29 August 2007

Reading classical guitar

I’m working on some easy classical guitar pieces for church. I’m still a bit rusty at reading standard notation (& I don’t think I was ever very strong at it). So it goes like this: Middle line is...B. In this key...B natural. That could be...second string, open...third string, fourth fret...fourth string, ninth fret. Now which of those works best in this context? One note down; repeat. I’m surprised by how much standard notation with a few & occasional additions can communicate what the arranger† had in mind. In classic guitar music, a number will sometimes be put next to a note to indicate the finger it should be fretted with. Except when it’s zero, this doesn’t indicate string or fret, but in context it tends to be clear. Even more occasional circled numbers indicating which string to play can make things entirely clear when necessary. (The other thing that isn’t indicated in the pieces I’m working on is which finger the note should be plucked with. Again, I’m surprised by how much I feel I know what the arranger had in mind here despite the lack of notation. It seems convention is enough.) I’m finding it extremely satisfying once I’ve decoded the arranger’s intent from the notation. Still, it seems to me that tablature is a much more straightforward method of communicating a guitar arrangement. Reading & writing standard notation is important for communicating with other musicians, but—guitarist to guitarist—I’m not sure that I see the point. Although, the big advantage of standard notation in this case was that the music director—who is not a guitarist—was able to help me pick out pieces to work on. †See arrangement or transcription

RSS irony

RSS is great. I'm sure it would surprise no one that I could come up with a long list of criticisms of the technology, but—in actual practice—I'm happy with it. In fact, I'm starting to become annoyed at sites that don't offer RSS feeds. (I'm looking at you, web site of First United Methodist Church, Round Rock.) What is it? An RSS feed is a standard way for web sites to offer a list of recent articles/items. You use an RSS reader, or aggregator, to subscribe to feeds. I use Google Reader. You can also use My Yahoo. Firefox and Safari can appearantly handle the task as well. Your reader lets you know what feeds have updates & let's you read the items. (Although sometimes the item is little more than a link to the full story on the original web site. It depends on the feed.) I'm currently subscribed to 106 feeds. Podcasts are essentially RSS feeds that contain audio. This icon, , indicates either a feed or something RSS related. Incidentally, Google Reader generates that list of shared items here on my blog. When I see an interesting item in Google Reader, I click a button & it gets added to those shared items. It's natural to think that it's important for a feed to have regular updates. Ironically, however, the opposite is true. Noisy feeds that fill my reader with a constant stream of low interest items risk me unsubscribing. Where RSS really shines are the infrequently updated feeds. Your reader takes care of checking them regularly & only brings the feed to your attention when there is something to read. A dead feed (or—more importantly—a dormant, seemingly-dead feed) isn't a problem because it doesn't take any of your attention. Unfortunately, in the migration from Usenet → web → RSS, the web reinforced the "must have regular updates" idea. That made sense for the web before RSS, but not for RSS.

28 August 2007

The problem with secure email

It would have been convenient today for me to send someone encrypted email. The problem, however, is that they way it works, the recipient would have to have already obtained a certificate† & have sent me a copy of it. And there are very good reasons why it works that way. Getting a free secure email certificate isn't difficult, though I imagine the process could be a bit confusing if you aren't familiar with the technology. (Thawte--whom I've linked to--isn't the only authority that can issue secure email certificates, but it is the one I use.) But beyond that, most people don't even know about them, much less why they should get one.‡ Faced with the prospect of asking a recipient to go through getting a certificate & sending it to me or finding another way to get the information to them, I--of course--choose the latter. So, secure email remains unused. †A bit of an oversimplification for clarity. ‡Besides allowing people to send you encrypted email, a secure email certificate allows you to digitally sign emails you send. This increases the recipient's confidence that a email actually came from you & wasn't spoofed. Incidentally, your certificate is automatically included in a signed email message. Thus a signed message is the typical way to send someone your certificate so that they may send you encrypted email. (Incidentally, it seems that in separating Firefox & Thunderbird into separate applications, Mozilla dropped the ball here. You have to manually export your private key & certificate generated/obtained through Firefox & import them into Thunderbird. At least, I couldn't find an easier way to do it. Presumably people using Microsoft Outlook & Internet Explorer or Apple Mail & Safari have the advantage here.)

Step 3: Profit!

People keep telling me that businesses have only one motivation: Money. I don't buy it. Sure, there are companies that are only motivated by money. There have also been plenty of companies that were clearly not motivated by money at all. (Like...I dunno...a good percentage of the dot-com bust casualties.) In my experience, though, most companies are motivated roughly equally by money & a vision. And it's not just that sticking to a vision may mean more money in the long term. I have seen & been a part of companies deciding to take a course that might mean less (though still positive) profit because it better fits the vision. When it comes right down to it, most entrepreneurs I've known have been more interested in building something--a product & a company. Money is important to them--no doubt about that, but only up to a point. They're driven to work & to build. No amount of money will convince them to retire.

25 August 2007

Role-playing games, editions, & fun

An aspect of a pen & paper role-playing game that is not fun for one person can be fun for another. e.g. One player laments the fact that there is a "sweet spot" of levels for D&D characters which is the most fun. Another player enjoys the fact that the nature & feel of the game changes as the characters progress in levels. So, people find games that have more bits they find fun than bits they find unfun. (Or that make it easy to ignore the bits they find unfun.) If a new edition of a game attempts too much to make the game more fun, they run the risk of merely narrowing its appeal. Every change which makes the game more fun for a designer can make the game less fun for potentially huge number of fans. The more things they try to make more fun, the more they potentially limit the audience for the new edition to a subset of older edition fans who are most like the designers. Consider for a moment the c. 1980 D&D Basic Set & its companion Expert Set. For the most part, they did not attempt to make the game more fun, merely more accessible. It seems reasonable to me to call it a new edition of the old game. D&D third edition, however, significantly changed how nearly every aspect of the game worked in an attempt to make it more fun. It seems very wrong to me to call it a new edition of D&D rather than a new game. While it shares many superficial similarities with the older editions, it really is so different in so many ways it is hard to consider it the same game. If the third edition designers succeeded, it was in often being able to ask "What is more fun for lots of D&D players?", not just "What is more fun for us?" Which is all just thinking out loud. While these thoughts are inspired by the forthcoming fourth edition of D&D, this isn't really meant to be commentary on it. At least not yet. Though I do wonder if the fourth edition designers are not sometimes being too myopic in their attempts to make D&D more fun.

21 August 2007

EN mods vs. EGG

At GenCon this year, the ENWorld moderators got Gary Gygax to run them through his famous Castle Greyhawk using the original Dungeons & Dragons rules. (Though even EGG himself doesn't run strictly by the rules as written.) Rel posted a recap.

How one-in-ten becomes one-in-three

After ten years as a software developer, I can go on at length about the benefits of cross-platform development & why--in many cases--they far exceed the costs. I'll try to limit myself to one product & one point for the moment, though. Wizards of the Coast is developing a virtual game table to make it easy for a geographically diverse group to play role-playing games via their computers & the internet. So, for instance, a group who played D&D together in college could play again despite being spread all over the country or world since graduation. This isn't a new idea. People have been doing it ad hoc with general purpose chat & other software. There has been software--both proprietary & free--specialized to this task as well. It looks like Wizards is making a good effort towards taking it to the next level, though. While the virtual game table will certainly work well with D&D 4th edition, they've said that you'll be able to play other games with it as well, since it's really just tools, not a game itself. Let's assume that the average potential virtual game table group is five people. (Four players & one DM.) Let's assume that 10% of potential customers don't use Microsoft Windows. Then the odds that at least one person in a group doesn't use Windows is a bit over 34%. (Oops. My original calculation was based on four people per group. Five people per group raises it to nearly 41%.) The point is not the exact numbers. The point is that when your software product is targeted at groups instead of individuals, the benefits of cross-platform development are multiplied.

20 August 2007

A cube with a view

I moved into a window cube today. Here's my view of the parking lot.

19 August 2007

Old-school values in D&D4e

It seems 4th edition D&D may revive some principles that were missing or de-emphasized in 3rd edition.
  • More streamlined mechanics
  • Clear roles for PCs
  • Different mechanics for different things (e.g. PC & monsters don't need to operate by exactly the same rules)
  • Not everything needs mechanics (e.g. the loss of the Profession skill)
I don't expect 4th edition to be wildly popular among the grognards, though. I suspect they'll still have a lot to grumble about when it comes to feel & flavor.

17 August 2007

Gamer Radio Zero TV at GenCon

GamerZer0 does a weekly podcast (Gamer Radio Zero) for Wizards of the Coast. This weekend, he's been doing video spots from GenCon. You can find them through his YouTube page. Wizards is developing online Dungeons & Dragons game aids. They showed some demos of their virtual game table & character visualizer. The game table is a virtual battlemat & miniatures. There's already a few of those around. (Just before third edition D&D was released in 2000, I played a 2nd edition campaign with my old high school gaming group via software called WebRPG that did something similar.) The Wizards game table is 3D where WebRPG was only 2D, & it seems pretty smooth & pretty slick already. Much better than what I expected from Wizards given their past computer products. (WebRPG, however, was free.) Playing online with the virtual game table isn't something I'd choose to do as long as I had the chance to play face-to-face instead. And I'm not really interested in using such a thing in a face-to-face game. Still, it looks very interesting. The character visualizer looks like it really does make making a custom virtual miniature for your character easy. You can then use it with the game table, or just print it out for your character record sheet. In GamerZer0's interview with Andy Collins--one of the designers of the forthcoming 4th edition D&D--Andy said something that caught my attention: "Being a wizard is about blasting people with magical energy." That is a very, very wrong statement to me. This was in the context of how wizard characters in D&D can "run out" of magic & be relegated to doing mundane things that don't feel very wizardish. (Which I'm not convinced is a flaw, though I do understand & have experienced the concern.) But it's got me wondering if what I want from D&D and what the designers what from D&D may be farther apart than I thought. In the interview with Randy Buehler, Vice President of Digital Games at Wizards of the Coast, I got the impression that Mr. Buehler has never seen WebRPG or any of the other similar tools that do much the same thing as their new game table tool. Granted, they may be setting a higher bar for themselves, but that the VP of digital games can come across as ignorant about what's out there in the same space is not reassuring. In the interview with James Wyatt, some interesting things about character classes in 4th edition were discussed. There will be four roles--combat roles really. James identified the roles & these classes that fit in them.
  • Defender: Fighter & Paladin
  • Leader: Cleric & Warlord
  • (Battlefield) Controller: Wizard
  • Striker: Rogue & Ranger
The impression was left that there were more classes than this. He also said that they're still considering some classes that may not fit perfectly into one of these four roles. They want to make sure that a character is always fully equipped to fulfill his role. The example being that in 3rd edition, if a druid takes on the healer role, he's really not very good at it. In 4th, he would be. Although two characters may be able to fulfill the same role, they may do it in different ways, so there is still differentiation between characters. Also, a character's abilities outside of combat may vary considerably. I really glad Wizards has had GamerZer0 doing these videos. I also thing he did a great job of keeping up with the message boards & trying to ask in his interviews some of the questions that were coming up.

16 August 2007

Why I am excited about D&D4e

Role-playing games tend to go through a cycle.
  1. The initial "core" rules are published
  2. Supplements are published
  3. Some of the best ideas from the supplements are integrated into a streamlined new edition of the core rules
  4. Repeat
I like the core part of that cycle. I may buy a few supplements, but I generally prefer to stick with the core rules. So, I'm excited about new core rules. I like the idea of streamlining the 3e/d20 rules. I'm sure there will be things I'll take issue with, but that's true of any game. I have confidence (to my own surprise) that Wizards of the Coast won't put out anything that I don't find adequate. Edit (22 August 2007): As I found myself putting it the other day, I'll be impressed if they manage to make this the first edition of D&D that I can't enjoy. The questions are: Will I want to DM it, & will I buy the 4e Dungeon Masters Guide & 4e Monster Manual? So, why wasn't I excited about 3.5e? Well, it wasn't really enough of a change--to me--to qualify for a new edition of the core rules. Besides coming much too soon. (In 4e's favor, I tend to see it as being 8 years after 3e rather than 5 years after 3.5.)

Web marketing lessons courtesy Wizards of the Coast

If you had a D&D game scheduled for Thursday or Friday night & you went to the Wizards of the Coast web site to download a character sheet or adventure or web enhancement or whatever to use in that game...too bad. You see, they decided to block access to all those useful features of their web site that you may have come to rely on in order to tease you about the announcement of D&D 4th edition. In another brilliant move, the teaser was a countdown. So, of course, when the counter ran out, their web site was overloaded. But that's not all! Part of the announcement was touting their new online service that will be tied to D&D4e. That's right, they touted an online service by orchestrating a server overload. But there's more! Once I got the site to load, I found that with my browser's scrollbar all the way to the left, I still couldn't see the left side of the page. Yes, I could only see "ome" of the "Home" link. Good way to built confidence in your ability to offer a quality online service!

Mongoose Traveller reaction

Yeah, so it's D&D4e announcement day, & I'm posting about Mongoose Traveller. So, I'm behind... Mongoose is going to release a version of Traveller. Considering the track record of attempts to update classic Traveller such as MegaTraveller & T4... Considering Mongoose's track record such as the many problems they had with Conan & RuneQuest... Is it any wonder that I'm not excited?

13 August 2007

Eulogy for ClarisWorks

In 1987, Apple Computer created a spin-off company called Claris to separate their application software from their hardware & operating-system business. In 1990, Claris acquired a “productivity suite” (written by former Claris employees) which was released in 1991 as ClarisWorks. ClarisWorks was a single application that included word processing, spreadsheets, painting & drawing, database, & a terminal emulator. ClarisWorks became a really great application. It may never have been able to compete feature-for-feature with Microsoft Office, but it probably did everything that 90% or more of Office users really needed. And was easier to use. Around 1996, the ClarisWorks team either left or were recruited by Microsoft. (Microsoft needed some decent Mac developers to fix the mess that Microsoft Office for the Mac had become, as well as making the Mac version of Internet Explorer—for a time—the premier Mac web browser.) ClarisWorks never recovered. Apple eventually gave it the AppleWorks name (from an old productivity suite for the Apple ][) & bundled it with every Mac. It really started to show its age, though, & never got a proper revamp for Mac OS X. Now that iWork ’08 is out, it looks like AppleWorks days are numbered. On the positive side, this is better than letting it continue to rot. On the negative side, Macs will no longer come with a bundled productivity suite, but just a demo of iWork. While I like OpenOffice.org/NeoOffice, they don’t offer the kind of user experience a great Mac application needs. IWorks lacks the drawing component of ClarisWorks & OpenOffice.org, which I use quite a bit. Still, it is a great package & quite affordable.

10 August 2007

YMC 2007 tour pictures

Here are pictures from the Youth Music Company 2007 tour. The YMC is the youth choir at my church. I played guitar for them.

09 August 2007

A new old guitar

The Fender custom shop is making exact replicas of some famous guitars. Exact. Right down to the chips, scraps, cigarette burns, &c. Like the Andy Summers Tribute Telecaster. Andy is taking four of them on the Police reunion tour. It seems like a real shame. This is a really unique instrument. It's not like the EVH Frankenstrat for which there are hundreds of adequate substitutes. Wouldn't you want a reproduction of this guitar with the features but without the wear? Wouldn't you want to beat it up yourself? (I imagine the artificial aging isn't going to age gracefully.) I would've even expected Andy would want his own replicas to be new so that he can begin beating them up differently. But then, I don't know that I'll ever understand the market these are aimed for.

Separated at birth?

It’s a bit creepy how much Satch—on the cover of this month’s Guitar World—looks like Lord Voldemort.

03 August 2007

Mobile phones: Paragons of usability

From Guitar Gear News: Line 6 Pocket POD:
The interface for editing sounds is easy to use. If you’re used to sending text messages from your cell phone, using the Pocket POD will be a piece of cake.
(^_^) This is some strange new use of the phrase "easy to use" that I am unfamiliar with.