Monday, December 31, 2012

Doing it again isn't fun.

One of 2012's most critically-acclaimed games is The Walking Dead, an adventure game (which is to say, a game about clicking on everything) with some action elements. The major point leading to its acclaim is the strength of its character interactions. I bought it on sale, and unfortunately I'm now regretting that; not because of the story, but because of the saved game system.

Naturally, a game which forces you to make decisions needs to make those decisions count; so the game only has one save file for a playthrough. That, unfortunately, is where the problem lies; there's no explicit saving allowed, in a bid to avoid save-scumming. That puts the player at the mercy of the developer's autosaves, and they have scant mercy. They're infrequent; it's perfectly possible to go half an hour of solving puzzles, talking to people, and generally moving things on with no autosave happening. They're hidden; I don't actually know if there's any way to tell when they happen. I certainly haven't seen a way, and I haven't seen any kind of tooltip suggesting it. I found out the hard way about the half-hour; I started playing again, and found myself not having solved a puzzle I know for a fact I'd solved half an hour before I quit the game. At which point I promptly quit again, and am now considering getting rid of the game; because the developers do not have the decency to respect my investment of time.

Shamus Young has decried the idiocy of "Do It Again, Stupid" gameplay, but I feel that this is worse. DIAS merely wipes some of your progress in a predictable manner; this frankly broken save system wipes progress in an UNpredictable manner that doesn't even show up until one re-starts the game; at which point, with the vagaries of human memory being what they are, it is nigh-impossible to recall what is or isn't actually done, particularly given the lack of indication attached to saving. The entire point of saving the game is to ensure that what the player has done in the game remains done; that's why the save system of The Walking Dead cannot be described as other than broken. It doesn't perform its most basic function reliably.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Learning the right lessons

The computer games industry is a bit of a strange one. Everyone is convinced somebody else has the secret of success, so every single time something succeeds unexpectedly, you can guarantee a flood of imitators. Currently, the recent unexpected success is Minecraft, so we're seeing a flood of games which, to put it bluntly, look like the bastard offspring of Tetris and a random noise generator.

This is largely thanks to the industry's astounding capacity for learning the wrong lessons. In the case of Minecraft, they saw the presentation, and decided "Blocks are what people want!", when in fact the lesson they should have taken was "people want sandboxes they can really affect".

Now, I don't own Minecraft, and probably never will, but it's my understanding that the exceedingly cubic look is a consequence of its treating the world as a set of discrete chunks, each cubic unit of the world being homogeneous. The appeal isn't in the cubes; it's in the ability to mess with said cubes, to affect how the world is put together. That sort of player agency, coupled with accessibility, is what made Minecraft the huge success it became. Dwarf Fortress has been offering the ability to drastically remodel the game world for longer than Minecraft has existed, but its interface is opaque and it relies on AI routines following player orders, rather than the player doing it himself.

So, for success, offer something that takes the right aspect of Minecraft: it allows the player to do things that weren't previously possible, not the wrong aspect: it's made of cubes.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Geometry and self-knowledge

For some reason, my online friends regard me as an authority on cars. I'm not sure why this is; I don't actually know all that much about cars, compared to many other people I know; but I'm the kind of person who dislikes black boxes. I want to know why cars work, and why they're made the way they are. So I seek out information. I try to learn. And occasionally, that results in me gaining a shocking insight that I hadn't thought of before. Today, that was regarding piston velocities.

Monday, December 10, 2012

The Hunter, and why it's badly designed

First things first: an admin note. No, I did not wake up and type all this in by 4.30am on a Monday; this is a canned post. Apparently early content gets more views, so the scheduled posts are moving.

Now, on to the content. This post is in regards to Left 4 Dead 2, and to some extent Left 4 Dead (although I don't own Left 4 Dead, and so I won't be saying a huge amount about it) and the enemies within these games. How these games work is simple: you have a horde of normal "Infected", which run at you and attempt to beat you to death, and a smaller number of "Special Infected" which are more complex to deal with. Left 4 Dead has the Tank, which is huge, exceedingly tough, and hits like a runaway train; the Smoker, which snares you from a distance and drags you away from your buddies while preventing you from using weapons; the Boomer, which covers you in zombie-attractant goop and blurs your vision; the Witch, which will incapacitate you in one hit if you annoy her too much by proximity, loud noise, bright light, or similar; and the Hunter, which I consider one of the worst game design decisions I've ever encountered. Left 4 Dead 2 keeps these, and adds the Spitter, which covers areas in damaging acid; the Charger, which charges the group of players and may scoop one up and run away with him, stopping to pound him on the ground afterward; and the Jockey, which leaps on a survivor's shoulders and attempts to force him away from the group, into Spitter acid, and so on.

You'll note that I didn't actually say what the Hunter does in the preceding paragraph. I wanted to go into more detail here. What it does is leap on you and immediately begin stripping away your hitpoints. It pins you down and tears at you. My major problem with it is that there is almost no counter to it. It's very hard to see, since it's in black in a game set at night, and it's not taller than the horde of normal Infected; it does give a warning shriek, but there's every chance that hearing that will result in you turning your back on it since stereo sound can only localise to a bearing, and the reciprocal bearing is just as valid given the information you have; and if you happen to be facing it, you will have a tiny timing window in which to fend it off. If you're facing away from it, there is nothing you can do; you're forced to watch helplessly as the game essentially points and laughs.

And therein lies my main problem with the Hunter. It's hard to counter, if you're even lucky enough to be in a position to counter it, and once it has you there is NOTHING you can do. Smokers give a more generous timing window to break the lock, even though you'd expect the dragging to make them more of a problem; but you can save yourself with quick reflexes. Boomers can easily be dealt with; shove them away, then kill them. Witches force a change in approach from "kill everything" to "sneak past quietly" (or, for the advanced crowd or those with no alternative, "run up and hit her with a shotgun blast from melee range"), and Tanks require teamwork to take down as each player attempts to redirect the Tank's aggression away from its current target (or, if you can cope with the fact that they move faster while burning, hit the Tank with a Molotov cocktail and it'll die inside a minute). Spitters are easily spotted, being taller than the horde and equipped with glowing green acid. Chargers can be dealt with simply by sidestepping and letting them stun themselves on walls. Jockeys can be resisted; you're not helpless, even when it gets you. There isn't the feeling with any of the Specials other than the Hunter that the game is mocking you. The Hunter is a cheap shot.

I'm firmly of the opinion that the Jockey is what the Hunter should have been. Had I had control, I would have pushed hard for the removal of the Hunter from the second game; it's simply not a fun enemy to fight, and in a game, that's an unforgivable sin.

Friday, December 7, 2012

An update on the knee...

I mentioned earlier that I had a damaged knee. It's currently not as damaged; I can put weight on it, I can get around well enough to do what I need to without too much pain. It's still not right, though, as any activity out of the most basic causes it to start feeling like it's coming apart. So clearly, this is not a problem I can ignore and have it go away.

Which makes it distinctly vexing that my health insurance providers have denied my doctor's request for non-invasive diagnosis. Apparently, an acute joint injury isn't worth properly diagnosing on someone with chronic joint problems. I am getting an orthopaedic referral, but I'm still annoyed at the refusal to cover any of the cost of an MRI. Not that they'd cover it ANYWAY, considering my deductible (or excess, for the UK folks), but if I just go ahead and get it anyway, they don't count the expense incurred towards said deductible.

And on the subject of deductibles, mine refreshes at the start of each calendar year. That means my best policy right now is to delay, in case the knee turns out to be expensive; and of course delaying makes it more likely it will be expensive.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Planning ahead

Lately, there's been a lot of discussion about sequels in the computer games business. Claims have been made that "New IPs don't sell", that people gravitate to what's familiar, and that, with the economy shakey, companies should retrench and stick to what they know.

I call all of that rubbish. While it's abundantly clear that sequels to well-known games can do very well (witness the Call of Duty phenomenon, with I have no idea how many sequels because it's split into so many, many different lines of cover-based shooters that I can't tell apart), it's also clear that slapping a respected name on a donkey of a game won't convince buyers it's an Arabian (the current example being Medal of Honor: Warfighter, which carries the critically-acclaimed name of the game that gave rise to Call of Duty, and is tanking) and that some of the other sacred cows of the industry are, shall we say less than prime beef at this point.

Let's look at multiplayer. A common sentiment in recent years has been that games need multiplayer modes to be successful. However, some of the most critically-acclaimed games have been strictly single-player (Half-Life 2; Bioshock; Deus Ex: Human Revolution; Dishonored; Skyrim; Mass Effect and Mass Effect 2; Mirror's Edge) and there are plenty of examples of games weakened by the addition of multiplayer (Bioshock 2; Mass Effect 3; Spec Ops: The Line). Frankly, it behooves any company pitching a game to examine whether multiplayer is appropriate, and stick to that. In the cases of Bioshock 2 and Spec Ops: The Line, the multiplayer modes were insisted on by the publisher, and the developers have in both cases stated that they would rather not have included that feature.

Now let's look at sequels versus new IP. Dishonored is the current poster child for "new can sell", and is reportedly doing better than expected; there are rumours of forthcoming sequels. That saddens me; while I haven't played Dishonored myself, I've picked up enough knowledge to get the very strong impression that while the universe it's in is interesting, it is a complete story in and of itself, and doesn't need a sequel. Admittedly, Bethesda, its publisher, is known mostly for its Elder Scrolls series which, while they are consecutively numbered, does not consist of a tightly coupled series of sequels. Each Elder Scrolls game stands on its own. The trouble with sequels is the need to go bigger and better than the previous installment; this has led to absurdities in one of the Call of Duty franchises, as setting off a nuclear weapon has become insufficiently shocking a set-piece. Not every creative endeavour needs to become a cash cow; while I'm glad of the success of the Dresden Files series of books, well into double digits by now, I can also appreciate the virtues of knowing when to stop.

Retrenching and sticking to what you know is a worrying strategy. While it may result in a reliable income stream, the average person doesn't tend to want to leap into a series in the middle, and it's a fact of life that the first installment is always the strongest seller. With a shakey economy, it seems to me that now is the time to take chances. Give that small studio with a nifty idea a chance; get lots of ideas out there, and while inevitably there will be failures, some will succeed beyond your wildest dreams. The current corporate culture is pathologically risk-averse.

Let's defy conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The impression of durability

A friend of mine in Norway shared some anecdotes of his stint in the Norwegian Army as a tanker. Some of his other friends were surprised by how fragile tanks really are; I wasn't. Tanks are a very, very specialised vehicle, and for the thing they're designed to do, they're excellent. That, however, translates into a lot of weaknesses.

Monday, November 19, 2012

A leg down

Hopefully, sometime around the posting of this entry, I'll be at my doctor's office having my left knee poked at. On Friday evening, something went wrong, and since then it's refused to cooperate. Putting too much weight on it causes excruciating pain, flexing it too much likewise, and the overall impression is of a knee that's given up. So, rather than improvising with painkillers, braces, and the like, I'll be taking it in for an inspection and possibly repair, depending on what's happened to it.

I've avoided needing surgery for over 30 years. That's a decent run.

And for once, I'm actually happy about my car having an automatic gearbox. Trying to drive a manual with a bad left knee would not be pleasant in the slightest.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Compare and contrast...

Last Tuesday, the USA held its 2012 General Election. This was my first chance to vote in one, having been a US citizen for a little less than a year. It's instructive to compare it to the British elections I used to vote in.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Pushing myself

This is, to some extent, a personal post and a discursive post rolled into one. I had an idea yesterday, the full details of which I'm not willing to disclose at the moment. The reason I'm not disclosing them is I need to talk with an attorney about them, and while the LA was helpful, it's not her area of expertise and so she recommended I talk with someone whose area of expertise it is.

But be that as it may, I had an idea, and I believe I have at this point an achievable goal in making a computer game. This will primarily be a self-education exercise, but if the legal side is sufficiently easy, it may see the light of day. And if it does, it may even be successful. However, I'll keep you updated with my progress, because that's a good way to keep me honest. It'll also be a good way to help me learn; nothing clears your thoughts up like trying to explain things to other people.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

"Why can't I use his medkit?"

Yes, it's another XCOM post. Last night, my Twitter stream exploded with frustration at the inconvenience and immersion-breaking of one particular mechanic that crops up a lot. My friend JPH has already written about it on his site, but I wanted to look at why it happens and why we expect it to behave differently. That frustration is caused by the inability to pick up and use medkits carried by other soldiers.

There's always a need for a medkit, because your soldiers in such a brutal tactical game WILL be shot, and if you don't keep their health topped up they WILL die. The trouble arises when your soldier with a medkit goes down, critically wounded, and needs to be stabilised. You need a medkit to stabilise a critically wounded soldier, but you'd expect that that would be no problem - after all, if the medic's down, they have a medkit you can use. Easy, right?

Monday, October 29, 2012

The closer you get...

Modern computer games are a very impressive set of things. A lot of them have deliberately overcomplicated character designs, just so that they can show off that they've managed to make clothing that acts like textile, hair that looks at least believable, and so on. That's on the physics simulation side of things, but it wouldn't mean much without improvements on the graphics side of things - and while a lot of that is done right, some of it is done very badly.

The trouble is, computer games don't ever really get close up with cloth. The closest you'll get the camera is about three feet away, and from there only the most pronounced surface details will be necessary to render. A chunkily cabled sweater, for example, would benefit from the trick of bump mapping. Bump mapping is a clever means of faking extra detail; it involves making two versions of the 3-d model. One version is in stupendously high detail, and you spend hours calculating just how the light will reflect off it so you know what the surface detail does to the shadows on it. The other version is the low-detail version you'll use in the game; that, you colour in, and then you overlay the shadows you pre-calculated with the detailed model. The result is a model that's computationally cheap to render, but looks incredibly detailed; and that's what you want to keep gamers happy. Gamers demand pretty worlds, and they demand no problems with frame rate; these two demands are in opposition, since the prettier a world or an object is, the more oomph it takes to render it.

The trouble is, art sensibilities haven't yet caught up to the fact that you don't always need to use this trick. In some situations, a bump map can make things look worse. Two games that run into this are Just Cause 2 and XCOM: Enemy Unknown. In Just Cause 2, one of the notable NPCs is always shown in a suit, with a ridiculous bump map. It looks as though the suit was woven from garden twine. While tropical suiting is not generally as smooth as temperate suiting, it's by no means that rough! In XCOM, the problem is worse; one NPC in a labcoat has similarly overdone bump-mapping, while the NPC in a ribbed military sweater (the proper green wooly pully that so many British country people love for its durability and insulation) appears to have no bump mapping, even though it would be appropriate.

It's a shame we're in this hole at the moment. Most modern games are either close enough to allow suspension of disbelief, or stylised enough to not demand it; but we seem to be in the uncanny valley of clothes right now.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Further apologies...

Yup, once again, no new big post. On the plus side, we're getting everything straightened out, we've got the important mail coming here (although how remiss the post office is being at forwarding the previous residen't mail has us somewhat concerned) and the cats definitely feel like it's home.

The weather's been annoying, shifting between rain and shine annoyingly, and our air conditioner isn't wonderful. However, we're on a ridge and so we can get a good breeze going by opening windows. We're also in an end unit, which means side windows.

Monday, October 15, 2012

You've probably noticed...

Sorry, folks, no new post this week. The LA and I were moving, and it took a while for us to get internet back.

On the plus side, we bought this house. No more renting.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Why don't we have a moonbase?

Humanity has sent people to the moon and brought them back safe. This is a hell of an achievement, but it would pale in comparison to sending them to the moon and keeping them there. The trouble is, we're not using technology that can do that. We've gotten locked in by the related phenomena of local maxima and path dependence.

Local maximum is what you have when you're on a hilly landscape. There are lots of peaks, some higher, some lower. Any given point from which every direction is downhill is a local maximum, but there's only one global maximum in the given area.

Path dependence is what happens when you start using and developing a technology. We've done astounding things with the internal combustion engine; Otto and Diesel would barely recognise the marvels we have now, despite their using the same thermodynamic cycles and the same basic principles of operation. The trouble is, we're now at a point where the internal combustion engine is holding our technological development back; we could do great things, but we're tied emotionally and technologically to this bulky, heavy, smelly, inefficient contraption. Worse, our reliance on it has slowed development of other motors; modern electric motors are not far removed from the original designs by Tesla. We got locked into the path of improving the internal combustion engine, which path has now peaked; and at a local maximum.

The same thing has happened with space travel. When we first got interested in it, rockets were the easiest thing to try; and we got very, very good at rockets. The trouble is, rockets have abysmal payloads for the long haul, and they have vast amounts of waste in their construction; most of the Saturn V that took men to the moon was simply there to get them through the atmosphere. It took an incredibly heavy lift capacity to get three men to lunar orbit. We simply can't send up enough to make a moonbase viable that way. Rockets have reached their peak, and every other technology will require a step back down; something we're unwilling to take.

So we don't have a moonbase because we're an annoying combination of stubborn and idle. We don't want to take the time to develop technologies that can go further than rockets, because they won't be able to go further than rockets immediately we introduce them.

It wasn't always like this. The first guns for soldiers were far inferior to bows in utility; but we stuck with them, and now almost nobody would think of using a bow for war. We need to reignite excitement at potential, rather than pride in achievement.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Your car is probably lying to you.

Most cars have an array of gauges in front of the driver. There's always a means of indicating road speed, and usually a gauge for fuel level. What else there is varies depending on the target market, but nowadays a tachometer to show engine speed and a temperature gauge to show if the engine's overheating are normal.

Most of these gauges are fully functional, but one, the temperature gauge, tends nowadays to be a skeuomorph. It's not technically a temperature gauge (which in automotive terms is actually a suitably calibrated ohmmeter, reporting the varying resistance of a bit of wire that is the temperature sensor), but a multi-state indicator. This is called compensation, and it's annoying to me.

The major reason for compensation is to avoid worrying inexperienced drivers. When first sitting at the controls of a car, one sees this apparently huge panel of dials, very few of which are all that obvious in function. To avoid overwhelming the novice, much of what used to be handled by dials (oil pressure, electrical system health, and so on) has been relegated to a row of go/nogo "idiot lights". The temperature gauge was a candidate for this, but it turned out not to be a good idea; there is still a need for more granularity than a simple light can provide. However, by filtering the signal fed to the gauge itself, the needle can be held rock-steady.

Why is the filtering needed for a steady needle? Because engine temperature is affected by multiple factors working to both increase and decrease it. Demand more power, and the extra fuel will result in more heat energy going into the engine; it heats up. The thermostat opens, and it cools down; the electrically driven fan comes on, and it cools down further, closing the thermostat. Heat begins to build again. And so it goes, with the temperature confined to a surprisingly narrow range so long as everything's working as it should. If the filtering weren't there, the needle would move around, and an experienced driver would be able to see when the thermostat's opened, and so on. This would be useful should something in the complex chain of equipment stop working, since it would be reflected in the gauge's reading, making figuring out what's broken easier.

However, a nervous driver will be distracted by this wavering needle, wondering, not unnaturally, what they're doing wrong; and making the needle stay still is easier than explaining that "it's meant to do that". So in goes the filtering circuit, and the needle now has five positions. When the engine's cold, it's just off the stop, since it has to indicate that the engine is running (despite the tachometer; it's expected that a gauge will be "live" when the engine is running, so even if a cold engine should have the needle sitting on the stop, it's moved up); when the engine's warm, but not to full operating temperature, it'll be between there and the middle. When the engine's in normal operating range, the temperature needle will be rock-steady at the middle of its travel, since there's a strong mental association between "the middle" and "where it should be". Then there are "moderate overheat" and "severe overheat" positions, although the severe overheat will usually be heralded by a cloud of evaporating coolant and a cessation of drive.

But you're not seeing what the engine temperature actually is. Instead, you're seeing that it's within what the designers of the circuit deemed acceptable. This doesn't just make troubleshooting harder; it introduces another thing which can fail. The small circuit board that handles this for Volvo 240s is notorious for failing, and it's normal for enthusiastic owners to simply remove the board and substitute a short wire which restores the temperature gauge to being an actual gauge, rather than an indicator. Most vehicles built after the later 1980s will tend to have some degree of compensation in their temperature gauge; so unless you're driving a classic, it's probably lying to you about the engine temperature.

I'm not a fan of skeuomorphs in general. I much prefer that an interface be designed from the ground up for the device it's to be used on; skeuomorphs hinder accessibility and force compromises which lead to less powerful interfaces. It could be argued that skeumorphic design leads to less usable interfaces as clutter and non-functional elements accumulate.

Monday, September 24, 2012

You are a sheep to them: corporate cultures and you

In the modern world, we've no choice but to be customers of large corporations. Even indirectly, we're affected by their attitudes towards us. That makes it a great shame that their attitudes are generally so unpleasant.

This grew from a discussion on Twitter of "moon money", the various unreal currencies games companies like us to use. Call them Nintendo Points, Microsoft Points, what you will, they're a layer of obfuscation between your money and the things you buy with that money. Sometimes, they can be bypassed; but more often, your only choice is to pay in moon money or not at all.

Part of their purpose is to allow the companies to report income sooner. Once you've bought your moon money, you're now out the real world cost of however much moon money you bought; the company issuing the moon money has the real money now, instead of however much later it is when you finally finish buying "things" (generally intangible things, mere data) to the value of the moon money you bought. They got your money as a lump sum up front, not in the dribs and drabs it would have come in had they let you pay real money; because a common feature of moon money is that it may only be bought in inconveniently large chunks. Part of this is to avoid proportionately large charges for processing small credit card transactions, but a secondary benefit for the issuing company is the decoupling of moonbucks from real money. The real money is gone, and so spending moonbucks feels like getting something for free. A further aid to this is the common oddball exchange rate; Microsoft points exchange at a rate of $10 for 800 points, which is inconvenient to remember, while being close enough that people can be tricked into assuming that the exchange rate is one point per US cent.

On the face of it, these practices seem abusive to the customer; I believe they are, but they stem naturally from the corporate culture. Any publically traded company has a duty to its shareholders to maximise profit in the short term, which will result in abuse. Consider the customer as a mature sheep; you can look after this sheep, shearing it for wool each year, taking milk (but not too much!), and gain a long term advantage of woolen clothes, healthy family from good nutrition, and so on; the farmers' way. Or, you can sweep in, take the sheep, slaughter it, and you'll get a nice sheepskin rug, some very large mutton dinners, and overall a short-term windfall; the raiders' way. The difference is that the farmers' way results in you still having a sheep all along, but gives less reward at any given time.

So the requirement to maximise instantaneous reward is what has killed any consideration for customer loyalty. There will "always" be more sheep; so slaughter them, carpet the world in sheepskin rugs, and get fat on your mutton dinners. Privately owned companies can afford to take a longer view; after twenty years, the farmers will have a lot of sheep, because well-cared-for sheep increase in number, while the raiders will have slaughtered enough sheep (in this analogy, annoyed enough people to the point of boycott) that sheep will be getting thin on the ground. Short-term thinking is not generally sustainable.

One games company which appears to be a farmer is Valve. I've said many nice things about them, but the most telling example is their system of moon money. Yes, it's still moon money; but it's denominated in dollars and cents, as if it's real money; and it's available in flexible amounts, subject to a $5 minimum purchase. You want $13.74 in Valve moon money? Go right ahead and buy it. It'll cost you $13.74, and you won't have to round up and have the $1.26 from going to $15 hanging around. But if you do round up, any leftovers can be applied as a discount to anything you buy via Steam; the one time I used Valve's moon money, I ended up with $0.02 left over, and that was knocked off my next Steam purchase automatically. Valve go to pains to make sure their moon money behaves as much like real money as possible, because they'd rather sacrifice short-term gains in favour of keeping you coming back for a long time. They can do this because they're a private company; there aren't shareholders to placate with short-term growth. They can think long-term.

Any time you're asked to exchange real money for tokens, think carefully. The entity asking you to do that is aiming to make you stop thinking of your money as money, because they want to keep your money. Casinos; arcades; points for online purchases. The root desire is to get you to stop seeing it as money.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The controls are wrong: why ported games are hard.

It's usual, these days, for videogames to be released on multiple platforms. There are plenty of good reasons to do this; for one, the difficulty of hooking up consoles to a TV goes up exponentially as you add more consoles (as I should know, having at one point attempted to have eight different wossnames hooked up to one TV, and needing multiple switchboxes to do it since the US lacks SCART and its ability to Just Work) and so most people of normal sanity will tend to buy one console and stick with it. Then there are the people who don't really have consoles; the LA and I have a Wii, which initially stomped all over the PlayStation 3 and xbox 360 in sales, but which is now mostly passed over for high-profile games releases because things can't be made quite as pretty on it as they can on Sony's and Microsoft's offerings. So to get at all the potential sales, a smart developer and publisher will release on as many platforms as possible.

And therein lies the problem. Control schemes are inevitably going to be different. The Wii has its own issues with controlling the games, and generally Wii releases aren't straightforward ports; but PS3 and xbox releases will often be the exact same code, compiled for two different platforms. The controllers for these consoles are very similar; designed to sit in both hands, with four buttons and a joystick for each thumb to waggle about, and four more buttons in trigger-like positions. Some details are different, such as where the joysticks are, or whether they actually fit human hands or are designed for tiny elves, but that's the basics; twelve buttons and two joysticks. The joysticks can also be pressed on to make two more buttons, and there are a couple more buttons used for system access, overriding the game.

You can make certain assumptions with controllers. The fact that you have two guaranteed analogue input devices means you can get fancy with driving controls, and have somewhat realistic speed sensitivity in your steering; wallop the stick hard over at speed, and you'll spin out spectacularly. And so on. The four buttons under the right thumb make a very easy reflex test, known as a quick-time event; remember Simon? A lot of games nowadays use that for "react fast" challenges such as disarming bombs.

And these control assumptions fall apart when confronted with the harsh reality of PC gaming. A keyboard and mouse make for far different control inputs. For one thing, you only have one analogue input, and it's a pointing device rather than a steering device. There's typically a direct mapping between how far the mouse is moved and how far the pointer moves; flicking the mouse will move it fast, moving the mouse slowly will turn it slower. A joystick, by contrast, varies the speed of the pointer based on how far it's pushed over; accurate pointing is much more difficult. The different control methods here are a big impact. A recent high-profile problem caused by this was discovered in id Software's tech-demo Rage; on consoles, everything looked gorgeous, all the time, while on far more powerful PCs, at the same resolution, turning around too fast would result in the player seeing a blurry mass of foot-wide pixels for a short while until the game could get the proper gorgeousness on screen. The fundamental problem was the difference between a pointing device and a steering device; consoles didn't allow the player to turn faster than the game could get the right data.

And then there's the problem of car controls in driving games. Remember the speed-sensitive steering I mentioned earlier? One of the PC games I play has that, and it's a disaster trying to drive in a straight line at high speed. The reason is, the mouse is needed for camera control, and so the steering is delegated to the keyboard. Keys have two states: on or off. This means that the steering is either straight ahead, or at full lock. This has led to my typical method of cornering in that game being to bail out of the car by opening a parachute, which gives me enough time to see a car going in the right direction and steal that one. It's far quicker than slowing down to the point at which I can avoid spinning out, and cheaper than buying a gamepad. Another console port game has a much less speed-sensitive steering mechanism; I typically turn corners in that one, although the keyboard turns them from a dexterity challenge to a timing puzzle (hit the keys with the right timing to flick the car through 90 degrees, and punch the go pedal at the right moment, as opposed to judging how hard to shove the stick)

Similar difficulties prevail going the other way, rare as that is nowadays; the consoles being where the money is, they're likely to be the primary market. I've attempted to play ports from PC to console, and they're generally clunky and awkward at best.

As long as the control assumptions remain as they are, porting in either direction will remain a problem. Input handling is one of the hardest things to get right in making a game.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Some news

I have a buffer, and more posts to add to it, so regular content drops will resume on the 17th inst., but the LA and I have just bought a house and so things will be chaotic for a while.

Monday, August 13, 2012

How to talk to me on the phone

So, one of the many things about me that's notable is that I have hearing loss. My right ear's hearing is significantly degraded, and my left ear has lost much of its high-tone sensitivity (or my brain doesn't interpret high tones correctly; that's also a possibility, given how much of a mess it is in there) due to foolishness when younger. When going to rock concerts, wear earplugs. That will go a LONG way towards avoiding what's happened to me. Take similar precautions around firearms; those things are very loud, and will damage your hearing. Between the loss of hearing and interference from chronic tinnitus, I find it difficult to follow conversations. That's actually a big part of why I'm quiet in person; I don't follow the thread of conversation well enough to join in, because I literally can't hear well enough.

A game designer and generally awesome person I follow on Twitter by the name of Eddy Webb is significantly worse off than I am by way of hearing, and he recently posted a link to an article on "how to talk with the hearing-impaired". While the advice is good, it's very much focused on face-to-face interactions, and doesn't cover telephones. Telephones are a very much harder nut to crack, when it comes to hearing difficulties.

Here's my advice, in handy bullet point form.
  • Speak up. Don't shout, but do speak clearly and loudly. It helps.
  • Speak slowly. Don't let your words run together.
  • Sit up straight. This does actually make your voice clearer, makes it easier to project, and means I find it easier to hear you.
  • Minimise background noise. If I'm straining to pick you out over music, fans, engines, or similar, I'm going to have trouble.
  • Re-phrase. If I didn't catch what you said, take a moment and try different words.
  • Be patient. I really am trying.
Sadly, the biggest obstacle to easy telephone communication with anyone hearing-impaired is the telephone itself. Telephone transmission involves throwing away an astoundingly large part of the voice's spectrum, to save bandwidth. Someone with good hearing can cope fine, but the worse a person's hearing is, the harder they'll find it to correct for that.

The biggest thing you can do for me, in terms of communication, is to only use the telephone when absolutely necessary. I much prefer something that doesn't require I hold large amounts of unsorted data in mind at once AND strain to hear. But if you have to call me, the checklist above will make it less annoying for both of us. Because I've no doubt whatsoever that as frustrating as it is for me to struggle through a telephone call, it's just as frustrating for you trying to get the information to me when I seem bent on mis-hearing.


It pains me to do this, but I'm putting the "regular content" experiment on hiatus for a short while. I've run out of buffer, and between family health issues, various sources of stress for the LA and me, excessively hot weather, and sundry other stuff I won't bore you with, I am, not to put too fine a point on it, shagged out.

So consider this a summer break. I'll aim to restart regular content drops around the middle of September. Feel free to yell at me on Twitter if that doesn't happen.

Monday, August 6, 2012

The booth babe problem

As happens all too frequently, the internet is afire with accusations of objectification, slut-shaming, feminazism, and all the wonderful fun epithets that get flung around when people with poor social skills start talking about subjects which hit gender politics. This time, the catalyst was someone complaining that there are too many attractive women at conventions.

Leaving aside the absurdity of such a statement, the real complaint is that some of the aforementioned attractive women may not be as "dedicated" to geek lifestyle as the complainer. Considering that many of his targets spend large amounts of time and significant money making excruciatingly detailed costumes for themselves, I doubt that one holds water either.

But there really is a problem with women at conventions. The problem is that commercial entities at such events have a depressing tendency to hire representatives based solely on physical appearance, with no thought to having them able to speak knowledgeably about what they're promoting. The term is "booth babe", which I dislike; it diminishes the women involved in this as people.

I've no objection to hiring attractive spokesmodels. I don't even object to having them dress up as characters from whatever you're promoting (although I'd prefer if you let them dress however they wished, and if need be display your expensively-made costume on a carefully painted mannequin). What I object to is having their value to your promotional effort be solely as eye candy. If you're trying to sell to geeks, well, yes, I'll freely admit that the pretty face will grab our attention, but we would much prefer to find out that she knows about this thing, that she cares about it, that she's going to tell us why she thinks it's great. And our social skills aren't so poor as to be unable to tell marketing guff from genuine enthusiasm.

My first assumption when I meet someone at a convention is that they're there because they think the subject matter is interesting. I'd like that to hold true for as many people as possible, regardless of gender, physical appearance, or other unimportant matters.

Monday, July 30, 2012

When to give it up

Recently, I've been discussing fasteners. Screws, bolts, Allen keys and such. There are many types of fastener, and many methods of driving screws. The most common one, in the US at least, is the venerable Philips drive; the cross-shaped slot that generally ends up burred and worn to uselessness within three drivings. Its dominance is a historical accident; it was adopted by Ford because it was available with reasonable license fees, and because it's designed to "cam out". It's very difficult to overtighten a Philips-head screw, because the tool will slip out at high torque. This meant Ford could use cheaper tools. Of course, there's a downside to the cam-out; it's easy to strip a Philips-head screw, and because it's harder to unscrew than to tighten, a securely-tightened screw will be nigh-impossible to remove. These are major reasons why Philips-head is these days largely confined to small electronics work and wood screws.

Speaking of wood screws, the major type of head in Canada is the Robertson. Robertson was offered to Ford, but it had some disadvantages; first, they wanted more money to license it, and second, it doesn't cam out. The square bit stays in the screw, and the whole setup binds. This makes it ideal for hand tools, as does the ability to securely set the screw on the bit prior to driving (anyone who's tried that with non-magnetic Philips screws will know what a boon it is to be able to put the screw on the end of the driver), but powered tools need a torque-limiting device to avoid breaking things.

Car manufacturers have never liked normal people messing with their cars, and once torque limitation had become cheap, it was inevitable that the fragile, unreliable Philips head would give way to something else. The chosen successor was Torx, a sort of six-pointed star; other than the form of the recess, it's similar to Robertson in its advantages and disadvantages. So why go with Torx, rather than Robertson? The main reason was to keep us from working on cars. Torx bits, when it was new, were a pain to get hold of, whereas anyone who can get to a hardware store could get a Robertson bit; just because it was mostly popular in Canada doesn't mean it was unkown in the US. Nowadays, Torx bits are cheap and easy to get hold of; I have at least three sets knocking around, and at least a couple of the anti-tamper ones with the hole in the middle of the bit.

So now, wood screws have Robertson, and car parts have Torx, and all the niches for Philips have a better competitor in them. Why does Philips keep knocking on?

Because it has a massive user base. Everyone, and I mean everyone, owns a Philips-head screwdriver or five. The car nuts have their Torx bits, but they always come with Philips bits as well. The people who care about woodscrews have Robertson bits, but frankly such people are a fringe group in the US. The vast majority of people buying woodscrews will buy Philips-head, because they already own the bits to drive them.

Personally, I've decided that if at all possible I'll go for Robertson woodscrews. My screwdriver collection includes all three sizes of that bit (as compared to the range from 000 to 4 needed to cover the spectrum of Philips, or the T1-Tn of Torx; although above T10 it tends to go by fives) and so I get the benefits of easy location and secure torque transfer without need for axial pressure essentially free. I may be an American these days, but I can at least admit that Canada does some things right.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Admin note

I should give fair warning that I've blown through my buffer of posts, and things are busy here at the moment. I'm still aiming to get the weekly post in, but real life may have to take priority.

Monday, July 23, 2012

What is a role-playing game?

Inspired by recent discussions among my online friends and acquaintances, I thought I should examine this question. It's a surprisingly thorny one.

Looking at computer role-playing games, there are multiple definitions accepted by people. Some will argue that the defining feature is player agency; if the player's actions can affect the world, it's a role-playing game. Some say it's character progression; if the character becomes more effective intrinsically, then it's a role-playing game. Some say it's down to whether success is determined by player skill or character skill. All of these have some justification, but really, we have to look at the origin of role-playing games to think about this meaningfully.

And that means Dungeons and Dragons. D&D is generally considered the first RPG, and we can reasonably look at it to help us define what makes an RPG an RPG. So, what's distinctive about D&D? One of the big things is character progression. In D&D, that's handled with character levels, but characters becoming more effective doesn't necessarily mean levels; it can be handled with skill points, or any other method of making a character better at doing things. But why does D&D have levels? Well, D&D began as a rules hack for a tactical wargame. The original D&D booklets didn't have combat rules as such; they recommended you use the Chainmail rules D&D had grown out of.  The levels came about as a second-level D&D character was assumed to be as effective as two first-level characters. He was essentially worth two men, and so many of his effectiveness factors simply doubled. This isn't exactly fine-grained, though, and later systems used a more gradual advancement mechanic. So character advancement is a part of the RPG nature, but character advancement is present in Grand Theft Auto, and that's not an RPG franchise.

Another distinctive point for D&D is player agency. Because the game is moderated by a person, the world can be changed by a sufficiently determined player. Many campaigns have that as their goal, insofar as "killing the Great Foozle" counts as changing the world. The key point here, though, is that the world can have multiple possible results, and which one happens depends on the player's decisions. This is quite common on a small scale in many games considered RPGs; Fallout has multiple possible resolutions to each quest, which feed into an overall state for each area, and the narration at the end of the game changes depending on how you affected each area.

The third big point is character skill versus player skill. The problem with this is that creating a suitably skilled character becomes a game in itself, and character skill is thus ultimately determined by player skill. Some games also combine the two; Oblivion, Fallout 3, and later games in their series have lockpicking as a skill the character has, and also as a mini-game which the player is forced to endure. To the best of my knowledge, Oblivion's lockpicking skill has no use beyond "walling off" higher difficulty locks from players with insufficient skill; the minigame is just as frustratingly difficult no matter what, thanks to imprecise controls, input lag, ridiculously tight timing windows, and draconian punishment for failure. Fortunately, things were much improved for Fallout 3; character skill increasing still served as a skill gate of sorts, but a character with high lockpicking skill made the minigame easier for a human to complete, and the controls were massively improved by removing the timing puzzle element.

The overall answer to what makes an RPG is one that I refuse to give you; games are a continuum, and there is no real hard line dividing RPG from non-RPG. The factors I consider most important are character advancement, player agency, and significance of character skill. If they're present, in reasonable proportion, I'll consider the game a role-playing game. This means that I consider the Deus Ex series to be RPGs; character skills have significant effects on what the player can achieve, there is character advancement, and player choices affect the game world.

Ultimately, you'll have to make your own decision; or, you could just take my approach. Games are in one of four categories, based on two factors: whether I've played the game, and whether I enjoyed it. Obviously, in the case of games I haven't played, that becomes "whether or not I consider it likely I'll enjoy it".

Monday, July 16, 2012

Just how enforceable is that?

Contract law is a fun area to look at. Just about every part of a contract is there because of disputes, either to avoid them happening in the first place, or because someone got annoyed enough to dispute that point in the past.

So most contracts, these days, are actually pretty comprehensive. They're mostly enforceable, too. Obviously, illegal terms can't be enforced, but you'll have a hard time getting anything legal thrown out.

And now we come to the contracts most of us encounter most frequently: the End-User License Agreement. This is the box of shouty text that shows up when you install software, making you promise that you won't use the cheap version of Microsoft Word to make any money, and you won't use iTunes to run a nuclear power station (I'm not kidding; you can look that up!) and so on. We generally don't read these, and that can be to our detriment. For instance, some games come with software designed to prevent cheating in multiplayer which massively over-reaches, giving itself permission to provide every sordid little detail of your pornography collection to its parent company. And all because you've been conditioned by overuse of "Are you really sure?" to just click "yes" or the closest equivalent thereof.

But are these contracts legally enforceable? Are they, in fact, valid? Well, that's an interesting one. In earlier times, many software packages came with license contracts you agreed to by unsealing the box to read what you were agreeing to. To me, that seems distinctly off in terms of fairness. Not only is there no opportunity to negotiate, there's no way to back out of the deal once you've paid. Once the box is opened, the retailer won't take it back. The vendor knows this. These days, you're held to agree by installing the software, but again there's no way to read the contract until you're committed to the deal. You might, if you paid for the software, and had no opportunity to pre-read the EULA, be able to get said EULA thrown out as unconscionable.

This is actually why Electronic Arts, now generally known as EA, has taken to providing the license agreements for all their software on their website. They'll play it off as being public-spirited and wanting informed buyers, but it's really a way to make their contracts more likely to be upheld should it go to court. You lose the "I wasn't allowed to read the contract until I'd agreed to it" point. I should note that this strategy by EA is part of a multi-layered attempt to keep their agreements scaring you; the major plank, though, is strenuous effort to keep the agreements out of court. No software company wants to defend this before a judge, for fear of setting a precedent that would gut their leverage.

The other plank, of having paid good money for something, is lost if you didn't pay for it. Amusingly, the various Free Software licenses might prove more enforceable than any paid-for EULA.

My advice, though, if you've read this far, is to do your research. Find the agreements you'd be subject to by installing your new software, and decide if you'd be OK with every single aspect of them being enforced against you. While the likelihood is that at least some of them will be thrown out, particularly any which tread on the first sale doctrine, the clickwrap agreement is probably more enforceable than you think.

Monday, July 9, 2012

Use it or lose it

The advice to "use it or lose it" is usually applied to brainpower; we're urged to keep our minds active, since that really does help avoid the pitfalls of aging. However, it could usefully be applied to legislation as well. The rest of this entry is behind a link because you may not wish to read it at work.

Monday, July 2, 2012

The Chicken and the Egg

Drug policy is a horrendously divisive area. I'm in favour of proportionate punishment for acts destructive towards good societal order, which means I think the US is tremendously over-punishing; stealing an item should not result in a lifetime as a second-class citizen. I digress, however; today, I'm talking drug policy, and how we ought to be doing things.

The first thing to note about illegal drugs is how similar they are to legal drugs; I have a Vicodin prescription, which gives me access to a potent semi-synthetic opiate. I could, if I were so inclined, get out of my mind on it perfectly legally, since my doctor has trusted me to act as a responsible adult and regulate my own dosage. That trust has actually kept me from using it; there's a constant refrain, every time I consider taking one of the pills, of "Do I really need this?" and I'll often decide that no, I don't.

Indeed, in the US, control of many legal drugs and prohibition of illegal drugs are handled under the same law: the Controlled Substances Act. This contains a number of lists, called Schedules, which determine both the medical availability and the severity of the offence committed by illegal possession. Vicodin is fairly low; it's Schedule 3. It has abuse potential, but that's mitigated by the fact that the opiate is combined with acetaminophen (paracetamol, for those outside the US) and so is less easy to abuse. Other drugs are higher; cocaine, for example, is Schedule 2 because it's easily abused but does have an accepted medical use. Where things get a little silly is Schedule 1. Schedule 1 is supposed to be where all the Really Bad Drugs go. The ones that will mess you up a treat, and have no medical use at all.

Which makes it a bit of a puzzler as to why pholcodine is on Schedule 1. It's an antitussive, common in cough syrups in Europe, non-addictive, and generally considered very safe. And yet over here it's more illegal than heroin. Another puzzler is marijuana (note: I'll be using the terms marijuana and cannabis interchangeably in this post, while hemp will refer to the same plant grown for fibre) which the CSA would have you believe is highly addictive and highly dangerous, with no medical benefits.

There are campaigners in the US trying to make cannabis more illegal, or rather campaigning to make penalties for possession and use of it more severe. Leaving aside for a moment the lunacy of making penalties more severe than a lifetime's disenfranchisement, loss of any job prospects, and essentially forcing people to turn criminal to survive, there are rarely good arguments advanced for why it's so dangerous.

People will say with a straight face that of course it's dangerous, because it's listed in Schedule 1. Why's it listed in Schedule 1? Because it's dangerous. How do you know it's dangerous? It's listed in Schedule 1. And around and around the circle goes, with nothing resembling evidence being advanced. The other argument against it, usually advanced to oppose the use of medical cannabis, is that there's no generally accepted medical benefit. That one's circular too; there's no accepted medical benefit because no studies have been performed, and no studies have been performed because it's listed in Schedule 1, and that listing states that there's no medical benefit, so there's no need to do any studies.

Meanwhile, the stuff's known to contain potent anti-inflammatories and to have massive beneficial effects on glaucoma. It's just that there haven't been any studies done to show the medical benefit because it's so illegal.

It's instructive at this point to compare cannabis to tobacco. Both are plant products; both contain psychoactive compounds; both are generally used by setting fire to them and inhaling the resulting smoke. Tobacco, moreover, has no health benefits that I'm aware of. And yet, cannabis is illegal, tobacco is legal. Why is this?

A big part of it is the tobacco lobby. Tobacco has been a huge moneymaker, has resulted in extremely rich, and therefore powerful, corporations, and has supporters aplenty. Meanwhile, cannabis is less demanding to grow, and there isn't really a well-organised lobby trying to make and keep it legal. The sheer finickyness of tobacco growing demands economies of scale that are far less attractive when growing cannabis, which is one of the most easy-going plants around. Then, too, we have the home-field advantage for tobacco; it's legal, and it's generally easier to maintain the status quo than to change it.

So why is cannabis illegal? Well, to answer that, we have to look back at what was going on when it was made illegal. It was the 1930s, the economy was just about recovering, and Du Pont had just invented a new fibre by the name of Nylon. They wanted to get into ropes with this, but the industry was dominated by the cheap and eminently suitable hemp. Meanwhile, middle-class white America was getting anxious about Mexicans coming and taking jobs. That fear is not new. There was a push on to regulate drugs, too; the synthetic drug boom of the turn of the century was still shaking out, and it was finally starting to be realised that a lot of these drugs were entirely too powerful to be available on demand.

Add in sensationalist journalism, and it turns out cannabis is illegal because a powerful business lobby wanted to squash competition, and used underhanded racial scare tactics to do it. By the time the Controlled Substances Act arrived to clean up and rationalise drug laws, around forty years later, cannabis had been illegal for four decades and people had forgotten how it became illegal; the circular logic had eaten its own tail, and the lunacy was enshrined.

How should we fix drug policy, though? Well, a start would be fixing societal attitudes towards people convicted of crimes. As it stands, anyone with a prison sentence on their record is essentially unemployable; this is deplorable. That, however, will take a long, long time to fix. For the start, what we need to do is stop treating drug policy violations as though they're crimes of violence. A person using drugs doesn't need punishment; he needs help. Addiction is not cured by locking a man up. Custodial sentences are the wrong solution for drug offences, and we should replace them with treatment. Stop treating addicts as criminals. Anyone using methamphetamine, heroin, or any other illegal drug, who seeks treatment and assistance to stop using it, should be commended and treated with dignity. As things stand, they're handed over to a justice system which takes no account of their efforts to stop, and locks them up until they're useless to society. Meanwhile, we also need to make things less harmful for addicts. Needle exchange programs, drug assay programs so that they know how pure their fix is; these reduce the harm to the addict, and make it easier for him to want to stop.

Harm reduction is a good guideline for lots of things. Let's look briefly at abortion; my ideal for abortion is that there not be any, but the world doesn't work like that. There will always be situations in which the least damaging choice is abortion, and so it behooves us as a society to ensure that abortion is available safely and in an atmosphere of respect. I cannot imagine anyone taking the decision lightly; the nurturing instinct goes too deep for that. Once someone's made that horrendous decision, we need to make sure she's treated with dignity. Another place where harm reduction is key: sex education. Do I support underage sex? Do I want it to happen? No. But I accept that people are people, teenagers get caught up in the moment, and it will happen. There is no way to prevent that. Therefore, we should educate our children, so that they have the knowledge and tools available to make the behaviour less risky. I was given that knowledge, and somehow I wasn't a sexual deviant; I was into my 20s before having sex. It's utterly unreasonable to expect everyone to hold to that standard; give them the facts, before they suffer harm from not having those facts.

My politics have been showing quite a lot. I'm sorry if I'm offending anyone with them, but I'm not going to stop. If I feel a need to write about politics, it's what I'll write about.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A time and a place.

I'm the handy type, or at least I like to think I am. I can swing a hammer reasonably well, I've so far avoided amputations while using jigsaws and the like, and I can usually come up with a solution which at least makes whatever I'm fixing work, even if it's not exactly pretty or perfectly functional. That's a useful skillset, but it does have its limitations.

I've no great objection to homeowners doing their own maintenance, but there's a caveat to that: so long as they don't endanger themselves or others. Far too often, one sees horrifying things like loose electrical cables, connected any old how, in the general vicinity of open junction boxes. It scares me; the colour codes of electrical wiring exist for a reason, and it's not just to look pretty. When doing electrical work, every wire is hot until proven otherwise, but there's a certain expectation. I'm not familiar with US standard colour codes, which is one of many reasons I will not do any electrical work over here, but I can't imagine they're any less strong than the British ones about having hot be distinctive in colour.

Similarly, I don't work with drywall, because finishing skills aren't that notable in my skillset. If I were working with it, though, I like to think I'd at least have the sense to read up on it first. Get a feel for fire safety requirements, what you really shouldn't do, and so on.

I enjoy exercising my problem-solving skills, but there's a time and a place to let the pros handle it. I probably know enough to do my own brakes, but I'm not confident in that ability; I won't bet my life, or the lives of others, on that. I'd far rather underestimate my own ability than overestimate it.

Monday, June 18, 2012

The letter and spirit of the rules

Motor racing is a very interesting game. A lot of it involves trying to get around the rules in some way to gain a technical advantage, which tends to mean the rules are often amended to say "OK, now that particular trick isn't allowed". Part of the trouble is with the regulations known as homologation; these are in place to attempt to make sure that cars supposed to be based on roadgoing cars really are based on roadgoing cars. There have been any number of dodges to get around them; one of the more famous occurred in 1994.

1994 was the last year of the "old" British Touring Car Championship. BMW had been dominating, and rear-wheel drive cars were subject to steadily increasing weight penalties in an attempt to allow the front-wheel drive cars to keep up. Two new manufacturers entered the fray that year; Volvo were attempting to shake off their reputation of making boring cars by putting their brand new 850 model in (and they really did avoid being boring; in 1994, the version they raced was the estate, or wagon for those of you in the US; that two-box body provided better aerodynamic performance than the three-box, and they could build a safe rollcage in it) and Alfa-Romeo entered to promote their sporty image. Everything was set fair until it was noted that Alfa-Romeo's cars had spoilers that were being set differently for different tracks. It was only a case of adjusting the height; higher for twisty tracks, lower for high-speed tracks, but it was enough to give them a sharp competitive advantage. While it complied with the letter of the rules, since their special version of the roadgoing base model had a spoiler with a kit of spacers to allow for adjustment, it was quite clearly not within the spirit of the rules. They got hit with weight penalties and had to pick a height and stick with it, but the writing was on the wall. For 1995, all the manufacturers were allowed proper racing-type adjustable spoilers, and because they couldn't stick up past the roofline, the racing brick was no more. Had they entered without Alfa-Romeo causing rules changes, there'd likely have been a far better showing from the racing wagons in their second year, and 1996 might have become known as The Year Everyone Ran Estates. Instead, Alfa-Romeo stole the show. Once everyone was using spoilers, their advantage evaporated; even the 1995 Volvos beat them quite handily.

It sometimes surprises people that Volvos did well in racing, but they've been doing well in racing for many, many years. In the early 1980s, Volvo used a somewhat souped-up version of their 242 coupe in racing; it was based on the US model, but fitted with a larger turbocharger and some other performance modifications. I was recently pointed at a blog post reminiscing about the production and preparation of these vehicles, and one thing that struck me was the blatant dishonesty. The blog post mentions that the larger turbos were temporarily fitted to the first two rows of cars at the ports where the authorities inspected them to make sure the racing version wasn't doing anything dishonest such as having a larger turbo than the road version, and the employee conducting the inspectors had to try and keep them to the first couple of rows. Obviously, it's impossible to completely prevent dishonesty, but that amount of it annoys me.

Now that it's known that these cars were not, in fact, eligible for the categories in which they raced, is there anything that should be done about it? We can't exactly re-run the races, and this all happened almost thirty years ago. Does it still matter? Is there a statute of limitations on cheating?

And now we run into where I think the line between bending the rules and cheating lies. While what Alfa-Romeo did in 1994 was not within the spirit of the rules, it was technically allowable. The other teams were mostly kicking themselves for not spotting that particular loophole first. Meanwhile, what Volvo did in 1983 is definitely cheating. They knowingly violated the letter of the rules. If they wanted the larger turbo in the race car, they had to sell it in the road car, even though it was slow to spool and unpleasant to drive on the road. The point of homologation rules is to make sure that teams aren't just doing things that you can only get away with in race cars, when the intent of the series is to show off racing versions of road cars. So, even though it took place a very long time ago, I'd want note made in the records that, because of information revealed after the fact, the non-conforming Volvos have been disqualified. I guess this is one arena wherein my alignment definitely skews toward Lawful.

Monday, June 11, 2012

What games are really about

Computer games are deceptive things. We tend to think they're about killing enemies, talking to people, exploring themes, and so on. This is not the case. What they're about is information. They're about conveying information to the player efficiently so that the player can then make decisions based on that information to advance through the game.

Monday, June 4, 2012

How to Look Good

Recently, with sadness, I had to say farewell to some of my older shirts. When I bought them, I was a smallish lad of 15, and they fit nicely. On an average-sized thirtysomething, they didn't fit so well. Then there was the inevitable wear and tear of a decade and a half as the mainstay of my wardrobe. Considering their cheapness to begin with, I have more than had my money's worth from these shirts.
They'll live on in spirit, though. Not only have I harvested the buttons from them for potential future use, the influence they had in setting my style as an adult will continue. These were pretty much the first casual adult shirts I owned, and certainly the first I felt any major degree of control in the purchasing of. Since that summer in the 1990s, I've kept a consistent look: plaid, short-sleeved, buttoned shirts. There are some shirts which break from the plaid into more ambitious patterns or even into overall designs, but they're outnumbered and I feel "fancy" when I wear them.

So for roughly half my life, these shirts have been the benchmark for my style. I'm lucky, being male; women's styles are far more volatile, and far more subject to "dressing one's age". That said, the key to looking good is always comfort. My style took shape because the light cotton shirts I chose were very comfortable, and so I looked good in them. A sour face will wreck any clothing, while a smile can make even an ill-fitting suit look better. These days, the shirts I choose look similar out of habit, and because I know that I can carry off the short-sleeved button-down well. I have, after all, been doing so for more than a decade.

Last time I had to buy shirts, the LA was with me. She went to look at something else, and when we reunited I had several shirts picked out, all but one being variations on tasteful plaids. I showed her what I'd chosen, and she later said that her first thought on seeing them had been: "Don't you already own those?" I counted that a success; if it's something my wife sees as so much "me" that she's surprised that I don't already own it, it's clearly something that will suit me.

So, the takeaway on my advice for looking good: find your style. It need not match anyone else's style; just make sure that you feel good wearing it, and you'll look good.

Monday, May 28, 2012

What is a spoiler?

As I write, the internet is rolling on the floor wetting its collective pants about the Avengers movie. Sadly, nobody's playing Patrick MacNee's role, since it's not that Avengers; it's one of those things the American comics industry loves to do when sales get flat, which is to suddenly decide that in order to follow the story of the one character you care about, you must now buy six times as many comics, and heaven help you if you haven't been buying all of them all along. I'm not kidding; this thing is a direct sequel to at least half a dozen other movies, none of which I've seen. It's divided my Twitter timeline into four parts: complaints about Amendment 1 in North Carolina, which I wrote about last week; cryptic utterances about shawarma, which I gather is a foodstuff which plays a role in this movie; pleas for people to not spoil it; and everything else.

So now I'm going to witter on about spoilers. By the nature of the discussion, below the fold will be unmarked spoilers roaming free, for things including but not limited to: Lord of the Rings; Star Wars, The Sixth Sense, A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones

You have been warned.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Making it more illegal

Recently, North Carolina put it to a vote, in a primary election, whether or not to amend its state constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman only. There are any number of problems with how this was done.

The first big problem was with the issue that this was a primary election. For those not familiar with the US political system, it's generally accepted that party nominees for the election proper should be selected by voters, on the grounds that this will produce candidates that are actually electable. This is less and less the case, as in a primary the candidates are generally only voted for by those who have declared the appropriate party preference. This leads to each party producing candidate who stridently blare their own party line, and having no incentive to nominate anyone who's willing to work with the other party. The other issue is that typically, the party of the incumbent will have little incentive to vote in a primary. In California at least, nobody in the Democrat party is standing against Obama for the Presidential nomination, and so there's little incentive for registered Democrats to actually get out and vote. Turnout is always lower in primaries than in elections proper.

So this was put to a vote of "people who care" in an environment likely to be tilted towards Republicans; the Republican party having firmly nailed itself to the position that gay people don't deserve to get married. This is already set up to produce extra votes for a ban.

Then we get to the language of the bill itself. It doesn't actually do anything to gay marriage, which was already not recognised under North Carolina's state law; what it does do is strip any long-term relationship which is not a marriage between a man and a woman of legal recognition. Any domestic partnership, civil union, call it what you will, if it's not a marriage, it now has no legal standing in North Carolina. This does horrible things for anyone raising kids with someone they're not married to; it does horrible things to protection from domestic violence; it does horrible things to evidentiary standards for stalking. It's sickening how many legal protections it strips from the heterosexual couples it claims to be protecting (and protecting from what? As far as I can tell, protecting from having to admit that not everybody falls in love the way you do).

So it was set up unfairly, and it does bad things to good people. What else? Well, it stated in its definition that it merely required a simple majority to pass. What that means is that of the people who voted regarding it, 50% plus one person would be enough to pass it. Frankly, for a document with paramount status, this is ludicrous. 50% of the electoral turnout, in a primary, can be a tiny proportion of the actual population of a state. I'd be more satisfied with requiring that 50% plus one of registered voters be needed, regardless of turnout. Of course, the ideal would be that human rights not be up for popular vote.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Diablo III was doomed to launch problematically

It's become obvious that Diablo III's launch has been what's technically known as a pig's breakfast. The servers required to play the game fell over under the load, and fans are getting hot under the collar at the problems they're encountering. The trouble is, Blizzard couldn't have done anything about this. This was fated to happen as soon as they decided that the game would require connection to their servers.

The problem is the difference between average load and peak load, and the issue of margins. Blizzard had to have enough servers to cope with anticipated average load, but every server added to their cluster after that comes straight out of profit margins. They therefore need to run with the absolute minimum of headroom. Unfortunately, launch day is inevitably going to result in the highest load your servers will ever see, and once you've got a server, you've sunk its cost. With a game as hotly anticipated as Diablo III, launch day is going to be a huge load, far in excess of the headroom on your farm of servers to cope with average load. You're going to get refused connections, or you're going to get cascading failures, and things plain will not work because you won't have enough computing power to cope - and if you had gotten enough computing power to cope, you'd have wiped your profits.

The issue is further complicated by the lack of price balancing. Unlike Blizzard's other you-must-be-online game, World of Warcraft, Diablo III has no recurring subscription cost. You pay your $60 and that's it. With World of Warcraft, continuing players essentially pay for the servers to remain up, to the tune of $15 per month, and that simplifies things enormously. For one thing, you've got metrics; you can anticipate demand much better. Whereas with Diablo III, demand is harder to predict and so you're going to be shaving your margins to try and run the server farm at just above the meltdown point. Not too far above, because that represents a cost without a reliable revenue stream to back it up.

What does this mean in real terms? Diablo III is a cost centre for Blizzard, not a profit centre the way World of Warcraft is. Their real-money Auction House and the cut they take from it will offset that to some extent, but I doubt it will pay for the full cost of keeping the servers up. So enjoy Diablo III while it lasts; there are beancounters who'll gladly kill it off.

Normally, I'd have put this post in the queue, but that's full to bursting already and this is a short, highly topical post.

Monday, May 14, 2012

The measure of a man

Recently, it's emerged that Republican Presidential nominee Mitt Romney was a bully in school. He's had trouble projecting an electable image, and something as divisive as this is unlikely to help. The timing and nature of what's emerged is also unfortunate, coming as it does hard on the heels of the North Carolina vote to make same-sex marriage even more illegal, along with complicating any long-term relationship which is not a marriage, and President Obama's announcement that he has decided he was wrong to be against same-sex marriage; there are hints that the victim in the spotlighted incident may have been targeted because Romney may have thought he was gay.

Romney's school years remind me in many ways of the time I spent at a high-pressure academically and socially selective school. I was always the outsider there; a scholarship boy, barely able to afford the uniform and only able to attend because the usual swingeing fees had been waived due to my academic brilliance. Being the outsider, in the typical atmosphere of young boys where academic excellence is less than cool, was not a pleasant experience; I would not have been part of the set in which Mitt Romney moved. That set was defined by intelligence just sufficient to meet the standards required to stay on, just sufficient to get away with bad behaviour; and by being fully paid for. It's a sad fact that in private schools, scholarship students are seen as intrinsically less desirable, less important to the school, than those whose parents are paying the full fees.

It's telling that despite physical violence, the spotlighted incident doesn't appear to have resulted in any punishment for Romney. He claims not to remember the incident, and if it didn't result in punishment I don't doubt that he doesn't. I've made contact in recent years with some of the people by whom I was bullied while at school, and very few of them actually realised at the time just what they were doing, or remember specific incidents. This is a defence mechanism; very few people have the strength to actually look hard at their childhoods and realise what insufferable little shits they were. The incidents that caused us pain, physical or emotional, are what stick out.

There's a worrying quote from Romney's wife, attempting to allay concerns that he may be too stiff to be electable: Ann Romney says that "There’s a wild and crazy man inside of there just waiting to come out" and that we shouldn't read too much into his facade. Unfortunately, the nature of the unpunished bully makes me deeply afraid of his "wild and crazy" side; I don't trust him to have learned the limits of reasonable behaviour, and I don't trust him to have developed any empathy.

This post has come out distinctly political, and I didn't intend it to come out that way. Frankly, I would be just as perturbed by revelations of this nature about Barack Obama, with whose policies I have more agreement than with Romney's policies. It's the nature of the man that concerns me, not the causes he espouses. Most of "my" bullies grew up and became decent people; my abrupt departure from the toxic situation coupled with the involvement of the police, since it had become a criminal matter, acted as a shock which provoked some rapid re-thinking. Even without memories of specific incidents, knowing that one's actions have provoked such dire consequences can be enough. Mitt Romney never had that shock.

Friday, May 11, 2012

Some news...

The LA and I are rather busy at the moment, but fear not. Even if I have to drop offline, I can guarantee weekly posts until July. I'm working that far ahead right now.

Monday, May 7, 2012

I'm not easy to sell to.

I tend to have strong opinions about the media I consume. This is a geek trait; we tend to care a lot. If I reckon a book was particularly good, I'll recommend it to friends. Similarly, if a TV show, or a movie, or a computer game, strikes me as being above average, I'll usually recommend it to friends both offline and online.

My friends do the same for me. Unfortunately, I have another common geek trait: hype aversion. I tend to see particularly enthusiastic fandom as hype, which is what led to me missing out on Firefly for several years (the other factor in that being people trying to sell me on it as wonderful by invoking the name of its creator, Joss Whedon; unfortunately, of everything he's done that I've seen, Firefly has been the only thing I've enjoyed. Telling me a thing is wonderful because a person whose works I dislike created it doesn't exactly have the ring of success) and no doubt I'm missing out on other things because of that.

I've been trying to notice this tendency in myself and counteract it. For instance, I did make sure that I read the Dresden Files before deciding whether or not I liked the series (sorry, fans; it failed to grab me.) I tried hard to treat Inception as simply a movie, rather than as a hypemonster. Inception, however, failed for me on accessibility grounds; I was unable to see anything through the excessively dark cinematography, unable to hear anything on the soundtrack consisting of whispered conversations over explosions, and unable to read the subtitles due to a technical issue beyond my control. Being hard of hearing, I have more than usual difficulty discriminating sounds; with the mix of most modern films, subtitles are almost essential for me.

However, the best way to get me to show interest in media is simple: don't sell it to me, explain it to me. Don't tell me that it's the best thing you've seen all year, tell me what you enjoyed about it and why you think I might enjoy it. Don't tell me who created it; names come with baggage. Joss Whedon attached to a project predisposes me to think that it's unlikely to be enjoyable for me. Ridley Scott predisposes me to think it will be to my tastes; but you can't be expected to know that.

As an example of what I would like from media recommendations, here's one: the Black Company series of books. They're a gritty look at fantasy warfare from the front lines. The characters are believable and diverse, the writing style is well-developed (and changes noticeably as different characters take on the role of narrator; the books are presented as though they exist in the universe being described, and are written by characters within that universe) and the plot is complex enough to pass for real life. They're praised by military veterans for their realistic portrayal of the feel of military life. I can highly recommend giving them a try; they're commonly available at secondhand bookstores, so there's little risk in doing so. They've also recently been collected in omnibus trade paperbacks.

Monday, April 30, 2012

What's not important.

Recently, a link circulated, regarding a legal decision. This was a decision from the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals, by a three-judge panel, and there was a dissenting opinion. In the dissenting opinion, the judge cited The Princess Bride.

Naturally, the internet only cares that one of their favourite movies is being mentioned by judges, and isn't this wonderful? However, it's definitely worth taking a look at the entirety of the decision. (PDF link) I'm not expecting you to read it, so I'll summarise the facts. Do bear in mind that I'm a layman, and I may misunderstand things.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Same-sex... divorce?

Yes, this is something we need to think about. The US has a patchwork of tolerance as things stand; some states allow marriage without regard to gender of the participants, while most don't. Some recognise out-of-state same-sex marriages, some don't. And then there's California, with its horrible mishmash of things that are still being decided in court.

Now, personally, I regard the various same-sex married couples I know as legitimately married. They've made a committment, just like I have, and that deserves respect. That they don't reap the tax advantages I do from the Federal authorities is a travesty. That said, marriages don't always last. What happens when a same-sex married couple decides they need a divorce?

If the state certifies such marriages, it shouldn't be a problem. But what if the state recognises such marriages, but doesn't perform them? Is it obliged to provide for divorce of marriages it doesn't perform?

And what if the state doesn't even recognise the marriage? I dread to think of the problems which could arise should the respondents accept an answer of "you were never really married in the first place", and then attempt to re-marry.

This is a problem that deserves much more attention than the "none" it's recieved so far.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

What's going on

You may have noticed that more discursive posts are appearing. I'm trying to make that a thing.

If a post shows up at 1.30pm on a Monday, California time, then chances are it's actually been in the can for a few days. I'm trying to keep enough ahead that I have a buffer of posts ready to go out. Posts at other times will be the usual haphazard posting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Lifetime, and what it means mechanically.

A large proportion of new cars on offer these days come with what are called "lifetime" fluid fills in the transmission. What this is held to mean is that you shouldn't need to change the fluid in the lifetime of the car, unless you've abused it. Leaving aside for a moment the issue that virtually everything we do to our cars is technically abuse, and should have us on the "severe duty" schedule for servicing, what exactly is the lifetime of the car?

Well, any mechanical system has a lifetime. It will, eventually, succumb to age, wear, corrosion, and so on. This is true whether one is talking about the hinge on a tin of Altoids or the engine of a Volvo, despite the expected lifetimes with proper care being vastly different (and that difference is currently undefined; we don't know the lifetime of a properly maintained Volvo engine, because nobody's managed to wear one out yet). The lifetime depends on the lives of the individual components, and their ease of replacement. A good example of this is a perennial debate among car enthusiasts: the question of timing belts versus timing chains.

Valve timing has been a live issue ever since the camshaft migrated from its former position in the block to the cylinder heads. When it was down in the block, you simply put in a gearchain with suitable ratios and you were golden; the cams pushed the pushrods, which rocked the rockers, and the valves did their job. Sadly, all that extra mass was inefficient, and limited the engine's speed. Nowadays, the standard is for the camshaft to live up above the valves, and push on them either directly or via rocker arms. The pushrods and their play have been eliminated. Unfortunately, this setup means you can't use a geartrain to drive the camshaft; it would be too heavy and too awkward. A new solution was needed.

The two most common options are a chain, not unlike a bicycle chain, or a toothed belt. Both have their advantages and disadvantages. The chain is more durable; a metal chain will last longer than a mostly-rubber belt. The chain is lubricated, which the belt can't be thanks to oil's deleritous effects on rubber. However, the rubber belt is quieter, and it's a lot easier to change. Both are perfectly capable of maintaining valve timing within acceptable precision right up until they fail.

And fail they will. It's a fact of life, a fundamental law of physics, that everything breaks. Within a mechanical context, you have enemies; motion is the enemy. Anything that moves will wear. The lighter it is, and the more it moves, the more it will wear. The more complex it is, the more it will wear. A timing chain is a hideously complex assembly of very small parts, moving at high speed with close tolerances. The rollers of the chain wear. The links can stretch or even break. The sprockets wear. And because the chain is so closely integrated into the functioning of the engine, it's a pain to replace. Frankly, it's highly unlikely to be economic to repair an engine in which the timing chain is worn to the point of problems. It's generally held that a timing chain, unlike a timing belt, will last the lifetime of the engine; but looked at this way, what that really means is that the lifetime of the timing chain determines the lifetime of the engine. Any wear is repairable, but there is always a decision to be made as to whether the expense of repair is excessive compared to the benefits arising from performing said repair.

In contrast to the timing chain, a timing belt has a definite intended lifespan and is then expected to be replaced. It's generally hung out on the front of the engine, which exposes it to the harsh conditions in the car's engine bay but which also makes access for replacement easy. There are more oil seals to maintain with a belt setup; and remember that oil will destroy the belt in short order; but the cost of the belt replacement is essentially trivial. In this design, we've accepted that failure will occur, and planned for it by making replacement easy, and setting a schedule of maintenance which will in almost all cases result in the weak part being replaced before it fails.

What we're seeing here are two different philosophies of design. The chain represents the effort to reduce the chance of failure, at the expense of making failure catastrophic should it happen. The belt represents acceptance of failure as inevitable, and planning to remain one step ahead of failure. Both of these viewpoints are valid; I can easily accept a person looking at the problem of valve timing and, by impeccable logic, reaching exactly the opposite conclusion from me, even though I also used logic. The difference lies in the relative importance of various factors to the person making the decision. My preference is for a timing belt, on the grounds that it can be repaired more easily; others prefer chains because they need repair less frequently. Both preferences are logically arrived at, and that's why this issue remains a perennial flame-war. Both sides are talking past each other, because what they consider their killer points are what the other side thinks of as unimportant.

Going back to the "lifetime" fluid fills in transmissions, it's now clear that what the manufacturer really means is that the fluid fill determines the lifetime of the transmission. Remember, it's mechanical; it will wear out, and eventually break. Whether you consider the expected service lifetime acceptable is your decision; but remember, next time the salesman touts the lifetime fluid fill, to ask him what the lifetime IS. You should have that information to base your decision on. Or, you can opt for a car that has scheduled fluid changes, and accept that you'll pay more in recurring fees for a transmission that has the potential to last longer.

It comes down to accepting a black box, or accepting a slightly more finicky device that you can tweak to your satisfaction. Some things work well as black boxes; an iPod is a masterful black box. Other things work better as openable boxes; I prefer to at least have the option to pick and choose the components in my desktop computer.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

What I'm actually paying for.

We live, let's face it, in the age of the internet, when it is essentially trivial to get hold of any data. If I like a song that the radio's playing, I can, should I so desire, obtain a copy of it without needing to pay anything above and beyond the cost of keeping an internet connection active. I don't, though. Generally, I go to iTunes, and I pay money. Why is that? How is iTunes beating "free"?

The first part of the equation is ease of access. I already have iTunes; most of the time, it's running, since this machine is so over-endowed with processing power and memory as to not notice any program save some games and my web browser (thanks to the memory leak). So buying music from itunes has very low overhead, especially given that I don't have iTunes taking payment from my credit card; instead, I'm allowed a budget by means of gift cards. Everything happens automagically, and that's a big advantage. Compare the "free" method: search a stupendously large results set, some or all of which may be mislabelled. The legitimate method is giving me a massive advantage in convenience.

The second part is safety. I can reasonably assume that any music I should happen to download from itunes is merely the music, and not some horrendous foul beast that will render my computer a drooling, leprous zombie at the command of some nefarious thug-for-hire, and probably won't be the right music anyway. And if I should get infected by means of iTunes, I have redress. I have paid for a service, with reasonable expectations of what will and will not be delivered, and so I have a means of getting compensation should Bad Things occur. Again, the legitimate means has the advantage.

The third part I've touched on, but it bears repeating: there's a reasonable expectation that things I buy via iTunes will work in iTunes. Generally, they work in other programs as well, but that's not something I expect; it's merely a bonus. Anything acquired via the shady means has nothing to provide an assurance of functionality, and nobody to complain to should it turn out to not be functional. Amazingly, "paid-for" is coming out well ahead of "free" again.

What all this adds up to is simple: I'm not really paying for the music so much as I'm paying for convenience in acquiring it, expectation that it will do what it says, and expectation that it won't harm me. I'm paying because I see my time as better spent listening to the music I like than it would be spent tracking down a good enough copy in the seamier corners, and fixing any problems arising therefrom. The same reasoning applies to why commercial software I use is paid for; it's simply less hassle that way. While I COULD get it for free, there are potential pitfalls and inconveniences that I simply don't consider worth dealing with. If I feel the price of a given piece of software is too high *cough*Adobe*cough* I simply find a cheaper alternative (which can be free; the software I use for image editing, for vector drawing, and for 3d modelling and raytracing are all free, provide their source code for free, and require improvements to said source code to be freely available) or do without.

So while some would have it that only a mug pays for software, I see it differently. I see my time as too valuable to waste troubleshooting something that would probably just work straight out of the box if I laid out a little cash. This is before we go into the ethics of paying creators (an unambiguously good thing to do).

Friday, March 2, 2012

Space Nazis Must Die, or why I dislike Killzone 3.

Sometimes, when we meet up for gaming, the actual game doesn't happen. In that situation, other avenues of entertainment are called for. Today, it was co-op Killzone 3, and that meant annoyance for me.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

How to make everyone else's con experience suck

You know, it's great that you're having a good time at the con, but because of your behaviour, I'm not. And nor are many, many other people, because you're being a douchecanoe. Here's how.

Your badge is on your hip. Nice work, now everyone wanting to know who the fuck you are has to stare at your crotch. The badge should be pinned on your chest, or on a lanyard. Don't force people to scope out your junk, because it isn't all that. And your PJs don't flatter it.

Oh yes. You're wearing your frigging pajamas. Seriously, what the hell is wrong with you? You now don't have pockets, you don't have a proper fly to keep your junk inside your trousers, and you look like an idiot. Put some damn clothes on!

But before you do, step into the shower and turn it on. Use the soap. If you haven't showered or changed clothes in three days, YOU STINK. Seriously. My sense of smell is mostly GONE, thanks to a couple incidents with standing downwind of hydrochloric acid, and I CAN SMELL YOUR STINKY ASS FROM THREE ROOMS AWAY. Shower. It'll also help you sober up.

Because just because YOU haven't been to bed in three days doesn't mean it's OK to be drunk at 9am.

And you really should go to bed, because energy drinks are NOT a substitute for sleep. You wind up being in one of two states: hopped up like a chipmunk on meth, annoying the hell out of everyone around you, or a narcoleptic sloth. So get some damn sleep. Seriously, if you weren't going to sleep why did you change into your pajamas? Oh, right, to rub in the fact that you got a room. Gotcha.

Also, you need to eat properly. You can't make it three days on nothing but pocky. Shower, put some goddamn clothes on, and haul your ass to someplace that sells REAL food. If you're lucky enough to be at a con with a Whole Paycheck nearby, you have officially Scored, because their salad bars are the best thing on the planet. Grab some spinach, skip the dressings, add protein, more vegetation, and finish off with some seriously good hummus. For what you're buying, it's cheap, and it's good for you. It'll also help you stay awake.

Oh, great, you noticed the guest of honour, and now you're fanboying out. Save the squeeing for later, and treat the poor guy like a human, willya? He's come a long way to be here, and he doesn't need you being a jackass. This goes even more if he happens to be a she, because for some reason That Guy at the con is even more of a douchecanoe around women.

So: calm down, nourish your body, SHOWER!, get enough sleep, and you should be good to go at not making the con suck for other people. Except for your personality, but that's beyond the scope of this entry...