Sunday, March 30, 2014

OK Google why do you want me to go to that creepy place?

Google Now keeps directing me to a spot in some isolated woods near my home. I am pretty sure I have never visited that spot.  Is Google trying to tell me something? This intelligent personal assistant is also convinced that the only blog I read on a regular basis is Greedy Goblin though I have never subscribed to him. At least I have finally managed to convince the oracle to stop giving me a daily blast of profanity from the Urban Dictionary.

For years I tried to resist the ever more intrusive data gathering of Google, Facebook and similar services but a few months back I bowed to the inevitable. Accepting that Google, GCHQ  and the NSA already have more than enough information to profile, analyse and categorise every single aspect of my on-line existence I decided to go all in and at least try to get some benefit out of it. I started a new Google+ account in my own name to which I linked my email accounts and web searches. I switched to the Chrome browser and turned on location sharing and other privacy violating features of my Android phone. My workplace co-incidentally switched to Google services for email around the same time which I also dutifully linked. There is now no aspect of my existence that the big G does not have a spotlight on.

One big payoff that I hoped to get from all of this sharing was to be able to use Google Now. With all of this knowledge about me at its disposal surely the intelligent personal assistant would finally become more than a glorified weather forecasting widget.

Three months into this experiment and the results have been somewhat mixed. On the plus side Now knows where I live and where I work and is pretty good at predicting the timings of the public transport that I use to commute between them. On the other hand it seems rather bad at predicting stuff that I would like to read. I probably did visit Gevlon's blog and the Urban dictionary at some stage over the last few weeks but I would not consider either of these to be essential viewing. Nevertheless both of them became persistently stubborn residents of my Google now screen.

Google Now seems very resistant to the notion of one actually selecting the things one would like to see. I could find no way of asking it to show me Tobold, Wilhelm or Bill Harris for example instead of Gevlon. Thankfully I did eventually manage to convince it to stop showing me profanity from the Urban Dictionary but there does not seem to be a general ability to select and deselect individual sources for regular viewing. Google Now follows the frustrating trend of other Google services which insist that they know what you want better than you do yourself.

Then of course there is the creepy woods. At least once a day this navigation  card pops up on my Google Now. Usually when a new location appears I can delete it and Google asks whether or not I want to see that location again. I get no such query when I try to get rid of the directions to this wood. It is almost as if Google interprets my repeated attempts at deleting this card as ongoing interest in the place. Perhaps I should just give in and go there after all. Could it be that Google really is trying to tell me something.?

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

I can't find stuff in my Steam library any more.

I have almost 300 games in my Steam library an I appear to have crossed a threshold where it is now genuinely difficult to find a particular game among the multitude. I can search for a game if I know part of the title but sadly even that simple hurdle often defeats my middle aged brain. "What is the name of that strategy game I picked up on sale last week ...grrrgh". The built in filters: Games, Software, Recent, Installed and Favourites are very little help. (Recent means recently played and not recently acquired). I have started using the Favourites label to tag games I am particularly keen to find later but if I had no interest in playing a game at all I probably wouldn't add it to Steam in the first place.

I do try to rein in my acquisitive tendencies when buying new games but holiday sales and gaming bundles have thwarted my efforts. I do have a personal rule not to buy a game unless there is a real chance I will play it in the near future. Holiday sales present many games I would like to play all at the same time which inevitably builds up backlog.  Bundles on the other hand may have one or two titles which I genuinely want but come with a half dozen unknowns that may or may not be interesting. There have been bundles where every title turned out to be a stellar gaming experience and there have been bundles where nothing has live up to its hype. Regardless they all add to the clutter in my Steam library.

The grid view is my current last hope of in desperation because sometimes my eyes will pick out the picture of a game even if I cannot recall the title but I wish there were better search tools available for the library. Being able to sort by store classification (Shooter  / Action etc) would be a big help. Not only would that help down narrow the search for a particular game it would also be a great help for those times when I feel like playing a shooter / an rpg / an rts or some other genre and would like to see what games of that type I have. Being able to sort by date acquired would also be useful. That way I could finally find all those games I bought during the Christmas sale.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to Find Hidden Gems of Gaming.

One of my pet things is to try and find hidden gaming gems. Game that garnered mediocre reviews on release but are actually excellent none the less.  I wrote a pretty good summary of my method in a long response to a recent post on the Kill Ten Rats blog. For completeness I am reprinting that comment with slight edits here as a post. If you have any suggestions of your own to add to the list I would be delighted to hear from you.

I fully agree that meta critic has become an essential aid to sorting through the overwhelming bounty of games available in bundle sales these days. It has become something of a hobby of mine however to try and find overlooked gems: games that received mediocre reviews but are actually very enjoyable. Tell tale signals that a game may rise above its meta-critic score are

1. A game in a genre that I like with an aggregate score (critics or users) above 60 may be worth considering. An aggregate score below 60 from both groups is likely to be irretrievable.

2. After Meta-critic Steam forums are my second port of call. If a game is on sale there will invariably be someone asking “Is it worth it?” on the relevant steam forum. You will get a bunch of uninformed opinion but often users who have clearly played the game will give honest and helpful reviews. Amazon user reviews can equally be helpful.

3. I look for games with a significant discrepancy between user score and critic score. Sometimes, particularly with less well known games, users have a better appreciation of the full game particularly after it has been patched. On the other hand you need to be very wary of fanboys and political campaigns polluting user scores: ” I am down voting this game because the president of EA said something I don’t like”.

4. Games that have been patched heavily since release. Some games get poor scores on release because they are buggy or unfinished. Sometimes the developer (or even the modding community) fix these issues in later patches.

5. Games from lesser publishers especially Eastern European ones rarely fare well with Western reviewers. However if you can look behind a lack of polish and are prepared to put up with some dodgy translation you can find some superb gaming experiences.

6. On the other hand some AAA releases suffer from comparison with their better known rivals or precursors. Reviewers can be particularly harsh on sequels that don’t live up to the high expectations set by earlier games even when the sequel is a perfectly enjoyable game in its own right.

7. It is always worth checking whether or not a game has a supportive following on the web. A game with a following of users has to be good for something and even a single wiki can greatly improve the playing experience of a poorly documented game.

 These methods don’t always work and I have certainly acquired my share of awful games but more often than not I have found some gems. Over the last few months I have greatly enjoyed the following games despite their mediocre scores: 

Viking Battle for Asgard (Metacritic 65)
Warlock Master of the Arcane (71)
XIII Century (62)
The Lord of The Rings War in the North (66)
Expeditions Conquistador (77)
FEAR 3 (74)
Crysis 3 (76)
Dark Messiah of Might and Magic (72)

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

Whatever happened to that passing fad called e-books?

Four of the last five books that I read were old fashioned paperbacks. I realise that the global e-book market is doing just fine without me but I am curious to know why, despite living in a household awash with e-readers, tablets and smart phones I find myself migrating back to paper.

What surprises me most about my reverting back to paper is that I was an enthusiastic adopted of e-books a few years ago and I have written several blog posts about it. The small size of e-readers is a big plus for me because I do most of my reading sitting on public transport while travelling to or from work and an e-reader is far easier to carry round than a bulky paperback. I also firmly believe there is an economic inevitability that ebooks will displace paper books in the relatively near future but I think there are reasons why my personal ebook conversion has slowed.

The first big issue for me is book discovery. This has at least two facets: the number of places that I can discover new books to read and the ease of discovering new books in those places. Traditional books beat ebooks hands down on both those scores.  I see paper books everywhere. I see people reading them on buses. I see them on friends book shelves. I see them in shop windows. Even though I see plenty of folks clutching Kindles I have no idea what books they are reading. The process of discovery is much more pleasant with paper books than with e-books. Browsing a physical bookshop is an obvious pleasure but so is being handed a book by a friend or even picking up a random book left on a shelf. I know that online retailers and Amazon in particular invest huge effort into the process of discovery but the results to date leave me cold. I never go to Amazon looking to discover something new. I only ever go to Amazon if I already have a good idea of what I want.This is a really big deal because if I spot a book I would like to read in a shop window chances are I will  buy it there and then rather than trying to remember to look up the title on Amazon later.

The second big issue is price. In my opinion the major e-book publishers have been far too slow in passing massive savings in distribution costs on to ebook consumers. Ebooks should cost far less than paper books yet they often cost practically the same. If you consider discounted books and second hand books ebooks often cost more. A €10 paperback that is a physical tangible object I can pass on to my grand kids feels like a far far better deal than an intangible ebook for €8.  E-books often feel like a rip off which leaves a nasty taste to the whole experience. It is hard to say exactly how much I think e-books should cost but definitely not more than €5. I suspect that if all ebooks were priced at €3 I would never buy a paperback again. I understand that book publishers are trying to protect themselves and their profits but I wonder if they are going about it the wrong way. In the PC gaming market Valve and other retailers have shown that when it comes to infinitely reproducible digital goods cheaper often results in higher profits. A digital copy of a book or a game is not a treasured personal possession that people buy once and keep forever. It should be an impulse purchase that people buy on a whim to try out. It is telling that I spent as much on the Humble ebook bundle last year as I spent in total on Amazon Kindle ebooks.

As a counterpoint I should say that I have a teenage daughter who is still an avid consumer of ebooks on Kindle and tablet.  However most of the ebooks she reads are either free or low cost self published titles so the pricing argument still applies. She is definitely more comfortable with the process of online book discovery than I am and she will happily browse Amazon / Wattpad / Goodreads for a new book to read, preferably a free one. The ritual of swapping physical books with her group of reading friends is still very much alive though.

Saturday, March 01, 2014

Why I am spending a good part of my weekend struggling with a backup scheme.

I continually struggle with the best means of keeping our personal digital information safely backed up. I recently upgraded my wife's photography PC to a 4Tb hdd and it is taking several days to transfer all files and set up an appropriate back up regime. How do other people with less patience that I have manage this?

First a confession: I do not back up my own files any more. I have handed over responsibility for doing so to Google, Microsoft and Dropbox. However my wife is a keen amateur photographer who generates hundreds of gigabytes worth of images every year and cloud storage would be prohibitively expensive for this amount of data.

At first glance the problem and solution are fairly straightforward because there is actually only one practical and economically feasible method of backing up a multi terabyte hard disk: copy the files to a USB connected external hard disk. Unfortunately even this apparently simple approach turns out to be more complex than it first appears:

First off there is the question of what software to use to automate the backup process. I have no doubt that most operating systems offer built in back up facilities but I have been using the excellent Karen's Replicator for many years. The wonderful Karen Kenworthy died at a tragically early age back in 2011 but her useful Windows tools are still available from here: and her Replicator still works flawlessly on Windows 8.1.  The beauty of Replicator is its simplicity. You can set it to run incremental backups from one location to another and it recreates file and directory structures exactly. It doesn't compress and it doesn't encode so the backup is readable by just about anything which ensures maximum longevity. Replicator's file by file copy is not fast but it doesn't have to be because it runs once per day (you can set the schedule) in the background and only copies files that have changed.

The next unexpected issue is that some USB connected external disks go to sleep when the computer is not in use and do not wake up again automatically. Karen's replicator cannot do a backup if the destination drive is offline. I have had this problem with two different external disk drives and it is most frustrating. My current stopgap fix is a timer on the electrical socket powering the external disk drive set to cycle the power off and on just before a scheduled back up.

The next issue is what do you do when a disk drive fills up? 1 Tb sounded like  an enormous amount of space a few years ago but my wife can generate 100Gb of image files in less than a month. Thankfully the price of disk drives is not that expensive but you need to decide whether the new drive will be internal or external and whether it will be in addition to any existing drives or whether or not it will replace them. We have tried just about every combination of additional storage over the years and I have come to the conclusion that the more individual disk drives you have connected to a PC (we had six at one stage) the more problems you will have with them. The best solution, if you can manage it, is to replace everything with a single new drive that is big enough to hold all your old files and  give you additional space. This is also the best way to ensure data longevity (see below).  Of course any new disks you add will need to be backed up so remember you will always need to buy two of everything.

At some stage in this process you are going to have to copy terabytes of files from one location to another all in one go. Set aside a couple of days for this. Seriously. You might think you can just do a Windows copy from one disk to another and let it run over night. You would be wrong.  In the first instance Windows copy doesn't verify after it copies so I recommend using a tool like fastcopy instead. Fastcopy is also a good deal quicker than Windows copy which is a bonus. In the second instance your massive copy is likely to crash some time in the middle of the night with file permissions errors. Then you need to navigate Windows completely non-intuitive file security interface to actually get the file permissions you need to do the copy. Having administrator privileges isn't enough.  If Windows thinks you aren't the owner of a file created ten years ago on a computer you cannot even remember then it will crash your copy. Perhaps you don't need all those system files with special privileges needed to copy but life is just too short to go through them all to figure out which ones are generic and which ones are those special Photo-shop actions you need to keep. Even after dealing with all of that you may still face the problem of an external hard disk going to sleep, during a multi hour backup. Arghhh. Another reason to use fastcopy instead of Windows copy is that it does incremental copying so you don't have to start again from scratch if your massive copy run crashes some time in the middle of the night.

If you are serious at all about backup you will realise that having a single backup sitting beside your PC is not enough. A single lightning surge on the mains could kill both primary and backup drive. To do the job properly you really need a third copy off site. Now I will admit that we cheat a bit on this. We don't keep a regularly updated off site copy but whenever we replace a hard disk we send the old one to a relative. Given that this only happens every couple of years we would still lose a lot of stuff in a catastrophe but at least the kid's baby photos are safe and I guess if the house does burn down we will have more to worry about than last years holiday snaps.

Finally and perhaps most problematic of all is the issue of long term data storage. Our photos and videos will still be important to us and to our  children in fifty years time (I am an optimist - I aim to hit the century). Modern hard disks have only a TWO YEAR warranty. This is actually a shorter warranty than disks had a decade ago which is worrying. Do the disk manufacturers know something that we don't? I think it is unreasonable to expect to be able to retrieve data from a hard disk that has been sitting on a shelf for ten years, never mind fifty. This problem is compounded by the advance of technology. When we got married back in the early 1990's the dominant backup technology was the floppy disk. Try getting a photo off one of those onto your Ipad. Even in the last decade SATA has replaced IDE as the internal disk drive interface. The USB interface has managed to maintain backwards compatibility through several revisions but that won't last forever. I think the only viable solution to this issue is to make a new copy of all your old files every time you upgrade. When USB 4.0 is brand new it will still be possible to retrieve data from a USB 3.0 disk but that may not be the case ten years down the road. The fresh copy on a brand new disk should also protect you for a few more years against your data perishing. There is a small danger of losing integrity during the copying process which is why it is essential to verify your copy immediately after it is made (fastcopy can do this). Of course you must also back up the new disk immediately to protect against infant mortality. 

So there you have it. Backup is far from a simple process.  Am I over thinking this? I am pretty sure that most people do not set aside most of a weekend to setting up a backup process every time they buy a new hard disk?  Nevertheless I cannot think of a way to do it more quickly and still ensure that our data will still be available to us in the future.

Edit: For completeness I should point out that the last time I did this I used disk cloning rather than file copying. Disk cloning creates an exact copy of a disk on to a brand new disk or disk partition. It is generally quicker and easier than file by file copying and it gets over the whole issue of file permissions.  This time however I deliberately decided to do file by file copying for several reasons: Firstly every time you clone a disk you end up with a new physical or logical disk hanging off your PC. I really wanted to reduce the multiplication of drives so I moved all the archived stuff to folders on one big drive instead. Secondly even though cloning ignores file permissions it doesn't solve the problem. When you try to access files on a cloned disk from another PC you may well find you cannot because the new PC thinks they don't belong to you. 

What I've been playing

I am still working through the bounty of Christmas game sales.

Dragon completely enthralled me once again for all of January and well into February. I started with the new to me expansion "Awakenings" but then I went back and did a complete play through of the original game. There is still hours of content left in the DLCs if I ever feel inclined to dip back in.

I spent a few days playing with Far Cry 3 Blood Dragon. This is a very clever re-skinning of the original Far Cry 3 which ports the action from tropical island to a Sci Fi dystopia complete with laser shooting dragons. I liked it and I liked the setting but it didn't hold my attention long enough to do a complete playthrough.

Sticking with Crytek I played through the single player campaign of Crysis 3. I thought it was very good with all the flexibility and free roaming that Crysis 2 had abandoned. You have a multitude of choices as to how to overcome your enemies ranging from a stealthy bow to all out explosive devastation or even hacking handily placed guns and turrets.  Sci Fi Shooters have fallen somewhat out of favour these days but I have always liked them and I think this puts Crisis right back at the top of this admittedly small field.

I also managed to playthrough Metro Last Light [Edit oops - originally said Metro 2033 in error] somewhere along the way. I can't even recall if that was before or after Christmas. I struggled a bit with the "heavy and meaningful" plot but I did stick it out to the end.

Most recently I have started playing Warlock Master of the Arcane. this is on sale at the moment for buttons and I highly recommend it. It got middle of the road reviews when it came out but it has been significantly patched since then and is a very impressive game overall. It looks exactly like Civ V but the emphasis is entirely on combat so it plays quite differently. There is an absolutely huge array of combat units and spells to choose from so the game has significant depth. I have to admit that the AI is pretty poor (on normal at any rate). This suits me just fine at the moment because I am enjoying dominating all around me but you might want to cup the difficulty or even look for a human opponent if you want a challenge from the game.