Wizardless


I want to talk a little about playing pinball lately, and I know not everybody is even aware you can play pinball lately, what with it not being 1978 anymore, so let me bring folks up to speed. In the old days pinball machines were relatively sedate affairs: the backglass and playfield art would be a picture of, oh, whatever, wizards in space, or boaters being tormented by Neptune, or the background characters of Mary Worth singing. On the table there’d be a bunch of bumpers, which are the mushroom-shaped things you’d think would be called kickers that kick the ball around; and a pair of kickers, which are the triangular things above the flippers that you’d think would be called bumpers; and the flippers, which are just flippers; and a bunch of drop targets, which are the things you aim the ball at and that fall down when you hit them. And the rule set was pretty straightforward: the targets would be themed to either sets of playing cards or else pool balls, and you would try to knock them all down, and if you managed that, they popped back up and you try to knock them down again.

Then someone went and invented computers, and put them in pinball machines, and they also added ramps just too late for the people who made the Evel Kneivel pinball machine, and it all got complicated because the rules could change, giving you, like, eight seconds to shoot the world’s steepest, most inaccessible ramp ever, in exchange for 2.25 billion points. With scores that enormous being thrown around, of course, they had to get corporate sponsorship for their themes and so wizards playing 9-ball in a baseball park wouldn’t cut it anymore. These days a pinball machine is themed to a popular movie/TV show franchise, a comic book superhero, or a band, which is why pinball magnate Gary Stern has been polishing his Kiss Meets The Phantom Of The Park reboot script for years.

I should say that while pinball scores got kind of out of control back there in the 90s there’ve been efforts to rein them back in, so that a normal good score is only like tens of millions anymore. Some machines have been pretty serious about reducing the score, though: the current world record for The Wizard of Oz pinball is 4, although a guy playing in the Kentucky state championships this year has a new strategy he hypothesizes will let him score 6 or, if the table is generous about giving extra balls, maybe even 7. He’s daft.

Anyway, a couple weeks ago, I had a really good game of The Walking Dead, a pinball machine of such fantastic complexity that nobody knows what all the rules are. The leading theory is that there’s actually just a seed program inside that develops new rules on the fly, so that every time someone works out “OK, if I shoot the ramp three times something good happens”, it’ll suddenly change to, say, “you have to shoot the ramp four times after hitting the Creepy Zombie in the middle twice and identify which presidents George Clinton was vice-president for and maybe slip an extra quarter in the coin slot if you know what’s good for you”. But that one time, good grief, but I was hitting everything and starting modes that nobody even knew existed. I put together a score that was about what I would expect if you added together all my Walking Dead games for an eight-month period and put it together into one game.

So. The next league night, when we play for actual competitive points, I knew I was going to flop badly and yes, it happened. On the table Tales of the Arabian Nights I put up a score of 289,180, and trust me, your pinball friends are torn between laughing and thinking with horror of what if it happened to them. Arabian Nights dates to when scores were just starting to get out of hand, so it could have a theme as uncommercial as legends that have enchanted people for centuries, but still. People who walk past it without stopping to play routinely score 600,000, and people who put coins into other machines at the pinball venue — including the change machine or the machine selling gumballs — will often get a million points from Arabian Nights.

I didn’t just flop; I flopped epochally, like if the “Agony of Defeat” guy didn’t just stumble, but also burst into flames and smashed into Evel Kneivel’s rocket-sled on its way to draining. I honestly feel accomplished, and all set for the state championships this weekend.

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Report on the Failure of the Turpid Moraine Moraine Project


It is difficult to identify the proximate and ultimate causes of the failed Turpid Moraine Moraine Project, as this complex and sinister web of factors can pretty much be blamed on the people getting this report, but the effort is worthwhile as it keeps the report-writer from having to unload the boxes of returned things or suffer physical retribution from the Moraine Moraine clients.

We must characterize communications as a primary failure cause and/or mode. For example, the client could directly ask the programmers to ask whether the demands on their servers would be lessened if the software development kits used a smaller typeface and maybe something in a Futura. Meanwhile the programmers were inadequately shy about writing back to ask whether the project had been approved for development as much as 34 months after the contract was signed.

A considerable volume of chat transcripts indicate that communications — internal, external, and whatever that grey area is in-between — were altogether too good and allowed everyone to know what kinds of people they were dealing with. In any modern organization traces of humanity must be suppressed, because humans are just terrible, and the more you hear from them the worse they are. Fortunately the failure of the Moraine Moraine Project bodes well for future work with them as there’s no one left on their staff or ours willing to speak to the other.

To underscore the excessiveness of our communication note that the client’s staffers who sent the typeface memo asserted they were merely being facetious, to bring all together in a sense of common cause against the general stupidity of the modern world. Our programmers responded that there is no reason to treat an ironical shopworn joke as superior to a sincerely shopworn joke. The ensuing debate on the signifiers and purposes of humor, and what did our programmers think that approved-for-development base-touching was exactly, enabled over seven persons in both organizations to earn their Masters of Literature. While we had no explicit responsibility many felt we ought to keep people safe from that sort of thing.

Despite too-good communications, the specifications for the project were still inadequately defined. Enclosed please find the final draft of the project requirements: the twelve Primary Objectives include (as item seven) an inventory of the broken vending machine, (item twelve) a ruling on whether to write “10” or “ten”, and (item nine) a call for international diplomacy by way of open covenants of peace, openly arrived at. Among the twenty Desirable Objectives are “fireproof kettles”, whatever those are, and a settlement on the way to spell “moustache”. The Marketing division was able to identify fourteen products which already meet all these specifications, none of which satisfied the clients, and two of which required the attention of three municipalities’ emergency medical technicians. Marketing asserts Moraine Moraine was being “fickle”.

The Training Department’s admirable refusal to communicate with Programming, Marketing, or the client, despite its de facto status as project coordinators, nevertheless failed us in some ways. Lacking other information, for example, both Marketing and Programming trusted that the West Silage physical plant was still owned by our company, or indeed any company. This was the direct cause of the humiliating site visit in which the attempt to the prototypes of our data-sampling and analysis tools resulted in being chased by binturongs wielding sticks. The Training Department wants it noted that the sticks were sharpened in line with the ISO-9000/OUCH procedure they developed for the Total Quality Management program which began in 1994, and that they will be ready for the 1998 Final Audit whenever we can provide them with six to eight years notice. They would.

While it is always dangerous to identify senior management as participants in the failure I must note that the boss’s decision to unnecessarily offend the foul witch Sycorax and thus get grown into some kind of hoop or something in a pine tree (her e-mails on this point were blissfully uncommunicative) until freed by a shipwrecked sailor, coming as the incident did in the middle of budgeting, left our staffing decisions badly affected for the following fiscal year.

Given the multifaceted nature of the Moraine Moraine failure it is difficult to recommend a single most important corrective action, so I recommend we just have everybody in charge of something read a bunch of Tom Peters books until they feel good about themselves again.