Category: technology

A Knee-Jerk Review of the Oculus Rift

I posted this on Facebook during my hiatus, but one of the presents received Christmas morning was an Oculus Rift. (Technically, the present was the Rift and a fast enough desktop to run it. Tomas has been wanting to build a computer for the past year or so. He was dreaming of a low end machine capable of running some games. I’ve been wanting to get a new machine to use as my primary computer for writing for some time now, and I thought this year seemed like an excellent time to do it, since I’ve made a bit of money selling books. Yay business expenses. So after all presents had been opened, there was one final present that took the kids on a twenty step treasure hunt, taking them from computer component to computer component, culminating with the Rift.)

So after Tomas and I had built the computer (much easier now than it seemed to be the last time I did it, ten years ago), I got the Rift up and running on it, and gave it a whirl. (Thankfully, the research I’d done that indicated it would fit over my glasses was confirmed. Otherwise I would have been going virtually nowhere. It actually works perfectly fine with glasses.)

I did not expect to be seriously blown away by virtual reality. I’ve been gaming for years, after all, and I knew that the resolution on the Rift wasn’t high enough to make the pixels go away. So I thought I’d constantly be reminded that I was standing in the middle of my office with a headset on, looking like an idiot.

Except I massively underestimated the ability of sight and sound to override the rest of my brain. Slipping on that headset, I really felt like I was transported to another place. There’s a demo that takes you to the top of a skyscraper. It really felt like I was about to fall off, and it made me actually scared. That scene is followed by a T Rex coming to roar in front of you. Again, I was far more intimidated by this virtual thing than I would have ever expected.

Since that demo, we’ve installed some other games. (It comes with about 6 or 7 available to download right away for free.) There’s one that pits you against rogue robots, and it’s up to you to shoot them all down before the city is overwhelmed. There’s a 3D drawing game. We bought a climbing simulator, and a game that puts you in the shoes of James Bond. You can get Google Earth for free, and it interfaces with Google Street View, so you can stand on pretty much any street in the world and see what it looks like to be there. It’s much more impressive than normal Street View. It’s amazing.

When I mentioned the Rift on Facebook, it was with the explanation that I got to the point where I realized 14 year old me would be so incredibly disappointed in current me if he were to find out VR was available, I could afford it, and yet I didn’t have it. And so I bowed to 14 year old me’s wishes (not always a great idea). But really, I’m very pleased I did. Beyond the cool factor and the amazing experiences, I love watching my 13 year old and 9 year old children use the device. Yes, you could dismiss the Rift as just another toy, but I don’t see things that way. When I see them using it, I see them getting in on the ground floor of a new way of interacting with technology, one which might well prepare them for new innovations in the future.

When I was young, I had the opportunity to use desktop computers at home earlier than many other kids did. That familiarity with the technology helped me, as I taught myself graphic design basics (with the old PageMaker) as well as learned the ins and outs of music composition software. I sincerely believe that playing with technology leads you to using technology more intuitively. I have no idea what innovations might lie in wait, but standing there in my office, using virtual weapons to defend a city from rogue robots, it’s easy for me to see that this is something which will only grow in popularity and importance.

The Rift is a steal at $400. The controllers are terrific, the games are immersive, and there are plenty of experiences to choose from. The only thing that should hold you back from buying one is that you need a workhorse of a PC to run the games well. I have no idea how it will run on a lower end machine. The one I bought has an almost top-of-the-line graphics card, new processor, and plenty of RAM to back it up. Then again, we’ve found out it can run a VR game and a second game on the computer screen at the same time, so perhaps an older, less advanced model would still be fine.

Oh yeah. One more thing. I get motion sick playing for too long. Saturday I was in Google Earth for a half hour, then did the climbing simulator for another half hour, and after that, I was feeling pretty lousy for an hour or so. It was the climbing that got to me. My eyes were telling me I was moving all over the place, and my body was just plain confused. But not all games do that. It’s just something  to be aware of, and it hasn’t turned me off VR at all.

If you have any questions about the Rift, I’m happy to answer them. Very pleased with the gift.

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Netflix Has Ditched the Star System

(“Netflix has ditched the solar system” would have sounded cooler, but what can you do?) Either which way, the days of rating movies from 1-5 stars on Netflix seem to be over. It’s reduced its user rating system to a very simple thumbs up or thumbs down decision. Did you like the movie or dislike it?

Part of me is bummed about the switch. I had been very dutiful about rating movies on Netflix, and I felt like the algorithm had me down pretty well. I could look at a movie I hadn’t heard about and have a good idea whether I would like it or not based on the anticipated rating Netflix assigned to it. I understood that sometimes that rating might be lower than usual, based on the genre. I didn’t give out many 5 star reviews to action movies, for example, just because many of them don’t warrant it. But I knew when I wanted to watch an action movie and the algorithm gave it around 4 stars, then it would be a really good one for me.

That’s all gone now. Netflix has replaced it with a new algorithm that estimates how good of a “match” a movie or TV show is to your tastes. It’s a percent score, so if they’re really sure you’ll like something, they’ll list it as 98%. That kind of thing. You can indicate what you think of a show by rating it thumbs up or thumbs down, but Netflix has decided it has something far more reliable to judge you on:

Your actual viewing habits.

It makes sense, in a very big-brothery way. Netflix has full knowledge of which shows you watch, when, on which devices. It knows the shows you start but don’t finish. It knows your secret penchant for My Little Pony binges in the middle of the night. It knows your tastes the best way that’s really possible. By keeping track of how you vote with your eyeballs.

I’m torn on this. On the one hand, it makes sense for Netflix to do it. It’s in the entertainment business, and it wants to make sure you’re happy with what you’re watching. It realized that often people wouldn’t give the shows and movies they liked best the highest ratings. Like me, other people sometimes like to watch a movie just for kicks, even if it’s not the best movie in the world. They’ll give it three stars, but they had a great time watching it. But the thing is, sometimes I want a movie that’s going to challenge me. That I’m not necessarily going to love, but which I’ll be very happy that I watched it. It’s not a popcorn flick. It’s a real piece of art.

How will Netflix manage that one? I worry it’ll keep parading the same kinds of shows and movies I often watch, instead. It’ll want to keep me happy on a steady diet of sugars and carbs, when what I really need is a fine dinner now and then. See my point?

It’s also troubling that even with the new system, when I go to “Top Picks for Bryce,” it continues to provide me with suggestions that are far less than ideal. Matches that are just 70% or 56%, leading me to believe those “top picks” are nothing more than paid ads by the content creators. Seriously–why not have the section filled with the content that’s the closest match? It seems like a no brainer.

Anyway. We’ll see how it plays out in practice. Maybe it’ll grow on me. If any of you get experience with it, chime in to let me know what you think.

Podcasting for Fun (and No Profit)

So you’ll recall that I started doing a radio show a while ago as a way to promote my library. A coworker and I would get together once a week and talk library issues for a half hour. We had a good time doing it, but we wanted to somehow reach a few more people. We decided to try to record the show and broadcast it as a podcast. This turned out to be one of those thoughts that was very simple in theory, and really difficult in practice.

First up was the actual recording of the show. Our university’s radio station is set up to do things live. The microphones didn’t go to a computer that could record, so we switched the way we did the show, recording it ahead of time and then playing it back over the air at a later date.

But for a podcast to really be successful, it needs to live somewhere. For the first few months, I just hosted it on SoundCloud, because free. And that was fine, until I ran up against SoundCloud’s free limitations. It only lets you have three hours of recordings up at any one time. I could have started to delete old episodes as new ones came up, but that would kind of defeat the purpose.

So I was on a quest to find a way to host the podcast on the cheap. In the end, I went with Amazon S3 as the solution. All the research I’d seen indicated it was the best answer, but it also said it took a bit of work on your end to get it set up right. No problem! I’m good with technology, so I figured this was the way to go.

The trouble was “a bit of work” ended up being a huge understatement. My main goal was to get the podcast on iTunes, and so I had to teach myself not just how to link to individual episodes, but how to get it set up so that podcasts automatically got updated with iTunes. This meant I had to work out how RSS feeds functioned, and how to massage them so they worked with iTunes the right way.

In the end, this was hours and hours of work, believe it or not. I tried setting up brand new websites for the podcast. (Three different ones, as a matter of fact.) I kept going back to feed authenticators and iTunes podcast submission pages. I could get the feeds to load, but not the individual podcast episodes. I had to go to Amazon S3 and tweak permissions on the files and file names. It was much, more more complicated than I’d suspected.

The worst part of that struggle is never knowing if you’re ever going to actually solve the problem. After you’ve tried fifty or so approaches and none of them work, it can be really disheartening.

In the end, I got it to work. I had to post it on my own website (here), linking to Amazon S3 files, and using a new WordPress plugin to make it all come together, but in the end, I’m pretty sure I have it all ironed out. If you’d like to listen to the podcast (Heavy Meta with Mantor), you can check it out on iTunes here:

https://itunes.apple.com/us/podcast/heavy-meta-with-mantor/id1211843738

At least, I hope that works. Let me know if it doesn’t . . .

You can also check out the latest episode here on my blog.

The good news is that now that it’s all figured out, I think it should be smooth sailing from now on. Until it isn’t at some point. That’s how it goes with technology . . .

Why Maine Needs the Maine School Library Network

Yesterday I had the chance to drive to Augusta and testify to the state legislature (specifically the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology). There’s a bill that’s working its way through the system: LD 256. In a nutshell, it tweaks the way the Maine School Library Network (MSLN) is funded in order to ensure the network continues to operate in the years to come. Now having sat through a couple hours’ discussion on the bill, I thought it might be useful for me to give you, the people who weren’t there, a quick overview of what the MSLN does and why funding it is important.

Ready?

Back in ye days of olde, some people in the state thought it would be a good idea if blazingly fast internet (56kbps) were available at schools and libraries in Maine. Internet can be expensive, after all. Especially the fast stuff. Also, Maine is kind of a remote place, and there are areas that aren’t just “kind of”. Getting fast internet to those places would be tricky. There aren’t a whole ton of potential customers out there, so internet providers aren’t highly motivated to invest a lot of money in getting the infrastructure to those places.

But what if all the libraries and schools banded together and negotiated a contract for the whole state? Then providers would have the incentive to do just that: bring internet to the farthest reaches of Maine, because if they did, they’d get the juicy state contract. And so it was decided. A law was passed, and there was much rejoicing.

To fund said law, they devised a simple plan: add a fee to each “two way voice communication” in the state. In other words, if you’re talking on the phone to another person, then you’d contribute a bit of money to the MSLN in your monthly bill. For almost 20 years, this worked like a charm. 950+ schools and libraries were able to take advantage of the program. Fast forward to today, and you’ve got a minimum speed of 100mbps, even in the far reaches of the state. Better yet, you’ve got fast internet infrastructure that keeps spreading further into the state. (“Fast” is relative, but this is Maine, folks. We’ll take what we can get.)

However, a problem. More and more people in the nation and the state aren’t using landlines anymore to talk on the phone. They’re using cell phones. No biggie, right? It still qualifies as a “two way voice communication.” Aha! But the trick is, more and more companies are shifting away from having people pay for minutes on their cell phone plan, instead throwing in the phone calls for free if the customers pay for data. Data is not a “two way voice communication,” so there’s no fee collected there.

What this means is that the funding for the MSLN has been declining. It’s about $1.5 million per year less than where it needs to be today. LD 256 aims to fix that. The same companies that collected the fee before will continue to do so (phone/cell/internet companies). But instead of charging a percentage of “two way voice communication” costs, they’ll pay a flat rate. It works out to about $1 per phone subscription per year. This is not an extravagant program. For 8 cents a month on your phone bill, all the schools and libraries in the state get to continue having solid internet speeds, regardless of how remote they are. And internet providers will still be incentivized to keep upping the speeds throughout the state.

The internet is becoming less and less of a luxury and more and more of a necessity. Slow speeds discourage businesses from moving to an area. They discourage residents from wanting to live there. They frustrate families who just want to stream movies and play games and have fun. They’re a real downer. (Just ask my son.) I can’t imagine what my son would do in school if they lost their internet connection. Sure, some of the classes would be fine. Math would still be math. But so much of his research and learning is enhanced through online research and the like. Students in our state deserve fast internet at school. And citizens who can’t have internet at home (because they live too far away from a provider or because they can’t afford it) need to have a way to access high speeds. Libraries provide that free of charge.

The MSLN is a great deal.

However, having testified and been grilled about the bill, I know there are a few questions some might have about it. Allow me to answer them.

First, why not just charge library patrons who use the internet? Why force all Mainers to fund the activity of people who need to come in and use the MSLN? After all, it wouldn’t be inordinately expensive, right? Maybe a few bucks a year or a month. Still a great deal. Perhaps, but there are two big problems with that idea:

  • The MSLN is only partially funded by the state. 40% of it, to be precise. The other 60% comes from federal funds. Funds that specifically stipulate they’re only available if libraries don’t charge people to use the internet. As soon as you switch to a pay for use system, those monies go away. (Hint: that would be bad.)
  • The MSLN is able to get as low of a rate as it does because it has such great buying power. It represents so many different libraries and schools that providers are highly motivated to work with them. As soon as some libraries or schools start to peel off and negotiate on their own (because they live in areas with plenty of internet options, for example), then that buying power gets hurt. So the rates for MSLN might go up, which in turn would motivate more organizations to look elsewhere. It turns into a slow death spiral, and nobody wants that. (Seriously.)

The second issue that kept coming up was why libraries and schools didn’t just fundraise the money to cover this on their own. After all, the difference between what the fee is currently bringing in and the money needed to fully fund the program isn’t huge. We’re talking anywhere from a few hundred per library to three thousand dollars for the bigger libraries. Surely they can find it in their budgets to cover that gap?

But once again there are two big problems with that approach:

  • The gap of funding is increasing each year. It’s estimated it would double this year, so that turns the money libraries would need to cough up to something more like between a thousand dollars all the way up to six thousand dollars. It doesn’t take a financial whiz to see the trend there. It’s not sustainable. Sooner or later (likely sooner), the death spiral would begin.
  • Most libraries in the state are locally funded, at least to an extent. And local governments are focused on local issues. What’s best for their citizens. They don’t worry about what’s happening in the County or Downeast or some other place in the state. They worry about what their tax payers are saying. The MSLN works because it operates at a state level. It takes into account the greater good. Left to local budgets, some libraries or schools would inevitably peel off . . . and we’re back to spirals of death.

The thing is, the MSLN is an awesome program. It works, and it works well. Other states look at it and are envious. It’s something Maine is doing very right, and all that needs to happen is for Maine to keep doing it. It literally helps everyone in the state, and it can keep doing that for pennies a month. Again, this isn’t proposing to increase the funding for the program. LD 256 just tries to have people continue to pay what they’ve been paying for the last 20 years. No one’s been complaining about it. The only reason it’s been changing is because pesky technology has changed the way people pay for phone calls.

So if you live in Maine and would like to see this wonderful program continue to thrive and avoid spirals of any sort, please speak up. The members of the Joint Standing Committee on Energy, Utilities, and Technology are as follows:

Reach out to them and let them know you support LD 256!

The Benefit of Some Time Off

Hello again! I’m back after a two-week break from blogging and most social media. Miss me? I made the decision to step away from social media and the blog for the holiday break mainly because the blog, while it isn’t too time intensive, is definitely a “Thing to Get Done” each day, and I wanted none of that for a bit. Social media just sort of happened on its own. I was there a bit, but not nearly as much as I usually am.

One thing that occurred to me as I stepped away from it all? How social media can sort of feed itself and make small problems into big problems. Don’t get me wrong: I’m a big proponent of Facebook and Twitter and the like. I use them to stay connected to people I otherwise would never hear from, and I really enjoy seeing what’s going on in the lives of my friends. But more and more, it seems like social media is becoming the main forum for both finding out about news and discussing the news. Finding out about the news is good, I suppose. It helps to be informed. But discussing the news is not always a helpful thing, especially when you get roped into discussions with people you don’t know, or know only vaguely.

Think of it: would you strike up a conversation with Some Guy on a Bus and tell him all about what you think of the future of the country and the presidency? I guess some people would, but I wouldn’t. I don’t have time to care about what random people think about a variety of topics. But at the same time, if someone trots up to my wall and says something about one of my posts, I feel obligated to engage that person in discussion. It’s my wall, so I feel responsible for what goes on there.

I’m rambling a bit here, sorry. I’m not trying to say that I’m not going to debate topics online with people anymore. And I’m still going to patrol my wall to see what goes on there. But I’m going to (try to) remind myself that I’m not going to fix all the world’s ills through Facebook. That there are going to be people who disagree with me, and it’s okay not to care. Even if they’re friends of a friend. If I were at a party, and I overheard a friend’s friend spouting off some useless drivel, I certainly wouldn’t rush over to correct them. I’d shake my head, dismiss them as misguided at best, and go on with my partying.

I want to do more of that online.

But more than the random conversations and debates, social media can bring a group of like-minded people together and whip them into a frenzy about things that don’t matter a whole lot, very easily. Mob mentality can kick in on social media, and it’s something I also want to try to avoid. Again, not that I’m going to stay silent on issues I feel strongly about, but I just noticed that the more I engage in debate, the more the debate begins to affect my personal life. Disconnecting from that debate or distancing myself from it can be a very good thing. Especially since it’s very rare that I’ve seen any of that debate actually, you know, accomplish something.

[Social media is] but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

That Shakespeare guy was on to something.

Anyway. I’m out of time. More from me tomorrow. In the meantime, happy new year all, and best wishes for 2017!

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