Category: Tech

Paycheck

The other day I was telling my family about my new job.

My wife chimed in, "I haven't heard him complain once. I've never seen him like this."

And I must say I'm enjoying it. It's not perfect but it's pretty good. It's challenging without being high-stress; it's corporate without being pretentious. It's crowded but the people there are people like me -- to my left, a guy with Batman figures on his desk talking about Kevin Smith movies, to my right, a guy with Daleks on his desk talking about Saga.

Got my first paycheck today. More than half of it, straight away, went to my bills. But the other half still made for significantly more money than I made in a week on unemployment.

I dunno if it's the best job I've ever had. But it might very well be the best job I've had since the summer of 2004.

Monoculture

Well, I was all set to write a post filled with righteous indignation at Apple's nannying and censoring ways when I read that Saga #12 was banned from being sold through the iOS version of the Comixology app.

But then when I sat down to write it I found that Comixology is now claiming Apple never actually refused it, Comixology chose not to submit it on the assumption that Apple would reject it.

That makes for a bit of a different post.

But a lot of the major points remain.

First of all, the disproportionate market share enjoyed by both Apple and Comixology in the comics market is cause for concern. Monoculture is a bad thing, and when there's only one distribution point for a product -- or two, or three --, that puts the producer and the consumer at the middleman's advantage. And it can amount to censorship. Or price-fixing, or any number of other ills.

Additionally, even if this is Comixology's fuckup, it's the result of Apple's notoriously vague content restrictions. Even if Comixology played it too cautious on this one, there's still the story of what allegedly happened to French publisher Izneo just two weeks ago:

Two weeks ago -- on the eve of the long Easter week-end, the site IDBOOX notes -- the Izneo folks got an order from Apple to remove the "pornographic" content from their app. With no clue as to what Apple would judge to be pornographic, the Izneo folks immediately took down 2,800 of the 4,000 comics in their app, cautiously removing anything that could hint of adult content, including Blake and Mortimer and XIII, both of which are published in print in the U.S. without any fuss. Then they reviewed those comics and put about half of them back, but that still leaves 1,500 titles that aren’t in the app any more. Izneo took quite a financial hit on this; turns out comics featuring "Les jolies filles un peu sexy" are their top sellers. (This story, it should be said, came from an anonymous source.)

And even though that story seems to be apocryphal, stories of Apple's arbitrary app rejection and inconsistent treatment of adult content are legion. The first time I ever browsed the iTunes store, the title of Bitches Brew was censored. In the years since, many developers and publishers have expressed frustration that Apple rejected their submissions and didn't tell them why. And then of course there's Jobs's famous Orwellian "freedom from porn" stance.

Ultimately, I'm an Android user because I don't want a single company to be in charge of content distribution. It's not that I trust Google -- I really don't. I have plenty of complaints about Google; they're invasive, monopolistic, and generally evil and scary. But the bottom line, for me, is that they make it much easier to run whatever software you want on their devices -- and as far as I'm concerned, the choice between Android and iOS doesn't take any choosing at all.

Peter Moore Gives a Master Class in Bullshit Internet "Debate"

Yesterday, in a discussion about bullshit argument tactics employed by corporate mouthpieces defending bad policies, I quoted a bit of EA COO Peter Moore's asinine response to his company's commanding lead in the Consumerist's annual Worst Company in America survey.

I picked one particular bullet point, but really the entire thing is an amazing example of what I'm talking about. Logical fallacies piled on top of terrible metaphors wrapped in insults to the reader's intelligence. I think the whole piece really deserves a going-over, piecemeal.

The tallest trees catch the most wind.

That's an expression I frequently use when asked to defend EA's place in the gaming industry.

You know, I used to live in a house that had a tall tree out back.

It's true that it caught a lot of wind.

It's also true that that wind made it pretty fucking hazardous. One time during a storm, one of its branches broke off and smashed through a block in our fence.

We were lucky it just hit the fence by the alley, and not power lines or our roof or our neighbors'.

You know how it got so tall?

By digging around in shit.

Its roots grew down through our sewage pipes. The place had serious plumbing problems for years and years.

Finally, before we moved out, my roommate (the owner of the house) had the tree taken out. Then he dug a trench in the backyard, and had the pipes replaced. The long day of digging coupled with the exposure to sewage made him seriously ill.

So, you know, "The tallest trees catch the most wind" is one way of putting it.

Another way is, the tallest trees are dangerous, expensive, and may leave you covered in shit and physically ill.

And it comes to mind again this week as we get deeper into the brackets of an annual Web poll to name the "Worst Company in America."

This is the same poll that last year judged us as worse than companies responsible for the biggest oil spill in history,

I'ma stop you right there, Pete.

I mean, nice weaseling on the plural there, but you're talking about BP.

I wonder why British Petroleum didn't win the Worst Company in America poll.

the mortgage crisis, and bank bailouts that cost millions of taxpayer dollars.

Now, here Moore makes what may be the only reasonable point in this entire piece.

And that's, yes, it is fucking ridiculous to suggest that EA's the worst company in America.

It's not even in the running.

EA may be terrible, but anyone who tells you it's the worst company in America is stupid, lying, or both.

The complaints against us last year were our support of SOPA (not true),

Moore is technically correct here, but it's a bit misleading. According to techdirt, Sony, Nintendo, and EA never actually endorsed SOPA -- but they did sign on to a letter from the Global IP Center that suggested something a whole lot like SOPA.

and that they didn't like the ending to Mass Effect 3.

Yeah. That's why people are calling EA the worst company in America.

That and they hate gay people. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

This year's contest started in March with EA outpolling a company which organizers contend is conspiring to corner the world market on mid-priced beer, and (gulp) allegedly waters down its product. That debate takes place in bars -- our audience lives on the Internet. So no surprise that we drew more votes there.

Let me cut to the chase: it appears EA is going to "win." Like the Yankees, Lakers and Manchester United, EA is one of those organizations that is defined by both a legacy of success, and a legion of critics (especially me regarding all three of those teams).

Again, Moore makes a fair point that there's an echo chamber here. The kind of person who hates EA is exactly the same kind of person who likes to game stupid online popularity contests. EA keeps getting voted the worst company in America for the same reason that Time's list of the most influential people in the world spells out "KJU GAS CHAMBERS".

But once again Moore brings up an analogy that maybe works on a level besides the one he intended.

Because hey, Pete -- when people say they don't like Kobe Bryant, maybe it's not just because he's so goddamn good at basketball.

Are we really the "Worst Company in America?" I'll be the first to admit that we've made plenty of mistakes. These include server shut downs too early, games that didn't meet expectations, missteps on new pricing models and most recently, severely fumbling the launch of SimCity. We owe gamers better performance than this.

Moore may be willing to admit EA's made mistakes, but sure doesn't seem to keen on acknowledging what those mistakes actually are. Watch him trotting out the company line that the problem with the SimCity launch was that they didn't implement its always-on requirement correctly, not that the always-on requirement was the mistake.

Some of these complaints are 100 percent legitimate -- like all large companies we are not perfect. But others just don't hold water:

  • Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It's not. People still want to argue about it. We can't be any clearer -- it's not. Period.

Oh boy, now we're getting into the real nutmeat of the bullshit here.

I covered this one yesterday, but to review:

  1. Yeah, it is a DRM scheme. It's the same kind of crap EA pulled with Spore's periodic authentication and the stories about players being denied access to legally-purchased copies of Dragon Age 2 for criticizng EA on messageboards, cranked up to 11. The always-on connection is not required to play the game, so why the fuck is it there if not as a DRM scheme? Which brings us to:
  2. Even if it weren't DRM, it would still be a terrible fucking idea that prevented people from playing a game they paid for. In fact, if it's not intended as DRM, then EA is even stupider, because they stuck an always-online requirement into a game that didn't need it for no reason instead of for a stupid reason.
  3. And finally: If you follow up the phrase "We can't be any clearer" with an argument that is literally just a slight paraphrase of "Nuh-uh!", maybe you should hire some people who can be clearer.
  • Some claim there's no room for Origin as a competitor to Steam. 45 million registered users are proving that wrong.

Okay, first of all, who is claiming that?

The problem isn't that Steam couldn't use a little competition. The problem is that Origin is a system whereby people's ability to play their legally-purchased games is contingent on whether or not a forum mod somewhere gets pissed off at something they say. Or possibly just gets pissed off when they ask Amazon for tech support.

Anyway, I'll get on the "45 million people can't be wrong!" fallacy in a minute. You had a little more mileage you wanted to wring out of it first?

  • Some people think that free-to-play games and micro-transactions are a pox on gaming. Tens of millions more are playing and loving those games.

Well, Mr. Moore, since you're the one who brought up banks and oil companies, let's talk about that for a minute.

A shitload of people still buy gas from BP and keep their money in Chase banks. Enough to make your "45 million" brag look like loose change in the ashtray of the car they're filling up with BP gas using their Chase credit card. And hell, speaking of ashtrays? Hundreds of millions of people are smoking and loving cigarettes, too. Does that mean everyone who thinks lung cancer is bad must be wrong?

  • We've seen mailing lists that direct people to vote for EA because they disagree with the choice of the cover athlete on Madden NFL. Yes, really...

I don't doubt it. The Internet is a big place. You can find someone who will say absolutely any kind of dumbass thing.

This particular rhetorical tactic is a close cousin of the strawman, with the added benefit that it allows people to act indignant when accused of invoking a strawman. "It's not a strawman! A guy totally said it!" All you have to do is point to the craziest person you can possibly find and pretend he's a representative example of everyone who disagrees with you, and presto!, you can just ignore all the people making well-reasoned and -informed arguments!

  • In the past year, we have received thousands of emails and postcards protesting against EA for allowing players to create LGBT characters in our games. This week, we're seeing posts on conservative web sites urging people to protest our LGBT policy by voting EA the Worst Company in America.

That last one is particularly telling. If that's what makes us the worst company, bring it on. Because we're not caving on that.

I love that one.

Seriously, it is a really tough call whether my favorite part of that bulleted list is the "It's not. Period." part, or the part where Moore straight-up implies that if you don't like EA, it's because you hate gay people.

On a related note: can anyone name an EA game that allows you to play as a gay character that isn't made by a subsidiary that was letting you play as gay characters before EA bought it?

We are committed to fixing our mistakes. Over the last three weeks, 900,000 SimCity players took us up on a free game offer for their troubles. We owed them that.

Ah yes, that would be one of the small, arbitrary selection of free games you made available, of which Ars Technica said:

It's a curious mix of titles, not least because only one of the games is likely to have any particular appeal to SimCity players: SimCity 4. And even that is an odd choice. Many SimCity players already own--and love--the old game, and many regard it as the benchmark against which all city-building games (including the new one) are judged. The problem is that those comparisons aren't necessarily favorable to the new game.

Seeing Warfighter on the list, one wonders if EA wants to be hated even more than it currently is. The game is a stinker.

But back to Moore:

We're constantly listening to feedback from our players, through our Customer Experience group, Twitter, this blog, or other sites. The feedback is vital, and impacts the decisions we make.

If you were listening to feedback, you would have cut this shit out after the Spore backlash. Or the Dragon Age 2 backlash. Or the Battlefield 3 backlash. Or the every single fucking game on Origin backlash. Or the other Battlefield 3 backlash. Or or or windy trees! Windy treeeeeeeeeeeeeeees!

But Mr. Moore, you've made yourself abundantly clear: EA does not give a fuck how many of its customers are dissatisfied, all it cares about is how many of its customers are still happily paying money for its games. As long as games like Spore and SimCity are bestsellers, EA has no incentive whatsoever to back off its terrible, anti-consumer policies.

...and after that there are two more paragraphs of Moore pretty much saying exactly that, another vague "we can do better" that doesn't actually acknowledge what they've done wrong, and a restatement of the thesis because Peter Moore learned in high school English that you're supposed to close an essay by restating the thesis. Fuck it, you get the idea, I don't need to go on.

Obfuscation

Continuing from Friday's post about a Microsoft employee's total disdain for Microsoft customers' concern about the next Xbox's rumored always-on requirement:

I want my game console to only be playable online, said no one ever.
Image via Quickmeme.
My Internet connection went down while I was trying to find it. I'm not kidding.

That's the crux of it, isn't it?

From a consumer standpoint, there is no benefit to an always-on requirement.

Now, people may try to obfuscate this point. They may list off all the benefits of an always-on option. And there are some! Cloud saves are pretty cool! So's online multiplayer! Having those things as options is great!

Making them mandatory, for all games, is not. And therein lies the disingenuousness of the argument.

EA COO Peter Moore recently shared this gem:

Many continue to claim the Always-On function in SimCity is a DRM scheme. It's not. People still want to argue about it. We can't be any clearer -- it's not. Period.

As difficult as it is to argue with the unassailable logic that is "It's not. Period.", there are two problems here:

  1. It's clearly DRM.
  2. Even if it weren't DRM, it would still be legitimately terrible game design.

This is one more case where a company representative is deliberately obfuscating the difference between a nice option and a good requirement.

The idea of an entire world of SimCities interacting with one another? That does sound pretty great! It's really a neat idea!

Is it integral to the gameplay?

Well, Peter Moore will tell you it is. Because Peter Moore is paid to tell you it is.

But it's turned out to be trivial to modify the game for offline play, and quite a lot of people have noted that the game plays just fine that way. The interaction with other players and cities is a nice option -- but it's not required to enjoy the game.

Indeed, it proved a pretty fucking considerable detriment to customers enjoying the game.

So beware this argument tactic -- "[X] is a good requirement to have, because of [features that could be implemented without making it a requirement]."

And its close cousin, "DRM is a benefit to the end user, because of [features that could be implemented without using DRM]."

DRM is never a benefit to the end user. No end user has ever said, "You know, this game is great, but it would be better if it had DRM."

Similarly, as the image above so succinctly notes, nobody has ever said "You know, offline games are great, but I sure wish they were as unreliable as online games."

C-C-C-COMBO BREAKER

Welp, I didn't post anything yesterday.

That's the first day I've missed since last June.

I didn't miss a day of posting when I went to Montana. I didn't miss a day of posting when I got married.

But, the server went down for a couple days, so here we are.

It happens. My hosting is comped by a former employer. And I know my old boss has had a busy day or two getting everything back up and running. He's a good guy, and it's not an easy job -- I think they've fixed a lot of what was wrong when I was working there, but I'd wager he's still overworked and underpaid.

For my part, I started at a new job today -- coincidentally, the same company that I refused an offer from to go to work for the aforementioned hosting company back in aught-six. I suppose it remains to be seen whether I'll be overworked and/or underpaid there -- but I wasn't today. Easy setup stuff today.

And then I came home and, for the first time in a month, felt good enough to hop on the elliptical.

It's good to be getting back in the swing of things. In both cases.

I think tomorrow I'll even get up early and hit the elliptical before work.


Reading: Rapture of the Nerds, by Stross and Doctorow.

Linux is Ready for Your Dad

Well, maybe not your dad. But mine, at least.

My dad's in town -- I'm getting married, you see -- and asked me if I could get him a computer to use while he's here.

All I had lying around was an ancient Dell Dimension 8230. I suck Win7/32 on it.

And then found out that the audio didn't work. For Dad that was a deal-breaker.

I opened up the box (and was surprised not to get a cloud of dust to the face -- I don't remember blowing it out, but I must have, and fairly recently) and determined that the sound card is a Creative SB Live, model number CT4780. And that there's no Windows Vista/7 support for it.

I found a third party driver at kxproject.com, but it hadn't been updated since 2009 -- and didn't work either.

So at this point I asked my dad if he wanted me to install Windows XP on his computer, and probably wait the better part of 2 days for all the patches to download and install, or if he'd rather I put Linux on it. He said to give Linux a shot. (He'd used it for a little while at home when his Win7 installation was giving him trouble and a friend installed it for him.)

I settled on Xubuntu for a machine of that vintage. The install was quick, it had a checkbox for non-free software (including Flash and MP3 support), and it seems to support all the hardware out of the box -- including the sound card. And it runs faster than Win7 did.

Now, my dad's not a gamer. He doesn't even use Office. All he needs is a browser and Flash.

Which is of course true of an increasing number of users -- hell, Google's selling a $1300 laptop that just runs a browser. So it's not like this is a major bombshell or anything -- but it's still an interesting shift, no?

Downtime

So the site didn't resolve for a good chunk of yesterday. That's down to a problem with the hosting provider; both its nameservers were down. That's a fucked-up day; I sure am glad I don't work there anymore.

I should probably back this thing up more often, just in case. I write up all my posts in a text editor anyway, and could restore them by simple copy-paste if ever needed, but it would take awhile.

Running the backend of the hosting company (which also offers rent-an-admin services, and which at the time was also a DSL and dialup ISP) is the toughest job I've ever had -- and the worst-paying, which is why I finally left; I'd have been happy to take a high-pressure job or a low-paying one, but not both at the same time. I've certainly got my share of bad memories of being called in on a Sunday due to a network meltdown -- actually, again, it was the third or fourth consecutive time that happened on a Sunday when my boss had promised to cover it and said it was okay for me to take a 25-mile trip to Tempe that I decided I couldn't keep doing it.

That boss is long gone, though, and another of my old bosses is back in charge. I'm glad he's got things in hand but I sure don't envy him -- and keep in mind, that's coming from a guy who's been unemployed for the past four months.

Lessons Learned in Wii Repair

Console Zombie's Wii Repair Guides are really quite good. However, after having rooted around in them a bit, I can make a few additions and corrections:

  • In addition to the listed tools, I found that I needed the following:
    • Razor blade -- many of the screws are covered by little stickers. I couldn't remove them with my fingers; I needed a razor blade to peel them off.
    • Tweezers -- and in some cases, I couldn't get them all the way off with the razor blade and needed to grab the corner with a pair of tweezers to pull it the rest of the way off.
    • Chip extractor -- I used this to remove the plug that connects the faceplate to the board. It was too tight to do with my fingers.
  • And speaking of the faceplate, the instructions on the Wii Case Opening Tutorial are slightly out of order. You can't remove the faceplate before removing the screws on the lefthand side; the front screw on the left side holds the faceplate on.
  • The Wii Optical Drive Troubleshooting Guide says that if you don't see a red light when you power on your Wii, it likely means the laser is bad. That may be true, but in my case it wasn't -- test the spindle motor before you go ordering a replacement laser.

Yes, I needlessly ordered a replacement laser only to find, after taking apart and reassembling my Wii, that it worked once and then went back to exactly the same behavior as before.

Now, I'll give this 50/50 on blaming the guide and myself. Because I was blaming the spin motor in the first place and didn't think it was the laser until I read that guide and it said that if you can't see a red light, you've got a bad laser.

But, there was some real foolishness on my part in not thinking to test the motor myself, something I should have thought of even though it's not in the guide: disconnect the power to the spin motor and see if you get the same result.

After I found that my new laser didn't work any better than the old one, I did that, and yes, I get exactly the same symptom with the motor disconnected as I do with it connected. Even if it isn't mentioned in the guide, I should have checked that before I spent $10 for a replacement laser I didn't need. Oh well -- you live and learn. Or sometimes you live and forget the shit you already know and are only reminded after you make a stupid mistake.

A couple more quick notes:

  • I ordered an eForcity screwdriver set with a tri-wing and a small phillips, both magnetic. It worked reasonably well for five bucks, but the reviewers are right: these things are flimsy, and in particular the two tri-wing screws on the bottom of the Wii are in there tight. I stripped the head of the tri-wing a bit and I wouldn't expect it to make it through a second round of repairs; it's worth getting if you only plan to use it once, but if you want to buy a tool you can keep and reuse, you're not going to get it for five bucks. Also, the magnet on the phillips is not strong enough to hang onto the larger screws that connect the optical drive to the chassis, which are the hardest screws to put back in.
  • Speaking of which: I'm both experienced and careful at repairing electronics, but I broke off lots of little black bits of plastic in working on my Wii. In particular, all four of the pieces that hold the screws where you attach the optical drive just cracked to hell when I screwed it back in. The parts inside the Wii are flimsy as hell and if you're the kind of person who'll be upset if you break something, you really shouldn't be opening up your Wii. Me, I'm a little disappointed -- but if I can get the sucker working again it'll all be worth it. (And if I can't, then fuck it, I'll just attach an external hard drive and rip all my games to that.)

And a final thought: man, moving parts suck.

I look through my collection of old consoles, and the top-loading cartridge ones all still work. SNES, Genesis, N64 -- you're just plugging a board into another board. I have never had an issue with any of those machines.

The NES, well, as you might expect I've had to replace the 72-pin connector. But aside from that single moving part, it's always worked like a champ.

You start getting into optical drives, though?

Well, in fairness, I've never had any trouble with my Dreamcast, GameCube, or the Sega CD I bought on eBay. Or my Xbox 360, though I've only had it for a few months.

But my PS1, PS2, and Wii all quit reading discs after a few years for one reason or another. (Also the second controller slot on my PS2 quit working. I don't know why, and it's not a moving part so it kinda undermines my case that moving parts are the problem. But not my case that They Don't Make 'Em Like They Used To.) And while I haven't personally had any trouble with my new Xbox 360, that console may have the worst reputation for durability of any yet devised.

Hard drives aren't a perfect solution -- after all, hard drives can sure as hell die on you too -- but they're a superior option, especially since console manufacturers have had the good sense to make them easy to insert and remove.

As we move toward SSD's, that's going to make for an interesting set of challenges in and of itself -- I've only been using one in my desktop for a few months and it hasn't failed me yet, but my understanding is that, while they fail less frequently than spinning-platter drives, they fail all at once -- while you can usually recover most of your data from a failing hard drive, if an SSD goes it's gone.

Guess that's an argument for cloud saves. Which, at the rate Nintendo is progressing with its Internet support, should be available sometime around 2048 (but will not allow me to load my own save on my grandchildren's console).

And of course there's a downside to digital delivery as currently implemented: you don't own your game. It's DRM'ed and you can't resell it. For that reason, despite all the bullshit involved in using an optical drive, I still prefer to buy my games on digital media when I can.

Skyfallin'

The theme of Skyfall is the conflict between the old and the new. You can tell because every third line of dialogue reminds you of this.

I think the trouble is that the writers and director don't seem quite clear on what that premise actually means.

Spoilers follow.

Does Silver represent the new, because he is a computer hacker and a new kind of enemy? Or does he represent the old, because he's a Cold War-era agent who's gone rogue for reasons that are entirely tied to the way M has run MI6?

There's also the question of the contrast between the original Bond films and the Craig-era ones. This movie makes a big point of bringing back the trappings of the original films -- Moneypenny, Q, a 1960 Aston Marton with machine guns -- but it also makes a big point of how the original movies felt a lot more high-tech and futuristic than the current ones. (The gadgets Q gives Bond are "A radio and a gun -- not exactly Christmas, is it?") So which is the old and which is the new? And that's before you even get into the point that Craig's Bond, and Casino Royale as a whole, are throwbacks to Fleming's novels, the oldest version of Bond there is.

There's another conflict between the old and the not-quite-so-old: the last two Bond films seemed intent on introducing Quantum as the new, non-infringing version of SPECTRE, a shadowy organization that would pose a recurring threat through the rebooted franchise. And then, in Skyfall? No trace of Quantum at all. We're back to isolated, one-off villains -- perhaps because someone at the recovering-from-bankruptcy MGM realized that self-contained movies without recurring villains just make more sense for the film franchise. (Hell, even when the old films were using Blofeld as their go-to villain, they still had a different actor in the role every time; it may as well have been a different character.)

On the whole, though, it all hung together pretty well; I thoroughly enjoyed the first and third act. (The second act was stupid and had Magic Computers. I don't know where the writer picked up the phrase "security through obscurity", but apparently he missed the part where it is not an expression any security professional would ever use without sneering. The less said about the movie's idea of data encryption and depiction of code as a stupid-looking early-1990's wireframe screensaver the better.) But nonetheless, perfectly decent. Though I'm kinda glad I waited to see it at the cheap theater.

Software RAID 10 on OSX

Well, as mentioned, after several years and many a misadventure, I've given up on RAIDZ for Mac and decided on good ol' dependable RAID 10. Today I finally got around to building the array...and realized I'd forgotten how to do it.

Fortunately, it's well-documented on Apple's site. The trick is that you build all 3 RAID sets (two RAID 1/mirrored, one RAID 0/striped) at once; you can't build the two RAID 1 sets and then add them both to a RAID 0 set afterward.

Course, the next step is to copy all the files off her old drives onto the new array, and that is going to take a lot longer -- especially since I don't have a spare FireWire 800 (or even 400) enclosure and I have to use USB 2. It'll be at that copy all night, and that's just the first drive. Which means no rebooting to play The Walking Dead like I'd hoped.

So it goes -- my wedding's in three weeks and I need to get this done so Gran can put a video together for it.