Thursday, July 29, 2010

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Limbo: A Creepy But Fascinating Video Game

I turned on my Xbox today and saw a teaser for Limbo.  I tried it out and was hooked.  This game is incredibly interesting, but horribly creepy.







What is so fascinating about this game is that it is different.  The vast majority of video games these days require hand contortions to get all the "moves" right.  Limbo requires two buttons - jump and apply - and one joystick since the action takes place only in two dimensions.

And when most video games are trying their hardest to cram in as many realistic effects as possible, Limbo is minimalist, using only gray scale.  Your character is hidden in shadow with no features, only the reflection of his eyes visible.

Most of the game I would classify as "puzzles" as you try to figure out how to keep moving forward.  As you descend further and further the scenery gets weirder, the opponents scarier.  And with the minimalist monochromes and strange images, the tension and the weirdness of the world just goes up as you keep descending.

I highly recommend this game, but not for small kids, even though the controls are simple enough for them.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Computers Lower the Skills of Poor Kids

I have always wondered about politicians touting computers and internet for low-income kids to "help them get a leg up".  Vast numbers of the poor can't handle basic reading and math, but a computer will somehow make them valuable workers?   What these politicians don't realize is that the vast majority of kids don't use their computer as a "computer", but rather as an entertainment vehicle for Facebook, games and porn.  It distracts them from learning, not helps.

Seems that some people are finally figuring it out.  From the NYT of all places:


Economists are trying to measure a home computer’s educational impact on schoolchildren in low-income households. Taking widely varying routes, they are arriving at similar conclusions: little or no educational benefit is found. Worse, computers seem to have further separated children in low-income households, whose test scores often decline after the machine arrives, from their more privileged counterparts

When I got my first computer as a kid (queue up early 80s background music, see a 12-year old kid in front of a now-ancient Commodore Pet), I actually used it to program.  I taught myself BASIC.  I learned if-then statements and for-loops.   I wrote my own games.  It eventually led me down the path of electrical engineering ("Hey, computers are interesting, maybe I should go into that?").

Today's computers can be beneficial to learning - just like television can be - but most people won't take advantage of it and instead will be sucked into the mindless entertainment side.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Tumbleweeds in Silicon Valley

It's not just the economic sites linked at the right that lead me worry about the economy.  It's my own observations in the business world.  And it isn't feedback or sales numbers from my customers, which are actually holding steady, it's the lack of economic activity everywhere else in Silicon Valley.

On a typical day of sales calls I might drive for a total of two hours up and down the South Bay and Valley.  And what I see is empty building after empty building.  Dozens and dozens of buildings with hundreds of acres, literally, of bare office space and no companies to fill them.

The few buildings that do have people - buildings with my customers - are half empty as the companies that remain have laid off or off-shored (even some engineering positions).  In other cases their corporate neighbors moved or shut down, leaving half the building and parking lot empty.  I have walked through customer's offices that have cube farms that once held dozens of engineers or operations people that are now empty and dark.  It is sort of eerie.

The one exception is the Apple campus which has a frenetic, bustling, high-caffeine feeling.  People are running about and office space near 1 Inifinite Loop is at a premium.  But their one success (and off shore manufacturing) can't fill the rest of the Valley, which has lots of other tech industries and applications outside of the cellphone segment.

Seeing all this empty space I was not surprised to learn that U.S. office vacancy rate is at a 17 year high.  and it shows how how much economic growth, corporate building and hiring is needed to even fill even a fraction of the office space that is available.  And with the anti-business attitude of both the Federal and California governments, I don't see it ever happening.

Monday, July 05, 2010

Toy Story 3 Review: A Movie Freud Would Love

I thought maybe I would get away from my general gloom and doom of the last few posts to write something happy and uplifting about "Toy Story 3".   After all it's a kid's cartoon, right?  What can be gloomy about that?  Unfortunately, the movie is too deep and dark for a light, happy post, so my inner Eyore will continue.

(SPOILER ALERT, so move on if you haven't or want to see it).

First, for small kids six and under, the movie is probably fine.  Most of what I analyze here will go over their heads, and they will see a see nothing more than a cartoon with toys that come to life and go through some adventures - some a bit scary - but no worse for wear.

It is the older kids and pre-teens that are going to have difficulty interpreting this movie. And the thing they are going to ask questions about is the main "bad guy", Lots of Huggin' Bear.

Now LHB looks nice and cuddly.  He seems friendly.  But as the movie goes on you find out he is really a bad person bear.

BUT it is not really his fault that he is bad.  Really.  It was because he was abandoned.  And his fear of abandonment makes him emotionally distant and unwilling to bond to others.  And he views with contempt others who want to bond, because he believes they, too, will be abandoned in the end.  So while he might come off as bad and mean, he is actually just trying to protect himself and others from being abandoned.

So he has that. 

Plus he controls a little toy enclave for the benefit of himself and a few cronies who keep him in power.  They work a system at a preschool where new or older toys are thrown to the mercy of the "toddlers" while he and a chosen few are played with nicely by older kids (and don't get broken).  But it is not out of sadism that he is doing this, but the belief that all toys in the community will be permanently damaged if they were all in the room with the toddlers.  So a few toys, especially the new ones, have to do their time in the small kids' room.  Maybe some get moved out eventually.  Most don't.  But a few have to be sacrificed so that others (he and those he chooses) may continue to lead a more comfortable life.  He'd fit in quite nicely in the upper echelons of most EU governments.

But he gets his just deserts at the end, being stuck on the end of the grill of a large garbage truck.  The problem here is that this scene reminded me of the torturing of people in "Mad Max 2".  Not a good way to go and not exactly kid appropriate, even if they don't know the reference.

Even without torture, the movie has a lot to digest for an 8 or 9 year old.  The hardest part for them may be understanding how someone who looks and acts nice can really be mean.  But that is actually a good lesson for a kid to learn.


An Adult Existential View

At a larger level there is the question of what sentient toys think should happen to their "lives" after their owner grows up.  They know something will happen to them - attic, garage sale, trash, even a museum as seen in Toy Story 2 is a possibility, but they all believe these are bad ways to continue.  They cling to the idea of a permanent state with the original "owner", while they watch the very same owner grow up and play less and less with them.  Their best possibility to be handed to another kid to re-live their original experience, but these new kids will also grow up and leave them.  So they cling to a reality which can never be in the long-term, and because of that they are always worried, searching for that perfect, permanent owner, never to be fulfilled. 

These toys have not accepted their existential meaning, which is to exist for the pleasure of a child for only a short period of time, then knowing their usefulness and existence will end.  So they need to embrace that time they have with the owner and enjoy it to the last, and not worry about non-existence later.