Sunday, October 30, 2005

Beep... beep... beep...

More random thoughts on Civ IV, now that I've played a full game. First, more negatives:
  1. This game is the worst since Civ I at representing the strength of modern armies. Far too often my barely-injured Panzers would attack unfortified pikemen with a single Combat promotion standing in the desert, and the pikemen would win. Not a majority of the time, but way too often. This is frustrating, because they FIXED this problem in Civ 2, and like the Civilopedia mess they're taking a step back now.
  2. I've said this before, but I'll reiterate: it takes a LOT of raw power to run this game at its full potential. My new card was running everything fine (except Wonder movies) until I started my wars, then the combat animations occasionally slowed down. Not a huge problem, just want to throw it out there.
  3. Something that has always been a problem in Civ but is especially annoying now: the enemy loves pillaging. Let me ask you, have you EVER pillaged an enemy's tiles while invading? Personally, I never have. Any time I'm invading it's because I'm planning on taking a city, and I want to have that city operating at its peak; I don't want to spend the next thirty turns having a worker rebuild everything I just destroyed. Yet the AI ALWAYS pillages EVERYTHING when they invade. I'm still willing to entertain the possibility that they're better tacticians than I am, but this smells like another case of the AI being programmed to oppose you rather than advance themselves.
  4. The endgame bogs down a little, though that's mainly my fault - I was grossly unprepared for the difficulty of my military campaign and so I got into an annoying habit of frequently saving and reloading. ("Hmm... can my bombers successfully attack those crossbowmen? Dang. Well, can my panzers defeat the musketeers? Arg. Maybe my mechanized infantry will be able to beat ordinary infantry? Bad word!") I expect next time I'll actually be somewhat prepared and hopefully will stick to my rule of not reloading when something goes horribly, horribly wrong.
  5. There are a few little rule changes I disagree with, like eliminating unlimited movement along railroads (it's now a 1/10 cost instead). For the most part, though, these are just things to adapt to, especially the way you can't carry production over from one things you're building to another.
More things I like:
  1. All the new features really work - they make the gameplay more interesting without overly complicating it. Great People are nice to get and can fit well into existing strategies or do one-shot cool things. Religion can be seen as another way to compete without waging war, or as a way to advance your cultural cohesion.
  2. Culture, a good idea that has been around since Civ III, is really perfected here. Combined with the new diplomatic states like Open Borders it creates a realistic and useful way to exert control without building tons of cities. I LOVE how you can access a resource without creating a colony or building a city right next to it.
  3. Notwithstanding my complaints above about the relative weakness of modern units, the combat system as a whole is more enjoyable. The promotion system makes you get attached to your units as well as offering still more strategic options. (Should I give all my Panzers Barrage so they can blitz through these cities? Or create a mix of promotions so they are more well-rounded?)
  4. Lots of really nice little touches. I like the way music evolves the further you get in the game, and how it gets louder when you're looking at a city and quieter when you move into the country. I like how, when you build an aqueduct, you see the water running along a line from the nearest mountain into your city. It's neat that each civ's units speaks in their own language.
  5. Multiplayer. I have yet to try this, but I think it'll do wonders for the longevity of this title.
I guess that's it for now. I think I'll start up my second game later tonight. I enjoyed being Frederick, so I'll probably stick with him, though I might change the name this time around. I think the next game will be on a larger world, and might or might not be of "Epic" length. We'll see how I'm feeling. I'll probably pass down a final thumbs-up/thumbs-down decision on Wednesday.

King of the world!

Just beat my first game of Civ IV! Hooray!

I had to adapt my gameplan slightly once all hell broke loose along my southern border. Once you begin a war, it's virtually impossible to achieve lasting peace with that person; I successfully fought Alexander to the point where he sued for peace, but a few turns later he attacked me again. I reluctantly concluded that the only option was to wipe him out. This was complicated by another conflict with the Incas far east and, towards the end, a surprising war with Catherine of Russia.

The Greek war was tedious but not too difficult; he was far behind me technically which made it easier. (Because I'd happily been trading science with Inca and Russia until shortly before our wars, they had units more on par with my own.) After taking Sparta I seized Athens, which split his empire in two. I brought up my panzers and infantry and focused on one city at a time, which each fell in a turn or two. Then they swung east, took the last of his cities and kept marching towards Inca. Capac must have sensed them coming because he offered me tribute to stop, even though I hadn't taken any cities from him yet. The Incan war was strange; he had Infantry in his own cities and I couldn't afford to bring enough force to bear against him, so I just harassed him with airpower and kept some defensive units on top of his critical resources.

Catherine was the most dangerous opponent yet; she had trained SAM infantry and was starting to deploy gunships into the field. Once that war began I rebased my air force onto my one city in her mini-continent, and airlifted some veteran mehanized infantry in. I weathered a long wave of mixed units she threw against me, everything from SAM infantry and cannons to knights. Once the ground around Frankfurt was clear, my heavily-promoted mechanized infantry rolled north. Backed by massive airpower, they pounded on St. Petersburg for several turns before finally taking the city.

In parallel with all this, I had begun building the United Nations around the time I started seriously crushing Greece. With the help of Nikolaus August Otto, a Great Engineer, I was able to finish it in a handful of turns. My first priority was banning nuclear weapons - I was pretty sure nobody else had the capability to build them, but didn't want to be surprised. It passed unanimously. With that out of the way, I started maneuvering for a diplomatic victory.

There are a variety of ways to win the game. Besides your standard conquest and space race, you can also win by domination (control the majority of the world's population and landmass), culture (three cities with "legendary" status, which must be difficult - even Berlin, a cultural juggernaut, never reached this level), or diplomacy. To win this last victory, you must get 2/3 of the votes for supreme ruler. I knew I had a majority - I was one of only two possible choices, along with Catherine, and I had Washington, Mansa Musa and Ashoka on my side - but I wasn't sure about the actual numbers. Everyone gets a number of votes proportional to their population, and I knew Catherine and Huyana Capac were fairly large. Sure enough, I fell about 50 votes short (out of around 550 votes total).

Business at the UN continues, and while I was swallowing up Alexander's cities in hopes of pushing my population high enough, I continued passing resolutions boosting free trade and a global currency. (As a fairly large nation, I stood to benefit more from these agreements than other civilizations.) Finally, once Alexander's last city fell, I called another vote. You don't immediately learn the results, so I spend an anxious turn fighting in the desert south of St. Petersburg while awaiting the results.

Finally they came in - just ONE VOTE short! I was angry, but optimistic - after pounding on Petersburg it was close to falling, and that seemed enough to push me over the top. I called for a repeat of the resolution and continued to press in.

And so it was that, in the year 1962, Frederick was finally elected the supreme ruler of the world. And there was much rejoicing!

So that was fun. The very end of the game is... well, I don't want to give it away, but it's very evocative of Civilization I. Which is a good thing.

One more post about my thoughts on my game quality, then I'm taking a break for the rest of the afternoon before diving in on my Prince game. :-)

Saturday, October 29, 2005

Reviews Galore

Gamespot: 9.4 (out of 10). "If you have even a passing interest in strategy games, world history, or getting less sleep at night, you owe it to yourself to give Civilization IV a try."
IGN: 9.4 (out of 10). "The only reason to stop playing Civilization IV is to tell other people just how good the game is." (That's been my experience, too! - ed.)
Gamespy: 5 stars (out of 5). "Civ IV gives the classic turn-based strategy franchise a much-needed overhaul, with streamlined gameplay and a great multiplayer mode."
1Up: 9.0 (out of 10). "Civilization IV's thoughtful turn-based take on conquering the world will have you under its spell late into many a fall night oblivious to the changing seasons outside."
Yahoo! Games: 4.5 stars (out of 5). "The latest in the series is its greatest yet."
Metacritic: Critics: 94 (out of 100), "Universal Acclaim". Users: 9.7 (out of 10). Several quotes, my personal favorite is: "If you're an AOE fan but never thought you had the brain for CIV, then this is for you." I think they meant that in a more complimentary sense than it came out.

My very next post will have lots of info on my current game. I'm holding off until my official review, but I'm inclined to agree with this range of scores, with the important caveat that your experience will be less if your computer cannot run the game.

Lords of War

Boy, do I feel foolish! After all that angst and worry, it turns out that the problem was amazingly simple: I neglected to plug my video card in to the power supply. Now, in my defense, my installation guide specifically said that this model did not have a power connector, and so I never looked for it. I guess this provides another opportunity for everyone to mock me for always reading the manual. Anyways: I attached it, got through POST, reinstalled my drivers, and everything works great.

I tweaked with the settings a little bit to get them where I wanted. It looks like I can run the game perfectly at maximum settings, provided that I have a lower video resolution set. At my preferred resolution of 1280 x 1024, the stutters return to the videos. I still get hiccups during the World Wonder screens, but the rest of the game is gorgeous.

And it does make a difference. It fixes that bug with the Yield Display I'd complained about before. And it's cool to see the world come alive. I discovered the Scientific Method, and then watched in glee as oil began spurting from the desert soil. I skirmished with the Greeks and watched as our forces shot and swung at one another, falling as their numbers decreased. Good stuff. I still think that, given some more programming discipline, they could have achieved the same results with lower requirements; but I've never programmed a game at that scale, and could easily be wrong.

The game is going well. I'm leaping ahead in science, building a dominating lead in the industrial technologies. One of the most revolutionary changes in Civ IV is that, rather than each technology requiring one or two pre-requisites, you generally need to discover only one of several possible options to access it. For example, to research Writing, you need Priesthood OR Pottery OR Animal Husbandry. (Later techs tend to have more traditional prerequisits. For Artillery, you need Physics AND Steel AND Rifling.) This means it's possible to specialize and jump way ahead in the tech tree if you want, though this will require much longer waits between advances and possible problems if you're neglecting an area severely. Even though I'm on the verge of building Bombers I haven't bothered to discover Gunpowder yet, so I'm glad my war with Alexander is under control.

I think that particular conflict benefits from me playing at Warlord; I get the feeling he would have invaded by now otherwise. We were actually friends early on, but I was maneuvered into an opposing bloc and he cut me off. Relations deteriorated and there was some light fighting, but for the last few centuries things have been stable; he doesn't even demand technologies from me any more, he just masses his armies at the border and stares menacingly.

Resources, while introduced in Civ 3, are absolutely brilliant here. It's a great new incentive for tactics. I've discovered that I have access to a single Oil and a single Uranium supply, which are not necessary now but will be crucial in the endgame. Both, unfortunately, are on the very edge of my Greek border. This has forced me to make sure my nearby cities continue to exert strong culture, so that those borders don't slip over to the Greek side; it also means I've thought ahead to the possibility of one day needing to defend those resources. Not that I'll necessarily need them so much as I can't afford to allow Alexander to start building nuclear missiles. Like I said, it opens up some great strategic elements to gameplay. Oh, and unlike in Civ 3, resources don't need to actually be in your city radius or a colony; they just need to be in your territory and connected by a road.

This is just my first game, but so far I'm not impressed by the map. I've finally started sailing around (didn't found my first port city until around 1000 AD), and it looks like there are two landmasses on the whole planet: six civs on one continent (joined by a penninsula) and one civ on a large island. I vastly prefer the classic civ maps where there's a variety of lands, including some islands that support one or two cities. I took all the default map options for this game, my next one will probably be on a larger map and I'll see what difference that makes.

It's been fun to evaluate and change things as the game continues. For a long time I practiced Organized Religion, which makes it easier to build missionaries and helps you construct buildings more quickly (think of cathedrals in the Middle Ages). Now that we're moving towards the modern age, I'm thinking of switching over to Pacifism (think Tibettan Buddhism), which loses those abilities but is a lot cheaper and provides a "great people" bonus.

While I'm still loving my current game, I'm building a huge list of things I'm going to do differently the next time around, and will need to see if I can stick through this one to the end. High on the list is rethinking my city strategy; I put way too much improvement into my capital, which provided some great benefits (all my bonuses stack so it produces more of everything than the rest of my cities), but almost all of my Great People are born in Berlin and they're almost all Religious. Don't get me wrong, Moses was awesome, but I'm running out of good uses for them. In the next game I'll try and be more specialized - religion (just one this time!) in one city, science in another, etc. - so I can count on greater GP variety.

I also want to see YOU! If you pick up this game and wants to try some multiplayer action, either quick or epic, grab me. This isn't an official endorsement yet - I want to give myself a week first, so I can list all the caveats and stuff - but if you already have it, I'd love to play.

Friday, October 28, 2005

You know, it ain't about punk. And it ain't about "the scene."

Irony!

I've been helping Andrew make decisions as he gets ready to build his own computer. (I'm not doing that great a job at it - flubbed a CPU/Motherboard combo.) Since it's been two years since the last time I was really looking at hardware, I learned a lot while doing some groundwork for him. PCI Express? I had no idea it existed.

I also caught the upgrade bug, between Andrew building a PC and Pat shopping around for a TV. So it really didn't take all that much prompting for me to head out myself. I've more or less convinced myself that the video card is the one thing holding back my Civ IV experience. As previously blogged, Civ IV is very playable on my current setup, but there are some annoying audio skips and I'm not getting any of the nice video effects (animated units, combat scenes, dynamic terrain, etc.). So, I figured, what the heck. I haven't splurged on anything since I moved out here two months ago, so I'd go ahead and get a card.

This actually is a difficult psychological step for me. More than any other computer upgrade, graphics cards make me angry. The only reason to get a good graphics card is for gaming; even complicated movies and most rendering runs fine on a basic card. And any time you look at cards you realize why consoles are dominating the industry. A top-of-the line graphics card will cost you SIX HUNDRED dollars. This is a pure status symbol; nobody needs that much power, even for Doom III or HalfLife 2. And even at the lower level the price makes me pause. The card I settled on cost about $150; for the exact same cost, I could buy an XBox or a PS2 or 1.5 Gamecubes. Yeah, this card will generate better graphics than any of those, but getting a console takes you completely out of the regular upgrade cycle and into a much more reasonable 5 year stability period.

I only buy graphics cards when I need them to play specific games. I don't know whether this makes me a smart consumer, for delaying my time between upgrades, or a dumb consumer, for spending money on something when I will end up playing very few games on it. For a while I'd considered swearing off PC games altogether and switching to console-only, which would drastically reduce my system requirements, but things like Civ IV remind me why I game.
Anyways. The first card I ever bought was a Voodoo 3. This was back in the early 2000's when Ultima: Ascension finally came out. I've been a huge Ultima fan for a while (despite [or perhaps because of] never playing VIII), and I was stunned by everything I saw. When the game was released, I spent some time hitting up the message boards, and found that everyone with a Voodoo card got great graphics, while those with ATI or a small new company called NVidia were slow or crashing. So that's why I bought a Voodoo. The game ran great for me; for the first time Britannia felt like a real living world, and the wonderful immersion provided by the graphics went a long way towards assuaging my despair at the poor quality of the game itself. I was also pleased to see HalfLife looking better than ever before.

I built my new Linux-only PC in the summer of 2002. Everything I had read told me that Nvidia was the only company with even adequate 3D drivers on Linux; by now Voodoo was defunct and ATI just didn't seem to care about Linux. So I got a Geforce 4 MX, which at the time was a mid-range card. I play very few 3D games so I didn't feel like I needed a Ti, but I did want to at least run 3D games and have some acceleration for RTSs and other Linux games. This card served me very admirably through my stable of Linux games: Call to Power, Soldier of Fortune, Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Myth II, and countless free downloaded games (which, granted, tended to not put much strain on 3D). Ever since the summer of 2001 I was increasingly doing my gaming on my PS2, and as time went on and requirements climbed, I deliberately tended more towards the PS2 rather than risk getting a game that didn't run well.

I finally installed Windows on this PC a few months ago, due to some Windows-only software I needed for work. Since I had it, I finally started messing around with some Windows-only games that I'd been meaning to play for a while, like Medieval: Total War and Deus Ex. Everything ran great, but these were REALLY old games by now. I still enjoyed them because of the gameplay, but was hardly wowed. I also bought Morrowind after seeing the XBox version at a friend's house. I've covered the game itself elsewhere on this blog, but once again I was kind of surprised by how crummy the graphics looked. Not because of any lack of power in my card, just because the game was that old (about four years!) and had not kept up with the advances seen in my PS2.

So I was a little surprised when I finally encountered a game that pressed the limits of my three-year-old card. It was Sid Meier's Pirates!, an extremely thoughtful Christmas gift. I still need to blog about this game, it is absolutely wonderful and fills me with nostalgia, but for the purposes of this pots, for once I wasn't able to set all the graphics sliders to maximum and had to endure the occasionally jerky animation (although at least the sound worked in that game!).

Still, it was extremely playable once I got the settings right, and I never seriously considered upgrading. Now, since Civ IV is so very important to me, it was time to bite the bullet and do it.

Video cards are probably the single most complicated component to evaluate. Most components have at most three primary variables to consider: with RAM there's the form factor, speed and capacity; with hard drives there's the seek time, capacity and transfer rate; with CPUs there's the bus speed, slot size and clock speed. With video cards, though, there's an incredible variety of factors to consider. There's the actual chip; there's the onboard memory; there's the speed; there's the output connectors; there's the slot type. Add to that the incredible variety in software support and things quickly get hairy. There are people with four-year-old Geforce 3 cards that run Doom III with flying colors but can't even start Civ IV; these cards have plenty of raw power but lack the latest pixel shaders used in Direct X 9.

I considered the following questions when selecting a card.
  1. Do I need to upgrade at all? The reason I'm doing this is for Civ IV, and I probably won't buy many other PC games in the future. I decided that, while I didn't NEED it, I wanted it enough to justify a fairly thrifty upgrade.
  2. What chipmaker to use? The serious choices are ATI and Nvidia; Ati sells complete cards while Nvidia just makes chips and lets other manufacturers build the cards. I opted for Nvidia, because I'd like to retain the ability to play games in Linux.
  3. What slot size? Here's where it gets tricky. I have an AGP slot, but AGP is a dead-end technology, and newer motherboards don't offer it. Did I really want to spend $100+ on a card that wouldn't work in my next board? The alternative would be PCI Express, the future of graphics cards; these cards are actually cheaper than their AGP counterparts, but would require a new motherboard now. But if I got a new motherboard, I would want to get one that also supports 64-bit processors. But those boards aren't backwards-compatible with my Athlon, so I'd need a new CPU too. I did some mental math and decided it made sense to stick with AGP; the rest of my PC is running fine (I upgraded my CPU about 18 months ago), and I can afford to defer this painful upcoming upgrade cycle.
  4. What chip? Here I hit the boards and dug around a bit. While older cards are cheap and provide plenty of raw power, I wanted to get a newer one that supported pixel shaders and other snazzy technologies. Again, since I'm getting this card specifically for Civ IV, I want something that will look good on it. At the same time, I absolutely refused to pay for a cutting-edge card. The 6600 seemed like a reasonable choice. It's well-reviewed, has the latest Direct X 9.0 support, comes with plenty of power, and is overclockable. It's also quite a bit cheaper than higher-end AGP cards, so it hit the sweet spot of price and performance.
  5. What manufacturer? My last Nvidia was from PNY, and I haven't had any trouble with it, so I decided to buy from them.
  6. Where to get it from? As always the cheapest prices were online. However, if I bought in a store I could use it this weekend. I found a Comp USA deal that, with rebates, gets me close to the online price, plus a free 256MB flash drive. Done and done.
This is the first time I've bought components from a big-box brick-and-mortar store since 2001, and I'm not eager to repeat the experience. It took me ten minutes for someone to open the case where they keep the good cards, and there was just one cashier handling everyone, and one person was returning an item that probably cost $5 and it took them nearly ten minutes to process the return; and finally, almost 45 minutes after I'd entered the store, I was setting off the alarm on my way out. I'm sorry, Newegg. It won't happen again.

So I got home around 9PM last night, when a horrible thought hit me. Did my motherboard support AGP 8x? It took some searching online and I found contradictory answers (the manual said no, just 4x; the boards said yes, 8x), but finally, I found a post on Nvidia's site saying it would run in 4x mode if it detected the Mobo was limited to that. So I smiled, tore open the cellophane and took out my card.

Installation took approximately 30 seconds. It still isn't working. I can get to POST, and by typing blind get into Windows, but the monitor never gets a signal. This is, of course, very frustrating. I've upgraded all my drivers and flashed everything I can except for my mobo, which requires a 3.5" floppy disk. Who still has those? (That's a serious question. If you do, and you're in California, can I borrow one?)

The only credible explanation I've heard is that my power supply is insufficient to run the card. That seems unlikely to me, as the card requires a 300W supply and that's what I have. The more I think about it, though, that might be the issue. While I don't have a TON of extra stuff, I do run a full case with five drives and an Audigy. I tried unplugging some of that stuff to see if it would help. It didn't, but I still think I'm going to get one. The power supply was the next thing on my upgrade list before Civ IV came around anyways; my current one was a cheap $30 stopgap employed when my previous unit died. It (my current PSU) annoys the heck out of me, it is incredibly noisy, and it wouldn't surprise me at all if it's putting out less than the advertised amount of power.

So, my current plan is to swing by Fry's after the birthday party at work today. I've checked out some PSUs and there are a few promising ones. I had originally considered getting a Phantom 350, an ultra-sweet totally silent power supply, but my prior splurge for a video card gave me the backbone to reject this as unnecessary. Plus no store around here has it. I'm leaning towards a few 430W supplies that are well-rated on Newegg and available for pretty cheap. I'll see what Fry's has in stock, pick it up, then mutter fervent prayers under my breath as I install it and power back on. IF all goes well, my life will fill with joy and I will see pictures on my computer screen. If there are problems, I will cry, then watch my recorded Colbert Report programs, then decide whether to buy a new motherboard or call PNY's technical support. I know companies occasionally ship defective products. It's entirely possible I got one of them.

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The blog is expanding to meet the expanding needs of the blog

Little self-congratulatory note: this is my 50th post in Timmy's House of Sprinkles! Yeah, I know, the last 10 or so shouldn't count, but Blogger considers them real posts anyways. To celebrate, I will eat leftover pizza and play Civ 4.

Your head would look good at the end of a pole

I'll continue this later tonight. Right now, though, I don't want to leave you all with the impression that the game is perfect. My natural process for something new is to describe the good, then describe the bad, and then synthesize the two. I was interrupted halfway through the first part. Here, really quickly, are my gripes so far.
  • Most aggravating: the in-game help is horrible. The civilopedia itself is fine, but its integration with the rest of the game is pathetic. This is a major step backwards from Civ 2, which came out TEN YEARS AGO, and allowed you to pull up the full description from practically any game window. (e.g., when researching technology, just one click to find out exactly what a tech does). They've replaced this with an aggravating limited float-over system; hover your mouse over "Metallurgy," and it will tell you that it allows you to build a forge, but you can't find out what a forge does; it leads to Ironworking, but you don't know what benefits that tech gives; it allows you to build Phalanxes, but you can't figure out how much they cost or what strengths and abilities they have. This will become less annoying as I become more used to the game, but right now I need to choose between guessing at the right answer or flipping through my book to find out. Or you can make a choice and later change it (you can switch technology goals) after you've consulted the real Civilopedia, but it's just one more step to take.
  • I don't know whether I can blame this one on my graphics card, but the Yield View is messed up. It shows every single plot in the entire world providing 2 food and no trade or resources. This is, of course, patently false, and you need to mouse over every individual plot to find out what it DOES produce, which defeats the entire purpose of the Yield View.
  • As mentioned before, there's an audio stutter in my game. This is just shoddy programming; I'll bet you one hundred dollars that they haven't created a system-level thread to handle the sound, so it gets interrupted by extended graphics processing. Single-threaded programming has its advantages, but there's nothing to lose by spinning sound to a separate thread since it doesn't need to be immediately responsive to game actions.
  • In general diplomacy is awesome, but it's getting frustrating that absolutely nothing I do will get Alexander to open borders with me again. From a purely theoretical standpoint, capitulating and showing him with tech and gold should make him willing, but nothing doing. This is probably more realistic, but not as much fun.
  • Not exactly a gripe, but a TON has changed. The differences between III and IV are far greater than between any other two versions of the game, or arguably greater than between I and III. The mechanics have changed a lot, obviously, and even the technology names and units have been revamped so much that earlier players will have very little experience to fall back on.
  • Where's my palace? I want to improve my throne room!
  • They do that corny humor thing again. It's been fine so far, but I know it will get under my skin before too long. Imagine trading Code of Laws to Washington and having him tell you, "Did you ever know that you're my hero? You're everything I want to be."
All together, not a bad list, and the positives far outweigh them. Coming up tonight: a discussion of the civics system, wonders, and more.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Babu Yetu Yetu Yeshinu


What a night! I've made sure to take little mini-breaks to keep from getting bedsores, but still, this is the longest marathon session I've had since San Andreas came out. How good is this game? Good enough so far that I'm planning on devoting my weekend to it. It's obviously too soon to tell for sure what its long-term viability will be, but my early response is one of optimism.

I'm seriously considering picking up a new graphics card. The game runs just fine right now, but there are some annoying graphical stutters and I'm not seeing any of the pretty animations. If you want some info on what graphics cards to consider, the fine folks at CivFanatics are putting together a good list at http://forums.civfanatics.com/showthread.php?t=133278. What I'm learning is that, while T&L is required for the game, the hip new thing is pixel shaders. I'm guessing that this is contributing to the audio choppiness in the game; my theory is that the CPU needs to perform these calculations which is interrupting it from playing the music. Speculation on the boards appears to support me in this.

Right now I'm approaching the year 1000AD. Here are some random thoughts/comments on my game so far:
  • Despite my earlier-mentioned research flub, I managed to beat everyone to Polytheism and thereby founded Hinduism. Once a year, the faithful make their pilgrimage to Berlin and pray to Ganesha.
  • The first civ to discover particular techs founds the associated religions; Meditation founds Buddhism, Monotheism founds Judaism, etc. While the religions have real names, within the game they each have the exact same effects so nobody will be offended (unless their religion is omitted, of course).
  • Speaking of which, I know I'm alone on this one, but why would they leave out Zoroastrianism? It may not have many adherents today, but it was an enormously influential religion in the early world and still shapes our thinking today about God and the Devil. That will probably be my first mod. Who needs Taoism, anyways?
  • One thing I'd wondered was whether you could found multiple religions. This seemed unlikely, since most of the religious techs are directly linked (Mysticism leads to Polytheism AND Meditation, etc.), so a civ could pretty easily grab a bunch of these. That turns out to not be the case - when I discovered Code of Laws a few centuries later, Confucionism was founded in Munich.
  • I think it's naturally balancing, though. Other early techs are absolutely critical to research (you don't start the game able to build roads, or irrigate, or work ocean squares), so someone who grabs early religions will lose out on a lot and their growth will be stunted. (Well, at least their physical growth.)
  • Besides that, you can only have one state religion at a time. My Confucian holy city generates gold and happiness for me, but only my Hindu cities reap the benefits of being the state religion. And yes, cities can follow multiple religions, but you'll need to individually spread it.
  • It's even causing some headaches for me. I got a missionary when I founded Confucianism, so I converted Athens. Later, Alexander adopted Confucianism as his state religion, and his temples pay tithes to Munich. Good, right? Wrong! He is upset that I am following the heathen religion of Hinduism and our relations are rapidly deteriorating.
  • I briefly touched on this before, but I should specifically call it out. In Civ 4, you need technology for pretty much everything. You need Alphabet before you can trade technologies with other civilizations, and Animal Husbandry before you can make use of Horse resources, and Mining before you can build mines. This is less restrictive than it sounds, it simplifies the earlier game somewhat and makes it easier to set priorities. (Hint: You want to be able to trade technologies.)
  • The AI behaves differently than before. Part of it might be that I'm playing on Warlord, but they seem to be less aggressive and smarter. Six of the seven civs are on the same continent, and they've been aggressive about staking out the best spots; I just spent several hundred years looking for some unclaimed habitable space near the ocean so I can start building ships. The civs seem to be gradually consolidating into two coalitions. There's the Greek-Incan axis, and the American-Mali-Indian alliance. I'm friendlier with the second group, but the Greeks control a crucial trade route so I'm appeasing them to ensure my marble supply remains stable.
  • There haven't been any wars yet, but they're coming! Despite my tribute Alexander is getting increasingly angry, and he'll need to strike at me or the Americans if he wants to grow any larger.
  • Combat has always been one of the least interesting parts of Civ to me (I know others disagree), but there's a lot here to get excited about. Early in the game you have both barbarian and wild animal units to practice on without fighting other civs. The game also features an experience and promotion system not unlike that found in games like Myth. At certain XP levels you can pick promotions. These range from generic boosts to your unit strength, to nifty special abilities like Woodsman (extra strength & movement in woods and jungle), Medic (heal other units), City Raider (strong bonus for attacking cities), Amphibious (attack from sea), etc; there are about 30 promotions in all. Again, I don't fight much so I haven't gotten many promotions, but it's nice to know that the system is there.
  • On a related note, they let you upgrade your units at any time you could build their replacements. So, if you have a Warrior, you can switch him to an Archer or Axeman for a small fee. Best of all, they keep their promotions. By the endgame, you could have some super-units with amazing abilities.
  • Returning to more civilized matters: they FINALLY have a decent automated worker system. I've controlled my settlers/workers manually in Civ 1, Civ 2, Alpha Centauri and Civ 3, simply because the AI would always do idiotic things like put irrigation on hills or build roads to nowhere. I'd read that they had improved it so I gave it a try while keeping an eye on them. It's actually doing a good job. Frankly, probably better than I could do, simply because there are so many more terrain improvements this time around (cottages, windmills, pastures, etc.)
  • Great People is another addition, and is pretty cool. So far Moses and Homer have been born in Berlin, and Chuang-Tzu in Munich. (Those two cities keep coming up. I have two more recent cities on the other side of Greek territory, and Cologne is a small port city.) I used Moses to found a Hindu shrine, while the other two got together and started a German Golden Age.
OK, more later, but I'm really tired and have a long day ahead of me tomorrow. Take care, I'll talk with you later. :-)

Minions! Prepare a feast to celebrate peace between our empires!

Eh... still having video issues, but it's not too bad. I need to skip the intro videos but the in-game graphics are fine, though I'm sure I'm missing out on detail. I'll probably use this as an excuse to pick up a new graphic card, I've had this one for... gosh, over three years now. That's an eternity in these circles.

First game is going fine. I debated doing the tutorial but jumped into a standard Warlord game. I think the biggest thing for me will be resisting the temptation to restore when things inevitably start going wrong; I need to get ready for when I play against y'all in a few weeks or months.

I think I'm already flubbing things. I went for Masonry because they said it would lead to Monotheism. They lie! Should read the science section more carefully, or maybe there's just a bug in the advisor script. Now I'm stuck with the City Walls tech and no enemies, plus somebody (my money is on the Indians) beat me to Mysticism. Now I'm trying to research Polytheism. I'll get out of this eventually, but for now it's a tad frustrating.

Anyhoo. Just ordered some pizza and should be able to get going on that soon. Stay tuned!

And so it begins (?)

Install went fine and I can start the game, meaning I'm already ahead of several other Civ players venting online. The intro video was choppy and I got a message stating that I'm below the minimum requirements (which I'm not). I haven't upgraded my Windows Nvidia drivers for a long time, though, so I'm trying that now. About to reboot, keeping my fingers crossed!

Soon....

Does it count as spam if it's to my own blog?

Headed home now. I cut the gordian knot and can leave with a clean conscience. Well... I guess it wasn't a Gordian knot as such. Still, I found an elegant solution to a complicated problem and am throwing a little "We love the King day" to myself inside my head. Let the victory march commence.... NOW!

FREEBIRD!

Imagine my delight when Greg, who is AWESOME, walked into my office at 8:30AM today and handed me my box?!

I'm not smiling on that picture, just because I'm not sure whether I'm doing it right. ("Is it supposed to hurt? Because I'm bleeding.") I was really good and waited all morning with the box sitting on my desk, closed, mocking me. Over lunch break I finally grabbed a Bic and ripped it open.

Hello, little game! Look at you, so small and cute inside that big ole box of yours. I want to take you out and play with you!

Huh, this is odd. All of the screenshots I've seen for the "Preorder Edition" show a simple dark blue box with no graphics; this looks like the regular edition cover. My heart sinks slightly for a few seconds. Then I see the words "Preorder Edition" in the upper right and I'm all happy again.

Turns out that this is just a wrapper around the actual case, which has the look I've been expecting. People are already calling this the Bible Edition.

I crack it open and am immediately startled by the stern visage of Julius Caesar. Nooo! He seems to be saying, "Get back to work!" I worry that one of the discs has slipped loose, but it's actually secured here. (This is the soundtrack, part of the preorder bonus.)

Ahhh... and there it is, in all its glory! Front left is the tech tree; some people got stuck with French Canadian versions on accident but mine looks fine. In the center is the holding case for the two game CDs. In the far right is the hefty, 220-page spiral-bound manual. Way in the back is a nice little Civ IV banner with a list of keyboard shortcuts on the back.

So, I have Civ IV now. That is the good news, and certainly not to be slighted. Sadly, my stress factor here at work has shot up an order of magnitude the last two hours. I really, really, really hope I'll still be able to cut out of here early and have some quality time tonight. Even if I do, though, I'll probably need to make up for it later. So it goes. I'll try and let you know how my first venture went tonight.

Back to work!

Nice!

Wow! And just like that I have it. Just seven-ish hours to go! Stay strong, Chris!

Please let me introduce myself; I'm a man of wealth and taste

Woo-hoo! My package is in San Jose!

Again, I'm a junkie, but I am fascinated by looking at the movement of shipments to me. Here's what the tracker currently shows.

Oct 26, 2005 6:57 AM


At dest sort facility


SAN JOSE, CA




4:24 AM


Departed FedEx location


MEMPHIS, TN




12:33 AM


Arrived at FedEx location


MEMPHIS, TN




Oct 25, 2005 11:44 PM


Left origin


INDIANAPOLIS, IN




7:57 PM


Arrived at FedEx location


INDIANAPOLIS, IN




5:45 PM


Picked up


INDIANAPOLIS, IN




4:05 AM


Package data transmitted to FedEx



They flew from Tennessee to San Jose in two hours? That's darn impressive. I wonder whether all times are given in the local time zone or if they're all given in the destination time? I think the second way would be more convenient, but the first seems more probable given these numbers.

Anyways... back to work. Now I'm actually hoping it doesn't come until later in the day so I have less time being distracted by an unopened box o'goodness sitting on my desk. Catch you later!

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

And that's when my pants fell down

Chris is sad, because he isn't playing Civilization IV. It is a cold comfort that nobody else is, either. If you venture onto any of the fan sites for this franchise, you will be quickly overwhelmed by the wails and screaming of all those who were convinced that this would be the day they cracked open their packages and began playing.

I forget whether I addressed this before so I'll discuss "ship dates" again. With most forms of consumer media (books, CDs, DVDs, etc.), items have a "street date." When I worked in a bookstore, we would get these things a week or so in advance, and would basically be on our honor to keep them packed up until the posted date. (You have probably heard about this before, in cases like a new Harry Potter book accidentally going on sale in a hotel store days before it is supposed to.) The reason for this is to ensure a fair playing field between competing retailers. You can think of it as a sort of Prisoner's Dilemma. If a store gets its shipment before others, it will put them on sale first, and will attract the buyers before later stores get a chance to sell theirs. Any store gets an advantage by selling early and is hurt in the more likely case that other stores get theirs earlier. Therefore, the publisher tells them to wait for the same day so everyone has the item in stock before anyone can sell it.

Computer and video games are the exception to this rule. Instead of street dates, they have ship dates, which is the day an item ships from the publisher's warehouse to the retailers. Therefore, while different retailers will receive them around the same time, there is no coordinated moment at which the item goes on sale.

For the vast majority of products, this doesn't make the slightest difference. You aren't going to drive down to Best Buy to see if Deer Hunter III: The Bludgeoning is out yet. However, for AAA titles like Grand Theft Auto or HalfLife, hordes of ravaging fans have been building themselves up into a frenzy, eager to be the first person on the block to play the game.

(You may have noticed that, if you pre-order a DVD from Amazon, you'll often get it on the release day or even the day before. This is because they already have it in stock and try to ship it so it reaches you on the street date. You won't get this same treatment for a video game unless you spend a lot on rush shipping, because they won't even have it in stock until the day of.)

So, the situation we find ourselves in now is that Firaxis and Take 2 Games had announced a ship date of October 25th. (That is today.) Apparently, it is standard practice for most stores to pay for rush shipping on their initial order of items like this; that way they can satisfy their pre-order customers by getting them the games quickly. I remember when Final Fantasy X came out while I was in college; the local EB Games only got enough stock in its rush shipment to fill half the pre-orders, so an employee drove four hundred miles to a warehouse to pick up more for the rest of us. In this case, it sounds like Take 2 did ship on the 25th, but not until very late in the afternoon. Therefore, everything has been bumped back a day.

This is causing no end of outrage. Most stores seem to believe they had made accommodations to sell today; Fry's printed an ad Sunday advertising Civ IV available today after 4PM (with an asterisk denoting "if available"); many people online report that EB Games' computers reported until today that they would have stock on the 25th. Speculation abounds as to the reason why. Some think it might be because of the bad weather in the eastern US. This seems plausible, especially if all the copies are coming from a single manufacturing plant.

Throughout today I regularly refreshed my order page on GameStop, mentally commanding the line that said "Processing" to shift to "Shipping." I dared to believe that, though some fluke, it would ship in the late afternoon from, I dunno, San Francisco, and get to me before I went home. At 6:30 I forced myself into my car and drove home.

Now, I finally have a "Shipping" label and a tracking number. The good news is that FedEx has my parcel; the bad news is that, for whatever reason, it is in Indianapolis. Still, they show an estimated delivery date of tomorrow at 3PM, and I presume FedEx knows how to get things to the coast quickly. I hope to get my item and just shift my planned celebration forward twenty-four hours.

A fair question is, why all the hassle? Why is the release process for video games so much more elaborate and frustrating than all other media? I don't know for sure, but my two guesses are piracy and status. Computer games have been pirated far longer than CDs or movies; from the mid-eighties onward bootleg copies and cracks of games could be found on BBSs, warez sites and all the dark corners of the Internet. As soon as one pirate gets a copy of a game, they can make unlimited replicas at no cost. Therefore, if a game ships on Tuesday and goes on sale the next Monday, if a pirate somehow gets a copy on Wednesday, many people will be playing illegal copies of the game before they've even had the opportunity to buy a legitimate copy. By eliminating the traditional gap between shipping and street dates, publishers narrow this window and hope that more people will opt for legitimate copies.

The other possibility is that they like the rage and consternation this causes. In the same way that bookstores have midnight parties to mark the release of Harry Potter, and movie theaters have lines to inaugurate new movies, your local video game store has people calling all day and harassing employees about whether the game has arrived, and descending in droves once it's on sale. It's annoying and petty, but it's also a ritual, and there's a certain comfort in that. The seeming scarcity of the item makes it appear even more valuable, making people feel like it's even more necessary to buy NOW, before they've finished reading all the reviews or waited for a friend to try it first. And for the truly rare items, like the initial release of the PS2 or Nintendo DS, being one of the few to beat the system and find the store selling it means that for weeks you will have true nerd status, as one of the lucky few with the coveted item in your possession. In these situations, the heterogeneous release means it requires actual effort and skill, not merely persistence, to get what you want.


Enough pontificating. I'm going to bed. I hope that, when I get up in the morning, my order status shows the game is somewhere in California.

I will eat you alive

The new City Hall opened last Saturday. I am a political nerd (in addition to being a software nerd, roleplaying nerd, video game nerd, and nerd-in-training in music and film), and I really do like San Jose, so I figured I'd go ahead and check it out. I'd first walked by it when exploring San Jose after my interview at Rocket Mobile, before I decided to take the job or even knew it would be offered. I didn't know what it was but it sure looked cool: an enormous glass structure, adjacent to a metal and glass dome, with pillars and rocks scattered nearby.

They started actually moving people in back in September, but now that all the landscaping and everything was complete it was time for a big celebration. I hopped on the VTA and whizzed downtown.

Turnout was quite good; the paper would describe it as "several thousand" people. The city was taking advantage of the attention by showcasing city services; you could pick up pamphlets on disaster preparation, lists of city phone numbers, information on waste disposal, and so on. The fire and police departments had their vehicles on display. One entire side of the plaza was given over to a children's center, with booths for art and sculpture and making music. Most of the people milled around looking at the buildings, while a few grabbed a seat under the canopy in preparation for the official ceremony. There was even a protestor there, carrying a sign with the smallest print I have yet seen. The big letters at the top announced "STOP THE BULLSHIT", followed by a lengthy paragraph beginning "All low-German speaking persons and their English allies..." Apparently he wanted a statue or something built for this one Spanish guy who either discovered the Santa Clara valley or founded San Jose, I'm not sure which.

As always, things got started behind schedule. It was around 11:10 when it began, as Mayor Ron Gonzales strode to the microphone. He strikes me as a very hands-on person; I had been expecting the standard process of a minor official welcoming people, then introducing a mid-ranking official, who in turn would introduce the mayor. Not so: he acted as the MC throughout the hour, offering his thoughts and welcoming each speaker to the podium. He directed all of his praise towards his forbearers, his associates, and the people of San Jose. In particular he singled out the previous administration, which started the process nearly a decade ago to bring the city hall downtown; the city council, which has helped absorb some of the political fallout from the move (more on that later); and the individual workers who actually built the hall. Gonzales set the overall message that would be reiterated and explored by the later speakers, describing the city hall in terms of a public investment that would benefit the entire city.

I was pleased to see that Richard Meier, the architect who designed the complex, was present and speaking. He is most famous for having designed the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and you could see a similar aesthetic at work here. I really appreciated his talk, which dug into the details of how they had made choices about how to represent San Jose history and culture in this building, and how they hoped it would be used. He talked about how the light-colored rock extension was evocative of the adobe architecture from early in the city's history; how the glass tower, in addition to maximizing daylight, was meant to symbolize government transparency; how the futuristic design of the rotunda, which incorporates some revolutionary heating and cooling ideas, represents the forward-looking mindset of Silicon Valley. Above all, it's meant to be a livable area, where people will congregate during their lunch breaks, or spend a weekend afternoon, and he mentioned that the city has already scheduled the first wedding to be held in the rotunda.

Next up was the pastor of the adjacent First Methodist church, who has been instrumental in encouraging the return of City Hall to the urban core. He shared anecdotes about living next to a construction site, and spoke forcefully about the importance of downtown to the health of the entire city. Like a lot of mainline preacher his talk (which I enjoyed) was filled with references to "spirit," "soul," and "heart," but didn't once mention Christ or God (which I'm sure others appreciated). He was visibly pleased at how the building had turned out and was quite optimistic about its role in bringing people together and creating a shared space. He pointed out, as an example, the tall metal poles in the courtyard. On hot summer days, he explained, these poles would generate a mist that would cool the area. He also welcomed the San Jose State University Marching Band into the plaza. They marched in with a triumphant drumline and stood at attention along the raised platforms near the stage.

The last speakers were the head of a contracting firm and the developer. Both were quite good speakers despite their relatively dry subject matter. They mentioned that the entire project had been completed under budget and without any major injury, which is quite remarkable for an endeavor of this size. About midway through, the misters the pastor had mentioned switched on, covering many of those nearby (including yours truly) with tiny droplets. These was fairly comic as the day's temperature had varied between mild and slightly chilly.

The moment was fast approaching for the ribbon cutting. The dignitaries headed over towards the comically oversized ribbon near the rotunda doors. As the mayor snipped the fabric, the marching band exploded with another loud marching tune. The many doors to the rotunda gradually swung open and a mass of people rushed to get in.

Being somewhat savvier, I decided to delay on the rotunda and made directly for the main office. At 18 stories tall, it seemed like the perfect place to get a good view of the city. I was one of the first people on the elevators, and from the moment I stepped off at the top floor I was in awe. I'm a sucker for dramatic views, and this provided the best I'd yet seen from within the city. You could overlook the other large buildings downtown, pick out individual parks, and see roads running straight towards the mountains. By now the sky had cleared and the brilliant azure sky made everything even more beautiful.

I slowly walked around the 18th floor, where the mayor and city council have their offices. Most were left open so people could come in, look at their furniture and photos, and appreciate the sight from their windows. Many uniformed police officers and city hall employees were present, maybe to make sure nobody tried to plant a bomb. All the other spectators were as impressed as I was. It was cool to see the wide variety of people who had come out, from white-collar workers like me to service employees, young and old, many families and many races. The whole thing felt very egalitarian, that the city was making itself available to everyone.

I gradually soaked up views from each of the windows, mentally building a 360-degree panoramic picture. I also marveled at the Mayor's large desk; I personally would have felt nervous about exposing that piece of wood to thousands of strangers. I returned to the elevator and shot down to the second floor.

Here there was a historical exhibit. It was a sequence of photos, interestingly arranged to show the transformation over time of San Jose and the Santa Clara valley. Rather than run from earlier to later photos, they were arranged by theme; for example, a photo showing a fruit cannery in 1932 (the area now known as Silicon Valley used to be an agricultural powerhouse, producing 70% of the world's prunes, for example, and over a quarter of the nation's fruit) is displayed next to a photo of an Intel clean room in 2001. A boarding school in the 1920's contrasts with an elementary school today. Over and over you saw interesting contrasts, generally showing the transformation of the valley into a more multicultural and technology-oriented place.

I also checked out the city council chambers. This is basically a standard auditorium with a large table in front. Throughout the day various local groups performed in the space; I got to hear part of a jazz concert from a nearby high school, and could have heard the San Jose Opera if I'd stuck around longer.

The fire and police departments were hosting a Katrina fundraiser cookout. (They called it a barbecue, but I won't hold that against them. They were grilling.) For a few bucks you could get a decent burger, water and chips. I went through the line and had a very satisfying meal, perched on one of the rocks embedded in the concrete courtyard out front.

I finally made my way into the rotunda. It had cleared out somewhat, leaving behind some characters like a man whizzing around on roller skates. I saw a receiving line marked "Meet the Mayor"; with only five people waiting, I figured it would be worth it. Like I said, I'm a political nerd. I shook Gonzales's hand and chatted briefly (he asked what I liked about the new building and shared his thoughts on the use of open space). I next did a tour around the rotunda itself, which was much more barren than I had expected, with a glass and steel shell and a simple spiral staircase inside. Still, the overall impression is quite dramatic.

The funny thing is, there actually is quite a lot of controversy and even a whiff of scandal around this new building. Many people claim that the old meeting space was adequate, and even if not, taxpayers' dollars could have been spent better on something other than accommodations for city employees. There are regular accusations of financial trickery to make the project seem cheaper than it really was. I don't want to discredit any of these ideas; I just moved here two months ago, after all, and can't say one way or another who's telling the truth. I will say, though, that having buildings like this is incredibly important. Everyone likes using this quote but I'll use it again: as Winston Churchill said, "We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us." If you only look at a building in terms of its cost you are totally blinding yourself to the psychic and social impact it can have. The soaring skyscrapers of Chicago play a big role in my emotions about that city, just as the barren lots in the center of Kansas City shaped my feelings about living there. Buildings really do belong to everyone, they impact anyone who sees then when flying in or driving past, and can add or detract from our estimation of a city. I think it was absolutely the right move for the city to not restrict itself to an accountant's view of maximizing square feet per dollar; by allowing themselves to splurge they have created a thing of true beauty that will, if all goes well, do nothing less than make this a better city.

Monday, October 24, 2005

Svefn-G-Englar

I'm going to be one of those people who posts to their blog just because they haven't posted lately.

Work has been pretty busy lately. Not insane, no-sleep-for-Chris crazy, but it's been filling much of my time. Sorry if I've seemed unresponsive.

I started a post about a week ago about the new City Hall opening in San Jose. Since it's underway I'll probably try and finish it later this week. By which I mean tomorrow morning.

There's a few other things I'd like to get to as well - especially Pat's visit here last weekend, and also the Morrowind expansions (beat Tribunal, working on Bloodmoon). Sadly, with Civ IV coming out tomorrow, I'll probably need to beg off on these posts for a while.

I'm getting way too excited about Civ IV. I went ahead and got the free-next-day-shipping order, so HOPEFULLY (not definitely), it will arrive here at work sometime tomorrow. I've been plugging away even harder than usual today so I'm hoping to cut out of here early-ish tomorrow with my baby. Plans remain vague, but I may pick up a pizza and do an old-fashioned marathon session with caffeine, fat and pixels. I'll probably play as Frederick of Germany in my first game and pursue a cultural domination victory. Catch me on AIM if you want and I'll let you know how it's going. Expect terse reports from me in this space the rest of the week.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Make Your Own Kind of Music

I have never seen the movie Akira, although it's been on my list for several years. It's apparently a giant in Anime history, and marks the first time Anime was really taken seriously over here in the states. From what I've heard it adopts a lot of American comic-book elements and thus isn't considered "pure" by many aficionados, but remains well-loved.
Anime directors, in my experience, are not very prolific, and so it probably shouldn't surprise that we haven't heard a lot from Katsuhiro Otomo. In the more than 15 years since Akira was released he has only done one film that I can find, something called "Rojin Z." Last year, though, he released a new movie called "Steamboy." It was pretty well received critically (it received the standard approval of "Not as good as Akira, but then again, what is?"), and I was looking forward to seeing it in the theaters, only to be miffed when it exited Kansas City after a single week's engagement. Fie!
Fortunately, public expenditures were my salvation: I was able to find a DVD copy at my local library, and enjoyed an evening with the film. The rest of this post is just my disjointed thoughts on it.
First off, this would be a good movie to introduce Anime virgins to the form. While I think Miyazaki's movies are better, they also have little cultural tics and oddities in them that might be off-putting to people who aren't used to them. Since Steamboy is set in an alternate-reality England, you aren't getting any references to Japanese culture. It also helps that it is relatively fast-paced and contains some good action scenes, without touching the gore found in "Princess Mononoke" or Eva. (I think it's PG-13, but you don't see a lot of blood.)
It took me a while to get into the movie. Maybe I had been oversold it, but I was a little disappointed early on: while the design was wonderful, the actual animation didn't seem THAT spectacular; it just got the job done. And the general arc of the story felt somewhat clich├ęd. The further I got into it, though, the more intrigued I became, in large part because they subvert the archetypes you're relying on.
Oh, I should probably put a "spoilers" warning here. You've been warned.
Once you find out the father isn't dead, things shift into uncertain territory. My sentiments were with the grandfather, but I have a soft spot for crazy old men, and it seemed at least plausible that he was doing good within the O'Hara structure. This really engaged me, and as I got drawn into the plot, the cumulative total of the very imaginative design hit me. I've done steampunk before, but I've never seen it look as good.
What really sold me on Steamboy, though, was the way they gradually spun out the conflict between Eddie and Lloyd. Lloyd, the grandfather, strikes me as a true scientist: he is utterly dedicated to advancing the course of knowledge and is willing to accept (or inflict) a high cost for that; witness the dramatic first scene. Like a true idealistic scientist, he is also very optimistic about the potential his discoveries can bring. I find it interesting that he is a far more compassionate person in abstract than in principal; he is dedicated to doing good for "the people" without seeming to particularly care what happens to his son or others close to him.
Eddie, while arguably the villain, is incredibly sympathetic. (Tangent: this is probably the single thing I enjoy most about Japanese anime, the complex way villains are presented. They are treated with respect as people with their own drives and desires, as opposed to the caricatures that wear black hats in virtually every American movie.) He is virtually the opposite of his father: he shows kindness to David and deference to Scarlett, but shows little real concern for the deaths his work will bring. If Lloyd is a scientist, Eddie is an engineer: he is interested in the application, in turning knowledge towards some concrete end. His main drive is for manifestation, to realize his vision, to pull it from the abstract world into reality. To his perspective, the O'Hara foundation is only good, because they have devoted their resources into realizing his vision. To put it bluntly, he wants the grant money so he can truly finish his research.
The pull between Lloyd and Eddie isn't simply good versus evil. The question is whether the advancement of science is a laudable end in itself (Eddie), or whether every step taken along the way needs to benefit humanity (Lloyd). One can imagine Eddie arguing that, while the steam devices would cause death in the short term, they would hasten the availability of widespread positive applications to extend lifespans and ease people's existence. But I don't think Eddie sees his work on being contingent on some future good. To him, science is a religion, something to be advanced for its own sake independent of its affect on people.
I find this tension fascinating. On paper, of course, most of us agree with Lloyd. I would argue, though, that for those of us involved in engineering, in practice we act like Eddie every chance we get. When you're working on a project, do you really stop and think about what impact it will have on people? How it will affect their happiness, their wallet, their minds and bodies? Or do you view it in isolation, considering the work by itself as something to be completed for its own sake? I do think about how my work impacts people, but far more often I'm more concerned with just making it work, and when I'm done, I'm more likely to admire its technical elegance than its application.
Kurt Vonnegut addressed this tension himself in a graduation speech at MIT back in 1985. This is reprinted in Chapter 12 of "Fates Worse than Death," which is a book I think you would enjoy. He makes his point far more elegantly than I ever could, but his message to these graduating scientists and engineers is essentially this: You are the men and women who will develop the next atomic bomb, or the next supervirus, or the next giant space weapon. Do not deceive yourselves into thinking that you are not responsible for what happens with the forces you bring into the world. Please turn your energies towards peaceful employers who seek to benefit mankind, not military who seek to destroy it.
Vonnegut admits that the speech bombed, spectacularly. I was struck by his description of what many people had told him, that they didn't think Star Wars (the Strategic Defense Initiative to y'all) would work, but everyone wanted to work on it. Why? Because it was well-funded, and they could solve interesting problems while toiling away at it. People were offended by the suggestion that they had a responsibility to use their minds in the service of good. "I'm an engineer! I can't/shouldn't worry about what my employer will do with the tools I make for them!"
I read this speech a few years ago, and while it certainly didn't change my mind about anything, it has strengthened my convictions. When I graduated from Wash U in the spring of '03, the only companies interviewing on campus were healthcare companies and defense contractors. Even though it meant cutting my prospective employment by 50% (including some very lucrative opportunities in the post-9/11 ramp-up to war), I knew that I wouldn't be able to stand it if the software I wrote helped kill more people.
A decade later, Steamboy has reinforced the message again. The fun-fair is more valuable than the weapon, which serves to destroy. Resist the Eddies, who compromise ethics to advance their careers, and resist the Stevensons, who advance the deadly philosophy of "if we don't do it, somebody else will." If political leaders would take the lessons of Steamboy to heart, we'd live in a kinder world; if scientists and engineers paid attention, we'd live in a far less dangerous one.

Friday, October 14, 2005

I am a nerd

I am NOT encouraging you to pre-order Civilization IV, I swear. There's an extremely real possibility that this game will not be fun.

A while back I optimistically predicted that, given that Firaxis was pushing up the release date from November to October, the game must already be close to complete and would be free from the bugs and lack of polish that plagued Civ3. Some online research has cast doubt on that theory; an astute forum poster observed that Take 2 (which is publishing Civ4, and has recently caught a lot of flak over the various GTA controversies) ends its fiscal year on October 31. If the game ships before then, all the pre-orders and instant purchases will show up in this year's fiscal report; any time after then, it will count for next year's. Given this, it seems altogether plausible that the change in release date was pushed by the publisher, making it sadly possible that this game will be even more in need of patching.

HOWEVER.

Hope springs eternal in mine breast. If you're like me and obsessive about this stuff, you've probably already visited the two main fan sites. If you just want a quick preview, there are several early previews up.

Again, I strongly urge you to wait and see whether the game is good. Watch this space, I'll be sharing my impressions. However, if you've already made your mind up or know you'll be buying it anyways, you might consider pre-ordering. Doing this will give you a "free" pre-order package with some freebies like a music CD, spiral-bound manual, etc. You can find the cheapest price for the pre-order package over at Amazon; at 44.99, it's five bucks cheaper than anywhere else. You can also opt for free shipping if you don't mind waiting a while to receive it. However, the truly doomed may want to consider ordering from Gamestop. While priced at 49.99, you can get free OVERNIGHT shipping on this game if you enter the code "CIV1D" (without the quotes) when ordering the item. That means you'll most likely be playing it on the 24th or 25th. (Note that unlike movies and music, which have "Street Dates", games have "Ship Dates" and brick-and-mortar stores will not even receive the games until this date or later.)

I'm already planning my first game. I'm thinking of playing as Frederick of the Germans. I will build glorious cities that become the cultural center of the world, and seek to live in peace with all my neighbors.

UPDATE 10/17/05: If you were planning on ordering from Amazon, they just raised their price back up to 49.99. Fry's Outpost briefly had it for 36.99 (!) this weekend, but that also has been raised to the standard. I don't know if Take 2 is cracking down or they're feeling greedy. I imagine all existing orders will be honored at the sale price, but it has become less attractive to secure your order in advance. (As far as I know Gamestop is still offering free next-day shipping.)

Thursday, October 13, 2005

Looking for Trouble

I can thank Rajiv, my office-mate, for introducing me to Mobile Mondays. Apparently they started in Finland over a year ago, and since then chapters have sprung up all over. They are informal gatherings of people involved in mobile development, which covers a wide range of companies and positions, and gives people a chance to see what's going on outside their narrow range of interests. Here they are typically held on the first Monday of any given month, although for October it was delayed a week due to a conference conflict.

I really think this is a great idea. It's good for us engineers, because we can indulge in our natural curiosity, cross-pollinate ideas and get inspired for the potential of this technology. It's good for employers, because it's a chance to get access to a bunch of engineers in their field and do some casual networking/recruiting. And it's good for companies because they can show off their stuff and help build interest in their offerings.

Unfortunately, Rajiv was detained on business and unable to make it this time, so I went on my own. I'd been excited ever since the specifics were announced: this month's topic was "Mobile Search," and would be held in unison with the Search SIG. The location was Google's campus; that detail alone would have made me come, I've been entranced for years by stories of Google's unique working environment. The program also sounded solid; several companies would be represented in a panel discussion on the future of mobile search, and several would provide demonstrations as well.

Rajiv had worried earlier about how long it would take to get there. Leaving from work, I'd be driving from the southern tip of Silicon Valley all the way up to Mountain View. Google Maps suggested 20 minutes; I decided to give myself 30, since there was already a buffer of time for registration and food. The drive ended up going very smoothly; despite taking the wrong exit (not my fault, the 85/101 interchange is one of the most baffling and poorly-signed junctions I've seen) I still had time for a scenic tour of the neighborhood before pulling in. Unlike other tech titans who have basically established little fiefdoms, Google's campus feels like it's part of a research park; they share a street with Intuit and some other smaller companies, and while their signs grab your attention their small buildings don't tower like Sun's or Oracle's.

I had my first encounter with Google security pulling into the lot. Throughout the evening the various security guards were extremely friendly, helpful, courteous and visible. He directed me to the appropriate building, which also houses the company cafeteria. I parked a little ways away and enjoyed my walk there.

Google really does let their creativity permeate everything. The lawns were all well landscaped, with shrubbery cut into interesting geometric shapes. Their pedestrian walkways do not go directly from point A to B, but travel in a flattened sine curve. All of the buildings have walls of two-way glass. Each lobby that I passed looked completely different from the others, although each was certainly attractive. One of my favorites had a large plasma monitor hanging from the ceiling that was printing out little line fragments every second, like "inside ukraine" or "dirt bikes." It took me a few seconds to realize that I was probably watching a real-time sampling of actual Google queries.

The Google employees that I met looked friendly and happy. The sun was setting and some were heading home, though many more were visible inside their buildings. There were a TON of bike racks and bicycles around, which didn't surprise me but did please me.

I met up with some other conference guys and together we navigated the way to the cafeteria. Here I picked up my official Google visitor badge and made my way in to the conference room. It was a pretty large setup; they probably had about two hundred chairs set up. People were milling around, chatting, and nibbling on the little wraps Google provided.

I wish I could claim I am a networking genius but I'm really just lucky: that day I happened to be wearing a Wash U t-shirt (under a long-sleeved flannel), and quickly met a fellow alum (B-school, class of '01). We chatted briefly about how we wound up on the west coast and moved on. He's the only alumnus I met that day, but I'll definitely try something similar in the future. That's one of the nice things about the Wash U background, it does stand out here more than, say, Berkeley or Stanford.

Everyone took their seats and we began the panel. It included representatives from Google, Yahoo, two small search startups and Cingular Wireless. There was a designated moderator who kept things flowing smoothly. The general format was that the moderator would pose a question or make a statement, then each person would spend a minute or two giving their company's response. The goal was to share information about what was happening in mobile search and the challenges and opportunities in the future.

Before the panel started in earnest, the moderator gave a brief presentation as a sort of "state of the industry." He showed how the amount of revenue generated by mobile content (ringtones, games, etc., not counting airtime) globally is almost identical to the amount of revenue generated globally by online advertising. He also showed that the market cap of the five biggest leaders in online advertising is several hundred times larger than the market cap of the five leaders in mobile content (Jamdat, etc.). Over all, this implied that there is enormous growth potential in the industry, and that mobile search will prove crucial because search is required for people to find things they want to buy.

Most people reading this aren't as intrigued by the industry as I am so I'll spare you a blow-by-blow summary. The two startups came across as very scrappy and just a little desperate; each one has clawed its way into a niche, or is trying to get into one, and wanted to establish themselves as legitimate. One guy opened his first statement by saying "Wow, being up here between Yahoo and Google [he was actually to the side of them], I feel like a dime between nickels." There was a delay and then a big laugh. From that point on I don't think anybody liked him. He was like a bad but well-coached politician; every single time he talked it was only about how great his company's product was, even if it had nothing to do with the question. Supposedly it "solves the problem" of requiring too many steps for people to find what they're looking for. He would not shut up about it and would not vary his message.

The rest of the guys succeeded in running a good panel. It was very interesting to see the different perspectives people brought to the table. The Yahoo representative was very big on choice, pushing how they wanted to give people as many ways as possible to look for as many kinds of content they'd want to find. The other startup guy took the opposite tack; he said that search was all about limiting choices, about not even showing users things they don't care about and sending them down a narrow path. Google is relatively new to mobile initiatives and is keeping a deliberately open mind, monitoring the desires of consumers and businesses as they work out a strategic vision. And Cingular... the carriers (Cingular, Sprint, Verizon, etc.) are the unquestioned kings of this space, and EVERYONE else is limited by what they decide to permit on their handsets and their networks. Cingular is mindful of the future potential, but is making a great deal of money off the status quo, and wants to continue supporting legacy customers as new services are brought up.

Some interesting facts came out of the panel. Cingular mentioned that, of all its search offerings, the revenue it gets from 411 calls is several orders of magnitude higher than all other search methods combined. The tech companies talked about the various types of mobile search offered and how they are tuned for different platforms: SMS queries (texting a number with a message like "w sf" for "weather in san francisco" and getting back a message with the results), WAP sites (simple web pages designed for mobile devices), and clients (downloadable Java or BREW (yay!) stand-alone applications for search). One example that repeatedly came up is how hard it is for people to find a ringtone on their phone ("Just try to buy a Rolling Stones ringtone. Before you get to the R's you'll have given up or bought something else."); this is an area everyone wants to improve on, simply because it directly impacts how much money people are spending.

It was also a lot of fun to see the individual personalities, other than Mr. Annoying. The other startup guy seemed like a typical post-college startup, a tad slovenly but very passionate about the subject. The Yahoo and Google guys got in occasional humorous snipes at each other without ever mentioning the others' name. They were both engineers who had been coached in PR speak but were still on our side and would wink while giving their boilerplate answers. ("What are Google's plans for making money on online search?" "Google has not yet announced its plans for making money on online search.") The Cingular rep was the only person I saw in the whole room who was wearing a suit, albeit a stylish one, and he was probably the calmest and most open person up there. He was extremely frank about the mistakes carriers had made in the past, like the SMS message limits, and similarly frank about the fact that the carriers still rule the industry.

After the panel, there was a Q&A session. The questions ranged from nakedly hostile ("How can people make money on this when the carriers take up to 50% of the revenues off the top?") to the curious ("How long will it take mobile devices to supplant traditional computers?") to the avarical ("When will we start seeing advertising on mobile phones?") to the nerdy ("What's your backend architecture for load-balancing search queries?"). Each was typically handled by a single panelist. A surprising number of the questioners were foreigners, two were from French firms and another was from Virgin in the UK.

A short break followed, and then came the demos. Yahoo went first, and ran through a variety of their offerings in under five minutes. It all looked very useful and surprisingly responsive.

Google came next. The guy basically said "If you want to see what we're doing, go to mobile.google.com". He then plugged Google Sitemaps, encouraging those who run WAP sites to register with Google so that they get pulled into searches for mobile-specific content. The whole presentation was under a minute and he got even more applause.

The annoying startup guy ran into technical problems (not his fault) and just repeated everything he'd said before about his magical product, AGAIN.

The good startup guy showed off his app, which sadly wasn't as cool as him. It's supposed to basically perform context-sensitive searches, so if you look for, say, a cocktail, it will immediately send you how to make that cocktail, instead of a list of potential results and making you sift through it. It sounds good, but it became obvious that it's very keyword-based and not too intelligent. I wish them well, but they have a ways to go.

Finally, the Cingular guy showed off one of the points he'd made earlier, intended as a reality check for where technology is at today. He brought three people on the platform, gave them three different phones, and told each one that they'd be trying to find the address for a building he would give them. One was to use 411, another would use a WAP browser, and another would use an SMS search. First one to get the answer would win. The building was the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. It took them FOREVER, well over a minute; several people in the audience got it before anyone on the stage. Finally the 411 caller got the answer. The conclusion was simple, "Mobile search has a long ways to go."

They then transitioned to the same ending that every Mobile Monday meeting has, "Open Night Geek." It's a time for people to take 30 seconds to say whatever they want. Quite a few people announced their startups and the positions they were hiring for. Others plugged their services (blogs, etc.) and mentioned their websites. Some gave announcements for other groups that were meeting in the next month.

About halfway through, a guy in a tie (very unusual for this crowd) came up to the mike. He flipped on the projector and set his phone down so everyone could see it. "Hello," he said. "I'm from a little startup called IBM." (Laughter.) "Did you all notice how long it took those people to find out the address of the Met? The Cingular person said it was a big problem to be solved. Well, we at IBM have solved that problem." He entered a program on his phone; I forget the name but the IBM logo was prominent. He picked up the phone and said, "Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, New York," and set it back down. Within about FIVE SECONDS, it brought back a page of results, and at the very top it displayed the address and phone number of the museum. The ENTIRE ROOM burst into applause. We nerds had finally been impressed.

When the last announcements were done things dispersed pretty quickly. I regretfully took my leave of the campus. I'm not convinced that Google would be the best match for me, but it certainly was a charming place to visit, and I look forward to coming back sometime.

Here's a picture of the panelists, and another one showing yours truly, with my head helpfully circled in red so you can find it.







PS - I totally shouldn't have wasted "You can't always get what you want" on my last post, it would have been the perfect title for this one. Phooey. Also, the Civilization IV web site is now live! Gather ye rosebuds while you may!

You Can't Always Get What You Want

Yeah, people have been predicting a video IPod for over a year. I remember Microsoft announcing they were developing a similar device way back when the original IPod became a recognized success, and recall that Jobs pooh-poohed the very idea. Now he's doing it, and beating MS to the punch.

So that's not really news. What IS news, to me, is the distribution deal with ABC/Disney/Pixar. You'll be able to buy and download TV episodes, like "Lost", for $1.99 each, and watch them on your TV or IPod. That is HUGE. The episodes are available the day after they air, and as far as I can tell this is the first time a network has directly sold its content like this, ad-free.

Let me explain my own situation: I am a thief. I can't justify spending money on cable when I just watch one or two shows, so instead I periodically fire up Bit Torrent and grab what I'm looking for. (Currently watching "Lost" and "House"; will check out "The Colbert Report" next week.) The picture I get is far clearer than my crummy network reception, I can watch it whenever I want, and there are no commercials.

I would seriously consider buying these shows, just because I dislike doing illegal or quasi-legal things. $1.99 seems reasonable; an even better idea would be a "Season Pass," maybe like paying $30 up front for every episode. However, I'll only do it if I can have the same level of flexibility that Bit Torrented divx files give me today. Right now I can store the shows, transfer them to another computer, burn to CD for backup, and play the video on my TV through my Linux media box. It's a sweet setup, and I'm pessimistic that there will be a seamless way for me to get the content from iTunes to my TV screen. If so, though, I'll gladly put my money where my mouth is.

If this sounds familiar, it's because we've been over this territory before. Like many of you my age, I acquired more than a few MP3 files while at college. By exploring and finding what I wanted, I became an aficionado of electronic music and spend way more money on music now than I would have if I only heard music on commercial radio. At first the labels were extremely dumb about this; the problem is that they went after the users trying to access music digitally in order to protect their obsolete distribution system. To reiterate: the major music labels were addicted to stamping out CDs, wrapping them in saran, and selling them in Suncoast Music stores for 19.99 apiece. Once the technology was there, they should have investigated how digital music could cut their overhead and increase their profits. Instead, millions of people like me found their digital music the only way they could, illegally.

Eventually, Steve Jobs showed them the light. I am convinced that iTunes has done far, far more to curb music piracy than all of the legal assaults have. People just want to get what they're looking for, and most will gladly spend 99 cents to get something now than spend fifteen minutes trying to find it for free. Sure, there were other legit music services first, but it's easy to forget how revolutionary iTunes was: it's the first time you could actually download (as oppose to stream) a track that you could listen to as many times as you wanted, on multiple devices, and even burn to CD. Again, it's crucial that the legal option be easier than the illegal one, and nobody signed up for Rhapsody because they wanted to be able to take their music with them in the car, not just listening on headphones at their PC.

My theory is that Disney is being smart (hey, Eisner's gone, so why not?) and have learned their lessons from the music industry. Illegal downloads of TV shows and movies are growing, but have not yet reached the critical mass that Napster brought, so their best hope is to give people an easy way to legally get at Disney content before more people seek out the piracy networks.

There's a lot to look forward to with this announcement. I think that the combination of growing television DVD sales and digital delivery of content will revolutionize American television over the next five years. This could be a very good thing. Most simply put, the studios have discovered a way to make money without advertisers. I doubt we'll lose advertising all together, the industries are very strongly linked today and it will continue to exist in some form, but I'm optimistic that the power of ads will wane. This will happen because, first, fewer people will be seeing ads; between TiVo and season DVDs and video iPod, there will be plenty of ways to pay to see content, rather than advertisers paying to reach your eyes. Secondly, as studios' profits shift towards paying viewers, advertisers' slice of the pie will diminish, and some organizations might find it feasible to ditch ads altogether.

What will this mean for viewers like us? I see three hopeful outcomes. First, we will see more daring programming. Content transmitted via means other than over-the-air are not subject to FCC regulation and so content can match whatever the expected audience rather than the most-offended-denominator; see recent Comedy Central DVDs for an example of the difference. (Also, fewer/no advertisers means less chance of an offended group orchestrating a successful boycott; "No Southern Baptist will buy your show!" is less likely to get a response than "We will not buy any Kraft products until they stop advertising on your show!") Secondly, we will likely see higher quality shows. It's no coincidence that HBO routinely has the best programs. It isn't because they're allowed to swear; it's because they only need to focus on making the best products and trust viewers to find them, rather than worry about reaching a sufficiently large (and bland) audience to tempt advertisers. (You can already see this effect at work. Five years ago "Arrested Development" would have been long-canceled; today, DVD sales are strong enough to placate Fox into letting it continue despite dismal ratings.) Finally, we will shift to more of a British model of television. Think of the future digital delivery streams as being the BBC and legacy over-the-air as being ITV and you'll get an idea of what I think television will become.

(Just to clarify: by "digital" I just mean non-broadcast. Yes, HDTV is technically digital broadcast. Sorry for any confusion.)

Once again I find myself in awe of Apple and Jobs. This is actually a relatively new feeling for me. Because I'm bored and my Internet connection is currently down (I'm writing this Wednesday night), here's a capsule summary of my relationship with Apple.

Apples were some of the first computers I encountered. The very first I barely remember, just brief encounters with games early in childhood. Like many elementary schools, Neil had a computer lab filled with Apple II computers. I loved these things, and computer lab became one of my absolute favorite times in school. They let us pick out which programs we wanted to run, so it was basically free play with educational software; I still vividly remember my joy in playing Number Muncher, Oregon Trail and Lemonade Tycoon. Oh, and the sound it would make when booting up. Control - Open Apple - Reset. Bee-bee. Beep! Bzzz. And then it would start in all its glory. I got really into it, and remember even designing a pencil-and-paper game (sort of an early RPG, although I didn't know yet what that was) based on Number Muncher so I could keep playing.

Around third grade I started getting permission to spend time on a private computer in the office, away from the class. In retrospect this was probably an early attempt to do something with "gifted" students. All I knew was, I would occasionally have a chance to try and race to Oregon before I needed to go back to class.

It was around fifth grade, if I recall right, that we got an IBM computer at home. I'd previously enjoyed playing games on it at Dad's office, but once it entered our house I started playing around with BASIC and programming my own games on it. The Apple games began to seem less exciting compared to the commercial software I could get for the IBM and the games began to feel restrictive.

My opinion of Apple strongly soured when I entered junior high. Nicollet didn't have any Apples; they had a sleek modern lab filled with Macs. I hated them. There was nothing to DO with them besides word processing, drawing, and... well, that was it. I would find myself using the paint program to draw a map for the game I was working on back at home. I talked with the lab administrators but they didn't know how to load a programming language on them, or wouldn't tell me if they did. The more interested I became in computers and the more I began to identify as a programmer, the more contemptuous I became at these useless boxes.

It's important to remember that, back then, the conflict wasn't Microsoft/Apple; it was IBM/Apple. Sure, every IBM computer ran MS-DOS, but in these days before Windows 95, MS really didn't have a marketing presence and had a much lower brand profile. I learned to adopt the stereotypes that IBM computers were loose, hackable (in both senses), fun computers with tons of software; Macs were serene, pristine, and largely useless unless you were a graphic artist or wanted to run one of the 5 games that had been ported to it. I sneered at Macs and laid contempt on Mac users.

(Side note: Neal Stephenson speaks far more eloquently than me about the differences between operating systems, and how a person's choice in OS speaks about their personality and how they choose to engage with the world. It's out of print and fairly dated, but I strongly recommend picking up a copy of "In the Beginning... Was the Command Line" if this topic is even slightly interesting to you. It will blow your mind.)

After Windows 95 came out, my relationship with Microsoft steadily soured. I initially saw 95 as being too Mac-like; later, I just got mad that my old games didn't run right on it and the computer would crash for no reason, which I never saw on my old computers. I was particularly infuriated that, after it crashed, when you restarted the computer it would bring up a screen saying "You did not shut down your computer properly." I'm not a swearing person, but I would yell out loud at the PC, "YOU'RE the one who freaking crashed! Don't try and pin this on me! I hate you!" One night, I spent over an hour working on an emotionally draining and potentially life-changing email, just to see a Blue Screen of Death when I clicked "Send." The very next day, I got a copy of Linux and wiped Windows entirely from my drive.

Moving back to Apple: I felt more amused than anything when I heard that Jobs was returning. To me, it felt like the last gasp of a dying company, a Hail Mary before its inevitable defeat. When I re-aligned to Linux, I lose my old antagonism towards Apple. Different strokes for different folks, I'd think. I personally don't want to spend two thousand dollars on a pretty box that's great for video editing, but that's just me; if others want to do that, they should go for it. As Apple kept afloat, and even began reclaiming some lost ground, my stance softened even more. Any enemy of my enemy is my friend, I'd say, and we're all in this together against Microsoft.

(My reasons for hating Microsoft are manifold and vast, far beyond irritation at their crummy software crashing on me. A full enumeration of their evils will need to wait for a future post.)

I turned over to actually liking Apple once OS X was announced. It was a backdoor too my heart, since it's built on Unix and I do love Unix. And Aqua was beautiful; again, it's easy to forget how revolutionary it was at the time. Again, I didn't want to spend money on a new Apple computer and didn't really need any of their software, but they won my respect and I decided they were the good guys.

Sometimes I wonder if Jobs is as surprised as us at how digital music has become Apple's bread and butter. It's a revolutionary break from Apple's traditional business, but at the same time it's a natural jump and they've clearly proved the wisdom of their choice. My current situation is that I admire Apple from a distance. I occasionally buy music from iTunes (although I prefer bleep), but have yet to ever buy any Apple hardware. Who knows; the video iPod just might be my first.