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.