Sunday, March 30, 2003

Echoes of Ender's Game

From today's New York Times:
At the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, a 15-inch remote-controlled truck, the Dragon Runner, now close to deployment, is guided by a six-button keypad modeled after Sony's PlayStation 2 video game control, explained Maj. Greg Heines, because military designers felt confident that soldiers would be familiar with it, and by default, partially trained to use it.

This reminds me of the science fiction novel Ender's Game, where people are trained for war through the use of video games. Here the military is not designing video games to be combat simulators, instead they are designing combat technology to be like video games. As the use of unmanned vehicles in combat grows, so will the similarity between video game skills and real battlefield skills. The military could capitalize on this by creating a PS2 video game based on the Predator drone plane. Tomorrow's Predator pilots could be trained today, at relatively low cost, from the comfort of their own couches.

Friday, March 28, 2003

Gambling on Saddam, part 2

Earlier on this blog I criticized this analysis on Wired of online gambling on the outcome of the war in Iraq:

Although the dollar sums wagered in electronic markets are minuscule in comparison to the volumes traded on traditional financial markets, Wolfers believes they are telling indicators of political events. Unlike political pundits, he says, traders put their money where their mouths are.

"In the financial markets, political posturing will put you at nothing but a loss," he said.

Today a much better analysis surfaced on CNN:

"What's great about a financial market is you've got to put your money where your mouth is," Zitzewitz said. "It's a reasonably good proxy for what the average person thinks based on publicly available information."

This is much more reasonable. Notice the difference between "telling indicator" and "reasonably good proxy" of what people think based on publicly available information. Which reminds me, the media loves opinion polls. I just saw a report explaining what percent of Americans thinks the war will end within 3 months. The media loves to tell us about the predictions made by the average person, but the media also tells us that the average person can't find Iraq on a map! Why announce the predictions of the uninformed?

War or basketball?

I overheard a conversation on the bus the other day. A woman said to the man sitting next to her, "all that's on TV these days is the war and basketball . . . it's a guy's dream. Not that they all like war, but they are more fascinated by watching it." Then the two went on to talk about how the war was percieved more as "a TV show" than as reality. They may have had a point. Some Americans probably do look at the war as a new thing that's on TV. How "real" would it be to you if you had never been to a foreign country?

Thursday, March 27, 2003

All about Mesopotamia (via Raelity bytes).

The Mystery of Tivo

Now that I have Tivo, I love it, but I am starting to understand the main barrier to wider adoption: it is hard to explain what makes it so worth having. I admit, when friends told me what a great thing Tivo was, I did not rush out to get one -- it took me nearly a year, and that is an awfully slow word-of-mouth sales cycle. I thought, sure, it sounds cool, but it just does what I can already do with a VCR.
Here is a way to explain it: Tivo is the Google of television. If Tivo is Google, then a VCR is some really bad, slow search engine from 1994. Yes, it sort of does the job. But once you upgrade, you'll never want to go back.

Wednesday, March 26, 2003

Mitsubishi commercials

The television industry supposedly hates Tivo because Tivo users don't watch commercials. But I just used my Tivo to watch the new Mitsubishi commercial. Twice. Why? Because these commercials are cool. I like their visual style, I like their sense of humor, and I like the music. That "girl dancing in a car" Mitsubishi commercial is one of my all time favorites. It still makes me smile every time I see it. I'm not really in the market for a car, so it's kind of a moot point, but I was also impressed by Mitsubishi's performance in the Dakar Rally.

Tuesday, March 25, 2003

Mid-day Portland War Protests

I work in downtown Portland, and today I went to the Pioneer Square area during my lunch break. On the way there I noticed some uniformed security guards standing outside certain buildings like jewelry stores and banks, implying to me that someone thought there might be vandalism or looting. I got to Pioneer Square around 12:40pm, and in the square there were some pro-war demonstrators, maybe a dozen of them. Over along 6th Avenue a few hundred anti-war demonstrators milled around.

There were also around 20 bicycle police, some police in partial riot gear, a vehicle with around 12 police in full riot gear, some uniformed Tri-Met workers, some motorcycle police, and various other police. I'd guess that the total number of police in the general area numbered 50 or more.

6th Avenue was blocked to bus traffic for around 15 minutes, although it was not clear to me who was responsible for this, the demonstrators or police. MAX trains continued to move through the intersection. There were many bystanders and observers in the area, numbering in the hundreds. Of course, even on a normal day without demonstrations of any kind, many people would be in the area of Pioneer square at lunch time, so this was not unusual, but many people had obviously moved to positions where they could best observe the "action." Quite a few observers had still cameras or video cameras, and others were describing the events over their cell phones.

Compared with the demonstration on the 20th, which seemed very laid back, this one felt more chaotic and edgy. Many bystanders seemed somewhat hostile. Bystanders jeered at protesters or debated with them, but on the other hand I also heard them boo and hiss at police, and complain loudly that police were blocking off certain areas. It seemed kind of weird that there was more hostility coming from bystanders than from participants. I left the area around 1pm.

Monday, March 24, 2003

Deus Ex Style Cyborg Upgrades Available Soon

I loved the Playstation 2 game Deus Ex, and one of my favorite things was the cyborg upgrade you could get that let you see, in a limited way, through walls. You could use it to see how many enemies were lurking inside a building, for example. I thought this was just science fiction, but Business 2.0 has an article about a product called SoldierVision, a handheld device which "emits low-power radio pulses that penetrate walls up to 30 feet away, emitting unique patterns as they bounce off concrete, wood, and human skin. SoldierVision analyzes the patterns to create a color-coded 'picture' of a room's contents." This sounds like a fun gadget, but at $29,500 it is a little out of my price range.

Abstraction: the New Gibberish

Contemporary software marketing seems to have created a taboo against saying specifically what the product actually is or does. Instead, all description must be so abstracted that every product sounds the same, no matter what it is. It must focus not on the product itself but on the heavenly bliss which follows purchase. This frees potential buyers to imagine the product as being whatever they need.

Hardware vendors do not generally do this -- yet. A company selling a wireless router admits that it is a wireless router, rather than trying to call it a "data interchange solution." But I suppose it is only a matter of time before everyone gets on the abstraction bandwagon.

For example, if I sell lawn sprinklers, I cannot come right out and say that the product is a lawn sprinkler with a flow rate of X gallons/minute and a coverage of Y square meters. After all, such specifics might alienate potential customers who do not have lawns or the need to irrigate anything. Abstraction to the rescue!

Instead I would describe the product by saying that it "helps living organisms to thrive" and "unlocks the potential growth inherent in your environment." The updated pitch for the FrobSys Lawn Sprinkler might go something like this:

In today's competitive environment, it is more important than ever to increase ROI while keeping a tight rein on TCO, building out capacity while decreasing time to market. FrobSys can help you achieve your dreams. The FrobSys Distribution Module helps living organisms to thrive by giving them the resources they need to compete, and unlocks the potential growth inherent in your environment. We can design a customized, scalable solution for you today.

Not bad for a lawn sprinkler.

U.S. Cruise missiles hit Iran? Part 2

Call me crazy, but I would have thought that launching cruise missiles and accidentally hitting the wrong country, a country with whom we are not at war, would have been a pretty major event. But I've seen very little discussion or analysis of this so far. I first heard it reported in the form of a one or two sentence comment on CNN, and then they seemed to drop the story and talk about other things.

This headline suggests that the missile was Iraqi, but if you read the article closely, it seems they are actually talking about 2 separate incidents.

Sunday, March 23, 2003

Michael Moore's Oscar acceptance speech criticizes president Bush

Here is a transcription of what Michael Moore said in his speech accepting the Oscar for best documentary feature:

". . . they are here in solidarity with me because we like nonfiction. We like nonfiction and we live in fictitious times. We live in a time when we have fictitious election results, that elects a fictitious president. We, we live in a time, where we have a man sending us to war for fictitious reasons, whether it's the fictition [sic] of duct tape or the fictitious of orange alerts. We are against this war Mr. Bush! Shame on you Mr. Bush, shame on you! And any time you've got the Pope and the Dixie Chicks against you, your time is up. Thank you very much."

Harrison Ford and Richard Gere could be seen smiling in the audience during this, but other people looked upset, and there were many boos from the audience.

Tivo engaged

I finally got a Tivo this weekend. Friends who had them had been telling me for months how great they are, and I had not heard a single complaint, so I decided it was time. So far, I love it.

Saturday, March 22, 2003

Portland War Protests Revisited

This Portland blogger compliments the Portland police for their conduct during the March 20th war protests. From what I saw as a neutral observer on 3rd Avenue, I was impressed by the conduct of both sides. The police and other officials seemed very professional, calm, and sensible, almost going out of their way to maintain harmony rather than stir up emotions. The demonstrators also seemed to be acting sensibly. On a few occasions, some demonstrators approached me or my friends and engaged us in conversation. But I got no sense of conflict or impending violence. Basically people were waving, saying hello, and asking whether we wanted to join the march. At no time did I feel in any sort of danger from anyone. It reminded me of a kind of unofficial Rose Parade.

I am writing this to counter the tendency of the media to focus on a small set of extreme actions. From some of the reports I've seen, you might get the impression that either Portland is turning into a cruel "police state" or, on the other hand, that the demonstrators are all violent, America-hating anarchists, determined to smash windows, burn the flag, and scare people. Neither of these ideas is anything like the feeling I got from being there, which was that some people were expressing their views, while officials tried to keep things flowing smoothly and prevent problems.

Compare this to the events in Yemen, where according to the New York Times:

The government said protesters opened fire on the riot police, setting off a gun battle that killed two demonstrators, one of them an 11-year-old boy, and left three police officers hospitalized in critical condition.

I was glad to see that Portlanders are pretty reasonable people, even during unusual times.

Cruise missiles hit Iran

I just saw a report on CNN Headline News stating that 3 US cruise missiles had "gone astray" and hit something in SW Iran. I have not seen any follow ups to this anywhere.

Friday, March 21, 2003

In Search of the Internet Enabled Single-player Game

"Internet Gaming" seems to only mean multi-player gaming, at least when applied to console games. I actually have very little interest in playing my favorite Playstation 2 games against other humans over the internet. I guess it might be OK, but it isn't something I'd seek out. What I want is for my single-player gaming experience to incorporate the internet.

For example, suppose I'm playing a sports game, and the action is taking place in an outdoor stadium in, say, San Francisco. I want the game to be able to go out to the internet, look up the actual weather conditions for today, and put that weather into the game. The same idea could be applied to other types of games, like flight simulation, driving, or adventure games.

If I'm playing an RPG, the relative prices of items could take into account current real-life commodity prices. There are probably many other ways to feed real data into games in interesting ways, that could work for single-player games to "enrich" the virtual world. So I hope that game designers will realize that there are more possibilities to internet gaming than just multiplayer.

Thursday, March 20, 2003

Portland War Protests

After 5pm, some of my coworkers went to the windows to see if we could see anything going on. We had heard that there would be protests and that people might try to block downtown intersections. As the minutes stretched on and nothing happened, my coworkers started to announce the most minor events going on: "Look, someone's coming out of the hotel! They have a dog! A car's pulling up! Maybe they're going to put the dog in the car!" It was quite funny and reminded me of the way newscasters try to fill the airtime when there are no new developments.

At least two helicopters and one small plane were flying back and forth overhead. Someone said that the Morrison bridge had been closed, not by protests but in order to keep protesters off of it.

A guy on a very tall bicycle, maybe 10 feet off the ground, rode by. We wondered how he got on and off and what he would do if the light turned red and he suddenly had to stop. Another guy with long grey hair rode by on a bicycle, this time going the wrong way down the one way street. He was carrying some sort of long stick; I wasn't sure what it was. My coworker jokingly called it a "whale harpoon."

We saw a group of motorcycle police go by, and a few bicyclists, but that was it. A little while later we left the office and walked towards Pioneer Square. From a distance we saw that something was going on down on 2nd or 3rd avenue. There was a march of some kind. We approached to watch.

It was fairly large, the crowd seemed to number in the thousands. Some of the marchers had bandannas over their faces or other sorts of masks, but the majority were dressed normally. They played drums and moved in a fairly orderly way. The police were there to reroute traffic.

The crowd eventually stopped near the MAX tracks on 3rd. I couldn't tell whether they stopped there on purpose or had been made to stop there.
Uniformed transportation people kept the MAX trains moving through.

The whole thing seemed very casual and calm. We even noticed SWAT police standing around a few blocks away. They were talking with a passerby who stopped to ask for directions.

I left the area at about 6pm, so I can't say what happened after that, but up until that point it seemed like there were no problems.
BBC warblog here.
Here in Portland, OR, it looks like riot police are assembling across the street from the office building where I work. We saw them from a window, and one of their vehicles was parked there. The rumor is that both pro- and anti-war protests will begin this evening. I hope things stay calm and under control.

Tuesday, March 18, 2003

Wired reports that online gamblers can wager on how long Saddam will remain in power. The article goes on to say:

Although the dollar sums wagered in electronic markets are minuscule in comparison to the volumes traded on traditional financial markets, Wolfers believes they are telling indicators of political events. Unlike political pundits, he says, traders put their money where their mouths are.

"In the financial markets, political posturing will put you at nothing but a loss," he said.

This is a fun and catchy idea, but the analysis is flawed. Posturing that costs real money is otherwise known as advertising, and it is not viewed as a "loss" but as an "expense." If the article's reasoning were correct, then political advertising ought to be especially trusted because people spend real money for it, unlike the worthless free opinions of your friends and neighbors (or even yourself!).
So if Gulf War I featured the "Mother of All Battles," what is Saddam going to call this one? The Mother-in-law of All Battles? The Cranky, Eccentric Aunt of All Battles?

Sunday, March 16, 2003

If each war produces a great book with an unforgettable, personal story, then Vietnam gave us Reflections of a Warrior, and the Gulf War (should I call it the "First Gulf War" now?) was the source for Jarhead. Jarhead is no he-man Rambo story, but it isn't exactly an anti-war book either. It is a thoughtful study of the culture of the Marines, specifically the culture of Marine snipers. If you are at all interested in war stories, you will like this one.


It's easier to dig a fighting hole in wet sand because dry sand tends to ship back into your hole, and when dry and falling into your hole, the sand is reminiscent of a timekeeping device from the board games of your youth, and as the dry sand falls into your hole, you aren't sure what you're pissed off about: the reminder that time is passing quickly and your death might soon arrive like morning, or the nuisance of the sweet memory from childhood of the family hudded around the game table dealing cards and laughing, or that the shipped sand means you must move that sand again, as though through this thankless action you might know each particle personally, as though because you now actually live in it, you must care about this most unstable material or medium that will make futile all effort or endeavor.
The unhealthiest junk food ever.
"Of course, now it's all falling into place. Although that place is nowhere near this place . . ." -- Buffy, The Vampire Slayer
Oh, insupportable delight! Oh! Superhuman rapture!.
Song of the day, Gatlin Gun by Cowgirl in the Snow. Wonderful experimental weird country music. Also listen to their other song, Underwear. I can't quite make up my mind whether I think these songs are sung by a human or not. It could be real vocals with effects, or really good synthetic vocals.

Saturday, March 15, 2003

This morning a story about a talking fish that spoke Hebrew was on the front page of the New York Times. What, has the Times become the Weekly World News? Is the Times free (so far) of bigfoot and chupacabra stories only because those creatures haven't been spotted in Manhattan?
Speaking of comics, I started reading an online manga called Xamra which has some great artwork. It’s fairly new so the story is not far along yet. I’ll be checking in to see where it goes from here.
I really like the way Bucky the cat is drawn in Get Fuzzy. My cats don't look exactly like Bucky, but they are like Bucky in spirit.

Friday, March 14, 2003

The talk about Freedom Fries makes me think it's lucky that England supports the current U.S. policy. Otherwise, people would try to rename "English," and we would have to speak "Liberty Lingo" or "Coalitionagainstsaddamese." Actually, the perfect renaming for it would be newspeak.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003

The Pentagon's New Map is a very interesting article about globalization and foreign policy. I can't help summarizing it as Iron Monkey's Rule: "a nation's chance of being attacked by the U.S. is inversely proportional to its number of Starbucks locations." That is too easy a joke to resist, but the article is definitely worth reading and thinking about.
My girlfriend asked me about the origin of the word "cop." Well, here is the explanation.
"tyromancy: divination using cheese" - Bwah!

Monday, March 10, 2003

.hack infection is a pretty cool game. The visuals are very psychedelic, especially when you use the Data Drain skill. And it is quite bizarre that the game features talking, hopping eggs and plants that yell at you when you walk by. The original plot drew me in from the start. This isn't the first game-within-a-game where you hack things, though. There was some game on the Amiga that I can't remember the name of that did that, too.

I think .hack infection is funnier if you have played online games, because they make some references to the kinds of things to go on. I think it is great when other characters tell you they have to log off to study, or that their attention to the game caused them to "burn dinner."

The anime featurette that comes with the game is disappointing, though. It feels like all the most boring scenes that were cut out of some other anime are being served up here. On the other hand, I've watched the first half of .hack/SIGN ("sold separately") and it is quite good.

Sunday, March 09, 2003

The New York Times magazine reports on a young Jordanian man who wants to be a suicide bomber against the United States. He also wants to be a programmer.
''I want to be a programmer at Microsoft,'' he says. ''Not just a programmer. I want to be well known, famous.''

This guy is crazy, and not just for the suicide bomber part. He is also crazy because of the famous programmer part. I don't think most people could name a single influential programmer. (I can name a few -- Guido van Rossum, Linus Torvalds, etc. -- but I'm weird that way.) In general, wanting to become a famous programmer is like wanting to become a famous plumber.

Thursday, March 06, 2003

I buy a lot of video games, but I rarely buy one without having either read positive reviews or gotten a personal recommendation from someone in the know. They're just too expensive to risk getting one that is no good -- even with the ability to sell them used. I just discovered that metacritic has a great collection of game reviews from many different sources. They combine and average the reviews into a single easy to understand rating, but you can follow the links to each review to see the full descriptions.
Find out The Word on the Streets (a cyberpunk slang dictionary).

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

The Getaway Walking Tour 1, part 1

[This walking tour is still a work in progress.] This is a walking tour of the virtual London in the game The Getaway.

Start from Free Roaming mode (this mode is activated after winning the game). This is a walking tour, so we won't be driving anywhere. Get out of your car and turn around so that you are facing the opposite direction that the car is pointing. Getting out of the car here is a fairly dangerous maneuver, since you are likely to be run over by another car. At least it's only virtual reality and you can restart.

Walk along the sidewalk and you will see a small green hut up ahead that I think is a closed newsstand. Just beyond this is a crosswalk. Turn left and cross here at the zebra crossing. When you get to the sidewalk on the other side, turn left again. You will see a pedestrian mall off to the right. Take a right and enter the mall. Up ahead is a Starbucks and a Body Shop. There are some chairs and tables here. If you were driving you could hit these and send them flying, but on foot you can't move them. It might be nice to sit down, but that isn't possible in the game so keep walking.

Look up and there is an arched sign up above the street that identifies it as Carnaby Street. Follow this street. (Note that most of the streets in the game do not have street signs.)

When you come to the second intersection look off to the left and you'll see more outdoor seating, a Broadwick News and another coffee shop. Don't take this left, though. Continue on Carnaby Street all the way to the end. You'll see a second arched sign above the street near the end. Take a left (Beak St.), then take the next right (Sherwood St.). This will lead you into Golden Square. There is a gap in the fence around Golden Square so you can enter the square and look around. Hmm, the game's version seems to be missing a statue.

After your view of the square, continue South on Sherwood St. It is easy to get turned around while in the square, so remember that the corner where you came in has the Coffee Republic store on it. You want to head away from that. Going South on Sherwood you will get to a T intersection with a shop called The Crown. Take a left, then the next right, then the next right until you see the Gielgud Theatre ahead on the left. It looks like The Graduate is playing.

[To be continued ... ]

Discuss IronMonkey
Alternative captions for emergency graphics. Hilarious.

Saturday, March 01, 2003

I got Atari Anniversary Advance for Gameboy Advance. It has Centipede, Asteroids, Tempest, Battlezone, Missile Command, and Super Breakout. These are all the games of my youth, nearly perfectly reproduced. The Centipede seems to run a bit faster than I remember it, but maybe that's my imagination.
I just picked up Plane Insanity to read before and during my next business trip. The book is a series of funny "war stories" from an ex-flight attendant. It's all here: hookers setting up shop in the plane's restrooms, fights breaking out in the aisles, planes being robbed while on the runway, etc. My worst travel experiences don't come close to his.

Music for The Getaway

What should you listen to while cruising around virtual London? Here's a rap song that captures the violent, crazy spirit of The Getaway: try I'm in love with these streets by Lil Skwirl. Warning: this song has potentially offensive lyrics, but I figure if you're playing The Getaway, you're probably not easily offended.

Winning Snow Hill

The Getaway's Snow Hill mission is one of the trickiest in the game, because it's not completely clear what you are supposed to do at the police station. The instructions are to get the gun and kill the police chief and the woman. But the trick is, this is really 90% a stealth mission, not a battle mission.

Go upstairs and find the supply room where the gun is on the floor. Pick up the gun. When you exit this room, turn right and use stealth mode to stay up against the wall. Around the corner where the water cooler is, you'll overhear two policemen talking. The one in the white shirt and suspenders is the guy who you're supposed to kill. But don't open fire yet.

You have to sneak behind him and follow him from location to location without being seen. He will make several detours and finally he will go downstairs. Only start attacking after he enters the interrogation room. Then you can kill him and complete the mission.

There may be other ways to win this mission, but I have not found any. A brute force approach from the start seems to trigger a mode where the police chief is invulnerable, and wave after wave of SWAT team cops comes after you until you die -- though it is funny when they start lobbing tear gas, so it's probably worth doing this at least once on purpose just to see it.

If you need more detailed instructions than this, check out the FAQs at the excellent gamefaqs site.