Thursday, October 17, 2013

Adult Swim @ NYCC: Venture Brothers, Robot Chicken, and... Emmett.


I had a great time at NYCC this year.  There was a bunch of stuff to see, some great cosplayers (which you can see in the IHOGeek Facebook galleries), and of course a good list of panels to check out.  On the latter I had the side-splitting pleasure of experiencing the Adult Swim treatment on Friday night, catching back to back panels from the Venture Brothers and Robot Chicken.  Two hours of Adult Swim personalities answering fan questions, cutting up and going nuts, and well, just hijinx in general.

… And you know how I feel about hijinx, kids.  Love 'em.


Starting with Queen’s “Princes of the Universe” hitting the speaker system, The Venture Brothers‘ Doc Hammer and Jackson Publick came out to the stage rocking black jumpsuits to a wall of pure sound from the audience.  After playing it up a little, they sat at the table and answered some fan questions.  It was a strange panel in the sense that there was no footage from the show like some of the other panels I attended, but it really wasn’t all that surprising.  Doc and Jackson let us know that they had just started working on the new season 6, and even though it was going to take a while that it is “going to be awesome” (don’t expect it until 2015).  SO i guess without any content to give you, I can at least give you some of the Q&A schtick that they put on -

On underwear: Jackson’s underwear costs $60 a pair.  Sixty.  and Doc rocks boxer briefs.  We’ll just have to take his word on that though – when chants to show the crowd came up he declared he couldn’t, because he has no ass.

On continuity: When asked whether continuity helps or hurts the show’s comedy.  Big surprise, it hurts.

On music: Doc doesn’t care who your favorite guitarist is – your favorite guitarist is Johnny Marr.

On giant robot cosplay: If you ask a question dressed as a giant robot, Doc Hammer will go into strike mode (as he appeared to do) and state his desire to jump across the table and knock you out.

Throughout the answers was of course the nutty behavior we expect from these two fancy lads, but it was their last act that got the biggest round of applause from the audience, myself included.  A young lady stepped up to the microphone and upon trying to speak, saw that she couldn’t find her words. “I’m too nervous to ask a question,” she said.  Without missing a step Doc Hammer comes back with “are you too nervous to DANCE with me?” and proceeded to dance with the young lady while the DJ played “Greased Lightning.”  And a grand time was had by all.  Check it out from Adult Swim here.

Next up was Robot Chicken. The whole crew was out in force – Seth Green, Matthew Senreich, Clare Grant, Breckin Meyer all clad in cat ears, including an unannounced appearance by Macauly Culkin, who is indeed, as it appeared to me, alive and well.  The crew made a couple of big announcements, the first being a sequel to the wildly popular DC Comics Special entitled DC Comics Special II: Villains in Paradise.  They showed some footage from the special, focusing on Batman’s embarrassment about being dragged around in Green Lantern’s green bubble.  A musical bromance ensues between the two, with Batman being floated along in a green sailboat construct.

Seth Green also talked about Übermansion – a joint project between the Robot Chicken crew and Bryan Cranston, who is fresh off the heels of the success of Breaking Bad.  Cranston voices Titanium Rex, an elderly superhero who fights the day to day perils of, you know, being old sharing the mansion with this super-team.  It’s stop motion like Robot Chicken, and from the trailer we were shown the humor is unrefined, juvenile, and let’s face it kids, right up your alley.

There wasn’t much commentary on future Robot Chicken seasons, but they did announce their Born Again Virgin Christmas Special, which will air this December.

… Oh right.  Then there was Emmett.

Early in the panel a young lad by the name of Emmett got up to the microphone to ask a questions.  The panel addressed him as “the young man in the brown hat.”  After snarkily replying “first off, it’s a Borderlands hat, so…” he went on imply that by Seth Green taking on his series Dads that it could take away from the writing of Robot Chicken.  After some more sass and Green’s “I’ma point at you and yell” antics Breckin Meyer jumped in to Green’s defense – “Hey Seth’s working REALLY HARD!”  After that Emmett became a running gag for the entire panel, cracking me up more than any of the other antics the panelists had, aside from meth jokes at the expense of Macauly Culkin.  Afterwards, in response to a simple “Hi how are you?” from a fan, Breckin’s answer was “Well I was having a great day until I met this douchebag named Emmett.”  And this went on and on for the entire panel.  Please, do yourself a favor and watch the panel here.  Warning though – the panel features a moment between Seth Green and Doc Hammer’s nipple, who made an impromptu cameo.

Stay tuned for my next installment where I talk about that time i met Neil DeGrasse Tyson!

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

User Agreements are Long and Boring, but Sometimes EULA Get Rewarded

You guys know I always try to have your back on the technical front.  Whether it's just some advice on new tech that's coming out, game previews, tech law or tips on keeping your digital life safeguarded, I like helping you out.  And today what I want to talk about a bit is a little thing you all know and love (ok maybe loathe) called the end user license agreement, or EULA for short.

Sometimes it comes titled as a basic user agreement or terms of use, but whatever it's called it usually follows the same format - a monstrosity of a document drafted in some strange melange of english and legalese filling anywhere between 3 and 30 screens for the user to scrutinize, read through and process in their impatient brainspaces.  You've all been there - for gamers there's a healthy sized EULA in a lot of games before you're allowed to play, especially in MMO's.  For the IT crowd there are all sorts of licensing agreements with operating systems and most off the shelf software, requiring you to agree before you can install them on your machine to use.

Of course you could always say you don't agree to the terms, but then that would hinder your gameplay or studious productivity.  But you don't say no, do you?  You've never said no.  You've never done anything but scroll alllll the way to the bottom, check "I agree" and hit OK to move on.  Trust me, you are not alone.  TONS of people go through the same motions.  The issue is that by doing so you miss all the rules and all the meat of the agreement between you and the publisher and probably don't even know what you agreed to.  It could be a rule you don't want to agree to but just did.  Or something that wouldn't normally strike you as obvious.  If you have certain Apple software they make you agree not to use their stuff for developing nuclear weapons.  A while back if you ran Safari for Windows, you may not be allowed to install it on Windows.  If you play Diablo III for example then what you agreed to was that you owed taxes to the IRS for any profits made on the real auction house.  OR - it'll make you feel like an idiot when you post ridiculous things to Facebook.  Yeah, seriously.  It's like signing a document without reading it.

I once didn't play World of Warcraft for a two days after install because of a EULA.  I read the whole thing roughly 4 times because I swore there was a clause in there that could be interpreted as not being allowed to play in a hotel room while I'm traveling. It worked out ok, but I still had to know.

So it made me super happy to see a little experiment that was being run on the forums over at Technical Illusions.  In case you're not aware about what TI is all about, they have an extremely cool device called the CastAR under development - a set of glasses that effectively and awesomely delivers an augmented reality environment to the wearer, complete with a wide array of controls and slick head tracking.  Their forums, much like many forums you can sign up for to use, includes a terms of use/EULA that all users have to agree to before they let you on and take part in forum discussions.  And to make it a little fun, they included the opportunity for reward if you actually had the patience to read all the way through.  The final text? Here it is:

"Any information you provide on these forums will not be disclosed to any third party without your complete consent, although the staff cannot be held liable for any hacking attempt in which your data is compromised. Congratulations you read this far, send the word Toby to jenesee at technical illusions dot com to be entered for a drawing By continuing with the sign up process you agree to the above rules by Technical Illusions"

I'll give you a second to read that last little section.  Even being at the very end of the agreement, how many people do you think would have sent "Toby" over to Jenesee out of the first 100 users?  Three.  That's right, three.  So as she mentions in her experiment data, the same percentage of users that caught the clause are the same as the percentage of people in America that still use dial-up.  Yikes.  In this case the consequences were a little more friendly - sometimes reading the EULA gave a user a chance for a fun reward rather than agreeing to something accidentally.  Congratulations to those three Technical Illusions forum users.

And I guess a kudos to the 3% of you that seemingly read your EULA's.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Back to School Stress for the Non-Student / Non-Parent [tf charts]

Ahhh fall.  A magical time where the temperatures drop, the leaves begin to turn those lovely shades of red and gold, and I along with others face a blinding white hot rage that consumes our being every morning on the way to work.

Anyone who lives in the Philly are and traverses I-95 southbound knows what I'm talking about.  Specifically around the bridge exits.  Summertime is a vacation for us too - from commuter students to local buses to the sheer additional traffic volume the fall brings.  Then there's the leftover construction from the jobs that started two summers ago, taking away lanes and closing exits - all things that cause me (and I'm sure you), to have to resort to increasingly awful acts of autobatics in response to others, all in all giving me pause and worry every morning that I am, in fact, becoming a worse and worse person every single day.

Thanks, PennDOT.

I know Philadelphia and I-95 aren't the only places - I feel your pain across the entire US of A, kids. Cities across the land where folks go to work already passing as part of the undead class before even clocking in, where seemingly no amount of caffeine can release us from the shackles.

ouch, my head...



Wednesday, September 4, 2013

PAX Prime Part 1: Intel and Square-Enix

Let me tell you, I was glad to get to Seattle a night early before the festivities of PAX 2013 started Friday morning.  After the flight from east coast to west it was weird (yes, weird) to see the Pacific Ocean on the weather map on the local news instead of the Atlantic hazing on the time difference but hey, I was there for PAX so it was cool.  The Penny Arcade Expo spanned the total volume of the Washington State Convention Center with exhibits, vendors and meeting rooms scattered not only throughout the place, but the nearby Sheraton for panels and another building across the street for BYOC gaming (yeah, that’s “bring your own computer”) and press.

Intel

The day picked up early – instead of taking advantage of media getting an hour early access to the floor, I opted to go across the street and check out Intel’s press event showing off some gaming laptops and mobile devices from partners that were packing Intel parts.  The Razer Blade we’ve already seen, but this was the first time I got to get my hands on its rival from MSI, the GS70.  The GS70 has all the bells and whistles of a gaming machine at 17 – nVidia graphics, the latest i7 inside, 16GB memory and huge storage space – but weighs less than 6 pounds with its ultralight aluminum chassis.  Before i got to play with it i picked it up and kind of moved it around in the air (under the watchful eye of the Intel folks) and can tell you the weight’s no joke.  And they had it running Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, which looked all sorts of candy-like delicious.  The chips inside ran with Intel’s Iris graphics built in, which are reported to support 4K Ultra HD (on up to three screens) and much quicker video editing and processing than the 3rd generation i-core chips that came before.  I can’t really vouch for how well my eyes can tell that precisely, but they can tell that the screens looked pretty damn good.

They were also showing off their Next Unit of Computing (NUC) devices – tiny little boxes (as you can see from the image) that pack some power and seemed to have grown since I saw them at PAX East earlier this year.  Instead of Ivy Bridges, the guts of these units were running i3 and i5 Haswell core chips (with turbo) and Intel HD graphics 5000, which isn’t bad for starting at $400.  The outside featured network, USB 3.0, HDMI and DisplayPorts.  So what did they do after showing us the specs on these units?  We got to game on them.  There were a few stations there that were driven by a NUC stuck to the back of the monitor, that still provided a high-grade gaming experience that I would expect from a desktop build.  They mentioned that they were going to release a Pro edition, which we’ll keep an eye out for.  To be honest I’d consider using these in the enterprise too in pro mode. On a personal note, what was probably the nicest part of the Intel show had nothing to do with going over specs or gaming on their ultrabooks – it was the business card raffle from which I won an i7 4770K processor.  So guess what kids? It’s build time.

Square-Enix

S-E had a decent amount of stuff lined up for PAX goers – I didn’t check out all of them because there were a couple reruns from PAX East but there were still some things worth seeing.  First and foremost we know they’re big on remakes and remasters, so there’s no surprise thatKingdom Hearts 1.5 HD RemixFinal Fantasy X/X-2 Remaster and Deus Ex: Human Revolution – Director’s Cut all made appearances at their booth.  KH 1.5 and Deus Ex were reruns from PAX East, so I started by taking a look at the remasters of Final Fantasy X/X-2.  The gameplay graphics are definitely sharper and a cut above how they looked on the PS2, when back then they were amazing.  The CG cutscenes also looked pretty good, but not as much of an improvement from S-E’s PS2 edition of the game.  Otherwise, I heard mumblings of rumors that the remaster would be delayed from this year to next.  While it makes sense, I’m not going to say it’s true since I didn’t hear it straight from Square-Enix.

The other game I was glad to finally get my hands on was Final Fantasy XIII: Lightning Returns.  Having played the first and second one through, the series kind of grew on me, and Lighting became one of my favorite Final Fantasy characters of all time.  I knew the gameplay on this one was going to be a little bit different than the previous games in the XIIIuniverse, and did like what I saw.  Lightning is a solo player (at least in the demo) and the overworld work that has to be done is more than just walking around and only being able to jump where there’s a flashy spot on the ground.  The demo featured a slice of the game where you have to chase Snow down, of course learning the mechanics of the game on the way.  Similar to paradigm shifts Lightning can switch between classes on the fly to unleash a broad range of attacks.  These classes each have a different orientation – in the case of this demo it was defense/life, attack power and magic.  It almost reminded me of the dress spheres in Final Fantasy X-2, just done a lot better in the combat style of the XIII universe.  Staggering your opponents changes a little bit, but the core concept is similar.  I for one enjoyed it, and as I am a glutton for completion, will definitely be picking it up to close out the trilogy.

They also showed some trailers for ThiefFinal Fantasy XV and the Kingdom Hearts 1.5/2.5 HD Remixes in the theater section they had set up.  I’m going to link you the one for Final Fantasy XV.  It’s a rerun from E3, but boy is it delicious.

As for Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn, S-E seemed have a good (maybe?) problem, actually suffering downtime because they weren’t expecting as many western players as they have.  Director Naoki Yoshida admitted this freely, that he thought players would let others giveFFXIV:ARR  a try first before jumping in.  The server loads were supposedly spread out properly as of today, and more importantly to some, the restriction on YouTube playthroughs and videos has been lifted.  Other than that, new updates will bring more Primal fights, the Gold Saucer in-game (once they get three mini games to kick it off, woot!), and maybe some new jobs and classes.  On that as far as class mounts go for the hopeful, not much more information has been revealed  - but if you want a unicorn, roll a conjurer.

Stay tuned for the next segment tomorrow featuring my faves from the Indie Megabooth and a gameplay review of Dying Light.  Also later in this series will be the 2K roundup featuring X-COM and Borderlands 2, as well as my pick of the litter for the best of PAX 2013.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Xbox One Kinect Requirement Dropped


Seriously, I’m surprised Microsoft didn’t call their new console the Xbox 180, because that’s what they’ve been doing since their next console’s big reveal.  Which is both good and bad really.  Good in the sense that they’re actually listening to their customers when it comes to what makes a deal breaker for them.  Bad in the sense that this is where Microsoft’s game plan is always going to go on the gaming front, until outside forces (i.e. angry customers threatening sales) stop them and force a course correction.

First came the always-on DRM which outraged consumers – including America’s fighting men and women – causing Microsoft to turn an about face, dropping the always-on and check in once a day requirements.  And now yesterday in their latest policy change, the Kinect sensor no longer has to be plugged in for the console to function.

The news came from Chief Xbox One Platform Architect Marc Whitten in an ongoing “Ask Microsoft Anything” segment on IGN, where he addressed users’ Kinect questions yesterday.  When asked how “off” the sensor would be when plugged in, Whitten responded that it can be set to “totally” off in the console settings.  He went on to state that the Kinect sensor will be optional in games where supplemental content calls for it, but naturally would be required for games that focus on Kinect functionality as the primary mode of gameplay:
"You have the ability to completely turn the sensor off in your settings. When in this mode, the sensor is not collecting any information. Any functionality that relies on voice, video, gesture or more won’t work. We still support using it for IR blasting in this mode. You can turn the sensor back on at any time through settings, and if you enter into a required Kinect experience (like Kinect Sports Rivals for instance), you’ll get a message asking if you want to turn the sensor back on in order to continue."
Right – if the word “Kinect” is in the title of the game, you’re going to still need it to play.  And this information is all thanks to a user that asked about the always plugged in requirement and what would happen if their sensor broke. Thanks, random user.

According to Whitten and the others who have spoken on Microsoft’s behalf in the past, the Xbox One is still designed to work with the Kinect, not only for gameplay of certain games but for SmartGlass, search, and UI navigation in general. So if you were planning on buying an Xbox One as your new “one” all-serving console, there’s still that stuff you can use it for.

So who knows what’s going on?  Maybe they’re feeling threatened by the PS4 and are dropping restrictions to pull in those on the fence outside of the Microsoft die-hards.  Maybe they’ve survived a crisis of conscience.  Maybe their PR doesn’t want any perception issues after all the recent news and events about digital spying.  Either way, this is another 180 from their former draconian policies that console gamers should be able to get behind.  That’s not changing their sales strategy though.  Even though we now know that the Kinect won’t be required to fire up a game on Xbox One, Microsoft still has no plans of selling the console without it at their $500 price point because of that UI design integration they described.  Personally I think selling a non-Kinect version at maybe $400 would get them more sales, because I don’t care how much money you’ve got – $100 is $100.  But that’s just me.

I said before publicly that I wouldn’t buy an Xbox One and would go the Sony PS4 route if those old policies from Microsoft remained in place.  Now that they’re gone, it’s something I might actually consider.

You know, if I buy a new console at all.


Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Projects, Tech PM's Sanity and Cthulhu [tf charts]



Everyone living as a technology project manager or in any job description where "technology project manager" falls into knows that there are both good projects and bad.  They also know that most of them, regardless of a "good" or "bad" designation, are only done at the cost of their sanity - and precisely how much sanity is dictated by the conditions outside of their control.

The type that's nearest and dearest to my head recently (but nowhere near dearest to my heart) is the type that starts with a tremendous delay.  Paperwork's done. equipment's in. Everything's good to go.  But due to other unseen forces, the start date is pushed a ridiculous degree back.  But then due to other unseen forces, the finish date actually moves forward.

Then the fun begins.  What am I saying here?  Listen to your tech PM and his or her army of project nerds.  Because one thing that isn't unseen is that something rushed like that is its own Cthulhu.

(click the chart for full-size)

Friday, July 26, 2013

Philadelphia Celebrates the City's Geek Elite


There's many reasons why I love the City of Brotherly Love. The place is filled with things to do and places to go from end to end, from museums and nightlife to education and history. The same city that houses the Liberty Bell and Independence Hall plays host to the Eagles, the Phillies, the Flyers and Sixers, not to mention a WizardWorld Comic Con every year.  You'll find the fiercest sports fans here, not to mention some of the fiercest geeks.

In the spirit of the man himself, Ben Franklin, over the last few years the Philadelphia geek scene has really started to grow.  Since 2011 we've seen events like Philly Tech Week and the Philadelphia Science Festival take over springtime in the city as proof of that, highlighting the best that Philadelphia has to offer in science, technology, entrepreneurship and art. And with all of the projects going on the city year round, not just during these celebrations, it's no wonder that someone somewhere thought that the best of Philly geekery should be honored.  So the fine folks at Geekadelphia and the Academy of Natural Sciences put together the Philly Geek Awards, taking place this year on August 17th.

The Philly Geek Awards are a spectacular, annual, one-night event celebrating Philadelphia's vibrant community of geeks. From the artists and the innovators, the programmers and the scientists, the authors and the do-gooders - this ceremony honors the outstanding accomplishments of Philly’s best and brightest.  The Geek Awards have been presented now for the past three years at the Academy of Natural Sciences of Drexel University.

It's an awards show just like the huge ones you see on TV - black tie, red carpet (with a cocktail hour, of course) that will have the city's premier geeks in their finest trappings featuring notable and local presenters and nominees.  The only difference between this and the televised shows is that it's smaller, more fun, and features subject matter that's far more interesting whether you're a geek, a Philly person, or both.  Not to mention getting to hang out at the Academy of Natural Sciences with your fellow geek ilk with some owls and a T-Rex skeleton is a pretty fun time before the show.  But the best way to get a feel for what the event is really to watch last year's recap video.


So now that you're itching to go, tickets go on sale Monday, July 29th at 10AM for $25.  This will get you entry to the show and the cocktail hour at the Academy.  You better watch your clock and act fast when they go up, because the show has completely sold out two years in a row to a live audience of over 400.  And being featured on FOX News, Philadelphia Daily News (front cover, 8/20/11), CBS Philly, Philadelphia Weekly, Philadelphia CityPaper, The Philly Post (PhillyMag.com), Newsworks, Philadelphia Metro and more, it's an event you don't want to miss.

In the mean time, check out the Philly Geek Awards site for more info.  And take a look at Geekadelphia to get Philly geek cultured and the cool things happening at the Academy of Natural Sciences while you're at it.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Xbox Doesn't Just Want Your Living Room, It Wants Your Office

OK so Microsoft’s been through some interesting times since E3 to now regarding the Xbox One.  Seriously, I’m almost tired of typing the name of that console out anymore.  First there was the DRM.  Then there was the public outcry and backlash.  Then they rolled it all back.  Then some restructuring.  Oh right, and the petitions (most likely of trollish origin) trying to bring back the DRM that Microsoft promised as “the future of gaming.”

Yeah.

So suffice it to say there’s still a lot of people whose living rooms haven’t been won over by the Microsoft show this summer (including me).  If I do end up getting one of these next-gen consoles it’s going to be a PlayStation 4 and there’s a lot of people who agree with me.  Microsoft knows this though, and they’ve decided to try a different angle – So maybe they can’t have your living room. That’s cool.  How abut your office?

Recently on their Small Business support blog, The folks at Redmond are now marketing the Xbox One as the perfect unit for your small to mid-sized business.  They threw up sot me decent points in their defense on a number of things that small and mid-size business can sometimes have some issues with.  The first is videoconferencing.  There’s not a lot of small businesses that can really swing expensive videoconferencing equipment, and the built in Skype allowing for multi-user chatting could make it attractive for communication.  The addition of office web apps as well as plugging into SkyDrive for cloud storage has its draws too.  It means documents and media (especially those powerpoint presentations we all love to give) can be pulled up and delivered using gestures instead of clickers or pointers.  Given this, $499 isn’t a bad price point for a office machine.

This move and pitch makes sense if we go back to that Microsoft shuffle up for a second.  The house the Gates built used to have very separate and very distinct rooms, each covering a product offering  - Windows, Office, Mobile, services, etc.  As an excerpt from Steve Ballmer’s restructuring memo:
“We are rallying behind a single strategy as one company — not a collection of divisional strategies.”
And that all kind of goes back to the whole “ecosystem” idea that they were pitching a few years ago – becoming a hotel as opposed to houses as it were, if you’ll allow me to make a board game analogue.

Hmm, an interesting thought after all… maybe I can buy an Xbox One and write it off as a work expense?  Maybe multiplayer can count as team building…


Thursday, June 20, 2013

Microsoft Backpedals on Xbox One DRM Policies

Backpedal (verb): to retreat or move backward.

Last night the internet saw Microsoft go into full backpedal mode on their DRM practices for the upcoming Xbox One in a post on their site titled“Your Feedback Matters – Update on Xbox One.”  The post was courtesy Don Mattrick, the President of Microsoft’s Interactive Entertainment Business unit, and seemed to address a score of concerns gamers had following the product launch event and E3.  Citing that his people had heard directly from many fans (read:  pages upon pages of ASCII middle fingers on their Facebook page), he announced that DRM practices for the Xbox One would be somewhat rolled back to how they are for the Xbox 360.  Here were the main hits:

An internet connection will not be required to play offline Xbox One games – After a one-time system set-up with a new Xbox One, you can play any disc based game without ever connecting online again. There is no 24 hour connection requirement and you can take your Xbox One anywhere you want and play your games, just like on Xbox 360

Trade-in, lend, resell, gift, and rent disc based games just like you do today – There will be no limitations to using and sharing games, it will work just as it does today on Xbox 360.

This means that if I want to lend my friend a game I just need to give them the disc.  Things will mostly roll on like it currently does for the Xbox 360 generation.  It’s a good thing that Mattrick and his crew rolled these back if for no one’s sake than their own too, because things were starting to look pretty grim for team Microsoft on the gaming front.  Their licensing model was convoluted and strange for borrowing discs and game rentals.  Military personnel were calling it “a sin against all service members.”  And then there was Sony, their main competition for the last couple generations of gaming consoles, absolutely drilling them on their policies with not only their own business practices but veiled commercials targeting Microsoft to the delight of all watching.  I mean we all remember this video on sharing games from PlayStation’s YouTube channel, right?

Did anyone else get a very thumbs up / thumbs down Gladiator vibe from that whole thing?  I sure did, and it was hilarity that won in the arena.

Sony had the pole position in the console press conferences, showing off the PS4 hours after Microsoft was shilling the One.  After the disappointment of many after the Xbox One show, Sony had the opportunity to say “Hey guys, don’t worry!  We’re still here to save you!”  And it worked.  Like gangbusters, kids.  Sony offered a unit that cost less, had better hardware specs, nixed the DRM, had no requirement for an always on, always listening camera, and didn’t charge $60 a year for online services.  How can you lose with that kind of show?

So was it Sony putting pressure on Microsoft by just being themselves or was it truly the Xbox team listening to their fans.  “We have listened and we have heard loud and clear from your feedback that you want the best of both worlds,” Mattrick said on the Xbox Wire.  Maybe it should have read “Pleas guys, don’t leave us for Sony.”  It was probably a combination of both.  And that’s what’s awesome about the whole thing.  What this showed was that the gaming industry can still be affected by competition and vox populi – even though companies run on margin and greed, that they can shift gears when they previously said they can’t when their dollars are threatened.  It’s the beauty of the system – a company can shift gears once they realize that consumers aren’t going for what they’ve got.  And to the conspiracy theorists, no, I don’t think this was a planned stunt from the get go to come off harsh then pick up the image of “listening to the fans.”  That strategy would have only worked if they had a PS4-killer level function in the Xbox One, which they didn’t.  In all I’m glad they rolled back the DRM, but I think the damage is still done.

And that’s my opinion regardless of the borderline insane ramblings of Cliffy B, who claims that it was Sony alone, and not the “whiny internet” that forced Microsoft’s hand.

Sony still has a lot of those advantages listed above going for them.  The price of the PS4 is still about $100 less than the One, and that also comes with no yearly payments for online services.  And money is always a factor.  It was part of the reason for the success of Nintendo’s first Wii console after all.  But the other disadvantage they still maintain is the Kinect requirement.  The Kinect still has to be plugged in and powered on for the console to function, keeping my privacy concerns right where they are.  Enough to make the fact that they rolled back the DRM, while fundamentally good, also completely moot.  I still need more than “I promise Nene, I’m not listening” to make it happen for me.

Final verdict: Sony still has the upper hand.


Tuesday, June 18, 2013

US Military Ready to Court Martial the Xbox One


Remember a while back when former Xbox director Adam Orth put his foot in his digital mouth, tweeting to us all that if there is an always on connection (of course before they confirmed it) that we can all #dealwithit?  As you know, I had some fundamental problems with the sentiment.  Orth went on to be completely dismissive about folks that didn’t have a constant and reliable internet connection.  That covers a lot of folks – gamers that live in the rural United States without broadband or have to rely on spotty satellite service as well as members of our armed services that are deployed abroad.  I spoke to some of my friends in uniform when that information came out, and they were unanimously unpleased.  Gaming is how some of them blow off steam while deployed in remote areas or at sea, and a requirement for online check ins with the inability to play offline without one puts that to an end.

Those statements seem to be resonating with American military personnel.  For example US Navy Lieutenant Scott Metcalf, according to reports from The Navy Times, has gone from eagerly awaiting his console’s arrival to not even being sure that he’ll be buying one from Microsoft.  The always on policy as well as other aspects of the Xbox are what he calls “showstoppers.”  Here’s what a Microsoft spokesperson told the Military Times about Xbox functionality:
“With Xbox One you can game offline for up to 24 hours on your primary console, or one hour if you are logged on to a separate console accessing your library. Offline gaming is not possible after these prescribed times until you re-establish a connection”
The Times outline the other problems that Lt. Metcalf and others have with the new device.  For starters, the Xbox One is only supported in 21 countries – meaning it’s unavailable to any personnel deployed outside of those zones.  If somehow the lucky military gamer in question is in one of those 21 countries, games are region locked, so guess what?  No buying games locally or firing up a disc from home – because if your XBox Live account is linked to a different region, you’re looking at no joy.

More so than the always on component of the console and the inability to play games offline – or even really at all in some cases, is the security issues.  This is a huge issue in the past couple weeks, especially considering Germany’s consideration to ban sales of the console considering it a surveillance device.  It’s absolutely no surprise to me that the US military feels the same way.  In your living room, an always on (and always listening) Kinect unit might pick up a conversation between you and your friends, or where you want to order takeout from.  Now imagine that you living room is actually a military unit, where a Commander has a lot more to worry about being picked up than a food order.

Metcalf isn’t the only one with issues.  Naval aviator Jay Johnson is outspoken about the topic as well.  Johnson, who served tours on three Nimitz-class carriers, describes gaming as “my sanctuary. It is where I went to calm down after a long day of flying.”  In a piece he wrote for Gamasutra, he describes it simply as “the single greatest sin Microsoft has committed against all service members.”  And he’s right.

What makes this whole thing even worse is Microsoft’s attitude about the whole thing.  While our military personnel are losing a way to escape their sometimes harsh realities, Don Mattrick keeps on with a “sucks to be you” demeanor, stating that if they don’t want a console that has an always on component, that they can always buy an Xbox 360, which allows full-time offline play.

His words in an interview at E3 reflect that:
“When I read the blogs and thought about who’s really the most impacted, there was a person who said, ‘Hey, I’m on a nuclear sub.’ I don’t even know what it means to be on a nuclear sub, but I’ve got to imagine that it’s not easy to get an Internet connection. Hey, I can empathize. If I was on a sub, I’d be disappointed.”
Great, they empathize.  Too bad they’re not going to do anything about it.  There haven’t been any plans or even words on their part to address the issue.  But hey, they’ve got a 360 for you.  It’s absolutely shameful that in a room where these things are discussed at Xbox HQ, there was absolutely no foresight to what their policies could mean for our fighting men and women having a little piece of home when they’re deployed abroad.  Said best by Johnson -

“No longer will the sounds of Master Chief saving the human race echo through the hallowed halls of the USS Abraham Lincoln, or any other USS ship, when we have a few hours respite. No longer will you see Marcus and Dom sawing through the Locust Horde at the bases in Afghanistan after the Marines have returned from patrol and want to escape their reality for a bit. Those days are now firmly behind us.”


Friday, May 24, 2013

AT&T Customer? Prepare to get Nickeled and Dimed (Pennied too)

I’m usually enraged with everyone that runs the show in the mobile consumer space.

Over the years, I’ve found (as well as you’ve found I’m sure) that the major players do their level best to squeeze every copper penny out of the American consumer, trying to back up that squeeze by telling us about service enhancements and whatnot that come with that charge.   What AT&T is now doing in that spirit doesn’t even come with a veiled attempt at justification.  Soon all AT&T wireless customers will have an additional $0.61 tacked on to their monthly bill.  Now sure that doesn’t sound like too much – I mean we’re only talking about an additional hit of $7.32 to your yearly mobile expense, but that adds up.  Maybe it doesn’t add up to you personally, but add up that $7.62 per customer over their entire customer base and it adds up a little sweeter to them – to the tune of $500-600 billion added to AT&T’s yearly bottom line.

And why?  According to analysts, because they can.

Now let’s take a look at the evil genius of it all.

1. AT&T has a clause in their contracts that if there’s a price increase outside the scope of the contract, the customer has an opportunity to get out of it without having to pay a termination fee.  The fact that they call it an administrative fee means it’s not technically a rate increase, so that clause doesn’t apply.  Take a look at section 1.3 if you’re interested in their terms of service and make note of administrative fees being explicitly excluded.

2. $0.61 isn’t enough to scare customers away – no one’s going to cancel their contract and pay a huge termination fee over $7.32.  Now no one’s going to like it, but it’s jut not enough to quit.  This is half a billion dollars pretty much for free as a gift to themselves from all of you.  Joe Hoffman, principal analyst at ABI Research had the following to say:

“But why 61¢, why not $1 or $5 or $10? Because AT&T understands price elasticity of demand. When AT&T raises the price by 61¢, they know hardly anyone is going to bail on them, and so can impose this with impunity. $1 or $5 or $10 is just too much to swallow all at once, but give them time. For now, $500 – $600 Million will flow right to the bottom line. Brilliant! No fancy software tools, no focus groups, no high priced engineers and programmers, and no iPhone subsidies. Just a raw, brute force price increase. In six to 9 months, add another fee, then rinse and repeat a few more time. Marketing beats engineering every time!”
Now an AT&T spokesperson says that this is pretty in line with what other carriers do or will charge, and I totally believe it.

It’s $0.61 now, but when is that line going to be $0.90? or $1?  It’s going to creep over the years while our phone bills skyrocket, and the average consumer will barely notice.  Not exactly much we can do about it, but you should all fully understand what the mobile industry sees us as:


Cash piñatas that always pay out.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Xbox One Update - The Whole Internet Connection Thing



** Updated Info on the Xbox One and internet connections **

In my earlier post talking covering the big Xbox One reveal today, I got a little bit into the whole always on issue.  From those who had hands-on experience with the One, it seemed that it would be only games that utilized Microsoft’s Azure cloud platform that would require an internet connect to play.  Well I’m very sad to report that that’s not totally the case.  Let’s hop over to the Xbox press site, where they’ve posted a Q&A describing a lot of Xbox features.  On a question on always-on, this is what they’ve posted:

Q:    Does Xbox One require an “always on” Internet connection?
A:    No, it does not have to be always connected, but Xbox One does require a connection to the Internet. We’re designing Xbox One to be your all-in-one entertainment system that is connected to the cloud and always ready. We are also designing it so you can play games and watch Blu-ray movies and live TV if you lose your connection.

OK…

That doesn’t make a lick of sense!

Unfortunately for me my day job keeps me on the east coast and without an invitation to Redmond to ask further questions on what’s going on.  Kotaku’s Stephen Totilo on the other hand does have that opportunity.  When Stephen pressed for an answer, what he received was the following:
“For single-player games that don’t require connectivity to Xbox Live, you should be able to play those without interruption should your Internet connection go down. Blu-ray movies and other downloaded entertainment should be accessible when your Internet connection may be interrupted. But the device is fundamentally designed to be expanded and extended by the Internet as many devices are today.”  After some more digging, here is what always means as far as Xbox is concerned:

The Xbox One checks in with the cloud once every 24 hours.

It’s a technicality that allows Team Xbox to say that they don’t require an always on connection to play.  But it ain’t exactly forever.  So fine, instead of being shackled to a network, we’re now all… on parole?  Are the 300,000 Xbox LIVE servers my parole officers?  Do I get time off for good behavior?

I have no idea what happens if you don’t check in every 24 hours, but I can’t imagine it’s good.  I have my Xbox 360 turned completely off unless I’m playing.  It’s not listening for my voice commands, it turns on when flip a physical switch.  As it stands at the moment of writing this I haven’t turned my Xbox on in roughly a week.  With these rules on the One, am I going to be restricted because I haven’t checked in for a week?

Anyway, no, I guess it’s not as bad as the three minute rule that was rumored before, but it’s still something that’s a pain in the ass.  Just letting you kids know.

OK Kids, Let's Talk Xbox One

Just a little while ago from their Redmond campus, Microsoft finally pulled the curtain and gave us all the big reveal on their successor to the Xbox 360 – The Xbox One, announcing that it will be available later in 2013.  Not to be confused with the old classic Xbox 1, the new unit is geared to be an all-in-one box as described by Xbox exec Don Mattrick.  Sitting next to the this all-in-one box was a new Kinect sensor, as well as the newly designed controller.  I watched the live stream (well as much as I could) and while it didn’t provide a ton of helpful information, there was some.

What was Covered:

What was showed off was voice control – with the unit being powered on by a user simply saying “Xbox on.”  Using voice, the controller, or gesture commands with the Kinect sensor, the user can easily switch between the Xbox Live UI and Live TV.  The UI itself is is very Windows 8 in the sense that there’s tiles for a lot of things on the interface.  This isn’t really that surprising considering that with Windows 8 Microsoft was pushing a lot of their services and devices into a connected ecosystem, shoving Xbox under that umbrella as well.  Part of that is pretty sweet connectivity, with special software designed to be able to connect between a Windows OS as well as the Xbox interface.  It also seems that Microsoft  has learned from their HD-DVD missteps with the 360, giving the One an optical drive that supports Blu-ray discs.  The unit handles games, internet and web apps, Skype functionality as well as live TV.  That seems pretty close to the “all-in-one” description that Mattrick was talking about, adding that it must be “simple, instant, and complete.”  I guess “complete” also means that the system can pick up and measure your heartbeat while you exercise.

There was also some description on the controller, designed with improved ergonomics and a new D-pad, designed with gamers helping to make it better for gamers.

As for the rest of the livestream itself, there was a big to-do about the partnership between Xbox and EA, showing off a bunch of games from EA Sports including FIFA, UFC, Madden and FIFA, all to be released over the next year.  The EA montage came with the unveiling of EA Ignite, an engine designed “specifically to help us blur the line between the real and the virtual,” according to Andrew Wilson.

The Xbox folks also announced that there would be 15 exclusive titles for the Xbox One over the year, showing one of them (presumably) as Quantum Break, which appeared to focus around a kid with superpowers.  Claiming that they’re investing more in a bunch of studios around the world to create original content, they say that these 15 exclusives will cover 8 different and brand new franchises.

Next came some celebrity guests from different areas of entertainment.  Steven Spielberg joined via teleconference to talk about a new Halo live action television show, broadcast as “premium television” through the Xbox One.  I for one don’t really care, but if that’s you’re thing, well there you go.  Roger Goodell, commissioner of the NFL, also stopped by on screen talking about the partnership between Xbox and the NFL: “You’re going to change the football in a way that is so dramatic.”

They closed out the livestream with a preview of Call of Duty: Ghosts, focusing a great deal on the fact that the game has dogs in it, at which point my stream started flipping out, but it seemed like they revealed very little information on it as well as other games for that matter.  I guess they’re saving it all of e3.

Funny sidenote about the stream flipping out – I lost the stream 3-4 times through the whole proceedings, one of them being just as they were talking about how they have 300,000 servers to support Xbox Live.  Unfortunately none of them allowed xbox.com to get through 15 minutes of stream without crashing.
Oh right – machine specs:

  • Processor: Custom AMD chip, 8-core GPU, DirectX 11.1, 32MB ESRAM (28nm chip for those interested in fabrication)
  • Memory: 8GB RAM (DD3)
  • Storage: 500GB internal hard drive
  • Audio/Video: 1080p and 4K support, can do 7.1 surround
  • Connectivity: HDMI 1.4 output/passthrough, USB 3.0, WiFi Drect
What Wasn’t:

While they kept saying that the Xbox One was connected, they didn’t explicitly address fans’ concerns about “always on.”  I had to get intel from other sources who had a more hands on experience with the One for that.  According to Wired, the One will not be always on as was heavily rumored.  Which begs the question, how did THIS WHOLE NONSENSE even occur in the first place?  I don’t know.  I guess folks can get a little nuts in the twitterverse.  But I found out some other things too:

While it may not be always on, game discs will all have to be downloaded to the console’s internal hard drive (which makes me really worry about only a 500GB hard drive).  But once the data is on said hard drive, the user can play it whenever he or she chooses, and it will be connected to their XBL gamertag.  But if that disc is used with a different account, the person holding that second account has the option of paying a fee to install it to his or her hard drive and play.  Without that download though, play with just the disc and not copying anything to the hard drive is restricted.  According to Wired, Microsoft didn’t have an answer as to if or even how this policy would potentially be altered for the used games market or players that rent games.

As far as the “always” on rumors?  Yes and no.  Game developers making games for the One have access to use Microsoft’s Azure cloud services platform to bump some of the game tasks to the cloud.  In this case yes you would require an internet connection.  If a game in question does not actually utilize Azure, then no, you will not need a connection.  I have no basis to make a prediction on what percentage of Xbox One games will utilize Azure, but my guess is that Microsoft is really going to try and push it.

So there it is in a nutshell kids.  I’ll keep my eye out for further details to keep you in the know.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Doctor Who and Football - Why It's Time We Grew Up and Get Along

Those who know me know I refer to my field of interests as multiclassing.  I enjoy sporting events as well as comic cons.  I like talking about the merits of strategy in sports as much as I do strategies for Final Fantasy boss fights.  I even enjoy arguing about the greatness of sports players as well as the greatness of all of the different Doctors.  I think it’s good to be a well rounded sort of guy that way.

I naturally then subscribe to a host of different things on social media, and some of them are Doctor Who related (I even tried lobbying BBC to make me the brown doctor to no avail).  So last month I saw what I considered to be a nice and funny post listing similarities between a Doctor Who Convention and the Super Bowl (that’s American Football for our ex-US friends) and found it wonderful.  These were the points, according to the post, listed that both types events provided:

  • Lots of fans traveling from all over to gather together and celebrate something that they love watching on TV
  • Sometimes they dress up as their favorite characters
  • A good place to make friends and have fun
  • Usually you come home with lots of merchandise and souvenirs
  • If you’re lucky, you might even get to meet one of the stars and get an autograph
How great is that?  Sports and traditional geekery coming together to recognize the similarities between everyone.  And you know me kids, I like bringing people together.  I’ve even written on the topic of how we’re all the same, like how fantasy football and World of Warcraft share a lot.  So this post made me really happy.

Until, that is, I started reading the comments.  I know, I know, I should have just applied the YouTube comments rule and ignored them but once I started getting into them, I had a big problem reading some of them that were dripping in what can only be described as the old-school “geek vs sports” mentality.  Something struck me as odd though – opposite of traditional convention, the venom was coming from the geeks to be hurled at the sports fans on the page.  Unsolicited, and with a vengeance.  Dozens of people posted about how these events could not possibly be the same because “football is for losers,” or that sci fi / doctor fans are “much smarter people,” or that football doesn’t “require thought” and fans of sports are somehow dumber.  The vast majority of what I’ll call “partisan” commentary was against sports fans.  I only spotted a couple actually insulting sci-fi fans, and those “insults” really didn’t get much harsher than “it’s not real.”

Seriously?

A fandom and community that might have been used to judgment over their lifetime is now slinging the judgment at others?  And I might add, in an unsolicited manner?  It was rough getting through it and feeling like these folks were trying to recreate a version of high school were the stereotypical geeks had the social upper hand.  Or that maybe they were slinging this venom because that’s what their fandom dictates they do.  Either way, it really upset me.  For those who claim that Doctor who is about acceptance and people being themselves, they sure didn’t play the part.  So why are traditional geeks, one of the groups I do identify with, taking this route?  Are these the same people that reveled in Simon Pegg’s recent definition of “geek” that can now be found all over the internet?  Are we so “open and accepting” to shun everyone that doesn’t identify with us?  It’s spooky, and I don’t like it.

And I’m going to be the one to say it - all this reverse judging? Not ok guys. "Ew, dumb jock" and "Ugh, stupid nerd" ended in high school. Fans of both express their fandom, and the stereotype that sports fans have the IQ of a walnut is just as over-generalized as the one about nerds living in a basement doing their thing with anime/sci-fi/computers 24/7. If you're a "nerd" judging others then you've become the very people who pestered you when you were/are young, if that’s your motivation here.

Both events and both "camps" have community as a big part of their fandom, and conversations on "who was the greatest running back/wide receiver" happen just as frequently as "who was the best doctor/companion."
Now I think I have a unique perspective here.  I’m a big geek in the traditional sense.  I’m wearing a Green Lantern t-shirt typing this right now.  I have this Saturday’s Doctor Who episode set to record because I’m not going to be around.  I spend my downtime gaming.  I launched my Final Fantasy career with the original on the NES when I was 8.  On the other hand, I love football, and I do my best to watch every Eagles game during the season, regardless of how they’re doing.  I try to get out and play golf as often as I can when the weather’s nice.  Back in high school I did quiz bowl and debate after my advanced programming classes, but still played Ultimate Frisbee after school and was friends with the guys on the football team.  You can say I have a foot in both camps as it were, and I do understand both sides of the coin.

Which is why I say to everyone, with love, that it’s time to grow the hell up.  I understand that everyone is passionate about what they love and develop fierce loyalties.  And we gravitate to people who share those passions and find a sense of community.  But why does that mean that every other community is somehow inferior or less intelligent or somehow worse than yours?  I just don’t get it, not these days anyway.  According to these Whovian purists, has my INT stat taken a hit because I have a mind for sports as well?
According to my social media feeds, yeah.  And that’s sad.  I can guarantee you that once football season starts and posts/tweets about the NFL start ramping up in a couple months, so will the tweets and posts from those who feel intellectually superior, making damn sure that you know they’re too intellectually superior to watch sports.  You will also, however, find that the reverse is not true at all.  How do I know?  because I've seen it every season since I've been on Twitter.

So are there really fan-based geek outcasts anymore?  The folks I play fantasy football with are the same people who I used to raid with.  “Sports geeks” as I call some of my friends know every stat and every event, both major and minor, in their arena of sports interests.  They’re also some of the sharpest minds I’ve met.

So back to what I was talking about before in regards to Simon Pegg’s geek redefinition:
“Being a geek is all about being honest about what you enjoy and not being afraid to demonstrate that affection. It means never having to play it cool about how much you like something. It’s basically a license to proudly emote on a somewhat childish level rather than behave like a supposed adult. Being a geek is extremely liberating.”

Is there anyone here that disagrees?   He put into words how I’ve always felt.  And there’s a place and room for a lot of different types of folks at my table.

To those who feel like the negative facebook commenters, did I betray you?  Have I gone astray from your fierce Whovian fandom?  Then in the words of the Doctor himself:

Please, point a gun at me if it helps you relax. 




Monday, May 6, 2013

May 4th - The Great Star Wars Derby 2013

This past weekend included the fourth of May, which is generally considered to be Star Wars day to the geek kingdom. To those not hip to 'Wars, you may be wondering why there's a connection between an arbitrary date and an epic saga loved my many.  To those people, "May the fourth be with you."

You pickin' up what I'm puttin' down?  Excellent.

May 4th was also a big day in Louisville, Kentucky with the 139th running of the Kentucky Derby.  I lived in Louisville for a few years when I was a kid, and derby time was always fun - not only on race day and every having fun at parties but the weeklong festival that led up to it.  One of my favorite parts of the derby (and all the other races that are run at Churchill Downs) is the nutty and sometimes outright ridiculous names of the horses.  A horse named Orb won the whole thing this year, but was followed by Golden Soul and Palace Malice.  Other horses had some great names too, like Normandy Invasion, Overanalyze and Will Take Charge.

So given that these two days coincide, I decided to come up with names for horses throughout the day that could potentially run in a Star Wars themed Kentucky Derby.  You know, just for fun.  Eventually some other people started playing along, giving us a huge stable of named horses.  Since there were 20 horses in the race this year, I picked my favorite 20 for the Star Wars Derby (in no particular order, and you can see the whole list on twitter using the hashtag #starwarsderby).  They'll be loading into the gate as follows:

  • Hell Hoth No Fury
  • 12 Parsecs to Kessel
  • Alderaan Places
  • Ackbar's Warning
  • Gone Baby Qui-Gon
  • Dr. Kyle and Mr. Katarn
  • Biggs' Mustache Comb
  • Lando Milk and Honey
  • AT-AT The Wire
  • Buns of Steel
  • This Is Not The Horse You're Looking For
  • The Phantom Mare
  • Adventure and Excitement
  • Lando's Triple Cross
  • Don't Tell Me The Odds 
  • Disturbing Lack of Faith
  • Wedge Can't Hang
  • I Know
  • Oo Tee Dee
  • May the Horse Be With You
  • He's My Brother
  • Star Orb A New Hope
  • Lando's Colt 45
And they're off!  Hell Hoth No Fury charges ahead of the field out of the gate followed by 12 Parsecs to Kessel with a good run, The Phantom Mare running almost unseen moving towards the inside rail.  This is not the Horse your Looking For trying to make a move to the outside, looking for Lando Milk and Honey and Alderaan Places in the middle of the pack.  Coming up on the turn Oo Tee Dee happily squeals his way into the inside, leaving Don't Tell Me the Odds and Biggs' Mustache Comb sifting through slings of mud.  On the backstretch is He's My Brother side by side with Buns of Steel, catching up to Hell Hoth No Fury who is still ahead by 2 lengths.  Ackbar's Warning staying cautiously steady towards the middle, Gone Baby Qui-Gon and Dr. Kyle and Mr. Katarn split to the outside.  Wedge Can't Hang looks to be losing his steam, overtaken by Star Orb A New Hope who squarely takes 4th position in the series.  Approaching the turn I Know turns on the juice, leaving Adventure and Excitement in his wake, sluggish like he just came out of a Carbonite bath.  May the Horse Be With You tries to make a move and Lando's Colt 45 takes a shot but gets sloppy and blows the turn wide to the outside.  Lando's Triple Cross takes advantage of the situation and finishes the turn at number 5 ahead of Disturbing Lack of Faith coming to the home stretch, AND DOWN THE STRETCH THEY COME!  AT-AT The Wire charges ahead on the outside against Hell Hoth No Fury, closing to within one length.  AT-AT The Wire and Hell Hoth No Fury are neck and neck, but what's this?  Ackbar's Warning goes to the whip and makes a charge, speeding to the front of the pack!  It was a trap!  It was a trap!  Ackbar's Warning on the straight and narrow cutting between AT-AT The Wire and Hell Hoth No Fury, closing the gap at a good clip, overtaking them before the line and Ackbar's Warning takes the race!  Ackbar's Warning wins, with Hell Hoth No Fury with the Place and AT-AT The Line for Show.

Phew, what an exciting race - see you kids when this happens again in 2019.

thanks to the folks that participated: @GreyAreaPodcast, @BigMikeyOcho, @neophiyte, @Mitzula, @TheRoyLRumble and @armstrongda

Saturday, April 20, 2013

The World's Biggest Game of PONG hits the Philadelphia Skyline for Philly Tech Week 2013


Those who know me know that I love the concept of multiclassing.  I love when digital plays with real.  When nerdery exists with business.  When education holds hands with gaming.  When technology tangos with art.  And I have the good fortune of living in the Philadelphia area.  So let’s take those aforementioned topics and throw them all into one mixing bowl for a second.  That’s what I was able to experience Friday night celebrating the kickoff for Philly Tech Week.
And that celebration? Playing PONG. On the side of the Cira Centre. Which is a building over 400 feet tall. From about a mile out. For all the city to see.  Magical.
Philly Tech week is an annual celebration of technology and the arts through over 100 events, naturally taking place in the city of brotherly love.  As Technically Philly‘s Christopher Wink said at the event, Philly Tech Week is to show folks the amazing minds and the amazing work that’s being done in the Philadelphia area, and about the intersection of arts and technology to inspire the region.  This year to kick it off along those lines,  Dr. Frank Lee of Drexel University and his crew rigged the Cira Centre with hundreds of LED’s, each one mapped to its own IP address (pretty slick right?), and  coded a version of PONG that could communicate with each of those lights.  The controls were outside the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where the rest of the party was.  So from the museum steps famous for that Rocky training montage, denizens of our fair city could watch some classic gameplay on an 83,000 square foot makeshift screen.
Why PONG though?  In the words of Dr. Lee when he spoke to Polygon last month, ”Pong is part of our culture,” he said. “Pong lives in every game that came since then. If you get down the tree of the life of the video game, it will lead at the root to PongPong was the first successful commercial game.”  Makes a lot of sense given that the good doctor describes himself as a gamer, and he was also one of the two paddle combatants in the inaugural match.  He defeated Jerry Sweeney, CEO of the Brandywine Realty Trust, the company that owns the Cira Centre.  It was a clash of titans – Sweeney, the guy that owns the building, taking on Lee, the guy hacking it.
Dr. Lee pulled out the win in the 5 point match, but as mentioned by Christopher Wink, who emceed the whole event, with an asterisk next to it in the history books – see the video below to see what I’m talking about:

Outside of the main event, there were classic arcade machines set up as well as some live chuptunes.  The whole thing was threatened by weather, but in addition to Dr. Lee and Mr. Sweeney about 60 players were able to go to old school war in the hour and change the event was able to last.  Luckily for the couple hundred of other folks that were there to see the action, the rain held off for a good bit.  Unfortunately for me though, it started just in time to render me drenched by the time i finished my trek from the Art Museum to Suburban Station to catch my train home.
Dr. Lee talked about working with the Guinness folks about establishing the world record for the biggest video game ever.  Apparently something similar was done by Atari in Kansas City a while back, but that was only a 22 story building.  The Cira Centre is 29, so mathematically there shouldn’t be any issues getting the record confirmed.
It was an awesome time and a great way to kick off the events of the coming week.  Oh and by the way, in your face Kansas City.
With love, Philadelphia.

Friday, April 12, 2013

We May All Be Computer Criminals Soon: The CFAA and the Power to Destroy


Over the last couple of years there's been a lot of focus on legislation concerning internet privacy and regulation.  SOPA came and went.  CISPA was effectively (so we thought at the time) dead but is rearing its ugly head once again.  ACTA was killed last summer.  But all of those can have thousands of words dedicated to just them on their own.  Today we're going to be talking about the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, affectionately known as CFAA for short.

The CFAA

The goal of the CFAA (when it was born from from the twisting nether ironically in 1984) was to reduce unauthorized access to computer systems for government and financial institutions.  OK, fair enough.  But the number of amendments that were attached to it over the next couple of decades changed its tone.  In 1994 Congress turned it into a weapon for private litigants suing for civil damages, giving private business a means to sue employees for alleged information theft.  2001's Patriot Act amended it to allow searching records from a user's ISP.  Each amendment suffers the same kind of vague, broad and overreaching language that we've grown to know and cringe at just like other proposed internet regulation has.  A broad interpretation of the CFAA justified criminal charges for employees that violated a company's acceptable use policy or violating an internet terms of use policy.  Criminalized.  Thankfully that last one was changed again in 2011, to bring the focus of the law back to what it originally was - combating unauthorized access to information.  But it still had the power to destroy.

The case of Aaron Swartz

The most prominent case illustrating this was that of Aaron Swartz, a bright digital innovator and activist that helped develop RSS content syndication and the creation of the Creative Commons licenses.  He also was the founder of the online group Demand Progress, an activist group that was well known for their digital campaign against SOPA.  The case was around his access to information from JSTOR, a not-for-profit repository of scholarly and academic journals created in 1995 to help academic libraries and publishers provide access to their works without taking up physical shelf space.  Users that have JSTOR accounts through an academic institution have free and unfettered access to this repository.  Swartz's position as a research fellow at Harvard University granted him access to the JSTOR system.  According to the Department of Justice however, Swartz did so from a "protected computer" on MIT's campus, with the intention of stealing documents and sharing them sharing them over numerous file-sharing sites, leaving him open to prosecution with the full strength of the CFAA.  If he was convicted of the charges (wire fraud and computer fraud as violations of the CFAA) he could have faced up to 35 years in prison and fines up to $1 million.  Sadly, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment this past January.

There are tons more details to this case I'm glossing over, but you can read more about the whole thing at the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Present Power and Proposed Changes

That's the power the CFAA has as it stands.  In the wake of Aaron Swartz's death, many politicians, including SOPA critics Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-CO), raised questions about how the government handled the case, and Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) proposed to reform the CFAA with Aaron's Law, to prevent what happened to Swartz to happen to other computer users.  This reform is extremely important in the internet age, because according to the bill, you don't have to be a hacker or know anything about hacking to be charged for unauthorized access.  In the words of Orin Kerr, a law professor at George Washington University,

"Breaching an agreement or ignoring your boss might be bad. But should it be a federal crime just because it involves a computer? If interpreted this way, the law gives computer owners the power to criminalize any computer use they don't like. Imagine the Republican Party setting up a public website and announcing that no Democrats can visit. Every Democrat who checked out the site could be a criminal for exceeding authorized access."

So reforming this bill would be in the best interests of the internet and all American internet users, right?  So why are new proposed amendments aimed at dealing more damage instead of fixing what's broken?  Looking at the new draft (which you can see here) just talking about violating the CFAA will carry the same punishment as actually completing the act itself, by adding the short phrase "for the completed offense."  There's also language that links CFAA violations to racketeering, putting every violator on the same level as a member of an criminal organization.  In addition to violating website's fine print being a criminal act, the proposed changes expand the scope of civil seizure and forfeiture by the federal government.  And one of the most frightening additions is a section on "exceeding authorized use,"  meaning that if I want to access information I legally have access for an "impermissible purpose" then I'm punishable.  I'm not saying that's a common thing, but it could be another arrow in a prosecutor's quiver.

Terms of Use Violations and... Seventeen Magazine?

Yes, that's right, Seventeen Magazine.  Upon hearing of the new proposed earlier this month, they immediately changed a very specific part of their terms of service.  Their terms of service used to read that you had to be at least 18 years of age to access the website, meaning that if you couldn't access Seventeen if you were... actually 17.  They have a readership of 4.5 million teenage readers, whose average age is 16 and a half.  As of April 3rd, that language has been removed.  Otherwise, under the new proposed CFAA changes, over 4 million teenagers could have been charged with computer crimes just for visiting the site, violating the user site agreement fine print.  Hearst Magazines realized that this was ridiculous, and thankfully chose not to turn an army of teenagers into felons.

It's important that people know what's going on with this kind of legislation - any laws that affect computer use affect all of us, and we as citizens should actively be making sure that our own day-to-day activity can't be potentially weaponized against us.  If you want to contact your representatives about the CFAA (or anything else for that matter) the EFF has a lookup tool you can use to know where to send your comments and letters.

This is far from the first and far from the last when it comes to skewed computer law.  Outside of recruiting more geeks in Congress, our voice is all we have.