Monday, January 30, 2006

Knitted Red Scarf Project Completed


Grave Disappointment with President Bush

My current thoughts on the president are somewhat of a political rant.

George W. Bush is an exceptionally advantaged man who rose through the ranks because a large fraction of Americans associate superiority with financial and social success. The sad fact is that we haven't seen this level of presidential incompetence since Warren Harding, who managed to blunder into the presidency by essentially the same methods as George W. Bush.

However, Warren only served 3 years. James Buchanan, a president that often dukes it out with Warren for bottom-of-the presidential barrel, only served one term. Enduring two terms of gross incompetence is alarming.

The obsession with terrorism-under-every-rock-in-America that this administration repeatedly indulges in shows a continued and unhealthy addiction to post-9/11 adreneline. Instead of implementing solutions that have actually worked before in other countries, or are the best fit for our particular American situation, we got an additional bloated treasury-draining department (DHS) with convoluted mission, an amazing assortment of boondoggle appropriations and earmarks, several years of airport (in)security, and a nasty little war that had absolutely nothing to do with 9/11.

It's exciting to be "in danger" when you're "in charge" and "out of the line of fire". You can get addicted to the "chase" and the "excitement" of "fighting the war on terror". It's disgusting to see grown men and women "play war" with real lives and real money. The my way or the highway attitude doesn't serve us well.

In then end, though, we deserve the government we get. Let's all make more of an effort to be educated and involved. It's the only way out.

Sunday, January 29, 2006

World of Warcraft - Structural Issue

In World of Warcraft, advancement above level 60 requires raids and/or groups. The numbers needed for these raids are in the range of 30-40 characters. Everyone needs to work together, but since you can literally solo to 60, most people don't have extensive group or raid experience.

Following excerpt from this article

"But because [World of Warcraft] from Level 1 to Level 59 is so easy, there are a ton of Level 60 users who don't know how to be team players and don't have the time or inclination to learn. And that is the root of the current conflict. Casual players complain that they can't get rewards comparable to those earned by hard-core raiders, like the Claw of Chromaggus or Mish'undare, Circlet of the Mind Flayer. Raiders like me often respond that casual players just want a handout.

And caught in the middle are Mr. Kaplan, known online as Tigole, and the rest of the Blizzard team. For the game's newest high-end area, called Ahn'Qiraj, they set up a system earlier this month that essentially requires most of each server's population, casual and hard-core, to work together to amass huge amounts of war materiel like bandages and metals before the gates to the dungeon will open. Naturally, the population on some servers has responded by pulling together (much respect to the Medivh server for being first to open the gates), while on dozens of other servers, like mine, the war effort is progressing more slowly because casual players don't care about opening a high-end zone."

I'm not sure what they expected, but this outcome for opening the gates to the first expansion seems totally predictable to me. I talked in a previous blog about how the group and instance experience in WoW was far less organized and effective than in other games such as DAOC and Everquest. Since players don't have to play in groups to advance, they generally group only when they have to. This means that for the most part, the groups you are in are pretty bad by EQ standards. Pulling, healing, buffing, and knowing when and what types of attacks to use are important skills, but many players seem unaware of how to do anything except solo. Hence, the group dies to things it shouldn't.

Raid and group requirements are scattered throughout your entire character career in Everquest. Since you can't solo much at all, you have to work together in groups.

Yes, it is a downer to have to find a group or guild that fits, but the alternative is, like Anders mentioned in one of his EQ updates, a quick ride to upper levels then abandonment of the game, if you don't have either previous raid experience or can change tactics at level 60 and actually learn how to raid or group.

The idea that the entire server will be altruistic enough to open up content for a very few in WoW is reminiscent of the way that some guilds tried to get key pieces in Everquest for Vex Thal. Some seemed to think that casual players would just send a tell and let the raiding guilds loot the pieces. Quickly, though, the raiding guilds had to up the ante. Spells, cash, etc. quickly created somewhat of an incentive. I got several nice spells this way.

It was amusing to read through discussions on the forums from some high-end players would seemed to think the rest of the server would waste time helping them open up a dungeon that the majority would never see. The justifications included "people should help us for server pride" or "it's self-evident that we're uber, and sheer force of reputation should make other people do what we want" and "if you help us then we'll help you". (that last one doesn't even pass the laugh test, since guild membership in the high-end guilds is very restricted and the rules very clear about 'helping' others outside these raiding guilds. Cash talks, vague promises of later "help" doesn't.)

The problem was quickly solved by economics, and due to the fact that the high-end guilds simply applied the necessary time to the time-sink of collecting key parts. The initial complaint period died out, and the raiding guilds blew through Vex Thal on their way to whatever was next.

It wasn't until a few weeks ago that I finished my Vex Thal key. The content has been in the game for quite a while, but I have to go at the pace allowed by real life and other interests. I quietly collected the parts and waited until I found the right guild and the right time.

In WoW, the mechanics of the game are different. Adding in high-end raid content at the very very end makes for the exact situation described in the article. Although, the donations are not without personal reward. That should be made clear. There are some minor rewards if you turn in stacks of "war supplies". But, the rewards for quests and the general experience of PvP instances and even random monster slaying are better. Especially since the war supplies are things like copper bars, cooked fish, and bandages. These are things that are tradeskill related. Since I'm interested in Blacksmithing, I don't really want to give up any ore or bars to open high-end content when I can use it to skill up.

In the end, what Anders observed people saying about WoW within his EQ guild has re-appeared in this and some other articles. Blizzard is responding to the request for difficult end-game stuff by putting it in an expansion. However, the game leading up to the expansion doesn't prepare you for it along the way. You have to make the transition from solo to raid style of play on your own, or with the advantage of playing another game.

All in all, it's really nice to be able to solo through a game. It's fun to be able to play for a short amount of time on short notice, and for me, it makes it worth it to have both Everquest and WoW accounts. I suspect that Blizzard will end up introducing more "high end" expansions in the future. They'll have to make the call on whether or not to expand vertically or horizontally, and whether or not to engage in MUDDification arms-race style expansions, or continue with the original solo-friendly game.

If all the expansions require level 60, are raid-oriented, and get progressively harder with great improvements in gear at each stage, then the entire first edition of the game is simply a time sink tutorial.

Monday, January 23, 2006

More Choice Means Less Choice, According to Movie Industry Representative

I'll do my best to try to track down the citation, but I wanted to pass along what I thought was a really funny statement as soon as possible.

I was watching CNN yesterday when an article about the upcoming movie Bubbles aired. This movie is being released simultaneously on DVD as well as in movie theaters. Some movie theaters in some states have refused to show it since it's available elsewhere and they don't have a monopoly anymore. The controversy has "bubbled" up to the level of national news, "popping" onto the scene just as the number of articles about declining movie ticket sales have started to "effervese".

Anyway, when a representative of the theaters was interviewed, he made a statement that to the best of my recollection went something like this:

"People think that this [simultaneous release in theater as well as dvd] gives them more choice. We disagree!"

Yes, it's true. This man said that More choice means less choice.

I rewound it (thanks to Tivo, another invention that's giving TV executives fits) and watched it four or five times. Such an earnest expression, such serious words!

Some pigs are more equal than others, you see. More choice means less choice.

It created quite a bit of levity here at the household, and it started me thinking yet again about how much of a golden age it truly is. DvDs, podcasts, satellite radio, google Scholar searches, audio books, etc.

As Doug rightly pointed out, when the status quo is threatened, media institutions often fall back on the platitude of how they're really doing it as a public service, and emphasize how nice it is to have "free" radio. I'm referring to the national campaign by FM radio stations to highlight how Vital they are to the American Experience by running ads (yes, even MORE advertisements on FM radio) that pronounce "free" FM radio as the backbone of society and hint that our National Security is at stake.

Yes, all you podcatchers out there, you're one step away from being linked to terrorists. How dare you stop listening to advertisements and flaccid music!

The fact is that "free" radio is hardly free, is hardly accessible, is of inferior quality, and there is much much better audio available with little investment. The broadcast spectrum is auctioned off to the highest bidder, with true public interest hardly a footnote to the allocation. Same thing with TV. It's even more egregious with movie production and distribution, which doesn't even have a thin veneer of public interest at heart. It's all about making money from entertainment.

So, instead of addressing the movie quality problem (which the National Association of Theater Owners does address, to their credit. Notice their acronyn is NATO. Isn't that cool?) as the root cause of declining ticket sales, the movie shill on the cnn broadcast simply blamed the cardboard villain of piracy, and invoked the "people NEED to go out to see movies, it's unAmerican to want it your way!" platitudes of a threatened industry.

We saw this before with the decline of travel agents. We'll continue to see it with the decline of other information hoarding-based jobs. We will see continued declines in ticket sales for two reasons.

1) the movies suck. 70% of movies released in 2006 will be sequels or remakes. Nothing original means a growing fraction of people will stay home.

2) theater owners overbuilt in the 90s and have yet to correct the market. Close down some of the glut of screens, and your ticket sales will stabilize.

People want what they want when they want it. You can't go back again after Tivo, DvDs, simultaneous releases, on-demand movies, on-demand audio, and advertisement-free services.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Macro Lens Report - Canon 100mm f/2.8 USM

The macro lens arrived a few days ago. The first test photos seem to indicate everything is working pretty well! All photos taken in auto mode with a Canon 20Da.


This photo of red impatients shows two things. One, the detail at close range is a lot better than before. Two, and this is true for most of the rest of the photos in this report, that the camera doesn't seem to underexpose. Macro lenses generally require a step up in exposure. There's a table in the manual that came with the lens where increase in exposure steps from 1/3 to 2 were recommended. Because it varies so much depending on the other settings, in general photographers doing macro work bracket their photographs. In other words, multiple shots are taken in a short interval where the exposure is varied over a range. The best photo is selected from the bunch.


If anything, this very small white flower (the bloom is about a half-inch across at the most) seems overexposed rather than underexposed. However, the flowers do have a very flat look in "real life", so I'm not surprised at the way this shot turned out. The petals have a waxy dull look and feel.


Here's a shot that might be a bit underexposed, but it was in shade and the detail didn't seemed to be lost. Compare it to the following shot of the same species of flower taken with the Olympus Cammedia 1040Z.


The detail and color seem to be improved.


Here is a very small fuzzy leaf with a snail trail across the upper part of the leaf. Note that the lower curled-towards-you part of the leaf is out of focus. This indicates a very narrow depth of field, which is a hallmark of macro lenses like this one (100mm f/2.8). Anyone wanting to do macro photography needs to learn how to best account for this, and achieve photographs that aren't overly limited by the narrow depth of field.


Here is a happy little purple flower! It's nice to be able to get in this close. The texture on the petals showed up much more distinctly than I expected.


Picking the point of focus in order to best accomodate the narrow depth of field sometimes only requires that enough be in focus in order to achieve a focused effect. There's a very tiny bug in this rose interior that I saw only after looking at the photo when it was uploaded to flickr. I marked it with a note on the photo's home page at flickr. Just click to go see where the little bug is. I don't think that level of detail was possible with the other camera.


Things that are round, like this spray of Alyssum, seem like a challenge to macro. You have to pick something as the center of attention and then make sure that's captured in focus.