Games and escapism — not so much escaping lately

Posted by & filed under Misc, Technology.

I have to admit, I play games to forget about my day. Heck, about regular reality at all. It’s a perfect way, really, or at least it used to be. Aside from being able to restore previously saved game state and try again (admit it, you wanted to do that with presidency — save the game, vote one of the crazier guys in, and restore it later when things predictably go horribly wrong) games, just like true Hollywood Movies, give you an idea of a great ending.

Yes, your main character might have been shot over 20 times, hanged by a thread, picked the wrong castle, but in the end the princess is yours. Maybe not from the first try, but there is a way, be it from countless tries or reading spoiler-riddled walk-through. Heck, some games can be just watched as a multi-hour long movie (Bulletstorm, for example). However, lately games seem to be headed in that whole “drama” direction by the way of screwing up their ending.

Sometimes it’s a desire to have a giant gaping hole for a sequel, sometimes it’s not. But it worries me. Whole Mass Effect 3 debacle is silly, but it hints at a simple truth — if you want drama, go and do some Oscar-worthy lightly attended independent movie. The more main characters you kill off, the bleaker the picture is at the end (a tiny note of hope that, maybe, in a few hundred generations things will be “back to normal” doesn’t count), the better odds of that small audience loving it, and you being showered with praise and awards. When you do it in the game, you’d better have a sequel locked up, or else your customers will be pissed.

Let’s see:

God of War III — unsatisfying ending (though at the end there is a small ray of hope, more of a stain of hope) along with a promise not to do another game.
Enslaved — one big WTF moment (should have guessed where this was going)
Bulletstorm — groan-inducing ending that screams Bulletstorm 2, which won’t come, like ever (not enough sales, too much complaining about bad language)
ME3 — a giant s*tstorm of epic proportions because writers went all Shakespeare on us
Castlevania: Lords of the Shadows — kind of “what?!” but they do have an excuse of another game coming out this year, so they get a pass.

What is going on? Just give people what they want, and relax, after a few years of hard work of building a great game.

Though I guess like in Hollywood even my rant has a somewhat happy ending. Bioware is thinking and waiting for the right time to address complaints. I guess the pro-drama-ending guys still pout about not being kissed in all body parts after making things “hard and dramatic”. So, keep up the good work, gamers. Complain, if you don’t like it. And hope that there will be a DLC fix after all…

Turkey and cheese sandwich not good enough, girl forced to buy nuggets at cafeteria

Posted by & filed under Oddities, Politics.

Whoa. American schools have really weird rules. These, no doubt, came from some admirable desire to provide all kids with equally nutritious lunch, which resulted in this strange role of lunch box inspector. If someone told me that all lunches were to be inspected, I wouldn’t believe. Until now.

Yep, in North Carolina there are special inspectors that check kids lunches. And one overzealous one decided that cafeteria cooked chicken nuggets were better than a turkey sandwich. Because even homemade stuff has to comply with USDA standard (or else… what? the article doesn’t say).

Aside from informing the kid that her mom gave her “bad” lunch (thus none of that whole wheat sandwich got eaten), the bonus insult, added to this injury, was a $1.25 bill for forced cafeteria lunch. Ugh. I certainly hope that unnamed inspector will not be inspecting anything any more. Unless he/she grows brains.

p.s. Update: Congressmen wrote a WTF letter to US Agriculture secretary. You know you’ve screwed up pretty bad when both democrats and republicans are outraged. Hopefully this will prevent another unfortunate pre-schooler from being forced to eat a school lunch.

Yellow Pages Opt Out: prime example of marketing BS

Posted by & filed under Misc, Technology.

Ah.. the wonderful world of printed advertising. Even more wonderful world of phonebook based printed advertising. Ten years aro companies were fighting to the death to be on the Yellow Pages cover and payed dearly for a bigger font or for an ugly frame around their “ad”. Because people did use those giant books, and if something unexpected (toilet leaking, cat barfing, lawn needs mowing, whatever) happend they’d just grab the big yellow book, find corresponding section and pick a company.

Except that’s not the case any more. First thing — to google for that service. Then yelp.com. Then whatever else online world will offer (except, probably, for the Angie’s list, because I am not willing to pay for a referral service — it’s just a matter of principle). And while most of the customers moved on from heavy paper-based data sources of questionable value (reviews of providers, anyone?) all those “directory” companies couldn’t follow. Some, of course, even started their own online sites with directories. But traditional Monopolies, like AT&T, continue to churn out these door stoppers.

And when phone customers started to complain about dead tree based product being thrown at their door and immediately moved into recycle bin, it took providers a while to realize, that people might actually care enough to try to opt out from the book delivery. So, there is now a unified opt out site: http://www.yellowpagesoptout.com/.

Fantastic, you’d think. Let’s just opt out and be done with waste, right? Well, not so fast. Because the act of opting out reduces printer’s reach their marketing department concocted a wonderful scheme involving “registration”. You see, normally while phone company might know your name (if you have a plain old telephone line) and even publish it in white pages (unless you pay their $5 a month racket to not do it), Yellow Pages were different. Carpet-bombing the territory never involved names or phone numbers or whatever. But now, when user cares enough to try to stop this, companies demand to know your:

– Full name (first and last)
– Email address (which is so important, you have to enter it twice)
– Phone number (what if they decide to call you?!)
– Delivery address (finally)

So the simple question is why. Why is it that you require me to give you my email address and register for a freaking site. You expect me to change my mind every few months, log in and do something? Why do you want my name now, when up until now you never actually bothered to learn it to deliver a few pounds of paper to my door? Phone number? I don’t have a land line phone number. Heck, that’s the reason why I am trying to opt out, yet here you claim that “A valid telephone number is required in order to process and verify all opt-out requests.” What, without phone number address doesn’t exist? The whole scheme is to prevent an unfortunate prank of someone unsubscribing someone else from precious information source? Hello, you leave giant mountains of new Yellow Pages at every single post office. And office building. And there’s a phone number one can call to request out-of-turn delivery. Why is it that you want me to register for opting out?

The only thing the opt-out system needs to do, is to have one field: Address that needs to be opted out. And one button: Please don’t deliver me directory books. That’s it. It doesn’t need to ask you for a separate entry of zip code to “customize opt-out” — what, if I don’t want AT&T book I will want the other one instead?

Let’s have a look at Yellow Pages Opt Out’s privacy policy:

We value your privacy and will not share your personal information that you provide us with any third parties, other than yellow pages publishers to whom your directory delivery preferences will be communicated, unless it is necessary to comply with legal or administrative requirements, or if we believe you are violating the terms of use of the Site.

So if you look suspicious enough to make them believe you’ve somehow violated their terms of use (which, by the way, do not exist as a separate page), they threaten to sell your private information to telemarketers? Cause I’m not sure how else to interpret this. Along with the fact that your information is given to the yellow pages publishers along with your desire to opt out (and there’s nothing here that says they can’t sell your info to someone).

In other words yes, you can theoretically opt out. But doing so requires you to register and have a phone number, and provide all other information to this broker. WTF?

Why Buy with YBuy?

Posted by & filed under Technology.

Every once in a while the enterprising spirits of small businesses invent brand new and strange business models. And sometimes it’s so strange, that they simply stump me.

Today’s example of such “um… what are they thinking?” business models is YBuy.com.
To start, it uses that “traditional” groupon-like model, where you can’t really see what the deals are without giving email address (or requesting an invite in this case). Marketing people love that, because you can hide crappy deals behind this veil and get a valid email address before user has a chance to look at what you offer, potentially making big eyes and never returning again.

But that was a small obstacle, hide a popup and all links work normally. Hooray.
As I understand the business model it’s a “try before you buy club”. For $25 a month, you’re offered one product to try for a month, and, if you like it, that monthly fee gets credited to the total price of the item. Theoretically sounds cool. Practically such service seems to be useless.
And here is why:

– Selection of “products” is limited. The site claims to pick “the best” products but do you really need a concierge to pick you a new coffee maker or an iPad every month?
– Like those “CD Clubs” this club allows you to “skip” a month. Except you still pay, but that amount is stuck in the account for “future purchase”.
– Price is the same as on Amazon (I checked for a few products, the difference is negligible)
– Nowhere does it say who pays for return shipping on “tried” product. Amazon’s return policy is way more clear.
– Aside from a few typos in their Terms and Conditions (which probably means a lawyer hasn’t really touched that text) there is a rather stern warning about chargebacks (that they will try to recover those funds by any means “demed[sic]” necessary) and that their involvement ends as soon as the item is given to their shipping carrier (and no signature on delivery “[b]ecause many instances may occur at your delivery address”) and that there is a chance of loss. Ew. Maybe they don’t really mean it, but sounds rather bad. And if they don’t mean it, they shouldn’t write stuff like that in T&Cs.

In the end this seems to be a proxy between you and Amazon that prods you to buy the most expensive items from some arbitrary categories and charges you in advance $25 every month.
Now, why exactly you can’t buy an item yourself (and return it, if you don’t like it)? Confused…

Private Messages on Facebook? Why, Politico will count you, of course

Posted by & filed under Politics, Technology.

Facebook is like a minefield. And an active one as well. As soon as you relax a bit and don’t try to trawl the net about their new “initiatives” and something is already beeping and blinking under your foot, ready to explore.
This time it’s the “sentiment analysis” that is being sold to Politico for the sake of figuring out what “general public” thinks about GOP candidates.

Aside of standard amount of fluff, designed to convince everyone that the general public is the Facebook audience, there’s one giant problem in this story that makes me disgusted with Politico (and the Facebook). Your private messages are counted. Said something nice about Ron Paul? Index knows that now. Mentioned some bad words along with Newt? Counted. Users understand quite well, that things they post in the open on Facebook are not private. But private messages? Really, Politico? I thought higher of you.

What’s going to be next? Commissioning sentiment analysis of SMS messages by all carriers, or automatically recognized voicemails? It’s “anonymized”, right, so no worries? Just remember one fact — anonymization of large scale data sets is hard. Most people (87% per one paper though the estimations are crude) can be uniquely identified by simply combining gender, zip code and the full date of birth. So yeah, very anonymous…

If Politico is interested in users’ opinion, it should stick to polls. And not perlustrate private messages, via software or not. And, of course, at the moments like these, I would really enjoy another sharp ping from FTC to Facebook’s behind. They just settled last set of privacy allegations. Time for a new investigation? Or will Facebook smart up and add “Don’t analyze private messages for 3rd parties” checkbox, hidden somewhere deep in the settings?