Archive for June, 2007

NewEgg pulls a Double Satan

Friday, June 15th, 2007

There’s not much to say about this picture other than to point out that NewEgg is pulling what I call a “Double Satan”. Look at how many product reviews they’re advertising as having. Hey, I want a CPU heatsink/fan combo cooler that uses demonic power to suck excess heat into the depths of Hell.

A Satanic NewEgg picture

Playing around with ad formats and colors

Wednesday, June 13th, 2007

Recently I’ve been playing around with Google AdSense ad formats and colors on my more popular blog Supreme Commander Talk. The results have actually been a bit counter to established wisdom, which says that while image and animated image ads are flashy and annoying, one should leave them enabled, because they have a higher click-through ratio and thus bring in more money. I found the opposite to be the case.

Two weeks ago, I modified Supreme Commander Talk’s ad-serving script to use two different ad formats, one that was all text and one that enabled image ads. It served up one of the two ad formats randomly on a page-by-page basis, so half of the blog’s visitors saw pure text ads and the other half saw the ad format that allowed image ads. The results were startling. The non-images format was earning nearly double on a per-page basis. I’ve since removed the image ads and have gone to text-only ads now. I think I may have a few explanations for these results.

My site was getting heavily inundated with low-value image ads. The leaderboard ad format that I’m running can display up to four text ads side by side, but only one image ad. So when an image was displayed it only gave one potentially relevant choice rather than four. All of the image ads were very low paid, so even if they did get clicked more often (which I doubt, though Google won’t provide data on this), the total revenue wasn’t good. Supreme Commander Talk is a hardcore gaming blog for a hardcore gaming audience, and most of the image ads ended up being ads for various massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs), e.g. “Join Furcadia now!” or “Join Adventure Quest now!”, etc. These ads just aren’t worth much.

My audience is also a bad group to target ads to. Hardcore gamers are very adept at using the Internet, and they pretty much just mentally filter out ads and would almost never think of clicking on them. Combine this with all of the bad, low-paying, oftentimes irrelevant ads that gaming blogs seem to attract, and you see the problem I’m having over there. Text ads ended up being better because the image ads paid little, were annoying and subliminally filtered out by experienced web users, and were advertising online games much inferior to the game that is the subject of the blog, Supreme Commander. Now if my gaming blog was about various online RPGs, the ads would’ve fared better.

What’s very telling is that earnings from this blog and Supreme Commander Talk are roughly equal, even though SupComTalk has readership numbers at least five times as high. The relevance and profit-per-click of ads on the two blogs isn’t even remotely comparable. My next experiment on SupComTalk that I will report back on in another week or two is whether it’s better to use a clashing color scheme that stands out or one that blends into the page. Also, it’s important not to over-generalize my findings. Image ads may still be better than text ads overall, it’s just that for one particular subject matter they didn’t do well at all.

A too-deadly drug?

Tuesday, June 12th, 2007

I’m wondering if there’s such a thing as a drug that is too deadly? In the past two years in Dallas, Texas, 21 teenagers have died from an overdose of cheese heroin. Cheese heroin is apparently a half-and-half blend of black tar Mexican heroin and crushed over-the-counter antihistamine drugs like Tylenol PM. The mix is apparently highly addictive and very deadly, because the two components are both highly effective depressants, and when combined, can simply shut the body down. So why does anyone take this drug? Is there such a thing as a drug that is too deadly?

There are some pretty deadly drugs out there. In addition to cheese heroin, people get high off of sniffing various chemicals and aerosols, a habit which simply destroys the brain through lack of oxygen (if not the addition of deadly chemicals) and leads to severe mental retardation. Heck, even regular heroin is very dangerous — just ask Janis Joplin. The dangerousness of a drug seems to be inversely proportional to how widely it is used (ignoring other factors, like cost). Marijuana, which isn’t known to have ever killed anyone, is very widely used, with more than half of all adults admitting they’ve tried it. Cheese heroin and huffing paint thinners, on the other hand, are much less widely used, and I think a lot of it has to do with a prospective user examining the danger and coming to the conclusion that it’s simply not worth it.

Which brings me back to my original question: is there a drug that is too deadly? If sniffing rat poison got you high, would people do it, central nervous system paralysis be damned? If some extreme version of crack cocaine (let’s call it abyss cocaine) was developed that had a 50% of killing you but produced the craziest high imaginable, would anyone take the plunge? I suspect at least a few people would try a given drug, no matter how dangerous it is. After all, a fair amount of people who wish to commit suicide do so by taking drugs, so why not go out on a killer high?

Are MMORPG makers screwing the pooch?

Sunday, June 10th, 2007

I think the gaming companies that are putting out Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs) are really making a mistake. They’re doing very well at generating lots of revenue with the current generations of games, but they’re getting all of this profit now at the expense of losing a lot more profit later.

MMORPGs are designed from the ground up to be addictive. They make the majority of their money through monthly fees, so the whole goal of the game is to get the player paying month after month and never to stop. To do that, the game must be addictive, and it must have a progress treadmill with a peak that the vast majority of players (over 99%) will never be able to attain. Let’s use World of Warcraft as an example, because that’s the last MMORPG that I played. Gaining your first level literally takes about ten minutes. But by the time you get near the level cap (which was 60 when I was playing but is 70 now), it takes many, many hours, possibly even days, to gain a single level. It’s diminishing returns to the nth degree. And once you hit the level cap, you’re simply transferred over onto a different treadmill. Now you aren’t gaining levels, you’re gaining rare items and PVP ranks, and that takes even longer. Gaining PVP ranks takes days of fighting other players, while getting the rare items requires involvement in massive, dozen-player raids, in which it often happens that someone plays for days and doesn’t even get a single rare item.

So World of Warcraft, and more recent MMORPGs like Lord of the Rings Online, are very good at keeping their subscribers by keeping their subscribers addicted. I must admit, it was very difficult for me to stop playing World of Warcraft. The only reason I quit was because I have a very low threshold of boredom in games, and the long, slow endgame treadmill just wasn’t fun for me. But millions of Blizzard’s subscribers don’t share that same safety net as it were. They’re still playing the game, and many are playing for far too many hours per day than is healthy. Many realize it, but they just can’t drag themselves away.

At least MMORPGs don’t stick around forever. Sure, they don’t really ever seem to die completely (even the original EverQuest is still running), but they do fade away. World of Warcraft is already two years old. If you look at the engine, it shows. There are many fundamental aspects of a large application that simply cannot be changed, and eventually, nearly all of the people who currently play Warcraft will cease playing it as it slips into obsolescence. And here is where I think the MMORPG makers are screwing up: once players reach end of life on the old generation, they’re not going to allow themselves to upgrade to the latest generation of the drug.

What former Warcraft-addict, who only manages to quit by virtue of the game’s community shrinking and unraveling, is going to go play the newest, even more addictive MMORPG? It doesn’t make sense to me. I know I have an addictive personality regarding these kinds of games. Which is why, after I kicked the Warcraft habit, I’m never allowing myself to get caught up in another MMORPG ever again. I know I would enjoy Lord of the Rings Online a lot, but because of my experience with Warcraft, I’m not letting myself play it. And I think a lot of other gamers will find themselves in the same situation. Warcraft will die in time, as do all games, and I think a lot of players will realize what a bad experience that was for them, and they simply won’t play any newer MMORPGs.

Think of an alcoholic recovering from an addiction to drinking a pint of Jack Daniels every night. Is he going to go right out and start gulping down merlots? Hopefully not, if he knows what’s good for him. No, if he has any sense, he’ll refrain, cold turkey-style, from all alcohol. Alcoholics just can’t handle drinking in moderation; it inevitably ends up going overboard, so the only solution is to abstain entirely. It’s the same thing with MMORPGs. People who realize what is good for them will never play MMORPGs again once they break free from Warcraft.

And that is how the MMORPG developers and publishers are shooting themselves in the feet. By concentrating so much on milking the maximum amount of money out of this generation of MMORPGs by making ridiculously addictive games, they’re turning gamers away from the genre, for life. World of Warcraft is now synonymous with loser nerds who never get out of their houses and take the game more seriously than real life. Its image is ruined. It’s tarnishing the rest of the genre, and rightfully so, because all of the other games in the genre are made with the same goals in mind and have the same effects. It’s a shame too. MMORPGs really are something special, but the whole genre is dead to me and many others now, for good.

The oddities of academic regalia

Tuesday, June 5th, 2007

Commencement is now over two weeks in the past, but there’s one little niggling issue that I just can’t get over. I’m talking about academic regalia: you know, the silly outfits that professors and graduated students wear. The custom dates back to the early middle ages (we’re talking 1200s here), when academic regalia wasn’t just worn on special occasions, it was worn all the time. Imagine that, students and professors going around all day wearing the dress that we nowadays consider rather preposterous. We only wear the regalia these days at a single special occasion, commencement, but it’s still kind of amazing that the tradition has persisted for over eight centuries in a mostly unchanged form.

It was really funny seeing my professors wearing full-on academic regalia. I’d only ever seen them wearing business casual (or just plain casual) while teaching classes, but commencement is that one time of year they have to go into the back of their closet and dig out the good ol’ academic regalia they were required to purchase when they received their doctorate, however many years ago that was. Some of the older professors came out wearing academic regalia that was three or four decades old. Yet the professors didn’t really look goofy or uncomfortable in the elaborate robes. They looked proud. They worked their ass off for many years to earn their doctorate degrees, and by God, they were going to wear the robes that came with them.

It was a mixed commencement, with undergrads, masters, and doctoral candidates all graduating in the same ceremonies. Looking at the computer science doctorates around me during the commencement ceremony, I felt very envious. I want an advanced degree. And despite how silly the robes are in comparison to modern attire, they come with the territory of earning a doctoral degree, so my desire transfers over into wanting to wear those robes as well.

I made a comment to one of my professors that he should show up to the first day of class next semester wearing full academic regalia, just to throw off the students. I would love to see those reactions. After all, professors used to wear these robes all the time, so why not try to bring that tradition back?

Celestially grounded to reality

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

I was sitting in the window seat just behind the wing on a cross-country red eye JetBlue flight from Oakland, California to Washington D.C. The only illumination in the cabin came from the superfluous no smoking signs above and the LCDs in front of every seat. Despite almost everyone being asleep, most of the LCDs were still on, because it just isn’t obvious to a passenger how they’re supposed to be turned off (or even that they can be turned off). I was one of the few conscious passengers on a plane six miles in the air filled with sleeping people, like drones slumped over in front of their screens, unable to take anymore of the pacifying in-flight entertainment.

On the car ride heading to the airport I noticed that the Moon was full. What an eerie omen to take a flight after. Looking out the window on that plane, all of the ground below me was faintly illuminated by reflected moonlight. I could make out mountains, forests, and lakes; even unlit roads. It felt like traveling in twilight, but at two in the morning, the Sun was far from peeking over the horizon. The ground was illuminated by an unearthly disembodied glean.

We passed over Colorado. Looking at the live map on the screen in front of me, I could make out all of the major cities of Colorado, with Denver being by far the most prominent. Its lights stretched out over a large area in the mountains, reflecting up into the air and making the atmosphere six miles up appear to radiate light. Looking out that small porthole window in the plane, I could see the majority of Colorado all at once. I counted off three long, silent minutes and Denver had only slightly moved rearwards of the plane.

Storms raged above Denver. I saw huge anvil thunderclouds in the distance, reaching up to nearly the same altitude as the plane. The clouds periodically lit up with intense flashes of white as lightning flickered between their layers. The pilot kept the plane far away from the storm, but not so far that I couldn’t see intimate, frightening details of the massive thunderclouds at work.

The plane’s wingtip pulsed regularly about once a second in a brilliant shade of red coming off the beacon atop the plane. The plane’s fuselage blocked the crimson light from reaching all but the tip of the wing, but when we earlier traveled through the clouds at lower altitudes, the light diffused through the fog in all directions, making it seem as if the very sky was pulsating in alien red tones.

After I had looked horizontally out at what I usually considered the sky, with its clouds and all, I looked up, and was reminded of the real sky. The only things unchanged in this alien landscape were the stars. Trillions of miles away, they looked no different from the ground than from the plane, even if everything else did. The stars didn’t twinkle so much, they seemed brighter, and I could see a lot more of them than usual from the light-polluted area I’m from. But they were still the same as always. I picked out familiar constellations and marveled at faint dim stars in them I couldn’t usually make out. Up here in these unfamiliar environs it was the stars, so far away I could never reach them in my lifetime, that were the most familiar, and made me feel the most at home.