Category Archives: observations

The Architecture of Time Travel in a Role-Playing Video Game

One of the things I’ve enjoyed about following along with the progress of Richard Garriott’s Shroud of the Avatar: Forsaken Virtues is the peek I’ve gotten into the process behind the scenes of video game development. The Ultima games were my absolute favorites as a kid, and as a software developer (by profession), I’ve always been curious about how they are made. It’s not so much the three-dimensional environment that interests me, but the game on the macro scale. The interweaving stories, and the various games states, and how it is all managed.

My thoughts had drifted to this while eating dinner this evening, and I began to wonder if time travel had ever been an integral element to the architecture of a game universe. I wondered if it was possible to architect the game model to support time travel as an action in the universe. For instance, a player could cast a spell to go back in time to a certain point. Once at that point, they would see the events of the game unfold, as they actually occurred. But now, there would be two instances of the player in the world. The “past” instance would now be an NPC, with a predefined course of action based on what has already happened. The “current” instance would be played from the player’s perspective.

Beyond the plot aspects, I wonder what the architecture of such a game model would look like. It would grow more complex the longer the game is played. And how would you account for changes in the past. Would a new “game universe” be spawned. Could a player cross universes at that point?

I’m not really going anywhere with these thoughts. But I was mostly curious if anything like this had been implemented in a large-scale RPG before.

Thoughts on Stephen King’s story “A Death” in the New Yorker

Stories like Stephen King’s “A Death” in the March 9 issue of the New Yorker go a long way to explaining why I love short fiction. I have this sense–perhaps a false one–that while there is no such thing as the perfect novel, there is a perfect short story. It is as rare as a perfect game in baseball, but it is achievable. Of course, it is not quantifiable the way a perfect game in baseball is. To twist an oft-used expression: I can’t say exactly what makes a story perfect, but I know it when I see it.

I can probably count perfect stories I’ve read on one hand. Ray Bradbury’s “The Rocket Man”; Harlan Ellison’s “The Man Who Rowed Christopher Columbus Ashore”; and Stephen King’s “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption” are three. After reading “A Death” I think I could add it to the list of perfect stories.

What makes a story perfect? Again, it’s hard to say. For me, the voice plays a big part of it, but not all of it. Another element is efficiency, or perhaps a better word is “compactness.” I don’t mean length. I mean the story has just the right amount of each ingredient, not a grain more or a drop less. That, plus the voice, are the two things that jumped out at me when I finished reading “A Death.”

Stephen King has often said that in his second drafts, he takes out everything that isn’t story. “A Death” is a great example of that. There is nothing I could find in it that isn’t story. Everything, every word, every image, every line of dialog contributes to the telling of the whole. It is a story that rests in a precarious balance, like a pitcher who has two outs in the 9th inning of perfect game, and full count on the batter. Take away anything from the story, and it is no longer perfect. Add anything to the story, and it is no longer perfect.

In many ways, while reading “A Death,” I kept thinking to myself that it is a Writer’s story. I enjoyed the story as a reader. But almost enjoyed more as a writer. I enjoyed in the same way a rookie ball player might look over at a seasoned veteran and see the smoothness of their swing, the fluid motion they make ranging for a ball in the field, and think, I want to be able to do that one day. Recognizing this as a writer means that you also recognize that you have the individual skills to make it happen, but not yet the experience to put them together in the right combination to achieve that level of perfection.

Beyond the entertainment value of “A Death,” beyond my awe at the seemingly effortless execution, I finished it thinking, man, I want to be able to do that one day. It’s why I keep reading. And it’s why I keep writing.

4 Elements That Make the Apple Genius Bar Experience Effective

Having been in I.T. for more than twenty years, I am loathe to call technical support numbers or take hardware in for technical support issues. A few months back, when I cracked the screen on my iPhone, I took my phone to the Apple Store and it was fixed in under an hour. A very positive experience.

Recently, I noticed that my iPhone was not charging. I’d plug it into a charger, but nothing would happen. If I spent 10 minutes jiggling the cable I might get it to connect and the phone would charge, but it was a pain. And it was getting worse and worse. So on Tuesday, I made an appointment for the Genius Bar at my local Apple Store. I took the phone in at the appointed time, and ten minutes or so later, I left the store with my phone charging properly again.

Apparently, dust, and grit can accumulate in the cable slot. They blew it out with compressed air (something I should of thought myself, but something which I didn’t happen to have handy, even if I had thought of it), and it has been charging good as new ever since.

These two positive experiences at the Apple Store have impressed me. Ultimately, what we want when we go to technical support is for our problem to be resolved, but I think what we really want is for it to be resolved efficiently with as little hassle as possible. I was able to make my appointment online, for a time that was convenient for me. That was the first positive moment of truth.

I have a real pet-peeve about asking customers for information which is available elsewhere. So when I checked in, I was asked to provide my iCloud account information. I was then asked for which device I needed help. That was all I needed to provide. They had information about my phone and my Apple Care plan without having to ask me to provide the information again.

When I arrived at the Apple Store, it was crowded. I was directed to a person to check me in. This is always slightly nerve-wracking because in the back of my mind, I think, “What if they don’t have my appointment?” But they did. They told me where to wait, and a few minutes later, an apple technician came out to assist me, identified the root of the problem in under a minute, took my phone back to resolve the problem, and returned with my phone five minutes later.

She then did something very important, and often missing in customer service calls: She verified that the problem was fixed in front of me, and before I left the store. The problem was indeed fixed, and hasn’t recurred since.

What I think made the process so painless and effective was four things that Apple has identified that other customer support organizations can learn from:

  1. Make it easy to request help.
  2. Ask only for the information necessary to identify the problem and the hardware (or software) involved.
  3. Have people on staff who know how to triage and resolve problems quickly and accurately.
  4. Verify the fix before the the customer leaves the store.

So kudos once again to Apple. Not only do they make great products and software, but they support them with some of the highest level of customer service that I’ve seen out of a large organization.

All of this has happened before…

While reading about the life of the people of ancient Rome in Will Durant’s Caesar and Christ this morning, I came across this brief, but rather remarkable passage concerning music in Roman life:

Old men mourned that recent composers were abandoning the restraint and dignity of the classic style, and were disordering the soul and nerves of youth with extravagant airs and noisy instruments.

In other words, grown-ups complaints of “that hideous rock-n-roll” (or disco, or rap, or fill-in-your-own-genre) are nothing new, and never have been. Indeed, I’d guess that some wise person living in ancient Rome shook her head ruefully at the thought that the reaction of the elders to the music of the younger generation was nothing new; that it happened in ancient Greece before, and Egypt before that, and so on, and so on, back to the dawn of music’s history.

Or, put another way, grown-ups have been telling kids to get off their lawns for as far back as recorded history can take us.

Thoughts on the Star Wars Episode VII Trailer

I was five years old when the original Star Wars was released in theaters. I don’t remember seeing any trailers for the movie. I just remember my parents taking me to the drive-in to see the movie. That’s right: the first time I saw Star Wars was at the drive-in.

When The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, I remember seeing the trailer for the movie and feeling more excited about a movie than I had ever remembered feeling before. I watched the trailer over and over again, and I remember I was almost out of my head on the evening that I went to go an see the movie.

I’m afraid I can’t say the same thing about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. I watched the trailer over the weekend, expecting to be filled with the same excitement I had when I first saw the Episode 1 trailer. I was disappointed. The trailer didn’t move me at all.

This probably has much more to do with me than it does any problem with the trailer or the movie. I’ve just moved beyond Star Wars. There are far too many series out there today and far too few one-out movies–or books for that matter. I understand this, of course. The economics of it is clear. If a movie is successful, why risk something else, when you have a built in audience for a sequel. Still, I am tired of sequels and remakes, just as I am tired of television dramas that are serials rather than series. I’ve even grown tired of book series. I’m sure there are lots of people awaiting George R. R. Martin’s Winds of Winter, but I burned out after A Dance with Dragons.

Let’s face it: judging a movie by its trailer is like judging a book by its cover. But it is all I have to go on so far, and so far, I saw nothing new in the story, nothing to make me say, “Ah, now that looks interesting.” Everything I saw in the trailer is simply recycled from earlier movies: the settings, the characters, the problem (“the dark side, and the light”), the weapons (we saw a double light saber in Episode 1, so a triple light saber is the next logical step). And, of course, the music.

Having been at that critical impressionable age of 5 years old when Star Wars first came out, there was no way to avoid being a fan of the movie. Yet even at five, I never remember wondering what happened to all of the characters after the Death Star was destroyed. Nor did I wonder about them in the time before the story takes place. Still, a part of me hoped for something spectacular in the trailer, and I was a little saddened that I didn’t find it there. I hope that others do.

3 Ways I Avoided All Election Campaign Ads This Season

It occurred to me this morning that it was election day, a fact that crept up on me mostly because I managed to avoid all election campaigning this season. I was pretty busy with the day job, and the family, and writing, but there were at least three things that helped me avoid the ads and phone calls, and I thought I’d share them here.

1. I didn’t watch any live TV

I have very little time for television. I may catch a show like The Big Bang Theory or Modern Family here and there before bed to rest my brain, but it is never in real time. It is always either on-demand or through NetFlix or the iTunes store. Which means there are generally no ads, and never any political ads. Not watching TV means I have more time for other things (like the family, or writing). But as I’ve discovered, it has the added benefit of eliminating a huge proportion of political campaigns.

I do listen to the radio, now and then, when I’m in the car, but I listen almost exclusively to either Sirius XM’s 70s on 7 or 80s on 8, both of which are entirely commercial free. So I was free from torment there as well.

2. I don’t answer phone calls for which I don’t instantly recognize the number

I got tired of political calls a long time ago, and since I rarely use the phone these days, anyway, sometime in the last year, I stopped answering calls for which I don’t recognize the number. And since I no longer listen to voicemail, my outgoing message directs people to text me or email me. I imagine that most of the political calls are robocalls, and aren’t smart enough to grab my email address and send me email. Bottom line: received no political calls this season. At least, none that I answered.

3. I recycled all political mail ads without looking at them.

You can kind of tell by feel. Those ads are all printed on that same thick bond poster-like paper. I tend to sort the little snail mail I get these days into two piles as I walk back to the house. Stuff to look at, and stuff to recycle. I’m guessing that all of the political ads made it safely into the recycle bin, because I don’t recall actually looking at any.

These three things combined to help eliminate all political ads from my life this season. I might not even have noticed it, had I not realized it was election day this morning. After work today, Kelly and I picked up the Little Man from school, and took him with us to our local polling place so that he could see what it was like to vote. The polling place was pretty much empty, which kinds of makes a mockery of how much money gets spent on political campaigns, and in particular, on advertising.

But really, the important thing is, as I discovered this morning, it is still possible to vote without being carpet bombed with political ads for months at a time.

Who knew!

Thank You, Derek Jeter, for Saving Baseball

I started at my present job in the fall of 1994, at the end of one of the more depressing baseball seasons of my life, thanks to the player’s strike that killed the postseason for that year. Baseball, it seemed, was at an all-time low.

In May of the following season, Derek Jeter made his major league debut with the New York Yankees. Since then, he has gone on to become not only one of the best all around players of his generation, but in all of baseball history. And what is more remarkable: he did it while keeping his ego in check, and being a role model that kids of all ages (including the “kid” of 23 years old that I was back in 1995) could look up to, and rely on to be a good example. For twenty years, Jeter has maintained that high standard.

Yesterday, Gatorade released a new commercial featuring Derek Jeter that has gone viral. I’ve probably watched this commercial a dozen times now.

At first, it was the artistic elements that drew me to the commercial: a choice of music, a good choice of how it was shot (black and white). But there was something else, something I couldn’t quite put a finger on. People have said that watching the video gives them goosebumps. It certainly had that effect on me. But why?

The reason, I think, dawned on me earlier this evening. As I said, I started my present job not long before Jeter started his with the Yankees. That twenty years has gone by in the blink of an eye. I wonder what it must be like for someone like Derek Jeter, who worked hard as a kid to make it to the big leagues, and then lived a dream, becoming one of the best players of all time–and now, he’s retiring and that part of his life is coming to a close. This final season of his has been like the credits at the end of a movie, one that you want to end, but that you wish would go on and on forever. If the last twenty years felt like blink of the eyes to me, what must it feel like to Jeter?

The new video captures some of that, and it comes across. When he nods to the camera at the end, just before he walks out onto the field, it is like an acknowledgement that all good things must come to an end. He’s cool with that, even though it makes us shed a reminiscent tear for halcyon days.

I’ve thought it a little strange that Jeter is getting the kind of send off that he’s been getting all season, but I no longer think so. Everyone, fans, players, owners, wants to say thank you to Jeter. They are thanking him for something that he probably had no idea he was doing when he made his first major league appearance in May 1995, when baseball was reeling from the strike, and was soon to be plagued by a decade of disappointing role models, thanks to steroids and performance-enhancing drugs. Through all of that, there was one player that fans, kids, old-timers, sports writers, managers, owners, and other players could count on not only for excellence on the field, but for excellence in character.  The send-off Jeter has gotten this season is a thank you from everyone.

They are thanking him for saving baseball.

Which is exactly what he has done for the last two decades.


Winston Churchill’s Bacon Number is… 3!

Yesterday on Twitter, I was ruminating about how many notable people are mentioned in Churchill’s biography. Churchill was born toward the end of the Victorian era, and lived 90 years. So Churchill had conversations with the likes of Mark Twain, as well as actors like Charlie Chaplin. Indeed, Churchill lived long enough that, despite being a Victorian, he lived into the Beatles era.

But for some reason, the notion that Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin struck me, and I decided to do a little Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with Churchill. I bent the rules a little. Instead of acting with someone, I considered a significant interaction good enough for my purposes. Indeed, Churchill spent time with Charlie Chaplin on several occasions. Going from there, I checked to see what Charlie Chaplin’s Bacon number was.  I used the Oracle of Bacon website to find this out. Turns out, Chaplin’s Bacon number is 2:

Chaplin Bacon Number

So, by virtue of the fact that Churchill spent significant time with Chaplin (as oppose to acting in a movie with him–my own variation of the rules) his Bacon number would be 3. I find that fascinating for some reason.

The Start of World War I

I‘m more than halfway through my reading of The Last Lion: Winston Spencer Churchill, Volume 1. Yesterday, as I was about to head out to lunch, I said this on Twitter:

I was referring to the fact that the book was creeping up on the start of the First World War. However, in a remarkable coincidence, it turns out that yesterday, July 28, was exactly 100 years since the official start of World War I back on July 28, 1914. To the day. That is pretty creepy.

My Attempt to Watch Mad Men

I‘ve heard lots of good things about the show Mad Men, and so, after the kids went to bed last night, Kelly and I settled down to watch the first two episodes.  They were entertaining, maybe a little over the top, but the truth is that after two episodes, I was worn out. Two episodes into the show and there was already so much potential drama1 that, as a story teller, I could see the explosive proliferation of plot twists and struggles that would fill the rest of this season, and presumably, subsequent seasons.

Part of what spurred me to give Mad Men a try was catching a few episodes of Bewitched earlier in the week. As a kid, I remember spending summer mornings watching syndicated reruns of the show (I’m nowhere near old enough to have seen the show in first run) and it was nice to see it again. Darren is, of course, an ad man, and the show takes place in the 1960s instead of the 1950s, but memories of how much I enjoyed Bewitched made me curious about Mad Men.

The problems I have with Mad Men are the same problems I have with all television dramas today. First is that they focus on edge-cases, which is understandable, since they are easy targets for good storytelling. But it also means that the shows tend to be overly dramatic and those wear quickly on my limited patience with television.

The second–for me, more important–problem is that they are serials as opposed to series. I’ve discussed this before. I don’t watch a lot of television. When I do, I want to dip for some brain relief and entertainment, and dip out again. I always liked dramas like Magnum, P.I. because, despite being dramas, they were self-contained episodes, rarely, if ever ending in a cliff-hanger, rarely carrying an arch beyond one episode. You could watch an episode, any episode, be entertained for 50 minutes, and move on without a second thought. Not so with today’s dramas, including, it seems, Mad Men.

Let me be clear that my objections to Mad Men have nothing to do with the quality of the writing or acting. They are objections based on my own ennui with how dramas are produced today. I am not a serial TV watcher. I don’t look for a show that will last season after season. I’ve grown to despise cliff-hangers in dramas, and I hate how they chop up seasons these days. Most of all, I really dislike how you can no longer watch just one episode. Today’s dramas are made with binge-watching in mind. I’m not part of that audience so it makes sense that I don’t connect with those kind of shows.

I suspect that series (as opposed to serial) dramas are mostly a thing of the past, and this is one of those cases where like what I grew up with, and am simply not part of the serial-watching culture. That’s okay, I can deal with that. But it is disappointing when shows that sound good in principle are virtually unwatchable to me because of this.

  1. I use the term “potential” in the classical physics sense here.

A Useful Word Processor Function All Tools Seem to Lack: Shift Keys Left

I touch type. I’m self-taught, and after more than, oh, twenty-five years or so, I’m pretty fast. I don’t need to look at the keyboard. In fact, I can close my eyes and just type away1.

But on certain keyboards, I seem to make the same mistake from time-to-time. I’ll start typing a sentence and by the time I look at the screen, this is what I see:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

The problem, of course, is that I’ve managed to shift my fingers on the keyboard one key to the right. I know there are little nubs on the F and J keys that are supposed to tell you where you are but I simply don’t pay attention. My mind is elsewhere. Like on the scene that I am writing.

Once I realize what happened, I have to go back and delete the gibberish and rewrite what I meant to write. It seems to me, that (a) I am not the only one in the world to which this annoying phenomenon happens, and (b) since it is a one-key shift, there should be a way to quickly fix the problem.

I think that a decent word processor should include a SHIFT KEYS LEFT (or RIGHT) function on the Edit menu, the way some word processor have CHANGE CASE functions. The way it would work is this. You accidentally type algorithmic gibberish like:

Dp muvh got nrinh s hoof yu[ody!

You can then highlight the text and click Edit->Shift Keys Left and the result would be:

So much for being a good typist!

It saves time and turns your gibberish back into what you intended. Why don’t word processors have this useful function? I’m seriously considering writing the function and adding to the set of functions I’ve created for my Google App Scripts.

  1. I’m doing so this very second, but of course, you’ll have to take me word for that.

Pet Peeve: No, I Won’t Recommend Your Article Before I Read the Whole Thing

I have been seeing a lot more of this kind of thing lately: I find an article I’m interested in, start reading, get through about a paragraph (sometimes just a few sentences) and then see something that looks like this:

Full Content

This is one of those things that will instantly make me quit reading a blog or article. It seems to me that the site (or author, or content manager) is attempting to make this kind of bargain:

I’ll let you read the rest of the post, but first you have to recommend it publicly.

That’s like a used car dealer saying, “I’ll let you test drive the car, but first you have to buy it.” Screw that! When I “like” something on Facebook or retweet something on Twitter, or +1 it on Google Plus, I am staking my reputation on it. I’m saying, “Hey, I saw this and thought it was worth passing along. Check it out if this kind of thing interests you.”

Why on Earth would I risk that reputation on an article I haven’t had a chance to read? Why would anyone? This kind of Internet snobbery makes it clear to me that all the site really cares about is how many “likes” or “retweets” it gets. It’s fishing for them in the most blatant and annoying way.

I doubt that my complaining about it here will alter the behavior one iota, but I hope that it demonstrates that, in at least some of the population, this kind of behavior will get you some reaction you probably didn’t expect: a pissed off, annoyed reader who will go get his information from a source that won’t ask for a quid pro quo.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled Internet.