Category Archives: Other

Chamberlain MyQ Garage Quick Review

I don’t know if its me getting older (being 33 is hard, kids!), but lately I’ve had a harder time remembering if I’ve closed the garage door or not when leaving the house. I’ve wanted to have a wifi connected garage door opener, but I didn’t want to replace my perfectly good garage door opener I have now.

So one day when my girlfriend told me she didn’t remember if she closed the garage door, I reached my limit and decided that I was going to go online and find some sort of sensor to tell me if the garage was open or not. What I found were some Raspberry Pi or Arduino sensors – not really what I was looking for. I wanted something a bit more professional. I ended up coming across the Chamberlain MyQ Garage Door controller. It was expensive at $129 (a brand new MyQ-Enabled Chamberlain garage door opener is $200), but after spending my lunch hour driving home and back to work, I was ready to pay that.

The first thing I had to do was check compatibility – does the garage door have the photosensors to prevent the garage from closing on someone or something, and is it using a compatible frequency and code. I happen to have a compatible Chamberlain LiftMaster, as well as an open 120V outlet near the garage door opener, so I was ready to order and go!

Installing it was easy, except for the part where they didn’t tell you what size drill bit to drill the pilot holes for the screw anchors (5/32″). I guess thats something they expect you to know, and this DIY-newbie didn’t know that.

20140319-111932.jpg

All you needed to do was install the WiFi hub on the ceiling, plug it in, and then secure the door sensor properly on the garage door. With those two things accomplished, the rest can be done from your phone via Bluetooth 4.0. Once you pair your phone, you can share your WiFi credentials from your iPhone to the WiFi hub to get it connected and online, and from there, you can use the MyQ app to create your account, link the hub to the account, and program the hub to talk to the garage door opener. It tries various garage door opening commands, and it knows when it succeeds because it has the sensor on the garage door itself.

MyQ Garage Status

The only issue I had with the entire online process was that it took about a half hour to get the verification email for the new MyQ account. So I had to wait for the email to activation the account before I was done with everything.

But now I can see the status of my garage door, as well as open and close it remotely.

Update 3/22: 
Chamberlain reached out to me to explain the PIN access. First you have to set a PIN code under the Account settings in the app. Then you have to set your security level – you can have it never prompt for a PIN code or 1) on app start, 2) accessing the account, or 3) when you perform an action on a door or gate. Personally, I think a PIN code should be mandatory and that it should prompt you on open/close actions. I’m used to my Chevy Volt OnStar application that requires me to enter a PIN code (which is validated on the server side) to lock/unlock doors, or to remote start the car. It seems like a good way to protect the car from unauthorized actions.

Pros:
Ease of use – being able to transfer my WiFi password over BT to the hub (instead of having to type me 25 character password) made it super easy to get the unit online.
Convenience – being able to check and close the garage door remotely will be very useful the one day I forget to close it

Cons:
Cost – at $129, its 65% of the cost of buying a replacement garage door opener that is MyQ enabled out of the box
Instructions – the instructions are written for someone who is a bit more handy than I (though I am getting better, installed some new bathroom hardware a few weeks ago)

Zales online is awful…

(disclaimer: rant ahead)

I normally don’t write about bad customer service stories, mostly because the online retailers I deal with are pretty good. But that changed this month when I bought a necklace for my girlfriend from Zales for Valentines Day.

I ordered on Feb 10, with Zales offering “Guaranteed Delivery for Valentines Day” with a chart on their website about how it would ship depending on what day you ordered it.

I called twice on Valentines Day after noticing that it still hadn’t shipped, once in the morning and once in the evening. They said they would have to check with their warehouse as to why it didn’t ship, why the order got lost. My girlfriend was pretty upset about not getting her gift on Valentines Day.

I called the Tuesday (2/18) and they still didn’t have a status update on why the order was lost, four days later. I called again the next day for a status update and they still didn’t have information on my order, so I cancelled it. That weekend I went out and bought my girlfriend something from Kay’s (despite their incredibly annoying commercials).

This week they shipped the order. Eight days after I called and cancelled it. Unbelievable.

This is the type of awful customer service I expected in the early 2000s when everyone had really poor e-commerce systems and bad logistics. Not in 2014. I’ve had more problems with them than I’ve had in the last 4-5 years of shopping online. Amazon, Newegg, Express all provide good customer service – shipping out orders on time, handling returns well, etc. But Zales… ugh, never again.

Update: Zales contacted me after I tweeted them this, and they contacted FedEx to recall the shipment and refund my credit card. Why can’t regular customer service reps do this?

How time-of-use electricity billing saved me $500 a year

Back in late 2012, I switched to a time-of-use billing schedule for my electric service with NV Energy (now part of Mid-American, a Warren Buffett joint). I was eligible for a cheaper time-of-use rate because I own an plug-in electric vehicle, allowing me to get deeper discount rates from 10PM to 6AM each day for the entire meter (not just EV charging). Around the same time I also installed Nest thermostats that include a number of features that save me electricity during the hot summer months when the time-of-use rate is at its highest (33.4c/kWh).

The price structure and time schedule is:

  • Winter: October 1 through May 31; Off Peak: 5.0c/kWh (10PM-6AM), On-Peak: 5.5c/kWh (6AM-10PM)
  • Summer: June 1 through September 30; Off Peak: 6.9c/kWh (10PM-6AM), Mid-Peak: 7.6c/kWh (6AM-1PM and 7PM-10PM), Peak: 33.4c/kWh (1PM-7PM)
Billing Month On-Peak Mid-Peak Off-Peak TOU $ Flat rate (11.7c) $
November 652 0 491 $54.20 $133.73
December 815 0 572 $65.92 $162.28
January (Est.) 418 0 286 $33.48 $82.37
February 646 0 546 $56.32 $139.46
March 677 0 486 $55.23 $136.07
April 795 0 476 $60.69 $148.71
May 817 459 1163 $195.98 $285.36
June 498 806 720 $267.15 $236.81
July 460 746 693 $248.66 $222.18
August 452 743 570 $237.94 $206.51
September 348 214 241 $109.77 $93.95
October 642 0 398 $52.18 $121.68
Total $1,437.53 $1,969.11

Notes:

  • The service fee premium for a ToU account over a regular account is $1.30/mo, or $15.60/yr, so the savings have to be adjusted by that amount
  • January was an estimate since NV Energy has a difficult time with their billing system and time-of-use accounts – I signed up for e-bills but occasionally I’ll get a paper bill in the mail.
  • The billing month crosses two months (I tend to get my meter read in the middle of the month)
  • My Nest thermostats were set (manually) to cool the house down in the summertime to 70F by 12:30PM, a half hour before the peak period begins, and then were set to 76F the rest of the day. This was to cool the house down and then let it warm up when the electricity rates were higher
  • This large cost savings may not last for much longer, NVEnergy has been consistently increasing the time-of-use rates in the last year, even my most recent bill had winter prices increase by about .4 cents per kWh. At this rate I would expect to be back to paying the same as the flat rate in 4-5 years.

Its my opinion that the Nest thermostats helped a lot in keeping the summertime energy use down, contributing to the savings. Beyond this, having cheaper overnight rates to plug in my Volt means that I pay about 2-3c/mile for my Volt for electricity (a Prius by comparison is about 7c/mile), which improves the ROI calculations on the Volt because I save more money compared to a gasoline car.

Five Picks: 2014 is the year of ________

My five picks for 2014…

The Middle Class Comeback

Finally, after 6 years, the middle class will start to see rising wages and more opportunities for jobs. The linchpin that determines the strength of the comeback is the quality of jobs created. Minimum wage jobs don’t help much, they just allow corporations to push part of their wage cost to taxpayers. They need to be factory jobs and well paying jobs with benefits. It might not be the best job (its not a doctor, lawyer, or successful app developer) but it’ll work. What worries me is if we have another recession before the middle class recovers – that spells social strife and civil unrest.

Public EV Charging

From standard public charging to Tesla’s SuperCharger network, charge station installations are set to grow, and with increasing EV/PHEV sales in North America, usage of these stations will increase enough that they’re no longer just a blip on the radar. The growth of stations will be what to look at for 2014 – and instead of being token installations, they’ll be more functional, with installations at places you 1) actually want to park your car for an extended period of time and 2) free or reasonable rates to charge your car. The latter one may take some effort in some states that only allow utility companies to sell electricity by the kWh, which forces charging stations to charge by the hour (not the best deal usually).

LED Light Bulbs

LED light bulbs are going to make a big impact in 2014. They’re finally becoming cheap and good enough that you’ll want to replace your regular bulbs. Beyond that, high-usage CFLs that were installed during the CFL boom are starting to hit the end of their lifespan. I now have six CFLs in my garage that are burnt out and have run out of my spare CFLs, so now each time a CFL burns out I’m ordering these $20 Philips 13-Watt (65 Watt Replacement) BR30 Dimmable Indoor Flood Lights. They’re really good so far. I haven’t tried any regular light bulb replacements yet, but I’m sure I will sometime in 2014.

“Over the top”

“Over the top” is a phenomenon where a company that provides several consumer services including internet access finds that some of its services are being cannibalized by similar services over the internet. The most familiar examples are using Netflix over a cable-based internet connection (instead of going to cable TV for entertainment, you’re consuming Netflix), as well as iMessage or some other internet-based chat/picture service instead of SMS/MMS services. For incumbent internet providers, this will be a difficult transition to manage because they will be faced with decreasing revenues from core products and increasing usage of internet data. For the cable industry – get ready, people are cutting the cord. More data, less everything else.

Gay Marriage

If its now legal in Utah, one of the most conservative states in the union, I don’t see how other states are going to face the legal challenges of their laws or constitutional amendments. I hope Nevada (my home state) has their constitutional amendment overturned quickly, as it would be a boon as a gay wedding destination. I should look into buying the old Liberace Museum! I can add a chapel and boom!

 

Everyone is wrong about cell phones on planes

(Except Runway Girl)

Recently, the FCC looked to drop its technical reasons for prohibiting cell phone calls and texts on planes above 10,000 feet.

First, lets take a look at how the system works to understand why everyone is wrong.

Each plane that will allow cell phone calls above 10,000 feet will be equipped with a microcell that will connect (through GSM and CDMA) at very low power to all the cell phones in the cabin. These cell phones in the cabin will then be connected, via the microcell and a ground link, to a cellular network that is run by the airline and their equipment partners – not their own carrier (AT&T, Verizon, etc.). This will put the cell phone into roaming mode – just like if you were in another country.

And what happens when you’re in another country on your cell phone? If you make or receive a call, you rack up sky-high (no pun intended) roaming charges. And thats why you won’t end up next to a chatterbox for hours – the cost of being a chatterbox on an airplane would likely be around $2-3 per minute, or $150 per hour to talk on the phone while flying. For example, Vodaphone UK charges 1.99 GBP per minute to make an in-flight call, that is currently equal to $3.26 per minute.

Why is it setup this way? Because then the airlines and equipment and service provider can charge exorbitant roaming fees for cell phone calls placed when the aircraft is airborne. Would you pay $150/hour to talk on the phone from an airplane? Unless its an emergency, I doubt it. A few texts might be sent, but thats no longer abnormal because people can use data-based messaging services on aircraft Wi-Fi now (Facebook Messenger, iMessage, Google Chat, etc).

These sky-high prices will prevent people from chatting the entire way from LA to NYC. A phone call placed for the eligible duration of a five hour flight would cost around about $700.

If you happen to have a chatterbox next to you, just pull out the in-flight magazine and show them the various charges for in-flight calling and watch their eyes widen as they hurry up to end the phone call.

Routes for I-11 through and north of Las Vegas

Nevada’s Department of Transportation is working on figuring out where to put I-11 through and north of Las Vegas. The route between Las Vegas and Phoenix is pretty well established – along the current US 93 alignment from Las Vegas, with a bypass south of Boulder City, over the Hoover Dam Bypass Bridge, until US 93 hits Wickenburg, AZ, about an hour outside of Phoenix, where it branches southwest through the Hassayampa Valley down to I-10 west of Phoenix. A full listing of all the possibilities are available here (20MB PDF).

The route through Vegas is a difficult one – it would cost at least a billion, likely two billion, to upgrade US 95 to be wide enough to carry the extra traffic – the portion of US 95 east of the I-15 interchange would need a billion-plus makeover to fix the 1970s-style viaducts, and recently widened western half would need to be widened again, with some additional interchanges constructed. Two options are to use the existing 215 three-quarters beltway around the city (one around the city clockwise, which would come within 2 miles of my house, and one counter-clockwise) – however the lack of an eastern leg of the beltway means that a new leg would need to be created, and the alternatives indicate building it behind Sunrise Mountain through the Lake Mead National Recreation Area and connecting it to the I-15 north of Nellis AFB. After reviewing all the alternatives, I think the best route is to build the leg near Lake Mead, and connect it to the existing 215 highway (Alternate QQ). Work would need to be done ASAP* to secure additional right-of-way along the highway to allow it to expand up to 5 or 6 lanes in each direction. The clockwise usage of the 215 would require some additional right-of-way in certain areas, but would overall be much cheaper than expanding US 95 in place, as well as allowing for the highway to be up to 5 lanes in each direction, whereas portions of the existing US 95 are already that width, and would need to expand an additional two lanes to 7 lanes.

I’m sad to see the I-11 committee has removed my preferred route north of Las Vegas – Alternate GG through central Nevada. I would have liked to see I-11 run through central Nevada, with a spur line (I-511) connecting it from where it turns north from US-95, on to I-80 near Reno. I think this would have provided the travelling public with a much faster way to get north to places like Idaho, Oregon, and Washington, rather than going all the way over to Reno, then all the way back west to Boise. If the route continues north to I-84 in Oregon, then going through Reno would be a better choice. I expect Alternate SS to win out – following the US 95 corridor northwest to I-80 near Reno, and from there up US 395 to I-84 near the Columbia River.

But to me, its putting the cart before the horse – lets focus on getting I-11 from Las Vegas to Phoenix located, funded, and designed (glaring at Nevada’s past and present Governors and NDOT officials who have spent half a billion dollars for a highway to connect Reno to Carson City, but don’t want to fund the Boulder City Bypass with state dollars, instead suggesting a toll road), and from there we can map out where its going to go next. The Boulder City Bypass is job #1 at this point, with the Kingman Interchange next, along with all the improvements between the two to make it a full fledged interstate highway, at least from Vegas to Kingman.

From there, its on to US 93 between I-40 and Wickenburg, which has had substantial improvements over the last 10 years or so, with only three projects left to complete to make it four lanes between I-40 and the Santa Maria River – I’m guessing AZDOT won’t do any work south of the Santa Maria River until the I-11 corridor is finalized so they know where to expand it to interstate standards and where not to spend the money.

On that front – Arizona DOT has selected a preferred corridor and preliminary design for the Kingman interchange (PDF), with an estimated cost of only $86M. That pales in comparison to the $300-400M estimates for the Boulder City Bypass, but then again the BCB is a lot more work digging through the Eldorado mountains. However, Arizona would also need to spend more money on interchanges along the I-11 highway to remove at-grade crossings (I’m guessing 5 between Hoover Dam and Kingman).

* Sadly, this cant happen, as the PISTOL amendment to the constitution has a five year window for governments to use the property for the stated purpose (in this case, highway expansion) – if it doesn’t the original land owner can reacquire the property by paying the government back. In this case, dumb limitations hamstring government to do its job in a cost-effective manner.

Brief 2c on the Government Shutdown

I believe the root cause of the shutdown isn’t the budget deficit or Obamacare, but rather Gerrymandering – and two specific symptoms of gerrymandering – uncompetitive districts evolving into extremist candidates, as well as illegitimate majorities stemming from packing and splitting.

There have been a few articles, most pointedly this one (from a conservative paper no less), that illustrate how the shutdown is being driving by a minority of the majority party. To paraphrase the article, there 30 GOP members who believe that Obamacare is in fact very harmful and will do anything to stop it. There are another 30 that are willing to compromise, but worry about being primaried from the right. It is my estimation that if those 30 were primaried, their successor would join the 30 true believers.

The emphasis in the above paragraph illustrates the problem – uncompetitive (from a partisan angle) congressional districts drawn so that they are solid for one party or another. Because one party has a lock on the district, its likely that more and more extremist (left or right) individuals will be elected – up to a point at which there are enough defectors from the majority party to elect the other candidate. This almost happened in 2012 with Michele Bachmann – she is in a solid conservative district, but has become extreme enough where there were enough defectors (or non-voters) in both her party and independent voters that she nearly lost the race (she won by 1% of the vote).

If all congressional races were competitive from a partisan angle, I believe the extremist element in each party would be rendered unelectable because independent voters (whom upon most elections ride) will choose the less extreme candidate, and that in order to win political parties would choose the more centrist candidate instead of the extreme.

So how do we stop gerrymandering?

California, after substantial bipartisan pro-incumbent gerrymandering in 2000, chose an non-partisan board to draw the districts. Other states have had similar approaches by using a non-partisan group to draw the lines.

Can we fundamentally change the rules of the system? Do we have all representatives represent the entire state they’re from like Senators do? Do we use topological rules to divide districts in a more algorithmic manner? Use an alternate voting method (Fair Majority Voting for example) to ensure that a state that is split 35:65 has a 1:2 representation ratio? Beyond an appropriate partisan representation ratio, how do you choose representatives from each party that are aligned with the voters wishes (e.g. you not voting for a party, you’re voting for a person).

The voters weren’t represented in the 2012 congressional elections – totaling up all congressional races, Democrats got more votes than Republicans by about 500,000 votes (slightly less than half a percent), however failed to gain majority control of the House because of gerrymandering, in fact they are at a 30 seat deficit (233-202). This was due to the Republican successes in 2010 getting control of state legislatures such that they could control the redistricting process, gaming the system.

The sooner we deal with the issue of Gerrymandering the better. Then maybe we can start removing some of the dysfunction from Congress and move towards a legislative body that can accurately represent the people of America, both in terms of majority/minority parties as well as fewer extremists.

The Importance of Infrastructure – alternately, Bootstrapping Civilization on Another Planet

I thought of this question when I read the news about a SuperEarth that’s only 22 light years away. What would you need to take to another planet to bootstrap civilization? To build up civilization enough such that it could survive on its own without any assistance from Earth? Initially, you’d probably send some autonomous robots and satellites to the planet to scan for information to make sure it’s hospitable to humans. From there, you’d want to build up infrastructure.

Infrastructure is the parts of civilization that give you the ability to grow food, get clean water, and have a peaceful and prosperous society. It starts with an energy source, but you’ll bring that with you (probably nuclear or fusion-based). You might want to build a primitive navigation system (something like GPS) and a geographic database so you could have maps to know where resources are. You’d also want some sort of weather satellite to know when you’re going to get hit with hurricanes/typhoons, tornados, etc. The atmospheric data would be useful for growing crops. The first few generations would be rough – there wouldn’t be much in the way of creature comforts like sports and entertainment, unless you want to watch the World Series from 22 years ago.

Eventually you have to be able to stop using what you brought with you and transition to using what is on the planet. In other words, you have to get to sustainability. Eventually, the nuclear fuel you use will run out, the satellites orbiting the planet will run out of propellant and no longer be able to control their orbit. The good news is that we have knowledge! This new civilization wont need to go through stages like the Stone Age, Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. We know how to smelt aluminum, what Portland Cement is made of and how to make large batches of it, and we know what it takes to get things into orbit.

But we still need the manpower to make all this stuff and to collect the raw materials. Its the other end of the economies of scale – building out a small civilization with only several thousand people means you have to pick and choose what you do – you don’t have an entire planet’s population to draw on for a diverse set of resources. Picking the right things to specialize in might make the difference between survival or colony collapse. This means government intervention – the people in charge will have a plan (likely drawn up before they left Earth) and want to stick to it to ensure success.

Lets say we’ve picked an area near a large river, and we want to provide a source of power, control the annual floods as well as create a lake to use as a reservoir for our potable water supply (and sometime down the road, recreation). So we want to build a large hydroelectric dam. We need an incredibly large amount of steel and cement, along with the turbines and power distribution system. What goes in to Portland Cement you might ask… well we need to mine a large amount of limestone and gypsum for the basis of the cement, plus some other minerals. From there, we need to build a cement mill to grind the raw materials into the powder needed to create the cement mix. How do you build a cement mill? Beyond that, we need the people to make all that stuff, and build the dam! The average amount of people working on the Hoover Dam in the 1930s was 5,000 people. Even with technological advances in terms of automation, will you even have that many able-bodied men and women in the colony to complete the project?

In modern society we take so much for granted in terms of infrastructure. But when none of that exists, not even foundries to create steel for building other factories with, you start to have to get creative on how to rebuild that infrastructure or what can you take with you from Earth to the new colony.

Do we take raw materials? Can we mine minerals from asteroids on the way there? How does the new civilization launch replacement satellites, or get back into space if a few generations down the road they figure out that the planet just isn’t hospitable, or to study and explore nearby planets and moons? They know how rockets work, but do they have the incredible industrial machinery necessary to build one? Do they have the manpower necessary to operate the supply chain from raw materials to finished rocket and replacement satellite?

With all this work to do, the last question is how do you keep the colony going and growing? How do they find time to do all of these things with such few people, and still manage to raise sufficiently large families (5-6 kids each for many generations) necessary to populate the planet and ensure a viable future? How do they educate them? Who runs the schools and universities? What about technological advancements and research and development?

This is the “soft infrastructure” side of development – the government, the institutions necessary to operate in a civilized society? Does it operate as a military-style dictatorship for the first 50 years, then evolve into a democracy? If you choose democracy out of the gate, how do you keep it from making bad decisions based on self-interest that could imperil the entire colony?

In short, infrastructure (hard and soft) is incredibly important. And it turns out that colonizing another planet might be equal parts developing the technology to make the journey, building the colony when you finally arrive, and successfully governing the colony’s early years.

Whats (Still) Broken in SimCity 5

So after playing the new SimCity for about 20 hours this week (Spring Break, wooo!). I wrote down a list of all the things I found that are still broken in the current version (V 1.8 as of this writing) of SC.

1. Using “Agents” for utilities like water, power and sewer is an incredibly stupid idea. Just use connectivity and capacity checks. This causes all kinds of odd problems – when power is being restored to a city, those “agents” can cause it to take multiple game hours to get an entire city re-powered.

2. Water pumping stations deplete groundwater and such a ridiculous rate, its almost a farce to have them. I got maybe a year or two out of my first ground water pumping station – I placed it in a dark blue area near a river to start, and I only expanded it to three tanks. Even when you shut the station, the groundwater aquifer doesn’t seem to replenish itself, it just stays dry.

3. Sometimes, when resuming my city, the entire power grid would be empty, and the city would have to “refill” the grid with agents. This was a problem if I was close or at my capacity, as people would start to have outages as the grid refilled with agents.

4. Intercity trading & gifting can be weird – I gifted another one of my cities a bunch of money, and it took a long time for it to show up in the new city. Likewise, trading water and power can be dangerous because the city you’re drawing from might suddenly not have the capacity you need for some strange reason.

5. Unreliable coal deliveries via truck can hurt your city tremendously. If you have only one way into your city via highway on-ramps, if they are jammed, the coal delivery wont show up. There is a way to import by rail using a trade port, but its not intuitive or available early.

6. When a hazmat fire occurs, sometimes your own Hazmat fire trucks refuse to respond. I don’t know why not, it seems that if there aren’t any Hazmat fire trucks at the closest fire station they wont respond at all, even if they’re the only Hazmat trucks in the entire city.

7. Overly simplistic rules about how to import/export goods. Right now its just “local-only”, “import” and “export”. It needs to allow for “local use but export surplus” – for example, if I need 36 tons of alloy for my processor factory each day, and I’m producing 48 tons, then I should export 12 tons a day.

8. No way to turn off disasters without turning on cheats (sand box mode). I’d rather have disasters turned off and cheats turned off. That seems to make the most sense to me.

9. Routing intelligence for some types of vehicles is atrocious. I mean really really bad. Most notably, busses (both city and school), as well as garbage and recycling trucks. RIght now I have a city full of recycling bins waiting to be collected and 16 recycling pick-up trucks driving around the city between 25 and 50% full, and yet they don’t bother to pick up any more recyclables. It is infuriating when I see a truck that is empty or mostly empty drive by a bunch of places that it could do pick-ups at, and then the citizens turn around and complain about too much garbage. Same goes with city busses that aren’t full yet drive by other bus stops.

10. Recycling is picked up during the day, but if you max out your recycling plant, you might find out that overnight you run out of raw materials. I think they need to tweak the maximum storage capacity of the facility.

11. Random errors when it comes to water and sewage when you’re sharing that resource, specifically sewage. I get errors a lot about backed up sewer pipes even though my sewage treatment plant has more than enough capacity.

12. Game balance – once I built a processor plant, as long as I kept it supplied with resources, I was making half a million dollars a month easy, if not more. Money was no longer an issue at that point. I could lower taxes dramatically and have really happy citizens.

That’s it for now. Hopefully all of these issues get remedied over the next few months. Maxis made a bunch of quick patches initially to the game over the first two weeks of release, but hasn’t released any patches since then.

Edit: April 2, 2013 – More things!

13. The counts for garbage and recycling pick-up don’t seem reliable. I had my garbage trucks completely clear the city of garbage per the data overlay, and yet the game said I only had picked up about half of the trash cans from a numbers point of view.

Quick thoughts on the new SimCity

I played the new SimCity during all three betas (two open and one closed). I really enjoyed it, even if there are a few missing pieces (subways, freight rail depots). But it was clear skies and smooth sailing because of the lack of server load problems. I haven’t touched the game since it was released to the public.

Clearly, the current server issues this week are EA’s fault. They held a closed beta to do server load testing, but for some crazy reason they did it on a Wednesday night. Had they held it for 5-6 hours on a Saturday, they would have had a more realistic load on the servers.

But why the need for servers? Everyone complains its a DRM (copy protection) issue. I think DRM is just a side effect of the whole cloud gaming issue. As an MBA student, I think I have a bit better clarity now (compared to a few years ago) as to where EA is going with this…

The first step is to do a small amount of offloading to the server to handle regional issues – trading between cities. To manage collective resources like minerals, power, water, clear air, etc. This is what the new SimCity has implemented, albeit very poorly (courtesy @DrPizza). The issue is that if you’re going to have in-game trading, you’re going to need to make sure that people aren’t using client-side cheats. Something as simple as storing the games on the server can help dramatically with that. (if you’re wondering why EA would care if people cheat in multiplayer, just hold on a second…)

It turns out that the UI (but not the graphics engine) is written in JavaScript and running on a custom version of WebKit (the browser engine behind Safari and Google Chrome). Presumably they could scale down the graphics engine and run it in an WebGL instance if they desired. The upside of this is they cane make the UI work on both the PC and Mac platform without having to re-engineer it for each set of APIs.

The next step is to do more and more processing and simulation of the game in the cloud. They may release this under the guise of allowing people with older computers to simulate larger cities, but ostensibly the goal is to turn your computer into a thin client for gaming in the cloud. You city is always running, but at a much slower speed when you’re not actively managing it. Given the sever issues, this aspect might be delayed for a while, until they can tune-up their code and host more people per server.

Once SimCity is a thin client, your computer doesn’t need a lot of CPU power to run. The final step is to put SimCity in your pocket. To put it on your iPhone or Android device. Why?

Micro-transactions.

SimCity becomes less like SimCity and more like Cityville. Need more power? If you cant get any more from your neighbors, you can buy 100MW of power for the next seven days for 99 cents. This is why things need to be run server side – if you could cheat, it would be impossible to monetize.

Running all those servers isn’t free, and the $60 you pay up front isn’t likely enough to keep them running for 5-10 years. At some point they’ll need to come up with a way to monetize the user base. Personally, if I am still playing it in a few years (which is likely) then I’d just pay by the month or year as a subscription instead of being nickeled and dimed to death. But I expect that I’m one of the few – many more will likely be inclined to go the micro-transaction route just because it seems cheaper.

I’m not endorsing this plan of action I’ve outlined above. I’m just saying that this is what seems likely to me going forward.