Monday, January 5, 2015

the Other Side of the Reporter's Pad

It may have been a joke at first but there is no better and more practical tip to give for swords...
As you can probably imagine I do not often find myself in the position of being the person asked the questions - and I find that being interviewed is not as pleasant an experience as I always thought it was when I was asking the questions...

This is especially true at events like the Consumer Electronic Show, where I am trying to get the stories I need, and find myself helping someone else get the story they need!   So you can probably imagine how strange this feels to be on the receiving end.  

One of my favorite quotes from the book A Game of Thrones is from an angry encounter between Ned Stark and his daughter Arya that follows her storming away from the dinner table and locking herself in her room in the Summer Palace at King's Landing, where she has removed her sword "Needle" from its place of concealment and is swishing it through the air as the emotional gesture to her anger.

Her father comes knocking at the door and without even thinking about it she lets him in - and he now learns for the first time that young Arya - mousy little Arya - the firebrand of the North - has a dream to be a swordswoman of great skill!

Incredulous to encounter his youngest daughter with a sword in her hands - and not just any sword mind you but a very well made high quality sword that he quickly determines was crafted in the armory of his own keep, but his own armorer!

In a fit of exasperation he asks her "Do you even know how to use a sword?!"

To which Arya replies: "You stick them with the pointy end?"

Left: The standard Reporter's Notebook (average cost = $1.95)... 
Right: A Moleskin Fake Reporter's Notebook (average cost = $11.95)

By the way - any time you run into a journalist - and I don't care what beat they work or what outlet they write for - but any time you run into a journalist who is using a moleskin reporter's pad they are either NOT really a journalist, or they have an expense account, so make sure that they pay for dinner.

Back on topic - I found myself being interviewed by a journalist from a small Japanese magazine whose beats pretty much run the social spectrum and include games and gaming as a cultural interest.  A culture interest?!

Right then, to each his own - but the reporter who asked to interview me was chasing down a story on the emergence of video games at CES as a separate category of consumer goods, with their own section at the show and how they suspected that this was a small example of a larger emergence within the entertainment industry as a whole.

Legitimacy of video games as a core entertainment outlet has been part of a battle being fought all over the world for decades, but recently - and when I say recently I mean in the last five years or so - the battle has swung decidedly in favor of the games industry.

This is actually a relatively new thing - it was only three years ago that video games got their own section - despite the fact that some of the big players in the industry had been asking for that for nearly 20 years...

Now that they have their own section at CES the perception - at least in Japan and for that magazine - appears to be that it is a well-deserved change to the status quo.

My contribution was mostly background since I had been covering that beat for the better part of the past ten years, and the journo interviewing me was a student last year - this being their first professional gig as a writer of any sort.

The awkward bit was that while she had a list of questions, it was painfully obvious that they were very general ones that were created by her editor with the idea being they would take her into the right part of the forest and then she would start blazing her own trail.  Except she was not doing that.

Maybe she was nervous - maybe she was not familiar with the concept - either way I found myself leading her through the interview (and it is NEVER a good idea to have your interview subject doing that since they then gain control of the interview and the story).

 But I did not have all day and I had things to do, so lead the interview I did.  Yoda would have been very proud of me!

Still the fascinating bit - and the reason why I agreed to help her out in the first place was not just because a friend of mine asked me to - was down to the focus of the piece that she is working on, which is the emerging social impact of video games in Japan.

A small sign next to the TV in my room announced that video game consoles were available from the concierge for $19.95 per day rental - and included a selection of games to choose from for FREE  (but each game required a $60 refundable deposit - which makes sense as that is what it would cost to replace one).  You may not think that Vegas is the sort of place that they would want you to spend more time in your room, but hey, that's more time you might want to spend eating from the room service menu, right?

As Japan Goes, So Goes the World

That has not always been true mind you, but over the course of the past two decades it has become increasingly true at least with respect to trends in the video game industry.

It is easy enough to forget that Microsoft did not invent the social games platform and network when it rolled out Xbox LIVE.  

Sony already had long-range plans for a broadband-based social gaming network similar to the spectacular failure that was The SEGA Network System in Japan and SEGA Channel in North America.

They were actually in the early preparation stages of rolling that out, with the plan being for it to arrive with the launch of the PlayStation 3 platform (which it did) but Microsoft basically beat them to the punch.  The important thing to remember though was that none of this was happening in a vacuum!  

Microsoft was fully aware of what Sony had planned - and it is no accident that the LIVE network - just like PSN - offers many of the features that were first pioneered on SEGA's failed networks and the Q-Link Service that originally served the Commodore C=64 community.

While SEGA's efforts failed for a variety of reasons, probably the most significant was the lack of high-speed Internet connectivity.  The world was not quite ready for that sort of service just yet - it needed a wider availability of broadband Internet access, but by the time Microsoft launched LIVE (and later PSN was launched) that situation had changed.

I am not one of those journos who was surprised when CES reversed its decision and declared video games a separate section at the show three years ago...  Considering how rapidly the games industry has come to rival the film industry in terms of annual profits, this was a decision whose time had truly arrived.  Besides that it is impossible to find scattered booths if they are not all in one industry section!

 Something New is Happening

It is not services like LIVE, PSN, and Nintendo's Network that have the Japanese games press excited, it is something new that is happening in Japan - something that will very likely end up happening in North America and Europe over the course of the next few years if it is not already happening on a smaller scale now.

That something new is the socialization of console gaming in mainstream environments.

In Japan the trend of "Video Game Dates" caught on a few years before it did in North America, but that trend eventually spread.  

The idea of a social peer group getting together to play a video game online - each from the comfort of their own home - has replaced the LAN party - and group trips to the movie theater.

That concept though, still puts each of the group in their own home, and physically isolated from the group, but the newest trend in Japan solves that minor point by bringing the console into the group in the form of destination social gaming.

What does that mean?  It means that restaurants and clubs are providing game space and console hardware as well as a proper level of network security to facilitate video game social dates in which the party goes to the destination rather than home alone!

Considering the advent of the cloud and the expanded portability of both a gamer's credentials (think PSN ID or Xbox LIVE Gamertag) along with game saves in the cloud and this is very practical in terms of the techie side.  The question seems to be will the gamers embrace it?

Do they want to go to a set destination and play games while hanging out with mates in a group and noshing on snacks they did not prepare in their own microwave?  Do they want to game while having a few beers with their mates?

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The video embedded above is from CES 1994 in Chicago, Illinois, and presents views of the many different computer video game booths that were present.  This at a time when even though the show was much smaller, due to the lack of a dedicated video games section for that industry its booths were scattered all over the show floor making an orderly visit to that industry next to impossible...  

The reason that we picked this nostalgic footage specifically from CES 1994 is because 1994 was the year that the powers-that-be in charge of determining which industries would get their own dedicated sections declared that even at its height the video games industry would never be anything greater than a footnote in the history of the entertainment industry.

Gaming, it seems, was a fad that was not destined to last much beyond the year 2000 when, it was speculated, computer gaming would be replaced by games delivered by Cable TV companies direct to your TV in your living room.
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The answer seems to be yes. Yes they do.  At least in Japan.

But clubs and restaurants are not the only places that game consoles are making inroads in Japan - they are also cropping up in some very unlikely places.  Like auto repair shops, hotels, and hospitals. 

In the larger cities patients can request a console and net connection for their room for a fee.  Hotels in Japan have started placing consoles in their rooms - and not just because they can play Blueray either - the game systems are provided with popular games as well.

There are other examples - a simple web search reveals them - but the underlying cause for this trend is not so simple to find, which is why the press in Japan is looking for it, and partly why I was being interviewed.

I was pointed out as a possible source due to comments that I had made previously at a dinner during last year's E3 in which I might have made the point that the phenomenon of the increasing and diverse presence of video game consoles in unusual places is a product of a new shared culture between gamers in the US and Japan.

Actually the comment I made was a bit more complicated than that, but that nicely sums it up in a very general way.

The point I was making had to do specifically with the topic of conversation at the time - with my contribution being that there exists a fusion of cultures in the video game communities in North America and Japan that we have never seen before.

That fusion not only represents shared values and interests in terms of entertainment and popular culture, but also presents somethhing of a change in the global gamer community, which has begun to shape the market that serves it.  

My point being that usually that relationship functioned in the opposite direction - with the entertainment industry shaping the view and desires of the consumer.

It was my opinion at the time - and for that matter it still is my opinion - that this new direction that the industry has adopted and the more significant involvement of the consumer in shaping its path is  primary evidence of a paradigm shift in the market and culture.

In the interest of full disclosure and transparency here I should point out that while I offered my own take on the matter and my suspicions, the original seed for that line of thought and consideration was planted in my brain by an observation that was originally made by Adam Savage.

I credit Adan for originally noticing how the industry was changing its focus and practices to conform to the expectations of its audience - the consumer - in a fashion not at all dissimilar to that of the motion picture industry and its tendency to test and sample its market before it adopts a new path.

I just took that idea and began to build on it by adding what at first appeared to be unrelated trends and connecting the dots to discover that they had a far closer relationship than preciously suspected.

So how was your holiday?

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Bummer of a Life Update

First - I would like to extend to you the most sincere and heartfelt New Year greeting and the hopes from our family to yours that you have a happy and fruitful 2015.  

Another year has come, and with it an open and flexible set of possibilities...

Now to the Bummer Part...

A lot of you may be wondering why email has not been returned and updates have not been made since just prior to Christmas.  The reason for that is that life - but more specifically death - has gotten in the way.

For almost all of 2014 it was a mixed bag...  On the plus (good) side, there was a lot of cause for good feelings and celebration.  Babies were born, people important to us got married, other people who are important to us graduated and started new desired careers.

Things got written.  Things got done.  In fact save for some minor issues and maybe a few real bummers almost all of 2014 worked out to be a pretty good year.  In fact it seems like the ratio was easy to follow - around 46 of the first 50 weeks were pretty darn good!

La Mort de Socrate 1787 by Jacques-Louis David

But then week 51 arrived and, as the year slowly ground to a close, people started dying.

I don't get that.  I don't get it, I don't understand it, and I damn sure am not going to try, because if I did end up understanding it that would place too much logic on a set of events that are soaked in nothing but sad emotions and I simply cannot handle that.

Death has always been something of a mystery to me anyway.  Especially when people just die without any warning.  

Nothing to prepare you.  The phone rings, you answer it, and you learn someone you care about had died.  The reasons don't really matter when you get that call four times in the space of just three days.

The fact that none of those people were ill - none of them were in the process of dying (if we can say that?) and none seemed ready to leave.  And yet they did.  

Three in the middle of the night in their sleep, the fourth sat down at the breakfast table, tucked in their napkin, picked up the salt shaker, and then poof!  They closed their eyes, their hand dropped to the table, and they were gone.

How anyone can make sense out of that is beyond me.

In two cases the general consensus is they just got done living.  In the case of the other two opinion varies but it seems like a safe bet that something important wore out.

A Little Perspective
I'd like to help you understand what it is I am saying and to do that I need to give you a little bit of perspective here.  

In the abstract you are reading that four people who were important to me died, and with just that little bit of information to go on - depending on how much empathy you are equipped to feel - that will either be about as meaningful to you as a weather report, or it could make you sad for me.

Each of the four people were important to me - two were relatives, two were friends.  That is not the sort of distinction I tend to make as my feelings for each are equal mixtures of love and respect and that makes their absence a significant loss to me.

The relatives were both from the generation of my parents which is, arguably, on its way out and off the books anyway.  

The friends also happen to be from my parent's generation - one was a close family friend on my side, the other on my wife's.

So let's start with the latter. 

Friends We Choose
He was a man I barely knew and knew well.  That is to say I knew him well, but only the side of himself that he showed the world.  

My father-in-law knew him in a much deeper more personal way as they were best mates.  His loss to me is sad but to my father-in-law it is genuinely painful due to the regular nature of their daily visits and interaction with each other.  As both are fully retired that makes a certain sense.
I knew him well enough to invite him into my home without reservation; the sort of invitation that is open-ended, requires no advance notice, and will accommodate any inconvenience not simply out of respect and familiarity but because he deserved both.

Perhaps the fact that he was born elsewhere and chose to live in New England has something to do with it.  My father-in-law and myself, that friend, and a dozen others are all of a kind: we chose to live here and make our lives here and though these choices were all of different circumstances and reason, they amount to a common and shared experience.

In my case, I met a girl on a train station platform in Denver and that was that.  In his case, it is a far more complicated matter, but he - like my father-in-law - was a product of World War II and the hell and chaos out of which many Europeans emerged in the 1950s looking for a better life.

To say I respected him and his opinions, his always entertaining stories, and his very sharp mind is to practice in gross understatement.  

I will truly miss him, and the idea that he will never sit in my back yard and hoist a brew with us again comes very close to breaking my heart.

Death of Adonis 1764 by Anton Losenko

The Spy Who Awed Me
The second friend was a contemporary of my father -- and indeed it was through him that I first met her -- and came to know her.  And came to be a fan.

She was a brilliant mind cast loose in a world that did not choose to value that capacity in the weaker sex for much of her adult life.  

To the outside world her public face was that of civil servant for some department that dealt with the economics of tax on imported goods and the negotiation of international agreements for the same with foreign governments.

Her business cards suggested that she was some sort of a supervising economist - like my father - a solver of problems if you will.  I don't know what she actually did, only what her official role was declared to be (and as to that the situation is the same with my father - I have no idea what it was that he actually did for the government but I do know that it was far more than simply being an economist)...

I strongly suspect that she was an intelligence analyst.  I know from conversations with her that she was inordinately aware of WHY governments made decisions and how those decisions often resulted in unintended consequences they come to regret.

Not too many weeks ago I rang her to ask for an opinion on the downing of MAS17 - the Boeing jetliner that belonged to Malaysian Airlines that had been shot down in the Ukraine last July - in hopes that she would either have a fresh opinion to offer or, perhaps even better, would send me down a new and more exciting (or at the very least interesting) path...

I was working on an assignment for a travel site, the subject of which was modern air travel safety.

I needed to summarize the statistics for the year, so naturally MAS17 was one of the incidents I was reviewing.

There were also crashes by Nepal Airlines,TransAsia Air, and Air Algeric's Mali crash in July. A shooting incident involving Pakistan International Airlines Flight PK756 in June left one passenger dead others wounded and a number of bullet holes in the fuselage, and then there was Flight MH370 to be considered.  

The idea in my mind being that it was not just crashes (the explained and unexplained varieties) one had to consider, but other events as well.

I knew she would be able to answer my questions -- in the past she had been a valuable expert opinion and source for information, often sending me in new and previously never considered directions.  

I valued her opinion highly and this time was to be no exception as she explained to me how it was that an ignorant Ukrainian farmer of Russian extraction who was a member of a pro-Russian militia group found himself in possession of  a Buk surface-to-air missile system that he used, on 17 July 2014, to murder 298 innocent civilians.

I had asked her about it not actually expecting her to know details mind you - but rather I was seeking just a general idea of what had happened because none of the news reports made very much sense to me.  I knew just enough to know that I was not getting an accurate picture.

Whatever was used to shoot down MAS17 was not a shoulder-fired surface-to-air missile like the media was suggesting.  Those just do not have that sort of range.

I had good cause to suspect that whatever was used had to be a beefier version of the standard SAM - and I could not imagine how a rebel could have gained access - let alone the expertise - to use that sort of kit to engage a jet airliner and not know that they were shooting down a civilian airliner.

I had pretty much concluded that Russia was lying through its teeth - that it would probably work out to be a regular Army unit that fired the fatal shot - but it turned out I was totally off-base in both respects, and as I sat in stunned silence she schooled me on the matter.

She explained to me that the launcher used to shoot down MAS17 was actually a Russian-built Almaz-Antey Buk-M1 ground-based air defense system (GBADS) that, while it was brand new and state-of-the-art in weapons tech terms when it rolled off of the assembly line in some Russian factory in February of 1973, the radar with which it was equipped was ":dumb radar incapable of ID'ing a target," she declared.

That informal briefing she gave me was just the sort of thing that she was paid to do as part of her career prior to retirement - though the level of detail she gave me suggested that she still kept one oar in the water even if she was retired.  

I should add that she never actually confirmed or denied that this was the sort of thing she did professionally - that was how she rolled.  How do you replace someone like that?  How obscene that death can just step in and take a person so unique and interesting.  Death sucks.  I miss her.

It's a Relative Thing

Dwelling on death is never a good idea, mostly because no matter what you think about it, you cannot change it.  Being afraid of death also does no good - fear can be a healthy thing, and it can even help in dealing with things that you can change - but you can't change death.

What makes me angry is the loss.  And I don't mean the loss of the physical literal presence of the person (though that is lamentable and part of it), but rather the loss of the essence and the history, of the experiences and the knowledge.

The closest that I can come to explaining this in simple terms is burning a book when that book happens to be the only copy of a unique story.  Once it is burned it is lost forever.  That is what death is to me.

The really odd thing is this: the news of their deaths hit harder than I could have expected it to, largely I suspect because it came one after the other - bang-bang-bang-bang over three days, and that just never happens.

It got to a point where I stopped answering the phone at all - declaring that if it was important they would text me.

Did I mention that Death Sucks?

I have been dealing with things - which is why I have been electronically absent the past week - but will be resuming life and my schedule tomorrow.  Please look for replies to begin then.

Oh, and I am totally not being sarcastic here at all, but do me a favor mates - let's make 2015 the year nobody we know dies?