Saturday, December 29, 2007

Intel's Low-Cost Laptop Myopia

I've been following the One Laptop Per Child initiative for several months, and I remain amazed by what Nicholas Negroponte and others have been able to do in such a short time. With the XO they've revolutionized the laptop in two fundamental ways: first by making the normally fragile devices sturdy and secondly by making them inexpensive. And in addition, they've added mesh networking with some of the best wifi range seen on any device, a battery that has about four times the recharge rate of the one in every other laptop, by far the lowest power consumption of any laptop on the planet, and finally an amazing display that can be viewed in direct sunlight and whose resolution doubles in grayscale mode. Amazing.

The XO Laptop is a tiny technical marvel, and one that uses all open source software to lower costs because it's focused on a mission; not to make money, but to bring a rich educational platform to the children of developing nations.

That humanitarian goal, however, is not Intel's mission. Intel's Classmate PC is a clunky late comer that's nevertheless on track to eclipse the XO, not because it's a better or even cheaper product, but because Intel and Microsoft are using their collective market muscle to push the XO out.

Leslie Stahl has reported on these issues, and notice how she mentions that this market space was ignored by Intel and others until Negroponte showed how large it was. Intel began disparaging the XO, even calling it a "$100 gadget," (Bill Gates also criticized its "tiny screen" ... I guess 7.5 inches isn't enough for a child who has never seen a computer before) but after facing criticism for bullying a non-profit Intel eventually joined OLPC's board.

But even that changed yesterday, when Intel resigned from OLPC's board, citing "philosophical differences" over the fact that the rest of the board, which includes other corporate heavyweights like Google, wanted Intel to stop pushing its Classmate PC and focus on the XO.

Intel suffers from myopic vision. By only seeing the short term, it will not only hurt the children of the developing world but also its own long term growth. By dividing the market Intel has assured that less laptops will make it into the hands of the children who could benefit from them, and how does that hurt Intel's long term? Because as those children grow up, they're going to want more capable machines, machines that will say "Intel Inside."

I participated in OLPC's "Give 1 Get 1" program and I anxiously await the arrival of my XO, but I'm now more anxious about OLPC's future. They've created a fantastic machine for the right reasons, and I hope that even in the face of corporate bullies they can still succeed.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Portal Takes the Cake

As the curtains draw on 2007 the question rises like applause. It's been a good year for writing in games, and a good year for the industry in general, but which single title deserves the ultimate appellation?

I don't know whether the majority of reviewers will shout Bioshock or wave copies of Halo 3 over the enthroned fanboys, but the right answer is Portal, one of the most perfectly executed titles ever. Only Portal combines innovative gameplay, engrossing characters and dialog so memorable its lines have embedded themselves in gamer culture.

Let's take that first point. Have you ever seen an FPS puzzle game before? I don't mean a shooter that happens to contain a few puzzles. The only gun you carry in Portal is the one that makes them, so it's much more a puzzle game than a shooter, yet it feels right at home in The Orange Box next to perhaps the greatest FPS franchise of all time. And aside from the genre bending, just look at the weirdness you get to wreak with those portals: dropping sitting objects through the floor and out a wall to topple a turret, jumping up through a portal to step on a ledge on a wall or flinging yourself off a ledge and through the floor to soar out a wall and onto a high catwalk. When you wondered if you could drain a toxic pool by shooting a portal down into it you were thinking with portals.

But portal isn't just a toy, a Rubic's cube for gamers; it contains some of the quirkiest villains to ever grace the gamescreen and generates emotional attachment to an inanimate object. I can't recall an antagonist whose primary character trait was passive aggression before GLaDOS, a trait she takes so far it borders on schizophrenia. She lies, lies about lying, admits her lies, recants a few, and all the while she's really quite pleasant about it. And if her cloud of dark humor wasn't enough, there were the childlike turrets that you wanted to hug if they weren't shooting you.

Perhaps the greatest character of all, though, is the one that has no lines, doesn't emote or for that matter do much of anything because it's a weighted companion cube. Through what appears to be sheer alchemy the mix of lines spoken about the cube, its usefulness and its heart-decals bring life to a block. Players fell in love with the WCC, evidenced by the plush dolls and related swag available for purchase. G4 nominated it for their "Best New Character Award" (GLaDOS was the winner).

And speaking of lines, Portal's dialog will be quoted for years to come. Ask yourself when you last heard a friend quote a pithy line from Bioshock. For all Bioshock's impressive dialog, probably never. Now, when did you last hear "the cake is a lie?" Or, "keep on trying till you run out of cake?" Days or maybe even a matter of hours, and it might have been you saying it.

2007 was a great year for quality games, especially on the PC, but Portal deserves the trophy ... and the cake.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Bremer Lied

In his op-ed in the New York Times, L. Paul Bremer III argued that he didn't dismantle the Iraqi army following the fall of Saddam. Here is compelling evidence that he lied, lied about whom he consulted, about the consensus regarding the Iraqi army, about his role and responsibility.

This guy received the Presidential Medal of Freedom. What more do you need to know about the Bush Administration?

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Watchmen Film In Production

I feel a loss for words, which I wish was unusual for me. It's finally happening, and it looks like a fair chance it will work, that this script and production will do justice, as much a the medium of film can, to this the greatest of all graphic novels (though it's really a hybrid, isn't it, since there are lengthy prose chapters intermingled). My greatest fear was for the script, but David Hayter is the one being shot, and Alan Moore said it was a close as could get to his masterpiece.

Please, powers that be, don't mess this up.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Ex-CIA Says Waterboarding Works, But Is Torture

Brian Ross conducts this amazing interview with John Kiriakou, an ex-CIA operative involved in the capture and handling of high level al Qaeda targets like Abu Zubaydah, and it's gripping. Kiriakou, who underwent waterboarding himself as part of his training, believes it broke Zubaydah, who according to Kiriakou subsequently provided intelligence crucial to halting many attacks. Yet Kiriakou tells Brian Ross he now believes that waterboarding is torture and should not be used. Later in the interview he appears more conflicted about it, saying that if he neglected to use it and a preventable attack then occurred he would have trouble forgiving himself.

I find myself thinking of Captain Sisko from "In the Pale Moonlight." If I were making that call, would I sacrifice my principles, and the self-respect that goes with them, if I thought it might stop an attack. I probably would. Sounds acceptable when you imagine foiling an atrocity, but what if you just end up torturing someone who doesn't know anything? Do you rationalize it by saying he was a bad guy anyway? If he was certainly a bad guy, a known quantity like Zubaydah, I, like Sisko, could live with that. I say this believing that torture should, by the standards of any civilized nation, be illegal, and for a nation that claims the mantle of human rights must be illegal. War forces good people to cross the line, to commit crimes. If Sisko had been arrested, I think he would have believed he deserved it.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Shooting Near My Old Elementary School

A house got shot up near South Side School in Bristol, CT yesterday afternoon, shot up on the same street that Mike Pryzgocki's parents live on. I attended South Side from first through sixth grade, and some of my best childhood memories reside there. I'm continually glad that my family doesn't like in that town anymore, but I wish that Pryzgockis and the Kolbs (and the Helmeckis? Do they still live in Bristol) didn't either.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Phony Journalists

Jeff Gannon returned to the news today since he's pimping a book, which would seem an improvement over his previous pimping of himself as a male escort. Then you hear him speaking, however, and realize that his promotional strategy rests on the fact that for a few weeks back when the scandal of his even being admitted into the White House Press Corps broke, many real reporters disparaged him.

Gannon, whose real name is Jeff Dale Guckert, didn't qualify for a White House press pass, but was issued a daily pass for two years, even though he used the alias Gannon when doing so. He had no journalistic experience and didn't even represent a news organization of any kind when the White House began issuing him those daily passes, though he would later write for Talon News, a virtual organization with no office or newsroom, which was owned by the partisan website GOPUSA. Here's a video refresher of the scandal.

Gannon may have been the only faux journalist, but the Bush administration has been caught in other sleazy journalistic scandals, like paying journalists off to report favorably on administration policies. You probably remember hearing the name Armstrong Williams in connection with that, though there was also Maggie Gallagher and Michael McManus.

I get the feeling that there's more scandal surrounding the Bush administration and the press that we'll hear about in months and years to come.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Two From the Two Naomis

There's Naomi Klein and Naomi Wolf, and you'd think they'd be easy to keep straight but by the disambiguation on each of their Wikipedia entries you'd imagine otherwise. And then there're their works, which you could imagine coming from the same person.

In the cases of both authors, I find their work chilling, and unfortunately I find it plausible.

Klein explains "disaster capitalism" here, and the ways that "shocks" to the body politic, from terrorism to economics, render it maliable.

Wolf exposes the ten easy steps to converting a democracy into a dictatorship, and makes several persuasive points that America is most of the way there. Thanks to the suspension of habeas corpus all the government would need to do is declare martial law "for our safety." Anyone who dissented could then disappear into the gulag, never to be heard from again.

Btw, you know that habeas corpus has been suspended, right? You know that the government merely needs label you a terrorist or sympathizer, American citizen or no, and you lose your rights: rights to a hearing, rights to an attorney, rights to any judicial review. You would disappear and there would be no legal avenue for pulling you from the black hole that is Guantanamo Bay and the other overseas prisons. For God's sake, we're not facing an enemy like the Soviet Union, which had more than enough nuclear weapons to destroy America. We're facing an enemy that can only wound us, but not mortally. 9/11 wasn't a mortal wound. Even the nuclear destruction of a major city wouldn't be a mortal wound. Terrorism isn't an existential threat to this nation. Only our reactions, our overreactions, to it can destroy America: the removal of our rights to be heard in court, the quiet loss of our privacy to government surveillance, the offshoring of an American gulag and the nearly constant repetition that the terrorists will get us if. America won't be destroyed from without, but within.