Random Thoughts – Randocity!

Online Gaming and Your Accounts

Posted in best practices, video game, xbox by commorancy on March 24, 2019

As gaming companies grow larger and offer more game selections, game libraries, digital stores other merchandise, online gaming can become a problem for you if you choose to play games in certain unacceptable ways. Let’s explore the dangers.

Online Gaming and Stores

Since the advent of stores like Steam, the Xbox store and even the independent stores, like Bethesda’s and Electronic Arts store and since the addition of multiple games that these stores sell, dangers to your account are present when you play any game.

What are those dangers? As more and more games become multiplayer online capable, along with those online features comes “Terms of Service” agreements. These are agreements to which you must agree before you can play the game. These agreements have legal clauses that let game companies do pretty much anything to your account if you “break the rules”.

Breaking The Rules

What exactly is breaking the rules? Sometimes the rules are not clearly defined. Sometime they are not defined at all. The difficulty with rules is that they don’t have to be defined for a company to call foul against you, to block you, to ban you, to delete your content, etc.

How do you know when you’re breaking the rules? This is a matter of common sense. Unfortunately, because many gamers are of age 9-14, common sense hasn’t yet kicked in. You don’t really begin to get an understanding of “common sense” until you reach your mid to late 20s. With kids aged 9-14, you get all sorts of behaviors, many of these behaviors are entirely unwanted and unacceptable.

Game developers need to be cognizant of this fact when they build their game platforms. Ignoring the 9-14 demographic when building your game is ripe for problems… which is exactly what Fallout 76 experiences regularly. Clearly, Bethesda developed a game and just “threw it out there” without thought to the demographics of those actually playing the game.

Demographics and Gaming

Know your audience. If you’re writing a novel, know the audience you are intending to gear your content towards. If it’s geared towards adults, write the novel with that audience demographic in mind. Don’t cater to children in your words when you’re writing to adults. That not only will insult your target demographic, it will turn them off of your writing. The same goes for video games. If you’re creating a video game, keep in mind your audience members who will be playing the game.

If you’re hoping to get audience from 9-50, then you might want to rethink your content, particularly online gaming content. The 50-something gamers are not likely to want to run around with a bunch of 10 year olds where common sense doesn’t prevail. Think through the demographic strategy carefully when designing an online world.

Duping, Glitches and Out of Bounds

Kids try out anything. In video games, this means they’ll actually try and break your game. They simply don’t care. They’re not in it for the rules, they’re in it for whatever fun they can have doing whatever they feel. If that means glitching their way through walls to get into off-limits areas, expect it. That’s what kids do. It’s in their nature. This even follows through to teens. If your game caters to teens, expect them to do similar things.

In fact, for online multiplayer games, I might even go so far as to only allow children on servers intended for children only. Place adults onto servers with adults only. This way, there’s no mixing of adults and children. Many reasons exist for this segregation, but the interactions between adults and children do not always go over well.

By ‘children’, I mean under 18 years of age, but preferably under 21. By allowing mixing of ages in online worlds, a game dev’s property can become liable for predatory tactics between unsuspecting children and not-so-well-meaning adults. Keeping children separate from adults keeps that unsavory door firmly closed. You don’t want your platform to facilitate this kind of interaction… AT ALL.

Accounts, Companies, Rules and Danger

As a result of digital goods stores now selling multiple games in their own store and because of stringent (and undefined) rules, if you run afoul of the “rules” even just once, you can lose your entire account at that store… including all purchases made through that store. That means that you could have had 10 (or more) different games you’ve purchased over the years. One infraction that bans your account from a single game means the loss of access to all of those other purchased games. This is the danger of running afoul of the rules.

For example in Fallout 76, the duping glitch wasn’t something that was built into the game intentionally. People (mostly kids) took advantage of this duping glitch to dupe and begin selling “rare” items. Expecting Bethesda not to do something about this is entirely naive. That the players thought that Bethesda couldn’t find “them” was even more naive. I spoke with many dupers who were so nonchalant about the whole duping thing, they never thought that Bethesda would ban their accounts. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. Not only did Bethesda ban the accounts, they also heavily reduced the damage output of the duped weapons. They also heavily reduced other parts of the game to get it “inline” with those other reduced parts. In reality, they ultimately damaged their game simply to “teach a lesson” to the dupers. This “punishment” actually hurt the Fallout 76 game property and lost a bunch of players in the process. If you’re trying to chase away paying customers, this is an awesome way to do it.

While I’m not trying condemn Bethesda for their choices, they did make questionable choices in handling the dupers and in dealing with Fallout 76.

What does this mean for you?

If you subscribe to Steam or PlayStation Network or Xbox Live or any type of similar digital game seller, you’re at the mercy of that seller’s rules. In the case of Steam, they are a third party seller not specifically selling their own created games (usually). This means that it is much less likely to run afoul of a game’s rule and see your Steam account banned. Unfortunately, if you’re buying from EA, Bethesda or similar direct digital stores, you won’t be so lucky. If you do something considered ban-worthy in an online game sold by the developer, it’s likely your account will disappear as a result.

In the case of Bethesda’s Fallout 76, it’s clear that duping wasn’t going to lead to anything wonderful. Bethesda was very disenchanted over the whole situation… enough to basically destroy the entire Fallout 76 game (as if it wasn’t already destroyed from the start). Anyway, Bethesda not only removed the ability to find Two Shot Explosive weapons, those that still exist saw their damage output heavily reduced (by at least 75%). That’s a major reduction in damage. Not only this, they increased the hit points needed to kill certain “hard” enemies in the game (Scorchbeasts and the Scorchbeast Queen). So not only were the weapons heavily reduced, the creatures are now even harder to kill.

These are the kinds of changes that Bethesda introduced in Fallout 76 in retaliation for the dupers. Not only did the nonchalant attitude break the game, it basically destroyed it. On top of that, the dupers who were the source of the problem were also summarily banned from the game. Bethesda has said these “bans” are temporary. However, a 2 month suspension is well longer than “temporary”. Temporary is a 1-4 day period. Permanent is anything longer than a week. A 2 month ban might as well be permanent.

In the online game world, a lot happens in two months. You also lose touch with the game and will eventually stop playing it. Yet, these players who were banned also paid $60 (or more) just like everyone else. If Bethesda bans accounts without explanation, Bethesda should be required to refund the banned player at least part of the cost of their game. If Bethesda wants to ban players, they need to do it with a reason and explanation that fits within the terms of service.

What this all means is that when you’re playing an online game, you need to be on your best behavior just like anywhere else. Stick to the confines of the world’s limits. Don’t egregiously go over the limits simply because the game lets you… even if you don’t like the way the game is designed. Trying to intentionally break the game is the quickest way to get your account banned. This is especially true in online games where what you do can affect everyone else on the server.

If you’re playing a single player campaign game on your own console or computer, go ahead and break it. That’s fine. If you’re in a shared online world where there are other players who paid to be there and you intentionally cause the server to crash, then you deserve what’s coming to you. If that’s a ban, so be it. You should never go out of your way to crash or otherwise disrupt online worlds with other players. That’s the quickest way to a ban.

Complaints from Banned Gamers

I’ve heard all sorts of complaints from gamers who have been banned. The primary complaint is that now all of the rest of their games are inaccessible because of the ban. Consider that a lesson learned. Now you know the ramifications of causing unnecessary havoc in online game worlds. This should teach you that all actions have consequences. Games are designed with game mechanisms in mind. So long as you work within the constraints of those designed mechanisms, you’ll be fine. When you decide to go out of those bounds and find holes to exploit, that’s when your account becomes flagged.

For example, players who entered the Bethesda dev room in Fallout 76. Anyone with common sense would know not to go into that room in an online game. It’s an online game and Bethesda has eyes in the online world. They will see that you entered and they will find you. Your activities that you do in an online world are not anonymous, they’re not private and the game developer will most certainly see what you are doing. Thinking you can “get away” with entering a dev room is most certainly naive and definitely stupid. It might be fun to see the room, but that fun will make way to no fun when the developer bans you from their game.

Basically, if you do something in an online world that is out of bounds, expect it to be found and expect your account to be penalized. You can’t just run willy nilly through an online game world and expect no consequences. As I said, in single player offline campaign games, break it as you see fit. Even the game devs don’t care. It’s only when it’s an online world where multiple paying players can be disrupted by what you are doing. Most terms of service have disruption clauses. For example, if you read your terms of service for your ISP, there’s likely a clause that says something similar to “If your account is found to disrupt the internet services of others, your account may be suspended or terminated”. They’re not kidding. If you start DDoSing other folks on the Internet, your Internet account could be closed. Then where are you?

Why mess around with these sort of shenanigans when you can much more easily play by the rules established? A game is meant to be enjoyed by what it was designed to do, not what it wasn’t designed to do.

Overall

Stick to the rules of the game world and you’ll be fine. Venture into unknown territory and expect consequences. In the case of Bethesda, they run the game service, they have every right to eject anyone from that service. However, because you also paid for the game, I believe Bethesda should be required to refund any players they choose to eject. That’s the least that any game dev should be required to do when considering bans on players.

Unfortunately, Bethesda may not be willing to refund you after they banned you, but you may have recourse by disputing the game’s cost with your credit card company. However, there are also two sides to a chargeback. If you dispute the charge of an Xbox Store digital purchase, Xbox Live’s terms of service may kick in and this may result in a ban from Xbox Live. You should be careful. The same problem exists for the PlayStation Store. Even the Steam store likely handles chargebacks seriously.

If you purchased a physical copy of the game, you can also dispute the credit card charge against the seller. If that’s Amazon, Target, Walmart or Gamestop and your dispute is successful, you may find you can no longer use that credit card at those retailers. Chargebacks, while appropriate in some cases, are treated very seriously by merchants. Many merchants see chargebacks as a bad faith transaction from that credit card. As a result, many merchants will blacklist cards from their establishment after even one chargeback. If you’re thinking of using a credit card dispute with your bank, you also need to consider the ramifications if the dispute is successful.

Before considering a chargeback, you should contact the seller and ask if they will refund the purchase price. Only if a seller refuses to refund should you consider raising a dispute with your credit card company. Even then, consider this action carefully as it can also get your online accounts banned.

↩︎

Advertisements

Update Review: Wild Appalachia – Fallout 76

Posted in best practices, botch, business, gaming, video game design by commorancy on March 14, 2019

Wild Appalachia is the newest DLC addition to Fallout 76. Let’s explore.

Fallout 76

Not to get into too much detail, I would be remiss by not discussing what Fallout 76 is. I’ve already written a fairly concise review of Fallout 76 and a Fallout 76 rant. If you’re interested in reading more, you might start with these. Anyway, Fallout 76 is basically an MMORPG similar to the Elder Scrolls online. It offers both multiplayer and single player aspects. I won’t get into too many specifics, but suffice it to say that when it was released in November 2018, it was (and still is) a completely rough game with many bugs, glitching, crashing and is still to this day, highly unstable.

If you’re thinking of investing in the purchase of this game, you must take the very bad with a little bit of good. The good being very limited in this game. There were many promises made for Fallout 76, many of which Bethesda has not yet delivered. Unfortunately, with this newest DLC, there’s not a whole lot here that improves Fallout 76 in useful ways. Yet, it adds some small new things which I will get into next.

Wild Appalachia

On March 13, Wild Appalachia dropped into the Fallout 76 world. Other than a few cosmetic improvements to the UI, the game is basically what it was prior to this release. The primary additions in this release include:

  • Brewing Station — Craft your own Beer, Wine and Hard Liquor at your own base or workshop
  • Two new map points: Tattoo Parlor and Fraternity Row in Morgantown
  • A new quest that rewards you with the crafting station plans
  • A new daily quest that rewards you with recipes for the distillery
  • Increased base budget (to allow for building the distillery workbenches)
  • A new drink called Nukashine (and other new recipes)
  • Brahmin can be milked
  • CAMP sites now remove all grass and vegetation around the area
  • Radios are back. You can create a radio and tune it to Appalachia or Classical stations.
  • A way to report “bad seed” players. It’s anyone’s guess what Bethesda will do with these reports.

Some negative additions include:

  • Poor quality load-in. Where the prior release load-in was relatively smooth and worked well, we’ve taken a step backward. Now the load-in is slow, awkward and adds a new stuttery / jittery experience when the controls are being released to the client.
  • Poor quality fast travel. When the last release had mostly fixed the fast travel lock up problems, the disparity between when you appear and when you get control still exists. In this latest release, it’s gotten worse again.
  • Radios turn off when you fast travel away from your base and then return or when you load in new. You have to always turn them back on.
  • Building camp mode drops frame rates to unacceptable levels (less than 15fps at times).
  • Icons of people on the map get in the way of actually using the map.
  • Mixing the same food items of differing conditions messes with the condition. Items that were added at 100% condition mixed with items that were at 20% condition yield all items at 20% condition in only a minute or two after mixing.
  • Button presses on the Xbox controller are now indeterminate. Sometimes you can press and the button will react, sometimes you press and it doesn’t. You’ll sometimes have to press 2 or 3 times to get the game to react to the press.
  • Food and Fusion cores now appear to expire faster with this update. Bethesda has even acknowledged the faster food spoilage problem. It seems they interfered with the food spoilage clock when crafting this DLC. It probably affected the rate at which Fusion Cores are used also.

Fasnacht Parade Event

As of March 19th, the Fasnacht Parade event was released in the town of Helvetia in the game. This is a limited seasonal event very similar in style to Distinguished Guests at Bolton Greens, where you need to first go find the robots, then do things for the robots. With Distinguished Guests, after finding all of the robots and getting them back to the house, you need to go find both place settings and table centerpieces. In the Fasnacht Parade, you must help each robot individually with things they want.

In this event, there are the following Robots:

  • The Butcher
  • The Baker
  • The Candlestick Maker
  • The Beekeeper
  • The Historian
  • The Decorator
  • The Frog Egg Collector
  • The Woodchopper

This is a seasonal event that will run for about 1 week, we assume. So, if you want to participate in this event and potentially win Fasnacht masks, you’ll want to do so quickly.

There is only a chance you’ll win a mask at the end of the event. If you want to be sure to win a mask, you’ll need to participate in this event as often as you can. You’ll probably get a bunch of duplicate masks doing this.

Anyway, the game randomly selects 5 of the above robots to participate in the parade. You’ll need to read the quest requirements along the way to know which robots have been selected. Once you perform the requirements for each robot, for example, collecting frog eggs for the Frog Egg robot or collect beeswax for the Candlestick maker, each robot will make its way to the road (slowly) and get in line.

Once you have all 5 robots in line, the Master of Ceremonies robot will head to the line and begin the parade.

Along the way these robots will be attacked by different creatures in 3 different waves. First frogs, then Supermutants than finally by wolves, Stingwings and a legendary Sloth. After killing all of the interruptions in the parade (and protecting the robots), the MC will officiate a bonfire and the event concludes. It usually takes about 10-15 minutes for the entire parade to make its rounds. Just gotta make sure to protect those robots. As of 3/26, this event has closed.

Lemonade Stand

I debated about even discussing this as it’s nearly inconsequential, but here it is. In separate addition to the distillery, Bethesda has added a lemonade stand to the game. It’s a randomly spawned vendor who sells only, get this, two recipes: Lemonade and Hard Lemonade. That’s it. That’s the sole reason for this vendor’s existence. This vendor spawns at various locations around Appalachia complete with wooden stand adorned with blue and yellow balloons. I’ve found him not far from the Charleston train station and not far from the big Teapot under one of the high tension towers. The recipes aren’t that expensive, but at the same time they’re not that useful. It’s not even really lemonade.

The ingredients for “lemonade” include acid and boiled water. Not exactly lemonade. Perhaps Bethesda should have included a lemon plant (or even lemon grass) into the game first? Then had us go pick this plant to make lemonade? I don’t know, maybe that would have worked better? Hard lemonade is made by mixing Vodka with Lemonade. Note that I discuss the effects of the Hard Lemonade below.

Survival Mode vs Adventure Mode

As of 3/26, Bethesda has introduced the somewhat anticipated new PVP area entitled ‘Survival Mode’. This new server has fewer restrictions on PVP. For example when you load in to a Survival mode server, you’re automatically in PVP with anyone who comes along. No longer do you need to initiate PVP through the old (and stupid) “shoot at someone, then they must shoot back” system. Additionally, here are a few more rules:

  • Upon player death, you must respawn at train stations, friendly CAMPs or Vault 76.
  • Cap rewards for player kills are doubled
  • Drop all junk and some aid items on death
  • Only “Wanted” players and the Top 3 are visible on the map
  • All XP gained increased by 20% (possibly temporary)

ServerModeAs far as I can tell, the same rules on the Adventure Servers still apply and nothing has changed. If someone tries to initiate PVP, they can. If they want to grief or harass you or your base, they are still free to do so. No rules around PVP have apparently changed in the Adventure mode servers. You choose which environment you wish to enter at the load-in screen right after pressing “PLAY”.

What went wrong?

While it’s fine to add new things to Fallout 76, Bethesda has been entirely remiss with this game. Instead of trying to fix the MANY existing stability issues, they insist on adding new features to the game which don’t add a quality new experience. For example, the primary addition to this DLC is the Brewing Station.

The problem I have with adding a distillery is that liquor is already incredibly easy to obtain in Fallout 76. Sure, you can now brew your own at your camp, but for what purpose? You can still go find all of the free liquor sitting around on tables and all over Fallout 76 that readily and quickly spawns and that doesn’t require collecting a bunch of corn and razor grain. In just two days of roaming Fallout 76, I had amassed hundreds of bottles of beer, liquor and moonshine. Granted, I know where the spawn points are likely to be, but still I was able to amass a crap ton of beer, wine and spirits. Worse, to brew, you need boiled water and various ingredients like corn, razor grain and similar. This means you need to build out a farm if you intend to brew. If you roam the world looking for already brewed liquor, you don’t need to worry about maintaining a farm on your base or workshop.

Talking to Biv at his bar is as much fun as talking to Rose at Top of the World. This robot is not only as tedious as it comes, he’s just not at all a fun addition to the game. Worse, not only are the quests offered only once per day, you’re likely to get duplicate awards at the end of each quest (or nothing at all). I’m still waiting for Biv to give me the recipe for Lead Champagne. Like the Fasnacht festival drops below, they’re far too random to be of real use.

Additionally, what does liquor really do for you in Fallout 76? Unless you have invested in the three perks Professional Drinker, Happy-Go-Lucky and Party Boy/Girl, honestly not much. Some liquor adds limited points of strength and charisma, but not enough to run around hunting for liquor. It’s not until you invest and rank up the above perk cards that drinking liquor in Fallout 76 becomes useful. Even then, its limits are quite apparent. If Happy-Go-Lucky gave us up to 9 points of Luck instead of 3, it might be a more useful card. Worse, Party Boy doesn’t stack with Happy-Go-Lucky. This means that while the 1 strength of beer becomes 3 when Party Boy is on, it doesn’t impact the Happy-Go-Lucky card when it should.

Where did Bethesda go wrong? They went wrong by introducing this update at a time when it was half complete. Because these are new crafting tables, unfortunately there are no new perk cards to control them. For example, the chemistry table has perk cards that double the quantities produced. With other perk cards like Super Duper (Luck), you can quadruple your output. None of these perk cards apply to the Brewing Station. And worse, because there are no new Perk cards to control the Distillery, you’re limited to crafting them one at a time with full amounts of ingredients. No doubling or quadrupling here.

Even worse, the new liquors have very bad “hangover” effects. For example, Nukashine randomly fast travels you to some location in the world when the hangover starts. Rad Ant Lager gives you +50 carry weight for a limited period of time and then penalizes you with a -50 carry weight “hangover” for around 1 minute. The Hard Lemonade gives you super fast AP regeneration at the cost of the exact opposite effect during the 1 minute hangover. In fact, because AP regeneration comes to a halt and doesn’t regenerate, this leaves you with no AP at all when you run out. These effects are WAY overkill. No other “standard” liquors in Fallout 76 have such bad negative effects. Additionally, there are perk cards there to help out those liquors. Yet, with these new liquors, there are no perk cards at all to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of Rad Ant Lager or Nukashine or Hard Lemonade… making consuming these new liquors useless. Just stick with the “regular” beers and spirits with no such negative effects.

As for Fasnacht, it’s okay. Just okay. The parade is effectively a remake of Distinguished Guests at Bolton Greens. If Bethesda could have designed something new here, I might be a bit more kind. Unfortunately, redoing something that’s already been done in the game is, well, boring. Additionally, the mask drops at the end are tedious. So far, I’ve amassed nearly 4 duplicates of every common mask. I’ve yet to get any of the rare masks, like the Jester. Bethesda needs to award masks every single play through and while they are awarded randomly, they shouldn’t make some masks more rare than others. Make the weight of all mask drops equal. This way everyone gets a chance at every mask possible. Additionally, lose the extra stuff. It’s great that plans drop for festival decorations, but no one really wants these. Instead, just place these plans around the Fasnacht festival (and around the rest of the world) for people to find. No need to award these more-or-less useless items.

This is the example of how Bethesda continues to go wrong with this game. They only half think through these ideas and then they half-assed implement them. Worse, the Distillery may have seemed like a great idea on paper, it’s pretty much worthless in practice. If they had given us a new liquor that drastically increases damage output of weapons or drastically increase damage resistance against certain types of foes without the negative effects, that would be a useful addition. Because none of this exists, brewing liquor is pointless.

Mask Drop Rate Controversy

It has come to the attention of many gamers that certain “rare” masks never dropped during the Fasnacht event. These masks included the Skull, Goblin, Old Man Winter, Sun and Jester masks. The masks that dropped most frequently included Giant, Witch and Soldier. The masks which dropped a little less frequently are the Toothy Man and the Owl.

A gamer claims to have received the Sun mask, but it is unclear if the user actually got the mask at the completion of a Fasnacht event or through the Dev room. According to a poll on Reddit, no other masks dropped for anyone besides that one mask for that one user.

It has been estimated at a .03% chance of receiving the Sun, Skull, Jester, Old Man Winter or Goblin at the end of any given event. That means you’d need to play over 3000 events to actually have a chance at receiving one of these masks. Considering that only 24 events exist on any one server in a 24 hour period and considering this event only ran for 7 days, it was almost impossible to receive any masks other than those that did drop.

Why Bethesda decided to dropped these specific masks at that low of a rate is as yet unknown. It’s also very unlikely Bethesda’s devs would ever be forthcoming about their own failures. The reality is, the devs probably screwed up on the math and those masks just didn’t drop.

Bethesda could make it up to us by offering a limited time duplicate exchange. Let us exchange some of our duplicate Witch, Soldier, Toothy Man, Owl or Giant masks for the “rare” masks which we should have gotten had the drop percentages been programmed correctly. Bethesda, you made a mistake, just be straightforward with us and give us an even swap of our duplicates.

The difficulty I have with these masks isn’t the drop rate or the rarity level. It’s the fact that the event only ran for 7 days. For an indefinite and ongoing game, setting extremely low drop rates is fine because you have infinite amounts of time to quest for these items. For an event that runs for only 7 days, Bethesda should have increased the drop rate. The drop rate should have been increased commensurate with the limited length of the Fasnacht event. Instead, Bethesda kept the drop rates at the same levels as events that would operate continually throughout the year.

By prominently showing the masks in promo materials to rope users in to play the event and then promise the hope of obtaining one of the masks, this sets an expectation that these masks would drop with more frequency than zero (0) during those 7 days. If even 10 players got them, that would at least show some effort by Bethesda. Yet, with a .03% chance of obtaining one of those masks in those 7 days, Bethesda seems intent to defraud its users… particularly any gamer who bought the game with the intent of getting one of those masks. Bethesda needs to be more careful with these limited time events when considering the promo materials they are using. Promo materials promise things, but when those things don’t deliver, that’s when a legal problem exists. It’s called fraud.

Crafting Stations

There are two crafting stations for your distilling pleasure: A Brewing Station and a Fermenter. The Fermenter is not strictly even needed. The Brewing Station produces unfermented bottles. These bottles have a condition meter. As the condition deteriorates, it leads toward a completed bottle of liquor. All unfermented bottles of liquor will eventually become fermented. An ‘unfermented beer’ ticks down to become a ‘beer’. This is just the opposite of food spoiling. This means you don’t need to use a Fermenter. You can simply carry them around in your inventory and eventually they will ferment. It’s much faster to use a Fermenter, but you don’t need to use it if you have inventory space and you’re willing to wait. I’ll also point out that using the Fermenter requires space in your stash. As you place up to 10 bottles in the Fermenter, they weigh 1 each which means you’ll need a total of 10 weight of free space in your stash to ferment. For those of us always 1 or 2 points away from being full, that’s no bueno. Again, half-assed implementation. The Fermenter should have had its own 10 bottle space just for fermenting.

Whether or not these unfermented items are affected by the Good with Salt perk card that preserves food condition is unknown. However, knowing Bethesda, Good with Salt probably does slow down the fermentation process if you’re carrying around unfermented beer expecting it to ferment. I would suggest removing this perk card if you intend to let liquor ferment on your person. Of course, removing that card also means that any food items you are carrying will spoil much faster. This means you have to take the good with the bad… probably something Bethesda didn’t intentionally design. A separate and new perk card here would have been welcomed.

Recipes and Nukashine

Bethesda typically gives you a handful of recipes right off the bat with any workbench. The Brewing Station is no different. You get the crafting basics which include beer, wine, vodka, rum, bourbon, whiskey and the new Nukashine. If you want any other recipes, you have to go find them. Of course, you can’t make any specialty beers (without a recipe) like Old Possum, Pickaxe Pilsner or Old Holler Lager. You can only make ‘Beer’ once you get your station. Biv may award you recipes for these beers later. Still, some of these specialty beers will require more esoteric ingredients to be located and farmed… typically requiring ingredients you can’t grow at your base.

The new thing to make is ‘Nukashine’. Nukashine is a combination of a Nuka-Cola Quantum and various ingredients. You can ferment this one twice. Once to Nukashine and again to Vintage Nukashine.

Personally, I find Nukashine to be a pointless beverage. The Nuka Quantum grenades are much more useful uses of a Nuka Cola Quantum. Unlike Beer, Wine and Spirits which offer benefits when using Party Boy/Girl and Happy-Go-Lucky, Nukashine doesn’t extend these perk card benefits.

Worse, Nukashine only offers ‘Unarmed Damage’ benefits… as if anyone runs around in this world unarmed. On top of that, this drink is prone to having your character black out when it wears off. This means that your character will be randomly transported somewhere in the world. It could be some place innocuous like Flatwood or it could be in a Blast Zone with 3 Scorchbeasts and a bunch of high level Scorched. I would be fine with such a tactic IF the game weren’t so entirely problematic after fast travel. Because your character spawns into the game world up to a minute before the client’s visuals release controls to you, your character could be dead the instant the game releases controls. I don’t at all find this part of Fallout 76 challenging. In fact, I find it entirely frustrating… making the use of Nukashine even more pointless.

For this reason, this is why releasing something like Nukashine is an entirely premature addition to Fallout 76. The devs needed to have fixed these fundamental fast travel flaws long before releasing Nukashine. For example, they should have fixed the time it takes between when your character appears in the world and when the client releases controls to you. This time disparity allows the in-game enemies well enough time to kill your character many times over. For the unpredictability of Nukashine’s “blackouts”, this in no way makes this drink useful at all. It’s a novelty to try once, but for being actually useful all of the time, no way. In other words, no one is going to want Nukashine.

Rad Ant Lager and Biv’s Daily Quest

Yet another fail by Bethesda. They just seem to be racking them up. One of the first Atom Challenges in the new distillery world was to Fight a Rad Ant while under the influence of Rad Ant Lager. This would get you 10 Atom. To get the recipe to make Rad Ant Lager, you had to visit Biv at the Big Al’s Tattoo Parlor in Morgantown. He provides a ‘Daily’ quest that will get you that recipe. Unfortunately, because it’s a Daily quest, that means that once he’s issued this quest once in the day, he’s not likely to do it again until the next day.

Because this challenge was very specific and because it relied on a daily quest to get the recipe for Rad Ant Lager, it was almost impossible for MOST gamers to get this recipe to complete this challenge. This is, again, another fail by Bethesda.

Bethesda, if you’re reading, you need to provide more succinct ways to obtain recipes than being beholden to a bot to randomly give you a once-a-day quest. Instead, leave the recipe lying around somewhere easy to find. Have Rad Ants drop it occasionally. Additionally, Rad Ants are one of the harder enemies in the world to find. It just makes this quest all the more difficult. This challenge should never have been a daily challenge… especially not on the day of the release of the crafting stations. This should have been a weekly challenge. A total fail!

Overall

Bethesda is lost. Lost to their own weird ways and lost to what Fallout means as a franchise. It’s not about adding stupid things to the game, it’s about making the game challenging in ways that matter. Bethesda STILL needs to fix this game. There are so many instabilities, problems and crashes that these need to be tackled LONG BEFORE adding new features like brewing stations to the game. Yes, I’m thankful for the larger base budget, but not because I can craft brewing stations. I needed it to add more stuff to my base.

Bethesda, if you want us to buy into Atom and the Atom Store, you need to give us enough budget to craft the Atom Store items in our camps. Because my base has been at the hard edge of the budget for months, I couldn’t buy anything from the Atom Store that took budget. The only things I could buy were emotes, icons, skins and clothing items. That’s it. Statues and other budget consuming items have been pointless for months. That means I would need to delete items from my base to craft new items. Not doing that.

Even still, I am again at the edge of the budget even after the update. That budget addition didn’t go very far, though I was able to finally increase the size of my base… a much wanted facelift.

The distillery is interesting for about 5 minutes. However, adding vending machines, a bank, a way to transfer items between characters and decorating the camp via found world items is much more important to this longevity of this game. Please, stop with the time wasting additions and fix the problems that actually matter and add the features that are useful and that people actually want. When adding something new like the brewing stations, it’s also important to think through ALL of the supporting pieces, like perk cards. For example, should Super Duper apply? In this case, yes, it should. Yet, it doesn’t.

Wild Appalachia is a half-designed add-on added intended to recoup lost players. It’s a shallow and hollow add-on that overall adds little to the game. It’s also not likely to bring back lost players… at least, not for longer than for a day’s worth of play. DLC should keep players interested for weeks, not days. If the brewing station had been part of the game’s original release, it would have been useful for the questing. However, because many gamers are at Fallout 76’s endgame at this point, the brewing station adds little value to the game as the brews aren’t needed… even as hard as Bethesda is pushing players to use these new brews.

The Fasnacht event in Helvetia would have been a whole lot more fun with more variety. Because every play through is nearly identical, including where the enemies are likely to spawn, it makes playing this parade event boring after about the third time. Helvetia needs at least 3 different events that are randomly chosen and run at more frequent intervals. Doing the same event over and over is an exercise in tedium, particularly because you get duplicate rewards over and over… tedium much like talking to Biv at Big Al’s Tattoo Parlor. If you’re going to enforce a cool down timer when we can run another Biv quest, just show us this timer on the screen so we don’t waste our time (and caps) going over there trying to get Biv to give us a new quest. Even better, just have Biv issue the quest to us from afar.

Banned Users and Fallout 76

As a result of the object duping that occurred in several releases earlier, Bethesda created a bot to ‘detect’ possible duping on accounts. As a result, Bethesda banned a bunch of gamer accounts it suspected of having duped in-game items. For example, some of the ways in which it detected this was by seeing over 100,000 items amassed in a single account over a 30 day period. There were other markers it also used to make this determination.

Anyway, Bethesda had banned a number of gamers from Fallout 76 after its bot detected unusual activity on the account. As has been the case, Bethesda may or may not send out email to users it has banned from the game. When they do provide a message, it’s terse, generic and not always applicable to the gamer’s situation.

Here’s the rub. After the release of Wild Appalachia, many formerly banned gamers surprisingly found their accounts had been unbanned. Many took this as a sign that the ban was over. Yet, Bethesda had stated nothing of this situation. After 3-4 days of being able to enter and play Fallout 76 again, these same banned gamers found their accounts banned once again. Bethesda is entirely silent for why these accounts were both unbanned at the release of Wild Appalachia and why they were rebanned 3-4 days later. Bethesda is not forthcoming.

This company can’t really seem to get a break from all of these snafus, yet these problems are all of Bethesda’s own making. If their PR is tanking again, it’s simply because Bethesda doesn’t really seem to be a trustworthy company any longer. Personally, I think Bethesda should stick to offline single player worlds and give up this fantasy of producing MMORPGs which they are clearly ill prepared to manage.

Patch 9 — May 7

While I haven’t been updating this article for each individual patch, patch 9 needs to be discussed. While previous patches introduced one of the stupidest and most pointless items yet included in this game (the camera), patch 9 introduces an overly grindy new questline to obtain a simple and stupid item, the backpack. However, that’s not the reason I’m writing this update.

If you want to find all of the new stuff (which have, so far, all been very pointless), I suggest you play the game. But, before you run off to find the stupid that’s been included, please read on. The updated “new” stuff isn’t really even worth my time describing here, let alone finding it in the game. Yes, these updates are actually pointless and stupid, so there is no point writing about it here.

What is worth describing is exactly how broken Fallout 76, as a game, has become. We thought the Beta was bad, but now the game is entirely broken in so many more new ways. For example, VATs was questionable when the game launched, now it is entirely broken. At least 80-90% of the time, VATs won’t work on Melee weapons… AT ALL. When it does work. it doesn’t work as expected. When I say it doesn’t work, what I mean is… when you click to enable VATs, the percentage meter shows 0%, even when the enemy is standing an inch in front of you. Yes, well closer than needed for a melee weapon to connect and you STILL see 0%. As I said, entirely broken.

With ranged weapons, the VATs percent meter toggles between 0% and some random number between 0% and 90% every microsecond. This means that when you’re ready to release the trigger, it’s likely to be at a moment when the meter read 0% and you’ve wasted your ammo. This happens continuously in VATs. Even weapons that used to formerly offer extreme levels of accuracy (i.e., scoped weapons) can now show 35, 45 or 50% accuracy. Bethesda has ENTIRELY broken VATs in this release and the guns that rely on it.

AND… this is the bigger point I’m trying to make. With every single new patch, Bethesda makes Fallout 76 WORSE, never better. Sure, adding DLC might seem like a positive, but it is FAR overshadowed by all of the stupid fundamental bugs constantly being introduced into the required game engine features, like combat. Maybe Bethesda thinks this makes the game challenging, but in fact it makes the game absolute dogshit… to the point that there’s no point in playing Fallout 76.

All of these unpredictable changes and tweaks that Bethesda keeps introducing is turning this game into an unplayable turd of epic proportions. No, the game isn’t entirely unplayable yet, but it is fast becoming unplayable. With basic systems like VATs completely broken, you have to rely on hip-firing, which is also becoming fast problematic. Just like all other combat, hip firing has also become worse and worse with each new release. In fact, not VATs, not scoped and not hip-firing can you actually hit your target most of the time. I’ve wasted so much ammo to this problem, it just makes me want to scream.

If the point is to make Fallout 76 even more grindy than it already is, then well done Bethesda. But, I won’t be coming back to this game without some MAJOR improvements in the basic game engine. Right now, Fallout 76 is entirely in turd territory and fast becoming barf. Bethesda, stop with the unnecessary and stupid additions and FOCUS on the basics. Make them work. You can come back and add Sheepsquatches and Cameras and Backpacks when the engine actually works properly.

Combat Engine

One of the sorest points of Fallout 76 is its combat engine. In fact, it’s probably one of the worst combat engines I’ve experienced in a game to date. Not only does the game completely miss controller button presses entirely (a separate problem not related to combat), there are times when you can aim dead onto an enemy with a scope and the bullet doesn’t connect. It can do this several times in a row. Worse, some guns like Gauss rifles, entirely misfire. By misfire, I mean you press the trigger, release and the gun makes a sad noise and does nothing. You have to press the trigger and try again. It can even do this several times in a row. This makes the Gauss rifle currently THE WORST rifle in the game. It’s the only rifle in the game that has this misfire problem. No other weapon in the game does this… not even its sister, the Tesla rifle. I digress.

Let’s get back to the combat problems. In any other game, you can see what the enemy’s stats are. Perhaps not right away, but after leveling up and gaining a few perks, you get to see what you’re up against. Not in Fallout 76. The only stat information you are given about an enemy is its level. That’s it. You don’t get to see its HP, it’s attack types (i.e., poison, sonic, etc). You have to find out its attack type by entering combat, even then you don’t really know.

For example, the Sheepsquatch (a newly introduced enemy) has an attack that temporarily poisons you and slows your movement speed… by a LOT. In fact, it slows movement speed by WAY too much. Its attack is so overpowered, in fact, it’s way out of balance. But, that’s not the half of it. There is no counter to this movement speed attack. No perk cards to apply, no liquors to drink, no foods to consume, nothing. Bethesda introduced an enemy with an attack and NO player countermeasure. THIS is why this game is nearly unplayable.

Worse, and this problem has existed since day one, certain enemies can attack you once, but land 4 or 5 hits successively (you can hear your character grunt 4 or 5 times and the HP meter moves that many times)… an impossibility for a single enemy hit. For example, Molerats, Bloodbugs, and Stingwings have this attack. And then there’s robots. Level 52 Colonel Gutsy robots utilize 5.56 ammo weapons, which bypasses 100% of any armor you’re wearing (possibly more). Literally, a level 52 Colonel Gutsy or 68 level Supermutant can, while wielding a 5.56 ammo weapon and even at my character’s level of 152, eat all of my HP in probably 20-30 shots. There is no other weapon + ammo in the game capable of this feat except for the highly broken 5.56 wielding characters. This makes power armor, which is supposed to be some of the strongest armor in the game, actually some of the weakest armor. Even Sentinel armor (non-power armor) is stronger against this ammo type than the higher damage resistant Power Armor. Literally, the damage resistance in Fallout 76 means NOTHING.

Other stupidity is distance of attack. For example, I’ve had melee hits by many enemies from way too far a distance. Even though I can’t even strike an enemy when it’s inches from my character, the enemies can melee strike at distances nearing two or three car lengths away… literally impossible distances. Again, not at all a proper combat system.

Even worse, many of the enemies in the game can traverse vast distances in a fraction of a second. Player characters have no such capabilities at all, yet enemies can be a football field away and then right next to your character attacking in less than 2 seconds. I realize this is supposed to be a mutated wasteland, but that attack pattern is still entirely ridiculous.

When it comes to collision detection of bullets, I ask, “What collision detection?” Seriously, there’s practically none. This means that far too many bullets entirely miss their targets no matter how carefully you aim. Worse, with each new release, Bethesda keeps reducing the damage output of weapons making the weapons useless and the game less and less fun to play. It started with the two shot explosive weapons as a countermeasure to the duping. Since then, Bethesda has kept reducing weapon output damage on each new patch. Sometimes they do this by reducing perk card damage bonuses, sometimes they reduce the damage output of the weapon itself.

With each reduction, the game is fast becoming even more broken. Bethesda can’t even be bothered to fix some of the basic combat problems of VATs and collision detection, yet they’re more than willing to reduce weapon output damage? Bethesda, you need to get your priorities straight.

It’s not as if Fallout 76 wasn’t already one big grindy mess from the beginning, but now it’s just a grind. If you really like spending hours and hours with weapons that do 10 hit point damage against an enemy with thousands of hit points, then Fallout 76 might be your game. I don’t know about you, but I prefer to kill an enemy in some timely manner. I don’t want to spend 45 minutes or an hour entangled in a single enemy engagement for a literal crap loot drop. If you’re going to make me spend at least 45 minutes in combat with a single enemy, you better give me something WORTH spending that time. They’re not. Because the drops are entirely random, you might get nothing (yes, the entire drop could be empty), you might get a level 5 item or, very, very rarely, you might get something worth the time. Most of the time, the loot isn’t even worth picking up from the dead enemy.

At this point, this game should be getting better, not worse. Yet, it has gone from bad to worse. No, I’m not kidding. At this point, this game’s combat system is literally so bad, I actually classify it as “shit on a stick”. If you’re considering the purchase of Fallout 76, I would recommend you to think twice… especially considering how old this game is at this point. I literally cannot recommend this game to anyone.

↩︎

 

Should I beta test Fallout 76?

Posted in best practices, botch, business, video gaming by commorancy on November 1, 2018

ps4-pro-500-million-dualshock-4-crWhile I know that beta testing for Fallout 76 is already underway, let’s explore what it means to beta test a game and whether or not you should participate.

Fallout 76

Before I get into the nitty gritty details of beta testing, let’s talk about Fallout 76. Fallout 76, like The Elder Scrolls Online before it, is a massively multiplayer online role playing game (MMORPG). Like The Elder Scrolls Online which offered an Elder Scrolls themed universe, Fallout 76 will offer a Fallout themed universe in an online landscape.

How the game ultimately releases is yet to be determine, but a beta test gives you a solid taste of how it will all work. Personally, I didn’t like The Elder Scrolls Online much. While it had the flavor and flair of an Elder Scrolls game entry, the whole thing felt hollow and unconnected to the franchise. It also meant that Bethesda spent some very valuable time building this online game when they could have been building the next installment of the Elder Scrolls.

It is as yet undetermined how these online games play into the canon of The Elder Scrolls or, in Fallout 76’s case, in the Fallout universe. Personally, I see them as offshoots with only a distant connection. For example, The Elder Scrolls Online felt Elder Scrollsy, but without the deep solid connections and stories that go with building that universe. Instead, it was merely a multiplayer playground that felt like The Elder Scrolls in theme, but everything else was just fluff. I’m deeply concerned that we’ll get this same treatment from Fallout 76.

The Problem with Online Games

Online games have, in recent years, gotten a bad rap… and for good reason. The reason that this is so is because the game developers focus on the inclusion of silly things like character emoting and taking selfies. While these are fun little inclusions, they are by no means intrinsic to the fundamental game play of an actual game.

Games should be about the story that unfolds… about why your character is there and how your character is important in that universe. When the game expands to include an online component, now it’s perhaps tens of thousands of people all on the server at the same time. So, how can each of these characters be important to that universe? The answer is, they can’t.

Having many characters all running around doing the “same” things in the universe all being told by the game that they are “the most important thing” to the survival of that universe is just ludicrous.

This leads to the “importance syndrome” which is present in any MMORPG. As a developer, you either acknowledge the importance syndrome and avoid it by producing a shallow multiplayer experience that entirely avoids player importance (i.e., Fortnite, Overwatch, Destiny, etc) or you make everyone important each in their own game (i.e., The Elder Scrolls Online). Basically, the game is either a bunch of people running around doing nothing important at all and simply trying to survive whatever match battles have been set up (boring and repetitive) or the game treats each user as if they are individually important in their own single player game, except there are a bunch of other users online, all doing the same exact thing.

The Elder Scrolls Online fell into the latter camp which made the game weird and disconnected, to say the least. It also made the game feel less like an Elder Scrolls game and more like any cheap and cheesy iPad knockoff game you can download for free… except you’ve paid $60 + DLC + online fees for it.

I’ve played other MMORPG games similar to The Elder Scrolls Online including Defiance. In fact, Defiance played so much like The Elder Scrolls Online, I could swear that Bethesda simply took Defiance’s MMORPG engine and adapted it to The Elder Scrolls Online.

Environments and Users

The secondary problem is how to deal with online users. Both in the Elder Scrolls Online and Defiance, there were areas that included player versus environment (PvE). PvE environments mean that players cannot attack other players. Only NPCs can attack your player or your character can die by the environment (i.e., falling onto spikes). There were also some areas of the online map that were player versus player (PvP). PvP means any online player can attack any other online player in any way they wish.

In The Elder Scrolls Online, the PvP area was Cyrodiil, which was unfortunate for ESO. The PvP made this territory mostly a dead zone for the game. Even though there were a few caves in the area and some exploring you could do, you simply couldn’t go dungeon diving there because as soon as you tried, some player would show up and kill your player. Yes, the NPCs and AI enemies could also show up and kill your player, but so could online players.

The difficulty with Cyrodiil was that if another player killed your player in the PvP area, that player death was treated entirely differently than if they died by the environment. If another player killed your character, you had to respawn at a fort, which would force your character to respawn perhaps half a map away from where you presently were. If your character died by the environment or another NPC, you could respawn in the same location where your character died. This different treatment in handling the character death was frustrating, to say the least.

With Fallout 76, I’m unsure how all of this will work, but it’s likely that Bethesda will adopt a similar strategy from what they learned in building The Elder Scrolls Online. This likely means both PvE areas and PvP area(s). Note that ESO only had one PvP zone, but had many PvE zones. This made questing easier in the PvE zones, but also caused the “importance syndrome”. This syndrome doesn’t exist in single player offline games, but is omnipresent in MMORPGs.

MMORPGs and Characters

The difficulty with MMORPGs is that they’re primarily just clients of a server based environment. The client might be a heavier client that includes handling rendering character and environment graphics, but it is still nonetheless a client. This means that to use an MMORPG, you must log into the server to play. When you login, your character information, bank account, level ups, weapons, armor and so on are kept on the server.

This means that you can’t save off your character information. It also means you can’t mod your game or mod your character through game mods. Online games are strict about how you can change or manage your game and your character. In fact, these systems are so strict that if a new version of the game comes out, you must first download and install the game before they’ll let you back onto the server… unlike standalone games that let you play the game even if networking components are disabled. This means that you cannot play an MMORPG until your client is most current, which could mean 50GB and hours later.

This means that you’ll need an always on Internet connection to play Fallout 76 and you’ll need to be able to handle very large client downloads (even if you own the game disc).

Beta Testing

Many game producers like to offer, particularly if it’s a server based MMORPG, the chance for players to beta test their new game. Most online games allow for this.

However, I refuse to do this for game developers. They have a team they’ve hired to beta test their environments, quests and landscapes. I just don’t see any benefit for my player to get early access to their game environment. Sometimes, characters you build and grow in a beta won’t even carry over into the released game. This means that whatever loot you have found and leveling you may have done may be lost when release day comes. For that early access, the developer will also expect you to submit bug reports. I won’t do that for them. I also don’t want to feel obligated to do so.

Bethesda stands to make millions of dollars off of this game. Yet, they’re asking me to log into their game early, potentially endure huge bugs preventing quest progress, potentially lose my character and all of its progress and also spend time submitting bug reports? Then, spend $60 to buy the game when it arrives? Then, rebuild my character again from scratch?

No, I don’t think so. I’m not about to spend $60 for the privilege of spending my time running into bugs and submitting bug reports for that game. You, the game developer, stand to make millions from this game. So, hire people to beta test it for you. Or, give beta testers free copies of the game in compensation for the work they’re doing for you.

If you’re a gamer thinking of participating in beta testing, you should think twice. Not only are you helping Bethesda to make millions of dollars, you’re not going to see a dime of that money and you’re doing that work for free. In addition, you’re still going to be expected to spend $60 + DLC costs to participate in the final released game. No, I won’t do that. If I’m doing work for you, you should pay me as a contractor. How you pay me for that work is entirely up to you, but the minimum payment should consist of a free copy of the game. You can tie that payment to work efforts if you like.

For example, for each report submitted and verified as a new bug, the beta tester will get $5 in credit towards the cost of the game up to the full price of the game. This encourages beta testers to actually submit useful bug reports (i.e., duplicates or useless reports won’t count). This also means you earn your game as you report valid and useful bugs. It also means that you won’t have to pay for the game if you create enough useful, genuine reports.

Unfortunately, none of these game developers offer such incentive programs and they simply expect gamers to do it “generously” and “out of the kindness of their hearts”. No, I’m not doing that for you for free. Pay me or I’ll wait until the game is released.

Should I Participate in Beta Tests?

As a gamer, this is why you should not participate in beta tests. Just say no to them. If enough gamers say no and fail to participate in beta releases, this will force game developers to encourage gamers to participate with incentive programs such as what I suggest above.

Unfortunately, there are far too many unwitting gamers who are more than willing to see the environment early without thinking through the ramifications of what they are doing. For all of the above reasons, this is why you should NEVER participate (and this is why I do not participate) in any high dollar game beta tests.

↩︎

 

 

 

 

Rant Time: Bloomberg and Hacked Servers

Posted in best practices, botch, data security, reporting by commorancy on October 5, 2018

Bloomberg has just released a story claiming SuperMicro motherboards destined for large corporations may have been hacked with a tiny “spy” chip. Let’s explore.

Bloomberg’s Claims

Supposedly the reporters for Bloomberg have been working on this story for months. Here’s a situation where Bloomberg’s reporters have just enough information in hand to be dangerous. Let’s understand how this tiny chip might or might not be able to do what Bloomberg’s alarmist view claims. Thanks Bloomberg for killing the stock market today with your alarmist reporting.

Data Compromise

If all of these alleged servers have been compromised by a Chinese hardware hack, someone would have noticed data streaming out of their server to Chinese IP addresses, or at least some consistent address. Security scans of network equipment require looking through inbound and outbound data logs for data patterns. If these motherboards had been compromised, the only way for the Chinese to have gotten that data back is through the network. This means data passing through network cards, switches and routers before ever hitting the Internet.

Even if such a tiny chip were embedded in the system, many internal only servers have no direct Internet access. This means that if these servers are used solely for internal purposes, they couldn’t have transmitted their data back to China. The firewalls would prevent that.

For servers that may have had direct access to the Internet, these servers could have sent payloads, but eventually these patterns would have been detected by systems administrators, network administrators and security administrators in performing standard security checks. It might take a while to find the hacks, but they would be found just strictly because of odd outbound data being sent to locations that don’t make sense.

Bloomberg’s Fantasy

While it is definitely not out of the realm of possibility that China could tamper with and deliver compromised PCB goods to the US, it’s doubtful that this took place in the numbers that Bloomberg has reported.

Worse, Bloomberg makes the claim that this so-called hacked hardware was earmarked for specific large companies. I don’t even see how that’s possible. How would a Chinese factory know the end destination of any specific SuperMicro motherboard? As far as I know, most cloud providers like AWS and Google buy fully assembled equipment, not loose motherboards. How could SuperMicro board builders possibly know it’s going to end up in a server at AWS or Google or Apple? If SuperMicro’s motherboard products have been hacked, they would be hacked randomly and everywhere, not just at AWS or Google or whatever fantasy Bloomberg dreams up.

The Dangers of Outsourcing

As China’s technical design skills grow, so will the plausibility of receiving hacked goods from that region. Everyone takes a risk ordering any electronics from China. China has no scruples about any other country than China. China protects China, but couldn’t give a crap about any other country outside of China. This is a dangerous situation for China. Building electronics for the world requires a level of trust that must exist or China won’t get the business.

Assuming this alleged “spy chip” is genuinely found on SuperMicro motherboards, then that throws a huge damper on buying motherboards and other PCBs made in China. China’s trust level is gone. If Chinese companies are truly willing to compromise equipment at that level, they’re willing to compromise any hardware built in China including cell phones, laptops and tablets.

This means that any company considering manufacturing their main logic boards in China might want to think twice. The consequences here are as serious as it can get for China. China has seen a huge resurgence of inbound money flow into China. If Bloomberg’s notion is true, this situation severely undermines China’s ability to continue at this prosperity level.

What this means ultimately is that these tiny chips could easily be attached to the main board of an iPhone or Android phone or any mobile device. These mobile devices can easily phone home with data from mobile devices. While the SuperMicro motherboard problem might or might not be real, adding such a circuit to a phone is much more undetectable and likely to provide a wealth more data than placing it onto servers behind corporate firewalls.

Rebuttal to Bloomberg

Statements like from this next reporter is why no one should take these media outlets seriously. Let’s listen. Bloomberg’s Jordan Robertson states, “Hardware hacking is the most effective type of hacking an organization can engineer… There are no security systems that can detect that kind of manipulation.” Wrong. There are several security systems that look for unusual data patterns including most intrusion detection systems. Let’s step back for a moment.

If the point in the hardware hacking is to corrupt data, then yes, it would be hard to detect that. You’d just assume the hardware is defective and replace it. However, if the point to the hardware hack is to phone data home, then that is easily detected via various security systems and is easily blocked by firewalls.

The assumption that Jordon is making is that we’re still in the 90s with minimal security. We are no longer in the 90s. Most large organizations today have very tight security around servers. Depending on the role of the server, it might or might not have direct trusted access to secured data. That server might have to ask an internal trusted server to get the data it needs.

For detection purposes, if the server is to be used as a web server, then the majority of the data should have a 1:1 relationship. Basically, one request inbound, some amount of data sent outbound from that request. Data originating from the server without an inbound request would be suspect and could be detected. For legitimate requests, you can see these 1:1 relationships in the logs and when watching the server traffic on a intrusion detection system. For one-sided transactions sending data outbound from the server, the IDS would easily see it and could block it. If you don’t think that most large organizations don’t have an IDS even simply in watch mode, you are mistaken.

If packets of data originate from the server without any prompting, that would eventually be noticed by a dedicated security team performing regular log monitoring and regular server security scans. The security team might not be able to pinpoint the reason (i.e. a hardware hack) for unprompted outbound data, but they will be able to see it.

I have no idea how smart such tiny chip could actually be. Such a tiny chip likely would not have enough memory to store any gathered payload data. Instead, it would have to store that payload either on the operating systems disks or in RAM. If the server was cut off from the Internet as most internal servers are, that disk or RAM would eventually fill its data stores up without transfer of that data to wherever it needed to go. Again, systems administrators would notice the spike in usage of /tmp or RAM due to the chip’s inability to send its payload.

If the hacking chip simply gives remote control access to the server without delivering data at all, then that would also be detected by an IDS system. Anyone attempting to access a port that is not open will be blocked. If the chip makes an outbound connection to a server in China and leaves it open would eventually be detected. Again, a dedicated security team would see the unusual data traffic from/to the server and investigate.

If the hacking chip wants to run code, it would need to compiled it first. That implies having a compiler in that tiny chip. Doubtful. If the system builder installs a compiler, the spy chip might be able to leverage it, assuming it has any level of knowledge about the current operating system installed. That means that chip would have to know about many different versions of Linux, BSD, MacOS X, Windows and so on, then have code ready to deploy for each of these systems. Unlikely.

Standards and Protocols

Bloomberg seems to think there’s some mystery box here that allows China to have access to these servers without bounds. The point to having multi-layer security is to prevent such access. Even if the motherboards were compromised, most of these servers would end up behind multiple firewalls in combination with continuous monitoring for security. Even more than this, many companies segregate servers by type. Servers performing services that need a high degree of security have very limited ability to do anything but their one task. Even getting into these servers can be challenge even for administrators.

For web servers in a DMZ which are open to the world, capturing data here might be easier. However, even if the hacker at SuperMicro did know which company placed an order for motherboards, they wouldn’t know how those servers would ultimately be deployed and used. This means that these chips could be placed into server roles behind enough security to render their ability to spy as worthless.

It’s clear, these reporters are journalists through and through. They really have no skill at being a systems administrator, network engineer or security administrator. Perhaps it’s now time to hire technical consultants at Bloomberg who can help you guide your articles when they involve technical matters? It’s clear, there was no guidance by any technical person who could steer Jordan away from some of the ludicrous statements he’s made.

Bloomberg, hire a technical consultant the next time you chase one of these “security” stories or give it up. At this point, I’m considering Bloomberg to be nothing more a troll looking for views.


If you enjoy reading Randocity, please like, subscribe and leave a comment below.

↩︎

 

How To: Killing Apps on iOS and Android

Posted in Android, Apple, best practices, howto by commorancy on September 4, 2018

Kill_AppsHere’s a quick how-to tutorial. This tutorial will show you how to kill running applications on your Apple or Android phone or tablet device. Let’s explore.

Killing Apps

You might be asking, “Well, why would I want to do that?” There are times where apps misbehave or hang leaving a dead app on your phone or tablet. These can drag down the performance of your phone. For this reason, killing an app allows you to restart them to get them working again. Without further adieu, let’s get started…

Apple iOS

To kill apps on iOS 11, it’s simple. For Apple devices that have a home button (this excludes iPhone X), double click the home button. The home button is the button located at the bottom or side of your device (depending on orientation). It’s the only front facing button on the bezel. With the device logged in, double click this home button.

For the iPhone X, the line at the bottom kind of acts like a home button. From the line at the bottom, with your finger drag upwards to minimize the apps into a stacked list. This is similar to double clicking the home button.

Once in the stacked list, kill any specific app or all apps as follows:

  • Press and hold your finger on top of one of the stacked app screens and with a fluid motion, drag your finger to the top of the screen.
    • If you perform this motion correctly, the screen will disappear. The app is now killed.
    • If you notice the screen moving side to side and not up and down, you dragged sideways.
    • Scrolling side to side lets you selectively choose which app to kill. Try again to pull the app screen upwards.
    • If you touch the app screen once, it will bring that app to the foreground.
    • If you touch the background outside of the app, it will bring you to your home screen of icons.
  • To kill all apps, perform this motion on each and every stack app screen until there are no more left.
  • No, iOS does not provide a ‘kill all’ feature. You must kill app separately. Note, you can’t hear the double-clicking of the home button. Here’s an iOS demonstration:

Android

To kill apps on Android 6.x or above, you’ll need to locate the double rectangle button either on the bezel of your phone or on the display of your phone (at the bottom). This double-rectangle button drops you into the screen that shows you all of your currently running apps.

Click this button, then follow along based on the videos:

Obvious isn’t always

Because Apple and Android have both hidden this feature behind cryptic buttons, it isn’t sometimes obvious how to do this. Also note that even if you reboot your device, the apps may still continue to run from the state where they formerly were. To kill an app and start it fresh (particularly on iOS), the only way is to kill the app as described above. I find that, for example, I regularly have to kill Hulu as it likes to hang.

Good Luck!

As always, if you like what you read hear at Randocity, please click the follow button, like and comment below.

↩︎

Workplace Crime: Should I talk to human resources?

Posted in best practices, business, Employment by commorancy on August 10, 2018

fingerprintI’m being harassed by a manager, should I talk to human resources? Let’s explore.

Sexual Assault in the Workplace

I’ll lead with this one right up front as it’s front and center news and part of the #metoo movement. While this tends to be more common for females than males, both genders can experience this problem in the workplace. What should you do if you’re groped in the workplace in an inappropriate way? The first question you’re probably asking is, “Should I contact human resources?”

The answer is a resounding, NO. Do not contact the human resources team and try to complain there first. In fact, unless you’re a manager in the organization, you should entirely avoid complaining to human resources. Why? Let’s explore deeper.

Human Resources works for Management

This is an important concept to understand about corporate business. The HR team works for the management team, not the employees. Many people have a misconception that the HR team is an advocate group for the employee. This is entirely false. The HR team members, no matter how friendly they may appear, are not and will never be an employee advocate. Only you can be your own advocate (along with any attorney you hire). Your employer’s HR team looks out for #1, which is the business itself and the management team.

If the activity you experienced is sexual misconduct and resulted in bruises, marks or injury, then visit a hospital and take photos of the injuries first. Call 911 if necessary. If situation involves rape, then you’ll need to have the hospital perform a rape kit. When you are able and out of immediate danger, you should call the police and file a police report against the person describing what happened to you and by whom within the police report. Always ensure you are out of immediate danger before contacting anyone.

Next, find a lawyer who can represent you in this matter. If the lawyer finds merit in a lawsuit against the accused (or your company), it’s up to you to decide or not to proceed with the case. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you understand the consequences and the monetary costs of pressing such legal action, particularly against managers and particularly against high paid executives and your employer.

Once you have filed both a police report and you have a lawyer, only then should you involve the human resources team and give them whatever information that your lawyer deems appropriate to give them. Remember, only your lawyer is your advocate. The human resources team represents the company’s interests, not yours. Even then, you should only contact your company’s human resources team after discussing this strategy with your lawyer.

The human resources team’s responsibility is always to find reasons to discredit you and sweep the event under the rug. Once a police report is filed and you have a lawyer, the HR team can no longer play the protect-the-company game as easily because the police are now involved. The HR team is not law enforcement, but they always want to avoid lawsuits at all costs. They exist to make sure the company’s image remains clean and friendly. If it gets publicized that staff are being sexually assaulted in their workplace, their hiring efforts will cease. No one will want to work at a company that wilfully puts employees into harm’s way while on the job. No, it is in HR’s best interest to ensure an employee making an accusation is at best discredited and at worst terminated. HR may or may not terminate the accused depending on the position held within the company and depending on the accusation and against whom.

For example, if the person being accused of sexual misconduct is a manager, director, VP or C-level exec, it’s almost certain the accusing employee will be targeted for termination. The accused will likely remain at the company. As I said, it’s important to understand that the HR team’s obligation to the company is to protect the management team and the company against lawsuits and protect the company’s image that might interfere with hiring efforts. They also don’t have to play fair to do this… which is why termination may be a very real outcome for whistleblowing such activities within a company.

Targeted for Termination

While whistleblowers have protection when working in government jobs, no such protections exist for private corporations. If you whistleblow as an employee of a private corporation, the company is well within their rights to terminate your employment with or without cause. This is particularly true if your employment is considered AT-WILL. Of course, you can also sue the company for wrongful termination. The HR team is well aware of this position as well.

To avoid a wrongful termination lawsuit, the management team will likely sideline you into a position where you cannot succeed. This will then force you to perform badly and force management to put you onto a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP). Because you have no way to succeed on this PIP, you’ll fail at all of the success goals while on the PIP and, at the end of the improvement period, you will be ushered to the door. This is a common strategy to get rid of troublemakers and avoid wrongful termination lawsuits. Because they followed the PIP plan to the letter and have documented it at every step, this is the company’s insurance policy against wrongful termination lawsuits.

If you whistleblow and end up on a PIP, you’re being groomed for termination. You should take this as a huge red flag to move on. Put your resume out there the day you find out you have been put on a PIP. Don’t wait. Don’t assume things will work out.

Previous Employer Lawsuits

If you quit your offending employer and find a new job, you should keep any previous employer litigation information confidential. Do not disclose this to your new employer. First, it’s not their business. Second, if they find out you’re suing a previous employer, that could become contentious with your new company. They may feel threatened that you could take legal action against them. Don’t inform them of any pending legal action.

Don’t discuss it with co-workers. Don’t discuss it with your manager. Simply, don’t discuss it. Only discuss it with your lawyer. If you need to take off work for a legal meeting with your attorney or with the case, simply tell your employer that you have a personal matter that you need to discuss with your attorney and leave it at that. If they press you on the legal matter, just explain to them that due to pending litigation, you can’t discuss the case.

Termination and Lawsuits

If you’re terminated from the offending company, you may be asked to sign legal documents stating you won’t sue the company or that you’ll agree to arbitration. Simply ignore the documents and don’t sign them. The company cannot withhold your pay as extortion for signing those documents. If they try this, this is illegal and you can sue them for withholding your earned pay. A CEO can even be personally jailed for willfully withholding your pay even if it was someone else in the organization who made that decision. Your company must pay you the hours you worked regardless of what you sign going out the door.

Also, being terminated doesn’t absolve the company from any legal wrongdoing. If you have a pending lawsuit against the company, being terminated doesn’t change the status of that pending lawsuit. You are still free to pursue any lawsuits you have open. In fact, being able to document termination in a retaliatory way may even strengthen your lawsuit.

If you signed an arbitration agreement as part of your hiring package with the company (which you should never do), then you’ll have to discuss this situation with your lawyer to find your best avenue for litigation.

Guilt, Lawsuits and your Career

If you witness or you become a part of an illegal activity in the workplace (i.e., sexual misconduct), it is on you to determine how you want to handle it. You can do nothing and let it drop or you can take it to the police. It’s your choice. Too many companies get away with far too much. If you witness or experience anything illegal while on the job, you should report it to the police and consider a lawsuit only on your attorney’s advice.

As I said above, if you attempt to go to HR first and ask them to address your concern,  you will likely find you are being accused, sidelined and treated as the criminal, not the person who performed the misconduct. Why?

The HR team and its management is hired by the CEO and executive team. The HR manager likely reports directly to the CEO or the CFO. As a result, they take marching orders from their boss. If an employee makes an allegation against a manager or above, the CEO will want to quash this as quickly and as quietly as possible without investigation. To do this, the HR team will state they are investigating, but instead they will begin watching you, the employee who made the report closely. Even the tiniest slip or mistake will be blown way out of proportion and, you, the accuser be reprimanded. This may lead to a PIP as described above or possible immediate termination.

Basically, if you reach out to the HR team for help, you may find that it is you who are now the target against the ire of the company. Unfortunately, once the executive team paints a target on the back of an employee, it’s only a matter of time before the accuser is gone.

Throw Away Employees

Unfortunately, corporate business is cutthroat about making money and ensuring that that outcome continues. CEOs and the executive team will stop at nothing to make sure business continues as usual. The executive team is not your friend at any company. They are your boss. As a boss, they will do whatever it takes to make sure their business succeeds, regardless of what that means to you.

The only employee in any organization considered important enough to keep on the payroll is the CEO. All else are expendable… and this is especially true of troublemakers. By making an accusation of sexual misconduct against anyone, you may be labeled a troublemaker in your personnel file. If your position is easily replaced, you’ll soon be gone and they’ll fill it with someone else.

For this reason, if you’re alleging sexual misconduct, you have to make sure to legally document everything including physical evidence of it. The only way to do that is contact the police. Then, hire a lawyer. Only a person whom you are paying can help you to bring justice. The HR team has no incentive to bring justice on your behalf as they are not paid by you. The HR team has every incentive to ignore you and maintain status-quo because they are paid by and take orders from management.

Illegal Activities

Such activities are not limited to sexual misconduct. It also includes embezzlement, money laundering, insider trading, cooking the books, theft, vandalism and any other willful act by an officer of the company. If you witness any of these, you should still file a police report and then talk to a lawyer.

Skip talking to the HR team as they will only cast suspicion on you, try to turn it around on you and/or target you for termination. It is their job to kill these problems as quickly and as quietly as possible using any means necessary. Being able to get rid of problems quietly is the difference between a good and a great HR team. Don’t ever think the HR team is on your side as an employee.

HR Perks and Employee Happiness

This goes hand in hand with all of the above. Unless you’re on the management team, the HR team is not your advocate. Yes, HR is there to keep the employees happy, but only on their terms. When a non-management employee brings a problem to the attention of HR, watch your back. This means, never disclose your internal company problems to an HR team member. Sure, you can be friendly and sociable and polite, but always keep the HR team at arm’s length when discussing personal or job related matters. This also means you need to know whom is married to whom in your organization. You don’t want to vent a bunch of personal issues to a co-worker only to find out they are married to the  HR manager or an HR employee at your company. Word gets around fast in HR.

As an example, if your company offers company paid counseling as a perk, you should avoid using it. Instead, you should find your own personal counselor and pay them for those services yourself. If you disclose anything to a company paid counselor which could be misconstrued as a problem for the company, the HR team may be able to obtain this information outside of any doctor-patient privilege. Because of this, this could give the HR team ammo to terminate your employment. Always be very, very cautious when using such company sponsored counseling services. When the company is paying the bill, they may have made legal arrangements to obtain information that an employee might disclose.

This information can also be kept in your employment file and potentially used against you should the need arise. Careful what you say, particularly to company paid counseling services and to random folks around the office. Because the walls have ears, even discussing this kind of stuff during lunchtime in the break room could be overheard by someone on the HR team. It’s simpler not to discuss issues of sexual misconduct at all when on your company’s property.

Cell Phones and Employment

If your company supplies you with a cell phone for business purposes, never use it for personal reasons or to discuss personal matters. Because the company owns the equipment, they can install whatever they want on the device and potentially record and listen to your conversations. Only ever discuss these kinds of matters on a phone you own and fully control.

Because many employers now allow using your own phone device for work purposes, never relinquish your phone to the IT team or install company apps or mail on your phone. For example, installing an Exchange mail connector in Apple’s Mail app on iOS allows your company to not only set up restrictions on your phone device, preventing you from using certain functions or installing certain apps, they can also modify the device to their own will… up to and including wiping your phone entirely of data. Yes, installation of the Exchange connector to a corporate Exchange mail server hands over this level of control of your device to your employer!

Never install a company Exchange connector on Apple’s Mail app. Instead, install the Outlook app and only use it. The Outlook app does not have this level of permission to control your phone that Apple’s Mail app has and, thus, cannot modify your phone or put your phone at risk of being wiped. Better, don’t use your personal phone for company business. Request the company provide you with a phone if they need that level of control over the phone device. If they refuse the request, that’s their problem. The employer can call you and text you on your device, but that’s as far as you should let them go with your personal phone. If they provide you with a company phone, then they can set it up however they wish.

Managers and HR versus Employee

Yes, the management team and HR will gang up on you. As an employee, the HR team always takes the word of a manager over the word of the employee. This is fact. There is no such thing as justice or equality in corporate business. The HR team represents the management team without question. If, for example, you accuse a manager of sexual misconduct and that manager tells HR that the accuser made it all up, that’s where the accusation ends. Worse, the manager can then retaliate against you through the HR team’s blessing. There will be no further investigation nor will your accusation receive any further review. However, your work efforts might find undue scrutiny, micromanagement and manager meddling. If you press the point, the HR team will likely begin the sidelining and termination process at the manager’s request.

Even if the HR team requests such complaints come forward, never assume that submitting your complaint to the HR team will result in any satisfactory outcome for you. It won’t. Instead, you will need to rely on the legal system to work for you. This is the reason you should make a police report as soon after the incident as possible, preferably the same day. Visit a hospital if you are injured so they can medically help you and document your injuries. Then, find a lawyer who specializes in whatever you witnessed or experienced and talk to them about your case. If you have been assaulted or raped in the workplace, you should visit the RAINN web site or call RAINN at 1-800.656.HOPE to find out what to do next.

If you choose to try to reach out to the HR team and find that it all backfires on you, you can’t say you haven’t been warned.

Disclaimer: None of this article is intended to be construed as legal advice. If you have legal questions, you should contact an attorney near you who specializes in the crimes you have witnessed or experienced. If you are a victim of sexual assault and/or rape in the workplace, visit RAINN to find out what to do.

↩︎

Unlimited Vacation: Blessing or Curse?

Posted in best practices, business, vacation by commorancy on July 23, 2018

I don’t usually get into discussing workplace stuff because it’s relatively boring. However, Unlimited Vacation is one perk that is really, really needs discussion. Let’s explore.

Perks and Jobs

I get it. I understand why companies offer perks. They have to offer perks for talent acquisition reasons such as:

  1. Companies must keep up with competition — If a company doesn’t keep up with what other companies are offering, they lose talent during recruiting
  2. Companies must offer perks that seem inviting — Again, this is a talent acquisition feather-in-the-cap sort of thing. It’s something the HR team can cross off the checklist of things to entice candidates
  3. Companies must offer perks that are inexpensive — Companies don’t want to give away the farm to offer a specific perk

What kinds of perks can you typically find in tech companies? You find perks like the following:

  1. A stocked kitchen — This includes soda, coffee, tea, milk / cream and then for food, this can include fruit, nuts, chips and cereal
  2. Bagel Friday — This perk includes donuts and bagels on Friday
  3. Lunches — Some companies offer subsidized and/or free lunches one or several days of the week

Those are all food related, however, other perks include:

  1. Day Care or reimbursement
  2. Commute expenses
  3. Free parking
  4. Tuition Reimbursement (job related)
  5. Training / certifications (job related)
  6. Paid sick days
  7. Paid vacation
  8. 401k
  9. ESPP (if public company)
  10. Company holidays

These are the HR type of benefits that many companies offer. Many of these have a real dollar based cost to the business. However, there’s a new perk that seems great, but really isn’t for several reasons. That perk is ….

Unlimited Vacation

This ‘perk’ (and I use this term loosely) is now becoming popular in businesses. Why? Because it doesn’t cost the business anything to implement and may actually save the company some money (or so companies think). On paper, the idea seems enticing, in reality it’s a pointless benefit to employees and actually encourages more employees to take vacation which may hinder productivity and deadlines.

Why is this benefit so bad? This benefit is pointless because there is no way any employee can actually use it in its unlimited capacity. If you were to try, you’d be fired and walked from the building. I don’t know of any business that doesn’t require approval for vacation from a manager. Even if you could request excessive amounts of vacation, it’s unlikely your manager would approve it. But, within reason, you can request time off and here’s where it begins to break down for employers.

The only people who can even use this benefit as unlimited are those who are in management positions, who don’t have to report their own vacation usage. In other words, subordinates won’t be able to use it, but managers will (and they will use it frequently).

This is one of those perks that will be abused by those in charge. Those not in charge will be penalized whenever they attempt to use it in any unlimited way.

Vacation Time

In general, asking for vacation time off is tricky. It must always be coordinated with ongoing projects, team commitments (i.e., on-call), other team member time off and holidays and requires manager approval. Even people who end up out sick can interrupt or force rescheduling of vacation time off.

Don’t be tricked by this perk, it doesn’t make vacation time off any more accessible and, in fact it is entirely designed entirely for …

Ripping off Employees

There are two fundamental problems with Unlimited Vacation. The first problem is that the benefit (ahem) is being implemented as a cost saving measure to rip off employees when they leave a company (and is designed to appear to save the company many thousands of dollars). This issue really only affects long term employees. You know, the ones who have devoted several years to your business. But now, you’re going to give them the finger on the way out the door? Smart.

With standard paid time off (PTO), you are allotted a certain amount of hours that accrue over time. Let’s say for every year of service that you complete, you will accrue up to 1 week off (with a maximum of 2 weeks that can be held in total). After 2 years of service, you’ll have those 2 weeks accrued, assuming you never take time off. If you leave the company after 2 years without taking any vacation, you’ll be paid out your accrued PTO balance for the 2 weeks that you didn’t take. That’s two weeks worth of salary you’ll receive upon exit, in addition to any other salary owed.

With Unlimited Vacation, that vacation payday goes away. Since it’s now unlimited, there’s no more time accrued and no more PTO to pay out for any employee. The only thing that payroll needs to keep track of is how much time you’ve used solely for timekeeping purposes. When you exit a company offering Unlimited Vacation, you won’t receive any vacation pay because they are no longer accruing any. This means that when you were formerly paid 2 weeks of PTO, with Unlimited Vacation you now get $0.

Unlimited Vacation is then an HR cost-cutting measure entirely designed to screw exiting long term employees over so companies no longer need to make any vacation payouts.

Here’s where the second problem begins. As employees realize this screw-over job and to make up for the lack of accrued time, this means employees will need to take as much vacation as is allowed without getting fired in the process. Since you can’t accrue, you now need to use.

Accrued PTO vs Unlimited Vacation

Businesses don’t seem to understand the ramifications of this perk on its workforce. The first ramification is that employees with accrued PTO no longer get the exit vacation payday. This is significant when exiting your employer and moving on. But, this only occurs on a termination event. Employees should remain cognizant of this event, but even more employers should remain cognizant of how this will change how vacation is used. As an employer, it means you need to understand how to retain your workforce better.

Here’s the second problem in a nutshell. PTO encourages employees to stockpile their vacation and rarely take it. Up to 50% of the workforce does this. However, Unlimited Vacation encourages employees to take as much vacation as they can legitimately get away with.

With PTO, employees might work and work and work with little time off. With UV, more employees will take more time off, thus working less. This is something that HR and management will need to understand about this benefit. If the point is to get people to take more time off, then UV is the answer. If you’re trying to encourage people to stay at their desks and work, PTO is the answer… but has the end payout.

It really all depends on how you want your staff to work. If you want people at their desks not taking time off, then PTO is your answer. If you want people constantly taking time off, then UV is your answer. Sure, UV saves you on the exit payments, but at the cost of people taking more time off throughout the year. It does one more thing.

The up to 50% of employees who rarely take time off will change their work ethic to include significantly more time off. Since they know can no longer stockpile and get that payday when leaving, they will now be encouraged to take time off to make up for that loss of money. This means that a workforce that you relied on to work excessive hours to make ends meet will no longer continue that trend in your business.

If you think that people will continue the same type of vacation behaviors they used with PTO when on UV, you’re mistaken. People will use what they are owed. If they are encouraged to take time off, they will whenever possible. This means that for the folks who rarely (if ever) took PTO days will now begin scheduling more time off throughout the year. That’s not because it’s unlimited, but because they understand that they no longer get the payout at the end. This compromise ensures they get the equivalent benefit and that means scheduling and taking time off. There’s entirely nothing the HR team can do about this change in vacation usage behavior when on the Unlimited Vacation plan.

It’s a use-it-or-lose it situation. If you never take vacation with PTO, you can justify it with the payout at the end. If you never take vacation with UV, not only do you get no time off, you get no payout at the end. It’s simple math. No payout at the end means using more vacation time to get the equivalent benefit. Employees aren’t stupid and they will realize this paradigm shift and compensate accordingly.

This outcome will happen. You can even watch your employees behaviors after you convert from a PTO to UV system. I guarantee, your employees will notice, understand and modify their vacation schedule accordingly. This may impact your business, so caveat emptor.

Good or Bad?

That’s for each company to decide. More employees taking more vacation is good for the employee and their morale. But, it may negatively impact the productivity of your business. With PTO, people not taking vacation means more productivity. With UV and more vacation time off, this likely means less productivity. It might mean a happier and less stressed workforce, but it likely also means less work getting done.

I’m not saying any individual will take excessive time off. No, I’m not saying that at all. That’s simply not possible. What I am saying is that if 40-50% of your workforce never takes time off under a PTO plan, you will likely find that number reduces to less than 10% of your workforce not taking time off with a UV system. That’s a significant amount more people taking time off throughout the year than on a PTO system.

If you delude yourself into thinking employees who don’t take vacation time off will continue a PTO trend on a UV plan, your HR team is very much mistaken. I can also guarantee that if managers deny vacation requests to keep employees at their desks, this too will backfire and your talent will leave. This will become a catch-22 problem in your business.

As an employer, you spend a lot of money hiring talent. You also spend a lot of money holding onto that talent. Why jeopardize all of that with a policy like UV that won’t really do what what you hoped it would? On paper, it seems like a great cost saving policy. In practicality, it will likely backfire on your company’s productivity efforts and cost you more money in the end, but not for the reasons you think.

Conversion Process

You may find that if you are converting from some other vacation system to unlimited that people do continue their traditional habits. However, that will change over time both as turnover happens and as people realize their loss of PTO payout. Once employees wake up to the realities of the new system, the amount of employees requesting and taking vacation will increase.

A UV policy will make it more difficult on the managers to juggle vacation timing, fairness and who can take what when. This will increase manager load by taking them away from managing projects and deadlines to managing the minutiae of juggling even more staff vacations.

Hourly Employees versus Salary Employees

This type of perk works best in salaried environments. With hourly employees, trying to offer a perk like Unlimited Vacation won’t really work well. This is particularly true of employees working in a call center or similar type environments. With salaried tech workers, this kind of benefit may work for you with the caveats that have been thus far described.

Startup or Established Company

If you run a startup, you should stay away from the Unlimited Vacation policy entirely. It won’t do your business any favors. Sure, it’s more cost effective, but only when long term employees leave. If you’re a startup, you won’t have long term employees to worry about for a while. Your duty is to entice your talent to stay, not leave. If you have a problem with a revolving door of staff, then you have a much bigger problem than a benefit like Unlimited Vacation. The problem for a startup is that a UV plan encourages more people to take vacation more often rather than stockpiling it for use later. Again, more workload for a manager to juggle vacation schedules rather than handling projects and deadlines.

In a startup, a UV policy means more people taking time off. This isn’t what you want when you need all hands on deck to keep the business afloat. You want most people at their desks and readily available at all times. When people take vacation, they expect to be cut off from their job including no email, no pager and no contact. And, rightly it should be. If you’re on vacation, you’re on vacation. PTO plans encourage staff to accrue now and take time off much, much later, perhaps years later. With a UV plan, this  encourages more people to take vacation regularly. Not exactly what you need in a startup. PTO works for a startup because employees stockpile and then once the business is off the ground years later, they will then take their vacations. This is why PTOs are actually better for a startup than a perk like UV.

If your business is established with 500 or more employees, then implementing an Unlimited Vacation policy might be worthwhile depending. With larger numbers of staff, there’s more opportunity for someone to cover an employee who’s out. This means if your 40%-50% staff who are stockpiling decide to start taking vacation in increasing numbers, you can withstand this change in your workforce behavior.

It’s up to you to decide how to operate your business, but PTO vs UV is one perk you should thoroughly investigate and then weigh all pros and cons before implementing it. Don’t do it simply because it might (or might not) save you some cash when employees exit. Do it because it’s the right plan for your business’s current operating goals.

 

What does “moving the plot forward” really mean?

Posted in best practices, botch, california, storytelling by commorancy on June 17, 2018

This is a good question and it’s a question that many recent screenwriters and storytellers have lost sight of in their zeal to create blockbuster entertainment. Let’s explore the answer to this question.

Important Details

What is good storytelling? Good storytelling is the ability of the writer to keep the audience’s interest, develop interesting characters, tie story details together and all while keeping the story moving. How does this all work?

It means that if you introduce something into your story that’s important enough to call your audience’s attention to it, then it’s important enough to bring it around later and give it closure. It’s as simple as a character pulling a box of cereal from the cabinet, spilling it into a bowl and putting it away all in the span of a page or two. That’s a quick open and close to that box of cereal. Not only is it an important character detail… “the character likes cereal”, it can be used as metaphor for your character (spilling the beans or in other foreshadowing ways).

If it’s important enough to understand that the character likes cereal, then it’s important enough to bring that plot detail back later. It’s also important to use this plot device. If a character pours a bowl of cereal, have them at least take a bite. You don’t pour out food as a thing to do. You do it because you’re hungry.

It’s can also be as detailed as a character buying a car at the beginning of the story and driving it cross country to their destination. It’s the thing that helped the character get where they needed to go.

There’s lots of story reasons that make both that box of cereal or that car important in the larger story and to carry the story forward. It’s that realization later that, “Oh, now I understand why that [insert thing] was shown to me 30 minutes earlier.”

Character Motivation

Characters need motivation to do the things they do. If the movie is about a missing child, then the parent as a main character has a goal of getting the child back. Their motivation is then doing whatever it takes to make that happen. Motivation is a critical plot point that many fail to understand or use properly. Without proper character motivation that the audience can understand, the story doesn’t work.

Unimportant Plot Details

Recently, many stories are breaking the “moving the plot forward” rule and are writing and presenting details that don’t have any follow up or, indeed, any relevance to the story.

In murder mysteries, these “seemingly unimportant details” are important to throw the audience off and make the audience assume the wrong thing about who did it. Typically, murder mysteries either quash or validate all of those seemingly unimportant details in the end to explain how it was done. In a fantasy story, including these types of details only serves to slow (or stop) the plot and bore the audience. Worse, when the audience looks back over the story as a whole, they realize that they wasted 15 or 20 minutes of their lives on details that didn’t progress the story.

This is important, particularly when telling a story that needs to make sense (specifically if it’s part of a series of books or films). If you’re writing for a film, you need to treat each film is a standalone entity and as a whole, never as a part of a set. The only time a detail should be left open is at the very end to create a cliffhanger. Cliffhangers should only be introduced at the very end of a story, never in the middle of your story. However, foreshadowing is a form of a seemingly unimportant detail, but that can be easily overlooked because of its lack of context for the audience at the time.

A cliffhanger introduced in the middle of the story makes you look like an amateur author. That is, someone who can’t be bothered to close all ends of presented details. If you don’t close details, you better make it appear to be intentional. Otherwise, it’s an amateur move.

Introduction of Scenes

Many movies today introduce scenes into films that have no followup and no explanation. If you’re planning to have your characters do something in a scene, that scene must be important for something in the future.

For example, if your characters need to go to the grocery story to pick up something, then make the grocery store scene count in some way. The characters meet someone there who imparts an important story detail or item (even if hidden). Use the scene as important to the story. If showing the grocery store is important enough to describe in detail, then it should be important enough to advance the plot. Otherwise, cut the scene out. Simply explain the characters have left for the store at the end of one chapter and have the characters arrive back from the store at the beginning of the next chapter and skip the grocery store environment altogether.

The point is, if a scene is important enough to include and describe in detail, then the scene should impart important plot details that move the story forward.

Montage Scenes

There are many ways to show passage of time. On the pages of a novel, you can do it between chapters simply by explaining the date and time when appropriate. On screen, it’s simple enough to show passage of time through a montage of daily activities. Instead of deep diving into every activity, you simply show a quick succession of scenes that show details (shopping, driving, running, tennis, etc). Whatever the scenes are, they should impart character details that lead up to wherever the plot is heading. It isn’t important to show everything the character does, but it may be important to know some of the daily activities a character enjoys doing when developing a character.

Again, if it’s important enough to show the details, it’s important to use this information to advance the plot. When it’s important to show a bunch of details in quick succession, this can be done through montage scenes without character dialog. In fact, tension scenes and montage scenes without character dialog are a whole lot more effective than characters talking or arguing.

Write with Intention

The point to all of this is, as a writer, you need to write with intention. Make every word you write count towards the plot. If you write a scene that doesn’t make sense, doesn’t follow logic, is out of character or doesn’t impart any new or relevant information, cut it. Scenes that stagnate the story make the writer seem distracted and amateur. Write with relevance, write with detail, write with intention.

Sure, go ahead and write and get your story done. But, be prepared to edit and trim those sections and details that don’t affect the plot. If you’re writing an action story, then you want to keep the action going. Having your character stop and spend 30 minutes in a cemetery bereaving a loved one doesn’t move your story forward. Cut it. The only time you could use this is if your action character goes to the cemetery looking for bad guys. Setting this location up for an action scene is fine, but just going there not to do anything, that’s story death.

Always keep your story genre in your mind when writing. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then keep on that track. If you’re writing an action fantasy story, then make sure it stays true to that. If you’re writing a family drama, then stay true to that. Don’t hop around genres hoping to hit gold. The audience will not only end up confused, they won’t know what’s going on. Stick to your genre.

Closing Threads

If you bring up a story detail early, be sure to close it later. What that means is, when writing your story, keep a list of open story items and then find the best places to close them. If you can’t find a place to close a detail, get rid of it from the story as it’s an unimportant detail.

For example, if a character drops their car off at a mechanic at the beginning of the story, then make sure the character picks it up later. It could be at the very end of the story or it could be anywhere along the way. Just make sure it happens. If the audience gets to the end of the story and is still left wondering what happened to the car (or why the car detail was included), you’ve failed as a writer. If you leave two or three of these plot devices open, it makes you look amateur. Close all open threads in meaningful ways and at appropriate times.

Visual Storytelling versus The Written Word

In a novel, it’s important to describe very detailed descriptions of a scene, of the character’s dress, demeanor, looks and so on. When writing for the screen, let the visual elements do the talking. You don’t need to have characters describe what they are seeing or doing. It’s redundant and unimportant and can be seen by the audience. The only time this works is if a character is talking to another character on the phone or over a radio. Here it’s important because not only is the audience finding out what’s going on on the other end of the phone, more importantly, so is the character.

It’s more important to have the characters unfold their stories themselves rather than catering to the audience. In visual mediums like film and TV, let the camera describe the scene. Don’t have the character (or a narrator) do this unless the character is blind or in some other way handicapped and needs this information. It has to make sense for the character in the story. Never cater to the audience by describing in visual medium. In the written word, it’s required to describe all of the details because the audience won’t have any other way to get this information.

In a way, a novel is just the opposite for descriptions than visual medium. You almost have to be too verbose when composing for the written word. When composing for film, you want to be the least verbally descriptive as possible. Let the audiences see the wonder themselves.

Writing for the Characters

The story is always about the characters, never about the audience. Sure, you can have the character break the “fourth wall” if it’s an important story detail (i.e., a running gag). The problem is, breaking the “fourth wall” takes you out of the story and is firmly rooted in writing gags for the audience. If you take your story seriously, then don’t do this. For some stories and characters, it works fine. For anyone writing a story where the characters are the most important thing, then don’t write gags for the audience.

Humor is fine when it’s between the characters, but when it becomes the characters interacting with the audience, this stops the story and makes the audience realize the gag (and loss of suspension of disbelief).

Suspension of Disbelief

To rope an audience into your story, writing solid, believable characters is the key. It doesn’t matter what the characters are doing or where they are placed, it matters that the audience believes the characters can do those things in those places. This is a powerful concept that is also the key to good storytelling. Doing even one thing that ruins this suspension of disbelief ruins your story. It’s the thing that can make or break your writing efforts. This concept is the quintessential key. Having an audience suspend their disbelief and buy into your fanciful world is the magic of a successful story.

For example, using a fourth wall gag can make or break your story. It also requires a certain kind of story to succeed. In other words, adding such a fourth wall gag makes your life as a writer much more difficult. If you’re not accustomed to what goes along with such a gag, you should avoid it. I’d also recommend avoiding it because it really does nothing to progress the story and it does much to discredit your story up to that point.

Cliché Tropes

Let me say right now that nothing today is original. There is always something that can be found as derivative of something else. As a writer, you have to accept that notion going into your story. What makes your story original is not the setup, or the locations or even the plot, but how your characters deal with their situations. Characters are what drive stories. Yet, tropes are what make stories fanciful and, sometimes, fun to watch. Using them isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Overusing them, however, most certainly can be bad. Using a trope here and there can make the story familiar to the audience. Familiarity allows for the audience to latch onto your story faster and ‘get into it’.

There are lesser used and more frequently used tropes. You should avoid the frequently used tropes and focus on those that are lesser used. Having your characters doing something a little bit unexpected or unpredictable can make the story work better. Tropes add predictability to the story. This can be a good thing when you’re trying to lead the audience off the track of what the characters are really doing. This allows you to trick your audience into believing one thing, when the characters are actually doing something else. Some audience members will see right through that, though. You have to expect that.

I’m not saying not to use tropes, just use them sparingly and at appropriate times. Again, write with intention. Make every word and thought count. If you’re including it, make sure that it serves a purpose (even if it’s a cliché trope).

Character Development

This is probably the most important element to establishing suspension of disbelief. Grounding your characters in a reality that your audience can understand goes a long way towards getting your story off of the ground. Basically, you want to properly introduce your main characters at appropriate times. Your main characters should, unless the story warrants it, remain throughout the entire length of your tale. They may face adversity, trials and even risk life and limb, but they should survive the tale.

Killing off your established characters is not only a waste, but usually unnecessary. On the other hand, secondary characters can be treated with all of the careless abandon that you choose. If they live for a page, so be it. If they fall off of a cliff, so be it. If they disappear and reappear in the story, so be it. It’s entirely up to you how you handle secondary characters.

When building your main characters, it’s important to understand their motivations, wants, likes, dislikes, hobbies and desires. You can unfold these along the way, particularly when it’s important to move the story forward. With secondary characters, you don’t go nearly as deep. Secondary characters are, for all intents and purposes, scenery. They’re there to show that other people live in this same universe, but they don’t need to be fleshed out to exacting detail.

Identifying Plot Moving Details

If you intend to flesh out a secondary character with heavy detail, then you should make them a main character or avoid fleshing them out. The home life and kids of a cashier at the above grocery store is an unimportant detail. It slows down the plot and story pacing to learn more of this character when she serves no future purpose in the plot. If the cashier doesn’t swoop in to save the day at the end, then there’s no point in including heavy detail about that character.

This is how you identify useless versus useful plot points. If you introduce a plot point and it comes around later, then the point of introduction did move the story forward. If you introduce a plot point and it never comes around later, then it didn’t move the story forward. Anything that doesn’t serve to move the story forward should be cut from the story.

This is why you need to read and re-read your story several times front to back. Then, let other people read it and offer feedback on your story’s logic. If you’re a one-man team writing a story without getting outside feedback, then your story is likely nowhere near as good as you think it is. It takes other people to help you find the weak spots and fix them. Constructive criticism is always your friend. Use it to improve your stories. The final advice is, never take your first story draft as your final. Nothing is ever written perfectly the first draft. Not even this blog article.

Examples of Bad Storytelling

I didn’t include any real entertainment production examples in this article because I want it to remain as an objective guide to would-be storytellers rather than as a rant against any specific entertainment production, even though those productions well deserve the rants.

With that said, I do intend to write a follow-up article with examples identifying recent entertainment story failures and call out why and how they failed. I will also mention that this problem is not limited to film and novels. It also rears its ugly head in video games and in TV series. I will also mention that some bad storytelling isn’t always the direct fault of the writer. Though, the writer is somewhat culpable. Instead, it can be because of politics within the production (i.e., inclusion riders). Sometimes characters or specific actors are forced into a story, not because they were there, but because the producer wants it in the production. This forces the director to introduce something that shouldn’t be there and throws off the entire story’s logic. Note, I do classify this politically correct shoehorning as a failure in writing.

Basically, when writing your story’s setting, make sure to represent all ethnic groups and genders equally or face the consequences if your story is ever optioned for the big or small screen. Otherwise, expect your period piece’s story logic to fall apart when an ethnic cast is chosen to play a small white mostly male mid-America town set in the 70s.

Note, there is tons more that I could write about this topic. However, this guide is simply intended as an ‘Intro Guide’ on good storytelling. If you would like me to flesh out this article in more detail, please leave a comment below about what you would like to see included.

 

Consumer Tips: How to navigate the Toys R Us liquidation

Posted in best practices, business by commorancy on April 1, 2018

[UPDATED: 12/17/2018] TRU officially closed all remaining US stores as of mid-summer. This article is here simply for legacy reasons. Buh-Bye TRU and thanks for all the fun. We’ll miss you this holiday season.

If you’re thinking of visiting Toys R Us to take advantage of the store closing liquidation sales, this is your safety guide. Don’t throw your money away at Toys R Us, make every dollar count. Let’s explore.

Giving Gifts

Toys R Us’s liquidation is All Sales Final. The first tip is pretty straightforward. If you’re looking to buy a gift for a child, you are trying to stock up for the holidays or for any other rainy day reason, keep in mind that you cannot return, exchange or refund anything you purchase at this time. For gifts, this can be critical, particularly with children. You should always make sure that the person who receives that gift can return or exchange it if they don’t like it. Purchasing from Toys R Us on liquidation, you forfeit the return option.

Even if the gift is to be given while Toys R Us is still open, there are no refunds or exchanges. So, be aware that whatever gift item you choose is theirs to keep forever. You might want to be prepared to perform an exchange with your own money. Note that this can become an uncomfortable situation.

If you know there’s a possibility that your gift might be returned, you should buy from Amazon, Target or Walmart instead which leaves that option open for the recipient.

No Returns, Refunds or Exchanges

This goes hand-in-hand with All Sales Final. If you purchase items from Toys R Us during liquidation, you may get a great deal, but at the cost of no refunds, returns or exchanges. Make absolutely certain that what you buy is absolutely something you intend to keep.

Whether or not you intend to give the item as a gift, you should open the item and check it thoroughly. Do it in the store if at all possible. If it has batteries, make sure to test the item for functionality. You may not be able to test a battery powered item in the store, however. They may not allow you to remove the item from its packaging in the store to perform this test. You may have to take it home and check it there. By that time, you’ve already purchased and it’s too late if it’s defective. If you’re in doubt, leave it at the store.

If you do find a dead or defective item, you will need to contact the toy manufacturer directly and work your exchange through the manufacturer. Keep your receipt. This exchange process could take a whole lot more time than if you bought at a store still accepting exchanges.

Consider your purchases during a liquidation carefully. Do not purchase Toys R Us gift cards… but this should go without saying.

Extended Warranties

If you decide to buy an expensive item that could break easily, you should ask of Toys R Us to offer you a SquareTrade warranty plan. This will ensure you can get a replacement after Toys R Us closes. In preparation for this article, I spoke with a representative at SquareTrade who confirmed that they will continue to honor all SquareTrade warranties purchased at Toys R Us. If you do decide to invest in an expensive item that is prone to defects or breakage, you should also consider purchasing a SquareTrade warranty during liquidation.

Video Games and Video Game Consoles

Purchased video game content is a reasonably safe investment during the Toys R Us liquidation. It’s rare that a disc or a cartridge is defective.

On the other hand, purchasing a video game console or other video game hardware is a bad idea. If you must purchase one, purchase a SquareTrade warranty at Toys R Us to go with it (assuming they are still selling these warranty plans). If it’s not SquareTrade, then you should call the plan service provider before you check out at the store to ensure that insurance plan will continue to cover your purchase after Toys R Us closes for good.

Without an extended service plan, you have no replacement policy if it’s defective or gets broken. Be very cautious of buying video game hardware from Toys R Us during liquidation without a warranty. Though, you can try to work through the manufacturer warranty, it’s sometimes only 90s days. During liquidation, this is the one time where you should consider the purchase of a third party warranty, at least for purchases like video game consoles… particularly the Nintendo Switch which is portable and prone to being dropped.

However, certain types of lesser expensive video game hardware, like controllers, wires, Amiibo, cases, pens and other similar $30-$50 items are safer to buy, particularly when they are marked down 50% or more. However, consoles themselves, like the Nintendo Switch, Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 are not considered good investments from a liquidation sale.

I’d also suggest to avoid buying these devices from eBay as well because many will flood eBay listings from sellers who went to Toys R Us just to cash in on these low prices. If you’re thinking of buying a console from eBay, ask where it was purchased. Be wary if it’s from Toys R Us.

Dolls, Action Figures and Non-Battery Toys

Toys that don’t require batteries and don’t have complex moving pieces are some of the safer items to buy. They offer less defects and are more likely to last the test of time than RC vehicles, video game consoles, battery powered electric child cars, electric skate boards and other custom battery items.

Consumer Safety and Toy Recalls

Toys R Us was very good at keeping up with safety recalls. Unfortunately, they are going out of business. This also means that any toys you purchase during the liquidation that later fall under a recall, you can no longer return to Toys R Us. Like the All Sales Final discussion above, consider that items like cribs, baby items and other possible dangerous infant and toddler toys won’t have any place to go if they are recalled, especially if your baby gets hurt. Though, the manufacturer might honor a return or exchange, you will not be able to do so at Toys R Us. You will also not be able to make any legal claims of injury to Toys R Us once they have closed.

Safe or Unsafe Investment?

Here is a list (not exhaustive) of items that I consider safe, somewhat safe and not safe for a liquidation purchase so long as you fully understand that you cannot return or exchange them at TRU.

Note, safe, somewhat safe and not safe represent what I consider as a “safe purchase” (i.e., getting value for your money vs. throwing your money away), these labels do not describe whether the toy or item itself is safe for use by a child. You will have to determine toy safety yourself.

Toy Type Liquidation Safe Purchase? Contains Battery? Reason
Dolls Safe No
Motorized Dolls Not Safe Yes Prone to defects and can be unsafe
No store warranty
Bicycles Somewhat Unsafe Depends If you’re buying for a gift, unsafe.
If you’re buying to use now, perhaps.
If it has a battery, unsafe.
TRU may or may not offer assembly.
Use your best judgement.
Motorized Electric Kid Cars Not Safe Yes Batteries can be defective
May not be able to find replacement battery
No store warranty
Action Figures Safe No
Plush Animals Somewhat Safe No Depending on what it’s made from,
it may be safe or unsafe. Choose carefully.
Vinyl Figures Safe No
Hot Wheels Safe No So long as the Hot Wheels contain no batteries
Lego Safe No So long as the Legos contain no batteries
Motorized Toys Not Safe Yes Avoid motorized or electronic toys
Video Games Safe No Games themselves are rarely defective
Video Game Consoles Not Safe Maybe Could be defective
No way to exchange
No store warranty
Choose 3rd party insurance plan if you must buy
Video Game Controllers Somewhat Safe Yes Typically okay along with certain accessories.
Barbie Safe Depends If the Barbie doesn’t contain a battery,
this should be safe. If it contains a battery,
make sure the doll is working before
leaving the store.
Baby Toys Depends Depends For safety reasons, I do not recommend buying
baby toys and items via liquidation sales.
Diapers Safe No
Cribs Not Safe No Cribs can be dangerous for infants.
Purchase at a store where you can return.
Car Seats Not Safe No Car Seats can be dangerous for infants.
Purchase at a store where you can return.
Skateboards Safe No
Electric Skateboards Not Safe Yes  Avoid because of custom battery (replacement)
RC Vehicles Not Safe Yes  Avoid because of custom battery (replacement)
Tablets Somewhat Safe Yes  If Apple, you can rely on Apple. If another brand, avoid.
Wrapping Paper / Party Safe No
DVDs and Blu-ray Safe No
Toys To Life (Amiibo) Safe No
Headphones Not Safe Depends  High chances for problems
Toys R Us Exclusives Somewhat Safe Depends Avoid with custom batteries
Wooden Toys Somewhat Safe Depends

Use Your Best Judgement

The above is not an exhaustive list, so always use your best judgement if it’s not listed here. If the toy contains no battery at all, it should be fine. If the toy contains or uses standard AA, AAA, C, D or button cell batteries, you’re fine. If the toy contains a lithium ion and/or custom battery, you should avoid purchase. Any toy that contains a custom battery may have been custom made for Toys R Us. This means you may find it difficult or impossible to find batteries later. House brand or Toys R Us exclusive toys requiring refill packs should be avoided. Toys and products for infants should be avoided for safety reasons. The only product I would suggest is safe for an infant is diapers and possibly formula as long as it’s a name brand, not a house brand.

Tablets and electronics should be avoided if not from Apple or another recognized brand. If it’s a house branded electronic item, avoid.

Toys R Us Exclusives

Toys R Us Exclusives are now considered rare. However, that doesn’t mean they’re a good investment. Pop figures are fine, exclusive Barbies are fine and exclusive Hot Wheels are fine (see the list above). However, any exclusives that require something that you can only get at Toys R Us (like batteries or refills), you should avoid purchase.

Toys R Us Geoffrey toys

These are likely to be some of the rarest toys available. If you want a piece of memorabilia to commemorate Toys R Us, you should head over fast and pickup whatever Geoffrey items you can find. If you’re looking for plush, you might have to ask at the service desk.

Happy Deals and good luck!

↩︎

Rant Time: Adobe VoCo’s ethical dilemma

Posted in best practices, botch, business, california, ethics by commorancy on February 28, 2018

I have to wonder about Adobe’s business ethics at times. First, there’s Photoshop. While I can admit that photo editing has a legitimate purpose, such as correcting red eye or removing telephone lines or removing reflections of the camera man from a photo, there is the much seedier and ethically murky purpose for Photoshop. Now comes Adobe VoCo. It is a product idea that does for spoken audio what Photoshop does for images. Let’s explore this YouTube clip from 2016:

Skip to 3:18 for the meat of this video.

VoCo’s Use Cases and Ethics

Though, yes, I will concede that the demonstration above was funny and we all laughed, the demonstration has a deep seated ethically murky undertone once the laughing stops. In fact, that’s what prompted this blog article.

Unlike Photoshop which has actual real world use cases (yes, other than making models thinner and glowier for the cover of Vogue), VoCo is one of those unnecessary tools that, while cool in theory, makes Adobe seem that it’s now in the business of causing world disruption instead of actually solving creative problems. After the ethical problems created by Photoshop, Adobe has to know the ethical quandary it introduces by bringing the VoCo audio editing tool to market. Adobe decides to go ahead with demoing this tool anyway. So much for business ethics. Instead, Adobe should have patented and shelved this product idea and never shown it off.

There’s no effective real world use case for this product other than for making someone say things that they actually didn’t say. The only use case where this technology might even be somewhat useful, depending on output quality, is in the voice over industry where an actor might be unavailable at a time when a line needs to be changed to fit continuity better. The voice over industry is the only industry where VoCo could have even the smallest glimmer of hope of a use case. This is such a tiny niche market segment to introduce this tool in such a public spectacle way.

The only other use case would be to sample all of the audio from a particular dead actor or actress’s productions and then recreate lines of new spoken dialog based on that. Again, this is one of those entertainment areas that fits firmly into the uncanny valley, particularly if the spoken lines are attached to a CG actor. Again, this is not a substantial use case in my opinion and is most definitely creepy. It’s definitely not a big enough use case to warrant this public release spectacle. Do we really want to see Marilyn Monroe or Elvis brought back to life on the big screen using CG and VoCo dialog?

There is no other legitimate use case for this product. It’s like Adobe intentionally wants to flaunt its lack of ….

Business Ethics and Self-Editing

Businesses today have no ability to self-edit or recognize ethics. That is, stop ethically bad product ideas from making it to the market. Just thinking about this product and how it could possibly be used, it doesn’t have legitimate use cases (other than the voice over use case I mentioned above). However, there are perhaps thousands of illegitimate uses for this tool. Let’s list a few of them, shall we:

  • Falsifying a deposition to make the person being deposed say something they didn’t say
  • Falsifying a statement of non-confession to make a person confess to a crime when they didn’t actually confess
  • Falsifying a phone conversation
  • Changing any spoken words from non-incriminating to incriminating evidence

In legal circles, the use for this tool is ripe for abuse and has use cases as wide as the Grand Canyon and as deep as the Mariana Trench. In other words, while VoCo has no substantial legitimate use cases, it has thousands of illegitimate use cases. There is no way Adobe couldn’t see this. There is no way for Adobe to feign ignorance about this tool or the ethical problems it imposes if released.

Legal Evidence

Some have theorized that this tool would become just as Photoshop has. Basically, because evidence can now be manufactured in products like VoCo, it means that audio evidence would no longer be easily admissible. While that idea has some soundness to it, the legal system is not always technically savvy and can sometimes move at a snail’s pace. Eventually, the courts and lawyers will be on board with this ‘manufactured evidence’ sound clip idea, but not before several someones are incriminated over manufactured evidence that isn’t caught in time.

Some have theorized that Adobe should watermark the sound clip. The difficulty with audio watermarking is that it ruins the audio. No one would buy a professional audio tool that intentionally makes the audio sound bad or introduces something that is audibly noticeable, strictly because Adobe wants to insert a watermark to legally cover their collective butts. No. No one would buy a tool that causes damage to the audio output. This means that only a silent kind of watermark could be introduced. Such a watermark would consist primarily as a tag within the saved audio clip file. Any tags introduced in a save file can easily be stripped away by converting the audio clip to a new format or by playing the audio clip back and recording it on analog equipment. In fact, a whole industry and set of tools would likely appear to strip out any watermarks imposed by Adobe onto the saved files.

Unless there is a substantial way to identify that the clip has been edited, and I don’t know how Adobe could even solve this problem fully, VoCo is a tool that would end up more abused than legitimately used.

Flawed Product Ideas

While this is somewhat of a cool technological advancement, it doesn’t need to exist. It doesn’t need to exist because it has basically one limited use case. I’d argue that as a production runner, you can just wait until the voice actor becomes available and ask them to re-record the lines you need. That is, instead of using a tool like this. A tool like VoCo might save you some time, but by demanding such a tool for your use, it means the rest of the world must also endure the consequences of a world full of falsified evidence. Is that the world you want to live in? Evidence that could even be used against you, the audio editor. No, thanks.

However, it’s clear that prototype code has been written based on the video above. This means that Adobe could release such a product into the wild in the future. Thankfully, as of this article in 2018, this product does not yet exist. Unfortunately, Adobe has already opened Pandora’s box. A working prototype means that any coder with leanings towards audio engineering could produce a similar tool and release it into the wild without the help of Adobe. Thanks Adobe.

It is as yet unclear when or if this product could ever be released. Note that this video segment apparently showcases experimental product ideas (products that may never see the light of day) and not actual products. After all, such a legally murky product would have to clear Adobe’s legal team before release. Considering the many negative use cases for such an audio editing product and the legal liability that Adobe might endure as a result, I’d hope that Adobe’s legal team has shelved this product idea permanently.

Agree or disagree? Please leave a comment below. Also, don’t miss any new Randocity articles by subscribing to this blog via clicking the blue follow button at the top right.

%d bloggers like this: