Thursday, December 24, 2009

OS Fanboy? Not Really...

Monday, December 21, 2009

3 or 5-manning Blackrock Depths (BRD) Post 3.3

A long time ago, my World of Warcraft guild, Saturnalia, leveled 3 characters by doing dungeons together at appropriate level. I don't know if we were the first to 3-man all of the old world dungeons at appropriate levels, but we had a blast. I originally posted a guide to Blackrock Depths for other 3-man groups, but now it seems appropriate to update this for the post-3.3 era of the random dungeon finder. I'll keep all of the 3-manning notes just in case you want to try it, but this guide should now be even more helpful to those who want to do BRD as a random dungeon.
Read on for the full guide...

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar Review: Nothing Is What It Seems

I just saw James Cameron's Avatar. I'll break this review into three parts. The first is just about the film itself. The second is about what I think Cameron was trying to accomplish and what I think he's accomplished with this film (hint: it has nothing to do with "revolutionizing" movie making). The third part is more of the second part, but with spoilers.

But first, let me describe how I see a James Cameron film. When I was a teen, I saw Terminator and, like most of my friends, it blew me away. Like Close Encounters before it, it was a perfect blend of the ordinary and completely alien. It also had a swagger to it that appealed to me as a young man. It wasn't until Aliens came out, however, that I learned to recognize the director's signatures: the strong female protagonist; the relentless enemy which was somehow of our own making; the fading, but all-important ember of humanity. When Abyss came out, I was vaguely disappointed until I saw the director's cut (the one that changed how we thought about director's cuts). In its final version, it was nearly the same story as Terminator and Aliens, but it chose a new alien world to explore rather than the shattered future or a marooned spaceship, it was the ocean depths.

So when Titanic was announced, I was confused. It seemed as if it was both not his genre and at the same time something he'd already done. How little I knew. Nearly everyone I've talked to saw Titanic as a love story between DeCaprio and Winslet. Of course, the promotional material for the film didn't help that impression. However, if you dig a bit deeper, it was Cameron up to his old tricks again. Rose is our strong female protagonist; the sea is our relentless enemy, but the ship succumbs to it through our own negligence; and finally there is the fading of humanity. In Titanic we experience death from a dozen different directions. Rose undergoes a transformation due to the death of Jack, sure, but there's also the band that goes down playing; the man who will sacrifice anyone to get off the sinking boat. The movie is full of a dozen ways to die and and even more ways to face it. It is, in fact, a story about the nature one one's choices in the face of death.

So, when I went to see Avatar, I expected all of those things... and got none of them. So, on to the review. (more...)

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

HP Laptop Envy

I can't afford a new laptop right now, but oh my, the new HP Pavilion DV7-3080US gave me laptop envy! The Intel Core i7 and the 1G dedicated graphics would really rock for gaming, and even for virtualization at work. Going to have to be strong....

Friday, December 11, 2009

Random dungeons in WoW

World of Warcraft's 3.3. patch added a new feature called random dungeons. This allows characters of abotu level 14 and higher to place themselves in a queue for a dungeon. When you do this, you'll be in queue with everyone else in your battlegroup (a related set of realms that typically only saw each other in PvP battlegrounds and Arenas). If you're doing random dungeons, here are some tips:
  • At low levels, make sure you loot the last boss. The reward is apparently on a boss, not given automatically. I lost out due to this.
  • If you don't zone in automatically, you can click the "transport to dungeon" or whatever it's called button after the party is formed.
  • Don't sign up as leader unless you're familiar with the dungeon and willing to walk people through it
  • The penalty for leaving is just a 15 minute time-out. If you get a really bad group, just bow out politely.
  • The new zone map is awesome. Use it.
  • This will probably be the new way to power-level, since it gets you tons of dungeons faster than you could run to them.
  • If you die, you have to run back in. Make sure you know the layout outside the dungeon before going in.
  • If there is an option to disenchant, don't hesitate to use it. It's the same priority as "greed." Of course, check sell price for the item first. Greed might be better.
  • If someone wants to leave the group, don't get upset. They're automatically replaced.
  • If someone is linkdead, give them some time (e.g. a few minutes) and then initiate a group-kick vote.
  • When new people come in to an existing group, ask if they need an escort. Don't assume they know the way to where you are in the dungeon.

It's a lot of fun at lower levels. At high levels, it finally makes pugging worth doing for me. I never wanted to pug before, but I think that's because there was so much emphasis on not pugging for players who were good. Now the good and the bad all want to get the rewards from random dungeons, so you're more likely to get an evenly mixed group.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

AT&T: We'd Rather You Use Verizon!

I recently bought a Droid from Verizon. Previously, I had an iPhone from AT&T. My partner has an old AT&T account with a junky phone that we just wanted to keep the number from. I called up AT&T and explained the situation. They told me that I was required to keep both accounts or delete one, but that I was not allowed to move any numbers from any account to any other.

That seemed odd. So I asked what they would do if the number I wanted to bring in was a Verizon number. They told me that they'd be thrilled to move a number in and replace my current number at no charge and with my current plan. Wait... so, if I were a Verizon customer, I'd get better AT&T service, but because I'm an AT&T customer, they're not even willing to just move a phone number?! No, I had to have heard that wrong. So, I asked to speak to a manager and made it quite clear that all I wanted to do was move a number, not an account and that I wanted to keep my high-priced AT&T iPhone service for a good long time. Nope. I'd have to get a new plan with a new contract.

When I explained that my life would actually be simpler if I payed the $150 to terminate the iPhone and get my partner a Droid, I was told that that was my only workable option and he didn't even try to keep me as a customer.

In the end AT&T would much rather that you become a Verizon customer than close one, old clunky account and move the number around internally. Your customer loyalty for 10 years isn't, it turns out, worth a database record update to AT&T.

Well, two Droids is better than one, I guess...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Hardest Trivia Questions, Ever

Update: There is now a second article: The Hardest Trivia Questions Ever, Part Two.
Wikipedia is a font of really useful information, but it can also be the source of some of the most obscure information to have graced the Web. Specifically, their "Did you know" section on the front page tends to have some of the most obscure trivia you'll come across. I've turned some of it into a set of trivia questions. See how many you can get by using your scroll bar to hide the next question's answer just off the bottom while you guess (questions after the jump)...

Monday, November 30, 2009

Python: Adopting Perl's given and Smart Matching

Python doesn't have a switch statement. This makes it relatively unusual among modern languages, but it's not terribly shocking. It has never been entirely clear what the useful equivalent of C's very efficient and elegant switch should be in high-level languages. However, one useful signpost is Perl's late addition: given.

In Perl 5 (released around the dawn of Python) there was no switch equivalent. Many of the same hacks that are used in Python to work around this were suggested to Perl users. However, when crafting a spec for Perl 6, a switch statement was high on the list of user requests, so "given" was introduced. Later, as Perl 6 prototype implementation features were scrutinized for back-porting to Perl 5, given was selected as a useful bit of low-hanging fruit that didn't require massive changes to the language. In Perl 5.10, the given statement is now available with the use of a special pragma. Presumably, this pragma will be removed in future versions.

So, back to Python. Is given the right way to go? Perhaps. Given assumes a lower-level tool called smart-matching, and Python currently has no such mechanism. The introduction of smart-matching has the potential to be disruptive to the language if done poorly. Great care should therefore be taken, but a minimal approach should be acceptable.

(read on for the proposal...)

First Flight in Dragonblight

World of Warcraft is a beautiful game, but sometimes the grind-heavy aspects of the game make it easy to forget that. Today I took my Turbo-Charged Flying Machine for a spin for the first time (my engineer finally got around to making one), and I decided to Fraps up a movie of the experience. The music is by Celestial Aeon Project, from their albums Aeon 2 and Mind's Eye, both of which are distributed under a Creative Commons license at

Friday, November 13, 2009

Followup on Droid

As you know if you read this site, I got a Verizon/Google Droid to replace my iPhone last week. Having had a full week to play with it, here's my followup on my original take:

  • The keyboard is nowhere near as annoying as I thought. I am back to iPhone typing speed, and perhaps a bit faster.
  • The camera app is still annoying. It's hard to press the camera button long enough to get the app to come up without having it snap a shot immediately, and saving a photo will cause music to skip.
  • Initially I thought the lack of a sleep mode (for playing music when I go to bed) was going to annoy me, but as Apple says, there's an app for that.
  • Music management is more tolerable since I started using MediaMonkey, an iTunes-alike that handles just about any device. This also does smart playlists ala Apple, but the free version doesn't have that feature ($20 for the pay version).
  • Dropped WiFi connections are still a bit of a pain, but not as bad as I'd feared. The phone takes longer to recover than the iPhone, but it does so. Weak WiFi is actually more of an issue, especially for file transfers (e.g. app installation).
  • A week in, and I'm getting used to the combined messaging features, but popup would be a nice option.
  • I do like the Exchange integration for the iPhone better than for the Droid, but that's a relatively minor issue. They both work.

I still don't think the Droid is an iPhone killer, but then it doesn't have to be. There will always be a core loyal audience for the iPhone, and if this phone cured cancer, I don't think they'd give it up. On the other hand, the Droid is comparable on every level, and better in a few key areas such as navigation and openness.

If you have a Google Apps account (e.g. for work, school or a vanity domain), then you really should get an Android phone. It's capable of syncing from both your normal Google account and your Apps account for mail, calendar and contacts, which is pretty huge. Oddly, though, it won't do IM through Apps as far as I can tell.

USB Droid: Can't Connect?

When I first got my Motorola/Verizon/Google Droid phone, I thought it was broken because it wouldn't talk to my laptop. I tried plugging it in to multiple USB ports, resetting, searching for drivers, etc.

It turns out that it's really easy to get this working, and once you do, you'll understand something that's critical about your new phone: everything important shows up in the notice bar at the top of the screen.

When you plug the Droid in to a USB host like a laptop or desktop system, it brings up a notification (USB logo in the status bar). Place your finger off the screen, above this notice, and swipe directly down onto the screen. This will bring up the all-important notification menu. Here, you'll see things like "USB Connected" and various app installation notices if you've recently downloaded anything. Touch the USB notice now and it will bring up a dialog box that asks if you want to mount the SD card on your host computer. Press "Mount" and you'll have full access to the SD card from your system. When you're done, you can either repeat this process or just unplug the USB cable to force it to re-mount internally.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

My Photos On the Web

Lemon Dessert Photo by Aaron Sherman (c) 2009, Licensed under CC-By-SA 3.0
I've always put my photography up on the Web under the Creative Commons licensing that allows others to use and distribute them as long as they give credit and allow others to do the same (the CC-By-SA license). Over time, I've seen my pictures used for more and more things that I'd never have dreamed. One church has used a panorama of mine for their banner and I've seen my images used for several news articles, such as the story of tequila being used to make diamonds.

For those who might want to use some of my images in the future, the best place to look is on my Picasa folders. One of these, Misc Photos, contains what I consider to be some of my best general work, though I have other sections for nature photography; specific events like the Tall Ships and Fireworks; and so on. You need only credit me and provide some way for people to find the original in order to use these images.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Droid Replaces My iPhone

Friday, I went out and got a Droid to replace my iPhone (which I've handed down to someone else). My first impression is that its very nice, but for every iPhone annoyance that the Droid fixes, there's a new one to replace it.

Here are a few:
  • Keyboard is far too prone to multiple keypress
  • Camera is slow, and prone to blurry images
  • The iPhone had a sleep function (timed shutoff) that Droid lacks
  • Music management is horrible
  • Apple's smart playlists are clearly a killer feature
  • Recovery from a dropped wifi connection is not as graceful
  • No popup SMS/messaging notifications (brief scroll on top bar instead)
  • Google Voice / built-in messaging can be confusing (which one am I selecting?)
On the other hand, it has:
  • An open app store
  • Free turn-by-turn navigation with a fairly cheap car-mount
  • A keyboard at all (narrowly a win over none... narrowly)
  • Great email/SMS integration if you use gmail and Google Voice
  • Search by voice for nearly everything
  • "Back" button works across apps
Some things that I think would improve the experience:
  • Add a countdown timer that kills the browser and music player when it goes off
  • Make the music player automatically create playlists from directories on the SD
  • Add smart playlists (see my other post)
  • Build in some software guards against multiple keypress
  • Improve guessing with respect to poking at links on the Web browser (I often get the wrong link)
Overall, it's a great phone, but in some respects, it leaves me longing for my iPhone. I'm sure that over time it will become my favorite phone, but it's not a clear iPhone killer.

How To Use Smart Playlists In iTunes

Do you have an iPhone and many more Gigabytes of music you love than you can fit on it? Do you get frustrated over having to choose what to put on the phone? Here's a way to never compromise your collection while still carrying around only a trivial number of tunes:
  • Create a playlist for a kind of music you want to listen to. You can use one of the built-in smart playlists like "Highest Rated" or build your own (for example, I have a "Quiet" playlist of songs I like to go to sleep to)
  • Now create a new smart playlist and give it the rule: "Playlist", "is", and the playlist from above.
  • Select the checkbox next to "Limit to" enter "50" or "100" for the count and for "selected by" use "Least recently played".
  • Now when syncing your phone, go to the "Music" tab under the iPhone's entry in iTunes. Select the option to only place selected playlists on the phone, and select your new smart playlist.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Blackra1n, Cydia and SBSettings

I've just re-jailbroken my iPhone (mostly to fix a problem introduced by upgrading to 3.1 without first uninstalling the jailbreak - never do that), and I ran into an SBSettings problem. It installs fine, but once it's done installing, it doesn't do anything. I swipe across the top of the screen and nothing happens.

If you just used blackra1n to jailbreak, and SBSettings won't work for you, here's what you do (props to this forum for the fix):
  • Re-install Cydia from the blackra1n interface
  • Re-install dpkg (this may show up as "Debian Package Manager" or similar) from Cydia
  • Re-install SBSettings from Cydia
  • Re-boot the phone
This worked for me, and got my SBSettings install working flawlessly.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Wikipedia Needs More Trivia

The "... in popular culture" sections and articles on Wikipedia used to be called "Trivia," but were so overwhelmingly lists of pop-culture references that the convention was altered. These days there are articles like Zombies in popular culture which typically start off well, but quickly descend into cobbled-together lists of movies, books, comics and video games that may or may not relate to, or represent the state of the genre being discussed. At one time, I worked on the  Lovecraftian horror article, and while I tried to make it an article about the genre and its evolution over time, it was continuously inundated by well-meaning editors who would add lists of genre works to the article.

To combat this, Wikipedia really should embrace both styles, and integrate them more deeply. I'd love to see the template mechanism enhanced so that trivia could be encapsulated as template-like objects. (more...)

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Repost/Update: Jekyll Review

Jekyll is a BBC drama series about a modern day Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The story opens in the middle, as the protagonist, Dr. Jackman is dealing with his uncontrollable transformations. There's nothing in this series that knowing the original story can spoil for you. You meet Mr. Hyde in the very first episode. You are told about the original story very early on. Before we get to the spoilers, I want to recommend that you consider buying or renting the series. What follows will certainly ruin a few surprises.

Warning: Spoilers Ahead

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Dollhouse and Stargate: Universe Have Best Episodes of Season

This week's SG:U and Dollhouse were easily the best episodes of the current season so far. Dollhouse is in its second season, while Stargate is just starting off, but they've both had weak seasons so far. In the case of Dollhouse, they have had to cut back their budget due to ratings last season, and have some ground to cover from a DVD-only episode. Stargate just seems to have come out of the gate at a trot, and I'm not sure why. Perhaps it's part of their LOST-like model, but in my opinion, it was a mistake that's hopefully behind. (more...)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Conservapedia Claims Jesus Home-Schooled John

Jesus with graduation cap derived from and
Conservapedia, as you may know, was created as an alternative to the "liberal bias" of Wikipedia, at least originally. These day's it's a Christian revisionism site which is attempting to rally the conservative Christian base in America to literally re-write the Bible to better reflect their political message. One of the more interesting articles on the site that reflects this trend is "Mystery: Was John a Child?" The article was written by the site's founder, Andy Schlafly, a proponent of conservative families home-schooling their children, and questions whether John was a young teen, home-schooled by Jesus (ignoring the fact that only wealthy families in the Roman Empire had centralized schooling).

As I said, this is a piece of a larger effort to, as the site says, enable "a thought-for-thought translation," of the Christian Bible, "without corruption by liberal bias." Among other changes this means favoring masculine wording in an attempt to revert the, "emasculation of Christianity"; using "powerful new conservative terms"; "explaining the numerous economic parables with their full free-market meaning," which I quote in full because I can't actually imagine how that pertains to a re-translation; and removing references to the name, "Jehovah" (an example of "liberal wordiness").

What's particularly shocking is that the project aims to re-translate the King James Version of the Bible rather than returning to original sources, thus maintaining any inaccuracies both in that translation, and that have arisen as a consequence of the change in English since that time. Presumably this is being done in order to open the effort up to those who haven't spent years studying dead languages, but of course, it makes the end-result highly suspect, even given a scholarly goal, rather than a political one.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Google Reader vs. Twitter

I've been using both Google Reader and Twitter for a long time now. I use them both very differently, but these days, I'd have to say that I prefer Reader for most things. I'll go into more detail below, but here's the short of it: Reader is free-form, but just as social as Twitter. In fact, because of the tie-in to Google Talk and Gmail, I'd argue that Reader is fundamentally a better social networking platform than Twitter. The problem is that it doesn't have the user-base, so I still use Twitter when I want to contact the largest number of people or to follow what my non-Reader friends are up to. (more...)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

How To End the Recession: Print Money

Four of the US currency bills, courtesy of the U.S. TreasuryThe recession is retreating, but most analysts suggest that lingering unemployment and other results of the downturn will take years to work their way out as the economy rebounds. I have a simple, one-step solution to this problem: print new money. (more...)

Disclosure: Endorsements and the FTC

AJS.COM has two primary sources of revenue (neither of which is substantial, at this time): Google Ads and Amazon Associate links. In theory, either of these could generate substantial revenue, but they don't, due to a limited audience. I don't get samples or any other consideration from the companies whose products I review from time to time (such as my review of Dollhouse Season 1 on DVD), and the only kickback I get is from Amazon if someone buys these items through the image link. As for the Google Ads, I see around $10/mo. which isn't enough to pay for my home Internet connection.

So, while I understand where the FTC is going with these new guidelines, they don't really affect this site (or its AJS.COM sister sites) at all.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Why Harmil stopped editing Wikipedia

The Wikipedia logo
Harmil was my alter ego on Wikipedia for years. I created dozens of pages and uploaded many of my photographs of wildlife and New England landmarks for articles. But then I stopped. I would still be contributing today if the site hadn't turned into the sprawling bureaucracy that it is today. At first, Wikipedia was a meritocracy like the open source movement from which it derived its initial ethos. The idea was simple: be useful and your work will be respected. Annoy people and you'll be ignored. Get in the way and you'll be moved.

Over time, that changed. Copyright law is a hot issue, and everyone wants to have their say. That lead to some strange policies and a schism between the main site and their image hosting site, Commons that still has strange ramifications to this day (images are routinely moved to Commons from Wikipedia because they are free, but Commons has a stricter definition of "free", so they're then deleted). (more...)

Get that Candy: World of Warcraft Halloween Quests

This article was written on my old blog in 2008, and may be slightly out of step with the 2009 event, but should still prove a useful reference

If you're playing WoW, and and not getting the Hallow's End (Halloween) event candy from the various inns around Azeroth and Outland, you really should! Not only is the candy really nice for stackable stat buffs (defense, hit rating (which includes spell and melee hit now), and two kinds of spellpower), but it also gives experience for every inn you get candy from. Here's how I went about collecting them all. (more...)

Sunday, October 4, 2009

College Mornings: A Poem or C.P.E.

In the mists of time, I was a student. It was the late 1980s, and I was terrible at it. I was studying computer science at The University of Lowell (which has now eroded into UMass: Lowell), and failing because I spent all of my time either studying things that had nothing to do with class or playing roleplaying games with friends. They were heady days of learning C and Unix while getting myself in trouble with anyone who would pay attention. I found myself reminiscing about it this weekend, and suddenly it seemed to form a poem, so here goes:
4 AM blurring, swimming monochrome before me.
Not bright enough to learn, too bright not to.
To hack in C, shell and Perl all I know.
What rough beast, the nacent Internet swims before me.
Forces gather while I, in key-click slumber
Drift toward rocky shoals of dot-com intrigue.
But innocent, I type; one more demo tweak
Before a dawnlight shuffle home.
Well, there it is. I'm no Cummings, but I hope it was worth a moment of your time to look back with me.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Anti-Piracy Is a Strawman Argument

Piracy. It's a scary sounding thing. We call someone who downloads a copy of a piece of music or movie a "pirate." But file sharing isn't piracy, it's a form of communication. The real problem that the music and movie industries have (when you remove abject greed from consideration) is that the Internet provides the means for everyone to become everyone else's "friend." This breaks the market dynamics on which modern business depends, threatening (in a very real sense) our way of life. But instead of tackling that issue and deciding if there's another way or what we want to do to protect our current model, we brand people pirates and then ask, "why would you support piracy?"

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Value of Sidewiki on Wikiepedia

Sidewiki provides what Wikipedia has long needed. A place for people to discuss an article or its topic without discussing the editing of it. This gives people an outlet without cluttering discussion pages with what amount to forum posts.
in reference to: Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia (view on Google Sidewiki)

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Perl 5, Perl 6, Moose, Rakudo and the Future of Perl

I made this comment today on my Google Reader feed with respect to Perl 5, and I thought it bore mentioning here since it's rather a longer topic than a blurb. The context was an announcement of a new project aimed at giving Perl 5 faster Meta-Object Protocol (MOP) support ala Ruby and Perl 6 (and to a somewhat lesser extent, Python, Lisp, and many others).
I'll ignore the back-and-forth. Here's the bottom-line: Perl 5 is a dead-end platform. Not because of Perl 6, but because it's a deep legacy of parts that have out-grown their use. It's not extensible in ways that people want to use it today (e.g. for Moose and MOPs in general), and to bolt on those features is painful in the extreme, and guaranteed to be orders slower than it should be. I'm not saying Perl 6 is The Way. I'm saying that a re-design of Perl 5 is required to extend it into relevance with respect to today's programming environment. If that's called Perl 5.50 or if it's called Perl 6, it doesn't matter. Perl 5 is and should remain a powerful legacy language whose contributions to the state of the art were significant in their day but whose limitations are the right reason to use it only where required today.
As you can see, I'm a fan of what Perl 5 has done. I think it brought some concepts "into the fold" of language design that were downright heretical at the time (grammar ambiguity can yield developer ease, for example). It also promoted regular expressions from library features and the domain of special-purpose languages such as sed or AWK to full-fledged peers in the design of a language.

However, Perl 5 is old and tired. To this day, it lacks such basic features as named subroutine parameters and it still has some deep confusion over types and naming that stem from its original idea that some types were so external that users should manipulate the namespace directly to access them. Why are these archaic features still in the language? Not because the Perl community lacks the skills to fix them, but because the language carries with it a heavy burden of legacy code. Breaking CPAN is such a taboo that maintainers have been forced into resignation over the frustration the community wells up when it or its evil twin, DarkPAN are threatened by the most trivial changes.

So, what are we to do? Moose and its ilk attempt to subvert the legacy code and inject new concepts by force. Sadly, that battle is one of attrition and diminishing returns. Ultimately speed and complexity are major factors in maintaining such a beast. Perl 6 (along with its currently hot implementation, Rakudo) is another path. Re-designed from the ground up, Perl rises from its own ashes with features freshly cast in modern terms. In many ways this is the right solution. Perl 6 is such a radical departure from the traditional design of popular languages that it is almost guaranteed to produce some of the same positive impact that Perl 5 brought us.

However, Perl 6 is fundamentally a new language. There's nothing wrong with implementing a new language that's aimed at the Perl community, but there's a middle ground that I think we need as well. Here are what I see as the design requirements of a new Perl that is still Perl:
  • Provide basic functionality that Perl programmers want without cumbersome add-ons to implement them (named parameters, MOP, etc.)
  • Maintain syntactic compatibility with Perl 5 as much as possible to ease transition
  • Marginalize, deprecate or simply remove features which have hindered the task of implementing secondary implementations of Perl 5 (e.g. on Parrot)
Given a reasonable balance of those conflicting goals, a "Middle Perl" could be a powerful tool for transition to Perl 6 while also providing existing Perl programs a way to grow and adapt to modern needs. One immediately obvious counter-argument is that this will slow Perl 6 development. That seems reasonable, but on the one hand, Perl 6 has been in development for 10 years. Slowing it down isn't really possible. It is possible to steal its thunder and prevent its developer base from expanding at a critical time, so there's some valid concern there, but I think that can be mitigated by making Middle Perl and explicit stepping stone project that aims at ultimate adoption of Perl 6. On the other hand, there's the fact that developers are already working on this project, but only in module-space. They're implementing dozens of modules to extend Perl 5. If those efforts were re-directed to implementing a Middle Perl, then there would be no need for anyone currently working on Perl 6 or considering doing so to change course.

Many times I've heard Perl 6 compared to Python 3. I always point out that this is an unfair comparison because Perl 6 is a radical re-design of the language which requires blazing a new trail through the entire topic of language design and the integration of disparate programming paradigms. What I've suggested here, however, should absolutely be compared to Python 3. A re-evaluation of some core concepts; a re-write of the code; but fundamentally the same language.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Whedon and Lynch Videos on WGBH's Forum Network

Joss Whedon
Update: See my Google+ thread about this speech with a link to the YouTube version of the video.

Back in April of this year, I posted about Joss Whedon's appearance at Harvard to accept an award from the Humanist Chaplaincy. At the time, I knew that it was recorded, but not when or if it would show up where people could get at it. Well, now it's here. If you go to WGBH's Forum Network, you'll find "Joss Whedon: Cultural Humanist." (note: that seems to be down...  not sure if it will come back. see the relevant bits on YouTube) Watch and enjoy. It was a really great event, and well worth listening to his views on the interaction between the religious and non-religious world and the nature of charity and justice towards others.

In perusing this site, I've noticed some really interesting videos. It's sad that these aren't widely publicized, since they're so much more valuable than the typical piano-playing cat that you'll find when searching for videos on the Web. Right now, I'm listening to David Lynch, Fred Travis (spelled "Tavis" incorrectly in the credits) and John Hagelin speaking about Consciousness, Creativity, and the Brain.

Boondock Saints and Its Upcoming Sequel

Boondock Saints poster circa 1999
When I first saw The Boondock Saints it was before Boston had become particularly popular for shooting TV and film location shots (understand that most "Boston" based shows and movies are filmed in Vancouver, e.g. Fringe). It was nice to see my home town featured in movies, so I even enjoyed Blown Away back in the day. But Saints was different. It had more to say than most mob films. It was funnier than most buddy movies. It felt gritty in a way that I can't explain. Ultimately the saddest part was that it was easily the biggest film of its year, had it been marketed at all. Instead it made less than $50,000 and wasn't re-discovered by the public until it hit DVD (mine came from Canada, oddly enough, before it was released in the U.S.).

Over the years, rumors came out about a sequel. Then there was the documentary about the making of the sequel (called Overnight) in which the writer/director imploded in the way that Hollywood has a way of encouraging. I assumed it was a no-go. And then, suddenly, there was a trailer and a release date for Boondock Saints: All Saints Day. The sequel will come out this year, and from what I can see, only the replacement of Willem Dafoe (in what I feel is the funniest performance of his career) bodes ill. The brothers return. Another character returns played by Billy Connolly (if you haven't seen the film, I don't want to tell you more about his character... go see it). And the feel is very similar. True, this franchise risks becoming something between Rambo and Lethal Weapon, but I hold out hope that this cult classic will yield a sequel that's worthy of the first.

Amusing side-note: someone stuck The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers into the movie connections on IMDB for Boondock Saints. Not even remotely true, but funny.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Google's Design Patent on their Home Page

Google just got a design patent on their search home page. It's a patent that has the rank and file of the Internet tech world in an uproar. However, it's important to understand what's going on, here. For a really well written debunking of many first-impressions, I quote someone from the weblog site, Slashdot:

Design patent law is an area of great frustration for people. Design patents are relatively easy to obtain because of what they cover: essentially the identical design or any colorable imitation. As recently stated by the Fed. Cir., the test for design patent infringement is stated: "infringement will not be found unless the accused article 'embod[ies] the patented design or any colorable imitation thereof.'" Egyptian Goddess, Inc. v. Swisa, Inc. Therefore, to invalidate, the design must either embody the prior art or merely be a colorable imitation. This is a tricky analysis.

For companies like Apple and Google, design patents are helpful in preventing knock-offs. In this respect, the line is blurred between trademark and design patent law. However, they are not useful for much else since many of the elements of a design are functional (and a good lawyer can make that argument) and are not merely composed of distinctive elements.

Reebmmm at the Sladshdot article, "Your Rights Online: Google Patents Its Home Page"

There are a few other points to consider, but the one that really kills me is that it's Google's motto that hurts them the most in these situations. The first and most predictable reaction to any news about Google is to find a way to refer to it as "evil." Regardless of their clear intentions in an area (e.g. their relationship with the Open Invention Network and strong support patent reform), the motto slips into the argument and immediately becomes the centerpiece. Is Google becoming evil? Is this evil? How evil are they now?

I'm reminded of an Emo Phillips joke that involved a man who was about to jump off a bridge. Emo confronts the man and asks him if he believes in God. The man says yes. He further asks him questions about what religion he's a member of, eventually narrowing down that the two of them are both from a particular denomination of Baptist Christians, but then finds that they're members of very slightly different subsets of that denomination at which point Emo pushes the man off the bridge.

So too do we attack Google, not for being opposed to the general views of the tech community. They are, in fact, one of our greatest champions, supporting FOSS, patent reform and providing alternatives to many monopolistic software suites. And yet, here we are, asking if they've been evil today.

Monday, August 31, 2009

What Does a Disney Buyout of Marvel Mean Creatively?

Lots of buzz around the Intertubes today about the Disney buyout of Marvel. Interestingly, this has really made me think that it's time for The Walt Disney Company to change its name to something vastly more neutral. It might even make sense to do one of those corporate renamings where the new name is some variant of an English word, but just skewed enough to be trademarkable.

As an example, one person suggested that this was, "bad news for anyone who like mature-themed comics and movies," in a Slashdot feedback post. The problem with this is that Disney is a giant holding corporation that owns everything from Hannah Montana to Kill Bill to Queen. Since the mid-1990s, Disney really hasn't resembled the original Walt Disney Corporation (even though they continue on as one of the many Disney brands).

I'm not a big fan of Marvel comics. I've enjoyed Joss Whedon and Warren Ellis's work for them, but then I'd enjoy their work for the sanitation planning department (actually, no, don't let Ellis near my city's planners, thank you very much, but you get the idea...) There's nothing that I think will be lost once Marvel, an already behemoth corporation, is absorbed by an even larger behemoth. But that doesn't really have anything to do with Disney and what they'll do to the brand. It has to do with the risks that you don't take when you're in charge of billions of dollars worth of intellectual property.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online

Turbine, Dungeons & Dragons Online and Lord of the Rings Online logos - all copyrights held by their respective owners.
Turbine has two MMOs out that I've tried recently. One is Dungeons & Dragons Online. What I've been playing is the DDO Unlimited beta, which will launch a new free-to-play service on top of their existing MMO starting in early September. Frankly, I'm disappointed in this. Its flaws are legion, and it really doesn't add anything new to the MMO gaming experience that I feel I need. However, as a break from WoW, I was going to give it a shot... until something fun happened.

While testing DDO Unlimted, the downloader started queuing a beta for the next Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO) update. I tried it out and liked it enough to start playing the live version, and I haven't looked back at WoW or DDO since (slight lie, I logged into DDO last night to wave goodbye as they prepared to take the beta servers down for the last time before launch).

What follows are my experiences with both games.

First off: DDO. What I like about this game doesn't outweigh what I dislike, but there are plenty of items in both categories. Its faith to the core D&D 3.5 (or is it 3.0?) rules is fairly good. Of course, a video game has different pacing and needs, and that shows. There are more way-points in the leveling experience and feats have been broken up to give you more progression and less waiting for some future level when you'll get to be useful.

What I really liked was the instancing. Nearly every quest involves an instance, even if it's just a single room house where you'll defend boxes from kobolds. This makes questing much less contentious, but for me it also reduced the amount of social play I felt I needed to engage in. I don't mind leveling solo, but if you do, this might be a small minus. Then again, joining groups to run instances is really easy.

Repair and general selling of loot was easy, but I'll touch more on this in the negatives. PvP areas are clearly marked, which was nice. And one of the most important things: the starting area quests were very nice and smooth introductions to the game mechanics and encounter models. I really appreciated that. Interestingly, this is also something that LOTRO gets right, and which WoW really just doesn't.

Obviously, the game is now free, which is a big benefit. You do not need to buy anything with real-world money, but I plunked down $6 to see what it would get me. The dungeons you can buy are very detailed and large, but the thing that bothered me is that their store has almost no indication of how many players you should have for each add-on adventure pack. The correct answer turns out to be "a full group" in every example I saw, so be aware that adventure packs aren't solo content (unless you're out-leveling them).

The down sides, however, are the reasons I won't be playing DDO when it launches, so let's talk about those. First off, one major issue I have with all non-WoW MMOs I've tried is that WoW spoiled me with add-ons. Users can re-write the UI from the ground up, adding new functionality that's as complex as they want to code. In DDO, that's simply not the case, and I found myself wanting things like a mod that would select what to sell to a vendor, manage bars for me in a better way, etc. This hurts most of all when you deal with the auction house. Auctioneer is the single most game-changing mod in WoW (with questhelper coming a close second), and you just don't realize how much it's come to mean until you don't have it. But, these are things I expect to run into in other games, and I don't hold it against DDO too much that it's not WoW. (Note: Turbine claims that a mod-authoring system for LOTRO is in the works, just not launched yet, but it's not clear what this means for other games of theirs.)

Serious DDO issues exist on their own terms, however. There are three classes of vendor loot. One class you can simply sell to any vendor. One class are items that would be useful to players (gear, scrolls, etc.) and will sell just find to normal vendors, but you get more money selling them to vendors that would sell that kind of item... but, you can't sell it to them if they already have too many of that item. This gets annoying, and eventually I just started selling all such items to regular vendors, taking a huge cash inflow hit. The third type of item are useless to vendors, but have special NPCs you can turn them in to for different kinds of loot depending on the NPC. Nice idea, poor execution. There are a dozen of these NPCs, and you have to go around to each of them every time your bags fill up to sell off the piles and piles of crap you have accumulated. Not fun, Turbine; not fun at all. This could be fixed in one quick move: simply add an NPC that will take all of this sort of item that you have, all at once, and return to you the appropriate loot rewards. This would speed the after-instancing bookkeeping tremendously and improve the game for me by a lot.

Second up is the difficulty of dungeons. I ran into some that I could not conquer until I out-leveled them, even on solo mode. Some, which had no solo mode, were trivially soloed before I was of appropriate level. In one or two cases there are warnings (most of these are actually trivial) but in most cases, it's not clear to me how we're supposed to know which dungeons are reasonable. My sense is that the game is just not tuned for solo play at all, which is fine, but they should either fix that or slap more warnings on dungeons to indicate that solo play isn't really an option (Lightfoot dungeon in the Marketplace, I'm looking at you!) This also gives the impression that they've not done a lot of thinking about balancing the leveling content out to ensure a smooth leveling experience. My caveat, here, his that I only got to level 5, so it may get better or not.

OK, so to sum up: DDO Unlimited is uneven, but certainly for a free game, I think it's worth the price (essentially the download time). Try it out, but don't be shocked if 10-15 dollars per month starts to sound good after you do.

LOTRO is another thing entirely. When I first moved from EverQuest (EQ) to WoW, I found that the game felt very much like an "answer" to EQ. In other words, it did most of the same things, but where EQ did something annoying, WoW addressed it. Corpse runs were much more pleasant, the UI was much more configurable, questing was worth doing, instances made quest mob-camping mostly a thing of the past, etc. The game was clearly designed by people who played EQ and understood it enough for their game to be a rebuttal.

So, enter LOTRO. This game feels like a rebuttal to WoW, but in some ways it fails and in some ways it succeeds brilliantly. One of the first things you'll notice, but won't get a good sense of for a bit is that the overall feel of the graphics and the aesthetic sense that the game has, is very, very different from either EQ or WoW. It's a much less explicitly fantastic feel, and really doesn't seem like a fantasy game at all until you see a ghost or some other fantastic creature at later levels. Sure, it's low-tech looking, but even the orcs aren't really all that strange looking. They just look like ragged humans unless you zoom in. Elves have pointed ears and dwarves and hobbits are short... but that's not much in the way of fantasy flavor. In a strange way, this makes the fantasy "pop" all the more. When you see someone throw a lightning bolt or wield a flaming sword it really makes you sit up and take notice.

The next thing you'll notice is that inventory management is fairly klunky. Yeah, that doesn't really get any better, and the UI needs serious attention. There's issues of what right-clicking means. If you're interacting with your bags, it means "use or equip," but if you're looking at your items through a vendor, it means "sell" and if you're looking at the contents of a container, it means "take." This leads, all too often, to wearing or eating something that you meant to store in your vault (bank) or sell. There's also the bags... no search, very inspecific looking icons... color borders for item quality are too small and hard to distinguish... The game really needs an inventory management overhaul that resembles WoW with ARKInventory or one of the similar bag mods.

On playability, I just want to make some high level negative notes before I get into what I like:
  • There's too much travel at low levels when you don't have a mount. They need to cut this down or increase run speed (playing a hunter helps, but not a lot).
  • On a related point, decreasing the milestone (hearthstone in WoW terms) cooldown would help a great deal.
  • The Auction house needs to provide some pricing stats in the post window.
  • The Auction house should also not default the price of a stack of items based on the previous stack price, but on the previous per-item price. I really hurt myself selling a stack of 20+ silver bars for the same price I'd just listed 3.
  • Quest tracking is black magic to me. Improvements that would help are: pinning a goal should extend to followups; removing a quest from the tracker should pull in another quest to replace it; there should be a "reset tracker" option; "cancel" is a bad label for "abandon quest."
So, it sounds like I hate it. Not so. This is a really good game, and the real win is in the details. Creatures that "threaten" to attack make gathering skills much more reasonable, and I actually don't mind going around gathering up ore or wood in this game. Also, the trade skill animations are amazing. WoW's animations always seemed a bit cheesy, but now I'd have a really hard time not simply laughing at them. When you make leather from hides, you actually whip out a stretching frame and scrape down the hide. It's stunningly detailed! They do need better descriptions of how the professions map to individual skills (e.g. if you're an "explorer" that just gives you a pre-set group of three skills).

The built-in quest tracker with location info is nice, though I always have a hard time figuring out when and under what circumstances it doesn't have location info (which seems to sometimes be associated with quest targets being indoors).

However, the real item that will retain my interest is the class mechanics. I've played four classes now up to at least the teens, and I'm thrilled with all of their mechanics. Each class has some way to "build up" to more complex skills, much like rogues in WoW, and each of them does so in a different way. There are also equivalents of "talents" from WoW, but instead of getting them based on your level alone, you actually have to use the appropriate skills in order to "earn" or "unlock" access to each trait before you can go to a bard to allocate your traits. This gives you a chance to start doing something new, but to slowly become better at it as both you and your character get used to the new role.

On that point, most classes can do more than one thing. My rune-keeper is either a healer or a nuker, and can switch with minimal difficultly between the two on an encounter-by-encounter basis. The same is true for most other classes, though the healer/nuker roles of the rune-keeper are probably the most extreme difference in play style.

I find the solo game to be fun in LOTRO, but escort quests are fundamentally a harder thing than in many other games, since the NPCs are much weaker and seem to attract agro easier than in WoW, for example. However, the death mechanic is quite forgiving of small mistakes and the quests are nicely varied. It can be hard to tell what quests are intended for groups (I know there's an indication somewhere, but I can never find it), which is one down-side.

There are also quest chains that follow you from character creation through to the end-game, which I find very appealing. This allows a character to pursue their epic quest line, but at the same time pick up other quests along the way to level appropriately.

The stunning part of the game, though, are the roleplaying (RP) touches. If you're someone who likes to RP in other MMOs, you're going to love LOTRO. There are a dizzying array of non-combat clothing options and dyes. There are personal housing options that you can customize to death and lots and lots of emotes, even making WoW look rather sad. During the current summer, there are even dance-emote-related quests where you have to dance with an NPC in order to gain access to new emotes. LOTRO doesn't require using its RP features, but if that's your thing I can't recommend the game highly enough!

So overall, I'd suggest LOTRO over DDO Unlimited, but both are decent games at a minimum. If you're a WoW player who is burned out and looking for something else to do until the next expansion comes out, like myself, then I recommend checking out LOTRO. It's a really reasonable stop-gap.

However, the lack of a mod-authoring system (for now) makes the games feel slightly more clunky than I think they need to, so I'll likely go back to WoW when the expansion comes out... or so I think now. We'll see how I feel when I'm higher level.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Michael Moore's Latest Film: Capitalism: A Love Story

Michael Moore, director of Capitalism: A Love Story

The trailer for Capitalism: A Love Story is out, and frankly, I have no idea what to make of it. I respect Moore's dogged pursuit of a vision of the truth that you just won't see on television news. The interviews he conducts can be insightful and provocative, but at the same time, he can be a real ass. The problem with looking at a trailer like this one is that it's the bits where he's an ass that make for great trailer material, so I can't tell if this is a Bowling For Columbine-like film where he's annoying (or downright reprehensibly rude) for 10% of the film, and shockingly insightful for the other 90% or if it's just more of the Fahrenheit 9/11-style yelling at people and trying to construct situations where someone will get annoyed enough at him to take a swing. Honestly, the trailer paints the latter picture, but I'd like to hope... I'd like to hope that the old Roger & Me director has returned to remind us all that going out and interviewing the people affected by world-shaping events can never be replaced by filming a panel of "experts" in a studio.

Unrealistic? Probably, but it's a kind of unrealism I'm comfortable with. I'll probably watch it, but if he just yells at people for the entire film, I may well give up on future Moore works.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

The Mayo Burger

Sometimes I have hamburger around that's less than fresh (queue comforting music and soft focus). Typically, it's been frozen and thawed (perhaps even in the microwave) and it just doesn't hold together well enough to make a good burger from. When this happens, I usually just use a generic meatloaf recipe, and then make my hamburger patties from that instead of just plain meat. Here's my go-to recipe:
1 lb meat (85% works well, but you can mix in veal or pork as well)
1 large egg
1/4 cup bread crumbs, unseasoned
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
hot sauce to taste
Mix this by hand, folding and squeezing until it becomes uniform, and form patties onto a plate to prepare for the grill or pan.

Last night I find that I'm caught with no egg. Remembering a wonderful recipe for Mayonnaise Chocolate Cake in The Cake Bible that substituted mayonnaise for its composite ingredients: egg and oil, I reached for my big tub of mayo. This made the whole mixture more oily, so I added a bit of extra bread crumb:
1 lb meat (85% works well, but you can mix in veal or pork as well)
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1/3 cup bread crumbs, unseasoned
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 tsp onion powder
1/2 tsp garlic powder
hot sauce to taste
The resulting burgers held together perfectly, were delicious, moist and just perfect all the way around. I can't recommend these strongly enough!

Death Panels AKA Advanced Care Plan: I Finally Get It

For a long time, I really didn't understand the debate over so-called "death panels." I'd read the news. I'd read the text of the law. I'd gone back and forth, but never really got it. Now I see where the mistake was made, and why so many people are (incorrectly) upset. It's a subtle thing, but one that really can't be ignored. I finally got it when I read the recent rebuttal to former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey's comments on The Daily Show.

Here's what the crux of it is: the law (as it stands today) says that doctors can (mind you, *can*) report on some quality metrics and receive some extra payment from Medicare, above and beyond the normal payment. This amounts to a small (2%) bump in what they get paid, and they get to determine what quality metrics to report. There's just a requirement that the report on a minimum number of them. One of the (again, existing) metrics is having discussed how you want issues such as life support dealt with. Right now, that's it. You just have to report on the percentage of patients that you've had the conversation with and who have then either created appropriate documents or signed a statement saying that they don't wish to.

The new law, built into the health care reform legislation, would add a new criteria: you would also report on the percentage of times that those wishes are carried out. Therein lies the rub...

You see, this has been mis-interpreted as saying that doctors will be penalized (e.g. won't get that extra 2%) if they allow you to change your mind. This is not what the legislation says. What it says is that the doctor has to report on their enacting of the conditions of your advance care planning wishes. If you are conscious and able to communicate your wishes, then advance care planning doesn't enter into play, and thus no reporting would ever be necessary, but the way it's being portrayed is exactly the opposite.

Now, there are some gotchas. For example, you might become lucid; say "don't unplug me;" and then go back under. What now? The doctor has to decide if they should honor your stated wishes in writing or your stated wishes in person. Today, doctors and next of kin make that choice together (or should... law or no, there are always abuses). Under this law, nothing would change except for the after-the-fact review which doctors could choose to participate in or not.

This is the "death panel." An optional reporting system which considers any choice by the patient to be equally valid (e.g. your advance care planning documents might well request that every effort be made to maintain your vital statistics, and there's nothing wrong with that). Not much of a "death panel" is it? Personally, I'm disappointed. I expected there to be real, substantive debate over this legislation, but instead we're reduced to blowing minor details out of proportion and then inventing imaginary scenarios under which they become literally life-or-death issues.

This isn't the fault of conservatives. This is the fault of a minority of conservatives who push an agenda of deception and "big lie" propaganda. Don't get me wrong; they're not alone. There are a minority of liberals who enjoy exactly the same tactics. The problem is that neither one of these groups represent the majority of Americans, and we really need to demand that they shut up and let us be heard over the din of their trial-by-shouting form of debate. There are some very smart people capable of propelling this debate forward in useful ways, but they don't get a chance to be heard because they say boring things like, "of course the U.S. should have a baseline of healthcare like every other developed nation in the world, but we need to decide if we want to model it on one of the dozen or so systems that are working out there today, or if we need something unique, and if so what. Then we need to get to work on the hard part: transitioning all of our spread-out healthcare programs into the new plan so that we don't just make the problem worse." See? That has no media "zing." It just doesn't sell. So instead, we have an ill-considered rush to push forward a single, probably flawed plan before anyone can build up enough shouting to get it stopped.


Monday, August 24, 2009

iPhone Jailbreak and GV Mobile

I was unhappy enough about the lack of Google Voice on the iPhone to go out and buy an Android phone on the spot, but I figured it was the financially prudent thing to do to see what I could do with the iPhone first. I'd heard that the jailbreak community had put out one of the now-banned AppStore apps for Grand Central (now Google Voice) called GV Mobile, so I set out to check it out. What follows are my experiences and what I think of the whole thing.

First off, I hit Google, searching for jailbreak walkthroughs and found a page that gave some very nice, step-by-step instructions. I followed these and quickly had my phone running the Cydia installer. From there, I just had to search for "GV" and installed the app. Once installed, it shows up just like any other iPhone app. Nothing surprising there.

It did crash on me the first time I used it. If you do follow my lead, I suggest exiting and re-running the app as soon as you enter your Google Voice username and password and selecting the "remember" toggle. That way, you don't have to do that part over again if there's a problem.

So, it isn't at first obvious what this app does. It's not actually dialing out. Instead, it uses the same technology that Google Voice's "Web badges" use. That is, it's going to call your cell phone and simultaneously call your requested number and connect you. That way, the caller gets your Google Voice number as the callback instead of your iPhone number. you can also initiate a call from your iPhone, but have it ring any other phone to connect (e.g. your desk or home). That's what the "phone to ring" option is in the first menu you'll see.

The interface to the contact list and dialer are as expected. The only thing that irked me was that when loading the SMS, history or voicemail screens, it has to wait while it loads the data from the Web. I understand why this is the case, but it seems to me as if this could be optimized (e.g. by showing you cached data while it loads more in the background).

Voice mails play fine, though they have a noticeable pause before they start. Nothing I can't live with. It doesn't show me the transcripts along-side the voicemail, but I already have that sent to my phone via SMS, so no worries there.

Overall, I like the integration, and it was well worth having to jailbreak my phone. Who knows, perhaps I'll even test out some of the other features like the "modem" and running various shells and servers. There's a lot Apple doesn't let you do with your iPhone that I really think is worth doing. Sad. Maybe I'll check out those Android phones anyway....

Friday, August 21, 2009

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm: No Neutral Goblins; Lots of Flying

Goblins and Worgen from World of Warcraft: Cataclysm
Goblins and Worgen as depicted on's Cataclysm site

The word is out, and some of what I've predicted here is right, and some is wrong. Goblins won't be a neutral race, sadly (I really think this would have helped WoW by implying that at least one race is capable of dividing politics from the color of their skin....)

However, Goblins will be one of the two new races. Worgen will be the other. There will be flying mounts in the old world, which we've been asking for forever. Also many of the long-in-the-works items will be in Cataclysm:
  • Uldum
  • Gilneas (home of the Worgen)
  • Rated battlegrounds
The really exciting part about this expansion is that it will re-shape most of the old world, and place high and low level players in the same continents again. For PvP servers, this may not be a win, but for the rest of the servers, it's going to be nice to get a sense again that there are other players around, and not just glimpse the occasional other leveling player.

There'a lot of art samples up on MMO-Champion (who have been predicting a lot of what's coming up over the past month or two) and they've also put up a FAQ that's quite helpful, though they don't explain where it came from (something at Blizzcon, one imagines). has a really cool map up and a liveblog of the whole announcement panel.

C|Net tried to cover the announcement, but they can't even keep the links on their brief WoW article working. I'll get more info and add it here, as I can.

Other details:
  • Level cap 85
  • Worgen will be able to transform to/form wolf form
  • Goblins will save Thrall after being decimated by Deathwing, which is why the remaining goblins join the Horde
  • Large scale use of phasing (where your actions can place you in a different version of a zone than others see) will be part of the expansion
  • Every raid encounter will have a hard-mode

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Felicia Day Bringing the Funny: Do You Wanna Date My Avatar

In a music video send-up of online sex-chat ("cybor") done in collaboration with Maurissa Tancharoen & Jed Whedon (the writers/authors of Dollhouse's DVD-only Epitaph One, co-collaborators on Dr. Horrible's Sing Along Blog and much other goodness) Felicia Day's video and single based on characters from The Guild has been released. Of course, its title had to have more parenthetical than actual title: (Do You Wanna Date My) Avatar (feat. Felicia Day).

What can one say about a video like this... it's at once silly, iconic, funny, sad, accurate, even a bit sexy which is something Day's signature confused shyness has always held back. Overall, it's a knockout performance both in video and audio for Day. There's far too little of the other characters, though Vork and Zaboo have a nice, but all to brief duo. I got the impression that Robin Thorsen and Amy Okuda were not entirely sold on the idea of a video. Hopefully if this does well, we'll see more of them in upcoming efforts. Who knows, maybe there'll even be a The Guild album!

A Plan for Copyright Reform

I've been following the recent loss of rights to Superman, and what it will mean for DC Comics AKA Time/Warner AKA one of the handful of legal owners of modern American culture. Copyright expiration's benefits should now be obvious to Time Warner whose vice-like grip on Superman lasted so long that even the most obscure flaw in their copyright was uncovered. If they had been forced to continuously update their portfolio, this would never have been an issue, as they would have long since transitioned their brand identification over to newer intellectual property, rather than being forced to suddenly surrender a large portion of their interest in it.

A while back, I wrote up this plan for copyright reform that addresses such issues and explains how copyright reform benefits consumers and producers of copyrighted content.

Executive summary for those in a hurry:
  • Copyrights should expire after 10 years, but be renewable up to twice.
  • Those works which return dramatically well on their investment, and become significant to the culture should be denied renewal in order to free up our cultural touchstones for derivative works, ease of access and so forth (examples are given that demonstrate how this would benefit producers and consumers).
  • A phased approach should gradually ease the system into place to avoid administrative bottlenecks.

Copyright in the U.S. is a Constitutionally-mandated system that seeks to achieve a singular benefit: the enrichment of the public domain. It seeks to do this through providing creators of copyrightable works with a period of time when they can reap the benefits of their works exclusively, but in exchange they will eventually lose all protection and the work will enter the public domain.

So, in order to understand this fully, we need to understand what the public domain is. At its simplest, the public domain is our culture. It is the combination of symbols that we all understand, phrases that carry common meaning, works that we can all derive from or modify, etc. As an example, the works of Shakespeare are all in the public domain. There is no restriction on movie directors making a new version of Hamlet, nor are there any prohibitions against the creation of derivative works such as West Side Story (based on Romeo and Juliet) or Forbidden Planet (based on The Tempest). Because these works can be re-told in any form from a faithful reproduction to a radically different story told within the context of the original (such as Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead), our culture can continue to adapt their meaning in order to be relevant.

Copyright therefore, seeks to enrich the public domain by making the creation and publication of works profitable for a time in exchange for their eventual release. Discussion of the public domain, of course, can't exist without a discussion of fair use, and for that I direct you to an excellent fair use piece on the Google Public Policy Blog.

How long should copyright last?

There are many ways to measure the period of time over which copyrighted works should be profitable. Certainly if a work were protected for less time than it takes, on average, to recoup its publication costs, then the system has failed. On the other end of the spectrum, a work which is no longer relevant which enters the public domain might well provide little or no benefit to the culture. Moreover, works which last a very long time and are still relevant typically retain their relevance by achieving the status of cultural icon. It can certainly be argued that this process is not wholly the author's or publisher's doing. The culture itself takes part in the establishment of its own icons, and when mere popularity gives way to the entrance of a work into the cultural language, it is difficult to justify continuing to assign the benefits to an individual rather than to the culture as a whole.

The real problem here, however, is that there is no set period of time that meets these criteria. A work might return its publication investment over the course of 10 years or it might return that investment over the course of the opening weekend of a popular film. Relevance is even harder to measure. A song that was relevant to a particular generation might maintain that relevance for 20 to 40 years while a painting that was relevant to a particular change in aesthetic style might conceivably maintain that relevance indefinitely. So it becomes very difficult to set a fixed duration for copyright protection.

It is clear that for many works a period between 10 and 30 years is ideal. Even as the pace of cultural change has increased, this time period has remained fixed because it represents the period of time over which major changes in a generations tastes and interests shift.

There is also the problem of "orphaned" works. These are works that remain under copyright protection, but are not being published or performed actively, effectively removing them from the cultural landscape. In this case, copyright protection benefits no one, and therefore a means should be found to remove such protections. Typically suggestions for solving this problem have focused on the renewal of copyright after a certain period of time, which serves to neatly resolve the issue, but might create a new sort of problem where publishers simple mass-renew all works for which they hold rights without any intention of further publication.

Multiple durations

Instead of assigning a single number to copyright term, this proposal seeks to benefit authors and publishers in multiple classes. These classes are:
  • Orphaned works
  • Actively published works
  • Culturally significant works
In the case of the first and second categories, works are protected for a term of 10 years. This term can be renewed up to two times for a total of 30 years. However, each renewal comes with two caveats. The first addresses orphaned works: the party renewing a copyright must publish, perform or display the work to a significant audience within one year of renewal or be in default of their copyright. This default can result in loss of copyright and fines (though fines should only be collected in cases where no attempt to publish or perform the work was made). A list of revoked renewals must be published every year so that the public can be sure of which works have been revoked.

As with the current system, copyright for the first 10 years would be automatic. That is, there is no need to file to protect copyright of a work until it is 10 years old.

Culturally significant works would be protected by the same system. However, each year a panel of experts, appointees and other interested parties would meet to determine which (if any) expiring works have both become culturally significant and have benefited their authors and publishers far beyond the norm. For example, a movie which has earned many times its original costs and which is still widely popular and involved in the culture might qualify. These culturally significant works are not renewed (either at the 10 or 20 year renewal), as it is assumed that they have both benefited their creators substantially and have rapidly ingrained themselves upon the cultural landscape. What's more, most such works will have already spurred the creation of follow-on works which are still protected.

As an example of this final category, let us use the 1977 film, Star Wars. In this extraordinary case, the studio responsible for publishing the film, within three weeks of the film's release saw their stock price doubled to a record high. It would be difficult to argue, 10 years later in 1987 with two sequels one of which made $538 million worldwide, that 20th Century Fox had not reaped the rewards of this film. It is also unarguably the case that Star Wars had entered into the cultural language. The film spawned a generation of explosive growth in the science fiction film industry, a revival in science fiction writing and no end of fan films, parody and homage, not just in film but in song, art and other media which continues to this day. Removing copyright protection from this film would have left George Lucas an multi-millionaire in charge of one of the most successful special effects studios in the world among other roles, and 20th Century Fox would have had a decade to re-invest the rich proceeds that the film netted them.

The goal is not to remove protections from works which are hitting the zenith of their potential returns, but rather to slide the scale back to account for those rare works which so rapidly integrate themselves into our culture that they have already achieved that zenith long before comparable works would have.

It is also important to note that different media have different metrics for success. Comparisons between media should never be made in absolute terms (where obviously, film dominates the equation).

The short version

This plan therefore calls for:
  • 10 year copyright terms
  • Ability to renew copyright term twice (total of 30 years)
  • No requirement for registration for the first 10 years
  • Registration required for subsequent renewals
  • Renewal blocked for the most successful and culturally significant works


The year is currently 2008. Let's review what this might mean to our existing world of film this year (assuming no transition period, which would almost certainly exist, for sake of example). Films are used as an example, here, because they are a media format that most people are exposed to and which have relatively widely published revenue statistics from which to make a first-pass judgement of success.

The first impact would be to films released in 1998. Here is a list of some films that would likely be renewed and continue to be covered by copyright, sorted by worldwide box-office returns:
  • Armageddon
  • Saving Private Ryan
  • Godzilla
  • There's Something About Mary
  • A Bug's Life
  • Deep Impact
  • Mulan
With 10 years' perspective it's fair to say that while they were successful, none of these films dramatically redefined their cultural niche, though Saving Private Ryan might come close. There is some chance that that film might be identified as culturally significant enough to release to the public domain. It's more likely that within the film media, all renewals would be granted for 1998.

1988 on the other hand, saw the release of Rain Man, a film whose cultural impact was quite significant and whose financial success far outstripped its mere $25 million budget. It might well not be renewed, but again, this is a difficult call and all renewals might well be approved.

Films from 1978 would expire into the public domain this year. These would include:
  • Grease
  • Superman
  • Jaws 2
  • Halloween
  • Animal House
  • The Deer Hunter
All of these films are either considered "classics" (Grease) or have largely been left out of the cultural collective memory (Jaws 2). Of them, Superman is probably the only film that might have been released to the public domain early (due to its redefinition of the superhero genre in film and the subsequent, though delayed, impact that that has had). Keep in mind that it would have been based on the Superman comics which would have long-since begun expiring, so while copyright would protect the script, the characters would already be available for other works. In fact, the realities of such a system might not foster such long-lived, iconic franchises but rather new and original characters who are derived from themes but not specific characters from previously expired works. As previously mentioned this would include works such as West Side Story and Forbidden Planet which create newly copyrightable works out of existing, public domain themes and storylines.

Transition plan

The easiest way to transition from the existing period of copyright to the new would be to consider all currently copyrighted works to have been newly released in the year the legislation changes are passed. This provides them with an additional 10 years of absolute protection and as much as 30 years in most cases. This quickly eliminates concerns that any existing business will be impacted immediately and even for the most iconic items of the last century which would be expired upon the first application for renewal, 10 years is more than sufficient time to make appropriate plans.

There are problems with this simple plan, however. First of all, it would lead to a massive inflow of renewal applications 10 years after the laws were changed. That would place a large burden on the U.S. Patent and Trademark offices. Further, it would be very difficult to identify the most culturally significant and successful works from most of a century all at once.

To ease the transition, works could be staggered by decade. Those works produced in the late 1920s would be up for renewal in 10 years after the laws were changed. The next year, works from the 1930s would be up for renewal. The next year, works from the 1940s and so on. In this way, works produced in the 1990s would actually have as much as 37 years of protection, and the surge of old works requiring renewal would increase each year for 8 years (or 9 depending on when such laws were enacted) and then the cycle would begin anew with the 20th anniversary of the law and the second renewal. This would also give the public domain interests (libraries, archives and universities for the most part) time to absorb these newly released works.

Side effects

This plan has many side effects, some of which are foreseeable and some of which most likely are not. Of those that can be foreseen, the widest impact comes from the industry practices in print, film and other media which surround current copyright law. Royalties, for example, are a common compensation tool used to supplement payments to authors, artists and performers. These royalties have been calibrated over time based on expected returns and any change to the copyright system could impact those returns (though it should not be assumed that revenue related to a work whose copyright has expired would drop to zero). These side effects certainly argue for the careful transition from one implementation of copyright law to another, however, new royalties arrangements can easily be devised which accommodate the new system.

Another interesting side-effect would be the change in the relationship between print and film. Today, most works of fiction printed by major publishers are immediately "optioned" for film rights regardless of the likelihood that a film will actually be made. If copyright expired after 10 years on works which the publisher saw no value in renewing then this optioning process might become secondary to finding untapped wells of quality fiction in books which had not caught the public attention. In one sense this is an excellent benefit to the culture, as orphaned works would be revived and renewed. In another sense, authors and publishers might see fewer optioning agreements for works which were ultimately not likely to become films. Since it was never the purpose of copyright law to provide this sort of arbitrage over the potential value of works transitioning from one media to another, it does not seem as if contracting that market would alter the value of copyright law, but it is one more item to consider.

More generally, these changes would result in an explosion in the depth and breadth of the works available to the public domain. What impact that will have is difficult to predict, but certainly that is more in line with the original intent of the Constitution than the current system that the U.S. has.

International ramifications

Internationally, the U.S. has signed treaties agreeing to extremely long-lived copyright terms. These treaties would have to be re-negotiated in order to move forward with a new copyright system. However, the effort required to accomplish this would be returned. Today copyright is routinely violated in some countries. However, if there were a rich well of relatively modern public domain works to draw on there would be radically less incentive to infringe on the remaining, shorter-term copyrights. This is a simple result of the change in cost-benefit. If you can duplicate decade-old DVDs of the most popular movies of the age without any risk, most of the businesses that infringe today would do so. Only a handful would continue to infringe on existing copyrights and those would be easier to police and contain as examples.


Something must be done about copyright law. Today, the U.S. is working hard to extend copyright law as far as the U.S. Supreme Court will allow, and this will ultimately negate the benefit that the Constitution foresaw in granting copyright protection in the first place. Ultimately, these laws become a subsidy to the entertainment industry rather than a mutually beneficial relationship between producer and consumer of artistic work of all media.

While this plan would be likely to produce useful results, any number of alternatives have been proposed. The key elements of sustainable and enforceable copyright law are:
  • Expiration of copyright within a short number of decades
  • Consideration of "orphaned" works
  • Public access to expired works
Any plan that addresses these concerns will substantially improve the situation.

Side issues and special cases

There are a number of additional issues which plague the current copyright system. I have not addressed many of them above, since the goal was to provide a concise plan to address the largest issues. However, it is worth noting some of these issues before moving on from the topic.


Computer software has been gathered up under copyright law, and yet it doesn't actually fit within the scope of the original concept of copyright. It may be that proper addressing of software might not be possible without also dealing with software patents and trade secrets. These three areas of protection should work in concert to provide sufficient protections to software authors and publishers without stifling innovation. What makes this even more complex, however, is the fact that open source software development's success has demonstrated that such protections may not be as strongly needed in the software field in order to spur innovation. Certainly the success of companies such as Google, Red Hat Software and even older players such as IBM in the open source model can be used as examples in crafting a form of protections that benefit all software developers and users.

Audience participation in creation of new works

As technology fosters more and more of the creativity involved in the creation of copyrighted work to be collaborative, the line between publisher and consumer becomes less defined. In modern interactive art forms such as massively multiplayer video games (MMOs), increasingly the user is partaking in the development of the storyline associated with their avatar or character. This is a very complex and difficult relationship to understand under modern copyright law, which is why such interactive art forms tend to come with long and complex legal agreements which consumers must agree to before they are granted access. It is unclear if there is a way to modify copyright law to address these issues, but as games like Second Life have demonstrated, the lines between interactive fiction and financial markets may not be as thick as they once were, and if the law can ease this transition without imposing short-sighted expectations, then it should.