Monday, January 31, 2011

Book Review: Mass Effect: Revelation

I jumped into this book right after reading Mass Effect: Retribution. As I've said before, I'm a huge fan of the Mass Effect universe. The game shines of brilliant writing and game design, and it's fun to see the characters I've grown to know so well in the game universe coming to life in old school book-style.

Like a choose-your-own adventure where every page gives you a choice of "Do you want more awesome? IF YES GO TO NEXT PAGE"

The jump between books was a big one. While Retribution is a sort of epilogue to Mass Effect 2, Revelation is a prequel to the first Mass Effect game. Oddly enough, the main storyline revolves around the same 2 main characters, Kahlee and Captain Anderson. I'm guessing they'll be the focus of the other Mass Effect book, whenever I get around to reading it.

The book definitely feels like a prequel. The narrative of Retribution was really well done. Very intricate with a good number of strong characters all trying to get what they want. Everything happening very fast, action leading the drama. In this book, there isn't the same intensity; the drama leads the action. There's a bit more politicking involved as we witness Humanity's expansion into the verse. We learn more about the personal relationships surrounding the lead characters. All in all, very interesting, but far from the pulse-pounding action of the series' third installment.

I liked this ending better, however. It ended with a big twist, a big "a ha!" moment that any Mass Effect fan is sure to enjoy.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Slow Car (In the Fast Lane)



A song about an annoying, everyday situation.

Lyrics:
At the end of a very long day
I wanna get in my car and drive my problems away
The open road makes me feel free
But who's this idiot in front of me?

It's a slow car in the fast lane
I can't believe it
I wanna go faster than 50
but he's in my way
A slow car in the fast line
why oh why
Just move out of my lane
and I can finally be free tonight

If you were doin 65 that'd be ok
On a city drive in the middle of the day
The limit is 80 you should go that speed
Or maybe 10 or 15 more, just follow my lead.

Don't be the
slow guy in the fast lane.
who I hate
The slow guy in the fast lane
makes everyone late
hey, slow guy in the fast lane
you're doing it wrong
slow guy in the fast lane
listen to my song tonight

I flash my headlights, I yell and I scream
I do whatever it takes so you know what I mean
You finally move over and I pass you by
But five minutes later who's in my headlights?

Another slow guy in the fast lane
Just my luck
Why drive a sports car
like it's a truck
A slow car in the fast lane
why oh why
Just turn on your blinker
And we can finally be free tonight

just move one lane to your right
move one lane to your right
and I can finally be free tonight

Saturday, January 29, 2011

February Project?

January is winding down, and I should make a decision as to what my project next month will be. Here are the frontrunners:

  • More Music. I've had lots of fun writing songs this month. And a month seems kinda short for something that I feel is really only beginning. So maybe I should just keep doing it another month?
  • Website Redesign. I thought I'd do this first, but then writing songs sounded more fun to me. But now that I have that under my belt, maybe I should redesign downchrisdown.com and bought-but-never-used chrisdownie.net sites to reflect my projects better. 
  • Node.js Project. I've got an idea rolling around for a sweet website that I'd like to build using Node.js. Coding at work is alright, but I really want to build something that I have complete ownership over. So maybe it's time for this project.

Which project do you think I should do for February?

Friday, January 28, 2011

Lefty Progress

I'm getting surprisingly good at playing Ultimate left-handed. Some of it is no doubt just from repeatedly trying to throw left handed and slowly improving. But I think how I think about playing has also begun to change too.

I'm definitely more cautious. I don't have as high percentage throws as I used to. I don't have the range that I used to. So now when I run and catch the disc, I either look for a wide open cut, or something easy & open close by. Most times in game this means just throwing my backhand no matter what the force. Unfortunately that hasn't always been an option, resulting in some okay and some laughable left-handed flicks. But again, I should have a somewhat catchable left handed flick that goes at least 5 feet. That's not that tall of a feat to ask.

I'd like to think i'm also running harder. I'm more content playing fewer points in a game because at the end of most points, I'm probably exhausted. Which works well, since we usually have about 3 lines of subs at our games now anyways. Not everyone is on board with the number of folks we have, but I like it. All the more time to just hang out with friends on the sideline.

Jabs asked me last night what I was thinking about doing in Spring, when Winter league was over. Would I stay left-handed? What would I hope to gain from playing lefty all winter?

Firstly, I hope the all the running upfield will make me a better cutter. I'd like to stay as a cutter if I can -- we have plenty of folks with good hands to handle. I just need to have the speed and the stamina to keep cutting, and the presence of mind to not get tired, and then lazily hover back until I'm a de-facto handler again. This is prettymuch how I used to do it. :)

Second, I'm hoping all this readjusting to a shorter, high percentage range sticks. If I can get pretty good (let's say about 80%) with short throws using my left hand, then it should easily be a 100% distance when I switch back to my right. You know, the throwing hand that I've been working with for, what, over 5 years now? My hucks will obviously improve, too, although not by as much (I'd put my longer lefty hucks at about 10-15% right now.) I've also stopped relying on the inside-out break, which really  means I'm not forcing harder throws because I don't see an easy one open upfield. That's a job I'll leave to the handlers.

Finally, I'd like to still have fun. Focusing on my game has been almost zen-like. I'm not really coaching, so I haven't been stressed about how the team has been doing as a whole. I've just been worried about improving as a player. And even that, I haven't been too worried about.

Hopefully that's what will stick. And if it doesn't, well, I might just have to keep playing lefty.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Free idea: Hexels

I read this post on font rendering. Summary: It's hard. It's at the whim of the browser/OS combination, and you can design it as best you'd like, but there's little chance of the actual product looking just like the designs.

They had some interesting examples showing how font size, color, contrast, etc. all impact how the text is rendered. These are the kinds of details that I'll now be noticing on a bunch of websites. Well done, article.

It was especially interesting to see how horrible fonts rendered with slight rotation looked when re-straightened. It got me thinking if the real bias in why these fonts were displayed worse was just a bias based on the grid-layout of pixels. Obviously, displays of higher density tended to not show poor text rendering effects, but could a differently shaped pixel help contribute to non-linear rendering at the same pixel density?

Yes, I got all technobabbly on you.

I wonder if you could make a screen out of hexagonal pixels. It would probably require special drivers to run, since I'm pretty sure all graphics are based on a rigid rectangular grid system. But technological issues aside, a hexagonal grid of pixels should let you render tilted text & curved lines with even more clarity than  a grid based layout. Vertical lines might appear a bit odd, but maybe it would just be high enough resolution for it to work out?

Just an idea. I call 'em Hexels. Now somebody go build it.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Stand back, I'm going to try SCIENCE!

One night, strolling along on an unsuspecting street in Ravenna. Kathryn & I stumbled upon the question from back in our school days: is centrifugal force a real force?

Well, it wasn't so clearly formulated then. I think at the time it was formulated as "Why do they call it a centrifuge if there isn't a centrifugal force?" "Or is it centripital?" "Wait, which is which again?"

Rather than pull up some internet-friendly phone type device right then and solve the issue, we just discussed it. I like arguing thing sometimes even though you could know the exact right answer in a few minutes, because conversations with a hard stop of "wait, i'll find out the truth so we can stop arguing" make interesting conversations abruptly short.

I insisted that centrifugal force was the force you *thought* you felt acting upon you while you were in something that changed direction. Like the feeling that you're being pushed to the left when the car turns right. But that force doesn't exist, there's nothing pushing you to the left; you've just got momentum going forward and the car is pushing you to the right. There is no active force to the left.

I was convinced, but Kathryn wasn't. But by that time we had made it back to her place and I think we had delicious cookies waiting for us or something so the argument was dropped.

But today's XKCD kindly linked to an older XKCD which had this very debate in it. I sent Kathryn the older XKCD as proof that I was right.

Apparently XKCD doesn't hold weight with Kathryn, so she instead sent me the link to the Wikipedia entry on Centrifugal force.

To which I then read to her a line from that entry:
"In Newtonian mechanics, the term centrifugal force is used to refer to one of two distinct concepts: an inertial force (also called a "fictitious" force) observed in a non-inertial reference frame, and a reaction force corresponding to a centripetal force. "
She didn't believe me, and said that a fictitious force is still a force. To which I responded with a different fictitious force.


But it did get me thinking. I had completely forgotten that the basis for it being a real force or not was based on weather the point of view was accelerating or not. I still don't completely remember why this distinction was the difference between what is real and what is fictitious, but it sent some wheels in motion.

Is there a way to actually have the Star Wars Force effect happen in real life by simply looking at it from an accelerating point of reference? I'm not talking about all the Force abilities, namely the ability to make the lightsaber fly straight across the room into a jedi's hand.

Imagine an empty room in space, with Luke in it and his lightsaber on the other side of the room. To an observer inside the room, everything is motionless. However, this room is actually traveling very quickly through space, based on another point of reference. This is essentially a giant space car, with Luke on one side and the lightsaber on another.

Luke puts out his left hand, and this magic "space car" turns to the left. The inertia will keep the lightsaber traveling forward in space, although as the car rotates, it will appear to move straight across the room into Luke's hand. Indeed, in this scenario, the fantastical Force of Star Wars could very well be attributed to the fictitious centrifugal force that started this whole debate.

You know, assuming that, without exerting a force of his own, Luke was able to change the trajectory of the space car. And assuming he could simultaneously change the trajectories of all other free body objects inside the space car, such that everything didn't *also* accidentally accelerate across the room and crush Luke.

All in all, it was a fun thought experiment. I really should do these more often.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Ferry Godmother

My ultimate time on Saturday was cut short. Kathryn's Dad's friend was having a 50th birthday party. The party began with the birthday boy asking me if I was retarded, and then ended with him saying, "Thanks for coming, you're not actually a retard."

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

We played 2 points of our second game so we'd have enough time to make the ferry. Kathryn usually cuts these things close, with a last minute dash through a near-empty ferry terminal. But she knows that I like to show up 5-10 minutes early, waste that time sitting at the terminal but knowing full well that I won't have to rush in order to catch the boat. This time, she was giving us a bigger-than-normal buffer, just to make sure I won't stress about making the boat on time.

Oddly enough, I think just telling me that there was a big buffer was enough to make me not worry about it. I still rushed to get showered & dressed after our game, but I was assured that we had been given enough time.

Then there was a bit of traffic. Not to worry; I'm sure we have plenty of time for this.
Then we couldn't find a parking spot. Not to worry; plenty of time.
Then we found one, but it was 5:30, so we had to pay for parking for the next 30 minutes. But there was a family of 6 people huddled around the pay meter, perplexed by all the buttons and words.
Then they figured it out, but paid in coins that only added 1-3 minutes at a time. And they also needed a parking pass for 30 minutes.

At this point, it's 5:33 for a 5:30pm boat. There's a chance it's behind schedule (it's saved us before) but it's mad-dash time. We bolt to the terminal and see that it still says Vessel Boarding. We buy tickets and rush to the gate, only to whiplash at the hip when the digital turnstyle beeped at me. I didn't understand. I pushed harder. I shoved the ticket in front of the skanner, and it beeped again. The beep is supposed to mean "ok", right?

"Boat's gone," said a man in uniform. "Next one is at 6:30pm".

Booooooo. Well, we had tried, but we missed this one. Kathryn gave her folks a call, then we went to Ivers to wait for the next boat in style with a drink in hand.

We relaxed. Well, we were an hour early. Plenty of time to catch the next boat. We're enjoying some snacks while in clear view of the ferry terminal, so there's no reason to stress. We talk about the various Clam-related tools posted on the walls, and how they all appear to be some sort of farming tool combined with a gun. Like an amateur Clam Shovel, which was a small spade at the end of what appeared to be a very long rifle. We concluded that there was no way to feasibly find any use for a shovel that is also a gun, even if you were trying to dig & shoot for clams, but instead this was just a failed prototype of the bayonet. They just hadn't figured out yet that a knife would be better suited strapped to a rifle than a shovel. Close, but no cigar.

We saw the next boat arrive and asked for our check. I still had another appetizer on the way, so we just asked them to make it to go. We paid our bill and strolled over to the ferry terminal once more.

Kathryn tensed up as we entered. She began walking a bit faster.

"What's wrong?" I asked. "It's 6:20. We have plenty of time".

But something wasn't right. Our stroll changed to a trot until we met with the electronic turnstiles again. This time the displays had already changed to Vessel Departed.

"Ugghhh," Kathryn said. "It must have been a 6:20 departure."

And so we sat. Kathyrn called her parents with the news that we had again missed the boat. The next one is at 7:20. We checked it thrice. We wouldn't leave the terminal. We would not miss the third boat. Instead, we stayed there and paid for overpriced and not-quite-as-delicious drinks in the terminal's bar, while playing Flight Control to pass the time.

We did not miss that 3rd boat. It would have been a fun adventure to end the night with, but that was just the beginning.

Monday, January 24, 2011

The Zombie Song

My first song of the month. It took like 10 tries, but I got it all in one take, eventually. Enjoy.



Lyrics:
Well I know what you want from me
And I can't say that it's easy
But it's made me a bit queasy
to say the very least

All I ask is that you hear me
And listen to this final plea
I'd like to politely
deny you of your feast

Just so I speak clearly
So that you can understand me
Zombies, don't attack me
I'd like to be released

My shotgun wasn't enough
Holy shit, you guys are real tough
We have played a bit rough
but I'd like to call a truce

As I'm standing on this rooftop
Watching you all try to get up
Always knocking at my doorstop
I wonder what's the use

Just so I speak clearly
So that you can understand me
Zombies, don't attack me
I'd like to be released

You've had my neightbor Tim
his wife Mary, and son Jim
I never really liked them
So that's just a freebie

But that was moments ago
when I saw you down below
The one thing that I must know is
how are you still hungry?

Just so I speak clearly
So that you can understand me
Zombies, don't attack me
I'd like to be released

I see you're filled with sympathy
Or maybe I'm just annoying
but whichever it may be
You've begun to lurch away

I am thankful this melody
drives you zombies so crazy
I can't tell you how happy
I am to keep my brain

Now that they've all left me
I breathe sighs of relief
I'm glad zombies didn't kill me
Now I can live in peace.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Fancy Cocktail Party: Crank Dat!

Last Saturday, Kong hosted Fancy Cocktail Party V. It's a bianual gathering at his place, where we get dressed up and hang out. Sometimes we chat about ultimate and make the non-ultimate folks uncomfortable. Other times we talk about building waterfalls with a motorized fossil of a dinosaur that will pop out from behind the waterfall and then shoot bees out of its mouth.

This was one of those times.

Best Overall Couple
I really like this picture.

Kathryn & I won best overall couple. There was a 3-way tie for this category, which I was kinda expecting. For a title as sweeping as "Best Overall Couple" I figured everyone would be writing themselves in. I mean for real, if you don't think you're in the best overall couple, then what are you doing still dating this person?

But apparently "Best Overall Couple" meant more about style than relationship happiness. Or something like that. In any case, other folks (or at least Kathryn) was surprised to find that I had voted us the best couple. But someone else must have agreed to get us into the 3-way tie.

We were tied with Bede/Corinne and Ian/Colin. We went first and got a bit goofy by doing the "Crank Dat" move from Dance Central. Ian & Colin got sexy by doing a short, close dance, then having him dip her for a kiss. It was pretty freaking cool. Bede got confused while Corinne danced around him. Somehow folks chose goofy over sexy. I think they made the right choice.
Most Classy
Fuj & I won most classy Dude & Lady. I think it was my vest that sold it. I'm still pretty surprised that I won this. It must've been the vest. Gotta be.


After the awards, Patrick took a picture of all of us left in Kong's place. These are the Fancy Cocktail Devotees. There were at least twice as many people who showed up for a while and then left, but we were there to close the place out. It's prettymuch the core of Boom that hung around til the end, with a few close friends who are really honorary Boom members anyway.

Yes, that is a White Russian in my hand. Apparently I was the only one drinking at this party.

Maybe that's how I won most classy.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Book Review: Mass Effect Retribution

I'm a big fan of the Mass Effect universe. I've always praised the game for being well written (something I always love about great video games) but I had no idea that the writing could stand on its own so well.

The story begins at the conclusion of the Mass Effect 2 storyline. It centers around Cerberus and the Illusive Man, and his renewed devotion to learning all he can about the Reapers so he can best defend humanity from their inevitable return. That's all I really want to say about the story so I don't spoil the game or the book.

These are some deep, complex characters. Like the game, the lines between good and evil are frequently blurred, and I found myself cheering for the assassin who tried to kill an innocent bystander only moments ago. The pace is fast and action packed, with interesting intergallactic politics mixed in with the brutal military assaults.

This is also the first book I've read based on the world originally created by a video game. I feel like that definitely added to the atmosphere. I could vividly imagine watching the Illusive Man speak, calm and composed, in front of a giant red ball of a dying star. I didn't imagine so much as remember the music and dangerous atmosphere of the Omega space station. The immersion created by the video game while I played it definitely added to my enjoyment of this book.

I plan on reading another Mass Effect book next. I can't imagine the earlier ones being as good as this one, but I'm ready to be surprised.

The biggest irk is the ending. All of the action gomes to a sharp crescendo, a thrilling climax of an ending, and then it's epilogue time. Many questions are left unanswered. Many loose ends left around. I can only hope that these stories are concluded in some obscure side-quest in Mass Effect 3, but I'm not holding my breath.

Instead I'm just deciding to read more of these books, probably leaving more loose ends around. Although maybe with my second playthrough of Mass Effect 2, I'll see that those stories *did* actually tie in.

Here's to hoping.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Thursday, January 20, 2011

The future of web development

During a brief respite from dealing with some launching pains yesterday, I was talking with one of my coworkers about the future of web development. He's one of the rare ones around here who's a genuine web developer, not just a Java developer forced to make a website because that's what we need at the time.

We were discussing the new HTML5 logo and the potential that all the new technologies branded under this logo represent, and the kind of powerful kind of applications these technologies represent. Where the distinction between current "web applications" and thick, client-side applications gets completely blurred. And really, we're already at the point where the browser is powerful enough to be the runtime environment for a good number of simple applications. With the addition of WebGL and the audio interface, we're getting close to the browser being able to support an even wider number of applications.

It got me excited. I mean, really, that's the kinda thing I want to try out. I want to toy with these new technologies and see what I can build. Right now, I understand them in concept -- and a few of them I've even seen demos of. Hell, I've written some CSS3. But I still feel my web development brain stuck in a pre-HTML5 world. I still think of HTML pages as documents, things that I need to style to look good, and that I need to use javascript to move boxes around to make animation. The power of video tags and audio tags have not fully been realized. It's not intuitive for me to think that way.

But I want it to be. This stuff is cool. And I want to be good at building with it. 

That said, it sparked another series of different side projects I could do. This adds to my already long list of side projects I have already thought of, which I haven't actually attempted or haven't finished. My work is never done. Oh well.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

AWS Elastic Beanstalk Launched

Myself and everyone on my team has been working really hard for the last year (and especially for the last few months) and we are ecstatic to finally be launching the service. 


What Is It?
For the technically inclined, Jeff Barr's blog posts really do a great job of explaining what our service is and how to use it. For the rest of you, here's the elevator pitch:

Amazon Web Services has been great if you're a developer. You can use S3 to store all of your files, EC2 to run your servers, and ELB to handle with scale. All of this without the need for buying and configuring hardware; just tell us what you want to use and it works. 

But historically, each of these services have been independent. If you build a webapp on your local machine, you have to then use each of the AWS services manually to upload your content, deploy on the Amazon servers, and then configure the load balancers to prepare your website for scale. While still easier and cheaper than buying and configuring hardware, but was a lot of work that wasn't really about developers building the best webapp they can.

It Just Works
For Java webapp developers, your life just became a lot easier. All you need to do is package your webapp as a WAR file, upload it to AWS Elastic Beanstalk, and kick back. We'll handle putting files in place. We'll push it out to servers. We'll monitor load and respond accordingly so that if you become wildly successful your app will scale seamlessly. 

We get out of your way and let you spend your time developing your application. With a few clicks and a few minutes, your app can be deployed and updated on the Amazon infrastructure. You can do it from with within your Java editor if you use Eclipse. You can do it with just a web browser using the AWS Management Console (which is what I worked on). And if you prefer that computers do the work for you, you can build a tool that works directly against the AWS Elastic Beanstalk API to do the deployments on your behalf. 

Cheaper than Cheap
Additionally, this service is provided at absolutely no cost. You only have to pay for whatever resources you consume, not to use the AWS Elastic Beanstalk service itself. It gets even better: If you're a new user to AWS, you can even use a limited number of AWS resources at absolutely no cost! Just sign up for the Free Tier and launch away. 

If you've been thinking about trying Amazon Web Services to host your website, now is the time to try it out. Super easy to use and very low cost (possibly free). So get out there, deploy your app, and let us know what your experiences are. 

Happy developing.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Everything sucks, part 2

In my last post, I lamented how everything sucked. Or, phrased in a less exaggerating and sensationalist way, how the focus on individual features and the push to get things out in the wild quickly prevented us from having wonderfully well-integrated experiences.

A subsequent idea popped into my head that I want to explore. Complaining just generates a lot of noise without any action. But what if we could actually act on the things that's bugging us? What if we could develop and contribute changes to the products we loved, to benefit ourselves as well as other users of that product?

Open Source Software
Yup, that's pretty much what the ideal of open source software is. If you think something sucks bad enough, just fix it. Here's the program, here's the code, just fix it. If it's a product with ongoing development, then hopefully you can have some central repository to commit your changes to. And, hopefully, it's one such that future releases will contain your fix, eliminating the bad user experience for all of its users.

There are two problems with this approach. One, it turns out it doesn't actually succeed at making seamless user experiences (it can be argued that it makes it even worse). Two, everybody thinks they're special and they don't want to share.

No matter how well-intentioned the open source developer is, they can't build an experience. They can only build more features. Maybe it's a tiny bug fix, or maybe it's a full feature rewrite. But piecemeal additions to a larger codebase almost never have a unifying effect on the overall experience. In fact, they usually fracture the experience, forcing it into a mere collection of well-working features.

Invariably, to have a good overall experience, someone needs to have the oversight to see how each of the individual features contributes to the overall experience. This lends itself to some sort of leadership or management role of the project, rather than a fully distributed model of development.

Unfortunately, the projects that have this kind of guidance rarely favor releasing their hard work under an open source license. I can only speculate that the drive for such tight control over the entire product, which is the very feature that can breed a wonderful user experience, is the very same drive that makes them want to keep the innerworkings of their project under wraps. They don't want developers outside of their own to change things, because they could change things in a way that is poor to the overall experience.

Then there's the business and legal side. I think software development in general is crippled by legal decisions. If you release your code, others can copy it, sell it, and try to rob you of sales. I can't deny that this is a possibility, but it's unfortunate that the possible bad action of a few bad apples is preventing me from being able to contribute my skills to interesting projects.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Does everything suck?

I read this article last week about how gamers are spoiled; we keep getting better games, but we keep being disappointed because we find such small things to latch on and to say that it ruins the experience.

I also saw this comic about how to make the web design of your shopping cart suck less. The points made in this cartoon are great, and they really apply to all forms on the web, not just shopping carts.

At some point, I begin to question my own ability to be upset about the small things. On one hand, I feel like I've been trained to make mountains out of mole hills. If I don't latch on to the tiny things that collectively add to an overall more seamless user experience & complain loudly about them, then the odds of these things being noticed by people who have the power to change them is practically nil. But constantly complaining is tiring and thankless; even if I get to see all of what I want fixed, odds are there will still be more to do in the next version.

This is how I'll always have work as a software developer: there's always more work to do. But from the consumer side of things, it's just a lot of stuff that doesn't work that well.

Take Kinect, for example. I can essentially talk to my TV and have it start playing a football game from last week, while I'm standing in the kitchen & cooking. It's miraculous. This is the future.

Then I try and play music. Wait! You haven't downloaded the Zune app, do you want to download it? Suddenly my Xbox is deaf and no matter what obscenities I shout I can't get it to download the app to play me some damn music without washing my hands, finding the controller, and pushing a button. What is this, 2010?

Or I'll stand in front of Kinect and wave my hand so it knows I want to gesture at it. Then I launch a Kinect game, and it forgets that I was just talking to it. I'm standing right here. I have to wave frantically again for you to remember that I'm the only person in the room? You know what, eff it, I don't want to play this game anymore. It drops me out to the Kinect Hub and once again, forgets who I am, and makes me wave my arms frantically to control it yet again.

These experiences are terrible, the magic of modern technology aside. They're disruptive, they get in my way, and they give me something to complain about. But these aren't minor technical issues, these are serious breaks of customer flow that frustrate me.

It's my fault, really. They built a magic box. I wanted to have a magic box immediately. They got some stuff working really well, and then had to decide if building a seamless MagicBox experience was worth not giving me a magic box that worked well enough in some cases right now. They probably even asked me and I said "RIGHT NOW GIMMIE GIMMIE" but then somewhere along the line (probably with marketing) they neglected to tell me that everything wasn't diamonds & unicorns. They didn't pare down my exaggerated expectations and left me to discover for myself that what they had built wasn't actually a magic box but actually just a new kind of joy stick.

But some things really can't even be placed on marketing setting expectations too high. I expect that if I click on a label next to the checkbox, that the website will know that I mean to click the checkbox. I expect that if I press the 'tab' key, I can cycle through the important input fields in a page. These aren't lofty expectations, but since they're always secondary to the person building the website, they often get overlooked. Then I try things, find out my moderate expectations weren't met, get frustrated and have reason to complain.

One final example. It's review time at Amazon. The free-form field inputs are a wonderful expanse to let me express where I believe my peers have excelled, and where they have the opportunity to improve. But these expansive anecdotes must then be categorized into one of twelve Areas of Leadership. These are short titles with lofty explanations to show that you Save Money(tm) and Care About The Customer(tm).

They're also checkboxes without labels. But that's not my point.

The lofty leadership categories are in no way indicative of the qualities that I need to see in my coworkers. They're not the ones that they need to have in their core skill set. They're just a good-sounding collection of words that suit movie posters or book covers better than performance reviews.

And at the end of it, I have about 16 more qualities that I have to rate the person on, either "Agreeing" or "Disagreeing" (perhaps Strongly) that it is a quality they posses. Except these are all vague lofty technical qualities that we pretty much screen for in the interview process. "Writes Good Code"? "Seeks The Root Cause of Problems"? "Communicates Effectively"? If they didn't, why would they be here? This reduces all of my responses to a combination of "Agree" and "Strongly Agree", which they even obscure further by trying to compute a mathematical average of my judgements, pretending that has value.

And for the ones that I don't list Agree with, there's no room for feedback as to why. Because in reality, everyone has these traits, but some of them can use more improvement than others. Only having "Agree" and "Strongly Agree" is not enough variance for me to help them. So I have to lie and say I disagree with things, but I can't say why.


So when it comes down to it, this is what I see all day. Varied products and projects and tools that I have to interface with. Some design or implementation detail that hinders my intended task, and then a world of frustration and things to complain about. Does everything suck like this? Is there no product that really nails the full end-to-end experience and gets out of my way and lets me do my thing?

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Short Update

I missed posting yesterday. I'll make up for it. Honest.

Yesterday was awesome. A double-header in the morning, followed by lunch with friends. Then, in the evening, I went to a formal party hosted at Kong's house. I won the award Classiest Man.

But that story is nothing without pictures, and I don't have pictures. And I know, according to the rules of the Internet, that until I have pictures then it didn't happen. But there were other people taking pictures, so as soon as they're up on Facebook I can cross-post them here and tell that story.

For now, I'm just a dude who had a busy day, didn't write a blog entry, and has no material proof of it. :)

Friday, January 14, 2011

Anything else

I'm trying so very hard to think of something to write about that isn't work. Shit is still going wrong, and we told them to account for the fact that shit could go wrong in the schedule, but they were convinced that this time, there would be absolutely no delays of any kind. Once again, the people building the product know more than the people deciding how the product should be built.

But that's work. That's exactly what I'm not thinking about, and that's exactly what I won't be writing about. Instead, I'll be writing about anything else.

Anything at all.

Hmm...

I've been really enjoying WNYC's Radiolab. They're really well produced pieces on a variety of subjects. I found the whole audio switching sort of chaotic and distracting until I got used to it, but it has its charm. I've just been putting them on while I work, and letting myself get wrapped up in the story while I push bits around. I think it's been lowering my stress.

And really that's just what I want. As many bad decisions are made, as many late breaking changes, as many scheduling and planning disruptions, I just need it not to have any effect on me personally.

But I was talking about something else.

Oh, also, I'm really liking my fancy new computer glasses. I look anyway from ridiculous to awesome, depending on who you ask, but I think they work. My eyes definitely feel more relaxed staring at a computer screen all day. I get fewer exhaustion headaches at the end of the day, and don't often feel like I'm going to crash when I get home from work. That could also be to to my other efforts to lower my stress, as well as me switching to tea instead of caffinated high-fructose-corn-syrup'd cola. And that I've been drinking so much water. But it could also be the glasses.

The color shift is really the worst part about them. I notice it less and less now, but the distinct yellow-tint to my world always takes a few minutes to get used to when I put them on. The computer screens look absolutely fine; no super-yellow screens for me. But the rest of the world that isn't beaming light directly into my eye-holes does look distinctly more yellow. And then blue, when I take my glasses off.

It is a bit odd that I'm trying to prevent eye fatigue, which could make me wear glasses, by wearing glasses which prevent eye fatigue.

Oh well.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

I'm a lyricist, not a songwriter

Writing songs is hard.

I mean, I realize that the whole point of it is to try and do things that (a) I don't normally do and (b) That will be a bit more challenging for me than the safe, comfortable things I'm good at.

But man, writing songs is hard.

I've got one written. Like, done. It's not great, but it's catchy, and with any luck it could save your life. You'll see what I'm talking about when I post it. I just have a rough version recorded so far so I don't forget it; I didn't want to deal with producing the final audio and/or YouTube clip when I finished writing it.

That's the other thing; it hadn't occurred to me that when I said "I'll post it on YouTube" that I'd actually have to produce a video of me performing the song. I'm genuinely not the strongest guitar player, so playing a song I just wrote and singing the words I also just wrote is hard to do at the same time. Usually, technology saves me by only making me perform one of those at a time, then just laying one over the other. I bet I could just do that with the video too. Or maybe I could just practice the song well enough to do it for YouTube. We'll see. I'm thinking of calling this first song "Rooftop Plea".

I have been trying to write these songs in different ways, but again, it's hard. With the rap songs I've written before, it was always super easy to just come up with a concept, a cadence, some clever words, and then a bunch of other words to put between the clever bits of words to make a song of decent length. With the last melodic song I wrote, I tried coming up with a chord progression before writing lyrics. That worked well enough, and I got a pretty good song out of it.

With Rooftop Plea, I tried getting the song written before the words. I did a different sort of plucking cadence than usual, and didn't use chords. And, when I sat down to write it, it was going to be a completely different song. But then I was like "This sad sap song is boring me. Let's make it something awsome". To which I responded, "Yes, of course, awesome! That's just what this song was missing"

I've gotten a bit carried away with that now into my second song. I've got some great lyrics and a pretty catchy tune. Well I have some great lyrics, anyway. Unfortunately, the tune I'm hearing is only in my head, and I lack the auditory ability to figure out what chord progression for it is. It also is by far the most complex chord progression in any of my songs. Also, I think I'm hearing an ukulele instead of a guitar.

But still! I'll figure out something. It's gonna be a good second song. Well, it'll have good words, anyway.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Book Review: Machine of Death

This comic started it all, a little over 5 years ago. The seed idea. What would happen if a machine was invented that could tell you, with a mere sample of your blood, how you were going to die? It's never wrong, although its predictions can be uselessly vague. And that is your fate, regardless of your actions to reject it, embrace it, forget it or ignore it.

Well, it went from a joke in a comic, to folks deciding to make a book about it. They asked writers from all over to contribute stories with the same premise. Then they pulled them all into this book, Machine of Death.

The books authors are also really forward-thinking tech folks. The website for this book has news about it and an increasing number of its short stories available as podcasts. And, the best part, is that you can have the book for free if you want. Yup, completely no-cost and free of DRM. Just openly released under the Creative Commons license. That kind of openness genuinely does make me want to give them money so more publishers follow suit. But I digress.

Machine of Death an interesting read. Good, not great. Its flaws are in its format. Some of the short stories are pithy, uninteresting bits about more mediocre details of daily life living with the Machine of Death. But then there are some amazing tales that I'm really upset to find out they only get one chapter. Each chapter is titled with a prescribed death from one of the characters in its story. My favorites are, in no particular order, Almond, Hiv Infection From Machine Of Death Needle, Exhaustion From Having Sex With A Minor, and Loss of Blood.

Each of these stories don't precisely fit in the same universe, but it could easily be argued that they all in fact do coexist in the same universe, and the minor indiscrepancies are merely do to poor recollection on the part of a character in the story. But the diverse implications of such a device are mesmerizing. Would we establish a minimum national age to be tested by the Machine? Would we try it for a while, then ban it altogether? Would children be tested at birth? Would you become criminal if you refused testing? Could a court order you to get tested to help in a federal investigation?

All these different scenarios play out in the book. It's amazingly intriguing to see the same simple premise have such a diverse array of consequences. There are stories of love, betrayal, science, and politics.

Oddly enough, there aren't many death stories. That was probably the biggest misconception when I began reading it. I was sure that each of these chapter titles would be a death foretold by the Machine, and the story would be about a new character who got this death prescribed to him, and who tried desperately to escape, only to cause his own demise. I mean, I guess that would be a difficult story to re-tell 30 different ways. But I thought it would really be a mystery of just guessing and second-guessing what the interpretation of such a vague death could mean for the current protagonist.

But it's really not about that. Not all the stories end with someone dying. Just because some predictions can be vague, doesn't mean that all of them are. They do tend to make for interesting stories, though.

Everything is stupid

I'm in a bad mood.

Wait, back up.

I feel like 'efficiency' isn't so much a good recommendation as it is a life philosophy to engineers. Anyone with technical skill wants to do things in such a way so they take less time, less resources. In fact, it's a pretty easy follow-up question to any interview question. Just ask what you normally ask, and then "OK, can you do it faster? With less memory? With less resources?"

If they're good, they've already thinking of a faster way to do things. Or they can clearly explain why their way is unequivocally the fastest. If they're OK, then they begin thinking of it when you ask. They'll at least poke around a while and try things out to see if there is something they could do differently. A flat out "no" is the only wrong answer.

But that sentiment permeates from the interview question to everything else in life. Why should I take side streets if the freeway looks faster? If I cut through this parking lot, instead of walking around it, it could save me like 2 seconds on my walking commute. What other ways can I save my time, my money, my mental and physical exertion doing things that I do often?

I definitely type 9-0 when I want to microwave something for a minute & thirty seconds because it's one keypress faster than typing 1-then-3-then-0. I'm sure I'm not the only one who does this.

The difficulty in all this comes in dealing with folks who don't think the same way. Or who don't realize that engineers think this way. Or maybe just from some group of people who are yet-to-be properly classified. These are the folks who ask you for things that you already told them. The ones who make you do the same thing you did for them over and over again, with each subsequent action having absolutely no additional consequence than the first time you did it.

I'm not expecting people to be computers. Mistakes can be made, things can be lost or forgotten. And sometimes you need to repeat yourself. But by the second or third time, the request should change from "Can you do this" to "I'm sorry to keep asking, but i need this again" and eventually to "we need to think of a better way to do this"

But no. I'm upset. Mostly because things haven't progressed past the first part. I've spent the better part of two weeks going in circles. I'm sick of it. I really am.

And it's really just a waste of my time, my resources.

It's just goddamn inefficient.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Missed a Day

Shit. Apparently, I missed a day? I thought I was doing good about keeping up on the daily posts, but apparently I spaced on Sunday. And then didn't notice it until today. I'm a sharp one.

I'll have to make an additional post to catch up. So, you know, be ready for that.


It's snowing outside right now. And not like the wimpy flurry we had a few days ago, it's really coming down. The streets are just covered in white, like someone covered the whole area with sand. A white, cold, sand. That looks like snow.

Ugh my analogies are terrible. Have the years of literal thinking really corroded my creative writing side into something that is not as good because it's so corroded? Can't I still evoke imagery with words that make you see what it is I'm seeing without telling you what it is I'm seeing. Well, I mean, by using words, but by using slightly different ones than a normal person would. Whereby 'normal' I mean non-writer types. Which, by the looks of it, currently includes me.

Maybe I should just start writing in analogies exclusively, like an artist gone mad after an attacker tried to kill him one night. Left traumatized, all his works of art are shadowy images of that fateful night, evil shapes lurking in the darkness, their intentions clear as day. And try as he might, he can't shake these images form his mind, can't shake them from his work, can't shake them from the prison he's made for himself. The images just keep coming, and coming, and coming.

Except for me it'll be analogies. But less dark. More funny.

Maybe only a little dark.

Monday, January 10, 2011

TTYL MFER

I don't have a whole lot to write about today. But here's an interesting chat I had with Craig a few months ago. Since then, my favorite way to say goodbye to someone is TTYL MFER. Unfortunately, it has not been widely adopted by the internet at large. Yet.


wooo hawaii
12:46 AM Craig: eggsellent
12:47 AM me: that was a terrible yolk
12:48 AM Craig: it's late, my mind is scrambled
12:49 AM me: hold up, omelette you finish, but i just wanted to say that beyonce had one of the best videos OF ALL TIME
12:53 AM Craig: aaahhh why did I start with the egg thing, I can't think of anything remotely clever anymore I give up!
  you cracked me, I guess
12:54 AM me: haha
12:55 AM you went over easy.
  BOOM
12:56 AM Craig: you could say that you were a "craig beater"
12:57 AM me: haha
  even when we stop we're still going. :)
12:59 AM ok, well i'm going to go to bed
  at least until I see the sunny side up
 Craig: STOP IT
  :-)
1:00 AM me: ok
  egg jokes over
 Craig: TTYL MFER

Saturday, January 08, 2011

Playing Left Handed

Today was Hangover, a 1-day ultimate tournament in Seattle. We spent the whole day running around breathing in the cold Seattle air trying to chase down a disc before it hits the ground, only to gladly fling it in the air again once we caught it. And then doing it again and again.

I genuinely like Ultimate, but I've begun to get bored of it. In college ultimate, there was always change. Every year a new batch of recruits to teach the rules to and teach 'em how to throw a flick. Every year more folks moving on up to the A team and trying to compete for a shot at the national title. And every year, your opponents changed similarly; it might have been the same teams, but it was always new people. And some years, we'd get new coaching squads, so we'd be tasked with learning an entirely new offense to the sport. Or new defensive positions and plays. It was awesome.

Things have kind of slowed down since then. I play with a bunch of folks who live around here. They don't graduate and move away. There isn't an A team to move up to that still feels like my team. There aren't coaches to teach me anything I don't already know. There aren't 60 new recruits every year to get excited about. And there's no championship to work toward. There's just us, a crowd of friends who like the sport, against other crowds of friends who also like the sport. They don't change, and neither do we.

That's part of why it broke my heart when my college alum team decided to get competitive. There's one tournament a year up here where everyone from the US (and around the globe) joins up to play some ultimate, and that's really the best time to play with folks you haven't seen in forever, and whose bonds should be stronger than ever, on account of being teammates for 3-4 years. But that's a sore spot, and a whole different story.

I needed something to change. I don't want to quit playing; that's a bit too drastic of a change. I want to try something new and work hard and improve at it, or just try something new and fail miserably.

So I've decided to be left-handed for winter. We'll see how things turn out in the long run; right now it's mostly a "failing miserably" situation. I played one game last weekend left handed and actually made some pretty decent plays. Today I played mostly left handed and didn't fare much better.

I don't really notice it, but apparently my decision to have shitty throws for the next 2-3 months (or at least most of today) has really upset some of my teammates. I tried going right-handed for half of one game, and it upset me terribly. It kinda helped me see how my mind works when i'm playing the game.

When I play right-handed, I play with years of experience. I'm not so sure that I'm *actually* the best player on the team, but i definitely psyche myself up by telling myself that I am. I play hard and controlled, thinking in high-level concepts about the entire game, like judging the wind and tilt of the disc to throw something that will fly to a specific part of the field and slow down so my teammate can get to it. All these things just come naturally to me because I've done them for so long.

And then I notice when my teammates turn it over. It hits someone in the hands, and hits the turf. Wind catches a throw and it goes too far. Or they throw it right in the ground. And it upsets me. I've worked so hard on my game, and you're just going to take my disc and let it hit the ground. It's not right. I don't like it.

But when I play left-handed, none of that worries me. I'm thinking about myself. Where I'm standing, what grip the disc is in. What person closest to me can i get rid of the disc to so I can start running again? I genuinely don't want to turn it over, but it doesn't worry me when it happens. It's more "Oh well, nice try, we'll get it back."And sometimes we do.

And that's really the attitude I want to have on the field. This isn't elite-level here. This is C pool. If we're out here to have fun, let's have fun. Yeah, turning the disc over sucks, but complaining about it and getting personally offended by it (as I do when I've got my competitive switch turned on) doesn't really help the team.

But then again, neither does being (without exaggeration) the worst thrower on the team. But, like I've told hundreds of kids before, that should just come with practice. Hopefully, it will.

Friday, January 07, 2011

Autobiography

Most of my blog posts aren't autobiographical. When I used to regularly update my blog, they were, and those really were the entries that I enjoyed re-reading after a few years had past. I'd like to make more of those entries, but there are a few obstacles in my way.

First of all, I can't talk about my work. Once I can talk about my work, I may be a bit more open on the subject, but until then I'm erring on the side of saying nothing at all rather than saying something that, in retrospect, I shouldn't have. It's a bit unfortunate that my day is taken up by 8 hours of stuff I can't talk about.

Secondly, my free time is filled with entertainment. I'll be playing ultimate, playing video games, reading the internet, reading on my kindle, or doing one of the many side projects I want to get done this year. All that time spent doing those things leaves me wanting to talk about them, but it doesn't make for a very personal narrative.

Thirdly, I'm trying to keep these posts interesting. Ultimate is on my brain most of the time. Then there's highly technical web stuff. These things are interesting to me, but I have this ill-conceived notion that the internet at large doesn't need more posts on those subjects. I really should just get over it and write about that stuff anyway. Maybe on another post.


One interesting thing of note: last night was my first shot at making Thai Yellow Curry with Chicken. It was delicious. I thought about taking a picture, but it was tasty-looking and I was hungry. Not a good combination for the curry. Or for my blog, for that matter.

Thursday, January 06, 2011

Scientific ESP

There's a recent article in the New York Times describing the latest controversy in the scientific community. It looks like someone has done research on ESP, and a paper about their research has been accepted into a respected scientific journal. Psychic scientists everywhere love it, rigorous physics-loving scientists say that it's a joke.

I especially liked this part of the article:
In his version, Dr. Bem gave 100 college students a memory test ... and found they were significantly more likely to remember words that they practiced later. “The results show that practicing a set of words after the recall test does, in fact, reach back in time to facilitate the recall of those words,” the paper concludes.
This feels like the very thing statisticians warn everyone against. Correlation vs causation. In other words, "I don't think those numbers mean what you think it means"

Suppose for a second that whatever scientific methods this guy used are legit. He gives you a memory test, and scoring higher on that test is highly correlated by the amount of studying you do after the test. Aside from giving a bunch of underprepared college students yet another reason to not study for finals, he also makes a big leap. Stating that this test implies a causal link would infer that there are statistical analysis methods that are independent of the flow of time.

This interests me more than the ESP. It's pretty easy to show things are correlated if they are. But to say that one causes another is another matter entirely. Usually you have to do some experiments with two nearly identical groups, one in which you inject what you believe to be the causal element, and one in which you do not. In some cases, the latter needs to be tricked into thinking they have been given something so that knowledge isn't another difference between the groups. Then you watch, and wait, and only after time has passed can you conclusively say if that one causal element that you used is wholly responsible for the differences between the two groups.

Time must have passed. You can't have a causal link that is independent of the flow of time. That's not how physics works, that's not how chemistry works, and that's certainly not something that current statistical methods allow.

But let's suppose that there are causal links that aren't dependent on time. That right now, the outcome of something is dependent on what I do in the future. How could we prove that in a statistical context?

I don't have any real answer, but it's interesting to think about.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

Game Review: Halo Reach

Halo: Reach is the latest installment in the Halo universe. You probably already know all about it. You shoot stuff that moves. It dies. Woohoo.

I'm not a big fan of vanilla shoot-em-up games. I kinda feel like the "run around and shoot everything" gameplay has be done countless times over again. Unfortunately, I seem to be in the minority with this opinion, as the game studios just keep making games where you're someone who runs around and shoots everything. Even the hardware vendors are in on it; the controllers themselves have triggers for each hand that really best suit being in a game where you use some device with a trigger to interact with everything. And so, naturally, most games choose guns.

Despite my boredom with this gameplay mechanic, I still bought Halo: Reach and I'll still buy a handful of other shooters for the same reason: compelling story. As I've mentioned, a good story is really why I play most games. Bungie has a reputation for great story telling, and even though I found their last game to have a pretty short campaign, it was interesting and well-told.

But this time around, they've collapsed in on themselves like a dying star. It makes me wonder if the "last hurrah" of the development company wasn't really them just going "really, microsoft? Another one of these? Fine, here's something quick but that's the last time, we're done, you're on your own".

The concept isn't half as bad as its execution. You're not the lone hero defeating an alien armada, you're the noob to an elite fighting squad who have to play defense as the aliens kick our ass. Everything sounds heroic and looks shiny, but this has to be the worst writing since Too Human. Each of the characters belt out their particular goals or problems, with all-too-authentic military dialog. Which simply means that unless you're a Halo fanboy or actually in the military, most of what they say is complete gibberish.

And that's just the cutscenes. The in-game storytelling is substantially worse, because everyone who's talking to you is in a barely-moving armored suit. Admittedly, Red vs Blue built its whole web series out of that, but they had the benefits of better writing and being able to direct the camera to show which armored suit the voice was coming from. I shouldn't need full surround sound just to figure out who's talking to me. And that what they're saying is completely incomprehensible.

What it all amounts to is a series of cutscenes (and in-game dialog) where something happens, but I don't know what. Then we have a mission to go somewhere, but I'm not sure where until the HUD pops up and tells me "Over here, 400m away". Or, if the HUD doesn't help, just running towards whatever packs of enemies are still alive.


Needless to say I was incredibly frustrated, unsatisfied, and generally disappointed at the campaign's conclusion. The multiplayer made me feel a bit less bad about buying the game, but most of the fun had there was because I was playing with my brother, and we had some pretty epic battles (only me & him vs 4 other people winning handily 50-26? BOOYA!). But just because multiplayer was fun doesn't take away from the poor job of the single-player experience.

Despite all this, there were glowing points. Being in space was awesome, if a bit long. The new helicopter is cool, if a bit awkward to handle. The story reasons behind how I got into space and why I'm in a helicopter are preposterous, but the gameplay was new and fun. I can only hope Bungie's next adventure has more of this aspect to it than the run-of-the-mill tried-and-true shooter genre.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Video Game Story

I really like video games. I play all kinds, but my favorite games really center around a great story telling experience. I believe that video games are the absolute best medium for a story; moreso than books, TV or the movies. The reason for this can be justified in one word: immersion.

All story telling vehicles rely on getting you immersed in the world the author is trying to create. There needs to be a believable setting, a cast of identifiable or, at the very least, understandable characters. Bad stories are the ones that defy understanding; that leave you simply stating "that could never happen" as opposed to being swept away by the narrative.

Books try to do this by letting your mind fill in the gaps that mere words create. When you read, you hear a narrator's voice or a character's voice. Vivid descriptions conjure up sharp imagery in your mind. All of this to get you to connect with the story on some emotional level. A well written book can do a very effective job at making you care about people you've never met, who don't exist, in a place you've never been to. It can immerse you in its world.

Movies and TV work along the same lines, but whereas the world the book creates is more hidden and subtle, the world of TV and movies is a bit more overt. Good writing is still needed to give the characters volume and the air of believability, but more often then not the "immersive" qualities tend to be more technological ones; A high-def screen can give you an amazing level of visual detail. A surround-sound system can make you feel like what's happening before your eyes is actually happening all around you. These supplement the story and give your body the sense of being totally immersed in the fictitious world before you.

Story-driven video games take both of these one step further. Yes, they have to have the well-written world of books. Yes, they can have the same technological feel of amazing visuals and surround sound. But they introduce a whole other aspect that truly immerses the viewer: control.

In other mediums, the story is a sharp, straight line. The only control you have is whether to continue the story or not. In video games, it's not so simple. Even with games that have a strictly linear plot, it can't continue on unless you, playing as the main character, perform some action. The story may require you to go into a castle, but the door is closed. There isn't a button for "just go into the castle". Instead, you have to walk around the world, look through the eyes of the protagonist, open the door and walk through it to reach your destination. 

It's a little contrived example, but it illustrates the point. Actively requiring participation makes the person enjoying the story feel like it's happening to them; not just around them. They have to translate simply stated lofty goals ("Save the princess from the castle") into a series of normal, controlled actions (run, jump, break that block, avoid the fireball, run more). And, just like a good story, it doesn't really matter so much what happens as how it happens.

Some video games take advantage of this control to change the story around you; Mass Effect or Fallout 3 are prime examples of this. Not only are your actions just complicated means of achieving the goal you set out to complete, but the goals themselves change with how you try to reach them. You are given liberty to fully explore the worlds that these games have created without being bound to a specific story or narrative. 

This freedom is empowering. It really makes you feel like you are the protagonist. It lets the world of the story completely envelop you. It's absolutely the most immersive way to enjoy a story. Which simply makes it the best way to enjoy a story.

Monday, January 03, 2011

Book Review: World War Z

The first book I've read on my newfangled kindle is World War Z by Max Brooks. This is a great book that really emphasizes the "how" of great storytelling rather than the "what". The pithy subtitle aptly describes all the "what" you need to know.

"An Oral History of the Zombie War" aptly describes the setting for this book. There was a world war. It was humanity versus hoards of the undead. It has ended, and if we are not victors than at least we are survivors. And these are the stories of those who have managed to survive, telling us first hand of what actually happened. How did the infection start? How did it spread? And how poorly prepared were we to deal with such a threat?

Each of these perspectives gives a wider view of the world than a single narrative could. You get to see the horror from the perspective of doctors first running into the disease, leaders who have to figure out how to deal with such a mess, and average Joes who have to either nut up or shut up.

Sorry, that's a different Zombie story.

It's really interesting to see how this fictional post-apocalyptic world compares with that of Fallout 3, in which it wasn't zombies that decimated the world's government and infrastructure, but nuclear war. Some small details are different, but some common themes remain. Some folks band together and form small towns; the ones found in both stories are the ones most equipped to defend themselves against their attackers, undead or no. There are a few loners who survived somehow, but their experiences have left them at odds with the world, either catatonic or insane and eager to kill anything that moves.

One thing that kinda bugs me though is the difficulty in classifying the zombie threat. At first, the zombies are really classified as a medical condition; Patient Zero bites to transfer the infection and that infection causes death and reanimation. And all the initial perspectives on the matter view it as a disease outbreak, something entirely medical (albeit devastating).

But at some point, it's not just people getting sick, it's a massive undead army waging war. Military leaders discuss how best to defend against the hoard, or how to sweep through an area and rid it of zombies. Strategists give their opinions on how they can't be treated like a normal army. All of this is amazingly insightful and a brilliant read, but I can't help wonder why the world stopped looking at the medical side of the situation.

To the best scientific knowledge, these creatures defied life as we knew it. They're not alive, but they're animated somehow. Taking out an arm or a leg, or even decapitating them wouldn't be enough to kill them; you had to destroy the brain. This wasn't found through medical research, but by everyone trying to murder the zombies any way they could and finding out that most ways don't work. You gotta shoot 'em in the head.

But if the original plague that awoke the zombie hoard was an infection or parasite of something, wouldn't scientists be trying to find out? I would at least hope that while we have our best military men working to shoot all of the zombies in the head as they can, we have some courageous scientists somewhere working with live zombies or their remains or something to figure out a cure for the recently infected; maybe a vaccine to prevent infection or best yet, a chemical agent to neutralize the zombic germ in giant packs of zombies at once. Just have 'em all fall down, back to the lifeless state they should've been in long ago.

Alas, that personal anecdote never made it into this collection. There are some stories from folks in the pharmaceutical industry, but I've left those details out for the benefit of those who haven't read it yet.

All in all, it's a good read. I'm really more the type for quick chapters and short bursts of reading, but this book kept me turning pages for hours.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Kinect!

Today was my geek out day. I got a shiny new xbox with Kinect a few days ago, but hadn't yet had the time to properly set it up and play with it. So today I wired the new thing up and got all Kinectified.

Long story short, Kinect is fun. I definitely like the Dance Central control mechanism better than the one for the rest of Xbox and Kinect Adventures. It makes navigating the menu feel like I'm high fiving some friends standing in front of me but turned to their side. This is in contrast to waving my palm tentatively in front of me, like I'm trying to use the Force to command my will while simultaneously telling the xbox, "whoa, calm down. Please don't bite me."

The coolest moment was when Kathryn walked in front of the tv and it auto-signed her in. Very cool.

The worst is the amount of space it requires. Any Kinect game that plans to use depth information will be an absolute pain. Hopefully the game makers realize that depth is useless in games. At least until we have holograms. Or pervasive 3D TVs.

I'll have reviews of the games after I get a chance to play them more.

But for now, let's just say that my achievement hunting on Alan Wake and Mass Effect 2 is on hold for a bit. :)

Saturday, January 01, 2011

Happy New Year

The new year is upon us. An entirely new future awaits us, one that will inevitably look like the many New Years past.

But this one is different, somehow. Everyone knows it, feels it. Somehow, this will be the year. The one where we accomplish what was too difficult before, the one where we attain that which just barely slipped past our grasp, the one where we finally get what we've always wanted.

Then again, that would make the following year somewhat pointless.

So, for me, this will be a year of challenges. New things that I didn't fail at last year because I didn't think to try them. Projects I've put on hold for mindless excuses or general fear of failing.

My project for January will be to write more songs. I will write at least two this month, hopefully 4. These will be song I can play on my guitar. I will post the results to YouTube.

Here's to a challenging 2011. :)