Saturday, May 22, 2010


Remember back when you were a kid and you were the first to get that hot new toy all the other kids lusted after? Instant popularity was yours as soon as you walked into the classroom; everyone wanted to see it, touch it, play with it, ask you about it. If you walk into the office with an Apple iPad, the exact same thing happens. Unfortunately, fame thus received as fleeting as it was in your youth, and soon enough you are just an average schmoe again, except with a useless plastic toy to your name. The Apple iPad is like that too.

I received an iPad as a gift. I'd like to say -especially after my scathing preview a few months back- that had I not gotten the tablet as a present I never would have owned one, but in all honesty I cannot. Likely I would have waited a year before I bought it, but the allure of tablet computing is difficult for a geek to resist, even those of us who recognize the platform's disadvantages ahead of time. Nonetheless, despite having nothing more invested in the product than appreciation towards the person who had gifted it to me, I endeavored to find utility for the device. For the past two weeks, it has gone almost everywhere I have gone, and where I might otherwise have used a computer or hand-held, I used the iPad. Surely somewhere in all those tasks the iPad would prove its worth.

The iPad has a glossy screen
People who have not used an iPad might find this an unduly negative start to a review. After all, the tablet is some impressive hardware. From it's glossy ten-inch screen to its speedy 1 GHz Apple A4 processor, it is stylish and powerful. Advocates point to the more than 100,000 applications available as indications of its flexibility and adaptability to almost every usage scenario. Desktops (and even laptops) are too cumbersome, hand-held devices are too limited; surely a tablet PC is the optimal solution.

But the sad fact is, the iPad is not the solution. It has the technical capability but its form factor is its greatest weakness. True, it can perform most tasks you might otherwise turn to a laptop or desktop computer, but its limitations quickly become evident. Similarly, it has the portability of a hand-held, but -four times larger- not the convenience. It is not the revolutionary new computing  paradigm promised by Apple. It is a toy that, at best, has a few niche applications it might be ideal for but otherwise fails to better its competitors in any way.

The on-screen keyboard
One of the first uses I put the iPad to was e-mail; jumping between offices, I found it necessary to keep in contact with my peers in multiple locations. Normally, I might jot down a few terse messages on my iPhone until I could reach a "proper" computer where I could type out a detailed message, but surely the iPad -with its bigger screen and keyboard- would allow me to write out those longer e-mails on the road. And, true, the capability was there, but after a few messages I found myself reverting to my old habits. The iPad on-screen keyboard is horrid, not only due to its lack of tactile feedback but also for its layout; numbers and commonly-used punctuation are hidden layers deep which greatly impede typing speed. Before too long, e-mail sent from my iPad started to assume the usual Frankensteinian diction common to any e-mail I send from a portable device. As far as e-mail was concerned, I might as well have been using the iPhone; at least that had the advantage in size.

Safari lacks many features
But surely as a web-browser the iPad would be a superior experience to any smartphone? Certainly its smaller screen improved on readability, although I was still frequently zooming in to read anything but the headlines. Fat fingers always made clicking links an exercise in frustration, and the limitations of the browser (no Flash, limited javascript, no add-ons) meant that many websites did not function as expected. Furthermore, the problems with the keyboard again came into effect; these days I do more than simply surf the web and ingest content. I like to give back with stories or comments of my own and typing anything of length on the iPad keyboard is just not an option.

iBook is pretty but not feature-rich
A much touted feature of the iPad was its use as an e-book reader. In this I found some success. The iBook application is gorgeous, although e-book fanatics might find fault with the too-bright screen and fonts. But I found the iPad's form-factor to be uncomfortable for extended periods of reading. It's just a bit too large to comfortably curl up around and -even at only 1.5 pounds- after half an hour of holding the tablet up I started to feel it in my wrist. The Kindle -roughly two-thirds the size of the iPad- is the ideal dimensions for reading e-books; the iPad is not. Nonetheless, there was one area I found the iPad to be superior: reading multiple-column text or PDFs. These are too big for hand-helds and can't be comfortably read on a laptop; the iPad was the perfect platform for this format. Unfortunately, the iPad didn't come with a built-in PDF reader, requiring me to purchase an application separately.

Similarly, the iPad has limited success as a portable media device. It is terrible as a music player; although it has all the features of Apple's iPhone or iPod Touch music players, its form factor completely negates its usability in this area; you can't stick the iPad in your pocket and go out for a brisk jog. On the other hand, it plays videos fairly well and -despite initial worries- I only came across a handful of websites where I could not stream the video from the Internet (Hulu.Com is, of course, the most notable exception). Still, I have to wonder at the utility of this feature; whenever I was traveling, watching video was the last thing I wanted to do, and when I was at home the better option was always to watch the video on the HDTV or big-screen monitor.

Zombieville USA on the iPad is a kick-ass game
Of course, there are always the 100,000 other applications you can use. Some are quite nice, but -again- all are limited by the platform itself. The games tend to be fairly shallow and lack in variety; they are fun for short periods of time but you aren't going to keep at these games for more than fifteen minutes before you tire of them. As for productivity applications, well, do I have to bring up the input limitations again? The keyboard is terrible for anything beyond the shortest of comments and the touch-interface will hardly replace a mouse for accuracy. Nor do the limitations of the OS improve things; no multi-tasking and no easy way to move files on or off the platform mean it will never replace a dedicated workstation.

So what's the final verdict? Well, if you ask me, it's a cute toy, but even its most dedicated fans will have to admit that it just can't replace the computing platforms already available. For all its versatility, users will still want to keep a hand-held device and a dedicated computer around for their day-to-day work. The iPad is too big to replace the former, and too limited in functionality to replace the former. So why should anyone ever buy one?

Monday, April 26, 2010

Metro 2033

S.T.A.L.K.E.R : Shadow of Chernobyl won rave reviews for its unique setting, intense gameplay, vivid, open game-world and exotic storyline. It was the darling of the press and gathered a number of fervent, devoted fans. It was held up as proof that the PC still was a viable platform for computer gaming.

I did not like S.T.A.L.K.E.R.

It failed me on so many points; each problem, taken by itself was not a deal-breaker but in combination it ruined the overall experience. The "wide open" game world was inexplicably bound by uncrossable barriers and tied together with load-points. The "artificial life" AI felt more unreal than the most tightly and unwavering scripting found in most games and plagued by over-enthusiastic spawn points. The setting was novel but the story was poorly paced and even more-poorly delivered. The gun-play was hampered by inaccurate and underpowered weapons and was completely unforgiving. Ambitious and unique, S.T.A.L.K.E.R. failed in the one area that was most important; it was not a fun game.

I mention all this because, at first glance, everything I just said about S.T.A.L.K.E.R. would seem to hold true with Metro 2033. Not only are the settings similar (post-apocalyptic Russia) but the gameplay shares many similar concepts. In fact, the two games even share similar developers (Oles' Shyskovtsov and Oleksandr Maksymchuk of 4A Games worked on the X-Ray engine used in S.T.A.L.K.E.R. before taking off on their own). It was only the allure of the setting that prompted me to purchase the title, despite all my misgivings.

Well that I did, for the detailed, moody environments transcend any faults in the actual gameplay. Many titles play on gamers' emotions with cheap jump-from-the-shadow scares; few games achieve the melancholy hopelessness that pervades Metro 2033. Mankind, it is easy to believe, is on its last legs as it struggles against the hostile environment (and even more hostile inhabitants) of the post-apocalyptic Moscow subway system. I certainly felt vulnerable as I crept through the dank, claustrophobic tunnels, even if I was armed with a remarkable assortment of high-powered weaponry. Armed to the teeth and still shitting my pants; achieving that sort of atmosphere takes skill.

Although the game ably convinces you that you are exploring the darkest corners of the Underground, you never truly leave the beaten path; the game is steadfastly linear. This is both its great strength and weakness; Metro 2033 assures you of a well-paced and strongly woven story but at a cost to the player's freedom and the game's replayability. But even as you are cunningly led by the nose with little ability to turn aside, the well-designed levels convince you that a wider world exists just beyond those insurmountable barriers.

Beyond the exploration, there is the combat. Like its predecessor S.T.A.L.K.E.R., it is a mix of stealthy combat and high-paced gun-play. The AI is not overwhelmingly clever - the nastiest monsters are most dangerous only because of their tendency to spring out at you from dark corners just outside your field of vision- but the incoming fire is deadly and rarely do enemies come at you in only ones or twos. And while most foes go down with a burst of machine gun fire, ammo is scarce and -as it doubles as the game's currency- the more you shoot, the less likely you are to afford the good guns later on. Stealth is an adjunct to the combat, mostly used to sneak into perfect firing positions. It is possible to sneak by many encounters (where's the fun in that?) but its effect is lessened by the eagle-eyed enemy; once you make your presence known, there's no hiding from them again.

Technically, the game is an impressive piece of work even using DirectX 9 graphics (it supports up to DirectX 11 graphic embellishments; alas, although my hardware is willing, my OS is weak). The levels are well-detailed with high-res textures, numerous objects and excellent lighting effects. The sound is equally impressive, with a low-key soundtrack. The stilted voice-work may put some people off, but I felt it added to the game's charm. The engine was well optimized and the game ran very smoothly even at its busiest.

Metro 2033 is not a perfect game; it suffers from many of the same problems as S.T.A.L.K.E.R.: linear levels, sometimes unforgiving combat, and a problematic storyline. But unlike its predecessor, it succeeds stupendously when it comes to the game's atmosphere, and on this alone it surpasses its ancestor. The gameplay is passable, but it is the setting that you will remember for years to come.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Regenesis by C.J. Cherryh

The first time I picked up a book by Anne McCaffrey, Dragonflight, I gave up on it before I finished the first chapter. I thought it was dry, slow and boring. It wasn't until years later that I gave it another try and realized there was an interesting story buried beyond those first hard-to-digest pages. I am glad for this experience, however, because when I first picked up a novel by C. J. Cherryj (Heavy Time), I had the same initial impression. But the lesson I learned from Ms. McCaffrey taught me to persevere and now it's a rare story written by C.J. Cherryh that I haven't read.

I enjoy Ms. Cherryh's stories -especially her Company Wars novels- because she considers the question so many science-fiction authors forget to ask: presuming all the high-technologies that are common to the genre, how will this effect the societies and psychologies of the Men of Tommorow. Too often the assumption is that the attitudes and beliefs of the heroes of the future will be identical to those we hold today. Ms. Cherryh suggests differently, that the new environments and science of the future will have a profound impact on who we will become.

Regenesis is a continuation of this thesis started twenty years ago with her Cyteen trilogy: given the technology to clone not only a person's body but reprogram the duplicate with the personality of the original, how will this affect the society that uses this technique? How, for that matter, will it affect the individual so duplicated? Interwoven into this question is a tale of political intrigue and mystery as Ari Emory, personal replicate of the former Councilor of Science, strives not only to assure her own place in the world but also struggles to unravel the mystery of who killed her predecessor - and prevent the same from happening to her.

Although Ms. Cherryh's prose is solid and approachable, the story revolves almost entirely around the thoughts and emotions of its characters; the tale is almost entirely cerebral. Descriptive text is terse and functional and serves mainly as an adjunct to setting the mental state of the characters. Although great events unfold as the story progresses, the action is almost an aside, covered in quick broad sweeps. The focus remains almost entirely on the character's internal development. But Regenesis is not about epic battles amongst the stars. These wars may rock worlds but C.J. Cherryh's target is more subtle: the glue that holds those worlds together. Reading any of her novels is an opportunity to look at our own world in a new light.

My only disappointment is that Regenesis closes, intentionally, open-ended, a comment on history's non-stop progression. It's just that after twenty years, I was hoping for a bit more closure.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

MS Wireless Desktop 1000

After hooking up a spare desktop computer to my 42" HDTV, I quickly came to the conclusion that I needed a wireless mouse and keyboard to perfect the experience. I have no problem being tethered by wires to a desktop PC when I'm sitting right in front of it, but from the couch six or more feet away wireless is required.

A quick trip to the store and I had a Microsoft Office Desktop 1000 in my hot little hands. The Office Desktop had two things going for it right from the start; it included both a mouse and a keyboard in the package and, even combined, cost less than most other wireless keyboards on the shelf. Microsoft has also earned a reputation for producing some decent peripherals, which was an added bonus.

The box included the keyboard, the mouse, a USB receiver, a CD for the software installation and the usual slim-and-next-to-useless manual and warranty registration cards. Installation was simple; pop in the CD, install the software, plug in the USB receiver and that's it. If I didn't want to use the enhanced functions of the multimedia keys, I could have forwent the software installation.

The keyboard is a solid and not-overly large device. The keys depress nicely and spring back smoothly; typing is easy and comfortable. In addition to the usual 104 keys common to most Windows keyboards, it has a row of multimedia keys above the function keys which can be configured to launch various applications. By default, the first five launch your email client, web-browser, chat-client and media player (these can all be tweaked to launch whatever application you want). The next five have to be manually configured (the first time you press the key you will be prompted with a "hey, what do you want me to do?" dialog box). After that there are the usual start/stop, forward, rewind and stop multimedia keys which most media players honor, and a trio of volume control keys. The latter did not work straight out of the box for me; I had to manually copy a DLL file into my Windows\System32 directory before the buttons functioned as directed. Apparently this was a result of a previous wireless device installation on my computer.

The keyboard also has three additional keys; one key launches the calculator (this cannot be reconfigured), a second toggles an Exposé-like task switcher (ditto) and the final is the Function-Lock key. Unwisely, Microsoft bound each function key to a secondary function (F2, for instance, doubles as an "un-do" key) but this feature is not supported in most applications and, worse, conflicts if programs expect that key to perform its usual function. Fortunately, a quick press of the F-Lock key turns off this uselessness.

The mouse, on the other hand, is lackluster; it's large and not particularly comfortable. It only has three buttons (the usual two and the scroll-wheel doubles as a third), lacking the thumb buttons common to most new mice. The wheel scrolls very roughly and does not tilt.

The wireless receiver is very large; it's bigger than the mouse, in fact. It has three diodes reflecting the Capslock, Numlock and F-Lock status the (venerable Scroll-lock is left without any diode). But for all its size, the receiver is not particularly robust, which leads us to the main failing of these devices: range. Microsoft boasts a six-foot range, and the keyboard and mouse achieve this... barely. Beyond that, you won't receive any signal. Even at four to five feet away from the receiver, you will notice both the keyboard and mouse are twitchy; the mouse cursor won't track smoothly, and you'll have to pound on the keys twice for every letter you want to type. The devices also require general line-of-sight to the receiver to work, so you can't hide the receiver pod out of sight.

 In the end, I was disappointed with this hardware. The keyboard was well designed and offered a number of useful features (although the default configuration was poor) but the extremely limited range, uncomfortable mouse and bulky receiver more than offset the positives. Perhaps used on a office desktop these disadvantages might not be apparent but in a situation where a wireless keyboard is actually necessary it is hard to recommend.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Battlefield - Bad Company 2

On the face of it, Bad Company 2 isn't a game I should have enjoyed. It combines the non-stop action of Modern Warfare 2 with the multi-player Juggernaut that is the Battlefield franchise. Despite admittedly impressive sales, neither series has managed to win me over. And how does Bad Company 2 fare? Surprisingly enough, I liked it.

Forget the multi-player aspect; my interest is entirely in the single-player campaign. It is hard not to compare this game to Modern Warfare 2; it's a nearly perfect clone of that game. A band of special ops fighting off the Russians in battlefields across the globe? Check. On-foot and mounted combat? Check. Special mission modes involving tank combat and UAVs dropping ordinance on hostiles? Check. A contrived plot involving betrayal and electromagnetic pulse weapon? Check. 

But there's one big difference between the two: Bad Company 2 is fun.  Modern Warfare 2's false gravitas, ridiculous storyline and terrible pacing ruined the overall experience. Bad Company 2 is a more relaxed game. The combat is every bit as intense but -largely due to the lack of infinite respawns- the pacing is significantly improved. It was a pleasure not to be constantly pressed to move, to run, to do something; the game was quite willing to wait a few moments while I caught my breath or took in the ambiance. And while its story in Bad Company 2 is every bit as ridiculous at least it doesn't take itself quite as seriously (and it has no qualms about taking potshots at its rival; as one hero quips while fleeing from enemies on an ATV, "snowmobiles are for wimps"). Dice deserves credit for remembering that games are supposed to be fun.

Bad Company 2 isn't perfect, of course, but its problems are minor. Too often the gameplay is interrupted by cutscenes, some separated from a previous cutscene by only a minute of gameplay.  The developers also have an obvious love affair with particle effects; they are used to such an extent that battles devolve into random firing into thick clouds of dust. I suppose it could be argued that this is a more realistic depiction of combat - the oft-mentioned fog of war- but as far as the gameplay it's frustrating not to be able to see anything. Most disappointingly, the developers only open up the gameworld once, making most of the game a long, linear corridor shooter. But these are just minor gripes; in the end, I enjoyed by the game and compared to that everything else is a secondary concern. Bad Company 2 was a welcome addition to my game collection and I expect I will replay it frequently in years to come.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Hasbro Red Two X-Wing Fighter

Nerd alert. If this post doesn't elevate me to true geekdom, nothing will.

As I kid, I grew up with Star Wars. I saw the movies, read the books, bought the toys, even ate the breakfast cereal. It wasn't just a hobby. It went beyond obsession. It was a fact of life. There was food, air, Star Wars.

My childhood influenced my adulthood. I still worship at the altar of Lucas, even when I'm forced to admit that some of his more recent works haven't matched the quality of his seminal masterpiece. But I still watch the movies, read the books, and -when I can convince myself nobody is looking- buy the toys (I've given up on the breakfast cereal on my doctor's recommendation).

The toy every Star Wars fan wanted, of course, was the Millennium Falcon. I never got it, but my best friend did so it was almost as good. But what I lusted after almost as much was the X-Wing fighter. Now there was some sleek military hardware!

I'm all grown up now and can buy my own toys these days (again, when nobody is watching me). When I saw Hasbro's new Red Two X-Wing Fighter, it didn't take me long to pull out my wallet.

This toy puts the original to shame. Kenner's model was short and stubby, completely out of scale. This new model is leaner and longer. It also has much more detail, not only in the molding but in the painted details. The only thing the original Kenner toy were the electronics; the original had sound and a light-up "laser" on the nose. But Hasbro's model boasts an R2 Astromech droid and a well-articulated action figure of Wedge "Red Two" Antilles (not to mention two ladders, which excites the Star Wars toy community to no end for some reason). Even the box was well-designed, with the interior packaging laid out in an appealing mini diorama.

Yeah, in the end it's just a toy that which ultimately will end up sitting in a corner collecting dust. But it's well put together kit and even mumble-mumble years later, the kid in me still appreciates a good toy.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

More Rights!

Not to keep harping on the subject (too late, I know), but I recently stumbled across another "DRM Bill of Rights" at I don't necessarily agree with their list but obviously I am in favor of the whole concept.

Their story was originally posted October 8th, 2008, so this isn't exactly hot news. Still, if you are interested in the topic it may be worth a look.

Point of fact: I originally posted my own DRM Bill of Rights to Usenet on September 24, 2008. I beat them by two weeks. ;-)

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Bang That DRM

DRM remains the online topic of choice for PC gamers.

It really started with StarForce, a disc-based copy protection package that quickly became the poster-child for invasive digital-rights management. Its use of Ring-0 drivers open up the possibility of incompatibilities with other software, security vulnerabilities and alleged damage to hardware. StarForce was reasonably successful in stopping "zero-day" piracy (that is, the hacker community was no longer able to release a pirated version of the title on the same day as the game released to stores because it took them several weeks to bypass StarForce) but at a cost to customer relations; the people who actually paid for the software were outraged at Ubisoft for installing StarForce on their machines. It was such a fiasco that Ubisoft had to publicly reverse their decision to use such unpopular  software to protect their titles.

Later, Steam and SecuROM upped the ante by requiring online activation; titles protected by this software -even those without any online component - required users to connect to an Internet server run by the publisher before they could actually play the games for which they had laid down good, hard cash. Concerns over how long the publisher would maintain the activation service and transferability of the license became hotly contested topics. Valve reassured customers with vague promises to remove the activation requirement for titles protected by Steam should the company go out of business. EA Games and other publishers quickly retrofitted "deactivation software" into their SecuROM-protected games after consumer backlash. Spore, one of the first titles to be released with SecuROM, still lingers at a "1-star" rating on solely due to all the negative feedback regarding the activation requirements.

More recently, Ubisoft announced that its newest products would not only require online-activation, but a constant Internet connection. Any disruption of that connection and the game would pause until the activation servers could be contacted again. EA followed suit with similar requirements for the latest sequel in their best-selling Command & Conquer series of games. Once again, PC gamers took to the message boards to vent their frustrations and promises never to buy any game with such onerous copy-protection mechanisms. Others took more direct action, launching an internet attack on Ubisoft's activation servers, preventing anyone -even paying customers- from activating or playing the protected games.

So if gamers are so vehemently opposed to these restrictions, why do PC game publishers keep forcing them down the community's throat? Even publishers that should have learned from past experiences (both Ubisoft and EA Games suffered from backlash over StarForce and SecuROM requirements) continue to up the onerous requirements on paying customers. It is all the more baffling when one considers how ineffective these copy protection methods actually are; Ubisoft's touted new copy-protection was cracked on the day it was released. Even the mainstream media are starting to take note. It is costing the publishers sales, good relations with their paying customers and it doesn't work. Why do they even bother?

The reasons behind this apparent insanity are myriad. The most obvious answer is because they can; despite all the uproar, games protected by these copy-protection mechanisms continue to be best-sellers. Regardless of its rating on, Spore sold over a million copies in the first month. Other similarly protected titles followed suit. Whether this is because those concerned over the issues raised by modern copy-protection are just a vocal minority or because the majority does care but not enough to stop them from buying the game, remains a debated topic. It seems no matter how bad the press, PC Game publishers can still be assured of making a profit. Meanwhile, PC gaming has the highest piracy rate of any platform, ensuring a need for strong copy-protection. Our behavior as the PC gaming community necessitates DRM.

But even were there to be a significant decline in sales or piracy, it is unlikely that publishers would revert to less onerous copy-protection mechanisms. Modern DRM requiring online activation has too numerous other advantages to be abandoned. Below I list the top seven reasons online DRM will never go away.

1) To begin, the use of online-activation is rather useful in slaying the other bogeyman that haunts game publishers beyond game piracy: the sale of used games.  Publishers do not want gamers buying used games; they would rather you spend your money on a new title. But, barring their ability to shut down that avenue entirely, the publishers desperately want a piece of that pie. Online-activation is way for them to achieve either of those goals. Either the activation is limited to only a single user (in which case the value of used games plummets, as anyone who buys your copy will not be able to activate and play the game), or they use the online-activation to force a "transfer fee"; you can sell the game but the publisher still gets their cut.

2) Then again, some gamers never sell their older games but keep playing the same old title year after year. These leeches don't go out and buy new games. Online activation allows  the publisher to enable forced obsolescence. The publishers do not want you to linger over ancient games; they want you to go out and buy the latest and greatest. They don't make money if you replay a game from ten years ago. Originally they could depend on technology moving forward to the point where nobody had the hardware to play those old games, but clever software programmers taught them the error of that thinking. DOSBox and emulators? Publishers hate them! So how else to make sure you can't play games from years ago? Online activation require you to beg permission from the publisher to play the game; in five years, publishers could easily refuse that permission by simply turning off the servers that activate the software. With no way to play your old classics, gamers will be forced to shell out for the newest titles. Particularly nasty publishers might resell "updated" versions of the same game, requiring you to pay twice for the same product.

As an added bonus, this tactic kill things like user maps and mods which might otherwise extend the lifespan of the game. After all, if the player wants more maps they should buy the sequel.

3) Another advantage to online-activated DRM is the ability to soak the user for the right to play a game on multiple computers. EULAs have already generally restricted  gamers to playing the same game on more than one machine, but circumstance has forced publishers to turn a blind eye to the inevitable violations. Online-activation methods typically check the hardware of the computer requesting authorization before they activate the title. If it varies too much, the activation is refused. Thus, if a gamer has multiple machines he now has to buy additional copies of the same game for each computer. If he bought a game but activated on his desktop he can't, thanks to online activation, play it simultaneously on his laptop. But he's free, off course, to buy another copy.

4) Frequently overlooked by opponents of online DRM is how it can be used as a bonus sources of income for the publisher. Collecting marketing and demographics information can equal big money! In days of yore, it was extremely difficult for publishers to figure out who was buying their games; after all, who really took the time to fill out all those registration cards? Nowadays, with ever-increasing online requirements, not only do they know what hardware is on a customer's computer, but they increasingly know more about him: when he plays, how often he plays and even -if the software is invasive enough- personal information like where he lives and what websites he likes. This data can then be used internally for the publisher's own marketing efforts or, as likely, sold to advertising firms for a tidy profit.

As a bonus, an always-on online-activation scheme also mean the customer is always available for "timely and informative" advertisements to be pushed down his way by the publisher's helpful (and well paying) advertising partners!

But are those all the benefits offered by online-activation? Heck no! There's still more!

5) You know what publishers really want? They want you to pay everytime you play the game. Subscription-based service gaming is (they hope) the wave of the future. But how to get gamers to accept the idea that gaming -with a few notable exceptions- needs to change from a "pay once" transaction to an endless term of monthly fees, especially for products that traditionally do not require such? Like the old saw about boiling a frog slowly, the publishers do it step by step; they just keeping taking away rights in slow increments and requiring the publisher's permission to do what used to be an accepted right until the idea of tacking on a fee for this "service" becomes the logical next step.

6) But even if all of the above were to go away, the publishers would still  be forced to install copy protection. As publicly held companies, the board of directors has a duty to ensure that the shareholders' investment is protected. If the board releases an unprotected title onto the market knowing that it will be pirated to the extent that it is impossible to make a profit, the shareholders can sue them for negligence. True, most DRM has been proven again and again to be ineffective, but at least the CEOs can point to the DRM and claim they are trying to stop the efforts of the pirates.

Another bonus: even if the publishers can't convince the market to support subscription-based gaming, the "always online" component does help move the market towards digital-only sales. 40% of a game's price goes to distribution and retail. Digital downloads allow the publishers to cut out these costs and pocket the difference for themselves.

7) And finally, while useless against hard-core pirates copy-protection has been proven to be somewhat effective in stopping casual copiers. No longer can you simply hand your disc to a friend and let him make his own copy; if he wants to pirate, he needs to go to the trouble of finding a working torrent or crack. While the Internet has made these activities phenomenally easier, it still requires additional effort. DRM also is effective against slowing piracy in the crucial first few weeks after a title's release. If a gamer wants to play a hot new title when it is both still hot and new, DRM may result in his actually going to a store and buying it.

So, given all the above, it seems unlikely that DRM or online activation are going anywhere soon. The only hope of stopping it is a clear and obvious boycott of games encumbered by these copy-protection mechanisms with simultaneous support of products that are free of DRM. Unfortunately, the gaming community has proven again and again to lack the strength or unity for such tactics to work. The sad fact is, if we wonder why our beloved games are saddled with online activation, we only have ourselves to blame.

Mama's Dirty Little Secret

Music time! It can't be games and software all the time. You want to listen to a hard rocking band? Four words: Mama's Dirty Little Secret. They're an independent band with an intense pulse-pounding beat (gotta love that drummer!). Check out some of their tracks at their website and, if you're in the Brooklyn area, catch one of their shows (check the website for the schedules and locations).

Monday, March 15, 2010

Westinghouse TX-42F810G 42" HDTV

Last month I bought myself a TV.

Unless you know me personally, you won't realize what a big deal this is. I haven't owned a TV in about ten years and prior to that my TV was a tiny, rarely used 12" CRT.  But watching TV was not a major component of my life and when it finally died I didn't worry myself about it. I installed a TV tuner card into my computer, just in case, but on the whole I was much happier without having to worry about who won on American Idol. I admit, in some respects I became this guy.

But when I saw the Westinghouse TX-42F810G 42" LCD HDTV for $400, I knew I had to buy it.

Having not owned -nor wanted to own- a TV for a decade, I had not kept up with the technology of flat-screen TVs. But even to my uneducated eye, I could tell that this TV was not particularly good. Sure, it boasted 1080p resolution and had a good number of connections (although only 2 HDMI ports), but its contrast ration (a pathetic 4000:1) was abysmal (most televisions offer ten times that) and its response time was average at best. It also featured the odd choice of rear-facing speakers and it was obvious even from the brightly-lit video playing on the floor model that it had problems displaying true blacks.

But it was 42", and even with tax and a 3-year store warranty the whole thing came to less than $500.

At home, its deficiencies became even more obvious; this TV does not have a great display. It's terrible with non-HD content and even with higher-quality images there is a lot of pixellation. The image is often dark and muddy as well, due to the lack of acceptable contrast. And those rear-mounted speakers? They aren't loud to begin with and much of their power is pushed out in the wrong direction.

So, this is not a good TV. But I love it anyway.

Okay, that's mostly because it is so big. Did I mention my last TV was only 12"? Heck, my computer monitor is half that size; watching anything on a 42" display is an awesome experience even if the quality is only a few notches above standard definition TV.  Plus, it also helps that I still don't watch much actual TV; its primary use is for watching DVDs (usually with the lights down, which not only enhances the experience but also minimizes the effect of the poor contrast ratio) and playing games on my aging XBox (the high-contrast cartoon-like visuals also disguise the screen's deficiencies). For these purposes, the TV works fine.

Ultimately, I'd have a hard time recommending this TV to anyone who wasn't in the same situation I was; it's probably better to spend two or three hundred dollars more and get a decent 32" plasma; the Westinghouse TX-42F810G is going to disappoint the average viewer. But I'm an edge case and for my limited needs it suits my purposes.

Monday, February 22, 2010


I bemoan the deficiency of real science-fiction in the theater these days. Too often, what passes for sci-fi are action movies with a veneer of futurism. We are served shallow depictions of impossible futures which blatantly violate known laws of physics and sociology; they are fast-paced, effects laden fantasies. They may be exciting, they may be fun, but I can't in all honesty consider them sci-fi.

Moon is sci-fi.

I missed Moon when it was first released this summer. It came out with little fanfare and was only released to select theaters; by the time I had heard of it, it was already gone. Fortunately, it made enough of a splash that Sony Pictures had to release it to DVD; a rare honor for an short-running independent film.

Moon is a story based around character and atmosphere. Science-fiction aficionados will appreciate the care that went into the setting (although as always, I have a few quibbles about the space suit in vacuum; it should bubble out more rather than cling to the actor's skin, but that's a minor nitpick). The sets are crafted in the style of 2001 or Silent Running; a stark contrast of utilitarian futurism with the lived-in look of Outland or Alien. There are no aliens in Moon; this is a story set in the realm of the High Frontier technology, not in the super-sciences of Star Trek.

But Moon is not about technology or science; it is a low-key drama about the fall and rise of a man. Sam Rockwell elegantly plays the role of Sam Bell as he struggles with the travail of his isolation on the far side of the Moon, and later with questions of who he is and what he strives to achieve. Kevin Spacey voices the role of the robotic Gerty; perfectly unemotional except for a few simple emoticons, he channels the spirit of Douglas Rain (the voice of Hal in 2001). Never afraid to move at its own pace,  the movie avoids all the predictable plots and moves on its own unique and unexpected path. It mixes mystery and suspense and drama with the wonder and vastness we normally expect from science-fiction.

Moon is science fiction as it ought to be made; it is the sort of science-fiction we geeks can be proud of. Star Wars and its ilk (of which I am a great fan) are impressive light-shows, but ultimately pabulum that do little to improve the genre. Moon is proof that the category of movies consisting solely of man-eating alien monsters or wise-cracking, laser-gun toting action-heroes. It is a genre capable of standing on its own with the greats of classic fiction.And for all its entertaining quality, it is the last that makes me appreciate Moon most of all.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Aliens vs Predator

The Aliens vs Predator games have always had mixed appeal for me. The original had wonderful atmosphere but I never enjoyed the game-play, nominally because it had poor story but in truth because it so cheerfully kicked my ass. The 2001 sequel had a stronger (if somewhat convoluted) story and I appreciated the game-play more (read: it was easier) but -aside from a precious few moments- lacked the terrifying atmosphere that made the franchise so memorable. And what of the 2010 reboot?

Like the previous games, the series divides itself into three campaigns; one for each species (Human, Predator and Alien). The human campaign was suitably terrifying; I was vulnerable prey running from deadly and hungry non-terrestrial life. Unfortunately, my deadly array of weaponry even the odds somewhat, minimizing the fear... at least until ammo started to run low. But it was by far the best of the three campaigns.

The Alien and Predator campaigns were less satisfying; they were just too deadly to provide much of a challenge.  All three of the campaigns also suffered from very linear levels, although this was less obvious with the Aliens and Predators, who could leap across wide areas with ease, which opened up the maps somewhat; the Humans were limited to tight corridors. The AI was largely disappointing too, especially with regards to the "charge directly into my gun-sights" Aliens. It cheated too; the AI always seemed to know exactly where I was. It didn't make the monsters anymore effective in combat, but it was disconcerting that -even playing as a cloaked Predator and hidden behind walls - the AI still directed fire in my direction. The story was improved over the 1999 game but was poorly paced and ended predictably. And the game was incredibly short; about two hours per campaign.

But for all its shortcomings, the old-school game-play of Aliens vs Predator was a welcome change of pace. It might not have "wowed" me, but neither did it entirely disappoint. It may have been run-of-the-mill as far as design, but it used the iconic franchise well and it was entertaining to boot.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ubisoft's DRM, Our Shame

So, there's a lot of uproar about Ubisoft's recently announced DRM. The game developer released the facts about its new copy protection methods last week and to say gamers were not taken with their scheme would be a modest understatement. Many developers have required customers to activate their products online before they could play the game; Ubisoft has taken it a step further; not only do they require that initial activation, you must be online to play the game. Worse, lose your network connection, even momentarily, and you are booted from the game and your progress since your last save-point is lost.

As stated earlier, gamers are outraged. The usual objections have been raised: not everybody has broadband, ISPs are notoriously unreliable, this violates first-sale doctrine, there are privacy and security issues, and DRM does nothing to stop pirates anyways. Similarly, the usual calls to action are also being offered: Internet petitions, people are swearing not to buy the game, and threats are being made to pirate the title to teach Ubisoft a lesson.

Meanwhile, I just can't get all that upset about it all.

Mind you, I hold Ubisoft's latest tactic against copyright violators in no more favor than any other gamer. Personally, after upsetting customer so much with first Starforce and later SecuROM, I would have thought that the publisher might have learned its lesson; certainly, it seemed to be moving in the right direction with the DRM-free release of Prince of Persia. Apparently not.

I'm unhappy about Ubisoft's decision and, like many, have decided that any games poisoned with this copy-protection mechanism is not worth buying. But I can't help but feel that the problem isn't with Ubisoft, but with us gamers.

Oh, not for the expected reason; not because so many people illegally copy software. Sure, that is a cause of this current crisis, but there was rampant software copying twenty years ago and software publishers managed to survive despite a lack of online activation. So it's hardly fair to lay the blame entirely on piracy for Ubisoft's decision to add these onerous requirements on its customers in 2010.

What then led the publisher to this point? We did, but showing our acceptance to this sort of thing by buying games that had similar restrictions to its use. It didn't matter if it was SecuROM online activation, or Steam, or Stardock's Impulse; it's all the same. Step by step the publishers have been moving in this direction, and we customers haven't done any more than whine as we willingly moved in the very direction we swore we never would.

Oh sure; we had our reasons. Steam demanded online activation, forced upgrades on you, tracked your online activity and prevented you from reselling the game, but dammit, surely we couldn't be expected to not play Half Life 2? Bioshock used online activation that was limited to five installations (and, initially, no way to de-authorize the product) in addition to a disc-check, but the hype for that game was enormous; how could we mere mortals resist buying the game? Modern Warfare 2 did the same, plus they took away hosted servers, but obviously the billion dollars we poured into EA's pockets indicated we must have had some reason to ignore the fact we were getting screwed. We have, collectively, shown the publishers that despite all our howls of protest, we really don't care about DRM. Why then are we surprised that they continue to tighten the screws on us with every new release?

I'm not innocent of any of this either; I bought Half Life 2, I bought Bioshock. In fairness to myself, I did resist for a long while; I was absolutely opposed to Steam when it was released. I was not only opposed to what it did then, but what it meant for the future of the industry. I argued and warned people that if they bought Half Life 2 today, knowing full well that it required online activation, they shouldn't be surprised when other publisher's followed suit. I posted on various forums and even went so far as to write to Valve regarding my dissatisfaction. But I admit, a year later when it became evident that the community had spoken overwhelmingly in favor of Steam I became a convert. Not happily, but willingly because the choice was clear. Gamers didn't care about DRM, so publishers were going to keep using it on new games; I could either abandon my hobby or accept the turn of events. Could I have held my ground? Of course... but it wouldn't have made any difference.  So I caved, well aware that I was now a part of the very problem I had once railed against.

And so here we are, in 2010; Ubisoft has upped the ante with its new onerous copy protection.  I am not surprised, and neither should be you. They aren't to blame; the fault lies entirely with us. And while the solution lies with us too - we could all agree not to buy of Ubisoft's games (and, as important, not pirate them either) -  history shows us how unlikely this is to happen.  We had a chance to avoid this future five years ago; we chose a different path. Together we've made the bed we're being forced to lie in; let us not cry about it and shake our fists at Ubisoft.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Bioshock 2

It was inevitable that a financial success like the original Bioshock would get a sequel. I wasn't overwhelmed with the first game; I thought it average at best, despite some occasionally interesting architecture and some neat water effects. The second in the series is more of the same... or perhaps less. But either way, it is a better game than the first.

It's more of the same because it returns to the setting -the underwater city of Rapture- presented in the first game. The architecture of Rapture was one of the highlights of the original and it's no less stunning in the sequel. The art deco construction is gorgeous, although thoroughly unrealistic. The underwater setting plays more of a role this time out as well. Not only do you actually get to traverse the open seabed this time (unfortunately, thoroughly linear slogs with very little to do beyond gawk at the well-rendered sea life) but the oceanic environment makes more of an impact on the actual city as well. Coral and anemones are everywhere, as is water; Rapture is a damp, leaking ruin and you never forget the crushing tons of water around you.

The weapons and monsters from the former game make a return as well; insane gene-spliced
citizens scrounging a living from the wreckage, hulking protector "Big Daddies" and their helpless "Little Sister" charges populate the city. There are a few new monsters, the most notable of which are the "Big Sisters" who incorporate the endurance of the "Big Daddies" with incredible speed and agility. Your weapons are mix of scrounged up guns and the "Big Daddies'" iconic drill-hand, and super-power "plasmids". There's some variation here from the original game, but mostly your weapon sets are identical.

Where the game differs is mostly in game-play. The first was "the spiritual successor" to the classic "System Shock" action-RPG and itself tried to include role-playing aspects into the run-n-gun game-play. Bioshock 2 distances itself from this a bit; the plot is far more linear and predetermined, although there are still two endings depending on your actions throughout the story. Unlike the original game, in Bioshock 2 you will never have more than a single goal to complete at any one time; the levels are fairly straightforward and rarely do you need to backtrack. Although some might bemoan this loss of freedom, it is actually one of the sequel's strengths compared to the poorly paced original; the action maintains an intensity that was lost with the haphazard wandering in the first game.

Still, beyond the impressive visuals and improved pacing, Bioshock 2 doesn't overwhelm a player with exceptional game-play. The game's linearity does not offer much in the way of exploration and, while architecturally appealing, it lacks any truly impressive set-pieces. You are offered a large variety of weapons and upgrades, but for the most part you will find yourself relying on two or three favorites with little incentive to experiment. The vaunted ability to use the environment itself as a weapon remains, but is largely limited to scattered pools of flammable oil and electricity-conducting pools of water; it is little more than the traditional "exploding barrel" in new form.

The combat is distressingly ordinary as well. Splicers and Big Daddies, the mainstay of Rapture's army, tend to simply charge at you (they sometimes duck behind cover). The new "Big Sisters" are more intelligent foes, utilizing the environmental hazards against you, but they leap about so disconcertingly that combat with them ends up being little less than frenzied mouse clicking. After all the build-up of these new enemies, both with the pre-release hype and in the game itself (initially there was only to be a single Big Sister fought in recurring battles throughout the game), it was disconcerting to realize they were as disposable as all the rest of the monsters. Occasionally you are tasked to defend the helpless "Little Sister" NPCs, which results in an intense but not particularly involving battle against re-spawning bad-guys. And you still end up only using one or two weapons.

A few problems degrade the experience. The limited field of vision is further hampered by a HUD which includes the border of your deep-sea diving helmet; it's only a tiny percentage of the screen but when peripheral vision is already so limited I cursed the loss of even more. Although minimized when compared to the first game, the mini-games to "hack" various devices still aren't any fun, especially after repeating them for the thousandth time. More disconcertingly, there was no apparent way to remap weapons or powers to specific hot-keys; whichever you picked up first was locked to hot-key one, and so forth. That resulted in all the useful weapons being mapped to keys on the far end of the keyboard.

Worst of all, the story wasn't particularly involving, the characters lacked any emotional appeal and the end game -despite the threat of an "ohmigod, the clock is running and we're all going to die" timer, was a tiresome slog through waves of enemies. Too, he developers also expect the player to have some familiarity with the setting as much of the backstory that was so carefully developed in the original game goes unexplained in the sequel. Understanding how Rapture came about or what the Big Daddies are isn't necessary to finish the game, but it is core to the game's atmosphere. The endings (there are two) are completely predictable as well, with the usual chocie of "good" or "bad" depending on your activities during the game. But there's no real surprise either way.

Still, Bioshock is a better game than the original, even if it still sometimes lets its style take precedence over story and game-play. The combat is marginally more interesting, the quest is better focused, the architecture is still wonderful and the water effects remain impressive. It may be damning the game with faint praise to only say that Bioshock 2 is a superior game compared to the first (which, as I said, I felt was wildly over-hyped) but given my low expectations I was pleasantly surprised. It is hardly a classic and it may lack in innovation but it is competent, well designed product.That's saying something, anyway.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Toolkit #2 - IrfanView

My "toolkit", when it comes to computers, is a handful of software applications I just can't live without. They are some of the first applications I install on a new computer, and I carry them everywhere on a thumb-drive so if I have to work on a strange computer, I'm not without my favorite utilities.

Irfanview is one of these cherished applications. There are a lot of free image-viewing utilities available these days (Google's own Picassa is probably the best known), and modern operating systems offer built-in image preview. So why the oddly named Irfanview?

Because it is fast.  I double-click on a file and the application is instantly open. The program is extremely resource light; with all the optional plug-ins and skins loaded, it still only takes 4MB. It opens virtually every image file out there, too. CAD files, raw camera files, cursors, media files; more than once a friend has called upon me to open a strange image file he's received that his application can't recognize. But IrfanView could. Better still, it can write in most formats as well. Many formats it can read natively; others require a small plug-in available free from Irfanview's website.

Although not designed as an image editor, the software can be used to tweak pictures; it has the usual bevy of options to crop, re-size, sharpen  color balance and otherwise adjust the image. Unless you are heavy into graphic design, Irfanview will almost certainly meet your needs for image handling.

There are a few areas where Irfanview is weak. The first is minor: its default icons, used when you associate images to the program, are atrocious. They look embarrassingly amateur and are a bad first impression for the program. However, the lack of support for any cloud-based image stores (Picassa Web Albums, Flickr, Photobucket or a host of others) may be a serious disadvantage for some users. Personally, I'm not willing to stick all my personal images onto the insecure cloud and prefer to keep them on local storage so I'm fine with this "missing" feature but I can understand if others consider this a problem. It is one of the reasons IrfanView loads so quickly, though. Finally, it lacks any real integration with the operating system.

But its speed and tiny footprint more than make up for any perceived disadvantages. It's free software and frequently updated with new features. I expect to be using Irfanview for years to come.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The DRM Bill of Rights

This is an article I originally posted about a year ago after EA first announced it's "five installs only" limit for the upcoming release of Spore. Backlash from that announcement has made EA wary of such heavy-handed copy-protection, but -as evidenced by Ubisoft's recent announcement- not all publishers seem to have learned the lesson. 
DRM is all in the news now, what with EA's bungled handling of Spore and general gamer dissatisfaction with its SecuRom copy-protection. Okay, maybe the mainstream media hasn't picked it up, but it got mentioned on MTV so its obviously gone beyond something just the geeks and hard-code gamer crowd care about.

Now, I generally try to stay out of DRM conversations but the following idea has been percolating in the back of my head for a few days so I thought I'd share it. Brad Wardell, CEO of Stardock, recently suggested a "Gamer Bill of Rights" that beautifully constructed an perfect world where paying customers weren't treated  like dirt . This is a very wide-ranging list of some very good -but hard to  implement- ideas. My idea is related, but a bit more limited in scope.

I want a DRM Bill of Rights, an agreement between Publishers and End-Users about what their DRM software can and cannot do. It needs to be palatable to both the Publishers - who want to protect their copyright and investment in the software - and to the users, who want to be able to use software they paid for not only today but in the future.

Let me be straight on this subject: I hate DRM and especially online  activations. I think DRM is invasive, anti-consumer, bad for the culture, and ultimately an expensive, useless waste. It doesn't work and all it does is interfere with paying customers while the people it hopes to stop -the pirates- don't have to deal with it at all. But, like it or not, it's here to stay. At best we can hope to mitigate the damage it causes.

So, below, I present the first draft of the DRM Bill of Rights. I offer it to the newsgroup for discussion, amendment and dissemination. I encourage you to pass it on to your favorite web-forums and post it on your 'blogs. You don't have to use it verbatim; you don't even have to attribute it to me (although it'd be nice if you mentioned me as the originator of the idea). You may disagree with certain ideas I have below, or think certain concepts need strengthening. Feel free to add to or subtract from the list. But the idea is to hammer out  something both parties -t he publishers and the users - can agree to rather than just create a bitch-list of things we hate about DRM. The publishers spent a lot of time and money developing the software; it is understandable that they want to protect the investment. We need to provide them a way to do that without going so far as to interfere with our own rights.

So, here it is. Take it away, gamers.

A Balanced Agreement of Rights Between Publisher and Customer
I. The Right of Free Use: If you limit number of installations, the Publisher MUST provide a "revoke" tool.

What it entails for the Publisher
The Publisher is allowed to limit the software's installation to one or more computers based on their hardware configuration and registered online ("Activation"). They must provide a free stand-alone tool, preferably on the same distribution medium, that the User can use to de-authorize previously activated computers ("De-activation"). The total number of  Activations and De-activations must be unlimited in number, but can be  limited as to number of uses in a particular time period.
How It Would Work
When you install a game, the software must be activated online as is  the standard practice today. However, what this Right provides is a method for the User to deactivate an installation so the software can be transferred to another computer, either due to hardware failure,  upgrade or resale. This tool needs to be provided free to the User, preferably on the CD/DVD or other install medium provided at purchase (or downloaded if the game is purchased through digital distribution) and must be stand-alone. Deactivation would require proof of ownership (the CD in the drive and the CD-key should be enough), and would display a list of all computers authorized to run that software. The User could then select  the computers to be de-activated. Note that this tool does NOT have to be run on the Authorized computer, or require the Authorized software to be installed. In order to prevent misuse of this tool, the Publisher can allow only a certain amount of Activations / De-activations per day/week/month, but cannot limit the total amount of De-activations.
One of the biggest worries I hear about online Activations is the worry about how to De-activate the software. Some users wonder about  being able to replay the game many years -and many computer upgrades-  down the line, others fear that unexpected computer failure might lock  them out of a game they paid for, and still others wonder about how activations might effect resale value. This Right provides a fair balance between the Publisher's need to limit the number of people using a game at anyone time while still providing the Users the flexibility they desire.

II. The Right of Activation: If the Publisher requires Activation, they must provide some assurance of method to bypass this should the method of Activation no longer be available.

What it entails for the Publisher
The Publisher is allowed to require the User to Activate their software through the method of their choice. But if that method should no longer be available (be it due to technical or financial reasons), they must ensure that the User can continue to use the software they paid for even although the Activation service is no longer running. This assurance can take many forms; a legal promise to release a patch should the Activation Servers be taken down;  a waiving of the Publisher's rights to take legal action of any third-party who rights software to allow the same; or a universal "key" that is held in escrow, to be released only should the Activation servers go down, that allows installation and use of the Software without Activation.
How It Would Work
Basically, the Publisher needs to provide the User with a "back-door" -either legal or technical- that they can use to bypass the Activation requirement should the Publisher chose to no longer allow Activations, either because it is costing the Publisher too much money to maintain the activation servers or because they are no longer in business. The best way for the User is if the Publisher has a patch or some sort of universal serial number that allows the User to bypass Activation; this patch/key is held in escrow until the Activation Servers go down and is then released to the general public. Of course, this may dramatically compromise the usefulness of the DRM, so other methods can be used, for example: providing source-code and funds that can be released to pay a programming team to successfully develop a patch after the fact. Alternately (but least palatable to the User) the Publisher can simply promise to release code and not prosecute should a third-party (e.g., a "cracker") want to develop some method to bypass the Activation (but, note, they must provide enough code to make this a possibility).
The second biggest worry I hear about Activation is this: what if I want to play the game in ten years and I can't Activate it because the Publisher dropped the servers, or went out of business? This Right provides for that eventuality, by legally binding the Publisher to allowing some sort of method so the User can keep using the software should the Publisher no longer want to support it.

III. The Right to Privacy: Any data-collection from these activation services will be opt-out (except as what is required for Activation), will not be matched to any personally identifiable information and it absolutely, positively will not be shared with anyone.

What it entails for the Publisher 
The Publisher is allowed to collect information from the User's computer solely for the purpose of identifying him for Activation so that the software can only be used by Authorized computers. However, any information collected for this purpose, no matter how seemingly innocuous, cannot be used for any other purpose beyond Activation. On De-Activation, this information -no longer useful- will be purged. The Publisher can run other data-mining operations, but this data-collection cannot be a requirement of the Activation.
How It Would Work 
When the software is Activated, the Publisher needs to gather certain information from the User. At the very least, a snapshot of the computer configuration will be required; the Publisher might also gather other information. If the software is run on some other computer, that configuration is matched to the one on file and the Publisher can allow or deny the software to run as they desire (with, of course, the stipulation of Right I: The Right of Free Use given above, that computers can be De-activated by the User at will). But any information the Publisher collects for this purpose can only be used for this purpose: it can't be used for any sort of data-mining, it can't be shared with the marketing department or partners. If the Publisher wants to gather this sort of information, they can do so, but they can't make it a requirement to install the software; it has to be an opt-in program separate from the Software.
The right of privacy is not something many people care about, but I do and I think it's worth defending. We get that the Publisher may need to collect information about our hardware so that only that the software is activated to only one computer, but beyond that the information cannot be used by them. Publishers MAY offer to opt-in to sharing this information, but this offer must be completely separate from the install (and not at all a requirement for activation) and must be in clear concise language, preferably with some advantage to the Gamer (so hiding it in the EULA is right out)

IV.  The Right of Resources: Copy-Protection mechanisms must be self-contained software that leave no lingering traces on the computer.

What it entails for the Publisher
If the Publisher requires DRM software to protect their copyright, this software must be self-contained and non-invasive. The DRM should only run when the Software runs, and stop running when the Software runs. It cannot install any drivers or background processes that linger in the background when the User is not using the Software. While the DRM can refuse to let the Software run should it find other programs in memory, it should not interfere with the use of those other programs when the Publisher's software is not in use. Finally, the DRM must be fully uninstalled when the Publisher's software is uninstalled.
How It Would Work
DRM software needs to be limited in its scope. Currently, it runs roughshod on the User's computer, installing ring-0 drivers and potentially installing root-kits and backdoors. It interferes with other software, such as disc-emulation programs EVEN WHEN THE GAME IT IS PROTECTING IS NOT RUNNING and does not uninstall cleanly. All this needs to change. The software will need to be rewritten and, potentially, this will make it less effective. However, DRM is not particularly effective now, so this is no big loss. The Publisher can still restrict what programs run concurrently with its own Software (both to prevent piracy and in-game cheating) but only when the Software is running.
Once I'm done with a game, I don't want some crudware sitting in the background stealing resources. And I when I say "done", I don't just mean "uninstalled"; I mean "done playing this session". When I quit Bioshock, I want any and all processes associated with it - including copy-protection mechanisms- uninstalled from memory as well. Think of a way of protecting your IP without ring-zero drivers that potentially compromise my machine. And while I grant you the right to refuse to run a game should I have potentially interfering programs running (such as Alcohol 120%), the DRM better let me play the game once I kill that process, even if the software itself is still installed (and if the game isn't running, I should be able to use Alcohol 120% as much as I damn well please)

V. The Right to Support: All problems with copy protection mechanisms must be handled by the Publisher (or their agent) free of charge

What it Entails for the Publisher
The Publisher must provide, either on their own or through an agent, free support solely to handle problems that result from its copy-protection software. This support must be both timely and knowledgeable, and if it cannot help the User with their problem, must offer them the right of return. Toll-free numbers wherever the game is sold and/or e-mail support with same-day turn-around must be offered. This support must exist for the lifetime of the product.

How It Would Work
The Publisher needs to provide some method of support resulting from problems caused by the DRM. This support needs to be separate from regular support issues, and it needs to be free and timely. The best method is to have the company that developed the DRM software handle this for you. This support needs to be knowledgeable but, should they be unable to solve the problem, they must offer - should they determine the problem to be caused by the DRM - to let the User return the software and get a refund.

If your obnoxious copy protection is keeping me from installing a game I paid for, don't make me pay for the call to correct the problem. Set up a toll-free number and staff it with people who can correct the problem. E-mail works too, but a timely response is a must. Too expensive? Get the developers of the copy-protection to do it for you; make it a requirement of the contract. Maybe if SecuRom had to handle all the calls they'd start to write decent software. Ultimately, of course, all these costs will be passed on to the consumer, but if this raises the price of the software too far beyond what its competitors are charging, the Publisher will be encouraged to use other methods of copy protection that do not cost them as much in support.