Saturday, September 30, 2006

We hope that you don't mind that our producer was caught doing blow

As I've previously discussed, I'm more of an Apple fan now than I have been in the past. As I don't think I've mentioned, though, I'm also a fan of very early Apple. I always thought PCs were better than Apples, but the STORIES about Apple were way better. One of my favorite books growing up was Steven Levy's excellent Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution, and I thrilled to read about the Homebrew Computing Club and the two Steves making a computer for hobbyists.

So even if I wasn't currently feeling up about Apple, I still would have wanted to go and hear Steve Wozniak speak up in Menlo Park on Tuesday. Even when I was down on Apple, Woz was still one of the Good Guys, a true engineer with passion for design. While I'm not intimately familiar with him in the same way I am with, say, Richard Garriot, I still know enough to dig him.

He has been getting a fair amount of media attention recently, largely as a result of his recently published memoir "iWoz". I've enjoyed learning about his present life: he lives in Los Gatos Hills, fairly close to where I work, and has an amazing house and a personal fleet of Segways. He seems like a generally interesting geeky guy, who has retained his curiosity and channeled it as he grows older.

The book signing was at 7PM at the Menlo Park Barnes & Noble. That's just about the worst time possible, since it requires driving on 101 during rush hour. I decided to leave home around 5:45, reasoning that if by some miracle I wasn't delayed I could still easily kill any extra time in the bookstore.

Of course, traffic was awful, and I didn't pull into the lot until an hour later (after an unplanned detour to the shopping mall). I found a nice parking spot close to the door, and was amazed to see a person rolling up to the store on a Segway. Could this be Woz? He looked about the right size, though he didn't look that close to the pictures I'd seen in the paper. I snapped a picture anyways in case it was him, then went inside.

Even though the event wasn't supposed to start for another 10 minutes, Woz was already deep into his talk by the time I got there. There was a good turnout, enough that I couldn't get real close but not so much that I couldn't see him well. I'd guess maybe about 100 people total were there; this being Silicon Valley and the home of so many nerds, I had seriously worried that the bookstore would be overwhelmed by fanatics, but the low promotion for the event seems to have controlled that somewhat.

Woz's actual talk was fascinating. He is such an unreconstructed nerd; he became visibly excited when describing some circuit designs he had made, even though he has to have told these stories hundreds of times by now. I was also impressed by what a good speaker he was. Obviously, technical types aren't generally renowned for being good verbal communicators, so my expectations were low, but he was quite enjoyable to listen to, with good diction and great source material. He was occasionally funny, and always interesting.

One theme that kept rising in his talk was that of money. He never exactly called himself poor, but he did describe his concerns growing up: not having enough money for college, not having enough for a computer, not being sure if he'd be able to buy a house. At first I sort of took this as kind of a variation on the log cabin storytelling... "My family was so poor that..." I came to realize, though, that his acute sensitivity to scarcity may well be a prime factor in his genius. While he has a lot of passions, one that he seems most proud of was his ability to build minimalist processing systems. Where others would use fifteen circuits, he would use eight, and then figure out how to cut it down to six, then four, then three. He would design these circuits on paper because he didn't have enough money to buy them; later on, he could afford to make a computer only because his designs were so compact and required few parts. Ultimately, although he didn't explicitly say this, the reason the Apple II became a huge success was because of this drive of his to create the best thing he could out of the fewest parts at the lowest cost.

The funniest part of the talk was when he was describing starting the company with Steve Jobs. Jobs said, "What about Apple?" Woz said, "Isn't that the Beatles' company?" Jobs said, "Oh, it's a record company. That's totally different." That got the biggest laugh of the night.

Actually, there were a few times when he dug into Apple lore. Almost as an off-hand comment, he said that neither he nor Jobs was aware of the significance of the numbers 666 when they priced their first computer at $666.66. Woz just likes repeating numbers.

Listening to him talk was a bit like watching a train: he wasn't going to stop for anything. Again, it was all good stuff, so I didn't mind, but he just kept going and going in chronological order; if he hadn't eventually halted, he would have blown all the way forward to the present. As it was, his monologue basically went up through the launch, dominance, and decline of the Apple II, with some brief references to the later Apple computers.

He spent a good amount of time answering questions. One of the first was about the US Festival, a huge music and technology event in the 80s which Woz funded. After answering the question, this exchange occurred:
Woz: "Does that sound fun to you? A huge concert with a lot of great bands and amazing, cutting-edge electronics?"
Audience: "Yes!"
Woz: "Suppose that we held another one, say in 2007, right here in the Bay Area. Would you want to come?"
Audience: "YES!"
Woz: "Interesting." (Longish pause.) "That's all."

Someone asked about Woz's work with kids. He described a conversation he had with his dad when he was twelve years old, during which he said something like, "When I grow up, I'm going to make computers, and I'm going to teach fifth grade." He remembered that, and while he was at college he took classes like psychology that he thought would be helpful to a teacher. In the early 90s he started volunteering at the Los Gatos school district, helping them upgrade and network their computers, began teaching small groups of students and gradually added more and more until he had an entire class. It sounds like he really enjoyed the experience, but now it's done and he probably won't do it again.

In response to another question, he says that he doesn't really do any engineering work any more, just because his days are so crowded that he can't devote the time he needs to it. These days he corresponds an awful lot, does some public speaking and special events. The last time he did engineering was to build a remote (though he will contradict this later on).

In his main talk, he described Hewlett Packard in glowing terms: it was his dream place to work, a place he wanted to spend the rest of his life, and he was heartbroken when he needed to leave it to start Apple. He loved it because it was an engineering-focused company that treated its employees with utmost respect and fostered a collegial atmosphere. Someone asked if he could think of any companies today that are like HP was in the 70s (it going without saying that HP itself no longer is special in that way). I was expecting him to say Google, or at least mention Google as a possibility, but he couldn't think of any. He thought that if there were any, they were probably smaller companies, and said it's very difficult for a big company to maintain that kind of attitude. Interestingly, he says that Apple itself never tried to be an HP-like company: from the beginning it was a marketing-driven company, where they would decide what would sell and then build it, as opposed to HP, where the engineers would come up with an idea and the marketers would try to find customers for it.

Someone asked about his hobbies. He has a ton, but he talked about the Segway, which he loves. He talked about all the everyday and non-ordinary things he does with it, showing an engineer's love of using the right tool for a job: "There's no point in getting into the car and starting the engine when you don't NEED the WHOLE car. The Segway is great because it fills that gap between what you can walk to and when you need to drive." He briefly mentioned traveling to New Zealand for the first championship game of Segway Polo (I think he played, though I could be wrong about that). He also talked about how much fun he had modifying his Segway; he reprogrammed his onboard controller to remove the built-in speed limit, and has since taken it faster than 100 miles per hour.

The questions actually sort of petered out before the end, to the point where there were longish pauses between people raising their hands. After answering one lame person who asked him about what he thought of computers' power consumption (which I happened to know was a story playing on NPR immediately prior to the event), he thanked everyone and started signing books.

I actually ducked out soon after this. I had been planning on buying a book and having him sign, but there weren't any employees explaining how that would work, and everyone in line already had a book. Besides, it was getting late and, as much as I would have loved (briefly) meeting Woz in person, I was really hungry for some In-N-Out. I'd fulfilled my dream of seeing and listening to one of the great giants of computing, and could drive home satisfied.

Totally unrelated thoughts:

I bought four avocados at Trader Joe's on Monday, on the mistaken assumption that they would keep for a long time. Upon learning my error, I have decided to declare this weekend Guacamole Madness in September and October.

It's really hard to find dry vermouth. You'd think that since it's often used in cooking it'd be easy to find in a grocery store, but none I've tried so far have had it. Friendly neighborhood liquor store, here I come!

Civilization IV: Warlords is fun. I am not. That's the conclusion I've come to after several frustrating games spent trying to become a warmonger. I realized part way through the second one that, as best as I recall, I have not played a warlike game of Civ since the original Civilization. Now, I have done war scenarios, and I will occasionally fight a war when I can gain a specific advantage from it, but still: for the past decade I've pursued a strongly scientific strategy in Civ, and it's kind of depressing how bad I am at conquering the world. I'll try a bit more... this expansion adds some toys which are too much fun for me to ignore, and with luck I can grasp the strategy and tactics needed to really succeed.

"Brick" is probably the best movie I've seen this year. I'm reluctant to recommend it to people because it's so far out there, and you probably need to have a very specific type of mind (and background) to appreciate it. Still, if you get the chance, check it out.

It's hard to believe it's just about five weeks until the midterm elections. I remember in 2004 when I constantly thought about politics; lately, while I'm still passionate about my core principles, I just haven't had the time and energy to keep track of the day-to-day struggles. I'm delighted to read that the Dems have a shot at picking up a chamber... probably won't happen, but it's good to see them in this position for a change.

Saturday, September 16, 2006

California Love

This last week I was on my first-ever "real" business trip. Real in the sense that I was sent by a company to a specific place for the express purpose of making money for the company, and will be reimbursed for the expenses I incurred during the week. In theory this sounds pretty nice. The week started out great and gradually got worse and worse with each day, until I was constantly contemplating the infliction of physical harm against the people around me.

The best thing I can say about the trip was that it was very educational for me. I have even higher respect now for the client-facing people in our company; they need to deal with unreasonable people day in and day out, and do a darn good job at it. I've also thought a fair amount about my own temperament and motivators. At work I can code for ten straight hours and walk away feeling energetic and excited, because I've accomplished something and have something to show for my efforts. This past week, I ended every day exhausted. One of those days it was because I was kept at the office until 1AM, but even on the others, I felt more wasted walking out the door than ever before, and I think that's mainly because of how my days there were structured. I was constantly busy, but felt like I accomplished very little. I held hands and talked and listened, and every once in a while wrote some code but almost none of that will ever ship. Eh. Maybe I was just in a bad mood, but I wondered several times how long it would take me to quit if my real job was like this.

But it's all better now: I'm back in California! I wanted to fall to my knees and kiss the tarmac when I pulled back into San Jose. My blood pressure has been steadily dropping for the past 24 hours, and now I'm back to my standard calm and positive self. I attribute this in part to an excellent hike I took this morning. No pictures, unfortunately, since I foolishly left my camera at home, but it was still excellent: about 14 miles in Sanborn Park, a bit under 6 hours of hiking, including some good rock climbing and two absolutely phenomenal views of the Santa Clara valley. I tend to associate good views of the valley with hikes in the Diablo range, since the Santa Cruz mountains are so densely wooded and seem to jut in and out more. From Indian Rock and Summit Rock you can catch a breathtaking sweep of the area, from the Bay (which I don't think I've ever really seen from the Santa Cruz mountains before) past Moffett Field over to Diablo down south to the convergence, with all the bustling urbanity on display in the middle.

Ahem. Anyways, that was fun. It feels kind of weird to be relatively routine-based, but it's so calming to be back to my Saturday hikes again. Here's hoping I'll have many more of them!

Thursday, September 14, 2006

I'm sorry, San Francisco is closed today

One of the first special activities I took part in after moving to the Bay Area was last year's Power to the Peaceful, an annual peace/love/music type of gathering in Golden Gate Park. It was really wonderful, an incredible experience that totally drove home for me what kind of place I was living in and what things I had access to.

So the question came: would I go again this year? I found myself oddly conflicted. On the one hand, the previous experience had been wonderful, and it would give me an excuse to visit my favorite city again, and as a general policy I'm always up for special events. On the other hand, I had already, like, DONE it before; besides, I would be flying out for a business trip the next day and wasn't sure if I really wanted to spend four hours riding on trains the day before a flight to Chicago.

When I woke up, I basically went, "Ehhh... why not!" Ignoring the ominous music that suddenly started to play, I calmly ate breakfast and scooted over to the Caltrain station.

Just like last time, my train pulled out of the station with me still worrying if my car would be towed by the time I came back. Then, it would have been entirely justified, as I did not have exact change for the parking machine and was loathe to overpay for my vehicle. This time, I pulled into the lot, and as I was walking inside I passed a sign which had JUST been erected saying that parking was $10 for the day. Needless to say, I did not run back to pay ten dollars, and calmly (but with great worry) I proceeded to the train.

I have been up to San Francisco... over a dozen times, I don't know exactly how many. This was the first time, in over a year of coming, that I made the classic tourist error and underdressed. I ALWAYS remember to bring a long-sleeve shirt, even in July and August, just because sooner or later I'll need it. This time, I was cheerfully riding all the way up with just my normal San Jose-appropriate short sleeves. It wasn't until after I crossed the city lines and saw the impenetrable wall of clouds that I realized what an error I had made.

By now I'm comfortable enough getting around the city that I don't even bother looking up map and transit information before I go; I either know how to get there, or know enough that I can find it with a minimum of wandering. I could almost get to Golden Gate Park in my sleep now: Caltrain, N line, walk north.

One of the cool things about Power to the Peaceful is finding it. The roads get all twisty and weird once you're in the park, and there are few signs, so you don't really know exactly where it is; instead, you just head in the general direction until start to hear the music. Then you just walk whatever direction you need to make it louder, until it becomes overpowering and you're at the festival. This year, the first thing I heard was a house remix of "Another Brick in the Wall Part 2". It was a good omen.

Or so I thought. There are plenty of reasons why this year wasn't as much fun for me as last year. Topping the list would be the completely cloudy skies, me feeling too chilly in short sleeves, and just being in a general bad mood. Last year, I remember being utterly delighted at the amazing range of activist organizations set up there, and marvelling how you probably wouldn't find a single one of them at a similar event in Kansas City. This time around, I found myself avoiding those same tables and signs, telling myself that it was because I had come for the music, but really because I just didn't feel like I had the energy to interact with people.

The music was phenomenal, and worth the trip by itself. I arrived early enough to catch the entirety of the first act, "Sila and the Afrofunk Experience." I love funk music, but am supremely ignorant, so I just sort of do my white boy bob and groove when I have the chance. The set seemed kind of short, but was very solid. The crowd was still on the smallish side, but they brought tons of enthusiasm to the show with lots of dancing, cheering, singing, generally being right with the world. As with last year, I was impressed by the diversity of the crowd. There were plenty of white-haired ladies and gents that one does not typically associate with such an event, and there were enough there that they did not look out of place. Alongside them were plenty of young children, couples, singles, groups, all manner and variety of people.

Like I said, the set was kind of short. It was followed by some poetry, including a really funny and oddly poignant piece on the virtues of stealing from one's employer, in which the poet talked about his late-90s experience working for Kinko's. There was also an impressive rap by two local youths talking about the conflict between virtue and desire.

After a while they broke up the poetry and went back to pre-recorded music, so I resumed wandering. I walked past the DJ tent, which last year was just an amazing place with phenomenal music and a nearly solid mass of dancers. This year it was just sad, one very lonely DJ spinning some good tunes while people stood around and stared. I remain unsure why there was such a radical difference. Part could very well be the temperature again; though if you ask me, dancing is a great way to keep warm. I also remember, though, that last year there was a sort of makeshift floor erected. People were dancing on the grass, but there was... rubber tubing or something which marked out a rectangle in front of the tent. I think that might have sent a message of some sort that people responded to, something like "dancing is acceptable here." And, of course, these things tend to snowball; it's very hard to get people to start dancing, but once a certain mass is achieved, it becomes self-sustaining.

I kept walking, and waaaaaay on the other side of the field was the emergency backup stage. It was a smaller, seemingly more kid-friendly venue, with just two staff people protecting the stage instead of six. I arrived for the last song or two from an excellent band with killer instruments, including stuff like an accordian, upright bass, cello, guitar. I thought the music sounded kind of Spanish, but I later learned that it is actually more French-influenced. Anyways, it was a great high-energy performance that didn't fit too neatly into any genre, and was the sort of thing I appreciated hearing.

As they left the stage, they were talked off by Radioactive, a man who I'm almost certain had a set on the main stage last year (and might have this time as well). He did an amazing beatbox while the stage was being rearranged, then introduced the next act, a set of kids from Youth Speaks, doing a hip hop message rap. They seemed fine; it's really not my scene, but I'm always impressed when people that young can own a sound like that. Still, I'm more about funk than rap, so I did an about face and went west again.

I took my time on the way back to the main stage, soaking in the great music... not as great as Sila and the Afrofunk Experience, these people had more of a harsh edge, but it was still good music. Nonetheless, my thoughts were dark. I was cold and becoming miserable; all the great music around me couldn't stop my steadily advancing crankiness, and I reasoned I should probably make an exit before I violated the spirit of Power to the Peaceful. I checked the sky to make sure - any sign of a break in the coulds and I would have stayed - but the grey haze seemed permanent. I hated the thought of missing Spearhead, but I wasn't sure I could make it that long, and away I went.

The trip back was uneventful. Oh, except that for once I made all my connections: got to the Muni just as a car was pulling up, got to Caltrain about twenty minutes before departure. I also saw that there was a Giants game that day, and walked through the hundreds of pedestrians and dozens of scalpers who were milling around the stadium. I'm guessing that game is why Caltrain was charging more for parking this day.

I felt oddly defeated riding home. It seemed to be a big bummer that I'd spent so much time on transit during my last day of freedom, and with just a few hours of admittedly great music to show for it. I didn't want to end on a down note, though, so when I got home I treated myself to a Mexican place that I have driven by dozens of times but haven't actually been to yet.

It's just a block or two from my house, and looks like a supremely unlikely place to find good food; it's called "TACOS MEXICOS" and occupies the corner of a strip mall, near by an auto repair shop. Still, I've learned that appearences can be deceiving, so I parked and went in. Even before I set foot inside, I had a good feeling about this trip, one that unlike the previously mentioned good feeling would actually bear fruit: a small sign invited people to visit their new location at Rico's in downtown Campbell. Rico's is the other Mexican place I've been meaning to check out; it recently opened, and has been very favorably reviewed in the local papers. An affiliation between the two joints seemed like it must be a good sign.

I always freeze up when I order food for the first time from a place, no matter how simple the menu was. And the menu here was quite simple: tacos, burritos, flautas and quesadillas. The prices were dirt-cheap; I ended up getting four tacos*, but could froze on the toppings. I really wanted al pastor, but that was not on the list; on the other hand, they did offer lengua, and I spent valuable decision time wondering if i was brave enough to eat cow tongue. I tend to really like carne asada, but was trying to be good about watching the source of my beef. I ultimately went with carnitas, and was fully pleased with the result (once I brought it home and popped open a Mexican soda). So fresh, such distinct flavors, so warm and yummy. I don't eat out that often, but will be tempted to hit them up again in the future.

The rest of the day just sort of unwinded. I finished packing for the big business trip, got in a chunk of reading and cleared a few errands off my plate. It seems like an odd way to celebrate California before leaving, but still... as the saying goes, "It's been an experience. Pity there had to be so much of it, though."

* This is going to sound sort of West-coast snobby, but "true" Mexican tacos are quite a bit smaller than the size you find at places like Taco Bell. They aren't stuffed with meat and lots of toppings like a burrito is, but are meant to provide a few basic complementary flavors that can be enjoyed in a few bites. So four tacos is actually still sort of on the light side for a meal.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Little Bits

Not up for a long post right now - work stuff has been weighing on me lately - but I wanted to touch base on a few things before they evaporate totally.

What To Eat by Marion Nestle - Excellent, excellent book. Big thanks to Pat for pointing this one out to me; it's so good that I'll probably buy the paperback when it comes out. If you're someone like me who periodically reads the news, even if you're not a health junkie, you're overwhelmed by the constant and contradictory reports on food. Eggs are bad for you... no, wait, they're good... no, the whites are good but the yolks are bad... no, the whole thing is good, but only if they're organic... no, wait...

Nestle is a professional nutritionist, and I love this book because it boils everything down to very simple, direct explanations of what you should eat, what you shouldn't, and what is optional. Her organizing motif is a trip through a supermarket, with each chapter devoted to a particular section, such as breakfast cereals, eggs, organic produce, etc. Each chapter is filled with really solid information about the issues in each category, including the industry's marketing, the history of that food in the US, and health claims, including those which are established, experimental, or disproven. Best of all, though, each chapter ends with a paragraph or two that says really directly how you should approach it. For example, on eggs: if you enjoy eggs, have up to one a day, but try to not eat as much meat if you have an egg.

I think that this book pairs very nicely with Fast Food Nation. FFN was more exclusively focused on meat, but is also what got me interested in the ways our politics have affected our diets; before reading that book, I never thought about how the federal government's huge corn subsidies helped encourage consumption of soda and cheap hamburgers. Nestle gives an even broader explanation of this phenomenon, and I'm guessing her "Food Politics" probably goes into more detail. Anyways, FFN was great at sounding an alarm for a particular section of the market ("Most meat produced in the United States is unsafe and should not be eaten"), and earned my respect by saying what to do about it ("Don't patronize national fast-food chain restaurants until they change their ways, and buy organic meat, especially if you eat beef.") Nestle basically takes that approach and expands it to everything you might buy in a supermarket. I've already gone shopping since finishing this, and it really is pretty incredible what a big impact the book has made on me: I hesitate less, feel better about how I'm spending my money, and know what to look for on labels and what to pass over entirely. It's also been affecting my diet still more; my breakfasts are a lot more varied, healthy, and tasty than they were three months ago.

So, this book is highly recommended. Even if you don't read this book, the next time you're at the library, please at least read her first chapter. In less than ten pages she gives a clearer and more helpful explanation of healthy diets than I've seen anywhere else, and in my opinion that information alone is worth the price of the book. Everything else that comes after is great; that first part should be required reading.

Desperado - I'm now 2/3 through the Mariachi trilogy. It was pretty good... I think I preferred El Mariachi, but this was still well worth watching. Antonio Banderas is a very, very, very different actor from the guy in the first movie, and I think that irrevocably changes the movie... he's no longer an essentially nice guy who has been swept up in violence, but a Grade A fighter who is much more heroic (though, in my opinion, less sympathetic) than his predecessor. Salma Hayek is stunning.


My favorite three parts of the movie:

First, towards the very beginning, in the instant when the Mariachi stares out towards the frozen crowd and hears the clapping. You see the guy in the plaid shirt from the first movie, and in that split second a chill runs down my spine. Even before I can articulate it I get that feeling I feel so often in dreams - "This person does not belong in this place." That was really cool, and I felt a little gypped when there weren't any more dream sequences later in the film. As I've mentioned before, that was one of my favorite things about the original.

Second, when his two friends show up to help him fight. Prior to that scene I'd started to get a little annoyed at some parts of the movie that seemed unrealistic and contrived. But, once someone starts shooting missiles out of a guitar case... really, at that point, there's no point in worrying about what the director is trying for. At that point everyone is on the same page and, hopefully, agreeing to have a fun time.

Finally, I liked the line at the very end where he says, "Everyone I've killed has been someone's father, someone's brother, someone's son." They didn't do anything with it, but I thought it was a really powerful sentiment. They at least acknowledge that the slaughter of everyone he has killed affects someone as much as this one particular boy affects him.

Honorable mentions: Steve Buscemi was awesome. The fighting scenes in general were really excellent; it's important to remember that this came out several years before the Matrix, and was probably revolutionary for its time.

My least favorite parts of the movie:

I didn't like the kid. Nothing personal; I never like the kid. I hate all these movies where the big, strong, tough guy needs to find an adorable little urchin so he can Show His Sensitive Side and become Emotionally Involved and Learn Important Lessons. This was an awful trend in the early 90s, and I'm very grateful that the trend seems to have largely died off now. (Ironically, I think we now have better child actors than ever before, but we're putting them to much better use than the Moppet Foil.)

The catchphrase was just dumb. "Did I thank you?" "No." "You will." I mean... it just... gah. I keep going over it, and it's even stupider every time I think of it.

Those complaints aside, it was a fun ride. I'm already looking forward to Once Upon A Time in Mexico.


Dave Barry's Money Secrets: Like: Why Is There A Giant Eyeball On The Dollar? - This is the first Dave Barry book I've read since... hm. Big Trouble, maybe? That or the Guide to Guys. No, wait: I think it was his gift guide book.

Anyways, it's funny stuff. It's semi-coincidental that I stopped buying a Sunday paper around the time Dave stopped doing a column. He hasn't been as consistently funny in recent years as he was previously, but when he's on fire, he's still one of the funniest print writers in America. And the best thing about doing a book, of course, is that it's generally the best material. You don't get that feeling of, "Geez, I guess he didn't come up with anything before his deadline."

I'd heard of this book when I caught an interview with Dave on the Motley Fool radio program. The interview was way more informative than the book: he sounds like he has a decent grasp of finances, and talked about how he and his accountant crunched numbers to figure out whether he could afford to stop writing a column. For some reason I kind of got the impression that the book was really funny, but also imparted some basic useful financial information. I was wrong: it is funny, and like every other Dave Barry book, is completely and utterly useless.

Also, it's kind of funny when you read his books (which I've been doing since the 80s) and see the ways in which they become more topical (the latest references Suze Orman), and at the same time, how much seems as relevant now as it did 20 years ago (the latest also references Donald Trump and Mick Jagger). I get the same feeling when I read the new Opus comic strips.

Also: the last two New Yorker issues have been among the best I've read yet, and that's saying something. I'm always glad to subscribe; these last weeks, it has been almost revelatory. Also, I realize that reading the magazine for two years has badly spoiled me. I recently subscribed to The Atlantic Monthly, and while I enjoyed the first issue, I was shocked - shocked! - by some of the sloppy writing that somehow slipped past the editors.

Yes, I am fully aware of the irony of complaining on my blog about sloppy writing. Now go to bed.

Saturday, September 02, 2006

Too Much Clicking!

I read a great article on Gamasutra that was both fascinating and infuriating, simultaneously totally correct and absolutely wrong. It interests me as a coder, a designer, and a gamer, and since I so rarely get this excited about something, I figured I'd share my percolating thoughts.

I feel like the author gets the big picture mainly right, and has some good ideas for a solution; however, he gets the details wrong. The article is long, so let me summarize: there is Too Much Clicking! As computers become more powerful, they allow players to control more aspects of the game - he focuses on the number of units in strategy games. However, the player becomes bogged down in the number of decisions to make, spends all of his or her time tediously clicking, and as a result the game is less fun to play than it would be with fewer units.

The biggest problem I have with this article is that his main example, the Civ series, is a horrible one to use. First off, he bases his entire argument around Civ III, and off-handedly dismisses Civ IV as just being a graphical update that doesn't solve the underlying problem. This is completely and utterly backwards. The single greatest thing about Civ IV, in my opinion, is the incredible progress it makes towards solving the very problems he talks about: minimizing the amount of repetitive work a player needs to do. This was a core goal of the Civ team, as has been discussed for well over a year in interviews with the designers, and I think they greatly succeeded. They accomplished this through gameplay changes (no longer needing to clean up pollution, less painful civil unrest), through interface changes (more tasks such as changing build orders and setting research goals now available from the main map), and through successful encapsulation (the option of automating settlers, using city governors, etc.).

Not to mention that the Civ franchise isn't a good example of his core contention, that more powerful PCs have caused us to use more units. My current PC is roughly 400 times faster than the one I played the original Civilization on, yet there aren't that many more units than were in that game. I think the author's point applies more to real-time strategy games than turn-based ones, so it's odd that he focuses so much on Civ. In my experience, turn-based games have a much better appreciation for how much a player can reasonably be expected to keep track of.

Leaving aside the fact that his examples bug me, though, what's his point? It's essentially that today, most strategy games are God games, where the player has control over all the minute details. He would like to see the character much more in the role of, say, a general or a president, who has a limited number of subordinates that take and follow orders, but who is not responsible for ordering the actions of each individual soldier or citizen. In this way there are less conceptual objects for the player to interact with, and he or she can better focus on long-term goals than minutiae.

He has a number of interesting digressions. One is that he dislikes the choice many games (including Civ IV) present of "We'll handle the details for you, but if you want to you can take over them and control it yourself." He dislikes this because, first, AI has not yet evolved to the point where it will make decisions as good as what the player would make. On a related note, in competitive multiplayer games, someone who controls the minutiae will have an advantage over, and beat, someone who delegates to the AI.

On a possibly related note, he seems to hate 14 year old boys. I wasn't sure whether to be amused or annoyed by his obvious prejudice. Let's face facts: if you're a guy in your 20s, odds are extremely good you were a 14 year old boy at some point in your past. His annoyance seems to come down to the fact that these people are playing games the "wrong" way - such players are much better at clicking, and so they have an unfair advantage in cerebral strategy games. Personally, I think that the main (not sole) purpose of a game is to be entertaining, and that if someone gets pleasure out of clicking a lot and feeling like God when sending virtual soldiers to their death, that's just as valid a way to play the game as someone who enjoys being an armchair general.

(That said, I think it does behoove game designers to push players in the right direction. I love a lot of the changes that went into Civ IV, but didn't realize until after I started playing it just how much tedium I had endured previously.)

I think that Civ IV could conceivably stand as a powerful counterargument to the author's thesis. Again, he would like to see a very limited number of actors who the player interacts with in order to accomplish their goals - in the case of Civ, I would imagine this would look a lot like a game where you deal mostly with your advisors rather than units. But I think Civ IV shows the enormous improvements that can be realized by streamlining an interface, as opposed to radically restructuring it. This makes sense - if it's easy and quick to interact with items, you can handle more of them before you start to lose track of what's going on. In my opinion, the classic problem with Civ is not that you have 30 cities or that you have 100 units, it's that each turn takes 15 minutes and when you start your next session you can't remember what that one settler was supposed to do. Civ IV has too many solutions to this problem to mention here, but to pick a single example, you can now set rally points: "Every unit built by these 3 cities from now on should be sent to this location." That way you can forget about the tedious task of remembering what city a unit came from and is going to, and instead save your brain cells for the more interesting problem of who your units should attack once they've all arrived.

Still, I think the author's core assertion is right: too many games do require too much micromanaging to succeed, and future design should help the player stay focused on the most interesting aspects of the game.

His technical thoughts are right on as well... I love OOP and design patterns, but it's always confusing when technical terms overload words from the real world, and the definition of "Object" is probably Exhibit A. Personally, I think that everyone who graduates with a CS degree should be required to implement the Visitor pattern, just to get that into their head. We need to think about systems, not just items.

I think his idea of a user interface profiler is wonderful as well. I've never particularly enjoyed doing user interface work, yet my two major jobs have largely consisted of it: first developing a web interface at Cerner, and more recently working on the BREW client at Rocket Mobile. In both cases, I can sort of intuit when something is a good or a bad interface, but at least from what I see, there's very little process that goes into developing a standard. There are a few good hard and fast rules (CLR should always take you back a screen, all events should be responded to within half a second), but so much of the time it seems clear that the requirements are written by someone drawing on a screen, and not actually using a device. I love the author's idea of transforming evaluation of UI from a purely qualitative experience into a largely quantifiable one. (The way he wants to do it, incidentally, is really quite simple - log what the user does by counting key presses, mouse movements, mouse clicks, etc., then generate an overall score expressing how much effort the user took to accomplish their tasks.) It will never become a sole standard, but this could be a very low-cost way to quickly identify bottlenecks that should be addressed.

Returning back to the core problem discussion: I think he is absolutely correct that current AI technology cannot be as effective as a human. However, I'm much less convinced that the proper response to this is to force all players to use that inferior AI so they have a level playing field. This is a recipe for frustration and disaster. The first time a player sends a general to wipe out some rebels, and that general fails, the player is likely to quit the game. It's one thing if you lost yourself - that's a case where you can try again, learn from your mistakes, and eventually figure out how to do it right. But when you fail because the game failed you, I think players will be a lot less forgiving.

So what's the proper solution? I can think of one short-term solution, one long-term one, and one radical one. The short-term solution is the Civ IV approach: make the AI as good as you can, minimize the harm that can be done by an ineffective AI, and allow the player to oversee or replace the AI. Even though I am a long-time Civ veteran, there were enough new features in Civ IV that I felt a little overwhelmed in my first game; rather than worry about all of them, I chose to focus on a few at a time. A big example is improvements. Back in the old days of Civ I, settlers could do exactly three things: irrigate, build roads, and build mines. Each type of terrain had a single type of improvement that made sense (irrigation on grassland, mines in hills), plus you could build roads everywhere, so it was always clear what I should be doing. In Civ IV, by contrast, there are a staggering number of improvements that you can build, both those particular to a resource (winery, pasture, quarry, oil platform, etc.), and those which apply to multiple terrains (windmills, lumbermills, workshops, cottages, etc.). I just wasn't prepared for it, so for that first game, I had the AI control all my workers. Fortunately, the AI is very good, and allows you a fair number of general instructions to give ("Improve the nearest city", "Build routes between cities", etc.), so I could be reasonably sure that they were doing what I wanted. Occasionally I would take control, if I wanted to make sure that a particular road was built ASAP or something similar, but for the most part I was highly impressed; the end results were far better than I was used to seeing in previous Civs, where automated settlers would irrigate deserts and otherwise be nonproductive. I continued to automate workers in the second game, but this time paid more attention to what they were doing, and came to get a good general idea of where it made sense to build windmills, the order in which to irrigate tiles, and other topics that had previously seemed arcane. These days, I manually control the settlers around a new city to achieve a certain objective - if I intend the city to be a commercial powerhouse I'll build a lot of cottages, while a future Great Person generator will contain many farms - but once it's secure, I feel fine automating my workers with instructions that they not mess with what I have already done. They do a good enough job, and it's not worth my time to micromanage them. Once again, I think that this is an excellent design for the current era of gaming: give the player the option to delegate decision-making, try to make those decisions as intelligently as possible, and allow the player to interfere with the automation whenever desired.

The long-term solution is to make the AI even better. When I want to take a city in Civ IV, I need to build up a force, select a target, assemble the force, and act to take that target. I know from playing against the computer that its AI is not very good; they require massive numbers to achieve objectives because they have an inadequate grasp of the strategy involved (though they are still better than in previous versions of Civ). However, if I had a Military Advisor who could fight as effectively as I can, I wouldn't mourn the loss of ability to control individual units. I'd love to be able to communicate something like, "All surplus production should be directed towards building and upgrading an offensive military force. Once it is ready, capture Sparta and then report back to me." To me, that's the fun part of Civ: the grand strategic maneuvers, not making sure that your catapult always has a good defender in the same square. Once AI advances to that level, I think that the author's article will be much more feasible to follow.

Now for the radical solution. I continue to be fascinated by the promise of Spore, Will Wright's upcoming everything-game. One little nugget of information is that as your creatures' DNA evolves, it will eventually be "sent back" to EA, which in turn will use it to seed other random "worlds", including those on other computers. This means that, when you start a new game of Spore, the creatures you will see under water and on land aren't just built-in to the game, or something randomly cooked up by the PC: they will be the result of (ahem) intelligent design on the part of thousands of other players who have worked hard to come up with creatures that can survive and thrive. I find this wonderful because, again, humans are much better at this stuff than computers are, so every player's game will be enhanced by the work done by thousands of other players, without any one of them needing to do anything.

(Tangent: here's a cool presentation of Spore at E3. Will Wright shows off some gameplay, and chats a bit about the game; towards the end, Robin Williams takes over the controls and creates a hilarious creature.)

I would love to see something similar done for games like Civ. What's awesome about Civ is that it's a game for everyone: whether you love the military strategy, or the diplomacy, or building the physical empire, you'll be able to do it. What's not so awesome is that you also need to do the things you don't enjoy so much, or your empire will fall. What if the game allowed you to focus on just the parts you enjoyed, while human-created intelligence took care of the rest? For example, you could play the role of Commander In Chief and play the entire game marshalling your units and taking over enemies, while trusting the brainiacs to keep discovering cool new weapons for your army, and the builders to ensure you have a steady supply of trained soldiers. The whole time you are playing, the game is paying attention to what you do - seeing how you react to particular tactical situations, what sort of reconnaissance you do prior to taking a city, when you upgrade your forces. At the end of the game, it takes note of your overall performance, and decides how formidable you are and how to characterize your strategy. This tactical information is uploaded to Firaxis's site; when I start my game, I'll decide that I don't want to focus on military, so I'll look and see what intelligences are available. I might see "Scorched Earth Sherman," "Multiple Theater Manfred," "Defensive Dennis." I'll install one, issue occasional instructions when appropriate, and fire him if I decide I'm displeased with his performance. (Conversely, if you're playing as the general and decide you don't like President "One Defender Per City Chris", you can orchestrate a coup and install "Billions of Bombers Brad" instead.) The goal is to let each player focus on what's most fun for them, and leverage the intelligence of other players to create a game with more personality and smarts than a few programmers could throw together.

In games other than Civ, the possibilities are even more exciting. Imagine an espionage game where some players focus on selecting missions and equipping teams, and other players actually carry out the missions. Or a real-time strategy game where one player has a view of the entire battlefield, and other players get to focus on particular objectives. In that example, the click-happy 14 year old boy can click like crazy to take over a gold mine, while the grumpy Gamasutra writer can see the larger context of that gold mine, send reinforcements when appropriate, and plan for the next move.

Anyways. That's it for the article. Now that I'm thinking about it, I thought I'd write a bit about why I'm responding so strongly to it.

I've recently thought a fair amount about how my attitude towards games has changed. It was only a few years ago that I could easily spend hours and hours each day on games of all kind: I'd be playing an RPG for hundreds of hours on my PC, plus Super Smash Brothers Melee and Virtua Fighter 4 against my dorm buddies, plus stupid Flash games, plus the games I was actually WRITING, etc. These days, I can easily go for a week without playing any games at all. I just have so little time left to play games, and when I do get free time there's a lot of competition for what I'd like to be doing with that time. Games often get the shaft.

Which is pretty sad, because I enjoy gaming so much. The best games I have ever played, ones like Ultima VI and Ico and Civilization and many more, have touched me as deeply as any novel or movie. However, when it's hard for me to find time to watch a 2 hour movie, how much harder will it be to find time to beat Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion?

Because of that, I've been forced to be a lot more selective in my gaming. Even some ones I've mentioned on this blog I have had to step away from. Jagged Alliance 2 has been a lot of fun, and in the old days I'd be addicted, but each individual battle takes over an hour, and there will be more than a hundred battles to get through it, so I'm just not able to steel myself to continue it. I started a platformer called Cave Story which is really retro and, again, a really fun game; but it's taking a long time to play through, it's too easy to die, and once again, I don't think I'll be able to stick through it to completion.

So what games do I play? It depends. RPGs are still my first love, so it's inevitable that I will play Oblivion some day, possibly when I'm unemployed. However, the way I play these games is different from before. I play purely for the story, for the excitement of discovery, and for the pleasure of losing myself in a virtual world. There was a time when I would have been interested in building up super-powerful characters, or spending hours to find the ultimate weapons and spells. No more. That sort of effort is time that I could be spending on an entirely different game, and the amount of pleasure it brings me just isn't enough to justify the opportunity cost.

That's also why I got such a kick out of Grim Fandango: when you play a good adventure game, almost nothing is rote or repetitive. Every thing you do in the entire game is either story or puzzle, so you are either being entertained or actively solving a problem. At every step of that game, I felt like I was doing what I wanted to be doing, not doing grunt work so I could do something fun later on.

On a sidenote, I think this is a big reason why I love GTA: It fits so nicely into my new situation. The mission-based structure lets me feel like I've accomplished something even if I can only play for half an hour before bed. At the same time, the unbelievable scope and sweep of the game world make me feel like I'm not being limited, and if I have time, I love exploring the nooks and crannies. I'll never spend the time to, say, find all 100 snapshots in San Fierro, but I will love cruising past the ferry building at midnight and spotting a car for the import/export docks. The sheer number of things you can stumble across in those games make it a very fun-dense game.

And really, it is all about fun. There was a point where I realized, "You know what? Getting a 100% completion score just isn't as much fun as messing around. Just let it go." It feels weird to think about fun so analytically, like it can be measured and quantified, but the truth of the matter is, I know when I'm having fun and when I'm not, and I do prefer the former.

Bringing it back around to the original topic: this article resonates with me so much because I've come to realize that I've put up with an awful lot of non-fun parts of games: leveling up to take on the boss, cleaning up pollution, trying to find 4 pieces of bloodmoss in the swamp. In the past those have been acceptable game design choices because they increased the complexity and length of games, and people in their target audience demanded games which lasted longer. As the games market continues to expand, though, it will be critical for developers to offer games which appeal to busier people who want the fun, challenge, and escapism of a good game, and to have it delivered in doses as concentrated as possible. This may lead to a bifurcated market, with "real" games on one side of the aisle and "mini" or "light" games on the other; what I would prefer to see, though, is an increase in games like Civ IV or the GTA franchise that flex themselves according to the whims of the player. Such games will reward the player no matter how they prefer to play, which will expand the market of consumers for each game and expand the universe of games for each consumer. I have hope that this will happen.