Category Archives: Hardware

35 Years of Connected Computers

I realized the other day that at some point 35 years ago, during the latter half of the summer of 1986, Potshot… or Skronk or Fergorin or whatever names I’ve used to identify him on the blog over the years… sold me a modem.

I think it was in August, but honestly it could have been July or September.  It was a cash deal and no receipts were kept.  It was an Apple 1200 bps modem and I took it home, then went over to the used computer store that was close by… because used computers were a business then… and bought a Super Serial Card for my Apple //e so I could hook the modem up to it.

Apple and Zoom modem pictures gleaned from the internet, the latter being me second modem

At that point I had to do something with it.  I dialed up a BBS or two with some primitive terminal emulation software, then I started looking at online services, landing on GEnie.

There I ended up playing Stellar Emperor almost right away.  Somebody there told me to go buy the Apple ][ terminal emulator that CompuServe sold which was light, emulated well, and had ten macro keys, which would become all important in playing Stellar Emperor and Stellar Warrior. (I did a recap of my 80s online gaming a while back.)

I also never had to go sit in the computer lab in college anymore.  They had a dial up number I could log in through.  I still had to walk across campus to pick up my printouts for projects, usually from SPSS, a software package I am continually surprised to find still exists.  It is almost as old as I am.

I’ve told those tales before here.  I’ve even charted out timelines for various things, including platforms and connectivity.  I’ve written a lot down on the blog over the last 15 years.

Game Platforms

I should probably update that one a bit.  I can add iPhone to it, and a Nintendo Switch.  But mostly it has been Windows PC gaming since Y2K.

Connectivity

That one I really need to update.  I think it was about 2015 that we swapped over to Comcast for a cable modem connection.  That runs at 100 MBits.

100 megabits per second.  One hundred million bits per second.  That is a long way from 1,200 bits per second back in 1986.  I would need more than 80,000 little Apple modems humming along in parallel to even come close to my throughput today.  1986 me would be impressed.

Hell, 2006 me would be impressed.  We’ve come a long way.

Back in 1986 I was kind of an oddball, demographically speaking.  I mean, just having a personal computer was still kind of odd, though growing increasingly common.  But having one that connected to other computers, that was really not a thing for many people.

For a long time the idea of a computer being connected to other computers was kind of niche.  One of the jobs I had there were several Apple ][s hooked up to a central Corvus drive that would share accounting data and output reports.  And the stuff in the lab at school was all wired up, but for most people a computer was a stand alone unit.  If you wanted to send somebody data you printed it out or saved it to a floppy disk.

In 1991, when I was working for a company that specialized in hard drives I got a call from a guy who had moved from there to a data recovery firm asking me about modems.  I was the recognized “modem expert” largely because I ran a BBS at the time, which made me the one-eyed man in the land of the blind.  He had a client down in LA who really needed the data from a drive they had recovered and wanted to know how long it would take to send to him via modem.  They had a 2,400 bps modem handy to transfer the 40mb of data.

I told him it would be quicker to drive down to LA and hand him the drive in person.  I didn’t even get into the complexity of queuing up however many files and sending the one by one and then sorting through them at the far end.  He was discouraged, but understood when I did the math.  It was kind of a surprise that the client at the far end had a modem, even in 1991.

Modems didn’t really become a thing to have until 1994 or so when the World Wide Web suddenly hove into view for many people.  I moved from the hard drive company to a modem manufacturer… again based on the fact that I ran a BBS so knew something about modems… where our big selling point was that you could send a fax from your Apple PowerBook.  Hard copies were still a thing.  Remember faxing lunch orders into a restaurant or getting fax spam ads?  No?  You’re kind of young, aren’t you?

But with the web, the internet became a thing for everybody.  The rush to get online began and here in Silicon Valley there was a good year to 18 months when on a typical weeknight you could lift up the handset on your home phone and not be sure you would get a dial tone.  The phone company, built on the idea that most people make a few five minute calls, was suddenly faced with a bunch of people who would dial up to their ISP when they got home from work and leave their connection pinned up until they went to bed.   Checking your email was kind of a big deal.

There was an transition point from where a computer went from being a stand alone device, to being something that could connect to an online service, to a device whose whole existence revolves around connectivity.

Back in the 80s and 90s having a computer online meant you could be some sort of cyber ninja computer hacker.  Now having a computer not connected has a special mystic.  We have a special term for it even, an “air gapped” computer.

I mean think about how much you do every day that required connectivity.  My job, which has been work from home for 18 months now, pretty much required online connectivity all the time for the last 20 years.  The network being down meant no work was getting done.  And now I am at home and that connection is work, commerce, and entertainment.  I have a 10 channel package from Comcast for my cable TV service because they want so badly to demonstrate that people are not cord cutting.

So far this year we have watched live TV on January 6th and during the Olympics.

Meanwhile, “always on” internet is essential.  All my many screens, and screens have proliferated in the last decade, seem to now demand some sort of internet access.  I remember back in the day when my daughter and I got our Nintendo DS Lites.  Internet connectivity was kind of a rare thing.  Setting up Nintendo WiFi for Pokemon was a pain.  I think only Mario Kart really worked well with it.

Now if I pick up the Switch Lite somewhere out of WiFi range is starts acting like a junkie in withdraw.

And I suspect the trend will continue in that direction.  I’ve resisted wifi enabled appliances and stuff, given their legendary security vulnerabilities, but I am sure some day they will become mandatory.

The Other Shoe Drops on Facebook Account Requirement for Oculus

We learned last August that Facebook, owners of Oculus since 2014, was going to start requiring all new Oculus users to login using a Facebook account, with a plan to eliminate legacy Oculus accounts by 2023.

This was viewed with suspicion by many who expected that Facebook (motto: Evil is just a question of money, how evil do you want to be?) was planning to collect and abuse data from these accounts.

Happy FarmVille Memories… which apply to Facebook in general for many

And now we have the confirmation.  This past week Facebook Reality Labs (formerly Oculus and I feel like they should put the word “harsh” in before “reality”) posted a blog update announcing that they would in fact be collecting data from your VR usage in order to present ads and make you a focus of targeted marketing.

This, I am sure, surprised exactly nobody.

Your Facebook data will even be popping ads in the Oculus app for you.

The surprising… or perhaps “galling” or “outrageous” is the right word, I am not sure… part of the blog post was where they announced that they were starting to test injecting ads into select VR games based on whatever skeevy data Facebook has collected on you.

On reflection, “surprising” was clearly not the right word because I found the whole thing absolutely unsurprising once I read about it.  It seemed quite on track for Facebook.

I am sure this is exactly what every gamer is looking for, ads based on their every day life, viewing habits, and purchases, showing up in the escapist pursuits.

I mean, I am perhaps not the best one to going on about immersion, it being a delicate line that I can only cross when I am absolutely not thinking about being immersed, a cotton candy sort of mental state that melts away the moment I realize it has happened, but I can guarantee it is never going to happen if I get real estate ads in my game because I liked a Facebook post my wife put up about her latest listing… because spousal support is about all I can manage on their platform these days.

Of course, I don’t actually own an Oculus VR headset… but if I did, I would be disgusted with it I imagine… or myself.  I am sure I’d find something to be mad at.

Related:

The PlayStation 3 a Decade Later

In looking through posts for the usual month in review summary I saw that we had just passed the ten year anniversary of our purchasing a PlayStation 3.

Just in case you wanted to see a box

A decade down the road… or about half an Afghan war later… the PlayStation 3 is still in the entertainment center under our televisions.  Same TV, same PlayStation 3.

We were a bit late to the PS3 party.  The platform launched back in late 2006 and was discontinued in the US back in 2016.  But back in 2006 we were more keen to jump on board with the Wii.  And I think it was probably the wise decision.  With our then young daughter in the house, the Wii was a lot more kid friendly.

The new TV was the primary driver for the PS3 purchase.  Our old 32″ CRT TV,  purchased back in 1998, was in the process of giving up the ghost so we finally bought a 46″ LCD HD TV.  With that we wanted to be able to watch Blu-Ray movies, stream, and play video games in actual HD resolutions, so a PS3 was already on my mind.  (Also, Potshot bought one and it seemed to work out for him.)

Anyway, we ended up doing some of all of that… once the PlayStation Network was up and running again.  The damn thing got hacked and brought down about a week after I bought the PS3 and remained down for over three weeks.  I was offered 450 Station Cash for my trouble as a result of a class action lawsuit, which tells you why I hate class action lawsuits.

For a long stretch we watched movies and streamed Netflix on the device.  Video games were played as well, though not as much as I thought would.  As it turned out, one of the oddities of the Wii, that you had half a controller to hold in each hand, was ergonomic brilliance.  Having to go to the “gamer grip” on a traditional controller made various parts of me ache.

Still, we did get through some of the TellTale LEGO titles, which were visually much better on the PS3 than the Wii, and my daughter put a lot of time into Little Big Planet.  But the last console video game we played on the TV in the family room was Just Dance 5 on the Wii, and the Wii has been packed up and stored away for about two years now.  The Wii was just more fun.

But the PS3 had other jobs.  We still used it for streaming and playing movies.  But the end of support for the platform still loomed.  Back in late 2019 we found that the streaming services had stopped updating their apps for the PS3, which ended its life for that function.  I went out and bought a Roku Stick, which now fulfills that need.

Then came the pandemic, and the television was suddenly getting more use than ever.  The Roku Stick purchase was just in time.  Within two month of that we had the pandemic, and Tiger King, and a hunger for video content.

Oddly, here is something we haven’t done in the pandemic: Watch movies on DVD or Blu-Ray.  We have a shelf full of them.  But streaming services seemed to have finally hit the point where they could scratch the itch that those disks were meant to cover.  That doesn’t mean I am tossing them, but when I am going through looking for something to watch, I am often struck by the overlap between movies available on services and our own library.  I mean, you get all of Star Wars and The Simpsons with Disney+.

So I haven’t spun up the PS3 in almost a year I would guess.  I think the last thing I watched was a couple of episodes of World at War, which I have on DVD and which doesn’t pop up on streaming services.  And that made me grouse a bit about how poorly black and white is rendered on modern AV equipment.  The glow of the CRT gave it a life that LCD technology lacks.

And so the PS3 sits on the bottom shelf of the entertainment center, half hidden in the darkness, waiting for us to want to spin a disk rather than stream.  Maybe some evening if the internet goes down we’ll boot it back up.

Recently I read that Sony will soon be shutting down PlayStation Store support for the PS3, which has made some grumble.  I am honestly surprised it has lasted this long, what with the PlayStation 5 out.  Nintendo pulled down all such support for the Wii ages ago, well before they launched the Switch.

And I am not that concerned.  The games I have will likely still work as I bought them all on disk and support for streaming apps and the like was already a dead end.   Of course, now there is a looming bug that might render the console useless if the CMOS battery dies, but I would have to feel the need to boot the system up to see if that was even a problem for us.

Overall, a decade later, I’d rate the purchase of the PS3 as probably worthwhile.  It did not get nearly the play time that the Wii did but it filled the gap in other places even if it was something of a “sledgehammer vs mosquito” level solution for some of its uses.  It played our Blu-Ray disks and streamed Netflix and HBO for us.  I’m not keen to replace it with something more modern.  There is no PS5 purchase looming in our future.  I don’t play video games on the TV and the streaming function has already been taken over by the Roku.  And, for now, the PS3 can handle and DVD or Blu-Ray needs.

Addendum: Sony has changed their mind and is keeping the PS3 and PS Vita stores open for now.  Maybe they’ll even push an update to fix the CMOS battery bug.

Wide Screen

A very astute reader of the blog might have noticed that, recently, some of my screen shots included in posts were a bit… wider… than normal.  That last screen shot on my post about WoW Classic alts was different that the rest.

And some screen shots in the post about the battle at 46-U6U in EVE Online featured some screen shots like that as well.

This is because I recently was able to borrow a Dell U3415W monitor.  The “34” refers to it being 34″ diagonal in size.  It is a big monitor.  Perhaps the biggest one I have ever worked on, at least when it comes to screen resolution.

It displays at 3440 x 1440 resolution.  That is a lot of pixels to push.  My main monitor, a 24″ Dell U2412M was just 1920 x 1200 for comparison.

But the first thing was to find room for it on my desk.  The monitor is big enough that it is curved slightly, so that the whole screen stays in your peripheral vision.  I was able to squeeze it in there and still keep my little (1600 x 900) secondary monitor on the side, so I can play full screen and still be able to see IMs or pull up maps or quest info or whatever.

It fits there

The main problem is what to do with my Snowball microphone.  It used to sit off to the side of the old monitor, but cable reach and space constraints now mean it has to it somewhere in front of one of the monitors.  Unfortunately, it is just tall enough that it blocks something no matter where I put it.  So it moves around at need for the moment.

And once I had the monitor hooked up… well… let me tell you, your perceptions about desktop space and what windows need to be opened up full screen change.  It was kind of crazy, having that much room for stuff on the screen.  I wondered how I would get used to it… and then about an hour later I was.

You certainly don’t need to expand most things to take up the full screen.  Web sites, text documents, chat windows, they can all live in much smaller spaces.  Spreadsheets though!  Now there is some full screen magic.

But first I was on to games.

I wanted to know what games would actually support a 3440 x 1440 resolution.  What could I play full screen?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, World of Warcraft was totally fine with the big screen.  In perhaps a bit of a surprise though, WoW Classic is also good with that much real estate.

A Plaguelands panorama

The UI scales fine, nothing is awkwardly out of place, no bits are stretched, everything is anchored in what feels like just the right spot, and playing in a world that extends to the edge of your vision is actually pretty cool.  I got used to that very quickly.

EVE Online, my other much have, likewise seemed fine with a big screen, though the client has been somewhat resolution agnostic for a while.  It will size to whatever screen you want.  The UI does get pretty small and things you need to click on… and you need to click on many things in EVE Online… can seem pretty far apart until you move around some of the UI, but it works.  And the view can be breathtaking.

In the slow motion scrum of battle

Games that are screen size agnostic, games like RimWorld, had not problem with the bigger monitor.  You just get to see more real estate.  I was a bit surprised to find that Age of Empires II HD was good with the resolution.

An RTS panorama

The awkward bit is that the game anchors the mini-map and the build controls at the lower corners, which are way far apart and distant from whatever you are likely doing on the main screen at any given moment.  Not so bad if you have memorized the key controls.  But if you’re like me and need to click, the sheer distance will slow you down.

Other games worked with varying degrees of success.  EverQuest II seemed good with the screen size overall, save for the experience and control bar at the bottom of the screen, which only scales to about half that width.

I guess it anchors on the left size of the screen

However, the view of the landscape, in the newer zones at least, was very nice.

It’s older sibling, EverQuest, gamely tried to follow suit.  Launching the game, the windows seemed disinclined to stretch and just stayed their usual defaults.  Once in the game, things opened up as it tried to accommodate the wideness of the new reality.

Let’s get wide in Norrath

The UI ended up getting stretched across the screen as things tried to remain relatively spaced. The UI settings acknowledged the screen size, but the view into the world felt a bit stretched across the horizontal plane.

Likewise, Lord of the Rings Online started up fairly awkwardly. As it started up windows were stretched, controls were stretched, and the signs looks bad. But once in the game, things settled down. The UI had a few quirks… when you open up your bags they all have unnecessarily space between them… but otherwise looked good.

From middle to wide earth

I was at least covered on some of the older games I play. I haven’t dug through them all yet, and some are up front about not supporting anything wider that 2560 x 1440. Diablo III falls in that category, not that I have played it recently.

Probably the only downside I’ve seen so far is Minecraft. It runs just fine and scales up to the right size without issue. And when looking out on the world it is quite a sight. But the moment I turn left or right, the way it handles motion blur at the edges of the screen starts to give me a bit of motion sickness. (I get the head ache sort, not the nausea sort.) That might be something I could get used to, but it was unpleasant so I stopped playing around with it pretty quickly.

And then, of course, there is my video card. When I built my current system about two years back, I went with an EVGA GeForce GTX 1060 6GB video card. That was a decent choice as it appears to be just about able to handle the big screen when running some of these games. When I used the GeForce Experience to optimize my graphic settings for the new monitor, it did turn down the detail on some titles. Even with WoW Classic, which I had been running max settings on, needed a couple of settings dialed back a bit.

Of course, I immediately started looking into new video cards, but the timing is bad. Not only is there the whole “kid in college” level of expenses to deal with at the moment, but nVidia just announced a new lineup, but the older cards haven’t seen a price break yet. Maybe by Christmas time there will be a decent upgrade at a good price.

That assumes I’ll get to hang on to the monitor for a while, though it might be one of those things where once you have had this much screen space you can never go back.

[This post was written in WordPress.com’s new “block editor,” about which I will complain at a later date. It is not only awkward to use, but makes the post look different from other posts if you look closely. WP.com deployed the block editor while I was writing this, and I thought I was trapped with it, but I have since figured out how to continue to use the “classic” editor going forward.]

Friday Bullet Points on a Tuesday just to Catch Up

Basically, the month slipped by and ends tomorrow and there were several things I think I should have mentioned, if only to set their place in the timeline of what happened this month.  So on to summaries and links and bullet points.

  • LOTRO Planning a “Mini” Expansion

Standing Stone Games announced that Lord of the Rings Online will be getting a mini expansion pack titled War of the Three Peaks next month.  SSG will be treating it like an expansion in that it will be available in three different versions:

  • Normal Edition – $20
  • Collector’s Edition – $59
  • Ultimate Edition – $99

SSG has been less than forthcoming as to what players will get for the extra $39 or $79, aside from the possibility of boar mounts.  Reaction to this mini expansion has been mixed.

I’m holding my own opinion on value until SSG comes out with more details, but my past experience with Adventure packs, an idea that shows up at Daybreak every so often, only to be disavowed, places my expectations low.

  • EVE Online Mineral Redistribution Plan

CCP put out a dev blog on Friday about the next steps in their economic work, calling it a “redistribution” plan.  However, it reads much more like a continuation of the “starvation” plan that they have been working on so far, with more things being removed from various areas of space and reducing yields on what remains.  The forum thread regarding this change exploded, which was no surprise.  Likewise, the chat in the live stream discussing the changes blew up as several devs tried not to pour gasoline on the fire and failed. (You can watch a re-run of the live stream or read a transcript if you’re that interested.)

Cutting through much of the general rage about the changes, it seems like CCP is trying to solve super capital proliferation via minerals.  However, supers use the same minerals as T1 subcaps, so T1 stuff is going to feel the same resource squeeze.  Updates that are all pain for no gain never fly well with the base.

The changes are supposed to come mid-October, so look for people to be mining heavily until that happens in an effort to try and insulated themselves from the already spiking mineral prices.

  • EVE Online Ship Models

CCP has a deal going with Mixed Dimensions to make models of EVE Online ships that players can buy, who have just added more hulls to those available.

I have always been a bit dubious about the ship models thing since the battleship models from more than a decade ago, not to mention the floating Nyx model that was a bust.  But maybe this time enough players… who always say they want these sorts of things… will actually pony up and buy them.  For me, however, the prices are a bit rich.  And I have that Rifter model from the 10th anniversary special in any case.

  • Microsoft buys ZeniMax Media

Microsoft agreed to pay $7.5 billion to acquire ZeniMax Media.  That name might sound familiar as they own id Software (Doom franchise), Arkane Studios (Prey, Dishonored), MachineGames (Wolfenstein franchise), Tango Gameworks (The Evil Within), Bethesda Softworks (Elder Scrolls and Fallout franchises), and ZeniMax Online Studios (The Elder Scrolls Online).

While there will be no immediate change to any of the studios or their titles, it does raise the question as to what in the future will be exclusive to XBox and what will be available on other consoles or even on the PC.

  • Sony PlayStation 5 Pre-Orders Open Up, Hilarity Ensues

As foretold by every similar experience in the past, the pre-order process was swamped by people looking to get the new PlayStation 5 console, slated to ship in November, and by people looking to grab one to scalp on eBay to take advantage of desperate consumers as the holiday shopping season begins.  If you Google what happened, the word “fiasco” seems to be a common thread in much of the reporting.  Some of the confusion was caused by retailers putting pre-orders up for sale a day early.  Sony apologized for what happened and promised to do better in the future.

  • Microsoft XBox Series X and S Pre-Orders Open Up, Hilarity Ensues

Later in the week Microsoft opened up pre-orders for the coming XBox Series X and S consoles, slated to ship in November, leading to another rush to get in first to claim a unit, either to own or to scalp later.  While things were less chaotic (the news stories rank the event somewhere between “mess” and “debacle,” which is better than a “fiasco” I think) there were still issues and all units were quickly sold out.

The added dimension here is that the XBox One X, a previous generation console, saw a spike in orders at the same time, so it is quite possible that at least a few people are going to be very disappointed to find out that they were duped by Microsoft’s naming scheme into ordering the wrong unit.

  • Foreclosing on your Farmville

Zynga announced that they will be shutting down Farmville at the end of the year.

Farmville, the big break out game for Mark Pincus and Zynga and the poster child for Facebook “social gaming,” which at its 2011 peak had more than 80 million players, was also the standard bearer for annoying garbage games that made you pester your Facebook friends or straight up pay cash to advance and help define the whole genre as spammy pieces of shit.

Of course, that is what you get when your founder doesn’t even really like games all that much.

The surprise here isn’t so much that the game is shutting down but that it was still up and running.  Then again, literally the most profitable thing that Zynga has done during its entire existence was buy property in the SF Bay Area.  I am told that selling their building earned them more than all of their games combined over the last decade.  And, as they lucked into the social gaming on Facebook trend, they managed to luck into the peak, pre-pandemic real estate market in SF.  Good for their investors I guess.

I expect I will come up with a few choice words for the game, the company, and the genre to mark the final passing of the game in December.

  • EA Secretly Craves Lockbox Regulations

Electronic Arts – Fun is Made Here

I’m throwing this one in here at the last minutes just to keep me from writing another two thousand word screed on the self-destructive behavior that greed drives this industry towards.

According to a story over at Massively OP, EA decided that advertising their FIFA 20 lockboxes in a children’s toy catalog (Smyths’ Magazine) was a good idea.  My bullet point for this section is obviously sarcasm, but only just.  The only other reason I could imaging EA thinking it was a good idea to effectively throw some red meat in front of legislators keen to declare lockboxes gambling targeted at children is that they believed that the current pandemic and political unrest would provide sufficient cover for their plan… their plan to target lockboxes at children.

This is so dumb, like a dumb sandwich with a side order of dumb and a 16oz cup of dumb to wash it all down level of dumb, that I had to stop and check other sources to make sure this wasn’t a hoax because somewhere in the back of my head something was saying that even EA could not be this dumb.

And yet, here we are.

I mean sure, I guess that the ESA declaration on lockboxes last year, who among the signatories you will find EA, didn’t specifically say that targeting children was bad. But I guess I didn’t think that needed to be said.  As I wrote a year ago, this is how you get your industry regulated.

The End of the Line for the DS Series at Nintendo

The Verge reported that at some point in the last week or so Nintendo updated their Japanese site to indicate that the remaining units in the DS lineup, the 3DL XL, 2DS, and 2DS XL are “out of production.”

If you go the US Nintendo site, mention of the DS line of handheld console has been completely scrubbed, save for the support area, where it now lives in the “Other Systems” category with the Wii, the Wii U, and older generations of the DS line.

So ends Nintendo’s dual screen handheld line.  The Switch was not supposed to replace it, not according to Nintendo at least, and the initial Switch model was certainly bulky enough compared to the pocket sized DS line to support that argument.  But then came the Switch Lite and the writing was on the wall.

Though, to my mind, the real death knell of the DS line was Game Freak moving core Pokemon RPG development to the Switch.  In our family we played some other games on the DS, but it was primarily the Pokemon console, and those core titles were always best sellers on the platform.

The end was always coming some day, and I haven’t really played anything on my 3DS XL for ages, but it is still a bit of a sad note.

On the flip side, the DS line had a hell of a run.

Released in late 2004, when the PlayStation 2, original XBox, and GameCube were the current console generation, it persisted through to pre-orders for the PlayStation 5.  The hardware went through a series of revisions, starting with the DS, then the DS Lite, then the DSi and DSi XL.  Then came the 3D plan, with the 3DS and 3DS XL, the latter getting a couple of revisions during its time.  Finally, in order to satisfy the budget end of the spectrum, there was the 2DS, unique in its form factor, and the final entry in the lineup, the 2DS XL.

That last entry, which was also the last model I owned, was basically the 3DS XL with some improvements and a the 3D option remove.  It was, in its way, the pinnacle of the line, 3D ending up being more of a gimmick than a serious feature for most people.

But we had a number of the various models along the way.

Back in early 2008 we bought a pink DS Lite for our daughter to keep her entertained on a trip that included a six hour flight.  Later that was joined by a cobalt blue DS Lite of my own, since Pokemon seemed like a lot of fun.  My daughter and I played a lot of Pokemon together.

Pokemon Diamond and the DS Lite

The WiFi features of the early units were ahead of their time.  It could be a bit finicky, but it was a deep feature.  Pokemon Diamond and Pearl had its underground feature that allowed players to interact in the caves and visit each other’s bases. (And steal their flags!)  There was online trading between players around the world.  And I was extremely impressed with the WiFi integration with the Wii as demonstrated by games like Pokemon Battle Revolution and Pokemon Ranch.

And my little cobalt blue DS Lite was, and remains, a solidly built unit.  It went on a lot of trips and I never had a problem with it.  Battery life was excellent.

My daughter got a DSi at one point, then a DSi XL, which I thought was a great improvement.  Age was creeping up on me by then and the little DS Lite screen was starting to be blurry to me.

Then the 3DS line came along.  We skipped that initially, there being no real incentive to go to a little 3DS from the big DSi XL, but Nintendo eventually came out with the 3DS XL.  My daughter wanted one for Christmas and, once she had one, I got myself one for my birthday a couple months later.  We were back and playing Pokemon again.

And Pokemon was always the main game for us.  I think the peak for my daughter and I, the point when were were the most into it, was during Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver.  The game was good and the tropes of the core RPG series still felt fresh to us.

There was the Pokewalker, the pedometer which allowed you to unlock Pokemon by getting out and walking… or, you know, cheating.  It communicated with the DS Lite via the IR port.  Only one Pokewalker went through the wash.

Pokewalker on my Belt

There were many download events, the ones where you had to go out to Toys R Us or GameStop to collect.  We event went to the regional championships just to see what was going on.

And, of course, Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver was the game where I caught them all for the first and only time.  I got the National Pokedex first, which qualifies you for the achievement in the game.  But that was only 485 Pokemon, because they don’t make you get the rare, event Pokemon.  But I managed to hunt them down, getting the final one by playing Pokemon Ranger: Guardian Signs to get an egg that could be transferred into Pokemon SoulSilver , which would then hatch a Mamphy, with could be bred with a Ditto to get an egg that would hatch  a Phione, the last Pokemon I needed.  I had 493 Pokemon registered, back when that was all there was.

Back when 493 was all there was

I think we might have burned ourselves out on Pokemon with that run.  We played Pokemon Black & White, but were never that into it, as we skipped Pokemon Black 2 & White 2 when they came out, though I went back and played White 2 later.  It was a decent entry, and actually bucked a few of the tropes of the series.

Then there was the dead time, when the new Pokemon titles were on the 3DS, but we didn’t go there until the XL models came out.  Those saw a return to Pokemon for us and a modest revival of our passion for the games.

We played through Pokemon X & Y, Pokemon Omega Ruby & Alpha Sapphire, and Pokemon Sun & Moon, though we stumbled a bit with Pokemon Ultra Sun & Ultra Moon.  We bought it, but neither of us finished it.  We were again in the “too samey” phase again.  But my daughter did devote a lot of time to Animal Crossing: New Leaf after Pokemon faded.

And that was it.  Literally the day after my wife bought me the 2DS XL for Christmas, Game Freak announced that there would be no more Pokemon games on the DS platform.  The Switch was the future.

The 3DS hung around, and even saw a bit of a sales spike at one point after that, but without Pokemon there to anchor the platform, it seemed like time was drawing down on it, which brings us to this past week.

The units are still here.  I can still play Pokemon if I want.  But the support services have been fading since the Switch came out.  None of the DS series Pokemon games can use their global trade center or other connectivity that made the games so vibrant.  That has all been turned off.  And soon enough the store and all the other bits that Nintendo has to maintain will go away.  Like the Wii before it, the DS series will become isolated, stand alone game consoles.

Still, as I said, a hell of a run.  Almost 16 years have gone by since the first units shipped, and you can still play games made for the very first DS on the final 2DS XL units.  And it was a platform for some crazy ideas.  Let’s just start with the whole two screens idea, one being a touch screen.  Then there were the IR ports and the cameras and then 3D support, which included freaking 3D camera capabilities along with AR support along with all the things Nintendo did with WiFi along the way.

Seriously, they got Netflix to make an app to stream their video service on the 3DS series.  I tried it.  It was crap quality, but you could watch stuff.

So it goes.

If I want to play Pokemon today I have a Switch Lite.  It is a nice little unit.  The screen quality is very good.  But it won’t replace the DS series in my heart.  There is too much of my life tied up in that.

Other eulogies for the DS platform:

Oculus and the Facebook Account Requirement

And then I go and spoil it all by saying something stupid like “Log in with your Facebook account!”

Somethin’ Stupid, lyrics slightly altered

I remember back when Facebook bought Oculus back in 2014 and the panic it tended to induce in people.  The quotes I gathered at the time indicated that some people did not like Facebook.  I am not sure why, given all they had done for gaming up to that point, like… um…

Oh yeah, social gaming, and that crash when the accurtate description of the average game on the service became “spammy piece of shit,” was still living large in our collective memories back then.  FarmVille!

Happy FarmVille Memories

But we don’t hate Facebook as much now… oh, right… yeah, Zuckerberg’s decision that money from people seeking to subvert democracy and spread false rumors spends just as well as money from any other product has not made him any more popular.

At least, however, he seemed to be content to leave Oculus and its VR headset business alone.  That was likely because the VR market has yet to meet early expectations.  CCP didn’t get out of the VR space because business there was booming.  So Oculus has been able to improve its hardware over time as they continued to sell units at a decent, if more modest, rate.  That latest model from them is better, smaller, cheaper, and no longer requires so many connections to your PC.  All of that is likely to make VR more viable in the market.

Things have been quiet enough that you might have even forgotten that Facebook bought Oculus… until this week.

This week it was announced that Oculus users would eventually have to migrate to using a Facebook account to log in.  The full announcement is here.  The crux of it is:

Starting in October 2020:

  • Everyone using an Oculus device for the first time will need to log in with a Facebook account.

  • If you are an existing user and already have an Oculus account, you will have the option to log in with Facebook and merge your Oculus and Facebook accounts.

  • If you are an existing user and choose not to merge your accounts, you can continue using your Oculus account for two years.

Starting In January 2023:

  • We will end support for Oculus accounts.

  • If you choose not to merge your accounts at that time, you can continue using your device, but full functionality will require a Facebook account.

  • We will take steps to allow you to keep using content you have purchased, though some games and apps may no longer work. This could be because they require a Facebook account or because a developer has chosen to no longer support the app or game you purchased.

They are billing this as an ease of use and improved experience, but a statement in that post seems a little more on point as to why they are going this route:

…when you log into Oculus using your Facebook account, Facebook will use information related to your use of VR and other Facebook products to provide and improve your experience. This information is also used to show you personalized content, including ads. For example, we might show you recommendations for Oculus Events you might like, ads about Facebook apps and technologies, or ads from developers for their VR apps.

You will be in the Facebook targeted advertisement ecosystem, which is where Facebook makes its money.  You get to be both customer and product.

Now, does this really change anything?  Theoretically, since Facebook owns Oculus, your account was a Facebook account already.  But I suspect that it wasn’t fully integrated into the Facebook authentication services.  Facebook, like Google and Apple, has made their authentication system available to other services.  And I actually us Google for a few things, as I have 2FA setup on my main Google account.

But would I use Facebook?  With the way that the company has shown itself to be over the last few years?  Maybe not.

I wouldn’t avoid getting an Oculus VR headset because of this, but I also wouldn’t put it on the list of things in favor of getting one either.

Other coverage:

My Actual First Computer vs My First Real Computer

I write about old things here quite a bit.  Games, gear, memories, anything from the past.  And occasionally I will get as far back as the Apple ][+, which I think of as my first computer, trotting out this picture from 1983.  There is a story about getting it, because of course there is.

Apple II+ on Day One… nice digital watch on the left floppy drive!

Actually, I usually go with this picture from a couple months later because it has the joystick I ended up buying and a familiar game title on the screen.

Apple ][+ The Upgrades Begin

In addition to the joystick I have stacked the drives in the more conventional manner of the time and there is the ubiquitous power supply cooling fan hanging off the left side of the case now.

Otherwise it is the same room, same curtains, same folding card table with the same cigarette burn in it somewhere under the computer.

But what if I pulled out this picture instead?

Oh Jesus what is this mess?

Same room, same curtains, same card table, but what the hell is going on there?

Seriously, if I hadn’t of run across this picture I might have completely blanked out this bit of my story.

For a brief period of time I had a Timex Sinclair 1000 computer, a derivative of the Sinclair ZX81.  And when I say “brief,” I mean about a month.

How did I end up with one?  It was a Black Friday purchase.

I’m not sure if we called the Friday after Thanksgiving “Black Friday” back in 1982 1983, but it was clearly the first day of the of the Christmas shopping season still and the adds in the paper before then were full of deals, and one of them was for the Timex Sinclair 1000.  Payless Drugs had that listed in their ad for $99.  My grandmother, knowing I was pining for a computer, pointed this out to me.

Payless was a drug store, which meant it had a pharmacy and lot of general merchandise, but wasn’t quite a grocery store and wasn’t quite a hardware store.  The one by us had a large garden department and was the sort of place you could buy cheap patio furniture and beach umbrellas and a lot of stuff that didn’t quite fit into a some of the other “genres” of retail stores at the time.  They have since been bought by RiteAid, which with Walgreens (which now owns RiteAid), and CVS, make up the drug store triumvirate out in our area.

Anyway, computers and electronics were on the list of what they sold as well, which wasn’t all that odd.  I bought many of the games for my Atari 2600 at Longs Drugs, which had an electronics counter that also serviced watches and handled photo processing.  It was a different time.

My grandmother suggested I get out there and buy it, the whole thing being cheaper than the aforementioned Atari 2600 from five years before.

So I got out there early on Friday morning… not too early, the store opened at the normal hours and not at midnight or anything crazy because we were still civilized back then… and stood in line… because civilized or not we were still idiots and online shopping was decades away… until they opened the doors.

I walked over to the electronics counter, where they seemed to be in ample supply, and bought one… paid cash I’m pretty sure… and brought it back home.

What came in the box was the little black square with the membrane keyboard, a few of the cables, and a manual.  So I had to scrounge up an old B&W TV… kind of surprised there was one about, but there it is in the picture… in order to start doing anything.

There were a couple of test programs you could type in, but not much else, and you couldn’t save them.  When you turned off the unit everything went away.  You have to save everything to cassette tape, which explains why my old Sanyo dual deck boom box is on the table and wired up to the unit.  I am pretty sure that is the same unit I used to record this Dr. Demento tape.

Recorded off the air, circa 1980

It was a less than ideal situation and I would estimate that I could save to tape and then subsequently successfully restore a program to the unit maybe 1 in 4 times.  That may have been related to a few factors, but I was working with what I had to hand.

I went out and bought a couple of magazines dedicated to the ZX81 which had some programs you could type in.  However, I quickly came up hard against the 1Kb memory limit.  So you can see a black box hanging off the back of it which contained an additional 16Kb of RAM so I had some space to work with.

I toiled away on the little machine for a couple weeks.  I will admit that I did like that the keyboard had all the BASIC operators on it, available via a function key, and I probably learned some rudimentary programming in having to type in literally everything by hand at least once.

The ZX81 magazines were, of course, full of additional hardware and upgrades you could add on to the little computer.  More RAM.  Full keyboards.  Real floppy drives.  Computer magazines were like that back then.  It was very much a hobby with all sorts of little companies supporting the ecosystem.  If somebody could wire something up and make it work they could sell it to somebody else.

And while I enjoyed imaging what I might add to the unit, when I got that check for Christmas a month later, my first action wasn’t to start ordering a bunch of stuff for it out of the back of magazines.  My first action was pretty much to arm sweep what I had off the folding table to make room for the Apple ][+.

It was honestly the right choice.  I was very happy with the Apple and have a lot of fond memories of my time with it.

As for what happened to the little Timex Sinclair 1000, I have no memory of that either.  It was an era when used computers and equipment had value.  I bought a few items from a used computer store down the road called Interstate Computer Bank.  But even in that era the little unit was below the threshold of having any resale value as it was.  It probably ended up in a landfill.

A Nintendo Switch Lite

I had a whole post brewing in the back of my head for this week about the Nintendo Switch.

That was largely driven by my daughter, who got one for Christmas.  She, like myself, had been somewhat blasé on the console.  But when Nintendo announced Animal Crossing: New Horizons for the device, she changed her mind.  Leaving aside Pokemon, Animal Crossing was probably her favorite title on the DS series.

So she asked for a Switch Lite, the more portable variation of the Switch Console, and found one under the Christmas tree back in December.

However, Animal Crossing: New Horizons wasn’t out yet.  It is still two weeks away even as this post goes live.  So, to give her something to do I threw in a copy of Pokemon Shield, the latest of the core Pokemon RPG titles, which launched back in November.

The core RPG line continues

She has quite enjoyed the game and has told me that it is a solid title within the framework of the core RPG series. (I think the fact that her boyfriend also got a copy and that he had never played a Pokemon title before helped with her enjoyment.)  She finished the main story and I have been bugging her to crank out 500 words for me about it to post here, because I haven’t played it.

But her response has been such that I was going to write up a post committing to the idea and would buy a Switch Lite myself if Nintendo announced that the next core RPG title ended up being a remake of Pokemon Diamond & Pearl.  I was hoping for that on the DS line, it being the oldest titles yet to be remade, and I was deeply disappointed when Nintendo and GameFreak abandoned the 3DS before they got there.

And then my wife and daughter got me a Switch Lite for my birthday this past weekend and of course I had to go buy a copy of Pokemon Sword to have something to play on it.

My new Switch Lite

Also pictured, a Kirkland Mister Meeseeks keychain and a vintage MAD Magazine from 1969, both from my daughter.

So now I am all-in with Pokemon on the Switch I guess.

The hardware is nice.  The unit is light, though it does not feel as solid as any of the DS/3DS units we have owned.  I sort of miss the second screen and the built-in stylus of the old hardware as well.  But the screen on the Switch Lite is very good, though it isn’t big enough to keep me from having to wear my reading glasses when I use it.  And it is a touch screen and works with a couple of the third party styluses that I keep around for pecking out anything of length on my iPhone as my big hands and sausage-like fingers are not ideal for precision clicking.  So I have that going for me.

Possibly best of all, the Switch has a button on the front, recessed to you don’t click it by accident, that allows you to take screen shots.  Pokemon Sword screen shots mean Pokemon Sword posts… at least once I get an SD card for the Switch.  So expect that.

And, finally, there is Pokemon Home, the Switch platform replacement for Pokemon Bank.  I have a bunch of Pokemon in Pokemon Bank, including a large collection of legendaries.  All of those can make a one-way journey to Pokemon Home, from which they can be accessed in Pokemon Sword & Shield.  So I am going to have to work on getting Pokemon copied over.  Pokemon Bank is/was a subscription servers (though it was only $5.00 a year), but they’ve given lapsed returning users like myself a five day free access period.  We’ll see what I can get copied over.

I have Pokemon that came from earlier generations (I played Pokemon Emerald and Pokemon FireRed & LeafGreen on the DS Lite, as it had a GameBoy Advance cartridge slot) that have gone through a variety of copy and transfer processes just to get to Pokemon Bank.  Nintendo is pretty conscientious about that, even if it is sometimes like jumping through hoops. (There is even a rumor of Pokemon Go connectivity.)  So I am not going to leave anybody behind if I do not have to.

On the DS/3DS front, as expected, all of the back end services have been shut down.  I am not sure how Nintendo can still sell Pokemon games on the 3DS platform now that a lot of the promised functionality has been cut off, but whatever.  Time to abandon that ship I guess.

So there we are.  On to the Pokemon trail yet again.  I still want the remake of Pokemon Diamond & Pearl.  But I can bide my time until then.

California Explores Gaming Power Usage

The misperception that computer gaming is conducted only at the “fringe” of society has dampened curiosity about their role in energy use.

-A Plug-Loads Game Changer: Computer Gaming Energy Efficiency without Performance Compromise

The state of California issued a 92 page long report last year exploring the electrical usage of computer gaming in the state,  prepared for the California Energy Commission by researchers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, exploring both why video games use as much electricity as they do and how the state might plan for the future related to gaming power usage.

That electrical generation has an environmental impact is multiplied by the fact that the northern half of the state is mostly served by one of the more dysfunctional companies of the breed, Pacific Gas & Electric.  The company has gone bankrupt twice in the last two decades and has a habit of setting up situations where it ends up blacking out large swathes of the state due to its own incompetence.  Even my late grandfather used to refer to it as “Perpetual Graft & Extortion.”

Anyway, the whole report is available for download from the state as a PDF file here.  But the key graph early in the report indicates why this is even being discussed as it ranks various categories of electrical usage.

Estimate Power Use of Various Residential Activities in 2016

That is computer gaming using 4.1 terawatt-hours of electricity, which puts it ahead of the total power consumption of Cambodia, if the CIA is to be believed and I am able to do the unit conversion in my head.  Also, we appear to use about a terawatt-hour of electricity a year on hot tub pumps.  I could have guessed that I suppose.

The report opens, naturally enough, with how this number was arrived at, definitions for quite a few terms (kind of interesting), an attempt to break gamers out into discreet usage segments, and even a chart of power usage for specific titles from various gaming  genres on different platforms. Also, there is the revelation that people play a lot of games online.

For the purposes of this report the computer gaming energy use category includes:

…desktop and laptop computers, consoles, and media streaming devices and associated displays, local network equipment, and speakers, as well as associated network and data-center energy.

If I wanted to nitpick, I would go straight to asking how data-center power usage figures into  residential plug-load numbers, but nobody is going to listen to me and I suppose as long as we’re only referencing data centers within the state then I ought to let it slide.  Even the report admits that the whole thing is complicated to address.

Then there is the matter of what we should do about it.  As I like to put it, the “So what?” part of the report that attempts to move it from trivia to some suggested form of action.  As the report points out, there has not been a lot of focus on energy consumption in this area, dubious EnergyStar ratings and efficiency measurements for computer power supplies (the 80 Plus program) being about the sum total of the efforts.

The possible suggestions include expanding power/efficiency ratings for components to having a system of ratings for games that indicate the energy use effects that they might have, along with some possible ways to incentivize players to use less power.

Then there are some forecasts of power consumption going forward involving various scenarios from the status quo maintained to VR takes off to consoles explode well beyond current popularity.

This report is mostly an interesting read, an attempt by some people serious about their jobs to quantify, explore, and explain a complex situation that defies easy measure.

Much of the information in the study is based on earlier studies which are available online from Greening the Beast and which go into more depth in places:

In the end you and I pay the electrical bill, so it makes some sense to be at least somewhat aware of the impact game, setting, and hardware choices might have on your monthly statement.