Saturday, May 19, 2012

Patient consumerism

I just finished "The World of Goo", a five year old game. I'm now playing "Psychonauts", which is at least five years old.

I see a lot of hysteria when new games are released. What's the hurry? If the game is any good, it will still be around in a few months.  If anything, after the first round of consumers has tested the game, it will be released with patches and updates to make it work better. And in a few months, there will be much more content for the game.

Products thrive on consumer hype and early sales. Early adopters serve as testers for the product. They get bragging rights, but their experience is often rough. This strategy works well for people who need the features the new products provide. And that's a small subset of people. The majority of consumers need a rugged, stable product at a reasonable price. Marketing, however, works differently. There is a huge marketing campaign when a product is released: it has to be prominently featured to grow consumer awareness. Average consumers get caught up in the hysteria. You find first-adopters who purchased the product for brag rights rather than actual utility.

Poor products rely on early sales while good products rely on sustained sales. Good products have long-term focus. The Nintendo DS and the Sony PSP both sold roughly 1.2 million units in first-week. But the overall sales were very different: Nintendo DS sold 152 million units, and the PSP sold half that number. Both products were released in 2004. First week sales of the two consoles were not indicative of their relative success. Of the products released in 2006, only 5% were hits, and only 15% were around after five years. A patient consumer has fewer options, and the options are of higher quality.

I can wait when most new products come out. I don't need a cutting-edge game, just like I don't need a cutting-edge vacuum cleaner. My current flight simulator is nearly a decade old, and meets my needs. There is a small subset of products where I do need the very latest. Products that improve my efficiency or quality-of-life fall in this category. I spend many hours carrying my child, and will happily pay for an innovative baby carrier. This set differs from one person to the next. A person with breathing difficulty might want to buy the cutting-edge vacuum cleaner.

When you see a new product, ask yourself if you are buying it because it will significantly improve your life. Avoid getting caught in marketing hysteria. The product will still be on the shelf a month later.  If it is any good, that is.

(Image: courtesy News-o-Drome)

Friday, May 18, 2012

Impressive gaming: World of Goo

In order to fight off murderous tendencies while doing taxes, I play video games. This year, I played one game on my Android phone: The World of Goo.

Wikipedia claims that this is a physics-based puzzle game, but that is as accurate as describing chicken tikka as a dead bird. The World of Goo is a brilliant adventure game, told through many levels that involve tiny balls of Goo. The balls start out sticking together, and new levels add interesting capabilities. There is a single objective in every mission, usually collecting a fixed number of Goo balls towards a pipe. (To be fair, Wikipedia has a scary long page about the game. What they lack in humor, they make for in actual content and facts.)

A few years ago, I was saddened by the lack of inventiveness in new games. It seemed that every game was about the same boring plot: there were certain genres and everyone stuck to tried and tested mechanics. Walking through the aisles of a computer store, you could quickly categorize each game into a few genres: RPG, strategy, platform, with little that set the individual games apart. Compared to this, the early days of gaming were filled with creativity as programmers experimented with computers to create something fun and unique.

That wasn't the only problem. I use Linux and many games do not work on my system. Even when had the luxury to install Windows on one partition, games required registration codes and other fiddling just to get working.

In such unhappy times, I came across the demo for World of Goo. There was a Linux version, and I played one level or two and loved the idea behind the game. The game was refreshingly new, with goo balls sticking to one another and making cute sounds when they reached the destination.

For one reason or another, I put off the purchase and then promptly forgot about it. A few weeks ago, I finally bought the first Indie bundle on Android and downloaded my copy of World of Goo. It was as refreshing and enticing as I remembered it, and so I installed it on my Android phone.

Tax week was a whirlwind of administrative paperwork and an ill baby. In between copying numbers from one dull form to another, I was holding my child as he slept clinging to me. My hands were free, but I wasn't coherent enough to do anything productive. My phone was nearby, and the opportunity was perfect for the World of Goo. After a few hours over many days, I finally finished the last level. And I cried because I had no more goo world to conquer. That's how good the game is.

The game has exceptional level design. Most game developers fall in the trap of coming up with a single idea for a game: developing the engine and then churning out levels one after another. In such games, the fun dries up quickly after the first few levels. The game gets devilishly hard and the levels just get tougher. New levels are more challenging, but no more rewarding. Level two is level one, but with less time and fewer resources. That's not fun, that's a chore. In Goo, you go through different scenarios, changing weather and different kinds of goo balls. The game mechanic changes as you tackle new levels. This reminds me of Soul Bubbles for Nintendo DS, which had the same change of mechanic as the game proceeded. I'm glad the developers resisted the urge to copy-paste levels. I'm glad they spent as much time in innovative levels and level mechanics as they did on the creativity of the engine. The levels are inventive, they keep you eager to see what happens next.

As the game proceeds, the story of the goo balls unravels and takes the player through its strange and  humorous turns. World of Goo does a lot of things well, and is an instructive lesson to the cesspool of current-day gaming.
  1. Creativity counts. Come up with something unique. Computer worlds are limitless, so don't package the same crap all over again.
  2. Entertain in every level. Each level should be fun to play. Doing the same thing twice isn't fun.
  3. Leave no player behind. Goo allows you to skip baffling levels rather than requiring your user to fight through tough levels. They can always come back for levels later. This makes the game more fun and accessible.
  4. All the fun ideas, and nothing else. The game is small, but it is fun all along. That is far better than padding a game with mediocre content to increase the length.
The game is half a decade old, but is well worth playing.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

What should you list on your resume?

This is some quick advice on the skills you should list on your resume.

There is a lot of wisdom about how you should format your resume, but there is little discussion on what you should put into it. You could list too little, and risk rejection because you did not have the required skills for the job. Or you could put too much, and risk looking boastful or dishonest. Where's the line? This article is written from the perspective of a Computer Science graduate. Other fields might list skills differently, so this might not apply to your field.

For new computing professionals, I follow this thumb-rule:
If you can answer an undergraduate-level question on the topic, list it on your resume.

Listing a skill expresses your confidence in the topic, and a willingness to answer questions on it.  An interviewer uses such a list to give you a chance to demonstrate your knowledge. The interviewer wants you to succeed, and you need to provide him a list of topics that you can succeed in.  Remember that an interviewer is chosen based on the skills on your resume, and someone with working familiarity with the topic will certainly know much more than you. Interviewers know this too, and try to put themselves in the candidate's shoes. They reason backwards and try to remember how much they knew before they started working. For most people, this takes them back to graduate or undergraduate level coursework. Questions generally start in that general area, and get tougher.

For example, listing C in your resume would invite this basic question. What's wrong with this code?
 int array[5], i, *ip;
 for(i = 0; i < 5; i++) array[i] = i;
 ip = array;
 printf("%d\n", *(ip + 3 * sizeof(int)));

A person with undergraduate-level familiarity with C is expected to answer this question. If you cannot answer this question, the interviewer cannot ask you anything tougher. The two of you have just wasted ten minutes that could have been spent demonstrating a different skill: Python/Java/Android....

Anything short of a full college course is not worthwhile putting on your resume. Your resume lists your capabilities versus other candidates in the same pool. If the skill is trivial, or your knowledge shallow, then it does not distinguish you from other candidates. Avoid cluttering your resume.

List skills on your resume that you wish to continue perfecting. If you disliked VHDL even though you have an excellent understanding of it, list it under a 'Know but Avoid' section. This points out that while you have a skill, you want to distance yourself from using it. If there is a skill that you know you are rusty on, you could mark it on your resume under a section titled 'Rusty', or 'Passable'. On my resume, I have both a 'Passable' section and an Avoid section.

Finally, if you realize that you have overestimated your knowledge of something: let the interviewer know. It saves both of you a lot of time.

If you liked this, you might enjoy reading my article on how to create beautiful resumes in LaTeX.

(Code coloring courtesy: Image courtesy:

Sunday, May 13, 2012

What is inside electronic devices?

Not many people see the insides of electronic devices. Here is a picture of a Linksys E-1200 router:

If you compare this with electronic boards made a decade ago, the emptiness of the board would strike you immediately. Most of the board is empty space and two black chips dominate the real estate. The remaining components are minor: resistors and capacitors.

There are two big black chips in the center of the board. In order of appearance from left to right are:
  1. Winbond W9425G6JH: That's memory, storage, or RAM.
  2. Broadcom BCM5357B0: That's everything else: CPU, wireless, ethernet, router. Everything
The fat black things in the bottom look like chips but they are not. The FPE 2020 are tranformers for electrical isolation of the ethernet signal.

Everyone knows that computers getting faster, smaller, more durable and more cost efficient. The silent revolution is in the ubiquity of computers. Tiny computers are everywhere. The desktop was once the only computer in the house. Then came along the laptop, then the smart phone. Then your television set-top-box. Routers, ebook readers, the telephone box to give you cheap international calling. Deep inside, all these devices are empty boards like the one above. One powerful chip containing a computer to do everything.

The other important fact is that these are a full, general-purpose computers. You can run browsers, games, and email programs on these computers. Manufacturers make a board with a general computer and then write router software for it. This method is cheaper than creating a specialized router-only computer. A router is very similar to a television set-top box: they both contain roughly the same parts. The only difference is in the software.

We are getting better at manufacturing these full computer chips: they cost less, last long, and fail less frequently. It is not unusual to run these computers constantly for years. This astonishing reliability is one reason why the repair industry is dying. The other reason is that there isn't much left to repair. Boards contain few parts, and if a CPU or RAM chip goes bad due to overheating or electrical surges, it is nearly impossible to repair it.  And capacitors and connectors fail much more often than CPU and RAM chips. Since there is nothing mechanical left to fail, and the failure rate of silicon components is low, electronic boards provide decades of service.

Another trend to notice is that many of these devices run Linux. Linux has many benefits: it is free, it has support for a wide variety of these new computers, and it is easy to modify.

(Image courtesy