Dec 06

Fun with Windows

A couple of months ago, the hard disk on our primary home computer became corrupted, and I had to reformat and reinstall Windows. I was able to do this without losing any data by installing a second hard disk, putting Windows on that, and then using a recovery tool (Active@ UNDELETE) to retrieve our data files from the corrupted drive. After I was sure that I had recovered everything of value from the corrupted drive, I reformatted it and started using it as a backup medium (with Norton Ghost as the backup tool).
That should have been the end of our Windows problems, at least for a while. Formatting the new C: drive and installing Windows from scratch ought to have resulted in a clean, stable system. But something went wrong, because we started seeing odd behavior over the last several weeks. The first warning sign was a folder on my desktop that I could not get rid of — I could drag it to the Recycle Bin and empty the bin, but the folder would reappear on my desktop later. That was annoying, but not really problematic. Then Windows started refusing to shut down, restart, or log out. You could select those actions from the Start menu, but nothing would happen; the only way out was to use the button on the front of the computer. It was clear that our system was unstable, so after making sure that everything was backed up to the other hard drive, I reinstalled Windows again.
If you’ve ever gone through this process (and if you’ve had your computer more than a year or two, you’ve probably had to), you know that the time-consuming part is not installing Windows from the CD, but installing four years’ worth of updates and patches. It takes several hours to get it all done. This time around, it occurred to me that I wasn’t actually doing anything except clicking buttons to tell Windows Update to proceed to the next step. The problem is that after installing each set of updates, Windows needs to restart, but it won’t do so without confirmation from you. And after Windows restarts, you have to manually run Windows Update again to start downloading and installing the next set of updates. In other words, what’s so burdensome is that Windows Update keeps stopping and waiting for manual intervention.
Why can’t the whole process be automated? What’s needed is a Windows Cumulative Update option, which would do the following:

  1. Check for high-priority updates and begin installing them.
  2. When it becomes necessary to reboot, do so automatically.
  3. After each reboot, run Windows Update again and check for more high-priority updates.
  4. Repeat these steps until no more high-priority updates remain, then exit.

Wouldn’t that be simpler? After installing Windows, you could start Windows Cumulative Update and walk away. A few hours later, your Windows installation would be fully up to date without any further action on your part. I hope Microsoft includes something like this with Windows Vista.

Dec 01

Gaming podcasts

So what podcasts do I listen to that aren’t about technology news? Well, several of them are about games. I stumbled across the Sci-Fi Podcast Network early in my search for more podcasts, and that site provided me with lots of shows to try out. But not the ones about science fiction or comic books, even though those are interests of mine. Money has been tight this year, so I haven’t been going to movies or buying comics. And my volunteer schedule at Raleigh Little Theatre has left me with insufficient time for watching TV. So I have to steer clear of the podcasts about science fiction and comics if I want to avoid spoilers.
But quite a few of the TSFPN shows are about gaming. Not computer or video gaming (which I also don’t have time for), but tabletop gaming: role-playing, board, and card games. And where games are concerned, spoilers aren’t an issue. In fact, I actually want to hear about games I’ve never played, because that’s a good way to identify games that I want to try.
So my exploration of TSFPN podcasts focused mainly on shows about gaming. I started with All Games Considered and Have Games, Will Travel. Those shows provided me with more leads, because podcasters frequently mention other podcasts that they listen to and provide links in their show notes. In this case, I learned about some gaming-related shows that are not part of TSFPN: Board Games to Go, The Dice Tower, and the OgreCave Audio Report.
Of all these shows, my favorite is Have Games, Will Travel. It’s a one-man show that consists of Paul Tevis reviewing, analyzing, and explaining games. The most obvious quality that makes HGWT stand out is Paul’s vocal delivery. He has a pleasant, well-modulated voice and speaks in a relaxed, unhurried way that’s very easy to listen to. His podcasts are entirely free of stammering, awkward pauses, gap-fillers like “uh” and “you know”, or verbal mistakes of any kind. This may just indicate that Paul edits his show very carefully, but I think a lot of it is because he just speaks really, really well. I don’t know whether he scripts his shows, because it’s impossible to tell — every episode is focused and moves along without digressions, but also sounds spontaneous and unforced. All aspiring podcasters should listen to this guy, because they could learn a lot from him.
But it’s not just Paul’s vocal style that makes me love his show; the content is excellent as well. I particularly enjoy his game reviews, because Paul has a knack for explaining the rules and mechanics of a game in a way that’s clear, concise, and doesn’t cause your eyes to glaze over, yet leaves you with a genuine understanding of the game. For example, take the review of the boardgame Parthenon: Rise of the Aegean in this episode. At the beginning of the review, I knew nothing about the game — but when he finished, I felt that I understood it and was ready to sit down and start playing. And that I wanted to, because Paul communicated the flavor of the game so well that I know I will enjoy it.
The other gaming podcast that I listen to regularly is Mark Johnson’s Boardgames to Go. Mark doesn’t have Paul’s natural gift for speaking, but he works hard to make his podcast interesting and informative. I initially sampled his show by listening to this episode about the care and feeding of local game groups — a subject I find interesting, since I’ve been a part of several such groups (some more successful than others) over the last quarter century. I enjoyed that episode enough that I decided to start with the first episode of BGTG and listen to them all in order (my usual practice with podcasts that I subscribe to). As I listened to the first couple of episodes, I started to think that the show wasn’t as good as I thought, but then I realized that Mark had simply started out as a novice podcaster and had improved steadily over time.
And that’s come to be one of the elements of the show that I enjoy: observing as he learns by trial and error (and feedback from his listeners) and hones his craft. (He also shares what he’s learning with us. In fact, this episode is the best tutorial I’ve encountered on how to record and edit a podcast with simple, inexpensive tools.) I do find some episodes of BGTG more interesting than others, but it’s almost always worth my time. And it continues to get a little bit better and more polished with each new episode.
As for the other shows I listed earlier, the jury is still out on them. The OgreCave Audio Report seems to focus more on news about the gaming industry, which I find kind of dull, so I don’t think it’s going to become a favorite of mine. All Games Considered and The Dice Tower seem to be hit-and-miss; I’ve heard at least one interesting episode of each, but then listened to other episodes and found some to be dull, depending on the topic. I probably need to sample them more before I decide.
In my next post about podcasts, I’ll talk about some others I like that aren’t about technology news or gaming.
UPDATE (2 Dec): The folks at Steve Jackson Games posted an item about gaming podcasts this morning, and it spotlights my two favorites.