Category Archives: Rant

A Review of A Dance With Dragons

In Which I Discuss The Book I Just Finished Reading, And Make Mention Of (And Not A Little Slander Upon) The Remainder Of The Series To This Point, With Some Ranting…Literary Criticism This Ain’t

I had the idea of writing this up in a nice meta fashion, mimicking the book—my vibe of it, not necessarily the specific style of GRRM’s voice—but then realized I’d have to write some 10k+ words of generally meandering chatter, spending most of my time talking about the crisis that guy who was working the drive-through window at the place I went for lunch suffered through this morning in his parking lot, and other random bullshit, all while occasionally, briefly mentioning in passing that, oh yeah, there’s a review coming, and it’ll be amazing, and then back to inane, unrelated stuff, before ending the review with a sudden, massive, completely absurd shocker like “BTW, if you read past page 643, you’ll get AIDS and die!”

And that wouldn’t be much fun for anyone, me or you.  Which, incidentally, would serve as a perfectly adequate and accurate review, but, you know, fun and lack thereof.  So here’s something that was at least a bit more fun to write, if not hopefully read.

Ultimately, I finished it.  And had moments where I genuinely enjoyed what I was reading.  He’s a good writer, and has created a handful of vivid characters in incredible circumstances, and I genuinely want to read about them and see how their stories end up.

The key there:  a handful.  All great storytellers seem to understand this just fine.  You can have a cast of thousands, but you need a couple of key names above the titles for people to latch on to.  Especially in an epic story where the POV keeps moving around from location to location…that’s jarring enough.  With all sorts of intertwining conspiracies and plotting, and motivations and loyalties switching on a dime…  And if you want to keep your readers invested in what’s going on while moving them around all over the place, it really helps to have a consistent landing spot for them whenever you return them to someplace they haven’t been for a while.

You don’t suddenly, 500+ pages in, drop in a long chapter involving characters that we haven’t even heard mentioned since halfway through the last book, some 5 years and 700+ pages ago, a dozen or so of them with very similar, hard-to-pronounce names, and somewhat bland and overlapping, easily-confused personalities and motives, and try to reveal  a whole bunch of obscure minutiae about a small element in a vaster conspiracy, then abandon those characters and that location and the whole conspiracy for the rest of the damn book, and expect me to care or even fully follow what’s going on, even after reading through it multiple times.

I’ll say it again:  a handful.  It’s worth noting that the book ends with an Appendix that attempts to list out the key characters and their relationships to each other, just for this one book.

It’s 53 pages long.  That’s not a typo.

In the Appendices for The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien does something similar, listing out the family trees of each of the major houses involved in his stories…not just those mentioned in the book you’ve just read, by the way, but everyone, from the very first great-great grandfather, long since dead, through all the generations over thousands of years, up to the present day and the living heroes who participate in the events covered in the book you’ve just finished reading, a book that is often cited as the definition of Epic Fantasy.  All those people, across multiple races, and thousands of years.  And it’s barely half as long as GRRM’s list of the people in just one book that we’re supposed to keep straight in order to understand what’s going on.

Seriously?  I’m not dumb, I’m actually pretty smart and occasionally smart enough to justify at least a reasonable amount of my inherent arrogance and misanthropy…and halfway through the book, I just gave up trying to follow all the major narrative threads and treated it like a long collection of vaguely-related short stories, pretending at the beginning of each chapter that it was unconnected to anything I’d read previously.

And then we come back around to those few characters who are interesting and worth paying attention to, and they’ve actually got a decent part of the book set aside for their stories, and what do we get?

Jon wakes up, and it’s cold.  He eats some food, drinks some wine, wanders outside into the snow, meets with people who don’t like him, discusses a decision that’s somehow important to whatever’s eventually going to happen (probably in just a couple thousand more pages, it’s like imminent and shit), finds that those people disagree with him, and makes his decision anyway, one that seems pretty obviously clear to everyone reading along.  He leaves, walks outside, it’s cold, he mopes for a bit about how hard it is to be a commander, and then goes to bed.

There.  Fill in some of the generic blanks with random specific details (who he’s meeting with, what the decision is), and you can mad-libs about 90% of the Jon chapters in the book, some 200+ pages.

Was that fun?  Let’s do it again.

Daenerys wakes up, bathes in her pool, chooses what dress to wear, and goes off to procrastinate.  She worries about her “children”, makes a decision that’s pretty obviously awful to everyone reading along, worries some more about her “children”, goes to her pool, and then goes to bed.

Same thing:  we just covered another 200-ish pages of the whole book.

And the worst part is that there’s some really good stuff in there.  Jon does make some pretty massive decisions regarding the future of the whole realm, and his story does bring us ever closer to the fabled Winter that is coming…in the same way that tilting your head slightly forward while standing in Santa Monica does, in absolute terms, bring you slightly closer to Yankee Stadium.  And Daenerys ends up riding one of her dragons, finally claiming her birthright in full…until she stops, and leaves him, gets diarrhea from eating unripe berries, and worries some more about her “children”.

It’s all just buried until mountains of wasted paper and ink.  Sigh.  The man needs an editor more than anyone since Steve King wrote 300 pages too many for The Tommyknockers.

The only one who actually has anything to do is Tyrion, and that’s not because he’s actively pursuing anything—if it was left up to him, he’d happily stay in one place, drinking and whoring until his money, dick or liver runs out, whichever comes first—but because larger people with ulterior motives keep dragging him around, listening to his fast talking just enough to decide to keep him alive, but never enough to actually take his advice and get shit done.  (Except for one memorable occasion, which is probably the most interesting part of the whole book:  Connington’s and Aegon’s return to Westeros, which is the only part of the book I have no issue with at all.  There are a handful of complex but easily-discernible characters, each with their own private motives but all with a clearly-defined goal, and together they take actual tangible steps to achieve that goal.  It’s like someone snuck in and wrote some GRRM fan-fiction while he wasn’t looking, and he never bothered to take it out.)

You know those detective shows or movies, where they’re hunting a serial killer, and they finally come upon his apartment (and of course he’s already long-gone), and they see what must have started as a simple peg board, a few newspaper clippings and notes to help keep things straight, only the guy is bug-shit nuts and now every inch of every wall is covered with photos and articles and notes and drawings so disturbing they’d make a childhood psychologist shoot himself in despair for the next generation, with lines drawn randomly connecting stuff, and it’s all done in some very natural lighting, like afternoon sun from a window, with plenty of dust and haze in the air, and the whole point is to make the audience think “Holy shit, this guy is bug-shit nuts, no sane person could even read through all this, let alone try to make sense of it and connect it all into a larger whole?”

I imagine that’s what GRRM’s writing office looks like these days.

So, to sum up, I didn’t hate it, there was some really good stuff in there, and of course all the hints of some grand, once-in-a millennia conflict coming “soon”, which is entertaining (at least for the first couple thousand pages of foreshadowing), but I won’t be re-reading it, ever, and if the next book is anything like this one, I’m probably just going to set them aside and ignore them until the entire series is done, by which point I’ll be retired and have plenty of time to wade through them and see if the whole damn thing was worth it.

And, seriously, TWO Arya chapters?  That’s it?  That’s like paying a stripper for a lap dance and giving her $200 to take off her watch.  If we don’t get at minimum an entire book’s worth of Arya killing all the motherfuckers on her morning prayers’ list before this things wraps up, I’m gonna be pissed.

Why Google+ will fail

An expansion of a conversation begun with Dave and Patrick one night over scotch and cigars…

In my first draft of this post, I started off with, “Well, not ‘fail’, exactly, it’s not like they’re fundamentally flawed, throwing Blink tags all over the place or something awful like that, but they’re certainly not going to hit the targets they’ve gotta be aiming for…”

And after reading that bit through again, I realized that, ultimately, yes, they were going to fail.  The stakes are too high, the goals too large…what would be considered phenomenal success for anyone else is failure for them.  They’re not playing for a respectable second place…though I’m sure they’ll find some way to make that work for them, when it becomes evident that’s where they’re going to end up.

But enough of the navel-gazing, down to business:

Google+ is going to fail, and fail big-time.  There’s only one measure of success for them:  Facebook, and every one of their 750 million active users.  Anything less than that–or even just chopping that number way down, by more than half, and passing them by a clear and evident margin–isn’t good enough.

And the sad part is that it won’t have much–if anything–to do with what they’re doing or how they’re doing it…truthfully, although it’s still very early, from what I can see, they’ve learned almost every lesson you could have hoped they would have learned from Facebook, and have already demonstrated a willingness to fix those things they still don’t have quite right yet.

If it was simply a matter of putting a better product on the market and trusting that everyone–or at least the vast majority of people–would take a look at the new offering, compare it to what they’ve currently got, and then choose what’s clearly better, then there’d be no problem.  But anyone who’s ever looked even briefly into real-world marketing economics and sociology knows that it’s never that simple.  Or else why do we still have both Coke and Pepsi on the shelves?

For my one grand, sweeping generalization per post (which I really can’t be bothered to explicate fully; please just assume that I know that things are much more subtle than this when examined in detail, and my usage of the more general ideas doesn’t ignore nor invalidate the complexities of overlapping, evolving micro-systems), there are three kinds of people using the Internet with any degree of regularity (i.e. the 750 million active users of Facebook):

  • Hard-core geekerati
  • Technically savvy people
  • Grandma Betty

The hard-core geekerati write for Boing Boing, invest 10x more into their Reddit time than they do the local neighborhood watch, cite donations to Wikileaks as a charitable deduction on their tax returns, and not only knew all about Google+ before the information was public, they already had an invite before the announcement came, either through inside contacts or because they’d figured out how to hack the invite interface.

These folk know in intimate detail the differences between FB and G+; in fact, Google designed G+ with all of their many tumblr posts and tweets complaining about FB in mind.  Given a choice between the two…well, there really isn’t a choice for them.  G+ wins in a landslide, and either they’ve already fully migrated over to it from FB, their megalomania assuring them that anyone who doesn’t follow them over probably doesn’t get it anyway, or they’re primarily on G+, but still hanging around FB until its momentum dies out and everyone they care about has similarly ported over, so they can leave it behind for good.

I’m not even going to pretend that I know the demographics here, nor can I be bothered to work up any reasonably-researched estimates, so I’m going to pull wild guesses out of my ass:  assume there aren’t too many of these folks, it requires a certain mobility to their lifestyle, a willingness to adapt to the new and strange, and the financial means to pursue it…worldwide, we’re talking, what, 5 million people, tops?

That leaves 745 million people still actively on FB.

The second group, the people with various degrees of technical savvy…these people know enough to have already tried turning their computer off and back on again before calling technical support, but not enough to never have to call support at all.  They’re probably already on G+, but still consider FB their primary Internet “home”…G+ is a cool place to check out, like that new show on AMC…it’s interesting, but gets immediately put on hold if there’s a new episode of [fill in R-rated HBO hour-long drama here] on the DVR.

But they see the promise.  They have some of the same concerns about FB that the geekerati have, even if they’re not nearly as passionate about it.  Ultimately, they’ll end up preferring to move wholesale over to G+, but it’s not something that’ll be a driving factor in their online lives.

Again, not going to pretend I can estimate numbers here, but since these folks need to have enough leisure time to explore new ideas, and the financial means to acquire the tools often enough to gain enough mastery to be willing to explore in the first place…what, between 50 and 100 million people, worldwide?  That’s probably really, really high.  Still, for the point of this exercise, we can be conservative in the “trying to invalidate the point I’m trying to make” direction, and go with 100 million, and still…

That leaves 105 million people on G+, and 645 still actively on FB.

Brief aside:  as of this writing, there are only 10-15 million active G+ accounts total.  That’s primarily because it’s still in Beta, still invite-only.  I’m somewhat speculating down the road, once the invites become unnecessary and anyone who wants to can sign up.  This is an “after the system stabilizes” kind of thought experiment.

And now we come to the third group, Grandma Betty.  Which is where G+ will fail.

A bit more generalized pontificating…there are two major paths that the Internet has followed down through the ages.

The first is for those who pay attention to what’s going on, the savvy…basically the first two groups already mentioned.  For them, the Internet, and computers in general, have been in a constant state of evolution, from the first IBM PCs, to your first Intel x86’s, and Usenet, and downloading porn in a dorm room that looks like just a bunch of random ASCII characters until you manage to find and download an image decoding program, and Archie to search for stuff, and then Mosaic, Compuserve, Excite, Ask Jeeves (non-boolean, real-term searches!), and Geocities and Friendster and MySpace and Facebook and, now Google+.

The second–the one that Grandma Betty is aware of–is made of much broader strokes.  The Apple II.  AOL.  And now Facebook.  It’s not an evolution, it’s a series of fascinating new peaks that captures their interest, becoming a part of their lives in the same way indoor toilets, color television and automatic transmissions have…with no concern at all with what happens in all the valleys in between.

And this is the problem that G+ is facing.  Grandma Betty doesn’t care that G+ is a little better than FB.  For her, FB is not one markedly more popular option in a long line of evolving ways to interact with people online; for her, FB is The Facebook.  It’s The Internet.  It’s being Online.  All of that, wrapped up in a single identity.

The idea of switching over to something better…well, why?  Isn’t one color TV basically the same as another?

Or, to land on another, probably more relevant analogy, what I’m basically saying is that FB is DVDs, and G+ is laserdiscs.  Yeah, there are a number of savvy people who are going to see all the benefits the latter offers over the former, and will switch over, either in whole or in part…but the vast majority of people won’t be aware of a difference, and won’t care.  I mean, we’re how many years into the HD/Blu-ray “revolution”, and DVDs still outsell Blu-ray discs by a magnitude.

And laserdiscs are an interesting footnote.

There are 645 million Grandma Betty’s out there.  That’s the difference between winning and losing in this game, and I just don’t see any way that G+ stands a chance at stealing even a small fraction of them.  Grandma Betty just likes being Online, on The Facebook, and is still feeling pretty pleased with herself that she’s figured out how to post photos that her family and friends can see.  The entire debate and choice between The Facebook and Google+…or anything else that’s similar, better or not…flies over her head the way a debate over PER vs. Adjusted +/- stats in basketball fly over the head of someone who is only peripherally aware that Michael Jordan isn’t playing professionally anymore.

So that’s my bit; I like G+, I’m one of those people in the second group I mentioned, and I’ve got an account and post to it occasionally, have some Circles set up already.  But I wouldn’t bet against FB any time soon.

And no, I have no intent on posting as to where I’ve been for the last 6+ months…too busy dusting this place down…damn it falls all to pieces when I step away for a while.  I may get to that…later.

And now a word from our sponsors

Well, they don’t sponsor me yet. But a guy can dream, can’t he?

I know, I said I would likely be more or less offline for the foreseeable future. My primary computer catastrophically failed on Friday, and I was looking forward (in the bad way) to a couple of months of begging and borrowing time online until I could save my pennies to buy a new computer. But I’d forgotten who I’d bought my machine from and just how amazing they are, and here I am, three days later, back up and running only slightly gimped from where I was.

And so, please forgive me as I do something we don’t do often enough, especially online. It’s easy, and enticing, to blast the people and companies who suck…spewing vitriol seemingly requires little effort. But when someone or something exceeds expectations, even really high expectations, it’s too easy for us to sit quiet and happy and enjoy what happened.

This is worth speaking out for.

I bought my computer four years ago from a company called Falcon Northwest. They’re a boutique computer company in Washington. And the best way to describe how amazing they are is to compare what they do to what almost every other company out there does. Or, rather, doesn’t do.

  • When you buy a computer from Dell, or Apple, or whatever, yes, you have the option of customizing it (or at least you do if you buy it from them, and not from Best Buy or some other nationwide chain where some doofus making slightly-above minimum wage pulls a generic box off the shelf for you).
  • But at Falcon Northwest, they custom build the computer specifically for you. As in, for you as a person. The serial number on my machine begins with my name, and the date that I ordered it, engraved into the case.
  • When you buy a computer from Dell, or Apple, or whatever, the specs may look nice, but they’re going to use the absolutely cheapest possible parts for those specs. It might say 4 GB of RAM, but believe me, all RAM is not created equal, and they make their profit by cutting every possible corner.
  • At Falcon Northwest, they source only the best possible parts. The kind of parts they would use in their own computer. The RAM is Corsair, the hard drive is Seagate, and the cooling system is hand built by a little old Italian man who spends his days bent over his workbench, crafting only the finest water-cooling systems. (Well, not really, but you get the metaphor I’m leaning towards there.)
  • When you buy a computer from Dell, or Apple, or whatever, they put it together, install the OS, install all of their “I’m a dummy, please hold my hand” bloat-ware, and drop it in a box, often without an actual human being ever touching it.
  • At Falcon Northwest, they put it together, which takes a day or so. And then a real person, an expert, takes upwards of two weeks to fine tune the fucker within an inch of its life. He installs the OS, and then all upgrades available. He updates all your drivers, and makes sure everything’s working the way it should. He overclocks the hardware, and then spends day after day testing it against a wide variety of benchmarking programs and games, making sure it’s performing at its peak without risking damage to the parts. And you know all those annoying things that pop up at you, messages in the OS and other annoying bits? They disable all of them. And I have a feeling they keep a stack of discs with bloat-ware on them at their desk just so they can wave one at each new machine, and then ritually smash that disc to pieces, that’s how much they hate the concept.

It’s like the difference between buying a random Toyota off the lot after looking around for 15 minutes and having Shelby himself build you a fucking Cobra.

And I haven’t even gotten to the support they offer. For the first year, they will pay for shipping to overnight your machine to them, all parts and labor, and to overnight it back to you, whatever the issue. For three years, they cover ground shipping and all parts and labor. And they provide free phone support, 7 days a week, for as long as you’re alive and they’re in business. And this isn’t India outsourced shit, it’s a real smart person who knows exactly what’s in your machine (they’re looking at the diagrams and pictures used when your machine was custom built), and isn’t reading off an internal FAQ. If you tell them you already fucking turned it off and turned it back on, they’re not going to fucking ask you to turn it off and turn it back on.

I should note now that the price of their machines is a bit high, more than you’re used to. Four years ago I spent approximately $4.5k on my computer…and here’s what I got:

  • A machine that was, at the time, bleeding edge fast, tuned (as described above) with exceptional precision, and made from the absolute best parts available.
  • About 18 months after I received it, I started to have problems with the machine shutting off suddenly. I called tech support, told them when I was available to be called back, and they did, right when I asked. And they led me through troubleshooting tasks to try to diagnose the problem over the phone. And as I said, I don’t mean “Please turn it off, wait 30 seconds, and turn it on again” bullshit, I mean, “Alright, I want you to pop out the memory DIMs and reconfigure them like this, and then when you boot it up, hold the phone up to the machine so I can hear exactly what happens,” and “Okay, look at the processor, and about 1 inch right and 2 inches down from there are two BUS’s; I want you to reconfigure them thusly, which will reset your motherboard, and then put them back thusly; now let’s see what happens.”
  • When they couldn’t fix it over the phone, they overnighted a shipping label to me, and I sent the machine back to them in its original box. They found the problem (corrupted memory), and when they went to replace the memory (free of charge), decided that I needed a new motherboard to better handle the new memory (free of charge)…and really, if I was upgrading the motherboard, my old (still pretty powerful) videocards would look all old and ugly, so they replaced them with two new nVidia cards running SLI (free of charge)…and I really ought to have a new power supply to handle all the new gear (free of charge)…and then updated the OS and drivers and tweaked it within an inch of its life (free of charge)…and then shipped it back to me (free of charge).
  • And on Friday, when my machine died what I thought was a horrible death, I called their support again. And they called me back on Saturday afternoon. And I wasn’t home, so they called again. On a Sunday. And walked me through enough troubleshooting steps to identify a bad video card. And got me back up and rolling again.
  • After which, I saw what I thought was an issue with my RAM (we’d fussed with it a bit when troubleshooting the earlier issue), so I called them back and left them a message that I needed more help.

Remember, this is four years after I bought the computer.

  • A support guy called me back at six-fucking-thirty on a Sunday evening and walked me through the issue and set me happily on my way.

And today, I have a computer that’s still worth close to what I paid for it.  How many of you still have the Dell/HP/Apple/etc. you bought back in 2006?  And can still use that piece of crap?

Swear to god, if every company and organization (especially governments) provided this level of service to the people who depended on them, people would be so happy we’d have world peace.

So…no, they haven’t paid me for this message. Except they have by being the absolute ideal of what a good company should be. If they were public, I’d buy stock. If I lived nearby and needed a job, I’d beg them to hire me. This is what happens when good people commit themselves to doing their best. And they have a customer for life, who will write obscenely-glowing blog posts about how awesome they are and tell all their friends about them.

And should they someday want to sponsor me, send me free shit in exchange for wearing their logo on my shirt and telling everyone I know about them, I’d do it in a heartbeat, with nary a taint on my soul.

And, so, I’m back, much sooner than expected. There will be less corporate evangelism (however deserved) next time, I promise. Chapter 10 is moving along slowly and steadily…just hang in there a little longer.

Shoot me

The home computer has died.  Can’t even get past the BIOS, and while I’m well above average when dealing with software, diagnosing hardware issues are just beyond me.

May not be posting here for a while, as a result.  I’m borrowing my wife’s ancient hand-me-down laptop for critical stuff, but it’s hardly something to plop myself down in front of for long stretches.

If anything amazing happens, I’ll drop by with a note.  Otherwise, the next time you hear from me here (hopefully no more than a couple of months to save my pennies for a new box), it’ll be to celebrate a new computer and to bitch and moan about finally having to learn to deal with Windows 7.

In Memoriam 2001-2010

This goes on for a bit, and is unusually personal…there’s a brief bit of new fiction at the end, if you want to skip ahead to it.

I suppose I should eulogize this.

I have not spoken, except in the most generic passing, about the place I worked or the job I did there.  There were two reasons:  1) I generally spent my days working in one way or another on sensitive material–no state secrets, but projects expected to bring in millions in revenue, and I take my NDA seriously; 2) this site is supposed to be about who I am…the pieces of me I’m finding again…and not the slowly-shrinking part of me that was passionately invested in the day job.

However, it’s worth writing about today, at least once.  The more astute of you will have noticed the past tense used in the previous paragraph.

Last Tuesday, I was laid off from my job.  There were a number of reasons–I’ll probably touch on more than one of them as I go along–but it’s a good idea, I think, to stop and revisit all in one place what the last 8+ years have been…closure’s not just a river in Africa.

And yeah, it’s been over 8 years at one place.  I started at Activision in December of 2001, and for the first two years worked in QA as a Junior Tester, meaning I wasn’t technically employed by Activision, I worked for a temp company that provided Activision with 90% of their testers; the other 10% were full-time employees, which was very much the promised land for those of us working project to project, hoping as the end of each grew near that we wouldn’t be placed On Call, meaning our temp assignment was over and we were sent home (this is one major reason why they use temps:  when you plan to fire 90% of your workforce at least twice a year, you’ve gotta figure out a way to prevent that from being actual turnover numbers, even if it’s just a technical loophole of semantics).

I made it to the promised land, and a few months after that began working in Production (technically the Production Management Group, or PMG) as a Production Tester on loan from QA (meaning that, at the end of the game, I would be called back to QA to resume life as a tester).  A few months after that, PMG hired me in as an official Production Tester on loan from nobody (meaning that, at the end of the game, I would go on to work on another game in PMG).  And a few months after that, promoted to Production Coordinator.  And then later to Associate Producer, which is the title I held when I was laid off.

In 8+ years, I shipped eight AAA titles (meaning front-line titles by a major publisher, the equivalent of a summer blockbuster movie, nothing indie or low budget about it), and two major expansion packs.

For 4-6 months during each of those years, I worked absurd hours, 10-12 a day, seven days a week, not to mention replying to emails and doing other work from home well into the night.  I got paid a pittance compared to other people who work similar hours (doctors, lawyers, mainstream hollywood productions, etc.).  And I was one of dozens of people in PMG who did this regularly, with no complaints (or at least minimal serious ones).

When I first joined Activision, they were excited to be considered a top 5 publisher by revenue, thrilled to increase annual sales by a few dozen million dollars, staring up at luminaries like Atari and Midway.  As I leave, Activision Blizzard is the number 1 third-party publisher–it’s not even close, really, the only real competition is from the first parties:  Nintendo, Sony and Microsoft–with billions a year in revenue.

In my time there, I pulled off miracles, alongside many other miracle workers.  Spider-Man 3 shipped on-time despite extremely late narrative/asset delivery from the movie folks and technical hurdles that had us well behind where we’d hoped to be.  I managed to help get good reviews for a game about Jerry Seinfeld as an animated bee; sales didn’t quite match, turns out kids don’t really like Jerry Seinfeld…who knew?  I worked on launch titles for all three active consoles today.  I led only the second SKU for the Wii with full online multiplayer to pass NOA certification on the first submission, and the first ever at Activision…I know that sounds a bit cryptic, but believe me, if you knew what it meant, it’d impress the hell out of you.

I did none of those things by myself, and for the most part can only really take pride and credit for facilitating the efforts of other brilliant people…but I’ve never bought into the notion that, if things go well, it was all thanks to Them, but if things go wrong, it was all your fault.  And so I take as much credit for those things that I did that I feel comfortable taking.

And speaking of taking…  In my 8+ years at Activision I saw them take more and more from those of us who gave so much to make the company grow into what it is now.  The sharing of the wealth went from equitable to farcical, the extra benefits that show a company appreciates you (whether that’s travel budgets allowing for comfortable travelling, or tickets to use the company-owned box seats, or movie days for the whole company, that sort of thing) dwindled to nearly nothing, and the attitude seemed to be that whatever discrepancy between what we were being compensated and what we felt we should be compensated, given what we were doing and the results of our work, was covered by the subtle intangible “at least you have a job in this economy” benefit that I don’t remember being listed in my employee handbook.

I don’t want to dwell on this much longer, but suffice to say, it gets old pretty fast to hear about some new bit deprivation–layoffs or whatever–just a day or two after seeing the press release roll out about another quarter of record revenue, margins and executive bonuses.  Doesn’t really sit well at all.

And so, now we come to where I thought I was going to be writing about why I left, about the business side of things and all the rest…but I’m just not going to.  I wanted to record what the last 8+ years of my life have centered around–outside of family–because that center’s gone now, and I’m finding a very strong need to find something to fill it, even if it’s just propping the memories of what’s gone on life support well past the vegetable state.  But the more I dwell on it, the longer I keep that part of me technically alive, and it needs to finish dying, so I can bury it, and mourn it, and then consider what life is going to be like without it.


Hopefully it will include more of this kind of stuff.  Here’s another brief excerpt from “The Last Star”.  Writing it is slow going, and in a completely different method than I’m used to–probably a post soon about that very thing–but I think it’ll be good.


Sean looked up just in time to see the second fast attack ship pass overhead, dropping its arsenal on the far side of the dome. The explosion was enormous, visible over the apex of the dome, but far enough away this time that they were able to keep their feet through the shockwave. Theresa scrambled to his side, pressing her helmet against his.

“What the fuck are they doing?”

“I don’t know.”

“This wasn’t supposed to start for another two hours!”

“Something’s gone wrong.”

Sean backed his head up a few inches to break contact, then keyed his radio over to the band universally reserved for emergency Cadre use. It wouldn’t be secure, not with the equipment in his suit, but if any of his bosses were in LOS orbit, it’d be the only band he could be sure they’d be monitoring.

“This is Key leader. Repeat, this is Key leader.”

There was a moment’s pause, then a response.

“Key leader, this is Breach. Please confirm.”

“Breach this is Key leader. Confirmation is A65043Z. What the fuck are you people doing?”

“Key leader, this is Breach, identity confirmed. You gotta get yourself out of there Travis.”

“We’re supposed to have two more hours goddammit. There are still hostages inside. Repeat: the hostages are still inside.”

“We know. The bastards responded to our first transmission by executing two of them on camera. Negotiations are over. If the two of you have an out, I suggest you use it, immediately.”

“Negative. We are almost inside. We can do this, goddammit. Give us one more hour.”

“The decision’s been made, Travis. We’re just taking out the air defenses to clear the way for the bombers. You have ten minutes to get clear, if you can.

“Please acknowledge.”

“Acknowledged. Ten minutes. Can you keep them off the south side of the dome? That’s where we have the shuttle waiting.”

“I’ll do what I can, but no promises. Move your ass. Out.”

Non-linearity in a cascading tag cloud – 10-20-09

Putting this up raw, without a second thought, more in the nature of online archiving than for presenting as a polished bit of thinking.  I was mostly concerned with trying to untangle the threads that were winding about.

It feels like there’s gold somewhere in here…much slag to clear away first.

So, first write the whole story, many threads, typical KSR, but broken out into their separate threads.  Duplication where overlap, rather than shorthand.  Then, tag the hell out of it, both hidden and visible.  Define several meta-tags that will be prime orgainzers, and several hidden tags that will relate importance to a coherent narrative.  Player, at the start, chooses one of the meta-tags, and the game then performs a random sorting, taking into account the hidden tags to maintain overall narrative coherence, and giving the player a unique balance of the meta-tags that will create a specific narrative.  This isn’t branching narrative, nor parallel branching narratives:  it’s narrative defined by a central set, and many other partially overlapping sets, with each moment of interaction defined by the tags that connect them, however closely or loosely.

The difficult equations come where sets/tags intersect, depending on what other values/sets/tags are in this particular instance of the overall narrative.

Possible that each decision moment reshuffles the weighting of various tags, which would also require a redefinition of those intersection moments based not just on current states but past shuffles.

And branches—because those are unavoidable—are determined not so much by specific user choice as by the collocated value of the intersection where the choice is made:  that’s what determines the weighted values of the reshuffling.

Here’s the example:

3 very basic meta-tags for our prime story, election of a new mayor:  Government, Press, Business.

Each meta-tag has anywhere from a few to a few dozen possible story threads within them.  Government allows you to pursue a role as a candidate (for which party, or a fringe 3rd party, or independent), or an advisor, or lobbyist, or independent PAC leader, or other governmental employee (Police, Fire Department, etc.), etc.  Journalism allows you to pursue a role as a reporter (beat or investigative…and at which paper/tv station/website), columnist, editor, business/advertising/marketing scum, etc.  Business allows you to pursue a role as a real estate developer, organized labor leader, governmental sub-contractor, etc.

Each of these story threads is conceived and written as part of the larger, overall story of the election…and realistically, there are only a few possible outcomes to the election, and for each of the roles depending upon (or independent of) the election’s outcome.  The non-linearity being pursued here is not the exact final destination, it’s the path taken to get there, and the unexpectedness of that outcome depending on what’s come before.

So, you’ve got these meta-tags, like so:

non-linear meta 1

And then each meta-tag has a whole bunch of sub-threads, like so:

non-linear meta 2

And of course there’s a wide variety of possible ways each sub-thread could go:  an advisor to a candidate could be angling to help win the election, so they get an appointment in the government, or to get a job with a business that supports the election, or to tank the election in hopes of a position with the winning side afterwards…a labor leader could decide to run as a 3rd candidate, a blogger could angle for a position in one of the campaigns…these possibilities would have to be somewhat limited, just for feasibility, but that’s more a function of the initial concept for the overall narrative (i.e. choose something somewhat simple) than the inherent nature of the choices.  You want the player to not feel restrained by the choices available to them—if they can think it, they can do it—you just want to make sure that the amount of possible choices and thoughts are reasonable based on what initial states are given to them.  For example, the deputy chief of police could angle to support one candidate to get a promotion, or another because he’s sincerely in favor of his policies, but can’t decide to quit his job and join a bluegrass band…because the game’s about an election, not a damn Altman film.

So here’s where the non-linearity happens:  within each sub-thread, each and every moment where a choice is made that is more affecting their course than “turn left” or “turn right” (though in the proper circumstances, those could be profound choices), is tagged with a variety of values:  not numeric, at least not at this point, but contextual.  So, you can figure that 99% of the possible moments within the game will be tagged with “Money”, or “Power”, but only some of them will also be tagged with “Zero-sum outcome”, and even less with “Positive-sum outcome”…while all possible moments will either be tagged with “quid-pro-quo” or “selfless” or “advantageous”, but only one of those three.

Each moment will have multiple tags, as many as makes sense.  And it is the resulting tag cloud that will impact the progression of the player through the narrative.

The player will choose initially one of the three meta’s, and a random shuffling of all tags will occur, with weighting being given to those most prominent within the meta they chose.  This shuffling determines what possible moments in each sub-thread are available to them (the hidden “coherence” tags determining how likely one is to be kept or not”), with the outcome being weighted but inherently random.

Each moment they make a choice, the tags that apply to the chosen option will be given higher weighting, and those that apply to the non-chosen option will be given lower weighting…a lot of this will cancel out, as both possible choices might have the tag “Money”, so while it will both be higher and lower weighting, regardless of what is chosen, those will cancel each other out…but other tags will not…for example, “Money” might cancel out, but “Profit” might only be tagged to one of the two choices…and “Long-term Profit” vs. “Short-term Profit” would be a black-white type choice…or both options could be tagged with “Short-term Profit”, but only one with “Long-term Profit”…the key is to make sure that all possible tags are meaningful, and properly applied.

Then, at key moments where larger decisions are being made—the first primary election, or the first debate, or what have you—the accumulated value of all weighted tags is used as a modifier to reshuffle the basic tag cloud.  So it’s possible that you could play through the game twice, making exactly the same decisions each time, and get different meta results each time, or you could play through twice making entirely different decisions each time, and end up with the same basic meta results each time.

Mutterings – 9/29/09

A few disjointed thoughts as I wait for the engines to wind fully back up to production volume…

We have really long, straight hallways at work.  You can see people coming from quite a ways off.  And I never have any idea what to do when I see someone, down at the other end, that I would say hi to when passing them in the hall.  Because I’m not passing them yet…we’re like 50 yards away from each other, passing is still 10-20 seconds off.  Not enough time for a conversation, even if we wanted to start one off by yelling.

So what am I supposed to do?  Do I say “hey” when they’re still down at the other end, and then have a nice uncomfortable silence as we continue walking towards each other, eventually passing and being clear of it?  Or do I wait until they’re close, like pretending I haven’t seen them, even though I clearly have, just so I can say hi in a normal volume of voice in the second or two before we pass and not have to worry about maintaining a completely aimless connection with them for as long as it takes to walk the length of the hallway?

This kind of thing has, at times, prevented me from actually getting up from my desk.  Though I’m comforted by knowing that most of the time the other guy looks just as conflicted as I feel.

I had a much longer piece I was working on to go up here, and it took one too many turns, and now is so far off center that a few simple tweaks isn’t going to get it back on the beam.  It needs to be broken down for parts and rebuilt.  So, instead, a summary:

I am sick and tired of your post-playa/retreat/epiphany/ecstatic/drug glow and commitment to change your life.  And yes, I’m talking about you, specifically you, so get over it; I wouldn’t be writing about this if I hadn’t gone through the same thing myself plenty of times, we’re all a bunch of dumbfucks.

Before enlightenment, chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment, chop wood, carry water.

Which means, briefly, that if you think that a weekend or a week in a carefully insulated environment designed to provoke the maximum possible ecstatic experience is going to change your life forever, you’re dreaming, and need to sober up.  You could see the face of the Buddha himself on Sunday morning at sunrise, and come Monday morning, you will still–guaranteed–fail to completely wipe your ass and leave a little brown streak on your drawers.  You will still need to go to work, and fill your car with gas, and eat dinner to avoid a low-blood-sugar headache.  You will still need to continue living…chopping wood and carrying water.

Unless and until you can bring your pursuit of enlightenment down from the playa/desert/mountain/wherever, and into the mundane details of your daily life, then those details will never change, and over time–might be a few weeks, or days, or even hours–their accumulation will bury any enlightenment you might have thought you had while chilling on your sleeping bag near the campfire while some long-haired goatee’ed hemp-wearing soft-spoken environmentally-conscious sub-100-IQ’ed small-dicked high-on-E’ed (but only half a dose) faw-food-eating barely-passable excuse for a human-sized version of a generic-brand tampon strummed lightly on a guitar and sang an off-key version of a confused protest song written by a fucking Canadian prog-rock band and covered by a third-tier 80’s hair band which this doofus thinks wrote the song in the first place since that’s the only version he’s ever heard.

*deep breath*

To paraphrase thousands of years of Taoist thought, enlightenment’s not where you think enlightenment is, it’s where enlightenment’s not.