Computers

Microsoft's Surface tablet, a big throwdown to all the other tablet makers out there. (Credit: http://www.engadget.com)

Surface Tension

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Microsoft’s Surface tablet, a big throwdown to all the other tablet makers out there. (Credit: http://www.engadget.com)

Oh man, Microsoft really threw down the gauntlet yesterday, didn’t they? I sort of feel like any of those scenes from “You Got Served”¬†where someone pulled off a really awesome dance move and the crowd was like “damnnnnnnn”, and, and….wait, why are you giving me that funny look? C’mon, it was an underappreciated movie of 2004 about street dance culture! A sleeper hit! No? Oh well.

Back to the topic at hand – yes, Microsoft’s new Surface tablet was a bit of a callout of sorts to the rest of the people who make tablets – and not just one named after a piece of fruit either. HP, Sony, Samsung, and a ton of other OEM partners of Microsoft’s, along with competitor Apple, have to be at least a tiny bit miffed that the software giant decided to take a step into the hardware sandbox with a sleek new toy. Now, don’t get me wrong – the slim size, options for power, and things like the really neato color and keyboard options are selling points, and the press who were invited seemed impressed if not at least a little intrigued at the prospect.

But the undercurrent of most of what I read yesterday is a bit of concern, perhaps even cynicism, at MIcrosoft’s (semi) secretive and very last minute reveal to try to take a bite out of the portable market on multiple fronts. The pro model, for example, is slated to be “priced to compete” with comparative Ultrabooks while the RT model goes after the ARM-based tablet market. So here we have tension between hardware partners, software competitors, and anyone inbetween looking to make a buck integrating into platforms (hello Netflix, I noticed you were mentioned).

I dunno – I sort of think this kind of tension, this cannonballing into the pool rather than sticking a toe or a foot to wade in it is a great thing. I’ve said it lots of times, but I really do support the idea of encouraging competition through innovation and smart product integration/improvement. It has worked to success in games, in business models, and of course in this case, through technology.

Remember in 2001 when we were sitting there trying to figure out a good model for acquiring, storing, and enjoying our extensive, yet perhaps not-so-legally-gotten collections of MP3′s? A small set of companies, led in part by Creative and Yamaha, among others, made these tentative attempts to try to make hardware mp3 players, while companies like Napster struggled with the RIAA to provide a way for MP3′s to make it into the user space. Then came Apple’s iPod, which boasted a different take on interfacing with an MP3 player and came armed with iTunes to eventually help bring music home legitimately. These are the kinds of splashes and tension creators that change an industry, a technology, and a way of thinking.

That’s the kind of thing the Surface is trying to do. I mean, sure, these days we see grandiose slides of lofty technical innovations and somewhat insular videos set to semi-catchy dubstep, and the first reaction is to be cynical – after tweeting something smarmy (or in Microsoft exec Steve Ballmer’s case, hilariously awesome) of course. But I have to say, we should give this one a chance to see if it pans out. It’s unclear whether the vague availability or price point, when revealed, will spell failure or success for the Surface, or whether its interface and applications can stand the test of consumers. But I do think it was worth doing, worth shaking up a bit of the norm to bring something different, and I’ll be interested to see how things unfold.

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The Reassurance Of The Old-Fashioned Way

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I know I write a ton of articles on how the advancement of geek tech has meant awesome things for our society, and that the Luddites among us need not fear that they will one day wake up to a future where robots will rule the world through mental implants. Those kinds of positive notes are meant to bolster people’s confidence in the new hotness and embrace it rather than fear it.

It’s not a bad thing, however, to have the old-fashioned way of doing things validated once in a while – if for anything else, to keep things firmly grounded in the human. For instance, I’ve had a couple of the supposed cool-as-shit apps that I tend to use on my phone severely fail me in several instances. One of the most common ones is the ones that try to scan in your barcoded rewards and benefits cards so they can be scanned later at the store without lugging them in your wallet. When you buy from a ton of different places like me, you definitely carry a bunch of them. Unfortunately, the only thing you succeed in scanning at the store with one of these is a polished phone screen. Besides, this, I’ve had the “where did I park” apps fail (no, I’m not really in Texas, what the hell), the shopping list notes corrupt (how’d I end up with 10 entries of “Buy Toilet Paper”) and even the occasional dust up with a computer that just won’t retrieve my perfect playthroughs of Command and Conquer.

When these kinds of failures have happened, I’ve resorted to doing things the way I did before I had any of these convenient apps. I write things down, call people on the phone, return to playing my Nintendo. The reassurance and reliability of an older way of doing things still has a place in the fast-moving new media society we’re in – if for nothing else, to remind ourselves that there’s a comfort in getting something done regardless of how you do it. Even if doing things the way they used to be done is treated more as a fallback or an emergency strategy when it comes to today’s technology, it at least shows us there’s more than one way to skin a cat, or in this case, find your parking spot.

Besides, technology, even new technology, sometimes needs to fail or be exposed as weaker to the older way of doing things to make improvements. It’s common knowledge among us geeks that the latest and greatest stays that way because of a constant, iterative process where people find things that are wrong or could be improved upon and then are summarily developed for the next version. If technology was perfect and more convenient than the old way of things all the time, there wouldn’t be room to innovate or create new and better ways to improve on an older methodology. Yes, I know that’s hard to believe when some technologies tend to persist in having failures (I’m looking at you, XBox 360 red-ring owners), but trust me – eventually, they get it right. Can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs, after all.

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Science Fiction’s Future Reality

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The other day I was flipping around videos on YouTube and happened upon the always-funny, never dull Picard song. This, of course, prompted me into an hour or two long tour through some of the best of Star Trek: The Next Generation. And if it weren’t for this post, it wouldn’t have been as productive as I’d liked, either!

As I rolled through some of the best of the best, which included the Enterprise’s encounters with the Borg, the famous Picard Manuever, the Klingon civil war, and many other eps that only geeks would fondly remember, I began to notice the technology used in the series. Tricorders, video calls, artificial intelligence, voice activated computing, and more – all of these were, at the time of TNG’s making, complete fantasy, or at least in their very infancy in reality. Looking at what seemed to be futuristic and amazing for the time, I had to just smile at figuring out which of the stuff from the series has somehow made it into society in some form or another. We do have video calls via Skype, we have a sort of tricorder device in terms of the increasing barcode scanning and wifi/bluetooth technology, we don’t quite have a Data yet but arguably we have computers just as competent as him at running tasks…the list goes on.

Really this is great for science fiction and for geeks because it proves that sci-fi isn’t just the product of someone’s overactive imagination – it’s potentially a template for the future of devices, conveniences, and inventions everywhere. Much of the geek world already knows this, but mostly in the context of past shows like TNG giving way to the opportunity to create the tech of today. Looking to the more recent shows – Stargate, Torchwood, the re-imagined and modern Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, and more – all of these contain seeds of imagination that could lead to a future of more wondrous devices. I’d have to say some of the more fantastical ideas – time travel, space travel, and teleportation – might be a little while off, but anything else might be fair game.

To be honest, not every idea for the future of tech comes from the world of sci-fi. But it is safe to say that science fiction has at least a part or a hand in making those kinds of advancements happen, or inspiring others to help make them a possibility. In that respect, sci-fi and the geekery that goes along with it serve a more practical use than just entertainment. Beyond its peers in the media industry, sci-fi can and will have a place in our society for a long time to come – if for nothing else, to give me that flying car I’ve always wanted to drive.

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…In Which I Most Certainly Do NOT Play Geek Nostradamus

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Before I get started today, a random question…what is with the whole “mysterious hands floating around a crystal ball” thing, anyway? While searching for images to yoink for today’s post there was an eerie similarity in how people handle crystal balls (insert “that’s what she said” joke here). I mean, c’mon people – it’s not like it’s going to burn your hands or face off like the end of an Indiana Jones movie. Ah well.

Anyway, the imagery of a crystal ball is supposed to evoke that age-old tradition of bloggers to make predictions for 2011 or so. You can find a sample of this among the geek bloggers I follow, like Keen, who takes a….well, keen eye to the future of MMOs. Another interesting read is a post from a few weeks ago from Lum/Scott Jennings where he looked back at what he predicted for 2010 in games and saw how accurate it was.

But you’re not going to really find any such posts from me. Don’t worry – I’m not bashing these kinds of posts (that would be negative, and you know how I feel about that), but I also refrain from making them for a few reasons. One of these would be the fact that more than likely, I’d be completely and totally wrong. I’m not really an industry luminary by any means, and my current association within the gaming business is more focused on people and communities rather than on product, per se. As far as the rest of geekery, I’m plugged in but I don’t have an ear to the ground like most people.

This makes any sort of prediction I make about how geek media is going to change (or not) equally likely to be accurate and true. I could tell you that all the slated MMO releases for 2011 will launch with hundreds of thousands of subscribers and it would be as accurate as if I told you World of Warcraft will allow you insta-roll a max level character for money. I could tell you something safe like predicting that games will be played by people, and it might have the same chance of coming true as us discovering that aliens are among us, and they play Call of Duty obsessively as a means of education about earthling behavior. No, I don’t trust my ability to accurately and credibly predict anything, and neither should you.

The other reason why I wouldn’t make such a post is really the fact that it’s A)more fun to discover what happens in geek media on our own and B)geekery is so unpredictable it’s hard to see what they latch onto from year to year. For examples, look no further than recent history, which probably couldn’t predict that a service which allowed you to tell people what you were doing and also cruelly forced you into a 140 character limit would be wildly successful. Or how about the fact that streaming media would begin to encroach (or in the case of poor Blockbuster, kill) on traditional markets of “modern” media consumption. What about how viral media and a familiar term from sci-fi rocketed an alliance of companies into a contender to unseat the iPhone? I’m telling you, sometimes you can’t predict this stuff – especially in the world of geekdom, who have taken on a mantle of not only being hyper-analytical about things but also vulnerable to the next shiny thing that comes along.

Really, though, it’s a testament to geekery that its gadgets and software and games and the like are not easy to predict. It’s a dynamic, flowing, changing segment of consumerism, and it has the backing of industries and workers that have a clear and seemingly limitless path of advancement. With such “sky is the limit” behavior, it’s no wonder that the darlings and surprises of the geek world have appeal just because they come out of left field and impress. In the end, I plan on sitting back and watching to see what will be successful and amazing out of the geek media world in 2011 – and you can be sure I’ll be trying to write about it in my own, sunny, perpetually happy way.

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Geek and Analog = Best “I Quit” Message Ever

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Update 8/11/10: Looks like this was manufactured by thechive.com. ¬†Doesn’t seem like many people care, since it was sincerely funny. Bravo!

Most of the time, trying to mix an analog method with a geek method just doesn’t work at all. Using a pen to draw something on a computer screen? Employing a console controller to play a board game? It’s like oil and water, people.

But every so often, there’s a little neato combination that happens when you mix more traditional analog methods of communication with modernized geekery. Take the girl on the right, for example, whose swan song involved a simple little writeboard combined with digitally emailed photographs. If you want to check out the full post at thechive.com, you can do so. I’ll wait til you get back.

I’m not sure what’s cooler – the fact that a whiteboard was used 33 times for this project, that our girl’s expressions here are priceless, or that her boss is apparently a little too obsessed with Farmville. I do know that even though tech has invaded just about every portion of our life, that there are ways in which geeks can best express themselves through non-techy ways – and in fact that they should be encouraged to do so. I mean, would you rather take the effort to put together a PowerPoint or a slide show that your non-geek friends might have trouble understanding, much less opening, or do something like what this girl did with pretty pictures? I think the latter ensures some memorable moments – and links across the web.

Of course, the secondary lesson to be learned here is that your own geek tools can easily be turned against you. Installing monitoring software is all well and good, but all it takes is someone with just enough technology knowledge to be dangerous to outdo you. If you don’t keep your own nose clean when it comes to using geekery tech, especially where someone can get to it, then maybe you just might be better off with an abacus for a calculator and a stack of paper, envelopes, and stamps for sending mail to folks. At least you won’t get into trouble from random women with whiteboards.

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Email Asplosionz!

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Normally in my life, I’m pretty decent at being organized. I have a productivity system that works, my mind (which gets older by the minute) is for the most part not as forgetful as a goldfish, and I think that with the various things I do I have it fairly under control.

That being said, there’s always one part of someone’s life, no matter how obsessed with sorting they are, where there is a bit of healthy clutter. For me, it’s email. For a geek-obsessive like me, having email is kind of like breathing, and to have it as disorganized and disjointed as I leave it is always a challenge to deal with.

I’d have to say that I have three levels of email clutter at any time:

  • Mail-con 1 – Only 6 or 7 whole pages of mail grace my presence. Advertisements are sort of discarded, personal mails to be replied to are waiting, and it’s relatively easy to find things.
  • Mail-con 2 – 12 to 15 pages of mail are stuffed into my electronic box. Advertisement mails are unread but left in the mailbox for fear of catching the virtual equivalent of cooties. I recall personal mails 3 weeks old that might be helpful to answer but which get buried in a haze of Left 4 Dead play sessions and huge amounts of procrastination
  • Mail-con 3 – “You are using 6985MB of 7000MB allowed”, also known as “ARE YOU BAT SHIT INSANE?!!!!!”

I don’t know what it is exactly, that keeps this part of my geekery so messed up. I know a lot of people and get a ton of notices and updates and mails about them all the time, so that might be part of the reason. Another is the sheer intimidation factor of going through and dealing with mail in general. E-mail, to me, is like walking into a lion’s cage with a whip and a chair – it’s a savage beast with a life of its own and you end up getting your head bitten off if you aren’t careful.

It’s funny, because even though geeks are totally smart and intelligent most of the time, there’s always an irrational portion of them that makes them behave in an odd way. For me, it’s the dread of opening email and it somehow coming to my house and into my bed at night to eat me because I answered and deleted it. Having 1256 emails that could potentially do that to you is a recipe for procrastination and inbox stuffing the likes of which you haven’t seen since a Chicago election.

As always, I like to look on the bright side of this whole situation. I do, after all, seem to have a lot of people who like to mail me. Sure, they want to sell me breast implants with a free laptop if I just give up my bank account information to some random rich person, but hey, mail is mail. Occasionally there’s the fun little gem of replying “I’m doing fine” to a “how are you”, but for the most part, I like to see the mail pile up as a testament to how much I must whore my own address, or my own presence, online.

If you’ve mailed me, don’t worry – I’ll get to you….eventually.

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Droids vs. iPhones = The Best Catfight Ever

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There are a number of topics that I sort of missed out on during my brief hiatus from the blog, so that MMO raiding concept of “months behind” will sort of apply to a lot of my posts in the next few days. Frankly, I like to call it “fashionably late” – especially since optimism is welcome no matter when it enters into the game, right?

Such as it is with the whole Droids vs. iPhones craziness that has been going around lately. The Droid conglomerate, which basically consists of an unholy and more-delicious-than-cupcakes alliance of Motorola, Verizon, and Google, recently came out with its new generation of Droid phones, the Droid X, while Apple and AT&T have touted the new iPhone 4 as the next cellular juggernaut.

If you don’t believe me that this whole technology war has divided the lines pretty sharply among geekery, one need only to go to Engadget or Gizmodo and find any article relating to one or both of the phones. Read the commentary and you’ll be treated to a flurry of arguments and screaming more intense than two people fighting over the last purse at Macy’s. I wouldn’t have it any other way, either.

Why is it that I like to go for a tub of popcorn with extra butter when I see this stuff happening? The main reason is competition is a good thing. For a few years now, the iPhone has been the undisputed champion of cellular phones, which meant that if it had any flaws, they were things that were simply dealt with rather than countered. But with Droid phones on the rise and Droid in general emerging as a legitimate threat to the iPhone’s industry king of the hill title, iPhone developers have been forced to adapt. A silly little antenna flaw in the iPhone 4′s architecture, for example, sparked so much buzz that Steve Jobs himself had to come out to address it. This is because the iPhone actually stands a chance of losing out in the market.

Me? I got caught in the middle, since until recently I was a Blackberry user. I got the Storm, which unfortunately had a technology of typing that I liked but not very many people agreed with (clicking down on the screen was comfortable to me, but not to others). Jilted by many customers, the Storm sort of sat at the sidelines, unable to participate in any kind of cellular catfight. I got a Droid X recently, and while I’m still trying to get over the fact that the red eye that is iconic to it looks like it is going to laser my face off, it’s a decent phone. But I want the iPhone to keep up the good fight. It’ll just make my phone that much better.

Wanton Geek Equipment Destruction

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So let’s start the posting regularity again with a bit of an “oof”:

Geeks like to take things apart. Most of us got started at a young age, whereupon instead of actually enjoying the little toys that we got, we ripped them apart just to see how they worked. Some of you may have peeked inside your Transformers, others of you might have liked to check out your ViewFinder. I had an unfortunate occurrence involving an Etch-a-Sketch and my dad’s hammer. Don’t ask.

Anyway, it’s this piqued curiosity that leads us to greater pastures later on, whether it’s in the technology or gaming field. We learn to not only take things apart but put them back together…and eventually to take them apart again.

That’s why things like the keyboard discus competition above are both hilarious and interesting. When equipment can’t serve you any longer, there’s only one more purpose they can fulfill, and that’s the entertainment that only destroying it can bring. To be perfectly honest, when you see one of your friends cackling and steepling their fingers while they operate the crusher for cardboard boxes, you know they probably enjoy destroying their equipment too.

I think part of why geekery takes glee in destroying these things is mostly because they put a lot of work into maintaining and coddling them day after day. I suppose the years and years of work and effort gives them a bit of a right to let off some steam at the very end in a blaze of computer monitor and keyboard-smashing glory. Where some people might have an unhealthy attachment to their stuff, geeks don’t when it comes time to get rid of it. The speed at which tech moves these days, where the thing you bought today is old and busted tomorrow, makes it much, much easier.

Of course, don’t take my word for it – I’ll just show you the universally classic scene that conveys exactly how we feel about destroying geek things:

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Textual Intercourse

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As a geek, there are certain things that you just inevitably get hooked on. I don’t know what it is, but more than any other subculture, geekery clings to the signature things with which it is associated with the fervor of a giant dog and their favorite chewtoy. MMOs, computer tech, dressing up as one of Sailor Moon’s friends and posing heroically in public – at least one of these is a hallmark of your typical geek.

Now I’ve been pretty fortunate to avoid some of the level of love geeks show their favorite things. I’d like to say that in most cases I’m pretty good at avoiding getting too attached to something. Sadly, though, I find that I’ve become terribly invested in something that probably shouldn’t take up too much of my time, and that’s text messaging.

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not one of those people who text messages at inappropriate intervals, such as driving while also drinking coffee and looking over my powerpoint, or during a funeral when the coffin needs to be carried and I’m a pall bearer. I’m not THAT bad. But I do have to admit I reflexively reach for my smartphone when I feel the familiar buzzing that means that a text message has come in. My other, text-addicted geek friends like to send me messages from restaurants, planes before takeoff, bathrooms, and many other remotely entertaining yet odd places. This is probably part of the problem – text messaging requires at least two to tango, meaning that text addicts feed off of each other, driving up message counters and selling unlimited data plans with aggressive impunity.

But far be it from me to blame others for my being hooked. Last month I sent 1910 individual messages, and I have a feeling that doesn’t count multimedia messaging or messages that got sent outside of my home cellphone provider. I’m probably on pace to send even more this month, and the fact that I’ve increased networking with people who use texting as much as I do doesn’t help. Sadly, as much as I’d like to deny it to my friends and loved ones, I’m probably going to be building muscles in my thumbs I never had.

There are probably bad things about this whole outcome, but I’d like to think that my connection to my texts is a good thing. For those that need to get hold of me no matter where I am, it’s an easy and convenient way to ask me something or send me a nice little note. It’s a low-key way for me to send questions and queries to people who I know can answer questions when I need them the most – whether they be things regarding trademark law, ice cream flavors, and the most disturbing cosplayers ever – only a few topics that I’ve texted about in the last few days. And as long as it doesn’t get too out of control, it’s more polite than taking a phone call, and subjecting people to my Sarah McLaughlin techno remix ringtone (don’t ask). Really, I find that texting is an extension of my geekery, and I suppose that means if I have to take a little ribbing and harassment, that it’s worth it to be more in touch with my techie side.

Besides, how else am I going to be able to tweet to all of you about the biggest, juiciest, and most succulent steak in the world when I’m eating it? You’d want to know about that, right? Right?

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The iPad’s Short Term Curiosity

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So in the midst of all this food writing I did, I sort of missed the fact that Apple’s iPad, the “magical and revolutionary” multi-touch device, came out to excited Apple users everywhere a few days back. Touted as a mobile tool of convenience with the power of iPod Apps, the iPad has caused a bit of a stir these past few days as early adopters fall in love and haters engage in methods of wanton destruction.

Me? I think that even though Apple has made a living out of touting forward-thinking tools that end up having mass appeal, that much of what the iPad has to offer is really short term interest and curiosity. I say this because the iPod and iPhone, two devices whose success speaks for themselves, came out during a time when there was a gap to be filled in their respective communities. We didn’t have a massive, easy, online music store that went along with our mp3 players and we didn’t really have a phone that offered more than just the basics. But the iPad, whose features seem a bit too similar to both tablet PC’s and iPod/iPhone, seems to straddle a market that already has dedicated devices in it.

Not to worry though – this -is- an optimistic blog after all – I can’t think that this isn’t be a good thing. For one, touch devices have had a bit of a success story after initial trepidation. Many of today’s phones, for example, tout touch technology and app strength as a selling point for users wanting to find convenience without too many button presses. Tablet PC’s have seen a bit of a slower uptick in mass appeal. The iPad, even if it tanks after a couple months of initial buzz, will at least drive the market awareness of touch devices as something that is worth pursuing in the mobile arena. Mistakes may be made, but based upon those a good foundation can be built for people who want to take advantage of the technology in the future, when it’s a bit more refined. Someone has to be the trailblazer who dies of dysentery on the way, right? (Go go old school game references)

For now, whether you love the iPad or hate it, take some pleasure in the fact that a lot of people are paying attention to it – even if it’s to see if it handles itself under, well…..pressure:

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