Joel made easier

Joel Spolsky has redesigned his site, highlighting his best articles, divided by job title (developer, manager, UI designer, CEO, etc.).  It’s a good excuse to go read or re-read them.

Joel is very smart, though he hides this with an easy, humorous style, and his advice is always sensible– generally tossing cold water on panaceas and rigid systems.  I think he’s particularly good on management of software projects, but the site is like candy– you can just keep reading good, thought-provoking articles all day.


A TF2 thought

There are no bad classes in TF2, only bad players.  

This occurred to me watching Chan, who’s frighteningly good as a sniper, playing scout (on Mach4 with just 2 players per team).  I kinda like playing scout, but I never thought of it as a terribly effective class: he’s made of paper and his shotgun is not that deadly.  But it was an education to watch Chan— he had no fear of the level 3 sentry defending the intel.  I’m not sure how he did it, though part of it is his incredible aim.  The shottie is effective if it always hits…

What we’re good at

Alert reader Alon Levy responded to my question about industries where the US is still on top:

Right now, I’d say the number one answer is semiconductors. The semiconductor/hi-tech industry is powering the Bay Area and Dallas. In addition, several Midwestern cities – Pittsburgh, Indianapolis, St. Louis – are trying to develop strong health care and biotech industries.

Usually, the objection to these industries is that they’re highly specialized, and require much more education than most Americans have— at least, that’s the main objection I’ve encountered. The answer is that as late as the 1940s, the same could be said about the auto industry: it produced a very specialized item, and required its workers to have completed high schools, which at the time most Americans hadn’t. In fact, today’s auto populism has a lot of parallels with the farm populism of William Jennings Bryan.

I think it makes sense in general that our continuing advantage will be in high-tech and other things that require good education; and the nice thing about this analysis is that it comes with a policy prescription: focus on education.  We already have a formidable university system… the problem is in primary and secondary education, where we lag most industrial countries and many non-industrial ones. 

That Malcolm Gladwell has a New Yorker article pointing out the huge difference between good and bad teachers: one finding is that a good teacher can advance students 1.5 years in a class year; bad teachers, just 0.5 years.  So, we should hire good teachers instead of bad ones.  But, as he points out, almost nothing predicts teaching excellence— especially not the teacher’s own education level.

My worry about tossing the American auto industry is that transportation technology seems like it’s an industry that Americans should be leading in. It’s hard to imagine Detroit doing the leading, to be sure.  But transplanted Japanese and German factories aren’t going to do it either.

Do we need an auto industry?

Interesting article from Daniel Gross at Slate on the auto industry crisis:

Bottom line: it’s not just cantankerousness that makes some Southern Republicans eager to see the American auto industry disappear, with its three million jobs.  They’ve become familiar with their own non-union, foreign-owned auto plants, and they don’t see why we should keep propping up a declining system.

They have a point– though it’s undercut by the fact that those states attracted foreign investment with hefty state-level tax breaks and subsidies.

I don’t know that there’s any great answer to Detroit’s problem.  But I worry about losing an entire industry.  Transplants are not the same thing.  What does the US do better than anyone else?  According to Neal Stephenson, music, movies, programming, and high-speed pizza delivery.  (I wonder what the real answer is, and what if anything it’ll be in 30 years.)

2008ish Games

I was reading the year-end games wrap-up at Slate, and I’m struck by the breeziness that seems to be required of a games critic: there are so many games that they can play each one only for a few days.  You can see this in Yahtzee’s review of Mirror’s Edge, where he expresses glee that he got it over with in one day.   I can’t really get into Penny Arcade for the same reason: the percentage of jokes that relate to games I’ve played is way too low.  Many games these days are designed to be long-lasting and immersive, so this kind of treatment is a little artificial.

My level of gaming probably hasn’t changed much… only it used to be almost entirely one game, Civilization.  I ended up playing quite a few games this year, and I thought I’d amuse myself ranking them in order.

  • Portal – Almost an art game; this could easily have been a Flash puzzle, but unaccountably, rendering it in lush immersive first-person turns it into a classic.
  • Fallout 3 – I love sandbox games, and this is the sandboxiest. 
  • Team Fortress 2 – First multiplayer game that’s really hooked me.  Someday I hope to be good at it.
  • Half-life 2 – Valve is amazing. 
  • Jade Empire – Very high on the fun factor; it’s just a blast living in a martial arts movie.  Downgraded a bit because it’s over quickly. 
  • Left 4 Dead
  • Second Life – considered as an RPG.  It takes some effort, but you can have a really interesting RP experience here, combining the depth and unpredictability of actual human players with the immersiveness of a good graphics and physics engine.  The biggest downside for RP is that the combat systems all suck.  (And human players inevitably bring too much drama.)
  • Mass Effect – Good, but maybe a little too serious.  It’s space opera after all; the Capt. Kirk earnestness makes it drier than it has to be.  Bioware also has an annoyingly restrictive idea of evil (mostly it comes down to being a blowhard).  I like the romance angle though.
  • Sid Meier’s Pirates – This was fun for a few evenings, but started to feel repetitive. 
  • Silkroad Online – I tried this in hopes of re-creating some of the Asian-flavored fun of Jade Empire.  Not bad, but eventually the grind got to me: a typical quest is “kill 200 of monster X”.   The trading aspect might be fun to do with friends.
  • Shaiya – My first exposure to WOW style games.  Interesting for awhile, but  quests that don’t really change the world at all end up jarring my suspension of disbelief.
  • Culpa Innata – Would I recommend this to my friends?  No, because they generally prefer just shooting things.  Fascinating world; clunky dialog.
  • Spore – Really pretty; also really pretty shallow.  It’s a lot of fun to see your friends’ creations in-game; but it all seems overbuilt for the level of gameplay supported.  When a game’s idea of a quest is “move from point A to point B, as indicated on the minimap”, I just don’t feel like replaying it.

Ups and downs with Fallout 3

A few days ago, I got to about level 14, and realized that I was finally getting on top of the game.  I was barely eking by before– my loot after each mission was only just enough to buy ammo and stimpaks and repair weapons.  But then one quest gave me 2100 caps, another left me with over 25 stimpaks, and I have ammo to burn.  Plus I can take out almost anything. 

Not much later, I checked the Fallout wiki, and learned that I’d already finished almost all of the side quests.  This makes me sad.  I love the open-endedness of the Bethesda games, and the Fallout 3 quests, compared to Oblivion, can be solved in more ways and with a much wider range of moral choices. 

Also realized, I was a pretty ugly kid.  Though I think I grew up nicely.

Growing up

Still, it should take awhile yet.  (You people who’ve finished already, how did you do it? I thought I had time on my hands.)  There are a few meaty quests left, plus interesting locations like Raider strongholds that aren’t even quests.  I could take a fair amount of time just collecting things for people who want them: scrap metal, Sugar Bombs, map locations, pre-war books, holotags, radioactive cola, and fingers.

One thing I could use less of, though: crashes.  The game just freezes up sometimes– mostly, for some reason, in small rooms.  I can wander the Wasteland for hours, but go into a small house and it crashes.  It made the Tranquility Lane quest almost unplayable, which is a pity, since I’d’ve liked to explore it more.

How do I get rid of this thing?

My new computer has an on-screen display that appears whenever you press caps lock, num lock, or scroll lock:

Damned OSD
Damned OSD

The problem is, when playing games like TF2, the appearance of this thing screws up the game.  The computer returns to the desktop and there’s no way to return to the game; I have to get into Task Manager and abort the game.  And the caps lock key is all too easy to hit accidentally.

I spent an hour Googling this and trying out control panel options, and I can’t even find what puts up this OSD, much less how to remove it.  So, does anyone recognize this thing and know how to blow it away?

It’s a Gateway PC (and a Gateway keyboard) running Windows Vista.   The widget has no properties and none of the tray icons seem to be associated with it.  I haven’t downloaded any interesting drivers.  I assume it’s a “feature” of Gateway since the keyboard has no indicators, but there’s no information about it in the Gateway docs.

Edit: it’s not BTTray, which I don’t even have on my computer.

Saving the world with fist and gun

Saw Quantum of Solace over Thanksgiving.  What you want to know as a Bond movie consumer is:

a) Is Daniel Craig cool as Bond? 
b) Are there quant. suff. of high-speed chases, dramatic fights, exotic locations, depraved villains, and shaggable women?

Don’t worry; the answer to both questions is a solid yes.  And as an added plus, there are naked women in the title sequence again!

But I have to say, this was one incoherent flick.  Besides a few mentions of Vesper Lynd, there’s no evident connection to the last movie.  I’m sure the screenwriters had some in mind; they just didn’t care to fill us in.  A perfect example (and a spoiler, so watch out): at the end of the movie, the main villain says something like “I’ve answered all your questions about Quantum.”  But we didn’t see either the questions or the answers.  Clearly, there was no intention for the viewers to have questions or need explanations at this point; that is, there is no plot. 

Events seem reasonable enough as they happen, but they make no sense if you think them over.  The villain is making a play for Bolivian water resources… come on, that’s like Dr. Evil’s demand for one million dollars.  In La Paz, Bond is dissatisfied with his fleabag hotel and moves to a luxury hotel– despite theoretically being on his own resources, and despite the last movie’s considerable effort to establish this Bond as more of a thug than a socialite. 

What the moviemakers did focus on was the relationship between Bond and M.  And that works. (Well, if you accept the basic premise of Bond films, that a lone superagent can solve our geopolitical problems.  But if you’re watching a Bond film you accept that, at least for a couple of hours.)

The first half-hour or so shows off some rather neat technology, notably a tabletop monitor supporting multiple touch points, as well as some use of Bond’s PDA that make him, for once, seem like he’s actually part of a global intelligence organization.