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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.

Rant Time: Restaurants and Tips

Posted in customs, travel by commorancy on January 13, 2016

As we move into the age of phone apps and more conveniences, we have also moved into an age where applications try to do things for you, such as automatically included tip calculators. Some restaurants are even attempting to take tip calculation to the next level as well. Let’s explore.

What is a tip?

What is a tip / gratuity and why is it necessary? When you visit a full service restaurant, those who help you at your table (bring you your plates, clean them up, bring you refills on drings, etc) are spending time and effort to serve you and your guests. For the luxury of being waited on, it is customary to tip the waitstaff additional money for the services rendered. After all, those plates and refills didn’t happen on their own. Full service is the act of bringing plates to the table, offering condiments, bringing drinks and refills, checking in for additional items and fixing any problems or incorrect orders. For full service restaurants, it is commonplace to tip at least 15% for being that full service.

When is full service not full service?

When the food is picked up or delivered. When an order is placed for pickup or delivery, there is no wait person to take your order, bring you your food (except delivery) and clear the table when done. There is no one to refill your drinks or fix problems or even just have a chat. All of these things are lost for pickup and delivery. It is commonplace to leave a tip of 10% when ordering for delivery. It is commonplace to not tip or leave a small amount when the order is picked up (depending on restaurant).

Fast food vs Bistros

When ordering for pickup from a fast food restaurant, it is customary to not tip. In fact, most fast food places don’t really accept tips either on the order or when ordering at the counter. So, it is not required to tip at all when ordering food at McDonald’s, Burger King or any other big fast food chain. That is, chains that offer no full service dining. However, for full service bistros, when ordering takeout and picking up food, you may find a tip jar on the counter. If the restaurant has a tip jar available, it is customary to tip whatever you feel is appropriate. That could be 5% or 10% depending on how much you feel was necessary.

Personally, I rarely tip for takeout no matter what restaurant it is. Tipping is based on the amount of service provided. The only service provided was by the order taker, assuming you called the order in or visited a drive-thru. However, if you ordered by digital means, the order likely went directly to the kitchen avoiding any order staff at all. So, tipping is entirely up to you.

Of course, when dining in at any full service restaurant, you should always expect to tip 15-20% depending on service quality.

Cabs, Skycaps, Bellhops, Valet and Concierges (traveling)

Cab Drivers

It is customary to tip 15% to a cab driver, especially if they load and unload baggage for you. Though, when paying for cab fare by credit card, you may find there is no 15% option. Instead, you might find 20%, 25% and 30% options. These are suggestions. However, it may not be apparent in the payment software how to modify the tip to 15%, though you might be able to type in a value. I also know that it can be embarrassing to ask the cab driver how to tip less than suggested. For this reason, I always recommend carrying some cash with you for just this occasion. Then, hand the cab driver 15% in cash. Don’t use the suggestions on the payment software. If you feel like tipping the suggested 20%, by all means go for it. The cab driver won’t complain.

Skycaps and other transportation tipping

For any travel situation where an airline skycap or train attendant carries, moves or carts your bags for you, be prepared to tip them $1 or $2 per bag. If your bag is at or nearly at the weight limit, you should offer up $2 per bag. For smaller lighter bags, $1 is fine.

Bellhops

Like the Skycap above, be prepared to tip $1-$2 per bag. $2 for big heavy bags, $1 for smaller lighter bags.

Concierge at a Hotel

Depending on the services you receive, you may or may not need to tip. For directions to a shop or restaurant, no tipping is necessary. However, if they arrange tickets to a show or perform any other service for you beyond directions, then be prepared to tip them $5 or more depending on the level of service provided. For example, if they manage to get you front row tickets to a sold out concert, you should be prepared to tip them $15-20 as thank you. On the other hand, if they obtain a reservation to a restaurant that you could have easily made yourself, $5 is sufficient. However, if they make you a reservation combined with ordering flowers for your date, that’s worthy of more than $5. Use your best judgement on what you feel is appropriate. The better you tip, the more likely it is they will be willing to help make your stay even better.

Valet

Tipping a valet is common, but don’t tip until they bring you your car. You should also examine your car inside and out quickly before handing that tip over. You could find a surprise you may not expect (yes, air biscuits count). The customary amount to tip a valet is $2-$5 depending on lots of factors. If it’s super hot outside, rainy or otherwise inclement weather, be prepared to tip a little more.

Hotel Housekeeping

This one is up to you. While I’ve seen recommendations of $2-$5 per night, tipping housekeeping is at your discretion. If you feel that the housekeeping service has done a particularly fantastic job, then by all means tip them. If the best they’ve done is change the bed linens and straighten up the bathroom, then maybe not. Though, if you’re particularly messy and they clean the entire room for you, you should tip them as a thank you.

Train Attendants

If you ride Amtrak a long distance in a sleeper car, there are lots of services train attendants perform for you. Services like making the bed each night and putting the bed away each morning. They can bring you your meals to your room, offer up beverages and they can generally help you for whatever services you need. You don’t need to tip the attendant each day, but be prepared to tip them wherever they depart of the train. Note that they may depart at a stop before yours. You should ask them when they plan to depart so you can tip them prior to that. Keep in mind that some stops are in the middle of the night while sleeping, so you should tip them the night before they depart. The tip is customarily $1-$2 per bag when entering the train and then $20 or more for the entire train stay. The more you ask them to do for you, the more you should expect to tip them. For example, if you have all of your meals in your room, then you should offer up a bigger tip.

If you’re riding Amtrak in coach, the only tip rules that apply are baggage carrying, if applicable.

Coat Check / Temporary Baggage Check

When traveling by train, you may find yourself at a layover train station that offers a baggage check service. This will allow you to wander the station without the need to cart your bags around during your layover. Be prepared to tip the baggage check service $1-$2 per bag. Same for coat check services… $1-$2 per coat / bag checked.

Doorman

This one can be a little confusing because sometimes the doorman may also be the bellhop. So, use your best judgement. If the doorman helps you with your bags and is also bellhop, only one tip is required. However, if the doorman hails you a cab, you should tip for that service. Though, with apps on phones these days, hailing a cab or Uber is easy to do using a phone app.

Room Service

Room service is effectively a restaurant in your room. So, all of the dine-in restaurant tipping rules apply. Tipping is then 15-20% of the subtotal on the room service bill for that meal (not the entire stay at the hotel).

Shuttle Drivers

If the hotel has a shuttle that takes you from and to the airport (or other select city locations), like a taxi you should tip them $1-$2 per bag (if they help you load and unload baggage). If they don’t handle any bags, then $2 is customary.

How to calculate a tip

Many dine-in restaurants now include suggested tip amounts on the subtotal receipt brought to the table. Be careful with blindly using these suggested tip amounts. Many restaurants and phone apps calculate tips based order total. That is, the cost of the order after taxes, service fees and other incidentals have been totaled up.

You should never tip on the total that includes tax. Let’s understand why. Taxes are monies collected by the state, county and local governments. Neither the restaurant nor the server did anything to earn that money. It is a given that taxes must be collected and every restaurant knows that. These monies received by the restaurant are given up to the government.

Instead, you should always calculate tip amount based on order subtotal. This subtotal includes all services rendered by the restaurant. Any line items added after the subtotal have nothing to do with services rendered by the restaurant and, therefore, not worthy of a tip.

Small orders vs Large orders

If you’re ordering food for a single person or a small number of people, the order total can be small. Accidentally tipping 18% on full total on a small order is not that costly. It might be only a dollar or two extra. However, when at a fine dining restaurant and the order total may reach into the hundreds of dollars, tip amounts can be $50-100 in tips alone. Calculating on subtotal vs total can save you money. Granted, if you’re at a 5 star restaurant that already costs $100-200 per person, you may not be worried about paying that $50 tip. But still, it’s the principal of the matter. The restaurant never earns the money collected for taxes and, thusly, the waiter didn’t do anything for that extra money you have just left them. Which leads to…

3 Michelin Star Restaurants

If you’re dining at Michelin rated restaurant (i.e., 3 Michelin stars), you should expect to tip higher than normal. Why? Typically, Michelin rated full service restaurants go out of their way to ensure your dining experience is exceptional from the beginning to the very end. The level of service received at this type of high end restaurant should be much more exceptional than any bistro style restaurant. If you receive bistro level experience at a Michelin rated restaurant, you should contact the Michelin guide and let them know. For these restaurants, it is customary to start at 18%. Though, you might tip as high as 25% depending on quality of food, quality of service and wine list pairing suggestions. Only you can judge exactly how exceptional the service was. Though, critical mistakes at this type of restaurant have much more dire influences on tips. So, if the server spills your meal, brings you the wrong food or in any other way makes a mistake, your tip amount should suffer dramatically and could be reduced down to as little as 5-10% (or nothing if the mistakes were egregious).

When you visit a Michelin rated restaurant, the expectation is to have a perfect experience. If you receive anything other than the most stellar service experience, you should tip very little and talk to the manager of the restaurant.

Restaurants sometimes now include tips

Some restaurants today are even attempting to take tipping to the next level for parties of less than 6. By automatically including tips as part of the final check line items, it assumes that the patron would like to leave a tip. Restaurants justify this addition by claiming that wait persons and other restaurant staff work on a living wage. This justification is weak at best. When you find a restaurant that is automatically including tip in your bill, you should ask if it’s voluntary. Chances are, they say it is and will remove it from your bill. However, you should also state that you will never again return to this restaurant unless this silly custom is removed from the bills. For parties of 6 or more, it has been customary to automatically include tip. It is only recently that some restaurants have started including tips for singles or parties of 2. Restaurants don’t seem to understand that tipping is voluntary, which leads to…

Tipping Generosity

To tip or not to tip is based on many factors and how well they performed the service. How much you leave is entirely up to you. It is voluntary to leave a tip, so you can leave nothing if you choose. But, if you visit that establishment again having tipped nothing, you’re likely to be remembered as that guy/gal who doesn’t tip. On the other hand, can choose to tip 20%, 30% or even 100% if you like. It is entirely up to you how much tip you leave for any service rendered. The customary amounts are what most people leave. Though, you are free to leave whatever you feel is appropriate for the given situation. There are lots of factors to take into consideration when tipping including, restaurant cleanliness, waitstaff appearance and attitude, service quality, frequency of checking in, order correctness, food flavor and many other factors. Be sure to scrutinize your experiences appropriately and tip what you feel is fair for those services. If you really dislike leaving tips, then I suggest you visit restaurants and other places that don’t require leaving tips. Though, that pretty much excludes you from 5 star experiences.

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Movie Analysis — Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted in movies by commorancy on December 30, 2015

Star_Wars_The_Force_AwakensSo while I have already written the movie review for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, this article intends to go in depth into some of the problems that plague the story of this film. Again, if you want to see this film and have not yet seen it, you should stop reading now.

Kylo Ren

So a lot of people are ragging on this character and the actor who portrays him. Yes, I was also personally unimpressed by the depth of this character. Granted, we don’t have much backstory for any of the new characters in this film yet. Not Finn, not Poe, not Rey and definitely not Kylo (other than his lineage). The lack of depth of all of the newly introduced characters is a problem. The most glaring problem of note is Kylo Ren. Not only because of the lack of backstory here, but the conflicted and almost childish brat nature of this character. Kylo apparently idolizes Darth Vader, but Kylo himself is but a sad pale imitation of Vader. The mask that Kylo wears looks cheap and serves no purpose. I realize that this is supposed to be a gritty world and not much is kept tidy, but still. This mask looks cheaply made even for a film of this caliber. Meaning, it looks cheap from a costume perspective, not from a character perspective. We don’t know enough about Kylo to justify the cheap look of that mask.

On top of the cheap mask, his temper tantrums are just over the top. Not only does he continually smash random consoles in fits of tantrum anger, he’s conflicted about his parents and in particular, his dad. Overall, this character is more or less a spoiled brat who seems to have gotten his way. I can’t even imagine Han and Leia bringing up such a spoiled brat. But hey, that’s what the storywriters propose here. When Kylo joined up with Snokes (The Supreme Leader), it seemed to be some desperate attempt to get away from his parents and his unhappy (?) home life. Though, that’s just a guess as we have no backstory here to back this up. Still, putting a spoiled brat who continually throws temper tantrums into the lead villain part just doesn’t work well in this movie. Kylo ends up neither menacing nor important. He just ends up playing a spoiled brat trying to ‘play’ the role of someone menacing.

On top of a character that doesn’t really work in the context of a play about good and evil, the actor who portrays Kylo is also a questionable casting choice. If you’re planning on putting a 19 or 20 year old in a part like this, either make them so dashing we can forget that they have no acting chops or find a prodigy who can really take this part to the next level. Unfortunately, the casting choice in this particular part was questionable at best. When Kylo takes his mask off, you can hear snickering all around the theater… which says everything about how the audience feels for this Snape-like character.

Personally, I’d prefer to see the part recast for the next film. Since he was wounded in the lightsaber battle, there’s now a reason to put the mask on and leave it on and never take it off again. Now that this character has finally seen real combat and has also faced injury at the hand of Rey, maybe his rantings might feel a little more sincere.

Kylo’s Force Abilities

As equally weak as his character is in terms of depth, this character is also insanely weak in the force. Yes, he seems to have been trained to some degree, but if Rey (strong in the force, but untrained) can best Kylo (who has been trained), his force powers must be especially weak. For someone like the Supreme Leader, why would you ever put someone who could be so easily bested with the force in charge of anything?

With Kylo, there’s just too much inconsistency here to make this character believable. If he had been killed off on this first installment, that at least would have been something to make the Supreme Leader find a worthy right hand man.

Rey and her force powers

Rey seems to manifest the force like a pro, like she has already been trained. So, either she has been trained and is just playing it dumb or she’s some kind of force prodigy. Even Anakin wasn’t that much of a prodigy. Neither was Luke. Problem.

The Death Planet

As big as the new Death Star (Starkiller Base) was, it would have caused so much disruption to gravity in the systems it entered, the planets would likely have been torn apart. In addition to the gravity disruption it would have caused just by being there, sucking away an entire sun would have caused all of the planets in that solar system to completely freeze and, at the same time, hurtle off into space because there is no more gravity to hold them place (other than the new Death Star, but its gravity is likely far weaker). The sun vanishing would cause planetary and solar system destruction without the need to fire a single shot. So, making these Death Stars ever bigger and bigger has consequences for wherever they end up in the universe, the least of which is gravity. So, this is a huge story weak point.

Story

Since we’re talking about story weak parts, let me just say that entire story was rather weak. Not only did it somewhat plagiarize from both A New Hope and, again, Return of the Jediit isn’t even plagiarized very well. As I said in my review, I liked what I saw, but it could have been far far better. I’m not saying George Lucas himself could have done better, but it seems that Disney does better when it comes to things like Star Wars Rebels than it does when it comes to full length movies. In fact, I find that TV story arcs in general are better done than most movies today.

Let’s explore the Rey character. She’s a scavenger who’s been living on Jakku since a very young child. She scavenges and sells what she scavenges for food rations, which seem to be getting less and less with each sale. Note that this information at all doesn’t spoil the film. Because, after the very long boring opening of her performing this activity several times, we never see her do it again. So, while I do understand that it is intended as character development, it could have been done in a much more offscreen way (like, through dialog, through a series of montages or even flashbacks). Instead, JJ feels compelled to bring us every boring moment of her scavenging on screen. If the only reason for this is to see the crashed Star Destroyer, that could have been done in a much more compelling way than seeing her scavenger her way through that site. In fact, they do it in a more compelling way later in the Millennium Falcon. Hey, no need for the scavenging which dragged down the opening.

As with most JJ stories (though I realize it was also in combination with Lawrence Kasdan who also brought us The Empire Strikes Back), it’s just enough to get the job done, but not enough to be anywhere near as good as The Empire Strikes Back. Note that Empire worked because it was a middle film. This first film needed a rousing opening, an even more thrilling middle and an intense end… and ultimately it didn’t deliver on all three aspects. Instead, it had a slow boring opening, a somewhat rollercoaster and exciting middle and a contrived ending. It also didn’t really need the Starkiller Death Star at all to establish the evilness of the First Order. There are many ways to show how how evil can manifest on screen and the Starkiller was contrived, unnecessary and reeked too much of previous films.

I want to see stories that haven’t been done. Sure, we all want to see space battles between X-Wing fighters and Tie Fighters. But, give us a space battle that involves something other than trade blockades and death stars. Can we think of no other plot elements that require ships in space fighting? Seriously?

Let me count the ways

I want to love this film as much as Rotten Tomatoes does.  I want this film to be as endearing as A New Hope. Unfortunately, it isn’t and I don’t. I do like it, but only to the degree that I would like any blockbuster released in the last 10 years and only on that level. Basically, it’s as good as Transformers or the Avengers or even Ironman. It’s a good watch, but it is in no way fresh and new. To some degree the universe has been established by George. But, there are still ways of taking that universe and making it into something entirely new and fresh and endearing. Unfortunately, the story was just a too weak to carry it off in this way.

The only controversial thing about this movie is Kylo Ren (and the title of this film). Even then, it’s only from the perspective of Kylo being a spoiled brat in the Star Wars universe (and somewhat miscast). If you’re going to cast a character with a helmet on, make damned sure that when the helmet is removed, that person is menacing to anyone he/she faces. There is no room in the Star Wars universe for spoiled children. That’s not the reason we go see Star Wars films. Characters should always act larger than life, but never as spoiled brats.

As for the title of the film, The Force Awakens, to whom did this reference? It isn’t clear. Does it refer to Kylo’s force power temper tantrums? Does it refer to Rey’s manifestation of her force powers? Does it refer to Finn’s use of the light saber. After all, I’m pretty sure that Finn wasn’t taught light saber training as part of The First Order. We still don’t know to whom the title of this film refers.  Partly the reason is that the one thing that was entirely forgotten was Yoda, Ben and Anakin as force beings. None of these people chimed in at all during any part of this film to attempt to explain anything. These small snippets of Ben and various other Force manifestations helped carry the story along in episodes 4, 5 and 6. Where are they in 7? Were they just conveniently hiding among the midichlorians?

Note: this article is still under revision and may continue to be updated as I further analyze this picture.

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Rant Time: Car cleaning and parking courtesy

Posted in stupid people by commorancy on December 29, 2015

For some reason that’s unexplainable, I’ve recently seen more and more people digging around in or cleaning their cars in parking lots of retail stores. While I have no problem with a person wanting to clean or rearrange their car, I do have a problem when they’re doing it at an inappropriate time and blocking people from parking or getting out of their vehicles to go to the store. Common courtesy, people, common courtesy. Let’s explore.

Parking and Shopping

When shopping at Target, Walmart, 7-Eleven, Safeway or while doing any other retail shopping, the parking lot is for parking your vehicle. A parking lot is not the place to clean or rearrange things in your car with your trunk open, with all car doors open and just randomly standing at and fiddling with something on your passenger seat. This is neither the time nor the place. If you’ve lost something, figure it out later. If you’re securing a child, do it quickly and finish up. If you are putting your bags away, finish that up. People may be waiting for you to get done with whatever it is you are doing.

When I see this happening, typically the person is parked in a reasonably close spot. What I mean is, they are usually by the door. No, they aren’t just putting their bags away. They’ve got their passenger side door wide open leaning over the passenger seat and digging for something. And they dig and dig and dig for minutes. Not only are they not in the store shopping, they are blocking the space they are in. They are also blocking the two adjacent spaces next to them because their car doors are wide open.

During the holiday season, this is especially frustrating. But, it’s frustrating any time of the year.

Common Courtesy

When a car pulls into a space next to you, they shouldn’t be expected to wait why you fiddle around in your passenger seat. If you’re digging for something, go do it somewhere else. Blocking other people from getting to parking spaces at the store is not what you should be doing and is definitely not what the store intended. Additionally, by doing this, you’re being entirely rude and discourteous. If you need to clean out or dig through your vehicle, take it to a place where it is appropriate. A place like your driveway at home or a car wash. Or, alternatively, move your vehicle to the back of the parking lot where fewer people park and you can do whatever it is you are doing until the cows come home. Don’t do this when parked in the busiest parking section of the lot.

Self entitlement

This is a subject that probably deserves an entire rant on its own. However, more and more people have some notion that they are entitled wherever they go. Such as thinking like, “I’m now a parent with child, I’m entitled to park close.” “I have a big expensive vehicle, I am entitled to do whatever I please with it.” No, when in public, you are no more entitled than anyone else. I’ll repeat that. You are no more entitled than anyone else when you visit any public place. Instead, courtesy trumps entitlement. If you are intentionally blocking or otherwise hindering another person’s ability to get something done, go shopping, park in a space, or otherwise visit a shopping establishment, you are firmly in the wrong. Not only that, you’re lucky that security doesn’t come out and ask you to leave the lot or threaten to tow your vehicle.

As I said above, if you want to go digging in your car for 30 minutes, do it somewhere else more appropriate.

Example

Tonight I was visiting 7-eleven to pick up a package from an Amazon Locker. Just as I pulled into my parking space, some dumbass had the nerve to walk up to and open up the passenger door of his vehicle and proceed to rummage for at least 5 minutes with the door open (I only waited about 60 seconds of it). I was parked right next to him and could not open my driver’s side door to get out. I ended up moving my vehicle to a different space so that I could finally get out. What a complete and utter self-entitled dumbass. Rummaging in your car with all doors open at 7-Eleven is not the time nor the place for that activity. Get your crap together and leave the parking lot. Use common courtesy and allow people who’ve just parked to get out of their car. If you want to rummage, step aside for the 10 seconds it takes to let the person out of their car. Then, go back to it when the person has stepped away. Be cognizant and aware of your environment and the people around you. Apparently, some people just don’t understand the concept of common courtesy anymore.

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