Thursday, April 26, 2012

Down on the Farm

The Department of Labor is currently proposing rules that would make child labor laws apply to family farms as they do anywhere else. They have long been exempted for practical reasons, but the long arm of the governmental regulating body appears to be poised to go ahead with it.

The details can be found in the article above, but it basically prohibits children from more or less doing anything that is standard on a farm. Also 4H clubs will be a thing of the past (or convert into lame leaf-identifying-offs). And one might see "labor creep"--things such as powering a drill are off-limits to a farm; how long before no 16-year-old is allowed to use one in any home, since the rationale appears to be the same?

On the face of it, some of it seems to make sense. The standard local farm is basically one big violent warehouse of disaster, with evil-looking farm implements and three-ton animals not taking too kindly to your cold hands touching their udder. It's like everything dangerous has been collected into one place, and they let ten-year-olds run around like the world's worst amusement park, only instead of riding rides they're baling hay.

And yet the "family farm" has always held exemptions due to their very nature. These are usually family-run operations, so there's a level of responsibility for safety above and beyond the workplace; it's your son or niece out there, not some random employee. Other family-run business don't normally have such restrictions and can have their kids help (although usually not with heavy machinery). And based on how the proposals appear to be worded, the bureaucrats don't appear to have much of an idea of exactly what goes on in a farm.

Now, I'm not overly fond of the culture of the romantic family farm. I think our agricultural policy in this country is nuts, yet while it breaks my libertarian heart a little, I'm willing to give farmers a little bit of leeway since I'm aware that they are in a unique economic situation (huge capital costs that are difficult to mitigate risk off of due to a volatile commodities market). Still, the subsidy framework and the perverse economic incentives don't make me too horribly concerned about throwing some regulations their way, sort of a blood payment for reaping those economic benefits.

Still, the idea seems asinine. True, there are more underage injuries on farms, but the stats aren't that far out of whack, and, besides, have been falling drastically. I certainly wouldn't force anyone, but spending a summer doing farmwork would do a whole lot of kids a world of good.

And, finally, this is a huge political problem for the Obama administration. It's not like a lot of farm states were going to go his way, but some marginal ones (say, Indiana and North Carolina) could see this as yet another rallying call ("Obama's War On Farms!") against his re-election. And while it might seem like the right thing to do by administrators in the Labor Department, that's the sort of thing you enact at any time other than a few months before a presidential election. Politically, there is no upside--you're going to royally piss off farmers and farm sympathizers, while there isn't anyone out there saying "Well, I wasn't going to vote for him, but now that he's not letting 15 year olds bale hay and effectively ended 4H clubs, he's got my vote!" Not everything should be reduced to electoral politics, of course, especially if it's the moral thing to do, but to say that it's not a factor is being naive.

The Pledge: Our government's policy on farms is stupid enough. No need to make it even stupider.

Monday, April 23, 2012

The Art of Video Games

The Smithsonian recently unveiled a new exhibit called “The Art of Video Games,” a showcase for how video games have changed over the decades. More specifically, it’s basically an exhibit to show how detailed games have gotten when you kill an enemy, from the random red-tinted blocks of yesteryear to today’s blood-soaked fountain of random body parts.

Of course, it’s not without controversy. In some ways it harkens back to Roger Ebert (yes, the movie critic guy) claiming that video games could never be an art form—sure, the actual stills and graphics were art, but taken as a whole the entirety of the piece, with the intent of the game and the necessary interaction—would never be on par with, say, movies or television as art. Of course, this touched off a firestorm of art critics from everyone who claims that only paintings of actual things from 300 years ago are art to people who claim walking through the living room to get a cup of coffee is a “performance piece” and therefore subject to a massive low-oversight government grant. I tend to stay away from such arguments not because I don’t have opinions but because a lot of artists know pot dealers who are willing to cut a guy for money.

Still, for those of us who grew up with video games, it’s a hard sell to consider the art of video games particularly notable. The earliest art in games in the arcade weren’t bad, of course, but then again it often involved plumbers jumping over flaming barrels to hit a monkey with a hammer, so we’re kind of looking at a low threshold of quality. But a lot of us didn’t grow up with arcade games; rather, we cut out teeth on simple, 8-bit consoles such as Atari. And while the games were very fun and quite innovative for their time, they also were not much more than “move this square over to this other rectangle without touching any of the flickering slightly-differently-colored plus symbols and when you hear a BOOOOP that means you get one point. First one to three wins.”

Things got a little better with the personal computer, which rose in prominence only a few years after the original video games consoles. While PCs were more for “productivity,” everyone knew this was a grand lie—you used PCs to spend ten minutes balancing your checkbook and six hours playing some things where you moved a guy that looked like a guy through a castle trying to avoid crocodiles that looked like crocodiles and not green squares that occasionally grew a white square to represent teeth. And actual music that didn’t sound like simply randomly pushing buttons on your touch tone phone was also included. With much more processing power, PCs could have games that simply weren’t repetitive score-building exercises in futility, but full stories that while still mostly ridiculous at least made some sort of sense. Things were still sketchy—many early games could only handle four colors, and there was an awful lot of blocky pixels that were supposed to represent something normal—but for the most part it was a vast improvement on the weirdness that preceded it. (Thanks for the trip anyway, Japan.)

After the Nintendo Entertainment System was released in the late 80’s, it was simply a matter of progression. Obviously art and graphics got a lot better, but by this time there was no mistaking that you were stomping on creepy walking mushrooms or fighting against a robot with lasers. (Although you still couldn’t tell that Metroid was a chick. Oh, spoiler alert.) At that point, it was all a matter of how awesome spaceships could rotate or how big you could make Lara Croft’s (or, for you hardcore fans, Tifa’s) boobs before they started to look more like genetically altered misshapen watermelons instead of just really huge funbags. Making a racecar look like a racecar was no longer the challenge—increasing the pixel rate of the fiery crash is what mattered now.

And, of course, that’s when the art moved from the actual representation of what you saw on the screen to the storyline. You didn’t need a huge backstory to understand why you were in a spaceship blowing up other spaceships when that’s all you were doing. But as the shoot-em-up arcade games went out of favor and other genres took their place—adventure, RPG, massive side-scrolling space operas—the story became just as important (although—again, thanks Japan!—these storylines could be just as absurd as ghosts chasing a pill-popping yellow pizza around a maddeningly inefficient maze). And this is where a lot of enthusiasts part ways—are interactive stories the same as their movie counterparts, or does the viewer’s input irrevocably convert a story into a game?

Quite frankly, I don’t think it matters. While I am sure there is some academic utility in examining the evolution of art in video games, we all know it’s more or less an excuse for nostalgia fans to play the games they played when they were kids. Also: the Japanese are kinda creepy.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Scandal of the Scandal-Free Administration

The Obama presidency has been notable for many reason, but at least one thing is somewhat unique, and that's the lack of scandal. Most presidencies suffer at least some sort of scandal--however minor--four years in. Up until recently, it seems that the Obama presidency was going to be fine. Right now, however, I'm not sure that's going to be the case.

The first indication was a few months ago with the Solyndra scandal, where the government made a ridiculously bad decision to back a solar energy company. It was supposed to be the flagship endeavor of the "Green Jobs" initiative, but it lots horrendous amounts (at least half a billion) of the government's money. While this was an embarrassment for the administration, it wasn't properly a scandal--just some bad misjudgement on the part of the President. (So far, at least. There is an investigation to see if there were other reasons why the government would favor a specific company with so much money and without proper due diligence, but so far there has been no evidence.)

Then, in the span of a few weeks two new scandals popped up: the GSA accounting scandal and the Secret Service Scandal. The details of both are sketchy since they both happened recently, but it involves a lot of gross misconduct from reasonably high government officials. These pretty much fit the description of an old-school scandal, and both coming out at once is a huge embarrassment for the formerly squeaky-clean administration.

It is, of course, no particular surprise that this is an election year. While it would have made the news a year or two ago, it would have been managed by Obama's team. But now, of course, Congress will hold a hearing and pundits will talk about it for weeks on end and it will become an issue--no matter what, there's no way to pretend it didn't happen.

Now, don't get me wrong--I find "scandals" like this to be a nonfactor when judging a president. It doesn't matter if you are a Democrat or Republican or a newcomer or a seasoned politician, you simply can't control the behavior of every single department of the government. (I generally feel the same way about corporations.) You certainly have checks and balances and audits and performance reviews and everything necessary to remove those who abuse their power, but you're never going to be able to control it all. Unless there was any direct misconduct by the White House will this become important--and even then, there's a certain level of plausible deniability for most of the staff. And, of course, it's all relative; the Clinton administration famously had its administration pilloried (especially in its first two years) with small-scale but constant scandals. (Do you remember Nannygate? The FBI Files Scandal? The $200 Haircut? Hillary's cattle futures? Travel Office scandal? Whitewater? National Cemeteries? There were...a lot more than this.) They may not be important but, of course, as Nixon taught us, even the small things might become big ones. So the media (and politicians) pounce on anything just in case it turns out to be the next Watergate.

There is, of course, a certain sense of duty to this--the media and the public ought to be keeping tabs on their election officials. Do these things often distract from real, actual important government administration? Almost always, yes--it's not worth a month or even a day of Congressional hearings about, say, the GSA; the auditors and regulators are doing all the work, while the congressmen are just making political noise. The media firestorms about some of the more recent scandals are most certainly not worth the time and effort in comparison to truly important issues. And yet to let these scandals go without consequence would be wrong as well--even if those consequences are purely political. Like it or not--and depending on your political persuasion and who the scandal is against--scandal investigations play a legitimate part in civic governance.

Will any of these scandals fundamentally derail the Obama Presidency? Most likely not--in fact, the Solyndra non-scandal is probably a more important issue as a reflection of the government's judgement, even though most likely no laws were broken. The GSA/Secret Service scandals will result in a few firings and some awkwardness for the White House staff. Will these scandals be enough to distract the administration and remove from its campaign toolkit a "clean" presidency? Most definitely yes. And while it's not fair, it's also what every Presidential administration since Washington has had to deal with. It comes with the territory and how one handles it is a legitimate part of assessing a President.

The Pledge: Scandals are almost always stupid wastes of time, but we still need to make sure they don't go unanswered.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Spies Like Us

I bet it would be absolutely amazing to be a secret agent.

It’s understandably a hard gig to get. From my extensive research of five minutes of Internet searching and reading one fifth of a Blackford Oakes novel, as far as I can tell the only way to become a spy is to either be born to wealthy parents in New England or be a petty criminal who is good with knives and amorality. But I’m firmly of the belief that it could be done even if you don’t know/kill the right people. It’s a tough slot to fill and the skill set, as it were, is in demand. It’s also occasionally amusing that you’ll hear recruitment ads on the radio, mostly to a listening audience assuming they are going to be assassinating dissidents in Moscow when in reality they will be sitting in a gross dimly lit pale blue room listening to 100 hours of audiotape each day trying to pick out someone saying the phrase “dirty bomb” in Arabic.

One would think that they heyday of the superspy is over. Gone are the days when Soviets and American spies crossed each other, planting double agents and running safe houses and toppling third-world nations. No more playing the Great Game, fussing about the colony system and easily penetrating nations where you have a plausible historical justification for showing up at a Turkish barbershop talking in a British accent and getting away with it. With a new international enemy that doesn’t recognize governments or borders or the normal rules of play (MUSLIM TERRORISTS. I’M TALKING ABOUT MUSLIM TERRORISTS), how can the old system of espionage survive? I don’t know the answer, but I’m pretty sure the answer is money.

Still, the world needs spies. And just what are the perks for becoming a secret agent? Believe it or not, there are plenty:

You get all the power: One of the best parts about being a secret agent is that you’re pretty much on your own. Sure, you get a mission objective and there are rules, but once you’re dispatched to the field and your boss initiates plausible deniability, you can pretty much do what you want. That bodyguard getting on your nerves? BOOM! He’s gone. You want to use C4 or ram a diesel-filled truck through a concrete wall? Depends on whether you want precision or drama. That stop sign? You can’t read Bosnian! Optional traffic law it is! If anyone ever questions you after the fact, you can just claim that the pressure of meeting the objective required snap judgments and they can’t know because they weren’t there. Just keep within the fiscal quarter's budget and the possibilities of your freedom are endless.

You get all the technology: The childish things you see in the James Bonds movies are just props and toys. Any task that requires a real-life remote control car or a car-battery-run heart re-starter is a mission that only exists in XBoxistan. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not first in line to use the latest and greatest from whatever major industrial corporation the government pays to invent things that let us find people and kill things more efficiently. I have no idea what is out there these days, but I bet they are less like poison-dart cufflinks and more like FourSquare for terrorists.

You get full license for cultural insensitivity: Sure, you need to respect the culture in order to infiltrate it. And anymore, when your enemy is of a different, ah, complexion as yourself, you may need to dip your hand in the sad-looking local pool of talent to get recruits, and they are probably not OK with violating the local laws and customs they’ve grown up with. But that doesn’t mean you have to! You want to take a shortcut and desecrate the local spiritual grounds so you don’t have to walk an extra three blocks to the local “masseuse”? Have at it! You want to eat a double-stack hamburger in Madras or a ham on rye with a snootful of whiskey in Medina? Go for it! The world is your oyster, which, by the way, Orthodox Jews and Seventh-Day Adventists can’t eat.

You get all the chicks: If there is one thing that ladies love—and I am basing this off of a Harvard study that watched all of the episodes of The Prisoner, in order—is that they love mystery, they love power, and they love being heartlessly used and tossed aside by mysterious powerful men. (Although, apparently, secret agents no longer hold a monopoly on being mysterious and powerful; the same thing now applies to advertising executives.) So what secret agent wouldn’t use such benefits to his advantage? Female and homosexual spies, that’s who.  I think the allure of the mysterious and powerful  applies to them, as well. But who knows? After all, we all have our secrets.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Friday the 13th

...also happens to be my two year blogiversary. Hooray! Sadly for the public, I have stuck with it for two full years. This, in fact, is my 400th post, which means I've written about 50 posts of iffy quality and 350 posts of stupid shit I do pretty much on purpose.

Oddly, my most-visited blog page involves the death of Osama bin Laden. I have no idea why; I didn't write anything of particular note or thoughtful insight. I assume that whatever I wrote hit Google's word algorithm in just the right spot and made its eyes roll in the back of its head. My other top posts are a hearty mix of candy bars and board games.

Speaking of: there is a slew of board game releases coming this fall. Hopefully I'll be able to not only purchase but play them and get them up on this site. People seem to enjoy it.

Anyway, if you're new to the blog and looking for a primer on some of the things that go on here, take a look here when I wrote my 250th post. Most of the things still apply, though I've tried to cut down on the political blogging so The Pledge hasn't been drug out lately. Don't worry, though, 'cause it's an election year! (Yay?)

I enjoy this, though I'll admit it's frustrating at time. Blogging's always been a sort of vanity project, and there are precious few who get significant readers outside of a core plus bots from Russian porn sites, and barely any make a living off of it. Last month, for some inexplicible reason, my overall viewership dropped like a rock, and is still well under the norm, and I'm not certain why. It could be because people are bored with it. Could be because Google changed their formulas. Who knows?

Anyway, I'll still keep plugging away. As always, contact us here if you have any comments, concerns, or emotional outrages. Until then, looks like it's candy bars and cleavage jokes for all!

I also never formally adopted Pimpin' Abe Lincoln as this web site's mascot as I promised on post #300. That will have to be rectified. Sadly, I still haven't gotten anywhere with podcasting, which is probably just as well.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Helpful Tax Advice for 2012

Tax season is nearly upon us—for those not paying attention, you’ve got like six hours left or something—and millions of Americans are trying to get all of their affairs in order so they can construct the most plausible lie possible to convince a government agency of your tax burden without drawing the ire of underpaid accountants not skilled enough to get work in the private sector going through every receipt you’ve been foolish enough to keep on hand. 

It’s everyone’s goal to reduce one’s own tax burden…and why not? Deductions are created for a purpose, and that purpose is to vote for the person who provided you with that loophole--I mean, American Dream-Building Incentive. And there’s nothing wrong with filing what is rightfully yours. So this year, here’s a list of tax deductions and other regulations new for this year that you may have missed:
  • In addition to getting a tax credit for being born before 1947, they have expanded it to “I accumulate weeks worth of Parade Magazine in my bathroom,” “Back in my day the Hunger Games were called weekdays,” and “I own a Blackberry.”
  • That drawer you have of random Canadian coins and Chuck E. Cheese tokens? You can send that to the IRS, who will gladly accept it as payment of your taxes. 
  • There are several incentive credits you can claim this year: pledge to refrain from stating "First World Problems" or "In This Economy"; stop bitching about the price of gas when you gladly pony up five bucks for burnt coffee water every morning; and retiring that Angelfire page you set up when you were like twelve.
  • Relocation costs can be deducted for quarterbacks moving to and from Denver.
  • You may claim some energy-saving credits still on the books by throwing that Land’s End catalog right directly into the trash. Let’s face it, you’re not gonna order anything anyway.
  • You may amortize your gambling losses throughout the entire Stanley Cup playoffs.The Blues? Really?
  • That donation you made to the Gingrich campaign last week, at this point, can be considered a charitable donation.
  • If you were paid money by your coach to destroy the vertebrae of the opposing team, you may write this off as a business expense.
  • You must claim all those Monopoly bits from McDonald's cups as income, computable in the equivalent numbers of McNuggets. However, you can offset some of that income if you adopt a Grimace.
  • For Mormons, keep in mind that you can only deduct one spouse. Next year it might be different, if you know what we’re sayin’.
  • Betty Draper counts as two dependents.
  • You can request to get your refund on a gas card, which will get you around one full tank of gas AMIRIGHT OR AMIRIGHT?

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Conspicuous Consumption

Nearly two decades ago, the Internet was in its infancy. While the technological aspects of it were still being developed but it was clear what the massive capabilities were going to be, everyone knew that this was something that would easily transform how the world operates. And it did. Along with the technological and economic benefits that it created, there was also a sort of populist angle to it—here was a forum that anyone, anywhere, could use to voice their opinion or stake out their dream regardless of your background. Centuries of global trade created connections, but in a short decade the world truly became a global village, with everyone on earth merely a click away.

And while there was a bit of trepidation about who would get access to this wondrous entity known as the internet, it turned out that monthly access was priced low enough that nearly everyone could get it, and even those that couldn’t could find easy access in schools and libraries. (Obviously, poorer nations of the world had more work to do, but it was only a matter of time.)  People personalized themselves for mass consumption; sometimes this was as humble as a blog (cough, cough), or the next Big Thing that took advantage of low startup costs, minimal labor, and make even the slimmest of margins profitable. This, along with the advent of laptops, tablets, netbooks, and smartphones, and pretty much anyone could be a digital cowboy for a reasonable cost.

Of course, it didn’t take long for people to revert back to the social norms in traditional face-to-face encounters: now that you’re competing against theoretically everyone else in the world, it’s important to present yourself as better than everyone else in order to be taken seriously.

While this sentiment is mostly false—the size of the internet lets all sorts of people become remarkably successful in small niche markets—that hasn’t stopped people from trying. Your opinion of someone changes whether they have an email whose domain ends in @gmail rather than @aol. Platform snobbery is an epidemic (Q: How do you know if someone uses Linux? A: They will tell you), and buying functionally similar computers at vastly different prices is due largely to simple name brands. The same reason why people pay a premium for designer clothes or name-brand coffee that the generic would do just as well is easily applied to the world of technology.

The best, most recent example of this was the expansion of the picture-based application Instagram into the Android system. (Think Twitter, only primarily with pictures.) Previously available only on the iPhone, the moment it was released to millions and millions of other users suddenly made it, uh, “common.” Twitter was alighted with iOS users lamentingthe “end of Instagram,” worried about the subpar pictures and new users clogging up their news feeds. 

Granted, one group particularly known for their superiority is Apple users, but this was particularly harsh. Given the fact that most iPhone users weren’t even Mac users no doubt caused the Smugness Meter of the average Mac user to flip his shit. And now that Instagram has been purchased by Facebook for a cool billion dollars—as an aside, I really, really need to learn how to code—what made the brand cool and hip and worth a billion dollars is devalued as it becomes more popular.

This is hardly a new phenomenon; it’s happened to multitudes of brand names throughout consumer history. But in the wild west of the Internet, where the voiceless got a voice and everyone was equal, it’s a touch disappointing to realize that we’re all back to our same old ways.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Static and Noise: All Clear!

Pennies from Hell: Canada recently banned pennies—or, more accurately, they are slowly phasing them out as a form of currency. Unlike some of my blogging compatriots, I don’t agree with this decision; people who complain about pennies are mostly people with a solution looking for a problem. Yeah, I know, it costs more than a penny to make a penny (specifically due to the increased cost of metals, not the actual manufacture) and due to inflation and other factors pennies don’t seem to make much sense (or cents—ha!). Still, the alternatives, which basically amount to rounding to the nearest 5-cent increment—seems like a bad idea to me. Pennies last forever and while they clog up purse bottoms and ashtrays they’re really not that big of a deal in the long run. Besides, after the invention of CoinStar I sort of assumed that the Grand Problem of Loose Change was more or less solved.

Into the Pitt: Now, don’t get me wrong. I am a huge fan of 1) using creative ways of getting out of fairly important responsibilities, and 2) the harmless but impressive prank. Sadly, some folks at the University of Pittsburgh can’t quite comprehend that rather blatant line between having a solid goof and pissing off an entire organization that has plenty of money, security, and kids with free time. Over the past few weeks, bomb threats have repeatedly been called in on various buildings. When I say “the past few weeks” I mean “every weekday and for multiple buildings throughout the day.” Due to the nature of the threat, of course, they have to evacuate the building each time, as students pour out of classrooms and lessons get interrupted and police resources are redirected. It’s a huge pain in the ass, and there’s a huge reward (read: about 10% of one year’s tuition, or 50 grand) for turning in the culprits. Ah, how many deans out there are longing for the days of flagpole sitting and panty raids?

Trayvon: As with most no-win situations, I've avoided the whole Trayvon Martin fiasco. It's a tragedy all around, but thanks to a lot of factors--including the media, the cops, the Zimmerman side, and, yes, the Treyvon side--there will be absolutely no way that justice can be served. Whether your concern is Florida's well-intentioned but ill-conceived "Stand Your Ground" law, the insensitivity of the police brass, or how Zimmerman has been portrayed, the information is so muddled and confusing and advocates on both sides have yelled loud enough long enough that cramming a jury into a pine-wood bench and getting something resembling a fair trial is a near impossibility. Sadly, this has very little to do with our justice system and everything to do with us.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

It's A Hockey Three Month Period In Pittsburgh

The hockey playoffs start soon, and the matchups are seem pretty close this year: my preferred team, the Pittsburgh Penguins, are up against the long-hated cross-state rivals, the Philadelphia Flyers. Defending Stanley Cup champions the Boston Bruins are playing perennial chokers your Washington Capitals. The remaining two Atlantic Conference teams, less the lowly Islanders, are in the hunt as well, with the Rangers up against the lucky Senators and the New Jersey Devils are matched up against the, uh, Florida Panthers? Yes, the Florida Panthers.

A lot of stuff is going on the the Western Conference, but I have no idea what.

In fact, when I say "seem pretty close" above, that's more or less what I mean--sadly, I have paid very little attention to non-Penguins hockey this year. Not that I normally have a voracious appetite for NHL-wide news and developments under normally circumstances, but usually I have at least a vague idea of what's going on around the team. This year, the Hartford Whalers could have been the #1 seed as far as I knew. And I'll be perfectly honest when I say I haven't paid much attention to Penguin-centered hockey this year, too.

So it's probably sad that I'm not overly impressed with hockey this year. It just seemed like a slow season; I watched very few games, and there is no particular reason as to why. I watched it with Sidney and without, and I watched during the (many) losing streaks and the (many) winning streaks they've had this year. We've gone to at least one game these last two seasons--and I think a few seasons before that as well--but we were unable to do it this year. Thankfully, with a series-long boxing match for the first round of the playoffs, things should get very interesting very quick.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Old Man versus New Things

Is there some sort of requirement for software developers that have this everlasting craving to constantly update applications? I know this sounds like an old man vs technology question, and I realize the answer is blatantly obvious, but I'm finding it to be a bigger inconvenience to my lifestyle than it should be.

Just to be sure, I am mostly talking about interactive web sites and phone applications, not actual software that you purchase from a "store," back when people bought software at stores. First off, I already know the answer: updates add features and make things run smoother behind the scenes. It also corrects bugs and mistakes, which, now that everything has to run off of two or three different platforms, is understandably a mess. So I'm fully aware that software updates are a necessary evil.

But lately, I have found that the following things are true:

  • Software updates rarely actually seem to change any additional features. This leads me to believe it's all stuff under the hood getting fixed. While I suppose I should be glad, this is sort of the thing that makes me think "Why wasn't this done in the first place?"
  • These updates--especially for phones--always seem to make things worse, until they release yet another patch, and then it works pretty much how it did before. The Facebook application for Android is notorious for this; when I download the update, I call it the "I can't use Facebook on my phone for two days update." Sadly, they seem to update it once every two weeks or so.
  • When a web page is redesigned--such as, say, I don't know, Blogger?--I'm never impressed. For example, the Blogger redesign doesn't really make anything more efficient; it just moved things around, and added dynamic bits that take slower to load. Where this demand was for a redesign I'll never know. Facebook Timeline and Google Reader are also good examples.
To be fair, I understand that some of this is just getting used to: a common note is "once you get used to it, it will be better" which while I suppose is true rarely ends up being the case. And I know that these updates may not happen all that often, especially online, but when a user might use two or three dozens applications a day and has to put up with a wonky update a month, once can get a little cranky about it. Do I want developers to never update applications? No. Obviously I want them to make it a better experience, especially since most likely they are free. But the attitude of modern software development always seems to be "we can patch it later if it doesn't work." With software you can do that--and again, with as many platforms and interactions between different programs out there, it's impossible to catch adn fixt hem all upon release--but it seems more of a crutch for laziness than a feature.

I say all this with the caveat that if I were a software developer, I would fully be on board with the "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND HOW THIS WORKS SO SHUT YOUR PIEHOLE" sentiment, so take all of this with a grain of salt.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The Road Not Taken

At one time in my life--a time I would like to point out was after the age of nine--I thought it would be a valid career choice to be a private detective. There were always openings in the newspaper and it seemed like fun. So, why not? I'm sure it was just a few lame certifications and maybe pass a sniff test by a burly man who would hand me a camera and a no-questions-asked policy and I would be on my way to some well-earned riches.

I had this notion that detective work was a sad mixture of Agatha Christie and Law & Order. With the proper application of intelligence, you could gather enough information to solve pretty much anything. I knew that private dicks worked outside of the law, but that was just perfect--it was logic that made the job interesting, not the arcane, artificial rules of the law.

Then I realized that being a private detective wasn't about piecing together scraps of paper to solve a cipher or analyzing medieval poisons to catch a murderer, but mostly involved hiding in bushes to follow cheating husbands, and would most likely result in a fairly constant threat of getting cold-cocked by irate douchebags. And I wasn't going to get very far wearing a Key Club sweatshirt and tricking targets with my extensive knowledge of Magic: The Gathering tactics.

And then I realized that private detectives were often advertised not because they were in great demand and the necessary skills were hard to come by, but because the pay was shit and mostly involved dealing with assholes who want to kill you. So my short-lived fantasy of being the next Sam Spade or Pinkerton was over pretty quick.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Beverage Review: Pepsi Next

Every once in a while, just like candy bars, a new beverage is introduced to the market, and it's usually a slight variation on an existing brand. In this case, the newest addition is Pepsi Next, a low-calorie substitute for regular Pepsi.

This appears to be Pepsi's answer to the reasonably popular Coke Zero, where there is less reliance on sugar substitutes. It appears to be on the standard rotation for stock, as I've seen it pretty much anywhere regular Pepsi is sold.

I am one of those individuals who started drinking Diet Pepsi a long time ago (I don't care for Diet Coke, though I have no problem drinking it), and so moving back to the normal sugar-laced Pepsi was never really an option. It's too sweet and even drinking half of a bottle gives me shades of heartburn at this point. Like Coke, I have no problem drinking it and will accept it if offered, but my taste buds clearly prefer the diet variety.

So how does Pepsi Next taste? Not bad, actually. It tastes very similar to regular Pepsi and doesn't have an aftertaste, though you can tell that it's different and less sweet. It's clearly targeting the market of individuals who don't like the aftertaste of diet drinks but still prefer a low-calorie options.

Sadly, I am not in that demographic. Not that it was bad, but at this point I actively prefer the taste of diet pop at this point. I may occasionally get it just for something different, but it's not something I am going to switch to. So I recommend it greatly if you fit the description above; this is especially true if you're sold on the differences between Coke and Coke Zero. If you are, like me, addicted to artificial sweeteners and caffeine, best to stick with what you have.

The only concern I have with this endeavor is one of marketing. It seems like there's a finite number of variations you can have before everything gets too top-heavy, and I fear Pepsi may have reached it. Right now, there are five "standard" Pepsi variations: Pepsi, Diet Pepsi, Caffeine Free Pepsi, Diet Caffeine Free Pepsi, and Pepsi Max. You'll still see variations such as Pepsi Throwback (with cane sugar instead of corn syrup) and Wild Cherry Pepsi (also, I still see Pepsi One in places, which just confuses me). There's only so much shelf space and slots in vending machines, and Pepsi still has a lot of other brands (such as Mountain Dew or Lipton Iced Tea) that are also options. New releases like this are hard to crack. I'm sure Pepsi has done the appropriate market research and logistics for this, but I'm not sure it's distinct enough to be part of the regular lineup. We shall see.