On Passing

Browsing podcasts via iTunes
Browsing podcasts via iTunes

I listen to a lot of podcasts.  A lot of podcasts.  I’m subscribed to over 20 different ones currently and am far, far behind on listening to many of them.  Though I tend to listen to NPR through this “time-shifted” mechanism, it’s also how I keep up on video games.  Incidentally, long before the concept of a “podcast” entered our collective consciousness, those involved in the tech industry saw these recordings as a great way to engage with their communities in a way that writing articles simply didn’t: put all of your authors in a room to talk about stuff that happened in that week, so if people want to listen to your content instead of read it, then they can.  As gamers tend to be technologically oriented, it makes sense that podcasts centered on video games sprung up like weeds long before any others did.

When I was first jumping back into video games, circa 2004-2005, Drunken Gamers Radio was one of the first ones I gravitated toward.  It was great listening to three best friends up in Minneapolis talking about games in a very “real” sense.  They weren’t people in the industry: they just had a hobby and wanted to record the stuff they talked about.  And it was hilarious.  Over the years as the three grew older, had families, and had less time to devote to gaming, the show branched out talking about cooking, brewing, movies, music, and more.  But it was always fun just listening to three friends talk about whatever they wanted to talk about.  You felt as if you had known them for years.  That you went to high school together and were just hanging out on their back patio.  They’ve been recording these podcasts for over 7 years now.

Another favorite is the Giant Bombcast, hosted by Giant Bomb.com.  This one is more of a “traditional video game podcast” in that 5 video game journalists talk about what they played that week, recent news items, and answer e-mails from fans.  Their cast of characters changed from time to time, but the core group has stayed the same for over 380 episodes.  Again, similarly to DGR, listening to them for weeks (and years) on end makes it seem like you know them.  They aren’t just “putting on a show” for people to listen to, or playing a role for the microphone: this is them talking about their favorite hobbies.  The listener feels like they could be friends with any member of the cast.

2013 brought profound loss to both institutions.  In July, about a week after his wedding, Giant Bomb’s Ryan Davis died.  Though the cause of death was never officially explained to the fans, it is thought he lost his long-term battle with sleep apnea.  He was 34.  Then, in last October, Aaron Hilden from DGR died after complications from diabetes.  He was also in his mid-30s.  Both of them died suddenly and it was a great shock to both communities.

In the intervening months, Giant Bomb bounced back.  Though Ryan was very much the “soul” of that podcast, the other members held strong and moved forward.  It took them a few weeks to find their footing, and it still isn’t the same as it used to be, but the podcast lives and is still great.  DGR, on the other hand, just recently posted its most recent (and likely final) podcast.  This was a trio that began in college.  It wasn’t a work relationship: these guys were best friends.  The podcast always worked best when firing on all three cylinders, and the loss of one is crippling.  This is further complicated by the fact that Hilden ran the show, including audio recording, production and editing.  The other two can only do so much to replicate what Hilden did for them.

Hearing their most recent podcast has reminded me of my feelings after hearing the news.  Sure, both of these guys were “just podcasters” for a hobby that many don’t partake in (though many do…).  But you can’t help but share in their loss.  I could compare it to when Cory Monteith from “Glee” died suddenly earlier this year and how millions took his loss, but I view it differently.  Monteith played a character on television and that character is all I knew of him.  That is to say, it’s easier to mourn “Finn Hudson” than it is Cory Monteith.  I’m personally just too separated from the real person.

But Ryan Davis and Aaron Hilden?  That was them.  They were real people.  And I “knew” their friends and colleagues.  I read the outpouring of e-mails, posts and tweets after they passed and it was clear just how much they affected the lives of those around them.  I may as well have been at the funeral of someone I actually knew.

These are two gentlemen I will (and already do) miss.  I never met them and likely never would have.  But they touched a lot of lives in a way that I don’t think either of them fully appreciated.

Rest in peace, guys.

My New Friend, The Chromecast

My new friend...
My new friend…

Last week, Google had a few announcements, mostly some hardware (Nexus 7) and software (Android 4.3) refreshes.  But the “…and one more thing…” from this particular session was a new device called the Google Chromecast.

In short, it is only slightly bigger than your typical USB memory stick, but instead of USB, it uses HDMI (the interface your cable box uses to connect to your television).  Instead of a memory stick, it’s a mini receiver that is capable of taking instruction from Android and iOS devices, along with the Google Chrome browser.  From your phone (or tablet), you can open up Netflix or YouTube, find the content you’re interested in, then click the “Cast” button to send that video feed to your television.  After that, the Chromecast maintains the connection and you can use your phone (or tablet) for whatever you want.  You can even leave the room, or the house, and the connection will be maintained.

To be fair, while this is a neat feature, it isn’t necessarily “revolutionary,” at least, so far as I’m concerned.  I mean, my PS3, my Wii and my toaster can play Netflix at this point.  Why’s this device so useful?

Hulu.

We use Hulu quite a bit to watch various shows, but it requires you watch it on a laptop or desktop.  Any web browser that’s built-in to a PS3 or Wii is blocked from displaying the content.  What’s worse is that Hulu actually has a TV-targeted solution in Hulu Plus, but for some crazy reason, the shows that you find on regular, web-based Hulu aren’t available on the paid Hulu Plus service.  They’ll tell you it’s because of content deals with producers who want to keep that content off televisions (unless you’re using cable to view it), but that’s increasingly becoming a ridiculous argument as more and more people cut the cord and focus on internet-only solutions.

Anyway, back to the Chromecast.  This thing allows you to take a Chrome browser tab and transfer it to the Chromecast.  This means that, so far as Hulu is concerned, you’re still using a bog-standard Chrome browser while you’re watching, and it doesn’t realize you’re using a television to do it.  Genius.

And it totally works.  You need a reasonably decent computer to do it (my Chromebook is capable, but needs to have video quality scaled down a bit), but it totally works.

Overall, the Chromecast has been reviewed quite positively, largely because it works pretty well (with a few quirks), but also because it’s cheaper than alternative solutions.  The device sells for $35, though I got in on a promotion (that lasted less than 24 hrs…) where each purchase got you 3 months of Netflix streaming, even for existing subscribers (a $24 value, bringing my cost down to $11).

Hopefully other Android apps will gain functionality (Google Music also works, but I don’t tend to listen to music through my TV very often…), but seriously, $11 (or even $35) is worth it to get Hulu onto my TV.  Brooke appreciates it as well, as we’ll have a newborn in a few months and watching our shows on my PC in the dining room isn’t the most comfortable of options.  Getting to sit on a couch in the living room is a much better solution.

It’s pretty cool and I’m glad it works.  I’m sure I’ll have more to report on later, but for now, if you have any interested in getting web-based content beamed to your television, this is arguably the most cost-effective option available).

Classic “Trek” vs New “Trek”

Who to choose, who to choose...
Who to choose, who to choose…

Prior to watching Star Trek Into Darkness last week (and loving it…), I checked out a few reviews and noted a common theme:

I couldn’t help feeling let down. Not because J.J. Abrams and his writers have ignored what “Star Trek” fans want. It’s that they’ve pandered to it to such a degree that it feels less like fan appreciation and more like base-covering pragmatism.  — Rob Thomas, Capital Times

Jettisoning the franchise’s optimistic, socially aware sci-fi, not to mention character development or a logical plot, Darkness turns out to be any Vulcan’s worst nightmare: Team America: World Police with Tribbles. — Graham Killeen, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel

Granted, these folks are in the minority, compared with what generally every other critic thinks is a wonderful movie (that, and many of those making this claim aren’t exactly “big name” national critics…).  But they get at a question that’s been asked of the recent movies since their inception:

“Is J.J. Abrams‘ ‘Star Trek’ still ‘Star Trek?'”

There are a lot of people complaining on the internet that these last two movies aren’t “Star Trek” enough and miss what made the franchise great: great story-telling, a sense of exploration and wonder, attention to morality and social justice, and a sense of hope for the future.  A “Wagon Train To The Stars,” if you will.  Their contention is that these last two movies have very little of that, instead focusing on huge action set-pieces, snappy dialog, and a willful ignorance of the things that made “Star Trek” popular in the first place.

To these people, I’d simply like to ask what Star Trek movies they’ve been watching?

By my count, only three of the movies (Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country and Star Trek: Insurrection) actually dealt with anything akin to social justice or political upheaval.  The other seven movies had a clear villain (or “thing,” in the case of Star Trek: The Motion Picture) that the crew of the Enterprise was fighting against.  And why is that?  Because in order to make a spectacular science fiction movie in the 21st Century that brings in plenty of movie-goers and actually turns a meaningful profit, you have to make it an action movie.  The actors they recruited for these last two movies are wonderful and play their parts well, but they aren’t cheap.  Paramount would never make their money back on the actors and relatively minor effects needed to make a modern science fiction film if they did a traditional, “classic,” movie where Kirk and Spock are transported back to the 1930s and have to let a woman die so that the United States enters WWII as history dictates.

What these reviewers, and others on the internet, are complaining about is movie “Star Trek” versus television “Star Trek,” and these are two separate things.  Even the movies that feature some kind of social commentary (Undiscovered Country and Insurrection) still have more action than they’ve got “classic ‘Trek'” elements.  Voyage Home is probably the only movie in the franchise that’s even close to aping the core of the television franchise: the combination of a new life form, environmental justice, and character drama, along with a few small action scenes.

These movies, Star Trek and Star Trek Into Darkness, should be viewed in comparison with the other movies in the franchise, not the television show(s) that spawned their existence.  In the appropriate context, these movies are utterly spectacular, and among the best of the 12 films.

When J. J. Abrams starts making a Star Trek television series, then reviewers and The Internet can complain about the lack of Roddenberry-esque social commentary.  Unfortunately, the big budget blockbuster requires more “whiz bang” than the traditional Star Trek fan prefers.  Thus, that fan must wait for the next series to start, or should go back and watch the 5 series of TV shows over again to get their fix.

Science Fiction and Science Fact

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Brooke picked up “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” in e-format from the library a few weeks ago, and as it’s a book I’d heard of and had some interest in, I joined her in reading it. Overall, it was a fascinating tale of how a black woman named Henrietta Lacks in the American South of the early-1950s died of cervical cancer, but samples of her cancerous cells survived in a dish (now known as HeLa cells), paving the way for not only the modern technique of cell culture, but also the discoveries that would develop the polio vaccine, new cancer treatments, and unlock many secrets of genetics.

While the book covers the science in a comprehensive, yet very readable manner, it also tells the reader of what happened to Henrietta’s family in the aftermath of her death, and the fact that they not only had no knowledge of the fact that Henrietta’s cells were being used in research, but they also received no compensation whatsoever for the discoveries that came from it.  When the family eventually discovered what had been happening with HeLa cells over the previous 20 years (seriously…20 years after her death, the family found out…), they didn’t understand what was going on, partially because researchers didn’t take the time to explain it to them, but also because many of them never completed high school, let alone took a single biology class.

This passage jumped out at me:

Deborah realized these movies were fiction, but for her the line between sci-fi and reality had blurred years earlier, when her father got that first call saying Henrietta’s cells were still alive.  Deborah knew her mother’s cells had grown like the Blob until there were so many of them they could wrap around the Earth several times.  It sounded crazy, but it was true.

“You just never know,” Deborah said, fishing two more articles from the pile and handing them to me.  One was called HUMAN, PLANT CELLS FUSED: WALKING CARROTS NEXT?  The other was MAN-ANIMAL CELLS BRED IN LAB.  Both were about her mother’s cells, and neither was science fiction.

“I don’t know what they did,” Deborah said, “but it all sound like ‘Jurassic Park’ to me.”

This conversation took place in the early-2000s, though Deborah, Henrietta’s youngest daughter, had been reading articles like the ones mentioned for decades, especially in the early years before the media and society really could grasp the power and utility of cell culture.  Sure, researchers were making “hybrids,” but what exactly did that mean?  The articles were sensationalistic, rarely providing enough background information to explain the meaning behind what researchers were doing (i.e. not making “man-animals”…).

But a lot of it goes back to the lack of education.  The Lacks family simply could not understand what was happening with Henrietta’s cells because they barely had a concept of what a ‘cell’ was, let along the technologies and diseases HeLa cells could (or did) help cure.  Heck, I remember trying to explain my graduate work to my 90+ year old grandmother (who possibly never took a biology class, and even if she did, it was in the early-1930s…), and that was extremely difficult.  It’s not that she wasn’t intelligent: she just didn’t have the background knowledge to understand much of what I was telling her.

As scientists, I think many of us expect that society, as a whole, has a basic understanding of how the world around them functions, but I have to wonder if society understands less than we think.  We expect that people over the age of 50 have taken a biology class before, but forget that biology has come a long way since they took those classes in the 1970s (when cell culture was still in its infancy).  We further don’t recognize that many of our aging population (i.e. people older than 60) haven’t had a biology class since the 1960s or earlier, if they took a ‘biology class’ at all.  And these are the people that we’re marketing countless drugs to during the commercial breaks from the evening news.

We need to get better at recognizing that “science” moves faster than society’s understanding of it. Perhaps this is why researchers have a tough time getting the concepts of “global climate change,” “evolution” and “childhood vaccination” across to certain segments of the population.  If they had the scientific background (or the will to learn more on the subject from primary literature, rather than silly blogs like this one), perhaps our society could move forward on many fronts, whether environmental, sociological or spiritual.

Though it’s important for scientists to communicate more effectively, it’s also incumbent upon society to start listening.  Otherwise, we are all doomed to repeat the failures presented in the book.  It’s definitely worth a read.

Tech Update: Samsung Chromebook (2012)

Samsung Chromebook (2012)
Samsung Chromebook (2012)

So, I mentioned that Meg has something of a “fondness” for our Kindle Fire HD 8.9, mostly just for watching TV shows.  As a result, my tablet has been somewhat co-opted in favor of my toddler on most weekends, when I’d like to sit on the couch and catch up on my online reading from the previous few days.  Compound this with the fact that tablets don’t have keyboards, so when traveling, I don’t generally have anything I can type a lengthy e-mail with (unless I borrow a nearby computer, which is sometimes a viable option).

Now, I gave up laptops after my last one failed, mostly because I don’t really need one anymore (especially for gaming), and because they are made obsolete within a few short months, despite spending $1000 on a reasonably decent one that should comfortably last you a few years.  We’ve still got Brooke’s Dell Mini 10 netbook, but as it was somewhat underpowered the day we bought it nearly 4 years ago, it wasn’t my first choice of solutions.

Enter the Google Chromebook.  These are cheap, netbook-type laptops that don’t run Windows, but instead run a modified version of Gentoo Linux called “Chrome OS.”  Essentially, it’s an operating system that functions almost exclusively in a web browser.  Actually, the first iterations of the operating system were literally just the Google Chrome browser and nothing else: no file manager, no storage on the hard drive, no nothing.

The strategy behind Chrome OS and Chromebooks at large are to provide a low-cost solution to consumers to drive people closer and closer to “living in the cloud,” where they do their typing in Google Docs, they store their photos on Google+, they send their e-mail with Gmail, they use the Chrome browser, they play games in that browser, and they use Google Music to store and play their MP3s.

It’s the idea where just about everything they do is inside a web browser, and for many people, that’s just fine.  A lot of people buy a nice laptop and only use it to check Facebook and Pinterest, never needing to install heavy photo editing software, play graphics-intensive games, or run AutoCAD.  They may have the occasional document to write, but don’t need macros or anything more complicated than double-spacing and bold text.

And for these people, a Chromebook is just fine.  Best of all, as it’s a browser-running-on-Linux, it’s virtually virus immune and all updates come down automatically in the background.  As it runs Chrome, if you take advantage of its Cloud Sync functionality, everything gets synced between computers and browsers, so if you lose or break your Chromebook, you just log in to a new one and it’s set up identically to your old one.

The Samsung Chromebook that I picked up a few weeks ago has a 11.6″ screen, a full-size keyboard, a few USB ports, an SD card port, and HDMI out (if you wanted to have an external monitor or send it to your television).  The difference is that it runs an ARM-based processor (as opposed to an Intel or AMD processor like your PC or Mac has), which is similar to the processors running your cell phones.  This particular Chromebook has a 16 GB SSD, as well.  The combination of the SSD and ARM chip means there are zero fans in the device, allowing it to be crazy thin, crazy quiet, and crazy efficient (about 6.5 hrs of battery life).

And the price for this thing?  $250.  To be fair, I got it cheaper than that, but I think it’s worth the $250 asking price.

The big key is to think about what you need/want a laptop for.  This thing doesn’t run Windows, so if you want to use Microsoft Word, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Adobe Photoshop, you’re out of luck.  If you want to install Steam and a copy of Age of Empires II, you’re out of luck.  But, if you live mostly in a browser for most things you do and you’re already tightly integrated with Google services (i.e. you use Android smartphones, like we do), then it makes perfect sense and serves as a great laptop.  I’m pretty happy with it thus far, and have had a good time finding alternatives to programs I use routinely that function within a web browser.  For example, Pixlr is a photo editing tool based on The Gimp that has many of the same functions of Photoshop.  Let that sink in: a Photoshop-capable alternative running in a web browser.  Nuts.

So, overall, I’m a big fan so far.  It isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it does all that I need it to and then some.  It’s well worth it if you don’t need anything “over-capable” and you do most things in a web browser.

Tech Update: Kindle Fire HD 8.9

Kindle Fire HD 8.9
Kindle Fire HD 8.9

As our first tablet, we picked up a first-gen Kindle Fire in the Fall of 2011, a 7″ color Android-based device that was tightly integrated into Amazon’s app ecosystem and Amazon’s world of content, including movies, music and books.  Generally speaking, we were pretty happy with the device, as it had a nice screen, had a more portable size than an iPad, and worked well with games, Netflix, and other stuff.  Oh, and it was incredibly cheap (the first “real” tablet for $200).

One thing the 7″ Kindle Fire didn’t do well, though, was web-browsing.  Granted, browsing websites on a 4″ phone screen isn’t very pleasant either, but a 7″ screen is even more awkward, as apps and web pages aren’t set up well for the 7″ form-factor.  There are “mobile” web pages that are designed for small screens (e.g. ~4″ phone screens), and then there’s the full-size pages that look good on regular computer screens.  But on a 7″ screen, it just looks silly.  The sizes of links and text are heavily distorted.

Well, Amazon heard my cries and updated their tablet by creating two new versions: the Kindle Fire HD (still 7″, but with a higher resolution screen) and the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 (a slightly faster tablet, but more importantly, with an 8.9″ screen).  The new device has a bigger hard drive, faster processor, a front-facing camera, better speakers, and the aforementioned larger screen.  And, believe you me, it’s gorgeous (1920×1200 resolution).  Web browsing still isn’t as good as using a mouse and keyboard, but it’s much improved now that regular web pages look properly (with a higher resolution than my PC’s 1080p monitor).

The other features of the tablet are pretty nice too, including the camera, the impressive speakers (for a device this size…), and an improved interface that Meg can navigate to find Dora and Blue’s Clues videos.  It still only has WiFi, though Amazon offers a 4G LTE version that offers 200 MB of data per month for $50 a year (which is a steal).

I mentioned earlier that the Kindle Fire HD uses Amazon’s proprietary appstore, which is generally useful and gives you free stuff, but doesn’t give you access to regular Google-specific Android apps like Gmail, Google Calendar and Google+.  You can use their alternative apps that link to the various Google services, but it isn’t the same and they aren’t as good.  I can live without them, but it’s a consideration when comparing this device and other Android tablets.

One other complaint is the use of Skype for video chat.  We tried this with my parents a few times, but for some reason, I can’t get the speakers to generate enough volume.  The speakers can get really loud if you’re listening to music, but for some strange reason, Skype doesn’t seem to amplify the volume like any other program on the device.  It’s usable, but not as good as on other devices.

Finally, it took me a bit to figure out charging with the thing.  The old Kindle Fire came with a charger and AC adapter, but the new HD versions only come with a USB cable and you have to buy the “faster charger” for $20 extra.  I tried charging it with USB and, left overnight, I think it only gained about 20%.  Even using our phone chargers plugged into the wall, it still wouldn’t work properly.  It turns out the Kindle Fire HD 8.9 requires a 1.8 A charger, rather than the typical 1 A chargers that come with cell phones.  Once I found one (from Amazon…), it charged quite quickly.  Considering they don’t really include an instruction manual in the box, it would have been nice to have them be a bit more explicit on this front, but oh well.

For the money, it was a good deal and I’ve been happy with the purchase.  I like reading on it (some people don’t like reading on larger tablets and prefer the 7″ size and, to some extent, I agree…but it’s alright for my purposes…), it plays some games and it is great to have around for when Meg wants to watch something that I don’t want to watch.  We take it upstairs every night so Meg can watch the last 5 min of one of her shows as she lays in bed.

That alone makes it worth it. :-)

Tech Update: HTC One X

HTC One X
HTC One X

I haven’t been writing all that much recently, and as I’ve picked up a few “toys” in the last 6 months, I thought it would be useful to write a bit about my experiences with each one.  I’ll separate all these out into different posts, so you’ve got more to look forward to (hah!).

Brooke and I were both up for new cell phones last November and we had a few options available, but as we both had HTC phones previously and were generally happy with them, the HTC One X was the device of choice for both of us (Brooke got the black one, I got the white one).  Compared to my 2+ year old HTC Inspire 4G, this thing is a revelation, though compared with Brooke’s HTC Aria, it’s surely unbelievable.  I was used to a semi-large screen size, jumping from 4.3″ on my Inspire to 4.7″ on the One X, but Brooke’s jump from 3.2″ to 4.7″ was a bigger adjustment.

The screen’s unbelievable.  Seriously, there are times where I’d rather look at pictures on the phone than on a computer screen.  The rest of the hardware is pretty nice too, including the speakers and the camera.  One problem both our phones had was with the SIM card slot, where the device would conveniently forget it had a SIM card installed and wouldn’t let you make a call until you restarted the phone.  Thankfully, the phone reboots very quickly, as compared with our own phones, but it was still a pain.  It started happening a month or two into owning them, but once we got the cards replaced at a local AT&T store, we didn’t have the issue anymore.

Another complaint from my perspective (that is to say, Brooke didn’t care about this…) is more on the AT&T side than the HTC side.  The phone shipped with Android 4.0 (“Ice Cream Sandwich”), which was a newer version than my older phone (Android 2.3, or “Gingerbread”).  In some ways, this was like the difference between Windows 95 and Windows XP: a noticeable jump to a very stable, better operating system for a mobile device.  At the time we got the phones in November, we knew that Android 4.1 (“Jelly Bean”) was coming out for the HTC One X in the near future (as in, like, a week later).  However, just because HTC released the update didn’t mean AT&T would actually deliver the update to our phones in a timely manner.  We finally got the update on March 7th, a full 3 months after it was made available, and at least 2 months after other carriers made it available for the same device.  Very frustrating.  This update was akin to the jump between Windows XP and Windows 7: Android ICS worked well, but Android JB was available  faster, more efficient, and with additional features, like Google Now (Google’s “Siri” competitor).  Believe you me, the update was worth it: Jelly Bean is great.

In the end, I think we’re both very happy with the phones.  Any niggling issues we have probably wouldn’t be solved by other devices and, to be honest, the features announced on the newest phones for this year (the HTC One and the Samsung Galaxy S4) don’t appear to be that drastic of an improvement.  This is good, though, so I’m not as ancy for a new phone once I see the new hottness floating around in other hands.

Because of the update issue I had with AT&T, there’s a strong possibility I’ll go with something like the Nexus 4 next time I get a new phone.  Google sells “Nexus phones” directly through their site and they work with AT&T and T-Mobile networks.  They are usually around $300 (so, more expensive than the “on-contract” phones from AT&T, yet cheaper in the long run as you can jump carriers without paying penalties), but they get Android updates on-time and are not pre-installed with software from AT&T or other carriers.  Much more “free and open” and easier to work with, depending on what you want to do.  By the time I’m ready to upgrade my One X, there’ll be a new Nexus phone out (perhaps two iterations by then…a new one is to be announced in May…) and I’ll give it a serious look.

Still, the HTC One X is a good phone.  I wish more people would use HTC devices, as they’re well designed and a pleasure to use (when the SIM card functions…).  Samsung shouldn’t have a monopoly on Android phones, but their marketing is clearly working.  Hopefully HTC survives another year and can keep making good stuff.  If they do, I’ll give ’em a look next time around.

#firstworldproblems

Here's the replacement...
Here’s the replacement…

A few weeks ago, on a Thursday night, I was playing XCOM on my Windows box.  Everything was running smoothly, no problems.  On Friday, I got home and turned on the computer to listen to some music and, for some odd reason, the hard drive wasn’t detected.  As in, the hard drive containing the Windows OS wasn’t even there, so far as the system was concerned.

Thankfully, I only stored Windows and some replaceable programs on the drive that failed (an SSD), and my pictures, music, and videos were all stored on a separate hard drive (a traditional HDD).  Typically when one uses an SSD (or “solid state drive”), you only run programs on it as they can take advantage of the speeds afforded by SSD technology, while slower traditional hard drives (“HDD”) are just fine for other stuff.  So really, all I lost in the drive failure were a few programs (that I could re-install) and some game save files (or so I thought…).

Also, thankfully, the drive was still under warranty.  I’ve had it for less than a year, so I contacted the manufacturer, sent the drive in (last Tuesday) and got the replacement (last Saturday), which is a pretty quick turn-around.  On Saturday, I spent my time re-installing the drive and getting some of those programs back on, but this time, I installed Windows 8 rather than Windows 7 (hey, if I’ve got to re-install everything, I may as well try out the new hottness, right?).  Microsoft is trying to get everyone to upgrade, so they’ve had it on sale for $40, which is a pretty good deal compared with the regular price of $120 (which Win8 will return to after January 31st).  I may write more about Windows 8 later but, for now, it’s “alright.”  My mind isn’t blown.  If you’ve got Windows 7, you’re fine sticking with 7, but 8 isn’t horrible (and it boots really fast).

I mentioned that I lost a few game save files, and this was the worst part of the experience.  I’d put about 9 hours of time into XCOM since picking it up months ago, so I wasn’t looking forward to having to repeat the lost time.  Also thankfully, the program I use to manage the game (Steambacked the save files up to “the cloud,” meaning that once I re-installed the program, my save files were also re-downloaded and restored.

In the end, I lost nothing except for a week of using my Windows-based computer.  All in all, not a bad deal.  And we had the Linux box (that this site runs on…) to use in the meantime.

As a side-note, having no Windows PC to use, and thus, no computer to run iTunes, I couldn’t update my iPod for listening to podcasts during that week.  Instead, I relied upon my cell phone (an HTC One X) for downloading new podcasts and music.  To be honest, I kinda don’t want to go back to the iPod.  I’ve gotten used to downloading podcasts and music immediately from work (or wherever), rather than waiting to go home, turn on the Windows PC, download the podcast or music to the computer, then transfer it to the iPod: it’s much easier to just do it directly.

Unfortunately, I don’t have a way to use my phone in my car, except for relying on the phone’s speakers (which aren’t really loud enough).

Oh well.

#firstworldproblems

A Few Changes

WordPress released updated software today, so in setting it up, I opted to mess with the new default theme and new image features.  Specifically, the ability to add galleries like…well…this one!

Anyway, as usual when I do silly things like this, I’ll probably change a few things around aesthetically before I settle on something I’m happy with.  For now, this is what you get.  So far, I’m pretty happy with all the options within the default theme (being used currently) and am pretty impressed with now nice images look within the galleries.  Also, the site should work pretty well on cell phones and tablets now.

Neat stuff!

The Walking Dead

I usually reserve the month of October to partake in some “scary movies,” but this month has been a bit busier than usual with me being out of town for a conference and the Cardinals being in the playoffs.  As they so spectacularly collapsed at the end of the NLCS, I’ve got a bit more time to catch up on movies I’ve been waiting to watch…

However, I did find the time to watch the second season of “The Walking Dead,” as it appeared on Netflix a few weeks ago.  The third season has just started on AMC.

The reason I find this concept so fascinating is perfectly encapsulated in the tagline to the third season: “Fight the dead.  Fear the living.”  The story of The Walking Dead is essentially the same one that’s been told for decades in other zombie movies: an unexplained infection causes the dead to start walking, eating the flesh of the living, leaving a limited number of survivors to fend for themselves.  The distinction with this particular story is that much of the focus is on the survivors, not on the zombies.  Indeed, there are lengthy portions of the show (as in, 40 out of 50 minutes) that don’t involve zombies at all: the story focuses on whether the survivors can work together, whether they support each other, or whether they are willing to sacrifice another human in order to save themselves from “the walkers.”

“The Walking Dead” actually began as a comic book in 2003, written by Robert Kirkman.  I have never read the comic, though it continues to this day with over 100 issues.  It seems like many transitions from comics to other mediums, be it video games or movies, suffer because the interpretation by the new producer does not translate the original intentions of the author.  It took decades before Marvel and DC took a long, hard look at how their material was being portrayed in other mediums and actually put the effort into ensuring their properties were represented in the spirit they originally intended (think the difference between Adam West’sBatman” series versus Christopher Nolan’sBatman Begins“).

In “The Walking Dead,” Robert Kirkman is an Executive Producer, giving him some say in how the story is portrayed and how the feel of the comic is translated into a television format.  The series was developed by Frank Darabont, best known for his work directing “The Shawshank Redemption” and “The Green Mile,” both of which also set in the deep south, much like “The Walking Dead” (which is filmed in Georgia).

Alongside the TV series, I have been playing “The Walking Dead” adventure game.  An “adventure game” is a bit different from many other traditional games in that it’s more focused on story and less on action.  There’s absolutely “action” at points, and “quick response”-kinds of reactions, but much of the game is like the TV show: conversations with other characters where you choose what to say and who to say it to.  In some instances, you can make a friend or make an enemy, and the words you choose, or the people you choose to save (you are frequently given a choice between one survivor and another: you can’t always save both) affects the course of the story.

This game is released “episodically,” so each episode is released every month or two and lasts about 3 hours.  Four episodes have been released so far, with the fifth and final episode releasing next month.  This story is completely new, not coming from the comics or TV show, but is still set in the same world with the same themes.  In that way, it’s nice because it doesn’t try to re-tell a story you already know (thus affecting your decisions as you play the game), but also introducing new characters and new problems in the same world.  The critical reception has been pretty spectacular.

So that’s “The Walking Dead.”  It’s a fascinating world to interact with, though definitely gruesome and violent.  But if you go into it wanting to experience the relationships between survivors that just happen to be fighting a zombie apocalypse, there’s a lot of enjoyment to be had.  The first season is 6 episodes long and the second season has 13 episodes, both of which are available via Netflix Instant.