Category: Tech

Marketplace on NPR

So, since May I've been working a job that goes from 10 AM to 6 PM.

I like it. It gives me time to walk the dog in the morning, and getting off at 6 means I miss both the worst heat and the worst traffic of the day.

The biggest problem with getting off at 6 is that Marketplace is on NPR, and so that's what I end up listening to on my way home, because it's that or play Preset Lottery and try to find a song I like amid all the obnoxious pop and worse commercials on all the other stations.

I've been trying, for months, to figure out why I don't like Marketplace. Is it my innate disdain for the finance industry? The constant handholding on basic economics and technology?

No. I have come to realize that it's because the questions Kai Ryssdal asks are actually stupid.

Here's a bit from yesterday's interview with Amazon Studios' Roy Price:

Ryssdal: At this point, you might reasonably stop and ask, How did an online retailer end up making television shows, and, y'know, why? Roy Price is the guy with the answers; he runs Amazon Studios. Roy, it's good to have you on.

Price: Thank you, Kai; it's great to be here.

Ryssdal: So when you go to a dinner party, or your kid's soccer game, or you're hangin' out at the beach, and people say, "What do you do?" what do you tell them?

Price: I run Amazon Studios, and we develop TV shows for amazon.com. That's usually what I tell them, unless I'm in a kidding mood.

Emphasis added, because seriously, what the fuck is that? The dude says what Price's job is, and then asks him what he tells people his job is. This is, like, Tim Meadows as Lionel Osbourne-caliber interviewing.

And then he just keeps rambling on about how crazy it is that Amazon is making original TV shows.

This is not 1999. He is not asking why bookseller Amazon has started selling CD's, VHS tapes, and DVD's.

This is not 2003. He is not asking why media seller Amazon has started selling clothing, and advertising it with baffling recommendations beginning with "People who wear clothes also shop for:"

This is not 2007. He is not asking why physical media/clothing seller Amazon has started selling consumer electronics, household goods, and MP3's.

This is not 2011. He is not asking why physical goods/ebook/MP3 seller Amazon has started its own Android app store and video streaming service.

This is goddamn yesterday, and he is seemingly baffled that an online retailer that has been constantly branching out into new markets for the past 15 years has branched out into a new market.

Jesus Christ. I'd rather listen to Car Talk.

Excellent Games with Lazy, Halfassed Interface Design

So Arkham City was on sale on Steam last weekend. Between that and the recent removal of GFWL and SecuROM, and my Xbox (and my copy of the game) being recently stolen, I went ahead and bought it.

Compared to the Xbox version of the game, well, it's got all the same benefits and drawbacks as every PC game does compared to the console version.

Including controller support.

It recognized my outdated Cordless Rumblepad 2 just fine -- I'm not sure if that's internal to the game itself or due to the compatibility layer Steam's added in Big Picture -- but either way, well, it recognized the controller but didn't actually work right with it.

All the button pairs were switched. A and B, X and Y, the bumpers and the triggers.

All of which I suppose I could have eventually reprogrammed my muscle memory to work around (hell, the Xbox's button layout is already backwards for a kid who grew up with a SNES). But the fact that the Y-axis was backwards on the left stick? Not so much. Try playing a game where up is literally down and see how far it gets you.

And here's my gripe:

There's no menu to reconfigure your controller in the game.

There could have been. There's a menu option to look at the controls. You just can't modify them in any way. (Well, you can invert the axes on camera and flight, I suppose. But not on regular movement, the thing where I actually needed to invert an axis. And no button remapping whatsoever.)

There's a configuration utility -- outside the game -- which lets you remap controls...for keyboard and mouse. If there's a way to change the button layout on a gamepad, I sure didn't see it.

Now, the good news about this being 2013 is I could type "arkham city" inverted controls into a search engine and find a trivial fix -- as it turns out, there's a config file in BmGame\Config\DefaultInput.ini that has straightforward, cleartext entries with names like XboxTypeS_LeftY and XboxTypeS_A. Simply swap the names of the axes and buttons, and that's all it takes.

Which is great!

But the bad news about this being 2013 is I can't help asking why the fuck I had to look this up on the Internet and edit a fucking text file instead of just configuring my controls from a menu.

The last time I had a problem like this, with The Walking Dead, I found a forum post by a Telltale staffer who had this to say:

Unfortunately we do not have access to all the various versions of controllers that logitech and other companies make.

Which sounds perfectly sensible, and also completely misses the fucking point.

Now, in Batman's case, there are a couple simple reasons that's a bad argument: first, this issue occurs with the authentic Xbox controllers that the game is specifically designed for. Second, this is not a new bug -- see the link to the fix a few paragraphs up? Take a closer look at the URL -- it's for Arkham Asylum, not City. This is a bug from the original game that was not fixed in the sequel.

But even leaving aside those two points (which is only fair, of course, given that I'm quoting a guy from a different company talking about a completely different game), the central issue remains: this is the twenty-first goddamn century and people are making games -- PC games! -- where they don't give you the option to remap your buttons.

Yes, I know that hardware inconsistency is the single most difficult thing about PC development. No, I don't expect you to design your game to work with every single controller ever made.

But I do goddamn-well expect you to let me map my fucking buttons however I want.

Mega Man X did that shit twenty years ago. What the fuck is your excuse?

September

Yeah, I haven't exactly been keeping up my post-a-day habit.

I've been busy -- yes, busier than when I was planning my wedding -- and, well, it's been that kind of month. If I were to pick a single photo to sum up the kind of month I have been having, it would be this one:

Cone of Shame

So I've been busy. And I've also been a little wary of divulging too much about certain comings and goings and details of my life since last month's burglary. I don't think it's likely that the thieves are monitoring my blog, but it's not impossible.

Anyhow, I'm okay. It's been a tough month, but I'm hanging in there.

I turn 31 in a couple days. I admit that the future of this site isn't the biggest thing I'm considering, but it's on my mind.

Don't know if I'll get back to posting daily. But I liked doing it.

Don't know if I'll get back to daily Zappa posts, either -- I liked doing that, too, and I'm confident I could continue to do it for a long damn time, even if I continued to try not to use the same song twice -- but the bastard about looking for things on YouTube is you tend to find the same dozen or so videos repeated over and over again, with stuff you haven't seen buried somewhere around page 30. It kept taking me longer and longer to find something I hadn't posted before.

The site's probably due for a fresh coat of paint, too. I've spent enough hours of my day job fucking around with CSS that I've actually managed to develop an appreciation for rounded rectangles and box shadows. (But not gradients. Never gradients.) Of course, if I were to sell out my minimalist, oldschool street-cred with such eyecandy, I could make some back by getting rid of the red links and going with good old-fashioned blue. Possibly even straight-up #0000FF.

Or not. I'm hoping October's a better month, but so far it's not showing any indication of being less busy.

Still Headachin'

Left work early yesterday, and didn't make it in at all today. Rough week. Starting to feel better; hope that holds.

Not much else to add, I guess. Puttering around the house a bit, continuing to take inventory. Got my broken Wii to work with my broken CRT TV. It would appear that we literally can't have nice things.

Password Restrictions are Stupid

There are few things more infuriating than submitting a randomly-generated password and seeing it rejected based on some stupid asshole's stupid asshole idea of what constitutes a strong password.

Yesterday I encountered a site that rejected K"Nb\:uO`) as weak but accepted P@55w0rd as strong.

And my first day at my current job, we had to take mandatory security tutorials that, among other helpful hints, suggested that we satisfy the requirement for a capital letter and a symbol by putting the capital letter at the beginning of the password and an exclamation point at the end. Which, for those of you who are as bad at basic arithmetic as whatever moron put that suggestion in a security tutorial, defeats the entire purpose of requiring a capital letter and a symbol.

Which is, of course, why requiring capital letters and symbols in the first place is stupid, because "make the first letter a capital and put an exclamation point at the end" is what pretty much everybody does to satisfy that requirement anyway, even without official company-sanctioned security tutorials assuring them that this is okay and totally better than just having an all-lowercase password because math class is tough.

Customer Service Survey

I have no complaints about the representative who I spoke with; he was great. He was knowledgeable, professional, and responsive, and told me that they were aware of the outage and working on it.

HOWEVER, I have some pretty serious complaints about Cox's level of service.

First of all, my Internet outage lasted for over 12 hours.

Second, when I called, there was no recorded message informing me that there was a known outage in my area; I had to wait on hold for an extended period of time just to be told something that could have been handled by a recording as soon as I called in.

And speaking of recordings: you're seriously going to make me listen to the same four commercials, over and over again, on a continuous loop? Hey, kudos for finding a way to make being on hold an even MORE unpleasant experience; I didn't think that was actually possible. But I have to wonder, does Cox hate its employees AND its customers? Because this is just about the best way I've ever seen to ensure that a customer is as angry and frustrated as humanly possible before getting to speak to a support tech.

Put bluntly: Cox's Internet service is poor, rates keep increasing even as services are dropped (thanks so much for discontinuing Usenet support and then jacking up my rates five bucks), and saying that calling technical support is like pulling teeth is an insult to dentists everywhere.

Continuing bluntly: the only reason Cox has managed to keep my business is by virtue of being a local monopoly. The only other option for broadband Internet at my address is CenturyLink at 3.0Mbps, which is even more unacceptable than Cox's poor service, frequent outages, high prices, and legitimately terrible hold experience.

And, what's more, I strongly believe that Cox knows this, that the company is well aware that it has a captive audience and can therefore charge high rates for poor service and there is nothing else its customers can do but sit here and take it, because the broadband market has no competition to speak of.

In the short term, I begrudgingly admit that Cox has my business simply by default, because I have nowhere else to go.

In the long term, the market is going to change, competition is going to increase, and all the customers like myself who have spent the past decade being grossly dissatisfied with Cox's service are going to jump ship at the very first opportunity. A hard rain is going to fall.

I strongly suggest that Cox study the lessons of companies like Microsoft -- or, more dramatically, Blockbuster Video. Both of these are examples of companies that had a virtual monopoly in their respective industries. This monoculture allowed them to become bloated and unresponsive, and keep collecting money from their captive customers -- because where else were they going to go?

It didn't last. Technology changed. The markets changed. Blockbuster went bankrupt and, while Microsoft has held on to its majority share in the desktop/laptop OS and office suite markets, it has utterly failed to gain a foothold in emerging markets like phones and tablets, its browser market share has plummeted, and even companies that are using the latest version of Microsoft Office are likelier to use Google Docs for online collaboration.

Did this happen because Blockbuster didn't offer comparable, competetive services to Netflix and Redbox? Did it happen because Windows Phone is a poor operating system, or because Internet Explorer is an inferior browser?

No. Blockbuster offered very competetive prices to Netflix (no, it didn't offer streaming, but Blockbuster went bankrupt before streaming became Netflix's dominant distribution model). Windows Phone has received positive reviews, and Internet Explorer now performs comparably to other standards-compliant browsers.

So why did customers eagerly drop Blockbuster and Microsoft the first chance a viable alternative appeared?

Because that's what happens when you spend a decade taking your customers for granted, charging them a ridiculous rate for a barely-functional product or service, and generally treating them like livestock.

Yes, Blockbuster and Microsoft improved the quality of their products and services once competition started to pressure them into doing it. By then it was too late.

I know Cox is a monopoly in my area. I know there's no short-term incentive for it to improve its service or decrease its cost, because it doesn't have to in order to keep my business.

But if I were running Cox, I would think long and hard about the future. Someday, you ARE going to have a viable competitor. If you want to keep your existing customers' business when that day comes, you should probably start treating them better, right now.

The first thing you should do is stop making your customers listen to commercials when they're on hold.

Cox, Suckers

My internet connection has been down for about 12 hours. I'm posting this from my phone in glorious 3G, which Swype keeps "correcting" as.. well, when I type the thing it was correcting it to, it corrects THAT to something else entirely.

I should damn well have internet access for a better update tomorrow.

Duke in '99

North Sea Jazz Festival. Uploaded by Radio6NL.

A bit about Frank, and some interesting talk about the difference between a piano and a synthesizer, and '80's-vintage synth and how far it had come by 1999.

TANSTAAFTV

Stumbled across an old CRT TV today. Looks good -- 20", flat screen, surprisingly lightweight, even has component inputs, which I've never actually seen on a tube TV before.

It'd be the perfect TV for retro gaming, if not for the pinch at the top of the screen. Looks like it had a run-in with a magnet.

Seems like it should be modern enough to degauss itself, so I'm doing the thing of turning it on for a minute and then unplugging it for a half-hour and seeing if that'll eventually fix it. But I'm guessing the previous owner probably already tried that. In the meantime, I can't tell if it even reads the A/V jacks, because I can't read the channel number in the corner of the screen as that's right where the picture pinches down to nothing.

I think it'll probably end up at Goodwill and become Somebody Else's Problem and I'll just stick with the inferior-but-actually-working 20" CRT I've already got. Debating, in the meantime, whether I should throw $10 down to get a degaussing coil on eBay, or just try and use a refrigerator magnet. They say using a fridge magnet will almost certainly just make things worse -- but what the hell, the set's already not in working condition; it's not like "worse" is a meaningful distinction at this point.

Sure seems to be spitting out one hell of a static charge, though. I had it on next to my chair for a minute and I can still feel the pressure on my ears.

I'm the darkness, you're the starlight, and I'm burnin' up in here

So here's what I've been listening to:

That's Balance and Ruin, a 5-disc collection of Final Fantasy 6 cover songs from OCRemix.

Now, I think it's still fair to say that Final Fantasy 6 is one of my two favorite games, though I suppose it probably needs an asterisk at this point.

Digression: While FF6 is a great game, it hasn't aged as well as some of its 16-bit contemporaries. Super Mario World, Mega Man X, and Super Metroid, for example, still stand as the pinnacles of their respective series and respective niches of the side-scrolling platformer genre; they're as close to perfection as a game's ever gotten, and, as years of remakes, sequels, and knockoffs have shown, are pretty damn difficult to improve on and shockingly easy to fuck up. In the Square family, I've always preferred FF6 to Chrono Trigger, but I think it's undeniable that CT's graphics and gameplay hold up better even if it's a shorter game with less-developed characters. And as for A Link to the Past -- well, that would be the other of my two favorite games, and it needs no asterisk.

The other thing that needs no asterisk? Final Fantasy 6 has my favorite video game soundtrack. Its depth and breadth are stunning; it's Uematsu at the top of his chiptune game. It's the only video game soundtrack I've ever bought, and if you name any of the 12 primary playable characters, Kefka or Gestahl, either of the airships, or for that matter most of the locations in the game, I could hum the tune off the top of my head. (And I could probably get either Gogo or Umaro, too, but I admit I might not be able to come up with both of them right away.)

Now, I love what OCRemix is but the truth is that in the past I've found their work hit-or-miss-but-mostly-miss for my tastes. The artists there, understandably, lean toward the techno/electronica style, and that's not my cuppa -- which I guess may be ironic coming from somebody who's checking out cover tunes of old video game songs in the first place.

Anyway, there's a good bit of that stuff on Balance and Ruin, but there's a whole lot else, too. There are plenty of orchestral arrangements here, and the soundtrack runs the gamut from faithful homage -- A Fistful of Nickels, by zircon, XPRTNovice, Jillian Aversa, and Jeff Ball, takes Shadow's Ennio Morricone influence to its logical conclusion with whistling, vocals, harmonica, violin, guitar, trumpet, and Jew's harp -- to riotous reinvention -- The Impresario, by Jake Kaufman and Tommy Pedrini, reimagines the Opera scene by way of Bohemian Rhapsody with a quick stop at West Side Story on the way -- to impressively effective minimalism -- Shnabubula and Gabe Terracciano cover the entire Ending Suite with nothing but a piano and violin.

At any rate, it's delightful, and the whole thing's a free download. Go to ff6.ocremix.org and you can grab a nice legal free torrent of the entire album in FLAC -- or MP3, if all this talk about SNES games has left you nostalgic for inferior 1990's technology.

You know what it makes me wanna do? Replay FF6. Random encounters and all.

But which version? The new Woolsey Uncensored Edition looks promising. On the other hand, I liked Slattery's translation quite a bit too; maybe I'll give FF6 Advance another shot. With the music patch, of course.

I should probably finish Last Story first. You know, the soundtrack's no FF6, but Uematsu's still got it.