Friday, January 26, 2007

We must be doing something right

Well, New Mexico must be doing something right in the realm of fostering motion picture production, because we've been bequeathed a nickname. Hollywood is calling us "Tamalewood" now, and some people think we're the biggest threat to Hollywood right now. You've got to hand it to Richardson - he is really putting us on the map in this industry, and as a digital media professional, it's very nice to be in a place where the industry is becoming very strong.

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Truth is stranger than fiction

One of the things that struck me as bizarre at DisneyLand this week was that a surprisingly large percentage of the women and girls there were wearing Mukluks around, in all shapes, sizes, and styles. Some were big poofy nylon things, others were leather with the fur around the tops. Some zipped up, some laced up. Some came up just over the ankles, others were knee-high.

But all were strange. This was L.A., after all. Mukluks. In L.A. What's up with that? That's like wearing earmuffs and a parka to a luau.

I was commenting on this to a co-worker today, and to my amazement, he said, "Yeah, my wife's up on the fashion scene, and that's all the rage now." Boggles the mind.

Then I joked that it's time to buy stock in legwarmers, and he said, "Actually...they're coming back."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

New site for Prototype

Prototype is a Javascript library that is very useful, very powerful, and until now, very not-well-documented. It used to be that the Prototype library web page merely had a downloadable .js file with absolutely no reference material to indicate what it did or how to use it (a service graciously provided by others who worked with the library). Thankfully, though, the Prototype Javascript Library has a web site that includes documentation, and it looks like they're doing it right, with both detailed API documentation as well as a "tips and tutorials" approach and a blog to highlight various features and uses. This ought to make Prototype more accessible to the typical Javascript user, thankfully. (Via Particletree.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Disney Coast to Coast

As I type this, I'm in a hotel room in Los Angeles overlooking the harbor, relaxing. Barb is at a conference, and I'm hanging out waiting for her to return, having tagged along for the ride. Yesterday, we woke up at 4:30AM, hopped a plane to L.A., rented a car, and headed to DisneyLand. We got there when it opened, and left when it closed, so we had a full day of Disney to enjoy before the conference got started.

Thanks to this, I have had the interesting opportunity to hit the Disney theme park presence on both coasts within a few months of each other. It's interesting to see the similarities and differences when they're both fresh in your mind. Some observations:
  • Pirates of the Caribbean is much better in Anaheim. Everything seemed to flow better, and there are two waterfall drops instead of only one. Plus, I like the boats floating by the entrance and being able to dine in the Blue Bayou Lagoon restaurant is a treat (the Mahi Mahi was one of the best meals I've had in a long time - wow).
  • Similarly, It's a Small World is better in Anaheim, too. The beautiful outdoor facade with the gardens is a lot more attractive than the boxed-in interior of the Orlando version.
  • Damn, Disneyland is small! Despite having pretty much the same roster of attractions, DisneyLand puts everything very close together. That may sound like a good thing, until you realize that stopping off at the locker isn't a huge trek.
  • In a similar vein, damn, the Disneyland castle is small! I mean, we were shocked at how small it was compared to the Orlando version. In fact, it's so small, you can walk right through it without realizing it.
  • There is an "up" side and a "down" side to Xmas theming. The good news is that not only was It's a Small World bearable with the mixed-in Christmas Carols, but the facade was really beautiful, to boot. The bad news is that the Haunted Mansion was closed in Anaheim (sob!) because they were tearing down the Nightmare Before Christmas overlay.
  • In both places, it's amazing to see the difference between going on-season and off-season. We're never going on-season again. We practically walked on to most of the rides we rode.
  • Disneyland doesn't control the experience of entering and exiting the park as well as Orlando, most likely because it is plopped down in the middle of a city. We had to drive by several unattractive barriers and down some rather confusing paths to get to where we were going in Anaheim, something that would never happen on the Orlando campus.
  • It's much better to fly in and let Disney pick you up. While we got to the park with no problem, the parking and walking was not fun. Despite there being hardly any people there, we ended up being directed to what was perhaps the absolute furthest parking area possible. Seriously, there were only four parking spots further away from the entrance. (I believe this is because they filled up the lot before opening the parking garage.)
  • The Space Ranger Spin / Astro Blasters ride was better in Anaheim, because you could remove the gun from the stand to aim where you wanted.
  • Orlando wins the fireworks prize. Anaheim was only running them on the weekends, much to poor Barb's disappointment.
  • Anaheim's line queues are very short in places. In fact, I was surprised at how short they were - some of them only loop back once or twice, making you wonder where they put all the people when the park is at high attendance.
  • The submarines are coming back to Anaheim! Yay! They're going to be re-themed with Finding Nemo, but who cares? The submarines are back!
  • Mr. Toad's Wild Ride (Anaheim) makes me happy. Who would have guessed Disney would put kids through a nightmare car ride that actually goes through hell, eh?
  • Toontown is surprisingly cool. I didn't think I'd care for it, but the dark ride they had in there was fun, the "training coaster" they have for kids was actually quite good, and there are a lot of funny details in the area, like a dynamite plunger sitting randomly in the street which, if you plunge it, sets off a bunch of fireworks noises and lights in the second story of a nearby building.
All in all, it was a fun visit. After going to Orlando with a crowd of ten people, it was really nice to go as just the two of us. While we had fun in both places, I never felt relaxed in Orlando, but at Anaheim, it was a liesurely day of fun. I'm glad I came.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Arkham Investigations

Today, we playtested an idea I had for tweaking the awesome game Arkham Horror into a somewhat different direction. Basically, it's a set of rules modifications that I'm calling Arkham Investigations that makes a lot of changes to the core Arkham Horror rules in an attempt to address a few of the issues I have with the game:
Nonsensical plot elements
If you've read much of H.P. Lovecraft's work, you know that the hapless investigators who happen to find themselves in harm's way don't go hopping through gates and fighting everything from Mi-Go to Formless Spawn to Dholes in a single investigation. Most of the time, things are a little more focused on a particular threat. To address this, Arkham Investigations narrows the scope of the plot a bit by constraining the monsters and encounters to ones that would make sense with the current Great Old One that is stirring.
Lack of plot
In addition, the "plot," if you can call it such, is nonsensical and random. Why would I end up in the City of the Great Race when Cthulhu is stirring in his slumber? Shouldn't I be visiting R'Lyeh? And when I do, shouldn't it have more relevance to the plot than the DreamLands? And really, why am I hopping around to all these other worlds? Arkham Investigations addresses this by introducing plot elements to the mix that have to be resolved in order to win. It introduces Vignettes which play similarly to the Other Worlds, but which instead represent key scenes in the investigation in order to advance the plot.
Lack of Cooperation
When you look at the cover of the box, you see several investigators fighting the same creature. Unfortunately, this never happens in the game. While Arkham Horror is a far more cooperative game than most, it still sees investigators fighting monsters alone when this is arguably the time when they should be banding together. Arkham Investigations addresses this by introducing rules which allow investigators to not only team up on monsters (and let monsters team up on them!), but also to allow investigators to work together in the Vignettes to advance the investigation.
Lack of climax when winning
Oddly, it is often a let-down to win Arkham Horror in the preferable manner - by closing gates - because it leads to a rather anticlimactic game: "Wait a many gates have we sealed? Six? Oh. Hey, we won two turns ago. Yeah. Hm. Yay us." By contrast, when the GOO (Great Old One) awakens, it's a desperate, tough fight that involves all the players where the stakes are nothing short of being devoured. Arkham Investigations addresses this by introducing an endgame sequence even for the winning condition, which ensures that no matter how well the investigators do, there is always a thrilling challenge at the end of the game.
Difficulty in extending the game
Finally, Arkham Investigations provides a way to significantly bring new experiences to the game in a manner that should be accessible to most fans of the game.

The first game of Arkham Investigations went fairly well, although it appeared that the GOO wasn't going to be coming out. We were very close to winning, and there were only a few doom tokens on the GOO's track. But then things picked up, and although we won the game against the GOO, stopping it from awakening, one of us went down in the final battle, and if there had been a few more doom tokens, I think we all would have gone down. I still have a few tweaks to make as a result of this play-through, but I think I have a lead on a good alternate method of play for Arkham Horror which, if nothing else, will extend the gameplay value of the game for all the people like us who play the game often. Stay tuned!

Monday, January 08, 2007

It sure don't take long

Today was my first day back at work since before the holidays, and wouldn't you know it, on day one of being back, already Microsoft, as usual, is making my life difficult.

Here's what happened. I had a web page with a QuickTime movie on it. Standards compliant, validates using the W3C validator, and it was tested with the latest version of IE, version 6, when it was built and it worked beautifully. Waiting for me when I get back from holiday is a forwarded message from someone in our College administration that is complaining about how our web site is broken because whenever she goes to the page, her screen goes blank and she gets "a weird error message about ActiveX." Here we go.

Seems that the new version of Internet Explorer, IE7, has a little surprise in store for anyone who was embedding QuickTime movies onto their web pages.

Basically, IE7 now allows the user to control which ActiveX controls are allowed to be created on web pages. This is a good thing, because it's' finally addressing a security mentality that's been around since the Dark Ages of the browser wars.

But it wouldn't be Microsoft if they didn't screw it up in some way. In this case, they helpfully chose certain "pre-approved" ActiveX controls to default to being on, and turned off all the other ones. That much is fine. According to Microsoft:
The new Internet Explorer 7 ActiveX Opt-In feature disables ActiveX controls on a user's machine...Controls which were used in Internet Explorer 6 before upgrading to Internet Explorer 7, along with some pre-approved controls, are not disabled.

Makes sense. Most ActiveX controls weren't designed to be web page applets, so it makes sense to pull out the non-internet ones. That was ostensibly the intention according to the Microsoft Internet Explorer Weblog. For instance, they pre-approved the Flash ActiveX control because it was clearly meant for viewing media on web pages.

Now, consider for a moment that the iPod is kicking the Zune's ass. Zune isn't even in the top ten selling MP3 players. You're Microsoft, and you want Zune/WMV to do better against iPod/QuickTime. What do you do?

That's right. Leave QuickTime off of the "pre-approved controls" so that every web page with a QuickTime movie in it doesn't work. Okay, but at least if they had it installed under IE6, it should work because of the above quote, right? Wrong. Curiously, even if you explicitly installed the QuickTIme Player as an ActiveX control under IE6, it still gets turned off anyway in IE7.

It seems to me that this is not about security. I find it more likely this is part of their pissing contest with Apple on media formats. If they were being mature about it, they'd pre-approve QuickTime controls, because, clearly, those are intended for web page media playback, and if their users installed it, that probably means they want to use it. Apple doesn't go sabotaging Windows Media Player with each new update to Safari.

Moreover, it appears, from what the woman who was trying to view our QuickTime movie described, that IE7 does not fail gracefully when it encounters the ActiveX control. You would think that when it encounters an unapproved ActiveX control, it would just leave it out of the page, and maybe alert the user to the situation and give them a simple explanation and instructions on how to enable the control.

Oh, no. Instead, it fails spectacularly. According to her, none of the page content showed up - not just the QuickTime movie. It just killed the entire page, leaving her unable to get any of the other relevant information on the page. And in typical Microsoft fashion, the error message that it displayed was the inscrutable, cryptic nonsense aimed at certified Microsoft technicians, rather than something that would be useful to normal people. This woman had no idea that the problem was with the security settings on her own computer, let alone given any idea of how to go about correcting the problem so that she could view the content.

So it looks to her like it was our fault. And it looks to my professional colleagues and upper administration that it was my fault. Thanks, Microsoft, for making me look bad. My web page worked in IE6 last month, but now it's catastrophically broken in IE7, and the stink lands on me because Microsoft doesn't have the decency to let their users know that it's IE7 lameness, not a broken web site, that is causing that big blank screen.

Perhaps not coincidentally, No More IE Hacks showed up on Digg today. If only.

24 ways: Cheating Color

I work with style guides a fair amount at my job, and one of the continuous hassles is the color pallete for our fine institution. That's why it was nice to read Cheating Color by the 24 Ways guys, which makes the case that strict hexadecimal web color rules may not be the best idea in the world.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Headless Hollow's Arkham Horror Sheets

Today, I stumbled upon Headless Hollow's Arkham Horror sheets. I particularly like the Playsheet, which organizes your Mythos cards in play, summarizes some sticky items in the turn order, and lets you keep track of the quirky stats based on the number of players like the monster and gate limits. Nice.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Call of Cthulhu - the Movie

Just this last weekend, over a game of Arkham Horror, I was lamenting the fact that we haven't seen any faithful reproductions of H.P. Lovecraft's stories for the silver screen. Originally, I was thinking that modern CGI was capable of bringing to life the visual nightmares that Lovecraft evokes in his stories. Imagine what Cameron's effects studio could do with R'Lyeh, for instance.

But of course, the problem with that is that Lovecraft is a very niche market, and is unlikely to ever score the budget such a thing would require. So what is there to do?

The answer is to take the Blair Witch approach: find a way to be scary without special effects. And that's what it looks like the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society seems to have done. Instead of going for a CGI-laden modern horror movie, they made The Call of Cthulhu as if it were a silent movie from the 1920's. Freaking brilliant - it dodges the budget concern AND evocative of the time when the movie is set and when Lovecraft was writing. (And as an added bonus, they managed to translate their movie into a plethora of different languages.) I can't wait to see it.

Monday, January 01, 2007

The Down Side to a Gated Community

Presumably, one of the main draws of living in a gated community is safety and security. You pay a premium to live in a place that selectively lets in vehicles.

But really, a determined thief or murderer is not going to be deterred by a horizontal bar across the entrance - all it does is stop their vehicle. This may be enough to deter the casual miscreant, but it also has the down side of potentially stopping people you might want to admit to the community, too.

Today, as we were driving home, we ended up distantly following an ambulance, moving fast with sirens screaming, towards our neighborhood. Next to our (open) neighborhood is a gated community, and the ambulance turned into the short drive and raced up to the gate. We could see it turn from a few blocks back, and by the time we passed it and turned into our own subdivision, it was still sitting at the gatehouse, lights spinning, unable to enter. Impotent. Apparently, the gatehouse is unmanned, with the big metal bar controlled by a computer and card-reader. Presumably, the ambulance driver was trying to get a phone number so someone could buzz them in, but in that wasted time dealing with the "security" system, what was happening to the person for whom the ambulance had been called?

It seems to me that the gated community is not charging for security, but rather a sense of security. That big metal bar won't be effective at keeping out someone who wants to kill you, but it will keep out the people who come to save you from him. If their system cannot distinguish between a crook and an emergency vehicle (because they're too cheap to hire a person to sit in the gatehouse), then they're basically charging you a premium to make you less safe.