Sunday, February 23, 2014

LET 'EM BAN US

The more things change, the more they stay the same.


Remember back in 2012, when people were calling for a boycott of Chick-fil-A because of the company's financial support of openly anti-gay organizations? Many conservative pundits, and some representatives of the fast food restaurant itself, decried the effort as unfair and even unconstitutional, seeing as the chain was only practicing its rights of freedom of religion and expression. Never mind that the boycott itself would simply represent those offended by the company's actions practicing their own constitutional rights, as apparently said document can only really apply to those whose opinions are aligned with those of said pundits.

Now however, those seem like better days. Sure, Chick-fil-A was trying to have its cake and eat it too; on the one hand being allowed to funnel some of its profits to groups that were strongly invested in trying to make life less livable for gay people, while also earning some of those profits off of the very same homosexuals. Flash forward to 2014, and as most of you most likely already know, several states have been trying to pass laws allowing businesses and employees to refuse to serve gay people in any capacity on the basis of religious beliefs. This has many people understandably upset, and upon first hearing about it I was certainly amongst them. Of course realizing that these sorts of laws would almost certainly never actually come to pass, and even if they did would have even slimmer odds of surviving the inevitable judicial challenges they would incur, means there is not too much point in getting overly worked up over them. Even more comforting, is the fact that even if by some twist of fate these laws did manage to pass, and held up in court, there would likely be very few businesses willing to turn away an entire segment of the population for any reason. And as for those businesses who would, I say let 'em.

I can't say I agree at all with the idea that individual employees would be allowed to refuse someone service because of their sexual orientation. Firstly, because how would the employee even know who is or isn't gay barring seeing a same-sex couple make out in front of them, but secondly, and perhaps most importantly, because if your employer tells you that you have to serve everybody, then you do, regardless of what your religious beliefs dictate. If someone got fired from the supermarket because they refused to wear pants on religious grounds, no sane person would come to their defense. So, in the event that a gay couple walked into the same supermarket to order a wedding cake (which as Jon Stewart pointed out is not very likely) and an employee refused to bake it, the store should be allowed to take whatever disciplinary action it sees fit in response, including firing the employee.

But if there is a shop out there that really wants to post a sign in the window barring gay customers from entering, fine. Put it up. If somewhere there is a restaurant owner who wants to kick people out because they perceive them to be homosexual, fine. Do it. I have no interest in giving my money to people who hate me so much that they don't want me in their business, and at least this way I would know for certain which businesses those are. There are plenty of other shops and restaurants out there, and the odds are that one being run by such bigoted people wouldn't be great enough to be missed anyway. And when many of their straight customers turn away at the sight of a "No Gays" sign on the door, or when people stop coming in because they read about their LGBTQ friends being kicked out on Facebook or Yelp, and their business dries up, they'll have only their prejudice to blame. Let's let these businesses do what they want, and we'll see how it affects their bottom line when there isn't a line of bottoms at their door.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

AMAZON PILOT SEASON 2014

Amazon's first attempt at "Pilot Season" last summer was somewhat of a mixed bag. It did wind up producing the pretty decent series "Betas" and "Alpha House" (and unfortunately wound up passing on the promising "Onion News Network"), but the other shows were really pretty awful, and even the best of the bunch didn't really have anything about it that would make them catch on in a meaningful way. This year, they seem to have pulled out all the stops and released a very promising batch of shows for us to view and vote on. Yesterday I sat down and watched all 5 of the pilots that are targeted towards adults (the other 5 are children's or family shows) and I have to say I was largely pretty impressed. My thoughts on each from least to most favorite below.



5. TRANSPARENT

While not really a bad show, this is easily the weakest of the bunch. Basically the somewhat depressing story of a Los Angeles family coping with their myriad issues and secrets, it suggests that the writers have as tenuous a grip on the word "comedy" as the Hollywood Foreign Press. That being said, the cast does some pretty consistently good work and when the big reveals start coming at the end of the half hour, it's hard not to find one's interest level in the whole thing going up. Still, I think this would probably work out better as a Sundance movie and I don't know that I could really see myself wanting to sit through an entire season of it.



4. THE AFTER

From this point on I can honestly say I really liked the remainder of what Amazon had to show me, which made ranking spots 4, 3, and 2 somewhat of a challenge (picking #1 was easy, but we'll get to that later). The worst thing about this whole process is that I have to assume that most of these shows will not get ordered to series, and aside from "Transparent", I would really be kind of upset not to find out what happens next. And in all fairness, I'm more than a little curious to follow up with that show too. As for "The After", it takes place during the beginning of what appears to be the apocalypse, although the exact nature of what is transpiring is kept a mystery. I won't spoil what little bits of information the show doles out during the pilot, but I will say that it is pretty consistently exciting and it definitely has me anxious to find out more. That being said, these kinds of shows often run into problems sustaining the level of suspense and engagement that they open with and it's impossible to know if it will be worth it in the long run. Creator Chris Carter has shown how well he can manage a web of supernatural conspiracies over several seasons with his previous hit "The X-Files", but on the other hand, that show didn't really wind up finishing all that strongly, so it could go either way. 



3. THE REBELS

Of the 3 "comedies" presented in the group, this is easily the funniest. The story of a woman who is forced to take control of her recently-deceased husband's struggling football team, it manages to introduce an ensemble of characters that are pretty instantly likable, a decent amount of clever NFL satire (note that there is no actual reference to the NFL by name or any of its associated properties), and some entertainingly silly slapstick. Think of it as the football "30 Rock", although closer to that show in its first season, before it really found its footing. Given that the only really funny show last time didn't get picked up ("Onion News Network") I can't say I have high hopes for this one, although it would be nice if there was more than one genuinely funny web comedy out there (the other one is Netflix's "Arrested Development" in case anyone was wondering).



2. BOSCH

There is certainly no shortage of crime dramas on TV at the moment, and they all do pretty well ratings-wise, so it should come as no surprise that the internet should want one of its own. Luckily for all of us, this first go at it is considerably more interesting than any of its ilk currently on American television. Co-written by best-selling author Michael Connelly, based on his books, this is closer in tone to some of the darker British police dramas or the original Swedish version of "The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo". Season 1 looks to be setting up to follow detective Hieronymus "Harry" Bosch as he investigates the possible murder of a young boy while simultaneously standing trial for shooting a serial killer, who may or may not have been unarmed. With it's dark, noirish tone and engaging plotlines, this could wind up being a big hit for Amazon.



1. MOZART IN THE JUNGLE

I don't know if this necessarily has the hit potential of "Bosch", but it is nonetheless my favorite of this year's batch of favorites. Following the members of a fictionalized New York Symphony as they deal with a litany of behind the scenes drama along with the ups and downs of life in the Big Apple, it once again stretches the definition of "comedy", although it contains at least enough witty dialogue to make a degree of sense being labelled as such. The backstage romances and power struggles are perhaps somewhat to be expected from this sort of show, but the smart script, incredible cast, and gorgeous music all elevate it to new heights. I said before that it was easy for me to pick this as my absolute favorite of the bunch and it was, if for no other reason than I felt absolutely exhilarated watching it, actually sitting up with that rare feeling one gets upon discovering a new piece of pop culture that has instantly pushed itself into your all time favorites list. If this actually makes it to series, it is the one I can most easily see myself talking up to other people, and is also the one most likely to get Amazon the Emmy attention it seems to be so eagerly hunting this time around.

Monday, February 3, 2014

ADVENTURES IN INTERNET GAMBLING, PART 1

As you may or may not know, real-money online gambling has been legal in New Jersey for a few months now. While I would not say that I am a heavy gambler, I do periodically enjoy a trip to the casino, so I was certainly intrigued by the idea of playing at home. And I can honestly say that I have always thought that not being allowed to do so seemed more than a little silly. As such I decided to give it a go. The Borgata is one of my favorite casinos in Atlantic City, so I headed to their site first [http://casino.theborgata.com/]. As luck would have it, they give out $20 in slot play just for signing up, which gave me even more incentive to give it a spin. After finishing up the registration process, which asks for quite a lot of information, I looked through the other available promotions, and instantly wound up winning another $10 in free slot play because it was Chinese New Year. That all being wrapped up, I took the $30 of house money and headed off to the slots.

There is a fairly decent selection of slot "machines" to pick from, although many of them don't sound particularly inspiring. Unfortunately, on January 31, I was unable to get a single one of them to actually work. Initially I was attempting to use the site through my browser, but since that was getting me nowhere I went ahead and downloaded their app onto my computer. That part went fine and so I again tried to play a slot machine. The first time I received a message saying that the particular game I was attempting to play was not installed on my PC and asking if I would like to install it. Upon allowing it to install, I would then receive no action at all in response to my attempting to open it. After around 10 minutes of messing around with all that I gave up and played Skyrim instead.

Today, I thought I would give it another try before my free slot play credits expired. This time when I attempted to launch a game it would open another window, indicating that something was happening, but that window would remain black and empty. Repeated attempts at relaunching a slot machine resulted in the same result until finally I decided to just click a random spot in the dark void and see what happened. Sure enough that made the window load and I was off to a game, finally. Alas, those next attempts were also not to be, as I was promptly greeted by error messages several times, until finally, I got one to actually work. Unfortunately, I found the graphic design of it to be exceptionally displeasing and promptly left to find another machine.



I next settled on a Monopoly themed slot machine, which was much more professional looking. The machines all seem to be penny slots for now, so there weren't any large payouts, but it did keep giving enough small ones to slow the stream of money from my account, and it was entertaining enough. When I was down to only a few remaining dollars I decided to mix things up and try another machine. This time I went with one that featured a weird mix of Leonardo DaVinci's works and jewels. While not designed with quite as much sheen as the Monopoly one, it proved to be exponentially more entertaining, and much kinder with doling out small rewards. After playing for awhile I actually found myself back up over $10, and since that was now my money and no longer the free credits I decided to call it a day. All in all it was a fun experience, although they are going to need to do some work on the vast technical issues. Anyone in New Jersey who wants to give it a go and doesn't mind the potential frustration should definitely check it out. Just remember not to gamble away your rent money. Sure I wound up ever so slightly wealthier than I started, but that is certainly not the norm. The house always wins, even when it's your house.


Sunday, February 2, 2014

COLLECTIBLE CARD CRACK



I've never attempted to play any of the variety of collectible card games that have come out before. Back when Magic: The Gathering was first becoming popular I was still in school and the aura of nerdiness that surrounded that game made it seem like something I would be best not to become associated with. Since then I have come to accept that I pretty much am at least nerdy enough to be involved with such things, and when Blizzard's new game Hearthstone was released into public beta mode, I decided to give it a try.

Due to my lack of experience with the genre I really had very little idea of what to expect of it, but I have to say I have been very pleasantly surprised. The gameplay is simple enough that the basic gist of it can be figured out pretty quickly, but it is also deep enough that developing a strategy can present a much greater challenge, especially to those unfamiliar with similar games.

The main concept is that each player begins with 30 health points and a customizable deck of cards. Each of those cards have a variety of attack points, health points, and/or special powers which can be used to weaken your opponent and defend against his/her attacks. Like I said, simple enough right? Well, each of the possible characters have their own unique abilities and certain cards that are exclusive to them. And then there is the strategy of how to arrange your deck. Do you want to fill it with higher energy cards that can only be used later in the game, but that offer stronger attack bonuses? Or do you want to try and wear your opponent down early with weaker, cheaper cards? Or do you want to try to find the perfect balance of both? Any of these strategies is made more challenging by the random dealing of the cards in your deck, adding a hint of luck to the equation.




















This can all add up to a situation in which, especially at the beginning, you find yourself losing. A lot. But when you do finally get a decent deck put together and find yourself beginning to win at least sometimes, it is a very satisfying feeling. Especially when you wind up with matches as closely fought as the one above (which I lost, incidentally). The game is still in beta, so some things about it are likely to change, and perhaps rightfully so as it is sometimes more than a little frustrating. But it is still insanely addictive, and a game that I highly recommend everyone check out, whether they've ever played this type before or not.

Friday, January 31, 2014

DEAR MICROSOFT

Please stop listening to all the Windows 8 haters. There are many of us who are perfectly happy with your new operating system and want you to stop backpedaling on things to the point when it's no longer the OS we've come to know and love. Sure, some minor tweaks here and there seem like good ideas, nothing is worse in the technology world than stagnation. But some of the rumored changes coming in Windows 8.1 Update 1 sound like you are giving too much to the very vocal detractors of all things Microsoft. Well, it's time for those of us who actually like your products to be heard. And I will do so by running through some of the changes and telling you what I think about them.

The first, and arguably the most significant change that may be coming is one that seems so small, but in fact would have major ramifications for the future of Windows. In the move from Windows 8 to 8.1, an option was provided to allow users to bypass the Start screen at boot and instead go right to the Desktop. In Update 1, this option will allegedly be selected by default [Source: The Verge]. This means that the Modern interface that Microsoft was originally touting as the future of the Windows OS, will instead be relegated to the sidelines. I think this is a huge mistake. Sure, the difference can initially be quite jarring to someone coming over from a previous version, but once they get used to it, most people seem to actually prefer it. Microsoft's reasoning for this switch is that most people are still using their OS with a mouse and keyboard rather than on a touchscreen, which I don't doubt to be true. That being said, I am one of those users and I am perfectly happy with it. The only use case in which I find it to be less than ideal is with a trackpad, but even those, when multi-touch enabled, are more than workable.

Another change would be to have the taskbar on the screen while Windows 8 apps are running [Source: WinBeta]. I can't say I like the idea, as I feel it ruins the big, beautiful, clean look of said apps, but I suppose I could ultimately adjust to this one. I still would rather it not be the case. Having the apps completely fill the screen without being cluttered with buttons and extra information was one of the big selling points for me.


























The last change that I am going to touch on is the one that I also feel will be the ugliest, and perhaps the most jarring against the Modern UI; changing what happens when you right-click on an app in the Start screen. Currently, that action causes a menu of choices that can be taken to appear along the bottom of the screen (and allows you to right-click multiple apps to enact any choices in bulk). The rumored change would be to bring up an old-school context menu, which doesn't seem to add any real functionality, but does look completely out of place [Source: PCWorld]. See for yourself:


























I am not sure how that is preferable to this:




















So please Microsoft, I beg of you, stick to your guns on this one. Windows 8 really is an improvement. The detractors are wrong. Many of them are probably Apple die-hards who haven't even touched a Windows machine in years. Or ever. And others are simply just afraid of change. I know it can be hard to ignore the criticisms when they seem to be all over the internet, but remember, it's always the whiners and naysayers who make the biggest fuss. Far too often, those that actually like the product stay silent (perhaps because they are too busy using it to be bothered with posting all over the internet), but I am here to change that and let you know that I am using your product on a desktop, with a mouse and keyboard (actually 2 desktops) and I love Windows 8. While I liked Windows 7, I don't want to go back to it, so don't turn Windows 8 back into that.

Friday, March 8, 2013

FIRST WORLD PROBLEMS

In a previous post I had mentioned that I was soon to be receiving a new PC from local business Figytech. Well, they ran into some problems with Newegg repeatedly sending them the wrong parts and told me that rather than have me continue to wait as that was all sorted out, they would order me the equivalent computer from Best Buy with express shipping and with the difference in cost being covered by them. This seemed more than reasonable to me so I accepted. That was last Saturday, the 2nd of March. Seeing as it was the weekend I didn't really expect much progress to occur right away, and sure enough nothing happened with the order until Monday, at which point the progress bar presented on Best Buy's website moved right along to step 3:


And that is where it has remained since then. As I write this it is now Day 5 of the computer sitting "at [the] warehouse in [the] process of shipping." I had no idea putting something in a box and sending it out was so complicated and time-consuming.

By the time my lunch break yesterday rolled around and no further progress had been made, I had become annoyed enough to complain about the state of things on Twitter, which wound up eliciting a response from Best Buy:


This seemed like a welcome development, and so I emailed them as instructed, and have provided them with all the relevant order information. Now I await some further action on the matter. It would be one thing if the item had just not arrived yet, but the fact that it hasn't even been shipped in nearly a week now is entirely more agitating to me, and as I mentioned in my initial Twitter post, compared to my experiences using Amazon and their Prime service this seems increasingly unacceptable.

On the one upside to the whole thing though, at least it has spared me from having to deal with the massive clusterfuck that has been occurring on what PCGamer is referring to as the "Origin Superhighway" to get into SimCity since launch. I still can't help but wish that I was having to deal with that right now though...

UPDATE 3/8/2013 12:57PM: I have now received an email from Best Buy informing me that the item is apparently being shipped directly from the vendor, who I assume is the manufacturer, iBuyPower. According to the email, the expected arrival is any time between yesterday and Monday, so we will see I suppose...

UPDATE 3/9/2013 9:39AM: Still no change according to Best Buy's website. And since I am pretty sure there is a 0% chance of it being picked up by UPS or FedEx on a Sunday, I'm going to say that if it isn't shipped out today, I will almost certainly not be receiving it on Monday.

UPDATE 3/11/2013 12:09PM: And still no change in status on the Best Buy site, so, unless that information is inaccurate, I will definitely not be receiving the computer today, which puts me outside of the expected arrival window they had mentioned in their last email to me.

UPDATE 3/12/2013 8:07AM: Last night I was forwarded an email by the Nikola at Figytech, who actually physically placed the order for the PC. He had just received it from Best Buy and it stated that the arrival date for the computer had been delayed and it was now not to be expected until sometime between March 21 and April 1. According to their website however if I were to order it again right now, once again using Express shipping, I would have it no later than March 20, so either we are just getting dicked around, or they are in the habit of lying to their customers. It looks like the new plan is going to be to revert to the original plan and he will once again build me a PC, unless Best Buy comes up with something better I suppose. Needless to say, I don't think either of us is likely to be doing any sort of business with the chain again.

UPDATE 3/13/2013 10:38AM: Apparently the computer has now shipped, as I managed to miss it as a result of being in the shower (of course). There is no indication of it's having shipped on the Best Buy website, or else I probably would have tried to make sure to be available to sign for it rather than sleeping for that extra hour this morning, but oh well. At least I know it's close.

UPDATE 3/16/2013 1:19PM: So, the computer arrived yesterday and in a turn of events that I probably should have seen coming, it doesn't work. I dropped it off at Figytech, who actually ordered it for me, to see if it was something that could be easily fixed and am now waiting to hear back from them. And all of this because I wanted to play SimCity...

FINAL UPDATE: For anyone who is still concerned, after another several weeks of dealing with the situation, swapping parts out and back in again to see what the problem was, it turned out to be a rather simple one. iBuyPower had put a far too weak power supply unit in the machine. They exchanged it for an appropriate one, and since then everything has been fine.