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Sunday, June 28, 2009

Interrupts and Context Switching
To drastically simplify how computers work, you could say that computers do nothing more that shuffle bits (i.e. 1s and 0s) around. All computer data is based on these binary digits, which are represented in computers as voltages (5 V for a 1 and 0 V for a 0), and these voltages are physically manipulated through transistors, circuits, etc... When you get into the guts of a computer and start looking at how they work, it seems amazing how many operations it takes to do something simple, like addition or multiplication. Of course, computers have gotten a lot smaller and thus a lot faster, to the point where they can perform millions of these operations per second, so it still feels fast. The processor is performing these operations in a serial fashion - basically a single-file line of operations.

This single-file line could be quite inefficent and there are times when you want a computer to be processing many different things at once, rather than one thing at a time. For example, most computers rely on peripherals for input, but those peripherals are often much slower than the processor itself. For instance, when a program needs some data, it may have to read that data from the hard drive first. This may only take a few milliseconds, but the CPU would be idle during that time - quite inefficient. To improve efficiency, computers use multitasking. A CPU can still only be running one process at a time, but multitasking gets around that by scheduling which tasks will be running at any given time. The act of switching from one task to another is called Context Switching. Ironically, the act of context switching adds a fair amount of overhead to the computing process. To ensure that the original running program does not lose all its progress, the computer must first save the current state of the CPU in memory before switching to the new program. Later, when switching back to the original, the computer must load the state of the CPU from memory. Fortunately, this overhead is often offset by the efficiency gained with frequent context switches.

If you can do context switches frequently enough, the computer appears to be doing many things at once (even though the CPU is only processing a single task at any given time). Signaling the CPU to do a context switch is often accomplished with the use of a command called an Interrupt. For the most part, the computers we're all using are Interrupt driven, meaning that running processes are often interrupted by higher-priority requests, forcing context switches.

This might sound tedious to us, but computers are excellent at this sort of processing. They will do millions of operations per second, and generally have no problem switching from one program to the other and back again. The way software is written can be an issue, but the core functions of the computer described above happen in a very reliable way. Of course, there are physical limits to what can be done with serial computing - we can't change the speed of light or the size of atoms or a number of other physical constraints, and so performance cannot continue to improve indefinitely. The big challenge for computers in the near future will be to figure out how to use parallel computing as well as we now use serial computing. Hence all the talk about Multi-core processing (most commonly used with 2 or 4 cores).

Parallel computing can do many things which are far beyond our current technological capabilities. For a perfect example of this, look no further than the human brain. The neurons in our brain are incredibly slow when compared to computer processor speeds, yet we can rapidly do things which are far beyond the abilities of the biggest and most complex computers in existance. The reason for that is that there are truly massive numbers of neurons in our brain, and they're all operating in parallel. Furthermore, their configuration appears to be in flux, frequently changing and adapting to various stimuli. This part is key, as it's not so much the number of neurons we have as how they're organized that matters. In mammals, brain size roughly correlates with the size of the body. Big animals generally have larger brains than small animals, but that doesn't mean they're proportionally more intelligent. An elephant's brain is much larger than a human's brain, but they're obviously much less intelligent than humans.

Of course, we know very little about the details of how our brains work (and I'm not an expert), but it seems clear that brain size or neuron count are not as important as how neurons are organized and crosslinked. The human brain has a huge number of neurons (somewhere on the order of one hundred billion), and each individual neuron is connected to several thousand other neurons (leading to a total number of connections in the hundreds of trillions). Technically, neurons are "digital" in that if you were to take a snapshot of the brain at a given instant, each neuron would be either "on" or "off" (i.e. a 1 or a 0). However, neurons don't work like digital electronics. When a neuron fires, it doesn't just turn on, it pulses. What's more, each neuron is accepting input from and providing output to thousands of other neurons. Each connection has a different priority or weight, so that some connections are more powerful or influential than others. Again, these connections and their relative influence tends to be in flux, constantly changing to meet new needs.

This turns out to be a good thing in that it gives us the capability to be creative and solve problems, to be unpredictable - things humans cherish and that computers can't really do on their own.

However, this all comes with its own set of tradeoffs. With respect to this post, the most relevant of which is that humans aren't particularly good at doing context switches. Our brains are actually great at processing a lot of information in parallel. Much of it is subconscious - heart pumping, breathing, processing sensory input, etc... Those are also things that we never really cease doing (while we're alive, at least), so those resources are pretty much always in use. But because of the way our neurons are interconnected, sometimes those resources trigger other processing. For instance, if you see something familiar, that sensory input might trigger memories of childhood (or whatever).

In a computer, everything is happening in serial and thus it is easy to predict how various inputs will impact the system. What's more, when a computer stores its CPU's current state in memory, that state can be restored later with perfect accuracy. Because of the interconnected and parallel nature of the brain, doing this sort of context switching is much more difficult. Again, we know very little about how the humain brain really works, but it seems clear that there is short-term and long-term memory, and that the process of transferring data from short-term memory to long-term memory is lossy. A big part of what the brain does seems to be filtering data, determining what is important and what is not. For instance, studies have shown that people who do well on memory tests don't necessarily have a more effective memory system, they're just better at ignoring unimportant things. In any case, human memory is infamously unreliable, so doing a context switch introduces a lot of thrash in what you were originally doing because you will have to do a lot of duplicate work to get yourself back to your original state (something a computer has a much easier time doing). When you're working on something specific, you're dedicating a significant portion of your conscious brainpower towards that task. In otherwords, you're probably engaging millions if not billions of neurons in the task. When you consider that each of these is interconnected and working in parallel, you start to get an idea of how complex it would be to reconfigure the whole thing for a new task. In a computer, you need to ensure the current state of a single CPU is saved. Your brain, on the other hand, has a much tougher job, and its memory isn't quite as reliable as a computer's memory. I like to refer to this as metal inertia. This sort of issue manifests itself in many different ways.

One thing I've found is that it can be very difficult to get started on a project, but once I get going, it becomes much easier to remain focused and get a lot accomplished. But getting started can be a problem for me, and finding a few uninterrupted hours to delve into something can be difficult as well. One of my favorite essays on the subject was written by Joel Spolsky - its called Fire and Motion. A quick excerpt:
Many of my days go like this: (1) get into work (2) check email, read the web, etc. (3) decide that I might as well have lunch before getting to work (4) get back from lunch (5) check email, read the web, etc. (6) finally decide that I've got to get started (7) check email, read the web, etc. (8) decide again that I really have to get started (9) launch the damn editor and (10) write code nonstop until I don't realize that it's already 7:30 pm.

Somewhere between step 8 and step 9 there seems to be a bug, because I can't always make it across that chasm. For me, just getting started is the only hard thing. An object at rest tends to remain at rest. There's something incredible heavy in my brain that is extremely hard to get up to speed, but once it's rolling at full speed, it takes no effort to keep it going.
I've found this sort of mental inertia to be quite common, and it turns out that there are several areas of study based around this concept. The state of thought where your brain is up to speed and humming along is often referred to as "flow" or being "in the zone." This is particularly important for working on things that require a lot of concentration and attention, such as computer programming or complex writing.

From my own personal experience a couple of years ago during a particularly demanding project, I found that my most productive hours were actually after 6 pm. Why? Because there were no interruptions or distractions, and a two hour chunk of uninterrupted time allowed me to get a lot of work done. Anecdotal evidence suggests that others have had similar experiences. Many people come into work very early in the hopes that they will be able to get more done because no one else is here (and complain when people are here that early). Indeed, a lot of productivity suggestions basically amount to carving out a large chunk of time and finding a quiet place to do your work.

A key component of flow is finding a large, uninterrupted chunk of time in which to work. It's also something that can be difficult to do here at a lot of workplaces. Mine is a 24/7 company, and the nature of our business requires frequent interruptions and thus many of us are in a near constant state of context switching. Between phone calls, emails, and instant messaging, we're sure to be interrupted many times an hour if we're constantly keeping up with them. What's more, some of those interruptions will be high priority and require immediate attention. Plus, many of us have large amounts of meetings on our calendars which only makes it more difficult to concentrate on something important.

Tell me if this sounds familiar: You wake up early and during your morning routine, you plan out what you need to get done at work today. Let's say you figure you can get 4 tasks done during the day. Then you arrive at work to find 3 voice messages and around a hundred emails and by the end of the day, you've accomplished about 15 tasks, none of which are the 4 you had originally planned to do. I think this happens more often than we care to admit.

Another example, if it's 2:40 pm and I know I have a meeting at 3 pm - should I start working on a task I know will take me 3 solid hours or so to complete? Probably not. I might be able to get started and make some progress, but as soon my brain starts firing on all cylinders, I'll have to stop working and head to the meeting. Even if I did get something accomplished during those 20 minutes, chances are when I get back to my desk to get started again, I'm going to have to refamiliarize myself with the project and what I had already done before proceeding.

Of course, none of what I'm saying here is especially new, but in today's world it can be useful to remind ourselves that we don't need to always be connected or constantly monitoring emails, RSS, facebook, twitter, etc... Those things are excellent ways to keep in touch with friends or stay on top of a given topic, but they tend to split attention in many different directions. It's funny, when you look at a lot of attempts to increase productivity, efforts tend to focus on managing time. While important, we might also want to spend some time figuring out how we manage our attention (and the things that interrupt it).

(Note: As long and ponderous as this post is, it's actually part of a larger series of posts I have planned. Some parts of the series will not be posted here, as they will be tailored towards the specifics of my workplace, but in the interest of arranging my interests in parallel (and because I don't have that much time at work dedicated to blogging on our intranet), I've decided to publish what I can here. Also, given the nature of this post, it makes sense to pursue interests in my personal life that could be repurposed in my professional life (and vice/versa).)
Posted by Mark on June 28, 2009 at 03:44 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Infinite Summer
David Foster Wallace's mammoth novel Infinite Jest has been sitting on my shelf, unread, for at leat 5 years. I have noted on frequent occassions that it's a book that I should probably read at some point, but for various reasons, I could never find a time that felt right to read it. I'm not intimidated by its size. My favorite author is Neal Stephenson, and that guy hasn't written a novel shorter than 900 pages since the mid-90s (including the 3 part, 2700 page Baroque Cycle). To me, the problem was always that this novel seemed to be one of those post-modern exercises in literary style and cleverness, and my tolerance for such wankery had waned after reading the hugely complex and impenetrable Gravity's Rainbow (a book I like, to be sure, but that also made me want to chill out for a while). I'm generally a story-is-king kinda guy, so books that focus on exploring language and narrative style ahead of story and plot tend to grate on me unless they're really well done. It's not that such books are bad or that I can't enjoy them, it's just that I think it's a very difficult feat, and so whenever a new book of this style comes along, I have to wonder whether it's worth the trouble.

So the book has sat on my shelf, unread. In the wake of the author's untimely death last year, it seems that some fans have taken it upon themselves to encourage people to read Wallace's masterpiece. Their challenge:
Join endurance bibliophiles from around the world in reading Infinite Jest over the summer of 2009, June 21st to September 22nd. A thousand pages1 ÷ 92 days = 75 pages a week. No sweat.

1. Plus endnotesa.
a. A lot of them.
They're calling it Infinite Summer. Despite the strange mixture of measurement units in their equation (one would think the result would be in pages/day, but whatever), 75 pages a week does indeed sound like no sweat. And as luck would have it, I ran accross that site around the same time I was finishing up a book, and reading through some of the entries there finally made me interested enough to pick up the book and give it a shot.

I haven't read that much of it yet, but so far, I'm quite enjoying it. It's not nearly as pretentious as I feared, though it's obviously not beach or airport reading material either. It seems to rate somewhere between Cryptonomicon/Baroque Cycle and Gravity's Rainbow in terms of reading difficulty, though this may need some revision as I get further into the novel. When I read novels like this, there is a part of me that wants to stop everytime I find something I don't know about and figure that out before continuing. I read Gravity's Rainbow in that way, and there were times where it would take me an hour to read a single page. But after reading Jason Kottke's forward, I think I'm just going to relax this time around:
...you don’t need to be an expert in much of anything to read and enjoy this novel. It isn’t just for English majors or people who love fiction or tennis players or recovering drug addicts or those with astronomical IQs. Don’t sweat all the Hamlet stuff; you can worry about those references on the second time through if you actually like it enough to read it a second time. Leave your dictionary at home; let Wallace’s grammatical gymnastics and extensive vocabulary wash right over you; you’ll get the gist and the gist is more than enough. Is the novel postmodern or not? Who f’ing cares…the story stands on its own.
And thus I've begun my nfinite Summer...
Posted by Mark on June 24, 2009 at 05:42 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Wii Game Corner (again)
Some quick reviews for Wii games I've played recently:
  • Mario Kart Wii: One of the games I used to play all the time in college was the original Mario Kart for SNES (along with NHL 94/95 and GoldenEye). It was great fun, and with this latest installment, I find that Nintendo has more or less duplicated the simple and fun formula of the original installments (the last MK game I played was the one for N64) and made a few tweaks that make it feel fresh. The simple motion controls work well and it's a nice change of pace, but at the same time, it's not like the series' old controls were all that tough. As with the original, this game is a blast to play with friends, especially with 4 players. Single player gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it's quite fun as well - it's nice to be able to pop in a bite-sized gaming experience. I'm glad I own this game becaues I've never owned a Mario Kart game before and I do find it to be a genuinely fun game to play (especially multiplayer), but at the same time, I can't help but think that it's just the same game I started playing 15 years ago. Indeed, it looks like the grand majority of the tracks are repurposed here from previous editions (of course, they picked the best tracks, so it's not necessarily a bad thing...) But hey, it's Mario Kart - it was pretty much exactly what I expected and I can't fault it for that!
  • Wii Fit: For what it is, it's quite good. Unfortunately, it doesn't really break any of the boundries I was hoping it would. The concept of a video game centered around a goal of fitness is an intriguing one, but while Wii fit is an interesting first attempt, I was hoping for more. The thing that really interested me was the concept of combining the just-one-more-level addictiveness of video games with the healthy side-effects of exercise... alas, Wii Fit doesn't really manage that. The software seems more aimed at providing guidance on traditional exercises, along with a few balance games thrown in for good measure. When I first got the software, I played it for about a week straight, and then pretty much lost interest. I'm starting my annual summer exercise kick though, and I think Wii Fit may find a place in my regular exercise schedule, but more as a warmup and a way to keep track of my progress than my primary exercise tool (which will probably be the elliptical machine in my basement, along with some free weights).

    The software comes with a plethora of exercises and simple mini-games, many of which you have to unlock as you go. It can be a bit annoying at first, because a lot of the playing time gets tied up in listening to the Wii Balance Board or your virtual trainer explain stuff to you. The software keeps track of the time you spent exercising, but when you first start off, most of the exercises take only 1 minute or so to complete. So to complete a 30 minute workout, it took about an hour (with the other 30 minutes being explainations and loading time, etc...). As you unlock more and more exercises and get more experience, longer exercises become available. The step exercise gets pretty good after a while, as does the boxing exercise. Yoga poses can be cool, but they still eat up a lot of time. The balance games are a lot of fun, but they're very simple and they also don't seem to be the most vigorous of exercises.

    The software anthropomorphizes the Wii Fit Balance Board into a character in the game, and I'm pretty sure it hates me, though it doesn't say so outright (it usually relies on passive-aggressive techniques to accomplish this). Seriously, sometimes the way the board talks to you is a little odd (my friend Roy thinks there might be some translation issues that cause the game to sound more caustic...). I'm not looking forward to returning after a few months absence... Ultimately, it's not everything I hoped it would be, but it's pretty good.
  • Ōkami: Traditional gamers have long complained that the Wii has left them out in the cold and not released any "Hardcore" games. One of the frequent counter-arguments to that is Ōkami. Originally released on the PS2, this game was ported to the Wii, presumably because one of the core mechanics of the game seems ideal for motion controls. The game's setting is right out of Japanese folklore, and you play a sun goddess named Amaterasu, taking the form of a white wolf. The story centers on how Amaterasu saves the land from a terrible darkness, which sounds like a common trope, but since the setting of traditional Japanese folklore is one I am not that familiar with, it still feels fresh. One of the key abilities of Amaterasu is something called the Celestial Brush. When you're playing, you can bring the game to a pause, which converts the screen into a canvas that you can paint on. Various brush strokes and patterns can be used for a variety of results: drawing a swirl can summon the wind, drawing a line through an enemy can cut them, drawing a circle in the sky can restore sunlight to the land, etc...

    You would think that these Celestial Brush techniques would make the game an ideal candidate for the Wii, but I am constantly struggling with them. There seems to be a certain precision that is required that is beyond what the Wiimote can provide by default. Perhaps I'm just doing something wrong (if I am, it's not particularly obvious what it is), but I often find myself struggling to duplicate whatever exact movement they want me to make. In particular, drawing a straight line can be rough (and early on in the game, that is a very important technique). Human beings have elbows, which are essentially pivots. The very physical nature of our arms means that moving our hand horizontally typically describes an arc, rather than a straight line. This is a basic tenet of human factors design, and I believe it's why I have so much trouble drawing a straight line in this game. So to be honest, I'm not even sure how well these motion controls would work, even if this game was ported to Wii Motion Plus, unless they also allowed some sort of corresponding tolerance to the system.

    The current generation of console video games seems to have massively improved a couple of the really annoying traits of the past. One of the most important of these is how you save your game. On most of my PS3 games, progress is mostly saved automatically whenever you accomplish something. Even games that do not have auto-save (such as Dead Space), make sure to provide frequent save points so that you don't have to constantly repeat large areas of the game (and even then, I hate the arbitrary nature of save points in those games). Unfortunately, like most Nintendo games where progress into a story matters (i.e. not games like Wii Fit or Wii Sports, where there isn't much in the way of "progress"), Ōkami suffers from save points that are spaced relatively far apart. This caused me to get stuck around 2 hours into the game at a point where I would have to play for about an hour, make a ton of progress, and then lose everything because I died in some random fight on my way back to the save point. I've now spent 3 hours trying to get past this point, and have pretty much given up on the game. Given the simplicity of the combat system, it's clear that fighting is not the point of this game. Fighing basically consists of random Wiimote waggling combined with the occasional Celestial Brush stroke, and it's not very fun. It would be one thing if the system was well balanced and fun to play - I'd want to master such a game and wouldn't mind the save system so much. But seriously, it's 2009. There are no more excuses for failing to provide an easy way to save games.

    The game also seems to be very heavy on text and dialog cutscenes (not sure if they technically qualify as cut scenes, but that's basically what they are), often forcing you to read through several screens of text (each screen is relatively short on text, but still, reading through 5 screens at once starts to get tedious). Fortunately, most of this text is skippable... but skipping such text causes the game to pause itself and transition to after the cutscene (in some cases, you're probably better off just pressing through the dialog as fas as it will let you). It doesn't seem like it would be that difficult to provide a more seamless transition from cutscene back to gameplay. Also, the interface is rather difficult to understand. It took me a while, for instance, to figure out how the health meter worked, which is kinda ridiculous.

    I know the game is somewhat old and that it was originally developed for the previous generation of consoles, but these flaws are intensely annoying, especially when I play a game like this side by side with PS3 games that get these usability details exactly right. This is a game I very much want to like a lot - the visual art style is actually quite good. This sort of stylish presentation is common on the Wii, but it truly does look great here and it fits the mood of the story well. I also like the way the game gradually nudges you to solve puzzles, allowing you the freedom to explore and figure out what to do, but also giving you some help if you really get stuck. The story itself seems pretty straightforward and conceptually the puzzles and general gameplay sound great. In practice though, they tend to be frustrating.

    This game gets generally great reviews from critics, but in all its incarnations, it has apparently sold very poorly. I can see why the critics like this game so much - again, it has all the right conceptual elements - but I can also see why it is shunned by players as well... it's not a very fun game. Again, I wanted to like this game - it's got a lot of elements I find intriguing (i.e. visual style, uncommon mythological setting, story, etc...), but in practice, the game just grates on me... I know I'm picky about usability stuff like the motion controls, save points, and dialog cutscenes, but I don't think those things are excusable anymore (at least, the combination of all three should be avoided). Ultimately, I was very disappointed in this game and to be honest, I'm not sure if I'm up to giving it another try. To be honest, the games theme of restoring life to a darkened world only wants to make me play another motion controlled game - Flower, for the PS3.
That's all for now (you could also check out the previous installment of Wii Game Corner). For all my gushing about the PS3 and for my general distaste for single-player Wii games of late, I still have several games I want to play or am otherwise looking forward to. Madworld, House of the Dead: Overkill, and The Conduit all sound like a lot of fun. The new Punch Out seems similar to Mario Kart in that it doesn't look to add too much to the original experience, and I have to admit that sort of thing isn't that exciting... but I wouldn't mind trying out the game. I'm not all that interested in purchasing Wii Sports Resort or Wii Motion Plus, but I would definitely like to play the games, just to see how well Motion Plus works... Who knows, maybe it will restore my flagging faith in motion controls.
Posted by Mark on June 21, 2009 at 09:12 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

The Motion Control Sip Test
A few weeks ago, Microsoft and Sony unveiled rival motion control systems, presumably in response to Nintendo's dominant market position. The Wii has sold much better than both the Xbox 360 and the PS3 (to the point where sales of Xbox and PS3 combined are around the same as the Wii), so I suppose it's only natural for the competition to adapt. To be honest, I'm not sure how wise that would be... or rather, I'm not sure Sony and Microsoft are imitating the right things. Microsoft's Project Natal seems quite ambitious in that it relies completely on gestures and voice (no controllers!). The Sony motion control system, which relies on a camera and two handheld wands, seems somewhat similar to the Wii in that there are still controllers and buttons. Incidentally, the Wii actually released Wii Motion Plus, an improvement to their already dominant system.

My first thought at a way to compete with the Wii would have been along similar lines, but not for the reasons I suspect Microsoft and Sony released their solutions. The problem for MS & Sony is that the Wii is the unquestionable winner of this generation of gaming consoles, and everyone knows that. A third party video game developer can create a game for a console with an install base of 20 million (the PS3), 30 million (Xbox) or 50 million (Wii). Since the PS3 and Xbox have similar controllers, 3rd parties can often release games on both consoles, though there is overhead in porting your code to both systems. This gives a rough parity between those two systems and the Wii... until you realize that developing games for the Xbox/PS3 means HD and that means those games will be much more costly (in both time and money) to develop. On the other hand, you could reach the same size audience by developing a game for the Wii, using standard definition (which is much easier to develop for) and not having to worry about compatibility issues between two consoles.

The problem with Natal and Sony's Wands is that they basically represent brand new consoles. This totally negates the third party advantage of releasing a game on both platforms. Now a third party developer who wants to create a motion control game is forced to choose between two underperforming platforms and one undisputed leader in the field. How do you think that's going to go?

Microsoft's system seems to be the most interesting in that they're trying something much different than Nintendo or Sony. But "interesting" doesn't necessarily translate into successful, and from what I've read, Natal is a long ways away from production quality. Yeah, the marketing video they created is pretty neat, but from what I can tell, it doesn't quite work that well yet. Even MS execs are saying that what's in the video is "conceptual" and what they "hope" to have at launch. If they launch it at all. I'd be surprised if what we're seeing is ever truly launched. Yeah, the Minority Report interface (which is basically what Natal is) really looks cool, but I have my doubts about how easy it will be to actually use. Won't your arms get tired? Why use motion gestures for something that is so much easier and more precise with a mouse?

Sony's system seems to be less ambitious, but also too different from Nintendo's Wiimote. If I were at Sony, I would have tried to duplicate the Wiimote almost exactly. Why? Because then you give 3rd party developers the option of developing for Wii then porting to PS3, thus enlarging the pie from 50 million to 70 million with minimal effort. Sure the graphics wouldn't be as impressive as other PS3 efforts, but as the Wii has amply demonstrated, you don't need unbelievable graphics to be successful. The PS3 would probably need a way to upscale the SD graphics to ensure they don't look horrible, but that should be easy enough. I'm sure there would be some sort of legal issue with that idea, but I'm also sure Sony could weasel their way out of any such troubles. To be clear, this strategy wouldn't have a chance at cutting into Wii sales - it's more of a holding pattern, a way to stop the bleeding (it might help them compete with MS though). Theoretically, Sony's system isn't done yet either and could be made into something that could get Wii ports, but somehow I'm doubting that will actually be in the works.

The big problem with both Sony and Microsoft's answer to the Wiimote is that they've completely misjudged what made the Wii successful. It's not the Wiimote and motion controls, though that's part of it. It's that Nintendo courted everyone, not just video gamers. They courted grandmas and kids and "hardcore" gamers and "casual" gamers and everyone inbetween. They changed video games from solitary entertainment to something that is played in living rooms with families and friends. They moved into the Blue Ocean and disrupted the gaming industry. The unique control system was important, but I think that's because the control system was a signfier that the Wii was for everyone. The fact that it was simple and intuitive was more important than motion controls. The most important part of the process wasn't motion controls, but rather Wii Sports. Yes, Wii Sports uses motion controls, and it uses them exceptionally well. It's also extremely simple and easy to use and it was targeted towards everyone. It was a lot of fun to pop in Wii Sports and play some short games with your friends or family (or coworkers or enemies or strangers off the street or whoever).

The big problem for me is that even Nintendo hasn't improved on motion controls much since then. It's been 3 years since Wii Sports, and yet it's still probably the best example of motion controls in action. I have not played any Wii Motion Plus games yet, so for me, the jury is still out on that one. However, I'm not that interested in playing the games I'm seeing for Motion Plus, let alone the prospect of paying for yet another peripheral for my Wii (though it does seem to be cheap). The other successful games for the Wii weren't so much successful for their motion controls so much as other, intangible factors. Mario Kart is successful... because it's always successful (incidentally, while I still enjoy playing with friends every now and again, the motion controls have nothing to do with that - it's more just the nostagia I have for the original Mario Kart). Wii Fit has been an amazing success story for Nintendo, but it introduced a completely new peripheral and its success is probably more due to the fact that Nintendo was targeting more than just the core gamer audience with software that broadened what was possible on a video game console. Again, Nintendo's success is due to their strategy of creating new customers and their marketing campaigns that follow the same strategy. Wii has a lot of games that have less than imaginitive motion controls - games which simply replace random button mashing with random stick waggling. But where they're most successful seems to be where they target a broader audience. They also seem to be quite adept at playing on people's nostalgia, hence I find myself playing new Mario, Zelda, and Metroid games, even when I don't like some of them (I'm looking at you, Metroid Prime 3!)

Motion controls play a part in this, but they're the least important part. Why? Because the same complaints I have for Natal and the Minority Report interface apply to the Wii (or the new PS3 system, for that matter). For example, take Metroid Prime 3. A FPS for the Wii! Watch how motion controls will revolutionize FPS! Well, not so much. There are a lot of reasons I don't like the game, but one of the reasons was that you constantly had to have your Wiimote pointed up. If your hand strayed or you wanted to rest your wrists for a moment, your POV also strays. There are probably some other ways to do FPS on the Wii, but I'm not especially convinced (The Conduit looks promising, I guess) that a true FPS game will work that well on a Wii (heck, it doesn't work that well on a PS3 or Xbox when compared to the PC). That's probably why Rail Shooters have been much more successful on the Wii.

Part of the issue I have is that motion controls are great for short periods of time, but even when you're playing a great motion control game like Wii Sports, playing for long periods of time has adverse affects (Wii elbow anyone?). Maybe that's a good thing; maybe gamers shouldn't spend so much time playing video games... but personally, I enjoy a nice marathon session every now and again.

You know what this reminds me of? New Coke. Seriously. Why did Coca-Cola change their time-honored and fabled secred formula? Because of the Pepsi Challenge. In the early 1980s, Coke was losing ground to Pepsi. Coke had long been the most popular soft drink, so they were quite concerned about their diminishing lead. Pepsi was growing closer to parity every day, and that's when they started running these commercials pitting Coke vs. Pepsi. The Pepsi Challenge took dedicated Coke drinkers and asked them to take a sip from two different glasses, one labeled Q and one labeled M. Invariably, people chose the M glass, which was revealed to contain Pepsi. Coke initially disputed the results... until they started private running sip tests of their own. It turns out that people really did prefer Pepsi (hard as that may be for those of us who love Coke!). So Coke started tinkering with their secret formula, attempting to make it lighter and sweeter (i.e. more like Pepsi). Eventually, they got to a point where their new formulation consistently outperformed Pepsi in sip tests, and thus New Coke was born. Of course, we all know what happened. New Coke was a disaster. Coke drinkers were outraged, the company's sales plunged, and Coke was forced to bring back the original formula as "Classic Coke" just a few months later (at which point New Coke practically disappeared). What's more, Pepsi's seemingly unstoppable ascendance never materialized. For the past 20-30 years, Coke has beaten Pepsi despite sip tests which say that it should be the other way around. What was going on here? Malcolm Gladwell explains this incident and the aftermath in his book Blink:
The difficulty with interpreting the Pepsi Challenge findings begins with the fact that they were based on what the industry calls a sip test or a CLT (central location test). Tasters don’t drink the entire can. They take a sip from a cup of each of the brands being tested and then make their choice. Now suppose I were to ask you to test a soft drink a little differently. What if you were to take a case of the drink home and tell me what you think after a few weeks? Would that change your opinion? It turns out it would. Carol Dollard, who worked for Pepsi for many years in new-product development, says, “I’ve seen many times when the CLT will give you one result and the home-use test will give you the exact opposite. For example, in a CLT, consumers might taste three or four different products in a row, taking a sip or a couple sips of each. A sip is very different from sitting and drinking a whole beverage on your own. Sometimes a sip tastes good and a whole bottle doesn’t. That’s why home-use tests give you the best information. The user isn’t in an artificial setting. They are at home, sitting in front of the TV, and the way they feel in that situation is the most reflective of how they will behave when the product hits the market.”

Dollard says, for instance, that one of the biases in a sip test is toward sweetness: “If you only test in a sip test, consumers will like the sweeter product. But when they have to drink a whole bottle or can, that sweetness can get really overpowering or cloying.” Pepsi is sweeter than Coke, so right away it had a big advantage in a sip test. Pepsi is also characterized by a citrusy flavor burst, unlike the more raisiny-vanilla taste of Coke. But that burst tends to dissipate over the course of an entire can, and that is another reason Coke suffered by comparison. Pepsi, in short, is a drink built to shine in a sip test. Does this mean that the Pepsi Challenge was a fraud? Not at all. It just means that we have two different reactions to colas. We have one reaction after taking a sip, and we have another reaction after drinking a whole can.
To me, motion controls seem like a video game sip test. The analogy isn't perfect, because I think that motion controls are here to stay, but I think the idea is relevant. Coke is like Sony - they look at a successful competitor and completely misjudge what made them successful. Yes, motion controls are a part of the Wii's success, but their true success lies elsewhere. In small doses and optimized for certain games (like bowling or tennis), nothing can beat motion controls. In larger doses with other types of games, motion controls have a long ways to go (and they make my arm sore). Microsoft and Sony certainly don't seem to be abandoning their standard controllers, and even the Wii has a "Classic Controller", and I think that's about right. Motion controls have secured a place in gaming going forward, but I don't see it completely displacing good old-fashioned button mashing either.

Update: Incidentally, I forgot to mention the best motion control game I've played since Wii Sports has been... Flower, for the PS3. Flower is also probably a good example of a game that makes excellent use of motion controls, but hasn't achieved anywhere near the success of Nintendo's games. It's not because it isn't a good game (it is most definitely an excellent game, and the motion controls are great), it's because it doesn't expand the audience the way Nintendo does. If Natal and Sony's new system do make it to market, and if they do manage to release good games (and those are two big "ifs"), I suspect it won't matter much...
Posted by Mark on June 17, 2009 at 06:40 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror
This month's pick for the Final Girl Film Club is an Italian zombie flick called Burial Ground: The Nights of Terror (aka Zombie 3). Those Italians sure do love their zombies, but I have to admit that it's a subgenre I've never really gotten into... Unfortunately, this film does little to change my mind. It's pretty much your standard zombie fare - a group of people gather at some Professor's mansion in the country (not sure how a professor could afford such a swanky place to live, but hey, it's a zombie movie, why get bogged down in details), only to find that the professor has accidentally awoken the dead, who proceed to shuffle slowly towards our heroes in the typical zombie fashion. This being a bad horror movie, many characters go wandering off on their own so that they can succumb to the undead masses. I suppose I should mention that there are some minor spoilers in the below, but that really doesn't matter that much in a movie like this, does it?


The movie is pretty craptacular, but the filmmakers also knew where their bread was buttered and hit the zombie movie sweet spots well enough. Instead of spending what little money they had on things like actors and story, they appear to have blown everything on their special effects and makeup, to reasonably good effect. Aside from similar clothing, these zombies don't all look the same or have the same makup - each one has a somewhat distinct look, varying in stages of decomposition. Being a zombie flick, there is no personality to any of them, only to the mob. There's some pretty effective gore here, but by the third or fourth time you see a group of zombies squishing around some unlucky character's entrails, it gets to be a bit boring. The acting is horrible, of course, and we never really get to know most of the characters, but we do get to know the female characters' bodies pretty well (not good actresses, but they look pretty good onscreen).

Again, pretty standard fare for a zombie flick. At first, I was a little confused at how this movie had achieved such a high cult-film status. Then this little fella struts onscreen:


The character of "young" Michael is best thing in the movie, and he is definitely why this movie has attained cult status. You see, the character is supposed to be a 12 year old boy with a serious Oedipal complex. Apparently, Italian law prohibited actual children from being in schlock-fests like this, so the filmmakers had to try and find an adult who looked like a child. Somehow, they settled on 26 year old Peter Bark, who is quite small, but looks a lot older than 26 (let alone 12). Strangely, even the voice actor they got to do the dubbing on the English version sounds like a grown man imitating a child. Anyway, this character steals the show. He's actually not onscreen for a good portion of the movie, but when he is, he's awesome. And the climactic payoff of his bizarre Oedipal complex is indeed disgusting and depraved and surely the reason this film has any following at all today. I suppose a groan-inducing "I can't believe they went there" ending is better than many zombie movies manage, but still...

Aside from the unintentional comedy such a film offers, it didn't really do much for me. Zombie fanatics will surely love the experience, but I left the film with a resounding "meh." The whole Oedipal subplot certainly sets this movie apart from the shuffling mob of other zombie movies, but I don't find that particularly impressive either... Some nice gore, nudity, and unintentional comedy, but otherwise nothing special. **

Lots more screenshots and comments in the extended entry...

Professor Zombie

This is the aforementioned professor who invites the group of people to his swanky mansion just before heading over to the burial ground (how convenient that this professor is living in a mansion that is a quick walk away from some gigantic tomb). Here, he is reeling back in shock at seeing a zombie. Strangly, he also drops the little pickaxe, leaving himself defenseless (of course, he's also the one who tries to reason with the zombies, explaining that "I'm your friend!" right before he gets eaten).

Another Zombie

Here's another of the film's zombies that showcases the standard green-mumu and neckerchief uniform of the zombies (the neckerchief was presumably used to hide the edges of the zombie masks, which I admit are pretty cool).

Pitchfork Attack!

One would think that the pitcfork would make a reasonable weapon against the undead, but not the way this guy wields it. I don't think he even gets to use it... the first zombie that (slowly) approaches him manages to (slowly) grab the end of it and (slowly) wrest it from him. Perhaps the zombies posess super strength.

Zombie Horde

There are only ever about 5-10 zombies onscreen at any given time, but the film does give a pretty good implication that there are tons of zombies with shots like this, where you only see a few zombies, but you get the impression of a giant zombie horde...

Tool-using Zombie Horde

One of the other strange things about the zombies in this movie are that they have enough intelligence to use rudimentary tools and set traps for our unwitting protagonists. And they can apparently throw giant spikes with remarkable accuracy, pinning victims to a wall so that they can (slowly) use a scythe to cut off their head.

Let me go walk off alone...

One of the many times a character wanders off on their own so that they can become victims. It's actually a nice shot.

This cloth smells of death.

This is one of my favorite Michael moments. He's exporing the basement with his mother and her friend (boyfriend? Not really sure what the deal is with Michael's father - perhaps he was conceived by midi-chlorians) when Michael finds this patch on the floor and sniffs it. Then he runs over and says "Mother... This cloth smells of death." and his mother just laughs it off, completely ignoring the creepy factor (which is only enhanced by the already creepy look of Michael). Unintentionally hilarious.

Michael Sleeping...

Michael Awake!

These shots are actually our first introduction to Michael. His mother opens the door to check on him and he is sound asleep. Then the camera zooms in on his disembodied head as he opens his eyes wide.

Profecy of the Black Spider

This is actually the closing screen of the film. Things are looking pretty bleak for the final surviving character when suddenly there's a freeze frame and these words appear on the screen. I have no idea what the hell this Black Spider is, or why it's making a "Profecy" or why it can't spell trivial words like "Prophecy" or "nights". Is this supposed to mean something to the audience? Or is it supposed to be lending a sorta faux-creepy credibility to the proceedings (er, preceedings?) Either way, it certainly contributes to the film's unintentional humor quotient, so I actually kinda liked it.

Well, there you have it! Near as I can tell, this isn't really at the top of the Italian Zombie sub-subgenre, but I guess it kept my interest long enough... For once, I'm actually ahead of the game and posted this several weeks early - but there will be lots more posted at Stacy's site in early July.
Posted by Mark on June 14, 2009 at 08:22 PM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

When I write about movies or anime, I like to include screenshots. Heck, half the fun of the Friday the 13th marathon has been the screenshots. However, I've been doing this manually and it's become somewhat time intensive... So I've been looking for ways to make the process of creating the screenshots easier. I was going to write a post about a zombie movie tonight and I had about 15 screenshots I wanted to use...

I take screenshots using PowerDVD, which produces .bmp files. To create a screenshot for a post, I will typically crop out any unsightly black borders (they're ugly and often asymmetrical), convert to .jpg and rename the file. Then I will create a smaller version (typically 320 pixels, while maintaining the aspect ratio), using a variant of the original .jpg's filename. This smaller version is what you see in my post, while the larger one is what you see when you click on the image in my post.

I've always used GIMP to accomplish this, but it's a pretty manual process, so I started looking around for some batch image processing programs. There are tons of the things out there. I found several promising programs. Batch Image Resizer was pretty awesome and did exactly what I wanted, but the free trial version inserted a huge unwanted watermark that essentially rendered the output useless. I looked at a few other free apps, but they didn't meet some of my needs.

Eventually, I came accross the open source Phatch, which looked like it would provide everything I needed. The only issue was the installation process. It turns out that Phatch was written in Python, so in addition to Phatch, you also need to download and install Python, wxPython, Python Imaging Library and the Python Win32 Extensions. What's more is that the Phatch documentation has not taken into account that new versions of all of those are available and not all of them are compatible with each other. After a false start, I managed to download and install all the necessary stuff. Then, to run the application, I have to use the goddamned command line. Yeah, I know windows users don't get much support from the linux community, but this is kinda ridiculous.

But I got it all working and now I was on my way. As I've come to expect from open source apps, Phatch has a different way of setting up your image processing than most of the other apps I'd seen... but I was able to figure it out relatively quickly. According to the Phatch documentation, the Crop action looked pretty easy to use... the only problem was that when I ran Phatch, Crop did not appear to be on the list of actions. Confused, I looked around the documentation some more and it appeared that there were several other actions that could be used to crop images. For example, if I used the Canvas action, I could technically crop the image by specifying measurements smaller than the image itself - this is how I eventually accomplished the feat of converting several screenshots from their raw form to their edited versions. Here's an example of the zombietastic results (for reference, a .jpg of the original):


Bonus points to anyone who can name the movie!

The process has been frustrating and it took me a while to get all of this done. At this point, I have to wonder if I'd have been better off just purchasing that first app I found... and then I would have been done with it (and probably wouldn't be posting this at all). I'm hardly an expert on the subject of batch image manipulation and maybe I'm missing something fairly obvious, but I have to wonder why Phatch is so difficult to download, install, and use. I like open source applications and use several of them regularly, but sometimes they make things a lot harder than they need to be.

Update: I just found David's Batch Processor (a plugin for GIMP), but its renaming functionality is horrible (you can't actually rename the images - but you can add a prefix or suffix to the original filename.) Otherwise, it's decent.

And I also found FastStone Photo Resizer, which does everything I need it to do, and I don't need to run it from the command line either. This is what I'll probably be using in the future...

Update II: I got an email from Stani, who works on Phatch and was none to pleased about the post. It seems he had trouble posting a comment here (d'oh - second person this week who mentioned that, which is strange as it seems to have been working fine for the past few months and I haven't changed anything...). Anyway, here are his responses to the above:
As your comment system doesn't work, I post it through email. Considering the rant of your blog post, I would appreciate if you publish it as a comment for: http://kaedrin.com/weblog/archive/001652.html

> Eventually, I came accross the open source Phatch, which looked like it would provide everything I needed.

Thanks for taking the effort to try out Phatch.

> What's more is that the Phatch documentation has not taken into account that new versions of all of those are available and not all of them are compatible with each other.

The Phatch documentation is a wiki. The installation process for Windows would be much less a pain if Windows users would help improving the wiki and keeping the wiki up to date.

Unfortunately I've run into this behavior:
Luckily Linux users update the wiki themselves or send me the instructions, but don't run away. (Hint, hint)

I know several people have installed Phatch on Windows, but none of them documented for their fellow Window users. I only update the instructions with every major release.

> Then, to run the application, I have to use the goddamned command line.

If you installed Python right, you could just double click on phatch.py to start it or make a shortcut for it on your desktop.

> Yeah, I know windows users don't get much support from the linux community, but this is kinda ridiculous.

I hope to see your contribution on the wiki. Until then the situation is indeed ridiculous.

> the Crop action looked pretty easy to use...

You're right, but the crop action is part of the next release, Phatch 0.2 which is packed with many new features. If you want to be a beta tester, please let me know.

> maybe I'm missing something fairly obvious, but I have to wonder why Phatch is so difficult to download, install, and use. I like open source applications and use several of them regularly, but sometimes they make things a lot harder than they need to be.

I hope I explained it to you. I only use Windows to test my open source software. Maybe you would want me to make a one click installer. You probably understand that such negative ranting is not really stimulating.
And my response:
Apologies if my ranting wasn't stimulating enough, but considering that it took a couple of hours to get everything working and that I value my time, I wasn't exactly enthused with the application or the documentation. Believe it or not, I did click on the "edit" link the wiki with the intention of adding some notes about the updated version numbers, but it said I had to be registered and I was already pretty fed up and not in the mood to sign up for anything. I admit that I neglected to do my part, but I got into this to save time and it ended up being an enormous time-sink. If I get a chance, I'll take another look.

It looks like I can just double-click on the .py file, but the documentation says to run it from the command line (another thing for me to fix, perhaps?)

As for a simple installer, I would love to... if I had the time, motivation, or, uh, talent to create one. In the mean time, I'll see what I can do about the documentation, but honestly, I doubt that will help much until someone does create a windows installer.

Sorry about the comment functionality on my blog. I've been having issues with spammers and the plugin I'm using to block spammers seems to block legitimate comments sometimes as well (Question: did you use the "preview" function?). Yet another thing I'll have to look into...
Update III: Ben over at Midnight Tease has been having fun with Open Source as well...
Posted by Mark on June 10, 2009 at 09:54 PM .: link :.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

A Decade of Kaedrin
It's hard to believe, but it has been ten years since I started this website. The exact date is a bit hard to pinpoint, as the site was launched on my student account at Villanova, which existed and was accessible on the web as far back as 1997. However, as near as I can tell, the site now known as Kaedrin began in earnest on May 31, 1999 at approximately 8 pm. That's when I wrote and published the first entry in The Rebel Fire Alarms, an interactive story written in tandem with my regular visitors. I called these efforts Tandem Stories, and it was my primary reason for creating the website. Other content was being published as well - mostly book, movie, and music reviews - but the primary focus was the tandem stories, because I wanted to do something different on an internet that was filled with boring, uninspired, static content homepages that were almost never updated. At the time, the only form of interaction you were likely to see on a given website was a forum of some kind, so I thought the tandem stories were something of a differentiator for my site, and it was, though I never really knew how many different people visited the site. As time went on, interactivity on the web, even of the interactive story variety, became more common, so that feature became less and less unique...

I did, however, have a regular core of visitors, most of whom knew me from the now defunct 4degreez message boards (which has since morphed into 4th Kingdom, which is still a vibrant community site). To my everlasting surprise and gratitude, several of these folks are still regular visitors and while most of what I do here is for my own benefit, I have to admit that I never would have gotten this far without them. So a big thank you to those who are still with me!

But I'm getting ahead of myself here. Below is a rough timeline of my website, starting with my irrelevant student account homepage (which was basically a default page with some personal details filled in), moving on to the first incarnation of Kaedrin, and progressing through several redesigns and technologies until you got the site you're looking at now (be forewarned, this gets to be pretty long, though it's worth noting that the site looked pretty much like it does today way back in 2001, so the bulk of redesigning happened in the 1999-2001 timeframe)...
  • 1997-1999: As I started to take computer programming courses in college, I gained access to a student account on the university website. By default, all student accounts came with a bare-bones homepage which we were encouraged to personalize. I never really did much with it, though I thought it was funny to see some of the courses I was taking back in the day: MAT 1050 - Who cares about math, and HIS 3140 - The History of the spork. Also of note, the fact that we referred to it as "electronic mail address" and that google was not on my radar yet... Sometime during this timeframe I started considering a more comprehensive "homepage" and made a few stabs that never really got beyond the photoshop stage (thankfully for you!). Among these ill-fated designes included the uber-nerdy logic gate design shown below (click for larger, more complete version):

    Old, bad, nerdy design

    I'm not really embarrassed so much at the logic gate aspect of the design (which I thought was mildly clever at the time) as the font choice. Gah. Anyway, it was during this timeframe that the first designs for a site called Kaedrin started. The first drafts of the now iconic (well, to me) Kaedrin logo were created during this timeframe. They were not used, but every logo since then has used the same Viner Hand ITC font, though these days the logo isn't quite as prominent as it once was (as you'll see below).
  • May 1999 - Kaedrin v1.0: Again, I've had difficulty pinpointing the exact date when I launched Kaedrin in earnest, but judging from the timestamp of the first entry in The Rebel Fire Alarms, I gather that the site had been fully launched in May of 1999 (just as I was finishing up the semester and had some free time on my hands). Thanks to my participation on 4degreez.com (which may have been known as the T.A.S. Boards at the time, I don't remember exactly), I immediately had a built-in audience of like 5 people, which was pretty cool at the time. That summer was filled with updates and content (this was before blogs, so updates came in the form of reviews for books, movies, and music amongst other stuff that was popular on the web at the time, like sound clips and funny pictures, etc...). The layout initially featured mostly red text on a black background, but I found that to be a bit hard on the eyes, so in August I tried to soften the colors a bit (though even the new color scheme was pretty tough on the eyes). I can't seem to find an example of the full red on black, but here's the tweaked version (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 1.0

    For the full effect, you have to click through to the HTML page and mouse over the left-navigation. Back in the day, CSS support was minimal, so to do those rollovers I had to write a custom javascript. I don't think any of the links off the page will work, but it's worth viewing just for the fun of it. Also worth noting: the copyright logo animated gif thingy and the fact that I had a guestbook (which was all the rage back in the day). Finally, if you have a high resolution monitor today, it's difficult to notice, but at 800x600 the Kaedrin logo is enormous!
  • May 2000 - Kaedrin v2.0: After graduating college and initiating a job search, I decided that the old homepage design wasn't very professional looking. During the course of my Senior year, I had spent time learning and thinking about usability and accessibility, and my site at the time was not especially great in those respects (i.e. I figured out for certain that dark red and blue text on a black background was a bad thing). Also, being stuck with a modum connection (after the school's snappy T3 lines) made me more acutely aware of page loading speeds (and the old page was rather image heavy). So I came up with a much cleaner and simpler design (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 2.0

    This was certainly an improvement and when I eventually did find a job, my boss mentioned that she liked my site, so mission accomplished, I guess. Unfortunately, a "much cleaner and simpler design" also meant a more boring design, so it wasn't long before I started fiddling around with the layout again. This was a little vexing because I was maintaining all of the pages on the site by hand, and converting to the new layout was a monumental pain in the ass. As such, many of the design tweaks made during this (rather short) era were inconsistent throughout the site.
  • July 2000 - Kaedrin Weblog launched: The summer of 2000 is also when I discovered weblogs (the yellow-heavy designs of dack and kottke were my first exposure to the world of weblogs) and the relatively new Blogger. I remember being amazed at the fully featured blogging software that these crazy Pyra people were giving away for free! It's easy enough to pinpoint my first blog entry, but to be perfectly honest, I'm not sure what the design of the blog was like. It was probably something along the lines of the v2 design, but I'm also virtually positive that the v3.0 design was pioneered on the blog, due to the fact that Blogger was something of a light CMS in that I could tweak the design for all blog pages rather easily. I do vaguely remember having a lot of issues with my free web-hosing company (at the time, I believe it was someone called "redrival"), and in particular their ftp sucked. I think there was a time when I would write an entry on Blogger, publish it to one free host, then transfer the code over to the new host. This is perhaps part of why the initial months of the blog were somewhat sparse in terms of entries, but things got going pretty well in September 2000 and I posted a record-high 29 posts in December 2000.
  • November 2000 - Kaedrin v3.0: Due to the blandness of the the v2.0 site and the fact that Blogger provided easily updatable templates, I came up with a different design. It was still clean and simple and ultimately it didn't last too long because it was still pretty boring. In fact, I'm pretty sure I never got around to updating the entire site. Just the homepage and the blog got this new design. (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin: Version 3.0

    Ultimately not that much different than v2.0 (I suppose you could consider it more of a v2.5 than a new version, but then it's probably different enough). It's still got the big honkin Kaedrin logo, but for some reason I liked this better.. and there's also the first appearance of the "You are here" bar at the top of the page. While I liked this design better than v2.0, I wasn't very happy with it and almost immediately started working on something new. I was also getting pretty well fed up with hand coding all these pages for what amounted to minor layout tweaks. One thing that helped in that respect was Blogger, which worked like a CMS-lite, allowing quick and easy layout changes with the click of a mouse. Here is the first design for the blog that I could find. (Click the image to see the full HTML page).

    Kaedrin Weblog

    Interestingly, it seems that I decided to forgo the Kaedrin logo in favor of a little HTM text thingy. Also, I had completely forgotten about the blog's original subtitle, which could use some explaining. Back in the 1990s it was popular to use "handles" instead of your real name. When I first started posting to message boards and the like, I absent-mindedly chose the moniker "tallman" because I was a big fan of a certain cheesy 1970s horror movie that featured a character who went by that name. Since a lot of popular blogs at the time had playful titles like Boing Boing and the like, I went with "The Royal Kingdom of Tallmania". I have no idea what possessed me to do that, and it wasn't long before the subtitle was dropped in favor of just "Kaedrin Weblog".
  • January 2001 - Kaedrin.com and v4.0: After dealing with the hassle of free hosting companies, I finally realized that I had a steady income and could probably afford a professional hosting service and a real domain, so I bought kaedrin.com and started work on a new design. Fed up with manually coding redesigns, I devised a kludgey XSLT solution that allowed me to completely separate content from design. So I put all my content into XML files and coded the new design into some XSL stylesheets. This design may look somewhat familiar (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Version 4.0

    Being obsessed with download speeds and page rendering, I devised an interesting layout for the blog. Instead of using the typical single-table design, I put the blog navigation at the top (instead of to the left or right) and I put each entry in it's own table. The idea was that browsers render content as it's downloaded, and if you have a large table with a lot of content, it could take a while to load. So having a series of smaller tables on the page, while increasing the size, also make the page seem to load quicker. All in all, I rather liked the look of this layout, though I don't think it's something I'll be returning to at any point (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Weblog

    While I like what I was able to do with that navigation at the top, I think there were ultimately more things that needed to go into the navigation and that space just couldn't fit it. I broke down and put it all in a big table in later designs (see below).
  • July 2002 - Movable Type: After a couple of years, I had finally gotten fed up with Blogger's centralized system. Blogger was growing faster than they could keep up with, and so the service was experiencing frequent downtime and even when you could access it, it was often mind-numbingly slow. Around this time, a few other solutions were becoming available, one of which was Movable Type (I started with version 2.x - also, it's worth mentioning that Wordpress was not available yet). This solution increased functionality (most notably bringing comments into the fold) and provided a much stabler system for blogging. The design changed to take advantage of some of this stuff and to make my blog more consistent with certain blogging standards. This one should look really familiar (Click the image to see the full HTML page):

    Kaedrin Weblog - Powered by Movable Type

    That's basically the same design as today, except for the date and some of the junk in the right navigation.
  • And from there it was a series of tiny, incremental improvements, upgrades, and design tweaks. It's funny, I didn't realize until now just how little the site has changed since 2002. Also funny: the fact that I had finally devised a way to make redesigns a lot easier (i.e. my xslt solution) and basically stopped redesigning. Then again, it came in really handy when I wanted to do some little things. For instance, the original v4.0 design didn't have the same borders around the main content area that I use today (it did have a small border at the top of the area, but it was barely noticeable and it was coded using spacers - yuck). I suppose the grand majority of the work that I've done has been behind the scenes: upgrading software, switching databases, fighting spam, and did I mention upgrades? In 2004, the main homepage was updated to account for the fact that the grand majority of the updates on the site were coming from the blog, and the design has remained largely unchanged since then. Around the same time, I tried to make sure the blog and homepage were valid HTML 4.01 (this is perhaps not the case for every page on the blog, as I'm sure I missed an & somehwere and of course, embedding video never validates, but otherwise, it should be pretty good).
  • Of course, the big visible thing that I was doing all throughout was blogging. When I started out, technology made it somewhat difficult to update the blog. Eventually I got Blogger working with my host at the time and enjoyed 3 months or so of somewhat prolific blogging. Of course, at the time, I was posting mostly just links and minor commentary, and this eventually trailed off because others were much better at that than I was. December 2000 is still my most prolific month when it comes to the number of posts (29 posts that month), but again, those were mostly just links and assorted short comments. From there, things trailed off for a couple of years until May 2003, when I established my weekly posting schedule. This made the blog a bit more consistent, and gradually, I started to find more and more visitors. Not a lot, mind you. Even today, it's doubtful that I have more than a few dozen semi-regular visitors (if that many). Actually, if you're reading this, you probably know most of the recent history of the blog, which basically amounts to at least 2 posts a week.
Whew, I didn't realize that trip down memory lane would take quite so long, but it was interesting to revisit just how tumultuous the design was in the early years and how it has calmed down considerably since then... Hopefully things will continue to improve around here though, so what kinds of things can you expect in the near future? I have a few ideas:
  • CSS Layout: The site currently uses a table based layout, primarily because it was designed and coded in 2001 and browser support of CSS was pretty bad back then, so CSS layouts weren't really an option. In 2007 (has it really been that long), I put together a mockup of the site using CSS layout, but never got around to actually implementing it. There were a few things about the layout that were bugging me and I never found the time to fix them. Someday, I'll dust off my mockups, finalize them, and launch them to the world. Having a CSS layout would also allow me to optimize for other media like cell phone browsers, print (my goal is to make it easier to read Kaedrin on the can), the Wii browser, etc... None of those things is a particularly burning need, which is probably why I've put this off so long...
  • Weblog Post Designs: I've never really been too happy with the way each post is laid out. For one thing, I feel like I've always given too much prominence to the date - which is something I could probably just remove. Also, the post title should perhaps be a bit larger (and be linked to the permalink).
  • Homepage: The homepage has largely become irrelevant and should probably just redirect to the weblog, as that's where 99% of the content is these days. Again, this doesn't seem to be a burning need, so I haven't spent much time looking into that, but it would be pretty easy to accomplish.
  • Comments: The comments functionality is a bit of a mess and could use some work.
  • Post Content: I feel like I've been in a bit of a rut lately, mostly relying on various crutches like movie reviews, etc... and not writing as much about things that really interest me. Not that movies or video games don't interest me, but I used to write more posts about technology and culture, which is something I'd like to get back into. The issue is that those posts are a lot harder to write, which I think is part of why I've been avoiding them...
So there you have it. Ten years of Kaedrin. Hopefully, it will last another ten years, though perhaps it will be in a completely different format by then... If you have any comments, questions, or suggestions, feel free to leave a comment...
Posted by Mark on June 07, 2009 at 09:38 AM .: link :.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Fallout 3 Thoughts
I've spent the past month or so playing through Fallout 3. I realize I'm a little late to the party, but here are some thoughts:
  • Overall, I suppose I liked the game. Strangely, that sort of begrudging "it's good, but meh..." response seems to be the general consensus - at least among the 3 folks I read (ok, so he was perhaps a bit less than "meh") and watch. Honestly, when I first thought about posting on the game, I had the same "Yeah, it's allright!" fake-out review as Yahtzee. But I did like the game enough to finish it and according to the game's timer, I spent around 40 hours of time playing it. Considering that I never managed to finish Oblivion and indeed, gave up on it after just a few hours, that's not so bad.
  • Speaking of Oblivion, this game is pretty much exactly the same, but with a different setting. And shotguns. It's the shotguns that really did it for me, as first-person sword fighting is kinda weak (and yes, I realize I could use some sort of long distance magic in Oblivion, but still).
  • And with shotguns comes one of the game's most vaunted features - the V.A.T.S. aiming system. Basically, when fighting, you can hit a button, and the game pauses and displayes your enemy along with various targets on their body and a percentage indicating how easy it is to hit. Hitting different areas has different effects. Hitting the legs will cripple your enemy, slowing them down. Hitting their arm might cause them to drop their weapon. And so on. When you attack using V.A.T.S., the game also shows you a variety of slow-motion animations of your attack. You'd think this would get old, but nope, watching a super-mutant's head explode is always pretty awesome. There are limited "action points" though, so this system does sometimes force you to fire away in real-time (and as a standard FPS, the game is not quite up to par with the competition) or at least, run away and hide until your action points recharge. The system is basically a way to mix the traditional RPG turn-based strategy with FPS action. A lot of people hate this and think the game is bad at both, but I enjoyed it well enough. It's not perfect and I think it could be improved a bit by increasing the action points (or their recharge rate), but it works and I'd be interested to see how this sort of gameplay will evolve.
  • As storylines go, I guess it's ok. Nothing particularly special, and the main thread makes sense and has some neat sub-quests (for some reason, I particularly enjoyed the Matrix-like simulation quest). Most of the side quests end up being "fetch" quests, but there's still some fun to be had. Also, there are a TON of side quests and at 40 hours, I still feel like I've barely scratched the surface.
  • One of the things that bothered me about the game is that I felt like I had to really have a sizeable chunk of time set aside to play it. I feel like the game requires at least 2 hours or so in order to have a productive session, and there were plenty of times when I played for 2 hours and felt like I didn't get anywhere. There's definitely something weird going on here though, because the game I'm playing now (Burnout Paradise) doesn't require any such long periods of time, yet I find myself playing for longer than 2 hours at a time and not minding it at all. I'm guessing that's because I actually accomplish something every time I play Burnout for more than 15 minutes.
  • Whoever designed the concept of the metro system in this game needs to do some soul searching, because their game design skills are weak. Ok, so that's a bit harsh, but the amount of time I spent lost in the metro system, just trying to find my way to the marker on the map, was truly frustrating. Every metro station looks the same, and the destinations don't seem to match any reasonable geographic pattern. I would constantly find myself way off where I thought I was heading. Without the metro system, my experience with the game would have improved considerably.
  • I don't get the appeal of post-apocalyptic settings. Obviously, it can be interesting, but I feel like they're overused these days...
  • Games like this tend to bring out my pack-rat nature. I found myself chronically out of inventory space, which got kinda frustrating at times. Yeah, yeah, you're not supposed to keep every gun type you find and you're obviously not going to use all the components you find, but I have a compulsion. Seriously, the one time I got fed up and sold off a bunch of my stuff, I met up with some NPCs who told me that they needed a fission battery to escape... and I had just sold like 5 of them. All RPGs have to impose some limits on inventory, and Fallout 3 is actually pretty forgiving in this regard, but I still find myself constantly falling into the trap of collecting junk I don't need. When I enter a location, I feel obligated to go through every path, inspect every room, and look in every box (half of which are empty). This is obviously more of an issue with me personally than with the game, but I find it interesting, as it seems to crop up in a lot of games (I had similar issues with Dead Space).
So yeah, I liked it, kinda, and I might even play it again as a more "evil" person (my character this time around was a goody-goody guy), but not anytime soon...
Posted by Mark on June 03, 2009 at 07:54 PM .: link :.

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