Thursday, January 29, 2009

News Roundup 5

News Roundup 5

Senate passes bill to delay DTV switch
Looks like they might actually delay the transition to digital TV from next month to June. I can't believe how frakkin' stupid people are (yeah, I'm going to adopt the Battlestar Galactica censor bypass, not only because it sounds cool, but also because it's classier than the real F-bomb). You tell people something's going to happen for a year and a half, people ignore it. You set a date, they dig their heels, whether it'll affect them or not.

Honestly though, I don't see what the big deal is. I believe everybody opposed to the switch and some in favor of it are seriously misinformed as to what it will mean. Me, I just want them to get it over with so they can stop nagging about it every five minutes on TV. I mean, bloody hell, anybody who doesn't know by now is too stupid to get it if you tell them again, so why bother?

The main reason for the delay, besides and in addition to misunderstanding, is the economy. The biggest misunderstanding is that everybody seems to think that the DTV switch means they will have to buy an HDTV. That's wonderful, because demand has driven HDTV prices through the floor. If you're in the market for a new TV, you can get an HDTV for hardly anything more than a tube-based SDTV, so you'd have to be an idiot to get one (though, some retailers still carry them, hoping some dipstick will take them off their hands). We paid just under $1000 for a 32" 720p set (entry level HD) in 2007, and the same TV can be had now for about $600. HDTV has nothing to do with the DTV switch, but if you have an HDTV you have absolutely nothing to worry about. All HDTVs contain the technology in those converter boxes they're giving out coupons for.

Like they say, if you have cable or satellite, you're fine. Cable and satellite are not required to switch, only over-the-air broadcasters are. The only people who need to worry are those who have a) an analog TV (one with a tube), and b) bunny ears (an antenna). If you have both of these, you're SOL following the switch because the analog signals that the bunny ears pick up will cease.

The solution is real simple. You apply for a voucher, which takes $40 off the cost of the converter, which Walmart sells for $50. So you pay ten bucks plus the tax on $50. It's $15-16 tops depending on the state you're in. This bad boy sits between your TV and your antenna, and can pull digital broadcasts over your bunny ears and downsamples it to SD and analog and sends it to your TV. Even comes with a remote control, so if your TV didn't have one before, it will after the switch.

Here are some real-world examples to help you understand what's going on.

My wife and I have an HDTV with DirecTV. The transition won't affect us because we haven't got an antenna. We get our TV service from DirecTV and they won't be affected. (Again, neither will cable companies or Dish Network.)

My wife's brother has an SDTV (square analog thing) with DirecTV as well (we both live outside the city limits). He won't be affected either, for the same reason as us but also because his DirecTV receiver, while not itself an HD unit, converts the signal from digital to analog just like those conversion boxes.

At work, right next to me in fact, is the ugliest 13" TV I've ever had the displeasure of looking at, and it's got bunny ears on it. No cable service, no satellite service. We can kinda get the news on it, but it's fuzzy. After the conversion, this TV will fail to get any kind of service.

The advantage with the conversion is that analog broadcasting has never been very good. Real fuzzy, and you're always adjusting the antenna to get it "just right". With digital, the signal is much stronger. It's an all-or-nothing deal, so either you've got a crisp, clear picture, or you've got nothing at all.

Also, if you have a converter box to receive over-the-air broadcasting, your TV programs will look just as good as if you hooked up cable or satellite to it. It's digital picture and sound, at least the quality of DVD, which is higher than an analog TV can display in the first place, and in many cases in HD, which you won't get without an HDTV, but it'll be clearer. You might get little black bars on the top and bottom; HDTV is naturally widescreen to better accomodate human vision. Stare at a blank wall and imagine a red line around the edge of your vision. Is it closer to a square or a rectangle? It's actually the shape of an eye, elliptical, but it's closer to the rectangle.

I hope for the sake of my coworkers they get a conversion box in here. I don't watch the bloody thing, but all of them do.

Oh, and you don't have to wait until the switch to get and take advantage of a converter box. We're less than a month away from the original conversion date; I daresay your local broadcasters are broadcasting in digital as well as analog, if they haven't switched. I'm in the Middle of Nowhere, Eastern North Carolina, and we have digital TV. In the South. Yee-haw. The vouchers/coupons program ran out of money, but President Obama and others in the government are trying to get it more funding. Once that's announced, you'll hear about it (I'll certainly blog about it) and you can get yourself one.

Upgrade your damn TV if the switch is going to affect you. It ain't gonna set you back a whole lot, and everything will just work better.

What's new with Internet Explorer 8 RC1? Have a look.
Lovely. Microsoft's likely crappiest product, Internet Explorer, is out of beta in this 8th version, and excited is the last word I'd use to describe my feelings for it. As you can see in PC World's screenshots, not only does it look just like Internet Explorer 7 (and why are they using Windows 2000 or at least the Windows 2000 theme?), but it appears they're still playing catch-up to Mozilla Firefox.

Not a lot to say here, really. You start typing something in on the address bar, and it pulls up results from your history and bookmarks. That was one of the cool new features in Firefox 3, and it really helps. I mean, you find something you like, you can come back to it at any time by just typing in part of the name. Also, Firefox has a new thing called "unsorted bookmarks". They're not formal bookmarks and they're not listed, but if you know you'll be coming back to something, there's a little grey star you can click to turn it gold, and that puts it in the unsorted bookmarks, so it can be found via the address bar trick after it falls out of your history. MSIE users will also get other Firefox features, like the browser warning you if the site appears in some database of dangerous websites.

All neat tricks and well adapted from Firefox, but the cornerstone of my dislike for Internet Explorer is that Microsoft sold out IE users years ago with their continued refusal to support ad blocking. Ads are the biggest nuisance on the Net after the really dangerous stuff, and it's extremely simple for a web browser to block them. Firefox has proven this. I surf the Net, I don't see ads. I've almost come to take it for granted. When an Internet Explorer user looks at the same sites, they see ads all over the place. It's ugly, and it's distracting. To add insult to injury, Microsoft offers a compromise: pay the advertising industry $30 and you can have an industry-regulated ad blocker which will block a few ads they can let you get away with missing. Not all of them.

Where was the advertising industry when I paid over $900 to build my PC? They certainly didn't chip in. I've spent over $1500 on it to date (including the initial $900 of course) and it's all been on me. They haven't chipped in a dime. I pay about $50 a month to Embarq for phone and DSL. The former we don't use but it's required for the DSL. We don't even have a home phone unit/handset, but should we decide to buy one, the service is there. The advertising industry doesn't cover any of my DSL bill, either. Or the light bill to keep the computer running. Or the rent to keep a roof over the computer. So why then, should I look at their ads when I surf the Net? They get money. The site owner gets money. Where's mine? Of course it's not illegal what they're doing. They found a way to farm the web for money. Good for them. They even make enough to put Microsoft on their payroll. Bloody Microsoft, the richest company in the world, and the advertising industry has their balls in a sling. What over, I'd love to know. And here comes open source looking the hero, not only do you have Linux looking nice and pretty and costing $400 less than Windows Vista Ultimate (aka, free) and doing many of the same things, but then you have Firefox, the open-source web browser which will not lay down for the advertising industry, and will actually let you block their ads.

And I'm not nearly as militant as some FOSS (Free, Open Source Software) supporters by half! I just love the hell out of what they're doing. Free software, free to change, free to redistribute, and all they want out of the deal is for computing to be easier and more secure for everybody? Where do I sign up? Oh, I don't? I just use the programs, become a statistic, another nobody using their stuff instead of paid and/or closed-source stuff? Sounds great.

IE 8 can burn...

Forbes: Rock Band no more than "shameless knock-off" of Guitar Hero
My wife's gonna love this.

Here's the score, in a nutshell. Guitar Hero was the result of collaboration between Red Octane, a PC and console peripheral (controller) maker, who had developed a guitar-shaped controller; and Harmonix Music Systems, a small game developer who had made a few puzzle games syncing to music on the PlayStation 2. All of the songs were covers, but they were well-done, and it was fun to take a plastic guitar and pretend to jam with your favorite rock stars.

For the two or three of you who don't understand the concept of the virtual musician games that have come out, colored balls (Guitar Hero) or bricks (Rock Band) fall, kinda like in Tetris, but each column has its own distinct color, and these colors correspond to colored buttons on the neck of the plastic guitar: Green, Red, Yellow, Blue, and Orange. The columns are in the same order on the screen. When a green block falls, you hold the green button (you can do this in advance) and just as it crosses the line at the bottom, you flip the "strum bar" with your right hand to symbolize strumming the strings with a pick. If two or more fall side-by-side, you have to hold those two or more colored buttons. At higher difficulty levels, more bricks or balls fall, and they fall faster. On Easy only the first three columns are activated. Medium activates the fourth one, and Hard and Expert enable all five. Since most people only have four fingers (not counting the thumb) these last two provide an additional challenge. The balls or bricks sort of represent notes, but there's no real system of conversion. You're really just solving a hand-eye coordination puzzle based on the sound of the song. And at the end of the song, you're rated by percentage and given a score. There's a hell of a lot more to it than that, but that's the basic idea.

Guitar Hero 2 followed, and was also released on the Xbox 360, and this is when people started noticing it. It started becoming cool to play classic rock songs on plastic guitars. Friends got together, and even family members who wouldn't ordinarily play a video game got in on the fun, not because of the game per se, but because of the music they love. The game element became completely transparent.

Harmonix, however, wasn't satisfied with just guitars, so they began a much more imaginative project. Activision wanted in, so Harmonix sold the dying franchise, and Activision threw a ton of money at it. Master tracks and endorsements by former Guns n' Roses guitarist Slash and former Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello made Guitar Hero 3: Legends of Rock a sure hit, and Harmonix gave them all the rope they needed to hang themselves, and dropped Rock Band shortly after. Same thing but with the second guitarist being a cooperative bassist rather than a competitor, also adding a drum kit and a microphone. The drum kit works just like the guitars except there are only four drum pads and a kick pedal. Hitting a drummer's bricks was only a one-step process - simply hit the pad. No "hold this while doing that". Singing was just like karaoke, except the software tracked your pitch and tone and compared it to a line you're expected to follow. And the songs were much, much better and more varied.

Guitar Hero: World Tour was soon announced, but not before two more games. Guitar Hero Aerosmith, which was Guitar Hero 3 but focused on Aerosmith's career, and Guitar Hero On Tour, a handheld, four-button variation of the game for the Nintendo DS, with strumming done with the touch screen and the guitar neck plugging into the GBA slot of the DS. A lovely idea which brought hours of wrist-cramping rock, which we can just abbreviate to "what a crock". World Tour was the real gem, though. Like Rock Band, it would allow four people to cooperate. Also a lead guitarist, bassist, drummer, and singer. Activision threw a ton of money at that, too, and the track list is very impressive. They bought exclusive contracts with a lot of great bands. The Eagles, The Doors, and Metallica, among others, would only license their music to Activision. Sadly, while some parts of World Tour were interesting, the game itself failed on many levels, starting with the vocals not reading the microphone right.

Harmonix buried them yet again with Rock Band 2. In addition to more songs on the game disc, the game came with 20 free (pre-selected) downloads, the ability to export 55 of the 58 Rock Band 1 songs (for example, Metallica's song "Enter Sandman" could not be exported, due to their agreement with Activision), and over 300 songs available for purchase online, the game was much larger. Our own library boasts 237 songs, and yes, we are counting. This weekend, it's going to be 240 when we add two more Steve Miller Band songs and the Godsmack song.

Harmonix haven't ripped off or knocked off anything here. They made Guitar Hero, and after selling it to Activision, they've innovated and Activision has struggled to play catch-up. The only thing Activision has over Harmonix is that the Red Octane guitars are of higher build quality than the ones Harmonix is making themselves. All of the Red Octane instruments are sturdier and, between us and Jen's brother, the Guitar Hero controllers have outlasted the Rock Band ones. It's a good thing, then, that the controllers are cross-compatible. Rock Band stuff doesn't work on the first three Guitar Hero games, but that's the exception.

At the end of the day, Activision hasn't actually made any of these games. Harmonix made the first two Guitar Hero games, and the rest were developed by Neversoft, who made the Tony Hawk games. Activision just publishes and provides the press. And apparently the spin.

Idiot calls for ban on silent camera phones
Whoops, guess he's a Congressman. Oh, he's also a Republican. Surprise surprise.

It would seem that our freedoms would be best protected if cell phones were required by law to beep or otherwise sound a tone when they record an image, and also if the tone could not be disabled. Because apparently people are sticking them under dressing room doors and taking candid pictures of women, and in some cases, children changing their clothes.

Silent cameras are weird, but the fake shutter tones are, well, fake, and tones are just stupid. So both of my cameras (my phone, and my actual camera) are silent. It's not to be sneaky, though, it's just the most logical way to use both of them.

Here's what's stupid about this. They're only worried about camera phones, when actual cameras (well, digital ones without moving parts) can be silenced too. And some of them (e.g. Canon's Elph line) are about as small as phones. There are some that are just stupidly small, they don't even look like real cameras, but they take shots so vivid and clear it's hard to imagine. But we only want the ban on camera phones, right? Commercial camera phones at this point have a cap of 2 megapixels, which ain't bad, but only if the angle and lighting is just right. Otherwise, the image is grainy and hard to see. Not having a flash makes a world of difference. Of course, if you're sticking a camera under a dressing room door, the flash would kind of give you away.

I've heard of reports of camera phones being used illicitly in the past. It's not something that's going to change, and making them silent and enforcing it ain't going to change anything.

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