Tuesday, 16 December 2014

The Hi-Fi Alternative

Sometimes, consumerism steers society in weird directions.
The easiest example to point at is MP3 sound. It was only a decade and a half ago that CDs used to be the go to medium for music consumption. But then the iPod came out, and we sold our souls: in exchange for portability we gave up on the non compressed 16 bit sound quality of CDs in favour of something vastly inferior.
A similar trend has been taking place over the past couple of years. The availability of LED backlit LCD panel TVs has made a lot of us replace our TV sets yet again in favour of these models. Why? Not because they’re necessarily better, but because they’re thinner. Sure, percentage wise they are significantly thinner than the flat panel TV of “old”, but in absolute terms? It was purely a case of thinner for thin.
The transition to even thinner panels brought with it significant deterioration in sound reproduction. Those thinner panels don’t have much room for speakers, so the speakers they do have sound awful. Not that the consumer electronics industry minded: it offered them an opportunity to sell us yet another product, the sound bar. [Short sanity check: consider the rational of trading off a slightly thicker TV for a thinner one given the need for an additional speaker system much thicker and bigger than the TV of old and the cost in thousands of dollars this whole affair incurs.]
The question then turned out to be – which sound bar does one get?


I got myself a Yamaha model that came without a subwoofer at Costco. Yamaha, because I have been using Yamaha equipment for decades and in general appreciate their sound (not that it can compete with true hi fi), their unblemished reliability record, and their experience in creating phantom surround images out of a stereo soundtrack. Costco, because of the price. And no subwoofer because, seriously, a real subwoofer has to be huge because of basic physics (which thus directly implies it has to be expensive). What passes for subwoofers in the sound bar market tend to be one note boom boxes that are just awful on the ears.
I like that Yamaha sound bar. Yet I keep asking the question – was that the best I could do for the money? Now I am at a point where I can confidently say “no, I could have done better”. Albeit with a less stylish solution.
The better solution involves using a good but cheap digital amplifier and a couple of good but cheap bookshelf speakers. Good but cheap digital amplifiers did not used to exist, but now they do; check this DTA-1 model here. And good hi-fi bookshelf speakers have always existed; a pair that will knock any sound bar selling for less than 3-4 times the price will cost you $100-$200. What you will be getting, in effect, is a small time hi-fi system; what you will be losing is the form factor of the sound bar.
The choice is yours. Personally, I would say that people should jump at this newly available opportunity to introduce hi-fi sound into their lives. It won’t only do wonders to your TV sound, it will do wonders to your music, too.


Image by Phillips Communications, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence

Thursday, 11 December 2014

The Quest for the Next Mass Effect

It took a while till the new generation of consoles started getting games that do justice to the new hardware. It wasn’t easy; the first Big Name Title I got for my PS4, Destiny, turned out to be a great first person shooter game but also the lousiest game in living memory when it comes to things like plot and character. The contrast between the two was just too high to fathom.
But there is goodness to be found, so I thought I’d run a brief overview on some of those. These are not proper reviews but more like first impressions. Read on to learn more about my quest to find Mass Effect’s replacement!


Dragon Age: Inquisition
By far my most anticipated game of 2014, being that it comes from BioWare – makers of Mass Effect – and being that it had Patrick Weekes – one of my favourite authors – writing it.
My initial reaction, however, has been that of disappointment. This is a vast game, one that could easily suck 200 or even more hours of one’s life on its campaign mode. And that’s without taking into account that you can redo the campaign and play completely different characters! Why am I complaining? I’m complaining because I don’t have that much time. In the balance between expanse and getting to the point, I prefer erring on the side of the latter.
By far my biggest complaint thus far is to do with the combat system. I found I could play it in one of two ways: either use the tactical mode for precision management of what each of my player is doing in combat or simply hold the fire button pressed and wait for the baddies to eventually die while with minimal intervention on my part. Yes, that first option doesn’t only sound great, it is great, but seriously – there is not enough time in anyone’s life to micro manage the frequent combats this way. Thus I end up dealing with combat the mundane way.
I find playing Dragon Age a very similar experience to playing the very first Mass Effect. Having arrived there after playing Mass Effect 2 & 3, combat was a boring and tedious affair, but I went through the motions because I wanted to see what happens and I wanted to do good by my favourite characters. The key difference is that Dragon Age takes much longer to get to the point, but it does seem to get better the deeper I’m in.
I just hope it would end up delivering on my time investment.

Shadow of Mordor:
If Dragon Age takes its time, Shadow of Mordor is the exact opposite. This is an intense game from the word go, whose main achievement thus far is enlightening me to the fact a career in sneaking behind orcs and slitting their throats should have been high on my priority list.
Seriously, this game offers a great balance between strategy and action. Your goal is to eliminate baddie captains, but you can’t just storm your way through. You need to gather intelligence and work your way to them. If you lose, that orc captain you were after gets stronger, which means your next attempt will be much harder!
Intense and rewarding is the name of the game, with even the controller itself joining in with sound effects. My main complaint? You can’t pick Shadow of Mordor up for a short go, because saving the game returns you to your spawn point instead of where you actually got to. Which means that unless I have two hours to spare, it’s hard to just pick this game up.
Sad, because this means I probably won't be able to give this game the attention level it deserves.

Super Smash Bros – Wii U:
No, I know this post is about games for the new consoles, but it is exactly because of this that I am forced to include Nintendo’s Super Smash Bros.
This one is simply great entertainment for the whole family. With so many gaming options, characters and modes to pick from, Super Smash Bros joins Mario Kart 8 as a game that offers endless fun of the type I am simply unable to grow tired of. My point is, the PS4 (and, for that matter, the Xbone) can have all the big titles they want, but the bottom line is that the “older” Wii U delivers where it counts the most: in the fun department.

Which, last I heard, is the whole point of gaming. Even with games that are not Mass Effect.

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Fitness First?


My review of the Pebble smartwatch touched on some privacy related aspects, but given the limited scope of the review didn’t delve deep enough. So I thought I’d dedicate a few more words on how The Internet of Things, the main Internet related commercial drive we are going to be exposed to during upcoming years, comes secretly bundled with some intensive tracking.
I’ll make it short, though. I am often ridiculed for being paranoid when I point out I don’t want companies to keep track of my personal information because I cannot trust them to use the data properly. Now we know that this is more than mere paranoia: data gathered from a FitBit tracking device will be used in a court case, with some interesting aspects this brings to the table pointed out in this article co-written by Angela Daly (a Twitter friend previously mentioned here).
Things come down to a simple equation. Given the Pebble's context of fitness tracking, do you really want an American company with very loose ideas on privacy (at least by European standards) to hold on to detailed data on your location, your activities, your diet and your biometrics in return for basic analysis of this data?
This is not a simple question. If I were to knock on your door and ask you to give me this data, you would rightly tell me to F off. Yet the millions using fitness tracking devices do just that, often/usually without thinking twice about it. On the other hand, this data could – not now, but eventually – be used to raise the alarm bells and tell you to rush to the nearest emergency room when its analysis points at a pending heart attack.
I’m not here to tell you to keep fitness trackers out of your life. What I am saying, however, is that things don’t have to be this way. We do not have to trade our privacy for our health. This entire business model that companies such as Google and Facebook have built their empires on is crap!
I would happily give FitBit/Jawbone/whatever a few dollars a year to receive the same services but have my data remain my data. I know a lot of the benefits of fitness tracking come through statistical analysis of many people’s private data and that contemporary data anonamysation techniques have been repeatedly proven ineffective, but surely there can be a way to achieve that without my life turning into tradeable commodity in the process.


Image by Kazuhiro Keino, Creative Commons licence

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Disenchanted


Earlier this week, I took note of the Mass Effect twitter account informing us followers of maker BioWare’s one day shopping special: hoodies capped at $50, discounted t-shirts and free shipping. The latter was the most important part, given past experience with BioWare had taught me they charge more for shipping to Australia than they do the actual product.
I received the news in the morning while I was at work. Quickly, I headed to BioWare’s website to check things out and – lo and behold – witness they actually did offer free shipping to Australia. Hooray! But being that work is work, I postponed actual purchasing till I got back home.
I got back home, I switched my computer on, I warmed my credit card up for the upcoming exercise, I headed to BioWare’s website, and… I saw that the free shipping message had now been switched into “free US shipping” instead. I tested the affair, and again, BioWare was true to its [current] word. I wasn’t the only one devastated; my wife, who saw this as a great opportunity for her to get me a Christmas present I would love, was also disappointed with the opportunity fading into the ether. [Not that I think it that hard to get me something I'd like.]
I tweeted my opinion of the matter to BioWare’s @MassEffect account but, to date, received no reply. Regardless, the whole affair, as silly as it was, turned out to have huge impact on me.
I’m a big Mass Effect fan and I do not hide it. But this, this shattered the whole illusion as effectively as a tank ramming through a paper wall. Sure, I can see how BioWare’s original offering would get them a flood of online orders from Kreplakistan; but isn’t that the whole point of Black Monday/Friday/whatever offers?
The question here is just how much a profit seeking company can toy with its fans. Apple does it all the time and its the biggest company in the world, value wise. BioWare does it by offering great content in the shape of my all time favourite video games. There is a limit, though, for how much they could stretch their credit. As far as I am concerned this week’s build-up of expectations, followed by their utter evaporation, stretched things too far.

Mass Effect, I now officially renounce you.


Image copyrights: BioWare

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

Not Kosher


As a product of the Israeli pretend secular public education system, I recall being taught about the Bible’s rules concerning Kosher food. I recall being told one of the key justification for prohibiting food such as pork was health related: these animals live in the mire, and at the time there were no facilities allowing their safe handling.
This hygiene based argument made sense, even if it failed to explain why Jews continue to abide by it today. It appears as if such exclusions are to do with the religion’s core philosophy: Judaism regards itself as some sort of an elite club of chosen people, hence it enforces such exclusions. Christianity, on the other hand, designed as it was to service the Roman Empire, is more to do with distribution and assimilation. Hence its “come forward and enjoy thy bacon” attitude. Bacon goes a long way in the selling/convincing department.
Mmm, bacon...

Recently, I bumped into another explanation for why Judaism came up with its Kosher regulations. It argues that Kosher rules are there to prevent Jews from taking part in that most basic of human rites together with would be non Jewish partners: the ritual of sharing a table and having a meal together.
If your core concern is the self preservation of your group's identity, then preventing members from being able to contact non members is a pretty effective method for achieving that. It’s deadly simple when you think about it and when you recall that our main way of socialising with one another is through shared meals and drinks. Plus, let’s face it, Judaism’s record in the self preservation department is admirable, having survived that long with all the prosecutions it went through.
Yet questions must be asked. At the personal level, I need to ask myself why I accepted school’s reasoning so easily and failed to realise the hidden motivation for myself. More importantly, at the global level, us humans need to ask ourselves why we are still letting such nonsense divide us?  Surely, in the face of global threats ranging from nuclear weapons to global warming we need to unite! Yet the majority of the best of our minds occupies itself with bullshit that, by design, is there to divide us.
File for the next time someone tells you religion is a force for good.


Image by scazza_, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) licence 

Monday, 1 December 2014

Photo Policy

Yet another post on how I don’t have time to live my life anymore.
It occurred to me I no longer have the privilege of editing all of my photos prior to posting them online at Flickr. Up to now, and since starting to use Flickr almost a decade ago, I regarded my Flickr page as both my personal photo album and as the cloud backup facility for my photos. I also used it as my way of supporting the Creative Commons community with content. However, that is all changing now.
I no longer have the time it takes to process through all my photos, pick the better ones, massage them using software tools such as Aperture and then post them with detailed descriptions on Flickr. It just can’t happen anymore. Instead, I’ll be uploading all of my raw photos to Flickr with just the most basic of tagging so as to use the online facilities as a cloud backup service. The bulk of photos uploaded this way will be kept private.
There is a positive side to this move, if you like. Instead of me doing basic to mediocre editing on all my photos, I will be able to give the whole of my attention to the photos I want to make actual use of. Recently I have been enjoying playing around with Pixelmator on the iPad and see no reason for stopping. [To the uninitiated I will add that Pixelmator has been a staple application for Macs, offering most of what armatures would get out of Photoshop but with a one off $30 price tag.]
Still, bad news is bad news.


Talking about bad:
The act of uploading my photos in bulk to Flickr exposes just how 20th century my ADSL internet connection is. When I upload big stuff, like a video to YouTube or numerous photos to Flickr, my whole Internet connection grinds to a halt. If I try and to do anything else on the Internet things either works extremely slowly or my photo upload process gets broken. The fault is with the ADSL connection’s inherently low upload speeds.
Which brings forth one more reason to thank Tony “The NBN Destroyer” Abbott. It is so blatantly obvious future generations of Australians will write his reign off as some sort of a tragic drug trip taken by their early 21st predecessors.


Image by Jo, Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0) licnece

Wednesday, 26 November 2014

Bluetooth Blues


Bluetooth technology went a long way over the course of its short lifespan. This geezer remembers the days it was a pain to set up and endure the repetitive pairings one had to go through. I also remember having to deal with external dongles and equipment that, despite all the good intentions, couldn't hold dialog with one another.
Things are different today. I use Bluetooth all the time, literally, for things such as:
  • My smartwatch talking to my smartphone,
  • My car’s hands free and music,
  • The portable Bluetooth speaker that lets me listen to decent quality music wherever I am without the need for headphones,
  • And the Bluetooth keyboard I pack my iPad in, which turns the iPad into a very effective work tool.
With this constant use of Bluetooth comes a new risk: tracking.
You might have heard about it before in the context of wifi tracking: you walk around with your smartphone’s wifi on, and as you go your way hidden wifi trackers talk to your smartphone and gather its unique wifi identifiers as well as the list of wifi networks it normally uses. The latter allows them to know where you live/work, because companies such as Google have already mapped everyone’s wifi networks; the first allows it to easily match you with previous observations so as to keep track of your location over time.
Well, the same story pretty much applies to Bluetooth. Whenever I walk about (or, for that matter, drive) with my Bluetooth devices on, I am exposed to trackers that are able to uniquely identify me and thus build a picture of me and my habits. Things are so bad that the city of New York, for example, started banning such trackers; but what about all the rest of them?
Thing is, there used to be a way around this tracking. Once upon a time, one could set their Bluetooth connection to be on while switching device settings so as not to be discoverable (note this in the above image). You could use your devices, but you can’t be tracked. Nice! But did you notice these settings are not available anymore?
In case you wonder why these settings managed to disappear, here’s the answer. The short, one word answer is: money. The longer one is that companies, companies of the likes of Apple, make a lot of money through selling products such as iBeacons to track and “guide” people around. Primarily to do so at shops, so as to allow you to spend more money. In order for Apple’s product to successfully work, Apple needs your Bluetooth device to be on and to be discoverable; lucky for Apple, it has a lot of control over whether these settings are available to users in the first place. Google, the world's largest advertising company, isn't any better.
I will therefore repeat the conclusion from a previous post: Companies such as Apple may send their overpaid CEOs to announce their commitment to privacy and how much they care for their customers, but the reality is the exact opposite. These companies are more than happy to take an active part in destroying our privacy for the sake of a dollar. Their records speak for themselves.


Image by Intel Free Press, Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 2.0) licence

Monday, 24 November 2014

Manage Thy Passwords

Let me ask you a personal question: what do your passwords look like?
Online passwords stand between your most sensitive stuff and any would be thief out there, not to mention this world’s dubious governments (pretty much all of them). A good, unique, password is pretty one’s first (and often last) line of defence.
Have a look at what a typical password of mine looks like:
5.2_=.|!!*5:~pV56a==-:~^7-K7.u

What do you think?
You might be thinking the above is rather hard to remember. You might also be thinking that if I am following my own advice regarding unique passwords, then this password would be just one of many; how the ****  does I do it, then? How do I manage to remember many such complex passwords?


The simple answer is that I don't. I use a password management tool that does all the hard work for me for me. It both creates passwords and stores them for me so I don’t have to remember much. The only password I do need to remember is my master password, the one password that unlocks my password manager for me to use.
I cannot boast using many password management tools or being able to compare them. What I can say, though, is that I have been using 1Password and I am a very happy user of 1Password. Not only does it have the ability to manage my passwords as per the above, it also lets me access them on any Internet connected computer (not that I recommend doing that on any computer), it stores other sensitive information for me (e.g., credit cards), and with the Chrome/Firefox add-ons installed it will even fill my user names and passwords for me. What can be a rather tedious process of logging in, even when one’s password is “password”, becomes a one click operation with 1Password.
The other week 1Password even went the extra mile for me. I discovered that a cloud service I had used and have presumed to have updated my password for did not really change the password. Since 1Password already had my “new” password, I thought that was the end of my use of that particular cloud service; I thought I could never login with my old password again. Then, however, I discovered that 1Password keeps a log of changes: I was able to go back in time and recover the old password.
Obviously, security is of prime concern with that information managed by 1Password. The application encrypts all of its saved data, which makes it safe for cloud storage (or as safe as anything stored on the cloud can be). The only caveat I can add is to do with Android usage: due to Android’s rather lax application sandboxing (a complex term for describing whether one application is able to access another application’s data), I would advise caution; do read this article to learn whether and how these issues apply to you.

Overall, the whole password concept is one of risk management. When weighing up whether to start using a password manager, one needs to weigh up the added benefits of being able to easily use unique and very complex passwords vs. the risk of storing the whole of one’s passwords in a single basket. I can only attest to my success with 1Password; it genuinely made my use of the Internet much more comfortable.

Added on 26/11/2014:
If you are considering the use of password managers and are contemplating which, have a go reading the papers referenced here. They bring forth further considerations to do with the security of these tools. As far as I can tell, 1Password excels in the parameters mentioned there.
I would also like to note that, at least on the Mac version, 1Password brings with it alerts regarding compromised passwords. It warns you when passwords need replacing because their related website has been compromised (and I can attest to 1Password doing a very good job keeping up to date on compromised websites). And it also warns you when you're about to let your password go through over an unencrypted connection (including cases where the page seems encrypted but the part that asks for your password isn't).


1Password image: AgileBits