Saturday, October 27, 2012

Windows 8

First Impressions of Windows 8

Note: This is the first in a series of posts on Windows 8 and my impressions of the new OS and what it will mean for the average user.  Considering the furor among users and the controversy that has attached to this newest revised OS from Microsoft, the subject just begs to be covered, and here we are!  It may interest you to know that this post was created on a notebook running Windows 8.

I. On Solid Ground with Windows 8

My first exposure to Windows 8 was at an official event, hosted by Microsoft, in which the entire point was to introduce the assembled agents of the Fourth Estate to their newest OS.  The approach that was used and the content of the briefing made it clear that the event was more than simply an opportunity for the news media to get a look-see at the new OS, it was carefully structured and produced as an indoctrination experience -- the host did not merely wish to expose us to the new OS, they wanted us to leave the briefing holding a specific view of the Operating System.  

It should not surprise you to learn that I don't like it when PR's attempt to manage us, and I especially do not like it when they work so hard to slant our impressions of the product that they are showing us in such a way so as to guarantee that we will form a specific impression.  To say that this is not how the briefing process is supposed to work is gross understatement, and under normal circumstances a company like Microsoft would never attempt such a thing, but as you will soon see, these were not normal circumstances.

It was quickly clear that their big concern was largely the manner in which we would, as a group and individually, perceive the new interface and how it will impact the users.  It was important to the hosts to see to it that we had ample opportunity to form opinions that went deeper than simply first impressions -- and I completely understand why they felt this was so urgent a concern; first impressions for most of the journos present were not positive.  The thing is, as is often the case in this type of situation, once you delve deeper into the experience there is a deeper experience to have, and in the end I am convinced that none of the attendees present would have walked away with the intentions of restricting what they wrote to just their first impressions -- after all that is not what we do, and it is not what we are paid to do!

I am convinced that had our hosts simply maintained faith in the men and women that they had invited to the briefing -- that we would do more than simply take a brief look and then write about it -- the end result would have been just as informative but would not have the taint of being handled attached to it.  After the briefing I gathered with the small group from the New England region -- most of them being writers I knew from other publications, and we found an Italian bistro in Manhattan (not hard to do) where we broke bread and discussed the experience that we had that morning -- and we all pretty much felt the same way.  

Ignoring for the moment that none of us relished the experience of being handled by the PR's the important point is that we went away from the experience with a better understanding of what Microsoft was trying to accomplish with their new interface, and it was not the handful of fluff reasons that had previously been making the rounds  online.  The new Windows experience was not the representation of Microsoft's belief that PC consumers would be making the switch to tablet and touch-based computing in large numbers, and while the new interface does strongly leverage that sort of computing experience, it also works fine with a mouse.  I am not going to head in the direction of exploring the intentions now -- that will come later -- but you should know that this new OS is not what it appears to be.  Not at all.

-- A Radically New Interface --

At least part of the problem that Microsoft faced with their new OS was the issue revolving around its entirely new and different interface.  The engineers in Redmond decided to make the next big thing in Windows an entirely new experience for the users, but in the doing of it they did not start out from a blank position -- in fact the interface is heavily influenced by a combination of the most popular mobile interfaces and the interface that is present on Microsoft's other big thing: the Xbox 360.

Describing the new interface in simple terms is.. Well...  Simple.  It is a screen that is made up of different sized square content-filled buttons that is virtually expandable by scrolling to the right, and inside of each square can be live and changing content that relates specifically to the program, app, or subject of the square.  Before we go deeper into the meaning of all this, we should examine that last point.

The screen that holds all of those squares is called the "Start Screen" and it replaces the Start Button that Windows users are very familiar with -- in fact that is the most disturbing element of the changes that have taken place between Windows 7 and Windows 8 -- the entire point to that exercise being to take the most popular objects, apps, and programs (or actions) and give them a dedicated square within which content that is related to the subject can then be displayed.

A good example of this is the square that represents your photo folder on your hard drive.  You know it is your photo folder because it is labeled "Photos" and because it morphs into a slide-show of your photos.  That is actually a pretty cool feature assuming you do not also keep your collection of Dallas Cowboys Cheerleader photos in that directory folder -- if you do you may want to move it, because the square is very visible to anyone glancing at the screen.  Just saying.

Other squares may contain news photos for the news square, gaming icons for the games square -- you should be getting the idea.   The point to all of this is that in addition to representing a wide selection of the different types of uses that the average computer user puts their computer to, the Start Screen is meant to make accessing each of those tasks faster, since the user does not have to go looking inside nested menus or other folders to find the icon that they need to click on to run that app or function.

So far this is turning out to be a pretty slick idea, and if they had left it at that, and retained the basic structure of the desktop that most users are used to, this could have been a brilliant coup for the Windows Team.  But they did not.

-- The Desktop as App --

Rather than retain the focus of the OS as a desktop-centric element, the desktop in Windows 8 appears as another app, complete with a square in the lower left corner of the Start Screen.  This is an obvious destination if the user intends to run a program that belongs on the desktop, but once they open it a new series of surprises is in store, most of them not good. 

The first and very obvious change is the absence of the Start Button.  That may not sound like all that big a deal at first blush, but considering the fact that the Start Button on the previous versions of the OS was the literal "Go To Button" around which pretty much every aspect of using the computer was focused, it is a big deal indeed for most users.  Primarily because their comfort level has been destroyed and the one constant and the element that they fully understood and appreciated the use and function of is now ripped out of the environment to great effect.  What do I mean?

When you want to access the Administrative Tools on Windows, that process begins with the Start Button.  When you want to run an app that does not (for whatever reason) have an icon on the Desktop, you use the Start Button.  Reviewing the contents of a specific class of software was always accomplished via the Start Button -- the list goes on, but the bottom line is that this is no longer an available option and there is no way to get it back.  The bulk of the complaints -- the very vocal and very angry complaints -- that we are seeing online this weekend (remember Windows 8 just launched yesterday) focus on this issue.

The thing is that as it turns out, with the new structure of Windows 8, the missing Start Button is really not that big a deal after all.  Assuming you are willing to learn a different way of navigating your computer that is.  Yeah, you read that right -- I am saying that the issue that has practically the entire computing world angry is really a non-issue.

The important thing to understand is that there has been a paradigm shift with respect to the entire desktop and its focus on the PC.  The basic and fundamental position respective of it is altered to present the desktop as simply another tool element on the computer, and pushes it back to the position of being simply the home for apps that require a desktop, rather than being the focus for the PC.  If that is confusing, stop and read it again, and think about what it is saying.

The idea is really to refocus our attention on how we use the computer and why we used it the way that we did -- and why we can use it in a new way, and benefit from that new way of thinking about the PC and its environment.  If you are starting to gather the impression that I think Microsoft may have a point here, well, I do.  That is not to say that I am a Microsoft fanboy -- I am not -- but I am also not the sort of tech weenie who dismisses something just because I don't like the way it was presented, and I especially am not going to discount a new idea simply because it flies in the face of what I am used to.

-- A Good Place to Pause --

There is a lot to take in with the new Windows, and this is as good a place to pause in this exploration as any.  The lesson to be learned here is to start from a position of a new view, and getting used to the idea that change is not always bad, and not always good -- sometimes it is just necessary -- and in the case of the new interface for Windows 8, when you step back and look at the big picture (which by the time this series of posts is complete you will easily be able to do) it becomes a lot easier to appreciate the approach that has been taken, and the reasons for it -- issues we will start to examine in the next post...

Monday, October 15, 2012

. . . Bragging Rights?

Among the common daily responsibilities of the freelance writer (no matter what beat or beats they happen to write on) is the need to maintain a current portfolio that includes the most recent published pieces and as complete a listing as possible of their past work, with links to the original publication or the online version of the pieces if they are available, the idea being to provide the reader with a centralized and convenient searchable list to help them find what they are looking for or just keep tabs on you.

Some writers will throw everything that they write into their portfolio, on the presumption that their readers will want to read, well, everything that they write. Others cherry pick from their output, placing what amounts to an edited selection of what they consider to be the best of their work in the hands of their readers and (I suspect that this is the major point) into the hands of the odd editor who is perusing their portfolio with an eye towards offering them an assignment. The reality is that no matter how busy a freelancer is, new writing assignments are a lot like Jello; there is always room for more.

I take a slightly different approach to choosing what goes into my portfolio -- having adopted a simple rule that controls what gets added to the portfolio -- though I cannot take credit for it -- I picked it up from my friend and fellow writer David Rakoff, who recently passed away after a personal battle with cancer.

I originally met David through Captain Peter Whitfield, who at the time was the skipper of the P-Town Ferry. Peter is a fascinating character who is gregarious and outgoing and always pleased to make a new friend, which goes a long way towards explaining how he has a huge list of friends from literally all walks of life. While he is the consummate professional when it comes to the captaining of a vessel -- being a skilled veteran nautical expert and commander -- he is also a unique individual and one of that rare breed of human beings who you are better off having known, and I am sure that David felt the same way about Pete -- who he met while taking the ferry on a day-trip from P-Town to Plymouth.

We chatted via email for the most part, as David lived and worked out of New York City and I am on Cape Cod, but once or twice a year when I was in The City to cover an event we met for lunch, and it was at one of those meals that I asked him for advice about what to include in my writing portfolio.

"Put in everything you got paid to write; if an editor thought it was good enough to pay you for it, then it is good enough to include in your portfolio" he allowed.

So when I sat down to edit what would become the ongoing and constantly updated online version of my writing portfolio in place of writing samples and a list of published pieces it contained a complete list of every piece that I was paid to write. Each piece is linked to the online version and where the piece does not have an online version, it will appear as a PDF of the print version. While the end result was not a flood of extra work, it does generate a constant trickle of jobs I otherwise would not have, so in that respect I am happy to be able to say that it has generated enough extra work to make it a worthwhile effort with no regrets.

If you are a writer -- freelance or otherwise -- no matter what hat you wear or beat you write on, building your online portfolio by creating a listing of everything you were paid to write, with a link ideally to the online version at the publication that paid you to write it and therefore published it, if it exists, is the optimal format. Doing it that way not only provides editors with a nice selection of your work, but it also demonstrates that you are working, and hopefully it demonstrates your range and the topics on which you write as well as the different beats, and in addition to providing readers and those imaginary editors access to your work, it serves as a constant reminder that you are doing what you love. That being said you should also remember that your criteria is all of the pieces that you were paid to write, even the small and seemingly unimportant ones...

Changes in Attitudes

I mention all of this so that I can segue into a recent event that reminded me in no small way that it is very easy to overlook the little stuff while you work your way towards the bigger pieces, and largely due to a confrontation over my criticism of a review written by another freelancer I was reminded that I had allowed a significant gap to appear in my portfolio!

The event I am referring to has its roots in the fact that I recently reviewed the video game Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII which is the freshman video game title from games peripheral maker Mad Catz (the game was actually developed by Aussie Games Studio Trickstar in conjunction with Mad Catz) and released on 28 August of this year for Microsoft Xbox, Sony PS3, and Windows PC.

I played and reviewed the Xbox 360 version, which was provided to me by Mad Catz for that purpose (you can read my review for Game On, "Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII," and a review of the game for the online gaming pub Gaming Update, "Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII -- Game Impressions" and the feature article "Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII Adventures in Pre-Release Gaming" that was also written for Gaming Update.) and found it to be an interesting game with a lot of potential for online PVP and cooperative play.

With better than 30 hours of potential game play for the casual player interested in the single-player story mode, when that is completed should the gamer embrace the multi-player online side of the game its entertainment potential is practically unlimited, but using the standard system I employ to evaluate average playtime, the game scored a rather impressive Average Admission Price of just $1.24 an hour, which is well under the $2 per hour threshold which serves as the cost yardstick for modern retail boxed titles today.

After investing over 100 hours in game play time in order to obtain the full impression of the game prior to reviewing it, with roughly half of that time spent in the multi-player online PVP side of the game (OK I did indulge perhaps a bit more time than was entirely necessary, but I had a great group of games journos to play with who were also playing to review and we liked this game). After wrapping up game play Damage Inc. scored a solid 9.0 out of 10, and I was not alone in evaluating it and finding it to be quite the impressive air combat romp!

At its most basic the lack of a wide selection of air combat titles each year gave the game a boost by itself, but it was the quality of the entertainment offered by the game and not its cheesy story line that earned it that score, so you may be able to imagine my surprise when I encountered a negative review in the Manchester Guardian Newspaper written by freelance games journo Grant Howitt (Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII -- Review, 31 August 2012 The Guardian) that was widely slammed by the writer and reviewer for reasons that instantly got my back up. (This was originally addressed in the September 1, 2012 blog entry "Speaking Of. . . Constructive Criticism").

To begin with, the review was written badly and lacked the professionalism and quality that we have come to expect from The Guardian. Note that I only read this review after I had written two of my own (linked above) and after I spent better than 100 hours in playing the game, which at that point I considered myself to be something of an expert on as a result...

Howitt's approach in his review appeared to intentionally substitute an overtly sarcastic voice in place of the to-be-expected serious opinion based upon lengthy and full game play for the title; in simple terms the piece began badly, worked its way towards horrible, and ended by demonstrating that the reviewer had not actually played the game for more than an hour or so (if that)!

Forget for a moment that you never begin a review by asking a question, once you read the first graph of the review you will feel strongly the desire to forget the question, but alas it is too late at that point. A game review should never make you wish longingly to be afflicted with Alzheimer's Disease, but really, there is a serious flaw in your approach when you open what is supposed to be a considered game review with the question:

"Do you know why American fared so badly at Pearl Harbor, leading to the deaths of thousands of men that would draw them into the killing fields of the second world war?"

I get it that America-bashing is presently in vogue for the younger generation of writers (read that as college-aged) in the UK, but actually I do know why America fared so badly following the Japanese invasion attempt of Pearl Harbor, and it was not "due to the fact that they placed the entirety of their airborne defence in the hands of a single inexperienced pilot who crashed explosively into nearby buildings at every opportunity" which is what Howitt would have us believe.

The failure at Pearl Harbor was actually caused by a combination of errors, oversights, and mistakes, not the least of which was the failure of the intelligence community at the time to properly analyze the data and the intercepted communications that it actually possessed; there is also the issue of the intelligence briefing that the British provided the United States Navy that was based upon the output of its Enigma decoding teams at Bletchley Park, just outside of Milton Keynes. (1)

There was the matter of nearly a full hour's advanced warning that was obtained from the Opana Radar Station on the North Shore of Oahu, which was an integral element in the new Aircraft Warning Service (AWS) that was established in 1939, and that was intended to do just what it did, which was provide advance warning of approaching waves of enemy bombers and torpedo planes as well as fighters, using its SCR-270 radar system and the skills of Army Privates Joe Lockhard and George Elliot, both of whom were at their appointed stations on the bluff overlooking the calm and gentle Pacific Ocean when at 0702 on Sunday, 7 December 1941, they detected several waves of incoming bombers and torpedo planes and correctly identified them as a threat. (1) (2)

They reported the sighting to the Duty Officer manning the Temporary Information Center at Fort Shafter, on Hawaii. That officer -- Army Lieutenant Kermit Tyler -- decided that what the pair had sighted on their radar was nothing more than a flight of twelve US Army Air Corps Boeing B-17 Bombers that was being ferried in from Muroc Army Air Base in Muroc, California (via Luzon, in the Philippine Islands) to Hawaii. The flight was made up of a mixture of elements from the 19th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and the 7th Bombardment Group (Heavy) and for the purposes of obtaining the maximum fuel range for the bombers, made the flight without any weapons or ammunition on board. (1)(3)

Then there were the monumental failures of Army General Walter C. Short, Hawaiian Department Commander, and Navy Admiral Husband E. Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet Commander at Pearl Harbor, both of whom failed to pay heed to the ample warnings that were issued by the Department of Defence and the coordinated efforts of both the British Intelligence Service and the US Department of State, all of whom warned that an attack was imminent and that basic defensive precautions should be taken to prepare the islands. (3)

It Wasn't Funny?

Of course the question that Howitt opened his review with was not serious; it was supposed to be humor, but sadly it flopped, and I suspect that part of the reason -- the obvious part of the reason -- for that has to do with its macabre and tactless nature and the reality that he chose a very poor subject and position for that humor.

That he feels it is appropriate to joke about the failed invasion and subsequent attack at Pearl Harbor suggest that Howitt has not the slightest familiarity with military service and why joking about the death of thousands of Solders, Sailors, and Marines not to mention civilian casualties really is not funny; in reality Howitt is just another Jody, but he doesn't even know it. If we could ask the victims of the attack I seriously doubt that they would see the humor either. It may be edifying to know that a total of 2,403 military personnel died during and immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, with an additional 1,178 people (service and civilian) being injured in the attack. (4)

Damage Modeling adds to the game play experience...
Rehashing all of the faults with the review serves very little purpose, so restricting this to the more significant points, in reading the review it became very obvious from what Howitt wrote that (A) he had not played more than twenty minutes to an hour of the game; (B) he had not completed the tutorial phase of the game; (C) he had not mastered the controls; and (D) he was not familiar with the actual contents of the game.

One of the more annoying assertions that he made was that the game falsly claimed to be an historically faithful combat experience. Howitt complains in his review that the game claimed to be historically-based but then goes on to have the player face a number of enemy planes and shoot them down, thus obtaining more kills than the historic leading ace fighter pilot of the era, Army Air Corps pilot and Congressional Medal Winner Ira Bong, who at the time of Pearl Harbor was a Lieutenant.

Neither the developer or the publisher ever made any such claim; what they said was that the game featured historically accurate aircraft, and it does. Howitt made gross unfounded and unsupported assumptions based upon his own interpretation of blurbs from the back of the box, and then took a position based upon his interpretation, characterizing his imagination as factual statements by the developer and publisher. Ultimately after reading what he wrote I came to the realization that Howitt had written the review about a game he had not actually played, and yes, that really got my knickers in a twist, I freely admit it. 

"You don't by any chance happen to have six fingers on your right hand?"

Under normal circumstances when I encounter a situation in which a fellow member of the Fourth Estate has firmly jammed a foot into their own mouth, I will watch (amused, not amused, it all depends upon the circumstances) and let it go at that -- rarely do I actually get involved, and still rarer is the violation such that I feel compelled to wiegh in on the situation personally.  When  it does come to that however, I much prefer to privately share my opinion with them because I find that in most cases a sincerely offered piece of personal advice is more readily accepted -- unfortunately in the case of Grant Howitt and his review of Damage Inc. Pacific Squadron WWII the fact that he has gone to considerable efforts to conceal his personal email address, and has chosen not to offer a business email or postal address meant that the only option for all communications with him was via the public channels that he has created -- basically that meant either posting to his Twitter Account, or posting a comment to the actual review on The Guardian website.  

Since what I needed to say naturally required more than the 140 character limits on the service, unless I was willing to generate a literal Tweetstorm, the official comments section on The Guardian Website was the only practical option.  The choice of making the criticism public required a mental review of the reasons I was irritated enough to actually take the boy to task for what he had done --  so that was the next necessary step.  Thinking about it helped focus it.

In the end my ire took the form of a rather lengthy and detailed comment to his review on the Guardian website -- and it was largely constructive -- addressed all of the areas of concern, and resulted in his telling me where to head in.  

What Howitt did to warrant a reaction was flagrantly violate the trust that exists between the writer/reviewer and the reader; he also compromised the ethical commitment between a writer and their publication and in the doing of that, sacrificed a measure of the trust that The Guardian has built with its readers since it began to offer game reviews -- in essence Howitt chose to burn a bridge when it was not only not his bridge to burn, but a bridge that should not have been put to the torch in the first place.  

Those two crimes are reasonably egregious and sufficient to warrant the level of response that I made to him, but it was his third transgression that really made the matter terminal.  By taking an assignment that he never intended to properly complete, Howitt took a job away from another writer who would have legitimately reviewed the game!  Considering the economy and the fact that paying gigs are not like apples on a tree anymore (if they ever were) it would have been better for all concerned if that review assignment had gone to a writer who was prepared to commit to doing it right -- and there are plenty (hell, almost every freelancer out there) who would have and could have done a better job.  In fact this is one of those cases where ten monkeys on typewriters...  Just saying.

Grant Howitt and his Zombie LARP Startup - hit over to Zombie LARP for more information!  And thanks Grant!

The Newspaper Industry

Will take care of itself.  But in the interim I owe Grant a note of thanks because, coming full circle here, he pointed out a gap in my portfolio that I have since fixed.  Thank you Grant!

Shortly after I posted my comment on Grant's review the admins at The Guardian locked all further comments on that review, and Grant took his disparagement to Twitter, where it is clear from his comments that he visited my website (I was flattered that he felt the need) but in the doing of it he seems to have found it wanting. Sigh.

Specifically he declared that he always considers the source when someone offers him constructive criticism, and that in considering the source (me), he felt that as he was a video game reviewer, and I was a newspaper columnist, my opinion on the matter did not carry any real or informed weight, since according to Grant I had no familiarity with the subject of writing video game reviews, or gaming in general.

It was at that point that I realized that I had failed to include a significant element of my writing in my portfolio!  It was at that point that I realized that Grant had actually helped me to recognize that gap, and so had prompted me to correct it.  It was at that point that I realized that Grant had helped me.  It was at that point that I realized I owed Grant a debt of thanks.

While my portfolio did include the 41 video game guides and walkthroughs that I have written over the years, it did not include the more than 250 game reviews that I had written over the years! Thanks to Grant I was now aware of that fact; but it seems that as Grant was not, and taking into account his assertion that -- his feeling that -- his eleven game reviews published on The Guardian website represents a clear and authoritative background and presence, he felt that he spoke from a position of strength and expert opinion (compared to me) with respect to video games and I was just going to have to accept that....

So what was the lesson that I took away from all of this? 

Well, clearly there is the fact that I considered the game reviews to be unimportant -- I must have done so, because I failed to include ANY of them in my portfolio in spite of the fact that by my own standards they clearly belong there!  

After giving it careful thought and consideration I have come to the conclusion that because they are all comparatively small next to many of the feature pieces and guides that I had written, I have been subconsciously undervaluing them all along! 

Clearly they are not. 

So I must ask myself: How is an editor going to know that I review games if I fail to provide that information to them as part of my online portfolio? 

That second generation of questions immediately made me wonder what other assets I had neglected to include in my portfolio?  I have to give that some thought.

And that brings me full circle, and back to the fact that I owe Grant a note of thanks for helping me to see that I had (have?) a weakness in my approach to documenting my writing.  Thanks Grant!  And good luck with your new Live Action Role Playing Game Business thingy!