Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Favorite Discoveries of 2008

Here's a list of things I discovered in 2008 that brought some joy.
Some of these have been around for awhile, but I became a fan in the last year.


Tap Defense for iPhone
I've spent days playing this excellent Tower Defense game.
It's fun. It's free. Get it already!
Read my Strategy Guide


GeekBrief
"Shiny, Happy, Tech News."
I discovered this early in 2008, and I love it.
5 minutes a day will keep your geek cred up.


Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog
Joss Whedon and the gang put together a musical and put it on the web. One of Time's Best Inventions of 2008.
Way too much of this blog is dedicated to Dr. Horrible...



Capsule & Perfume
Yasutaka Nakata cranks out the grooves!
Thanks to guys at ZAM Minnesota to turning me on to this.
Capsule's albums are available on iTunes.
Yasutaka also produces the all-girl pop group Perfume, which is only available in hard-to-find imports.


Neocube
A wonderful puzzle/toy.
216 rare-earth spherical magnets. What more could any nerd want?

Read my review, and see some of my designs.


Amazon's Universal Wish List
The Amazon Wish List is a terrific thing, and most of my family and friends use it. But it doesn't help when you need to put something on a gift registry or wish list that Amazon doesn't sell.
The Universal Wish List lets you pick any product on the web.



SuperGenPass
Many people don't use decent passwords for their online accounts.
SuperGenPass is a JavaScript "bookmarklet" that lets them have good passwords unique to each site while needing to remember only one password.
I recommend SuperGenPass to friends and family that aren't going to go through the effort to create and memorize a set of difficult passwords.

Anathem
Another excellent novel by Neal Stephenson
Read my review.



Arby's Sausage, Egg, and Cheese Sourdough breakfast sandwich
A tasty fast-food product! Will wonders never cease?



Tweezerman Point ® Tweezers
Tweezers? Really?
Yes, Tweezers!

Precision ground, stainless steel tweezers with a point sharp enough to pluck the tiniest sliver.




Veronica Mars
Another great, but canceled, TV show.
All three seasons are available on DVD.

Sure, it's a "teen sleuth" show, but it's really just an excellent mystery/thriller.
Dark, clever, intelligent.
Not for the kids. Murder, kidnapping, and rape are recurring themes.
Not your usual TV.


Have a Happy New Year, everyone!



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Dr. Horrible - the DVD (Including Easter Egg Spoilers)


There will be spoilers.
You have been warned...

Then oddness begins as soon as you put in the DVD. What appears to be a slightly dated FBI warning falls apart show the REAL warning: The Evil League of Evil will enforce rule #24B

The DVD itself is a region-free DVD-R.
Played fine on the multiple DVD players and computers I've tried it on.

Menus are clean with a snappy 3D transition.


The show is there in all its glory, of course, but you've already bought it on iTunes... right?

So, many people will be buying the DVD for the extras, and they are worth the price.

Evil League of Evil Applications
10 ELE applications were chosen for inclusion on the DVD. Most are pretty good, but some of my favorites didn't make the cut.
I was glad to see Tur-Mohel on the list.
Somehow, The Enabler, didn't make it on to the DVD.
The winner: Lord Stabbington.
All the competitors are listed on the DVD. (Takes quite a while to scroll through them.)

The Making of Dr. Horrible
There are three Making Of featurettes:
The Movie
The Music
What Just Happened?

There's the "normal" commentary track. Good stuff for the fans.

Commentary! The Musical
The centerpiece, is, of course, Commentary! The Musical.
A complete new set of songs and comments running the entire length of the original production.
In addition to re-thinking how a commentary should be presented, they've liberties with what a commentary should be ABOUT:

The Writer's Guild, the dreams of chorus members, The Guild, how Nate is better than Neil, the lack of Asians on TV, Ninja Ropes, movie commentaries... well, pretty much anything except the show.

Fans of Simon Helberg ("Moist," "Howard Wolowitz" in The Big Bang Theory) will be pleased to know he gets his own song: Nobody Wants to Be Moist.

"Megan/spidra" over on MySpace is transcribing the songs.

My favorite song so far is (I'm) Better Than Neil. Sung by Nathan Fillion. Here's a taste:





Hall & Oates, eat your heart out!


Ninja Ropes
There are a number of mentions of Ninja Ropes throughout. In fact, there's an entire ode to the iPhone/iPod Touch game. Go see what they're talking about and play it yourself at http://www.sarkscape.com/games/iphone/ninja-ropes-extreme/



Easter Eggs
They'd lose their nerd cred if they didn't pack the disc with Easter Eggs.
I didn't uncover all of these myself, but I did spend a few hours figuring a couple out.
One of my favorites starts in the "Wiccan" subtitles: they give you a number, 9780793529865, which, with some web searching and attention to the special features, will get you an Easter Egg.
But on to the spoilers!

Interviews with Evil League of Evil members:
At the beginning of Chapter 3 in The Music, hit ENTER on your remote. This will trigger an Evil League of Evil countdown. During the countdown, hit 5.

Joss playing Captain Hammer:
At the beginning of Chapter 6 (Act 2) in the regular movie, hit ENTER on your remote. This will trigger an Evil League of Evil countdown. During the countdown, hit 5.

Outtakes:
From the Scene Selection, choose "Moist Dries Up." During the countdown, hit 6.

Supposedly, there's a few more - check the discussion over at DoctorHorrible.net.

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Monday, December 29, 2008

Winning Strategy for Tap Defense

There are some great games out for the iPhone/iPod Touch. The one that has consumed the most time for me has been Tap Defense.
This is a nice implementation of a "Tower Defense" game.
In this type of game, the enemy moves along a set path and you use your resources to build offensive towers to destroy them before they get to the other end of the path.

In Tap Defense, the units are the residents of Hell attempting to get to Heaven.
You have a number of units available to you, but I won't go into the details here. I assume you've already played the game and are looking for a strategy.

Tower Characteristics
  • Ice and Water towers do a lot of damage when fully upgraded.
  • Magic towers are the only one that hit from four grid spaces away.
  • The best bargain in terms of damage per unit of gold is an un-upgraded Arrow tower.
  • Ice towers don't increase range when upgraded.

Game Mechanics
  • Towers always aim for the front-most target within their range.
  • The number and type of enemy units per level appears to be constant but the rate at which they appear is random.
  • Each enemy unit is usually worth only a few gold.
  • At the end of each level, your total gold is multiplied by the Interest Rate and you receive that as a bonus.

Things to Avoid
Kill Zones: It seems like you would want to bunch your towers up and create "kill zones" that would prevent anything from getting through. This works on many levels, but on levels where there's particularly sturdy opponents, your towers will concentrate on the ignore everything behind it. This can result in wave of units pushing past your defense.

Over-building: Each enemy unit is generally worth only a few gold. If you spend more gold on a level than you earn, you will run out of resources and be unable to build or upgrade towers at later levels.

Upgrades: In my winning games, I only upgraded one tower before level 20.

The Plan:
The most important thing the difficult mode of the game is money. We must do anything we can to save money and earn more money.
  • The amount of gold available on any level is fixed. To increase our income, we must focus on the Interest Rate. All Research is spent on Interest Rate upgrades until the cost increases to 3 halos.
  • Arrow towers are the cheapest damage/gold. So use ONLY Arrow towers for the first 12 levels. In the center section of the map, build them an extra unit away from the road to leave room for larger towers later
  • Start with 3 towers on level 1. Build 2 on level 2, and 3 each level after that until most the path is covered by Arrow towers.


Level 1:
3 Towers


Level 2:
2 more towers


Level 3:
3 more towers

If you lose more than one life during the first three levels, just start over.
  • Once we have Arrows top-to-bottom, add a Water tower at the bottom side of the first turn.
  • Upgrade that Water tower
  • Add a second Water tower at the top of the map
  • Once you get to 1000 gold, try to keep your balance over that until level 40
  • Upgrade bombs as cash allows, keeping the balance over 1k.
  • On the "CEO" level, build 6 bombs
  • When the Interest Rate price increases to 3 halos, research Ice, then Magic towers
  • On level 38 or 39 sell 3 of the un-upgraded arrow towers that are 2 units from the road, and replace them with fully upgraded bombs.
  • Once the road is fully lined with Bombs and Arrow, and the corners have Ice and Water, use your remaining gold to build upgraded Magic towers at the edges of the map.







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Monday, December 22, 2008

Dr. Horrible DVDs are Here!


Well, mine isn't yet...

Amazon is now shipping the Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog DVDs.
And it's only ten bucks! What are you waiting for?

Certainly, you already got the show. So what's on the DVD?
  • Region-free DVD-R (Go nerds!)
  • The winners of the Evil League of Evil applications
  • Commentary! The Musical - Full-length commentary in music form.
  • "Making of" featurettes: "The Movie," "The Music" and "What Just Happened?"
  • Subtitles in a pile of languages - including Wiccan?
  • Easter eggs by the basketfull!

Read the nice review by Marc Hustvedt. That lucky dog got a pre-release copy.

Joss reviewed the DVD himself for Amazon... Very entertaining.

So you've ordered a copy for yourself.
You want to give some out for Christmas, but there's no way it will arrive in time.
What to do?
  1. Order another DVD.
  2. Head over to doctorhorrible.net and print out the "Your present will be late" card.
  3. Give the card and endure the dissapointment. (Or puzzlement if they don't know what it's about.)




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Thursday, December 18, 2008

What Is Twitter?


I'm assuming you actually already know what Twitter is.

But how do people use it and what need is it filling?


Blogging
Ostensibly, Twitter is a "micro blogging" platform.
It has many advantages over other blogging solutions:
Highly available - Twitter allows updating via web, SMS, and now custom clients.
Open - Twitter has established a simple open API that allows programmers to extend the service and create new tools.
Low barrier to entry - Creating a twitter account takes seconds and requires no extra software.
Simple - Adding someone to your social network takes one click.

And speaking of Social Networking...


Social Networking
In the micro-blogging sense, Twitter really overlaps the mind-space of Facebook for keeping in contact and maintaining a social network.

And it allows a metric of popularity: "How many Followers do you have?"

In the PR world, we really try to use Twitter as a blogging platform, and as a tool to reach people discussing topics or products we represent.


Messaging
But a large chunk of the "tweets" I see look more like Instant Messages than blog posts. In the work setting, Twitter is really used as an IM platform.

When working on open-source projects I often collaborate over IRC (Internet Relay Chat). The Twitter experience is a lot like IRC chat rooms but simplified.
Sure, we nerds have our irc-bots, server proxies, and cool chat clients, but Twitter allows non-technical users to have access to similar tools without knowing how to program or even how to use IRC.

A number of teams I work with use IM platforms such as AIM, Skype, Jabber or MS Messenger. All of these also support group chats, but don't have the robust tools surrounding them that IRC has.

If you look at who's using Twitter, it appears to skew towards an older demographic. I believe this is because the younger, more tech-savvy crowd already has tools (IM and Chat clients) that meet their needs, but the older users are attracted to the simplicity and ubiquity of the Twitter platform.


What's Next?
Twitter has survived its technical growing pains.
It seemed like the service was unavailable for much of 2008.
As a micro-blogging platform, it's hard to beat.

As a messaging system it has some serious deficiencies. So far, the simplicity-of-use has outweighed those deficiencies, but I suspect that won't last for long.

As people find themselves using Twitter as a messaging platform more and more, they will find a need for group and channel management tools. Already, a number of twitter clients(Tweetdeck, Twhirl) feature the creation of categories and groups.

Either Twitter will find a way to incorporate such features or another startup will come along and create these tools. Possibly on a whole new platform.

I suspect that the popularity of all this internet-based messaging, combined with the rising popularity of internet-enabled smart phones will finally make dent in the SMS insanity.

I know since I put a Twitter client on my phone, my SMS use has dropped by over 90%.


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More Cool Amazon Tools: Amazon Universal Wish List

In addition to the iPhone application and the "Remember" feature, Amazon has finally introduced a way to add item to your Wish List that aren't on Amazon.
And... they did it well!
(They actually introduced this feature a few months ago, but I just discovered it.)

Here's how it works:

1) Visit the Amazon Universal Wish List Button and drag it into bookmarks.

2) Visit a site with something you want some sucker to buy for you...

3) Click on the bookmark - it will pop up a window which allows you to specify the image and fill in more information about the item you want.

4) That's it. Your item can now be found on your Amazon Wish List. (OK - That's MY Wish List, but notice the BBC items.)

I think Amazon really did this right. All the links go to actual retailer, and users can add anything.

My family already treats Amazon as our official gift lists for Christmas. This new feature just makes that better.

No way to put my hand-dipped truffles on there yet...


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Thursday, December 11, 2008

A Little J-Pop to Get Your Groove On

The latest album from Capsule, "More! More! More!" recently showed up on iTunes Music Store. The import is currently unavailable at Amazon.
capsule - More! More! More!

I really loved their last two albums, so I was excited to get this one as well. So far, I don't think it's quite as good as "Sugarless GiRL" or "FRUITS CLiPPER," but it's growing on me quickly.

Best track so far is Jumper.




If you want your J-Pop more "pop" and a little less techno, check out Perfume.
Here's "Dream Fighter" by Perfume:


The choreography just cracks me up...

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Batteries not Included

I'm seeing at least one effect of the slowing economy...
This year, when purchasing Christmas gifts, I noticed that none of the gadgets came with replaceable batteries.

Last year, all the toys were "Batteries Included." That makes sense since many toys have demo modes that can be activated on the store shelves.

I don't think I'm buying significantly different sorts of gifts this year, but they all had the "Batteries not Included" label.

Personally, I use rechargeable batteries for pretty much everything, so I had to make a special trip for disposable batteries so that all the toys will function when unwrapped.


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Friday, December 5, 2008

iPhone App Creation... the Beginning

I already had Xcode and the iPhone SDK installed, but was a bit lost in the docs and sample code.
Picked up a copy of Beginning iPhone Development: Exploring the iPhone SDK, and it's been very helpful.

The book walks through the development of many sample applications and explores the Xcode IDE, and Interface builder. It's a bit light on Objective C, but it covers enough of Objective C's idiosyncrasies to help one get through the sample code.

So far, the book has moved a good pace, but with enough explanation that I haven't been totally lost. The authors employ a very conversational style that gives just enough detail and background at each step to give the reader the understanding needed for further development.

Adding an Image:
It's be nice if we could add an image to each row. Guess we'd have to create a subclass of UITableViewVCell to do that, huh? Actually, no, not if you can live with the image being in the left-hand side of each row. The default table view cell can handle that situation just fine.



After just one day with Beginning iPhone Development: Exploring the iPhone SDK, I have a much better understanding of the iPhone development process, and have been able to build simple applications.

I'll update this review as I get further into the book, but so far, it's been an excellent value.



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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Amazon Mobile for iPhone

Today, Amazon released an iPhone app called Amazon Mobile.
(According to the Apple App Store, it's been around since November 30, but it looks like it just appeared today.)

As you can see from the screen shot, it's simple and to-the-point.
The main page has a Search button and some recommendations.

The bottom navigation has Home (the main page), Search (same as hitting the Search button), Cart, "Remembers," and "More."

"More" get you to your Lists, and lets you manage account information.



"Remembers" is the interesting option. It allows you to take a picture using the built-in camera and save it to your Amazon home page. If the picture is a product, Amazon will attempt to identify it.

My guess is they're using the Amazon Mechanical Turk for the identifying. Looking at the text for "What happens to my photos?" we find:
We also use a community of real people to research your photo and try to match it to a similar product on Amazon.com.
Over on the Mechanical Turk, I found a task "Find the product for sale on Amazon.com."
Find a product for sale on Amazon.com that matches the item in the photo.
Amazon is paying 10 cents apiece for these image identifiers.




The search results page is clean and gets you to the stuff you want to buy...


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Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The iPhone Experience: From Ad to App Store



I'm getting more requests for iPhone application development, so it's time to get up-to-speed!

I've played around with the SDK, but haven't really done much besides build the demo apps and read some of the documentation.

So I ordered some books (yes, dead-tree edition) and purchased a 3G iPhone.

Let's examine the entire iPhone experience:

The Ads
The iPhone experience really begins with the ads. They show ("show me, don't tell me") why the product is cool. They demonstrate how to use it. When someone picks up an iPhone, they've already been trained, you don't need to explain how it works.

The Web Site
Once you've decided to make the purchase you can go to the web site: https://buyiphone.apple.com/.
There you can pick your phone and service plan. I took plenty of time to compare plans against my current phone use and was able to select a cost-effective plan that will actually lower my monthly communications bill.
You also fill in all the paperwork needed online and the credit check is performed right there.
Finally, you select when you want to pick up your phone and at which store.

The Store
Next stop, once you've done the paperwork online, is the Apple Store.
I went on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. The second largest mall in Minnesota was a ghost town. Apparently, most shoppers were waiting for Black Friday specials.
Well, most of the mall anyway... There was a steady stream of people heading for the Apple Store. This particular Apple Store is very small, yet there was at least a dozen people working the floor. Someone greeted me within a minute of my walking in, and within 8 minutes I had my shiny new iPhone and had transferred my phone number from my existing cell phone company.

The Apple sales staff carry portable computers they use to ring up sales, acquire needed signatures and the like. My sales person used one of the laptops on the floor to perform the initial iPhone setup. The process was quick and painless since all the paperwork had already been filled out on the web site.

The Phone
As we've come to expect from Apple products, the fit-and-finish on the iPhone is spectacular. The phone feels solid in the hand. The buttons are solid with a positive action. The interface is crisp. The screen is sharp and crystal-clear.
The package includes a slick little tool for extracting the SIM card.
The charger is tiny and solid. Heck the BOX is built beautifully!

iTunes
If you plan to use all the features of the iPhone, you'll be using iTunes to manage the content on the phone.
There's a reason the iPod is the most popular Digital Media Player out there: iTunes is easy to use!

In addition to buying music and ringtones, renting movies, buying TV shows, and subscribing to podcasts, you can access the App Store from iTunes to easily browse available programs and install them with a couple clicks.

The Network
I will admit, I had a bit of trepidation about the AT&T network. I've many stories of spotty coverage. So far, I've had terrific luck. I have fewer "bars" in many locations than with my previous phone and network, but I've yet to have a problem making or receiving a call.
The Edge network appears to work pretty much everywhere. I traveled with some family members to Rochester, MN, and we had internet connectivity during the entire drive down from the Twin Cities.
I was stunned to find that I had 3G connectivity at my Dad's place out in the country. He has dial-up internet out there, but I had a nice high-speed connection in my pocket.

The App Store
It's hard to explain just how well Apple implemented the App Store.
From iTunes or directly from the phone, you can browse, rate, download and purchase applications that become active immediately on the phone.
Within 3 minutes of opening the box, I was installing new applications.

The variety of applications is astounding for such a new platform.
One of my favorite computer games of all time is the "Same Game." "Collapse" is a more recent rendition of that game. "Collapse Chaos" for iPhone is probably the best implementation of the game I've ever seen.


I purchased another "smart" phone earlier this year and the quality of the experience was inferior at every step.
Heck, when I went to activate a new feature, I wanted to review the terms and conditions first - accessing that page (at the phone company's web site) crashed the built-in browser.



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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

You Can Still Watch "The Guild" Online

Season 2 is available on the MSN Video site.

I failed earlier trying to get it from the xbox site. (Apparently xbox-video is only for xbox...)

From a Felicia Day tweet:
Guild Season 2 Episode 1 http://tinyurl.com/guilds2e1 Make it full screen, it looks pretty!




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Monday, November 24, 2008

Huge "The Guild" News! X-Box and Sprint Sponsoring Season 2


If you've been following Felica Day's Twitter stream, you know that she's been working hard to secure appropriate sponsorship for Season 2 of the The Guild.

After turning down many suitors, she signed a deal with Microsoft and Sprint.
For those with Xbox Live, you will be able to download Season 2 episodes every week starting tomorrow, Tuesday, November 25th for free in HD quality on the Video Marketplace. For those only on the web, episodes will be streaming on MSN Video in a world-wide release, subtitled in 8 different languages across the world. You will also be able to download episodes in the Zune Marketplace for your mobile viewing pleasures. Season 1 is being re-released today across all those platforms, with subtitles in some regions, and we put together an additional Season 1 gag reel to celebrate the occasion, which you can watch in our new, revamped player on The Guild site. Thanks to David from Microsoft, Edgar Garcia, Webmasta and Kirstin from England and WooThemes Ninja for making the site happen this weekend!
It's great to see an independent producer keep ownership of their work, but still find big-time sponsors to keep the show going!

It sounds like an exclusive deal. That's a little disappointing since I have the entire Season 1 on my iPod Touch, and I don't expect to see Microsoft supporting that. Great news for those Zune owners though!



Interestingly, the "MSN Video" Player on The Guild web site is in Flash. At least they're not forcing me to install another plugin. But it doesn't look like they have an embeddable version. That seems odd considering every other video service offers embeddable video.

And on a random The Guild note: You can follow Vork (the character) on Twitter. Awesome stuff.


*Update*
More coverage of this amazing news:

Triple "Guild" play for Microsoft - Reuters
Popular YouTube series "The Guild" finds home with Microsoft - Ars Technica
Felicia Day's "The Guild" signs exclusive deal with Microsoft - WowInsider
The Guild Coming To Xbox Live - CinemaBlend
The Guild Coming to Xbox Live Marketplace - Wired News


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Ron Paul Out My Window

Huh?
On Saturday, November 22nd, I hear a light plane flying low and slow over the city.
Look out my window and see this:

(zoomed inset)


What?
Why?

Where's the call to action?
Who did this?


Apparently, there was an "end the fed" demonstration in Minneapolis and other cities. This banner must have been part of that.

I'll admit, I have issues with the Federal Reserve, but this "End the Fed" movement seems very poorly organized. Come on people! Demonstrating in front of the Fed on a Saturday? Not even commuters will see you.

The "really good" turn out:

Did they even break 100 people?




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Friday, November 21, 2008

Lon's Lo-Tech Digital Camera Case


Someone just commented on my homemade camera case, so I thought I should write it up.

I use a very sturdy Sony Cybershot for photographing my NeoCube creations. (And pretty much everything else.)
I carry this point-and-shoot in my briefcase all the time so that it's available for saving whiteboard designs and spur-of-moment product shots.
I needed a camera case that would hold up to heavy use every day. Inspired by Apple's iSock, I created my own.
Just a big cushy sock and some bubble wrap.



The oh-so-detailed instructions:
  1. Cut the sock about 1-1/2 inches longer than twice the length of the camera.
  2. Cut a strip of small-cell bubble-wrap just wide enough to cover the length of the camera.
  3. Put the camera in the sock. Push it to the toe.
  4. Wrap the section of the sock with the camera in it with 3 layers of bubble wrap.
  5. Fold down the remaining section of the sock to cover the bubble wrap.

Cheap, durable (I've been using mine for about three years) and outstanding protection against things bouncing around in the bag.


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Monday, November 17, 2008

Cutting the Cord

I find myself without any projects booked this week.

Sure, I'll bet the current state of the economy had to do with it, but I'm also realistic enough to know that I haven't been working as hard as I should on new business development.

And it's not just the business initiatives that have gone lacking, but many projects around the house as well.
During my time at zam, I worked very long hours, but was making enough money to not worry about keeping up the homestead. That established some bad habits which need to be broken.

In examining "where the time goes," I discovered that I actually do watch a lot of TV.
It doesn't seem like much but even a couple shows a day gets me into a bad habit of spending too much time on the couch.

So later today I'll be turning in my cable converter box and turning off the TV for the year.
I'm surprisingly anxious about this. I think that shows just how strong the television addiction is. And the people I've spoken to about this action have been amazed. Most people think it's an extreme step. And that's probably a good thing.

I'm already thinking about the shows I'm going to miss.
"Morning Joe," "Mythbusters," "The Daily Show."
I already get most of my tech news from podcasts, so missing G4 TV won't be a huge loss.
"Regular" news is going to be another issue: I plan to get a digital over-the-air receiver in 2009 I don't have a plan for news before then. Hopefully nothing newsworthy will happen that won't show up on my Google Alerts.

I can get Mythbusters for $50/season via iTunes, and they have The Daily Show for about $10/month. So that's under $30/month if I need to see them on the iPod.

I can also watch full episodes of The Daily Show at the website for free. http://www.thedailyshow.com/

Can't find a stream for MSBC, so I guess I'll be going without.


OK. Back to World of Warcraft!


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Friday, November 14, 2008

World of Warcraft: Wrath of the Lich King - Lon's Launch Day


Launch day actually started last week by letting my clients know I wouldn't be available on Wednesday and Thursday.

Finished leveling up the tank on Monday. That makes five level 70s.

On Wednesday, the media consumption orgy began in earnest.
A small group of us had a terrific lunch of leftover's from Tuesday's Firefly lunch.
Then off to napping!

G4 TV showed season 21 of Sasuke ("Ninja Warrior"), so that cut into the nap time significantly.

The Daily Show and The Colbert Report filled the last hour before queuing up at Best Buy.

Arrived at the Roseville Best Buy at 11:30. At least 50 cars in the main lot. Twittered about it...
Walking around the building to end of the line, I saw that many cars were in the side lot - these people knew where to park. Less than 150 people in line.

By the time the doors opened, the line had more than doubled. Guessing a few hundred.
Surprisingly, only about 10% women in the line. Apparently, girls can get their significant others to go stand in line in 22-degree weather.

Fun discussions all around. Obviously, this was a more hard-core sample of the WoW population, but interesting to hear about the many alts (alternate characters) and raiding careers of the folks in line.

Collector's Editions packages were available but sold out shortly before I got to the product table.

Dash home for the big install. Installation was underway before 1:00 AM.

The installer flashed a big warning that my machine didn't meet the minimum spec. I knew they had increased the system requirements, but I had logged many hours in the beta program, so I wasn't too worried. My trusty old "mirror door" PowerPC Mac has been more than sufficient for the old WoW client as well as everything I do. I upgraded the video card a few years ago for gaming and video editing, so it's been a good WoW machine.

Last check of the addons, and I was logged in before 2:00 AM.

The main cities were ghost towns. The boats to the new areas were packed with eager adventurerers. The network lag in the new areas was incredible.

A bit of sleep, then back into the fray early Thursday morning.
Network lag was much worse as more players came on.
My computer system's performance was really suffering. Both processors were completely maxxed out. After a few hours of questing, my audio got choppy then completely cut out for about an hour. Framerate dropped to single digits, so I figured it was time to take a break. WoW client hung hard when attempting to exit the game.
Rebooted the system (this system only reboots for system updates, so that was novel), and logged in again. The login queue (on the Whisperwind realm) was 1186!
Used the next couple hours to lookup buff names and other information for an addon I'm working on.

Got back in and hit level 71 before 11:00 PM.


Impressions:
Huge visual upgrade:
The shadows, new spell effects and more detailed models make everything look great.

Performance:

Hard to say yet. I'm assuming most of my issues had to do with the incredible player population. Once I got out of the first zones it was playable.

Gameplay:
Up to Blizzard's high standards. As expected, quests in the starting areas were notably easy, but the stories were good, the area is fun, and you get to ride a dragon pretty early on!

I spent some time documenting quests and items over at wowhead for things people were asking about in general chat.

Oh yeah - General... You may want to turn that off in the first zone. It's really bad since you have the entire population in one zone for awhile. That includes all the dullards, morons, mouth-breathers, antagonists, jerks, needy whiners, and 12-year olds. When they are spread around the world, it's not so bad, but in concentrated form, it's painful. Level up and get your ass outa there!


Disclaimer: I spent most of the last year working with the fine folks at Zam Network (wowhead, thottbot, wowinterface, allakhazam) so I got to see things before the launch.


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MacSpeech Dictate 1.2 Update

MacSpeech Dictate was already a very useful product, but I was often frustrated when trying to enter some of the technical or gaming jargon I deal with every day.
The 1.2 update has proven amazing.

The Spelling Mode allows me to easily enter weird things like "Ner'zhul" (The warchief of Draenor who became the Lich King).

Phrase Training is a drastic improvement over the previous method of pasting phrases into the scratchpad and having the software analyze them.
Accuracy has increased quite a bit for me.

Previously, I kept the "Available Commnands" menu hidden because it very busy and not too useful. The new version has a top section that show the commands used in the current context. So when I go into Spelling Mode, it shows the spelling commands such as "Caps On." Very useful now.

I don't need the 400 "Open applicationX" functions, but you can turn them off by un-checking the Generate Application Launch Commands in the preferences.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Writer's Block

I purposefully avoided posting during the last days of the presidential election campaign because I didn't want to be one of those "political bloggers."

Unfortunately, not forcing myself to write every day resulted in some writer's block when it came time to write again.

I'm working on a new project that requires quite a bit of content. This project is potentially quite lucrative, so I'm taking it pretty seriously. This added pressure only added to the writer's block.

I created the outline for the content but found myself unable to actually write all the material.
This was mainly because I could not think of how to write this information clearly.
So the cure was to just write it badly!

I put on my headset and just started babbling.

The first draft was even worse than I had feared.
The next revision was weak but readable.
Today's revision wasn't bad. After a painful few days, I can believe that it will be a good project.


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Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Godaddy URL Rewriting for PHP

I'm hosting some new projects at Godaddy on their "Deluxe Hosting - Linux" plan.

I want my external URLs to end in .html, but I'm coding the site in php5.
The web is full of example .htaccess directives that don't work.

Here's all you need:
Create a file called ".htaccess" in the root folder for your domain.
Put the following in that file:

Options +FollowSymLinks -MultiViews
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteRule (.*).html $1.php [L]


Now when someone requests index.html, the server will execute index.php.
Cake.

If you want to keep some html files, use the following:

Options +FollowSymLinks -MultiViews
RewriteEngine On
RewriteBase /
RewriteCond %{REQUEST_FILENAME} !-f [NC]
RewriteRule (.*).html $1.php [L]


The "RewriteCond" tests to see if the html file exists. If it does, then it is served normally. If it does not, then the php version of that name is served up.

DISCLAIMER:
I know this super-simple url_rewrite example diminishes my nerd cred. (People are more used to seeing external maps or mod_perl magic from me.) But I figured there's plenty of non-techies out there who will find this basic information valuable.




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Monday, November 3, 2008

Ani Difranco's "Paradigm" to Get You in the Voting Mood

Ani Difranco's "Paradigm" to Get You in the Voting Mood

Reminds me that our democracy has hope as long as the citizens participate.
Unfortunately, the only legal embeddable version I could find has a lot of chit-chat at the front, but still... such a terrific song.

i was born to two immigrants
who knew why they were here
they were happy to pay taxes
for the schools and roads
happy to be here
they took it seriously
the second job of citizenry
my mother went campaigning door to door
and holding to her hand was me

i was just a girl in a room full of women
licking stamps and laughing
i remember the feeling of community brewing
of democracy happening

but i suppose like anybody
i had to teach myself to see
all that stuff that got lost
on its way to church
all that stuff that got lost
on its way to school
all that stuff that got lost
on its way to the house of my family
all that stuff that was not lost on me

teach myself to see each of us
through the lens of forgiveness
like we're stuck with each other (god forbid!)
teach myself to smile and stop and talk
to a whole other color kid
teach myself to be new in an instant
like the truth is accessible at any time
teach myself it's never really one or the other
there's a paradox in every paradigm

i was just a girl in a room full of women
licking stamps and laughing
i remember the feeling of community brewing
of democracy happening
Thanks to Righteous Babe Records & Ani Difranco for posting the lyrics


Paradigm - Ani DiFranco



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Friday, October 31, 2008

Dr. Horrible Makes Time's List of Best Inventions of 2008

In Time's roundup of the Best Inventions of 2008, they list Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog as #15
The write-up touched on the content of the show and it's success, but oddly didn't really talk about why it's important.

I think many observers think the importance of Dr. Horrible lies in that it represents a new model for program production that doesn't rely on studios or networks. The popular channels on YouTube, independent productions like Dr. Horrible and The Guild, and video podcasts are all showing that an independent producer can create a quality product and find an audience online.

No one is getting rich in this new media world yet, but the potential is clearly there.

As a viewer, I know my favorite online shows are MORE important to me than the stuff I watch on broadcast television.


And one point: Time.com earns a FAIL by not providing embeddable video.



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Monday, October 27, 2008

Neocube


Originally, I saw the NeoCube on geekbrief.
I ordered mine immediately!

The NeoCube is 216 spherical high-energy rare-earth magnets.
NdFeB to be exact. Incredibly strong for their tiny size.
I know... the nerds are already sold!

Don't let the videos fool you, this is really a wonderful puzzle. Because each magnet has a North and South pole, not every configuration will "stick" together.
It took me a few weeks of playing around before I was able to create the cube shape.

The Good:
  • Years of entertainment.
  • High-tech.
  • Compact.
  • Jewelry! (Cali Lewis of geekbrief has appeared wearing one; my nieces made a number of pieces of jewelry out out of mine.)
  • Just plain cool. Everyone who visits my desk wants to play with it.

The Bad:
  • Finding a lost sphere. They don't become detached too easily, but when a ball goes rolling, it will often find its way onto metal chair legs, appliance faces or other unusual places.
  • Because of the incredible strength of the magnets, you'll want to keep them away from electronic devices, pacemakers, and cards with magnetic strips.
  • Not safe for children who might ingest them.
  • Callouses. I've actually developed callouses on my thumb and index finger from "pinching off" spheres.
Check the website, or YouTube.

Here's my creations to date:


I'll do a posting in November on some of the basic techniques.

This is the perfect gift for that nerd in your life.

* UPDATE *
I just found video tutorials on the NeoCube web site. This will save you tons of time in learning the basics!


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Thursday, October 23, 2008

More Help for Your Wrists and Hands


I've already discussed the keyboards and other input devices I use to keep the wrists working after 8 hours of coding and 12 hours of gaming. (Hey, 4 hours of sleep is plenty!)

But that wear-and-tear still adds up and you need recuperation time for things to heal.
I noticed a few years ago that I tend to clench my left fist when I sleep, which really stops the tendons in that hand from recovering after a long week of keyboard activity.

The solution is to immobilize the wrist and prevent the fingers from curling up.
I tried sleeping with a wrist brace on, but that didn't solve the curled-fingers problem.

Eventually, I found the IMAK Pil-O-Splint Adjustable. It's basically just a padded rectangle with some plastic splints and velcro wrap. Thumb slots on both sides allow you to use it on either hand.
It does a good job of keeping the fingers flat and the wrist straight. It's also soft, comfortable and washable.

The only complaints I have about the product are that it can get warm in the summer, and that asymmetric wrap doesn't lie smoothly when wrapping very narrow or very wide hands.

IMAK came out with a "consumer" model (I didn't realize the Pil-O-Splint was supposed to be "medical grade") ealier this year called the SmartGlovePM.
It's less expensive, wraps straight across, and appears to have support for the thumb. This product (and the Pil-O-Splint Standard) aren't as adjustable and probably won't fit people with particularly narrow or wide hands or forearms.

I recommend this sort of night-time brace for anyone having wrist or tendon issues.


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Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The 18th Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence


The 18th Loebner Prize for Artificial Intelligence was held this weekend in Reading, UK.
This formal Turing Test pits a number of programs against each other.
For those not familiar with the test proposed by Alan Turing, it simply involves a human in a text-based conversation with a machine. If the machine can fool a significant portion of the humans it interacts with into thinking the machine is human, then it has passed the Turing Test.

The BBC got to send an interrogator and has excellent coverage of the resultt, including some video and audio interviews.

No program has crossed the 30% threshold set by Turing, but Fred Roberts' Elbot managed to fool three of the twelve judges.

You can talk to Elbot yourself , or read his blog!

And just to tie this into yesterday's post, Alan Turing appears in the Neal Stephenson book, Cryptonomicon!



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Monday, October 13, 2008

Anathem

I took a couple days last week to read Neal Stephenson's latest: Anathem.

Cryptonomicon is my favorite book, so I always have high hopes when he cranks out a new one.
While I enjoyed portions of The Baroque Cycle, overall, I didn't recommend it. Just too dense and the detailed historical political machinations left me cold.

Cryptonomicon and The Diamond Age were filled with topics I'm familiar with, so I loved those books.

Similarly, most of the subjects in Anathem are things of interest to me, so I had no problem following along. For those not up on their quantum particle theories or Existential schools of thought, Stephenson provides entries from The Dictionary and often has characters engage in Platonic Dialogs on these topics.

Being a word nerd, I enjoyed his playing around with language. Again, The Dictionary is frequently presented for those who don't enjoy ferreting out the meanings of strange words.

So, what's it about?
As with all good literature that's hard to define.
Superficially, it's an adventure story. A boy leading a (literally) cloistered life finds himself leading a group of people from different backgrounds on a journey to save their way of life. A terrific story in a great setting.

Of course, it's also about some Big Ideas like the intersection of quantum mechanics and philosophy. Sort of Schrödinger's cat in the many-worlds model meets Nietzsche.

It's also about how society's relationship with technology.
A love story! Space ninjas! Magic balls!

Let's just say it's epic, contemplative, educational and most of all, entertaining.
It IS a lengthy book, so if you're not used to plowing through 900 pages, pick it up on CD or downloaded audiobook.

Like most of Stephenson's "speculative fiction" it is absolutely grounded in history. Because of this, everything has a realism and believability that draws us into the world of brother Erasmas and the journey he is about to begin.





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Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Dr. Horrible in Pumpkin Form


Sure, the Dr. Horrible in My Little Pony Form was creepy, but now you can put the bad Doctor on your doorstep this Halloween.

John over at Pink Raygun has created this terrific pumpkin carving template.

I always assumed Pink Raygun was all girls. That's what I get for not reading the FAQ.

If you're looking to live the dream and dress as a character from Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog, check my rundown of costume part sources.

The Little Folksinger Performs for Billboard.com

I dragged the usual suspects out to an Ani Difranco concert this weekend.
We got all folked up and filled with positivity!

Here's a recent performance Ani did for billboard.com. I think it really demonstrates the incredible charm of The Little Folksinger.





If that makes your day, be sure to pick up the latest album, Red Letter Year or dig through the whole discography.

Being a "Folk Singer" means there will be progressive politicking going on. But don't be afraid! Plenty of songs of unrequited love, songs of joy, and songs about the music biz as well.


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Monday, October 6, 2008

Input Peripherals

My coworkers comment (OK, complain) every time they try to use my computer at the office. My online gamer friends are often interested in my gaming keyboard rig. So here's the poop:



Office Rig
Left-to-right:
Contour Designs ShuttlePro
Used primarily for web browsing (combine with SmoothWheel for scrolling bliss), video and audio editing.

PC Concepts i-MMT

No longer produced, this ancient PS/2 (Running an old Belkin USB-PS/2 adapter) keyboard has one of the best layouts of reasonably-normal QWERTY keyboard I've seen. Nice wide separation of left and right hands. Raised BACK end. Inverted-T arrows, and a full numpad and function keys.

Gel Wrist Pad
Most manual input devices allow your wrist to bend too much, so I use a lot of these crescent gel wrist rests. I believe the one on this keyboard is from Belkin. I have some others from off-brand manufacturers.

Microsoft Natural Wireless Mouse 6000
Excellent for "work." Decent mass-market mouse for reduced wrist pronation. Not as aggressive as the Evolent mouse, but readily available.

On the video riser: VXI USB headset. This is used for MacSpeech speech-to-text input. Best way to save wear-and-tear on the fingers is to just type less.




Gaming Rig
Left-to-right:
Belkin Nostromo n52te
This is my third Nostromo. The n52te is well worth the extra money in my opinion because the buttons require much less force. Unfortunately, it's not as programmable as the SpeedPad n52, but I took the tradeoff of comfort over programmability.

Kinesis Advantage keyboard

Nearly perfect layout. I'd prefer the center gap to be a bit wider (I'm a pretty wide guy) and the keys to angle in slightly, but otherwise just a terrific keyboard. Although it's basically a QWERTY layout, friends and co-workers find it intimidating and generally refuse to even try it.

Gel Wrist Pads
Again, I think the extra height reduces wrist deflection and the fabric-covered gel is very comfortable.

Microsoft Intellipoint Optical Mouse
The classic. I find this the best mouse for my gaming style. It's not too tall; it's light; and it has 5 properly placed programmable buttons. My problem with the Razer mice is that they generally put buttons #4 and #5 on the same side of the mouse. I prefer to have them on opposite sides so I can use my ring finger.

Yes, that's a Kim Possible mouse pad... And No: I don't know where you can get one.


Things to Look For in a Keyboard
Slant. Most "ergonomic" keyboards actually slant the wrong way! If you are concerned about Carpal Tunnel Syndrome or Tendinitis from keyboard entry, then you want your wrists as flat as possible. Any deflection is going to cause the tendons to rub and cause injury.

"Vertical" angle: When you move your fingers forward or backwards off of the home row, do they line up with the keys? That's the big advantage of a "split" keyboard layout: the keys for each hand can be rotated to be more comfortable.



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Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dr. Horrible Costumes for Halloween

Yes, yes.
You liked the WoW Costumes, but really want the Dr. Horrible evilness!

What I've found so far:

Terrific resource at DoctorHorrible.net. Multiple contributors maintaining a list of known vendors, as well as documenting costume projects.

MyDisguises also did an excellent job.

Doctor Horrible:

Goggles:
The consensus appears to be that the Goggles are from Fibre-Metal Products, model FIBVG800sH5.
A web search will give you a number of welding and safety stores where you can purchase them for under $20.

Lab Coat:
The Lab Coat appears to be Firefly prop.
In the real world it is a Howie Coat with a Chinese Collar.
I found an online source for disposable ones at Specialty Textiles in the UK.
Iron Gate Gallery is producing an excellent replica but booked up for Halloween 2008. Get your order in for 2009!
Otherwise, there are a number of Mad Scientist costumes that can be adapted by painting/replacing buttons and such.
The caduceus logo is a custom work as well. I searched online for pre-made embroidered patches, but it looks like all that sort of thing is made-to-order nowadays. The good news is that you can take your coat to your local embroidery shop have it done perfectly.

Gloves:
The gloves are white welding gloves.
All roads seem to lead to the Tillman Elkskin.

Boots:
The white lab boots:
White Polymax Ultra Knee Boot
Or the budget versions:
"Shrimper" boots at Ace Hardware
A PVC chemical boot at allsafetysupplies.com



Captain Hammer:

Shirt:
The Official Shirt from J!nx.

Gloves:

Plain black gauntlets from Excalibur Leather.
These black gauntlets on Amazon have the buckle.




Or you can just be a groupie:







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Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Felicia Day on techzulu

Techzulu cornered Kent Nichols (Ask A Ninja) and Felicia Day (The Guild, Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog) at The New Media Expo.

Fun banter about the nature of Internet Celebrity, valet parking in LA, and updates on Ask A Ninja and The Guild.

Is Felicia more famous for the Cheetos commercial or The Guild? Watch the vid!





Related links:
The Guild
Ask A Ninja
techzulu
Dr. Horrible's Singalong Blog



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World of Warcraft® Officially Licensed Halloween Costumes


Are you nerdy enough to dress as your favorite WoW character for Halloween? Need to get your Blood Elf ears? How about a full-head Tauren mask?

From the World of Warcraft Site:

Blizzard Entertainment and Rubie's Costume Company are proud to introduce a new line of Warcraft-themed Halloween goods. From deluxe tauren masks to full night elf kits, there's something for everyone to equip -- and it's all perfectly tailored for looting epic candy drops. Visit the retailers below to check out the new gear




These and other cool masks, makeup and prosthetics are available online from:






For those more crafty folks, the Simplicity patterns are out of print, but available on eBay.







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