Commentary – Oddball Update Chief Oddball writes about tech, games, cars and family life Fri, 24 May 2013 07:33:31 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Xbox None Fri, 24 May 2013 07:33:31 +0000 Ooooh guess what guess what? This week Microsoft unveiled the Xbox One, hardware successor to the Xbox 360 game console. It’s been a long seven and a half years since the 360 landed in stores, and it’s probably been the game console that I’ve gotten the most enjoyment out of (my SNES comes in at a close second). Over the years I’ve posted plenty of Xbox game reviews and discussions here on this site, a site which itself once slowly chronicled my transformation from elite PC gaming master race champion to die-hard Xbox fan. So you can well imagine that I gobbled up all the information I could get about the new Xbox’s announcement.

And I, um…

Hi, PC game master race? It’s me. Yeah, look, um…I know I kinda walked out of your place about a decade ago and left the door ajar and stuff. I hope you’re not mad. Can I come back in? Maybe sit down and relive the good old times? We’ll start with Doom, maybe some System Shock 2 and hey, I hear Black Mesa is great if you have a soft spot for Half-Life. And who doesn’t, right? Riiiiiight. Hey, what’s Steam got on sale today?

Sorry. I didn’t mean to get all conversational. But right now, as I sit here digesting everything we’ve collectively learned about the Xbox One this week, as well as the hints of detail that Microsoft wasn’t yet ready to spill in full, I admittedly find myself fairly underwhelmed. Actually, that’s the wrong word. The Xbox One has a lot going for it, packing an impressive array of hardware and taking a lot of risks to offer a unified experience for all purchasers right out of the gate (i.e., no more SKUs without hard drives or even SKUs without Kinect — every unit has everything). The better word, I think, is “forgotten”.

“Forgotten”, as in that’s what I feel like as a gamer who primarily (no, exclusively) uses his 360s to play games. You know, games. Those things which barely warranted more than a few minutes’ mention at Microsoft’s Xbox One press event. Most of the talk revolved around the new console’s TV integration features, multi-year deals with the NFL to bring you fantasy football whatever-the-hell, voice command stuff that lets you turn on your Xbox by yelling at it instead of just pushing a damn button, and on and on. Seriously, I don’t give a crap about this stuff. Which is too bad for me, because Microsoft has made this multimedia synergy a fundamental part of the Xbox One, right down to the actual name of the product. Xbox One, as in “One Box to Rule Them All”.

Except it can’t, not without a cable box from your Authorized Cable TV Provider™. Where’s the CableCARD slot? MIA, just like the CableCARD standard itself essentially is. That’s because your Authorized Cable TV Provider™ has spent a lot of time and money marginalizing CableCARD, mostly due to the fact that they didn’t like the idea of you owning your own set-top box and just renting a cheap card from them to stick into it. In order to wow you with its New TV Experience™, the Xbox One needs you to pipe video from your cable box into it before it can do anything. Such a requirement is very reminiscent of my old TiVo Series 2 — a box that I purchased a year before the Xbox 360 even existed. The future is here…I guess!

Naturally, an egregious amount of time was spent at the Xbox One presser discussing all of the TV-centric apps, live TV (with picture-in-picture) integration, social trend integration and so forth. Too bad that effectively all of it is dependent upon having cable service. Which I don’t. And which I probably never will again, having rid my household of it three years ago. So right there is a large chunk of the Xbox One event, and the Xbox One itself, which I can tune out.

So how about the games? Naturally, that’s what’s on the mind of most people who are interested in video game consoles, unless I miss my guess. Well, Microsoft didn’t have a whole lot to say about such trivialities, but wow, can you believe there is a Halo TV series coming from STEVEN SPIELBERG? Holy crap, where is my Game Fuel? Crank it up and charge! Any mention of more Halo games was absent, but that’s fine because we know they’re coming. …Right?

Moving on. How about all those conspiracy-theory rumors that have been swirling around the new Xbox during the past couple months? There was the one about the Microsoft executive who was fired after a bizarre Twitter rant in which he lambasted gamers who disliked the thought of a console that required an always-on Internet connection. Microsoft damage control promptly revealed that this exchange had been part of some kind of inside joke and that we had nothing to fear. Perhaps the bigger rumor, though, was the one about the new Xbox preventing used games from working, shutting out the preowned market entirely. But Sony had already revealed that they weren’t going to shut out used games during their PlayStation 4 announcement, so Microsoft couldn’t possibly be dumb enough to shoot themselves in the foot like that, could they?

To be honest, we still don’t know the final answer to many these questions. But we do know that the Xbox One will require an Internet connection — though “it doesn’t always have to be connected” — and that Kinect 2.0 is also required in the sense that it is always on, always watching, and perhaps even listening to the ambient noise in the room even while the console itself is switched off. (This is so it can hear you say “Xbox, ARISE!” or whatever the keyphrase is for turning the console on by voice command.) I’m not a conspiracy theorist by any means, but I am made to feel somewhat uncomfortable by the idea that there is an Internet-connected video camera and microphone in my house, active at all hours with no way to shut it down, with the potential to monitor myself or my family without my consent — particularly if an unauthorized party discovers a way to gain control of it. I mean, maybe I’m having an Old Man Moment here, but Kinect 2.0 is probably the sort of device that I’d physically decouple from “the grid” when I’m done playing games on the console.

We also know that Microsoft appears to be preparing to upset the economy of used games as it exists today. Although they refuse to state anything for certain, it seems fairly clear that all games you play on the Xbox One will need to be installed to the console’s hard drive — without exception. Somehow, it’s believed that each physical copy of a game will be uniquely identified so that it can be “activated” against your gamer profile. That unique copy of the game can then no longer be played on another Xbox, presumably unless you are signed into your gamer profile. If a different gamer profile wants to play that game, they will have to pay a “fee” to unlock the game and install it to their own console — and there are rumors going around that the “fee” might not be far away from the game’s $60 retail price. So my friend at work who once went on a nostalgia trip and borrowed my copy of The Orange Box for his Xbox 360 so he could play Half Life 2 again would now be stuck paying a fee — potentially a substantial one — to get his fix.

Oh, and about that 500 GB hard drive that you have to install your games to? It’s not user serviceable, which is a fancy way of saying non-removable and non-replaceable. When your games come on 25 GB Blu-ray discs, I wonder exactly how many games you’re going to be able to fit on your Xbox One’s hard drive? Fortunately, to mitigate that, the Xbox One will allow you to attach any external USB 3.0 hard drive to expand your storage. This is a pleasant surprise, especially after all the grossly overpriced and pseudo-proprietary hard drives Microsoft has forced 360 owners to buy over the last eight years.

I might also mention that you won’t be able to play any of the games you’ve purchased or downloaded for your Xbox 360 on the new Xbox One, as there is no backwards compatibility layer being provided. Given the switch from PowerPC architecture to x86, this is hardly a surprise, but I don’t think it quite hit home for most gamers until the news broke that even your Xbox Live Arcade titles (i.e., Shadow Complex, Trials Evolution or Poker Night at the Inventory 2) won’t work. Literally the only thing that you can transfer from your Xbox 360 is your Gamerscore and list of achievements, both of which are useful only for nostalgic reasons.

Now, I don’t want to seem too much like a Negative Nancy. There are fair number of nifty features in the new Xbox One. If you like what the current Kinect sensor can do, you’ll probably be pretty impressed by all the improvements in Kinect 2.0, what with its higher capture resolution and wider field of view. The fact that the Xbox One acts like a “game DVR”, keeping a running capture of your gameplay sessions, is a dream come true for bloggers like me who would like to be able to capture clips and screenshots for reviews or even for casual tweets. I’m particularly impressed with the way Microsoft is leveraging their Azure cloud computing architecture to enable a total cloud-based gamestate saving system, so that you can save the state of your game anywhere, anytime and pick it up again on any Xbox One console. It’s like the Xbox 360’s current “Cloud Save” system that I love so much, but much more robust. Of course, to really reap the benefit of this, you need to have more than one Xbox One, and the hardware isn’t gonna be cheap enough for that to become reality in my household for some years yet!

But here is where I come back around to that “PC game master race” snark I went tangenting off on earlier. The more I look at the big picture here, the more I start to wonder if perhaps this isn’t the best imaginable time to re-embrace PC gaming. With no backwards compatibility and nothing transferring over from my Xbox 360 library, I’m forced into a clean break. I can look at standardizing on the PlayStation 4 for my next-gen experience, or perhaps more to the point, standardizing on a PC. If any console manufacturer wants to know how a video game economy should look, they need look no further than Steam. It’s the perfect mix of publisher control (it acts as a form of DRM, after all, but not an invasive one) and consumer benefit (in the form of massive price competition and a giant library of titles all available in one place). Even if Microsoft wants to reach into your wallet whenever you want to play a used game, this could be made more bearable if new games regularly went on sale for $20 or $30 off the retail price — and you could purchase, download and enjoy them immediately when they do.

But we’ve no evidence of that, so as I sit here today, typing on this computer which is almost as old as the Xbox 360 itself, I start to wonder if this isn’t the perfect opportunity to put together a new PC instead. Having recently dabbled with connecting my computer to my plasma TV, and having really enjoyed playing Portal 2 with an Xbox controller via Steam’s Big Picture mode, I can say with a fair degree of certainty that if the next generation of consoles gave me a choice between an Xbox One, a PlayStation 4 or a SteamBox, I’d take the SteamBox all day long. (Speaking of which, where is that thing already?)

The only problem with PC gaming is one of logistics. I need my PC to do other stuff, like compile code, edit audio and Do Photoshop™, which means it needs to sit in my office under my desk. Which means it can’t also be sitting under my plasma TV upstairs, waiting for me to enjoy my insanely-cheap and ridiculously good-looking Steam purchases in my cozy game room. This is a Colossal Problem®. My half-assed plan for solving it is to repurpose my current computer as a dedicated SteamBox of my own, leave the high-po graphics card in it, and then use my new build for work tasks while it makes do with a lesser GPU. It feels wrong on some level, but it’s better than what I have now.

Regardless, I do not think I will be pre-ordering a ridiculously expensive “forced bundle” of the Xbox One like I did with the 360 back in 2005. Like the more rational adult I’ve begrudgingly grown into, I’ll wait until the holiday launch hysteria is over and then consider whether the new Xbox or PS4 is something I want. In the end, I admit, I’ll probably want to get my hands on at least one of them.

In the meantime, though, I increasingly feel like it might be time to dig up the tube of thermal compound and go shopping at Micro Center for a new generation of hardware, built by my own hands — and available today.

Insurance Fragsters Wed, 10 Oct 2012 04:55:55 +0000 Over the summer, the company I work for began offering group health coverage for the first time in 18 months. Unfortunately, it was nowhere near as affordable as the coverage they offered previously, which was based out of Kansas. The new Texas-based coverage was literally three times more expensive, to the point where I couldn’t even afford to insure my family. I opted out and signed up for an individual HSA plan instead.

While everyone else at the company (all of whom either had fewer people to insure or more money than I) went through the signup process for their new plan, they all soured pretty quickly once they realized just how much more they were paying for how much less coverage than what they’d had before. One of my colleagues was asking our boss about how the premiums worked, and how often the insurance company could jack them up. Although our boss was trying to find the silver lining, my coworker kept bringing up a bunch of valid scenarios in which the rates could skyrocket.

Finally, after he brought up another hypothetical rate-increase situation and asked the boss “What do we do then?”, the boss replied in exasperation, “I don’t know; I guess we’ll just have to fuck it and pay!”

We laughed over it later, because given all of the trapdoors that our health insurance company had seemingly planted beneath our feet, “Fuck It & Pay” seemed like an appropriate slogan for them. That was when I faked up the image below to help lighten the mood.

Blue Cross & Blue Shield: Fuck It & Pay.

It’s not like I can really claim some superior position in all of this, because our family’s HSA account is with the same insurer. It’s just an individual plan vs. a group plan. I’m not blind to the fact that the group plan offers somewhat better coverage and slightly better shielding from potential arbitrary rate increases, but the fact that the premiums commanded by the group plan would have made it impossible for me to actually use the coverage (it still carried a $5,000 deductible on top of it!) reduced the idea to literal absurdity. Our individual HSA was and is the only realistic option.

While we’re speaking of absurd, get a load of the letter our health insurance company sent to us today. Since we were accepted into their ranks as policyholders a few months ago, my wife decided to go in for a routine physical which she hadn’t done in probably six years or so (at least, not in the United States; we tend to save that kind of stuff for our trips to Thailand, given how affordable it is there). After her physician found a couple of lab results that were slightly off normal — mostly vitamin deficiencies and such, nothing to get excited about — our insurance company dropped us a line asking us if we would please make a list and re-send to them the names and contact info of every physician my wife had ever visited in the last five years.

Never mind that we just did all of that (going back ten years, no less) when we applied for coverage, since that was obviously a condition of coverage being extended to us in the first place. My wife and I don’t go to the doctor much, and when we do it’s mostly either Chinese acupuncturists / herbalists or overseas physicians, meaning that there’s usually no records to show and even if there were, they’d be overseas and nobody would be able to retrieve them. So there really isn’t much of an audit trail for any of us.

Nonetheless, a little sleuthing allowed us to see what the insurance company was probably up to. Because my wife went back to her doctor for a follow-up consultation after those lab results came in, the insurer saw that and decided “Hey, this patient didn’t show us any history of vitamin deficiency when she applied for underwriting. This would be a great opportunity for us to go back through her files and see if we can prove she had a problem with this before, so we can deny all coverage for anything even tangentially related!” Then, when they didn’t find anything, they sent out a “Show Me Your Papers” gestapo-gram asking if we’d re-send all medical history going back five years, just so they can make really really make double extra-sure that there’s no way they can somehow wriggle out of their end of the deal.

As if the spirit of this “gesture” wasn’t rude enough, there’s that whole underlying current of extreme overcaution bordering on paranoia that infuses itself into every interaction you have with an insurance company. This infusion, naturally, is a result of the confiscatory and punitive nature of healthcare in the U.S., where you’re just as likely to be fucked as you are to be healed, and it’s incumbent upon you alone to avoid the former while receiving the latter, even while you’re half-conscious and bleeding to death. So on today’s letter asking for medical history, I noticed that there was a box you could check to indicate that you’d already told them everything you could possibly tell them; i.e., during underwriting.

Immediately I’m thinking: “What if that checkbox is really the key to this whole letter? What if, by not checking it and submitting additional history, you’re admitting that you omitted history from your application? And could they not use that as grounds to terminate the policy for fraud or whatever?”

Hey, come on. Don’t tell me that the thought wouldn’t cross your mind, too.

I found myself asking this question because there were a couple of “physicians” we didn’t put on my wife’s application, because they either weren’t actual physicians (i.e., Chinese herbologists) or weren’t providing a service related to anything our policy would cover (i.e., maternity). Now the paranoia sets in afresh, because maybe the insurance company wants those names too? Even though there are no records to collect even if they went to some of these doctors’ offices and asked for them? (I’d love for them to call up my former acupuncturist in Naples, an old guy who kept records in his head and would only write them down if you asked for them — then promptly give you the only printed copy.)

For a few minutes after reading the insurance company’s “summons” I got pretty incensed, as I am wont to do. I verbally rattled off a whole bunch of things I could say if I got them on the phone. Threatened to really turn the tables and demand something of them in return, such as an explanation for why, after submitting 10 years worth of bullshit to underwriting for the sole purpose of giving them ammunition that they could use to not cover something, they were making us do it again just a few months later. At one point, I even decided that I was going to tell them that they already have our identities, our social security numbers and all the political power and money that they need to find whatever information they need, and so my recommendation was that they go find it because I sure wasn’t going to make their lives easier by handing it to them on a lace doily.

In the end, we decided to add one additional physician to their much-vaunted form — a man who my wife saw briefly in Florida for a completely unrelated consultation regarding something our policy doesn’t even cover, and which certainly had nothing to do with vitamin deficiencies — and send it back sans remark. No research, no hair-pulling, no phone calls with layers of questions. I’m not going to ask what’s really going on because, in the end, I’ve decided that I don’t give a shit. Knowing the full details behind the insurer’s machinations doesn’t give me more options, doesn’t change how I react and doesn’t alter a damn thing.

My wife’s already decided that she’s probably not going to visit the doctor anymore, since apparently a full state security investigation is opened by the insurance company anytime you do. I can’t say I blame her. The same companies who pay overstaffed, undertalented marketing departments thousands to deploy touchy-feely campaigns encouraging you to get regular and routine preventive care so you stay healthy are also ready to anally probe you the instant you do, and I’m convinced they’ve got actual klaxons that sound in their offices if even the slightest abnormality is discovered. It’s a giant lie, a waste of time and little more than a toilet you flush money down, at least until you get an arm shot off by a cannonball and find suddenly that you need a $200,000 surgery to glue it back on. If not for that, I wouldn’t even pay these scum at all.

With elections right around the corner, and health care one of the hot topics of the day, I suppose you could make a case that a situation like this might have a sizable impact on one’s politics. In the end, though, I feel that insurance companies — like many large corporations in the U.S. today — would have no trouble finding an excuse within the policies of either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama to charge us all more, offer less, and step up their scrutiny at every turn. Because when you have a business model (insurance) that’s literally built on taking in maximum dollar and returning the fewest services possible, and then compound that by making them publicly-traded companies beholden to stockholders who want a return on investment above all else, what do you really expect?

But we’ll all go on paying them, because really, what are you gonna do? Not get insurance?

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But Who Will Represent You? Sat, 14 Jul 2012 16:14:25 +0000 If there’s one word that I’d pick to describe the mood of the United States citizenry today, it’s “polarized”. Increasingly, it seems like we’re split nearly right down the middle on most of the big issues, with equally loud voices on both sides trying to drown out their opponents. Compromise has become known as a bad word, with many believing that it leads only to wishy-washy policies that are useless to both sides, and that the only way out of our problems is to ruthlessly stifle the efforts of anyone who doesn’t agree with our ideologies. It’s kind of a depressing state of affairs, really.

Yesterday, however, after a perfect storm of news stories came together to put a new perspective on my thinking, I began to wonder if it’s all just a giant distraction for the vast majority of Americans…a distraction from what really ails us. We talk about “both sides” of the political equation — Democrats and Republicans, liberals and conservatives — but are the people who wear those badges in our elected offices really representing what the common-man liberal or common-man conservative seeks? In my opinion, no. At least not where it counts.

What are they representing, you ask? Themselves, and their largest donors. That’s who. Not you.

The more I look at both sides of the political argument, the more I realize that there are compelling principles held dear by each…as well as some incredibly stupid ones that threaten to poison the whole barrel of wine. I can get on board with the consumer protections, firewalls against unchecked greed and thievery and progressive social policies of the left. I also can get on board with the fiscal conservatism, arguments for individual liberties and personal responsibility of the right. The problem is that, at the end of the day, both sides want to control you. The only difference is the agent of that control. The left wants the government to act as the agent, while the right wants it to be large corporations, banks and other collectives that they consider to have “individual rights”. I increasingly feel like a rat trapped between two walls that are closing in on him, spending his last days rushing back and forth between the two approaching barriers in an attempt to escape the evils of first one and then the other.

Liberals seem to believe that we are incapable of keeping ourselves safe, incapable of paying our own way, incapable of making the right decisions for ourselves or for society. So they’ll make them for us, by virtue of product bans, laws penalizing little more than behavior choices, and by forcing companies and individuals in the private sector to act in a way that they think is correct. The city of San Francisco is perhaps the premier example of this with their regulation of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys and banning of plastic grocery bags, and then there are the 32 oz. soft drink bans and salt content regulation that New York City imposed on its restaurants. And that’s without even mentioning the insane amounts of paperwork, process and busywork needed when interfacing with the government for anything, be it a visa to enter the country or an application for a mortgage loan. My mom even reported that, as part of their application for a mortgage this month, the government required that she provide them a copy of a rebate check from a car dealer to prove the source of a $10 deposit to her account. This is government control run absolutely amok.

The present government administration, which belongs firmly in the liberal camp, has already run up a nationally unprecedented debt by doing the equivalent of buying plasma TVs, adding home renovations and leasing two new cars after the family breadwinner has just lost his or her job. There seems to be no end to their unchecked thirst for new taxes, new fees, new regulations that make it harder for individuals and corporations to get ahead, and which make it more expensive to simply live and let live. The way our governments today, at nearly all levels, want to observe and control every aspect of everything we do should be frightening the hell out of each and every person in this country — at least, those who aren’t too stupid to notice.

On the flipside, conservatives want the government’s hands out of our companies’ pockets. With less regulation, they argue, the free market will be as free as its name stipulates: free to check and balance itself, exactly as it was designed to operate. Except that’s mostly a fallacy anymore, since just a small handful of extremely powerful corporations tend to set the tone, if not outright control, the forces in an entire market segment. When was the last time a major airline raised ticket prices and all the rest of them didn’t immediately follow suit? With merger after merger being approved by the FTC, how much choice do you really have in certain sectors of this “free” market? And when conservatives want government to get out of business, they also want to ensure that businesses aren’t bothered by any pesky laws that might protect the health and sanity of the employees who power them, like vacation days, sick pay, benefits or minimum wages. No; they’d like corporations to be able to reap maximum profits by using you as a disposable tool that they buy for a pittance in the third world, run extremely hard, and then throw away when it breaks years before its prime. And that’s without even mentioning how they screw their customers.

Speaking of which, get a load of the latest news about the recent Visa/Mastercard settlement. The takeaway for consumers is that merchants will now be allowed to pass along to you any transaction fees that they pay when you make your purchase with a credit card. Oh, excellent! What a step forward! Of course, you’ll notice pundits twisting the story to spin it in a positive direction, claiming that what this really means is that you might start getting a discount for paying with cash instead of plastic. No you won’t. The cash price will be the price you’ve always paid. The credit card price will now be 1% to 3% higher, just because the merchant you’re dealing with thinks that all of its costs of doing business should be borne by you. (I won’t be surprised if the next below-the-line fee on your checkout slip is a surcharge to cover “your part” of the store’s water and electricity bills.) And before the conservative wonks chime in with their predictable “Then vote with your wallet and shop somewhere else!”, why don’t you ask how that’s working out for my parents in the Detroit area — an area where gas stations never stopped charging extra for credit card transactions after the 2008 oil price runup. It is impossible to find a station that doesn’t follow that practice, because as one retailer goes, so go the rest. This is the free market at work? Seems to me like there’s a select few for whom it’s really working.

At the end of the day, I have a feeling that I’m like a large percentage of Americans: I work very hard for long hours, I fight for my share of an increasingly expensive and ever-shrinking pool of benefits, and I shake my head as the political war is seemingly waged by two equally nefarious and self-aggrandizing forces, neither of which represent the individual in any real way whatsoever. Which is probably why, despite the historic significance of this fall’s upcoming election, I will probably do like I did in ’08 and vote for the Libertarian candidate. Even though I know it won’t make a difference. Even though I’ll just be throwing my vote away. Even though Libertarianism, despite how it resonates with me, can’t possibly work because too large a percentage of humanity is too idiotic, too unethical and too irresponsible for a system that relies on individual responsibility. In spite of all this, I cannot and will not cast a vote of support for anything even partially resembling the narcissistic, power-mad dreck that seeps like pus from the festering growths that are the two major parties of our political system.

I would ask each and every one of you to think very hard about what is really going on behind the scenes at your favorite political party, and ask yourself if a vote for them will bring a material improvement to the future of the United States of America, or only a financial improvement to the elite few who run it. A movement to change the political status quo must begin in our smallest communities, during primaries and hometown elections where citizens must choose to elect men and women with morals and ethics, not merely a servile allegiance to one party or another. The onus is on us, to vote not for the candidate who will give us the most freebies or most richly line our pockets at the expense of the foundation upon which our country is built, but for the candidate who will work to build and protect a prosperous and solvent future for this entire nation and all of its people.

If you fail to do that, just keep in mind that when the house burns down, it will be long past time to fight over what color to paint its rooms.

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An Alternative Source for Musical Nostalgia Thu, 10 May 2012 16:47:38 +0000 I freely admit to being a huge nostalgia head, which only seems to be getting worse the older I get. (I can only imagine the calibur of “In my day…” curmudgeonry that I’m going to engage in when I’m 60.) I spent much of my childhood not really listening to music at all, believe it or not, but as my tastes started to evolve, I mostly became interested in songs from my early years or from before my time entirely.

So, naturally, there’s plenty of inventory for me to like at the iOldies Music Store, which recently contacted me to ask if I’d take a look at their site. They bill themselves as offering “Boomer Music”. Which is funny, because that would be my parents’ generation, not mine. Still, ever since I was a teenager I’ve been far more likely to spin records by Genesis, The Beatles or Billy Joel — almost all of it pre-1990 — than anything my peers cared about. In 1987 I didn’t care about Def Leppard, in 1993 I didn’t care about Beck, and now I don’t care about pretty much any modern music. Whether it’s metal, prog rock, pop or whatever, give me the old stuff.

iTunes may appear to have an iron grip on the music market, but there are alternatives — and my recent rants about putting all your eggs in one basket (by getting all your online services from the same provider) should make it clear that I like alternatives. The iOldies Music Store is laid out like a juke box and is obviously going for lovers of ’50s and ’60s music with its visual style, which frankly is kinda hard on the eyes, but once you start searching it looks like they have a pretty large catalog, including eclectic material and albums from foreign bands. Interestingly, not all of it is old, either — although some of these recently-dated albums might be compilation discs of older material from bands I’m unfamiliar with.

What’s interesting about iOldies Music Store is that they try to amalgamize a variety of music formats in a single store. So you can get songs as downloadable MP3s, or order CDs, et al. Some of these options may not be available for certain songs; I think we’re all familiar with the minefield that is digital music licensing these days, so this should not be surprising. They have a “Retro DVD” section too, which includes stuff like Soupy Sales and a motley crew of other oddities.

I haven’t actually purchased anything from the iOldies Music Store, but it doesn’t look like their digital tracks are DRM’ed in any way, which is a minimum requirement for me when buying music downloads. I do have some gripes, though, in that the site is a little difficult to navigate as it does not seem to use pages in a traditional way, and the UI is often slow to respond. The iOldies store appears to be in beta for the moment, though, so some of this stuff could be a work in progress. If they can iron out the issues, they might have a future as an alternative to the big music store players.

Social Media is Not an Equalizer Thu, 09 Feb 2012 15:53:10 +0000 This morning, a colleage sent me a link to an article on Slashdot about some comments made by former Google executive Stafford Masie, who believes that “traditional [web] search is dying” because users are becoming more inclined to ask their social networks for information instead of searching static web pages. Go read the article if you’d like to delve more into Mr. Masie’s reasoning.

I see this same proclamation more and more often these days. Some people (almost all of them connected with Google in some way, it seems) are constantly falling all over themselves trying to assure us that one day soon all of our answers will come from the great social cloud: Facebook, Twitter, Google+, you name it. When we want answers, we’re going to start increasingly asking our friends instead of asking web pages in Google’s search indexes. I even saw one unconscionably arrogant individual pen an article asserting that we’re all going to be using Google+ “whether we want to or not.”

Frankly, this is just as much bullshit now as it was yesterday, last month, or last year when I penned my previous rant about this assertion. And it’ll still be bullshit tomorrow for all but a select minority of the Internet population. How many of you have a social network of thousands of people, all of them skilled individuals loaded with detailed knowledge about dozens of arcane fields? Twenty years ago, would you have thrown away your set of encyclopedias and asked only your friends at the coffee shop for information while writing a report or doing research? Even if you had very knowledgeable and influential friends, checking unbiased sources is always good practice. And what if you had only a few friends, or didn’t know anyone with knowledge on the subject at hand?

That’s why I am completely against the idea of social networks as a source of reference information, because let’s face it: that’s how most of the world uses Google, as a search engine for reference information. It might not be “reference” in the traditional sense (sci, tech, history) — hell, you might just be looking for a guide to completing a quest in some video game, or a list of episode synopses from an old TV show. This is still reference information. Google asserts that this kind of search is becoming archaic, and that we should want to search the social cloud because of its “constant freshness”. In some areas, seeding a search with recent developments via social media might be useful, but most of the time you want your reference information unclouded by potentially skewed or biased opinion (which is essentially what all social media is).

Furthermore — and this is the biggest factor for me — I see web search as an equalizer. I wrote about this once before, but search engines like Google are incredibly powerful not just technologically, but socially and politically as well, because they put the power of information in the hands of everyone with equal measure. You don’t have to have a circle of six hundred friends from Sandia National Laboratories, or personally know people who actually experienced a historical event you want to learn about. Those people have created information and placed it on the web, and Google is the directory through which you are connected with that information. You don’t have to know the author of said information. You don’t have to have expensive tastes or exclusive contacts. You only need a computer and an Internet connection.

Former Google executive Stafford Masie foresees a world in which this great equalizer of information is downplayed, and replaced with a hastily-erected resurrection of the social caste system that we deal with in real life. Social-driven search pressures us all to build wide and vast social networks online, almost competitively, in order to have access to information. We’re moving away from the idea that curiosity and intellect should catalyze information acquisition, and back to the idea that the key to acquiring knowledge is social extroversion.

Call me bitter, but as an introvert who never had much taste for socializing in real life, and who has relished the rise of the great equalizer of web search, the idea of a socially powered search network is an enormous, eye-rolling step backwards.

Lest you think me a Luddite, social media is far from devoid of merit. Your social network will undoubtedly be a better place than Google for information on temporal media (TV shows, movies, current events) precisely because of that constant freshness that I mentioned earlier. It’s a great place for restaurant recommendations, references for local service professionals and case studies. And of course, it’s the best way I know of to keep up with family and friends who live in all corners of the world; that is a technological marvel in and of itself.

But a social network is not, nor will it ever be in my estimation, a replacement for in-depth, unbiased and accurate reference information on a vast array of subjects, many of which professionals like myself deal with in our careers on a daily basis.

Lastly, we would do well to remember that as a business whose revenue stream is based on advertising, Google is naturally inclined to talk up social networking because it benefits them financially. Anyone who believes that Google is more than superficially concerned about anything other than how much money they can make from social media is living in a utopian dream world.

I’ll leave you with another user’s comment from the Slashdot article mentioned above, which I found particularly on-target.

There are social network ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’. Some people have 500,000 twitter followers, and can ask just about any question and get a slew of responses, some of them excellent. Some people have 15 with nary a high school graduate in the list; getting insightful and timely answers from that list is not nearly as likely. People with hundreds or thousands of followers think that social media is going to change the world; they literally do not realize that not everyone has the same type of network that they do. That, in fact, they are blessed with a surplus of social power in the same way that some people have wealth.

Search engines don’t care how many friends you have. They have answers. Search is an equalizer; social networks are not.

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World Series of (Videogame) Poker Fri, 09 Dec 2011 05:07:09 +0000 I remember where I first learned how to play poker, and from whom. When I was a kid, my mom taught me the basics of the game so that we could play it to pass the time in the airport while waiting for a flight to a now long-forgotten destination. I seem to recall reacting with some modicum of surprise that my mom, of all people, knew how to play poker! But neither one of us, naturally, could play to a competitive level. This was a purely recreational pursuit.

Since then I’ve rarely picked up a deck of cards, but I’ve played countless hands of poker anyway — in the videogame world. I’m not actually talking about online poker houses where you can play on the Internet — click here for one such example, which also handily offers up some basic competitive poker tips for the true beginner — but rather about console games that on their face appear to have nothing to do with poker, but actually contain some very entertaining poker minigames built in.

Since it’s relatively trivial to build a poker videogame compared to the open-world adventure games, shooters and simulators that abound today, sometimes you will find a really good poker game in the most unusual places. One example is Dead or Alive Xtreme 2 on the Xbox 360, where each in-game evening offered the option to visit the Zack Island Casino for a suite of Vegas-style games, including poker. I often looked forward more to putting the smackdown on Tina or Hitomi at the poker table than kicking their bikini-clad butts off the volleyball court, which was the central focus of the game. I found, however, that playing poker in DOAX2 was often incredibly unforgiving, unpleasant and too difficult to win any actual money in. (I guess you might say that makes it realistic?)

If you’re more interested in playing electronic poker against actual people, you could hit up an online poker house (though you’d be advised to first click here to learn some strategies about bluffing, bonuses and researching professional strategies). Or you could try a risk-free poker fix in the least likely of places: Red Dead Redemption, a video game about violence and deception in the Old West. There’s a poker minigame in Red Dead that is simply tons of fun, and will have you going up against a whole myriad of opponents who are just as good at calling your bluff as they can be at bluffing you out.

What’s really cathartic about Red Dead’s poker minigame is how, if things are going really badly for you and you just can’t take it anymore, you can jump out of your chair, unholster a pistol and fill your opponents with lead in true Old West Bad-Guy style. You’ll then get in a lot of trouble with the law, but you can just reload your last saved game to clear away your impropriety — you were probably going to do that anyway, if you were losing your shirt at the poker table!

I’m perfectly content to stay with Red Dead’s idea of a poker simulation, but anyone wanting to take the challenge of electronic poker to the real world (where you don’t need a poker face, per se, but you will still need a cool head) could click here to get some beginner’s tips at and register to play online with others via their online poker provider.

But don’t try to pull a John Marston if things don’t go your way. You’ll just wind up putting a hole in your computer screen.

The PC is Dying? Hardly Wed, 19 Oct 2011 18:47:46 +0000 Lately I’ve been seeing a lot of proclamations that the personal computer as we know it is rapidly being replaced by smartphones and tablets, with today’s CNN Money article about the slow death of the PC being just the latest example. Personally, as someone who works in the IT field and uses a PC to create tangible content, I feel that there is a salient point often left out of analyses such as this: if the PC is on its way out, then on what device will producers create all of the content that we will consume with our new phones and tablets?

Tablets are great for consumption of media: checking email, browsing the web, updating your Facebook status, reading magazines or books. Some of these things were the sole reasons why many households had a “family computer” in the first place. For those households, tablets are a great option because there’s a lot less cruft, a lot more simplicity and lower energy use, not to mention no more need to dedicate an entire piece of furniture to a desktop computer. But for somebody who is creating intricately detailed websites or graphic art, or coding and testing an application in an integrated development environment, how can a small, simple tablet possibly hold up?

It can’t, in my world. While it’s possible to create compelling art on a tablet using a stylus or even your own finger — similar to what a Wacom tablet on a PC would do, although much less precise in my experience — this allows for only fairly broad strokes. I have no idea how it would ever be possible to use a relatively fat, stubby, imprecise thing like a finger to design things like pixel-precise layouts and finely detailed icons. I simply need to have the precision of a pointing device.

Multi-monitor setups are another thing that’s not happening (yet) with tablets, and I’m not in any hurry to give up my three-screen array with Photoshop’s canvas on one screen and its tool palettes on another so that I can cram it all onto a 10-inch tablet. No thanks. Programmers surely fall into the same group, and I know many who live and die by multi-monitor arrays consisting of as many as four, five or even six screens. Even with one screen, you’d need significant enough real estate for all of the tools, browsers and panels that typically go along with IDE-based development.

I found the CNN Money article somewhat telling because it indicates PC sales are actually up significantly in markets like China and India, while they are down in North America. Factoring into this, I’m sure, is the fact that China and India’s economies are growing very rapidly, affording more and more households the ability (and desire) to purchase a PC. Whereas here in the West, PCs have surely already reached a sort of saturation, and tablets are looking much more appealing to families who just want a device that can check email and surf the web.

At the same time, though, I wonder if part of this is because India and China are doing a huge amount of actual producing of content now, not just manufacturing of tangible goods but also development of software and systems.

Although there’s no doubt that the PC’s market share stands to continue declining slowly as more consumer-friendly “consumption devices” become both available and more affordable, I don’t see the PC truly “dying” anytime soon. It’s simply too important a tool for too many professionals, a tool for which there is not yet anything close to an apt replacement.

Neurotic Parkers Tue, 13 Sep 2011 16:00:56 +0000 No, this post isn’t about a family of mentally unhealthy folks with the surname Parker. It’s about people parking. In lots.

I recently decided to pony up the monthly fee to park my car in the covered deck next to our office building. My only regret upon doing so was that I had not done it earlier, and that I instead subjected my black Pontiac to the 110-degree heat of 75% of Texas’ hottest summer on record. (It’s not officially the hottest yet, but that record — set in 1980 — will be falling this afternoon.) I now feel much better not only about the longevity of my car, which despite being 5 years old still has only 17,000 miles on it, but also about my ability to breathe on the way home each day.

But there is something bizarre about the parking lots at this office building, whether it is the free rooftop deck where my car used to reside, or the covered lower level where it does now. It’s the other people in it. And the fact that for some reason they feel it necessary to park in different places all of the time.

I’ve never encountered this anywhere else. In the past, when I’ve routinely traveled to the same place on multiple occasions — such as the office, or school, or what-have-you — it was clear that most people tended to park in the same place all the time. It became part of their routine. Most folks park as close to the door as possible. Some stake out a corner in the back and choose it each day. Others are loyal only to a particular row or side of the lot, but they usually stick to it.

Now that I am in Texas, I have observed a fourth group: those who neurotically roam from space to space every day, like the mythical three bears testing the mattresses in hopes of finding the one that’s “just right”. Since I’ve been working here, I’ve been evicted from first one corner spot and then another by people who suddenly decide to start parking there, then disappear — only to be replaced by others — days or weeks later. Usually you find clean and classy cars in corner spaces, but I was mostly finding dirty SUVs and dented sedans. I don’t get it. What are they protecting?

I’m experiencing the same thing in the covered garage, but at least down there, plenty of extra “out-of-the-way” spaces are available for me to snag if I find somebody in my spot of choice. And chances are, when I come in the next day, I’ll find the same car parked a few spaces away, apparently at random.

You wouldn’t think that it would be difficult to park a billion miles away from the door, but fate always has surprises waiting.

Vent Tue, 09 Nov 2010 23:47:55 +0000 Update: In case anyone tried to log in and respond to this post, there were some security issues with the blog that prevented this. Those issues have now been resolved. Sorry for the inconvenience. You can thank the &@%# comment spammers.[/notice] Although my rants used to be the cornerstone of this blog, I’ve largely let that kind of bloviating fall by the wayside in the past couple of years.]]> [notice]Update: In case anyone tried to log in and respond to this post, there were some security issues with the blog that prevented this. Those issues have now been resolved. Sorry for the inconvenience. You can thank the &@%# comment spammers.[/notice]

Although my rants used to be the cornerstone of this blog, I’ve largely let that kind of bloviating fall by the wayside in the past couple of years. Mostly, I just don’t have time to sit around for an hour and type up a hyperbolic complaint that, in the grand scheme of things, does nothing to help solve my problems. However, there are times when I feel like a tirade is in order — lest I go quietly mad. Right now is one of those times.

I’ll start with something nice, though. A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I spent a few days in Michigan, visiting family and friends in my hometown. It was actually a really good trip, filled with pretty decent weather, lots of catching up, some home-cooked meals and a few fun outings. More than anything, it was an opportunity to get some different scenery, drive some different cars, work in a different place and just enjoy the change. My daily routine here at home varies little from day to day, and simply gazing upon new things — even when they weren’t necessarily better things, as aspects of my old neighborhood can be a tad bit depressing at times what with how far they’ve fallen — was just what I needed.

As soon as we got back, though — and I mean literally within hours — the trouble started. It arrived in the form of a letter from a collections agency, which claimed I owed AT&T over $1,000 in unpaid bills for a wireless account that I knew absolutely nothing about. In fact, I’ve maintained every one of my accounts in good standing for my entire life — the idea that I was late on anything was patently absurd. Alarm bells started going off, though, when I realized that the collections agency was the same as one that my parents reported had contacted them at their Michigan address, apparently looking for me there. I decided to just call the creditor, AT&T, and get to the bottom of it.

Bad news: Some ass apparently opened an AT&T account using my name and social security number, then over the course of three months somehow racked up over $800 in charges and paid none of them. Two New York City area number were active on the account, and it had a bill-to address of somewhere in Indianapolis, IN. Interestingly, the account was opened just a matter of days after I noticed an unsolicited Hard Inquiry on my credit report from T-Mobile, another wireless provider. It seems that somebody got hold of my personal information somehow and used it to shop around for wireless service. They apparently did not succeed in getting any from T-Mobile — at least, not to my knowledge! — but perhaps because I was already a current AT&T account holder, the thieves were able to more easily bypass security procedures and open a new account using my data.

Anyway, so now I’m in identity theft hell, just like the schlubs you always see on those Lifelock commercials (and don’t let anyone fool you; Lifelock is hardly a reputable company themselves). As soon as I learned of the theft, I called AT&T’s fraud department and asked them to investigate. I also filed a police report and an identity theft affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission, and put a fraud alert on all three of my credit reports. Although it was a lot of information to absorb, everything seemed to be going well.

Except today I called AT&T to find out why I still hadn’t received their fraud investigation packet after 8 business days, and they informed me that while they showed A) a record of my having called them and reporting the fraud, and B) a record of them having recalled the account from the collection agency for further study, they did not show a record of anyone ever bothering to send me that packet. So, I got to waste another half hour of my time on the phone going through the whole damn mess again, and getting them to send me a replacement. This time, when I got done, I called right back and got somebody else in the fraud department to verify that the packet request had been submitted, which it was.

In a moment that was good for an ironic laugh, my AT&T cell phone dropped my connection to AT&T’s fraud department in the middle of my first call. It was apparently “Get fucked by AT&T day” all around, here.

Then, within literally seconds of my hanging up on the AT&T guys, I got a call from the real estate agency saying that a buyer wanted to come see our house in twenty minutes. My wife and I spent those minutes flying around in a panic — for you see, the kitchen wasn’t cleaned up from lunch, the bed wasn’t made, the laundry machine was running, yada yada. We finally got everything set up, I crammed my work shit into a backpack and we went up to my parents’ place to wait out the showing. It didn’t help that, throughout all of this, I was slammed with design work for a client that just came up this morning and needed to be done ASAP.

After the one-hour “showing window” elapsed, we went back home only to find that there was no evidence that anyone actually came to see our house at all. Again. I think three out of the last four showings have ended that way, and I’m getting royally sick of being jerked around.

Not helping my mood was the fact that my TiVo HD apparently locked up hard right at the instant the Daylight Savings Time change took effect, and thus I did not get a recording of the second episode of AMC’s The Walking Dead, which I really enjoyed the premiere of last week. I checked the TiVo Community Forums for others complaining of this, but found nothing. I’m tempted to blame it all on Comcast, because that’s usually a safe bet.

Anyway, if only to worsen our moods, once we saw that the house showing had been a bust we checked out the real estate listings here in our community. We found a whole slew of similar models on sale at our price point, plus several below it — including one over $10,000 below us, which didn’t even appear to be a short sale as far as I can tell. They don’t have the extended den like we do, but seriously — that’s like the only advantage we’ve got on anybody. At least in this market, where all people seem to care about is the goddamned view of a fake lake or the overwrought great room wall unit, neither of which we can boast.

This was kind of hard news to take, especially after yesterday we just booked a return trip to Frisco, TX to visit our friends and colleagues there. They’re even going to hold the company’s holiday party while I’m in town, since I’ve never been able to attend one due to my telecommuting. Feeling nothing but further away from our eventual goal of selling this house and getting out of here isn’t going to make it any more pleasant to tour the beautiful neighborhoods and see all of the cool people that I could be working and hanging out with in Texas.

There have been some good things happening of late — our trip to Michigan that I mentioned, plus some really beautiful (and COOL!) weather and some other various happenings here at home. On the long-term front, however, I continue to feel like things just aren’t going anywhere — and at times it’s really frustrating. You get to thinking about all kinds of things that you wish you’d done differently, and in the end you always arrive at the inevitable conclusion that you just can’t control any of it. So you go back to your work, your video games or your chores because there’s nothing else to do.

I shall endeavor to post again when I have something more uplifting to say.

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Chief Oddball to Experiment with Other Airlines Tue, 06 Apr 2010 19:34:07 +0000 As I went out for my after-lunch walk to the post office, the ABC Radio News update at the top of the hour informed me that Spirit Airlines, usually my airline of choice, was going to start charging a fee for carry-on bags.


CNN’s headline on the story reads as such: “Spirit Air to experiment with carry-on bag fees.” That’s okay, because from now on, I’ll be experimenting with other airlines. Spirit has cut their last corner, and I am done. DONE!

My family and I started flying on Spirit in the late ’90s when I first moved to Florida. They had a lot of cheap and easy flights between Detroit and Orlando (and later, Fort Myers) that were more affordable than similar flights on the major airlines, like Northwest or Delta. They also had far better service — Northwest, in particular, had become infamous back then for being one of the worst airlines in the country. Ten years, however, is a long time, and Spirit has officially worn out their welcome with me.

Spirit’s new fleet of aircraft is filled with cramped, uncomfortable and poorly-designed Airbus A319s, where the seats are anything but ergonomic and the legroom is appropriate only for a midget. Like most of the other airlines, they charge for everything — checked bags, a morsel of food, water, just about everything but the toilet (and I’m sure that’s coming) — and they’ve recently started “experimenting” with plastering advertisements all over the inside of their planes. Crass doesn’t even begin to cover it.

And now comes the fee for carry-on bags. If you’re a member of Spirit’s $45/year “$9 Fare Club,” you can carry a bag on for the low-low price of $20. If you’re just a regular shmoe, you can pay $30 when you reserve a carry-on bag online when you buy your ticket. And if you bring a non-prepaid carry-on to the airport, you’ll be paying $45 at the gate. I should note, in fairness, that these fees only apply to bags that go in the overhead compartment, and that anything you shove beneath the seat in front of you is still free. (For now!)

I don’t much care, though. I’m done. I’ve had it. I’ve paid Spirit my last “this fee” and “that fee.” I also understand that most (if not all) of the other airlines are charging similar fees, but this carry-on bag fee is the last straw. I’m fucking serious. Let me guess, I should check my laptop computer? I’m sure it’ll come out undamaged. Or maybe I should take it and stuff it under the seat in front of me, so that my feet have absolutely nowhere to go because Spirit’s fleet is a bunch of fucking A319s. I refuse to have a continually more uncomfortable and more unpleasant flying experience because I refuse to give in like a good consumer sheep and pay Spirit their ransom money every time I feel the apparently unconscionable need to take something with me on a trip.

Listen, I know part of the reason they do this is because they offer such low fares in the first place. You’re not always guaranteed to get them, but at times — especially if you’re one of these $9 Fare Club members, which is yet another thing you must pay for — you can get some really low fares with Spirit. Question, though: How low are they, really, when there’s a hidden charge waiting for you around every corner? When there’s a tree of varying fees that differ depending on whether you pre-pay this, whether you’re a member of that, yada yada? There’s a movement afoot in corporate America to break up the actual cost of a product or service into a whole bunch of pseudo-hidden, difficult-to-pin-down fees that show up “below the line,” making it impossible not only to compare the cost of service between two companies, but also to even discern what your final cost is before you buy. It’s fucking maddening.

Spirit takes this ricockulous game to new heights with their carry-on bag fee. Not only does it appear below the line, but it could be any of three different values depending on circumstances. I may be unique in this mindset, but I would rather pay more for my fare and know that’s the last fucking fee I’m going to pay. Besides, if I know that I’m going to receive good top-to-bottom service in return for the fare I pay, I will feel better about paying more for it. Has this become a foreign concept in America? I guess it has, judging by all the people who flock to their local Wal-Mart, the retail king of the “race to the bottom” paradigm of life.

In their attempt to bolster the false affordability of their airfares by adding more below-the-line fees, Spirit has permanently removed me from their customer base. I have just canceled my $9 Fare Club membership and will not purchase tickets from them ever again. I would also send Spirit CEO Ben Baldanza a scathing letter, but judging from his past remarks about a customer complaint, I doubt he would give a shit:

“…We owe him nothing as far as I’m concerned. Let him tell the world how bad we are. He’s never flown us before anyway and will be back when we save him a penny.”
Ben Baldanza, Spirit Airlines CEO, from an internal company email

And you know what? Ben is probably right. People need to wake up and realize that they can bitch all day about the way companies treat them, but if they don’t take their business somewhere else, the company isn’t going to care what you think. Why should they? What they care about is your dollar, and until you take that away, there’s no reason for you to even register on their give-a-shit meter.

Today, Mr. Baldanza was quoted as saying that having fewer carry-on bags will help empty the plane faster. In a sad sort of way, that might actually be important — because when you fly Spirit, you’ll be clamoring to get the hell off the plane and end your experience with them as fast as possible.

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