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May 31, 2006

Starbucks Trivia

It's the same old "use Google to look up something and end up with a dozen tabs of interesting pages in Firefox" story. I went looking for some information on Starbucks and found all sorts of fascinating things:

  • A visual history of the Starbucks logo (which involves rendering the mermaid more discreetly) can be found here.
  • Among cities in the western US, Anchorage, not Seattle, has the highest concentration of Starbucks stores coffee shops per 100,000 residents.
  • The world's largest Starbucks is a five-story "megastore" in Seoul.
  • The megastore in Seoul will soon be eclipsed by a store to be built in Dubai. Presumably it will be a gigastore.

The Return of the Dixie Chicks

In March 2003, 10 days before the invasion of Iraq, Dixie Chicks band member Natalie Maines famously said, "Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas." You know the rest: boycotts, bulldozing of CDs, death threats, ostracision by the country music community, and of course the Entertainment Weekly cover:

Dixie Chicks Cover
Now they're back with Taking the Long Way. The first single from it is "Not Ready to Make Nice", which includes these lyrics:
I made my bed and I sleep like a baby
With no regrets and I don't mind sayin'
It's a sad sad story when a mother will teach her
Daughter that she ought to hate a perfect stranger
And how in the world can the words that I said
Send somebody so over the edge
That they'd write me a letter
Sayin' that I better shut up and sing
Or my life will be over
I'm listening to "Not Ready to Make Nice" right now, and it sounds like nothing if not Record of the Year to me... on the Album of the Year. What a triumphant return. Good on you, Dixie Chicks.

Oh, and by the way, about Natalie's comment? Three years later, caught in a war that won't end, a war entered into on false pretenses, if anything, I'd say she was pretty easy on the President.

May 30, 2006

A Moral Dilemma

Tonight is Game 6 of the NHL's Eastern Conference finals between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Buffalo Sabres. Carolina is up 3-2, so one more win and they're in the Stanley Cup finals. Tonight's game is at Buffalo; if Buffalo wins and forces a Game 7, it will be played in Raleigh Thursday evening.

Here's my moral dilemma: I have tickets to see Game 7. I missed the chance to purchase tickets for the Eastern Conference quarterfinal series against the Montreal Canadiens. I had tickets to Game 7 of the semifinal series against the New Jersey Devils, but Carolina won that series in five games.

So do I cheer for the Hurricanes to wrap it up? Or do I cheer for Buffalo to force Game 7? I think the answer is that I cheer for the Hurricanes, and if they lose, I console myself knowing I'll get to see the deciding game in person.

StopGlobalWarming.org

You've bought a TerraPass, offsetting your car's carbon emissions.

You've seen, or signed the pledge to see, An Inconvenient Truth.

What now?

How about joining StopGlobalWarming.org?

May 29, 2006

"Rapes Within Rapes"

I think that Part I, "Rapes within rapes", of this article by Johann Hari on the ongoing civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (found via Andrew Sullivan) is possibly the most horrible thing I've ever read. I was thinking of quoting it here, but just couldn't bring myself to -- it's that difficult to read. How can human beings do such things? How?

May 28, 2006

"Only Once?"

In the café of the Great Court of the British Museum, London, earlier this week:

Me: My friend Richard Boyd says that you can fall in love once a day on the Tube.

Richard Harris: Only once?

Fortress America

Fortress America

The US Embassy, Grosvenor Square, London.

Whatever the justification for this, as an American, it's embarrassing.

"[Killing a Polar Bear] Is My Disney World"

My attitude toward sport hunting has always been the same: I don't understand the attraction of it, but I don't begrudge others who feel differently. Reading this New York Times article on efforts to list the polar bear as threatened may have changed my mind once and for all:

Bob Hudson says he has played in the Rose Bowl, jumped out of airplanes, scuba dived off Fiji and stalked bighorn sheep in the Rockies. But for all the excitement of his 67 years, there was one thrill he still craved: hunting polar bear in the high Canadian Arctic.

He sold his beloved Jaguar XKE on eBay for $26,000 to do it. After heavy wind and snow ruined his hunt in April, he took another $14,000 out of his retirement account for a return trip.

"Life is short," Mr. Hudson joked. "The last check you write should be to the undertaker, and it should bounce."

Mr. Hudson, a McDonald's franchise owner from Oxford, Miss., got his trophy: a nine-foot bear bagged with a single shot from 30 yards...

Hunters say few experiences can compare with the sensation of sighting a bear, then watching the Inuit guides release their huskies to surround and confuse the prey long enough for the hunters to shoot it.

"This is my Disney World," said Manuel Camacho, a 60-year-old urologist from Miami, before he set out on his hunt in May...

For Dr. Camacho, a Cuban exile and Vietnam veteran who has hunted all over the world, his thoughts wandered to his former wife and ex-girlfriends, opportunities seized, opportunities lost.

"One moment I am thinking of medical school, then click off and look at the dogs or an iceberg," he said at the end of one day hunting. "And then click again and my mind drifts to experiences I have had in Central America and Africa."

For the hunter and the hunted, it is a race against time. After waiting several years, Dr. Camacho told his outfitter that he did not want "to wait till I am in wheelchair" to hunt a polar bear.

"It's tickling to think I could be the last American hunter who brings in a polar bear trophy," he said. "I might just squeak by." The very next day, he shot one.

How anyone can look at a polar bear -- one of the most magnificent animals on Earth -- and think to himself that it would be a "thrill", be his "Disney World", be "tickling" to kill it with a high-powered rifle while a pack of dogs surrounds and confuses it is absolutely beyond me. I truly don't understand this mindset, and I never will.

May 26, 2006

Zarniwoop

From The Restaurant at the End of the Universe:

Zaphod Beeblebrox entered the foyer. He strode up to the insect receptionist.

"OK," he said, "Where's Zarniwoop? Get me Zarniwoop."

"Excuse me, sir?" said the insect icily. It did not care to be addressed in this manner.

"Zarniwoop. Get him, right? Get him now."

"Well, sir," snapped the fragile little creature, "if you could be a little cool about it..."

Look," said Zaphod, "I'm up to here with cool, OK? I'm so amazingly cool you could keep a side of meat inside me for a month. I am so hip I have difficulty seeing over my pelvis. Now will you move before you blow it?"

"Well, if you'd let me explain, sir," said the insect tapping the most petulant of all the tentacles at its disposal, "I'm afraid that isn't possible right now as Mr. Zarniwoop is on an intergalactic cruise."

Hell, thought Zaphod.

"When he's going to be back?" he said.

"Back sir? He's in his office."

Zaphod paused while he tried to sort this particular thought out in his mind. He didn't succeed.

"This cat's on an intergalactic cruise... in his office?" He leaned forward and gripped the tapping tentacle.

"Listen, three eyes," he said, "don't you try to outweird me. I get stranger things than you free with my breakfast cereal."

"Well, just who do you think you are, honey?" flounced the insect quivering its wings in rage, "Zaphod Beeblebrox or something?"

"Count the heads," said Zaphod in a low rasp.

The insect blinked at him. It blinked at him again.

"You are Zaphod Beeblebrox?" it squeaked.

"Yeah," said Zaphod, "but don't shout it out or they'll all want one."

"The Zaphod Beeblebrox?"

"No, just a Zaphod Beeblebrox, didn't you hear I come in six packs?"

The insect rattled its tentacles together in agitation.

"But sir," it squealed, "I just heard on the sub-ether radio report. It said that you were dead..."

"Yeah, that's right," said Zaphod, "I just haven't stopped moving yet. Now. Where do I find Zarniwoop?"

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Zarniwoop, a Maine Coon cat who lives with the ape-descended life form Richard Harris in Hindhead, Surrey, England, United Kingdom, Earth. (This is an utterly insignificant blue-green planet, orbiting a small unregarded yellow sun, far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Western Spiral arm of the Galaxy.)

Zarniwoop

Zarniwoop.

Zarniwoop is sitting on the desk behind my laptop as I write this -- at 10 kilograms (22 pounds), he's absolutely huge, but has managed to wedge himself into an impossibly small space and yet seems comfortable. (Richard tells me this is typical of Maine Coons.) He's one of the friendliest cats I've ever met.

I suspect Douglas would be quite pleased.

YO! Sushi

YO! Sushi is a British chain of hipster sushi-on-a-conveyor-belt (kaiten) restaurants. The decor was cool, the music good, the sushi tasty, the prices reasonable, and how could I resist still and sparkling water taps at each table?

YO! Sushi 2

I miss it already.

The Great Court

Two views of the Great Court at the British Museum:

The Great Court 4

The Great Court 5

My friend Richard Harris took me here for coffee and cakes in the cafe beneath the roof. It's spectacular -- a truly wonderful public space. More on the Great Court here; all my pictures of it here.

May 25, 2006

Surrey

Surrey

A village in Surrey, as seen from seat 34A, AA 174, RDU-LGW.

May 23, 2006

Off to London

I'm off to London this afternoon, to speak at Apply Serious Games 2006. I'll be giving a talk Thursday morning and then sitting on a panel that afternoon.

"The Singularity Is Near"

My seventh book of the year (I'm still catching up from a couple of months ago) was Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.

I've heard it said that anyone in high technology has to read this book -- that Kurzweil's arguments now come up so often in discussion that to be literate in our field, one has to be conversant with them. I tend to go along with that theory. Kurzweil makes dramatic claims about the future of technology and backs them up with 500 pages of charts and citations. We can't afford not to read what he has to say, debate it, and think about its implications for our future.

The key idea underlying the impending Singularity is that the pace of change of our human-created technology is accelerating and its powers are expanding at an exponential pace...

This book will argue... that within several decades information-based technologies will encompass all human knowledge and proficiency, ultimately including the pattern-recognition powers, problem-solving skills, and emotional and moral intelligence of the human brain itself...

The Singularity will represent the culmination of the merger of our biological thinking and existence with our technology, resulting in a world that is still human but that transcends our biological roots. There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine or between physical and virtual reality.

Is what Kurzweil is saying true? I don't know. The statistics he cites in the book on exponential growth -- in microprocessor cost and performance, DNA sequencing cost, the decrease in size of mechanical devices, resolution and speed of brain scanning, and many more -- are undeniable. The question is, where are those trends leading us? Will a machine pass the Turing test by 2029? Once intelligent, will machine intelligence increase exponentially? Will humans augment their biological intelligence with machine intelligence? Kurzweil believes all this will happen, and has a schedule for it, based on extrapolating the exponential growth curves he cites.

If I had to guess, I'd say that Kurzweil is on the right track, but his dates might be off. He believes that once we have low-cost computers with raw processing power equal to that of the human brain, and with a deep understanding of the brain's "architecture" in hand thanks to neuroscience advances, it won't take long for human-level intelligence to develop in machines. My hunch is that it will take longer than he thinks. For one thing, software development is much less predictable than hardware development. For another, even with the necessary hardware and software at our disposal, we will have to teach our would-be intelligent machines about the world. That process could turn out to be time-consuming. It might be that, at first, the only way to effectively bring about a human-equivalent intelligence will be to create a physical entity and allow it to explore and experience the world around it, just as we do with human children. This process alone could take years, and we might get it wrong many times before we get it right.

But agree or disagree with him, Kurzweil can't simply be dismissed. He makes a comprehensive case for his beliefs, and if his forecasts come to pass -- on whatever schedule -- they will change our world more profoundly than anything since the development of language and tool-making.

May 22, 2006

A Democratic Contract for America

On The Huffington Post, Cenk Uygur writes about the "do nothing Democrats":

The Do Nothing Democrats are led by their New York Senators. Chuck Schumer who is in charge of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee for the 2006 elections and Hillary Clinton who is supposedly the leading candidate for 2008 (I shudder at the thought). They have sent out the memo - do absolutely nothing until the 2006 election; we have a lead, let's sit on it. Bold, very, very bold.

Every sports fan knows what prevent defense does - it prevents victories. Action matters. It matters that we just added another $70 billion on top of our already grotesquely large deficit. It matters that the head of our CIA will be both incompetent and a wanton law-breaker. We cannot run out the clock to 2006, let alone 2008. These next two and half years matter.

Democrats have to fight back and win. If they don't, there is absolutely no point to their big leads in the polls. The American people aren't behind you because they won't you to do nothing. They're behind you because they want you to bring change.

There are less than five-and-a-half months until the general election, and I honestly can't think of one thing the Democrats have said they'll do when they're elected. Their entire platform seems to be:

  1. Republicans are unpopular.
  2. We're not Republicans.
  3. Vote for us!
This is not a winning strategy -- not in the long run, anyway.

What the Democrats need is the equivalent of the Republicans' 1994 Contract with America. Democrats derided it, but it helped the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives (and keep it for at least 10 years). Voters might have disagreed with one or more of its points, but they knew where the Republicans stood. They knew what their priorities were going to be -- at least if they kept their promises, which they did, at least as far as the contract went.

Yes, the Democrats need their own Contract with America. And the very first item in it should be the same as in the Republicans' version: a balanced budget amendment. What better way to say, "We're no longer the tax and spend party", and what better way to distinguish themselves from the current Congress, which has never met a spending program it didn't like?

More ideas for a Democratic contract? How about raising fuel economy standards? 93 percent of Americans think this is a good idea, but the Republicans won't do it. How about passing a line-item veto, making light of President Bush's failure to veto a single spending bill? How about ending the practice of earmarks -- no more bridges to nowhere? How about reviving the assault weapons ban? (I personally don't think it would have much effect, but it's the right side of the issue to be on.)

That's five ideas upon which Democrats should be able to agree. I've been working on this blog entry for 30 minutes. Surely with a few hours' thought, they can come up with five more.

Oh, and while they're at it, really tweak the Republicans by calling it the Contract for America.

May 19, 2006

"The Coasts of America Will Be Lashed by Storms"

Via The Huffington Post, a prediction from Pat Robertson:

The Rev. Pat Robertson says God has told him that storms and possibly a tsunami will hit America's coastline this year.

The founder of the Christian Broadcasting Network has told viewers of "The 700 Club" that the revelations came to him during his annual personal prayer retreat in January.

"If I heard the Lord right about 2006, the coasts of America will be lashed by storms," Robertson said May 8.

He added specifics in Wednesday's show.

"There well may be something as bad as a tsunami in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

According to the Department of Atmospheric Science at Colorado State University, the probability of one or more named storms reaching landfall in the US during the coming hurricane season is as follows:

  • Tropical storm: 91 percent
  • Category 1 or 2 hurricane: 88 percent
  • Category 3, 4, or 5 hurricane: 81 percent
  • All hurricanes: 98 percent
  • All named storms: 99 percent
"The coasts of America will be lashed by storms"? That's really going out on a limb there, Pat.

Huffington on Gore

There's plenty of speculation on Al Gore's plans for the 2008 presidential election. Arianna Huffington goes to the heart of the matter:

Gore isn't running for office, and already the negative campaigning has begun. This is what anyone who takes a stand faces these days -- politics as demolition derby -- and why so many politicians operate out of fear. But when I asked Gore about it, he was unfazed.

I couldn't help but flash on the stiff, robotic Gore of the 2000 campaign. You could smell the fear on the Gore of 2000. Just as you could smell it on Kerry in 2004, as he ran a campaign that consistently chose caution over boldness.

And it's the same sickening scent that Hillary Clinton is wearing today: Eau de Don't Let Me Screw Up and Flush My Chances Down the Toilette...

Her fear has caused a complete disconnect from who she really is and what she really thinks (that is, if she even knows anymore).

Which is a shame -- both for her and for all politicians who are short-changing the smart, strong, determined leaders they could be. Instead, we get a seemingly endless lineup of fear-driven candidates who, with each new election cycle, become a little more wrinkle-free, a little more foible-free, a good bit less interesting -- and considerably more idea free. They are so programmed to avoid the pitfalls of actually standing for something, we might as well have robots running.

Whether Al Gore ends up running in 2008 or not, he is modeling the way our public figures, and especially our would-be presidents, should be operating -- from the heart and true to themselves. Standing for something more important than just winning, and more powerful than the fear of losing.

Candidates -- and especially Democratic ones -- need to stop fooling themselves that the road to victory is paved with pandering.

George W. Bush's message to the nation has been that we can have our collective cake and eat it, too. We can cut taxes while increasing spending. We can add new entitlements while our deficit skyrockets. We can go to war, but continue about our normal lives. How often has Bush used the word "sacrifice", except in the context of American soldiers in battle? How often has he talked about the sacrifices all Americans must make?

I've felt for a long time now that the public would reach out to someone who says, for a change, that we'll all need to make sacrifices if we're going to maintain our status as the world's leading superpower. If we want to go to war with the help of other nations, we're going to have to listen to their opinions. If we want to balance the budget, we're going to have to raise taxes. If we want to add new social programs, we're going to have to cut others. If we want to preserve the environment, we're going to have to give up -- or pay far more for -- our Hummers, our Escalades, and our G55s.

There's no such thing as a free lunch. I think most people realize that. To hear a candidate say it would be a breath of fresh air.

May 18, 2006

From "McBiz" to "McMakeover"

Three years ago, I wrote:

Think about this, which admittedly is purely conjectural:

McDonald's creates a new branding program. They could call it "McRoad," or "McBusiness," or something else, but let's call it "McBiz" for now. McBiz is a sub-brand of McDonald's. There's a McBiz treatment that extends the existing McDonald's logo -- it's subtle, but once you know what to look for, it's easy to spot (though the uninterested might never notice it). When a restaurant switches to the McBiz branding, this indicates a number of things:

  • There's a Wi-Fi access point on premises.
  • There's at least one customer-accessible power outlet per n seats.
  • The coffee served has been upgraded (new brand, new procedures).
  • The restaurant sells the Wall Street Journal (in addition to USA Today).
  • There are at least n monitors playing CNN Headline News (sound off, closed captioned).
  • There's a customer-accessible soda machine.
I'm not much of a McDonald's fan, but if they embarked on such an effort, and made me aware of it, I'd start paying attention to them. Sure, when I'm on the road, I'd rather go to a Starbucks, but if the choice is pull into a McBiz McDonald's now or drive around for 10 minutes looking for a Starbucks, I'll probably choose McDonald's.
Now, three years later, BusinessWeek is out with a story on the new McDonald's store design, "Mickey D's McMakeover":
A comfortable armchair. Cool hanging lights. Funky graphics and photos on the walls. Wi-Fi access. Premium coffee. Isn't Starbucks great? Except... this is McDonald's. McDonald's? That's right. After 30 years without a major design overhaul, the 51-year-old fast-food giant is adopting a hip new look...

What will the new McDonald's look like? "Think iPod: clean lines, simplicity," says [McDonald's vice-president of worldwide architecture, design, and construction, John] Miologos...

The traditional McDonald's yellow and red colors will remain, but the red will be muted to terra cotta and olive and sage green will be added to the mix. To warm up their look, the restaurants will have less plastic and more brick and wood, with modern hanging lights to produce a softer glow. Contemporary art or framed photographs will hang on the walls. Bob Dixon, a private school fund-raiser in Chicago, says of an Oak Brook (Ill.) restaurant that sports the new design: "It's bright, it's lively, it's clean. It stunned me how beautiful it was."

The dining area will be separated into three sections with distinct personalities. The "linger" zone will offer comfortable armchairs, sofas, and Wi-Fi connections. "The focus is on young adults who want to socialize, hang out, and linger," says Dixon. Brand consultant Robert Passikoff, president of Brand Keys, a brand consulting firm, says that Starbucks has raised the bar: "A level has been set by Starbucks, which offers the experience of relaxed chairs and a clean environment where people feel comfortable hanging out even if it's just over a cup of coffee."

The "grab and go" zone will feature tall counters with bar stools for customers who eat alone; plasma TVs will offer them news and weather reports. And in the "flexible" zone, families will have booths featuring fabric cushions with colorful patterns and flexible seating. The new design allows different music to be targeted to each zone.

McDonald's McMakeover 1

McDonald's McMakeover 2

They didn't get all of my points, but they're on their way. If they have accessible power outlets -- a subject about which I'm sensitive after traveling through so many outlet-less airports -- I'd say they're off to the races.

"The Confusion" and "The System of the World"

Let me get my prejudice out of the way. With Snow Crash and The Diamond Age, I thought that Neal Stephenson established himself as one of the best science fiction authors writing today. With Cryptonomicon, I felt that he had become one of the best authors writing in any genre. Now, with The Baroque Cycle trilogy, if there's a better author alive today, all I can say is, I want to read his or her work.

The Confusion and The System of the World, the fifth and sixth books I read this year, are volumes two and three of The Baroque Cycle, a sprawling, 3,000-page work. The Baroque Cycle is readable on a variety of levels: as a treatise on the development of modern financial systems; as a historical novel featuring the greatest scientists (Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, Wren) and rulers (Louis XIV, William III, James II) of the 17th Century; as a pirate-vagabond-military adventure; or as a love story for the ages (my favorite, but then, I'm a romantic at heart).

It would be easy to choose one of many, many excellent sections that illustrate Stephenson's ability to explain, in context, technical and arcane subject matter. It would be equally easy to pick out a fine bit of swashbuckling, in which the participants may or may not be honorable, but are usually literate and often interesting. But some of my favorite passages from The Baroque Cycle are those that center on personal relationships. This is from a conversation between Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, and Bob Shaftoe, a soldier with whom she has had the occasional affair:

"I am ever in a delicate way," said Eliza, "but men pick and choose the time to take notice of it, as it suits their purposes." At this Bob chuckled again, which provoked her. "Let us speak plainly," she said, "for this is where our ways part -- you must to the Tower to attend your master in his prison-cell, I must to dockside to arrange passage to Dunkerque." ...

"When you promise to speak plainly, I know to brace myself," said Bob, and then he did literally, leaning against a brick wall.

"You have seen me sick, and suppose that I am pregnant. This has wrought powerfully on your mind, for you know that Abigail was given syphilis by Upnor and may not be able to give you children, even if you do pry her from the clutches of Count Sheerness. You have stopped thinking of me as 'Eliza the woman I roger from time to time' and begun to think of me as 'Eliza the expectant mother of my only child.' This has queered your judgment and led you to consider schemes that are not likely to produce Abigail's freedom. Know then that the foetus -- which might have been yours, or my husband's, or any of several other men's -- miscarried the night before last. It is with the angels. I would still produce a competent heir for my husband, but must begin a new pregnancy once I have reached France. Perhaps I shall seduce Jean Bart, perhaps the Marquis d'Ozoir, perhaps a Marine who catches my fancy on the street. In any case you must give up hope that any progeny of yours shall come from here -- " and Eliza rested her hand on the front of her bodice " -- for I am done with being the other woman in the life of Bob Shaftoe and Abigail Frome. Done with being the poppy-elixir that makes you forget your pain, and leads you to dream strategems that shall never avail you or her a thing. Abigail may be waiting for you, Bob. I am not. Get thee to thy projects, then."

Over the course of the three books, Stephenson occasionally writes anachronistically, always briefly, always for humorous effect, and never so much as to detract from the verisimilitude of his novels:

"The ineffable currents of the slave-market drove me to Algiers. My owner learned that I had some skills beyond oar-pulling, and put me to work as a bookkeeper in a market where Corsairs sell and trade their swag. The winter before last, I made the acquaintance of Moseh, who was asking many questions about the market in tutsuklar ransom futures. We had several conversations and I began to perceive the general shape of his Plan."

"He told you about Jeronimo, and the Viceroy?"

"No, I learned of that on the same night as you."

"Then what do you mean when you say you understood his plan?"

"I understood the basic principle: that a group of slaves who, taken one by one, were assigned a very low value by the market, might yet be worth much when grouped together cleverly..." Vrej rolled up to his feet and grimaced into the sun. "The wording does not come naturally in this bastard language of Sabir, but Moseh's plan was to synergistically leverage the value-added of diverse core competencies into a virtual entity whose whole was more than the sum of its parts..."

Jack stared at him blankly.

"It sounds brilliant in Armenian." Vrej sighed.

I can't say enough good things about this trilogy. Stephenson has more interesting ideas in any given chapter than most authors have in entire books -- or in some cases, entire lifetimes. It's an amazing accomplishment, and were it any other writer, I would say it was destined to be seen as the pinnacle of his or her career -- but this is Stephenson, so I know better.

May 17, 2006

Historical Console Prices

Via Boing Boing, an interesting chart from Curmudgeon Gamer showing the inflation-adjusted prices of game consoles over the last 20 years.

Relative Console Prices 1976-2006
I'm tempted (but don't have the time) to research and chart the true costs of these systems when fully equipped. For example, as I noted, with wireless controllers, a wireless adapter, a starting set of games, an Xbox Live subscription, and some Microsoft points to spend, an Xbox 360 Premium system approaches $1,000 in total cost. Sony's total cost for a PlayStation 3 will undoubtedly be even higher -- $1,100 to $1,200, I would guess.

At the same time, it would be equally interesting (but difficult) to chart the functionality of game systems over time. Yes, an Xbox 360 Premium system costs about $1,000 when fully equipped -- but how much more does it include and do, objectively speaking, than a system from 10 years ago -- a PlayStation 1 or a Nintendo 64?

May 15, 2006

The Biggest Story of E3

For my money, the most notable news coming out of E3 wasn't the trailer for Halo 3, which is stunning, or Sony's Ken Kutaragi saying that $599 is "too cheap" for the PlayStation 3, or Nintendo's Wii controller. Technically speaking, the most notable news wasn't even news from E3, but rather the coverage of news from E3. From an article in The New York Times:

Online Game Galaxy Gets a New Race of Characters

LOS ANGELES, May 10 -- Ever since last year, when the makers of World of Warcraft, one of the world's most successful video games, announced that they would release a major retail expansion in late 2006, the game's millions of players have eagerly awaited additional details about what lay in store.

As the video game industry convened here on Wednesday for E3, the top annual game convention, those players started getting answers. In the biggest piece of news, Blizzard Entertainment, the company behind the game, announced that the expansion, called the Burning Crusade, included the introduction of an otherworldly species called the Draenei. The Draenei are the new playable race for the Warcraft group called the Alliance.

Much of the story line in World of Warcraft, which now has more than 6 million paying subscribers worldwide, revolves around the strife between two competing factions, the Alliance and the Horde. Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.

Blizzard announced last year that in the expansion the Horde would receive a new playable race called the Blood Elves, but until Wednesday the identity of the new Alliance race had been a secret. On Web message boards players had spilled hundreds of thousands of words debating what the new Alliance race would be.

The story goes on for another five paragraphs.

In other words, America's paper of record ran a full-length article, listed in their main RSS feed, not on a new game, but on the unveiling of a new character type within an existing game. Partly this is the growing importance of computer and video games, but mostly, I think, it's the fact that World of Warcraft is now more than a half a billion dollar business -- 4.5 million players (excluding China) at a minimum of $12.99 per month equals over $700 million per year.

Also, to see The New York Times publish a story with lines like...

Players can join either side of the fantasy conflict; the Alliance includes races like humans, dwarves and gnomes, while the Horde includes orcs, trolls and the undead.
...is a treat I won't soon forget.

May 14, 2006

Shows Good Enough to Pay for Them

On PVRblog, Matt Haughey writes:

The success of show sales on things like the iTunes store definitely points towards the future of TV: make shows good enough that people willingly pay for it (sans ads). Of course, cable outfits like HBO and Showtime have been doing this for decades so it will be interesting to see how the major networks compete in the future. I'm still hopeful the networks can create great programming worthy of purchase and adapt to this new world instead of the alternative: relying on lawsuits to block any technology that doesn't fit their current business model in a perpetual war between them and their own customers.
This is a great point. Networks have been trying to figure out how to get more money from product placements and other mechanisms that can't be skipped with a DVR remote, but it does seem that in the end, the best route is to make shows we're willing to pay to watch. Speaking personally, I can think of four:
  • Battlestar Galactica: Not only have I bought the one-and-a-half seasons already available on DVD, when I reached the end of the DVD set of the first half of the second season, with further DVDs months away, I bought all 10 remaining episodes on the iTunes Music Store to watch on my iMac and my iPod, because I didn't want to wait to see them.
  • House: I'm a recent convert, and am thinking of buying the first season on DVD to go back and watch it from the start.
  • Rome: If HBO offered this on DVD before airing it, I'd buy it in a heartbeat.
  • 24: This is a little shaky for me, because unlike the other shows I've listed here, 24 doesn't seem like the kind of program I would want to watch more than once. But it might just make the list.
That's four shows, or four hours a week out of how much original prime-time programming produced by the various networks? Hundreds of hours? But it's a start. If Hollywood can make more shows at this level of quality, and let me buy them however I like (DVD, iTunes, or premium cable channel subscription), then they could effectively take on the DVR and live to tell about it.

Of course, there's the small matter of making more shows at the quality level of the four listed above (and others I know to be good but don't watch, like The Sopranos). Easier said than done.

May 13, 2006

Back to the Future for E-Books?

Kevin Kelly has a long piece in The New York Times, "Scan This Book!", on the various efforts to digitize the world's book collection. He touches on the issue of how we'll read e-books, writing:

The least important, but most discussed, aspects of digital reading have been these contentious questions: Will we give up the highly evolved technology of ink on paper and instead read on cumbersome machines? Or will we keep reading our paperbacks on the beach? For now, the answer is yes to both. Yes, publishers have lost millions of dollars on the long-prophesied e-book revolution that never occurred, while the number of physical books sold in the world each year continues to grow. At the same time, there are already more than a half a billion PDF documents on the Web that people happily read on computers without printing them out, and still more people now spend hours watching movies on microscopic cellphone screens. The arsenal of our current display technology -- from handheld gizmos to large flat screens -- is already good enough to move books to their next stage of evolution: a full digital scan.
It's true that a variety of efforts to sell e-books (and, in some cases, devices to read them) have fallen flat. Why is this so? I think there have been at least two major contributing reasons:
  • Until the advent of the iTunes Music Store, most consumers didn't feel comfortable buying digital-only content.
  • Consumers have had two choices for reading e-books, both of which they rejected: PCs and dedicated e-book readers. PCs are ubiquitous, but who wants to be tied to a desktop computer to read, or to have to boot up a large, clunky, battery-hungry laptop? E-book readers were more convenient, but still too large and clunky, and consumers were expected to pay for a device to allow them to perform an activity (reading) they could do for free without it.
Will the time soon be right to relaunch the e-book experiment? I think it will be, for two reasons:
  • Having conditioned iPod owners to purchase music online, when Apple launched its video service last year, those same consumers picked it up immediately. Mainstream consumers are now comfortable with the idea of buying bits, as long as they feel they're buying from a vendor they can trust.
  • Consumers are now carrying around small, convenient, dedicated media playback devices by the millions. Sadly, the current iPod design is unsuitable for reading books, but a hypothetical widescreen iPod might be acceptable.
If Apple were to ship a widescreen iPod this year, and if its display size and quality made it suitable for comfortable e-book reading, could Apple successfully launch an e-book purchase service on the iTunes Music Store (which, by the way, I predict will soon be renamed the iTunes Media Store)? I think the answer is yes, Apple could. Would it be successful? My hunch is that it would, but in any case, I don't see any other company able to assemble the components of a successful e-book strategy as easily as Apple. If anyone can make e-books work in the short term, it's Apple. I'll be curious to see if they try.

Whole Foods' Landmark Store

Yesterday my brother Eric and sister-in-law Karin took me to visit Whole Foods Market's new landmark store in downtown Austin. It didn't disappoint. According to Whole Foods' Website, the landmark store is their largest at 80,000 square feet, compared to an average store size of 32,000 square feet. The ready-to-eat section is staggering -- made-to-order sandwiches, made-fresh noodle and rice bowls, pizza, hot dishes, smoothies, gelato, desserts -- and that's not counting a separate seafood bar where customers can dine on freshly grilled salmon and halibut burgers. Walk-through refrigerated beer section? Check. There are two levels of below-ground parking, with grocery cart-capable moving walkways. Suddenly my Whole Foods Market at home feels horribly inadequate.

Whole Foods 1

The front of the store.

Whole Foods 2

One of two outdoor dining areas -- the other is on the roof.

Whole Foods 3

Eric: "Did you see the Doom-slash-Half-Life 2 scene back there?"

Whole Foods 4

The amazing candy counter -- complete with selections from Fran's Chocolates of Seattle.

Whole Foods 5

The most tantalizing display of gelato I've ever seen, including while in Italy. Top-center-right, with chile peppers stuck in it, is chocolate chipotle -- wow.

If you're ever in Austin, I highly recommend a visit. If shopping is increasingly entertainment, this is the cutting edge of the trend when it comes to groceries.

May 12, 2006

Chuy's

Chuy's is an Austin tradition for Mexican food -- it's hip and funky and fun. It wasn't the best Mexican food I've ever had, not even close -- that honor would belong to Border Grill -- but the atmosphere made for a great time.

Chuy's

The entrance.

Chuy's Hubcaps

Hubcaps on the ceiling.

Mount Rainier

I'm just now starting to catch up with my blogging. I'm with family in Austin at the moment, having visited Louisville, Seattle, San Jose, and Los Angeles so far on this trip. The nicest moment in the air was seeing Mount Rainier -- not guaranteed on every flight into Seattle, but it's nice when it happens, especially when flying so close you feel like you can reach out and touch it (not this time).

Mount Rainier

Mount Rainier, as seen from seat 7A, UA 343, ORD-SEA.

May 10, 2006

Now Begins the Vacation Portion of My Vacation

I had every intention of blogging the past few days, but my travel schedule was too busy. I wrote earlier that the first days of my vacation were scheduled down to the hour, and in fact that's how they turned out. I'll try to do some catching up here shortly as I enjoy a few days in the company of my brother and sister-in-law in sunny Austin.

May 04, 2006

The Beverage Industry Does the Right Thing

From a story in USA Today (yes, you guessed it -- I'm on the road) on the beverage industry's agreement to remove sugared drinks from schools:

Under the voluntary agreement:
  • High schools will no longer sell high-calorie soft drinks during the school day but will offer water, low-fat and fat-free milk, diet soft drinks, low-calorie sports drinks, light juices and diet and unsweetened teas.

  • Elementary schools will sell only water and up to 8-ounce servings of 100% juice with no added sweeteners, and fat-free and low-fat milks. Middle schools have the same standards but with 10-ounce servings.
This really is tremendous news. I've blogged before on the dangers of sugared soda, and I've long been offended by the prevalence of such drinks in schools. It stunned me to see how easy it was for the beverage industry to buy the loyalty of so many school districts, who were all too willing to sacrifice student health for more funding.

Having said that, I think the industry deserves more credit than they're getting. When someone does the right thing, we should offer praise, not the criticism they're receiving:

The beverage industry's agreement to remove sugary soft drinks from public and private U.S. schools over the next three years... is drawing mixed reactions from kids and critics.

Barry Popkin, nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, says, "This is an important, useful first step, but it's quite shocking how long it took them to react." ...

"The soft-drink industry has been losing battles in local school districts and in state legislatures and simply saw the inevitable -- being kicked out from all schools," says Kelly Brownell of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University...

"The soft-drink industry's announcement is about as voluntary as a shotgun wedding. They see the writing on the wall and are trying to prevent further legislation and litigation," says Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

To Mssrs. Popkin, Brownell, and Wootan, whatever your feelings for the beverage industry may be, however pitched your battles with them may have been, this is a time to be magnanimous -- not because doing so would be polite (though it would be), but because there will be other battles to fight, with this industry and others, and you will want to be able to point to how graciously you reacted when you won in the past. As it stands, were I on the other side of an issue with you, your reaction to this announcement would give me pause before cooperating with you in the future.

May 03, 2006

Off to the West Coast

I'm off today on a trip that's one part business, eight parts vacation: a day in Kentucky for work, then I'm off the clock and it's on to Seattle (two days), San Jose (one day), Los Angeles (one day), and Austin (five days). I'm trying to see as many people as I can, especially in Seattle, but at this point, the first four days of my trip are scheduled, I think, down to the hour.

To my friends I'm seeing on this trip, I'm looking forward to it. And to those I'm missing this time out, I'll be back out soon, and look forward to catching up with you then.

May 02, 2006

NCSGI Workshop: Academic Presentation Notes

The North Carolina Serious Games Initiative held its first event today, a Workshop on Collaboration in the North Carolina Serious Games Space. One idea behind the event was to bring together two audiences -- academic researchers and commercial developers focused on serious games projects -- to enable awareness and cross-pollination between the groups. Another reason for holding the workshop was to demonstrate that North Carolina is already a center of excellence for serious games, and for the assembled attendees to discuss how best to build on this in the future.

The day was structured as a series of short presentations, with the academics speaking in the morning. I focused my note-taking on those sessions, all of which were interesting. As a graduate student from UNC Chapel Hill said of himself and his colleagues at the end of the day, "We're stunned by the breadth of serious games research happening here in North Carolina." I wasn't able to take notes for every talk, but most of them are here.

James Lester, NCSU Computer Science

James' group is focused on human-computer interaction and communication, creating "flexible, adaptive systems that fundamentally enhance human problem-solving. His group is researching "adaptive interaction," defined as "tracking beliefs, preferences, goals, and plans of the user to provide customized advice" within applications such as education, training, analysis, and entertainment. To do this, he's building software that performs plan recognition, misconception detection, evaluation of the user's current knowledge state, and evaluation of usage and learning styles and preferences.

Tiffany Barnes, UNC Charlotte Future Computing Lab

Tiffany's research interests include serious games, advanced learning technologies (educational data mining, intelligent tutoring and agents), and diversity in computing.

The idea behind Tiffany's Game2Learn project is to build a game where students learn computer science as they play. Their programs affect the game world, and later they can create new areas in the game world. She's just beginning to look at educational applications beyond computer science, including English, history, and others. Her students are currently using Unreal Tournament 2004 to build a fantasy role-playing game in which the gameplay involves creating programs to solve problems.

To address intelligent tutoring and agents, Tiffany's group is building virtual students: agents that interact with students like peers. They're able to observe and ask questions of students, as well as answer questions posed by students.

Adriana de Silva e Souza, NCSU Communication

Adriana is investigating mobile communication technologies: what happens to our relationships with spaces and the Internet when we have devices that are continuously connected to the Internet. She's using location-based mobile games to research this. She used the term "hybrid reality games" to describe this space: Botfighters (2001, Sweden), Mogi Mogi (2004, Japan), and Frequency 1550 (2005, Netherlands). In terms of potential users for hybrid reality games, Adriana cited education and tourism, among others.

Len Annetta, NCSU College of Education

Len talked about "HI FIVES: Highly Interactive Fun Internet Virtual Environments in Science" -- building tools that enable Grades 5-9 teachers to build video games themselves to facilitate science education. They started with Active Worlds but have since switched to Half-Life 2 for the forthcoming version of their tool.

"We don't stop playing because we grow old. We grow old because we stop playing." -- Oliver Wendell Holmes

"The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The worst thing a kid can say about a game is it's too easy." -- Henry Jenkins, MIT

Rationale

  • This is what kids are doing
  • Estimates suggest 3.38 billion hours are spent engaged in video games per year
  • Game industry was $10 billion last year
  • 2000 NAEP results suggest 29% of 4th graders, 32% of 8th graders, and 18% of 12th graders performed at or above proficient levlels in science
Why is this happening (i.e., why do proficiency levels drop so dramatically)? Because we're just lecturing material, memorizing instead of internalizing. Our goal is to make science real to kids -- real to their outside lives.

Anselmo Lastra, UNC Computer Science

Anselmo showed examples of research in virtual environments, including "redirected walking," which uses manipulation of the visual representation of a virtual space to manipulate how a user moves while wearing an immersive display -- in the example shown, a user was placed in a very small room but tricked (through visual clues) into thinking they were walking in a much larger space. Another example shown was procedurally generated house interiors -- using rules to create unlimited numbers of spatially distinct but plausible houses for large virtual environments.

Christopher Healey, NCSU Computer Science

Christopher's research focus is visualization for serious games development and other applications. He showed a variety of examples of innovative techniques for visualizing multiple datasets within a single image or animation. His visualization techniques are designed to be perceptually optimal, multidimensional, real-time, and use dynamic reconfiguration to adapt to viewers' changing interests and needs.

Michael Young, NCSU Computer Science

Michael runs NCSU's Liquid Narrative group. NCSU has a focused effort in serious games, bringing together the Education, Communication, Design, and Computer Science departments, brought together in the Center for Digital Entertainment. The Liquid Narrative group is focused on AI for games. Example AI problems they're looking at include story generation and adaptation, intelligent camera control, and cognitive modeling. A lot of their work involves taking ideas from other disciplines (drama, cognitive psychology, linguistics, film, etc.). The challenge is that most of this work is non-computational, so Michael's group has to build computational models based on this existing knowledge.

Michael described a platform his group is building, Zocalo. Zocalo is a "service-oriented architecture" for game control. It's currently compatible with both Unreal Tournament 2004 and Source. Current services research done within Zocalo includes:

  • Task planning
  • Cognitive modeling
  • Natural language generation
  • Camera control
What's all this good for? Integrating existing commercial game engines with complex AI toolkits. Generating tailored novel game experiences. Structuring game experiences so that key features of the story are clear to players. Allowing self-adapting interaction in the face of unexpected user behavior.

Ben Watson, NCSU Computer Science

Ben's group is focused on what he calls Design Graphics:

  • Imagery about designed objects: Automating 3D modeling for digital production
  • Imagery as designed objects: Automating graphic design to convey information
  • Designed display: New types of pictures matching the way we see
  • Visual design fundamentals: Applied perceptual experiments
With automated (or procedural) modeling, Ben is addressing the problem of increased content requirements for next-generation game consoles. He showed an impressive-looking demonstration of layering procedurally generated homes on a scanned grid of streets. His future directions include more diversity, higher-level control, changes over time, and lower-level objects like cars, furniture, and appliances.

Ben also showed "adaptive frameless rendering", which is an effort to create a rendering algorithm that functions more like the human visual system -- abandoning the concept of an animation as a series of static frames.

May 01, 2006

Baltar's House

It's easy to take the Internet for granted, now that we're so used to it -- it's easy to use it without reflecting on how much it has changed our lives, in ways large and small.

My son Cameron and I have been catching up on Battlestar Galactica -- I had heard so many times that it was the "best show on television" that I finally broke down and bought the DVDs of the first season to give it a try. Having watched it through most of the second season at this point, yes, it might well be the best show on TV, and is certainly up there with the other three shows I watch, 24, House, and Rome -- but that's not the point of this post.

In the show, one of the characters has (and returns to in his imagination) one of the most beautiful homes I've ever seen. It's modern but not austere, tastefully decorated, but the star is the view -- floor-to-ceiling windows throughout with wonderful sights of the ocean and islands in the distance. Battlestar Galactica is filmed in Vancouver, and from time to time I'm able to pick out locations there. When we saw the house, I said to Cameron that I thought it must be along the Sea to Sky Highway, just north of Horseshoe Bay, maybe 15 or 20 miles from downtown.

A decade ago, that would have been the end of the discussion. Now, though, fact-checking is just a search away. As it happens, fans of the series have created Google Earth files (here and here) detailing shooting locations for the show. One of them uses frame captures from episodes and helpfully lines up the views in Google Earth with the views from the shows. As it turns out, the house in question is indeed along the Sea to Sky Highway, six or seven miles north of Horseshoe Bay, just south of Village Beach Park. I've driven past it at at least a dozen times on my way to and from Whistler, though it looks as if it's well hidden from the road. Here's a screen capture from Google Earth showing the view:

Baltar's House

A minor thing, to be sure, but it reminded me of how much the Internet has changed how we think -- that we can learn virtually anything we want to know, and behave accordingly. I think we don't reflect on or appreciate that often enough.