Saturday, August 20, 2011

Zombie Designs

So, I've been shopping for new wallets, right? (My old one went in the dryer when I thought I was under siege by bedbugs and got totally destroyed.) I really liked the wallet I had, and I couldn't really put my finger on why until I started looking at possible replacements.

The reason was the ID Window was designed right on my old wallet. The plastic window was the entire pouch, there was no unnecessary leather border partially obscuring information - no one ever told me to "take it out of there," which is always annoying because that's the time when the natural condensation that's accumulated between the card and the wallet decides to do it's superglue impression. 

I mean, is there really any reason for that border? I mean, it might be a side-effect of the way wallets are manufactured or the way leather is cut, but does it actually serve a purpose to partially obscure an ID and then make it difficult to remove? If it does, I can't think of one. So it's clearly an inferior design. But, curiously, even expensive wallets by name brands like Gucci can get this wrong.

That leads to an interesting question: in pretty much every field and facet I can think of, there are designs and features that are clearly inferior to other, more recent inventions. They are designs whose time is past, and yet they continue to rise from the dead again and again and again. (This is certainly true of software and the web.) This makes true, uniform progress in any field difficult, particularly if you take the view that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. 

Dducation, communication, and the Human Condition are easy things to blame. Information overload is undoubtedly an issue, and I'm sure the sorry state of our patent law isn't helping either. But I feel like this is a big problem. I've seen a rash of articles lately commenting on the pace of innovation, and fretting about the lack of low-hanging fruit still available. It'll take real work to continue to innovate at a pace that even resembles the frenetic rate of the past 20 years or so, and the apparent rate of progress will be even slower if we, as a global culture, are not able to efficiently shed ideas whose time has passed.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

UMich Athletics Need Their Heads Examined

So I get this email today from UMich Athletics

As a Michigan M-Mail Subscriber, you will receive priority access to individual tickets to remaining available home games on Monday, July 18th at 8:30AM, prior to the general public on Wednesday, July 20th.
DATE                 OPPONENT                      PRICE
SEPT. 3          WESTERN MICHIGAN           $70
SEPT. 10            NOTRE DAME                 SOLD OUT
SEPT. 17         EASTERN MICHIGAN          $70
SEPT. 24         SAN DIEGO STATE              $70
OCT. 1               MINNESOTA                      $70
OCT. 29                PURDUE                           $70
NOV. 19             NEBRASKA                       $85
NOV. 26            OHIO STATE                      $85

Three things:
  1. I didn't ask to be a "Michigan M-Mail" subscriber, so I don't know why I am.
  2. $70 for one game? Seriously? Professional sports cost less than that!
  3. It doesn't say anywhere in the email which friggin' sport this is for. Genius.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

What I'm Burning

One of the reasons I really love the act of creation in these story games I play is that none of them require me to to one of things I really suck at: coming up with a plot. A plot certainly comes about and I have my hand in creating it - both as a player and the game master - but virtually none of it is predetermined. It moves forward a small increment at a time, spinning off the situations created in play, without really worrying about what's going to happen next. (This often isn't as random as it sounds, as there's usually some goal the group is driving towards, but we're totally making it up as we go.)

The reason why this is so freeing for me is that, if I'm running a game, all I have to do is come up with a cool situation that provides enough grist for the storytelling mill. Players fill in smaller details during character creation to put in things that they care about, and then the game is about exploring the world while alternately tying up and creating lose ends. For instance, in the Burning Wheel game I'm now running with some good friends of mine, I pitched them this:
Crime is dead. The people of the Wardship of Towminster know very little of violence, despite living in a relatively large and lively city. There are, of course, the occasional squabbles over bushels of wheat and hands of daughters, but the sight of blood on the street is a rarity, so much so that the last such happening is almost beyond any local reckoning. And what was there to fight about anyway? Strong, stark mountains nestle the city as a mother would a baby, and the valley supplies all they need; useful flora and fauna are found in such variety and in such abundance that the people are left to want for almost nothing. War is also absent. No other Wardships - if they even exist! - call Towminster their enemy. How easy it must be to be Ward here! People do die, of course, but there is no sorrow. Lives are long and full. And the dead are always Claimed almost immediately after passing so that no one need look upon the dead and violate their sanctity. 

However, as is often the case, things were not always this way. Centuries - perhaps even millennia! - ago, crime was commonplace. Political corruption even more so. The two sicknesses fed each other until... until... well, until something Changed. What, when, how... if any of these things were ever known, they certainly aren't now. If any record was ever kept, it has been long lost - or long hidden. Tales of such are still told, but they are now little more than popular campfire stories, used to frighten children and occupy drunkards. The Ward may well know more - and probably does - but no one can say. The Ward least of all, as each in turn becomes Mute when the Command is taken up.

For all the tales and gossip about the Change, the only thing that the people know for certain is that there has been everlasting peace ever since. Those who transgress become Taken; those who wander become Lost; those that do neither become neither; and to be Claimed at the end of a long life is to be welcomed back home. This is the way of things.
But today there is a body in the streets. Today there is a transgressor not Taken. Today there is fear about Tomorrow. And our dear players are among the very few under suspicion.
This provided fertile enough ground for a game. The players had a hand in it during character creation, making suggestions like that the dead guy should be related to one of them or that maybe it was the Church that was responsible. It's all been delicious fun and, whether or not any of you are jazzed by that pitch, I had a tremendous amount of fun coming up with it. There's a Trouble in Towminster thread on the Burning Wheel forums if anyone is interesting in seeing where the story goes.