Thursday, June 28, 2007

Clip Art Shouldn't Be This Difficult

I'm not a Microsoft hater. In fact, I like Microsoft quite a bit. I think Surface looks pretty cool, Excel isn't that bad of an app, and .NET is waaaaay fun to code in.

However, I can certainly understand why people get so frustrated with them. Whenever I do web work, for example, I discover some new bizarre behavior in IE 6. Sometimes the way something is implemented in .NET will make you scratch your head. It is frustrating that Office doesn't play that well with other products. Etc etc.

Earlier this week I was working on a presentation. This is not something I do that often these days, spending most of my time happy and content inside of a code window. But in past jobs I had to do this sort of thing on a regular basis so it doesn't bother me. I popped open good ol' Powerpoint and got cracking.

At one point I needed to insert a bit of clip art. I was putting together a diagram that required something to represent a client. I wanted a little guy in a suit, but all the prepackaged clip art was cheesy and lame and not at all what I was looking for.

Fortunately on the Microsoft Office website you can go download additional clip art for free! That's kind of cool, I thought to myself. It even had your standard "shopping cart" style interface where you pick and choose what you want. After finding a couple dozen pieces of clip art that were exactly what I was looking for, and I hit the download button.

That's where the trouble started.

Immediately the website wanted me to download an ActiveX component to handle my clip art download. Hmmm. Well, I suppose I can understand why Microsoft does this sort of thing. They want to be able to check if you have a legit copy of Office. But it is still extremely irritating.

Next it prompted me to open the downloaded "clip art collection" file with "Microsoft Clip Organizer". Um, okay. I guess I can see where a helper app like the "Clip Organizer" makes sense... I guess it handles indexing and what not for searches...

Attempting to open the file, however, yielded an unknown error with a helpful octal code. Great. All I wanted to do was download some clip art.

No problem, I'm supposed to be pretty handy with a computer. By which I mean pretty handy with Google. I went ahead and punched in that error code and eventually found my way to a Microsoft article explaining what can cause that problem.

Apparently the Clip Organizer requires the latest copy of Microsoft Data Access Components (MDAC).

Think about that for a second. It's a frakking CLIP ART ORGANIZER and it uses MDAC?!?!?!

So to review, in order to get clip art from the Microsoft Office website, you need an ActiveX component, a helper application built for the sole purpose of handling clip art, a set of proprietary Data Access libraries, and a partridge in a pear tree.

This goes way beyond over engineering into the realm of sheer stupidity. It's CLIP ART. It's a bunch of images in a folder. This is not rocket science. I could accomplish the same thing by making my own folder somewhere and saving a bunch of images in it.

An analogy: if I were to drive up to a Microsoft gas station, I wouldn't be able to just pump gas. I'd have to first talk to the fellow inside to get a special card, use that card at a nearby phone to dial corporate headquarters, who then may give me permission to pump the gas. Once I had the permission, I would have to attach the special "Microsoft Tank Access" pipe which connects to my gas tank, hook that up to the pump, and then, maybe, I could actually start filling the tank. Unless I had last year's version of the pipe which is square and doesn't connect to the new trapezoidal pump pipe, in which case I would need to go back inside, get another card for permission to talk to corporate headquarters, ask them for permission to get the latest helper pipe, and then try again.

All I want is some frakkin' gas.

The best part of this is even after jumping through all these hoops just so I could get the clip art I wanted, it still didn't work.

So now, instead of an actual image of a cartoony little guy, I will be using a box labeled "guy".

If I encounter any more problems, I'll get a stack of bar napkins and a pen and just run with that.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Quick Game Roundup

American Badass Day 2 (sequel to Day 1) is forthcoming pending a couple of edits.

In the meantime there are a couple of games I wanted to talk about real quickly. The first is one that baseball fans are probably already familiar with: MLB 07 - The Show for PS2/3. Since my next gen console of choice right now is the Wii, the old PS2 has been seeing the lion's share of the game time, especially with this game recently.

It has all the bells and whistles you'd expect out of a baseball game these days (franchise mode, season mode, etc.), but the thing that really makes this fun for me is the "Career" mode, which might as well be called "Baseball RPG". You control one player that you make up through the course of the minor leagues, potentially all the way to the Hall of Fame.

What's interesting about this mode are the unique situations you find yourself in. If the organization is deep at a position you are playing, for example, they'll throw you in a different position you might not be as good at. When you first get called up, you may find yourself on the bench with only the occasional pinch hit opportunity to prove yourself. And the manager will sometimes give you unique "goals" which give you a bonus to your development if you accomplish them ("bunt this guy over", or "drive in the run").

It's one of those things I can't believe hasn't been attempted before the MLB series. The "carrot on a stick" gameplay inherent to RPGs combined with baseball? The combination is like some less harmful variety of crack.

Second, I've been getting a lot of mileage out of a game called Peacemaker. It puts you in charge of either Palestine and Israel and tasks you with bringing peace to the region. I studied the Middle East in college and still follow the news there very closely out of habit, and this game does a great job of demonstrating how unbelievably complex the situation is without making it too intimidating to digest. I could see this game being a terrific learning tool in the classroom, and it would be a great way to introduce some of the issues in a way kids can more easily connect with.

You can download the demo for free, but the whole game is only $20 and it works on Windows or Mac. If nothing else it's worthwhile to spend money on it just to support a project like this.

Interesting note about this game: I purchased it a few months ago, and when you won the game you were awarded the Nobel Prize. However, in May the Nobel Foundation demanded that the makers of the game remove their name from the software, and it has been removed from subsequent updates. That's an extremely disappointing move by the Nobel Foundation, who probably saw "video game" and little else.

Father's Day

I don't usually post much in the way of family related items on the ol' blog. But there's a particular story about my dad I wanted to share that still has an impact on me to this day.

I was a dreadful kid. I was constantly getting into trouble, and there was more than one occasion when my parents had to come pick me up from the police. Despite the fact that I had very good grades in high school I was pretty regularly in detention also. My school operated on a demerit system, and due to a change in that system since I graduated it is unlikely my record for "most demerits" will be broken any time soon.

I gave my parents more headaches once I went to college. I dropped out twice, one time not even bothering to fill out the forms properly which resulted in incompletes in every one of my classes for that semester. This is one of those topics that is decidedly "off limits" at family gatherings, and it got to the point where my behavior was so questionable that I have heard I was actually used as a cautionary tale about what could happen to you if you didn't buckle down and study hard.

To this day I can't really explain why I acted the way I did. I mean, when I was a teenager I was pretty much angry all the time, but I can't imagine that is very different than most people when they're teenagers. As for college, I can say quite easily that some of those years were the most miserable of my entire life. I made a lot of great friends at college and I met my fiance there, but the actual process of going to class and dealing with the environment there made me physically ill. I can't imagine what it must be like to get depressed enough to actually commit suicide, but I'd be lying if I said the thought never crossed my mind during school.

Yeah I know, cry more emo kid.

Anyway, the point of this tale is that eventually I did get my act together and now I'm comfortable with my life and my situation. And I find myself thinking of one particular incident with my dad a lot and find that it still helps to this day.

When I had been in Boy Scouts for a few years, I started to get sick of it. I didn't like going to the meetings, sometimes the older kids were mean to me, and I was basically a whiny priss. I really just wanted to play video games all day. I had quit every other activity I ever participated in. Looking back I realize that I basically had a habit of quitting anything that was actually hard.

Boy Scouts was becoming one of those things, so I figured I'd quit that too.

My dad would have none of it.

I'm sure it was one of those breaking points for him. He had watched me quit soccer, baseball, basketball, and pretty much everything else growing up. Who the heck was this whiny wimp, and how did he come from his stock?

My dad told me in no uncertain terms that I would not be quitting Boy Scouts.

I remember arguing and throwing a fit. What could he do to stop me? I'd just sit outside at the meetings. He couldn't make me go. Etc etc.

That man gave me a look I'll never forget. It was a look that seemed to say, "If you quit this, any lingering shred of respect is gone."

I didn't quit. In fact, I made it all the way to Eagle Scout. And some of those memories in Boy Scouts after the argument are some of my favorites from growing up. I still smile when I think of the awards ceremony and my dad pinning his old Eagle badge to my uniform.

I learned something that day that took several years, I think, to sink in: nothing worth doing is easy. College is hard and you don't like it? So what. Man up and finish. Applying for jobs is hard? You don't have enough experience to get the job you want? Man up and take a crap job and get the experience. Life not going the way you want? That's your problem, pal.

It's very easy to blame everybody else. I did it for a long time, even after earning my dad's Eagle badge. But it won't do you a damn bit of good.

Some of us just aren't that bright, I guess, and we need to learn a thing two or three times before it sinks in.

So Happy Father's Day, dad. I think I may have finally gotten the message.