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Automatic BIOS Firmware and Settings Updates

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

One of my big projects this summer at work has been to automatically update the BIOS firmware and settings on our roughly 250 (mostly Dell) workstations. I was finally able to develop a working solution using all free tools, and I’m sharing the results with the Internet in hope they are useful to someone else as well.

This document is designed to explain the process of setting up a Windows PE environment to be used for BIOS update purposes, creating custom automatic BIOS settings files, updating the bios.bat file for new computer types, and deploying BIOS updates based on your customizations.

Setting Up Working Tools

Before you can create your custom BIOS settings files and deploy them to workstations using Windows PE, you’ll need specialized tools available on your technician workstation.

Windows Automated Installation Kit

The WAIK contains components used for deploying Windows 7 systems, including Windows PE, which will be used to create a bootable environment for flashing BIOS updates and automatic BIOS settings files.

  1. Download the WAIK from Microsoft.
  2. Burn the downloaded ISO to disk using your preferred burning utility, or extract the contents to a folder.
  3. Insert the burned disc or launch StartCD.exe from the extracted folder.
  4. Click “Windows AIK Setup” in left navigation pane.
  5. When the setup wizard starts, click Next.
  6. Select the “I Agree” radio button to accept the license agreement, then click Next.
  7. Choose where you’d like to install the software to and who should be able to run it, then click Next, Next again, then Close.
  8. Exit the launcher program by clicking Exit in left navigation pane.

Dell Client Configuration Utility

To create automatic BIOS settings files to deploy to Dell target workstations, you’ll need the Dell Client Configuration Utility.

  1. Download the DCCU from Dell.
  2. Launch the installer by right-clicking and choosing “Run as administrator”
  3. Click Next.
  4. Accept the license agreement by selecting the radio button next to “I accept the license agreement” then click Next.
  5. Enter customization information, choose who may run the program, then click Next.
  6. Click Next, then Finish.
  7. The ASP.net AJAX 2.0 Extensions may install automatically once DCCU installation is finished, if they are not already present on your technician workstation.

BIOS.BAT

The workhorse of the automatic update process is a Windows batch file called bios.bat.

  1. Navigate to http://community.spiceworks.com/scripts/show_download/2669
  2. Click the Download button.
  3. Save the file as bios.bat.

(Optional) WinSCP or FileZilla

If you use FOG as your imaging solution, and you wish to add your BIOS update disc to the PXE boot menu, you’ll need an FTP program like WinSCP or FileZilla.

Gathering Data, Customizing Options, and Generating the BIOS Settings Update Executable

Gathering the data you need to create custom BIOS setting files is a two-part process. Note: for this section, you will need a sample machine of each type you wish to develop a custom setting file for. It’s recommended the sample machine have any installed antivirus software disabled.

Collecting the BIOS Inventory

In order to collect a BIOS inventory from a sample computer, follow the steps above for installing the Dell Client Configuration Utility. Once the DCCU is installed on the sample machine, the following process explains how to capture the BIOS inventory:

  1. Boot the sample computer into BIOS.
  2. Configure the BIOS according to your needs. This will become the baseline for your setting update file.
  3. Restart the sample computer.
  4. Log in with an administrator account.
  5. Launch the DCCU. (I have had the best luck with running the DCCU web interface in Internet Explorer 8 with Compatibility Mode on. Chrome and Firefox fail to render the page correctly for me. YMMV)
  6. Click the “Create BIOS Inventory Package” link.
  7. When the File Download – Security Warning pop-up box appears, choose “Run.”
  8. Once the BIOS inventory program has completed, a file called TaskResult.xml will be created on the desktop. You may wish to save this file in case you need to make adjustments to the settings update configuration later.

Customizing BIOS Settings and Generating the Update File

After gathering an inventory of the sample machine’s BIOS, you can now make any needed changes to the automatic BIOS settings update file. Follow these steps to complete the configuration:

  1. On the sample machine or your technician workstation, click the Browse button in the Dell Client Configuration Utility web page under the BIOS Settings heading.
  2. In the “Choose File to Upload” box, navigate to your previously-generated TaskResult.xml file, select it, then click Open.
  3. Once you’ve selected the TaskResult.xml file you need, click the “Import Selected BIOS Inventory” link in the DCCU.
  4. Now you can customize the available BIOS settings. Items in the list with check marks are available for configuration in the chosen BIOS. To leave a setting as it’s already configured on the target machine – such as a previously-entered asset tag – simply clear the check mark for that item. It will be omitted from the custom settings file. To reset a text field, leave the box checked, but remove all text (leave it blank).
  5. Once the BIOS settings are configured according to your specifications, scroll to the bottom of the Dell Client Configuration Utility page and select the “Create BIOS Settings Package” link.
  6. A File Download – Security Warning box will pop-up. Choose “Save,” then select a name and location to save the resulting executable to. To make updating the bios.bat file easier, I typically name the file machinemodelset.exe, as in 745set.exe.
  7. You can now use your custom BIOS settings executable to update target PCs.

Creating the BIOS Update Folder

In order for the automatic updating features of the disc to work, a specific directory structure must be observed:

  1. Create a directory called “BIOS” in the C: drive of your technician workstation.
  2. Place all BIOS setting customization executables created with the Dell Client Configuration Utility or files created by another manufacturer’s similar program in the BIOS directory just created.
  3. Place your customized bios.bat file in this directory.
  4. Create a subdirectory for each model computer to be updated and place the firmware update executable in this folder. (The FW update executable must be named with the BIOS version and nothing else.)

Building the BIOS Update Disc

The following sections detail creating the Windows PE build environment, customizing the environment, adding the necessary BIOS files, and committing the updated environment to a custom ISO file.

Creating the Windows PE Build Environment

Use the following steps to create your Windows PE environment:

  1. Click Start, then navigate to All Programs – Microsoft Windows AIK.
  2. Right-click on “Deployment Tools Command Prompt” and select “Run as administrator”
  3. Type copype.cmd x86 C:\winpe_x86 into the command prompt and hit Enter.
  4. Type copy C:\winpe_x86\winpe.wim C:\winpe_x86\ISO\sources\boot.wim into the command prompt and hit Enter.

Mounting and Customizing the Windows PE Environment

Follow the steps below to mount and customize the Windows PE environment:

  1. In the Deployment Tools Command Prompt, type dism /Mount-WIM /WimFile:C:\winpe_x86\ISO\sources\boot.wim /index:1 /MountDir:c:\winpe_x86\mount and press Enter.
  2. Add the Windows Management Instrumentation to the environment by typing dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-wmi.cab” and pressing Enter, then running dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-wmi_en-us.cab”
  3. Add HTA to the image by entering dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-hta.cab” and dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-hta_en-us.cab” in the Deployment Tools Command Prompt.
  4. Scripting support needs to be added to the Windows PE environment by typing dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-scripting.cab” into the command prompt, then pressing Enter. You’ll also need to type dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-scripting_en-us.cab” into the prompt.
  5. Add MDAC support to the environment by entering dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\winpe-mdac.cab” and dism /image:C:\winpe_x86\mount /Add-Package /PackagePath:”C:\Program Files\Windows AIK\Tools\PETools\x86\WinPE_FPs\en-us\winpe-mdac_en-us.cab”
  6. Copy the contents of your BIOS update folder to the Windows PE environment by typing xcopy /e C:\BIOS C:\winpe_x86\mount\Windows\System32 into the command prompt and pressing Enter.
  7. Type notepad C:\winpe_x86\mount\Windows\System32\startnet.cmd into the command prompt and press Enter.
  8. Add “bios” to the second line of the file and save it.
  9. Exit Notepad.

Committing Changes to the Environment and Creating the Bootable ISO

In order to use the customized Windows PE environment, changes must be committed to the system and a bootable ISO created:

  1. In the Deployment Tools Command Prompt, type dism /unmount-wim /Mountdir:c:\winpe_x86\mount /commit and press Enter.
  2. Type oscdimg -n -bC:\winpe_x86\Etfsboot.com C:\winpe_x86\ISO C:\winpe_x86\BIOS.iso next, followed by Enter.
  3. Exit the Deployment Tools Command Prompt.
  4. Burn the resulting CD image file with your preferred disc burning software.

Updating the Environment and Rebuilding the BIOS Update Disc

It may be necessary to update the environment in order to add new machine types or include updated firmware files. The simplest way to update the disc is to make any needed modifications to your C:\BIOS folder (new bios.bat, new machine folders, etc. – Remember, only one firmware update executable can be in a given folder at a time.) then rebuild the environment using the steps above.

(Optional) Creating a BIOS Update USB Flash Drive

In lieu of a CD, which can take longer to load, you may wish to follow these steps after you’ve completed “Committing Changes to the Environment and Creating the Bootable ISO” above:

  1. Insert the target USB flash drive in your technician workstation.
  2. Open a Command Prompt as an administrator (or use the Deployment Tools Command Prompt).
  3. Type diskpart and hit Enter.
  4. Type list disk and hit Enter.
  5. Type select disk 1 and hit Enter. (This assumes your flash drive is disk 1. If not, substitute the correct value.)
  6. Type clean and hit Enter.
  7. Type create partition primary and hit Enter.
  8. Type select partition 1 and hit Enter.
  9. Type active and hit Enter.
  10. Type format quick fs=fat32 and hit Enter.
  11. Type assign and hit Enter.
  12. Type exit and hit Enter to exit diskpart.
  13. Type xcopy C:\winpe_x86\iso\*.* /e F:\ (assuming F: is the drive letter assigned to your flash drive) and hit Enter.
  14. Exit the Command Prompt.

(Optional) Adding the Update Disc Image to the FOG PXE Boot Menu

If you use FOG as your imaging solution, you may wish to make your BIOS update disc available in the PXE boot menu so you can load BIOS updates over the network. The steps below detail this process:

  1. Launch WinSCP (or your preferred FTP client) and connect to your FOG server.
  2. Once connected, navigate to /tftpboot/
  3. Copy memdisk to a temporary folder on your technician workstation.
  4. Navigate to /tftpboot/fog/
  5. Create a new directory called “bios” (without quotes).
  6. Upload the BIOS.iso file you created for your update disc and the copy of memdisk into this new folder.
  7. Navigate to /tftpboot/pxelinux.cfg/
  8. Copy the default file to a temporary folder on your technician workstation.
  9. Rename the default file on your FOG server to default.bak
  10. Open the copy of default on your workstation in your favorite text editor.
  11. Insert the following code where you would like the option to appear in the PXE boot menu (I prefer to place it at the end, just before the line PROMPT 0):

LABEL bios

kernel fog/bios/memdisk

append iso initrd=fog/bios/BIOS.iso raw

MENU LABEL BIOS Update

TEXT HELP

Utility to automatically update BIOS firmware

and settings.

ENDTEXT

  1. Save the default file, then upload the new version to /tftpboot/pxelinux.cfg/ on your FOG server.
  2. To update the utility, simply copy over the BIOS.iso file in /tftpboot/fog/bios/ with a newer version.

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Radio Silence

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Health, Writing

It’s been over a year since I wrote anything in this blog space, and it occurs to me that I should make an effort to write more. After all, how am I going to keep challenging my author friend, Michael Diamond, if I’m not challenging myself? (Mike’s first book, Origins of the Black Idol, is available at major online retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble; I was his editor.)

So, along with writing more, I’m going to focus this year on improving my health, my bass playing skills, and mastering VMware vSphere 5 to get VMware Certified Professional (Datacenter Virtualization) certified – more on that later. (I know it’s a bit late to make New Year’s resolutions, but I am a bit of a slacker, so you ought not be surprised this post comes at the end of February).

Stick with me throughout the year and you might learn something about yourself, your fellow humans, and the universe, or at least be mildly entertained at my folly along the way.

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y=mx+b or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Maths

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Categories: Essays, Geek Stuff, Randomness, Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Like many, I’ve long held the belief I’m “bad at math,” but as the spring semester at Rock Valley College winds down, I’ve learned this isn’t true.

In 5th grade, I tested into the gifted program in the Rockford Public School District. I jumped from standard 4th grade classes to advanced 5th grade classes. Given the shoddy state of Rockford’s standard curriculum in the late Eighties/ early Nineties, it’s no surprise I struggled, especially in mathematics. My gifted program teachers taught as though I had been in the program from kindergarten (as most of the students had been). My troubles at home, which manifested as poor behavior at school, didn’t motivate my teachers to give me extra help, I’m sure. After a rough 5th grade, I returned to standard classes in 6th grade. The result of this ping-ponging between curricula was a severe deficiency in basic arithmetic skills.

Fast-forward three years, when I was enrolled in the Academy, RPS’s gifted program for high schoolers. Still behind in math, I failed my college algebra course the first time around and barely passed geometry. My senior year, I dropped out of my advanced math class (trigonometry, if I recall) rather than face another two semesters of brutality. I hated math.

In 1999, when I took the entrance exams at Rock Valley, I scored less than 50% on the math portion (shocked, I’m sure you are), earning me the privilege of several remedial courses, including geometry. This semester, I’m completing a “super course,” which tackles all of those remedial classes in one semester, save geometry. I have a 91% in the class right now, and finals are in two weeks. On a lark, I retook the geometry portion of the placement test, and scored an 80%: enough to skip the required remedial class. I have one college-level math class to take – scheduled for next semester – before I graduate with my A.A.

What I have learned in this semester at RVC is that I’m not bad at math; I’m bad at arithmetic. I have little difficulty understanding algebraic concepts. Where I struggle is with simple multiplication and division, managing fractions, and the like. My difficulties stem almost entirely from the learning I missed back in 5th and 6th grades. From these deficiencies flow frustration with myself and feelings of stupidity. But I can’t help also feeling proud I’ve been able to overcome some of my limitations (thanks to help from Texas Instruments) and score an A in a class I was convinced I would barely pass, if at all.

It’s perhaps a bit strong to say I “love the maths,” but I do have a new-found appreciation for them, especially algebra. There are theories in math to be sure: ideas unproven because we can’t test every possible case, but for the most part, algebra is fundamental, truthful. Race, religion, political affiliation: these don’t matter to algebra.  y does, in fact, equal mx+b.

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Sir Hax-A-Lot

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Categories: Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Step into my apartment, and you’ll come across a plethora of hacked-up devices. Part of this is because I’m a broke-ass nerd, so I want nifty techno goodies but can’t afford the latest and greatest. The other part is that I love making devices do things they were never intended to do. My Nook Color is no exception. After a lot of research online and a bit of trial and error, I now have a fully-functional, inexpensive Android tablet computer. If you follow my guide below, you can too. The best part is the original Nook software remains intact, so you keep all the intended functionality (like Read To Me books) and you can easily switch back and forth between your stock Nook software and the Android-based MIUI interface. Get ready to take your Nook Color to the next level!
 

Step 1: Gather Tools

The first step in unlocking the Nook Color’s full potential is to gather these physical and digital items:

  • A Nook Color (duh!)
  • A class 4 or better microSDHC card (I prefer Sandisk cards, as they seem to be the most reliable. If you follow the steps below correctly and find your Android experience isn’t up to snuff, check your SD card. If it’s not Sandisk, that’s the likely culprit. Also, get a SD card with as much storage as you can afford. Trust me. The Nook Color is designed to accept up to a 32 GB card.)
  • PC with an SD card reader or a USB SD card reader attachment running Windows.
  • Image Writer for Windows (a/k/a Win32 Disk Imager. Be sure you download the binary file, not the source, unless you want to compile the program yourself.) https://launchpad.net/win32-image-writer
  • Most recent MIUI.us ROM (I enjoy this ROM more than any other I’ve tried. It’s updated frequently, has great battery life, and few bugs. Of course, you’re fee to try others if you like, but I won’t tell you how to get them running in this guide. Make sure you select the Nook Color download, as this ROM is available for many devices, like my Nexus One.) http://roms.miui.us/
  • SD Card Image http://crimea.edu/~green/nook/generic-sdcard-v.1.3.img.gz
  • 7zip (To extract the .gz file above.) http://www.7-zip.org/
  • Dual Boot u-boot (Technically optional, but so easy and useful I’m including it in the standard steps.) http://forum.xda-developers.com/attachment.php?attachmentid=510096&d=1296952217
  • MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition http://www.partitionwizard.com/free-partition-manager.html

 

Step 2: Prep Work

  1. Charge your Nook Color fully. It’s just easier. Again, trust me.
  2. (If you have a new Nook.) Power the Nook up (without inserting your SD card), connect to your wireless network, and register the device with Barnes & Noble. Leave the Nook Color running while you complete the rest of the process, so it can download any software updates available.
  3. Install 7zip.
  4. Create a working folder on your Windows desktop. This will help keep you organized. Name the folder something like “Nook” or “Temp.”
  5. Copy the MIUI ROM you downloaded earlier to your temp folder. DO NOT UNZIP IT!
  6. Rename the file update-cm-miui.zip
  7. Copy the Dual Boot u-boot file you downloaded to the temp folder.
  8. Use 7zip to extract the SD card image you downloaded to the temp folder. You should end up with a file named generic-sdcard.img

 

Step 3: Getting Your Hands Dirty

  1. Insert your microSDHC card into your card reader.
  2. Launch Image Writer for Windows.
  3. Be sure your SD card, and not some other removable device, is selected to write to in Image Writer, then click the folder icon to select the generic-sdcard.img file from your temp folder.
  4. Click Write, then Yes.
  5. Exit Image Writer once the file has been written to the SD card and remove the card from your reader.
  6. Reinsert the SD card.
  7. Launch MiniTool Partition Wizard Home Edition, and resize the boot partition on your SD card. This is the only space your stock Nook Color software will recognize on the SD card. Make sure you have at least 300 MB free to allow space for the installer to extract the contents of the various zip files involved in this installation process. These files will be removed from the SD card automatically once the setup process is finished.
  8. Copy the update-cm-miui.zip file to the SD card. DO NOT EXTRACT THE ZIP FILE’S CONTENTS! Copy the complete file to the card.
  9. Eject the SD card from your computer.
  10. Power down your Nook Color.
  11. Carefully insert the microSDHC card in your Nook Color’s SD card slot.
  12. Power up your Nook Color.
  13. You will see the Linux penguin in the corner of your screen and lots of text flying past. Be patient as the magic is worked.
  14. Once the install is complete, your Nook Color will power down automatically.
  15. Remove the SD card from the Nook and reinsert it into your computer.
  16. On the SD card, rename the uboot.bin file to uboot.bak. (This preserves your original SD card boot file in case you run in to trouble and need to restore it.)
  17. Copy the uboot.bin file from your temp folder to the SD card and copy the uboot.bak file from your SD card to a safe location on your computer.
  18. Eject the SD card from your computer and reinstall it in the Nook Color’s SD card slot.
  19. Power up your Nook Color.
  20. Be patient. The first boot always takes a while.
  21. Follow the on-screen instructions for creating (or connecting to your existing) Google account.
  22. Enjoy the full-featured, inexpensive Android tablet goodness.

 
And there you have it: an inexpensive Android tablet with root access and GApps in less than 30 minutes. Of course, this is just a basic set up. The preconfigured SD cards I sell on eBay have premium software enhancements, built-in overclocking, and more. Get your hands on one here: http://myworld.ebay.com/vaygh If you’re looking for an SD install with custom features or running a ROM other than MIUI, drop me a line at vaygh (at) vaygh (dot) com. I’ll be happy to work with you on a Nook Color SD install that meets your individual needs.

Many thanks to the Nook Color community, XDA, and MIUI devs – specifically andmer, dalingrin, and rookie1 – for making all of this possible. Support them financially if you are able, or with mad props if you’re not. Oh, and Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous Yule, etc. etc.

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New Essay: “ZOMGWTFBBQ!@#”

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Categories: Essays, Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

History may record the late 20th century as the beginning of the end of western civilization. The Computer Age gave way to the Internet Age, which is giving way in the 21st century to the Social Networking Age. Technology continues to progress at a blistering rate. The current generation of consumer-level microprocessors are one thousand times faster than the most advanced supercomputers of just twenty years ago. Connection speeds have improved at a similar exponential rate. The internet is everywhere. The current crop of mobile devices would look like technology from “Star Trek” to someone from the 1990s. Our society is wired (or wireless) and constantly connected to the internet. There’s a price to be paid for being “always on,” however. The brief, random, and artificial nature of the internet has made us confused, distracted, and superficial.

If brevity is the soul of wit, our wired society is at least witty. Internet shorthand, whether it’s the character limit imposed by services such as Twitter, overly simplistic Facebook “Likes,” or IM acronyms, creates confusion through lack of clarity. On Twitter, for example, users are limited to 140-character updates. These stunted messages force adoption of abbreviation. Common phrases such as “OK. Thanks. Goodbye.” become “Kthnxbai.” To the uninitiated, this string of characters is meaningless gibberish. Sorting out the meaning of these truncated phrases leads to confusion and misunderstanding. It’s just as easy to misunderstand systems that are overly simplistic, like Facebook’s “Likes.” A system that’s too simple fails to accurately capture the nuances of real-life thoughts, beliefs, and preferences. A Facebook user might “Like” the Republican party based on a belief in fiscal conservatism. If the same user is a social liberal, however, they may also “Like” the Democratic party. Based on their “Likes,” one would be at a loss to explain their political views. This would lead to confusion at best, and outright misinterpretation at worst. The same is true of instant messaging jargon. The sheer number of acronyms employed by users is confusing: deciphering their meaning, more so. Woe be to the sender of a “LOL” IM in response to news of a breakup or death in the family. Experienced IM users know, of course, that “LOL” means “Laughing Out Loud,” but newer users could just as easily think it to mean “Lots Of Love” or “Lonely OnLine.” By embracing the brevity and simplification of our lives, the internet causes chaos and confusion, leading to social breakdown.

Another element contributing to the decline of our society is the random nature of the internet. Email spam, online ads, and search engine results bombard us with information: some relevant, some not. Our email inboxes are a prime example of this distracting randomness. Nigerian princes promising unfathomable riches – if only we share our name, address, bank account and Social Security numbers – distract us from the bill notifications sent from our cable company. Links to porn pictures compete with the pictures Grandma sent from her latest cruise. Males and females alike are spammed by ads for cheap Viagra. Thankfully, there are spam filters in most popular email programs. They are not always effective, however. Oftentimes, spam filters fail to catch every junk message; other times, they catch too much, forcing users to sift through a mountain of bogus, distracting messages anyway. The random garbage that piles up in our email distracts us from the truly important communication we receive. Even run-of-the-mill websites are an exercise in distracting randomness. Nearly every site on the Web has advertising on it. These flashing words and videos naturally distract the eye, leading users away from the actual content of the page. Trying to read a newspaper article online becomes an exercise in futility when ads for techno-gadgets, concert tickets, and a thousand other random products distract us from the box score of the latest football game. If we run a search to find a “better” site, we’ll likely end up just as distracted. Googling a common term may return hundreds of thousands of results. While most may be relevant to our search, many of the results may have nothing to do with what we’re looking for thanks to SEO (Search Engine Optimization: tricks website owners use to make their page appear higher in a search engine’s results). Trial and error is the only process available for determining if a link is germane to one’s search. Sifting the virtual wheat from the digital chaff distracts us from whatever our original reason for being online was.

Some go online to make a social connection, but the artificiality of the internet makes that nearly impossible. Online dating sites, massively multiplayer online games, and social networking sites claim to offer genuine interaction, but instead promote superficiality because of their artificial nature. Dating sites like Match.com allow users to create a profile or browse other profiles to connect romantically. These profiles are sales pitches, designed to portray the user in the best possible light. By answering a few simple personality questions and uploading a picture, the user says, in essence, “Look at me! Don’t you want to be with me?” The desperation and artificial sense of competition created by online dating sites leads users to present an inauthentic version of themselves. With a glut of superficial profiles to sort through, users make snap, superficial judgments based on how cute a user’s picture or how riské their profile is. In MMOGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games, like World of Warcraft), the game itself creates an artificial ranking system. Based on the in-game items a player has collected, the player’s character is assigned a “gear score.” For many players, this gear score is all that matters when deciding to ally with another player. Instead of deciding to forge a relationship based on personality or playing skill, these players rely on an artificial number. This superficial ranking prevents many enjoyable connections from ever being forged. Numbers are important in social networking as well. Sites like MySpace and Facebook list the number of “friends” a user has. This friend count becomes a kind of prestige in the online community. The more friends one has, the more popular and desirable a connection with them becomes. This artificiality leads users to collect online friends like people used to collect baseball cards. There’s little real attachment to individual friends (cards), save a few rare and important ones (Babe Ruth’s rookie card). This superficial treatment of real people cheapens the online experience and contributes to our communal decline.

The internet – glorious arcade, shopping mall, reference library, and cocktail lounge rolled into one – is confusing and distracting us while simultaneously making us superficial. We’re perpetually connected, but we pay a terrible price for connectivity beyond our monthly broadband bills. We gather hundreds of online friends to improve our superficial online status. We’re bombarded by random offers of riches and all-natural male enhancement. In that barrage, we fail to notice the message from a potential employer or old college buddy. Perhaps it’s better we missed the past friend’s message: we may be completely confused when he or she writes “ZOMGWTFBBQ!@#”

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New Essay: “For Those About To Roll…”

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Categories: Essays, Gaming, Geek Stuff, RPG, Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

This essay is an edited version of my first required essay this semester in my Composition 1 class at Rock Valley College. It is the first essay I’m making available online. I hope to add more as coursework and time allows.

Some of my real-world friends may recognize themselves in the essay. Be advised, I’ve fictionalized you where needed. Names have been changed to protect the innocent (or guilty). Enjoy!
 

For Those About To Roll, We Salute You

Eli walked down the stairs into the basement. His hands were full: a case of Coca-Cola in his left hand, a grocery bag full of snacks in his right. On his back, a burgeoning, grey knapsack threatened to burst its seams. As he made his way down the stairs, the small, gold crucifix around his neck bounced out from under his T-shirt. The shirt itself was black, a gaming-inspired riff on a classic rock band design: an isosahedron (the twenty-sided die ubiquitous in fantasy role-playing games) appeared with the phrase “AC/HP” in a heavy-metal font.

Upon reaching the bottom of the stairs, Eli set down the soda and tossed the bag of chips on the octagonal, faux-wood table dominating the room. Eli took his seat at the table after unloading his backpack. Though the sack was heavy with books, pencils, and dice, Eli seemed happy to haul it. An easy smile came to his boyish face as he considered his cohorts in turn: Rob, Josh, Jenny, TJ, Carlton, John, and Tom.

Rob leaned back in his chair. His shaved head glistened under the track lighting in the basement. Tan skin belied Rob’s mixed Haitian and Mexican heritage. Rob flipped through some pages in a legal pad, the handwritten notes printed in meticulous, all-capital letters.

Josh was a tall, broad man with a booming laugh. His hands were as large as oven mitts, dwarfing the mechanical pencil he held. On his finger, a size 15 ring emblazoned with a pentacle proclaimed his pagan spirituality. Josh reached over to turn the volume down on his laptop. A Megadeth song had been playing.

Jenny was the picture of soccer-mom suburbia. Her brunette hair hung to her shoulders, and she dressed in casually conservative style with jeans and a sweater. A tasteful diamond ring shimmered on her left hand. Her pale, blue eyes flitted to and fro, following whomever was speaking like a hawk tracking prey in the underbrush.

TJ was pure gothic-punk. Two rings intersected her lip, and countless hoops and studs lined her ears. The lacy, black tank top she wore revealed no fewer than a dozen tattoos decorating her arms and shoulders. A purple, velvet skirt covered TJ’s snow white legs.

Carlton (like Josh) was tall, but his frame was loose and lanky. His ebony skin stretched over ripcord muscles. Unlike his fellow males, Carlton did not wear jeans. Instead, he had on neatly pressed khakis. A proper broadcloth shirt completed his simple – yet classy – ensemble.

John, a slight man of Korean descent, was quiet and unassuming. His soft voice and gentle laugh made his small body seem even smaller. A faint odor patchouli (or something else?) clung closely to John’s skin. The Fu Manchu mustache he kept was, perhaps, the only thing about him designed to draw attention.

Conversely, Tom went out of his way to get attention, at least from the fairer sex. His hands worked the keys on his cell phone as though possessed. When not absorbed in texting, tweeting, and Facebooking, Tom’s gaze bounced between Jenny and TJ (and not exactly their faces, either). He barely acknowledged Eli’s entrance.

After greetings and pleasantries were exchanged; snacks and sodas situated; books and dice readied; Rob brought the game to order: “You find yourselves in a dark and dank dungeon…”

In the 1970s, when the first fantasy role-playing games appeared, gamers were almost without exception white, teenage males. This homogenous group was perceived as isolated, insular, and immature. Poor hygiene and poor social skills went hand-in-hand with those early gamers. As the hobby has grown, however, the base of players has likewise expanded and old trends no longer apply. Just as the games have changed, so too have the players.

Contemporary gamers are a diverse bunch. Blacks and whites, Asians and Hispanics, males and females all engage in the benign escapism that is role-playing. Catholics join forces with pagans in vanquishing dragons. Democrats and Republicans plot together to overthrow the evil sorcerer-king. High school dropouts ponder ancient glyphs with graduate students.

Most gamers now are adults: parents and workers. They have active lives outside of the hubby. They own cars and homes, with the bills that accompany them. They have real-world responsibilities. Gaming provides these adult players with a safe, inexpensive way to escape the stresses of daily life. Many other role-players are young: middle- and high school students. These younger gamers have new ideas to challenge older players. The only factor common to modern gamers is that they are gamers. Shared love of the hobby binds these disparate people into a common clan.

Diversity is crucial to the continued health and vibrancy of the hobby. Without new and flesh perspectives, the stories told in role-playing games will become as stagnant and cloying as the musty basements many gamers still congregate in.

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The Silver Lining

1 comment

Categories: Blackhawks, Geek Stuff, Health, Hockey, Writing, Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

The last few days I’ve been dealing with a malfunctioning car and a brief but intense illness. It’s been less than pleasant. Add the Chicago Blackhawks playing like crap in the first round of the Stanley Cup playoffs, and losing all my phone numbers and email addresses in Address Book (and thus my iPhone too), and this week looks pretty bad on paper.

There’s a silver lining though: another page in my novel finished. It’s been slow going, and I could probably find more time to write, but I feel good about the words. Do I think this novel will be sellable? Probably not. But it will be written, and that’s more important to me.

So, to anyone out there who thinks they can write a book: do it. There’s no better advice on writing than that. You will suck at first. You will get better if you try. That’s all.

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WordPress Config

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Categories: Blog, Geek Stuff, Tags: , , , ,

I’ve been working with WordPress since I set up my own site at http://www.vaygh.com and I’ve finally found a theme that seems to render well on both Macs and PCs, using a variety of browsers. I would have never imagined that it would be so difficult, but I have tried literally dozens of themes without much success. I am running the “Tech2” theme by DewDrop and it’s working very well.

I also have a nice collection of plugins that extend the features and functionality of WordPress, mainly in the realm of social media. The plugins I’m using are:

  • AddToAny: Share/Bookmark/Email Button
  • Akismet
  • bbPress Integration
  • Blog Copyright (by BTE)
  • Contact Form 7
  • Facebook Comments TNG
  • Find Me On
  • Google XML Sitemaps
  • Local Time
  • MobilePress
  • Shadowbox JS
  • Theme My Login
  • Twitter Goodies
  • User Locker
  • Wordbook
  • WordTwit
  • WP Render Blogroll Links

All of the plugins above work with my version of WordPress (2.9.1). If you’re running a WordPress site, check these plugins out. Most have been very easy to set up and configured the way I want them to work very easily. If you have any questions on how I have individual plugins configured, please feel free to use the “Contact Me” page at http://www.vaygh.com to shoot me an email. I’ll be happy to help (with the best of my ability).

Good luck and happy blogging!