Amazon Echo

Posted by on Jun 28, 2017 in Hardware, Other Geeks

Amazon Echo

Any nerd who’s seen Star Trek knows that no one bothers to use a keyboard (despite being all over the Enterprise anyway) when they want to send an email or correspond with sexy single Klingons in their area. As technology has moved forward into the 24th century, the preferred method of human-computer interface is shouting into thin air and totally expecting something to come of it.

Here in the backwaters of the 21st century, we’re still pecking out text messages on our tiny smartphones like cavepeople. We can’t even send dick pics without some manual intervention (allusion intentional). The use of voice commands isn’t quite there yet for controlling our devices, but things do seem to be trending in that direction. We can commune with Siri or settle in with OK Google or interact with Cortana, sadly without the sexy blue hologram. Our efforts sometimes pay off, but more often than not I expect that voice interaction with our tech is accidentally ordering 20 lobsters for shipment to Mozambique than it is setting a reminder to pick up a loaf of bread on the way home from work.

Amazon — all hail Amazon — continues to find ways to shoehorn itself into our lives with the Echo line of voice (and now video) enabled devices. Of course, Amazon — all hail Amazon — wants us to use their services for everything: to buy books, to buy clothing, toys, electronics, movies, music, and (in the three metro places where they offer it) groceries. It’s stupidly convenient to get a shipment from Amazon like it ain’t no thing: Prime shipping with One Click ordering means we might not even realize that we ordered something until it arrives on our doorstep. The Echo is Amazon’s — all hail Amazon — attempt to bring a little Star Trek into our lives.

The flagship Echo is a $180USD tower that comes with a built-in speaker, but for those on a budget there’s the Echo Dot, a smaller puck sized device sans speaker that can be had for as low as $35USD. These deco-enabled devices can sit on the sidelines until someone randomly says “Alexa” — one of the device’s activation words — too loudly, at which point the device springs to action in the way you wish your S.O. would: waiting patiently to listen to anything you want to tell it. You can tell the Echo to put a shopping item on a list, play songs from Pandora, Spotify, or (of course) Amazon Music, get a weather forecast, control your smart home, tell you a joke, or do something else enabled through one of the myriad of “skills” you can activate on your account like it was downloading from The Matrix.

Does that sound awesome to you? Possibly not. Unlike the 24th century where society has evolved to a point where voice interface is the prevalent and most convenient way to work with technology in their fast paced environment, we’re still not quite at the point where shouting at the aether is more efficient or more accurate than any other method we have at our disposal. I can OK Google a timer as quickly as I can get the Echo to start one. I can open an app on my phone and add an item to a shopping list as fast as I can by ordering the Echo to do the same. I can also play my songs from my tablet through my Bluetooth speakers just as easily as I could through the Echo, with the added bonus of being able to take the music with me as I move through the house or to plug in some earbuds if I want some privacy.

The Echo technology is getting there, though. This morning I found that the new “Drop In” functionality had been enabled on my devices (I have three Echo Dots, one on each floor of my house). This feature allows my family and me to use the Echo as an intercom system, a feature that was forehead-smackingly absent from the original product. At $35 each, it’s easy to buy multiple Dots for whenever and wherever you feel the need to talk to someone elsewhere in the house without shouting, and being able to talk to another Dot or Echo on your network seems like a feature worth the price of admission. I tried it out with my wife this morning, communicating from the kitchen to the bedroom, and aside from the acoustics reaching me through good old vibrating air a few seconds before the Dot transmitted the same, it worked flawlessly. Of course, this is only good for when you have multiple Echo devices throughout your home or want to use the smartphone app to remotely intercom with someone at home, or want to monitor what’s going on in your house or apartment through the new Echo Show, which is the realization of the dreams of many futurists from the 1990’s who wanted a viable video phone in their lifetime.

Like dick pics

The Echo is, at best, a magnetic notepad with tethered pen that you can stick to your fridge so you don’t have to root around in a junk drawer for the same when you need to make a list or leave a note, but at $35 it improves on that notepad in a technology-forward way for those who are into that. Considering we only have about a decade until Amazon — all hail Amazon — has at least five different vectors into each of our lives, I can only expect the technology to get better and possibly more useful. Right now, though, it’s a fun novelty that can be made to fit into a niche in our lives that gives us a “summer stock” vision of a Star Trek future.

 

Footnote: I know a lot of people are going to scrunch up their faces and wonder why I didn’t address things like privacy concerns or the possibility of cyber attacks turning the devices against us. I am not an analyst, despite the fact that I have a blog and write a whole lot of words without saying a damn thing worth noting. There are people who are much better at talking about these things than I am — take Mr. Koster’s post above as an example.

The Echo — and the Internet, and the things on the Internet — will always only be as safe as the infrastructure that supports them, and as secure as the people and business that support that infrastructure are willing and able to make them. As a consumer, my job isn’t to harden my node against any and all attacks, because there’s only so much I can do at what they refer to as “the last mile”; instead, I need to decide where to place my trust, if I am placing any trust at all, among those who control the lion’s share of pathways and services that are available to me. This is not a question of tech, but a question we all have to face, every day, as a species. Who we trust and how much we trust them has always been a part of the human condition. We need to trust our banks, our employers and employees, our neighbors, our families, and even total strangers. We need to decide who to trust with our money and our health and our futures every single day, tech or no tech. Technology is neutral; the Echo itself isn’t maliciously haunting you out of the box.

So it’s really up to the individual how far each of us wants to allow tech into our lives. We can arm ourselves with truth — not speculation, or even panicked what-if’s — and then…we have to decide who among those upstream of us deserve our trust. Considering Amazon knows as much about me as any other service I use these days, and chances are they know just about as much about you, then I think the Echo is about as safe as the PCs, consoles, tablets, and smartphones that we have come to rely on.

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Secret World Legends; Steam Summer Sale 2017

Posted by on Jun 26, 2017 in Secret World Legends, Steam Sales, The Secret World

Secret World Legends; Steam Summer Sale 2017

Secret World Legends

Kelly “Keliel” Olivar found her way over to SWL.

Secret World Legends is (almost literally) an answer to a question nobody asked: what if instead of fixing issues in a standing game, the developers copied and pasted that game, changed a bunch of stuff (but left other stuff alone) and released it as a whole new game? The existing game — the one people have been playing for years and have a history with, but which wasn’t doing as well as it undoubtedly should have — would be placed in “maintenance mode”, meaning no more new features and only updates when critical. Add to that the fact that no previous progress would carry over, so everyone — everyone — starts fresh, both people new to the franchise and those who have played since launch.

Does that sound like a good idea to you? On the surface, no. No, it does not. Yet this is what Funcom decided that The Secret World needed in order to survive and move forward. The reasons are unfortunately their own, buried behind the typical marketing platitudes we get from game companies that are coy about their strategies. Even so, the anticipation for the head start for SWL was high in my timelines. People had been waiting all of last week for notification that they could download the new client, create and migrate some of their TSW progress to the new game, and log in ahead of this week’s release. On Friday, the head start began and went pretty OK as far as I could tell. On Saturday, things were also humming along quite nicely. Sunday, however, the bill came due: there was an exploit which allowed players to generate millions of units of what SWL uses for cash-bought currency. Funcom kept the game offline for most of the day in order to fix it, which raised hackles; on one hand, fuck those who used the exploit and ruined it for the rest of us, but on the other hand, the fact that people were anxious to log in a play was a Good Sign.

I’m not going to enumerate all of the changes SWL introduces to TSW because I’m not entirely aware of all of them myself. Some of the most notable ones are that the free-form character builds are still present, but much harder to get at. This is good because my first TSW character was messed up early on because I didn’t know how to use the build system. Likewise, missions in SWL now follow a more structured path, with some leading into others, others having their pickup locations moved, some have been changed into “mission-on-zone-entry” grants, and others have been done away with entirely. They’ve also added levels to the game and made the game much easier to solo. I think that all of these changes are a result of the realization that while TSW was a game that attempted to break the MMO mold, a lot of what it did to that end was simply for the sake of being different. The game never put enough emphasis on being approachable in a genre that had been trending towards making things easier to understand for new and elder players alike.

New character sheet and weapon upgrade screens.

The question of why create a parallel game instead of just fixing what was in place might be answered in this light: TSW had tried many things and as a result garnered itself much baggage as far as the MMO community was concerned. I think the majority of people love the investigation missions. Others love the horror-themed atmosphere. Some even loved the EVE Online-like manner in which we could build custom characters so that not everyone was just following a class-based trajectory. But the game had many issues that Funcom struggled with over the years which cost them players and forced them from a sub to a free to play model. Along the way, they tried to update the game to repair problems or address shortcomings, but it never seemed to be enough. That’s why I can understand that SWL isn’t a reboot or even a reset, but a total cleansing of (hopefully) what plagued TSW for so long. Funcom (hopefully) took all of the feedback they received over the years and decided that there was just so much work that needed to be done — and done all at once — that it made more sense to copy the game, modify in parallel, and release as a new product with a beta phase and everything. Had they tried to make these changes to the live TSW, they would only be able to eek out changes in spurts through patches, and only to the public test center which is available for current players — and who knows the percentage of current players who opt to get into the PTR for any game, let alone a game that many believe has been on life support long before SWL was announced.

Despite having a lifetime sub to the game, I never made it off of Solomon Island in TSW so the idea of starting over doesn’t phase me. SWL is a game I want to succeed because it is unique, in setting, presentation, and content. I am liking a lot of the changes I’m seeing in SWL, although some are coming into conflict which what I expect from my days playing TSW and that causes me some confusion. I hope Funcom does well by SWL. They get a lot of shit for their games, some rightfully so, but also way more than they deserve. It’d be nice for them to catch a break with SWL because I’d sad to see it’s demise used as proof that there’s no room for non-high-fantasy, non-sci-fi MMOs.

Everyone deserves a second chance.

 

Steam Sale 2017

It’s in full swing this week, so here’s the current body count from my perspective.

Avorion: This is another in a string of Minecraft meets [insert other genre here] games. In this one, you get to harvest materials and build space ships and space stations. It looked good to me because while the graphics are OK if you play on public servers there’s open PvP in a massive universe which could be fun — if you’re into that. There’s supposedly also a story in single player mode. The ship building uses real physics, which speaks to my inner The Expanse fan…so yes, I will be trying to build a Rocinente when I am able.

The Curious Expedition: I have it installed but haven’t played it because I think this might be a good one to stream in succession. It’s a pixellated adventure story about a group of explorers who head to the Arctic and…something.

Oxenfree: I had put this on my wishlist at one point, but never jumped on it. However, friends claim that it’s a Really Good Game, Guys! so I bought it.

What Remains of Edith Finch: Now, I never played The Unfinished Swan, but it got high marks for presentation. Edith Finch has been getting some stellar reviews, and a lot of the Steam comments say that it’s a seriously moving game. I am eager to give this a try, but it sounds like the timing has to be right for the full impact to take effect. I just don’t know when that will be.

Hidden Folks: My wife plays a lot of hidden object games that she downloads from those junk game aggregator sites. I, on the other hand, am not a fan. Usually. Hidden Folks came up in conversation several times over the weekend and is cheaper during the sale than anything you could buy at Starbucks, so why the hell not. I was immediately laughing because this game’s appeal is only partly to do with it being a hidden object game. The whole thing was hand-drawn (which is impressive when you see some of the levels), and all of the sound effects are what I assume to be the developer making noises in a microphone. There are no canned sound effects here, except whatever comes out of this guy’s mouth and that can be hilarious at times. It doesn’t look to be a very long game, but it’s relaxing, small, has a low operational footprint, making it a great game to play when you’re waiting for other games to download or patch.

Waldo is for amateurs

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Trip to Maia; Lost in Tamriel; Grand Theft Coaster

Posted by on Jun 19, 2017 in Elite Dangerous, Planet Coaster, The Elder Scrolls Online

Trip to Maia; Lost in Tamriel; Grand Theft Coaster

This past weekend was rather dull: Saturday was spent…I can’t remember what the hell I did on Saturday, to be honest. It was kind of overcast and blah, and I know I didn’t do anything that I should have been doing, so I guess that makes it a success. On Sunday, we celebrated Father’s Day at the in-laws. Because it was Father’s Day, I was allowed to return home before the ceremonial Canasta game. Hooray for small victories.

Trip to Maia

Speaking of small victories, I spent a good deal of time in Elite Dangerous this weekend and fulfilled my long-delayed goal of venturing to Maia in the Pleiades. The only real significance of this is that the Pleiades is where all of the alien activity has been going down, although I didn’t do any investigation of such while there. Maia and it’s surrounding environment is basically a ghost-town, as most of the nearby systems aren’t as well populated with stations as other parts of the bubble that I’m used to. There is a community goal happening in Maia as of the writing of this post, but it requires the delivery of materials that are only available a good number of jumps away. Traveling in Elite is one of the absolute worst, most boring parts of the game, so I quickly lost interest in participating once I learned that.

However, I did need to hit up Maia to pick up meta-alloys. I needed this to unlock an Engineer. The Engineers are NPCs that can create new or boost existing ship gear. As you play the game you’ll come across various materials that are needed for the creation/upgrade process. Each approach has a specific outcome but of a random magnitude, so you spend these special materials on a single spin of the RNG. If you like what you see, you can have the Engineer apply the changes; if not, you can spin again if you have enough materials. The meta-alloy was just an introduction gift to get me in to see the NPC but thankfully I had a hold full of several of the materials needed to squeeze some better performance from my FSD and sensors.

The good news is that I’m now only less than a dozen hops away from my current home range of Wu Guinagi. The original trip to Maia was something like 33 jumps; the trip to Deciat where the Engineer lives clocked in at only about 11, and I only have about 11 or so jumps back to Wu. Yeah, the math doesn’t add up, but Elite‘s route calculation is sometimes screwy like that.

Lost in Tamriel

Of course, I’m back to playing The Elder Scrolls Online since I had gotten a great deal on the Morrowind expansion. Although I’d only been off the wagon for a few weeks, the One Tamriel setup is officially screwing with my ability to figure out where the heck I am, and where I need to be.

The good thing is that I don’t need to focus on the main story (although I do on occasion). I can do nothing but side-quests because the design is such that quest visibility is organic: while you’re in an area doing quest A, B, and C, you can also pick up D, E, and F, which will lead to an area where you can get G, H, and I, and so on. This is great when the game forces you into a level-based box because you can only focus on the quests that you are lead to. With One Tamriel where levels don’t matter, you can skip D, E, and F and go straight across the continent for quests J, O, Pi, 721, and the Realization That The Universe is Ambivalent Re: Your Being, just to name a few.

I’ve been playing with Mindstrike and my brother Egon, and we’ve gotten to the point where the best content is currently dungeons and collecting the delve sky shards that we’re missing. So we’re all over the map, basically. That means I’m sometimes picking up quests that need to be solved within those dungeons or delves, or “accidentally” pick up a quest out in the world, or at least see quests in other zones. When we’re done, I head back to my current “home” zone and…forget what the hell I was doing or have no idea what I might be missing in the current zone by way of quests so I can get that all important zone closure achievement.

I’m not sure if there’s a way to track quests that need to be done in a zone in order to reach the closure achievement, or if there’s an add-on to help with that. I’d like to be able to close things out zone by zone since I can do so as if each zone were level appropriate thanks to One Tamriel. Nevermind the fact that I’ve not even considered touching the DLC content. I’m trying to stay away from the Morrowind official content (except for dungeons and delves) because I want Sedya Neen to be my first official landing spot — once again — in that region.

Grand Theft Coaster

On Sunday evening I sat at the desk and lamented my lack of streaming time. At this point, I’ve spent a lot of time and money getting things ready to put together the best-looking stream I possibly can, complete with multi-focal lighting, green screen, upgraded webcam, custom graphics AND animations, and the Elgato Stream Deck. Really, the only thing that I’m missing is a dedicated game capture device before I can say that I am officially the most overprepared non-streamer in existence.

Streaming is fun and non-fun. It’s fun because you get the warm fuzzies when you see people tune in, and even better if they interact with you. It’s also non-fun in many ways, such as seeing strangers vanish without having engaged, or even the pressure to “put on a show” in an effort to get people to stick around longer than they might if you’re just concentrating on playing the game. Streaming is, after all, a show. On one hand I know that this is patently false but on the other hand, you might as well aim high if you’re going to make the effort. I find myself caught between the desire to make the effort and my desire to just play the damned game without feeling like I have to emcee everything.

That’s why I decided to stream on Sunday evening, but not announce it. 75% of crossing the hurdle is to press the STREAMING button on the Stream Deck to get the broadcast started, and I figured that if I wanted to overcome my reticence to make the effort, I could make the effort in anonymity. That way I’d technically be streaming, but would also probably not have an audience to play up for. I did garner one random viewer who came and left (I hardly knew ye!) and got views from two Combat Wombat friends who were notified of the stream via our Discord server announcement bot.

I played Planet Coaster, a game that I find more relaxing than the high-stakes planet of RimWorld. I started the Campaign over from scratch and managed to cap the HIGH marks on the first scenario. One thing that constantly vexed me in the game: my visitors are apparently really easy marks for pickpockets. Every few ticks I’d get notified that someone was robbed. I hired a whole platoon of security guards, and they eventually apprehended a lot of the thieves, but I couldn’t figure out how to get out in front of that problem. In the end, it didn’t matter, though, as my park became popular enough for me to attract the 1100 guests and earn $15,000 needed for the third star in the scenario.

I enjoyed playing Planet Coaster with strict goals because it meant that I only had to reach those goals, and anything after that could be considered arson for the insurance money. It was also a good game to stream, I think since there’s a lot to do, a lot to keep track of, and a lot of ways for things to go hilariously wrong. I’ll probably stick with this as my streaming game and hopefully, in doing so I can overcome my hesitation to broadcast.

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