Sunday, March 16, 2014

Assimilation Isn't All That Bad

Back in the late 1990's I used to jokingly refer to Microsoft as “Micro-Borg”. It was, of course, a reference to the Borg from Star Trek: The Next Generation and their quest to assimilate any and all cultures they encountered. Back in those days, Microsoft was, well, kind of hated and being the dominant computer software company and their penchant for suing smaller companies for patent infringements or simply buying up their competition is what caused me to make the correlation between them and the Borg. The funny thing is, now I find myself being assimilated, as it were. Last year I used my tax refund to buy a new laptop that had Windows 8 pre-installed; this year, I bought a Surface 2 tablet, and I keep entering drawings to try to win different Nokia model Windows Phones.[1] Not only that, but last weekend I decided to subscribe to Office 365 (I’ve been an OpenOffice/LibreOffice user for at least a decade now).
It’s funny to me that anything that starts with a lower case letter ‘i’ is all the rage nowadays, and I find myself preferring Microsoft. It just seems to me that Apple has become the new Microsoft with the law suits and trying to control everything. In some ways I think Apple is worse than MS was in the 90s, but that’s just my opinion. Hell, MS even recently settled a potential lawsuit against them by changing the name of SkyDrive to OneDrive; the Microsoft of the 90s would’ve fought that and probably would have won too. That, combined with the fact that most “iDevices” tend to cost much more than devices running Windows or Android, just really turns me off. I don’t feel the need to pay that much just to have a certain logo on whatever device I’m buying.[2]
I’m in no way saying Microsoft is perfect. There are still plenty of things that I don’t like; Internet Explorer (or should I say Exploder) comes to mind for example. Still, though, I’m one of those sick bastards that actually likes Windows 8, despite some of its annoyances. You have to give MS credit for attempting to create an OS UI that spans three device models (PC, Tablet, and Mobile Phone). The only thing I don’t like (as of 8.1) is that I can no longer remotely access my home PC via OneDrive – I really don’t see why that was removed, frankly. I also don’t understand why the ability to be a host for remote access via a mobile app isn’t available without upgrading to 8.1 Pro (I’m just sayin’, it would be useful to be able to remotely control my laptop from my Surface or from my Galaxy Note 2).
So, yeah; “MicroBorg” has at least partially assimilated me. I use Office 365 on a Windows 8.1 based laptop and Windows 2013 RT on the Surface 2. I actually like the Metro UI (even with it’s annoyances, which aren’t that annoying if you take the time to learn the new UI). I like the direction Microsoft is going with the idea of a cross-platform OS and UI. I know there are many who disagree, but in the end, all arguments for or against Microsoft, Apple, or Android become subjective, in my opinion.
~ JC





[1] As much as I actually do like Windows 8.1, I’m still and Android user for my smartphone; the Metro UI is fine for tablet and PC, but the Windows Phones I’ve looked at in the stores just haven’t appealed to me, plus there are a lot of apps that I use on my phone that aren’t available in the Windows Store (yet?).
[2] I do have to admit, though, that in the case of tablets, the ones worth having (iPad, Surface, and Samsung Galaxy series) are all around the same price point.

Sunday, March 09, 2014

D&D 40th Anniversary Blog Hop Challenge (a little bit late and without the hop)

The folks over at D20 Dark Ages issued a blogging challenge for the month of February to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that most venerable of Role Playing Games, Dungeons & Dragons.  Well, I failed that challenge because it’s now March 9 and I’m just now getting around to tackling the list of 28 questions that were supposed to be answered one per day during the month of February and I’m also not linking my blog to the random hop to other blogs since it’s well past the end. I hate that I missed out on the challenge, but figured I’d still answer the questions - albeit in one chunk instead of one per day.

Day 1: First person who introduced you to D&D? Which edition? Your first Character?

I don’t know that I can say that there was one single person who introduced me to D&D. I kind of introduced myself when I found the “red box” basic edition at a local discount department store next to the board games. From there, I found out that a friend of mine already played, and so I guess I could say that he “introduced” me to it, but only because I had already discovered it on my own.

I honestly don’t remember my very first character. The first character I remember is Uhnk, a half-orc fighter who was one of my first Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (1st edition) characters. To this day, I use the name “Uhnk” for my main character in World of Warcraft® and as an online handle for Twitter (Uhnk13).

Day 2: First person YOU introduced to D&D? Which edition? THEIR first character?

I’m not sure, but I think it may have been either my friend James from school, or the next door neighbor Chris (who was a few years younger than me). Again, no idea what their characters’ names were because that was 30-ish years ago.

Day 3: First dungeon you explored as a PC or ran as a DM.

The first dungeon I explored was the introductory adventure that came as part of the basic set; the printing of it that I had came with a thin, sort of “choose your own adventure” story booklet to help introduce new players to the game. That same basic set came with another introductory adventure that I used to try to DM the people mentioned in the answer for Day 2.

Day 4: First dragon you slew (or some other powerful monster).

Funny as it may seem, I don’t recall every slaying a dragon while playing Dungeons & Dragons. I recall slaying a basilisk in one of my first adventures, and Uhnk befriended a baby gold dragon once, but I don’t think any of my characters ever slew a dragon.

Day 5: First character to go from 1st level to 20th level (or highest possible level in a given edition).

Actually, I’ve never had a character make it to level 20. Uhnk made it as far as level 11 or 12 I think, but that’s the highest level character I ever had in D&D.

Day 6: First character death. How did you handle it?

Believe it or not, I don’t believe I’ve ever had a character die in D&D. I guess I’ve just been lucky.

Day 7: First D&D Product you ever bought. Do you still have it?

The Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set (aka, the “red box); no, I do not still have it. In fact, due to going through a couple of ultra-religious phases in my late teens and again in my mid-twenties, there are quite a few RPG materials that I no longer own from back when I first started playing.

Day 8: First set of polyhedral dice you owned. Do you still use them?

My first set of polyhedral dice were the ones that came in the basic set; no, I don’t still have them.

Day 9: First campaign setting (homebrew or published) you played in.

The first campaign setting I played in was, I guess, more or less, homebrew, but it was based on the setting from the basic D&D set, “The Grand Duchy of Karameikos”.

Day 10: First gaming magazine you ever bought (Dragon, Dungeon, White Dwarf, etc.).

Undoubtedly, the first gaming magazine I ever bought was Dragon Magazine.

Day 11: First splatbook you begged your DM to approve.

I’m not 100% sure what a “splatbook” is, but if this means a supplement to the core rules, we usually used elements taken from Dragon articles.

Day 12: First store where you bought your gaming supplies. Does it still exist?

The first store where I bought D&D was a discount department store called Rose’s. They are still in business, but I think they only exist in North Carolina and, frankly, they’ve pretty much become a junk store of sorts. There were also a couple of hobby stores that I frequented in Fayetteville, NC; one was called Hayes Hobby House, which still exists but they were never a gaming store per se – the primarily deal in model trains I think. The other was called The Hobbit Hobby Shop and it does still exist and was one of, if not the, first hobby stores to carry Dungeons & Dragons when it first launched in 1974.

Day 13: First miniature(s) you used for D&D.

The first miniatures I used in D&D were purchased from Hayes Hobby House. It was  a three pack of pewter miniatures that featured were, I think, generic fighter/knight types of models.

Day 14: Did you meet your significant other while playing D&D? Does he or she still play? (Or just post a randomly generated monster in protest of Valentine's Day).

No, my fiancĂ©e and I met while working at a book store a little over 11 years ago. I’ve tried a few times to get her to join me in role playing games, but it’s not really her thing. She has, on occasion, enjoyed watching my gaming group play – for her it’s like watching “living room theater”.

Day 15: What was the first edition you didn't enjoy. Why?

I wasn’t a terribly big fan of AD&D 2nd Edition. I felt like too much of the original flavor was taken away. I’m also not excited about 4th edition as I feel that the new combat rules cause the game to become more of a board game instead of a role playing game (then again, while I did like the streamlining of the rules in edition 3/3.5, it also had a tendency to become a board game whenever there were combat scenarios).

Day 16: Do you remember your first edition war? Did you win? ;)

I’ve never really “warred” with anyone over which edition was better. I’ve had discussions with friends about the different editions, but they were never particularly heated.

Day 17: First time you heard D&D was somehow "evil."

I started playing D&D in the mid to late 1980’s, which is when a good deal of the “D&D is evil” arguments were floating around. I remember being made to watch a 60 Minutes interview with one of the game’s inventers, Gary Gygax, during the height of those controversial days of being a player of D&D.

Day 18: First gaming convention you ever attended.

I’ve never had the pleasure of attending one.

Day 19: First gamer who just annoyed the hell out of you.

His name was Chad. He had uncanny luck with dice roles, tended to overact when he roleplayed and was “that guy” that always played, essentially, the same character over and over and over.

Day 20: First non-D&D RPG you played.

Star Frontiers; this was actually the first RPG I ever bought. I don’t think it exists anymore, at least not officially, although it does still live on via a fan site. It was published by the same company that originally made D&D, TSR, Inc.

Day 21: First time you sold some of your D&D books--for whatever reason.

Sometime around 1989 when I started attending a church youth group I actually allowed myself to start believing the “D&D is evil” bullshit and sold all of D&D books and materials to a local used bookstore. I was actually admonished by one of my youth leaders for selling them instead of burning them.

Day 22: First D&D-based novel you ever read (Dragonlance Trilogy, Realms novels, etc.)

The first, and so far only, D&D based novels I’ve read were the original Dragonlance Chronicles back in the 80s.

Day 23: First song that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?

Yeah; I got nuthin’. Sorry.

Day 24: First movie that comes to mind that you associate with D&D. Why?

Believe it or not, the first movie that comes to mind is Mazes & Monsters, which was actually and anti-D&D film. I recently found a copy of the novel of the same name that the film was based upon at my local library, but I didn’t make it past the first third of the book just because it wasn’t that well written, in my opinion.

Day 25: Longest running campaign/gaming group you've been in.

Probably my first one, back when I was 13 or 14 years old. We played as a group through, for me anyway, around 7th grade through 10th grade.

Day 26: Do you still game with the people who introduced you to the hobby?

No, I can’t say that I do. I’ve not even been in contact with any of them in decades.             

Day 27: If you had to do it all over again, would you do anything different when you first started gaming?

It has been said that hind sight is 20/20; if I had anything to do over again it would be to not have gotten rid of any of the books and materials I had from back when I started gaming.

Day 28: What is the single most important lesson you've learned from playing Dungeons & Dragons?

The biggest take away I have from gaming is an appreciation for reading and for art. Prior to playing D&D, I wasn’t much of a reader (like most teenagers, I suppose). Even though my early reading interests were so I could get ideas for the game, the end result is that I developed a love of reading and of books, and not just fantasy and science-fiction stories – I also found that I liked reading about history and other topics as well.

~ JC

Sunday, February 16, 2014

On The Surface


A little over a week ago, I finally took the plunge and bought a Surface 2 tablet PC. I had been debating for some time whether or not to get one, after all I already had a very good laptop and one of the larger smartphones (jokingly referred to as a “phablet”). The debate was not only about whether or not I needed a tablet, but which tablet to get. I had purchased a Nook Tablet a couple of years ago and had even attempted to root it and flash it to be a full Android version instead of the proprietary Nook version of Android. That experiment didn’t last long as the software eventually became unstable and now the Nook won’t even power all the way on. Being quite impressed with my Galaxy Note 2, I had considered the Galaxy Note Tablet, especially since I would still have access to  the Android apps I used quite often on my phone. Finally, after reading enough reviews of the Surface 2 when it was released, and being one of the few that actually likes Windows 8/8.1, that’s what I decided on for my tablet.

I think there are enough technical reviews online about this device and comparisons to other tablets, so I won’t bore you with reiterating specifications about the Surface 2 that are easily found doing a Google search (or should I say Bing?). I’ll simply share my own observations about the good, the bad, and the annoying.




The initial setup was extremely easy. Already having a Windows 8.1 laptop and a Microsoft account, all I really had to do was turn the device on, put in the password for my WiFi  and login with my MS credentials and it automatically pulled my desktop theme and Start screen layout over from my laptop.  This was actually pretty cool to begin with, but I have to admit, it can also be a bit annoying since the laptop Start screen includes desktop apps that won’t run on the Surface since I went with the RT version of Windows. I have since, however, figured out how to synchronize only certain things between the two so I can have basically the same layout on both while at the same time making sure each has it’s own set of apps and programs.

Pros

Windows 8.1 - Yeah, I know; many of you will say that this is a Con not a Pro, but I actually like Windows 8/8.1. I don’t think, however, that I fully appreciated the new Metro UI until getting a Surface 2. Now that I have two devices that use Windows 8.x I get what Microsoft was going for with the UI being the same across devices.

Battery Life - Being a tablet instead of a full-blown laptop, the battery life is quite impressive. I recently had it streaming music via the iHeart Radio app and after a solid couple of hours doing so, the battery had only dropped about 20%. Had I tried to do that with my smartphone, I’d have had to plug it in after maybe half that time.

Lightweight and portable - This is the reason I wanted a tablet. While I cannot do as much with a tablet as I can with a laptop, I can still do a good bit and can do so without having to lug around a full size laptop.

Expandable storage - Not only does the Surface 2 have a microSD slot, but it also has a standard USB port to accommodate thumb drives, or even attaching a mouse or keyboard. This is something most other tablets don’t offer - Android tablets may offer the microSD slot, but they don’t have a USB port, and iPads not offer either one, that I’m aware of.

Cons
IE Only (?) - Because the Surface 2 has an ARM processor instead of a standard PC processor, it cannot run desktop apps unless they are versions written to work with this processor (such as the version of Office that comes preinstalled).  The result is that I cannot install FireFox or Chrome as neither Mozilla nor Google have been authorized to produce a mobile version of their browsers that will work in the RT version of Windows. Had I gone with the Surface 2 Pro instead, I could have overcome this limitation, but the Pro costs as much as I payed for my laptop and so I could not justify the price, especially since I was not looking to have a second laptop.

Limited Apps/Programs - As with the IE only problem, there are some other things that would be useful to run on my tablet, but I cannot due to the limitations of the RT version of Windows (which is really a limitation of the CPU).  For example, I am unable to install the LastPass plugin because it’s a traditional Windows EXE installer; I still have access to it via the app version, but it’s much more convenient to have the plugin in my browser than having to manually copy and paste from the app.

Proprietary Power Connector - One of the reasons why I did not want an iWhatever device is their proprietary nature, including the connector for charging. Well, this is one place where Surface also fails. While I like the magnetic connector, it is still proprietary, so if I ever find myself needing to charge the Surface and I don’t have the charger with me, I’m out of luck, as where my smartphone can be charged off of any charger that accommodates a micro-USB port.

Annoyances

Touch Screen lag - Sometimes I have to tap things more than once to get the desired action; to be fair though, that happens with my smartphone too.

Limited Apps - The Windows Store still lags behind the Google Play Store for Android and the iPhone App Store. Don’t get me wrong, there are plenty of apps available for Windows 8, it’s just that many of them are ones I have no use for or are not free.

All-in-all, the Surface 2, even with its limitations, still does what I need a tablet to do plus a bit more. I am quite glad that I paid the extra $130 for the Type Cover. I tried out both it and the Touch Cover in the store, and the extra $10 was worth it. It makes it much easier to type - in fact, I’ve written this entire blog post using it. I also like that it’s  design knows which way it is positioned so that it automatically puts the tablet to sleep when closed (like a laptop lid) and disables the keys if I have it flipped backwards to use the Surface purely as any other tablet.


~ JC
 

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Doing Battle on the Net

It’s no secret that I play World of Warcraft®. I’ve blogged about it fairly often. As much as I enjoy it as a fun distraction from real life and having to be a “responsible adult”, there are days when I don’t log in to the game. In fact, there are sometimes stretches of several days that I don’t play either because I’m too busy, too tired, or just feel like I need a break from it. One of the minor annoyances is the need for two-factor authentication to log on. It’s a necessary thing due to the fact that WoW accounts have been known to be hacked (which is kind of sad, but that’s a topic for another day). Along with two-factor authentication, there is also the occasional (usually on Tuesdays) software update that can take awhile to download causing me to have to wait to login.

A couple of months ago, Blizzard Entertainment released the beta version of what the call the Battle.net App. I decided to download it and it’s proved useful for being able to login faster and also for getting updates for WoW. It also has another nifty feature; it allows management of all Blizzard games that are part of Battle.net. The thing is, I only played WoW, so that part wasn’t that useful to me - until about a week or or two ago.


As you can see in the screenshot, I have access to WoW, Diablo III, Starcraft II, and the newest edition to the Blizzard catalog, Hearthstone. Of that list, I currently only have purchased and subscribed to WoW; D3 and SC2 are, for me, the Starter Editions and Hearthstone is free to play and currently still in open beta.

I’ve set the Battle.net App to save my login credentials, including my Battle.net Authenticator, for quick access. Since it’s only installed on my PC, I’m not worried about security; if I log in from anywhere else, I still have two-factor authentication. I can launch any of the listed games directly from the app and also go directly to my account management page to add game time for WoW. It’s very convenient.

This, however, is not just a review of the Battle.net App; it’s also a about how Blizzard is very slick in getting their hooks in me for more money.  As I mentioned earlier, sometimes I just don’t feel like playing WoW. But, that doesn’t mean I don’t also get bored and feel like playing a game of some kind. This is where the Battle.net App got me. Since, directly from the launcher, I could download the Starter Editions of Diablo and Starcraft, I did just that. The first of the two I installed was Starcraft II; as a Real Time Strategy (RTS) game, it’s OK. It is really no different than other games I’ve played, including the original Warcraft: Orcs & Humans from back in the early 1990s. As such, I doubt I’ll be paying the $39.99 for the full version; RTS just doesn’t appeal to me that much. Diablo III, on the other hand, has intrigued me.

There is one small problem with playing Starter Editions of games - you can only go so far. After only about a week I’ve already taken the one character I created in D3 as far as he can go without buying the full version. That being said, I’m now faced with the following options: a) re-play the game with a different class, b) pay $39.99 for the full version so I can continue leveling and questing with the Barbarian I already have, or c) some combination of a and b such as trying out the other classes using the Starter Edition before actually buying the full version. I guess we’ll see, but option c is the most likely scenario.

As for Hearthstone, Blizzard’s new digital collectible card game - I’ll have to get back to you on that. I’ve only logged in once and got disconnected in the middle of a game, so I’ve not had a chance to really form an opinion on that just yet. In the meantime, if you’re interested you can read this review of Hearthstone beta on ArsTecnica.

Just remember this; games are great, but don’t get so caught up in playing them that you forget that there are other things in life besides gaming; go do other stuff sometimes.

~ JC