Saturday, November 25, 2006
My girlfriend leaves for a business trip shortly. It will be her first. I, as the voice of experience, have lots of advice to offer. See I HAVE been on a business trip before. It was to Kansas City and it was very exciting.
Given then, that I am a seasoned business traveler, I thought the rest of you might appreciate the wisdom I have to offer on this topic. It was a very educational trip and I am happy to share the lessons I learned.
First, I learned that Kansas really is flatter than a pancake. My boss told me this as we were driving from the airport to the hotel. Apparently someone did a study on this. Other friends, actual former residents of Kansas, have since confirmed this as fact. So my first bit of wisdom is this: pay attention and you'll pick up some fun facts about the place you are visiting.
Next wisdom: do not be surprised by your rental car. I don't care what the reservation was for or who made it, the rental companies will get it wrong, because they don't care either. In our case, they got things so wrong we ended up with an Aztec. Curiously enough Aztecs have popped up in conversation at school several times recently. Specifically, several different professors and one visiting speaker have, independent of each other, all referred to them as examples of terrible design failures. Having ridden in one, I understand why. So - lesson two - avoid Aztecs if possible and do not be surprised if it is not possible.
Third, you get your own room. This was awesome, although the learning process was a bit embarrassing. My boss got his key and I started to follow him. Two of us, two beds in a room, it was an easy mistake to make. You have to realize I was pretty fresh out of college. When college students go on a trip, anyone with less than six people in a room is either being spoiled by Mommy and Daddy or they're not using their floor space properly. Coming from that tradition, two people in a two bed room was a luxury. My boss, however, was not from that tradition, at least not recently. He was a little weirded out, just a little, and explained that I got my own room. The girl behind the counter was amused. Lesson three: do not apply a college mentality to a business trip, they're different worlds.
Finally, if possible, choose Double Tree. They give you a chocolate chip cookie when you check in. Glorious. I got my own room AND a cookie. It was a good trip (well besides the Aztec).
Here's hoping my girlfriend gets as much out of her trip as I got from mine.
Tuesday, November 21, 2006
The Wii (pronounced "wee") from Nintendo arrived in stores this weekend, and I do not own one. I thought about it, and if I still had a salary I'm sure I would, but money is an issue, and there's a lot of hype to wade through before we find out what this thing can really do, so I'm holding off. Eventually, probably, just not now. We'll see what develops.
In the meantime, it's probably about time I finally talk to YOU about this device. I have mentioned it a number of times, always promising to devote an entry to it later. Well, this is that entry. [Those of you who do not play videogames, stick with me, this might be interesting to you, too. Maybe. Nintendo certainly hopes so.]
What is the Wii and why am I excited about it?
The Wii is Nintendo's newest video game console. As they would have it, however, it's a console for everyone, not just gamers. The Wii brings something new to gaming, a control system centered around motion-sensing. They've done other things as well, such as introducing a revamped "channel" interaction system (get the weather every morning from your Wii), providing connectivity for wireless networks, and offering every previous Nintendo game as downloadable content. That's all nice (well more than nice, even if the wifi option shows little signs of any actual application in the games themselves yet), but the Big Deal is the motion-controller - known as the Wiimote.
There is a concept in gaming, and I'm including other types of gaming besides the electronic, known as "Orthogonal Unit Differentiation" (I'm stealing most of this paragraph, to a greater or lesser degree from a powerpoint presentation by Harvey Smith of Ion Storm). It refers to the creation of game units with different functions or abilities along entirely different "orthogonal" axes. This means the abilities are not just different but non-stackable so that no amount of Unit A will ever be able to compensate for a lack in Unit B. Imagine three games units - a Soldier, a Big Soldier, and a Boat. The Soldier does 4 damage to enemy units. The Big Soldier does 8 damage to enemy units, and the Boat enables other units to cross water terrain. Two Soldiers can replace one Big Soldier, but no amount of Soldiers will ever reproduce the abilities of the Boat, and no amount of Boats will ever be able to reproduce the abilities of the Soldiers. Thus Boat and Soldier are orthogonal. The Soldier and the Big Soldier are not.
Why am I telling you this? Well, it turns out that this concept has application outside of games. It's actually a pretty useful design concept in general and in this discussion applies to the consoles themselves instead of the games they run.
The last company to introduce what I consider to be an orthogonal development, an additional ability that grants players access to something new instead of simply improving what already exists, was Microsoft with their "Xbox Live" online service. This time it's Nintendo. To see what I mean first look at the other consoles. The Playstation 3 came out last week as well. It represents a significant jump forward in graphics capability, data storage, and processing speed over the Playstation 2. The Xbox 360 (which came out around this time last year) is also a large leap forward in graphics, data storage, and processing speed over the original Xbox, and includes some additional features and options for the Xbox Live service. Both of these consoles are taking steps along existing axes, and the biggest steps (or in Sony's case, only steps) are along the processing power axis. These two consoles are competing head to head, and they have determined that this is the arena and these are the measurements which define victory. They're going from Soldier to Big Soldier. Nintendo seems to have shrugged, and said "Well, that's nice, but what about Boats?" The Wii barely surpasses the Gamecube (Nintendo's previous console) in processing power, but Nintendo has decided to proceed along a different axis, specifically, the controls.
The Xbox controls and the PS3 controls haven't changed much in several generations. They are, and always have been, buttons and joysticks. There have been minor modifications (more buttons, a vibration feature, a more ergonomic grip) but no significant differences. The Wiimote does something new. It detects and responds to motions in three axes - up/down, left/right, and forward/back. This means making a swatting motion with the controller to play a tennis game, thrusting to stab an enemy with a sword, or pointing to aim a gun. That's a very new experience. It's also (hopefully) much more intuitive than the current buttons and joysticks arrangement. Nintendo has stepped away from the powergamer and is hoping to woo the non-gamers, those people who haven't played games because they simply do not enjoy them. No amount of improved graphics is going to draw in such a person, but a new way to play just might.
We'll see if it does. As I said, Nintendo has introduced a number of other refinements and most of them seem aimed at distancing themselves from the "traditional" console approach. I'm very interested to see how this turns out. I'm also very interested to play a swordfighting game where I actually get to swing a sword.
Saturday, November 18, 2006
When I set out to write this post, it was going to be about "social networking" but in researching the topic a little, I found a more precise word for the concept I wanted to talk about. The new word is "folksonomy."
A folskonomy is a system of naming wherein the names are determined by the collective effort of the participants during the act of participation as opposed to a taxonomy wheren the names are externally defined and applied (and also static).
Actually what I really wanted to talk about was cool websites. My attempt to describe them under a term of some sort is merely an effort to make myself seem scholarly. It might have worked if I stuck with "social networking." "Folksonomy" on the other hand does not sound like a real word. Wikipedia seems to think it is, so I'm going to run with it.
To get to the point, though (finally): tagging systems. I'm talking today about websites where you tag content and then interact with the tags and the tags of others to try to take advantage of the processing power of large groups. The idea is that each user makes a list (and the type of thing such as movie, photograph, webpage, or book is generally determined by the website) and applies a variety of tags or labels to each item on that list. The user makes up their own tags and their own classification system and can apply as many tags as they want to each item. For instance one user could list the movie "Starship Troopers" and then tag it with "Science Fiction," "Heinlein," "War" and maybe "Stupid" but another user might tag it "10," "Action," "IOwnThis," and "FuturisticShowerScene." It's up to the user to decide what they want to track (ownership, genre, quality, etc...) and how they want to track things (quality is "stupid" through "awesome" or "1" through "10").
So these tagging systems are pretty useful for individuals attempting to classify and track things around them. Where they get their true power, however, is in the social aspect. The system on which these tags are stored is capable of analyzing and comparing the tags and feeding that information back to the user. It acts on the assumption that people who think alike will probably categorize alike. There are two means of sorting and some sites use one, some use the other, and some use both. The first is to sort by content, by how much the entered content overlaps between users; the idea being that if you and I own most of the same books, then I might also want to own the ones you own that are not on my list and vice versa (this is how Netflix and Amazon run their recommendation systems). The second is to sort by tags, by how similar users are in their labeling process (this is how most of the links below work) so that if I have a tag for "CasperVanDiem" then I might want to see what other people have tagged as "CasperVanDiem." Combining these two means of sorting lends even more power.
The trick, of course, is that you need to have a large user base for this to work. If only six people use the tagging service, the sample size won't be big enough for any really useful comparisons. It's the sort of thing that really couldn't happen without the Internet and it's part of a growing trend that takes advantage of social knowledge generally referred to as Web 2.0 (check that one out, too, sometime).
So what led me to this topic? These two websites:
Del.icio.us is a means of collecting and tagging web links. It sounds really simple, but can be exceptionally useful. I have a list set up that serves as both a means of making my bookmarks portable, and a means of recording reference locations for future use. I do not really use the social aspect of del.icio.us, but I'm starting to. For instance, Adobe has a del.icio.us page with tons of really useful design links.
LibraryThing is a database for organizing books. I use it to catalog my own books (although I'm barely halfway done at this point) but it is also useful for figuring out what else I want to read. If you enjoy or own tons of books (Meredith and Brantley I'm talking to you) you will find this very useful.
And there are plenty of others such as MovieTally, which is the same as LibraryThing but for movies, although I have not yet attempted to use it. One of those things I'll get around to eventually...
Check them out, you may find them useful too.
Wednesday, November 15, 2006
Mr. Fancysocks, aka Kenrochet, aka Penrock, aka Mike (and sometimes Michael) is doing a brave thing attempting to make the internet entertaining once more. I suggest you check his posts. Especially if you like New Kids On The Block.
In the meantime, that's one more incentive for me to return to the limelight. I'll see what I can do.
At this point, and to keep my New Year's Resolution, I owe you (and myself) roughly twelve entries that I've missed and seven more before the year ends. That's a lot of writing. Fortunately I like writing. Unfortunately, I'm not very good at the starting part. I'll work on that.
This one does not count. Nor does my attempt to pimp Penrock's new blog.
To avoid confusion, I'm going to post them without modifying the date, but (for my own tracking purposes) I'll identify where they would have gone had I actually been meeting my goals. Most of them will arrive in mid-December, I'll warn you now. That's when classes end so that's when I expect to have more time of my own.
We now return you to your regularly scheduled blog (such as it is).