It's frightening how misunderstood the issue of net neutrality is right now. I'd like to place the blame on Netflix CEO Reed Hastings for this mess. He co-opted the term as part of his PR campaign against Comcast, Verizon, and other ISPs to build public and social media support for his company. Truth is, streaming video services like Netflix have basically broken the internet, and they're all just fighting over who's going to pay to fix it. It'll be us, the consumers, in the end regardless, but they're still fighting over who's keeping the bigger share of our money. So, while Netflix and Comcast continue their squabbles before the FCC, T-Mobile comes out and pretty blatantly pisses all over net neutrality... and everyone cheers. You look confused now, so let's go back and go over the basics. Net neutrality is the principle that all internet traffic is created equal. ISPs shouldn't be able to discriminate against or give preferential treatment to content based on where it's coming from or who's providing it. Strictly speaking this is a dumb idea; you probably want traffic from Skype or Titanfall to not be held up by traffic from Gmail or Instagram. Network administrators call this QoS (quality of service) management, and if you have a decent router you're probably doing the same thing on your network at home. In a broader, more principled sense, it means that under ideal network conditions you shouldn't have any more trouble watching YouTube videos as you would something from Vimeo or Dailymotion or XHamster (don't act like you don't know what that last one is). It also means that Pirate Bay should load just as easily as Facebook, and that bittorrent traffic shouldn't be blocked because your ISP might think you're pirating something (many game update clients use bittorrent these days).
I was gonna take on another serious topic, like how stupid people think that net neutrality is going to give them faster Netflix, or how the UC Santa Barbara shooting got turned into a women's rights movement, or even how Microsoft has apparently given up on their vision with the Xbox One, but quite frankly, you guys aren't paying me enough to be serious all the time. So instead, I'm just gonna brag about my new toy. The two-year cycle for my smartphone was nearing its end, and T-Mobile was more than happy to grant me an upgrade for next-to-nothing out of pocket. I know that in a perfect world, we wouldn't be going through $600 devices every two years, especially when they technically still work just fine. For a heavy data user like me though, a new phone means access to better network technology (like LTE) and better performance while gaming and multitasking. Better cameras are usually a nice touch too. So, a couple weeks ago, I traded in my Samsung Galaxy S3 for the shiny new Samsung Galaxy S5. It was a tough choice between the S5 and the HTC One M8 for my next phone (the iPhone 5S, for me, isn't even a remote option). I was attracted to the M8 mainly because I was looking to get away from Samsung; their Touchwiz UI had annoyed me to the point where I had more or less gone nuclear and installed CyanogenMod on my old phone. Since custom ROMs have their own significant issues if you want to use your phone more than tinker with it, I wanted to have a UI that didn't annoy the crap out of me to begin with. At the end of the day though, the S5 won out thanks to its removable battery, better camera, and water resistance. The M8's speakers weren't a big draw for me, since I tend to wear earbuds most of the time.
One of the most talked about MMOs in the past couple of years is launching in a little over two weeks, and I tried it out during its brief open beta period.I knew little to nothing about WildStar going into it, other than the near-universal praise of people in my gamer circles. From what I could gather, the design philosophy is that World of Warcraft is too easy mode, so here's a little something for the hardcore players who value achievement. They're even bringing back 40-man raids. There's also a bit of snark and attitude thrown in. One of my favorite beta moments was hearing an announcer go "OH S**T! You leveled up! Way to go, cupcake!" Comically charming. The most unique thing I noticed about this game was the art style. It resembles a cartoony, futuristic, sci-fi western, and it looks very pleasing to the eye without needing Skynet-level hardware. Most everything else is pretty familiar fare. You'll go to quest hubs populated by people with exclamation marks over their heads, then run off to collect space slug remains or something. There is some variety in the form of group quests, open-world event mobs, and timed challenges, and while they're all done well this is nothing really new to the genre. The combat system is of the action+movement variety similar to games like Guild Wars 2 and Tera, though to me it didn't feel as fluid or flashy as either of those games. The UI didn't stand out either, it was just sort of there, as an inoffensive arrangement of angular lines presenting information. While the experience wasn't a bad one, I was looking for the hook of WIldStar, the feature that makes it stand out from the pack, the reason I would choose to spend time with it as opposed to the dozens of other MMOs out there these days. After ten levels, I wasn't finding it. A couple of people advised me to get to level 20 and finish the first dungeon before writing it off. While I take issue on a personal and philosophical level with games that make you play for hours before you get to the fun part, getting to level 20 wasn't going to be torture by any means. I pressed on.
I've always had something of a natural curiosity about how things worked. When I was a little kid, I dreamed about starting life on another planet. As a teenager, I got into skyscrapers and cities and how they were built and designed. As I got older, I got more interested in the wonders of electronics, and how computers and smartphones did their magic. I guess you could say that I'm a big fan of science. And as a big fan of science, it is both annoying and disheartening how the term is being misused in popular culture today. Science is basically the acquisition of knowledge through experimentation and research. People ask questions and then attempt to find the answers. Those answers are then scrutinized, leading to more questions, through which there may eventually be more answers. The whole process is then documented so that the cycle of question and answer and question can be continued through successive generations of curious knowledge-seekers. While this research leads to discoveries that are generally accepted as common knowledge, only in the rarest cases (like the laws of gravity) is this knowledge accepted as a certain truth. This leads to my first and most common example of a misuse of science, which is basically as an "I win" button for any argument. "SHUT UP IT'S SCIENCE!!" Some scientist said this which makes it completely and unequivocally the truth and you can't argue with it unless you want to be a brainless heathen. While this will get you all the cool points in the world on the internet, most true scientists scoff at this type of thinking. Calling any scientific finding the truth means that it can no longer be questioned, and no further knowledge along these lines can be obtained. Basically, it's completely against the spirit of science.
Despite an ad that provided one of the most memorable moments of last month's Super Bowl, it turns out that Radio Shack isn't doing so well. A few days ago the company announced that was closing up to 1100 stores, slashing its retail presence in the U.S. by about twenty percent. Radio Shack used to be THE place to get your electronics fix back in the day, selling everything from computers to spare parts, radios to antennas, calculators to cassette players. Now, in an era where Best Buy, Fry's, and Amazon.com exist, The Shack is having a bit of an identity crisis. Walk into one today and you'll notice that half of the store is taken up by cell phone displays and kiosks, with another quarter of the store devoted to cell phone accessories. The rest of the space is taken up by overpriced TVs and headphones, with a few forgotten shelves in the back containing all manner of doodads. The service culture has changed too, with employees focusing far more on selling than being informative. My delivery job has me in the back room of a Radio Shack on a daily basis, and it makes me sad how many memos I see that are all about sales figures, particularly of those extended warranties. Basically the only time actual knowledge is required is when it comes to breaking down how many minutes you get on the latest Verizon plan. With all of its flaws, Radio Shack still is a special place for me as a system-builder and occasional DIY guy. Seriously, there's a LOT to be said when in the middle of installing a new video card or hard drive you discover you need a can of compressed air, new SATA cable, or even a tube of Arctic Silver--and you can pick it all up from the place down the street, as opposed to driving an hour to Fry's or waiting days on Amazon or Newegg. It's basically the 7-Eleven of electronics, the place to go when you need a part or component now instead of worrying about the best price or whatever has the five-star reviews online. Knowing where to quickly pick up an audio splitter, USB cable, or AC adapter within a few minutes of discovering the need has saved my ass more times than I can remember.
February was not a good month for fans of an open internet. If you've just been reading the news headlines, you'd think that the Four Cyber-Horsemen of the Apocalypse are on the march, and the end of days is but moments away. To be fair, the news has been pretty grim. Net neutrality enforcement efforts suffered a setback in court, there are numerous reports of Netflix being throttled, with the only solution being for the streaming video service to pay off multiple ISPs, and the upcoming merger of Comcast and Time Warner Cable isn't going to do consumers any favors. This would normally be the part where I say that the news isn't all bad. To be fair, net neutrality efforts are far from dead, and peering arrangements, like what Netflix and Comcast entered into, aren't uncommon (they're just less public). But that's where the positives end. The bottom line is that we've seen that the ISPs have the power to do more or less whatever the hell they want to, and consumers lack the options to do much of anything about it. Unless you're one of the lucky households with access to a fiber-optic line, the local cable company is the only option for high-speed internet in the U.S. If the Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger goes through, then one company will be that only option for half of the country. As a Time Warner customer, I know that the company isn't perfect. Still, as an ISP they're a much better option than Comcast. I kinda like having no bandwidth caps or speed issues with streaming video content. Hell, TWC has actually embraced Netflix in ad campaigns, and there were rumors that the company was creating a Netflix-branded cable box. They even have a budget plan specifically designed for people who just wanted HBO GO. For all their faults, TWC has so far been an internet-friendly company, and I can't help but think that will all end when Comcast takes over. So, what then? Call up the DSL company?
I'm contractually obligated by RivalCast Media to create at least some content related to video games while I'm doing this blog thing. Problem is, it's difficult to talk about games when I haven't had much time to play them. I've managed about one hour of game time in the past week, and all of that was spent on Zen Pinball FX2. Hearthstone hasn't interested me much lately; I think I've gotten burned out already on the limited arsenal of cards in that game that everyone uses. I've also thought about getting involved in another MMO. Yeah, odd that I would consider that after complaining about having no gaming time, but it's been long enough that the itch is there. World of Warcraft is not on my radar at all, but I looked long and hard at Final Fantasy XIV, long enough to where my mouse cursor hovered dangerously close to the "Buy it Now!" button on Amazon where the game was being discounted for half price. I ended up deciding against it because while the polish is nice, the gameplay would've just bored me. After playing more action-oriented MMOs like Guild Wars 2 and Tera, going back to traditional hotkey combat seems archaic. I had also considered Phantasy Star Online 2. While the game is currently only released in Japan (a state-side version was supposed to be out over a year ago), it's more than possible to play it in English, though there are some hassles involved that someone who isn't fluent in Japanese, like myself, probably won't want to be bothered with. In fact, if I do return to an MMO anytime soon, it's likely that Tera will be my game of choice. It's fun, it's pretty, and it has a great free to play system that doesn't feel like coin purse robbery. Until then, I should make a better attempt to clear out my Steam backlog. My progress so far this year at that task has been abysmal; I've spent more time playing around with PS3 games like The Last of Us and Dragon's Crown, and there's a good chance that I'll eventually get lost in the Final Fantasy X HD or Tales of Symphonia HD remakes coming out soon. It's so bad that I completely forgot that I even own Saints Row IV, and I had been looking forward to that game since the beginning of last year. When I do decide to double down on Steam, I'll be streaming all my playthroughs on my Twitch channel, so the crowd can either motivate or mock me because... well, I suck at games these days.
I'm a supporter of marriage equality, in that I strongly believe that same-sex couples should be granted the same legal rights and privileges that heterosexual couples have. With the Supreme Court overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and California's ban on same-sex marriage, as well as federal judges overturning bans in conservative states like Utah and Virginia, it would seem that this goal is inevitable in the United States. With that battle nearly won, gay rights activists have turned their attention to fostering acceptance of gay marriage as a normal part of life. At this task however, they're failing miserably. One of the most common arguments for the legalization of gay marriage is that what couples do in their bedrooms doesn't affect anyone else. Try turning on the TV or reading a newspaper though, and it looks more like what they do in their bedrooms is EVERYONE'S business. I realize that "coming out" is a big deal. If you've ever held on to a potentially damaging secret for a long time and then finally let it out one day, you can relate. What we can't relate to is getting standing ovations during press conferences when we bare our souls. How is that normal?
Instead of a typical blog post this week, I wanted to share with you something I found to be quite interesting and, in some ways, enlightening. Linked below is a 72-page report analyzing Russian Federation Federal Law No. 135-FZ, which you probably know as the Russian Anti-Gay Law. After hearing a podcaster's comments on how the law didn't seem to be as bad as the news media were making it out to be, the author of this document set out on a research quest to prove said podcaster wrong. The results of that research were a bit of a surprise. http://www.scribd.com/doc/203382931/Russian-Lgbt-Law-White-Paper I won't spoil the conclusions the author comes to, but those who are more interested in actual information as opposed to whatever we're getting from the news media these days owe it to themselves to set aside an hour of their lives to check this out.
One of the more common New Year's resolutions I heard this year was regarding language. A podcaster I listen to regularly vowed to stop using the word "retard". I had considered giving up the word "faggot". Being a black man, I sort of get a free pass on "nigger", but so many of my loved ones still cringe when they hear it that I'm scaling back on that word as well. The reasons for such a change in any case should be obvious; these words carry a more negative connotation in society than actual profanity today, and it's becoming harder to justify their use. I have a fairly crude and offensive sense of humor, and a lot of my closest friends do as well. As such, when joking amongst ourselves, it's not uncommon to hear "nigger" and "faggot" and "retard" and other colorful descriptors tossed around liberally as part of our conversations. Obviously there's no malicious intent behind anything said, that's understood from the beginning. We're all laughing and having a good time. Enter the rise of social media. My friends and I communicate online in much the same way we do in person. The crude language is still one big joke to us. There's just one important difference: our conversations now have spectators. Without the context of our relationship in plain sight, these spectators assume the worst. Obviously, anyone who uses the word "nigger" is a racist. Anyone who uses the word "faggot" is a homophobe. Anyone who uses the word "rape" hates women. And anyone who uses the word "retard" is just down right mean. In an environment where people think and react in 140 characters or less, context is frequently lost, and most people find it simpler (and more politically correct) to remove such offensive language from their vocabulary, instead choosing to use safer words like "dick-eating shit-fucker".