Saturday, April 18, 2009

Do I know you?

I have 209 Facebook friends as of this writing. I only communicate with about 20 of them more than once a month. Of those 20, only about 10 of them are real friends whom I see or talk to daily/weekly over IM or e-mail. The other 189? I haven't talked to them in ages.

Now, I'm not the kind of person who goes and adds friends willy-nilly without good reason. If you request to be my friend, I actually consider it very carefully before clicking Add. I first ask "do I know you?" Well, I don't ask you, but I ask myself regarding you. I'm not on Facebook to make friends, just to keep them. There have been one or two exceptions, but I won't mention those.

But do I really know those 189 people I never talk to? I don't know about you, but when I see someone in person whom I haven't talked to in years, it's usually more or less a big deal. Sometimes it's full of handshakes, hugs, smiles, but mostly it's the whole "catching up" thing. Before I even talk about any kind of business or plans anything current, I find it important to make up for the period of time in their lives and my life that needs to be filled in. But this mentality came from the old days before Facebook and these other social networking things, when I wouldn't regularly "see" what 209 people are doing several times per month.

It's a strange new thing - knowing what people are doing on a regular basis even when you haven't talked to them for years. I see their activity in my news feed: pictures, statuses, notes, posted links, wall messages and I often want to comment on them. But I feel really, really awkward just randomly commenting because it's basically doing exactly what I don't like doing - addressing an old acquaintance without saying "hi," "it's been forever," "what's new?"

Am I alone on this? Do you care if someone you haven't even thought about in years just up and comments on your page without so much as a "hello"? Is this the direction we are going, where no matter how far away we are from each other, talking for the first time is no big deal?

What do you think?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Mac Mini Adventures, Day 31

Where was Day 1? Well, it was supposed to be 31 days ago, but I'm a major slacker. So it's here. Let me back up.

Last month my dad got a Mac Mini for the purpose of making it a Home Theater computer, also known to others as a Home Theater PC (HTPC). The Mac Mini shall not be called an HTPC from here on out.

The mini is perfect because it can play 1080p video (high definition, 1920x1080 resolution) without being too pricey or taking up too much space or being unsightly in the TV room. Here are some of the pictures I took the night we first opened it up.

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So far, the experience has been great. The only issue with the Mini itself is that the power cord is a little loose. So if we move the computer while it's running, it's liable to shut off due to disconnected power. While this is generally not a problem with a normal "desktop" computer, the mini is such a portable machine (6.5"x6.5"x2") that it just begs you to take it with you to the next room. My dad is quickly finding that it blows the doors off of his nearly 10-year-old Power Mac G4, a tower more than 4 times the size. The only thing keeping him from using the Mini as his main computer at this point is that it's connected to our 32" LCD HDTV. It's connected via a couple adapters. The Mac Mini has both a Mini-DVI connector and a Mini-displayport connector, the latter of which is a display standard created by Apple, who hopes that it will become an industry standard in the near future. We are using a Mini-displayport to DVI adapter connected to a DVI to HDMI adapter to display the video on the TV. The audio also goes to the TV, via a standard 3.5mm stereo jack, much like the one in your MP3 player of choice, although on the other end the audio is split into separate left and right channel plugs.

This setup works great. The only problem for me is that the TV tops out at 720p (1280x720 resolution) which is insanely weak for any sort of normal computing. For reference, if you have a 17" computer monitor your resolution is typically 1024x768, and for a 19" monitor you're typically seeing 1280x960 or 1280x1024. 720 rows of pixels on a 32" screen is great for video, but crappy for anything else. Fortunately, the Mini is there so we can watch movies and downloaded TV shows, and that's about it. We've found that even though the TV can't show anything bigger than 720p, the Mini itself handles 1080p video just fine, stutter-free, and I'm actually able to tell the difference between it and 720p video. I can't explain how that works, but it does.

I've tried to play Jedi Knight: Jedi Academy on the Mini, and it runs smooth as butter. I'm used to playing the game on my 5 1/2 year old Power Mac G4, which plays it well but not exceptionally. But for gaming, the mini is just a taste of things to come for my next computer...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Free stuff-limited time

Edit2: Acorn is spoken for.

Edit: added iSale to the list and changed the expiration date.

Sorry to sound like an ad, but read this and ACT NOW.

I'll make this simple. I'm buying a MacHeist software bundle and it's got some apps that I may not necessarily use. So if you want the eBay page creation app iSale,the photo editing app Acorn, the picture touch-up app Picturesque, or the animation suite program Kinemac for FREE, let me know and I'll gift it to you. Google them if you don't know what they are and want more info. There are other apps in the bundle (see link above) but the ones I mentioned are ones I most likely won't use. You can look at the list and ask me about any of the others if you're interested. Please tell any Mac-using friends too.

These programs are Mac only, so sorry Windows users. I need to know as far in advance of Tuesday, 4/7, midnight Eastern Daylight time as possible, preferrably 9pm eastern, 6pm pacific on 4/7, so I can gift them to you during the buying process. This is "first come, first serve". All I need is your name and email address.

Zombies on your street

Zombieville, USA

Okay, so I've done some tower defense, I've done a sim game, and I've done a puzzler. Now here's a shooter. No, it's not a first person shooter or a flight simulator. Just a side-scroller featuring a tough guy with a gun. Or rather a few of them.

The story, if you can call it that, is that this suburb becomes invaded by zombies, and this guy with a very square chin is seemingly the last one standing. Armed with a pistol and a killer instinct, he goes out on the streets to shoot him some zombies.

Gameplay is very simple. Your guy can move left, move right, and shoot his gun. Movement is achieved by touching the right arrow or left arrow shown on screen with the appropriate thumb while the other thumb presses anywhere else on the screen to fire the gun. Along the street you encounter three different kinds of zombies: standard green zombies, fast-moving (but weak) gray zombies, and slow but very strong dark green zombies. You earn money by killing them, and the amount you earn as well as the difficulty increases each level. The levels contain neighborhood houses which you touch in order to enter. Some contain money, and others contain ammo, and all can be used to temporarily elude enemies.

After each level you arrive at a shack that sells new guns or upgrades to existing ones. The shack also sells health packs that fully replenish your health meter, but you want to play well enough so that you can survive to save up your money to spend on the more worthwhile weapon upgrades.

The weapons include a pistol, a shotgun, an explosives launcher, a gatling gun, and a freaking awesome gun (my words, not theirs). Each weapon can be upgraded a maximum of 4 times, each costing a larger amount of money and making the weapon more powerful. An upgraded pistol simply does more damage, whereas an upgraded shotgun becomes an automatic shotgun where you can hold your finger down on the screen rather than tapping repeatedly. The explosives launcher starts off launching grenades, which do a lot of damage but the range is limited - it won't hit any zombies if the zombies are too close to you or too far away. Higher levels give you rockets, which have a better range. The gatling gun is self-explanatory - hold your finger on the screen and it empties rounds and rounds of lead into oncoming zombies.

And finally, the freaking awesome gun. It starts out as a chainsaw. Yes, that requires you let the enemy get really close before you attack, but it does a ton of damage. When you upgrade it, however, it becomes a flamethrower (awesome), and another upgrade turns it into a blue beam gun that utterly demolishes anything in your way.

Zombieville USA is very simple, yet very entertaining, and any scrolling shooter or zombie fan will love this one.

Full version is $1.99 and there is also a free lite version.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Litely Puzzling

Puzzle Prism Lite

I'm just on a freaking roll. Anyone who likes Tetris will like Puzzle Prism. It's sort of a 3-D Tetris type game. You have different-shaped falling blocks that need to be fit together in order to make rows disappear. But since it's in 3-D, the rows are more like "sheets." From the top, it looks like a 2x2 grid.

There are three control schemes, two of which place buttons on the screen to rotate and drop your current piece. But the default control scheme is the best. You flick your finger right to rotate counter clockwise, left to rotate the piece clockwise, and down to drop the piece. There really isn't much else to say about this game. I've only played the free Lite version of the game, which has a single game mode: Time Trial. The full version has more game modes.

Puzzle Prism is a fun diversion that is great for pulling out to play when you're waiting for your overly greasy fast food lunch, or when you want to ignore your annoying coworkers. It's a win-win situation. Download the Lite version to try it, and buy the full version if you like it enough.

Sorry for all the scrolling. I can't figure out how to put two pictures on a single line.

App Store Link
App Store Link (Full Version) (on sale for $1.99 for a short time only)

An island game that has nothing to do with LOST.

It's another game review! Virtual Villagers 2 for the iPhone/iPod Touch is a surprisingly deep "society" simulator. I would imagine it's somewhat similar to The Sims, though I've never played The Sims for any respectable amount of time. It's a port of a PC/Mac game by the same name, and the developer, Last Day of Work Software, did a great job taking it mobile.

Virtual Villagers 2: The Lost Children

The setting is an island village, and your characters, which are two adults and some kids, are stranded on this island with no help in sight. They must fend for themselves, and it's up to you to help them. What do they need to survive? Well, there are five "skills" that are necessary for your villagers to become practiced in. Farming is self-explanatory, and it includes all forms of food production and gathering. Building allows the villagers to create the necessary structures. Research allows the villagers to develop scientific advancements needed for long-term sustainability. Healing is.. duh, for healing sick villagers. And finally, parenting is kind of a misnomer because it's actually just the skill that makes a villager want to "go inside" with another villager and procreate.

When performing certain actions, a villager's skill level goes up for the appropriate skill. That is, when a villager goes fishing, waters crops, or picks coconuts, his or her farming skill increases. A villager's research skill increases the more he or she performs research. And so on. For each villager you can look at their status screen to check their proficiency in each skill, as well as set their preference. So if you check off "Farming" the villager will gravitate toward farming. Sometimes a villager will be incorrigible, and no matter how many times you drag them to do a job, they'll say "huh?" Skill levels for each still follow this order: untrained, trainee, Adept, and Master. The higher a villager's skill level, the better they will do at that job. Any villager that manages to attain Master status in three or more professions gets the title Esteemed Elder, and you get a bonus prize.

Kids (ages 2-13) cannot work but they can pick mushrooms and rare items. Mushrooms increase food supply (no food means your villagers will eventually starve to death) and the other items get added to a collection. I'm not sure what you get when you complete your collections but I've finished the butterflies and require more stones, shells, and beetles. When they turn 14 they are considered adults as far as being allowed to work, but they still can't have children yet (thank goodness!) Your villagers eventually grow old and die, and when old they start to slow down and get sick more easily.

So what's the real point of the game? Well, for one, keeping everyone alive. Your village must grow in population and you need to keep the food levels up to sustain it. You must strike a balance between more villagers (meaning more able-bodied workers) and having enough food to feed them. The other point of the game is to explore the island, which is surprisingly detailed considering its small size, and discover its many mysteries. There are 16 "puzzles" in the game, some of which you NEED to solve in order to sustain your village for a long time, and others are somewhat optional. Here's a free hint. The first one is Building a Fire. Duh.

The kicker about this game is that it kind of runs slowly. You interact with them to push them on the right course, but it's not a game you can sit and play all day. So when you quit the game to do other things, it keeps running, like in games like Animal Crossing. So if you go away for too long, or didn't tell any villagers to do farming, you'll come back to your game with a bunch of skeletons lying on the beach. Sadness.

Despite the great detail and depth of Virtual Villagers 2, it's still a great game to pick up and play for a few minutes while waiting for your laundry to finish or for your inconsiderate neighbor to move their car so you leave your driveway to go to work. The music is nice but somewhat repetitive, and the sound effects the villagers make when you pick them up and drag them around are pretty funny. There is a Pause function, in case you're not going to be playing for a while, just so your villagers don't all die out.

As of this writing, Virtual Villagers 2 is on sale for $1.99. I don't know how long it'll be on sale.
App Store Link

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Just Kidding

If you saw the time at which my last post was written and thought "it's not April 1st yet so it can't be an April Fools joke" I'll give you points for being clever, but you were overanalyzing it.

Yeah, it was an April Fool's joke. Thanks for reading and thanks for playing. While it was quite a bit of fun writing that post, it was also kind of strange. The basic ideas that I mentioned really do come from a point of truth, but cutting myself off from the world that way is far too extreme for my tastes. Plus, there's no way I would be able to keep in touch with people as well as I could using Facebook and IM. The world is changing and communication has mutated into a crazy monster and it's hard to say what the future will bring. Privacy is a huge concern these days. But despite all that, avoiding the issue entirely is not the answer, and not using these tools at my disposal would put me at a huge disadvantage.

It was interesting seeing the 6 or 7 reactions that I got, and I appreciate your thoughts. Unfortunately since I have been working, I have not had time to do different, exciting things with my time away from the social networking thing. And yes, I would have a low 1984 tolerance.. if this world were to actually become like the one in 1984. But it's not, so I'll be fine.

And Shir, you're welcome to bug me online anytime.

It's good to be back.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Call it Quits

I usually don't get very personal on here, but since this news is applicable here I figured what the heck. Over the past year or so, certain events have led me to re-evaluate my presence online and as a part of the general blog/social network community. This is really what the web has turned into. It's no longer just about going to static websites to find out information about stuff. It's all about participating, sharing, and being a community. As a result, people have begun to move away from the old traditional means of networking. This means that instead of making a phone call we send an instant message. Instead of sending a letter we send an E-mail. And the widely accepted substitute for a quick get-together is video chat with Skype, iChat, MSN, et cetera.

All of this should not be news to anyone who reads this, since the so-called "internet age" has already affected the way all of us operate. While all these current communication methods enable us to get certain things done much quicker than we did decades ago, some things just weren't ever meant to be performed in such a perfunctory manner. The quick and easy communication mentality has become a real detriment to existing friendships and relationships because the personal touch has been drastically diminished. Sure, current web technologies allow us to send pictures and videos of ourselves to personalize a message, but there is still a disconnect - an impersonal layer of abstraction known as cyberspace, the intertubes, the www. The physical handoff is not there.

Another biproduct of this whole social network known as the web is our shifting attitude toward privacy. Everyone wants some degree of privacy in his or her life. No one wants to get hourly visits from strangers at the doorstep, or to have all their vital personal information painted across the front side of their house, apartment, dorm, or vehicle. But if the stuff I mentioned above about your life and communication migrating onto the internet rings true to you, then privacy should take on a slightly different meaning.

Now, your "place of residence" is your blog or facebook page. It's where people go to get access to you. They leave messages for you, on your comments section or in your message inbox or on your Wall. Your "vehicle" is equivalent to your web browser, which takes you to where you want to go online and also carries identifying information about you via the use of cookies and scripts. Both your online "residence" and "vehicle" do indeed have your personal information plastered all across the front. The difference here is that anyone can easily take that information and use it for ill, but at a much safer, concealed distance compared to, say, burglarizing your actual house or car.

Sites like Facebook, Myspace, Twitter, and even Google are designed in such a way that entices and encourages people to share and participate, as I mentioned before. Because these services make such activities very, very easy to do, its users (us) tend to be much more cavalier and less cautious than we otherwise would be. Sure, there are privacy settings and privacy policies, but the bottom line is that a) a skilled hacker can jump in and grab and sell your info to the highest bidder, b) Facebook's fiasco in February over whether Facebook can keep your personal info forever (even after deleting your account) as well as what the company has the right do with your information is really telling, and c) the ultimate truth of the Internet is that everything that is ever placed online stays online forever. With the right tools and skills, anyone can render public all your private letters, conversations, opinions, thoughts, photos, and videos.

Anytime you sign up or register for anything online, they require you give them your e-mail address, and if it's more important, they get your credit card number. That's fine in general, but years of online activity and dozens of registrations later, you've realized it's impossible to keep track of whom you've given out all that info to. People end up knowing more about you than you'd be comfortable telling your best friend.

All of this just makes me really uncomfortable. I feel that our move to a more mechanical, robotic community platform built upon inherently insecure foundations (read: the 20-year old World Wide Web) is much too 1984 / I, Robot for me. Where's the meaning? Where's the humanity? Though the temptation and convenience is so great to continue using this blog and things like Facebook or IM as means to communicate, the damage has already been done and the best course of action is to stop the bleeding now before it gets any worse.

I hereby announce that I am quitting this blog, I will be leaving Facebook, and ceasing the IMs. I will be eliminating all but the most essential computer/online activity. I will keep this up for the next week or so just so you can read it, but after that, it's over. I want to thank all 5 of you who have read this blog and the dozens who have been online "friends" with me over the past few years. I have appreciated the time, but it's time to return to my roots. I'll see you all in the analog world, somewhere, some time, wherever you might be.

This is my final post.

Signing off now.