Good News and Bad…

Okay, first the bad news:  all you people playing video games non-stop are screwed.  Apparently playing extensively shrinks your cognitive brain.  Sorry, that’s pretty rough.  I mean, at least playing while drunk won’t…

Oh, crap.

Okay, so all those folks you know who spend twelve hours a day while wasted, get about four hours of sleep, and then work just long enough to feed their addiction?  They’re literally playing their brains smooth.

Meanwhile, on the upside, scientists have created an artificial hippocampus – on a chip – and used the model on rats.  (The hippocampus is the part of our brain organ that is responsible for the formation of memory.)  They planted the chip in these rats, and then used drugs to suppress the natural hippocampus.

And it worked.  The chip-based module replicated the brain’s natural function.  The rats learned and had memory as if there was nothing askew.

Now we’re a long way from replicating the memory-formation of “press this to get food” and remembering Lord of the Rings and having that replicated, but this is a BIG first step in that effort.  Highly cool.  I suppose there’s a downside if you’re a half-empty sort:  this is also a major step in having a “live” mind within silicon – we’re a step closer to SkyNet or ViKi…

 

Review: “A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906”

Quality of Information: 10

Delivery: 8

This book was written a few years ago, and I purchased it while living in the UK for use as a pass-time during the winter.

I have to start out by saying that Simon Winchester is a superb historian – as well as a great journalist.  He studies a topic exhaustively before committing its story to paper, and in this case tectonic geology is the subject of his eye.  Both the science and the history of the science are presented here, and it’s a great primer for anyone who wants to get some basics of that particular field.

As well, Winchester goes through the history of California, and the San Francisco area in particular – how it grew from a simple town to a burgeoning metropolis in such a rather short time.

His depth, to a small degree, is also a detractor – the exhaustive nature of the coverage can at times be exhausting to read.  Overcoming this can be done fairly easily simply by parsing out the chapters into smaller doses, if needed.

All this serves as the buildup to explain the full impact of the natural disaster that transpired in only a few minutes, destroying most of the city over the following few days.  I’ll be traveling back to the US in September, and a weekend in San Francisco is on the schedule, so I’ll probably have to come back to this book again just prior so as to observe the area with a new eye.

Overall, if you’re a fan of history, this is a great read.

 

Review: Logitech diNovoEdge Keyboard

Usability: 8

Features: 8

Appearance: 9

Overall: 8

Well, after a thoroughly disappointing time with the Logitech Gaming Keyboard, I replaced it last week with the diNovoEdge.  I’d read some reviews of it and it seemed to be getting positive responses, so after some consideration I decided to give Logitech a chance to redeem itself.  After a week, I can say that yes, this is a really decent piece of hardware.  I’ve been wanting to do a lot of writing on my main desktop, and the sticky “O” area on my other keyboard was becoming an enormous pain in the ass.

On the con side – the keys are small.  Not Herve’ Villachez small, but small.  Left shift and Enter most notably are narrow.  In a form factor as wide as this, I don’t really understand why they didn’t spread out a little more and carry the keys closer to the edges.  This is not a major buzz-kill, more just a feature that causes me to wonder a bit about its design.

The mouse buttons take a solid press to activate.  Don’t like that.  When I click something, I want it clicked now, not after my third try.  To counter this, the trackpad’s sensitivity is pretty standard, so I can get things done there when I don’t want to deal with the mouse buttons.

Number pad:  this is my biggest beef with this keyboard.  I like number pads.  A lot.  Enough that I’m considering buying one anyway to sit on my desk, since this keyboard doesn’t have one.  Sigh.  Could have been a 10 with a number pad.

Charging:  charging’s fine.  It recharges when put in its cradle.  However, for some reason leaving the keyboard in the charger (which is powered by its own electrical cord, not by USB) causes the computer to wake up from Sleep mode.  That’s a pain.  I put my PC to sleep when I stop using it most of the time, not shut down.  Having my keyboard keep the machine awake is not optimal.  I don’t even know why it’s doing that.  I would have thought the programmers at Logitech would have said “Keyboard is charging, send the message to the driver and then stop sending messages until I’m picked up out of the charger, or unless the driver asks me specifically what my charge level is.”  Instead, I suspect what’s happening is that the keyboard is doing the equivalent of the Microsoft Clippy-the-Paperclip:  “Hey, looks like I’m charging!”…”Hey, looks like I’m charging!”…”Hey, I’m still charging!” etc.

Pros: I’ll start with the fact that it’s pretty.  Very pretty.  Aluminum base and wrist-rest, black something elsewhere, and good non-intrusive lighting (orange, which doesn’t freak out my night-vision if I’m up late).  It looks very cool, and sits low on the table even with legs extended.

Keystroke travel is short – about on par with an average notebook – and very smooth.  The keyboard itself, while thin, has a satisfactory weight to it that gives it a good “heft”, as well.  It is wireless, which I am unsure about (I don’t like the idea of my keyboard running out of charge at an inopportune moment, but that hasn’t happened yet, so I may be worried about nothing).  I haven’t yet figured out the distance at which it loses its ability to talk to the included Bluetooth hub, but it seems fine within my living room, which is probably about all that matters.

Having a built-in track pad is a pretty nice feature – though it’s mounted on the right rather than in the “notebook standard” center beneath the keys…so I find myself occasionally going after it with my thumb only to find it isn’t there.  This is actually a benefit, because with notebooks I am constantly cursing them for letting my thumb accidentally swipe a select across entire paragraphs of text, which then get wiped out with the next keystroke.  Just having the track pad there on the keyboard saves me from switching to a mouse all the time, which is itself really good when I’m just navigating on the desktop.  Wouldn’t use it in a game, but it does the job.  The touch-volume control is also pretty nice, even if it is “gadgety” (read: I don’t really know why they went with this metaphor – it’s cool, but it takes up a lot of space that could have been better served with some extra key space).

The included software (used for re-mapping certain keys) installs okay, but is a pretty awful UI for its intended purpose.  Someone needs to clue in the folks at Logitech that they can use a bigger chunk of my screen if it’ll help me figure out how to use their apps better.  I won’t be running their config tool that often that a big screen footprint will bother me.

Charger has a really small footprint, and can be set on a tower case without blocking the ventilation grille.  No problem.  Dropping the keyboard in there gives you both an audio and visual cue that the board is now charging.  Good on both fronts.

Overall: 8 out of 10.  I’m glad I bought it, and I’d recommend buying it to practically anyone.  I certainly am looking forward to doing a lot of writing on it.

 

How pathetic is this?

The Android app store, among its top free apps, there must be almost 50% of them being bibles, LDS manuals, Qu’rans, and assorted religious crap.  Dudes, you have one book each.  You probably already have a copy at home somewhere.  Do you seriously think that having an android app is going to make a whit of difference?  You have the non-digital version and you fail to understand its vague and crappy message already.  How will having it on your phone or tablet make a lick of difference?

“But look, Jesus, I even downloaded a copy of the KJV!  Can’t I get into heaven now?”

One answer for you:

No.

 

Farewell, Spirit

Today is the last day NASA will be sending out a call for our wayward rover, Spirit.  As an exploration platform, it exceeded expectations by such a dramatic extent that to call it a fantastic success would be a terrible understatement.

Sometime a bit more than a year ago, we stopped receiving responses from it, but have been continuing to send out a call.  The hope (however slim) that we might get a response was still there.  But it’s time to turn the lights off.

Farewell, Spirit.  You did an Olympian’s job, little fella.

Game Review: The Witcher 2 – Assassins of Kings

Review: “The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings”

Gameplay (entirely subjective – how much fun did I have?  Would I play this again?): waiting

Visuals (graphics quality, atmosphere, realism):  9.0

Audio (includes sountrack, effects, etc.): 9.0

Storyline (writing, pure and simple):  waiting

Delivery (packaging, contents, what you get): 10

Technical (Did it install?  Did I have to answer a zillion questions?  Did it break my machine?  Time from opening box to play?):  7.0

Overall:  So far, 8.75. That’s going to change, maybe, once I get some serious play-time logged on it.

 

I’ve just received my copy of “The Witcher 2 : Assassins of Kings” (published by CDPROJEKT) – the “Premium Edition.”  There is also a “Collector’s Edition” that contains a few extra doodads for those who really dig the collectibles aspect of games, and a digital-only version is available from Impulse as well.

For those of you unaware of the background, “The Witcher” is a fantasy RPG themed on the book series whose title it borrows.  The basic premise is that the Witchers are modified humans, who are mercenary monster-hunters, and the character you play is Geralt, the main character of the book series (heavily influenced by Michael Moorcock’s Elric, Geralt has an albinistic appearance and even is referred to as the “White Wolf” on occasion).  As of the end of the last game, you have become something of a trusted asset of the king (if perhaps not a friend), and your job in this installment is to both protect him as well as find out where these assassins are coming from.  Because they seem to be similar in many respects to Witchers!

Okay – on first opening the box, I was pretty impressed with the contents.  Separate cases for the game DVD and the bonus materials (an audio sountrack CD and a DVD containing trailers, dev diaries, and so on).  A gloss-paper map of the world, some paper doll cutouts (wtf?), and a replica coin representing the currency of the kingdom of Temeria (the world in which all this takes place).  All of it is packed in a good heavy-cardstock box.  Pretty impressive.

Until I plugged in the CD, and my machine hung while trying to rip the music to my library.  Seems the first and last track don’t get along well with this laptop (a MacBook Pro running Win7 natively).  We’ll see what happens tonight when I try that again with my regular beast Windows box.

That said, the rest of the music is good – in fact, it wins my vote as “Music to play D&D to.”  It’s a great soundtrack.  In past games I’ve had CDs lined up for background music that would include soundtracks from films like Aliens, LotR, Star Trek 2 & 6, The Chieftains, etc., and this is the second set of tunes I’ve ever heard from a game that I would welcome among that set.  First one was Myth: The Fallen Lords, which had a bust-ass bit of music (and also published a soundtrack CD, which I still have in a box somewhere).

Okay, now down to the nitty gritty:

Visuals:  Stunning.  Really, really good.  This is the first time I’ve seen a game come this close to echoing a real walking world.  I’d have to say it’s a bit like having taken the beauty of Bethesda Softworks’ Oblivion game and combined it with a solid method of making the characters and scenery move naturally.  I’d say we’re probably a few generations short of seeing something as good as a Pixar movie, and this is definitely one of the steps in that direction.

One drawback:  because the texturing and general motion are so good, it calls your attention to the little things that don’t work.  Like fingers that don’t move, lips that don’t sync with the words coming out of them, etc.  When characters were sitting down somewhere, their hands didn’t do anything.  They just lay there like dead things.  That’s not a natural behavior, and it does become noticeable because the rest of the body seemed to move like you’d expect.  Same with lips, they suffer a bit of Howdy-Doodyness, opening and closing at appropriate times, but they don’t shape around the words.  That said, the rest of the world is really amazing…I did have some texture flicker on a few surfaces (I’ve got the quality set to high, but I expect it to work, since I’m running a dual-Nvidia setup with SLI going), but overall just really lovely.

Audio:  I gave you the gist on the soundtrack earlier, so that’s a big thumbs-up on me there.  Voices are clear and audible (though I was a little annoyed at the choice of Geralt’s voice actor – it doesn’t sound like he did in TW1, so perhaps my expectation was a little off; overall his voice just seemed too high-pitched for his body).  Background sound effects are well aligned and help create that sense of immersion you want out of a game like this.  I don’t run a 5.1 setup, but on a 2.1 it’s still great.

Delivery:  I mentioned above the contents of the box – great.  Really solid.  I’d love to see this in a metal box similar to some DVD sets these days, but I recognize the needs imposed by production costs.  One note – in the Premium Edition (and I think in the Collector’s box too), there’s a “Game Guide.”  That little book is FULL of spoilers.  Don’t pick it up unless you’re stuck.  It looks as though it would be a supplemental manual, so it’s easy to take it off to the can and read it, but you’re going to soon find it basically is a walkthrough.  You’ve been warned.

Technical: Have a few bones to pick here.  First off, the soundtrack ripped fine on my native Windows machine, no problem.  The issue above is restricted to the Mac hardware.  With regard to the rest of the software, there were a couple problems.  The installation (two DVDs worth of it) went just fine as well, with the exceptions mentioned below.

One – the license key.  There is nothing I hate more than a big sixteen-character license key that’s case-sensitive and all caps.  Used to have those on Delphi and they were a pain in the ass then, too.  However, at least there we had the sense to insert hyphens for the user or move them to the next box once they entered a set, and advance them through the UI as they continued to enter new values.  The installation of TW2 required me to enter that key no less than five times before it finally realized I was trying to enter it and decided to let me proceed.  WOW is that annoying.

Two – Downloadable content.  I’m appreciative that a side quest module is offered in exchange for registering, thanks.  That makes the effort worthwhile.  Also, thanks for keeping a memory of that godawful long code and entering it for me when registering.  However, once I got it registered, and chose the DLC I wanted, then activated it, it didn’t show me what was going on.  All I got was “downloading” with a little shaky box.  No progress bar, no indication that it was succeeding, not even an idea of how much total volume I was pulling down.  That’s a problem.  I waited over an hour while that little box shivered like an epileptic Jack-Russel terrier.  Same thing happened when I entered my pre-order code from Amazon.  Grrrr.  I’ll be trying again tonight, and hopefully it’ll work this time.

Three – keymappings.  I’m left-handed, and my mouse sits on the left of my keyboard.  First thing I generally do in any game environment is to re-map the really important keys (the WASZ set, a few weapon keys, jump and run, etc.) to my number-pad where my right hand can deal with them while my left mouses away.  In what might be the worst oversight I have ever seen (with the exception of the shipping of that turdburger jet flight sim that never worked, by the folks who did Wing Commander) TW2 has no keymapping override interface.  At least, none I can find.  HUGE problem.  Aside from wandering around and looking at the scenery, I’m not even going to bother trying to explore the game further until I can get a re-mapping interface.  Combat?  Forget it.  I just don’t have the patience to dick around with ini files as some of the users on the forums have advised.

Conclusion:  Don’t really have one yet.  As soon as there’s a keymapping interface, I’ll dig in and log some playtime to complete this review.  Until then, it looks like a solid 8.75, but if you’re a lefty you’re going to be frustrated.  I’ll amend this review when that oversight is corrected.  Would I recommend it?  Yeah, probably still would – TW1 was really good, and this has all the appearances that it’ll be just as, if not better than.  So I’m looking forward to it, but I’ll just have to wait.

 

Dear Mr. President –

Dear Mr. President –

It’s been a while since I last wrote, almost two years in fact.  I have to say, it’s been a long while coming.  You’ve accomplished quite a lot, and for most of that I am pretty appreciative.

There’s this thing, though, that keeps cropping up.  It’s been really bothering me, and although I’ve tried to set my feelings aside, I have to talk about it.  For starters, please don’t get me wrong, I still think you’re an okay guy.

What’s that thing, you ask?  Well, it’s this.

Bipartisanship.

It keeps cropping up.  More accurately, you seem to be letting it get in the way of accomplishing things.  What bothers me about this, and from what I understand it bothers a lot of other people, too, is that you just seem to be a little too nice to the people who want to destroy us.

See, the problem here is that I didn’t vote for the Tea Party back in 2008.  They’re out of their gourds, and they’re pretty damned stupid, to boot.  I mean, let’s be serious here – Michelle Bachmann needs a long-sleeve jacket…and I mean a really long-sleeved one, see?  I’d be surprised if she could spell “college,” much less ever have attended one.  John Boehner is in the same boat – probably a bit smarter, but what he lacks in stupid he makes up for in dishonesty.  And Mitch McConnell?  Does the guy have an honest bone in his body?

And yet, when issues come up – there they are, yammering away, and you seem to just go along with it.  Now granted, I liked the whole “Hey, sorry, assholes, I was busy nailing bin Laden to a tree.”  That was good.  But this entire business of worrying about the debt and listening to the GOP talking points as if they had some sense…let’s face it, Mr. President, they’ve got all the sense of a deer standing in front of a truck.  Their top candidate, John McCain, had to have an aid whisper in his ear “Uh, sir, that economy thing – that’s where the other people, the ones who don’t have eleven houses, they live there – well, that economy thing, it’s in the shitter.”  This was their candidate for the Presidency, sir.  Supposedly the best they had to offer.

And he didn’t have a freaking clue.  He was so completely oblivious, that when it struck him, he stupidly asked for a halt to the campaigning so he could appraise himself of the situation.

Now, the GOP is using the same playbook on you that they used on Clinton.  Jabber about how bad the deficit is, as if they have any fiscal sense whatsoever.  Allow me to point out, sir, what you have failed to do:  that deficit is all theirs.  They didn’t bitch in the slightest when it was their coke-head drunkard of a President running up the bill.  They have no right to complain at all about it now, when it has become necessary to run a deficit in order to put people back to work, pay unemployment, and get some grease on the wheels of the economy.

It would make a world of difference to me, and to many like me, if you were to stand up and say something along the lines of:

“Ladies and gentlemen, for the past few months we’ve been regaled by the Republican leadership about the hazards of the national deficit, and the overall magnitude of the debt.  And well we should hear it from them, who are responsible for it.  They have not only told us all about it, but they have also blocked every effort we have made to jump-start this economy and get people back to work, instead focusing their attention on union-busting and calling for every citizen of the US to take the punishment for the actions of a select few, whose reckless gambling and insane spending habits have pushed this country to the brink of bankruptcy.  And now they play political gamesmanship with your financial future again, threatening to let the country go bankrupt unless they get their tax breaks for the very people who caused this fiasco in the first place.”

You can then detail a few of their choicer idiocies, which I’m sure your staff can drum up for you.  Or you could call Jon Stewart, he’s got tons of them.  Four nights a week.

Then, you can deliver your knockout punch:

“You see, my fellow Americans, these people don’t believe we can make it.  They don’t believe you deserve to retire gracefully.  They don’t believe you deserve to maintain your health and dignity, regardless of age.  They have theirs, and they’re happy to see you swing in the wind.  But we will not allow that to happen.  We, my fellow Americans, we will succeed in spite of them and their political hostage-taking.  I am here to put in front of you a new plan for revitalizing our nation…”

And then you put forward the highlights of your plan to take the savings from ending our two off-books wars, ending of the Bush-era tax cuts, a re-direction of a major chunk of our military budget, and phase those monies into national infrastructure projects, aimed at shoring up the elements of our country that the GOP has foolishly allowed to decay – new roads, new bridges, new energy, new airports (with lots of new air traffic controllers), new rail systems.  The things that will not only provide jobs in and of themselves, but will enable existing companies to get their goods to new markets faster and more efficiently, giving our economy not only the immediate jolt it needs to roll again, but also to provide the long-term benefit that will return us to being the powerhouse we were.

Now I know this kind of confrontation isn’t new to you – after all, you handed that pack of jackasses their hats when you showed up at their little congressional invitational event.  I expect you even enjoy that sort of thing.  At least, I hope you do.

When you deliver this kind of message – the message I voted for, two years ago – then I suspect you’ll see those poll numbers of yours take a good bit of a jump.  Not only that, but you’ll leave the GOP quaking.  Because you own the facts on these issues, Mr. President. They own squat.  And calling them out on their lies is the one thing that will have them squirting their trousers faster than anything.

Those of us, the ones who have been waiting for the news, would really, really appreciate it.

It’d give us something to think about this fall.  Instead of staying at home and watching re-runs of whatever is on at the moment, we might spend some time thinking that the President we elected isn’t afraid to kick the teeth in on a bunch of treasonous Republicans who’d rather throw the rest of us under the bus in order to grease their own wallets.

Hell, we might even come out of the house this November and vote “D” on our ballots.

Sincerely yours –

T

 

What Not To Do

Lying.  Generally, it’s best not to do this.

Granted, in some circumstances, lies are necessary (i.e., “Herr Theobald, are you concealing any Jews in your attic?”, “Why no, not at all, why do you ask?”).  But I’m not talking about that kind of extreme circumstance here.  I’m discussing in everyday business.

I’m going to point to a hypothetical situation, and hope it draws some real-world connections for you, dear reader.

  1. Executive/Sales/whatever staffer is confronted with what could be considered a legitimately urgent requirement for a deployment package of the latest version of the company’s software.
  2. Staffer feels that under the circumstance, the urgent requirement may not express the level of urgency truly desired.  Whether this is out of sheer hubris (“I want to see these people jump when I want them to,”), anxiety (“I really need to close this deal, badly,”), or mistaken assumptions (“Unless I really blow the horn hard, they aren’t going to take me seriously,”), doesn’t matter.  Staffer decides to exaggerate or outright lie regarding the urgency required.
  3. Development team goes into drop-everything mode and smokes the pavement trying to get the package together.

This is an entirely predictable situation.  In fact, it has happened in real life.  I suspect to others besides just me.  Actually, thinking about it, I am quite certain it has – and so often, really, that it has its very own parable.

The boy who cried wolf.  For those of you unfamiliar with the parable described, go check it on Google.  It’s all right.  I’ll wait right here.

If you happen to find yourself in the situation of the Staffer mentioned above, allow me to elaborate on why you should resist the temptation to invent or exaggerate your sense of urgency.  I hope the consequences will become clear as I do.

First off, your exaggeration will very likely be discovered.  The team in question is generally comprised of several people, and for each person involved you amplify the odds of someone finding out.  Once one of them does, they all shortly will know.  Once they all do, you will suffer the following effects:

  • The team will lose a measure of respect for you – which, if it is low already, can be disastrous for your career.  As well, this sort of treatment leads to resentment – not a conducive emotion for cordial working relationships.
  • The team will view your future requests/demands for attention to be just that:  demands for attention, and not urgent business concerns.  So when you have a genuinely urgent need, your ability to convince others to jump in to help you will be impaired.
  • If the subject of your exaggeration was successful, it will be viewed by the team as illegitimate, not gained in a worthy fashion.  For particularly sleazy individuals, this will pose no great concern.  For engineers and people who make a living actually building things, it is crucial.
  • If the subject of your exaggeration was a failure, the team will have little or no sympathy for you, and will expend very little effort in assisting you in digging your hindquarters out of whatever hole you’ve managed to land yourself in.

These are only the topics that are most obvious outcomes of such an event.  There are other, subtler and probably more far-reaching ones, but for the purposes of this discussion, they’ll suffice.  I hope reading through them that the general idea is getting through:  the consequences of exaggeration are negative ones.

Now, consider the alternative:  being honest.  This might not come naturally to some, but it is my hope that most of you reading this will consider this a more natural direction to take.

Let’s address the causes I mentioned above for the sense of need around the dishonest approach, and turn them around to the choice of being honest:

  • “I want to see these people jump when I want them to.” :  If that was really your intent, then you really need to seek mental assistance.  If you have to follow this path, then my advice is twofold – don’t do this often, and when you do, at least couch it in respectful terms.  Something like “I’d like to see how fast we are able to accomplish goal XYZ, so let’s try this, this coming Thursday.  I’ll have a requirement that morning, and let’s see how fast we can get it done.”  This way, you can stroke your own ego, while actually serving a reasonable purpose.
  • “I really need to close this deal, badly.”  Okay, so tell us.  Trust us.  If you come to a gang of engineers whom you have treated respectfully in the past, and you tell them that you have a real issue and need their assistance, nine times out of ten we will help you.
  • “Unless I really blow the horn hard, they aren’t going to take me seriously.”  Yes we will.  Unless you have been treating us with disdain or contempt, or doing generally disrespectful things to us, we will take you seriously.  We’ll also probably try hard to help you as best we can.

There’s an undercurrent to these things that should be notable by now:  respect.  Have it.  Exercise it.  Engineers and developers have lives, just like you do.  That they might spend their spare time doing things they consider fun and you don’t should not enter the equation.  Many of them have families, friends, they might want to watch hockey, or they might have a date planned.  If you screw them, they won’t forget it.  If you screw them and don’t mitigate the situation, they not only won’t forget it, but they’ll probably tell every new hire about you, and your reputation will probably accompany you to whatever firm you move to down the road.

Generally, you’re better off cultivating a respectful working relationship with developers and engineers.  They’re in positions where they can be of great assistance to you, and engendering goodwill is the only way you’ll ever get them to cooperate willingly.

And you can start by not BSing them.