Tuesday
November 27, 2007 - 1:48 AM
This wasn't an oversized Toys'R'Us. This was an event. Competitors were trying for prizes, real game show prizes!

Nintendo World Championships - Prelims Approach

"Bob, you've got to enter!" Larry told me excitedly. In his estimation I was exceptionally good at video games, probably because I usually beat him. I knew better. Other Street Fighter II players at the Fun N' Games regularly humbled me. Larry shoved a copy of Nintendo Power Magazine into my hands. He pointed to a page that announced the competition.

In March of 1990 Nintendo launched the Nintendo Power Fest, a grand tour of 29 US cities. Aside from hyping their latest games and showing off everything Nintendo, the tour served as the local preliminary competitions for the 1990 Nintendo World Championships.

The tour was coming to the nearby Jacob Javits Convention Center in just two weeks. I had to start practicing right away! We scoured the ad for competition details, but all we found was which three games were involved. I was already an expert player at Super Mario Brothers. I knew all the secret blocks, warps and free guys. I could finish the game on a single life. I could do the turtle bouncing trick that earns infinite lives. Tetris was even less of a concern because of the vast amounts of practice I had from playing the various shareware and freeware versions that I had downloaded from BBSes. But I had a problem.

"What's Rad Racer?" Already I felt at a disadvantage. A real competitor would have mastered this game already. Larry and I rushed to the Rockaway Townsquare Mall, bought the game from Electronics Boutique, and rushed back home to start practicing. It was a disappointing racing game. We were used to the realistic physics and force feedback steering of the arcade hit Hard Drivin'. Rad Racer was hardly racing and not the least bit rad.

My father gave his encouragement and help while I practiced. He watched how my score changed while I played Tetris and discovered the crucial revelation of the fastest way to earn points. Two days later I'd already "beaten" Rad Racer. On the Thursday two weeks later Dad drove his excited 18 year old son to the convention center.

I craned my neck at the impressive glass and steel architecture of the Jacob Javits Convention Center. Inside the grand lobby a 20 foot tall Mario balloon stood like a statue of Zeus watching over his temple. We turned right and headed down the stairs into the Nintendo Power Fest, a grand hall packed with banners, game demonstrations, excited children and parents trying not to look too excited. In the center of the hall two large projection screens hung over a stage. Seven podiums were spaced along the stage, and each podium held a TV that faced the audience. Behind each podium stood a kid staring intently into it. They were competing! The projection screens showed the competitors' games to the crowd. On either side of the stage there were long lines of game stations, perhaps 100 of them.

This wasn't an oversized Toys'R'Us. This was an event. Competitors were trying for prizes, real game show prizes!

Dad and I wandered through the kiosks showcasing Nintendo's products. We played the latest games, tried out new controllers, and poked at Game Boys. The featured game was Super Mario Brothers 3, which was and always will be the best game of the series. We gradually made our way over to the long rows of competition game stations.

We had to sign up and agree to the official rules, but I don't remember any of that. I was focused on the game stations. Each one had a TV a bit below eye level and a controller tethered to the front. The entire lineup showed the same Nintendo World Championships logo. I heard the hasty instructions—Get 50 coins in Super Mario Brothers. Finish a lap of the first track in Rad Racer. Get points in Tetris. Time limit just over 6 minutes. Something about scores multiplied and added for a final tally. I stepped through a turnstile like a boy getting on a ride at Disney World.

I found a station near where my father stood behind a railing. Other tentative kids and a few adults shuffled up to the other stations. My heart was beating faster. I wanted to prove my prowess. What if I didn't even make it past the first round? How embarrassing! Dad called out from behind me, "Go get 'em Bob!" For some reason his enthusiasm didn't embarrass me. I didn't want to take this too seriously. Maybe he got it and was enjoying the surrealism of a video game competition with me.

His encouragement was familiar from Little League. It helped me relax.

At the start of the game the world was vivid. I was aware of the enormity of the hall. I heard the drone of the crowd. I glanced at the other players, then quickly back at the TV in front of me. The logo blanked out. Was it broken? I made sure I was holding the controller properly in my hand. The familiar Super Mario Brothers logo appeared. The game still hadn't started. Thumb tip on the B button, poised to rock down onto the A button. 99 lives? Whatever. Get coins!


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Monday
November 19, 2007 - 8:41 AM

Dell Catalogs

I try to practice "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle" in that order. It's much more effective to reduce the number of catalogs I receive than recycle them. I have a tiny apartment complex mailbox, and catalogs fill it up quickly. I've signed up with the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service, which significantly reduced the junk mail I receive. But some persistent companies send me unwanted catalogs anyway. Whenever I receive a catalog, I call them up and ask to be removed from their mailing list. Most of the time it works. Dell just won't stop sending me their frequent catalogs.

I've been trying to get off Dell's mailing list ever since I moved into this apartment nearly two years ago. At my previous apartment I received their catalog, called them up to be removed, and it worked. However, when I moved to my current place, the catalog started again. After all, I had removed my name and address from their database. Now my name was at a new address. Sure, they knew it was the same person because they obtained the forwarding address, but that was enough of an excuse for them to start sending catalogs again.

So I called Dell and had my name and address removed. Some weeks later, the catalog reappeared in my mailbox, addressed to my landlord at my address. This time I went to their web site to be removed. Unfortunately I was forced to supply a name, so I entered the name on the catalog. Sure enough, a couple months later the catalogs returned, now addressed to a former roommate. I called them again, the catalog returned addressed to someone I've never heard of. I called again. I have in my hands the latest incarnation of their catalog, addressed to my girlfriend.

That's the same address with five different names. This can go on forever. I live in an apartment where many different people have lived over the past several years. There's a nearly limitless supply of addressees for Dell to choose from. To make matters worse, there's two different catalogs: home/home office, and business, with apparently separate catalog mailing lists.

So, I called Dell to explain the problem. Their customer service representative offered to remove the current name and address from Dell's mailing list. After I politely insisted for several minutes that this wasn't satisfactory, she concluded she should transfer me to their sales department, because they are responsible for marketing materials like their catalog. The salesperson I spoke with was equally willing to help, and equally unable to help. Rather than transfer me back to customer service, he transferred me to Dell Global Call Center Operations. Apparently, the person I spoke with at Global CCO wasn't prepared to handle customer calls and was even less helpful. She wanted to transfer me back to customer service. By this time I had spent 90 minutes on this call, and I refused to start over again. Finally, recalling some stories from Consumerist.com, I asked for executive customer service. The woman put me on hold, and several minutes later she transferred me back to the main customer service line.

I feel like I'm out of options. I'm sure that all the customer service people have basically the same computerized form available to them that I have available to me, one that requires a name. Whenever I've communicated with Dell I've been polite, patient, and absolutely clear about what I want. I want to remove my address (regardless of the name attached to it) from all Dell mailing lists. I'm not the only person frustrated with Dell's catalog. Just do a Google search for ways to remove yourself from Dell's catalog mailing list and you'll find plenty of sites with similar complaints, and no solutions. So, I'm posting my story here on my web site, and forwarding it to Consumerist.com. Hopefully their audience can offer some advice.


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Wednesday
July 25, 2007 - 8:47 AM
"What makes wikis work is many-to-many communications. The success of a wiki isn't measured by links, impressions, eyeballs, hits or friends, it's measured by contributors."

Wikis

Lately much of my work and recreation involve documentation. Specifically, I've been editing wikis.

Back in the mid nineties, when I worked at Egghead software, I often had to explain the concept of Internet. In hindsight, the Internet propoganda of that age is laughable hyperbole. The Internet will save the world through sharing information! Anyone can do anything online! Ahh, the vanity of the nerds. Computers didn't save the world from itself, and it took the Internet Boom, followed by the Internet Bust, to get the point across. Now the Internet is in its next age, growing more sensibly.

The HTML Age

Along the Internet timeline, the technology of communication changed several times. What changed very little is the kind of communication being transmitted over those technologies. We started with email, a one-to-one or one-to-few form of communication. Early web sites were the same. There was a single publisher, and the recipients were just a few users that knew the site existed. Typically success was measured by links. If other relatively well-known sites linked to yours, it was an endorsement of your site.

The Boom Age

The advent of very effective search engines allowed one-to-many communication. If you published a web site with compelling information, it was possible for word to get out, and the site would get significant traffic. This enabled advertising, which is the world's oldest form of one-to-many communication. The Internet Bust proved that advertising was one of the very few successful Internet business plans. The household names that emerged are advertising-based: Google, Yahoo! and ebay all made money by connecting sellers to buyers. This was also the beginning of the age of the spammer, with inconceivable amounts of one-to-many communication. In this age, success was measured by "eyeballs", the number of users lured to your site.

The Blog Age

The tools for creating a site were very difficult for non-geeks to use. Successful sites were run either by computer experts or corporations that hired computer experts. One of the next big innovations of communication on the Internet made it vastly simpler for anyone to become a content provider. Blogger, LiveJournal and MySpace brought publishing to the people. (The geekier tools continue to evolve...I'm a geek, so I use MovableType instead of the commodity blogging sites.) In this form of communication, success is measured by subscribers, friends or community links.

The Wiki Age

Despite making online communication childishly simple, blogs are still one-to-few communication, or in the exceptional case of a popular blog, one-to-many. A wiki, on the other hand, is many-to-many communication. It is a site that is organized around articles. Anyone can edit any article using a very simple syntax.

Many people are aware of Wikipedia and use it to get information on a tremendous variety of topics. This is only one example of a wiki, albeit the most popular one: it is a wiki where the topic is an encyclopedia. Today there are wikis on a vast number of topics. I was an administrator at the Dofus Wiki, and about 6 months ago FngKestrel and I co-founded the Supreme Commander Wiki. Both of these wikis are a collection of articles about a video game. At my work we have a wiki that documents internal processes, best practices, and the technical specifications and quirks of the devices we support.

On a wiki, anyone can edit any article. Critics and skeptics of wikis argue that they are easily tampered with and vandalized, and that they sink to the lowest common denominator. The reality is the opposite. Once a wiki has enough contributors, vandalism is quickly detected and repaired, and low-quality contributions are edited and revised into high-quality ones.

What makes wikis work is many-to-many communications. The success of a wiki isn't measured by links, impressions, eyeballs, hits or friends, it's measured by contributors. Although I'm the creator of the majority of the content at the Supreme Commander Wiki, the content there arleady far exceeds the quality of content I could have created on my own. I consider the growing popularity of wikis the start of the next Internet age. It's still early...we're learning how to properly manage communities, separate content from discussion of the content, and deal with some of the drawbacks of wikis. But they're here, and growing. Nearly any Google search result includes a link to Wikipedia in the first page of results. Corporations are replacing cumbersome underused intranets with internal wikis. If you want to help fulfill the promising future of the Internet, pick a topic and start contributing! All are welcome.


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