Monday, December 8, 2008

GPS Tracking at last....

So, I finally got real-time GPS tracking up and working... It took a little bit of effort, and some interesting tweaks to get my iphone to update things, but now you can see it:

If it's working correctly you should see a little google map insert with my current position (and my recent previous positions.

Soon-ish this url should work: (DNS servers have to be updated first)

So how does this work? 4 things combine to make this a functioning system.

  1. GPS Tracker - a free app store iphone app that uploads your data to They also provide the actual map display.
  2. FastMac iV - Extended battery - Though it looks like a tumor on my phone and makes things awkward, I really enjoy the extra battery life, and you need it if your gps is going to be on all the time.
  3. Insomnia - an app that keeps your phone from suspending, which allows apps in the background to keep running and using things like the network (this is a jailbroken app only)
  4. Backgrounder - a jailbroken app that lets you background programs individually

This all this lets me run GPS Tracker in the background with enough battery power (hopefully) to get me through the day.

I've been wanting to do this for quite some time, and was the main reason I bought my first GPS-enabled smart phone. I always meant to write this system myself, but never got around to it... I'm actually pretty excited about doing the whole lifehacker thing... If there were a good way to do it I would wear a webcam and have it upload picture feeds all the time, I think that would be pretty cool (if extremely geeky. Maybe me and a few other cyclops can get this thing going!

Thursday, September 4, 2008

A Rocket Ride

I recently ran a game with a very strong group of players, and I thought I'd relay that experience here. The game was called "Rocket Ride" and is based on a song by Tom Smith. This is a great song about the joys of old-school sci-fi. Here is an excerpt from the lyrics

I want a shining tower of glass and steel,
A rubber jumpsuit and a freeze-dried meal,
The will to survive, the need to explore,
The love of adventure, who could ask for more?

Who couldn't love that?! Anyway, so based on this, I ran my rocket ride game. It was an impromptu meeting of the Amber gaming crew, and included Mike (visiting from GA Tech), Chris and Leslie, Andi, and Keith. I posted a future of the 1950s, complete with finned rockets, smart heros, and the drive for the future.

We started with the premise that all the characters were employees of a corporation that was trying to make the first space trip. That right, in grand Heinlein style we had corporations beating the government to space.

The players began by thinking of characters. And we had all the old great sci-fi tropes out in force. We had "Captain Dr. Thruster" the high-flying leader and pilot. We had the boy-genius "JET - John Edward Thruster, nephew of the captain", guaranteed to get captured by the bad guys, his intelligent dog companion Sirius, the russian food scientist "Red", and the eccentric mathematician / computer scientist.

We started with the first launch of the "Liberty Rocket" (the name of their spaceship) being interrupted by the presence of the Evil Galatic Sector Lord. After arranging a darring escape from Earth with the help of the Air Force, they went to the homeworld of the Sector Lord to see what they could find out about him. Of course, it was full of communists (who else?). There was a beautiful princess (the sector lord's daughter) to woo as well as a revolution by the capitalists to help.

All in all, it was a light-hearted romp through the 1950-based future. And of course the heros came out on top, evil was vanquished (but lived to fight another day), and Captain Thruster got the girl.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Moved In and Everything

Hey Internet,

I got moved into my place, still have a bunch of boxes everywhere, I'm hoping to have all of those unpacked by the end of summer.

Last weekend went out to some furniture places to fill my house. Got a table, 2 recliners, and a sofa. I also bought a new bed (partially so that I could have a guest bed)... Actually I got a LoveSac to use as a bed, it just got delivered yesterday. We'll see how that goes.

Just a short post today, for some reason I just love both this discovery channel commercial and the related XKCD comic:

See the XKCD comic here, though I think you may have to have read the comic to fully appreciate it. Maybe next year I'll fill some room of my house with paypen balls, though I don't think Belle would like it.

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

The Hunt is Over! The Horn of Valere is found!

Yes, its true, I've made an offer on a house, and it has been accepted. As some of you already know, its the split-level house up in shoreline, MLS 28053247. I'm not sure how long that link will remain active, but for now it has some pictures there, and you can always see the video in the previous post (the second video in the previous post)

Now comes the long part, I'm getting an inspection done tomorrow, and I'm not anticipating any problems. I'm talking to a couple of lenders for the loan, and we'll see how that works out. The closing date is 6/20, which gives me until the 31st to actually move in!

Exciting stuff. Soon I will have to post about the various house gadgets I'm looking into. As with all things, the house must be gadgeted up! Also there will be furniture and art purchasing to be done as well, though all in its own time.

Oh, and I thought I'd give some explanation for the split level over the weird house, the weird house was 50k more, and very inconvenient to the highways, also, only had a 1 car garage. That really killed it, since I'd have to put my expensive car or my expensive bike on the street in a very urban area... So, split-level glory is mine!

PS: If you get the title, congrats, you read good books.

Friday, May 23, 2008

The Great Hunt Continues!

So, Mike and I went out today for quite a bit longer than I was expecting. Anyway, I think we've found two good candidates. Which is good because the last 2 I posted about are already gone :).

The first house we're calling the Weird House, MLS 28032152. This is a really interesting house because of the whole 2nd living space in the basement. The spaces is hard to use, but has a lot of charm and character. Biggest benefit is that its only about 10 mins from South Lake Union, so its the closest house to work that I've looked at so far:

The second house is a Split-level house MLS 28053247. THis ia a very large house with a lot of bigger rooms. It has an enormouse garage (4 car) and a great yard. Its pretty far away, though, ending up all the way in Shoreline. Video below (less edited than other videos, but you'll have to live)

Once again, opinions welcome

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

House Hunting Videos

So, I went to 9 different houses yesterday evening. Mike and I were a little tired out by the end, but we found 2 winner houses, I think.

The first is MLS#28082816... It Redfin isn't pulling it up right now, but you can try looking it up if you want. This house is nice, with a great yard and a hottub. Video below

The Second is the so-called "View House" which has an incredible view out over east capitol hill and out to the cascades. This one is in the U-District very near university villiage. This one has a spa tub, very nice, but is sorta small, great location though. Video below

So which is the blog favorite?

Monday, May 19, 2008

House Buying is Hard

So, I've finally started the process... Its exciting but also crazy!

My agent is Tammy Hatch, and I'm going to look at some houses tonight. I've already got some pre-qualifications on loans, and I'm working with some loan ppl. Things move fairly fast, it seems. I started on sunday, so very fast. (So many people are working on sunday, its crazy!)

I also bought a video camera to help with the process see it here. This is because everything in life is enhanced with gadgetry. Everything.

Expect some video posts of possible houses, I think!

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

"The Will of The Sky People" and "My Soul to Keep"

I thought I'd talk about 2 recent games that I ran. Both of these went pretty well, though suffered from the same stunt platform problems that we've already discussed in this blog. (Both of these were run before the discussion)

The Will of the Sky People

As I told my players, this game arose from the idea that "Dirigible are really cool". This was mainly brought on by the super awesome web comic Girl Genius which has many awesome blimps and even castles on blimps. So cool. Anyway, I wanted some reason for everyone to be up in blimps. After all, there are really good reasons for people to build things on the ground: its much easier, and results in 100% less parachute-related commuting accidents. After thinking for a little while, I came up with the idea that there had been some sort of World War and the final stages of that war rendered the earth inhabitable. But then, how are people living? How can they create new blimps? What are they eating? Where do raw materials come from? Since I have Keith as a player, I knew I would need some kind of answer for these questions. And what is the best way for GMs to fiat away annoying questions like that? Magic! So, I invented some will mages with magic based on the will of the caster. The defiling of the earth then was easily explained away as the greatest of will mages casting a spell to destroy his enemies and having it backfire on him.

To start off, we had a quest given to us by the king of the sky nation (I forget its name) to go to the ground and use the will-enhancing machine that has caused the contagion to be released on the ground to reverse the badness. This was my first mistake. We had this awesome world of lashed together blimp society with sky divers retrieving material from the seas and will mages and cramped living quarters and not being able to see the sky because of the blimps balloons over head, and what did I do? I sent them to the earth. Also I gave the plot to an NPC (I had actually wanted a PC to play the will mage that could get them to the surface, but no one took me up on the offer). This was terrible. The game was good, but it would've been much better if I had had the players find some map to the machine that was up in the sky somewhere.

Anyway, after the players found the machine with much daring do and hooked the NPC up to it to remove the contagion, it was revealed that of course the will of everyone up in the sky was keeping the contagion around (they all believed in it so...). Well, what is a newly superpowered NPC to do? Start killing people until not enough believe, obviously. Some stunts later and the game was concluded.

I think everyone had a good time with this game, and the blimp setting was awesome, but there were some mistakes.

My Soul To Keep

This game was based off the super awesome xkcd comic, Nightmares. See it here:

This comic has the alt text of: "Well, *I* think I'm real. Look at me. Look at my face. Cut me and I'll bleed. What more do you want? Please don't go."

XKCD is extremely awesome, and this is one of the best strips in it. Especially that alt text. I mean, wow! Your dreams pleading with you for your very lives, asking that you never leave them, that you live with your dreams forever! Oh man.

For this game, I had the players create really really twisted characters. In particular I asked for characters that had one great dream but had no possibility of achieving it. The kind of thing that you want so badly that when you wake up you cry because it can never happen in real life. And they had to dream about it most nights. I also asked them to come up with how their characters are coping with the dreams. Do they try to spend all day asleep, spending every moment possible with the dream? Do they take speed or some other stimulant to prevent them from ever sleeping so they never have to feel the loss of the dream again?

From that starting point we got several characters. One guy who wanted to open a french restaurant but really wasn't good a cooking. One jazz musician who lost the ability to play music and his wife and child in the same night, a paraplegic who had fallen in love with a jock, and a man who had his girlfriend/fiancee killed in a car accident after arguing with her.

I started with having their dream people beg them not to kill them everynight. From there we learned that it might be possible to make the dream world into the real world. With some shared imagery of a clock towner that signaled the end of dreams, they set off to topple the tower. Instead they encountered the old dreamers, the ones that had made the current world from the previous dream world. They fought both in the dream world and in the real world (in the real world the old dreams had positions of power, which makes sense because they made the world)...

Eventually we concluded with some stunts of putting as much energy and joy into their dreams as possible.

This game went really well. I think we had some great characters with some very tragic plot lines. And even better was the feeling of hope and accomplishment we got. We started with characters in terrible positions and rebuilt them, and I think that was pretty good for our happiness levels.

They didn't bite on the more philosophical questions (if we're recreating the world what about people who end up in situations like ours), but it wasn't really necessary to get into that stuff.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

The Art of Being a Nerd

I was just reading Tim's blog, when I came to this great article, which describes, in painstaking detail, the thought processes of a nerd. As a confessed member of that group, I had an intense desire to read it, and it was great. Its a little too late for me to get really excited about this topic, but I thought I would pass it along to others encase they missed it.

In roleplaying news, we've been trying some more character-focused roleplaying with immersion rather than stunt platform style games. I think its been working out fairly well, at least for me. I got to play a completely evil character last game, which is always fun. I think I've been hitting the evil a little hard recently, though, so I'm planning on a happiness and light character for the next time I get to play.

A brief glimpse into our last two games: 1. Steve ran a game of human diaspora with the earth being destroyed and us eventually discovering alien life. 2. Keith ran a game of Amber where we started with founding our own new Amber (I was this universe's Oberon)... That character was well an truely evil and sadistic (I really tried to give it that Oberon feel), which worked in some respects but I think in others it was a little too much, which is why I'm planning on going the other way in the future.

We've also gotten up to session 2 of my new Saturday game Devils of Royalty and Divinity, which I think is going well (though you would have to ask my players, really). Last session saw the creation of a new god of logrus and pattern and the promise of much havoc to come.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Inner Roleplaying & The Central Library

So my previous post has generated some amount of comments :). (And no, Tim, I never thought you were attacking persona :) ). I thought I'd respond in a post, and also include a game description for one of the games I'll be running at AmberCon NW

The thing that seemed to spark the most comment was the remarks I made about looking for a more inwards focused game. I think I'm not describing myself well with that description. I feel like the games we've been playing, while very fulfilling in terms of scope, epicness and plot, leave something to be desired when one considers internal character strife. But even that doesn't really describe the problem... Closer would be to say that when you're stunting on such a large scale, and with the persona system, character individualization becomes meaningless.

This of course begs the question, how could one setup mechanics or a game to make the differences between characters more important. Just asking that question, though, isn't that useful. We see differences all the time flavor and inform the stunts that occur in game. This might be the real issue: I feel like there is no interaction. We sit down at the table, and no one's characters talk. The GM gives several challenges to the players, and the players think of some awesome things to do and stories to tell. What doesn't happen is the players rarely interact in character, in meaningful ways.

So, what do we need to make this more apparent? Bliss Stage is a great example of a system that won't allow you to get away with that style of roleplaying. Every scene in Bliss Stage is interaction between characters, and it rocks. Now, I think you loose the epicness of the thing and also plot is extremely difficult to come by. So I think what I'm looking for is closer to a middle ground. Something as free and flexible as persona but requiring you to interact like Bliss Stage. This might be as simple as making fragments purchased through character interaction... I'm not sure of the details of that, but if you had to have some past scene roleplayed in order to take a fragment, that might work. Even going so far as having the other players take the roles of NPCs in that scene, a la Polaris... I worry that that won't get the characters together though, just have more roleplaying in the discovery of their own character. A slight modification of that idea would be to have the scenes only take place between PCs, but I think then the PCs have to have a history together for that to make sense.


Anyway, I thought I'd also include the description of a game I'm running at AmberCon NW. I've already run it for the sunday crew, and it went very very well. I'm planning on running 3 games at this con, and I think I'm most excited about this one...

--- Game Description ---

Adventure / Heroic -- Non-Amber

To Leaders of the Houses of Literature

I hereby summon your representative to the Written Court. The Great
Scribe Jules Verne has petitioned me to engage a expedition to the
Central Library to bring the Librarian back from that most sacred place
and bring a new golden age to the world. I am commanding all of the
Houses to send a companion for Sir Verne to assist in this greatest of
quests. There will be much danger but also much reward, as those who
journey to the center of the world will have their names live forever
in the Word.

The High Wordsmith
Great Wordsmith of the House of Horror
Queen Mary Shelley


What if the world really did revolve around books? What if you could
journey to that fabled Central Library and see what it contained? What
if lived off of reading books? What if you gained magical powers from
reading the greatest of novels or becoming widely read? Journey to the
Central Library with Jules Verne and find out!

--- Setting ---

Set in a quasi-historical victorian setting. A world where reading
books provided sustenance and all the librarians are a little pudgy. A
fantastical world of literature and magic, all driven by the
imaginations of the Wordsmiths.

The system will be Persona, a very lightweight and fast system detailed

Persona System


So if you think that sounds interesting, you should come to ACNW in Portland in November! Its the best con I go to all year!

Monday, April 21, 2008

The Dying of the Light

We played a great game last night. Ok, so I'm biased, especially since I ran the game, but I thought it went well in any case. But first things first; the title of the game was "The Dying of the Light". Which you should recognize as a quote from a famous poem, right?!? 4 intelligent players last night, and not one of them were familiar with Dylan Thomas' famous poem! Anyway, I will refrain from continuing to rail against my player's erudition.

The basic idea for the game was that we lived in the final stages of the universe. Somehow Humanity has survived the trillions of years necessary, and but a whisper remains of both the universe and the human civilization that spanned it. The sky is dark, because all of the stars have burned themselves out. The final members of humanity huddle in their Dyson Sphere huddled around the last stars. The remaining stars have been frozen in time, and strung in a line. The death of the old star is used to power the un-freezing of the next star, and we join the PCs at this change over.

Of course, given the title of the game, there was no way that star was actually starting up. And in fact, humanity gave all of their remaining stored energy (it was essentially a golden age post-singularity civilization, so the only thing you could lack for was energy) in a useless attempt to help the new star restart. Instead the PCs followed a crazy guy into the new star, armed with devices he claimed would transport them back in time to fix the issue (there was some evidence that the star had been sabotaged billions of years ago).

So they travel back, and emerge at the birth of the star they went into. As it turns out I had already made a big deal that the Final War had started right after the last star was born. So, of course, this star was that last star born and they emerged to see an entire dyson sphere of humanity watching the last starbirth. As they emerged from the star, the Final War between the nihilists and the continueists began. Giant planetoid warships rampaged across the stars. Also, the PCs gained the power to time travel in any way they wished.

Well... That was basically the setup for the game, I'm sure you can agree that it was quite epic. But that doesn't really give you the scale of things. Soon the villain of the piece (who I made the mistake of making understandable and a little sympathetic) was flying around in a literal Starship (with a star completely inside of it!) and causes galaxies to collide so that they would tear each other apart and deny their energy to the end times. After the PCs saved the milky way, we upped the ante to all the galaxies smashing together and eventually to trying to rob the big bang of its energy. This was great for the most part, extremely epic and awesome.

So, that was great, but I've begun to worry that we're getting into a rut of just stunt after stunt, without any real character interaction. Stunting is very good and fun, but I've begun to feel that our games are becoming just stunt strings with nothing else. There needs to be character interaction and acting-roleplaying, or at least my heart of hearts things that. I sorta think we've really explored the whole epic side of adventures, which I've had issues with in the past, but it may be time to turn the games inwards and see what kind of roleplaying will result from that.

Monday, February 11, 2008

Roleplaying in 20% time

We just completed an interesting game... I thought of it just before tonights regularly scheduled Sunday session and I thought I would give it a try. The premise goes something like this: 'We stand at the twilight of Humanity. The great engines of creation are grinding to a halt and the universe is coming to close. All hope is not lost, however, as the legends tell us that in the last moments of life, the Great Dreamers will come to humanity again, and they will use their power to save us one last time, to bring humanity to a new era of prosperity and life.' The premise is that each of the players (and the GM) are one of the Great Dreamers, one of the people who brought some aspect of the universe into being. In our crew we had:

  1. The Dreamer of the Stars - Me - who brought the stars into being and let humanity play amongst them

  2. The Dreamer of Shadows - Nikita - who brought shadows and darkness to the universe

  3. The Dreamer of Ambition and Ruin - Ghen-ki - Who brought humanity's drive to better itself, and the fact that that very drive leads most to ruin

  4. The Dreamer of Harmony - Keith - Who let the animals and creations and things of the world exist as part of a group, who created civilization

  5. The Dreamer of Perspective - Jes - Who gave everything a place in history, and let them know it.

  6. The Dreamer of Consciousness - Steve - Who created thought itself

Together the dreamers came to the convocation and, as has been decided eons ago, they brought with them their proposals for the new universe. For the Dreamers were not to save this life, but were to create the world anew, and allow humanity to play there. Practically, how this worked was I signed up to run 5 games, each of the other player's world designs. Each person in tern would think of a world, I would generate an adventure, they would generate characters, and we would play for about 40-50 mins in the world. So, for this game, we had 5 times the worlds and 5 times the character generation. Despite how that might sound, it actually turned out really well.

I was very concerned going into this about a couple of things. First and foremost was the buy-in from the players. If I had lost them in the setup or scared them off with the creativity requirements, the game would've been a non-starter. Fortunately, we're all friends and we all bought into the game. Secondly, was thinking up 5 interesting and compelling plots, on the fly, for 5 different settings. Also fleshing out those settings, making them real. We had one snafu with the settings, but other than that it went very well, and even that one, I thought wasn't terrible, I just didn't do a great job with it.

If any of you have read 'The Golden Age' this adventure idea was based off of the Universe creation contest that is held in the first book. It was one of the best pieces of an incredible series, and I wondered if that could be reproduced in roleplaying.

So on to the worlds:

  • The first world was from Ghen-ki. He gave us a world with humanity just beginning to diaspora out into the stars. He gave us great world-ships where humanity would travel in hollowed out planets. I started everyone off in just about modern day. Richard Fine, a very rich entrepreneur had secretly hollowed out the moon and was going to take as many people as he could get to come along. The players each made a semi-modern day character who would leave their entire life to go on a trip to the stars. The game went from trying to get past the millitary that was trying to shut down the shuttle launch that was getting the characters to the moon, and quickly moved to the moon. On the moon, we blasted off after some words from Richard, and then visited a couple of worlds, leaving small colonies in our wake. On the third world, an alien ship was encountered, which proceeded to assault the moon. Just before the moon lost all atmosphere and everyone died, the characters got nano-disassembled into computer-based beings. After that, everyone decided that we would need to build and armada of ships to fight the alien menace. We left the universe just as the alien armada, and the human fleet of planetoid warships began their epic clash.

  • The second universe was from Nikita. He envisioned a world were your shadow was just as much you as you were yourself. It could interact with things, you could pick things up by their shadows, and in general crazy shadow and light based things were possible. To this description I added the City of the Great Sheik Yusef. This was a city that was under seige from 'The Other', and we would be joining the player characters as members of the honor guard of the sheik, attempting to get the sheik's son Darien out of the city while The Other finally sacked the city. There was a lot of detail with the crazy world, as the city changed its shape through out the day as the shadows moved, and there was a ton of stunting around the projection of shadows and its effect on fighting therein. The plot went something like: the characters are all standing guard, the notice freewalkers (shadows freed from their physical bodies) moving like a wave across the courtyard and coming to the Shadow Palace. After a great battle, they rushed the son Darien by order of the sheik out of the castle by way of the Dark Ways. In the Dark Way, they were ambushed by a man that looked a lot like a younger sheik Yusef, and were about to barely fight him and his demonic shadow minions off. They then took the son to the hill people were they raised him. After about 20 years, the son gathered them to him, and took away their aging physical bodies and left only enternal shadows to aid him in his quest to take back his father's city. Eventually Darien and the players stormed the city. As the game came to a close, we left the characters run down the Dark Ways after the new honor guard trying to save the son of the old sheik (and thus, time itself is a mere shadow of what has come before)

  • Third, Jes brought us the backwards world. In this world, rather than making a new universe, the scientists figured out out to reverse entropy, so that the universe would travel backwards towards the big bang. It was a great idea, but hard to wrap our heads around. Eventually we decided that time still moved forward, it was just the the universe tended to order rather than entropy. The players played scientists involved in the construction of the entropy engine responsible for reversing time. After activating the engine, and having a big big party, the characters (especially the youngest) began to wonder what would happen as they aged backwards, youthining towards their birth. After some investigation (for only the youngest children were near this happening), it was discovered that God himself took a hand in the situation. For as the young disappeared, an Angel would appear, and create a new (very old) body for the soul, and place the soul in it. It was also revealed that as the soul experienced death, it would remove some extraneous portion of itself, become more and more pure as we approached the end of the universe. Now that entropy was backwards, your soul gained pieces as you youthined to a new body. When the first player character, the first scientist involved in the project had this happen, the Angel spoke to him, telling him that God intended all things to come to an end, and either he and his companions would work to stop the engine or God would wipe the slate clean. There was much arguing as to what should be done about that, but eventually the engine was shut down (but not before someone shot an Angel, just to see what would happen), and the universe resumed its march to death.

  • From Keith we got a post-apocolyptic cyberpunk world where humanity had been mainly taken over by a mind virus. That virus wanted ultimate order in the universe, so it proceeded to organize and stack the elements of the city, and take over more and more humans. The PCs started the game as members of a tribe of humans just outside BAMA (Boston-Atlanta Metropolitan Area, my favorite cyberpunk setting). They each created a character and a strong link. Then I set them to gather supplies for the tribe from the city. Chris, Steve's link, was a scientist trying to figure out how reverse the virus to save his sister, had decided that the only way to investigate the virus was to get someone he knew infected and watch them. He took Alex, Keith's link, and put a tracker on him and then arranged to have him captured by the virus's zombies. Jenna (Keith's character) then proceeded to rescue alex, come hell or high water. At the end of the session, Steve's character sacrificed himself so that Chris could live, and Jenna had discovered a way to destroy the virus, one drone at a time.

  • The final universe (from Steve) was a universe of pure thought. The was a universe were only consciousness existed, and the only thing those minds could do was talk to other minds. This one really gave me a fit... In fact, Steve pitched his idea and then we ran Keith's first because I was having a hard time thinking of what kind of adventure could happen in this world of zero physicality. After the cyberpunk game, though, I had an idea. Basically, I said that as the conscious universe grew, it was inevitable that a group mind, a universal mind, would emerge. Moments before the universal mind formed, erasing all individuality, the last strong individuals gathered to decided what kind of being would be formed. Each person was given 1 minute to pitch their idea of universal consciousness to the others, advocating for one purpose of existence or another. After that we concluded. At this point, despite my time management, we only had about 10 mins for this entire universe, so this was all we had time for.

This was a pretty fun game, but it was definitely challenging. Not just for me (and it was no easy feat), but also for my great players, who had to generate 5 characters and a world each (6 characters if you count the Dreamer itself). We all came through great and everyone had a good time, I think. One thing I'll definitely say is that even though we had a great time, the creativity requirement for the game was so high we were all nearly dead when the final universe rolled around, it was intense, but very rewarding. If any of you players are reading this, thanks for the great game and your patience with it!

I felt compelled to tell this story, but hopefully soon I'll write up a post about the 'Central Library' game were the world literally revolved around books. Or maybe I won't, I may run it at a con...

Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Super Nun Killing Clan of Cyber-Programmers

Mike has an interesting post up over on his blog which is a response to Josh which is itself a response to Bruce Eckel. After seeing that long line of discussion, how could I refrain from adding my own brilliant thoughts to the conversation??

On the whole 5% thing... I don't know. Its a widely held belief in programming circles, one I've heard numerous times (certainly as Mike says, the number is made up, but the sentiments are there). I used to believe this idea with all my heart. Now? I don't know. I certainly used to not only believe it, but was absolutely convinced I and my close friends were a member of that elite group. I still think I'm a great programmer, one of the best, and my friends as well. But, I've started to doubt the other side of the equation the 20x as productive.

I've just going to skip over Mike's arguments of measurement. They are valid, and well put, but I'm not interested in that side of the discussion. In my career as a programmer (yes, all 5 years of it!) I have seen a lot of productive people and a number of non-productive people. My consensus is that people who want to be productive are, and people who just want to not get fired aren't. Are you excited about your space? Are you committing yourself to the successful completion of the project? There are a dozen ways (ok, way more) to waste time on the job, without looking particiularly unproductive. Everything from reading email, attending all the optional meetings, to things like reading web comics and even coding, but not tackling the hard parts of the project. It seems to me that those who want to succeed move those obstacles and distractions out of the way and those who don't embrace them.

So, I guess it is possible for the top programmers to be 20x more effective, becuase of the effort they put in. If you spend 5 mins an hour checking email, and another doesn't, he's already 40mins ahead of you at the end of the day. Add in some meetings that he skips, and some of the other stuff, and its easy to see how even similarly skilled people differentiate themselves.

I will agree with Bruce Eckel that programmers can really differentiate themselves with continual learning. Its really important in any technical fields (look at surgeons or scientists) to continually learn, and it's no less true in programming.

Maybe with all these factors together you get up to something like 2x... But most of the times these numbers are bandied around its always something like 20x. I think 2x is already waay awesome. Additionally, Josh's comments on letting less skilled programmers write until the heat death of the stars is also a good point. Its definitely true that less skilled people just can't produce the same code as others, and in many cases could never implement the same feature jumps that the masters can.

Hmm... that is a little long and rambling, but I still have something else to address. Mike's question of taking 50 cs students and getting them into the top 5%. Well, I think there are a couple of important pieces to this puzzle. First of all: screw traditional curriculum. As my dad has told me a couple of times, Colleges don't want to teach practical skills anyway. Is it any real surprise that they aren't very good at it? You want to know who the best new hires at Amazon are? They aren't traditional undergraduate students. They aren't any students from the US even. They are Waterloo students. You want to know why? Its very simple. Waterloo students spend (I believe) 5 tri-mesters working in Co-Ops at companies. They quickly get exposed to a number of languages, design methodologies, companies, etc. Most importantly... They know what source control is. They know how to really write code for re-use. THey have some idea of how to work with others to get projects done.

So, if you want 50 people to be the best, how do you do that? You could just emulate waterloo, but I think you'd need to go farther. Start a startup with them. Teach them datastructures and algorithms while you're under pressure to get a website up. Let them learn about file size limits when their logs grow larger than 2GB. Learn by doing. In the world of software, there is little cost to screwing up. Its not like bridge building or even auto repair where you might be hurting others. I think the heart of learning in CS is related to doing and figuring out for yourself what works and what doesn't.

But even that is not enough. You must must must get people excited about the act of programming itself. How can this be done? For one, I think you pick projects to tackle that are exciting to people. One of the most time-consuming applications I've written was a character generator that was written over the summer. I would work all day as an intern, come back to the apartment, and code until it was time to go to bed. Why did I do this? I saw real use for this program and I wanted to make an awesome program I and others would really use. You want to know what I did in my programming languages and compilers class at UIUC? I implemented half of a lisp compiler. Who wants a lisp compiler? I'm sure there are those that do, but I didn't. Wouldn't it be immeasurably better to have projects your excited about?

I think there are other, more gimmicky things you could do as well. Give monetary awards to those who do well. College students will do a whole lot for some money. Really do a start-up, let the students really feel like they're a part of something worth working hard for. Have people teach topics as they come up, and make sure that anyone who teachs is really excited about what their teaching. When I give tech talks about Amazon, I see people light up and get interested. Why? Because when I speak I put a lot of emphasis on how much I like Amazon and how exciting and interesting it is to work there. My material is normally less exciting than others (Build tools vs. awesome Kindle or Scalable Storage for the Internet, etc), but people take notice because I am excited about it. Make sure you provide the tools for those studnets to be productive both in and out of class. Make sure teachers are available one on one. And most of all be focused on projects, not on chapters in a book.

If it were possible, I would find the 50 most excited, talented and teacher-y programmers in the world, and have the 50 students apprentice to them for 4 years, maybe on a rotating basis.

I don't know if any of this is possible in the reality of the collegiate environment. But I know it would be cool to try.