Last Build Date: Tue, 26 Apr 2011 11:43:57 -0600Copyright: Copyright 2011
Tue, 26 Apr 2011 11:43:57 -0600
I'm moving from an ancient installation of Movable Type to a current installation of WordPress. The new RSS feed is here: feed://www.ology.org/blog/?feed=rss2
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Wed, 13 Apr 2011 10:51:34 -0600
This is about a month old now, but here's a second round of shots from Puerto Rico. These are from El Yunque, the National Park-operated rain forest.
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Mon, 11 Apr 2011 19:02:23 -0600
Sun, 13 Mar 2011 10:33:07 -0600
From our first day wandering around, spent in Old San Juan. The narrow streets and bright colors are distinctive, the food is amazing, and the drivers are all insane. (Imagine the picturesque winding roads of Paris jammed full of SUVs.)
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Thu, 21 Oct 2010 14:59:17 -0600I just picked up Fallout: New Vegas, which despite some annoying bugs (the most vicious of which is a problem where my quicksave files disappear when I relaunch the app) is a lot of fun and a good continuation of the Fallout saga. But this post isn't really about that; it's about how CRPGs structure narrative. F:NV got me thinking about this because it's fairly natural to want to contrast it with Fallout 3, let alone Fallout 1 & 2. But Fallout 3 is an odd game, heritage-wise, because on the one hand, it draws deeply from the narrative structure pioneered by the Elder Scrolls games, like Daggerfall or Oblivion. On the other hand, it's tonally a pitch perfect successor to the original Fallout franchise. And yet, at least in terms of narrative influence, Fallout 1 can pretty directly trace through all the way to games like Mass Effect. (Fallout 1 was the impetus for the Black Isle studios, the Interplay division that revitalized CRPGs in the 90s, and led to a little game called Baldur's Gate.) So what am I talking about when I talk about narrative structure? Really, I'm talking about the gameplay devices that are used to get you through a finite plot while still providing the illusion of free will for your game avatar. After all, CRPGs are limited in scope based on art, voice, and text all put together before you even start playing the game -- but the social activity they are meant to emulate is much more flexible. So it's important to CRPGs to make it feel like there's always more beneath the surface, even if there isn't. So here are some thoughts on common approaches to this problem. The labels are for convenience and for reference points -- I'm not claiming all JRPGs behave like I describe, or that only Bioware has a lock on the "Bioware style" I describe. Once could alternately call this the "Final Fantasy" style, although it's held true for many of the JRPGs that I've played. These games are characterized by colorful characters, vast sweeping panoramas, and bizarrely impassable hedges. Like more first person shooters, this style of CRPG relies on spectacle to distract you from the inability to explore. Exploration, if it exists, is usually in the context of narrow spurs off of dungeons that contain some collectable item, rather than new story paths. Subplots are almost non-existent. The Bioware style -- which is also really the Fallout 1 style -- is characterized by major quest hubs. There is sometimes gating between hubs; for example, a major quest in the intro area you must complete before you can essentially leave the tutorial. Gating may or may not exist for the interior nodes (games from Bioware itself are almost clichéd for having a starting hub, three interchangeable hubs in the mid-game, and then an end sequence) and then there is usually a conclusion area that locks off previous areas. In each of these hubs, there are usually multiple quests and storylines. Only one storyline tends to exist pre- and post-hub though, which is typically the "main quest." This quest will usually also provide the breadcrumbs that get you into this area, and then conversation with NPCs will tend to drive the discovery of smaller, self-contained stories that illuminate aspects of the hub, or introduce you to new companion NPCs. This style of game is less likely to keep you on a specific path (Fallout 1 had a very large explorable area, for example), but it's still not always the case that if you see something you can travel to it and explore it. (Jade Empire, for example, had forests where you could not venture off the path.) The Bethesda style is arguably the most daunting. In Daggerfall (I can't speak to Arena, although I gather it was a simpler variant on Daggerfall), story was almost nonexistent -- or at least largely left to the player's imagination. There were several stories, which mostly consisted of breadcrumbs to get you into dungeons, but they are almost never directly connected. Oblivion and[...]
Sat, 29 May 2010 10:57:03 -0600
We're in Madison, Wisconsin for the long weekend in order to go to WisCon 34. WisCon bills itself as the world's leading feminist sci-fi conference, and this seems to lead to some pretty interesting and thoughtful discussion. Sci-fi is big explosion movies, sure, but it's also a narrative space that's about the alien and the other. So far, this has lead to a number of fairly active panels full of diverse audience participation.
I didn't take very good notes last night, but I hauled myself out of bed this morning for a session on e-book readers. The topic was fairly broad, but we ended up spending a lot of time talking about the publishing and business side (unsurprising, since the panelists were all authors doing e-pub).
There was an interesting disconnect between how I perceive this marketplace and how many others in the room did. I've only recently started to seriously consume ebooks, so my focus has been more on the big streamlined distributors (Amazon, Apple, B&N, Sony). It was pretty clear, though, that there's a midrange and long tail market that I was unaware of.
Specifically, there are specialty markets (the example here was erotic romance) that fill niches that big publishers don't. These gap fillers tend to be focusing on the electronic format as the first or only release, whereas the big publishers tend to focus on the print path first. This path tends go look more like:
There was a lot of optimism around the long tail aspect of all this—the idea that the smaller publishers can compete more effectively in this space against the big established publishers. There was also a lot of excitement about ebook price points versus physical books, although I didn't think that people gave a lot of credence go the raw power of amazon's power over loss leading pricing right now. Still, amazon's "low" prices are relative to print prices; the electronic-only publishers can still to get under that $9.99 price point.
Finally, a lot of people were excited about the cheap/free books aspect of ebooks. I found myself distressed by this, because it's easy to see the withering of the library in this worldview.
Sun, 11 Apr 2010 01:34:39 -0600The last few Saturdays, I've been trying out my iPad for our D&D sessions. I've used a variety of technologies over the years: paper, laptops, smart phones, and now tablets. Sometimes it feels like more effort than it's worth, but fundamentally I feel like my nerdy toys should support my nerdy habits, if you know what i mean. So what's the best use of smart paper (ipad, whatever) with tabletop gaming? Dice, shared boards, and rule checks are obvious but unsatisfying answers. How far do they take us? Better answers seem to revolve around simplifying repetitive tasks, but D&D4 already does a nice job of this with the character builder & the cards it prints out. So where's the sweet spot? Week One: Spreadsheets The first week, I focused on making a character sheet, using a spreadsheet. I entered most of the statistics supplied from the standard D&D character sheet, with a thought towards having a convenient reference. On a whim, I also created a sheet to track damage done to monsters, and a simple formula to guess total monster health based on when the monster is bloodied. What was most interesting to me was it was the last piece that was what I used the most. The recapitulation of stats was fine, but it didn't add much to what I could get from having a physical piece of paper in front of me. Tracking the combat, on the other hand, gave me a fairly visceral way to see what was going on in the fight. Week Two: Web Apps Yesterday, I decided to try a different tack. My DM has frequently talked up a web application named "iPlay4e," which takes the ddi files generated from the Character Creator app, and turns it into an interactive, web-based character sheet. I had tried iPlay4e before, but it hadn't stuck. The iPhone view is pretty nice, but you just can't see enough information. Also, while you can "share" character sheets, only the original owner can use it interactively. By interactively, I mean that they can do things like track health, which abilities have been used, how many action points have been used, etcetera. I finally uploaded my character sheets to my own account, and tried the interactive features out. I was pretty surprised to find that they were real game changers. There were two important differences between my spreadsheet efforts and iPlay4e. The first was the general level of polish for tracking all of the little details that one has to track in a gameplay session (and support for the normal ways of refreshing those resources, like short and extended rests). The second was a little thing called the D&D Compendium. The D&D Compendium is a part of a subscription-based service offered by Wizards of the Coast. It contains all of the snippets of rules texts contained in all the 4th Edition D&D books, including errata. It has a searchable and filterable database of rules, items, classes, etc. I've subscribed to this service for a few months now, but I didn't use the compendium much. It was somewhat awkward to use on a phone's screen, and lugging a laptop back and forth to gaming is not the best solution for me. (More on this topic later.) Using it with a larger screen was again, a revelation. Suddenly I wasn't dragging four or more books around (I've taken to leaving the books in the car, for convenience). And the best part is, the compendium is integrated with iPlay4e, so suddenly my character sheet is directly indexed into the books. In short, I loved iPlay4e. I made a donation to the author during the play session, because I thought it was so cool. I wish I'd listened to my DM earlier. Why the tablet? So... why don't I just lug a laptop? I have in the past, and have worked up elaborate spreadsheets & dice roller apps (ranging from GUI-based to perl-based). The reasons can be summed up as follows: My laptop bag is heavier than carrying my D&D books. If I'm using my laptop, I'm secretly browsing the web. The latter point is th[...]
Fri, 02 Apr 2010 11:43:52 -0600In 1997, I took the first trip that I actually tried to document and write about. I was a grad student, and I went to France with the other members of my research team to go to a research conference. I was also a relatively recent owner of a PalmPilot Pro, and so I furiously scribbled out a series of e-mail missives for later sending. In 2001, I found the analog photos that I took of the trip, and finally put the e-mails & scanned images together into a Paris 1997 travelogue. (The next big trip like this was Paris in 2005 with Carrie, but I phoned that one in a lot more, with just a few shots posted to my blog, apparently.) The next whack I took at this was the Christmas 2008 trip to England. My approach this time was to take a large number of photos during the day, then upload & edit them that night, and make a coherent blog post for the day with -- usually -- no more than three photos as highlights. This shows up on the December 2008 and January 2009 archive pages of my blog, although, regrettably, the reverse chronological order suffers for later reading. The trip to Hawaii we just returned from, on the other hand, has no tangible record, because I posted it mostly to Facebook, which is generally walled off. You can piece it together from my Facebook wall, since I generally don't use the privacy settings, but it's still not put together in any kind of coherent form. Granularity and Community Of the three, I think the first one stands up best as a piece of writing. Yes, I have ten years more experience under my belt now, but it was actually written to be read later. It probably tells the best story for someone who's interested in the trip after the fact. On the other hand, the Facebook entries were the most satisfying for me. Since I was working from a facebook-enabled cameraphone, I felt like I could show interesting things as I encountered them, and getting comments as we explored gave me a real sense of remaining connected to community. I recognized that I was probably splatting out about twice as much information as people really cared about, but we were having fun and seeing interesting things, and I wanted to share that enthusiasm. In a very nerdy way, it was sort of like the kind of community I get from being in an MMO -- I can engage in my own activities, but I can share those activities and use it as a springboard for conversations. By contrast, the blog entries generated almost no commentary, making them feel much more sterile to me. I got a sense of craftsman's pleasure from making them, but once they were out there, they already felt somewhat adrift and context-free. Technology Evolution Obviously, a number of these technologies have shifted on the spectrum: digital cameras have become portable and have great quality now. The very idea of being constantly connected to the network is plausible in a way it wasn't even a few years ago. And being able to take a picture and post it to Facebook from the open seas encourages both a spontaneity and a logorrhea that still demand a new kind of a writing style to be worked out. As I write this, I realize that I'd really love to have a good way to take snippets of writing that I'm -- for lack of a better word -- beta-ing on Facebook, and pull them back together into a narrative that stands alone. The GPS angle is also somewhat interesting, although I rarely used Twitter to tell any of the most recent narrative, and Twitter has the most robust geolocation. I used Gowalla to some extent, but I have the suspicion that people either find geo-social-blah-blah either fascinating or incredibly boring, and there's almost no in-between. I also messed around with an app called "Trip Journal," which tries to produce a map of your journey along with associated pictures. It's reasonably well done, but in the end it was too much of a hassle (and too much of a battery drain), and the [...]
Thu, 25 Feb 2010 23:04:18 -0600Heavy Rain is definitely in the vein of Indigo Prophecy. It has the same basic tropes: a serial killer with a strange connection to the weather; multiple viewpoints, with a great deal of uncertainty surrounding how everyone is connected to events; and action that amounts to jabbing buttons to emulate the actions going on onscreen.
Thu, 14 Jan 2010 02:08:33 -0600
New character posing/3D model viewing tool from inside the Warcraft armory came out tonight. Wowhead has had something like this, but this one finally lets you scan through the animation loops, and has pretty high quality visuals to boot. I'm kind of surprised they didn't add Twitter & Facebook links though -- that seems de rigeur these days :)
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My eeeeevil alt:
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...and the somewhat camera-shy in-game standin for me:
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Sat, 02 Jan 2010 23:55:22 -0600
We've been re-watching ST:TNG lately. It was a good show for me as a kid. It espoused an idealistic view of humanity. It was pro-science and pro-rationality. Every problem could be solved in short order through communication, intelligence, and gadgetry. It's clear to me in retrospect how this show helped form my own ideals and attitudes.
Unfortunately, two decades later, the show's flaws are more evident. The "Rubber Science" of Star Trek is, of course, a long standing joke. But what's truly striking to me now is how pervasive the problem is. In literally every episode, some dramatic new technological event occurs. I've just watched two episodes in a row where eternal life gets invented. In the first, the ability to download brains to computers! In the second, the ability to use the transporter to filter out old age!
These are interesting and deep ideas, well and truly explored throughout the sci-fi literature. But in Star Trek, they're just part of a fusillade of the sci-fi smorgasbord that's being hurled at us. In a good sci-fi, these kinds of ideas are used as a backdrop, and what becomes interesting is the exploration of the societal impact. But Federation culture is impervious to change. The Prime Directive seems to apply more to the Federation itself than to the noble savages they continuously encounter. Disruptive technologies assault the crew of the Enterprise on a daily basis, and yet they rise above, serene, impermeable.
Perhaps this is why Babylon 5 was so attractive; it was arguably the first modern sci-fi show that acknowledged that change happens. Re-watching Firefly in the past few days (in between discs of ST:TNG, since Firefly was so mournfully short) also demonstrates a sci-fi universe where technology has cultural implications.
Here are some examples in the past two decades of ideas that would have been throw-away plot devices in ST:TNG:
For example, seven years ago, the iPod was just coming out. Now, iPhones, Droids, and Pres have dramatically changed the way we look at computing. Where, in ST:TNG's seven year run, is the impact of ANY of their throwaway ideas shown? I'd argue the closest Star Trek ever comes to this is the Holodeck, a technology introduced with the first episode, and which ends up having great impact on the social interactions of the crew.
The show is nice to re-watch, largely because it does harken back to a simpler time. After a stressful year, it's nice to watch a fairly low-impact and innocuous fantasy, where people are just fundamentally trying to be nice to each other. But the elephants in the transporter bay are hard to overlook.
Mon, 16 Nov 2009 15:15:13 -0600One of the enduring fixtures of my time in Austin has been Saturday gaming. We've gone through a variety of systems in our time, including GURPS, a couple variations of D&D, and some pretty interesting indy systems (and some Mary Sue-tastic stretches of freestyle storytelling). Of late, we've been playing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition, and having a blast doing it. D&D4e has streamlined a lot of the combat from previous incarnations, and, dare I say it, made it actually fun. In earlier incarnations, I had special abilities, but I never particularly felt encouraged to use them. In 3rd Edition especially, I felt I spent most of my time doing auto-attacks. 4th edition almost falls over itself to throw a variety of powers at you, though, and most of them are one-time-use, so you're actually encouraged to mix up what you're doing. Because the combat is more fun (and also because good GM software tools are provided to ease the creation of encounters), we find we pull out the grid map way more often then we ever did before. At some point when we were doing this, Kevin -- our GM -- started trying to take pictures of the board as we were going. He'd been inspired by the Penny Arcade d&d session twitters. I found this to also be pretty interesting, especially with the following combo platter of geek tools: camera on iPhone twitter & facebook apps on iPhone decent photo editing tools on the iPhone (like my current favorite to abuse, TiltShiftGen) I do have a blogging app on the iPhone, but it's way more annoying to use. So I thought I'd take the time and put together a longer entry on the phenomenon and output of this. Beginnings I started using the camera just to document stuff that I'd put on the tabletop whiteboard, in case it got erased before the next week. For example, here was an experimental system we used to track a particularly amoral character's swings to and from the dark side: I took the shot as a quick and dirty way to make sure I knew how the points were laid out between sessions. This actually predates GM Kevin's interest in the PA twitter feeds. Here's another example, where I was tracking gold & XP for my character on the whiteboard (our GM has moved to tracking this stuff via a D&D oriented wiki space): The dapper gent with the multiple legs and the top hat is the famed "pattern spider," who likes from time to time to jump into our games and dump lots of exposition on us. (As I recall, the in-joke here is mostly making fun of me, for badgering Kevin in an early game to explain the whole mystery through this one NPC that had the grievous loophole of having an omniscient viewpoint. For some reason, the spider had a fancy hat and a cigar and a Brooklyn accent.) Action shots Here we see my first effort. Note how masterfully I tank the dragon away from the group, putting all of my hard-won World of Warcraft experience to bear. (A few turns earlier I'd let the dragon turn and toast everyone >_< ) Later on, I picked up Camera Bag, which had handy pre-canned photo effects. I became a quick fan of the vignetting here: At the end of the day, the iPhone camera is fine, but it's not going to shine in a room that's only lit by some normal light bulbs. So I'm kind of trying to embrace the grainy, cruddy nature of the cameraphone with this. Also, it's in Fantasy Past Time, and thus should be colored in the style of a Wild West Poster, which was pretty much the same timeframe. Later on, GM Kevin picked up the aforementioned TiltShiftGen, and started FBing pictures that were clearly manipulated with it. A tilt shift lens (or software program used to fake the effect) provides a very distinctive dollhouse style, as you can see at the linked website. I've only used it a bit, and I will freely confess that I actua[...]
Mon, 16 Nov 2009 14:33:42 -0600
OK, I finally bit the bullet and bought Mars Edit 2. I'd used Mars Edit since forever, but I really wanted something that made it easier to embed my Flickr photos into blog posts. Guess what showed up first when I googled for that?
So here's something from Flickr, double-clicked in from the media manager:
It looks like it also supports uploading & inserting, but it's more annoying -- it doesn't integrate with my iPhoto media panel, and it has no support for resizing the image on upload. Meh -- I just upgraded my Flickr account today too, so that remains a perfectly great option for me to get images up to the web. Streamlining the Flickr integration is worth the $10 upgrade alone for me.
Most of my online output is going to Twitter (@tilt) or Facebook these days, but I wanted to dust this setup off a little bit for the purpose of a few essay ideas rattling around in my head.
Update: Mars Edit 2 has done this since 2007, it turns out. I just failed to pay much attention at the time. Whee!
Sun, 01 Nov 2009 09:58:59 -0600Several good games came out recently. There are plenty of people who will (correctly) tell you to pick up Torchlight, or Borderlands, both of which evoke the spirit of Diablo in different yet very awesome ways. I've also been finally trying out Halo: ODST and liking it very much. There's even a few new MMOs out -- Champions Online and Aion -- that are both beautifully flawed in their own special ways, and probably deserve a little blog action. But I'm not here today to talk about any of those fine games with you. No, I'm here because I want to share about a game that wants to crush your soul. So, I keep hearing about this game, "Demon's Souls." I keep hearing that it's hard, it's unforgiving, and then -- my favorite useless piece of information -- that "failure just means your strategy was wrong." Nobody actually described what any of this stuff means. So here's first impressions, if you're wondering about this game. Sneak preview: it's cruel, but captivating. First off, this game does not want to be your friend. There are absolutely no story breadcrumbs in the first few hours that I've played. At some point, when the game wants to introduce you to a particular gameplay mechanic, it just puts a boss that will one-shot you in your way. "But Eric," you say. "OMG spoilers!" you say. To you I say, shut your damn pie hole, this information is not going to actually help you in any useful way. Character creation is terrible -- you have lots of sliders, all of which affect other sliders in obscure ways, and all of which basically turn your character from Moon Boy into The Kid From Mask with the merest flick of your wrist. There is literally no setting of the face sliders that doesn't result in a deformed creature from beyond the widdershins dimension -- which, now that I think on it -- may just be another metaphysical statement the game is trying to impart. The game prizes exploration. Almost nothing is explained. Any explanations you find are going to come from your fellow players. Because, in a way, this is the most lonely MMO you will ever, ever play. Did you die? Your bloodstain will show up in my game, and if I see it and click on it, I can watch you vainly fighting against an unseen foe, and perhaps gain insight from it. You can leave me messages. The messages are from a heavily templated menu-driven system, so your messages will actually all be grammatically correct, and filled with thees and thous, but if your message is helpful, I can send you a heal. Sometimes your ghostly form will appear on my screen, going about ghostly and mysterious tasks. So when we play, we play in the same world, and we see each other -- but only in dim echoes that remind us purely of the futility of our own struggle against the demons. Also, there's no /trade chat, and that's pretty cool. The game kind of starts when you're dead. Dying causes you to leave a bloodstain on the floor and restart life as a ghost -- a ghost that can basically do everything your living self can do, but just has half the health to do it in. At this point, the game will remind you of when you played Rainbow Six, because you'll have to venture through this dungeon to kill the big bad at the end. And on your way you will die... a lot. And when you respawn, you'll re-fight through the same dungeon with the same enemies doing the same things. So when people talk crap about how "dying means your strategy was just wrong," they basically mean "dying means you didn't remember that the one guy with the flaming eyeballs jumps out from behind the wall when you get to step 413, and you didn't counter with the witty repartee maneuver... GOD." Should you manage to win your way back to your bloodstain though, well, good news: [...]
Sun, 12 Jul 2009 10:47:34 -0600I told myself I wasn't going to be one of "those" Prius drivers. "I'm getting this car," I told myself, "because this is a nerd toy. A geek luxury device. Because, in short, it is from the future." I wasn't getting the car so I could become obsessed with gas mileage, and correct drivingthink, and so that I could enjoy the curiosity and adulation of fellow drivers. And I wasn't. But they put a videogame inside my car, and it's not my fault. I've had Saturns since I've had cars. This is my third car, and the first two were both variations on the Saturn sedan of the time. At first, I really liked the philosophy of Saturn, but over the past several years Carrie & I have both become fairly disillusioned with the increasingly poor customer service. After spending several hundred dollars to get an issue fixed with my Ion that ended up not being fixed anyway, requiring further repairs, I pretty much gave up. The Ion had been a Fine Vehicle, but I was ready for something... sexier. Cooler. Dare I say... Nerdier. When I went shopping for the Ion in the early part of the century, we test drove the first version of the Prius. Regrettably, it kind of sucked for such tall and leggy people as ourselves. That, plus the incredible waiting lists for hybrids at the time, caused me to put the idea on the shelf of wistfulness. But now that a car replacement was on the table, Carrie's research found that the current cars had been substantially re-worked inside. We went to go test-drive a second generation Prius, and were pleasantly surprised. It felt roomy and awesome, handled well, and it was full of status displays and readouts. Far forward to a month or two later. Research had been done. Pondering had been pondered. Hate for current car had escalated. Remaining administrative details necessary in order to unload old car had been dealt with. My car title was in hand, Apple stock was reasonably up, and I was ready to enter the future. Technological Terror Those who know me will be unsurprised to know that I'm a fairly pragmatic liberal. My general rule of thumb is "try not to suck." I'm also probably the very definition of technocrat. So ever since I first heard about hybrid cars, my first thought was, "well, duh, that seems obvious -- why doesn't every car do that?" I mean, when I was 12 and didn't understand about things like entropy, I didn't understand why a car couldn't just run off the friction from spinning the wheels. Well. Happy day. It's important to note that the futurecar is not a magic bullet. Despite being rated at something like 50mpg, it'll still perform in fine mediocre fashion if you're spending lots of time between stoplights, accelerating a lot. (Where "mediocre" here is defined as "still better than my Ion" -- but more like 30mpg than the advertised 50mpg.) It'll also be totally happy to perform like a dancing pig if you drive it like one. But they put this videogame inside my car, see. It's a little bar. And when I accelerate, the little bar fills up. And if I can keep that little bar in the lines then I get more experience points! Or something like that. Maybe my combos fill up faster. All I know is that suddenly my car has a competitive angle. I can also flip to this other display where I can find out how fast my XP is piling up: Yeah -- a bar graph that breaks down my XP gains over the five minutes, or even by every minute. Honestly, I don't know why they didn't make the graph continuous like a CPU meter. Oh right -- it's because I'd never watch the road, and crash into a bus full of school-children who were on a science field trip. Because irony works like that. So like I said. It's not my fault. They put a video game in [...]