Monthly Archives: February 2013

Dungeon Quest

I don’t often review Android Games, but I have been playing this game for a month, and it’s high time I said something about it…

The premise is simple enough; run your character — a wizard, no less — through each level, killing baddies, breaking barrels, opening chests and generally grabbing everything that isn’t nailed down, in a bid to improve your weapons, experience and bank balance. The game is divided into “Acts” Each act consists of five levels and a Big Bad Boss to kill to progress to the next one.

Screenshot_2013-02-06-22-48-10

I am not a fan of in-app purchases – and I have seen many others complaining – but they fail to mention three important factors:

  1. Any In-App-Purchase will remove the annoying but necessary advertising — so you can get rid of the ads for as little as a dollar.
  2. It is easy to get lots of gold — just repeat some of the earlier, easier levels.
  3. While it is perfectly to complete the game without spending any real-world money, it is not at all necessary.

Speaking for myself, I was happy to throw a couple of bucks their way to turn off the ads and support the developers — the seventy thousand gold pieces that I got for my two dollars were a welcome, but unnecessary addition.  I currently have a grand total of over four hundred thousand gold pieces in the bank. Go figure…

I have a few gripes:

  • The control mechanism needs a little fine-tuning; hitting some enemies is difficult if you are using a straight-line weapon. Using a scatter-shot or a seeking weapon helps. On a similar note, It is sometimes difficult to face an enemy without moving toward them. This could be fixed by adding a “dead zone” to the controls.
  • Picking up mana or health orbs if the relevant stat is already full does nothing. It just disappears. This seems kind of pointless; the excess mana or health could and should be channeled into making more potions.
  • Sometimes loot gets thrown “over the wall” beyond your reach. This will probably be fixed soon, but you should be aware of it.

Having said that, the game is still in beta, and is still in development. There have been several upgrades to the game in the time I have been playing it — indeed, on one occasion, the game updated itself while I was playing it, kicking me out of the game. The developers cannot do anything about this behavior, which is handled by Android — but it can be avoided easily enough by turning off auto-update feature.

Screenshot_2013-02-23-22-33-53

Those are minor gripes, though, and detract little from what is truly a lovely game — and a great excuse to buy a Nexus 7.

Within the next month, there will be another major upgrade, and the introduction of the Warrior character.

The bottom line: A beta it may be, but it  is one of the most polished betas I have ever seen. Yes, it could be perfect, yes it could be better, but what do you expect for free?

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Just Opt Out!

I recently got this in the mail.

optout

It must have been important, because the accompanying bank statement took pains to clearly refer to it. Basically they are changing their terms so that you have to submit to “Binding Arbitration” in the event of a dispute. Naturally I opted out immediately; there’s nothing in it for me.

I’m not picking on PNC bank; I’ve seen this many times before. It seems that every contract of employment, service agreement, mortgage agreement — in fact, just about any type of legal agreement — has a “Mandatory Binding Arbitration” clause in it somewhere.

The purpose of arbitration is to resolve problems without going to court. That sounds like a Good Thing… until you ponder one simple question: Who pays the Arbitrator? If they (employer/bank/service/bigcorp) is paying them for their services, how can they not be biased? there is a classic textbook conflict of interest — which Arbitrator would bite the hand that feeds them?

Here in the US, The first amendment to the Constitution provides the right to petition (to the courts) for redress of grievances. The Supreme Court has ruled that this does not apply to private transactions, which is all well and good until someone asks: so what’s to stop everyone from doing this? eBay and PayPal — two of the most evil companies around, in my opinion, both did this recently (and made it really difficult to opt out), and these clauses are cropping up in rental agreements and loan paperwork.

There’s a simple solution for this: change the law so that unilaterally-enforced (“take-it-or-leave-it”) Arbitration requirements cannot preclude or pre-empt the courts. I’m ok with Arbitration as a pre-litigation step to avoid the need for a lawsuit; what I am not ok with is Corporations using it to sidestep Litigation entirely.

This is clearly Tort Reform by stealth, and it must be stopped. Until that day, Just opt out.

Big Red goes South

My story begins about seven years ago. I was sick and tired of Sprint. Six months in a row they had gotten the billing wrong. Naturally, they claimed that this was just a sequence of random errors, but if that were the case, at least one of them would’ve been in my favor. Unsurprisingly, that was not the case ; all were in their favor – a one in sixty-four probability.

So we left and moved to Verizon. The first month, they overcharged me by $10. When I called them on this, they double-refunded me. Impressive. There were no more mistakes. For many years, I was happy with them. Although they had the crappiest selection of phones, they had the best coverage – I have done a thousand-mile road trip with no loss of connectivity (besides one brief outage in the Smokey Mountains in Tennessee, which is understandable), and their Customer Service was very good – and there are the good folks in the Verizon Stores that have sprung up over the last few years.

Recently, however, I have noticed an encroaching tide of evil coming from Big Red.

  • First they got rid of “New Every Two”, the program that gave you a new phone free every two years with a two-year contract extension. Instead, they offered a $50 discount off the cost of a new phone after 20 months… but if you drifted out of contract and kept waiting they would send you additional discounts to get you to commit to a contract.
  • Then they started charging “upgrade” and “activation” fees. This would be reasonable if you took your new phone into one of their stores and had them connect it for you, but charging you for work you do yourself is ridiculous. If you ask them persistently but nicely, they would waive the fees, a process that involved a manual account credit, which meant more work for them. Their “everybody’s-doing-it” rationale was specious at best – you want to be doing better than the competition, not continually coming down to their level.
  • Complex bills – Every time they change the bill layout it gets harder to understand.
  • Belated refunds. If you find an error in your bill, they will happily refund your account… but not until “the next billing cycle”.
  • They declared war on “Unlimited Data”. During the first half of 2011, they were offering a $30 unlimited data deal to all new smartphone customers. This was presumably designed to woo iPhone business away from AT&T, who were offering a similar deal at the time. But having persuaded them to switch, it seemed like they were hell-bent on getting rid of them. Last July, they discontinued the deal – which is reasonable. They said that existing customers were grandfathered in – which is also reasonable. Then they changed the definition of “Grandfathered” – which is not reasonable. Until this point, the deal that they and every other cellco was offering was a cheap or free phone in return for a two-year commitment. That was a reasonable trade-off; one which we have all come to accept as normal over the years. What they did was to give their faithful users the choice between keeping their Unlimited Data Package or getting a Cheap phone. I upgraded my phone just before the new rules came into effect; it will most likely be the last “subsidized” phone I ever get from Verizon.
  • They then introduced “share everything” plans that may work out cheaper if you have four or more phones, but if you have only one phone it is the most expensive Data plan around ($50 for the first 2GB). Old Customers keep their plans (for now) but new customers are stuck with the share Everything plan.
  • While they were doing this, the “My Verizon” widget on their Android phones “broke” – they no longer updated automatically — so now you have to run the app every time you want to update your data usage. It is almost like they want you to blow through your data allocation by accident – but they wouldn’t do that deliberately, would they?
  • Judge for yourself: Six months later, it still hasn’t been fixed.
  • They have the distinction of being the only phone company in the world that sells a Samsung Galaxy SIII with a locked bootloader – a “feature” that prevents users from easily flashing their phones with Custom Software. When phones are unlocked, users win. Anyone else can do this – but not Verizon’s Customers. They then tried to blame Samsung – a claim that makes no sense, given that no one else has a locked bootloader.
  • Fortunately, some very smart people figured out how to unlock the bootloader (this is nothing new – they did the same thing with my previous phone – the Droid X2, a wonderful phone, hampered by Verizon’s “Lock-’em-all-down” policy. Of course, they made vague promises that an unlocked Bootloader would be made available one day… but it never happened.
  • They have also done everything in their power to make it difficult for their users to “Root” their machines, which makes it possible to do many cool things, including backing up their phones and removing the odious pile of crapware that they shovel onto every phone before they roll it out the door. And every update they bring out for the Galaxy SIII breaks root. They call it “Security”. I call shenanigans – all they have to do is ask the user “Did you root your phone?” when updating and if so, leave it there, but they are not interested in doing what the customer wants – they are interested in doing what is profitable.

This stuff does not affect most of Verizon’s customers – well over 99% of cellphone users neither know nor care about Rooting or Bootloaders. What they have done is annoy a very tiny percentage of their user base – those few who understand technology and know what they want. That is not a demographic that any technology-based company should want to make enemies of.

Their “Better Customer Experience” excuse is, to put it bluntly, a steaming pile of poo. This is about control… and I don’t like it.

I am still with them, for now. Once my contract ends or they take away my Unlimited Data, I will take my business elsewhere. I don’t change horses easily, but when I do, I don’t easily go back to the old one; I left Sprint seven years ago, AT&T nearly a decade ago. I still haven’t gone back.

I am not the only one – I know of friends and relatives who are abandoning Verizon like the proverbial rats leaving a sinking ship. Many are reporting getting better service and paying less. A single 4G-smartphone on Virgin Mobile costs $55/month. No Contract, no commitment, no lock-in. A single 4G smartphone on Verizon costs $40 for the phone service and $60 for 2GB of Data. That’s $100/month – for Two. Measly. Gigabytes.

No thanks.

Yes, Verizon has the best, fastest network out there. But the others are catching up, and as customers realize that there are better options out there they will vote with their dollars and their feet.

There will be a day of reckoning for Verizon Wireless, and when the smoke has cleared, their massively overpaid corporate officers will shrug their shoulders and say that they didn’t see this coming.

At least, Dear Reader, you will.

Prepare to Launch!

At the end of my recent piece on Jelly Bean, I mentioned a few annoyances.

  • The app drawer scrolls horizontally instead of vertically. My earlier phone – a Droid X2 – had a vertically-scrolling app drawer; I personally found this far easier to navigate than jumping from page to page.
  • When you plug your phone in to charge, the screen lights up for no good reason. This is not necessary and is sometimes a distraction – the indicator light is all the feedback I need.
  • Unnecessary shutdown/restart confirmation.
  • No scrolling wallpaper
  • Widgets stop responding. My central home screen is almost entirely widgets. However, they often do not update For instance, the Accupedo widget in the top right “freezes” until the phone is rebooted.

While Googling to find a solution to the first problem, I stumbled across a couple of launchers, called NovaLaunch and Holo Launcher HD.

For those who don’t know, a “Launcher” in Android is the Front-End program that runs the GUI (like “Explorer” in Windows, “Finder” in Mac OSX, or Gnome/KDE in Linux). While Android has a stock launcher that works just fine, most carriers and manufacturers feel the need to “brand” their phones by putting in a custom “skin” – Motorola’s is called “Blur”, HTC’s is called “Sense”. Samsung’s is called “TouchWiz” .

The stock Touchwiz screen

The stock Touchwiz screen

However, there is nothing to stop you from adding an aftermarket launcher – there are some very good ones out there, but the learning curve is steep enough to discourage all but the most adventurous of users. However, for those who are willing to put in the legwork, there is much to discover and enjoy…

So why try a new launcher at all? Simple – to improve the look and feel. Both launchers offer functionality to do things that the stock launcher (TouchWiz, in this case) cannot. For instance, both allow you to change the app drawer from horizontal (swipe sideways to move from page to page) to vertical (flick up and down one big list), and both also allow you to specify the number of rows and columns. TouchWiz limits you to 4×4=16 app icons on a page…

Stock 4x4 App Drawer

Stock 4×4 App Drawer

, but I have been able to comfortably bump this up to 6×7=42 — more than double the number of icons without sacrificing usability.

Holo Launcher 5x7 App Drawer

Holo Launcher’s 5×7 App Drawer

Similarly I have increased the main screen from 4×4 to 5×5, and cut the total number of screens I use to only three, another improvement in usability.

Improved Holo Launcher screen

Improved Holo Launcher screen

So what’s the verdict? Both launchers are excellent, but Holo-Launcher gets the slight edge as it makes the home screen rotatable. No widget freezes at all.

After a week or so of testing out the two launchers, I uninstalled Nova Launcher and made Holo Launcher my default, then I paid a few dollars for the full version; not because I needed the extra functionality, but because I wanted to support the developers on a small way.

Because We Can

Yesterday my local gas stations were selling at various prices ranging from $2.89 to $2.99.

Today everywhere is selling for $3.59.

No wars have broken out of which I am aware, so why did this happen?

Simple: Because they can.

I filled up recently, so I have no need for gas. So I will wait until the price comes down to more sensible levels.

Why? Because I can.

Naturalization

….standing in line.

…handing in forms

…Taking a seat

…Waiting

…Walking in order

…Waiting some more

…Entering a courtroom

…Taking a seat

…Here come da Judge!

…The pungent smells of men who don’t believe in underarm deodorant.

…Lots of people speaking indistinctly into a microphone.

…The calling out of a whole bunch of names that sounds like random syllables

…A sacred oath

…The end of a long journey.