Archive for the 'Technology' Category

Tech is Complicated

Mar 26 2010 Published by under Technology

As some of you may know, the classic arcade game cabinet that I built about a year ago died a while back.  Couldn’t even get to the BIOS.

I asked around on Freecycle for anyone local willing to get rid of an older computer.  Unfortunately, the replies I received were from people trying to get rid of ancient computers, like 386s.  That wasn’t quite sufficient.

Finally, on Wednesday, I broke down and bought a $200 desktop EeePC.  It came with Windows, a lot of games, and not much else.  I forgot how stripped down those things are:  no CD-ROM drive and no wireless card.

Of more direct concern:  it came with Windows XP pre-installed.  The first iteration of my game cabinet ran Ubuntu Linux, which drove the big question:

Do I keep Windows on it and struggle to set that up for what I need, or do I struggle to install Ubuntu and then set it up using my “known good” configuration?

This is how technology is complicated.  It’s not so much the complexity of the components; it’s the complexity of their interaction.

The EeePC isn’t built to support the installation of a Linux OS.  It’s just not easy to do (my initial attempts to boot off a USB drive were complete failure).

On the other side of the fence, it’s much harder to configure Windows and the various apps for exactly what I want to do (start an app in full-screen mode, for example).

There’s no right answer.  One makes a choice and moves forward in one direction.

I spent a few hours trying to install Ubuntu via a USB drive. Unfortunately, the EeePC simply wouldn’t boot off of USB, no matter what I did, and some Googling indicated that EeePC desktops often have that problem.

So I abandoned Ubuntu and concentrated on installing MameUI. After fiddling with the keyboard controls, I finally got it mostly, essentially, working. I’ve still got a few more things to fix, but I can play games on my cabinet now.

This is why optimization rarely works. We can’t know what’ll work until we try.

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Four Months of Gaming in Google Wave

Mar 02 2010 Published by under Role-playing,Technology

I received my invitation to Google Wave in late October, and after puttering around for a bit, quickly became involved in the role-playing scene on Wave. I joined a few games and started a few games, and I now run one of the longest-running games on Wave.  I’m on Wave just about every day.

Wave is a nearly ideal online role-playing platform.  Its design allows for easy discussion that’s quick to read (no huge signature blocks or author stats), and it’s obvious when several people are online at the same time (you can see them typing).  The ability to edit posts is perfect for maps and monster trackers; when a battle begins, I create one message for the map and each character’s turn order and hit points, which we update as the battle progresses.

The easy malleability of Waves also keep resources from getting stale; just last week, the main index of active role-playing games on Wave–which had grown full of dead games–was re-organized by a handful of volunteers.  In about two days.

The main downside:  a lot of people jump on Wave excitedly, horse around for a while, then forget about it.  My Star Wars game has lost quite a few players (particularly around the Christmas holidays).  Still, that’s true of any technology these days, and to be fair role-playing is one of the few activities in which that’s particularly disruptive.

Overall, it’s been a great experience.

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Kindle 1 vs. Kindle 2 vs. Sony eReader

Feb 03 2010 Published by under Technology

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About a week ago, I received an email asking me my opinion on the Kindle versus the Sony eReader for a particular situation. I offered some advice, and was asked to post the conversation on my blog here, for the world’s benefit. So, here you go:

My girlfriend wants to buy me a Kindle. I’m about average to slightly above average on my level of reading; about 1 book a month.

I have done a bit of reading on the net, and I really can’t tell if a Kindle or Kindle 2 or Sony reader or some other option would be best.

Doesn’t Sony allow you to purchase ebooks from various sources and share it to other devices, while Amazon ebooks are only useable on Kindle?

I’ll start with the final question. All of the ereaders support formats other than their store’s standard format. For example, besides the Kindle Store’s .azw format, Kindle supports .mobi, .prc, .rtf, .pdf, and .txt natively, as well as Word documents through a free conversion service. Sony’s and B&N’s have similar setups.

The Kindle’s big advantage is its market share — it offers a wide variety of current and older books, at (usually) lower prices than its competitors. Generally, more of your favorite books will be available for Kindle than the others.

As to which Kindle is best: For what it’s worth, I’ve owned all three major versions of Kindle: 1, 2, and DX. I like the DX because of its larger screen size; it’s like reading a hardback book compared to a paperback. It’s just nicer that way. Most of the folks who prefer a Kindle 2 want to be able to put it in a purse, or just want something very lightweight; I personally don’t have those needs. The DX isn’t particularly heavy anyway.

As to whether you should get a Kindle at all: I’ll say that I was a fairly heavy reader before getting my Kindle (several books a month), and I became a heavier reader after getting it.

Its free samples made it much easier to check out genres I never would have looked at before. If friends recommend a novel, I can easily check out the first chapter or so, without standing in a bookstore for 10 minutes.

Would you recommend the K1 or K2?

I prefer the K2 to the K1, as I find the K1’s scroll wheel clunky. It works, but it’s not nearly as convenient as the K2’s mini-joystick.

A lot of people who like the K1 point to the SD slot and the replaceable battery.

On the SD slot — it caused quite a few problems on the K1, as something that would often get stuck or otherwise confuse the OS. Also, there’s no need to store tons of books on the Kindle; all the purchased books are backed up by Amazon, and anything else would be backed up on one’s computer (I should hope!). One will never be away from a computer long enough to get through a thousand books stored on the device, if you get my meaning.

On the replaceable battery — that type of battery (Lithium-Ion, I believe) dies even when it’s not being used. So a replacement will age about as quickly as the battery in the Kindle, so when the Kindle’s battery dies, the replacement will already be about dead. Moreover, Kindle 2 and DX battery replacements are done with overnight shipping, so one would only be without one’s Kindle for a couple of days.

K1’s a fine device, but I just don’t think it’s worth it when it has a clunkier UI. But that’s just me!

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Who will buy the iPad?

Jan 29 2010 Published by under Technology

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Naturally, I’ve been thinking about Apple’s iPad a lot lately.

It’s a lovely device with several limitations. I can see four major markets for it, and each gives me pause.

Geeks have a chicken-and-egg problem. They have two options:

  • Use it as a light laptop. Problem is, geeks need disk space for all their cool tools, and the iPad only has a few dozen GBs of storage. That’s going to frustrate folks, as they realize they can’t even download a full season of a TV show.
  • Live in the cloud, with all data stored on the web. Problem here is the iPad’s lack of Flash support. If you want to live in the cloud, you need that. (Five reasons: Hulu, Pandora, CNN video, FarmVille, and let’s be honest, lots of porn sites.)

Moreover, the iPad is a closed system, not meant to be hacked. How much will that interest the average geek? Oh, quite a few will buy iPads just to look cool and to tinker with it, but I don’t geeks massively turned on by it.

Retirees would be perfect iPad users — they use computers infrequently, mostly for email and occasional light web surfing and shopping.

But imagine you’re 65, you walk into an Apple store, and you tell an associate that you want an iPad. You’ll have six choices. How big of a hard drive will you need? How will you know? You can’t compare it to your current computer’s hard drive; it’ll be far less than that.

Then the associate will ask about whether you want the 3G modem with the data plan. How many retirees will be able to answer that question?

This assumes that the average retiree is willing to spend $500-$800 for an iPad. They’re going to look at that price tag and remember the Best Buy circulars advertising $250 netbooks. Remember, they don’t care about technology by definition (or they’d be using their computers for more than just email and light web surfing).

Students also seem like a natural fit, especially if there are textbooks. They can bring iPads to school, with all their textbooks on them, presumably non-3G models so they can’t surf the web while in school.

Makes sense, but Robert Scoble‘s son, a high school student, doesn’t think so. He points out that he would never put a $500-$800 device in a bookbag (and risk damage), nor bring a device that expensive to school where it would attract thieves and soon be stolen.

And that’s assuming strong textbook support. Textbook companies are not known for their technological savvy.

The most interesting market, to me, are organizations. If you want to make your millions, make an iPad app to store and display medical records, synced to a local data server. Every doctor’s office would have a couple. Imagine a factory manager with one of these. Or a meat inspector.

The problem there is that organizational adoption tends to be slow and unpredictable. You can’t make a success off a few organizations, either.

But that gets to back what the iPad is, the first commercial proof-of-concept tablet computer. This is the first reasonable tablet, but we’re not quite there technologically; nobody can cram absolutely everything onto a tablet yet. This is not The Tablet.

This is the kick-off. This version of the iPad may not sell like the iPod or iPhone did, but we’ve now entered the age of the tablet computer.

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Me and the iPad

Jan 28 2010 Published by under Technology

Thanks very much to FOX5 for inviting me to talk about Apple’s iPad on their morning show today. It was a thoroughly professional environment with friendly people. I hope I can come back soon!

Here’s the video:

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Latest YouTube Videos

Dec 16 2009 Published by under Technology

I think this warrants a blog post: Two days ago, I released a WordPress plugin. It’s called Latest YouTube Videos, and it displays the most recent 1 to 10 videos from a given YouTube account in the sidebar of a WordPress blog. Requires no extra plugins or frameworks; just install and use (it uses HTML and a bit of JavaScript).

I wrote it for the classic reason: I needed that functionality, and no existing YouTube plugin would provide it. While there were a bunch of YouTube plugins, they weren’t for the sidebar, required some framework or other plugin that I couldn’t get working on my version of WordPress, or just plain wouldn’t load the videos properly.

So, my plugin. Simple and effective. Learned quite a bit about the WordPress API, too, which like most APIs at first seems bizarre and inscrutable, then feels surprisingly elegant after some use.

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FriendFeed Is Doomed, But It Always Was

Aug 11 2009 Published by under Technology

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I read with interest and some amusement the news items today about Facebook buying FriendFeed. Robert Scoble is convinced this is great news, and he got the impact absolutely right, though I think he’s still blind to one important point.

What did he get right?

Scoble wrote: 1. This is Facebook firing a shot at Google, not at Twitter. [snip]

2. FriendFeed is dead.

FriendFeed the site will continue to operate independently for a while, but the engineers will get folded into Facebook and eventually FriendFeed will merge with Facebook and become an anemic side feature on that site. That’s what almost always happens during mergers: the smaller guy gets merged into the larger, becoming less efficient in the process or completely subsumed.

Even if that doesn’t happen, FriendFeed has a larger fundamental limitation. FriendFeed is too content-rich for most people. Early adopters love it. Geeks love it, because they’re used to dense streams of input. But for the vast majority of users, it’s too much.

Let’s compare it to Twitter. Now, Twitter is not exactly the same kind of service, nor am I suggesting it is. Bear with me.

I currently follow 218 users on Twitter. I can keep up with that much conversation throughout the day; I rarely miss any tweets.

When I signed up for FriendFeed, as soon as I subscribed to more than a handful of people, I had more content than I could reasonably read. Between comments, photo collections, embedded videos, and the messages themselves, FriendFeed was sending me so much stuff I couldn’t keep up with it.

And the solution, of course, is to read differently. One doesn’t read FriendFeed the way one reads a book; one skims rapidly.

But most people don’t do that.

Most people want to keep up. Most people want to be able to actually read what their friends are saying. Heck, there are two reasons I use TweetDeck, and one is the column I set up showing just tweets from my closest friends (the other is the ability to manage my OtakuNoVideo account simultaneously).

FriendFeed got a huge surge in initial popularity because it’s the perfect tool for techie early adopters who regularly and happily deal in large streams of information. But—and this is what I think Scoble doesn’t see—it’s not as useful for the rest of the population. Most folks see that huge stream of FriendFeed entries, feel exhausted, and go to YouTube.

Again, FriendFeed is a great service for a certain brand of person. But it’s not for everyone, and I don’t think it ever would have been.

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Skype

Apr 27 2009 Published by under Role-playing,Technology

A few weeks ago, my role-playing group tried to add a virtual player.

Wait. Back up. One of our regular players went off to college. Worse, she’s one of the best role-players in the group. I pined for her.

For those of you unfamiliar with tabletop role-playing: A bunch of friends sit around a table. One of them lays out a situation, while the others pretend to be people in that situation, and narrate their reactions to the situation.

So, physical presence is important. A simple phone call won’t suffice. Moreover, we play with miniatures laid out on a wet-erase mat to illustrate everyones’ physical placement in the scene (especially relative to the occasional nasty monster). You need to see.

So we decided to try setting up a Skype webcam-based video conference call with her. I brought my laptop, connected to Skype, and placed the laptop on a few books. She came online, I called, she accepted, and after a bit of fiddling with audio and video settings, her head filled the screen.

I was worried. Had been in the weeks leading up to it, and was while I set this up at our table. It’s undoubtedly just my prejudice, but when I think “free videoconferencing,” I think of jerky footage, stuttering audio, and a dropped call every ten minutes. Webcams still kinda suck, my geeky side declaims, and audio/video quality over a college network tends to sound and look like RealVideo streams from 1999. And if we had a mediocre experience, we’d soldier on through the session rather than drop one of our best players. I grit my teeth and prepared to wrestle with technology.

It worked perfectly.

Besides the aforementioned technology issues (especially when we switched laptops, and the second laptop had a microphone worse than mine), we played normally. The technology mainly faded into the background, and we just talked and narrated and had fun.

Of course, it wasn’t exactly like having her in the room. Humans just aren’t used to talking to a flat screen that’s filled with a smiling human head, and she couldn’t pick out everything we said.

This is now simply part of how we play; if you’re physically not there, you can always call in via Skype. And with the second laptop (and a better microphone, hopefully), we can add another distant player.

The technology works.

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Tracking web traffic with Google Analytics

Apr 24 2009 Published by under Technology

So, let’s say you have a website. That means you’re broadcasting information to the world, and presumably other people consume that information.

How do you know what people like about your content? How do you know what’s popular?

Some web hosting companies will provide a few pages of hit tracking. Setting up your own hit tracker and integrating it onto your site is typically a pain.

Enter Google Analytics. It’s a free service, tied into your Google account. When you create your Analytics account, the site displays a short snippet of HTML and Javascript code. All you have to do is paste that code into each webpage that you want to track.

Within a day or so, when you return to Google Analytics, it’ll show you a huge range of statistics and data about your site—which pages are popular, where your visitors are coming from, etc.

Stats are updated once per day, and there’s a wide range of ways to slice and dice the data. Very useful for getting a better idea of how your site’s used, so you can better help the people you help.

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Why You Should Use Vimeo Instead Of YouTube

Jan 28 2009 Published by under Technology

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YouTube is the grand-daddy of online video sites. But it’s not the only online video site.

Vimeo is one of the sites aiming to take on YouTube. They’re doing it by focusing on a slightly different audience:

  • Vimeo actively pushes its users to upload only personal videos. This isn’t a place to post TV clips or anime.
  • Vimeo promotes a community atmosphere. It’s a bunch of people, sharing personal thoughts and their own entertainment.
  • Vimeo has high-quality video, by default. A normal video on Vimeo looks better than a normal video on YouTube, to my eyes certainly.

It’s also easy to use (despite being bought by Google, YouTube still feels cluttered to me), and Vimeo videos have fewer inane comments than on YouTube. I think that’s partly an effect of Vimeo’s community, and partly attributable to their relative size.

Still. It’s a very nice video site, and when I post videos, I prefer to put them on Vimeo if just because they look better and don’t get stuffed with pointlessly negative comments.

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