Monday, February 01, 2010

Small, Medium, and Large

My three mobile computers, left to right: a smartphone (overpriced Apple iPhone 3G), a netbook (refurbished Acer Aspire One), and a laptop (piece-of-crap Lenovo Thinkpad T61p).

Lest you think I'm one of those ultra-early adopters who just has to have the latest shiny new gadget, let me point out that I acquired each of these machines for very specific reasons.

The iPhone (left) I got last May, right before our trip to Europe for Jeff and Marina's wedding. My old phone wasn't quad-band or GSM-capable, so I couldn't use it internationally; but that was also a convenient excuse to upgrade. My former employer had issued me a Blackberry for a couple of years, and I'd enjoyed having a "smartphone" to check my e-mail and calendar. For the record, the apps I use most these days are any of three Twitter clients (to access different accounts) and Google Maps--the latter especially for traffic updates, which our Prius' 2005 navigation system doesn't have. It's helped us on more than one Friday afternoon, when deciding whether to drive back from Portland during rush hour or wait it out somewhere.

The laptop (right) I got in early 2008, right after leaving my aforementioned former employer. I'd been using my work laptop, a very reliable IBM Thinkpad T43, for over four years, and I decided to stick with the same make. Or so I thought. Turns out that after Lenovo bought the Thinkpad brand from IBM, their products pretty much went to crap. I've griped and ranted about this before--the motherboard's already died once, as has the battery, and Lenovo's problems with wireless networking are well documented. But it did cost me a pretty penny, so I plan to run this clunker until it literally starts falling apart, and then I'll replace it with something better.

The netbook (center) is a recent acquisition from Woot. It's refurbished, but hasn't given me any problems yet (knock on wood). I got it for two main reasons: 1) to have a separate, dedicated webcam server; and 2) to have a backup portable unit when I need to take the laptop in for repairs again. (I fully expect that to happen at least once more before I retire it. I ponied up for the two-year extended warranty, and I'm going to get my money's worth, dammit.) Actually, there's also a third reason: to see if netbooks are actually usable in the long term. I played with an XO laptop a couple of years ago, and was not impressed with the interface, but the idea of a small portable that's actually useful continued to be compelling.

The funny thing is, the netbook has at least as much memory and processing power as both of my desktop machines (not pictured): a 2003 Dell PC and a 2005 Mac Mini (PowerPC, not Intel). They're both still creaking along, but playing full-screen video or running more than three applications at a time will bring them to their knees. I'm not looking forward to upgrading either of them, because it'll mean transferring a lot of data, reinstalling a whole mess of software, and probably a lot of cursing when things go wrong.

I like using technology. I'm not so excited about having to maintain it.

Finally, to answer the inevitable question: What do I think of the iPad? Meh. (Though it's been great for inspiring sarcastic hipster commentary.) As shown above, I don't really need yet another mobile computer right now. And especially not one that costs twice as much as my netbook did, but is only marginally more useful than my phone.


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Friday, January 29, 2010

Book Report: SuperFreakonomics

I don't generally read a lot of non-fiction books, but I enjoyed Freakonomics a lot, and the follow-up, SuperFreakonomics, did not disappoint.

Unlike some writers, who like to draw lots of conclusions based on sometimes slim or anecdotal evidence (coughMalcolmGladwellcough), Levitt and Dubner love data--the more the better. Their stories concern macroeconomics--the study of complex systems with large populations--and they like to highlight "natural experiments," in which some happenstance holds certain conditions constant while varying others.

For example, they examine the effect of television on children's behavior--specifically, violent crime rates in cities which got broadcast TV at different times during the 1950s:
[D]id the introduction of TV have any discernible effect on a given city’s crime rate?

The answer seems to be yes, indeed. For every extra year a young person was exposed to TV in his first 15 years, we see a 4 percent increase in the number of property- crime arrests later in life and a 2 percent increase in violent- crime arrests. According to our analysis, the total impact of TV on crime in the 1960s was an increase of 50 percent in property crimes and 25 percent in violent crimes.

Why did TV have this dramatic effect?

Our data offer no firm answers. The effect is largest for children who had extra TV exposure from birth to age four. Since most four year-olds weren’t watching violent shows, it’s hard to argue that content was the problem...

You can read the relevant excerpt from that chapter, "Unbelievable Stories About Apathy and Altruism," online at

As you can see above, the book isn't all charts and graphs, though it does include some relevant visual aids. My favorite is the mathematical expression PIMPACT > RIMPACT. You'll have to read all of chapter one to understand why that's so amusing.

And the epilogue, which recounts a totally freaky experiment involving monkeys, is unforgettable and hilarious. I first heard Levitt and Dubner tell that story when they gave a talk at my former employer in 2005, and I wish the video were online so I could share it. You'll just have to settle for reading the book.

ADDENDUM: You can read the complete monkey experiment story online in "Monkey Business" (New York Times Magazine, June 5, 2005).


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Thursday, January 21, 2010

Workarounds, Hacks, and Pillows

We didn't go out today, which meant we were able to spend more time sitting with Tye, so I didn't turn on the webcam until later in the evening:

That little red netbook on the counter is the new TyeCam station. I'm also trying out Copilot, which lets me access it remotely.


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Monday, January 18, 2010

TyeCam is Offline

Aside from my problems with the webcam software crashing about once a day, Lenovo computers are shit. I know that comes as a surprise to no one, but I just had to get it off my chest.

Last night, after a bunch of research and then cleaning up my Windows XP registry to fix a problem with my power management profiles not working, I also updated the power management drivers and utilities on my laptop. Today this hunk of junk kept going into standby mode--even though I explicitly disabled that function, because it kills my wireless networking. (No idea why. Started happening in 2008. Repair shop couldn't fix it either.) Now I've uninstalled all the Lenovo crap, and explorer.exe has started crashing.


Maybe it's time for that Windows 7 upgrade after all. I didn't want to go through all the trouble of reinstalling a whole damn operating system before, but at this point I'm just about ready to salt the fucking earth. I know, I could install Linux, but that would just be a different set of maintenance headaches. And I wouldn't be able to run most of the software I want.

Some days I really hate computers.


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Sunday, January 17, 2010

Kitty Quarantine, Day Nine

When we first brought Tye home last Thursday night, we put him in the guest bathroom so we could gradually introduce him without threatening Jasper's territory. Turns out that was a good idea, because we've had to keep him isolated due to a viral infection.

We (mostly DeeAnn) have been doing our best to keep him company in there--sitting with him once or twice a day while we read, work, nap, or play cards. He was bottle-raised by humans from one day after birth, and we don't want him to get too lonely.

The fentanyl patch comes off Tye's leg on Monday afternoon, and at that time we'll also ask the vet when we can think about letting him out of quarantine. He and Jasper have been very curious about each other, especially during the brief times when we crack open the bathroom door.

Aside: If you notice some gaps in the time-lapse video, it's because Dorgem periodically locks up, crashes, or has trouble uploading images to TyeCam. Hey, it's free software, and hasn't been updated since 2005; you get what you pay for. But close enough for rock 'n' roll, I say.


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Friday, January 15, 2010

Friday Flash Fiction: "Within Sight"

Apparently one of the newer characters on Heroes can "see" certain sounds as colors. (I gave up on the show last year, so I'm a little behind.) Of course, she can also convert those sounds into concussive energy blasts. Of course. I will refrain from calling her "Deaf Dazzler:"

The medical term for this is sound-color synesthesia, and the condition has also been featured on House.

It's pretty freaky to think about what it would be like to live in a world where everything you heard was instead redirected to your sight. I'm sure that, in reality, it wouldn't be as clean as visible-spectrum colors mapping linearly from audio frequencies, but I'm a lazy writer.

Read "Within Sight" at 512 Words or Fewer


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Thursday, January 14, 2010

Book Report: Star Trek - The Collectibles

This was another "impulse buy" at the library. I know they have at least one volunteer who is active in local sf fandom; I wonder if she's the one sneaking these books into their rotating displays.

I used to fancy myself a bit of a collector, when I was younger; I suppose every child goes through that stage at some point, and either grows out of it or goes pro. I enjoyed the little stories that went along with some of the items in this catalog, about why they're so valuable or the author's memories of acquiring them, and even got nostalgic when I saw pictures of some of the stuff that I used to own. (Most of it is probably still packed away in my parents' garage, but there's nothing really valuable there. I was never a mint-in-box kind of guy; if I got a toy, I wanted to play with it.)

These days, I'm not a big believer in the "collectible" mentality. Maybe it comes from years of working with computer software, which is eminently disposable, but I feel like if you're buying something only to put it on a shelf and look at it, you might as well just take a picture. It's a little embarrassing to realize how much people are willing to pay for a hunk of plastic just because it happens to be shaped like a particular spaceship or fictional character. I know the perceived value is in its history and such, but I just can't get behind it.

If you ask me, there's already too much real scarcity in the world--food, clean water, vaccines; I could go on. Purposefully doing "limited runs" of a mass-produced object in order to make it "rare" and thus drive up its price in the market seems somewhat Ferengi, don't you think?

And now, a link to "Printcrime."


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Perhaps I will call him PINKY!

Of course, if Tye is PINKY, that would make me THE BRAIN, which is an inappropriate metaphor since I have no designs on world domination! Yet! As far as you know! Perhaps I've said too much.

The pink bandage you see on Tye's foot is his souvenir from a day spent at the vet: apparently, his mouth was bothering him so much, the doctors wanted to keep him for a few hours to make sure it wasn't something more serious than an upper respiratory infection or bad teeth! (I know about bad teeth. I once had to have several of mine removed! But that's another story.) They didn't find an object lodged in his throat or anything like that, so he just needs to take antibiotics for a few days, starting tomorrow.

Don't feel too sorry for him though! That patch on his foot is dispensing fentanyl, which is about a hundred times more potent than morphine. He's probably flying pretty high by now! Sweet dreams, kid!


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Wednesday, January 13, 2010

We'll Call It CAT-HOUSE... Wait, No

We don't have cable, so I have no idea if Animal Planet or National Geographic or one of the hundreds of Discovery channels already airs some kind of "medical detective" series featuring veterinarians. But if not, they should.

After doing some web research, DeeAnn suspects that feline calicivirus (FCV) may be the source of Tye's troubles. His gums are still red (though slightly better than yesterday), and he cries out in pain when he bites down on something. He's also been sneezing and drooling a little.

DeeAnn thinks Tye was more lethargic today, but her napping with him may have influenced that:

He's going back to the vet at 10:00 AM. If nothing else, we're hoping they can prescribe something for the pain. TyeCam will resume broadcasting in the afternoon.


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Monday, January 11, 2010

A Day in the Life of Tye

Well, about ten hours, anyway:

He's still in quarantine until his anti-virals kick in. That's me checking his gums for redness at 0:57. Any big time gaps are probably when he's sleeping in the sink, off-screen.

ObGeek: I'm using Dorgem to capture still images (every 15 seconds when the webcam sees motion) and Picasa to create the time-lapse videos.

The live TyeCam will return tomorrow morning.


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Sunday, January 10, 2010


I am of two minds about our new kitty! On one hand, I am definitely looking forward to having a friend to keep me company when the humans are out of the house! On the other hand, our interactions so far have been limited to me sniffing him through the bathroom door and him yelling and sticking his paws under the door and smacking me in the face. Not cool!

But he's stuck in that one room for the next few days (until his viral infection clears up), and I still have the run of the house and get to sleep with the humans. So there! Plus, through the magic of technology, we can all keep an eye on him and make sure he doesn't get into too much trouble. Here's what he did tonight while the humans were out and about:

Cambot is currently off-line--there's not much to see with a black cat in the dark--but you'll be able to view more of the live TyeCam again tomorrow! (We were also calling it QuarantineCam, but that doesn't really sound very nice.)


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Tuesday, January 05, 2010

I am a Professional Writer

Received today: Payment for some of my Wired How-To Wiki articles. And there's more where that came from.


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Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Subscribe to SnoutCast

You can now subscribe to SnoutCast, the bi-weekly podcast wherein DeeAnn and I talk about The Game, other puzzle hunts, various tabletop and video games, and random word definitions!

Get every episode delivered to your listening device of choice using one of these handy links:

CKL DeeAnn

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Monday, December 21, 2009

"HP computers are racist"

Just... just watch it. Now. I'll wait.

News coverage here.

The best part is, this was very nearly the exact premise of the "Racial Sensitivity" episode of Better Off Ted, quite possibly the funniest show on TV right now:

Single-camera comedies rock.


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Monday, December 07, 2009

Scalzi on Self-Publishing!

Jasper here, with more on self-publishing, this time from New York Times bestselling author and multiple Hugo Award winner John Scalzi! From his "Quick Note on Self-Publishing":
[I]f you are going to self-publish, for the love of all that is good and decent in this world, don’t pay to do it. In this day and age, there is no reason to do so...

[This] assumes you are minimally competent to copyedit your own work and are competent to do a basic design for your book, either on your own or using the default settings available on Lulu or other similar services. If not, you can hire people to do these specific tasks, which is still very likely to be cheaper than a suite of services you would buy from a vanity publisher.

In related news, there's been a bit of an online brouhaha surrounding romance publisher Harlequin's announcement that they're launching their own "vanity press" imprint! They got spanked pretty soundly by several trade organizations, including SFWA, and that's all I'm going to say about that!

Always remember Yog's Law: Money flows toward the writer! (And thanks to Viable Paradise's Jim Macdonald for originating that axiom!)


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Friday, December 04, 2009

Friday Flash Fiction: "On Orbit"

Let's get this out of the way right now:
Read "On Orbit" at 512 Words or Fewer


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Thursday, December 03, 2009

The ORC Equations

Last weekend, at OryCon 31, I ran two Open Read & Critique (ORC) sessions. I've done writing workshops before, but this was my first experience with the ORC format (called "rogue workshops" in other places).

There were a lot of unknowns this year; the ORCs used to be an unofficial, late-night thing at OryCon, and this was the first time they were scheduled in the afternoon alongside other panels. I think the ORCs went well, and I was impressed by the quality of all the pieces read and everyone's critiques, but I have some ideas for better time management in future programs.

I wrote up my analysis into a four-and-a-half page document, which you can download as a PDF. If you're not inclined to slog through four pages of algebra, I'll sum up:

ORC sessions should be broken into hour-long segments. Sign-up sheets should provide slots for 4 participants and 2 waiting list names in each hour. Readings should be limited to 5 minutes, and individual critiques to 2 minutes (if more than 4 people in the room, 1 minute each). Any extra time can be used for group discussion.

(For the next part, it might help you to picture David Krumholtz standing in front of a whiteboard.)

Here's the formula to determine the time for a single round of critiques, t:

t = R + (n-1)C + D

Where n is the number of participants; R is the time to read a single piece; C is the time for each individual critique; and D is the discussion time at the end, when an author can respond to questions.

So the time T required to complete all critique rounds is:

T = n(R + (n-1)C + D)

Given a time limit T and setting certain constraints on R, C, and D, we can solve for n:

Long story short, we set T=60, R=5, and D=2, and we can fit 4 people into one hour if C=2, and 5 people if C=1. Any less than that and most people won't be able to provide a useful critique; any leftover time can be added to D, since most writers never seem to tire of talking about writing. Q.E.D.

Applying these equations to other writing workshops is left as an exercise for the reader.


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Sunday, November 22, 2009

How to Solve Any Puzzle in Less Than 47 Minutes

For those who couldn't attend, here are not one, but two recordings of the puzzle hunt talk I gave at Ignite Portland 7 on November 19, 2009!

From the live stream, with cutaways to slides:

And a one-shot from stage left:

The talk includes a walk-through of one Clue from the MegaHard Game (2000), and I love that several people in the audience applauded for the "a-ha" moment and the solution at the end. That's what it's all about, folks.

It's difficult to see the complete slides in those videos, so if you want to solve the embedded puzzle, you should look at these still images:

As noted, tweet @teamsnout if you figure it out. First person to post the correct solution wins verifiable, time-stamped bragging rights. :)

Thanks to all the Ignite Portland staff, volunteers, speakers, and attendees for contributing to a great event, and to Jeff Stribling of MegaHard GC for providing a copy of the Clue for me to photograph.


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Tuesday, November 17, 2009

In a Crowded Theater

This Thursday night, I'll be presenting "How to Solve Any Puzzle in Less Than 47 Minutes" at Ignite Portland 7. The title is, of course, hugely misleading; I'll be discussing puzzle hunts in general and walking through one Clue from the MegaHard Game (2000) at breakneck speed.

For those unfamiliar with the Ignite format: Each speaker gets exactly five minutes to present. You submit twenty slides, and each one advances automatically after fifteen seconds. Topic-wise, pretty much anything goes; this time around there'll be talks about DB Cooper, robots, karaoke, hooping (with live demo), and more.

I can neither confirm nor deny the existence of an embedded puzzle in my slides.

Check out the complete lineup, and if you're not in Portland, visit the web site on Thursday for info on the live video stream.


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Thursday, November 05, 2009

Um, gee, thanks, Facebook...

...but I think you may have confused me with someone else. Screenshot:

I'm not saying I wouldn't want to be Ray Bradbury's friend. I just don't think he would click "confirm" on that request.

What I'd really like to know is which connection Facebook mined to determine that I should be friends with Mr. Bradbury. Lacking any other evidence, I (as so many others have) choose to blame Scalzi.


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Wednesday, November 04, 2009

Here V Go Again

Just watched the pilot for the new V television series (based on the 1983 miniseries). No spoilers here, but I will say this: an awful lot of pipe, not a lot of details, and still quite a few science errors.

Because they recycled this particular plot point from the 1983 original, I'll mention it: is anyone with any knowledge of astronomy really going to believe that aliens looking for water would sail through an Oort cloud full of icy comets and several outer planets with icy moons just so they can get liquid water from Earth? Does their advanced otherworldly technology include gravity control but not, y'know, heating elements? (Bonus round: if you have seemingly ubiquitous anti-gravity devices, why do your ships still need rocket thrusters?)

Also, I would have called the big reveal after act two, except I thought it was so preposterous that they wouldn't go there. I guess the moral here is, never underestimate the ridiculousness of most TV writing.

(Sidebar: in his collection Playgrounds of the Mind, sf author Larry Niven talks about how he and Jerry Pournelle pitched a story idea for the original, 1980s "V" series to NBC. You'll find that anecdote in the essay "The Lost Ideas," and their proposed backstory for the Visitors could have been a lot of fun, if implemented by the right showrunner.)

But it wasn't all bad. I did enjoy the little genre in-jokes, including the crowds gathering in "Oceanic Plaza" in the teaser and the Independence Day dig. I would have enjoyed them a little more if ABC weren't so obviously desperate to catch the Lost lightning in a bottle again, both with this show and FlashForward.

I'll give V a few more episodes, but I'll say what I've said before: I like a little more science in my science fiction.


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Friday, October 02, 2009

Friday Night Live

Mark your calendars: On Friday, October 23rd, at 10PM Pacific, I will be a guest on Strange Love Live, a weekly online show featuring "the movers and shakers of the social web." I'm not sure I qualify for that lofty mantle, but who am I to refuse the invitation?

I first met SLL host Cami Kaos and producer Dr Normal at BarCampPortland III, the last such event to take place at the now-defunct CubeSpace. In the manner of such unconferences, they asked for any interested parties to sign up for brief interviews on that week's show, which they broadcast live from CubeSpace. I was one of the first interviewees, and I guess I didn't completely bomb. I've also seen both of them at other events since then, including CloudCampPDX and the local roller derby.

Anyhow, I will be talking about 512 Words or Fewer, writing in general, the Portland DASH and other puzzle hunts, PDX Browncoats, and whatever other random topics come up during the hour. Tune in, won't you?

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Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Cory Doctorow on Self-Publishing!

Jasper here, with some commentary from Hugo-nominated science fiction author Cory Doctorow!

Cory's latest Guardian column is about "Why free ebooks should be part of the plot for writers," but he also addresses the question of self-publishing:
[W]hy do we need publishers if we can just release ebooks and make the print available through one of the many excellent print-on-demand houses such as Well, a traditional publisher does a lot for you that is unrelated to printing books, from preparing the manuscript to ensuring that the book connects with an audience by wooing reviewers to talk the book up, booksellers to put it in the path of readers, librarians to put it on the shelf and, of course, by paying for a certain amount of marketing in the speciality and general press.

Note: that's not a typo! People really do say "speciality" instead of "specialty" in England!

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Saturday, June 13, 2009

You know you're obsessed...

...with a video game when you start thinking about installing a special utility just so you can get hotkeys to make your gameplay more efficient.

Not that there's anything wrong with that.


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Monday, May 18, 2009

Star Trek in 11 Minutes

As previously mentioned, I did enjoy the new movie, but there are plot holes aplenty. And, like Scalzi said, would it have killed them to get some basic science right?

Spoilers abound in Samuel Bierwagen's Bad Transcript: Star Trek (2009). Enjoy.


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Saturday, May 16, 2009

My New Computer Redux

Just in case you were unclear on how much of a huge geek I am, here's what the back of my new iPhone now looks like:

(Decorations from Star Trek Sticker Book; ClearShield from


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On Thursday and Friday, I was an extra (background performer) for episode 204 of Leverage, which is shooting their second season in Portland.* Since there's a lot of waiting around during each day, I thought it would be fun to Twitter a few interesting, spoiler-free remarks about my experience.

That worked out pretty well, and tonight I decided to reformat and post those tweets in a more permanent location and a more readable format. I discovered that no single application exists to do what I want, which is to export a specific subset of my status messages and conversations. (C'mon, Interwebs, this is the one time you don't anticipate my needs? We need to talk.)

Twitter's search interface only exports to a noisy XML feed, and what I really wanted was a simple, denormalized CSV data file which I could slice and dice manually. I found three web apps that claim to do this:
  1. TweetDumpr only exports status messages (without timestamps) to a flat text file.
  2. Twickie offers several formatting options, but the "Get CSV" link doesn't work.
  3. Tweetake is the one that actually worked, but it didn't provide many filtering options.
Of course, Twitter's own filtering abilities are pretty limited. What I really wanted was a custom timeline including all tweets which:
  • were posted by me and
  • were posted within a specific time window and
  • include the hashtag #Leverage and
  • include one of the hashtags #extra or #extras; or
  • are part of a conversation (replies, retweets, etc.) linked to any tweets matching the above criteria.
I guess I'll be digging into the Twitter API later.

For now, you can see the crappy Excel HTML dump of my tweets from two days of being a #Leverage 204 #extra. Note that all times are GMT; subtract seven hours to get local time in PDX.

And yes, I still refuse to use the unreadable abomination that is LoudTwitter.


* You can be an extra too! Here's how.

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Wednesday, May 13, 2009

J.J. Abrams' Awesome Trek Fanfic!

That's my one-line review of the new Star Trek movie.

D and I saw it yesterday, and we both enjoyed it, but I have to be honest here: regardless of its provenance, the story still felt more like fan fiction than actual canon--Trek-flavored, if you will; much better than Enterprise, but still not the real thing.

Before I dive in, a couple of non-spoilery remarks:
  • As the end titles started rolling, I thought: "John Cho gets top billing? Represent, brother!" Then I realized the principal cast were listed in alphabetical order (Ben Cross being the second name was a big hint). Oh well. At least Cho's starring in another Harold & Kumar flick next year.
  • The score started out perfectly, with a lone French horn, but the overall tone of the theme music was a bit too martial for me. Which leads nicely into my next point...
One of my earliest memories is of standing up in my crib and watching television. The three shows I remember most clearly are Space: 1999, Star Trek, and Bewitched. (I can just imagine some of you nodding and muttering, "That explains a lot.") For me, the thing that always distinguished Star Trek from other shows was its stated mission:
To explore strange new worlds;
To seek out new life and new civilizations;
To boldly go where no one has gone before.

At its core, Trek was all about exploration and discovery. The best stories they ever told, IMHO, involved the crew learning something new, either about the universe or about themselves (ideally both), figuring out how something worked, and--if it was broken--fixing it. It often also pitted personal principles against rules and regulations (e.g., Kirk vs. Prime Directive), and above all, it emphasized that science works. It wasn't always the right answer, and sometimes it was even the cause of the problem, but there was no question that science and research were the key to a greater understanding of our universe and ourselves.


The new movie gets the characters right, even while tweaking them a little. I agree with screenwriter John Rogers that "[a]lmost every choice was the best possible choice" in that regard. You should go read his excellent analysis of "how what will be the most successful movie of the summer kicks conventional screenwriting 'rules' in the junk." You could also read film critic Anthony Lane's thoughtful review of the new Trek's "recklessly rolling plot... [which] powers along, unheeding of its own absurdity, with drive and confidence," even if he is a bit of a downer.

I have issues with the new Trek's wacky pseudo-science (yes, even wackier than the usual technobabble), multiple deus ex machinas and MacGuffins, and nonsensical villain motivation (hello, Evil Overlord); but, as D said, whenever the story stopped making sense, the filmmakers just threw in a big action scene to distract us. That's one advantage movies have over books, at least in the hand-waving department. They can always flash something shiny--or naked, or explodey--to distract you from a weak story. It's a problem when spectacle overwhelms storytelling (insert Michael Bay joke here), but Abrams understands and respects that balance.

As a longtime fan, I'm still ambivalent about the massive continuity changes wrought by this reboot. The alternate reality angle, even more than the Spock/Uhura 'shipping, makes this seem like fanfic; and though I understand why Abrams and company chose to destroy Israel Vulcan and kill Amanda, it feels to me like The Powers That Be just gave up on trying to deal with that culture. I'm glad they recognized that Spock is an integral part of Trek--you could argue that this is really his movie, not Kirk's--but I think his story was already interesting enough, and obliterating his homeworld just seems mean-spirited.

At this point, a sequel seems inevitable, and maybe the Vulcan diaspora is part of the plan for rewriting the Trek universe: to shift the fundamental balance of power in the galaxy away from Vulcan, which was previously depicted as a highly advanced civilization and one of the governing races in the Federation, and toward Earth. I noticed that while several alien Starfleet officers got screen time in the new movie, very few of them actually had speaking lines: Kirk's obligatory green-skinned honey was little more than a prop, and Scotty's little Ewok friend doesn't actually do anything useful. Um, xenophobic much? Let's not do that, guys.

To end on an "up" note: I did enjoy all the little in-jokes and callbacks to previous Trek incarnations, especially the sound effects and the return of the 47s. It's a sign that the writers were paying attention to at least some of the details, and it gives me hope that this new Trek will respect the history of the franchise while putting an interesting and different spin on it.

(ADDENDUM: My Facebook friends inform me that Abrams previously and independently did the 47 thing in Alias. Guess Paramount picked the right man for this job, then.)


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Monday, May 11, 2009

My New Computer

I know what you're thinking. But despite the fact that it's called an "iPhone 3G," the telephone is the least useful part of this device for me.

Consider: In the five days I've had this thing, I've spent all of 16 minutes on phone calls, but sent and received almost 25MB of data over the cellular network. That doesn't even include all the surfing I've done over WiFi, both at home and in various cafes and restaurants. If you figure the voice calls at 28.8kbps, 16 minutes would amount to barely 3.4MB, or less than 12% of my cell net bandwidth usage.

I've retired my Sony CLIE, the last PalmPilot I'll ever own, because the iPhone does everything it should have done--especially syncing over the air with my calendar and address book, and running a real, full-featured web browser, not some lobotomized "mobile" version. I've upgraded to the iPhone version of Secret!, the single most useful application I've ever had, and already downloaded a whole slew of free apps, including Twitterrific, Shazam, and Lightsaber. You know, the essentials.

I'll be even happier after this summer's 3.0 update, which promises to add a voice recorder, proper Bluetooth support, and (gasp!) cut and paste. The iPhone's not perfect--the $18 "upgrade fee" for current customers was a bit of an insult, as is the fact that AT&T will still gouge charge me for individual text messages*--but it's pretty damn good for an early-21st-century handheld computer. Now where's my flying car?


* Easily avoided using any number of free SMS apps, but still, WTF?


Saturday, May 09, 2009

Reasons to Buy a Blu-ray Player

The way I see it, there are only three right now:
  1. Pushing Daisies, Season 1
  2. Pushing Daisies, Season 2
  3. LittleBigPlanet (NSFW)
Because, let's face it, if you're going to spend $400 on a DVD player, you might as well get one that can play some games, too.


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Friday, May 01, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 5 (The Last): Flash in the WAN

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4)

It's no secret that I am a writer, and I aspire to be a professional. Since last October, I've been posting a new piece of flash fiction every Friday to 512 Words or Fewer and recording an audio version to podcast.

But wait! Why, you may ask, am I "self-publishing" these stories, when I've just spent the last four days railing against self-publishing? Why am I not submitting them to actual, paying markets so I can start collecting professional credits?

I'm doing 512 Words for three main reasons: practice, pressure, and publicity. Practice, because I'm still working through my million words of crap; pressure, because at least two people will notice and get on my case if I don't meet my deadline every week; and, of course, it's a publicity stunt to get my name out there (a story a week! kinda like Jay Lake! but not really).

Listen, I have no illusions about my "reach" (as marketers would call it). My blogs are essentially newsletters for my family and friends, because nobody else cares what I have to say. I do have longer stories making the rounds at several professional markets (I'm expecting that rejection from The New Yorker any year now), but if short fiction is to writers as the club scene is to independent musicians, flash fiction is my version of busking on a street corner. It gets me out there and doing something, and it keeps me writing. It's just part of the journey.

I also believe, as Tim O'Reilly famously said, that obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy. I support the Creative Commons (CC) movement to share cultural works freely (both as in speech and as in beer). I believe more artists should follow the fine example of forward-thinking people like Cory Doctorow and Jonathan Coulton, who release all their work under CC licenses for others to share. Let fans be fans, and they will show you love and support in ways you could never have imagined--or, sometimes, ever wanted to, but that's another story. So this is me, putting my money where my mouth is.

Even if you're a writer who would rather distribute your writings the old-fashioned way--encased in physical objects called "books"--the Internet gives you tons of opportunities to interact with your fans and keep them engaged. You may have heard of Scott Sigler and Seth Harwood, whose novels are published by Crown Publishing (a Random House imprint). Both of these guys do a ton of online self-promotion, including putting free content on and selling some crazy merchandise. Clearly you don't have to be as gung ho as these two to succeed as an author, but it certainly couldn't hurt:

Now, some people think it's fun to do all that self-promotion. But that's not writing. More to the point, if you can make others believe in your work, they will help you do all the things you're not so good at. When I get my first book contract, I don't want to comb through all the legalese myself--that's when I'll want an agent. When the book goes to press, I won't want to deal with typesetting and other production issues personally--that's why I'll want an editor and a publisher. And so on. I am willing to relinquish some control for the benefit of having a good team on my side, and I want them to be in it for the duration.

The American dream these days seems to be the get-rich-quick scheme. Every singer wants to be Gloria Gaynor, who built a career out of a single song ("I Will Survive") and is still raking in the royalties. A lot of unpublished writers seem to think they'll be able to write a single Great American NovelTM which rockets to the top of the bestseller lists and then immediately retire, having secured fame and fortune everlasting.

But no publisher or promoter wants a one-hit wonder. Forget about the lottery-jackpot aspect of this pipe dream; if a reader enjoys one book, she's going to look for more books written by the same person. Publishers want to help dedicated writers build careers as authors. I want to tell lots of good stories, and I want each one to be better than the last. I want my life to be something more than long.

Like the man said, always end on a song:


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Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 4: Zines and Thoughtcrimes

(Previously: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Over the last three days, I've discussed why self-publishing is, at best, a huge time sink for writers who should be writing, and at worst a way for scam artists to prey upon those desperate souls and steal their money. As I noted yesterday, there do exist legitimate print on demand (POD) services who don't pretend to provide the editing, advertising, and other services that real publishing houses do, and those companies are a great asset for certain creators. But that's printing, not publishing. There's a difference.

There's a long tradition of people printing their own stuff when no one else would, because they were passionate and wanted to put their work out there. Here in Portland, Oregon, the public library system and Powell's ("The greatest bookstore on the planet," says PNH) both feature entire racks of zines covering a wide variety of interests and topics. They come in all shapes and sizes, many obviously handmade. They serve small, local audiences. They have no pretensions or wider ambitions. This is what they're for. (Science fiction fandom also produces tons of fanzines, but that's a whole other discussion.)

These days, it's trivial for anyone to create their own "e-zine" by setting up a blog or a web site. Of course, just because it's easy for anybody to find your content, it doesn't mean that they'll go looking for it, or that they'll like it. If you build it, they will not always come. And even if they come, they may not stay.

So who gets to be a "real" publisher? These days, short fiction writers can submit their work to a lot of online-only markets. Many of these are little more than blogs, and most don't pay writers a lot (if anything) for their stories. Mac Stone, whom I met at Viable Paradise XII, runs Coyote Wild Magazine out of her own pocket. She doesn't make any money doing it. She does it because she wants to help get good stories out there.

Leonard Richardson and Sumana Harihareswara just released Thoughtcrime Experiments, "a free 2009 anthology of fantasy and science fiction stories and art, published under a Creative Commons license." As Leonard explains in Appendix A: How to Do This and Why, he and Sumana spent $2,300 and nearly 400 person-hours putting together the anthology, and the main reason they did it was so they could find and share stories that suited their own personal tastes. In other words, for fun. They're not making any money off TE; in fact, they're losing money. But they consider it money well spent.

Are Mac and Leonard and Sumana publishers? Sure; they've found content they like and helped present it to a wider audience. Are they professional publishers? No, and they don't pretend to be running a business. They're publishing because they want to give back to the community. They have no illusions about reaping financial gains from these transactions, and that's okay. We all do things for love that we would never do for money.

Tomorrow: the anticlimactic conclusion!


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Tuesday, April 28, 2009

In case you were wondering...

...what people do on Facebook all day:



Monday, April 27, 2009

The Stigma of Self-Publishing, Part 1: Daemon

You may have read last year's Wired article about the novel Daemon, detailing how three agent rejections discouraged first-time novelist Daniel Suarez so much that he started his own company to publish and market his half-baked techno-thriller.

You may also have seen novelist J. Steven York's deconstruction of Daemon's success--the book was later acquired by Dutton, an imprint of Penguin, and reissued in hardcover (and with the author's name spelled forwards instead of backwards).

I have nothing to add to the information presented in those two articles, especially the second one, except to say that the Big Ideas name-checked in Daemon are presented much more completely and plausibly in Charles Stross' Halting State (which opens with a bank heist inside an MMORPG) and Cory Doctorow's Little Brother (which delves into actual hacking in great detail; complete text available free online).

I've been programming computers for over twenty years, and I know from personal experience that automation is hard. Maintaining the Internet is a war of attrition. Someone discovers an exploitable flaw in the network--e.g., in TCP/IP or DNS or some other protocol--either by research or accident; then somebody figures out how to fix it; and the security hole gets patched. Lather, rinse, repeat.

I don't care if you're Lex Luthor; there's no way anyone can create a single automated system that can hack the planet for over a year without some human intervention. Also, the repeated threat that the daemon will crash the global economy falls flat, since we've now demonstrated that we can do that pretty well all by ourselves.

Anyway. Skip this nihilistic crapfest and read Stross and Doctorow instead. It's a huge plus that Halting State and Little Brother, in addition to being authored by competent writers with a firm grasp of narrative language, were also vetted by experienced editors who knew from good storytelling and copy-edited by professionals who knew where to put quotation marks and how to join separate phrases together to form actual complete sentences. It's not a coincidence that Halting State was nominated for a Hugo Award last year, and Little Brother is nominated this year.

Finally, speaking of Charlie Stross, here's what he had to say about the continued value of real book publishers in 2007: (skip to 46:47)


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Saturday, April 25, 2009

Warren Does Joe

If you want to give your tired old media property a badass reboot, Warren Ellis is clearly the man to call. He helped elevate Ultimate Fantastic Four, and now he's done it again with G.I. Joe: Resolute, the new animated movie that's been airing in installments on Cartoon Network's Adult Swim. It's a solid junior techno-thriller.

The final installment airs tonight at midnight. You can also watch the entire show online (or on YouTube, for those outside the USA). It's not perfect--you'll see stormtrooper marksmanship and heroic sacrifice tropes, among others--but I love the science fiction procedural in Parts 3 and 4 (I now have a tiny crush on the new Dial Tone), and the ninja fight in Part 8 is brutal.

I really don't expect this summer's live-action movie to be anywhere near as cool as this.


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Wednesday, April 22, 2009

With the Shopping and the Dropping and the Never Stopping

After suffering a variety of unresolved problems with my laptop over the last few months, I will probably never buy a Lenovo machine again. Thinkpads were good, solid hardware when IBM owned the brand, but now they're living down to their reputation as cheap crap from overseas.

Tonight was the last straw. Without warning, my laptop's primary battery failed. The error message was singularly unhelpful: "Battery 1 : A battery error has occurred. The battery cannot be charged. Replace the battery." This was, of course, after the machine suddenly died when my secondary drive-bay battery ran down. The power management software leaves something to be desired.

So I requested support via Lenovo's labyrinthine web site, and got a call back from a very courteous but also unhelpful call center drone. He verified that my battery wasn't included in their recalls, confirmed that my extended warranty did not cover the battery (its warranty expired at the end of January), and offered to sell me a replacement battery for the discounted price of $150 (retail for this thing is $180). I politely declined and went to the Internet to find a better deal.

Amazon matched the $150 for an OEM battery, but there are lots of companies who sell knockoffs for much less. It's just a battery, for crying out loud--get the right voltage and current, mold the plastic case into the appropriate shape, make sure the terminals fit, and you're good to go. And no, I'm not worried about quality, because even OEM batteries catch fire. Roll the bones.

After half an hour of research, I found a replacement battery for $80 (that's 55% off retail) from Level 8 Technology, a Texas company which has gotten overwhelmingly positive reviews on several merchant rating sites. They offer free shipping for orders over $50, a 30-day money-back guarantee, and 1-year warranty. By going through Microsoft's Live Search Cashback program, I'll get an additional 8% rebate, which covers most of the Washington state use tax. And because I used my Discover Card (via PayPal) for the purchase, I'll get another 1% back eventually.

I would have preferred to not spend any money on computer parts tonight, but as consumer object lessons go, this one was pretty inexpensive. Online shopping FTW!



Sunday, April 19, 2009

Nathan Fillion: King of Castle

Castle gets a lot of things wrong. It wildly misrepresents--or, at best, cherry-picks--the experience of being a bestselling novelist or a New York City detective. But damn that smarmy motherfucker Nathan Fillion. He's just so entertaining to watch.

Also, as Leverage showrunner John Rogers notes, the techie clues have been real smart so far. I still don't buy Stana Katic as murder police, but I'm giving her Kate Beckett character the benefit of the doubt for now. Maybe the writers will come up with an interesting and plausible backstory for her.

The fourth episode was the one that really sold me. Lots of nice little moments, including the uniform searching the dumpster, Castle and his daughter cutting onions, and the closing scene in the bookstore. You can get the full show from iTunes. Here's the Lame TV PreviewTM:

Episode three wasn't bad, either. Like everyone else, I really enjoy the father-daughter scenes with Nathan and Molly. And I'm thinking about making my own "You Should Be Writing" screensaver.


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Friday, April 17, 2009

Physics in Action

Well, what do you know? Light does travel faster than sound!

Thanks to the Leverage crew for putting on this Tax Day demonstration in downtown Portland. I much prefer exploding cars to teabaggers.


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Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Out of work? Start a blog!

This is what my former colleague and IT/security guru Jason Sylvester has done. Is it wrong for me to hope he stays jobless for a while so he'll blog more?



Game Theory 123

I can't comment on Peter Sarrett's blog (hello, 500 server error), so I'm posting my remarks on "Puzzle Hunt 123" here:

Wei-Hwa said: "Except for the teams at the top, most teams don't realize when they can be meta-event-ing to increase their fun."

I think what's actually happening is that newbie teams, who are less familiar with how puzzle events run, are more likely to adhere to whatever explicit rules have been given. If there are no rules for something--e.g., how often they can ask for hints--they go by their own prejudices or assumptions about the event.

More experienced teams, on the other hand, know more about what happens behind the scenes, and in some cases may even know the event organizers personally. You're much more likely to call your friend for a hint than to call a total stranger who you know only by his or her imposing title of "Game Control."

Both experienced and newbie teams are following the rules as they understand them; it's just that more experienced teams have a better understanding of the unwritten/unspoken rules. There's no way to eliminate that knowledge gap, but GC can do their best to be explicit with the most important stuff and treat everyone fairly and equally.

There have been times when Team Snout was running a Game, and we had to make up a new policy on the spot to deal with something unexpected. We didn't always make the right call, but we had to stick with our decision until the end of the event to be fair to everyone. It's always tough, because the issues that come up are inevitably ones that players care deeply about (in our case, skipping and scoring). But we didn't decide to run a Game because it was easy.

And now for something completely different. :)


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Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Last Night, in Portland


Yes, we won the on-site lottery for $25 tickets to see Wicked, and that is what we saw from our "limited view" seats. That's the good news.

The bad news is, I seem to have caught the throat cold which I hear is going around Portland. Took a long nap this afternoon and am headed back to bed now. Need to get better so I can go judge a middle school science fair on Friday.


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Monday, March 30, 2009

OnLive: Behind the Scenes

My friend--let's call him "Kojak"--shared some interesting details about his employer, OnLive, who made a big splash last week at GDC (read more about it: company web site, press conference video, Penny Arcade comic).  Some highlights from his email to me:

Still recovering from several days of stress and almost no sleep, but I'm relieved that our big announcement is over. I wish it had been all smoke and mirrors, but unfortunately it was all live and relied on servers in our Santa Clara datacenter.  This necessitated insane fallback options, including the "Tertiary Contingency," which I can't really go into.  Let's just say we're all very grateful it wasn't necessary, leaving us instead worrying how far Steve [Perlman] would stray from the script.

Most of these facts have been mentioned elsewhere, but some journalists missed the significant bits, so to speak:


This is of course the big one that everyone's talking about.  A couple of early news articles misinterpreted what Steve said in previous interviews.  All the bloggers picked this up as gospel truth, and distorted it further.  On the morning before the press conference, almost every mention I saw had our total round trip latency being <1ms. Anyone with half a clue pointed out this is completely impossible, and it led many to assume we're just another in a long line of charlatans.

Steve tried to clear this up a bit in the announcement, saying that "encoding latency" means what we add by running it through our proprietary encoding card in the datacenter (this is really our key technology). "Last mile latency" can add anywhere from 5 to 25ms, depending on your ISP and other factors. Improvements in that in recent years are key to making this all possible. The latency from Moscone to our Santa Clara datacenter ~50 miles away is <2ms (I wouldn't have thought that possible a few years ago).

He's also talked about the contribution other sources of latency make, in particular your display. Gamers who switched from CRT to LCD may have added more latency to their experience that we could ever add (assuming worst case LCD and best case network). As you probably know, LCD TVs can be even worse, especially for those who don't know how to turn off the various "pixel shining" features. We literally only found one model of Sharp LCD TV that was really optimal for games (and apparently we bought every one in northern CA). Many people happily play Halo 3 on some of the worst latency TVs without ever knowing the difference. What's great for movies isn't necessarily great for games. Don't even get me started about the latency added by most wireless controllers.

It's expected that certain titles might not really be playable due to latency, but I've been pretty surprised so far (we've all been forced to play lots and lots of games at work!). Mirror's Edge was one I really didn't figure would work, but it's done pretty well.

Bandwidth caps

This is probably the most valid concern I've seen people raise, besides those who don't think they can get a consistent 4-5Mbps in their area from any ISP.  I don't know what the official Comcast monthly limit is in most areas, but Steve has been saying 250GB.  Since you're rarely pushing the peak bandwidth, average use is much less (and varies widely between games and play style, even if everything's running at 720p60). If it's ~2Mb, that gives you 278 hours or 11.6 days of continuous game time per month (assuming you're not using the connection for much else).

We expected the major ISPs to be pretty hostile, but they ended up almost scaring us with their enthusiasm. As long as we're causing a predictable load and we're willing to peer closely with their networks, they don't seem overly concerned (and Steve talked about various bundling possibilities here and in other interviews). So, it's realistic to expect either a special "OnLive" tier from your ISP with no cap, or some other arrangement where our data usage doesn't contribute towards your cap.

That doesn't mean it won't be a rocky upgrade path for some of them.  If this takes off like we hope, they're going to be very busy, and it won't work perfectly in all areas for a while. This is part of the purpose of the Beta.

Target audience

We're targeting all segments of game players, but we don't expect we'll ever satisfy the most discriminating/insane gamers (the ones who shell out $5K/year for a top-of-the-line beast to play first person shooters at one frame/sec faster than their friends).  However, by leading most of our demos with one of the most demanding FPS out there (Crysis), we try to make it clear that we're "good enough" for most who would want to play even the most extreme titles.

We have hopes of eventually combining our MOVA facial capture technology with customized servers to allow experiences beyond anything a console or PC game could offer.  We'd certainly give anyone willing to do an exclusive title access to some interesting technology, though I'm not sure who would buy "Benjamin Button: The Video Game."

As with WebTV and other resource-intensive services, our ideal customer is someone who pays their bill and hardly ever logs in.  Some have said we're ideal for the mythical "casual hard-core gamer"--someone who likes to play the latest high-end games, but only a few hours a month, and thus can't really justify maintaining a PC capable of playing them.

We're also really interested in true casual gamers (people who enjoy Xbox Live Arcade titles more than any of the $60 ones from the store).  As Steve mentions, the hope here is that many of these titles will eventually be able to be "virtualized". This isn't quite as far fetched as it sounds, as Xen already has experimental support for GPU virtualization (so one video card could really be shared between multiple users).

Though Steve touted that we were demonstrating "every type of game from all major publishers," you'll notice one obvious omission: no MMOs. This is not a coincidence. Most of these games would be difficult to virtualize (they're not Crysis, but some are getting closer), and MMO gamers neither sleep nor work, apparently. So even though MMO games work great on our service for several reasons (slightly less demanding of resources and their users are accustomed to poor service), it's hard to imagine any business case that would make sense. Sadly, many of the bloggers that seem most enthusiastic about our service hope to use it exclusively to play MMOs. It could happen, but don't hold your breath.


We're not a "streaming" service.  Apparently voice actors now insist on certain clauses in their contracts that refer to streaming.  Thus, we do not "stream" games, but instead provide them in real time, over the Internet. It's easy to see how there might be some confusion here.

Meanwhile, at the demo booth...

Highly skeptical gamer shows up and plays for quite a while. Finally, he says, "I'm an Atheist, but I feel like I've just seen the face of God!"

Someone from the Xbox Live group at Microsoft drops by our booth.  After briefly playing a game, he quickly makes a cell phone call and says, "It works." Then he dashes off.

Thanks, Kojak!

D and I have both signed up to be beta testers, because we may actually be examples of that mythical casual hard-core gamer.  Before buying her last two computers, D literally checked their specs against the system requirements for the current version of The Sims.  And I maxed out my laptop's graphics, memory, and processor speed when I bought it last January so I could use it to play Spore.

I remain skeptical about OnLive, given that we still have trouble with streaming video (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) over a supposed 12Mbps connection, but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.  I know several people who work there, and they're all pretty smart cookies.  If anyone can make this crazy scheme work, it'll be them.

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Saturday, March 28, 2009

You're Not Feeling Lucky

On Thursday, my former employer announced another round of layoffs--its third this year. But there were two big differences this time around.
  1. A larger number of people was affected: 200 now, versus 100 in January and 40 in February (all numbers approximate).
  2. The affected organization was sales and marketing (as opposed to recruiting in January and the radio advertising group in February), which means it's likely that I know some of the departed.
Here's the official word, plus a couple of employee reactions. (You know how much I less than three primary sources.)

My heart goes out to everyone who's been caught up in this. That includes the managers who had to decide whom to let go, and all those left behind. I've been through layoffs at other companies (everyone at AT&T knew what the acronym RIF stood for), and I know it's not easy for anyone.

At times like this, I remember these words:

Bottom line is, even if you see 'em coming, you're not ready for the big moments. No one asks for their life to change, not really. But it does. So what are we, helpless? Puppets? No. The big moments are gonna come. You can't help that. It's what you do afterwards that counts. That's when you find out who you are.

Thank you, Joss Whedon.


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Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Quote of the Day

"This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop."
-- Jonathan Coulton

The good news? When it does poop, that cow poops money. Or, as some in the music industry might call it...


Thank you! Thank you very much.


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"The Website Is Down"

My new favorite web video series. (Thanks @feliciaday!) For best results, expand to full screen so you can actually read the various windows:


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Thursday, February 26, 2009

TV Unplugged

Having watched the Academy Awards on Sunday over the air--for free, with a $15 UHF antenna--and having read Saturday's Consumerist post about How To Cancel Cable Without Losing Your Favorite Shows, I felt it was a good time to review our family's own TV watching arrangements.

But before I get into that, I'd like to remind everyone that even though you can follow John Scalzi's example and Amuse Yourself Completely (and Legally) for $100 a Month, it doesn't have to cost nearly that much. Your nearest public library is likely to have enough reading material to suit your tastes and keep you busy for months, if not years. If you're not sure how to find something, go talk to a librarian. They're nice people.

Back to TV. First of all, even though we do have a theoretical 12MB/s connection to TEH INTARWUBS, streaming video still sucks. I'm not sure who to blame; all I know is that even short YouTube videos work better when I pause first and wait for the play buffer to fill. Anything that won't let me do that (I'm giving you the stink-eye, Hulu and Netflix) is useless.

So let's talk about downloading. I'm only going to talk about legal methods for purchasing content. If you're looking for BitTorrent info, look elsewhere. I won't encourage you to do anything illegal, and I certainly can't tell you to download utorrent, or visit The Pirate Bay/, or even watch the howto video presented as evidence in the spectrial. No sir, you won't find any of that here.

Why not watch the "free" (ad-supported) full episodes available on various TV networks' web sites? Well, first of all, it's streaming video, which sucks (see above). Second, and perhaps more importantly, the writers don't get paid for those viewings. I know, most people couldn't care less about this, but even if the WGA negotiated a bad deal at the end of last year's strike, you can still do the right thing. None of that advertising money is contractually owed to the writers, but they do get a cut of your EST (electronic sell-through) dollars.

The good news is, there are only two major players in the online TV market, which means only two crappy applications you need to download and install: Apple iTunes and Amazon Unbox (recently rebranded as "Video On Demand"). Amazon also allows you to watch on their web site, using a Flash plugin, but again: Streaming. Sucks.

Both services charge about $2 an episode. Apple also offers HD versions for $3 a pop, if you really crave those extra pixels.

Both services offer "season passes" (Amazon calls them "TV passes") for most shows. Amazon is better, because they give a 10-cent-per episode discount on TV passes, and they'll offer a pass before the whole season is out. iTunes doesn't always offer a season pass if they don't know how many episodes will be in the season (e.g., for new shows), because they do package pricing, not per-episode billing like Amazon.

However, iTunes does offer "multi-passes" for some shows--The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, for example--which get you the next sixteen episodes (four full weeks; they don't air on Fridays) and an option to renew after that. Amazon only offers their standard TV pass, which continues until an entire season ends; if you cancel in the middle of the season and want to restart later, you'll have to buy individual episodes. If, like me, you never actually watched every single episode of The Daily Show, the iTunes multi-pass is a better deal.

[Aside: I have lately been weaned off the Stewart/Colbert teats by free downloads of The Rachel Maddow Show podcast from MSNBC. I've got the Internet; I don't really need to watch news on TV, but every now and then I like a little commentary. Also, Go Cardinal!]

Finally, both services allow you to export video to portable devices; Apple supports iPods, iPhones, and such, and Amazon works with Creative Zen, Archos, and some cell phones as well as TiVos, Xbox 360s, and Media Center PCs.

If you have a Mac or PS3 or some other considered-exotic hardware, I'm told you can install TVersity or Rivet or similar third-party software to transcode your video for those devices. And, of course, if you've already paid for the content, there's no ethical problem with downloading a non-DRM'd version from the wild when the craptastic DRM mechanism inevitably fails. But I would never tell you to do that.

ADDENDUM: We used to pay over $80 a month for satellite TV. Now that we're only paying for the shows we actually watch, we spend less than $20 a month.

(EDIT: Both services can be slow to release new episodes, sometimes lagging a day or two after broadcast. In general, iTunes seems to be better than Amazon at getting shows out faster.)


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