Everybody’s Special

Seeing as many birthday parties as I do (helping Kat at her job), it’s obvious things are different from When I Was A Kid. The new kid order is further highlighted by the end of the school year, which I’ll get to in a moment. First, parties.

Back when I was a kid, the only one who left a birthday party with anything other than cake in their belly was the birthday kid. I don’t know when it changed, but by the time Alex was attending birthday parties, the gift bag culture had developed. If you didn’t hand out candy and toys to the guests at a party, good luck getting your kid invited to anyone else’s. Are we teaching kids that even on a day when one kid is rightfully the center of attention, everyone is still Special?

When I was a kid, the only graduation ceremony you had (before college) was when you got a diploma after 12th grade. That is graduating. Any graduation that ends with, “See you in the fall” is not much of a graduation. I understand marking major events in a child’s life, but when Alex “graduated” from kindergarten, I don’t think he nor his classmates gave a damn about it. The whole thing was for the parents to prove their kid is Special. When he “graduated” from elementary school a year ago, I’m pretty sure the kids didn’t care much either. The boys seemed uncomfortable in their nice clothes, but otherwise they acted like it was just another day. Which it was!

I suppose in two years, he’ll “graduate” from middle school. It still won’t mean much to him, nor should it. Why have we started doing this? If your child doesn’t know how much you appreciate him on a regular basis, if your child doesn’t know how much you love him every day, do you really think a silly ceremony is going to make him feel Special? It seems like we’d be better off celebrating our kids’ individual (or team) achievements when they happen, rather than just wrapping up the year with one big ceremony. It seems to be an admission that we don’t have time to recognize actual accomplishments if we recognize “not being held back a grade” as worthy of a ceremony. When everyone is special, nobody is.

Aero Dead

According to Microsoft’s Windows 8 blog, Aero is dead in Win8. This is being touted by many of the geek press as a long-overdue reduction in skeuomorphism, and a move to a “purely digital” view of the computer environment, rather than viewing everything on the computer as a metaphor for a real-world object. Of course, the original Windows wasn’t very analog, but it did pepper physical objects around as icons (a floppy disk, painter’s pallet, etc.).

BeOS A number of commentators make it sound as though Microsoft is doing something radically new and different, with flat colors and sharp corners. They seem to have forgotten every other operating environment ever. For a quick look at some examples, here’s a post I wrote comparing BeOS and Mandrake Linux to Windows 98 (yes, that long ago). Notice the BeOS windows? They look nothing like a real-world object, and they use bright primary colors and minimal shading. Huh. Imagine that.

I’m not trying to say that moving away from shiny translucency is a bad thing. All that extra compositing the graphics engine has to do just wastes cycles, and who really needs fuzzy drop shadows anyway? I think Microsoft is trying to squeeze as much battery life out of portables as possible, and making the graphics card less stressed is a good way to do that. I can’t help but wonder when the Apple i-world is going to start reducing skeuomorphs. I understand the address book is particularly hideous.

Tivo vs. MythTV

It’s been over a month since my MythTV DVR committed suicide and I replaced it with a Tivo from my cable company. I think I’ve explored the features enough to be able to deliver a decent comparison of the two. Overall, I think I’d be very satisfied with a Tivo if I’d never used MythTV. Let me go into some more detail.

Continue reading Tivo vs. MythTV

We’ve Come a Long Way

Every so often, an event reminds me of the rapidly changing face of technology. I was reading a review of Gnome Shell this morning, and of course there’s the never-ending stream of iPad news this month…but the trigger for me this week was the purchase of a terabyte hard drive and being upset that it cost over $100. Coincidentally, it’s almost exactly 20 years since I got my first Windows PC. Let me take a look at how far I’ve come from that old CompUSA 486 to my current machine, which I call Ralf (the Wise and Powerful).

My desktop computer now has 2.5 terabytes of fixed disk storage and 1.5 terabytes of external storage. The 486 had 120 megabytes, so I’ve got twenty thousand times more storage space. The single-core 486 had a 33 megahertz clock, and Ralf has 3.0 gigahertz quad-core chip – 90 times the clock speed and at least five hundred times the computer power (bogomips of around 800 times greater).

While the 486 had 4 megabytes of RAM, Ralf has 12 gigabytes – three thousand times more memory. In 1992, I was glad to have a 14″ monitor, with the impressive resolution of 800×600 with 16-bit color; my 24″ LCD has 1920×1080 resolution and 32-bit color – five times the number of pixels and ten times the video bandwidth.

One of the most influential games of 1992 was Dune II – the first realtime strategy game to become a hit and the precursor to Warcraft. 2012 is barely begun, but it’s hard not to think of Mass Effect 3 as being a big deal on the PC.

Wow, have we come a long way in twenty years.
Also on my desk, I have a Chumby One. The Chumby has a 454 megahertz processor, 64 megabytes of RAM, 1 gigabyte of storage, and a 320×240 touchscreen. Except for the screen resolution, the Chumby beats the 486 by leaps and bounds – it cost me 45 bucks.

Playlist for Life

I was thinking about playlists (formerly known as mixtapes) the other day and decided to make one that involves songs which evoke a particular location or event. Since this set of criteria is so loose as to allow a playlist of thousands of songs, I set myself some rather arbitrary limits. It had to fit on a standard audio CD (74 minutes) and each song had to be specific to a particular location/time and only one song per location/time. So, although high school is four years long, it gets one song. I went to Korea three times for a total of four years, so that’s three songs (one per trip). I also decided that any trip of less than two months didn’t count. So, no song for BNCOC or CEWIOC or business trips. Here’s the 57 minutes I ended up with; commentary follows:

Doug E Fresh La Di Da Di
Living Colour Cult of Personality
Violent Femmes Blister in the Sun
Faith No More Epic
Ministry Everyday Is Halloween
Divinyls I Touch Myself
Ace of Base The Sign
Soundgarden Black Hole Sun
Los Del Rio Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)
Smash Mouth Walkin’ On The Sun
Kid Rock Bawitdaba
Transplants Diamonds and Guns
Evanescence Bring Me To Life
The Waterboys When Will We Be Married?

Continue reading Playlist for Life

The Well-Heeled Gamer

Bloomberg News recently posted their look at how much it costs a family of four to be gamers. They apparently believe a family of four to be composed of members of Michael Bloomberg’s family, because they came up with some whoppers for their hardware choices.

They believe that gamers pay $3000 for a gaming PC and $800 for the monitor, in addition to having an Xbox 360 with surround sound system attached to a 60″ television and paying $200 per month for internet service. WTF?

I can play every game out there for Windows, and I built my machine over a year ago for $800, plus (generously estimating) $250 for the monitor, keyboard, and mouse. Today, you can easily buy a gaming PC or laptop that will play Crysis 2 or Arkham City or Skyrim for under $1000, all in.

They don’t stop with just a few ridiculous assumptions, though. They also believe we gamers routinely pay $250 for headsets. We all own iPod Touches, $250 chairs with built-in speakers, and pay full MSRP for 70 games per year (30 Xbox, 30 Steam and 10 iPod).

All of this stupidity leads them to say it costs $17000 per year to be a gamer. They are smoking crack. I buy at least a dozen or so games per year, but I never pay full price. I maybe drop $200 on games for the year, not the $2000 that Bloomberg thinks I do. And how many gamers who don’t work for a magazine actually own a steering wheel or other exotic add-ons? Nuts.

Adventures in Customer Service H&D

I’ve been wary about ordering from Harry & David since their bankruptcy last year, but finally could stand the lack of Moose Munch no longer. The local Target used to carry a nice array of H&D products, but I presume the bankruptcy is to blame for the disappearance of my beloved popcornd and chocolate snack.

Using my mother’s birthday as an excuse to treat myself (hey, I was already ordering from them anyway!), I picked out four flavors of yummy goodness and awaited the mail delivery. Opening the package, I couldn’t help but wonder if my fingers were working without conscious thought on ordering day. Why would I have nothing but milk chocolate products? Why did I have two of the same one? This can’t be right… I hit the email archive to see what I’d actually ordered, and I wasn’t crazy – Harry & David screwed up my order. *sigh*

After alerting them, I got an email two days later (which is an eternity in internet time, but they are primarily a fruit delivery company so we must make allowances) which told me they were shipping me the correct set and to please keep the wrong order as well.

So, that worked. I’m still wary of post-bankruptcy H&D, but at least I got some extra confection out of the deal. Oh, and their S’Mores flavor is really good.

Stoopid Suddenlink

While playing Cityville and checking GearDiary for new geekery, suddenly the internet stopped. DNS requests are failing as unresolved for such smaller and little-known sites as Google. As of now, 20 minutes later, I cannot get to Google or Facebook or Youtube or GearDiary. Somehow, I can get to Woot and LOLCats and Livejournal.  Yet another example of high quality Suddenlink service.

SOPA

There are some people who are expressing incredulity that anyone believes the Internet Blackout scheduled for the 18th is a good idea. The argument goes something like this, “Not producing content on Wednesday is like not buying gasoline on Wednesday. You’ll just do the writing on Tuesday or Thursday, so what do you gain?” This fungibility theory of content is, I think, missing the point. While boycotting Texaco for one day is relatively pointless and unnoticed by the corporation you’re trying to hurt, that is not at all like blacking out Wikipedia for one day.

While gasoline boycotts are intended to send a message to the big oil companies (who don’t even notice the blip), the Internet Blackout is intended to raise awareness among the non-geek set. Those of us who read Gizmodo or Slashdot are very well versed in SOPA/PIPA and DMCA and all the other acronyms we hate to see pop up in a news story. But, think about your less-geeky friends who don’t know that DMCA is evil and don’t know what DRM is. They are like Jon Stewart, who only last week had someone in his audience ask him about SOPA and he had to profess complete ignorance. The normal folks in the world have not been following the SOPA debate and they aren’t mad about the United States attempting to erect the same sort of censorship plans as China (with the added benefit of giving corporations nearly unilateral police powers to shut down any site they don’t like).

How to get those non-geek people to add their voices to those of Vint Cerf and Eric Schmidt (who have already been ignored by Congressional committees because they don’t understand all that computer stuff)? You need to get their attention in a way that is hard to ignore. Since most people use Google regularly and Wikipedia frequently, slapping a giant black banner on those sites with, “Imagine if this site was down forever” will make at least some of them pay attention to what our elected representatives are proposing to do in our names. SOPA is bad legislation, it’s bad information security, it’s bad business. And, it won’t stop one damned pirate anyway.

Andysocial.com will be offline tomorrow. I know nobody will notice, since I have virtually no visitors, but it makes me feel better anyway.

Razer Concepts

Switchblade playing QuakeLast year, Razer introduced the Switchblade mini-PC concept at CES. The idea was that you’d have a netbook-sized device which was primarily aimed at gaming, costing under a grand. It had a keyboard backed with a backlit LCD, so the keys would change to reflect whatever game you were playing. Something always felt off to me about this concept – what about the mouse? Every demo was behind glass or on video. Nobody actually saw this thing being used by a real human. It had a touchscreen, but no trackpad (nor room for one). And yet they told everyone that it would be great for playing first-person shooters as a gaming PC on the go. If you’re on the go, do you really want to bring along a mouse that is half the size of the computer itself? Or, do you want to poke the little bitty screen to move, thereby obliterating your view of the game?

Razer BladeEventually, Razer announced an actual product with Switchblade DNA, the Razer Blade. This is a full-sized laptop, and it still has some might morphin’ key action (for ten special keys), but they added a trackpad where the number pad would go on a normal PC 104-key keyboard. This seems like a great location for a trackpad for right-handed people and a complete deal-breaker for lefties. Also, that trackpad has a screen under it to allow the “screenpad” to reflect game-specific details. Nifty. Of course, it also costs over two thousand dollars.

Fiona Render

This year, Razer is showing off the Project Fiona concept gaming device. Instead of a tiny laptop, it’s a largish tablet. Unlike any tablet you’ve ever seen, it includes gaming sticks bolted to the sides. Using an analog stick to replace the mouse is at least plausible, although I wonder how it would work in action. Fortunately, many FPS games include gaming controller support, so they should work well with this device. But, it’s still not going to work for those games which really need a mouse, like strategy games and war games. Just like the Switchblade before it, Razer claims to be aiming at prices below a grand for this Windows 8 tablet with a Core i7 CPU and otherwise secretive parts.

What do you think, does this make sense to you? And do you think anything close to this design will ever be available for anywhere close to this price?

Veterans Day 2011

Originally a memorial for the losses and celebration of the overall victory of World War I (somewhat erroneously called The War to End All Wars), amended later as, “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace,” Veterans Day is not the same somber commemoration as Memorial Day. Never ignoring the sacrifices of those who fell in battle, it is a somewhat melancholy celebration of our servicemembers.

I had a great discussion at work this week with one of the Air Force folks I work with, ranging from the importance of the civilian leadership of the military and the intelligent employment of our forces. We agreed that it’s a shame so few of our elected representatives are veterans, as having a background other than international finance might be helpful when dealing with the pointy end of the stick.

I continue to be impressed by the active duty folks that I deal with on a daily basis. This all-volunteer force has had a great deal asked of it in the ten years since I got out of the service, some things a great deal less productive than others. The geopolitical situation has changed greatly and rapidly, and our servicemembers have been forced to adapt just as rapidly.

TS91_Full Team.JPGEveryone who has worn the uniform knew they could be asked to do things and go places where survival may be unlikely. We need to respect that willingness to sacrifice to support the policies of the United States, and we need to hope we don’t ask them to do so unnecessarily. “Support the troops” is a lot more complex than just “war is good” – remember that and maybe the hope that today is dedicated to world peace won’t be in vain.

Kindle Fire Getting Netflix

Due to the relative paucity of information regarding precisely what applications will be available for the Kindle Fire, speculation was rampant. The biggest question for many people: would Netflix be allowed to compete with Amazon’s own video offerings? This morning, the answer arrived: yes.

Rest easy, pre-ordering early adopters; the Fire will not be a complete walled garden for you. Considering that B&N also has a curated app store for the Nook Tablet, this puts them on a relatively even footing in the app battle. That still leaves the subtle differences: Nook is somewhat more powerful and has significantly more storage, but costs more and isn’t named “Kindle.” Does Amazon also benefit from their giant PR blitz, which garnered them a million or so pre-orders before the Nook Tablet was announced? How many people will cancel a Fire pre-order to jump over to Nook? Seems unlikely to me.

Nookindle Fire Tablet

Barnes & Noble just finished their big reveal of the new Nook lineup. The press conference seemed like a lot of poking at Amazon, which is fun to see. The e-ink Nook Simple Touch is getting dropped to $99, which brings it inline with the Kindle Touch. There are a few differences, though – the Nook doesn’t support audiobooks or text-to-speech, but it also doesn’t come loaded with “special offers” at that price. The Kindle costs $40 more to nuke the ads.

Of course, the big story is the new Nook Tablet. Surprisingly, they aren’t putting the Nook Color out to pasture; it becomes their entry-level color device instead. The Nook Tablet gets twice the RAM and twice the storage of the Kindle Fire, as well as an expansion slot. Those are the most obvious differences in the hardware. The screen is supposed to be slightly better, and the CPU is 20% faster, but those differences are a bit harder to notice I’m betting.

The ecosystem is one of the deciding factors for these semi-mobile devices, and that’s going to be interesting to see work out over the coming months. Now that both retailers are going to have similar devices on the market simultaneously, the head-to-head competition will heat up more than it has in the past. When there was no color or touch Kindle, it was easy to dismiss the competition as being too dissimilar to really count.

Ecosystems…Amazon has their Prime program, which gets them an annual subscription fee and which gives the customer a variety of benefits. There are streaming videos from TV and movies, as well as free two-day shipping of many tangible products from the Amazon behemoth. Most recently, they added a free book “loan” per month (based on the explanation at Good E-Reader, it sounds more like they’ve paid for the books and are giving them away to entice more brand loyalty). Amazon also has their own Android app store, as well as the books they’re known for and their Audible book subsidiary.

Meanwhile, back at Barnes & Noble, they are touting the relative openness of the Nook Tablet in contrast to the curated experience at Amazon. You’ll be able to stream Netflix videos and Pandora music, as well as many other Android apps from the Nook app store. The Nook Color has become well known for being easily rootable; there’s no reason to predict the Tablet will be harder to root as B&N doesn’t try to lock people in as much as Amazon does.

So, the Fire gets you one location with all your media paid for annually and bit-by-bit. Nook gets you several services with their own payment systems and subscriptions, but with more storage and speed for $50 more money upfront. Which model becomes the big winner will be hard to predict, but it sure makes this holiday shopping season more entertaining to watch.

Three Years

Yesterday marked three years since Kat and I got married. It’s been a pretty damned good three years, and shows no evidence of that changing. For ineffable reasons, the lovely lady decided to celebrate our anniversary by going camping. This surprised me, as I’m pretty sure I’ve spoken before about the relative ambivalence toward anything which resembled going back to a tactical Army mode.

Fortunately, she was smart enough to rent a cabin with air conditioning and a refrigerator and bed. Calling this “camping” may be a bit of a misnomer, but it was a great evening. Kat got to sit around a campfire for the first time in her life, as well as make her first s’more. We saw a porcupine shuffling across a field, were serenaded by mockingbirds, and went on a 2.5 mile hike. I also discovered that match-light charcoal is a much better fire base than crumpled paper and small twigs leading to larger twigs blah blah blah. Sure, it’s cheating – so are matches to some purists.  🙂

We exchanged gifts, which comprised a rather large number of books for me. Yay for books! And now I’m spending the day chilling at home, ready for Year Four. I love you, Kat!

Shredding

Dear former coworker,

I see you printed a lot of material for your online-only classes from University of Phoenix. Was it really necessary to do that at work and leave it in the shred bag? Also, have you ever tried to shred crumpled paper? Did you even attempt once in your two years of working here to shred anything yourself or just leave it all for me?

Fuck you very much.

Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

It seems the internet has decreed that all geeks must post some essay or braindropping to commemorate the passing of Steve Jobs. I would be remiss in my geek role if I were to avoid this responsibility, so here goes: a memorial for Steve Jobs from someone who has never owned an Apple product.

I know, my various geek and media brethren, the very idea of not owning an iPod or iPad or iPhone or iWhatever is impossible for some to comprehend. But I come here not to praise Jobs but to bury him. Or something like that, anyway. Regardless of my complete lack of Apple ownership, there is still a great deal of Jobsian influence in my life.

Continue reading Obligatory Steve Jobs Memorial Post

Kindle Pimpin’

Amazon just made life difficult for several competitors, but not Apple. Sorry, anyone looking for the iPad Killer, a 7″ tablet just isn’t the same category.

But, Barnes & Noble – you’ve been served notice now, beyotches. The cheapest Kindle is on sale right now, today, for $79. Cheapest Nook? $139. Oh, that’s gotta hurt. Coming in a month, the Kindle Fire competes directly with the Nook Color. Fire costs $200, or $50 less than the less-powerful Nook Color. There’s another stinging sensation right there.

Meanwhile, the ereader vendors who come out with alternatives, such as the ECTaco, Pandigital, and even venerable Sony brands are going to have a hard time finding buyers when they compete against a $79 Kindle backed by the Amazon bookstore, or the $99 Kindle Touch edition. Heck, the new top of the line e-ink Kindle is only $189 with 3G and wifi (save forty bucks if you don’t mind ads when the screen is “off”). None of the new models from the Amazon competitors include 3G free, and the “but I like to borrow from the library” folks got that problem answered last week when Overdrive’s Kindle support finally went live.

It’s really hard to believe that in November of 2007, $400 bought one of these ugly things, with 250MB of memory:

And in 2011, you can get this for only $79, with 2GB of memory:

I can’t imagine what magic Sony and B&N will have to pull out of their hats to have a chance of competing with Bezos’ latest babies.

Oh, and if you really want a Kindle with a keyboard, the Kindle 3 with Special Offers just got dropped 15 bucks to $99.

Zoomie Acronyms

The Air Force loves acronyms. They love them so much, it doesn’t matter if they make things more confusing, or not even any shorter than an equivalent English word – they’ll use an acronym wherever possible.

I finally found out what “SMU” means in zoomie speak: Small Marching Unit. This was quite a surprise to me, as every email I get on-base that uses the acronym uses it as a verb. Here’s one from this week:

Please have all “A” shift ITP/ATP Airmen SMU to the parade field…

So, to expand the acronym (and no, I don’t know what ITP and ATP mean either):

Please have all “A” shift ITP/ATP Airmen Small Marching Unit to the parade field…

Notice that there is no verb after Airmen now, and yet they are to DO something to the parade field. This would normally require an “action word” as we were taught back in elementary school. This requirement oviously does not apply to Air Farce English.

The mystery of “SMU” has now been solved, and it is stupid. Not as stupid as when they use “ATT” instead of “now” but still pretty stupid.

Windows 8 – The Onslaught Begins

To read the tech press the past couple weeks, you’d think Microsoft had created some sort of magical portal to a realm of unicorns and rainbows and cakes with zero calories, rather than a dual-mode operating system.

Even when reviewers and developers talk about traditional desktop/laptop computing in regards to Windows 8, they somehow miss some of the more glaring questions that power users may have. For instance, why in the world would I want a full-screen Facebook application on a 24″ monitor? How does the ludicrous number of icons installed in a typical Windows machine’s start menu align with the new “start page” model? They say there are groups of panels, which would be somewhat analogous to the folders of icons in the hierarchical menu, I presume. But, there are several dozen icons in about 15 folders on my work computer, which has not much installed on it.  On my home computer, I have literally hundreds of icons in the start menu. I have at least 20 games; if each one takes a bloody giant panel on the start page, it will take ages to scroll through.

This bizarre start page debacle is partially ameliorated, to be sure, by the ability to search easily within those icons. This is an ability carried over from Windows Vista and Windows 7, and is certainly something I use quite regularly, when I know the name of the program I want to launch. But, when I am looking for something, it’s a great deal more convenient to have 30-pixel high rows of icons to scroll through instead of 300-pixel blocks. I realize that the strangely non-flyout default start menu in Windows 7 only shows about 20 programs at a time, and the Windows 8 start page also can show approximately 20 programs at a time. But, the overall effect of the hierarchical model in the start menu means that I don’t scroll through EVERY icon to get to one at the bottom of the list. I scroll through twenty folders, and then open one folder and then maybe scroll through twenty icons to find the one I want – this is TWO scrolls. From what I can tell of the Windows 8 Metro model, I could be swiping left-to-right dozens more times to get to one particular program, if I didn’t remember its name. This is better?

And don’t even get me started on the Metro business model, where every single program available for the new interface must be sold only through Microsoft’s store. I know Microsoft envies Apple’s deathgrip on its market, but one reason why Apple only has 10% of the desktop and laptop business might be due to that deathgrip. Paying Microsoft 30% of the retail cost of a program might not be a business model that some developers can swallow. How do freeware programs and shareware programs fit into this model? Is there any room in Microsoft’s brave new world for anyone who can’t pay to play?

Another fun fact – Metro applications are not supposed to run in the background. If they get minimized, they go dormant. So much for powerful multitasking 8-core processors – we only need the one core, thanks.