Thursday, November 27, 2008

I Think This is My Stop

The company I currently work for provides free bus service for its employees to various locations. No, I do not work for Google. I've gotten into the habit of taking the train to work every other day, and then utilizing this nice perk to get from the train station to the office and back again.

The other day, the bus going to the train station never showed up. Eleven angry nerds and me were left waiting and wondering in front of the main office building. Through a very efficient process, three of the angry nerds called the bus service hot-line at the same time and demanded to know how they were going to get home.

A very accommodating person on the other end of the line quickly organized an effort to send a van to us (they had a spare van sitting around?), driven by an expendable security guard. He arrived shortly afterwards, and the twelve of us crammed into the van. With helpful suggestions such as "if you get to the station in the next eleven minutes I can make my train", we were off.

Halfway there, the driver realized he was running out of fuel. He informed us that he would be stopping for gas, and was met by many voices of dissent, insisting that he continue onwards. I heard: "You can make it!", "It's only another ten miles!", and my favorite, "Those gas meters aren't really accurate you know – they make them for women!". We pressed onwards.

A few minutes later, the driver confessed that he, in fact, had no idea where the train station was. This prompted another chorus of loud complaints and heated debates on the best way to go. I closed my eyes and waited for the yelling to stop.

We did make it to the station, and like a taxi cab filled with clowns, the nerds exited the van in a mad rush for an approaching train. I was the last one out, and tried to give a heart-felt thanks to the driver, who looked a bit worse for wear. He nodded and drove off, probably in search of a gas station. To those drivers (and last-minute drivers) out there, I salute you for putting up with us nerds.

Friday, September 26, 2008

These Aren't the Fanboys You're Looking For

Rather than spend last Friday night drinking like a good, upstanding individual, I opted instead to go to a "video game pre-release event" at the artist-formerly-known-as-Sony Metreon in downtown San Francisco. Really, what the heck was I thinking.

Companies occasionally like to promote their upcoming games to rabid fans with these sort of events where a bunch of nerds obediently stand in line, hoping to get a chance to play an upcoming game, and otherwise demonstrate their fanboy resolve. I've never gone to one of these marketing-laden hype-fests, probably for good reason, but I figured that this particular game (made by We-Killed-Sonic Sega) was so obscure, that I might be the only one at the event. I was wrong, but only off by about 40 people.

I arrived about ten minutes late at the Sony Playstation store, saw a line, and got in it. I asked the person in front of me what the deal was, and he responded, enthusiastically, "I don’t know man, I just got here myself!" Fortunately, an unusually perky saleswoman showed up a couple minutes later to explain that I was in the correct line for the event, and that everyone in line would get the privilege of having something autographed by the game's producer (eh?). She then handed me a large stack of large "Sega" stickers (I still have no idea what I’m supposed to do with these) and vanished.

I waited for about 15 minutes as the line slowly shambled forward. Several people queued behind me, including a father-daughter pair (I suppose it was a family-friendly event). A quick look around verified that 90% of the people there were young Asian males in glasses, so I blended in well. Eventually, I got to the head of the line, where I could finally see what everyone was waiting for (apologies for the horrible picture).

Yes, I think that is some cosplay woman on the left. At least, it seemed like the employees at the store didn't know her. Maybe she came with the guy who was signing autographs, who was some producer I've never heard of. Maybe she just forced her way into the store with that plastic gun of hers.

Anyway, I got a signed game cover (for a game I cannot even purchase for another month or two) and a plastic grenade. Whoopee. Oh, and some raffle ticket for various items I did not win, or otherwise lacked the patience to hang around for three hours to find out if I won or not.

The evening was not a total loss, as I got to actually play the game for a bit, which was my actual objective. It was interesting, probably because it didn't have any references to hedgehogs, of any color. Also, I got the opportunity to roam around the Metreon for a bit, and found it more abandoned and lifeless than ever before, populated mostly by glum-looking security guards who, with subtle head-nods, convinced me to go about my business somewhere else.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Craigslist Advisory --- Avoid Scams by Trusting No One

I recently won a cell-phone in a contest. It's one of those large "smart phones" that has a tiny keyboard, and runs a tiny version of Windows, along with a tiny version of Microsoft Office. Since it was unlikely that I would ever need to edit Excel spreadsheets on the go, and since I already have a perfectly good cell-phone, I decided to sell it.

Amazon doesn't let you re-sell cell-phones on their reseller marketplace, and lately Ebay seems to be a place fraught with peril, so I decided to try my luck and use Craigslist. I posted a simple notice with information on the phone and my price, and crossed my fingers.

Within a few hours, I had roughly thirty different emails asking about the phone. They ran the gamut from well-worded inquiries with contact information, to gems like:

"i wanna buy the blackjack 2 u posted on craigslist"

I contacted the first person to respond, and we agreed upon a time and place to meet. Craigslist advises meeting in a public place, so if "Krystal" turns out to be twelve large guys who plan to steal your merchandise, at least you can entertain passers-by with your public beating.

In my case, the transaction went surprisingly smoothly. The buyer gave the phone a cursory examination and then handed me a large wad of cash. I verified the amount and we went our separate ways. I was not subsequently followed by thugs looking to liberate me from my money, but had I been, the joke would have been on them, since I almost immediately gave all the money to a nice man on the street playing three-card-monte and told him, "I'll be back for this later." I kid.

I still find it odd that anyone would be willing to hand over a large wad of cash to someone they knew only through two lines of text posted on Craigslist, but perhaps this is the way things are done nowadays, and I’m an old coot that needs to learn to embrace these newfangled ways.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

It is pitch black. You are likely to be eaten by the internet.

It's time for more embarrassing admissions. About twelve years ago, out of sheer boredom, I wrote an "Interactive Fiction" game. If you’ve never heard of the term "interactive fiction", it’s a game that's text-based and involves you reading and responding to gripping sequences like the following:


It is very dark in this non-descript room. You are probably going to fall down and hurt yourself if you're not careful.


You don't have a flashlight.


You are carrying a pack of gum, a weighted companion cube, a MacBook Air, and a match.


The MacBook Air, surprisingly, catches on fire immediately and quickly burns into ash.


Your yelling attracts Steve Jobs out of the darkness. Steve notices the remains of the MacBook Air, and berates you mercilessly until you keel over.


The game I wrote was an homage to the Infocom-written "Zork" games that were popular long ago, so it was filled with in-jokes, meaningless references to other Zork games, and the like. If you want to embarrass me further, you can now actually play it in your web-browser here (Java required, and the page is a bit flakey -- I had to type in "RESTART" at the prompt):

but be warned, it's really cheesy. Seriously.

Anyway, at the time I wrote the game, there was a small but thriving online community of people writing and critiquing each others' games. I'm not certain this community even exists anymore. I released my game into said community with little fanfare, and got a handful of emails pointing out the various spelling errors, bugs, and logic flaws in my game puzzles. I gave up my dream of winning the Interactive Fiction Pulitzer, and turned my boredom towards other pursuits.

Recently, for some reason, I did a Google(tm) search for the game, and uncovered a bunch of relevant links, including (to my amusement) a set of maps someone had drawn for my game. The maps are remarkably good. Here’s an example:

Compare this to the actual maps I drew in a notebook when I was actually writing the game:

No, the picture isn't out of focus. My writing really is that illegible.

The point to take away from all of this is that the guy who did these great maps apparently made them last year. I had to search through piles of archived stuff to even find the notebook for that last picture (and was honestly surprised when I found it). Stuff that happens on the Internet apparently stays on the Internet. Forever.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Will Someone Please Call Security

Today I visited the "Apple Compatibility Labs" in the Apple campus in Cupertino, CA. If you are a paying member of Apple's "Developer Connection", you are allowed to visit this lab, free of charge, and use their rather large collection of Mac computers for whatever nefarious purpose you see fit.

They have several labs in the main building -- I was placed in one called "Field of Dreams". Kevin Costner was not on hand to greet me. The lab itself was impeccably maintained, and filled with models of Mac computers I had never seen before. The lab manager who let me into the lab was particularly proud of this one (apologies for the fuzzy camera-phone pictures):

This is a "Twentieth Anniversary Macintosh", a very limited run machine that was over-priced and under-powered. It now serves as a nice-looking CD player for the lab (in the picture, you can see it sitting on top of a cabinet filled with one of nearly every laptop Apple has ever made). It did have a strange allure, more so than the lonely Mac Cube sitting in a corner. Between doing actual work, I would pass by the "TAM" and try running various bits of it's software. One icon said "Explore the Internet". I should have taken this as a warning, but I clicked on it anyway, and was greeted by this:

Actually, it's even worse than that. That picture is from a second attempt -- the first time I tried "Exploring the Internet", the Internet Explorer splash screen came up, and the entire machine froze. It was as though the machine was embarrassed to have to run an ancient version of Internet Explorer as its default browser. I had to quickly re-boot the TAM while the lab manager wasn't looking.

The rest of my time at the Lab was relatively uneventful. Steve Jobs did not stop by and fire me. I visited the Apple Store and bought some pencils. The only other thing worth noting is the following funny sign in the men's bathroom:

No, I do not know why I brought my camera phone into the bathroom.

Friday, January 18, 2008

I'd Like My CD Back, Please

My second Apple Mac related entry in a week. No, I'm not getting kick-backs from Steve Jobs. Yet.

I recently encountered one of my worst nightmares come true. I had a CD (a fairly important CD) stuck in a slot-loading CD drive refusing to come out. After the initial freak-out phase, followed by trying random, ineffective solutions found on the web, I stumbled upon a solution that was surprisingly effective, that I thought I'd share.

The problem: After attempting to set up my MacBook Pro to triple-boot Mac OS 10.4, 10.5 and Windows XP (don’t do this, by the way. I had to do this for work, but any sane person has no reason to set up their Mac to triple-boot, and it's actually more of a pain to do than I expected), I got to a point where I was running Windows, and tried to insert the Mac OS 10.5 install CD (DVD, really) into the MacBook CD drive. The drive is a slot-loading drive, with a very thin opening, where you have to insert the CD pretty far in for the motorized "grabbing" mechanism to kick in. I pushed the disc in, and only after I had pushed it all the way in, did I realize that, for some reason, the motorized "grab" never triggered at all.

Neither the Mac, nor the CD are mine, so I was in something of a bind. I read several articles on the web for what to do if the CD was sucked in, but could not be ejected, however this was a different case, where the machine thought there was no CD in the drive, when, in fact, there was.

I tried using a tiny pair of tweezers and a flashlight. Don't do this. The slot is tiny, and covered with some sort of fabric to keep out dust. You won't be able to see a thing in there, and you’ll have no idea if the thing you just hit with the tweezers is the CD, or a fragile part of the CD drive.

My second idea was to take another CD, and try and tap the CD the rest of the way in. This didn't work either. However, in doing this, I said to myself, "Self, I wish this CD in my hand was sticky, so the other CD would stick to it."

There was my solution. I took a long piece of scotch tape and wrapped it around the CD, sticky-side out. I then slid the CD into the drive to a point where I guessed it was slightly past the stuck CD, and pressed up and down. I hit pay-dirt, and easily pulled the CD out. It was like fishing, if you used CDs instead of fishing rods and tape instead of hooks. It was nothing like fishing.

Here's a pointless diagram to illustrate this fairly mundane solution even further. No, I do not actually have a Britney Spears CD.

So there you have it. The MacBook Pro and the OS disc are both fine. My boss is none the wiser, unless he is reading my blog.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

One More Thing

As many Apple fans had hoped, Apple introduced a new ultra-portable laptop computer today. It's ridiculously thin. It has a nice LED screen. It's environmentally friendly. I'm probably not going to get one.

I've been waiting for Apple to announce a proper successor to the 12" PowerBook for some time now. Sadly, I believe the new MacBook Air isn't it.

For one thing, the hard drive is a potential issue. The default hard drive is an 80Gig 4200RPM drive, a bit on the slow side. A much better alternative is the optional 64Gig solid-state hard drive, but this will set you back a whopping additional $1000, putting the total price of the MacBook Air above the price of a MacBook Pro, or even a low-end Mac Pro.

The thing that kills it for me, however is that the Air lacks a proper graphics card. It uses an Intel integrated video chipset, which, according to some reviews isn't exactly a great performer. Granted, the intended audience is not your average gamer. However, it's somewhat sad when my four year old computer would probably outperform the Air in an average game, even though the Air has a much more advanced CPU and more memory. And remember, the 12" Powerbook did have "dedicated" graphics from NVidia that would also likely beat the Air's integrated Intel video chipset today in average performance tests.

The Air, thus, ends up looking like a really thin MacBook, without a DVD drive. Or, if you buy the solid-state drive model, it ends up looking like a crazy expensive, really thin MacBook, without a DVD drive, that someone will likely attempt to steal from you.

Not that I'm advocating buying a Dell at all, but they do offer a notebook, the XPS M1330, that is slightly cheaper, but has a better CPU, an actual GPU, a DVD drive, and is only about half an inch thicker, and about a pound heavier. So why get the Air? Simple. It comes with Mac OS. Really, that honestly is almost worth the price of admission. Almost.

One more thing. The Dell comes with Vista, which you should factor into the cost, since you'll be spending some quality time replacing it with Windows XP.