Monday, December 22, 2008

Tech News Roundup

Tech News Roundup
22 December 2008

Merry Christmas early, folks. I changed the name of this serial posting to reflect the fact that, looking on the news, it's just going to be tech posts with little deviance. First of all, stupid Microsoft. Or maybe stupid Dell, I don't know which. They tell me (at work) to shut down their main PC Sunday nights so it can update. What? Yeah, apparently computers can now update the system when they're powered off. News to me. A geek's inclined to say that they need to be powered on and connected to the Internet to receive Microsoft updates and/or for Corporate to login and apply patches and install software manually (I've seen this once), but what do I know? I only built my own computer. So anyway, I go to turn this piece of crap on (3.4GHz Pentium D with 1GB of RAM and it runs like a 1996 Celeron) and it wants to do a disk check. Fine by me, maybe it'll run better when it's done. Trouble is, it gets done, reboots (this is normal so far) and then does ANOTHER disk check. Third one goes to start, I figured something was wrong. Before it starts, it gives you 10 seconds to "press any key" to bypass the check. I hit space, Enter, random keys - nothing. Unplug the keyboard, plug it back in. Nothing. Whatever, I go back to this computer and let it do its thing. It does maybe 2 more before offering the safe mode choices. Safe mode, safe mode with networking, safe with command prompt, last good configuration, and normal. I choose "last good" and it starts up, after being stupid for about 2 hours. Great. I do regular disk checks on my machine and I recommend others do as well, but after the one disk check it's not supposed to keep doing them. Yeah, it's probably Dell, because all these corporate and store-bought or mail-order computers people have typically have a BIOS or something inside which is meant to severely limit the machine, to where if you want to upgrade, you have to buy THEIR hardware... and this has all kinds of unintended side effects.

But, onto the news.

Nintendo sued over DS adapter fire

Long story short: House burns down. Investigators blame a Nintendo DS charging cord. Insurance company pays for the damage. Insurance company asks Nintendo for restitution. To the tune of $236,304.

I'm reminded of Edward Norton as the narrator in Fight Club shocking a woman with his job description. Here's what he tells her: "A new car built by my company leaves somewhere traveling at 60 mph. The rear differential locks up. The car crashes and burns with everyone trapped inside. Now, should we initiate a recall? Take the number of vehicles in the field, A, multiply by the probable rate of failure, B, multiply by the average out-of-court settlement, C. A times B times C equals X. If X is less than the cost of a recall, we don't do one." She asks what car company he works for, and he plainly tells her "A major one". Chances are, it might as well be all of them.

But seriously, does anyone seriously think that Nintendo, a family gaming company, released a faulty DS charging cord? They've been making the Nintendo DS for over four years now, and the first DS (the big one) used the same charging cord as the rechargable Game Boy Advance SP before it; the second DS (the smaller, squarish one) uses a different cable, and that came out in 2006, so 2 years on that. And no word of a cable causing a fire... well, not since reports surfaced a few weeks ago about counterfeit Nintendo DS units with... you guessed it... defective charging cords that were fire hazards.

Seems to me somebody bought a counterfeit one and the cord caught fire. I've never heard of a genuine Nintendo charging cord catching fire. Mine's never even gotten warm. I have had a set of cheap jumper cables fail, so I'm familiar with the effect. The cables aren't thick enough or rated for enough current, so they put off a lot of heat. The plastic or rubber insulating the cables is also low grade, and it melts, quickly. Having melted rubber drip onto your hand is not fun. I'd say it hurt for about a week. There's a pretty big gap between a good cable never getting warm and the rubber melting, so if the cables did start a fire, I'd say it's a good bet they bought counterfeit hardware. It would really stink if Nintendo had to pay up over this. Then again, if it was a genuine part and they let a bad batch go out, hoping the worst wouldn't happen, well, that's on them.

Note to Nintendo: You can port Super Metroid to the DS and recoup the settlement money four times over, guaranteed. The fans have only been asking for it, well, since the Game Boy Advance boasted Super Nintendo-level game capability. 2001? 2002? It never ceases to amaze me, in this day and age where piracy of games, of music, of movies is such a big concern, that the content producers listen so rarely to what consumers actually want. And don't get me started on Squaresoft.

Metal Gear Solid Touch - iPod/iPhone only

There's more than a little bit of hurt feelings in the Nintendo DS community that the new Metal Gear Solid game, based on touch-screen controls (entirely corporate until the DS handheld brought touch screens to consumer devices), will not (as of yet) be making an appearance on that system. And others are worried that the iPhone will compete with the Nintendo DS and Sony PSP, as if competition ever hurt gaming.

But, as far as I can tell, it's just a cellphone game. So the iPhone (and iPod Touch) has more colors and more pixels on its screen than your average Motorola or Nokia handset. It's still a very limited platform, and games for it are not going to be terribly complex, let alone enviable. So let the cell phones keep their limited, almost crippled game. The review says all you can do is zoom and shoot, like those arcade games with the gun.

The DS has a game like that - Touch the Dead, based on House of the Dead, and it's not very good. The DS also has a port of the original PlayStation's hit Resident Evil, but it's seldom mentioned that it has a touch mode where you can use the touch screen to slash with the knife or shoot, because nobody cares. (The classic mode is pretty popular, though.) The DS does have a touch screen and that's the big gimmick, but only games that make intelligent use of it really get any respect. The entirety of The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass is played with the touch screen, but it's done well. Other games, for example, Castlevania: Order of Ecclesia, don't use it at all, it's simply a second screen. This works too.

First-person shooters like Metal Gear Solid haven't worked well on the DS. It's just not a system for FPS games. The original Metal Gear was a top-down adventure (on the NES back in the early 90s, maybe late 80s) and it was OK. For the DS, maybe they ought to make it based on that model. Not a direct port, of course, but how about an isometric, top-down, sneak-around infiltrate-the-base adventure game, sort of a cross between Phantom Hourglass and the original Metal Gear. I think that would work a little better and sell a lot more copies.

The Eagles: Not quite good enough for Rock Band, but as a consolation prize, Guitar Hero DLC

If you're looking at Rock Band and Guitar Hero as mutually exclusive platforms, and you have to choose one or the other, it's a pretty easy choice given one question: Can you get DLC (downloadable content)? If the answer is no, you might be better with Guitar Hero: World Tour as it includes a lot of great classic rock. However if the answer is yes, Rock Band is the clear winner, with close to 500 downloadable tracks. They were supposed to have 500 in the fall, so they may actually have more than that now. We have quite a bit of that, nowhere near all, though.

What baffles me is that you can't just pick one or the other. Virtually everything that's come out has come out for either the Rock Band series (DLC for RB1 works in RB2) or the Guitar Hero games (Guitar Hero 3 DLC does not work in World Tour and vice-versa). Basically it's this platform or that platform. Rock Band is the more solid bet, because you can almost be sure that your DLC from the first two games will also work in the third game, where Activision's track record indicates that songs you buy for World Tour will not work in future iterations of Guitar Hero. Also, unlike Rock Band, none of the prior Guitar Hero games have a mode where you can copy the songs to your hard drive for use in the newest one. So no, you won't get to try "Through the Fire and Flames" (speed metal song by DragonForce; Guitar Hero 3's iconic "last level") on drums or vocals unless they re-release it for World Tour, and of course charge you $2 for it.

A month or two ago, I reviewed Guitar Hero World Tour, the latest game in the series and the third game (after both Rock Band titles) to enable four people to play as a full virtual band (lead guitarist, bassist, drummer, and singer). It fell short of Rock Band 2 in every possible category except soundtrack. Some parts of the game were shortsighted and hopefully will be corrected in the next game, but some parts of the game simply did not work. It was like using incomplete, or beta software. It was like, "okay, that doesn't work, so let's try something else" and we stumbled through a couple such pitfalls.

So, why do people buy the Guitar Hero game? It's the name. Guitar Hero for the PlayStation 2 was the first game to bring virtual-guitar playing to the home in such a big way, and Guitar Hero II, which moved onto the Xbox 360, blew the scene wide open. But what a lot of people didn't know and still don't know is that Harmonix, who were behind those games, sold the Guitar Hero name to Activision (of Tony Hawk fame) and began distributing their new product, Rock Band, through Electronic Arts through a partnership with MTV. (They couldn't take the name because it was co-owned by Red Octane, who made the cheaper controllers.) Guitar Hero III: Legends of Rock was a decent game, but other than the interface, it was no different from Guitar Hero II except it had different songs (and boss battles, which most people didn't care for). When Activision tried to make a whole new Guitar Hero based on Rock Band, they more or less fell flat on their face.

But I don't really hold Guitar Hero's shortcomings against Activision, not that much. I just won't buy their product, as much as I like the track list. I hope they improve it for the next Guitar Hero game (not counting the Metallica one coming out next year - I know all those songs will be hard as hell) and provide solid competition for Rock Band. What does get me is bands signing exclusive agreements with Guitar Hero. It shows they're just looking for a quick buck and don't really care about how their music will be portrayed. As opposed to, I don't know, looking at both and saying "you know, this interface is more natural and more conductive to cooperation and fun, and this other one is just going to frustrate people, and we don't want it to be our song that makes people want to smash up their guitar controllers because the game mechanics suck". Or at least put their songs on both platforms.

I did enjoy playing Hotel California on bass in Guitar Hero World Tour when we rented it. I remember it being a fun track to play. Wasn't too hard and wasn't boring. Life in the Fast Lane would probably be fun, too. I'd pay the full $2 apiece for both of them if they were on Rock Band. But I'm not about to pay $60 for GHWT to get Hotel California and then $2 on top of that to get Life in the Fast Lane, and have to change discs to play those songs. As it is, I have access to nearly 250 songs with my Rock Band 2 disc in.

Every time I tell my wife I wrote an article about Rock Band, she asks if I wrote about how it's so much better than Guitar Hero. There it is.

Cyberbullying laws

Yeah, you know what this is about. That sicko from Missouri who goaded a 13-year-old girl into killing herself on MySpace just to see if she could do it or whatever. She couldn't be charged because she didn't actually do anything illegal. Freedom of speech says you can say pretty much whatever you like. You can't cry fire in a movie theater, and you can't threaten to kill somebody. But apparently you can pretend to be an underage boy on MySpace, seduce an underage girl, get her wrapped around your little finger, and then tell her the world would be better off without her. It's all protected speech, how are you to know she's going to hang herself in the closet, and how are you to know it's going to make national headlines? They tried to get this lady (and it was a woman seducing an underage girl online, not a man, ironically) on all kinds of charges, but none of them stuck. This lady gets harassing phone calls and has changed her number a few times, and I imagine it's going to be hard for her to get a job (can you imagine the interview... "Aren't you that lady who goaded a 13-year-old girl to hang herself? What else do you do in your spare time?") but she won't serve any time.

So, the solution is to rewrite the book, they say, make it a crime to bully people online. We saw how well that worked out. Bullies have been a problem in schools for years, but it took two longtime bullying victims shooting up a school called Columbine to really make it a national problem. Before them, kids just dealt with it in their own ways. Schools try to deal with it, I think, but I'm not sure that they're effective at all. More often than not, the bully is just lashing out due to problems at home, so solving the obvious problem is tricky without solving the root problem. Cyberbullying is something different entirely. The bullies in this case aren't just abused kids lashing out at their peers. More often than not, cyberbullies - a form of troll, to use the more technical or "insider" term - are just out to have a good time. They don't equate the Internet with real life because to them it's completely separate. A game. They don't take what's directed at them personally, so they don't think others do. More often than not, they attack an online identity, not the person behind it, so to speak.

While I'm sympathetic to the family of the girl who died and I've got no love for the woman who urged her to kill herself, I really think that kids should be expected, and allowed, to grow a backbone and deal with some of this stuff themselves. I had to learn, in high school, to not let stuff bother me. Honestly it should be learned much sooner. But kids nowadays are babied by the system, partially possibly because of Columbine, and they've come to expect the system to wipe their asses for them. And where will this ultimately go? Are they going to start taking kids out of school because they're suspected of bullying? I suspect they're going to have problems with a lot of false positives, causing even more trouble. As to the specific case, I think they should have brought that woman up on murder charges, being as she knew what she was doing and pretty much had an idea of where she was going to take it from the start. I wouldn't go into reclassifying it as a civil crime and call it cyberbullying, I'd call it what it is. (And, for that matter, she ought to have to register as a sex offender - she did start off by seducing this underage girl, that has to count for something.)

If nothing else, the woman will spend eternity with that Texas woman who drowned her five kids. Hell has a special place for women, whose natural job is to bear and raise children, who deliberately hurt and kill children, especially for amusement, and especially when sex is attached.

Warner Music: We'd rather you Torrent our music than look at it on YouTube

Onto lighter fare. YouTube's been one of a handful of sites which has pushed online music away from filesharing and into a legitimate business model where artists and songwriters are paid, either through subscription fees or ads (in YouTube's case, just ads). Well, Warner Music has come forward and said that they're not getting enough money, that even though they don't have to host any of the videos online or the users who access them by the millions, they want a bigger cut. Google (YouTube's owner) isn't giving it to them (and do you blame them? it's their site, on their servers) so they're pulling out and forcing YouTube to pull anything published under their label.

So I suppose kids who want to hear music that happens to be under the Warner label should just Torrent the music, and the suits (not to mention artists) get nothing. Given the choice between an Escalade and Denali (top Cadillac SUV vs. top GMC SUV), is a used Explorer really the better option? Damn, the economy's in the pisser (though the lines at Walmart say otherwise) and everyone's taking a hit. They ought to be willing to make light concessions while YouTube's offering them a way to profit off the Net while there's money to be made.

Personal Trainer: Cooking: New name, same... game?

Back in June, possibly the worst-titled game came out, but it wasn't a game, as such, it was an electronic, interactive cookbook called "Cooking Guide: Can't Decide What to Eat?". It was talked about for a week or two on the Internets, and then largely forgotten. Now it's back with a slightly spiffier name, "Personal Trainer: Cooking", followed by television ads. You've probably seen it, woman and little girl cooking, following the instructions of a DS handheld, and they wind up making a Chinese chicken dish. And these aren't kids' recipes, either; the jambalaya, which can really be made with sausage and chicken, calls for squid. Squid! Shrimp is one thing, but squid... that's just exotic.

I've been meaning to get this for a while now, and try some of its recipes.

Pressure mounts for Microsoft to succeed with Windows 7

Windows Vista was a failure, and anybody who says otherwise is flat-out wrong. Windows Mojave is a joke (they replaced the name Vista with Mojave and showed people, in TV commercials, actually act like it wasn't Vista) and probably used actors, despite the commercial's claim to the contrary. Nobody wants Vista, and for good reason. A few, actually.

1. Vista treats people like criminals. Since Microsoft is so afraid of people downloading their software and not paying for it, Vista requires that you activate it online before you can use it. And if you change any of the hardware, you have to call Microsoft and tell them what you did. From what I've heard, they're cool about it, but I don't see how it's any of their business to start with. On top of that, virtually everything you do in Vista is checked by the system, it asking for your administrator's password every five minutes to make sure you're really you. People don't like that. Not only do people want something that works, they want a smooth experience, and Vista provides the opposite.

2. Vista's not compatible with... well, anything. You can't read a review of Vista without reading about what it can't do and how the reviewer worked around it. They found another program, or they had to get a patch or something. Even Vista with Service Pack 1 still can't read my SATA drive, but Windows XP can, right out of the box. Vista tells me I have to format it, but it's a 750GB hard drive and I can't back all that stuff up beforehand. I think maybe if I format it with Vista, Vista will read it, but will XP? I would hate to be stuck with Vista; I'd much rather be stuck with XP. On top of that, there are a bunch of programs and games that don't work with Vista. The PC version of Halo 2 was revolutionary for requiring the user to be running Vista, but few if any other "Games for Windows" carry this restriction. Mostly older games, but some newer productivity and security applications will not work in Vista. Yet just about every application made for Windows and used today runs just fine in XP.

3. Vista is $400 for Ultimate. Linux is free. Linux runs Windows stuff, with WINE. What's the problem? You can get any number of Linux distributions (variations), but I recommend the latest Ubuntu. Ubuntu comes with Firefox, an Office suite (OpenOffice), and all the usual OS utilities (disc burning, calculator, notepad, minigames, system tools) and there's a lot more stuff you can get for it. Digital video, for instance, used to give even Windows users headaches, but now we have VLC (formerly VideoLAN) and that runs everything, and it runs on just about everything, including Linux. You can get a program called WINE which lets you run Windows programs natively in Linux without having to install Windows. While modern games made for Windows can't be run this way (some can, with limited results), emulators (programs which let your computer think it's a Nintendo or PlayStation or even Game Boy or DS) are often made for both/all platforms and work just as good. For serious gaming, get an Xbox 360 or PlayStation 3 and remove the one advantage that Windows really has over Linux. And in this economy, the only logical solutions to your OS problem (if you have one) is to pirate Windows or use Linux. One's legal, the other's not, but both are free. Most will still pirate Windows, but Linux is very much a viable choice, at least for most users. Alternately, Macs are starting to look better every day.

4. Vista is just dumb. OK, it's a little prettier, but in my limited experience with the OS, everything takes another click or two to do what you want. Everything's segmented or fragmented off. No more simple control panel which lists everything you want to do; it's divided into sections, subsections, categories. XP tries to pull this crap too, but it's real easy to go back to the Windows 2000 style which makes sense. You click on Control Panel and it's all right there. Not in Vista. A couple features are helpful, and it adds a couple features that would replace functionality offered by third-party, costly programs (such as DVD burning), but since Linux does all that plus includes an Office suite, all for free, it doesn't mean all that much.

Dammit, why can't Microsoft release a bare-essentials OS that "just works"? Start you off with a workspace and menu bar, real simple, like Windows 2000 or some custom builds of Windows XP. One new feature we could really use is force all programs to run in a virtual environment, so if they come with or become infected with spyware or a virus, they're only messing up their own workspace, not the whole computer. Start with this minimalist system and let the user add the crap they want. Linux, for the most part, "just works", but there's not a lot of stuff available for it. Every year this changes, new stuff is added and the old stuff gets better, but it's still not a viable alternative to Windows XP. It beats the crap out of Vista, though, that's about a given.

Heh... unintended coincidence that the Windows 7 story was the seventh story here. I wasn't counting when I did it; knowing myself, I probably would have mixed it up. But, what's done is done, for all intents and purposes, and this concludes this tech news roundup. Happy holidays... heh... maybe that'll be the subject of the next entry up here.

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