Saturday, April 5

First Impressions on The Elder Scrolls Online

If you're not a fan of computer role-playing games, then I forgive you for not knowing about The Elder Scrolls. If that's you, I'll just give you this quick overview. The Elder Scrolls is a series of games from Bethesda Softworks that has gained enormous popularity (not the least of which with my own son and daughter). They tell the story of a world called Tamriel, a world full of magic and dragons...and some very powerful and dangerous prophecies known as the Elder Scrolls.

What makes these games so much fun is the well designed story. It is coherent, epic, and involved. For a story created to support a series of video games, it is far more than you expect. A good story alone, however, won't make a successful video game. If the game is boring or frustrating to play, you will eventually give up and move along to something else.

I didn't play the first two Elder Scrolls games, coming to the series in sort of mid-stride with Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind. The fourth and fifth installments, Oblivion and Skyrim, continued the fascination. In my experience, all Elder Scrolls games contain three distinct elements:

1. Your character can become anything. Yes, you choose a race and a class. In your average game, that choice sets the boundaries of what your character can learn and do. In the Elder Scrolls games, your character can follow whatever path you choose. Do you want to have a big, burly Orc that wears heavy armor but likes casting healing spells? No problem. Of course, there is a cost to the choices you make. That Orc is going to run out of spell casting power (called magicka) much faster than would a Breton (a different race). The freedom to decide your own path is an Elder Scrolls trademark.

2. You can explore a vast world. Another thing that sets Elder Scrolls games apart from the pack is the sheer size and accessibility of the world. There are no invisible walls preventing you from seeing what's behind that building or over that next hill. Exploration is permitted and even encouraged. You should be forever scavenging, looking in every sack, chest, pot, crate, and barrel that you find, seeking materials for crafting or supplies to sustain your in your adventuring.

3. You can effect permanent change. If you steal from the citizens of a town, and get caught, you will be branded a thief. Your reputation will spread ahead of you and you may not enjoy a very warm welcome in the next town you enter. If you assault a guard, you will be killed or arrested and, assuming you're not dead, you either pay a fine or spend some time in an unpleasant dungeon. If you build something, go away, and come back, that thing you built is still there. Likewise, if you destroy something or kill someone. If you effect change in the world, that change is permanent.

The first speaks to a good game design, the second to a lot of hard work by developers, and the third to playing in a single player game. You are the only player in the world, the rest of the computer generated inhabitants exist only to serve as the backdrop for your adventure, and there is no need to be concerned with how what you do might affect someone else.

The Multiplayer Quandary

When I heard they were planning an online version of the Elder Scrolls, I immediately dismissed it as impossible to pull off. You simply couldn't make a world as vast and changeable as what we'd grown used to in the single player games and let more than one person play it at once. Or so I thought, anyway.

The Elder Scrolls Online has succeeded in doing this to a very large extent. You have choices that let you customize your character to be almost anything they want to be, the world is vast and open for exploration, and (rather surprisingly) you have a sense that you are actually changing the world.

The developers have made extensive use of a technology that's come to be known as "phasing." The characters that your character can see and interact with will change depending upon what game phase you are in. In other words, if you have killed a certain character and I have not, we could be standing side by side and see different things. I would see a character and you would see empty space.

Obviously there are compromises that need to be made here. If you have too many phases controlling too many aspects of what players see, in short order you will be playing by yourself in a world that is phased uniquely for you. What they've done to prevent that is limiting your ability to kill other characters at random. If someone isn't supposed to be killed, you can't kill them. You can't rob people at will, you can't assault a guard, and you can't burn down a building.

I was afraid this would make Elder Scrolls Online feel like something other than an Elder Scrolls game, but it really has not. You can't indulge your random impulses, true, but they have managed to inject enough randomness into the world that it still feels like a real place.

The graphics are not as lush as they are in the single player games. In the parts of the world I've explored, at least, everything is a different shade of tan. They are realistic enough, however, and excellent use of lighting and sound effects gives you a fantastic sense of immersion.

The Bottom Line

This isn't meant to be an exhaustive review of Elder Scrolls Online. For one thing, I have only begun playing the game. I still have hours, days, weeks, and months of exploration and adventuring ahead of me.

The purpose of this blog post was to answer this question for fans of the Elder Scrolls games: Have they managed to make a "real" Elder Scrolls game that is both multiplayer and online?

The answer, in my opinion, is yes.

Thursday, April 3

My Thoughts on the Chromebook

Not long ago, I bought a Chromebook. I suppose I was curious about it. My daughter has one issued by her high school and although she doesn't like it, she has been able to use it effectively. My workplace has Google Apps at the core of their communications, so I naturally wondered whether a Chromebook would fit in. Here's what I've learned.

The Hardware

I bought an Acer C720P from Amazon.com where it sells for $299. It's fairly representative of all the Chromebooks. Small, decently made, and inexpensive. The base C720 is $199, there is an upgraded model with a 32GB SSD for local storage that costs $249, and then there is my C720P model that has both the upgraded storage and a touch screen. In hindsight, I hardly use the touchscreen at all, and now that I have seen how easily Chromebooks integrate local file storage with Google Drive storage in the cloud, I'm quite sure that the base 16GB SSD for local storage would have been fine.

If I had it to do over again, I would have bought the base C720 for $199 and been just as happy with it.

Most Chromebooks are like the Acer version, which is to say they use the same hardware as your typical netbook computer. A small screen, 11 or 13 inches, is common. They'll have 2GB of memory, which is plenty. As already noted, there will be some local storage, usually a 16 or 32 gigabyte SSD.

(If you're not familiar, an SSD is a solid state drive, which is a storage device that works like a hard drive but instead of having spinning discs in it uses memory chips. They are extremely fast, very easy on battery life, and they generate almost no heat. The trade-off is size. An SSD is much more expensive than a traditional hard drive, so manufacturers often use much smaller sizes to keep the pricing comparable to machines using the older style storage.)

The keyboard will be cramped, especially on Chromebooks with 11 inch screens, but you can type on them. The Acer's keyboard is a "chiclet" style keyboard, with keys that are separated from each other by a grid. This makes them easier to locate with your fingers, but it makes the keys themselves smaller. Which you prefer is a matter of personal preference, but the fact there is a keyboard at all becomes important later on.

The Acer C720 has a fourth generation Intel "Haswell" processor, which means it is quite fast but still has very long battery life. Video playback on my Acer is smooth and flawless, while my daughter's older Samsung Chromebook often struggles to do the same thing. Battery life is superb, on a full charge I can run for at least 8 hours of actual use. I find that I charge it much like my iPad, which is to say about once a week.

The Software

Chrome.

That's it. Just Chrome. The Chromebook boots up something called "Chrome OS," which is a custom version of Linux that's only there to make your hardware go...and load Chrome. This is both the best thing about the Chromebook and the worst thing about it.

Because all it runs is Chrome, you simply won't have problems with it breaking down from software crashes and glitches. It is the most reliable device you can imagine. It always boots and it always does what it's going to do, and it's FAST. When you only have one program to run, with nothing hogging power in the background, you can be extremely fast about running that one program.

However, there is no Microsoft Office. You can use Office Online, though, and the new versions of Microsoft's web apps are surprisingly good. Word Online can only access files stored in my OneDrive, but I was able to access OneDrive, click upload, then select a file that was in my Google Drive cloud storage, and it transferred directly, cloud to cloud. It could only have been easier if Microsoft worked directly with Google Drive, but we all know that's not going to happen.

You are not running Windows, or Mac OS X. You are running a web browser. This means you have to find "web apps" that take the place of things you normally use. There is a Chrome Web Store that makes this quite simple, but most of the web apps are really just shortcuts to various websites that could just as easily be called up through a bookmark. That cynicism aside, however, there are some really good web apps.

Pixlr, for example, is a photo and image editor that looks and runs a lot like Photoshop. It even supports layers! I use it for editing images on my Chromebook and I'm quite pleased with it.

Lucidpress Layout and Design is a powerful page layout and publishing tool, very close to to Microsoft Publisher or Apple's Pages. You can combine text and graphics, doing precise placement in your documents, all through a web app. There is a catch here, however. There will be both free and paid versions of this service, and you will be limited in the documents you can create using the free version.

We're still in beta now, so the entire thing is free without restrictions. You may find that it requires a subscription to be useful at all, going forward. However, the fact that a desktop publishing program like this runs as a web application is just astonishing.

It's not all sunshine and roses, however. Chromebooks will not run Java, as Google considers it to be a security risk. It does run Flash, which might seem like a bit of hypocrisy, but you have to remember that Chrome has Flash built in to itself using a sandbox technique that keeps you safe from malicious Flash applications.

Anyway, the lack of Java support can be a problem. For example, LogMeIn Pro, which I use to connect with my computer at the office, uses Java and so it will not run on my Chromebook. (The good news is that Chrome offers its own remote control software, Chrome Remote Desktop, in the Chrome Web Store, that works nearly as well and is completely free.)

I could go on and on about the software, because it's really a mixed bag, but I'll try to summarize. It's nice that you're running the full desktop version of Chrome and not a mobile browser. It's not nice that you're stuck with only the apps that will run in your web browser. It's nice that those apps are getting better every day. It's not nice that the apps you are already using might not be there.

Questions and Answers

I thought perhaps I'd wrap this up by asking and answering the questions I imagine you'll have about Chromebooks.

Question: Are they a computer? Are they a tablet? What ARE they?

Answer: They use the same hardware as a computer but they only run the Chrome web browser. It is the full desktop version of Chrome, which is good, but you don't have access to the tens of thousands of apps designed for a tablet like an iPad, which is bad.

Question: If I have a laptop already, do I need a Chromebook?

Answer: That depends. If your laptop is bulky and heavy, or can't run all day on a charge, then you might like a Chromebook to carry around to meetings. If you were thinking about getting an iPad or other tablet to avoid having to lug the computer around, a Chromebook might make sense.

Question: If I have an iPad or other tablet already, do I need a Chromebook?

Answer: Probably not. There isn't really anything I do with the Chromebook that I couldn't also do with my iPad. Although powerful web apps like Pixlr and Lucidpress won't work on an iPad, there are iPad specific apps that can do the same things that will. If I already had an iPad or other tablet, I would probably spend $100 on a quality Bluetooth keyboard for it and skip the Chromebook.

Question: But if I don't have a tablet, which should I get, the Chromebook or an iPad?

Answer: Aha! Here is the most complicated question for me to answer, but also probably the most important one.

A tablet like an iPad will be better if you want to kick back and read an e-book, watch some Netflix, or play card games. You just can't compete with the library of apps available in the iTunes App Store. Despite the fact that Chromebooks are starting to catch on, there are already millions of iPads and other tablets out there and the app stores for those tablets make it easy for authors to sell their programs, where the Chrome Web Store does not (yet!). So the nifty, cool, fun, aimed-at-the-consumer apps will be for tablets, not web browsers, and thus not Chromebooks.

However, if we're talking about a business case here, I can argue for the Chromebook. You can buy an Acer C720 for $199. That comes with an 11 inch screen, a keyboard, USB ports for connecting mice and flash drives, an SD card slot for reading memory cards from cameras and video recorders, and an HDMI port for connecting to a larger display.

What tablet can you buy that includes an 11 inch screen (or close), a physical keyboard, and all those ports for $200. (I'll spare you the trouble. None. An iPad Air with a nice keyboard is going to cost you three times as much, around $600.)

Some people will insist they don't need a physical keyboard with their tablet. Typing with the on-screen virtual keyboard might be fine when you're entering a website address, searching for a TV show on Netflix, or filling out a form on a website, but it's not useful if you're going to take it to meetings for notes, or answer emails, etc. Even if you don't mind typing on the glass, the on-screen keyboard covers too much of the screen! You're left typing into this tiny little window.

That's the bottom line of the Chromebook: Value. If you buy a base model for $200, it is a great value. At $400, I'd buy a netbook running Windows 8.1. At $900, I'd buy a Macbook Air. If I already had the tablet, I'd just add the keyboard.

But if I needed that very portable second computer to carry to meetings or just around the house to answer emails and check websites, the Chromebook makes sense. If you are a Google enthusiast, already using Google Apps (Gmail, Calendar, Drive, etc.), it makes even more sense. I like my Chromebook. Although it and my iPad do cross into each other's territory quite a bit, they each have their place in my world of tech.

Tuesday, May 28

The Death of iGoogle

Many of you might not even know what iGoogle is. The service never got any publicity from Google, at least none that I have ever seen, and now that it's about to die in near-anonymity it seems unfair that it pass into the bitstream without notice.

iGoogle is a custom home screen that you built on the Google site itself. The address (www.google.com/ig) worked on both computers and mobile devices. You could choose from a wide range of active widgets, which iGoogle called "gadgets" because no two companies can agree on a term. For example, my iGoogle home page showed me, at a glance, my Gmail inbox, my calendar for today, and the current weather conditions.

As soon as I launched my browser, I knew who was trying to reach me, where I had to be, and whether it was going to rain on me as I went there. In one glance, without having to click on my email, then click on my calendar, then click on my weather app...it was glorious.

And on November 1st, 2013, it will be history. In the words of the immortal bard Monty Python, it will be an EX-service. Which for me begs two questions: What does Google expect me to replace it with, and why did they decide to kill it off in the first place?

I can answer the first one definitively, because Google has answered that in writing. If you're using an Android device, they remind you that you don't need a custom home page on the mobile browser because the Android home screen can be customized with widgets from Google Play to accomplish the same thing. And they are correct. But what about people using iGoogle on their computers?

Google suggests switching to Chrome (their web browser) and using Chrome apps from their Chrome Web Store. This is an utterly useless suggestion, since Chrome "web apps" are nothing more than big bright icons that link to web pages. You could do the same exact thing, albeit with less flair, with old fashioned bookmarks. Google also suggests Chrome themes, which do nothing other than change the color of the screen and affect the interface items like buttons and scrollbars.

What you cannot do with anything provided in the Chrome Web Store is recreate iGoogle. There is nothing that allows me to have my active Gmail inbox displayed, or my calendar, or the current weather. I can have big, bright buttons that open Gmail, then Google Calendar, then whatever weather site I like -- but I cannot get that information on a single screen, observable in one glance.

There are alternative web-based home pages competing to fill in the iGoogle vacuum once it disappears, but those require you handing over the passwords to your Google account to a third party web site. I'm sorry, but I won't do that. The information in my Google account is too important to risk that. I have two-factor authentication turned on with Google, and to use a third party service I would have to set up an application specific password for every single device, user account, and browser that I access. That's a huge list of things! It's not so bad being prompted for my authenticator token and entering a six digit number, setting a check mark so it won't ask me again for 30 days, but the process of creating an application specific password is a painstaking one that you won't want to repeat often.

So Google is dumping us iGoogle users on the curb with a bus ticket and $20 in food stamps, wishing us bon voyage, and there is nothing we can do about it and no comparable service to replace it with. We're simply done. But why? Why did they decide to kill off this service in the first place?

I think there are a variety of possible reasons. It is certainly possible that iGoogle was the brainchild of someone working at Google years ago who is no longer there. When a service loses its champion, the sad truth of the matter is that it often becomes a forgotten orphan and dies from neglect.

It is also possible that iGoogle required some sort of load on the Google servers, or required them to keep open some API for the gadgets that Google considered to be a security risk. In short, there might be good, concrete reasons to shut iGoogle down. But if there are, Google has remained completely silent about them. Which leads me to think that no such reasons exist, since Google can't keep completely silent about anything.

My personal theory is this. iGoogle does nothing to help the Google brand. Android home page widgets require Android, which is Google. Chrome web apps, as ridiculous of a non-existent entity as they are, require Chrome, which is also Google. iGoogle, on the other hand, worked just fine with any web browser on any platform. Mac, Windows, Linux, Android, iOS...whatever you wanted to use was just fine.

And in Google's vision of the future, there is only one thing that cannot stand and must be eliminated: That thing which does not promote the brand.

R.I.P. iGoogle. You were brilliant, under-publicized, and you will not be missed by many. But I loved you just the same.

Friday, December 14

The March Toward a Digital Society

I became interested in a book today ("Pioneering Palm Beach: The Deweys and the South Florida Frontier") and went to Amazon.com to buy a copy. It's only available in paperback, not Kindle. In a rush of emotion that surprised me, I felt an almost revulsion at the thought of buying another physical book.

Don't get me wrong, I LOVE TO READ. I buy more books now than I EVER did before I started with Kindle (and we have a house that's full of books!). But the convenience of always having my library available to me wherever I go, on my iPad, on my iPhone, on any of my computers, etc., has so completely won me over that I actually don't even WANT books printed on paper any more.

I'm sure there are purists reading this who are appalled. I would have been, too, had this not just happened to me. A couple years ago, I spent my Amazon.com birthday money buying beautiful leather bound editions of some of my favorite study bibles. I thought I'd spend hours happily turning pages. They're gorgeous! And they sit on my shelf, brand new, hardly ever opened. I have three bible study apps for my phone, tablet, and computer, and they are SO good and SO convenient that I never use printed copies any more.

This change in my perspective fascinates me. I always "loved a good book." I still do, but I just prefer that it's not an ACTUAL book. I have very mixed emotions about this, and I can't decide why. I didn't miss vinyl records when I moved to the much more useful CD format, and I don't miss buying CDs now that I purchase all my music through Amazon.com or iTunes. (I still prefer Kindle and Amazon.com MP3 over iBooks and iTunes, but why that is the case is the subject for another musing.)

I messaged the author of the book through their Facebook page, asking if there were any plans to publish it in Kindle format. And I realized that, at least for today, my interest in the book, which would have led to an immediate impulse purchase, isn't strong enough to make me buy it in what I perceive to be an inconvenient format.

I know I'm a geek. I get that. But I'm becoming a reverse snob. Just like the elitist jerks that turn their noses up at e-books and digital downloads, I find myself doing the same thing for the old formats.

I wonder if I will be able to live with myself in the morning. :)

Saturday, March 3

Will They Get Free WoW Accounts?

News from Blizzard Entertainment isn't good today. They are laying off 600 employees, mostly from customer support and administrative positions, but about 10% of them are developers. (Source) Blizzard Entertainment is one half of Activision Blizzard, the U.S. holding company created when Activision merged with Vivendi Games, who owned Blizzard Entertainment at the time.

In 2011, Activision Blizzard had around 5000 employees worldwide. A layoff of 600 employees is therefore a 12% reduction in workforce, and a layoff of 600 strictly from Blizzard's side is even more significant. Whatever else we might make of this, you just don't fire 12% of your employees without it meaning something serious.

What this does NOT mean.

It does not mean that World of Warcraft is closing, or even losing money. The peak subscriber base during the Wrath of the Lich King expansion was reported at 12 million, while the most recent number reported following the Cataclysm expansion was 10.2 million. That's a loss of 1.8 million monthly subscriptions. If you assume that Blizzard makes around $12 per subscriber, given the variance in what people actually pay, that's a monthly gross income drop from $144 million dollars to $122.4 million dollars.

I am not sure how many employees you can afford for $21.6 million dollars, but I'm guessing the answer is "about 600." But those gamers who are now gloating over the imminent demise of Blizzard simply can't do math. Nearly $1.5 billion dollars in annual gross income from just one of their games means they are very comfortable, indeed. Don't forget that Diablo III will be released this year, and expectations are that it will set sales records for a PC video game when it finally launches.

What it probably DOES mean.

You aren't going to lose 1.8 million paying subscribers and not feel it. There will be cutbacks somewhere. Blizzard's big overhead, like any software company, is employee salaries and benefits. It is entirely normal and logical that there would be layoffs following a decline in revenue.

I believe it also means that a lot of jobs formerly handled by humans are now being automated. Recovering hacked and stolen accounts can now be handled online through their web site. In fact, a lot of what used to require a call to customer support can now be handled through their web site.

But I think what it means most of all is that even an incredibly popular game like World of Warcraft and an incredibly successful company like Blizzard Entertainment aren't immune to the laws governing the business world. Competition in the video game industry is at an all-time high. One study suggests that global video game sales would reach $68.3 billion dollars in 2012. That's a lot of real estate to fight over.

What you should do about this.

Nothing. That's right, nothing. If you like World of Warcraft, then keep playing it. The game isn't going to suddenly stop working because of these layoffs. In fact, I'll wager there will be no detectable difference to the players at all. I've never really understood the mentality of video gamers who only play a game if someone else makes it successful, first. If you apply that same reasoning to your romantic inclinations, your love life must be profoundly disappointing.

So if this entire thing is much ado about nothing, why am I bothering to write a blog post about it? For one thing, it's sort of my job. I cover video games for the Advanced Media Network and the Into Tomorrow show. I'm supposed to have an opinion about these things.

For another, I am a World of Warcraft subscriber, still. Even though I seem to spend most of my time these days playing Rift (a game from Trion Worlds, and a direct competitor to World of Warcraft), I am not ready to cut the cord on my five maximum-level characters and bid good-bye to Azeroth. Not yet, anyway.

But mostly, I'm just wondering whether the 600 laid-off employees get free World of Warcraft accounts as part of a severance. If they do, I wonder what Barrens Chat is going to look like now?

"Chuck Norris opened a ticket for a GM, and when they didn't respond instantly, he roundhouse-kicked 600 employees out the door!"


Yep. That'll be about right.

Wednesday, February 29

Phone cords, Modems, and Mayans

So, my wife pokes her head into the office. "How do I fax something?" I'm not processing this, so I stupidly repeat the word. "Fax? You mean, like with a phone line?" Yes, she tells me, over a phone line. It seems that our son has neglected to file his National Merit Scholar paperwork selecting his college of choice, which opens up some scholarship money, and although it doesn't HAVE to be sent until May 31st, you get first priority if it's sent by March 1st. Yeah. Tomorrow.

Thank heaven for leap years?

So I said that our Canon Pixma 420 printer (which I like VERY much, by the way) has a fax machine among its Swiss Army Knife collection of capabilities. We slide the printer within striking distance of the telephone jack, and I go looking for a cord to plug it in.

A phone cord. Good grief! During the 1980s, I was DROWNING in those stinking things. Every time I moved a paper, there were two more phone cords. I swear they were breeding under there! But this is 2012 and I don't have a phone cord.

Except for a 35 FOOT extension cord, and the little tiny stub that connects our phone to the wall. So I take a little tiny stub of cord and a great big MOUND of extension cord, and I connect our printer to the telephone line. I drop the paper into the automatic document feeder (yes, that's one of the reasons I love the Pixma 420), type in the phone number, and press Send. Very simple.

Then the house becomes filled with a sound I haven't heard in YEARS AND YEARS. A dial tone, some beeping, a ringing....and the sound of modems connecting.

WhEEEEEE! Grrrrrrrr...... SPLSHHHHHHHH! repeated two or three times. My daughter, who was watching this unfold with the same level of interest she would show in any reality TV series where bumbling people tripped over their own feet, said "Huh. I haven't heard THAT sound in years."

No, indeed we haven't. And we haven't missed it, either! I do hope the big throbbing brains at the National Merit Scholar....er, base, or warehouse, or Area 51--whatever it's called--will get around to accepting an emailed copy of scanned PDF file by the time Amy's turn is here.

It IS 2012, you know. The Mayans say you don't have much time left to figure all this tech stuff out.

Friday, June 3

The Internet as Your Television

Mrs. Gray Geek and I were kicking some ideas around about ways we can save money. It's a brave new world out there, my fellow recessionists, and we all need to save dollars where we can. The path to digital enlightenment went as follows.

We don't watch anything "live" any more. Aside from sporting events, this is true. Now this really doesn't mean that we never, ever see anything when it's actually being broadcast, because we do. We turn on the TV when we want to be entertained in a manner that doesn't ask too much of our tired intellects and we will flip through the pages of the program guide on the Cable/DVR box, eventually winding up watching Yard Crashers or something like that on HGTV (that's a great show, by the way).

More accurately, we don't care whether anything is live or not. If we find something we want in the program guide in the first few seconds of looking, great! Otherwise we jump straight to the cable On Demand channel or switch on the XBOX 360 and Netflix.

We watch many things on the Internet already. Mrs. Gray Geek is a big fan of crime dramas (well, dramas in general), but they leave me cold. I feel as though I have enough drama in my life already, I don't need to get all worked up watching other people's pretend drama. She doesn't like putting things on TV that send me scurrying off to my office, so she will often watch her favorite dramas on her computer, back in her office.

You're not surprised to hear that Casa Lautenschlager has more than one office, complete with computer, are you? Good, I didn't think you would be.

The XBOX 360 just added Hulu Plus to its menus. Our game consoles, XBOX 360 and Nintendo Wii, are already connected to the television in our family room. We use the XBOX 360 for watching DVD movies and streaming Netflix -- it works superbly for both. Recently I noticed that Hulu Plus joined the Video Marketplace lineup, and that was what started the whole conversation.

Could we replace our cable TV subscription with just Internet programming?

Right off the bat, you have to realize that you're not getting rid of your cable company entirely. You're still going to need high speed Internet access to make this work. You'll notice I didn't mention "DSL," and for good reason. DSL at 1.5 megabits per second download and 256 kilobits per second upload is the new dial up Internet access. Don't believe me? If you like reading geeky government documents, give this one a look. That is a PDF file of an FCC report in which they define broadband as a minimum of 4 megabits per second downstream and 1 megabit per second upstream.

That's right, DSL is officially no longer broadband.

More to the point, a 1.5 megabit per second download rate just won't do for streaming Internet television programming, and it won't even come close to handling HD programs. So step one to cutting the cord (or unplugging the dish, as the case may be) would be to get a nice big Internet pipe. Cable, AT&T U-Verse, or Verizon FIOS will all do.

Comcast advertises high speed Internet for $12.99 per month. That's for six months, however, and then the price goes up. Depending on your location, it will range from $42.95 to $59.95 per month. That's quite a lot! Competing services are no better. Do not be fooled by advertised prices. Those are nearly always an introductory special and subject to increase after a short while.

Let's take $45 per month as our Internet cost. Now we have the cost of premium programming.

After taxes, Netflix will cost you $10 per month for a streaming only plan.

Hulu Plus will cost $8 per month.

Keep in mind, you're going to want to watch TV programming on your television (that's why you bought that big screen TV, right?). So you're going to need a game console like an XBOX 360 or a PlayStation 3, or some sort of dedicated streaming device like the Roku Player or a Logitech Revue with Google TV. If you don't already have one of those, you'll need to spend between $100 and $300 one time cost.

While Netflix and Hulu Plus will give you a lot of streaming programming, they won't carry everything you want to see. You will also need some other subscriptions, depending on your taste. For things that are streamed through a network's web site, you will need a computer connected with your TV set.

Yes, I know, it doesn't have to be a computer. It could be a tablet with the proper kind of interface, or any one of a number of things. But a computer will work best. My favorite computer for this application is Apple's Mac Mini. You'll need to spend about $700 for the base model Mac Mini, then you'll want to buy some options to connect it with your TV and control it from across the room, so figure on $900 by the time you're done.

Of course, if you already have a computer that has an interface to connect with your TV and a control system that lets you run it from your recliner, you can skip that. But don't overlook it without giving it some thought. For the perfect Internet television environment, you're going to want a web browser in the mix also.

So where are we? Cable Internet plus Netflix plus Hulu Plus equals $63 per month. You may want to add some other subscriptions to it, don't be surprised if you spend another $10 to $20 a month.

If you don't have a game console and a computer connected to your TV already, you'll be spending something north of $1,000 to buy that equipment.

And when you're done, you still have to be prepared to jump between devices and programming services to find what you want.

We haven't really answered the question yet, have we?

Nope! Because there is no hard and fast answer. You're not going to save very much money by canceling your cable or satellite TV service, and you're going to make controlling your programming quite a bit more complicated. Of course, if you are paying for Netflix and/or Hulu Plus already, you can see more savings than if you had to add them.

But is it better? It might be, but again there isn't a clear answer. These Internet programming services are getting better every year, but they still aren't as simple to use as your cable or satellite box's program guide would be. You'll have more choices, but will you be able to find them?

And don't forget, your cable or satellite TV service is more than likely feeding several rooms in your house. We have three cable boxes, for example. You'll need to do something for each of those locations also.

This isn't going to save you any great amount of money, not really. It may give you the geeky cool head rush of commanding your Starship Entertainment, but before you let that make you dizzy and start ordering parts, picture yourself explaining how the controls work to your spouse, or your children.

Here is what I think will happen to make this a moot point.

The future is on demand programming. We're already so close to it that it's at most a couple of years away. The program guide will go away, as we know it today. You'll choose the show and episode you want to watch, and it will come on your television right then. When you want it, not when they happened to schedule it.

For what it's worth, it will be delivered over what is basically a high speed Internet connection. It might be a private network instead of the public Internet, but it'll use the same technologies.

And it will all be delivered with a single box and a single remote control. The battle will then become, can the Internet providers like AT&T and Comcast find a way to block you from using the competing service's programming box on the other's high speed Internet network. There isn't any technical reason why you couldn't do it, but I can see them lining up for the battle now.

All this has made my head hurt. I think I shall open a cold beer and watch an old episode of Top Gear on Netflix...

Sunday, May 15

Chromebooks are not a Good Idea

I've been giving this a lot of thought. I wanted to like the idea of Chromebooks. Really, I did! But I just can't, and let me tell you why.

Oddly enough, I'm going to begin by saying something positive about them. I believe that Google has the right idea when it comes to "working in the cloud." Yes, there are certain things that require fast local processing and enormous local storage.

- Graphics editing and composing, desktop publishing
- Video editing and rendering
- Audio editing and mixing

That's my list, pretty much. If you have others, the comments are open for your ... I don't know ... commenting pleasure?

Anyway, as I was saying, I think Google has the right idea about working in the cloud. Email, calendars, most word processing documents and spreadsheets, and just about everything else I do with my computers is best done when I'm connected to the web and working online. The information can be shared, it's safer than on my local hard drive, I can access it from anywhere including my phone, etc., etc., etc.

What I give up in terms of features in the software I use is far outweighed by those conveniences. And no, I'm not joking.

So let me see if I'm following you, geek-boy. Google has the right idea about working in the cloud, but their Chromebooks that are designed to do nothing but that are a bad idea?

Yep.

You'd better explain that, son.

Sure thing. You said it yourself, mythical voice in my head that I dialog with in my blog posts. Chromebooks are designed to do nothing but. Netbooks, on the other hand, which cost the same as Chromebooks, can run Chrome. AND they can do all that other computer stuff, too.

Chromebooks run on Atom processors. Netbooks run on Atom processors. Chromebooks have long battery life. Netbooks have long battery life. Chromebooks boot up in 8 seconds. Netbooks, er, well, don't.

So are you willing to give up the OPTION of local storage and running Windows applications, to boot up in 8 seconds rather than 30 or 45? Especially because once you boot that netbook and just put it to sleep instead of shutting it down, it will come back to the desktop in just about, yes, 8 seconds.

Google can't tether the Chrome browser to Chromebooks, not without killing it. They also can't block their Chrome web apps from running on netbooks, notebooks, and desktop computers. There is absolutely nothing they can do to give any kind of killer feature to a Chromebook. You can run the same browser, use the same cloud-based apps, and have the same security and safety that you get with a Chromebook.

And you don't need a Chromebook. That's why they're not a good idea.

Google will sell a few of them, of course. They have their fanboys. Myself, I love Chrome and Android, Google Apps, and the whole Google cloud-thing. But I get them just fine on my current computers, including my fabulous MacBook Air (which is certainly no netbook, but is every bit as portable). So I wish Google well, and I hope I'm wrong. But I just can't see the point of a Chromebook, which is really a netbook that does less for the same money. Sell Chromebooks for $149 and you'll sell a million per week. But they're not, so they won't.

At least that's what I think.

Saturday, October 9

Are Facebook Groups Another Violation of Privacy?

It wasn’t all that long ago when I was hollering about Facebook Places, the feature that lets people “check in” to places and tag their friends as being there with them. If Tom and Mike decide to stop for a beer and Tom checks in at the bar, tagging Mike at the same time, Mike had better hope that his wife is not Facebook Friends with either one of them. If she is, she’s going to know that her husband is not working late – or at least she’ll know that Tom SAYS her husband is not working late. At least Facebook Places has an option under Privacy Settings to disable your friends’ ability to check you in.

(Let me pause here and say that if you don’t know where this is, that would probably be a result of Facebook burying this option. I’m guessing here, but I would say that Facebook really doesn’t want you blocking friends from checking you in, because they want Places to become popular and they’re convinced tagging friends is crucial to that. Here’s what you do. From the Account menu, choose Privacy Settings. Look for the link that says “Customize Settings” and click that. Scroll down to “Things others share” and look for “Friends can check me in to Places.” Click the Edit button to the right of that and on the next screen choose Disabled. How’s that for buried deep?)

Now we have a another new feature, called Groups. Anyone can make a Facebook Group. To explain to you what one of these is gets a little complicated, so bear with me. We’ve always had Friends. People ask to be your Friend, you ask to be Friends with someone else, and then you see things about each other in your News Feed. If you’re a Facebook user, then you’re familiar with how this works. One key element to it is that when someone asks to be your Friend, Facebook checks with you to see if that’s okay. I wish, no…I long for the day when people were smart enough to only become Friends with other people they actually know, but expecting people to be smart is asking too much. (There! My obligatory “Men in Black” reference. If you’ve never seen the movie, go Netflix it now.)

Then we used to have a feature called Fan Pages. Someone would create a page and others could become Fans of it. Fan pages might be for a person, a sports team, a business, an organization or cause – anything could have a page. When you became a Fan of a page, all of your Friends were told “Mark Lautenschlager became a fan of Burping Softly Around Women.” with the implication being that if I liked something, you might also, and you should go take a look at the page. We still have these pages, but we just don’t call them “Fan Pages” any longer. It seems that the word “fan” doesn’t translate well into other languages and cultures. In America, we know that it’s short for “fanatic,” implying the enthusiastic support of something. But the rest of the planet thinks fanatics are bad. Just ask the Brits, where people become “supporters” of their “athletic clubs.” (I’ll let you make your own athletic supporter joke here.)

So Fan pages became just Pages, and we didn’t become a Fan, we just clicked the Like button. We already were used to clicking Like for things about our Friends that we saw on our News Feeds, so it was a simple extension. And again, you must choose to click Like. I can’t Like something FOR you.

Finally, we had Lists. A Facebook List was something that we made for ourselves. We could assign Friends to a List, and then we could send a single message to everyone, etc. It was a sort of mailing list feature, not many people even knew it existed, and hardly anyone used it.

So, what’s a Group? A Facebook Group is a combination of all of these. I could create a Group for family members, for my interest in playing World of Warcraft, for my church, for the pub I frequent – literally anything! When I create a Group, a page for that Group is made and I am the Administrator of the page. “How is that different from a Facebook Page made by some company or sports team,” you ask? Excellent question. First, Facebook claims that only an “authorized representative” of the subject of that Page can administrate it. That’s not true, as it happens. I created a Page for our church, and while if you asked them they would tell you that I certainly am “authorized” to do this, there is no way Facebook knows this.

The really BIG difference is this: Business, organizations, or people who create Facebook Pages have to get you to click that Like button, in order to attach yourself to the Page. They have the task of getting the word out about their Page. Every company in Western society has the little blue “F” logo on their website, TV commercials sport the URL for their Page, etc. Most of all, they’re counting on people to Like their Page, hoping that Friends of the people who Like their Page will see it and exclaim “Oh-ho! I didn’t know that the Frog Admirer’s Society had a Facebook page!” followed by visiting the Page and Liking it also.

Not so with a Group. With a Facebook Group, any member of the Group can add you to that Group. “Yeah, but surely Facebook will ASK me, right?” I can hear your indignation. You’d think so, but no. Adding someone to a Group is just like tagging them in a Photo or Video. As long as someone is your Friend and part of the Group, they can add you to it also. And you can’t stop them, no matter what you do. Once you are a member of a Group, you will start receiving notifications of activity within the group, including email messages sent to the Group. And all of your other Friends will see that you’ve been added to this Group.

And you can’t opt out of this. So, what can you do?

Well, the first time someone adds you to a Group that you’re not happy about, you can remove yourself from that Group, just like you can remove your tag from a photo or video. Once you’ve done that, not only can you not be added back to that particular Group (unless you request to be added back), but the person who added you and prompted the remove request will not be able to add you to any OTHER Groups, ever. That’s something, I suppose, but it’s still definitely closing the barn door well after the horses have left.

In the past, when you wanted to recommend a Page to me, you could do just that. You’d send me a suggestion that would tell me you think I’d like this page, and I could choose whether I wanted to Like it also, or not. No more. Now all of your Facebook Friends have the power to decide what you might like, and sign you up.

And with the “one strike and you’re out” policy, you’d better never make a mistake in adding any of your Friends to a Group. One remove request and you’re struck with the ban stick, forever.

Mark Zuckerberg said at a press conference, “We aren't trying to be hyperbolic when we say this is going to be a fundamental shift in the way people use Facebook.” Personally, I’m troubled by the fact that the new design of Groups seems to be solving the “problem” of people either not recommending a Group to their Friends, or their Friends declining to join.

Facebook has fixed what was not broken.

Tuesday, September 28

Why Adobe is the best AND the worst company, ever!

Let’s get one thing straight, Adobe makes great programs. I use Adobe Audition for my audio editing work, I have photographer friends who swear by Photoshop and Lightroom, and I know a few video editors who will tell you that if you HAVE to use a Windows PC for video editing, you’re crazy and you should be using Adobe Premiere to make the best of an awful situation.

Flash, despite the fact that Apple doesn’t like it, has turned the web into an interactive, multimedia environment rippling with video and music. Hideous menus and web site designs also, but that’s not Adobe’s fault.

So why do I say they are the worst company ever? Because - brace yourselves - they are EVEN more draconian in their customer policies than Apple. They know their software is great, they know people will pay breathtaking prices for it, and they know they can make us hop on one foot while barking like a dog to register it, and we WILL. That sort of power must be intoxicating. After all, it makes both Adobe and Apple behave like Cold War-era dictators towards their customers, so it must.

Let me give you two examples. First, Adobe Audition. I have a desktop and a laptop. I do audio editing on both, but never at the same time. If I’m in the office, I use the desktop with its faster processor, bigger screen, and more comfortable keyboard. I use the laptop when I’m on the road. I would like to install my copy of Audition on both computers. Seems reasonable, doesn’t it? It still seems like a single license, no? Well, no. Not to Adobe it doesn’t. Oh, I can install Audition on both computers, but in order to use it on the laptop, I have to deactivate it on the desktop, then activate it on the laptop. If I forget to run the deactivation before leaving the office, I have officially screwed the pooch.

Even Microsoft permits me to install Office 2010 Home and Business Edition on one desktop and one laptop under a single license. Dear Adobe, when your policies make Microsoft look good, you should be worried.

Next, we have the curious case of Student and Teacher Editions. I have a part time job working for the church I’ve attended for the past 25 years, editing the pastor’s sermons into a weekly radio show. (You’ll find that, aside from Howard Stern and Rush Limbaugh, most of us who work in radio have more than one job. Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to talk into microphones?) Because of my 30+ years working in IT support, I also help with the office computers.

The church has a school. The school has an art teacher. The art teacher wants to use Photoshop and Premiere for art projects. So we set up a “media computer” and set out to order software. The Photoshop and Premiere bundle is called “Creative Suite 5 Production Premium.” At Amazon.com, it sells for $1,675.20. Or, $429.99 for the Student and Teacher version. I’ll give you three guesses which edition we ordered, and the first two don’t count.

The product arrives, and with it is a notice explaining that before we can get a serial number for installation, we have to submit documentation that we are in fact a school. No problem, I think. After all, we ARE a school. I punch in the URL for the web site and it tells me to submit a scan of the teacher’s photo ID. If the teacher’s ID does not feature a photo, I’m told to submit a scan of the ID plus a scan of a letter from the school’s registrar saying that the teacher in question is the art teacher and will be using this software.

Let’s pause here for a moment and consider that. What difference does the picture make? Will Adobe only license its software to our art teacher if she’s hot? She’s a perfectly lovely person, but she’s a married art teacher at a Christian school. She’s not posing for your calendar, Adobe! But, I digress.

We scan her teacher’s ID, we scan a letter from the registrar on school letterhead, and I submit both documents. As I did so, I was encouraged to find that our school was listed on the drop-down menu of schools that came up when I entered our city. The service Adobe was using for this verification had at least heard of us. After a couple of days, I receive an email saying further documentation is required.

They want a scan of her driver’s license, because that has a photo on it.

(Insert scream of frustration, here.)

Why? WHY? Give me one single reason why you need a picture of our art teacher, before you can decide that she’s actually our art teacher. Do art teachers all have a certain look to them? Are you checking faces against a terrorist watch list, so bad people can’t use Photoshop to make illustrated bomb plans? What could possibly be of value in seeing a photo ID for a teacher from a school that you recognize to be a school in the community entered?

Okay, here’s the part where we have to rewind back to the beginning of this post and realize that Adobe wants to watch me hop on one foot and bark like a dog. Since Photoshop and Premiere are the best programs of their kind, and because we can’t install them without complying with this ridiculous request or paying $1,200 more for the regular retail version, I swallow my pride and my rage, and I hop while barking.

I emailed the school, saying that Jenny had to scan her driver’s license for me, also.

But I still hate you for it, Adobe. I hate you because your software is so good that you can treat me like a terrorist criminal pile of dog poop, and I’ll roll on my back and show you my belly.

Two thoughts occur to me in conclusion. One, there better never come a time when Adobe wants something from ME, or they’d better be prepared for a week of hopping and barking.

Two, I know for a fact that I am not the only one who hates how Adobe treats its customers like they were criminals, so the world is wide open for someone to be successful if they make products that are just as good (that right there is key, because there are competitors, but no one that is “as good”) and doesn’t treat its customers this badly.

Wednesday, September 1

Pro-tip: Facebook IS an Internet service, not your own personal playground.

The Associated Press carried this story about a juror who updated her Facebook status, before the trial was over, to say they (the jury) were going to enjoy finding the defendant guilty. The defense attorney discovered what the juror had posted, and things got ugly from there.

First off, let me explain to you how I think the defense attorney found out what the juror had posted. There’s this nifty little free service from Google called Alerts. This gem lets you turn Google into your own research department. You just tell Google what you want to search for and how often to look, and Google emails you with whatever it finds. Because Google is constantly indexing the Internet, Alerts is a fantastic way of making certain you know the minute something is said about you or something you have an interest in. Like, I don’t know, maybe a trial you were working on?

Disclaimer: I have no idea whether the defense attorney used Google Alerts or not. But if I were a defense attorney, I would sure as heck put in search terms about my case, including the names of jurors. Why not? It only takes a minute to scan the emails Google sends you, and you don’t have to remember to search for things manually.

“But, how did Google pick up on the juror’s Facebook status?” you ask. Ah! Good question. Facebook’s “Recommended” privacy setting is for your status, photos, and posts to be public. (Also your bio and favorite quotations, and your family and relationships.) It’s easy enough, of course, to change this. But a lot of people don’t. In fact, Facebook would prefer that you didn’t. To be fair, they would say this is to make using the service “more social,” and that’s true. But I don’t care to share what I’m doing, or pictures of my kids, with “society.” If I’ve requested to be your Facebook friend, or I’ve accepted your request to be mine, it’s because I actually do know you. And every time I accept a request, I ask myself “would I care if this person knew the kinds of things I put on my Facebook page?” (I click Ignore, often.)

All that being said, I think there is a bigger issue here. People who use Facebook and Twitter regularly become comfortable with them. When you post status updates or tweets and your friends comment or reply, it gives you that warm, fuzzy, “connected” feeling. As it should. That’s what social networks were designed to do – give people a feeling of being connected with their friends, even though you might be separated by thousands of miles. However, the insidious nature of feeling comfortable makes you feel like it’s just you and your friends. You begin sharing things you shouldn’t (something the blogosphere has begun to call “over-sharing”), and you forget that anyone else using the Internet is, in effect, reading over your shoulder.

I have a friend at the Advanced Media Network, where I work on the Into Tomorrow show, who lives his life on social networks (hi, Rob!). He blogs, he facebooks, he tweets, he checks in on foursquare, and if something’s happening where he is – there are pictures of it, with video to follow. That’s not wrong, because that’s how he’s chosen to live his life. He knows you’re all watching, and he wants you to. That’s the whole point of posting. He doesn’t have to remember that social networks are public, because he’s counting on it.

It’s the rest of us (or maybe you?) who need to remind ourselves. Check your privacy settings on Facebook. Remember that Twitter is just ALWAYS public. Even text messages won’t STAY private, if you get yourself in any real trouble. Just ask Tiger Woods.

And remember – Google is always watching.

Friday, August 27

Swipebids.com Part II

A few days ago, I posted my thoughts on the "penny auction" sites, naming Swipebids.com as an example because their advertisements on Facebook were intriguing enough to at least get me over to their site. I expressed my opinion that penny auctions are a scam. They are at best a form of gambling.

Today, I was emailed a comment apparently from someone at Swipebids.com. When I came to the blog to respond to the comment, I couldn't find it. However, since it was emailed to me, I'll copy and paste it in here.
Good Afternoon George,

My name is Jennifer, Head of Customer Service for Swipebids. I assure
you our website is not a scam and is entirely legit, please visit the
information below for confirmation.

The registration
page where your credit card information is inputted into our system
, has 4 locations where we notify customers of our
$159 Membership fee. Provided in the link below, you will see 1 right above where your information is inputted, 2 are off to the left and the last is right above the "Start Bidding" button, which will finalize your registration.
https://www.swipebids.com/registration_pg2.php

We show on our website quite a few pages of past winners, included we
show the price it was sold at, retail price and you can even confirm the
tracking numbers by clicking on the number itself. We have also given
away numerous cars to bidders within the United States and Australia
which can be verified at the link below
http://www.swipebids.com/all_past_winning_auction.php

We also sponsor numerous children through World Vision, the link below
will take you to the site where we describe how it all works and how we
started by sponsoring 100 children and we continue to add 1 more each
day in our effort to make a positive change.

http://www.swipebids.com/world_vision_charity.php

If you have any other questions or concerns please do not hesitate to contact me personally at jennifer@swipebids.com

Regards,

Jennifer
Head of Customer Service

Our Winners: http://www.swipebids.com/all_past_winning_auction.php
Our World Vision Charity: http://www.swipebids.com/world_vision_charity.php
Our Customer Service Page: http://www.swipebids.com/contact.php
My goodness. Where to begin? First, my name is Mark, it is not George. That leads me to question whether Jennifer meant to post her comment on another blog, hit mine by mistake, and after realizing her error, came back and deleted it.

Next, she defends the prominent placement of the $159 charge. I never said they were hiding it. My previous post mentions it clearly, in fact. It was right there on the home page. Let me be clear: Swipebids.com is not hiding the fact that you will have to give them $159 before you can bid. They're just hoping you'll do it anyway.

After that, we see a declaration that people win these auctions. That is correct. Someone does win every auction. However, that does not change my opinion that they are a scam. Your odds of winning reduce dramatically as more people buy bids on the site, while the site operator's profits go up sharply. It's a lottery. Yes, someone wins every item. But hundreds more don't. They spend $159, they don't get any of the shiny items advertised, and they're presented with a consolation price that is worth less than a coffee at Starbucks.

Jennifer, if you want to dispute that, please give me just one piece of information. On average, how many LOSING bidders are there for each item? I'm guessing you'll tell me that information is confidential.

And finally, there's the tug at charity. Don't misunderstand me, I support anything that will feed hungry children. I give money to charity frequently, and if this company actually does give money to World Vision, they have my appreciation for that. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with how they acquired the money. It's just a cheap play for our emotions, and it comes across looking weak.

These penny auction sites are not illegal. I am not suggesting they are breaking the law in any way. They are, however, a lottery, a form of gambling, and in my opinion, a scam. They scam you because they do not disclose exactly how these "auctions" work, and they do not warn you that your odds of winning an item are actually quite low. At least in Vegas, you know the house wins 90% of the time.

I did get a bit of email asking for specific details on how these sites function. I'm going to link you to a terrific bit of reporting from Wired.com, where they explain it plainly and reveal just what a sucker bet these penny auction sites are. They've done a better job at it than I could have, and they deserve the link. Wired.com "Penny Auctions Bet on Chump Change."

As for Jennifer from Swipebids.com, please do not hesitate to respond in a comment. I promise you that I will not delete it, nor edit it in any way. You can speak your piece. The facts are on my side in this discussion.

Monday, August 23

The scam of penny auctions: Swipebids.com.

Today I was motoring around Facebook, clicking status and taking names, when one of those sidebar ads caught my attention. They did it by appealing to my man gene. There are three ways to appeal to someone’s man gene. You can show him a woman in a seductive pose, you can show him a frosty mug of beer, or you can show him a BBQ Grill the size of a Chevy with wheels and tires and enough gleaming stainless steel to blind low-flying birds. That last one is what they used on me. Just below the picture of Grillasarus Rex was the following text.

Click here to see how our unique website can get you your dream BBQ Grill at up to 95% off retail price. No joke.

Wow. Ninety-five percent? That’s a lot, isn’t it? With my man gene fully stimulated, I clicked on the ad. I was directed to a website named Swipebids.com. Brightly colored pictures of vast warehouses of items, one of which just HAD to be Grillasarus Rex, were plastered across the page, and bold type proclaimed that they offered fantastic prices on brand new items because they bought from warehouse closeouts and overstocks. Furthermore, the text assured me, I could trust this because it’s been COVERED ON THE NEWS. (This, dear imaginary reader, is where my man gene was wrestled to the ground by my suspicion gene, tied up, and stuffed in to a burlap sack closed with duct tape.)

There was a prodigious array of logos from major news outlets across the top, and right dead center of it all was an embedded video showing some generic local newscast (I think I figured out it was from the Atlanta area) covering auctions. Only, it was covering auctions of police seizures and repossessions, and didn’t mention a single thing about closeouts or overstocks. The point was made during the report that the items were NOT new, they were just LIKE new, which again differed from the Swipebids.com text.

(Here’s a note to all you would-be scammers. When you slap up a video that has nothing to do with what you’re advertising, it’s counterproductive. We will notice.)

So now, I scroll down further and see a panel of auctions that just closed (allegedly), showing me screen names that had bought a Honda Civic for $1700 and change, a Macbook Pro for $120 and change, etc., etc. Pretty impressive stuff, if it was true at all. Under that were some more auctions that were just about to close. For the same sort of items, at the same sort of price. Clearly the pressure was on. Bid, damn you, BID!

Luckily my man gene’s muffled screams could not be heard through the burlap sack. I scroll down a bit further and see two things of interest. I’ll tell you about the second one, first. At the very bottom of the screen was the now-standard disclaimer of all Internet scam websites that vouch for their products by saying the news media has covered them. We have no affiliation with the companies identified by the logos above. They did not publish anything about our specific service. However, the subject of penny auctions was featured.

So, let me get this straight. I can trust you because the news media has covered you, only…they haven’t? Charming. Right above this disclaimer from hell was a list of names and beside each one it said “Name Goes Here invested $159 and won auctions worth $SomeHugeAmount.” Aha! The scam shows itself in the light of day!

Here’s how these penny auction scams work. They get your credit card and tell you that you’re “buying bids.” Get that? You’re not bidding on items, you’re not buying items, you’re buying bids. Once you’ve bought some bids, the auction site will bid for you on items, bumping the price up a few pennies at a time. What they SAY will happen is, as soon as there is no available bid for a given item, the auction closes and the last person who entered a bid on that item, wins it. The problem is, you have no control over what item you’re bidding on, and you have no control over how long the auction goes on. It’s not time limited, as legitimate sites like eBay are, it continues to run until it runs out of bids.

You could win something you don’t care about at all (a number of people complaining about Swipebids.com on scam alert websites said they “won” gift cards worth between $4 and $10), or you could pay the regular retail price for an item if the bids continued to come in. It’s all very vague.

The one thing that’s NOT vague is that YOUR credit card will be charged $159 for a supply of “bids.”

There are two lessons for us to learn here. First, always be skeptical. Look over the entire site first, and scroll down to the bottom where the disclaimers live. Any time an auction website wants money before you can bid, that’s a bad sign.

Second, just because the ads are repackaged into friendly little Facebook sidebar nuggets that look just like the official bits that come from Facebook itself means precisely nothing. Those ads are PACKED with scammers who want a piece of Facebook’s 500+ million users.

Make sure one of them isn’t you, okay?

Sunday, August 22

The stock market and math

Not long ago, I had a meeting with a financial advisor and he shared something very interesting with me. Yeah, I know… What’s that got to do with tech, computer boy? As I’ve already reminded the both of you who read this blog, The Gray Geek is about me. And sometimes, I think about stuff other than technology. Not often, I grant you, but sometimes.

Anyway, the stock market. (My financial advisor friend did use a computer to show me this, by the way, so there!) Let’s say you have a dollar, to make the math easy. You invest that dollar and in year one, your investment gains 100 percent. How much do you have now? Two dollars, right?

Now year two. In year two, the value of your investment declines 50 percent. Now how much do you have? You’re back to your original one dollar. So, what is the rate of return on your investment over the past two years?

Zero? No. In fact, it’s 25 percent. Which sounds like you ought to be holding at least $1.25, but you’re not. You don’t have jack.

And that’s why you need to know the stock market’s dirty little secret. A smaller loss wipes out a bigger gain in dollars, but not in percentage. So the percentages look great, but long term investors are losing money. There’s an Oppenheimer mutual fund that I’ve been putting money in to for a long time now, years and years. Sometimes it’s been way up and sometimes it’s been down a bit, and recently I looked at the fund comparing what it’s worth to what I’ve actually paid in.

I’ve lost money. If I close it today and withdraw every dollar it’s worth, I will have paid more money than I have.

And the economists wonder why the small investor is getting out of the market and turning to bonds? They marvel over the fact that small investors don’t want to jump back in and catch the market at a low point, to profit on the ride back up? Really?

Here, I’ll help them out. Mister Economist, please take note. We can’t always figure out all your damn formulas and how those tricky percentages work, but we can count our money.

Saturday, August 21

BlackBerry Media Sync errors on Windows 7

Okay, here's the scenario. You have a computer that originally used Windows Vista. You downloaded the BlackBerry Desktop Manager 5.0 to it, in order to update and backup your BlackBerry. As part of that whole process, BlackBerry Media Sync was installed to help copy music and pictures between the BlackBerry and your computer.

Now that computer has been updated to Windows 7, and you notice the BlackBerry Desktop Manager 5.0 is now the BlackBerry Desktop SOFTWARE (perhaps we no longer manage things?) 6.0. Being a well trained computer user, you decide to update. Part of that update is to update the BlackBerry Media Sync from version 2.0 to version 3.0.

And then the entire process comes to a screeching halt. You're presented with an error box that says an invalid operating system has been detected, that BlackBerry Media Sync supports only Windows XP SP2 (apparently, they didn't get the memo about Service Pack 3?) and Windows Vista. It warns you that the program will now exit, and it does.

The problem isn't the new BB Media Sync 3.0 software. It works fine on Windows 7. In fact, so does BB Media Sync 2.0, but not the version you have! Version 3.0, you see, detects version 2.0 during its installation and attempts to uninstall the old version. And that promptly fails, giving you the false impression that the software you're trying to INSTALL won't work on Windows 7, not the version that's being UNINSTALLED.

This red herring can lead you on a wild goose chase, and if you give me a moment I'll think of some other archaic metaphors... Anyway, the solution is to update BB Media Sync to the very latest revision of version 2.0. You can download that file by following this link:

BB Media Sync 2.0

Run that, and it will offer to update your copy of version 2.0. Allow it to do so, and you have a Windows 7 compatible edition. Now you need to reinstall BB Desktop Software 6.0, so it can properly update you to the BB Media Sync 3.0.

Here's hoping at least one person is saved the hair-pulling that I endured tracking this fix down! :)

Windows 7 and the padlock icon

Have you ever looked at one of your folders using Windows 7 and noticed a strange padlock next to it? Have you ever wondered what in the heck that thing is? The padlock probably has several meanings, someone will need to beat the details out of some poor Microsoftie to know for sure, but one thing that it CAN mean is that some of the files in that folder (or sub-folders inside of that folder) have specific security permissions on them that are not inherited from the folders they reside in. In general, that isn't a good idea. You want to own folders, and then by extension anything in those folders. The good news is, there is a fairly easy - if a bit obscure - way of fixing this. You can remove the lock overlay in this case by resetting the permissions to be inherited, and removing all permissions that are not inherited.

Right click the folder, click Properties.
Click the Security tab.
Click Advanced.
Click Change Permissions.
Check Both boxes to Include inheritable permissions, and to Replace all child object permissions.
Click Apply then click Yes.
Wait for the list to refresh.
Remove all permissions that say "not inherited".

That should remove the Lock overlay.

You may need to uncheck Use Sharing Wizard in Folder Options on the View tab to see the Security tab, and may have to boot to Safe Mode as well, if running Home Basic or Premium.

Tuesday, July 20

Windows 7, Sleep mode, and the Blue Screen Of Death

For quite a while now, I've been having an occasional problem with my desktop computer. It's a big, fast, powerful rig from iBuyPower, the Gamer 930-I.

  • Core i7-860 processor
  • 8GB of RAM
  • ATI Radeon HD 5850 video card
  • Dual SATA hard drives running in AHCI mode. The boot drive is a 500GB Seagate and the second drive is a 1TB Western Digital
  • Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

Like most old-time Windows geeks, I know that when you have a second PHYSICAL hard drive in your computer, you should put your paging file (aka the "swap file") on that second drive. Run your operating system off the boot drive, and page memory to a file on the second drive. That's been the rule for as long as I can recall, and it's a good one.

(Quick break for the non-geeks reading this.) No matter how much memory your computer has, it will want a paging file. This is a file on the hard disk to which Windows writes "pages" of memory that are not being used. A memory page is just a fixed-length block of memory. Rather than move things around in memory one byte at a time, Windows does it in pages. The paging file is where Windows will move pages of memory that have not been accessed for a while, if it finds that it needs that space for a program that's currently running. If you have two physical drives, you should always put this paging file on the drive where Windows is NOT. This lets your computer load the various bits of Windows at the same time it's paging memory without causing the hard drive to "thrash" by moving its drive heads around furiously. (Okay, enough of that.)

I was experiencing two symptoms. Both symptoms would occur when the computer was attempting to wake up from sleep mode.

Symptom #1: The computer would start to wake up, then crash with a Blue Screen Of Death (BSOD). The error message would be something like "KERNEL_INPAGE_ERROR" or something equally incomprehensible.

Symptom #2: The computer would wake all the way up, but suddenly be unable to access any file or folder on the second hard drive. Opening the Computer folder would show that the second hard drive was missing.

In both cases, a reboot fixed the problem. So what was it?

It turns out that when a computer is returning from sleep mode, it would expect that all hard drives would be ready in 10 seconds or less. It also turns out that sometimes, big hard drives like my 1TB second drive take longer than 10 seconds to be ready. Hence the BSODs and the disappearing act.

The fix is simple. You need an updated MSACHI.SYS file, which you can download as part of this hotfix: http://support.microsoft.com/kb/977178/en-us.

Please note there are three versions of the hotfix, one for x86 (that's the 32-bit Windows), x64 (64-bit Windows, duh!), and IA-64 (for the both of you running Itanium processors in your computer). Also note that there appears to be a "Version 2" of the hotfix. So when you go to download the file, take the one for your operating system with the most recent date on it. I noticed when I did that, there was a "V2" as part of the file name in the hotfix file after extracting it from the compressed file that you download.

After installing this, you should not see any more problems with your computer waking up from sleep mode. If this helps you, leave me a comment and let me know that it was worthwhile posting it.

Friday, July 9

And as quickly as it came -- it goes!

In this post, Blizzard CEO Mike Morhaime said they are dropping the plan to add Real ID (displaying your real first and last name) to forum postings. In my prior blog post on this (see below), I suggested that Blizzard did not have to use real first and last names, if in fact all they wanted to do was make people accountable for their forum posts. Create a "Forum ID," link it to your Battle.net login so you can only have one, and there you are. Still anonymous, yet accountable.

In the current post, Morhaime says you will post with your "character name + character code." I don't have the details on that yet, but it would appear that they are doing exactly what I suggested they should. Not because I suggested it, of course, I don't for a moment think they read my blog. I'm not even sure that YOU are reading my blog, imaginary friend, but still I press on in hopes that you do.

Now, two NEW questions beg to be asked.

1. Did Blizzard do this as a PR stunt? The outpouring of love to Blizzard for "listening to us" posted by the same people who yesterday were calling for heads on the chopping block suggests that we might have been played a bit, here. Personally, I doubt it, because of my next question, but it's still a valid topic for discussion.

2. Will the consequences be long lasting? People did quit the game over this. In our guild of 39 accounts (listing the characters is meaningless, since we all have more than one), 2 people have canceled their accounts. That's only 10%, but if it is representative of players worldwide, then 1.5 million accounts were canceled. Multiply that by $15 a month, and we're talking about a yacht's worth of income here. That's enough to make even the behemoth Blizzard Entertainment flinch.


And flinch they did. Wisely so, I believe. Now we will wait and see whether the canceled come back, and whether those who were angered will ever get over it.

Wednesday, July 7

Blizzard takes careful aim...at your privacy, and their foot!

Is this the WoW killer? That's the provocative question asked by the popular MMO blog Massively.com in this recent post. Like everyone else, I have my opinions, but let's take a look at the facts, first.

1. Blizzard and Facebook are pals. Don't believe me? Here, read the press release. The plan, as I understand it, is to permit you to share your Battle.net identity through your Facebook friends list, AND to be able to import your Facebook friends into Battle.net. The net effect from either side is the same. Any of your Facebook friends who are also playing a Blizzard game will be revealed to you. You will be able to see what game and/or server they are playing on, and what their character's name is.

2. Blizzard added Real ID to Battle.net. Real ID is a system in which you send a friend request to someone in game using their email address (that's how you log in to Battle.net) instead of a character name. If they accept, you will then see them on your friends list under their real name, with the name of the character they are playing and what server they are playing on at the moment listed off to the right hand side. You have the ability to send a message to your friends even if they are logged in to a different server, or a different game altogether.

3. Blizzard announced that Real ID was coming to the official forums. Although it's not live yet, here's how it will work. To post a message on the official forums, you will need to sign in using your Battle.net account. Of course, you have to do that NOW. What will be different is that instead of selecting a character of yours to post with, your post will go up showing your real name, first and last. You can, if you wish, link a character name to the post, but you cannot post without giving readers your first and last name.

So those are the facts. The first question we must ask is why? Why is Blizzard doing this?

One reason is that Blizzard sees how much cash a game like Farmville generates through Facebook, and although none of the Blizzard games are casual social games like Farmville, Blizzard does not want to miss a money making opportunity. Don't believe for one minute that the sole reason Blizzard does something like this is to promote social networking among gamers. That might be the company line, but the TRUTH is that they are in business to make money. And if this helps them make more money, they will do it.

Another reason is that the official forums are, quite frankly, a cesspool. People create low level characters on a server other than the one they play on normally, and use that identity to post the sort of messages that you wouldn't take home to meet your mother. This has led to one of those phrases you only see on the Internet: "Post on your main or get out." Meaning, don't hide behind your anonymous character, post from your level 80 main character, the one we all will see in game, the one you have time invested in, and the one whose reputation you theoretically don't want to tarnish.

The flip side of that is sometimes you get more honesty when the threat of reprisal is removed. I have seen, on many occasions, messages posted by one of these anonymous level one characters that are brutally honest, saying the things that need to be said but aren't because of potential conflict with your friends. In a perfect world, you should be able to say anything to anyone, as long as it's the truth. But you and I both know that we don't live in a perfect world. People hold grudges, and the threat of that will stifle honesty at times.

Blizzard wants to change this culture. Forcing you to post under a single identity that is forever branded with your real name will pierce the veil of anonymity and bring accountability to the forums in the blink of an eye. There are some who applaud this and declare that it was long overdue. I am not among them.

The Internet is full of smart people. Even if I'm not one, and you're not one, they ARE out there. Time and time again, clever searchers have uncovered home addresses, telephone numbers, the names and addresses of relatives and employers, all from someone leaving their real name. It can be done and it IS done. If you have a disagreement with someone in game, it is not at all outside the realm of probability that this fight could spill over into real life. With everyone having access to the real first and last names of people who post on the forums, connecting the dots to enable such cyber-stalking is child's play.

Here is my opinion: This is a terrible idea and Blizzard does not have to do it simply to make people accountable for their forum rants. It would be a simple matter for Blizzard to link a "Forum ID" to your Battle.net account. All your forum posts would be made under that single identity, thus ensuring that you will not be able to hide when you insult someone, but without exposing people's real first and last name.

Whether this is a violation of privacy or not, legally, is murky. When you buy software or sign up for online accounts, you nearly always are presented with a Terms of Service that you must assent to in order to go forward. I don't read them, you don't read them, and they probably say we pledge our fortunes and our firstborn child along with our immortal soul, for the company to do with as it pleases. I'm quite certain that Blizzard has covered themselves for this somewhere, in one of the many Terms of Service screens we've seen and agreed to.

So I think Blizzard can do it. The question of whether they will do it still remains to be answered. My guess is that the backlash is so intense that Blizzard will back down and re-think this. But I wouldn't consider myself surprised if they pressed forward, either. Blizzard Entertainment, like my favorite fruity computer company, believes that they are Incredibly Smart and thus they know what's better for you than you do.

Oh, one final note. If you choose to exchange Real ID friend requests with someone, you should know that you can then see the Real IDs for all the OTHER people with whom your friend has done the same thing. And vice versa. Any Real ID friend of yours can see the real names of anyone else you've friended in this manner. You can't see any status on these friends of friends unless they send, and you accept, a Real ID friend request. But just having your real first and last name exposed in an online game makes my skin crawl.

Wednesday, June 16

A fix for the disappearing App World icon?

If you follow my Twitter feed, you saw me warning people about a possible glitch with the App World update from 1.1.0.33 (which I shall call x.33 from here out) to 1.1.0.35 (yeah, um, x.35 it shall be!).

I accepted the update - hey, App World itself offered it! - and immediately lost all access to App World. I did a battery pull reset, but to no avail (that's the ultimate solution to most BlackBerry problems...with the power on, remove the back cover and knock the battery out by tapping the phone on the edge of your hand, and no I'm not kidding). I looked around to make sure it wasn't buried in a folder somewhere. I uninstalled it and reinstalled it a number of times.

Finally I visited the RIM Community Support Forums. It was there that I saw this gigantic message thread. While it was comforting to see that I was not alone and hundreds of others around the world were reporting the problem, no solution was being proposed. I saw a message where some guy said he received an update notice to the BB OS itself, installed that using BB Desktop Manager, and his icon returned.

I figured what the heck, I didn't have an update to install but you can reinstall the same version again if you want. Just click Application Loader and when it shows you your choices, the most recent one will be checked. The upgrade process will back up your data and third party apps, so the most you will lose is some preferences and the occasional key for the purchased app. (Which, assuming App World returned, I would have no problem retrieving!)

It worked. The App World icon returned to my desktop, just where I'd put it back when I was running the x.33 version. In a massively ironic moment, Verizon Wireless then pushed an ACTUAL update to the BB OS (from 5.0.0.592 to 5.0.0.732 - don't you love BlackBerry version numbers always looking like IP addresses?). So I had the privilege of repeating what I'd just spent an hour doing.

After returning to the support forums, I saw a post from one of the forum gurus that RIM was advising a "Security Wipe" (Options > Security Options > Security Wipe) to fix the problem. Right under that post was a message from a guy saying he'd tried it and App World was back, now where was his data and all his other apps? Here's a pro tip for you: Make certain you backup your data AND your third party apps because a Security Wipe means "delete everything on this BlackBerry and reload the basic software."

If you're not sure what I'm talking about, here's a post I made back in April that will walk you through it step by step. I feel bad for the guy who killed his BlackBerry, but come on! If the phrase "security wipe" doesn't clue you in to the fact that stuff is going to be erased, I don't know what will. But I also want to slap the guru for not including the simple warning to backup everything.

Here's the bottom line. RIM didn't really FIX anything. All they did was tell you to "reformat and reinstall Windows," to borrow a line from our buddies in Redmond. Will it work? Absolutely it will. Do we know what caused the problem in the first place? Not a clue.

Go ahead and update to the x.35 version of App World. It might work fine for you. But know that if your icon disappears, you get to spend an hour (or more, depending on how many apps need to be set up again) reformatting your BlackBerry. Oh, final note, don't worry about pictures, songs, or anything stored on your media card. None of these processes disturb anything on the media card.

Monday, June 7

Is it a matter of time before iBuy an iPad?

Scanning the post dates on this blog tells me one thing definitively. I have more ideas than I have the ability to sit down and write up. I can't begin to tell you, my imaginary reader-friend, how many times I will stop during the day and think "Wow! That would be a great blog post!" And by the time I get to a computer, even if that's just a few minutes later, I can't remember what the heck I was thinking.

Yeah, yeah. The AARP sent me a membership card in the mail this year. So what's your point? About short term memory? Ah, right. I'd forgotten.

Now I carry a very nice smartphone with me, a BlackBerry Tour 9630. With it, I stay on top of email, Twitter, Facebook, and the RSS feeds of my favorite tech news outlets. It's glorious. I can respond to emails, send text messages, tweet, and update my Facebook status. What I can't do, realistically, is create blog posts. Now I HAVE done it at times, but thumb typing is just too slow to do it regularly.

I know what you're thinking. Silly Mark, just buy yourself a netbook! There are two problems with that. The first problem is that netbooks are an endangered species. The price of full-fledged notebook computers are crashing down on the price of netbooks, and tablets like the Apple iPad are thumping them soundly on the portability front. The second problem I have with buying a netbook is that I don't need one for this. What I need is something that is easy to carry with me at almost all times, instant to power up, easy to enter blog posts with, with battery life that lasts all day.

Heaven help me, that sounds like an iPad. No! No! No, I tell you! Not until Steve Jobs gives me whiskey flavored Apple Kool-Aid will I become a zombie.

Someone needs to make a usable, working, ACTUALLY ON SALE Android tablet, and quick!

And that silly 5-inch screen Dell Streak doesn't count. It wishes it were an HTC Evo, if you want to know the truth of the matter.

Oh, man. This could get serious. I'd better get some iTherapy for this iDementia before I whip out an iCredit Card and do something I'll regret in the morning.

Thursday, April 22

A funny thing happened on the way to living the rest of my life.

A Facebook friend of mine who happens to be the daughter of some close friends got me to thinking. She's almost 18, you see, and she's a senior in high school. The last two weeks of school are killing her. She wants to be on to the Next Thing so badly, she almost can't stand it.

Wow. I remember that. I'm going to be 50 years old this year, and I can still remember that feeling as if it was yesterday. Your breath gets a little short, your stomach has this really weird combination of feeling hungry and nauseous at the same time, your skin feels a little bit itchy, and you have to go to the bathroom. Yep, that's it. Nervous anticipation with a super sized side order of impatience.

Some time ago, probably when we moved in to our current house (let's see, that'd be almost 14 years ago), I found a box that contained some notes people had written to me back when I was in college. I don't think I intentionally kept them, and I certainly didn't keep all of them, so whether by ranked importance or random chance, I had a small number of notes that represented about two years in real time.

Almost every single note was from a friend encouraging me to get some rest, and saying how they hoped I get to relax soon. I kid you not, I had to sit down when I read that. I was flat out stunned. You see, from where I am now, I remember college as a time of playing guitar for an entire day, going somewhere just because we felt like it, hanging out with friends (sometimes all night), and just generally one big party.

When I think back on that time, I have almost the exact same physical sensations now, wishing I could go back there, as I remember clearly having back then, wishing I was here.

I've had a truly incredible life. I'm married to someone who has made me a better person, and who has built with me a family that I never hoped or dreamed I could have. I have two children who are smarter, better looking, and more mature than I ever was or pretended to be. I get to do work that I love for people that appreciate it, I'm not rich but we're comfortable. Faith, family, career... It makes me get teary-eyed just to consider what I've been handed.

Yeah, I've had my health problems. Some chronic crap, and oh yes, I got fat somewhere along the way. I sure would've taken better care of myself, if I'd given much thought to how much I was going to need my body as I got older. But that's just the skin I live in, it's not me.

And still, I wish I could go back to 18 again. But, only if I could know then what I know now. Because just to rush through it all again would be pointless. Yet, to slow down, I mean REALLY slow down, and appreciate how wonderful, random, and free it was to be young? That would almost be worth a do-over. Except, of course, that I would have to give up all that I have and am today. And in that little moment of clarity, the longing disappears. What I am today is a product of how life went, and is still going, and I would not change a thing. Not. One. Thing!

So I guess I'll do the next best thing. I'll blast out a blog post to nowhere, on the off chance that no one reads it, and that this nobody is 18, just getting out of high school or just entering college, and they're feeling like time is just draaaaaaaaaggggggging on because they can't wait for what's next. That's who I'm talking to when I say this:

Slow down. Next will get here just as fast if you enjoy Now.

Just breathe, dammit! Take a deep breath and look around. The days you have, right now, are days that you will one day look back on with longing because of how simple and free life was for you then. Please don't live through them in such a way as to wind up with a shoe box full of regret that's shaped like notes.