April 30, 2007

They're throwing FUD again!

The problem is the FUD is losing its consistency. Steve Ballmer, interviewed on USA Today's site:
Q: People get passionate when Apple comes out with something new — the iPhone; of course, the iPod. Is that something that you'd want them to feel about Microsoft?

A: It's sort of a funny question. Would I trade 96% of the market for 4% of the market? (Laughter.) I want to have products that appeal to everybody.

Now we'll get a chance to go through this again in phones and music players. There's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It's a $500 subsidized item. They may make a lot of money. But if you actually take a look at the 1.3 billion phones that get sold, I'd prefer to have our software in 60% or 70% or 80% of them, than I would to have 2% or 3%, which is what Apple might get.

So let's see. First of all, where did that 96% market share come from? Ah, yes, the Windows share of desktops, at least according to Microsoft. Fair enough. But note: that has nothing to do with the question asked. Nor does it have anything to do with his next point, which is all about the iPhone - because nobody has 96% of the cell phone OS market, least of all MS. Nor do they have anywhere near the '60-80%' he brackets his bleak prediction of iPhone market share with.

Ballmer is forced to admit that yes, indeed, that with the iPhone Apple 'might make a lot of money.' But that's not what he wants. He wants market share.

This from a man whose company just rushed a Toshiba-built DAP onto the market with a resounding whimper?

We'll see, Steve B.

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April 27, 2007

The iPhone and Mobipocket titles?

I'm quite looking forward to the iPhone, indeedy-deed. I use a Treo 650 for my personal phone and a Blackberry 8700 for my work phone, and I have serious hatred issues with both of them. The Berry, while satisfying my 'always on the web' cravings tolerably well (I don't consider EDGE too slow for handheld use) suffers from not having a media slot and being an absolutely abysmal phone. I want my cell to be a phone, damn it. My Kyocera 7135 was a phone first and a Palm second, and while that gave its Palm side short shrift sometimes, that's what I wanted. If I was more concerned about carrying portable computing power I'd carry a frigging OQO.

The Treo 650 is still soldiering on after two years of hard use, for which I must give it full marks. It's scarred and beaten, but unbowed. It has a completely useless camera and a more useful MiniSD slot, big plus on the latter. The reason for my approval here is that the Treo also serves, in around 95% of its non-phone use, as my pocket book reader using Mobipocket's software.

I buy my e-books mostly from Baen Books' Webscriptions site - DRM-free Mobipocket format sci-fi. I have maybe 135 titles in my Palm at any given time, pretty much guaranteeing that if I find myself stuck in an airport or train station for twenty minutes, I can at least zone out to a fun book.

The iPhone, it appears, has little chance of gaining Mobipocket functionality. If Apple is being as stingy with dev kits as is being whispered, that doesn't bode well. So what to do? This is sort of a big deal for me. As I see it so far, I have a few options.

  • Hope that a) there will be an Apple-approved ebook reader and that b) I can convert the titles if need be.
  • Find a hack.

Well, I'll be ecstatic if a) comes to pass, but I've been noodling about b) anyway. It occurs to me that at the most industrious end of the scale, I could try to get a Mobipocket-format capable reader that is implemented as a Java Applet and which would run inside Safari (although, I must admit, I have no idea if there will be a full JVM on the iPhone). That leaves only the problem of where to store the books, at least, such that the applet could read them.

I might mail them to myself, embedded in HTML. I wonder if the iPhone would cache them in mail.app and then open them with a reader? Perhaps I could render them as PDFs, first. That might help.

Hmf. It all seems so convoluted.

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Blast from the Past: More things to do on the Acela!

DEFCON is good if you're solo. What to do if you're on the Acela with another person? My friendly neighborhood sci-fi store has the answer, in the form of something I thought was long gone...but apparently is back in production. They were as surprised as I was when it showed up in the distributor's catalog, and I promptly reserved the first copy they got.


Oh, Spaceship ZNUTAR, I have missed you.

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April 26, 2007

Talk to me, Mr. Bush, about threats to Democracy.

Talk real fast and hard. Better yet, talk to the Special Counsel. Or to Congress. If you actually believe any of the platitudes you spout about our way of life and our country, start talking. Honestly and quickly.

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April 25, 2007

Nobody does dystopia like the British.

Finally saw Children of Men. Nobody does dystopias like the British. I wonder if it has to do with watching an Empire recede across the sands. If so, I wonder if the U.S. will get as good at it in the coming years.

Fuck, I'm a depressing wanker.

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April 23, 2007

How to receive nervous looks on the train.

I have found a new and effective method of garnering furtive looks of horror aboard public transportation. It involves, as did my previous efforts, my trusty Powerbook. My favorite used to be the watching of abysmally bad movies, complete with occasional happy chuckle despite headphones; luring seatmates into covertly looking over and seeing their faces freeze as they recognized Freejack or John Carpenter's Vampires is worth the temporary loss of brain function that watching said movies will cause. Besides, when trapped on an Acela or 737, sometimes that loss of function is desirable anaesthesia.

But no, I have a new passion.

Its name is DEFCON.

Introversion Software, who brought us the game of hacking called Uplink several years ago and more recently the critically acclaimed vector Real-Time Strategy title Darwinia, have come up with this gem. Reusing a great deal of their simple but effective artwork from Uplink, they have created an icon of my 1980s nightmares and dreams.

Everybody Dies.

This is an exquisitely succinct summation of the game itself. The game, as can be deduced from its title, is no less than a playable simulation of your favorite and mine, Global Thermonuclear War. What makes it brilliant is the visual design and the playability. Let me take you through a quick notional game by way of explanation.

The Setup

You choose a Bloc to play. You can play North America, South/Middle America, Europe, The Soviet Bloc, Africa, or Southeast Asia. Up to six players at once can thus face off. Choose a color. As the game begins, the world is at DEFCON 5; a timer indicates the time until DEFCON 4 is reached. The assumption, I presume, is that those damn diplomats have screwed everything up and it's up to you (the warfighter) to make good on their threats. Operational diplomacy is possible; Diplomacy (the game) style maneuverings are encouraged, as alliance blocs can be joined and broken during play! Ah, backstabbing.

Enemy Launch Detected!

The Pieces

In the interest of avoiding information overload, there are really only a few play pieces, which you must place] somewhere in your territory at the start of play (during the DEFCON 5 period). On land, you can situate radar stations, airbases and silos; at sea, fleets consisting of battleships, carriers and/or submarines. Airbases can launch either fighters or bombers. Carriers can do the same, as well as go into antisubmarine mode. Silos can operate in either air defense or ICBM launch mode. It takes time to switch between modes, and units have a limited number of expendables - fighters, bombers, or ICBMS. SAMs are infinite and simply have an interval timer, and fighters will slowly regenerate. Submarines can operate in passive sonar mode, where they merely move from place to place and try to avoid being seen; active sonar mode, where they can (poorly) attack surface vessels, and SLBM launch mode where they can loft their limited number of nukes.

Launching anything, naturally, makes your unit visible to early warning systems, even if it's not currently within radar range of an enemy unit.

ICBM launch mode: 128 seconds

Gameplay Gameplay moves in phases, each phase being a different DEFCON level. At DEFCON 5 ("peace") all you can do is place your units and give mobile units movement orders. At DEFCON 4, you can invade enemy territory/airspace, and units will automatically engage each other; at 3, you can launch bomber strikes, etcetera. A large and foreboding timer scrolls down at the center bottom of the screen: DEFCON 4 in 13:45. This is a RTS, so units move continuously; you can change their orders at any time by simply clicking and dragging. If you are playing solo, you can change the time compression using a standard set of arrow controls (one, two, three or four arrows). If you are playing in a network game, you can requesta time compression change, and the other players will be given a chance to aquiesce or refuse.

I haven't yet had the opportunity to coerce...er, entice any of my friends into purchasing the game and having a go 'round, so I can't tell you how well the alliance/diplomacy bits work. If they work as well as the rest of it, I'd say I'll be quite happy with the mechanics. The interface is smooth; there are a few UI design issues which are eminently fixable. For example, the game field (a Mercator projection world map) scrolls smoothly about as you move your cursor near to the edges. However, the time compression controls are at the top of the screen, so moving to them causes the field to scroll as you approach. You can zoom out to fullscreen to prevent this, but it's annoying. It's also possible to have the unit info window (fixed at the bottom right) actually overlay units on the map. Still, these are minor quirks; the interface is generally only noticeable in those few moments when its deficiencies become jarring. The rest of the time, it just is, which is what you want.

There are various modes of play. There is a standard game; there is a 'quick' game, compressed even further. There's one I'm dying to try, called 'office,' which is played over a network with friends in realtime over the course of a day - missiles take ~20 minutes to traverse their paths, and you have time to sweat and watch everything go to pieces in realtime slow motion. The network game is played by a player creating a master server and others joining. Thanks to Ambrosia Software, there is now a Macintosh OS X version of the game (which I'm using) in addition to the original Windows version; Ambrosia also promises a patch to allow Linux users to get in on the megadeaths. It's OpenGL and plays smooth as butter on my 1 GHz Powerbook G4, and is distributed as a Universal binary for Macs.

Beograd hit: 1.4M dead


SImple. As the game says: Nobody wins - but maybe you can lose the least. You can try to play a full counterforce game, but the game is scored in terms of how many kills you get, how many civilians you lose, and how many nukes you have left at the end. Once DEFCON 1 is reached (and the nukes really start flying) it's not about saving 'em for later, trust me.

The design is really excellent. It's simple strategy at the outset during placement - pick your enemies and place your units to face them; choose a defense-in-depth versus a frontal wall, etc. During the game, it's simple maneuver - if you're careful, you can maximize your units' placement - but it's not a true maneuver wargme, because the timers ensure you don't have the game length to really move units around the board. You have the time to adjust your units' initial placement, and that's all. Finally, during the Global Thermonuclear War phase, you get to push the button and see how well you set up your armageddon.

Incoming Nuclear Weapons: Impact in 348 Seconds

Look and Feel

This is the genius bit. The entire game is built using vector graphics, brightly lit on a black field. The look of it closely hews to the displays prominently featured in the iconic '80s movie Wargames - if you can remember at all the scenarios that Joshua was spinning out on the displays in Cheyenne Mountain, then you know pretty much exactly what DEFCON looks like on your computer. The same hazy glows to indicate unknown territory; the same angular bright line icons to indicate units; the same sprouting flowers of arcs to show the moment of truth when the missiles climb out. That's what always arrests the attention of the passenger next to me - that impossible to miss image of a world map drawn in glowing blue-white lines, with green and red bullet shapes climbing slowly out from the continental US and Russia, leaving arcing lines behind them as I frantically click around the Atlantic ocean, moving submarines and carriers into position for the followup strike.

The only thing missing is the haunting music.

Oh wait; no it's not. The game has that too. Turn your speakers up.

Introversion Software (http://introversion.co.uk) - Windows Version
Ambrosia Software (http://ambrosiasw.com) - Mac OS X / Linux(?) Versions
Shareware - Playable Demo (limited to 1 AI player and 1 game mode, only 1 demo player per network game) downloadable; $25.00 for full license code.

Posted by jbz at 8:17 PM | Comments (0) | TrackBack

April 17, 2007

Is it any surprise...

...that it's lawyers for Bush volunteers that would resort to the argument that the president can exclude people if he disagrees with them from taxpayer-funded events?

Didn't think so.

The phrase "first up against the fucking wall when the revolution comes" is gaining piquancy at remarkable speed.

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April 14, 2007

Repairing the damage

This is a fascinating interview with Daniel Metcalfe, a senior attorney at the U.S. Dept. of Justice, who retired in 2006 as the director of the Office of Information and Privacy - the office that handles government secrecy and the FOIA. I won't comment on his opinions re: the current state of affairs at Justice, but he brings up a sharp point that few folks are discussing (at least, that I've seen). He notes:
But that strong tradition of independence over the previous 30 years was shattered in 2005 with the arrival of the White House counsel as a second-term AG. All sworn assurances to the contrary notwithstanding, it was as if the White House and Justice Department now were artificially tied at the hip -- through their public affairs, legislative affairs and legal policy offices, for example, as well as where you ordinarily would expect such a connection (i.e., Justice's Office of Legal Counsel). I attended many meetings in which this total lack of distance became quite clear, as if the current crop of political appointees in those offices weren't even aware of the important administration-of-justice principles that they were trampling.

This matters greatly to Justice Department employees of my generation. They are now the senior career cadre there, with the high-grade institutional knowledge that carries the department from one administration to the next, and when they see a new attorney general come from the White House Counsel's Office with a wave of young "Bushies" in tow and find their worst expectations quickly met, they just as quickly lose respect for nearly all of the department's political leadership, not to mention that leadership's "policy concerns." That respect is a vital thing, as fragile as it is essential, and now it's gone.

This is something that is extremely worrying. As the process of discovering what went on at DOJ grinds forward, pulled this way and that by various agendas and points of view (even if with the best motives), it must be kept clearly in mind that the DOJ is one of the rocks on which our Federal Government rests. The trust that the career personnel have in their leadership, in the very system within which that leadership operates, is critical. If enough DOJ personnel become disgusted or disillusioned or simply fired, at some point the 'glue' of any organization - the tacit knowledge base and value system shared among and passed down by its career or long-term members - will be lost or degraded.

Can we afford that? I contend that we cannot. We must keep in mind that any investigation of DOJ, of those who worked there, and what happened there, must be done with the clear understanding that the objective is the preservation and, if necessary, restoration of the traditional functioning of the Department.

Thanks to Laura Rozen's War and Piece, without which I wouldn't have seen this article.

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April 13, 2007

The Economist Misses the Point Entirely

The Economist snerks that Apple has 'missed' by making the iPhone an EDGE device as opposed to, say, EV-DO. They say that the age and slow speed of EDGE (AT&T/Cingular's data service) is such that it is easily eclipsed by offerings from Verizon and future WiMax rollouts, and that the iPhone is crippled by design for relying on GSM cellular and EDGE.

Well, there are a couple of problems with that analysis. First, Apple didn't originally pitch the iPhone to an EDGE provider, if we recall - they pitched it to Verizon, who has (ta-daa) that same EV-DO that the Econ is so hopped on. Verizon, however, didn't like Apple's terms and took a pass. No doubt The Big E would tell us that Apple's arrogance blew its chances of having a modern data network.

The second point is that the iPhone is only at most tangentially about the radio platform. The technology at that level is entirely irrelevant to the iPhone as a market strategy. Apple users don't want to know what frequency the gizmo works on- they just want it to work well, and smoothly. If AT&T/Cingular was willing to make the investments to make some of the cooler UI bits work (random-access voicemail, finally) then going with them was the right choice, by this philosophy.

Third, as I've muttered about before, the iPhone offers Apple a chance - if it works - to give the entire cellular industry (and not just EV-DO) a sharp stick in the eye. By moving to a WiMax/WiFi radio handset in a later model, and moving to a VoIP framework for voice transmission using a routing, billing and management (not radio) back-end infrastructure that Apple controls itself (and bills for) they can change the entire game. They can do that without violating any exclusivity agreement with AT&T, if that agreement describes 'cellular handsets.' Want to take bets?

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April 6, 2007

The Justice Department.

Your tax dollars at work, protecting you.

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April 4, 2007

Overheard in NYC FTW

Best. Overheard. This year.

Scene: Coffee bar in the West Village, NYC. Me: Standing in line for coffee.

Well-coiffed man at booth (WCM): Dude, you have faggro.

Artfully Less-Well-Coiffed Man (LWCM): Ooh! Where?

WCM: It's the boy from marketing. Leather jacket boy. He's by the bar.

LWCM: Oh, man, he's cute. I gotta clean this coffee spill first, tank for me.

WCM: He's not my type.

LWCM: That's why you can tank. I'll be back in a minute. There'll be a seat for him.

WCM: (audibly tolerant) Fi-i-ine. But you have one minute. Then I pop shield wall whether you're back or not.

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