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Negative Market Forces July 14, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Media.
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If you aren’t familiar with Richard K. Morgan’s work, it’s good stuff. I’ve read the first two Takeshi Kovacs novels, Altered Carbon and Broken Dreams, and they’re both outstanding. Each one is an entirely different genre (noir and technothriller), but Morgan’s very strong main character moves from setting to setting effortlessly. With Market Forces, the first non-Takeshi Kovacs book, he changes tacts. It’s good to see a clearly talented writer pushing his comfort zone, but not surprising that the experiment isn’t always successful.

The premise seems somewhat convoluted, and that’s part of the problem. It’s sometime late in the next century, after a series of globally-crippling recessions that the world is starting to crawl out of. Interferring in the politics of the developing world is big business, and the book’s focal point is a rising star in the field of Conflict Investment. Oh, and did I mention that all contract negotiations and promotions are handled by means of autodueling?

It is, well, a lot to swallow. Morgan clearly has a lot of issues with globalization and international economics that he wants to work through, but his critiques are about as well thought-out and developed as the average WTO protest placard. The setting of Market Forces is, by necessity, much more developed than that of the Kovacs novels, but comprehensive worldbuilding doesn’t really seem to be Morgan’s strong suit. It comes off as some silly crossblend of Wall Street and Mad Max, but lacking that 120% gonzo committment that makes something like Snow Crash work.

Once you push past the high-level stuff, some of the individual characters are well put together. The main character, Chris Faulkner, does his job well, which is to say he serves to highlight all the ways in which the world is harsh and cruel and powerful. He’s well developed enough to make his progression over the course of the story worth following, even with a far-too-predictable final showdown. Most of the supporting cast is somewhat 2-dimensional, with the annoying habit of having pages-long intervals of exposition as to How The World Got Screwed Up and What It All Means.

Unfortunately, the book can’t carry the weight of the unpleasant distopia it’s saddled with. Morgan wants to blame international corporations and globalization for the sins of his broken future, but can’t find a way to make his anger coherent. How did this world go off the track, and what human failing made it possible? If he doesn’t want to offer any sort of response to his distopia, then all that’s left is a kind of nihilistic reveling-in-the-ruins with fast cars and Armani suits. Which is kind of fun for a while, but gets old quickly and squanders the potential of the main character and Morgan’s own writing skills.

I can’t really recommend Market Forces unless you’re a really big Richard Morgan fan, a tag which even this book can’t push me out of. Thought it plays more to his weaknesses than strengths, there is still the same kind of intense writing and did-that-really-happen moments that mark the better Takeshi Kovacs stuff. Morgan isn’t the first person to feel anger and despair at the future of the global economy, only to be unable to find a solid grasp of what’s wrong other than, “It’s not fair!”. But most failures aren’t entertaining, and there is something to be said for that.

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The Man of Steel plays it safe July 12, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Media.
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Reimagining stuff is very popular these days.  While some may disagree strongly on how many (if any) of these ventures are successful, it seems to be a bug that’s going around Hollywood.  I’ve always been a fan of retelling old stories in new ways, be it “remakes” or “reimaginings” or just called “West Side Story”.  I like seeing what a director or a writer considers the “essence” of a particular story, be in characters or plotline or just mood.

For Superman Returns, though, Brian Singer wants no truck with such a thing.  For all the ways in which Batman Begins (to pick another recent revitalization of a DC hero) changed how you look at Bruce Wayne and his deranged attempts to clean up Gotham, Brian Singer wants you to remember how great it felt when Christopher Reeve spun the Earth backwards.  Superman Returns is faithful to what came before, almost too much so for my tastes.

Almost, I said.  Because regardless of postmodern redereconstructionist cyncism about the classic comic heroes of yore, Superman can still hit you in just the right spot and evoke an innocent, wide-eyed sense of wonder.  Amazing, visually impressive feats of strength and speed are the locus of Superman’s exploits, and Singer knows that’s where the strength of his movie lives.  Catching a plane, stopping a bullet, lifting a…..well, it’s big.  Really big.  And it’s all great.

When we’re not focusing on Superman’s heroics, though, things feel kind of flat.  The thing that’s always put me off Superman is that he’s always seemed a little too perfect.  He’s a paragon – he always saves the day, and never compromises his principles to do so.  The Clark-Lois-Cyclops (I’m sure has a name in this movie, but I never cared) love triangle is clearly supposed to add much-needed depth to the story.  Everyone else loves Superman just as much as before, it’s almost as if he never left – except for Lois, who has moved on with a child and fiancee and a Pulitzer-winning editorial called “Why The World Doesn’t Need Superman”.

Except it never seems to click.  Kate Bosworth and Brandon Routh don’t seem to have any real chemistry.  Their big scene together, an aerial tour of Metropolis where Superman explains why he left and came back, works as a theorical meditation on the internal conflicts of Superman – but not as a conflict, an argument, between two people who deep down want to be together.  A twist late in the movie finally locks this conflict into place – but it’s almost too late to matter, although it gives hope that the next movie will offer some better human conflict.

By no means is it a bad movie.  It’s a good movie, almost the very definition of a feel-good movie.  It’s just….unambitious.  Much like his hero, Brian Singer seems to want the franchise to return without missing a beat, just as it was before.  Nothing says you have to bring something new to the table, and after the death-march that WB went through to get a Superman project to theates, I can understand the impulse to play it safe.  But it still feels like something of a letdown.

Why my TiVo isn’t a flying car May 4, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Technology.
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So I've had TV on my mind a lot lately.  My TiVo is bursting at the seams with stuff I'm planning on watching at some point (and possibly dying to boot), the networks are hastily rolling out some sort of episodes-on-demand functionality, and tech.memorandum has shown me a couple of smart things that Mark Cuban has had to say about TV over the internet in the past month.  That, and I should find out pretty soon whether or not Veronica Mars is going to get renewed for next season.

Here's what we've got now: many passive streams of content via antenna/cable.  You can chunk up these streams into individual files through something like a TiVo, assuming you have reliable metadata about what's in any given stream at any given time.  Now you've got a bunch of media files in a single silo, which may or may not be movable to other devices depending upon the nature of both the source and destination.  This scenario is pretty good (especially considering what life was like before the PVR), but could use a lot of improvement.

On any given day, I can read press releases about people trying to implement "the future of TV".  The good news is that they seem to be moving in the right general direction – cutting out the passive streaming layer and going directly to receiving individual media files.  Now we're back to the old "stream versus download" split from when music on the Internet was the new thing.  Streaming sucks, and the fact that the download model (eventually) won vis a vis audio gives me hope that video will follow.

The interesting question that follows is this: what are the consequences when downloading TV shows becomes the norm instead of passive streaming?  One thing to point out is that this isn't very likely, or at least not for a very long time.  iTunes hasn't killed traditional music distribution (at least, not yet), because the old players are entrenched and have many factors in their favor.  Secondly, passive streaming has a big advantage – it's easy to browse.  People are used to thinking of their TV in terms of "what's on now", or at a degree removed "what's on at any given time".  Moving to an on-demand model means that if you're doing the equivalent of "channel surfing", your list of "what's on" grows by an order of magnitude or more as you multiply all available channels by everything they have posted for immediate viewing.

While it seems very liberating, it's also a problem.  Choice can be paralyzing, and the larger the list of options the greater the chance for mental lock-up.  That list of possibilities needs limiting in some sort of automatic fashion – be it a network executive programming a line-up, TiVo's recommendations engine, an package of shows you subscribe to because of similar topics, etc.  The good news is that all these notions are being worked on right now in the context of music, books, blogs, and everything else that you can now get at via the Internet 24/7.  The bad news is that we may face a chicken-and-the-egg problem: on-demand TV won't be popular until there are tools to grapple with all the options, but no serious amount of resources is going to get poured into solutions until there is an evident problem.

One could hope the problem is as simple as the network see money left on the table, but I'm not very hopeful about that.  PVR penetration keeps going up, and keeps going up faster, and that's a good sign.  The bad sign is that these seem to be mostly PVRs which are provided by the cable companies, which is exactly whom you don't want involved in the process.  They're the iTunes of your living room, charging you for moving bits of information from point A to point B without adding much value.  I already have something which does that, it's my broadband connection.  It costs less and does more.

No PVR prodivded by a cable company is ever going to provide functionality in the best interests of either the content producers or the content consumers.  It's a beachhead for a pointless middleman.  But an enormously successful one.  One can hope that TiVo's failure (or at least, their seemingly eternal state of almost-failure) is unique to their own incompetence, and that the market really could support PVRs independant of the cable companies.  But I wouldn't count on it.

It occurs to me that all I've done is talk about all the reasons why on-demand isn't likely to happen, and not actually address the issue of how things would change if it did.  The question is not entirely moot, as it might offer insight which makes the on-demand world seem more likely if we know what value it offers.  But that is now looking like the subject of another post. 

Friends and foes March 3, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Politics.
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Although there is much less controversy (yet) regarding Bush’s deal with India than the Dubai port agreement, it’s most likely going to be far more problematic and deserving of scrutiny. The Dubai thing is a mountain made out of a molehill – the Indian thing is most likely going to get worse over time.

We want to be friends with India, and for good reason. They’re the world’s largest democracy, and one of the world’s largest growing economies. We have enough in common to be able to work well together on most issues. At the moment, that seems to be something of the problem – we want so much to be friends with them that we’re having trouble following through on our obligations regarding the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.

India did not sign the treaty, and made it quite clear that they did not agree with the spirit of the thing. They were going to become a nuclear power. I imagine this is in part the need to maintain parity with Pakistan, China, and other nearby powers, and in part the cachet that comes with being a nuclear power. We have obgliations with our other NPT signatories to treat the Indians a certain way because of that, obligations this latest agreement does not meet. They obviously don’t want to be punished (especially for violating a treaty they’re not a part of), and we think (rightly so, I suspect) that there is more to gain from stronger trading ties than keeping them at arm’s length.

How to resolve this tension is the core of the matter. Honestly, it might be that it’s time to rethink the whole matter of non-proliferation. South Africa appears now to be much more of an outlier than an example – voluntarily disarming and disavowing nuclear arms is something many countries feel they don’t have the luxury of doing. Rogue states are going to ignore such concepts regardless, and in turn they’re going to threaten those who are not rogue yet not fully integrated into transnational communities such as the NPT. Engagement has seemed to almost always work better than isolation, but you can’t deter someone with a carrot.
And perhaps we should not. It’s very hard, if not impossible, to deter someone who feels their security is at risk. And I don’t think we can make a credible offer to India (or those in an India-like position) to accomodate their security in a different acceptable fashion. They’re going to do what they feel is necessary, and I can’t say that I blame them.

Is there any way to salvage the spirit of the NPT while acknowledging that there are some states who are “OK” to have nukes and others cannot? I don’t see it. I don’t think there is any language that could correctly capture the nuance involved, and once you leave the realm of bright lines I think we would all be better served by dealing with each incident on an honest case-by-case basis.

There are lots of things I’m sure I haven’t thought about yet regarding this. Non-proliferation is still an admirable goal. But as with many transnational arrangements, the “good guys” you never had to worry about in the first place, and the “bad guys” don’t want anything to do with you anyway. India stands in a grey area, and I think they need to be enticed to step into the former group than pushed into the latter.

The Gold and the Grind – What I like about MMORPGs February 7, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Gaming, Personal.
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I remember when first reading about Ultima Online and Everquest, dismissing the whole lot as junk. (The exception was UO’s resource ecology, which seemed interesting but doomed to disaster from the start). One-dimensional real time combat, graphics that looked ugly even for the late 90s, endless timesinks, and ye gods – why on Earth would I want to play with a massive number of people on the Internet? Wasn’t that a statistical grouping almost guaranteed to frustrate an annoy?

Up to that point, my online gaming had been limited to a brief period of obsession with Quake instagib in all its forms, then later a flirtation with a Counterstrike clone called Tactical Ops. I wasn’t them, and am still not now, very comfortable with social gaming online. And now, 7 years later, I’ve had characters in at least six different MMOs, and have gone to the level cap with one (granted, it’s WoW, but still….). So was I wrong in my initial assement? Somewhat. Did my tastes change? A little. Have MMOs changed? A great deal, I think. At least the ones I play.

And if at least some of these essays are going to be about gaming and game theory, it would help to establish a couple baselines. First and foremost, what I consider fun. And maybe a little about why. [While I’m generally not a fan of The Forge, I have gleaned that being able to understand what it is you’re gaming for is more important than it might seem.] So let’s start with some basic observations.

I like the RPG in MMORPG. I’ve played every Final Fantasy game to date (save FF5), along with a pretty decent showing in a number of other popular and well-respected franchises. I like the genre (specifically, the Japanese console niche) and it works for me. Fight monsters, gain XP and shiny things, get new powers and stabby bits with which to kill bigger monsters. A time honored challenge-reward loop, and for good reason. The downside of this is that I’m an insatiable story whore, which gets me into trouble later on down the line.

Design-wise, it’s where the action is. It’s the New Genre, kind of like where RTSes were in the mid-to-late 90s. Combine the novelty of the genre with the fact that you can make an Immense Pile Of Money if you do it right, and it only seems logical that everyone is flocking to the space. And failing, but even the failures can be interesting (see Earth & Beyond). There is at least a whole other essay on broad strokes in MMO design, so I’m not going to let this list item grow to Tokyo-smashing proportions. Suffice it to say that there are problems being solved in MMO design that simply have no analogue in single-player games, and watching people bash their heads up against these challenges I find interesting.

I’m just social enough. I play a fair number of table-top RPGs, so I’m certainly not averse to gaming with other people. It’s a great deal of fun, in fact. However, these are all friendships I made (by and large) outside of gaming, people I met in other ways who happened to be into the same things I was. I enjoy gaming as something you do with friends, but the jury is still out on making friends while gaming. There is probably another essay in this too, mostly about my experiences in Final Fantasy XI and the play-patterns it reinforced.

That said, it’s not all peaches and beer. Not even close. There is a reason I stayed away from this genre in the first place, and those reasons haven’t entirely gone away. There is a lot of crap out there, even in the good games, and ample reasons why I might not want to level my paladin.

I’m not stupid. Which is to say, I know a timesink when I see one. A certain dimension of MMO design is to eat up as many player-hours as possible with as few designer-hours as you can get away with. It’s a neccessity of economics and design, at least for now. Sometimes the timesink is just fun enough, or I’m really motivated to get to see what’s past it – but often I can just feel how tedious it is and give up.

Only a part of a balanced gaming diet. Hack & slash gets old. First-person shooters & strategy games share space on my shelves with Dragon Warrior 28 1/2. I tried the only FPS MMO, Planetside, but it wasn’t very compelling. Even a little lag made for a poor experience, and it wasn’t any fun to run around as a lone soldier.

I demand narrative. And I’m not talking some paltry excuse for a premise that is forgotten in an hour, or Guild Drama over who said what in chat yesterday. I like story with compelling characters, settings, revelations, etc. Backed up by good graphics & music. I’m willing to suspect an awful lot of disbelief, and break many of the “rules” of a persistent world, if you can tell me a good story. Most designers don’t want to, and even then they don’t do a great job of it. There is a good niche out there for whomever can figure out the magic formula, but that is (again) another essay.

Not quite social enough. The defining aspect to all these games is the MM bit. You gotta play with other people, and make – if not friends – acquaintances and other relations to get by. Being a hard-core solo just seems to miss the point, and chances are whatever you’re jonesing for can be provided better in the single-player variety. I’m very much an introvert, and for whatever reason the way I relate to strangers doesn’t seem to change when it’s shifted to an online environment.

My appreciation of symmetry compells me to close with a final list of three. In this case, three qualities which I acknowledge and respect that are present in the genre, but just don’t float my boat. Let’s call it “The Office” list, speaking of things which I understand are quality but I just don’t get.

Player versus player. Either it’s frivolous deathmatching on the Internet (which is why God gave us XBox Live), or you’re putting possibly hundreds of hours of work on the line to be ganked by a 13-year old sporting the latest broken build. In each case, I just don’t care. I’m also starting to be of the opinion that unless your game was designed around PvP as absolutely the central element (see Guild Wars, EvE Online, or any of that wacky Korean stuff), it’s going to be broken or twisted beyond all recognition eventually. You kids have fun pwning the n00bs.

RP or game-as-graphical-chat-client. My roots are decidedly not in the whole MUD/MUSH thing. I’m paying my monthly fee to play a game, and that’s what I want to do when I go online. Part of this is that I’m probably tone-deaf to social cues (as most of my female friends will attest), so I’m sure that there is stuff going on at this level that I’m entirely ignorant of. This is change in me a little bit, as I wouldn’t mind having WoW guild chat open in the background when I’m at work, but that is by far an exception. Also, if I really want to get “into a character”, tabletop does it ten times better (at least!).  Mostly, I’m there to kill monsters and take their stuff.

That’s the short list. What I like, what I don’t, what I think I care about when I think about MMO games & game design. Just in case it comes up later, this is where I’m coming from.

Repost from LJ: 28440000 joules per pound January 30, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Technology.
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It costs 28440000 joules of energy to move a pound of matter into space. (Unit discrepancy, I know. Bite me.) That will never change. It is the number written on the toll booth that is our gravity well. We sit on one side of this invisible barrier, built by the very laws of physics. It is this number that keeps us from finding the stars.

We can’t change that number, so all we can try to do is find better ways to apply that much energy to the stuff we want to send into space. It’s a lot of energy. The best way we can figure out to defeat this number is to strap a very tiny amount of matter on top of a giant explosion and cross our fingers. To our credit, we’ve gotten pretty damn good at it. From this layman’s perspective our rocketry skills are fairly spiffy. But that’s still what we’re doing.

When that tiny amount of matter is an instrumentation package or a satellite, we pretty much own the show. But when it’s a human – a smart, brave, fragile human body – it all still seems so far away. Air. Heat. Food. G-forces. These are things we either need, or need to avoid. Solving every one of those problems adds weight. More energy. Bigger explosion. Harder problem.

There is this wonderful, young, hopeful part of me that says that we should be going into space as fast as humanly possible. Human footprints on the dirt of Syria Planum. Human eyes watching the sun rise from Europa. Space stations glowing from the reflected beauty of Saturn. It’s part of what we do, part of who we are. It requires smarts, and determination, and bravery, and I refuse to believe that any of these are in short supply amongst the human race.

But I’m not entirely that person anymore. I’ve gotten older and more cynical. I have (if nothing else) an elementary knowledge of economics that only really serves to depress me. What is on the moon that warrants a permanent human settlement? Why are we even trying to go Mars while the moon is such a tremendous hurdle? Why why why? Everything I wrote in the previous paragraph seems hollow in the face of the realities of it. Money. 1 billion for NASA? Drop in the bucket. A real functioning moonbase, not some proof-of-concept bullshit that can’t do anything useful, may require a trillion.

What warrants that expenditure? Nothing yet. The optimist can say that we don’t know what’s there until we go. We’ll never know unless man lives on the moon and can experiment. But as long as the tickets are so expensive few can go. And experimentation will not flourish unless it is cheap. Lower the barriers to entry and human creativity will explode. It’s been seen time and time again. If there is a reason to be on the moon, we’ll find it. But we have to be there, many of us, first. Some will die. More will fail. So many lives must cross into the frontier before we will understand even a hint of its wonders. And it’s so expensive. The only way this works is if it gets cheaper.

The optimist, then, responds by saying that it *will* get cheaper. If we keep at it. We’ll solve the problem. Then I think about the Space Shuttle. The promises of which have gone utterly unrealized. It never got cheaper to operate, never was the revolving door through which man would routinely enter orbit. A launch a month? Please. Not even close. And how many billions were poured into that project? Why should I feel any confidence in this next multibillion speculative venture?

Depressed, again. The optimist takes one last swing at things. The problems are solvable. We have the creativity and the will. But NASA can’t do it. They’re hidebound, bureaucratic. Not suited for the 21st century. The answers are there, we just have to change for how we look at them. In which case, Bush should be ripping our entire space program apart. Start from scratch. Move in several different directions, all of them new, and see what works. We’re 5 years away from even having an organization that could oversee this massive endeavor. More from going back to the moon. Easily more than a decade from going to Mars.

None of these things are happening. A tiny amount of money, for a dubious venture, to an unreliable organization. Why should I have hope? Why should I cling to dreams that have been dead for so long? The Well looms overhead, and it has never seemed taller or more daunting.

28440000 joules per pound. That’s what it takes.

Why This Site Didn’t Exist January 27, 2006

Posted by electricaloratory in Meta.
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I think the first person who ever told me to write more is my friend A., in regards to a bit of fiction I wrote for a role-playing game I ran back in college. It’s never that I thought I was particularly bad at it, just that I never saw it as exemplary. Everyone writes, so the thinking goes. You have to just to get by. Applying a bit of hindsight, such a view seems narrow-minded. I work (and play) on computers, and games not withstanding, the way you interact with a computer is by writing at it.

TV, movies, and theater – all basically start with a text (at least, the stuff I live – reality TV and more “performance” oriented art is wasted on me). It’s probably not an uncommon viewpoint, for folks in my profession or just in the world in general, that strings of words form the basis for damn near everything. Even life can be thought of with only four letters – A, C, T, and G. Everything after the spelling is a consequence.
I mean, I know there are writers out there. Journalists and authors, technical editors and bloggers. Screenwriters, playwrights, copy editors. Folks who make their living with words. I know a few of them, and I greatly admire that kind of ability. People who can make something out of words, conjure reality from ephemera.

But it didn’t seem like a particularly good path for me. The world is full of failed writers – novelists who couldn’t sell their first (and last) opus, screenwriters pawning 100 pages of brilliance to every production company in L.A., folks who decided that they would turn their homebrewed campaign setting into The Greatest RPG Ever. Some succeeded. Most didn’t. In my life, I’ve found Sturgeon’s Law to be pretty damn reliable, especially when it comes to creative endeavors. Why contribute to the pile of wasted words on the Internet, given that chances are what I’m writing is garbage, just by sheer weight of statistics?

Plenty of people do, and some are successful. Hell, I’ve got over 50 blogs in Thunderbird and I’d consider most of them to be worthwhile. So to start walking this path in the face of Sturgeon’s Law, there are only a couple of options. Don’t know, or don’t care. Well, I can’t excise the knowledge from my brain (and wouldn’t if I could, because I still consider it an important yardstick for any sort of media or pop culture). Which leaves not caring, something I’m generally not any good at. I care very much people’s opinion of me, and of my work. Better to remain silent, and all that.

And yet here I am, having plugged the phrase “Electrical Oratory” into WordPress less than an hour ago. I can’t say I’ve stopped caring. All I can say is that I’m trying to care less. To take risks. For something to be good, it first must just be.

This blog is going to be for long-form posts focused on a number of particular topics. More about the subject matter than me. I already have a LiveJournal, and I’m quite happy with it. There will be a link to there from here, but not yet the other way around. I’d prefer to let this site just be words for now, rather than strongly referring to the author.