Goodbye Microsoft

After 27 years as a PC user (Commodore and TI before that, with some Apple programming in high school) I’m done. Enough is enough. This is what you’ve driven me to, Microsoft:

2015-08-04 13.50.28Did any of my PCs ever have Snoopy and Woodstock toasting their logo over a campfire? No they did not. When I started up my PCs they did everything but punch me in the face and steal my milk money.

Yeah, I’m keeping a gaming rig on the side, but it’s no longer my work computer. And I hear that once you go Mac, you never go back. My wife is being very kind about the transition (the Mac I’m using for now is hers), and has only reminded me a few times of all the years I spent mocking Macs as toy computers for unserious computer users.

Well, I’m about to be 48, and I aim to be unserious in my impending dotage.

Something happened” indeed.


Pregnancy: A Game About Abortion

What follows is a column I wrote for a technology magazine. I’ve written the same column since about 1996, and it was the first ever rejected. It was also the second to last column I wrote. They didn’t say they were dropping me because of it, and I didn’t press the issue because, honestly, the new editor was a jerk about it (he didn’t even bother telling me I was fired: I had to find out by accident) and I wasn’t interested in continuing any longer. But, as they say in politics, the timing was suspect. 

I’ve left this column as I wrote it so you can see how very mild and balanced it was, with a tone chosen to get a message across to a secular (potentially hostile) audience. I’ve certainly covered political and controversial issues in the same place before, and my previous editors at the magazine liked me to stir things up because it got people engaged. It was not out line considering what I’ve done in the past. I even cued the controversy in the column assuming my editors would back me, just to acknowledge that the subject was more challenging than others I’d tackled, but we’re grownup and can talk about grownup things.

Apparently not.

The game itself was gibberish: moral relativism encapsulated in interactive form. But that wasn’t the issue I was tackling here, because frankly that issue would have been inappropriate for that audience. Although I may be an opinionated so-and-so, I’m also professional with 25 years experience. I don’t pitch pieces about video cards to a Catholic newspaper and I don’t do moral theology for a computer magazine.

What I wanted to get across was that interactive media can tackle serious issues in a personal, potentially powerful way. Pregnancy is not a good example of it. It’s overwrought, morally confused, and poorly constructed. Really, it’s pretty much junk. However, the creator took a chance and made something personal in an unexpected medium, and that deserved some recognition. 

Games as Moral and Political Dialog

Let’s get political for the next five minutes.preg3

I am pro-life, and comprehensively so. I believe that America’s drone war is monstrous, capital punishment is immoral, “enhanced interrogation” is a disgusting euphemism for barbaric acts of torture, and killing another human being is murder, whether or not that human being is inside a mother’s womb or out.

Most people who would agree with the first three things I just wrote would not agree with the last, and many who believe passionately in the last would not accept the first three.

The issues are so fraught and polarizing that I had doubts that Maximum PC would even run this column. We can’t really talk to each other any more: we just kind of talk past each other, conditioned by a poisonous media/political environment that can only grasp binaries and not subtleties, and makes ideology, rather than our shared humanity, the polestar for all controversy.

That’s why I found reactions to a little game called “Pregnancy” kind of fascinating. It’s on Steam for $2, and is a lightly interactive short-story with minimal graphics and a playing time of about 15 minutes.

This is just the kind of game I wrote about in the March issue: small titles that are as personal as a blog post, and take about as long to experience. They use the medium of “games” (very broadly defined) for purposes of personal expression and to explore ideas in a new way.

As a game, “Pregnancy” isn’t particularly good, with bland visuals, some wobbly dialog, and a description of a rape that’s too graphic for the context. You play as the conscience of a 14-year-old girl who was raped and impregnated, experiencing her thoughts and experiences as she wrestles with what to do. You can encourage her in one way or another, but for some really bizarre reason she always chooses the opposite of your council. Tell her about her strength and the preciousness of life, and she has an abortion. Tell her everything is going to be awful and she keeps the baby. The final screen provides an equal number of resources for exploring both the pro-life and the pro-abortion side. The idea is to show that whatever we believe or argue, individuals will make their own choices for their own reasons, but it was a bit of a muddle in the end.

The reactions of some gamers are more interesting than the game itself. I read comments from people offended that the choice was even being offered since OBVIOUSLY you would [insert what commenter thinks you should do here], thus missing the point of making this experience interactive. I also found people angry that a trivial medium like a “game” would be used for such an important issue.

But, of course, that’s exactly what small games should be doing: using new media to discuss fraught issues. I doubt it will change people’s minds in the long run, but using the game format to speak to controversy in a fresh way is exactly what indie developers should be doing.


#NetNeutrality Needs to Be Done The Right Way

I wrote some random thoughts about net neutrality last week, and now my commentary for the National Catholic Register is online. Here’s how it begins:

Net neutrality is the foundation of a free and open Internet, yet implementing it correctly and legally has been a serious challenge.

The idea of net neutrality is simple: An Internet service provider (ISP) has to treat all data equally, neither boosting the performance of some streams nor degrading the speed of others. They can’t create tiers of service in which some sites perform better than others, nor can they block non-criminal sites or discriminate against specific hardware or applications.

Let’s imagine a worst-case scenario: Microsoft buys Comcast. They slow or even block access to Google in order to encourage customers to use Bing. They degrade their users’ experience of Netflix in order to boost their own video-on-demand service. Finally, they begin filtering sites that criticize Microsoft or Comcast in any way.

We are not there yet. We are not even really on our way there. We are, however, feeling some early rumblings about what the Internet could be like without commonsense protections in place, and we need to start looking to a future in which the open Internet is protected.

Read the whole thing.

Should We Be Panicking Over #NetNeutrality Rules?

No. Stop that already! We’re panicking entirely too quickly and too much about everything. Just relax, pour yourself a bourbon, watch some Rockford Files on Netflix, and chill the heck out.ball-419199_640

I wrote an analysis piece for the National Catholic Register about the FCC’s move to implement net neutrality rules which can be read here, before the FCC rules were made public. You can read those rules here if ambien isn’t doing the trick for you.

I’ve done a quick scan of the report and there were no real surprises. There’s going to be a lot of noise about “4oo pages of rules.” Wrong. It’s 8 pages of rules, 80 pages of conservative dissent (some I agree with, some I don’t), and the rest is history, precedent, justification, and the like.

The rules are simple: no paid prioritization, no blocking, no throttling.

I have no problem with any of that in theory. Libertarian-leaning conservatives who say there’s no danger to open internet, and thus no need for net neutrality, are all wet. The providers are functional monopolies for most consumers. The market alone cannot ensure the open internet. Anyone saying it can is engaging in a kind of quasi-religious free market fundamentalism, not rational thought.

However, the seizure of regulatory authority by the FCC, in particular the way they’re going about it, bothers me a lot. I’m far more worried about the ever-expanding power of the alphabet agencies than I am about having to wait for “Archer” to buffer.

For this reason, I have to oppose these regulations, even though I support the general goals of net neutrality. They are doing the right thing in the wrong way. And the way a thing is done matters.

Here’s an excerpt from my Register piece:

There is a line between what is desirable and what is possible within the limits of our government. Where legislators are failing, the FCC is attempting to step in, and in doing so they certainly appear to be exceeding their authority.

The current problem is “paid prioritization.” The internet service providers—represented in the public imagination by widely hated companies such as Comcast and Verizon—want to create tiers of service. This allows them to “throttle” internet speeds for high-bandwidth users. Throttling slows down the flow of data between a service and a user. In order to remove those limits so the data can flow at the highest possible speed, the service would have to pay.

The most obvious is example is Netflix. The popular video streaming service consumes approximately 34% of all internet bandwidth in North America. By comparison, superstore Amazon (which also streams music and movies) accounts for less than 3% of all bandwidth.

Last year, customers who watched Netflix through ISPs such as Comcast or Verizon saw their internet speeds throttled, leading to downgraded video quality, buffering delays, and interrupted service.

Read the whole thing. 

Ars compiled this selection of replies from opponents, which is notable most for 1) wingnuttery, 2) lies, 3) idiocy.

Everything in this statement from US Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) is utter nonsense:

“Ironically, this order will likely do nothing to address the fairness issues raised by Democrats and Internet activists. Rather, under the guise of keeping the Internet ‘free and open’, they simply advocated for an approach that allows Big Brother to step into the shoes of service providers. The government will regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes. If you like your service plan, you will not be able to keep it. The age of ObamaNet is upon us and I hope the government proves better at running a network than a website, but logic would seem to dictate that I not hold my breath.”

I have very real problems with what the FCC is doing, but we won’t address it by engaging in this kind of soundbite-driven, fear-mongering stupidity. Nothing in the rules would allow the government to “regulate rates, create its own fast lanes, control the placement of content, and raise fees and taxes.” The providers would need to be reclassified as utilities for those things to happen, and I can’t see how that could be done short of Congressional action.

The Democrats are attempting a power grab. The Republicans are responding like howling lunatics. Neither side represents the will of the people.

Verbum Bible Software Gets Into High-School Education

MapsandGraphsAnd they’re giving away $5 million in grants to get schools up and running on their new four-year high-school curriculum, called Lumen.

Verbum, the Catholic version of the bestselling Logos Bible Software, has created a program to provide $5 million in grant money to help high schools implement its new religious-education curriculum. The new program called “Lumen” is a four-year series built to connect the classroom textbooks directly to powerful Verbum software, which integrates the Bible, catechisms, original documents, writings of the Church Fathers and many other resources. As Alex Renn, Verbum’s marketing and operations team leader, pointed out, “Rather than trying to digitize a textbook, we are writing it with the expectation that students will have access to a collection of key texts, so vocabulary words are links, and reading assignments open books as well as study tools.”

Read the rest in the National Catholic Register.

The Best Deal In Comics

2015-03-08 12.17.24Before we begin, I have to say that I am a DC Comics man through-and-through, my daughter is a Marvel fan, and my son leans to DC but follows some Marvel. A conversation with my daughter about comics usually goes something like this:

HER: Marvel is so much better than DC.
ME: I can prove that wrong by saying a single word.
HER: Please don’t.
ME: Batman.
HER: I asked you not to do that.

And so on.

That said, Marvel has mopped the floor with DC in two key areas: digital comics and feature films, and with their Marvel Unlimited service they have done something so superawesome that if it was done by DC I might never read a real book again.

The high concept for Marvel Unlimited is very simple: Netflix for comic books.

For $10 a month or $70 a year, you can subscribe to a service that delivers a huge pile of the entire marvel backlist right to your tablet or computer. A real comic costs about $3-$4 now and a digital comic about $2, so if you read 5 comics you’ve broken even.

How huge?2015-03-08 12.17.40

15,000 comics and growing, from Marvel #1 up to about 6 months ago.That includes 1,432 issues of Spider-Man, 1,301 Iron Man, 837 Hulk, 888 Captain America, 882 Thor, 1,528 X-Men, 701 Avengers, 790 Fantastic Four, and on and on.

Yes, there is a delay for new comics. August and September issues seem to be coming online right about now. They’re not giving away the whole store for $10 a month: just a fairly largish chunk of it.

The scans are bright, clean, and easy to navigate, with a full page view and a panel-zoom view. I’m not fond of the panel view because it tends to clip some of the edges, but the full page view is perfectly readable and can be zoomed for greater clarity. You can either read them on WiFi, or store up to 12 for offline reading.

Even more impressive is the way the content is curated and searchable. You can pull up all the issues by any writer or artists, or any character appearance in any comic. If instant access to 241 Steve Ditko comics, 720 Jack Kirby, or 572 by the Romitas doesn’t give you a bit of a thrill, then you’re reading the wrong post. My favorite feature is the “Comic Events” sort, where you can find every issue, in order, involved in certain storylines like House of M, Civil War, and Age of Ultron. This allows you to follow storylines as they snake through the entire shared Marvel universe.

Now if only DC Comics would get in gear and do the same thing…

Download the Marvel Unlimited app for free to see what you think, and subscribe here if you want to try it out.

FORCEdraft: Make Yourself Write!

forceSome writers need to make daily word counts. These may be personal goals or professional assignments, but we have to make with the words whether or not they’re actually floating around in our heads waiting to spill out on the page (virtual or actual). Writer’s block is a luxury those who write for a living can’t afford, but it doesn’t make it any less of a challenge.

The internet is both the blessing and the curse to the writer. Research has never been easier. Reaching out to subjects for interviews, dropping in a few citations and statistics, firming up our grasp of a subject: the internet makes all of this easier.

And it also makes it much much harder. The computer exerts a powerful gravitational pull, and the internet is always there to lure you into a few minutes of email, social media, browsing, grazing, poking, and other fruitless ways to pass the time.

Sometimes, those distractions call for various tools and tricks. I use various timers to slice up my day into productive bits, but the siren song of RSS feeds, Facebook, Twitter, and general webbiness is always singing a sweet tune in my ear. I’ve tried various Google plugins to block services, but I always wind up disabling them after a little while.

FORCEdraft (browser or Windows: free) is stronger medicine. It offers a page to write on and nothing else, and then locks the rest of your computer until a specific goal is met. You can set a time limit or a word limit, and the program will not let you out until you meet it. Even CTRL-ALT-DEL won’t give you let you out. Nothing short of a reboot will end the session.

You can open it in a browser or download an EXE for Windows, but the program works about the same either way.

Even for a text editor (and I prefer working in pure TXT format) it’s a bare-bones program. There’s no spell check, right-click mouse functionality, hotkeys, or menu. There’s no alarm when you hit your limit, and no onscreen timer or word count. You can choose where to save and what to to name the file. A couple of more features would make it a stronger program.

For those who just want a plain text editor, FORCEdraft can also be set to exit whenever you want. There are, however, plenty of better PC text editors and browser editors out there. FORCEdraft does one thing: it makes you write and do nothing else. That may be just the medicine you need to get things done.