Thrall’s Lost his Balls

Pardon the crude quality of the article title, but it must be said.

My fiancee and I have just finished reading Tides of War, the latest World of Warcraft novel. Overall, we found it to be enjoyable, if somewhat frustrating. For one, Garrosh has gone full-tilt maniac. In the course of the events in this novel alone, he has perpetrated or condoned:

> The incorporation of the Blackrock Orcs into the Horde. Like the Dragonmaw, he has gathered to him some of the most unsavory characters and clans and, with their fealty, has excused their past and current transgressions.

> Dark Shamanism and the binding of Molten Giants to wage war. His Shamans are one tick away from being Warlocks, in terms of the power they wield, how they conduct themselves, and how they dress. To quote Garrosh, in this he has turned the Cataclysm to the Horde’s favor.

> The establishment of a Police State, where Malkorok, his Blackrock lackey, has been given carte blanche to round up supposed dissidents and abuse them, detain them, or assassinate them.

> The opinion that the Horde’s other races, including their faction leaders, are there only to serve him, the Warchief, and by extension, the Horde. He thinks little of them, disparaging them all in one way or another, the Trolls and Tauren most openly.

> The theft of the Focusing Iris from the Blue Dragonflight, and its use in powering a gigantic Mana Bomb — which he subsequently dropped on Theramore, turning it into an arcane wasteland where time and space lie twisted.

> The belief that he is destined to correct the many mistakes Thrall had made when he led the Horde. Quote, unquote.

Now, all this is very interesting, as it appears Blizzard has finally decided what they wish to do with Garrosh Hellscream. They want to make him a villain. I feel the past attempts at his other characterization were poor, slapdash even, and now they’re not mincing words. Garrosh is a nut and he needs to be taken out.

Thrall, however, continues to be “conveniently distracted.” Metzen, the other lore-masters, and Golden are guilty of writing him into a vacuum, where his revulsion at Garrosh’s acts takes second chair to A) Aggra offering him a wink and a smile or B) some half-assed “important work” being done by the Earthen Ring. I give Golden credit for at least acknowledging Thrall thinks of donning his armor, taking up the Doomhammer, and striding into Orgrimmar to put right what is wrong… but then he pushes that aside, and does not act.

Why. The. Hell. Not?

Thrall, you built the Horde. You know Garrosh is destroying it now. There’s no ambiguity to it. Every minute that maniac is in charge, Hordefolk will die, Alliancefolk will die, a war will rage, innocents will perish, and now, the elements themselves will be abused. Get off your ass and get to Orgimmar. Take action. Baine and Vol’jin have a better reason to sit back and be careful — Garrosh will Mana Bomb their people if they don’t keep in step. But you, Thrall, can take the reins here. So, why aren’t you doing it? You stepped up with the world needed an Aspect of Earth. It’s time to step up again, because there are very few people in the world who can do what needs to be done. You’re one of them.

And where the heck is Varok Saurfang? Buddy, you made a promise in Borean Tundra. Don’t think we’ve forgotten it. It’s time to deliver.

If you’ve ever heard of the contrivance “plot armor” then damnit, I call this plot apathy. It is as if the writers know that Thrall, given his past characterization, would make a stand, right here and now, so they have to write in half-baked reasons for him to delay. And Saurfang I believe had all of one paragraph in a recent novel that placed him effectively into retirement. Gee. That’s great.

From a reader’s point of view, it is damn frustrating to want your hero to show up and do something heroic, as he has in the past, and he instead decides to wander off and pick flowers.

Yech.

I can only hope the final showdown against Garrosh is worth it.

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Microsoft Gets It

Ah ha! Redmond gets it!

Months ago, if you were to ask “what do you like about Apple, Mac, and iDevices that you cannot get on the PC platform?” my reply would have been “tight cloud-app integration across all platforms.” At that point in time, if Apple hadn’t already pushed iCloud to all four corners of their desktop and mobile OSes, they were planning to, and that really excited me.

As a PC user with an Android phone, I was becoming frustrated with the hoops I had to jump through, the workarounds I had to create, to try to streamline my e-mail, reminders, calendaring, and contacts across my PC, laptop, and smartphone. Nothing worked particularly well. Windows Phone was an attractive device in and of itself, but it was not backed by powerful, comprehensive, and fully-connected cloud applications on the back-end, and the device ecosystem was spotty — no PC tablets to compete with iPad and Android devices, and desktop OS support was kludgy.

Now, ta-da! It seems Microsoft has gotten their act together, and they’re now pushing a suite of inter-connected services starting with Outlook.com. This is replacing Hotmail for e-mail, and boy, it’s been a long time coming. Skydrive is also playing a part, and it appears they will be bringing their People (contacts) and Calendar pieces into the mix, too. This should all play nicely with their Windows 8 counterparts on upcoming tablets and smartphones. It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been excited about any of Microsoft’s initiatives (aside from Windows 7, which was a much-welcomed, iterative improvement over Windows Vista), but yes, I’m excited.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m very tempted by Apple’s next iPhone. If the rumors are true, it will be a worthy successor to the 4S. I won’t be there on launch day with a fistful of dollars, however. I want to see what the lineup of new Windows Phones will be like, and may well pick up a “Pro” version of the Surface tablet when it debuts…

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Surface!

No, dive! Dive!

So, Microsoft has made their move. They’re releasing two tablet devices: Surface and Surface Pro. I can’t deny the fact that I’m excited, but also a little wary.

Right away, I can see this being a major boon for enterprises who want to offer tablet computing to their users. Right now, it is more a capitulation on the part of IT administrators — their users are outright demanding they use their iPhones or iPads rather than the clunky standards of Blackberries and notebook PCs. People want to use their i-Devices in the enterprise not because they love Apple, but because they love the devices themselves — iPhones are a great device with a great app ecosystem behind it, as are iPads.

Unfortunately, that ecosystem doesn’t play well with your enterprise back-end infrastructure. Chances are, your company is build on Microsoft products and services, and your desktop computing environment is Windows-based. i-Devices have to be effectively shoehorned into this environment to even attempt cross-compatibility between your office files (and file storage) and the device itself — and typically, there are bounds that cannot be crossed.

If Microsoft can break into the enterprise with Windows 8 tablets, I think they’ll start to see more adoption on the consumer side as well. Metro is scary, and most users are turned off by it when they see it — but those who have played with it on Windows Phones say it is actually pretty great. The problem here is adoption, exposure. Now, if your workplace issues you a Windows 8 tablet and essentially “forces” you to use it… you may discover the Metro interface isn’t that bad, and the device is pretty sweet. Your iPad may look less fabulous. Your perception of Metro is changed, and you give strong consideration to getting a Windows Phone or another tablet device. Suddenly, iPads seem less fantastic.

I won’t say this will happen, but it very well might. Personally, I like what Apple is doing, but I am not in love. I think Microsoft can appeal to users who feel iOS isn’t powerful enough for them, while also encouraging a few Apple-fans to convert. How Surface is engineered, debuted, marketed, and supported will be very crucial for Microsoft — they have to hit a home run here, or they’ll end up with another Zune on their hands. They appear to have the engineering part down (the device itself, plus the touch/type covers are both showing to be very impressive), now they have to keep the momentum going.

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Beta Tidbits

I think I’ve taken my Mists of Pandaria beta access for granted. Normally, I’d be waiting and hoping for beta access to come down out of the sky like manna from heaven, and once received I would be all a-titter about class changes and new content…

That didn’t happen this time around. I had guaranteed beta access thanks to the Annual Pass program, so beta availability wasn’t nearly as grand a surprise as it was in TBC, Wrath, and Cataclysm.

I have been playing, but I’ve been keeping relatively spoiler-free. I’ve touched maybe 1% of Pandaria. Just a few days ago, I finally gave the Pandaren starter quests a go. I’m not in a rush to devour this content, because I know that it is the bulk of what I’ll be playing through for the next year or more.

But class changes are a totally different story, and I’m all over those! Though, my exposure here is also a bit limited, as I’m not leveling my beta characters past 85 or 86, so I will not have access to the shiny new level 90 talents.

To summarize:

The Hunter changes are great. Many have been a long time coming, like no minimum range. Melee weapons are also a thing of the past — no more stat sticks! Also fun: Beast Cleave AOE for Beast Mastery Hunters, Trap Launcher becoming a permanent on/off toggle, Pets can spec into any role (DPS, Tank, or PVPish), and more. Stampede, a level 87 ability, is something I’ve been dying for since The Burning Crusade — finally we can unleash the full fury of our stabled pets in one magnificent burst ability. High damage… long cooldown.

The Paladin changes are a bit of a mixed bag. Retribution can now queue up a maximum of five Holy Power, and Divine Purpose (the random, free “three Holy Power”) is now a talent competing against a Zealotry-like Holy Avenger and a slightly revamped Sanctified Wrath. Inquisition is Retribution-only, and is reverted to it’s 1 Holy Power = 10 Second configuration, meaning we’ll have to refresh it somewhat more often. The upside is that Judgment, Exorcism, and Hammer of Wrath now all generate 1 Holy Power when used — we’ll have a steady income of Holy Power to burn on Inquisition, Templar’s Verdict, and Divine Storm. Yep, Divine Storm now costs Holy Power. It also hits a heck of a lot harder.

There are plenty of other nuanced changes. I won’t list them all here, but I have yet to find a change I positively hate. In many cases, we’re status quo with the two classes above, and in some areas our quality of life has actually improved. Substantially. I’m really looking forward to Mists of Pandaria.

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The Rush to Retina

Apple recently announced it’s new MacBook — a 15″ notebook computer with a Retina (ultra high resolution) display.

Make no mistake, “Retina” style displays are the future. They’re a whole new level of clarity, and for computing — which can be taxing on the eyes — the precision text and pixelation-free imagery is great. The difference is particularly startling when looking at screens existing at a distance nearer to your eye than the traditional computer monitor: smartphones, tablets, and by extension, notebooks. I imagine desktop monitors will be the last to move to high-PPI/DPI technology, for a variety of reasons.

And frankly, I’m glad the “movement” will be gradual. Our perception of what is a standard for graphical imagery on a computer monitor, your 72 DPI sort of standards, need to be updated. This will happen slowly. If you look at a “New iPad” (Generation 3) today, the Retina display is phenomenal… until you receive a graphics-heavy email (like a newsletter). You’ll then quickly notice how these images seem blurry, and they are — they’re pixel-doubled, or “upsized,” as they’re not natively designed for a high-PPI display.

High-speed internet is the norm these days, but developers, designers, and web-gurus need to get behind pushing higher-resolution imagery. You won’t see this become widespread until Retina-style displays make it into more laptops and computing devices, like tablets. Then the desktop displays will come. By then, we should be experiencing a high-PPI web, and even the most barebones graphics cards will be able to power, say, a 24″ widescreen Retina display.

But we’re not there yet, and I’m not in a hurry to upgrade to a “Next Generation” MacBook. The New iPad was enough of a leap for me. For now.

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Windows 8 – What I Like

If there’s one thing I like about Windows 8, it’s the Start screen. I don’t care for it as a replacement to the Start Menu, mind — but as a tablet-style “home screen” I think it is fantastic. I like the concept of Live Tiles, which are essentially the combination of an app shortcut and a widget. If “live information” is supported by the respective app, these little tiles present data to the user in a generally clear and concise way, making them great for weather updates, new emails or messages, the “word of the day” and news stories, and so on. At a glance, you can generally feel better-informed, and I like that.

It needs to be said, the Start screen is an evolution of a design that began with the Zune interface. Metro truly began to develop as part of the Windows Phone OS, making something like Live Tiles not exactly “new” … though exposure to it has been limited. No one I know owns a Windows Phone. Very few have even heard of a Zune. Windows 8, however, will be something Microsoft will be pushing going forward.

I believe iOS needs to get on the bandwagon here. The “app icon grid” layout is dated. Android has its widgets and Windows Metro has its Live Tiles — where are you, Apple?

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Yahoo! Axis

Yahoo! has released their “Axis” web-browsing search solution. It is a three-pronged attack on Google, Microsoft, and Mozilla, targeting their browsers on the desktop along with Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices. The goal is to unify your search and browsing experience across these platforms, while presenting a visual form of search results that is particularly effective on Cupertino’s touch devices.

I’ve been longing for a replacement for Safari on my iPad. I really don’t care for the interface, specifically how it handles bookmarks. There are pop-over menus, menus nested within menus (depending on how your bookmark folders are arranged) — and the bookmarks bar has little to no separation from the rest of the browser, making it difficult to use without accidentally tapping a tab or the address bar.

Enter Axis on the iPad, which appears to be a pretty wrapper for the iOS webkit. It’s got a clean, slick look, and search results and bookmarks are presented as large, touchable images. A page can be easily added to a ‘Read Later” list or your Bookmarks by tapping a familiar star-shaped button, and organizing these bookmarks is easily done with touching and dragging. The display of these elements stands out for me, as they feel large and lush. Safari on iOS feels so very dated and drab by comparison.

Axis on the desktop functions as an HTML5 plug-in/extension/add-on for Safari, Chrome, Internet Explorer, and Firefox. It does not install as a toolbar, but instead places a small overlay onto the pages you visit, and it exists in the lower left hand corner of the window. In this ‘minimized’ form, the toolbar has three functions: Search, Add Bookmark, and Home. These are not customizable. Mouse-over this overlay and it expands across the bottom of the browser window to also permit a login to Yahoo’s services, and access to your Bookmarks… on the very far right of the screen. Inconvenient.

In my opinion, the Add Bookmark, Home, and Show Bookmarks buttons should all be available in one place, on one side of the screen. On a widescreen monitor, it can mean a fair bit of mouse-tracking to get from the lower left corner of the screen (to ‘maximize’ the Axis bar) to the far right (to click the Bookmarks button). A small gripe, but it is worth noting. Having the Axis bar as a proper toolbar in the respective browsers would not be bad, either — though I do recognize that not every browser handles such extensions the same way.

Another downside of the browser plug-in: The Axis bar will not appear if you are using an add-on like NoScript for Firefox and happen to be blocking the root domain of the site you are currently on. If you then allow scripts from this domain, the Axis bar appears. This is not a problem for sites already on your whitelist, but any new sites you visit will need to be whitelisted as well to access the very fundamental aspect of Axis. Very inconvenient. Also, if you open a new tab in Firefox, and that tab is blank, the Axis bar will not appear — you effectively have no access to the Axis search or bookmarking functions at that point. Again, very inconvenient.

On the iOS side of things, my greatest complaint is my not having access to a password manager Lastpass in the Axis browser. In Safari, I can use a Lastpass bookmarklet to handle my logins for the sites I visit, but Axis appears to have no such functionality. That might be a feature for Yahoo to explore — purchase Lastpass (or the controlling company) and integrate it as your password manager. Score points by offering the standalone version that already exists, but also make it a strong feature of Axis. Just a thought!

In conclusion, I think Axis is a bold direction for Yahoo! to take. It shows they aren’t to be counted out yet, and they have produced a compelling, unifying browsing and searching solution across three popular platforms: computer, iPhone, and iPad. The strengths of their offering shows in the iOS app. The browser plug-in piece definitely needs work — it needs to have a more permanent home within the respective browsers it supports, if it is to become a ‘hub’ for searching and bookmarks, as it is designed to be.

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