From the archives: November 2006

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Wiither report

Tuesday, 28 November 2006 — 4:55pm | Video games

Boy, am I glad the Wii launched the weekend before last, on one of the warmer days of the month, and not in the past few days. At the time of this writing, Edmonton is reading thirty below, though The Weather Network is telling me that it “feels like” -40°C, accounting for humidity, wind chill factor, and assorted metereological voodoo in n other variables. If you were to seat yourself outside the downtown location of a major electronics store under these conditions for all of fifteen minutes, you would probably die.

I realize that this is an interesting problem from a game-theoretic perspective, kind of like the optimization problem of picking the grapes in the vineyard before the winter freeze, but with the adversarial element of a known-unknown set of competing rational actors. (Please keepeth to thyselves the snide remarks about the rationality of queuing overnight for a video game console launch.)

Let’s say you know the upper and lower bounds on the number of units your selected location is receiving. From prowling Internet bulletin boards, you have a rough estimate of the median time that other campers are planning to depart (in your city or otherwise), and plan to beat them by at least two hours, knowing full well that they will probably beat themselves by one. You make a safe assumption that everybody taking this seriously has access to at least the same information. You also have to account for the possibility that the compatriots ahead of you may be joined by line-jumping friends in the window of opportunity that precedes the assignment of claim tickets before the shop opens, which is only partially offset by the mutual effort in the line to self-regulate a first-come-first-serve order. So far, so good – we have the normal circumstances under which you plan for a product launch where supply is limited.

The goal is to determine the expected payoff that correlates to the number of hours waited, and shoot for the maximum reward. Successfully acquiring a unit is the only positive figure in the reward equation. The costs: lost time, lost sleep, and (in the case of having to buy your way up the line) lost money.

But here in Edmonton, one has to account for another factor: an infinite loss if you pass a certain critical point where you wait too long – i.e. freezing to death, or at least losing a couple of limbs (which isn’t too conducive to playing the Wii, now is it). If the Wii had launched this week instead, that critical point would be so close to the store’s opening – even closer than the lead time claim-ticket distribution – that the entire scenario collapses on itself.

Like I said, it’s an interesting problem, and probably worth investigating in the realm of the hypothetical. However, when you are a participant in the proceedings, curiosity yields to the greater interest of getting your own grubby hands on a unit.

Back to reality, then: I did acquire a Wii when it launched on the 19th of November, along with the prepackaged Wii Sports (which I have yet to play) and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess (which has spawned a 40-hour save file that speaks for itself). I visited the location twice – 9:30pm the night before, when the store closed and nobody was in line, and again at midnight when the line was two strong – before joining the queue in roughly the tenth position at 2:30am, and staying there until the store’s 10am opening. It was, by the numbers, not that cold – probably no chillier than the negative single digits, with the morning sunrise projected to vault us above the freezing point – but I was bundled up for much colder climes, and still shivering me timbers. Sitting down for hours can do that to you, especially near the beginning, when nobody has lined up behind you, but the wind just happens to be launching a rear assault in your direction.

There was a competing strategy for staying warm, and it began with a bottle of Captain Morgan.

Meet Sean. (Initial position: fifth in line. Final position: stone drunk.) As you can tell from his overcoat and scarf, Sean is a classy guy – by all accounts, an Advanced Placement student with a talent in chemistry and an interest in pursuing political science, whose dad dropped him off at 1am (so I’m told) with a rickety wooden fold-up chair and a “Good luck, son.”

Well, even Classy Guys get into the rum from time to time. For Sean, it just happened to be the first time. He was impervious to the cold all night, safely isolated from his senses. Then again, it may have had something to do with his running laps around the parking lot, falling flat on his face, getting back up, and running some more. Or walking back in forth in straight lines to prove it could be done. Or punching himself in the gut to demonstrate that he wasn’t about to heave anytime soon.

I’ve linked to a few brief clips above, and they fail to capture the young gentleman’s sheer endurance. The life of the party, he entertained us with his antics for six straight hours. The rest of us may not have been toasty, but we were by no means bored. Sean was a veritable community-builder. I dub him Sean the Social Lubricant, Catalyst of Camaraderie, C.G. (Classy Guy).

Even in his impaired state, Sean was well aware of the latent irony in demolishing the floodgates of repression and plunging into vice while lining up for a Nintendo product, a symbol of childhood innocence if I ever saw one. I’m trying to think of a comparable circumstance. I suppose it would be at least as funny if this coming-of-age moment occurred in, say, the line for a new Harry Potter book, but I can’t come up with anything else.

As for whether or not Twilight Princess is really as downright legendary as the ragtag cabal of online game critics suggest? Yes, yes, an orgasmic yes. Maybe in time I will come to hold it in lesser regard, depending on just how badly it has permanently hijacked my education in its very first week in my household, but even that would be a credit to its unbelievable variety and capacity to invent within the confines of a familiar interface and storytelling formula.

Details to come. Now, back to the fishing hole on the banks of Zora’s River.

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Eggs in one basket

Friday, 10 November 2006 — 12:44am | Video games

It would be redundant of me to restate the truism that Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island for the Super Nintendo is one of the most seductively entertaining games of all time. In my opinion, it’s certainly one of the prettiest. Can’t say I’ve played it in a while, though. For the past few months, there’s been a save file sitting on my Yoshi’s Island cartridge like a festering parasite (with rather high scores, too, though it only got up to World 3). A record of better days, perhaps. No matter – I finally erased it tonight, and I suppose the game is playable once more. Not that I’ll have time for it anytime soon.

I kind of fancy doing another run through the original before I grab the DS-bound sequel, which is due for release on Tuesday, but I find that unlikely. I have very little time for video games as it is, and the only one in the immediate future I can see myself proactively making time to play is Twilight Princess. And that’s assuming that I can acquire a Wii and a copy of the game on launch day (Sunday the 19th, for those of you who don’t care enough to know). I have pre-ordered neither, so I suspect I’ll need a few warm coats and a lawn chair. Can anyone spare a lawn chair?

Tangent: For those of you keeping track, Blaine’s Theorem (which should be more accurately called Blaine’s Law) is still in effect. The Germans wore grey. She wore blue.

[Edit: I think I should make it perfectly clear that this is by no means a conciliatory remark. Let the relevant parties be aware of the following: if you’re ever on the run from marauding fascists and of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world you walk into mine and it just so happens you need my help, you’re not getting any.]

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Home is where the hardware is

Friday, 3 November 2006 — 12:10pm | Computing

I am proud to say that I have finally been repatriated to the mother country.

For those of you who are new to the show, I was born and raised on the bourgeois luxuries of Apple Macintosh computing products. As a child, I eschewed “playing” with “friends” in favour of cutting my teeth on HyperCard scripts and hacking resource forks in ResEdit. I look back now, and I’m actually astounded at what a bona fide Mac expert I was before I hit puberty and Apple hit rock bottom. I suspect I knew more about computers then than I did after completing (NP-completing?) my degree, though back then I was still playing in the QuickBASIC sandbox and mischievously tying GOTO statements in impossible knots, and didn’t know what objects were (because nobody knew what objects were, and a lot of them still don’t).

I remember the beginning of the PowerPC era, since my first machine was a hand-me-down Macintosh SE with 2MB of RAM, one of the last of the Motorola dynasty. Now I return at the end of the PowerPC era, with a Core 2 Duo MacBook Pro (which I have christened “Scrapple from the Apple” after the Charlie Parker tune, as “Penny Lane” was already taken), and the landscape has changed considerably. I’d say it’s for the better. I left my fruitful homeland in the first place because of its crippling compatability issues, none of which remain a problem. As for what to do with the Windows copy of Civilization IV beckoning me to log another hundred hours of virtual conquest, I suppose there’s always Boot Camp – or, better yet, actually getting work done.

I want to develop for this platform. I have never said that for a Windows machine. In fact, I don’t think I ever said that for a Linux or BSD machine, either (having worked on those out of necessity and convenience). During my BSc, I don’t think I wrote a single line of code that didn’t pertain to my assigned course work; it’s suitably ironic that it’s as an English major that I’m reading up on the finer points of Objective-C and the Cocoa API for fun and sport.

I’m properly armed with my arsenal of utility-belt essentials (Zyzzyva, Quackle, TeXShop, Xcode, and so on and so forth) and ready to take on the future… or at least play around with Exposé. Zip! Now you see them, now you don’t! All I need is a screensaver involving flying toasters, and I’m set.

(I have just written most of this post in a widget. Intriguing. For my next trick, I think I’ll redesign this entire site.)

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