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.

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.


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.

Review: Dell Inspiron 15 (3135)

It’s been quite a while since I have had the courage to purchase a Dell laptop. My first was in high school and was an Inspiron E1505. It was a trusty steed, and served me into the early semesters of undergrad. Once the battery gave out on the Dell, I ended up upgrading to a Toshiba, and then eventually an Asus G75VW behemoth which is still my main computer to this day.

During these past several Dell-less years, I’ve seen the downfall of Dell products from pretty reliable and affordable workhorses to abysmally shitty, yet still somewhat affordable, lumps of chintzy plastic and floppy screen hinges.

Things have changed, thankfully.

I’ve recently decided that my Chromebook, although great, just couldn’t replace my need for a full-fledged Windows and/or *nix system that I can throw in my backpack and not care about if disaster struck. I looked for a possible upgrade in Lenovo’s Thinkpad X140e, but found it too pricey to be in that elusive “somewhat disposable” category. Then I stumbled on Dell’s website. I’ve only used it recently for driver downloads and specs for client laptops/desktops I needed to fix, so I hadn’t recently checked out their newest offerings. In the home/home office section I saw the light:

Inspiron…Starting at $249

I looked into the specs of the cheap-o model, the Inspiron 15 (3135 to be more exact) and even though they were pretty basic, the price was unbelievable, so I nabbed one with $20 off using my old dusty Dell credit line. Now it is in my hands, and since I haven’t found a review for this particular model, here we go!

Dell 3135When taking the lappy out of it’s packaging, I noticed that the chintzy plastic is still used in full-force by the folks in Round Rock. It’s cheap, it’s dull looking, but it was surprisingly less creaky than other laptops I’ve used; including much more expensive enterprise-class Dells. Short-term, it appears to be a finger-grease magnet, but it is easy to clean and mostly unnoticeable in most light. The hexagonal pattern printed on both the interior and exterior of the plastic is pretty cool looking and makes it look a little more mature and durable. And no, I won’t be testing that durability assumption!

Once the laptop is opened, you are greeted by a nice glossy 15″ screen, a full keyboard with 10-key (HOLY SHIT!) and your run-of-the-mill trackpad. Let’s get one thing out of the way right off the bat. The trackpad is garbage. Multitouch is like pulling teeth, and the trackpad buttons feel incredibly fragile and are unbelieveably noisy. V-Tech would have laughed at the quality of this trackpad. Holy fuck. Even though basic mouse movements and taps haven’t been too awful (yet), just use a mouse.

3135 Keyboard Where Dell completely fucks up with the trackpad, they make up for tenfold on the keyboard. At this price point, the keyboard is a masterpiece. Very quiet, confident key presses, and a FULL TEN KEYPAD HOLY JESUS. No other cheap-o laptop can touch this keyboard. If you want a laptop that can take on all of the typing a college class requires, you’d be hard-pressed finding much better for the same price as a Chromebook.

As for overall noise coming from this lappy, there really isn’t any. Thanks to the Celeron processor, I’m pretty damn sure there isn’t even a fan in this thing. Other than the subtle whirrs and clicks of the old-fashioned platter ‘n head 500GB hard drive, it’s a quiet fellow.

Now back to that Celeron. You know Dell had to cut corners somewhere, and here’s where they did it. The Celeron, as you may know, is the absolute bottom of the barrel for mobile and desktop processors, other than the very-low-power Atoms and the like. Intel has done a pretty good job though of making the Celeron a low-power budget processor in its own right. Dell touts about five hours of battery life out of this guy, and that’s with the puny 4-cell battery included. A speed demon this little guy definitely ain’t, but you should be more than happy with it as a note-taking, web-browsing, general use mule. So far, I’ve only experienced occasional hiccups when installing larger programs and at the initial Windows 8.1 setup.

As far as software, you get Windows 8.1 “with Bing,” which is just 8.1 with Bing forced as the default search engine out-of-the-box in order for Microsoft to give OEMs a discount on licenses. Don’t worry though, you can download any alternate browser and set any other search engine you want. It’s the same Windows 8.1 as before. Dell also throws in their usual junk. Digital Delivery. McAfee, which is no longer optional since it’s now a Dell company, but is easily uninstalled. Generic Dell Audio stuff. Et cetera. Not a whole lot of bloat, but we all know Dell can’t live without a little bit of it.

So let’s bring it home. Do I regret this impulse purchase of quite literally the cheapest laptop Dell has probably ever manufactured? Not in the slightest. It’s comfortable, the screen is okay, battery life hasn’t disappointed yet and the dreaded Dell floppy display hinge is compeletely nonexistant. For $250, or $230 with your Dell charge account, it’s a pretty fantastic deal for a beater laptop with no guilt. Dell has certainly redeemed itself with this one, and maybe Michael Dell bringing the company back into private ownership will continue to help matters.