Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Alpha Leader: All Systems are go!

Well, last night we had the first Alpha test of our J2EE + Darkstar based online service-- CampFu.

I'm proud to say the Darkstar servers behaved flawlessly.  We have some tuning to do on the J2EE side but all in all the test was a success.

We haven't really loaded the Darkstar servers yet as the J2EE performance issues are getting in the way but I hope we'll have those cleared away enough in the next week or so to really see what our Darkstars can do!

Monday, December 8, 2008

More virtualization fun

Neverwinter Nights also seems to work well under parallels 4.  This is very handy as it means I can use the Aurora Editor from inside of my Mac.  Thats very handy for my DarkMMO project which i hope to return to soon.

Next thing Ill try is The Witcher.  Its based on the Aurora engine as well though I understand they made some of their own mods to it.

One small step for an emulator, one giant leap for Mac-Kind

Just a short note.

I upgraded to Parallels 4 this weekend and, on a whim, tried both of my current online games,  WAR (Warcraft: Age of Reckoning) and City of Heroes.

Now WAR refused to even run, claiming my video card didnt have necessary features, but CoH some what surprisingly ran perfectly.  And fast!

CoH is of course an older game with less stringent video requirements, but its not exactly a relic.

This is a very good sign for running games in general under Parallels!

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Missing the big picture...

SO, people have started sounding the death knell for Age of Conan.

Over on Kotaku, a writer who probably should have the  by line "WOWFANBOI" writes:


With Wrath of the Lich King out, everyone's forgotten Age of Conan ever existed."

He pulls half his article from a better writer over at Vox ex machina.

However in the end, though they get the big picture right, that  AoC is in its last gasps, they get the details all wrong.

The assertion that the post 20 game was ugly and uninteresting is sheer nonsense and reads like someone who got to the level 20 change-over and quit.  There IS a bit of a learning curve at level 20.   The world opens out.  Rather then hand holding you through a tight series of in-your-face quest assignments it becomes much more of an exploration game. 

If you take the time to explore though you are rewarded with FANTASTIC vistas that are much more visually awe inspiring then anything either in the pre-20 game or WOW.   The quest design ranges from good to epic.  AoC gave me moments of true cinematic experience in the quests-- something not other game has done before or since.  Yes, the voice acting that's in the pre-20 quest assignments disappears.  its not something I missed very much.

Why then is it dying? Why did I quit if I liked its design so much?

The answer is failed management.  A management that ignored the majority of the voices of its users and instead obsessed on the hard-core PVP minority.. It is thus not surprising that the game evolved into a game where "In the end, all that is left are guilds of gankers, hiding in grinding caves and waiting for someone to unstealth. "  This the game of the hardcore PvPers.  And as many MMOs have proved before it, that's a very small community.

In the end, no matter what the WOWees might claim,  WOW succeeds and AoC fails not because of great WOW quest design. Or even good WOW visuals.  But because WOW caters to the majority, the PVE players, where as AoC dissed them.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Now is the time for Sun to buy itself back

As a 9 year Sun veteran, I watch the continued turmoil inside of Sun Microsystems with a somewhat heavy heart.  A few days back Sun announced yet another lay off, this time 18% of the work force.

I actually think that some of the cut and the reorganization that is coming with it is good.  Sun still had some areas of the company that were actively holding it back from evolving and the rumors i hear are that the cuts are going to be heavy in these areas.

However, I am afraid it wont be enough.

Unlike many others, having seen Sun from the inside, I am actually a Jonnathan Schwartz fan.  I've watched him from the moment he took over and seen a bold, innovative, and incredibly smart guy with the guts to make big bets for Sun's future.   However, I think his ability to execute has been hamstrung  on a number of levels. 

From the inside, he has had to fight a deeply entrenched culture that desperately want to hang onto Sun's existing way of doing business, selling servers, even as market forces grind the margins on that business into the dust.   From the outside, he is stuck with having to make quarterly figures for the stock market, even though it takes a  lot more the 3 months to retool a company.  Every time he cant make quarterly figures, he has to figure out how to do what he is trying to do with even less people as he makes the market-demanded personnel cuts.

Which gets me to the point of this blog.  Sun's market cap is down to 3 billion dollars.  Sun has at least that much still in the bank.  I believe that now (or not too far in the future, if you want to bet on the market in general dropping even lower)
is the time for Sun to take itself private.  Buy the controlling interest off the market and give Jonnathan the room to succeed or fail on the merits of his ideas... not because a short-sighted markt is forcing upon him short-sighted decisions.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

A quick note on Caribou Barbie

A lot of the radio talk today was about whether Palin helped or hurt McCain in the presidential race. 

All the debate seems to be over did she do well this demographic v. did she alienate that demographic  and was her style too strong or did she help by saying tough (some might say slanderous) things that McCain couldn't or wouldn't say.

As far as I am concerned all this misses the most important point.  She defintiely hurt McCain with one crticial demographic... and that was a demographic of one.

Gen. Colin Powell cited the choice of her as VP as the thing that finally goaded him into openly endorsing Obama as his candidate for the presidency.
  Until then, his long standing freindship for McCain had kept him neutral.

That, to my mind, was far and away the most important for Obama, and damaging to McCain, endorsement of the entire campaign.

So there is no doubt in my mind that running Caibou Barbie turned out to be a devestating mistake.

A word for MacCain

And now a word for the Hon. Sentator from Arizona... and its not PPPBBBTTT!

I actually think John McCain's concession speech was terrific.    I especially appreciated the disapproval he showed at his loyal followers booing at the name of the President Elect. 

This is the John McCain I remember from when he ran againt Bush.  The John McCain I could actually consider voting for.   He disappeared during this race, replaced by a low pandering B grade politician but in defeat he was far more gracious then he had been when he had a chance.

I don't really think that this is his fault.  I believe John McCain to be a man of great loyalties and very much driven by duty.  During the campaign, I think he felt obligated to run it the way his party, driven by slime like Karl Rove, told him to.  Once Barak Obama was elected, however, I think the same sense of duty drove him to support his new president.

I also think John McCain wants to end his career with something historic.  And if thats not being president, he can at least be a major player in the administration OF an historic president.  I think he'd be an asset to all concerned and I, and I hope our president, would welcome his involvement.

As for Ms. Palin, well, I was inspired by a friend of my wife's at seminary.  Joyce, this is for you....

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Episode 3: A new hope

Okay, this ISN'T about Star Wars, sorry.  Its just my geeky way of talking about my feelings today, the day after we elected our first Afro-American president.

Listening to the Radio today I heard a lot of back and forthing about  what this means.  (Besides meaning that much of America hates George W Bush and anyone associated with him.)  The focus seemed to be "does this mean America is no longer racist."

Well, would that it did, but that's jumping to the ends of a story that we are still very much at the start of.  I don't think this means racism is dead in America.  I don't even think this means that specifically racial prejudice against Afro-Americans in politics is dead.  But I do think its the start of something.

Today, I find myself thinking a lot about a baseball player named Jackie Robinson.  Branch Rickey, then president of the Brooklyn Dodgers, was a pretty wise man.  When he decided he wanted to integrate his baseball team he went looking not just for a player who was as good as the white players, but one who was significantly better.  And not just better at baseball, a better figure of a man.  He knew that *any* negative perception of the first black player in the major leagues would doom the effort.  Foibles and weaknesses that would be forgiven in any white player would be held up by the opponents of the effort as "obvious signs that black men aren't suited to playing a 'white game.'"

The words "black man" would not have been used at the time, but we all know what word woudl have been and there is no reason or excuse to use it here.  But the man for the job would have to listen to it, day in and day out, and not rise to the bait.  To be better, much better, not just then all his fellow players but then the people who would seek to pull him down.

Not only did he need a man who could survive such a scrutinized and intense fishbowl of a life, but he needed one willing to do so.  That takes a very special kind of commitment.  One I think very few of us could have.  I doubt I could.

He found his man in Jackie Robinson.  And thanks to Robinson's bravery, strength of character, and willingness to self-sacrifice-- today crowds of Americans of all races and background routinely gather into stadiums to cheer loudly for teams composed not just of white and black men, but many other races as well.  It didn't happen over-night.  But jackie Robinson started the process that led there.

When I look at Barak Obama on the podium, I see Jackie Robinson.  And the same rules unfortunately hold for him.  He had to be not just a good politician to get where he is now, but a great one.  In all likelyhood the greatest one I am going to see  in my own lifetime.  But its not over with the election.  The kind of wanton mis-deeds America has forgiven other Presidents for, he won't be. 

He will need to be better then them, better then all the rest of us. When he talks about wanting to unify America it can't be the Bush/Rove idea of unification which came down to "Okay, now everyone unify by doing it MY way." He is going to have to really follow through on his acceptance speech promise to make all of America feel listened to and engaged.  Even people he might inwardly cringe just to be in the same room with.

But if he can do it, then it just might be the beginning of the end of prejudice against Afro-Americans in the American political system.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

A historic night

There are a few days in my life that I think of as watershed moments.
I can usually tell them by the feeling of almost surreal amazement that accompanies them.  I have three...

The first, when I was very young, was watching a man step out onto the lunar soil.  The idea that, not only was there a  man on the moon, but that I was *watching* the moon.  That I could see into space and onto another world, was an amazing thing.  A good sort of amazement.

The second was when the Space Shuttle columbia exploded.  I was in college and walking past our student union cafeteria which had one of those early monster-sized big screen projection TVs.  I stood there and watched the footage in utter disbelief.  Such things happened in books and movies, not in real life and I could not get over the weird feeling that I was watching some movie and not reality.  That was a bad sort of amazement.

The third was tonight, when a man with a black father and white mother, and a face America calls Afro-american, became our next president.  I wanted to believe it was possible, but I am still absorbing the fact that it is reality.  This, again, is a good sort of amazement.  Its the kind of miracle that brings with it a renewl of faith.  In this case a very secular miracle and a very secualr renewel of faith, to whit my faith in the American people and our system of government.  A faith particualrly sorely tested, and found somewhat lacking, these last four years.

The thing about parents is that, if they are good ones, they are always older and often wiser for it.  They've seen the cycles of the world and how it turns and have the hindsight to recognize it coming around again.  When I had all but lost my faith in this country, was convicned that the police state it had become under the administrationof George W Bush was going to be a permenant fact of life in America, mine told me not to give up.  That when the people really come together they *can* change things in this country.

Well, they were right and tonight proved it.  I suppose every cloud has a silver lining, and if a President Obama is the silver lining of having had a President Bush the past 8 years, maybe it was all worth it. 

But as I think about this amazing turn of events, I also find myself thinking about how we got here, and what my parents and others of their generation did to make it possible.  Because this didn't just happen because the American people are sick of what has been done with our government the past 8 years.  It also happened because we live in an America where it *could* happen.

There will likely be a lot of talk in the coming weeks of Dr. Martin Luther King, and there is no doubt that he was very important in getting us to where we are.  But there are a lot of other people we owe a debt of grattitude to.  People who risked abuse, pain, torture and even death to oppose an unjust way of life.  People without names we will ever know.  People of my parents generation.

Barak Obama is an amazing man, of any skin tone.  A politician the likes of which I don't think I've seen in my lifetime. The analogy I keep coming back to is the stories I've heard of how people responded to JFK.  He has that kind of leadership.  And i have no doubt that it took such a man to cross this line.  But when I think about him, and what my generation has to be thankful for, I am reminded of a famous quote of another man history remebers.  Sir Isaac Newton who said:

"If I have been able to see further than others, it is because I have stood on the shoulders of giants."

To those whose shoulders we all stand on today, you know who you are, and thank you.  If not for you, none of this could have happened.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Flip flopping like a fish out of water

It seems McCain and Pallin have never met an opinion they didn't like.

Having completely failed in their attempt to convince America that following in Bush's footsteps was "change."  They have changed their tune. 

Turns out change is *bad* according to the snippet of McCain speech I heard the other night.  All that change Obama wants? Its gonna hurt you. Really.  Stick to the status quo...

I have to admit there is ONE change from Bush to McCain.

Bush was a notably more convincing liar.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

When not to use events

I've been doing a moderate amount of ActionScript/Flash CS3 coding lately and I've been learning a few things.

Many languages have facilities that seem on the surface to be cool ways to save time but that can hurt you badly if you don't understand where they should and shouldnt be used.  In Java, a common beginner's stumbling block of this sort is the reflecion API.  In AS3, it's event dispatchers.

Event dispatchers seem like a great general way to tie code together.  All you need do is declare an object's class as an EventDispatcher and anyone else can register with it to be notified of events.  This can be very handy HOWEVER it is key to realize that a an event dispatch is NOT the moral equivalent of a function call on the listener.  Making this mistake can cause no end of subtle errors.

What then is a difference?  Well, when an object's method makes a direct call to a method on another object, that call is synchronous.  The called method is executed immediately on the same call stack as the calling object.  As Flash CS3 is a single-threaded execution engine, this means that order of direct method calls is deterministic and predictable.

However, when  you dispatch an event, all that happens is that the event you dispatched is added to the event dispatcher's event queue.  That method invocation will not actually happen until the queue gets processed.  This will happen at some later time that is not under your control.  Event dispatches are asynchronous, which is to say their order is not entirely deterministic.

Different events dispatched to the same event queue will reliably get processed in the order they were dipatched in.  However, every instance of an event dispatching class has its own queue.  What order these queues are processed in in relation to each other is again, up to the execution engine and something you have no control over.

The upshot of all this is this, event dispatch in AS3 is fundementally asynchronous.  You should never use it for making calls to other code where there are requirements on the order in which such calls get executed.  Use a direct reference to a listening object instead.

If you follow this rule, then the single-threaded nature of AS3 will keep you from ever having to worry about race conditions leading to heisenbugs.  (A heisenbug is a bug that changes when you try to examine it and they are among the hardest to find and fix.)  Ignore this rule and I guarantee you will have exactly that.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Conan and the Rath of Empty Words


Today I quit Age of Conan.

I've been playing WAR.  Its not as pretty as AoC.  But the thing is, its a lot more fun.  I even enjoy the PvP in WAR and I'm a stolid cooperative gaming PvE type player.

Even so, i might've held out on AoC.  As I've blogged about before there was a  lot I liked about it, but in the end, its incompatent management made  my decision clear.

Godager was an ass.  He ignored his players preferring instead to produce sermons from the mountain.  He told us how wonderful his agme was while we were screaming at him about things that needed fixing.  Simple, obvious and easy fixes, like giving North America an official PvE RP server.  Over 600 users entered their names on a forum topic asking for this simple consideration.  Something that could have been done in a minute with an administrative command.  Instead, he chose to ignore those customers, refusing even to answer "no" to the request.

That was bad enough, but then he was replaced by Morrision.  Mr. Morrision has spent a huge amount of time talking to the press about the new, responsive attitude he is bringing.  The thing is, he seems to be spending so MUCH time talking to the press that, apparently, HE doesn't have the time to address the concerns of his PvE RP players either.

Being ignored by a company we were paying $15.00 a month to was bad enough, but heraring this *total* ass tell everyone how much he cares about the players' opinions and STILL being ignored is beyond insulting.

Morrison's latest proclimation that he will  win back his lost customers by word of mouth is the most laughably empty statement yet.  If you want to win back your customers, show you care enough to LISTEN to them.

When I hear you are treating PvE RP customers like real customers, I might think about coming back.  But not before.

Monday, October 13, 2008

I have this idea for a game....

So I see this question pretty often these days from people outside of the industry:

"I have a video game idea and I am wondering if anyone can provide any
insight where to begin. I know thousands of people say thay(sic) have good(sic)
game idea, but I really feel passionate that it can be successful."

Here's an answer. Its probably not the answer you want to hear, but its an answer:

Do you have money to spend on this?

As an experienced business person I hope your not surprised by this question. Ideas, are indeed, a dime a dozen and worth very little if anything at all on their own.

If you don't have your own money or don't have enough to fund the entire project you will need to get a publisher involved, A game studio with a good track record for delivering product can pitch an idea to a publisher, you will need more. You will need a demo that shows enough of the game to give the publisher confidence that you have the "chops" both technically and artistically to pull this off. You are asking them to make a pretty big money bet in your team's ability. They need confidence that its a good bet to make and they get that from either a track record or clear evidence of your team's talent.

If you really believe in this idea and have money to spend, you have two options. You can start a game company or you can hire a contract shop to do it. There are some *very* good contracting shops in this business but they don't come cheap.

If you decide to build a company the first thing you MUST hire is an experienced game producer. Think of this person like a general contractor. They know what has to happen to make this project successful-- you don't.

If you know friends with coding and art ability you could try to self-exploit and get them to help with the demo in return for a stake in the project. Most good people in this industry however have both too little time and too little money to take such fliers.

So here's your reality check. Ideas are a dime a dozen. If you have money or friends willing to donate their time you might be able to get this to demo level and then shop a publisher. But no one is going to give you money based just on your idea and personal conviction that its a "hit concept".

Thursday, October 9, 2008

While we are at it

The same two britts explain the Iraq war clearer then our government ever has....

George Parr on the Iraq War

This speaks to a truth I learned the year I lived in Italy. I had a better idea of what was really going on in the US reading european newspapers then I ever had before or since from the American media. Our entire world view from inside the US is juandiced and fed us through a tightly controlled media. And if you don't get out of the country and see it from the outside, you can easily live your whole life without realizing it.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

The sad fact of the sub-prime market...

... is that the British were already making fun of it back in february. THEY could see the absurdity clearly.

A sub-prime primmer.

Note that they also predicted that, when the whole thing collapsed, their pet politicians would tell the common tax-payer that the bail-out was for their own good.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Debate Follies

Well, I watched the vice presidential debate last night. It was the first time I had really seen Sarah Palin speak. My reaction can be best summed up by quoting Bugs Bunny:
"I like her, she's funny!"

Some classic Palin quotes from the debates that I caught follow below....

On the Fiscal Crisis:
"There is a toxic mess on main street that is poisoning wall street."

See what happens when you don't curb your dog?

On how she and John Mccain might run the country:
"There have been big blunders in the past administration, as there are in any administration."

It's nice to know where she sets the bar for their performance.

On what the common man wants from their government:
"How the average man views the inaction of government ... 'Just get out of my way.'"

all the government needs to do is "get out of the way." No action needed! (I actually, I'd agree with that except that didn't seem to be what she was *trying* to say or she never would have brought it up as something to 'change.')

On the plight of the middle class:
"Your wife was a teacher, her reward is in heaven."

I guess she and Mccain feel middle class teachers don't need earthly rewards.

On diversity:
"I have a very diverse family, people from all political persuasions."

I didn't know that "diversity" means a bunch of WASPs who don't all agree.

On the distribution of wealth in America:
"Fight for the average middle class family like mine."

Apparently she thinks that, in 2001, the average middle class American made more then $80,000 and got to live in a mansion for free. Maybe she meant she'd fight for the average, middle class governor's family. After all, she didn't get a jet like many governors do.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Bailout and Bullshit


I've purposefully waited a few days before blogging about the so called "fiscal crisis". One should never commit a public action in fear or haste, be that blogging or passing laws. (I'll come back to that point.)

So, what *really* happened two days ago? There is going to be a lot of debate on that point over the coming weeks, but a melt-down doesn't suddenly reverse itself the way the stock market did yesterday.

Last night I was listening to some excellent commentary from some leading economists at the Institute for Policy studies. I highly recommend their web page if this issue at all concerns you ( In particular this policy summary is well worth reading:

One note worthy comment came from Mr. Jared Bernstein who said that using the stock market as a financial indicator is just bad economics. He likened it to "patterning your life after a chronic manic depressive." The stock market by its nature over-reacts to news and does so with massive swings. We saw that in the past few days were it went down almost 700 point and then back up almost 500.

But what triggered such a big drop? The answer is painfully obvious... our president declaring a sudden financial emergency. During Greenspan's tenure as head of the federal reserve the market used to tip based on nothing more then rumors of a change in the prime of a few tenths of a percentage point. I'd ask you to imagine how huge an impact the president of the united states declaring that we are screwed would have but you don't have to-- you just saw it.

So, discounting the swing of the stock market, what are the real dangers we face? A bunch of big banks that cried for a free market handled that market so badly that they are dying. What does that really mean to the average American? The answer is probably little to nothing. The fact of the matter is that the banking system is in little danger of going anywhere. The small community banks, that these big and reckless corporate banks almost crushed through buy-outs and crazy policies that the smaller and smarter little banks couldn't compete with, are coming back big time. So we aren't in danger of losing banking in this country any time soon.

What about all of those people with accounts at these big banks? After all, isn't this the way the Great Depression started? Yes, it more or less was, but there is one big difference today-- the FDIC. The FDIC was created in order to cover just such a situation as we have now and prevent a repeat of the disaster of the 30s. Unless you have more then 100,000 sitting in a bank account, you are safe and covered. Noone at the FDIC is saying they can't handle this. In fact, they have already asked the government to extend that coverage further, to $250,000. So take a deep breath and calm down, your are insured by the one insurer that CAN'T go out of business, the Federal Government.

Well, what if the federal Government can't handle the losses, right? The answer is that this is a nonsense question. The Government can get more money any time it needs to. If it couldn't, we'd already be bankrupt thanks to Bush's personal war in Iraq. Besides borrowing and raising revenue through taxes, the government owns the presses that print the money. We left the gold standard behind a long time ago. The government can make more money more or less at will. The government doesnt do this often because adding to the money supply is inflationary... but if we're headed into a recession then a little inflation isn't the worst thing in the world.

The 'wall street to main street' argument doesn't wash for all the
reasons above. In the end its just the same "trickle down economics"
that we've been fed by these same law-makers for so long. It didn't
work in good times, the rich only got richer. It won't work in bad
times, only the rich are going to get poorer from this. And not a lot
poorer. Don't let them kid you. These "poor bankers" are still going to
be a whole lot better off then most americans have been the past decade
or so.

Are average americans who got into bad loans suffering? Yes, they
are. And that is the only true danger I see here. But bailing out the
banks who wrote the bad loans is not fixing the problem, just the
symptom thats hurting a rich few. Instead, we should be focusing on
the real problem-- how to bail out those home owners.

There is a free market argument that says we shouldn't do that,
either. We should let them fail for their bad decisions. But there are
some compelling reasons not to. The first is that this flood of homes
onto the market actually will *hurt* Americans. Many Americans have most
to all of their savings in their homes. There is no question that we
are in for a correction and rough landing. The recession has been
inevitable for some time. (And some economists argue we've actually
been in it for a few years already, its just been cosmetically
masked.) But we can and maybe should do some things to soften the
ground we're going to land on. This isn't more 'trickle down' economics (what was called 'voodoo economics when Regan championed it.) This is hitting the heart of the matter where it really lies.

There is a second argument here, though to help out the average american. The big banks created a system that rewarded brokers for selling loans they didn't have to be responsible for. The obvious and inevitable result of this system was massive, systemic abuse. Americans were talked, cajoled and even lied to to get them to sign any sort of loan the broker could get their signature on. I don't think you can blame the American consumer for this one. Pushing people into loans they can't afford is called "predatory lending" today (the old term was usary.)

When faced with an entire predatory system, I don't think the average consumer had much of a chance. A lot of consumers I'm sure assumed that their broker "knew
more about loans then they did" and wouldn't sell them a loan they couldn't handle. That would be bad for the lender right? Normally, reasonably, the answer would be yes. But in the system the big banks created for unloading themselves of the loans, this reasonable assumption was untrue.

So, why all this noise about the necessity of a bail-out? I can see a few reasons and none of them terribly pretty.

First, a bunch of the rich friends and backers of our rich law-makers are about to lose a lot of money. To their credit, the honest free-market conservatives are saying the right thing: so what? These bankers wanted the freedom to run their business however they wanted and they got it. Well freedom means the freedom to fail as well as to succeed. Noone comes along and "bails out" average americans when they make bad financial decisions. Why should we do so for the rich few?

Another potential reason for all this noise right now. Keep in mind that its 5 weeks to the national elections and only 1 week before the first debates. The republican administration has a *terrible* history going into this race. They have just about admitted at this point that they lied to the American people to get them into a war that only served the needs of the oil companies. A recession has been looming for awhile now and all their promises that making the rich richer would make everyone else richer haven't materialized. They've had ethics scandal after scandal. They can't run on the past. But a brand new "crises" to distract the american people from what they've already done by what they claim they will do in the future? That has some tiny chance of working.

In the end, as scary as it may seem to believe our law makers would do such a thing, I find a "wag the dog" scenario here very plausible. Its classic Karl Rove, the architect of all the lies that got Bush elected to start with. (I'm not being inflammatory here, this is well known fact to anyone who actually followed the events of the past 8 years.)

Michelle Obama said that she felt proud of America 'for the first time in her life' when we nominated a black man as a presidential candidate. Today I feel more proud of my fellow Americans then I have in a long time. Why? Because so many of you refused to listen to one more lie. You said "enough with government by and for the rich" when you told Washington to vote down this bank bail-out. But the fight isn't over. In a thoroughly sickening move, the senate yesterday created a new version of the bill to try to get it passed. Did they take out the subsidies for the rich? No. Did they add more for common Americans? Nominally (they gave the fed their raise to $250,000 per account.) but the BIG thing they did was throw in ANOTHER subsidy for the rich-- a tax break for the oil companies. Those same companies that have been making record profits the past few years.

Their hope was that this blatant bribe to conservative interests would swing the honest republicans who said "no" before over to their side. But as an American I'm apalled and I think you should be too. Is this what we really want? A government that runs by bribing the people who run it and their friends? We call that a corrupt government when we see it in other countries.

So, my conclusion. They sky is NOT falling. The Bush administration has used terror to control the American populace a long time with its histrionics about terrorists. This is just another form of the same kind of manipulation and Americans should say, loudly and clearly, ENOUGH! And stick to their guns.

We should demand real help for the real victims of these bankers actions and the real economy... which is on main street and NOT wall street. And we should all tighten our belts and get ready for a bumpy ride because, like it or not, were in for a deep recession and there really isnt anything to be done for it beyond learning how to ride it out.

Finally, we should demand that greedy rich people be held accountable for their actions by the very system they championed when it was in their interests to do so. The IPS has a lot of good information on how to accomplish all of this. If your concerned about our economic future, I highly recommend their reports.

In my opinion, the most interesting thing about this whole debacle is that it HAS brought people on the far right and the far left together... in opposition to what the Bush administration wants to do as its final act of corporate charity. It also seems to be proving Lincoln right about fooling all of the people all of the time.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Ethics in Magic

Magic is a craft.

Part of the definition of a craft is that it is handed down from master to student. Every craft comes not just with a set of skills, but with a social context that includes a set of ethics about how to use those skills to the benefit and not detriment of society at large.

Sadly, we seem to be living in an era when crafts are dying and, with them, the ethics they embody. Journalism is effectively dead and, as the son of Journalists who were the last generation who understood the idea of "Journalism ethics" I may well write about that at another time. Today, however, my attention is focused on one of the crafts I practice-- that of stage magic.

As I was "brought up" in the art there are a number of rules of ethical magic. . In this generation of magicians I see a lot of them as being endangered.

I'd like to discuss them below and the good reasons they exist:

(1) NO magician should ever claim that their stunts are anything other then a performance. This doesn't mean that I can't say in my patter that I have some kind of paranormal ability, but it must be clear to the audience that this is patter. Part of the performance. Not a claim of actual reality.

We do this by clearly identifying ourselves as magicians before we perform, just as an actor makes it clear that their performance is part of a play. there for the enjoyment of the audience but not to be taken as an actual real-life experience.

This rule is very important and protects our audience from the harm our craft might otherwise do them. There is a long and ugly history of people using the skills and techniques of our craft to dupe other people for their own persoanl gain. Con-men (or women) posing as "spirtualists" or "mediums" can have profund effects on the lives of their victims that go well beyond just financial loss.

Even if we do not intend to take advantage of our audience members ourselves, hen we make them believe in things that do not exists we set them up to be harmed by other less scrupulous individuals.

The act of declaring our act to be a magic act warns that audiance that what they are about to see or hear is no more real then a play. That's the line between performer and con-man.

Today, we have a new crop of con-men showing up places like YouTube. They make the same claims as the "spirtualists" of the 1800s and are just as dangerous.

(2) TV Magic may NOT employ any "camera tricks."

This is a rule that was created by the first TV magician. A brilliant man by the name of Mark Williams. This rule protects the craft from irellevancy. If a magician is willing to employ TV tricks then the entire art of magic on TV is pointless. TV tricks have always been able to do more then we can. The very first TV technicians quickly figured out how to shrink people befoer your eyes and do all sorts of amazing things. Today, 3D animators can make dinosaurs appear out of thin air.

TV magic is only of interest if the TV is reporting what a live audiance could see. If it is only employed as a telepresnace device its a great boom to magicians, bringing their acts simultaneously into the living rooms of millions of audience mambers. Break that convenant though and you might as well not appear on TV at all.

Sadly, many modern "TV Magiciains" have broken this rule. Im my opinion they are killing their own market. Im just hopeful that after they've done so, and the audience has had time to forget them, that a new crop of ethical magicians will arise to reclaim that territory by re-forging that comittment to the viewer that Mr. Williams so rightly deemed necessary.

(3) Magicians don't reveal methods outside of the craft

Often immature magicians don't realize why this rule exists. Its not toprotect some "great secret brotherhood." In fact, it is to protect our audiance's enjoyment. The afct of the matter is that most of the methods employed by magicians to create our illusions are as old as the hills and fundementally dull and uninteresting. The audiance doen't come to see our cleverness. They come to be transported to another place. A place in their minds where the impossible is possible, if only for a little while. This sense of wonder is the gift we give our audiances.

Just as the Great and Powerful OZ was much more inetresting then the man behind the curtain, so too our effects are much more interesting then the mechanics that produce them. When you tell the audiance how it works, your no longer helping them to feel wonder-- rather you are just bvasically telling them they were fools to feel wonder in the first place.

Thats a nasty and mean spirited thing to do to our audiance and it diminishes our art to a point of trivial irrelvancy.

There have always been those who,being unable to master the illusions themselves, produced 10 minutes of attention for themselves by instead revelaing the methods. Those people ultimately disrespect both the audiance and the craft and serve nothign but their own terribly insecure egos. With YouTube and televisionm, the exposores have far more reach and the damage they cna do is that much greater.

The first two ethical issues above, we can do something abotu as magicians and I want to call on those who love our craft to do so. Social pressure is the best way to maintain ethics within a community and we can and should disdain the actiosn of those who break them. In thec ase of con-men, that is the one and only palce a magciain SHOULD expose methods, in order to show them for the frauds they truly are.

The last one, however, we cannot do as much about. That takes YOU the audiance to fix. Don't feed the revealers by giving them the attention they so desperately crave. Turn off the TV when the guy who is going to "show you how its done" comes on. Don't play the videos of those who reveal the workings of illusions on you tube.

If they cannot get the attention, they will give up and go find some other form of misbehavior to try.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

A little magic

I've put up a video of an original routine I'm rather proud of on you tube. I have to acknowledge and thank Gary Cutbill for helping me with the early development of it.

You can play it small here or go to YouTube and play it full-screen.

The Elvi (Magic Bar 1)

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

So now I'm an animal trainer.....

Yes, i have too many hobbies.

But getting back into magic made me start to consider using Pickles, my millitary Macaw in the act.

I bought a set of 3 training DVDs from the Womach brothers who are pretty much the acknowledged experts in magical use of birds these days. The are *great* videos that I highly recommend. They shot them starting from scratch with new birds so you can see all the steps and progress for real.

I'm going to start Blogging pickles progress. For fun, I think I'll do it from his point of view, as best I can figure it out.

You can read the first entry at Pickles' Blog.

Monday, August 25, 2008

My first flash app

I just got my first little Flash app working.

There is a lot more going on beneath the surface here as this is more then a cute little toy. It in fact is backed by a flash game engine I've been evolving similar in concept to the Slick engine for Java. This app tests all the basics of a game in that it has a menu, an update loop that does time-controlled animation and raw keyboard input.

I'll be writing more about my unnamed little engine soon and showing some code form it, but for now, here's the little demo:


Friday, August 22, 2008

Miracles of modern technology?

Miracles of Modern Technology?
A short essay in modern magical ethics.

Many, many years ago, the art of magic faced a fundamental threat. That threat was the birth of Television. Magic as an art exists to do one thing-- to help people believe the impossible is possible. That awe and wonder is the joy which we as magicians delight in bringing to our audience's lives. While we are on stage performing, the audience gets to take their minds back a more innocent place and time in their lives when magic was all around them and anything was possible-- at least in their heads.

Television was a real and credible threat to that because Television innately made people believe the impossible. As soon as they turned on their set, in fact, their minds started telling they were watching people that didn't exist do things in places that didn't exist. About two minutes after the first TV show was broadcast, the first “camera trick” was discovered, though in point of fact the principles were already known from the film industry. How then could a magician preserve a sense of wonder when the wonderful had become easy and common place with the flick of a switch??

This conundrum was solved by a brilliant magician by the name of Mark Wilson. Wilson made many contributions to our art but I would argue that the most important one was devising the cardinal ethics of TV magic:
1.TV magic must be performed live, without editing and in front of uncoached cameramen. This is summed up in the phrase “No camera tricks.”
2.TV magic must be performed before a live studio audience. This is a “proover” that it is really happening.

These two rules saved Magic from the threat of television and turned TV into a valuable allay instead of an adversary to the art. (Recently, some very big name magicians have broken these rules and IMHO have caused the sub-art of televised magic serious damage in the process.)

Putting aside the idea of TV magic now, I'd like you to entertain a hypothetical situation with me. Something I had to consider not long ago in some fiction I was writing. Imagine, for a moment, that your are a stage magician in the world of the comic books. This is a world where it is clearly and obviously possible for certain special people to do seemingly impossible things like fly or read minds. The average person sees demonstrations of such abilities on the news every-day. How do you preserve the wonder of an art that is based in making the impossible seem possible when anything already IS possible?

The conclusion I came to was that the fraternity of magicians would have to agree to rules similar to those that Mark Wilson created. To whit, that any magical performance may not call itself a magical performance unless it uses no super-powers. That a magician, by definition, is going to show you apparent miracles done by someone just like you. Much like the answer to TV, this returns the wonder and maybe even magnifies it as it allows the audience to imagine that they could do the things the super heroes do.

Now not all super-heroes fly because they are from Krypton or read minds because they are a mutant. As seen in the recent movie Iron Man, thre are super-heroes who employ nothing more then “super-technology.” Geniuses capable of building devices based on scientific principles unknown to, and much more powerful then, those available to the every day man. Such technology is called “super-tech” or “weird science” in the parlance of comic book lovers and has the same problem in the end as a bases for magic that direct super-powers do. Super-tech, I would argue, would need to be excluded as effectively a “super-power” from any magical performance.

As much fun as it may be to play with the ideas of what would happen if the world of comic books was real, you're probably wondering what this has to do with magic ethics. And here I come to my final point.

Today we DO live in a world of super-technology. Not as flashy or impressive as iron man's repulsors perhaps, but we live with things that were miraculous a generation before. Imagine I was a magician in the 1800s. I sent my assistant 200 miles away to talk to your best friend. You tell me a question that only he and you would know. I turn my back, concentrate for 2 minutes “mentally communing” with my assistant and tell you the answer. That would be extraordinary magic. Today though, thats called a cell phone and its hardly mystifying at all.

We live in a world of technological miracles that most common people don't understand. I've recently seen a number of illusions pop up that are based completely and solely in that fact. I'm not going to name names or give away methods, but I'm sure some of you can think of some. I will use an example I just came up with to illustrate.

I recently read about an illusion someone is producing that allows a magician to get whatever someone writes on a piece of unprepared paper instantly as soon as they write it and without touching the paper or clip board it is on. Being a computer software engineer and curious, I did a bit of googgle searching and, on paper, designed my own version where, for about $300 worth of off th shelf components, a small bit of code and a computer, I could get anything a spectator wrote SMS messaged to me without my ever having to touch anything the spectator used to write it.

I thought about building this system but it occurs to me that this might cheapen mentalism to the point of being truly uninteresting. Where is the art in the magic if it is just based on the fact that you don't know that there is a pen sold by Iomega that tracks handwriting and sends it to the computer? One might say “in the presentation” but if all magic is about is presentation then all we are is actors. Its about more, I think. Its about the cleverness of the technique. Its about making use of the psychology of the audience to help them convince themselves that they are seeing the impossible. Its about misdirection, suggestion, and what the mind does with fragmentary information. Its about how the sense works and that common people don't ever think to question them.

But my pen? Its just a gadget. It may be a “super-gadget' at the moment because its technology most people don't realize exists, but is it magic? I don't really think so.

And this then comes to my point. In a world of technological everyday miracles we face the same threat that our forefathers did in Televsion. That we can cheapen the performance to the point where it is no longer interesting.

I think we need to think long and hard about a set of rules for computer and electronic technology like Mark Wilson came up for Television to prevent these modern miracles of technology from destroying the wonder of the art we magicians love.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Magical Websites

Well good Monday everyone.

One of my many passions reader's of this blog may not know about is magic. I've been performing on and off since my pre-teens and was a semi-pro street magician in high school.

I've recently gotten more seriously back into 'the art' as we magicians call it and have found some wonderful web resources.

First up is The Magic Cafe. This is an online forum that is chock full of serious professional magicians, amatures, and even the folks who invent the illusions we perform. A *great* resource

The second is an amazing performance of The Zombie that was captured and placed on YouTube. If you perform The Zombie, this will amaze you even more at what Niel Foster does with it. I promise. Its an old black and white telecine, but I've never seen this illusion done with such art and grace in my life.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Initial release of the DarkMMO source code

Its still not commented and its far from complete, but as many people wanted to peak at it Ive released most of the DarkMMO source code.

Its at

The one thing I have not released yet are the Netbeans plugins. These are coming but as they are a fairly complex multi-level Netbeans project I need to do some hacking to get them properly into the new repository structure.

MUTT now online

Just a quick note.

I decided to take my on and off RPG rules project of the past 6 years and make it a wiki licensed under Creative Commons "share-alike" rules.

You can find it all here. Its still, and probably always will be to some degree, a work in progress.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Much ado about ALMOST nothing

So, the big MMO news this week is that an Age of Conan GM got fired as the result of engaging in cybersex on duty and having that publicly exposed.

For anyone who hasn't heard of it before "cybersex" also called "Erotic Role Play" or ERP for short, is basically engaging in "talk dirty to me" over the internet. ( ERP for pay is the number one way people have made Linden dollars in Second Life and approaches basically the same market as "phone sex" but that's another story.)

If you strip away our society's juvenile combination of fascination and horror over anything sexual (something I put down to our origins as a Puritan colony-- a group so obnoxious and screwed up that the *Brittish* kicked them out) there really isn't a lot here.

Two chatters talked dirty to each other and one published it. Big hairy whoop. Its also hardly new. Luring someone into an exchange that could be publicly embaressing and then making it public is one of the most basic tricks in the griefer's handbook.

I do think the GM needed to be canned, but not because of anything inherently wrong with erotic role play. The GM needed to be canned because ( a ) he should have known better then to engage in personal hobbies while wearing the mantle of authority (as meager as the authority of a GM is) and ( b ) he was just incredibly gullible and stupid to be so easily lured by one of the oldest tricks in the industry.

Now the story is being reported as "AoC GM fired over Cybersex." I'm not sure that's really right. To my mind you cannot really fire someone who isn't technically an employee and most if not all of the AoC GMs are volunteers. This *does* point otu the fatal flaw with the whole comncept of volunteer sysops though. When you have unpaid volunteers doing an admin job, they are inevitably doing it for only one real reason-- some sense of power or authority. But a feeling of power or authority is only fun if others reaspond to it. Its a social game. And its inevitable that players will suck up to those volunteers to try to get favors from them, and that the same personalities that are drawn to volunteer for such a position will be apt to abuse their power in response to this sucking up.

I've seen it many, many times. Its dangerous to take your game and put it in the hands of people with-out the same financial incentives as you. They will not pursue your goals, but their own. Such is the nature of humanity.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

A few of my favorite things...

I'm a pretty big fan of indy musician Jonathan Coulton.  These days, most people know him for having written and produced the end song for Portal.  But I liked Coultan before he was cool...

No scratch that, he was ALWAYS cool!

Here are three of my favorite Coulton tunes.  For more, much more, go to his website

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Scrum: process that makes empirical sense

Well, enough of the irascible old programmer rants. Today I'm going to turn the eye back to
the technical.

Some managers just *love* processes. They jump on the next new one like a dog on the last steak in a butcher shop. I've always been rather critical of this. Its always seemed to me that most software processes are either ( a ) more interested in the process then the result or ( b) are thinly veiled efforts to couch the inventors personal preferences and prejudices in something that sounds scientific.

To date, most of the attempts at software "process" have come out of the legacy of the assembly line given us by Henry Ford. This works pretty well for producing craft, but does not work well for producing art.

When I say craft v. art what do I mean? A craft is a well known application of a well known skill. The hallmark of a good craftsman is consistency. He or she can do the same job over and over again and produce exactly the same results. Its a case where, given known inputs, in this case the quality of material and tools and the skill of the craftsman, one can exactly know the resulting output. There is actually an entire highly rigorous and mathematical discipline called Process Control. Process control engineers call this kind of process a defined process. Most highly advocated software processes to date have attempted to use defined process control

In an art, however, every output is unique. The artist approaches new ideas and new problems with every job they take on. their tools can vary widely as can their techniques and their results. very often all the inputs are not known at the start of the process. Process control engineers call such a process an empirical process and there is a wide body of research on empirical process control.

Myself, I believe that good software engineering is more like an art then a craft. It is, by its nature, an empirical process and that requires empirical process control. Empirical process control is experimental and iterative. It does not start out by saying "this is the right way to get this done" but provides a structured and measurable framework in which to discover the right way over time.

I learned about process control myself by reading up on a new software development process, Scrum. The thing about Scrum is that, although it has a scientific base, as working engineer when you look at it, it just makes sense in a way no other process I've ever tried to use has.

Basically, Scrum says "we don't know all the details." Product requirements can and do change. new software always involves discovering new ways of doing things. No where is this more obvious then the game industry, where every product must be different from what came before and the ultimate goal of "fun" is not really even definable in an engineering apriori manner. On the one hand, a software process must be flexible enough to handle changing inputs. This means that the software development team must be able to handle these changes and factor them in. On the other hand, it must be structured enough so the engineering team does not thrash and can get real work done. This is what Scrum attempts to do.

Scrum has value for both the engineers and the management, but in order to have this value, it needs to be implemented completely. If one side or the other tries to "improve" it, they are likely to unintentionally remove the value for the other side.

For management Scrum has two very attractive results. First, it allows the management to review and modify the project requirements as the project progresses. Secondly, it provides monthly check points of demonstrable functionality. This gives non technical managers the comfort of seeing how the work is progressing. An equally or more important advantage is that it allows the engineers to work in a highly productive manner. This is an advantage though that most management won't understand until they see it in retrospect.

For software engineers, its recognizes the realities of their work. Work is divided up into 30 day "sprints" to the next demonstrable point. During that period no outsider is allowed to change their goals. (There is an exception, but I'll get to that.) It also provides them immediate feedback to management on a daily basis of anything that is getting in their way.

It allows the team to "self-organize" into a structure and style that works best for them to get the job done. This is very important. Artists by nature all have different styles. No externally imposed structure is going to fit well. Give a motivated and dedicated team the space to do it, however, and they will figure out themselves how to organize their work most effectively.

Scrum is a low-load process. It recognizes that process and management is the job of management, not your engineers. A good process should leave your engineers mostly free to do uninterrupted engineering. After all, that is what you hired them to do. It expects that everyone on the team is a mature adult who wants to do the right thing (I have seldom run into anything else in the field) and leaves them free to do it.

Scrum puts a lot of responsibility on the shoulders of the engineering team. This can be frightening at first. But it also provides protections so the team is free to wield that responsibility in the way they need to to get the job done. It has always been my experience that engineers are diligent, hardworking and responsible people by nature. Management should trust their engineers. After all, they hired them. If the engineering team is non-functional, then that is indicative of a management lack and they should get help in straightening their hiring out.

Importantly, Scrum recognizes that not all progress is linear. Finding out a job is harder then you thought is still progress towards the goal. Finding out an approach won't work is also progress. Although the team has a functional and demonstrable goal to hit, they are free to make modifications to the plan to get there, modify the definition of the details of the goal, or even to fail to get thereat all. Even a failure is progress as you have learned what *not* to do.

I mentioned there is a way for management to change priorities mid sprint. It is possible, it is not advisable. The action management has to take to do this is to cancel a sprint. If a sprint is canceled
then the team is no longer responsible to show any progress resulting from the work to date on that sprint. A team can also cancel a sprint early if they find that even modified, the sprint goal is unattainable. This puts them immediately back into the planning phase of a new sprint. Canceling a sprint is embarrassing. No one likes to do it, which is good because it is costly. But on a rare occasion you do need to cancel to avoid wasting the entire sprint period on a goal that is either unnecessary or unattainable.

As I said at the beginning, I am not a process hound. In general I've always found that they diverge seriously from the realities of engineering in their assumptions and expectations. I also don't believe that Scrum is a substitute for good high level planning. We are building a system that needs to be highly scalable. Scalability doesn't just happen. In the large it must be designed in to your architecture. But where most failed projects fail is not in their design, but in the incredibly complex details of their implementations. (What management sometimes calls 'execution.") And here, i think Scrum will be very valuable to us.

I mentioned that its an iterative process. It assumes nothing starts out perfect, even the process itseklf. This is my first Scrum project as a Scrum leader, and only the second time I've run into Scrum at all. We will all be learning how to do this, even me.

But I have high hopes. It makes sense to me.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

What AT&T can learn from K-Mart

I've taken enough blogspace already with this AT&T fiasco so I promise this is my last post unless something really interesting changes (like AT&T come back to me with their tail between their legs.) But this contrast was so strong, I just had to comment on it.

AT&T lost me as a customer because they refused to follow through with a promised $200 credit on a $2,040 contract ($85/mo times a two year commitment.) That's a 9.8% difference in total money received.

Today, I went shopping for some shop towels at K-Mart. They had bundles of two towels with a sign over them that said $2.99. I grabbed 3. When I got to the check out, the bundles rang up as $5.99 a piece. I went to customer service. The customer service person looked at the display, came back, rang out the difference and handed it to me. My wife asked "did they not enter the right price in the computer?" The customer service person replied, "No, I think the sign should have said '$2.99 and up' but it didn't." And that was the end of it. No one even suggested I might think about paying the proper price. It was their error and they ate it. The only reason they even mentioned that it should have been a different price was because my wife asked.

Now, your probably thinking that $9 or so is a lot less then $200. And it is, BUT retail runs on percentages and the percentages are what matter. And K-Mart took a nearly 50% loss on those towels because they made a mistake and they were willing to take the consequences of their mistake.

THAT creates customer loyalty. If AT&T had that attitude, I'd still be an AT&T customer.

On another note, I posted a note on the IPhone boards pointing to my blog about the AT&T experience hoping someone from Apple would read it and reconsider their partnership.

Well, after about 60 people clicked through and read my story someone from Apple DID read it... and deleted it. So much for thinking Apple might care how AT&T treats it customers.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

New Samsung Instinct

Well, I went ahead and got the instinct from Sprint.

Is it really as good as the iphone? No, not really. Its not a bad little phone but it certainly hasn't "solved" the small screen web interface problems the way the Iphone has. The on screen keyboard is a bit easier to use, that's about its only plus. I also miss being able to do wifi, that really made the iphone not just a phone but a good pocket terminal tool.

BUT I will use it, and smile evrey time I get abill from Sprint knowing thats one more payment AT&T lost from me because of the arrogant apathy of their customer disservice agents.

Rumors are Apple may release an unlocked iphone 3G in a year. If so, I might just say screw it and buy one. It will be worth paying $200 - $400 more for it JUST so I am not a prisoner of any phone company-- especially AT&T.

You know...

I am now canceled with AT&T... and the Samsung instinct looks pretty cool and cheaper.

It doesn''t support WiFii which is unfortunate... but if Sprints 3G plan is reasonable for unlimited data then it doesnt mater that kuch.

And it is much more open, which is a good thing. Plus it supports Java which is handy.

Friday, August 1, 2008

AT&T: American Theives and Total-incompetants

What is it about the name AT&T?

A few years ago, Southern Bell (SBC) bought the remenents of AT&T and changed their name to AT&T. More recently, the new AT&T merged with Cingular and became AT&T Wireless.

Its like the name is a curse. Call yourself AT&T and instantly, like magic, all care about the customer vanishes. People as old as me might remember the old joke about the old AT&T monopoly: "We're the phone company. We don't care. We don't have to." Well , that attitude is alive and well in the new AT&T. Here's my story, I'd be curious about similar stories others might have:

Last month, the Iphone 3G was released. Its really the Iphone I've been waiting for. The price is right ($200) and the 3G service with an all you can eat data plan for $30 is just what I need. So I went to the store, only to discover that I could not "upgrade" my current contract "til August." This seemed odd as Sprint, my previous phone company, was always willing to write me a new contract whenever I wanted a new phone understanding that getting me recommitted for another two years was *always* of value to them no matter where I was in the old commitment. Alright, the Iphone maybe is more expensive to them. It was annoying but I could accept that.

Just to double check I went to another AT&T store a few weeks ago and confirmed that I would have to wait "until August." Well, waiting 2 weeks was tough but I wasn't going to spend $100 a week ($200 being the upgrade discount, $399 list, $199 if you were a new customer or upgrade. Remember that new customer clause, we'll come back to that) to have it early. It wrankled that
as an existing customer I was less important then a new customer, but I could wait.

So today, August the first, i go bright and early into the Apple store praying they have some. Hurrah! They are in stock and the line isn't *too* deep. I wait and then go through the whole buying procedure.... and the palm computer my friendly and helpful Apple sales rep has in her had comes up "Not eligible for upgrade".

WTF??? She suggests I call AT&T and lends me an Iphone to do so. I get AT&T customer service on the phone and they tell me. "Oh, your not eligible til the thirty first of August." Nice of them to not tell me that the two times I was in the AT&T store in July. The 31st??? Why the hell didn't they just tell me "September?"

I start full time as the Rebel Monkey CTO Monday and I *really* wanted to start in style and with all my tools in place. I go back to the office and I'm pretty pissed. I IM my buddy Chris who does a lot of business with the cell phone companies in his role as Sun's "Chief Gaming Officer." "They only care about your account," he tells me, "threaten to quit and buy a Samsung Instinct on Sprint instead." Well, I'm not sure how serious I am about quitting but decide I can at least find out what it'll cost me to quit. I call AT&T custoemr service and ask them. They tell me there is a $175 early cancelation fee.

Now, I'm a cheapskate. I probably would have waited the 4 weeks and gotten my phone then rather then spend $175 to cancel my account (though that still cheaper then the $200 extra I would pay if I kept my account and tried to upgrade.) However, since I said the magic word "cancel" they connect me to the "Customer Loyalty" department. A very nice lady there looks at my account and says, "Oh, I have access to information they don't in the stores and I can see your eligible now. Here is what you have to do. Go to the Apple store and buy the phone at retail. Then call us back and we will give you the $200 as a credit towards your phone charges."

This seems perfectly reasonable to me and I get off the phone a happy man, close up what I am doing, and run to the Apple store. It takes me about 90 minutes and a reset of the Iphone but I get my phone bought and connected and I leave a happy man. On the way out of the Apple store I start playing with my gmail on it and Im pretty much in instant love. On the way back to the office I sync my bluetooth hand free car system and call my office phone just to try it out. Its all real cool and it *works* in a way that none of the previous "smart phones I've owned have.

I get back to the office, catch up on some mail,and then call AT&T back to get my credit. And here is where the trouble starts.

I get a rep on the phone and I tell her exactly what the previous rep told me to tell them about the refund. She says "I need to *request* this of the supervisor" and puts my on hold.

WTF??? Request?? I was told this was a done deal and the deal was I buy the phone and sign up for the plan and they do the credit. That was an oral contract and I'm starting to get an uneasy feeling that someone is going to try to weasel out. Sure enough, the supervisor gets on the phone and says "Oh no. We cannot do that. You will have to return the phone."

I explode. I just spent 90 minutes in the middle of my last day at Sun to do what THEY told me to do and now they decide they don't want to after all? He insists that the rep never should have told me that. That it was a mistake and that the rep will be reported.

The rep wasn't the problem. Mistakes happen. The problem was THIS supervisory jackass who refuses to stand behind his people's promises.

I point out to him that they made a deal with me, he says it'll be his job to go through with it. I say then let me speak with YOUR manager and he says thre sin't one. (Obvious nonsense, there is always a boss unless your the bloody CEO and this bozo wasn't it.)

He gets smarmy and says "I see here in the record you were told twice by reps in our stores that you had to wait til August 31." I tell him "NO. Your reps told me I had to wait 'til August' NOT 'til August 31." He compounds the smariness by saying "August 31 is in August." "So is August first," I reply, and he finally drops the point.

He tells me that he can't do the credit because "Apple is involved." I call him on it and tell him to his face thats nonsense. That I work in this business and I know that Apple doesn't give a rats rear what they charge me or don't charge me for service. That they made their money on the retail-priced phone. He doesn't respond to that but just repeats that he can't do anything "because its an Iphone."

He offers to credit me minutes. I point out to him that he has been LOOKING at my account and right in front of him is the fact that I have 2500 rolled over minutes already and that extra minutes aren't worth anything to me.

I point out to him that I am NOW ready to close my account and take the $175 hit because I am livid that he's been feeding me garbage and won't stand behind what his people say. How, I ask him, can I do business with a company that doesn't stand behind what its people tell its customers?? He offers to waive my $175 cancellation fee.

I ask him if hes really willing to lose a $2400 contract over $200. He gives me a non answer and I finally say "Okay I will go waste more of my time returning this thing and canceling my AT&T account" and mean it.

So, although he has done *nothing* to keep my business, he has now both ticked me off to the point that I want to quit and removed the only impediment to my quitting. Good job "customer loyalty" manager. Since the only consideration they seem to be willing to give me is if I leave, I accept and go back to the Apple store to return the Iphone and cancel my account with AT&T.

I return the Iphone and call AT&T customer disservice from the handy loaner Iphone again. I tell them I am canceling my account. They say I can't because I have an Iphone. I tell them I just RETURNED the Iphone. They say they don't show it. I tell them I am standing in the Apple store and ask if they would like to talk to the man who just processed the return, or maybe the Apple store manager?

We go around in customer service script circles for a few minuets with him telling me that they need to receive a particular piece of paper from Apple before they can believe I have returned the phone. Funny, when they knew INSTANTLY when I bought it just a few hours before. I finally tell him that I want him to talk to the Apple person directly about this form.

The Apple rep nicely gets on the phone and confirms that I have returned the phone. that doesn't seem to mean anything to the AT&T person. He and the AT&T customer disservice agent go around in circles on the process. That the Apple rep sees confirmation on his screen, that the AT&T rep does not. Finally, it comes out that, if it fails to process on a return, I'm supposed to go to the AT&T store. It *might* still process in 72 hours but the Apple rep suggest I just go right away. I thank him and go down to the AT&T store to cancel my account.

The AT&T retail rep asks me why I'm canceling. i give him the whole story and he says, "let me try." He calls customer service... and we both wait 20 minutes on hold. Well, I suppose its nice to see they don't treat their customers any worse then their own staff.

Finally we get through and he explains the situation. That it was their screw up. That he understands why I'm pissed, and that he's trying to save the account. He goes around in circles with them. He even suggest that they just move up my "eligibility" date by 4 weeks. I nod and say, "Thats fine. If you can do that I'll even buy it here." No go. he gets the same stubborn "go to hell and take your business with you" attitude I got.

He finally hangs up thoroughly disgusted and says "Alright. lets cancel you. Customer service are idiots." I nod, tell him that its like talking to the state home for the mentally challenged, and that I've been doing that all day. I tell him AT&T doesn't deserve him. And I mean that too.

Final insult to injury, because it involved an Iphone he discovers he can't process the cancel in the store. I have to call customer disservice again. He can put a note in the file though that he has seen the return receipt and that the phone has been returned, and he does so, very apologetically and looking clearly disgusted by the whole thing. I thank him, tell him he really did all he could and that I appreciate it.

SO. Bright and early tomorrow, I will call and cancel with AT&T.

Here's the irony... remember that clause I told you to remember? Once I am canceled, I will no longer be a customer and Apple will be able to sell me the Iphone I wanted at the price I wanted.

I have to ask myself though, at that point, do I really want to get back into bed with a company that shows SO little respect for its customers? The Iphone is way cool... but now that I will no longer be beholden to AT&T, maybe I'll go look at a Sprint Instinct after all, before I decide what I want.

Good job, AT&T "customer loyalty" group.

Some interesting news from the field

The FCC has ruled that Comcast cannot discriminate against P2P (Bit torrent) users:

Also, the University of Washington has developed a free and handy way to track your laptop if it is stolen:

Monday, July 28, 2008

A short positive on Age of Conan

Its nice to be able to start my new blog on a positive note. As you might already know, I've given Funcom a hard time over all the issues surrounding the Age of Conan MMO. The most grief I've given them however has been with how abysmally they have handled their customers.

I still think there is room for huge improvement, particularly in how they handle their forums (which I have formally resigned from participating in because there is no apparent real value other then an opportunity to argue with twelve year olds of all ages.)

I do have to admit though I have seen some recent signs of improvement. Two things stick out in my mind. The first is a few GUI improvements. The last patch brought an emote interface that is so well designed, and so different from the rest of the GUI, it almost looks like it doesn't belong. This little nod to the roleplay community is a big deal to many of us not just because it makes Roleplay *much* easier but because it is the first sign from Funcom NA that they actually care at all about role players. AOC really has he makings of a good Role play game, but it needs attention to the needs of that community to bring the potential to reality. This is a good first step. (Though I am still utterly dumbfounded as to why they continue to ignore the massive outcry for a dedicated role play-PVE server.)

Secondly, in game customer service has vastly improved. I have gotten stuck in places on the map I where I couldn't move twice in the last week. In both cases, a /petition for GM assistance was responded to promptly (within 15 minutes), politely and helpfully. This is a very encouraging sign.

I think AoC may turn the corner yet. But it still has aways to go. And the aloofness of the development team continues to hamper them in their community relations. Time will tell if that is fatal or not.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Welcome to my new Blog Home

Welcome folks,

Whether you are coming over from my old blog at or are discovering this new for the first time, thanks for stopping in.

Starting today this will be my new home for what used to be the "The Way The Game Is Played" blog. Those of you familiar with it know it rambles. In the past I've posted little game coding tutorials, humor pieces, politics, and just about anything else that I felt like saying from my street-corner soapbox. This will be more of the same.

As you are maybe aware, this blog transition marks a life transition for me. I am leaving sun after almost 10 years. That is by far the longest time I have ever spent at a single company and Sun was one of the few large companies eclectic enough to hold my interest for that sort of timespan. But my career was born in startups and thats really where my heart is. My move to being the Chief Technical Monkey (CTO) at Rebel Monkey Software is a move back into that space, and a very exciting one for me, presonally.

The Rebel Monkeys are currently in "run-silent/run-deep" mode so I can't say a lot about what we are doing yet except that its in the casual MMO space and that Project Darkstar plays an important part in it. As I can tell you more, I will.

So, welcome to the trees and if you swing along on the vines with me I promise at least the same kind of plain spoke, irreverent and hopefully thought provoking blog material I have posted in the past.