What Light Through Yonder Window Breaks

And so it is, opening with yet another horrible Shakespeare pun, that I pen this first post of 2013.  Happy New Year to you all.

Amazing, really, how the years go by.  It had been five years since my last custom PC build, and with the release of Windows 8 back in October 2012, I started getting the itch.  The casual browsing of PC components quickly turned into hours of research.  Today, I write this from an all-new custom rig, and yes, it’s running Windows 8.  Let me begin by stating I am a huge Windows 7 fan.  That was Microsoft’s flag-ship OS, and anyone who claims NT or XP hasn’t spent enough time on Windows 7.  There is no comparing the products.

So it was that after the first 20 minutes or so on Windows 8, I was pretty sure that it was going to have to go, and I would install 7 back on my computer.  No “Start Button” threw me.  I just couldn’t get over it, and the inability to close the Windows apps was mildly infuriating.  In other words, it was totally new, and I’m getting old and change is bad.  Fast-forward a few hours later…

I can’t imagine ever going back to Windows 7.  I’m not saying 8 is better, since it’s far too early in my experience with it to make that sort of a claim.  I am, however, saying that I’m enjoying several of the new features Windows 8 brings to the PC, and that even though I’m by-no-means a master, I’m enjoying learning about them and exploring once again.

Test

In summary, here’s a few reasons why – so far – I think Windows 8 is awesome:

  • Live Tiles: Far more visually engaging than an icon, and less obtrusive than push notifications.  They’re basically little RSS feeds encapsulated in small graphical tile.  Basically, when aggregated on the Start Screen, you get a nice real-time dashboard.
  • Social Integration: Much better than in previous versions of Windows or Office… Suppose I should mention I’m using the Office 2013 Customer Preview.  Basically, your contacts are pulled directly from your social networks (Twitter, Linkedin & Facebook).  Even the messaging is integrated with folks who may be online in various social sites.  The Outlook integration with LinkedIn and Facebook is also improved and easier to configure than in previous versions.
  • Desktop: Yep… Pretty much the same, with the notable absence of the “Start Button”.  Otherwise, everything that made Windows 7 great has been kept with Windows 8.  Been running for a week now, and no stability or performance issues.  Fingers are crossed here.
  • Cloud: Okay, I admit SkyDrive doesn’t have the press that iCloud has received.  Although, based on what I’ve seen so far, cloud integration with this OS blows anything else on the market away.  Even your Photos app pulls from social and SkyDrive.  All Office Documents automatically get kept in SkyDrive, and it appears as just another “Favorite” (along with Downloads and Desktop) in Windows Explorer, as well as having a custom app in the Start Screen.

PRO TIP – I know the graphic is abysmally small when viewed natively.  Just click for an enlarged image.

That The Devil Drives

First, let me begin by saying it is by no means easy finding a Shakespeare quote about cars.  Second, let me add that I am not a big ‘car-jock’, or anything like that.  I suppose it could be argued that this post doesn’t even belong on this blog at all, but indulge me for a minute.  You see, the last car I bought was back in 2004 – a Nissan Pathfinder Chinook, and I drove the hell out of it.  I still love that truck.  Main problem: three kids and my lovely wife don’t all fit in the truck, so I needed something with the third row, and I couldn’t stomach the thought of a mini-van.

Bill Gates once said “If GM had kept up with technology like the computer industry has, we would all be driving $25 cars that got 1,000 mpg.”… Clever, and not just limited to GM.  Automobile makers have been piss-poor at leveraging technology to make driving easier and more enjoyable.  Up until recently… Enter the 2013 Ford Explorer Limited – my new car.

Courtesy of Ford.com

I’m not going to prattle off all the features.  Besides being an abysmal read, I’d also suck at it, ’cause I don’t know them all yet.  All I will say, and really the whole point of this post, is that it finally seems as though they’re learning.  For years, cars have really only boasted about what’s under the hood… I think now more people (including myself) are becoming more interested in what’s on the dash.

For those of us who commute in our cars, it’s probably fair to say a good portion of our day is spent in them.  For those of us who love using technology, we’ve been deprived of a decent experience in our vehicles for a really long time.  It’s pretty cool to see what’s out there now.  Touchscreen displays, voice controls, wifi capability, vehicle reports and information, etc… It’s all about making time spent in the car more like, well, time spent just about everywhere else.  It’s about time.

In closing, GM did respnd to Gates’ comment.  Firing back, they stated “Yes, but would you want your car to crash twice a day?”  Oh GM.  Hopefully your engineering teams become as skilled at their craft as your PR people clearly seem to be.

Nothing Either Good Or Bad, But Thinking Makes It So

I had a debate a long time ago.  In general, it was about if something was popular, does that make it good?  Specifically, we were discussing the Backstreet Boys.  The elitist hipsters among us were categorically against this argument, but the more esoteric or abstract thinkers among us, weren’t so sure.  In other words, there’s something to be said for mass appeal and consumability.  For example, I personally don’t like Justin Bieber‘s music, and believe it’s but another example of the atrocities mankind is willing to inflict on one another.  Still, that opinion – from what I understand – puts me in the minority.  So, yes, it’s popular.  Still, is it good?  If we can all agree ‘good’ is subjective, and hundreds of millions of people believe it to be good, then it follows that by virtue of his music’s popularity, it is good music.  Ouch.

And so, to my dilemma.  As a long time gamer, the elitist in me would like to believe that games like Angry Birds and Farmville stink like turds covered in burnt hair.  Then there’s the harsh reality that Rovio (makers of Angry Birds) just turned down Zynga’s $2 Billion buyout offer.  Not much more commentary required the game’s popularity, eh?  The ease of design and play are testament to how an app can have over 600 Million downloads to date, with roughly 4,500 new downloads per minute.  Here I thought the games I played (WoW and Call Of Duty) were popular.

Look, maybe they’re not the games I like to play, but I can’t argue with the fact that my wife, who has never before shown any interest in video games, now spends a good part of her day flinging irate fowl at green pigs.  She’s online with friends (and strangers) playing Scrabble on her iPhone, and I’m loving it, because I know what it’s like to play something you enjoy.  The science is rudimentary and well-founded.  A level gets cleared, you feel you achieved something, endorphins get released in your brain, you want to play more (Rinse repeat).  I’m slowly realizing that graphics, plots, camera angles, sound and lighting may be important for me, but they’re not a universal recipe for success.

I guess I’m just saying that I always thought games on phones, tablets and Facebook were just dumbing us down, and simply were not real games – just giant time wasters.  Back to the argument above though.  It could be that these video games are reaching more people than ever before.  It could be that usability, consumability and portability are new paradigms in game design that must be taken more seriously.  It could just be… they’re really good games.

The Robb’d That Smiles Steals Something From The Thief

So it would seem I’m still able to choose.  A lot of people, from hackers to silicon valley billionaires, have weighed in on this topic.  I suppose the only reason I’m writing about it is because, in my opinion, I think most seem to have missed the point.  Technically, I’m still able to choose between pirating or buying copyrighted digital content.  Technically, I said, I still have options.  Legally, of course, there is the right way and the wrong way.  The problem, I suppose, is that I pretty consistently choose the wrong way.  I’m not going to sit here and write about why piracy is okay.  I don’t believe it is.

What I will write about, instead, is why I think the MPAA and the RIAA, and their international equivalents, have missed the point.  The problem is pretty clearly understood, but the way they’ve gone about trying to fix it is wrong.  As far as I can tell, governments haven’t been able to fix much of anything lately.  Let me clearly articulate the matter for our friends in Hollywood.  A lot of people like your stuff, but internet pirates offer a distribution model that is somewhat easy, provides many different types of format options,  and of course, is free.  Hollywood doesn’t.

iTunes vs Pirate BaySo what do they do?  As opposed to showing some ingenuity and entrepreneurialism, you know, like the pirates, they run to the authorities to clamp down on the internet.   I guess that’s one way to go about it, but what if those laws passed, and someone claimed their movies contained infringed-upon IP rights?  You’d think the last thing Hollywood would want to do is to mess around with laws that could engender censorship.  Like I said, the pirates are beating them at their mass media game by leveraging technology better than they are.  Here’s a few thoughts:

  1. Make It Cheap: Let me get this right.  With digital content, there’s no costs for raw materials, manufacturing, packaging, labour, shipping, and retail markup, as is the case for CD’s and DVD’s.  Yet, I’m still expected to pay $10.00 for an album or $25 for a movie?  C’mon.  Consumers are dumb, but we’re not that dumb.  Make it $2.00 for an album, and $4.00 for a movie.  Sales will rocket, and piracy plummet.  It’s just good business sense.
  2. Make It Awesome: So once I buy your $4.00 movie, I should be able to select as many different formats as I want, like avi, mp4, mkv, whatever.  Always with the options for mobile, etc.  Same goes for music.  Why do I only get 256 kbps m4a files on iTunes, when I can get 320 kbps or FLAC files on the Pirate Bay or isohunt?  Give me the best quality.  Sales will rocket, and piracy plummet…
  3. Make It Open: Digital Rights Management (DRM) is a problem.  You need it because you haven’t fixed the other two issues above.  I should be able to download as many different types/formats of the content as I want, once I’ve purchased it.  I should be able to make copies to put on mp3 players, tablets, or other computers.  I should be able to give a flash drive to my friend (just like a music CD or DVD) with the files.  If I don’t want to download it, I should be able to stream it to any device with an internet connection anytime / anywhere (iCloud, yes I know, but it should work on non-Apple devices too).  Sales will rocket, and… well, you get the point.

Of course, there’s tons of other things Hollywood could do to make what they provide easier and better than internet piracy sites, but they’re either too ignorant or too greedy.  Likely both.  You can’t blame Apple or the other distributors for the prices either.  The root is the production companies.  I want to support the artists and movies I like, but I also have a fundamental issue with being taken advantage of.  They can try to take away the choice, and it might work for a little while.  Another idea might be instead to show some of that innovation and acumen that made you successful in the first place.  Beat the pirates at their own technology game, and people (who mostly want to do the right thing) will support you.

Nature Does Require Her Times Of Preservation

I’m never off-grid.  I like it that way, and won’t change for a long time.  The internet is full of laments of how constant connection is wearing thin.  Strange, really, considering that without the internet one would never have that forum for their lamentations.  Look around you for a minute.  The internet’s not the problem (it is the answer, but I’ll get to that in a minute).  The problem is those stacks of paper on your desk; the drawers full of software; boxes in the basement stuffed with old books, pictures and music CD’s; magazines piled on a shelf; and DVD’s and Blu-rays cluttering your family room.  Every Christmas and every birthday, it just gets worse.

No, the problem isn’t about being connected.  The problem lies in the piles of shit we surround ourselves with, so it’s not really any wonder we feel shitty a lot of the time.  I wanted to write a post to get you thinking about your environment (both at a micro and macro level), and how employing technology can actually help it… And your mood.

  • Go Digital – For everything… Period.  Buy (or steal) all your music and movies online.  Pretty obvious, I know, but here’s a few others you need to consider.  First is digitized magazines.  There’s the popular Apple Newsstand, but you can always subscribe via coverleaf as well.  You get access to the pdf the moment it’s off the press, and can download a copy and store them right on your computer.  Secondly, don’t develop any more pictures.  Ever.  Keep them digital.  Digital albums are easier to search; take a fraction of the storage space and cost, and with digital frames, portable to anywhere in the house.
  • Mobility & Tablets –  When I first got my iPad, I actually had trouble incorporating it into my daily routine, but now I find it’s with me all the time (that I’m not in front of my PC).  If you don’t have a tablet, just go get one.  Blogging about iPad’s and Android’s has been done to death.  There’s a reason we’re moving into the post-PC era…  If you’re going to really go digital, you need a tablet.
  • Cloud Storage – You can get to your content anytime and anywhere you’re connected.  You either need to subscribe to a cloud service, like iCloud; or buy a NAS device that allows you to setup your own cloud service.  I’ve done both, so I’m pretty much set, although I use my own NAS much more heavily than iCloud.  Bottom-line: digitally storing your media is cheaper; easier to index and search; and doesn’t even take up any physical space.

Digitizing media is far greener than manfacturing, shipping/distributing and storing physical copies.  I used to think that to own something, it needed to be physical.  Over time, I’ve opened my eyes, and actually enjoy the freedom that comes with digitial content much more than stacks of CD’s, etc.  It’s the new year.  Think about a simple change or two to help your environment.  Maybe switch all your bills to e-post, or buy an e-reader, or rip all your CD’s and move them to the cloud (then sell them).  For me, all those stacks of paper are gone from my desk now, and the boxes and shelves slowly getting emptier.  It feels amazing.

More Matter With Less Art

I suppose the easiest posts are those when you slam something.  Criticism comes pretty naturally to many of us (myself included), but I think this time I’ll buck the trend.  My past few posts have hit on some pretty deep topics.  Video game violence, Google’s data-monopoly, Web 3.0, etc.  I wanted to kick it old school, for a change, with a simple product review.  Over the past few years, my router has arguably become the most important piece of hardware in my home.  Someone, or something, is always connected.  Unfortunately, for the past few years my router has also been one of the crappiest pieces of hardware in my home.

A couple of months ago, that all changed.  After years of my better-half complaining about the shoddy wireless range, strength and stability, I decided it was time to invest.  The debate was between the Apple Airport Extreme and the Linksys E4200 Maximum Performance Dual-Band router.  After checking out gdgt and cnet, I decided to give the E4200 a shot.  Turns out, I had chosen wisely.

Linksys E4200 Maximum PerformanceI suppose when you live with a shoddy router for a long enough period, perhaps one’s standards begin to erode.  Frankly, this is not the case with this router.

Ultimate speed & range: This router connects and can stream 720p video at well over 100 feet, with walls, mirrors, a microwave, and all sorts of other bullshit in the way.  The range is unparalleled, and if you own a larger house, and range is an issue, this is definitely the router for you.

Idiot-proof software: On July 19, 2011, DRYNET launched…  The new “Cisco Connect” software that’s bundled with the E4200 is leagues apart from that old “LELA” offal they employed with their previous generation of routers.  The interface is simple and intuitive.  It allows you setup your wifi network, plus a guest network in a matter of clicks.  If you want to go with more advanced stuff like QoS and setting wifi channels, etc, you won’t do it from Cisco Connect.  Most people, myself included, don’t need to.

Design & Function: Is pretty elegant.  No, it’s not designed by those hipsters at Apple, but I’ll take function over fashion anyday, when it comes to a router.  The E4200 no longer employs the array of flashing blue and green lights, but opted for a softer white Cisco logo that glows when the router is on, and functioning normally.  In terms of stability, many people need to boot their router every week or so.  Not this one.  I’ve had it running non-stop with over 9 devices connected and it has never quit once.

I’ve noticed only two issues.  One, it didn’t come with a wall mounting bracket, and two, it’s expensive.  Perhaps the most expensive home-grade router available right now.  Your call on whether you’d be prepared to pony-up nearly $200 for a router, but if you’re anything like me, and you have numerous computers, a tablet, a couple of phones, your tv’s and gaming consoles hooked up to the internet, all of a sudden a decent N-router becomes a priority.  Any questions, feel free to post!

Let’s Kill All The Lawyers

So California tries to ban the sale of violent video games to minors.  Odd really.  I mean, the gangs plaguing Los Angeles have existed for decades, and many of them probably grew up playing Pac Man and Space Invaders at the local South Central arcade.  Perhaps their state government should worry more about managing the proliferation of physical guns and violence, over their virtual counterparts.  Of course, their argument is that the virtual can lead to the physical, right?  Well, that’s debatable, I think, but for a moment I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt.

In fact, I’ll say this.  The video games I play tend to be pretty violent.  Actually, the ones I play now are universally over-the-top violent.  They’re games I don’t want my kids to play at their age, and so I don’t let them.  Let’s face it.  Companies are going to produce violent games.  Just like authors scribe violent literature and production companies film violent movies.  You know what?  It’s all okay.  Government need not be involved, and luckily the US Supreme Court showed some common sense, and erred on the side of the First Amendment, overturning the proposed ban.

London Sniper

Here’s the bottom line.  Parents must be involved in their children’s play.  To expect video game developers, retailers, or for Christ’s sake, the Government, to manage this above and beyond the institutionalization of a standard rating system, is not only absurd, it speaks to the ignorance people have of both their children and their pasttimes.  It also speaks to how they may be unwittingly supporting the suppression of speech and free expression in so many other types of media (supposing you agree with California’s overturned ban).  In fact, if you have kids, buy them games.  Buy them games suitable for their age.  Video games are really nothing more than relatively complex problem solving programs, and provided parents expose kids to games that are suitable for their age, they’ll see how quickly truly interactive media can help with a child’s development.  Scientists, not lawyers, have already proven the following:

  • Video games improve strategy and decision-making skills
  • Multi-player games teach team play and hone social skills
  • Video games can teach children about resource management, logistics, multi-tasking and tracking many shifting variables at once.
  • The obvious (and proven many times over) video games improve hand-eye coordination, peripheral sensory acuteness and awareness

There are many other benefits, as well as dangers, parents need to manage.  As a gamer and a parent, I can’t wait to play the games I like to play with my kids.  In the meantime, I’ll play theirs.  I’ll even let them win sometimes.  I’ll just be happy I get to play with them at all.