My tech nightmare

This week I offended some ancient technology demi-god somehow, and I paid the price.

It all started Wednesday when folks were talking about LOTRO. I was wondering if my old characters still existed so I fired up Steam and installed the game. When it finished installing through Steam I fired it up and it did that thing where every damned Steam game seems to need to install C++ libraries and assorted other things. In this case ANCIENT versions. Then it had to patch. Then I let it download high-resolution textures.

When it was finally done I started the game, with the intention of literally taking a screen shot of my characters to share on Imzy. I had no intention of actually playing the game. LOTRO started, my primary monitor when black. Stayed black. I could hear sounds but they were broken and stuttering. So I jumped over to monitor #2 and right clicked LOTRO and picked Close Window and nothing happened. So I hit CTRL-ALT-DELETE and nothing happened. Task manager wouldn’t come up. Vexed, I held down the power button on the machine to kill it. And that’s when trouble really began.

When I restarted the machine it blue-screened with an error of BAD_SYSTEM_CONFIG_INFO. Someone suggested this could be a video card issue, so I dragged the system out and swapped it with an old card I had. No help there. Swapped it back and started googling solutions. Tried various things for the next day or so. Some of them, like an extended chkdsk, took hours and hours to run. Tried to restore but Windows said it couldn’t find any restore points.

Finally found this solution online and it got me back to the desktop. Basically you’re replacing a bunch of files in C:\Windows\System32\config with backup copies.

So now I was at my desktop but my Start menu wouldn’t come up and everything felt really slow and sluggish. Virus maybe? Ran a bunch of checkers but found nothing. That was another few hours gone. Ever since installing LOTRO when the system starts up, about 20-30 seconds after I see a desktop, one of my monitors goes black for a few seconds. I see a ‘loading cursor’ and then the desktop appears, but with limited functionality (no Start menu, can’t open more than 1 file explorer window from the task bar, and some other stuff). I kind of feel like whatever this is, it’s undoing my fixes.

But at least I could get to my files. First thing I did was check to make sure my backups were up to date and…my backup system had quietly stopped working last June! Nothing since then was backed up. OK well I decided to back stuff up manually. Starting copying stuff to an external USB drive and it was going at like 18 Kbs and was going to take two days to copy, then it crapped out completely. USB was apparently out, but I could still copy across my home network to my Linux server. But first I had to clear out a bunch of stuff from that to make room.

I had to blow away a bunch of dev sites but freed up the space and starting copying my files to the Linux server. That was going to take a couple hours. 25% of the way through, I get an error that the PC can’t talk to Linux any more. I look at the Linux box and it was frozen. It has never done this, and had been running flawlessly for months. NOW it decides to crap out. So I reboot THAT and when I get it back online, the PC can no longer see it.

Interspersed with all of this I’m trying a bunch of things to repair the Windows installation but nothing is working. OK time to Reset the machine. By this time it’s about 4 pm Thursday. I start the reset process. It gets about 40% done and reboots to a black screen with a circle of dots indicating some process is happening. I let it sit like that for 7 hours. At about 11:30 I manually restart the machine and I get a “Loading Windows…” screen. Yay! I go to bed. In the morning I find that same black screen with the circle of dots. I reboot again and I get “Restoring files” and when that finishes I’m right back to where I started. The Reset failed.

At some point you start trying crazy shit. I read somewhere to unplug all USB devices. I do that and try the Reset again and it fails again. And for some reason when I re-attached the external USB drive I plug it into another USB port and… it works perfectly. So apparently one of my USB ports is blown. At least that means I can backup my files, so I do that. Now the pressure is off.

I try to reset or restore the system through a bunch of different techniques and none of them work. Half-way through this process, my main monitor stops working. Now to be fair this monitor has been a little wonky for a while. It would get stuck in standby mode and I’d have to cut the power to reset it. Now it’s frozen and won’t come back, but the thing is, it APPEARS to be working. So now I start to wonder how many times in the past days I’ve thought Windows was frozen but it’s just the monitor freezing. Anyway I crawl under the desk and disconnect that, and switch the backup monitor to the port that main monitor was using just to be sure it isn’t the video card connection.

So count so far: 1 fubar’d Windows OS, 1 fubar’d USB port, 1 fubar’d Linux service, 1 fubar’d monitor. All in the course of 3 days. AND my laptop has been acting up; the cursor keeps going nuts. Oh well.

Finally I just give in and install Windows from scratch. This works but I see a lot more partitions than I expect to see. There are 2 System Restore partitions, one that’s a few hundred megs, the other and about 3 GB. Then there’s another UEFI partition, if I recall correctly. Not being as up on Windows as I should be, I leave them all be. I hope I don’t regret that.

So now I’m re-installing apps and I’ve confirmed that my backup is actually running again. I ordered a new cheap monitor (money is tight right now or I would’ve just gone and bought a new system…this one is 6 years old) and a new video card because my Spidey Sense is telling me that my current card might have had something to do with this issue (sometimes when I start this machine it reports that the card’s supplementary power cable isn’t attached…in fact I replaced the power supply because of this not too long ago).

Hopefully it won’t take me too long to get everything back where it was. I’m going to have to re-create those dev sites on the Linux server, and I need to get all my tools re-installed on the PC and pull down all my work repos. And then the next thing I am not ever going to do is reinstall LOTRO! In fact I don’t think I’ll mess with installing games on the system again. I don’t play PC games and I just don’t need these kinds of headaches. Maybe games from the Windows Store since they are sandboxed and can’t bork your whole system.

Now I’m going to go give my game consoles a big ‘ol hug!

Elder Scrolls Online HDR patch

One of the reasons I was anxious to get a PS4 Pro as soon as they launched was that I’d heard The Elder Scrolls Online would support the new hardware with improved resolution (or ‘enhanced details on 1080P screens). It was one of the first games I tried on the new console and when I saw the difference I knew I hadn’t made a mistake. Now don’t get me wrong, it was still TESO, but the increased resolution meant more details ‘popped’ and the improved draw distances made the world feel even more alive. Mostly this is all aesthetics though I can spot harvest nodes from further away now.

Of course me being me, soon after I drifted off to other games, but I always come back to TESO eventually.

I did that yesterday and was surprised to see “An HDR video is playing” pop up on my screen when I loaded the game (that’s my TV’s awkward way of indicating it is receiving video from an HDR source). Turns out a recent update added HDR support to the game. I was delighted until I logged in and found the cave I’d happened to log out in was dark. I mean really dark. Dark to the level of having to navigate via the map because I literally couldn’t see the walls.

I went online and found I wasn’t the only one having issues, and in fact even people without HDR TVs were complaining about the game being too dark. So I think Zenimax is going to have to adjust things. That said, for me it was just a matter of tweaking some settings.

Here’s the thing about HDR. First, it’s impossible for me to show you how awesome it is unless you have an HDR display and even then I’m not sure how I, personally, can capture HDR data to share. It’s kind of like 3D or VR; without the right hardware there’s no way for you to see it. Second, it’s still pretty new tech and tends to be fiddly. You see a lot of people talking about how it’s too much trouble; these comments, I have to assume, are coming from people who haven’t experienced it. It is very much worth the few minutes it (sometimes) takes to get it right.

In my TV’s case (a Samsung KS8000) I found that I had to turn on Dynamic Contrast, which is something all the pundits tell you to leave off. With the new patch there’s an “HDR Brightness” slider. With Dynamic Contrast turned off this didn’t appear to do anything. With Dynamic Contrast set to high, moving the slider resulted in noticeable changes though it feel more like “how HDR-ey do you want this” more than an actual brightness slider.

But with Dynamic Contrast set to High I could see in caves again. Given, again, that all the pundits hate Dynamic Contrast, I then tried it set to Medium and still had good results. On Low it’s a wee bit dark. It’s dark in a way that actually feels cool in terms of immersion but maybe too dark to do group dungeon content, not that I ever do group dungeon content.

Anyway once I’d done this….WOW. The Elder Scrolls Online looks like a whole new game now. A lot of colors are brighter, the lighting is amazing and everything just feels more “real” something. It’s really hard for me to articulate what HDR does, but I really like it. Now I’m running around the world and sometimes something will catch my eye (the rays of the setting sun on water, maybe, or a shaft of magical light coming from a relic) and I’ll just stop and gawk. At one point I was looking for the source of glare on my TV screen for a few seconds before I realized it wasn’t glare, but the light from an in-game torch was just THAT bright.

I’m really looking forward to when HDR is more common and less finicky; I can’t wait for more people to get HDR religion :). One of my biggest issues now is, I’m not a TV professional and there are a lot of settings to play with. I generally look up the settings for a TV from some site like and use those. But for this Samsung I keep getting conflicting info, and then there are settings for HDR and settings for regular video, AND then there are a few settings on the PS4 that you can mess with. So many variables! I finally say “Heck with it” and I’m letting my eyes decide. Rather than worrying about if the picture is correct or accurate, I’m worrying about whether it is pleasing to me. Still, there are a LOT of settings to tweak and it can be really confusing. I hope it gets easier over time.

Still, totally worth it though. HDR is the real deal.

Gadgets and killer apps (Acer Iconia A500)

A couple of weeks ago I bought my first Android tablet, the Acer Iconia A500. This in spite of owning an iPad, which I love. So why a second tablet? Mostly curiosity, backed by the fact that I write a lot about Android tablets on my ITworld blog and I always feel more secure writing about a topic if I have real-world, hands-on experience. Yeah, I could’ve gone into a store and played around with an Android tablet, but that doesn’t compare to living with a device.

So far, I’m really enjoying the Iconia. Is it a “better” tablet than the iPad? No, I don’t think so. iOS is more refined than Honeycomb (the version of Android made for tablets), more stable (the Iconia locks up probably once a day) and there’re a lot more apps available for iOS. Also keep in mind my experience is with an iPad 1.

And yet these days when I reach for a tablet, I generally grab the Iconia. Weird, no? Part of it is the ‘new’ factor, but after naval gazing for a while I’ve come to realize it’s mostly about a “killer app.” In this context, a killer app is that one program that just sings to you, personally. It might not be the best or the most popular, but it just fits for you.

In my case, the killer app is Feedly for Honeycomb. Feedly pulls in my Google Reader feeds and presents them in a nice browsable format. There are a ton of apps that do this, and in fact Feedly is available for the iPad too. But I like Feedly on the Iconia. It just feels right.

Feedly only runs in portrait mode, and the Iconia is narrower and longer than the iPad when held in a portrait orientation. That makes Feedly feel like I’m reading a magazine. Each page has a list of new stories. I can tap one to drill down into full content, and from there (if needed) I can choose to open the story in a web browser (I use Dolphin HD on Android). Generally I only need to do this if there’s embedded video. Feedly’s built-in browser doesn’t handle video.

If there’s nothing on a page that I want to read, I just swipe to go to the next page, and Feedly marks all the stories read (you can disable this if you like). If I want to save something for later, Feedly supports Instapaper, which is a tool I lean on heavily.

Anyway, this isn’t meant to be a Feedly review. But it’s just odd to me that this one free app is what makes the Iconia my preferred tablet these days (unless I want to play games…the iPad is still better for that just due to the number of titles available). Well, the Feedly app and the different proportions of the Iconia tablet.

I never would have discovered this combination by playing around with a tablet in the store, and now I just love it. I also prefer the Dolphin browser to iOS Safari (or Android’s built-in browser) for general surfing, too. I find myself laying in bed at night, reading my feeds just like they’re a magazine, now. It’s killing my book reading, though! (Although that reminds me, I like reading Kindle books on the Iconia more than on the iPad, too…again because its narrower and longer. Shorter lines but, I’m guessing, the same number of page turns.) I’ve moved from Evernote to Springpad because of their Honeycomb client, too.

Huh, so Feedly got my foot in the door but I guess I’m really gravitating to more and more Android apps. I didn’t realize that, really, until I started writing this.

Anyway I was wondering if I’m just weird, or if other people have gadgets that they love just due to a specific feature?

I still might trade in the Iconia for the Galaxy Tab when it comes out next month, but I want to see what the proportions are. I’m a little leery of switching at this point, to be honest.

Clearing up the Sony FUD

OK listen, it sucks that some thieves stole your name, address and hashed passwords. I get that. Sony should be held accountable on some level, though I’d say the thieves more so.

But I’m so SICK and TIRED of the professional game bloggers making everything look so much worse than it is, spinning things to make it seem like Sony all but rolled out the red carpet for the thieves. I’ve seen it on Destructoid (though to their credit, they went back and updated the post later), Kotaku, Joystiq, Gamespot, Massively… all saying some variety of “Experts say that Sony had unpatched servers and no firewall, and knew about it.”

This is all coming from Dr. Gene Spafford, from Purdue University. Or so the spun stories will tell you. Most of these stories even link to the written testimonial. Which actually says:

In the Sony case, the majority of the victims are likely young people whose sense of risk, privacy and
consequence are not yet fully developed, and thus they may also not understand the full
ramifications of what has happened. Presumably, both companies are large enough that they
could have afforded to spend an appropriate amount on security and privacy protections of
their data; I have no information about what protections they had in place, although some
news reports indicate that Sony was running software that was badly out of date, and had
been warned about that risk.

(emphasis mine)

Most of the testimony is really basic stuff about how bad having data stolen is and what “phishing” means and other stuff that 99.99% of the people reading this blog already understand. As for the spoken testimonial, here that is:

There’s your expert and you can hear it for yourself. Basically he read a mailing list where someone claims to know that Sony had an out of date version of Apache (no details on how out of date) and no firewall (this is clearly bullshit…there’s no way they didn’t have a load balancer in place to distribute 77 million users across their servers, and pretty much every load balancer is also a firewall; between the apache servers and the application servers there needs to be some kind of firewall to handle NAT or something…unless all of Sony’s servers were on public facing machines, which is very very VERY hard to imagine) and claims that Sony reads the same mailing list and knew all about it.

That’s not exactly compelling testimony to me… people say all kinds of random shit on mailing lists and forums. Also note that in his written testimony he refers to news reports, leading me to wonder if he even reads the mailing lists in question.

Now whatever security measures Sony had in place, they were clearly not up to the task at hand, and shame on them for not having beefier security. We’re all paying the price for that mistake. But there’s a big difference between “not enough security” and what this expert is saying, which is essentially “there was no security at all.”

Add to that the fact that Sony says the breach occurred via an application server, not a web server, and with all the security people looking over their shoulders, the FBI involved and the intense scrutiny they’re under, I find it a stretch to think they’re going to try to pull off a lie right now.

And yet.. every one of these posts have commenters nodding their heads and dragging out the pitchforks and torches and assuming that yup, everything this old gentleman has to say must be 100% true.

I’ve never been more ashamed of the community of professional bloggers out there.

DAW post: the little guys

It’s Developer Appreciation Week! If you don’t know what that is, read up about it on ScaryBooster’s blog (he invented it, after all!)

I like to think I always appreciate developers but maybe that’s just in my own head. I certainly do my fair share of bitching about games.

Back in olden times when I wrote for a gaming magazine I met a lot of game developers. In those days only the biggest companies had PR flacks. More often than not you’d sit down with a few members of the team and a producer and talk about their next big thing.

I can’t remember ever meeting a developer who wasn’t super-excited about their product. Now I was press so maybe the grumpy devs were all locked in a closet, but from my point of view visiting a company meant hanging out with a bunch of people who were overflowing with energy and optimism and a love of gaming. I’d come out of those meetings bursting with energy. So much fun.

But that was long ago and now it’s rare that I get to meet game developers. The closest I come is rubbing shoulders with them at PAX East. No, I didn’t talk to Cliff Bleszinski at PAX (my one and only meeting with him was at the very first E3 when he and a few other teen-aged guys were running around with a laptop trying to get journalists to look at some shooter they were building…it was called Unreal or something like that) or anyone from SW:TOR or Battlefield 3.

I talked to, or at least hovered around, the little guys. So my DAW post is going to be about the smaller developers. I’m constantly impressed at how devoted these folks are to making their games. They’re always on a strict budget, trying to figure out how to get published (or whether to self-publish) and how to handle PR & Marketing and pay the rent and do the taxes…while they’re also slaving away on a game.

I love the timing of DAW because it comes so soon after PAX East, and both years I’ve come out of the show enthused about the smaller and indie devs. Y’know, those “garage developers” that Nintendo doesn’t give a fig about. Stupid Nintendo. Really stupid.

So let’s name some names. There’s Fire Hose Games (Slam Bolt Scrappers) and Robot Entertainment (Orcs Must Die) and Demiurge (Shoot Many Robots) and Hothead Games (Swarm) and Polytron (Fez) and Owlchemy Labs (Smuggle Truck). These guys were all showing their games at PAX and I plan to buy and play them all (I’ve already bought Slam Bolt Scrappers and Swarm).

There were more there and of course there’s are a ton of small and indie developers who didn’t go to PAX. Blendo Games (Atom Zombie Smasher) is another small developer who I’ve recently supported via my gaming addiciton.

One company I have to single out is Dusty Monk’s Windstorm Studios. Their first game doesn’t have a (public) title yet, but what’s incredible here is Dusty’s transparency. Those of us who follow him on Twitter really get an inside peek at the day-to-day life of an indie developer. You are your only boss and it’s clear that you have to have a lot of inner strength to beat out some code when you’d rather be playing Rift like everyone else is.

I’m positive I wouldn’t have the willpower to do it and I’m kind of awed that all these companies have small teams that have to really behave as TEAMS with everyone pulling their weight and then some. These people bust their asses to produce games for us to play and let’s face it…very few of them are getting rich doing it. They make games because they love games. If they didn’t love games they could make a lot more money working on accounting systems or something.

I salute all of you ladies and gentlemen who’re working in teams small enough that there’s no hiding from the pressure or riding on another person’t coattails. Everyone has to give 110% every day in order to get your games to the market.

Your games are fresh and fun and awesome. Please keep up the good work, and I’ll keep buying them!

One last item: a special salute of admiration goes out to Werit, who is building a game by himself and seems to really be sticking to it. He is as indie as indie can be! I look forward to the day when he launches Stellar Fortune!

Rift and hacked accounts

Disclaimer: I am not a security expert.

I’ve been seeing a lot of talk about folks getting their Rift accounts hacked. Most often the #1 question is “How did this happen?” People go crazy examining their systems for key loggers or other malware that might be delivering their credentials to some hacker.

I have my own theory on what’s going on. Part of it is Trion’s fault, part of it is the internet’s fault. I don’t think we’re seeing a massive key logger issue here; at least not one on our home computers. That’s assuming the problem is as extensive as the community seems to think it is.

I think we’re seeing an organized, brute force hacking attempt across a multitude of accounts. If you’ve never read about rainbow hash cracking, now might be a good time to do so. Note the first line in that post: The multi-platform password cracker Ophcrack is incredibly fast. How fast? It can crack the password “Fgpyyih804423” in 160 seconds. and the post is from 2007; you can imagine how much faster these cracking software packages work today.

[Update] Glad I put the disclaimer about not being a security expert in there. According to a friend on Twitter (who I won’t credit just so as not to put him in the spotlight) in order to use these rainbow tables, the hackers would first need to have access to Trion’s database of hashed (encrypted) passwords. Or, of course, a dump of any other database of passwords where you used the same password. So I may be off-base in my whole theory. [End Update]

So what can you do? Honestly, not very much. I think Trion stumbled when they limited password length to 16 characters. Coding Horror’s Jeff Atwood promotes the idea of pass phrases. So instead of “!ah84&nah3” as a password (which can be cracked pretty quickly using rainbow tables) your password might be “IreallyLove_Rift_(because)all(!)myhawtfriendsplay!” My understanding is (again, not a security expert) that a password that long is going to be hard to crack even with rainbow tables, because the size of the table it would require would be so freaking huge. There’s a little bit of “When a bear is chasing you, you only need to be faster than your friends” thing going on. A lengthy password takes you out of the “low hanging fruit” demographic.

For me, that long passphrase is also easier to remember and faster to type than !ah84&nah3, but maybe I’m just weird.

Anyway the point is moot since Trion limits us to 16 character passwords.

I’m also not sure about having to use your game login credentials to log into the forums and website. How many people log into the forums from public Wifi at a coffee shop or something? Since the site and forums use https:// to log in, they *should* be secure but I still feel uneasy about that.

Anyway, the good news is… well, there isn’t really any good news, except that if you get hacked don’t pull your hair out examining and re-examining your system looking for key loggers.

The best you can do at this point is using all 16 characters of your password and definitely mix in punctuation. But I suspect that the gold farming companies that are doing all this hacking are using rainbow tables that cover punctuation. Also make sure you’re using a unique password for Rift, not one you use on other sites.

Hopefully the Coin Lock feature will be the first step in putting an end to this outbreak of hacking (but I suspect the hackers will quickly start spoofing IP addresses to get around it), and I’m looking forward to Trion’s future anti-hacking techniques like authorization via emails/sms or smartphone authenticators.

Last thought: If you’re buying gold, you’re part of the problem. Remember that the gold you’re buying most likely originated from a hacked account. By creating demand, you’re encouraging hacking.

Facebook’s messaging dog & pony show

I originally wrote this for my blog over at ITWorld, but then decided it was a bit too ranty for a pro blog, and anyway it isn’t really my ‘beat’ over there. So I decided to post it here (in its raw, first draft form). Very very off-topic but hey, a good rant is always entertaining to someone (even if that someone is just the one doing the ranting):

Yesterday Facebook held yet another event (they’re getting to be like weekly occurrences, these Facebook events) to unveil their new not-an-email system, the Social Inbox. Well, part of it was the Social Inbox. I was one of the 30,000 or so people to watch the announcement online and I never figured out what the overall name of the system was. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg called it a “modern messaging system” but that was about it. Ryan Faas covered the event but I was so bemused by the dog and pony show put on my Zuckerberg and Facebook Director of Engineering Andrew Bosworth that I had to chime in.

Warning: old guy “you kids get off my lawn” rant incoming.

First, the whole system is apparently based on what high school kids do. We were told that high school kids don’t send emails because there’s too much “friction” involved with all the tedious details like a subject line and a salutation. Really? Adding a subject line is that hard? In this Facebook-powered new world order how are we going to scan the dozens and dozens of emails that we as professionals get, once subject lines are abolished by these high schoolers? How many important emails does the typical high school kid get, anyway? Of course they don’t need full emails: they’re just chatting with each other about high school kid stuff. Why are we modeling general-purpose systems on such a specific demographic?

Another anecdote, this one shared by Bosworth, talked about a box of letters that his 90 year old grandmother keeps in her closet. These are letters that his grandfather sent his grandmother when they were courting long, long ago. Bosworth lamented the fact that he doesn’t have a box of letters. Facebook to the rescue again! By archiving all your conversations, whatever format they’re in, Bosworth suggests we’ll all have our digital box of letters when we get old.

Now what’s wrong with this picture? I’ll tell you what. If you can’t exert the energy to add a subject line or a salutation to your email, chances are whatever you’re writing probably isn’t worth holding onto for the next 70 years. The reason Bosworth’s grandmother’s letters were so dear to her is that his grandfather put some thought and care into what he was going to write. All those social micro-updates about where you’re going to have lunch aren’t going to be that interesting to you when you’re 90. Trust me, you don’t need to keep every word you write. I’m not claiming there aren’t a lot of passionate and thoughtful emails flying back and forth through the ether; clearly there are. But if something is really worth saving, it’s worth saving on your own terms, not in some service that may or may not exist when you’re old and gray.

One last thing. During the Q&A session someone pointed out that their Facebook friends weren’t really their true friends. Their real friends were their email friends. (This came up while discussing the feature where a Facebook friend’s message gets high visibility in the Social Inbox.) The response was, essentially, that this person was doing it wrong and that all your Facebook friends should be true, legitimate friends and not just people you’ve encountered online. I know that my list of Facebook “friends” includes plenty of people that are, at best, acquaintances. I don’t want these people’s messages about Karaoke Night at the bowling alley back in the town I grew up in to be a ‘high priority’ message. So I guess I’m doing it wrong, too. (To be fair, you can ‘train’ the Social Inbox but having to do so seems to go against Zuckerberg’s assertion that people don’t want to fiddle with this stuff. Specifically he mentioned that no one wants to make lists.) Considering how many activities on Facebook (mostly games) pressure you to have lots of “friends” I found this attitude particularly disingenuous.

I’m really not condemning Facebook’s modern messaging system: I’ll give it a try and maybe it’ll change the way I do business, but I somehow doubt it. I don’t really want a unified inbox where all my business correspondence gets mixed in with emails from my dentist about my next checkup and IM conversations with my girlfriend about what we’re going to have for dinner. There’s something to be said for keeping different types of content segregated. Heck, I have several different email accounts for just that reason.

And that’s without even considering Facebook’s spotty record when it comes to privacy.

Maybe I’ve finally officially reached curmudgeon status, but I just don’t think most of us are ready to turn over all our communications to Facebook. At least I hope we’re not. I’d hate to see one company wind up with that much power.

What do you think? Are you ready to sign up for the Social Inbox?

Separation anxiety: An evening without an iPad

Today TechCrunch posted a really stupid article called Why Iím Craigslisting My iPads. It isn’t timely (we saw many similar articles in April) and the author clearly had no idea what an iPad was when he bought it. Basically he was looking for a laptop replacement, and the iPad isn’t one, except in edge cases.

Anyway, after reading that piece, it seemed like a good time for another (mostly) pro-iPad post.

The other day Apple released a minor upgrade to the iPad’s OS. It was supposed to address wireless connectivity problems a few people were having, as well as some other minor fixes. Thursday night I decided to install the update.

Here’s the non-pro-iPad part of the post. My iPad can take *forever* to backup. Some google-research indicates that this is a semi-common problem for Windows 64-bit users and depends on what apps you have on your iPad. In my case I suspect it’s Wired’s app with its 800 megs of data. I’m not sure why this is but it might have to do with the number of files. My iPad backup directories take up about 1 gig of space but contain 18,000 files… no sub-directories. That’s 18,000 files in a single directory. That can’t be efficient.

Anyway, for whatever the reason it can take hours for me to backup the iPad. My solution has been just to not back it up. That sounds crazy but it isn’t. I don’t back it up but I do sync it (which takes just a few minutes). So I have all my apps and music and data synced to my computer. Backing up seems redundant to me. If my iPad crashes and gets wiped during a repair then yes, I’ll have to redo all my settings by hand, but then I can just sync all the apps, music, ebooks, data and everything else back over from the PC.

Except part of installing this new update was a mandatory backup first. Bleh. I started it at 7:30 pm and when I went to bed that night around midnight, it was still backing up. So Thursday night I couldn’t use my iPad.

And I was *lost* without it!! I really hadn’t realized how often I pick up my iPad in a typical evening until I didn’t have it available. Sure my books and stuff were on it so when I went to bed I couldn’t read, but even before then. When I’m playing on the Xbox or PS3 I have the iPad handy to check gamefaqs or just to look up random things that pop into my head, or to check in on twitter. When I’m sitting at the PC and waiting for something to complete, I flip on the iPad to poke at a game or something. When we’re in the kitchen cooking something new, the iPad is there with a recipe on it (though that wasn’t a problem Thursday evening).

The point is, the iPad has become a natural part of my lifestyle and one I use constantly. I use it first thing in the morning when I get up, and normally the last thing I do before going to sleep is read on it. I use it at lunchtime at the office. I use it during meetings at the office. I use it while preparing meals, while watching TV, while playing games. It is a constant companion and I find I carry it from room to room with me.

I wanted a tablet for a long, long time and now I finally have one and it really is everything I’d hoped it would be and more. And this isn’t Apple fanboyism… I bought an iPad because it was the first good tablet that hit the market. I’m still very excited about the possibility of a good Android tablet hitting the market, since I enjoy the more open environment of Android (which is why I have a Droid, not an iPhone…I had a choice when it came to phones).

That TechCrunch author missed the point when he bought an iPad as a laptop replacement. That’s not where the device shines. The iPad (or, presumably any tablet) as a computing device fits into the cracks and crevices of your life. As an entertainment device, it’s kind of its own thing. A super-sized iPod Touch? That’s not entirely inaccurate, but don’t downplay the super-sized. Would you rather watch a 13″ TV or a 52″ home theater? Bigger is better. I tried to read on my Droid Thursday night and while I could do it, the experience was significantly less pleasant than reading on the iPad. Of course you can get a Kindle or a Nook for reading, but then you lose out on all the other things the iPad can do.

I won’t be putting my iPad on Craigslist (at least not until after I get another tablet) and if mine was stolen or destroyed today I’d be at the store tomorrow trying to replace it. It’s as vital a part of my lifestyle now as my TV and PC are. Sure I could live without it, but I’d very much prefer not to have to.

[Edits for Meghan and Petter… *grumbles*]

Why I don’t like Like

Warning: This is very much a preliminary post, based on my current understanding of Facebook’s new “LIKE” buttons. But since the feature is live now, I feel like I need to warn people about the ‘potential’ issues sooner rather than later.

So without further ado.

We used to see Share on Facebook buttons on various sites. These were pretty straightforward. You’d click them and it’d stick a link on your Facebook “Wall” so your friends could see that you liked that link and potentially follow it.

Now we have the Facebook Like button. On the surface, it does the same thing. But behind the scenes it’s doing more. It sends not only the link to your wall, but certain meta data that the content producer has tagged the page with. You can, of course, view the source of the page and see what this meta data is, but many people won’t think to do that.

Let me give an example of why this could be problematic. Say you love Guild Wars, but you always play it alone or with one particular friend. You don’t think of it as an MMO, and you don’t like MMOs. In fact you hate WOW and EQ2 and LOTRO and all the other MMOs. They just aren’t your thing.

But Guild Wars you love, so you’re on a page about Guild Wars and you click the LIKE button.

But the site owner considers Guild Wars an MMO, and there’s meta data tagging this page as ‘MMO’ so when you click that LIKE button, you’re telling Facebook that you like Guild Wars and that you like MMOs. That data goes into your account.

The next week you go over to Steam to see what good deals there are. Steam queries Facebook and sees that, according to the data stored with your account, you like MMOs. So it shows you all the great sales on MMOs, and doesn’t show you the sales on single player RPGs, which is exactly what you’re in the mood to buy.

Facebook has misrepresented you. Or rather, you’ve misrepresented yourself because you don’t agree with the meta data on a site you clicked a LIKE button on.

Clearly this example is pretty trivial. But there are other situations where it could matter more. Worse, meta data could be set up to be deliberately misleading. There’s the potential for some pretty ugly shenanigans going on behind the scenes. Think of a political candidate’s page that’s been tampered with so that it has meta data saying you like the opposing party.

If this Like business takes off and lots of sites start polling your Facebook data, this could become a problem.

So I urge you, until we learn more about this system, to avoid using any “Like” buttons you encounter. Maybe Facebook has checks in place to prevent bad things from happening, but maybe not. And it still isn’t clear to me who can, and can’t, query the data associated with your account.

BTW, I put a LIKE button on Dragonchasers last night to see how it worked. I just want to be clear that I put no meta-data behind it, and I thank the folks who helped me test it.

And one last time, this is my understanding of the system as of right now. I could have some or all of this wrong. But just in case I’m right, I wanted to get people thinking about these issues.

I wrote more generally about Facebook’s new features at ITWorld this morning. You might find that post interesting as well.

A weekend with the iPad

My work weeks are hectic these days, so even though I bought my iPad last Monday, I never got to put my feet up and spend an hour or two just *using* it until Friday night. But all weekend I’ve been using it a lot. I’ve now identified my likes and dislikes, at least so far. Let’s start with the bad:

Things I don’t like:

  • No Flash: There’s no way around it; this is a pain in the ass if you watch online video from a lot of places. Apple has YouTube covered via a dedicated app that launches when you click a YouTube link from the browser, but you’re out of luck with most other sites. And I don’t see this situation improving because…
  • …Apple is the new Evil Empire. The iPhone/iPad/Touch ecosystem is a closed one and is getting closed-er by the minute. I won’t rehash the brouhaha they unleashed with the iPhone OS 4.0 SDK here, but what they’re doing sucks. I’m not a fan of Flash either, but sites use it and I want to use those sites. The users are the ones getting hurt most in the fight between Apple and Adobe
  • No exposed file system. See previous post

Things I thought would really bug me but don’t:

  • No multi-tasking. Aside from music apps (ie, Pandora), not having multi-tasking hasn’t really bothered me. Going from mail to browser to mail again, for instance, feels no slower than it does on my Droid (which does have multi-tasking). The fact that the apps are closing and opening rather then backgrounding and foregrounding is more or less a non-issue to me. At least so far.
  • Copy & Paste. Remember when Apple made a big deal about this? The first time I experienced it was a real WTF moment, but after using it a bit, I don’t mind it at all. Here’s how it works. So you want to copy a chunk of text from a web page to save for later. You tap-hold on the text you want to copy. A ‘magnifier’ pops up with a cursor in it; since normally iPhone OS doesn’t have any kind of pointer on screen, this is needed to select a specific letter. So by moving your finger with the magnifier up, you place the cursor. When you let up you get a pop-up menu. Type Select and you get the word you were on pre-selected with handles at top left and bottom right. You can then drag out these handles to grow the selection. Once you have your selection, you tap a Copy button, then switch to wherever you want to paste it. Tap there and a Paste button pops up. Tap that to paste your text. It works in practice a lot faster than it sounds and using the mouse on my PC feels kind of clumsy now. Weird.

Stuff I like:
I don’t have a list for this. I like everything else. I’m loving the experience of using this device. The screen is so crisp and clear that in contrast my desktop monitor seems fuzzy. It isn’t (it has a higher res than the iPad) but since the iPad is hand held I just naturally place it in the ‘sweet spot’ of my failing vision. Younger eyed souls with 20-20 vision probably won’t get this effect but for me, reading the web is better on the iPad than on any other device I own, by orders of magnitude. The iPad feels fun, too. I can lay on the couch, or in bed, and jump from reading a website to reading a comic to playing a game to watching a tv show to looking something up to drawing a doodle all without putting down the device in my hands. The iPad is fast at switching tasks; sometimes I hop back and forth like a madman. Other times I just settle in to enjoy one feature. Yesterday Angela was having a lie down and watching Netflix. I flopped down next to her on the bed, looked over at what she was watching. The iPad screen has great viewing angles; I could see the picture perfectly. Next thing I know, we’d layed there and watched an hour-long documentary on prehistoric beasts on the iPad. It sounds silly I know; we have a 52″ tv in the living room that we could’ve gone and watched it on. But it was the spontaneity of just watching it without any kind of planning that I enjoyed.

That spontaneity is key but I’m still having trouble articulating it. When I’m looking for something to do, I grab the iPad and find something to do on it. Pre-iPad, I’d decide what I wanted to do then go fetch the appropriate tool to do that thing. If that makes sense…

All in all, I’m loving the iPad and at the same time, I’m finding it really hard to put into words why I’m loving it. I love it so much that we went out yesterday and got Angela one; it just seemed unfair that I had this amazing device and she didn’t. So we eat Raman for the next few months… it’s worth it to me and (it seems) to her too. That all said, it’s hard answering people who say that a netbook or a laptop can do everything it can. Because they can. But the iPad just feels good to use in a way that none of my netbooks or laptops do.

So should you buy one? No. Or more accurately, I’m not about to try to convince anyone to buy one. Future versions (and competitors) will be cheaper, faster and more capable. The smart move is to wait. On the other hand, if you’ve been considering getting an iPad and think you want one, then I certainly wouldn’t dissuade you, as long as you want it primarily to consume media. This isn’t a content producing tool. This is a content consuming tool. Yes, you can absolutely produce content on it in a pinch, but that isn’t its strength and it isn’t going to replace your work laptop. At least not this revision.

Never fear, I’m not planning any more posts on this hardware for a while (though I might cover some of the games I’ve been playing on it). I’m not really interested in comments telling me why the iPad sucks and a netbook is better. If that’s true for you, that’s great. No one is asking you to buy an iPad. I have a netbook and I have an iPad. For ME, the iPad is a much nicer experience; your situation is most certainly different from mine.

As for comments telling me that Apple is vile… I completely agree. I hate what they’re doing. But my days of protesting are long behind me; I leave furthering the Cause to the younger generation. I’m going to use the tools that best make my life easier/more enjoyable, even if those tools are produced by a company I detest. I’ve been waiting for a tablet like this for *years* and a good one finally exists. Life is good and I’m going to keep fiddling and let others stop Rome from burning.