Random Thoughts – Randosity!

How to add ‘E’ explicit tag to music in iTunes

Posted in Apple, itunes, music by commorancy on March 5, 2017

I’ve been wondering for a while now how those little Explicit or E tags that show up in iTunes. It turns out it’s a relatively simple ID3 tag added to the song, but it does require some setup.

Before getting started

You’re going to need the following software packages installed:

Also, you’ll want to be aware that this tag only works if applied to AAC formatted music. iTunes does not show the icon in iTunes with MP3 formatted music even if the tag is there.

Converting to AAC

If you want to add these tags to your music so that the music shows up as E for explicit or C for clean, you will need to convert your music to the AAC format which produces an .m4a container. How do you convert your MP3s to AAC in iTunes? Here’s how you do it…

Setup

  1. In iTunes go to iTunes menu => Preferences
  2. Under General, click the Import Settings button
  3. Change the Import Using drop down to read AAC Encoder.
  4. Click OK, then click OK again to close preferences.

The above sets your import and conversion settings to AAC.

To convert a song, use these steps:

  1. Find a song you would like to convert in iTunes
  2. Click on the song so it is highlighted
  3. File menu => Convert => AAC Version
  4. Conversion will start immediately. You will see up and down arrows appear in the status bar at the top.
  5. When conversion is complete, it will be in the same folder where the original song is located.
  6. iTunes will also automatically import the song into your library (but not into the any playlists).
  7. If you wish to find the song, search in the upper right search panel and you will find two of the same songs in your library. One of them is the AAC version, probably the bottom one.

Adding the ID3 Tag

Kid3

Open up kid3 from your Applications folder (or wherever you put it). Here are the steps…

  1. In the left panel, navigate to the newly converted AAC song and click highlight it.
  2. Make sure the Tag 2 is open and you’re seeing the metadata for the track (i.e., Artist, Title, etc)
  3. Under Tag 2, click the Add button.
  4. In the Add Frame window and in the Select the Frame ID field, type in Rating (or drop down and select). Click OK
  5. When the Text panel opens next, add what rating you want from this list:
    • 1 = Explicit (E)
    • 2 = Clean (C)
      • (Meaning… from the above list type in the number ‘1’ or the number ‘2’ only)
  6. Click OK to finish adding your tag with the rating.

Note that you will need to save your tags and completely quit out of Kid3 before iTunes will play the song. Kid3 leaves the file open after editing preventing iTunes from getting access to it until kid3 is closed.

Subler

Open up the Subler app. Perform the following steps:

  1. File menu => Open…
  2. Navigate to and select the *.m4a music file, then click Open
  3. When the metadata area shows up below in the Subler window, click the + at the bottom of the window
  4. Choose Content Rating from the drop down
  5. On the highlighted Content Rating line
  6. Click on None and change it to Explicit or Clean
  7. Save the file with File menu => Save

Subler does not leave the file open after editing like kid3.

Once finished adding the tag to the file, double click the AAC version of the file in iTunes to begin playing it. iTunes automatically re-reads ID3 tags on play and the ‘E’ or ‘C’ should now appear on the song’s listing.

MP3 versus AAC

I convert all of my music to MP3 for one very good reason… compatibility. If I choose to move out of the Apple camp for another music player, I don’t have to worry about converting all of my music back or in any having any weird AAC incompatibility issues. While I like having these flags on the songs, I prefer compatibility over tying myself to Apple. I started with mp3’s in my library and I’m continuing that trend. It’s not that AAC is a bad format, it just started out badly because Apple had to create their own.

It irks me just a little that iTunes doesn’t respect this tag on MP3 files even though they could. I also don’t relish the thought of having to convert all of my music from mp3 back to AAC. That process is like copying a copy. It will degrade the music even more simply by converting an mp3 to AAC. I also don’t want to dig out all of my CDs and re-import them as AAC. That’s also not an option. It took me several months just to import my collection to mp3. So, I’m not anxious to revisit that process a second time.

For me, I will convert or use this tagging for limited one-off purposes. That is, if the song is truly explicit, I may convert it to AAC just for that song just so I can add that tag. For songs which are not explicit, it’s way too much effort just to add that little C when I already know the song is clean without it.

Please leave a comment below if you found this tutorial helpful.

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How to setup a black / blank screensaver on a Mac or Windows computer

Posted in Apple, Mac OS X by commorancy on February 18, 2017

Note, this technique should work on any desktop operating system and this technique quite easy to set up. I also realize that Windows offers a Blank screen saver that kind of negates this technique, but here it is anyway. Let’s explore.

Mac Computers

I’m starting with the Mac because it seems so much less obvious considering how ‘easy’ it should be for a Mac. One of the things you’ll notice in the screensaver area is that there is no blank or black screen saver. What people have suggested instead of a black screensaver is to enable energy saver. While this works to turn off the backlight and save it, power savings does other unfortunate things to the computer at the same time.

Energy Saver Problems

What problems do you ask? Well, Apple has taken it upon themselves to also shut down a number of other critical components when the power saver is activated. Windows may be doing this as well. Yes, it does turn off the backlight. Unfortunately, with that it also turns the WiFi and networking off.  This means that if you have a VPN running, your VPN will disconnect. If your company invests in VPN software which does not self-connect on WiFi reactivation, you’re stuck reentering your passwords and setting up your terminals all over again. Unfortunately, I have no control over the software that’s used by my company and I have to live with it. So, I avoid the energy saver system like the plague to avoid random VPN disconnection.

A Screen Saver?

A little history, a screen saver was used primarily to prevent burn-in on CRT tubes. It’s also distinctly different from power saver mode. Since the days of CRT tubes have long since passed, we are now using LCD screens with LED back or side lights. Some screens are made of OLED technology, which means that each pixel is a self-illuminated RGB LED light. With either of the LCD or OLED technologies, the chance for burn-in is almost non-existent. However, some LCD screens can show latent imagery under certain specific conditions if left sitting with the same image for too long. So, a screen saver is still useful. However, a screen saver is most useful as a screen lock indicator.

Black Screen Saver on Mac

The problem is, the Mac doesn’t offer a black screensaver. It expects to to use images to cycle through or other screen savers like a bouncing clock or a bouncing apple or similar.

However, I just want a simple black screen with no movement at all. You’re not going to burn-in your screen with a simple black surface, even though LCDs don’t really do that. To wit, you’ll notice no settings for that ..

screensaver-l

There is no screen saver above that provides a blank or black only screen. So, how do you do it?

Here are the steps:

  1. Find your current Mac’s screen resolution in Finder using applelogoascii => About This Mac. Then click on Display and look for your resolution. In the below example, you see 1440 x 900. It’ll be whatever your Mac offers.display
  2. Make note of the resolution above and jump to Creating a blank image using The Gimp section.

Blank Screensaver on other operating systems

If you find that your Windows system doesn’t offer a blank screen saver, you can follow these instructions:

Windows 7

  1. Windows Button => Control Panel => Display
  2. In Display, click Adjust Resolution
  3. Make note of screen resolution

Windows 10

  1. Windows Button => Control Panel => Appearance and Personalization => Display
  2. In Display, click Change display settings
  3. When the Settings window opens, make sure it’s still on Display. Then, scroll to the bottom of the right side panel and click Advanced display settings
  4. Make note of the screen resolution

Linux

  • Refer to your Preferences and Display settings to find the current screen resolution

Create a blank image using The Gimp

From here, what you’re going to do next is create a blank image in the resolution of your screen. It’s best to cover the entire screen’s pixels with black rather than, say some lower res image like 1024 x 768. This is the reason for discovering the resolution above. Using the full screen resolution prevents unexpected issues with the screen saver’s stretching (or not stretching) the pixels properly. This process can be used on all operating systems that have The Gimp installed.

To create a blank image in The Gimp, use the following:

  1. Open the Gimp (download it here — it’s free)
  2. Make sure your foreground and background colors look like so, with black on left top and white on right bottom:gimpcolors
  3. In the Gimp, File => New…
  4. Then, type in the resolution you found from from your operating system into the Width and Height fields (making sure to put the correct values in each field).
  5. Click Advanced Options and change Fill with: to Background Color
  6. Click, OK
  7. You should now see an image filled with black.
  8. Save the image using File => Export As… and type in a filename and change the file type from .png to .jpg to make the image smaller. Be sure to remember the folder where you are about to save your file.
  9. Click the Export button
  10. In the Export image as JPEG window, click the Export button
  11. You now have a new black image in the resolution of your screen.
  12. From the GIMP menu => Quit GIMP

Now that you have a saved blank image, you need to add it to a list of images where your screen saver looks.

Adding this image to the Mac screen saver

This is a fairly simple concept. You will now use this newly created black image as your only screen saver image. So, no matter what the cycle rate is, it will always cycle back to this same blank image all of the time.

Here’s what I did on the Mac. I created a folder called black-image under my Pictures directory. I’ve placed my newly created image into /Users/myuser/Pictures/black-image/black-image.jpg. I’ve put it in a separate folder because that’s how Mac finds images… by folder. Now, select the folder in the screen saver settings like so:

choosefolder

Where the arrow points, click that selection area, it will open a file requester and then choose the folder where your new black-image.jpg file is. Once you set it here, your screen will turn black when the screen saver activates (as in my case, in 30 minutes).

Windows or Linux

While I know that Windows has a Blank screen saver built-in, you can also use this technique by choosing the screen saver as Photos, then choose the folder where your blank-image is located. For Linux, simply perform the same setup using your preferences to select the photo folder where your save black-image.jpg exists. Once you do this, the screen saver will only show that single black image once the screen saver has activated.

This is actually the safest technique rather than relying on plugins or programs to provide a black screen. It will also continue to work should Microsoft decide, in their infinite wisdom, to be like Mac and remove the Blank screen saver in the next version of Windows.

I prefer this technique to using the power saver because of the issues mentioned above. This allows me to set up a black screen with the backlight still on which also keeps my VPN active. Of course, if you don’t deal with VPNs, then by all means use the power saver.

If this tutorial was helpful to you, please leave a comment below and let me know.

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How not to run a business — Case Study: Sears Holdings

Posted in bailout, bankruptcy, best practices, business by commorancy on February 10, 2017

Back in late 2004 when Kmart and Sears merged to create Sears Holdings, I had to wonder what one failing retail chain could do to help another failing chain. However since 2004, the one thing this new company has proven is that these brands die hard. In 2017, however, I think the answer has come back to conclusively nothing has been gained. Let’s explore.

Back in 2004, I didn’t really dig deep into the $11B dollar merger deal to get the nitty gritty details mostly because I had no interest in two failing retail chains (where I personally never shopped). Though, I already knew the handwriting was on the wall for both of these chains. It was just a matter of time before both chains closed their doors. That they’ve managed to hang on another nearly 17 years is a testament to the cash infusions from a billionaire. I digress.

After deciding to finally dig into this merger deal, however, I have come to find that this deal was instrumented by a former Wall Street darling Eddie Lampert. A wiz bang former Goldman Sachs employee who started his own hedge fund and apparently made mad cash. Though, I’d have questioned why a Wall Street darling would have any interest in the failing retail space. It’s clear, though, Lampert still has no knowledge of retail even after 17 years of floundering with Sears Holdings. Lampert pretends he wants to be the next Jeff Bezos with this investment, but is failing at this for two really big reasons: 1) Lack of innovation and 2) Lack of involvement.

According to his executive staff, Eddie spends most of his time at his home on a private island community in Florida. A community of apparently 86 residents and a staff of private police to ‘protect’ the island. Based on his executive meetings, he literally phones in his CEO job day in and out. He rarely, if ever, makes an appearance in the office.

Running a company by remote control

It’s one thing to be an individual contributor who works remote. Typically, these are task oriented jobs which can be easily monitored for task completion. However, as CEO, there is no possible way you can run a company from behind Skype. However, if Lampert had had substantial previous retail management experience, he might be able to get away with this. Because Lampert has no knowledge of retail after merging Kmart and Sears, he’s effectively flying blind. Even nearly 17 years later doesn’t automatically impart knowledge of retail. It’s clear, Lampert has no business operating this company. Unfortunately, whatever is left of the Sears Holding company is entirely dependent on Lampert for his continual cash infusions (up to $1B) which have kept this listing barge from sinking. However, some boats are best left to sink.

It’s crystal clear, when you buy into a business you know nothing about, you have two choices. One, sit on your arse and assume you’ll figure it out eventually (which usually doesn’t work). Two, dive in head first and learn everything you can about running a retail business. I think it’s a relatively safe bet that Lampert is in the former camp rather than the latter. Instead of being available and actively engaging in the day to day affairs of the business, he sits comfortably at his private island home and dictates policy from a Skype conference call. It’s no wonder this business is being slowly driven into the ground.

For any would-be business owner

As an owner / CEO, you need to be actively engaged in and have passion to drive your business forward, whatever that business is. You can’t sit behind a computer screen at home literally phoning in your CEO day job. That may work for a short period of time, but it won’t work forever. It’s clear, Kmart and Sears are both on the brink of collapse. Why? Because the merger of two ailing turned failing companies was a foregone conclusion without an engaged leader. A CEO / owner is there to drive and guide the business forward. To make the tough choices and ensure the business remains viable and becomes / remains profitable. Your underlings won’t do this on your behalf. They’ll do whatever it is to take their paycheck home, but they won’t go out of their way to run your business. That’s your job.

The takeaway from this case study is that you cannot sit on your arse and expect others to do your work for you. You need to be available in the office often to drive your business. If you don’t take your business seriously, no one around you will either. You need to understand your sales numbers, what’s selling and what isn’t. You need to make strategic partnerships to bring exclusive merchandise (as in the case of a retailer) onto your shelves at a low price as a way to drive customers into your store. You also need to be shrewd to get costs down and profits up. You need to hire a kick-ass marketing team who can bring the demographics into your store. In short, learn your business, understand it, live it, breath it and make it your passion. Own your business’s problems and own its solutions. Also, you need to think outside the box to continue driving all demographics into your establishment(s).

Yes, it would be nice to sit on the beach sipping margaritas all day or behind a gated community in a big mansion and also be a successful CEO of a profitable corporation. That’s a pipe dream that doesn’t happen. You only get that beach time after you’ve done your in-office time and made your money. Retail doesn’t just automatically make money for you. It requires active involvement. You need to actively drive new business into your business. It’s not like your hedge fund where you crunch numbers at a desk and move out bad performers. You need to be in the office driving your staff. You will need to reinvent your business, brand and ideas every so often to remain ‘the place to go for cool new stuff’. Once your retail business is thought of as a mom and dad store, your store is considered antiquated. The mom and dad demographic does make some money, but it isn’t the only demographic spending money and that single demographic will not convert your company from a million dollar company into a multi-billion dollar company.

Why phoning in as CEO doesn’t work

If you aren’t showing up to the office day in and out, you are missing critical verbal queues, having meaningful conversation with your staff and learning the problems that face your business. Keep in mind that some problems are outside problems. Like, for example, the threat to Kmart and Sears has been the internet retailers like Amazon. This means you need to spend quality in office time hammering through new plans to counter growing trends, like Amazon’s quick ship, quick deliver model… like Amazon’s Kindle services. If you don’t keep-up-with-the-joneses, your business is lost. Sometimes the problems are internal problems, like horribly outdated decor and fixtures. Sometimes they are supply chain related.

Since the merger in 2004, Kmart and Sears have both failed to change anything substantial with their store merchandising or, indeed, updating their store look and feel to accommodate new growing trends. Instead, they left their stores looking like something out of the 80s. Who wants to shop in a place with horribly dirty floors, drab coffee stain colored walls and fixtures with chipped paint and rust? Not to mention, that horrid glaring 80s fluorescent lighting job. You want to make your stores inviting and modern, not be a turn off. This is where it takes regularly entering and visiting stores to see how they look, how they feel to a shopper and how the merchandise is being faced. Then draw up plans to remodel your stores.

Being a Billionaire

Not everyone has this luxury. As with Lampert, he’s apparently got lots of money to spend. But, that doesn’t make it spending money smart. The saying, “throwing good money after bad” actually applies here. Why would you want to continue to invest more and more money into a chain not producing returns on your investment? That’s not a good investment strategy. For a Wall Street darling, it really makes no sense at all. Use your gift of understanding good investments and then apply that knowledge to Sears and Kmart. You’ll quickly see your error. It just takes an outside party looking in from the outside to see what someone so close to the matter can’t.

Can Kmart and Sears be turned around? While anything is possible, I’d personally say, “not at this point”. If Lampert had started the turn around back in 2004, he might have been able to pull this listing ship up right. However, because he has become a complacent mostly home bound recluse for many of the last 17 years, a turnaround for this venture is likely impossible with this leadership team. It’s too bad, too. Sometimes we just need to say goodbye to some beloved old brands to let newer brands take us to the next level.

Using time (and lighting) wisely

As a business owner, don’t let your business become a victim of complacency. Expect to reinvent your business every few years to not only keep your business fresh, but also to keep people coming in to see what’s new. Customers value companies that invest in making their stores better. Having a refreshed store means you care about your business. It also means you care about how your merchandise looks on the shelves. If your stores look old and trashy, so will your merchandise. If your store looks new, fresh and well lit, so will the merchandise. It’s literally all about creating the proper mood and perspective in your stores. Lighting has a huge amount to do with this. So, expect to replace old outdated fluorescent lighting with updated LED lighting concepts.

It just comes down to investing money in the right things for your business. It’s clear, Eddie has no clue where to have Sears and Kmart use the money he’s investing. Instead of just throwing good money after bad, ensure that that money is being used to remodel stores, being used to draw consumers in and being used to buy merchandise that fits with the store’s branding.

Unfortunately, both Kmart and Sears haven’t been ‘goto’ places in a very long time. That’s primarily because these chains have not focused on any one area to be proficient at any. For example, Target has revamped its 80s retail-only stance into becoming a neighborhood grocery as well. So, not only can you go to Target to get the latest blu-ray movie, you can also pick up some hamburger and fixings to go with it. It’s a well rounded shopping experience. However, heading into Kmart, for example, yields many deficiencies. For example, the electronics area doesn’t even carry video games any longer. How can you possibly operate a general merchandise store and not carry any video games?

Takeaway

Drive your business smart. Invest money into your business wisely. Remain focused on your goals. Most of all, remain engaged and passionate in everything you do. If you don’t do all of the things that continue to make your business a success, you may end up with a failure. Unlike Eddie Lampert with seemingly endless funds, you may find your doors shut. Though, I believe at some point soon, even Eddie’s pet project of Sears Holding will close. However, if you find yourself as wealthy as Eddie, spend your money however you feel. It’s your money. For the rest of us, driving your business smart is the obvious answer to eventual success. Though, I will say that even as passionate as you may be about your business and as much work as you may put in, there’s still the possibility that your business may fail. Predicting success or failure in any new business venture is tricky as there are so many unpredictable market forces outside of your control. For the things that you can control, you most can certainly guide your business success in the right direction and reduce your chances for failure.

Movie Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 23, 2016

I’m so glad J.K. Rowling decided to bring us to the U.S. with the next installment of the Harry Potter universe (I say with some sarcasm). Unfortunately, Fantastic Beasts is also kind of a mess. Let’s explore.

NOTE: SPOILERS AHEAD. Stop reading now if you want to watch the film.

Timid Characters

One thing I’m never a fan of in storytelling is setting up your main character as both timid and intimidated by nearly everyone around them. However, if there had been just one timid character in Fantastic Beasts, I might have given this trope a pass. Unfortunately, the timid characters extend to practically every role in the film. The timid characters include Newt Scamander (the timid oddball hero from Britain who randomly shows up in New York), Porpetina Goldstein (the demoted Auror who’s as timid as the day is long), Credence (a timid teen with a surprise), Queenie Goldstein (outgoing yes, but timid) and Credence’s witch-hating adopted sister (didn’t even catch her character’s name, but still timid).

I’m fine with a story using a timid trope if the character eventually emerges from their timid cocoon to take on the world. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in Fantastic Beasts.

Unlike Hogwart’s, where you plainly expect the students to be timid and intimidated by the teachers (who are clearly years ahead in magical learning), this trope fails to work in Fantastic Beasts where these magical folk should all be pretty much on even footing. Because these are adults and not children (with the exception of Credence and his adoptive sister), this trope fails so badly as to drag down the entire first half of the film.

No. When I see a movie, I expect the leading characters to eventually emerge as take charge individuals. Not only do they need to express conviction in what they are doing, they need to stand up for it and take charge of their actions and of those around them. This is especially true of the hero. In Fantastic Beasts, that never really happens. Which leads to…

Character Development

Because this story is so light on character development, we are lost with character names, what most of them do and why they are even there. While the place has been established pretty much up front (i.e., New York City), the film can’t help but break one of the cardinal wizarding rules, made so abundantly clear in the Harry Potter films, within the first 10 minutes of Fantastic Beasts… exposing the wizarding world to muggles and letting them go without ‘fixing’ it.

Worse, they start off by discussing nomenclature (“muggle” versus “non-mag”) as though we should run into all sorts of these Americanisms. Yet, later in the film, Percival Graves (the on-again, off-again villain) clearly uses the word ‘squib’ without thought. One could argue it wasn’t Percival Graves during any part of the film. However, if the US folk are calling muggles “non-mag”, then clearly they should be calling “squibs” some other word.

Story

Let’s just say that the first half of the film was a mess. It was all over the place. First, it was about Grindelwald terrorizing London. Then it transitions to be about finding and catching Fantastic Beasts that Newt accidentally lets loose in New York… after he bumps into a non-mag named Jacob who he exposes to magic, first by wand, then by disapparating. And, that’s not even the half of it. Because one of his beasts bites Jacob, he befriends Jacob and takes him ‘home’ (to heal him) and then into his suitcase (which is one of those spaces that’s larger inside than out).

Again later, it transitions to be about an Obscurial (a witch or wizard who doesn’t know it, usually a child). The repressed magic becomes a dark force that can damage or kill.

We’re exposed to many different concepts all at once, but that keep being thrown at us without any full understanding of why any of it’s happening. On top of that, we have all of the timid characters who refuse to take charge of their own situation. They just sit back and watch from the sidelines only occasionally becoming a participant in the action around them when it’s absolutely necessary. Otherwise, they stand there with head hung low like they’re waiting for a scolding.

Halfway Point

At about the halfway point, the pace starts to pick up as some of the pieces finally start falling into place, not just for the characters, but also for the audience. Yet, even though we have a rousing pace that’s pretty much relentless until the end, you still feel more like you’re watching something from the Marvel universe than something in the Harry Potter universe. It just felt too disconnected and too distant from what we came to know of Hogwarts. Is the American wizarding world that much different?

Overall

I liked the second half of the film, but the neat and tidy ending combined with the timid characters left me flat on the characters, the character development and ultimately the hodge-podge story. If it was all just a setup to expose Grindelwald, then that could have been accomplished in so many better ways. For this franchise, I’ll reserve my judgement and hope that a second film might turn out better. For a franchise opener, I guess it’s alright. I was just hoping for a lot more. I certainly got a lot more out of the first Harry Potter film than I got out of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Your mileage may vary.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

App-casting vs Screen Casting vs Streaming

Posted in Android, Apple, computers by commorancy on October 8, 2016

A lot of people seem to be confused by these three types of broadcasting software, including using AppleTV and Chromecast for this. I’m here to help clear that up. Let’s explore.

Streaming and Buffering

What exactly is streaming? Streaming is when software takes content (music file, movie file, etc) and sends it out in small chunks from the beginning to the end of the file over a network. While streaming, there is a placeholder point in time entry point to begin watching. In other words, when you join a streaming feed, you’re watching that feed live. If you join 20 minutes in, you’ll miss the first 20 minutes that has already played. The placeholder point is the point in time that’s currently being played from the media.

What about broadcasting? Is it the same? Yes, it is a form of streaming that is used during app-casting and screen casting. So, if you join a live screen casting feed, you won’t get to see what has been in the past, you only get to see the point forward from when you joined the stream already in progress.

Streaming also uses buffering to support its actions. That means that during the streaming process, the application buffers up a bunch of content into memory (the fastest type of storage possible) so that it can grab the next chunk rapidly and send it to the streaming service for smooth continuous playback. Buffering is used to avoid access to slow devices like hard drives and other storage devices which may impair smooth playback. Because of buffering, there may be a delay in what your screen shows versus what the person watching sees.

Streaming encodes the content to a streaming format at broadcast time. It is also decoded by the client at the during streaming. Therefore, the endpoint client viewer may choose to reduce the resolution of the content to improve streaming performance. For this reason, this is why if you’re watching Netflix or Amazon, the resolution may drop to less than HD. However, if you’re watching content across a local network at home, this should never be a problem (unless your network or WiFi is just really crappy).

Note, I will use the word stream and cast interchangeably to mean the same thing within this article.

Screen Casting (i.e., Screen Mirroring)

Screen casting is broadcasting the screen of your device itself. For example, if you want to broadcast the screen of your MacBook or your Android tablet, it will broadcast at whatever resolution your screen is currently running. If your resolution is 1920×1080, then it will stream your screen at HD resolution. If your screen’s resolution is less than this, it will stream the content at less than HD. If your screen resolution is more than this, it will stream at that resolution. Though, with some streaming software, you can set a top end resolution and encoder to prevent sending out too much data.

Because screen casting or mirroring only casts in the resolution of your screen, this is not optimal for streaming movies (unless your movie is 1080p and matches your screen’s resolution). If your screen runs at a lower resolution than the content, it is not optimal for watching moves. If you want to watch UltraHD movies, this is also not possible in most cases (unless your PC has an extremely advanced graphics card).

For many mobile devices and because screen resolutions vary, it’s likely your screen resolution is far less than the content you want to watch. For this reason, app developers have created App-casting.

App-casting

What exactly is app-casting? App-casting distances itself from the screen resolution by streaming the content at the content’s resolution. App-casting is when you use AppleTV or Chromecast to stream content from an app-cast enabled application on your computer or mobile device. Because the content dictates the resolution, there are no pesky screen resolution problems to get in the way. This means content streamed through applications can present their content at full native resolutions.

For Netflix, ABC TV, NBC TV, Hulu and Amazon, this means you’ll be watching those movies and TV shows in glorious full 1080p resolution (or whatever the app-casting receiver supports and also based on the content). For example today, AppleTV and Chromecast only support up to HD resolution (i.e., 1080p). In the future, we may see UltraHD versions of AppleTV and Chromecast become available. However, for now, we’re limited to HD with these devices.

Though, once an UltraHD version of AppleTV and Chromecast arrive, it also means that streaming to these devices means heftier bandwidth requirements. So, your home network might be fine for 1080p content casting, UltraHD content streaming may not run quite as well without better bandwidth. To stream UltraHD 4k content, you may have to upgrade your wireless network.

Note that Google has recently announced an UltraHD 4k Chromecast will be available in November 2016.

Chromecast and AppleTV

These are the two leading app-streaming devices on the market. AppleTV supports iOS app streaming and Chromecast supports Android OS streaming. While these are commonly used and sold for this purpose, they are by no means the only software or hardware solutions on the market.

For example, DLNA / UPnP is common for streaming to TVs, Xbox One and PS4. This type of streaming can be found in apps available on both iOS and Android (as well as MacOS, Linux and Windows). When streaming content from a DLNA compatible app, you don’t need to have a special receiver like AppleTV or Chromecast. Many smart TVs today support DLNA streaming right out of the box. To use DLNA, your media device needs to present a list of items available. After selection, DLNA will begin streaming to your TV or other device that supports DLNA. For example, Vizio TVs offer a Multimedia app from the Via menu to start DLNA search for media servers.

Note that you do not have to buy an AppleTV or Chromecast to stream your tablet, desktop or other device. There are free and paid DLNA, Twitch and YouTube streaming apps. You can stream both your display and possibly even your apps using third party apps. You’ll need to search for DLNA streaming app in whichever app store is associated with your device.

DLNA stands for Digital Living Network Alliance. It is an organization that advocates for content streaming around the home.

App-casting compatibility

To cast from an application on any specific operating system to devices like Chromecast or AppleTV, the app must support this remote display protocol. Not all apps support it, though Apple and Google built apps do. Third party applications must build their software to support these external displays. If the app doesn’t support it, you won’t see the necessary icon to begin streaming.

For example, to stream on iOS, a specific icon appears to let you know that an Apple TV is available. For Android, a similar icon also appears if a Chromecast is available. If you don’t see the streaming icon on your application, it means that your application does not support streaming to a remote display. You will need to ask the developer of that software to support it.

There are also third party casting apps that support streaming video data to remote displays or remote services like Twitch or YouTube. You don’t necessarily need to buy an AppleTV or Chromecast to stream your display.

Third Party Streaming Apps

For computers or mobile devices, there are a number of streaming apps available. Some require special setups, some support Twitch or YouTube and others support DLNA / UPnP. If you’re looking to stream content to the Internet, then you’ll want to pick one up that supports Twitch or YouTube. If you’re wanting to stream your data just to your local network, you’ll want to find one that supports DLNA.

You’ll just need to search through the appropriate app store to find the software you need. Just search for DLNA streaming and you’ll find a number apps that support this protocol. Note that apps that don’t require the use of Chromecast or AppleTV may tend to be less robust at streaming. This means they may crash or otherwise not work as expected. Using AppleTV or Chromecast may be your best alternative if you need to rely on having perfect streaming for a project or presentation.

Basically, for stability and usability, I recommend using an AppleTV or Chromecast. But, there are other software products that may work.

Everything wrong with Corporate America: Wells Fargo

Posted in banking, botch, business by commorancy on September 14, 2016

corporateUnless you’ve been out of touch, you’ve probably read the recent articles regarding Wells Fargo’s recent activity of illegally and silently creating over 2 million credit card and deposit accounts against unwitting Wells Fargo customers! If that’s not enough, Wells Fargo then rewards its executive for this illegal behavior with a $125 million golden parachute on departure. If not, let’s explore.

Wait.. What happened?

To catch you up… Wells Fargo’s Community Banking division, the division which currently is (until the end of 2016) headed up by Carrie Tolstedt, had instituted sales quotas on credit card and bank accounts. This mean that the sales teams had to sell and open a specific number of accounts each day, week or month. These quotas lead to 2 million accounts being illegally and silently opened against people who had no knowledge of the card’s or account’s existence. Effectively, this is identity theft, right within the bank where you do business (assuming you bank at Wells Fargo).

This fraud was uncovered recently by the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency and the city and county of Los Angeles. Unfortunately, this illegal activity by this well known and respected bank is now putting that bank under fire, scrutiny and loss of trust. While that scrutiny is now a problem for Wells Fargo reputationally, the bigger problem is that these execs (who are clearly not executive material) end up walking away with millions of dollars in their pockets as rewards for wrongdoing.

This is the #1 problem with executives and executive compensation in America. Executives can now create and engage in illegal schemes, see them through to execution, then walk away as if nothing happened with huge piles of ill-gotten money. Though, I’m quite sure this problem extends to all parts of the world in all executive roles. It’s just that in America, white collar crime like this gets away with a slap on the wrist, millions of dollars in compensation and a shiny new executive job at another corporation. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Carrie Tolstedt named CEO at a new company.

What happened to real law enforcement?

It seems that law enforcement is only needed if, as a person, you rip off $500-1000, run a stop sign, have a rear tail light out or speed. As a corporate executive, you get a pass. Unfortunately too, Wells Fargo is a huge bank which underpins a huge portion of the economy. While I fully agree that this bank and all of its executives should be brought up on major and serious charges of fraud with each and every executive held accountable, it likely won’t happen. If this bank is “taken down” by the feds in rightful retaliation over this level of fraud, the economy will tank.

It’s a catch-22 situation. The government knows that if they even begin to touch Wells Fargo in any legal action, the economy will take a huge nosedive. Seriously, taking down a bank as big as Wells Fargo will have such far reaching ramifications across the globe. It could probably even spark a global financial meltdown. This is the reason AIG wasn’t taken down (or allowed to die) for its role in the housing bust and, instead, was actually bailed out by the government.

For this reason, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) has instead only lightly fined Wells Fargo $185 million (only slightly more than the $125 million payday that Carrie Tolstedt walks away with) and is mostly chump change to a company like Wells Fargo. Though, the CFPB claims Wells Fargo’s $185 million is the largest fine it has ever levied. That may be the case, but it really is chump change to this bank. The “largest fine” statement is also just posturing for public approval. If you want to impose a truly large fine, impose a fine that makes a bank like Wells Fargo think twice about doing something like this again, like $1 billion. Worse, Wells Fargo likely won’t even have to pay the whole $185 million. Wells Fargo’s lawyers are likely to appeal and get it reduced (in a closed door agreement) to like $25 million (or less).

Let’s consider that the government bailed out Wells Fargo not that long ago with $25-36 billion in cash that Wells Fargo didn’t really need. So, it’s not like $185 million will even make a dent in the books at Wells Fargo. Wells Fargo likely made more than $185 million in interest alone holding onto those billions in federal aid, so this is basically the government slapping Wells Fargo on the wrist and taking back only the tiniest bit of money that Wells Fargo made off of holding onto that bailout money. Not to mention how that bailout money was even used… let’s just say, it was used less for bailing anything out than for advancing Wells Fargo’s business plan.

This is the reason the feds won’t touch banks when they run afoul with illegal and fraudulent activities. If Carrie Tolstedt and John G. Stumpf (CEO) see the inside of a courtroom over this issue either personally or as part of a Wells Fargo lawsuit, I’d be totally surprised.

Disavowing Knowledge and Placing Blame

John G. Stumpf has now firmly placed the blame on his staff for this activity. He is now attempting to disavow any knowledge of this scam. I call bullshit on that. You’re the CEO, if you don’t know what your direct reporting staff are doing with their teams, then you shouldn’t be a CEO. Sales goals are not set by the sales staff. Sales goals are set by the management team full well knowing what those sales goals might lead staff to do to make those sales numbers. When sales goals are too aggressive or too unreasonable or outright stupid, then corners are cut to make the numbers. And, that’s exactly what happened… corners were cut.

If a handful of accounts were created by one or two people, then you might be able to disavow this activity as rogue sales staff. But, since 2 million of these accounts were created by apparently 5,300 now-fired staff (more than a handful of people), there is no way that either Carrie or John can claim no knowledge of this activity or claim rogue staff. They may have even condoned the activities.

This is not only an illegal use of the bank itself, but it’s also an accounting scandal in and of itself. It means that Wells Fargo illegally reported earnings on accounts that shouldn’t have existed knowing that they shouldn’t have existed (hello KPMG). So, not only is the creation of the accounts a problem, it also means that Wells Fargo’s books now need to be 100% audited for any other illicit reporting activities. If this was knowingly going on directly under Wells Fargo’s executives’ noses (and KPMG’s noses), what else did they condone? This means restated earnings. Someone needs to crack those books open and now.

Eliminating Quotas by the end of 2016?

Seriously, Wells Fargo you were just called on the carpet for illegal activity, yet you are not stopping these sales quotas immediately? I mean, as in today? Wells Fargo has stated they will stop them at the end of 2016 coincidentally when Carrie Tolstedt walks away with her $125 million golden parachute.

Why wait an extra 3 months to cancel that sales quota activity? Why keep Tolstedt on board and reward her all the while keeping these quotas in effect? It’s what got you into trouble in the first place. If the sales team members were told to create fake accounts under real people’s names, what else might they be doing under these sales quotas? No, these quotas need to stop today, not in 3 months.

What are we teaching our children?

Here we have a well respected organization (or so we thought) … a bank … that is supposed to handle our money efficiently and we find a scam under the hood. That the money they have made off of that scam is diverted by the millions into executive salaries and compensation. This teaches our children that so long as we attend an Ivy League school, complete with a graduate degree in business and get a C-level executive job, we can line our pockets with cash no matter what illegal activities we perform against the public. And, we get away scott-free and never see the inside of a courtroom.

This is the whole reason executive compensation must be revisited and must also become regulated by the government, not by the corporation. If you make it to C-Level executive, then your position should be accountable exclusively to the government. Unfortunately, this goes against the tenets of private enterprise. But hey, I think it’s abundantly clear that there is no such thing as corporate governance. We’ve had so many of these issues year over year (Enron, Volkswagen, FIFA, Toshiba, etc). And now, we add Wells Fargo to that list and it’s time to put a stop to it. It’s quite clear that corporations cannot and will not govern themselves in an appropriate manner. When money is involved, stupidity reigns supreme. Working at a bank like Wells Fargo is a dream job for any would-be crook. You can basically set up any sort of ponzi scheme and completely get away with it. This is what we are teaching our children.

It must also become that each corporate executive is now held personally and legally liable and accountable for any wrongdoing performed under their watch as an executive for any company they govern (going all of the way to the CEO). The business itself should be held legally liable separately from any actions brought against each individual executive. No longer should ‘incorporation’ or ‘LLC’ shield executives from liability. No insurance policies should be issued or allowed to cover for such illegal activities. And… any ill-gotten gains received during their reign over illegal activities must be immediately forfeited to the government as a fine. Let these crooked C-level executives lose everything they own and end up in federal prison. These people do not deserve future jobs as executives.

There is no way Carrie nor John can deny knowing what went on in their organization. Only executives can require mandates which enact sales quotas over these types of sales activities. This meant that they were fully and completely aware of the activities of their sales staff. There is just no excuse for these types of behaviors from executives. However, it’s even worse that these corporations reward their executives with huge cash payouts when they allowed illegal activities to occur.

Ice Cream Hard Shell Topping Recipe

Posted in food connoisseur by commorancy on August 31, 2016

I don’t often do food related posts, but in the spirit of randomness, I’m going to do one today. This recipe shows you how to create a hard chocolate shell for ice cream. Let’s explore.

Preface

Unlike some recipes on the net that require you to cook down your chocolate, this one doesn’t require any cooking. In fact, this recipe is so simple and fast, you can create your chocolate shell drizzle in under 5 minutes.

Ingredients

Coconut Oil
1 tbsp Cocoa Powder (I like Hershey’s)
2-3 packets Stevia powder or Sweet N Low powder or Splenda Powder or finely ground sugar

Instructions

This will produce 1 serving for immediate use. Make sure your coconut oil is liquid and not solid. Place it in the microwave and warm it in 30 second increments to liquefy, if needed. Coconut oil becomes liquid above 76ºF/25C. I keep mine on top of the fridge where it gets warmth from the condenser coils and remains liquid most of the year.

In a small container that you can seal, like a small condiment container, pour in 1 tbsp of cocoa powder. On top of the cocoa powder, pour in 2-3 packets of your preferred sweetener. Note, the sweetener must be dry. Do not use any liquid sweeteners as they are made of water and water and oil don’t mix.

The reason I don’t give an exact amount of coconut oil to add is that depending on how thick you like your drizzle, begin by adding a small amount (1/4 tsp) of coconut oil and stir. The less you add, the thicker the drizzle will be. The more you add, the thinner. Keep adding more oil a little at a time until you get your desired consistency. If you go too far with oil, you can always add in more cocoa powder.

Taste the mixture to make sure it’s as sweet as you like it. If it’s not sweet enough, add another packet. If you plan to use this as a hard shell on ice cream (and I’m assuming you are), then you don’t need it overly sweet. The ice cream’s sweetness will take care of that.

Notes

The coconut oil will make the mixture dissolve almost instantaneously. So, don’t worry about clumping or any other problems with the dry powders. You also don’t need to cook or in any way heat the final mixture to use it. It is ready to use immediately after mixed.

If you have any leftovers, don’t refrigerate. Cover and leave in your cabinet. If the mixture hardens because the temperature has gotten too low, hold it in your hand and then stir the mixture to warm it up. It will quickly liquefy for use again.

Note that this mixture will produce a hard shell. It is literally crunchy. If you prefer a softer shell, add in a few drops of vegetable oil. This will prevent the shell from getting fully hard. The more vegetable oil you add, the softer the shell will be. Though, it will still harden. If you would prefer it even more crunchy add in some chopped nuts.

Serving

Pour the drizzle on top of your ice cream. It will take about 30-45 seconds to fully harden. It will change from a shiny surface to a dull matte surface once hardened.

Bon appetit!

A Review of No Man’s Sky

Posted in botch, video gaming by commorancy on August 30, 2016

No Man's Sky ShipThis game is getting a lot of flack, particularly for being boring. Let’s explore.

Sold To The Wrong Audience

In this day and age of Call Of Duty, Destiny, Titanfall, Grand Theft Auto and Skyrim, gamers have become jaded. We, as game players, are used to these huge story driven games. Games that talk (ahem, preach) about some topic near and dear to the developer’s heart.

Unfortunately, Hello Games made a critical error in its bid to woo a lot of gamers on-board. Before that, let’s get one thing perfectly clear, No Man’s Sky is an eclectic open world exploration game made on an indie budget. It is not a story driven blockbuster. Trying to woo in the gamers who are used to playing contrived and mostly rail-based story games was the wrong audience to bring. This is an audience that will take one look at this game and call it a “nothing game with no story” and boring.  Yes, it’s very slow paced and very VERY open world.

Hello Games shouldn’t have tried to shove a round peg into a square hole, though with enough work it can be achieved. Unfortunately, these types of gamers are now posting one star reviews all over Amazon. This was mistake number one.

Over-promised and under-delivered

For those gamers who were watching this game’s development very closely since 2014, when those same gamers got their hands onto this game, they were sorely disappointed. What they saw on the demo was an unrealistic contrived world crafted by artists solely for demonstration. It wasn’t the actual in-world gameplay. It was a prototype of what the game might be. Was that a promise to deliver? Did they actually fail to deliver? That’s for you to decide.

Personally, I don’t think they under-delivered. I personally think that what they achieved as a small indie developer team is pretty frickin’ awesome. Not only did they manage to get the release out the door (mostly functional), they did achieve most of their objectives with the game. This is a far cry more than I can say for some Kickstarter campaigns. Don’t get me started there.

However, there were promises made around space combat that haven’t panned out. All of the space combat I have found has been random encounters, usually based on the fact that I’m carrying too much valuable loot. It’s pretty contrived and the space battles have nothing whatever to do with the overall story, such that it is. Failing to deliver even one promised feature is mistake number two.

Story Based Games

caveWhile No Man’s Sky does offer a get-to-the-center-of-the-universe story arc, that’s really pretty inconsequential compared to how many star systems there are and what you can do and see there. While I will say that the worlds can be somewhat repetitive, the animals are diverse, the flora is diverse (sometimes abundant, sometimes devoid) and the planets can even be hostile, contain water or contain huge cave structures. Unfortunately, far too many of the resources are duplicated throughout each world. For example, the hexagonal iron and the crystalline plutonium structures which are the same on every planet. In other words, some things aren’t procedurally generated.

What Hello Games failed in was the open worldness of the entire universe they created. Instead of promoting and touting exactly how much the universe is diverse, they instead focused on the story arc leading to the center. And, they expected gamers would follow suit and also fall in love with that. Unfortunately, how can we?

A story starts with characters and in No Man’s Sky, we have none (other than a few sparsely populated aliens sitting or standing in structures). Aliens, I might add, that do not walk, talk (other than in gibberish language), fight or do anything else other than stand there and look pretty. The worlds themselves are devoid of humanoids entirely. The only thing you’ll find on the worlds are animals… and some are a might strange at that. Without a cohesive set of characters, it’s hard to wrap your head around that there is a story. This is mistake number three.

Procedurally Generated Environments

This is a catch phrase that makes up for a large amount of the banter around this game. Instead of focusing on the fact that the worlds are crafted in a bunch of code, we need to focus on the lack of story. So many people came to this game thinking that there would be a story. Instead, the story is a loose thread of getting to the center of the galaxy. That’s not a story, that’s a quest. Unfortunately, it is among about 3-4 actually defined quests in this game. For example, learning words of the Aliens seems to be another type of quest. What happens when you finally learn all the words, I don’t know. Is it related to the center-of-the-galaxy story arc? Again, I don’t know. When I get there I might, but I’m not there yet.

It’s great that the worlds are crafted entirely in code. But, what I find is that the random hilly landscape of most worlds is tedious to traverse. Worlds should be made up not only of rolling hills, but they should be made up of mesas, deep ravines and all manner of flat plains. It should also be made of of volcanoes, ice and snow and water. Though, I have found a mostly water world that is highly radioactive.

Suffice it to say that of all the things that Hello Games got right was the procedurally generated landscapes, even though they can be tough to navigate on foot.

Starts Very Slow

Yes. Yes, it does. As with most games of this genre (I’m looking at you Elite II: Frontier), the game starts you out with a small everything: ship, suit, money, inventory, inventory slots, resource, etc. You name it, the game starts you out small… very, very small. To progress, you must have a lot of patience. Some might say, the patience of Job. That is, the patience to wade through the constant recharging of your suit, recharging your power ups, recharging your equipment, recharging your ship, recharging your gun and keeping up all of the things that help keep you alive. On top of that, the game requires you go out and find the resources to keep those recharges going. And, in the beginning, it’s a constant battle for survival. It can take several real hours to level your gear up enough to even dent making No Man’s Sky somewhat bearable.

Again, this was a mistake. Most games today offer Easy, Novice, Intermediate and Hard levels. Hello Games should have worked this in. For those who end up on Easy, you can skip all of the constant recharging and jump right into space battles and other types of combat. Better, the game should have offered character classes. Classes that would have allowed for more diverse suits, access to specific types of ships, to let people choose whether to explore, smuggle, trade or what ever profession they chose in this universe. It’s a diverse universe with almost infinite planets. Constraining the player to a single type of personality goes against the diversity of the universe.

Adding classes allows for more weapon choices. Instead of just the multi-tool, you could get a real gun, a saber or even add other character enhancements (powers). This would take No Man’s Sky to a whole new level. Unfortunately, Hello Games focused way too much of its effort on the procedural generation and not enough on the game mechanics of what you would actually do on these worlds once there. This is mistake number four.

Mercantile System

While there is a commerce system in the game, it is naively designed, arbitrary in its creation and what I would call bare-bones-basic. So, while you can sell found resources (gold, plutonium, carbon, emeril, pearls, etc), you cannot sell your ship, sell your weapon or sell certain crafted items. In fact, when you go to the store (which consists of what looks like an ATM), what you can sell is strictly controlled by the store, not by what’s in your inventory. For example, Dynamic Resonators (a key item in crafting pieces of your hyperdrive) are not purchasable or saleable in the store and do not show up when you attempt to sell or buy stuff.

Worse off are the ships. While you can buy star ships from various aliens that show up on landing pads, you cannot sell your ship. In fact, if you do buy a ship from an alien, your old ship now becomes abandoned where you left it. You can reclaim it if you want, but then you’ll abandon the other one. This means you cannot own more than one star ship at a time. You also can’t sell your star ship to get money back towards a new sale. This is all the more frustrating because these ships cost a mint (like 4 million units for the smallest decent ship and up to 50 million for a 39 slot job).

So, while it’s perfectly fine to go mine for resources (and sell them), you can’t sell your ship or weapons? I don’t think so. This is huge mistake number five.

What did they get right?

The worlds and the way they look. The stylized futuristic worlds are amazing to behold and stand on (when you’re in the sunlight). When it’s dark, not so much. When you’re in caves, the suit doesn’t have a flashlight. In fact, there is a flashlight, but unfortunately the flashlight is disabled when the sun is up (even if you’re in a cave). Yet another faux pas. So, there’s no easy way to illuminate dark places at times. Thankfully, Hello Games got the bio-luminescence of the plants right to at least illuminate enough of the underground world so that not having a flashlight isn’t so much of a problem. But, having a flashlight available all of the time would definitely help.

The multi-t0ol. For being both a weapon and a mining tool, it works quite well against sentinels and animals alike. The tool itself is rather generic, though. Calling it a multi-tool makes me think of a Swiss Army Knife. It doesn’t make me think of a gun. Still, it works well once you have the right power up mods on it.

Mining. Looking for and locating resources works very well. Unfortunately, the resources are always too abundant on every world. You can always find plutonium to power your suit and other things. If you end up in a cave, you can usually find lots of plutonium (and other resources). It’s not exactly hard to find the stuff you need, it can sometimes just be time consuming if you find yourself walking around the planets a lot.

Exploring. It’s easy to get around the worlds and find new stuff.

Selling stuff. It’s easy to find and sell stuff to make credits. It’s practically impossible not to find stuff to sell. Though, you can’t sell animal skins. You can sell resources, but not animals.

What they didn’t get right?

Space battles. The battles in space are random encounters with random ships. Ships that come in large squads and that usually outstrip your ship’s armament and shields. I’ve learned to simply avoid these battles by landing on a nearby world. Just make sure you stay close enough to a world that you can dive-bomb the world and land. Otherwise, you may be forced to find your grave in space.

Graves. When you die, your ship drops all of its cargo, or your suit drops all of its inventory. This is highly frustrating because you’re forced to work your way back to where you died and pick it all up. If it’s in space, you’re likely to run into those ships that began your space battle while trying to pick it up.

In-game Commerce. While it’s relatively easy to sell resources, the fact that you can’t sell your star ship or weapon or, indeed, own more than one weapon or star ship leaves a lot to be desired. If anything, the commerce system is so rudimentary that I’m surprised it works at all.

Lack of Story. Since there are no characters, it makes it hard to offer a story arc that makes sense and is even worth hearing. Writing stories is hard, I get that. But, there are plenty of story writers you could hire.

Lack of Humanoids. Since there is really no story, there’s likewise no characters. So, the game doesn’t need humanoids walking and talking on the worlds. But, not having them there does make for a rather solitary and, dare I say, boring environment. Meeting up and talking to humanoids would at least offer something to do besides scouring for resources… even if the humanoids have nothing to do with the story.

Repetition. You end up doing the same things over and over far too many times. While I agree that it’s important to drive the point home about recharging everything, at some point you need to find a suit and ship enhancement that auto-refills everything. Finding this enhancement makes you fully appreciate having done it manually.

Hyperspace Star Map. It’s hard to navigate. For those of us who need to invert the Y axis, navigating the hyperspace star map is extremely cumbersome because there is no setting to inverse the camera. Worse, because the stars are not labeled at all, you have no idea which star is which. Instead, you are forced to touch and look at each star to know if you’ve already been there or not. There is no indication (color, shape or any other distinguishing visual characteristic) to know which you’ve already visited (in case you want to go back there or avoid it). Instead, you have to click on it to find out.

Overall

I give this game a solid 5 out of 10 stars. They got about half correct. The other half is cumbersome, repetitive and annoying. I wanted a solid space adventure and received a lesson in tedium. It’s definitely not game of the year, yet. It needs a whole lot more work for that. But, considering the sheer number of worlds to explore, see and land on, it’s still an amazing achievement for an indie game developer. Is it worth playing? That depends on if you require a story or if you can be satisfied by making up your own as you go.

If you work at Hello Games, please read this. Lose the center-of-the-galaxy idea and focus on exploration and making space battles actually fun… and fix that blasted Hyperspace star map to respect an inverted Y axis and add names next to stars already visited. Let’s get to work. Chop Chop.

How not to run a business (Part 13): Hiring

Posted in business, Employment by commorancy on August 21, 2016

I’ll preface this article by saying that there is no magic bullet to hiring, even though a lot of people want there to be. Any processes put into place to reduce the number of resumes to dig through will weed out potentially good candidates. If you believe that your weed out the methods are effective at helping you find just the right candidate, you are mistaken. Let’s explore.

Don’t believe your weedout methods work

As a hiring manager, when you have a large stack of resumes sitting on your desk, your first thought is likely, “how do I read through these rapidly?” Unfortunately, there is no easy answer or magic bullet for digging through resumes.

Instead, what you need to understand is that to find the best candidate you need to read through and carefully examine every resume and every candidate. Clearly, you will find resume submissions that don’t make sense. If you try to find an easy way to skip reading, you’re going to weed out candidates that could be a good fit for your company. On the other hand, by skipping resumes, you may ultimately be left with bad candidates who are not a good fit for your company.

Don’t skip reading resumes

Many companies try many forms of pre-screening methods to limit reading resumes. Methods that include psychological tests, aptitude tests, technical tests or any combination of those tests. Depending on the position for which you are hiring, it may also include other tests such as  lie detector tests (i.e., in trust or money related positions).

Don’t get caught up in the pre-screening process and forget about finding the best candidate for your job position. If you are simply too busy and your primary goal is to get rid of half or three quarters of the resumes on your desk, you have entirely lost sight of your goal and you might as well just randomly select three quarters of those resumes and throw them in the trash. That’s how effective such early weed out methodologies are in finding the right candidate. If you believe the hype that tests are effective at finding just the right candidate, your test provider is blowing smoke. You’re paying money for nothing. That test provider is only there to sell you into their testing service, not provide you with an effective service to locate quality candidates. This comes to…

Why tests fail you

Tests weed out people who are good or bad at taking tests. If your job role is all about taking tests every day, then weeding out those who can’t take tests makes sense. However, if your job role is something other than taking tests (which most real world jobs are), then testing your candidates may weed out people who may be a good fit for your role. Not every person on the planet is good at taking tests. Tests take a certain mindset, require specific thought processes and requires quickness on your feet. It’s a mode each person gets into solely for taking tests and never a mode you get into for actually doing job-related work.

For example, in technical positions where correctness and completeness is the key to prevent mistakes, test taking is the exact opposite of what you want in your role. You want people who are careful, methodical and have attention to details. You don’t want people to rush through the work and guess at answers because that’s the quickest ways to mistakes. Multiple choice tests are extremely bad at determining if a person offers attention to detail, is a good communicator, has the skills you want or at  predicting effectiveness in a job role.

Tests also fail to screen candidates properly because apptitude, IQ and management tests do not assess a candidate’s job skills at all. Worse, the assessment it seeks might not even be relevant to their job role and may even erroneously assess the wrong skills.

How do you find a good candidate?

If you’re actually looking for the best candidate to fulfill your position, then you will need to spend the time and go through each and every resume from top to bottom and weed them out in the normal way …. by reading.

I understand time constraints. I really do. You want the easiest and fastest way possible to find your candidates without spending a lot of time on this process. This is especially true if you have thousands of resumes to review. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer. Tests won’t do it. Random selection won’t do it. Only by reading through the resumes and talking the candidates will you find the right person for your job role.

If you don’t have the time to spend on the hiring process, then you probably shouldn’t be in a hiring position. If you cut corners, then will get what you deserve. Yes, it is very tempting to use third party pre-screening technologies, like testing, to eliminate candidates sight unseen, but be prepared to potentially eliminate some of your best candidates by doing so.

Job Postings and Resume Volume

If you do actually have 10,000 resumes on your desk, then you’re likely posting your job ad too broadly. Posting your job too broadly is your first mistake. Not only will it bring in too many candidates, it will bring with it many recruiter calls (something will you want to avoid if your intent is to hire internally). Use limited job boards and job ads when posting your jobs. If one venue doesn’t work, wait until that job ad expires before posting it somewhere else. Don’t just blanket the internet everywhere to find candidates.

If you need your position filled yesterday, and who doesn’t, that’s just not going to happen if you’re looking for a Rock Star. If you need someone now, then consider hiring a contractor to fill the role to buy you time until you can find the right permanent candidate.

Overall Best Practices

Forcing any kind of pre-screening tests onto candidates is really no more effective than doing it the old fashioned way. In fact, the old fashioned way of reading through resumes and calling them for phone screens is probably the easiest, fastest and most reliable way to determine if the candidate is a good fit. It is also the best way to determine if you should progress the candidate to the next stage of interviews.

Yes, there are many testing services out there willing to take your money for the promise of producing high quality candidates. In the end, you’ll find that you could have found those candidates on your own without spending that money on a testing service.

Part 12 | Chapter Index

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Disney Infinity 3.0 Review: He’s Dead Jim

Posted in botch, business, video game by commorancy on July 18, 2016

[Updated 10/6/2016] I’ve never taken the time to write a review of Disney’s Infinity 3.0 (or any other version) because it wasn’t really worth a review. However that has changed. I feel now is the time to write one considering Disney has recently canned the entire Infinity video game project and it is now officially dead along with Avalanche software’s involvement. Disney Infinity will continue to deliver on the remaining toys and playsets that were in the process of being manufactured in 2016, but anything not already in the manufacturing process won’t see the light of day. Let’s explore.

Focus on Core Business?

That’s what Disney would have us believe. They state that while the 1.0 iteration of Infinity did well, the 2.0 and 3.0 iterations have not done nearly as well. I will explain the reason for that later.

Instead, I believe that getting rid of Infinity is a monetary method to focus on their core business. Well, that is to say they want to focus on their theme park business. Disney is, in fact, financially struggling with their theme parks. Specifically, the Shanghai Disney location is apparently sucking up tons of money and is way over-budget. In an effort for the whole of Disney to get back on track, they are trimming those pieces they feel aren’t doing well. So, away goes Infinity.

Cancel Infinity

I’m not terribly unhappy that Infinity is on its way out even though I bought both 2.0 and 3.0. After all, I can still play it, or at least, I think I will be able to. I can for now. That may not last when Disney cuts off Infinity’s network servers. Though, Infinity had it’s fair share of problems. Let’s start a list, shall we?

  • It’s boring. The characters look good on screen and even better on the figures, but playing around in the Toy Box is just B O R I N G. Seriously, creating that toy box world is about as much fun as watching paint dry.
  • The playsets are very short. So, you go out and spend $35 for a playset and two figures. Yet, the world takes maybe 1 day to get through? I mean, we’re talking about a fair amount of money for such short play value. Even Skylanders play value is longer than this. Worse, again, much of the playset is boring. Not only is it expensive, it just doesn’t hold much play value.
  • The figures are expensive. At $12-15 per figure, that’s a lot of money. Granted, the LightFX Star Wars figures are quite cool. But, still expensive. And, now that the series is dead, there will be no more Star Wars LightFX figures made. Kylo Ren was the last one.
  • The starter kit is way expensive and requires you to buy a new portal each and every iteration. So stupid and wasteful.

It is now certain that Disney will cut off the Infinity servers in this shut down process. Parts of Infinity will shut off in September 2016 and the rest will shutdown between September 2016 and March 2017. March 3rd, 2017 is the date which all servers will be permanently shut down for all Infinity game versions (console, PC, tablets, etc).

It is as yet uncertain exactly what will fail when the servers shutdown completely. It has been stated that games which have a world game piece that you drop onto the base may continue function. However, online play, such as the toy box, creation sharing, multiplayer, multiplayer matches and leader boards will no longer function. If a game requires the availability of any online access to validate any parts of the game’s content or provide extra content, it’s likely that game will no longer work at all. You should be prepared to take it away from your child before March to avoid disappointment.

Gameplay

What I will say about the gameplay is that the separate game worlds using the crystal bases are the best part of the game. They offer a short, if not reasonably well defined gameplay. For example, the Rise Against the Empire playset offers a taste of the original 3 Star Wars movie including A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi game segments. The gameplay is reasonably fun, if not overall short, repetitive and somewhat boring once you’ve completed the story.

Swapping characters only lets you increase your play time if your current character is defeated and needs to “rest”. Though, this whole Toys To Life type gaming concept has fundamental problems. The toys themselves are space hogs and require bulky and cumbersome cases to store. Instead, Nintendo has the right idea with using cards instead of plastic figures. Cards are much more portable and overall a better choice for ease of use, storage and functionality. On the other hand, the carded figures will probably fetch more money from collectors in the future. Though, there’s no promises on that.

The thing is, other than the graphics improving between 1.0, 2.0 and 3.0 versions, that’s about it. The  gameplay itself is essentially the same. I was hoping that Avalanche software would have substantially improved the gameplay on each iteration. Instead, the only thing they did was cause you to buy a new starter pack and make the new figures not backwards compatible with the previous games. I would personally say that Disney 2.0 was the best version of Infinity. The Marvel character playsets were decently fun and had some replay value. Unfortunately, the Star Wars playsets don’t really have that replayability. The 3.0 figure lineup has been drastically cut short. So, we may never know what was in store for us.

Overall

I can handle playing Infinity in small doses. The only playsets that I somewhat enjoyed were the Spiderman playset from 2.0 and the Star Wars playsets from 3.0. Everything else is just pointless. Even still, of the playsets that I actually liked, they were very short and more than occasionally boring. The combat is okay, but the stories are just not much fun overall. In fact, I found some of the Marvel playsets frustrating due to the nature of what they want you to do.

Opening up the capsules to release the colored sparks was just not much fun at all. Yes, they did add health or power or whatever, but chasing down the sparks was just annoying. Sometimes, many of them fall out of reach ending in frustration. Why not just pick up all of the sparks as soon as the capsule is opened? Why am I required to go chase them down if they fall off of the edge of a building?

Why am I writing this review now?

I only write this review in remembrance of what was Disney Infinity. Disney should have never entered into the video game business if they had no plans of staying in it. You just don’t jump into producing something like Infinity unless you plan at least a 5 year commitment. Unfortunately, Disney Infinity was only available for ~3 years (1.0, 2.0 and 3.0). This is far too short to know if this series might have had some staying power.

Additionally, I’m writing this review now to state that if you are on the fence and want to play one of the playsets in this game, buy it now! It’s actually too late to buy into Disney Infinity. If you can find the starter pack for less than $5, maybe. Otherwise, you should go pick up another game. If you already have it, play it while Disney’s servers are still online, let you log in and it still offers whatever is left of its online features. Once Disney closes down its Infinity game servers in 2017, the game may literally be over. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of giving this video game to your child for the holidays, know that it has no future and you are investing in a dead video game product with no life left. In other words, don’t give this as a gift to your child. Choose a different gift, such as Skylanders or Amiibo.

If your child already has this game, you might want to prepare them for the time when they attempt to start up the game and Disney has killed their game servers. This may prevent playing the game entirely, or at least the multiplayer parts of it. This may ultimately be disappointing for your child. You might want to find a way to pry Infinity away from your child now to avoid this disappointment in the future. If your child has this game and they are no longer playing it, be thankful and send it to Goodwill quickly.

If you’re thinking of buying a Toys-To-Life game system, the Skylanders franchise is still very much alive and kicking and will be releasing a new set this year (Skylanders Imaginators). It might be worth trying to get your child to switch. I know that that series doesn’t offer playing as Ironman, Spiderman, Han Solo, Luke Skywalker or any other Disney owned character, but it will be of little concession when Disney cuts off their interactive servers for Disney Infinity on March 3rd, 2017.

Have you recently purchased?

If you’ve recently purchased the Disney Infinity 3.0 starter pack and you are still within the return period, I’d strongly suggest returning the set to your retailer. You can only expect about 6 months more of real play value from this system. For a Toys-To-Life purchase, I’d recommend buying into the newest Skylanders Imaginators set which will offer a 8-10 months or more of play value. The only reason to keep the Disney Infinity set is if you really must play the Star Wars playsets. They are reasonably fun, but don’t sit on playing it. Play them (or give them to your child) now while Disney’s servers are still online. If you wait even just a few months to play the system, you might find that Disney has limited what the game can do.

As tempting as it is, I’d also highly suggest not purchasing this even if it goes on sale for 50% off or more. I’d also strongly suggest not purchasing this set to hold as a holiday gift. This video game is tied to Disney’s network servers remaining online for network play (and possibly for any play). If you buy it now to give in December, you may find your child disappointed on the big day. Be wary if you decide to buy into the Disney Infinity 3.0 Starter Pack as there’s not much time left for usable play.

As long as you understand that the clock is ticking on the longevity of Disney Infinity and you can find the game and figures for 90% off, that would be the only reason to buy into this set. Otherwise, steer clear and choose Skylanders.

Amiibo

So as not to be remiss in discussing the other Toys-To-Life system out there besides Skylanders, let’s talk about Nintendo’s Amiibo system. Nintendo’s Amiibos only work with Nintendo systems. This means you’ll need to invest in a Wii U or Nintendo 3DS/2DS game system to use an Amiibo or Amiibo cards. If you already have a Wii U or 3DS, then by all means I’d suggest buying into Nintendo’s Amiibo system over Disney Infinity, to be sure. On the other hand, Nintendo has had a lot of troubles handling its Amiibos. Either Nintendo floods the market with a ton of figures that no one wants (I’m looking at you Animal Crossing) or they make so few you can’t even find them (looking at you King Dedede, Palutena, Samus and Gold Mario). Nintendo’s ability to consistently deliver its Amiibos in sufficient quantities is a problem. Unless you enjoy continually seeing your child’s disappointment, in spending a lot of money for a toy (i.e., $50 or $100 for a single character) or running all over town looking for that elusive Amiibo, the Amiibo system may not be what you want as a parent.

Worse, your child can’t keep the Amiibo toys in the package and still play them, unlike Skylanders which can be played in the package. Nintendo has intentionally placed an RFID blocking card in front of the RFID chip. This requires that you rip the toys out of the packages to play (or at least rip open parts of the package to get this blocking card out). Ripping them out automatically reduces the collectibility. So, expect to buy them in twos. One to rip open, the other to store as a collectible.

Amiibo characters are also firmly limited to Nintendo franchises (Mario, Luigi, Kirby, Smash Bros., Animal Crossing, Metroid, Zelda, Yoshi, Fire Emblem, etc). If your child is not into Nintendo characters and franchises, buying into the Amiibo system might not be wise. With Nintendo’s Toys-To-Life system, don’t expect to see any Marvel, DC or Star Wars characters (or any other non-Nintendo characters).

Suffice it to say that the Amiibo system is cumbersome to use and has massively limited play value. The toys are mere afterthoughts to each game rather than being truly integrated like Infinity or Skylanders. For this reason, I don’t recommend the Amiibo system over Skylanders unless your child has a strong affinity for Nintendo’s characters and games and you already have a Wii U or DS.

Toys-to-Life longevity

While the Toys-to-Life system was a novel concept when Skylanders first hit the shelves, it has now become a dwindling fad. I believe that’s part of the reason Disney is now chucking its Infinity franchise in the bin. For this reason, I might suggest avoiding any Toys-to-Life products as gifts for your child. Yes, they are reasonably fun to play, but it is also costly to invest in each and every one of the figures, the playsets and the add-ons. As a parent, it’s an expensive never-ending trap

Worse, I believe that this game system fad is now ending. Infinity is the first to fall, but I believe that Skylanders may be next. Skylander’s Trap Team was arguably Activision’s best effort to date. Skylanders Superchargers was just not nearly as much fun, primarily because the racing was horrible. Nintendo’s Amiibo lineup may continue onward for a bit longer, but I believe that Nintendo is already feeling the pinch considering they are now starting to release duplicated figures in different poses and outfits. You can only do that for so long. In fact, at a time when the most Amiibos should be released all year, we’ve not had any Amiibos released so far. We’re only 2.75 months from the end of the year now and we’ve still not seen any new Amiibos since mid summer. You can’t sell what you don’t have on the shelves.

Skylanders Imaginators is the next in the Skylanders series, but I believe that this latest set will see lackluster sales, perhaps to the point of Activision rethinking toys-to-life systems as a whole. All things must end and I believe that the toys-to-life systems are now at the end of their run. If we have both Skylanders and Amiibos franchises still active by 2018, I’d be surprised. Though, I do expect to see both Amiibo and Skylanders live through to the end of 2017 (with far fewer figures released).

Once bitten, twice shy.

If Disney decides to jump back into the video game business again soon, I’ll definitely be one of the last people to buy into it. I just don’t trust Disney with video game franchises from a fun perspective or for its longevity. So long Disney Infinity, don’t let the castle door hit you on the way out.

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