Apple Introduces New iPhones, Software

Some of the fun writing I get to do at work:

Today was the day many Apple fans were waiting for, as CEO Tim Cook took to the stage in the new Steve Jobs Theater to introduce the next generation of the iPhone and Apple Watch families. The iPhone 8 and iPhone X are the latest new phones, and they both pack a lot of technical punch…

Read on at: Apple Introduces New iPhones, Software – IT Connect

Capitalism Lab is an Obsession

For a very long time, I have had a fondness for simulation games. Roller Coaster Tycoon was of course in heavy rotation in my computer in elementary/middle school. I’ve spent hundreds of hours building in SimCity 4 and it’s spiritual successor Cities Skylines. Let’s not mention the 2013 SimCity reboot. I used to scour the web looking for long-lost simulation games for all kinds of weird stuff. I actually enjoyed the buggy SimIsle I bought from the school book order in fifth grade. From city-building to truck driving, I’ll play almost any sim game.

The value software section of Walmart was always a treasure trove of these sim games that didn’t quite make it but had enough of a following to keep around. I never had the best computer growing up, so these games were just about guaranteed to play on whatever I had at the time. One near-obsessive hit with my middle-school tastes was Hard Truck 2, where you traveled around a fictional area delivering shipments in trucks you were always looking to upgrade. It was heaps of fun and eventually got me into the truck sims currently made by SCS. But notice I said near-obsession, there.

My current sim obsession began in probably late middle/early high school and continues to this day. Another find in the Walmart software section introduced me to Capitalism 2. At the time I had never even heard of the first Capitalism game. Introduced in 2001 with graphics already dated for that time, it was a hardcore business simulation game. There were all kinds of options. You could simply build real estate and reap the slow but constant profits. You could be a captain of industry and manufacture goods. You could build a retail chain to sell other products built by other companies in the city you were in. The sheer number of ways you could play the game was intoxicating. I played for hours and hours. The dings and dongs of certain events are still seared into my brain. 

As the years went by, I continued to play. But what was initially a huge challenge was now more repetitive. It got almost boring. Almost…

About a couple of years ago I found a digital copy of Cap2 from the wonderful to replace the ancient and heavily scratched CD I bought years before. I started playing again and started looking at forums of other folks who played the game. That’s when I found Capitalism Lab. Apparently the original publisher was still developing a new, expanded version of Capitalism 2, with more features and the ability to add mods. I immediately paid for it and my obsession returned in full-force. 

The already complex financial and economic environments in the game have been made even better and the addition of mods allow new business like oil refineries, alcoholic beverages, and a whole lot more. Usually, a top-down 2D game like this has a hard time keeping the attention of modern gamers. Somehow, though, this game keeps pulling me back into the fold. How can I win next time? I’ve played retail for a long time now, what would happen if I spun off that division and moved into manufacturing? Stock issuances, dividends, mergers and acquisitions, it’s all there. I’m not really a business guy at all. But this is no risk. A good simulation of a very complicated and risky real-life landscape with no risk except being booted by your shareholders and starting a new game makes it fun. I’m sure I’ve learned something useful at some point in my hours of playing this game. I’ve read that they have even used this game in business schools.

An MBA candidate I’m not, but you really don’t have to be to get a kick out of this game. 

Amazon: The Company that Can’t Figure Out Music

It’s embarrassing, really. Here we are with one of the largest retail companies ever conceived by man. A place where from your internet-connected device you can order anything from books, electronics,  to mincemeat, to fifty-gallon drums of personal lubricant. You can also buy just about any album in physical form whether it be brand-new or something long out of print. It’s the Sears Roebuck of my generation, and it’s done a pretty good job to that effect.

Naturally, as any online retailer does, Amazon tries to branch out into the digital distribution realm. They’ve done okay on the video side of things with a decent offering for Prime subscribers. Software purchases are also very smooth, with many games even working with Steam out of the box. Music streaming, however, is where Amazon fails miserably. And they fail in a way that a company known for innovation really shouldn’t.

Amazon recently introduced their revamped Amazon Music service, boasting millions upon millions of songs available on all of your devices. As a guy who has jumped from one streaming service to another, I was hopelessly intrigued. The size of a service’s library isn’t much of a selling point these days since most services now have similar catalogs and most of those services have ways to mesh your personal library with theirs.

I thought that Amazon Music would grant me that same luxury. I had used their previous iteration of streaming service in the past, which was then less miserable. It allowed me to sync my library with Amazon’s. The issue? Hundreds of duplicate items in all of my playlists. A pure clusterfuck. I then went to Google Music with little to no fuss. With the new Amazon Music, the duplicate issue didn’t seem to appear, since you now have to pay a new yearly fee to have your library synced. On top of my Prime subscription, I’d have to pay an extra $25 a year to store my songs, even though I already have an amount of cloud storage that could accommodate it.

The abysmal desktop application did not help my understanding of this fact. In my attempts to sync my library, no progress notifications were provided. The user interface twitched, brightened, and faded with each tiny movement of the mouse. It crashed a couple of times. My first few attempts to log in were unsuccessful. Downloading and uploading playlists was a frustrating experience.

This isn’t how Amazon usually does things. They usually work on a project obsessively until it’s to their satisfaction. Amazon Echo is a perfect example of what they can do right.  So what the hell is wrong with Amazon Music? I think they believe that a vast library will solve all of their problems. It won’t if it sucks to interact with that library. In my many and almost obsessive jumps across streaming platforms, the one that always gets my repeat business is Spotify – because the software is good! It treats my personal library not as an afterthought, but almost as a friend. It’s seamless. Google Play does a similarly good job. It’s infuriating that Amazon can’t equal this with all of their resources and built-in userbase in their Prime customers.

Here’s what they could do. Go ahead and charge Prime customers for the actual streaming service. Don’t further nickel-and-dime them for storing their music. Go ahead and charge the non-prime folks for that. Make desktop and mobile applications that actually work. I’m pretty sure that most of the population of the Seattle-Tacoma area are Amazon developers, so use ’em.

In the meantime, stick with Google Play or Spotify, ’cause Amazon Music is the very definition of a hot mess.

Rolling My Own: My HTPC Adventures

My Xbox One had wronged me for the last time. A few months ago, I needed to change my credit card info in order to renew Xbox Live. No biggie, right? Well, the new credit card info would never accept and every week or so I received an e-mail from Microsoft about how they couldn’t take my money from me, no matter how much I tried to hand it to them. So, I traded it in for Steam gift cards. All was well with the world. Except…

The one thing I enjoyed about the Xbone was its TV capabilities. With my humble Winegard OTA antenna, I had an on-screen guide, pause capabilities, etc that many people pay a shitton for if they have a cable box. Now I didn’t have that, so I began thinking about getting back into the HTPC game. I had made one in my spare time many years ago with limited success, but the scene has changed significantly. For the most part, HTPCs are easier to set up than before and the community is getting stronger.

I cobbled my most recent attempt out of a few spare parts combined with a new mobo, budget Pentium processor and a new case that looked nice by my TV. I first installed Ubuntu for the OS but soon discovered that the TV tuner card I was using (Hauppauge HTV-1265, I think) did not work under Linux. However, the USB dongle I used on the Xbone worked fine. Odd. Either way, Ubuntu eventually didn’t work out so I ended up with Windows 7.

For the actual HTPC software, I went with Kodi, formerly known as XBMC. It’s always been a great system, and it’s pretty great today. It melds with my PVR software well, it gathers metadata for my media on my NFS share almost flawlessly, and looks good, too. However, it does occasionally hiccup in places causing the app to completely freeze, which in turn causes frantic Ctrl+Alt+Deleting and/or Alt+Tabbing to bring it back to life. This tends to occur when Kodi is trying to change a channel in order to record a program, which may be able to be blamed on the PVR software.

Now, I have a fairly reliable HTPC with great video quality, plus a full PC experience if I want. Also, I can plug in my Steam controller and play all those games I’ve bought on Steam with those gift cards. 🙂

My Relationship with Alexa

I read a recent article in The Guardian about Amazon Echo, the nondescript black obelisk that sits in your home and caters to your every whim and question and pushes you further into the Amazon cult. I thought I’d give a quick opinion on my former relationship with Alexa, the female voice that embodies Echo.

Full disclosure: I am in love with Amazon. I order stuff from them at least once a week. I got the Echo at a deeply discounted rate as an early-adopting Prime member. It was great. You talk to Alexa in casual language and she answered most queries accurately. Much better than the absolutely horrendous Siri. All was well and good. I had her play NPR’s national top-of-the-hour news when I was getting ready for work and she played music too.

However, that’s when the coolness ended. Sound quality, although decent, wasn’t anything compared to my Sonos Play:5. On top of that, you soon realize that Echo listens to everything. Sure, Alexa is only supposed to really listen and respond when you say her name, but can we really be certain? Echo’s code is closed-source, and Amazon, as great as they are when buying random crap late at night, have one goal in mind: to be the only place where you buy things. To do that, they want to know what you think about buying, what you discuss buying, et cetera. It was this reason, along with it’s redundancy in my home audio system, that caused me to sell Echo on eBay at a huge profit.

Yeah, Echo is a cool tool that has had many other features added to it, like IFTTT and smart home features, but at it’s core, it’s a salesperson. I don’t like salespeople coming into my home.

Surface 3: What iPad?

I got an iPad earlier this year. An Air 2. A somewhat frivolous purchase on my part, as I tend to make occasionally. It was to be used as an easier, lighter option to take notes and such during my classes and to watch TV and such where an actual TV couldn’t be found. It served this purpose very well for several months.

For note-taking, I have recently become addicted to online note management tools like Evernote, so I got a Wacom Bamboo Stylus Fineline pen to use with the iPad. the relationship between me, my iPad, and the pen became tempestuous, at best. The pen had to be charged frequently, the lack of a digitizer on the iPad made for shitty handwriting, and no app seemed to have palm rejection that worked in any way shape or form. The best app I came across was Noteshelf, which made the best of the capabilities of the pen and was super easy to use, so that would be the choice if you’re an iPad note taker.

So eventually the iPad wasn’t taking care of what I had coughed up a huge chunk of money for it to do. I started looking for a replacement while the resale value of the iPad was still somewhat high. The fact that the entry-level Surface 3 had a digitizer along with an optional pen had me intrigued, and the price was certainly right at much less than my iPad along with an educational discount. Luckily I have a Microsoft store near me, so the purchase was quick and easy. MS stores seem to be a lot more laid back than Apple stores, since they have demo stations that have lots of tools and such to play with and actually include chairs so you can sit and try things out. Major kudos to Microsoft on that.

I got the base model Surface 3, sans LTE, 16GB SSD and 2GB RAM. It runs on an Atom processor with the new Cherry Trail architecture. The storage may seem puny, but the Surface 3 includes a microSD card reader, so a quick trip to Amazon will resolve any space issues you may have. The screen is 1080p, and looks fantastic, although sometimes certain programs don’t scale too well and appear slightly blurry. It’s got the now prerequisite dual webcams as well. The type keyboard and the Microsoft pen were extra purchases. I can understand the pen being extra, but Microsoft should really bundle the keyboard. It’s stupid not to.

The keyboard – for being a thin snap-on cover – is excellent. Despite the keys being slightly scaled down to fit, they don’t feel too small. It’s very comfortable and buttons haven’t been moved to weird locations (looking at you, every Android tablet keyboard I’ve ever used) so my typing speed hasn’t been negatively affected at all.

The pen is what really makes the Surface an incredible device. Writing is accurate and pretty much perfectly replicates my handwriting as it would look on paper. Palm recognition isn’t perfect, but works much better than on my iPad apps.

And now for the knockout punch. The Surface 3 runs full-on Windows 10. It can run most all Windows programs within its strength. I’ve ended up using mine for fun, as well as hardcore work activities. The little Atom processor, which doesn’t even require a fan, encoded a 1.5 hour GoToWebinar recording to MP4 in about 30 minutes. Much better than I expected from a tablet running on a SoC. The only times I’ve had the Surface 3 struggle was with a lot of Firefox tabs open (which can even bring my “big hoss” work iMac to its knees) and if I have several programs open and running operations at once.

If the recently-released iPad Pro would have included OS X instead of iOS, the Surface would have actually had a reasonable contender from Apple. But it didn’t, so that’s the end of that. In terms of bang for your buck, the Surface line kicks ass in most regards.

It’s got a kickstand, too.


Windows 10: The Good…and the Ugly

I recently upgraded my home desktop to Windows 10 from the abomination that was Windows 8.1. In my almost two weeks-ish with the new OS, I’ve had a few thoughts.

Number one, it’s been a fantastic improvement over 8 & 8.1. The start menu is, as you’ve probably heard, restored to it’s rightful locale, but it’s not the same greatest-hits version we loved in Windows 7. At least it’s not 8.1’s cop-out of a “start button” that just sent you to the acid-trip of a start screen.

Compatibility has been fine, with only my CPU cooler’s LED light software not working after the upgrade. This isn’t a big deal, since who the fuck cares that much about LED lights. Personally, I wish there was a simple OFF setting. In terms of actually useful software, I’ve had zero issues with any of it. Even the perpetually bitchy Cisco AnyConnect VPN client seems to be working with very little of it’s usual kinks.

So what is there to hate about Windows 10? Really very little. However, what little there is to hate is fairly important, at least to me. Windows 10 is Microsoft’s first foray into “Windows as a Service.” An all-encompassing platform—most likely for very low cost or free later in it’s maturation—from which desktop, laptop, tablet, and mobile devices can run from…and consume content.

That’s the thing. In Windows 8, you see a teeny-tiny inkling of this new direction in the “Windows Store” and its hedged garden of apps. Now, in Windows 10, we’re seeing this garden has had a bit more acreage tilled into it. The taskbar search now includes Bing results, along with saving and reporting searches to Microsoft for better targeting while muddling your local file and application searches. Cortana, the new voice-controlled Siri-like personal assistant named after Master Chief’s sidekick in the Halo series, caters to your whims while directing you to the hedged garden and whispering sweet nothings about your searches in Microsoft’s ear. The new web browser, Microsoft Edge, is leaps and bounds better than the outgoing Internet Explorer. However, it’s profound lack of plugin and settings import features make it feel very much like a browser on training wheels.

In other words, although the new Windows platform appears to so far be rock solid, it’s becoming apparent that Microsoft wants Windows to go beyond a simple operating system into the realm of a sales platform. And with their new free upgrade model, who could blame them? They’re a corporation that reports to shareholders. Shareholders need teh munnehs. For things that require Windows, I’m more than happy to use Windows 10. For anything else, I’ll stick to Debian on my trusty old Lappy.

NewsBlur: How I Loved to Stop Worrying and Finally Love RSS Feeds

I’ll admit, RSS is far removed from its heyday in the era of, Blogger blogs with the basic template installed and the venerable Google Reader. When it seemed that everyone had RSS feeds emblazoned on their sites where you couldn’t avoid them, I somehow did.

Today, it seems the little orange radio icon is relegated to the fringes, nooks and crannies of the Internet’s pages, with some sites not even bothering anymore. What a great time to get into newsreaders!

My bookmarks bar is a fucking disaster. Sure, I have links organized in folders by category and such, but I just have so many. I’d spend most of my time clicking on link after link to blog after blog after new site. Then I found NewsBlur. I was immediately addicted. Just go to NewsBlur and scroooooooooollllll. It can even be trained to drop articles with tags you don’t like. Which is cool, but kinda scares me, too.

I took a class a few semesters ago about Technology and Concepts of Identity. It was called Technology and Concepts of Identity. We spoke at length about the trend of “echo chambers” on the internet that are just groups of people that all agree with each other’s opinions and reject and ridicule any other opinions from outsiders. I’ve sometimes thought I’m building my own personal echo chamber with NewsBlur, and maybe that’s why RSS has sort of gone by the wayside. Or, it could just be that web design doesn’t suck so hard anymore. That very well may be the definitive reason. Either way, NewsBlur is a happy medium between the mainline RSS readers of olde and a more intelligent app that can parse websites that may not have a working feed. I like it. Check it out.

Mophie Juice Pack Ultra: A Hilariously Bad Battery Case

JPU-Hero-033015-1x_500x690Friends, nerds, countrymen, I came to bury the Mophie Juice Pack Ultra, not to praise it.

Seriously, folks, this is a pretty embarrassingly bad iPhone case. At the princely sum of $150, I took the plunge into one of the strangest battery cases on the market for the iPhone 6. Even though their website said it was only for pre-order, but a case was promptly shipped anyway. Odd.

The case arrived quickly. I unboxed it to find an absolutely massive case with a glossy white finish. It looked cheap. Once applied to the iPhone 6, it was creaky as well as heavy. I then charged it and began it’s first test. The battery on this thing is incredible. It charges my iPhone from nothing to full and still has battery left over. That is, only if the case decides it wants to charge at all. The case randomly stops responding to pressing the status button of flipping the charge switch. Nothing happens. You have to plug the case in in order to get it to respond and charge your phone again. Bullshit. I paid $150 for a case, and I expect it to fucking work.

Luckily, an RMA number is in my hand and this case will go back home to Kalamazoo, Michigan. Good riddance.