Of mice and men, and trackballs, too

All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the back)

Late last year, I purchased another laptop to separate my work and recreational uses. After a long search in stores, and a lot of online reading and comparing models, I decided to get an MSI gaming rig (an entry level in their pantheon, admittedly). That process got me thinking again about how we buy and sell computers.*

Computers are, for the most part, sold like muscle cars: what’s under the hood gets the attention. The processor, ram, speed, drive capacity all get writ large in ads and promoted in stores. But it’s all a bit misleading. For most uses – surfing the web, email, some word processing or spreadsheet work, non-graphics-intensive games, shopping on Amazon, that sort of thing – any modern computer or tablet will do.

Today’s smart phones and tablets have bazillions more processing power in a single handheld device than a room full of bulky, freezer-sized IBM 360s had a few decades back. I ran games, word processors, spreadsheets and more on Atari and other eight-bit computers that couldn’t out-compute a modern digital watch, let alone an i3 laptop (and that’s a weak sibling to the i5 and i7). Those seemingly limited Chromebooks and bargain-priced laptops are really monsters of computing muscle compared to what we used only a couple of decades back.

Yes, the hardware specs matter if you have processor-heavy work such as graphic design, video or music editing, 3D animation or graphics-intensive gaming. But for the most part what should really matter when you’re choosing a computer are where you interact the most: the input/output devices: the screen, the keyboard and the mouse/trackpad. That’s where you’ll spend the most time and get the most sensory response from.

All the mice tested
Top: Aukey, Steelcase (wired gaming). Bottom: Anker, EV, Logitech, Kensington (from the left, seen from the front)

I recently decided to change my mouse. Or mice, rather, since each laptop has its own. In part it’s because after many hours a day spent with one, my wrists and fingers can be tired and sore. I only use the inherent trackpads when I don’t have access to a mouse because I find them inefficient and clumsy.

Arm twistingI’ve favoured wired, gaming mice in the past for several reasons. First, a wired connection is consistent where a wireless might be susceptible to interference (and gaming mice have excellent but often long cables). Second, a gaming mouse usually has a lot more features than a regular mouse, including programmable buttons, more levels of speed and sensitivity. Third they offer better (longer lasting) buttons and scroll wheel, built for constant clicking and wheeling. And fourth, from long experience, I’ve learned not to buy the cheapest mice: they are generally less durable and less accurate than those from recognized companies.***

Traditional mice have the same basic problem for me and many other users: they force the user’s arm to be held for long times in a position that can encourage strain and wear. Part of my work includes graphic design that needs precision control, and part includes copying and pasting text and links from one monitor to applications on another, so the cursor travels a fair distance. More standard uses include document processing in word processors and spreadsheets. I’m on the computer many, many hours every day. And I find my arms/wrist hurting all too much these days.

I decided to look at something different: ergonomic mice, including vertical mice and trackballs. Here’s what I discovered, and my review of each.
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Forty years of geekitude

TRS-80 Model 1It was forty years ago this fall, in 1977, that I bought my first computer. I had little experience with computers prior to that – a few weeks working after hours on an APL system at the U of T, mostly to play games against the machine, reading a few magazine articles on the coming ‘personal’ computer wave. Nothing seriously hands-on, experience-wise, and no programming skills either. But as soon as I saw one, I had to have it. And so I bought one.

Since then, I have not been a day without one, and generally had more than just one in my home. As many as six or seven at one time, back in the early 1980s, all different brands. But that was when I was writing about them, editing computer books and writing computer manuals.

My first computer was a TRS 80, Model 1. TRS stood for Tandy Radio Shack. It was a 16KB computer (yes: that’s 16,384 bytes of memory) In comparison, my current laptop has 8GB, or 8,388,608 kilobytes: 512 times the Model 1’s amount of RAM!

It was powered by a Zilog Z-80 eight-bit processor. My current machines all run 64-bit, multi-core processors. It had no USB ports, didn’t use a mouse, and had no audio card. Smartphones today are more versatile and more powerful. But not as much fun.

Before I bought it, I debated for a week or two whether to get the TRS or the competing Commodore PET, powered by the 6502 processor. It had similar limitations in memory and input devices, but came with a green and black screen integrated with the keyboard in one unit. But the TRS was sold at a nearby Radio Shack store within walking distance, and they also offered nighttime classes to teach the basics. The PET was only sold at stores downtown, so I bought the closer one.

I had to boot it and load programs from a cassette tape player. A year or so later, I upgraded to a 64KB RAM system and dual floppy (5.25″) drives. Each floppy could hold about 160KB of programs or data. It had a standalone B & W monitor that didn’t have any graphic capability, although canny programmers used the blocks in the ASCII character set to create pseudo-graphics (a bit like today’s Dwarf Fortress game displays, but only in B&W).
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Microsoft killed solitaire for me

Solitaire – also known as Klondike and Patience – is a very popular game on computers. So popular, in fact that a version of this 200-year-old card game has been included by Microsoft in every version of Windows since 3.0 (1990), aside from a brief hiatus with Win 8 (which gap was filled in by third-party versions). Microsoft has even launched a version for iOS, playable on the Mac, iPhone and iPad.

And according to some reports, it is the most widely used program by Windows users by a long shot. More than Word, Outlook, and PowerPoint and Explorer. Writer Luke Plunkett called that statistic “frightening.”

But for millions of us, solitaire fills the time; it occupies our brains during long travel times, in waiting rooms, in between loading, downloading, burning to disk or compiling experiences. Not just the one game: there are a whole raft of solo card games under the name solitaire – freecell, spider, Klondike, pyramid and tri-peaks among them – that people play regularly. And sometimes obsessively. Many is the time I have stopped writing this blog or some other piece, trapped by writer’s block or simple exhaustion, to while away a few minutes recharging with a simple game of solitaire.

As Plunkett wrote:

You mention Solitaire and—after the amazing end-game card haze—the first thing that pops into your head is that it was once seen as the single biggest threat to office productivity facing this planet’s workers. And in many regards, that’s correct.
Most people who have worked in an office can testify to the lure of the game, and could name one or two colleagues who spent a little too much time cutting the decks when they should have been filing reports. Some even take it too far; in 2006, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously fired a city employee he caught playing the game while at work.
This addiction can even spread beyond the workplace and into people’s homes. My father has spent more time playing Freecell over the past decade than he has doing housework, for example. Things can get even worse for some: in 1996, Dr. Maressa Hecht Orzack opened the world’s first clinic for computer addicts as a response to her own chronic Solitaire addiction.

In May, 2008, Slate magazine ran a story titled, “Solitaire-y Confinement: Why we can’t stop playing a computerized card game.” In it, author Josh Levin wrote:

The game’s continued pre-eminence is a remarkable feat—it’s something akin to living in a universe in which Pong were the most-popular title for PlayStation 3. One reason solitaire endures is its predictability. The gameplay and aesthetic have remained remarkably stable; a visitor from the year 1990 could play the latest Windows version without a glitch, at least if he could figure out how to use the Start menu. It also remains one of the very few computer programs, game or nongame, that old people can predictably navigate. Brad Fregger, the developer of Solitaire Royale, the first commercial solitaire game for the Macintosh and the PC, told me that his 89-year-old mother still calls regularly to brag about her high scores. The game has also maintained a strong foothold in the modern-day cubicle.

So with its widespread popularity, a game beloved by millions and maybe even billions, you have to wonder why Microsoft seems bent on destroying the experience in Windows 10. Levin calls solitaire the “…cockroach of gaming, remarkably flexible and adaptable.” Perhaps Microsoft wants to stamp it out.
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Transcendance

TranscendenceIt’s not surprising that AI replaced the biological form in the popular Frankenstein monster trope. In fact the smart-evil-machine scenario has been done so often this past decade or so that I’m more surprised any film writer or director can manage to give it some semblance of uniqueness that differs it from all the others.

Transcendence tries, tries very hard and almost makes it. But the brass ring remains out of reach. Still, it’s worth watching if you’re a scifi buff because, well, it’s scifi.* And even bad scifi is better than no scifi at all. Well, maybe not the Transformer franchise, but pretty much the rest of it.

More than that, while it doesn’t tread a lot of new ground, it does use a lot of nifty sets and special effects, even if the topic isn’t all that new.

The evil robot has been with us in film for a very long time. Fritz Lang’s 1927 film, Metropolis was the first to portray a sentient robot (the ‘Maschinenmensch’). That robot was created to “resurrect” the creator’s former lover. In Transcendence, the character of Dr. Will Caster (Johnny Depp) is similarly “resurrected” but in virtual space: inside a computer. And of course he/it evolves/develops within those confines to something more than human.

Angry non-techies storm the castle with pitchforks and burn the whole place down. Well, okay it’s an underground data centre in the desert and they use artillery, but it’s basically the same thing. It’s a monster movie with CGI lipstick. And better yet, it’s in the $8 bin (with both Blu-Ray and DVD editions in the case…) at Wal Mart. But be prepared to question the premise. And a lot more.
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Server upgrade coming

Sometime in the next two weeks, I will be amalgamating servers for the several sites I manage and conflating them onto one, new and (I hope) faster and more efficient server. There may be some downtime while the files and databases migrate, like virtual birds, to their new home.

I hope that the digital gods of server migration allow my moves to go smoothly. I would sacrifice a virtual dove to propitiate them, if I could only find their virtual altar… would that I were the digital Odysseus…

For most users, it will, I expect, be but a momentary blip in the service, a temporary lapse of rant soon reconstructed. No more than a couple of hours of downtime while the ether is busy with transient bytes flitting hither and yon. My biggest concern is the Blue Agave forum which operates on an Invision system… the transition to the current servers wasn’t all that smooth when I moved a few years back. But we’ll see how it evolves… I might need the aid of Invision’s tech team, too…. but that should not concern you.

If things don’t go smoothly, and it takes longer than expected, it may be the result my clumsy handling of the tools (while still technically inclined, my edge has, I admit, lost some of its crispness as I age). Or it may be some deeper, larger problem that requires tech support to save me from myself and the quicksand of SQL content.

I can migrate the static files easily enough, but depend somewhat on online tools to make the transition for the blog and WordPress databases. And then there’s all that PHP stuff…

Anyway, things may appear and disappear, and off error pages emerge, but take heart that I am not vanished from the network, merely taking the high road to the deep north, as Basho did, but of course virtually, and expecting to return momentarily. Should my site appear gone, take heart that it has not shuffled off this mortal coil, but merely retired momentarily to a far, far better place…. and will reappear when the digital stars align.

Refresh, refresh, refresh and return and it will all be made clear. I hope. If not…. well, I can always start afresh.

The WOW Factor

WOWAfter two years away from the game, I was recently convinced by a friend to return to World of Warcraft again and play in the fantasy universe of WOW. At 10 years old, WOW remains the biggest, most-subscribed, most popular MMORPG, with around 10 million subscribers.

By technology’s rapid-aging standards, WOW is a grandfather game; maybe even a great-grandfather. It has certainly spawned a lot of offspring, although not all are legitimate.

I started playing WOW back in 2005. although I didn’t play it seriously and attentively until a little later, after the first expansion. Then I got heavily into the game, so that for a long stretch, barely a day went by without at least doing the daily quests for one or more characters.

I dutifully paid my monthly subscription fee for years. I upgraded to the first expansion set, The Burning Crusade. Then the Wrath of the Lich King. And also the third, Cataclysm, coming out in late 2010. When the fourth expansion set, Mists of Pandaria, was released, in the fall of 2012. I was already losing interest and the corny fighting pandas the expansion threw in just didn’t make me want to shell out another $50 plus the $15 a month.

WOWI slogged on for a few more months, but in December 2012, I finally gave up. I wasn’t enjoying the way the game had evolved. I wasn’t having fun any more.

I had long stopped being obsessed with finishing pointless quests, running back and forth collecting useless items for some NPC. And running was what I did most of the time. You can’t get a mount to travel faster until level 20. Flying mounts at level 60. A lot of the grind is spent running. My fingers were getting stiff.

My game time had dwindled from hours a day to hours a week. Then a month. Finally, I simply didn’t care any more.

I was tired of the repetitive canned responses from NPCs. The voice acting was old and stale. The cartoonish scenery and characters no longer amused me. I had had a small boost to my enjoyment when they added flying mounts (Cataclysm?), but that soon became tired, too. Questing and collecting and making things became a grind, not fun.

I was never big on some of the game’s aspects, even from the start – battlegrounds and raids weren’t attractive to me. Nor was PvP. I preferred questing, often solo or with a single friend, and the occasional dungeon crawl with a mixed party. But after I reached the pinnacle – level 70 at first, then cranked to 80 –  with most of my characters, it simply paled. Wash, rinse, repeat.

The expansions added territory to explore, new quests, new opponents, but generally they seemed to be a kind of kitchen-sink approach: stuff was added, changed, removed with seeming arbitrariness. The new races, the new enemies didn’t seem to match the logic of the original game series. Sometimes it felt like the whole WOW universe was designed by 14-year-olds with lots of passion but lacking a solid background in fantasy.
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Banished: Sandbox Gaming at Its Best

Banished 01Banished is a medieval-style city building game, along the lines of SimCity, but with several significant differences. While not as slick or comprehensive as SimCity, it still provides a compelling, addictive gameplay.*

It’s slow and cerebral, true, not your basic action-filled RPG or FPS, but it’s one of those games that demand ‘just another fifteen minutes’ that easily stretch into the wee hours. And with infinitely variable maps and a wide range of community-made mods that enhance and change the dynamics, it promises a lot of repeat play for fans of the genre.

First difference between the two city-building sims is in goals: Banished doesn’t have any, aside from simply surviving. That’s tough enough. No goals for growth, population, buildings or the like. It’s a sandbox game in which you do whatever you want, but there are clearly strategies that work better than others. Careful attention has to be paid to the details; resources, housing, jobs, education, food, weather game, trade and so on.

Second is the size. In SimCity, it’s pretty easy to get big cities with large populations fairly quickly. In Banished, after 20 in-game years in four different games, each town I built was still around 100 population. Growth is slow. I’ve built cities in SimCity that cover almost the entire map. In Banished, terrain and modest growth have kept my towns small. I’ve seen screenshots from other players showing larger towns, so I know they can be built, but it takes more time and patience than I have yet put into it.

Banished 02Third is the detail level and type. SimCity focuses on modern infrastructure and technology. Banished doesn’t concern itself with water, hydro and sewage or the trappings of modern civilization. Technologically, it’s somewhere between 1500 and 1700, so the detail is limited. The number of building types is minimal compared with SimCity, too.
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Testing a Homeplug-Powerline Network

DlinkI’ve had some wireless issues for quite some time now. There are dead spots in the house – a central wall has metal ducts and a gas fireplace, which are beside the laundry room with its metal-enclosed washer and dryer. About 5-6m of metal interfere with the wireless signal. The modem is attached to the cable, which comes through the north side of the house, and there are no other active cable outlets in other rooms (there are outlets for cable, but they’ve never been properly connected).

Plus the ducts and pies in the basement and the metal front door interfere with the signal out of doors, making it difficult to get good reception in a large portion of the yard – including our favourite summer sitting location; the newly rebuilt front deck.

 

And just to confound matters, my Acer Aspire laptop has the annoying habit of losing its internet connection – while all my other wireless devices are fine – although it can see other networks nearby and even connect to my modem. Just not the net.

I’ve looked at all sorts of solutions, from wireless extenders and bridge routers, to rewiring a large portion of the house to accommodate moving the cabling to allow the modem to be placed closer to the laptop. I’ve moved the modem a few times, but the reception has only improved indoors – out of doors it remains unstable.

There is often a 10-metre ethernet cable running across the floor between laptop and modem when I want to be sure my access isn’t interrupted. Susan hates it. It’s a trip hazard and looks hokey.

This week I decided to try a different approach (a suggestion from Neville on Facebook): a powerline (aka homeplug) network extender. It’s a whole area I knew nothing about before this week, except for the vague understanding that the network connects via the AC power lines in your home.

Basically you plug one adapter into a wall socket and attach it to your modem via a (shorter) ethernet cable. They you plug in a second adapter somewhere else in your house, preferably close to your computer, do whatever the device needs to establish a connection (in my case, push a button). When they connect, you plug another (shorter) cable into the adapter and your computer.

But which one? Which type, which standard, which brand, which feature set? That’s what I spent most of my past few days studying. Reading reviews, technical papers, speed tests, manufacturers’ claims. Prices range from $40 to almost $150 for the minimal two adapters. Why the difference and would it really matter to me?

In the end I went low-end rather than cutting-edge. I bought a D-Link “PowerLine AV 500 Network Starter Kit (DHP-309AV) from the local Staples store. Took all of two minutes to set it up, another minute to connect cables and my laptop was connected to the internet.

And if it proves itself in the upcoming months, I may look at the new models due out this fall to upgrade to the new AV2 standard, and get some extra ethernet ports strung around the house.

Pondering Responsive web design

Mashable graphicI’ve been building websites since the early 1990s, and have had my own websites continually since 1995. For a few years, I did website design and analysis for commercial clients – mostly small local businesses. I even taught web design at a local adult learning centre for a couple of years. Way back when the Net was relatively new, I even did some pages for local events. Although I do less coding today, mostly for my own use, I still have an interest in the developments in web technology and layout.

I taught myself the basics of HTML back when it was version 1.0, 20 years ago – not all that difficult if you were schooled in using the old word processors like Perfect Writer and Wordstar. The first word processors used similar markup styles. Some even required users to compile the text in transient files, in order to see the formatting results, because they couldn’t be shown onscreen at the same time as the markup. That’s because these programs were small, tight and efficient enough to fit in the limited physical computer memory – 16 to 64KB in the early days of computing – but not very feature rich. Ah, the good old days of the Z80 and 6502 processors.

HTML was fairly easy (for me), but clumsy. It was a flat, 2D system and building some elements – tables in particular – was awkward and time-consuming. HTML tried – with limited success – to mix design with structure in one all-encompassing language. It was predicated on the printed page – basically replicating it onscreen. The initial versions of HTML were a desktop-publishing-like environment for the screen.

But the old ways are not always suited for the new devices. Page designs and layouts done even five years ago may be outdated and ill-suited for mobile devices (as I have found from my own work). New design paradigms are needed to stay current with the ebb and flow of technologies.

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World of Tanks

Battlefield view
Tanks are a long distance weapon, you know. They are best used in concert with one another to provide cover and overwatch fire, and are best placed in a covered or hull-down position where their profile is reduced to the minimum. Tanks should never travel alone; they should always advance with supporting vehicles on their flanks.

That’s pretty much what I said to my teammates that Saturday morning. However, I may have typed it a little more tersely. Something like, “%#$&@ idiots. Y R U in the open w/o support?

I watched as the majority of them rushed across the field to be picked off in the open by well-placed enemy tanks, and turned into smoldering wrecks that dotted the battlefield. Don’t these people know anything about basic tank doctrine, I wondered? Well, probably not. This is the internet, after all.

Firing
Still, I want to shout out. Tanks are not close-range weapons. Or rather, they weren’t intended to be. This isn’t paintball. You can’t exactly sneak around in 25 or 30 tons of metal. But you can be clever and use the terrain to your advantage: peek carefully around corners, over rises, and stay hidden in bushes while you wait.

But there they were – half the team racing towards the enemy flag like heavy-metal Rambos, ignoring terrain, elevation, cover, overwatch or even one another. And paying the price. Boom! Another teammate in flames. You might have heard me swearing as you walked by the house that morning.

That left me with three others out of an initial 15 to guard the base; trying to cover all possible paths of approach, stay hidden and stay alive. And pick off the enemy, now bold enough to move forward. An enemy which still had nine intact vehicles, including a very active artillery and two tank destroyers, each with two kills each already. A team that seemed to understand how to play much better than our side.

We lost that one.
Defeat!

Good thing it’s just a game and the losers merely have to wait it out until the match ends, then come to life and play again. When there’s no other penalty for dying except to wait, you won’t learn anything.

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