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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