Thursday, May 28, 2009

My Hobby

Part 2
I like Netflix. As an unmarried man (in a relationship) with no children I generally have enough disposable income for impulse buys. Until recently, this included movies that I thought might be good. Action. Drama. Comedy. Kung Fu. For less than 20 bucks I could take it home, put it on my shelf, and watch it whenever the mood might strike me. I ended up with a lot of crappy movies. Since disposable income has become a little more scarce recently (see: relationship) I've been looking at ways to keep my net cash-flow in the positives. Part of that was the decision to subscribe to Netflix, and so far it has been a rousing success! So far I have been spared from purchasing the James Bond movies: Fun, but definitely not worthy of several repeat viewings. Any Stargate SG1 episodes: The first few were excellent, but then the premise began to drag. The Fast and the Furious movies, several Anime series, some one-shot comedy flicks, dozens and dozens of titles. I've found that as I got older I was more and more willing to purge items that I would normally have hoarded, and I'm slowly chipping away at the stuff that surrounds me but never warrants a second glance.
I've started cutting back on the largest part of my consumerism: Gaming. I enjoy video games, and until a few months ago owned every major console. I did some honest introspection and realized that despite having been fun at the time, there would be little to no chance that I would ever revisit the majority of my accumulated video-games. They had been supplanted by newer distractions. So I began a cycle of purges. Sorting through my collection and weeding out the duds and abandoned gems. Trading them in for credit to be used towards new distractions. Now I browse my gamer forums and deal sites, keeping an eye out for price drops, coupon sales, and clearance items. Am I... 'growing up?' Hardly. I still game like a fiend, but my tastes have changed a little, and I've started shopping around more. I'm willing to wait for the deals, read the reviews, and allow the masses to filter through the glut of games for me. Luckily I have found an excellent online community of gamers to help me with this. Gamers with Jobs has been my primary online home for the last few years. But I digress...
Some of the games I have been spending some time with, or have begun ignoring:
A few days ago I finished up Puzzle-Quest: Galactrix on the NintendoDS. An interesting game, with a few twists on a classic Bejewled model. I was disappointed with the relatively low level cap for the main character. My playing style meant that I hit the maximum level before I was even halfway through the main campaign. I still had enough fun to plow through to the finish, and would recommend the game to anyone that enjoys games that require luck, skill, precision, and luck. ;)
Yesterday my girlfriend and I finished up Lego Indiana Jones on the Xbox360. By 'finished' I mean we received a 100% game completion status. Unlocking all the characters, collecting all the hidden secrets, finishing all the bonus missions, purchasing all the extra modes. We are done with that game. Nothing left to see. Nothing left to do. And aside from a couple of frustrating jumping puzzles we had a blast! The Lego games do a wonderful job of giving you low-stress gaming scenarios that feel very rewarding. It's nearly impossible to fail, but there is definitely some challenge involved in succeeding well. I'm debating picking up Lego Batman for us next!
I picked up SoulCalibur 4 for the 360 a few days ago during a sale, but haven't sunk too much time into it. Being able to fight as Yoda seems like it might be great fun!
My PSP has been stuck on Sudoku for almost a year now. ;) Great way to get to sleep at night!
On the Wii we've been doing some bowling, but it seems that the more I play, the worse I get. Otherwise I've stalled out on MadWorld. The current level I'm on is pretty difficult and I just haven't had the motivation to try more than once at a time. We'll see if I pick that one up again.
My PC gaming has been making a HUGE comeback... Plants Vs Zombies was a surprising time-sink. The game is perfectly balanced, with just enough cute, difficult, mean, rewarding, silly to keep me coming back. I've you're into chess-like tower-defense games I would definitely recommend checking out the demo for that one! Just watch how quickly that free hour of play disappears!
Also on the PC, Demigod. Demigod is a strange concept. A spot has opened in the ranks of the high gods, and the slot must be filled. The prospective gods, or Demigods, must battle amongst themselves to advance to the rank of God. A great mix of characters with different personalities and play-styles duke it out in high detail arenas, capturing resource points and doing battle while gaining levels and unlocking skills. It's hard to describe the actual game-flow, and once you look at what you do in each round the game seems like it should be extremely limited... but the depth of strategy and synergy for each of these characters provides so much variation by itself that I'm having a blast just trying out different approaches. We'll see how it goes after I dig into the multiplayer modes a bit, which is apparently where this game truly shines.
Well, those are the big ones. There's a few other things on my plate, like Civ Revolutions on the DS, Izuna 2, Disgaea 3, and if it weren't for all the other compelling games on my plate I'd be digging back into Team Fortress 2 to unlock the new content that Valve has released for the Sniper and Spy classes.
Yup, it's a good time to be a Gamer!

Odds and Ends with some Recommendations.

A busy week has passed. I've tried assembling my thoughts coherently so that I could segregate the topics, but that just made me stare at the blank screen. So it is now time for a general brain purge! Find a tarp and take a few steps back...
First off... in the previous post I mentioned demoing an MSI Wind U100 netbook. Part of the deal for getting the demo unit was that our tech-team would write up some impressions that MSI could use for some internal redesign stuff. I won't bore you with the full review, since a quick google will give you many more qualified impressions. My take? I'm continually impressed with the agility of the Atom processor, but that is independent of this model. The newer netbooks all benefit from this tiny, hyper-efficient chip, and the possibilities for these improvements to begin affecting consumer tech in general feels pretty exciting. The U100 is a nice solid unit. The hinges are stiff, and you don't feel like you could break the thing just by picking it up. The touchpad is responsive and easy to use, the touchpad buttons feel a little mushy, but they seem to register consistently so I can forgive that. The keyboard kills it for me. The buttons are nicely spaced. A little compact, but we are talking about a unit that is barely 12 inches across. Touchtyping is possible, but a little tricky since the ridges between keys are fairly shallow. The killer though is the Ctrl key. For some reason the key under the left shift isn't Ctrl, it's Fn. Ctrl is next to it. Try telling that to my pinky finger. Nothing sucks worse than botching a simple Copy Paste routine. I found myself moving my hand off the keyboard to make sure that my fingers were using the right buttons. Not good!
I was also unimpressed with the battery, but the demo unit only had the 3 cell. Bigger batteries would be available. In the end I came away fairly impressed, but at the same time certain that these netbooks aren't designed for professional use. Small resolution screens and cramped keyboards outweigh cheap and portable if you're trying to use one of these buggers for an 8 hour work-day. On the other hand it was awesome having the little thing on my coffee table so I could look things up without having to switch away from what I was doing on my big screen. I'm definitely considering getting A netbook. Probably not THIS netbook, but I'm keeping my eyes open for a good deal. Recommendation: Netbooks are neat, but don't expect too much. They are cheap for a reason.

I've been spending a lot of time with my music collection lately. Now that Amazon sells DRM free MP3s I've done the unthinkable and actually purchased a few albums. The catalyst was a friend from Germany recommending a group she had seen: LaBrassBanda. An awesome little band using trumpets and tubas and such to make some excellent sound. A few minutes on youtube and I started hunting for a good place to pick up the album. One thing led to another and now I'm starting to go through my mind about albums that I miss or wish I had. My latest purchase was The Downward Spiral by Nine Inch Nails. I LOVED that album. I don't even remember how I ended up with the cassette, but the crispy, dark, industrial sound touched a part of my brain that was hungering for something and gave it sustenance. I'm burning the album off to CD at the moment so that I can give it a semi-permanent spot in my car. Recommendation: My experience with purchasing MP3s from Amazon have been positive and I would recommend it. Also, NIN is awesome and I recommend giving Reznor's latest stuff a listen. He has a distinct style which could be easy to dismiss at first listen. But give it another listen. The man has a way of weaving a tapestry with sound. Many of his compositions are bleak or angry, but they contain an emotional depth and raw energy that you rarely find in music.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

It's the little things...

the slight differences that make all the difference. After my experience yesterday I decided to pull up Excel and go through the same steps I did last night to fill in the parameter list for the Sumif function. In doing this I discovered that Excel also requires the logic statement parameter to be entered as a string, BUT there is a difference! Small things, but in this case they make all the difference. First, the text prompt for the Criteria field has this description: Criteria is the condition or criteria in the form of a number, expression, or text that defines which cells will be added. So, right there it gives me a clue as to my error and not just a vague error code. But even more definitive: If I enter a conditional statement in the box the Function Builder automatically puts the necessary quotes around it. The 'wizard' takes my valid logic statement and makes the necessary type change of my input so that the function can understand it. Like magic!
Speaking of little things,
I have an MSi Wind Netbook sitting next to me. My workplace is evaluting them for some of our employees so I get to play around with one for a while to see just how feasible it would be as a primary computer for some of our roaming staffers. As a fairly big guy I'm not sure how comfortable the smaller keyboard would be after prolonged use, but I've had a laptop as a primary system for the last 6 years. I'm sure it's just a matter of getting used to it. External keyboards are easy enough to connect for those times when you'll be hacking away at something for prolonged periods... such as this post! Right now I have to figure out why it cannot find our wireless.
Impressions will come once I've had time to play with it for a while.
Back to work you slacker...

Wednesday, May 20, 2009


I <3 Spreadsheets.
I'm no expert, but give me a grid of programmable cells and some stuff to compare over a time-line and I'm having fun! I just spent the last hour putting together tables to help my girlfriend figure out how to best allocate her resources towards her credit card debt, now that a couple of her cards have arbitrarily jacked up their rates. Oh what a difference a couple of percent can make!
With the help of my handy-dandy spreadsheet we have determined that if she cuts her payment on the lower interest debt down to minimum payment + interest and reallocates those funds to her other card she will save over $150 in interest charges. Add a few bucks to that and make a couple of slightly bigger payments out of savings for a few months and the avoided interest charges jump over $300 pretty quick. $300 of magic mystery money the credit card companies charge for the privilege of owing them money.
Now I'm no Microsoft shill. I appreciate the ease of use of most of their end-user products, since my usual day to day tasks include troubleshooting the problems other people run into while using those products. So when I want to get something done quick, without too much fuss, I boot up Office and just go.
That said, I try to support Open Source Software whenever and wherever I can. I advocate the use of free, community supported tools for all those niches where the tools provide solid performance: Firefox, Audacity, LAME, Gimp, among others... And also I may need to rethink that recommendation. I used Calc for my tables today, because I have been too lazy to dig up the Microsoft Office key I was given for attending one of the launch seminars for the 2007 product line. Open Office is a 60 meg install and pretty much a no-brainer.
Ok, so I'm putting together a table and it's time to start doing some summing of paid interest. I lay out the tables and formulas so that it calculates for a 24 month period. Extending into negatives once the balance has been paid off. Quick and dirty. So I try to put a sum at the bottom of the column and throw a conditional in there to weed out any potential negative values.
Ok, I know it's supposed to be pretty close to Excel, but maybe they've changed something. I pull up the formula list... Sumif(range, condition, optional range) Gotcha. Ok, type '=SUMIF(B9:B31, >0)'
Error... huh... ok. Pull up the Formula Builder. It's all there except... Ah! It wants me to use a semi-colon between parameters! Ok.
So I started trying everything I could think of. Defining the range for the conditional. Placing the conditional statement in a cell and referencing it. The text prompts for the formula vaguely pointed to something like that. Quote: Criteria (required), The cell range in which the search criteria are given.
After about 10 minutes of hacking away at this I resorted to google and found this:
Really? You're kidding. Quotes Greater Than Close Quotes Ampersand Zero? I mean, the programmer in me knows that it makes sense... but at least HINT at this type of structure in your Function Wizard! Don't call it a 'wizard' and then give me no method for building a conditional statement without using code to build the string! THIS, THIS right here is why OOo will not gain greater acceptance. I know how to use cells. I know how to break my logic down into structures, but unless I know that I have to indicate a text format for the logic statement before the 'formula wizard' can process the parameter I'll waste a lot of potentially productive time trying to find the trick to getting this Excel replacement to understand a simple value comparison.
Anyway, small gripe I have. Lots of screen space. Empty areas... use it! The wizard takes up a good third of my screen to populate with 3 boxes. Give me the man-page for the current formula in a little scrolling box!
Oh well.
It's getting late.

Politely Rude. Briskly Vague.

Firmly Uninformative.
I haven't decided what this space will ultimately contain, but I can assure you, dear reader, that it will be more fun to write than it will be to read.
With that out of the way: Welcome!