Dec 29 2013

An illuminating trip to the Microsoft store

Microsoft has, as you may know, released a piece of hardware called the Surface Pro 2. I own one. It's currently a doorstop, but I'm told it may compute once again maybe sometime tomorrow. What's sad is that the hardware isn't defective; the developers are.

Specifically, MS pushed out a firmware update for the Surface Pro line on December 10th that, well, it bricks your system. This is an own-goal for MS: the firmware update wasn't particularly anticipated, as it didn't fix anything major. They could have kept it back and tested it. Instead they released it, and it actively prevents people's batteries from charging. The messageboards at MS are alight with reports of this.

That's not what this post is about. Instead I'd like to discuss the state of Surface as viewed by the employees who have to use them.

I approached the young man who my service appointment was with at the service desk. He was amiable and professional. He whipped out a Surface Pro to verify my appointment, and immediately exited the start screen to get to the desktop view. Desktop view? Isn't that the old way of using Windows 8? Not so---he needed to use it.

I inquired: "you guys don't use the Metro interface for your work here?" He replied: he never uses the Metro part of Win8. I confided in him that I currently have an unused $25 voucher for free apps from the store, but was unable to find anything I even wanted. He said that the employees had all received the same gift from the company for Christmas, and he has also found no use for it.

As the employee navigated to enter information on my problem, I saw him detach and reattach the Type cover several times. I told him I have problems with the touch pad being flaky. He said they are all like that. I believe he used the word "terrible". It certainly fits.

After struggling with his Surface Pro for about 5 minutes, the employee threw up his hands and put the Surface down. He went under the counter and pulled out a Dell laptop. With that, he was able to do his job and get my Surface to the repair department.

I think that about sums it up for me.

Dec 28 2013

Netflix streaming continues to founder as dozens of prominent movies are taken down

As I've written before, Netflix streaming is not a particularly good deal if you want to actually watch movies that people want to watch. With the end of 2014, the streaming catalog is about to shrink yet again:

For a while, it was also possible to find out what was expiring, information that was valuable to the Netflix user who maybe wanted to watch something before it disappeared from his or her Instant Queue (which is now called "My List"). Earlier this year, Netflix removed the ability to easily find out in bulk what titles were expiring from its library, which means that users on Reddit and other sites have picked up the slack.


The page has a list of movies going bye-bye. It includes Being John Malkovich, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Titanic, Serpico, and Capote. Stop and think whether you would consider a movie service good that lacked these movies.

It's telling that Netflix is actually removing the ability to easily see what is disappearing from its service. My sense of it based on earlier surveys is that less than a tenth of movies available on DVD are streaming on Netflix, including popular blockbusters. The company has every reason to hide it.

Nov 19 2013

Saints Row IV is the most fun I've had playing a game


In the first ten minutes of Saints Row IV, I climbed up a nuclear ICBM, in flight and on a course to hit the US, and disabled it, as Aerosmith's Don't Wanna Miss a Thing played and my teammates told me how much they'd miss me and appreciated my sacrifice. Naturally, I survived and became President of the United States and named my street gang as my aides and cabinet. After that, things started to get implausible.

I've never played a Saints Row game, I don't know what the franchise is all about. It didn't seem to matter. Within moments of my stint as president, the Earth is invaded by malicious aliens, and I was transplanted to a version of The Matrix, along with most of my old street gang and millions of other humans. The premise is nonsensical (ok, so was The Matrix), but I didn't give a shit. Every moment spent running and flying over the virtual city of Steelport was a joy. The characters were funny, the soundtrack is used to great effect, there are dozens of hilarious goofy gimmicks, a large dose of lampooning other games, and the game has a very satisfying campaign.

The gameplay in Saints Row IV might seem, from the previous incarnations, and from the trappings, as if it's a Grand Theft Auto clone. This isn't right. In fact, the game eschews everything that's irritating about open world games. It incorporates everything that was great about inFamous and Prototype 2, but somehow feels even more liberating than those were.

Did I mention that it passes the Bechdel Test? In spades.

In fact, the game begins (after the ICBM sequence) with a character creation sequence, and not only can you be a man or a woman, but there are a few voice sets for each one. My short-haired, female "Player" (get it? The character is called Player.) felt as if the game was designed for her. But, in fact, I could have chosen to be a man. Anyway, she is thrown into the Matrix ... err ... simulation just like Niko Bellic is thrown into one. The main difference is that she shortly gained super powers courtesy of her friend hacking the simulation. (One of the voice sets for a male is "Nolan North Voice", which is hilarious in and of itself.)

It starts pretty powerful. I can run very fast (i.e. I will never use a car) and can jump very high. By the end I could glide for a mile, run up the sides of buildings, fling fire from my fists, pound the ground from 1000 feet up, kick my enemies in the balls, freeze them, and then punch them into tiny pieces. Oh, um, there are guns, too.

I've found the time to play most of the major open world games. From the previously mentioned inFamous (1 and 2), to Prototype, Sleeping Dogs, The Amazing Spider-Man, Red Dead Redemption, GTA IV, and, of course, Just Cause 2, there have been quite a few that were enjoyable. The measure of success is whether I feel like just hanging out in the world, collecting things, playing. All of these listed made me want to do that, but nothing like Saints Row IV. The mechanics are perfectly tuned, I could execute incredible leaps with accuracy. I approached story missions slowly, not because they were bad, but because I knew they would hasten my finishing the game. Even the races were fun. The fucking races.

And even though the plot is silly, and self-consciously so, it never got tiresome. There's enough wit and out-and-out humor in the dialog to keep me smiling. From singing Biz Markie with an old friend in the car to trying out my new Dubstep Gun, there were numerous moments that had me belly laughing. The game has an incredible mix of different tasks and scenarios, changing from an open world game to a 3D platformer, a 2D tank game, a side-scrolling beat em up, and a Metal Gear Solid-esque stealth game at a breathless pace. It's one thing to lampoon and reference other games, but to do so and actually have it be fun? It almost beggars belief.

The soundtrack isn't nearly as big as GTA or Sleeping Dogs was, but what was there was excellent and eclectic. Several of the soundtrack songs come up during missions, and their obvious reuse does stick out a bit, but hey, Deep Silver doesn't have Rockstar money.

Keith David and Rowdy Roddy Piper are in the game as themselves and also as street gang members. I say that with the utmost of glee.

Ok, fine, maybe this was a game that was just made for me. But if you don't enjoy this, I don't get you.

Nov 13 2013

Statisticians need to see how experimental science really works, then shut up about it

This kind of irks me.

The plague of non-reproducibility in science may be mostly due to scientists’ use of weak statistical tests, as shown by an innovative method developed by statistician Valen Johnson, at Texas A&M University in College Station.

The article goes on to specify an amazing new Bayesian test the person invented which shows that scientists are using "risky statistics". Ok, no.

Let's talk turkey for a minute here. This is how an experiment actually goes most of the time:

  1. Your boss has an idea for an experiment. It's based on some prior work which was kind of understood. That's what funding is given out for.
  2. You spend a ridiculous amount of time and energy setting up the equipment, fixing all the electronics, plumbing, and Labview problems.
  3. You do the experiment and see nothing.
  4. You continue fixing things.
  5. You finally get something. You optimize conditions, you collect data.
  6. You analyze the data, and it's hard to explain. It's noisy even when you did everything you could to make it good.
  7. Out of the hundreds of plausible explanations for the data, you choose one that your boss likes, and you write a paper. You write a paper because that's expected of you regardless of what the result was. You can't not publish a paper just because the data makes no sense.

The statistical test isn't the issue. The issue is that experiments are hard. Unless the phenomena are so well known that nobody would bother doing an experiment in the modern day, the equipment to measure them is experimental, home built, or being used in an unprecedented way by people with no technical training (grad students). You can sit and mangle the data all day, apply any number of tests, make your curve fits more robust, whatever. The chances are that your findings are going to be debunked or at the minimum refined. This is ok! But it means that cutting edge stuff isn't that reproducible.

Sure, I have encountered statistical fallacies in other people's work. But in none of those cases was the cause solely the ignorance of the researcher. Rather, it usually was because someone was trying to fit something that was unfittable because the data was extraordinarily hard to collect and therefore noisy and ambiguous. Or, someone quoting an error estimate based on a few data points, which is not good, but only because getting each of those data points took a month. If the reseacher had a ton of data, the statistics would be better because the statistics would be better. Then, and only then, should we start to delve into Bayesian notions of cause of the data.

Oct 24 2013

Surface Pro 2: first impressions


For several years all of my computing, note taking, and organization has happened through a few devices. Most of my mental computing work (actual writing, modeling, programming) happens on my laptop, a 3 year old Dell Core 2 Duo. My note taking, conceptual thinking, and written calculations happens on an iPad (3rd gen) with a Jot Pro stylus. Finally, all my creative work, any CAD stuff done at home, and gaming are done on my PC. The PC is irreplaceable, as no portable system can do what my PC does. But the two mobile devices could in principle be combined in the Surface Pro 2.

Any replacement would have to support handwriting, have long battery life, and be able to run my Windows applications, such as Matlab, R, LaTeX, the Adobe products, and Office. The Surface Pro 2 is a Windows 8 laptop with a Wacom digitizing pen screen. Rather than a "convertible", it's an actual tablet with accessories that emulate a laptop. There is a snap-in keyboard and a "kickstand" which props the system up. It has a USB 3.0 port and mini-display out, so it could be used with most external hardware and with a projector.

Here are my first impressions:

  • My interaction with the Microsoft Store was sort of awful. I pre-ordered the Surface Pro 2, and selected the Touch cover as an accessory. When it came time to ship, my credit card company flagged the purchase as a possible fraud. I called MS, and they said not to worry, I would still get my laptop on the date promised. This was a lie, as a few hours later I got a notice that my order was canceled. A second call to MS allowed me to re-pre-ordered it, and I only got it a couple days later than expected. The first MS store rep also told me that the Touch cover for the Surface Pro that I ordered wouldn't work, which was also a lie. Fortunately, MS has a person who maintains their Twitter account that knows what he or she is talking about, more than I can say for their phone representatives.
  • I do not recommend the Touch Cover. As a pretty good touch typist, it's barely usable. I have about one error per two or three words. Probably will return it.
  • Logging in to the Surface is a hassle because your login is tied to your account. I keep very obscure, long, random passwords for all my online accounts, including my account (which ordinarily I have auto-filled-in by 1Password). Since MS uses that info to log into the account, I had to type that awful thing several times. Getting the machine not to require a password every time I woke or booted the computer was non-intuitive, because ... Windows 8. The option is several layers into the control panel, and it wasn't found by search. Eventually, I got it to wake without password and boot only with a 4 digit PIN. That should be an option when you set up the machine.
  • The screen is a pretty good pixel density, which is a double-edged sword. Obviously, better pixel density improves anything scalable, such as video and apps designed for a scalable desktop rather than one based on fixed pixels. But most applications weren't designed for that, including really big major products like Adobe Illustrator. There is no solution to this at present, nor do I expect there to be for CS6, since it is now obsoleted in favor of Adobe's current business model as a hostage taker/blackmailer. At my native resolution, the font on Illustrator menu items looks like 6 pt font. That's not easy to read.
  • The experience with the MS app store has been kind of miserable. Many commonly used apps available on iOS, such as Feedly, are not there. The ones that are there are fairly gimped or totally nonfunctional. The Facebook app, for instance, does not allow system level sharing (such as "share my desktop screenshot") commands, which you would think it would. The Twitter app DOES allow for it, but using it permanently breaks the app. I'm not kidding, the app has to be reinstalled to get it working again. Also, scrolling in the Twitter app sucks balls. The Evernote app, called "Evernote Touch", should not exist. Microsoft should be throwing money around to make this better right now, because if this is their strategy going forward they have a serious issue.
  • The kickstand angles aren't bad (there are two), but you definitely will have to conform yourself to the machine rather than the other way around. Contrast that with my laptop which accommodates nearly any angle of the screen.
  • Microsoft drastically reduced screen real-estate for scroll bars in Windows 8. Then they released a device that uses people's fat fingers. WHY?
  • Battery life is looking like 8 or 9 hours for a typical day, which is excellent.
  • Evernote proper has a note type called "Ink Note", which combined with the stylus is all I've ever wanted out of paperless technology. Evernote (NOT the app) works very well all around on the Surface.
  • Now that I'm using it, I have to say that Windows 8 really IS as bad as everyone says. Restarting is a chore, finding settings is ludicrously hard. It's an all around UI failure. I've been on Team MS for a couple decades, but I'm really not so sure now.
  • I'm not at all convinced that the stylus storage option using a magnet is reliable. They really should just include a band to push it into.
  • I guess Microsoft skimped on RAM, because during my first day of usage it said I needed to close some programs, like Firefox, in order to run other things like games. That's sad, because RAM isn't expensive. I get the reasoning, since using an SSD as a virtual cache would be a very bad idea, but couldn't they have spent a little extra for the $1000 model and put in 8 GB?
  • I tried playing a lightweight 3D game, one of Telltale Games' Monkey Island episodes, and it basically worked fine. This definitely is not a gaming rig, but point and click type ought to work fine. I didn't even have to turn the settings all the way down.
  • Playing Youtube videos fullscreen could be better. The "fullscreen" icon is really small compared with my index finger.
  • Why would they not make the screen lock when you close the Touch Cover? It's bizarre.
  • Microsoft ostensibly has made a thing that you would switch to from an iPad, but they made its functionality different enough from the iPad to be confusing. When you push the screen lock button the computer actually goes to sleep, as a laptop would, rather than just turning off the screen, as an iPad would do. Contrast this with what happens when the screen turns off from inactivity, where the computer is still on! Very weird. Also, given enough time asleep, the Surface appears to Hibernate, requiring more time to turn on the next time. This isn't like an iPad, which is always ready to go. MS has muddied the water by copying some features (a lock button) but having it do subtly different things.
  • The on screen keyboard is better than iOS's, except for the fact that the screen doesn't react to it. Menu items or buttons that occupy the space where the keyboard are simply remain covered up until you hide the keyboard again. Poor.
  • Auto dimmimg of the screen is dodgy as hell.

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