Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Why I Am Leery of Enjoying FAILblog Too Much

Alan Wiggins was one of the key success stories for the San Diego Padres in 1984. Making the very difficult move from the outfield to second base, he had gotten along well defensively and contributed steadily on offense, enabling the Padres to get an extra bat in the lineup. In spring training of 1985 Wiggins confessed that he had developed a dependence on drugs, and needed to fight his way clear of it. The Padres were understanding of this, up to a point, but in the second week of the season Wiggins had a relapse, and had to seek further treatment.

It was late June when he was ready to return to the team, but by this time the Padres were playing real well, and they had reached the conclusion that they didn't really need Alan Wiggins -- not only that they didn't need him, but that he did not deserve to walk among them anymore; yessir, they took a vote on it, and they decided that they just didn't want any of his kind around. The owner of the team took the same position, and took it with such determination that it was clear she would, if need be, fight in court for the right to throw Alan Wiggins away like a lump of rotten cheese.

Now that was, to tell the truth, a right arrogant, self-righteous attitude, and as I think I mentioned earlier in the book, it has been my experience that the Lord rarely wastes much time in punishing this particular failing in us. I mean, I've found that a lot of times it is just damned difficult to figure out what the Old Bugger is up to; I don't know too much about it, but I was raised to believe in God, and there are a number of areas which I was led to believe were his assignment to which it seems to me he don't pay as much attention as he might. He is, however, quite alert to punishing arrogance and re-instructing us in humility; in fact, I think this is the only one among his deific duties that he really enjoys, and I've found that he can be tremendously creative in accomplishing this task swiftly."

- Bill James, originally from the San Diego Padres comment in the 1986 Baseball Abstract, reprinted in This Time Let's Not Eat The Bones

Blast From The Past: The Canonical D&D 3.5 Alignments, As Chosen By Me

Before I started my first Contrarian Bias blog, I used to write a little-known and unremembered gaming blog called Simulation 16 on the TypePad service. Unfortunately, when I left TypePad, I didn't think to take my writing with me.

Enter the Internet Wayback Machine.

It's not perfect, but it's enabled me to find some of the writing I did back when I didn't know how to write for the web. One of my favorite pieces is the following, a list of the nine D&D alignments as they existed prior to the new 4th edition, and the iconic characters I decided to associate with each of those alignments.

(Note: Many of the links from the original post are now, sadly, defunct, but I've left in a few that I could confirm still function, years after the original essay was posted.)

* * *

Wizards of the Coast seems to have introduced the concept of the 'iconic character' to D&D - there are a number of characters in the Player's Handbook intended mainly to give players an idea of the 'look and feel' of the various classes in the game. The same is true of the various prestige classes listed in different WotC-published D&D supplements (to the point where, even before D&D 3.5 came out, Ed Stark noted that there are more iconic characters than character classes).

Interestingly, there have never really been characters created to illustrate the game's alignment rules. One could argue that you could 'retrofit' the existing iconic class-characters to illustrate the alignment grid - for instance, the iconic paladin would also be the iconic lawful good character - but there are a couple of limitations to this approach. First, because none of the 'core iconics' are actually evil - you have to go into the DMG to find even a couple of evil iconics (the assassin and blackguard). More importantly, the rulebooks don't really take time to explore the attitudes and behavior of the iconic characters, which is really where alignment can be most readily seen. And if you turn to the various works of D&D fiction containing the iconic characters, then you run right back into the first problem - the main characters are usually good, occasionally neutral, never evil.

So I'm going to attempt to fill this void, somewhat, by naming a collection of what I think are the nine iconic characters corresponding to the D&D alignments. Rather than drawing them from the D&D universe, though, I'll draw them from the larger sphere of popular culture. With any luck, this will give the chance to show not only that the D&D alignment system is much more broadly applicable and useful that some of its detractors claim, but also to dispel a few misconceptions about the D&D alignment system.

Lawful Good: Victor Lazlo

I know a good deal more about you than you suspect. I know, for instance, that you're in love with a woman. It is perhaps a strange circumstance that we both should be in love with the same woman. The first evening I came to this café, I knew there was something between you and Ilsa. Since no one is to blame, I - I demand no explanation. I ask only one thing. You won't give me the letters of transit: all right, but I want my wife to be safe. I ask you as a favor, to use the letters to take her away from Casablanca.

At first, I toyed with the idea of doing the entire 'alignment wheel' just out of characters from the classic 1942 film Casablanca, but ultimately decided against it because it would have required a few stretches to fill some of the alignment roles. But there's no doubt in my mind that Lazlo is a paragon of lawful good, perhaps the best example of a secular paladin in popular culture.

If you've seen Casablanca, then you know what I mean. If you haven't, here's a quick rundown:

  • A Romanian, Lazlo lived in Warsaw prior to the outbreak of World War II, publishing a newspaper calling out against the Nazi regime in Germany (the highest ranking German officer in the film refers to "lies and propaganda", as you might expect) until the very day the Germans invaded Poland.
  • Lazlo becomes a member, and then a leader, of the underground resistance fighting the Nazi occupation of Europe.
  • At some point, Lazlo is captured by the Nazis, placed in a concentration camp, and tortured. (I assume this occured after Lazlo became identified as a leader of the resistance.)
  • Lazlo escapes, beginning a chase across Europe that involves acts of organized partisanship, more "propaganda", and various heroic deeds. They're not spelled out in the film, but are impressive enough so that the cynical Rick Blaine congratulates Lazlo on his "work" the first time they meet. Lazlo modestly responds, "I try," to which Rick replies, "We all try. You succeed."
  • While in Casablanca, Lazlo stands up to the German officer assigned to bring him back to Europe, attends a meeting of the local underground despite the danger of being followed by German agents, leads the patrons of Rick's Cafe in a stirring rendition of Les Marsellaise that drowns out a German attempt to use the same melody as a drinking song, and utters the quotation above when it becomes obvious that Rick has the letters of transit that will allow Lazlo to escape to the relative safety of America.

Belonging to a higher calling, concern for others over and above anything that might happen to oneself, unflinching courage and competence in trying circumstances. I'm not saying that every paladin should look and act like Lazlo, but if more of them did, there would likely be many fewer 'when paladins attack' moments.

Neutral Good: Blossom

Being a Powerpuff Girl isn't about getting your way, or having the best stuff, or being popular or powerful. It's about using your own unique abilities to help people, and the world we all live in. And you, little girl, have done nothing worthy of the name Powerpuff.

Gamers would know of Aaron Williams's Nodwick and the duct-tape-wielding cleric Piffany. And in many ways, Piffany is a great example of Neutral Good behavior. She's even quoted in one story as having entered an ecumenical organization so that she can uphold Good across the board. Yet Piffany's naivete, while endearing to her own character, isn't something that I identify as classically Neutral Good, or even Good. Instead, I turn to the leader of the Powerpuff Girls to serve as my iconic Neutral Good character.

The episode "Stuck Up, Up, and Away" (Episode 14, for those Comic Book Guy wanna-bes) from which the quote above comes from is an excellent example of why Blossom makes an outstanding representative of Neutral Good. When Princess's snooty behavior endangers Twiggy the hamster, it's Blossom that gives the orders that allow the Powerpuffs to rescue the poor creature (and creates the dramatic urge that drives the rest of the episode when Princess decides she wants to be a Powerpuff Girl). Blossom even defends Princess at first - noting that she's new and probably isn't good at making friends, so they should give her another chance. When Princess, in her first super-outfit, turns a routine bank robbery into an embrassing spectacle, Blossom again spares Princess the ire of her sister and tries to be understanding, only to see Power-Armor Princess stop by the very next day and threaten to destroy the Powerpuff Girls. In fact, Princess does defeat both Buttercup and Bubbles, then engages in the classic villain taunt to try to humble Blossom - who isn't having any of it. In a classic execution of judo-strategy, Blossom gets Princess to overcommit, then not only puts her off balance, but gets her sisters to chime in, in true leader-fashion, to finally defeat her.

Now, Blossom isn't perfect - when Bubbles, thinking that she's actually Mojo Jojo, clocks Blossom in a later episode, she originally wants to retaliate before Buttercup reminds her that it's not really a sisterly thing to do. And Blossom even commits a crime - swiping a set of uber-golf-clubs that Professor Utonium reeeeeealy wants because she can't afford to pay for them, then framing Mojo Jojo for the deed. But when Blossom does do wrong, she realizes it and corrects her action. In the first example, Blossom eventually has to restrain Buttercup from kicking Bubbles/Mojo's tush after a well-aimed barb hits home, while she ends the latter episode in jail for her crime, serving her debt to society as required. She does the right thing - which is the essense of Neutral Good, after all.

Chaotic Good: Cyrano de Bergerac

To sing, to laugh, to dream,
To walk in my own way and be alone,
Free, with an eye to see things as they are,
A voice that means manhood -- to cock my hat
Where I choose -- At a word, a Yes, a No,
To fight -- or write.

It is a delicious irony in these days of 'freedom fries' to note that the man who embodies what most American men would see as their national ideal is, in fact, a Frenchman. But Cyrano, as he points out in his own epitaph, is "not like other men."

For starters, while he embarasses the pompous Montfleury for daring to make a pass as his beloved Roxane, he willingly enters into a bargain with Christian to provide words to bolster the latter's good looks so as not to disappoint his beloved. After Christian dismisses Cyrano as no longer useful to him (a dismissal which proves hasty on Christian's part), Cyrano not only forgives the young fool without another thought, but wins the lad a kiss (and ultimately, a marriage). Then, instead of fighting his arch-rival DeGuiche (as he defeated DeGuiche's catspaw in the first act), he delays his rival with a whimsical story of a trip to the moon. Promising that Christian should write every day while away at war, Cyrano runs a nightly siege blockade to deliver those promised letters. And, at the moment when it seems Cyrano might finally have his happiness after all, he instead allows himself to honor his dying friend Christian by keeping his secret faithfully until the day of his own death.

Yes, Cyrano kicks a lot of ass. But no one's ass is kicked who doesn't deserve it, and in some cases, the lesson is taught without an ass-kicking, but rather with more humilating weapons - wit, charm, and fiery honesty. It's also interesting to note that there are only three characters other than Cyrano himself that appear in all five acts of Rostand's play - Roxane, Cyrano's love; DeGuiche, Cyrano's arch-rival; and Ragueneau, the pastry cook and poet who is one of Cyrano's dearest friends. Cyrano does not lack the 'looking out for the little guy' aspect of the classic Chaotic Good - indeed, his closing line in the first act of the play might well be the call-sign for all well-played Chaotic Good heroes: "Did you not ask why against this one singer they send a hundred swords? Because they know this one man for a friend of mine!"

Lawful Neutral: Sir Te

In matters of the heart, even great heroes can be idiots.

This might be another choice that pushes the envelope of 'popular culture', since Sihung Lung's character probably isn't the first you'll remember from Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and if you do remember him, you probably remember him as a father-figure to two of the main characters, Li Mu Bai and Shu Lien. Yet Sir Te is also a highly placed and effective bureaucrat in the government of medieval China, an age that prized law not just for it's own sake, but for its essence as expressed in diplomacy, manners, hospitality, and etiquette. Indeed, the scene where Sir Te meets with the newly-arrived General Yu, shows him the Green Destiny sword that Li Mu Bai has entrusted to him, and exhorts him to cultivate contacts in the Giang Hu underworld, despite Yu being the minister of security with the job of ostensibly opposing such criminals, marks him as being a true student of law and efficiency, regardless of whether or not the common understanding would take the means as 'good' or 'evil'.

'True' Neutral: Cool Animal Strong Bad

"(gurgling sound)"

Part of the problem with identifying a canonical Neutral character is that there are two generally accepted 'flavors' of neutrality. There is what I call apathetic-neutral, where the person simply doesn't care about morality or ethics and simply blows in the prevailing winds. Then there is what I call activist-neutral, which is more concerned with maintaining a 'balance' in the world between competing moral and ethical principles. (There is technically a third sort of neutrality, where the actor simply doesn't have the intelligence required to make moral or ethical choices, which is why all animals, constructs, and most other mindless or low-intelligence creatures default to neutrality in current D&D - animated undead being the significant exception these days.)

That's why I'm going with Cool Animal Strong Bad as my neutral iconic character. He has all the cool animal accessories: tentacles, claws, horns, mandibles, multi-faceted eyes, and a proboscis (as well as other traits you'll have to discover by watching the Strong Bad e-mail Flash cartoon called 'Animal'), but pretty much all he does is sit in one place, looking funky and cool, and gurgling when you ask him any question. On one hand, this may seem like I'm being unfair to those who prefer the concept of activist-neutrality, typically portrayed by druid characters. On the other hand, there's a Book of Exalted Deeds for good alignments, and a Book of Vile Darkness for evil characters, but can you name the equivalent book for neutrals without looking it up in the DMG? I can't.

(gurgling sounds fade out)

Chaotic Neutral: Calvin

Calvin: "Boy, did I get in trouble at school today. Wow."
Hobbes: "What happened?"
Calvin: "I don't even want to talk about it."
Hobbes: "Did it have anything to do with all those sirens about noon?"
Calvin: "I SAID I don't want to talk about it."

One of the great disservices done to the D&D alignment system was when TSR began to forcefully equate the Chaotic Neutral alignment with insanity and mental illness. It's one of the reasons I dismiss the Planescape setting to this day. Unlike fans of the setting who seem to have seen it as morally complex and ambiguous, I see the setting as morally two-faced: unlike the typical setting where reductive players use detect evil and similar divinations to distinguish between characters to interact with and those to simply be destroyed, Planescape allows reductive players to distinguish between characters who express personality traits or emotions atypical for their alignment 'type' (the ones to interact with) and characters slavishly devoted to their alignment 'type' (the ones to destroy). In the former case, you get murderous celestials who rationalize their crimes as necessary for 'the greater good' interacting with infernal characters capable of feeling and even understanding 'higher' emotions like love and sympathy (but who, because they're evil, still get to dress in funky leather or mailed costumes with - at least in the female NPC cases - an awful lot of exposed skin). In the latter case, you get the modrons, largely mindless minions of utter law whose very form follows a rigid Euclidian heirarchy, and the slaadi, masters of madness whose primary ability is to force their opponents to act based on random die rolls (the still-clunky-even-in-3.5 confusion mechanic).

It took Bill Watterston to point out that true chaos isn't found in non-Euclidian spaces or amphibian terrors cribbed from H.P. Lovecraft, but in the mind of a young boy with a hyperactive imagination.

Calvin sometimes does good. He seldom does anything blatantly evil, though 'naughty' is a word that applies to nearly all of Calvin's pranks. And while he has the wisdom of his imaginary pal/stuffed tiger Hobbes available to him, he's remarkably resistant to any sort of 'corrective influence' Hobbes might be. (Indeed, Hobbes is frequently a co-conspirator in Calvin's less sociopathic schemes, particularly the invention of bizarre clubs with their attendant rituals.)

The best example of pure chaos coming from Calvin's brain, however, is something that's even entered the game theory lexicon: Calvinball, a game where the rules are literally made up as one goes along. And part of the fun of watching Calvinball is realizing that Hobbes is often better at the game than Calvin himself is, which perhaps says something profound about what wisdom is capable of.

Or not. After all, this is Calvin we're talking about.

Lawful Evil: Darth Vader

Apology accepted, Captain Needa.

For an entire generation, those young enough to revel in Star Wars when it first came out but old enough to appreciate the subtler, more adult shadings of The Empire Strikes Back (from which the quote is drawn), Darth Vader was not just the embodiment of evil, but the embodiment of cool evil. He had a cool black armored costume, a spooky sound effect that announced his presence even when you couldn't see him, a tricked-out space fighter, and acres of unflappability. Despite those of us who ran around pretending to be Vader in kid-like play or later RPGs, Vader himself wasn't wanton or capricious in his choice of targets - he focused on those who challenged him, either his authority or his traditions, and made it known that failure always carried a terrible price where he was concerned. And in the second film, we even got to see some measure of his devotion to his even more evil master, the Emporer, which covers the lawful part both ways. And, because Vader is evil, not neutral, we also got to see that Vader was, all the time, plotting the overthrow of his master with the help of his son rather than being content to serve as the galaxy's number-two bad guy.

As an aside, part of the problem I have with the recent/'earlier' Star Wars films isn't necessarily that Lucas is trying to retrofit a galaxy that wasn't anywhere near as detailed when he made the first film than it is now. It's that, instead of a tale of the heroic journey of Luke, these 'earlier' films recast the entire story as a chronicle of the fall and redemption of Anakin/Vader. And while I'm willing to suspend my disbelief a little more to see what Lucas might come up with in the soon-to-be-released Revenge of the Sith, I'm finding that I can't quite reconcile the scheming, lawful Vader of the 'later' movies with the impetuous, frankly chaotic Anakin of the 'earlier' films. It's not impossible for a character's alignment to change* - even under AD&D rules, where the penalties were probably most severe - but convincing me of this one is going to take a trick of storyteller legerdemain that I'm not sure Lucas can pull off.

(And while I don't mean to turn this entry into yet another internet screed against George Lucas, who is about five hundred million times more successful than I am, it's pleasingly ironic that our canonically opposed alignment character once states, in the midst of one of his own rants, "Shall I labor night and day, to build a reputation on one song, and never write another?" Though I admit the quote isn't quite fair to the guy who also directed American Graffiti.)

* - Speaking of alignment change, one of the reasons I'm drawn to the Ravenloft setting is the rule that incorporates madness, not with a specific alignment (see Chaotic Neutral above), but with involuntary alignment change. Not only does it allow for the dramatically interesting portrayal of a character whose ethical and moral outlooks suddenly shift, resulting in a fracturing of that characters 'reality', but it also doesn't restrict the madness mechanic to merely shifting to an evil alignment (though admittedly there are many more ways to shift to evil in Ravenloft than there are to shift to good) - an apathetic neutral who suddenly finds herself with the moral attitude of a paladin might just as easily slide into madness (which is why, in my own Ravenloft campaign, if you decide you want to go after Elena Faith-Hold, you're in for a rude shock).

Neutral Evil: Hank Scorpio

But Homer, on your way out if you want to kill somebody, it would help me a lot.

At first glance, it might be hard to think of the charismatic CEO of the Globex Corporation as evil. After all, he gives Homer Simpson an influential, high-paying management job, one that comes with a tricked-out high-tech house in a managed community. He refuses to apply traditional labels to himself and his activities, like "boss" and "work". He even listens to and helps implement Homer's odd-sounding scheme for morale-building. He's a great guy.

Except for the blackmail of the U.N. And the blowing up of the 59th Street Bridge to demonstrate his willingness to back up his threats. And the attempted slow torture of an agent sent to defeat his evil plot. And the manaical glee he shows when brandishing a flamethrower against the assault team sent to try to thwart his plan at the last possible moment. Oh, and the plot involves doing something nasty to France, but he'd be the first to point out that it's not entirely his fault.

Let's face it; evil doesn't have to be slavering, clumsy, and obvious. Sure, it's easier to identify evil when it's massacring women and children, but that's not the real danger of evil. To borrow an observation from another film, the Antichrist isn't likely to be a hundred feet tall with tentacles and dark flames erupting from every pore and orifice; he's more likely to be a nice-looking, nice-sounding guy who simply convinces us to lower our standards, bit by little bit, until we're willing to do or believe anything. The most dangerous evil is cool evil, in my mind at least.

Scorpio best exemplifies the 'anything for evil's sake' methodology of the classic Neutral Evil, but with a twist - not everyone is a potential carcass or speed-bump on the road to world domination. He can be nice, outgoing, even magnanimous to those who will take that magnanimity and use it to work himself and his underlings that much more efficiently on the nuclear device or weather control machine. If you set yourself against him, you're going down, but until that point, he can be your best friend.

Chaotic Evil: Richard III

Let not our babbling dreams affright our souls;
Conscience is but a word that cowards use,
Devis’d at first to keep the strong in awe:
Our strong arms be our conscience, swords our law.
March on, join bravely, let us to ’t pell-mell;
If not to heaven, then hand in hand to hell.

As the quote should make clear, I'm referring to Shakespeare's Richard III, not necessarily the historical man. (There is in fact some controversy over whether Richard really was all that bad a person or a king.)

Skakespeare's Duke of Gloucester is a swaggering, self-described villain. He manipulates his brother the king into imprisoning his other brother, the Duke of Clarence, then has Clarence killed in order to implicate the king. He pretends to piety to rally public support behind his own attempt at the throne. He has two little kids killed off because they might one day choose to challenge the legitimacy of his reign as king. He kills another of his rivals, then seduces the rival's wife at the funeral. These acts show the sort of brass cojones that guys like Bill O'Reilly and Sean Hannity can only fantasize about.

In the play, Richard is defeated by the return from exile of Henry Tudor, earl of Richmond - portrayed by Shakespeare as less a man than a force of divine retribution heralding the end of the War of the Roses. (It should be noted that Elizabeth, Shakespeare's patron, was also a Tudor.) But, in classic Chaotic Evil style, by the time Richard finally does go down, there are few significant rivals or even allies who haven't gone down before him. If a man's gotta go, after all, then the true Chaotic Evil takes as many folks nearby with him to the Abyss before he punches his own ticket.

Right Conclusion, Wrong Premises

Logic can be a powerful thing.

I remember first stumbling across symbolic and predicate logic as a teenager, and being astonished that I'd discovered a sure-fire blueprint for winning any argument -- construct correct premises, put them into a valid logical structure, and the conclusion must be true. It was a liberating, eye-opening experience. (One that should have told me that law, not theater or technology, was my best career destination, but I digress.)

It took me a while to realize that logic isn't actually foolproof.

It's entirely possible to take false premises, put them into a logically sound argument structure, and end up with a true conclusion anyway. One example:

- The moon is made of cheese.
- No cheese existed on earth prior to the Apollo 11 mission.
- Therefore, the Apollo 11 mission went to the moon.

This is a highly simplified version of a truly rigorous logical argument, but given that the premises are nonsense, it's not really necessary to have the argument be totally rigorous to show the point -- logic is a powerful tool when used properly, but it's also only as good as your facts.

This rumination on logic was inspired by reading a CNET piece by Matt Asay, who comes by his solid conclusion through some seriously messed-up premises.

- To overcome an incumbent's advantage in the marketplace, a competitor must pursue a 'disruptive' strategy; i.e: do something the leader does not do, or at least do something well that the leader does not do well.
- Nokia is attempting to upset Apple in the mobile space by ditching their open-sourced Symbian mobile OS in favor of an alliance with Microsoft, who has been struggling in the mobile space for longer than Apple has been in it.
- Motorola is attempting to upset Apple in the mobile space by adopting Google's open-source 'Android' mobile OS, but Google isn't committing the 'resources' necessary to make Android a compelling alternative to Apple's iPhone mobile OS.
- Therefore, Nokia and Motorola will fail to overcome Apple's leadership in the mobile marketplace.

I have no problem whatsoever with the conclusion, but each of the premises is quite silly, and can be corrected simply by checking the work of other, sharper technology thinkers.

The first premise looks like the most reasonable -- differentiation in the marketplace is a long-standing method to gain market- and mind-share, and in and of itself isn't necessarily a bad idea. The problem comes in when trying to apply this premise to Apple's position in the mobile marketplace.

Few companies or products challenge an incumbent, at least not on its own turf. Disruption is required to displace an incumbent, following Clayton Christensen's thinking in "The Innovator's Dilemma."

All of which makes me doubt Google's efforts to beat Apple in smartphones, and suggests Nokia and Motorola aren't going to fare much better. They simply aren't disruptive enough.

For starters, under some interpretations, it's arguable that Apple isn't even a player in the mobile phone marketplace -- the estimate of Apple's total market share for mobile phones runs at about 1.3%. Nokia, the 800-pound gorilla by this estimate, should be 'dominating' the global marketplace, since Nokia is estimated to be shipping nearly 40% of all global phones sold. (Same link.)

Interestingly enough, though, Apple is a serious player by another measure -- percentage of market profits. Nokia, the big gorilla, earns nearly 60% of the global profits from the cellular marketplace, while Apple, with less than 1/25 of Nokia's sales, earns about 20% of the global profits from the cellular marketplace. (We'll get to Motorola later, but for the purpose of this comparison, we'll note that Motorola isn't even profitable.)

Asay seems to thank that it's Nokia's job to do something 'disruptive' to cut into Apple's market position, when in fact precisely the opposite is happening -- Apple's iPhone, combined with its App Store, has sliced off 20% of the profits in the global mobile market in less than three years, and Apple is the one that's 'disrupting' Nokia.

The reason for this comes from a fundamental misunderstanding of what makes the technology business run; a leftover artifact from the first days of the personal computer.

In the 1970s, the personal computer was primarily viewed as a toy: one of the most popular models, the Commodore 64, was far better known as a gaming device, competing with the Atari 2600 and Mattel Intellivision game consoles in the consumer space rather than against the Apple II in the education space. Only futurists saw a role for computers in business, however.

That changed in 1981 when IBM introduced the first IBM-PC. (As if to point out that even then they were more than just a technology company, Apple took out a full-page ad in the Wall Street Journal to explain just what IBM's decision might mean, and found themselves both vindicated and buried by their foresight.) Slowly, the PC made inroads into the business world, and people's decisions on personal computers became less driven by entertainment considerations and more driven by compatibility with their work PC. (In these days, when you needed to work on a presentation at home, you'd copy the file to a 5.25" floppy disk and take it with you; a habit that seems both hopelessly backward and suicidally insecure these days.)

Microsoft helped drive the overall strategy of personal computing in those days, working with their hardware vendors to maintain a two-tiered system: higher-end computers for business, who could afford the expense, and lower-end machines for consumers, who largely couldn't pay what business would pay. Though it was possible to sell a high-end machine into the consumer market, the reality was that Microsoft's licensing model paid them largely the same money regardless of where the machine that their OS was installed ended up, so they encouraged an environment that came to view 'market share' in terms of units shipped; he who sold the most computers was the winner in Microsoft's eyes, and thus in the eyes of the Microsoft-adoring tech press.

This model may have worked fine in 1986, when most consumers didn't ask much of a computer except that it run the same software being run at work, which the consumer had no choice over anyway. Then, during the 1990's, Microsoft's operating system dominance concealed the reality of the computer hardware market -- computer hardware was much more like any other physical product than it was different. In effect, the computer hardware market was much more like the automobile market than people (except Apple fans) believed.

Consider the 2008 automotive global market. The largest player, with 15% global market share, is General Motors -- which just went through a government-shepherded bankruptcy proceeding and is trying desperately to remain profitable. Meanwhile, BMW controls just 2% of the global market, yet it's share of global profits in the automotive market rivals, if not exceeds Apple's in the mobile phone market. (That's not to say that BMW isn't being prudent in the face of a declining global economy -- they've announced that they're exiting Forumula 1 racing to save money.)

Now granted, the global mobile phone market, up until a few years ago, still believed and followed slavishly the premise that 'more units = more good'; carriers would pay to subsidize particular 'exclusive' phone models, which would be differentiated from the exclusive models of other carriers, but all of which were being offered on the same terms as Gillette famously offered razors -- sell the holder for little or nothing, and make your profit on the blades. In the carriers' case, what they were making profit on was the cellular service, not the hardware. In this environment, it makes sense for hardware to become commodity, lowest-common-denominator stuff. (The technical economic term for this system is vendor lock-in.)

Yet that premise was under siege even before Apple's entry into the mobile market, as RIM copied IBM's 1981 personal computer strategy with the first BlackBerry 'smartphone'. (From that market share link far above, you can see that RIM is also making huge inroads into Nokia's profits for little cost -- RIM has only about 2% of global phone shipments, but about 18% of the profits, making them similar to, though not quite as efficient as, Apple.)

You'd think that Asay's very point in his initial premise -- that Apple is the leader, despite having very little share of total units shipped -- would convince him that units shipped don't really matter when it comes to market position. Yet in his second premise, he falls right back into that old chestnut, talking, not about Nokia's plans for mobile phones, but about their plans for Windows netbooks.

Nokia, for its part, made a big gamble open-sourcing Symbian after years of nurturing it as proprietary software to run mobile devices. The company has now discarded Symbian for its foray into Netbooks by partnering with Microsoft, a move that exacerbates its weak-kneed decision to bolster its mobile strategy with Microsoft Office. Nokia's approach leaves pundits like Joel West wondering "how Nokia will have an advantage on scale, innovation, features, branding or distribution over existing netbook makers," not to mention traditional mobile and laptop makers.

The problem with looking at netbooks as a bellwether for the mobile phone market is that, as we've just described above, 'more units = more good' only works if that's the model your competitors are all using. PC makers are rushing to come up with competing netbooks because even their mid-range consumer hardware has such poor margins that the market share of a few million netbooks might mean the difference between profitability and bankruptcy. Apple, as we'll discuss in more detail below, isn't playing that game, and thus doesn't feel compelled to join the race for the bottom.

But 'more units = more good' isn't the only Microsoft-inspired market principle that isn't really true anymore, despite tech writers' insistence that the world hasn't changed since 1986. There's another gulf between what used to be and what is today, and Microsoft is on the wrong side of that gulf as well:

Microsoft compounds the error by playing up its more expensive application for Windows Marketplace for Mobile, a strategy doomed to fail. Microsoft is playing to the developers' wish to make more money per customer, but if those customers prefer the iPhone, who cares how much Microsoft lets developers charge?

Again, Asay touches the heart of the matter without really comprehending it. It's the same kind of impulse that makes folks like Joe Hewitt, developer of Facebook 3.0 for iPhone, complain about the Apple App Store process and how it's hostile to developers, without really understanding who the App Store and its policies are directed toward.

Again, flash back to 1986. Most users want the same software that runs on their machines at work to run on their machines at home. Most of these users don't really understand how software works, and wouldn't care if they did, because again, they're not controlling their own purchasing decisions.

However, as computers have become more mainstream, and more applications exist that are consumer-based rather than business-based, consumers become pickier about what apps they pick and use. Sure, some users will always just launch Windows Paint because that's what they're used to when it comes time to edit their photos. But more and more, consumers are demanding options when it comes to both the quality and the features of the applications they want to run, and many of those are willing to pay for a superior product. That's where Apple has lived since Steve Jobs's return as CEO, and it informs nearly everything Apple does, from their operating system, to their retail stores, to the iPhone.

The iPhone App Store doesn't exist for developers -- it exists for consumers. One observer who gets this is Farhad Manjoo, the last regular technology writer for (before they decided to subscribe to Malik Om's GigaOm Network for their tech content):

The platform's [Android's] openness is certainly a boon for developers. You can submit an app to the Android store and have it appear on customers' phones more or less immediately—the same process takes weeks or months on the iPhone. The trouble is, even though it's easy to develop apps for Android, there aren't many incentives to do so. The iPhone's got all those ravenous customers; it's worth waiting weeks to have your program in the App Store. Without great phones—and thus without a lot of customers—developers see little reason to bother coding up programs for yet another mobile app store.

Microsoft was notoriously developer-centric in the 1980s and 1990s because that was the reality of the computing business in those days -- if your platform didn't have the apps customers needed, they couldn't buy your platform. In 2009, though, there are already more apps than customers can ever use, to do more things than they have time to do. Now, more than ever, it's the people who hold the purse strings who are calling the tune, and Apple seems to be the only computer company who understands this.

Speaking of Android, Asay does talk about Android and Google, but again falls into the trap of thinking that the world of computing still works by 20th century rules:

Google, for its part, has attempted to disrupt Apple's iPhone in its apparent area of weakness: its closed nature. Google open-sourced the Android platform and invited the world of third-party developers to flock to it.

They never came.

As Slate's Farhoo [sic] Manjoo writes, "Even though it's far friendlier to developers, Android has failed to attract anywhere near the number of apps now clogging the iPhone." Android may be open, but it's not cool, and "cool" is where customers and, hence, developers are.

Asay seems to think that developers aren't writing for Android because Android somehow isn't 'cool' enough, instead of making the obvious leap (as Manjoo does, which Asay still doesn't seem to get) that developers aren't writing for Android because they can't make any money writing for Android. We've covered this point before with respect to Linux, but it's true for all 'open source' platforms -- people who expect to get their OS for free are also going to be people who expect to get their applications for that OS for free, and if they don't want to pay, there's not much money to be made there.

The solution, according to Asay? Do what Microsoft used to do in the face of competition in the '90s and outspend it:

Which leaves me with my original question: if a vendor finds itself playing catch up, should it even bother running the race? In response I'd suggest that unless a vendor is willing to commit significant resources to a disruptive strategy, it might as well give up.

Of the companies mentioned above, only Google has a disruptive strategy, but it isn't spending nearly enough resources to tackle Apple's iPhone. Until it does, it will lose, open source or not.

So to recap the accurate syllogism:

- Apple (and RIM) are disrupting the traditional mobile phone market and taking control of the nascent 'smartphone' market by catering to users rather than developers and focusing on the high-end, high-margin cultural pace-setters first, then bringing in the larger consumer market later.
- Nokia is responding to this assault on their market leadership by attempting to turn back the clock to 1986, ignoring significant changes in both the computing and cellular marketplaces since that time.
- Motorola is trying to stay in the game by turning to a free OS alternative which should lower costs and create buzz by doing something Apple isn't doing, but which won't solve their primary problem of simply not bringing in enough money to cover their costs.
- Therefore, Nokia and Motorola (and Google) will fail to overcome Apple's positive inertia and eventual leadership in the mobile phone and 'smartphone' markets.

There, that wasn't so hard, was it?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Fear Me, For I Have the Power to...Do...Something

Well, it took some time, but a process that started with a slyly coded message in a siding circular mailed to my apartment ended this weekend with my being inducted into the Omniscient Council of Vagueness! You know how you'll occasionally hear about things that "they" say, such as "they say you should wait 45 minutes after eating before going in swimming"? That's us!

(Except, of course, that I gave a bad example - we didn't actually say the swimming thing. That was the AMA. But it does illustrate that we frequently get credited for stuff we didn't actually do. Kind of like the Bush Administration, really.)

The first meeting was on Sunday, and involved learning the secret handshake, as well as being given the login credentials for our seemingly endless bank of hidden cameras and microphones. I have to admit that I totally failed to keep my cool when I found out that my handshake tutor was none other than Andy Ihnatko; he was nice about it, but after ten minutes I could tell that my complete geek/fanboy reaction to realizing who he was had worn thin.

Instead of squee-ing, I should have asked him to bring me up to speed on current projects - I have no clue what our current goals are, and I have to imagine that somebody will eventually notice the frankly disquieting amount of time I spent hooked into the camera network in Alyson Hannigan's house Sunday night. (In my own defense, it was either that or CSI. Plus I had no idea that Alyson knits her own insulating beverage-can holders.)

I suppose I shouldn't be sharing this, since the OCoV is technically a secret society, but considering that I haven't had a single comment on this blog since I started it over three years ago, how much trouble am I likely to get into?

Sunday, August 23, 2009

GenCon - Recap

It's been a week since I returned from GenCon, the self-described 'best four days in gaming'. Now that I've had a chance to digest and process everything that happened in those four days, I'm ready to come to some conclusions about it, or at least answer the most obvious questions.

Did you enjoy yourself?

Pretty much continuously.

Really? You weren't ever bored?

Nope, I was pretty fortunate. The closest I ever got to boredom was Saturday night, when the Goodman Games seminar on "How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck" turned out to be largely an advertisement for their own products, and I went from there to hanging out in the hotel bar because a fire alarm provoked an evacuation of the convention hall and Chip invited the group he was gaming with up to our room to finish the game. Even then, though, karma smiled on me, and I met a friendly woman who was volunteering at the Con with her husband. We sat and talked for about an hour, and I insisted on buying her a beer, since her being a volunteer was one of the things that allowed me to be selfish and spend all my time hogging the fun at the Con. I figured it was the least I could do to show some appreciation.

OK, then, what was your favorite part of the convention?

Do I have to pick just one?

- Walking into the hotel room on Wednesday night.

- Grabbing the VIG swag bag on Thursday morning.

- Getting both James Jacobs and Sean K Reynolds to sign my Pathfinder rules hardcover.

- Doing True Dungeon, and surviving, with the help of Chip and Michael.

- Delving with the 'Force of Personality' crew.

- Catching up with what Tried and Aesoph have been up to since the DDM Guild took over D&D Miniatures from WotC.

- Learning a new game. (Lifeboat)

- Winning an old favorite game. (Illuminati)

- Trading stories and smack-talk at dinner with the crew on Friday night.

If my character had been more connected with the main 'secret storyline' of the LARP, I'd have put that in the list as well, but the LARP only goes to the level of 'fun, but not among the most fun things I did'.

So was the VIG badge worth it?

First off, I feel the need to point out that I don't think I'd have had a bad time if I hadn't bought a VIG badge. Granted, some of the things on the list above are specifically tied to the VIG experience, but even without them, there was still plenty of stuff to enjoy.

With that said, the VIG badge was basically 'paid for' on Thursday morning. On Wednesday night, Chip and I walked into a suite for which we were paying $90 per night apiece, which I doubt we'd have gotten and certainly not have gotten for that price without the aid of the VIG registration. Then on Thursday morning, I went down to pick up the VIG swag bag:

The bag is a kind of bag called an Israeli Paratrooper Bag, which goes for about $20 not counting the silkscreening. Add in the free copy of Monster Manual II, the two Magic boosters, and the latest Dragonlance novel, and you're over another $50 hurdle. Then the t-shirt, the pack of True Dungeon tokens, the water bottle, the two free games (Spoils and Family Business), and the deck of cards, and, well, it felt like a real haul. The cardboard tube contains a GenCon 2009 poster.

Now consider that the regular 'swag bag' consisted of a six-sided die, a six-card booster pack of Magic cards, and a bunch of promotional flyers in the kind of plastic bag that you get when you buy something at the Disney Store and, yeah, I can imagine why there'd be some hard feelings among non-VIGs.

I felt awesome, though.

What'll you do differently next year?

Try to get more people to come. I've had two different people specifically tell me they were jealous of my experience, to which my response was simply, "You should come with us next year, then!" Hopefully the economy will be closer to being back on track by then, and some of the folks who had to bow out this year will be able to come along next time around.

Also, I'll likely try to get to the hotel earlier on Wednesday, especially if we know we'll be in the same or a similar room to the one we were in this year. That'll give us some time to have people over for 'warm-up gaming' on Wednesday night, as well as to do some more precise schedule synchronization; you don't necessarily want to do everything with the entire group you came with, but it would have been nice to do more things with Keith, Rachel, and Justin, whom we seldom saw except at RPGA mustering.

Finally, I'll bite the bullet and accept that I simply do not have the stamina to get up at 8am four days in a row to play games; I'll schedule my first games on Thursday-Saturday at 9am (with perhaps one 8am game if there's no other convenient time to schedule it), and no games at all scheduled for Sunday.

On the whole, it was a wonderful experience, and I'm looking forward to doing it all over again next year. Less than 360 days until GenCon 2010!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Own Your Damn Mistakes

I work for a software company, and my job is to help solve problems. I frequently enjoy my job, because I like figuring things out as well as receiving praise when a problem goes away. (Hey, I'm human.)

One thing that often frustrates me about my job, though, is that sometimes solving a problem takes more time and effort than it should, because others involved in the process don't want to admit when they've made a mistake. I understand that it's also human nature to want to hide from errors, if only to preserve both an image and a self-image of competence. But hiding mistakes from the guy who's trying to help you fix those mistakes creates problems:

- It takes extra time for me to try to figure out what went wrong.

- I'm not perfect, so I may well miss something, provide an incomplete fix as a result, and inadvertantly make things worse.

- if you continue to assert that you didn't do anything wrong, even after I've figured out what you did wrong, then I lose a lot of trust in you; if I can't trust you to tell me when you messed up, then most of my work becomes figuring out what you're not telling me. Sure, it's detective work, but not the kind I enjoy.

I'll be the first to admit that I haven't always followed this advise myself. But the older I get, the more I notice that not owning up to my mistakes actually hurts me more than it helps, in more parts of life than just work. It's probably only a slight exaggeration to say that most errors in communication occur when people can't or won't accept that they've made mistakes, holding back useful information in the process.

As much as possible, I now do my best to own my damn mistakes. I only wish others did the same.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

GenCon -- Day Three

We woke in the morning and started the day with another hearty breakfast buffet. I'd planned on playing in the opening round of a Puerto Rico tournament, but a combination of feeling a bit out of it and the realization that, if I won, I wouldn't be able to participate in the next round of the tournament anyway (because I had the RPGA con special scheduled in that slot) convinced me to lay down for a bit. 'A bit', unfortunately, turned into Chip waking me up at noon so that we could get ready for the con special at 1pm.

The con special, sadly, was disappointing. It took nearly 45 minutes for us to be seated with a DM, then the DM took a break following the first encounter to grab a snack. That first encounter was a brutal grind featuring creatures capable of delivering the Dazed condition (shutting down a number of character action choices) combined with a boss monster who had the ability to heal his Dazing allies when they'd otherwise be destroyed.

The DM moved us on to an encounter with a solo boss mob plus a trap, thinking that he was giving us a more interesting fight; sadly, this fight turned into a very boring 'beat on trap, then beat on boss' encounter where we seldom felt truly threatened -- the first encounter was much more engaging, if only because we were fighting for our very lives, thinking we'd be overrun at any moment. (Chip almost duplicated his feat from our PbG TPK, as he was pushed so far away from the rest of the party by the boss monster's powers that it seemed more sensible for him to flee than to try to return to the fight.) We did receive enough XP to level Melchior to 12, and also saw our first-ever magic rings in an LFR adventure, so the reward was more satisfying than the path taken to get it.

Michael had signed up for one more LFR adventure for the con, and ended up having a spare ticket. Chip and I had originally been scheduled for a seminar by some of the designers at Goodman Games: "How To Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck". Chip, though, chose to take the spare ticket, and I would end up attending the seminar alone.

Before then, though, I ended up playing in a very enjoyable casual card game called Lifeboat.

The seminar proved to be reworded advice of the same sort given to DMs everywhere (provide what your players want, don't be afraid to change things if they're not working, etc.), and I left disappointed. Chip and Michael, however, ended up having to evacuate the convention center -- the reason was not clear at the time -- and so Chip and I offered our room and its huge table as a place where the game could continue. It turned out being a good deal for all involved -- I ended up getting a free sandwich out of the arrangement, while Chip and Michael got to finish what ended up being a very long session; it started at 7pm and was scheduled to be over by 11pm, but is still running as I type this at 1:30am.

Added bonus: while resting in the bedroom watching TV, I stumbled across WGN showing old episodes of "The Bullwinkle Show". Just hearing the voice of Edward Everett Horton narrating the Fractured Fairy Tale "Snow White, Inc." brought back fond memories of younger days.

Tomorrow is the final day of GenCon, with hotel checkout sometime between 11am and noon, and then a planned taxi ride to the airport at 1:30 to catch a 3:30 flight back to Minneapolis.

Time to sleep, for now.

GenCon -- Day Two

On Friday morning, I awoke with Chip to grab breakfast at about 6:30am. We headed downstairs where we eventually met up with Michael at the breakfast buffet in the hotel restaurant. Fresh fruit, omelettes made to order, and a bottomless tureen of bacon proved to be the perfect way to start a gaming day, and the others headed off to participate in one of the more highly-anticipated events of the con, at least for the larger group we'd gone through Paragon by GenCon with -- the adventuring company adventure called Jungle Hunt.

The adventuring company concept is one that encourages folks to play in consistent parties, even across convention play and other long-duration breaks between times that players are able to meet. In our case, the whole crowd had gathered together into an adventuring company called 'Force of Personality', who planned to tackle the jungle hunt in a single large group of six. Unfortunately, when we all arrived at the mustering point, we discovered that there was a 13th player who wanted to participate in the adventure, meaning that the group was going to be broken up to make space for the third table -- there's a maximum of six players allowed in an RPGA adventure (the adventures are balanced in such a way as to allow 4-6 players), so the 13th warrior, so to speak, required a third table to be formed to fit this requirement.

I hadn't planned to play in the adventuring company adventure, but decided to skip my scheduled LARP to join in, and Chip and I ended up at the same table with some very power-gamed fellow-players: a ranger who lived up to the striker reputation (lots of damage, little else going on), and a cleric who far exceeded it (even more damage, plus healing, plus the occasional buff). It's ironic, but playing the adventure with these two guys made it somewhat less enjoyable, since the rest of us felt as though our only roles in the adventure were to help the two 'stars' do their damage and defeat the monsters. On the other hand, we did successfully complete the adventure, even before the scheduled end of the four-hour block of time allowed.

With plenty of time before a scheduled group gathering for dinner, we headed over to the delve table to play some more delve, letting us show how well our PbG training has helped our speed of decision and execution when running even relatively unfamiliar characters. I was really pleased with my tablemates as we motored through the adventure; only a somewhat pokey DM prevented us from completing the final encounter.

Chip and I also got the chance to partake in another VIG perk -- Wizards of the Coast sent Steven Schubert, former head of D&D Minis development when Wizards still organized the skirmish game, to run VIGs through a one-hour dungeon delve that WotC had considered releasing as a new Organized Play event, but decided to hold back on, at least for the moment. Catching up with Shoe was a blast, as was seeing that he tends to run games similarly to the way I run games, complete with monster responses to attacks and the occasional in-game smack talk when a player character rolls particularly poorly. It was a great experience that I hope to have the chance to do again.

We then gathered at Champions, a sports bar/restaurant attached to the Marriott, to share what we'd done thus far in the convention. In a sense, this was really the most fun I'd had all day, sharing stories with friends, eating like a maniac (I'd ordered the Champion burger, because I'd remembered that item from last year without remembering that it was a humungous two-patty burger far too large to finish after snacking on numerous appetizers), and basically enjoying myself and the folks with me.

After dinner, it was off for my first visit of the con to the ICC Ballroom, home of board gaming at GenCon. I was to play in a game of Illuminati, a humorous game featuring secret societies published by Steve Jackson Games. The last time I played Illuminati at a convention, I'd won a trophy as Most Illuminated, beating the field in an eight-player game at Con of the North in St. Paul back in 2002 or so. This time, I thought I might have some trouble, as the judge running the game ended up with too many players to seat one table, and so broke us up into 'newbie friendly' and 'cutthroat' tables, and I ended up at the cutthroat table. Still, my practice being blitzed by Ben paid off yet again, and though the prize was less impressive this time around (a copy of the Bavarian Fire Drill expansion set), the victory tasted no less sweet.

The game wrapped up near midnight, and I returned to the room to find that Chip had already turned in, so I crashed myself. Tomorrow would be a big day.

GenCon -- Day One

The day began auspiciously. Chip woke me up by saying, "Dave, we're still in the room."

I'd been up until after 2am, despite being tired, because I'd become paranoid that someone would knock on the door and ask us to change rooms because we'd been assigned the wrong room. But that didn't happen, and by tomorrow morning I should be convinced that we're going to stay in the room for the entire weekend.

Chip got up early because he had an 8am event. The good news is that my own schedule didn't have me needing to be on the floor until 9am, since I was going to take advantage of another VIG perk -- early access to the show floor. I definitely took advantage, visiting the Paizo Publishing booth and picking up a copy of the Pathfinder rules hardcover (and getting it autographed by James Jacobs and Sean K. Reynolds -- you may not know them, but they're well known if not exactly rock stars in the gaming world), then swinging by the Wizards of the Coast booth and picking up Divine Power and Adventurer's Vault 2 (plus a copy of the 4th edition Player's Handbook for $5), and lastly, finding a very well-hidden Alea Tools booth and picking up a DM set plus another dozen 'large' magnets. All told, the trip cost me over $200, but it was quick, largely mob-free, and consisted of most of the purchases I really felt I wanted to make this year at GenCon.

After the trip through the show floor, I went back to the room to drop off my well-earned gains and rest just a bit longer -- the four-and-a-half hour 'nap' I'd gotten the night before proved not to be quite enough rest to keep me going. Still, I managed to get myself moving again in time to reach my noon event: a live-action role-playing event called 'Asylum'.

I enjoy live-action role-playing (or LARP, in the vernacular) both because it's more akin to improvisational theater, which gives me an outlet for my theater urges when I'm not confident enough to audition for shows, as well as because LARP events are among the most gender-integrated events at any gaming convention. There's nothing wrong with hanging out with the guys, but if I wanted to do that all the time, then I'd still be playing D&D Miniatures.

After the LARP, I hustled back to the hotel, not to get back to the room, but because the Marriott is also hosting True Dungeon, and Chip, Mike, and I had tickets for a 4:37 start time. We sadly lost our ranger in the final combat, but we successfully completed the adventure, and both Chip and Mike seemed to enjoy their first-ever TD experience.

The three of us hung out after TD to grab a meal, then headed for my first visit to the Sagamore Ballroom for some Dungeon Delve. We ran into Casey in the ballroom, who was putting some polishes on his primary LFR character using the available D&D Insider terminals, and he agreed to join our delve. Our long practice preparing for GenCon paid off, and we blitzed the delve in 50 minutes out of the provided hour, earning a full set of reward tokens for our trouble.

After that, Chip and I decided to call it a night, since we'd be starting even earlier tomorrow -- 6:30am for an early breakfast buffet, then trying to muster into an open slot for an 'adventuring company' LFR event.

So far, so awesome!

GenCon -- Day Zero

The greatest thing about GenCon is the stories.

This is my third GenCon, though the second I'm blogging (though not, thank goodness, attempting to live-blog). The stories, generally, come after the con -- once you've had a chance to digest the experiences and filter out the general noise of the convention into the few memorable moments that'll crystallize into the stories you'll tell for years.

This con didn't take long for the first great story. More on this later.

Generally, the day before GenCon begins is the travel day, and this GenCon was no exception. The difference with this GenCon is that, among our usual group, only myself and Chip were planning to attend. This basically threw our general plan -- to rent a large vehicle and spend the Wednesday before con travelling cross-country -- completely out the window.

In what most folks who know me would consider a significant increase of my typical sense of responsibility, I nominated myself to be trip planner for this GenCon. (Admittedly, that it was only planning for me and one other person made it much less intimidating.) In February, I bought the GenCon badge, as well as a companion badge for Chip. In March, I made the hotel reservations. In April, when event tickets went on sale, I nabbed my tickets as well as some for Chip. Finally, in June, I got the plane tickets.

On the whole, I thought I did OK. The hotel seemed a bit pricey ($179 per night), but for the location (right across the street from the convention center), it seemed like the cost would be worth it. The flight seemed reasonable -- round trip tickets non-stop from Minneapolis to Indy for $220 each. I budgeted, I saved, and when GenCon rolled around, I was ready to roll.

The day started as a series of events that reminded me of an old children's book, "What Good Luck, What Bad Luck". It's basically told in a series that juxtaposes 'good luck' events with 'bad luck' events. For instance, "What good luck! You found a plane! What bad luck! The plane is about to crash! What good luck! You found a parachute! What bad luck! The parachute doesn't work! What good luck! You see a haystack below you! What bad luck! There's a pitchfork in the haystack! What good luck! You missed the pitchfork! What bad luck! You missed the haystack!"

I woke up before my alarm went off at 6:15 this morning, and went to work, having switched shifts with a sympathetic co-worker. I then forgot that I was working before the office was officially open, and locked myself out of the office for nearly half an hour when I went down to the cafeteria for breakfast. I handled the customer issues that came my way, but locked a password in the process, delaying the resolution of that issue.

I got off work at 4, ran the last couple of errands I needed to run, then met Chip and got a lift to the airport. Chip, who hasn't flown since before 9/11, had no trouble getting through security. I, who've flown a few times, bumbled through the checkpoint like Inspector Clouseau. Then, we sat for an hour waiting to board the plane.

The flight itself was fine, but when we landed, I called the hotel to ask if they had a shuttle. They did not, but the lady at the hotel who answered my call told me about a supposed public transit option called the Green Line, that allegedly ran every twenty minutes on the hour. The problem with the Green Line is that, like Bigfoot, it doesn't really seem to exist, despite numerous people giving me anecdotal evidence that it does. One guy waiting for his own bus mentioned that the Green Line usually arrives right before his own bus. One of the shuttle drivers even pointed us to the place where the Green Line bus pulls in.

Chip and I waited for an hour -- or in other words, about as long as the flight from Minneapolis to Indianapolis took -- before finally getting tired of the wait and deciding to take a cab to the hotel.

As I'd mentioned, I'd made the hotel arrangements through the GenCon VIG reservation service. When we arrived and got into the room, well...

Senior tells a story of a GenCon a few years back when he and his friends were apparently booked into a suite, only to find that someone else already apparently had the room. Turned out that the front desk gave Senior the wrong room keys. That's a good story.

Ours is a bit better. We got into the suite, walked around in a daze at the nearly obnoxious degree of luxury in the suite (there's a player piano, for crying out loud!), and continued to giggle at one another until well past 1am. I'm still convinced that someone from the hotel is going to come up and ask us to change rooms.

As long as it lasts, though, this $500 for the VIG badge? Money well freakin' spent.