Saturday, November 29, 2008

Why Skype on the iPhone

I do not recall if I have explained this adequately, but, even if I have, I will do it again. Why Apple and AT&T should allow a Skype app on the iPhone.

I do not use AT&T to call internationally on my iPhone. I never will. The cost is horrific. AT&T could change that, but they don't. Thus, I will never, ever, call internationally on my iPhone. Except for when ICA was in Montreal, but, I didn't when I was in France. And I don't call Israel or the UK on it, I use Skype. So, offering international calling on the iPhone via AT&T is a waste of time and probably does not generate much revenue. Sure, some people call internationally, but, iPhone users are connected and have better ways to do this.

Allowing a Skype app would thus not decrease revenues much. However, such an app would be an amazing value-add, and would probably boost sales and thus boost overall use, which would increase revenue.

Imagine if you could offer a cell phone with free international calls, and, in fact, free calls period. Would it sell? Yes, it would. Granted, free only if the recipient of your call has Skype. Not too hard to do (although the Skype interface on Windows is horribly busy and even I had a hard time parsing all the visual cruft it throws at you).

The iPhone is a flat-rate, I pay whether I use it or not. AT&T and Apple get paid, and I get the ability to call internationally (since I don't do that with it now). Win-win.

Right now, with no Skype, and with Skype phones and Android out there in the wild? Lose-lose for Apple and AT&T. And me too.

When New Was Old (ARGs and CCC)

ARGs, Alternate Reality Games, and CCC, Community Created Content. We sit down this week with long-time computer enthusiast and writer (from laser printers, to Word, to flight sims), and bigtime PC fanboy (i.e., not a Mac fan, oh, the horror!) turned TV reviewer (not the shows, the TVs), Alfred Poor (a.k.a., Uncle Alfred).

Well ok no we don't do that. This recounts two conversations I've had with him recently, one on a 34' boat, and one just two days ago on Thanksgiving. But you can imagine it was one thematic sit-down.

CCC: I was explaining Spore to Uncle Alfred, and he then told me part of the story of one of the early flight sims, Flight Simulator, which would later be bought by Microsoft. But even before the Microsoft purchase, there was a community of flight sim users who would create and share content: airplanes and airports. So, years before it became a big thing, CCC had already been out there, been tested, and succeeded.

ARGs: Somehow this holiday, The Beatles came up. Alfred recounted the whole "Paul is dead!" thing, and how he followed it. Lyrics that had been placed in reverse on a track (so, spin the vinyl backwards to hear the actual words). Various other lyrics that indicated that Paul was dead and had been replaced by someone named Billy Shears. Barefoot on the Abbey Road cover. A phone number in reverse in some album art, which he called and was told "Mr. Shears is not available."

It seems impossible to tell if it was intentional, or if the band realized fans were taking interpretation way too far and decided to run with it, but it all seems very ARG-like.

Monday, November 24, 2008

iWish iWere iPhone

There is a billboard for some Sprint offering, I believe it is the Touch or the Diamond Touch, that I see from the Manhattan bridge. It always makes me think of the iPhone, since it is a copy. Alas it appears to use Windows Mobile or something. But now the new Blackberry is a touch device, and Google's Android.... Not like Apple came up with the idea, but, Apple did it right again (no I did not say they always do it right, just, they do it exceedingly right and have done so on more than.... GUI/mouse, networking, hardware, portables, floppy, no floppy, USB... many, on many occasions. No I'm not saying they invented the GUI, we all know they didn't, but they did it right, and they shipped it, and it was good. And, they were the first to do so (they were also one of the first to do so badly with the Lisa -- if you are afraid to make mistakes, you will never succeed (witness the US auto industry), although with mistakes you might go out of business).

Ah, saw this ad this morning, it was the Samsung Instinct. So many touch phones these days... There is apparently also the Krave, but that has a viral marketer (or a trolling feaux viral marketer) so I don't need to say much about it.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.

(After wrestling with images and the layout, I am deleting all the images, blogger is not handling them well at all.)

Friday, November 21, 2008

Voting Interfaces

Here in my precinct we used the massive, ancient lever machines yet again (the main lever, which is pretty hefty, makes a very satisfying sound), but across the US we have all sorts of different ways to vote (or, mis-vote). 

Minnesota Public Radio has put online some photos of some disputed ballots in their current recount. You'd think filling out an oval would be easy, but, no.

Online Presence

Although I have drifted away from Slashdot due to the insane commenters and towards boingboing instead, it is never a bad thing to have a friend positively mentioned there. John Underkoffler, of MIT Media Lab fame, his company Oblong and his interface work which you might have seen in Minority Report get some Slashdot coverage.

And, my piece on copyright in academic journals hit the interwebs via the Journal of Computer Mediated Communication. It's Open Access, so you can read it if you are into that kind of thing. If only I needed tenure...

Thursday, November 20, 2008

NXE Immediate Experience

Like many, I was given.... or forced to take... the New Xbox Experience (NXE) a bit early. There are at least two massive problems. One is that it forces you to have an avatar. I do not want an avatar. Or, a Mii, since that's what it looks exactly like, a Nintendo Mii. I absolutely despise the fact that some idiots at Microsoft think I have to have a Mii to use my Xbox, because it serves no functional purpose (and besides the selections of clothes are ridiculously limited, as are hair styles and colors).

But you can mostly ignore your Mii once you make it. Far more problematic is the interface. You really have to wonder how they achieve such heights of incompetence. Although the previous interface was dismal due to the lack of any sense as to where things were, this one suffers some obvious problems. One is that it wastes a lot of space. Yes, white space (unused space) is useful in some situations (such as buffer areas between different fields), but you don't need a ton of it. The other problem I have noticed so far is with the design of the interface in terms of the gestalt. There is a text list on the left hand side, each of which is a category of something or other. Each category then opens up a series of visual panes across the middle of the interface. You can scroll up and down through the list, and left and right across the panes. But why do they mix the text and visual gestalts? The big problem here, though, is that the panes cover up the list below the current selection. So, if you want to find something in the text list, you can read the list above where you are (although the text gets smaller and harder to read), but if what you are looking for is below your current selection in the list, you can't see it. (The list does wrap, though.) Unbelievable.

So far the look and feel is more like Windows. I wish they would put more effort into getting the hardware working, although my 4th Xbox is doing alright to date. If the hardware doesn't work, it doesn't matter how cool the OS is, I will never see it because my Xbox will be back at the repair center. (Yes, of course I mean Xbox 360. Whatever. I wonder what they will name the 3rd gen. Xbox Sphere?)

Update: I am not the only one who hates NXE (although I generally like NME), so does Gabe at PA: "Gabriel hates the New Xbox Experience". Oh and look a RRoD that isn't mine. Amazing.

A Series of Tubes

I have found the Internet! (A.k.a., "teh internets" but I hope you are all in on the in-group nomenclature by now.) It is, you recall, a series of tubes, another bit of insider lingo brought to us by convicted felon and former Senator Ted Stevens.

And yes I actually took that photo, it is not from teh googles.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


Two nice charts over at the NYTimes about the current state of supercomputers. Going from 1 teraflop in about 1996 to just over 1,000 teraflops twelve years later is indeed pretty cool. I hope you all notice that the current title-holder, by IBM and named Roadrunner, runs Linux

The charts could be a little better. For the graph, a log scale is really the only way to go, but it visually reduces advances made by the Japanese in recent years. The bubble chart, though, has at least two problems (someone forgot to read their Edward Tufte). Color is used for global region (almost continents), but the circles are already grouped by region and there are text labels indicating nation (which, if you know geography, indicates region). Color could have been used for something else, perhaps price or age of installation (newer might be faster). Also,within-nation relative position of the circles does not seem to have any significance at all. RPI (34) is in the upper right, and Rensselaer (in upstate NY) is indeed in the "upper right" of the US (the northeast). However, bordering the RPI circle in the upper right is USC (61), and since USC is the University of Southern California, obviously if there are an X and a Y axis, they are not geographical. Perhaps there is no X-Y, but there should be some logic to the national-level organization. However, overall the national clusters are indeed organized geographically, which would lead one to assume the same for the within-nation clusters. 

Friday, November 14, 2008

LOLbama - Yes We Can

Copyrights and Copyleftalones

A good article I think you should read over at TidBITS about Google Book Search and the legal dealings there. Discusses copyright, orphaned works, fair use, and a lot of things everyone should know about. If you're a human being, you need to know these things! Or if you're an Internet user. I bet you are.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Spore Got Wrong

And What LittleBigPlanet Got Right

Spore is not a good game. It is actually a terrible game, despite all the awards it won before it was released, because it is not really a game at all. The designers thought they were making a game, but it appears they became too wrapped up in making an amazing feat of programming that allows dozens of different parts to be connected, resized, and painted by the users but yet have these parts work as a whole. It is also visually beautiful. But the designers forgot the importance of narrative structure in a game (this is why Second Life is not a game, it has no narrative structure).

I have Spore. I have played it. I wanted to like it, but there is little to like, and it is difficult to choose a starting point since there are so many which are equally damning. Spore has nothing to do with evolution. The cell phase has nothing to do with cells. The tribal phase feels like a bad hack added at the end to try to justify the evolution angle (and it completely lacks design of any kind). The space phase holds the most promise and the most annoyance. There are no empire management tools whatsoever (you have to rescue planets from ecological disaster, which means killing 5 infected wild animals, since apparently the people on the planet cannot do it themselves).

Most immediately annoying is that almost all design choices you make have little or absolutely no consequences. I can design a house for a city, add lots of parts, resize them in multiple dimensions, and give it a custom paint job. You can take an unpainted sphere and proclaim it a house. No door. The two houses will function absolutely the same, since most things in Spore don't function much at all, they just act as placeholders. All houses are merely a house. All city halls act the same. All spaceship designs act exactly the same. You might expand your spaceship with additions that, one would think, might necessitate a larger spaceship, but no, you keep the exact same one. In the creature phase, and the cell phase, the body parts do make a difference -- faster, better at charming or attacking other species, and so on -- but these differences are thin. Give a creature one set of long legs, and another the same set of legs but shrink them, and there is no difference, because feet determine speed. But resizing the feet doesn't make a difference. Maybe it shouldn't, but this issue permeates Spore throughout.

It's not a game since there is no narrative to speak of. "Find the Grox" is the end game, but I haven't found that quest satisfying at all, and it is the only one. The Grox, a nod to Star Trek's borg, are one of several sci-fi borrowings in Spore, along with monoliths from 2001 and spice from Dune. Nice touches, but a game needs more than that.

Consider a game like the theater. There is a stage, there are the sets, props, actors, and the script (I'll ignore the audience for now). Spore gives people a stage and a lot of control over set making. You make creatures, buildings, ships, and can terraform and sculpt planets -- these are the sets and the props. But none of that has any effect on the script, which is too minimal to support a game. That is where Spore fails. Having content from EA, the company which made Spore, and content from other Spore users added to your game doesn't add anything either, except for more diverse visuals. (World of Warcraft, the MMO, fits very well into this "game as theater" framework, and this also explains why I don't like Starcraft and the original Warcraft -- there is no narrative except "build a huge force to crush the opponent" and the occasional "we need to mix things up so here is a maze level" in the single player).

Another game, a real game this time, which uses community created content like Spore, but allows the users to not just make props and settings but also narrative, is LittleBigPlanet. LittleBigPlanet is a PS3 exclusive, and I don't have a PS3, but I have seen a demo (at PAX), read about it, and watched the G4 people play with it with the developers. That's all I need to know they did it right. As far as I can tell, LittleBigPlanet is essentially a puzzle game, where you and maybe your friends solve levels. The LBP community of users makes levels, so, just like Spore, the community created content is essential. But with LBP this content is in a completely different area: it's the script. Each level is its own script, driven by the design of the level. If you don't understand the draw of puzzle games, think about the popularity of tetris, or sudoku, or Portal (which is essentially a puzzle game and was totally awesome).

So, LBP has the really amazingly designed and programmed design capability for the users like Spore has, but here design matters: it is feature rich, not meaninglessly superficial. More than that, though, the designing is for the narrative of the game, which is just as important as mechanics. We've seen that visuals aren't everything, gameplay mechanics are behind the success of the Wii, which was written off as graphically underpowered by people who don't understand games. Amazing graphics, like Spore, are only part of the story. Mechanics, which I have not discussed here, are vital, but so is the narrative structure that carries people through the game. In my opinion, games like Gears of War, Half Life 2, Oblivion, and the Halo series have all of these elements. I also like the Katamari series for the same reasons. I wanted to like Okami, which was visually striking and with a well-constructed narrative, yet on the PS2 the cut scenes couldn't be skipped, and this killed it for me (the cut scenes are long) since the mechanics were off. Narrative can be too heavy-handed, such as in games where there is only one path to success like in Condemned, but narrative is a vital component of game success.

This is why Spore made a big splash until just after it came out and people started playing it. LittleBigPlanet, on the other hand, continues to generate buzz.

Update: EA seems to have noticed this problem, and is coming out with an expansion to allow users to create missions. Sadly, I don't see how the game mechanics are going to allow anything interesting. Here's an accurate comment from a gaming site that sums it up, with a spot-on reply.