Thursday, September 25, 2008

Thanks For Nothing, WaMu

So, here's the thing: I don't make a lot of money. You may have gathered that from the name of the blog, or the statement on my bio, but it bears stating due to the subject of this article. So, I repeat: I don't make a lot of money.

When you are broke, what little money you have is incredibly important. You find little ways to save a few more dollars: you watch for sales and buy food early; you keep what little change you have in a cup or a jar, when it's full you use it to buy food or splurge on a book or DVD.

When you are broke, you can't take chances with your money. That's why Washington Mutual's Free Checking drew me in three years ago. They gave the outward appearance of being customer-oriented -- or at least as customer oriented and banks get. Their rates seemed reasonable, and they even offered some nice, simple savings plans. Granted, the interest wasn't too high, but when you don't have a lot to give, all you want is to feel that you're securely setting aside something for a rainy day.

It's started to pour here, and guess what? Washington Mutual took my money and built a house of cards. I know, my pithy savings are FDIC insured. That's not the point. It's likely I'll have to look for a new bank. Chase is hardly the customer-friendly place WaMu made itself out to be. It's likely that in the coming months, I'll see new fees where none existed before. It's even more likely my nice interest rate of 6.25% will be lost when it comes time to renew my "Success " account.

Why aren't these great businessmen and women able do to something that even someone as low-income and "uneducated" as myself do on a daily basis?

Monday, August 25, 2008

Fixing Digital Downloads

Ah, the internet. In just a decade and a half or so, it has changed so much about the world. Who needs letters when you can e-send them? Who needs photo albums when you can e-share your images? Who needs a radio when you can e-stream "internet radio?"

The internet is slowly allowing us to e-do just about e-anything! Recently, the power of the internet has even allowed us to i-do i-things, because i is better than e. And one of the i-things the internet is bringing to us is i-media: music, movies, and even whole video games can i-download to computers and video game consoles. What a world we live in! Utopia is just a few clicks down the road.

At least, it could be. Leaving the e-nonsense i-aside, digital downloads present great possibilities for the future of media distribution. However, the tubes still have some speed bumps.

Foremost in my mind is this: with things like packaging and distribution largely removed from the cost, where are my savings? Retail games like Warhawk and Half-Life 2 premiered online for the same cost as a boxed copy. As digital data has much lower distribution costs, this simply means the companies make more money off their product. When you consider that the wholesale cost of a game is even lower than retail, it begs the question: Why am I paying the same amount for less? I get no printed instructions, no disc, no case, and if I should decide to remove the software from my hard drive, it is my responsibility to back it up -- if such an action is even allowed.

Meanwhile, for the same price, I can get a nice box, with easy-to-read(though not necessarily easy-to-understand) instructions that I can peruse anywhere at my leisure. I get little bonuses at my local GameStop, like soundtrack CD's and keychains. Downloads do not provide this.

The costs for these items is mere pennies, I know. It's about perceived value: I am getting a nice package when I drive to a local store. Is the nice packaging worth the drive? For me, it is. Furthermore, I can trade in games I'm not playing anymore to help offset the cost of my hobby, which is not insignificant. Downloads take that away, too: no more trade-ins. Publishers love that. It destroys an entire market. This market is all some gamers have. They simply can't afford to buy the latest and greatest at any given time. Some of us save for months to get a console, or set aside tax returns. The lack of trade-in value and discounts will greatly hurt this demographic.

The industry is already becoming rife with silly subscriptions; I won't even entertain the thought of another gamer tax. It's bad enough that I pay for Microsoft's Xbox Live Streaming Advertisement service. I can't fathom how users pay $13 a month for World of Warcraft. One must have broadband to take advantage of these features, as well. And though a broadband connection has a multitude of uses, gaming is one of the driving reasons people pay through the nose for it.

So, in order to have access to downloadable content, you need to be spending $600 a year before you even consider it. Practical internet use notwithstanding, this is a massive barrier to entry. I've already bought a $400 console. Now I need to spend another $600?

Your first year of downloadable content costs a grand before you've even purchased a game. $600 can buy 6 games here in the US!

I'm glad Xbox Live has brought me Braid. I love playing Everyday Shooter, which came care of Sony's PlayStation Network. I absolutely adore Nintendo's Virtual Console. That doesn't mean I can't look at these services objectively.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Just Because the MacBook Air "Isn't for me" Doesn't Mean Isn't A Niche Product

That's a long title, but it's an important point. The MacBook Air, a marvel of engineering, is actually lighter than Apple claims simply because of all the hot air their marketing and PR folks have injected into it.

It's not that its poorly designed or ugly; it isn't. It is by all accounts a lovely companion piece to most any Mac. But within that sentence lies the problem: the MacBook Air is very dependent on having a second computer to help it with many otherwise basic computer tasks. It needs either a pre-configured wireless router or a USB LAN adapter, because nearly all 802.11 routers must be configured via ethernet to turn on wireless networking.

In addition, any software installed must be hosted elsewhere, unless you spring for the external SuperDrive. Although more and more software is available via the web, I doubt MacOS 10.6 will be downloadable from To say nothing of the troubleshooting headaches that can occur should life take an unexpected turn and leave your MacBook Air in a non-operative state.

The Air lacks Firewire; an Apple standard for nearly a decade. It lacks multiple USB ports, meaning more wires and clutter should you need to use multiple devices. It lacks expandable RAM, so it has even less of an upgrade path than nearly any Apple laptop in history. Let’s not even bring up the lack of a user-servicable battery.

Steve likes to compare Apple to BMW. They may not have the biggest market share, but they’re still a leader. That’s all well and good, Steve, but
would you buy a luxury car with only a driver’s-side door? What if it only had an AM radio, or a four-cylinder engine?

When I saw Steve introduce the MacBook Air, a strange thought crossed my mind: this is Steve's response to everyone who's asked for a 12" MacBook Pro. And his response was: "You don't want one, let me show you why." The reason people wanted a twelve-inch laptop is certainly size, but the twelve-inch fans largely fall into two groups: those who like ever-shrinking tech-toys, and those who like that they can use it in coach seats during airplane flights.

While one group has been served, the other hasn’t.

Owners of the MacBook Air are certainly allowed to enjoy it, but they need to stop acting like the Air was this world-changing necessity. It’s a luxury item in very sense of the word. I challenge someone to point out a reasonable situation that the MacBook Air suits better than the standard MacBook. You can’t. Once opened, the Air is no smaller than a regular MacBook, so the only real advantage the Air has is weight. And I’m sorry, Air fans, but a four pound difference, while high in terms of percentage, is pretty much nil in the real world.

So, the only places the Air exceeds the standard MacBook are volume and the multi-touch trackpad. And who’s to say we won’t see multi-touch on the rest of the MacBook lineup soon? I am completely willing to give Apple credit for pushing the design envelope. The MacBook Air is very definition of ultra-portable. It's just not ultra-versatile — or ultra competitive in the real world.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Fox News and the seXbox

It's funny: when we were young, english teachers made us cite our sources when we presented a paper. Remember that? You had to present facts which backed up your claims. In fact, when I was in high school, way back in 1998, we weren't even allowed to use internet sources. At all! Apparently, my education was a waste. I plan on working in journalism at least part time, and once you're presenting news, truth isn't a concern.

Facts are unnecessary. That's the sad truth of the media today. Nothing you see can be trusted. News isn't about information, it's about entertainment. Bias isn't just tolerated, it's expected. We get partisan nonsense barking rhetoric and catch phrases, and people eat it up. Left versus Right. White versus Black. What gets solved? Absolutely nothing.

You know what I find to be the most absorbing news program? The Daily Show. How sad is that? That my most trusted source of news is a comedian? You know why? Not because it's left leaning(it is), not because I find it funny(it most certainly is), but because, as a comedian, Jon Stewart can present the truth. Comedy comes from two places: absurdity and frustration. The Simpsons is funny because it is silly. Jon Stewart is funny because he points out the emperor's lack of clothes. As Neil Gaiman once wrote, "It is a fool's prerogative to utter truths that no one else will speak."

How depressing that in this age of information, a time when we can conduct research that just a few years ago might take hours(if not days), we cannot separate fact from fiction! How pathetic that people believe the opinion of a relative stranger as hard fact. Even worse, we cannot see the difference between the two. We simply accept the first idea presented to us as immutable truth, and belittle anyone who might think differently. We call ourselves adults, and yet we still think like children.

Just hours ago on Fox News — a "news" outlet known in many circles to be biased, partisan, and confrontational — aired a panel "discussion" regarding Mass Effect, a game recently released for the Xbox 360. They declare it to be a virtual sex simulator; even declaring it "shows full digital nudity and sex." Horrifying! Except that it isn't, and it doesn't. No one on the panel, save the token video game journalist, has ever played the game. Which begs the question: who played it? Who at Fox News sat down for thirty-plus hours and completed the game? I'm betting no one. Which makes me wonder if people are aware of a different pastime: the telephone game. I can see the horrified calls along the Conservative Christian Network: "There's a video game that's all about sex, purple monkey dishwasher!"

Instead of intelligent discourse or time-consuming research, we are treated to an off-the-cuff roundtable featuring fear-mongering and blame-throwing. People complaining about having to be parents (hint: in real life, just like in the game, sex is optional. Wish someone had told you that sooner), about how video games will destroy the innocence of latchkey children, and that this game is, in fact, "Luke Skywalker meets Debbie Does Dallas." Is this out-of-touch, ignorant panel a sampling of conservative americans? I start to wonder, have they all emerged from bomb shelters, like Brendan Fraser in the classic film, Blast from the Past? As if in response, a panelist asks: "Whatever happened to Pac-Man?" The same thing that happened to the "Where's the Beef?" Lady. I long for the halcyon days where ten year-olds didn't wear g-strings and shirts that propositioned sex, but that's just me. I get that the world moves on, I shake my head, and I get on with my life. Apparently they didn't get the memo when their parents tried to keep them from listening to the Grateful Dead.

"It's up to parents," a panelist notes, "to control what their children are seeing."

"It is, unfortunately," notes the moderator, "and it makes being a parent a much harder job than it used to be."

I didn't realize parenting was simple before modern video games. I'll have to call my mom and let her know she got off easy.