Random Thoughts – Randosity!

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. So, there’s no easy way to illuminate dark places. 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 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 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 conservation 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

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 if Disney cuts off the 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.

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 on staying in it. You just don’t jump into producing something like Infinity unless you plan at least a 5 year investment. 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 it to say if you are on the fence and want to play one of the playsets in this game, buy it now! You should also find it and all of the characters on clearance very soon so you can pick it up on the cheap. Play it while Disney’s servers are still online, let you log in and it still offers all of its online features. Once Disney closes down its Infinity game servers, the game may literally be over. On the other hand, if you’re thinking of giving this video game to your child, know that it has no future and you are investing in a dead video game product that has no life left. In other words, don’t give this as a gift to your child. Choose a different gift.

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 (might be as early as spring 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, 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 it. If you already have a Wii U or DS, 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 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. 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.

Once bitten, twice shy.

If Disney decides to jump back into the video game business again later, 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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Game Review: Resident Evil 7 Demo

Posted in video game design, video gaming by commorancy on June 20, 2016

While I realize this is a only demo and may not resemble the real game all that much, what I will say about it is, I’m not terribly fond of it overall. I’m hoping the game is far different from this. Let’s explore.

Story

Your character ends up stuck in a creepy old farmhouse and must figure out a way to get out of it. Along the way you find things that may or may not help your character. Can you actually get your character out of the house alive?

Game Mechanics

Whether or not you can actually get out of the house is not really the question. The question is, are the game mechanics good? First, it is a preliminary game demo. So, in that aspect, it’s a little dumbed down.

On the one hand, it is somewhat better than Resident Evil 5 and 6… meaning, there aren’t zombies running and jumping at your character at every step. On the other hand, there are no zombies at all. In fact, the entire house is devoid of enemies entirely (other than when you answer the phone or find the back door key and try to leave). And then, the enemy is a cut scene that you can’t fight. So, in effect, this is more or less a puzzle questing game… and not a very good one at that.

Second, the only redeeming factor is the video tape. Because watching the video tape is also player interactive, you can do things with the characters on the tape (in the past) that open things up for the player in the future. This is the one and only one cool gimmick about this demo, but it is so underused as a game gimmick that it’s almost hardly not worth mentioning.

Graphics

Plainly and of what you can see of them, the textures, wood, roaches, character models and environments are supremely well done. Unfortunately, you’re hindered by having to roam the house using a flashlight. This means you can only see what you can illuminate with the flashlight. Otherwise, it all ends up dark. It reminds me a little of the way that Bioshock was lit in terms of the dark undersea lighting that gets brighter as you approach walls and items. Not so much the textures, but the lighting concept. In some ways this works, but it gets old and tiring after about an hour of play. I was hoping the fuse box would have actually let me flip the lights on in the house. But no, the only thing the fuse box does is let you drop down the attic stairs. And, that’s just a little weird. In such a decrepit old farm house, why would the owners have installed a drop down electric set of stairs that lead to the attic? Doesn’t really make any sense.

Puzzles

Unfortunately, other than the video tape gimmick mentioned above, the puzzles are mostly weak. Worse, the puzzles are tied to successfully completing events. Meaning, unless you do a very specific thing in the house, you can’t progress to and find the next puzzle piece (i.e., it simply won’t appear). If you cannot figure out what the game wants you to do, you’re stuck. Too many games offer puzzles like this. Some puzzles are glaringly obvious what you need to do. Though in this game, many of the puzzles are so obscure that you can run around for hours and never figure it out. That doesn’t make a game fun, it makes it tedious.

Game Development / Demo / Beta Testing

The game devs have a whole lot of work ahead of them to get this game right. I’m assuming this demo was released to test the waters with gamers. RE4 was a spectacular achievement for the Resident Evil series. But, as much as RE4 was an achievement, RE5 and RE6 were not.

I’m one of those people who firmly believes, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”. In fact, I’ve been bitten one too many times with this series… both with RE5 and RE6. Shame on me. I won’t be bitten again. This is the reason I’m playing this demo. I was, in fact, hoping that this would have been another Leon game like RE4. After all, it’s been well long enough to finally get another Leon game.

Commentary

While Capcom seems to be on the right track with Resident Evil 7, assuming it can expand on this puzzle questing and video tape idea, I’m still very skeptical. This game has all of the hallmarks of tricking gamers into a decent opening puzzle level only to convert the game into yet another dual player zombie shooter (like RE5 and RE6 turned into) once you exit the house. If Capcom can keep this puzzle questing survival horror idea on-track throughout the entire game (throwing in some zombie apocalypse battles here and there), it might turn out to be a decent game. Unfortunately, it has a little too much of the telltale signs of converting into a completely different game once you leave the house. For this reason, I will wait until the game is fully released into the stores before I plop down $60 for this title. I simply don’t trust Capcom.

Though, I absolutely love the video tape idea of going back in time and opening doors, finding hidden secrets, leaving things behind, etc, for future characters to find and use. This is probably one of the freshest ideas in this game. Unfortunately, it’s way underused in this demo and I’m not certain exactly how much it could be used unless the main character carries around a camcorder and finds tapes along the way.

Pulse Club Shooting and Reopening

Posted in botch, business, entertainment by commorancy on June 18, 2016

As we all know by now (and if you haven’t, you’re probably living under a rock), the Pulse Club was a primarily gay dance night spot located in Orlando, Florida. Unfortunately, as a deadly shooting unfolded, it has now become the unwitting site of the worst mass shooting in the US so far. Should it reopen? Let’s explore.

Shooting Aftermath

After that 3 hour massacre ended in the death of the shooter, this situation now leaves more questions than answers, especially for the victim’s families and those who were injured. In fact, my heart goes out to each and every one of the victim’s families. Those people who had gathered at that club that night arrived to have fun, drink and dance. Many had done so on many previous nights. Nothing wrong in that.

Unfortunately, the shooter had other plans. He entered this night club with the intent of taking lives. After 3 hours of standoff with law enforcement, the situation ended with the death of the shooter, but not before 49 people were dead and 53 others were injured and sent to hospitals. Let’s not forget about those who were not injured, but who were there witnessing this horrific event unfold. These victims may not have physical injuries, but they now have emotional injuries that may take decades and therapy to resolve. Survivor’s guilt is a real thing. A horrible situation for any business owner to contemplate.

Club Reopening?

The manager of the club, Barbara Poma, is trying to salvage this situation with her business and has vowed to reopen this night club. Unfortunately, the Pulse Club has now become a victim in its own right with a massive stigma attached: the massacre and all of those brutal deaths. This situation never spells a good end to any business. Barbara, if you are in fact reading this, I’d strongly suggest not reopening this club at that location. However, before considering reopening, you should most definitely wait (see below). There are a number of reasons why it shouldn’t reopen in its current form:

  1. Macabre thrill seeker tourists. Your club has now (and will for a very long time) become an unwitting tourist destination for those seeking a brush with the macabre. Yes, your club will now have people seeking to stop by and talk about the massacre, the deaths, the victims with anyone who will talk about it including to your customers, your staff and you. This will eventually become distracting and annoying to your customers who are there just to party. It will drive your existing customer base away. This will not be forgotten quickly or easily.
  2. Ghost hunters. Because of the 49 deaths in your club, inevitably someone will claim they have seen or heard the ghost of one of those who died on your premise. I’m not here to argue the merit of that type of claim, but I will state that your club will become a destination for ghost hunters looking for ghosts. Again, this will be to the distraction of your paying visitors simply there to have a good time. It will also become a distraction for your bartenders and other staff. This will also drive your existing customer base away.
  3. Regulars will shy away. For those who were regulars to your club and who were there that night, they won’t be back. Your club is forever tainted as that club that had a mass shooting and now holds that stigma high and wide like a badge of honor, except there’s no honor in that. For anyone who was there that night, the memory is just too painful and few will be back to avoid reliving that memory, especially those who were trapped in there for hours.
  4. Tainted by death. The Pulse Club brand has now become the unwitting poster child for mass shootings. What I’m about to write may seem a little crass, but you might as well re-theme your club to have heart monitors, hospital beds, and nurses running around if you want to move forward with this name. This is what people will forever link to this club’s name. People will not remember it for the fun party spot. It will now be remembered for the deaths and those living victims still in the hospital. If you don’t have any intent on capitalizing on this notoriety, you should change the name and move the club to another location.
  5. Because of at least number 4, you may find that your original customer type no longer visits your club. You may find that types 1-4 make up the vast majority of those who visit your club. They are not there to have a good time, they are there to take pictures, vlog, gawk, talk to your staff and generally be a nuisance to your club. It might even lead to confrontations that you and your staff might not want to deal with. You can never know the intent of a single person requesting access into your club.

What this basically says is if you reopen the club, your clientele will drastically shift from that happy-go-lucky dance place that it once was to that-place-that-had-a-mass-shooting. The above are not necessarily the reasons you want people at your club. The Pulse Club can never live its now-infamous past down. Even if you change the name of the club, paint it, redecorate it and refurnish it from top to bottom, that location won’t ever forget what happened.

Rebuilding the Pulse Club

The only way the Pulse Club can ever live again is by moving it to an entirely new location somewhere else in the city and rebranding it. You must abandon that building and let it become someone else’s problem and stigma to solve. What happened there is something that stays with that building, not with your business. If you want to get your business back the way that it was, you cannot reopen in that location. You must move your business to a new building. This is the only way to free yourself from the thrill seekers, from the macabre, from the ghost hunters and from those just morbidly curious. These people are not the reason why you opened your club and these are not the reasons you should want to continue with your club.

These are distractions that only serve to taint your establishment, chase off would-be new customers and cause your staff daily grief throwing random lookie-loos out. You need to ask yourself the hard question, is this really the reason you opened the Pulse Club?

Before you contemplate reopening the club, you need to let the legal dust settle. And, settle it will, I can guarantee that. Before making plans of spending money to renovate your club, you should reserve those funds for the upcoming legal battles that are about to ensue… and sue they will.

Lawsuits and the Future of Pulse

We haven’t seen the last of what is in store for this club. Just you wait. Some of the victims will file wrongful death suits at someone, anyone, for negligence. Where to start? The club’s owner. It’s as good a place as any.

Was the Pulse Club negligent in what happened? Well clearly, if the club’s staff had been properly enforcing at least metal detection or a pat down at the door, the guns might not have gotten into the building. Unfortunately, it now appears that this club was not enforcing any safety best practices when allowing patrons into the establishment. This could very much appear as negligent actions by the club’s owner. And, there are 53 living injured who can file lawsuits against this club. There are an additional 49 families who can also file lawsuits against this club. There are additional people like employees and those who suffered severe mental anguish at the horrific events that night who can also file lawsuits.

Unless the Pulse Club owner has engaged in specialty insurance in high amounts to cover such occurrences (probably not), she may find the Pulse Club out of business and her personal finances spent covering each and every one of those yet-to-be-filed lawsuits. It’s way too early for this club’s owner to be thinking about reopening the night club when the legal battles have barely even begun.

Clearly Barbara, as the club’s owner, you should wait out the legal battles before making plans to reopen this club. You may find that you can’t actually afford to reopen the club after the legal dust settles.

Victims

If you are a victim of this shooting, you should contemplate all of your legal options and you should do so quickly with your lawyer. If you are intent on filing a lawsuit, you should do it as fast as possible. The first to the table are usually the first to walk away with settlements. If you are one of the last, you might get nothing.

Was this club negligent by allowing a shooter with a Sig Sauer MCX rifle (every bit as deadly as an AK-47, just quieter) into this club? Clearly, the Pulse had very little in the way of security due diligence at the door. Is that considered negligent? Only a court can decide.

Audio Tip: How to decode 5.1 DTS / AC3 to 6 WAV files

Posted in audio engineering by commorancy on April 10, 2016

For those of us who are hobbiest home audio engineers, here’s a tip that might come in handy when trying to extract 5.1 (6 channel) audio from DTS/AC3 to individual WAV (or more specifically, WAV 64) files. This technique may or may not work for 7.1 (8 channel) audio. Let’s explore.

What You Will Need

First Step – TSMuxer GUI

Extract the DTS/AC3 stream from video container using TSMuxer Gui. To do this…

  1. Load the *.m2ts, *.vob, *.mkv, etc file into TSMuxer Gui using File=>Open.
  2. Once the file is loaded, uncheck all other streams except the audio stream (DTS or AC3)
  3. Choose ‘Demux’ as the Output type
  4. Choose ‘Browse’ if you want to place the output file somewhere other than where the app has chosen
  5. Click ‘Start Demuxing’
  6. When completed, you will have a *.dts or *.ac3 file as output.

This step demuxes the audio from the full movie container.

Second Step – FFMpeg

Extract the DTS 5.1 audio to single 6 channel WAV file via FFMpeg using the following:

ffmpeg -i 00000.track_4352.dts -acodec pcm_s24le output-file.w64

 
This will create a 6 channel w64 (wave 64) file. You’ll want to use *.w64 because of the 4GB max size of standard *.wav files. If you know your output file will be sized smaller than 4GB, you can use *.wav instead. Also, if you want to master in 32 bit or higher, you can choose the pcm output version that corresponds to the bit size you want to use. I’m using 24 bits for my remastering efforts. The larger amount of bits you use for mastering, the more likely you will need to use w64.

Third Step – Cubase

  1. File=>Import to input output-file.w64 into Cubase
  2. When the small panel appears asking how you would like to import, choose Split Channels. You can number them if you like.Cubase Import
  3. It may take a little while to split them all out.

Note, this is the part that I do not know if Audacity supports. It may be able to perform Split Channels like Cubase, but you would need to test Audacity to find out whether it can and how. Cubase can definitely split the channels, though.

Fourth Step – Exporting WAV / W64 files

  1. From here, you can continue to use Cubase or Audacity to produce a remastered audio file or …
  2. You can save each individual channel as a separate WAV file for some other use. Note, you should use *.w64 (wave 64) if the files are expected to be larger than 4GB in size.

It’s up to you what you want to do with the resulting files.

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For whom does the bell toll? Microsoft’s Xbox.

Posted in botch, business, gaming, microsoft, xbox by commorancy on March 27, 2016

xbox-1-logoIn case you haven’t been reading recent news, here’s an article that might wake you up… especially if you happen to be an Xbox platform fanboy. What is this alleged article? Microsoft has stated it will merge the PC and Xbox platforms into a single unified platform, ending the sale of dedicated console hardware. Let’s explore.

Xbox and Xbox 360

When the original Xbox arrived in 2001, it received lots of fanfare. The console market now had a competitor against the PlayStation 2. The PS2 had released only one year earlier in 2000. Though, the Sega Dreamcast had promise, Sega pulled the plug in 2000 citing lots of reasons including bad sales, competition and poor platform reception. The Xbox’s controller, architecture and speed quickly ended up competing with the PlayStation 2.

A few years later, we went through the second iteration of this console war when both Sony and Microsoft released the PS3 and the Xbox 360, respectively and near simultaneously. Once again, we had our next generation console in our hands and we gamers were happily playing with better graphics and sound quality.

The Xbox 360 took the lead in the console market over Sony’s PS3, but only by slim margins. Though, the XBox 360 managed to stay one step ahead through out the lifespan of both consoles.

Xbox One and Ps4

Unfortunately, Microsoft would not be able to maintain its fleeting lead it had won with the Xbox 360 with its blundering Xbox One E3 announcement in 2013. Here’s what they had wanted to do:

This announcement in 2013 would set the tone for all things to come including the next iteration of the Xbox platform. Within a week of their E3 announcement, after facing Sony’s harsh rebuttal at E3, Microsoft reversed all of its DRM and privacy invasion strategies after the gamers clearly spoke with their wallet, PS4 orders surged and people cancelled their Xbox One orders in droves. It’s clear, this blunder was Xbox’s first death knell and set in motion many future problems to come for the Xbox. Unfortunately, neither Microsoft nor the Xbox has been able to recover from this blunder.

Elite Console and Controller

XboxOneEliteController-smImmediately prior to this Windows platform integration announcement, Microsoft had just released the Elite Console and Elite Controller. This controller being a much more costly update to its existing hardware ($15o vs $60). This console and especially the controller is Microsoft’s nod to a more professional gamer. That is, a nod to those gamers who want to play games using higher quality contollers, button remapping, changeable controller features, more inputs and faster consoles. I’ll tell you what, though. The Elite Controller is actually quite nice, but very very pricey. Yes, some of us do want these advanced features from our systems. However, it’s entirely disingenuous for Xbox to release the Elite controller and system only to see Microsoft announce the death of future hardware systems just a few months later. Really, what does this say to would-be gamers about Microsoft’s commitment to the gaming market?

To me, this says that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing in Redmond. On the one hand, you have the Xbox engineering team trying to drum up new gaming interest by releasing high quality experiences for the gamer. On the other, Microsoft itself is trying to reduce costs by getting rid of costly hardware projects it deems a loss. Unfortunately, this doesn’t mean good things for Microsoft as a whole. This ultimately means that the whole company is fractured internally and doesn’t have a proper focus on its products or its markets. Instead, it is making rash decisions without thinking through the long term ramifications of those decisions. A death knell.

Microsoft’s confusion

With this announcement of the integration of Xbox with Windows, Microsoft has likewise announced that it also intends (see article) to stop making future hardware and will instead focus on the Xbox platform as a subcomponent of Windows. Just like Windows Media Center, it will become an add-on to Windows. You might think that this is a great idea, but it isn’t. Let’s understand why.

Windows itself already offers developers a solid gaming development environment to produce native games on Windows. Most AAA game titles are made not only for consoles, but also for Windows and sometimes even Mac. The question is, would that spell the death of the Xbox platform? Yes. The reason the Xbox platform exists is as a gaming hardware platform independent of Windows. It does not exist for Netflix, Amazon or for any other non-gaming entertainment. Sure, you can play movies and music on the Xbox, but that’s not the platform’s intended purpose. Microsoft is seriously confused over the reason the Xbox platform exists and why it continues to exist. This confusion spells yet another death knell. Basically, if Microsoft thinks that the non-gaming aspects of the Xbox will survive once in Windows, it won’t. You can already use native Windows apps to get access to all of the services like Hulu, Netflix and Amazon… and the native apps are usually better.

The Death of the Xbox

Because Windows is already a solid gaming platform in its own right (in addition to being an entertainment platform), integrating a second gaming environment into Windows means that only one of these gaming platforms will survive the transition. Game developers will also only choose one platform to develop. Assuming status quo for the Xbox platform, the Xbox will be the clear loser. It’s simple to understand why: high priced licensing fees. It costs developers substantial amounts of cash to license and sell games branded with the Xbox moniker. It costs far far less to develop games under Windows directly. Unless Microsoft substantially changes their Xbox licensing model, this platform is entirely dead for gaming. Game developers won’t be willing to pay the excessive licensing fees on top of producing the game twice (Xbox and Windows) for the same hardware platform. Why would any game developer produce the same game twice that is destined for the same platform? They wouldn’t. A death knell.

So, what does this mean for gaming? PC gamers win a feather in their cap. Xbox gamers lose a platform entirely. Once games stop being produced for the Xbox platform, and they will stop, the only thing left to use the Xbox platform for is Netflix, other media activities and already purchased digital content. As I said above, you can already crack open Chrome or Firefox and do video streaming and music playing better. So, the answer, there will be nothing left to use the Xbox platform for except for legacy digital content that you may have purchased on an Xbox One/360… assuming that content even remains compatible after the Windows PC migration. Another death knell.

Digital Content

So, what does this mean for already purchased digital content? It means that you better hold onto your working Xbox One and Xbox 360 if you want to continue to use this content. Though, Microsoft may eventually force users to move to the Windows integrated platform and sunset the use of Xbox hardware entirely (and cut it off from the Xbox Live service).

This means that, at some point, you may no longer be able to download your digital content to your Xbox One and you may be forced to buy a PC. Depending on how Xbox One’s content activation system works, it may even prevent you from using the digital content you’ve already downloaded depending entirely upon how far and deep that Microsoft takes it.

Of course, this is still years off yet. But, once that time arrives, your Xbox One and 360 may become paperweights. A death knell.

Why this change?

From Microsoft’s perspective, I can understand the value and cost savings that integration (and lack of hardware) brings. No longer does Microsoft have to design, build and sell hardware platforms, no longer do they have to compete with Sony, no longer do they have to support this finicky hardware (a highly expensive ongoing investment). This means they can reduce their costs for all of the above. Instead, they can push the hardware costs back onto PC manufacturers to support their new Xbox platform.

Unfortunately, expecting PC manufacturers to support the Xbox is a pipe dream fantasy. There are far too many PC manufacturers who don’t follow the rules 100%. Instead, they get about 90% there and call the system done. This means that instead of having a fully 100% reliable Xbox platform, you’ll end up with a crashing behemoth of a system that, once again, barely works. The clear benefit to designing exclusive hardware is to achieve reliability by design. Leaving it to third parties to provide that hardware support means that some PC manufacturers will flat out not support the Xbox platform and those that do will charge a hefty premium. This ultimately means that buying a PC that properly supports the Xbox platform will likely mean a significantly higher cost than older far less expensive dedicated gaming console hardware. Not to mention, the clunky and ugly tower and desktop shapes of PC manufacturers which can no longer be used as a set top box.

This means that not only will the PC-based Xbox experience falter badly, you’re likely looking at 2x, 3x or more the price of today’s Xbox One to invest in a compatible PC-based Xbox platform. This puts this platform so far out of the price range of console gamers, this is yet another death knell for the Xbox. I won’t even get into the peripheral issues. Okay, I will a little. If Microsoft stops the hardware entirely, they’re likely to stop the controllers and leave that also up to third parties.

We all know how well PC controllers work with many games. Sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. They are usually not wireless and when they are, they are chock full of wireless issues. The whole reason the Xbox One works well is because of the wireless controller and its close integration with the hardware.

Throwing the Baby out with the Bathwater

Ultimately, Microsoft is throwing away all of their hard earned gamer loyalty. They are effectively closing the Xbox and throwing away the key. What this ultimately says is that Microsoft has no long term commitment to the gaming market, the console market or the gamers. What was formerly the green glory will fade into Microsoft’s Windows obscurity.

Overall, this is the worst of all possible fates that could befall the Xbox. A console is not a console without hardware. We all know how well gaming platforms work when they offer dedicated hardware. We also know how well they don’t work when relying on third parties. Think Steam. Perhaps Microsoft is deluded enough to think that Steam is the model of the future? I can tell you that Steam isn’t it. Steam works, but for limited purposes. Effectively, Steam is the app store for gaming. Since most app stores don’t focus on gaming, it was inevitable that someone would put one together. Hence, Steam. But, the Xbox platform, regardless of its current strength in gaming will die a quick death once there is no more console hardware to be had. Gamers aren’t likely to spend their efforts chasing down third party hardware platforms that might or might not work. The whole point of a console is that it “just works”. The Steam model simply won’t work for the Xbox unless you’re talking about $2-5 pricepoint games which could run on Facebook. That’s not the class of gaming that Xbox One is today.

We all need hardware to make our lives better, yes even in gaming. You can’t game without hardware. Relying on PC manufacturers to get you what you need isn’t the answer. Worse, Windows native games and developers will kick the Xbox platform to the curb. No developer in their right mind would consider spending extra money to develop on the Xbox platform when they already have Windows development efforts underway. Why would game developers choose to redundantly build their game twice for the same platform? That’s just stupid.

Sony, Nintendo and, yes, Apple

All of the above is actually very good news for the remaining console developers. Once the Xbox platform dies quietly inside of Windows (and it will), Sony only need worry about Nintendo for the foreseeable future. However, with Apple’s recent foray into gaming with the latest Apple TV, this could mean Apple now has an opening into the console market. What I will say about the current Apple TV for 3D gaming is that it’s still very rudimentary. The textures are low res, the environments look like something out of the Nintendo 64 and there’s not a speck of realism to be found… yet. However, Apple can up the ante a lot in the next Apple TV console iteration. Assuming they wedge in a much higher end GPU and a lot more RAM into the Apple TV, they could easily match the specs of the Nintendo Wii U, but perhaps not yet approach the PS4… it will take quite a bit more effort by Apple to match Sony. For Apple, the door for the console market is quite clearly open. For Microsoft, the door is quickly closing.

Yes folks, the Xbox is officially a dead platform. With this integration announcement, this is the Xbox’s final death knell.

If you are considering the purchase of a new gaming console, you should steer clear of the Xbox One unless you really enjoy buying into dead gaming platforms.

 

Security vulnerability: Apple Watch, iPhone and Apple Pay

Posted in Apple, security by commorancy on March 6, 2016

apple-watch-passcode-screenIf you own an Apple Watch, there is a security vulnerability that could compromise your Apple Pay cards. Let’s explore.

Watch Stolen?

Let’s say you’re on vacation and you decide to visit that cute little patio coffee shop. Naturally, you’re sitting, sipping and enjoying your coffee. Your wrist adorned with your new Apple Watch is sitting on top pretty wrought iron fence. Someone comes along and grabs your Apple Watch off your wrist and runs away. What do you do? Chase after them to get it back? Oh, but they’re already gone. So then, try to disable the watch on your iPhone? So, here’s the dilemma (and the vulnerability). As soon as you unlock your iPhone, your watch is now quite vulnerable thanks to Apple.

Unlocking your iPhone

Apple has recently pushed an update that automatically and, by default, unlocks both your Apple Watch and your iPhone merely by unlocking your phone… so long as the watch is on anyone’s wrist (it doesn’t have to be your wrist). And herein lies the vulnerability.

So now, that thief who has just stolen your Apple Watch is standing close enough to still get a connection from your iPhone. The thief already knows what will happen after you unlock your phone. So, they patiently wait until you unlock your phone. Then, they get access to your stolen watch’s data until you A) Mark as Missing or B) remove all your credit cards from your wallet. It’s doubtful you can unpair the watch once they have taken it out of range of the Bluetooth/WiFi, but you can mark it as missing.

The thief will wait just long enough to get the watch unlocked and then run for it to get out of connection range. This may allow them to get access to the Apple Wallet and skim your cards from NFC. They could even still do it while in range of your phone, especially if you somehow hadn’t noticed the watch was missing (i.e., you had taken it off and placed it in your bag).

Fixing the Vulnerability

It’s quite amazing that this exists, a stupid security feature from the same company that’s trying to defend itself from unlocking a terrorist’s iPhone for a judge. Hypocritical much? No no, mustn’t unlock a phone for a judge. But, it’s perfectly okay to give thieves access to Apple Pay credit cards by enabling this dual unlock feature. First thing I’d immediately recommend is going into the Watch app on your iPhone and disabling this feature pronto! You’ll find that the Apple Watch itself also has this setting available under Passcode, but thankfully it can only be enabled or disabled on the iPhone.

However, this feature should not be available at all, Apple.

Preventative Measures

While you are still in possession of both your Apple Watch and your iPhone, you should immediately disable this feature. On the iPhone, it’s under Watch app=>My Watch (Screen)=>Passcode=>Unlock with iPhone set to OFF.

You’ll need to perform this while you are in possession of both devices, before your watch is stolen or misplaced. If you fail to make this change now, you cannot make this change after it is stolen. You can only mop up the mess.

Reactive Measures — My Apple Watch has been stolen!

If you leave the Unlock with iPhone setting enabled, anyone wearing your watch will see it unlock as soon as you unlock your iPhone if they are still in connection range (possibly 30 feet or so, but could be farther). So, you realize your watch is missing and the first thing you do is think, “I need to delete my Apple Watch from my phone”. However, merely by unlocking your phone, you may have just now given the thief access to your watch and to anything on that watch including your Apple Pay credit cards. This means they can activate the NFC on the watch and skim those card numbers off or even use them to charge in shops around the area, possibly even for the entire day until you remove the cards from the wallet. This gives the thief access to wallet and your credit cards until the watch runs out of battery or it locks again once taken off. Or, until you have taken measures to remove the cards from Apple Pay and have marked the watch as missing.

It’s very important to understand exactly how exposed you are by using the Apple Watch with the Apple Pay when enabling the Unlock with iPhone feature. But, you have to know that it’s stolen to take these measures.

Protecting Yourself

What do you do after it’s stolen?

Assuming you know that the watch has been stolen, the first thing you should do before unlocking your iPhone is disable Bluetooth and WiFi. How do you do this? At the > Slide to Unlock screen do not unlock the phone. Instead, swipe up from the bottom of the screen to the top. This will bring up the quick access menu that lets you manage items like WiFi on/off, Airplane mode on/off, Flashlight on/off and, yes, Bluetooth on/off. From the quick access menu, you need to disable both WiFi and Bluetooth before ever unlocking your iPhone. Because Apple Watch relies on Bluetooth and apparently an adhoc WiFi connection, the signal that you’ve unlocked won’t be sent to your nearby watch. It doesn’t seem to send this signal when your phone is on a carrier LTE or 4G data network. However, disabling Bluetooth or WiFi alone is not enough. The Watch can still connect to the cloud if close to a WiFi network it knows about. If you’re out on the street, that’s not likely. If you’re in or near your hotel, it might.

If you are not sure where your watch is, you should disable WiFi and Bluetooth before unlocking your iPhone. Once you’ve disabled WiFi and Bluetooth, go into Watch app=>My Watch=>Apple Watch and then Mark as Missing (making sure you have access to an LTE or 4G data network). You will not be able to disable the Unlock with iPhone feature while the watch is locked even if you reenable both WiFi and Bluetooth.  In fact, if you do enable WiFi and Bluetooth, the app seems to remember the last unlocking for some period of time and will pass that unlock to the watch to unlock it. You don’t want to do this.

Whatever you do, don’t enable WiFi and Bluetooth until you’ve selected Mark as Missing under the Apple Watch menu. The last thing you want to happen is the iPhone to send an unlock signal to your watch.

Didn’t notice the watch was missing?

If you’ve left the watch in a hotel room or at pool or on the beach, you may have inadvertently unlocked the watch for a thief while you did not know the watch was missing. In this case, you should immediately Mark as Missing (see above). The second thing you will need to do is go into Wallet and Apple Pay is remove all credit cards from this area. This will deauthorize the card from Apple Pay and prevent the watch from making any further purchases with your cards.

Because Apple Pay creates a unique new Apple Pay card ID for each card, the thief won’t get access to your actual card number. But, a thief can still skim these unique numbers from the NFC and continue to use the numbers as long as you have not removed the card from the Wallet and Apple Pay menu. See ‘Thievery at its finest’ below for a caveat on skimming of NFC Apple Pay card numbers.

You should also call all of your credit card companies and let them know the period of time the watch was lost. While replacement of the cards is not necessary due to the way that Apple Pay registers new card numbers for use, it might still be a good idea just to be safe.

Forever losing things?

If you’re one of those people who is prone to losing or misplacing your stuff (especially things like Watches), then you need to head back up to Preventative Measures and disable Unlock with iPhone while you still have both your iPhone and Apple Watch in your possession. In fact, you can do it now while I wait here… patiently… for you to open up Settings on your iPhone… and disable Unlock with iPhone. Yes, you. Go do it now.

Okay, so now that that’s done. You did go do it, right? Okay, just checking. Assuming you didn’t lie about disabling it, there is no way a thief can get access to your Apple Watch by being in proximity of your iPhone if stolen or lost (i.e., like at the beach or at a pool).

If you are the type of person who loses things regularly, you might not even want to enable Apple Pay on the watch at all. Though, if you have a credit card on file for iTunes, Apple tries to be nice and imports this card into your watch on your behalf after its first setup. You should immediately go into the Watch app on your phone and remove that card. You can always add it back if you like.

Thievery at its finest — (the thief who returns most of what is stolen)

If you take your watch off by a pool, at the beach or any place where you might not want your watch damaged, a would-be thief could ‘borrow’ your watch just long enough to NFC skim all your cards off of the device (after waiting for you to unlock your phone). Then, carefully return the watch to you. He now has all your cards and you aren’t even the wiser that the watch was even missing.

Before this happens to you, you should disable Unlock with iPhone. Though, if you’re concerned about the credit card situation at all, you might just want to delete all the cards from your Apple Watch entirely and not use the watch for Apple Pay. Even if a thief attempts to skim your card data from your watch, they won’t be able to do it if the cards aren’t even there. However, if you do choose to use Apple Pay with your watch and as a security measure, I’d suggest removing and re-adding the cards once every couple of months. Better, once a month. This forces your bank to issue a new unique Apple Pay card number for each credit card. This will invalidate old Apple Pay unique card numbers that may have skimmed from your watch.

You should always remove and re-add your cards if your Apple Watch has been out of your possession for any period of time.

The Takeaway

Hopefully, by reading this article someone doesn’t end up taking more than your Apple Watch from you. The takeaway from this article should be to secure your device by undoing stupid Apple counter-security measures. Disable Unlock by iPhone in the Apple Watch app. Remove unnecessary cards from Apple Pay. Better, don’t use Apple Pay on the watch if you’re prone to losing things. If you’re planning on wearing the watch, don’t take it off your wrist.

I can’t even believe that Apple would stoop to putting in such an obvious security hole onto a device capable of storing credit card information (even if the numbers are unique to Apple Pay). If an Apple Watch could identify my wrist differently from someone else’s reliably 100% of the time, then this feature might be worthwhile. Because the Apple Watch can’t detect who’s wrist it is currently sitting on, this is a security compromise just waiting to happen.

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