a holdover from when I used Sony video cameras and editing equipment. Great gear, but I learned the hard lesson that once you buy into the Sony regime you are stuck with it. Besides, Microsoft is at least nominally an American company. So, let's not have an XBox versus Playstation argument. My kids are just lucky I'm considering either option. If they had any idea I was considering this possibility, my status as coolest dad in the world would be etched in stone.

So, why now? Why, after thirteen years of making my kids feel like the only Jewish kids on the block at Christmas, am I suddenly not just able to consider but actually enthusiastic about the idea of getting an XBox? Because you cannot, as yet, play RockSmith on a PC. (Nor on a WII.)

If you haven't heard of RockSmith yet, don't feel left out. It was just released this past October. I had never heard of it until this past weekend. And, then, it was only because our new music store in town had a fully-functional display set up when I went to buy drum sticks the other night. The kids and I played it and at least two of us were hooked. You may not have anything about RockSmith yet, but you will. In fact, allow me to be the first to pass the good news along.

Remember Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Utter waste of time. I've always said that. While Guitar Hero looks like it might be marginally fun to play for about an hour, it's basically air guitar with a plastic prop. Apparently I'm at least partially correct in my assessment of GH's/RB's ability to stay relevant. I haven't seen either one of them on store shelves this year. They may be there, but they aren't the "rock stars" they were last Christmas season. I mean, you can still find Bee Gees records, too, but that doesn't mean they're still relevant.

Anyway, I've always said if you're going to spend the time learning to play GH/RB, why not spend that time learning to play an actual guitar? Apparently the folks at Ubisoft agree with me. RockSmith is essentially the GH/RB game (the guitar part) except that you use A REAL GUITAR.

That's right. You plug an actual guitar with strings and frets into your XBox/PS and start the game. Instead of doing a half-assed air guitar thing with some plastic, guitar-shaped game "controller," you play actual notes on actual guitar strings. The system compensates for tuning, and it takes care of the messy amp settings to get the right "sound" for the song you're playing. But, you're actually playing a guitar.

Like (from what I remember) GH/RB, the better you get, the harder the game becomes. Until you're playing the entire song note for note on your guitar. And, what you learn transfers. My son came home after his test drive and played exactly what he had learned on RockSmith on his real guitar. Quite unlike anything you can do with what you "learn" by playing GH/RB, huh?

And, here's another thing. You don't need a $400 Fender Tele to play RockSmith. Any cheap-ass guitar with an output jack will work (acoustics, too, if you have a pickup attached). I got a real piece of crap online a few years ago for about $25 and it will work just fine with RockSmith. The cheap plastic game controllers go for anywhere from $40 to $150 and what are you going to do with them when you aren't playing GH/RB? Nothing. Waste of money. You can get a perfectly nice electric guitar for $150, which you can actually play independently of your game system.

At $79.99, this isn't the cheapest game you can buy for your Xbox or Playstation, but you get what you pay for. Not to say your kids wouldn't get bored with it, but what they learn before that happens will be real. Still not sure I'm going to rush out and buy an XBox, but the fact that I'm even thinking about it speaks volumes about RockSmith. If you already have an XBox this would be well worth the money. Even if you had to buy a cheap guitar to use with it.

LG HB336 Blu-Ray Home Theatre System

Bought one of these over the Thanksgiving Day weekend for a good price - $299. Wasn't too sure about it, but my wife encouraged me to go ahead and get it while the price was low and while there were still some (two, actually) in stock. We returned it to the store Sunday.

Setting the unit itself up and getting it connected to the TV and speakers is easy. And, it sounds absolutely GREAT. I mean amazing. Other than that, I hated virtually everything about it.

On the down side, this thing doesn't come with a wireless adapter. Since the wireless access to Internet TV was one of our primary reasons for going down this road, not being truly wi-fi ready was a huge downside. To me, "wifi ready" means ready to connect to my LAN. NOT ready to accept a separately purchased wireless network adapter. For damn sure it doesn't mean buying a proprietary adapter for between $25 and $70 more. You can't just grab one of the extra network adapters you have lying around in your den and plug it in; this unit recognizes only the LG brand adapter. That alone was a deal killer for me.

The unit is ethernet capable, but I'm not running 25 feet of CAT5 cable from my router, down the stairs, and across the living room to my home theatre system.

We didn't even bother putting in a disk to watch. But, I did listen to the integrated radio tuner while I puzzled over why my wireless adapter wasn't working in this thing. As I said, the sound is amazing. It would almost be worth having this just to listen to music - except that the user interface was just too awkward. We only had the thing set up for about 12 hours before it went back into the box, but it appears that this unit and your TV become one. You can't watch TV without turning on the unit, and you can't use the unit (not even the radio) without the TV on. That's a problem for me. I don't need incredible audio when I'm just watching the news. And, when I want to listen to the radio, I don't want to pay for the electricity required to run a 42" LCD TV.

This thing comes with an iPod docking dongle. If you use an iPod or an iPhone or whatever, more power to you. You'll love this little feature. But, I don't want to pay for an accessory that I will never use. Plus, the whole interface sort of smacks of the sort of tech-toy awkwardness that iType people love but which I hate. When I want to listen to the radio, I just want to push the ON button and have the radio come on. I don't want to pick up my phone and use it as a remote. I don't even want to use the actual remote sometimes.

In short, using this system was too much like setting up a computer for the first time. We have decided to try some other options, starting with the purchase of a good stand-alone A/V tuner-amplifier with HDMI inputs. We have a perfectly good DVD player, and I have no particular desire to "upgrade" our movie collection to the more expensive Blu-Ray media, so no need for the Blu-Ray player. We can get a network TV box for about $50 - WITH the necessary wireless adapter built-in. So, I think we'll just try that.

Or, I'll just put a video card with HDMI outputs into one of the computers we have sitting around the house and hook up an actual computer to the TV. The guy at the store said I'd get more options doing it that way anyway. Ironically, he said the network ready units like the one we tried were for people who didn't want to bother (or didn't know how) to hook a computer up to their TV.

Monday, November 7, 2011

If You're Poor and You Don't Know It. . .

Speaking from a purely financial perspective, I have marveled for over two years that I am doing the best I've ever done and yet, compared to many others, I'm not doing very well at all. Today I was listening to an NPR story about the new paradigm for defining poverty and you can imagine my shock when I realized that, not only am I not driving a Maserati or living in a $500,000 McMansion, I may actually be living in poverty!

OK, I don't actually fall below the poverty line by either the new or old definition. But, as part of the story, an NPR reporter interviewed the head of the food stamp program in Mississippi. The interview revealed that a family of four in Mississippi may receive up to $650 or so in food stamp benefits per month.

I recently launched what I consider a conservative but livable home budget for my family of four. Our monthly allocation for food? $600.00 per month. Plus another $75.00 per month for dining out (mainly trips to McDonald's or Arbys on the way home from late nights at the ball park). A total of $675.00 per month, to include school lunch expenses. Total.

And, according to John Davis, the SNAP Director in Mississippi, food stamps aren't even supposed to be the sole source of food for recipients. They're supposed to be a supplement. Which means most qualified SNAP recipients are expected to spend more per month on food than I do!

Every time I see one of those commercials for Feed the Children or some similar charity program where they tell you it only costs $0.30 per day to feed a child, I ask myself, "Where do they do their grocery shopping?" That's where I need to shop. My wife actually does an amazing job of keeping groceries in the pantry on our present budget. Still, the idea that I could drop that food budget down to roughly $36.00 per month? Approximately 5% of what "poor" people are expected to spend on food in a month? That's pretty alluring.

My point is that I don't believe either the previous nor the new formula for determining poverty could possibly be very accurate. Either that, or there's a pretty easy solution to the whole poverty problem.

Mr. Robert Rector of the Heritage Foundation says, "Over 80 percent of poor families have air conditioning, two-thirds of them have cable TV, half of them have computers, a third of them have widescreen HDTVs." Not sure where he got those numbers, but I'd say he's probably about right. I'd love to know the numbers for poor families who smoke or own pets. Or who make car payments.

If I'm doing as well as I am and I'm spending less on food than food stamp recipients, we definitely have a disconnect from reality somewhere in this chain. Perhaps part of the problem is the current atmosphere of "political correctness" (a misnomer if ever there was one) which discourages us from calling a spade a spade. Maybe there should be more of a stigma attached to being "poor." If I'm going to be poor, I should know I'm poor. Then I'd realize that I should probably watch my spending. Maybe drop the cable TV, sell the big screen, and perhaps eat some raman noodles a couple of times a week. Like I did when I was really, truly poor.