Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Horrors of Fan Fiction

The blogger sits down at his computer. Faced with yet another week of no content on his blog, he wracks his brain for something, anything, related to the nerd way of life. After his fifth Rum and Coke, it hits him.

"I’ll write a blog entry about fan fiction!" he says.

Clearly, he is desperate. A desperate blogger for desperate times. He calls his only ally in these dark times, Wikipedia. Wikipedia isn't in a good mood, but tells the blogger what he wants to know:

"Fan fiction is normally described as 'fiction about characters or settings written by fans of the original work, rather than by the original creators', however I think an equally accurate description would be 'dreck'. Listen, I have to go, someone is editing the Evolution entry again."

Wikipedia hangs up, and the blogger is left listening to echoes. He still has nothing written, so he decides to procrastinate. He lets his mind wander back to a kinder, more halcyon time a year or two ago when he went to fanfiction.net for some sort of research project that wasn’t embarrassing at all. Surprised that fanfiction.net had categories for everything, including video games, he decided that he would come up with the one game that no one in their right mind would write fan fiction about.

"No one would write a fan fiction story about Tetris!" he said triumphantly, to no one in particular.

Luck was not with our intrepid blogger, however. He found no less than four entries under the Tetris category.

"That was just a fluke," he tells himself, back in the present. "I bet there are still only four entries."

Clearly having not learned anything, he checks fanfiction.net again. He finds no less than 41 entries in the Tetris section. He picks one entry at random:

"I am just an L-block. My life has been pretty simple, really. I would pay my taxes, go to work. I had never really though about meeting any other blocks. But a friend of mine, Mr. T recently got me interested in this online dating service he has heard of - Tetris, it is called. They were holding this get-together function sort of thing in one of the most prestigious joints in town, the Grey Box. So I rocked up, dressed in green."

In a hopeless attempt to save himself from reading the rest of the story, the blogger attempts to stab his eyes out with a pen, but misses and ends up drawing all over his face. As the ink dries, he realizes, he will never finish this blog entry. It is too late. He has already seen the horror, and the horror is he.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Would You Like to Pre-order Fries with that?

There's been a bit of recent internet discussion on the merits (or lack thereof) of something video game stores call "the pre-order". For those of you that don’t know what this is, I'll describe it.

You decide that you want to buy a video game, but it’s not out yet (we'll get to how you figured this out later). Video game stores and some of the bigger retailers will let you "pre-order" the game, meaning you give them some amount of money (typically five dollars, although stores will happily accept more), and then when the game actually becomes available, you can go to the store, pay the difference, and take your game.

Why, you ask, would you want to bother to do this? A very good question. Some stores will tell you, without missing a beat, that if you do not do this, when the game actually does arrive, you might not be able to buy a copy. Most, if not all copies on-hand will be reserved for those who pre-ordered the game.

Well, that's ridiculous, you say. If you mainly stock stuff that people have already pre-ordered, what exactly is the point of having a store, rather than some sort of "pre-order pickup warehouse"?

The typical video game store response would be: "Look, are you going to pre-order, or not?"

I've always believed that the concept of the pre-order is bad for the consumer, all around. Even if we disregard the edge cases in which stores sometimes do not even have the game available for people that pre-order, it is still a bad deal for the customer.

For starters, you're giving the store your hard-earned money (that they are now free to use in whatever manner they desire) for the promise of being able to buy a product later. This is weird to me. I can’t think of any other entertainment product that I would buy in this fashion. Do I have to pre-order books, or movies?

Also, it means that it's up to me to track when games are coming out. It means I now need to pay attention to stuff like "release dates" and plan out my entertainment purchases in advance, using lousy websites to do so. Again, I have never had to do this with other entertainment products. At worst, I realize that a movie is coming out next week, and consider making plans to see it...next week.

The reason stores do this, I've been told, is because it's the perfect way to make sure they stock the store with only games they know will sell. Their goal is to avoid having anything sitting on the shelves for more than a couple days. If 20 people pre-order Game X, they know they should probably order approximately 20 copies of Game X.

This, while efficient for the store, has an unseen downside for the customer. What it means is that you will rarely find anything other than mainstream games in a game store. The obscure games no one knows about, so no one pre-orders them, so the store doesn't stock them.

This last point is very strange to me. In the 1990s, I remember walking into stores like Software ETC, or Egghead Software (remember these?) and being able to browse the games on display. Games had to have flashy box art (or even oddly shaped boxes) and copious descriptions and screenshots on the packaging to compete. On several occasions, I would find something I had never heard of before, that looked intriguing, that I would buy. You can’t really do this anymore, outside of some Mom & Pop shops, or online.

Game stores practice this ultra-efficient process because game stores have to actually buy the games they hope to sell, or so I was told by a producer I worked with at a game studio. Assuming he wasn't pulling my leg, the process goes something like this. The store orders N copies of Game X from the publisher. The publisher charges them some set amount per game. The store receives the games, and prices them at that set amount, plus whatever they hope to make in profit. If the game sits on the shelf and never sells, the store is out whatever amount they paid for it. They can sell it back to the publisher, but always at a loss. Many games, unfortunately, do not age well. A copy of Madden Football 2001, if it doesn't sell some time in 2001, is probably never going to sell at all. Games are also expensive, averaging $50 or more. A ten percent loss on 100 copies of a $50 game is $500, which is roughly the yearly salary of the teenager working the counter at the store (I kid, I kid).

This process may, in fact, differ from how other entertainment products are sold, and as such, it is in the store's best interest to only stock that which they know they can sell. It is partly through this sort of strategic stocking, and partly through various other factors (some which are even more dubious), that places like Gamestop can post a sevenfold increase in earnings this past year.

In the end, stores are just doing what they have to do to stay profitable. It is a business, after all. However, due to the way things work, the customer experience at such stores has definitely become worse, and the industry has become a tougher place for new game publishers and developers. In their race to be profitable, game stores may be alienating the very customers and developers that made their existence possible in the first place.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Buyer's Wiimorse

I finally bought a Nintendo Wii the other day. I was really planning on holding out until next year, but I caved in to nerd demographic peer-pressure. Word on the "street" was that the local Best Buy had a few in stock, so I drove over in the middle of the day. This will probably result in a black mark on my next performance review.

The whole time driving there, I kept thinking, "why am I doing this?" I'm not really in the target demographic for the device. There aren't many games for the system available now or in the near future that interest me that much. I honestly think it’s a little over-priced at $250 a pop. My conclusion is that Nintendo has managed to trick me into thinking that the Wii is a rare, coveted device, like the elusive "North Korean" Cabbage Patch Doll(*).

At Best Buy, I walked over to the video games section. An old man was talking to a Best Buy employee, asking him if they had any Wiis. I casually eavesdropped. The employee said, "Let me look it up on the computer," and walked off.

My heart sank – the employee's reaction suggested that they were probably all sold out. But then, thanks to the miracle of peripheral vision, I noticed a stack of Wii boxes sitting on the floor, approximately 15 feet from where the old man and employee had started their conversation. I took one, considered informing the old man, decided not to, and walked to the check-out line.

In my haste to get out of the store with a Wii, I neglected to buy an actual game for the device. Fortunately, Nintendo decided to resurrect the idea of the "pack-in game", allowing me to spend some quality RSI-inducing time with the included Wii Sports game. It also supports sending and receiving email (feel free to send email to w0866167578091258 (at) wii.com, however, it may not answer in a timely fashion) and occasionally emits a soothing blue glow. I would expect that when I get an actual game for the device, I’ll feel a little better about my purchase.

(*) There is no "North Korean" Cabbage Patch Doll

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Grandmotherboard

My current computer, the one I am editing this very blog entry on, is getting old. It’s pushing 4 years now, which in human-years is roughly the equivalent of a 70-year-old man with sciatica. It makes a loud whining noise on hot days. It always seems to forget where it put its glasses.

In preparation for the day I will have to retire it, with extreme prejudice, I have started looking at getting a new computer. However, because I am a computer nerd with misplaced pride, I am considering building one from scratch, instead of buying one from someone like Dell, dude.

Putting together a computer for a computer nerd is similar to tricking out your Honda CRX for a teenage car enthusiast. You start looking online for advice and prices for the most capable parts you can get for the money, that’ll still be “cutting edge” for at least 6 months. You then buy said parts, break out the screwdrivers and grounding wrist-strap, and get to work. After you're done, you brag about your fancy new "rig" to anyone who will listen (which, by the way, is no one).

The problem is, I haven’t really paid attention to the changes in computer technology for a little while, and as such, am now completely out of the loop. Going back to the car analogy, I’m the weird guy that still thinks most cars have mechanical fuel injection systems, rather than electric.

So, I’m doing my research (I am not endorsing any of the following products, btw). I’ve learned that at the moment, AMD AM2-socket chips are probably the best cheap CPUs, but Intel Core 2 Duo’s are probably better in the long run. Motherboards by Gigabyte are generally recommended. The ATI X1950-series video cards are good choices, but anyone banking on Direct X 10 is either buying an Nvidia 8800 GTX, or waiting. However, for goodness sake, do not buy a 8600 card. This is, I’m told, a rookie mistake.

Did I lose you in the last paragraph? I think I may have lost myself. You see, the terminology and products are all new to me, and I know everything is going to change in about 2 months, so I can’t even motivate myself to commit anything to memory. On top of all this, there are terms now used by computer do-it-your-selfers that I don’t understand at all. Here’s one example from a user-review on a website regarding a CPU fan:

“I used it with a S-FLEX 1600rpm & my Q6600 runs at 32 idle 35 load on a light-overclock (3.05ghz) & stock voltages. YOU WILL NEED TO LAP IT! Without lapping, it will not work!”

Did you get that? Because I didn’t. What’s a Q6600? What are “stock voltages” in this particular example? What the heck is “lapping”?

Lapping, as it turns out, is a polishing operation of metal contact surfaces to improve fit and increase heat transfer efficiency. I guess I didn’t take enough machine shop classes in high school. Also, after lapping with polishing liquids and fine sandpaper, I’m supposed to use some sort of thermal paste. Seriously. A few more hours of learning about stuff like this and I may just be giving Dell a call, dude.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Eggs for Breakfast

The other morning I was rummaging around in my fridge looking for something for breakfast, and found some quail eggs. Here’s one, compared to a regular chicken egg:




So, I fried some, sunny-side up:




The taste, at least prepared in the above fashion, is basically indistinguishable from a regular fried egg.

Cracking quail eggs can be somewhat tricky, I learned. The shell has a tendency to disintegrate, and then there's a tenacious membrane under the shell that also needs to be broken. My first attempt resulted in many tiny bits of shell everywhere.

Of course, a couple fried quail eggs is a pretty meager breakfast. I had to supplement my breakfast with some regular eggs, and a muffin. I do regret that I did not have any tiny little pieces of bacon handy.

EDIT: I apologize for the mundane-ness of this blog post. My next post will be more cutting-edge, and use the word "motherboard".

Friday, August 31, 2007

Roll to save vs "End of Month"

With the recent release (PDF) of the new "4th Edition", I’ve decided it’s time I came clean and admitted that I, like most nerds, was a teenage Dungeons and Dragons addict.

It all started innocently enough at, of all places, summer camp. One rainy day, instead of joining a group of kids playing poker for hard-earned candy, I decided to investigate a different group circled around a camp counselor, huddled in a dark corner.

“What are you guys doing?” I asked.
“We’re playing D&D,” some kid said, not looking in my direction.
“D and what now?” I said.

The counselor was leading a game that was more of a cheap D&D substitute (he had no dice or printed material, and was making it up as he went along, using characters and settings out of C. S. Lewis’ Dawn Treader for God’s sake!) but it was good enough. I was hooked.

I cut my teeth on the “Basic Edition”, and quickly moved on to the Advanced D&D ruleset. I started saving up lunch money to spend on the rather expensive printed modules and rulebooks. In time, I realized that I preferred being the “Dungeon Master” (DM) in a game, as opposed to being an actual player, which was convenient because none of my D&D-playing friends wanted to be DM. I think they were all trying to save money.

However, my enjoyment of being a DM soon started to wane. I blame my D&D-playing friends who liked to take liberties with the rules, and the fact that I was something of a pushover. An example of this might go something like this:

Me: “You come upon a sleeping red dragon on top of a pile of treasure.”
Friend: “I try to steal some treasure.”
Me: (rolls die) “Your attempt wakes the dragon!”
Friend: “Ah, come on! I don’t want to fight the dragon. That’s so boring. Can’t I just steal some treasure and go to the next room? Please? Please?”
Me: (rolls eyes) “Fine. You steal some treasure and go to the next room.”

Pretty soon I “retired” from the role as DM, but I kept buying modules. I actually enjoyed reading them, although I always came up with nagging logistical questions, like: “Why would there be a bunch of Orcs inside some non-descript room, just sitting there waiting for the players to stumble upon them? Wouldn’t they get hungry while waiting? What if they had to go to the bathroom?”

Eventually, the publishers of the D&D material introduced a new ruleset, and I realized that I was essentially a victim of a clever money-making scheme, so I stopped playing D&D altogether. I did keep my hefty collection of printed material, but recently sold the bulk of them off to random nerd collectors for a modest profit. However, in true nostalgic nerd fashion, I scanned most of them and have a CD of old AD&D modules on my shelf, waiting to be re-discovered.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Meme or Me

The other afternoon I was watching the Mozy automated backup program on my computer run. Clearly, there wasn't any paint drying in the vicinity. During the backup process, a dialog popped up that gave the status of the backup, informing me that it was 20% done with cataloging the files, compressing them, and so on. At one point, it kindly informed me it was in the process of "reticulating splines".

This woke me out of my stupor. "Reticulating splines" sounded vaguely mathematical, but not really. What the heck did it mean? I looked it up. Turns out, it's a nonsense phrase possibly originated by the developers of SimCity 2000.

I'm pretty sure I played SimCity 2000 at some point. I might even have a CD for it lying around somewhere. But this was the first time I had seen this phrase. I was a new victim of "the missed nerd meme syndrome".

Thanks to the room filled with shouting people we call "the internet", nerd memes are coined with alarming speed. It's assumed that if you consider yourself a nerd worth your salt, you were virtually present for every meme created in the last 10 years. A co-worker recently had to shamefully admit that he had not heard of the phrase "All your base are belong to us". We were forced to revoke his geek card, although he can re-apply in 2-5 years.

So, it's with some remorse that I have to admit I have no prior knowledge of the whole "reticulating splines" movement. I will be turning myself in at the local nerd 502 office later today.

Saturday, June 23, 2007

E3 Exposed

The other day I realized that May was long past, but I hadn't gone to E3, a convention in LA also known as the Electronic Entertainment Expo. The reason for this, of course, is that E3 was officially canceled after the 2006 convention, saving me the cost of a cheap flight to LA, but also denying me the opportunity to wallow in the sheer ridiculousness that is E3.

E3 is (or rather, was) a yearly convention for video games. Yes, even video games have their own convention. Like many "trade-show" oriented conventions, the main event was the expo floor, where companies could peddle their wares. Except in this case, the wares were whatever video game titles were coming out soon, and the games weren't really sold at all, but rather, hyped with the marketing power of a thousand suns.

I had been going to E3 since 2002 or thereabouts, but I wasn't going to learn about new games. Being something of a video game connoisseur (or addict, take your pick) there was almost never anything revealed at the show that I didn't already know about. Rather, I went because I wanted to laugh out loud at the sheer over-the-top atmosphere that was E3.

E3 was always: 1) Incredibly loud (every booth was trying to drown out the sound from their neighbors), 2) Incredibly flashy (30+-foot high light shows, wrap-around projection TVs bigger than my apartment complex, random celebrities, fog machines for no good reason) and 3) Filled to capacity with slack-jawed nerds. Think of the main strip in Vegas, but instead of bright lights, gambling and strippers, you have bright lights, video game demonstrations and "booth babes" (who were often strippers making some extra cash on the side). Here's some example pictures I took of Nintendo's booth from two separate E3s:






In addition, there was always a special section of the LA convention center (Kentia Hall) reserved for smaller companies trying to get people interested in bizarre games and accessories that no one had ever heard of.

My personal favorite E3 was when I went as a member of the self-aggrandized gaming press. I was writing for a gaming website at the time, and thus was told to make appointments to talk to game producers and find out what they were doing. I waltzed to the front of a long line at one booth and was ushered inside an "invite-only" room where I was served drinks and snacks, sat on a comfy couch, and had a company representative walk me through their in-development games. At another booth, a company rep walked me around the booth, and abruptly kicked "regular nerds" out of the booth when they were in the way of something she was trying to show me. Ah, the halcyon days.

The problem, however, was that most companies really had very little to actually reveal, but tried very hard to over-hype what little they had. This was the real reason behind the eventual demise of the convention itself. In 2006, the committee behind the convention decided that the overall signal-to-noise ratio of the show was so skewed, that it would benefit mankind as a whole if E3 was just canceled. The committee has since announced a new show to be held in Santa Monica, but this is a "press-only" event of a much smaller scale. Likewise, other organizers have announced wanna-be E3 replacement shows, but for me at least, the party is over.

Which is a pity. Most conventions, even trade-show-based ones, cater to some sort of professional. E3 catered to nerds, plain and simple. 16-year-old backpack-wearing nerds who worked for minimum wage at Gamestop rubbed shoulders with people who worked on games for a living. Rarely have I seen the true nerd spirit celebrated so profoundly, and in spite of how pointless the show really was, I will miss it, just a little.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

I, Roomba

Several years ago, my sister's family bought my parents a Roomba. My Dad is something of a clean freak, so a little round robot made to clean the floor seemed like an appropriate gift.

The model my parents received was (at the time) one of the more high-end models. Unlike lower-end models, this Roomba had the ability to locate and return to a docking-station if it detected that it was running out of power. That's right folks, it had learned how to feed itself.

I think my parents were somewhat skeptical about the robot vacuum, but they gave it a chance, and it did do an effective job at removing daily dirt and dust around the house. Some time later, however, my father noticed an odd behavior in the little round automaton, and notified my mother about it.

"I think Oscar is getting lazy," my father said. They had named the Roomba 'Oscar' for some reason I still don't understand.
"Why do you say that?" my mother asked.
"I set him up in the bedroom room and close the door. 10 minutes later, I don't hear any noise from inside the room. I go back in and Oscar is sitting there in his little recharging station."

'Oscar', apparently, had learned an important lesson from us humans. The lesson of 'how to be a slacker'.

As it turns out, the roomba was actually having some sort of problem with its power connections, causing the battery to drain too quickly. An emergency "battery-transplant" was attempted, but this did not fix the problem, so my parents acquired a new Roomba instead, and 'Oscar' was retired. With extreme prejudice.

Well, not quite. 'Oscar' is now sitting in a box under my desk. Roombas have a "Serial Control Interface" (basically a serial port) that lets you reprogram it to work with different sensors, or program a new path-finding algorithm, etc. More info on this can be found here (pdf). At some point when I get some free time, I'm going to see what I can get the Roomba to do. Clearly, it will need to be something that demonstrates it has lost its slacker tendencies. Perhaps I'll start with having it do my taxes.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Cast Iron Forum

As a video game nerd, I often read various web sites devoted to games. You have to have a pretty strong stomach sometimes if you're reading these sort of sites. The writing quality is usually terrible, and the actual content, when you manage to dig through the noise, is along the lines of, "Nintendo releases exciting news that they have no news!" In part, I blame myself, since I used to write articles for such web sites. This is how deep the rabbit hole goes.

What's worse are the various public web forums. While the forums on IMDB.com may win the award (or at least be in the running) for most useless, immature drivel online, game-related forums aren't much better. They're usually populated by angry video game nerds, just waiting for someone to bad-mouth their favorite title.

Which is why I was pleasantly surprised, or at least amused, to recently find a thread on a gaming web forum I visit titled: Cast Iron Skillets. Some gamer nerd was asking his fellow nerds about what to do with a cast iron skillet he recently acquired. He asked:

"I have a filthy skillet and not sure what to do with it. I mean, its FILTHY."

The response on the forum was immediate. I was amazed at how knowledgeable (and passionate) some of these gaming nerds were about cast iron cookware. An example response:

"You IDIOT. The best thing about a skillet is that it gets better with each meal you cook. The skillet absorbs the flavors and powers of the food cooked within, and becomes something more. Something better. I own a skillet that's been passed down the family line since my great grandmother's time. It radiates with the flavor of a thousand dishes. It is one of my most prized possessions. A skillet should not be thrown out. A skillet should last forever. A skillet should be passed to your children."

Following the thread, the original poster decided to provide a picture of said "filthy" skillet. The rest of the forum posters were encouraging, in their own way:

"(Expletive deleted) YEAH that skillet is salvageable. Follow the cleaning instructions in this thread, get some damn Crisco, and fry some
(expletive deleted) chicken."

The thread actually went on for pages and pages, so I won't go into more details. But the entire experience opened my eyes to both the secret interests/knowledge of the angry video game forum poster, and, of course, the power of the cast iron skillet. So, the next time you find yourself holding a cast iron skillet and wondering what to make for dinner, remember the sage advice of the angry video game nerds -- warm up the oven, turn on the burner, and fry some (expletive deleted) chicken. And for God's sake, do not try and scrub it clean afterwards with soap!

Monday, May 21, 2007

This...is...Marble...Madness

When I was a teenager, I once visited an arcade (I think this might have been near Indiana University, of all places) that had a coin-op arcade machine called Marble Madness. The objective was simple -- roll a marble through a pseudo-3D maze using a large track-ball interface. It was great, and reminded me of the various pinball-like animations done for the Electric Company TV show years ago.

Later, I acquired the PC version (some would call this a "port", except it came out years later) of the same named game. It didn't have quite the same appeal on my Dad's monochrome Hercules graphics card PC-XT. The keyboard was the primary interface to control the rolling marble, which was hardly ideal. Nonetheless, I managed to find enjoyment in this. Exhibit A: Young Nerd with no life to speak of.

I accidentally stumbled across a secret level in the game, which according to Wikipedia is traditionally known as the "Water Maze", and was not available in the coin-op arcade version. It really was a strange accident. To uncover this level, you had to have the marble sitting in a particular location at a specific time. When this occured, part of the ground would slowly drop down, taking your marble to the fabled Water Maze. When I first witnessed this happen, I think I may have freaked out a little.

I could never beat the Water Maze, however. It was quite unforgiving. Any sort of mistake would immediately end the game, rather than the usual replacement of your lost marble with another. There's an archived write-up of the level here, complete with screenshots.

The write-up isn't entirely accurate, however. Based on my experiences, it is technically possible to get past the first screen without two players, at least on the PC version. If you rolled your marble onto the correct lily just so, it would take you to the entrance to the next part. I do admit, however, that once I got that far, I was stuck. I could never successfully take my marble down the elevator without instantly ending the game.

Apparently nothing particularly interesting happens if you did manage to finish the Water Maze, however, so I guess I didn't really miss out.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Will Work for Free Vest

Long ago, at a company I used to work for, the head of Sales dropped by my cubicle one day, looking like he wanted a favor.

"Dan, I need a favor," he said.
"What?"
"I need you to come with me to a client site and give a presentation."

I didn't work for sales, and it's not like I had nothing to do already, so I was hesitant. He detected this, and added:

"If you do it, I'll give you a free vest."

He then produced a sample vest. It was one of those blue, fleece things similar to something you'd find at REI or Lands End, except it had our company logo on it.

"It looks a little large," was my first response.
"We've got all sizes. What size do you want?"
"Medium," I said, assuming that, like most corporate clothing swag, the only available sizes were Large and Extra Large.
"No problem. So I'll tell Julie to set up your plane tickets," he said.

I then realized, to my annoyance, that my acceptance of the vest meant that I had agreed to do the favor. Those sales people are rather tricky.

Fortunately, the actual client in this case was Nintendo. More specifically, Nintendo's offices in the US, also known as Nintendo of America, which is currently located in Redmond, Seattle (but possibly moving in the near future).

I remember being somewhat disappointed with the actual Nintendo office building. It was a fairly non-descript white 4-or-so story building with the Nintendo logo. It was nestled in the middle of a business district in not-so-exciting Redmond. You could probably drive by it and not even realize it was Nintendo.

When we entered the building, I was not greeted by an underpaid teenager dressed in a Mario costume. Instead, I was greeted by a stark white entry room with a surly looking security guard behind what appeared to be bullet-proof glass. We went through the usual song-and-dance of signing papers indicating that we would never tell anyone about our visit, etc., given visitor badges, and then ushered in by a second security guard.

The Sales guy at this point decided to ditch me to hang out with more entertaining people, so I was instructed to follow the guard to the meeting room where I'd be doing the presentation. As I followed the guard, I noticed several things:

  1. The guard was actually armed with a large handgun
  2. The interior offices were just as non-descript as the exterior. Mostly beige cubicles, with the occasional Mario-themed decoration on a per-cubicle basis.
  3. At the intersections of pseudo-hallways between blocks of cubicles, there were these strange faux street signs. I looked closer and noticed that they displayed Nintendo-themed street names, like "Mario Way", or "Peach Alley". I'm making those up, by the way.

When we got to a certain point, I was handed off to another armed security guard. We clearly had passed through some sort of internal check point. I'm not sure if I remembered to save. We finally got to the meeting room, where I sat, laptop at the ready, for about 10 minutes until three (count-em!) Nintendo employees showed up. I gave my roughly one hour long presentation, was thanked, and then escorted back to the outside world by more armed escorts.

I've learned since this visit many years ago that the Nintendo offices actually have a separate "visitor" section which is a little more lively. You can read more about it here. Suffice to say, I did not get to see this section at all.

After we were done, I learned that I also needed to give a last-minute presentation at Digipen Institute (which was practically next door). The sales guy was lucky I was feeling generous that day. The Digipen presentation (fodder, perhaps, for another blog entry in the future) went well enough, but left me feeling rather drained as we drove back to the airport.

Back in the San Francisco bay area, when I got back to my desk the next morning, there was a blue vest on my chair. It was, of course, size Large. I gave it to my Dad, who tells me it's very comfortable.

Monday, April 30, 2007

The Algorithm is Being Ignored

I went to an open house event at the main Google campus in Mountain View, CA, last week. It was hosted by the Partner Solutions Organization division. A friend who works at Google suggested I go, even though he has no idea what the PSO group does. Neither did I, so I figured I’d take the free meal and the free information.

I’ve already been to the Google campus several times by now (invited by actual employees, of course). It was somewhat amusing to read the email instructions that said, “Event will take place at the Tunis auditorium in Building 43” and actually have a rough idea of where that actually was. Google has surprisingly lax security by the way – if you’re in Mountain View looking for a good meal, don’t know anyone at Google, and are short on cash, dress like an engineer and try to mingle your way into their cafeterias. You’ve probably got a 50-50 chance of getting in.

When I arrived, there was already a crowd. I did a quick count of chairs, and estimated that they were expecting maybe 200 people. Mind you, this was just one open house event for the PSO group out of several that they’ve been doing for the last couple weeks, all over the world. From what I understand, the PSO group isn’t even that big compared to the rest of Google, so basically there are hundreds of people applying for possibly a handful of positions. Google really is growing by insane amounts, and it does seem like everyone wants to work there too. As someone put it to me, “Google is the black hole of silicon valley”.

The place filled up in no time. They gave some presentations, all moderately informative, and then had a Q&A session, where they actually were throwing free T-Shirts to people asking questions. I felt like I was at some surreal convention event. People asked some fairly serious questions too. Well, except that one guy that was trying to be funny and ask about the quality of the free food. Cherish that free shirt, buddy. No, it was not me.

I noticed an odd air of arrogance in the tone of some of the Google speakers. I don’t think it was on purpose though, it was just a by-product of their crazy amounts of success, so in many ways, it’s perfectly deserved. I visited Microsoft more than 10 years ago on an interview tour, and I have to sadly confess, the feeling I came away with was that Google is at the moment very similar to a young, energetic, still-viable Microsoft. They’re rolling in success, and feel pretty invincible. Places like AskJeeves should really just throw in the towel now and save themselves the trouble.

I thought about this more while I was filling out the online Google employment application form the next day. They ask you for your SAT score, by the way.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Aliens vs Predator Was Not a Good Movie

Now that I’ve gotten that out of the way, let’s take a look at just what made it so poor (note that there are some spoilers in the following text, so anyone still planning on seeing this film unspoiled should stop reading now).

Number one, the plot. It’s contrived, poorly paced, and really just serves to get the audience from one action or effects scene to another. Both of the original Alien and Predator film series were known for building tension at key moments. AvP doesn’t do this, even when the opportunity is given. For example: At the very beginning of the movie, a bunch of people head directly for Antarctica to investigate some strange satellite readings. When they get there, they find a huge hole drilled deep into the ice that leads to some ancient buried temple. There's no build-up here -- it's not like some naval crew is lost at sea and uncovers some weird ancient temple after days of exploring some strange sightings. Nope, they find a convenient hole, and go straight to the main event. If memory serves, one character even says something like, “This hole could not have possibly been dug by any man-made tools” (The Predators dug it with a giant laser, apparently), the characters all nod and look at each other for about 12 microseconds, and immediately proceed down the hole. I could practically hear the director shouting: “Hurry up, get to the temple, the action sequence starts in 20 seconds!”

Number two, the characters. Granted, the plot gives no real opportunity for character development, but even the base material is flawed. None of the human characters, save the single “tough female” Ripley rip-off, lasts much past the first 30 minutes of the film. During that 30 minutes, you are introduced to some extremely two-dimensional, forgettable characters: Some French scientist guy, the pretty blond woman, Lance Henriksen, some gun-carrying military toughs, and so on. The non-humans aren’t much better. It’s easy to forget that there are actually three Predators in the movie, probably because they look and act similar, don’t actually speak, and two of them are also killed off rather quickly.

Number three, the “fan service”. I’m not really sure what to call it. The movie felt like some 15-year-old boy had just watched all the films in the Alien and Predator series while drinking a gallon of Mountain Dew, and decided to write a scrap-book script that contained only the “really cool” parts of all the movies. Face huggers leaping across a room in slow-motion? Check. A giant queen Alien, angry and unstoppable? Check. Shoulder-mounted Predator Plasma Caster? Yep. Interesting well-developed plot and characters? Well, no.

Let us not forget the incredibly awkward and disturbing sequence near the end where the surviving Predator and surviving human female, standing comfortably in near-freezing temperatures, are staring into each other eyes and seem on the verge of sharing a cross-species intimate moment. I kid you not. I retract my statement – it is better to forget.

When I actually saw this movie some three or so years ago, I honestly wasn’t expecting much. I liked (most of) the predecessor Alien and Predator movies. I figured I could waste a couple bucks on a matinee. The one thing I figured would be worth seeing was the key “reveal” of the movie, which I assumed would be the explanation for how Aliens and Predators finally made it to Earth. Imagine my disappointment when it’s revealed, very early in the movie, that these two species have just been hanging out on Earth for thousands of years. Exsqueeze me? Baking powder?

While trying to wrap my mind around this, I heard a baby crying somewhere in the theater. Some parent had brought their young impressionable infant to this awful film. Perhaps they thought the PG-13 rating was the sign that these sorts of films were becoming more family-friendly. Perhaps they were insane. Regardless, as the poor emotionally scarred child continued crying, I realized that I myself was on the verge of tears, for different reasons.

Yes, I paid money to see this movie when it came out in the theaters. Yes, I’m still recovering from it. Yes, people are actually working on a sequel to this movie as I write this. May God have mercy on my soul.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Pwned Alone


If there are any new parents reading this, please promise me that you’ll resist the temptation, if given the opportunity, to turn your child into a star. Examples of why this generally results in sadness are many, but today I’ll point you towards Macaulay Culkin as exhibit A.

I’m not going to talk about all the problems with his parents and his fortune that he had to endure, or the whole Michael Jackson thing, or even how he’s basically forever frozen in time as a 10-year-old kid in many peoples’ minds. Rather, I’m going to talk about a fine day some 15 years ago when Macaulay got pwned.

On that particular day, a friend of mine (who will remain nameless in case Macaulay is still seeking revenge) saw him walk into an arcade in Chicago, probably with a smile on his face. Little did poor Macaulay know that my friend, along with other fellow regulars at this arcade, had honed his skills for weeks on that arcade’s popular multi-player game: Battletech.

For those not familiar with the genre, the world of Battletech revolves around “mechs” – giant robotic suits bristling with weaponry. In this particularly fancy arcade rendition, you were locked into a fairly complex cockpit with a large array of controls at your disposal. You would then create your mech, setting up the weapons as desired, and walk around in a virtual battlefield blasting the crap out of up to 7 other players.

Through experimentation earned about 5 bucks at a time, my friend learned that you could customize your craft such that 9 laser weapons were set to a single trigger. This not only gave you an unfairly powerful weapon, but also caused enough damage that any enemy hit by your laser bouquet would be spun 90 degrees, left staring into empty space wondering what the heck just happened. By the time your foe figured out he had been spun, he’d find himself the recipient of another 9-laser victory salute.

The day Macaulay entered that particular arcade he was probably looking forward to a little bit of old-fashioned arcade fun. Instead, everyone else in the arcade, without any sort of pre-agreed upon plan, carefully set up a 9-laser mech, and proceeded to play “spin the Culkin”. It was brutal. I’m not sure how long Macaulay had to endure this virtual beating, but by the end, he was, quite literally, crying.

To quote my friend: “If it was some random person, we probably would’ve left him alone and focused on shooting each other. But since it was someone famous, we just had to go after him.”

And really, couldn’t we all say the same thing? If you saw Dakota Fanning, looking smug, walk by a bunch of people playing chess, and say, “Well, this looks fun,” wouldn’t you want to respond, “This table’s open. Feel free to pull up a chair, Miss Fanning. I’ll even let you go first”?

Perhaps I digressed a bit there. Anyway.

Sure, Macaulay is trying to make a comeback in the acting world, and has millions of dollars, and is dating that girl from the That 70’s Show. But would you really want to walk through life carrying memories of the uber-pwnage that he suffered 15 years ago?

So, again, new parents, please, let this be a lesson to you: don’t let your child be another victim of child-star pwnage. It’s not pretty, and the scars never heal.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Schrödinger's Sparc

What really happened to Sun Microsystems? Once the company of choice for professional workstation and server needs, the place where Java was born, it is now a mere shadow of itself. Scott McNealy, founder and CEO, probably now stalks the hallways, keeping the ship together through sheer will power alone.

I did a lot of work using Sun machines back in college, so they have a certain nostalgic value to me. So much so, that when a company I worked at was disposing of old Sun workstations, I rescued a couple of them from the garbage: A SparcStation 10, and a SparcStation IPX.

I got rid of the SS 10 a while ago, taking it to a computer-recycling center (reuse and recycle those old computers!). When I brought it in, a number of hard-core Sun nerds shuffled out of the dark corners of the warehouse-like building and stood around it, staring at it as though I had bagged a rare wild animal. “Does it still work?” one guy asked me. “Probably, " I responded. "I think the hard-drive is dead, but it still powers up.” He nodded sagely, and disappeared back into the shadows.

I kept the IPX, however, because it made the perfect CRT monitor stand for my desk. You can see it in the picture to the left. However, as I’ve upgraded to a LCD monitor with an adjustable height stand, I realized, it was finally time to let the poor fellow go.

The IPX has a small, squat form-factor, unlike the SS 10, which is much wider, but much shorter. We used to compare them to donut boxes and pizza boxes respectively, in college, but I later learned via hardware manuals that the official names are “lunch box” and “dinner box” formats. What’s much more interesting is that inside the IPX, on the circuit board, is an etching of a cat:



I stumbled upon this when I first opened the IPX years ago and was greatly surprised. What was the significance of the cat? Was there some sort of Sun Microsystems lore behind this? Did any “lunch box” model besides the IPX (e.g. IPC, Classic) have the cat? The answer to the last question, by the way, is “no”.

Naturally, today there's plenty of information on the web about this mystery feline (as a starter, try this), so my curiousity and questions can finally be put to rest. Sort of.

Friday, April 6, 2007

Candy Bar Reloaded

Like many Silicon Valley companies, the company I work at stocks various snacks in the coffee rooms. Honestly, most of us nerds have it pretty good. My parents were lucky if they got drinkable coffee.

Lately, they've been stocking various candy bars, usually of the "mini" variety. I was never really a big consumer of candy bars in my youth, but nowadays, the lure of the "Milky Way Midnight Mini" is sometimes too hard to resist.

While chewing on my Milky Way at my desk, I started thinking about the vast variety of candy bars available today, and how they tend to stick to a standard set of "components", like caramel, nougat, and peanuts. Hershey’s recently introduced the "Take 5" bar which claims to have 5 components packed inside a protective chocolate coating, but 3 of those ingredients are in fact, caramel, peanut butter and chocolate. Clearly, I needed to create a matrix of candy bars and their core components, and see if there were any obvious holes in the matrix for me to capitalize on (there's already a patent for a candy bar that uses tortilla chips, so that's already a missed opportunity).

After consulting my favorite resource, Wikipedia, I realized that a comprehensive matrix would be nearly impossible, or at least a massive waste of my time, so I decided to just concentrate on the most common candy bars made by the big three: Mars, Hershey and Nestle (my apologies to Cadbury, Necco, and the rest). I decided to only use candy bars available in the USA, thus omitting bars like Nestle’s Coffee Crisp (available in Canada), and discontinued bars (like the USA version of the Mars Bar, now replaced by “Snickers Almond”). And, because I needed to keep this under 20 pages, I decided to skip bars that are basically just chocolate, and omit “variations”, so “Key Lime Almond Joy" is not included, among a million other varietals. In short, this matrix is largely useless. But you’ve read this far, so what’s one more giant table?





ChocolateCaramelNougatNuts (inc.
peanuts)
Peanut
Butter
Cookies
(inc. wafers, pretzels)
Crispy RiceCoconutMintToffeeTaffyFruit (inc.
raisins)
Marshmallow
3 Musketeersx
x









5th Avenuex


x







100
Grand Bar
xx



x





After
Eight
x






x



Almond
Joy
x

x


x




Babe
Ruth
xxxx








Bit-O-Honey


x





x

Butterfingerx


x







Chunkyx

x






x
Crunchx




x





Fast
Break
x
x
x







Heathx







x


KitKatx



x






Krakelx




x





Milky Wayxxx









Moundsx





x




Mr.
Goodbar
x

x








NutRageousxx
xx







Oh
Henry
xx
x








PayDay
x
x








Reese’s
Peanut
Butter Cups
x


x







Roloxx










Skorx







x


S’moresx



x





x
Snickersxxxx








Take
5
xx
xxx






Twixxx


x






Whatchamacallitxx

x







Wonkax



x






Yorkx






x



Zero
Bar

xxx










What can we take away from this matrix, besides the fact that I am an expert on wasting my own time?

  • The Hershey S’mores Bar should be discontinued because it messes up my matrix
  • There really is no obvious difference between a Skor bar and a Heath bar, even though they are manufactured by the same company.
  • Bars that are not covered in chocolate are in the minority, probably for good reason.
  • I should probably remove Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, Rolo, and the York Peppermint because they are in fact, not “bars”.

After a short perusal of the matrix, I came up with the following three bars, which I will patent tomorrow:

Sugar Death: Chocolate, Caramel and Toffee
Chomp: Chocolate, Peanuts and Crispy Rice
Messy: Nougat covered in Caramel (no chocolate coating!)

Friday, March 30, 2007

World War II : WWII

One of the most popular choices for video game settings is World War II. I’m sure some World War II veterans aren’t terribly pleased that one of the more harrowing experiences of their lives is now the subject for extremely popular and lucrative video game franchises.

Nonetheless, it seems like every year even more World War II titles are released. What’s so appealing about using World War II as a setting, as opposed to World War I, or the Grenada invasion of 1983? A couple reasons come to mind.

First, taking an extremely simplistic view, it’s clear who the “good guys” and “bad guys” were. The good guys were the Allied forces (again, we’re taking the simplistic view here) fighting for freedom, apple pie, and all of that. The bad guys were the Axis, particularly the Nazis, and if there was ever a group that everyone loves to hate, it’s the Nazis. It’s important, in a video game made to appeal to the masses, that there is a very clear distinction between who is “good” and who is “evil”.

Second, World War II, for the younger generation at least, is seen as a very epic war, spanning several geographic locations, with long drawn-out battles that used weapons and technology that aren’t (yet) completely outdated. Perfect fodder for a video game.

I’m not a huge fan of World War II based games. I think on some level everything that we could present using the video game medium for this setting has been done by this point, and it’s really time to move on to something else. However, as always, my tastes aren’t the norm, and there’s nothing I can do to influence the decisions to make games based on World War II, other than to let them run their course and eventually run out of steam.

To help in the latter effort, I decided to create a “World War II Videogame Name Generator”, using various bits and pieces from existing and fictional game franchises. Go ahead and try it out below. Feel free to use the results, or copy my awful Javascript, and have at it, brave soldier!



Saturday, March 24, 2007

Hello, I’m a Proprietary Office Software Application

Over the last couple years, I’ve slowly tried to wean myself off proprietary software and find free and/or open source alternatives. This is not because I’m some weird hippie, but rather because I’m a cheapskate.

Well, actually, the more accurate reason is because I’m finding that proprietary software prefers placing the user in an “upgrade or become irrelevant” vicious cycle. For example, I still use Windows 2000. I never upgraded to Windows XP because I checked carefully and decided that the new features were either features I did not need, or features that I didn’t think were worth the cost and hassle of upgrading. As I write this, Windows XP is already yesterday’s news (although still worth at least $120 dollars on Ebay for XP Pro, apparently) and Windows Vista is what Microsoft wants me to use. I actually acquired (legally!) a free copy of Vista Business from the “Power Together” promotional website, and I still haven’t installed it, again, because there really isn’t anything there that I feel I need. I paid good money for Windows 2000, and it works fine for me, so why is Microsoft insisting that I’m a moron for not upgrading? Oh, and tell that Steve Ballmer to get off my lawn before I hit him with my cane.

So, anyway, rather than spend the money on something I don’t need, I figured I’d either stick with what I have, or look into free/open source alternatives. I’m fairly happy with some of the things I’ve found. I browse via Firefox, check email with Thunderbird, avoid virii thanks to Grisoft’s AVG Anti-Virus, use Comodo as my firewall, let IZArc handle my zip-file needs, and use ConTEXT as my text editor of choice this week, among many other nifty programs (legally) available for free.

Unfortunately, there are some pieces of my software toolbox that I’ve resigned to stick with whatever I currently have. Adobe Photoshop continues to not be truly challenged by things like The Gimp, in my opinion, at least when it comes to the interface. But I’ve stayed with version 6 for the last several years. Another fairly important one is the dreaded Microsoft Office, of which I’m “frozen” on Office 2000.

I tried to switch to the free alternative, OpenOffice, once, and felt the performance and feature set wasn’t quite up to what I needed and got from Office 2000. This was a little while ago, so today I was tempted to download the latest 2.1 version of OpenOffice and try again. But I didn’t. Why did I balk? I’m not really sure.

It might have something to do with the size of the task. I switched from Outlook to Thunderbird, and I don’t miss Outlook at all, but my email needs are rather simple. I use Word and Excel for a variety of tasks, however, and some of them are, well, not necessarily complicated, but “unique”, perhaps. I’ve spent a bit of time getting acquainted with both applications as I needed to. I’m not saying that OpenOffice couldn’t do what I need, nor am I saying that Office 2000 is a particularly great application. But at my age, do I really want to experiment?

I guess my conclusion to all of this is, when it comes to software, I'm cheap and resist unnecessary change like a grumpy old man. Maybe in 30 years I'll download OpenOffice and try again.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

These Sneakers Made From Dolphin-Safe Materials

Marc Ecko, the “urban” fashion designer, produced a video game a short time ago. It’s called “Marc Ecko’s Getting Up: Contents Under Pressure”. As always, I’m not making this up.

In this game you are some sort of graffiti artist, tagging to make a statement against “the man”. I assume you get to wear ecko brand apparel while doing so.

Many years ago, and no relation to this game, Sega (here I go, picking on Sega again) made a game called “Ecco the Dolphin” in which you are a dolphin, swimming to make a statement against sharks, and other underwater hazards.

You can probably see what I’m about to do here. Yes, that’s right, imagine, if you would, an alternate reality where Sega decided to let Mark Ecko make the next Ecco the Dolphin game. I give you:

Mark Ecco the Dolphin Getting Wet: Contents Under Water

In this game, you are a street-smart, hip dolphin, decked out in a smart-looking ecko branded dolphin wetsuit, tagging submarines and off-shore oil drilling stations, to make a statement against war, pollution, and of course, “the man”.

Yes, I’m having a slow week.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

May Require Tools and a Pint of Blood

Today I bought a toothbrush. It came in one of those awful, clear plastic, tightly molded packages that are impossible to open. Armed with a pocket knife and scissors, five minutes and several close calls later, I had my toothbrush.

It seems like almost every small retail item these days comes in this sort of packaging. I learned, thanks to Wikipedia, that this is “clamshell” packaging, not to be confused with “blister” packaging (that is similar, but uses clear plastic attached to a piece of paper or cardboard). I wondered just what the actual advantage to the retailer or the customer is. The only relevant info I could find on the web was an article on Wired.

The summary is: It helps retailers show off their item and avoid theft (no, really) and has zero benefit for the consumer. The theft thing, as the Wired article notes, is confusing, since the clamshell packaging is being used on cheap little items like toothbrushes, which are already relatively small packages to start with. But remember that “shoplifting adds up” (according to retailers) and that they usually stick a cheap magnetic strip inside the clamshell pack to boot.

The article claims companies are starting to make “easy to open” clamshell packaging, but I haven’t seen it. What I have seen is more and more products in these packages. What I’d like to see is some sort of device that you could clamp on the edge of the packaging and slice or melt the edge off. Further web searching reveals a few such devices:

Klever Kutter: which honestly seems more like a box cutter, and I can’t see how this would have worked on my toothbrush package. Oh, and apparently it's a French product.

Open-X: A cutter that slides between the front and back at the edge, it appears. Seems like it would have problems with some clamshell packages I’ve seen with extra thick or well-sealed edges. Oh, and I think Open-X is police code for prostitute.

Package Shark: A cutter that has a recessed groove with a razor blade inside to cut off the edge. Again, could have problems with extra thick edges. Oh, and it bears no resemblence to a shark.

So there you go. I can’t endorse any of these products since I haven’t tried any of them. However, I will say, if you buy one and it arrives in a clamshell package, you have the right to scream at the top of your lungs.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Sonic: The Wonder Years


Sega, many years ago, decided to create a blue hedgehog as their flagship video game character. They named him “Sonic”. If all of this sounds new to you and you think I’m just making this up, you should probably stop reading now.

Many Sonic games have been created since then. Most fans of the series would say that the games have, surprisingly, gotten progressively worse, even as the technology behind them has improved. Part of this could be attributed to those now in charge of Sonic games at Sega not really fully understanding what made Sonic games enjoyable. Recent examples of this include their decision to introduce an “urban” gun-totting companion hedgehog named “Shadow”, and a general trend to include strange, elaborate, but terrible back-stories to each game.

The back-stories recently took a particularly bad turn in the recently released (and creatively named) “Sonic the Hedgehog” for the Xbox 360 and Playstation 3. I had the bad fortune to watch the short CG movie that the player is rewarded with upon completion of the game. This video is available on YouTube, but I will not link to it, because, well, trust me, I’m doing you a favor.

In this video, Sonic is apparently dead, or sleeping, surrounded by what appears to be regular, somewhat realistically rendered people. In some horrible Sleeping Beauty story gone wrong, a woman kisses Sonic and revives him with a flashy light show, and Sonic and Shadow go off to live with these humans, happily ever after. Or so it would appear. My description, however, does not do this short clip justice. I somehow managed to convince a co-worker to view this movie, and what follows is a chat-log captured as he watched the clip:

A: WTF. It’s like FF, except with Sonic instead of Aerith.
A: He’s dead, or something.
Me: yeah
A: Oh god, she’s GOING TO KISS HIM
Me: See, I warned you
A: She kissed him, and he turned into Super Saiyan Sonic
Me: ta-da
A: Have they gone totally mental at Sega?
Me: Yes, yes they have.

The thing is, Sonic, like many cute, mascot-like video game characters, really doesn’t need any sort of back-story. He’s a blue hedgehog who spins into a ball and likes to run really fast. There’s your back-story.